Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 24, 2013

The New Deal, Leon Trotsky, and the bureaucratic state

Filed under: language,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

Louis Menand

Ira Katznelson

The March 4th 2013 issue of The New Yorker Magazine has an uncharacteristically interesting article by Louis Menand on Ira Katznelson’s new book “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” differentiated from the usual dreary rot by Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg, et al.

The article is behind a paywall unfortunately but I am going to quote the opening paragraphs that should be of particular interest to my regular readers:

In September, 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning, a left-wing Italian shoe salesman named Bruno Rizzi published a book, in Paris, called “The Bureaucratization of the World.” Rizzi brought the book out at his own expense; he couldn’t find a publisher. In early 1940, he was charged by French authorities with racial defamation–there was an anti-Semitic chapter in his book–and he was fined and received a suspended sentence. Remaining copies of the book were confiscated and pulped.

Rizzi hadn’t used his full name on the cover–he identified himself as Bruno R.–and he more or less disappeared from view in the chaos of the war. (He resurfaced afterward.) “The Bureaucratization of the World” might have slipped into oblivion but for one thing: Rizzi had managed to get a copy to Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in the village of Coyoacan, outside Mexico City. Trotsky read the book and was sufficiently exercised to write an article criticizing it. The article was published, in November, 1939, in a journal called The New International, an organ of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization based in New York City.

Rizzi had argued that under Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union had a political system that was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was something that Marx had not foreseen: a system that Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” The Soviet Union was being ruled by a new class of Party functionaries and industrial technicians, who exploited the workers the same way the capitalists had. It had become just like the fascist states of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

What was more, Rizzi said, the United States was headed in the same direction. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a ruling class of government administrators and corporate managers was taking over. Bureaucracy was emerging as the form of government everywhere. “A monstrous new world . . . is being born,” Rizzi wrote, “and born so evil that it is resurrecting slavery after two thousand years of history.” He predicted that the planet would eventually be dominated by seven or eight of these bureaucratic autocracies.

To Trotsky, this was heretical. Even after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and the Red Army invaded Poland, Trotsky’s position was that the Soviet Union was a genuine workers’ state. It had a planned economy and state ownership of property. In his New International article, Trotsky held Rizzi up as a comrade who had got things wrong. What Rizzi failed to understand, Trotsky explained, was that, although Stalin himself was a counter-revolutionary aberration, the Stalinist phenomenon had to be understood dialectically (Marxian for “the opposite of what it appears to be”). Stalinism was only an evil hiccup in the course of history–the course, correctly predicted by Marx and Engels, that led to the classless society.

Like all Marxist theoretical disputes, this was really a dispute over a practical question: Should people on the left continue to support the Soviet Union now that Stalin was an ally of Hitler? Trotsky insisted that they should. (For his pains, he was murdered by a Stalinist agent, in August, 1940.) But many of his American followers disagreed. The dispute split the Socialist Workers Party. One of the editors of The New International, Max Shachtman, resigned (or was expelled; accounts differ) from the Party. The other, James Burnham, also defected and soon rejected Marxism altogether, quickly becoming one of the most hawkish anti-Communist intellectuals in America. After the war was over, he recommended a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Burnham published a book called “The Managerial Revolution.” He hadn’t read “The Bureaucratization of the World,” which, in 1941, was about as out of print as a book can be. But he had read Trotsky’s summary of it–he was Trotsky’s editor, after all–and his argument was basically Bruno R.’s argument. The economies of the major powers, Burnham said, had fallen into the hands of a new elite: the managers, executives, financiers, and stockholders who owned and ran corporations, and the government administrators who regulated them.

Burnham had earlier described the New Deal as “preparing the United States for the comparatively smooth transition to Fascism,” and he folded the United States easily into his picture of a world headed toward top-down managerialism. He thought that the nations farthest along the road were Russia, Germany, and Italy, which suggested that totalitarian dictatorship was managerialism’s natural political form. Rizzi had imagined a world dominated by seven or eight autocratic states; Burnham foresaw three, centered in the areas where advanced industry was already concentrated–the United States, Japan, and Germany. Wars of the future, he said, would be struggles among these superstates for world control.

Burnham, too, had trouble finding a publisher, but, when the book finally appeared, it was a huge success. Time listed “The Managerial Revolution” as one of the top six books of 1941; a critic at the Times named it one of the year’s notable books. A hundred thousand copies were sold in the United States and Britain, and it did even better in paperback. One of its keenest readers was George Orwell, and “The Managerial Revolution” was a major influence on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its three totalitarian monster states.

This discussion of sectarian minutiae would probably make the average New Yorker reader’s eyes glaze over. A more typical article in the latest issue by Lena Dunham that begins “When I was a child, my greatest dream was to find a box full of puppies” had the same effect on me.

Menand, who is a literature professor with an interest in pragmatism, uses the Trotsky-Burnham debate as a background to introduce Katznelson’s latest book that makes the case that after the death of Roosevelt, “a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”

Katznelson takes issue with the standard hagiographies, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,’s unfinished “The Age of Roosevelt” (1957-60), William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” (1963), and David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom from Fear” (1999). For Katznelson, the notion that FDR was some kind of great democratic leader had to be revised. A dispassionate and critical view of the historical record would tend to put him much closer to the Orwellian nightmare.

Katznelson describes a sorry record at odds with Schlesinger’s worshipful treatment, as Menand’s capable summary reveals. To start with, the New Deal rested on a racist foundation as well as a barrier to trade union rights and economic reform:

But there was a worm in this fruit. During the entire period that Roosevelt was President (and well beyond it), seventeen states mandated racial segregation, and almost every senator and congressman from those states was a Democrat. Katznelson argues that the members of this Southern bloc were “the most important ‘veto players’ in American politics.” They maintained what he calls a “Southern cage” around New Deal legislation.

Southern Democrats were almost unanimously supportive of progressive economic policies, but they were, in one respect, solidly reactionary. They were vigilant to resist any threat to what they sometimes euphemistically referred to as the Southern way of life but more often called, quite proudly, white supremacy. “The colored race will not vote, because in so doing . . . they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of the world,” Senator Claude Pepper, of Florida, said in 1937. And Pepper was a liberal. In 1950, he lost his seat to the conservative Democrat George Smathers, who campaigned against him by calling him Red Pepper.

The South was the most impoverished region of the country, and the Depression made conditions there worse. Katznelson says that the average annual income for all Americans in 1937 was $604; in the South, it was $314. The gross annual income of the average Southern farmer was $186. Almost a tenth of the population was illiterate. Southern Democrats were therefore happy to have railroads, public utilities, the financial industry–and, as Katznelson puts it, “other Northern-controlled capitalist firms”–regulated. As representatives of a region whose economy was mainly agricultural, they were also happy to support measures to help farmers. And since their principal goods, cotton and tobacco, were manufactured for export, they were eager to promote free trade. They were additionally pleased, in light of their economic circumstances but also in light of their history, to vote for programs that effectively redistributed wealth from the industrial North to the rural South.

Southern Democrats affected New Deal legislation in several ways. They carved out exceptions in bills regulating business–such as bills setting a minimum wage–for farming and domestic service, since that was work performed in the South predominately by African-Americans. They retarded the growth of the labor movement and tried to block efforts to unionize in the South, suspecting, rightly, that unions were motors of racial integration. They defeated anti-lynching legislation by arguing, first, that lynching was technically illegal already and, second, that, since people are regularly murdered elsewhere in the United States, a federal anti-lynching law would be discriminatory.

Most significant, though, they insured that the administration of New Deal policies was decentralized. They pried open the tax-levy coffers in Washington, but exercised strict control over how and to whom that money trickled down in their states. They tried to expand the regional economy without undermining apartheid. As the South has always done, they asserted the claim of states’ rights at just the point when the shoe started to pinch, and not a moment before.

The Dixie states benefited heavily from arms manufacturing in the South during WWII. At the end of the war, the military-industry state that operated in partnership with the USSR and that was administered by people like Harry Magdoff took on a new political coloration. The assembly lines continued to turn out tanks and planes but now the target would be Communism and decolonized states with the temerity to be aligned with the Kremlin.

Southern Democrats stoutly supported the Truman Administration’s military buildup, much of which was concentrated in the South. By the time Eisenhower took office, in 1953, $52.8 billion of the nation’s $76.1 billion budget was being spent on defense. Southerners also supported the granting of broad, nonspecific authority to the new Central Intelligence Agency, congressional investigations of subversives, and the creation of the Federal Employee Loyalty Program.

That program, established by executive order in 1947, assigned the F.B.I. and other agencies to undertake investigations of employees suspected of disloyalty. Over the next nine years, more than five million federal employees were screened. Twelve thousand resigned, and an estimated twenty-seven hundred were fired. (No espionage was ever discovered.) Beyond these cases–this is the subject of Landon R. Y. Storrs’s convincing account in “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” (Princeton)–the loyalty program had a chilling effect on government workers who regarded themselves as in the tradition of New Deal progressivism. Reform, planning, and organizing started to look un-American.

We tend to understand the rise of the national-security state as an overreaction to Cold War tensions, but the pieces were put into place during Roosevelt’s Presidency. The two War Powers Acts (December, 1941, and March, 1942) gave Roosevelt, as Katznelson puts it, “more power over American capitalism than he had achieved even during the New Deal’s radical moment.” Truman inherited a big government with enormous power already vested in the executive. When he was persuaded by advisers like Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze that the Soviet threat was real and that it demanded heightened military preparedness–ultimately, an arms race–the system was ready to accommodate him. He didn’t have to reinvent government.

While it is difficult to figure out whether Menand is speaking for himself or for Katznelson, there’s a happy ending to all this. The Democrats reinvented themselves “as the party of civil rights and individual liberties.” In 1964, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, five Southern states backed Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. With Richard Nixon’s embrace of a “Southern Strategy” 4 years later, the realignment was virtually complete. The Democrats then tried to figure out a way to win a national election without the backing of Southern states. They seemed to have found it in 2008, a success repeated in 2012.

Maybe Menand hasn’t been reading a newspaper or been on the Internet lately but a case can be made that Obama is the most Orwellian president we have ever had, even more so than Nixon. If there is strong if not febrile opposition to the president in the South from White voters, this does not mean that the national-security state dictates of the post-WWII period have abated. Obama’s use of drones, his attacks on civil liberties, the stiff sentences meted out against whistle-blowers during his presidency, his secret kill lists, his nauseating flattery of the Zionist apartheid state, his failure to prosecute any of the banksters responsible the ruining of the lives of millions of working class families, etc. are exactly the sort of thing that Orwell had in mind when he wrote “1984”.

In fact, we should avoid all temptations to downgrade Orwell on the basis of guilt by association with all the scum that have carried on in the recent past about how great he was and how they are trying to carry on in his tradition, especially Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. It is worth having a look at the sort of thing that Orwell was saying in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness? Surely Orwell was foreshadowing this sort of thing:

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

–Barack Obama, 2009 Inauguration Speech

While I would have been an unrepentant Marxist during the New Deal, there is one thing that you could say about FDR. He (or his speechwriters) would never have written such stultifying vapor. Here is a reminder of what convinced voters to pull the lever for FDR even when unemployment remained punishingly high.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

— Address Announcing the Second New Deal, October 31, 1936

May 25, 2011

Existential Threat

Filed under: language,middle east — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

There are 2244 articles in LexisNexis that contain both “existential threat” and “Israel”. The first time that this combination occurred was not surprisingly in a Jerusalem Post article dated March 7, 1989 with reporter Jay Rothman stating:

LET US IMAGINE, instead, that an adequate definition about the underlying causes of the Taba conflict had been derived, privately and beyond the fray of high politics (perhaps in a hidden “peace suite” at the Taba Sonesta). During such pre-negotiations, a diagnosis would be made of the existential threat a dishonourable “retreat” from Taba represented to Israelis.

So what was this “Taba conflict” that posed an existential threat to Israel? Was Taba a PLO-controlled city in the West Bank that was launching missiles at Tel Aviv? Actually it had something to do with a topless beach that had become a problem between Israel and Egypt according to Time Magazine:

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat promised his countrymen that “every inch” of Egyptian territory seized by the Israelis in 1967 would eventually be recovered, but when the Israelis withdrew from the rest of the Sinai in April 1982 under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, they held on to Taba. The coastal strip, five miles southwest of the Israeli town of Eilat, already boasted a Tahitian-style resort village, complete with topless beach, which had been built by a businessman with a 98-year lease from the Israeli government. Seven months later, in November 1982, another entrepreneur completed a 326-room, $20 million hotel at Taba. The builder, Eli Papouchado, knew that ownership of the land was disputed, but says he went ahead with government approval. Israel bases its claim to Taba on a 1906 Turkish map that delineated the border between Egypt and Palestine, which was then a province of the Ottoman empire. According to that document, the line ran close to three palm trees that still exist. The Egyptian counterclaim hinges on a 1915 map drawn up by British military surveyors, including T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. This map places the border on a hilltop more than half a mile east of the 1906 line — and, as it turns out, in or near the present hotel.

So if Israel could view this squalid dispute over real estate in terms of an “existential threat”, you can imagine how it would view Hamas’s empty bombast.

All in all, this business about an “existential threat” is just a new formulation for what I used to hear all the time when I joined the SWP in 1967. Back then it was stated in terms of the Arabs wanting to “drive Israel into the sea”.

One of the earliest references to driving Israel into the sea was a NY Times op-ed piece dated September 8, 1957 where Syria is described as having such a goal. By the mid-60s, it had become such a stock phrase that Nixon decided to use it in a September 9, 1968 speech. Not surprisingly, he joined it to an appeal to supply Israel with Phantom jets in a pattern that has been repeated for the past 50 years at least.

If Nixon was capable of such bald-faced demagogy, it is not surprising that the current occupant of the White House who shares many of his predecessor’s worst traits (a desire for secrecy, lawlessness, deference to corporate America) takes pretty much the same tack using the buzzwords “existential threat”:

In a 2009 interview with Newsweek occasioned by the last visit of Netanyahu to Washington, the president opined:

I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They’re right there in range and I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.

I find the use of the term “existential” quite troubling. Perhaps I would feel less revulsion if the bourgeois media used the term “threat to Israel’s existence”. By putting it this way, more people would realize how absurd such a claim was. Here is Israel raining phosphorus bombs on Gaza while claiming that the occasional rocket attack on Israel that usually lands harmlessly is the real threat to its existence. One wonders if Israel has been studying the propaganda system of Nazi Germany. In trying to justify his brutal expansion into the Sudetenland, Hitler claimed that he was simply defending Germany from an “existential threat”. Unless the Sudetenland came under Nazi control, the Germans were in danger of being driven into the sea.

Beyond the politics, I cringe every time I hear the term “existential” which for me—a philosophy major who took his Sartre quite seriously—has a completely different meaning from the one that Zionist apologists intend. Existential referred to the living reality of humanity that defied categorization or essentializing. It was a term that overlapped to some extent with Marxism in so far as it understood that being preceded ideas. It was not surprising that some of the principal exponents of existentialism were leftists, such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

Coming out of the mouths of an AIPAC official, the term “existential threat” has a particularly sleazy character. Not only does it mask the reality of Middle East politics, it also robs the word of its benign meaning.

I will leave you with a Boston Globe article that sees this verbal sleight-of-hand in comical terms. (It found the use of “existential threat” five years prior to its combination with “Israel”, for what it is worth.) I get the joke but that doesn’t assuage my feelings of disgust with how it came about:

Existentially speaking

By Jan Freeman  |  February 4, 2007

“THIS IS AN existential conflict,” Dick Cheney told Fox News on Jan. 14, describing the war on terror as a fight the West must win. The following week, in an interview with Newsweek, the vice president used the phrase again: “It’s an existential conflict.” And his daughter Liz spread the word in a Washington Post op-ed: “America faces an existential threat.”

Existential isn’t just a Cheney buzzword, though. Bill Frist, then Senate majority leader, called bioterrorism “the greatest existential threat we have in the world” in a 2005 commencement address. Tony Blair assured Britons in 2004 that “the global threat…is real and existential.” Condoleezza Rice warned of the “existential threat” in 2002.

And what is this existential of which they speak? “They’re using the word in a straightforward way to mean ‘our existence is at stake,”‘ e-mailed Christopher Shea, my fellow Ideas writer, last week. “But is that what you think of when you hear existential?” No, it’s not. Like him, I think of Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist’s couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe. But that can’t be what the Bush people mean by existential, even if the president did read Camus on his summer vacation.

No, they’re harking back to the existential coined centuries ago — an adjective meaning merely “pertaining to existence” — and putting it to use in what looks like shorthand for “a threat to our very existence.”

This existential formulation doesn’t show up in the Nexis news database till 1984. But once it’s launched, there are “existential threats” all over the place: to Palestinians, Jordan, the Soviet empire, all humankind, and most of all to Israel.

These are generally just “threats to the existence of,” as William Safire’s gloss in a 2001 commentary, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, makes clear: “Suicide hijackers and bombers do not pose what is coolly called an existential threat to — that is, a danger to the very existence of — the United States….Terror-sponsoring states use these human missiles to implant that debilitating dread in individual American minds.”

It’s possible, of course, that the current deployers of existential believe the word can be made to imply more than those earlier uses — and Safire’s translation — suggest. Maybe they’re hoping that “existential conflict” sounds more profound and meaningful, given its philosophical associations, than “death struggle” or “fight for survival.”

But will the American people buy it? I’m doubtful. Phrases like existential conflict and existential threat may sound grave and gloomy when our leaders wield them, but nothing can protect them, in this land of free speech, from casual or jokey or ironic use. “Being born is an existential threat, because it means you’re gonna die,” noted one blogger, in response to the doomsday rhetoric. “Did existential just become a fancy word for big?” demanded another.

Our version of “existential crisis” was long ago downscaled and domesticated. Hollywood makes “existential comedies” and “existential Westerns” (aren’t they all?). Google coughs up references to “existential dance music,” an “existential Stephen King nightmare,” and an “existential opinion on why people don’t have friends.”

And in California, where a dry winter has left the famously fogbound San Joaquin Valley in the clear, the Stockton Record recently assured readers that the annual fog festival would go on nonetheless: “The absence of fog doesn’t pose an existential threat.”

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