Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 29, 2018

Two new books on Ukraine

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 1:48 pm

For most people on the left, knowledge of the Ukraine is limited to a few well-trodden factoids. Victorian Nuland made a phone call that led to the overthrow of the democratically elected government and its replacement through a pro-EU, pro-NATO coup. The coup relied on a combination of neo-Nazi violence and false flag incidents to succeed. Once in power, the anti-Communist government and its rightwing supporters began tearing down statues of Lenin. And all of this could have been anticipated because Stephen Bandera collaborated with the Nazis during WWII.

This micro-narrative eliminated the need to understand the country’s history or the economic contradictions internal to the country that have led to chronic instability ever since it became independent in 1991. For those who want to dig beneath the surface, there are two new books by Ukrainian scholars that put the country’s ongoing turmoil into perspective. Stephen Velychenko’s “Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine 1918-1925” points out in painful detail how an emancipatory project in 1917 led to the preservation of Czarist type domination but in the name of proletarian internationalism. Put succinctly, if you want to know why Lenin statues (that never should have been erected in the first place per Lenin’s aversion to idolatry) were torn down, Velychenko’s book is a good place to start. As for Euromaidan and its consequences, Yuliya Yurchenko’s Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketization to Armed Conflict is the very first attempt to apply a Marxist analysis to Ukraine’s chronic oligarchic rule. Despite her support for Euromaidan, Yurchenko makes the case that it was hijacked by a wing of the ruling class that sought to preserve its narrow profit-seeking goals by exploiting nationalist resentments.

Continue reading

June 27, 2018

Defending Karl Marx in Foreign Affairs…What’s that about?

Filed under: economics,social democracy — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

On June 14th, Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations that was formed in 1918 to develop strategies for the ruling class, published an article titled “Marxist World: What Did You Expect From Capitalism?”. (The article, which is behind a paywall, can be read below) The author was Robin Varghese, the Associate Director of Engagement at the Economic Advancement Program of the Open Society Foundations and an Editor at 3 Quarks Daily. In addition to those affiliations identified by Foreign Affairs, Varghese is also the Chairman of the Board of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a kind of updated version of the Learning Annex modeled after the Frankfurt School. The roost for Max Horkheimer et al was actually called the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University. The knock-off is a place where hipsters can attend classes of the sort you might take in Duke University’s literature department but at a much lower cost.

So why would Foreign Affairs, the journal where George Kennan’s blueprint for the Cold War domination titled “Containment” appeared, be publishing something favorable to Karl Marx? Let me take a stab at answering that question.

To start with, it is necessary to say a few words about George Soros’s Economic Advancement Program. The Open Society website states its goal: “Because economic systems are complex, we deploy a mix of interventions. We make private sector investments through the program’s investment vehicle, the Soros Economic Development Fund, to yield social impact, we support civil society actors advancing economic justice, we advise governments on economic policy, and we build coalitions to foment progressive change.” Basically, this is a vehicle for microfinance of the sort pioneered by the Grameen Bank. In 2009, Soros teamed up with Pierre Omidyar, the eBay billionaire who funds Intercept, and Google to serve small businesses in India. Omidyar’s website described its aim:

“With this investment, we will meet the huge demand to serve smaller businesses in India that have little access to finance,” said Neal DeLaurentis, Vice President of Soros Economic Development Fund. “Long ignored by commercial capital markets, small and medium businesses are an attractive investment opportunity as well as an engine for economic growth for India.”

It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the failings of microfinance but I would advise reading this for a useful critique.

Turning now to Varghese’s article, it can easily be understood as just another in the series of articles that appeared immediately after the 2008 meltdown, crediting Karl Marx for diagnosing the contradictions of the capitalist economy but stopping short at his prescription for moving beyond it through socialist revolution. He writes:

Better than most, Marx understood the mechanisms that produce capitalism’s downsides and the problems that develop when governments do not actively combat them, as they have not for the past 40 years. As a result, Marxism, far from being outdated, is crucial for making sense of the world today.

As I pointed out in a 2016 article, this sort of testimony to Marx’s wisdom went viral a decade ago:

After 2008 there were deep worries in the financial punditocracy. You might remember that scene in China Syndrome when the first shudders took place in the nuclear reactor. Was this going to be the “Big One”? That is how Nouriel Roubini must have felt on August 11, 2011 when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer:

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

Even more shockingly, George Magnus, an economist with the UBS investment bank, advised Bloomberg News readers to Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy just 18 days after Roubini’s interview appeared. Magnus quoted Marx’s Capital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” But his solutions had more to do with Keynes than Marx, such as this one: “Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.” If Karl Marx confronted a crisis as deep as the one we faced in 2008, his advice would have been to nationalize the banks not use them as tools for fiscal pump-priming.

However, Umair Haque probably spoke for most of these commentators—including Sean McElwee, I imagine—when after posing the question Was Marx Right? in the Harvard Business Review he came down squarely on the side of capitalism. After giving Marx his due (“Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed”), Haque sides with McElwee on the “recipe” question: “Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but.”

Using a combination of common sense and what he has absorbed from reading Marx, Varghese describes the current epoch as one consisting of chronic stagnation even if it is producing billionaires by the wheelbarrow full:

Since the 1970s, businesses across the developed world have been cutting their wage bills not only through labor-saving technological innovations but also by pushing for regulatory changes and developing new forms of employment. These include just-in-time contracts, which shift risk to workers; noncompete clauses, which reduce bargaining power; and freelance arrangements, which exempt businesses from providing employees with benefits such as health insurance. The result has been that since the beginning of the twenty-first century, labor’s share of GDP has fallen steadily in many developed economies.

There’s not much to quibble with in the middle section of his article that describes the growing inequality in the USA and other advanced capitalist countries. It cites Thomas Piketty and Branko Milanovic who have produced outstanding work even if their analysis is not necessarily grounded in Marxist theory.

In a section titled “The Keynesian Challenge”, he sounds skeptical at first blush about the possibility of a new New Deal, a “Swedish model” or any of the other solutions proposed by the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party:

Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the demands imposed by capital accumulation and profitability would always severely limit the choices available to governments and undermine the long-term viability of any reforms. The history of the developed world since the 1970s seems to have borne out that prediction. Despite the achievements of the postwar era, governments ultimately found themselves unable to overcome the limits imposed by capitalism, as full employment, and the labor power that came with it, reduced profitability. Faced with the competing demands of capitalists, who sought to undo the postwar settlement between capital and labor, and the people, who sought to keep it, states gave in to the former. In the long run, it was the economic interests of capital that won out over the political organization of the people.

But the last three paragraphs are a dead giveaway that Varghese is for Marx’s economic analysis but not his life-long goal to “change it”. The only thing he seems bent on changing is the sort of neoliberal austerity that Sanderistas find so loathsome. However, forming revolutionary parties and overthrowing capitalism is even more loathsome apparently as indicated from the reformist pap below:

The challenge today is to identify the contours of a mixed economy that can successfully deliver what the golden age did, this time with greater gender and racial equality to boot. This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings. The normal state of capitalism is one in which, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air.” This dynamism means that achieving egalitarian goals will require new institutional configurations backed by new forms of politics.

As the crisis of the golden age was ramping up in the 1970s, the economist James Meade wondered what sorts of policies could save egalitarian, social democratic capitalism, recognizing that any realistic answer would have to involve moving beyond the limits of Keynesianism. His solution was to buttress the welfare state’s redistribution of income with a redistribution of capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. Meade’s vision was not state ownership but a broad property-owning democracy in which wealth was more equally distributed because the distribution of productive capacity was more equal.

The point is not that broader capital ownership is a solution to the ills of capitalism in the present day, although it could be part of one. Rather, it is to suggest that if today’s egalitarian politicians, including Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, are to succeed in their projects of taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century, it will not be with the politics of the past. As Marx recognized, under capitalism there is no going back.

Let’s take apart this pile of crap that probably is first cousin to the Vivek Chibber Catalyst article that Robert Brenner objected to. It is the sort of thing you routinely hear from Jacobin, the DSA old guard, Dissent Magazine and The Nation.

To start with, let’s examine: “This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings.”

The most dynamic social arrangement? Is this guy serious? Capitalism is not primarily about markets. It is about coercion. Slavery, debt peonage, child labor, union busting and other forms of extra-market forces were midwives to capitalism and continue to this day. Books like Michele Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name” offer ample evidence of how racialized capitalism retains many of the coercive features that were present in its infancy. All you need to do is go to your local grocery store and make a list of all the different imported agricultural products, especially from Mexico. A 2014 LA Times article describes anything but a “dynamic social arrangement”:

Ricardo Martinez and Eugenia Santiago were desperate.

At the labor camp for Bioparques de Occidente, they and other farmworkers slept sprawled head to toe on concrete floors. Their rooms crawled with scorpions and bedbugs. Meals were skimpy, hunger a constant. Camp bosses kept people in line with threats and, when that failed, with their fists.

Escape was tempting but risky. The compound was fenced with barbed wire and patrolled by bosses on all-terrain vehicles. If the couple got beyond the gates, local police could arrest them and bring them back. Then they would be stripped of their shoes.

Martinez, 28, and Santiago, 23, decided to chance it. Bioparques was one of Mexico’s biggest tomato exporters, a supplier for Wal-Mart and major supermarket chains. But conditions at the company’s Bioparques 4 camp had become unbearable.

They left their backpacks behind to avoid suspicion and walked out the main gate. As they approached the highway, a car screeched up. Four camp bosses jumped out. One waved a stick at them.

“You’re trying to leave,” he said, after spotting a change of clothing in a plastic bag Martinez was carrying.

“I’m just going for a walk,” Martinez said.

“Get in the car or I’ll break you,” the boss replied.

The next day, Martinez and Santiago were back at work in the tomato fields.

Varghese endorses James Meade’s solution to saving “egalitarian, social democratic capitalism”, namely to redistribute capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. This “broad property-owning democracy” would supposedly insure that both you and the Koch brothers would have about the same amount of “capital assets”, including land, machinery, securities, etc. Fat chance of that, I’d say. I don’t have much time or motivation to plumb the profundities of Meade’s economic ideas but suffice it to say that Wikipedia describes them as based on neo-Classical assumptions such as: (1) The economy in question is a closed economy with no relationship with the outside world. (2) There is no government activity involving taxation and expenditure. (3) Perfect competition exists in the market.

Am I that surprised that someone who is paid by George Soros recommends the economic ideas of James Meade? Commentary Magazine, the leading voice of neo-Conservatism, wrote a rave review of Meade’s 1975 “The Intelligent Radical’s Guide to Economic Policy: The Mixed Economy”:

James Meade, a former president of the Royal Economic Society, has published (in England) one of those rare economics books that one can recommend to every thoughtful person who takes an interest in the fundamental problems of contemporary societies. Some enterprising publisher should bring it out also in the United States. So far as my acquaintance extends, nothing of this character, scope, and quality has been published on our side of the Atlantic.

Starting to get the picture? Varghese’s article found exactly the right outlet in Foreign Affairs.

The final paragraph makes it clear that his project is to breathe life into social democracy. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn must succeed in taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century. However, it will not be with the politics of the past. Of course, you know what the “politics of the past” is about—socialist revolution and all that other utopian nonsense.

Let me conclude with a few words about the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. A 2012 New Yorker Magazine article looked in on a class given by its founder Ajay Singh Chaudhary, who has a Columbia University PhD, and Abby Kluchin, another Columbia PhD. For people in their shoes, the teaching jobs at the Institute are about the same as what adjuncts earn. Courses are held at night and cost a few hundred dollars. Faculty members receive eighty per cent of tuition, which amounts to more than they would make at a major university—at least if they are adjuncts.

Most of the classes are geared to the kinds of people who would find MLA conferences worth attending, such as “Jane Austen and the Problem of Other Minds” but they do have one on “Crisis and Capitalism” that sounds like the sort of thing you might have taken at the Brecht Forum but for a lot less than the $315 the Brooklyn Institute charges. The class was given by Raphaële Chappe, who used to be a Goldman Sachs Vice President in the Tax Department. So I guess she knows something about capitalism.

A while back she was interviewed by Laura Flanders in a show titled “Eat the Rich?”. Laura asked her about whether finance capital could be used to redistribute power and resources. If this sounds a bit like the microfinance and James Meade type strategies indicated above, you are on the right track. It turns out that Chappe had started what she called a Robin Hood Hedge Fund that incorporated this redistribution agenda. She explained what made it tick:

We have an algorithm, we call it the parasite. What it does is, it replicates the investments of what we consider to be insiders in Wall Street. We form a portfolio that replicates those investments, and so far we’ve gotten great returns. I think last year was 40% return, which made it the second hedge fund in the world. Of course, it’s a little bit of impertinence. We’re trying to hack it, derail it…I think that it’s just a very small dent if you think about all the types of strategies out there that hedge funds are using to make investments. We’re basically mimicking a very small segment. There are things that we cannot track, or trace. High frequency trading, for example. You have hundreds of trades happening every minute, we wouldn’t be able to do that. We do our best to hack it with the tools we have.

I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody from taking her course. After all, night school is a good way to develop social relationships in a very lonely city but if I had $315 to invest and if I was single, I’d sign up for a salsa dancing class instead.

Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018 Issue
Marxist World
What Did You Expect From Capitalism?
By Robin Varghese

After nearly every economic downturn, voices appear suggesting that Marx was right to predict that the system would eventually destroy itself. Today, however, the problem is not a sudden crisis of capitalism but its normal workings, which in recent decades have revived pathologies that the developed world seemed to have left behind.

Since 1967, median household income in the United States, adjusted for inflation, has stagnated for the bottom 60 percent of the population, even as wealth and income for the richest Americans have soared. Changes in Europe, although less stark, point in the same direction. Corporate profits are at their highest levels since the 1960s, yet corporations are increasingly choosing to save those profits rather than invest them, further hurting productivity and wages. And recently, these changes have been accompanied by a hollowing out of democracy and its replacement with technocratic rule by globalized elites.

Mainstream theorists tend to see these developments as a puzzling departure from the promises of capitalism, but they would not have surprised Marx. He predicted that capitalism’s internal logic would over time lead to rising inequality, chronic unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, the dominance of large, powerful firms, and the creation of an entrenched elite whose power would act as a barrier to social progress. Eventually, the combined weight of these problems would spark a general crisis, ending in revolution.

Marx believed the revolution would come in the most advanced capitalist economies. Instead, it came in less developed ones, such as Russia and China, where communism ushered in authoritarian government and economic stagnation. During the middle of the twentieth century, meanwhile, the rich countries of Western Europe and the United States learned to manage, for a time, the instability and inequality that had characterized capitalism in Marx’s day. Together, these trends discredited Marx’s ideas in the eyes of many.

Yet despite the disasters of the Soviet Union and the countries that followed its model, Marx’s theory remains one of the most perceptive critiques of capitalism ever offered. Better than most, Marx understood the mechanisms that produce capitalism’s downsides and the problems that develop when governments do not actively combat them, as they have not for the past 40 years. As a result, Marxism, far from being outdated, is crucial for making sense of the world today.


The corpus of Marx’s work and the breadth of his concerns are vast, and many of his ideas on topics such as human development, ideology, and the state have been of perennial interest since he wrote them down. What makes Marx acutely relevant today is his economic theory, which he intended, as he wrote in Capital, “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” And although Marx, like the economist David Ricardo, relied on the flawed labor theory of value for some of his economic thinking, his remarkable insights remain.

Marx believed that under capitalism, the pressure on entrepreneurs to accumulate capital under conditions of market competition would lead to outcomes that are palpably familiar today. First, he argued that improvements in labor productivity created by technological innovation would largely be captured by the owners of capital. “Even when the real wages are rising,” he wrote, they “never rise proportionally to the productive power of labor.” Put simply, workers would always receive less than what they added to output, leading to inequality and relative immiseration.

Second, Marx predicted that competition among capitalists to reduce wages would compel them to introduce labor-saving technology. Over time, this technology would eliminate jobs, creating a permanently unemployed and underemployed portion of the population. Third, Marx thought that competition would lead to greater concentration in and among industries, as larger, more profitable firms drove smaller ones out of business. Since these larger firms would, by definition, be more competitive and technologically advanced, they would enjoy ever-increasing surpluses. Yet these surpluses would also be unequally distributed, compounding the first two dynamics.

Marx made plenty of mistakes, especially when it came to politics. Because he believed that the state was a tool of the capitalist class, he underestimated the power of collective efforts to reform capitalism. In the advanced economies of the West, from 1945 to around 1975, voters showed how politics could tame markets, putting officials in power who pursued a range of social democratic policies without damaging the economy. This period, which the French call “les Trente Glorieuses” (the Glorious Thirty), saw a historically unique combination of high growth, increasing productivity, rising real wages, technological innovation, and expanding systems of social insurance in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. For a while, it seemed that Marx was wrong about the ability of capitalist economies to satisfy human needs, at least material ones.


The postwar boom, it appears, was not built to last. It ultimately came to an end with the stagflationary crisis of the 1970s, when the preferred economic policy of Western social democracies—Keynesian state management of demand—seemed incapable of restoring full employment and profitability without provoking high levels of inflation. In response, leaders across the West, starting with French Prime Minister Raymond Barre, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, enacted policies to restore profitability by curbing inflation, weakening organized labor, and accommodating unemployment.

That crisis, and the recessions that followed, was the beginning of the end for the mixed economies of the West. Believing that government interference had begun to impede economic efficiency, elites in country after country sought to unleash the forces of the market by deregulating industries and paring back the welfare state. Combined with conservative monetary policies, independent central banks, and the effects of the information revolution, these measures were able to deliver low volatility and, beginning in the 1990s, higher profits. In the United States, corporate profits after tax (adjusted for inventory valuation and capital consumption) went from an average of 4.5 percent in the 25 years before President Bill Clinton took office, in 1993, to 5.6 percent from 1993 to 2017.

This sharp divergence in fortunes has been driven by, among other things, the fact that increases in productivity no longer lead to increases in wages in most advanced economies.

Yet in advanced democracies, the long recovery since the 1970s has proved incapable of replicating the broad-based prosperity of the mid-twentieth century. It has been marked instead by unevenness, sluggishness, and inequality. This sharp divergence in fortunes has been driven by, among other things, the fact that increases in productivity no longer lead to increases in wages in most advanced economies. Indeed, a major response to the profitability crisis of the 1970s was to nullify the postwar bargain between business and organized labor, whereby management agreed to raise wages in line with productivity increases. Between 1948 and 1973, wages rose in tandem with productivity across the developed world. Since then, they have become decoupled in much of the West. This decoupling has been particularly acute in the United States, where, in the four decades since 1973, productivity increased by nearly 75 percent, while real wages rose by less than ten percent. For the bottom 60 percent of households, wages have barely moved at all.

If the postwar boom made Marx seem obsolete, recent decades have confirmed his prescience. Marx argued that the long-run tendency of capitalism was to form a system in which real wages did not keep up with increases in productivity. This insight mirrors the economist Thomas Piketty’s observation that the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of economic growth, ensuring that the gap between those whose incomes derive from capital assets and those whose incomes derive from labor will grow over time.

Marx’s basis for the condemnation of capitalism was not that it made workers materially worse off per se. Rather, his critique was that capitalism put arbitrary limits on the productive capacity it unleashed. Capitalism was, no doubt, an upgrade over what came before. But the new software came with a bug. Although capitalism had led to previously unimaginable levels of wealth and technological progress, it was incapable of using them to meet the needs of all. This, Marx contended, was due not to material limitations but to social and political ones: namely, the fact that production is organized in the interests of the capitalist class rather than those of society as a whole. Even if individual capitalists and workers are rational, the system as a whole is irrational.

To be sure, the question of whether any democratically planned alternative to capitalism can do better remains open. Undemocratic alternatives, such as the state socialism practiced by the Soviet Union and Maoist China, clearly did not. One need not buy Marx’s thesis that communism is inevitable to accept the utility of his analysis.

Marx predicted that competition among capitalists to reduce wages would compel them to introduce labor-saving technology. Over time, this technology would eliminate jobs, creating a permanently unemployed and underemployed portion of the population. NOAH BERGER / REUTERS A Kiva robot moves inventory at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, California December 1, 2014.


Marx did not just predict that capitalism would lead to rising inequality and relative immiseration. Perhaps more important, he identified the structural mechanisms that would produce them. For Marx, competition between businesses would force them to pay workers less and less in relative terms as productivity rose in order to cut the costs of labor. As Western countries have embraced the market in recent decades, this tendency has begun to reassert itself.

Since the 1970s, businesses across the developed world have been cutting their wage bills not only through labor-saving technological innovations but also by pushing for regulatory changes and developing new forms of employment. These include just-in-time contracts, which shift risk to workers; noncompete clauses, which reduce bargaining power; and freelance arrangements, which exempt businesses from providing employees with benefits such as health insurance. The result has been that since the beginning of the twenty-first century, labor’s share of GDP has fallen steadily in many developed economies.

Competition also drives down labor’s share of compensation by creating segments of the labor force with an increasingly weak relationship to the productive parts of the economy—segments that Marx called “the reserve army of labor,” referring to the unemployed and underemployed. Marx thought of this reserve army as a byproduct of innovations that displaced labor. When production expanded, demand for labor would increase, drawing elements of the reserve army into new factories. This would cause wages to rise, incentivizing firms to substitute capital for labor by investing in new technologies, thus displacing workers, driving down wages, and swelling the ranks of the reserve army. As a result, wages would tend toward a “subsistence” standard of living, meaning that wage growth over the long run would be low to nonexistent. As Marx put it, competition drives businesses to cut labor costs, given the market’s “peculiarity that the battles in it are won less by recruiting than by discharging the army of workers.”

The United States has been living this reality for nearly 20 years. For five decades, the labor-force participation rate for men has been stagnant or falling, and since 2000, it has been declining for women, as well. And for more unskilled groups, such as those with less than a high school diploma, the rate of participation stands at below 50 percent and has for quite some time. Again, as Marx anticipated, technology amplifies these effects, and today, economists are once again discussing the prospect of the large-scale displacement of labor through automation. On the low end, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 14 percent of jobs in member countries, approximately 60 million in total, are “highly automatable.” On the high end, the consulting company McKinsey estimates that 30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated. These losses are expected to be concentrated among unskilled segments of the labor force.

Whether these workers can or will be reabsorbed remains an open question, and fear of automation’s potential to dislocate workers should avoid the so-called lump of labor fallacy, which assumes that there is only a fixed amount of work to be done and that once it is automated, there will be none left for humans. But the steady decline in the labor-force participation rate of working-age men over the last 50 years suggests that many dislocated workers will not be reabsorbed into the labor force if their fate is left to the market.

The same process that dislocates workers—technological change driven by competition—also produces market concentration, with larger and larger firms coming to dominate production. Marx predicted a world not of monopolies but of oligopolistic competition, in which incumbents enjoy monopolistic profits, smaller firms struggle to scrape by, and new entrants try to innovate in order to gain market share. This, too, resembles the present. Today, so-called superstar firms, which include companies such as Amazon, Apple, and FedEx, have come to dominate entire sectors, leaving new entrants attempting to break in through innovation. Large firms outcompete their opponents through innovation and network effects, but also by either buying them up or discharging their own reserve armies—that is, laying off workers.

Research by the economist David Autor and his colleagues suggests that the rise of superstar firms may indeed help explain labor’s declining share of national income across advanced economies. Because superstar firms are far more productive and efficient than their competitors, labor is a significantly lower share of their costs. Since 1982, concentration has been increasing in the six economic sectors that account for 80 percent of employment in the United States: finance, manufacturing, retail trade, services, wholesale trade, and utilities and transportation. And the more this concentration has increased, the more labor’s share of income has declined. In U.S. manufacturing, for example, labor compensation has declined from almost one-half of the value added in 1982 to about one-third in 2012. As these superstar firms have become more important to Western economies, workers have suffered across the board.


In 1957, at the height of Western Europe’s postwar boom, the economist Ludwig Erhard (who later became chancellor of West Germany) declared that “prosperity for all and prosperity through competition are inseparably connected; the first postulate identifies the goal, the second the path that leads to it.” Marx, however, seems to have been closer to the mark with his prediction that instead of prosperity for all, competition would create winners and losers, with the winners being those who could innovate and become efficient.

Innovation can lead to the development of new economic sectors, as well as new lines of goods and services in older ones. These can in principle absorb labor, reducing the ranks of the reserve army and increasing wages. Indeed, capitalism’s ability to expand and meet people’s wants and needs amazed Marx, even as he condemned the system’s wastefulness and the deformities it engendered in individuals.

For a period, it seemed that the children of the middle class had a fair shot at swapping places with the children of the top quintile. But as inequality rises, social mobility declines.

Defenders of the current order, especially in the United States, often argue that a focus on static inequality (the distribution of resources at a given time) obscures the dynamic equality of social mobility. Marx, by contrast, assumed that classes reproduce themselves, that wealth is transferred effectively between generations, and that the children of capitalists will exploit the children of workers when their time comes. For a period, it seemed that the children of the middle class had a fair shot at swapping places with the children of the top quintile. But as inequality rises, social mobility declines. Recent research by the economists Branko Milanovic and Roy van der Weide, for instance, has found that inequality hurts the income growth of the poor but not the rich. Piketty, meanwhile, has speculated that if current trends continue, capitalism could develop into a new “patrimonial” model of accumulation, in which family wealth trumps any amount of merit.


Marx’s overall worldview left little room for politics to mitigate the downsides of capitalism. As he and his collaborator Friedrich Engels famously stated in The Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Until recently, governments in the West seemed to be defying this claim. The greatest challenge to Marx’s view came from the creation and expansion of welfare states in the West during the mid-twentieth century, often (but not only) by social democratic parties representing the working class. The intellectual architect of these developments was the economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that economic activity was driven not by the investment decisions of capitalists but by the consumption decisions of ordinary people. If governments could use policy levers to increase overall demand, then the capitalist class would invest in production. Under the banner of Keynesianism, parties of both the center-left and the center-right achieved something that Marx thought was impossible: efficiency, equality, and full employment, all at the same time. Politics and policy had a degree of independence from economic structures, which in turn gave them an ability to reform those structures.

Marx believed in the independence of politics but thought that it lay only in the ability to choose between capitalism and another system altogether. He largely believed that it was folly to try to tame capitalist markets permanently through democratic politics. (In this, he ironically stands in agreement with the pro-capitalist economist Milton Friedman.)

Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the demands imposed by capital accumulation and profitability would always severely limit the choices available to governments and undermine the long-term viability of any reforms. The history of the developed world since the 1970s seems to have borne out that prediction. Despite the achievements of the postwar era, governments ultimately found themselves unable to overcome the limits imposed by capitalism, as full employment, and the labor power that came with it, reduced profitability. Faced with the competing demands of capitalists, who sought to undo the postwar settlement between capital and labor, and the people, who sought to keep it, states gave in to the former. In the long run, it was the economic interests of capital that won out over the political organization of the people.


Today, the question of whether politics can tame markets remains open. One reading of the changes in advanced economies since the 1970s is that they are the result capitalism’s natural tendency to overwhelm politics, democratic or otherwise. In this narrative, les Trente Glorieuses were a fluke. Under normal conditions, efficiency, full employment, and an egalitarian distribution of income cannot simultaneously obtain. Any arrangement in which they do is fleeting and, over the long run, a threat to market efficiency.

Yet this is not the only narrative. An alternative one would start with the recognition that the politics of capitalism’s golden age, which combined strong unions, Keynesian demand management, loose monetary policy, and capital controls, could not deliver an egalitarian form of capitalism forever. But it would not conclude that no other form of politics can ever do so.

The challenge today is to identify the contours of a mixed economy that can successfully deliver what the golden age did, this time with greater gender and racial equality to boot. This requires adopting Marx’s spirit, if not every aspect of his theories—that is, recognizing that capitalist markets, indeed capitalism itself, may be the most dynamic social arrangement ever produced by human beings. The normal state of capitalism is one in which, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air.” This dynamism means that achieving egalitarian goals will require new institutional configurations backed by new forms of politics.

As the crisis of the golden age was ramping up in the 1970s, the economist James Meade wondered what sorts of policies could save egalitarian, social democratic capitalism, recognizing that any realistic answer would have to involve moving beyond the limits of Keynesianism. His solution was to buttress the welfare state’s redistribution of income with a redistribution of capital assets, so that capital worked for everyone. Meade’s vision was not state ownership but a broad property-owning democracy in which wealth was more equally distributed because the distribution of productive capacity was more equal.

The point is not that broader capital ownership is a solution to the ills of capitalism in the present day, although it could be part of one. Rather, it is to suggest that if today’s egalitarian politicians, including Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, are to succeed in their projects of taming markets and revitalizing social democracy for the twenty-first century, it will not be with the politics of the past. As Marx recognized, under capitalism there is no going back.

June 25, 2018

Robert Brenner, Vivek Chibber, and the “organization question”

Filed under: Academia,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

Robert Brenner

Vivek Chibber

On Saturday, I received a communication that threw me for a loop:

Dear Friends,

Catalyst has stood out as a bright spot in a dark time for radical politics. I have served from the outset as co-editor of the journal along with Vivek Chibber. Nevertheless, Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, has seen fit to remove me from my position — without any warning, pretense of consultation, or plausible justification. A number of contributors to Catalyst are now stepping in to try to limit the damage that this coup will inflict. Their statement below represents the first step in the campaign.

Robert Brenner


Catalyst Contributors’ Protest Robert Brenner’s Dismissal from the Catalyst Co-editorship and Demand for his Reinstatement

We, the undersigned, are contributors to Catalyst, who have published or have been commissioned to publish articles in the journal. We are writing to protest the removal of Robert Brenner from his position as co-editor of the journal and to demand his reinstatement.

Co-editor Vivek Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, who is also publisher of Jacobin, made this move unilaterally, without warning, and without any pretense of consultation. Chibber has refused to discuss it with Brenner or to consider Brenner’s proposals for re-configuring Catalyst’s editorial procedures to meet Chibber’s concerns. Nor has Chibber been willing to talk with several of the signers of this statement who contacted him to work out a resolution.

Catalyst is produced by Jacobin, which has provided indispensable support for the journal across the board in terms of finance, production, design, and circulation, while granting its editors total autonomy in terms of its content, especially politics. Jacobin has established itself as one as of the left’s more important institutions. We want to make it abundantly clear that that this letter is in no way an attack on Jacobin and that we have no desire to harm it in any manner. Just the opposite.

So far, Catalyst has been a striking success. It has defined itself as a radical political journal devoted to further developing Marxist theory as an essential guide for political intervention. It has insisted that this development requires dialogue with non-Marxist radical traditions, as well as dissident strains of Marxism typically excluded from major socialist journals, and it has placed a high priority on seeing to it that they are represented in its pages.

Catalyst’s point of departure is that the fundamental goal of working class emancipation has not changed. But it recognizes that continuing transformations in capitalism, the working class, and society/culture have raised different problems than those posed in the last great period of mass mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s.

The journal has thus tried to nurture and publish new theoretical and empirical work to address these changes. Especially due to the globalized nature of the economy and its crisis, which has fueled austerity, neoliberalism, and a growing rightwing populism virtually everywhere, the working class and the left across the world now confront the same challenges simultaneously. Catalyst therefore sees building a coordinated, international political response as an immediate priority.

Catalyst has clearly struck a chord on the left, attracting a remarkable level of interest and rapid growth of subscriptions in a relatively short period of time. Robert Brenner, who co-edited the journal along with Vivek Chibber, was the journal’s founder and has been its central motivating force. Taking take nothing away from Chibber, who has made indispensable contributions in every respect. Brenner was uniquely responsible for enabling the journal to establish itself and flourish, contributing more than his share in every aspect of Catalyst’s work. Given the journal’s success, his dismissal from the position of co-editor makes no sense and is self-destructive for the journal. He must be reinstated.

Chibber, backed by Sunkara, has justified the change in editorship by claiming serious shortcomings in Brenner’s performance as co-editor. According to them, he did not shoulder his proper share of the editing, tended to be late with the editing he did do, and failed to find replacements when he failed to complete jobs on time, compelling Chibber to swoop in to save the day. The burden of Chibber’s case is that he essentially functioned as editor-in-chief, taking the main responsibility for the journal, and that Brenner assumed a lesser and subordinate role but refused to acknowledge it.

This claim has no validity. Quite the contrary. Brenner did a disproportionate share of the editing, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and did most of the substantial editing jobs, as can easily be demonstrated and directly documented. Many of us can personally attest to the high quality of Brenner’s editing, which resulted in making our articles significantly better.

Brenner forwarded to Sunkara and Chibber a systematic and comprehensive response, in which he refuted their arguments point by point, with accompanying evidence.(See Appendix on Distribution of Editing, with detailed documentation, in email accompanying this statement.) But they refused to reply, and, up to this point, have failed to counter any of his assertions. We can only conclude that their case against him was no more than window dressing to provide a cover for what they intended to do in any case.

Even if, for argument’s sake, Chibber had done much more work for the journal than Brenner, we would still have to condemn this takeover as unprincipled and unproductive. What the journal needs now to build most effectively on its success is to broaden its editorial capacity, not narrow it further. A larger editorial board reflecting a greater range of left political perspectives would surely enhance the journal.

It gives us no pleasure to write this letter, but we feel we have no choice. The left, yet again, is digging its own grave, undermining its own achievements. No sooner did Catalyst establish itself as a useful institution, than it was dismantled from within via a Chibber-initiated coup. Given that the expulsion is so plainly self-destructive, it is actually quite difficult to figure out what really motivated it. A single individual’s grab for power and recognition? An unstated political agenda?

Whatever was behind it, the move must be reversed. We therefore call on Sunkara, who as publisher has final authority, and Chibber to re-instate Brenner. We ourselves hereby announce that we will not contribute to Catalyst unless and until Brenner is brought back as co-editor. We call on all others to similarly refuse to cooperate with the journal, as authors or in other capacities, until Chibber and Sunkara make that happen. We encourage those who support this effort to let Chibber and Sunkara know your opinion by emailing them directly.


Mike Davis
Aijaz Ahmad
Sam Ashman
Sam Farber
Mike Goldfield
Costas Lapavitsas
CK Lee
Zach Levenson
Isidro Lopez
Kim Moody
Trevor Ngwane
Mike Parker
Charlie Post
Suzi Weissman
Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos

The link above directed one to Brenner’s page at Catalyst, where the above statement appeared. You can still get to the page but the statement is gone. All you get is a blank page. Nice.

Mike Davis minced no words:

The Millennial generation’s enthusiasm for ‘socialism,’ however vaguely defined, is truly the horizon of hope in this otherwise darkening age. But, frankly speaking, Marxists have done a poor job of arming radical passions with deep analyses of the world crisis, its class actors, and emergent social movements. Catalyst – published by Jacobin and co-edited by Bob Brenner and Vivek Chibber- was launched last year precisely to provide a quality forum for such debates and explorations. It has surpassed all expectations in attracting exciting articles from a rapidly-growing and diverse community of contributors.

So why kill this vital force in its crib? For reasons which he disdains to explain to contributors and readers, Chibber has ‘fired’ Brenner with the complicity of Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who controls the means of production. Rumor from the New York side insinuates that Brenner failed to fulfill his share of editorial work, but as the erstwhile ‘associate editor’ I can assure you that this is completely untrue. If anything, Brenner assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for editing articles, commissioning pieces and giving direction to the journal. He also lent it an intellectual prestige and political seriousness which I very much doubt Chibber, even with Sunkara’s support, can sustain.

Brenner has made desperate and sincere efforts to save the collaboration but they have been dismissed with a wave of Sunkara’s hand. Should the rest of us, who so enthusiastically rallied to Catalyst, simply acquiesce and eat cake? Certainly not – the project – the collective property of the contributors, must go on. Please stay tuned.

Today, Sunkara defended himself and Chibber on FB, likely pissing off even more those who wrote the statement:

There has not been a “coup” of any kind at Catalyst. We did not kick Robert Brenner off the journal. Rather, we asked him to move to being “Founding and Associate Editor,” which would still give him substantial influence in the journal’s direction, but would enable us to overcome the problems we were facing owing to his difficulties in meeting deadlines and carrying through on his commitments.

From the very inception of the journal it had led to serious problems with production. We did, in fact, try different solutions to make it work and had extensive conversations with Bob and others about this. But by late 2017 it reached a breaking point, when the journal was delayed for two consecutive issues – the second one being two months. And at the end of it, the material he had committed to acquiring and editing was not delivered at all, or was of a quality unsuitable for publication. Problems like this were now not only paralyzing Catalyst but also started to bleed over into the production of other projects. No quarterly journal can survive delays of this length and this frequency.

This is why we decided to suggest a change in responsibilities. It would be highly irrational for us to have taken this step if Brenner had indeed been shouldering most of the responsibility, as he claims. Why would I agree to “fire” him if this was the case? We have a long history with Brenner and respect him greatly. But not everyone can do everything, and shouldering the day-to-day responsibilities of a journal turned out not to be one of his strengths. We hoped that as Founding & Associate Editor he would still be able to lend his considerable talents to the project, without being a bottleneck in its production. We regret that we had to take this step, but there seemed little choice.

The campaign he is waging is self-indulgent and destructive. He cannot force himself onto a journal, if the people there feel that they can’t rely on him. Obviously, it’s unfortunate, but the old arrangement just wasn’t working.

On the bright side, we’ve managed to finalize three issues over the last six months that are of really great quality and Catalyst is still growing at the rate of around 75-100 subscribers a week.

This is the last thing we’ll have to say on this matter – though if you have any questions you can contact Vivek or myself personally.

The controversy has generated comments from NYU professors where Chibber is based. Nikil Singh, who is a critic of the Brenner thesis—at least as applied to American slavery after the fashion of Charles Post, tweeted this:

It’s Ironic that Jacobin, which prides itself on being an engaged alternative to insular campus left politics has chosen as its in-house intellectual someone whose politics is defined by seminar room victories and the worst kinds of petty, internecine intra-academic warfare.

Not long after the tweet appeared, he deleted it. I suppose he didn’t want to antagonize Chibber or fellow Political Marxist don in the sociology department Jeff Goodwin, who defended him and Sunkara on FB:

This statement rings true to me. Vivek Chibber has been a leading proponent of the work of Robert Brenner, who was central to his very formation as a Marxist. Chibber recently worked hard to secure a teaching position for Brenner at NYU, an effort scuttled by people hostile to Marxism. I know Chibber extremely well — we have been colleagues for many years — and I have never heard him express the slightest ill will toward Brenner. Quite the contrary. The idea that Chibber would try to drive Brenner off the journal Catalyst, which the two of them co-founded, for some unspecified but nefarious purpose doesn’t make sense to me.

Of course, it was true that Chibber was a leading proponent of Brenner’s work, a disciple actually. He was also very tight with Charles Post, another Brennerite, who got on his wrong side after criticizing an idiotic article that Chibber wrote for Jacobin ruling out socialist revolution for the foreseeable future. For Chibber, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.” His article is standard issue social democratic reformism, hardly distinct from what you might read in Dissent magazine as I pointed out here: https://louisproyect.org/2018/02/26/vivek-chibbers-apolitical-marxism/

Many years ago, when I was being trained in the Trotskyist movement, James P. Cannon’s “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” was required reading. This was his account of the fight with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in 1939 over the class character of the USSR. The term “organization question” is referenced heavily throughout. For Cannon, this was the Achilles Heel of the “petty-bourgeois” opposition that harped on things like his top-heavy leadership (true, I’m sure) rather than the underlying theoretical questions. Cannon wrote:

What is the significance of the organisation question as such in a political party? Does it have an independent significance of its own on the same plane with political differences, or even standing above them? Very rarely. And then only transiently, for the political line breaks through and dominates the organisation question every time. This is one of the first ABC lessons of party politics, confirmed by all experience.

In his notorious document entitled “Science and Style”, Burnham writes: “The second central issue is the question of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party.” In reality the opposition tried from the beginning of the dispute to make the question of the “regime” the first issue; the basic cadres of the opposition were recruited precisely on this issue before the fundamental theoretical and political differences were fully revealed and developed.

This method of struggle is not new. The history of the revolutionary labour movement since the days of the First International is an uninterrupted chronicle of the attempts of petty-bourgeois groupings and tendencies of all kinds to recompense themselves for their theoretical and political weakness by furious attacks against the “organisational methods” of the Marxists. And under the heading of organisational methods, they included everything from the concept of revolutionary centralism up to routine matters of administration; and beyond that to the personal manners and methods of their principled opponents, which they invariably describe as “bad”, “harsh”, “tyrannical”, and—of course, of course, of course—“bureaucratic”. To this day any little group of anarchists will explain to you how the “authoritarian” Marx mistreated Bakunin.

As it happens, both Brenner and Chibber are susceptible to prioritizing the “organization question”. I say this because someone privy to the feud informed me:

As I understand it, Brenner gave a ten or so page critique of an article Chibber had for the magazine (Catalyst) the long and short of which was that Chibber’s piece was fatally flawed. All said in the best academese of course.

So political differences will likely be papered over in order turn this into a Human Resources grievance. Who really believes that Brenner and one of his best known and most obsequious disciples were butting heads over whether he was keeping up with his editorial duties?

I don’t.

My advice is to look for the next issue of the Catalyst to read Chibber’s article. You can only guess what Brenner thought of it but are not likely to see any critique since he is not really in the habit of duking it out publicly with the exception of his NLR article about the 1997 financial crisis. Of course, that was easier to take part in since it involved rather cut-and-dry questions of how to understand the declining rate of profit and other key indicators. Having it out with one of his erstwhile devotees is probably not something Brenner has a stomach for although the sharp-elbowed Chibber would probably like to bring it on.

What lessons can we draw from all this? Brenner became the high priest of Political Marxism forty-one years ago after attacking Paul Sweezy in the NLR as a neo-Smithian Marxist. Hinging on your agreement that capitalism originated in the British countryside because of historical contingencies that gave birth to tenant farming, you were qualified to become a Marxist mandarin. He concluded his lengthy article with this:

The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.

Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be lined up with the “leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution.” 1977. Those were the days. Within a couple of years, Jack Barnes would be speaking in the same terms about developing a flawless revolutionary movement except in his case it was abandoning Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rather than upholding arcane arguments about tenant farming.

Oddly enough as the left breaks with this kind of dogmatism that leads to needless splits, it is the cult of Political Marxism that is now embroiled in the same kind of feuds we used to see in the heyday of Trotskyism and Maoism. In our days, the prize was to become a Leninist vanguard. Today, it is being an editor of a quasi-academic journal like Catalyst.



Statement by David McNally on FB:

On the Uproar about Catalyst

These are trying times for the emerging New Left. While the old is dying, to paraphrase Gramsci, the new cannot yet be born. Thus, alongside, intimations of hope and new waves of resistance, we encounter a proliferation of “morbid symptoms.” It is difficult not to worry that the uproar at Catalyst, the journal associated with Jacobin magazine, is another case in point.

The uproar seems to originate in efforts to demote or fire Bob Brenner from his position as co-editor of Catalyst, in which role he served with Vivek Chibber. I am not privy to the internal machinations involved in Brenner’s removal/demotion, but when Mike Davis (the journal’s associate editor) says the rationale used is “completely untrue” I am inclined to pay close attention. Even more significant is what this direction would seem to signal for the project of building a new radical left.

From the start, many of us recognized the need for a serious U.S.-based journal of rigorously socialist analysis that could speak to a new generation of leftward-moving radicals. At the same time, many of us also felt that the Catalyst project would need to be expanded and opened up—to activists and theorists leading struggles against racism and police violence, organizing for migrant justice, fighting for gender and LGBTQ liberation, doing grassroots organizing in union, campus, and environmental justice campaigns, and so on. Ultimately, a journal of a real socialist movement has to be rooted in and accountable to a network of thousands of contributors, subscribers, readers, and activists who identify with and support its political project. And it can only achieve this by demonstrating that, notwithstanding who owns it, in practice it is a collective project “owned” by the movement that sustains it.

After Catalyst was launched, I had the opportunity to raise these points with Bob Brenner, and found him to be highly supportive of this perspective. Instead, however, Catalyst is shrinking its editors (to one)—and losing, it would seem, its associate editor, Mike Davis—at the very time it should be moving in the opposite direction.

Nearly twenty years ago, Ellen Meiksins Wood was purged from her editorship at Monthly Review. Hundreds of us wrote to MR, imploring it to reverse this disastrous decision. We had been thrilled by the new voices and perspectives Ellen had brought to MR, and we asked the Board that owned the review to reinstate her as an editor. They refused. MR severely damaged its standing on the wider left, and has never again played the role that it did in the mid- to late-1990s when Ellen was on board. The decision to turn their backs on hundreds of us who contributed to and subscribed to its journal, and who were spokespersons for it within a broad left, irreparably damaged MR’s political project, while also associating it with purges and bureaucratic edicts.

One would like to think that those who own and control Catalyst have the capacity to step back, regroup, and rethink. When a large layer of a journal’s contributors denounces an organizational maneuver (as they have in the case of Brenner’s removal/demotion), the warning signs are blinking brightly. Catalyst may well continue in spite of such maneuvers, but it will be very difficult for it to fulfill its initial promise. One can only hope that morbid symptoms will not prevail. We have been down that road before, and it is not a good one.

June 24, 2018

El Salvador, MS-13, and the war on immigrants

Filed under: immigration — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

MS-13 members

Bashing the MS-13 is the calling card of the Trump administration in its nativist bid to defeat the Democrats in the midterm elections. Here’s some background. In his State of the Union Address on January 30, 2018, Trump mentioned the youth gang even more times than ISIS. This was typical: “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country.  We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.” That set the tone for everything that has been going on in Texas.

As should be obvious, Trump makes no attempts to distinguish between people fleeing the violence that MS-13 carries out and MS-13 itself. On May 16th, Trump stated during a roundtable discussion on immigration: “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.” When taken to task for calling immigrants “animals”, Trump answered that he was only referring to MS-13 members. Among those speaking out against Trump were Diane Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi who were then charged with being pro-MS-13.

In a May 23rd speech in Bethpage, NY, a town in Suffolk County that abuts Long Island and that has a large immigrant population, he beat the drums once again: “In Maryland, MS-13 gang members are accused of stabbing a man 100 times, decapitating him and ripping out his heart.”

On May 29th, he attacked the Democrat running for Senate in Tennessee by linking him to Nancy Pelosi and MS-13: “I’ve never heard of this guy — who is he? He’s an absolute tool of Chuck Schumer, and of course the MS-13 lover Nancy Pelosi.” You got the same thing from Mike Huckabee, Sarah Sanders’s dad:

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 2.34.58 PM

That’s how people like Trump and Huckabee operate. If Trump is called out for using the word “animal”, that automatically turns the Democrats calling him out into supporters of MS-13. And not only are they animals, they are like rats “infesting” the USA. On June 19th, Trump tweeted: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”

And only two days ago, Trump met with “angel families” who had lost children to undocumented immigrants as a way of equating them with those whose children had been taken away by ICE on the border. He was as demagogic as ever: “Where is the condemnation of the Democrats’ sanctuary cities that release violent criminals into our communities and then protect them? … Where is the outcry over the savage gang MS-13 and its bloodthirsty creed: kill, rape and control?”

In years past, the Republicans used this kind of scare tactic mostly against African-Americans rather than immigrants. For example, when George Bush ’41 ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988, the Republicans ran ads incessantly about a prisoner named Willie Horton who raped and killed on a weekend furlough program that Dukakis had supported in Massachusetts but not initiated when he was governor. Some analysts believe that this was key to Bush’s victory.

To give you an idea of how key MS-13 is to Trump’s nativist crusade, a Nexis search revealed 64 articles in the NY Times and Washington Post dating back to Trump’s inauguration that contain a reference to Trump and MS-13. You might say that MS-13 has replaced al-Qaeda as the favorite scare word now that immigration has replaced Islamophobia as America’s latest obsession.

Not that there weren’t attempts to make an amalgam between MS-13 and al-Qaeda. In 2005, the ultraright Washington Times reported that “A top al Qaeda lieutenant has met with leaders of a violent Salvadoran criminal gang with roots in Mexico and the United States — including a stronghold in the Washington area — in an effort by the terrorist network to seek help infiltrating the U.S.-Mexico border, law enforcement authorities said.” Of course, there was no basis for this.

After seeing so many references to MS-13 recently, I decided to do a little research starting with what MS-13 stands for. That happens to be Mara Salvatrucha, which is a combination of gang (the slang word for mara) and supposedly the guerrillas who fought in El Salvador in the 1980s. I found this unlikely since there is nothing that would indicate any identification with the FMLN. Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post claims that the gang supports the FMLN ruling party in El Salvador but as you might expect from this lurid tabloid, no evidence is offered except the allegation that there was correspondence between President Funes and MS-13 that “promised cash payments and special privileges for imprisoned gang members, even slots for their children in the nation’s police academy.” The article was written by Roger Noriega, who was head of AID in El Salvador when Reagan was President so you are getting the same kind of fake news you got in the Washington Times about a link to al-Qaeda.

There is a connection between the FMLN and MS-13 but not in the way that Noriega puts it. In the 1980s about 20 percent of El Salvador’s population left the country to avoid the brutal counter-insurgency funded by the Reagan administration. The struggle between the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and the Salvador government was something I was deeply involved with for most of the early 80s as a member of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.)

I’ll never forget reading an article by Leslie Gelb in the NY Times on November 29, 1981 titled “Superpower Tactics Change but Policies Remain In Conflict” that warned: “The two countries are on conflicting courses, directly and indirectly, all over the globe – in Central America, Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia. And they are locked in a titanic embrace over the greatest prize of all, Europe. Underlining the seriousness of the situation, both sides are proceeding with plans for more guns and less butter.” I cared more about Central America than the other zones of conflict for the simple reason that identified with the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and Nicaragua (who had taken power two years earlier.)

When I discovered that the SWP, from which I had resigned two years earlier, had abstained from any solidarity activity on behalf of the FMLN that was in the countryside fending off the American-backed military, I got in touch with Peter Camejo to ask why the party had paid so little attention to El Salvador except for articles paying lip-service. He urged me to join CISPES and help out building the North Star Network, something that got me on the road I am still on today.

In “Lenin in Context”, an article I wrote about 25 years ago, I tried to theorize what the FMLN represented:

On July 30, 1975 the Salvadoran army fired on a peaceful demonstration of students. Government troops killed dozens of people. The event had as much of a galvanizing effect on Salvadoran society as the Kent State murders had in the United States. A number of distinct student groups coalesced together at this time and formed the “People’s Revolutionary Bloc” (BPR). Most people called it “el Bloque”. This was a new type of organization that began to typify the Salvadoran popular movement. These organizations of students, workers, women or peasants participated in political discussions for the first time in their lives. They worked in these organizations as an alternative to vanguardist or electoralist formations. They participated in civil disobedience, mass demonstrations and rallies.

Eventually a coalition of left and centrist politicians came together in the “Democratic Revolutionary Front.” The most famous member of this formation was Guillermo Ungo, a member of the government in 1972 along with Jose Duarte. When the army launched a coup, Duarte remained in office while Ungo went into opposition.

Another important step forward occurred when the Communist Party of El Salvador decided to participate in the armed struggle. Their leader Shafiq Handal became an important and well-known guerrilla leader. The evolution of the CP in El Salvador indicated that years of sectarianism were dissolving at last. The movement included both Shafiq Handal and Guillermo Ungo.

All of these groups and individuals came to the realization that they had to unite to become effective. Once again, Guevara’s observation that, “Every revolution always incorporates elements of very different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the revolution’s most immediate objectives” was vindicated. They achieved such unity when they formed the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). The FMLN was the umbrella group that coordinated the armed struggle, while the FDR under Ungo’s leadership conducted the legal struggle.

The FMLN was confronting one of the most class-divided societies in the world. When I joined CISPES, I read a number of books about Salvadoran history including Robert Armstrong and Janet Schenk’s “El Salvador: The Face of Revolution”. I also began to subscribe to NACLA, at which the authors served as editors. A 1981 article titled “Entering the Quagmire” should help you understand why a Vietnam era activist like me would consider El Salvador as a key anti-imperialist battleground:

Comparisons between El Salvador and Vietnam are heard frequently these days-in Congress, at protest rallies, in editorials and at State Department briefings. Some see dangerous parallels between the two wars, while others dismiss the Vietnam analogy as “an exercise in emotion, not analysis.”

After careful examination, we think the analogy to Vietnam is appropriate and even compelling. It has been injected into the policy debate on El Salvador not by “nervous Nellies,” as Senator Jesse Helms would have it, nor by loose leftist rhetoric. The Administration itself, by replaying the rationales and formulas of the 1960s, has evoked the memory of Vietnam and made the analogy stick.

The official rationale for more arms and advisers to El Salvador plugs new variables into an old equation. Substitute Soviet expansionism for “the red tide of communism in Asia.” Plug in Cuba as the surrogate where North Vietnam once fit. Add the FMLN guerrillas as the new puppets of a foreign master. Stretch the equation across the Central American isthmus to imperil Mexico, the super-domino that succeeds Japan as the ultimate target of this creeping menace. You now have the all-purpose formula for explaining to the American people why U.S. prestige is at stake in a country so intrinsically unimportant to U.S. interests and security.

There was another way in which analogies with South Vietnam made sense. The were both countries that called out for radical land reform. During the civil war, the military and the landlords were in a tight alliance. Writing for the NY Times Magazine in February 22, 1981, Raymond Bonner described the suffering of the rural poor:

A company president educated in the United States offered the same explanation in fewer words: ”It is a class war.” Until recently, the top 5 percent of the population received 38 percent of the income. Fewer than 2 percent owned more than half of the viable farmland, which they planted with coffee, sugar cane and cotton for export. Malnutrition is endemic in El Salvador, and the infant mortality rate is twice that of Cuba, four times that of the United States. Functional illiteracy among the peasants approaches 95 percent.

And some 60 percent of El Salvador’s population is rural, living in isolated valleys or mountain hamlets. Wooden-yoked oxen draw carts that ride on solid wooden wheels. Hundreds of thousands of peasants live in hovels made of packed mud; naked children with swollen bellies and open sores wander among the grunting pigs, garbage and flies. Their mothers and sisters trudge for an hour or more to the nearest well for water, carried in gourd-shaped plastic containers balanced on their heads.

Meanwhile, in San Salvador, at the foot of a forested volcano, brick walls hide $500,000 houses. Many of them are now abandoned, their owners off to what were once their second homes in Miami and Guatemala City.

It was this kind of writing that finally cost Raymond Bonner his job. Abe Rosenthal considered Bonner far too radical a reporter even though he was telling the truth. He reassigned him to the business section where his radicalism would be safely contained. Fed up with this kind of interference, he relocated to the New Yorker.

After the war ended in 1992 and the FMLN began functioning as a legal party, some of these inequalities were remedied. As was the case in Nicaragua, small plots were awarded to combatants on either side of the civil war.

Despite the land reform, El Salvador remained a poverty-stricken country and, as such, a breeding ground for gangs. Joining the first wave of immigrants to the USA, a new wave took shape after the government cracked down on young criminals under the Mano Dura (hard hand) program. Despite the accusations of Roger Noriega, the FMLN has been just as tough on the criminal young as previous regimes. In 2010, Mauricio Funes criminalized gang affiliations and deployed 2,800 soldiers to assist the cops after gang began robbing buses.

It turns out that MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles rather than El Salvador. Modeling themselves on the Crips and the Bloods, the gangsters soon became a powerful presence in the city. Police crackdowns on MS-13 led to members being deported to El Salvador where they began recruiting local youth to the gang.

Despite the lurid coverage they get in the press and warnings that they are as big a threat as al-Qaeda, there are no indications that the purpose of MS-13 is to commit crimes. It functions as a support network for marginalized youth as has always been the case for immigrant youth living in poverty and facing discrimination.

Although Trump is a habitual liar, he was telling the truth when he alluded to an attack in Maryland that left an unidentified youth beheaded by MS-13. Out in Suffolk County, where Trump targets as a place open to his nativism, there were attacks in late 2016 that left local residents in shock. On September 13th, the battered bodies of Nisa Mickens, 15, and her best friend, Kayla Cuevas, 16, were found near an elementary school here. A week later and just two miles away, the skeletal remains of Oscar Acosta, 19, and Miguel Garcia-Moran, 15, were found in the woods near a psychiatric hospital. You’ll note that three of the four dead youths are Latinos. This is just what you’d expect in a town that is over 54 percent Latino.

Trump invited Evelyn Rodriguez, who is the mother of Kayla Cuevas, to be a guest of the White House when he gave his State of the Union address that kept referring to MS-13. In an interview with the NY Times, she explained her views on the family tragedy within the context of the immigration crisis: “I want him to ensure that we’re going to get the proper funding for the resources for our kids. I’m not here for anybody’s political gain. I just want what’s right to be done. Everybody should put their political agenda aside and think about what’s going on in our country.” She probably spoke for 90 percent of the Latino population in the USA on this.

My guess is that a lot of the hatred directed toward immigrants is rooted in the Great White Fear of losing control of the country. Ruled by whites ever since the time of George Washington, demographic changes threaten the nativist core that has been rotting away in the country’s body for nearly 250 years. The Applied Population Lab of the University of Wisconsin in Madison published a study by Rogelio Sáenz and Kenneth M. Johnson titled “White Deaths Exceed Births in a Majority of U.S. States”  that had a prediction that probably keeps people like Donald Trump, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter up at night:

The growing natural decline among whites in U.S. states contributes to the larger racial/ethnic shifts occurring in the U.S. population. As white natural increase has diminished, the share of the U.S. population that is white has declined from 79.6 percent in 1980 to 61.3 percent in 2016. Census Bureau projections suggest that the white population will begin to decline in absolute numbers between 2030 and 2040, and that by 2050 whites will constitute less than half (47 percent) of the U.S. population.

  1. I only wish I could live so long. Maybe I should look into cryogenics.

June 22, 2018

A Nikolaus Geyrhalter Retrospective on DVD

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 22, 2018

If the goal of a film, whether fictional or documentary, is to show rather than tell, then Nikolaus Geyrhalter is in a class by himself. Born in 1972, the Austrian documentary filmmaker has 52 credits to his name. Six of his greatest works have now been collected into a DVD set that is available from Icarus, a distributor of leading-edge, left-of-center films based in Brooklyn (where else?).

My initial exposure to Geyrhalter was back in 2006, when my review of “Our Daily Bread” referred to its preference for “showing” rather than “telling”:

“Our Daily Bread” studiously avoids editorializing of any sort. The images themselves are sufficient to reveal food production as a mix of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat,” a 1976 documentary about the livestock business that “Our Daily Bread” clearly reflects. The main difference between Wiseman and Geyrhalter is that the latter eschews sensationalism of all sorts. While his film might lack the visceral impact of Wiseman’s, it is arguably more persuasive because it depicts the food industry as somehow inextricably linked to advances in technology and science. Geyrhalter challenges the audience to reject the paradigm set forth in his film. In so doing, they might be rejecting civilization as we know it.

A decade later I saw another Geyrhalter film titled “Homo Sapiens”, that like “Our Daily Bread”, defiantly lacked a single spoken word either by through narration or dialog. Nor is there a film score, one of the more annoying and omnipresent presences in documentary films today.

This silent film, however, did not need much “telling” since the images and haunting background sounds spoke for themselves. You see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. Once again, sans narration, you can only surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located. You get some of the same feeling of desolation and loss traveling around Sullivan County where I grew up—the Borscht Belt. When I strolled around the ruins of the once glamorous and thriving Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, I could not help but feel that I was in a kind of graveyard.

Continue reading

June 19, 2018

Commentary on Sovietologist Stephen Kotkin

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

Two days ago, I was invited by an old Bardian (literally and figuratively) to comment on the lecture above given by Stephen Kotkin to the National History Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington:

Take the time to listen to and watch this video in its entirety.

It deals with the Soviet Union and Communism, Socialism, Fascism, the “Popular Front” in the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Finish Winter War, the Russian Japanese War war and the latter’s influence on Stalin’s invasion of Poland, the personalities of Stalin and Hitler as different types of gamblers, and many other topics.

Needless to say, these are questions that I have dealt with for the past half-century but from a different perspective than Kotkin, who is a Sovietologist in the mode of Richard Pipes, Adam Ulam, Robert Conquest, Martin Malia, et al. I confess to having never read a Sovietologist except for Stephen F. Cohen, who taught at Princeton like Kotkin. Although not a Marxist, Cohen was a scrupulous scholar, even being asked to be a witness for the SWP in its suit against the FBI in the 1970s. I was at the trial when Cohen told Judge Griesa that the Russian Revolution was backed by the overwhelming majority of the population and not a violent coup.

Kotkin, on the other hand, has referred to it in v. 1 of his biography of Josef Stalin, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928”, as “the Bolshevik putsch”; “the Bolshevik October 1917 coup, nominally against the Provisional Government but really against the Soviet”; “the far-fetched Bolshevik coup”; “this crazy putsch”; and “Lenin’s shock coup of 1917”. These are references from a four-part critique of v. 1 on the World Socialist Web Site, a group I have little use for except for its film reviews and its commentary on Sovietology.

Kotkin was at the National History Center to discuss v. 2 of the biography titled “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941”. This is a period I am pretty familiar with, having written at some length about the famine in Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization, the joint occupation of Poland by Hitler and Stalin in 1940, the Spanish Civil War, etc. My views are largely influenced by what Leon Trotsky has written but not uncritically. In his debates with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in the late 30s prompted to a large extent by Stalin’s foreign policy during the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, Trotsky tended to bend the stick against Shachtman and Burnham who he considered to be reflecting anti-Communist prejudices. As it turns out, they would both eventually become Cold Warriors but in 1938 Trotsky was not clear enough about the rights of Poland and Finland vis-à-vis the USSR when he wrote:

Under the conditions of World War, to approach the question of the fate of small states from the standpoint of “national independence,” “neutrality,” etc., is to remain in the sphere of imperialist mythology.

I would not have put it this way myself, especially in light of the Katyn Massacre.

I suspect that Kotkin reprised some of the analysis in v. 1 of his biography since he begins his lecture by challenging Trotsky’s assessment of Stalin as an “outstanding mediocrity”. For Kotkin, Stalin was a Bolshevik with “surpassing organizational abilities; a mammoth appetite for work; a strategic mind and an unscrupulousness that recalled his master teacher, Lenin.” In keeping with Sovietologist norms, Kotkin views Stalin as Lenin’s heir. As there is a red stain of “unscrupulousness” that runs through Marx to Lenin to Stalin, we are advised to be staunch anti-Communists in order to preserve capitalism freedom in the USA even though it is destroying the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Since Lenin supposedly imposed a coup in October, 1917 in defiance of the majority of Russians, naturally that inspired Stalin to use dictatorial methods to retain power. While I do not have plans to read anything that Kotkin has written, I would be curious to see how he explains away Stalin’s opposition to taking power in October, 1917, seeing Kerensky’s Provisional Government as the legitimate expression of democracy in Russia, just like Kotkin.

To make the case for Lenin being Stalin’s ideological godfather, Kotkin has to account for Lenin’s Testament that stated:

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.

Kotkin believes these sentences were forged since Lenin must have been too ill to have written them. Fellow Sovietologist Richard Pipes, who was much less impressed with Stalin than Kotkin, defended the authenticity of the Testament in a NY Review article on v. 1 of Kotkin’s bio that is fortunately not behind a paywall. He reminds his readers that Lenin’s disavowal of Stalin did not come out of the blue. He had grown increasingly alarmed over Stalin’s rudeness, especially when it came to his wife:

In January 1923 another incident occurred that further alienated Lenin from Stalin. Lenin congratulated Trotsky for having won a battle over foreign trade. Stalin promptly learned of this communication. He telephoned Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, rudely criticized her for “informing Lenin about party and state affairs” in violation of the rules he had established, and threatened her with an investigation. Having hung up the phone, Krupskaya became hysterical, sobbing and rolling on the floor. When he learned of this incident several months later, Lenin sent Stalin the following note:

Respected Comrade Stalin!

You had the rudeness to telephone my wife and abuse her. Although she had told you of her willingness to forget what you had said…I have no intention of forgetting so easily what is done against me, and, needless to say, I consider whatever is done to my wife to be directed also against myself. For this reason I request you to inform me whether you agree to retract what you have said and apologize, or prefer a breach of relations between us.

Most of Kotkin’s talk was taken up with a discussion of the USSR’s relations to Germany that were supposedly proof of Stalin’s foreign policy deftness. As part of Stalin’s “socialism in one country” doctrine, the October revolution was only possible because of WWI. Without the millions lost in the trenches, class peace would have prevailed. So, he developed the brilliant insight that only a new world war would recreate such conditions and make socialist revolution feasible once again. In practical terms, this meant driving an even bigger wedge between Germany and the WWI than pre-existing one that grew out of the punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles. This was a precondition for a new world war that would trigger socialist revolution. This is nearly as insane as the Argentine Trotskyist Posada advocating that the USSR launch a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S. so that socialism could emerge out of the radioactive rubble.

Missing from Kotkin’s dubious analysis is an engagement with the class basis of a Germany-USSR alliance. This is fresh in my mind since I have recently been reading about Paul Levi, a German Communist leader who opposed the Comintern’s reckless support for the seizure of power in Germany in 1921 in isolation from the Socialist Party that had majority support in the working class. Levi instead advocated an alliance between Germany and the USSR based on a revolutionary internationalist program. A workers government made up of a bloc between the SP and the CP in Germany would create what amounted to a leftist trade bloc that would exchange German machinery and expertise for Soviet oil and grain. This is what the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo was intended to carry out.

Any resemblance between the Treaty of Rapallo and the Ribbentrop-Molotov nonaggression pace is purely coincidental, even though Kotkin spends much of his talk trying to equate them. Nazi Germany was the outcome of the overthrow of the Socialist-led Weimar Republic. While the USSR had every right to negotiate non-aggression pacts with any state power on the planet, it only turned to Adolf Hitler when attempts to form a bloc with the democracies failed. This was made clear in 2008 when a trove of secret Kremlin documents were uncovered as the London Telegraph reported:

Papers which were kept secret for almost 70 years show that the Soviet Union proposed sending a powerful military force in an effort to entice Britain and France into an anti-Nazi alliance.

Such an agreement could have changed the course of 20th century history, preventing Hitler’s pact with Stalin which gave him free rein to go to war with Germany’s other neighbours.

The offer of a military force to help contain Hitler was made by a senior Soviet military delegation at a Kremlin meeting with senior British and French officers, two weeks before war broke out in 1939.

The new documents, copies of which have been seen by The Sunday Telegraph, show the vast numbers of infantry, artillery and airborne forces which Stalin’s generals said could be dispatched, if Polish objections to the Red Army crossing its territory could first be overcome.

But the British and French side – briefed by their governments to talk, but not authorised to commit to binding deals – did not respond to the Soviet offer, made on August 15, 1939. Instead, Stalin turned to Germany, signing the notorious non-aggression treaty with Hitler barely a week later.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the foreign secretaries of the two countries, came on August 23 – just a week before Nazi Germany attacked Poland, thereby sparking the outbreak of the war. But it would never have happened if Stalin’s offer of a western alliance had been accepted, according to retired Russian foreign intelligence service Major General Lev Sotskov, who sorted the 700 pages of declassified documents.

“This was the final chance to slay the wolf, even after [British Conservative prime minister Neville] Chamberlain and the French had given up Czechoslovakia to German aggression the previous year in the Munich Agreement,” said Gen Sotskov, 75.

I suppose that Kotkin might have characterized such documents as being forged, just like Lenin’s Testament, but I don’t have plans to read his book to find out.

For Kotkin, Stalin’s non-aggression pact was just one more example of his strategic adroitness. It showed that rather than being an “outstanding mediocrity”, he was as canny as Henry Kissinger or Klemens von Metternich except in the interests of communism rather than capitalist empire. Despite a fleeting reference to the Moscow trials that decapitated the Soviet military command, Kotkin denies that Stalin trusted Hitler to comply with the terms of the non-aggression pact. That’s quite a mouthful.

To prove that Stalin was ever-vigilant, Kotkin refers to an obscure battle that took place in the Soviet-controlled half of Poland in 1940 when Nazi troops encroached across the borderline. After Hitler refused to withdraw them, Stalin dispatched the Red Army to drive them back. So how could anybody capable of being so resolute be accused of being gullible?

Even if such a battle took place, it is hardly important enough to overcome the logical conclusion that Stalin did trust Hitler to abide by the treaty. What else would explain Stalin’s refusal to believe his own top spy’s insistence that Nazi Germany was about to launch Operation Barbarossa? Just six weeks before the invasion, Pavel Fitin, the head of N.K.V.D. foreign intelligence, informed Stalin that it was about to happen. Stalin’s reaction? He told Fitin that “You can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother. This is not a source but a disinformationist.”

Stalin also ignored Richard Sorge, who was the USSR’s master spy. When he learned of Operation Barbarossa, Sorge reported to Moscow on May 3, 1941: “Berlin informed Ott that German attack will commence in the latter part of June. Ott 95 percent certain war will commence.” And then on June 20, 1941, Sorge reported once again: “Ott told me that war between Germany and the USSR is inevitable…. Invest [the code name for Ozaki] told me that the Japanese General Staff is already discussing what position to take in the event of war.” Wikipedia states that Moscow received the reports, but ultimately Joseph Stalin and other top leaders ignored Sorge’s warnings, as well as those of other sources.

An outstanding mediocrity? That would be far too generous. Stalin was a curse on socialism and it really says something when a distinguished Sovietologist can’t recognize that. Or perhaps, more accurately, he does recognize that and hopes to burnish a reputation of someone who was largely responsible for the collapse of socialism in the 20th century, an outcome in sync with Ivy League Russian Studies Department ideals.

June 17, 2018

Harvard University, bias against Asian-Americans, affirmative action and “life itself”

Filed under: Academia,affirmative action,bard college,Education — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Edward Blum, using Asian-American student grievances to destroy affirmative action

Towards the end of the very fine documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on Friday, May Ngai, the radical history professor at Columbia University, weighs in on the new forms of discrimination that Chinese face even as the vicious racism directed against coolie labor has ended:

So in the late ’60s and early ’70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we’re still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they’re the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they’re either evil or super-achievers.

So when I saw the headline on a NY Times article from two days ago titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, my immediate reaction was to side with the legal action that forced Harvard to turn over admission records in compliance with a suit being filed against the school for discrimination, especially since this was just a variation on what Jews faced once upon a time. A court document prepared by the Students for Fair Admissions stated: “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along. Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It turns out that the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, who is not a lawyer, is a Jew named Edward Blum whose purpose it is to connect aggrieved students, who see themselves as victims of affirmative action, with attorneys all too happy to turn back the clock. He helped get the gears in motion in a suit against the University of Texas at Austin two years ago on behalf of two white women–Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz—who were angry that Black and Latino students with lower grades than theirs were admitted to the school under affirmative action. The Supreme Court rejected their claims. What will happen as Trump nominates more racists in this term and the one likely to follow in 2020 is predictable.

Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. What’s that you ask? It stipulates that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices are not permitted to change the rules for elections without first persuading the Justice Department (or a court) that their new policies will improve, or at least not harm, minority representation. So when Mississippi or Alabama decide to screw Black people out of the right to vote, people like Blum are on the side of the racists. Blum got his way in 2013, when the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in a suit he helped initiate. Without Section 4, Section 5 is toothless.

In fact, Blum’s last big assault on racial equality took place last year when he heard about a proposed state law that would require had forced Poway, California to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.

How does Blum get funding for the work he does? It turns out that most of it comes from the Searle Freedom Trust, a rightwing foundation founded by Daniel Searle, the deceased pharmaceutical billionaire who stated its goals on its website as “creating an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.”

In a follow-up article in today’s NY Times, you get a feel for the wariness some Asian-Americans about what Blum is up to. Titled “Asian-Americans Face Multiple Fronts in Battle Over Affirmative Action”, it identifies Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos in the USA as suffering higher degrees of poverty than Chinese or Japanese-Americans and being sympathetic to affirmative action.

In 2010, T.K. Park, who blogs as Ask a Korean, replied to a query about whether practices such as Harvard follows was an injustice since it limited the numbers of Asian-American admissions:

You might be surprised, because the Korean actually does think it is a good thing.

First of all, allow the Korean to first state his preferred end result: meritocracy must be an important element in college admissions. The meritocracy must involve clearly stated criteria such as test scores, quality of extracurricular activities, quality of letters of recommendation, and so on. And the Korean is not advocating that college campuses mirror exactly the local or national racial mix. There must be some sort of middle ground. The Korean does not know where the proper middle ground is. But the middle ground is probably not the 55 percent Asian American campus as it is in University of California, Irvine.

To explain why the Korean thinks so, allow the Korean to quote John Dewey: “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Because the Korean experienced two drastically different educational systems (Korean and American,) the truth of Dewey’s quote resonates even stronger with him. In fact, many of Korean educational system’s flaws (despite its numerous strengths) can be traced to this: Korea treats its schools as a place where students prepare for the real world, as opposed to treating it as the real world in and of itself. Thus, learning knowledge is emphasized, while learning social skills gets a short shrift.

The same principle must apply to colleges. College is not a meal ticket given for a certain set of “good behaviors”. It is a place where one receives education. And if colleges do not adequately reflect the “life itself” as Dewey said, they cannot provide adequate education.

What is missing from the discussion about “reverse discrimination” is any engagement with the broader question of competition among different ethnic groups to succeed in the high stakes game of musical chairs, where admission to an Ivy college will open doors to professional success after graduation.

Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia revealed to me that there were four suicides between September and January, 2017. This was not just Columbia’s problems. In 2013, there were three suicides at Harvard. While not an Ivy, NYU is certainly a place that is on any A-List. I remember when George Rupp met with us in Columbia’s IT department to tell us that the competition between his school and NYU was intense. I got a chuckle out of him telling us that the appointment of some high-profile Marxists like Jon Elster had helped our reputation.

So, what do you expect when schools become pressure cookers in such competition? For NYU students, something had to give. After two students jumped from the upper floors walkway to their death inside the Eleanor Bobst Library, the administration enclosed the 12-story atrium with perforated aluminum screens in an effort to prevent suicides, just like they have done at the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges.

The most poignant story, however, was MIT’s. On April 10, 2002, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean-American student, self-immolated in her dormitory room. Even though she sent multiple emails to faculty members threatening suicide, the school ignored the warning signs. The night before she had burned herself to death, she even tried to plunge a knife into her chest but had a failure of nerve. A NY Times article dated April 28, 2002 conveys the hopes her parents placed in her:

For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”

”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.

Back in 1961, I was a junior in high school and well on my way to admission to Columbia University since I had no competition for the valedictorian award. But since my mother worried so much about my alienation and unhappiness from high school, she and the principal agreed that the best thing for me was to skip my senior year and go to Bard College on an early admission plan. Who knows? That might have saved me from jumping out a window. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a freshman at a male-only college where every other valedictorian was competing with me and themselves to stand out.

Bard College, as Ask a Korean cited John Dewey, was a place that reflected “life itself”. Armed with a Bard degree, it was likely that Merrill Lynch would have hired a Harvard graduate rather than me but to Bard’s credit it was a place where you would be inculcated against the values that Merrill Lynch represented.

Although I am a bit skeptical about the claim that John Dewey was experimenting with democratic socialism (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/john-dewey-democratic-socialism-liberalism), I do give him credit for helping places like Bard College to create an environment where students don’t kill themselves over the stresses associated with Ivy schools.

In the 1930s, Bard and Sarah Lawrence became models of Deweyite precepts about higher education. His followers at Columbia University transformed an Episcopalian-oriented training ground for the clergy into Bard that some called the “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

An August 5, 1934 NY Times article titled “CURRICULUM IS REVERSED; New Plan at Bard College Is Designed to Give the Student’s Interest Freer Play” indicated how revolutionary the approach would be:

Second, the particular abilities, interests and purposes of the student himself [it became co-ed in 1944] will be the centre around which he will be permitted, under guidance, to build his own course of study. He will not be looked upon as so much material to be run into a mold but as an individual whose growth is to be stimulated and nourished. The student, as soon as he enters, will select one general field of study in which he will try his powers. The field be selects as his own will presumably be the one in which he has been most interested and has demonstrated most ability before coming to college.

That’s what we need, schools in which students are not “material to be run into a mold”. Ironically, it is just such schools that have become historically superseded by the corporatization of higher education and forced into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the goal should be to destroy corporatization in all its forms and allow students to prepare themselves for jobs in a socialist society that are not “bullshit”, as David Graeber puts it. Just as we have entered a new Gilded Age, history is crying out for a new Progressive movement that counted John Dewey among its leading lights. But given the class realities of a decaying capitalist system, the only progressivism that has a chance of succeeding today is one that is based on the need for working people to take power in their own name.

June 15, 2018

The Chinese Exclusion Act; The Unafraid

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 15, 2018

Since nativism is largely responsible for the election of Donald Trump, the left is obligated to understand its roots as well as the impact it is having on those who are its most visible victims. Two new documentaries will help us develop both the historical and personal dimensions of the great stain across the body politic that has existed almost since the beginning of what Robinson Jeffers called our “perishing republic”.

The Chinese Exclusion Act” premiered last month on PBS but is thankfully available now on-demand. Directed by Ric Burns, it is not filled with the sort of flag-waving liberalism found in his brother Ken’s work. It is a history of a racist immigration law that was passed in 1882 and remained on the books until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 when China became a key ally in the war against Japan. FDR knew full well how embarrassing such a racist law would appear in Asia, especially when Japan was pushing anti-colonial rhetoric as part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere. Using the standard Burns brothers documentary techniques the film paints a portrait of the real contribution Chinese labor made to economic development, all the while struggling to overcome white racism, including that of trade unions and political parties upholding the rights of the “working man”.

To be shown at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York on June 21st, “The Unafraid” derives its title from the chant of DACA students sitting in at a state college in Athens, Georgia: “We are undocumented; we are unafraid!” It tracks the struggle of four high school seniors brought to the USA from Mexico as young children to now overcome the obstacles they face in one of the country’s most viciously anti-immigrant states. They formed a local activist group called Freedom University that sought to end the punitive practice of forcing undocumented students to pay non-resident tuition fees even though they lived nearly their entire lives in Georgia. Coming from hard-pressed families barely scraping by, the non-resident tuition fees costing triple what residents paid stood in the way of getting a college degree.

Continue reading


June 14, 2018

Commentary on Max Ajl’s “Notes on Libya”

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

A fan’s scrapbook

In a more than 6000 word article titled “Notes on Libya” in the February Viewpoint Magazine, Max Ajl makes the case for Gaddafi by drawing liberally from Horace Campbell’s 2013 “Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya” published by Monthly Review. This was the not first time he defended Gaddafi. The same year that Campbell’s book was published, Maxmilian Forte’s “Slouching Towards Sirte” came out, a book Ajl reviewed for the pro-Gaddafi MRZine. Although I have not read Campbell’s book, it seems that it was mostly about the calamity of NATO intervention rather than an encomium to the “Green Revolution”. Indeed, in 2010 Campbell wrote an article about Gaddafi being an obstacle to African unity, evidently something Ajl must have either missed reading or consciously sidestepped.

As for Forte, Ajl probably leaned more in his direction as far as evaluating Gaddafi’s Pan-African credentials:

Furthermore, Forte does a very good job of pulling together the reasons the United States never liked Qadhafi—his prickliness with respect to U.S. investment, his leadership in Africa, his support of the African National Congress, and his resolute hostility to AFRICOM and U.S. bases on African soil.

Of course, if this Cornell graduate student had taken the trouble to spend an hour or so researching Gaddafi’s attitude toward AFRICOM, he would have not written such nonsense—unless of course his only goal was writing propaganda. When General William Ward, the commander of AFRICOM, paid a visit to Libya in 2009, he saw no obstacles to cooperation between the U.S. and Libya:

[D]uring my last visit to Tripoli I had a very good meeting with the Leader. He and I were able to talk about my command; we were able to give him some thoughts on the United States Africa Command and what the command is about. And I think because of that, we gave him additional information that enabled him to have a better understanding of the command.

AFRICOM issued a press release that confirmed Ward’s impressions:

“They (AFRICOM officials) clarified everything,” Abdelgane [a Libyan air force General] said in an interview with AFN-Europe. “And they are making our mission easier … to rise up the level of understanding between the militaries … and to move for further cooperation to the benefit of both countries.”

In January 2009, Libya and the United States signed a defense cooperation memorandum of understanding, which provides the framework for a military-to-military relationship and cooperation on programs of mutual interest.

Even Wikileaks noticed the amity between the anti-imperialist leader and those who posed a mortal threat:

there was a possibility for cooperation with AFRICOM in combating terrorism in the Sahara and piracy. He said that he could deal with “the new America without reservation”, now that the United States was governed by “a new spirit of change.”

So what the heck was that “new spirit of change”? It was about the rapprochement between the Bush administration and Gaddafi that was symbolized in part by his weird obsession with Condoleeza Rice, whose photos he kept in an album that rebels found in his enclave after he was overthrown. On the occasion of her state visit to Libya, the NY Times reported:

After all, the Libyan leader had professed his “love” for the American secretary of state. “I support my darling black African woman,” Colonel Qaddafi told the network Al Jazeera last year. “I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders.”

He continued: “Yes, Leezza, Leezza, Leezza… I love her very much.”

“Combatting terrorism” created the same kind of bromance—at least on a temporary basis—as there is between Trump and Putin. The LA Times reported on September 4, 2005:

As it struggles to combat Islamic terrorist networks, the Bush administration has quietly built an intelligence alliance with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi [sic, a novel spelling if there ever was one], a onetime bitter enemy the U.S. had tried for years to isolate, topple or kill.

Kadafi has helped the U.S. pursue Al Qaeda’s network in North Africa by turning radicals over to neighboring pro-Western governments. He also has provided information to the CIA on Libyan nationals with alleged ties to international terrorists.

In turn, the U.S. has handed over to Tripoli some anti-Kadafi Libyans captured in its campaign against terrorism. And Kadafi’s agents have been allowed into the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to interrogate Libyans being held there.

Now, of course, “fighting terrorism” is something near and dear to Ajl’s heart, just as it is to Max Blumenthal. Their obsession with jihadis is as extreme as Christopher Hitchens’s was in the early 2000s but legitimate in their eyes since it was Putin rather than Bush who was trying to “fight al-Qaeda”.

Much of his article refers to Islamic terrorists like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that tried to assassinate Gaddafi in 1996 and that was, in his words, “linked to Western intelligence”. Ajl wants you to believe that the MI6, which did pay $160,000 to the LIFG for a hit on Gaddafi, was in cahoots with the same outfit that would play a leading role in the 2011 uprising. However, that’s only if you don’t bother to investigate what happened down the road when jihadis became persona non grata after 9/11. In 2004 MI6 turned over an exiled LIFG leader, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, to Gaddafi’s torture dungeons. Mark Allen, the head of MI6’s counterterrorism unit, crowed, “This was the least [the UK] could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built in recent years”.

Like Stephen Gowans’s defense of the idea that socialism existed in Syria, Ajl relies on non-Marxists to lend credibility to the absurd idea of a socialist Libya albeit with a hedging strategy:

One of the leading scholars of Libya argues, “If socialism is defined as a redistribution of wealth and resources, a socialist revolution clearly occurred in Libya after 1969 and most especially in the second half of the 1970s.” Certainly such a redistribution must redistribute downwards if the word is to retain any meaning. Furthermore, we may object at limiting socialism to material distribution. Socialism can also more broadly refer to self-management, including participation in political institutions. In Libya, the character of state institutions was prohibitive of that participation – a structural defect which laid the grounds for Libya’s later deterioration.

The leading scholar referred to above is one Ronald Bruce St John, who whatever his credentials, and I am sure they are substantial, has little grasp of what a socialist revolution consists of given his assertion that “Socialism was a part of most 20th century revolutions, especially those in the Middle East”. Especially those in the Middle East? What could he possibly be speaking of? We also had African socialism, which involved “redistribution”. Under Julius Nyere, Tanzania put a ceiling on capitalist development in order to allow petty commodity production to prevail. Was that socialism? When the FLN took power in Algeria, it nationalized oil—just as Gaddafi would—and fostered worker self-management as well as “redistributing” oil wealth.

What Ajl misses is the real character of such states that can best be described as rentier in nature or what Gilbert Achcar calls patrimonial. In my review of his “The People Want” for CounterPunch, I describe a state of affairs that prevailed in nearly every state in the Middle East and North Africa:

The analysis in that chapter is at least for this reader the major theoretical contribution made by Gilbert Achcar. While Max Weber is a thinker who might be unfashionable in the academy nowadays, Achcar puts his concept of the patrimonial state to good use.  For Achcar, patrimonialism is an absolute, hereditary type of autocratic power that relies on an entourage built of “kith and kin” and which uses the state to protect its interests and those who it favors. Essentially, the term “crony capitalism” describes the power relationships that existed throughout the region despite the tendency of some rulers to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of national liberation and socialism.

For some on the left, there is a tendency to put the most positive spin on patrimonial states when they appear disposed to provide benefits of one sort or another to the population. While this is obviously not socialism, it is a petroleum-fueled welfare state that bears some resemblance to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution—or so it would seem.

However, oil revenue can be a double-edged sword. When a state’s treasury relies on oil revenues rather than taxes, such as is the case in Kuwait where tax revenues comprised less than 1 percent of GDP, the ruling clique is not bound by obligations to a largely non-existent tax-paying population.

Oil and gas production in MENA is an industry that generates ground-rent in terms understood by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. This simply means that unlike manufacturing, the means of production can largely do without labor. Wealth is being generated but not jobs. This goes a long way to explain the disproportionately large informal sector in MENA. If factory jobs are virtually non-existent, then the only recourse is to emigrate (the region is known for its massive export of labor) or becoming a street peddler. When a state that has grown indifferent to a non-taxpaying base and has nourished corruption and payoffs throughout the body politic, no wonder someone like Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit peddler, could have touched off the Arab revolts through his self-immolation after years of paying off the cops or being beaten and harassed by them.

Despite the occasional report about diversification in oil-producing nations, manufacturing remains stunted. Compared to Israel that lacks any sort of mineral wealth but enjoys a robust manufacturing base, the Arab states are extremely underdeveloped. Why is there so little commitment from the elites, even on a capitalist basis, to use oil revenue to remove the distortions that plague the local economies?

If you are a Marxist, as Ajl claims to be, that’s the starting point: class relations in a given national framework. Once, your unit of analysis becomes the nation-state rather than class, it is easy to lose your way.

His article is filled with references to many reputable scholars including Raymond Hinnebusch. However, none of them are recognized Marxist scholars. If anything, there is a dearth of Marxist scholarship on Libya. A search in New Left Review, Historical Materialism and Socialist Register turns up practically nothing.

I had hopes to write a series of articles about Libya that would be similar to those I have written about Syria but demands on my time have made that very difficult. If I were to find the time, much of my output would be based on a 2015 collection titled “The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath”, edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn.

It goes a long way to explaining the collapse of the Libyan revolution that is to some extent the outcome of NATO intervention, something I agree with Ajl and company on, but there’s a lot more to it. I recommend the NY Review of Books review of the book that this excerpt will help you to understand its value:

It was always unrealistic to expect Libyans to emerge overnight from four decades of whimsical dictatorship into a state of democratic institutions. Western powers provided the military support to oust the colonel, but myopically not the civilian support to put a workable administration in his place. When civilians tried to erect a modern state themselves, warlords from the different parts of Libya easily bypassed the elections that had been held and seized power in the name of whatever cause they hoped might attract support. Some militia leaders justify their recourse to arms as a battle against jihadi Islamists or the remnants of the Qaddafi regime. Others claim to defend whatever tribal, religious, or ethnic group might win them local constituencies. They have tried to revive traditional myths in order to cultivate fresh loyalties. In the process a once relatively homogeneous society has splintered into multiple bickering armed groups.

The irrepressible rise of Libya’s many contending forces is one of the enigmas of the 2011 revolution. When Libyans first revolted, they counted among their blessings that they had few of the cleavages of sect and ethnicity that divided other Arab states. Through intermarriage, relocation for work, and Qaddafi’s deliberate jumbling of ethnic groups, many Libyans had multiple associations spanning the country’s vast terrain.

Yet The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, a compilation edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, British analysts of Libya, is a timely acknowledgment that Libya’s chemistry is older than the laboratory Qaddafi fashioned. The book traces not only the colonel’s demise, as many others have done, but the appearance of a lesser-known new cast. Written almost entirely by foreign experts, some of whom know the different factions intimately, it is the most detailed account I have read of the old forces shaping new Libya. Chapter by chapter, it analyzes each of the “sub-national identities” jostling for influence, and the communal narratives their representatives use to promote their claims. They include Libya’s Islamists, the merchants of Misrata, the Arab Bedouin tribes concentrated in the Green Mountains of the east, the indigenous Imazighen (i.e., Berbers) in the west, and the two ethnic groups of Libya’s slice of the Sahara—the Tuareg and Tubu.

Libya in its current shape is a recent, fragile construct, originating in Italy’s invasion of 1911, exactly a century before the Arab Spring. It has been fracturing and reuniting ever since. Unable to overcome the Arab Bedouin tribes in the east, Italy’s first wave of colonizers sanctioned the creation of an autonomous Emirate of Cyrenaica. In 1929 Benito Mussolini tried again, and succeeded by imprisoning tens of thousands of Bedouins in concentration camps, where half of them died. After World War II, the British backed the revival of the Cyrenaican emirate replete with a king, Idris I. But the discovery of oil, whose fields and pipelines straddled boundaries, drew Libya’s disparate provinces into ever closer union. In 1951, Cyrenaica established a federation with the Fezzan region in the south, hitherto under French hegemony, and Tripolitania in the northwest, also under the British. King Idris added a green and a red band below and above his black flag with a white crescent. And in 1963, under King Idris, Libya abolished the federation and declared itself a single unified state.

For forty-two years, Qaddafi, who called himself Il Duce with overtones of Mussolini, suppressed these separate identities. But once he had fallen, vulnerable Libyans floundering for some means of protection turned to their closest kin. In Tripoli each district of the city assembled its armed wing. Islamists organized anti-vice squads, and the Imazighen established “rapid deployment forces” to support neighborhoods with high concentrations of Berbers. Libya’s new power brokers revived and inflamed ancient grievances to consolidate their hold.

June 12, 2018

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part one)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

A couple of years before an English-language version of Pierre Broue’s “History of the German Revolution 1917-1923” was published, I was motivated to find out about this period since I was fairly sure that the catastrophe in Germany not only led to the rise of Nazism but to the “Leninist” model adopted by the entire left.

In searching for a scholarly account of the defeat of the German revolution, I turned to a book by Werner Angress titled “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” that gave me the details I needed to flesh out an article written in the early 2000s titled “The Comintern and the German Communist Party”, which covered Paul Levi’s opposition to the insane ultraleft March Action of 1921 as well as another fiasco two years later that was orchestrated by Gregory Zinoviev. When Zinoviev’s meddling in the German class struggle damaged his reputation almost beyond repair, he sought to keep a lid on discontent in the world Communist movement by carrying out a “Bolshevization” turn in 1924 that codified a rigid “democratic centralist” method of functioning that has led to sect and cult formations everywhere it has been followed. To show you how universal it became, James P. Cannon voted enthusiastically for the turn and even after he became a Trotskyist, he never abandoned this dogmatic version of Bolshevik practice. Neither did Trotsky, for that matter.

Following the release of Broue’s book, the name of Paul Levi became well-known on the left and was invoked by Marxist scholars grappling with the problem of sectarianism. This matter came up recently when John Riddell, a major scholar of the early Comintern, posted an article by Paul Le Blanc on his blog that originally appeared in Historical Materialism as a critique of Antonio Negri who had written a broadside against Leninist parties on the basis that Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” made them “cut some vanguards off at the legs and made it impossible for them to make themselves adequate to the particular situations they were meant to intervene in.” I tend to agree with this even though I generally regard Negri as even more foolish than those responsible for the March Action. In fact, it was his support for Italian “autonomists”, who were in the habit of breaking the bones of professors who they disagreed with politically, that helped to destroy the Italian left.

Like Broue, Le Blanc believes that the March Action and the 1923 abortive revolution that Zinoviev tried to direct from afar were mistakes but credits the sublime wisdom of Lenin for trying to triangulate between Levi, who had been expelled from the German CP for his public critique of the March Action, and the ultraleft CP leadership and the Comintern emissaries (Bela Kun and Karl Radek) who were their partners in political mayhem. Le Blanc puts it this way:

This deference to a majority in the German Communist leadership actually reflects democratic rather than bureaucratic tendencies in the early Comintern (even though Lenin agreed with Levi’s critique of what the hotheads had done).

I have a different take on this entirely. There was never anything “democratic” about the early Comintern. As I point out in my article, Leon Trotsky gave instructions to the French CP about what should go on the front page of their newspaper and even cajoled the feckless German CP leader Heinrich Brandler into scheduling the misbegotten 1923 uprising to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

I have no problem recommending Pierre Broue even though he comes at things from the same angle as Paul Le Blanc. Broue, who died in 2005, was a member of Pierre Lambert’s movement and could obviously not go so far as to repudiate the Comintern. For the ISO, there is much less of that kind of baggage since they broke from Tony Cliff’s mother ship.

Since Le Blanc’s article generated a lot of very good discussion on FB and since the role of Paul Levi continues to be a hot topic on the left, I am starting a series of posts that are drawn from the chapters in Werner Angress’s books that deal directly with the March Action and Zinoviev’s 1923 adventure.

A word or two about Angress is in order. He died in 2010 at the age of 80. He and his family left Germany in 1937, barely escaping the holocaust. He was drafted in 1941 and ended up serving with the “Ritchie Boys”, a group of German-speaking paratroopers who fought behind German lines just like in “Inglourious Basterds”. After the war, Angress became a history professor and taught at SUNY, Stony Brook for 25 years.

Below you will see the chapter titled “The Genesis of the March Uprising” sans footnotes. They would be too laborious to reproduce and are not necessary for understanding the analysis. The word Zentrale appears repeatedly. It is a reference to the KPD’s (German CP) Central Committee that Levi had resigned from after he and his supporters lost a vote involving who to support in the Italian CP. Except for the fact that those who had a majority on the Zentrale were bonkers ultra-left, it is not worth getting into.

Any inquiry into the origins of the series of events, which in Communist parlance has become known as the into the origins of that complex series of events known as the März Aktion of 1921 must take into account the KPD’s rise to the status of mass party. Although its estimated importance may have been unrealistic when compared to the overwhelming labor support that was given to the two Socialist parties, the mere concept of being an organization which claimed half a million members created in party ranks a confident and optimistic mood. Veteran Spartacists and newcomers from the Independents alike expected the party to follow henceforth a more dynamic, more activist course, and watched eagerly for any indication of growing Communist influence on the German domestic scene. Electoral gains In Prussia, Lippe-Detmold, Hamburg, and even an increased Communist vote in union elections of the Berlin woodworkers and railway workers were interpreted as signs of mounting party strength. The buoyant spirit of the rank and file was in sharp contrast to the continued cautious policies of Levi. The result was a progressive dissatisfaction with the Zentrale among the party membership, a development which in the weeks following the unification congress of December 20 led to an increase of independent activities on the part of local Communist organizations. By far the most serious effect of this trend was an increase in sporadic underground work.

It had been resolved at the Second World Congress of the Communist International that all Communist parties were immediately to form “illegal organizations . . . for the purpose of carrying out systematic underground work. . . .” This was presented as a defensive measure made necessary by reactionary persecutions of Communists everywhere. Underground organizations for illegal political work had existed in Germany ever since the war years, but they had originated with the Revolutionary Shop Steward movement, not with the Spartacists. In the summer of 1918 the Shop Stewards had come under the leadership of Ernst Daumig, who was then still a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party. The two organizations had an informal and non-committal relationship. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards were the earliest advocates of a system of workers’ councils, and in November 1918 were far more influential in creating them than were the Spartacists. Even before the revolution broke out they had begun to buy weapons and to form secret military detachments, referred to as Der Apparat ( the apparatus) and directed by Daumig in close cooperation with two other Shop Steward leaders, Emil Barth and Richard Muller. Der Apparat formed the model for future Communist underground organizations. After the November revolution and the founding of the KPD, such Communist underground organizations sprang up haphazardly throughout Germany but remained without effective coordination and control from the Zentrale in Berlin. During the proletarian uprising in the Ruhr region in March and April 1920, the police discovered in several local party offices blueprints for a red army and other documents pertaining to Communist military plans. Whether the organizations responsible for these materials were offshoots of the old Daumig apparatus, or whether they were the more recent creations of local KPD cells is impossible to say. But on no occasion between 1918 and 1920 was the role of Communist underground organizations of vital importance, because, lacking central direction, they were weak and ineffective

Communist underground work intensified after unification with the left-wing Independents. Two principal illegal “Apparate” were created prior to 1921, an N-group (Nachrichtenapparat) for intelligence work, and an M-group (Militarapparat) intended to train cadres of Communist fighters. Both groups had the additional mission of maintaining liaison with Russian agents passing illegally through Germany. The formation of these groups was in accord-ance with the directives of the Second World Congress, which the party was obligated to obey. There is no indication, however, that they functioned efficiently, or that they were effectively supervised and coordinated by the Zentrale while Levi was still its chairman. Moreover, basic disagreement existed between the Zentrale and the party’s underground on what the functions of the illegal groups were to be. The latter stressed the need for storing weapons and ammunition for future use, while the Zentrale tried to divert the conspiratorial ambitions of the would-be underground fighters into relatively harmless channels. This was done by forming them into study groups on military theory and by using them as guards at party meetings. But it was in the nature of the situation that the restraining efforts made by the leadership met with only limited success. Local Communist underground organizations frequently acted on their own initiative and, as was inevitable, incidents occurred which aroused the suspicion of the German authorities that the KPD was secretly but actively preparing for revolution. On January 19, 1921, Prussian police raided Communist offices in Essen, Dusseldorf, Elberfeld, and Luenen, near Dortmund, arested a number of Communist leaders, and confiscated party files.

On the basis of what Dr. Robert Weismann, Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, termed “partial confessions,” and after an examination of the captured material, Weismann reported to his superiors that he had discovered evidence for the existence of a red army. Its headquarters, the report said, was in Berlin, and several subordinate command posts (Kommandobe-horden) were in western and central Germany. Weismann claimed to have found proof beyond doubt that the organization was designed to overthrow, by force, government and constitution: its ultimate objective was to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. On February 3, 1921, State Commissioner Dr. Weismann made another discovery. This one involved the Soviet Mission in Berlin, headed by Victor Kopp. It appears that staff members of this mission were engaged in a series of occupations totally unconnected with their official duty of negotiating with the Germans for the exchange and repatriation of prisoners of war. A number of copied documents, which had found their way into Weismann’s office, contained strong indications that the Soviet Mission was involved in smuggling arms and explosives, furthering Communist propaganda, and financing Communist underground activities in Germany and other parts of Europe. Later in the month, raids on Communist party offices in Magdeburg, Stendal, and Frankfurt am Main led to the arrest of several local KPD functionaries. Dynamite, arms, and other military equipment had been found.

Alarmed by these ominous discoveries, a number of German, and particularly Prussian officials became firmly convinced that the KPD was preparing for an uprising sometime in the spring. Throughout the first two months of 1921, rumors of a red underground army caused particular concern in official quarters. State Commissioner Weismann maintained in his report of January 20 that the KPD was directly supporting the formation of such an army. His assertion was based on documents found during raids on the party offices in the Rhineland. But either because the evidence proved too inconclusive, or because the Zentrale habitually (and perhaps not always untruthfully) denied all knowledge of these uncovered plots, Weismann refrained from taking statewide action against the party as a whole. He continued instead to rely on preventive measures, keeping the party’s activities under constant surveillance in the expectation that sooner or later local organizations would become careless enough to lay themselves open to police raids. Thus, despite their suspicions of Communist intentions, the authorities took no steps to arrest the Zentrale. Levi was allowed to travel abroad to attend the Leghorn conference and, understandably enough, nothing was done about the delicate problem posed by Victor Kopp’s Soviet Mission. How correct were the appraisals concerning the threat of an armed Communist insurrection that were voiced by various German officials early in 1921? Ironically enough, no specific plans for such an uprising existed prior to March of that year; and when the uprising did occur, unprepared, improvised, and absolutely unorganized, no red army materialized even in central Germany, the heart of the insurgent region. This is not to say that the KPD was a peaceful club. Nor does it mean that among the German Communists there were not some who seriously advocated a revolutionary offensive at the earliest possible opportunity. But dedication to the principle of revolution and actual preparation for such an event are not the same, and while the KPD never denied that revolution was its ultimate aim, no practical measures to implement it seem to have been taken by the Zentrale, certainly not while Levi was still its chairman. The plots which the German authorities discovered during January and February were examples of the same naïve and irresponsible “putschist” attitude which since the days of Luxemburg and Liebknecht had made it so hard for the party leadership to control the radical elements, especially on the local level. Moreover, the tendency to indulge in cloak and dagger games was hard to block after the ECCI had made underground work by all Communist parties mandatory. But the government officials who sounded the alarm and predicted bloodshed in the near future can hardly be blamed for being misled by overenthusiastic Communist busybodies. Only when the insurrection finally came, at Easter, and apparently justified the most dire predictions of the German security agencies, did it become evident that the KPD had acted on impulse and faith, without benefit of either organization or preparation.

The various steps which led to the March uprising are even today a matter of controversy. Whoever wants to reconstruct the complex and involved circumstances must take into consideration that both the Communists and the various government representatives have tried to obscure many of the issues in their respective accounts. To this must be added that official Communist interpretation moved through several phases before the final version was adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1921. According to this version, which is still upheld today, the March uprising was the result of calculated provocation of the workers by the Prussian government. Because it contained a few grains of truth, this formula proved to be the most feasible way in which a number of very inconvenient facts could be left unexplained in official Communist annals, past and present.

The key factor that made a Communist insurrection possible in the first place was the change in leadership of the Zentrale. Heinrich Brandler, the new chairman, was a simple and pedestrian man whose intellectual qualities were overshadowed by most of his more sophisticated colleagues, especially Ernst Meyer, Paul Frolich, and August Thalheimer. Levi had led the party without paying too much attention to views which did not coincide with his, thereby alienating large segments of the party, but Brandler went to the other extreme and too often accepted the opinions of others as his own. He had proved his mettle in the past in trade-union work, and during the proletarian uprisings that followed in the wake of the Kapp Putsch he acted as a capable though cautious commander of the armed Saxon workers. But now he had assumed a much greater responsibility, ant he was to show before long how difficult it was to live up to it.

It soon became apparent that the switch in the Communist high command caused a great deal of consternation within the party. Although Levi had been a controversial figure from the first to the last day that he served as chairman of the Zentrale, he still commanded the allegiance of many party members who saw in him the heir and disciple of Rosa Luxemburg, and who respected his ability even when they did not care for his personality. The fact that Zetkin, Brass, Daumig, and Hoffmann, some of them old war-horses who had won renown in the prewar SPD, had declared their solidarity with Levi created additional unrest and uncertainty in party circles. Thus the new Brandler Zentrale faced a difficult situation from the start. On the one hand Moscow, where Levi’s cavalier attitude toward revolution had incurred strong disapproval, wanted the German party to adopt a more vigorous policy, although what exactly was expected of the KPD remained for the time being uncertain. On the other hand, the resignation of the Levi faction had aggravated rather than eliminated the internal crisis of the party. How could Moscow’s expectations be met when the Communist leadership was divided on the principal issue of the day, the prospects for a proletarian revolution in Germany? On this point all factions disagreed. While it was generally recognized, in a vague and hazy way, that the Communists as the vanguard of the proletariat had to win influence over the masses in order to lead them to victory, the propitiousness of the moment as well as the tactics to be applied toward this end remained constant subjects of controversy among the party hierarchy.

Up to the moment when the Levi Zentrale resigned, the views of the party’s right wing had determined policy and set the course. While its spokesmen had admitted to the presence of “objective” factors which favored revolution, particularly rising unemployment, the threatened financial collapse of the state, and the growing misery of the masses, they had maintained that such “subjective” factors as the relative strength of the Communists vis-à-vis the state, and the absence of a genuine revolutionary spirit among German labor, offset the aspects favorable for a successful revolutionary movement. The right wing, under Levi’s guidance, had advocated that for the moment the only feasible slogan which the party could employ with any hope of success was that of “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Levi thought this slogan particularly opportune in view of the growing tension between Germany and the Western Allies, a theory which he elaborately defended before and after the March uprising. In April 1921 Levi wrote: “With the Paris demands [Diktat] the German Reich entered upon a new, acute crisis, and this acute crisis, as was self-evident, had to be utilized for an Aktion. . . . The former Zentrale accepted the slogan [Alliance with Soviet Russia] . . . unanimously. . . . At the first sign of crisis it [the KPD] marched forward with the corresponding slogan . .. [and] this slogan—`Alliance with Soviet Russia’—had to become, of course, the leitmotif of all Communist propaganda during the weeks preceding the actual crisis. . . . We were convinced that this common struggle . . . would for the first time really close the ranks of the party.”

Whatever Levi may have meant with his vague reference to an Aktion in the event of possible conflict between Germany and the West, he had certainly not visualized a putsch. This is evident from his own interpretation: “During times of crisis when the masses are in a state of political turmoil . . . the Communist party has the duty to show a positive way out of the present dangers. The slogans of the V.K.P.D. must not be humdrum, everyday slogans, but must issue directly from any given crisis. . . . Such a slogan can only be `Alliance with Soviet Russia’. . . . It had been issued as a concrete slogan, i.e. one which could also be immediately realized by the bourgeois government, and at the same time could guide the proletariat in its struggle for the fulfilment of these demands.”

In short, the party’s right wing set its hopes upon a possible conflict between Germany and the Western Allies, a conflict which might lead to a Russo-German alliance. How exactly the German Communists were to profit from such an alliance Levi never made clear. What he did make clear was his determination not to permit rash actions to anticipate events, but to wait for an international crisis, and meanwhile to prepare the proletariat for a war in which the Western powers would be faced by the Soviet Union and its ally—the German bourgeois republic!

It will be recalled that Levi’s views had evoked vehement criticism from the Left Opposition. In contrast to Levi and the majority of his colleagues in the Zentrale, the Berlin Left believed that a new revolutionary wave was in the offing, and that the party had to prepare its own members and as many non-Communist workers as possible for the event. On February 12 the Rote Fahne had published an article by Reuter-Friesland in which he had clearly enunciated the position of the Left.

“We were all of the opinion, up to now, that the German bourgeoisie is not oppressed, that the German bourgeoisie enjoys life, and that it counts on the fraternal support of the Entente imperialists while oppressing the German proletariat . . . ; it is exactly for this reason that we have made it our task to fight against every nationalist slogan. Let me remind you that the Communist party neither approved of the Versailles treaty, nor opposed it, but demanded the revolutionary solution of the world crisis. . . .

“For the time being, the German proletariat must first solve its mission in Germany. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!. . . . Let the German proletariat first break the resistance of this [bourgeois] society; let the German proletariat first secure possession of all factories and [other] enterprises; then we shall see how this struggle for liberation waged by the German workers will affect the proletariat of England, France . . . of the western countries. . . . We do not want contrived [an den Haaren herbeigezogen] measures designed to convince either the German workers or the Executive [of the Comintern] how active we are. We want to show the German working masses the clear, unequivocal, though difficult road to the German revolution.”

The conflicting opinions on party strategy were still a burning issue when Levi and his friends resigned, saddling the Brandler Zentrale with the thankless task of choosing a proper solution. It soon became apparent that the views of the Left were gaining ground. They did so despite the fact that this faction was not represented in the new Zentrale, and that its criticism of the right wing had been voted down in the same meeting which had culminated in the resignation of the Levi group. But the spokesmen of the left wing were also in control of the party’s strong and radical Berlin organization, which Reuter and two of his colleagues represented in the Central Committee. And since the Zentrale likewise had its headquarters in Berlin, it was constantly exposed to the influence of the Reuter-Fischer-Maslow triumvirate. After Levi and his friends were no longer in positions of authority, the Berliners had the field largely to themselves, and they made good use of their opportunity.

The Left tried hard to convince the new leadership that now was the time to show the German working class the road to the German revolution. This approach had in its favor the awareness of the new Zentrale that Moscow and large segments of the KPD expected German Communism to adopt a more vigorous approach toward its ultimate objective. Nevertheless, the underlying preconceptions held respectively by the Berliners and the Brandler Zentrale were fundamentally different. While Reuter, the most prominent figure of the Left, wanted the party prepared to make use of he new revolutionary wave which he sincerely anticipated, the Wandler Zentrale wanted to conjure up a revolutionary situation, even though few of its members shared Reuter’s optimistic view of the revolutionary wave on the horizon. They were primarily concerned to demonstrate that the KPD, under new management, would no longer be a do-nothing party, but a party of action, and that it would daringly lead the lethargic German workers out of the bondage of bourgeois capitalist exploitation. With the Communist mission thus formulated in theory, the sole remaining question was how to go about it in practice. To find the answer, the new party leaders began to scan the national and international scenes the hope that they would somehow, somewhere, find both an occasion and a justification for an Aktion.

During the first three months of 1921 the international situation was tense. The Allied conference which was held at Paris between January 24 and 29 had yielded some definite proposals for German reparation payments, and a German delegation was invited to come to London on March 1 to negotiate on the foundation laid by the Paris conference. Public opinion in Germany was unanimously hostile to the Paris decisions, and the German plenipotentiaries were not expected to display a very conciliatory attitude in London. This expectation proved to be correct, and the negotiations which began on March 1 ended in an impasse. An ultimatum to comply with Allied demands on reparations was rejected by Germany on March 7, and at 7 A.M. of the following day French troops occupied the cities of Duisburg, Thisseldorf, and Ruhrort in the Ruhr region. The situation was critical, and no rapid solution was in sight. The Allies remained firm, threatened that further sanctions might be applied, and demanded payment of twenty million gold marks by May 1. In addition, a new customs line was drawn along the Rhine, which cut off normal commercial intercourse between the Reich and its territory on the left bank of the river.

Difficulties between Germany and the Western Allies were intensified in the East by the approaching plebiscite in Upper Silesia, which was to determine where the German-Polish frontier would be drawn. Throughout 1920, and especially in August of that year, armed clashes between Poles and Germans had occurred sporadically along the disputed border region. The threat of new outbursts of violence remained constant. As the day of the plebiscite approached (March 20, 1921), tension mounted in Upper Silesia, partly because of renewed anti-German agitation in the Polish press. The situation was decidedly dangerous.

One domestic problem, Bavaria, flared up with fresh bitterness early in 1921. All attempts by the German government to make Bavaria disband her civil guards (Einwohnerwehren), particularly the controversial Orgesch, had failed. The Bavarians justified their obstinacy with the argument that the civil guards alone stood between the security of the population and Communist anarchy. On February 5, 1921, a conference of prime ministers from the individual German states (Lander) met in Berlin to discuss the whole sordid question once again. The Allied conference at Paris had issued a final injunction on January 29 under which the German government was instructed to enforce the disbanding of all paramilitary organizations inside the Reich by June 30, 1921. But despite the urgency of the matter, the conference of prime ministers reached no agreement. The central government insisted that the Allied demands would have to be met, and Bavaria’s Minister President von Kahr refused to comply. Kahr added that Bavaria would await the outcome of the London conference before making a decision. This stand was reaffirmed on February 8 by a council of the Bavarian ministry, and reiterated by Kahr before the Bavarian diet on February 17 and March 7. At this point the German government finally lost patience. Faced with Allied sanctions in the West on account of the reparations deadlock, and threatened by possible international complications arising from the Upper Silesian plebiscite, the government was determined to stave off additional trouble with the Allies by taking a firm stand on the civil guard issue. On March 12, a draft bill was introduced in the Reichsrat, the German upper house representing the individual states, which provided for general German disarmament in accordance with articles 177 and 178 of the peace treaty. The bill went to the Reichstag on March 14, was slightly revised in committee, and finally passed into law inn March 19, 1921. It was another two and a half months, however, before Bavaria finally admitted defeat and agreed to comply with time law. In the meantime, the issue continued to hang in the balance.”

The combination of domestic and foreign political problems which the republic faced by the end of February was indeed formidable—a fact which was not lost on the German Communists. But although they recognized the political potentials of the situation, they were so overwhelmed by what appeared to be a wealth of opportunities that they did not know how to deal with them. The Brandler Zentrale resembled a group of explorers at the edge of a vast wilderness, impatient to go, but undecided where to start and how to proceed. Thus in the absence of a clear and suitable plan the Communist leaders resorted to half-measures and improvisations. The program—if the muddle which resulted can be honored with this term—consisted merely of a formula which had served the KPD repeatedly, albeit ineffectually, in the past: strengthen the party, prepare it for action, and infuse revolutionary spirit into the German working class! But there was as yet no clear conception of what kind of action the party was to prepare, nor any clear idea as to what exactly it was to accomplish. In the absence of more substantial plans, the Zentrale restricted its activities for the moment to the dissemination of revolutionary propaganda to the masses, leaving the rest of its program to the future. In spite of the recent fiasco of the first Open Letter (January 8, 1921), the Zentrale, mindful of the fact that persistence was a virtue, published another manifesto in the Rote Fahne on March 4. The appeal was addressed “To the German Proletariat,” and began with the jeering observation that the diplomatic negotiations at London had led the German capitalists nowhere. Their surrender to the demands of the Entente powers was imminent, and the present negotiations had but one objective, to sell out German workers in order to reap benefits for German capitalists. The working class had only one alternative—the overthrow of the bourgeois government. No God was going to help the workers; they must help. themselves. Then the tone became shrill.

“The German working class faces once again an hour of destiny. Your fate will not be decided in London, but in Germany and by you.. . . The choice is yours. . . . You cannot evade this struggle. . . . Hesitate no longer. You have nothing to lose. Be resolved to take action. Demonstrate on Sunday [March 6], stir up all who are dilatory. March against your oppressors! Against the dual yoke of foreign and German exploiters! For the Communist reconstruction! Away with all bourgeois governments! For the rule of the working class! Alliance [Schutz-und Trutzbandnis] with Soviet Russia! Economic Union with Soviet Russia!”

This appeal elicited a letter from Paul Levi the following day. Directing himself to the Zentrale, the former party chairman called the appeal mere irresponsible propaganda, and its slogans unconvincing except to members of the KPD. He charged that the Zentrale had surrendered to the Berlin Left when the new line of propaganda was adopted. Instead of expounding highly unrealistic aims in the appeal, the Zentrale should have retained “Alliance with Soviet Russia” as its only slogan, without the other nonsense which at the moment could have no effect on most Germans. His letter closed with the words: “I see in the general attitude a weakness of the German Zentrale, the consequences of which I am as yet unable to foresee!”

This letter resulted in a meeting on March 8 in Berlin between the members of the Zentrale and the Communist Reichstag delegation, which included Levi and Zetkin. Levi’s account of this meeting is the only available source. According to him, all but one member of the Zentrale, Paul Frolich, proved amenable to his criticism of the most recent party line. Frolich defended the appeal, and demanded that once matters came to a head the party should issue the slogan: “Overthrow the Government and Elect Workers’ Councils.” Although no formal decision was taken on the matter, Levi left the conference apparently in the belief that he had convinced all members of the Zentrale, except Frolich, of the clumsiness and untimeliness of the party’s latest approach to revolution. He was soon to learn that he had been mistaken.

For in the first days of March, 1921, the German Communists received an unexpected visit. From the East appeared three emissaries of the ECCI, the Hungarians Bela Kun and Joseph Pepper, alias Pogany, and the Pole August Guralsky, alias Kleine. The latter two, it appears, kept discreetly in the background and left the transaction of business to Kun. After a short and unhappy career as leader of the Hungarian Communist revolt in 1919, Bela Kun had found a job and a home with the Executive Committee of the Third (Communist) International, where he soon made a name for himself by his unscrupulous tactics and extreme left-wing orientation. Sir Harold Nicolson, who met Kun in April 1919, has given a thumbnail sketch of the then triumphant revolutionary chief: “A little man of about 30: puffy white face and loose wet lips: shaven head: impression of red hair: shifty suspicious eyes: he has the face of a sulky and uncertain criminal.”‘ And now Kun had come with his fellow travelers to Germany in order to launch the KPD on the road to revolution.

The situation which they encountered upon their arrival proved very favorable for their plans. The leaders of the KPD, eager to prove their mettle but at a loss how to proceed, were easy prey for Kun who, in their eyes at least, represented the will of the Kremlin. Whether the party’s appeal of March 4 was the handiwork of the “Turkestaner,” as Levi called them, is doubtful; it is certain only that no final decision was taken during the first two weeks of March. Kun used this time to convince the Zentrale that the KPD must exploit the unique combination of national and international crises for an action of its own. The party, Kun urged, must take the offensive even if it should have to resort to provocative measures. Once an offensive was launched, two to three million German workers would follow the lead of the Communists. Kun was generous with optimistic estimates, and his enthusiasm captured the imagination of most members of the Zentrale. By March 10 Kun felt sufficiently sure of his success to reveal his ideas to Clara Zetkin, who was so shocked by what she had heard that she immediately informed Paul Levi and told him that she refused to have any further conversations with Kun unless witnesses were present. On March 14 Levi himself talked to Kun and was treated to the same grandiloquent schemes which had outraged Clara Zetkin a few days earlier. One might have expected that the former party chairman would have tried his utmost to block Kun’s ventures then and there, that he would have used whatever authority his opinion still carried to beat the alarm, to warn his comrades not to listen to a tempter whose ineptness had been so clearly revealed during the Hungarian revolution of 1919. But if Levi did so he has left no record of his attempts. Perhaps he refused to take Kun’s revolutionary overtures seriously; perhaps he put his faith in the sanity of his former colleagues or, conscious of his political eclipse, fatalistically shrugged off any further responsibility. -Whatever his reasons may have been, Levi resolved to take a vacation and, shortly after his talk with Kun, departed for Vienna, with Italy as his ultimate destination.

On March 16 and 17, 1921, the Zentrale met with the Central Committee in Berlin for a high-level conference, to determine what strategy the KPD was to adopt in the immediate future. Brandler presided and delivered the keynote address, which began with an analysis of the political situation as he saw it. The analysis presented the assembled functionaries and the Communist newspaper editors from every German district with a number of amazing statements. In addition to a sweeping and rapid recapitulation of all existing crises at home and abroad, which ranged from the effects of the London conference and the Upper Silesian plebiscite to the counter-revolutionary plans of the Orgesch, Brandler outdid himself by conjuring up the acute possibility of war between the United States and Great Britain. The new party chairman, perhaps affected by Kun’s optimism, stated that the chances of conflicts along Germany’s borders were nine to one, and that in the event of their outbreak the influence of the KPD would extend beyond the four to five million [sic!] Communists.

“I maintain that we have in the Reich today two to three million non-Communist workers who can be influenced by our Communist organization, who will fight under our flag . . . even in an offensive action [started by the KPD]. If my view is correct, then the situation obligates us to deal with the existing tensions at home and abroad no longer passively; we must no longer exploit . . . [them] merely for agitation, but we are obligated … to interfere through Aktionen in order to change matters in our sense”.

The speech was followed by a general discussion in which the members of the Zentrale voiced their support of Brandler’s theses. The most enthusiastic endorsement came from Paul Frolich, who called the projected plan of action a “complete break with the past” because the Communists, up to then always on the defensive, had finally reached the point when they would have to challenge fate by way of revolution. Frolieh elaborated that “we must now . . . go over to the offensive. . . . We can aggravate the existing [international] complications tremendously by calling on the masses in the Rhineland to go on strike, thereby sharpening . . . the prevailing differences between the Entente and the German government.” In Bavaria the party’s task would be provocation of the civil guards, in order to stir up trouble in that region.

Similar sentiments were voiced by Ernst Reuter-Friesland, who represented the Berlin organization in the Central Committee. He told the conference that the party must take action now, even if the Communists should find themselves fighting alone in the coming struggle. But the activists were not unopposed. Dissenting voices were raised, one of them by Heinrich Malzahn, a union official, member of the Reichstag, and an adherent of the Levi faction. Malzahn, unimpressed by Brandler’s rhetoric which struck him as exceedingly hazy, suggested that it was inadvisable to sanction blindly any future commitment by the party for a revolutionary offensive.” But his objections and those raised by like-minded sceptics carried no weight. The opponents of the suggested policy of action were hesitant and irresolute in their attempts to combat the bravado of the assembled party leaders. “The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote William Butler Yeats in 1919, and his words well sum up the atmosphere in which the KPD leadership in March 1921 decided to embark upon revolution. Kun and his friends, though not personally in evidence during the conference, ultimately carried the day. In a series of resolutions it was decided to alert the party and to work toward a further increase of tensions wherever feasible. The party was to engage in armed struggles as soon as the combination of crisis atmosphere and Communist agitation produced an outbreak of violence anywhere. The overthrow of the existing German federal government was to be the first objective of the projected operation. “Overthrow the Government” was to serve as a fighting slogan in conjunction with the familiar demand, “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Finally, in order not to jeopardize needlessly the success of the whole scheme, the conference resolved to make every effort to postpone the Aktion until after Easter week, a period unsuitable for strikes since factories were closed.

The decision was reached, the plans were laid, but the party’s freedom of action was lost even before the conference voted to adjourn. In her last editorial, published in the Rote Fahne on January 13, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg had warned that “the revolution just does not operate of its own accord, on an open battlefield, and according to a plan cleverly laid by ‘strategists.’ Its opponents can also take the initiative; moreover, they usually avail themselves of it more often than does the revolution.” Brandler, his colleagues, and Kun and company were soon to learn how true her observation was. While the conference was still in session, on March 17, the Communist leaders received word that the Social Democratic Oberpräsident (approx.: governor) of the Prussian province of Saxony, Otto Horsing, had the day before issued a proclamation announcing his intention to dispatch police forces into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts of the province. The proclamation stated that the purpose of this measure was the restoration of order and security in that strike-ridden industrial region. The occasion for which the Zentrale had been waiting so eagerly had arrived, but prematurely, and from an unexpected quarter. All of a sudden the Communists were forced to face an unforeseen situation in which their opponents had taken the initiative.

* * *

Situated in the heart of Germany, the Prussian province of Saxony and the neighboring states of Thuringia and Saxony formed an economic unit which in industrial importance ranked with the Ruhr region and Upper Silesia. Prussian Saxony was the home of the Leuna Works which produced gasoline and chemicals; it was also a mining center where lignite, potash, and copper slate were dug. It rated high in steel production and had a number of processing industries.

The region was densely populated by industrial workers and had already seen labor trouble before the war. In January 1910, during a strike wave in the Mansfeld coal district, the regular army was sent in to maintain order. The district of Halle, one of six regional organizations which as early as 1913 belonged to the left wing of the SPD, was expelled by that party in the fall of 1916, and in the spring of 1917 participated in the founding of the Independent Social Democratic Party. After the November revolution, radicalism in the region became endemic. The rapidly expanding lignite mining and chemical industries attracted many newcomers, especially from the western provinces, after Germany, under the terms of the peace treaty, lost the large hard coal deposits of Alsace-Lorraine and Eupen-Malmedy. The new arrivals included a good number of rootless and shiftless people, many of whom had been toughened, if not brutalized, by years of trench warfare. Apart from these local conditions, the region shared with the rest of the country the political confusion, economic dislocation, and the disillusionment and de-moralization which followed in the wake of the lost war. Itinerant agitators, roving from mining town to mill town, addressed audiences of disgruntled and hungry workers who listened eagerly to anyone who offered to improve their miserable lot. Immediately after the war the region became a stronghold of the USPD, but, as economic conditions deteriorated further, the Communists gained around. In the elections to the Prussian diet on February 20, 1921, in the electoral district of Halle-Merseburg, the KPD obtained 197,113 votes as compared to 70,340 for the SPD, and 74,754 for I he USPD.

The Prussian government realized as early as 1919 that the province of Saxony, notably the Halle district, was a center of economic and political unrest. Wildcat strikes, clashes between workers and police, and thefts in factories and on the farm lands occurred with Increasing frequency. After the Kapp Putsch, a state of siege was proclaimed in the province and was not lifted until September 1920. In the following month the Prussian Minister of the Interior Carl Severing suggested to the Obärprasident of Prussian Saxony, Otto Horsing, that a drastic reorganization of the police in the troubled region was essential if order and security were to be restored. It was also known that the population had surrendered only a small number of arms after the upheavals which had followed the Kapp Putsch, and the existence of undiscovered arms caches was a constant source of concern to the Prussian authorities.

The situation continued to deteriorate during the winter months of 1920-1921. The Prussian government received complaints from factory owners and farmers who charged that thefts were increasing. All attempts to prevent theft by means of private plant detectives, bodily searches, and stricter supervision were answered by spontaneous strikes, beating of guards, sabotage, and other terroristic acts. Conditions were particularly tense in the Leuna Works near Merseburg, and in the Eisleben copper slate works. Both industrial plants were harassed by strikes at the end of January and the beginning of February, 1921. At Leuna the issue was a demand for shorter hours, at Eisleben resistance to the presence of plant detectives. Both strikes were settled, apparently by promises on the part of management which satisfied the workers.

In view of the constant stream of complaints which reached the office of the Obärprdsident, Horsing called a conference at Merscburg for February 12 to which he invited the Landrdte, mayors, and chief representatives of industry from the region. The discussions at the conference revealed a gloomy picture, and Horsing was particularly shocked by reports that farmers had their manure carted away under cover of darkness. It is uncertain whether the decision to send a police expedition into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts was reached on that occasion or only on February 28, when Horsing called another conference with the same participants. In any event, plans for such a measure were definitely made in February. The original plan called for the occupation of Eisleben by 300 policemen, and of Hettstedt by 200. The occupation was not to commence be-fore March 19 in order not to jeopardize the plebiscite in Upper Silesia, scheduled for March 20. Horsing was afraid that an operation at an earlier date might harm the German cause in the plebiscite by reducing rail transportation needed to take voters to the region, and by prompting possible sympathy strikes on the part of railway personnel.

It seems that up to this point Horsing considered the pacification of his bailiwick as strictly his own responsibility, to be handled by local officials and local police forces. Though he kept the Prussian government abreast of developments, Horsing was apparently not eager to have his superiors interfere in what he believed were his own affairs. There was in addition a distinct difference of opinion as to what exactly the projected police occupation was to accomplish, and against whom it was to be primarily directed. Horsing went out of his way to emphasize the non-political nature of the disturbances, and before and after the uprisings in central Germany insisted that all his efforts were directed toward restoring the authority of the state (in this case, Horsing’s authority), which was being undermined by criminal elements and trouble makers.

In contrast to Horsing’s parochial views, the Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, Dr. Weismann, saw central Germany primarily as a political powder-keg which at any moment could be blown sky high by Communist conspirators. But Weismann was in a difficult position. His suspicions were largely hosed on intuition, a fact which he admitted after the uprising, and ns he was unable to prove that left-wing radicals in Prussian Saxony were planning a revolt, he could not convince either Severing or Horsing of the validity of his point of view.

Severing’s ideas on how to handle the unruly province differed from both Horsing’s and Weismann’s. Severing was willing to allow the Oberpräsident a free hand as long as unrest remained restricted to Prussian Saxony and did not acquire political overtones. Thus he kept in touch with developments and, although he was unimpressed by Weismann’s somber predictions of a putsch, he did not rule out the possibility that the Communists would sooner or later exploit  the tensions in the Mansfeld region. In such a case, Severing was determined to “clear the air” by every means at the disposal of the Prussian government. The moment when Severing decided to interfere arrived on March 13, 1921. On that day, an unsuccessful attempt was made to dynamite the Siegessaule (victory column), a famous and venerable land-mark in the heart of Berlin. Twelve pounds of high explosives, packed in a cardboard box, were discovered by visitors to the monument on the morning of March 13. Only a defective fuse had prevented damage, and possibly casualties.

A number of East German historians, who in February 1956 conducted a colloquium on the March uprising, have once again proffered a charge, which dates back to 1921, that the attempt against the Siegessaule was part of a deliberate plot by the Prussian government to implicate the Communists, and that the dynamite was in fact placed by police spies. Since this charge constitutes the key argument on which the Communists, then and now, have based their interpretation of the origins of the March uprising, it will be necessary to dwell briefly on the bomb plot.

When the dynamite was discovered, 50,000 marks were offered as a reward to anyone who could lead the police to the persons who had placed it. In addition, a thorough description of the bomb and its wrappings appeared in the newspapers. The description stated that six kilograms of dynamite had been placed in a cardboard box marked “Dr. Oetkers Saucenpulver,” that the color of the box was brown, and that the detonation caps were marked “Anhaltische Sprengwerke.” On March 21, thus after the police occupation in central Germany had begun, the Berlin police arrested eleven persons, some of whom carried membership cards of the KAPD. These men confessed that they placed the bomb. The explosion, according to the testimony of some, was intended to intimidate the population, initiate a new revolutionary wave and, incidentally, mark the first anniversary of the Kapp Putsch. None of the prisoners revealed the identity of the man who had given them their orders. None of them was a member of the KPD.

There is little doubt that this project was neither conceived nor executed by any political party, but was a typical example of “individual terror” on the part of revolutionary cranks, who abounded in Germany during the postwar period. According to the account of Max Hoelz, one of the most colorful revolutionaries of this period, the idea of blowing up the monument came from a freewheeling radical named Ferry, alias Hering. Ferry met Hoelz in Berlin (no date is indicated, except that Hoelz went to Berlin in December 1920), and asked for money with which to buy explosives necessary for his plot. He promised in return to manufacture bombs and hand grenades for Hoelz. The deal went through, to the satisfaction of both individuals concerned. The Siegessaule incident convinced Severing of the need for a large-scale, state-supported operation in central Germany. Since all indications pointed toward the plot’s having originated in the province of Saxony, Severing dispatched police agents of the criminal detachment to the region, with instructions to investigate whether dynamite had been stolen there. He also ordered police reinforcements from Berlin and other places to be alerted for the projected operation, and arranged with Horsing that another conference be called at Merseburg on March 17. One day before the conference was held, Horsing published his proclamation to the workers in the central German industrial districts. It was a lengthy appeal which began with a description of diverse lawless acts that of late had increased in number and severity. Wildcat strikes, robbery, looting, and terrorist activities by roving armed bands headed the list of offenses. The damages done to agricultural and industrial property were mentioned, and also bodily injuries inflicted on guards who had tried to prevent theft and looting. The appeal called attention to the fact that workers who had refused to go on strike had been threatened, and at times brutally beaten. Furthermore, lawfully elected factory councils had been replaced on many occasions by so-called action committees. Horsing pointed out that his impression during a recent tour of inspection had been that these outrages were not instigated by Communists, but by “international criminals” who were posing as Communists and were using the most absurd slogans in their attempts to stir up trouble.

The appeal closed as follows:

“In the interest of labor, agriculture, industry, commerce, and trade I have given orders that strong contingents of police forces will be sent into many towns of the industrial region within the next few days. . . . The police forces will treat with equal firmness both the criminals themselves and all those who should attempt to prevent the forces from carrying out their duty, offer open opposition, or try to incite the population . . . in an effort to hinder the police forces in the execution of their mission.”

The conference on March 17 was attended by Horsing, Severing, Weismann, the highest administrative official of the district of Merseburg, Regierungsprasident von Gersdorff, and representatives of all political parties except the Communists. The discussion was primarily concerned with strategy, and two days later, March 19, the police occupation began.

Who, then, bore the largest share of responsibility for the ensuing disorders? The Communists put the entire blame on the Prussian government in general, and on Severing in particular, charging that lie workers of central Germany were to be provoked into active opposition, so that Severing could crack down and settle accounts with Ilse Communists. But the proponents of this theory conveniently disregard a number of relevant facts. They discount, or even deny, the role played by Bela Kun and his fellow “Turkestaner,” who spent the first half of March trying to sell their plan for a revolution to the Zentrale of the KPD. They also misrepresent the tenor of the debate at the Central Committee meeting on March 16 and 17, falsify the reasons why the conference was called in the first place, and do not mention either the Zentrale’s intention to prepare for an uprising before Horsing’s appeal became known to the delegates, or the objections that were raised against these plans by some of the functionaries present. Although the fact is mentioned that one faction at the conference favored a theory of revolutionary offensive, no attempt has been made to point out the effect of this theory on the decisions taken by the party caucus on March 17. True, the uprising which the KPD originally conceived was to have taken place after the Easter holidays, and, according to the party theoreticians, was to have grown out of international complications. What happened instead was that the Prussian government unwittingly anticipated the insurrectionist intentions of the Zentrale by its decision to execute a police occupation of Prussian Saxony. Taken unawares, the Communists, for reasons which will be discussed shortly, allowed themselves to become involved in a struggle at a time and place not of their own choosing, and under circumstances that favored the Prussian government, which had seized the initiative.

It is conceivable that the March uprising would not have occurred at all if the bomb plot against the Siegessdule had not prompted the Prussian government to make a show of force. Persuaded by Severing, Horsing revised his earlier plan to deal with the disturbances in the province exclusively with his own police forces. The area of occupation, which originally was to be confined to the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts, was extended to include the Merseburg area as well, and the number of police contingents was doubled by calling on out-side reinforcements. These measures gave the operation from the beginning an appearance quite out of proportion to its alleged objective, the suppression of a local crime wave. The man behind these changes was Severing. There is good reason to believe that after the Siegessdule plot Severing, and through him Horsing, were converted to Weismann’s point of view that the series of incidents discovered during the early part of 1921 were indicative of a contemplated Communist putsch. They happened to be right, but the indications on which the Prussian officials based their assumptions were largely incidental and not part of the actual plan which the KPD finally adopted on March 17.

Despite their suspicions, Severing, Horsing, and Weismann upheld the official version that the police occupation of Prussian Saxony had no political motives, but was entirely a measure designed to stamp out crime. In view of the fact that the Communists were the only political party not represented at the Merseburg conference of March 17, coupled with the large-scale preparations for the his pending move, the argument is unconvincing. It was nevertheless maintained after the uprising had been crushed, except for a revealing remark made by Severing. He was questioned by a member of the investigation committee appointed by the Prussian diet as to whether it was true that the police forces employed in Saxony were intentionally kept below the numbers required for a quick operation lest “the thunderstorm would not have broken, leaving the atmosphere sultry.” Severing denied the intention but agreed that the relative weakness of the police proved a blessing in disguise, because it brought the simmering insurrection out into the open where it could be fought. In his memoirs, Severing went even further by adding that “it was not, after all, the objective of the police action merely to punish the misdeeds of a few evildoers, but to pacify the region by means of a thorough disarmament action (Entwaffnungsaktion).” To this extent, and only to this extent, can the Communist charge of government “provocation” be eonsidered justified. But it must also be kept in mind that the Prussian officials were leaning over backward not to challenge the KPD openly, going so far as to maintain the legal fiction of an operation against crime. Under these circumstances, the Communist leaders could easily have ignored Horsing’s appea1. That they chose not to do so was to cost the life of many a comrade from the rank and file.


Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.