Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (part 3, the Comintern)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Paul Levi

Pierre Broue

In this, the third installment of a series of articles on attempts to build workers or socialist internationals, I am going to discuss the Comintern but within a narrow historical and geographical framework, namely the German revolution of the early 1920s. It will be my goal, as it was in an article written about 10 years ago titled The Comintern and German Communism, to debunk the notion of a wise and efficacious Comintern. As opposed to mainstream Trotskyist opinion, I do not view the Comintern prior to Stalin’s rise to power as a model to emulate. Looking back in particular at the role of Lenin and Trotsky, not to speak of outright rascals like Karl Radek and Bela Kun, the only conclusion that sensible people can be left with is that the German Communist Party would have been much better off if the Comintern had simply left it alone.

My first article depended heavily on Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution, the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. Angress is a most interesting figure. Born in Berlin in 1920, he was featured in the documentary “The Ritchie Boys” that told the story of an all-Jewish squad of paratroopers trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland who fought behind Nazi lines—real life Inglourious Basterds so to speak.

Part of my motivation in returning to the Comintern’s role in Germany was to read Pierre Broue’s “German Revolution 1917-1923”, a 959-page book that was originally published in hardcover by Historical Materialism at a prohibitive price. Thankfully, Haymarket books, the ISO’s publishing wing, has made a paperback available for only $50. Although this is still a steep price, it is still recommended as a major contribution to Marxist historiography.

Broue was a professional historian like Angress (who is referenced 29 times in Broue’s book) but he was also a Trotskyist party member, spending 30 years in Pierre Lambert’s French sect until he was expelled. The wiki on Broue states that during a heated debate with Lambert, he threw a chair at him. Unfortunately nobody in the American Trotskyist movement ever had that kind of audacity. I heard Broue speak at a conference on American Trotskyism in 2000. This was what I said about him in a report on the conference:

Broue was much worse. This Grenoble professor, who was connected to Pierre Lambert’s sect for many years, used his 20 minutes to present a sensationalistic but diffuse series of characterizations of well-known Trotskyist figures. Apparently this included a charge that Pablo was some kind of secret agent, according to one of my companions who remained alert during the whole time. Since his presentation was so incoherent, this escaped my attention. As I do have the tape, I will pay closer attention when I review his talk. If he did make this charge, I would strongly urge Paul LeBlanc never to invite this bum to anything again. Meanwhile Volkov and Broue sat in the audience chatting in a loud voice during presentations by young Trotskyists on the final day of the conference until someone shushed them. That should show you where their heads are at.

I have a much more benign attitude toward Broue after reading his book, although—as we shall see—I differentiate myself from his more conventional attitude, at least in Trotskyist terms, toward Lenin and Trotsky’s role. Indeed, the book walks a tightrope between salvaging Paul Levi’s reputation as the best leader German Communism ever had after Rosa Luxemburg and endorsing Lenin and Trotsky’s view that he was a kind of Menshevik that the party had to expel.

Again, tipping my hat to the contributions made by the journal Historical Materialism in translating and publishing key Marxist literature, I benefited from reading Paul Levi’s response to the March 1921 disaster that got him expelled for “breaking discipline” as well as his speech to the central committee (Zentrale) of the German CP defending his decision to go public with his critique of the March putsch. These two articles appeared in HM Number 17, 2009 and will likely be added to the Marxist Internet Archives in a year or so. They confirmed for me the power of Levi’s mind as well as the decay at the top of the German CP that Lenin and Trotsky backed against him.

Additionally, I have read Lenin’s rather vindictive attacks on Levi that are available on the Marxist Internet Archives. They are reminders that the heroes of the Comintern were, alas, all too human. Leaving aside the merits of their judgment, the most important lesson we can draw from the whole episode is the need to avoid “Cominternism” if we are indeed serious about constructing that Fifth International that Hugo Chavez has called for.

In 1921 the German CP was a kind of front of rival CP’s, including one led by Paul Levi that emerged out of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League. He was her second in command and her lawyer involving political cases since 1913. Against his party, there was an ultraleft group led by Ruth Fischer whose politics meshed with those of Bela Kun who was assigned by the Comintern to advise the German party. It was Kun who came up with the ultraleft idea to launch an insurrection in March 1921 that was backed by Karl Radek who functioned effectively both as a CP leader and, like Kun, a kind of Comintern representative.

Here is Broue’s assessment of Bela Kun:

We do not know the exact date when Kun arrived in Berlin, but only that it was around the end of February or the start of March. The new Chairman of the ECCI had been a Social-Democratic activist in Hungary before the War, and had been won to Bolshevism in 1917 when he was a prisoner of war. After secretly returning to Hungary, he had founded the Hungarian Communist Party. After being arrested, he emerged from jail to become Chairman of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, and to lead the Party which had been formed by fusion with the Social Democrats. He succeeded in escaping after the council régime fell, and took refuge in Moscow, where he worked in the political section of the Red Army. He was strongly blamed for having had ‘White’ prisoners from Wrangel’s army executed, in breach of the pledge given to them. Lenin spoke at first of having him shot, but finally was satisfied with sending him on a mission to Turkestan. Kun was a courageous but mediocre man. Lenin never concealed his low estimation of him, and that he was partly responsible, thanks to his opportunist errors, for the final collapse of the Hungarian conciliar republic.

On March 14 of 1921, Radek wrote a letter to the Zentrale leaders amenable to his and Kun’s ultraleft leanings that was basically an endorsement of Ruth Fischer’s Blanquist politics:

Levi is trying to build a faction on the slogan of ‘mass party or sect’. The swindle is that by implementing this line, he is engaged in dividing the Party in a catastrophic way, at a time when we can draw new masses around us by activising our policy. No one here is thinking of a mechanical split, nor of a split of any kind, in Germany. Our task is to bring to light the oppositions in the Party, and to make the left wing the leading force. Levi will soon go. But we must do all we can to prevent Däumig and [Clara] Zetkin from going with him. . . .

Everything depends on the world political situation. If the division between Germany and the Entente widens, and in the event of war with Poland, we shall speak. It is precisely because these possibilities exist that you must do all you can to mobilise the Party. One cannot start an action like firing a revolver. If today you do not do everything, by incessant pressure for action, to impart to the Communist masses the idea that they need to engage in action, you will again let slip a decisive moment. In this moment of political decisions of worldwide significance, think less about the ‘radical’ formula than about action, setting the masses in motion. In the event that war comes, think not about peace or about mere protests, but about taking up arms.

Chapter 25 of Broue’s history spells out in depressing detail what all this “action” business boiled down to:

Everything changed during the course of that day. First, Eberlein arrived in Halle, and explained to the local leaders that they must at all costs provoke an uprising in Central Germany, which would be the first stage of the Revolution. No means could be ruled out for shaking the workers out of their passivity, and he went so far as to suggest organising faked attacks on the VKPD [the group that Levi belonged to] or other workers’ organisations, or kidnapping known leaders in order to blame the police and the reactionaries, and in this way provoke the anger of the masses…

That Thursday, 24 March, the Communists used every means, including force, to attempt to set off a general strike. Groups of activists tried to occupy, factories by surprise in order to prevent the entry of the great mass of non-Communist workers, whom they called ‘scabs’. Elsewhere, groups of unemployed clashed with workers on their way to work or at the factories. There were incidents in Berlin in several of the big factories, in the Ruhr and in Hamburg, where unemployed workers and dockers who had occupied the quays were driven out after a lively exchange of shots. The general outcome was insignificant. Pessimistic estimates reckoned 200,000 strikers, optimistic ones claimed half a million. Some of the failures were bitterly disappointing, like that of Wilhelm Sült, who failed to win over his comrades in the power stations.

As damning as Broue’s account is, nothing could top Levi’s pamphlet “Our Path: Against Putschism” published in April 1921 for a hair-raising documentation of the stupidity of the March actions that were mounted under the Weatherman-style slogan “Whoever is not with me is against me”. He cites a report from the Moers district:

On Thursday morning the Krupp Friedrich-Alfred works in Rheinhausen saw violent clashes between the Communists, who had occupied the plant, and worker trying to get to work. Finally, the workers set on the Communists with cudgels and forcibly cleared their way in. Eight men were wounded at this point. Belgian soldiers intervened in the fighting, separating the two sides and arresting twenty Communists. The Communists thrown out of the plant returned in greater numbers and once again occupied the premises.

Besides the merciless description of such foolish tactics that left many CP members victimized—either killed in action or imprisoned—Levi’s article is distinguished by his Marxist analysis of the problems of a divided German working class that could not be resolved through bold actions. If left-leaning social democratic workers were supposed to be inspired into sympathetic actions, they clearly failed. Broue describes the aftermath of the March actions in the first paragraph of chapter 26:

The days which followed the defeat of the March Action revealed the extent of the disaster which the VKPD’s leaders had inflicted upon their party. They had not even been able to lead all their own members into action. Some members publicly denounced the strike. Many left the Party, sometimes noisily, sometimes quietly slipping away. In a few weeks, the party lost 200,000 members. Moreover, it was facing repression; its newspapers were being banned or suspended, and its members being arrested, sometimes held for a few hours or days, but often charged and jailed for many months. The courts- martial went to work with a vengeance; by the beginning of June, it was calculated that of the strikers or fighters in March there were already 400 sentenced to some 1,500 years hard labour, and 500 to 800 years in jail, eight to life imprisonment and four to death, and there were still plenty awaiting trial. Brandler, the chairman of the Party, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for high treason.

Almost immediately after this disaster, the Comintern was forced to come to terms with it. Instead of an open and frank discussion of why things had come to such a dreadful conclusion, it was far more interested in victimizing Levi for his breach of discipline, his resignation from the Zentrale, a committee that had become terminally ineffective in his eyes, and his alleged “Menshevism”. This was combined with a mealy-mouthed admission that Radek, Kun and their German lieutenants might not have had their heads screwed on right.

Lenin’s first reference to the March events can be found in an April 11, 1921 report:

In March 1921, the workers of Mansfeld, led by Communists, went on strike against an order setting up police patrols at plants and factories in Central Germany. In some places there were armed clashes with the police. The workers of Berlin, Hamburg and several other towns expressed their solidarity with the heroic strikers, but the Communist Party of Germany failed to unite the working-class forces against the bourgeoisie because of the treacherous behaviour of Paul Levi and other opportunists in the party leadership.

Since Levi was not even in the country until the March events were well in progress, this charge is totally outrageous. Eventually Lenin came to his senses to some degree and came to terms with the adventurism he had defended here. In August 1921, he slapped the wrist of the ultraleftists while simultaneously stabbing Levi in the back in an a Letter to the German Communists:

It is true that Levi did all he possibly could, and much besides, to weaken and spoil his criticism, and make it difficult for himself and others to understand the essence of the matter, by bringing in a mass of details in which he was obviously wrong. Levi couched his criticism in an impermissible and harmful form. While urging others to pursue a cautious and well-considered strategy, Levi himself committed worse blunders than a schoolboy, by rushing into battle so prematurely, so unprepared, so absurdly and wildly that he was certain to lose any “battle”(spoiling or hampering his work for many years), although the “battle” could and should have been won. Levi behaved like an “anarchist intellectual”(if I am not mistaken, the German term is Edelanarchist ), instead of behaving like an organised member of the proletarian Communist International. Levi committed a breach of discipline.

By this series of incredibly stupid blunders Levi made it difficult to concentrate attention on the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter, i.e., the appraisal and correction of the innumerable mistakes made by the United Communist Party of Germany during the March action of 1921, has been and continues to be of enormous importance. In order to explain and correct these mistakes (which some people enshrined as gems of Marxist tactics) it was necessary to have been on the Right wing during the Third Congress of the Communist International. Otherwise the line of the Communist International would have been a wrong one.

It should be mentioned that Trotsky was just as hostile as Lenin. In “First Five Years of the Comintern”, a work that newly indoctrinated Trotskyists would regard as holy writ, Trotsky took more or less the same tack as Lenin. He was forced to admit that things had gone very wrong in Germany, but was far more interested in demonizing Levi as an enemy of Bolshevism. In January 1922, he wrote an article titled Paul Levi and some ‘lefts’ that took pains to differentiate him from Levi. It appears that some critical remarks directed against the March follies had given some the impression that he was in Levi’s camp. Trotsky tries to clear the record:

You ask me to express my views on the policy of the so-called Communist League of Germany (KAG), and in passing you refer to the fact that Paul Levi, the leader of the Communist League, is abusing my name by claiming me as virtually his co-thinker. [This has no basis in fact. All Levi did was cite Trotsky’s writings about the need to win the support of the masses in his speech to the Zentrale.]

I must candidly confess that following the Third World Congress I have not read a single article by Levi, just as I have not read – to, my sincere regret – many other far more important things. To be sure, I have seen in periodicals published by Levi, which I happened to run across by chance, extracts from my report at the World Congress. Some comrades informed me that I had been almost enrolled as a member of Levi’s group. And if these happened to be very “leftist” and very young comrades, they mentioned it with holy horror, while those who were somewhat more serious confined themselves to a joke. Inasmuch as I am utterly unable to enrol myself either among the very young (to my sorrow) or among the very “leftist” (for which I am not at all sorry), my reaction to this news was not at all tragic. Let me confess I still see no reason for changing my attitude.

From the nature of the case it seemed to me, as it still does, that the decision concerning Levi adopted by the congress at Moscow is perfectly clear and requires no extended commentaries. By the decision of the congress, Levi was placed outside the Communist International. This decision was not at all adopted against the wishes of the Russian delegation, but on the contrary with its rather conspicuous participation, inasmuch as it was none other than the Russian delegation that drafted the resolution on tactics. The Russian delegation acted, as usual, under the direction of our party’s Central Committee. And as member of the Central Committee and member of the Russian delegation, I voted for the resolution confirming Levi’s expulsion from the International. Together with our Central Committee I could see no other course. By virtue of his egocentric attitude. Levi had invested his struggle against the crude theoretical and practical mistakes connected with the March events with a character so pernicious that nothing was left for the slanderers among the Independents to do except to support him and chime in with him. Levi opposed himself not only to the March mistakes but also to the German party and the workers who had committed these mistakes. In his fright lest the party train suffer a wreck in rounding a dangerous curve, Levi fell, because of fear and malice, into such a frenzy and devised such a “tactic” of salvation as sent him flying out of the window and down the embankment. The train, on the other hand, although heavily shaken and damaged, rounded the curve without being derailed.

I will simply state that Trotsky’s comments are utterly ill-informed and reflect the kind of “group think” in the Comintern that would eventually serve to turn him into an “unperson” of the sort that Levi had become.

Was Levi’s pamphlet, published without authorization by the CP, a “breach of discipline” as Lenin put it? Levi had the opportunity to deal with this question in his speech to the Zentrale on May 4, 1921.

He begins by throwing the question of proletarian norms back in their face by reminding him that the minutes of the March 17 Zentrale meeting that adopted the proposal for a putsch was never released to the membership. Since they based their decision to expel him on his release of excerpts from the minutes, his defense was impeccable: they broke discipline by keeping the deliberations that cost their party so dearly a secret from the members.

He also reminds him of how the Bolsheviks functioned. Six days before the October insurrection, Lenin published “A Letter to Comrades” that revealed the arguments against the taking of power by Zinoviev and Kamenev at a secret session of the party.

Refusing to accept the Soviet leadership’s authority simply on the basis of its having conquered power, Levi reminds one and all that such authority had been squandered through its benediction of and participation in the March actions:

But any trace of political leadership in such a serious political crisis from the ‘active’ Communist International we have seen less of than at any time in its existence. There have just been appeals that come too late, and excommunications that come too early, and a few pots of filth exchanged with Jouhaux: this is the activity of the Communist International!

No, no, Comrade Remmele, I don’t want to be at the head, even if perhaps, without taking pride in it, I am a match for some who play so big a role today. I never, I believe, misread a situation so catastrophically as Comrade Zinoviev for example misread the situation in October 1917, when he declared the Bolshevik seizure of power a senseless putsch — I never laid down my party-mandate during an action that was so decisive as that October action of 1917 was for the existence of the Bolsheviks, and never acted as Zinoviev did at that time, to appear later on as a great accuser against ‘Mensheviks’ and ‘breakers of discipline’.

And this absolutely passivity of the ECCI in the last year has done the cause of Communism more damage than any ‘Menshevism’. Just remember how radiant a year ago was the allure of the Communist International. And think what ir is today! A powerful moral resource has been wasted, it has just about managed to carry through the split from reformism, and when the task is to build up Communist parties it threatens to come to grief because of its passivity and inability.

For, comrades, on this point I am completely clear: this crisis for the Communist International, which has begun with my case, or rather the case of the German Communist Party, is under way throughout the world, and I have already read you quotations about the development of the Russian Revolution in periods that, as no one would deny, are very similar to our present experience in Germany. But with one distinction, that this present crisis in Germany is not simply a German crisis, but connected with the International by more than just individuals and outward appearance.

In chapter 45 titled “Paul Levi: a lost opportunity?”, Broue tries to give Levi his due but within the context of Trotskyist orthodoxy about the “heroic” days of the Comintern. This means validating Levi and Lenin at the same time, a major balancing act in terms of Lenin’s dismissal of Levi as an “anarchist intellectual”. Broue writes:

We should stand up for him. Levi was not expelled because he was a ‘deviationist’, as Annie Kriegel writes. He was expelled for breaching discipline when he published Unser Weg. This measure of expulsion was not a disguised condemnation of some deviation – a ‘Luxemburgist’ conception of the party, or of the relations between party and masses – because Levi defended the same conception that Lenin was successfully to promote at the Third Comintern Congress. Lenin spoke the truth when he told Zetkin that the ‘Levites’ left Moscow with a great political victory. Levi had been essentially right, not least against Lenin, who freely admitted it. Lenin criticised him only on the grounds that he had not fought sufficiently strongly for his ideas, that he had deserted his post when he resigned as Party Chairman, and above all, that he had infringed discipline through breaking the solidarity of the Party when he published his pamphlet. That was the reason for his exclusion – ‘Disziplinbruch’ – breach of discipline.

Unfortunately, despite his brilliance, Broue appears to accept the charge of “breach of discipline” all too easily. There is ample evidence that despite Lenin’s giving credence to this charge that the Bolsheviks never operated in this fashion themselves. It was only with the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the establishment of a “democratic centralist” International that schematic attempts to clone Lenin’s party became the norm. The “21 Conditions” was the first attempt to adopt such an approach but by 1925, before Stalin’s rise to power was complete, there were clear signs that any kind of political independence had no place in a “Bolshevized” International.

Although it is beyond the scope of this article, it must be at least mentioned that Germany had another political disaster only 3 years later under the misleadership of Heinrich Brandler, the anti-Levi. A decision was made in Moscow to call for an insurrection in 1923 coinciding with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky was instrumental in pressuring Brandler to go along with the bid even though he spoke against it. Trotsky was so sure of the correctness of his decision about the timing that he wrote an article titled Is It Possible to Fix a Definite Schedule for a Counter-Revolution or a Revolution? answering the question in the affirmative.

Although the 1923 actions did not have the putschist character of two years earlier, the Russians pulled strings once again. Without the stiff-necked Paul Levi to answer to, it was much easier to move German Communists around like pieces on a chessboard. If there is anything that must be stressed in discussions surrounding Hugo Chavez’s call for a Fifth International, it is the need to reject this model once and for all.

In my next post I am going to take up the question of the “centrist” Internationals so despised by Lenin and Trotsky and ask the question if there is anything to be learned from them.

February 25, 2010

A commentary on my commentary

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Raccoon Bolsheviks

My analysis of Lindsey German’s resignation from the SWP has prompted a longish piece in the Weekly Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain (a far left group with no connection to Moscow-type politics) whose website is festooned by a hammer-and-sickle.

They say, among other things:

Louis Proyect in his post on the topic suggests that bureaucratic-centralist groups can get up to a few thousand members but then get stuck, unable to progress further to real mass influence. One of the commentators remarked that, if so, the advice to the far left should be to build groups like the SWP, but then break with their organisational forms when you get to a few thousand members …

Comrade Proyect’s argument is another half-truth. A few thousand is certainly the usual maximum size of such groups both globally at present and on average across the history of the workers’ movement. But the Italian far-left groups in the 1970s got considerably bigger, and of these only Lotta Continua had a ‘loose’ structure. The Iranian Fedayeen at its height got up to tens of thousands – while retaining the structural and political forms of a far-left sect. And, of course, the fully-Stalinised ‘official’ communist parties were thoroughly bureaucratic-centralist, if – outside of the USSR itself  – they were less inclined to pre-emptive suppression of dissent, leadership bullying, etc, than the SWP. But they were mostly (including the old CPGB) a lot bigger than any of the far-left groups. Hence (in part) Andy Newman’s conversion to ‘official communism’.

I can’t blame them for holding my ideas at arm’s length. After all, it is very hard to reconcile them with hammers-and-sickles, calling yourself the Communist Party and all the rest of it. In Marxist terms, this has always reminded me of Ralph Kramden’s devotion to the Raccoon Lodge.

February 24, 2010

Reflections on the stalled WTC rebuilding project

Filed under: imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

In a fascinating segment that appeared on Sixty Minutes last Sunday on the failure of the rebuilding of the WTC–to this day nothing but an open pit–reporter Scott Pelley mused:

New York has had leaders of vision in the past. Al Smith, the former governor, got the Empire State Building built in a year, during the Great Depression. But since 9/11 there have been three governors of New York, four executive directors of the Port Authority, and no one to see the project through. The next chapter may be written by judges. In January, an arbitration court threatened to create its own construction deadlines if Silverstein and the Port Authority failed to come up with a new plan by March.

When I heard him say this, it was like an epiphany. All of a sudden I understood why ruling class politicians in the United States have been dealing with “gridlock”. Writ large, the failure of the WTC rebuilding project is a perfect symbol of the inability of the bourgeoisie to get anything done—except launch imperialist invasions. Al Smith, like FDR, was not any smarter or nervier than politicians today. What has changed is the general failure of the bourgeoisie to grasp and act on its own long-term agenda. From climate change to health insurance, from the need to repair infrastructure like bridges and roads to the collapse of daily newspapers all around the United States (an essential means for the ruling class to maintain its ideological hegemony), we are witnessing a kind of paralysis. Nothing matters, however, as long as the biggest corporations in American can show an uptick in quarterly earnings so as to protect its shareholder’s investments. If the rest of the country is turning into Detroit, who cares? Eventually an aroused working class but that’s a risk they are willing to take for the time being.

The Sixty Minutes segment, as one might expect, hardly does justice to the clashing interests that have kept the project in a kind of limbo. It states that real estate developer is not interested in aesthetics and only seeks buildings that are commercially viable. The original architect Daniel Libeskind designed a tower that was 1,776 feet tall (heavy-handed symbolism, needless to say) that had hanging gardens at the top of a glass enclosed structure. It was obviously vulnerable to another attack and a clear waste of the philistine Silverstein’s money.

New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp found Libeskind’s design transparently “demagogic”, quite an acknowledgment from the gray lady in February 2003 when war fever was running high:

Compared with Think’s proposal, Mr. Libeskind’s design looks stunted. Had the competition been intended to capture the fractured state of shock felt soon after 9/11, this plan would probably deserve first place. But why, after all, should a large piece of Manhattan be permanently dedicated to an artistic representation of enemy assault? It is an astonishingly tasteless idea. It has produced a predictably kitsch result.

Mr. Libeskind’s Berlin-based firm, Studio Daniel Libeskind, has not produced an abstract geometric composition. It is an emotionally manipulative exercise in visual codes. A concrete pit is equated with the Constitution. A skyscraper tops off at 1,776 feet. As at Abu Simbel, the Egyptian temple, the play of sunlight is used to give a cosmic slant to worldly history. A promenade of heroes confers quasi-military status on uniformed personnel.

Even in peacetime that design would appear demagogic. As this nation prepares to send troops into battle, the design’s message seems even more loaded. Unintentionally, the plan embodies the Orwellian condition America’s detractors accuse us of embracing: perpetual war for perpetual peace.

Of course, it wasn’t the demagogy that did Mr. Libeskind in. It was his failure to pay sufficient attention to the bottom line, a sine qua non for New York real estate, a business that symbolizes short-term narrow interests perfectly. When Libeskind refused to rein in his more rococo design elements, Silverstein decided to go with a more practical architecture firm. But in order to make his decision more acceptable to a public that doted on WTC kitsch of the sort that Libeskind was marketing, it was necessary to tarnish the architect’s reputation. Silverstein’s friends at Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post were happy to pitch in.

The Post’s “Page Six” gossip column mocked Libeskind’s  poetry collection “Fishing from the Pavement”, including some quotes from the book:

The island’s hysteria, language, is tied to the wanton burning of wealth. America turns its mass-produced urine antennae toward Cesar’s arrogant ganglion, while history is advocated by utopians as a substitute for defecating.

Rambunctious pinnacle–dreadful monument on which furious youth glows like a chromospheric flare, incinerated god in his swollen hand.

This poseur–lesbian whose medallion of wishes is effaced by training in history–holds a rare quarto from Utah, strives for new lies. But imagination is so thin that the past often breaks right through her sex Torah.

Jesus invented seduction by exposing the mother to a contemptible kangaroo court.

Page Six concluded: “Don’t quit your day job, Danny.”

Libeskind agreed to a revised design in 2008. Surmounting this hurdle was not enough to get construction going. It turns out that Larry Silverstein has some problems getting money from the insurance companies to fund the reconstruction. I am sure that all the people getting screwed by the health insurance companies can commiserate with poor Mr. Silverstein.

Meanwhile until Mr. Silverstein gets things sorted out with the insurance companies and the New York Port Authority, a bureaucracy that would fit in neatly with a Kafka novel, nothing remains at the WTC site except an enormous hole in the ground. This is perhaps the ultimate statement on the state of American imperialism, an aging tiger incapable of imposing its will on nearly all enemies, except for those as small as the island of Grenada.

Iran and cultural imperialism

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

Ordinarily I am not in the habit of crossposting material from other websites and blogs, but this is of special interest in light of the two previous posts. It originated on Znet, a website that thankfully does not publish Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s tripe on Iran.

Iran and Cultural Imperialism

By Shokoufeh Sakhi

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Observer; February 16: Last night Britain executed two men arrested during the period of widespread unrest that erupted after January 29th’s disputed Chilcot inquiry into the Labour government and Tony Blair’s role in the invasion of Iraq. Jonathan Sparks, 21 and Brandon Dwyer 33, convicted as “enemies of the British Empire and the Queen”, members of anarchist and anti-imperialist groups, participating in the rallies with the goal of “toppling state”. Seven other men and two women also await execution. J. Sparks and B. Dwyer had confessed to their crimes against the state and the Queen during their televised trial.

On Friday February 12, more than 100 British opposition politicians and activists accused of involvement in violence after the war inquiry, appeared in court in London on the first day of what opposition activists allege is a mass show trial.

During Friday’s televised hearing prosecutors read out an indictment outlining what they said was a plot by a coalition of pro-reform, green, anarchists and anti-war political parties to overthrow the British Empire. Among the defendants were several prominent politicians, including former vice-interior secretary William Snow and Democratic Citizen Front leader, Josef Gooderman. The first to read a defense, Gooderman insisted that his confessions were voluntarily, a result of spending the last two weeks in a solitary confinement which gave him the opportunity to contemplate and revise his political positions. Said Gooderman: “The roots of my deviation from the interests of the British people and Empire can be found in years of studying and teaching sociological theories…. Mistakenly, I tried to apply those theories to England”.

This morning a special council has been appointed by the Prime Minister’s office to review liberal arts and human sciences programs in colleges and universities across the nation. The council is expected to provide guidelines before the next school year, September 2011, to align the content of such disciplines with the interests of the British Empire and the Queen.


Obviously the above story is false. Yet it is important to ask what part of it makes it more unbelievable? Is it that such ordeals never happen in England? That British judicial procedures would allow the conducting of group trials, executions, or dictating the content of the human sciences? Or, on the other hand, do you feel insulted and enraged at the possibility as such, of such a group trial and such confessions held under the pretense of due process, of fair and balance justice? If your first reaction falls somewhere in response to the first three questions, I would argue, you suffer from cultural imperialism, or, from an acute voluntary blindness. You suffer, that is to say, from either a double standard according to which such obscenity is acceptable in a third world country, or you just don’t care. Such suffering as this is visible in a variety of ‘radical’, ‘progressive’ and ‘critical’ activist organizations and intellectual forums, such as the Monthly Review shows in its stubborn silence about the more than half a year of Iranian uprising, its violent suppression by the Iranian state, and the sort of items with respect to Iran’s unrest, posted on their offspring web page, MRZine.

There was a time, some thirty-odd years ago, that, whenever my friends/co-activists/comrades and I heard anything about show trials in the Soviet Union under Stalin, or executions, labour camps, displacements, etc. we simply dismissed it out of hand as bourgeois, imperialist propaganda. The Iranian left, even those who considered the USSR state capitalist and dubbed it ‘social-imperialist’, still could not believe such atrocities against humanity occurred in such a ‘pro-working class’ state. Enforcing substantial justice and equality just could not go hand in hand with oppression and the reign of fear and darkness. Like many today, our logic was decisively based on observation of who was benefiting from this undermining of socialism in general and the USSR in particular: American led western imperialism. It is understandable, I think, that we, the young and old leftists of Iran – in a place and time of dictatorship, censorship of books, information, knowledge and critical thought of any kind– might well exhibit such historical ignorance. There were some material conditions for our subjective stupidity. The same cannot be said for today’s ‘intellectuals’. Apparently, many have failed to notice that the old anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism [For a more patient argument you can consult Bahare Farda’s article], the simple, bipolar world of colonies and colonizers, the world of Avatar, has expired. Yes, you may experience intense cathartic joy when you watch the bad colonist-capitalists with their private army and state sponsored scientific team get their asses handed to them and are then kicked out of the land by its rightful people. And, yes, you may feel a certain satisfaction when you hear heads of state such as Ahmadinejad make condescending comments about American administrations, lecture on peace and cooperation among different religions, or make blunt and rude responses to western media anchors [I can assure you that he does an even better job in Farsi, so, if you are in it for the cheap thrills, I suggest you find the time to learn Farsi so you can get the full effect.]

But in the western world of 2010, a world that is at least not directly suffering from crushing censorship of thought and knowledge, confusing those fantasies, however good the feelings, with social and political reality is inexcusable. Viewing the Iranian Islamic regime as a populist state, a state that supports or works for its working class or under-class, while it murders, assassinates, executes, tortures, kidnaps and imprisons whoever shows a sign of opposition, is not naïveté, but cultural imperialism. I would really like to hear how some western ‘anti-imperialist’ intellectual of whatever stamp would react to mass trials, confessions and so on in her or his country – or in one of the fellow civilized countries. I doubt that such a ‘radical’ would watch, silently writing it off as a natural phenomenon for such a place. The story is evidently quite different if the atrocity takes place in a third world country like Iran. Even after two people are put through a farcical pretense of a trial and hanged for participating in a demonstration, the self-congratulatory Monthly Review remains silent.

The attitude is particularly difficult to swallow. “From the first [May, 1949]”, it is proudly announced, “Monthly Review spoke for socialism and against U.S. imperialism, and is still doing so today..… In the intervening years of counter-revolution, Monthly Review has kept a steady viewpoint. That point of view is the heartfelt attempt to frame the issues of the day with one set of interests foremost in mind: those of the greatmajorityof humankind, the propertyless.” (my emphasis). Searching through the last seven months of the Journal’s table of contents, however, I find precisely zero articles addressing the issues of Iranian “humankind”, nothing but a resounding silence. In contrast to the main engine, the MRZine shows a relative abundance of postings on Iran. And here one can follow the not very subtle tracks of cultural imperialism.

On February 11, for example, the MRZine announces: “Iran: The Islamic Revolution Defeats Western Hopes for Regime Change”, posting four clips from the Iranian state media’s pro-state productions, three on the so-called victorious day for the Islamic state under the rule of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and one clip under the subheading “Green Wave Ebbs” reporting on the meek presence of the opposition – hence their ‘defeat’. This ‘ebbing’ and ‘defeat’ is also propped up by adding two short clips showing a sparse crowd of opposition protesters. For more, the editor recommends that we “consult Iran’s Last [!] Marxist Nasser Zarafshan: Setareh Derakhshesh, “Interview with Dr. Nasser Zarafshan and Farrokh Negahdar”” conducted by Voice of America on January 6, 2010. That the interview is in Farsi means that the current non-Iranian “generation of activists” are limited to an “education as subscribers to” MRZine from the Iranian state presentation of its own victory (no doubt one could get a similar grasp of the righteous Chinese, North Korean, Egyptian or Saudi Arabian representation of their people’s interests from their state newscasts, but these other representatives of the people don’t shout “death to U.S.A.” so they are of no interest to MRZine). Beyond this posting’s title, the rest of the text tells us of “Hashemi’s hopes for a palace coup,” and gives us the following trail-off: “Iran Celebrates the 31st Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution”.

Limiting myself to this example (the other entries are more or less equally egregious), I would like to raise the following points to challenge MRZine’s representation of the Iranian struggle:

1) To begin with, however much the West and the Iranian state try to reduce the 1979 revolution to Islam and Khomeini, there is no equation here; it’s like renaming the French Revolution the Jacobin Revolution to reduce it all to the Terror. The 1979 Revolution was much broader than the Islamic element, and it was only after the victory of the revolution against the dictator Shah, that Khomeini and his followers got together as the Islamic Republic Party and hijacked it. Starting with the disenfranchisement and oppression of women, just three weeks into the post-Shah era, they moved on to disenfranchise and oppress the ethnic and religious minorities, finishing up with all other political and ideological parties and those ordinary people who sympathized with anything other than Khomeini and his power bloc. They massacred, jailed, tortured, paraded forced confessions on television, oppressing the flesh and spirit of the entire country. And that is only the story of the first decade after the revolution; they marked their tenth anniversary by massacring thousands of political prisoners to finally solve the problem of the dissident revolutionaries of the 1979 generation. This is functionally parallel to the final solution or the Stalinist purges.

2) Next you imply with the word “defeat” that the sparse crowds on the small number of the phone videos, when compared with the carefully staged shots of the state presentation of its own rally is a sign of the victory of the state. These are hardly fair and balanced sources. You might want to take a look at a non-state and from the ground clip of Ahmadinejad’s ‘nuclear power’ talk and see how sparse his crowds are.

3) “Western hopes”: Here again cultural imperialism (perhaps even hiding under the guise of anti-U.S. imperialism) appears in the exclusive focus on this ‘western’ perspective– Of course the West has its own dreams of continued and expanding domination; yes, the sun comes up in the morning, and yes, both of these are important. Neither, however, should blind us to the effective complexities. In this case, there is no mention of the hopes of the thousands of men and women arrested, thousands more who have fled the country to avoid prosecution, the thousands of mothers, fathers, children and siblings whose family members have been killed in the streets or under torture and executed over the years by this regime (You may have noticed that they just handed down another death order). Further, there is no mention of the hopes of the millions of people who are deprived of freely talking over the phone, sending emails and text messaging because of the state’s universal surveillance. Apparently there is no recognition of the human agency, the subjective courage of those Iranians who, even when promised death in the streets, demonstrate their resistance to this regime.

4) “Hashemi’s hopes”: Complementary to the above, it seems that in the MRZine’s imagination there is no room left over for the ‘ordinary’ human’s subjectivity or agency. Even when potentiality is bestowed on a non-western figure, it is Hashemi Rafsanjani who becomes the recipient. That is to say, the only subjects involved in the civil and political unrest, months of street rallies and fights, and the sporadic workers strikes, are other factional members of the Iranian state, much like Hashemi (when it’s not the western states). It is only their hopes, their voices, and their demands that count. The rest do not exist. So, it seems you agree with Ahmadinejad who announced the state has no opposition, that those in the streets are only khas va khashak,“dust and trash”. Most regally on your part, so it looks to many, you apparently consider these people nothing more than pawns in the hands of the big agents, the big subjects, U.S. imperialism and its ilk.

All in all, is it really possible that you anti-imperialist ‘activists’ and ‘intellectuals’ feed your righteousness with the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend? That you take sides with whichever political figure, institution or state, however despicable, uses your familiar anti-imperialist rhetoric? At best, the scenario you present is one of intellectual laziness dreaming on the hammock of cultural imperialism; at worst, it appears as the dogmatic mantra of an antiquated anti-imperialist religion.

*Shokoufeh Sakhi is an ABD candidate for the Ph.D. in Political Theory at York University, Toronto who spent eight years in prison in Iran for leftist activism in the 1980s. She participated and consulted in “The Tree That Remembers”, an NFB documentary.

February 22, 2010

An Iranian socialist replies to Edward S. Herman and David Peterson

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

(A guest post commenting on their MRZine article.)

It’s getting hilarious how the fake anti-imperialists are hanging on to these poll results taken by someone from the US who calls people in Iran and asks them if Ahmadinejad is their legitimate president, for which candidate did they vote, and for whom they would vote in a hypothetical election. Let’s put aside the fact that a high percentage (50%) of people refused to answer. How do those who swear by these polls want to explain their trust in them considering that people in Iran censor themselves in their daily communications, fearing that they are being watched by the intelligence agents, never mind when asked about their political views on a phone conversation with someone they don’t know? How do the poll believers want to explain the presence of thousands of security forces in the streets, thousands of people in the prisons and hundreds killed, all of which contradict the results of their conducted polls?

Anyone who followed the news during the 2009 Iran’s election knows, for instance, that the number of announced votes for Mohsen Rezaei had decreased from 1AM to 3AM; apparently those in charge had forgotten to engineer some number of voided votes, and frantically had to make this correction. The whole fabrication was executed in a very naive way. For instance, the Keyhan newspaper (the propagandist of Khamenei-Ahmadinejad), before the announcement of the results, already had its front page headline that Ahmadinejad has won by 60%.

Even before learning about all this, we knew that something terrible was going to happen since a day before the election the SMS text message service was disconnected, thousands of security forces were already occupying the streets, and many people including some of those who were active in the campaign of Karoubi and Mousavi started getting arrested. How do poll believers discredit all the first hand experiences of the citizens of a country and blindly accept to the result of some “Western” conducted polls? Isn’t that distrusting the common sense of the people? Now who would represent the people of Iran and can talk on behalf of them: the “Western” conducted polls, Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, or the thousands of imprisoned ordinary citizens, journalists, activists, unionists, The Mourning Mothers, etc.?

These poll obsessed guys are totally missing the point. No one in Iran is talking about that damn election anymore. People are traumatized and radicalized by the atrocities, blood in the streets, secretive detention centers, prison rape, torture and widespread imprisonment of people from different socio-political backgrounds. Even if Edward S. Herman and David Peterson could somehow prove the election was sound, what do they want to do with thousands of workers unemployed because of neoliberal economic policies of Ahmadinejad? What do they want to do with hundreds of mothers mourning for their innocent murdered kids? Their answer is that the number of killed people in post election of Iran is less than the number of children killed in the 2009 invasion of Gaza by Israel. Isn’t this argument similar to Zionists saying that the number of Jewish killed in concentration camps is much more than Palestinians so their cause is more important than the Palestinians’? It is also reminiscent of those who tried to justify the US invasion of Iraq by arguing that Saddam kills more people than would be killed in a US invasion. I was once personally told by a Zionist that more people are killed in car accidents in Iran than Palestinians are killed by Israel, so it’s better for me to not exaggerate the committed atrocities by Israel and show support for better driving standards in my home country Iran.

It’s a shame that the fake “anti-imperialists” are reducing human lives and experiences to numbers. First they obsess with the polls and now with the number of the people killed — as if more people must be killed before the cause becomes legitimate. Let’s honor the voices of the Iranian people who dare to stand up to the domestic tyranny while opposing war and sanctions, rather than trying to justify the atrocities committed by a government against its own citizens.

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson deny the revolutionary and reformist struggles in Iran of the last two hundred years. While Iranians in the streets of Iran are reliving their and their ancestors’ experiences (the Constitutional Revolution, the struggle for Nationalization of Oil, the 1979 revolution, the reform movement, etc.,) Edward S. Herman and David Peterson would deny a nation its rich resistance history. These writers claim that what we observe in Iran’s streets is learned by the protesters, in their view “Western puppets,” from the “education” programs conducted for Iranians by the warmongers and imperialist states around the globe. Thus the fake “anti-imperialists”, like colonizers, dismiss the the political history of a nation to defend their agenda.

Any military force that wants to attack Iran first tries to demonize, disempower and patronize the Iranian people to legitimize its cause. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson by dismissing the anti-dictatorial movement in Iran as just another regime change project backed by the West, and questioning the motivations and braveness of the protesters, also engage in disempowering the Iranian people. Portraying the anti-dictatorial movement in Iran as being backed by the Euro-American powers makes the statement that Iranian people are incapable of bringing any meaningful movement against oppression in their country. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson portray Iranian people as unable to produce any struggle for socio-political justice independent of Western power, and believe that the people should therefore submit to the government of Iran and its domestic human rights violations. Imperialist powers propagandize that Iranian people can not produce any struggle for socio-political justice without Western intervention, and that the Iranian government is dangerous for the safety of the world so people and all the activists should accept an invasion of the country. Thus the “anti-imperialists” (represented by Mr. Herman and Peterson), and the imperialists both disempower and patronize the Iranian people; the former believes the people should submit to the domestic violence of the government while the latter would subject the people to bombs, destruction, and poverty inducing economic sanctions. Both fates strip people of their dignity, bringing nothing but destruction and human suffering.

In the view of Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, Iranian protesters are “Western” puppets and Iranian government have little power over domestic issues. No one can dismiss the huge negative effect of the economic sanctions and the threats of wars against Iranian people, but it’s naive to think that a government that relies on being in an international crisis to handle its domestic shortcomings has no responsibility for the dissatisfaction of its people. The economic sanctions and the threats of war are wrong policies causing great human suffering in Iran, but they cannot justify the fact that bus drivers were denied an independent union, the imprisonment of Mansoor Osanloo and many other workers, the imprisonment of women’s rights activists and journalists, and the killing of the peaceful protesters. In the view of Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, either the government of Iran or the people have no power whatsoever to make changes in their own country unless backed or caused by the “Western” powers.

It might be surprising for Edward S. Herman and David Peterson to know that the Iranian protesters have no interest in economic hardships, disappearance of bread and butter from their tables and frequent airplane crashes caused by the sanctions. It might be surprising for them to know that the Iranian protesters have no interest in the possible bombing of themselves and their homes. It might also be surprising for Edward S. Herman and David Peterson to know that no Zionist or warmonger asks for the Iranian protesters’ permission to publish any letter in support of harsher sanctions in NYTimes or similar news agencies. Iranian people in the anti-dictatorial movement have no access to those who write or talk on their behalf in the Euro-American media including Edward S. Herman and David Peterson themselves. In an analogous situation, the Palestinian people cannot choose who talks on their behalf, and thus figures such as Saddam Hussein have appropriated Palestinian’s cause without moral qualification. One cannot dismiss Palestinian’s struggle because of those who seek to benefit themselves by advocating Palestinian’s rights. The same is correct for the Iranian anti-dictatorial movement.

The people have chosen to rely on their own power and struggle for justice, instead of submitting to either domestic adversaries or foreign invaders.

February 20, 2010

The latest idiocy from Edward S. Herman and David Peterson

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

A typically long-winded piece (4500 words) by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson in defense of the Ahmadinejad government has just shown up on MRZine, the 24/7 website for Islamic Republic handouts. Herman and Peterson used to peddle their wares on ZNet but apparently editor Michael Albert either finds their views so out of whack with his own or worries that their inclusion might result in a loss of contributions during annual fundraisers. Unlike ZNet and Counterpunch, MRZine doesn’t have one of those running tabs of reader contributions. Perhaps if they solicited donations on the basis of firing the boneheaded editor Yoshie Furuhashi, I might be enticed to send in a couple of hundred dollars.

The occasion for Herman and Peterson’s latest is a full-page ad in the New York Times sponsored by the Eli Wiesel foundation—unfortunately recovered from the Madoff losses apparently—to call for a military attack on Iran signed by 44 Nobel laureates, a “substantial fraction Jewish”. Nice to see these two nitwits stumbling into James Petras territory.

Once they have made the case for opposing war with Iran, they address “the important question of what the people of Iran really want. ” Given Herman and Peterson’s impeccable credentials as scholars of Iranian society, politics and history and their clear mastery of the Persian language, I could not wait to hear how the two experts would channel the innermost thoughts of the Iranian population. Mostly, their expertise turns out to be an ability to read polls. Since time after time they reveal solid support for Ahmadinejad, how dare we question the results?

They begin by debunking the idea that there was ballot-stuffing of the sort widely reported to have taken place in the last election in Afghanistan since 3 American polls predicted an Ahmadinejad victory:

Then, during the run-up to the 2009 election, an opinion poll completed by three U.S. groups just three weeks before the vote found that, for those Iranians willing to commit themselves, Ahmadinejad would beat Mousavi by better than a 2-to-1 margin (34% – 14%), a slightly higher ratio of victory than the official election results as reported by the Interior Ministry on June 13 (63% – 34%).

In just about every article that relies heavily on polling data to support the notion that Ahmadinejad was the democratic choice of the people, there is not the slightest engagement with the electoral system in Iran, which is patently anti-democratic. Including this latest bon-bon from Herman and Peterson.

If you search the article for a reference to “Guardian Council”, the unelected body that has the real power in Iran, you will find none. Nor will you find a single reference to Ali Khameni, the Supreme Leader of the Guardian Council who enjoys a lifetime tenure thanks to his ability to translate the Quran into political diktat. His brother Hadi Khamenei once said that the Guardian Council’s vetting of candidates was undemocratic. Just to show him that they mean business, the Guardian Council rejected Hadi Khamenei’s candidacy for a seat in the Assembly of Experts for “insufficient theological qualifications.” Brilliant. MRZine’s own Assembly of Experts now defends this system that rules the brother of the Supreme Leader as insufficiently Islamic as sufficiently revolutionary and democratic.

What really galls me, however, is the facile comparison between Sandinista Nicaragua and the Islamic Republic in which the protestors are implicitly compared to the contra:

It is important to keep in mind, however, that economic sanctions, U.S. and NATO-bloc wars in countries to Iran’s east and west, ongoing U.S. and Israeli military threats against Iran, and foreign-organized terrorism and subversion inside Iran, all have proven costly and painful to Iran’s citizens, and had feedback effects on their attitudes towards their government (as was true in Nicaragua while it was under attack by the United States during the Sandinista years, 1979-1990).  There have also been significant Western (though mainly U.S.) attempts to “educate” Iranians, including programs that subsidize dissent and “democracy promotion.”  The so-called “Green Movement” is particularly notable for its links to foreign support groups and media, and its high degree of orientation towards Western audiences.

Are Herman and Peterson aware that this Islamic Republic whose reputation they are so intent on burnishing was the very same government that invited Ollie North to Tehran to discuss how a deal could be struck that would divert cash to the Nicaraguan contras? The “anti-imperialism” of the Islamic Republic had about as much authenticity as a three dollar bill.

I would also remind our two pinheads that the single most violent and counter-revolutionary intervention in Iran’s modern history has not been from the “civil society” NGO’s whose movements are monitored carefully by Iranian secret police and whose members have been put on trial time and again for espionage.

It was the CIA’s coup against Mossadegh that most Iranians regard as the worst violation of the country’s sovereignty. And guess who backed that plot? Was it an early version of Tehran’s secular elite that MRZine hates so much? No, good readers, it was the Shi’ite clergy, the very same people who now run the Guardian Council.

The Ayatollah Kashani was Iran’s most powerful cleric in the early 1950s and would become a mentor to the Ayatollah Khomenei. After Mossadegh instituted some reforms that would reduce the power of the clerics, Kashani decided to make a pact with the devil in order to thwart Mossadegh. Mossadegh’s decision to give women the right to vote was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In an article titled Mossadegh, Islam and Ayatollahs that appears on a website commemorating the life and career of Iran’s great progressive leader, we learn:

This coalition of oppositional clerics saw their livelihood more threatened within a progressive democratic regime than a monarchial system–even with the foreign presence in the country. To justify their acrimonious actions, they claimed that Mossadegh’s government was anti-Islamic, threatened the legitimacy of the monarchy, and risked the Tudeh (communist) party takeover of the country. The distribution of CIA-provided “Behbehani dollars” among mullahs and knife wielding mobs, in addition to Kashani’s ability to summon in a short time a large contingent of his supporters to the streets, helped to turn the tide against Mossadegh and his government.

Taking off their gloves, the professor emeritus of finance and his obscure writing partner opine:

We are not quite sure what to call this toxic mix of opposing the majority will of a foreign country’s citizens and doing so in the name of “democracy,” while feeding into the regime-change program of the United States and Israel.  But strong currents of Orientalism as well as imperialism are clearly running through it.

Well, I don’t know about that. But speaking in terms of toxic mixes, I’d prefer not to make amalgams between these two with their observation about all the Jews who signed Wiesel’s letter and David Duke getting an invite to Iran to discuss whether that many Jews got killed under Nazi rule. Maybe later on, but not now.

February 19, 2010

An under accumulation of capital?

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

James Heartfield

James Heartfield, one of the few—perhaps only—members of the Spiked Online collective that still takes Karl Marx seriously, has an article in Metamute titled A Crisis of Under Accumulation that raises some very interesting questions about the recent financial crisis. While much of the article contains the boilerplate calls for the bourgeoisie to return to its heroic past when it was out conducting itself like John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged”, the most compelling parts dealt with the question of the falling rate of profit. James writes:

Sad to say, closer analysis of the real underlying trends in the world economy make it clear that Marx’s celebrated theory of the tendential fall in the rate of profit has relatively little to tell us today. Marx’s theory is that rate of profit to capital invested falls, consequent on a diminished share of surplus value-generating labour (‘variable capital’) relative to a much greater share of investors’ money tied up in dead machinery, raw materials and plant (‘constant capital’), what Marx called the ‘rising organic composition of capital’ (see Marx, 1984: 211-231, Marx: 1969: 492- 516, Mattick, 1981: 43-77). But most of this conceptual framework is a poor fit to today’s circumstances. Marx’s theory assumes intensive growth of industry with a greater share of investment going to machinery, tending to displace living labour. Is that what has been happening in the preceding period, let’s say over the years from 1993-2005? Far from it.

Although I am not that interested in the kind of Talmudic discussions taken up around  Marxist value theory, I am familiar enough with the topic to have my interest piqued. In the course of leading an online class on Marxist theory, I delved into a debate that began not long after Marx died. James refers to Paul Mattick as an example of “classical” Marxist falling rate of profit (FROP) thinking, but my reading focused more on Henryk Grossman who predated Mattick by a decade or so. The two economists are often linked, it should be added.

Much of Grossman’s writings are an attempt to counter the arguments of Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky and Otto Bauer who interpreted Marx’s analysis of the capital accumulation in cycle in V. 2 of Capital as supporting the idea that capitalism can persist with fewer and fewer workers. Bauer wrote:

Even if all workers were replaced by machinery except for one worker, this single worker would be able to put into motion the vast mass of machinery, and with its help create new machines–and means of consumption…The working class could disappear; this would not disturb in the least the self-expansion of capitalism.

In replying to such arguments, Grossman’s emphasis was on showing the mathematical impossibility for such an eventuality. Here is a flavor of his line of reasoning:

Towards the closing stages of the business cycle the mass of profits (s), and therefore also its accumulated constant (ac) and variable (av) portions, contract so sharply that the additional capital is no longer sufficient to keep accumulation going on the previous basis. It is therefore no longer sufficient to enable the process of accumulation to absorb the annual increase in population. Thus in year 35 the rate of accumulation requires a level of 510 563 ac + 26 265 av = 536 828. But the available mass of surplus value totals only 525 319. The rate of accumulation required to sustain the scheme is 104.6 per cent of the available surplus value; a logical contradiction and impossible in reality.

It must be emphasize above all, however, that Grossman’s discussion revolved around an abstract model. There was no attempt to ground it in the actual historical development of the capitalist system but instead used a case study approach that was strictly meant to debunk the rather Panglossian outlook of reformists like Bauer. The fact that Grossman’s study was written just before the great stock market crash of 1929 gives it added authority.

In distinction to the argument supposedly put forward by gloom-and-doom theorists like Karl Marx, Paul Mattick and Henryk Grosman, James points to the growth of the worldwide labor force—what Marx referred to as variable capital—as opposed to constant capital (machinery, raw materials, buildings, etc.) The net result has been what he describes in the title of his article, an underaccumulation of capital:

It is not easy to map Marx’s analytical categories directly onto empirical economic statistics (which are in any case distorted by many ideological devices). Still, in aggregate, the great growth in the labour force all points in the opposite direction to that indicated by Marx’s theory of crisis – it points to a stable or falling organic composition of capital not a rising one. Not an ‘overaccumulation of capital’, but underinvestment in new technologies. Not intensive growth forcing workers out as they are replaced by machines, but extensive growth sucking up more and more labour. Of course, as a consequence of the crisis, the layoffs are ratcheting up and unemployment is rising. But a declining share of capital invested in labour relative to machinery was decidedly not the cause of the economic crisis.

I think the best reply to James Heartfield came from Patrick Bond, an economist who has long been identified with the “gloom and doom” perspective that is coming into its own now given the entrenched character of what some now refer to as the Great Recession. He argues that the underaccumulation now on display in the world economy is simply the result of a prior period of overaccumulation. In an email reply to James’s article that appeared on the Marxism list, Bond pointed out the relevant time-frame for understanding the decline in investment in constant capital:

Those [1993-2005] aren’t the appropriate years to consider. The slowdown in industrial accumulation began in the 1970s. The period since 1993 has witnessed far more speculative froth and financialisation as the source of profits. But since those profits aren’t grounded in surplus value extraction, of course it becomes an inverted pyramid.

While I agree with Patrick’s time-frame, I have a little bit more trouble making the connection between a growth in the organic composition of capital and the system’s falling rate of profit. For example, Germany’s economy has been far more resistant to downturn despite the fact that it is heavily mechanized. Understanding the world economy is a lot different than the exercises in V. 3 of Capital, where the FROP is analyzed, or in Henryk Grossman et al.

Speaking of whom, it is important to understand that the final chapter of Grossman’s magnum opus, The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System, is titled “Modifying Countertendencies”. Part two of this chapter is titled “Part 2: Restoring Profitability through World Market Domination”, a fairly good way to describe what has been happening since capitalism ran into a brick wall in the 1970s. While it is impossible to reduce everything to the formulas of V.3 of Capital, it seems plausible that the opening of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China to capitalist investment helped to reinvigorate the system. Even with this breakthrough that David Harvey would categorize as accumulation by dispossession, the system has still had a stagnant quality. The turn toward “financialization”, noted especially by the Monthly Review authors, has been interpreted as the logical outcome of a falling rate of profit.

In an article titled The Age of Monopoly-Finance Capital that appeared in the December 2006 MR, John Bellamy Foster described the thinking that was going on at the magazine:

By the late 1980s (following the 1987 stock market crash) and continuing into the late 1990s, Sweezy was wrestling with the notion of financialization as a more or less permanent tendency of advanced monopoly capitalism—the other side of the stagnationist coin. In 1997 he wrote: “the three most important underlying trends in the recent history of capitalism, the period beginning with the recession of 1974-75 [are]: (1) the slowing down of the overall rate of growth; (2) the worldwide proliferation of monopolistic (or oligopolistic) multinational corporations; and (3) what may be called the financialization of the capital accumulation process.” (Globalization, a fourth trend, he argued, was a much longer, more complex, variegated phenomenon, reflecting the growth of imperialism, and going back to the very beginnings of the capitalist world economy.)

Financialization can be defined as the shift in the center of gravity of the capitalist economy, from production to finance. Financial crisis and instability, Sweezy observed, had always been an element at the peak of the business cycle. But how did one explain the expansion of financialization as a long-term trend? Was it possible that financial speculation now managed to feed not on rapid growth, but on slow growth—inverting past historical experience? It was obvious that corporations and wealthy investors that had surplus at their disposal sought to preserve and expand their money capital in the face of vanishing investment opportunities by pouring it into speculation in a variety of assets. Financial institutions, it was no less apparent, were able to provide a seemingly infinite supply of exotic and opaque financial instruments: all sorts of futures, options, and derivatives. But the continuation of such a “casino economy” over decades—albeit interrupted by credit crunches, with the central banks intervening as lenders of last resort to keep the whole game going—represented nothing less than a qualitative transformation in the capitalist economy.

James Heartfield acknowledges that financialization is taking place but interprets it less as a necessary phase of late capitalism than as a kind of betrayal of the capitalist’s historical role:

The question that arises is why was the speculative bubble allowed to grow for so long without being called to account. Bubbles are a feature of capitalism, but for the last fifteen years we have seen speculative inflation of assets in emerging markets in Eastern Europe, new technology stocks, the fine art market and mortgage lending.

The answer is that motive cause of the turn into speculative investment was a retreat from the world of industrial growth. Surpluses generated by industry were not ploughed back into new lines of production, but redirected instead into speculation. In Marx’s day he could still allow that the historic mission of the capitalist class was to revolutionise production [emphasis added], even if their goal was not increased output as such, but a greater share of the value produced. Industry was for them only a means to the end of increasing profits, and capitalists have often dreamed of cutting out the tawdry business of making things to make money out of money. But in the 1990s, that motive became predominant, as investors retreated from the tortuous challenge of transforming the realm of production, expecting gains without risk. Investors were not interested in new goods and services, but engaged instead in what the economists call rent-seeking behaviour. Their subjective recoil from industrial investments was reinforced by the higher returns offered by financial investments.

This is where the wheels fall off James’s interesting if flawed analysis and where he joins the rest of the libertarians at Spiked Online in adopting a mixture of Ayn Rand and pop psychology to get the capitalists to “revolutionize production” as Marx supposedly put it in the Communist Manifesto.

Despite the breathless evocation of the bourgeoisie revolutionizing the means of production in that classic text, most of its history has been about avoiding risk. In Marx’s final years, the foundations of monopoly capital had already been put in place. It was a calculated effort to make sure that investments would always go rewarded through price-fixing, trade secrets, collusion with the state and a hundred other mechanisms that have become popularly known as Government Sachs today.

Here is Lenin describing this risk-avoidance behavior in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism:

Competition becomes transformed into monopoly. The result is immense progress in the socialisation of production. In particular, the process of technical invention and improvement becomes socialised.

This is something quite different from the old free competition between manufacturers, scattered and out of touch with one another, and producing for an unknown market. Concentration has reached the point at which it is possible to make an approximate estimate of all sources of raw materials (for example, the iron ore deposits) of a country and even, as we shall see, of several countries, or of the whole world. Not only are such estimates made, but these sources are captured by gigantic monopolist associations. An approximate estimate of the capacity of markets is also made, and the associations “divide” them up amongst themselves by agreement. Skilled labour is monopolised, the best engineers are engaged; the means of transport are captured—railways in America, shipping companies in Europe and America. Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads directly to the most comprehensive socialisation of production; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialisation.

Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. The general framework of formally recognised free competition remains, and the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable.

I have heard constant complaints over the years that Lenin’s pamphlet has been superseded by history. This might be the case in one detail or another but the tendency of the system to diverge from “free market” ideals remains valid. The only thing that is puzzling is why a sensible person like James Heartfield still believes that the bourgeoisie is interested in behaving according to the flattering imagery found in Ayn Rand’s novels.

February 17, 2010

Lindsey German resigns from the SWP

Filed under: sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

Lindsey German

As many of you know the British SWP is being roiled by a series of resignations, including some very high-profile members like Lindsey German, a 37 year (!) veteran and leader of their antiwar work. German, John Rees and a number of other resignees were supporters of the Left Platform faction that fought for their perspective during the 2008 SWP convention. I have written about the fight in a series of posts here:

The fight in the SWP, part one (Neil Davidson)

The fight in the SWP, part two (John Rees)

The fight in the SWP, part three (Chris Harman)

The fight in the SWP, part four (Alex Callinicos)

The fight in the SWP, part five (Lindsey German)

The fight in the SWP, conclusion (What kind of party we need)

My commentary on the faction fight was not so much about the specific differences since I avoid the “advice from Coyoacan” stance so familiar to organized Trotskyism, not that anybody would listen to my advice to begin with.

I am far more interested in how the split (that is what it amounts to) reflects on the ongoing problem of building “Leninist parties” and more specifically that of “democratic centralism”. Lindsey German’s resignation was a classic example of imposing “party discipline” on a member. While there are conflicting versions of what took place, I tend to agree with Richard Seymour that—strictly speaking—the SWP was in its rights to ask her not to attend a meeting of the Stop the War Committee, a coalition that she has led for about a decade: “Lindsey, as a former central committee member, would be well used to the expectation that members accept the decisions of its elected bodies.” So rather than accepting the instructions of the “elected bodies”, she resigned and went ahead to attend the meeting.

During the great purge of the American SWP in the early 1980s, one leading member named Diane Feeley was expelled for participating in planning meetings for an International Women’s Day action to which she had been assigned by the party. Unlike the British SWP, the split was characterized by expulsions rather than resignations. The Jack Barnes leadership had put so many constraints on the minority faction, including their duties in the mass movement, that it was almost inevitable that some would “break discipline” and get the boot. When you create an obstacle course, there will inevitably be accidents.

The Lindsey German/John Rees faction has tried to characterize the split in terms of united front advocates versus a stodgy, inward-looking retreat from the mass movement. In an open letter signed by 50 other resignees, we get this take on things:

For many years, the SWP has played a dynamic role in the development of mass movements in Britain. The party made an important contribution to the great anti-capitalist mobilisations at the start of the decade, it threw itself into the Stop the War Coalition and was central to the Respect electoral project. These achievements were dependent on an open, non-sectarian approach to joint work with others on the left and a systematic commitment to building the movements.

The SWP leadership has abandoned this approach. The task of building broad, political opposition in every area to the disasters created by neoliberalism and war is now subordinated to short term party building. We believe this undermines both the movements and the prospects of building an open and effective revolutionary current in the British working class.

The most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession, clearly the most pressing task facing the left. Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left.

With all due respect to these comrades, I don’t think it is accurate to describe the SWP’s approach as non-sectarian for in the final analysis the SWP is and was a sect. It might have been a very successful sect, but nonetheless that is what it was. Lindsey German was a believer in the “united front” approach in politics, which led to the disaster in Respect and an ensuing crisis at the heart of the current dispute.

For those trained in Leninist and, more specifically, Trotskyist politics the united front is an arrangement in which the “vanguard” unites with reformists around a single issue like withdrawal from Iraq or opposing a fascist demonstration. While it is capable of producing beneficial results, as was the case in the American antiwar movement, it is also a very good way to antagonize other radicals who are not exactly “reformists” according to the formula. It means that in mass movement meetings, groups like the SWP come with their own agenda worked out in advance and can never be persuaded by argument to adopt proposals that differ from their party leadership. This notion of “democratic centralism” has little to do with the operation of the Bolshevik Party which carried out its debates in public. If the British SWP functioned like the Bolsheviks, you would see open debates between Lindsey German and the party leaders over antiwar perspectives in the party press.

Of course, the SWP would never permit this kind of transparency since it would be a confession that it was some kind of petite-bourgeois “talk shop” or some such thing. In reality, deep differences in a group like the SWP will always lead to splits because the internal regime is so brittle. If Britain ever gave rise to a genuine vanguard, the differences would be much more profound than they are in this little dust-up over whether Lindsey should have gone to that meeting or not.

For example, if you read John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World”, you will learn that Bolshevik leaders spoke out against closing the counter-revolutionary press in 1917, after the seizure of power. They didn’t do this in closed central committee meetings but in front of the masses. Reed referred to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” He continued: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.”

Given the enormous appetite that our latter-day avatars of V.I. Lenin have for strict control over the membership, both ideologically and in terms of activity, this scenario seems as plausible as Richard Seymour taking a leave of absence from the SWP in order to spend a year in Cuba learning about the revolution. It is just not in their culture.

The SWP, like every other sect that originated out of Leon Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union, has a small proprietor’s attitude toward politics. Its analysis is a kind of intellectual property that differentiates it from the rest of the left, in this case being how the USSR became “state capitalist”. It combines this intellectual property with hard work in the mass movement, even if it antagonizes most of the movement through its propensity to carry out fait accompli. The net result is to foster the growth of what they call a cadre that has many of the characteristics of a priesthood. Things go swimmingly well as long as there is wind in the sails of the group, but the first time the winds die down the group goes into a crisis and faces schisms of one sort or another. I saw this happen in the American SWP and am sad to see it happening to their British namesake. I doubt that the British SWP will ever assume the Hindenberg Dirigible disaster proportions of the American sect, but I also doubt that they will ever become much larger than they are now. Britain, and every other country in the world, needs a true vanguard party and the first step in making that happen is to dump the “Leninist” baggage that keeps such groups so tiny and prone to splits.

February 16, 2010

Lady Gaga

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

Last night I caught about an hour’s worth of a show about Lady Gaga on cable TV that included some of the pop sensation’s music videos. For those whose taste in music revolves around Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and the like, she might be something of a cipher excluding the references to her you’ve probably caught in the mass media. With her clever product positioning and her talented press agents, she is the biggest thing in pop music in a long while.

Perhaps Lady Gaga has caught Madonna in a compromising position with a Great Dane like the ones in the video above, because that would be the only explanation for her not having filed suit for theft of intellectual property. Lady Gaga, an Italian-American like Madonna (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in 1986), has bleached blond hair like Madonna as well as the same clever persona, one in which celebrity and wealth are mocked in the lyrics while being pursued by the artist in a carefully managed career. It is like spitting out your cake while eating it too. Twenty-five years ago Madonna came out with a hit song that practically defined her:

Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl

All that Lady Gaga has done is repeat this over and over again, as in her “Money Honey”:

That’s M-O-N-E-Y, so sexy, I
Damn I love the Jag, the jet and the mansion
Oh yea
And I enjoy the gifts and trips to the islands
Oh yea
It’s good to live expensive you know it but
My knees get weak, intensive
When you give me k-kisses
That’s money honey
When I’m your lover and your mistress
That’s money honey
When you touch me it’s so delicious
That’s money honey
Baby when you tear me to pieces
That’s money honey

Lady Gaga professes to be unlike the image conveyed by these words, practically claiming to be monastic. Earthtimes.org described her as “homeless”. Since I am not privy to the pop star’s finances, I suppose I will have to take her at her word:

Lady Gaga claims she doesn’t own a home because she spends all her money on her stage sets.

Lady Gaga doesn’t own a house.

The ‘Poker Face’ singer claims to be so dedicated to her career, she uses all of her money to fund her elaborate stage sets and improve her musical skills.

She said: “I live right here in the moment. I live on stage. I don’t own a house, I don’t spend money on those things.

“I live out of a suitcase and I make music and art and I spend every dollar that I make on stage – that’s it.”

The star is so focused on her work, she rarely takes time off but says her idea of a treat when she isn’t working is a bowl of pasta.

Also, like many other pop stars from Sting to Bono, she is deeply involved in raising money for good causes like AIDS research and more recently Haiti relief. While I cannot honestly attack such artists for doing charitable work, I sometimes wonder if their labor and money would be better used to help shore up the anti-capitalist movement worldwide, starting with fund-raising efforts for Cuba and Venezuela.

Also, like Madonna, Lady Gaga is all about sexual transgression, making the point frequently that she owes everything to her gay fans helping her to achieve fame. She is also proudly bisexual as Madonna was at one time in her career. My guess is that bisexuality is much less of a hindrance to one’s career than being exclusively lesbian.

All in all, Lady Gaga is the kind of pop star who would appeal immensely to the writers and editors of the Village Voice in New York, a free weekly whose antennae are finely tuned to pick up on cultural trends in line with their own postmodernist brand of faux rebellion.

An article by Rich Juzwiak in the 1/19 Village Voice could have been written by her press agent:

Last year’s constant chatter both from and about Gaga has introduced so many contradictions, her rhetoric is less “fake it till you make it” than “make it till you have to fake it.” Besides some weird stuff about feminism and her conflicting views on aiming for hits even though her career is allegedly “not about record sales,” her least coherent thoughts concern what she talks about the most: celebrity. Andy Warhol she ain’t. She speaks of “inner fame” as if celebrity isn’t entirely determined by external forces.

In many ways, Gaga is the prototypical Village Voice reader. She attended nearby NYU for a semester and absorbed just enough higher education to distinguish her from someone as trashy as Brittany Spears. Gaga is on record as stating that Rilke is her favorite philosopher for what that’s worth, going so far as to sport a tattoo likeness of the German “philosopher”.

As a symbol of hipness, she has been embraced by the current occupant of the White House who needs all the help he can in compensating for the impression people have that he is in the back pocket of Lloyd Blankfein.

At a white tie banquet for the Human Rights Campaign last October, the two celebrities paid tribute to each other, as reported by Politico:

It was President Barack Obama versus Lady Gaga at Saturday night’s 13th annual Human Rights Campaign Dinner — and Obama quickly surrendered.

“It is a privilege to be here tonight to open for Lady Gaga,” Obama said to applause, kicking off his remarks at Washington’s Convention Center. “I’ve made it.”

As they took the stage before a black-tie crowd of about 2,000, even the cast of the hot new television show “Glee” weighed in on the evening’s most anticipated guest.

“Lady Gaga! Chris Colfer, a cast member yelled into the microphone before two other co-stars bellowed, “President Obama!”

But Lady Gaga saluted Obama later in the evening when she told the crowd: “I think we can all be very excited for our future because it seems as though we have a president that’s just as historic and legendary that can really make a change for us.”

It should be added that the Human Rights Campaign is an inside-the-beltway gay rights group that is almost as debased as the Congressional Black Caucus in terms of their feeding at the corporate trough. In exchange for payoffs from the criminals at Chevron, for example, they name it as a gay-friendly place to work—as if this compensated for leaving Ecuador with a toxic mess that it will take billions to clean up.

The story of corporate America’s love affair for the hip transgressor is a very old one. In the 1980s a magazine called Baffler chronicled the evolution of William S. Burroughs doing commercials for Gap Jeans, etc. The magazine eventually went out of business, perhaps because it had run out of ways to make this obvious point (apparently it has been revived, but I have not seen a copy.) Its folding did not have that much of an effect on its editor Thomas Frank who went on to a successful career advising the Democrats on how they can win elections.

February 15, 2010

History of the Marxist internationals (part 2, the Second International)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

This is the second in a series of posts on socialist internationals. The first dealt with the International Workingman’s Association (IWA) that collapsed not long after the defeat of the Paris Commune. The ensuing repression combined with an exhausting faction fight with Bakunin and the anarchists led to its demise.

Although conditions were ripening to inspire the formation of a new international (largely a function of the growth of an industrial working class), Marx was wary of launching it prematurely. In 1881, two years before his death, he wrote F. Domela Nieuwenhuis, a Dutch supporter, that “It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Workingmen’s Association has not yet arrived and for this reason I regard all workers’ congresses, particularly socialist congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in innumerable stale generalised banalities.”

Despite these doubts, the growth of the socialist movements in France and Germany led to a new impetus for organizing internationally. Just as Russia was the natural center for the Communist International (a mixed blessing as we shall see), France and Germany formed the twin stars of the Second International. And despite their considerable national differences, the two sections would exhibit all the shortcomings that made the Second International fail.

Jules Guesde

One of the founders of French social democracy, and consequently the Second International, was Jules Guesde, a veteran of the Paris Commune. In 1889 the French government held an International Exhibition in Paris to celebrate the Centennial of the French Revolution that attracted leftists from across Europe eager to start a new world movement. There were already differences over strategy that would become more pronounced over the next decade or so leading up to the First World War. Guesde was allied with the German socialists who defended a “classic” reading of Karl Marx, like Wilhelm Liebknecht. Meanwhile, the British trade union movement oriented to the “Possibilists” in the French social democracy who, like it, believed in piecemeal reform. In an 1883 letter to August Bebel, a German socialist who was aligned with Liebknecht, Engels complained about the British trade union movement:

Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the basis of the political nullity of the English workers. The tail of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly but nevertheless sharing in its advantages, politically they are naturally the tail of the “great Liberal Party,” which for its part pays them small attentions, recognises trade unions and strikes as legitimate factors, has relinquished the fight for an unlimited working day and has given the mass of better placed workers the vote.

Obviously not much has changed in the trade union movement for the past 120 years or so.

The “Impossibilist” group led by Guesde and the “Possibilists” met in separate halls. It was the former gathering that effectively marks the beginning of the Second International. It should be mentioned, however, that the German allies of Guesde might have all been defending Marxism but not with the same degree of conviction. Eduard Bernstein, for example, who was urged by Engels to write a pamphlet attacking the “Possibilists” would become a key “revisionist” leader before long.

Jean Jaures

Although Guesde was one of the most prominent leaders of French socialism in this period, the most prominent public figure was Jean Jaures, who was born in 1859—making him fifteen years younger than Guesde. Unlike Guesde, who had a trade union background, Jaures was an intellectual. He was a classmate of Henri Bergson and would eventually become a philosophy professor. In James Joll’s serviceable history of the Second International, he is described as never having been a Marxist. His entry into the socialist movement was prompted mostly by an outrage over how working people were being treated. That being said, he was familiar enough with Marx’s writings to defend the theory of surplus value against Eduard Bernstein whose attack on this theory was essential to his “revisionist” critique.

In the French socialist movement, Jaures—an independent socialist by conviction and never a party member—functioned as a conciliator between its left wing and a right wing that was the ideological heir of the “Possibilists”. The differences between the two camps would be put to the test in the Dreyfus affair of 1897.

Accused of being a German spy in 1897, Dreyfus—a Jew—became a cause célèbre for French socialism and opponents of anti-Semitism. Jaures threw himself into the defense, perhaps too much so in Guesde’s eyes since Dreyfus—after all—was a member of the bourgeoisie. There was no excuse, of course, for this sectarian attitude but there were aspects of Jaures’s involvement that suggested willingness to bloc with bourgeois parties who supported Dreyfus against his tormentors.

In 1899 the French elections produced a new ministry led by René Waldeck-Rousseau, a Dreyfus supporter who looked to the socialists for support. Alexandre Millerand, a socialist independent like Jaures whose sympathies were with the rightwing of the party, decided to accept the post of Minister of Commerce in Waldeck-Rousseau’s government, arguably the first instance in our movement’s history of a kind of Popular Front. He was immediately denounced as a traitor by the French left.

What was galling in particular to Guesde was the participation of General Gallifet in Waldeck-Rousseau’s cabinet as Minister of War. This officer had suppressed the Paris Commune in 1871 and was one of the most hated figures on the French left. In 1899, a young woman named Rosa Luxemberg who was a rising star of the German socialist party, wrote an article titled “The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case” that conveyed the commitment to socialist principles that would distinguish her until her murder by soldiers taking orders from German socialist politicians:

As concerns the Dreyfus Affair in particular, the intervention of the proletariat in the case need not be justified either from on general point of view, on the subject of bourgeois conflicts, nor from the point of view of humanity. For in the Dreyfus case four social factors make themselves felt which give it the stamp of a question directly related to the class struggle. They are: militarism, chauvinism-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and clericalism. In our written and spoken agitation we always combat these direct enemies of the socialist proletariat by virtue of our general tendencies. It would thus be totally incomprehensible to not enter into a struggle with these enemies exactly when it is a question of unmasking them, not as abstract clichés, but through the use of living current events.

In the case of Millerand, the question comes down to whether the given situation in France made the entry of a socialist into a ministry truly necessary.

The sole method with the aid of which we can attain the realization of socialism is the class struggle. We can and we must penetrate all the institutions of bourgeois society, and put to use all the events that occur there and that permit us to carry on the class struggle. It’s from this point of view that the participation by Socialists was imposed as a measure of preservation. But it’s precisely from this same point of view that participation in bourgeois power seems counter-indicated, for the very nature of bourgeois government excludes the possibility of socialist class struggle. It’s not that we fear for socialists the dangers and the difficulties of ministerial activity; we must not back away from any danger or difficulty attached to the post in which we are placed by the interests of the proletariat. But a ministry is not, in general, a field of action for a party of the struggle of the proletarian classes. The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society. The government of the modern state is essentially an organization of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.

It is too bad we don’t have enough Rosa Luxembergs on the scene today to scream bloody murder about the kinds of class collaboration carried out in the name of socialism today. It is remarkable that after 110 years we still have to remind the movement that “The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society.”

As it turns out, Rosa Luxemberg had her hands filled with the “revisionists” in her own party who while not joining capitalist governments, would not be above this maneuver if invited to do so. A long period of prosperity and a decline in intra-European warfare had convinced Eduard Bernstein that the capitalist system might not be in need of revolutionary transformation. This rising prosperity, it should be added, was facilitated by the growth of empire that all the industrialized powers participated in, including the late-comer Germany. It was to Eduard Bernstein’s dubious distinction to defend this state of affairs with seeming Marxist orthodoxy.

Eduard Bernstein

In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco using the Communist Manifesto as ammunition.

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before. Even before the arrival of Europeans in Africa, brutal wars, robbery, and slavery were not unknown. Indeed, they were the regular order of the day. What was unknown was the degree of peace and legal protection made possible by European institutions and the consequent sharp rise in food resources…

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [a British anti-revisionist] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Despite Bernstein’s illusions in the peaceful nature of capitalism, most socialists were worried that war could break out any time, especially with the presence of large standing armies and an increasingly nationalist outlook among their own bourgeoisies. This led to Second International gatherings issuing proclamations for the need to oppose war and to replace standing armies by a popular militia. In his characteristically opportunist manner, Jaures defended such ideas in a book written four years before the start of WWI titled L’Armée Nouvelle that called for peace while simultaneously waxed rapturously over France’s past military successes. He also felt that wars could be avoided if a system of international relations based on arbitration between states could be established, a foolish belief that anticipated both the League of Nations and the UN. If Marxism was based on the idea that capitalism bred war, Jaures would have nothing of it.

Most importantly, Jaures expressed the idea that French socialists would be justified in resisting a German attack: “Those Frenchmen, if there are any left, who say that it is all the same to them whether they live under the German troopers or the French troopers…commit a sophism which by its very absurdity makes refutation difficult…The truth is that wherever there are countries, that is historical groups having a consciousness of their continuity and their unity, any attack on the freedom and integrity of these countries is an attack against civilization, a reaction into barbarism.”

Four years later WWI would break out, financed by war credits voted by Jaures, Guesde and the majority of German socialist parliamentarians who all believed that an attack on their country was “an attack on civilization” as Jaures put it. So overwhelming was the war fever that even an anarchist like Kropotkin supported it. This is not to single out the anarchists for opprobrium since Kropotkin’s countryman George Plekhanov—as orthodox a Marxist as ever there was—supported the war as well.

It was up to internationalists like V.I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemberg to take a stand against the social patriotism that would lead to millions of workers being slaughtered in a senseless war for profits and empire.

In the first year of the war, Lenin wrote Dead Chauvinism and Living Socialism: How the International Can Be Restored as an attempt to draw clear class lines between the revolutionaries and the traitors. He wrote:

An International does not mean sitting at the same table and having hypocritical and pettifogging resolutions written by people who think that genuine internationalism consists in German socialists justifying the German bourgeoisie’s call to shoot down French workers, and in French socialists justifying the French bourgeoisie’ call to shoot down German workers in the name of the “defence of the fatherland”! The International consists in the coming together (first ideologically, then in due time organisationally as well) of people who, in these grave days, are capable of defending socialist internationalism in deed, i.e., of mustering their forces and “being the next to shoot” at the governments and the ruling classes of their own respective “fatherlands”. This is no easy task; it calls for much preparation and great sacrifices and will be accompanied by reverses. However, for the very reason that it, is no easy task, it must be accomplished only together with those who wish to perform it and are not afraid of a complete break with the chauvinists and with the defenders of social-chauvinism.

In 1915 Rosa Luxemberg wrote The Junius Pamphlet.  It includes a paragraph that is one of my favorite in the entire Marxist literature, especially for its sardonic commentary on the “civilization” that Jaures was defending by voting for war credits:

This brutal victory parade of capital through the world, its way prepared by every means of violence, robbery, and infamy, has its light side. It creates the preconditions for its own final destruction. It put into place the capitalist system of world domination, the indispensable precondition for the socialist world revolution. This alone constitutes the cultural, progressive side of its reputed “great work of civilization” in the primitive lands. For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

The failure of the Second International to oppose war led to its eventual disintegration. Out of its ashes came the rise of a new international that will be the topic of my next post in this series.

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