Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 21, 2010

From a January 2010 interview with Harvey Pekar

Filed under: aging,comedy — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

One of the best things I ever did is called “Huntington, West Virginia on the Fly” which is sort of biographies of friends of
mine, but they’re told from my point of view. That was supposed to come out in September, but now, for all intents and purposes, it’s just gotten indefinitely postponed. I have another one that I wrote for Random House called “The Unrepentant Marxist” which is a biography of a guy I met in New York who was a member of a Trotskyist organization for a really long time, and he put up with a whole lot of bullshit until he finally got to where he couldn’t take it anymore. I’m really interested in that stuff. It was apparently accepted but I don’t know when that’s supposed to come out. I don’t know if I’ll live that long.

full: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24421

July 20, 2010

Spalding Gray’s macular pucker and mine

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

So a couple of months ago I went to my eye doctor to check the pressure on my right eye. Even after laser surgery, it had still been a bit high at 21. To bring it down, I began taking Xalatan, one of the most heavily prescribed medicines for glaucoma.

After she gave me the good news was that the pressure had dropped to 17, we chatted a bit about my cataracts. To speak intelligently, she brought up large-scale photos that they had taken of my eyes on one of my early visits. They were about the size of a honeydew melon. After a moment, she turned to me and said that she was not sure whether the degraded vision in my left eye, which up to this point had been understood to be a function of a more advanced cataract, was actually due to a macular pucker rather than a cataract. When I heard the word macular, my knees went weak. My old friend Cynthia Cochran, the widow of Bert Cochran who died in late 2006, suffered from macular degeneration, a disease that would eventually lead to blindness.

I asked immediately if that was a form of macular degeneration. Her reply was that it was not. A macular pucker was a form of scar tissue that formed on the macula, a part of the eye that transmitted visual images received through the lens onto the nerve cells that led to the brain. After reading the leaflet on macular pucker she gave me, I feel relatively certain that this is my problem since it describes as one of its primary symptoms a tendency to see straight lines, like in a lamppost that appears as slightly wavy. The other symptom maps much more to cataracts, which is an inability to see fine print. The first time I noticed this was in an eye exam about four or five years ago when I could not make out the inner three letters in a string of five letters on an eye chart. “a z q w d” would appear as “a * * * d”.

Fortunately for me and the rest of the human race, we see through both eyes and not separately like a lobster or a flounder. When I have my glasses on, I can read perfectly well. I am holding out for the possibility that the pucker will not get worse on my left eye and not ever show up on my right eye. From what I have seen on the Internet, this just might be the outcome—the best that I can hope for unless I get surgery on my left eye. Since getting a macular pucker scraped or peeled (the terms used by eye surgeons) is a fairly invasive procedure done when you are awake and since it only leads to a total recovery in only about 25 percent of cases, this is something I would prefer not to have done. The general consensus of the medical profession, including my doctor, is that if you can get by without surgery, you should.

After I got home, I began wondering if this is what Spalding Gray was suffering from, as described in his monologue “Gray’s Anatomy”. When I first learned about Cynthia’s problems, my curiosity arose over how he overcame his illness, which involved the macula. Surely, it could have not been macular degeneration since surgery is not an option. Sure enough, after picking up “Gray’s Anatomy” from the Columbia Library, I learned that this is exactly what he had.

(I should also mention that I learned about another more serious ailment involving the macula just today. It appears that Glenn Beck has been diagnosed with something called macular dystrophy, a rare genetic condition that can lead to total blindness, perhaps within a year. Maybe because of my own precarious situation, I find myself feeling no schadenfreude over Beck’s problems, or Christopher Hitchens’s for that matter.)

Gray milked his ordeal with macular pucker for all it was worth, drawing bleak humor out of visits to the doctor and to various “new age” healers around the world. His first doctor told him that there was no harm in “alternative” therapies even though they were likely not to work.

Missing from Gray’s chronicle is any sense that the macular pucker will not inevitably lead to blindness. As a performance artist, it was necessary for him to draw out all the melodrama from the situation. I also found it unlikely that he really believed that an American Indian sweat lodge or a Philippine psychic surgeon could do anything for him. As someone brought up in a Christian Science household, Gray would obviously lean in the direction of spiritual healing but the idea that sweating or prayer could remove scar tissue would strike just about everybody as preposterous, including Spalding Gray.

When the doctor tells Gray the news that he has a macular pucker in his left eye (the same as mine), he responds:

(Ahh—you laugh. All of my friends laughed when I told them that. They said, “Yeah I knew a girl in high school named Macula Pucker, and she had syphilis.”)

One of the legs of his spiritual healing odyssey is spent with a guy named Sebastian Sherborne in Oakland who supposedly healed himself of cataracts by rubbing his hands together and then palming his eyes. One gets the sense that Gray’s experience with this treatment and just about everything else of a “spiritual” nature hastened his decision to get the surgery done. He reports:

I’m riding around San Francisco rubbing my hands and covering my eyes, causing incredible problems. I’m in a bus doing it, and a little girl behind me says, “Daddy, is the bus going to crash?” I go to a Shirley MacLaine concert in San Francisco with a friend, and I’m rubbing my hands and covering my eyes, and my friend asks, “Do you really think she’s that bad?” Wherever I go, people come up beside me and ask, “Are you all right? Is there anything I can do for you?” Because I have my hands over my eyes they think I’m in despair. I’m getting a lot of attention, but my eyes aren’t getting any better. I think, How is this going to help a macular pucker? Maybe it will help something else. The thing is, I can’t stop doing it.

“Gray’s Anatomy” premiered on November 28, 1993. I can’t remember if I saw it in a theater or first saw it in the film version that came out in 1996, directed by Steven Soderbergh. I do remember, however, being utterly shaken by this harrowing story, while laughing all the way through. This was admittedly not one of the critics’ favorite Gray monologues. The San Francisco Chronicle hated it:

Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. We’re trapped at a party with a bore who insists on telling us about his operation. It’s not pleasant, but usually within a few minutes it’s possible to escape, either by running away, changing the subject or feigning a seizure.

Perhaps I am soft on Spalding Gray, but I didn’t have this reaction at all. In fact, I found “Gray’s Anatomy” just as enthralling as Harvey Pekar’s tale of battling lymphoma in “Our Cancer Year”, co-written with wife Joyce Brabner. It was also as gripping as one of my favorite Charles Bukowski stories, one that dealt with having his boils lanced as a miserable teen-ager. Now, this does not mean that I am into stories about illness. It only means that I am into Spalding Gray, Harvey Pekar, and Charles Bukowski—my three favorite writers. When news arrived about their respective deaths, I felt like I was losing a friend.

Unlike Pekar and Bukowski, Gray killed himself. When it was discovered that he had jumped off the Staten Island Ferry, it shook me to my foundations. This is what I wrote at the time. You will see a reference to my first encounter with eye problems. You will also see that I incorrectly link macular puckers to blindness, when in fact they are related to degradation–some consolation I suppose.

* * * *

Spalding Gray

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on March 12, 2004

Apparently Spalding Gray jumped off the Staten Island ferry on January 10–the last day he was seen alive. His body finally washed up from the East River on March 8. As somebody who has both seen him perform numerous times over the years and gazed into the waters from the side of the ferry on the way to Staten Island, his disappearance and death has been more on my mind than that of other deceased personalities.

Gray was a true genius. He virtually invented a new art-form in the 1970s, which combined autobiography with stage performance. Sitting at a table on a bare stage with nothing in front of him but a couple of sheets of paper, he spoke for an hour or two without interruption about important events in his life. As a story-teller, Gray was unmatched. With a flair for the telling detail and a dry self-mocking wit, he could hold an audience in the palm of his hands.

The last time I saw him perform was back in 1993 in something called “Gray’s Anatomy”. It had to do with his search for a cure for macular degeneration in his left eye, which can lead to blindness. Before opting for surgery, he tries a Filipino psychic surgeon and other “alternative” therapies. This was as much a function of fear of the knife as it was of a Christian Science upbringing that was reinforced by experiments with Eastern mysticism throughout the sixties. Stephen Soderbergh, who also directed “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and other films, made a movie of “Gray’s Anatomy” in 1996 and it is well worth tracking down. This year, when I developed a “floater” in my left eye (and then in my right) because of retinal deterioration, I thought about “Gray’s Anatomy” a lot. Fortunately, my problems were mild by comparison.

Before that, I saw “Monster in a Box” in performance, which is about his often futile efforts to turn an enormous sprawling manuscript into a novel. It too was turned into a film (directed by Nick Broomfield) that is available in video/DVD. It is a meandering but hilarious account of his various procrastinations to avoid completing the novel, which mostly takes the form of vacations to far-off spots like the USSR.

I love to tell one of Gray’s stories to friends who are as addicted to coffee as me. Since he knows that you can’t get real coffee in a Russian hotel, he brings his own with him that he brews in his room in the morning. The hotel’s ersatz chicory brew not only doesn’t taste right. It can’t help you get that first bowel movement going in the morning. When desperate members of his tour group discover that he has the real thing, they come to his room to get a “fix” that he charges a premium for.

Another bit from this performance sticks out. In attempting to explain in his own off-kilter manner why the USSR collapsed, he compares the communications system on an American battleship to its Soviet counterpart. It turns out that the Russian admiral uses an old-fashioned tube to speak to his men down in the engine-room. For Gray, that quaint but human form of communication has the same kind of charm as that expressed in objects of “Ostalgie” in the former East Germany.

The only other Gray performance I attended is not only his best known and highly-regarded but a highly acclaimed film as well (also available in video/DVD). Directed by Jonathan Demme, “Swimming to Cambodia” is the story of Gray’s involvement with the film “The Killing Fields”, in which he plays the US Consul in Cambodia. Once again, there is a passage in his narrative that has stuck with me over the years. He cites some academic study using quantitative indicators that maps abnormal human behavior to the stresses of wartime, especially involving bombardment. The study states that on a scale between 1 and 10, people begin to exhibit abnormal and destructive behavior when the stress level reaches 4. Based on all available data, the stress level reached 8 in Cambodia just around the time that the Khmer Rouge was getting off the ground. That bit of information helped me (and him) to understand the killing fields more than any article in the NY Times or the left press for that matter.

Gray spawned a number of imitators, including an ex-girlfriend who was an aspiring director before she launched a career as a performance artist. One morning I was up at my mother’s house in the country when she came on the air on Mike Feder’s show on WBAI, the local Pacifica affiliate. Her story was basically about her relationship with me and what a bore I was. All I was interested in, she complained, was radical politics. She said that despite my admiration for Cuba they would never let me into the country because I had an expensive stereo. I should mention that her venues are church basements generally.

Feder, I should add, did the same sort of thing as Gray, but not nearly as successfully in professional terms. Gray’s persona is New England and waspish, while Feder is the quintessential neurotic NY Jew. Over the years, his shows have been filled with complaints about how he hasn’t been able to “make it”. That being said, I consider him one of the more interesting figures on WBAI and an exception to the “preaching to the choir” monotony that prevails. Even though it is good that the network resisted the Nation Magazine-supported takeover, they still have a long way to go to reach the level of professionalism and creativity that was on display through most of the 1980s.

As most comrades know, I have agreed to review fiction for swans.com. As anxious as I am to read a good novel, the pickings are rather slim. Over the past couple of months, I have begun reading one or another recent work, but have put them aside because they lacked one basic element, namely interesting characters. What made Gray’s work memorable was his ability to convert his own confused and futile search for a meaningful life into something that engaged your mind and your heart. He was the ultimate character. Even though I never met him or spoke to him, I really feel like I have lost a friend.

July 18, 2010

Barry Sheppard, Peter Camejo, and the role of the revolutionary party

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm

Unless you are a member of the tiny SWP (reported to be about 125 members) or part of their formal supporter’s network, made up mostly of burned out ex-members, you will agree that the collapse of this once powerful left group is of Hindenburgian dimensions. Such a spectacular fall has been the subject of books and articles, both on and off the Internet. I have probably written about 150 pages on the topic including some material that was transformed into a chapter in a comic book memoir done in collaboration with the sorely missed Harvey Pekar.

My memoir is played mostly for laughs, but it shares the analysis found in Peter Camejo’s “North Star” and the article on democratic centralism by Joaquin Bustelo posted to this blog yesterday, namely that Marxist-Leninist “vanguardism” is to blame. There is something in this party-building cookbook dating back to the early 1920s that leads to sect and cult formation. It led not only to the collapse of the SWP but literally hundreds of other Trotskyist and Maoist groups that once dominated the political scene in the 60s and 70s. From the ex-Maoist perspective, Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air” covers a lot of the same terrain.

Les Evans, a leader of the SWP until his expulsion in the early 80s and editor of Peter’s memoir, bases his explanation of the demise of the SWP on the earlier traditions of “the god that failed”. In other words, it is Marxism itself to blame rather than a misapplication. Of course, there is an odd disjunction between Evans’s fear of the revolutionary party assuming totalitarian control of American society and the SWP’s self-destruction. If the SWP had 25,000 members and was growing rapidly, then his updated version of Arthur Koestler might make sense. But one senses that if the SWP had ever achieved such proportions, Les Evans—always the avid careerist—would have remained a member.

Volume one of Barry Sheppard’s memoir, that covers the period from 1960 to 1973, appeared in 2005, amounting to an official history of the SWP along the same lines as the self-vindicating “History of American Trotskyism” by party founder James P. Cannon. Now, after five years, volume two has still not appeared. If it is never written, that would be understandable since the period covered would include some truly traumatic material. The organization that Barry put nearly 30 years into building has turned into a bizarre cult around Jack Barnes, the man who purged Sheppard, Camejo and Evans.

Leaving aside the psychological pain this would entail, there is also the problem of how to explain the downfall. One assumes that given Barry’s critique of Peter’s memoir that he will adopt some sort of bad seed analysis that was broadly accepted by the older generation of SWP leaders who went into opposition against Barnes in the early 80s. Rather than a structural analysis, it stresses Barnes’s character flaws that were exacerbated by a decline of the mass movement in the post-Vietnam war era.  Frank Lovell, a courageous and principled SWP dissident who took on Barnes and who died in 1998, put it this way:

Some SWP members who were closely associated with Barnes became suspicious of him and thought they detected signs of psychosis in the early 1980s. It was clear at that time that he had serious character defects, but it was not until the end of the decade that his pontifications on events of the day indicated a break with reality. At precisely what point the cult complex became the general characteristic of the SWP is not easily determined, but the degenerative process paralleled the decline in party membership and the gradual shrinking of its periphery. Throughout the decade of the 1980s its influence in the radical movement, especially among Latin American support groups and within the so-called anti-imperialist movement, gradually dried up.

In other words, if the SWP had a leader who was not psychotic, like Barry Sheppard perhaps, it would have had a different fate. Of course, the more interesting question is why Trotskyism keeps breeding such nutty leaders. The American SWP and the British Socialist Labor League were defenders of “orthodox” Trotskyism against the dicey liquidationist tendencies of the “Pabloite” Ernest Mandel wing of the Fourth International in the 1950s and both ended up with madmen at the helm. In the case of the SLL, you had Gerry Healy—a sexual predator who accused friend and foe alike of being CIA agents.

But craziness was not limited to the Cannonite wing of the FI. In Latin America, you had one J. Posadas (nee Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli) who advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the USA by the USSR and who believed that UFO sightings confirmed the existence of a higher civilization—communist, to be sure—on other planets.

Trotskyism does not have a monopoly on bizarre cult formations if you’ve ever come in contact with Robert Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party or any number of tiny “Marxist-Leninist” groups seeking to emulate Lenin’s party in the same way that a mental patient declares that he is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Barry Sheppard’s review would surely be of interest to the members of the ISO whose Haymarket Press has published both his and Peter’s memoir. When Barry spoke at the Brecht Forum in NYC in 2005, I ran into some ISO members who told me that they were studying the SWP carefully both in terms of its successes and as a cautionary tale of what to avoid. Barry had clearly earned their respect, as had Peter Camejo who had been a keynote speaker at their conferences and who worked closely with their members in the Green Party.

It would also be of interest to the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia, a group that has been moving cautiously away from Cannonite orthodoxy so much so that they endured a split not too long ago by members who would go on to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party led by John Percy. Percy and his late brother Jim were founding members of a group that worked closely with the American SWP and who would agree with Barry that the problems of the SWP have nothing to do with its Cannoite roots. Indeed, it is those roots that must be returned to, which for Jim Percy and Barry Sheppard amount to something like the Garden of Eden legend. Before the leaders of the DSP and the SWP ate from the forbidden fruit of anti-Leninist liquidationism, everything was good. Now it is bad.

Barry begins by defending the older Trotskyist cadre against Peter’s charge that they were nervous about the party’s drift in the 1960s and 70s. Peter wrote:

Many of the older members opposed our support for what they saw as contemporary issues, such as gay liberation, and in general were nervous that the SWP might abandon its roots in Trotskyism and begin to alter its ‘program.’

Barry rejects the idea that the older, working class leaders of the SWP were nervous about the middle-class youth who had come into its ranks. In their defense, he points to their embrace of Malcolm X, the Cuban Revolution and many other struggles of the 1960s that were unlike the 1930s trade union struggles they participated in.

To an extent this is true, but Barry must have forgotten how the entire party leadership—including him—saw the “turn toward industry” as the end of a detour. In the late 1970s, some stirrings in the trade union movement that Farrell Dobbs always referred to as “heat lightning” were taken as a green light to reorient the party toward its historic roots. The 1960s social struggles would not be abandoned—thank goodness—they would just be conducted through the trade union movement. In other words, the older SWP leadership did not have a hostile attitude toward Black Nationalism, etc. as was the case with the Spartacist League. That is true enough. It had only decided that they would be fighting for these causes in a new arena, this despite the fact that the trade union movement as a movement was practically non-existent.

Barry is also troubled by Peter’s understanding of program, something that is put in scare quotes for a good reason in the quotation above. Barry explains his differences with Peter this way:

Peter makes some correct generalizations: “Not only is a political program an evolving concept, but it requires continuous discussion and debate in order for it to be effective. And it must, most important of all, be tested against reality. In other words, the program of an organization trying to bring justice to the world must be a process rooted primarily in the living mass struggles of the people.” But his next sentence reads, “It is not a written document put together by intelligent people in the past.”

Marxist written documents “from the past,” beginning with the Communist Manifesto, are essential to understand the present and to effectively intervene in it. The “living mass struggles” of the present grow out of those of the past. The written programmatic documents of Marxism are rich with the lessons of these past struggles. They do show development of course, since they reflect changing reality, but they also provide continuity. Neither reality nor Marxist theory (program is another word for theory) is always just coming into existence independent of the past.

Well, Barry is simply wrong—that is, at least if he is trying to define how program was understood in the SWP when we were both members. It was not another word for theory, nor was it understood as literature like the Communist Manifesto being “useful” for understanding the present.

Instead, the program was synonymous with a virtual encyclopedia of historical and international positions that people were recruited to. If you were around an SWP headquarters in the 1960s and 70s when young people were joining by the dozens each month, you clearly understood that program of the SWP rested on these foundation stones:

1. Permanent revolution: Trotsky’s belief that only socialism could fulfill the tasks of the colonial revolution in the epoch of imperialism.

2. The USSR as “degenerated workers state”, with such ancillary categories as “deformed” and “healthy”. One might feel as if you had wandered into a clinic when you heard such terms bandied about.

3. A ton of other positions that flowed from these, including what position to take on the internecine struggles in Angola, the character of the FLN in Algeria, the Kronstadt revolt, etc. Once you had developed the ability to articulate a forceful defense of the party positions on such questions in public, you were a cadre.

Peter came to the conclusion after many years that such “programmatic” considerations were not only unnecessary but also harmful. In my discussions with him in the early 80s, he stressed over and over the need to focus like a laser beam on the problems facing us in the American class struggle and to develop an idiom that would be understood by the American people. Indeed, this is the reason he did not get involved in the futile attempts by Frank Lovell et al to defend the SWP “program” against Jack Barnes’s supposed Castroite deviations (sigh, if that were only the case.) When I told him in one of our initial phone calls that I was upset about the rejection of permanent revolution, he said, “Louis, of course you are right to be upset. Trotsky was correct. But the issue is Trotskyism, not Trotsky.”

Rather than come to terms with Peter’s party-building ideas that have been articulated in various places in “North Star” and in articles like “Against Sectarianism” and “Return to Materialism”, Barry sets himself up as the defender of Marxism against Peter, who is portrayed as some kind of pragmatist. While Barry’s tone is not as vitriolic as James P. Cannon’s or Leon Trotsky, one cannot escape feeling that he is reenacting the Shachtman-Burnham fight.

Peter’s position appears to reject the basic program of Marxism. He writes that Marx was right on many things. “Marx said human history can be understood like any other scientific process,” he says. He goes on to list other positive aspects of Marx’s thought. “Marx raised the idea that humans can transcend the brutality, violence, and abuse that have characterized most of human society for at least the past few thousand years. He laid out a view that attempted to tie society’s past evolution to how it might evolve in the future.”

Peter nowhere affirms Marx’s program, and appears to reject it by omission. That is, he rejects much more than the SWP’s program. In the place of program and theory he presents an agnostic view: “The science of social change is permanently evolving. We will learn what works – that is what is ‘true’ – by the inevitable conflict of ideas and by testing those ideas against reality.” What “works” is what is “true” – a restatement of American pragmatism. We don’t yet know what “works,” including Marx’s program, Peter seems to be saying.

Well, thank goodness Peter did not “affirm” Marx’s program. That was not the kind of book he intended to write. On the idea that “the science of social change is permanently evolving”, one can only demand that Barry offer proof that somehow Peter’s politics reflected a departure from Marxism. At least when Cannon and Trotsky were flaying James Burham and Max Shachtman, they could at least point out how they had adapted to liberal public opinion on Stalin and the looming world war. They could also document Burnham’s open embrace of non-Marxist philosophy. But to turn “North Star” into something like “The Managerial Revolution” is rather silly.

In Peter’s case, all you have is a declared need to test ideas against reality. Now Barry is welcome to interpret this as philosophical pragmatism, but I see it as a useful reminder to avoid the screwball hothouse atmosphere of groups like the SWP that believed that the late 1970s—the era of trade union decline, disco, cocaine, and student apathy—was ushering in a period of mounting class struggle that would lead to a bid for power. It was the disjunction between the reality of American society and the SWP’s millenarian posturing that finally led me to resign in 1978. My only regret is that it took me so long to wake up to reality. That, of course, is a common complaint of former cult members.

Finally I will say a few words about Barry’s reference to Peter’s allegation that Ernest Mandel and other European Trotskyists backed the Simon Bolivar Brigade in Sandinista Nicaragua, a sectarian formation loyal to Nahuel Moreno, a former ally of the SWP. Barry presents solid evidence that this was not the case. Barry has no explanation for why Peter might have made such an allegation other than the fact that he was ill with cancer when writing the book and very likely had a memory lapse.

I can understand how illness and old age can weaken one’s memory and intellectual powers. I am 65 myself with declining eyesight.

One can only wonder if Barry has been coping with declining memory as well, given his characterization of how Peter found himself outside the SWP. In his review, he states, “Peter left the SWP in 1981.” Now, for most people this means that he left voluntarily as was the case for most people back then, including me.

But in another account, he writes:

In 1981 Peter went on a visit to Venezuela. While he was absent, a meeting of the SWP national committee was held. At that meeting, we were told that Peter had resigned from the party. I didn’t find out until some years later, after I had left the SWP, that this was an outright lie, orchestrated by Barnes, who had always been jealous of Peter’s popularity with the party membership. Over the next years in the 1980s, most of the central leaders were forced out.

This doesn’t sound much like “leaving” in my estimation. But I won’t hold that against Barry. I will only assume that he meant to write something more like this in his review and simply forgot what really happened. My only hope is that he can summon up the energy and the courage to finish volume two of his memoir. The debate over party-building is of intense interest to young activists everywhere and his views are essential to this debate, even if they are wrong.

July 17, 2010

About Her Brother

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

This year I was initially disappointed to discover that the New York Asian Film Festival had gone upscale. No longer would the movies be shown at the funky Anthology Film Archive on East 2nd Street, but at Lincoln Center. Half in jest, Subway Cinema—the long-time organizers of the NYAFF—described the move as “selling out”.  The move to Lincoln Center would have been okay with me as long as I was still on Subway Cinema’s a-list. Unfortunately the relocation coincided with some kind of restructuring at Subway that ended up with me being deleted from their mailing list—and hence without press privileges. I suppose that I could have made some phone calls to be reinstated but it hardly seemed worth the effort given this year’s program which puts the final touches on a trend that has been developing for some time now.

Basically, Asian film—especially from Japan—has become more and more influenced by anime, the comic book style that emphasizes lurid subject matter, campiness, kitsch and a shallow punk sensibility. This 2010 NYAFF feature called Death Kappa is typical. From the NYAFF website:

A double-barreled blast of 80’s VHS nostalgia, DEATH KAPPA is the ultimate lo-fi giant monster movie. Produced by the same evil geniuses who made MACHINE GIRL, DEATH TRANCE and TOKYO GORE POLICE, it’s directed by Tomoo Haraguchi, a special effects and creature craftsman who did the effects on Kore-eda’s AIR DOLL as well as spiral-madness motion picture, UZUMAKI, and even GAMERA 3. It stars Misato Hirata, famous for her appearances on Ultraman, and the teeny tiny miniature cities pancaked under giant monster feet are courtesy of Isao Takahashi, veteran of almost every major kaiju movie since GODZILLA ’85.


Last week Bill Thompson, my co-worker in the financial systems team at Columbia and a curator of Asian films at Bleecker Street Cinema in the 1980s, left a brochure on my desk for a festival of new movies at the Japan Society in New York, an event that I still had press credentials for. A quick glance revealed the same kind of fare as NYAFF, such as Mutant Girls Squad that was described thusly:

In 2009, Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) and Noboru Iguchi (RoboGeisha), came to the New York Asian Film Festival, got drunk and decided to make a movie together. The result: this splatter-ific, kick-tastic, raunchy riff on the X-Men movies. It takes three directors to make a movie this messed up.

Yeah, I’ll bet it is quite messed up.

When I saw Bill on Thursday I confessed my disappointment with the programs at both festivals, something he understood completely. But thankfully he tipped me off to a movie by 79-year-old director Yoji Yamada that would be shown on Friday night. Yamada is one of my favorite directors and I would go to see anything he made, including one starring Adam Sandler.

At first blush About Her Brother would appear to be something off the beaten track from Yamada who is best known for his Samurai Trilogy. The Japan Society website described it as the reunion of middle-aged sister and brother Ginko and Tetsuro. When Tetsuro, “an actor with a stalled career and a penchant for drinking, jeopardizes the marriage of Ginko’s daughter, she must take the necessary steps to disown him.” Not a likely place for sword duels. Bill explained to me, however, that it was the samurai movies that were the departure for Yamada, whose previous movies were much more like “About Her Brother”.

After having seen About Her Brother, it dawned on me that on a higher level all the movies were consistent with each other, regardless of sword fighting and feudal values since they all deal with the problems of family life, especially in a period of economic decline.

As I have stated about the Samurai Trilogy, Yamada—a one-time Marxist who has retained sympathy for society’s underdogs—viewed the warrior class as the exploited victims of a feudal system rather than as dashing supermen.  From my review of Twilight Samurai, the first in the series:

Seibi is a lowly 50-koku samurai, which means that he gets an annual stipend of rice that can feed 50 people (a koku is equal to five bushels.) This is insufficient to support himself, his two daughters and his elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. (His wife has died of consumption, brought on obviously by poverty.) Forced to make ends meet, he spends every free moment tilling his fields or making cages for the crickets that were kept as pets in Shogunate households. A combination of exhaustion and depression has taken its toll on the lowly samurai. His fellow workers notice that he has body odor and that his kimono is frayed at the edges. When a high-level commissioner conducts an inspection of the palace warehouse, he instructs Seibei to take a bath and mend his clothes. Afterwards, his boss bawls him out.

We first meet the wayward brother Tetsuro from Osaka at the wedding scene in About Her Brother. He has decided to crash the wedding in Tokyo despite Ginko’s decision to keep him as far away from the event as possible. The last time he attended a festivity he drank himself silly and caused embarrassment for the family, an obvious taboo for a Japanese society fixated on propriety.

After promising that he will stay away from the booze, Tetsuro is admitted into the banquet hall where he proceeds without delay to get drunk once again. He staggers to his feet, approaches the dais, and warns the groom that if he ever cheats on Ginko’s daughter Koharu, he will beat him up. Things get worse from that point, climaxing with Tetsuro toppling a banquet table, scattering dishes to the floor. The groom blames his bride’s family for ruining the event and his parents accuse Koharu for introducing bad DNA into their future bloodlines.

It turns out that the groom’s family would have nothing to worry about since the marriage would end before the year was up. The groom, a wealthy doctor, refuses to pay Koharu for driving lessons. He believes that she should have seen learning to drive as preparation for marriage. Not only is he cheap, he is cold. When Koharu insists on sorting out their many differences, he tells her he is too busy at the hospital for a face-to-face and asks her to send him email.

When Ginko learns about the foundering marriage, she sets up a meeting at the hospital with the doctor who keeps looking at his watch and answers a cell phone call despite the seriousness of the matter. At some point the question of Ginko’s finances comes up. She inherited her husband’s pharmacy that is losing money to the competition from big chain stores, the Japanese equivalent of CVS. The doctor says that this is progress and she should expect to go out of business eventually. It is clear that Yamada would see such a cold and self-centered character as embracing the crushing of small businesses.

It is also clear that he would make sure to include signs of Japanese economic crisis, a force that undermined a pharmacist’s family today just as the decline of feudalism would put pressure on a samurai’s family in the 1800s. In many of the street scenes, we see homeless people carrying their belongings in a shopping cart. In one scene, the visiting Tetsuro strolls along a Tokyo river and runs into a man living in a shack. Watch out for the rising waters Tetsuro warns him that the previous day’s heavy rains might bring.

Tetsuro himself is only one step ahead of the homeless man. A failed actor in his middle ages, he makes a living frying octopus in a restaurant. Despite his marginal existence, he is a victim of costly vices—drinking and gambling. After he borrows the equivalent of about $20 thousand from his girl friend in Osaka, he throws it all away on booze and pachinko games. The girl friend then shows up at Ginko’s home expecting his older sister to make good on the debt, which she does.

When Tetsuro shows up soon afterward, Ginko tells him that she is done with him. Tetsuro, who has the alcoholic’s incapacity for self-awareness, tells her that she should have ignored his girl friend that he describes as a worthless person. This provokes the normally self-contained Ginko to slap her brother in the face. He storms out telling her that she does not understand what it is like to go through life as a loser, the first sign that the alcoholic haze is lifting.

This is a spoiler alert. Read no further if you do not want to know about the final third of the movie that is critical to my analysis even though it might rob you of the pleasure of being surprised at the brother and sister’s reconciliation.

Not long after Tetsuro returns to Osaka, he falls ill on the street and is taken to a nearby hospital where doctors discover that he is incurably ill with a cancer that has spread throughout his body. He is accepted into a hospice where he will die within a few months. After Ginko learns of his fate, she goes to Osaka and does everything she can to provide moral support until he dies. After being rebuffed initially, Tetsuro accepts his sister’s compassion and love.

The final scenes in the hospice deal more graphically with the final act of life, which is death of course, than anything I have seen in a movie in years. There is no attempt to gloss over the suffering that Tetsuro endures. Despite his misspent life, you feel hollowed out by his passing that was clearly Yamada’s intention. By making this unlikeable wastrel the focus of the audience’s sympathies, he assumes the highest levels of artistic achievement. This is a movie that will eventually be seen as the equivalent of Akira Kurosawa’s To Live, a tale of a dying man who is redeemed by his selfless devotion to other people. By the miracle of art, Yamada transforms a flawed character into an object of wonder even though his flaws remain with him to the end. In keeping with the dark humor of this most powerful and realized film, Tetsuro asks his sister to fill his feeding tube with a water bottle beneath his bed that turns out to be filled with booze.

Since Yoji Yamada is one of Japan’s most respected directors, it is likely that About Her Brother will come to the USA before too long. It is not to be missed.

Barry Sheppard reviews Camejo memoir

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

(I will be responding to this–probably tomorrow.)

Barry Sheppard

“North Star – A Memoir” by Peter Camejo, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2010

By Barry Sheppard

This book by Peter Camejo, who was an important figure in the radicalization of “The Sixties” and beyond, up to his untimely death in 2008, should be read by veterans of the socialist movement and wider social causes. It also should be read by new activists thirsty for understanding of previous struggles in order to better equip themselves for present and future battles.

Also, the book is a good read. The first chapter is set in 1979, out of chronological order from the rest of the book. It explains how the CIA attempted to get Peter arrested in Columbia, on a leg of a speaking tour in South America. If he had been imprisoned there it is possible that he would have been “disappeared.” Without giving away the story, Peter escaped this fate through an unlikely intervention, quite a tale in itself.

As Peter explains, the two of us met each other in college, collaborated and then joined the Socialist Workers Party at the same meeting in Boston in November 1959. I was 22 and Peter 20. We became leaders of the party’s associated youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance. In 1960 and 1961 a dispute over the Cuban Revolution broke out in the SWP and YSA. The majority in both groups supported the Revolution and its leadership (with criticisms). Peter and I supported the majority position, and became its primary spokespersons in the YSA. As a result, I became the national chairman and Peter the national secretary of the YSA and we moved to New York. Soon, along with others from a new generation, we joined with people from older generations in the leadership of the SWP.

Peter left the SWP in 1981. After that he remained active in promoting various attempts to rebuild the American left culminating in his running as the Green Party candidate for governor of California in 2002 and 2003, and then as independent candidate Ralph Nader’s running mate in the Presidential elections of 2004.

His experiences as a leader of the YSA and SWP, and his subsequent activities, form a major part of his memoir. In this review I will concentrate on this aspect of his memoir. There are three political threads that run through the book. One is that social change comes about through the action of masses of people. Related is the theme that attempts to circumvent mass action by the activities of small groups engaging in what they think of as “exemplary” actions of a few are an obstacle to social change. Two variants of this viewpoint are ultraleftism and sectarian abstention. The third theme is the need to break from the stranglehold of the parties of “money” as Peter puts it, the Democrats and Republicans.

Peter’s experiences as a leader in the anti-Vietnam-War movement are vividly portrayed. One is his speaking before a crowd of 100,000 on the Boston Common as a spokesperson of the Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam as part of the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium. There is a gripping account from a political opponent from the Democratic Party describing how Peter was by far the best received speaker of the day. In fact, Peter was the best public speaker of our generation in the SWP and YSA, and, I think, of the youth radicalization as a whole.

Peter had moved from New York to Berkeley, California in late 1965, at the request of the SWP and YSA. The San Francisco Bay Area had become a center of the new student movement, and the University of California at Berkeley especially so. Peter enrolled in the University, and quickly rose as a leader of the antiwar movement and the student movement in general there.

He outlines three different perspectives that emerged in the antiwar movement. One was that the movement should orient toward the Democratic Party. The Communist Party put forward this perspective, but also would endorse mass actions especially during periods between elections. Another was associated with the national leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, who, while calling for the first massive action in 1965, had subsequently turned their backs on mass action and increasingly championed small vanguard actions and then minority violence. The third approach, which we supported, was to further mass actions in the streets independent of both capitalist parties.

To do this, we focused on building broad antiwar formations around the “single issue” of opposition to the war. All, regardless of their political views on other questions, were welcome to join. Within such coalitions, Peter explains, we argued for taking an “Out Now!” position, calling for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. It took some years before “Out Now!” became the widely accepted goal of antiwar demonstrations.

Another key point we raised was non-exclusion. While independent of the Democrats and Republicans, we argued, the antiwar movement would welcome politicians from those parties who were against the war, on the principle that the movement had to be non-exclusionary. In practice, there were very few such politicians. It was on this basis that the large antiwar demonstrations that reached into the hundreds of thousands were organized.

An aspect of our approach was to build antiwar committees both locally and nationally by putting decision making in the hands of the activists themselves. Votes would be taken by the assembled activists after open debate. Most often our mass action perspective would carry the day, which led many others with opposing perspectives to charge that we had mechanical majorities of our own members at such meetings. But we never became anywhere near that large, although we did grow substantially during this period. Our arguments simply made sense to the majority of antiwar activists. This approach also raised the self-confidence of the participants, who became more dedicated to building the mass actions as a result.

Peter concludes that the SWP played a crucial and positive role in the antiwar movement. Peter himself was an important part of that effort.

There is a riveting chapter on what became known as “the battle of Telegraph Avenue.” This street abutted the Cal campus. In May-June 1968 there was a massive student-worker uprising in France which galvanized the world. Our young French cothinkers played an important part in these events. We organized support meetings and picket demonstrations in solidarity. In Berkeley, Peter met with other campus leaders to organize a big meeting on Telegraph Avenue. The SWP and YSA reached out to involve other organizations, but Peter was recognized as the main leader of the event.

The rally was set for June 28. The Berkeley City Council voted down the organizers’ request to shut down a short stretch of the Avenue next to the campus for the event. So there was agreement that the participants would stay on the sidewalks. Monitors were stationed to help keep the crowd on the sidewalks. But then the police attacked.

The students fought back as best they could. The next days and nights were marked by increased police violence, all of the city of Berkeley was placed on nighttime curfew, and mass meetings of the young people who fought against these violations of their rights to free speech and assembly. Finally, the city backed down and allowed the rally to proceed on Telegraph Avenue on July 4.

Peter’s account of how this victory was won makes for exciting reading, but more important are the lessons to be drawn. There was a big difference between the physical showdown between the mass of student protesters and the cops, and the actions of violence even bombings carried out by small groups believing they were “sparking” the mass movement. In contrast to such futile “offensive” actions, the protesters of Telegraph Avenue were defending their fundamental rights. All of their decisions were made at mass meetings after open debate. Their most important decision was to defy the city authorities by going forward to hold a rally on July 4, come what may. They knew that this could mean a violent confrontation with the police. They had already suffered casualties, and understood what this could mean. It was this resolve that forced the City Council to back down.

An important aspect of the leadership of the SWP and YSA and Peter himself was to reach out to the citizens of Berkeley, the fight for public opinion. Initially, this was against the students. But through careful tactics aimed at bringing the truth of the situation to the public, that the city authorities were trampling on rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, the mood in the city swung over to support them. The over-reaction of the police, by attacking bystanders and even people in their homes, was a factor. Police always go too far in such situations, but this truth had to made widely known.

In every way, Peter’s leadership was geared toward mass mobilization and mass action.

The third thread that runs through the book from beginning to end is the need to break from the Democratic and Republican parties. This was an aspect of our insistence that the antiwar movement be focused on independent mass actions in the streets not subordinate in any way to the twin parties of “money.” It was projected in the small example set by SWP election campaigns, from the first one Peter and I participated in, Farrell Dobb’s 1960 Presidential campaign with Myra Tanner Weiss as his running mate, through Peter’s own campaigns for the mayor of Berkeley, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, and his 1976 campaign for President with running mate Willie May Reid. After he left the SWP, Peter supported the independent campaigns of the Green Party, including Ralph Nader’s 2000 run for President, Peter’s own campaigns for Governor of California in 2002 and 2003, and as independent Ralph Nader’s running mate in 2004.

Peter’s last battle was to keep the Green Party independent from the Democrats, a fight which he lost at the national level as is well documented in the book, although some local Green Party groups do maintain their independence.

A comment is order here. There are some splinters of the Trotskyist movement who have attacked Peter’s support of independent Green Party election campaigns. Their argument is that the Greens are not a socialist party, nor do they have a base in the trade unions. These groups (including the rump which still uses the SWP name), say they would vote for a Labor Party if the trade unions organized one, claiming that it would be a workers’ party. They point to Lenin’s position in 1919 that the newly formed British Communist Party should vote for the Labour Party. They leave out that Lenin also said that the British Labour Party was a bourgeois party through and through, and an imperialist party to boot. He urged the young CP to vote for this imperialist capitalist party anyway, to reach out to the British workers whose trade unions had created it. The weird logic of the sectarian argument ends up urging a vote for the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, while opposing a vote for the anti-imperialist, pro-working class Ralph Nader. It is true that the U.S. Green Party is a petty-bourgeois (and thus bourgeois) party, but it is not a party of the big bourgeoisie nor is it an imperialist party. Unfortunately, on a national level it is now on a slippery slope towards supporting the imperialist Democratic Party. In many countries, the Greens have already gone over to finance capital.

A bright spot Peter points to was the 2000 campaign of Nader for President on the Green Party ticket. Tens of thousands packed Nader rallies in many cities, more than those of the two capitalist parties. These rallies were mainly young. A central aspect, evident in the shouts and applause of these young people, was their identification with the big anti-globalization demonstration in Seattle the year before. A new movement had appeared, inexperienced, new to radical ideas, but moving in an anti-capitalist direction – and full of the energy and enthusiasm of youth. Peter doesn’t mention this background to the Nader campaign, but this must be an oversight.

We both were present at the Oakland, California, Nader rally and saw these anti-globalization young people firsthand. Nader reacted to the shouts of the crowd, absorbing their energy, and his speech became more and more radical, which furthered the excitement of the audience.

This anti-globalization movement was cut short by the chauvinism and war mongering whipped up by the Bush administration, the Congress to a person, and press after 9/11. The movement continued elsewhere, but was silenced in the U.S. This was the major factor in the success of the subsequent Democratic Party anti-Nader campaign that reached into the Green Party itself. Figures like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Media Benjamin and Michael Moore capitulated. Not content with only their ideological campaign, the Democrats launched a series of despicable dirty tricks to keep the Nader-Camejo ticket off the ballot. This part of Peter’s book graphically explains the obstacles we face in breaking the two-party stranglehold.

Peter writes that in 1984 he made a “major political mistake” in supporting the campaign by Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party Presidential primaries. A detail that Peter omits was that after Jackson lost, Peter supported the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in the general election. After Peter left the SWP in 1981, I hadn’t had contact with him. In 1984, I happened to be walking by a Mondale street rally in New York, and ran into Peter, who handed me a vote Mondale leaflet. This seemed to me at the time to validate charges by the SWP leadership that Peter had moved way to the right.

Later, Peter and I talked about this. He said he wrongly supported the Mondale campaign as part of his tactic of trying to work within Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in hopes that it would lead to a mass break with the Democrats. Peter writes “This error on my part lasted until I came to my senses and realized that, with few exceptions, the Rainbow Coalition was just another name for keeping progressives in the Democratic Party.”

An important appendix is a short essay on the origins of the two-party system, going back to the foundations of the United States, and up through the Civil War and beyond. He shows that in fact the present Republican and Democratic parties emerged from a single party, the Republicans, after the Civil War. This appendix should be reprinted as a pamphlet for the new generations who will become radicalized in the future.

There is a chapter on how Peter became a stockbroker, and how he helped set up a firm, “Progressive Assets Management.” The idea was that Peter would invest money for those who didn’t want to invest in firms doing business in apartheid South Africa, polluters, and so forth. There was an element of self-deception in this undertaking, as the control of the economy by financial capital makes it virtually impossible to know where investments go, except for some start-ups like solar power firms. This chapter is interesting, however, in explaining the obstacles the powers that be put in the way of Peter’s progressive projects. His outline of how workers’ pension funds are controlled by capital is revealing.

When my companion, Caroline Lund, and I reconnected with Peter it was after we had left the SWP some years earlier. We had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was in the early 1990s when we first talked. In discussing what had happened to the SWP, Peter said that the fundamental question was that the program of the SWP was wrong. Since this theme is a major one in his book book, and since I disagree with him, I will take this up in some detail, both to disclose my bias and to explain Peter’s views in the latter part of his life more clearly.

Peter told me this disagreement represented a “profound difference” between us. I agree.

Peter writes, “With the rapid growth of the SWP and YSA during the antiwar movement, an ideological crisis had manifested itself within the SWP. The older, primarily worker-based segment of the party had grown concerned that the SWP would be changed by its newer members, most of whom were middle class youth. Many of the older members opposed our support for what they saw as contemporary issues, such as gay liberation, and in general were nervous that the SWP might abandon its roots in Trotskyism and begin to alter its ‘program.’”

This is wrong on several counts. A minor distortion is the assertion that our newer members “were middle class youth.” Most of our recruits in this period had come from the campuses, were students. Students come from all classes, from the bourgeoisie like Peter, from “middle class” families (working farmers, small business people, lawyers, self-employed and so forth) and from blue and white collar workers. After the Second World War, there was an explosion in education which drew in millions from working class families. Most of our recruits came from this latter section which was the majority among students, but we recruited from all these backgrounds.

To Peter’s main point. The “worker-based” older cadre had come to grips with analyzing the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions prior to the radicalization of “The Sixties” but which greatly influenced our generation. These revolutions had come to power under Stalinist leaderships, something which our program had deemed extremely unlikely. The SWP modified its program accordingly. A new challenge was the Cuban Revolution, unfolding as Peter and I joined the SWP, which was led by non-Stalinist but not socialist forces (they became socialists in the course of the Revolution). Our program was further modified as we embraced the Cuban Revolution, an important context of the youth radicalization.

Our fundamental strategy and tactics in the antiwar movement (well explained by Peter) were first developed by the “older, primarily worker-based” party leadership, and which the younger leaders then also helped shape. It was the older comrades who developed the party’s positive appreciation of Black Nationalism against the opposition of almost all other socialist tendencies, and developed a far-reaching program for the Black liberation movement. It was younger leaders who analyzed the world-wide youth revolt, developed a new program in relation to it, with enthusiastic support of the older comrades. The same was true of the new women’s liberation movement. The younger members and leaders had the full support of the older comrades in all of these “contemporary” issues.

Opposition to our embracing of the new issues of the 1960s radicalization did develop in the party and YSA. This came not from the older comrades (with one or two exceptions) but from a small minority of the newer members, who did charge that the party was abandoning its program. This was a reflection among our student recruits of outside forces, especially the national leadership of the Student for Democratic society, who did turn their backs on the youth radicalization in a “workerist” direction. This small minority of our student youth was soundly defeated in the SWP and YSA.

There was some opposition to our fully embracing the gay liberation movement from some older comrades and some younger ones, too. This had nothing to do with fearing for our program, but was an expression of prejudice, pure and simple, in the wider working class at the time.

These examples and others refute Peter’s assertion, and a later one that the party’s program was “rigid.”

Peter makes some correct generalizations: “Not only is a political program an evolving concept, but it requires continuous discussion and debate in order for it to be effective. And it must, most important of all, be tested against reality. In other words, the program of an organization trying to bring justice to the world must be a process rooted primarily in the living mass struggles of the people.” But his next sentence reads, “It is not a written document put together by intelligent people in the past.”

Marxist written documents “from the past,” beginning with the Communist Manifesto, are essential to understand the present and to effectively intervene in it. The “living mass struggles” of the present grow out of those of the past. The written programmatic documents of Marxism are rich with the lessons of these past struggles. They do show development of course, since they reflect changing reality, but they also provide continuity. Neither reality nor Marxist theory (program is another word for theory) is always just coming into existence independent of the past.

Peter’s own history attests to this. Peter didn’t invent the need to break with the Democrats and Republicans. He learned this from the program of the Socialist Workers Party. His book has a chapter on Stalinism. He was taught to understand Stalinism by the SWP, which based its understanding on the programmatic work done by Trotsky. When Peter and I joined the SWP the two larger socialist groups, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, rejected the need to break with the Democrats and rejected Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. The “single issue” and mass action perspective of the SWP in the antiwar movement was an adaptation of the united front tactic developed by the early Communist International, codified in “written documents.” What Peter learned about Malcolm X from the SWP was developed from “written documents” of the Bolsheviks on the national question. And so forth.

Peter’s position appears to reject the basic program of Marxism. He writes that Marx was right on many things. “Marx said human history can be understood like any other scientific process,” he says. He goes on to list other positive aspects of Marx’s thought. “Marx raised the idea that humans can transcend the brutality, violence, and abuse that have characterized most of human society for at least the past few thousand years. He laid out a view that attempted to tie society’s past evolution to how it might evolve in the future.”

Marx wasn’t the first to raise that society can transcend the present order. All socialists before Marx believed this, and were devoted to the cause of the working people and the oppressed. Marx’s unique contribution was his program of how this will (not “might”) come about. He didn’t “attempt” to do so, he did so. His program in its essence is that the modern working class which capitalism has produced is in an irreconcilable class struggle with the capitalists, and will lead all the oppressed in a revolution that will overthrow capitalist rule and take state power. It will use that state power to build over time a society without classes. To accomplish this historical task, the working class will have to develop consciousness of itself as a class and form a political party (or parties).

Peter nowhere affirms Marx’s program, and appears to reject it by omission. That is, he rejects much more than the SWP’s program. In the place of program and theory he presents an agnostic view: “The science of social change is permanently evolving. We will learn what works – that is what is ‘true’ – by the inevitable conflict of ideas and by testing those ideas against reality.” What “works” is what is “true” – a restatement of American pragmatism. We don’t yet know what “works,” including Marx’s program, Peter seems to be saying.

Peter believes, as do Marxists, that a Third American Revolution is on the historical agenda. An important part of his book is devoted to the idea that this revolution will be an extension of the first two, the War of Independence and the Civil War, which centered on the fight to extend democracy. “I am convinced the struggle will appear as a fight for democracy and will develop around very concrete issues of a defensive nature,” he writes. In the mid-1970s, as he was first developing his new ideas, Peter told me that the coming revolution will be fought around democratic demands, “not class demands.” Peter’s view is reflected in the title of his book, “North Star.” He took this term from the name of the abolitionist newspaper published by the great former slave Frederick Douglas in the fight against slavery.

Democratic demands will be very important, including the unfinished democratic tasks from the first two revolutions such as ending the continued oppression of Blacks. But so will the specific class demands of the workers, including the need for them to take state power, or there will be no revolution. The Third American Revolution will be a proletarian revolution for socialism.

The first two American Revolutions consolidated the rule of the capitalist class. The Civil War clinched this by overthrowing and expropriating the slave owning class. In class terms, the Third will overthrow the capitalist class and consolidate the rule of the working class through the formation of a democratic workers’ state and the expropriation of the capitalist class. The workers’ state will gradually move toward the withering away of all classes and the state itself.

Peter is right that we should assimilate the democratic victories of the War for Independence and the Civil War and identify with their leaders. But our American revolutionary heritage goes beyond that. We identify with the suffragettes, the decades-long battles against Jim Crow, and their many leaders including Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B DuBois, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The first stirrings of the labor movement in the later 1880s, the IWW and the Socialist Party, the formation of the Communist Party and the SWP are also part of our heritage, as is the great labor upsurge of the 1930s. These movements threw up leaders we seek to emulate, too – and they put class demands at the center of the coming revolution. Malcolm X was moving toward socialism when he was gunned down. Martin Luther King saw at the end of his life that it was necessary to begin fighting for economic, working class demands – he was assassinated assisting striking Black waste workers.

Our generation of “The Sixties” also developed leaders and organizations of women, gays, youth, Blacks, Chicanos, socialists and more, who combined democratic and working class demands.

I realize that my reaffirmation of Marx’s view of the dynamic of class struggle under capitalism and its outcome is a minority one within the broad progressive movement and even among socialist organizations, and that many readers of Peter’s book will agree with him. This is quite true today, in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the feebleness of the labor movement in the face of the capitalist offensive, and the shrinking and divisions within the socialist movement.

All this is not say that Peter does not accept many Marxist concepts. He applies an analysis of the conflicting class forces (and fractions of classes) that have created the two-party system to great effect in his appendix on the subject. But he does not do so in relation to capitalism today and the question of what class forces will accomplish the Third American Revolution he looks forward to. We have to wait and see what “works.”

There has been a degeneration of the SWP, signs of which appeared in the 1970s, and which accelerated after 1980. Peter attributes this to Trotskyism itself, which inevitably produces sectarianism, splits and cults. He points to undoubted true examples. But there are glaring contradictions to his view. If the SWP was always inflicted with these diseases (since it undoubtedly was Trotskyist), there was no degeneration, only a continuation. The SWP that Peter and I joined was not sectarian. It certainly was not a cult of an individual. Its leadership team was composed of very independent and strong individuals, such as James P. Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Murry and Myra Weiss, George Novack, Evelyn Reed, Karolyn Kerry, Joe Hansen and many others. The European Trotskyist parties on the whole were not sectarian or cults, and aren’t to this day.

The picture of the SWP and his participation in it and the movements of the radicalization of “The Sixties” Peter outlines are positive, overall. He clearly enjoyed those days and regards them as a high point of his life. This stands in contrast to many who left the SWP and have become bitter about their own youth.

I’ve taken the space to explain my differences with Peter because they are fundamental, but in spite of these differences we remained friends. I supported Peter’s attempts to further the struggle against the parties of “money” in the 1990s and 2000s, which he explains in his book. The 2000 Nader campaign, and his own election campaigns for governor stand out. One instance I particularly remember was in his 2002 campaign. Peter had championed the cause of the undocumented workers vigorously in this campaign, as he did before and after. My companion Caroline Lund and I joined a long march of 500 such workers in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, on a cold day, which ended up in a spirited rally addressed by Peter in Spanish.

From time to time Peter would telephone me to get my opinion during these campaigns. He also would call me to check my memory of events as he was writing the book. There are factual errors that crept in, probably because he was pressed for time and did not have the opportunity to consult the written record, but most do not affect the thrust of the book. One, however, should be corrected, as it misrepresents the views of an important figure in the Marxist movement, Ernest Mandel.

During the first days of the Nicaraguan revolution, a current of the Trotskyist movement relatively strong in Latin America led by Nahuel Moreno, which had split from the Fourth International, had formed an armed column called the Simon Bolivar Brigade. The SBB entered the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, which was demographically and geographically separate from most of the country, and attempted to set up local governments there. The Sandinista leadership of the revolution was concerned, of course, and moved to expel them.

Peter writes that Mandel, a central leader of the Fourth International in Europe, supported the SBB. I was part of the FI leadership in Paris at the time, and know this is not true. The whole of the FI repudiated Moreno’s adventure. A close friend of Mandel’s in Mexico, Manuel, who was also a leader of our group there, was dispatched to Nicaragua to explain our position. It is possible that Peter confused something that had occurred years earlier during the Portuguese revolution when there was a temporary political agreement between Mandel and Moreno. However, the false picture Peter presents of Mandel’s and other European leaders’ view of the Nicaraguan revolution extends beyond the Simon Bolivar Brigade. These leaders wholehearted supported the revolution, and sent many delegations to Nicaragua to learn about it first hand and returned to build solidarity in their countries. Peter also claims that at the November 1979 World Congress of the FI, the majority of the European leaders expressed hostility to the Sandinistas. There were two resolutions on Nicaragua presented to the Congress, but both were in support of the revolution, while having a theoretical difference.

I wish Peter had checked with me on this, because I am sure that if he had he would have realized that his memory of these events was faulty.

Peter’s honesty and selfless devotion to working people and all the oppressed marked his entire conscious life, and these qualities shine through the book. When my companion, Caroline Lund, was dying of  ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2006, we held a big party for people to say goodbye to her. Peter was there, and a photo of him, Caroline and myself was taken, which I treasure and still keep. At that party Peter did not yet know of the cancer that was developing in his body, and which would take his life. Peter also spoke at Caroline’s memorial meeting, and noted that she was a very kind person. This was one of Peter’s personal qualities, too.

July 16, 2010

Separated at birth?

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

Leon Botstein in 1975, just after becoming the president of Bard College

John Turturro as Barton Fink

Critical Comments on “Democratic Centralism”

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

(Tomorrow I will post Barry Sheppard’s review of Peter Camejo’s “North Star”, to be followed by my response to Barry. As you probably know already, I am in sympathy with Peter’s party-building ideas while Barry’s tend to map to the “good old days” of the SWP before Jack Barnes turned it into a cult, at least that’s one version of what happened. This is a guest post by Joaquin Bustelo, a former member of the SWP who is in agreement with Peter. His article originally appeared in a Solidarity bulletin.)

Critical Comments on “Democratic Centralism”

By Joaquin Bustelo, Atlanta

There are several things that I disagree with in the “Draft Call for Refounding Solidarity'” platform that has been presented by 21 comrades. For the moment, however, I want to focus on just one aspect of their document, their organizational proposal, and in reality, only a few sentences, their general motivation.

And I am going to draw this out quite a bit because I think it is a very important subject that has been a focus of much informal discussion in Solidarity as long as I’ve been a member and it deserves a thorough airing.

My thesis is, quite simply, that Lenin wasn’t a “Leninist.” The pre-1917 Bolsheviks were not, as far as he understood things “a party of a new type” in the sense-that this phrase has been used on the left for decades.

Instead, the “Leninist Party” model arose after the revolution and had two main drivers, the first, trying to spread the revolution by copying the Russians, and the second being the need of the emerging Soviet bureaucracy to silence criticism and shut down independent political organization. The end result was a harmful cult of the organization that Lenin never shared.

I have held views roughly similar to what I outline here since the mid-1980s, when I resigned from the SWP. Many years later with the Internet I became acquainted with others who held similar or parallel views, and undoubtedly that influenced what I say about these questions today.

I would recommend two articles especially, “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of the Party,” by Hal Draper and Peter Camejo’s ”Return to Materialism.” Both can be found by googling the names, and in Draper’s case, it is useful to also read his earlier writings on sects, which are in the same archives as the article I mention above.

Democratic centralism and our tradition

The comrades write in their “Draft Call for Refounding Solidarity”:

The Solidarity Founding Statement correctly affirms the need to build an organization that is democratic both in making and in implementing decisions. In the tradition of the communist and Trotskyist movements from which Solidarity derives, democratically making and implementing decisions is called democratic-centralism. Many Solidarity comrades, put off by caricatures of democratic-centralism they experienced, saw or heard about, now reject the term. What matters is not the term but the concept: a collective commitment to carrying out the decisions that we make as a group.

I think the comrades are creating confusion with this. “Democratic centralism” as it has been understood and practiced on the left for nearly 90 years should be rejected. I understand this would be unacceptable to the paleo-Trotskyist component of this grouping, and of Soli as a whole, but nevertheless, it is the important to reject it and say so openly.

It is true that Solidarity “derives” “from” “the tradition of the communist and Trotskyist movements,” but it does so in a specific way. It is a break from that tradition, a negation of significant aspects of it, especially on the organization question.

I disagree with the comrades in trying to differentiate between “caricatures of democratic-centralism” and the democratic centralism “of the communist and Trotskyist movements from which Solidarity derives,” the former being bad, the latter good.

I do not think it is possible to just cleave off democratic centralism from this tradition as an organizational mechanism (and in reality a whole series of organization concepts that have to do with a group’s concept of its relationship to other groups, mass movements and its class) and not bring with it its bosom buddy, the “Leninist” party.

‘Leninism’ and ‘Guevaraism’

I hold that the entire tradition that starts with the Comintern is off-base. And especially as it applies to advanced capitalist countries today, the central concept of “building a Leninist Party” is wrong. It is wrong because it starts off on the wrong foot, viewing the party as the embodiment of an idea instead of as an expression of the actual movement of a class. In our case, we do not have now and have not had the requisite conscious class movement on a mass scale for many, many decades.

Cominternist party building was an attempt to replicate the experience of the Russian Revolution just as the countless guerrilla groups in Latin America in the 1960’s were an attempt to replicate the Cuban Revolution. Both were undertaken with very immediate, short term expectations of results. Both attempts failed, both in the years immediately following the Russian and Cuban revolution and on a larger time scale.

By now, after nearly nine decades, we must draw the conclusion that if it were possible to make a revolution by following any variant of the “classic” Russian model, it would have happened. This has been a nearly century-long experiment, a test of practice under all conceivable conditions and with thousands of attempts and more variations on the theme than even a Mozart could compose.

We should not be afraid to draw the conclusions. If The Cubans could conclude after a decade or less of experience that guerrilla warfare as a strategy or “method” (as Che called it) had proved wrong, then we should also have the courage to state the plain conclusion that has been demonstrated by nearly a century of experience: the Zinovievist strategy of building “democratic-centralist” “Leninist parties” has also shown itself to be wrong.

To those who would say “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” I would respond this isn’t a baby. There’s no such thing as an 8o-some-year-old baby. This is a corpse. It. is time to bury it.

To keep on doing the same tiling in the expectation of getting a different result, I read somewhere once, is a definition of insanity.

Lenin and ‘Leninism’

It may be objected that the Leninism the comrades want (or the “democratic centralism”) is the one originally practiced by Lenin and his friends, and not the one that came afterwards with Zinoviev and the Comintern.

But during the entire time he was building the Bolshevik current and then party, Lenin never once claimed he was doing anything particularly significant or different or innovative on the organizational front. And for most of that time he identified with the “left” (in reality, as it turned out, centrist) wing of German social democracy led by Kautsky. And even as late as 1915 or 1916 he was defending the “centralism” (his word) of the German Social Democracy, and whether and to what degree he later differentiated Bolshevik centralism from reformist and Kautskyite German Social Democratic centralism is unclear to me.

At any rate, what is clear from this record is that Lenin did not view himself as having a separate, distinctive, counterpoised “theory of organization” from the rest of the European socialist movement and specifically its flagship party. This was true for the entire period before the Bolshevik party was in power, or at the very least, for the big majority of that period, until well into World War I.

Even his famous dispute with the other Russian current closest to Bolshevism, the (pre-1917) Trotskyists, focused not on the organizational norms or functioning of the party, but on whether a common workers party could be built together with the Mensheviks. And, to bring that sort of differentiation to our days, it would be the same as a dispute on whether we could build a common organization with those, like the CPUSA, who have a strategic orientation to reforming the Democratic Party or organizing within it.

There have been efforts to depict this Lenin-Trotsky pre-1917 dispute about being in essence a dispute on the party, that Trotsky didn’t “get” Lenin’s concept of what kind of party to build. I think this is wrong.

It was about the politics, specifically, political independence from the bourgeoisie. Trotsky was mushy-soft on this being a core principle of the party, a line of demarcation between those who fit and those who didn’t.

The “principle” of “Democratic Centralism” is easy enough to define: democracy in decision making, unity in action. The difficulty lies in defining just what “unity in action” consists of for microscopic propaganda groups that are not really organically rooted in the working class, i.e. are not composed of the leaders or advanced elements that have emerged out of the actual class and social movements.

Typically, an attempt to “apply” democratic centralism to propaganda groups leads to everyone being forced to defend the common line “in public,” because in reality propaganda is the “action” that such groups engage in, mostly. Even the “actions” of their members inside unions and so on have mostly a propagandist’s significance at this stage. They seek to model a different approach to union leadership and activism.

For a mass workers party such as the RSDLP and later the Bolsheviks, democratic centralism means something quite different. For one thing, it has real feedback from its organic relationship to its class. A propaganda league and a mass party are qualitatively different kinds of organizations.

And if you read the actual debates and polemics where the issue of democracy and centralism in party functioning come up, you will see they have little applicability to our situation. The RSDLP was a mass parry from its foundation, a party recognized by a broad advanced layer of its class as its political expression. Many of the disputes have to do with election tactics and Lenin’s insistence that the RSDLP and later the Bolsheviks act as one force in the electoral arena, that to allow organizing and agitation by party members against the chosen tactic would completely undercut the effectiveness of the party among the masses that it sought to win over.

We are not a party

We don’t have those kinds of problems. We don’t have an advanced layer of working class fighters because we have no conscious class movement from which such a layer would arise. We are not a party, we are at best partly a propaganda league partly, partly an association of circles of activists, and the idea that we can obviate the distinction and function as if we were a party is wrong. Scale does matter, quantity does change into quality, an embryo of a few hundred cells looks nothing like a fully grown human being. And if it did look like a human at that stage, what would emerge in nine months would be a monster, not anything recognizably human at all.

One can, of course, say that “democratic centralism,” or at least the centralism part of it, is a necessary part of the functioning of any voluntary group, and to the degree the group is democratic, then it is “democratic centralist.” For example, union members vote on a contract and if the majority approves, then the contract is accepted, and it applies to all. A girl scout troop sells cookies and if the majority votes to use the money to travel to some event, rather than buy new uniforms, that’s the way it is.

But if this is all that is involved in what is being put to us by the “Refounding Solidarity” comrades, then it is bizarre to appeal to the Communist and Trotskyist tradition.

That tradition has associated with it a plethora of intellectual strait-jackets, gag rules, norms about when freedom of speech is in order (for a couple of months even’ couple of years, at least in theory!) and not in order (the rest of the time), and demonstrated inability to contain even minor differences within an organization.

The specifically Trotskyist side of it has been plagued by splits, expulsions and the multiplication of sects, things which have degenerated more than once into spying on comrades, using other police-state tactics, goon squads and in the case of the Stalinists even murder.

And there is no basis for separating the specifically Trotskyist tradition from the rest of it. History has shown that there is as little room even in the “healthiest” Trotskyist Leninist Party for a diversity of views as there is among the pro-Moscow Stalinists or Maoists, or as close to as makes no serious difference.

I always remember one recurring type of incident from my days in the SWP leadership that symbolizes for me one of the biggest problems with what’s come to be called Leninism. And that is when some big development would take place, and younger comrades —and disproportionately women comrades— would ask me what “we” thought of it. It happened time and again, around the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the overthrow of the Grenadian revolutionary government by the Coard faction (yes, in the name of “democratic centralism”) the Peruvian embassy “crisis” in Cuba and the subsequent Mariel boatlift, the Iranian Revolution. What do “we” think of it. That was the question. Acceptance of whatever truth was about to be revealed was assumed, automatic, unquestioned.

Moreover, left groups —especially, it seems, from the Trotskyist tradition, but not just— seem to have analyzed just about every conceivable political and social phenomenon save one: the marked tendency of “Leninism” as it has been handed down to us to produce splinters, sects and cults which rival even the most bizarre religions in their outlandishness.

The cult of the organization

Where does this come from? I believe it comes from the cult of the organization, of “The Leninist Party,” which is not just a question of how a group describes itself but of its social and political practice, how it relates to the political environment around it.

Even organizations that specifically and consciously disclaim being “the vanguard” and so on display in their interactions with other groups on the left and social/mass movement organizations, as well as through their obsessive self-absorption and in-groupishness, that they are infected with the vanguardist virus. Theirs is a Copernican system with —oh happy coincidence— their particular group as the sun at the center of it. And it becomes especially comical when you hear the comrades maintain that theirs is a really good group because they don’t have vanguardist pretensions.

However, the reality is that they may have recognized, in theory, that they’re not “the” vanguard but their practice continues to be infused with a vanguardist spirit, and especially in their relations to social movement-type organizations.

That the relationships are in. fact hierarchical, conceived of as between “higher” or “more advanced” forms or levels of organization and the rest, rather than horizontal, can be easily demonstrated.

Vanguardist practice

The (in this case) supposedly “non vanguardist” democratic-centralist group accesses in an unrestricted way the internal affairs of other organizations. For the “democratic centralist” group, every intimate detail of the life and discussions of other organizations is an open book to it, but any inquiry, sometimes even for the most trivial detail of the life of the democratic centralist group will be rebuffed. That is what I mean by a hierarchical relationship and that is at the heart of the Comintern-Zinovievist “democratic centralist” tradition, that is what makes it different from the “democratic centralism” of, for example, a chess club.

[I want to point out that obviously this has a relation with my idea posted to the NC list a few months back for an open preconvention discussion, and report, that I’ve sent the convention planning committee a proposal along these lines, and will send it or whatever variant emerges from the process to the whole NC at least a couple of weeks before our upcoming meeting so comrades have a chance to think about it before possibly being asked to vote on it.]

One of the surprising and pleasant discoveries I’ve made about Solidarity in the few years that I have been a member is that it respects the autonomy and organizational integrity of the other groups its members participate in. In the year I was assigned to the Political Committee, not once did we receive a report from Chris K. about the internal affairs of a publication he works with, nor David F. about discussions or divisions in the ATC editorial Board, nor from (in the months she was on the PC with me), from Theresa on the board meetings of an antiracist network she helps to organize.

I say I was surprised not because I had any conscious expectation in this regard when I joined Solidarity, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t focused on it on that level of organization functioning. But it is an important thing to keep in mind, for it is the antitheses of the specifically Zinovievist or Cominternist “democratic centralism,” what the “Refounding Solidarity” group calls “the tradition of the communist and Trotskyist movements.”

As some comrades can probably tell, the “refounding solidarity” grouping is essentially the “Twenty is Enough” caucus that came together around the time of the last convention and whose members started functioning as an organized caucus in the NC and perhaps other places (the summer school planning?) following that, convention.

I withdrew from it when it turned out that I had a sharply different idea of how the caucus should function in relation to Solidarity as a whole in terms of openness and transparency than the other comrades did. And I believe this question of Zinovievist “democratic centralism” and the hierarchy of relations implicit in it was part of that differentiation.

I call it “Zinovievist” because Zinoviev was the Bolshevik leader most identified with codifying it and spreading the model on the “party of a new type” around the world as head of the Communist International, and also because it is baby-simple to demonstrate that, whatever it is that made the Bolsheviks a distinctive or unique party, it was not that it was built with a conscious model of a party of a new type in mind and in this sense Lenin’s party wasn’t a “Leninist” party.

Lenin and the ‘party of a new type’

As an experiment, I googled “party of a new type” (the catch phrase is often attributed to Lenin) on marxists.org to try to find when he had said it and how-he used it. I found dozens of references, especially in the prefaces and footnotes to Lenin’s Collected Works, asserting that this or that passage was an example of Lenin explaining his original contribution of a “party of a new type” and also among a wide array of latter-day “Leninists,” (in the U.S., for example, encompassing a spectrum from James P. Cannon to Carl Davidson.)

Yet Google found only one place where Lenin himself used the expression, in a letter to Alexandra Kollontai from mid-March 1917 as she was about to return to Russia. The main body of the letter is an outline of some of the main ideas of the April Theses, and a request that she acquaint several comrades with a draft of a set of theses about the political situation in Russia (which I assume was a draft of the April theses). The phrase occurs in a PS, which I quote in full:

P.S. I am afraid that there will now be an epidemic in Petersburg “simply” of excitement, without systematic work on a party of a new type. It must not be a la ‘”Second International”. Wider! Raise up new elements! Awaken a new initiative, new organisations in all sections, and prove to them that peace will be brought only by an armed Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, if it takes power.

Lenin is talking about the situation in Russia a few days after the victory of the February Revolution and the removal of the monarchy. What is striking here is that the main things we associate with “a party of a new type” simply aren’t part of Lenin’s use of the phrase, his only use of it that I could find. Here clearly the contrast is with the party of the “old” type, and the text suggests to me what he means is one based on a narrow aristocracy of labor, an issue which Lenin had written on in previous months (see, for example, his article on “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” written in October of 1916). He wanted the Bolsheviks to go out and organize and draw into the organization much broader layers of working people than previously. That’s how I read it.

In the Stalinist Collected Works preface to “What is to be done?” the phrase “party of a new type” appears in quotation marks, as if it had been drawn from the text that follows. But it isn’t there in Lenin’s text. To make extra sure that some typo or trivial word change hadn’t kept me from finding the reference, I downloaded and searched the PDF version from marxists.org for the phrases “new type” “new kind” and a couple of other variants. Still nothing, but it did lead me to read what the introduction says, which is that Lenin’s spiel about a “party of a new type” in WITBD “is the origin of Lenin’s famous theory of the Party as ‘vanguard of the proletariat.'” So I searched the PDF for that phrase. Yep, you guessed it. Despite the use of quotation marks by the authors of the introduction, 1 couldn’t find that phrase or any similar one with the word “vanguard” in it in the pamphlet.

Googling “vanguard of the proletariat” on Marxists.org produced strikingly different results. There are a number of references by Lenin to the RSDLP or social democrats as the vanguard of the proletariat. As there are by Luxembourg, Kautskv, and others, from around the same time (1904-1908 in the references I saw, but I checked only a small fraction, only enough to satisfy myself that I could reliably and factually report that the idea that the revolutionary workers party is the “vanguard of the proletariat” was not at all an original one of Lenin’s).

‘Leninism’ in the Communist Manifesto

And actually I knew this would be the result before doing the search, because I know where Lenin got it, which is the same place where Kautsky and everyone else found it, and that is in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

The Communists … are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The idea of this special role of the communists in the broader working class movement comes, not from Lenin originally, but from Marx and Engels, and they were only modifying and updating concepts that were current among revolutionaries of their time and before them. But I must confess that my most favorite way of expressing the idea is the “from below” way that Marx and Engels chose — “that section which pushes forward all others.”

It is simply not true that Lenin set out with some plan for a “party of a new type,” just as it is not true that Fidel in 1956 carried out the Granma expedition based on the idea that a guerrilla foco would gradually change subjective conditions in Cuba to make revolution possible, which is the theses Regis Debray presents in Revolution in the Revolution. The development of the Bolshevik Party and the July 26 Movement and their roles in the political lives of the two countries were very complex, multidimensional processes which were later reduced to two-dimensional caricatures.

I engage in this historical digression for a reason. And that is to demonstrate how little foundation there is for the claim that Lenin set about building a “party of a new type” after realizing there was a need for a “vanguard of the proletariat.” Lenin’s idea was pretty much for a standard-issue Social Democratic party adapted to Russian conditions, which, like social democratic parties everywhere, would draw together the most advanced and conscious layers of the proletariat.

Now one very important thing to note about Marx and Engel’s conception of the Communist Party as a leading force in the working class straggle is that this did not in the slightest cause them to hesitate in dissolving the organized expression of that party, the Communist League, only a few weeks after having written those lines in the Manifesto, when a revolution broke out in Germany.

Why Communist League dissolved

Engels explains it very straightforwardly in his article “On the History of the Communist League,” simply as a function of political tasks. The old propaganda league was not suitable for the new conditions of Germany in revolution, a newspaper was a much better political instrument, so they wound up the underground League and founded the daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

Let me repeat the central concept again, because this “Leninist Party” and “democratic centralism” thing has become a religious fetish: organizational forms flow from concrete political tasks; they are not something that can be derived from first principles or adapted from some ideal model. That is the materialist, Marxist way to approach the question. That is the way Marx and Engels approached it and Lenin, too, despite everything that was written after 1917.

And if you look at “What is to be Done” and other writings of Lenin around that time on the organization question, you will see that rather than an almost-impenetrable exposition of a “party of a new type” which he never makes explicit, what you find there is a very straightforward discussion of how to organize as a function of political tasks. Organization as a function of concrete tasks, and not as the embodiment of some ideal form, is precisely how Lenin approached the question.

Many of us among the older generations of Soli members were part of “Leninist” organizations previously. I’m sure I’m not the only one who read What Is To Be Done and other writings trying to decipher just what the essence of “the Leninist Strategy of Party Building” consisted of and being befuddled and somewhat chagrined that I could not understand or really see what all these other comrades said was in these writings by Lenin, the master plan for the perfect party.

Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’ in practice

As for Lenin’s “democratic centralism” as it was actually understood and practiced, remember that Zinoviev and Kamenev on the eve of October published an article opposing the insurrectionary course the Bolsheviks were on, and in fact breaking discipline outrageously by “outing” a Central Committee resolution winch had not been published, the resolution to prepare and carry out an insurrection. Lenin denounced them as scabs, and demanded that they be expelled, especially because they had done this in the non-party press.

Lenin’s arguments are striking because he doesn’t motivate the expulsion on the basis that a higher or special or different or “new type” of discipline is required in a revolutionary workers party: quite the contrary, his basic argument is that this is a violation of the discipline required in any workers organization, and rests his case almost exclusively on an analogy with a union that decides to prepare for a strike but keeps the exact nature of the action and its timing secret for tactical reasons.

He says a member of the union leadership who then “outs” the confidential decision by criticizing it in the bourgeois press is a scab, and that Zinoviev and Kamenev should be expelled for scabbing. It wasn’t the special discipline of a “party of a new type” but the quite ordinary discipline of a workers organization preparing a surprise blow against the bosses that Lenin insisted was applicable.

But also notable is this: Lenin couldn’t get a single other member of the Central Committee to support him on this, as far as I can determine. So ingrained was the individual freedom of comrades to write and say what they thought that Lenin simply had to drop it, stop referring to “Mr. Zinoviev” and “Mr. Kamenev” as ex-comrades, and resume normal party and leadership collaboration with them.

Ex post facto template making

All this stuff about a distinctive Bolshevik “discipline” and “centralism” and so on that Lenin supposedly invented, and which all of us of a certain age were taught when we were young, were ex-post-facto attempts to turn the experience of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution into a template for other parties, just as Che’s and then a little later Debray’s writings on guerrilla warfare as a strategy represented an attempt to do the same sort of thing with the Cuban experience.

That this would happen makes perfect sense. If you see a really successful strike, the first thing the practical trade-union militant is going to say is, “let’s talk to those sisters and brothers to see how they put it together and do the same thing here.” Of course. It is only natural for that to happen.

And all the more so in the situation in Europe as World War I was ending and just afterwards. Germany and other countries were rotten-ripe for revolution. All that was needed as a proletarian party that actually had the courage of its convictions, and Lenin and his friends did everything they could to turn the Comintern into a hothouse to force the maturation of such parties. Of course they did. If they had succeeded our historical discussions about that period today would include how Debs did as chairman of the first U.S. soviet government. They’d have to have been crazy not to try it.

All the comrades in the Russian leadership were involved, but the one most directly engaged wasn’t Lenin, who was a little busy what with the civil war and the situation in Russia, and whose health was not good, but by, ironically, the “scab” Zinoviev.

That’s where the “21 conditions” and all the rest of it come from. They bear roughly the same relation to the Russian Revolution as Regis Debray’s little book, “Revolution in the Revolution” —which systematically presents the foquista variant of the guerrilla strategy, the one Che tried to apply in Bolivia— did to the Cuban Revolution.

Except that the impact of what the Russians said and did was a thousand times greater, at the very least, than the impact of the Cubans. It was the dawn of the proletarian revolution, the beginning of the final conflict, and the guys who had actually done it were saying this was how to do it. The need for a Leninist Party became as unquestioned an article of faith as the class struggle itself for that generation of revolutionists and most of the succeeding ones.

Too Russian

The one Bolshevik leader who seemed to have a problem with at least the way this was being done was Lenin, In his next to last major public speech, having already suffered one stroke, with his health rapidly declining, he apologized to the delegates for only being able to take up a small part of what he had been assigned and would have wanted to discuss. Nevertheless, he considered the mistaken organizational norms being imposed on the parties of the Communist International important enough to include them in his report to the Fourth Congress in November of 1922, even though they had little relation to the immediate subject, which was “Five Years Of The Russian Revolution And The Prospects Of The World Revolution.”

This is part of what he said:

At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. I have read it again before saying this. In the first place, it is too long, containing fifty or more points. Foreigners are not usually able to read such things. Secondly, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian-it has been excellently translated into all languages—but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And thirdly, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out. This is its third defect. I have talked with a few of the foreign delegates and hope to discuss matters in detail with a large number of delegates from different countries during the Congress, although I shall not take part in its proceedings, for unfortunately it is impossible for me to do that. I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution….

What exactly Lenin meant and how he intended to follow up on this we will never know, he was silenced before he ever had an opportunity to return to the subject. But the passage is certainly suggestive. And perhaps the most suggestive sentence is that even if the comrades from other countries could understand perfectly what they ought to do under the resolution, actually doing it was impossible.

We also know other things that were central concerns of Lenin in those waning days of his active political life, and may well have been related to his concerns about the Comintern’s national parties.

One was the nationalities policy which was chauvinist, what we would call in U.S. terms ‘”racist.” Another and very much related to it was the state apparatus, which he described in this way in the very last article he ever wrote:

Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture, that has receded into the distant past. I say culture deliberately, because in these matters we can only regard as achieved what has become part and parcel of our culture, of our social life, our habits….

Let it be said in parentheses that we have bureaucrats in our Party offices as well as in Soviet offices.

This was not the first time that Lenin had addressed this subject. A few months earlier he had told the 11th party congress:

If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can truthfully be said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed.

This is a factor that is generally not taken into account in considering the political legacy of the early Comintern. We think of it as this institution that was being led by the party of luminaries like Lenin and Trotsky. But it was also a party that at that very moment, according to its central leader, was succumbing to a vastly superior culture, the monstrously backward feudal-bureaucratic culture of tsarism.

Medieval barbarism

That this is precisely what was involved is proved beyond any doubt by the medieval barbarism and obscurantism of this emerging bureaucratic regime once it became fully consolidated. And that this was the very antithesis of Bolshevism is quite materially demonstrated by the bureaucracy’s felt need to murder the entire “old Bolshevik” layer in the mid-1930s.

So that almost from the first, what people like James P. Cannon, Max Schactman and other founding leaders of the specifically Trotskyist movement learned wasn’t the “pure” oversimplification of the Russian experience, but one already corrupted by what was in essence the tendency of the consolidating bureaucratic caste (although in this case it matters little to this argument whether you consider it a caste, class or something else) to shut down all independent political thought, freedom of speech and organization, etc., so that its usurpation would not be challenged.

That is why the appeal to return to the real, good, true “democratic centralism” of the Communist and Trotskyist tradition is mistaken. There is no such from the Comintern forward, in part because it was, from the outset, a two-dimensional caricature of a multidimensional process, and in part because from very early on, and increasingly in the very early 20’s, it was already combined with problems emerging from the growing bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet revolutionary’ process and how these then found expression even within the Bolshevik Party and its leadership.

You can see that clearly enough if you read Lenin’s Testament, dictated a few weeks after the report to the Comintern Congress that I quoted from, and his slamming Trotsky for being arrogant and too concerned with purely administrative matters and Stalin for his rudeness (in separate notes. Lenin also takes up the Georgian’s Great Russian chauvinism).

What this means is you have to go straight back to the source, to the original Bolshevik experience before the seizure of power to find the “pure,” uncontaminated and un-oversimplified “Leninism” and “Democratic Centralism.”

But when you try, you find things like a letter in English by Lenin to the secretary of the U.S. Socialist Propaganda League:

We defend always in our press the democracy in the party. But we never speak against the centralization of the party. We are for the democratic centralism. We say that the centralization of the German Labor movement is not a feeble but a strong and good feature of it. The vice of the present Social-Democratic Party of Germany consists not in the centralization but in the preponderance of the opportunists, which should be excluded from the party especially now after their treacherous conduct in the war.

The LCW says the letter was written no later than November, 1915, but apparently this is a mistake, as the group he addresses had not yet been organized and it is from a year later. No matter. Either way, it shows that at this late date Lenin drew no sharp differentiation (never mind proclaiming a “party of a new type”) between Bolshevism and the parties of the second international on the forms or principles of organization. The differentiation was about the politics.

Lenin had no special “theory” of organization

The idea that the Bolsheviks and the Internationalists should construct parties “of a new type” isn’t just absent, it is inconsistent with what Lenin writes. Lenin did not believe he had a special theory of organization at all before the seizure of power.

Contrast that with what we have been taught, for example, SWP (US) founder James P. Cannon’s article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the October revolution:

The greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895 was Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as the organiser and director of the proletarian revolution. That celebrated theory of organisation was not, as some contend, simply a product of the special Russian conditions of his time and restricted to them. It is deep-rooted in two of the weightiest realities of the 20th century: the actuality of the workers’ struggle for the conquest of power, and the necessity of creating a leadership capable of carrying it through to the end.

So unquestioned was it that this is what Lenin did that Cannon doesn’t even try to make this case. He takes it for granted that, in his audience, everyone understands at least this much, that this is really what Lenin was about, and goes from there.

But you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in Lenin’s writings before October (and perhaps even afterwards) where he makes any such claim or any statements that can reasonably be interpreted to say he had a specific organizational theory that he viewed as new or unique.

The differences were political not organizational

The differences between him and the central leaders of German Social Democracy as far as he was concerned were political: he was interested in making a revolution and they were not. There are organizational implications that flow from this, of course, because organization is a function of concrete political tasks.

That is why also it is incorrect to point to the post-1917 Bolsheviks as the “real” Leninist model. The political tasks and demands placed on a party with state power, especially in the midst of a civil war, are very, very far removed from our situation, although in fact this is largely what happened, it was the post-1917 party that Comintern sections were modeled on, not the pre-1917 party.

Thus, for example, the tradition of “internal” discussion bulletins, large central committees with politburos above them. Until 1917 there was no Bolshevik DB, political questions were debated openly in the press (which is why Kamenev and Zinoviev got away with what they did in October 1917), and the central committee varied from a half dozen to a dozen people until shortly before October, with no smaller body delegated its powers.

So, there is no magic bullet, there is no secret sauce, there is no ritual incantation, there is no patented ingredient, there is no special formula from which answers to “the organization question” can be derived. The “Leninist Party” as a distinctive contribution that Lenin made to Marxism is a myth, and the specifically “Leninist” democratic centralism is what caused immense problems and proved wanting in the XXth Century.

What we can say is that how revolutionaries organize themselves is a function of the concrete political tasks and the circumstances that they find themselves in.

And, lest we forget, perhaps the most extraordinarily successful form of revolutionary organization that the world has ever been seen, judging by its impact, was not the Bolshevik Party.

It was … a friendship. That between Marx and Engels.

Atlanta, November 7, 2005

Israeli soldiers speak out

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

July 15, 2010

Harvey Pekar interview

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

July 14, 2010


Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous,Mexico — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, Alamar, a documentary directed by Pedro González-Rubio, deals with some of the most basic relationships in existence–between father and son, and between human beings and nature. It is also an implicit call for preserving the stunningly beautiful region of Banco Chinchorro, an Eden-like home near Belize to thousands of different species and the largest coral reef in Mexico, now threatened by tourism and urbanization according to the press notes. Since much of the film’s action takes place in the waters off the east coast of Mexico, one viewing it cannot help but be reminded of the impact that the BP oil spill is having on another natural wonder to the north.

The film begins with a brief introduction to a foundering marriage between Jorge Machado, a Mexican fisherman, and Roberta Palombini, an Italian with a preference for urban life as she openly admits. Just before she returns to Rome with their five year old son Natan, she agrees to let Natan join his father on a trip to Banco Chinchorro where he will see how his father makes his living alongside an older man named Néstor Marín, nicknamed Matraca (rattle).

Jorge and Matraca introduce Natan to life on the waters, starting with the shanty-like dwelling on stilts that they share on an inlet. They own few possessions except for a motor boat, fishing tackle, some hammocks, a few other pieces of furniture, and some pots and pans. Without a single word of commentary, the movie makes a powerful point about our kinship with nature. The movie had a particular resonance for me since the only time I was ever to bond with my own father was when we were fishing in the lakes and ponds of Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains. The loss of marine life due to unregulated commercial development in this area saddened me not just for what it meant for nature, but also for the loss of the one connection I had to my father.

Oddly enough, the movie reminded me very much of Arctic Son, another movie about the clash between nature and “civilization” focused on a father and son relationship now available from Netflix, in that case a Gwinchin Indian from northern Canada and his son who lived with his mother in Seattle, where he was losing track of his native heritage and abusing drugs and alcohol. He goes to live with his father who teaches him how to hunt and fish and see nature from a native’s perspective.

While this film would be compelling on visual terms alone, as we see the three main characters at work in the crystalline-blue waters, it is much more about unalienated human relationships. Indeed, it is difficult to refer to their activities as work since millions of people pay a small fortune each year to go spear-fishing in the same waters. You obviously begin to think about the nature of work from watching the film and wonder how much mankind has gained from “evolving beyond” the village-based economies of the pre-Conquest era.

Director González-Rubio was fortunate to happen on the three males who are just perfect on camera. Jorge Machado is a striking presence with shoulder-length hair and a feline grace, bearing a striking resemblance to the late Bob Marley. Matraca is a grizzled, gray-haired man with a sweet smile and a lively sense of humor. Natan completes the group, about the most relaxed and amiable five year old I have ever seen on or off camera.

This is an exceptional movie that will linger in your memory for a long time after you see it. Highly recommended.

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