Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2013

Whither North Star?

Filed under: Pham Binh,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

varnC. Derick Varn, North Star’s new editor

This morning when I checked in on the North Star website, I spotted a Youtube clip of George Galloway’s speech to parliament opposing British intervention in Syria. As much as I enjoyed Galloway’s debate with Christopher Hitchens and as much as I am opposed to Obama launching missiles against Syria (or anywhere else in the world), my reaction was similar to the one I would have had if after turning on my favorite classical radio station, I heard the strains of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” instead. What the fuck? George Galloway? The guy who gets paid 80,000 pounds a year by the Syrians and the Iranians to make their case?

As some of you may know, Pham Binh resigned from the North Star editorial board three days ago, stating that he was “retiring from political writing to take care of long-neglected problems and people in my personal life”. This leaves C. Derick Varn and Pavel Dubrovsky as co-editors in chief. Despite lip-service they are paying to the idea of continuing with the mission of North Star, I doubt that this will be possible even if that is their stated opinion. I know nothing about Dubrovsky but Varn’s political past sets off all sorts of warning bells even if I cannot regard him as politically retrograde. In fact, it is hard to get any kind of fix on his political views, something that obviously was not the case with Pham Binh. I will be returning to the question of North Star’s future but will now take a look at its past—starting with its birth.

I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but about a year before I retired I alluded to some projects that would be possible after I retired. One of them was an online newspaper that would be in the spirit of Lenin’s Iskra, a place where socialists could post articles, interviews, Youtube videos, etc. as well as debate with each other.

In late 2011 Pham Binh broached the subject of launching a website along these lines but focused on the Occupy movement. Since I was impressed with Binh’s writings and since we had agreement about the “party” question, I gave it the green light. As far as I was concerned, this was Binh’s baby. I put up the three or four hundred dollars for the WordPress template and the hosting. I also provided technical support early on. That was my total involvement.

The website was called “The North Star” in honor of Peter Camejo’s network that I was part of in the early 80s, and ultimately in honor of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper whose name Peter had adopted. He was committed to the idea that American socialists had to dump the icons of the Russian (or Chinese past) like the hammer-and-sickle and utilize images and themes that resonated with our own history.

Binh and I had high hopes that the Occupy movement could develop into something long-lasting and powerful but a combination of factors led to its demise. After the repression that Obama helped to organize wrested the activists from the public spaces, they had trouble refocusing their energy. Despite some successes around opposing evictions and aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, the movement wound down. This meant that the North Star would have to change focus. Binh made the decision to take up party-building questions more directly, as well as the dynamics of the Arab Spring. The articles he wrote about “Leninism” for North Star were extremely valuable, especially the one that made the case rather convincingly that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were never separate parties but factions of the same party—an analysis that Lars Lih came to support.

With respect to the Arab Spring, Binh and the North Star became lightning rods after his articles defending the right of the Libyans to call for a no-fly zone put him in the same category as Christopher Hitchens for the “anti-imperialist” wing of the left. To his credit, Binh defended his views against all comers. His willingness to debate anybody who dared to cross swords with him reminded me of the viral Youtube video of the honey badger, the one that shows the beast sticking his snout into a beehive with the narrator saying, “Honey badger gets bit but he doesn’t give a shit. He wants his honey.”

In the course of participating in Occupy Wall Street, not far from his workplace, Binh came in contact with Ben Campbell, a Canadian neuroscience PhD student who had become radicalized in the struggle and had begun studying Marxism in earnest. Ben, like Binh, was both brilliant and a quick learner. Unfortunately, like Binh, he had personal problems that would eventually make it impossible for him to continue with North Star.

In his naiveté, Ben joined the Platypus Society, a group that consists of highly educated graduate students and professors who are self-avowed enemies of the left today in the name of rescuing Marxism from itself. It is a curious mixture of the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt school doyen, and the Spartacist League. The founder of the Platypus group, an art historian named Chris Cutrone, was a member of the Spartacist League and has never gotten over their kibitzing style. The approach is to sit on the sidelines castigating the left for its failures. Back when it was still on the left, Frank Furedi’s sect in Britain had the same illness.

Since I had become detached from the internal workings of the North Star, I can’t be sure about this but I have a strong suspicion that it was through Ben Campbell that connections with Platypus members was made, including C. Derick Varn—a former member. Here’s an interview of Ben Campbell by Varn in February 2013, when he was still a member, on the blog of Ross Wolfe, another Platypus member.

Just around the time that Varn became an editor along with Binh, Binh’s personal situation began to deteriorate. I can’t be sure when Varn came on board, but my impression is that Binh was so deluged by personal woes that having any kind of support was welcomed even if Varn’s provenance had little to do with the North Star’s mission. I think perhaps in Varn’s mind, there was a connection between the two projects since they both involved sweeping attacks on the existing left. The key difference, however, was that Binh had an activist orientation and sought more than anything to lay the groundwork for a new left, in the same manner as Peter Camejo in the early 80s and Bert Cochran in the early 50s. In a way, it is unfortunate that just at the time that the conditions are most propitious for such a development, Binh’s personal situation has forced him to retire from writing.

Turning back to the North Star website, I really have no idea what Varn and company intend. The sad fact is that not a single one of the editors has ever written an article there. Varn and fellow editor Dario Cankovich have posted interviews there from time to time but unlike Binh have never written a single article. Of course, a preemptory search turned nothing up and I accept the possibility that I might have missed something but to be sure their views were not dominant.

Frankly, I would not have a problem with them using the North Star for their own ends, even if they were opposite Binh’s. If I can get something out of Crooked Timber, I can surely get something out of a rival band of well-educated grad students. Maybe Varn will tire of this venture and move on to other things. As he put it once:I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon.”

January 12, 2012

The Secret of Occupy Wall Street’s Success

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,Pham Binh — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm
The Secret of Occupy Wall Street’s Success
By Pham Binh
January 5, 2012Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has turned the world upside down and inside out.

Thanks to our efforts, the very meaning of the word occupation has been reversed. As someone who marched against the occupations of Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, this has taken some getting used to.

Dick Cheney’s prediction that occupiers “will be greeted as liberators” turned out to be correct, but not in the way he expected. Where ever students, workers, unemployed people, retirees, or veterans occupy they have been greeted as liberators by the 99% who feel that it is high time this country was liberated from the misrule of the 1%. The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” passed by the General Assembly (GA) on September 29 sums up our grievances very well and need not be repeated here.

For those of us who have been fighting for years around issues of social and economic justice, political corruption, police brutality, imperialist wars, civil liberties, and the oppression of racial and religious minorities, LGBTs, and women it seems like the country is finally beginning to catch up to us and listen to what we have been saying all along.

This raises questions: Why now? How and why did OWS succeed in galvanizing a mass movement where our previous efforts did not?

Success Requires Failure
Hardly anyone remembers the thousands of people who protested the bailouts in fall of 2008 at the doors of the New York Stock Exchange. The protests were angry but not militant nor defiant. People came, yelled, waved signs, and went home. By morning, the only sign of what took place was the occasional placard left behind and New York Police Department (NYPD) barricades stacked in neat order at the corners of Wall and Broad Streets. Meanwhile, the greatest theft in world history took place without a hitch as trillions of taxpayer dollars went directly or indirectly to financial institutions deemed “too big to fail.” The protests made no difference.

Hardly anyone remembers the tens of thousands who marched from Wall Street to City Hall on May 12, 2011 against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to lay off 6,000 teachers and close 20 firehouses. At the time, the action seemed like a weak echo of the thousands-strong occupation of Wisconsin’s State Capitol building that erupted in February just as general strikes in Egypt brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak. Unlike Wisconsin, the May 12 marches were tame from the start. The union leaders long ago abandoned militant tactics in favor of making sound bite-filled speeches for a couple of hours and providing nice photo ops for their favored Democratic politicians.

Like the 2008 rallies against the bailouts, the May 12 protests were angry but not militant nor defiant. People came, yelled, waved signs, and went home. Again, the protests had no effect.

Something more was needed.

Enter New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts (NYABC), a grassroots coalition of activists from a wide variety of backgrounds: union members, socialist and anarchist groups, and community organizers. NYABC applied the occupy tactic borrowed from Egypt’s Tahrir Square and the indignados in Spain by establishing a permanent encampment called Bloombergville close to City Hall to protest the mayor’s proposed budget cuts. Bloombergville’s name was a reference to Hoovervilles, those Great Depression-era shantytowns that thousands lived in after losing their homes, jobs, and savings as President Herbert Hoover did nothing.

Bloombergville was a dry run for OWS. The police continually harassed the encampment on dubious legal pretexts; drum circles and boisterous musicians helped create spirited, vibrant protests; there was a people’s library and kitchen to provide intelletual and physical sustenance to the occupiers; and Bloombergville organized the first GA in New York City.

Despite these similarities to OWS, Bloombergville did not take off. The protesters numbered in the dozens or hundreds at most. Police harassment was largely successful and did not attract the attention of the average New Yorker. The City Council approved the budget in a 49-to-1 vote at the end of June, eliminating 2,600 teaching positions through attrition, forcing the teachers’ union to make $60 million in concessions, and laying off 1,000 non-uniform city workers.

Bloombergville’s one demand — no budget cuts — was ignored, just as the 2002-2003 anti-war movement’s one demand — no to war — was ignored.

Prelude to Revolution
The Canadian group AdBusters’ July 13 call to occupy Wall Street seemed like a great but whimsical idea: “Are you ready for a Tahrir Moment? On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.”

It was Bloombergville and the network of activists around it that gave the dream legs with over a month’s worth of planning meetings. They seized on the call because there was something electric about the idea of occupying Wall Street, taking the fight against austerity, budget cuts, and rampant inequality right into the bull’s lair, the nerve center of world capitalism.

Instead of attacking the symptoms of what was wrong with the status quo, like campaigning against budget cuts or fighting to win a local living wage ordinance, OWS went right to the root of the problem: Wall Street. It was radical, it was bold, and it was a far cry from the single-issue single-event organizing of Bloombergville, the May 15, 2011 union marches, the 2008 bailout protests, the 2004 Republican National Convention, the 2002-2003 anti-war rallies, the 2002 World Economic Forum protest, or any previous action by any section of New York City’s progressive community.As September 17 drew near, anticipation mounted as the hacker group Anonymous endorsed the action. It was unclear what exactly would happen that day. Would 20,000 people show up in Guy Fawkes masks (the Anonymous group’s calling card)? Many local activists, jaded by years of unrewarding and difficult organizing, did not embrace OWS from the outset because their experiences taught them to be skeptical about the prospect of success.

The Uprising Begins
On day one of OWS, over 1,000 marched through the largely empty financial district that fateful Saturday afternoon, their angry chants echoing off the glass and concrete skyscrapers densely packed together by the area’s narrow streets. Originally they planned to camp out at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, but Zuccotti Park was plan B since it had to be kept open 24 hours a day as part of an obscure agreement between the city and private entities that paid for the upkeep of privately owned public spaces.

Week one of OWS was relatively uneventful as working groups were formed and GAs were held to begin the process of issuing formal statements to the world. Somewhere between 100 and 200 people camped out with sleeping bags. The police waded into the park, manhandled and arrested a handful of people, and took tarps used to cover the electronic equipment OWS used to communicate with the world on the first Monday after the occupation began.

What transformed the occupation into a national uprising of the 99% was two things: unwarranted police repression and the determination of the occupiers to continue on no matter what. Not having a permit would not stop them and neither would metal fences, pepper spray, batons, or flex cuffs.

On Saturday September 24, Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed cornered women near Union Square and it was broadcast around the world from every conceivable angle thanks to camera phones and citizen uploads to YouTube. OWS’s numbers swelled. Over 2,000 people marched on NYPD headquarters on Friday October 1 in protest. The next day came the famous Brooklyn Bridge incident in which the NYPD lured 700 protesters into blocking traffic, cornered them, and arrested them. The outrage triggered by the 700 arrests led 30,000 to march at a permitted union-sponsored rally on October 5, and Occupy exploded with actions in 250 towns and cities across the country, including places like Nashville, Tennesee and Mobile, Alabama.

NASCAR versus Wall Street was probably the furthest thing from the minds of the occupiers who camped out in sleeping bags during week one of OWS but it became a reality in less than a month. Occupy earned itself a capital O.

Once Occupy went national, the same two ingredients that propelled the uprising’s explosive growth — unwarranted police repression and militant, determined protesters — led to the first general strike in Oakland, California since 1946. The strike was called in response to police hitting Iraq veteran and former Marine Scott Olsen in the face with a tear gas canister as they cleared out Oakland’s occupation on the orders of Democratic Mayor Jean Quan and in consultation with federal law enforcement agencies. Occupy Oakland is now calling for another general strike up and down the West Coast on December 12 in reply to the nationwide crackdown on local occupations.

Lessons of OWS
OWS succeeded where traditional protests failed for a variety of reasons, one of the most important being the fact it was not conventional; it was not a single-issue, single-event protest, unlike almost all previous efforts by progressives in the U.S. over the last three decades. There was no end date or end game by design.

Because OWS was designed as an open-ended, ongoing event, refusing to adopt a formal set of demands was extremely wise. It allowed every person, organization, and cause to bring their own demands and shape OWS’s message and avoided the pitfalls that come with making demands, namely having them ignored, ridiculed, picked apart, or co-opted by the 1% or failing to include demands important to some specific section of the 99%. People and the corporate media were both drawn to this seemingly new phenomenon of a protest without demands, an action without goals.

Many people in Occupy feel deeply and instinctively that making a formal list of demands is the first step to defeat because such a list will be used as a yardstick to judge our success or failure. All the 1% has to do is point out the fact that our demands have not been met and people will feel defeated, that marching is pointless, just as we did in 2003 when the government invaded Iraq despite our best efforts. The invasion of Iraq was a fatal blow to the anti-war movement because our central demand meant zero in the big scheme of things.

Back then, people felt defeated, demoralized, and stayed home, but they also began to learn something important: showing up, yelling, waving signs, and going home is not going to cut it. It took years of organizing around other issues and other events for that lesson to really sink in and become the strategic, tactical, and practical basis for organizing.

The important thing is not how long it took to learn this but the fact that it happened.

A second important lesson of OWS is that determined, bold, and peaceful action is more important than lists of demands, formal politics, or theoretically consistent ideas about strategy and tactics. Much of the skepticism from existing progressive organizations during the first month of OWS centered around the fact that OWS had no discernible demands, no clear strategy to win change (lobbying, strikes, boycotts, elections), and no formal leadership. All of these alleged weaknesses were actually strengths, making it all but impossible for politicians and other established or

OWS succeeded above all else because of the willingness of first hundreds, now hundreds of thousands, to act, to stand up, to fight, to protest, to speak, to Occupy. French military genius Napolean Bonaparte described his method as “first engage, and then see,” and this is exactly what Occupy did.

In this respect and unknowingly OWS followed in the footsteps of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The comparison seems implausible but some of the underlying, methodological similarities are undeniable.

The Panthers developed a mass following in the 1960s not because millions of blacks read the party’s 10-Point Program and clamored to sign up but because the Panthers took bold action to meet the pressing needs of their community. One of their first initiatives was to follow police patrols in California with a rifle slung over one shoulder and a law hand to police the police, to make sure the cops were following the law when they dealt with blacks. Similarly, the Panthers marched with arms on the California legislature when it began to consider repealing the law that allowed them to carry rifles in public.

“Practice is the criteria for truth,” as the Panthers used to say. Their militant actions and the spirit of defiance underpinning them earned the Panthers the respect of the Black community and legions of eager followers who were literally willing to put their lives on the line to win their people freedom, justice, and equality. They were the vanguard.

Both OWS and the Panthers took bold, peaceful action and exploited legal loopholes so that when the police moved against them, the cops did so unlawfully.

The last element that led to OWS’s success was changing the target from Bloomberg to Wall Street. Bloombergville did not ignite a mass movement because there was no simmering anger among New Yorkers at the mayor, who until recently enjoyed high approval ratings despite his budget cuts, his fortune, and his union-busting. On the other hand, Wall Street is about as popular as Casey Anthony, and the aftermath of the 2008 bailouts has seen more budget cuts, more layoffs, more tuition increases, more foreclosures, more unemployment for the 99% and bigger bonuses and fatter paychecks regulation for the 1%.

Targeting Wall Street instead of Bloomberg completely altered the strategic calculus of the occupy tactic, providing it with the possibility of connecting with the anger of New Yorkers and the country at large that built up for years on end with no outlet until now.

Bold action against the right target using flexible, unconventional tactics is the secret of OWS’s success, but this recipe is not really a secret. Any close look at the history of movements in this country, from the underground railroad in the 1800s to the occupations of segregated in lunch counters in the 1960s, will reveal the same constituent elements.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, The Indypendent, Asia Times Online, Znet, and Counterpunch. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net and soon thenorthstar.info, a collaborative blog by and for occupiers.

September 30, 2011

The Nuts and Bolts of #OccupyWallStreet

Filed under: anti-capitalism,financial crisis,Pham Binh — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm


The Nuts and Bolts of #OccupyWallStreet
By Pham Binh
September 29, 2011 | Posted in IndyBlog | Email this article

On day 12 of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), I helped moderate a meeting of the “open source” OWS working group by keeping a list of speakers and co-chairing. I am not sure what the open source group is supposed to do exactly, but I decided to attend this meeting after watching a middle-aged man call in the General Assembly for developing demands and goals on the OWS live feed and people in the crowd telling him the open source working group was tasked with this.

After the daily 1 p.m. General Assembly meeting ended, OWS divided into its working groups, including media, labor, outreach, and a number of others. I walked over and sat down next to the point person (or “ leader”) of the working group, a young white guy in his twenties who looked like a 60s throwback with his long, straight hippy-style hair, rainbow tights, fatigue shirt, and Ziploc bag of rolling papers. Of course, you can never judge a book by its cover — he is also a student of behavioral economics and mentioned that academic studies have shown that the OWS’s decentralized, highly participatory, and lengthy process of dialogue is the best way to organize.

The open source meeting swelled very quickly to 20 or 30 people, an indication that a lot of people want to figure out what OWS’s demands should be. The group moderator remarked that the group was so big it was practically a “second General Assembly.” His brief introduction to the process whereby OWS would define its vision (he repeatedly used the phrase “visioning”) was interrupted as many hands went up, asking to be called on; at least 10 people wanted to speak and each was allowed a minute and a half.

What emerged from the discussion was that there is no consensus that demands are even necessary. Quite a few protesters argued along the lines that this is movement or process of dialogue is the demand/goal and that therefore demands are not necessary; one said our demand to the world should that they “join us.” Two older people, one in his sixties, the other in his thirties, spoke out for having clear, specific demands as being a very necessary step to creating a sustainable protest, much less a movement.

I argued that a few concrete, achievable demands were important, citing the “Day of Wrath” protest on January 25, 2011 that began the revolution in Egypt that demanded raising the minimum wage, an end to the dictatorship’s “emergency laws,” the firing of the interior minister, and a two term presidency. I explained that Mubarak’s ouster was not one of their original demands, but it became a demand once millions of people became involved in the movement, and therefore demands can and should change depending on circumstances. My suggested demand was to raise taxes on the 1%, something the New York state legislature and the city council could vote to do immediately.

One woman argued against having demands on the grounds that the media wanted us to do exactly that, that it would be a way for them to put us in a nice neat little confining box the better to ignore us; instead, she proposed we copy the model used to write grant proposals and draw up a mission statement, goals, and objectives. The moderator took to this and we dispersed into six groups of five or so to discuss what motivated us to protest and what our “visions” (or goals, long and short term) were; after the break out, we would reconvene to sum up and share what each of our groups had come up with in the hopes of finding some type of consensus that would inform some sort of statement to the world.

The OWS political process is very participatory, cumbersome, and time-consuming. One strength of their process is that it avoids the top-down control that Wisconsin’s union leaders exercised to scuttle the protests and developing strike wave that shook the state in favor of harmless (and ultimately fruitless) recall efforts.

To participate and help shape OWS politically requires dedicating many, many waking hours every day to ongoing, continuous debates and discussions. This is not necessarily a bad thing but in practice ends up favoring the participation of those who can afford to skip work and/or school for a week or more. With unemployment over 9% (a figure even higher for the 18-25 age group), it should be no surprise that these are the people taking the fight to the enemy’s lair.

It may be that OWS never develops a clear set of demands. OWS seems to be headed toward issuing a general statement akin to the Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962, although it will probably be less wordy and much darker. Port Huron spoke moralistically of the highly privileged lives led by America’s post-World War Two college students that stood in start contrast to the conditions facing black and brown people in the Jim Crow south, America’s urban ghettos, and the Third World. Today, students face the prospect of lifelong debt, serial dead-end jobs, and holding two or even three part-time jobs just to keep up with the bills and rent, just like the non-college educated working class.

Whatever OWS decides with regards to demands, they deserve credit for putting their finger on the real enemy and being brave enough to defy the police and break the law to make the voices of their generation heard.

Everyone who can should go and help occupy Wall Street.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, and International Socialist Review. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net

July 29, 2011

A response to Paul LeBlanc’s “Marxism and Organization”

Filed under: Pham Binh,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

(A guest post by Pham Binh)

Although the following was written in response to Paul Le Blanc’s “ Marxism and Organisation ” essay, it is not a line-for-line response, nor do I believe that he personally subscribes to all of the positions I attribute to “Leninists” in general. I have nothing but respect for him and his life’s work (changing the world for the better); I have re-read his “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” many times and referenced it occasionally as I wrote the following response. My hope is that it leads to comradely but sharp debate, something that is sorely lacking on the far left where insults, epithets, and name-calling are all too common.

“Leninists” project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible. There is a tendency to see the ultimate outcomes of the RSDLP’s disputes as foredained and inevitable; this mistake is compounded when revolutionaries believe that we must form our own organizations based on those outcomes. What Lenin did or pushed for at any given time was determined not only by his own political preferences, but also by the actions of his opponents. For example, it was the refusal of the Mensheviks to abide by majority votes they lost on at the 1903 congress even though Lenin dutifully yielded on issues he lost votes on that compelled him to call for a third party congress.

Both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik wings of the RSDLP supported the same “revolutionary Marxist program” up until spring of 1917: overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy. Their differences concerned strategy, which, of course, had organizational ramifications (Lenin later correctly characterized the 1903 split as “an anticipation”). What divided the two factions? The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn’t make any sense to them).

The point is that the “revolutionary Marxist program” did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP’s history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Menshviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.

This brings me to my second point.

“Democratic centralism” is not a special principle/mechanism practiced by the Bolsheviks. Lenin believed in organizing the party in a thoroughly democratic way. That, more than anything else, is what motivated Lenin in his struggle against the Mensheviks in 1903/1904. The Mensheviks expected Lenin and the Bolsheviks to respect the decisions of the party congress that they disagreed with; at the same time, the Mensheviks flouted the congress decisions they disagreed with politically. For Lenin, this was an intolerable situation that made a mockery of the very idea of a party, much less one where majority rule prevailed.

Lenin’s commitment to democratic organizing meant that the central committees of both the RSDLP and of the Bolshevik faction were elected as individuals by secret ballot, not the slate system (that was introduced in 1921 at the 10th party congress where they banned factions ending the democratic norms that characterized the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks) that to my knowledge all “Leninist” groups use today.

Electing the central committee in this way did something important. Party members elected and were led by the party’s most outstanding and popular leaders, making it far more likely members would voluntarily implement decisions by their leaders. As individuals, these leaders had different approaches, different experiences, and different temperaments; this heterogeneity gave rise to sharp debates and clear differences of opinion that taught the entire organization how to work through them in a comradely, productive, and practical way. It created a culture of debate, dissension, majority voting, and collective implementation to resolve contentious issues, many of which did not have a clear-cut “right” answer. This culture came straight from the top of the organization and filtered down into every branch, every cell, and involved every member.

A slate system, by contrast, encourages political conformity at the top (only “team players” need apply), which filters downward, robbing the party of its dynamism. “Leadership” becomes based on who is the loudest/most enthusiastic proponent of the line coming from the top, rather than a process of initiative, trial, error, learning, reassessment, and moving forward. Discipline ends up being a question of rote, obedience, and passive-but-non-believing submission; where those fail, administrative measures are applied. All of these are mental and moral poisons for revolutionaries; no organization can flourish in the long run in this manner.

Furthermore, if you can elect a slate of 12 Lenins prior to a revolution, great; but what if you elect 12 Zinovievs? Then what?

The thoroughly democratic practices and habits of the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP were decisive in 1917. It was only on the basis of this thorough democracy that the erroneous parts of the party’s strategy could be modified and an outsider like Trotsky elected to the party’s highest body, despite Lenin’s uninterrupted political attacks on him for almost a decade and a half prior. An organization without democracy can’t fix its program or be changed from below. Even if said organization’s program is 110% correct, it is doomed to fail the test of revolution because only by fully airing differences within its ranks can it have a chance (not a guarantee) of coming to the right decision about what to do in the heat of the moment.

An organization with a faulty program that has the capacity to change and learn from its mistakes is in a much better position than one that has the right program but no capacity for critical self-reflection. I keep returning to this point because one of the single most damaging problems within the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement post-1917 has been an obsession with “defending the program.” This obsession has led to ferreting out “renegades” i.e. dissidents and elevating secondary political issues or tactical disagreements into all-out wars to “defend the revolutionary Marxist program.” This is especially absurd when tiny, uninfluential socialist organizations in one country split over strategy and tactics adopted by socialists in another country.

If we are going to be “obsessed” with anything, it should be with leading our side to victory in struggles, big and small, by any means necessary. Our measure of success should be the gains and reforms won by our initiatives, however small or fleeting. Only by accumulating those victories will our side rebuild its confidence, providing the basis for a revolution.

So if democracy and not a formally correct program is key, what about the Mensheviks? Why couldn’t they just modify their program and march lockstep with Lenin and Trotsky to October?

By the time of the 1917 revolution, their faction had ossified around their orientation towards pressuring/encouraging/cheerleading Russia’s capitalists to play a stronger role in the fight to overthrow Tsarism. This was particularly true after the defeat of the 1905 revolution (during 1905 the two wings of the RSDLP nearly united, giving lie to the notion that Lenin made up his mind to not unite with the Mensheviks prior to 1912 as part of his life’s mission to create a “party of a new type”). Menshevik organizers tended to be middle class intellectuals or older, more conservative workers who renounced the “foolishness” of their 1905 days in favor of “realism”. Bolshevik organizers tended to be younger and involved with militant actions (illegal strikes, underground organization) because their faction stressed that the working class could only get anything by its own strength and organization, whereas the Menshevik faction tended to downplay militant worker activism since it would scare big business into deserting the revolutionary cause.

The Bolshevik party emerged as an organic part of Russia’s workers’ movement and had a role in a huge array of workers’ activities — strikes, protests, demonstrations, social insurance societies, unions, student organizations, war industry committees (despite their hostility to WWI), and managed to win seats in Russia’s sham legislature despite unfavorable electoral laws; it was part of the class from the party’s inception; its program was derived from and a response to Russian conditions and problems; when conditions changed, so did the party’s program. It succeeded as a revolutionary workers’ party because it was rooted in the class it sought to lead and thoroughly democratic from top to bottom.

This is the key to understanding why the attempt to export conclusions drawn after almost two decades of trial and error in Russia in the early 20th century and impose them “from above” or a priori in the West via the Third/Fourth Internationals has led to complete failure on the part of all “Leninist” groups to lead working-class revolutions.

The early Comintern is often hailed as the high point in the international revolutionary workers’ movement, and it was, but the reality is that the Comintern’s practical influence on the course of the class struggle in other countries was decidedly, almost totally, negative during its “golden years”. The Communist Party of Germany’s (KPD) policies, actions, and slogans became subject to the decisions of an executive thousands of miles away from the front lines; that’s putting aside the unprincipled, apolitical, and bureaucratic nonsense that went on before anybody knew who Stalin was.

Why anyone would look to a model that put the communist movement’s Zinovievs and Bela Kuns in charge of mass workers parties that were being ably led by experienced revolutionaries of the caliber of Rosa Luxemburg (RIP), Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Angelo Tasca is really beyond me. Louis Proyect wrote a piece that should be read carefully and absorbed by everyone who is a Marxist and wants a workers’ revolution: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/comintern_and_germany.htm

Is it any wonder the KPD leadership failed to learn how to think for itself and became ever-more dependent on Moscow’s directives when the Comintern’s executive continually decapitated the KPD leadership? This occurred at least three times before Lenin’s death: Paul Levi was expelled in 1921 (with Lenin’s approval), leaving the party in the hands of the ultra-lefts who were partly responsible for the “March Action”; Reuter-Friesland was expelled in 1922 for protesting against mistaken Comintern directives concerning Germany’s union movement; and Brandler was removed from the KPD’s leadership in 1923 after he failed to conjure up a German October at Moscow’s behest.

These expulsions, coming on the heels of the murders of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknict, and Eugen Levine, meant that the KPD was finished as an independent force able to draw conclusions from its own experience and to respond with quick changes to its political “line” necessitated by rapid shifts in the balance of class forces. By 1923, the KPD was led by the leftovers of leftovers of leftovers; this was the fault of the Comintern and no one else. The development of self-confident national parties was crippled by the Comintern experiment, which deepend Russia’s isolation. Trying to replicate this flawed model is the height of folly.

So what does all of the above mean? Is there nothing we can learn from the experience of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) or the early Comintern?

It means a few things:

1) We have to analyze the Bolshevik party historically rather than project our (mis)conceptions about “Leninism” backwards in time by reading into debates that took place in 1903-1917 things that became clear later and after much struggle, the outcomes of which were not inevitable. Trying to implement Comintern resolutions from 1919-1921 (or worse yet, Lenin’s prescriptions from 1902/1903) instead of finding our own path will only create sects, not a party of working class fighters and organizers capable of winning socialism. “Leninism” and “party-building” have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success! Refusing to acknowledge the inherent flaws of the model we’ve inherited as the last/first word in how to organize and what to do by continually blaming unfavorable “objective conditions” isn’t going to help.

2) There are no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always.

What has come to be known as “Leninism” — setting up a disciplined “democratic centralist” organization with a “revolutionary Marxist program,” a newspaper modeled on and motivated by Lenin’s 1902 article “Where to Begin?” and his 1903 book “What Is To Be Done?”, an excessive focus on selling said paper (the result of elevating the newspaper to a matter of principle and revolutionary duty rather than using it as one expedient among many), and creating a miniature caricature of the Bolshevik party, complete with a dozen full-time salaried central committee members, many of whom occupy the same posts for decades(!), all in anticipation of a revolution even though working-class militancy has been at historic lows for two or three decades now — needs to be discarded.

3) Our reality and modern-day conditions have to be our starting point for any discussion of how to organize and where/how to “draw boundaries.” We are materialists, after all. We need to figure out the way forward for our class without relying (mechanically) on what Lenin and his contemporaries said and did. There’s no use importing solutions from a bygone era when we are operating in a radically different context. We should use what we find useful in the experience of others but not copy anything wholesale. Above all else, we have to find ways to be rooted in the class struggle today, such as it exists, if we hope to actually influence its direction, rather than comment/lament on it from the outside.

4) “Party line” newspapers written by toy Leninist groups never have and never will command more than passing attention from workers, although they have managed to absorb a disproportionate amount of the time, energy, and attention of each generation of revolutionaries in the 90 years since the Russian revolution.

The American working class has a long history and tradition of humor, songs, icons, and much more we should be drawing from in our own media (see the disgruntled Whole Foods employee’s farewell letter, for example). In our day and age, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inform people’s politics a lot more than “old” forms of propaganda like newspapers and pamphlets. We should be discussing how to best utilize the mediums people actually use to influence them politically, rather than figure out how to get them to conform to our preconceptions, especially when those preconceptions are largely erroneous or based on a flawed reading of history in the first place. The more we harp on Russia and the universality of Lenin’s glorious struggle against liquidators, economists, oztovists, and Mensheviks, the more remote we become from the concerns, interests, and lives of workers in the here and now who are desperate for a party that won’t sell them out or screw them over.

To sum up, we need to be flexible tactically and organizationally while remaining steadfast on our goals. Just as the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP developed answers and prescriptions to problems that arose in the course of leading workers in struggle, we must do the same. We would would do well to emulate the approach of Malcolm X who continually reinvented himself in the struggle to win black liberation, and shed the Nation of Islam’s conservative sectarianism in the process. If the socialist movement could do the same, we’d be in a much better position.

If this conclusion is vague and unsatisfying, we can always turn back to the sect with its ready-made and unchanging answers to all problems. Personally, I’d rather not.

May 6, 2011

The Green Impasse, False Panaceas, and Ecology Through Socialism

Filed under: Ecology,Pham Binh — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

An event for the book above that is reviewed below:


Saturday, May 7
7:00pm – 10:00pm
No Space
84 Havemeyer Street
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Green Impasse, False Panaceas, and Ecology Through Socialism

By Pham Binh

As the fourth book in the “and Socialism ” series ( Black Liberation and Socialism ; Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation ; Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation), this book is an absolute must read for anyone who is concerned about the fate of the environment that is quickly approaching a point of no return in terms of irreversible damage done. With the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima and horror stories about the effects of fracking appearing in the news almost daily, this book could not be more relevant.

Chris Williams combines data from peer-reviewed scientific journals, sharp political commentary, layman’s English, and a class perspective to produce a book that is engaging, readable, and damn good.

The current environmental movement is at an impasse, stuck on false panaceas like cap-and-trade, cutting individual consumption (“live others so that others may simply live”), and outright reactionary “solutions” that revolve around some form of population control (as if the number of people on the planet was the problem rather than the nature of the relationship between said people and the planet).

Williams does an excellent job debunking these notions with a plethora of factual information and empirical data.

The central contention of the book is that capitalism and its social relations are the root of the problem, not surplus population, individual consumers’ choices, or “bad corporations.” Capitalism is organized around companies making as much money as quickly as possible; if they don’t, their competitors will drive them out of business. As a result, corporations have an incentive to pollute because investing in clean technologies for their business would be costly and cut into their precious profits. Furthermore, there are entire branches of industry that depend on pollution – gas, coal, and the auto industries, to name just a few. They have a vested interest in blocking any kind of meaningful development of green technology or any tinkering with the U.S. transportation infrastructure which is heavily car-centered. Williams also examines how various companies (like British Petroleum) have “greenwashed” their image in order to avoid actually changing their polluting ways.

The theme dominating the second half of the book is the question of what is to be done. The first chapter of this section, “Real Solutions Right Now: What We Need to Fight For,” lays out a variety of achievable short-term goals that a revivified green movement could and should fight for. For example, pushing the government to make major investments in green energy would produce tens of thousands of green jobs, alleviating the unemployment problem and undermining the capitalist economy’s dependence on dirty energy. This example dovetails with another of Williams’ central points: a truly effective environmental movement needs to connect with the only social force within the capitalist system that can win real change – the working class. He gives some examples of how green activists joined forces with unions to win stronger pollution controls in England and elsewhere, and he also does an excellent job showing how environmental degradation is a class issue. Working class people (especially blacks and other minorities) are far more likely to live in polluted areas, near landfills, etc. than middle or ruling class people, and he also takes up the plight of workers and the poor in the Global South, many of whom live in shanty towns that are far worse than the tenements of the early industrial revolution in the West.

The remaining chapters of the book focus on the longer-term solution: abolishing capitalism via a working-class revolution. He looks at the (limited) experience of the Russian workers’ government after 1917 for guidance and shows how the Bolsheviks pioneered conservation efforts in their attempt to organize production based around human need rather than corporate profits. In doing so, he points out that when the party/state bureaucracy led by Stalin seized power for itself, displacing the working class, it reversed the early green policies of the Soviet era and reverted back to capitalist-style exploitation and ruin of the environment to fuel its massive, rapid industrialization drive.

Williams’ book is an excellent polemic on the way forward for the environmental movement and a tremendous contribution to the project of winning an ecologically sustainable socialist society.

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