Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

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

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

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:


The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

April 12, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (conclusion, the call for a Fifth International)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:25 pm

Despite the tidal wave of commentary on Hugo Chavez’s call for a Fifth International during a conference of left parties in Caracas on November 19-21, 2009, it is difficult to find his actual words. Thanks to Australian activist Roberto Jorquera, you can read them here.

I want to take a few minutes to reflect on these issues, particularly to point to the importance that this call has […] In relation to the Fifth International I ask this special congress to include this issue in its debates so that we can analyse it and put it into context and study this proposal and its context. This proposal to call on political parties, revolutionary parties and social movements, to create a new organisation that is able to adapt to the time that we are living under and the situation that we live under; to put itself at the forefront of the people of the world and their calls; to become an instrument of articulation and unification of the struggles of the world’s peoples so that we can save this planet. It is important that the congress discuss this issue. That is why I made the call.

The Fifth International — let’s remember that the First International was established in 1864. Karl Marx with a number of other comrades called for the First International. Many years later Frederick Engels called for the establishment of the Second International at the end of the 19th century. And then at the beginning of the 20th century Vladimir Lenin with many other great revolutionaries established the Third International, and Leon Trotsky in 1936-37 established the Fourth International. All of them had a context but remember that all four Internationals, experiments to unite parties and currents and social movements from around the world, have lost their way along the road for different reasons — some degenerated, lost their force, disappeared soon after their formation. But none of them was able to advance the original aims that they had set themselves…

I honestly believe that the time has come to convoke the Fifth Socialist International and we call on all the revolutionary parties, socialist parties and currents and social movements that struggle for socialism and against capitalism and imperialism to save the world. Let us reclaim Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan “Socialism or barbarism”. Let us save the world. Let’s make socialism. Let us save the world and destroy capitalism. Let us save the world and destroy imperialism. That is what it is about. That is the essence of this congress.

As might be expected, some diehard supporters of a Trotskyist international were troubled by the idea that they were obsolete. Speaking for Socialist Action, a group that dusted off the banner of the Fourth International after the SWP—the group that expelled them—tossed it aside, Gerry Foley found the composition of the gathering where Chavez spoke decidedly at odds with socialist goals:

However, if Chavez meant what he said or understood what he was calling for, he chose an odd venue for his call. The Caracas gathering of alleged left parties included the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, the main party in the lower house of the Mexican Congress), which has never been a socialist party and is no longer even a populist one. It also included the ruling Workers Party of Brazil, which has cast aside whatever socialist program it ever had and administers a neoliberal regime hardly different from its right-wing predecessor in government.

Unlike Socialist Action, their European comrades were more open to the idea of working on this new project, not a big surprise since they were much less inclined to worship at the altar of James P. Cannon. Writing for International Viewpoint, Francois Sabado was generally more supportive of the initiative but warned about possible links with the “anti-imperialists” associated with Venezuelan foreign policy realpolitik:

Chavez’s call for a Fifth International also constitutes a point of support when it poses the question of a new International, independently of the Second (Socialist) International of which organizations like the social democratic parties, the Mexican PRI and the Brazilian PT are members. But it is also necessary to clarify a question in the construction of a new International, that of the difference between state policies and the development of a political project. One thing is to conclude economic and commercial agreements with states which have anti-imperialist governments, to conclude such agreements with other states, including some which have reactionary regimes, or to oppose attacks of imperialism against certain countries. It is quite another thing to give political support to regimes like those of the Chinese Communist Party or the Islamic Republic of Iran… The project of the Fifth International cannot in any way at all be associated with these regimes.

I quite agree with this proviso but doubt that it will matter very much in light of China and Iran’s well-established aversion toward revolutionary socialism.

Another contender for the Fourth International crown is led by Alan Woods, the leader of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) that has been distinguished by its favorable attitude toward the Bolivarian revolution even if their own modus operandi is decidedly at odds with the free-wheeling style of Venezuelan Marxism. To start with, the IMT would agree that the Fourth International was a failed project going back decades at least:

It is not possible here to go into more detail about the mistakes of the then leadership of the Fourth International, but it is sufficient to say that Mandel, Cannon and co., lost their bearings after the war and this led to a complete abandonment of genuine Marxism. The so-called Fourth International degenerated after the death of Trotsky into an organically petit-bourgeois sect. It has nothing in common with the ideas of its founder or with the genuine tendency of Bolshevism-Leninism. The sectarian attitude of the pseudo-Trotskyist sects towards the Bolivarian Revolution is a particularly crass example of this.

My bullshit antennas send off signals whenever I hear a reference to “genuine Marxism”, but let’s not get bogged down with “more detail” as Woods put it. Instead, it is of some interest to see how Woods sees his relationship to a new international:

What position should the Marxists take? As Marxists we are unconditionally in favour of the setting up of mass international organisation of the working class. No genuine mass International exists at present. What was the IV International was destroyed by the mistakes of the leaders after Trotsky’s assassination, and in effect is only alive in the ideas, methods and programme defended by the IMT. The IMT defends the ideas of Marxism in the mass organisations of the working class in all countries. It is within these organisations that a discussion around the proposal of the Fifth International should be promoted with urgency.

I would say that there is a cognitive dissonance between Woods’s being “in favour” of a new international and his blustering claim that the Fourth International “is only alive in the ideas, methods and programme defended by the IMT.This kind of petty proprietorship mentality is better suited to detergent commercials rather than revolutionary socialism.

Departing from the world of Trotskyism, the reaction of socialists and radicals has tended to be bothered less with qualifications about Chavez’s erstwhile allies in Brazil or elsewhere. Znet, an important website run by Michael Albert, a veteran of the 1960s New Left, has embraced the idea.

Given Albert’s tendency toward elaborate blueprints such as the kind found in “Participatory Economics” (Parecon, he calls it), I am not surprised that his proposal for a Participatory Socialist International is filled with details about how things should be run (you’ll note the inclusion of the “participatory” brand naming.)

  • members, employees, staff, etc., of each new International member organization would in turn gain membership in the International
  • individuals who want to be members of the International but have no member group that they belong too, would have to join one
  • every member group would have its own agenda for its separate operations which would be inviolable

One of the more interesting contributions to the discussion from the Latin American left comes from Carlos Fonseca Terán, the deputy secretary of the International Relations Department of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). While the FSLN has become a fairly opportunist formation, Terán shows that the Sandinista cadre can still sound like they mean business.

In the same fashion that I have been doing on Unrepentant Marxist, Terán gives a historical overview of the various international socialist organizations that includes barbs directed against both the Stalin’s Comintern (I never took up this formation in my overview since it was so clearly an aberration) and the Fourth International. Terán has some particularly interesting revelations on how the Nicaraguans related to the Comintern during the “3rd period” even though he makes no specific reference to the term:

Sandino appealed to the workers of Latin America to join the Latin American Union Confederation, a union arm in our continent of the Communist International; and to assume as their own the resolutions of the Anti-Imperialist World Congress in Frankfurt, convened by the International. According to Ramón de Belausteguigoitia’s narrative in his book With Sandino in Nicaragua, it was usual to hear the anthem of the International in the camps of the Army for the Defence of National Sovereignty of Nicaragua.

At one point, as is known, these cadres separated from Sandino. This took place a result of guidelines issued by the Mexican Communist Party in what was extremely sectarian behaviour. Such guidelines were questioned within the International, despite the fact that the Mexican Communists believed they were complying with the new line existing in the world organisation. It defined the strategy of class against class, meaning that the communist parties should break with everything that did not signify a commitment to socialism.

While Terán is correct in his assessment of the Fourth International’s endless capacity for fragmentation, he really does not understand what drives it. For him, it is a belief that the “the socialist revolution must be global or not at all,” an analysis sadly dredged up from the Stalinist archives. All the rest stands:

Following Trotsky’s assassination and death in 1940, his followers became characterised for their highly polemical behaviour which was to lead them to successive and endless internal divisions. That approach was not unrelated to their view that the socialist revolution must be global or not at all. As a consequence, this international organisation has not promoted a single revolution in any country, precisely because they did not conceive of it within national borders. That stance led to inaction of its members. The lack of revolutionary processes to promote and defend led to replacing practical tasks of the revolutionary struggle with excessive polemics, with ensuing sectarianism. The lack of combining theory with practice has characterised this version of the International throughout its trajectory and is the origin of its divisiveness.

Much of the rest of Terán’s article is taken up with interesting if not always correct interpretations of what “democratic centralism” means today, as well as recommendations on how the Fifth International should function. Frankly, I would have a lot more enthusiasm for the comrade’s proposals if the FSLN had been setting a better example for the left over the past 20 years or so. I do recommend reading it if for no other reason than if such an international arises, the FSLN will have a significant voice owing much to its earlier credentials as a revolutionary and non-sectarian movement.

Terán’s article appeared on Links, the website of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, a group that is on record as favoring the sort of rethinking of revolutionary politics shared by the NPA in France. It is very much in tune with the ideas of Bolivarian socialism and the November call for a new international, which would be very much in line with their own perspectives.

Two Socialist Alliance members, Frederico Fuentes and Kiraz Janicke, are reporting on location from Caracas and participated in the conference where Chavez issued his call. I would strongly urge reading Fuentes’s article that appeared shortly afterwards and that adds much to the excerpt translated by Jorquera above (Jorquera was formerly a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia which dissolved into the Socialist Alliance.) Fuentes writes:

At the same time, the conditions to build socialism are ripe, he argued. “That is why I ask…that you allow me continue to go forward, together with those who want to accompany me, in the creation of the Fifth Socialist International.”

A new international without manuals and impositions, explained Chavez, and where differences are welcomed.

He sharply criticized the example the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which imposed its dogmas such as “socialism in one country” on its satellite parties internationally. This led many CPs in Latin America to turn their backs on Che Guevara due to his rejection of Soviet dogmatism, Chavez said.

In rejection of the failed projects of “real socialism” and social democracy, a new International should embody the spirit and accumulated heritage left to humanity by the founders of the first four Internationals: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Jose Carlos Mariategui and Leon Trotsky he stated.

It should also incorporate the ideas of Latin American radicals and liberators such as Simon Bolivar, Francisco Morazan, Maurice Bishop and Sandino, Chavez contended.

A new project of left coordination has to be an international to confront imperialism, defeat capitalism and struggle for 21st Century Socialism. It is necessary to work together in the elaboration of a manifesto around which to unify criteria in regards to 21st Century Socialism, he continued.

Chavez’s response to the interjection of one delegate who stated that there already existed other organizations for coordination among political parties was swift and sharp: there exist many spaces for discussion, but none for concrete action, which is why today many of them are finished.

“We have wasted a lot of time, we continue to waste time, looking for excuses to justify our inactivity. I consider such behavior to be a betrayal of the hope of our peoples”. What we need is a unity of left parties, “but parties that are truly left.”

I want to conclude with my thoughts on Chavez’s call which will have a tentative character for two reasons. First of all, I am loath to issue pronunciamentos in the Coyoacan manner to begin with. Second of all, it is difficult to render an opinion since so far nothing much more than rhetoric exists. Unlike the case of starting a new socialist party in Venezuela, getting a new international off the ground will be a much more difficult task given the global reach of the project and the bad habits accumulated by many of the cadres drawn to the project despite their best intentions. But if nothing else comes out of it except the idea, that would be a step forward since as Chavez and Terán have correctly concluded, it is time for a brand-new movement.

In my view the best thing that could happen is if the comrades of the Fourth International gave up on the idea of keeping Trotsky’s project alive (it is brain-dead, I’m afraid) and throw themselves into a new movement selflessly. This would provide some of the initial impetus needed to get things going as well as reflecting the “French turn” represented by the creation of the NPA.

We are living in a period in which very important attempts to break with sectarianism are being midwived by a growing economic and environmental crisis. Trotskyists have a very important role to play in moving the struggle forward if they realize that there is no reason to maintain an organizational framework that has outlived its historical mission. As the leader of a mass movement in Venezuela that has the support of millions of workers, Hugo Chavez might not be as brilliant as V.I. Lenin, but he is operating under much more favorable circumstances. It would be a shame if Chavez’s invitation is declined because he does not correspond to the ideal that we have in our minds about Lenin’s successor. Lenin wrote a last will and testament shortly before he died and it is mostly surely of historical interest. But given the historical gap between the writing of that document over 85 years ago and the urgent tasks facing the left today, it would be a good idea to put the Stalin-Trotsky succession debate to rest once and for all. If nothing else, the idea of 21st Century Socialism and the call for a Fifth International forces us to think about the future rather than the past. It is about time.

April 7, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (part 6, Trotskyist collapse)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

As anybody familiar with the revolutionary left will know, the Fourth International is a brand name that has been adopted by many different retailers. From its very beginning, the movement tended to cultivate various leaders who adopted the style of Leon Trotsky, a brilliant thinker who was far better at exposing the crimes, sins and peccadilloes of his ideological adversaries than uniting diverse anti-capitalist individuals and groups into a cohesive movement.

By contrast, Lenin was much better at wielding together diverse elements into a fighting movement. Despite his reputation for being a go-for-the-jugular polemicist, Lenin was far less interested in drawing sharp ideological distinctions than Trotsky. Consider the role of Iskra, for example. Lenin proposed the need for a newspaper that could unite socialists across Russia at the “What is to be Done” conference. In other words, if you were for socialism, you belonged in the social democratic party that was still gestating. Once that party was formed, there were few expulsions—arguably only one: Bogdanov, whose philosophical peregrinations threatened to undermine the basic theoretical foundations of the Russian party. Furthermore, it is probably a mistake to view the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks as hardened opponents. Despite the frequent polemics against the Mensheviks, Lenin was always exploring ways to mend the rift between the two factions.

The ideological basis for the Fourth International, as I explained in my last post, was the platform of the Left Opposition. In my view, Leon Trotsky would have been far more successful if he had struggled to build a world movement on a much broader basis, namely for workers democracy in the USSR, political independence from the bourgeoisie, etc. This might have meant having a much more forgiving attitude toward the centrists, who were willing to go along with Trotsky on 80 percent of his program. Indeed, the history of the Bolshevik Party reveals a kind of ideological diversity that attempts to “improve” it both in the Comintern and the Fourth International proved futile. The reason for this is simple. Just as there are various levels of consciousness in the working class, there will also be various levels in its organized political expressions. That is the reality of politics. Attempts to circumvent this reality will always end up in sect formations, as Hal Draper so eloquently put it:

What characterizes the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves. The approach pointed by Marx was different: without giving up or concealing one’s own programmatic politics in the slightest degree, the real Marxist looks to the lines of struggle calculated to move decisive sectors of the class into action – into movement against the established powers of the system (state and bourgeoisie and their agents, including their labor lieutenants inside the workers’ movement). And for Marx, it is this reality of social (class) collision which will work to elevate the class’s consciousness to the level of the socialist movement’s program.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to building an inclusive movement was the record of a struggle in the American section of the Fourth International that supposedly exhibited Leon Trotsky at his best, namely the faction fight with Max Shachtman, James Burnham and Martin Abern. With the notion that their “petty bourgeois” methodology was opposed to the “proletarian” Cannon faction, amounting to a scratch that could lead to gangrene, you get the debating style that has marked Trotskyism until the current day.

The first major episode of gangrene prevention took place in 1953 when the Fourth International split over the role of “Pabloism”. Greek Trotskyist and FI leader Michael Raptis, who used the party name Pablo, had decided that the Cold War would transform the CP’s into imperfect revolutionary instruments. And, as such, they would be the proper place for Trotskyists to operate in a “deep entry” mode. When the majority of the French section dug in its heels to oppose this tactic, the leadership was replaced by a minority that favored it.

This abuse as well as a certain amount of Stalinophobia from James P. Cannon, the American Trotskyist leader, and his allies led to a split. Cannon, Gerry Healy from the British section, and Pierre Lambert, the purged French majority leader, formed the International Committee while Ernest Mandel led a so-called International Secretariat committed to one degree or another to Pablo’s perspective.

Despite the IC’s characterization of Michael Raptis as some kind of Satan, he played an important role in solidarizing with the Algerian revolution as the wiki on Pablo notes:

He was personally closely involved in supporting the Algerian national liberation struggle against France, which led to imprisonment in Holland in connection with counterfeit money and gun-smuggling activities. A campaign for his release was launched by Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1961 Pablo was finally sentenced to 15 months imprisonment, and liberated at the end of his trial. He took refuge in Morocco. After the victory of the Algerian revolution, he became a minister in the FLN government.

To the credit of the American Trotskyists and the Ernest Mandel leadership, they realized that their shared support of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution compelled them to reunite in 1963. Gerry Healy and Pierre Lambert would have no part of this, however. Healy regarded Fidel Castro as a bourgeois nationalist and denied that capitalism had ever been overturned. Lambert was more prone to analyze Cuba in terms of the workers having failed to take power but I admit to not remembering the fine points of such arcane disputations from my misspent youth.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, a mere four years after the reunification, the “betrayal” was still fresh in the minds of two small groups led by American supporters of the IC. One group, called the Workers League, was led by Tim Wolforth and had won the approval of Gerry Healy as his official American satellite. The other, called the Spartacist League, was led by James Robertson, a bizarre cult figure who I have never had the pleasure of seeing in public. Both of these groups were obsessed with “Pabloite revisionism” and would show up at public meetings of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or at antiwar conferences to harangue the apple-cheeked student activists about Pablo’s betrayals. Today, Tim Wolforth is something of a Eustonite liberal while Robertson remains as elusive as ever.

For the first five years or so I was in the SWP, everything seemed to be going swimmingly well in our world movement although from time to time I got the sense that the Mandel wing of the movement was just a bit off. I remember when the SWP organized a class on party history back in 1968, with all the big guns like Farrell Dobbs lecturing us on how wonderful we were. During a break, I was chatting with Judy White, a party functionary, about this and that and she volunteered that the party was anxious to train new members like me or else we might end up like the Europeans. It all sounded like a parent advising a child on the need to brush one’s teeth three times a day.

Despite this, the major emphasis was on the importance of unity especially in light of the prominent role of the French Trotskyists in the May-June events of 1968. The LCR, which would eventually fold itself into the NPA, seemed to be everywhere on the barricades and Alain Krivine emerged as a key student leader. Within the year, the SWP would be on the barricades in Berkeley during the People’s Park struggle. Peter Camejo, who played a key role in the struggle, gave talks around the country making an explicit link between Berkeley and France. Revolution, as Max Elbaum would put it, was in the air.

Not only was revolution in the air, there was a lot of ultraleftism as well. From making barricades, the next step for many leftists was picking up the gun. Urban guerrilla warfare became an epidemic worldwide, including Argentina where two factions of the Trotskyist movement emerged. One was led by Nahuel Moreno, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had opposed Pablo. It was oriented to trade union struggles and the mass movement. The other faction was involved with armed actions, particularly hijacking of trucks whose goods were dispensed in poor and working-class neighborhoods a la Robin Hood. Moreno eventually broke completely with the guerrillas and formed a new group called the SWP. At the time we were convinced that Moreno was “one of us” in the spirit of Judy White’s warnings.

Joseph Hansen, a veteran of the SWP who was Trotsky’s bodyguard and generally very astute, wrote a defense of our mass movement orientation titled In Defense of the Leninist Strategy Of Party Building in 1971 that became our main rallying cry against the urban guerrilla warfare orientation of Ernest Mandel and his supporters. It is very much worth reading, even if the “party building” amounts to the kind of clumsy “vanguard” approach I now reject. Joe Hansen was a terrific writer who taught me a lot. He is especially good on the virus of ultraleftism that had infected the left, including Robin Blackburn who at the time was a member of the British section along with Tariq Ali and the late Peter Gowans. Hansen refers to Blackburn in his customarily dry but devastating fashion:

Blackburn mentions specific cases of bombings ascribable to those who have presumably opted for outright civil war. He includes in his survey the following: “At the end of last year Hoover of the F.B.I. announced that he had discovered a collective, comprising almost entirely of priests and nuns, with a plan to kidnap a White House official to be exchanged for a bombing halt in IndoChina.”

(Blackburn is referring to the Daniel and Philip Berrigan frame-up case. He fails to mention that the two pacifist priests, speaking from their prison cells in Danbury, Connecticut, where they were alleged to have masterminded the plot, branded the charges as fabrications.)

Not long after Hansen had written this article, the honeymoon between Moreno and the Americans would be over. Despite some initial confusion over the Sandinistas, the SWP would decide that it was a movement worth supporting. Moreno, on the other hand, regarded them as bourgeois nationalists in the manner in which Healy and Lambert regarded Castro. So deep was his hostility that the Sandinistas decided to expel Moreno’s supporters from Nicaragua after refusing to accept the government as legitimate. Old habits die hard apparently.

Within a year or so, Moreno had set up his own Fourth International. Now there were three contestants vying for the right to be regarded as the authentic heir of Leon Trotsky.

Just around the time that Moreno was launching out on his own, the leader of the SWP, a character named Jack Barnes, decided that a kind of Fifth International was taking shape, although he never referred to it as such. Enamored of the FSLN, the FMLN in El Salvador, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada and the African National Congress, Barnes decided that the traditional Trotskyist project was defunct.

Oddly enough, this bid to connect with living and dynamic movements (at least in this period in history) was at odds with the SWP’s rapid transformation into a sect-cult. The new orientation to groups outside the Trotskyist movement was accompanied by the party’s self-isolation from arguably the counterparts of such groups inside the United States, as well as the mass movement in general. As part of the “turn toward industry”, the SWP decided that all of the movements it had once participated in could only be found within the trade unions. So, for example, the principal agency of opposition to Reagan’s wars in Central America would be the AFL-CIO, even if there was no evidence that the unions were ready to move. So the end result was abstention from the real movement that included Catholic nuns and computer programmers in its ranks rather than steelworkers or truck drivers.

For obvious reasons, the SWP could not sustain the illusion that a new international could be made up of itself and groups like the FSLN, which had imploded under the impact of US war and economic blockade. The SWP itself would begin to implode under the impact of the helmsman’s bizarre workerist schemas. It has set up its own international movement in recent years consisting of itself and tiny satellite groups in places like New Zealand that sell the SWP’s newspaper. On his worst days, I doubt that Pablo could have come up with something more grotesque.

Except for the Peter Taaffe, Alan Woods and Alex Callinicos led formations out of Britain, there are few claimants to the crown of Leon Trotsky’s successor. While Callinicos never would have staked out such a claim in ideological terms, there is clear evidence that the kinds of heavy-handed democratic centralism that proved to be the undoing of so many Fourth International groupings hampers the influence of his own state capitalist movement. When the American ISO developed fairly minor differences with Callinicos, they were expelled from the world organization. With respect to Taaffe and Woods, rival claimants to the Militant Tendency’s ideological legacy, there are few signs that they are ready to break with the Fourth International model.

That will have to be left up to new forces, particularly those responding to Hugo Chavez’s call for a Fifth International, the subject of my final post in this series.

April 4, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (part 5, Trotskyist origins)

Except for the people still committed to the Fourth International project and to varying degrees, there is little doubt that the it has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Given its dialectical–joined at the hip–association with the USSR, it is no surprise that the decline of Stalinism globally has made its mission problematic at best. However, there were clear signs that the movement to build a Trotskyist international was doomed from the outset. In this article I want to focus on its origins and in the next on how and why it has led to so many splits and so little influence. I say this as someone who spent more than ten years in the American section of the Fourth International (or at least one of the multiple movements owing its legacy to Leon Trotsky) anxious to help people understand why a different approach is necessary. All this is building up to some parting thoughts on Hugo Chavez’s call for a fifth international in the final post in this series.

To start with, it is necessary to understand why Trotsky broke finally with Stalin and his Comintern. Just as the Second International’s failure to oppose WWI prompted Lenin to build the 3rd international, the Communist failure to effectively challenge Hitler convinced Leon Trotsky that a new international was necessary. Up until Hitler’s triumph, Trotsky’s orientation was to the “left opposition”, a scattered band of people both inside and outside the USSR who supported Trotsky’s critique. Of course, Marxists who did not support his critique were condemned to fend for themselves. If you had agreed with Bukharin, for example, there would have been few compelling reasons to join a current you were ideologically at odds with. Leaving aside a myriad of other problems, the Trotskyist movement never questioned the wisdom of founding a world movement that grew out of a faction in Soviet Communism. The strongly doctrinal cast of the movement in its infancy would shape its trajectory in years to come—unfortunately.

Perhaps Trotsky had no other option except to create a new movement given the enormity of the disaster that Stalinism was responsible for. Needless to say, the Social Democracy was also at fault, but few people in the early 1930s had many illusions in the reformists’ ability to do much more than defend the immediate interests of trade union members.

In the late 1920’s, Stalin had embarked on an ultraleft course in the USSR and the C.P.’s tended to reflect this ultraleftism in their own strategy and tactics. In Germany, this meant attacking the Socialist Party as “social fascist”. The Socialist Party was not revolutionary, but it was not fascist. A united SP and CP could have defeated fascism and prevented WWII and the slaughter of millions. It was Stalin’s inability to size up fascism correctly that led to this horrible outcome.

In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold.  The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum.  The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.

The first statement urging the formation of a Fourth International appeared in the Militant on September 23 September 1933. Signed by opponents of Stalin, The Declaration of Four on the Necessity and Principles of a New International made Germany into a litmus test:

The German events revealed with no less force the collapse of the Third International. Despite its fourteen-year existence, despite the experience gained in gigantic battles, despite the moral support of the Soviet state and the plentiful means for propaganda, the Communist Party of Germany revealed under conditions of a grave economic, social and political crisis, conditions exceptionally favorable for a revolutionary party, an absolute revolutionary incapacity. It thereby showed conclusively that despite the heroism of many of its members it had become totally incapable of fulfilling its historic role.

The position of world capitalism; the frightful crisis that plunged the working masses into unheard-of misery; the revolutionary movement of the oppressed colonial masses; the world danger of fascism; the perspective of a new cycle of wars which threatens to destroy the whole human culture – these are the conditions that imperatively demand the welding together of the proletarian vanguard into a new (Fourth) International. The undersigned obligate themselves to direct all their forces to the formation of this International in the shortest possible time on the firm foundation of the theoretical and strategic principles laid down by Marx and Lenin.

It was probably a harbinger of future developments that two of the four signatories would eventually drop out of the project to form a new international. Like Andres Nin and others who had initially gravitated to Leon Trotsky politically, they decided that a broader movement was necessary including ties with the Right Opposition in Russia made up of Bukharin’s supporters. The declaration, however, made it clear that it would not accept partial solutions of the “three and a half” variety:

No less energetically must be rejected the theory of the Austro-Marxists, centrists and left reformists who, under the pretext of the international character of the socialist revolution, advocate an expectant passivity with regard to their own country, thereby in reality delivering the proletariat into the hands of fascism. A proletarian party that evades the seizure of power under the present historic conditions commits the worst of betrayals.

The documents of the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 can be read here. There you will also find some useful commentary including a 1946 article by John G. Wright (the party name of Joseph Vanzler, an American Trotskyist born of Jewish parents in Russia in 1902). Wright died at the age of 54, about a decade before I joined the SWP and I always heard him referred to in reverential terms. This was the first time I ever looked at his article on the formation of the Fourth International and a passage sticks out like a sore thumb in a way that it wouldn’t have when I was a Trotskyist militant. He writes:

One of Trotsky’s favorite sayings was: “It is not the party that makes the program; it is the program that makes the party.”

Precisely because of this primary stress on program, Trotsky’s decade of struggle to reform the Third International became in the most direct sense the preparation for the Fourth International.

This approach—and it is the only correct one—obviously invests ideas with extraordinary importance. Indeed we can say without any fear of exaggeration than none attach greater significance or power to ideas than do the revolutionary Marxists. Like Marx, Engels and Lenin, Trotsky regarded ideas as the greatest power in the world.

Lenin’s Bolshevik Party valued its ideas as its most potent weapon. Bolshevism demonstrated in action, in 1917, that such ideas, once embraced by the masses, become convened into an insuperable material force.

Here is how Trotsky formulated this approach in a personal letter to James P. Cannon:

We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, in the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces.

Trotsky’s ideas derive their power from the same source as Lenin’s: both are the correct expression of the struggle of living forces, first and foremost of the liberationist struggle of the proletariat. They represent not only the product of profound theoretical analysis (without which it is impossible to understand reality) but also the unassailable deductions from the march of history for the last hundred years (that is to say, from 1848 when Marx and Engels first expounded the laws governing the movement of capitalist society).

There are ideas and ideas. As against the correct ideas of Marxism, there is also the power of the false ideas. The former serve the interests of progress, of the world working class; the latter only play into the hands of reaction and deal untold injury to workers all the oppressed and to society as a whole. False ideas, like correct ones, do not fall from the sky. They, too, express one of the living forces engaged in struggle, namely: the camp of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.

To start with, you will note that there is a much greater emphasis on ideas than you would expect normally from a revolutionary organization. You will also note that the program is practically synonymous with ideas. This is, of course, a formula for the launching of just about every “Marxist-Leninist” group, and Trotskyists in particular, ever since the 1930s. A set of ideas, or program, is identified and then you go out and recruit people to those ideas, in most instances through a newspaper like the Militant. Once you establish a nucleus of a vanguard party on those ideas, it will greatly enhance your changes for leading a revolution.

When I was having discussions with Peter Camejo in the early 1980s about a different way of thinking about these questions, he said something to me that I will always remember. He said that a program, or set of ideas, cannot exist in advance of a revolutionary struggle. It is the struggle itself that will help to shape the program. Activity (or praxis, to use a fancy word) is necessary to help clarify our ideas. There is a constant dialectical interaction between ideas and activity and to formulate a program based on “the march of history” in advance of such activity will inevitably lead to idealistic and sectarian problems. Of course, Peter said this with a lot more panache than I ever could but I think I am presenting them correctly. Here is another way to put it, something I heard from an old-timer who showed up for a talk by David Harvey to the Brecht Forum years ago. He said that the left should not get stuck in the position of the guy who once said that he planned to become a capitalist as soon as he could put together a couple of million dollars.

Probably the best thing—and the least idealistic—that came out of the founding conference was the Transitional Program, which had the merit of being grounded in the living struggles of the 1930s. This founding program was based on the need to avoid the minimalism of the Social Democracy and the kind of maximalism that the CP during its “third period” adhered to. Transitional meant that slogans would be based on the here and now but would have a logic that led to the question of which class would rule society. As Trotsky put it in his discussion of the sliding scale of wages, a demand very much in sync with conditions today, what might appear reasonable to the average worker is anathema to the bourgeoisie:

Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is being shorn from him at every step. Against unemployment, “structural” as well as “conjunctural,” the time is ripe to advance along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours. Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program for the present catastrophic period.

Property owners and their lawyers will prove the “unrealizability” of these demands. Smaller, especially ruined capitalists, in addition will refer to their account ledgers. The workers categorically denounce such conclusions and references. The question is not one of a “normal” collision between opposing material interests. The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization and ruin. The question is one of life or death of the only creative and progressive class, and by that token of the future of mankind. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. “Realizability” or “unrealizability” is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.

The problem for the Trotskyist movement is that the Transitional Program, as dynamic as it first appears, can become idealized in the hands of a sectarian group. For example, during the 1960s when the U.S. was boiling over with discontent over the war in Vietnam, the Workers League, a small group connected to Gerry Healy’s International Committee for the Fourth International, decided that “for a labor party” was a transitional demand around which all struggles should be subordinated. While the demand for a labor party did not occur in the Transitional Program in 1938, it had raised to that level in discussions between Trotsky and James P. Cannon in Mexico City that year. For the Workers League, it had become a mantra. They would show up at antiwar conferences in 1968 composed mainly of college students who knew little about the trade union movement and shriek at them for not voting in favor of their resolution. Now, nobody would say that the Workers League was the most crazy group in the Trotskyist movement (a topic taken up in my next post) but they were clearly in the running, the “sweet sixteen” to put it in NCAA terms (go, Butler).

Not having read the Transitional Program for perhaps 35 years, I took a fresh look at it this morning in order to help me prepare this post. I was startled to see a section titled Against Sectarianism that must have missed my attention in the past. But it must have been on Peter Camejo’s mind when he wrote an article with the same title in the early 1980s analyzing the SWP’s problems. I was struck by Trotsky’s conclusion, made just after his dismissal of his “centrist” opponents, the worst offenders:

However, sectarian tendencies are to be found also in our own ranks and display a ruinous influence on the work of the individual sections. It is impossible to make any further compromise with them even for a single day. A correct policy regarding trade unions is a basic condition for adherence to the Fourth International. He who does not seek and does not find the road to the masses is not a fighter but a dead weight to the party. A program is formulated not for the editorial board or for the leaders of discussion clubs, but for the revolutionary action of millions. The cleansing of the ranks of the Fourth International of sectarianism and incurable sectarians is a primary condition for revolutionary success.

With those words in mind, I wonder what Trotsky would have made of the movement based on his ideas—the topic of my next post.

March 13, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (part 4, the Centrists)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 10:46 pm

Before writing about the Fourth International in this series of articles about attempts to build a worldwide Marxist international, I decided to take up the “centrist” internationals nicknamed two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half respectively, mostly out of derision by their adversaries. The first is formally known as the International Working Union of Socialist Parties and existed in the 1920s, largely as a collection of leftwing socialist parties sympathetic to Austro-Marxism. Since it was launched by Austrians such as Friedrich Adler and Otto Bauer, it was only natural for it to be based in Vienna and was also referred to as the Vienna International. The second, known as the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, was arguably to the left and included Spain’s POUM as its best known member party. Since the headquarters was based in London, it was referred to as the “London Bureau”. The British section was called the Independent Labor Party (it had also been attached to the Vienna International) and included George Orwell as a sympathizer. His “Homage to Catalonia” describes his involvement with the POUM in Spain.

Not long after I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I learned that there was such a thing called “centrism”, a political current that supposedly was revolutionary in words, but counter-revolutionary in action. From what I can ascertain, this is drawn from Lenin’s characterization of Kautsky’s ideas in chapter six of “State and Revolution”: “This is nothing but the purest and most vulgar opportunism: repudiating revolution in deeds, while accepting it in words.” Since Kautsky was considered a kind of arch-demon in our movement, it was easy to understand why centrism became a curse word. The only problem is that pretty much everybody outside of our ranks, except for the Stalinists and the social democrats, could be referred to as a centrist if they did not go along with the entire Trotskyist catechism. This included just about every guerrilla group in Latin America, and implicitly Fidel Castro until he received absolution after 1963 or so.

Another definition of centrism can be found in Trotsky’s writings and complemented Lenin’s definition above. Trotsky characterized centrism as a current that oscillated between revolutionary and reformist politics. In addition to groups like the POUM, he felt that the definition applied to the Comintern since it was committed to socialism in one country.

It is very difficult to find documents from the “half” internationals either on or off the Internet, and I say that as someone with access to one of the best research libraries in the U.S. but you will find plenty of stuff directed against them.

Fresh from screwing up in Germany in 1921, Karl Radek uses the kind of vituperative language against the Vienna International in a 1922 article titled Foundation of the Two and a Half International that would be used against anybody who got on the wrong side of the Comintern leaders, including Trotsky:

The consideration that the Centrist spirit must be vanquished under the conditions of the world revolution, and by means of it, does not mean at all that the Communist International must offer peace to this spirit in its midst, in order that in may be ultimately overmastered by the revolution. Naturally, the infected organs into which the Centrist venom has had time to penetrate unnoticed must be removed, so that they shall not infect the whole body.

While very little of the Vienna International statements can be found on the Internet, there is one item worth reading, the Official Report of a joint meeting of the Second, Third and Second and a Half Internationals in Berlin on April 2, 1922. As opposed to Karl Radek, whose article revolved around the failure of the centrists to support the dictatorship of the proletariat and other key elements of Communist doctrine, Friedrich Adler was far more interested in figuring out ways the working class movement could unite in action:

I think that all of us here feel that common action on the part of the proletariat has never been more urgent than at the present time. However powerful the differences between us may be, however much we may feel those differences day by day and be compelled day by day to oppose comrades of one section or another, still we know that above all these differences, and stronger than any petty differences, the incredible distress of the world proletariat which is the outcome of the world war—the terrible conditions of misery caused by depreciation of currency and economic need on the one hand, and increased unemployment in the lands with a high currency on the other hand—this urgent need of the world proletariat has produced among them, side by side with their interest in theoretical questions, an imperative desire for unity of action in the immediate tasks of the day.

Friedrich Adler

While I have no interest in trying to salvage the reputation of the Vienna International, I can only say that Radek’s business about “infected organs” compares most unfavorably with Adler’s measured remarks that were far more in the spirit of the United Front policy that had become official Comintern policy. If the problem of centrism was a disjunction between words and deeds, one can only say that Radek’s over-the-top rant was unlikely to lead to the sort of working class unity so desperately needed in those days.

After Trotsky launched the Fourth International, he was confronted by the centrist Three-and-a-half International just as Lenin had to contend with the Two-and-a-half a few years later. Launched in 1931, the London Bureau was not so easy to pigeonhole since it had many genuine revolutionaries like Daniel Guerin and Andres Nin.

Trotsky had a knack for drawing hard-and-fast distinctions between his own movement and such centrists, even when they showed sympathy for his ideas. In a letter to the Independent Labour Party, Trotsky thanked them for printing one of his articles but chastised them for a formulation in the forward:

To the Comrades of the Independent Labour Party. – You have published my Copenhagen speech on the Russian Revolution in pamphlet form. I can of course, only be glad that you made my speech accessible to British workers. The foreword by James Maxton recommends this booklet warmly to the Socialist readers. I can only be thankful for this recommendation.

The foreword, however, contains an idea to which I feel obliged to take exception. Maxton refuses in advance to enter into the merits of those disagreements which separate me and my co-thinkers from the now ruling fraction in the USSR. “This is a matter,” he says, “on which only Russian socialists are competent to decide.”

By these few words the international character of socialism as a scientific doctrine and as a revolutionary movement is completely refuted. If socialists (communists) of one country are incapable. incompetent, and consequently have no right to decide the vital questions of the struggle of socialists (communists) in other countries, the proletarian International loses all rights and possibilities of existence.

Now I would never want to try to second-guess somebody as brilliant as Trotsky—except for this one time—but perhaps it was not the best move to make an issue out of what Maxton wrote in the forward. This sort of thing has a way of antagonizing people especially given the costs of publishing a pamphlet in the depths of the Great Depression.

Trotsky did understand that the ILP was much bigger than his own group in Britain and was blessed with its own prestigious magazine called The New Leader, which continues to be published with about the same analysis it had in Trotsky’s day. The Trotskyist section in Britain was called the Bolshevik-Leninists, just the sort of name that I would have advised against but what do I know.

Trotsky tried to proffer advice to his followers about how to approach the ILP, a group that they had little use for and which Trotsky was trying to orient them to in an “entryist” fashion:

Whether you will enter the ILP as a faction or as individuals is a purely formal question. In essence, you will, of course, be a faction that submits to common discipline. Before entering the ILP you make a public declaration: “Our views are known. We base ourselves on the principles of Bolshevism-Leninism and have formed ourselves as a part of the International Left Opposition. Its ideas we consider as the only basis on which the new International can be built. We are entering the ILP to convince the members of that party in daily practical work of the correctness of our ideas and of the necessity of the ILP joining the initiators of the new International.”

In what sense could such a declaration lower the prestige of your group? This is not clear to me.

I don’t know about prestige but the claim that its “ideas” are the only basis on which a new International can be built strikes me as a bit self-aggrandizing. It demonstrates a certain inability on Trotsky’s part to understand Marx’s words in an 1875 letter to Bracke that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

Marceau Pivert

Trotsky’s polemics with Marceau Pivert, the chairman of the French section of the London Bureau, is also worth taking a look at. Pivert led the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (Workers’ and Peasants’ Socialist Party, or PSOP), a party I know almost nothing about. Pivert wrote an article titled The PSOP and Trotskyism in the June 9, 1939 issue of the PSOP journal. Just as was the case with Maxton, the article—an ostensible invitation to have a dialog—elicited Trotsky’s characteristically sharp reply. Since we are as always operating in the blind as far as the centrists’ words are concerned, we have to rely on Trotsky’s version:

Pivert is ready to collaborate with “Trotskyism,” provided only that the latter abandons all claims to “hegemony” and takes the pathway of “trustful collaboration with all elements that have courageously broken with social patriotism and national communism.”

He adds:

Having thus proclaimed “hegemony” to be his private monopoly in the party, Pivert thereupon demands that the Trotskyites “abandon factional methods.” This demand, repeated several times, comes somewhat incongruously from the pen of a politician who constantly underscores the democratic nature of his organization. What is a faction?

You’ll note the subtle distinction made by Trotsky between abandoning “factional methods” and the right to form a faction: “Whoever prohibits factions thereby liquidates party democracy and takes the first step toward a totalitarian regime.”

Considering the fact that the Fourth International was the most split-prone tendency on the left, you’d think that Trotsky might have paid closer attention to the need to “abandon factional methods” rather than try to amalgamate Pivert with Stalin.

Centrism as an organized international movement came to a climax and disappeared not long after the POUM’s struggle in Spain. For people like myself, the POUM is a symbol of centrism’s folly as it combined courageous tactical initiatives against fascism with political support for the Popular Front government whose failure to enact thoroughgoing structural reforms fed the fascist beast seeking to topple it. It was not just a question of supporting the Popular Front. The POUM formed part of the government but without the kind of power wielded by the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie and its reformist partners.

The Trotskyist movement was very good in diagnosing the POUM’s problems, especially in Felix Morrow’s The Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain that can be read online.  Morrow made the “orthodox” case against the POUM entering the government:

‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes,’ declared Marx. This was the great lesson learned from the Paris Commune: ‘not, as in the past, to transfer the bureaucratic and military machinery from one hand to the other, but to break it up; and that is the precondition of any real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic party comrades in Paris have attempted.’ What is to replace the shattered state machinery? On this, the fundamental question of revolution, the meagre experience of the Commune was fully developed by Lenin and Trotsky. Parliamentarianism was to be destroyed. In its place rise the workers’ committees in the factories, the peasants’ committees on the land, the soldiers’ committees in the army, centralized in local, regional and, finally, the national soviets. Thus, the new state, a workers’ state, is based on industrial representation, which automatically disfranchises the bourgeoisie, except as, after the consolidation of workers’ power, they individually enter productive labour and are permitted to participate in electing the soviets. Between the old bourgeois state and the new workers’ state lies a chasm over which the bourgeoisie cannot return to power except by overthrowing the workers’ state.

It was this fundamental tenet, the essence of the accumulated experience of a century of revolutionary struggle, which the POUM violated in entering the Generalidad [bourgeois government]. They received their ministry from the hands of President Companys. The new cabinet merely continued the work of the old, and like the old, could be dismissed and replaced by a more reactionary one. Behind the protective covering of the POUM-CNT-PSUC-Esquerra cabinet, the bourgeoisie would weather the revolutionary offensive, gather its shattered forces, and, with the aid of the reformists, at the ripe moment, return to full power. To this end, it was not even necessary for the bourgeoisie to participate in the cabinet. There had been ‘all-workers’ cabinets in Germany, Austria, England, which had thus enabled the bourgeoisie to weather critical situations, and then kick out the workers’ ministers.

As inured as I have become to the Trotskyist pointing out of sins of commission, I find myself wondering to what extent responsibility must be placed on the Fourth International for having failed to build an alternative to the POUM. Could it be possible that the “factional methods” referred to by Pivert constitute an effective roadblock to reaching the critical mass necessary to impact events on the ground? If so, then we can only conclude that the Trotskyist movement was effectively guilty of sins of omission that in the sphere of revolutionary politics might not condemn you to eternal damnation but eternal irrelevance. Damnation is surely worse, but as Marxists we must aspire to relevance and not be satisfied with the smug feeling that goes along with not being damned.

February 28, 2010

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

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

Paul Levi

Pierre Broue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Broue’s assessment of Bela Kun:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 15, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Jules Guesde

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

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

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

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

Jean Jaures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eduard Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 20, 2010

History of the Marxist internationals (part 1, the IWA)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Earlier this month Marxmail subscriber Joonas Laine asked about books that cover the history of the first International, known rather unfortunately as the International Workingman’s Association. I should add that this was more than just a sexist oversight. One of the standard histories of the first international written by G.M. Stekloff that can be read online at the Marxist Internet Archives describes the exclusion of women from the Paris branch of the IWA by its Proudhonist majority:

Regarding this matter, the French … had decided by a large majority: ‘Woman’s place is the home, not the forum; nature has made her nurse and housewife, do not let us withdraw her from these social functions and from her true sphere in life; for the man, work, and study of the problems of society for the woman, the caring for children and the beautifying of the worker’s home.’ Consequently, to the great scandal of the advocates of the so-called emancipation of woman, they had decided against the admission of women to the International.

These were the words of E.E. Fribourg, a Proudhonist who had written his own history in 1871, just around the time that the IWA was collapsing.

I read Stekloff’s book as well as the first chapter of Raymond Williams Postgate’s history as background for a series of posts on the four attempts to build socialist internationals. Ever since Hugo Chavez issued a call for a Fifth International, I had promised myself to carve out some time to take up this question. Most people who are veterans of the Trotskyist movement were indoctrinated to believe something like this. The internationals that preceded our own—the fourth—failed for one reason or the other. I was more familiar with the second and the third, which succumbed to the kinds of social democratic and Stalinist sins that our movement devoted so much energy to exposing. I knew much less about the first international, which usually received a brief review in a new member’s class or an educational. Of course, our own Fourth International was destined to lead the workers to power all over the world, just as long as they didn’t get misled by the bevy of Fourth Internationals that were pretenders to the throne of Leon Trotsky.

I looked forward to reading about the IWA for several reasons. I am always looking for ways to educate myself about our movement, especially since it helps to keep my brain cells exercised. I also had a hunch that during the lifetime of the IWA, there would be the same sorts of problems we face today. In both periods Marxism was a minority current on the left. If we are trying to piece together a movement out of the rubble of the collapse of the USSR, what better period to study than when socialism was in its infancy?

To start with, it is important to realize that the IWA was not initiated by Karl Marx. As it turns out the British trade union movement played a key role in getting it off the ground and, as might be expected, had very little interest in revolutionary socialism. Indeed, one of their primary motivations was to find a way of preventing foreign workers being used as scabs in British strikes. Stekloff writes:

Simultaneously with the growth of interest in the political struggle, there was a revival of internationalist leanings among the British workers. Here and there, the direct economic interests of the workers exercised an influence. At this date, the standard of life of the British workers was higher than that of the workers in other lands, and consequently the strike movement in Britain was hindered by the competition of the Continental workers. When there was a strike in Britain, the employers would threaten to import foreign workers who would accept worse conditions – and did actually import strike-breakers from Belgium and elsewhere. Naturally, therefore, the movement could not be confined within national limits.

Accepting at face value that British trade unionists were only opposed to scabs and not foreign workers “stealing jobs”, it is necessary to note that the American trade union movement did exhibit naked racism in this period, all within the framework of the IWA.

Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International” explores the factional divisions between Victoria Woodhull and Fredrick Sorge in the American section of the IWA. Woodhull was considered flaky by some dogmatic Marxists since she dabbled in spiritualism and was an early feminist of the kind derided by the Proudhomists. Sorge, on the other hand, had the full support of Karl Marx on most questions but his attitude toward Chinese immigration was hardly calculated to sit well with our movement today, regardless of Marx’s feelings. Messer-Kruse explains:

At their first annual congress after purging the Yankees [Woodhull] from their midst, Sorge’s Tenth Ward Hotel faction devoted much of its attention to the issue the Chinese. In honor to their West Coast comrades, the convention chose Robert Blissert. the proxy delegate of a San Francisco section, president of the convention. Beneath their red banner inscribed with the words “Workingmen of all Countries Unite,” the delegate representing San Francisco’s Internationalists read his report:

“The white workingmen see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.”

California’s Internationalists appealed to their Eastern comrades to do all they could to publicize the plight of the Western white worker and the grave threat posed to all white workers by the continued immigration of the Chinese. Their communication ended on a murderous note. “If Chinese emigration is not stopped,” the message declared (according to one observer present at the meeting), “blood will yet flow in the streets of San Francisco on their account.” The convention voted unanimously to “use [all] their endeavors to give all the publicity possible to the document.”

There were problems with the French section of the IWA but of an entirely different sort. There the followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon enjoyed hegemony. While it would be a mistake to fall into the trap of economic determinism, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Proudhon’s philosophy of “mutualism” had a fertile soil in France since industry was not as developed as it was in Britain. If Britain’s trade union was governed by bread-and-butter issues, French radicals of the 1860s tended to have illusions that change could come about short of a proletarian revolution. Proudhon’s main emphasis was not on the class struggle, but allowing workers to have a fair share in the capitalist economy through co-operatives, the easy advancement of credit and other such reforms. Anybody who has seen Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” can easily see how seductive these ideas are in a period when the working class was not a fully developed social and economic force.


Chapter five of Stekloff’s history hones in on Proudhon’s philosophy which can be described as a form of anarchism, although distinctly at odds with Bakunin’s anarchism, another current that was also well represented in a highly heterogeneous international.

Proudhonism was organised as a system in the period of extreme reaction which supervened in France upon the suppression of the proletarian rising in June 1848. On the one hand, it was tinged with political indifferentism, which was a reflection of the political indifferentism of the masses during the Second Empire; this aroused sharp criticism on the part of the Blanquists, who declared that the International (during the early days the French members of the organisation were mainly Proudhonists) was in the service of the Bonapartist police. Or, the other hand, Proudhonism was characterised by a narrow doctrinairism. In a society based upon the dominion of large-scale capital and upon the centralisation of economic life, the Proudhonists hoped to solve the social problem by economic measures which should not transcend the limits of petty production and exchange. The difficulties arising out of the exploitation of wage labour by large-scale machine industry, in a society where banking capital had become highly concentrated, were to be overcome – so thought the Proudhonists – by the organisation of people’s banks, with free credit, and by the “equitable” (non-monetary) exchange of products among isolated producers, who were to exchange these goods for their actual (“constituted”) value.

Put in its most simple terms, Proudhonism was a system that prioritized the implementation of economic “alternatives” to capitalism to political assaults on the system. It was akin to the utopian socialist experiments of the time that took root in Britain and the United States. Utopian thought obviously continues to this day as demonstrated by the fascination with the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, which have now grown into a powerful multinational company. As was the case with the Proudhonists, the Mondragon co-op has almost no interest in strikes or political action. If you are expecting the Mondragon management to be on the front lines against the “war on terror”, immigrant rights or gay liberation, you will likely be disappointed. This is not to say that co-op’s are not of benefit to some workers or that Proudhonism was not a genuine movement of the left. It is only a problem when such politically confused initiatives represent themselves as precursors to socialism.

Turning now to the other anarchist party represented in the IWA, we find ourselves communing with the ancestors of the Black Block rather than Mondragon. As master of the “propaganda of the deed”, Mikhail Bakunin—like Proudhon—was undoubtedly opposed to the capitalist system. But he had little interest in co-ops. His main interest was in insurrectionist activity by enlightened intellectuals over and above the heads of the proletariat.


While Bakunin saw the IWA as an organization to spread his influence, his main identification was with something called the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries founded in 1868 that he proposed as a kind of international within the First International, which the IWA understandably rejected. That, of course, did not prevent Bakunin from operating as a secret faction within the IWA. As a past master of intrigue, he probably considered his Marxist comrades with as much contempt as the bourgeoisie since both groups obviously adhered to statism.

Marx and Bakunin both emerge out of the radical wing of the Hegelian School of philosophy but by the early 1840s, they both struggled to transcend this framework. At the outset this was manifested by a tendency to see the struggle for a classless society in moral or philosophical terms. They hoped to lead European society to a better future through a kind of prophetic denunciation of contemporary ills. Proudhon’s notion that “property is theft” epitomizes this approach.

Unlike his anarchist comrades, Marx eventually came to the conclusion that a critique of capitalism had to be rooted in political economy rather than ethics. Written in 1846-47, “The Poverty of Philosophy” is not only an answer to Proudhon’s “Property is Theft,” it also contains some of the basic economic insights that would be more fully developed in Capital.

Besides the philosophical differences, you also have a basic disagreement over what Marxists call “agency,” a term designating the social class capable of transforming society through revolutionary action. Despite the fact that the industrial proletariat had not achieved the sort of numerical strength and social power that it would later in the century, Marx staked everything on this emerging class. The reasons for this are developed extensively throughout his writings, but suffice it to say at this point that it is related to his analysis of the capitalist economy. Since the capitalist system can only survive through competition and revolutionizing the means of production, it would of necessity introduce machinery and–hence–a proletariat. In struggles over wages and working conditions–as well as a host of ancillary issues–the two classes will confront each other in revolutionary battles for power.

Although Bakunin was no friend of the bourgeoisie, he never seemed to be able to make up his mind on the ‘agency’ question. Addressing Marx’s belief that the proletariat be “raised to the level of a ruling class,” Bakunin pointed out that some other class, like the peasant rabble or lumpen-proletariat might be the most willing to rise up against the capitalist system. Whether they, or the philosopher-kings leading them, had a grasp of the political tasks leading up to the final insurrection could hardly matter less.

Despite the clashes in the IWA over such basic questions, it continued to grow as workers became radicalized in struggle. While the Paris Commune was not directly led by IWA members, there is little doubt that the bourgeoisie saw it as the most consistent defender of the first proletarian revolution and a future organizer of such challenges to capitalist rule.

Torn apart by internal rifts and bourgeois repression, the IWA went into a crisis after 1871. The meeting at The Hague in the summer of 1872 would be its last. The IWA decided to expel Bakunin who was charged with mishandling funds. 300 pounds had been advanced to Bakaunin to translate Capital into Russian but he failed to follow through. He was also charged with organizing a secret faction. Additionally, Marx and Engels decided to withdraw from the leadership of the IWA in order to focus on completing Capital and other major theoretical works.

The headquarters of the IWA was transferred to the United States where it sputtered along for a few years until its final convention in July 1876. The American branch was led by Daniel DeLeon, a Jew born in Curacao in 1852 who would move to the United States as a youth and graduate from Columbia University. The American branch of the IWA would eventually become known as the Socialist Labor Party. Unlike the IWA, the SLP continued to exist right until today.

The IWA was a workers international that probably was destined to have a short life, given the social and political contradictions of the movement in its earliest phases. When it finally collapsed, Marx and Engels had already begun to consider how the next phase of the movement would take shape. Marx did not live long enough to see that development—the second international—but clearly his ideas were at its core, as opposed to the inchoate first international.

In September 27, 1873, Marx wrote to Sorge giving his assessment of where the IWA stood:

According to my reading of the European situation, it will be a very good thing that the formal organisation of the International shall, for the time being, be allowed to retire into the background – though it may be just as well that we should keep our hands upon the nucleus in New York, lest idiots like Perret or adventurers like Cluseret might get hold of it and compromise the affair. The course of events and the inevitable development and interlacement of things will spontaneously ensure the uprising of the International in an improved form. For the nonce, however, it will suffice that we avoid allowing ourselves to get quite out of touch with the really efficient workers in the movement in various lands.

One year later, it was Engels’s turn to write to Sorge about the end of the IWA. He was reflective about the organization’s internal contradictions:

‘Tis just as well. The organisation belonged to the epoch of the Second Empire, when the labour movement was again beginning to become active, but when the oppressions that prevailed throughout Europe made unity and abstention from internal disputes absolutely essential. It was time when the joint cosmopolitan interests of the proletariat could come to the front. Germany, Spain, Italy, and Denmark had recently entered the movement, or were just entering it. In 1864, throughout Europe (among the masses at any rate), there was still very little understanding of the theory underlying the movement. German communism had not yet found expression in a workers’ party, and Proudhonism was too weak to impose its whimsies; Bakunin’s new-fangled idea had not yet found its way into his own head. Even the British trade-union leaders felt able to participate is the movement upon the basis of the program formulated in the Preamble to the Provisional Rules of the Association. It was inevitable that the first great success should break up this simple harmony of all the factions. The success was the Commune, which, as far as its intellectual inspiration was concerned, was unmistakably the child of the International, although the International had not stirred a finger to bring it into being – for the International is with good reason made responsible for its creation. But when, thanks to the Commune, the International became a moral force in Europe, the quarrel promptly broke out. The members of each faction wanted to exploit the success on their own account. The break-up of the organisation was inevitable, and speedily ensued. Jealousy of the rising power of those who were ready to continue working along the lines laid down in the old comprehensive program, jealousy of the German communists, drove the Belgian Proudhonists into the arms of the Bakuninist adventurers. The Hague Congress was, in fact, the end of the International, and for both parties in the International. There was only one country in which something might still be done in the name of the International, and it was a happy instinct which led the congress to decide upon the removal of the General Council to the United States. But now, even there, its prestige has waned, and any further attempts to galvanise the corpse to life would be a foolish waste of energy.

The one thing that comes through loud and clear from both Marx and Engels’s letters is an utter lack of sentimentality when it comes to the question of organization. Rather than seeing the IWA as a movement in permanence, they viewed it as an episode in the history of the revolutionary movement that was valid for a particular time and place. As we shall see, this insight would be lost on future leaders of workers’ internationals who tended to invest in them universality and permanence they ill deserved.

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