Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 15, 2008

In response to Alex Callinicos

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:11 pm

Alex Callinicos

For those interested in the British SWP’s latest thinking on “Where the radical left is going“, I would refer you to Alex Callinicos’s article in the latest “International Socialism”. This 8600 word treatise can best be described as a restatement of this tendency’s peculiar understanding of the “united front” as applied to electoral politics that I have taken up before. Leaving aside Callinicos’s by now familiar defense of his party’s approach to such matters, there is some interesting reportage on the problems of the European radical left-most particularly the sad story of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy:

In the past couple of years the fortunes of the radical left have diverged sharply. The most important case on the negative side was provided by the PRC itself. The party of Genoa and Florence moved from 2004 onwards sharply to the right, denouncing the resistance to the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq as fascist and joining the centre-left coalition government of Romano Prodi that held office briefly in 2006-8. PRC deputies and senators voted for Prodi’s neoliberal economic programme, and for the participation of Italian troops in the occupation of Afghanistan and in the United Nations “peacekeeping” mission to Lebanon. In April 2007 the PRC leadership expelled a far-left senator, Franco Turigliatto, for voting against government foreign policy. Despite the PRC’s participation in a new “Rainbow” formation with other elements on the left of the governing coalition, it was punished in the general elections of April 2008 for its association with a disastrous government. Amid a crushing victory for the right under Silvio Berlusconi, the Rainbow won only 3.1 percent of the vote, compared to 5.8 percent for the PRC alone two years earlier, and lost all its parliamentary seats. Bertinotti, unceremoniously deprived of the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies to which he had been elevated under Prodi, announced his retirement from politics.

Callinicos has a rather schematic understanding of political parties that borders on a kind of political tripartite version of Dante’s masterpiece. Corresponding to Inferno are the bourgeois parties, including New Labour. This lowest circle of hell is reserved for the likes of the Republican Party in the U.S., while on the higher circles might be a social democratic party that was on some kind of temporary leftist binge, like British Labour right after WWII.

Moving ahead to purgatory, you have these in-between formations like Refundazione, the Scottish Labour Party, Respect in Great Britain (until the SWP jumped ship), the Socialist Alliance in Australia, et al. These purgatories have devils who have escaped from hell like George Galloway and angels like Lindsay German. The approach of the SWP is to develop a united front between the devils (or reformists, to use Marxist jargon) and the angels (revolutionary socialists). Those who are neither angels nor devils are invited-one supposes-to observe the struggle from the peanut galleries.

But for those who have been saved by our Lord God Karl Marx, there is the heaven of Revolutionary Socialism, which includes both the British SWP and other groups that they generously put on their own level, such as the French Trotskyist LCR who have embarked on a project to build a new purgatory type party. To make sure that the party does not slide back into hell, the French Trotskyists have insisted that the party be against capitalism and not just neoliberalism. Apparently making this distinction is essential to saving your soul.

In order to underscore how much his tripartite definition is consistent with classical (or least old school) Marxism, Callinicos takes us down memory lane into the 1920’s:

When it first became involved in the process of left regroupment at the beginning of the present decade, the SWP came up with its own conception of the nature of the new radical left formations. This was articulated by John Rees when he argued, “The Socialist Alliance [the precursor to Respect] is thus best seen as a united front of a particular kind applied to the electoral field. It seeks to unite left reformist activists and revolutionaries in a common campaign around a minimum programme”. Though an innovation, this extension of the united front tactic isn’t completely unprecedented. In May 1922 the Communist International declared that “the problem of the United Political Front of Labor in the United States is the problem of the Labor Party”, a policy that led its American section, the Workers Party (WP), to participate in 1923-4 in the Federated Farmer-Labor Party founded by John Fitzpatrick, leader of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

When I saw this, my eyes popped out of my head. Anybody who tries to use the utterly misguided efforts of American Communism in its infancy as a guide to political action today should have his head examined. I studied this period in an effort to come to grips with the collapse of American Trotskyism in the 1980s. It became clear to me that James P. Cannon’s miseducation by leaders of the Comintern explains the American SWP’s degeneration much more than cliques at Carleton College or any other psychological/demonological explanations.

Here’s what I wrote about this dreary episode as part of a longer article on third parties in the United States. (Since I strongly believe that such parties are what is necessary right now, you can of course accuse me of being an agent of purgatory.)

In the economic collapse that followed WWI, militant trade unionists began to form labor party chapters in industrial cities. A machinists strike in Bridgeport led to formation of the labor party in 5 Connecticut towns in 1918. John Fitzpatrick and Edward Nockels of the Chicago Federation of Labor called for a national labor party in that year. Such grass-roots radicalism would normally be embraced by Marxists, but unfortunately a deeply sectarian tendency was at work in the early Communist movement.

Although the Farmer-Labor Party movement was loosely socialist in orientation, it retained a populist character as well. This could be expected in the context of a worsening situation in the farmland since the turn of the century. The party received a major boost from the railway unions in 1922, after a half-million workers went on strike against wage cuts. They took the lead in calling for a Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) in February, 1922, shortly before the walkout. The SP, the Farmer-Labor Party and the largest farmers organizations in the country came to the conference and declared their intention to elect candidates based on the principles of “genuine democracy”. In the case of the Farmer-Labor delegates, this meant nationalization of basic industry and worker participation in their management.

The CP was not invited, but even if they had been invited, it is doubtful that they would have accepted. In 1919 the CP described the labor party movement as a “minor phase of proletarian unrest” which the trade unions had fomented in order to “conserve what they had secured as a privileged caste.” It concluded bombastically, “There can be no compromise either with Laborism or reactionary Socialism.”

In 1921 Lenin and the Comintern had come to the conclusion that the chances for success in an immediate bid for power had begun to subside, as the European capitalist states had begun to regain some social and economic stability. In such a changed situation, a united front between Communists and Socialists would be advisable. This opened up the possibility for American Communists to work with the new Labor Party movement, especially since Farmer-Labor leader Parley Christensen had visited Moscow and given Lenin a glowing report on party prospects.

Unfortunately, the gap between a united front in theory and the united front in practice was colossal. The Communists saw themselves as the true vanguard, so any alliance with reformists would have to based on the tacit understanding that the ultimate goal was political defeat of their socialist allies. Such Machiavellian understandings were obviously inimical to the building of a genuine leadership that could be embraced by the entire working class. The reason for this is obvious. The differentiations in the working class, based on income and skill, will tend to be reflected in their political institutions. They can not be abolished by imprimatur. The notion of a pure Bolshevik party made up only of the most oppressed and exploited workers unified around a ideologically coherent program is the stuff of sectarian daydreams and bears little resemblance in fact to the Russian reality.

When the  American Communists finally made a turn toward the Farmer-Labor Party, it retained ideological baggage and sectarian habits from the preceding three years. These harmful tendencies were aggravated by the intervention of John Pepper (nee Joseph Pogany), whose ultraleftist authority was analogous to that enjoyed by Bela Kun in the German Communist movement in the same period. Unlike Kun, Pepper did not have the imprimatur of the Comintern even though he implied that he had. He relied on his ability to spout Marxist jargon to impress the raw American leaders. Foster describes the impression Pepper made on him: “It is true that I was somewhat inexperienced in communist tactics, but Pepper…allowed everyone to assume that he was representing the Comintern in America…those of us who [did] not enjoy an international reputation were disposed to accept as correct communist tactics everything to which Pepper said YES and AMEN.”

The Chicago Communists, including Arne Swabeck, were on the front lines of the orientation to the newly emerging Farmer-Labor movement, since the Chicago labor movement was providing many of the troops and much of the leadership. Arne Swabeck might be known to some of you as one of the “talking heads” who functioned as a Greek Chorus in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”. At my very first Socialist Workers branch meeting in 1967, I voted with the rest of the branch to expel Arne who had become converted to Maoism in his late 80s after a life-long career in the Trotskyist movement.

John Fitzpatrick, Edward Nockels and Jay G. Brown, three Chicago Farmer-Labor leaders, had decided to call a convention for July 1923. Three Communists–Swabeck, Earl Browder and Charles Krumbein–formed a committee to work with the Fitzpatrick group.

Fitzpatrick was typical of the previous generation of labor leaders of the old school. A blacksmith by trade, Irish in origin, he had opposed American involvement in WWI, had spoken out in favor of the Bolshevik revolution and defied steel company and AFL bureaucrats in militant strike actions. But he was not good enough for the Communists, who regarded him with suspicion. How could it be otherwise when John Pepper was writing articles for the party paper stuffed with nonsense like this: “In face of danger, we must not forget that a Communist Party is always an army corps surrounded by dangers on all sides–a Communist should not abandon his party, even if he thinks the Party is in the wrong. Every militant Communist should write on his shield: ‘My Party, right or wrong, my Party!'”

The Chicago Farmer-Labor party leaders were willing to work with the Communists, who had some influence in the labor movement as well as enjoying the backing of the world’s first workers state. All that they asked was for a little discretion since red-baiting was widespread in this period of the Palmer Raids. Farmer-Labor leader Anton Johanssen advised Browder, “If you keep your heads, go slow, don’t rock the boat, then the Chicago Federation will stand fast. But if you begin to throw your weight around too much, the game will be up.”

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Fitzpatrick was stuck in the middle between some fearful Farmer-Labor Party leaders, who reflected anticommunist prejudices, and the NY Communist leaders under Pepper’s influence who regarded him as the enemy. Tensions between the camps was exacerbated by the Communists who entertained the possibility of taking over the new formation and turning it into a proper revolutionary instrument under their farsighted leadership. [Insert typographical symbol for sarcasm here.]

The tensions came to a head over the timing for a national conference, with Fitzpatrick opting for a later date and the Communists favoring a date as early as possible. The differences over scheduling reflected deeper concerns about the relationship of political forces. The Communists felt that an earlier date would enhance their ability to control events, while Fitzpatrick hoped that a delay would enable him to rally other leftwing forces outside the CP’s milieu.

From his offices in NYC Pepper pushed for an earlier date and was successful. It was able to garner more votes than Fitzgerald on leadership bodies. Once the decision was made at the Political Committee level, the Chicago leaders closed ranks in a display of “democratic centralism” even though they felt that it was a mistake. When the national Farmer-Labor Party gathering was held on July 3, 1923, nearly 80 years ago this week, the CP ran roughshod over the opposition. Using their superior organizational skills and discipline, all major votes went the CP way. During the antiwar movement, the Trotskyists used to function the same way. We called ourselves without the slightest hint of self-awareness the “big Red machine.” No wonder independents hated us.

On the third day of the conference, John Fitzpatrick could not contain his dismay:

“I know Brother [William Z.] Foster and the others who are identified and connected with him, and if they think they can attract the attention of the rank and file of the working men and women of America to their organization, I say to them and to this organization, that is a helpless course, and they cannot do it.

“Then what have they done? They have killed the Farmer-Labor Party, and they have killed the possibility of uniting the forces of independent labor action in America; and they have broken the spirit of this whole thing so that we will not be able to rally the forces for the next twenty years!”

The CP had succeeded in capturing itself. After the conference ended, all of the independents left the Farmer-Labor Party and it functioned as a typical front group of the kind that vanguard formations–whether Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist–have succeeded in building over the years. A true mass movement will have contradictions and tensions based on class differentiation that will never remain bottled up in such front groups. The purpose of a genuine vanguard party, needless to say, is to help act as a midwife to such formations because they are the only vehicle that can express the complexity and hopes of a modern industrial nation numbering nearly 300 million.


  1. OK, so a question here: DemCent doesn’t work, fine, we get the idea. What are Communists supposed to do within wider formations though? Especially since, even if DemCent is not followed to the letter, it’s quite natural that people who share a political outlook are going to vote in a similar way, even if they don’t agree on it beforehand. In fact, DemCent (not by that name, but under a very similar mode of functioning) is the typical way many bourgeois parties function in Europe: party discipline is very strongly observed in many (if not all) European Parliaments and so on. Not saying that the fact bourgeois parties use it successfully is any recommendation, just wondering how communists, which are going to share a lot of ideas and have a coherent theory, should behave within bigger formations.

    Comment by David — October 15, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  2. Democratic Centralism is exactly suited to parliamentary votes, as Lenin originally intended. You can’t have socialist deputies voting against party decisions. What doesn’t make sense is to apply Democratic Centralism to ideas. For example, it is impossible for people to belong to groups like the British SWP and support Cuba, just as it is impossible for people to belong to the American SWP and oppose Cuba. We have to ditch this model since it is utterly sectarian.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 15, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  3. “During the antiwar movement, the Trotskyists used to function the same way. We called ourselves without the slightest hint of self-awareness the “big Red machine.” No wonder independents hated us.”

    Sorry Louis, don’t agree with this. Yes, we would call ourselves the BRM, but I was at a number of the big conferences, and in fact the independents voted with us. Lots of organized groupings hated the SWP at the time, and certainly mistakes were made, but at its best, the SWP had lots of independents on its side, based on insistence on a single issue coalition that was non-exclusionary.

    I have not forgotten the lessons of those days.

    Jon Flanders

    Comment by Jon Flanders — October 15, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

  4. *Yawn*: another debate about how to reconstitute the proletarian labor movement, the one in which an ontological “labor” (the universal subject) will escape the clutches of its greedy, capitalist masters and create an egalitarian society. When will the “Left” (whatever it may look like these days) realize that labor/value = capital? The abolition of labor, not its self-realization, is the precondition for the end of capitalism. Petty political debates about how to mobilize labor (or its surrogates) simply miss this point and, worse, prevent a revolutionary antipolitics from taking shape.

    Comment by J.D. — October 15, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

  5. Sorry to bore you, J.D. Of course, nobody ever thought about simply abolishing labor before. Nor had it occurred to us to allow an anti political politics to develop based upon the undoing of our workerness. Maybe if you mailed us the schematic?

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 16, 2008 @ 12:20 am

  6. Democent doesnt apply to ideas?
    What do ideas apply to then?
    How do ideas cease to be just ideas without application?
    Democent is about the application of ideas.
    Non democent is the application of other peoples'(nonclass)ideas?
    Of course for people who are inveterate minorities of one, democent is not for them.

    Comment by raved — October 16, 2008 @ 1:15 am

  7. It is interesting to me for most of your essay on the Nader campaign of 2000, it seems as if US radical history began in the early 1920’s after the split in the SP from which the CP was formed. Only at the very end do you mention voting for the Socialist party candidate in 2000, and refer to the Debsian tradition. But the most successful left third party in US history was precisely the Socialist Party between 1900 and 1917. And Eugene Debs is surely the single most important figure in the history of the left in the US.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — October 16, 2008 @ 2:05 am

  8. Why is Callinicos worthy of a response?

    Comment by Binh — October 16, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  9. Of course Callinicos is worth a response. He’s already made an interesting and quite important contribution to Marxism. And as a leading member of the British SWP and seems to be in charge of the IST, he plays an important role in an important political current – whether we like him or it, or not!

    Comment by Graculus — October 16, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

  10. Agreed. Any serious Marxist, especially an “unrepentent” one, should be interested in hearing what Alex Callinicos has to say…even if he has been responsible for many, if not most, of the British SWP’s opportunistic gyrations since the death of Tony Cliff. While I have always strongly disagreed with the Cliffites on the “Russian (and Cuban) Question,” as well as their disdain for Trotsky’s “transitional” method, they have defended the essence of revolutionary Marxism on a whole range of issues far more firmly and consistently than the followers of Ernest Mandel in the USFI have. The latter have made a career out of bending and swaying to almost every passing fad that the larger rad-lib milleau goes in for. None of the many talented writers in the USFI (including Mandel) ever wrote anything that compared to John Rees’ “Defense of October; rather they echoed the warmed-over Kautskyism of Sam Farber in the dreary days of the “collapse of Communism” and “the end of history.” So don’t be so quick to toss out the cat with the kitty litter.

    As for beating the dead horse of “democratic centralism,” the Dobbs-Kerry/Barnes-Sheppard SWP and its unsavory internal regime has about as much in common with the practice of the Bolsheviks as the Republican Party of Bush and McCain do with the Republican Party of Fremont and Lincoln. Anyone who has read Liebman, the early Harding and Service and Paul LeBlanc’s first book can see that the theory and practice of the Bolsheviks, a party based on and rooted in the vanguard layer of the Russian working class, has nothing to do with the abandonment of those kind of class struggle politics for sectoralist tail-ending and single-issue protest politics by the SWP in the 60s and 70s. For contrary to all those who seek to extoll the SWP’s politics of that period by separating them from the organizational shortcomings, the former went hand in hand with the latter. Indeed one necessitated the other in order to suppress the constant oppositions arising against them.

    Of course, if we are talking about the real essensce of “vanguardism,” focusing of “democratic centralism” misses the point anyway. As Mandel, in his better days, pointed out many times, the need for a Leninist or “vanguard” party is rooted in the uneven level of working class consciousness and struggle under capitalism as a whole, not in the peculiarities of Tsarist Russia or in abstract organizational formulas. The real problem is, of course, creating such a party, let alone its winning hegemony within the ranks of the working class. If Callinicos, Louis, or any one else for that matter, has any good ideas for doing so, rather than re-stating their past personal pet peeves, we would all be glad to hear them.

    Comment by MN Roy — October 17, 2008 @ 2:10 am

  11. J.D.’s comments above are worth considering and not deserving of the snotty response given by Michael Hureaux.

    It seems most Marxists would do well to *actually read Marx*, and more specifically, Marx’s life work, the critique of political economy, as contained in the three volumes of Capital, the Grundrisse, and the Theories of Surplus-Value. As Loren Goldner has written, Capital is a phenomenology of the self-negation of proletarian labor.

    Instead, most “Marxists” are at best merely readers of Marx’s journalistic writings, or middle-period political works like the Communist Manifesto. As such, Marx is merely conceived as the most radical of bourgeois democrats, an advocate of the extension and deepening of bourgeois-democratic social forms. In this conception, Marx is not a critic of bourgeois social forms such as the state and value, but merely wishes to reorganize the state and value under proletarian rule.

    At the very worst, “Marxists” are merely readers of Lenin, Trotsky, and other left-wing Kautskyites. (http://www.geocities.com/~johngray/barrotk.htm)

    What Marxists need is a “back to _Capital_” movement, extensive studying of all three volumes, as well as preparatory texts such as the Grundrisse and the _Results of the Immediate Production Process_. And extensive study of the secondary literature of the likes of Postone, Albritton, Chris Arthur, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Michael Heinrich, Helmut Reichelt, etc.

    Comment by Angelus Novus — October 17, 2008 @ 8:03 am

  12. I apologize for my role in the snot exchange.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 17, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  13. My question regarding the relevance of Callinicos is not about whether or not the British SWP or the IST contributed to Marxism, I just don’t find his or their take on where the left is going relevant because they have degenerated into a self-delusional sect and as a result, their arguments about current perspectives shouldn’t even really be taken too seriously. To me it would be like reading a Jack Barnes editorial on the state of the world in the American Militant.

    But at least there are some good comments here.

    Comment by Binh — October 17, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  14. When I saw this, my eyes popped out of my head. Anybody who tries to use the utterly misguided efforts of American Communism in its infancy as a guide to political action today should have his head examined. I studied this period in an effort to come to grips with the collapse of American Trotskyism in the 1980s. It became clear to me that James P. Cannon’s miseducation by leaders of the Comintern explains the American SWP’s degeneration much more than cliques at Carleton College or any other psychological/demonological explanations.

    Great analysis; also, don’t forget. The American Communist Party made huge gains in the regions in Alabama and around it-especially in the rural areas-with Blacks and some whites. They were gaining huge ground in labor circles. But, unfortunately they diverged from that because Stalin wanted to create a united front with the elites in order to oppose Nazism so then they turned from grass-roots building to the Democratic Party and to other mainstream political and anti-fascist organizations; which really just confused the Democrats and others as they were like, “Commies? What the hell?” So their adherence to democratic centralism within the Comintern also hurt them as well.

    There’s a great book which talks about the Communist Party’s organizing in Alabama called “Hammer and Hoe: Communists During the Great Depression” by Robin D. G. Kelley.

    You can’t have socialist deputies voting against party decisions. What doesn’t make sense is to apply Democratic Centralism to ideas.

    Another well put and apt point. That’s one thing that bothers me about DC but I don’t think DC is a bad idea; it’s very good, as long (as you said) it is not used to regulate thoughts, only certain actions within the party to help build the party (with room for criticism/self-criticism). I’ve always wondered what a united radical left front would look like in America and Europe.

    Since I’m Anglican I have the thinking of breakaway’s being essentially harmful for the movement itself. In the Anglican Communion we have a shit load of disagreements but the discipline (well, not for my ultra-right wing Episcopal comrades) to not schism (at least yet). We have disputes, argue back and forth, hammer out some type of policy paper, but we don’t split every five to ten years during minor and major synods.

    Now, that’s not necessarily a good thing but I always wondered what a united front party in America would look like with Trots, Maoists, MLs, socialists, commies, etc. Would we have the true DC discipline to at least come together with a common agenda and not break up over some of our methods and views (remember we all think capitalism is bad!). Unfortunately the answer would be a no; but if we could do that it would be nice (despite all the bickering, fighting, long meetings, and other disagreements [kinda like in 1919 in Russia]).

    Good post.

    Comment by Jack Stephens — October 18, 2008 @ 4:34 am

  15. “What Marxists need is a “back to _Capital_” movement, extensive studying of all three volumes, as well as preparatory texts”

    Yes, go back to the Holy Writ: All Answers Are Contained Therein!

    That’ll work.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — October 18, 2008 @ 9:34 am

  16. Good post Louis! The British Left teaches us an important lesson in how bad sectarianism can get. I can’t understand why a socialist organization would spend more time, energy and passion attacking the statements and policies of other (mostly marginal) socialists organizations rather than attacking the institutions of capitalism.

    Comment by Dave — October 18, 2008 @ 8:41 pm

  17. Martin Wisse,

    No, you cretin, it’s not about returning to “scripture”. It is about an engaged, deep study of Marx’s life work, the critique of political economy, a categorical critique of the basic social forms of capitalist society. Although he never completed the “six book plan” with the volumes on the state, the world-market, etc., Marx did manage to deliver an analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society that remains unsurpassed to this very day. As Georg Lukacs correctly remarked, the fetish section of Chapter One contains the entirety of historical materialism within this.

    But Kautskyists like yourself would reduce Marx to a crude sociologist of class relations or worse, some Engelsian banalities about “movement in contradictions” and other homilies. You simply aren’t interested in questions of the forms of value, money, absolute and relative surplus-value, fixed and circulating capital, interest-bearing capital, or the trinity formula.

    Comment by Angelus Novus — October 19, 2008 @ 9:55 am

  18. Kautskyist? Not me, Angelus. I’m a Snotskyist.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 21, 2008 @ 12:40 am

  19. […] have already discussed Callinicos’s odd ideas about Respect as a kind of united front here. While Davidson makes a number of useful points, I am afraid that he is still wedded to a kind of […]

    Pingback by The Fight in the SWP « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 20, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

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