Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 13, 2017

The death agony of the Socialist Workers Party

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

barnes

Jack Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognition of Israel key for toilers in Mideast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 22, 2016

Arash Azizi: After Trotskyism, what? Some personal thoughts

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

(Posted on Facebook originally)

ARASH AZIZI·WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2016

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

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

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

My Trotskyist Experience

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

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

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

Basis of unity — the problem of sectarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) A history of failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) McDonald Internationalism

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

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

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

4) Basic questions of strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is to be done?

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

And what of the way forward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 8, 2016

October 30, 2016

Suzanne Haig Memorial Meeting

Filed under: obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Suzanne Haig (1946-2016)

Yesterday I attended a memorial meeting for ex-SWPer Suzanne Haig at the Greater Astoria Historical Society in Queens. Except for friends and relatives, the attendees were mostly ex-members like me. I really didn’t know Suzanne except by reputation from when I was in the party long ago. I was there mostly out of respect to Gus Horowitz, her husband and former leader of the SWP as well as curiosity about who she was.

When I joined the party in 1967, I always found Gus much more approachable than other leaders who adopted a kind of icy manner found especially in people like Larry Siegel and Joel Britton. In his remarks to the gathering, it was obvious that he had found Suzanne to be a kindred spirit as the two hit it off from the start 30 years ago and stayed together until her death. In 2013, they decided to make it legal and tied the knot. A few months later she learned that she had cancer of the pancreas, one of the deadliest forms.

I only knew Suzanne as someone who always greeted me with a smile and a hello when I bumped into her and Gus at some event. After the memorial meeting concluded, I regret not having known her better.

Ironically, the meeting was chaired by Cliff Conner who was thrown out of a memorial meeting for Eva Chertov held in 2011. She had remained a member (or perhaps a sympathizer) of the SWP until her death. Cliff wrote an account of the ejection that I posted on my blog:

Now, everything that had been said to me before that point had been said with gentle smiles and voices as sweet as maple syrup.  They didn’t want a scene, and making a stink is not my shtick, so after the absurdity of the whole thing had sunk in, I was ready to leave.  But when I started to go back in to get Marush, a woman (whose face I remembered from the old days, but whose name I couldn’t recall) stopped me and said, very gravely, “We can escort you out, if you prefer.”  The iron fist in the velvet glove!

“Well, I’m not leaving without my wife,” I replied.

“Wait here. We’ll go get her.

Now we can understand why they might have wanted to keep Cliff out. Since he had been expelled for upholding Trotskyism in the early 80s, they might have worried that he would jump up during the middle of a eulogy and called right then and there for a debate on permanent revolution. Or who knows what they thought. They are batshit crazy.

If anything, they have gotten even crazier over the past five years. Nelson Blackstock was an old friend and comrade of Cliff’s from Atlanta who joined around the same time as him and me. Unlike Cliff, Nelson never had any political differences and only resigned out of general exhaustion like so many others during the party’s inexorable decline. Nelson had been particularly close to Harry and Priscilla Ring who were in their fifties when he and I joined and they treated Nelson like a son. I never knew the Rings all that well but their closeness to Nelson was all I needed to donate dozens of blues records to Harry when I was switching over to CD’s.

When Priscilla Ring died in January 2016, Nelson called party headquarters to find out where the memorial meeting was to be held. They told him that he was excluded from the meeting just like his old friend Cliff Conner had been 5 years earlier. Nelson’s sin? I guess it was being friends with me, who is regarded as Satan incarnate by Jack Barnes, the cult leader.

Getting back to more inspiring matters (and what true camaraderie means), the speakers described Suzanne as a committed revolutionary until the day she died. I learned that she joined the movement as a graduate student at the University of Chicago because of the war in Vietnam, just as was the case for me when I was dodging the draft at the New School.

Based in Chicago for an extended period, she made the transition to the woman’s liberation movement after the war ended and took on major responsibilities for the ERA and abortions rights movement.

In 1976 she ran for Governor of Illinois and afterwards moved to New York to begin writing for the Militant newspaper when Nelson Blackstock was the editor. As a Militant reporter (I assume), she traveled to Poland with Ernest Harsch to meet with Solidarity members. Speaking briefly but with great effectiveness, Harsch commented on the meeting they had with a young Polish grad student and his wife–both Solidarity members–about the movement. When he saw Suzanne’s button that stated “Capitalism fouls things up”, he shook his head and said, “No, it is socialism that fouls things up”. Always hard-nosed and maybe even more argumentative than me, Suzanne defended socialism and tried to explain to the young man why that was not what they had lived under in Poland—largely to no avail. It was only when the couple moved to the USA that they learned for themselves what capitalism was like. The absence of child-care and affordable health care came as such a shock to them that they admitted to Harsch that Suzanne probably had a point.

Suzanne Haig was Armenian. Her father (or perhaps grandfather) fled Turkey to escape the 1919 genocide. They adopted the name Haig not in honor of the very fine Scotch (apparently Suzanne enjoyed her whiskey, wine and beer) but the Hayg, who was the patriarchal founder of the Armenian people according to legend. She grew up in a household where Turkish was spoken much of the time just as is the case in mine.

Besides being very compatible as lovers, Gus and Suzanne shared an aptitude for software development that led to the formation of Two Rivers Computing. It seems that Suzanne became a talented hacker and found ways to download British TV shows that she passed on to friends before they ever became available on Netflix, including Downton Abbey. That show was more to Gus’s taste than hers. Suzanne, like my wife and I, prefers noir crime shows from Sweden and the like. I would have loved to discuss Wallander with her. Finding that their tastes diverged, that was no problem. They tended to watch their favorite shows in separate rooms.

At some point, the two decided to get degrees at NYU in Computer Science, a project they eventually abandoned. But one good thing came out of an artificial intelligence course they took together, a project to match harmonies to a database of Bach compositions. You can read their paper online.

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Like me, Suzanne remained politically involved after leaving the SWP. While I focused on Central America issues largely on the advice of Peter Camejo, she became an avid environmentalist. She and Gus owned a weekend cottage close to nature where they enjoyed birdwatching and—believe it or not—batwatching. At some point when the bats stopped filling the air around their cabin, she decided to investigate and take action if needed. It led to this:

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-2-35-22-pm

The Day
By Rita Christopher Courier Senior Correspondent

New London, CT, August 12. 2010

Say “Bats” and what do people respond? Vampires? Dracula? Eeek?

No doubt about it, bats have a public relations problem. But what Suzanne Haig would like people to know is that bats are vital to our ecosystem: They eat mosquitoes (some pollinate flowers) and are nature’s way of ensuring insect control. One bat, Suzanne says, can eat as many as 1,000 mosquitoes each night.

Bats, however, are disappearing from the Northeast, prey to a condition called white nose syndrome, and Suzanne wants people to know what the consequences of their loss will be. The result is a program on why bats have disappeared and why people should care that Suzanne has been instrumental in organizing at the Chester Meeting House on Sunday, Aug. 15 (See “When it Comes to White Nose Syndrome, Scientists Are Stepping Up to the Bat” on page 30 in the Living section).

The meeting involves not only the Deep River Land Trust, of which Suzanne is a member, but also some 11 other land trusts and environmental agencies.

“We can’t look at this as individual towns. This needs to be regional,” Suzanne says.

Suzanne believes that there are challenges to our ecosystem of which all communities should be aware.

“People are stewards of the earth,” she says.

You can also read Suzanne’s obviously well-researched analysis of the problem here.

“Where have all the Bats Gone?”

By: Suzanne Haig, Vice President Deep River Land Trust, for the Lower Connecticut River and Coastal Region Land Trust Exchange

Last August 15th, some 150 people attended a forum “Where have all the Bats Gone?”, held at the Chester Meeting House. Jenny Dickson, Supervising Wildlife Biologist of the Ct. DEP, briefed the audience on the status of a disease known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS) that has killed over 1 million bats in the US.

The condition, named for a previously unknown fungus, Geomyces destructans, first appeared on bats in upstate New York caves in 2006 and has now spread from the northeast to states south and west as far as Virginia and Tennessee and into Ontario, Canada. It is believed that the disease erodes, and invades the skin, particularly the wings, of hibernating bats. While scientists have discovered that the fungus responds to some antiseptics, there is no method at this time for curbing the disease and many questions remain unanswered. Furthermore, most bat species give birth to only one pup per year, which means that it is unlikely that affected populations can recover quickly from the devastating effects.

Jenny Dickson has been surveying caves in Connecticut and tracking the mortality rates of bats in the state since the inception of the disease. Connecticut has eight species of the eleven hundred known species of bats in the world, and the two most common here and in much of the northeast are the Little Brown Bat and the Big Brown Bat.

In Connecticut, WNS is affecting the Little Brown Bat and the Indiana Bat which is already on the Federal Endangered Species List. Some fear that the Little Brown Bat faces regional and possibly total extinction. Three of the other species in Connecticut are tree roosting bats which are not affected by the fungus. Why some are infected and others are not is unknown at this time.

Suzanne was always the activist even at the cooperative building where she and Gus lived. A sixtyish African-American man got up to speak about running into her in the lobby with a clipboard in her hand. She was recruiting people to take on assignments in the building just like an SWP organizer.

When she learned that he was into gardening, she signed him right up. That led to a conversation about his background. It turned out that he was a retired TWU officer who had taken responsibilities in the Mike Quill-led subway and bus strike of 1966 in New York. This was all she needed to hear. She began discussing politics with him and it was soon obvious as he admitted that they didn’t quite see eye to eye. Even so, he eventually ran with her to bring “fresh blood” into the coop board and stayed good friends until her death.

Finally, Suzanne was a lover of cats as all civilized people should be. In January I will be reviewing a Turkish documentary titled “Kedi” (the Turkish word for cat), which is about the amazing street cats of Istanbul. You can see a trailer just beneath this family photo of Suzanne’s 3 Persian cats that she lovingly groomed each day, taken from her Facebook page, and another photo of a cat lover.

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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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