Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 19, 2018

David McReynolds in the context of American radicalism

Filed under: Gay,obituary,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:16 pm

David McReynolds and long-time companion Shaman

The first time I ever heard the name David McReynolds was shortly after joining the SWP in 1967. At the time, the antiwar movement was a tripod made up of the Trotskyists, the CP and the pacifists. As the executive director of the War Resisters League (WRL) and a colleague of A.J. Muste who was to the peace movement in the USA as Bertrand Russell was to the British peace movement, David was a key figure.

David arrived in New York in the early 50s and eventually took an editorial job in 1957 with Liberation, a radical pacifist magazine closely tied to the WRL whose founders included three leaders of the pacifist leg of the peace movement tripod: Sidney Lens, David Dellinger and Muste himself. Both Lens and Muste were Trotskyists in the 30s before evolving in a pacifist direction. Lens was a member of Hugo Oehler’s ultraleft Revolutionary Workers League and Muste was the chairman of the American Workers Party that fused with Cannon’s Communist League of America in 1934 to form the Workers Party.

Although I was too much of a rank-and-filer to sit in on strategy meetings with these people, I always had the impression that the SWP got along better with Lens and Muste than they did with people who were ideologically pacifist from the get-go like David Dellinger and Norma Becker. They tended to bloc with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman at the time because they all were into “propaganda of the deed”, which didn’t mean setting off bombs but getting arrested in a civil disobedience protest. Despite not seeing these people interact with each other directly, I suspect that David helped to keep the various factions together since he was such a warm and empathetic figure.

But there was no doubt about his commitment to the sort of actions pacifist groups were carrying out for most of the 20th century. David participated in some of the more important civil disobedience actions in New York under the impact of the Cold War. In the 1950s, there were civil defense drills meant to minimize the effects of an H-Bomb being dropped on the city. Instructions were utterly lunatic as David pointed out in an oral history interview with the NY Public Library. People on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building were supposed to go to the 40th floor while those on the 40th floor and below were supposed to go into the basement. Here’s a newsreel from the time showing a drill. So you can imagine how a 9-year old like me would be scared out of his wits.

Those who refused to take cover during these drills were subject to a misdemeanor arrest. David, A.J. Muste, and Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day took part in protests at City Hall. Muste and Day served 6-month sentences and David somehow slipped through the fingers of the cops.

During the 50s, such protests managed to take place because it was difficult to smear pacifists using Red Scare tactics. The anti-nuclear movement was one of the few areas in which open socialists could operate since it involved issues that did not touch directly on the Red Scare. Like climate change, the fear of extinction was palpable especially since the slogan “Better dead than red” was gaining popularity in the 1950s.

David adopted civil disobedience tactics once again in November, 1965 when he burned his draft card at a protest in Union Square. I remember how the SWP wrestled with these tactics as they grew more popular. Clearly, they were helping to deepen antiwar resistance but they didn’t follow our Bolshevik norms. To show how warped we were, a few months before I joined the party I attended the SWP convention held in a NY hotel as an observer. A debate had ensued over whether our newspaper should take exception to the growing popularity of speaking out against the war as being “immoral, illegal and unjust” since it fostered pacifist illusions. Harry Ring, a leader of the party’s antiwar fraction, got up to oppose such a sectarian position. The fact that it was even considered showed how isolated we were from normal thinking.

In the oral history interview, David includes a fascinating anecdote that speaks volumes about his political approach. It seems that as a gay man who never hid his sexuality but never made a point of it, he never felt quite satisfied with such a defensive position. At one point he went to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg in the East Village in which during the Q&A a woman asked him why he wrote so much about homosexuality in his poems. He replied that he did so because he was a queer. That impressed David so much that he went up to Allen later and introduced himself, the beginning of a deep friendship. At a certain point, David became responsible for persuading Ginsberg to become a public figure opposed to the war. Ginsberg was wary at first since he saw himself as a poet and not a politician. David won him to our cause by making the point that writers had a responsibility to oppose the war. Thereafter, Ginsberg became omnipresent at protests.

In 1972, the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose lineage went back to Debs, suffered a split. Some of its rightwing leaders, who would soon become aligned with or even members of the Reagan administration, renamed the group Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Sensing where they were headed, Michael Harrington led a faction into the newly formed Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) that would merge with the New America Movement to form the DSA. Wary of Harrington’s orientation to the Democratic Party, a small faction went ahead and formed the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) that David belonged to until recently. He was the party’s presidential candidate in 1980 and 2000. Unlike the DSA, you don’t find much Marxist analysis being spouted by its members such as the kind you will find in Jacobin. Also, unlike the DSA, the SPUSA hearkens back to Debs’s opposition to the two-party system. Like Debs and Norman Thomas, David had no use for the donkey or the elephant. He preferred cats and radicalism.

I am not quite sure when I hooked up with David but around twenty years ago I began making it my business to learn more about what you might call native radical traditions. Since so much of the Trotskyist experience involved applying the Bolshevik legacy mechanically to our country, I decided that David’s experience would help me fill in the blanks.

For about a year, we would get together for lunch down in the East Village where we would chew the fat. One time I got a big kick out of how he was warmly greeted by Quentin Crisp when we walked into a restaurant, where Crisp was sitting at a table by himself. It reminded me of how bohemianism, including sexual openness, and socialist politics go together.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, being outed as a gay could get you expelled. Party leaders defended the policy since supposedly the FBI could get a party member to “turn” by threatening to out him or her to the party. Marxist scholar Christopher Phelps, who was working on an article about gays in the SWP titled “The Closet in the Party”, had gotten in touch with David to sound him out. This led to David writing an article for New Politics titled “Queer Reflections” that I urge everybody to read since it epitomized his sensibility and political instincts.

I EXPERIENCED LITTLE BIAS WITHIN the Socialist Party. The late, and nearly great, Samuel H. Friedman (a Jew who kept kosher and whose wife was an Irish Catholic) said to me “I’ve heard some nasty things about you, Comrade McReynolds, but I don’t believe them.” Dwight MacDonald once said “You aren’t one of those, are you?” But it was never used against me except by some of those around Max Shachtman (I always thought it ironic that Max ended up with Tom Kahn, whose homosexuality was an open secret, as one of the few who remained on his side to the end). Within the War Resisters League (WRL), where I worked on staff for 39 years, it was never an issue, not because there was some secret gay cabal in the WRL, but because the radical tradition of the secular pacifists was much more profoundly radical than that of most Marxists. Bayard Rustin wasn’t hired by WRL because he was gay (or black) but because he was incredibly talented. (Let it be noted, as part of the historical record, and as a reminder that even great leaders have feet of clay, that A.J. Muste, so clearly a mentor for me, resigned from the executive committee of WRL in protest against the hiring of Bayard, because he felt Rustin’s record of making indiscreet homosexual passes would threaten the organization. And Bayard himself, in 1969, when the WRL magazine WIN had a “gay liberation” issue, with pieces from Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and myself, phoned Ralph DiGia to say, “you guys are going to have to fire David — he will destroy the organization.” I never held this against Bayard, understanding only too well what his own experience had taught him.)

What makes David McReynolds so special was his ability to reflect the deeper traditions of the American left that go back to the early Communist movement, what Timothy Messer-Kruse called the “Yankee International”. Victoria Woodhull, who worked closely with Frederick Douglass, launched a Marxist current in the USA that competed with the one sanctioned by Karl Marx and that was led by Friedrich Sorge, a German immigrant. Sorge was not only exceedingly dogmatic, he was also hostile to Black-led protests since they might divide the working class.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

It is too bad that Marx regarded Woodhull as a spiritualist crank. Who knows? If she had received his benediction, we might be living under communism today. The tension between the Marxist high priesthood symbolized by Karl Marx in the 1870s or V.I. Lenin in the 1920s on one hand and the indigenous radical roots of living movements that sprout up according to their own rhythm and affinities has plagued us for nearly 150 years.

When people like Victoria Woodhull, Eugene V. Debs or David McReynolds come along, they deserve pride of place in building the revolutionary movement that is so desperately needed. The last time I saw David was in 2005 or so when I went to a brunch at Cynthia Cochran’s apartment on West 94th Street. She knew David for many years and admired him for the same reason she went with the “Cochranites” in 1954. In my discussions with David over lunch, we always came back to the need for a revolutionary movement that broke with the dogmatic obsession over the “Russian questions”. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, David knew how to put things into perspective. Sooner or later, the left will cohere around a program that emerges out of our living experience as Americans. David had a talent for sensing the mood of ordinary Americans.

Finally, for a really sweet and revealing interview with David that includes his story of how he decided to accept his homosexuality after meeting Alvin Ailey as a young man. It also includes some great photos of the young David McReynolds who was a handsome devil.

August 14, 2018

Samir Amin, dependency theory, and the multipolar world

Filed under: colonialism,imperialism/globalization,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

As might have been expected, there has been a flurry of vitriolic attacks on Samir Amin from Facebook friends who share my views on Syria and Ukraine. Amin, who died on August 12th at the age of 86, is well-known as a dependency theorist and advocate of a multipolar world. Since I am both a dependency theorist after a fashion and a critic of multipolarity, at least as it is understood by most of the left, this forces me to come to terms with Amin’s legacy—a task I would not shirk from since tough questions such as this help me deepen my understanding of Marxism.

To start with, I have never read Samir Amin except for articles and interviews that have show up on Monthly Review over the years. That being said, I am fairly well-informed on dependency theory having read some of the classics long before I was on the net, even going back to my days in the SWP when I was always looking for solid, well-written analysis outside the sect’s orbit such as Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America”, Pierre Jalee’s “The Pillage of the Third World”, and Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”.

Probably because I was much closer to Latin America as an amateur Marxist scholar and semi-professional activist, I naturally gravitated toward Andre Gunder Frank who had the same kind of relationship to Latin America that Amin had to Africa.

Out of curiosity, I took a quick look at Amin’s “Unequal Development” and was struck by how much his 1976 book made the same points I have been making over the years, albeit crudely.

For example, he refers to petty-commodity production in North America as an intermediate stage between feudalism and capitalism, a point I made in a recent critique of Charles Post. Furthermore, his reference to the role of the New World in facilitating the transition to capitalism is one I have made repeatedly over the years. Not surprisingly, Marx himself made the same points in the chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in V. 1 of Capital:

After a period of pure and simple plundering of Amerindian treasures, intensive mining enterprises were inaugurated, and had recourse to a tremendous squandering of human resources, as a condition for the profitability of their activity. At the same time a slaveowning mode of production was introduced in order to facilitate production of sugar, indigo, etc., in the Americas. The entire economy of the Americas was to revolve around these areas of development for the benefit of the center. The raising of livestock, for example, served the purpose of providing food for the mining areas and those where the slave-run plantations were located. The “triangular trade” that began with the seeking of slaves in Africa fulfilled this essential function: the accumulation  of money-capital in the ports of Europe as the result of selling products of the periphery to members of the ruling classes, who were then stimulated to transform themselves from feudalists into agrarian capitalists.

I also happened to borrow his 1989 MR book “Eurocentrism” from the Columbia Library since my interest in these questions were piqued by Jim Blaut back in 1997 or so after he showed up on the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail to announce the publication of his “Colonizer’s Model of the World”, a book that was clearly influenced by Amin. From a quick browse of “Eurocentrism”, this is a book that I will find time to read before long since it is filled with stunning observations such as this:

Marxism did indeed advance a new explanation of the genesis of capitalism, which appealed neither to race nor to Christianity but based itself on the concepts of mode of production, base and superstructure, forces of production, and relationships of production. In contrast to bourgeois eclecticism, Marxism gives a central place to the question of universal social dynamics and at the same time  proposes a total method that links the different elements of social reality (the material base and the political and ideological). However, this double property of Marxist theory, while it gives Marxism its power, also constitutes a threat to its development. With the help of natural laziness, the temptation to find definitive answers to everything in it is great. Critique and enrichment of the theory give way to dogmatics and the analysis of texts. Limited by the knowledge available at his time, Marx developed a series of propositions that could suggest either the generality or the specificity of the succession from Graeco-Roman slavery to feudalism to capitalism. What was known in the middle of the nineteenth century about non-European peoples? Not much. And for this reason, Marx was careful about making hasty generalizations. As is well known, he declares that the slavery-feudalism-capitalism succession is peculiar to Europe. And he leaves his manuscripts dealing with the “Asiatic mode of production” in an unsystematic state, showing them to be incomplete reflections. Despite these precautions, Marxism succumbed to the temptation to extrapolate from the European example in order to fashion a universal model.

Therefore, despite Marx’s precautions, Marxism yielded to the influences of the dominant culture and remained in the bosom of Eurocentrism. For a Eurocentric interpretation of Marxism, destroying its universalist scope, is not only a possibility: It exists, and is perhaps even the dominant interpretation. This Eurocentric version of Marxism is notably expressed in the famous thesis of the “Asiatic mode of production” and “the two roads”: the European road, open and leading to capitalism, and the Asian road, which is blocked. It also has a related, inverted expression. In claiming the universality of the succession primitive communism–slavery–feudalism–capitalism–socialism (Stalin’s theory of the five stages), the European model is applied to the entire planet, forcing everyone into an “iron corset,” condemned, and rightly so, by its adversaries.

This is the kind of Marxism I live by. It reflects Marx’s letters to Zasulich, even though they are not mentioned. It rejects the kind of mechanical stagism that was adopted by Plekhanov and the Mensheviks that led them to oppose the seizure of power in 1917. It obviously reflects the lingering influence of the Cuban, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions that with all their flaws demonstrated that we were still living in the epoch of world revolution.

Within two year or so after “Eurocentrism” was published, the USSR ceased to exist. Arguably, without the USSR, Cuba, China and Vietnam would have remained neocolonies. Indeed, the collapse of the USSR was so precipitous that China and Vietnam have returned to capitalist property relations and Cuba’s future is clouded at best.

It was this reality that led Amin and others to support the idea of multipolarity even if it was improbable that Putin or Mao Zedong’s successors would ever be one-tenth as reliable as the USSR in terms of material, military and diplomatic aid.

Taking a position against NATO encroachments on post-Soviet Russia was obviously the right stand to take as was support for financial institutions outside of the IMF/World Bank system. Among the books by Samir Amin that can be read online is “Beyond US Hegemony: Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World” that was published in 2006. Despite kneejerk tendencies to reduce Amin to a shameless propagandist, he refers to China as follows: “The real project of the Chinese ruling class is capitalist in nature, so that ‘market socialism’ becomes a shortcut enabling it gradually to establish the fundamental structures and institutions of capitalism, by reducing as much as possible the frictions and difficulties of the transition to capitalism.” Putin’s Russia is even worse in his eyes:

‘Open’ Russia is not only an ‘exporter of raw materials’ (oil first and foremost), it is liable to become no more than that. Its industrial and agricultural production systems no longer benefit from the attention of the authorities and are of interest to neither the national private sector nor foreign capital. There has been no investment worthy of the name to make their progress possible and they only survive at the expense of the continued deterioration of their infrastructure. The capacity for technological renewal and the high-quality education that underpinned it in the Soviet system is being systematically destroyed.

Who is responsible for these massive declines? First, of course, the new ruling class, which for the most part originated from the former Soviet ruling class, made fabulously rich, no doubt, through the privatization/ pillage from which it has benefited. The concentration of this new class has, moreover, reached uncommon proportions, to the extent that the term ‘oligarchy’ suits them perfectly. The similarity with the oligarchies of Latin America is certainly striking.

Published in 2006, the book obviously had little to say about the Middle East. After 2011, Amin began speaking out on the region as was understandable. He grew up in Egypt and had written many articles and some books focusing on development issues there. Among the points he stressed was the need to develop an alternative to political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

For those who have been involved in Syria solidarity, there is a tendency to condemn anybody who does not conform to what they see as the rules for membership. So, when I wrote about my intention to vote for Jill Stein, blogger Clay Claiborne began to lump me with white racists and Max Blumenthal.

Naturally, Samir Amin got the same treatment even though he wrote this about Bashar al-Assad:

The Syrian situation is extremely complex.  The Ba’ath regime, which enjoyed legitimacy for a long time, is no longer what it was at all: it has become more and more autocratic, increasingly a police state, and, at the same time, in substance, it has made a gigantic concession to economic liberalism.  I don’t believe that this regime can transform itself into a democratic regime.

In the same interview, he also said, “Moreover, compared with Egypt and Tunisia, the weakness in Syria is that protest movements are very much a mixed bag.  Many — though I don’t want to generalize — don’t even have any political program other than protest, making no link between the regime’s political dictatorship and its liberal economic policy choices.” Despite Amin’s failure to look more deeply into the protest movement in Syria, this is a far cry from what people like John Pilger or Seymour Hersh were writing.

And even if he began to veer more in their direction, I doubt that this justifies the kind of vilification that has been directed at him. Once some people reach their seventies and eighties, there is a tendency to rely on ideas that they have lived by for decades. This accounts for any flaws in Amin’s writings that will live on for the ages just as Marx and Engels’s writings do. In all the articles I have been reading about Amin in the past two days, this one make the case for his importance convincingly:

Perhaps Amin’s central thesis is somewhat obvious, but it’s often forgotten – that a true revolution must be based on those who are being dispossessed and impoverished. But he goes further in undermining the assumption that any thinking emerging from the South will lack enlightenment, or that a lack of enlightenment should be excused.

He believes the Enlightenment was humanity’s first step towards democracy, liberating us from the idea that God created our activity. He has caused controversy in his utter rejection of political Islam. This ideology, embedded for example in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, obscures the real nature of society, including by playing into the idea that the world consists of different cultural groups which conflict with each other, an idea which helps the centre control the peripheries.

Amin’s view is that organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, with their cultural and economic conservatism, are actually viewed positively by the US and other imperialist governments. And he doesn’t limit his critique to Islam either, launching similar criticism on political Hinduism practiced by the BJP in India and Political Buddhism, expressed through the Dalai Lama.

Samir Amin decribes himself as a ‘creative Marxist’ – “to begin from Marx but not to end with him or with Lenin or Mao” – which incorporates all manner of critical ways of thinking even ones “which were wrongly considered to be ‘alien’ by the dogmas of the historical Marxism of the past.”

These views are surely more relevant today than when Amin started writing. A creative Marxism takes proper account of the perspective and aspirations of the truly dispossessed in the world, break out of historical dogmas and rejects attempts to stick together a broken model, but equally sees the impossibility of overthrowing this model tomorrow.

July 1, 2018

Norman Thomas and the DSA

Filed under: electoral strategy,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:21 pm

Norman Thomas

Bob Schieffer: Let me just start out by asking you, what is a socialist these days? I mean, I remember when a socialist was somebody who wanted to nationalize the railroads and things like that.

Bernie Sanders: When we talk about Democratic socialism, I think it is important to realize that there are countries around the world, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, who have had social democratic governments on and off for many, many years. And we can learn a whole lot from some of those countries.

Face the Nation, May 10, 2015


Stephen Colbert: What does socialist mean to you?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live…So what that means is healthcare as a human right. It means that every child, no matter where you are born, should have access to a college or trade school education if they so choose it.”

The Late Show, June 29, 2018


There are specific Socialist plans which I have repeatedly discussed, for Constitutional revision, housing, genuine relief, aid to education, help for young and old and deliverance for the farmers. But our hope is not in these; It is in the production and fair division of the great national income which Socialism makes possible. The immediate demand of Socialists is for socialism, and in education and organization for socialism lies our only hope of giving vision, and purpose, and direction, to those who seek the new day. It is this positive fight for socialism in which lies security against war and fascism. We want a society in which engineers work for us and the satisfaction of our wants, not for the profit of absentee owners. And this is possible only when we own socially the great means of production and distribution.

Norman Thomas, Speech to Socialist Party campaign rally at Madison Square Garden, November 2nd, 1936


As should be obvious, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary for Congress in a district previously represented by a hack named Joseph Crowley has given the DSA the kind of exposure that will increase its already meteoric growth. Googling her name and DSA returns 176,000 articles with a Daily Beast item toward the top of the list:

The 28-year-old member of Democratic Socialists of America—who shockingly won in New York’s 14th congressional district on a leftist platform of Medicare for All, abolishing ICE, and a federal jobs guarantee—inspired a major boost in membership for the organization on Wednesday.

According to Lawrence Dreyfuss, a program associate for DSA, the organization saw a surge of 1,152 new memberships on Wednesday—about 35 times more sign-ups than on an average day.

The last major membership bump DSA experienced was in the month following President Trump’s election, during which time they had about six times more sign-ups than in the previous month.

DSA has undergone a renaissance of sorts in the Trump era, ballooning in size from some 5,000 members in November 2016 to 40,000 nationwide.

This attention reflects the emergence of the DSA as a pole of attraction for Democratic Party voters who are growing increasingly alienated from the business as usual politics of Joseph Crowley, Chuck Schumer, et al. A June 30 NY Times article titled “As Trump Consolidates Power, Democrats Confront a Rebellion in Their Ranks” refers to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and adds:

On the activist left, there is a deep hunger to wean Democrats away from their ties to corporate America, one of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s clarion calls. There are also rising demands that leaders encourage, and even participate in, the sort of extreme measures of confrontation that took place on the floor of the Hart building and have been on display restaurants where Trump aides have been shouted down while dining. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who is facing a growing revolt in her own caucus, was sharply criticized on the left when she denounced such tactics.

Certainly, all of this momentum has been helped by the Sanders campaign, which is also largely responsible for the rapid growth of the DSA. In fact, you might even say that the DSA is the left-wing of the Democratic Party at this point, tacitly pursuing the decades-long goal of turning it into something much more resembling European social democratic parties. Needless to say, this ambition is undermined by the economic realities of a bourgeoisie that has decided to turn the clock back to the Taft-McKinley era. For all of the opprobrium heaped on the Koch brothers (and rightly so), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) includes any number of corporations that hardly smack of Trump’s reactionary agenda such as Time-Warner, the corporate parent of HBO and CNN, two prime “progressive” outlets that would fawn on Ocasio-Cortez.

While it is commendable that DSA members have been very active in opposing Trump’s assaults on working people, immigrants and other vulnerable sectors of American society, I remain opposed to the idea that it is the socialist party that we so desperately need. In focusing single-mindedly on laudable reforms such as Medicare for all to the exclusion of any messages about the need to transform property relations in the USA, it creates a vacuum that will by necessity be filled by others. It may be possible that a left-wing split from the DSA will set such a course but I tend to doubt that eventuality since the group has developed almost exclusively as the instrument of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

If necessity is the mother of invention, we can only hope that a true socialist party will emerge before very long. In preparing this article, I decided to do some research on Norman Thomas’s career, the long-time leader of the Socialist Party who succeeded Eugene V. Debs. While his six campaigns for President might suggest that he was stuck in an electoralist routine, there is much evidence that SP members made the right choice when they voted for him.

A June 11, 1918 NY Times article refers hysterically to a Bolsheviki mass meeting at Madison Square Garden that includes Norman Thomas among the featured speakers. You have to remember that Debs’s party was for the revolution and it was only the unwise decision by people like Charles Ruthenberg and Louis Fraina to launch an imitation Bolshevik Party in the USA that led to the SP’s demise.

For Thomas, the goal of socialist revolution was the same as the Communists but his party was not hobbled by the sort of vanguardist delusions that would lead it to all sorts of sectarian infighting that nearly destroyed it in the 1920s as documented by Theodore Draper. With its ties to the Kremlin, the CP became hegemonic by the time that FDR took office and used its authority to tie the American working class to the White House—a temptation that the Socialist Party never yielded to.

Like Debs, Norman Thomas threw himself into labor struggles. In 1926, a militant strike of garment workers in Passaic, New Jersey was the first led by Communists. A United Front defense committee was established by Albert Weisbord, a CPer, that included Norman Thomas, who was arrested for attempting to speak on behalf of the workers in a rally. Weisbord eventually ended up in the Trotskyist movement but split to form his own group, a common occurrence in these circles.

I first learned about Thomas’s commitment to the labor movement in Sol Dollinger’s “Not Automatic”, a book about the Flint sit-down strike that his wife Genora helped to lead through the Women’s Auxiliary. Both Sol and Genora were members of the Socialist Party at the time and as such were there to help carry out a “French Turn” urged by Leon Trotsky. This was an entryist tactic to recruit the left-wing of the SP’s into the Trotskyist faction that functioned like an opportunist parasite. Sol wrote that “Two years before the strike broke out, the Socialist Party in Flint organized the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). We held meetings in garages and in basements, secret meetings, so the people wouldn’t get caught and beaten up.”

One of Dollinger’s goals was to restore the SP to its proper place in the Flint sitdown strikes. For example, the strategy to shut down Chevrolet Plant 4 in 1937 was first proposed by the 24 year old SP member Kermit Johnson, who was chairman of the citywide strike committee. When Kermit discussed his tactical plans with his wife Genora, who would marry Sol after the Johnsons divorced, they agreed that it would be useful to launch a diversionary attack on another GM plant. The Johnsons made their proposal to the local Socialist Party membership, which included fellow party-member Walter Reuther who was in town for consultations. When battles between the strikers and the cops reached a fever pitch, Norman Thomas used his influence to rally broad support for the UAW just as he had done for the Passaic strikers.

At the time of the Flint strike, the SP was growing by leaps and bounds just like the DSA today. It would have been a game-changing event if the Trotskyists had not carried out a “French Turn” that facilitated the exit of Genora Johnson and many other radicals. In the aftermath of the SWP’s split with Max Shachtman, James P. Cannon, ever so cocksure about the rectitude of his leadership, saw weeding out the “petty-bourgeois” opposition in the same light as the French Turn. He wrote in the ultra-sectarian “Struggle for a Proletarian Party”:

The worker comrades have to see the faction fight as an unavoidable part of the revolutionary struggle for the consolidation of cadres. We didn’t balk at more than a year’s factional struggle in the SP in order to win over a few hundred people. We needed them in order to turn more effectively to mass work. The present struggle must be seen in that same light fundamentally. In addition, one of the most important positive results of the factional fight inside the SP—perhaps the most important—was that in the process of winning over and partly educating a few hundred new people we also demolished the opportunist party of [Norman] Thomas and Co. This is also an extremely important element of the tactic of combating the split. [emphasis added]

I imagine that Jack Barnes must have read Cannon’s sacred text dozens of times in light of his own victory over the petty-bourgeois opposition in the SWP (including me) that has effectively demolished his own sect.

It was Norman Thomas’s reasonable but frustrated goal to try to build an all-inclusive party with both a revolutionary and democratic vision. With the sectarian idiots of the Trotskyist movement functioning as Scylla and the Stalinists functioning as Charybdis, the SP was bound to crash on the shoals.

Thomas was way ahead of his time. When the CP and the Trotskyists were both banning gay people from membership, he had a different attitude about membership norms that would include same-sexers according to Christopher Phelps, the author of “The Closet in the Party: The Young Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Workers Party, and Homosexuality, 1962 – 1970”. In an article on Phelps’s book, Doug Ireland, a 1960s activist who became a prominent spokesman for gay liberation in the 1970s, describes how the SP nearly broke new ground in 1952, a time when the Cold War was at its height and when homosexuals were as worried about being “exposed” as CPers:

Moreover, in a series of interviews with YPSL and Socialist Party activists from the 1950s, Phelps discovered that the Party came very close to adopting a homosexual emancipation plank in its platform at its 1952 convention. The chairman of YPSL at that time was Vern Davidson, a UCLA senior who had had several same-sex affairs, including with other Party members, and who, he told Phelps, “was instructed by the YPSL to attempt to put a homosexual rights plank before the platform committee.”

Norman Thomas, often called “the grand old man of American socialism,” who had been the Socialist Party’s candidate for president six times and who was widely admired as a man of principle in progressive circles way beyond the Socialist Party, was sympathetic when Davidson raised the idea of a homosexual emancipation plank at the platform committee. As Davidson recalls, “He said, ‘Well, Vern, if the YPSL thinks that’s something that we should consider, I certainly think we should consider it, and I have nothing against it, but I wish you could draw up something and come back with it.’”

Norman Thomas was not afraid to stick his neck out. He was just as opposed to WWII as an imperialist war as he was to WWI. He also opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and became critical of Zionism early on, working with the American Council for Judaism that viewed Israel as a colonial project. In 1968, he signed a pledge along with other activists and intellectuals not to pay taxes to protest the war in Vietnam.

Finally, I recommend Thomas’s speech to the 1936 SP rally that is the kind of speech that I’d love to hear from DSA-backed candidates. Maybe as the class struggle deepens in the USA, some DSA’ers will reach the point where they begin to run as socialists rather than liberals and in the name of the DSA. That might not get them guest spots on the Stephen Colbert show but it will help to build the revolutionary movement so desperately needed.


Text of Norman Thomas’s Address at rally Closing the Socialist Campaign in 1936

NY Times, November 2, 1936

The skies over Europe and Eastern Asia are black with the clouds of war. No one knows when they may break in floods of devastation, or what will be the consequences to America of this fresh carnival of death. Yet the discussion in this political campaign has scarcely touched the issue of peace except in terms of platitudinous generalities.

President Roosevelt has given us the greatest appropriations for the army and navy in the whole world. An administration which has not been able even to begin building homes for the third of our people who live in shacks and slums has dotted the country with its armories and spread the seas with its navies.

Part of its vast expenditure has been in the name of giving relief to the unemployed and all of it has been in the name of defense. Yet neither Mr. Roosevelt nor his Republican rival, who has not challenged this expenditure, has given us any definition of what we are defending. Both of them have accepted our anomalous position in the Philippines with the stake that that position gives us in the quarrels of the Far East.

Neither of them has given any clear definition of genuine neutrality, nor told us plainly how we shall take the profit not only out of war, but preparation for war, and still keep the capitalist system. There has indeed been talk of universal conscription of men and wealth in the next war, but the threat of it will not of it-self prevent new war and, in the event of that quarrel, conscription of wealth under a capitalist government will be lenient. But the farmer at his plow, the worker at his bench, as well as the soldier in the trenches, will be bound in absolute slavery to the war machine.

Finds No Constructive Plan

Our political leaders, Mr. Roosevelt in particular, have talked much about our amiable intentions and what the President calls our program of “good neighborliness.” That has not prevented our Ambassadors in Cuba from open support of reactionary tyranny, nor has it led to any constructive suggestions for the solution of the problems of a world in which nations as well as men are divided inexorably into the House of Have and Have-not.

It is only we Socialists who have urged American leadership in disarmament, the complete denunciation of imperialism, genuine neutrality, and a program for taking profit out of war and preparation for war. That program does not require the conscription of men but of wealth. It cannot, however, be made too clear that we want to socialize America to make peace glorious, not to conscript America for purposes of war and fascism.

Our general policy may be summed up in the phrase “co-operation in what makes for peace, isolation in what makes for war.” We dot not believe that a capitalist America can be trusted to apply military sanctions for ideal ends, or that it should go to war to enforce peace. The sanctions in which alone is hope are workers’ sanctions.

The crisis of our times involves not only peace but freedom. We have steadily lost ground during the past few years in our understanding and practice of civil liberty. I have only to recite the melancholy catalogue: the silly but dangerous epidemic of loyalty oaths for teachers; the private armies and arsenals which great corporations have gathered for industrial warfare ; the rise of the abominable Black Legion in Michigan and Ohio, and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, especially in Florida; Governor McNutt’s military law in Indiana, a form of Hoosier Hitlerism likely to be contagious in other States; vigilantes in California; flogging, kidnapping and murder in Florida and Alabama; the extraordinary infamy and terrorism of the plantation system in Eastern Arkansas, protected and defended by the President’s friend, Senator Joe Robinson; the repeated denials of the right of speech and assemblage to minority groups, even to a Presidential candidate.

Against these crimes, many of them in Democratic States, President Roosevelt has not used his immense power and influence, nor has Governor Landon spoken out save in terms of cautious general advocacy of tolerance and criticism of loyalty oaths. President Roosevelt never won for us an anti-lynching bill with teeth in it when he could have won it; and Governor Landon has not specifically endorsed an adequate measure.

What Socialists Propose

We Socialists are committed to the preservation and increase of civil liberty, to the absolute vindication of the right of workers, employed and unemployed, to organize and bargain collectively in the cotton fields as well as in great industries. We are committed to Federal anti-lynching legislation, and to an end of racial discrimination in respect to relief, work, education and justice. But we do not believe that liberty can be made secure until we end the tyranny implicit in the control of the few over the resources and the jobs necessary to the life of us all.

For poverty in the midst of potential plenty, the profit system is even more obviously responsible than for war and tyranny. It is the amazing truth that in this campaign there has been no discussion of the conditions of true abundance from either of the major parties. Both Mr. Landon and Mr. Roosevelt explicitly ex-press their devotion to the profit system. Mr. Landon believes that New Deal policies have retarded a process of “recovery” somehow miraculously inherent in the system. Mr. Roosevelt believes that he has rescued from stormy seas the nice old gentleman, capitalism, all except his silk hat. In general, Mr. Landon wants to do the impossible, and restore the epoch of Coolidge plus a few vague bribes to farmers and the aged, as the price of their votes.

A child, who knows addition and subtraction (multiplication and division are unnecessary) would know that it is not possible to fulfill the Republican promises to balance the budget, reduce taxes, take the government out of business, and at the same time maintain relief through local agencies, but with Federal aid; though artificial subsidies give the farmers better prices than the New Deal has given them ; and pay better pensions to the aged over 65 than the New Deal has offered them!

The Republican campaign has been on an incredibly low level of sincerity and intelligence. Even when its speakers have been right or half right in some of their criticisms, they have destroyed the effect by exaggeration and utter lack of a constructive program. If I refrain from further criticism of the Republican case it is because I am so firmly convinced that its ticket will be defeated by a large majority on Tuesday.

Discusses Union Party

It is fortunately unnecessary to discuss at length the program of the Lemke-Coughlin Union party. For various reasons, it and the curious combination of political messiahs and discredited politicians who lead it have been steadily losing ground since about the first of September, but the conditions, economic and psychological, which gave rise to it still continue and from them, unless we can show to the people a more excellent way, a Fascist demagogue may yet rise to dictatorial power.

Certain it is that the nearest approach to the Lemke-Coughlin program, with its promises of good wages to workers, good profits to farmers and little business men, all within the confines of the capitalist system, is to be found in the economic planks of the basic Nazi platform of 1920 in Germany.

The significant fact is the stampede to Roosevelt—a stampede which, for very different reasons, has been shared in or supported by such diverse groups as the Pendergast machine of Missouri, the Hague machine of New Jersey, Tammany Hall of New York—Jimmy Walker got the ovation here last night–the Kelly-Nash outfit of Chicago, Joe Robinson of Arkansas, Governor McNutt of Indiana, bankers like Giannini of California and even some members of the House of Morgan, the editors of The New York Times, and most of the American Federation of Labor, both followers of John L. Lewis and of William Green. Even the Communists have given indirect support by their opportunistic program, their misleading slogan of democracy versus fascism and their concentration of attack on only one capitalist party.

Quite obviously some of these people are , going to be disappointed. But Mr. Roosevelt permits them all to think it will be the other fellow until after the election. His last night’s rhetorical speech in this hail answered no specific questions. The constitutional crisis is serious. It is a question whether there is any power, Federal or State, which can act in another emergency to assert power over our economic processes. Mr. Roosevelt has discussed no plans for dealing with the situation.

There are still 10,000,000 unemployed. Re-employment lags far behind business recovery and industrial payrolls behind both. Relief is unsatisfactory and the new Security Law is likely to alienate men from the whole idea of social security. Roosevelt discusses no program of relief, no amendments to the Security Law and no plan for redistributing income or avoiding new capitalist crises more catastrophic than through which we are passing.

I can understand, though I do not share the reasons why labor—most labor—supports him, but not the reasons why labor has demanded nothing of him. I am hopeful for a farmer-labor party of the right sort and rejoice in every bit of evidence that it is becoming desirable in the minds of workers, but when a labor committee or a labor party endorses only Democratic candidates, without even a stirring slogan of its own, it Is James Aloysius Farley and not the workers who have won.

Holds System Has Failed

By no such victory shall we escape the fate of Italy or Germany when new war or catastrophe comes upon us. It is not the difference between Roosevelt and Landon that can save, any more than did the difference between Wilson and Hughes In 1916. It is not a few leaders but a system which has failed, the profit system to which Roosevelt professes allegiance. By its very nature it breeds strife. It rests on human exploitation and requires relative scarcity to maintain its price levels.

Our deliverance from war, tyranny and poverty demand the loyalties and institutions of a co-operative commonwealth. There are specific Socialist plans which I have repeatedly discussed, for Constitutional revision, housing, genuine relief, aid to education, help for young and old and deliverance for the farmers. But our hope is not in these ; It is in the production and fair division of the great national income which Socialism makes possible.

The immediate demand of Socialists is for socialism, and in education and organization for socialism lies our only hope of giving vision, and purpose, and direction, to those who seek the new day. It is this positive fight for socialism in which lies security against war and fascism. We want a society in which engineers work for us and the satisfaction of our wants, not for the profit of absentee owners. And this is possible only when we own socially the great means of pro-duction and distribution. You say that we shall not win? Probably not this year. But the best evidence that the people are awakening will be found in the size of the Socialist vote, and by it, as by no other yardstick the victors will measure the demand of the people for plenty, for peace and for freedom.

There is a greater argument than that. It is that the size of the Socialist vote and the enthusiasm for Socialist organization will serve to rally the hosts of the workers of hand and brain to win through their unions, their consumers’ cooperatives and their party, the victory of a federation of cooperative commonwealths, wherein power-driven machinery shall be the only slave, and the great human family shall be released at last from the prison house of war, insecurity, exploitation and needless poverty. It is to help bring this day that I ask you to vote the Socialist ticket. Vote it on the ballot, write it in Ohio and other States where the right has been undemocratically denied ; but vote Socialist, for plenty, peace, freedom and the brotherhood of man.

 

April 30, 2018

The DSA and the Democratic Party

Filed under: socialism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

On April 20th, the N.Y. Times ran a 2000 word article titled “‘Yes, I’m Running as a Socialist.’ Why Candidates Are Embracing the Label in 2018” that was a remarkably savvy take on the close ties between the DSA and the Democratic Party. In keeping with the Gray Lady’s need to have reporters covering this angle that are “in the know”, the story was assigned to Farah Stockman who won the coveted William Brewster Styles Award “for identifying U.S. corporations that were covertly using international relationships and offshore operations to avoid taxes, side-step U.S. laws and deny workers’ rights.” If you are in the business of keeping the one percent alert about developments on the left, it is best to have reporters with a ninety-nine percent mentality even if the editors make sure to keep them safely within the liberal democratic consensus.

The article is a survey of various candidates who are running as socialists in Democratic Party primaries this year, including Franklin Bynum who won an unchallenged nomination to become a criminal court judge in Houston. I am not sure how serving as criminal court judge advances the cause of socialism even though Bynum described himself as a “far left candidate”. Since he followed that up with “What I’m trying to do is be a Democrat who actually stands for something”, you wonder how far to the left he is. In fact, Stockman was sharp enough to summarize such candidates this way:

Many socialist candidates sound less like revolutionaries and more like traditional Democrats who seek a return to policies in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They want single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and greater protections for unions. But others advocate more extreme changes, such as abolishing the prison system. In the case of Mr. Bynum, he wants an end to a cash bail system that requires people accused of crimes, even minor offenses, to pay money to be released from jail before trial.

Well, of course. These DSA’ers are basically New Deal Democrats. But in a period of economic crisis and a general collapse of the labor movement, the prospects of a new New Deal are rather utopian.

If Stockman’s article had taken the trouble to dig a bit deeper into the background of some of these candidates, the reader might have noticed that one of them was a keynote speaker at a conference on Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States that I attended in November, 2015. That is Gayle McLaughlin, a former mayor of Richmond, Calif., who is running to be the state’s lieutenant governor but not as a Democrat. If you go to her website, you will see that she is an independent (NPP) Bernie Sanders supporter. NPP stands for No-Party Preference. I do have trouble with her support for Sanders, one that other people at the conference were beginning to manifest.

McLaughlin was also a member of the North Star Network that Peter Camejo formed in the early 80s. Also, like me, she was a member at the time of CISPES, the group that organized solidarity on behalf of the revolution in El Salvador. When she was running for mayor in Richmond, she ran as a Green. I am not sure whether she is still involved with the Greens since her switch to NPP in order to be able to vote for Bernie Sanders in 2016 might be permanent. At least she is not a Democrat.

Furthermore, I have seen no evidence that McLaughlin is a DSA member, Stockman notwithstanding. In a surprisingly useful interview with Platypus, there is a discussion of the relationship between her organization—the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and the DSA:

Platypus: I noticed that you reached out to the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for an endorsement.[i] I am wondering why did you want their endorsement for your lieutenant governor campaign? What kind alliance do you envision with that organization which seems to be different demographically than the RPA, where it is more so younger activists in their early 30s while the RPA is more seasoned older activists?

GM: The RPA steering committee is very young. We have a 28-person steering committee: It has a majority of people of color, a majority of women, and a majority of people under forty. The progressive mindset of diversity was always a very much a part of our agenda. But still we can use more millennials.

DSA is very youth-driven. They have grown especially since the Bernie campaign. Bernie made the term “socialist” much more common and much more acceptable throughout our nation. I have always had the socialist mindset and I think the whole anti-corporate struggle is a struggle against capitalism and the harm that it causes. So reaching out to DSA was important. They are a part, a very strong part, of our movement for change. I was very excited to get the endorsement of East Bay DSA, San Francisco DSA, and Peninsula DSA. I hope to receive the Los Angles DSA endorsement as well.

Labor Notes provides the background on her decision to run for Lieutenant Governor:

Last year, McLaughlin stepped down as a Richmond city councilor so she could pursue a long-shot campaign for lieutenant governor of California. Her stated goal was less about becoming the next Gavin Newsom (Governor Jerry Brown’s longtime understudy and would-be successor) and more about “encouraging others to build local political power in their own cities” and a “powerful, independent network of progressive forces across the state.”

Despite her working class background and her long record of mayoral activism on behalf of labor causes, only the United Electrical Workers (UE), a small national union with just a handful of California members, has endorsed her. Most big unions have gotten behind state senator Ed Hernandez, a wealthy southern California doctor and corporate Democrat who does favor single-payer health care. Even the California Nurses Association, a reliable past supporter of the RPA and Ralph Nader’s biggest union backer when he ran for president in 2000, fell in line behind Hernandez because of his single-payer stance. Much to the chagrin of rank-and-file nurses who favored McLaughlin, the CNA officials wouldn’t even grant the progressive independent from Richmond a candidate interview.

Returning to Stockman’s article, there is an interesting reference to the budding frictions in the DSA over the Democratic Party:

But others, especially among the influx of new members, want to keep their distance from the Democratic Party, which they see as hopelessly compromised by corporate donations.

“The new, younger people are much more willing to say ‘We’re not going to tie ourselves to the Democratic Party,’” said Frances Reade, 37, an education researcher who joined the East Bay D.S.A. chapter in California on Mr. Trump’s Inauguration Day. “At the same time, we’re nowhere near being able to launch a third party.”

Ms. Reade, who made campaign calls for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said she joined D.S.A. after experiencing a “profound disillusionment with the Democratic Party” in the wake of Mr. Trump’s victory. The organization gave her an outlet to pour her energy into: door-knocking in a “Medicare for All” campaign, and discussing political texts in free evening classes put on by members of the group. The classes, known as socialist school, included readings by Karl Marx and articles in Jacobin, a popular new socialist magazine. Ms. Reade has become a class instructor and vice chairwoman at the East Bay chapter, which has about 1,000 members.

“If, after the election, I had tried to join the Democratic Party, what would I have done?” she asked. “There’s no night school to learn more about ideas. The Democratic Party is essentially a fund-raising apparatus.”

In my view, if the DSA at least projected a path toward launching a third party, I would be much more enthusiastic about its prospects. It appears that Gayle McLaughlin’s campaign is much more about raising issues than getting elected, which is much more in line with Franklin Bynum’s campaign and that of Kaniela Ing, a state representative in Hawaii who is running for Congress. In Ing’s campaign website, there is nothing about capitalism or socialism. For all practical purposes, it could be the website of a liberal Democrat in the Sanders wing of the party that is obviously DSA’s orientation. Unfortunately, despite McLaughlin’s political background, there is not a single word on her website about the need for fundamental social change.

Last Friday night, I went to the opening night of Yale Strom’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs. Among the people he interviewed was Rick Hertzberg of the New Yorker Magazine, whose father was a life-long member of the Socialist Party. He mused about the emergence of a new Debs today. How would he fit into today’s political environment? He answered his own question. Debs would likely be a Roosevelt Democrat and have a show on MSNBC. This was the only false note in a totally winning film about the kind of socialism that Debs stood for and that is worlds away from today’s DSA as this speech indicates:

The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

With either of those parties in power one thing is always certain and that is that the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class under the saddle.

Under the administration of both these parties the means of production are private property, production is carried forward for capitalist profit purely, markets are glutted and industry paralyzed, workingmen become tramps and criminals while injunctions, soldiers and riot guns are brought into action to preserve “law and order” in the chaotic carnival of capitalistic anarchy.

Will we be able to build such a party? I can only say that since the ruling class is bent on returning us to the days of McKinley, we will likely see a restive working class open to the kind of radical ideas that won Debs 897,000 votes in 1912, which amounted to 6 percent of the voting population prior to woman’s suffrage.

Just take a look at the public school teachers on the march in West Virginia and Arizona. These “fly over” states were bastions of support for the SP when Debs was the party’s leader. One can only hope that more and more people like Francis Reade will pour into the DSA because she is the party’s future and the future of this much aggrieved nation.

 

April 25, 2018

New Yorkers: all out for the Eugene V. Debs documentary!

Filed under: Film,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

In March 2017, I attended a screening of Yale Strom’s documentary “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs” at the Socially Relevant Film Festival. A blizzard prevented Yale from doing a Q&A in NY that evening but excluding another blizzard (this has been an unusually cold April), I will be joining him at the opening night screening of the film at the Cinema Village this Friday night for a Q&A.

(Los Angelenos can also see the film between May 4 – 10 at the Laemmle Monica and Playhouse Theaters.)

This is an extraordinary film on a number of levels. To begin with, it sheds light on the kind of party we need today. When the “Leninist” model became universal after October 1917, it helped to weaken Debs’s party and strengthen sectarian tendencies that we have been paying dearly for about a century. I say that as someone who went up the blind alley of Trotskyism and learned from my mistakes. Nearly 20 years ago, I came into contact with Sol Dollinger, the husband of Genora Dollinger of the Flint Women’s Auxiliary sit-down strike fame, and learned about the project the two were involved with in the 1950s around the magazine American Socialist co-edited by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, who had broken with Trotskyist sectarianism.

The American Socialist magazine was replete with tributes to Eugene V. Debs, including the special issue of November 1955 that contained an article by Bert Cochran titled “The Eugene V. Debs Heritage”. Bert wrote:

It was one of Debs’ important achievements that the Socialist Party, from the time of its formation in 1901 up to the first World War, was an American movement. By that is meant that it was a genuine expression of indigenous radicalism. It was the Left continuation of the big Populist rebellion, and the natural socialist evolution of its best contingents after the promise of Populism was destroyed in 1896. Debs Socialism rose on the crest of the wave of the progressivism and widespread rebelliousness that was sweeping America up to 1914, because it was part and parcel of this movement. This was a new departure for socialism in this country, because before Debs, socialism was primarily a German proposition, with little contact and less appeal outside of its own community.

Indigenous radicalism, indeed. Our task remains the same as it was a century ago, to transform American society as well as the rest of the world along rational and humane lines. It is encouraging that the American left, including the DSA and the Sanders campaign, to look toward the example of Debs’s party. New York DSA’ers and Sanderistas should put this film on their calendar and spread the word about it. It is a film that matches documentarian skills to a subject of deep relevance to the left today, especially since the heartland of Debs’s party in places like Oklahoma and West Virginia are on the move today.

My review of “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs”  in CounterPunch.

October 17, 2017

Q&A with an Algerian journalist

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 1:24 pm
  1. How do you explain the decline of the American Left?

The left that I joined in 1967 embraced a “Marxist-Leninist” model that led to deeply sectarian concepts and even cult-like tendencies. This was true of both Trotskyist groups, such as the one I belonged to, and Maoist groups. I have written many articles about these problems that can be read at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization.htm but would recommend “Lenin in Context” (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/lenin_in_context.htm) as a good place to start. Twenty years ago when Marxists began exchanging ideas on the mailing list that would evolve into Marxmail (http://lists.csbs.utah.edu/listinfo/marxism), a query similar to yours prompted me to begin writing about the problem that I first encountered in the early 80s when the Socialist Workers Party, from which I had recently resigned, developed abstentionist positions in the name of a “turn to industry”. At the time it had close to two thousand members, including in the youth group, but now has less than a hundred. So your question of the decline on the left is closely related to the fate of this group that expected the 1930s to repeat itself in the early 80s despite indications that the working class was not radicalizing.

As for the New Communist Movement, aka the Maoists, they went through an identical decline mostly as a result of overprojecting the state of the class struggle in the same way as we did. I strongly recommend ex-Maoist Max Elbaum’s Verso book “Revolution in the Air” that draws many of the same conclusions found in my articles.

Even if the left had abandoned self-destructive sectarian methods, it still would have been difficult to sustain the kind of growth that took place in the 1960s and early 70s. To start with, the end of the Vietnam war removed one of the main irritants to young men who no longer had to worry about being drafted. Around the same time the war ended, the Supreme Court legalized abortion, which had the effect of satisfying the main demand of the woman’s liberation movement. The Black liberation struggle continued to face the same oppressive social conditions that had brought it into existence but had to endure challenges that reduced its numbers and impact. To start with, repression was much deeper against Black militants. The FBI and local police departments used fierce repression against the Black Panther Party and other such groups that they never recovered from. Also, the ruling class made a calculated decision to fund anti-poverty programs that had a powerful cooptation logic. It also opened the door for Black elected officials, at least in the Democratic Party. Black mayors cropped up all around the country giving some in the Black community a sense that reform was possible. The election of Barack Obama was a crowning victory for those trying to foster such illusions.

  1. In your opinion, is it not necessary to have a strong labor movement to frame the struggles of the underprivileged classes? What remains of the epoch of the trade union and workers’ movement in the USA?

This is one of the biggest problems facing the left. The trade unions have shrunk drastically over the past few decades largely as a result of the deindustrialization of auto, steel, electronics and other mainstays of the AFL-CIO. Cities such as Detroit that used to have powerful civil right groups and trade unions, even if only reform-oriented, have lost the economic base that made them possible.

The only unions sustaining any growth today are in the service industries such as those organized by AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). As important as such unions are, they lack the raw power that could confront capital in the way that the Teamsters Union used to in the 1950s and 60s. Despite their relatively tame stance vis-à-vis their employers, the Trump administration is determined to break such unions because they are a major source of funding and organizational muscle for the Democratic Party. At the same time he is seeking a confrontation with workers in the service industries, he is courting workers in the construction and mining industry since his nationalist rhetoric and climate change denialism enables him to pose as a friend of workers hoping to get jobs digging coal, constructing pipelines, etc.

On top of all these problems, there is hardly any indication of a trade union movement as such. All of the major unions, both blue-collar and white-collar, are organized on the basis of business unionism, which limits itself to wage increases, minimizing layoffs, and other economic protections that while of benefit to dues-paying members has hardly any relationship to the deeper crisis of the American working class.

The last time there was anything resembling a full-scale trade union movement as such was the United Farm Workers but it too became a business union hostile to any challenges from the rank-and-file.

  1. How do you explain the total lack of combativeness of the trade union movement faced with the ultraliberal offensive?

This is related to the question above obviously. Mostly, workers are fearful of owners closing down a factory under their feet if they fight too hard. With technologies allowing corporate headquarters in New York to operate production in East Asia, Mexico and elsewhere, it is very easy to pick up and move. The October 15, 2017, NY Times had a long article on a female steelworker who worked for a ball-bearing manufacturing company called Rexnord that was moving to Mexico. She was a skilled worker doing the job usually done by men that paid $25 per hour. Rexnord was going to Mexico where they planned to pay someone doing the same job $6 per hour. Not only that, they were offering her a $5000 bonus to train the Mexicans who had come up to Rexnord. Desperation forced her to train the workers who would soon replace her.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, globalization had nowhere near the power it has today. Workers in auto, steel, and electronics could withhold their labor and bring the bosses to their knees. Today, it is the workers who are on their knees for the most part.

  1. Did not the American Left which was seduced by Obama commit a strategic error? During the reign of Obama, we saw imperialist wars as well as many racist crimes, wasn’t Obama a lure?

The radical left was not taken in that much. The magazine CounterPunch, upon whose board I serve as film editor, never gave an inch to Obama. It published a book titled “Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion” that included articles that debunked the idea that Obama would be the next FDR. Not only that, it also opposed Bernie Sanders primary bid in on the same grounds, namely that the Democratic Party was a dead-end for the left.

On the other hand, there were many on the left who did support Obama even if they qualified their support as “lesser evil”. For some, there was an analogy with the New Deal. Roosevelt once said that he needed pressure from the left to get anything done. This encouraged Obama supporters to promote the idea that the left had to mobilize to push him to the left, even though there was little recognition that the left in 2008 was nothing like the left in 1932. Furthermore, back then when the USSR existed, there was the enormous pressure of an alternative model that made the ruling class worry about being overthrown unless it began to adopt important reforms such as Social Security.

The problem of the Democratic Party is key to American politics. Despite the gloomy picture I painted of the revolutionary left in the question above, the reform-oriented left is growing dramatically. The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) now has over 25,000 members, many of whom worked to get Bernie Sanders elected. They generally understand socialism in different terms than someone like myself but can be important activists around important struggles taking shape under an extremely reactionary White House. I wrote an appeal to the DSA about breaking from the Democratic Party (https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/15/reflections-on-the-dsa/) but I am not optimistic. My guess is that the Democratic Party still has a grip on many young people because of its command of the mass media and the deep roots it has in American society as a party with a 175-year history.

  1. Is not a rebuilding of the American Left and the trade union movement necessary? And with what tools?

It is absolutely necessary. The most important catalyst would be an organized movement of the revolutionary left that could have the clout to move broad sectors of the population into action in the way that the Vietnam antiwar movement did. That is basically what I have been arguing for over the past 35 years or so. With the collapse of the sectarian left, there is much more appeal for a broad-based radical party but it will take a nucleus of dedicated and younger activists to bring it together. I am far too old to be part of that nucleus but my articles are directed to those who might be the future leadership.

  1. All the progressives and revolutionaries of the world will commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, according to you, what is the major lesson of this revolution and this great moment of history?

This is not easy to sum up in a few words. It would probably take a book to answer properly but let me try to briefly convey some thoughts.

The major lesson is that workers could take control of their own destiny and move toward a just society based on the principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. The fact that 21 counter-revolutionary armies invaded the USSR to destroy this experiment indicates that it was a mortal threat to the capitalist status quo. In the words of Noam Chomsky who was commenting on the American war in Indochina, it was the need to destroy “a positive example of successful development.”

When I was young, it was difficult to think of the USSR as a “positive example” because of the repression and its faltering economy. When the USSR collapsed, there was a widespread belief that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to capitalism. Now that the Great Recession in the USA lingers on and the economy shows no signs of rebounding with the kind of vigor capitalist ideologues have promised, many people like the steelworker at Rexnord or the young unemployed college graduate saddled with $50,000 in debt will be as open to a different economic model as people were in the 1930s. The left has to be able to make the case for something like the USSR model but without the dogmatic trappings of Red Stars and hammer and sickles that make no sense to the average American. Our work is cut out for us.

  1. Don’t you think a new reading of some left-wing thinkers like Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman and James M. Blaut are needed to rebuild the American Left?

Absolutely. Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman tried to build a movement in the early 50s under very difficult circumstances. Much of what they wrote has a freshness and relevance that stand up well today. I invite people to look at articles from the American Socialist that they published in the 1950s here: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/index.htm.

The late Jim Blaut, who was a very good friend of mine and a great influence on the way I think about the origins of capitalism, was a powerful example of how academics can help to change society. He wrote a book on the national question that was meant to help leaders of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party develop a strategy for national independence. In an obituary that appeared after his death 17 years ago, he said that he was proudest of being arrested in an antiwar protest in the 1960s. A sample of his articles can be read here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/blaut.htm

  1. I interviewed the great thinker Henry Giroux. In your opinion, does not Giroux’s thought open up perspectives for the understanding of today’s world and does it not offer alternatives to ultra-liberalism?

I have very great respect for Giroux as an academic who follows the example of Jim Blaut. I particularly value his analysis of the education crisis in the USA, both in secondary schools and higher education. Having worked at Columbia University for 21 years until my retirement a few years ago, I saw the rot from the perspective of an insider. Giroux’s “University in Chains: Confronting the Military-industrial-academic Complex” is probably the best introduction to how capitalism has been destroying the soul of academia.

  1. You had an experience of struggle in South Africa. I interviewed Patrick Bond who was the economic advisor to President Mandela and who drafted the White Paper on Reconstruction and Development in the South African government. He explained that South Africa is experiencing a major crisis. Don’t you think that the gentrification of the political elites can wreck a revolutionary experience as seen in South Africa or Algeria, my home country where oligarchs took power?

What is happening in South Africa today and Algeria for decades now is a tragedy. Considering the sacrifice of lives that went into destroying apartheid and gaining independence from France, it is deeply frustrating to see how class divisions remain in both nations. When I visited the ANC in exile in 1991, I never would have dreamed that you would have a situation in which cops would kill striking miners in South Africa under an ANC government 21 years later. Like most socialists, I expected the ANC to deliver on its ambitious program that while not specifically socialist was very clear about addressing class as well as racial injustice.

As is the case in countries elsewhere, a new left is developing in South Africa that challenges the economic apartheid. I am glad to have met and become a friend and comrade of Patrick Bond about 15 years ago. Through access to the Internet that is as important to our movement today as the printed press was to the revolutionary movement in the early 1900s, I have begun to connect with the emerging revolutionary left worldwide. Now, more than ever, a worldwide revolutionary movement is needed to help us move forward to socialism. The final showdown will very likely take place in a country like the USA. If it was possible for a semi-peripheral country like Russia to have been nearly destroyed in the early 1920s, a Socialist America will not have to worry about outside intervention given its massive defensive capabilities.

  1. Can you tell us about your fighting experience in countries like South Africa or Nicaragua?

To be honest, I never was involved in fighting. My role was mostly as a consultant to the ANC and to the FSLN in Nicaragua about technical assistance that could get from American volunteers. I am proud of the work I did but would not represent myself as an actual combatant.

  1. Do you think Trump is as dangerous as Bush and the neocons? And how do you explain the support of the limousine leftists to Hillary Clinton who is an inveterate warmonger?

It is hard to say. Trump’s intentions are not matched by his capabilities. Bush had far more support from the neocons, including many in the Democratic Party who voted for his adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. That being said, his intentions are far more worrisome than anything ever projected by Bush. We are living in very dangerous times, especially around the nuclear showdown with North Korea. There is a tremendous need right now for mass demonstrations in Washington but unfortunately the left is too divided and too weak to organize them.

Support for Hillary Clinton is mostly on the “lesser evil” basis. In 2016, there were those on the left who actually viewed Trump as less dangerous than her because of his isolationist “America First” rhetoric. It turned out that his words were cheap, just as Obama’s were in 2007.

Another task facing a new left party in the USA will be the construction of a principled antiwar and anti-imperialist movement that is not in the habit of reflexively following the Kremlin’s strategic, realpolitik agenda. While the USA is clearly the most dangerous military power in the world today, we must uphold a consistent internationalism resting on a class basis.

  1. You are also a cinematic art critic, how do you explain the current Hollywood scandals with Harvey Weinstein? Do you think that the Hollywood of the American dream and propaganda has revealed its true face, the one of money king, sex and drugs?

Some have pointed out that sexual assaults are taking place everywhere, including at the most prestigious universities in the USA such as Caltech, where an astrophysicist was forced to resign after sexually harassing two female students. Harvey Weinstein defended himself when the charges were reported in the NY Times by saying that the culture in the 60s and 70s were more permissive. This is utter nonsense. Back then a powerful feminist movement were putting men like Weinstein on the defensive but with the decline of the movement, such 1950s behavior began to threaten women once again. One of the benefits of a new left would be a powerful feminist component that would make sexual harassment difficult to carry out. Male supremacy, like white supremacy, grows stronger in periods of reaction. Fortunately, the men who have such values have been soundly rejected by most thinking and caring people in the past. That is what the immense reaction against Weinstein indicates. We need to reinforce the left in the USA so such people are not only put on the defensive but defanged totally.

  1. You are both a researcher and an activist, and you are also the moderator of the Marxist mailing list. What is the impact of your work on people’s awareness?

It is difficult to say. Most of the time I write to preserve my sanity. When I dropped out of the Trotskyist movement in 1978, I had plans to write fiction. Unfortunately, the decay of late capitalism got in the way.

  1. Do you think the alternative press has effectively countered mainstream media? Since information is a major key to counter the empire, do you think the alternative press is winning the battle against the dominant media?

I would like to think so. I have a relative who is staying with us temporarily. He was a corporate executive now hoping to start a new job in the USA but despite his socio-economic status, he relies on websites such as Counterpunch to get the real story. The Internet has had an enormous impact on popular opinion. I’d like to think that if we had it back in 1967, the war in Vietnam would not have dragged on as long as it did. When the class struggle deepens qualitatively over the next few years, it will be a powerful weapon against the class enemy. There will be obstacles put in our way but in the long run, I am optimistic that it will be as important to your generation as Iskra was to Lenin’s.

 

September 15, 2017

Reflections on the DSA

Filed under: social democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 12:59 pm

Fifty years ago I fully expected that by 2017 we would be living under socialism in the USA, thanks to a combination of deepening contradictions that would make capitalism untenable and our steely resolve in building a vanguard Trotskyist party up to the task of leading the glorious revolution of the future. It turned out that it was our vanguardist pretensions that were untenable. That plus capitalism’s ability to both co-opt and repress the left leaves us where we are today: in a total mess.

In the early 80s I hooked up with Peter Camejo’s North Star Network in the hope of building a new left that dispensed with vanguardist pretensions. Carrying out a one-man probe of the extant non-Leninist left, I decided to attend DSA’s “Radical Alternatives for the 1980s: A Conference on Education and Strategy for Progressive” in 1983. After spending 11 years in the Trotskyist movement with its cocksure belief that it was predestined to lead the American revolution, I found the conference a breath of fresh air, especially Stanley Aronowitz’s presentation on what Peter and I used to call “tasks and perspectives” reports. The DSA was only a year old at the time, having been formed through a merger of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). NAM was probably closer to the North Star politically but not likely to be interested in a regroupment effort with ex-Trotskyists. Michael Harrington’s DSOC was not only much larger but had an orientation to the Democratic Party that was a match to the ideological background of leading NAM members like Richard Healy, the son of former CP leader Dorothy Healy.

Continue reading

August 22, 2017

Reply to a disgruntled 27-year old

Filed under: socialism,third parties — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Kshama Sawant: going to Washington DC to explore possibility of a new People’s Party

Customarily when I receive a private message such as the one below, I answer it publicly without identifying the sender since it might likely be a question that other readers of this blog have been wrestling with:

Hi there,

I’m a disgruntled 27 year old who’s been reading your blog recently, because I’ve become interested in left wing analysis of, well everything. I admittedly don’t consider myself a Marxist, but I also don’t consider myself an anarchist or a liberal or a centrist or anything like that, so I don’t know where I fit. Maybe anti capitalist? But I don’t have a replacement on hand so it seems kind of a useless term. Reading through your blog, I have read you have had decades of experience with activism going back to the 1960s. So what I’m asking simply is, what is my generation, this generation, supposed to do? I understand you or anyone else probably doesn’t have an answer, or not much of one, but I’m hoping you might have some insights on how this generation can deal with the massive issues now and coming. I’m sorry if this is a stupid question, and feel free to ignore it.

J.

Hi, J

To start with, there are good reasons why identifying as an anti-capitalist rather than a socialist might make sense. In 2009, the French Trotskyist group known as the Revolutionary Communist League dissolved itself into a new group called the New Anticapitalist Party because it was trying to get away from the “Russian questions” that had gotten much of the socialist left bogged down in doctrinal hairsplitting. After all, why argue over when the USSR became a “degenerated workers state” or “state capitalist” when the real problem facing Americans was how to secure health care or affordable housing.

There are other new left formations in Europe that have taken the same tack as the NPA with even greater success, such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. While Syriza has been disavowed by most of the left for having caved into the demands of German banks and other lending institutions, there was a need for the Greek left to come together in a broad left formation that did not impose an ideological straightjacket on its members. Whatever your take on Soviet history or its various leaders, the pressing question for Greeks was how to get from under the crushing debt cycle. That Syriza failed this test is more a judgement on its Eurocommunist leadership than on its origins as a broad-based anti-capitalist party.

There is nothing quite like this in the USA today. I held out hopes ever since Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign that the Green Party would move in this direction but am dismayed by the party’s failure to develop into a nation-wide membership party. About six months ago, I paid $25 to become a Green Party member but nothing has come out of that. I wasn’t expecting to get a phone call or anything but if there was a national office for the party, it might be consolidating members in New York so that they could come together and discuss what can be done to challenge the status quo. With a transportation crisis in New York City, a well-organized Green Party chapter consisting of hundreds of members could play an important role in mobilizing support for investment in subway infrastructure.

As you probably are aware, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have experienced explosive growth in the past year with reports that it now has a membership in excess of 25,000—many of whom are your age and probably of a similar background. I had questions on whether this was only a paper membership but their participation in the protest against the far-right “Freedom of Speech” rally in Boston suggests a departure from past norms. Currently the main problem with the DSA is its failure to break decisively with the Democratic Party. Ever since the cooptation of Tom Watson’s Populist Party, the Democrats have managed to prevent a leftist third party from emerging. In my view, the need for such a party eclipses any considerations of ideological purity. Last year I took a lot of heat from people I had been close to around Syrian solidarity issues because of my support for Jill Stein, who had ambivalent positions on Syria—and sometimes even worse. It was more important that a third party emerge rather than making international questions a litmus test. However, the main obstacle to the Green Party becoming that party is not difference over this or that question but the general inability of the top tier of leadership to understand the need to take party-building seriously. I have no idea what Jill Stein did with the millions raised to investigate voting irregularities in the presidential vote but surely some of it could have been funneled into creating a national office with a competent staff.

On the third party front, Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative has now issued a call for such a party:

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant will be in Washington, D.C., early next month to discuss the possible launch of a new party.

Its name may sound familiar to Seattle: The People’s Party.

However, while Sawant was an early supporter of the newly founded Seattle Peoples Party and its mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, the two groups with similar names have no formal relationship with each other, though they are feeding off the same populist fervor. And just as the Seattle Peoples Party upended local political dynamics during the mayoral primary, the national party has simliar ambitions.

“I think Nikkita Oliver’s campaign is a symptom and actually an example of what’s happening politically in this country,” says Dr. Bill Kildall, Washington State coordinator. “The two party system no longer represents our working people and [her] campaign obviously was directed at gaining support from working people.”

A town hall will be hosted in Washington D.C. on Sept. 9 to discuss the formation of the new People’s Party. It will be livestreamed across the country to similar gatherings. The event in D.C. will be headlined by Sawant, Dr. Cornel West, and Nick Brana, founder of Draft Bernie for a People’s Party (that organization was what gave rise to the national party’s name).

“What we will be doing,” Kildall says, “is establishing what I would call chapters in each place where the sister townhalls are going to be held. There will be follow up meetings where we will actually form these chapters of the People’s Party and elect officers and make by-laws.”

I am not sure that Socialist Alternative has the clout to pull this off but on paper it sounds great. Perhaps if the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the DSA put their shoulders to the wheel, it might work. Icitizen, admittedly not a neutral body, took a poll in June that had some eye-popping results. In their online survey of 1,176 adults, nearly sixty percent are likely to consider voting for a third-party candidate for president in 2020 and over half believe that if a third party gained Congressional seats, legislation would improve.

As Leon Trotsky might have put it, conditions are rotten-ripe for a new left party.

This brings us to the question of what is to be done by your generation. When I was your age, the largest groups on the left were either Trotskyist like the one I belonged to or Maoist. Both types of party were sectarian mistakes. I have written dozens of articles since 1992 or so explaining why Trotskyism had a self-imposed glass ceiling by demanding that members be committed to a program much more narrow than any mass party would consider. The same thing was true of the Maoists as Max Elbaum pointed out in his “Revolution in the Air”. That epoch has come to an end. The only people starting new “Leninist” parties today are young and inexperienced and their efforts are mostly Internet-based. After all, to start a new “Revolutionary Communist Party-Marxist Leninist” in the USA, a WordPress account suffices.

I have no problem recommending membership in the ISO or Socialist Alternative even though they claim to be “Leninist”. They are so far from the rigid and cultish norms of the Trotskyist and Maoist groups of the 1960s and 70s that you certainly won’t come out of as damaged goods like me when I left the SWP in 1978. As long as you are not afraid to speak your mind, these groups could provide a useful education and the avenues to productive work in the mass movement.

If it weren’t for its temporizing with the Democratic Party, the DSA would be hands down winners. I have a feeling that their potential for growth is practically unlimited since it allows total political and intellectual freedom for its membership, which as it happens was the same kind of freedom that existed in Rosa Luxemburg’s party in Germany or Lenin’s in Russia.

If you are reluctant to join any party at this point, I’d recommend looking into a Jacobin reading group. Many of the people who get together to discuss radical literature have the same kind of background as you and can be a useful resource in hooking you up with activism in the city where you live.

Finally, I’d stay away from the two big temptations today, Democratic Party politics and black bloc/antifa adventurism. In a PJ Wodehouse short story, the manservant Jeeves told his master Bertie Wooster: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.” I feel the same way about the Democrats and ultraleftism.

June 26, 2017

Lars Lih defends Kamenev and Stalin’s blue-pencilled Lenin

Filed under: Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

On John Riddell’s blog, there’s a very interesting but wrongheaded series of posts by Lars Lih that reveals how the editors of Pravda—Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin—excised sentences from the first of Lenin’s Letters from Afar that was written on March 7th and signaled his decisive break with “old Bolshevism”, which had theorized a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This slogan can be reduced to a call not for socialism, but for a government that while excluding bourgeois parties would preside over bourgeois property relations. In Lenin’s view, Russia could not proceed toward socialism until the workers had built a powerful social democratic party that resembled Kautsky’s in Germany. As long as feudal vestiges remained in Russia, especially the lack of constitutional democratic rights, the workers could not build up their strength.

Ironically, even though Lenin was moving rapidly toward an abandonment of “old Bolshevik” beliefs, he still retained some of the language, although in a profoundly dialectical manner, in the first letter:

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore, the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the Potresovs, Gvozdyovs and Chkheidzes, as Plekhanov said yesterday.

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practised by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organisation, their own unity, and their own weapons.

A few paragraphs later in the letter, Lenin makes it clear that bourgeois property relations will not be respected by a newly conceived “revolutionary dictatorship”:

It [the Kerensky government] cannot give bread because it is a bourgeois government. At best, it can give the people “brilliantly organised famine”, as Germany has done. But the people will not accept famine. They will learn, and probably very soon, that there is bread and that it can be obtained, but only by methods that do not respect the sanctity of capital and landownership.

In the second post titled “Lenin’s ‘Letter from Afar,’ as printed in Pravda, March 21 and 22, 1917”, Lih provides an annotated version with references to the excised material in his post. So for example, you can read this in the second post, just as Lenin’s letter would have appeared to Pravda’s readers:

The conflict of these three forces determines the situation that has now arisen, a situation that is transitional from the first to the second stage of the revolution.

The above paragraph was a substitute for what was deleted by Kamenev and Stalin below:

The antagonism between the first and second force is not profound, it is temporary, the result solely of the present conjuncture of circumstances, of the abrupt turn of events in the imperialist war. The entire new government is monarchist, for Kerensky’s verbal republicanism simply cannot be taken seriously, is not worthy of a statesman and, objectively, is political chicanery. The new government has not succeeded in finishing off the tsarist monarchy, has already begun to make a deal with the landlord Romanov dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Kadet type needs a monarchy to serve as the head of the bureaucracy and the army in order to protect the privileges of capital against the working people.

This new government, in which Lvov and Guchkov of the Octobrists and Peaceful Renovation Party, yesterday’s abettors of Stolypin the Hangman, control the posts of real importance, the crucial posts, the decisive posts, the army and the bureaucracy—this government, in which Miliukov and the other Kadets serve mostly for decoration, for a signboard, for sugary professorial speeches, and the “Trudovik” Kerensky plays the role of a balalaika for gulling the workers and peasants.

It is important to note that the excised first of the Letters from Afar does not mention Kerensky once while Lenin’s unedited letter references him five times. Interestingly enough, the Russian edition of Lenin’s complete works, from which the Marxist Internet Archives derived its source material, provides a footnote that understands what the deletions were about even if Lars Lih does not. So even if the Communist publishers risked exposing the heavy hand of Stalin by providing such a footnote, they must have felt obliged to tell the truth—something Lih apparently can’t handle.

LETTERS FROM AFAR

Notes

[1] The Pravda editors deleted about one-fifth of the first letter. The cuts concern chiefly Lenin’s characterisation of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary lenders as conciliators and flunkeys of the bourgeoisie, their attempts to hide from the people the fact that representatives of the British and French governments helped the Cadets and Octobrists secure the abdication of Nicholas II, and also Lenin’s exposure of the monarchist and imperialist proclivities of the Provisional Government, which was determined to continue the predatory war.

The third of Lih’s posts tries to square the circle by portraying the deletions as necessary since Lenin essentially went overboard. Lenin was wrong in referring to Kerensky’s “verbal republicanism” and playing the role of a balalaika. Indeed, for Lih Kerensky embodied the spirit of the evolving proletarian dictatorship:

Lenin also misapprehended Kerensky’s role: his presence in the government was not due to right-wing forces who wanted a “balalaika.” On the contrary, Kerensky was deputed by the Petrograd Soviet as its representative in the government. Lenin’s mistake about Kerensky reflected a more fundamental misapprehension about the role of the Petrograd Soviet. In his tripartite map, Lenin placed Chkheidze and Kerensky directly in the camp of the liberal opposition while portraying the Soviet as already opposed to the new government. But in fact, Chkheidze and Kerensky were leaders of the Soviet, and their political influence came from solid majority support among the soviet constituency.

Keep in mind that on March 7th, when Lenin’s first letter was written, the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet did not have a single Bolshevik member. In contrast to the Petrograd Soviet that reflected the gradualist perspective of the Mensheviks and SR’s, the Vyborg District Bolsheviks were far to their left and even, according to Alexander Rabinowitch in “Prelude to Revolution”, Lenin himself. A week before Lenin wrote his letter, they introduced a motion to the Petrograd Soviet opposing the Provisional Government and its replacement by a revolutionary government led by socialists. The Petrograd Soviet rejected this proposal.

In fact, the Petrograd Bolshevik committee was much closer to Kerensky et al than it was to their Vyborg comrades. It adopted what Rabinowitch called a “semi-Menshevik” position that urged support for the Provisional Government as long as its policies were “consistent with the interests…of the people.”

In the first half of March, Pravda was both antiwar and hostile to the Provisional Government. However, all that changed after Kamenev and Stalin became the new editors. Alexander Rabinowitch describes how the paper changed. Everybody without a vested interest in elevating Kamenev and Stalin to a status they hardly deserve will immediately understand from this why they took a blue pencil to Lenin’s letter:

Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day. Kamenev explained the mild attitude of the new Pravda editorial hoard to a meeting of the Petersburg Committee on March 18, where it met with approval.” Obviously, this position contrasted sharply with the views expressed by Lenin in his “Letters from Afar,” and it is not surprising that Pravda published only the first of these and with numerous deletions at that. Among crucial phrases censored out was Lenin’s accusation that “those who advocate that the workers support the new government in the interests of the struggle against Tsarist reaction (as do the Potresovs, Gvozdevs, Chkhenkelis, and in spite of all his inclinations, even Chkheidze [all Mensheviks] ) are traitors to the workers, traitors to the cause of the proletariat, [and] the cause of freedom.” Lenin might have applied this accusation to Kamenev and Stalin as well.

May 31, 2017

Socialism in one country revivalism

Filed under: socialism,Stalinism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

From the blog of Roland Boer, who was awarded the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2014, a decision that made about as much sense as naming Jeff Sessions Attorney General

The subtitle of a Jacobin article by New Left Review editorial board member Daniel Finn probably speaks for many on the left: “The Bolivarian Revolution went too far for capitalism but not far enough for socialism.” Like doctors examining a critically ill patient, the latest issue of the Jacobin features a panel of experts offering various cures. Favoring radical surgery is Eva Maria, a Venezuelan member of the ISO who answers the question “how socialist was Venezuela’s ‘twenty-first century socialism’” thusly:

Chávez’s thinking was that he could take over a capitalist state through an electoral process. Then, he could help foster the social revolution by using the position he held in the state. But I think that presupposes a lot of things that are unstable and untrue.

Mike Gonzalez, a former member of the British SWP that spawned the ISO, has an article in the same issue that accuses the Pink Tide governments of having “left stranded and disoriented those millions who fought for a different world”.

The methodology of Finn, Maria and Gonzalez is the one followed by film critics. You go to a press screening and take notes on all the terrible things that Michael Bay did in his latest movie. There is little doubt that Bay’s movies are crap but are the criticisms going to help young screenwriters and directors make better films? As a film critic and someone who was deeply involved in the Sandinista revolution–another that received thumbs down from the pure at heart–this sort of sideline criticism strikes me as utterly sterile.

But on a deeper level, it poses the question whether the ideological assumptions at the heart of these critics effaces one of the major theoretical challenges the left has faced since 1917—namely, can socialism be built in one country. This is exactly the meaning of the criticisms–that all of these countries should have “gone socialist”. One imagines that they came to this conclusion since Saint Lenin said it was possible in the Soviet Union but the fallen saint Leon Trotsky refused to describe the USSR in those terms even after 19 years of “socialist development”. In chapter nine of “Revolution Betrayed”, he describes the character of the USSR as not yet decided by history:

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

This was the only conceivable way to describe a country that despite the total absence of private property was indistinguishable politically and socially from fascism. For those who have been trained in Tony Cliff’s ideology, characterizing the USSR was much easier. It was “state capitalism”, a term that had little purchase outside of the ranks of the international movement he built except for individuals like CLR James who while believing in it never devoted much ink to defending it. The Cliffites never really answered the question adequately, however. If it was impossible to build socialism in one country in Russia, how in the world could Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua “go socialist”? The Sandinistas ruled over a country that had a population about the size of Brooklyn, one elevator in the entire country, and whose GDP was less than what Americans spent on blue jeans. Socialism? If the USSR with its vast resources, immense population and powerful army was not capable of building socialism, how could any of these fragile Latin and Central American nations satisfy the demanding critics?

Up until Lenin took that train ride back to Russia in 1917, he never considered Russia to be capable of building socialism. He was for a revolution against feudalism that could motivate workers in the West to overthrow capitalism. In other words, he was for a world revolution. In 1920, Lenin gave a speech on the 3rd anniversary of the revolution that categorically denied the possibility of building socialism without the USSR being linked to more advanced and liberated nations to the West:

Three years ago, when we were at Smolny, the Petrograd workers’ uprising showed us that it was more unanimous than we could have expected, but had we been told that night that, three years later, we would have what now exists, that we would have this victory of ours, nobody, not even the most incurable optimist, would have believed it. We knew at that time that our victory would be a lasting one only when our cause had triumphed the world over, and so when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution.

Just three years later, he adopted the same cautious tone in an article titled “On Cooperation” that defined socialism in the USSR as a network of peasant cooperatives similar to those that the Chavistas promoted. The big difference between the USSR and Venezuela is that the Bolsheviks “expropriated the expropriators”, a bold act that prompted a counter-revolutionary invasion that cost up to 12 million lives, most of them civilian, and $35 billion. If Chavez had followed “20th century socialism”, he would have expropriated the expropriators as well. That would have eliminated the internal threat but accelerated the external one. The USA would have wasted no time imposing crippling sanctions to make the country “cry uncle”. None of this ever enters the calculations of someone like Mike Gonzalez. It might have been thrilling to him to witness such a transformation in Venezuela even if it lasted briefly and left our movement feeling just as crushed as when Pinochet took power in 1973. We need a permanent revolution, not in the Trotskyist sense but in the sense of permanence. Capitalism achieved that kind of permanence beginning in the 15th century because it pitted a bourgeoisie that was accumulating social and economic power within the framework of medieval political institutions.

Nikolai Bukharin was very clear about the differences between the bourgeois revolution and proletarian revolutions. Marxists traditionally had believed that just as capitalism emerged out of the old feudal order, so would socialism emerge out of bourgeois society. However, as Bukharin pointed out, the bourgeoisie was not an exploited class and therefore was able to rule society long before its political revolution was effected. The workers are in a completely different position, however. They lack an independent economic base and suffer economic and cultural exploitation. Prior to its revolution, the working-class remains backward and therefore, unlike the bourgeoisie, is unable to prepare itself in advance for ruling all of society. It was only through the seizure of power and rule through a vanguard party that the workers could build socialism.

What did Karl Marx think about a revolution in Russia? Toward the end of his life, he became increasingly convinced that the country was ripe for revolution. So persuaded was he of this eventuality that he began to study Russian to keep up with the developments in the country. Just two years before his death, he began corresponding with Vera Zasulich, a one-time Narodnik who had become a Marxist. However, she had qualms about whether Russia had to go through a capitalist phase before socialism was possible, a view held by Georgi Plekhanov who was regarded as the most advanced Marxist thinker in the country.

Marx said it was not necessary and even anticipated what Lenin would state in 1923 about socialism resting on communal peasant farming: “My answer is that, thanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia, the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale.”

A year after Marx wrote this letter to Zasulich, he and Engels co-wrote a preface to a new edition to Capital that fleshed out the relationship between Russia and advanced nations in the West:

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina [commune], though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

In other words, in 1920 Lenin was simply repeating what Marx and Engels had written in 1882. If the Russian Revolution detonated revolutions in Germany, England, France et al, then a “communist development” would be possible. Marx never wrote much about what a socialist revolution would look like until 1871, when the Paris Commune became the first state ever governed by the workers themselves. Marx’s focus in his book on the Commune was not on “socialism” as much as it was about the proletariat in power. Clearly, the failure of the Commune to be replicated anywhere else in France, let alone the rest of Europe, sealed its fate. Its importance was an example of working people acting in their own interests without a ruling class. As such, it had to be destroyed. Marx ends “Civil War in France” with a judgement on its historical significance: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”

The key word is harbinger.

Yesterday, a graduate student in Tampa, Florida named Donald Parkinson replied to someone who identified Nikolai Bukharin as the inventor of the theory of socialism in one country even though it is usually attributed to Josef Stalin. Parkinson said that there were those who came before him including Karl Kautsky, something that was news to me.

I had never associated Kautsky with the theory but a brief search turned up an article titled ‘Socialism in one country’ before Stalin: German origins that is worth reading. It was written by Erik Van Ree for the June 2010 Journal of Political Ideologies that includes a sharp analysis of Kautsky, who ironically attacked Lenin for trying to build socialism in a country that was not economically advanced enough. Van Ree writes:

After Engels’s death in 1895, the editor of Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky, was widely seen as the main theoretical spokesman of ‘orthodox Marxism’. In contrast to the revisionists, he rejected German colonial and imperial ambitions. In his view, the most effective way of strengthening the country would be to expedite the transition to socialism. In a remarkable March 1897 editorial of Die Neue Zeit discussing admiral Friedrich von Hollmann’s naval programme, it was concluded that Germany was too late to become a winner in the imperialist rivalry:

If Germany wants to get ahead of richer nations, only one road is available to her, the road of a ‘social revolution, which … makes possible the creation of new productive forces that cancel out the disadvantages of the geographical situation’. Marx expressed this thought already fifty years ago … and later Lassalle gave it the formulation that the world market will belong to that nation whose working class first manages to emancipate itself. … The Weltpolitik of the big industrialists must be confronted with the proletarian Weltpolitik.

This editorial suggested not only that Germany could establish socialism on her own, but that this would even represent the desirable state of affairs; for the spread of socialism to other nations would have undone the lead socialism would have given Germany, which was the whole point of the editorial. That was however not likely the real drift of Kautsky’s thinking. More likely, he only intended to show that the socialist economic system was a solution for countries that were insufficiently able to get ahead. Nonetheless, the editorial shows that even the ‘orthodox’ Kautsky was not insensitive to the patriotic attractions of socialism in one country.

Kautsky was influenced by the spirit of the times. From the 1870s onward capitalist states had been retreating from free trade to nationalization of their economies and protectionism. Correspondingly, in the work of German social-democrats, including even of free-trade advocate Kautsky, the concept of autarky became steadily more important. In his 1892 Das Erfurter Program, Kautsky defined the socialist state as a ‘self-sufficient association [Genossenschaft]’ that must produce ‘everything it needs for its existence’, something he said all socialists agreed on. He explained that the expansion of international trade had more to do with capitalism than with real needs, and that under socialism international trade ‘will be strongly reduced’.32 To be sure, Kautsky was probably not referring to an isolated socialist state but to an international community of socialist states, each of which would be organizing its own autarkic economy.33 Nonetheless, this was a programme of socialist autarky. The book was probably the single most authoritative compendium of the SPD’s ideology for the next 25 years, so the weight of these passages should not be underestimated.

Unlike Lars Lih who has devoted so many words to rehabilitating Kautsky’s reputation, this passage reminds me why I have always seen him a bit more critically. I would go so far as to advise all my readers to see all of the classic Marxist thinkers with “warts and all”, including a patzer like me.

 

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