Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 8, 2018

Rhino horn poaching: brought to you by the BRICS

Filed under: animal rights,China,South Africa — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Three days ago a NY Post article titled “Lions fatally maul poachers who broke into reserve to hunt rhinos” got shared widely on Facebook, including by me. For obvious reasons, this was a story that made you feel that some kind of animal revolt was taking place a la Planet of the Apes.

What you don’t get from Murdoch’s tabloid is any sense of the complexity that lay beneath the surface of this incident. For that you had to go to the NY Times, a newspaper that many radicals despise because it is for big business, etc., ad nauseam. However, as true as that may be, there is no substitute for the kind of newspaper that Karl Marx used to read in gathering the facts. For him, it was the London Times. For us it is the NY Times.

Titled “Lions Eat Men Suspected of Poaching Rhinos. Some Saw ‘Karma.’”, the Gray Lady coverage identified the socio-economic circumstances that led to the poaching epidemic:

Rhino horn is worth about $9,000 per pound in Asia, driving a lucrative and illicit trade. It is a prized ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine and is considered a status symbol.

South Africa is home to about 20,000 wild rhinos, more than 80 percent of the world’s population. About one-third of the animals are owned by private breeders. Since 2008, more than 7,000 rhinos have been hunted illegally, with 1,028 killed in 2017, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.

“Selling a single horn can exceed the yearly income of most rural people,” Dr. Hübschle said.

The Eastern Cape is South Africa’s poorest province, with a gross domestic product of less than $3,700 per capita. The unemployment rate here, including people who have given up looking for work, exceeds 45 percent, significantly higher than the national average.

“Behind poaching there’s a bigger story of structural inequality,” Dr. Hübschle said. “People were chased off their land during colonialism and apartheid, losing their customary hunting rights and tenure. Today, many local communities experience some trickle-down from poaching, while attitudes are generally negative towards private game owners and protected areas.”

Anybody who has been following this story, as I have mostly as a result of seeing a number of films about poaching over the years, you’re probably aware that the Chinese see rhino tusks as a magic elixir that can cure cancer, impotence, etc. China has also been a major black market for elephant tusks that are used to carve expensive trinkets that the bourgeoisie likes to display as a symbol of having made it. For all of the lip-service paid to Maoism in this fucked up country, there seems to be little progress made in either scientific understanding of medicine or aesthetics. Superstition and ostentation rule.

However, even with a ban on both commodities, the demand continues. For rhino tusks, there is a logic that is reminiscent of the subprime mortgage boom of the period prior to the stock market crash of 2007. They have become for investors the equivalent of the tulip mania of early 17th century Holland.

Takepart, an online magazine associated with Participant Media that produced the documentary on Edward Snowden, lays it all out:

But a new paper in the journal Biological Conservation raises a startling alternative theory. Rhinos are dying by the hundreds for what may be in essence an investment bubble, like tulips in 17th-century Holland or real estate in 1920s Florida.

It’s part of a trend over the past decade in China, according to Yufang Gao and his coauthors, of treating art and antiquities as a place for investors “to store value, to hedge inflation, and to diversify portfolio allocation.” Rhino horn assets typically take the form of cups, bowls, hairpins, thumb rings, and other ornamental items.

“Rhino horn pieces are portrayed in the Chinese media,” Gao and his coauthors write, “as an excellent investment opportunity whose value is tied more to the rarity of the raw materials rather than the artistic nature of the item. The aggressive media attention has played a significant role in the growth of the art market.” Press reporting about outlier items—those sold for astronomically high prices—“drives the perception that collecting rhino horn is highly profitable and influences black market prices.”

So you might think that this kind of speculation represents a combination of medieval backwardness and the frenzied search for fast bucks in today’s China. However, the real origins of this sick exploitation of animals at the top of the food chain is in Mao Zedong Thought. Although folk medicine has been around for thousands of years in China, it was Mao’s state-based elevation of the practice that led to the poaching epidemic. In the 1950s, facing a shortage of trained doctors in China, Mao ordered the creation of a directory of all these snake oil medications to make up for the deficit even though he thought it was bogus. In other words, Mao had no problems with people eating powdered rhino tusk for their heart problems but you can be damned sure he would get proper, modern medical treatment.

For all of China’s flaws, and they are biblical in proportion, South Africa—a fellow BRICS member—has very few of the institutional advances of China that were part and parcel of the Chinese revolution. While most people, including me, had high hopes that the ANC and the South African Communist Party, would make huge economic changes and even go so far as to advance beyond capitalism, the country is the most unequal in the world with a GINI coefficient of 63.40. (A perfectly equal society would have a GINI coefficient of zero.)

The Eastern Cape in South Africa is a province formed out of the Xhosa homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, two Bantustans—in other words, places where Blacks were forced to live. Under apartheid, these places were allowed to run casinos and topless revue shows that the racist government had banned elsewhere as being immoral. In one such Bantustan – Bophuthatswana in what is now North West Province – Sun City was created as a resort that became the eye of the hurricane in anti-apartheid protests. Like BDS today, many performers crossed the picket line for a lucrative pay check, including Elton John, Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt. Leading the boycott attack on Sun City apartheid, Bruce Springsteen’s sideman Steve Van Zandt made a record with artists pledged to shun Sun City and South Africa in general.

So what might you expect if the ANC refused to tackle the deep poverty that apartheid’s worst victims were facing? Poaching, that’s what.

You’d think that the Eastern Cape’s favorite son would have done something to attack the province’s deep-seated economic weaknesses. I speak here of Nelson Mandela who Steve Van Zandt and all these other activists placed their hopes on.

Let me conclude with a long excerpt from a Time Magazine article by Alex Perry titled “The Eastern Cape, Mandela’s Homeland, Still Suffers from Neglect and Misrule” that is a depressing read, especially for someone like me who put considerable time and effort in the early 90s supporting Tecnica’s work in the new South Africa:

When Nelson Mandela’s body is flown to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape Saturday ahead of his burial Sunday in the nearby village of Qunu, he will be returning to his home and to the heartland of his African National Congress (A.N.C.) – and also to one of the most egregious examples of A.N.C. failure in power. Today while cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town enjoy a new cosmopolitanism, a third visit on Wednesday confirmed once again that transformation is far less marked in the Eastern Cape. So do the statistics. A full 88% of people of the province’s population still live below the poverty line, according to government figures, millions of them in the same township shacks and grass-roofed huts that they occupied under apartheid. Government services are dire to non-existent: power, if it exists, can black out for days, while provincial statistics show 78.3% of the population have no running water and 93.3% have no sewers, prompting intermittent outbreaks of cholera. HIV/AIDS rates run at 13%, rising to a third in some townships. Unemployment is officially 41%, though non-governmental studies put it at 70%.

The destitution nurtures an epidemic of violent crime. The South African Police Service says the Eastern Cape has the country’s highest homicide rate and Mthatha’s, at 130 people per 100,000, is three times the provincial rate and one of the highest of anywhere in the world. Most horrifying are the rape statistics. The SA Medical Journal found rape in Mthatha rose from 39 per 100,000 women in 2001 to 417 in 2006. Since studies indicate that at most only 10% of rapes are reported, it concluded a more accurate but still conservative figure was 1,300 per 100,000 a year. That’s 45 times the equivalent figure in the U.S. and makes Mthatha a contender for rape capital of the world. Grimmest of all, children are at particular risk. The study showed 46.3% of the victims were under 16, 22.9% under 11 and 9.4% under six.

Apartheid left an atrocious legacy in the Eastern Cape. South Africa’s white supremacist social engineers divided much of the province into two areas it designated autonomous black homelands, Transkei and Ciskei, which it continued to rule as puppets but cut off from any government spending. The injustice of that racial marginalization fueled a wave righteous rebellion which bore many A.N.C. leaders – Mandela, and also Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Chris Hani, and Govan and Thabo Mbeki, as well as Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko.

Among them was Laura Mpahlwa. Born in Johannesburg in 1929, she was among the first to move to the South Western Township (Soweto) when it was designed a black dormitory town after apartheid was set up in 1948. In the 1940s Mandela moved from Qunu to Johannesburg, then Soweto. Mpahlwa went the other way, going to work in as a nurse in Mthatha hospital in 1953. “Back then, it was mud huts all the way from East London to Durban,” says the 83-year-old, referring to two major coastal cities.

With Transkei’s government little more than an apartheid puppet, the struggle was as fierce in Mthatha as Soweto. Mpahlwa’s first son spent five years on Robben Island for subversion, her second fled into exile and her third was tortured. Mpahlwa herself helped smuggle A.N.C. leaders in and out of South Africa from Transkei.

In 1990, Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison. In 1994, he became South Africa’s first black president. Mthatha was ecstatic. “There was such euphoria,” says Jennie, now 72. “It was such an amazing thing. We felt so hopeful.” There were also some immediate improvements. “People got lights,” says Laura. “Some got water. Work started on roads. There were social grants.” Still, when the A.N.C. asked Mpahlwa to become an MP in the new parliament, she declined. “I was scared,” she says. “Deep down I knew in my heart it was too big a position. I wasn’t trained for it. I wouldn’t cope.”

Other A.N.C. members did not share her modesty, with predictable results. The government of the new, free South Africa still left some of its people short of what they needed – books, teachers, medicine, roads, houses, jobs – and failed to protect many from what they didn’t. “Drugs, high rates of teenage pregnancies and HIV/AIDS,” says Mpahlwa. “There was mismanagement, misuse and, very disappointing, a lot of fraud.”

July 7, 2018

Donate to Philly Socialists Fund-drive

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,racism — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

Reading about the Philly Socialists participation in a sit-in at ICE headquarters in Philadelphia was all the motivation I needed to donate $100 to their fund-drive. Rewire.news reported:

Hundreds of protestors in Philadelphia on Monday night set up camp with tents, tarps, lawn chairs, and beach umbrellas. They organized a space for volunteer medics and a people’s kitchen, providing free first aid and food to those at the camp. They received so many supplies they had to start rejecting and moving the supplies to an off-site location.

“From the beginning of the camp, from its inception, the tactic that we agreed upon was like strict non-violence,” a member of Philly Socialists who asked to remain anonymous told Rewire.News. “I was really proud because when it came time to do that [tactic], everyone did it and no one broke. Everyone stuck to the tactic.”

This is exactly the type of activism we need today, one that is based on militancy but at the same time non-violence, although my tendency would be to use the word mass action rather than non-violence. During the Vietnam War, mass actions never sought confrontations with the cops although they were organized to be defended against both police repression or ultraright attacks.

I have no idea whether Philly Socialists is bigger or smaller than the DSA in Philadelphia but there is one thing I am sure of. They never would have gone overboard supporting the “radical” lawyer Larry Krasner for District Attorney.

Jacobin, the voice of the DSA, was thrilled with Krasner’s election as should be obvious from this article posted last November crowing over Larry Krasner’s victory.

But as any revolutionary could have told you, once in office Krasner would make sure to toe the line. As part of his “transition team”, he named former Philadelphia District Attorney and State Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille, a Republican who denied Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeals repeatedly. His animus directed against the “cop killer” was so obvious that in 2016 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Castille violated Mumia’s rights when he reinstated an execution order against him as a Supreme Court justice after the order had been vacated and after he’d already argued for his execution while prosecuting the case as district attorney. Instead, he should have recused himself from the case, especially since it is considered unorthodox for a judge to rule on a case he has previously prosecuted.

For an alternative take on Krasner/Castille, I recommend The Philly Partisan, the online journal of Philly Socialists. Titled “Thoughts On Larry Krasner’s Appointment of Ron Castille to His Transition Team for the District Attorney’s Office” and written by Kempis “Ghani” Songster (co-founder of the Redemption Project, Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute of Graterford), it should be all you need to read to convince to contribute generously to their fund-drive:

When a close friend of mine told me that a family member of his on the outside told him over the phone that Larry Krasner included Ron Castille in his Transition Team, I didn’t believe it. Then my friend said that, in fact, the report said Castille was Krasner’s first pick. I questioned the accuracy of the report he got from his family, i.e., his son, so hard that he started to question whether his son had read the report correctly. I mean, he started to doubt his own son and whether he himself heard his son right. That’s how hard I was defending Krasner. In my mind, there was no way someone who ran on an unprecedented, unapologetic, uncompromising “End Mass Incarceration” platform would seek and rely on one of the “purveyors of mass incarceration” to advise him on how to transition to what he promised, and what we hoped, would be a new culture in Philadelphia’s DA’s office.

Then I read the article myself in the Dec. 1 issue of the Daily News with my own eyes. I wasn’t totally surprised, which is sad, because I had seen this kind of thing before. Barack Obama campaigned aggressively on the lofty idea of Change, then when he was elected president he filled his cabinet with some of the unsavory characters who caused the problems he campaigned against. When I read the article about Krasner’s transition team, I was more like, “Deja vu. Here we go again. Politics as usual.” But, I wasn’t thinking that Krasner was flipping his campaign script and double-crossing the people who believed in him, voted for him, and put in super-hard yards to get him elected, as has been done by countless elected officials to their voters, time and time again. I was more like, “Noooo, Larry, you don’t have to do this. It’s unnecessary. You have a mandate!”

With respect to the rationale about “a symbolic transition team,” what does/would such a team with Ron Castille on it symbolize? What do We want, and what would We have, the transition team for Philly’s new DA symbolize or be “symbolic” of? What does Ron Castille symbolize? Is he a good symbol? One main campaign promise of Krasner’s was to change the culture of the DA’s office. Ron Castille does not represent/symbolize Change. Contrarily, he was one of the purveyors of the culture that Krasner promised to change and that the people elected him to change.

Castille was DA of Philadelphia from 1986-1990. He was the DA when his ADA Jack McMahon made the training video for and in front of young rookie prosecutors, schooling them on tactics for using peremptory strikes to exclude people of color from the jury in order to racially stack a jury prone to convict a defendant of color. That videotape was included in Castille’s office library for rookie prosecutors to check out and use as a training tool.

Castille was Chief Justice of the PA Supreme Court that ruled Miller v. Alabama/Jackson v. Hobbs “not retroactive” to JDBI [juvenile death by incarceration/life without parole] cases on collateral review. Castille wrote the opinion — Commonwealth v. Cunningham. He wanted to maintain DBI sentences for condemned children such as me who raised their JDBI issue on collateral. If Krasner includes Castille on the transition team, then he might as well include Lynne Abraham, too; and also Seth Williams, if he wasn’t in prison right now. Krasner’s election into the DA’s office should show that the people who put him there have won that particular institutional contest. But winning the symbolic contest is indispensable to an absolute victory in the institutional contest. Not only does the inclusion of a “symbol” such as Ron Castille in the “symbolic transition team” send mixed messages and confuse the people, but it symbolizes that we have not truly won the symbolic contest. That is, we have not won control of the narrative, the reshaping of the culture, and the meaning of all this.

If all Krasner did was appoint Castille in order to deflect charges that he was too radical (no, we can’t have that), it might be tolerable. But unfortunately, that was a prelude to a decision that makes DSA and any other “democratic socialist” think long and hard about their orientation to the Democratic Party. One of his assistant DA’s found that there was no bias in Castille’s rulings on Mumia despite the opinion of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. So the trail of broken Democratic promises continues.

 

July 6, 2018

The Citizen

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 6, 2018

When I was in high school, I had a very good English teacher who after assigning Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” warned us to pay careful attention to the pistols in Act One that Hedda Gabler shows off to a houseguest. They were inherited from her father and supposedly useful for killing time in a stultifying bourgeois household. Whenever you see a pistol or a knife in a play early on, he told us, that creates an uneasy foreshadowing of their being used in the final act. The titular character, bored and frustrated in the same way as Madame Bovary and other Victorian-era housewives, does end up shooting herself in the head.

At the beginning of “The Citizen”, a Hungarian film directed by Roland Vranik that opens today at the Metrograph theater in New York, we meet the main character Wilson Ugabe, a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, being grilled by a Hungarian immigration official, a member of a three-person panel, to determine whether he is entitled to become a citizen. “Tell me something about Hungarian art in the Renaissance.” “Do you remember what the Corvins were?” “Humanism”? Wilson remains silent, as you’d expect from having to take the Hungarian version of a test African-Americans took during the Jim Crow era to become registered to vote.

Continue reading

July 5, 2018

A Skin So Soft

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Although it is far afield from the sort of film I tend to review, I would be remiss in not recommending the documentary about body-building titled “A Skin So Soft” that opens at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow. Given its subject matter, you’d think that the Anthology that shares my overall political/artistic preferences would be the last place in the world to show a film having anything in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Pumping Iron”. In fact, it does have little in common and is much more of an edgy art film that is totally riveting.

This is a 2017 documentary directed by director Denis Côté that focuses on six body-builders in Quebec who we see on their daily rounds, either lifting weights or walking their dog. Unlike “Pumping Iron”, we hear almost nothing from the principals except for very mundane chatter with their wives or the people they are training, who in two instances are their wives.

The overarching theme of “Pumping Iron” is male aggression, with Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno facing off. In “A Skin So Soft”, it is mostly camaraderie with a strong sense that the men are almost like sculptors using their bodies as raw material. Their pursuit is not so much a worship of masculinity but of beauty. Despite the sheer strangeness of seeing biceps the width of automobile tires, you never get the vibe that these are steroid-gobbling creatures ready to beat a stranger to a pulp.

Indeed, the rituals of depilation, oiling, and posing have the aura of beauty contests rather than gladiator contests. At the end of the film, the six men go off to a country retreat at the director’s expense apparently to swim, sunbathe and relax. Despite the homoerotic suggestion of this scene and other scenes, it is much more like young boys at summer camp.

Director Denis Côté is an extraordinary talent and I hope to track down more of his films. Once again, you will be richly rewarded by a trip downtown to Anthology Film Archives for a screening of “A Skin So Soft”.

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part two)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 12:22 am

This is the second in a series of reproductions of chapters in Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. In the first installment, I posted the chapter on “The Genesis of the March Uprising” that discussed the factors that led to what Paul Levi called the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history”. This chapter titled “The March Uprising and its Failure” is a horrifying narrative of how the Communist Party of Germany under the direct influence of a Comintern emissary named Bela Kun staged an ultraleft adventure that in some ways makes the Weatherman “Days of Rage” in 1969 look sane by comparison.

As a preface to the chapter, there are some terms that need clarification.

  • The“Zentrale” was the central committee of the German CP that got its marching orders from Bela Kun.
  • The “Rote Fahne” was the newspaper of the CP that served as the main propagandist for the so-called March Action.
  • The “Orgesch” was an anti-Semitic militia that was a forerunner of Hitler’s Stormtroopers.
  • The “KPD” is the initials for the CP.
  • The “KAPD” is the initials for the Communist Workers Party of Germany that was a split from the KPD, on an even more ultraleft basis. Among the better-known members were Antonie Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, and Paul Mattick.

Politically, the disastrous outcome was a major factor in the rise of Nazism because it discredited the CP. Some of Angress’s chapter might be unfamiliar to those who have not studied the scandalous “March Action”. As background, I recommend this brief article by Pierre Broué, who like Angress, wrote an important book on the German Communist Party in the 1920s: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/broue/works/1964/summer/march-action.htm


CHAPTER V

THE MARCH UPRISING AND ITS FAILURE

Horsing’s move became known at the Central Committee meeting on the morning of March 17 and found the Communist leaders unprepared. As there were at the moment no details, apart from the text of the appeal, the assembled delegates refrained from dealing with the unexpected development except for agreeing on the advisability of postponing any direct involvement in central Germany until after Easter. The fourday holiday, from Good Friday to Easter Monday, was held to be unsuitable for strikes and related actions. The party organizations in the affected region were advised, presumably through those of their members who attended the conference in Berlin, that they should merely threaten to call a general strike once the police marched in, but were not to carry out the threat until the plants and mines were actually occupied. Before the day was over, however, this prudent attitude was abandoned by the Zentrale in favor of a barely disguised attempt to exploit the new situation. According to the Communist version, the initial desire to avoid a struggle in Prussian Saxony prior to Easter week was foiled by the Mansfeld miners, who reacted to Horsing’s “provocation!’ by precipitating a spontaneous uprising, and thereby compelled the KPD to rush to their assistance.

In the light of subsequent events this argument is not convincing. it is much more likely that, after the immediate impact of Horsing’s appeal had worn off, at least some members of the Zentrale experienced a change of heart by the time the conference adjourned on March 17. Once again, all signs point to the machinations of Kun with his flair for concocting illstarred revolutions. In view of the delicacy of his mission, neither he nor his associates attended the Central Committee meeting—the presence of the Comintern agents was to be known only to a restricted circle. It stands to reason, however, that Kun was informed of the outcome of the conference as soon as it stood adjourned, and that he then gave his views on the situation. If Kun had come to Germany with the express purpose of goading the KPD into action, the news of Horsing’s intention to move police into Prussian Saxony was in perfect accordance with his plans. All he had to do was to persuade those members of the Zentrale who had already fallen under his influence that the projected police occupation offered an excellent opportunity for the German Communists to launch the revolution which they had just decided was in the offing anyway. He may well have pointed out that any delay would diminish the chances for a successful operation. There were nine more days until Good Friday (March 25), time enough for Horsing’s forces to get a firm foothold in the occupied region unless they were met by organized resistance. And who but the KPD could furnish the leadership for such resistance?

Whatever the circumstances which prompted the Zentrale to reverse its earlier decision to postpone action, the fact remains that from March 17 on the KPD sounded and acted like a party resolved upon revolution. At the same time, in order to justify the party in the eyes of the working class in general, and of the Communist rank and file in particular, great pains were taken to give the impression that German Communism was merely responding to the wishes of the treacherous bourgeoisie.

On March 17, the Communist press, led by the Rote Fahne, opened a propaganda barrage so violent as to be inconsistent with the party’s alleged intention to hold the line until after Easter week. Under the heading “The Counterrevolution Strikes,” the early edition of the Rote Fahne carried a leading article urging the proletarians to abandon their previous passivity, which had merely encouraged the reactionaries. “It is not enough,” the paper warned, “to only announce the immediate fight of the proletarian masses against . . . the counterrevolution can frustrate its criminal intentions.” There was but one way out of the present crisis: alliance with Soviet Russia which, however, could only be realized “over the bodies of the bourgeoisie.” Excerpts from Horsing’s appeal appeared in the early edition, and the full text was printed in the evening edition of the Rote Fahne. The Communist targets on March 18 were the Orgesch and the SPD. Pointing to Bavaria’s refusal to disarm her civil guards, the paper commented at length on the helplessness of the unarmed workers. “The gang of majority Socialists” had agreed that, under the pretext of law, armed might in Prussian Saxony should be permitted to march against “the naked chest of the working class.”

“The bourgeoisie stands in arms and refuses to surrender them .. . and the German workers have no weapons! It was not the Entente that disarmed them—the Entente cannot even disarm the Orgesch. The German bourgeoisie and the rabble of Social Democratic leaders have wrested the weapons out of the hands of the proletarians. . . . Now the law means nothing any more; nor does Versailles. Weapons will decide, and the counterrevolutionaries refuse to surrender theirs. . . . Every worker will simply ignore the law [pfeift auf das Gesetz] and must seize a weapon wherever he may find one!

This blast, drafted by Kun himself, led to the confiscation of the issue by the Prussian authorities, whereupon the identical text was promptly reprinted in the Rote Fahne on the following day. The entire approach was so clumsy that it met with the disapproval even of Ernst ReuterFriesland, who registered a protest with the Zentrale. Yet the same argument was put forth on March 18 in the Reichstag where the KPD deputy Däumig demanded that the proletariat be armed because the Reichswehr was counterrevolutionary and anti-proletarian.

On March 19, the day the police occupation of Prussian Saxony went into effect, the Rote Fahne announced that the Central Committee had decided at its recent meeting to mobilize the party, organizationally and spiritually, for the coming struggle against a bourgeoisie which was collaborating with the Entente in a joint effort to exploit the workers. “The difficulties faced by the government in the Upper Silesian plebiscite and the sanctions make it essential that the proletariat develop the greatest possible activity!” All workers would have to be prepared to fight in answer to Horsing’s provocation.’

Although the logic of the article left much to be desired. Inasmuch as collaboration between Germany and the Entente was mentioned in one breath with Allied sanctions, the general tenor was clear enough. Every stop of the propaganda organ was pulled in order to bracket events in Prussian Saxony with all the other crisis factors, real or imaginary, that loomed so large in the imagination of the party strategists. It was quite in line with this policy to devote the evening issue of the Rote Fahne on March 19 to the problem in Upper Silesia, where the plebiscite was scheduled to be held the next day. The paper pointed out that Polish and German counter-revolutionaries were facing each other in Upper Silesia and were ready to engage in combat. The Orgesch in that part of the country was spoiling for a fight because the spirit of nationalism there was strong. The Silesian plebiscite, the Rote Fahne informed its readers, was no local affair but concerned every proletarian. The adventure planned by the German counterrevolutionaries in these regions was to be the first battle of the Orgesch, to be followed by a second, the battle against the German proletariat. “Once the Polish and German counter-revolutionaries in Upper Silesia begin to clash, the iron fist of the proletariat from both countries must smash in between the [combatants].

On March 20, the day after the police occupation had gone into effect, the Rote Fahne carried the banner line: “Horsing orders his gang of murderers to march in!” The days of the Bloodhound Noske had returned. The workers in central Germany had decided to offer resistance and thus had set an example which should be followed by workers throughout the country. SPD and Independents came in for a sharp attack because they supported Horsing, and Severing and Weismann were labeled “henchmen of the Orgesch.” Once again the Rote Fahne demanded: “Weapons into the hands of the workers!” And the entire German working class was urged to come to the assistance of their embattled brothers in central Germany. This frantic appeal to the German working class at large was neutralized by an editorial in the same issue, entitled, “He Who Is Not For Me, Is Against Me! A Word to the Social Democratic and Independent Workers.” This editorial, instead of addressing the Socialists as potential allies, told them that they, and the rest of the German proletariat, were on the wrong road; only the Communist Party knew where it was going. After a lengthy enumeration of the virtues inherent in the Communist cause, the Rote Fahne listed a number of conditions under which the misled workers might join the Communist ranks, one of which was a barely concealed suggestion that the Socialists should string their own leaders from the lamp posts. It was, in Levi’s words, “a declaration of war against four-fifths of the German workers at the beginning of the Aktion.” The ineptness of the Communist propaganda effort was succinctly expressed by Vorwärts when it told its readers: “Moscow needs corpses . . . . We warn the working class. . . . Do not let yourselves be provoked!”

Although slogan after slogan rolled off the Communist presses, no serious unrest accompanied Horsing’s appeal in Prussian Saxony. The Zentrale, which gradually realized that it was illusory to rely on the spontaneity of the population, decided that some outside help was needed to arouse the masses, and acted accordingly. On March 18, the Communist district executive for Halle-Merseburg received orders from the Zentrale to start a revolutionary action at once. The directives stipulated that Horsing’s police measures were to serve as an excuse for the insurrection. Two local party leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, were entrusted with the direction of the operations (Aufstandsleitung), with headquarters to be situated at Halle. The next day, March 19, the Halle district committee of the KPD met for a conference to determine the line of action which the party was to take in the region. Representatives from various subdistricts and individual towns attended the conference, which was chaired by a leading official of the Halle district, Fred Oelssner. Oelssner started out by giving a brief summary of the domestic and foreign political problems which Germany faced, a résumé that followed closely the familiar arguments of Kun. The situation in Upper Silesia, according to the speaker, was tense, and in Bavaria the Orgesch was on the move. Large-scale strikes by farm workers in Germany’s eastern provinces were assuming political overtones. In view of these circumstances the KPD had to decide on how best to exploit the situation to produce revolutionary action. The problem, thus stated, was then thrown open for discussion. The prevailing atmosphere at the conference was later described by a participant: “We were all convinced that Horsing’s decree would never suffice to produce an Aktion in Germany, but that we had to resort to provocation . . . the first shot, the notorious first shot, had to come from the side of the enemy.” It was suggested in the course of the discussion that favorable results might be achieved by harassing the police, who sooner or later were bound to open fire. Some of the members present were less than enthusiastic, but all indications of faintheartedness were speedily quashed from the chair. Oelssner terminated the conference by stating, contrary to the facts, that fighting had already begun and that it was now the duty of the party to increase the intensity of the struggle. The immediate objective was to arm the workers, then to capture political power.

During the session of the district executive at Halle came the first reports that the police occupation was already in progress. Another conference was called in Halle for March 20, this time by the regional executive, and all central German districts sent representatives who gave their individual situation reports. The conference was overcast by a cloud of deep depression. It was the general consensus that the spirit among the population was anything but revolutionary, and that artificial means would have to be used in order to bring matters to a head (um die Sache hochzubringen). Indeed, all was not well with the revolutionary spirit of the masses, which had figured so prominently in the calculations of the party leaders. The proletarians in Prussian Saxony, who according to subsequent Communist claims were so desperately in need of assistance, behaved initially with unforeseen timidity in the face of the Prussian police uniforms. Despite some ripples of discontent and attempts by agitators to stir up the workers and get them to stage walkouts, everything remained calm throughout March 19 and 20 (the latter being a Sunday) in the Eisleben area which had been the first to be occupied. Only on Monday, March 21, had agitation progressed sufficiently to encourage the Communist district executive of Mansfeld to call for a general strike, and on that day leaflets were distributed throughout the mining region which, in part, read as follows:

“Mansfeld workers! The reactionaries have carried out their threats and have turned your peaceful homes into a staging area for the White Guards. . . . They did not come with the ordinary weapons of the police forces but armed with machine guns and handgrenades . . . Mansfeld workers! Show that you are not slaves and use your power to repulse this onslaught. A general strike must be called. All wheels must stop turning . . . . Workers! you hold the power in your hands. Use it in proper time and be prepared for all eventualities (seid gewappnet fur alle Fälle].” The appeal was reproduced the same day in the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, the local Communist paper, and the strike began to spread, with moderate success, in the heart of this mining area. Yet outside of the immediate Mansfeld district most factories went on working, and there was still no sign of open violence.

Up to this point the Zentrale had been content to sit back and grind revolutionary tunes on the propaganda organ. But when the proclamation of the general strike failed to have the desired effect, Hugo Eberlein, who had recently been put in charge of the party’s military-political organization (MP-Apparat), was dispatched to central Germany on March 22. Eberlein was a Spartacist veteran who had participated in the founding of the KPD, and who in March 1919 represented the young party at the Founding Congress of the Communist International. He was a member of the Zentrale from the founding of the party up to the unification with the USPD, and it is conceivable that he was not elected into the Levi-Daumig Zentrale because of his delicate position as chief of the MP-Apparat. Eberlein enjoyed in party circles a reputation as an experienced saboteur, and was known among the rank and file as “Hugo mit der Zündschnur (Hugo with the fuse).”

As soon as Eberlein arrived in Halle he conferred with the local party functionaries. He told them that the Zentrale had ordered him to direct strategy in the region and to do his utmost to accelerate the pace of the projected operation. When some scepticism was ex pressed by two local leaders, Eberlein left no doubt that he intended to carry out the uprising under any circumstances. He rejected all talk of calling off the general strike, and then proceeded to develop his plans. It was essential, Eberlein argued, to win mass support, first in central Germany and ultimately in the rest of the Reich. Artificial means would have to be used to arouse the workers from their passive attitude. He suggested that trusted comrades were to commit acts of violence which could be blamed on the police—in this manner, even the most reluctant of workers would be provoked into action. But Eberlein’s fertile imagination provided a number of additional suggestions. He wanted to stage a mock-kidnapping of the two regional Communist leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, who were nominally in charge of directing the Aktion. Other popular leaders should disappear for a day or two, only to re-emerge with fairy tales about how they had been liberated from the reactionaries. Another scheme was to blow up an ammunition train of the police and then to charge in the Klassenkampf, the Communist newspaper in Halle, that carelessness on the part of the reactionaries had ruined the homes of numerous workers, and had caused the death of hundreds of victims. Once it became known that the report was false, the paper could print a correction a few days later. Two more targets for Eberlein’s store of dynamite were an ammunition factory at Seesen, and a workers’ producers’ cooperative (Produktivgenos-senschaft) in Halle.

None of these projects was carried out successfully, although several abortive attempts were made to blow up both the ammunition factory and the producers’ cooperative. Eberlein’s reaction to the initial failure of the dynamiting exercises was a blast at the inefficiency of the local illegal apparatus which, he complained, did not even own a decent piece of fuse to do a reliable job. Yet before the day (March 23) was over, Eberlein’s tactics were largely overshadowed by the activities of a less sophisticated, albeit more renowned, revolutionary figure who had appeared in the Mansfeld district—Max Hoelz. Hoelz was no unknown to the revolutionary movement. He had first won prominence in 1918, when he organized the unemployed in his Saxon hometown of Falkenstein in the Voigtland during the revolution. His activism and initiative attracted the attention of the entire region at the time, and he won nationwide fame during the Kapp Putsch by his talented organization of workers’ brigades, which he led in guerilla warfare all over Saxony. In the course of the fighting he came into conflict with the leader of the Communist Chemnitz branch, Heinrich Brandler, who resented what he termed Hoelz’s undisciplined inroads on Brandler’s territory. The grudge continued, and after the Kapp Putsch Brandler had Hoelz expelled from the party, which he had joined in 1919. His expulsion from the KPD did not discourage Hoelz from continuing in his role of a German Robin Hood, a “condottiere with a social conscience nod the temperament of a rebel fighting for the poor and oppressed.”

When Hoelz learned on March 21 that a general strike had been called in the Mansfeld district, he left Berlin, where he had lived underground ever since the spring of 1920, and journeyed into the industrial region of Prussian Saxony. He arrived at Kloster Mansfeld late at night, but still in time to attend a meeting on the general strike. There was, as yet, no mention of armed insurrection. The situation changed on the following day, March 22, when walkouts increased in the Mansfeld-Eisleben mining district, and armed bands prevented non-striking mining crews from entering the pits. During the day Hoelz addressed strike meetings at Hettstedt, Mansfeld and Eisleben, and it was as a result of his Eisleben speech that the situation got out of hand. According to a Prussian police major, Hoelz spoke in support of the general strike, urged his audience to arm themselves, and allegedly incited them to beat up police patrols. His suggestion was followed immediately after the meeting was over, when a group of his listeners marched to Eisleben’s market square and attacked four policemen who were out shopping, armed only with dress bayonets. The policemen were rescued before long, but the incident encouraged many unruly elements in the neighborhood, and from the night of March 22-23 on the strike movement began to turn into an open, and spreading, insurrection. Incited by Hoelz and his “adjutant” Josef Schneider, the editor of the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, a growing number of persons among the local population provided themselves with rifles, machine guns, and large amounts of explosives, which were easily obtained in a mining area. Some of the weapons came from secret depots which dated from the days of the Kapp Putsch and its aftermath; others were either captured or stolen from the police. Hoelz then began to form shock troops. He recruited strikers and unemployed miners most of whom were in possession of arms, organized them into units, and then descended with his motley troops upon the region around Mansfeld, Eisleben, and Hettstedt. For the next ten days Hoelz’s “army” terrorized the countryside by arson, looting, bank robberies, and the dynamiting of buildings, trains, and other suitable targets. Aimless though most of these activities were, Hoelz nevertheless succeeded where the KPD, Eberlein’s exertions notwithstanding, had so far failed: only two days after he came to the region, Hoelz had transformed the strike movement into a bloody insurrection. 27 Drobnig, pp. 9-10. Hoelz has presented a different version of this incident. According to his account (pp. 139-140), he had only urged the workers to support the general strike. Trouble started when the police, following his Eisleben speech, arrested and maltreated several strikers who had attended the meeting. When their comrades tried to liberate them by force, fighting broke out. The incident convinced the workers and Hoelz that it was time to seize weapons and organize fighting units.

From March 23 on, the situation in central Germany was extremely confused. Although the strike was spreading, and resistance to Horsing’s police was gathering momentum, the SPD, Independents and unions continued their initial opposition to what they felt was an irresponsible Communist adventure, and made every effort to prevent the workers in Prussian Saxony and elsewhere in Germany from lending support to the movement. There was, moreover, little or no coordination among the various proletarian groups that participated in the insurrection. Communist headquarters at Halle lacked effective control over the operation as a whole, and in particular over developments in the vital mining district around Mansfeld, Hettstedt and Eisleben. Eberlein’s presence in Halle could not change this fact. He was given but lukewarm cooperation from the local party leaders, and most of the attempts to extend the scope of the uprising in accordance with Eberlein’s unorthodox directives were either bungled, or they actually backfired. For example, the repeated dynamiting and derailing of passenger trains alienated railroad personnel, whose support of the insurrection would have been of vital importance for its success.

Most of the actual fighting took place in the Mansfeld district, the heart of the insurgent region, where Hoelz and his guerilla bands wreaked havoc and stole the Communists’ thunder. Supported by scattered contingents from the KAPD, hordes of unemployed, and the inevitable sprinkling of undefinable drifters who participated in the uprising for reasons of their own, this latter-day Schinderhannes battled police and ransacked the countryside, all in the name of social justice. There was little system to his burning, dynamiting and plundering, but no one, least of all the local KPD, could control him or gain his cooperation. Stubborn and self-righteous, he did not accept advice, much less orders, from anyone. Whoever joined his forces became subject to his command: this happened to a few impatient hotheads from the KPD organization in Halle who, without authorization from headquarters, collected six thousand men during a street demonstration, marched them to the Mansfeld district, and there joined Hoelz.

Relations between KPD and KAPD were also poor during the entire course of the uprising. The radical KAPD men admired Hoelz and hardly disguised their contempt for the KPD. Hoelz rewarded this admiration by handing over to the war chest of the KAPD the money that his desperados robbed from the local banks, and this incurred the jealousy of the rival party. Lack of cooperation between the two Communist organizations was prominently displayed in the “defense” of the chemical works at Leuna, south of Merseburg. This large industrial complex, which employed roughly twenty thousand workers, would have been eminently suited as a strong. point for the entire insurrection, but the potential strength of the Leuna works was never effectively utilized. A mammoth protest meeting, attended by an alleged eighteen thousand employees, was held on March 21, and an action committee was elected. Two days later, the Leuna works joined the regional general strike. The majority of workers went home, either to stay there and await the resumption of work, or to join battle against the police. At Leuna proper, a garrison, consisting of an estimated two thousand armed strikers, barricaded themselves inside the works and prepared to defend the compound against a police assault. But the defenders were neither unified nor well organized. The action committee which had been elected on March 21 was dominated by KAPD men who quarrelled incessantly with their comrades from the KPD. No agreement was reached on the essential question of whether they should remain on the defensive, or take the initiative and partake in the regional fighting. A further reason for controversy was the problem of emergency maintenance of the plant’s most vital installations, a measure which the KAPD opposed. Mutual recriminations among the members of the action committee, coupled with the failure of KPD headquarters to maintain contact with the garrison, left Leuna an isolated, albeit armed, citadel.

Thus Hoelz’s excessive violence, the ineffective efforts of the KPD to gain control over the movement, and the factional rivalries, all combined to jeopardize the chances of the uprising from the outset. Yet, for a few days after the outbreak of fighting, the fate of the insurrection hung in the balance; success or failure depended on whether the government could suppress it before the Zentrale extended it beyond central Germany.

On March 23, news of the radical turn of events in Prussian Saxony reached Berlin and was discussed by the cabinets of the Reich and Prussia. Additional bad news came from Hamburg, where labor trouble had erupted the same day, and the authorities had to find means of protecting the country from possible civil war. After some deliberations, which concentrated on central Germany, it was decided not to declare martial law in the insurgent region unless such a step should become unavoidable. Probably at this point, or very shortly thereafter, a decision was reached to rely primarily on police forces, but to keep several army units in readiness. They were to be employed only in case of emergency. The question of whether these Reichswehr contingents would then come under the command of the police or would act independently was temporarily left open.

Meanwhile, disturbing reports continued to reach the capital. Toward evening it became known that fighting around Eisleben had grown more intense, that the Leuna works had been hit by a general strike, and that the insurrection threatened to spread to the state of Saxony, where bomb plots against law courts had been discovered in Dresden, Leipzig and Freiberg. In Halle, where Communist headquarters in charge of regional operations was located, no strikes had developed so far, but the insurgents had distributed pamphlets with the following text: “On to the barricades, long live Soviet Russia! The revolutionary Ruhr district has been cut off by imperialist designs of the Entente powers, and central Germany has therefore become the heart of the German revolution. On to the barricades! Conquer the world!”

Equally somber was the news from Hamburg, where the senate had imposed a state of emergency that day at 4 P.M. Under the impact of these reports, President Ebert became convinced that drastic measures were needed. During the night he consulted with federal and Prussian officials and, still shying away from a declaration of martial law, proclaimed on the morning of March 24 a non-military state of emergency for Hamburg and the province of Saxony. Horsing was appointed (federal) civilian commissioner and entrusted with the execution of all measures which he deemed necessary for the restoration of order.

As the government was trying to find ways and means to quell the insurrection, the Communist Zentrale in Berlin made every effort to spread it beyond central Germany. Placards all over Berlin announced that in Prussian Saxony the (legal) factory councils had been replaced by revolutionary workers’ councils, an example which proletarians everywhere should follow. On March 22, the morning edition of the Rote Fahne called for mass demonstrations, to be held in the evening of March 24 at four points in the capital. The demonstrators were urged to protest Horsing’s police action and to express their solidarity with their comrades in central Germany. To add some local color, the Berlin workers were also asked to register a protest against the arrest of Ernst Reuter-Friesland by the police. In the course of the day the Zentrale changed its mind and scheduled the demonstrations for the same evening, March 22, presumably because somebody had realized that to hold a mass meeting on Maundy Thursday, shortly before the Easter holidays, was inpropitious. Despite the short notice the meetings were well attended, but revolutionary fervor was strikingly absent. Some wind had been taken out of the Communist sails when Reuter-Friesland was released shortly before the demonstrations were held—after he had spent two days in jail the police revealed that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity. His return deprived the Zentrale of an effective local slogan and made it necessary to concentrate solely on central Germany. Party spokesmen addressing the crowds urged all workers to stand by and be prepared to come to the aid of their imperiled comrades. The audience listened attentively but without any display of emotion. When some hecklers from the KAPD registered their dissatisfaction with mere preparedness, and demanded that a general strikc be called at once, they elicited hardly any response.

The evening edition of the Rote Fahne that day was likewise devoted to the situation in central Germany. The editorial emphasized, with unconcealed gratification, that this was the third time since the end of the war that the workers in the Mansfeld district were attracting everyone’s attention. This time, however, neither Horsing nor the Orgesch would succeed in provoking the workers to dissipate their collective strength in isolated skirmishes. Nor would the German labor movement as a whole be misled again by so-called anti-putschist phrases which had bred so much cowardice and passiveness in the past. The general strike called by the workers in central Germany was no putsch. It was the beginning of a collective action (Gesamtaktion), essential for the German proletariat if it was to prevent in time the disastrous consequences of the inevitable collapse of capitalism. The editorial ended with the usual revolutionary ruffles and flourishes: “The proletarian battalions in central Germany stand ready to fight. German workers, show your revolutionary solidarity, join your brothers, cast off your indifference, get rid of your cowardly and treacherous leaders, and fight—or you will perish!”

Despite all inflammatory slogans the Berliners did not stir. Not even the Communist-sponsored mass demonstrations elicited as yet more than polite curiosity, mixed with the traditional scepticism for which the population of the capital was famous. But on March 23 the Zentrale was compensated by encouraging news from Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, where the propaganda efforts of the Red press had fallen on fruitful ground. Widespread unemployment had created a dangerous atmosphere which the KPD skillfully exploited. Communist agitation became noticeable in Hamburg on March 22. On that day the city’s Communist leaders, Ernst Thalmann among them, held a conference in the business office of the KPD in order to determine how the Hamburg workers could render immediate assistance to the proletariat in central Germany. It was resolved, among other things, to make use of the unemployed in any mass actions taken.

The local party organ, Hamburger Volksblatt, set the tone in an impassioned report on events in central Germany, and called on the workers of Hamburg to prove their solidarity with their comrades in Prussian Saxony. The paper demanded that the government disarm the Orgesch, arm the proletarians, create jobs for the unemployed, and call off Horsing’s police action in central Germany. The paper threatened a general strike by Hamburg’s proletariat if the government should reject these demands. In order to lend some substance to their threats, the Communists scheduled a protest meeting for March 23 at the Heiligengeistfeld, a fairground not far from the waterfront.

Radical Communist agitation proved more effective in “red” Hamburg than in Berlin. On the morning of March 23rd a huge crowd of unemployed, led by the KPD, marched to the waterfront and invaded three of Hamburg’s largest shipyards, Blohm & Voss, Vulkan, and Deutsche Werft. The plant managers tried to order the crowd off the premises by threatening to close down the yards unless they were obeyed. The unemployed shouted back that they wanted jobs and urged the workers in the shipyards to support them. Support was not forthcoming, nor could it have been expected, since most shipyard workers were loyal supporters of the Social Democratic Party. The issue did not long remain in doubt, Arguments led to threats of force, and strong-arm tactics eventually succeeded in dislodging from the yards all opponents of the Communist-led mob. The managers retreated along with thy Socialist personnel, and the invaders occupied the premises. Once in possession, they elected ad hoc action committees and hoisted red flags The KPD had attained its objective of infusing revolutionary spirit into a section of Hamburg’s labor movement, although this done at the expense of unemployed desperate enough to act as shock troops for the “revolutionary vanguard.” Nothing constructivc could have been accomplished in the long run by the forceful occupation of the yards, as the Communist leaders undoubtedly knew.

And the occupation proved of short duration. The KPD had issued instructions to keep the yards occupied, but the crowd within the gates, the group which occupied the Vulkan wharf, left the yards in the early afternoon perhaps through some misunderstanding, and marched into the city, presumably to attend the protest demonstration at the Heiligengeistfeld which was scheduled for 5 P.M. They were met by police forces, who tried to break up the formation, and after heavy street fighting succeeded in dispersing the would-be demonstrators, including those who had already reached the Heiligengeistfeld. The police then surrounded the wharves of Blohm & Voss, firing into courtyards and buildings. By early afternoon the shipyards were cleared, but Hamburg remained dangerously restless. Street battles between unemployed and police continued throughout the rest of the day in various parts of the city, and at 4 P.M. the senate proclaimed a state of emergency, which was given full backing the following day by the federal emergency decree of President Ebert.”

The president’s proclamation of a state of emergency for Hamburg and Prussian Saxony on March 24 posed a challenge to the Communist leaders which they decided to meet head on. With the Easter holidays just ahead, the Zentrale had to do something to sustain the movement and, if possible, to accelerate its intensity. For this purpose the KPD called a nationwide general strike on March 24, urged the proletarians to seize arms, to get organized, and to join the struggle against the counterrevolution. It was a desperate step, for all plants closed down anyway from Good Friday (March 25) through Easter Monday. But the response to the Communist appeal was negligible. Both Socialist parties countered the call for a general strike by instructing their members to ignore it. In Berlin, the seat of the Zentrale, the strike movement was a total fiasco. Most workers reported to their jobs on the 24th, and only a few factories were idle, despite the aforementioned attempts by the KPD to enforce the shutdown of working plants through attempted invasions by unemployed. These methods aroused sharp criticism even from within the party. Ernst Daumig, for instance, sent a furious letter to the Zentrale in which he protested the practice of pitting proletarians against proletarians. Equally indignant were the party officials in charge of trade-union activities, who complained that the tactics employed by the Zentrale were wrecking their influence within the unions.

The Zentrale scored slightly better in the Ruhr region and the Rhineland. In the Communist Ruhrecho, and through handbills, the regional KPD organizations followed the lead of the Zentrale by exhorting the population to join the general strike. Throughout March 24 and 25, the Communists kept up an untiring propaganda barrage by calling for demonstrations, for support of the embattled comrades in Prussian Saxony, and for support of the general strike. Party leaders recommended “Easter promenades” through the streets, especially in the working-class districts. They hoped in this way to keep the issue alive over the holidays, and to win support from non-Communist labor for the intensified struggle which they expected in the days ahead. On Easter Monday, armed clashes betwcen workers and police occurred in Essen. During the next few days similar incidents took place in a number of mines, and in nearly every sizable city of the Rhenish region. Only a fraction of the population, however, supported the general strike, most walkouts that were staged were of short duration and, by March 30, order was restored to the region except for some isolated pockets. Germany’s largest industrial area, traditionally a radical stronghold, had proven of little help to the KPD.

Equally unspectacular was the impact of the insurrection on southern Germany, the northern plains, and the East Elbian region. Only token strikes and isolated minor riots briefly disturbed these otherwise quiet areas. Thus, in the last analysis, success or failure of the uprising hinged on developments in central Germany, where the fighting had taken a more violent turn after President Ebert’s decree had become known. Because Horsing’s police forces were restricted in numbers, and the Reichswehr units continued to stand by without participating in the fighting, the operations of the government proceeded at first at a rather slow pace. On March 24, insurgent forces held Eisleben and Hettstedt against the police, and Halle and Merseburg were affected by the strike movement. There were reports that in the area around Leuna, now occupied by armed strikers, every male between the ages of fifteen and fifty had become eligible for “conscription” into the ranks of the insurgent proletariat, and that compulsion was used on some occasions to enlist unwilling recruits.”

Heavy fighting continued for several days. On March 25, government forces gradually won the upper hand in Eisleben and Hettstedt, and on the following day took Mansfeld, Helbra, and Sangershausen. At the same time, however, they suffered some setbacks when new riots broke out in such peripherally situated towns as Wittenberg, Delitzsch, and Bitterfeld, which until then had not been affected by the insurrection.

On Good Friday, some confusion was thrown into the ranks of the insurgents when rumors circulated throughout the region that Horsing had offered immunity from punishment to anyone willing to surrender and to hand his weapons over to the police. Whatever substance there may have been to this rumor, it was quickly quashed. On March 26, Severing sent a telegraphic order to the government forces, forbidding all negotiations with the fighting workers, and instructing the police to proceed without leniency.”

The attitude of Communist headquarters in Halle was equally uncompromising, as was evident from the instructions issued by this body on Good Friday: “Provocation at any price! Overturn street cars, throw handgrenades . . . !” But in spite of these desperate exhortations, from March 27 on the Aktion turned gradually into a rout, as bands of insurgents, varying in size, engaged in desperate and usually fruitless rearguard skirmishes with the police. Hoelz’s account of his own movements during these last hectic days constitutes very representative description of the collapse. He and some of his men spent Easter Sunday (March 27) at Schraplau, a small town roughly ten kilometers southeast of Eisleben, where he paid his “troops” for the first time. Hoelz has recounted this momentous occasion with customary modesty: “The finance and commissariat department of the troops was entrusted with the payment. Each received fifty marks.” He does not indicate the source of the money.

At Schraplau he met Lemck (Hoelz calls him “Lembke”) and Bowitzki, nominally the Aufstandsleiter appointed by the KPD, who had, however, lost contact with their own headquarters. Hoelz planned originally to march to the Leuna works and reinforce the garrison there, but changed his mind and set out for Halle, by way of Ammendorf. He intended to launch a surprise attack upon Halle in the hope of capturing some artillery pieces. In the night from March 27 to 28, Hoelz led his men in a belated Easter parade from Schraplau to Ammendorf, a distance of roughly twenty-five kilometers. On the following day he advanced on Halle with two thousand men, but ran into police who surrounded his force before he reached the city. Hoelz sent Lemck to the garrison of the Leuna works with the urgent request for immediate reinforcements, and ordered his men to hold the line until the expected relief arrived. It never came, although Lemck returned, after two hours, in a car with one thousand rounds of ammunition and the promise of speedy aid from Leuna. After waiting in vain for some time, while the police were tightening their ring, Hoelz’s troops began to disperse in an effort to escape from the trap before it was too late. In the ensuing confusion Hoelz became separated from his men and hid in a mine-shaft. When he emerged from his concealment, his troops had disappeared. During the next few days he wandered north, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanying small groups of stragglers and participating in running fights with police, in the hope of eventually reaching Mansfeld where he expected to find the remnants of his troops. But he never reached his destination. On March 31 he found himself in Beesenstedt, a village halfway between Halle and Mansfeld, and here on April 1 he joined in the last sizable battle of the insurrection. The outcome of the workers’ last stand at Beesenstedt was never in doubt. Hoelz was captured after the police closed in, but got away two days later when he successfully fooled his captors with false identity papers and the brazen tale that he was unjustly arrested while peacefully buying eggs from a local farmer. With a price of 185,000 marks on his head, Hoelz made his way to Berlin where he was soon arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His revolutionary career was over for good when the March uprising, in which he had played such a prominent part, collapsed before his eyes.

The backbone of the insurrection as a whole was, in effect, broken several days before Hoelz saw its last dying spasms at Beesenstedt. Hamburg was the first area where order was restored. The riots which had broken out on March 23 were quelled three days later, and by March 29 most shipyards began to resume full operations. On that day the insurrection suffered another blow, as police forces, reinforced by one battalion of Reichswehr artillery, captured the Leuna works and took most of the defenders prisoner. Although Leuna had played a rather undistinguished role in the regional struggle, the mere fact that the famous chemical works were in the hands of proletarian fighters had been played up for days by the Communist press as a symbol of revolutionary triumph.

With Hamburg pacified, the rumblings in the Rhineland subsiding, and the Leuna works captured, the Zentrale could see the handwriting on the wall. Everywhere the movement was collapsing; everywhere the Communists found themselves isolated. The majority of German labor followed the lead of the two Socialist parties and the trade-unions, whose spokesmen were denouncing the putschism of the KPD in no uncertain terms. In view of these circumstances the Zentrale called a high-level conference on March 30 to deliberate on whether or not to continue the uprising. An emissary, just arrived from the Rhineland, reported on the situation in western Germany and demanded that the Aktion be called off at once. His bleak account prompted four leading members of the Zentrale, Brandler, Heckert, Thalheimer and Stoecker, to speak in favor of ending the fighting, and one unidentified member sighed that he wished the police in Berlin would lose their nerve and start antagonizing the workers. The pessimistic mood which permeated the conference was dispelled, however, when another participant in the conference rose, banged the table, and asserted that contrary to prevailing opinion the uprising was still gathering force and should be allowed to continue, at least for a few more days. Clinging tenaciously to the belief that the tide might yet turn in favor of the Communists, the speaker cited a number of encouraging examples from various parts of the country in support of his position. Although we know no further details of the ensuing debate, its outcome was a resolution to hold out for another two or three days. During this period of grace the Zentrale was to prepare a suitable plan for ending the struggle as uniformly as possible.

Thus, a day after Leuna was taken and Horsing’s control of the insurgent region virtually assured, the Zentrale made a last desperate effort, against the better judgment of some of its members, to postpone the inevitable. On the same day the Rote Fahne appealed once more to the German workers to support the uprising. But in doing so, the paper hurled one vituperative insult after another against the leaders of the same Social Democratic and Independent rank and file whom the Communists were trying so hard to win as allies. All the setbacks which the Communists had just suffered the Rote Fahne blamed on the Socialist leadership, and the paper ended the appeal on a note of “revolutionary solidarity” with “all workers.” Finally, the attempt to win friends was topped by the last sentence of the editorial which appeared in the same issue of the paper: “Shame [Schmach und Schande] upon the worker who at this moment still stands aside; shame upon the worker who still does not know where his place is.”

The decision to prolong needlessly the agony of those who did the fighting, taken by a few party functionaries in Berlin, introduced to the KPD a pattern of thinking which in the years ahead was to become primary law for over one-third of the world’s population: the individual is nothing, the party everything. “For the movement was without scruples,” writes Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, “she rolled toward her goal unconcernedly and deposed the corpses of the drowned in the windings of her course.” But the proletarians who in March 1921 manned picket lines, were wounded or killed, or lost their jobs, did not realize that in the eyes of their leaders they were expendable. The rank and file, whether party members or sympathizers, knew nothing of Comrade Bela Kun. They did not know that Brandler’s theory about an existing revolutionary situation had been imparted to him by a few ill-informed and reckless individuals. The rank and file joined in the insurrection because their press told them that Horsing had attacked the German workers; that they must show their solidarity with their brothers in Mansfeld and Eisleben; that the Orgesch was about to slaughter the “defenseless” workers; and that the capitalists everywhere were plotting a new war for which the proletariat would have to foot the bill. Deceived and poorly led, they fought and died for the most part in good faith, the victims of what Levi came to call the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history.”

For two more days, following the conference of March 30, the Zentrale waited in vain for a miracle. Rumors of growing unrest among the farm workers of three eastern provinces briefly rekindled sparks of hope, only to prove another disappointment when no uprisings materialized. On April 1, even the most stubborn diehards among the Communist leaders had to recognize the futility of further waiting, and the Zentrale resolved to end the insurrection by calling off the “nationwide” general strike. The proclamation by which this decision was communicated to the party at large blamed the defeat on the counterrevolutionaries, ranging from Ludendorff to Hilferding, and culminated in the promise that the Communists would fight another day: “The strike and the insurrectionist movement have been crushed. Hundreds of proletarians lie murdered on the battlefield. Thousands remain out on the streets, punished by their employers. . .” Despite the defeat, however, the party’s spirit had remained unshaken, and its members were looking forward to new challenges ahead. “Let us not waste time. Close ranks for the coming fight. Be prepared. Soon we shall hear again: tighten chin straps! Forward, against the enemies. . . . Long live the German Revolution! Long live the World Revolution!” On this note of defiance the Marz Aktion ended. In view of the facts, the self-righteous attitude which the Zentrale assumed in blaming others for the failure of the uprising was, to say  the least, inappropriate. From the moment of its conception until the final call for retreat on April 1, the entire operation, with its grandiose scheme of capturing the power of state, was conducted by a few Communist leaders who approached it in a spirit of recklessness and irresponsibility. Without a careful appraisal of the situation, these men proceeded from the premise that a revolutionary opportunity was shaping up and should be exploited by the party. This was a misconception, as no less a person than Trotsky was to tell them later on at the Third World Congress. Based, as it was, on a contrived analysis of the national and international situations, the project was then pushed down the throats of an unenthusiastic and sceptical assembly of party officials who were left with the impression that the enterprise in question would be undertaken only when the time was ripe, and in any case not prior to the Easter holidays. To all appearances, this original plan was to be adhered to even in the face of Horsing’s announcement that a police occupation of Prussian Saxony was impending. But appearances proved deceptive. The decision to postpone any overt action by the KPD until after Easter was quietly dropped in favor of interference in central Germany, and strenuous efforts were made to utilize Horsing’s so-called provocation for triggering all the other anticipated crises, mostly mythical in nature, on which the original plans had been based. There is good reason to assume that the party reversed itself on this issue primarily because of Kun, and because of the support he received from those members of the Zentrale who had advocated a more aggressive course even before the arrival of the Comintern agents. But neither Kun nor his German disciples took the trouble to assess the chances for a Communist-led revolution at this particular moment; nor did they give any serious consideration to the party’s state of preparedness, an omission which in view of the stakes involved bordered on criminal neglect. Impulsive, ignorant of the true political situation, and without a clear conception of the risks involved, the Communist leaders plunged the party into a disastrous adventure.

Everything went wrong from the beginning. Contrary to later legends, the Mansfeld workers and miners did not rise “spontaneously” after Horsing’s appeal had been published, not even when local Communist organization proclaimed a general strike. It took Max Hoelz with his revolutionary experience and his personal magnetism to get the workers to move. But neither Hoelz’s ends nor Hoelz’s means were those of the KPD. He came to the Mansfeld region on his own initiative, because he wanted to render whatever assistance he could to the local proletariat. Hoelz had his own ideas on how to be helpful, and he did not want anyone to tell him what to do. Once he was on the scene, the old revolutionary zeal carried him away, and he succeeded in transforming what began as a strike movement into a bloody orgy. The haphazardly recruited insurgent bands under his command terrorized the mining district without a clearly defined aim, without a strategic plan, and with a minimum of discipline.

It was bad enough for the KPD that Hoelz usurped control and leadership over the mounting insurrectionist movement. But in addition to this sizable handicap, the party’s own organizational efficiency proved none too adequate. Confusion and poor coordination bedeviled operations from the first to the last day. Communications between the Zentrale in Berlin and the party organizations in central Germany were never effectively established. Despite the presence of Hugo Eberlein, Communist headquarters in Halle dragged its feet. Chemnitz waited for Halle to take decisive measures, Leipzig felt altogether too weak to do anything, and other local KPD organizations wanted to be assured of a successful outcome before taking any initiative. And so it went everywhere.

The party’s failure to provide adequate direction and purpose to the insurrection in central Germany was also evident in other trouble spots in the nation. The sporadic strikes in the Rhineland and Ruhr, the protest demonstrations in south Germany and Berlin, the unrest among East Elbian farm laborers, and the abortive riots in Hamburg remained isolated and relatively ineffective incidents. Although they all possessed some nuisance value, they never developed into he strong, coordinated revolutionary movement on which the initial plans of the Zentrale were based. But the most decisive factor in the defeat of the March uprising was the lack of mass support. The KPD proved incapable of rallying the millions of non-Communist workers behind the revolutionary banner. “The March struggle broke on the passiveness of the German workers,” a Communist leader subsequently complained; he might have added that such passiveness was inevitable because no genuine revolutionary situation existed on a nationwide basis. Whatever the party did to create such a situation, whether by “artificial means” or by clumsy and tactless propaganda, only repelled the majority of German workers, and without their backing and participation any revolution in Germany was doomed from the outset. In short, the March uprising was an undeniable fiasco, the aftereffects of which were to haunt the KPD for the remainder of the year.

 

July 3, 2018

Recommended Reading

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

An excerpt from “Capitalism vs. Freedom: the Toll Road to Serfdom“:

Labor’s Loves Lost

Having reviewed the strong concentration of capital ownership, both in household fortunes as well as market consolidation, what about labor? The Right’s take on the freedom of the labor market is that it leaves us free to choose among multiple uses for our labor, protecting you from power plays by a tyrannical boss, as when Milton Friedman wrote:

The most reliable and effective protection for most workers is provided by the existence of many employers…The employers who protect a worker are those who would like to hire him. Their demand for his services makes it in the self-interest of his own employer to pay him the full value of his work. If his own employer doesn’t, someone else may be ready to do so. Competition for his services—that is the worker’s real protection.

The first serious problem with these rosy reviews of the market is that after the previous section, it must be admitted that the “many employers” the Friedmans are expecting may never arrive to the job fair. And they do quietly concede that “Two classes or workers are not protected by anyone: workers who have only one possible employer, and workers who have no possible employer,” which makes consolidation and outsourcing very relevant for freedom.

The second great problem is that, fundamentally, people are in fact not commodities. A seller of non-perishable goods can store them until market conditions are favorable. This patience is unavailable for owners of mere labor power, who stubbornly require food and water at regular intervals. The kid can’t skip eating this quarter and eat more next quarter instead. Treating labor as an asset priced by supply and demand, like toasters or toothbrushes, is a gross insult to the human spirit and indeed, is responsible for some of the gravest crimes committed against humanity in our history.

A further problem is that this traditional claim that the labor market is “free” is based on another assumption, that if you don’t find an employer you want to work for, you can just produce goods on your own. Friedman: “Since the household always has the alternative of producing directly for itself, it need not enter into any exchange unless it benefits from it. Hence, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit from it.” This would indeed grant a good deal of freedom to the man on the street, but “producing for itself” implies access to productive resources, including what we call “capital,” which as we’ve seen is so highly concentrated that a very large part of global society has essentially none. This means that since we have no “positive freedom” to use or decide on how to use the capital stock, the typical working person is also left with diminished “negative freedom,” since employers who own the concentrated capital have dramatic power over employees in the market.

Order book here

July 2, 2018

Paul Pines (1941-2018): the death of a poet and a friend

Filed under: literature,obituary,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Yesterday I was saddened to learn that Paul Pines died after a two-year struggle to fight off lung cancer, including the use of immunotherapy that can have painful side-effects. He was 77 years old and determined to return to a normal life, including a visit to New York for a poetry reading.

I considered Paul to be one of America’s most outstanding poets as well as a friend. He was one of the few whose roots were in the great new poetry of the Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance that played an important part in the lives of young people in the late 50s and early 60s. Like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and any number of other new poets who eschewed the academy, Paul’s work came out of his lived experience as a fisherman, jazz club owner, merchant seaman and teenage juvenile delinquent.

I met Paul in 1961 when I was a puerile 16-year old freshman at Bard College. Paul was self-assured and relaxed, having transferred to Bard from some other school that was less congenial to a rebel like him. I have vivid memories playing ping-pong with Paul and Chevy Chase, who along with their good friend Kenny Shapiro of Groove Tube fame, were the best players on campus.

Paul struck quite an image on campus with a hairdo like those worn by the cast of “Grease”, well-developed biceps, tight black t-shirts, black motorcycle boots, and an unfiltered cigarette in the corner of his mouth. (I can’t help but think his chain smoking might have sealed his fate many years later.) I was always a little bit intimidated by Paul even though his general manner was at odds with his tough guy appearance. In fact, beneath the appearance was just another young person trying to develop a more spiritual side in a period when materialism was in the driver’s seat. The best thing you could have said about Bard College back then was its providing a nurturing environment for future poets and even a Marxist like me.

A year after Paul arrived, his brother Claude transferred to Bard as well. I couldn’t characterize my relationship with Paul back then as much more than an acquaintance but from the minute I met Claude, I knew that this was someone I really wanted to bond with. Claude was gentle, self-effacing, and wise beyond his years. After having lost touch with just about all my classmates, I tried to use the Internet to see if I could find any traces.

Some time in the early 2000s, I learned that Claude had been stricken with schizophrenia relatively late in life and was living in upstate New York, not far from where Paul was working as a psychotherapist and conducting writers workshops at a local college. I thought long and hard about getting in touch with Claude but lost my nerve after realizing that it would be a strain on me emotionally since my own brother had committed suicide after a psychotic break in the early 70s.

I continued to keep track of Claude through Internet searches until I was stunned to discover that he died of leukemia in 2006. After writing a tribute to him on my blog, Paul showed up to offer a comment:

Touching piece, Louis. Your observations are deceptively political in the fundamental meaning of that word as Aristotle meant it when he called man a “political animal.” By which I understand an animal connected to others of his kind by common interests and experiences that sometimes rises to the level of sympathy, the ability to feel with another. Your reflections on what mental illness can do, and does to many who a moment ago felt they had a unique destiny is in this sense profoundly political. In Claude’s case, his suffering was punctuated by laughter, and the wisdom that blossomed from his struggle with a mind that he found he could not trust. He learned, instead, to trust his heart. I also very much liked your piece on Barney Ross.

This comment, like everything Paul ever wrote, was suffused with a kind of humanism that has largely vanished from our world today. That led to a friendship with Paul that like many in recent years was mostly sustained in cyberspace. While staying in touch with Paul was a way for me to remember his younger brother, it also led to an ongoing commitment to tell my readers about each new book he wrote, including a powerful memoir titled “My Brother’s Madness”.

Just by coincidence, Paul was putting the final touches on the book when his brother died. It is a wonderful book that touches upon his struggles to provide emotional support for Claude as well as the world they lived in growing up in Brooklyn. When I came across the following paragraph, I got a better idea of how he developed his “look”:

Growing up a few blocks from Ebbets Field, Paul Pines was a true child of the 1950s, which was much more about looking tough than sensitive. This was especially true when you had to fend off rival gangs of Irish or Italian youths. As a perpetual truant and an unsuccessful car thief, Paul fit right into the neighborhood as this encounter with his high school principal would indicate:

We sit in straight back chairs. Bullethead [a nickname for the principal] tells us that he has been a cop and a trolley-car conductor and understands boys in motorcycle boots with ducks-ass hair welded in place by Dixie Peach. There are quite a few of us walking up Flatbush to Church Avenue every morning to the walled fortress spanning several blocks. Erasmus boils over with students in two overlapping sessions, out of which a small stream of elite students are siphoned off from the raging river of Irish Lords, Pig Town Tigers, Gremlins, and Chaplains into the top tier. I fall into the lower one, a Blackboard Jungle minus Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. Three days a week I take in the triple-feature cowboy movies at the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street instead of going to school.

Paul thought of himself as a budding gangster, fed by fantasies inspired by the pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins. After his father sent him off to Cherry Lawn, a progressive private school in Connecticut, he still saw himself as a rebel without a cause, but one with roots in Lord Byron as well as the mean streets of Brooklyn. After reading Freud, he discovers that being able to use his mind fills him with elation. “I am a wet chick burst from its shell.”

Besides our email exchanges, I always took advantage of Paul’s occasional poetry readings in New York to chat with him and his beautiful and brainy wife. I also met their talented and beautiful daughter at a gallery exhibit for the photography of Josephine Sacabo, the wife of Dalt Wonk. Josephine and Dalt were very close to Paul and I am sure that they are grieving his death as if he was a family member. In our in-person chats, Paul always expressed a joie de vivre that was nourished by his family ties and the confidence that his poetry was written for the ages and would certainly outlive him.

I have tagged my five reviews of Paul’s books here. I invite you to read them and better yet to buy his books since you will not find better poetry being written today.

Paul Pines website

July 1, 2018

Norman Thomas and the DSA

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

Norman Thomas

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

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

Face the Nation, May 10, 2015


Stephen Colbert: What does socialist mean to you?

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

The Late Show, June 29, 2018


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

NY Times, November 2, 1936

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

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

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

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

Finds No Constructive Plan

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

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

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

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

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

What Socialists Propose

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

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

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

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

Discusses Union Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holds System Has Failed

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

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

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

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

 

June 29, 2018

Two new books on Ukraine

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 1:48 pm

For most people on the left, knowledge of the Ukraine is limited to a few well-trodden factoids. Victorian Nuland made a phone call that led to the overthrow of the democratically elected government and its replacement through a pro-EU, pro-NATO coup. The coup relied on a combination of neo-Nazi violence and false flag incidents to succeed. Once in power, the anti-Communist government and its rightwing supporters began tearing down statues of Lenin. And all of this could have been anticipated because Stephen Bandera collaborated with the Nazis during WWII.

This micro-narrative eliminated the need to understand the country’s history or the economic contradictions internal to the country that have led to chronic instability ever since it became independent in 1991. For those who want to dig beneath the surface, there are two new books by Ukrainian scholars that put the country’s ongoing turmoil into perspective. Stephen Velychenko’s “Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine 1918-1925” points out in painful detail how an emancipatory project in 1917 led to the preservation of Czarist type domination but in the name of proletarian internationalism. Put succinctly, if you want to know why Lenin statues (that never should have been erected in the first place per Lenin’s aversion to idolatry) were torn down, Velychenko’s book is a good place to start. As for Euromaidan and its consequences, Yuliya Yurchenko’s Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketization to Armed Conflict is the very first attempt to apply a Marxist analysis to Ukraine’s chronic oligarchic rule. Despite her support for Euromaidan, Yurchenko makes the case that it was hijacked by a wing of the ruling class that sought to preserve its narrow profit-seeking goals by exploiting nationalist resentments.

Continue reading

June 27, 2018

Defending Karl Marx in Foreign Affairs…What’s that about?

Filed under: economics,social democracy — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

On June 14th, Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations that was formed in 1918 to develop strategies for the ruling class, published an article titled “Marxist World: What Did You Expect From Capitalism?”. (The article, which is behind a paywall, can be read below) The author was Robin Varghese, the Associate Director of Engagement at the Economic Advancement Program of the Open Society Foundations and an Editor at 3 Quarks Daily. In addition to those affiliations identified by Foreign Affairs, Varghese is also the Chairman of the Board of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a kind of updated version of the Learning Annex modeled after the Frankfurt School. The roost for Max Horkheimer et al was actually called the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University. The knock-off is a place where hipsters can attend classes of the sort you might take in Duke University’s literature department but at a much lower cost.

So why would Foreign Affairs, the journal where George Kennan’s blueprint for the Cold War domination titled “Containment” appeared, be publishing something favorable to Karl Marx? Let me take a stab at answering that question.

To start with, it is necessary to say a few words about George Soros’s Economic Advancement Program. The Open Society website states its goal: “Because economic systems are complex, we deploy a mix of interventions. We make private sector investments through the program’s investment vehicle, the Soros Economic Development Fund, to yield social impact, we support civil society actors advancing economic justice, we advise governments on economic policy, and we build coalitions to foment progressive change.” Basically, this is a vehicle for microfinance of the sort pioneered by the Grameen Bank. In 2009, Soros teamed up with Pierre Omidyar, the eBay billionaire who funds Intercept, and Google to serve small businesses in India. Omidyar’s website described its aim:

“With this investment, we will meet the huge demand to serve smaller businesses in India that have little access to finance,” said Neal DeLaurentis, Vice President of Soros Economic Development Fund. “Long ignored by commercial capital markets, small and medium businesses are an attractive investment opportunity as well as an engine for economic growth for India.”

It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the failings of microfinance but I would advise reading this for a useful critique.

Turning now to Varghese’s article, it can easily be understood as just another in the series of articles that appeared immediately after the 2008 meltdown, crediting Karl Marx for diagnosing the contradictions of the capitalist economy but stopping short at his prescription for moving beyond it through socialist revolution. He writes:

Better than most, Marx understood the mechanisms that produce capitalism’s downsides and the problems that develop when governments do not actively combat them, as they have not for the past 40 years. As a result, Marxism, far from being outdated, is crucial for making sense of the world today.

As I pointed out in a 2016 article, this sort of testimony to Marx’s wisdom went viral a decade ago:

After 2008 there were deep worries in the financial punditocracy. You might remember that scene in China Syndrome when the first shudders took place in the nuclear reactor. Was this going to be the “Big One”? That is how Nouriel Roubini must have felt on August 11, 2011 when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer:

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

Even more shockingly, George Magnus, an economist with the UBS investment bank, advised Bloomberg News readers to Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy just 18 days after Roubini’s interview appeared. Magnus quoted Marx’s Capital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” But his solutions had more to do with Keynes than Marx, such as this one: “Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.” If Karl Marx confronted a crisis as deep as the one we faced in 2008, his advice would have been to nationalize the banks not use them as tools for fiscal pump-priming.

However, Umair Haque probably spoke for most of these commentators—including Sean McElwee, I imagine—when after posing the question Was Marx Right? in the Harvard Business Review he came down squarely on the side of capitalism. After giving Marx his due (“Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed”), Haque sides with McElwee on the “recipe” question: “Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but.”

Using a combination of common sense and what he has absorbed from reading Marx, Varghese describes the current epoch as one consisting of chronic stagnation even if it is producing billionaires by the wheelbarrow full:

Since the 1970s, businesses across the developed world have been cutting their wage bills not only through labor-saving technological innovations but also by pushing for regulatory changes and developing new forms of employment. These include just-in-time contracts, which shift risk to workers; noncompete clauses, which reduce bargaining power; and freelance arrangements, which exempt businesses from providing employees with benefits such as health insurance. The result has been that since the beginning of the twenty-first century, labor’s share of GDP has fallen steadily in many developed economies.

There’s not much to quibble with in the middle section of his article that describes the growing inequality in the USA and other advanced capitalist countries. It cites Thomas Piketty and Branko Milanovic who have produced outstanding work even if their analysis is not necessarily grounded in Marxist theory.

In a section titled “The Keynesian Challenge”, he sounds skeptical at first blush about the possibility of a new New Deal, a “Swedish model” or any of the other solutions proposed by the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party:

Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the demands imposed by capital accumulation and profitability would always severely limit the choices available to governments and undermine the long-term viability of any reforms. The history of the developed world since the 1970s seems to have borne out that prediction. Despite the achievements of the postwar era, governments ultimately found themselves unable to overcome the limits imposed by capitalism, as full employment, and the labor power that came with it, reduced profitability. Faced with the competing demands of capitalists, who sought to undo the postwar settlement between capital and labor, and the people, who sought to keep it, states gave in to the former. In the long run, it was the economic interests of capital that won out over the political organization of the people.

But the last three paragraphs are a dead giveaway that Varghese is for Marx’s economic analysis but not his life-long goal to “change it”. The only thing he seems bent on changing is the sort of neoliberal austerity that Sanderistas find so loathsome. However, forming revolutionary parties and overthrowing capitalism is even more loathsome apparently as indicated from the reformist pap below:

The challenge today is to identify the contours of a mixed economy that can successfully deliver what the golden age did, this time with greater gender and racial equality to boot. This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings. The normal state of capitalism is one in which, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air.” This dynamism means that achieving egalitarian goals will require new institutional configurations backed by new forms of politics.

As the crisis of the golden age was ramping up in the 1970s, the economist James Meade wondered what sorts of policies could save egalitarian, social democratic capitalism, recognizing that any realistic answer would have to involve moving beyond the limits of Keynesianism. His solution was to buttress the welfare state’s redistribution of income with a redistribution of capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. Meade’s vision was not state ownership but a broad property-owning democracy in which wealth was more equally distributed because the distribution of productive capacity was more equal.

The point is not that broader capital ownership is a solution to the ills of capitalism in the present day, although it could be part of one. Rather, it is to suggest that if today’s egalitarian politicians, including Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, are to succeed in their projects of taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century, it will not be with the politics of the past. As Marx recognized, under capitalism there is no going back.

Let’s take apart this pile of crap that probably is first cousin to the Vivek Chibber Catalyst article that Robert Brenner objected to. It is the sort of thing you routinely hear from Jacobin, the DSA old guard, Dissent Magazine and The Nation.

To start with, let’s examine: “This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings.”

The most dynamic social arrangement? Is this guy serious? Capitalism is not primarily about markets. It is about coercion. Slavery, debt peonage, child labor, union busting and other forms of extra-market forces were midwives to capitalism and continue to this day. Books like Michele Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name” offer ample evidence of how racialized capitalism retains many of the coercive features that were present in its infancy. All you need to do is go to your local grocery store and make a list of all the different imported agricultural products, especially from Mexico. A 2014 LA Times article describes anything but a “dynamic social arrangement”:

Ricardo Martinez and Eugenia Santiago were desperate.

At the labor camp for Bioparques de Occidente, they and other farmworkers slept sprawled head to toe on concrete floors. Their rooms crawled with scorpions and bedbugs. Meals were skimpy, hunger a constant. Camp bosses kept people in line with threats and, when that failed, with their fists.

Escape was tempting but risky. The compound was fenced with barbed wire and patrolled by bosses on all-terrain vehicles. If the couple got beyond the gates, local police could arrest them and bring them back. Then they would be stripped of their shoes.

Martinez, 28, and Santiago, 23, decided to chance it. Bioparques was one of Mexico’s biggest tomato exporters, a supplier for Wal-Mart and major supermarket chains. But conditions at the company’s Bioparques 4 camp had become unbearable.

They left their backpacks behind to avoid suspicion and walked out the main gate. As they approached the highway, a car screeched up. Four camp bosses jumped out. One waved a stick at them.

“You’re trying to leave,” he said, after spotting a change of clothing in a plastic bag Martinez was carrying.

“I’m just going for a walk,” Martinez said.

“Get in the car or I’ll break you,” the boss replied.

The next day, Martinez and Santiago were back at work in the tomato fields.

Varghese endorses James Meade’s solution to saving “egalitarian, social democratic capitalism”, namely to redistribute capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. This “broad property-owning democracy” would supposedly insure that both you and the Koch brothers would have about the same amount of “capital assets”, including land, machinery, securities, etc. Fat chance of that, I’d say. I don’t have much time or motivation to plumb the profundities of Meade’s economic ideas but suffice it to say that Wikipedia describes them as based on neo-Classical assumptions such as: (1) The economy in question is a closed economy with no relationship with the outside world. (2) There is no government activity involving taxation and expenditure. (3) Perfect competition exists in the market.

Am I that surprised that someone who is paid by George Soros recommends the economic ideas of James Meade? Commentary Magazine, the leading voice of neo-Conservatism, wrote a rave review of Meade’s 1975 “The Intelligent Radical’s Guide to Economic Policy: The Mixed Economy”:

James Meade, a former president of the Royal Economic Society, has published (in England) one of those rare economics books that one can recommend to every thoughtful person who takes an interest in the fundamental problems of contemporary societies. Some enterprising publisher should bring it out also in the United States. So far as my acquaintance extends, nothing of this character, scope, and quality has been published on our side of the Atlantic.

Starting to get the picture? Varghese’s article found exactly the right outlet in Foreign Affairs.

The final paragraph makes it clear that his project is to breathe life into social democracy. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn must succeed in taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century. However, it will not be with the politics of the past. Of course, you know what the “politics of the past” is about—socialist revolution and all that other utopian nonsense.

Let me conclude with a few words about the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. A 2012 New Yorker Magazine article looked in on a class given by its founder Ajay Singh Chaudhary, who has a Columbia University PhD, and Abby Kluchin, another Columbia PhD. For people in their shoes, the teaching jobs at the Institute are about the same as what adjuncts earn. Courses are held at night and cost a few hundred dollars. Faculty members receive eighty per cent of tuition, which amounts to more than they would make at a major university—at least if they are adjuncts.

Most of the classes are geared to the kinds of people who would find MLA conferences worth attending, such as “Jane Austen and the Problem of Other Minds” but they do have one on “Crisis and Capitalism” that sounds like the sort of thing you might have taken at the Brecht Forum but for a lot less than the $315 the Brooklyn Institute charges. The class was given by Raphaële Chappe, who used to be a Goldman Sachs Vice President in the Tax Department. So I guess she knows something about capitalism.

A while back she was interviewed by Laura Flanders in a show titled “Eat the Rich?”. Laura asked her about whether finance capital could be used to redistribute power and resources. If this sounds a bit like the microfinance and James Meade type strategies indicated above, you are on the right track. It turns out that Chappe had started what she called a Robin Hood Hedge Fund that incorporated this redistribution agenda. She explained what made it tick:

We have an algorithm, we call it the parasite. What it does is, it replicates the investments of what we consider to be insiders in Wall Street. We form a portfolio that replicates those investments, and so far we’ve gotten great returns. I think last year was 40% return, which made it the second hedge fund in the world. Of course, it’s a little bit of impertinence. We’re trying to hack it, derail it…I think that it’s just a very small dent if you think about all the types of strategies out there that hedge funds are using to make investments. We’re basically mimicking a very small segment. There are things that we cannot track, or trace. High frequency trading, for example. You have hundreds of trades happening every minute, we wouldn’t be able to do that. We do our best to hack it with the tools we have.

I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody from taking her course. After all, night school is a good way to develop social relationships in a very lonely city but if I had $315 to invest and if I was single, I’d sign up for a salsa dancing class instead.


Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018 Issue
Marxist World
What Did You Expect From Capitalism?
By Robin Varghese

After nearly every economic downturn, voices appear suggesting that Marx was right to predict that the system would eventually destroy itself. Today, however, the problem is not a sudden crisis of capitalism but its normal workings, which in recent decades have revived pathologies that the developed world seemed to have left behind.

Since 1967, median household income in the United States, adjusted for inflation, has stagnated for the bottom 60 percent of the population, even as wealth and income for the richest Americans have soared. Changes in Europe, although less stark, point in the same direction. Corporate profits are at their highest levels since the 1960s, yet corporations are increasingly choosing to save those profits rather than invest them, further hurting productivity and wages. And recently, these changes have been accompanied by a hollowing out of democracy and its replacement with technocratic rule by globalized elites.

Mainstream theorists tend to see these developments as a puzzling departure from the promises of capitalism, but they would not have surprised Marx. He predicted that capitalism’s internal logic would over time lead to rising inequality, chronic unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, the dominance of large, powerful firms, and the creation of an entrenched elite whose power would act as a barrier to social progress. Eventually, the combined weight of these problems would spark a general crisis, ending in revolution.

Marx believed the revolution would come in the most advanced capitalist economies. Instead, it came in less developed ones, such as Russia and China, where communism ushered in authoritarian government and economic stagnation. During the middle of the twentieth century, meanwhile, the rich countries of Western Europe and the United States learned to manage, for a time, the instability and inequality that had characterized capitalism in Marx’s day. Together, these trends discredited Marx’s ideas in the eyes of many.

Yet despite the disasters of the Soviet Union and the countries that followed its model, Marx’s theory remains one of the most perceptive critiques of capitalism ever offered. Better than most, Marx understood the mechanisms that produce capitalism’s downsides and the problems that develop when governments do not actively combat them, as they have not for the past 40 years. As a result, Marxism, far from being outdated, is crucial for making sense of the world today.

A MATERIAL WORLD

The corpus of Marx’s work and the breadth of his concerns are vast, and many of his ideas on topics such as human development, ideology, and the state have been of perennial interest since he wrote them down. What makes Marx acutely relevant today is his economic theory, which he intended, as he wrote in Capital, “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” And although Marx, like the economist David Ricardo, relied on the flawed labor theory of value for some of his economic thinking, his remarkable insights remain.

Marx believed that under capitalism, the pressure on entrepreneurs to accumulate capital under conditions of market competition would lead to outcomes that are palpably familiar today. First, he argued that improvements in labor productivity created by technological innovation would largely be captured by the owners of capital. “Even when the real wages are rising,” he wrote, they “never rise proportionally to the productive power of labor.” Put simply, workers would always receive less than what they added to output, leading to inequality and relative immiseration.

Second, Marx predicted that competition among capitalists to reduce wages would compel them to introduce labor-saving technology. Over time, this technology would eliminate jobs, creating a permanently unemployed and underemployed portion of the population. Third, Marx thought that competition would lead to greater concentration in and among industries, as larger, more profitable firms drove smaller ones out of business. Since these larger firms would, by definition, be more competitive and technologically advanced, they would enjoy ever-increasing surpluses. Yet these surpluses would also be unequally distributed, compounding the first two dynamics.

Marx made plenty of mistakes, especially when it came to politics. Because he believed that the state was a tool of the capitalist class, he underestimated the power of collective efforts to reform capitalism. In the advanced economies of the West, from 1945 to around 1975, voters showed how politics could tame markets, putting officials in power who pursued a range of social democratic policies without damaging the economy. This period, which the French call “les Trente Glorieuses” (the Glorious Thirty), saw a historically unique combination of high growth, increasing productivity, rising real wages, technological innovation, and expanding systems of social insurance in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. For a while, it seemed that Marx was wrong about the ability of capitalist economies to satisfy human needs, at least material ones.

BOOM AND BUST

The postwar boom, it appears, was not built to last. It ultimately came to an end with the stagflationary crisis of the 1970s, when the preferred economic policy of Western social democracies—Keynesian state management of demand—seemed incapable of restoring full employment and profitability without provoking high levels of inflation. In response, leaders across the West, starting with French Prime Minister Raymond Barre, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, enacted policies to restore profitability by curbing inflation, weakening organized labor, and accommodating unemployment.

That crisis, and the recessions that followed, was the beginning of the end for the mixed economies of the West. Believing that government interference had begun to impede economic efficiency, elites in country after country sought to unleash the forces of the market by deregulating industries and paring back the welfare state. Combined with conservative monetary policies, independent central banks, and the effects of the information revolution, these measures were able to deliver low volatility and, beginning in the 1990s, higher profits. In the United States, corporate profits after tax (adjusted for inventory valuation and capital consumption) went from an average of 4.5 percent in the 25 years before President Bill Clinton took office, in 1993, to 5.6 percent from 1993 to 2017.

This sharp divergence in fortunes has been driven by, among other things, the fact that increases in productivity no longer lead to increases in wages in most advanced economies.

Yet in advanced democracies, the long recovery since the 1970s has proved incapable of replicating the broad-based prosperity of the mid-twentieth century. It has been marked instead by unevenness, sluggishness, and inequality. This sharp divergence in fortunes has been driven by, among other things, the fact that increases in productivity no longer lead to increases in wages in most advanced economies. Indeed, a major response to the profitability crisis of the 1970s was to nullify the postwar bargain between business and organized labor, whereby management agreed to raise wages in line with productivity increases. Between 1948 and 1973, wages rose in tandem with productivity across the developed world. Since then, they have become decoupled in much of the West. This decoupling has been particularly acute in the United States, where, in the four decades since 1973, productivity increased by nearly 75 percent, while real wages rose by less than ten percent. For the bottom 60 percent of households, wages have barely moved at all.

If the postwar boom made Marx seem obsolete, recent decades have confirmed his prescience. Marx argued that the long-run tendency of capitalism was to form a system in which real wages did not keep up with increases in productivity. This insight mirrors the economist Thomas Piketty’s observation that the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of economic growth, ensuring that the gap between those whose incomes derive from capital assets and those whose incomes derive from labor will grow over time.

Marx’s basis for the condemnation of capitalism was not that it made workers materially worse off per se. Rather, his critique was that capitalism put arbitrary limits on the productive capacity it unleashed. Capitalism was, no doubt, an upgrade over what came before. But the new software came with a bug. Although capitalism had led to previously unimaginable levels of wealth and technological progress, it was incapable of using them to meet the needs of all. This, Marx contended, was due not to material limitations but to social and political ones: namely, the fact that production is organized in the interests of the capitalist class rather than those of society as a whole. Even if individual capitalists and workers are rational, the system as a whole is irrational.

To be sure, the question of whether any democratically planned alternative to capitalism can do better remains open. Undemocratic alternatives, such as the state socialism practiced by the Soviet Union and Maoist China, clearly did not. One need not buy Marx’s thesis that communism is inevitable to accept the utility of his analysis.

Marx predicted that competition among capitalists to reduce wages would compel them to introduce labor-saving technology. Over time, this technology would eliminate jobs, creating a permanently unemployed and underemployed portion of the population. NOAH BERGER / REUTERS A Kiva robot moves inventory at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, California December 1, 2014.

LAWS OF MOTION

Marx did not just predict that capitalism would lead to rising inequality and relative immiseration. Perhaps more important, he identified the structural mechanisms that would produce them. For Marx, competition between businesses would force them to pay workers less and less in relative terms as productivity rose in order to cut the costs of labor. As Western countries have embraced the market in recent decades, this tendency has begun to reassert itself.

Since the 1970s, businesses across the developed world have been cutting their wage bills not only through labor-saving technological innovations but also by pushing for regulatory changes and developing new forms of employment. These include just-in-time contracts, which shift risk to workers; noncompete clauses, which reduce bargaining power; and freelance arrangements, which exempt businesses from providing employees with benefits such as health insurance. The result has been that since the beginning of the twenty-first century, labor’s share of GDP has fallen steadily in many developed economies.

Competition also drives down labor’s share of compensation by creating segments of the labor force with an increasingly weak relationship to the productive parts of the economy—segments that Marx called “the reserve army of labor,” referring to the unemployed and underemployed. Marx thought of this reserve army as a byproduct of innovations that displaced labor. When production expanded, demand for labor would increase, drawing elements of the reserve army into new factories. This would cause wages to rise, incentivizing firms to substitute capital for labor by investing in new technologies, thus displacing workers, driving down wages, and swelling the ranks of the reserve army. As a result, wages would tend toward a “subsistence” standard of living, meaning that wage growth over the long run would be low to nonexistent. As Marx put it, competition drives businesses to cut labor costs, given the market’s “peculiarity that the battles in it are won less by recruiting than by discharging the army of workers.”

The United States has been living this reality for nearly 20 years. For five decades, the labor-force participation rate for men has been stagnant or falling, and since 2000, it has been declining for women, as well. And for more unskilled groups, such as those with less than a high school diploma, the rate of participation stands at below 50 percent and has for quite some time. Again, as Marx anticipated, technology amplifies these effects, and today, economists are once again discussing the prospect of the large-scale displacement of labor through automation. On the low end, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 14 percent of jobs in member countries, approximately 60 million in total, are “highly automatable.” On the high end, the consulting company McKinsey estimates that 30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated. These losses are expected to be concentrated among unskilled segments of the labor force.

Whether these workers can or will be reabsorbed remains an open question, and fear of automation’s potential to dislocate workers should avoid the so-called lump of labor fallacy, which assumes that there is only a fixed amount of work to be done and that once it is automated, there will be none left for humans. But the steady decline in the labor-force participation rate of working-age men over the last 50 years suggests that many dislocated workers will not be reabsorbed into the labor force if their fate is left to the market.

The same process that dislocates workers—technological change driven by competition—also produces market concentration, with larger and larger firms coming to dominate production. Marx predicted a world not of monopolies but of oligopolistic competition, in which incumbents enjoy monopolistic profits, smaller firms struggle to scrape by, and new entrants try to innovate in order to gain market share. This, too, resembles the present. Today, so-called superstar firms, which include companies such as Amazon, Apple, and FedEx, have come to dominate entire sectors, leaving new entrants attempting to break in through innovation. Large firms outcompete their opponents through innovation and network effects, but also by either buying them up or discharging their own reserve armies—that is, laying off workers.

Research by the economist David Autor and his colleagues suggests that the rise of superstar firms may indeed help explain labor’s declining share of national income across advanced economies. Because superstar firms are far more productive and efficient than their competitors, labor is a significantly lower share of their costs. Since 1982, concentration has been increasing in the six economic sectors that account for 80 percent of employment in the United States: finance, manufacturing, retail trade, services, wholesale trade, and utilities and transportation. And the more this concentration has increased, the more labor’s share of income has declined. In U.S. manufacturing, for example, labor compensation has declined from almost one-half of the value added in 1982 to about one-third in 2012. As these superstar firms have become more important to Western economies, workers have suffered across the board.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

In 1957, at the height of Western Europe’s postwar boom, the economist Ludwig Erhard (who later became chancellor of West Germany) declared that “prosperity for all and prosperity through competition are inseparably connected; the first postulate identifies the goal, the second the path that leads to it.” Marx, however, seems to have been closer to the mark with his prediction that instead of prosperity for all, competition would create winners and losers, with the winners being those who could innovate and become efficient.

Innovation can lead to the development of new economic sectors, as well as new lines of goods and services in older ones. These can in principle absorb labor, reducing the ranks of the reserve army and increasing wages. Indeed, capitalism’s ability to expand and meet people’s wants and needs amazed Marx, even as he condemned the system’s wastefulness and the deformities it engendered in individuals.

For a period, it seemed that the children of the middle class had a fair shot at swapping places with the children of the top quintile. But as inequality rises, social mobility declines.

Defenders of the current order, especially in the United States, often argue that a focus on static inequality (the distribution of resources at a given time) obscures the dynamic equality of social mobility. Marx, by contrast, assumed that classes reproduce themselves, that wealth is transferred effectively between generations, and that the children of capitalists will exploit the children of workers when their time comes. For a period, it seemed that the children of the middle class had a fair shot at swapping places with the children of the top quintile. But as inequality rises, social mobility declines. Recent research by the economists Branko Milanovic and Roy van der Weide, for instance, has found that inequality hurts the income growth of the poor but not the rich. Piketty, meanwhile, has speculated that if current trends continue, capitalism could develop into a new “patrimonial” model of accumulation, in which family wealth trumps any amount of merit.

THE KEYNESIAN CHALLENGE

Marx’s overall worldview left little room for politics to mitigate the downsides of capitalism. As he and his collaborator Friedrich Engels famously stated in The Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Until recently, governments in the West seemed to be defying this claim. The greatest challenge to Marx’s view came from the creation and expansion of welfare states in the West during the mid-twentieth century, often (but not only) by social democratic parties representing the working class. The intellectual architect of these developments was the economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that economic activity was driven not by the investment decisions of capitalists but by the consumption decisions of ordinary people. If governments could use policy levers to increase overall demand, then the capitalist class would invest in production. Under the banner of Keynesianism, parties of both the center-left and the center-right achieved something that Marx thought was impossible: efficiency, equality, and full employment, all at the same time. Politics and policy had a degree of independence from economic structures, which in turn gave them an ability to reform those structures.

Marx believed in the independence of politics but thought that it lay only in the ability to choose between capitalism and another system altogether. He largely believed that it was folly to try to tame capitalist markets permanently through democratic politics. (In this, he ironically stands in agreement with the pro-capitalist economist Milton Friedman.)

Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the demands imposed by capital accumulation and profitability would always severely limit the choices available to governments and undermine the long-term viability of any reforms. The history of the developed world since the 1970s seems to have borne out that prediction. Despite the achievements of the postwar era, governments ultimately found themselves unable to overcome the limits imposed by capitalism, as full employment, and the labor power that came with it, reduced profitability. Faced with the competing demands of capitalists, who sought to undo the postwar settlement between capital and labor, and the people, who sought to keep it, states gave in to the former. In the long run, it was the economic interests of capital that won out over the political organization of the people.

MARXISM TODAY

Today, the question of whether politics can tame markets remains open. One reading of the changes in advanced economies since the 1970s is that they are the result capitalism’s natural tendency to overwhelm politics, democratic or otherwise. In this narrative, les Trente Glorieuses were a fluke. Under normal conditions, efficiency, full employment, and an egalitarian distribution of income cannot simultaneously obtain. Any arrangement in which they do is fleeting and, over the long run, a threat to market efficiency.

Yet this is not the only narrative. An alternative one would start with the recognition that the politics of capitalism’s golden age, which combined strong unions, Keynesian demand management, loose monetary policy, and capital controls, could not deliver an egalitarian form of capitalism forever. But it would not conclude that no other form of politics can ever do so.

The challenge today is to identify the contours of a mixed economy that can successfully deliver what the golden age did, this time with greater gender and racial equality to boot. This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings. The normal state of capitalism is one in which, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air.” This dynamism means that achieving egalitarian goals will require new institutional configurations backed by new forms of politics.

As the crisis of the golden age was ramping up in the 1970s, the economist James Meade wondered what sorts of policies could save egalitarian, social democratic capitalism, recognizing that any realistic answer would have to involve moving beyond the limits of Keynesianism. His solution was to buttress the welfare state’s redistribution of income with a redistribution of capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. Meade’s vision was not state ownership but a broad property-owning democracy in which wealth was more equally distributed because the distribution of productive capacity was more equal.

The point is not that broader capital ownership is a solution to the ills of capitalism in the present day, although it could be part of one. Rather, it is to suggest that if today’s egalitarian politicians, including Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, are to succeed in their projects of taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century, it will not be with the politics of the past. As Marx recognized, under capitalism there is no going back.

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