Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 1, 2017

The Western Left and the Russian Revolution: a reply to Diana Johnstone

Filed under: human rights,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Yesterday an article by Diana Johnstone titled “The Western Left and the Russian Revolution” became available on the Monthly Review website. It was part of the magazine’s special issue on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. At one time I was great admirer of Johnstone for what I considered to be her keen insights into the Balkan wars but grew disaffected by her support for Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria. I grew even more disaffected when she published an article in CounterPunch that defended Marine Le Pen’s “sovereignism”—ie, French nationalism—on the basis of these lofty words: “Le Pen insists that all French citizens deserve equal treatment regardless of their origins, race or religion.” What would you expect someone running for president to say? That they don’t deserve equal treatment?

To give credit to CounterPunch, they had no problems publishing an article by Gregory Barrett last Friday that applauded articles denouncing Green Party figure Caitlan Johnstone for urging a left-right alliance but also questioned why the other Johnstone got a pass. “I despise nationalism as much as I despise neoliberalism. But if anyone at CP has ever attacked Diana Johnstone for her position on the French election, or piled on those writers on the Left who believe that nationalism is where the anti-neoliberal action is at the moment, then I must have missed it.”

In the 25 years or so that I have been reading the 83-year old author’s articles in places as varied as In These Times and the New Left Review, I can’t remember her ever addressing what I call “the Russian question”, one that I define as off-limits to Marxmail. Nothing gets flame wars going faster than “what happened in the USSR?”, not that a print publication like Monthly Review really has to worry about such matters.

Speaking only for myself, I would never dream of drawing up a balance sheet on the Western left and the USSR in 3500 words. It opens you up to all sorts of reductionism that fly off the page in her very first paragraph

Lenin predicted that revolution in Russia would trigger communist revolution in Germany, which would spread from there throughout the Western industrialized world. This was the Bolshevik leader’s major error of appreciation. In reality, the Bolshevik Revolution marked the start of a century of counterrevolution in the West.

Johnstone should have said that the Russian revolution failed to trigger a successful communist revolution in Germany. To really understand what happened in Germany, you need to read Pierre Broué’s 980-page “The German Revolution, 1917-1923” that can be read on Libcom. While I am not in Broué’s league by any stretch of the imagination, it took me more than twice the amount of words in Johnstone’s entire article to explain why the German revolution failed.

In the next paragraph, her confusion deepens. She said that the Bolsheviks erred in conceptualizing the proletarian revolution as one that ends up with one class (the workers) overthrowing the old ruling class (the bourgeoisie) after the fashion of the bourgeois revolution overthrowing the feudal aristocracy. In attempting to clarify this, she once again compresses decades of history into a sentence or two: “The classic model was the bourgeois revolution that overthrew the nobility. This comparison was wishful thinking, if only because the so-called bourgeoisie throughout civilized history had always been a partner in the ruling class.” I suppose that this is a reference to revisionist historians like François Furet who argue that the revolution was led by aristocrats rather than capitalists but if so, it probably deserved a few words of clarification.

In any case, this leads her to make her next point: “Despite the momentary success of the soviets (councils), power was never seized by the proletariat, but by intellectuals acting in its name, mobilizing the working class to achieve rapid industrialization.” Once again we see the reductionism at work. In fact, Marxism has always had leaders who could be described as “intellectuals”, starting with Karl Marx and going down the line to John Bellamy Foster. The German socialists developed the idea of a vanguard party that would be necessary since workers on their own have difficulty transcending trade union consciousness. This insight was embraced by V.I. Lenin who put it this way in “What is to be Done”:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.

Certainly Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff would have understood such elementary points.

After sections on the conservative and fascist efforts to overthrow the USSR, Johnstone turns naturally enough to Trotskyism—a tendency that she clearly reviles, just as does her writing partner Jean Bricmont. Most people would regard her efforts to sum up the Stalin-Trotsky debate in 189 words as sheer folly but let’s at least try to extract some sense out of her arguments that likely reflect her strong orientation to the “axis of resistance” today. She writes:

In retrospect, one may say that both Stalin and Trotsky were wrong as to what was possible, but Stalin was, in his brutal way, the more realistic of the two. Despite their relative ideological conservatism, the Stalinist parties of the Third International had more success abroad than their Trotskyist rivals, both in promoting national liberation struggles in the third world and in winning social benefits in the West.

What’s missing from her comparison is any appreciation of the role of state power. Pro-Moscow CP’s could have much more “success” because they were able to leverage their connection to the Kremlin in a way that small propaganda groups could never do. For example, when I was on a consulting trip to the ANC in Zambia in 1990, nearly everybody I spoke to had been to a university in Moscow, all expenses paid. The ANC and the SACP were organically linked and had the allegiance of millions. How could a small Trotskyist group in South Africa ever compete with such “facts on the ground”? By the same token, it was this bloc of parties that failed to carry the revolution forward—stuck as they were in the “popular front” strategies that amounted to elevating a section of the Black population into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie while the poor were left behind in a state of economic apartheid.

The only other point worth making is that both Stalinism and Trotskyism are spent forces. Trotskyism was mainly a negative critique of Stalinism and once it disappeared, Trotskyism failed to capitalize on its absence. It was born as a sect and died as a sect, always making the “correct” analysis but failing to sink roots into the mass movement. Something else is needed and to some extent Monthly Review has been helpful by spreading ecosocialist ideas. It is unfortunate that they would consider Diana Johnstone’s article to be relevant to the class struggle today.

In the section headed “The ‘Failed Revolution’ Narrative”, Johnstone continues to beat “Trotskyism” about the head and shoulders. She is outraged that “The Trotskyist stance, criticizing the revolution for not being revolutionary enough, provided a radical leftist basis for the human rights ideology that has become a quasi-religion in the West”. Such ultraleftism supposedly led a section of the French ’68 “revolutionaries” to make a  stink about the Vietnamese “boat people”, thus serving to facilitate their successful careers in the media and academia, where they spread their disillusionment toward the revolutions they had once celebrated.

This is obviously a reference to the New Philosophers such as Alain Glucksmann who was indeed a major figure in publicizing the plight of the “boat people”. However, he had nothing to do with Trotskyism. Instead, he started off as a Maoist as did Christian Jambet and Guy Lardreau. All this is detailed in an article titled “Isle of Light: A Look Back at the Boat People and the European Left” by Vo Van Ai, a Vietnamese poet who worked closely with such people. He writes:

In the cafe that evening in 1978, a Vietnamese friend of mine and I argued that the people on the Hai Hong were not economic refugees, but people seeking freedom from totalitarianism, and that this exodus was unprecedented. Throughout our four-thousand-year history, even in the worst times of famine or war, we Vietnamese had never left the land of our ancestors. But now the boat people were voting with their feet in order to survive.

Among our group were Claudie and Jacques Broyelle, sinologists and former Maoists who had just returned from China, deeply disillusioned with the evolution of the Chinese regime; Alain Geismar, former leader of the 1968 student “revolution” that rocked the de Gaulle government in France; and André Glucksmann, a writer and acclaimed “new philosopher.” These friends were all passionate idealists, all from far left-wing backgrounds, but all with no illusions about life under communist regimes. Their decision was rapid and unanimous. We had to do something to save the boat people.

Continuing along with her five minutes of hate against Trotskyism, she takes on those whose “hostility toward Stalinism reached fever pitch in reaction to mistreatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, after their revolutionary ideal had shifted to Israel.” These were people who wanted the USA to punish the USSR for restricting educated Jewish emigration to Israel and in the process transformed themselves into “neoconservatives”. I have no idea who she is talking about. The neoconservatives who became ardent supporters of the Reagan administration had abandoned their youthful radical ideas long before people like Natan Sharansky became a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Irving Kristol, for example, had begun writing for the anti-Communist Commentary magazine in 1947—that’s decades before Russian-Jewish immigration to Israel became an issue.

Toward the end of Johnstone’s dreary article, she takes potshots at groups like Human Rights Watch, which do in fact tend to reflect State Department perspectives, especially in places like Venezuela and Cuba. Demonstrating her nostalgia for the good old days when the USSR provided housing, education and healthcare to the masses even if you could be sent to prison for ten years for complaining about the secret police, she blames human rights advocates for diverting the left from pursuing economic equality. She adds that any social revolution will violate the established “rights” of the dominant classes, and thus human rights is a permanently counterrevolutionary doctrine.

Call me an unreconstructed Trotskyist but I believe that the defense of human rights is essential for the left. I am particularly appalled by governments that bomb hospitals and wholeheartedly support a universal standard of human rights in which such acts must be regarded as a war crime.

One such group that is involved in providing urgently needed care to hospital patients in war-torn regions is Doctors without Borders that was founded in 1971 by French doctors who had served in Biafra. Among the founders was Bernard Kouchner, a former member of the Communist Party who would fit Johnstone’s profile as an imperialist stooge for his support for Kosovo in the war in Yugoslavia and even for Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein. So do we automatically characterize Doctors without Borders as the enemy?

Things get complicated.

On August 15, 2016, Saudi jets bombed a Yemeni hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that left 11 people dead and 19 injured. Among the people who were outraged by this attack was Assadist propagandist Ben Norton who wrote about such brutality in Salon (before he was fired for unspecified reasons):

Doctors Without Borders said six hospitals it supports in Yemen treated more than 400 wounded Yemenis after the attack. Four hospitals operated by Doctors Without Borders in Yemen have been bombed by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition.

Meanwhile, his writing partner Max Blumenthal virtually gives Assad the green light to bomb hospitals in rebel-controlled Idlib province.

Let me conclude with what I stated in the final paragraph of a CounterPunch survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, a director who would be vilified as an anti-Communist defender of human rights by Johnstone:

Unless the left begins to support a universal standard of human rights irrespective of geopolitical considerations, it will not be capable of providing the leadership for a new world order based on the abolition of class society and its replacement by one that respects each human being as having inviolable rights including the right to live securely and in dignity. Whatever Andrzej Wadja’s ideological flaws, his films are a cri de coeur for the rights of the Polish people. Viewed as untermenschen by the Nazis and the butt of racist “Polish jokes” in the 1960s, Wajda’s films are a necessary corrective as well as some of the greatest filmmaking of the past half-century.

May 15, 2017

Will someone please escort Lars Lih out of the history tunnel?

Filed under: Lenin,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

Chiang Kai-Shek, an honorary member of the Comintern upon Stalin’s urging

In 2011, Lars Lih wrote an article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” for Russian History whose thesis has been repeated ceaselessly, the latest iteration appearing on the Jacobin website. Essentially, they all argue in favor of the superiority of “Old Bolshevism” over Trotsky’s version of what took place between March and October 1917, even when Trotsky is not mentioned. Lih has a particular affinity for Lev Kamenev even though Stalin is a close runner-up for the title of Old Bolshevik supremo. Is the prodigious amount of prose advanced on behalf of Kamenev and Stalin meant to win people over? I myself get annoyed by repetition, especially those Trivago ads. Lately Lih has been joined by Eric Blanc, a young graduate student who pays lip-service to Trotsky but with little insights into the broader contours of a debate that did not end in October 1917. Like Lih, he seems stuck in a narrow historical framework that comes to an end in October 1917 or maybe as late as 1924.

Indeed, the basic problem with the Lih/Blanc methodology is that it operates in a historical tunnel. At least Blanc refers his readers to the 1924 conference that pitted Trotsky against his ideological opponents (see Frederick Corney, Trotsky’s Challenge: the “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution) but that discussion operated within the parameters of the tunnel. If Kamenev was correct that the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was “fully and completely realized in the Russian revolution”, wouldn’t it make sense that it would also apply to China, another country that had a Communist Party under the complete control of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev in the very year that the 1924 conference took place and whose fate in the next three years would be sealed by the Triumvirate’s politics? Was there any reason to think that the “old Bolsheviks” had lost the old magic when it came to China? What were the implications of applying what worked in 1917 to China where the Kuomintang (KMT) was hailed by Kamenev and company as a revolutionary party, so much so that it was accepted as a sister party of the Comintern and its Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek as an honorary member? Or that the Communist Party of China was directed to work within the KMT and forbidden to leave even after Chiang Kai-Shek began to slaughter its members?

Shanghai, 1927: Worker beheaded by a soldier under the command of an honorary Comintern member

The consequences of forcing Chinese Marxists to subordinate themselves to the KMT was disastrous. On March 21-22 1927, Communists acting independently of the Kremlin seized control of Shanghai. On April 9th, Chiang moved to purge the Communists from the KMT and retake control of Shanghai. More than 1,000 Communists were arrested, 300 were executed and another 5,000 went missing. Since the CP was not very large to begin within, this essentially dealt it a death-blow. In “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution”, a book I read 45 years ago or so, Harold Isaacs described what took place:

At noon on April 13 the workers gathered at a mass meeting on Chinyuen Road, Chapei. Resolutions were passed demanding the return of the seized arms, the punishment of the union wreckers and protection for the General Labour Union. A petition was drawn up embodying these points and a procession was formed to march down to Second Division headquarters to present it to General Chow Feng-chi. Women and children joined. Not a man marching bore arms. They swung into Paoshan Road under a pouring rain. As they came abreast of San Teh Terrace, a short distance from the military headquarters, machine-gunners waiting for them there opened fire. Lead spouted into the thick crowd from both sides of the street. Men, women, and children dropped screaming into the mud. The crowd broke up into mad flight. Guns continued streaming fire into the backs of the fleeing workers. The muddy rain water coursing down ruts in the streets ran red.

In 1927, the USSR was guided by the policies of Stalin and Bukharin who constituted a rightwing bloc that adapted to the NEP agrarian bourgeoisie at home and the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” abroad. A month after this disaster, Stalin showed no signs of understanding what went wrong. In a speech, he stated his opposition to the creation of Soviets in China, as advocated by Trotsky, and claimed that the Kuomintang was the “center of the bourgeois democratic revolutionary movement.”

By 1927, Trotsky had been joined by Kamenev and Zinoviev in the Joint Opposition. Two years earlier they had broken with Stalin and Bukharin over Socialism in One Country and formed the New Opposition that operated independently of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. One year later their faction united with Trotsky’s. While they agreed on the need for world revolution theoretically, Kamenev and Zinoviev supported the pro-KMT policy that objectively undermined exactly that goal. This was understandable since they remained wedded to the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In fact, Zinoviev was probably the main architect of the policy in China as Comintern chief. When Trotsky advocated making the China debacle the focus of the attack on Stalin, he was opposed not only by the two old Bolsheviks but many of his own supporters. Part of the problem was Trotsky’s collaboration with Zinoviev in building an alliance with the KMT as part of an attempt to break out of the USSR’s isolation just as was the case with its overtures to Mustafa Kemal. But from the very beginning Trotsky opposed the CP functioning as part of the KMT. He said you can have diplomatic relations with a country at the same time you are trying to overthrow its capitalist government. That in fact is exactly how capitalist states enter into diplomatic alliances with workers states, if you recall the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Stalin and Bukharin defended their policy as adhering to Leninist orthodoxy. China needed to carry out a bourgeois-democratic revolution in order to cleanse the nation’s Augean stables of feudal property relations. Once that was accomplished, they could go on to the socialist phase. Of course, Lenin abandoned such a schema in 1917 despite what Lars Lih thinks.

On April 12th, on the very day that working-class blood flowed in the streets of Shanghai, Pravda wrote an unctuous eulogy to the KMT. Can you guess who the author was? No, it was not Stalin or Bukharin although it might have been. It was Alexandr Martinov, who had been a rightwing Menshevik for 20 years before joining the Russian CP after the civil war, and who was now a leading light of the Comintern.

Martinov must have figured out that Stalin’s party was well on the way of adopting his shitty politics when he joined. Despite their constant baiting of Trotsky as a Menshevik, people like Kamenev and Stalin had a real affinity for stagist politics. Keep in mind what leading Menshevik Sukhanov wrote:

Where did the truth lie? Kamenev, in giving a ‘benevolent’ interpretation of the resolution, was doubtless trying dutifully to retain in it the official Bolshevik idea: that the conclusion of the imperialist war was only possible by way of a Socialist revolution. But I also had no doubt that Kamenev didn’t sympathize with this official Bolshevik idea considered it unrealistic, and was trying to follow a line of struggle for peace in the concrete circumstances of the moment. All the actions of the then leader of the Bolshevik party had just this kind of `possibilist’, sometimes too moderate, character. His position was ambiguous, and not easy. He had his own views, and was working on Russian revolutionary soil. But—he was casting a ‘sideways’ look abroad, where they had their own views, which were not quite the same as his.

Possibilism describes Kamenev in 1917. It also describes him throughout the 1920s. The old Bolsheviks were marked by possibilism, another word for opportunism. In my view, all of these people were flawed: Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin, Bukharin and even Trotsky. There is much you can learn from the last two I named but all the rest are not worth bothering with despite Lih’s foolish attempt to elevate them to a status they hardly deserve. As I have written elsewhere, Zinoviev’s interference in the German revolution of the early 20s helped to prevent it from succeeding. I also faulted Lenin and Trotsky in my account of their intervention, demonstrating that I have no use for empty idolatry

The debate that broke out over the Lessons of October in 1924 never really came to an end. Within three years they reemerged over how to assess the Chinese disaster. For a presentation in line with Lars Lih’s encomiums to old Bolshevism, I recommend Josef Stalin’s “Questions of the Chinese Revolution” that appeared in Pravda.

Stalin describes two phases of the Chinese revolution. In the first, “the national army was approaching the Yangtse and scoring victory after victory, but a powerful movement of the workers and peasants had not yet unfolded—the national bourgeoisie (not the compradors) sided with the revolution. It was the revolution of a united all-national front.”

Of course, this very army scored a most powerful victory in April 1927 when it massacred trade unionists in Shanghai. Obviously Stalin had to take account of this but not to the point of giving up on the KMT. In the second phase, after Chiang Kai-Shek had revealed himself as a counter-revolutionary, it devolved upon “the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan” to become the “organ of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” How nice of Stalin to stand up for Leninist orthodoxy even after the head of the KMT in Wuhan had broken with the Communists and realigned with the blood-stained Chiang. Isaacs reports on the Wuhan massacre that followed in the footsteps of Shanghai being carried out once again by someone to whom Stalin had given his blessings:

The military authorities proceeded with the systematic destruction of the trade unions. The Hankow Garrison Headquarters issued a ban on strikes. Between July 14 and 19 soldiers were “billeted” on the premises of twenty-five unions whose archives and effects were confiscated. Simultaneously throughout Honan province Feng Yu-hsiang was conducting a similar drive. “In the last few weeks the Chinese labour movement in the territory of the Wuhan Government has lived through a period of the most brazen reaction. . . . The military . . . have carried out such enormous work of destruction directed against the mass organizations . . . that it will require a very long period and gigantic energy to make good the losses and to enable the trade unions to resume their normal functions,” reported the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat.

It makes sense to conclude this article with an excerpt from Trotsky’s reply to Stalin that takes a close look at the aforementioned Martinov. It encapsulates the differences between Lars Lih and revolutionary socialism, even if he lacks the ability to understand them.

The School of Martynov in the Chinese Question

The official leadership of the Chinese revolution has been oriented all this time on a “general national united front” or on the “bloc of four classes” (cf. the report of Bukharin; the leader in the Communist International, no.11; the unpublished speech by Stalin to the Moscow functionaries on April 5, 1927; the article by Martynov in Pravda on April 10; the leader in Pravda of March 16; the speech by comrade Kalinin in Izvestia of March 6, 1927; the speech by comrade Rudzutak in Pravda of March 9, 1927; etc., etc.). Matters had gone so far on this track, that on the eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s coup d’état, Pravda, in order to expose the Opposition, proclaimed that revolutionary China was not being ruled by a bourgeois government but by a “government of the bloc of four classes”.

The philosophy of Martynov, which has the sorry courage to carry all the mistakes of Stalin and Bukharin in the questions of Chinese policy to their logical conclusion, does not meet a trace of objection. Yet it is tantamount to trampling under foot the fundamental principles of Marxism. It reproduces the crudest features of Russian and international Menshevism, applied to the conditions of the Chinese revolution. Not for nothing does the present leader of the Mensheviks, Dan, write in the last number of Sotsialisticheski Vestnik:

In principle the Bolsheviks were also for retaining the ‘united front’ in the Chinese revolution up to the completion of the task of national liberation. On April 10, Martynov, in Pravda, most effectively and despite the obligatory abuse of the Social Democrats, in a quite ‘Menshevik manner’ showed the ‘Left’ Oppositionist Radek the correctness of the official position which insists on the necessity of retaining the ‘bloc of four classes’, on not hastening to overthrow the coalition government in which the workers sit side by side with the big bourgeoisie, not to impose ‘socialist tasks’ upon it prematurely.

Everyone who knows the history of the struggle of Bolshevism against Menshevism, particularly in the question of relations to the liberal bourgeoisie, must acknowledge that Dan’s approval of the “rational principles” of the Martynov school is not accidental, but follows with perfect legitimacy. It is only unnatural that this school should raise its voice with impunity in the ranks of the Comintern.

The old Menshevik tactic of 1905 to 1917, which was crushed under foot by the march of events, is now transferred to China by the Martynov school, much the same as capitalist trade dumps its most inferior merchandise, which finds no market in the mother country, into the colonies. The merchandise has not even been renovated. The arguments are the same, letter for letter, as they were twenty years ago. Only, where formerly the word autocracy stood, the word imperialism has been substituted for it in the text. Naturally, British imperialism is different from autocracy. But the Menshevik reference to it does not differ in the slightest from its reference to autocracy. The struggle against foreign imperialism is as much a class struggle as the struggle against autocracy. That it cannot be exorcized by the idea of the national united front, is far too eloquently proved by the bloody April events, a direct consequence of the policy of the bloc of four classes.

March 4, 2017

The revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry? Say what?

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Lenin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

When I first heard the term “revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” not long after joining the SWP in 1967, I said to myself “What the fuck is that?” Democratic dictatorship, say what?

Soon, I learned that this was a term coined by V.I. Lenin to convey the goals of the Bolshevik Party in the coming Russian revolution. Basically, it meant that the workers would make a revolution against the feudal class in Russia that dominated the countryside and that was represented politically by the Czar. After that stage had been accomplished, Russia would go on to the next stage of capitalist development freed from feudal constraints. Under those conditions, the workers would take advantage of constitutional freedoms to build a socialist party modeled on the German social democracy that can overthrow the capitalist system. When Lenin used the term “dictatorship”, he used it like Marx in “Critique of the Gotha Program”:

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

It did not mean rule by a dictator, but rule by a class. Under bourgeois democracy, there is a dictatorship of the capital class. Under workers democracy, there is a dictatorship of the working class. In my view, it was probably a mistake for Marx or Lenin to use the word dictatorship, since it can be so easily misunderstood especially when Stalin exercised personal rule over Russia in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the early 70s, American Maoists defended Lenin’s strategy as a way of establishing “revolutionary continuity” with the Bolshevik Party in the same way that the SWP carried the banner of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. In 1973, Carl Davidson wrote a series of articles in the Guardian (a defunct radical newsweekly, not the British daily) titled “Left in Form, Right in Essence: A Critique of Contemporary Trotskyism” that many SDS’ers transitioning into “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” found useful. The second in the series was titled “Two lines on ‘permanent revolution’” that basically recapitulates arguments made by Stalin and his flunkies in the 1920s:

Trotsky’s views on the course of the Russian revolution, like those of the Mensheviks, were refuted by history. The revolution was both uninterrupted and developed in stages. The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants came into being during the first stage, during the period of the dual power and in the special form of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

In 1924, there was a heated debate in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between Trotsky and his detractors, including Josef Stalin and Lev Kamenev, over the two opposing lines. Kamenev’s article, which was titled “Leninism or Trotskyism?” and written in wooden prose, is virtually indistinguishable from Davidson’s as this excerpt would indicate:

Lenin stood for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry—Trotsky opposed it! Here, as Lenin pointed out, he caused great confusion with his left phrase on “permanent revolution.” In this last point Trotsky gave the impression of being more left than Lenin. He was not content with the mere dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, but demanded permanent revolution. Here we have merely a further example of what Lenin impressed upon us for so many years with regard to Trotsky: a right policy with regard to daily questions of actual practice, but skilfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left.

Davidson said, “Left in Form, Right in Essence” and Kamenev referred to a “right policy…skillfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left”. Pretty much the same thing.

By the time the Maoist sects began falling apart, two important Trotskyist groups had become convinced that Kamenev and Stalin were right. One was the SWP and the other was the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia, a group that tended to follow its lead. For the SWP, the turn against this theoretical foundation stone of the Fourth International was part and parcel of a turn to what they thought would be a new international based in Cuba and that included the FSLN in Nicaragua, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada and the ANC, et al. The SWP stopped theorizing about Permanent Revolution one way or another long ago, largely because of the loss of cadre who were up to such tasks while the Australians became much more engaged with less abstruse matters such as how to relate to the Kurdish struggle, etc. There are theoretical implications flowing from current struggles in the Middle East and Latin America but few activists or scholars invoke Lenin in Trotsky when trying to analyze them, with perhaps the exception of Steve Ellner who wrote an article in 2011 titled Does the process of change in Venezuela resemble a “Permanent Revolution”?

I hadn’t thought much about these matters for a few years until an article by Eric Blanc appeared in the new Historical Materialism blog titled “Before Lenin: Bolshevik Theory and Practice in February 1917 Revisited” that questions  those accounts of Lenin’s April Theses as a rejection of the “old Bolshevik” strategy of the democratic dictatorship and a virtual embrace of Permanent Revolution. Blanc writes:

Seeking to push back against the increasingly bureaucratised party apparatus, Trotsky initiated the polemic in his famous 1924 The Lessons of October. In this pamphlet he argued, among other things, that the Bolshevik party under the leadership of Stalin and Lev Kamenev was mired in de-facto Menshevism before Lenin arrived in April 1917 and re-armed the party with an entirely new political strategy.

But for Blanc, this version of history “obscures more than it clarifies”. After reading Lars Lih, he became convinced that the Bolsheviks did aim to seize power before Lenin’s return in April, 1917 and only differed with Lenin on the details. That does not seem to square with Lenin’s combative words with the old guard in “Letters on Tactics”, however:

The person who now speaks only of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”).

Keep in mind that the overthrow of the Czar took place in February. So, the period of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” lasted exactly two months according to Lenin’s timeline, not twenty years. This does not correspond to the schema in which workers would gather up their resources and move toward confronting the capitalist class as a powerful, well-organized party after the fashion of Kautsky’s social democracy that had millions of members. Some scholars believe that the Bolsheviks had 16,000 members in 1917. That’s not exactly a mass party although its influence was wide and deep enough to catapult it into the leadership of the 20th century’s most important proletarian revolution.

Blanc seems to straddle the fence between the “old Bolsheviks” like Stalin and Kamenev on one side and Trotsky on the other. In a footnote, he states:

Challenging Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917 neither requires rejecting the strategy of permanent revolution, nor accepting Stalinist accounts of 1917. In subsequent articles, I will show that despite the limitations in his interpretation of pre-Lenin Bolshevism, on the whole the politics of the party in 1917, and the course of the revolution, confirm the fundamental political tenets of permanent revolution.

I look forward to reading those articles but for now want to concentrate on Lars Lih’s 43-page article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” that appeared in Russian History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2011) and that Blanc credits as his framework for understanding this period.

Unlike most people who get involved in these controversies, including me, Lars Lih does not try to connect these debates to anything going on in the world today. In fact, outside of writing articles about Bolshevik history, his main interest seems to be music. He has performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and is a lecturer on music history and musicology at McGill University. He worked in the office of Democratic Party House of Representative Ron Dellums for six years but I wouldn’t make too much of that. It might have been just a job.

Before I discuss the article, I’d make a summary analysis of Lih’s approach, which is to create a revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky’s Social Democratic Party in Germany and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party—and more particularly the continuity between “old Bolshevism” and the party that took power in October 1917. According to this narrative, there was no basis for claiming that Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas about the Russian revolution converged with the April Theses. Everything that happened in 1917 was a vindication of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. You might even conclude that if Lenin had become convinced of Trotsky’s theory after 1905 and acted on that belief, the Russian Revolution would have not happened.

Lih spends nearly 10 pages recapitulating Stalin and Kamenev’s support for a bourgeois-democratic revolution to acquaint his readers with “old Bolshevik” thinking. In a nutshell, this meant that the Russian workers rather than the bourgeoisie would overthrow the feudal aristocracy after the fashion of France 1789. This is consistent with Trotsky’s analysis except that he argued that if the workers held political power, they would move rapidly toward socialism as he put it in the 1906 “Results and Prospects”:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. The political domination of the proletariat, even if it is only temporary, will weaken to an extreme degree the resistance of capital, which always stands in need of the support of the state, and will give the economic struggle of the proletariat tremendous scope.

After presenting the background to the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry strategy, Lih then turns his attention to how Stalin and Kamenev deployed it to great success in 1917 after some initial turmoil over Lenin’s new-found opposition to “old Bolshevik” strategy.

He dismisses the idea that Kamenev and Stalin were adapting to the provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky, using quotes such as this one from Stalin to establish their revolutionary credentials:

Many comrades, coming in from the provinces, ask whether we should pose the question of the seizure of the vlast right now. But to pose this question now is premature … We must wait until the Provisional Government exhausts itself, when, in the process of carrying out the revolutionary program, it discredits itself. The only organ that is able to take the vlast is the Soviet of Worker and Peasant Deputies on an all-Russian scale. [Lih has the disconcerting tendency to use Russian words when the English translation would suffice. Vlast means power.]

Far be it for me to cast doubt on Stalin’s revolutionary credentials, but the idea of waiting for the Provisional Government to exhaust itself sounds exactly the sort of thing that got Lenin’s dander up. Contrast Stalin’s cautiousness with Lenin’s characterization of the provisional government in “Letters from Afar” written within days of Stalin’s remarks:

The whole of the new government is monarchist, for Kerensky’s verbal republicanism simply   cannot be taken seriously, is not worthy of a statesman and, objectively, is political chicanery. The new government, which has not dealt the tsarist monarchy the final blow, has already begun to strike a bargain with the landlord Romanov Dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Cadet type needs a monarchy to serve as the head of the bureaucracy and the army in order to protect the privileges of capital against the working people.

For Lih, the “Letters from Afar” were not a breach with “old Bolshevism” but its continuation. He quotes Lenin’s first letter to prove that: “Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open of the eyes of the narod to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organization, their own unity, and their own weapons.”

However, this must be weighed against what Lenin wrote in the fourth letter:

The proletariat, on the other hand, if it wants to uphold the gains of the present revolution and proceed further, to win peace, bread and freedom, must “smash”, to use Marx’s expression, this “ready-made” state machine and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people. Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat, must organise and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power.

This, of course, is what Lenin would elaborate on in “State and Revolution”. The real breach between Lenin and Kamenev/Stalin was over whether proletarian revolution was on the agenda. Nobody could possibly mistake the Paris Commune as a “bourgeois revolution” even if Lenin referred to one in the first letter. For Marx, the Commune was a breach with the revolutions of the past, as surely would have been obvious to Lenin. If October 1917 was a “bourgeois revolution” based on old Bolshevik formulas, so then was the Paris Commune.

In March, Stalin and Kamenev were the editors of Pravda. When they received the first letter from afar, they published it but only after deleting healthy chunks of it. For Lih, there’s nothing political about the excisions that according to Russian historian by Eduard Burdzhalov were criticisms of the Provisional Government, the SRs and the Mensheviks with “particular sharpness”.

Now I ask you why Kamenev and Stalin would decide to delete any attacks on Kerensky and the Mensheviks. I hate to sound suspicious but it might have something to do with them considering the seizure of power to be “premature”, as Stalin put it.

What’s missing from Lars Lih’s narrative is the most compelling issue of all that divided Lenin from the “old Bolsheviks”, namely Kerensky’s continued support for the imperialist war that was arguably the straw that broke the back of the Russian workers and peasantry.

Before Stalin and Kamenev took over as Pravda editors in March 1917, the newspaper had adhered to the Bolshevik Party’s antiwar line. Historian Alexander Rabinowitch, who does not have a reputation as a defender of Trotsky’s reputation, describes the first issue under their control in his “Prelude to Revolution”:

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

None of this is mentioned in Lars Lih’s article, who would obviously have too big a job on his hands trying to treat it as a friendly disagreement over petty matters. He blithely assures us that “Even as a tactical debate, the clash at the April meetings seems based more on mutual misunderstandings than on substance.” Right. With Kamenev writing that “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell”, why would the author of the Zimmerwald Manifesto be troubled?

Furthermore, Lih’s article stops rather prematurely with the supposed Kumbaya convergence between Lenin and those who he took issue with after returning to Russia in April 1917. It is best to look at what happened when Lenin and the leftwing of the Bolshevik Party decided to seize power.

Kamenev and Zinoviev, two of the “old Bolsheviks” extolled by Lars Lih for their consistently revolutionary outlook, not only voted against the proposal but literally scabbed on the party. Their statement included this: “It is a profound historic error to pose the question of the transfer of power to the proletarian party – either now or at any time. No, the party of the proletariat will grow, its programme will become clear to broader and broader masses.” This, of course, is consistent with Stalin’s warning in March that the seizure of power was “premature”. They submitted an article to Maxim Gorky’s newspaper in a clear violation of party norms. When the question of insurrection is being posed inside the party, it is treacherous to reveal it to the reading public, including the cops.

Although Stalin did not join his “old Bolshevik” comrades in going public with their opposition to the seizure of power, he “supported Kamenev and Zinoviev at the most critical moment, four days before the beginning of the insurrection, with a sympathetic declaration”, according to minutes taken at a Pravda editorial board meeting.

Lenin was so incensed by the two “old Bolsheviks” that he demanded their expulsion in November, 1917:

You must recall, comrades, that two of the deserters, Kamenev and Zinoviev, acted as deserters and blacklegs even before the Petrograd uprising; for they not only voted against the uprising at the decisive meeting of the Central Committee on October 10, 1917, but, even after the decision had been taken by the Central Committee, agitated among the Party workers against the uprising. It is common knowledge that newspapers which fear to take the side of the workers and are more inclined to side with the bourgeoisie (e.g., Novaya Zhizn ), raised at that time, in common with the whole bourgeois press, a hue and cry about the “disintegration’ of our Party, about “the collapse of the uprising” and so on.

It should be noted that Lenin never followed through. The two men remained loyal party members afterwards and served the revolution until Stalin had them executed for opposing his bureaucratic rule.

In general, I am opposed to building cults around revolutionary figures including Lenin or Trotsky. Lenin’s democratic-dictatorship strategy was flawed as was Trotsky’s attempt to build a new international. Lih’s attempt to create a red ribbon pedigree from Marx to Kautsky to Lenin reminds me of what I used to get in the Trotskyist movement even though the line of succession was different. At least you can credit Lih for sticking to Lenin scholarship, even if he errs at times. Unlike some cult figures in the academy I ran into 40 years ago trying to build a Leninist vanguard like Frank Furedi or Alex Callinicos, Lih is content to publish in Historical Materialism and speak at their conferences, bless his heart.

I hope that someday Lars Lih will give Trotsky’s writings the attention they deserve. To reduce the theory of Permanent Revolution to its essentials, it boils down to the need for a proletarian revolution to achieve the historical goals of the bourgeois revolution such as the breakup of feudal estates, the elimination of clerical domination over society, constitutional rights such as a free press and the right of assembly, and the assumption of “Enlightenment values” in general. These are the obvious gains of the British and French bourgeois revolutions that were emulated to one degree or another in Western Europe in the 19th century.

If February 1917 was supposed to be the inauguration of such profound social and political changes, it was lost on Lenin who pushed immediately for a new revolution that could displace Kerensky’s capitalist-Czarist state with its feudal estates and imperial warmongering. The slogan “Peace, Bread and Land”, after all, was directed against Kerensky as an ultimatum, not as an obsequious request.

It was only after the capitalist state had been smashed and a new one based on the Paris Commune that such changes began to take place. In a speech given on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, Lenin made this clear:

What were the chief manifestations, survivals, remnants of serfdom in Russia up to 1917? The monarchy, the system of social estates, landed proprietorship and land tenure, the status of women, religion, and national oppression. Take any one of these Augean stables, which, incidentally, were left largely uncleansed by all the more advanced states when they accomplished their bourgeois-democratic revolutions one hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and fifty and more years ago (1649 in England); take any of these Augean stables, and you will see that we have cleansed them thoroughly. In a matter of ten weeks, from October 25 (November 7), 1917 to January 5, 1918, when the Constituent Assembly was dissolved, we accomplished a thousand times more in this respect than was accomplished by the bourgeois democrats and liberals (the Cadets) and by the petty-bourgeois democrats (the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries) during the eight months they were in power.

Those poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets brandished their wooden swords—but did not even destroy the monarchy! We cleansed out all that monarchist muck as nobody had ever done before. We left not a stone, not a brick of that ancient edifice, the social-estate system even the most advanced countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, have not completely eliminated the survivals of that system to this day!), standing. We tore out the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system, namely, the remnants of feudalism and serfdom in the system of landownership, to the last. “One may argue” (there are plenty of quill-drivers, Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries abroad to indulge in such arguments) as to what “in the long run” will be the outcome of the agrarian reform effected by the Great October Revolution.

So, the beginning of the new era was on October 25th, at the very moment the proletarian dictatorship had begun. There is no evidence that Lenin came to this conclusion after reading Leon Trotsky. He followed his own political instincts to break with the “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy that Lars Lih wants to reestablish.

I have no idea whether Lih is familiar with how the debate over the dynamics of the proletarian revolution would reemerge with events in China in the 1920s but given time I might turn to them to make the uselessness of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry more obvious.


February 13, 2017

The death agony of the Socialist Workers Party

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


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.


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)


“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.


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:


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.


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:

UnrepMarx 1_Page_055 UnrepMarx 1_Page_056

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

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.48.51 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.46.20 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.07.18 PM

UnrepMarx 1_Page_061 UnrepMarx 1_Page_062 UnrepMarx 1_Page_063 UnrepMarx 1_Page_064 UnrepMarx 1_Page_065 UnrepMarx 1_Page_066 UnrepMarx 1_Page_067 UnrepMarx 1_Page_068 UnrepMarx 1_Page_069 UnrepMarx 1_Page_070 UnrepMarx 1_Page_071 UnrepMarx 1_Page_072 UnrepMarx 1_Page_073 UnrepMarx 1_Page_074 UnrepMarx 1_Page_075 UnrepMarx 1_Page_076 UnrepMarx 1_Page_077 UnrepMarx 1_Page_078 UnrepMarx 1_Page_079

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.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.