Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 6, 2020

The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today

Filed under: Argentina,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Not long after I praised Left Voice and one of its editorial board members Juan Cruz Ferre in an article titled “Marxist alternatives to Jacobin”, Juan asked for my opinions on a video that his comrades in Argentina made titled “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today”. What I am going to write in this article might surprise Juan, who surmised that “we have strong political differences, in particular with regards to the ‘Leninist’ organization.”

In fact, we don’t have “strong political differences” as far as I know, except for my support for Howie Hawkins’s presidential campaign and objection to Left Voice editor Nathaniel Flakin’s belief in the revolutionary potential of looting and arson, which is admittedly widespread on the left. Most everything else that Left Voice publishes is right on the money. For example, I just cross-posted Nathaniel’s “Could Hitler Have Been Stopped by Voting for the ‘Lesser Evil’?” to FB and Marxmail. He draws exactly the same conclusions that I drew in a 2016 article titled “Misusing German history to scare up votes for Hillary Clinton”.

Indeed, there’s not a single word in “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today” that I would take exception to. Almost everything I write reflects the education I got in the SWP even if indirectly. For example, although Juan endorses the Brenner thesis, I rejected it on the basis of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development that attempted to explain the contradictory nature of Czarist Russia, where feudal-like conditions in the countryside stood side-by-side with some of the most technologically advanced factories in the world. I simply applied that to the 16th century, when the nascent capitalist system in Europe relied on pre-capitalist modes of production to “take off”. Marx deals with this in chapter 31 of V.1 of Capital, after all. If Juan agrees with Brenner that capitalism developed in the British countryside and diffused to the rest of the world, who am I to quibble? Charles Post, another Trotskyist thinker, agrees with him as do many others. This should not get in the way of uniting around more important questions of how to overthrow capitalism today.

I would say that even on more contemporary questions where we differ, it boils down to how we apply Trotsky’s Marxism rather than on whether or not we are Trotskyist. (I am no purist, of course. Bukharin is my go-to guy on ecology.) As Juan told me, his group in Argentina split from Nahuel Moreno’s group over the Turkey-Armenia genocide. You can bet that both sides defended their stand on the basis of what Trotsky wrote. That’s fairly typical of the Trotskyist movement. Jeff Mackler, who recruited me to the Trotskyist movement in 1967, is an ardent supporter of Bashar al-Assad, while I have written over 250 articles denouncing Assad. It’s all a matter of interpretation.

Back in 1981, when I began working with Peter Camejo to develop a non-sectarian current in the USA, he told me that the most difficult question is how to define the parameters of a revolutionary organization. Some things would be obvious, like not backing capitalist parties but others were harder to pin down. For example, when I joined the SWP in 1967, anybody who defended Lenin’s “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” would be shunned. But after Jack Barnes decided that Lenin’s theory trumped Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, you had to switch gears and line up with Barnes or else be shunned—even expelled. This has been the practice pretty much since the 1924 “Bolshevization” Congress of the Third International that was introduced by Zinoviev. Since then, every Leninist group has had splits over differences that should have never become litmus tests.

For Trotskyist groups, the program becomes the accumulation of all the party positions taken since its inception. Back in 1967, shortly after I joined, I asked a veteran party member up at SWP headquarters to define our program. He pointed to the shelves in our HQ bookshop and said, “That’s our program.” By contrast, the program in The Communist Manifesto, as well as the German Social Democracy’s Erfurt Program (that Lenin sought as a model for the Bolsheviks), was minimalistic. For example, “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” That’s in the Communist Manifesto. Who could disagree with that, especially now?

I will return to these questions after saying a few things about “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today” that I urge everybody to watch. This is a professionally made and totally engaging documentary that features Juan’s comrades in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and the USA talking about the relevance of Trotsky’s ideas to their country’s past and present. As they speak, you see the most amazing footage of Trotsky from his youth until close to the time of his death that I have never seen before, as well as photographs. In addition, there are also film clips and photos of some of the most important class battles of the 20th century, especially Spain in the 1930s.

There is no question that if Trotsky’s recommendations had been followed, especially in Germany, the world would look a lot different today. Unfortunately, the relationship of forces between the Trotskyist movement on one hand and Stalinism and Social Democracy on the other made this practically impossible. Emilio Albamonte is the leader of the Party of Socialist Workers in Argentina, Juan’s party. In the final half of the film, he quotes Isaac Deutscher who said this was a case of a tiny boat carrying an enormous candle.

Albamonte, who looks to be about my age, tries to summarize the rocky attempts to build a Fourth International without minimizing the setbacks. Mostly, he attributes this to objective circumstances, which is undeniable. After WWII, the Communist Parties became hegemonic because of the facts on the ground of Soviet “socialism” and because an inspiring peasant-led revolution in China had taken place under Communist leadership.

However, the narrow, nationalistic “socialism in one country” of both the USSR and China led to irresolvable contradictions that eventually led to a return to capitalism. A consequence of which included the collapse of pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing parties everywhere. This meant that Trotskyism finally had the possibility of winning workers to its banner by operating on a level playing field.

One can understand the optimism of Albamonte and the young people featured in the film. While Trotskyism lies in smoldering rubble everywhere else in the world, these comrades feel the wind in their sails. If you check the Wikipedia entry on the Left Fraction—Fourth International, you might conclude that they really have no competition. Furthermore, their flagship section, the Party of Socialist Workers in Argentina, dwarfs any Trotskyist group I know of. From Wikipedia:

The Socialist Workers’ Party has presence in several unions. They occupy seats in the leadership of the Buenos Aires subway union (AGTSyP), is part of the joint Multicolor slate that leads nine sections of the teachers’ union of the Buenos Aires Province (SUTEBA), they also were part of the opposition slate in the Buenos Aires Graphic Federation and is part of the union leadership in several graphic companies. The Violet slate (whose members include PTS militants and independent activists) is the main opposition slate within the telephone union (FOETRA), the PTS also leads the opposition slate in the food union (STIA), where it is part of the union leadership within the factories with the largest number of workers. Aside from its presence in unions and guilds, the PTS has an extensive presence within internal commissions and delegates in industrial companies (soapmakers, soda workers, metalworkers, steelers, etc.), services (railroad workers, aeronautical workers, etc.) and state and health workers, etc.

To some extent, this is a function of the historic legacy of Morenoism in Argentina that got a foothold no other Trotskyist party ever achieved. While Leon Trotsky was proud of the SWP’s role in organizing the Teamsters, it never came close to achieving Moreno’s success.

About 45 years ago, I led a faction fight in the Houston branch of the SWP that defended Moreno’s party, which was also called the Socialist Workers Party, rumored to be in homage to our own. The fight was over a working-class mass action perspective versus urban guerrilla warfare. In Argentina, Moreno had competition from Robert Santucho’s People’s Revolutionary Army that was carrying out bold actions such as kidnapping bankers for ransom, hijacking meat trucks and distributing the goods in working-class neighborhoods, etc. When I gave my pre-convention report to the branch, I emphasized how similar we were to Moreno. Like us, he was organizing mass actions. Of course, we were organizing middle-class students against the war in Vietnam and they were organizing factory sit-in’s. Our ties were based on a rejection of guerrilla warfare and not much else.

The bloc with Moreno ended later in the 70s and I can’t even remember the details. He went on to build a group called the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) that like so many Trotskyist groups descended into bitter faction fights, about which I know nothing. When I asked Juan what the fights were over, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s before my time.”

In 1988, the MAS split into 20 different groups, with Albamonte’s being the first to go. I have no idea if he learned painful lessons from that experience that made him and his comrades overcome the amoeba-like tendencies of most Trotskyist groups, but more power to them.

Frankly, nothing would make me happier than to see Left Voice reach a critical mass that would allow them to form a new group that might have the potential to grow rapidly. With the dissolution of the ISO, there is a real vacuum in the USA that is ready to be filled. Given the 1930s-like social and economic crisis that Albamonte alluded to in the film, people are looking for something with teeth in it rather than the gummy DSA. Even if the comrades failed to transcend their Zinovievist origins, they could still play a huge role in the class struggle. The SWP never had more than 2,000 members in the 1970s but you’d be surprised what a steel-hardened, zealous revolutionary group can get done under the right circumstances. Of course, when the 1970s turned into the time of disco, cocaine and polyester leisure suits, we sort of lost our way. Jack Barnes hoped to save our souls through the turn to industry but instead we lost our minds.

September 6, 2020

Harry Braverman’s class analysis of early American history

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Harry Braverman, 1920-1976

In doing some research for an article on Harry Braverman for a major project underway on the left, I wanted to put some of his lesser-known work in the foreground. Even if the Wikipedia entry on Harry Braverman understandably devotes the lion’s share of its entry to his “Labor and Monopoly Capital,” there’s much more of his contributions to Marxism that need to be fleshed out.

Braverman was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in the late 1930s, the youth group of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP). At that time, James P. Cannon’s Communist League of America had dissolved itself into the SP to engineer a left-wing split. In “History of American Trotskyism,” Cannon congratulated himself for carrying out the split that produced the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that left SP a “dead husk.” Braverman’s eventual affiliation with the Socialist Union and Monthly Review were acts that repudiated Cannon’s sectarianism.

Wikipedia has a brief mention of his writing for SWP periodicals as Harry Frankel, a name he used to avoid being blacklisted from industrial jobs long before McCarthyism began. Eighteen of those articles appear along with seven he wrote for The American Socialist, the Socialist Union magazine he co-edited with Bert Cochran. Available on the Marxist Internet Archives, they remain as relevant today as the day they were written. Braverman wrote for a working-class readership but never spoke down to it like some sectarian groups. His talent for combining scholarship with clarity led him to a long and productive career at Monthly Review.

In a series of four articles written for the SWP’s theoretical journal Fourth International in 1946, Braverman examined early American history from a Marxist perspective. Except for the Communist Party’s Philip Foner, scholars from the Progressivist tradition, like Charles Beard, dominated the field.

In “Class Forces in the American Revolution,” Braverman distinguishes himself from Communist Party leader Earl Browder who had proclaimed that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.” You’ll find little of the breathless embrace of 1776 from bourgeois historians like Daniel J. Boorstin, or even leftists like Sean Wilentz. For Braverman, the goal was to identify the class alignments that Boorstin and Wilentz tend to obfuscate in the name of “democracy.”

Unlike the Communists, who created the Jefferson School to honor a founding father, Braverman used the tools of historical materialism to put Thomas Jefferson into context. Braverman quoted Jefferson’s statement when British merchants forced down tobacco prices, they left slave-owners like him in a bind: “A powerful engine for this purpose, was the giving good prices and credit, till they got him more immersed in debt than he could pay, without selling his lands or slaves.”

Braverman wrote, “In this paragraph, Jefferson reveals more of the springs of revolutionary action in his class than in the whole Declaration of Independence.” That’s about as succinct a summary of the American Revolution that you will ever find.

In a follow-up article titled “How the Constitution Was Written,” Braverman examined Alexander Hamilton, the man glorified in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit. He writes that “Hamilton’s system was unified by a single conception: The establishment of the rule of the bourgeoisie.” Dispensing with Founding Father chic, as Ishmael Reed puts it, Braverman saw Hamilton as a man consumed with the need to solidify capitalist rule:

The bourgeoisie stood on a too narrow base, a fact which Hamilton sensed and which he sought to correct by his feverish efforts in behalf of manufacturers. It was not until the middle of the 1840s that manufactures surpassed commerce in the relative composition of the bourgeoisie. In the meantime the opening of the western lands and the admission of new agricultural states to the union increased the weight of the planters. Already during the decade of the great struggle, two new states were admitted who cast their votes in the Jefferson column in the election of 1800.

After knocking Hamilton off his pedestal, Braverman next takes on Andrew Jackson. Sean Wilentz wrote a Jackson biography that downplayed his role as a defender of slavery and a mastermind of Indian removal. While young radical historians such as Tom Mertes took down Wilentz for “Whitewashing Jackson,” when “revisionist” history influenced by Howard Zinn was its peak, Braverman was far ahead of his times for charging Jackson with crimes against humanity.

In “The Jackson Period in American History,” he wrote, “Andrew Jackson became a link of special configuration in the chain of planter Presidents that began with Thomas Jefferson and ended forever with Jefferson Davis. The attitude of this group of Presidents towards slavery was progressively modified as cotton fixed the “peculiar institution” on the South. Thomas Jefferson was a passive opponent of slavery. Jackson takes his rightful place in the progression as an active defender of slavery, as the planters travelled the sixty-year road to Jefferson Davis.”

As for Indian removal, Braverman was an outspoken defender of indigenous rights. He wrote, “It is only necessary to add that when the bourgeoisie, through the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, tried to block the planters from the Indian lands, Jackson paid no heed, saying, ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.’”

Finally, in “Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism,” he offers a critique of Frederick Jackson Turner, a Progressivist historian who argued that the frontier was decisive in American history and that its chief result was “democracy.” Braverman regards this as the heart of Turner’s thesis and stresses that his writings deal mainly with the Jackson era.

Braverman’s goal is to a group of historians who borrow from Marxism at the same time they hurl “envenomed shafts” against consistent and avowed Marxists. They include Charles A. Beard, Vernon L. Parrington, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., and Louis Hacker. Referring to Beard’s claim that Jackson created a farmer-labor democracy, Braverman presents a class analysis that remained consistent through his forty-year commitment to socialist values:

But the historian may protest that the workers and farmers got a hearing in Washington from the Jackson administrations. What of the protection of the land interests of the farmers? The ten-hour laws? The mechanics lien laws? The progress made, especially by the workers, is beyond dispute. First of all, however, it must be understood that such concessions did not directly endanger the planting class, and, for that reason, they could countenance reforms which gained for them national electoral support. Let us recall how John Randolph, planter spokesman in Congress, challenged the bourgeoisie: “Northern gentlemen think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves.”

August 24, 2020

Thoughts triggered by the 80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s assassination

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

This week a number of links to tributes to Leon Trotsky showed up on my Facebook timeline. Most came from groups still dreaming about the possibility of a new Trotskyist international. They were occasioned by the eightieth anniversary of his assassination on August 21, 2020.

In a New Politics article inspired by the anniversary, Dan La Botz posed the question “On the 80th Anniversary of Trotsky’s Assassination—What If He Had Lived?” Since Dan has just published a novel “Trotsky in Tijuana” was his “attempt to understand Trotsky the man and the political leader by projecting his life into a future he did not live to see.” These are the sorts of questions La Botz said he grappled with in the novel:

In my novel, I ask more particular questions both political and personal: What would have become of Trotsky if he had survived and lived in Tijuana for the next thirteen years? How would he have analyzed the Second World War and how would he have explained the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler’s Germany? What would he have thought of the expansion of the Communist system to Eastern Europe? Seeing the stress he was under, might his wife Natalia have sought a Freudian, Reichian psychoanalyst to work with him? Might Trotsky have had another love affair like his earlier affair with the artist Frida Kahlo? What would have happened to his project, the creation of a Fourth International and its fractious national sections and strong-willed leaders? How would he deal with aging?

I never thought much about these questions before, partly because “alternate history” type fiction along the lines of “If Hitler Had Won WWII” don’t interest me that much. I passed on Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”, which imagines a world in which a victorious Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the world. My focus is exclusively on the past and the present. My only concern about the future is whether we will make it to the year 3,000 given the insanity of the capitalist system in what Trotsky accurately described as the “death agony of capitalism”, the original title of The Transitional Program.

If Trotsky had trouble enough in trying to get a Fourth International off the ground in the thirties, he would have had even bigger problems in the forties and fifties, if he lived that long. Soviet Russia came out the war cloaked in glory after having been instrumental in defeating the German war-machine. For an embattled and isolated Trotskyist movement, hopes tend to be pinned on some cataclysmic event that will push the masses in the direction of a group, no matter how small, that has the “correct” analysis and strategy.

That kind of apocalyptic mentality existed in every Trotskyist group, even in the Socialist Workers Party that had a more secure mooring in reality than others that had less contact with the “Old Man”.

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an “absolute decline” in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution “has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

The choice for the worker’s movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face “savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution.” The workers would rise to the task since it was “in a revolutionary mood” continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky’s conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a “catastrophist nature”. He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky’s catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas’s “Fascism and the Third International” as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their “third period” strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:

…if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes — unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period — then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy — the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need.

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states that “the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not “a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party.”

What was the source of these false projections? “To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.” Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 45.

The “catastrophism” of the Trotskyist movement is built into the manifesto that created it, the Transitional Program. This is the political legacy of Trotsky’s uncritical acceptance of the perfect wisdom of the early Comintern. How could it be otherwise, since at that time Trotsky itself was one of the key leaders. He made it his business to straighten out any wayward Communists, like the French, who stepped out of line. The organizational legacy of the Trotskyist movement is in Zinoviev’s schematic “Marxist-Leninist” model. The ultraleftism of the political roots and the sectarianism of the organizational roots make for a powerful inhibition to growth. As we struggle to create new political and organizational paradigms, it will be important to shed ourselves of such counterproductive models.

April 10, 2020

The SWP and Social Distancing: a Study in Abnormal Political Psychology

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19,cults,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm


In the photo below, dated March 15, 2020, you will see a group of mostly senior citizens defying the call for social distancing. Who could they be? Rightwing Christian evangelists? Libertarians standing up for liberty?

Nope. Instead, you are looking at members of the Socialist Workers Party at a memorial meeting for one of their members who died last month. The Militant newspaper reported that more than sixty people were in attendance. That’s probably about half the membership, and 1,900 less than when I was a member back in the 1970s. What happened to all these people, including me? Most either drifted away or became victims of a purge in the early 1980s when they fought to preserve the party’s Trotskyist heritage. Over the past decade, the dropout rate accelerated mostly as a result of the party adopting increasingly peculiar positions. Of the remaining 100 or so, their activism mostly consists of going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses peddling the books and newspapers of what most would view as a cult.

Was there some sort of death-wish at work in this March 16th memorial meeting? If you are a typical member, there might be some relief in such an outcome. Many have jobs at Walmart despite college degrees and professional past. That in itself does not earn them brownie points with the long-time cult leadership that lives in Manhattan high-rises even more pricey than my own. Under social pressure, members must send in “blood money” to sustain the SWP. Such donations come from the paltry bonuses they receive at Walmart and other low-paying venues. Maybe, in the back of their minds, an end-run on a ventilator would be welcomed as euthanasia.

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February 21, 2020

Encountering Malcolm X

Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,Kevin Coogan,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm


Watching the six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” on Netflix stirred up powerful memories of how important he was to my political evolution. While the documentary is focused on exploring the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) role in his murder, it also sheds light on Malcolm’s post-NOI political odyssey. By creating a rival movement to the pseudo-Islamist sect, he risked a fatal encounter with four assassins on this date fifty-five years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Just six weeks before his death, I heard Malcolm X speak at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went with my girlfriend Dian, who was on midterm break from Bard College, just like me. I remember taking a seat about ten rows from the podium and being perplexed by the five or so leaflets on the chair that advertised rallies or meetings geared to radicals. Although I was much more of an existentialist liberal a la Camus in 1965, I was eager to hear Malcolm speak. Little did I know at the time that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a sect I would join two years later, organized the meeting. The Trotskyists placed leaflets on the chairs to draw people closer to the party, an approach that the Internet would supersede just as Facebook would supersede the mimeograph machine.

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December 11, 2019

On John Marot’s peculiar understanding of the New Economic Policy

Filed under: Bukharin,New Economic Policy,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 12:48 am

No, John Marot, he did not “facilitate” Stalin’s forced collectivization

John Marot’s review in Jacobin of Samuel Farber’s “Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy” includes a defense of the New Economic Policy (NEP) based on Nikolai Bukharin being a lesser evil to Stalin’s forced collectivization. Leon Trotsky is also accused as an accessory after the fact:

But neither Farber nor the Trotskyist orthodoxy Farber attacks recognize Bukharin’s faction as the last line of defense against Stalin’s dictatorship, the only alternative to it. Instead, both think the Trotsky and Left Oppositions in the party under the NEP were champions of party democracy, offering viable options to the “rising Stalinist dictatorship” beginning as early as 1923, when Trotsky supported “a relatively democratic opening.”

Like Lars Lih, John Marot has little use for Trotsky. I wrote a much shorter piece on Marot four years ago that might help serve as an introduction to this much longer article.

Unlike Farber, who was hostile to all the Bolsheviks because of their alleged dictatorial methods, Marot sees Bukharin as at least having the merit of defending NEP Russia. If Marot was a Trotskyist, he might have described it as a “deformed workers state” rather than what would become a “degenerated workers state” under Stalin. Trotskyists use these terms to draw a contrast, for example, between Cuba and North Korea. That being said, Marot wouldn’t be caught dead sounding like a Trotskyist, especially for its leader’s support for Stalin’s forced march toward industrialization that was ultimately the USSR’s undoing:

The unpalatable truth is that Trotsky and the Left supported Stalin’s eighteen-month-long campaign against Bukharin and his partisans, and the Left Opposition’s backing of Stalin facilitated his victory. Nor did Trotsky’s support for Stalin over Bukharin have anything to do with advocacy of party democracy. It was driven by what Trotsky believed were more important considerations.

The NEP perhaps did not measure up to Farber’s “participatory control.” Certainly, it did not measure up to the gold standard of an “authentic socialism,” a democratic socialism. That is not the standard by which to judge the NEP. And it understates the self-determination the immediate producers — workers and peasants alike — enjoyed during this period.

For people unfamiliar with the musty annals of Soviet history, you might get the impression that Stalin and Trotsky were in cahoots against the NEP from Marot’s claim that “The unpalatable truth is that Trotsky and the Left supported Stalin’s eighteen-month-long campaign against Bukharin and his partisans, and the Left Opposition’s backing of Stalin facilitated his victory.” The truth is that the Left Opposition had been gagged to one degree or another ever since its formation in October, 1923. By the time Stalin embarked on his forced collectivization/rapid industrialization policies in 1929, Trotsky was in exile and his supporters still in the USSR reduced to scattered groupuscles of true believers in world revolution and socialist democracy. They would have about as much responsibility in “facilitating” Stalin’s victory as my critiques would have if Jacobin ever broke with the Democratic Party. Numbers count in politics. As Stalin once put it, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”

Before evaluating Nikolai Bukharin and the historical forces that made the NEP untenable, a word or two about John Marot might be useful. He is a history professor at Keimyung University in Korea and an acolyte of Robert Brenner, i.e., a Political Marxist. For PM’ers, the transition to capitalism begins with the transformation of “property relations” in agriculture, with a prime example being the introduction of lease farming in England in the 15th century that forced farmers to compete with each other and hire wage labor. The PM’ers tend to apply this criteria to developments prior to the 20th century, like Charles Post’s writings on 19th century America that characterize slave plantations as “pre-capitalist.”

Marot has the distinction of applying the Brenner thesis to Russia in the 20th century. In a distinctly odd fashion, at least among Marxists, he does not believe that there was capitalism. His 2012 book “The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect” puts it this way succinctly on page 2 of the introduction:

Against the party-leadership [i.e., Lenin, Trotsky, et al], I argue that a workers’ state could not substitute itself for the operation of capitalism in the Russian countryside because capitalism was not operating there in the first place. That is the first point. The second point: because the Russian peasantry was not subject to operating in a capitalist manner, it was, perforce, organising its life in a non-capitalist manner. The workers’ state attempt to freely and without coercion effect a transition in agriculture from a non-capitalist to a socialist mode of production had failed by the late 1920s.

Mechanically applying England’s transition to capitalism beginning in the 15th century, Marot views self-provisioning, small farms producing surpluses to the market as “pre-capitalist”. So, even though Czarist Russia had factories larger and more advanced than some West European nations, it still remained “feudal”. One cannot help but wonder how this would apply to South Africa where Bolshevik-like radical land reform would result in millions of poor Blacks ending up with their own small farm producing primarily for their own needs and secondarily for the market. Would that mean South Africa had become “feudal”? It is absurd to even pose the question.

Although Marot viewed “pre-capitalist” farming as the Achilles Heel of the Soviet Union, his Jacobin article appears to shed that belief to some extent. While not exactly concerned with how the USSR could have become industrialized under such backward conditions, he seems to see the countryside as having great possibilities, if not exactly socialist:

The mir, or peasant repartitional commune, managed the political and economic affairs of the peasantry in the villages in much of Russia, and had done so for centuries. Its officers, drawn from older, more experienced peasants, were elected in peasant assemblies, where decisions required unanimity in a great majority of cases. In their own sphere, the peasants obviously had hegemony.

Repartitional tenure assured the equitable distribution of communal land among the peasants, periodically redistributing it when required, a process determined by the greater tendency of those who had large plots to subdivide and bequeath the resulting smaller plots to their male children compared to those who had smaller plots, preventing the formation of an agrarian proletariat of any significance, under the NEP as well as under czardom.

So, if the preconditions for socialism rest on capitalist farming as well as capitalist manufacturing, why not simply allow the NEP-man and the Kulak to reign supreme? As long as the Bolsheviks retained state power, couldn’t the maturation of the “forces of production” pave the way for socialism? This is what Kautsky believed, right? Furthermore, this is how many Maoists account for China’s rapid development taking place.

Much analysis of the NEP has an ideological stamp. For example, you are likely to get a Trotskyist orientation reading Isaac Deutscher and a Bukharinite version from Stephen F. Cohen. Trying to find a scholar without an axe to grind, I came across Moshe Lewin’s “The Immediate Background to Soviet Collectivization” that appeared in the October 1965 Soviet Studies most helpful. It describes the NEP as a policy that had run its course by 1929. To see it as an alternative to the real unfolding of historical events involves an unfortunate Utopian way of thinking. By 1929, the Soviet state had become a dictatorship run by Stalin, abetted unfortunately by Bukharin—his eventual victim.

In 1927, the NEP had failed to produce the equilibrium between the farming and manufacturing sectors that existed under capitalist conditions in 1913. The state could only collect about half the amount of grain and lacked reserves against war or famine. This meant that workers were going hungry. Despite allowing factories to run on a for-profit basis, manufactured goods were expensive and of poor quality. Since state payments for grain were below the cost it took to produce them, peasants raised livestock or non-food products such as cotton.

There were alternatives to market relations in the countryside but the Stalin-Bukharin dominated state did little to sustain them. Despite Lenin’s belief that co-operatives were essential to socialist development in the USSR, there was little support for them or for state-owned (sovkhozy) or collective (kolkhozy) farms. In essence, the state had a laissez-faire attitude toward agriculture even when it had become clear that the NEP was a ticking time-bomb. It was the responsibility of Stalin and Bukharin to steer it in the right direction but they were asleep at the wheel.

Although you would have little inkling of this from Marot’s article, the Stalin-Bukharin team had begun to move toward the Left Opposition’s positions by 1927. Lewin writes:

About this time, Rykov [ally of Bukharin] had fairly clearly adopted an ‘industrializing’ line. He had accepted not only the need for perekachka (the pumping of resources out of the agricultural sector into industry) but also the principle of priority for heavy industry. He and Kalinin and Bukharin were prepared to limit the activities of the kulaks and to adopt more energetic measures in favour of collectivization. But so far as they were concerned, the objectives were moderate ones only, and any such measures were to reflect a proper degree of prudence.

None of this went beyond the brainstorming phase unfortunately. It only moved to the front burner in October, 1927 during a grain crisis. While Stalin’s assault on the countryside is often described as a war against the kulaks, the capitalist farmers using wage labor, most grain was being produced by the middle layer, the serednyaki. As opposed to the lowest level of peasants that produced mostly for their own needs using family members, the serednyaki were much more like the typical small farmer in the USA that produces for the market. The problem was that unlike American farmers they had no incentive to produce for the market since there were few commodities they could purchase with their money. This was a formula for disaster and certainly not to be overcome within the traditional NEP framework.

Despite Stalin’s decision to move ahead with forced collectivization against Bukharin’s objections, there was little preparation in effectuating such a transition as Lewin points out. Despite Stalin’s reputation as a forceful administrator, there were no signs of any “revolution from above”, as Marot put it, during 1928. The were was only one agronomist for 50 kolkhozy, a ratio similar to the number of doctors per patients in Mississippi. In 1929, top Stalinist leader Kalinin complained that there were zero research institutes relating to collectivized agriculture, whereas there were 30 studying industrial problems.

Instead of taking the kind of approach you might have seen in Cuba in the 1990s after the demise of the USSR, Stalin used brute force against the NEP-men and the better-off farmers. As might be expected, the normal commercial networks were trashed, without anything to take their place. Lewin writes, “In a country suffering from scarcity, the only result was even greater chaos. This was all the more true since this particular struggle, carried on, among other reasons, under the watchword of abolishing ‘pseudo-cooperation’, resulted in the destruction of the handicrafts sector and of small-scale industry, acts of which the regime bears the consequences to this day, and which contributed to a deterioration in the standard of living of the masses.” As the forced collectivization radicalized, the cost to the Soviet economy and its people only grew astronomically. Trotsky wrote about the impact in “Revolution Betrayed”:

Caught unawares by the radicalism of its own shift of policy, the government did not and could not make even an elementary political preparation for the new course. Not only the peasant masses, but even the local organs of power, were ignorant of what was being demanded of them. The peasants were heated white hot by rumors that their cattle and property were to be seized by the state. This rumor, too, was not so far from the truth. Actually realizing their own former caricature of the Left Opposition, the bureaucracy “robbed the villages.” Collectivization appeared to the peasant primarily in the form of an expropriation of all his belongings. They collectivized not only horses, cows, sheep, pigs, but even new-born chickens. They “dekulakized”, as one foreign observer wrote, “down to the felt shoes, which they dragged from the feet of little children.” As a result there was an epidemic selling of cattle for a song by the peasants, or a slaughter of cattle for meat and hides.

Obviously, this turn of events would be opposed by anybody outside of the ranks of Grover Furr and Roland Boer. You have to assume that Marot would have backed Bukharin against Stalin, just as I would. As someone who has written favorable reviews of Bukharin’s more philosophical books and praised his understanding of ecology, I regard him as Trotsky’s intellectual and political peer. Unfortunately, he has a very large stain on his career that explains why he was incapable of resisting Stalin. For most of the 1920s, he had been Stalin’s yes-man and an enemy of Soviet democracy.

While Marot sees Leon Trotsky as an anti-democratic bogeyman lending support to Stalin’s forced collectivization, Bukharin had the kind of power that Trotsky lacked. And what did he do with it? Helped Stalin develop his grip on the state apparatus. This took place on two levels, both ideologically and politically. As a strong supporter of socialism in one country, Bukharin broke with classical Marxism’s emphasis on international revolution. It was this misbegotten theory that subordinated the Communist Parties to bourgeois parties worldwide. It was only through the victory of Communist Parties that could have relieved the pressure on the USSR and made forced collectivization indefensible. Rather than given due consideration to the Left Opposition’s call for permanent revolution, Bukharin did everything he could to make it sound contrary to “Leninism”.

He was not the first to ostracize Trotsky. Before him, it was Zinoviev who sought to isolate Trotsky. He wanted to deflect blame from the German disasters in 1921 and 1923 under his leadership that I have written about extensively. This led Zinoviev to propose the “Bolshevization” of the CP’s everywhere, a tendency that penalized dissidence.

All the “old Bolsheviks” followed Zinoviev’s lead, with Bukharin’s participation made  worse by his inability to conceive of and act on alternatives to the NEP during its obvious implosion late in the 1920s.

Bukharin wrote an article in 1924 titled “The Theory of Permanent Revolution” that rehashed all the old slanders against Trotsky, including the “minimizing” of the peasantry. Referring to Trotsky’s book “1905”, Bukharin takes exception to the assertion that a victorious proletarian revolution would inevitably come into conflict not only with the bourgeoisie but also with the peasantry. Trotsky wrote:

This contradiction in the position of a workers’ government in a backward country, with an overwhelmingly peasant population, can be solved only on an international scale, in the arena of the world proletarian revolution. Compelled by historic necessity to break down the limitations of the bourgeois-democratic framework of the Russian revolution, the victorious proletariat will be compelled also to break down its national state limitations, that is, it will consciously strive to convert the Russian revolution into a prologue of the world revolution.

Bukharin’s objection to making the Russian Revolution contingent on the success of the world revolution in 1924 obviously anticipates the theory of socialism in one country. For that matter, what Trotsky wrote is not that much different from what Lenin wrote before him. In a “Speech on the International Situation” delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, “The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.” Bukharin surely remembered Lenin saying this but forgot to remember in 1924 when he was badmouthing Trotsky.

Bukharin’s article concludes with the kind of polemics that gave Leninist groups a bad name: “Thus, in spite of Comrade Trotsky, Comrade Lenin considered that Trotsky’s theory did underestimate the role of the peasantry, and however much Comrade Trotsky would like to evade the admission of this fundamental and cardinal error, he cannot evade it. One cannot play at hide and seek.”

If this sort of ham-fisted polemics was his only failing, Bukharin would not look nearly so bad. Bukharin was the architect of both opportunist and ultraleft strategies that undermined the revolutionary movement in two nations that had powerful Communist Parties.

If you’ve heard the term “Third Period”, you might associate it with the German CP’s notion of “social fascism”. This meant that the workers had to combat both the Nazis and the Socialist Party, the “social fascists”. It was not Stalin who came up with this insane policy, even though it was often tied to him. Instead, it was Bukharin who made a speech in 1927 that alluded to a “third period” in which a new approach to the SP was necessary. No longer would there be a united front of the kind that Lenin proposed in 1921 after the March Action debacle in Germany. Instead, there would be a “united front from below” that was of course impossible to carry out given the CP’s sectarianism. While it would be an overstatement to say that Bukharin’s ideas gave birth to the CP’s support for a “red referendum” sponsored by the Nazis that would remove an SP governor, it certainly didn’t help.

This ultraleft turn was the result of a disaster in China that was the product of Stalin and Bukharin’s opposition to the theory of the permanent revolution. Like all the “old Bolsheviks”, except those that agreed with Trotsky, this was a stagist conception that nearly upended the Russian Revolution when Lenin’s April Theses seemed to contradict long-held Bolshevik policies. Once Trotsky was isolated due to repeated attacks by Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev and Bukharin, it was much easier to apply “stagist” concepts to the colonial revolution, especially in China where the CP was instructed to subordinate itself to Chang Kai-shek. Just a few weeks before the massacre Chang Kai-shek unleashed against the CP in China, the Kuomintang was invited to join the Comintern. Bukharin wrote what amounted to an invitation:

What is essentially new and original is that now the Chinese revolution already possesses a centre organised into a State power. This fact has enormous significance. The Chinese revolution has already passed the stage of evolution in which the popular masses struggle against the ruling regime. The present stage of the Chinese revolution is characterised by the fact that the forces of the revolution are already organised into a state power; with a regular disciplined army … the advance of the armies, their brilliant victories … are a special form of the revolutionary process.

Given the disasters in China and Germany, the Stalin-Bukharin team was anxious to muzzle the Left Opposition since an open discussion might result in them being demoted from their lofty posts. Isaac Deutscher describes Bukharin’s fury directed against any criticisms from these quarters:

None, however, excelled Bukharin. Only a few months earlier he still appeared to be in amicable intercourse with Trotsky. Now he stood by Stalin’s side, as Zinoviev had stood there two years earlier, an assailed the Opposition with reckless virulence, exulting in its plight, brag threatening, inciting, sneering, and playing up to the worst elements in the party. The kindly scholar was as if transfigured suddenly, the thinker turned into a hooligan and the philosopher into a thug destitute of all scruple and foresight. He praised Stalin as the true friend of the peasant smallholder and the guardian of Leninism; and he challenged Trotsky to repeat before the conference what he said at the Politbureau about Stalin “the gravedigger of the revolution”. He jeered at the restraint with which Trotsky had addressed the conference, a restraint due only to the fact that the party had “seized the Opposition by the throat”. The Opposition, he said, appealed to them to avert the ‘tragedy’ that d result from a split. He, Bukharin, was only amused by the warning: “Not more than three men will leave the party—this will be the whole split!”, he exclaimed amid great laughter. ‘This will be a farce not a tragedy.’ He thus scoffed at Kamenev’s apology:

When Kamenev comes here and … says: “I, Kamenev, have joined hands with Trotsky as Lenin used to join hands with him and lean on him”, one can only reply with homeric laughter: what sort of a Lenin have they discovered! We see very well that Kamenev and Zinoviev are leaning on Trotsky in a very odd manner. (Prolonged laughter and applause.) They “lean” on him in such a way that he has saddled them completely (giggling and applause), and then Kamenev squeals: ‘I am leaning on Trotsky’. (Mirth.) Yes, altogether like Lenin! (Laughter.)

A year later, Trotsky would be expelled from the party and exiled to Alma Alta. Soviet cops would drag him to the train awaiting his departure. Whatever he wrote in critical support of Stalin’s rapid industrialization (that he would just as rapidly repudiate as soon as he saw where it was going), Trotsky lacked the power to change the course of the NEP. After seven years of demonization, anybody regarded as a Trotskyist would have to endure the indifference, or in the worst case, hostility of the Soviet masses that a state-controlled media and broad administrative support could engender.

Just before his exile, Trotsky spent the day in Moscow on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution accompanied by Kamenev and Nikolai Muralov, a member of the Left Opposition who Stalin had executed during the Great Terror. At Revolution Square, he attempted to give a speech to workers advancing to the Lenin Mausoleum (something Lenin would have never approved.) Deutscher describes the reaction:

At once policemen and activists assailed him. Shots were fired. There were shouts: “Down with Trotsky, the jew, the traitor!” The windscreen of his car was smashed. The marching column watched the scene uneasily, but moved on.

Bukharin helped to create the atmosphere that made this kind of reactionary behavior possible. It also helped to forestall any possibility that a viable NEP could have been created since it was obvious that by 1927 conditions had degenerated to the point that careful and respectful discussion between Communists was impossible. Stalin was well on his way to ruling the Soviet Union like Genghis Khan, as a chastened Bukharin would put it to Trotsky.

One can understand why John Marot would be supportive of the idea of the NEP persisting well past 1927. The problem is that material forces determine history, not ideas. By 1927, Stalin had accumulated all the power he needed to move forward with a disastrous policy. Through his ideological bias against Leon Trotsky, Marot has done Marxism a disservice. I urge readers of this article to read Trotsky’s Platform of the Joint Opposition that will shed light on his views about the NEP and other hotly contested matters. Although I have long ago rejected the idea of a Trotskyist movement, I find Trotsky’s writings indispensable.


October 11, 2019

Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Jewish question,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

Recently, Pluto Press came out with Nathaniel Flakin’s “Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers.” It pays tribute to another Jewish Trotskyist who displayed incredible heroism and dedication to proletarian internationalism. Like Leon, Monath was a left Zionist starting out, but became convinced that Zionism was a hopeless illusion. And like Leon, he was caught by the Gestapo in his youth and died at their hands.

Flakin has performed a yeoman’s service by digging through archival materials, the few letters that Monath wrote, and memoirs by his contemporaries to help bring this obscure figure to life. While there is virtually nothing in this biography that refers to the current period, we cannot help but consider the parallels to Trump, Orban, and Modi’s persecution of the “other”. If being a revolutionary in 1941 France or Belgium required enormous courage, there are other difficulties we face today. We have few worries about being hauled off to a torture chamber in countries like the USA or England. Instead, we have to swim upstream to defend a revolutionary socialism that has become unfashionable. Our problem is indifference rather than repression. We are grateful to Nathaniel and his comrades at Left Voice for having the iron will so necessary to defend the ideas of Karl Marx in a period when the spirit of compromise and pragmatism infect so much of the left.

The first paragraph of Flakin’s Introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book:

It is late 1943 in Brittany in north-western France. For three years the population has been suffering under the Nazis’ increasingly brutal occupation regime. In the city of Brest, however, there are astounding scenes of fraternization: Young French workers and equally young German soldiers greet each other with raised fists. An illegal newspaper reports from Kerhuon, ten kilometers from Brest: “On August 6, German soldiers marched through the city and sang the Internationale,” the anthem of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Between 25 and so German soldiers from the Brest garrison had organized themselves into illegal internationalist cells. They obtained identification cards and weapons for the French resistance. They felt so confident that they began to ignore the basic rules of conspiracy. They met in groups of ten. “It was madness,” recalled their comrade Andre Calves, decades later.

Continue reading

October 7, 2019

Was there anything “socialist” about CIO officialdom’s alliance with FDR?

Filed under: Jacobin,New Deal,socialism,trade unions,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

UAW President Walter Reuther conferring with President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office, 1952

On October 2nd, Jacobin published an interview with Jake Altman titled “The Socialist Party in New Deal–Era America” that made an amalgam of Norman Thomas’s party and FDR. This is not the first such exercise in bad faith. On June 19th, Seth Ackerman wrote an article titled “Why Bernie Talks About the New Deal” that made identical points. It is understandable why these “democratic socialists” would try to shoehorn Norman Thomas’s SP into their neo-Kautskyist political agenda.

If the DSA is a continuation of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party as Thomas was a continuation of Eugene V. Debs, then everything is hunky-dory especially if you can convince people that Thomas “viewed Roosevelt’s program for reform of the economic system as far more reflective of the Socialist Party platform than of his own [Democratic] party’s platform”. The quote is from a Norman Thomas biography that Ackerman thought would bolster his SP/New Deal amalgam. Whatever credibility the biographer claimed, it seems unlikely that he ever thought much about the words of Norman Thomas himself who once said, “Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”

For Ackerman and Altman, one of the main proofs of the socialist character of the New Deal was its cheek-by-jowl connection to the CIO’s organizing drives. Ackerman writes, “By 1936, the newly formed industrial unions that grew out of those strikes had become the core of his political base, and most were led or had been organized by socialists and communists: Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers, Harry Bridges of the Longshore Workers, John Brophy of the CIO. At the same time, thousands of socialist and communist experts flooded into the New Deal agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board and the Treasury, Agriculture, and Commerce departments.”

Altman says about the same thing. “You also have socialist leaders and organizers in a number of unions, and they achieve a lot in terms of building a robust labor movement in the United States. They didn’t do it on their own, but through coalitions they were able to build some really impressive institutions like the United Auto Workers (UAW). It helped that they had allies in unions that were already led by social democrats, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). The ACWA poached promising organizers from the Socialist Party for union work, and some of these socialists went on to hold important positions in the labor movement for decades. The most well known are the Reuther brothers. There was a robust middle rank, too.”

Missing from this analysis is any reference to the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when FDR allowed the bosses to smash the trade union organizing drive led by Gus Hall and other radicals. In FDR’s infamous words, he told capitalists and workers “a plague on both your houses”. Furthermore, there is little evidence that organizing drives to build industrial unions in and of themselves have that much to do with socialism. Both Ackerman and Altman view the Reuther brothers as symbols of the ties between the Socialist Party and the New Deal. However, Walter Reuther not only quit the SP in 1939; he led the purge of CP members from the CIO after becoming president of the UAW in 1947.

What neither Ackerman and Altman can seem to grasp is the dialectical relationship between FDR’s relatively tolerant attitude toward CIO type unionism and the co-optation of the working-class into the imperialist hegemonic aspirations of the USA from 1941 onwards. In order to rely upon working-class support for its colonial wars abroad, it was necessary to offer sufficient material gains to make co-optation feasible.

Just before his untimely death, Leon Trotsky wrote an article titled “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” that was discovered in a desk drawer. If you’ve never read it, I urge you to take a look. And, if you have read it, I urge you to take a fresh look since it shows Trotsky at his most prophetic. Of the CIO, he writes:

In the United States the trade union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new “leftist” trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.

On December 13, 1942, Walter Reuther wrote an article for the N.Y. Times titled “Labor’s Place in the War Pattern” that illustrated exactly what Trotsky was warning about.

These tragic realities must compel American labor to an appreciation of its obligations as a major member of America’s war team. Labor’s place in the new pattern that war has forced on America is clear.

Labor’s first obligation is to realize that we are not now producing solely to provide our population with their everyday needs, but that we are producing primarily to protect our freedom, our nation and our homes from destruction.

Labor must face the challenge of the war as it would a forest fire or a flood that menaced the home town. The promise of labor’s spokesmen that strikes will be abandoned for the duration of the war, a pledge which has been underwritten by labor’s organizations in conventions, must be honored.

That no-strike pledge would haunt the UAW and other CIO-type unions until this day. The “national interest” is just a cover-up for the right of the rich to enjoy their wealth without any concerns for the needs of working-people. It is exactly how GM managed to impose a two-tiered pay scale on the UAW and how it is trying to maintain its grip on “our nation’s” well-being.

For an alternative to Walter Reuther’s class-collaborationism, I recommend Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”. Preis was a member of the SWP whose book diverges sharply from Ackerman and Altman’s gauzy portrayal of FDR’s partnership with CIO officialdom. This excerpt will show you how some workers defended their class interests during WWII despite the no-strike pledge:

There were many signs of the growing restiveness of the industrial workers as 1942 drew to a close and during the opening months of 1943.

The coal miners, for the most part isolated in small towns, were squeezed worst of all. When Pennsylvania anthracite miners started an unauthorized walkout on January 2, 1943, it was clear that they had reached a point of open revolt against economic conditions.

On March 10, the UMW opened negotiations with the Appalachian soft coal operators. Among the seven demands [union president John L.] Lewis and the UMW committee presented to the mine owners were: (1) retention of the existing 35-hour, five-day week in the coal mining industry; (2) inclusion of all time traveled from the pit entrance to the point of work and back to the surface as part of the paid work time; (3) a $2-per-day raise in base pay.

The UMW president cited the terrific accident rate in the mines due to lack of safety equipment: 64,000 men killed and injured in 1941; 75,000 in 1942; an estimated 100,000 in 1943, with the intensification of war production.

The mine owners brushed aside the UMW’s demands and the Roosevelt administration intensified pressure on the union to capitulate.

Roosevelt himself intervened as the April 1 mine strike deadline approached. He asked the operators on March 27 to agree to extend the existing contract beyond April 1 and make any subsequent wage adjustment retroactive to that date. At the same time he said that the dispute must be settled “under the national no-strike agreement of December 26, 1941” with “final determination, if necessary, by the National War Labor Board.”

The moral position of the miners was becoming stronger every day. The CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and AFL [American Federation of Labor] leaders backed the miners’ demands and, for the time being, refrained from open attacks on the UMW’s threat to strike. Local bodies of the United Auto Workers and other CIO unions passed resolutions of unconditional support for the miners.

On April 22, the WLB announced it was assuming jurisdiction of the case. The UMW refused to appear before this “court packed against labor.” On April 24, WLB Chairman Davis announced that the board would consider the case only within the framework of the Little Steel Formula, which automatically ruled out any raises for the miners.

Miners in Western Pennsylvania and Alabama left the pits that same day, a week in advance of the truce deadline.

The United Press reported that 41,000 bituminous miners were already out.

 FDR as strikebreaker

The spreading coal strike forced Roosevelt to step forward personally to take public responsibility for leading the opposition to the miners. He telegraphed Lewis on April 29 that he would use “all the powers vested in me as President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” if the strikes were not ended by the morning of May 1. Roosevelt’s threat brought an immediate defiant reply from the mine workers. Nearly 10,000 Ohio miners left the pits. By the morning of Saturday, May 1, every union soft coal mine in the country was closed.

The national strike of the miners was not only the largest coal strike the country had seen up to this time. It was the largest single strike of any kind the land had ever known. It was carried out with a dispatch, discipline and single-minded determination that had never been surpassed in the American labor movement.

The press did surpass itself in the volume of vituperation, slanders and threats hurled at the miners and Lewis. Lewis was linked with Hitler in newsreels, on the radio, in countless newspaper cartoons. Union leaders joined the chorus of anti-labor forces who were screaming for nothing less than the destruction of the miners union under the guise of aiding the war for “democracy.”

On May 1 Roosevelt himself ordered government seizure of the struck coal mines under Solid Fuels Administrator Harold L. Ickes. Ickes “seized” the mines by promptly ordering the American flag to be flown over all mine properties and directing all mine owners and managers to run the mines as government agents in the name of the government—all profits to continue as usual. Ickes then declared the miners were working “for the Government” and ordered them back to work.

The miners didn’t budge.

It was during the first of the series of wartime coal mine strikes that the Communist Party revealed to what depths of treachery it could really sink in order to demonstrate to the United States capitalists how useful the CP could be to them if American capitalism would make some kind of permanent deal with the Kremlin.

The May 1-4 national coal strike brought the anti-labor, strikebreaking activities of the Communist Party to a peak of ferocity that the vilest capitalist enemies of the unions did not surpass. On April 29 the Daily Worker carried a front-page appeal by CP National Chairman William Z. Foster, urging the miners not to respond to their union’s strike call.

On the morning of June 1, some 530,000 miners refrained from entering the pits “without any special strike call being issued and with casual matter-of-factness,” as George Breitman, the Militant’s correspondent, wrote from the mining area around Pittsburgh.

 ‘Can’t dig coal with bayonets’

Roosevelt, on June 3, threatened to call out the troops unless the miners returned to work by June 7.… The miners merely shrugged and repeated their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.”

By the time the official strike deadline, November 1, had arrived, all 530,000 coal miners were out, for their fourth official national wartime strike within one year.

Roosevelt was at the end of his rope. He could not arrest 530,000 miners. He could not force them to go down into the pits at bayonet point, and even if he could, they need not mine an ounce of coal. He could not jail Lewis and the UMW leaders, for the miners swore they would strike “till Hell freezes over” if Lewis were victimized in any way. The President again seized the struck mines and authorized Ickes to negotiate a contract.

The WLB on November 20 finally agreed to a contract acceptable to the union and contractors. This fixed the mine wage at $57.07 a week and provided $40 to each miner for retroactive payment for travel time.

The UMW Policy Committee ratified the new contract on November 3 and instructed the miners to return to work. They had cracked the wage freeze.

If the miners had not fought and won, if they had been defeated, it would have meant not only the crippling and possibly the crushing of one of the most powerful industrial unions—the UMW—but a demoralizing blow of shattering proportions for the auto, rubber, steel, electrical equipment, and other CIO workers. The government would have introduced new “formulas” to slash wages, increase hours of work and intensify the exploitation of labor in the name of patriotism and the “needs of the war.”

Instead, the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944 and 1945, reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945-46.

The miners themselves were able to go on from victory to victory in the war and immediate postwar period, winning many new gains, such as health and welfare funds, retirement pensions and other conditions, which then became objectives of the CIO unions as well.


July 20, 2019

Joe Hansen on the Apollo moon landing

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

With all the hooplah on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I decided to track down what Joe Hansen wrote about it. This was when The Militant was a pretty good newspaper. Nowadays, they don’t even have the brains to reprint it. Half the members probably need Aricept at this point.

Most of what I learned in the SWP came from what Joe wrote and what Peter Camejo said. To this day, they remain my major influences. Joe died in January 1979, just two months after I quit. I wonder what he would have done to block the cultificaton of the SWP. He was a soft-spoken but deeply defiant figure, a trait necessary for membership in a Trotskyist party that had to withstand assaults from both the capitalist state and Stalinist groups. Too bad the rank-and-file could not draw upon such resources when it came to standing up to the party leadership as it began going off the rails.

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm


Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

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