Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 12, 2008

Robert Brenner versus the dependency theorists

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

[This was originally posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list.]

Ten years after Monthly Review published André Gunder Frank’s “Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America”, Robert Brenner wrote an article in the July-August 1977 New Left Review that took aim at the “dependency school” associated with Paul Sweezy, Paul Baran, Samir Amin and André Gunder Frank. All of these authors were readily identifiable with Monthly Review, but Brenner attacked Immanuel Wallerstein as well, who was seen much more as a “world systems” theorist than a dependency theorist. Whatever differences existed between the dependency and world systems theories, they were united in their belief that capitalism was responsible for the development of underdevelopment in the 3rd world.

The proximate cause of Brenner’s article was to refute Paul Sweezy’s analysis of the origins of capitalism. In the 1950s, Sweezy debated Maurice Dobb in the pages of Science and Society over the “transition to capitalism question”. In “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” Dobb put forward the argument that capitalism developed through a combination of changes in the British countryside (enclosure acts, etc.) and colonialism in the New World. Strongly influenced by the historian Henri Pirenne, Sweezy took the position that a revival of trade with Asia was primarily responsible. Sweezy’s analysis influenced A.G. Frank as will be evident in Brenner’s polemics below.

Brenner adopted Dobb’s basic thesis but dropped the part about colonialism. Indeed, he was so emphatic about capitalism originating in the British countryside that he was positively hostile to any analysis that looked to “primitive accumulation” in the New World. In other words, he found the analysis of Baran and Frank that I have posted here over the past month or so to be outside of Marxism insofar as they supposedly put the struggle between nations over that of the class struggle. Basically, Brenner was arguing from the standpoint of classical Marxism against “Third Worldist” deviations-at least that is the way he saw it.

Brenner’s article is very long (70 pages) so I will only forward and comment on the sections that are relevant to the debate over dependency theory. (Unfortunately the article is only accessible to NLR subscribers so I really can’t supply a direct link.) My comments will appear in italics and will be enclosed by brackets. The “transition question” is of course very crucial to Marxist theory but will probably return to it later on after we have worked through the debates in Marxism over imperialism.

* * * *

New Left Review I/104, July-August 1977
Robert Brenner
The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism


[André Gunder] Frank and Capitalist Development

It has thus been maintained that the very same mechanisms which set off underdevelopment in the ‘periphery’ are prerequisite to capital accumulation in the ‘core’. Capitalist development cannot take place in the core unless underdevelopment is developed in the periphery, because the very mechanisms which determine underdevelopment are required for capitalist accumulation. In the words of André Gunder Frank, ‘economic development and underdevelopment are the opposite faces of the same coin’. As Frank goes on to explain: ‘Both [development and underdevelopment] are the necessary result and contemporary manifestation of internal contradictions in the world capitalist system . . . economic development and underdevelopment are relational and qualitative, in that each is actually different from, yet caused by its relations with, the other. Yet development and underdevelopment are the same in that they are the product of a single, but dialectically contradictory, economic structure and process of capitalism. Thus they cannot be viewed as the product of supposedly different economic structures or systems . . . One and the same historical process of the expansion and development of capitalism throughout the world has simultaneously generated-and continues to generate-both economic development and structural underdevelopment.’ [3] Specifically: ‘The metropolis expropriates economic surplus from its satellites and appropriates it for its own economic development. The satellites remain underdeveloped for lack of access to their own surplus and as a consequence of the same polarization and exploitative contradictions which the metropolis introduces and maintains in the satellite’s domestic structure.’ [4]

Obviously such a view of underdevelopment carries with it a view of development, the unitary process which ostensibly brought about both. Frank’s primary focus has in fact been on the roots of underdevelopment, so it has not been essential for him to go into great detail concerning the origins and structure of capitalist development itself. Yet, to clarify his approach, it was necessary to lay out the mainsprings of capitalist development, as well as underdevelopment; accordingly, Frank did not neglect to do this, at least in broad outline. The roots of capitalist evolution, he said, were to be found in the rise of a world ‘commercial network’, developing into a ‘mercantile capitalist system’. Thus ‘a commercial network spread out from Italian cities such as Venice and later Iberian and Northwestern European towns to incorporate the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa and the adjacent Atlantic Islands in the fifteenth century . . . until the entire face of the globe had been incorporated into a single organic mercantilist or mercantile capitalist, and later also industrial and financial, system, whose metropolitan centre developed in Western Europe and then in North America and whose peripheral satellites underdeveloped on all the remaining continents.’ [5] With the rise of this system, there was ‘created a whole series of metropolis-satellite relationships, interlinked as in the surplus appropriation chain noted above’. As the ‘core’ end of the chain developed, the ‘peripheral’ end simultaneously underdeveloped.

Frank did not go much further than this in filling out his view of capitalism as a whole, its origins and development. But he was unambiguous in locating the dynamic of capitalist expansion in the rise of a world commercial network, while specifying the roots of both growth and backwardness in the ‘surplus appropriation chain’ which emerged in the expansionary process: [6] surplus appropriation by the core from the periphery, and the organization of the satellite’s internal mode of production to serve the needs of the metropolis. In this way, Frank set the stage for ceasing to locate the dynamic of capitalist development in a self-expanding process of capital accumulation by way of innovation in the core itself. Thus, for Frank, the accumulation of capital in the core depends, on the one hand, upon a process of original surplus creation in the periphery and surplus transfer to the core and, on the other hand, upon the imposition of a raw-material-producing, export-dependent economy upon the periphery to fit the productive and consumptive requirements of the core.

It has been left for Immanuel Wallerstein to carry to its logical conclusion the system outlined by Frank. Just as Frank and others have sought to find the sources of underdevelopment in the periphery in its relationship with the core, Wallerstein has sought to discover the roots of development in the core in its relationship with the periphery. Indeed, in his magisterial work, The Origins of the Modern World System, [7] Wallerstein attempts nothing less than to establish the origins of capitalist development and underdevelopment and to locate the mainsprings of their subsequent evolutions.

Wallerstein’s System

Wallerstein aims to systematize the elements of the preliminary sketch put forward in Frank’s work. His focus is on what he terms the ‘world economy’, defined negatively by contrast with the preceding universal ‘world empires’. So the world empires, which ended up by dominating all economies prior to the modern one, prevented economic development through the effects of their overarching bureaucracies, which absorbed masses of economic surplus and prevented its accumulation in the form of productive investments. In this context, Wallerstein declares that the essential condition for modern economic development was the collapse of world empire, and the prevention of the emergence of any new one from the sixteenth century until the present. Wallerstein can argue in this way because of what he sees to be the immanent developmental dynamic of unfettered world trade. Left to develop on its own, that is without the suffocating impact of the world empires, developing commerce will bring with it an ever more efficient organization of production through ever increasing regional specialization-in particular, through allowing for a more effective distribution by region of what Wallerstein terms systems of ‘labour control’ in relation to the world’s regional distribution of natural resources and population. The trade-induced world division of labour will, in turn, give rise to an international structure of unequally powerful nation states: a structure which, through maintaining and consolidating the world division of labour, determines an accelerated process of accumulation in certain regions (the core), while enforcing a cycle of backwardness in others (the periphery). [8]

Without, for the moment, further attempting to clarify Wallerstein’s argument, it can be clearly seen that his master conceptions of world economy and world empire were developed to distinguish the modern economy, which can and does experience systematic economic development, from the pre-capitalist economies (called world empires), which were capable only of redistributing a relatively inflexible product, because they could expand production only within definite limits. Such a distinction is both correct and necessary. For capitalism differs from all pre-capitalist modes of production in its systematic tendency to unprecedented, though neither continuous nor unlimited, economic development-in particular through the expansion of what might be called (after Marx’s terminology) relative as opposed to absolute surplus labour. That is, under capitalism, surplus is systematically achieved for the first time through increases of labour productivity, leading to the cheapening of goods and a greater total output from a given labour force (with a given working day, intensity of labour and real wage). This makes it possible for the capitalist class to increase its surplus, without necessarily having to resort to methods of increasing absolute surplus labour which dominated pre-capitalist modes-i.e. the extension of the working day, the intensification of work, and the decrease in the standard of living of the labour force. [9]


Wallerstein does not, in the last analysis, take into account the development of the forces of production through a process of accumulation by means of innovation (‘accumulation of capital on an extended scale’), in part because to do so would undermine his notion of the essential role of the underdevelopment of the periphery in contributing to the development of the core, through surplus transfer to underwrite accumulation there. More directly, Wallerstein cannot-and in fact does not-account for the systematic production of relative surplus product, because he mislocates the mechanism behind accumulation via innovation in ‘production for profit on the market’: ‘The essential feature of a capitalist world economy . . . is production for sale in a market in which the object is to realise the maximum profit. In such a system, production is constantly expanded as long as further production is profitable, and men constantly innovate new ways of producing things that expand their profit margin.’ (rfd, p. 398.)

Now, there is no doubt that capitalism is a system in which production for a profit via exchange predominates. But does the opposite hold true? Does the appearance of widespread production ‘for profit in the market’ signal the existence of capitalism, and more particularly a system in which, as a characteristic feature, ‘production is constantly expanded and men constantly innovate new ways of producing’. Certainly not, because production for exchange is perfectly compatible with a system in which it is either unnecessary or impossible, or both, to reinvest in expanded, improved production in order to ‘profit’. Indeed, we shall argue that this is the norm in pre-capitalist societies. For in such societies the social relations of production in large part confine the realization of surplus labour to the methods of extending absolute labour. The increase of relative surplus labour cannot become a systematic feature of such modes of production.

[The above paragraph is crucial to understanding the difference between Frank and Wallerstein on one side and Brenner on the other. For Brenner, the production of relative surplus value over and against absolute surplus value is a sine qua non for capitalism. The earliest stage of capitalism is marked by the production of absolute surplus value through 11 hour work days using very simple machinery. But with increased competition, capitalism is forced to rationalize production and improve labor productivity through technological innovation. In other words, the industrial revolution. Implicit in this analysis is the failure of the plantation and mining systems in the colonial world to live up to Brenner’s litmus test. To illustrate, Belgium was deeply involved in the production of relative surplus value when its working class produced automobile tires in the 1920s but in the Congo, when workers were dragooned into tapping rubber using the simplest of tools, there was only the production of absolute surplus value. In my view, this distinction between absolute and relative surplus value is not very useful in understanding colonial capitalism.]

[Brenner now turns to a lengthy discussion of his differences with Sweezy and Wallerstein over the transition from feudalism to capitalism that I am skipping over. Suffice it to say that his critique revolves around the idea that the transfer of wealth-including gold, silver, fur, etc.-from the New World to Europe could not account for the rise of capitalism. He makes this even more explicit when he turns once again to André Gunder Frank.]

Frank and his Critics

From this perspective, it is impossible to accept Frank’s view, adopted by Wallerstein, that the capitalist ‘development of underdevelopment’ in the regions colonized by Europeans from the sixteenth century-especially the Caribbean, South America and Africa, as well as the southern part of North America-is comprehensible as a direct result of the incorporation of these regions within the world market, their ‘subordination’ to the system of capital accumulation on a world scale. Frank originally explained this rise of underdevelopment largely in terms of the transfer of surplus from periphery to core, and the export-dependent role assigned to the periphery in the world division of labour. [83] These mechanisms clearly capture important aspects of the functioning reality of underdevelopment. But they explain little, for, as the more searching critics of Frank’s earlier formulations pointed out, they themselves need to be explained. In particular, it was stated, they needed to be rooted in the class and productive structures of the periphery. [84]

However, in more recent work, Frank has attempted to respond to his critics specifically by integrating an analysis of internal class structure into his theory of underdevelopment. He argues that ‘underdevelopment is the result of exploitation of the colonial and class structure based on ultraexploitation; development was achieved where this structure of underdevelopment was not established because it was impossible to establish. All other factors are secondary or derive from the basic question of the type of exploitation.’ [85] By this reasoning, it was the relations of exploitation which came to dominate Latin American and Caribbean production for export, especially slavery and other sorts of enforced-labour systems, which determined underdevelopment. Thus, ‘The colonial and class structure is the product of the introduction into Latin America of an ultraexploitative export economy, dependent on the metropolis, which restricted the internal market and created the economic interests of the lumpen bourgeoisie (producers and exporters of raw materials). These interests in turn generated a policy of under- or lumpen development for the economy as a whole.’ [86] Perhaps we could paraphrase Frank’s argument in the following terms: on the one hand, growing production for the market stimulated by world demand determined increasing pressure to extract greater surplus; on the other hand, the establishment of class systems of production based on the direct use of force determined that this increasing output would be achieved through the extension of absolute, rather than relative, surplus labour-with familiar results.

[The final paragraphs of Brenner’s article get to the political differences between “dependency theory” and what he offers up as a return to a class-based Marxism.]


Frank’s original formulations aimed to destroy the suffocating orthodoxies of Marxist evolutionary stage theory upon which the Communist Parties’ political strategies of ‘popular front’ and ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ had been predicated. [107] Frank rightly stressed that the expansion of capitalism through trade and investment did not automatically bring with it the capitalist economic development that the Marx of the Manifesto had predicted. In the course of the growth of the world market, Chinese Walls to the advance of the productive forces might be erected as well as battered down. When such ‘development of underdevelopment’ occurred, Frank pointed out, the ‘national bourgeoisie’ acquired an interest not in revolution for development, but in supporting precisely the class system of production and surplus extraction which fettered economic advance. In particular, the merchants of the periphery backed the established order, for they depended for their profits on the mining and plantation enterprises controlled by the ‘reactionaries’, as well as the industrial production of the imperialists in the metropolis. But even the industrial capitalists of the periphery offered no challenge to the established structure-partly as a consequence of their involvement in luxury production serving the upper classes-while they merged with the ‘neo-feudalists’ through family connections and state office. As Frank asserted, to expect under these circumstances that capitalist penetration would develop the country was, by and large, wishful thinking. To count on the bourgeoisie for a significant role in an anti-feudal, anti-imperialist revolution was to encourage a dangerous utopia.

Yet, the failure of Frank and the whole tradition of which he is a part-including Sweezy and Wallerstein among others-to transcend the economic determinist framework of their adversaries, rather than merely turn it upside down, opens the way in turn for the adoption of similarly ill-founded political perspectives. Where the old orthodoxy claimed that the bourgeoisie must oppose the neo-feudalists, Frank said the neo-feudalists were capitalists. Where the old orthodoxy saw development as depending on bourgeois penetration, Frank argued that capitalist development in the core depended upon the development of underdevelopment in the periphery. At every point, therefore, Frank-and his co-thinkers such as Wallerstein-followed their adversaries in locating the sources of both development and underdevelopment in an abstract process of capitalist expansion; and like them, failed to specify the particular, historically developed class structures through which these processes actually worked themselves out and through which their fundamental character was actually determined. As a result, they failed to focus centrally on the productivity of labour as the essence and key to economic development. They did not state the degree to which the latter was, in turn, centrally bound up with historically specific class structures of production and surplus extraction, themselves the product of determinations beyond the market. Hence, they did not see the degree to which patterns of development or underdevelopment for an entire epoch might hinge upon the outcome of specific processes of class formation, of class struggle. The consequence is that Frank’s analysis can be used to support political conclusions he would certainly himself oppose.

Thus so long as incorporation into the world market/world division of labour is seen automatically to breed underdevelopment, the logical antidote to capitalist underdevelopment is not socialism, but autarky. So long as capitalism develops merely through squeezing dry the ‘third world’, the primary opponents must be core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside-not the international proletariat, in alliance with the oppressed people of all countries, versus the bourgeoisie. In fact, the danger here is double-edged: on the one hand, a new opening to the ‘national bourgeoisie’; on the other hand, a false strategy for anti-capitalist revolution.

[The above paragraph is really the coup de grace that Brenner intended to deliver to Monthly Review Marxism. Although he does not spell it out exactly, the words “cities versus the countryside” are a veiled reference to Maoism. It is true that Monthly Review identified itself as Maoist to some degree and could have been challenged on that basis, but it is puzzling that Brenner did not make that line of attack clearer. Furthermore, the idea of adapting to the ‘national bourgeoisie’ is hardly supported by André Gunder Frank’s career. While his Marxism, and particularly his evolution into a “long wave” theorist, often left something to be desired, he was never one to stump for a progressive 3rd world bourgeoisie.]

True, bourgeois revolutions are not on the agenda. International capitalists, local capitalists and neo-feudalists alike have remained, by and large, interested in and supportive of the class structures of underdevelopment. Nevertheless, these structures have kept significant masses of use value in the form of labour power and natural resources from the field of capital accumulation. Until recently, of course, the class interests behind ‘industrialization via import substitution’ have not, as a rule, been strong enough to force the class structural shifts that would open the way to profitable investment in development. However, with contracting profit opportunities in the advanced industrial countries and the consequent drive for new markets and cheap labour power, potentially available in the underdeveloped world, such interests may now receive significant strength from unexpected quarters. Should a dynamic of ‘development’ be set in motion as a consequence-and that is far from certain-it could hardly be expected to bring much improvement to the working population of the underdeveloped areas, for its very raison d’être would be low wages and a politically repressed labour force. But this would in no way rule out its being accomplished under a banner of anti-dependency, national development and anti-imperialism.

[What would be Brenner be alluding to above? He is warning against an “anti-dependency” government that represses its own working class using “anti-imperialist” rhetoric. Possibly the most striking example of this tendency in the past 30 years has been the Islamic Republic of Iran. Once again, it must be underlined that Monthly Review has never adapted to the Islamic Republic notwithstanding the occasional strange posting on MRZine that Monthly Review editors have tolerated for reasons not worth going into here.]

Most directly, of course, the notion of the ‘development of underdevelopment’ opens the way to third-worldist ideology. From the conclusion that development occurred only in the absence of links with accumulating capitalism in the metropolis, it can be only a short step to the strategy of semi-autarkic socialist development. Then the utopia of socialism in one country replaces that of the bourgeois revolution-one moreover, which is buttressed by the assertion that the revolution against capitalism can come only from the periphery, since the proletariat of the core has been largely bought off as a consequence of the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core. Such a perspective must tend to minimize the degree to which any significant national development of the productive forces depends today upon a close connection with the international division of labour (although such economic advance is not, of course, determined by such a connection). It must, consequently, tend to overlook the pressures to external political compromise and internal political degeneration bound up with that involvement in-and dependence upon-the capitalist world market which is necessary for development. Such pressures are indeed present from the start, due to the requirement to extract surpluses for development, in the absence of advanced means of production, through the methods of increasing absolute surplus labour.

[The warnings about ‘third-worldist’ ideology have to be understood in the context of the reaction against the excesses of the 1960s. Many socialists woke up with a hangover when they discovered that chants of “Ho, Ho Ho Chi Minh” had fallen on deaf ears in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Basically, Brenner wanted to reorient the movement back to the metropolitan centers where the working class was powerful enough and advanced enough to “overlook the pressures to external political compromise and internal political degeneration”, but unfortunately not at all interested in socialist revolution. Not much has changed since Brenner wrote this article. The 3rd world continues to supply the shock troops against imperialism and the revolutionary process in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru would seem to have a lot more in common with André Gunder Frank’s analysis than Robert Brenner’s, particularly when you keep in mind that Frank was calling attention back in 1967 to Mariategui, a relatively obscure figure in Marxism at that time but one destined to influence the Latin American revolution of the 21st century.]

On the other hand, this perspective must also minimize the extent to which capitalism’s post-war success in developing the productive forces specific to the metropolis provided the material basis for (though it did not determine) the decline of radical working-class movements and consciousness in the post-war period. It must consequently minimize the potentialities opened up by the current economic impasse of capitalism for working-class political action in the advanced industrial countries. Most crucially, perhaps, this perspective must tend to play down the degree to which the concrete inter-relationships, however tenuous and partial, recently forged by the rising revolutionary movements of the working class and oppressed peoples in Portugal and Southern Africa may be taken to mark a break-to foreshadow the rebirth of international solidarity. The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.

[The reference to Portugal and Southern Africa clearly was intended to bolster the idea that the classical model of working class revolution was returning once again. However, at the very time that Brenner was writing these words, the Sandinista revolution was rapidly gathering strength and moving toward final victory. The class forces of that revolution involved small ranchers and the informal economy, hardly the traditional bastions of proletarian revolution. Perhaps today’s financial crisis will spur the world working class into action once again but it would be a mistake to dismiss social forces that have not been vetted by classical Marxism. History does move in wayward directions after all.]

October 10, 2008

Did Trotsky urge voting for Black Democrats?

Filed under: african-american,socialism,third parties — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

Trotsky reading the Militant newspaper (1936)

I was rather startled to see Marxism list subscriber Joaquin Bustelo state that “Trotsky specifically urged voting for a Black Democrat under certain conditions.” Joaquin, a brilliant and wise former member of the Socialist Workers Party, has dispensed with much of the dogma that marked this one-time very influential group but I cannot go along with his recent “re-thinking” around support for the Democratic Party. I want to take this opportunity, therefore, to actually review what Trotsky said and also to relate it to electoral questions facing the left today.

Joaquin first alluded to Trotsky and Black Democrats in reply to a subscriber whose hostility to the Democratic Party is about as deep as my own:

This is, of course, the old SWP schema of “class lines” in elections. It is not a Marxist nor Leninist position. Marx and Lenin both voted for capitalist parties (on occasion) and Lenin specifically advocated calling for a vote for bourgeois-imperialist “social-democratic” and “Labour” parties as part of a tactic to undermine their base among working people. Trotsky specifically urged voting for a Black Democrat under certain conditions.

Since I have already challenged Joaquin on Marx and Lenin’s positions, I did not want to repeat my arguments. But Trotsky’s alleged support for “voting for a Black Democrat” was a new one on me. When I asked Joaquin to provide a citation for this, he replied:

The passage occurs in the Pathfinder book, Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism, and in the discussion on the creation (backed by the SWP) of a Black organization. Trotsky posits this group could sponsor or back candidates for office. He says we would propose revolutionaries, but of course we might lose. If a Black Democrat is nominated, we could support that candidate, making clear we support “the Negro,” not the Democrat, which I understand to mean, as an expression of our support to the democratic right of Black people to political inclusion and representation, not an endorsement of the specific views/outlook/program of this Black candidate. The SWP editors of the Pathfinder edition add to this a footnote to the effect that Trotsky MEANT provided this “Negro Democrat” ran as an independent candidate on the ballot. I think the footnote is bullshit. Trotsky, neither here nor elsewhere, presents anything to indicate he is in the slightest aware of or concerned about the minutiae of U.S. election laws of ballot practices.

Since this seems so counter-indicative to everything that Trotsky ever wrote about electoral politics, I decided to stop by the Columbia University library at lunch and take a look at the Pathfinder book, something I haven’t done in over 10 years. (The last time I referred to it was in order to prepare an article on the national question.)

The reference to Black Democrats occurs in an April 11, 1939 article titled “Plans for the Negro Organization”. As Joaquin points out, the SWP was trying to help launch a new group that sounds quite a bit like what Malcolm X was trying to do with the Organization for Afro-American Unity. In fact, this article was written just 6 days after “A Negro Organization” was written to announce this new initiative. This article stated that the Trotskyists alone could provide the organizational impetus since “None of the parties can now assume such a task because they are either pro-Roosevelt imperialists or anti-Roosevelt imperialists.

Turning to “Plans for the Negro Organization”, point 2 in the section on Political orientation is quite specific: “To inculcate the impossibility of any assistance being gained from the Republican and Democratic Parties. Negroes must put up their own candidates on a working class program and form a united front only with those candidates whose program approximates their own.”

In other words, the new organization would run against the two “imperialist” parties.

The article takes up a number of proposals that were discussed with Leon Trotsky and SWP leaders in attendance, including CLR James. Proposal 12 deals with “The relationship of the Negroes to the Republican and Democratic Parties”, the source of Joaquin’s assertion that Trotsky urged a tactical vote under certain conditions for Black Democrats.

Indeed, Trotsky states that since Blacks are underrepresented in Congress, “we can often oppose a Negro candidate to a white candidate.” But he adds, “This Negro organization can always say ‘We want a Negro who knows our problems.’ It can have important consequences.” In other words, it is pretty clear that Trotsky was not referring to Black Democrats but candidates from the new group that they are hoping to launch.

Owen, another participant in the meeting who is probably Sherry Mangan, states that CLR James “has ignored a very important part of our program-the labor party.” This leads James to assure him that when there are rival candidates from the labor party (albeit non-existent at this point) and the new Negro organization (also non-existent-obviously some things have not changed since the 1930s in terms of independent political action), the Blacks in the Labor Party should support the independent Black candidate because “his [sic] demands are good for the working class.”

Charles Curtiss, also in attendance at the meeting, frets that Blacks voting for Blacks is just another version of the Popular Front. Clearly, Curtiss is reflecting the kind of class fundamentalism in the Trotskyist movement that Leon Trotsky and CLR James were challenging.

James tells Curtiss: “This organization (in other words, the one that they want to launch) has a program. When the Democrats put up a Negro candidate, we say, “Not at all. It must be a candidate with a program we can support.”

Let there be no doubt about this. CLR James is saying that just because the Democrats are running a Black, the left is not under any obligation to support him or her because program comes first. In other words, CLR James was saying pretty much the same thing that the Black Commentator is saying about Obama today.

Finally, Trotsky chimes in on this question:

If this organization puts up a certain candidate, and we find as a party that we must put up our own candidate in opposition, we have the full right to do so. If we are weak and cannot get the organization to choose a revolutionist, and they choose a Negro Democrat, we might even withdraw our candidate with a concrete declaration that we abstain from fighting, not the Democrat, but the Negro.

What was Trotsky talking about? It should not be hard to figure out. He is saying that the new Black organization that is running candidates for office might have a variety of aspirants. Some will be revolutionaries and some might come out of the Democratic Party. But he is urging the SWP’ers to set aside their hostility to the Democratic Party background of the candidate as long as he is running as a representative of the new organization.

In a footnote, the SWP states:

What Trotsky was proposing here was that the SWP give critical support to the candidate of an independent Negro organization running against the Democratic and Republican party candidates, even though the candidate might be a Democrat instead of a revolutionist. The crucial point would be that such a candidate of an independent Negro organization would be opposing the candidates of the capitalist parties. Trotsky never advocated support of candidates of the Democratic or Republican parties.

I strongly believe that this footnote gets things right.

October 6, 2008

Child of the Sit-Downs

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 1:43 pm

Carlton Jackson’s Child of the Sit-Downs

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Jackson, Carlton: Child of the Sit-Downs: the Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2008 ISBN 978-0-87338-944-0, 216 pages.

(Swans – October 6, 2008) Carlton Jackson’s Child of the Sit-Downs: the Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger is a valuable addition to the ongoing history of the American left. The book is not just worth reading for its account of Genora Dollinger’s heroic intervention into the 1937 Flint sit-down strike, the struggle that she is best known for. It will also help long-time leftists figure out how to cope with and even rise above difficult times in American society through her example. The radicalizations of the 1930s and the 1960s were spearheaded by young people and when they subsided, new navigation skills had to be learned in order to cope with a society that had returned to a “normalcy” of racism, imperialist war, class oppression, and alienation. As Carlton Jackson makes clear, Genora Dollinger mastered these skills with uncommon intelligence and a burning idealism that lasted until her death in 1995 at the age of 82.

Despite his academic background (he is now a professor emeritus at Western Kentucky State), Carlton Jackson has written an extremely readable book so much so that I missed my bus stop the other day as I turned the pages to see how Genora and her husband Sol were coping with 1950s repression. Jackson has also written biographies of Hattie McDaniel, the famous African-American actress, and Martin Ritt, the liberal film director. Being able to see the contributions of the Hollywood left and labor activists alike is of course a gift that is shared by Paul Buhle, another academic who has learned to speak directly to the ordinary person.

One of the most eye-opening aspects of Child of the Sit-Downs is its account of how its subject radicalized in the 1930s. It turns out that the Methodist Church in her hometown of Flint had a lot to do with Genora’s evolution. Sunday School gave her an opportunity to learn about the Social Gospel ideas of Josiah Strong, Walter Rauschenbusch, and other reformers who believed that government should help the poor. With her rebellious streak, Genora soon found herself taking the opposite stance of her father Raymond Albro, who had become relatively prosperous in the photography business and a racist to boot. He had joined the KKK in keeping with Malcolm X’s observation that everything south of Canada was the South.

At the age of 17, Genora fell in love with and got married to Kermit Johnson, a boy she met in Sunday school. Kermit’s father Carl had been a “prairie populist” before finding work at the Chevrolet plant in Flint and soon became a member of the Socialist Party. Kermit brought Genora to party meetings where she heard his father and other socialists discuss the Molly McGuires, the Knights of Labor and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and other insurgent labor movements. In no time at all, her Christian idealism transformed into the socialist beliefs that she held for the rest of her life. As Carlton Jackson recounts:

Always the most religious member of the Albro family, she taught Sunday school at the Methodist church and participated in church socials and singing events. While confined to bed during her bouts with TB, she read everything she could find about the world’s religions. She wanted to know how and why religions were created. She read lives of Zoroaster, Christ, Mohammed, and the Buddha, and she studied Baha-ism. Steadily she came to realize that the founders of the world’s great religions were simple – not simplistic – people who created beliefs that were noncomplicated. Later, these religions were institutionalized to include beliefs and requirements that had nothing to do with the founders. Human beings created dogma, she reckoned, and dogma was not a perfect persuader. Interspersed with her religious readings was Genora’s study of the various Socialist movements in the world. As she read Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky and learned of women labor reformers such as Rose Pesotta, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rose Schneidermann, and Rose Pastor Stokes, she discovered totally different religious and philosophical worlds from the comfortable one in which she grew up. When she read and heard about the events of the day, including so much labor unrest at GM and elsewhere throughout the country, she began to see what in her own mind was the hardboiled capitalist attitude of management toward labor. Accordingly, she plunged herself into the Socialist activities of the time.

Continue reading

October 5, 2008

Financial crisis, the welfare state and disaster capitalism

Filed under: economics,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

Naomi Klein

On September 7th, before the financial crisis had reached a full head of steam, I blogged about the Peter G. Peterson Foundation full-page ad in the N.Y. Times that warned about the burden Social Security and other “entitlements” placed on the young. The “young” signatories of the ad turned out to be a bunch of rightwing operatives like Patrick Wetherille, a frequent contributor to Human Events, a long-time ultraright magazine.

Peterson, reaching into his deep pockets again, has another full-page ad in today’s N.Y. Times, this time connecting the war on the remnants of the New Deal with the financial crisis, implying strongly that the bailouts will make it impossible to afford Social Security, Medicare, etc.

You can read the ad on the Peter G. Peterson Foundation website Under the heading “Think the Current Financial Crisis is Bad? You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” it issues these warnings:

Americans are seeing the heavy price the country pays when our leaders don’t take steps to fix serious and undeniable problems. We waited for a crisis to hit before anyone moved to act.

As disruptive and damaging as today’s mortgage sub-prime crisis is, we’re looking at a “super sub-prime” crisis which, if left unaddressed, will hurt many more Americans – and hurt much worse.

Our federal government is in a deep financial hole, yet Washington keeps on digging.

When I read the ad, I couldn’t help but think of Naomi Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism, the subject of her latest book “The Shock Doctrine”. Although I have not read the book, I am familiar with her ideas, which she has been pushing in a variety of venues, from Bill Maher’s television show to the Nation Magazine. Put succinctly, the theory tries to demonstrate that in case after case capitalist governments-particularly in the 3rd world-exploit disaster to deepen the attack on workers and poor farmers. A Village Voice review said that “Using stirring reportage, she shows the ways that disasters- unnatural ones like the war in Iraq, and natural ones like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina-allow governments and multinationals to take advantage of citizen shock and implement corporate-friendly policies: Where once was a Sri Lankan fishing village now stands a luxury resort.”

While Klein’s case studies appear to be drawn from wars and natural disaster, it is understandable how it can be extended to something like the subprime mortgage debacle, which bourgeois politicians have amalgamated with 9/11. If the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon were utilized to get American workers to follow the bosses blindly into war, the financial crisis provides the same kind of convenient excuse. Politicians ask us to rise to the occasion, which only means looking the other direction while their hands reach into our wallet.

On her website, Klein connects the threats being brandished against the welfare state with the disaster capitalism embodied in the financial crisis and ensuing bailout:

I wrote The Shock Doctrine in the hopes that it would make us all better prepared for the next big shock. Well, that shock has certainly arrived, along with gloves-off attempts to use it to push through radical pro-corporate policies (which of course will further enrich the very players who created the market crisis in the first place…).

The best summary of how the right plans to use the economic crisis to push through their policy wish list comes from Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. On Sunday, Gingrich laid out 18 policy prescriptions for Congress to take in order to “return to a Reagan-Thatcher policy of economic growth through fundamental reforms.” In the midst of this economic crisis, he is actually demanding the repeal of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which would lead to further deregulation of the financial industry. Gingrich is also calling for reforming the education system to allow “competition” (a.k.a. vouchers), strengthening border enforcement, cutting corporate taxes and his signature move: allowing offshore drilling.

Among Marxists, there are divergent opinions about the value of the Shock Doctrine. In his review, Doug Henwood is less than impressed:

By so emphasizing “shock”-and so much of that shock being extreme repression and torture-Klein skirts the difficult question of how the right developed enough popular consent and legitimation to win election and re-election, sometimes in landslides. The Morning in America election of 1984 was about an exhilarating boom. Though the boom was uneven and crazy, and came after a deep recession, it was real enough to be believed by enough people to keep the story going.

The shock of 9/11 had little effect on U.S. economic policy; sure, military contractors have made a bundle of Bush’s buildup, but that’s a story at least as old as Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech, and it’s hardly become the driving force of the U.S. economy. She cites contracts of $150 billion handed out over five years, but at $30 billion a year that’s the equivalent of three or four days worth of retail sales.

Doug’s analysis should be seen in the context of his long-standing tendency to be wary of Armageddon-type analyses on the left. Having lived through 1987, the LTCM debacle, the dot.com bust, not to speak of my former Trotskyist group’s tendency to see capitalism on its last legs no matter the year, I sympathize with his critique.

Meanwhile, Patrick Bond has taken exception to Doug’s critique and strongly defended Klein. This of course has to be understood in the context of Patrick’s tendency to play the Marxist bear to Doug’s bull. On Klein’s website, you can read Patrick’s rebuttal which includes his taking exception to Doug’s observation that “The effect of setting the starting clock on history so recently is to make the present seem far more extraordinary than it is.” Patrick responds:

It is an “extraordinary” period if you consider that “ordinary” capitalism recovers from a crisis and has relatively high growth periods based upon growing production as the source of profitability; the neoliberal period is, like a few others before it (e.g. 1920s with the “Treasury View”), extraordinary for maintaining a neoliberal approach to accumulation, in which growth rates have slowed and profits are increasingly sourced from financial/speculative activities. The present is worth studying in those terms, and the ways in which accumulation by dispossession add to the picture are crucial. We owe Naomi a great thanks for unveiling many of them.

Despite not having read Klein’s book, it is difficult for me to imagine it doing much harm. With the radical movement in general disarray, I can’t see how it hurts our cause for Naomi Klein to get the widest possible hearing, especially with her willingness to attack illusions in Barack Obama. In an article titled “Obama’s Chicago Boys”, she makes this point:

Demonstrating that this is no mere spring fling, he has appointed 37-year-old Jason Furman to head his economic policy team. Furman is one of Wal-Mart’s most prominent defenders, anointing the company a “progressive success story.” On the campaign trail, Obama blasted Clinton for sitting on the Wal-Mart board and pledged, “I won’t shop there.” For Furman, however, it’s Wal-Mart’s critics who are the real threat: the “efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits” are creating “collateral damage” that is “way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy more broadly for me to sit by idly and sing ‘Kum-Ba-Ya’ in the interests of progressive harmony.”

It would seem to me that we need as many high-profile journalists and intellectuals willing to hold the ostensible new Democratic president’s feet to the fire given his apparent willingness to buy into Peter G. Peterson’s bullshit. In the original 700 billion dollar bailout proposal, leading Democrats wanted to include a provision that changed the nation’s bankruptcy laws to make it easier for homeowners to downsize troubled home mortgages. What was Obama’s reaction to this, kids? You guessed it. He said that it was meritorious but did not belong in the emergency bailout bill since it would antagonize Republicans. This guy has to learn that it is more important not to antagonize us, the working people of America, even if it takes some demonstrations in Washington to wake him up to that fact.

October 1, 2008

Are bailouts Marxist?

Filed under: economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

Just after the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, rightwing ideologues began to rail against this and other supposedly socialist measures.

One of the more agitated among them is a Houston based venture capitalist named Bill Perkins who has bought a couple of full-page N.Y. Times ads warning about the communist threat to American capitalism. Here’s the latest that includes a cartoon exploiting the famous (but bogus) photo of wartime troops planting the stars and stripes on Iwo Jima:

It took me a moment to figure out that the rightmost soldier was President Bush since the features were decidedly Semitic, especially the nose. Just a couple of days ago I told my wife to expect a spasm of anti-Semitism around the bailout since so many of the hated Wall Street firms have traditionally been Jewish-owned, such as Bear-Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Goldman-Sachs. Furthermore, AIG’s past chairman was Maurice Greenberg, a Jew whose close ties to the Reagan administration (the Gipper offered him the job of Deputy Director of the CIA) would probably not compensate for having killed Jesus and destroying the livelihoods of good (Christian, in other words) Americans. (For more on this angle, check New Zealander Scott Hamilton’s blog entry “Why is Radio Live spreading anti-Semitic lies?“)

In a September 24th Guardian article, Perkins explains: “I think it’s a kind of trickle-down version of socialism or communism, when you say certain institutions can’t fail, when you have the government nationalising more institutions than Venezuela, I don’t see why you shouldn’t call a duck a duck.”

Ironically (although maybe not so ironically) Perkins hosted a fund-raiser for Barack Obama recently despite the Democratic candidate’s full-throated endorsement of the 700 billion dollar bailout.

Taking a step up from Perkins intellectually (we are being charitable) is a blog commentary that appeared in the Canadian National Post on September 29th. Written by Martin Masse, the publisher of the libertarian webzine Le Québécois Libre, it makes Henry Paulson a latter-day member of the Communist League:

In his Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Karl Marx proposed 10 measures to be implemented after the proletariat takes power, with the aim of centralizing all instruments of production in the hands of the state. Proposal Number Five was to bring about the “centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.”

If he were to rise from the dead today, Marx might be delighted to discover that most economists and financial commentators, including many who claim to favour the free market, agree with him.

Indeed, analysts at the Heritage and Cato Institute, and commentators in The Wall Street Journal and on this very page, have made declarations in favour of the massive “injection of liquidities” engineered by central banks in recent months, the government takeover of giant financial institutions, as well as the still stalled US$700-billion bailout package. Some of the same voices were calling for similar interventions following the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2001.

“Whatever happened to the modern followers of my free-market opponents?” Marx would likely wonder.

In some ways, the amalgam between people like Henry Paulson and Karl Marx reminds me a bit of what I also read in the National Post shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when Jeet Heer, a leftist who was on Doug Henwood’s list, compared Paul Wolfowitz to Leon Trotsky:

As evidence of the continuing intellectual influence of Trotsky, consider the curious fact that some of the books about the Middle East crisis that are causing the greatest stir were written by thinkers deeply shaped by the tradition of the Fourth International.

In seeking advice about Iraqi society, members of the Bush administration (notably Paul D. Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President) frequently consulted Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American intellectual whose book The Republic of Fear is considered to be the definitive analysis of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.

As the journalist Christopher Hitchens notes, Makiya is “known to veterans of the Trotskyist movement as a one-time leading Arab member of the Fourth International.” When speaking about Trotskyism, Hitchens has a voice of authority. Like Makiya, Hitchens is a former Trotskyist who is influential in Washington circles as an advocate for a militantly interventionist policy in the Middle East. Despite his leftism, Hitchens has been invited into the White House as an ad hoc consultant.

Returning to Martin Masse’s argument, the only way that it can be taken seriously (again being charitable) is to assume that statism is anti-capitalist. When Marx was writing in the mid-1800s, the vanguard of the bourgeoisie was most certainly for free trade and against the kind of state monopolies that the East India Company epitomized. For capitalist ideologues of the libertarian bent like Masse, the early 1800s serve as a kind of Lost Eden when the state supposedly allowed the free market to operate unfettered.

However, since the beginning of the 20th century at least, there has been very little in the way of laissez-faire in the more advanced capitalist countries. Late capitalism has been marked by more than anything by the intersection of large corporations and the federal government.

Although examples abound, there is probably no better example than the computer revolution that most libertarians like Masse would hold up as an example of unfettered capitalism. But as Gar Alpervowitz pointed out in an article “Distributing Our Technological Inheritance” that appeared in the Oct. 94, Technology Review, the personal computer has the stamp of Big Government all over it:

The personal computer itself–without which Gates’s software would not be possible–owes its development to sustained federal spending during World War II and the Cold War. “Most of [the] ‘great ideas in computer design’ were first explored with considerable government support,” according to historian Kenneth Flamm in a Brookings Institution study. Now a specialist in technology policy in the Department of Defense, Flamm estimates that 18 of the 25 most significant advances in computer technology between 1950 and 1962 were funded by the federal government, and that in most of these cases the government was the first buyer of new technology. For example, Remington Rand Corp. delivered UNIVAC, the original full-fledged U.S. computer, under contract to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.

The government’s shouldering of huge development costs and risks paved the way for the growth of Digital Equipment Corp., which created its powerful PDP line of 1960s computers. In turn, Gate’s colleague [and now fellow billionaire] Paul Allen created a simulated PDP-10 chip that allowed Gates to apply the programming abilities of a mainframe to a small, homemade computer. Gates used this power to make his most important technical contribution: rewriting the BASIC language, itself funded by the National Science Foundation, to run Altair, the first consumer-scaled computer. And indeed, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, Altair’s developer, could never have placed a microcomputer of any variety on the market without the long preceding period of technological incubation.

Finally, a word should be said about the “nationalization” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which arguably is the case that most closely conforms to Masse’s worries over Washington being seduced by the Communist Manifesto’s demand for “centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.” Even Masse is forced to include Marx’s proviso that this measure (and 9 others) must be “implemented after the proletariat takes power” Maybe I haven’t been paying careful attention, but the American proletariat most certainly not has taken power and will not be closer to that goal even with the election of Barack Obama.

In fact, all that has happened to these enormous companies is that they have come under Conservatorship of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, whose website describes as:

A conservatorship is the legal process in which a person or entity is appointed to establish control and oversight of a Company to put it in a sound and solvent condition. In a conservatorship, the powers of the Company’s directors, officers, and shareholders are transferred to the designated Conservator.

Conservatorship was described by the Washington Post as akin to Chapter 11 bankruptcy and adds that it “would not resolve the larger question about the future of the two companies — whether they should be nationalized, privatized or maintain their current structure.”

Now I could be wrong about this, but given the statements of the two candidates running for office, nationalization has the proverbial chance of a snowball in hell. Few people have any illusions in John McCain, but it is worth noting that Barack Obama chose a forum organized by the Alliance for American Manufacturing to tell steelworkers: “The truth is, trade is here to stay. We live in a global economy. … Not every job that has left is coming back. If somebody tells you they are they’re not telling the truth.”

Vote Nader!

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