Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 31, 2011

On the historical experiences of IS and SWP with factions

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 2:22 pm

Another negative feature of party life is the total lack of a space in which criticisms of the political line of the organisation can be raised internally. Rather than being able to articulate their views in a regularly published Internal Bulletin comrades are often reduced to grumbling in corners after branch meetings with the result that they become seen as conservative elements or worse. Indeed the raising of questions at branch meetings is often frowned on by a section of the comrades who would appear to see any kind of questioning as disloyalty to the organisation and its politics. This attitude is as much a result of the training comrades have received and can be painlessly changed for the better.

What then needs to be done to make our party more democratic in order that it can more sensitively respond to an ever changing class struggle and make it more attractive to a rising generation repelled by mainstream politics parties, especially those of the left, which are not democratically controlled by their members? Most importantly we need to discuss the nature of the problems that many comrades are raising and in this way change the internal culture of the party into one that is tolerant and inclusive of those who question. There has never been a better time for such an enterprise given that the spirit of democracy has swept the globe in 2011 and not far beneath the surface has been the spectre of workers democracy waiting only to be made explicit and here in Britain that is exactly the process that N30 began. It is our task to seek to become of the developing forces that seek to progress beyond bourgeois society and we are best able to do so if we too possess an organisation that is democratically centralized and eschews commandism.

full: http://splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/guest-post-on-the-historical-experiences-of-is-and-swp-with-factions/

December 29, 2011

The anti-imperialist Egyptian army?

Filed under: Egypt,mechanical anti-imperialism — louisproyect @ 9:41 pm

Michel Chossudovsky on the protest movement in Egypt:

The slogans in Egypt are “Down with Mubarak, Down with the Regime”. No anti-American posters have been reported… The overriding and destructive influence of the USA in Egypt and throughout the Middle East remains unheralded.

The foreign powers which operate behind the scenes are shielded from the protest movement.

No significant political change will occur unless the issue of foreign interference is meaningfully addressed by the protest movement.

The cooptation of the leaders of major opposition parties and civil society organizations in anticipation of the collapse of an authoritarian puppet government is part of Washington’s design, applied in different regions of the World.

The process of cooptation is implemented and financed by US based foundations including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and  Freedom House (FH). Both FH and the NED have links to the US Congress. the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the US business establishment. Both the NED and FH are known to have ties to the CIA.

* * * *

New York Times December 29, 2011

Egypt’s Forces Raid Offices of Nonprofits, 3 Backed by U.S.


CAIRO — Egyptian security forces stormed 17 offices of nonprofit groups around the country on Thursday, including at least three democracy-promotion groups financed by the United States, as part of an investigation that the military rulers say will reveal foreign hands in the recent outbreak of protests.

In Cairo, heavily armed men wearing the black uniforms of the central security police tore through boxes, hauled away files and computers and prevented employees from leaving offices of two of the American groups, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are affiliated with American political parties and financed by the United States government. The security forces also raided the offices of the Washington-based Freedom House.

The raids were a stark escalation in what has appeared to be a campaign by the country’s military rulers to rally support by playing to nationalist and anti-American sentiment here.

“General prosecutor & central security stormed N.D.I. office in Cairo & Assiut,” an employee of the National Democratic Institute wrote in a text message from inside its offices. “We are confined here as they’re searching and clearing out office.”

A man, who identified himself as an official with the public prosecutor’s office but declined to give his name, stood outside the offices of the International Republican Institute in the Dokki neighborhood. He refused to answer questions about the raids but said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to arrest them.”

The raids come of the heels of an investigation by the Egyptian government into foreign financing for nonprofit organizations operating in the country. The military has suggested that such funding has played a role in fomenting protests with goal of bringing down the Egyptian government.

The raids also coincided with the acquittal of five police officers in the deaths of protesters during the revolution that ousted the country’s autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak. An Egyptian court found that the police officers had either not been at the scene or, in the case of two of the men, had fired in self-defense, state media reported, a ruling likely to further inflame opponents of the country’s military rulers.

Human rights advocates have urged the Egyptian government to drop its investigation into foreign funding of civil society, which prosecutors have described as treason. A September report by state security prosecutors identified what it said were more than two dozen unregistered groups receiving foreign funding and operating in Egypt. By the country’s law on associations, the violation is punishable with imprisonment.

The Republican and Democratic institutes have worked openly since 2005 and had been assisting with election monitoring during the country’s parliamentary vote.

In separate statements on Thursday, the two groups said they were troubled by the sudden raids on their offices. “Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal,” the N.D.I. president Kenneth Wollack was quoted as saying.

The statement from the International Republican Institute was even more direct. “It is ironic that even during the Mubarak era I.R.I. was not subjected to such aggressive action,” the group said.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo and J. David Goodman from New York.

December 27, 2011

The Iraq war in retrospect

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iran,Iraq,Libya — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

The latest issue of Frontline, a leftist Indian newspaper, has an article by Vijay Prashad titled “Exit America” that deals with the question of whether the war in Iraq was “dumb”, an allusion to then State Senator Barack Obama’s comment in 2002:

What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

Forced by circumstances of his elevation to supreme representative of the American ruling class, Obama no longer uses words like “dumb” and tries to put the best possible spin on how things turned out. Vijay writes:

Obama, who had made his own position clear in 2002, could not revisit them in 2011: he is now the Commander in Chief and would find it awkward to belittle the sacrifices of troops who were sent to fight a false war. At most Obama could acknowledge the debate before the war, with the lead-up “a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate”. The Iraq war was not perfect, he accepted, but its outcome was good, with the troops leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people”. American liberalism is not capable of any more than that.

Meanwhile, the notion that the troops have left behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” has been demolished within hours after Obama uttered these words. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has ordered the arrest of his Sunni vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi for supporting “terrorist activity”. Al-Hashemi then fled to sanctuary in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, an act that prompted al-Maliki to brandish threats against the Kurds as well.

As it turns out, al-Maliki’s crackdown was in part a reaction to intelligence he received from an apparently friendly government in the region. Now your first reaction would be to conclude that Iran or Syria furnished this information as part of their membership in the Shia “axis of good” network in the Middle East, the last bastion of resistance to the imperialist/Sunni cabal made up of Qatar, al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabia and the CIA. Well, it turns out that al-Maliki’s informer was none other than Libya, as the NY Times reported: “The Iraqi government said the arrests had been prompted by a tip from Libya’s transitional government that said documents revealed Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was working with insurgents to stage a coup.”

What the fuck? I thought that the Libyan government was made up of Sunni jihadists. That’s the point made by MRZine when it published a photo showing al-Qaeda flags on a courthouse in Benghazi. Hasn’t Pepe Escobar proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the “revolution” against Qaddafi was a plot hatched by French intelligence and jihadists? All this is beginning to sound murkier than a John le Carré novel, don’t you think? And what the hell was Qaddafi doing, making alliances with Sunni insurgents who he had tortured in Libyan prisons as part of his obligations to the CIA?

Now it can turn out that all that intelligence was nothing but bullshit designed to justify al-Maliki’s crackdown. But it is not bullshit to say that the political elites in Libya are on fairly good terms now with Iraq’s:

Head of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), Mahmoud Jibril, arrived on Thursday to Iraq in a short surprise visit. Jibril met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, French Foreign Minister Hosheyar Zebari and a number of Iraqi officials. During the meeting, Maliki discussed the reconstruction of Iraq, a source told Alsumaria.

Jibril stated that he agreed with Maliki to exchange ambassadors between both countries as soon as possible and benefit from Iraqi expertise especially in the oil sector.

Of course someone with a proper anti-imperialist training would point out that what Jibril and al-Maliki have in common is that they got where they are courtesy of American military power. What further proof can you have that someone is an agent of imperialism if Cruise missiles were pointed in the direction of their enemies?

Things get a bit more complicated, however, when you consider that al-Maliki has also targeted the MEK camp in Iraq, a presence that the government Iran considers deeply inimical to its own security.  We are obviously compelled to support al-Maliki in this initiative considering what Rostam Pourzal told MRZine readers in 2006:

In Iran, where the militia has been known since its inception in 1965 as Mojahedin, or jihadists, MEK lost all credibility after it became a proxy of Iran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein, in 1986.  Anne Singleton, a former insider and now an advocate for penitent MEK activists in Europe, has labeled the militia “Saddam’s private army” in her book-length memoirs by the same title.

A day before the Berkeley forum took place, the far-right daily Washington Times was busy promoting MEK’s annual convention in the US capital.  Perhaps you remember a similar cozy relationship the Moonie newspaper had with Nicaragua’s Contra mercenaries and with UNITA, the rebel army that terrorized Namibia on behalf of the Reagan Administration and apartheid South Africa.  A Reagan-era Pentagon official and leading architect of the Iraq invasion, Richard Perle, was the keynote speaker at MEK’s 2004 convention.

And, of course, any anti-imperialist worth his or her salt would have to back al-Maliki’s crackdown on a friend of the Baathist Party in light of the fact that Richard Perle spoke at their convention.  To really succeed in this brand of politics, it is necessary to put a minus where someone like Perle puts a plus. And for those stodgy old Marxists hung-up on dialectical contradictions, the only advice is to wise up and get with the program.

Now it is a possibility that the left makes a mistake by thinking in these terms, I am afraid. I have vivid recollections of those arguments made on behalf of the Sunni guerrillas some years ago, when the slogan “support the resistance” became a kind of litmus test.

In 2005, ISO’er Sharon Smith wrote an article titled “The Right to Resist Occupation” that claimed:

SUPPORT FOR the right of Iraqis to resist occupation must extend beyond an abstract principle for the U.S. antiwar movement.

While recognizing “the right of the Iraqi people to resist as a point of principle,” Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies–in widely circulated notes for a speech to the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) on December 18–argued, “We should not call for ‘supporting the resistance’ because we don’t know who most of them are and what they really stand for, and because of those we do know, we mostly don’t support their social program beyond opposition to the occupation.”

To be meaningful, however, supporting the “right to resist” must include support for that resistance once it actually emerges.

To be fair to the ISO, they were not half as bad as someone like George Galloway who in his debate with Christopher Hitchens described the Sunni guerrillas as some of the greatest patriots since the days of the heroic NLF.

Unfortunately, nobody on the left could have guessed how willing the Sunni fighters would have been to cut their own deals with imperialism in a pacified Anbar Province:

Much of the local population here has always wanted the US to give them handouts, but it’s different now, American officials say. Over the past few years, the strategy here was to clear an area of danger and then swoop down with reconstruction projects in an attempt to win over the populace. That was because Anbar was still dangerous, still peppered with Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. The US would see a project finished, only to be destroyed.

Now, say Marine officials, they’ll only spend money on a project that tribal sheikhs want only if those sheikhs get buy-in from the local and provincial governments that will ultimately own and maintain it.

“We don’t want this to be about us spending American money for the sheikhs,” says Brig. Gen. John Allen, who oversees political and economic reconstruction for Multi-National Forces-West. “We want this to be about American money that makes a difference in bringing government along and making the sheikhs part of the government.”

In other words, the Sunni resistance melted away as soon as the imperialist pocketbook opened up.

Back in the 1960s, the SWP resisted every effort made by SDS or independent leftists to make slogans like “Support the NLF” part of a mass mobilization. Primarily, the thinking was that anything that kept Americans from participating on the basis, for example, that the NLF was trying to kill their draftee son, was objectively against the interests of the NLF. A demonstration of 200,000 under the banner of “Out Now” was far more effective than one of 20,000 around the slogan “Victory to the NLF”. When you stop and think about it, such a slogan made little sense since it was not directed against the American government. It functioned more as an emotional expression of how you felt about imperialism—clearly understandable given the tenor of the times. Surely we should be capable of more nuanced thinking nowadays.

Returning to the original question posed by Vijay, maybe the best way to look at things is not from the perspective of “dumb” or “intelligent”. Looking at how things turned out in retrospect, they certainly seem dumb. Iraq appears destined to be as close to Iran as the U.S. is with Britain. A war against Iran likely will spark economic and military retaliation by the Shia states.

If you think, however, in terms of how Wall Street operates, the foreign policy calculations of Washington make a little bit more sense. Did Jon Corzine make a dumb decision when he bet that the EU would be forced to back up the government bonds of a Greece or a Spain? If he were correct, then MF Global would have been catapulted to the ranks of a junior Goldman-Sachs. If he weren’t, then the worst outcome would have been MF Global coming to an ignominious end. That would have not gotten in the way, however, of Corzine getting his golden parachute worth $12 million (even though he would have been last on line getting paid by the defunct hedge fund.)

Imperialist foreign policy is the same kind of high stakes casino as well but one that allows you to hedge your bets. You seed the Egyptian army with billions of dollars while simultaneously funding some of the activists who organized the Tahrir Square protests through the NED and Soro-type NGO’s. You back Qaddafi until the signs become abundantly clear that the movement against him has achieved the critical mass necessary to topple him, just as the case with al-Assad.

The only way to throw a monkey wrench in this kind of operation is to build our own movement globally that seeks to promote working class and revolutionary oppositions that cannot be so easily bought off. That requires breaking with bourgeois oppositions to imperialism, even as we organize to defend their countries from imperialist attack. As daunting a task as this might seem today, it is the only intelligent course of action open to those who want to live in a world of peace and plenty, namely the 99 percent globally.

December 26, 2011

A festival of lights–or blood?

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm


Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights
2010 December 1

by J.A. Myerson

OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?

And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?

Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.


December 25, 2011

Starbucks Occupation in Bogazici University

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Occupy Wall Street,Turkey — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

The best Hitchens obit

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:25 am


December 24, 2011

Christmas Truce of WWI

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm


Christmas truce

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A cross, left near Ypres in Belgium in 1999, to commemorate the site of the Christmas Truce in 1914. The text reads:
1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget.

Christmas truce was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas of 1914, during the First World War. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides – as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units – independently ventured into “No man’s land“, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides had also been so friendly as to play games of football with one another.[1]

The truce is seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history. It was not ubiquitous, however; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, whilst in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but to nothing like the widespread extent seen in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternisation.

The truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of “live and let live“, where infantry units in close proximity to each other would stop overtly aggressive behaviour, and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead soldiers, whilst in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy. However, the Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation – even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable.

December 23, 2011

What kind of party do we need? A reply to Ahmed Shawki

Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Ahmed Shawki

I am not exactly sure why the ISO reprinted a 2006 speech by party leader Ahmed Shawki on “What Kind of Party We Need” in their latest newspaper but it seems to be a retreat from Paul LeBlanc’s more recent thoughts on the subject that partially reflected the insights of scholar Lars Lih and others working through the problems of “Leninism”.

Mostly Shawki tries to communicate the idea that party-building concepts have evolved since the days of Karl Marx, almost in a Darwinian fashion. There are still lots of dinosaurs around but survival of the fittest—implicitly understood in terms of a superior program—will sort things out.

He says that Marx was too preoccupied with theorizing about capitalism to really give much thought to organizational questions:

Marx himself had placed some emphasis on the attempt to build political organization. But you were talking about a period of the rise of capitalist social relations, and therefore, in large part, the bulk of Marx’s own personal activity lay in developing theory rather than political organization.

Outliving Marx and ostensibly past the thorny problems of theorizing capitalism, Engels was more directly involved with such nitty-gritty efforts:

Engels participated much more effectively in the construction of the Second International and played a formative role in the construction of what was to be the model socialist organization of the day–the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), an organization that produced, after a period of illegality, dozens of newspapers, a mass membership, elected officials. The SPD was led by a man called Karl Kautsky who was described at the time as the Pope of Marxism–that was supposed to be a good thing as opposed a negative thing.

Understanding that “What is to be Done?” is quite clear about Lenin’s insistence that the German party was a model for what he advocated in Czarist Russia—allowing for the need to develop ways to fend off repression—Shawki tries to draw a distinction between Kautsky and Lenin that is a bit lost on me:

I’m not saying that Lenin was identical to Kautsky. You can go back and read Kautsky, for example, where he says clearly in the period of the late 1800s that the German Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. In other words, we’re a party that seeks the transformation of society, but we’re not about to make a revolution.

Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks, in part because they operated under Tsarism and in part because of events after the writing of What Is To Be Done?

Perhaps there is a subtle distinction that requires a higher level of dialectical insight than I can muster at this point, but the difference between a “revolutionary party” and a “revolution-making party” was not obvious to me at first blush. But after consulting chapter five of Kautsky’s “The Road to Power“, it all became clear to me. In fact Kautsky is simply warning against Blanquist schemas and trying to explain that revolutions cannot be “created”. They are the products of profound crises that serve as imperatives to fundamental change:

The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come.

One surely hopes that comrade Shawki does not object to the idea that “the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us”.

Furthermore, a strong case can be made that Lenin viewed Kautsky’s “Road to Power” as exemplary long after “What is to be Done?” had been written and even after he had broken with Kautsky over WWI. In the latest issue of “The Weekly Worker”, the organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain (a group devoted to fresh thinking about such matters even if does tend a bit toward scandal-mongering, a reflection of the bad habits of the British press no doubt), there’s an article–“Lenin, Kautsky and the ‘new era of revolutions‘”–by the redoubtable Lars Lih that documents Lenin’s respect for Kautsky’s book, couched as it was in anger at Kautsky’s subsequent evolution:

In autumn 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin wrote to his associate, Aleksandr Shliapnikov: “I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy.” This pungent summation of Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky – an attitude that remained unchanged for the rest of Lenin’s life – is often cited. Ultimately more useful in understanding Lenin’s outlook, however, is another comment, made around the same time to the same correspondent: “Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”

Lenin took his own advice. He sat down a few weeks later, flipped through the pages of Kautsky’s Road to power, and came up with a page-and-a-half list of quotations that he inserted into an article entitled ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’. He then commented: “This is how Kautsky wrote in times long, long past, fully five years ago. This is what German Social Democracy was, or, more correctly, what it promised to be. This was the kind of Social Democracy that could and had to be respected.”

While I certainly agree with Lars on the need to see the continuity between the pre-WWI Kautsky and Lenin, I sometimes wonder if he tends to go overboard on all this. That continuity is certainly of immense interest to Lenin scholars but the more burning issue for revolutionists today is not the relevance of Kautsky’s turn-of-the-century socialist party but the kind that we need today. Breaking down the misconceptions about “Leninism” is of course important but unless we begin to think creatively about our tasks today—as both Kautsky for a time and Lenin did—we will not solve what Leon Trotsky described as: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” Trotsky might have been in error about the solution but he certainly got the problem right.

Which brings us back to comrade Shawki’s speech:

At this point [after 1914], Lenin begins to develop ideas about organization which I think are much more important and relevant to us–focused not on the question of illegality and professional revolutionism and so on…

He concludes that you have to begin by grouping together militants and activists–because we’re not talking here about commentators and writers, but people who are involved in the actual struggle against capitalism–into a party that can lead politically other sections of the working-class movement through the ebbs and flow of the working-class struggle.

He used the term vanguard for this, to mean people who are in advance [sic] in consciousness–that is, who are enemies of capitalism, rather than half opposed and half accepting. This isn’t an insult–it’s the reality for most people, that they hate the system, but don’t know what else you can put in its place.

There’s only one problem with this. After 1914 Lenin never writes about organization as such, something Shawki virtually admits when he states: “That idea became enshrined into the history of the revolutionary movement for one reason–it wasn’t Lenin’s writings so much as Lenin’s doing.” Yet there is no evidence that his ideas about the “vanguard” were any different than they were in 1903, ideas we must insist are exactly the same as the European social democracy. Furthermore, it is a bit problematic to extract party-building concepts out of “Lenin’s doing” especially since the party that came into existence in 1903 operated on the same basis as it did 14 years later.

There were no organizational “innovations”. Instead he is preoccupied with uniting the antiwar left internationally first of all and then seizing power in Russia, matters that involved strategy and tactics rather than new thinking about how a “vanguard” is constructed. Try as you may, the Marxist Internet Archives will reveal nothing along the lines of “What is to be Done?” between 1914 and 1917.

Once Shawki moves forward in time to the 1960s, things don’t get much better I’m afraid. He states:

Today, there is an idea that the construction of a socialist organization is in itself a flawed project. In short, it’s been there, done that–we tried it in the 1960s and ’70s, and this model of organization doesn’t work.

It is not exactly clear what this is a reference to. In my view, what was tried in the 60s and 70s is something I refer to as Zinovievism, a mechanical version of “democratic centralism” that led to sect and cult formation in the Trotskyist and Maoist movements. By this period, the CP’s had transformed themselves into something much more like the social democracy so they were out of the running in the race to construct “vanguard” parties.

Shawki does seem to recognize that the party-building methodology was flawed:

I think that there’s a reaction that we can sometimes have to say you just did it wrong–which is a good answer to a been-there-done-that kind of remark.

But I think the more sophisticated answer would be that not only did the left in the 1960s inherit models of organization from the past, but it was itself dislodged from its historic role and placed outside of the working-class movement. And this is despite valiant efforts of many sections of the left to reconnect with the working class, which should be applauded, not derided.

Now it would be useful to get his thinking on inheriting “models of organization from the past” but to my knowledge this is just something that never gets explored much in ISO publications. Unless there is something about the ISO that I have missed, the methodology is pretty much the same one that they inherited from the British SWP, their one-time mother ship. For about as succinct a presentation of their ideas on “democratic centralism” as can be found, you can read Todd Chretien’s article on “Lenin’s Theory of the Party”  that appeared a year after Shawki’s speech. I should say at the outset, however, that Lenin had no theory of the party. Tony Cliff did, and that’s where Todd’s ideas come from basically. He writes:

So what is democracy? It’s not a happy-go-lucky-everybody-gets-a-say kind of thing for the sake of fairness. Instead, democracy, if it works, has to be a contentious, active, participatory, argumentative, organized process. We have formal votes on agendas, delegates, leaders, actions, policies, etc. In fact, I’d venture a guess that the ISO is one of the most democratic organizations in the world. So, yes, there have to be formal mechanisms of democracy within the party, but more than that, democracy has to be active and participatory. Why? In order to confront the beast we are up against, you need to have as many people as possible looking at the problem, studying the problem, engaged in trying to get rid of the problem…

The second part is centralism, because if the ISO is not a utopia, it’s also not a talk shop. We don’t have academic conferences. Now there are some very good academics, but there are also many academic conferences where everyone talks and nothing comes out of it because no one ever expected anything to come out of it. The ISO is not a talk shop. We want to act. We want freedom of discussion to have our debates out, but then we want to take a vote. Whichever side wins will be put into practice and then we’re going to see if it works. If our decision is wrong, then the people who opposed it can come back and say, “See that was wrong.” But the only way to test things in practice is to make a decision, have all members try to implement that decision to the best of their ability, and then assess the outcome. If members don’t take decisions and actions seriously, then you never know if it was your tactics that were wrong, or it was in the implementation that went wrong. In other words, giving something a half-assed try is no test at all.

I doubt if any veteran of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. or the RCP et al would have described how it was put to them as a new recruit any differently, and that’s the problem.

This business about a “talk shop” is something I heard when I joined the SWP in 1967. It meant that you could talk until you were blue in the face during preconvention discussion but once the party made up its mind about a given orientation, then you had to switch gears and to into action mode. As we know today, this is not really the way that the Bolsheviks operated in real life, no matter how hard Zinoviev tried to give that impression. They did not designate special periods when party members could debate with each other behind closed doors. Their debates were held in public.

If you want proof of this, just read John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” where there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” Reed continues: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.

So during the heat of battle, not only do you have “Bolsheviki” arguing against Lenin, they vote against him in public. Neither was expelled. In fact not a single Bolshevik was ever expelled except Bogdanov and I probably would have voted for that myself.

Finally, I want to address myself to the key political question in Shawki’s speech that he formulates as follows: “there isn’t much space for a broad, anti-capitalist party in the United States.” Now since this was written 5 years ago, it is understandable that he might not have anticipated what has transpired over the past few months. But with that in mind, I strongly recommend that the ISO comrades pay careful attention to Pham Binh’s article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists“, especially the conclusion:

The most basic and fundamental task facing socialists is to merge with Occupy and lead it from within. Socialist groups that insist on “intervening” in the uprising will be viewed as outsiders with little to contribute in practice to solving Occupy’s actual problems because they will be focused on winning arguments and ideological points rather than actively listening to, joining hands with, and fighting alongside the vanguard of the 99% in overcoming common practical and political.

One difficulty the socialist left faces in accomplishing this basic and fundamental task is the divisions in our ranks that serve in practice to weaken the overall socialist influence within Occupy, thereby strengthening that of the anarchists. They have their Black Bloc, but where is our Red Bloc? Where are the socialist slogans to shape and guide the uprising’s political development?

Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines, and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.

Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters. Initiatives like Socialist Viewpoint’s call for a joint revolutionary socialist organizing committee in the Bay Area is a step in the right direction. We need to take more of those steps, sooner rather than later. The opportunity we have now to make the socialist movement a force to be reckoned with again in this country depends on it.

Anyone who agrees with this conclusion, whether they are in a socialist group or not, and wants to take these steps should email me so we can find ways to work together.

December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel and the struggle for socialism in Czechoslovakia

Filed under: Czechoslovakia,democracy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Somehow I find the unctuous outpouring over Vaclav Havel far more off-putting than anything said about Christopher Hitchens. With Hitchens, you at least got the impression that he enjoyed being a prick. With Havel, you got the same kind of overpowering sanctimoniousness you get with religious figures. Keeping that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Havel was close to the Dalai Lama, another snake-oil salesman.

To understand Havel, you have to go back to the beginning of Czech socialism that is a bit more complicated than is usually portrayed in the bourgeois press. While the general consensus among the anti-Stalinist left is that Eastern Europe was turned into “satellite states” of the USSR after WWII, Czech reality is far more complex.

After British imperialism decided to sell out Czechoslovakia through Neville Chamberlain’s infamous deal, respect for the Western “democracies” declined precipitously and admiration for the USSR grew rapidly. Under Nazi occupation, the CP underground fought heroically as well. Unlike the situation in France, this occupation was unimaginably brutal resulting in the death of up to 55,000 Czechs in concentration camps or through execution. Last August I reviewed Protektor, a very good film dramatizing the assassination of Reinhold Heydrich and the repression that followed. Now available from Netflix, the film captures the period well.

So it is no surprise that Edvard Benes, the left social democrat Prime Minister who was ousted by the Communists in 1948, amounted to a “friend of the Soviet Union”. In a 1943 visit to the USSR, Benes found himself “amazed at the tremendous progress that he found and saw in it confirmation of his belief that the Soviet system, having successfully withstood the difficult test of a massive invasion, was now passing through a gradual transformation to a liberalized form of socialism.” In a nutshell, Benes can be compared politically to fellow travelers of the USSR found in the USA during the New Deal.

Additionally, Czechoslovakia had the largest indigenous Communist movement anywhere in Europe before WWII. In free parliamentary elections held on May 26, 1946, the CP won 38 percent of the vote nationwide and the Social Democrats received an additional 13 percent. So we are not exactly talking about socialism imposed at the point of a bayonet.

While signing a decree to nationalize land and factories, Benes also sought to placate the west as a buttress against Soviet power. He didn’t understand that a rising anticommunist mood in Washington would effectively preclude this. Benes was perceived as being too friendly to the USSR and too radical. Hence the decision by Secretary of State James Byrnes to annul a $50 million credit to Czechoslovakia in 1945. Even after a poor harvest in 1947, the US Embassy in Prague maintained a policy of “no food and no loans” to Czechoslovakia. In essence, the country would either have to align itself with the United States or the Soviet Union.

The model of a restive population seeking to break the chains of socialism and opening the doors to multinational corporations has little to do with Czech realities. In fact, the first open revolt against the Stalinist bureaucracy was mounted in the name of “socialism with a human face”.

In the late 60s, the opposition to Soviet-style repression was not inspired by Hayek or Ayn Rand. The students and intellectuals who provided an informal vanguard were more likely to be readers of Ernest Mandel or Herbert Marcuse. In Yugoslavia, students occupied the universities raising the banner of “For a Red University”. In Czechoslovakia, the slogan was not quite so bold but it certainly expressed a desire to create a system that retained popular control over the economy.

Under Alexander Dubcek, there was a Prague Spring in 1968 that was very much in sync with the student movements of the West. In 1967 a group of writers, including Milan Kundera, threw their support behind members of the Communist Party who were ready to challenge the old way of doing things. In April of 1968, Dubcek announced an Action Programme that would have transformed the country. Politically, it stressed democratic rights of the sort that were once understood as consistent with socialism. Economically, it advocated a more market-driven approach not that different from what existed during the NEP.

Ironically, when Fidel Castro made his speech in 1968 describing Russian intervention as a necessary evil to stamp out an imperialist plot, the very “liberal” measures he was condemning in Czechoslovakia were exactly the same that he and his brother would be pursuing today.

Despite widespread support for socialism early on, the ruling CP did everything it could to dampen the people’s spirit. Even when other Eastern European CP’s were loosening their grip after Stalin’s death, the Czechoslovak CP stuck to its hidebound ways. It was committed economically and culturally to the worst abuses of the Stalin era. As is usually the case, the intelligentsia was the first segment of the population to grow restive.

Another film is useful in understanding the vise-like grip with which the CP held society captive, namely Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession” which dramatizes the Slansky trial of 1952. Rudolf Slansky was a Jewish CP’er who was put on trial for thought crimes in the same manner as the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Charged as “Trotskyist-Zionist-Titoist-bourgeois nationalist traitors, spies, and saboteurs, enemies of the Czechoslovak nation, of its People’s Democratic order, and of Socialism”, Slansky and other victims of Stalinist injustice were executed.

The purpose of these trials was exactly the same as it was under Stalin, to cower the population into silence. Even the intelligentsia, especially the writers who would later on rebel against such madness, was pressured into supporting the regime. Dusan Hamsik, a leader of of Writer’s Union that was in the vanguard of the Prague Spring, wrote: “In those days it was the writers themselves who were their own best censors; the few who thought differently never offered their words for publication — indeed never committed them to paper in most cases. For it was unthinkable that any discordant voice should raise itself.”

A bit of a thaw took place in 1962, largely as a result of economic difficulties. As is so often the case, when a Stalinist government finds it difficult to deliver the goods, it will ease up a bit in order to allow the population to blow off steam. But to make sure that his subjects did not go too far, the dictator Novotny warned:

We will not allow this decadent capitalist culture to be propagated in our society, and we will not allow the socialist system, won in hard struggles, to be attacked in various ambiguous terms in the television and often also in the theatre … we need criticism … but let no one dare touch our Communist Party, its program, or our socialist system. This must be sacred, and it must stay sacred for all … the Party maintains the right to direct cultural activity, the same as it directs and manages the entire life of the country.

Novotny was also deeply concerned about the decadent cultural influences that the West was having on Czechoslovak youth, sounding very much like the preachers denouncing Elvis in the USA: “all right, let them dance, but we will not permit these modern dances to degenerate into vulgarisms and thus actually cultivate dark lusts in our people.”

Unlike any other country in Eastern Europe, the Czech intelligentsia was disproportionately represented in the CP. This meant that when the reform-oriented faction in the party led by Dubcek sought to renovate the system, the program was a mixture of political liberalization that everybody could support and economic measures geared to the market. The working class embraced the former and held an open mind about the latter.

In December 2008, Andy Kilmister wrote an article for International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Mandelista Fourth International, titled “The `Prague Spring’ and the `Prague Autumn’” that is a must-read for understanding what happened.  It reveals that although the workers might have been sitting on the fence in the economic debate between Novotny supporters and the new government, they swung sharply against the Soviet invasion in a revolutionary manner:

Between 1 October and the end of 1968, 260 further workers councils were created, with the trade unions playing a leading role in initiating this development 17. In January 1969 a national meeting in Plzeň of councils and preparatory committees representing 890,000 employees (over a sixth of the workers in the country) took place and `thereafter, the workers’ movement sheltered the political left as the ČKD-Vysočany plant had sheltered the secret August congress’.

The agreement with the metal workers on 19 December was followed by agreements in January 1969 between the students and construction workers, mineralogical, geological and gas workers and print workers and later by collaboration with power-station workers, designer and civil engineers, lumber workers and railway workers. Galia Golan reports that `by and large these alliances held throughout 1968-9 though they were much criticized (and feared) by the conservatives in the regime. In concrete terms, they led to the formation of worker-student action committees which coordinated efforts designed to salvage what was possible of the post-January policies’. Petr Cerny describes `Prague radicals who, for a brief moment, achieved what the western left had only dreamed of in 1968: a worker-student alliance’.

While the most famous Czechoslovak writers were solidly behind the Dubcek initiatives, including Milan Kundera and Jeri Pelikan, one decided that he had no interest in reforming socialism. The whole system had to go as the NY Times obituary on Vaclav Havel makes clear:

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

Moving ahead to 1989, when Stalinism entered its death-knell, Czechoslovakia was given the opportunity to pick up where the Prague Spring had left off, not having to worry about Soviet tanks. Among the politicians deemed suitable for leading a new society, Dubcek and Havel stood out—representing two different solutions to the problems that had faced for decades.

In a review of John Keane’s critical biography of Vaclav Havel, a biography that Slavoj Zizek used as a peg to attack Havel’s legacy in the London Review, Laura Secor wrote:

In 1989, five years after Havel’s release, popular demonstrations brought down the Czechoslovak government. Dubcek, Keane contends, was the obvious choice for the country’s transitional presidency — but Havel manipulated Dubcek into stepping aside, by promising to support him in the upcoming free elections. According to Keane, Havel broke that promise, betraying Dubcek and retaining the presidency for himself. Not long afterward, Czechoslovakia split.

Once in power, Havel set about the task to dismantle Czech socialism and create a new state according to the formulas established in George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and elsewhere. A section from Michael Parenti’s “Blackshirts and Reds” has been circulating widely on the Internet, including my posting to the Marxism mailing list. Written not long after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, it knocks Havel off his pedestal rather deftly:

Havel called for efforts to preserve the Christian family in the Christian nation. Presenting himself as a man of peace and stating that he would never sell arms to oppressive regimes, he sold weapons to the Philippines and the fascist regime in Thailand. In June 1994, General Pinochet, the man who butchered Chilean democracy, was reported to be arms shopping in Czechoslovakia–with no audible objections from Havel.

Havel joined wholeheartedly in George Bush’s Gulf War, an enterprise that killed over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. In 1991, along with other Eastern European pro-capitalist leaders, Havel voted with the United States to condemn human rights violations in Cuba. But he has never uttered a word of condemnation of rights violations in El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia, or any other U.S. client state.

In 1992, while president of Czechoslovakia, Havel, the great democrat, demanded that parliament be suspended and he be allowed to rule by edict, the better to ram through free-market “reforms.” That same year, he signed a law that made the advocacy of communism a felony with a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment. He claimed the Czech constitution required him to sign it. In fact, as he knew, the law violated the Charter of Human Rights which is incorporated into the Czech constitution. In any case, it did not require his signature to become law. In 1995, he supported and signed another undemocratic law barring communists and former communists from employment in public agencies.

Now I have no way of knowing what Parenti would have been saying about the Prague Spring in 1968, but I strongly suspect that he would have agreed with Fidel Castro. For the section of the left that believes that the Soviet intervention was a “necessary evil”, there’s actually a strong affinity with liberals who have urged a vote for Gore, Kerry and Obama in recent elections. If the choice is between someone like Obama and Newt Gingrich, you have to vote for Obama. Along the same lines, a Czechoslovakia under Dubcek might have led down the slippery road to what it would become under Havel so it was necessary to back the Soviet invasion.

The possibility that an alternative to both liberalizing technocrats and open supporters of Western imperialism does not really exist in the mind of someone like a Michael Parenti or many who think this way, like Alexander Cockburn or Michel Chossudovsky. The drama in a place like Iran or Libya is always between two players, and no possibility exists for the masses to make history on their own terms.

This is the terrible political legacy that 70 years of Stalinism has left us. After WWII, a powerful constellation of nominally socialist states existed around the world, either conforming to the Soviet model or to some Bonapartist variant best expressed by Nasser’s Egypt. In such states, the authoritarianism was necessary—we were led to understand—because political freedoms would open the door to CIA subversion. It was never considered that such repression was mainly designed to enforce class distinctions that were the same in spirit or in substance like those in capitalist societies.

Social inequalities and repression of the sort symbolized by Novotny or Qaddafi’s show trials were rationalized as blemishes in a system that was historically “progressive”. When the disgruntled masses took it upon themselves to resist their rulers, the “anti-imperialist” left took the side of the rulers if there was the slightest hint of Western support. Given the realities of geopolitics, it was almost impossible to find a situation in which the CIA was not intervening. In Egypt, the contradictions were most acute as the West backed the Tahrir Square protesters and the Mubarak regime simultaneously.

If there was ever a time to break with this “lesser evil” mentality, it is now. With the deepening crisis of world capitalism, an urgent task confronts us. A revolutionary movement has to be built worldwide that makes no concessions to the paternal rule of a Qaddafi or a Novotny. There will always be the possibility that in a revolt against such rulers, things might not follow a straight and narrow path toward socialist victory but deferring to the status quo in the name of “anti-imperialism” is unacceptable.

Arise ye pris’ners of starvation
Arise ye wretched of the earth
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall;
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught we shall be all.

December 19, 2011

Jan Pehechan-Ho

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 12:01 am

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