Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 23, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Sunday sessions

10am-11:50am: Where’s the Outrage?

I wasn’t exactly sure what this would be about, but wondered if it would address the seeming mystery of why American workers remain so passive in the face of repeated assaults from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Owing to a late start downtown and sluggish subway service, I missed the introduction and walked into a Greg Palast documentary that was in progress. It shows him doing a kind of Michael Moore/Sixty Minutes shtick trying to get some answers from what he calls vultures–financiers who buy up the debt of poor countries at reduced prices and then sue them to get inflated repayments. You can see the impact of the vultures on Liberia and Zambia online.

After the screening, Palast honed in on the Obama administration that he sees as a continuation of the Bush presidency, including the lenient treatment of “vultures”—pointing out how hypocritical it was for Obama to complain about corruption in Africa during a one-day stop in Kenya while giving vultures the right to continue their criminal activities.

During the q&a, a “truther” asked about 9/11, using just the flimsiest connection to Palast’s presentation. His reply was brilliant, pointing out that he was being asked to comment on things he had no knowledge about. It was the perfect retort to a truther, since it put him on the defensive. Investigative reporters and Marxists have to operate on the basis of what is known. Anything else amounts to sterile speculation.

Joel Kovel spoke next. I have known Joel for about 25 years and really admire him. It was a talk he gave on ecology at the Brecht Forum back then that got me interested in the topic. He made an interesting point about the title of the 2010 Left Forum—“the center cannot hold”—that presumably referred to the class polarization taking place today. He reminded us that it came from William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem The Second Coming that seemed to anticipate our situation today:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

He thought that the words “The best lack all conviction” applied to people like us, the attendees of the Left Forum who cannot achieve the kind of impact that the tea-party movement has made. Of course, if we had somebody like Dick Armey funneling millions of dollars into the antiwar movement, we might be having more of an impact.

The real problem is that Joel came to the discussion with a completely different idea about where the outrage matters. I don’t think it makes much difference if Joel Kovel or I am outraged about Obama or Bush or whoever. (And we are.) Politics will not change in this country until the working class begins to wake up to the reality that the ruling class wants to drive down their wages and working conditions until they are little better off than the average Walmart worker.

I should add that Joel concluded his remarks by strongly identifying with the millenarian theme of Yeats’s poem (the Second Coming is at hand) but not so much in the kind of apocalyptic Marxism of the small sects that pass out their flyers at the doorways of the Left Forum. Rather it was a statement that unless the left became religious, ie., began to act on the basis of faith, it would remain irrelevant. This is the kind of thing that Chris Hedges is into, but does not try to convert others into believing. Joel said that the liberation theology in Latin America is what he had in mind, but somehow I doubt that his words would have much effect in getting the average radical into adopting a different mindset—especially people like me and Doug Henwood who, unlike Joel Kovel I’ll bet, were forced to go to Hebrew school and Catholic school respectively. That’s enough to get any thinking young person to give up on religion for the rest of their lives.

Later that evening when I was chatting with my wife about the discussion, I brought up what Malcolm X once said about Black people thinking like their white overlords:

There was two kind of slaves. There was the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, they lived in the house, with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good, cause they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master, and they loved their master, more than their master loved himself. They would give their life to save their masters house quicker than their master would. The house negro, if the master said “we got a good house here” the house negro say “yeah, we got a good house here”. Whenever the master would said we, he’d say we. That’s how you can tell a house negro. If the master’s house caught on fire, the house negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house negro would say “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself.

I couldn’t help but think that this is basically what afflicted the working class-both white and Black. After decades of an expanding economy, it became easy for workers to think like the boss. Until that began to change, there would be no outrage. With the hammer blows of the capitalist crisis, this will eventually take place and the end result will be a cataclysm that makes the riots of the 1960s look like a garden party.

12pm-1:50pm: New Radical Parties and Experiments in Party Building

This is a topic I am greatly interested in since it relates to one of my major preoccupations ever since I hooked up with Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, namely how to wean the “vanguard” left away from sectarianism. All across Europe there are new initiatives that incorporate ideas about how to make this happen and I try to keep track of different developments, both in terms of failure (RESPECT in Britain) or relative success as might be exemplified by Der Linke in Germany and the NPA in France. The panel had members of both parties and I was anxious to hear what they had to say.

Sebastian Budgen, who works with both Historical Materialism and Verso Press, is a member of the NPA and gave a fascinating talk on the difficulties facing the party that had hitherto been unknown to me. They range from strategic to organizational, a function of weaknesses that were inherited from the LCR as I would learn during the q&a. One strategic problem related to the NPA’s decision to not join the CP-led electoral coalition since its partner was a split from the SP. The NPA refused to coalesce with the CP front unless there was an agreement in advance that it would refuse to support the SP. (It should be stressed that the SP in France is mostly a middle-class party unlike the German SP which is based on the trade unions.) The NPA was attacked on the Socialist Unity blog for taking this tack, something that convinced me that they were probably right since the Socialist Unity blog has become (or always was) the voice of Labour Party reformism.

On the organizational (and political, I guess) front, the NPA has had trouble developing and educating its membership. By disavowing the traditional approach of defending a Marxist program within the historical context of the Russian questions, and by eschewing the democratic centralist norms associated with this trend, it means that NPA members are all over the map ideologically and are not exactly ready to move collectively with the rest of the membership when the need arises. The former LCR members tend to be more disciplined than the newer members who more or less function as independent radicals whose activity rises or falls depending on what is going on in France at any given moment.

During the q&a, I asked Sebastian whether the lax norms of the NPA had something to do with the traditionally laid-back norms of the LCR, which operated in a completely different culture than the English-speaking Trotskyists who tended to take their James P. Cannon to heart. He answered that this was the case and that the LCR was always appalled by the efficiency and cleanliness of the American SWP offices. It would seem that they bent the stick too far in the opposite direction since the NPA has only four full-timers to carry out administrative tasks for an organization of 10,000 members! I wondered to myself if there was still a need to develop the kind of professionalism Lenin wrote about in “What is to be done” while dropping all the “democratic centralist” mumbo-jumbo. I wish the NPA luck in their attempt to do something different from what has failed in the past, but nothing is guaranteed in politics—especially revolutionary politics.

Speaking on Der Linke was Luigi Wolf, a leader of their youth group and a member of the Cliffite IST I suspect since he has written for their magazine and comes across as quite an astute thinker. Despite my disagreement with state capitalist theory and their continued adherence to “democratic centralist” dogma, the IST has an impressive cadre.

Wolf gave a very informative talk on the origins of Der Linke which was basically a coming together of a leftwing split from the West German SP and the CP of East Germany. Despite it being a relatively massive organization, it is not capable of the kind of disciplined and energetic activism of the revolutionary left. This is a function of the trade union and social democratic background of the Western membership and the aging and ex-functionary make-up of the East. Despite this, Der Linke has stood up to the neoliberal drift of German politics and has even raised the possibility of a political general strike to defend the working class gains of the Social Democratic era which, like everywhere else in Europe, is eroding rapidly.

3pm-4:50pm: Of Drones, Warlords and the Taliban: Ending the U.S./NATO Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

There were two speakers, Adaner Usmani, a member of the Labor Party of Pakistan, and my friend Derrick O’Keefe who is co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance and author of a book on the courageous Malalai Joya. I don’t want to say too much since I plan to upload their talks to Youtube. But I admit feeling genuine relish when Derrick raised the question about the failure of the American antiwar movement to do anything about the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Leslie Cagan, the chair of the feckless UfPJ, was in the audience. She shook her head no and mouthed the words “not true” in the same manner as Samuel Alito reacting to Obama’s State of the Union potshots directed at the Supreme Court. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to this scurrilous observer.


  1. I was at the Left Forum also.

    I was thinking of going to the ‘Where’s the Outrage’panel. It looked like it would be fun.
    But I went to the one on the ‘Current Economic Crisis & Its Possible Outcomes ‘ with Bertell
    Ollman, Michael Hudson, Gar Alperovitz with Bill Tabb moderating. Great panel. Lots of Marxism.
    Bertell Ollman talked about crisis theory & the falling rate of profit and Michael Hudson talked about finance & fictitious capital, as in Volume 3 of Capital. You probably would have liked the panel. Since I was one of the videographers, I filmed it.

    And At the end, during the Q & A, someone was going to plug some group & their publication, Bill Tabb said no & cut her off. No time for that kind of thing. That was great.

    Comment by Carol — March 23, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

  2. At the risk of beating a dead horse of a subject, I was ignored, for perhaps good reasons, for wondering out loud in a couple of fora about why “atheism” was nowhere to be seen at the Left Forum, but everywhere else seemed Christian Left, Black Christian Left, Marxist-“Humanist.” Personally, I don’t trust a leftist who sues the term “spiritual” or “religious” approvingly or in reference to themselves. I imagine that the “Reverend” Jesse Jackson went over well with the folks there, and if you say Joel Kovel is now standing with Chris Hedges, I believe it. My head hurts now – I can’t imagine how conference attendees deal with all the dissonance -from your own alleged side!

    Comment by mjosef — March 23, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

  3. “newer members who more or less function as independent radicals whose activity rises or falls depending on what is going on in France at any given moment”

    Which is the philosophy I follow. I have a life of my own, if nothing is going on, why should I spend a massive amount of time each week on political work. It’s a choice for anyone, but I consider utility in other things in life, so why not how much time I’ll devote to political work? Sacrificing a lot of one’s time and making little to no headway seems the sure route to burnout and disaffection, I’ve seen it again and again.

    From September 11, 2001 up until the Mahdi uprising in the spring of 2004, I spent a lot of time going to meetings, volunteering, and demonstrating, with not everything necessarily devoted to anti-war stuff specifically. After the anti-war protests, the Mahdi uprising and everything,what I felt was an attempt to lurch the country as far right as possible seemed to ebb, and my involvement began to ebb as well. I was also becoming disenchanted with the infighting the little group I was mostly involved with was engaged in, a group which eventually fell apart due to the infighting etc., reducing my involvement even more. When the country looked like it was going in a scary direction, hours of effort a week by myself seemed worth it. I am fully aware that Obama and Bush are the Janus faces of the same creature, but things are different now – even UNSC members like Germany and France were vetoing war in Iraq.

    I don’t disagree some continuity and constant work is needed. Two local lefty groups I work with sometimes seem moribund and not doing anything. The other group I was with is gone. I don’t want to get involved in any of the communist sects. There aren’t a lot of continuity organizations around, so someone who would show up from time to time if these organizations existed instead does nothing. I mean, if I wanted to devote a lot of time to it, I could be involved, but with things moribund, there isn’t.

    When I was actively working in organizations, my main thought was not changing things, but twofold:
    1) Taking some of the load off the core, dedicated organizers
    2) Making getting involved easier for part-time or new people

    I have always thought the Christian churches do a much, much better job organizing (for good or for ill) than left groups. My local Unitarian church leans towards progressive, and has given space for meetings for some really good groups. I have never been in a shouting match, or watched a purge in my local Unitarian church, or been in a meeting where people yelled about Roberts Rules of Order and rules lawyering, or how it was no surprise that “whites like me” thought a certain way etc.

    You have to build the foundation before you build. I don’t think people want to work on the foundation though, they all want to be one of the vanguard in the politburo of the CP which will take over. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.

    Comment by Part timer — March 24, 2010 @ 1:02 am

  4. One more comment – as above, its almost like I feel like I have to apologize for coming in once in a while, while no one at a Unitarian church thinks to apologize for coming in only once in a while. You see this especially among the CP sects. Not that I’d want to, but I don’t even know how someone could help the WWP or SWP or RCP on a part-time basis, it seems you are either a devoted cadre or nothing. And they wonder why they have problems recruiting.

    Then if you do anything, there are people yelling how they are going to occupy the school because of tuition hikes, or get arrested to protest the war, or whatnot. Like they are the people who are really doing something, while those who do the dull task of spending dozens of hours a week organizing demonstrations, doing the financial books and accounting for the group and that sort of thing are for wimps who are not really doing anything.

    Comment by Part timer — March 24, 2010 @ 1:12 am

  5. Part-timer clearly comes from the petty-bourgeois socialist trend that sees “leftism” as a sort of religion that the dumb worker masses just need to be converted to. In this, he falls in line with Louis and his ilk. Nothing less can be expected from members of the middle class; but the point still needs to be made.

    The working class moves against capitalism because it’s in its material interests to do so. It’s not because of some pie in the sky ideas or moralism. It’s not because they are inspired by the holy books or tracts of this or that group of godsuckers. This is why the liberation of the working class must be carried out by the workers class itself. We’re the only ones that truly understand.

    Comment by Brice — March 24, 2010 @ 4:32 am

  6. I thought I’d listed enough on my list of nonsense I hear at left meetings, but while I included accusations of “thinking like a white person”, I left off other classics like the ones Brice contributed – “petit bourgeois” and “middle class”. Of course, in acting in the manner I’ve described, Brice is just proving my point. I do like to take some breaks from my luxurious petit bourgeois middle class lifestyle to engage in these discussions though, I’ll jot this off quickly before I go out and clean my new 2010 Cadillac.

    I never talked about the worker masses, the working class, moralism, holy books, conversion, or the liberation of the working class. My only reference to religion is to church organizational methods. When my local Unitarian church (which contains atheists, and which as I said, gives meeting space to some very good progressive groups) mass finishes, afterward I go downstairs and am greeted by friendly parishioners who offer me coffee and after a conversation invite me to whatever event they’re having during the week. Left meetings are more like your response – I get accused of saying a lot of things that anyone who can read can see I did not say, I am accused of being middle class, petit bourgeois (not just I, petit bourgeois is of course the standard slur against all opponents) and so on.

    To get on to another point, the organization I was involved with had a space, and contributed to the local progressive community in a variety of ways. I put in several hours a week, a handful of core volunteers put in more time. For this we were attacked by anonymous keyboard warriors who sat in their chairs and posted everything they didn’t like about us to Indymedia and mailing lists. Some even said out space should be sabotaged and vandalized. I sometimes responded to these people and said if our space is so awful I’ve got a great idea, go out and organize a space for the “real revolutionaries” so you don’t have to argue about our crappy, “non-revolutionary” space. Of course, I never heard a response. People out there organizing got along with us almost always, the people who never seemed to do anything but promote discord were the ones who complained about us the most.

    Comment by part timer — March 24, 2010 @ 6:02 am

  7. Brice you’re the only one calling the masses “dumb.” The spiritual aspiration for a better world, for human liberation, is the root of all successful struggles: for civil rights, for national liberation, for justice. There’s no contradiction between spirituality and being a revolutionary. Marx may not have liked religion very much, but if the European Christian establishment is your model of religion that’s not a big surprise.

    Enjoy your parallel Bordigist fantasy universe where blog commenters calling themselves “workers” are soul-lessly and successfully (now THAT would be a miracle) churning the cogs of some inhuman machine of class society.

    Comment by ish — March 24, 2010 @ 11:49 am

  8. You don’t have to call us dumb, it’s obvious that it’s what you think by the way you talk about us. Bring consciousness to the masses, leading the masses, convincing, winning over; all euphemisms for bringing us your enlightened leadership.

    You approach organizing in the way a missionary enters a land of “savages”: seeking to convert the heathens to The Word.

    I call myself a worker because I am one. I have no way to survive other than by selling my labor-power piecemeal to a capitalist. I produce surplus value that is taken by that capitalist, with a portion of the coin earned off my back going to the petty-bourgeois managers who oversee my workplace.

    Petty-bourgeois socialists are big on blurring class distinction. They always have been. That’s why they constantly speak of “the people” and “the masses.” That’s why they often refer to themselves (and the predecessors they idolize) as intellectuals or even “declassed” intellectuals.

    They want to muddy the waters and obscure the lines that divide class society, because they stand on the wrong side of the equation. If you want to see what petty-bourgeois socialism looks like in power, take a look at North Korea or recall the USSR, Albania, Romania or one of the other “socialist countries”. A treat for the petty-bourgeois intellectuals, advisers, specialists, etc., that run the joint… Economic slavery under new management for the working class.

    On a smaller scale, you can see the same thing in the petty-bourgeois sects like the SWP, with Jack “never-worked-a-job-in-his-life” Barnes leading his underling grunts into the mines and packing plants to spread The Word, while living comfortably off of their subs.

    Comment by Brice — March 24, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

  9. It may seem strange if a comment like mine is coming from Europe, moreover from a former “Communist” country which is now the Czech Republic. I am avidly reading what Louis Proyect says about the Left Forum since left – meaning “really” left – groups in Central and Eastern Europe are just emerging from the ashes.Not much attention is being paid by comrades from “the West” to our region while many of us are still imbibing their theories. So this “a reader´s” view. One linguistic remark at the end: Louis, please, do not call the German party DER Linke – “party” is a feminine gender in German so the party is DIE Linke.

    Comment by Stephen Steiger — March 25, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  10. Along that reference you make of Malcolm X I highly recommend reading E. Franklin Frazier’s “Black Bourgeoisie”.

    Comment by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry — March 25, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  11. I admire Joel Kuvel too and heard him once in Brimingham, UK Univ.

    Comment by Joke! — March 26, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

  12. Supporters of the ‘broad party’, as opposed to the ‘revolutionary group’, strategy can only admit to being bitterly disappointed with the 2.77% vote for the NPA in the French regional elections. It does nothing for our argument for the need for a shift in perspective across the far left. Recently a commentator on this site goaded Louis with the failure of broad pluralistic formations to outgrow ‘traditional’ revolutionary organisations (Solidarity v. ISO, Respect v. SWP)in the English speaking world. The NPA results – in more fertile territory for the new politics and in the electoral field to which broad parties are especially adapted – do little for our case, reminiscent as they are of the recent election results of that other model of ours, the Scottish Socialist Party.

    There’s no doubt that we have persuasive arguments from experience – years of it – and that election results (especially in difficult elections) are not the be all and end all. But results like 2.77% for the NPA, a formation in which so much hope was placed – from across both sides of the debate – compared to previous votes for the LCR alone and to 1.3% this time for Lutte Ouvrière, is not uplifting. But it’s early days yet. I suppose.

    Comment by D_D — March 28, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

  13. In response to #12, I would say that the goal is not a “broad party” but a true vanguard. It is open to question whether the NPA will be a step in the direction of that goal but I am positive that the ISO, the SWP and all the other “Leninist” formations will never reach it.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 28, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  14. They’ll never reach it unless the new International gives a push.

    The International Workingmen’s Association, mainly an impetus of British trade unionism before the Labour party, aided greatly in the formation of parties in Germany and France.

    The original Socialist International aided greatly in the formation of the RSDLP.

    “Minimally critical” is the line that should be taken towards the new International (I would consider my critique of Hahnel and Chavez, no matter how strategic, as “minimally critical”), unless scab orgs. like the CPC and PRI are in.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 28, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

  15. Sorry, I meant Albert and not Hahnel between the two pareconists.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 29, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

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