Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 13, 2020

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Filed under: cops/agent provocateurs,Great Britain,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Ernie Tate, putting undercover cops in the witness stand

A few weeks ago, my old friend and comrade Ernie Tate sent me a link to an article titled “Shag another” by Katrina Forrester that appeared in the November 7, 2013 London Review of Books. Since it is behind a paywall, I will include the article below.

Forrester reviews a book titled “Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police” by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Ironically, the undercover cops belonged to a unit called SDS. In this case, it wasn’t Students for a Democratic Society but the Special Demonstration Squad that was charged with the duty of infiltrating the British left that, unlike the American SDS, was deeply involved in mass actions against the war.

Maybe it would be better to say that the British left was a hybrid of our SDS and the Vietnam antiwar coalitions that the SWP helped build. They combined a focus on immediate withdrawal but was not averse to the kind of street-fighting that Tariq Ali celebrated in his pretty good memoir “Street Fighting Man”.

Forrester’s article beings:

The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’.

To get intelligence on such demonstrations and on the left in general, Dixon established a squad of ten SDS officers that would go into deep undercover over a period of years. Unlike FBI agents in the USA operated under Cointelpro, the cops would become deeply embedded in the milieu they were penetrating even to the point of developing long-term relationships with the women activists. The authors’ primary source is former undercover agent Peter Francis, who spied on minor anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in North London in the early 1990s. While undercover, he lived alone in Highbury, drove a van and got a day job working in a school for children with special needs. Hard to imagine an FBI agent going to such lengths. When I was in the Houston branch of the SWP, there were a couple of guys who struck me as being on the FBI payroll but hardly amounted to undercover agents. They just sat there at branch meetings, saying nothing.

The only FBI agent who immersed himself totally in party life was a railroad worker named Ed Heisler who ended up on the National Committee. He was our Malinovsky, so to speak.

Currently, there has been a tribunal to investigate the British spying operation convened as the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS). Ernie sent me links to two of their weekly reports, one dated November 5th and the other dated November 12th. The November 12th release included testimony from Ernie and from Tariq Ali, who were two of the leaders of the British antiwar movement and members of the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Fourth International.

Look for Ernie’s statement that begins:

Tate was born in Belfast in 1934. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 21 and worked in mechanical engineering.

Politically active all his life, Tate has written a memoir of his activism in the 1950s and 1960s, relating to his time in the International Group (a section of the Fourth International, as founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938) which, in Britain, became in the International Marxist Group (IMG).

Tate was in Britain for almost five years between 1965 and 1969, and in that time was heavily involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), which was set up in 1966.

Returning to Canada in 1969, he became involved in the trade unions and for many years was Chief Steward and Vice President of a major local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He is now retired, and living in Toronto.


London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 21, 7 November 2013
Shag another
By Katrina Forrester

Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police
by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis.
Faber and Guardian Books, 346 pp., £12.99, June 2013, 978 0 571 30217 8

The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’. Ministers considered deploying the army. Senior police officers assured the government they were in control, but it was clear that a radical change in tactics was needed. Dixon proposed the formation of a new covert unit called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which would operate differently from previous undercover police, who infiltrated criminal gangs with the aim of making targeted arrests within a few weeks. Instead, a squad of ten SDS officers, drawn from the ranks of Special Branch and borrowing strategies from MI5, would go deep undercover over a period of years, with the sole aim of gathering intelligence on the activities of political groups. The idea was to prevent outbreaks of disorder like the one in Grosvenor Square, and to catch anyone intent on ‘engineering a breakdown of our present system of government’. Harold Wilson’s government approved Dixon’s plan and agreed to fund the SDS directly from the Treasury.

Just as the state overestimated the threat of disorder after Grosvenor Square (the next demonstration, on 27 October, was an anti-climax), it continued to overplay the dangers of dissent in subsequent decades. Over the years, the remit of Special Branch and the SDS expanded along with the definition of ‘subversives’. In 1963 the term was used to describe individuals who ‘would contemplate the overthrow of government by unlawful means’; by the 1970s, it referred to anyone whose actions would ‘threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state, and are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. Special Branch had long concerned itself with counter-espionage, the ‘communist threat’ and the IRA. The focus of the SDS was more specifically on public order policing, and its list of targets was long: socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, animal rights groups, anti-Nazi, anti-racist and anti-apartheid campaigners, Labour Party activists. A report on the policing of protest issued by the Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2012 stated that the point of undercover intelligence is to differentiate between those ‘intent on causing crime and disruption’ and those ‘who wish to protest peacefully’. But by exaggerating the threat of the former, the state justifies constant surveillance of the latter. The implications have long been recognised, even at the highest levels of official oversight. It is now nearly thirty years since a Home Affairs Committee reported that Special Branch had acquired a ‘sinister reputation’. ‘Accountable to no one’, it represented ‘a threat to civil liberties’.

The workings of the SDS, which became known as ‘The 27 Club’ after the date it was founded, were until very recently well concealed. It operated on a ‘need to know’ basis: intelligence gathered by its officers would be distributed to other police departments but they would not know how the intelligence was obtained. It had few rules and little oversight; quite how little is still unclear. Until it was shut down in 2008, it deployed only ten officers at any one time. Its replacement, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, founded in 1999, had more like seventy. In October 2010, a group of activists announced on the alternative news site Indymedia that Mark Kennedy, an undercover officer working with the NPOIU, had infiltrated them. Since then, a good deal of detail about the tactics of the NPOIU and SDS, the double lives its officers led and the people they exploited and betrayed, has been brought to light. The official police response has been to stress that the majority of undercover officers did and continue to do their job well, providing intelligence that allows the state to monitor subversives. The fault, they claim, lies with a number of rogue officers.

In Undercover, Rob Evans and Paul Lewis draw on the testimonies of activists and whistleblowers to chart the history of secret policing. Their prize source is the former undercover officer Peter Francis, who spied on minor anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in North London in the early 1990s before infiltrating his target group, Anti-Fascist Action. While undercover, he lived alone in Highbury, drove a van and got a day job working in a school for children with special needs. (His new friends thought he was the school handyman, which fitted with his tough-guy persona, but in reality he volunteered at the school in exchange for free ‘dyslexia lessons’, though he wasn’t dyslexic.) He spent the rest of his time gathering intelligence on anti-racist groups. Spying on campaigners across Europe, he became so good at his job that he even caught out an unconvincing MI5 agent. It is thanks to Francis – who initially gave interviews to Evans and Lewis as an anonymous whistleblower, but has since revealed his identity – that the way the SDS operated is now known in some detail.

An officer would begin his or her deployment (one woman, Lynn Watson, is known to have been a police spy) by borrowing the identity of a dead child, a routine called the ‘jackal run’ after Frederick Forsyth’s novel, in which the assassin does just that. The trick was to find a child born around the same time, with the same first name as the officer, so that he could carry on using it. The idea was to make his real identity harder to track. He would go to the place the child was born, explore the area, learn the street names, get to know the local attractions and bus routes – usually, he would also visit the child’s grave. In SDS slang, he was creating his ‘legend’. A good legend would account for every aspect of the character’s story and personality, and would make it possible for a spy to be a ‘deep swimmer’ rather than a ‘shallow paddler’. Francis’s legend included an abusive, alcoholic father to explain why he could fight so well, and a mother dying of cancer abroad to explain his trips to visit his actual family (undercover for years at a time, officers couldn’t go home regularly). When an officer had prepared his legend, he exchanged his warrant cards for identity papers – driving licence, birth certificate, passport, even a fake criminal record on the police database, where the role required it. Once in the field, handlers aside, they were on their own. The unofficial SDS motto was ‘By Any Means Necessary’. Twice a week they would meet the other SDS officers in a safehouse, where they remained in character, exchanging stories, smoking roll-ups, drinking cans of lager.

Of all the undercover police whose secret lives have been exposed, none lived up to the SDS motto quite so completely as Bob Lambert. Francis refers to Lambert’s as the ‘best SDS tour of duty ever’. He was famous within SDS ranks long before the details of his tour were made public – by the activists whose lives Lambert temporarily shared. Known to them as Mark (‘Bob’) Robinson, he went undercover in 1983. He got a girlfriend, went to Glastonbury and became involved in the squatting and free party scene, campaigning with animal rights groups and London Greenpeace. He had a hand in writing the leaflet that formed the basis of the McLibel case in the 1990s, produced propaganda for the Animal Liberation Front and is alleged to have been one of three activists who planted incendiary devices at branches of Debenhams in Luton, Romford and Harrow in 1987. The plan was to place the devices during the day, timed so that they would go off in the middle of the night, causing just enough of a fire to set off the sprinklers, flood the stores and ruin the fur stocks. In the event, rather more damage was caused to the stores in Luton and Harrow than they intended. The other two men were convicted of arson and given custodial sentences; Lambert mysteriously walked away. Special Branch officers have said that Lambert must have acted alone; that even if the allegations are true, it is inconceivable that he had permission to do what he did. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, covert policing requires advance authorisation from senior officers. In the 1980s the rules were more vague. SDS officers commonly sought ‘retrospective authorisation’ for crimes committed in the field – usually trespass, criminal damage or a breach of the Public Order Act. Arson is a different matter. It’s hard to believe that such a serious crime could have been authorised, retrospectively or otherwise. But it’s harder still to believe that Lambert’s actions were unknown to senior officers, his handler at the very least.

Lambert led two lives. In one, he was a policeman with a wife and children in suburban Herefordshire. In the other, he was an activist in London involved in multiple long-term sexual relationships. Lambert met Charlotte in the first year of his deployment; their relationship gave him the cover he needed to gain the trust of his target groups. When their child was born in 1985, Lambert was there at the hospital, seemingly awed by the birth of his ‘first’. He disappeared when it was time to sign the birth register. The new parents made numerous appointments to visit the registrar’s office together. Each time Lambert let Charlotte down. Charlotte put it down to his radical politics: he’d said that he didn’t think people should own each other. By 1987, when Lambert was reaching the end of his stint, he began to engineer problems with their relationship: there wasn’t a lot of money (Charlotte had taken work, allowing Lambert to ‘dedicate his time to politics’, but it wasn’t enough) and he became distant. Complaining that they weren’t having enough sex, Lambert looked elsewhere; in all, he had four sexual relationships while undercover. In May 1987, just before the Debenhams action, he met Karen.

It was standard SDS practice for officers to begin by infiltrating less radical groups in order to get to their real targets. Charlotte was Lambert’s way in. But Karen wasn’t an activist, and she gave him no access to intelligence. His purpose with her was different. It appears that splitting his time between the two women was part of Lambert’s exit strategy: feigning fears that the police were catching up with him after the firebombing, he told both of them that he had to flee to Spain, and that they could join him there. And then he vanished. Charlotte searched for him for years, enlisting the help of social services and the Child Support Agency. All the while he was working in his new job as the SDS’s spymaster, in an office just a few miles away from the child he abandoned. Whoever promoted Lambert apparently didn’t think he had broken the rules. Instead, his time in the field was treated as a model for others to follow; he took on the job of monitoring future officers and made sure they did as he would have done. Since leaving the police in 2008, he has been teaching terrorism studies at St Andrews and has become known as a campaigner against racism and Islamophobia. It is a strikingly public life for a man with so much to hide.

The experiences of Karen and Charlotte were not exceptional. Of the ten undercover operatives identified so far, nine had sex with their targets. Helen Steel, one of the activists sued by McDonald’s for the pamphlet cowritten by Lambert, discovered after ten years searching for her ex-partner John Dines that he was not the man she thought he was. Steel found the death certificate of the child whose identity Dines had stolen, discovered that he was married and that he had been a police officer. The SDS monitored the search and, worried that Steel was getting too close, relocated Dines to New Zealand. Perhaps the most disturbing story is that of Laura, whose partner, Jim Boyling, infiltrated the environmental movement in the 1990s. When he disappeared, she believed he had gone to South Africa, and followed him there. The fruitless search drained her savings and affected her health. Back in London and weighing less than seven stone, she spent the next few months in and out of hostels. Thanks to Boyling’s inability to let her go entirely (he kept in occasional contact with her by email) she was eventually able to track him down. After a series of confessions and promises – that he would leave the police, that they would have a new life – she stayed with him. Boyling persuaded her to cut ties with her activist friends and made her change her name by deed poll. They had two children and got married, but in 2007 Laura left him and went to a women’s refuge.

Lambert wasn’t the first officer to advocate ‘using the tool of sex to maintain your cover’, or the first to father a child in the field (at least one other SDS officer did so in the early 1980s; like Lambert, he was later promoted). But Lambert’s strategies proved especially influential. Since the SDS had no field manual, officers looked to success stories like Lambert’s for tactical tips. Peter Francis remembers his advice. How should a new undercover cop gain the trust of the group? Find a woman. How should he stop a woman getting attached, interfering with his work or blowing his cover? ‘Shag somebody else … It’s amazing how women don’t like you going to bed with someone else.’ How should he end his deployment? Shag another. Just remember always to use a condom.

Boyling seems to have taken the advice to heart. He told Laura that having sex with activists was a ‘necessary tool’, and besides, undercover police had ‘needs’ too. The rhetoric of necessity runs through all the justifications offered for undercover policing, which, on this view, is the defence of national security by other means. In practice, the ‘necessity’ here is not only state security, but what it takes to maintain a role. In June 2012, the minister for policing and criminal justice, Nick Herbert, justified undercover officers’ use of sex by arguing that ‘to ban such actions would provide a ready-made test for the targeted criminal group to find out whether an undercover officer was deployed among them.’ The targets are so dangerous, it seems, that anything and everything may be permitted in order to keep the mask in place. Yet, to take just one consequence of this way of thinking, if the individuals under surveillance are dangerous, and perhaps liable to retaliate should the officer be exposed, doesn’t an officer’s use of a dead child’s identity put the child’s family at risk? If it doesn’t, it is because so little threat is posed by the vast majority of the targets: the rhetoric of necessity is used to cloak the essential triviality of the whole endeavour.

There are psychological costs to leading a double life. Francis estimates that of the ten officers on the team during his time in the SDS, six sought help after their deployment was over. Mark Kennedy is only the most recent officer who had a hard time ‘coming off’. At the end of his deployment, he became a corporate spy, maybe because he couldn’t face leaving his other life. He had refused to leave on previous occasions. In 2006, when he was beaten up by the police at a protest, he was ordered to return to his real wife and children to rest; he refused, texting his handler to say he was ‘going to stay here for the time being, where people are actually going to take care of me’. Another officer, Mike Chitty, kept hold of a fake ID after his tour of duty ended, and by using it to renew his driving licence and passport, continued to lead a double life as both an activist and a spy for more than two years. He even asked an activist to marry him; how he thought that would work out is unclear. Rogue behaviour was not exceptional; some went native, refusing to come out of the field altogether. Duplicity had all sorts of consequences. Francis recalls infiltrating an anti-fascist gathering in Germany. Activists there slept in communal tents, so Francis kept himself awake all night for a whole week. Sleep was a risk: you might mumble something about your other life. Another officer found returning to normal life so difficult he ended up at relationship counselling twice – once with his real wife, once with his activist partner. Kennedy became obsessed with biomechanical body art: a tattoo was etched into his forearm that depicted his skin peeled back to reveal mechanical levers.

Not all the officers kept quiet about their grievances. Chitty was one. Unable to deal with his feelings of guilt at having betrayed the activists he infiltrated and facing disciplinary action for refusing to leave the field, he wrote a letter to Paul Condon, then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, complaining about his mistreatment and threatening to go public about the whole operation. The threat was taken seriously, especially by the officer overseeing Chitty’s decline, Bob Lambert, who appears to have been more worried about the danger of publicity than anything else. In the report on Chitty’s case, Lambert claimed that going public would put officers and their families in danger – they should ‘expect at “the very least” postal bombs at their homes’. Chitty was persuaded not to go public; he began legal action, but settled out of court. Others were threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act; Francis only went to the press after a long series of threats and counter-threats.

Only now that the activities of the SDS have been made public have the police been forced to consider changing the culture of undercover policing. The internal police reports produced in the aftermath of the Kennedy scandal have focused on the level of support given to officers. Their recommendations amount to a suggestion that officers should be better at drawing the line between their real identity and their activist personae. But success in the field often depends on blurring that line. From the outset, SDS officers were told not to feel ‘bound by their rank’ when discussing operations, and were expected to ‘approach problems in a creative way, eschewing the obedient, plodding mindset of a bobby’. They were meant to become precisely the sort of people who go rogue, to occupy their roles to such an extent that, as Francis puts it, ‘I could only just about find myself afterwards.’

It isn’t only the line between the officer and his persona that is deliberately blurred in this sort of operation; so is the distinction between the interests of the state and those of the police. The murder of Stephen Lawrence by a racist gang in 1993, and the subsequent failure to bring the killers to trial, produced a rise in anti-racist activism. The campaign for justice for Lawrence was soon joined by others against police corruption and brutality, and on behalf of families seeking justice for loved ones killed in police custody. The police, Francis recalls, began to have nervous ‘visions of Rodney King’. There was ‘huge pressure from the commissioner downwards’ to gather intelligence on the Lawrence campaign. In an attempt to protect themselves from charges of institutional racism and corruption, the police used dirty tricks to discredit the campaign, smearing Lawrence’s family and his friend Duwayne Brooks, who witnessed the murder. Francis admits inserting ‘total conjecture’ about the family into his reports. His crowning moment came when he successfully predicted clashes between protesters and police at Welling in South-East London in 1993. That earned the SDS a personal visit and a bottle of whisky from Paul Condon, which doesn’t do much to support the contention that the SDS was a rogue force whose actions were unknown to their superiors.

Francis was pulled out of the field in 1997, when the anti-racist movement was at its height, but found it hard to get out of role: ‘I had spent years hating the police and then suddenly I was one of them again. I just couldn’t deal with it … I had real sympathy for the “black justice” campaigns. I also witnessed numerous acts of appalling police brutality on protesters. I genuinely became anti-police.’ He couldn’t help but see his uniformed colleagues differently: ‘It was the simple reality that they were repeatedly in the wrong.’

Once the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was set up in 1998, Francis felt it was time for the SDS to admit it had been spying on the black justice campaigns. He wanted his bosses to disclose details of his own deployment in the anti-racist movement. They refused, and instead sent Special Branch officers to the inquiry to monitor proceedings and gather intelligence. Now that Francis has spoken out, the official police response has been to condemn the cover-up and to promise that if the allegations of a plot to smear the Lawrences are true, there will be a public apology. There has been no acknowledgment – presumably there never will be – of the simple truth at the heart of it all: that although the police claim to have done what they did in defence of the state, they were, in the end, just defending themselves.

Who now should bring the police to account? In a recent book about how to monitor the secret-keeping arms of the state, Rahul Sagar has argued that the traditional forms of institutional oversight don’t work, and that whistleblowing is the best mechanism of accountability available.* Institutions are always at risk of being captured by special interests, but whistleblowers can be relied on to call out officials when they abuse state secrecy. Whistleblowers, Sagar believes, should be judged according to their intentions: they must make their disclosures openly, so that the public can decide whether they are acting in a disinterested, non-partisan way – in ‘good faith’. This is an argument that tends to work in the interests of the state: it is far easier for the US government to tar individuals – Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden – than it is to win the argument about state secrecy and the NSA. In any case, focusing on intentions is a distraction. Who cares if whistleblowers act in good faith? Francis’s motivations for coming forward are no doubt complicated: what matters is the story he has to tell. His evidence supports the claims made by the women who were used by police spies and who are currently taking legal action against the Met.

But even if they are successful in these actions, what chance is there that we will see significant reform of policing practices? The police will continue to argue that the SDS operations belong in the past, and that responsibility for them lies with a once (but no longer) institutionally racist police force. The NPOIU has made a similar attempt to distance itself from its now defunct parent squad, even though it has committed and concealed the same offences. Sagar isn’t wrong: the recent reviews of political policing that promise higher authorisation, more internal oversight and better exit plans for undercover officers read more like an attempt to prevent whistleblowing and publicity than anything else. Though they stress that the actions of officers must be ‘necessary’ and ‘proportionate’, and that attempts should be made to minimise ‘collateral intrusion’, they are also careful to point out that a ‘system of control … can only reduce the risks, not eradicate them completely.’ Sex is not discussed. Fifteen separate official inquiries into policing are currently underway. All of them are taking place behind closed doors, and the largest, Operation Herne, is being conducted by the Metropolitan Police itself. The Met has also separately referred Francis’s allegations to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Perhaps all this internal oversight will make a difference? Perhaps not. The women suing the Met have refused to co-operate with Operation Herne while the police remain in charge. So has Francis himself; and neither he nor they will be impressed by the referral to the IPCC, described in a recent Home Affairs Committee report as lacking ‘the investigative resources necessary to get to the truth’.

November 11, 2020

DOC NYC Film Festival 2020

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 11, 2020

Launched 11 years ago, DOC NYC  is the preeminent documentary film festival in the USA, and perhaps the world. Hosted by the IFC Center in NY, it will last between November 11th and 19th. Like every other festival taking place in the city since the pandemic began, it is a Virtual Festival, with individual films available as VOD for $12. After reading my brief takes on seven of the films I had a chance to preview, you might even be enticed to get a festival-wide ticket for $199.

1. Acasa, My Home

Set in a network of lakes and islands not far from Bucharest, Romania, the documentary features a 9-member Roma family headed by Gica Enache who abandoned city life after the fashion of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, except without the typically puritanical streak of the New England Yankee.

The best way to describe the Enache’s household is as a mixture of beasts and humanity that would make a Borat film look realistic by comparison. All 9 of the Enaches live in what must be labeled as a shack, while a variety of pigs, pigeons, chickens, dogs, and cats wander in and out.

Despite the lack of urban amenities, the family seems happy with an Edenic life. They get by on the fish that are plentiful in the water close to their home. Those that they do not eat, Vali, the eldest son, peddles from door to door in the city. When the film begins, we see Vali swimming with a beatific glow on his face in one of the lakes, as his younger brothers row a boat close by. When he catches a goose and begins to toy with it, his younger brothers admonish him to let the bird free. Respect for mother nature runs deep in a family that depends on her for their survival.

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Bhagat Singh and the Unfinished Revolution

Filed under: india — louisproyect @ 2:11 pm

November 9, 2020

Guy de Maupassant, and America Today

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:45 am

By Manuel Garcia Jr.

November 7, 2020

Signs and Exorcisms

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 12:01 am

Paula White Leading Prayer Service For Trump’s reelection

Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism

November 6, 2020

Commercial Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,transition debate — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm


COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 6, 2020

I’m not a professional historian, but I get to play one on the Internet.

One of the historical debates that I have been absorbed with since the mid-1990s is over capitalism’s origin. When James Blaut, an anthropology professor who died in 2000, showed up on the Marxism list around then, he had just published “The Colonizer’s Model of the World.” In this book and the next installment for a planned trilogy on Eurocentrism, he challenged the idea that capitalism originated in England and diffused to the rest of the world. The second book was titled “Eight Eurocentric Historians” and included a chapter on Robert Brenner, a professor emeritus at UCLA who gathered disciples under the banner of “Political Marxism.” In brief, Political Marxism, also known as the Brenner thesis, theorizes that capitalism began in the British countryside in the 15th century. For reasons too lengthy to detail here, lease farming on large estates set into motion a market-driven process that inevitably led to the industrial revolution and the British Empire.

As a corollary to the Brenner thesis, there is an argument that slavery and precapitalist colonialism had nothing to do with England’s “take off.” Furthermore, in the USA, as historians Charles Post and James Clegg argue, slavery was an obstacle to the growth of capitalism and had little impact on economic development in the north. Unlike the often arcane debate over whether lease farming was the prima facie basis for take off, the slavery debate had much more relevance to current days. The so-called New Historians of Capitalism, such as Edward Baptist and Sven Beckert, wrote books linking slavery to America’s capitalist success. For this transgression, the Trump administration linked their scholarship to Project 1619 and called for a curriculum purged of such anti-American propaganda.

Over the years, I have written sixty-two articles contributing to this debate, but assuredly nobody would mistake them for the work of a professional historian. On the other hand, since most of the exchanges occur in paywalled, peer-reviewed journals, my articles might be where many non-academics first learn about the issues.

This article will take up “A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism,” the latest book by Jairus Banaji, a professional historian who received the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2011 for “Theory as History.” Other critics of the Brenner thesis include Kerem Nisancioglu and Alexander Anievas, the authors of “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism,” and Irfan Habib, the author of articles such as “The rise of capitalism in England: Reviewing the Brenner thesis.”

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November 4, 2020

Robert Fisk’s wrong turn

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

Robert Fisk, 1946-2020

Like most people on the left, I relied heavily on five journalists after George W. Bush unleashed his war on terror: Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Seymour Hersh, Patrick Cockburn, and Robert Fisk. After 2011, I was dismayed to see that all of them—to one degree or another—had begun to serve the war aims of the Assad dictatorship. To a large degree, this was a function of their tendency to superimpose the experience of Iraq on Syria. The West was bent on “regime change”, just as it was in 2002. You also had WMD type propaganda that justified intervention. In Iraq, the claim was that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. Correspondingly, every time Assad was accused of launching a chemical weapons attack, they insisted that was another attempt by the USA to provide an excuse for a full-scale intervention. Finally, just as you had American reporters embedded with the military in Iraq, you also had reporters embedded with the military in Syria. Unfortunately, in this instance some were embedded inside Assad’s military.

Like Judith Miller, Robert Fisk, who died last Friday at the age of 74, never saw the parallel between his own fearless defiance of imperialism in covering Iraq and Judith Miller’s obsequious service to George W. Bush. As is the case with all five reporters, they made a terrible mistake in failing to see Syria on its own terms.

The first dispatch by Fisk from Syria in the Independent is dated March 31, 2011 and can hardly be regarded as regime propaganda, especially indicated by the last paragraph: “Syria needs to be renewed. It does need an end to emergency laws, a free media and a fair judiciary and the release of political prisoners and – herewith let it be said – an end to meddling in Lebanon. That figure of 60 dead, a Human Rights Watch estimate, may in fact be much higher. Tomorrow, President Bashar al-Assad will supposedly tell us his future for Syria. It had better be good.”

Just about a year later, Fisk showed the first signs of disaffection from the rebels. On March 9, 2012, he writes a column comparing Homs to Srebrenica. He edges toward a both sides are bad narrative: “In Srebrenica, more than 8000. In Homs? Well, if all Syria has lost 8,000 souls in a year, Homs’s sacrifice must be far smaller. But then the UN statistics do not appear to include the thousands of Syrian army casualties. Government soldiers were also killed in Homs.”

On July 22nd, he writes an article that begins to drift away from the evidentiary. A young Syrian shows up in Beirut and tells another Syrian that women have been raped outside the city of Homs – one estimate puts the number of victims as high as 200 – and the rapists are on both sides. An anonymous source… On both sides… You get the picture? He is veering toward unsubstantiated anecdotal material, not what you’d expect from a top reporter.

A month later, on August 23, 2012, he begins to rely on the Syrian army for what’s going on in Aleppo.

Many of the soldiers, who were encouraged to speak to me even as they knelt at the ends of narrow streets with bullets spattering off the walls, spoke of their amazement that so many “foreign fighters” should have been in Aleppo. “Aleppo has five million people,” one said to me. “If the enemy are so sure that they are going to win the battle, then surely there’s no need to bring these foreigners to participate; they will lose.”

Three days later, he follows up with another article titled “Those trying to topple Assad have surprised the army with their firepower and brutal tactics”. It refers to rebels capturing a member of the shabiha, Assad’s paramilitary death squad, who is stripped naked and hanged. Then his corpse was pelted with shoes and decapitated. His source for this atrocity tale? Syrian army files.

It should be said that throughout 2011 and 2012, he continues to report on the savagery of the dictatorship so it is understandable why many on the left would regard Robert Fisk as a reliable source of news at the time, including me as I recall.

But by the middle of 2013, the tune changes radically. In an article titled “As the US wants to arm ‘nice Syrian rebels’ we must remind ourselves that weapons are not just guns. They are about money; Hardware will end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida”, we end up with the dominant theme of the pro-Assad propaganda network, namely that Assad was dealing with a terrorist Salafist menace.

The US doesn’t plan to send weapons to the horrid rebels, mark you – not to the al-Qa’ida-inspired al-Nusra Front whose chaps film themselves eating Alawites for YouTube videos, barbecue the heads of captured Syrian troops and murder 14-year-old schoolboys for blasphemy. Only to the nice rebels, the Free Syrian Army deserters who are battling the forces of Assad darkness in the interests of freedom, liberty, women’s rights and democracy.

Anyone who believes this knows nothing about war, killing, barbarity and, especially, greed. Because weapons are not just guns. They are currency. They are money. They are saleable commodities the moment you send them across any border. Their value in US dollars, pounds sterling, Syrian pounds or Qatari dinars is infinitely more important than their use in battle.

What can you say? This lurid opening is designed to alienate Fisk’s civilized British readers that any weapons ending up to defend Syrians from Assad’s killing machine will end up willy-nilly in the hands of al-Qaeda. This crosses the border into Vanessa Beeley-land. In August, Assad launches a sarin gas attack on East Ghouta, which prompts Obama to threaten a retaliation for him crossing the red-line. What’s Fisk’s response? To warn that an intervention would mean that the US is fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side. I too would have been opposed to intervention but I would not have made an amalgam between the revolutionary forces and al-Qa’ida.

A month later, Fisk writes the first of his “false flag” articles, this time finding reasons why Assad could not have been involved with the sarin gas attack. Using the same dubious reporting methods of fellow reporter laureate Seymour Hersh, he tries to impress readers with his insider access. If your source is a spook or a government official, how can you not be telling the truth? He writes:

Nevertheless, it also has to be said that grave doubts are being expressed by the UN and other international organisations in Damascus that the sarin gas missiles were fired by Assad’s army. While these international employees cannot be identified, some of them were in Damascus on 21 August and asked a series of questions to which no one has yet supplied an answer. Why, for example, would Syria wait until the UN inspectors were ensconced in Damascus on 18 August before using sarin gas little more than two days later – and only four miles from the hotel in which the UN had just checked in? Having thus presented the UN with evidence of the use of sarin – which the inspectors quickly acquired at the scene – the Assad regime, if guilty, would surely have realised that a military attack would be staged by Western nations.

This meme has been seen a hundred thousand times in reporting on chemical attacks in Syria. Why would Assad provoke the USA? The answer should be obvious. It never did anything worse than bomb an air field but only after warning a Russian officer that the attack was pending. The next day all its warplanes were involved in new bombing runs. Then, another time pissing off Trump to the extent that he fired some Tomahawk missiles into government buildings that had no effect whatsoever on Assad’s war-making capabilities.

I can’t exactly remember why but a year or so ago, I got so annoyed with something Fisk wrote about Douma that I sent snail-mail to the Independent c/o Fisk, giving him a piece of my mind. To my surprise, he wrote back in a tone reminding me of a professor chastising a student who cheated on a final. It’s really too bad that these people with inflated reputations like Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh, Noam Chomsky, and Stephen F. Cohen received such adulation. What happens is that your ego gets so inflated that you can’t take criticisms to heart. To be a radical journalist like John Reed, you need to have much more ties to the mass movement. For people like Fisk, I’m afraid that after 2011, his only connections were to the Syrian military and the bars in Damascus’s four-star hotels.

November 2, 2020

Eric Blanc, Leo Panitch, and the Popular Front

Filed under: Biden,Fascism,Lenin,parliamentary cretinism,Popular Front,Spain — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

Toward the end of the stellar Cosmonaut interview with August Nimtz on Lenin’s views about electoral politics, the principals try to relate it to the current day. They concur that there’s more than a whiff of Popular Front nostalgia in the air with support for Biden symbolizing the kind of class-collaborationism that Lenin spent his entire career opposing.

Just a day after listening to the podcast, I read an interview that probably would have had Lenin spinning in his tomb fast enough to supply electricity in Moscow for a year if a transformer had been attached to his toe. Eric Blanc, today’s leading exponent of neo-Kautskyism, interviewed Leo Panitch, a Canadian professor emeritus who has co-edited the prestigious Socialist Register journal since 1985.

Titled “How Can Socialists Help Stop Trump?”, the interview was Blanc’s attempt to get benediction from Panitch for supporting a vote for Biden. I have no idea what Blanc’s religious background is but Panitch is a Jew like me and in the world of Marxism amounting to something like a powerful rabbi. For orthodox Jews, there are always knotty problems on how to interpret Talmudic law. Can you push a baby stroller on the Sabbath, a young couple might ask the rabbi. Stroking his long white beard, he’d reply “Only within the eruv.” (The eruv is a rope strung around an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where exceptions to strict Talmudic law are permitted.)

Like the young Jewish couple, Eric Blanc was asking for dispensation:

I would love to hear your take on the question of whether or not socialists should be voting and/or campaigning for Joe Biden.

For me, I’ve really had a hard time squaring the circle on this, because on the one hand, it seems clear to me that another Trump presidency would be a disaster for our side and, on the other hand, I don’t really clearly see how we can advocate a vote for Biden without going against the grain of our overall project of class formation, trying at all times to polarize and organize workers versus bosses. Maybe the best we can say is that this presidential moment is so exceptional that we should make an exception to our general socialist electoral strategy?

Going against the grain of our overall project, indeed. As a leading member of the DSA, Blanc was effectively ignoring the democratic decision at its last convention to only back Sanders. In the Nimtz interview, there’s a useful discussion of democratic centralism that reminds us of its original intent. It was to make sure that the Bolshevik parliamentarians complied with decisions made democratically by the rank-and-file. Afterward, Stalin ripped out the heart of democratic centralism and turned it into a formula for keeping the rank-and-file under his thumb. In the social democratic world, you didn’t have the same kind of repression. Socialist leaders were permitted to take whatever position they felt like, just as is the case with Eric Blanc’s support for Biden.

Panitch offers absolution in the form of a reference to the electoral formation that was hegemonic in the 1930s for the left:

For the time being, in every electoral cycle, you’ll face that dilemma. But right now, we are facing an increasingly dangerous development, which isn’t simply Trump, but also the explicitness and assertiveness of his supporters – his vanguard. And in this kind of moment, you do have to adopt a Popular Front position vis-à-vis the election.

That said, it doesn’t mean that you set aside or even need to apologize for taking this stance. To the contrary, it means you use the reasons you took that approach as a means to go on and organize the class as the Communists did in the 1930s under the Popular Front – more effectively actually than they were doing during their “Class Against Class” line in the beginning of the Depression. And the way you do that is to say, “look, the greatest danger of re-electing Trump is the closure of organizing space, the closure of political space” – which would significantly reduce our chances to do the class formation we need to.

It is highly revealing that Panitch sees the electoral choices adopted by the left as binary in nature. Either you used the “class against class” line of the CP or the Popular Front line that replaced it. The “class against class” line was a reference to Third Period Stalinism that helped Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In the late 20s, the CP regarded the SP as “social fascists”, just as bad as the Nazis.

In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold.  The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum.  The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.

A year later Hitler was in power and began rounding up Communists. This disaster forced the Kremlin to revise tactics. In May 1934, a Pravda article reversed Kremlin policy and urged cooperation between the SP and the CP. A year later, the reorientation was formalized at the Comintern Congress. The new policy was called the “The People’s Front Against Fascism and War”. It went further than the Pravda article. It endorsed electoral coalitions that included bourgeois parties as well. As long as they were antifascist, the Communists would unite with them in a government. The Second International was happy to join forces with the CP since they had been class-collaborationist all along. Indeed, it was their support for Paul Von Hindenburg, the Joe Biden of the Weimar Republic, that was responsible for Hitler becoming Der Fuhrer.

What’s absent from Panitch’s bird’s eye view of the period was acknowledgement of an alternative to both disastrous policies. In the early 20s, after a botched ultraleft attempt by the CP to take power in Germany, Lenin proposed a united front between the CP and the SP. He purloined this idea from Paul Levi whose proposals for such a policy effectively led to his ostracism in the German CP. When he took his complaints public, he was expelled with Lenin’s blessing—unfortunately.

Most of the Leninist left views the united front as a tactic that only allowed common actions between the two mass working-class parties, such as demonstrations. However, the Comintern also conceived of a workers and farmers government that while still ruling over capitalist property relations could begin moving forcefully to their overturn. Whatever the theory, a coalition government of the CP and SP in Germany in 1931 could have spared the lives of six million Jews and millions of other people enduring the barbarism of WWII. History dealt us a bad hand. Was the Popular Front an effective block against fascism, as Panitch unfortunately argues?

While this article is not the place to review the Popular Front in any detail, a few things are worth pointing out.

In Spain, a classic example of the Popular Front involving participation by two bourgeois parties, the government did not take steps to overturn capitalist property relations, largely because Stalin was trying to placate “antifascist” governments in France, the USA and England that would have objected.

After Franco began his counter-revolutionary war against the Spanish Republic, his army included Moroccan troops who resented the Popular Front’s refusal to grant their country national independence. George Padmore, an African-American Marxist who broke with the CP over the Comintern’s scuttling of support for colonized peoples in favor of alliances with liberal imperialist governments, wrote a scathing article titled “Why Moors Support Franco” in the May 20, 1938 New Leader that has some bearing on Joe Biden’s long-standing racist politics, especially his backing for the 1994 Crime Bill that led to the mass incarceration that has led to 34 percent of Blacks being behind bars in 2014 despite being 13 percent of the US population.

Why Moors Support Franco

Much has been written about the Moors in various sections of the Left-Wing Press in this and other countries. They have been called the “scum of the earth,” “black riff-raff,” “mercenaries,” and other such names.

It seems rather strange that the people who use these epithets conveniently forget that these unfortunate Africans are as much the victims of a social system as Europeans, who are forced by sheer economic necessity into the armed forces of the Capitalist States and used by the imperialists to shoot down unarmed and defenceless natives in the colonies in the name of “democracy” and “law and order.”

It is not the politically backward Moors who should be blamed for being used by the forces of reaction against the Spanish workers and peasants, but the leaders of the Popular Front, who, in attempting to continue the policy of Spanish Imperialism, made it possible for Franco to exploit the natives in the service of Fascism.

The British workers have much to learn from this tragic affair, which every revolutionary Socialist, regardless of race or nationality, must deplore.

No people have had to pay such a price for Empire as the Spanish workers. It should be a warning to the French and British workers whose ruling classes control the largest Empires.

Following the American war of 1898, Spain turned to Africa in the hope of recouping there the loss of her West Indian and Pacific colonies. But it was too late. Most of the Continent was already shared out. However, in 1912, France granted her a small strip of North-Eastern Morocco as a bribe for her support against Germany.

But it was not until after the World War that an attempt was made to establish control of the hinterland. In 1921, Abdel Krim organised a revolt of the Riffs against this penetration. The Spanish garrison at Anual was completely wiped out. The Riffs swept everything before them. The prestige of Spain suffered a terrible blow.

The Military High Command called for revenge. As a preliminary step, the military caste suppressed the Spanish constitution and set up a dictatorship under Primo de Rivera in 1923. Thus, in order to enslave the Moors, the yoke was first tightened around the necks of the Spaniards: which confirms what Lenin says, “No people oppressing other peoples can be free.”

In the following year Spain and France combined against the Moors. Abdel Krim surrendered in 1926 and was banished to Madagascar. In those days the Communist International, especially its French section, was in the vanguard of the struggle on behalf of the Riffs. Today not a voice is raised on behalf of Abdel Krim. But the Moors have not forgotten their valiant leader rotting on an island in the Indian Ocean.

Had the Popular Front Government, immediately it assumed office, issued decrees granting the colonial peoples economic and political reforms as a gesture towards self-government and appealed for their support against Franco, it would have been assured.

For the Moors have no particular ideological interest in Fascism. They, like most colonial peoples, are not concerned with the conflicting political conflicts going on in Europe. To them all whites are alike – a feeling which can hardly be otherwise when Labour and Popular Front Governments oppress and exploit them in the same way as Tory and other reactionary Capitalists. It is only the more politically advanced colonial workers who are able to make a distinction between the white oppressors and the white oppressed.

Not until the European workers’ movements, especially in countries with great empires like Britain and France show more solidarity in deeds and not words will this distrust and suspicion be removed.

Economic misery and starvation also made it possible for the Fascists to recruit natives. All of the most fertile regions of Morocco have been confiscated and given to Spanish colonists. The majority of the tribesmen eke out an existence tilling small lots of land in the most primitive fashion. Others are engaged in pastoral occupations. But they have no means of disposing of their livestock. Since Spain is the only market, preference is given to the Spanish settlers whenever there is a demand for cattle and eggs – the only two commodities exported. The result is that thousands of natives have drifted from their villages into the coastal settlements and towns, where they beg in the bazaars.

The industrial workers are engaged in the iron ore mines at Melilla, but their condition is hardly any better than the peasants. The average wage is about 6d. per day at the present rate of exchange!

With no industries to tax and a large army and bureaucracy to maintain, the Spanish authorities in Morocco endeavour to augment the annual subsidy provided by the home Government by saddling the natives with heavy taxes. Those unable to pay have their lands and cattle confiscated.

Commenting upon the economic situation, Senor Vicens, advisor to the Popular Front Government, in an interview with “Opportunity” (March, 1938), said that “Crops were very bad last year and the misery of the people has been terrible ever since. To many of them the war was a godsend: it meant an offer of work with a promise of pay.

“The first Moors brought into Spain for this war were already in the colonial military formations. They were regular soldiers, ordered by their commanding offers to serve in Spain. The chiefs and officers being Fascists, they were ordered out on the Fascist side.

“Though many of them had no particular desire to come to Spain at that time, they had no choice in the matter – any more than any other colonial troops have any choice as to when and where they are to fight.”

Asked to explain why the Popular Front Government failed to make some gesture of independence to the Moors, Senor Vicens replied:

“The Republicans would have granted autonomy to Morocco readily, long ago, except that France would not permit it. France was fearful of the effect on her adjoining African colonies. As soon as Morocco had become an independent State the French colonies would have demanded their liberation and independence. France was not ready to grant them this, and we were bound to France by a spirit of co-operation.”

It is the Spanish workers and peasants, on the one hand, and the Moors, on the other, who are paying with their lives for this treachery.

This is the price of Popular Front Government in Spain and in France! British workers beware!

November 1, 2020

Trump’s record on Syria: Enabler of Assad’s victory, enemy of Syrians

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:42 pm

October 28, 2020

August Nimtz on Lenin and “lesser evil” voting

Filed under: Lenin,liberalism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

I can think of no other scholar who has written more about Lenin’s electoral strategy than August Nimtz, an ex-SWPer who has taught at the University of Minnesota for many years. I got in touch with him a while back when I first ran into the argument that Lenin was an advocate of “lesser evil” politics because he approved of a bloc with the Cadets in the second round of the Duma elections. It might have been prompted by Kasama Project’s Mike Ely reference to this tactic or somebody else trying to justify voting for a Democrat. The most recent use of Lenin’s articles was in Eric Blanc’s article in Socialist Worker newspaper advocating a vote for Sanders and now for Biden. August sent me a copy of his “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905” that I highly recommend. According to Amazon, the paperback edition is out of print but fortunately you can buy a copy from Haymarket.

This is the relevant section:

“SPLITTING THE VOTE” AND THE “BLACK HUNDRED DANGER”: THE LESSER OF EVILS CONUNDRUM

In his pamphlet Lenin addressed for the first time an issue that has bedeviled many a working-class party in multiparty elections—the “danger of splitting the vote.” Marx and Engels first raised the issue in their Address. In calling for the proletariat to put forward its own candidates in elections, even though “there is no prospect whatever of their being elected . . . they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats . . . that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. The ultimate purpose of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the advantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.” To these kernels of wisdom, Lenin added the necessary body.

The “few reactionaries” Lenin had to deal with were the fascist-like “pogrom mongers,” the Black Hundreds. And for that reason the issue of vote splitting had to be taken “seriously”: “It cannot be denied,” he admitted, that in the absence of a “bloc of the Lefts,” “Black-Hundred electors may be elected . . . And there is no doubt that the general public will take this [possibility] . . . into account; they will be afraid of splitting the vote, and because of that will be inclined to cast their votes for the most moderate of the opposition candidates.”

The first thing that had to be taken into account, he said, was “the present electoral system in Russia.” Elections were held in two to four rounds in four curia or electoral colleges, for landowners, urban dwellers, peasants, and workers. In the initial rounds the voting was for electors who eventually elected the deputies to the Duma. (The following figures make clear that due to the law of December 11, 1905, there was nothing representative about the elections: “one elector to every 2,000 voters in the landowner curia, one to each 7,000 in the urban curia, one to 30,000 in the peasant curia and one to 90,000 in the worker curia.”11 In the first round, Lenin argued, when the mass of “primary voters go to the poll,” the conundrum of vote splitting was most pronounced. In the subsequent rounds “when the elected representatives [or electors] vote, the general engagement is over; all that remains is to distribute the seats by partial agreements among the parties, which know the exact number of their candidates and their votes.” The Black Hundreds were likely only to be elected from the cities, which contributed less than 10 percent of the seats to the Duma; in the countryside the electoral process was generally nonpartisan.

So should social democracy enter into electoral agreements in the first rounds—that is, have joint lists of candidates with other parties, especially Cadets, to block the election of the Black Hundreds? For Lenin that would be a mistake: “We would undermine the principles and the general revolutionary significance of our campaign for the sake of gaining a seat in the Duma for a liberal! We would be subordinating class policy to parliamentarism instead of subordinating parliamentarism to class policy. We would deprive ourselves of the opportunity to gain an estimate of our forces. We would lose what is lasting and durable in all elections—the development of the class-consciousness and solidarity of the socialist proletariat. We would gain what is transient, relative and untrue—superiority of the Cadet over the Octobrist.”12 Furthermore, the “arithmetic possibility of splitting the vote,” he argued, based on an analysis of the returns for the First Duma, was minimal. But in later rounds, again, electoral agreements were not only permissible but necessary to block the Black Hundreds. That meant, more specifically, blocs with the Trudoviks to defeat the Cadets and blocs with the Cadets to defeat the Black Hundreds. This was Lenin’s ranking of the evils, from lesser to greater.

Given the Mensheviks’ orientation toward the Cadets—on full display in the First Duma—it is not surprising that they objected to Lenin’s call for a prohibition on electoral agreements in the first rounds of voting. Such a policy, in their view, would be an obstacle to their pas de deux with the liberals. At a party conference in Tammerfors (Tampere), Finland, November 3–7, the Menshevik-dominated Central Committee had enough delegates to adopt a resolution that allowed for electoral agreements with the Cadets in the first rounds. Because it was a conference, the decisions, as Lenin pointed out later, were only “advisory.” The Bolsheviks submitted, for discussion in local organizations, a “dissenting opinion” that reiterated their call for a ban on electoral agreements in the first rounds, but with a qualification: “Exceptions to this rule are permissible only in cases of extreme necessity and only in relation to parties that fully accept the main slogans of our immediate political struggle, i.e., those which recognize the necessity of an armed uprising and are fighting for a democratic republic. Such agreements, however, may only extend to the nomination of a joint list of candidates, without in any way restricting the independence of the political agitation carried on by the Social-Democrats.” But there was an exception to this exception: “In the workers’ curia the Social-Democratic Party must come out absolutely independently and refrain from entering into agreements with any other party.”13 If Lenin was willing to be a bit flexible on the general stricture on blocs in the first rounds of elections, that didn’t apply to the arena devoted exclusively to the proletariat—the one place where social democracy had to be pure and unadulterated in order to accurately assess its support. More than anything to date, the differences at Tammerfors revealed the collision course the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were on.

The “Black-Hundred danger,” the Mensheviks insisted, justified first-round electoral agreements with the liberal Cadets—a claim that has a very familiar ring to it for anyone acquainted with Left politics in advanced capitalist countries since the Second World War. Lenin took this head-on in “Blocs with the Cadets,” his first major writing after Tammerfors.

There were three basic “flaws” with the Menshevik argument. The first is that it assumed an alliance with the Cadets would actually lessen the Black Hundred danger. But there was nothing, he pointed out, in the track record of the Cadets that warranted such a claim. Look, he said, at their behavior in the First Duma. As a liberal-monarchist party, the Cadets were apologists for the Czar—“the known leader of the Black Hundreds. Therefore, by helping to elect Cadets to the Duma, the Mensheviks are not only failing to combat the Black-Hundred danger, but are hoodwinking the people, are obscuring the real significance of the Black-Hundred danger. Combating the Black-Hundred danger by helping to elect the Cadets to the Duma is like combating pogroms by means of the speech delivered by the lackey [Cadet] Rodichev: ‘It is presumption to hold the monarch responsible for the pogrom.’”

“The second flaw . . . is that . . . the Social-Democrats tacitly surrender hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets. In the event of a split vote that secures the victory of a Black Hundred, why should we be blamed for not having voted for the Cadet, and not the Cadets for not having voted for us?” Social democrats “must not allow themselves to be bribed”—as Marx and Engels counseled in their Address—by what had always happened whenever they embarked on independent working-class political action in the electoral arena, “the howling and barking of the liberals, accusing the socialists of wanting to let the Black Hundreds in.” Why should the Cadets be allowed to pose as democrats? To the contrary, they had to be fought: “Now or later, unless you cease to be socialists, you will have to fight independently, in spite of the Black-Hundred danger. And it is easier and more necessary to take the right step now than it will be later on . . . But the real Black-Hundred danger, we repeat, lies not in the Black Hundreds obtaining seats in the Duma, but in pogroms and [field] military courts; and you are making it more difficult for the people to fight this real danger by putting Cadet blinkers on their eyes.” Ceding “hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets” was to miseducate the masses and therefore disarm them in waging the “real” fight.

The “third flaw” was related to the second—“its inaccurate appraisal of the Duma and its role.” Implicit in the Mensheviks’ “tactics of partial agreement,” as they called them, was the assumption that what transpired within the elegant walls of Tauride Palace was decisive in the class struggle. Trying to utilize the “Duma as a whole, i.e. the Duma majority”— again, in their own words—was the best way for “fighting the autocratic regime.” It was just the opposite for Lenin and the Bolsheviks: “We think it is childish to imagine that the elimination of the Black Hundreds from the Duma means the elimination of the Black-Hundred danger.” The Black Hundred danger, he argued, would be overcome in the only place it could—in the streets. The Mensheviks, Lenin charged, had succumbed to “parliamentary cretinism”—not the first and not the last well-intentioned revolutionaries to have met such a fate.

Although Lenin’s answer to the vote-splitting/lesser-evil conundrum took into account the then existent electoral rules in Russia, there is nothing to suggest that it would have been qualitatively different for a different set of rules. At the heart of his position was a cost-benefit calculation informed by the assumption that what took place outside the parliamentary arena was decisive in politics. To the extent that participation in the electoral arena advanced independent working-class political action then it was worth taking part. If, however, such involvement interfered with that course, then the costs outweighed the benefits. Forming a bloc with the Cadets in the first round of elections incurred, in his view, an unjustifiable cost—the miseducation of the working class and its allies. It would be better to abstain—as the Bolsheviks did with the Bulygin Duma proposal—than to risk such an outcome. Even in the likelihood of the Black Hundreds obtaining a majority in the Duma, Lenin would have had the same answer; the Third and Fourth Dumas bear that out. However frightening that prospect might have been to some, Lenin knew that in the final analysis the “real” fight with the Black Hundreds had to take place outside Tauride Palace. “Everywhere we have a single policy: in the election fight, in the fight in the Duma, and in the fight in the streets—the policy of armed struggle. Everywhere our policy is: the Social-Democrats with the revolutionary bourgeoisie”—that is, the peasantry—“against the Cadet traitors.”14 Nothing distinguished the Bolsheviks more from the Mensheviks than that stance.

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