Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 5, 2016

Kwame Somburu, ¡Presente!

Filed under: african-american,obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Yesterday I learned that Kwame Somburu had succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. Although he was a Facebook friend for a few years, I really had no personal connections to him previously. As was the case with any number of other people I knew from a previous lifetime in the Trotskyist movement, we had reconnected in cyberspace. After spending a few hours doing some Internet research on him, I regret that I had never spent time chatting with him back in the late sixties when we were both members of the NY branch of the SWP. About a month or two after joining the party, there was an incident involving Paul Boutelle, as Kwame was known at the time, that made it into my memoir:

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It was that incident and Paul’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” that year that had always been stamped indelibly in my memory. After watching Kwame Somburu: A Conversation with a “Rabble Rouser”?, the superb interview with Paul made two years ago in Albany, NY by Kush Nuba and linked to below, I have a much better idea who he was and why I stayed in the Trotskyist movement as long as I did. It was smart and charismatic people like Paul Boutelle, his running mate Fred Halstead, and Peter Camejo that will always define the party for me—not the bizarre workerist cult I left in 1978.

Although I encourage everybody to watch the entire interview, I’d like to extract a few essential biographical points to put Kwame into context. His father was a small businessman doing radio repairs in Harlem where the family lived. From an early age, he was sensitive to racism starting with being forced to read Little Black Sambo in grade school. He has vivid memories of the people of Harlem spontaneously pouring into the streets after Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938.

In 1951 he quit high school because he was bored. He used to sit in the back row of the classroom reading a book and ignoring the teacher. Despite being a high school dropout, he had a tremendous intellectual curiosity reading everything that came his way from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to Karl Marx and Irish history, which interested him as an example of how other people can be colonized and exploited. Anything that was off the beaten track intrigued him.

As an autodidact, he was ideally suited to selling the World Book encyclopedia in the 1950s. Before there was an Internet, that’s the way that many families could do simple research without going to the library. My parents bought a copy of the Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that I read ravenously.

When Kwame wasn’t selling encyclopedias, he was driving a cab—a job he had in 1968 when I first ran into him at party headquarters. He had joined the movement three years earlier but had first run into the Trotskyists in 1960. He was walking down the street in Harlem when he spotted a couple of white guys collecting signatures to put SWP candidates on the ballot. Since he was always curious to see what out of the ordinary people were up to, he struck up a conversation with the party members. Because he had already been reading Marx, it was almost inevitable that he would end up at party headquarters even if McCarthyism lingered on. That year he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and kept loose ties to the party until he became a member 5 years later.

Kwame was one of the old-timers who left the SWP in 1983 as Jack Barnes finalized the purge of all those who resisted his bureaucratic assault on party norms and Trotskyist politics. What is striking about the interview with Kush Nuba is the sharpness of his mind and his ability to recall events from fifty years earlier in great detail. Is it possible that a lifetime of revolutionary politics can keep the mind in fighting trim? Cancer might have wreaked havoc with his body but his mind shined like a star until his last breath.

February 23, 2016

Mass resignation from Australian section of Peter Taaffe’s CWI over abuse of women members

Filed under: sexual abuse,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:51 pm

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The Committee for a Worker’s International is the aspiring Trotskyist Fourth International led by Peter Taaffe. It was one of two major groups that emerged out of Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency that had a long-term entryist presence in the British Labour Party; the other tendency is called the International Marxist Tendency and is led by Alan Woods. The CWI’s section in the USA is called Socialist Alternative and is notable for party member Kshama Sawant being elected to the Seattle City Council.

I don’t know much (anything actually) about the Australian section called the Socialist Party but the most prominent figure in the walkout is Stephen Jolly. I refer you to what Greenleft Weekly, the newspaper of the Socialist Alliance, wrote about him:

Stephen Jolly, the Socialist Party candidate for Richmond, is a high profile activist with electoral runs on the board.

He came to prominence with the campaign to reopen Richmond Secondary College in the early 1990s, and has been on the frontlines of many campaigns in Melbourne’s inner north since, including recent efforts to stop the East West Link and to defend public housing.

He was first elected to Yarra Council in 2004 with a 12% vote in his ward, and his record as a councillor fighting for working people is reflected in votes of 29% in 2008 and 34% in 2012. He received more than 9% in Richmond at the 2010 state elections.

His campaign is highly visible throughout the electorate, with numerous posters declaring the campaign slogan of “put a fighter into parliament”, “stop the East West toll road tunnel”, “cap public and private housing rents”, “plan our city for residents not developers, “free and frequent public transport”, and “protect our live music and arts culture”.

It is of course worth noting that this is pretty much a repeat of what happened to the British SWP in 2014. Does such a reoccurrence reflect a structural flaw in such “vanguard” formations? Very likely so. With so much authority vested in the top cadre that implicitly serves as the avatar of Lenin and Trotsky, there is a tendency to look the other way when cases like this develop. Keep in mind that Gerry Healy, who was the leader of the largest Trotskyist group in Britain, was expelled for preying sexually on young female members of his sect.

From Stephen Jolly’s Twitter account:

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December 22, 2015

The Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party shuts down

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

On May 15, 2015 I reported on my time in the Houston branch of the SWP that had just been closed down by the leadership in NY. If you could map the decline of the SWP in an Excel spreadsheet bar chart since the time I left 36 years ago, it would look like a Michael Roberts falling rate of profit graphic. If some vulgar Marxists predicate the growth of the radical movement as an inverse function of the FROP, this is about as good an argument against vulgarity I can think of.

A comrade who tracks the implosion of the SWP a lot closer than me reported the latest branch going under on the Yahoo group I set up just to allow former members to wisecrack and gossip about the cult. This time it was Boston. He gleaned its departure from its absence in the Militant newspaper’s directory of local distributors, which is a guide to where party branches exist. It is too soon to say whether there will be a report on its closing in the Militant as there was for the Houston branch but you can be sure that for old-timers in the party, a qualitatively bigger hole has been left in political terms. The Houston branch existed for 45 years while the Boston branch dates back to the 1920s before there was an SWP. That’s nearly a century.

Its most famous member in Boston in the early period was Doctor Antoinette Konikow, a pioneer birth control advocate at the time. She was typical of the pioneering members of James P. Cannon’s faction of the CP that agreed with Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. Her background, like Arnie Swabeck’s, reads like a CV for the American left.

As it turns out, I was a member of both of these defunct branches. I moved from NY to Boston in early 1970 and then down to Houston in 1973. Boston was both a more interesting place than Houston politically and even more so culturally. I imagine that if I had been asked to transfer to Cleveland or Detroit in 1970 rather than Boston, I would have dropped out of the SWP a lot earlier. In fact by the end of 1969 I was ready to quit because I felt alienated from a group that seemed overloaded with student government types. They might have talked about the class struggle but their behavior reminded me more of the people who ran for class president in high school, especially Jack Barnes’s classmates from Carleton College that was about as distant from Bard College culturally as Norman Rockwell was from Jackson Pollack.

The minute I hit Boston, I fell in love with the city. It had a huge energy from the student movement and was very groovy as well. I lived in Cambridge and spent my Saturday afternoons in Harvard Square shopping for books or records. But the best thing of all was having Peter Camejo as a branch organizer, the guy who influenced me politically more than any person I ever knew. So you can blame him for my errant ways.

The excerpt about Boston from my graphic memoir that is printed below falls under the rights afforded me under established Fair Use provisions.

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November 8, 2015

Assessing John Marot

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

John Marot

Although I am at somewhat of a disadvantage not having read Paul LeBlanc’s new biography of Leon Trotsky, my interest was piqued by John Marot’s review on the Jacobin website titled “Assessing Trotsky“. Marot teaches history at Keimyung University in Korea and like most of Jacobin’s contributors is an academic leftist. So is LeBlanc for that matter but he at least had the benefit of being trained in Trotsky’s ideas by men and women who had been mostly involved with building a revolutionary movement, even if it was undone by Trotsky’s poor understanding of party-building.

As a distinct oddity, Marot’s earlier article “Political Marxism and the October Revolution” can be downloaded from Academia.edu. Marot, one of Robert Brenner’s students at UCLA, raises the possibility that if Leon Trotsky had been a Political Marxist, the battle against Stalinism would have been more successfully waged. In my view, if Trotsky made the belief that capitalism arose in the British countryside a sine qua non for Marxism, he never would have been a leader of the Russian Revolution to begin with. More likely, he would have had a university post and given talks to the equivalent of HM conferences back then.

Marot’s Jacobin article covers three areas:

  1. Permanent Revolution
  2. Socialism in One Country
  3. The Russian Question

Let me now take them up.

Marot takes issue with the idea that the theory of permanent revolution had flowed organically from prior Marxist analysis:

Far from being original or innovative, Le Blanc holds that Trotsky’s perspectives flowed “naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself.” However, there are reasons to doubt this.

Trotsky’s perspectives on the Russian Revolution were unique. No one else shared them — not Marx, not Lenin, not Luxemburg, not Kautsky, not Parvus, not Riazanov, not Mehring — even though all were intimately familiar with Marxist methodology.

Though Le Blanc argues otherwise, there was only one version of permanent revolution — Trotsky’s. No one else adhered to Trotsky’s analysis of the coming Russian Revolution: that only workers could overthrow Tsarism and that as a result the democratic revolution in Russia would have to be a proletarian-socialist one, not a “bourgeois-democratic” one.

Isn’t Marot aware that it was Marx himself who coined the term permanent revolution and that even though it was applied to Germany could have easily applied to Russia as well? This is from the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League in London, March 1850:

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.

You can find the same sorts of formulations in the 1848 article “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution“:

The German bourgeoisie developed so sluggishly, timidly and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw menacingly pitted against itself the proletariat and all sections of the middle class whose interests and ideas were related to those of the proletariat.

Furthermore, late in life Marx corresponded with Russian populists who were moving in his direction, the very same people who were troubled by a tendency in a more orthodox Marxism that posited the need for a capitalist stage prior to socialism. This was the view of Plekhanov, Kautsky and Lenin, who considered himself a disciple of the two “stagist” theoreticians.

In letters to Zasulich, Marx urged a struggle to preserve the Russian peasant communes, an economic institution that both predated capitalism and that was threatened by it. In the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels came pretty close to formulating their own version of permanent revolution:

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, 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.

Marx and Engels of course did not have the same exact perspective that Trotsky had in 1905 for the simple reason that Russia had not achieved the same level of industrialization. That being said, it strikes me as pretty obvious that Trotsky was simply extending an analysis that could be found in the writings of Marx and Engels to begin with. If you advocate “the common ownership of land” in Russia in 1882, there’s little possibility that you will be mistaken for Plekhanov.

Turning now to the question of “Socialism in One Country”, Marot faults Trotsky for not siding with the Right Opposition to Stalin in the late 1920s. Since Trotsky was supposedly a diehard enemy of the kulaks and an advocate of rapid industrialization, it was inevitable that Stalin, who appeared superficially to be adopting the Left Opposition program even if he was imposing it bureaucratically, made a sucker out of Trotsky. Marot writes:

Trotsky’s view of the Right Opposition as capitalist-roaders was fantasy. So was his view that Stalin was a centrist, perpetually tossed now to the right, now to left, and incapable of striking out on his own to become the head of a new ruling class. He never came to terms with his utterly mistaken appraisal of Stalin’s politics, itself founded on a profoundly erroneous analysis of the bureaucracy as a non-class phenomenon, a “caste.” This confounds Le Blanc’s assertion that Trotsky always admitted to errors of political judgment.

Trying to sort out the inner-party fights of the 1920s is easy to do in 2015. Hindsight is always 20/20. However, little good would have come out of Trotsky aligning with the Right Opposition since by 1927 at least, the Soviet Union’s political arena had been strangled to death. Whether you were a Rightist like Tomsky or Bukharin, or a Leftist like Trotsky, you simply could not get a hearing. The bureaucracy had lined up behind Stalin and would be ready to follow his every twist and turn. When a united opposition to Stalin emerged that consisted of all the Old Bolsheviks who believed in party democracy whatever their differences about economic policy, it was scattered to the wind by goons beholden to Stalin.

John Marot turns these fights into something like a debate at an HM Conference when in fact they had much more in common with “The Sopranos” on HBO.

Finally, on the “Russian Question”, Marot complains that Trotsky had a sectarian tendency that weakened the left:

Trotsky made a litmus test of the “Russian Question” in his dispute with Max Shachtman, leading to a split in the American Socialist Workers Party in 1939-40 and, later, abroad as well. Trotsky’s actions — which Shachtman thought were sectarian — made even more difficult the SWP’s already fiendishly difficult struggle to gain a foothold, however modest, in the American labor movement.

I quite agree with this. Over twenty years ago I came to similar conclusions:

Soon after the split from the SP and the formation of the Socialist Workers Party, a fight broke out in the party over the character of the Soviet Union. Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and James Burnham led one faction based primarily in New York. It stated that the Soviet Union was no longer a worker’s state and it saw the economic system there as being in no way superior to capitalism. This opposition also seemed to be less willing to oppose US entry into WWII than the Cannon group, which stood on Zimmerwald “defeatist” orthodoxy.

Shachtman and Abern were full-time party workers with backgrounds similar to Cannon’s. Burnham was a horse of a different color. He was an NYU philosophy professor who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He reputedly would show up at party meetings in top hat and tails, since he was often on the way to the opera.

Burnham became the paradigm of the whole opposition, despite the fact that Shachtman and Abern’s family backgrounds were identical to Cannon’s. Cannon and Trotsky tarred the whole opposition with the petty- bourgeois brush. They stated that the workers would resist war while the petty-bourgeois would welcome it. It was the immense pressure of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia outside the SWP that served as a source for these alien class influences. Burnham was the “Typhoid Mary” of these petty-bourgeois germs.

However, it is simply wrong to set up a dichotomy between some kind of intrinsically proletarian opposition to imperialist war and petty-bourgeois acceptance of it. The workers have shown themselves just as capable of bending to imperialist war propaganda as events surrounding the Gulf War show. The primarily petty-bourgeois based antiwar movement helped the Vietnamese achieve victory. It was not coal miners or steel workers who provided the shock-troops for the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980’s. It was lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, Maryknoll nuns, and aspiring circus clowns like the martyred Ben Linder who did.

The only thing I would add is that NYU Marxist professors have always been suspect. Back in Burnham’s day it was the philosophy department, now it is the sociology department. My recommendation is to young people seeking to become revolutionaries is to avoid graduate school entirely. A PhD will only serve to earn you an adjunct position or a miserable life as an expatriate teaching in someplace like South Korea. You are better off teaching high school or being a web developer. Not only will you be able to avoid food stamps, you’ll have your self-respect.

November 1, 2015

Going into industry

Filed under: Trotskyism,workers — louisproyect @ 9:05 pm

As I pointed out in my last post that excerpted Vivian Gornick’s poignant and politically astute “The Romance of American Communism”, I was struck when I read it in the early 80s by how much the CP experience was like our own. This was particularly true of the “turn to industry” that began in 1977. As you will see in the excerpt from Gornick below, both the CP and the SWP used the same jargon. Can you imagine how much stupidity was involved in using the term “colonize” to describe what we did? As if we were missionaries going into the Congo to convert the natives? In fact the passage below refers to conversion three times. We never used that term ourselves (and for all I know the CP did not either) but it certainly describes what we were about. We “went into industry” to sell subscriptions to our stupid newspaper just like Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door, not to participate in labor struggles which were far and few between. But at least if you were in the CP, you got involved in living struggles. For that matter, the SWP’ers had the same experience in the 1930s and 40s. However, in 1977 the chances were slim that such an experience could be repeated—a function of the low ebb in the class struggle as well as our own ineptitude.

Going into Industry

“GOING into industry” (otherwise known in ironic Party parlance as “colonizing”) is the phrase used to describe the Communist Party’s practice during the Thirties, Forties, and early Fifties of sending Party organizers out to take up jobs as workers in the factories, plants, laboratories, and offices of America for the purpose of educating workers to class consciousness, converting them to socialism, and recruiting them into the Communist Party. Over nearly a quarter of a century thousands of American Communists spent the greater portion of their adult working lives “in industry.” The collective history of the life and work of these CP “colonizers” is one of glory and sorrow.

While for the most part they did not convert American workers to socialism, and certainly they did not recruit them in any significant numbers into the Communist Party, they most certainly did exert tremendous influence on the growth of worker consciousness in this country and contributed vastly to the development of the American labor movement. Throughout the Thirties and Forties, wherever major struggles were taking place between American labor and American capital, it was almost a given that CP organizers were involved. In the fields of California, in the auto plants of Flint, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, in the mines of West Virginia, in the electrical plants of Schenectady: they were there. They fought for the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, worker compensation, health and welfare insurance. And for one glorious moment—during the brief life of the CIO —they brought genuine worker politics to the American labor movement. What happened to many of the organizers, in fact, was that while they were unable to convert the nation’s workers to socialism, they themselves became gifted American trade unionists.

Karl Millens is fifty years old. He was raised in The Coops, named for Karl Marx, and was for twenty-three years a member of the Communist Party. Between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven he worked in industrial plants all over the Midwest on assignment for the CP. Today, Karl is an instructor in political science in a small community college in the New York area. He has written one book he was unable to get published and is now at work on a second. Publication, he says, is really a minor concern for him; he is happiest when sitting at the typewriter.

“The typewriter,” Karl says, holding out his large, well-shaped hands, “is a machine that fits my hands. The machines I used when I worked in the plant, they never fit my hands. They never felt natural to me, the way the typewriter does ”

Karl Millens is not bitter about his life as a Communist, but he is a sad man. He is divorced, estranged from many of his old friends, lives in a shabby one-room apartment in lower Manhattan, works at a low-paying, intellectually unrewarding job, and seems continually to be repressing a tide of emotional bewilderment that threatens daily to engulf him. It is visibly difficult for him to talk about the past. He is intelligent enough to know that if he could make sense of the past he would live more easily in the present, but he seems to have no confidence in the notion that he ever can make sense of the past. On this cold December night, however, he tries, he tries.

“Growing up in The Coops . . .” he begins vaguely. He passes a hand wearily across his wide forehead grown wider by virtue of a receding hairline. “It was like growing up in a hothouse. We were the hothouse kids of the Left. And like all creatures of the hothouse, we bloomed more intensely, more radiantly, precisely because the atmosphere was artificial. You know, in a very real sense America was a foreign country to us. Electoral politics meant nothing to us. But for weeks before May Day every wall, every storefront, every lamp post in the neighborhood was plastered with ‘All Out May One.’ And on the day itself the local grade school was empty. That was our election day, our July Fourth, our Hannukah, and our Christmas.

“I think almost every other Communist in America was more realistically involved with the country than we were. And more realistically involved with how they could best serve Communism in America than we were We grew up inside a language and a culture that was so dense, so insular, and finally so abstract. It’s incredible, when I think of it. We were all working class. Now, most working-class Communists didn’t romanticize working. But we, having grown up inside the theoretical jargon of Marxist-Leninist thought, adopted the stance of middle-class Party intellectuals and conceived our mission as revolutionaries to join the proletariat as fast as possible. No matter that we really were half-way to being intellectuals, that we felt at home only talking theory, ‘going into industry’ was all most of us dreamed of from the time we were teenagers.

“God! That language. This was supposed to be a movement of liberation, but every time I turned around I felt more and more constricted. Constricted by my language, which was either acceptable or nonacceptable. Constricted by my actions, which were definitely either acceptable or nonacceptable. Books I should or should not be reading, thoughts I should or should not be having. .. The Marxist-Leninist jargon was supposed to be evidence of high intelligence. But I found it put to uses of intimidation, and finally I felt it evidenced more a fear of life than it did of genuinely high intelligence. I remember when I left my wife and went into psychotherapy, I felt like a light had gone on inside my head. I saw a shape to my life I had not imagined before. When I tried to tell my oldest friend in the Party some of the things that were happening inside me, he talked to me as though I were counterrevolutionary vermin, fit only to be isolated in a laboratory or—under the right, the correct regime—taken out and shot. But all that came later, much later, these realizations of mine. First, I had to put in seventeen years in industry, serving the revolution around the corner.

“What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into. I discovered very quickly I had no talent—repeat none—for organizing, for unionizing, for negotiating. I was slow-witted, clumsy on the uptake, half the time I didn’t know what the hell was going on around me. When a real, a natural organizer arose among the men, not only did I see how far away I was from the action, I couldn’t even encourage the guy in a radical direction. I’d open my mouth and out would come, I’m sure, I can hardly remember now what I said, some Marxist-Leninist formula The guy would just stare at me, shake his head, and walk away. I know he liked me, but I’m also sure he thought I was retarded. “I know that many people who went into industry were terrific organizers and turned out to be great trade unionists. But I have a feeling not too many of them came from The Coops.”


October 27, 2015

The Romance of American Trotskyism

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

I am currently reading Vivian Gornick’s “Romance of American Communism”, a book that was written in 1974 and that I first read about 5 years later, not long after dropping out of the SWP. I am rereading it for a review in “Revolutionary History”, a British journal put out by people with mostly a Trotskyist past like me. When I first read Gornick’s book, I was struck by how much their experience was like mine—leaving aside the ideology. When I came across this excerpt, I was reminded of that. Substitute the word “Militant” for “Worker” and “Socialist Workers Party” for “Communist” and it pretty much describes our world, especially when I was going door to door in Harlem housing projects in the late 1960s selling subscriptions to the Militant.

* * * *

Sarah Gordon clutches her head and moans: “My God! How I hated selling the Worker! I used to stand in front of the neighbor-hood movie on a Saturday night with sickness and terror in my heart, thrusting the paper at people who’d turn away from me or push me or even spit in my face I dreaded it. Every week of my life for years I dreaded Saturday night. And then canvassing! An-other horror. A lady would shut the door in my face before I’d gotten three words out—and if she was a socialist she’d slain the door—and I’d stand there sick. I’d tell myself a thousand times: It’s not your face she’s shutting out. .. God, I felt annihilated. But I did it, I did it. I did it because if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t face my comrades the next day. And we all did it for the same reason: we were accountable to each other. It was each other we’d be betraying if we didn’t push down the gagging and go do it. You know, people never understand that. They say to us, `The Communist Party held a whip over you.’ They don’t understand. The whip was inside each of us, we held it over ourselves, not over each other.”

For countless people, ringing doorbells or handing out the Worker was an agony but, as Sarah says, the Party and all the people in it had become a source of moral accounting to each of them. Sarah, during her years in the Party, would have done any-thing that was demanded of her—up to and including going to jail—because not to have done so would have been to become a pariah in her own eyes. The same was true for Ben Saltzman and Selma Gardinsky and Diana Michaels, as well as Jim Holbrook and Paul Levinson and Mason Goode.

Beyond and connected up with the moral accounting lay the in-credibly concrete vision of “the revolution around the corner” most Communists carried within themselves during the Thirties and Forties. Selma Gardinsky describes how when she first joined the Party in New York, the leader of her branch took her for a walk one day around New York’s Central Park. “Do you see those fancy, beautiful houses?” he demanded, waving his hand in the direction of Central Park West. “Workers built them with their blood and bones,” he railed, “but do workers live in them? No!” But, the branch organizer assured Selma, the revolution would correct all this. “When?” Selma asked. “In ten years,” the organizer replied calmly. Years later, Selma adds, she met this same organizer in Washington at a demonstration to save the Rosenbergs. “It’s been a long ten years,” Selma said.

Blossom Sheed tells a similar story about a well-known Left lawyer who in a court case during the Thirties said nonchalantly in court: “Everyone knows the revolution is around the corner.” During a recess someone from the Party said to the lawyer: That was an error We never say that.” The lawyer went back into court and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I was in error this morning. I said the revolution was just around the corner. The revolution probably won’t come for another ten years.”

But he didn’t really believe that. He believed the revolution was around the corner. And most Communists did. The sense of political time was so urgent people could taste it in their mouths. Fascism abroad, the New Deal at home, socialism surging up all over the world, Edgar Snow coming back from China, announcing, “There, too!” Every twenty-four hours seemed to send the pulse of the world racing toward Marxist revolution. The worse things got in Europe, the better it seemed for imminent socialist explosion. . . .

And the wholeness of the CP world was so complete, so deeply felt, that it was impossible not to believe it capable of making the revolution not in some unforeseeable future but right now, today, tomorrow, certainly within one’s own lifetime. That wholeness: its depth, its dimension, its utter circularity are almost impossible to describe. Very nearly, one had to have lived through it to understand its holding powers.


October 19, 2015

Bringing out the dead in Kansas City

Filed under: cults,humor,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

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Yesterday the NY Times ran an article that reminded me of why the paper is so indispensable even if it is easy (and true) to dismiss it as the voice of the liberal wing of the ruling class. It was a long and thoroughly researched piece on how city employees clean up after the corpses of isolated individuals whose deaths remain unannounced except for the stench of their decomposing bodies:

They found him in the living room, crumpled up on the mottled carpet. The police did. Sniffing a fetid odor, a neighbor had called 911. The apartment was in north-central Queens, in an unassertive building on 79th Street in Jackson Heights.

The apartment belonged to a George Bell. He lived alone. Thus the presumption was that the corpse also belonged to George Bell. It was a plausible supposition, but it remained just that, for the puffy body on the floor was decomposed and unrecognizable. Clearly the man had not died on July 12, the Saturday last year when he was discovered, nor the day before nor the day before that. He had lain there for a while, nothing to announce his departure to the world, while the hyperkinetic city around him hurried on with its business.

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Imagine the training in journalism school it took for the reporters to come up with the telling details about the men who came in to examine the dead man’s apartment and what they saw:

Mr. Plaza had been a data entry clerk before joining his macabre field in 1994; Mr. Rodriguez had been a waiter and found his interest piqued in 2002.

What qualified someone for the job? Ms. Rosenblatt, the head of the office, summed it up: “People willing to go into these disgusting apartments.”

The two men foraged through the unedited anarchy, 800 square feet, one bedroom. A stench thickened the air. Mr. Plaza dabbed his nostrils with a Vicks vapor stick. Mr. Rodriguez toughed it out. Vicks bothered his nose.

The only bed was the lumpy foldout couch in the living room. The bedroom and bathroom looked pillaged. The kitchen was splashed with trash and balled-up, decades-old lottery tickets that had failed to deliver. A soiled shopping list read: sea salt, garlic, carrots, broccoli (two packs), “TV Guide.”

The faucet didn’t work. The chipped stove had no knobs and could not have been used to cook in a long time.

Frankly, I find this reportage ten times more compelling than anything on the NY Times Fiction Best Sellers list especially since it reminds me of the grizzly encounter I had with such an incident when I was living in Kansas City in 1978 in my final days with the Socialist Workers Party cult.

I was living on the ground floor of an old house that had been converted into a multiple occupancy building at the time and working for the United Missouri Bank. At nights I was taking classes in lathe and milling machines at a vocational high school so I could acquire the necessary skills to “go into industry”. It was a last-ditch effort to stay in the party. The whole experience evoked hanging from the edge of a cliff while someone stomps on your fingers.

One afternoon I came home from work and was stunned to see a fire truck and police cars on the street in front of my building. A ladder was resting on the side just underneath an immense hole in the wall as if someone had used a wrecking ball to get into the apartment above mine.

As I got out of my car and began walking down the front walk, my super—an affable Chicano whose name I don’t recall—came up to give me the news. The man who lived upstairs and who weighed over 600 pounds had died of a heart attack. When the cops came, they found his body simply too massive to move through the apartment and down the stairs. So they called the fire department that had the necessary equipment to carve a hole out of the side of the building and use a cherry picker to hoist his corpse to the ground.

My poor super, just like the men profiled in the Times article, had to clean up after the dead man’s remains. He told me that he had only figured out that someone had died after a smell had wafted out from beneath the door. I guess I was so preoccupied with cult life that I managed to overlook it.

But once I was apprised of the man’s death, I could not get pass the smell, which was a mixture of the remains of the rotting flesh and the heavy-duty disinfectant that the super had used. At night I laid in bed pondering over my future in the SWP as the smell from upstairs played counterpoint to my brooding.

This was just the latest incident in a life marked by the macabre and the pathetic on one side and the comically absurd on the other. I tried to capture all this in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar even as some idiots in the ISO tried to understand it terms of the typical revolutionary memoir. I was doing Pekar and they expected something that a sectarian would write filled with boring anecdotes about fighting the cops and making speeches to the masses, like Tariq Ali’s dreary “Street Fighting Man”.

For those interested in what it was like in Kansas City in the tail-end of a futile exercise in revolutionary politics, I invite you to read this excerpt from my memoir that I reproduce here under the provisions of Fair Use legislation.

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May 15, 2015

My days in Houston on assignment for the Socialist Workers Party

Filed under: Texas,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

In the May 4th issue of the Militant, there’s a peculiar article but probably not that much more peculiar than many that have appeared there in recent years, as the tiny cult enters its death throes.

Titled “SWP’s 45 years of rich political history in Texas”, it gives the impression that the party is stronger than ever even though the article is basically a farewell to Texas:

“We can join in increasing labor resistance today,” Warshell said, “like the strike by Steelworkers in area oil refineries and widespread proletarian struggles against police brutality. There are new openings for communists today to build our movement and recruit.

“We’re leaving Houston and closing the branch here,” he said, “but as the class struggle deepens and the party grows, we will be back.”

Increasing labor resistance and leaving Houston? How do these two things go together? Who knows? Who cares?

The SWP once did have a remarkable presence in Houston and the rest of Texas that is referred to briefly:

The SWP and Young Socialist Alliance in Texas grew out of the fight against Washington’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s, said Joel Britton, an SWP leader from Oakland, California. Party branches were built in both Houston and Austin.

As a result of the party’s growing public presence, it became a target of the Ku Klux Klan, as were Black rights’ fighters, anti-war activists, and KPFT, the local Pacifica radio station.

“Houston’s KKK operated with true impunity, tied in with the police force, the sheriff’s department,” and other parts of the so-called justice system, Britton said.

“One of the high points in the fight against Klan attacks was when Debbie Leonard, SWP candidate for mayor in 1971, debated a top Klan leader — not once but twice,” Britton said.

But most of the article is the standard recitation of the party’s “turn to industry” that in fact has left it not only incapable of continuing in Texas but has sealed its doom everywhere else. In a normal organization, there would be feedback mechanisms to allow it to reverse course but in this bizarre cult that is led by someone more than a bit tetched, there is no turning back.

I arrived in Houston in the winter of 1973 in order to help organize a faction fight against a sizable minority in the branch that supported the Ernest Mandel-led wing of the Fourth International that supported guerrilla warfare in Latin America. After a year or so in Houston, the sixties radicalization began to disappear before our very eyes as we scrambled around for new sources of recruitment. It was around this time when I began to feel more and more alienated from the party and its stifling peer pressure both socially and politically that the thoughts of dropping out began to take shape. I only regret that I hung around for another four years.

In any case, you will see the pages from my unpublished memoir about the time I spent in Houston. As is always the case, I am free to post this material under the provisions of fair use legislation, plus rights afforded me as the copyrighted author of the text and the full permission of the artist to circulate the memoir.

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March 29, 2015

On the SWP’s turn toward Israel

Filed under: cults,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

SWP leader Norton Sandler: “There is no Zionist movement today”

I had quite a few misgivings about writing this article since the SWP of the USA is such a minor player. Yet its Zionist evolution is of such a shocking nature and because so many ex-members—including me—have been so perplexed by it that I finally decided to put something together.

I very rarely write about this group nowadays but at one time it mattered a lot more to me. I was a member from 1967 to 1978 and at the time I left it had about 1500 members. Now it has around a hundred or so mostly aging (like me) cadre. I maintain a mailing list on the group at Yahoo that was originally designed to shunt discussions about it from ex-members off of Marxmail that really didn’t need to be burdened by such trivia. Ninety percent of our subscribers have no idea what the SWP was, even if at one time it was the apple of Leon Trotsky’s eye.

The Militant newspaper article that prompted this response appeared in the April 6th edition that was posted to their website yesterday. Titled “Israel vote marks political openings for workers, Arabs”, it celebrates Bibi Netanyahu’s election:

A strong vote for the Likud Party in the March 17 Israeli elections ensures the next government will continue to be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The results reflect concerns of working people there that U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy makes the threat of attacks from Iran and the reactionary Islamist Hamas forces that rule Gaza more likely.

If you read these sentences in isolation, you’d think you had stumbled across a NY Post or WSJ editorial except for the boilerplate reference to “working people”. A subsequent paragraph under the subheading “Views from the Left” is even more ghastly:

Virtually the entire U.S. and Israeli petty-bourgeois left holds the view that a Netanyahu victory proves working people in Israel are hopelessly reactionary. Some were dismayed, others overjoyed at the result.

Gideon Levy, a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, heaped scorn on working people, writing that the election showed “the nation must be replaced,” and called for “general elections to choose a new Israeli people — immediately.”

The Times published a column March 18 by Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which supports the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel. “The biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel,” Munayyer wrote. “It can’t and it won’t.”

He said he was glad, because if Netanyahu had lost, their boycott efforts would have been weakened.

Supporters of the boycott say it’s aimed at forcing Tel Aviv to end its control of the West Bank and its embargo of Gaza. But the campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map.

Now there are some good people on the left who oppose the BDS campaign, like Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky but the SWP is coming from a different place altogether. The notion that the “campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map” is not the sort of thing you’d hear from Norman Finkelstein. Rather it reeks of Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz and Abraham Foxman.

When I was a member, the SWP was probably the most consistent defender of Palestinian rights on the left, with former left-Zionist group member Peter Buch a tireless speaker and writer of books such as “Burning Issues of the Mideast Crisis”. You can still see some anti-Zionist books on sale at Pathfinder such as Dave Frankel and Will Reissner’s “War Against the Palestinian People” but their analysis is at odds—obviously–with the current line of this sect. What you would expect from a group that has changed its line by 180 degrees is some explanation but none has been forthcoming. Of course, this is the norm for Stalinist parties but not one founded to promote Trotskyism. The adoption of such bureaucratic norms was completed a long time ago in the SWP even as it continues to pay lip service to Leninist norms.

By some standards, the SWP is even more egregious in dumping long-hold positions sans explanation than the CPUSA. Only four years ago the Militant posted excerpts from a document written by cult leader Jack Barnes for the 2006 convention that stated:

What the Israeli rulers are seeking to impose in order to consolidate Israel within borders of their own choosing is not a “peace process,” as it’s dubbed by liberals in the big-business media. It’s the consolidation of an Israel still based on the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian majority, together with the “right of return” of those of Jewish parentage—and only those of such parentage.

Only four years later, the Militant defends that “right of return”:

The point of the Law of Return, a key aspect of Israeli law since its founding, is not to foster religion, but to guarantee a safe haven for those facing Jew-hatred around the world.

That’s from another abysmal article titled “Debate flares in Israel over bill to set exclusive national rights for Jews” that appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue, one that also claims that Israel is “the most secular country in the Middle East”, a formulation that is associated with the Israel lobby. Israel is also flattered as the most democratic:

The 1948 declaration also promised Arab residents “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” While Israel was created through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws are widely used today by Arab citizens to fight discrimination in jobs, housing and government services, and for the exercise of political rights.

Palestinians see it differently. In a document titled “History of the Palestinians in Israel” published by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the authors state:

Israel never sought to assimilate or integrate the Palestinian population, treating them as second-class citizens and excluding them from public life and the public sphere. The state practiced systematic and institutionalized discrimination in all areas, such as land dispossession and allocation, education, language, economics, culture, and political participation. Successive Israeli governments maintained tight control over the community, attempting to suppress Palestinian/Arab identity and to divide the community within itself. To that end, Palestinians are not defined by the state as a national minority despite UN Resolution 181 calling for such; rather they are referred to as “Israeli Arabs,” “non-Jews,” or by religious affiliation.

In light of this, it is most telling that the Militant article refers to Arab citizens rather than Palestinians.

So what do we make of all this, a question more pressing for ex-members like me who not only spoke numerous times on Israel and the Palestinians at public meetings (my family was very pro-Zionist) but devoted time and money to an organization that we saw as principled and fearless on the Middle East.

The turn toward Israel seems to have begun with a spate of articles in 2006 that took up the question of “Jew-hatred”, a term the sect prefers to anti-Semitism even if it has no currency outside their circles. It was linked with some accuracy to a number of articles that had begun to appear blaming the Israel lobby for promoting a foreign policy that was inimical to American interests—the kind of article associated with realpolitik academics like Mearsheimer and Walt. Needless to say, such articles don’t constitute an ‘existential threat’ to Jews as if they could lead to concentration camps and all the rest. But you wouldn’t know that from hysterical articles such as “More middle-class radicals promote Jew-hatred”  that appeared in the May 15, 2006 Militant:

The dangerous logic of such arguments peddling Jew hatred (to say “anti-Semitism” would be putting it mildly) should not be lost on working people. Such conspiracy theories have been the stock-in-trade of ultrarightists and fascists—mortal enemies of the working class and its allies. Petras’s arguments also point to the political evolution of many middle-class “socialists” like him.

But this was just the opening act in the farce that would follow. In 2009 a startling article appeared under the title “’Zionism,’ its use today, not in 1948” by Norton Sandler. He blithely assures his readers that Zionism existed once upon a time but no longer:

The Palestinian population in the West Bank and in Gaza is approaching 4 million. Faced with these demographic trends, the majority of the Israeli ruling class has given up the dream of a “Greater Israel.” They are forced to opt for what they consider the only pragmatic solution—maintaining a majority Jewish state within borders of their own choosing. This is hardly the Zionist movement’s dream of an Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

This is really atrocious given the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Since the Jordan River is the eastern border of the West Bank, does anybody doubt that Israel’s goal is to expand settlements throughout the West Bank until it is effectively part of Greater Israel or whatever it is called? Sandler’s article serves as Zionist propaganda. Make no mistake about it.

Just a little background on Sandler’s article. He first used the formulation of Zionism not existing today in a talk he gave to a gathering of the SWP’s co-religionists in London. This prompted a letter to the paper by Joaquin Bustelo, a former member:

I think the position expressed by Norton Sandler in the Militant that “There is no Zionist movement today” is mistaken. This reactionary European colonial-settler national movement still exists, and has as its maximum expression the state of Israel, as well as organized expressions in other countries in the form of groups to organize or lobby for aid to Israel and so on.

Unfortunately, Sandler’s statement leads him to further say that Zionism “has become an epithet … a synonym for ‘Jew’ that helps fuel Jew-hatred.” This is a completely unwarranted concession to those who say any criticism or opposition to the state of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.

Finally, while the Militant projects a “perspective” of a united struggle by all working people in the region for a democratic, secular Palestine, that cannot be a substitute for expressing unconditional solidarity with and support to the just national struggle of the Palestinian people, something which unfortunately is not mentioned in the article.

Joaquín Bustelo
Atlanta, Georgia

Of course, the Militant dropped the demand for a democratic, secular Palestine not too long after this letter appeared.

So how did this all happen? Is Israel paying off Jack Barnes, the cult leader? I doubt that any sensible state power would waste its money, especially on a bizarre sect that exists on the fringes of American politics.

The explanation is social in nature—or to put it another way, the lack of a social foundation. Groups on the left to one extent or another reflect social pressures. For example, the French Trotskyist movement in 1968 adapted to the ultraleft student movement. The CP in the USA adapts to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It is through social interaction with a broader milieu that such parties formulate strategy and tactics. When a party’s social base is progressive, such as the Bolshevik’s in 1917, the results are salutary. When, however, it rests on a questionable social base such was the case of the Second International and the trade union bureaucracy in 1914, the results are disastrous.

Apart from such considerations there is the world of tiny sects that have no social base such as the SWP or the Socialist Equity Party or the Spartacist League. They tend to have a relationship to a great genius whose ideas are fairly unpredictable. It is worth mentioning that the SWP’s politics are far more capricious than the other two groups for the simple reason that its leader seems more unmoored from a stable base such as was the case with Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”.

Extending the flight metaphor a bit further, the membership of the SWP put itself in the hands of a pilot who was as mad in his own way as Andreas Lubitz. While nobody has died as a result of their membership in the SWP, it is hard to argue with the proposition that the party’s wreckage is strewn across the ground as a result of the megalomania and flawed analyses of its potentate.

January 24, 2015

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

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

A Revolutionary Joy Ride Through History


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

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

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