Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 18, 2021

Ernie Tate on socialist organizing before the 60s

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

August 26, 2020

Marxist alternatives to Jacobin

Filed under: Jacobin,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

I felt a real sense of loss after the ISO dissolved. Although political differences over Cuba and Venezuela (as well as old age) prevented me from joining, I highly valued their newspaper and magazine that consistently defended a class line on electoral politics. When I discovered that a significant layer of their membership had joined the DSA and become Bernie Sanders supporters, the sense of loss became keener. When long-time revolutionary socialist Paul Le Blanc began sounding indistinguishable from the Jacobin writers, who all sounded alike on Sanders for that matter, I began to look for alternatives. To some extent, the principled left positions could still be found in “Against the Current” and “New Politics”. As for “Against the Current”, it will most likely continue even after Solidarity folds. You can also rely on “New Politics” to have many years ahead of it.

The alternatives under consideration here, except for Left Voice and Spectre, are strictly online publications, thus making them accessible to people not willing to spend hard-earned money during a time of complete financial collapse. I have contributed to a couple of them (Left Voice, Regeneration) and encourage you to be generous when they request donations. So, without further ado:

Left Voice

This magazine first came to my attention when it began publishing truly brilliant critiques of the neo-Kautskyism promoted by Jacobin. It is put out by a small pre-party formation of mostly young people who identify with the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas in Argentina, a split from the Moreno current in Argentina.

I obviously have differences with them on the organizational questions, just as I did with the ISO, but I feel closer to them politically than I ever did with the ISO.

Some of the best arguments against work in the Democratic Party can be found in Left Voice, including Juan Cruz Ferre’s “If There Is to Be Any Future for the U.S. Left, We Must Break with Sanders and the Democrats”. I met Ferre, a CUNY dissertation student, once and was very impressed with his erudition. His Argentinian roots and erudition came into play in this article:

The role Sanders is now called to play for the 2020 elections is to infuse enthusiasm and young blood into Biden’s anemic campaign. The game is clear. You can almost hear Sanders telling Biden “I’ll be your left man, just give me something to show, go along with me.” The six joint policy working groups they formed at the moment Sanders endorsed Biden is an obvious example. What other purpose could these task forces have? Is Biden going to concede on Medicare for All, or any other policies that characterize Sanders’s campaign? Biden keeps repeating to this day that he opposes Medicare for All, and he isn’t budging on any other significant policy proposals, like tuition-free college, the cancellation of student debt, or the Green New Deal. Juan Domingo Perón, the bourgeois populist leader of Argentina, is credited with having said, “If you want something to get stalled, create a commission.”


This is the magazine of the Marxist Network that Philly Socialists helped to found in early 2019. Unlike people coming from a more traditional Marxist background, they eschew electoral politics altogether. Their activism involves a lot of mutual aid and experiments with “dual power”, a term that has a different meaning than found in the classical Marxist literature. Although my theoretical background is quite a bit different, I deeply respect their work.

Like Left Voice, Marxist center comrades are young. However, not exclusively so. In a recent article “Letter to the Socialists, Old and New” written by long-time activist and Marxist Center at-large member Chris Townsend, you’ll see why geezers like and Townsend are sympathetic to this new generation (or regeneration):

  1. Throw out once and for all your reverence for the old order, and dare to dream about what its replacement will look like. We want and deserve something new and better. Chattel slavery and subjugation were replaced by wage slavery, and we fight for freedom from this last slavery which holds a tight grip on billions of fellow workers worldwide. As socialists we are optimists. Our movement follows the high road of history.
  2. Spend time with the old Socialists and old Bolsheviks when you can, before they are gone; talk to them, get to know them, ask them questions and pull them into your work. Learn what can be learned from them, and insist that they support the movement fully, including financially. Many have led prosperous lives and they can – and should – be generous in their support of the new socialist generation. Ask them for the money and resources to fund the movement today; many have it.

I couldn’t have put it better.

International Socialism Project

This is essentially the leadership of the ISO that was overturned just before the group dissolved. You’ll recognize the names: Ahmed Shawki, Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa, and Paul D’Amato. I had mixed feelings about recommending this website because of the charges made against the ISO leadership that failed to respond to multiple rapes. The crisis led to its dissolution, just as the same dereliction of duty in the British SWP led to whole sale resignations. On the other hand, both the International Socialism Project and the British SWP continue to publish important material that Marxists would benefit from. For example, Paul D’Amato wrote an article titled “The struggle has moved far ‘Beyond Bernie’” that correctly exposes how the Sandernista enthusiasts at Jacobin have shifted toward support for Biden. Even if there are articles on Jacobin blasting Biden, there are still signs that it gives it benediction to a Biden vote as D’Amato writes:

Both Heideman and Sunkara’s pieces assure Democratic Party liberals that the DSA won’t get in the way of a Biden victory in November. Sunkara explains that “88 percent” of Sanders supporters voted for Hillary Clinton, and that he expects the same thing to happen in the fall. What this shows is that there isn’t an effective barrier between supporting Sanders and supporting Biden. Sunkara then explains how he thinks DSA fits into the picture:

The small but resurgent socialist movement in this country is developing a political approach that can speak to millions of alienated Americans. Like center-left liberals and progressives, during the coming presidential election and beyond we aim to defeat right-wing populism. The difference is that we refuse to do so on the centrist terms that we believe helped create it in the first place.

Spectre: a Marxist Journal

This seems to be a joint venture of ex-ISO’ers and long-time socialists, all of whom were fairly typical Jacobin contributors in the past, when Jacobin was more open to revolutionary socialists. Tithi Bhattacharya, an editorial board member, and managing editor Ashley Smith are both ex-ISOers. Also on the editorial board are Charles Post and David McNally, who have a long background in non-sectarian Marxist politics.

The articles in Spectre are first-rate. I particularly appreciated Kim Moody’s critique of the kind of class-reductionism that Jacobin favors, from Adolph Reed Jr. to Cedric Johnson. In the article, titled “The Roots of Racist Policing”, Moody focuses on articles written by Cedric Johnson in New Politics and Catalyst that contest the idea that race and racism is at the heart of mass incarceration. He adds that much of Johnson’s argument is drawn from James Forman, Jr.’s account of the role of Black communities and officials in supporting the escalation of “tough-on-crime” policies in the 1970s and a similar argument made by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani. (Clegg is an economist who argues that slavery held back the development of American capitalism; Usmani is an editorial board member of Catalyst, the theoretical magazine published by Jacobin.)

Moody points out that they base themselves on a one-sided interpretation of Foreman’s work:

Given the weight that Johnson gives to Forman’s arguments in diminishing the importance of race, it is worth quoting Forman’s own caveat to his readers:

But in focusing on the actions of black officials, I do not minimize the role of whites or racism in the development of mass incarceration. To the contrary: racism shaped the political, economic, and legal context in which the black community and its elected representatives made their choices.

I also recommend Kim Moody’s “Cedric Johnson and the Other Sixties’ Nostalgia” that appeared in New Politics. It pointed out how Johnson, like Adolph Reed Jr., base themselves on an uncritical view of Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph.

Tempest: a revolutionary socialist organizing project

No editors are identified in the “about” page, so it is a little difficult to determine the provenance of this, the newest of the Marxist alternatives to Jacobin. However, an article co-written by Ashley Smith and Charlie Post suggests that its lineage is in the cadre of writers who no longer appeared in Jacobin after its Sandernista mutation.

All I know about Tempest contributor Andy Sernatinger is that he is a member of DSA and a rank-and-file Teamster union member. Unlike most younger DSA members (I am guessing that Sernatinger has been around the block given the savvy displayed in “At a Crossroads: DSA in the COVID age”), he is much more capable of seeing its shortcomings. It has become apparent since March that it is ill-equipped to face up to the massive crisis we are facing, as Sernatinger displays so masterfully:

This political time crashed headlong into the George Floyd uprising. The revived Black Lives Matter movement operated on a very immediate, daily timing while DSA had built its infrastructure on a routinized weekly and monthly timing without mechanisms for rapid response. What’s more, the emphasis on electoral activity trained DSA members in a type of politics that was substantially different from militant protest, and organizationally left DSA without direction for the moment. DSA approached the semi-spontaneous uprising based on its previous experience with short-term demonstrations and ended up disoriented by the continuous actions confronting the state.

I would suggest bookmarking these websites to keep abreast of revolutionary journalism in a time when it is so badly needed.

June 22, 2020

Toward a new Marxist left

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

They organized a 10,000 strong BLM protest in Nashville. Will they be leaders of a new revolutionary movement?

The handwriting is on the wall. The Sandernista/Jacobin/DSA project is now exhausted. While the USA is poised on the edge of cataclysmic economic decline against the backdrop of the most dangerous plague in a hundred years and powerful protests against killer-cops, the Sandernista left is mired in electoral routinism.

One wonders if there is even the slightest degree of soul-searching in these circles as everybody else seems to grasp that we are in a new period. On June 9th, the NY Times had an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” that showed how irrelevant he and his cheerleaders have become:

Yet amid a national movement for racial justice that took hold after high-profile killings of black men and women, there is also an acknowledgment among some progressives that their discussion of racism, including from their standard-bearer, did not seem to meet or anticipate the forcefulness of these protests.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who pioneered the concept of intersectionality to describe how various forms of discrimination can overlap, said that Mr. Sanders struggled with the reality that talking forcefully about racial injustice has traditionally alienated white voters — especially the working-class white voters he was aiming to win over. But that is where thinking of class as a “colorblind experience” limits white progressives. “Class cannot help you see the specific contours of race disparity,” she said.

With Bhaskar Sunkara giving a fawning interview to Adolph Reed Jr., it is doubtful that the Sandernista left can make a turn toward new realities. “Intersectionality”, an academic term that I would never use myself, is a dirty word in their lexicon. It is one thing to believe that a “social democratic” program based on Medicare for All is what the country needs but that’s only the start. The left must recognize that today’s racism is based on hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and de facto segregation that requires an anti-racist socialist movement, not warmed over Bayard Rustin.

New York Magazine, best known for its restaurant reviews and celebrity puff pieces, is even more attuned to new realities than the Sandernista left. In a piece titled “6 Teens Organized a Protest. 10,000 People Showed Up”, it sounds out what young activists in the BLM protests think about electoral routinism. This stuck out:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

If you look at the last sixty years of the left in the USA, you’ll see the broad contours of a movement trying to keep up with shifting social and economic changes. Between 1970 and 1990, the “Leninist” left was a pole of attraction for young people, including me. It was based on the notion that the sixties radicalization was the opening salvo in a march toward proletarian revolution. Since the whole idea was a repeat of 1917, the left adopted a mechanical understanding of Lenin’s party that led to sectarianism and ultimately collapse. The ISO was the last hurrah of this trend that ironically got started after such experiments were way past their shelf life.

Starting in 1999 with the Seattle anti-WTO protest, the left abandoned Leninist illusions and unfortunately adopted a new set of illusions based on half-baked anarchist theories. These included the idea that busting Starbucks windows was a litmus test for a successful protest. It also fetishized occupations such as those that occurred around the Occupy movement as a result of “prefigurative” fantasies. As if camping out in Zuccotti Park was the embryonic form of a future classless society.

Although the George Floyd protests started off with a mixture of anarchist adventurism and mass actions, within a week or so, the tide had turned. Young people, like those interviewed by New York Magazine, decided that political power rested in the masses, not in “bold” tactics.

In 1968, the novelist and art historian John Berger wrote an article titled “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations” that these young activists seem to understand instinctively. He wrote:

The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators, nevertheless takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They ‘cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.

The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.

Increasingly, people will be “voting with their feet” because the Democratic Party has become so hostile to change. With the Jacobin/DSA left pirouetting around the question of its support for a Biden vote, the radicals, including the young woman cited above, will have no other option except to reach out to like-minded young people, working class, black and immigrants, in search of a national organization that can be used to coordinate their struggles. Ultimately, this is what Lenin was up to when he wrote “What is to be Done”, even if he admitted that it was obsolete only five years after he wrote it.

Despite its size (70,000 members), the DSA will eventually be bypassed by a new movement that corresponds to the urgency of the tasks we face. When I joined the SWP in 1967, SDS had 100,000 members and it was easy to cower before it as if our “old left” notions were somehow woefully behind the times. Within 3 years, SDS had collapsed and the SWP had become the most powerful group on the left and the largest after the CPUSA. Like SDS, the SWP collapsed because it failed to adjust to the realities of post-1975 America.

There is considerable intellectual and theoretical ferment to the left of the DSA. Despite my reservations about their old-school Leninism, I consider the people who write for Left Voice to be among the most astute analysts of the current state of the capitalist system and how to challenge it. I also appreciate the group blog The International Socialism Project that is the voice of some of the former ISO leaders that were ousted by a new group that obviously intended to dissolve the ISO and take as many people into the DSA as possible. Unfortunately, a cover-up of a rape discredited the old leadership to the point that it was vulnerable to a Sandernista leveraged buyout. In thinking through these incidents that have wreaked havoc with both the ISO and the British SWP, I sometimes wonder that the only thing that makes sense is for female (or male) members to go straight to the police when a sexual assault takes place. Trying to adjudicate these crimes within a left group tends to be self-defeating.

Finally, there is Cosmonaut. The people who write for this online magazine are among the sharpest I’ve seen in the newly emerging Marxist left. I have it bookmarked and make sure to read and crosspost every article that appears there. The latest article, titled “Structuring the Party: The Case of the DSA” and written by Diego AM, “explores the organization conundrums of the modern left, looking at the Democratic Socialists of America and the alternatives proposed by base-builders and Maoists.”

He begins by identifying two organizational forms. One is made up of “centralizing” groups like the SWP and the ISO that have a leadership with “a stronghold on the party, and can barely be challenged.” Been there, done that. The other approach is “horizontalism”, which obviously describes the anarchist milieu. Although they never lead to the kind of stultifying internal life of the Leninist left, “they cannot hope to significantly challenge the established order with their numbers and the organization.”

This leads to an examination of the DSA that has allowed people to join on their own terms. This, plus the strong identification with the Bernie Sanders campaign, has led to its explosive growth. Although the DSA is a welcome alternative to the sect form, its loosey-goosey organizational norms make it ineffective when presented by the challenges we face today:

[The] DSA in effect functions more like a horizontal collective than a socialist party. This comes with all the problems known as the tyranny of structurelessness: the lack of structure on paper just means that there is an unacknowledged structure and unacknowledged channels for leveraging influence in the shape of passing resolutions or directing chapter money towards certain projects. And while anarchist affinity groups almost never exceed dozens of people, DSA members are faced with this problem in an organization that operates at a very different scale, in the tens of thousands of members nationally, and within chapters which are composed of thousands of members.

Of course, DSA has a national organization that provides vertical integration through dues, newspapers, national mailing lists and even a forum. But this is not what is important. To understand how the center operates, we must answer the question: if DSA is multi-tendency and in practice functions closer to a horizontal quasi-anarchist collective than a socialist party, why does it seem so wrapped up in electoral and reformist approaches? Why is it seen from the outside as a platform for progressive Democrats to be elected, even if the actual work on the ground is much broader? The answer to this question is that the most important of the vertical integrators are the electoral campaigns, especially those at the national level. This is what determines how the organization as a whole is seen from the outside, regardless of the work done at the local level.

In a section titled “Fighting for a socialist center: The Maoist and the base-building critiques”, Diego points to an alternative. Although I am not sure what Maoist groups he is referring to, it sounds to me like he has the comrades of the Marxist Center in mind. As a long-time supporter of the Philly Socialists, which was a prime mover of the Marxist Center, his endorsement was most welcome:

[It] is worth taking seriously the base-building critique. In my interpretation, this critique says that the left needs to consciously change its composition by choosing work that will bring in the dispossessed. This will help change its character by making it more tied to day-to-day struggles, and at the same time provide us with worker power which can actually stop the capitalist gears.

Concretely, this has meant organizing classes in English for immigrants in Philadelphia, action to block evictions, etc. I think these types of activities are essential but, to some extent, they are susceptible to the “horizontalism” that prevents groups affiliated with the Marxist Center to act in a coordinated and disciplined nation-wide fashion.

In a very real sense, this was the reason Lenin wrote “What is to be Done”: to unite a scattered left into a powerful force that could topple the Czarist system. For Lenin, a newspaper was essential. It was a way for local workers circles to coordinate their activities. Under “Leninist” organizational norms, the newspaper became fetishized to the point of becoming an obstacle to future growth. Its “line” served as a litmus test to see if you were capable of joining the purified ranks of the future vanguard party. Lenin had a different idea entirely. The newspaper was a place where socialists could exchange ideas and even debate with each other. The Left Voice comrades rightfully give credit to Lenin for conceiving of a newspaper as something far less of a “brand” than most sectarians associate with the party press:

Revolutionary press plays a different role from bourgeois press. It is the most suitable means to influence events and organize the militant and revolutionary base of a workers’ party.

Lenin’s political intransigence would not keep him from discussing with the great leaders of the international social democratic movement. Lenin invited Rosa Luxemburg and Kautsky, among others, to write in Iskra (despite their political differences) in order to fuel debate and critical spirit. This was central in his idea of journalism, debunking historical falsifications that portray Lenin as an “authoritarian leader.”

Frankly, I have not been keeping up with the Marxist Center in the past three years or so. I had high hopes that it could have tapped into the growing ferment of the BLM protests today and maybe even become part of the support network for Howie Hawkins campaign. This would require an adjustment to their customary practices that might go against the grain. In any case, what they had been doing was of great value even if it falls short of catalyzing the kind of mass revolutionary party that is so badly needed.

The last section of Diego’s article is titled “Where to go from here?”, which obviously evokes Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet. He is to be congratulated for striking such a note since it is so appropriate for the period we are entering. With so many on the left burdened by old habits, it is necessary for smart young people such as those writing for Cosmonaut to speak out forcefully.

He has exactly the right idea about the need for a program but not in the same sense of the Leninist sects that see it in the same way that Catholics see a catechism:

For the first, I would propose a unifying center of programmatic cohesion rather than commitment to this or that branch of revolutionary Marxism. A program should be understood in the sense of something you can accept for the basic conditions under which you would take power. This is different from historical or theoretical agreement, or a current strategy such as “get union jobs” or ”support Bernie Sanders for president”. Accepting the program means you may disagree with some or many points but are willing to put yourself behind it as the overall expression of the movement’s aims. A program should direct the elemental energy of the masses, recently seen in the protests around the killing of George Floyd, into a purpose. Otherwise, this energy is dissipated like steam, failing to turn the engine of revolution.

I tried to make the same points in a 2011 article titled “Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program”:

It should be clear what I am leading up to. I believe that a new left movement or party has to return to these roots. It is a big mistake to think in terms of program as the accretion of doctrinal statements made by a particular aspiring “nucleus of a vanguard party”.

Socialism, or anti-capitalism, has to be reconstituted on a much broader basis. Without a doubt, a program similar in spirit could be reconstituted from all of the points that the myriad of sects in the U.S. agrees on. I doubt that you will find the ISO and the Workers World fighting over, for example, the need to provide free medical care or the need to ban “fracking”. But in their fight to the finish line—the proletarian revolution of the distant future—they seek to protect their intellectual property, the sum total of all the resolutions voted on at all their conventions and all the newspaper articles, books and pamphlets churned out by their party press.

Diego ostensibly makes recommendations to the DSA even though he is “unsure whether the DSA with its current form and class composition would be able to provide an adequate minimum/maximum communist program in the Macnairist model.” The Manairist model is a reference to the writings of Mike Macnair, a leader of the CPGB in England who is best known for defending Karl Kautsky’s party-building precepts but understood much differently than the Jacobin intellectuals who find Kautsky’s writings amenable to supporting DP candidates.

In any case, his article ends on a very good note:

These prescriptions are very general and open to debate. The organizational ones will require constant evaluation to check if they are solving the problems designed to solve. But I believe that they point in the direction of what is needed to construct a proper vehicle for fighting. The final idea I believe must be digested is an understanding that we are comrades and not friends. We have responsibilities to each other because we committed to a larger movement, not because we like each other. It is fine to disagree on the details, and this should not be taken personally. We stand together because we accept the broader goals of the movement. We do not have to share hobbies or feel affinity towards each other. We have to trust each other and know that we play on the same team. In that spirit, I provide this piece as a good faith attempt to solve some of the problems I see around me.

May 11, 2020

Peter Dreier, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the Green Party

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

On April 28th, a 71-year old professor named Peter Dreier lit into Bashkar Sunkara in The Nation magazine with the kind of ferocity that made you wonder if the Jacobin editor had co-produced “Planet of the Humans”. Titled “WTF Is Jacobin’s Editor Thinking in Voting Green?,” Dreier reacted to an April 22nd Tweet that was probably not intended to generate any kind of controversy:

You can even describe the Tweet as damning with faint praise since it disavows support for the Greens as a party and uses most of its 280 characters reminding his readers to vote Democrat.

Like many other liberals, Dreier repeats the same arguments that have been heard ad infinitum ever since Ralph Nader was blamed for allowing George W. Bush to be elected in 2000. Rather than holding Al Gore up to the scrutiny he deserved as Bill Clinton’s neoliberal sidekick, people like The Nation’s Eric Alterman and the singularly loathsome Todd Gitlin blamed Nader for being a “spoiler”.

Peter Dreier

I had never run across Dreier before but a brief search reveals that he was the subject of a 2014 LA Review of Books article by Tom Gallagher titled “Those Still Going on About Ralph Nader Electing Bush in 2000 Should Desist”. The LA review, which is many degrees to the left of the NY Review of Books, gave Gallagher the opportunity to answer Dreier’s Huffington Post article titled “Nader’s Hypocrisy,” which claimed that “Without Nader, there’d have been no President George W. Without George W., no war in Iraq.” Get it? Dreier has been writing this kind of bullshit for the longest time.

Gallagher informed his readers that Dreier was a big-time Obama fan, “displaying a life size cardboard cutout of the man at the party he was hosting and I was attending.” Like many people today who hope that Biden can carry on the Obama tradition, Dreier probably didn’t concern himself that much with Biden’s avid support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor Obama’s own dubious “peace” credentials. Gallagher sets him straight:

Well, since Peter Dreier’s main charge against Nader is that he enabled Bush to start the Iraq war, let’s stick to “Iraq war-like” things. For one, there are those who consider the drone-based missile attacks Obama orders in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere violations of international law, which is to say, war crimes. And there are those who fault him for unraveling the major legal achievement of the Vietnam War opposition, the War Powers Act, when he bombed Libya without Congressional approval. And then there’s those who think that sending more troops to Afghanistan after seven years of war, the way he did, was either a very stupid or a very cynical act — and not that many people think he’s stupid.

Dreier tries hard to make a vote for Biden sound palatable. “Thanks in part to Sanders, and the Democratic Party’s leftward shift, Biden has adopted other progressive stances on key issues—the minimum wage, health care, workers’ rights, abortion, climate change, and college debt—and could be pushed further left during the campaign and after he takes office.” There’s a big push going on to sell the Biden campaign to people in their 20s and 30s who can’t stand him, including the women who are disgusted by the arguments of Linda Hershman in a NY Times op-ed “I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway.”

Just two years after Sunkara launched Jacobin, he was working assiduously to burnish his left credentials. This meant downplaying the Sandernista politics of the recent past, getting ISO’ers and other Marxist critics of the DP to write for Jacobin, and generally striking leftist poses. He threw the gauntlet down against the liberal establishment in the pages of The Nation in an Open Letter that had this subhead: “Liberalism—including much of what’s published in this magazine—seems well-intentioned but inadequate. The solution lies in the re-emergence of American radicalism.”

In introducing himself to Nation readers, Sunkara supplied a bit of autobiographical information. At the dinner tables of childhood friends, he was pressed to identify himself ideologically. He would “meekly” call himself a socialist, all the while regretting that he couldn’t just utter the word “liberal” instead. “Like Sweden?”, he would be asked. He replied, “No, like the Russian Revolution before its degeneration into Stalinism.” In just a couple of years he would become a diehard Sandernista, never once being discomfited by his idol’s insistence on describing socialism as what they have in Sweden.

As might be obvious at this point, Sunkara has been carrying out a delicate balancing act since he launched Jacobin. He hopes to become the leading authority on Marxism by tracing his lineage back to Karl Kautsky, an aspiration that draws sustenance from the articles written by Lars Lih and his disciple Eric Blanc over the years. Filled with erudition, Lih and Blanc’s work is bent on elevating Kautsky and demoting Leon Trotsky.

As a symbol of uncompromising revolutionary ambition, Trotsky hardly seemed to be a useful figure for the Jacobin intellectuals to exploit. They became specialists in connecting the dotted lines between Kautsky, Lenin and Bernie Sanders. Sunkara hoped to keep left and right in perfect balance. In his left hand, you had Kautsky and in his right Bernie Sanders, a professional politician who now endorses Joe Biden. Like Philippe Petite walking a tightrope across the Twin Towers in 1974, Sunkara has to find a windless day to make the daring trek across the political landscape. Needless to say, the past few months have amounted to a political category-5 hurricane, so it is not clear that a balancing act can work.

Sunkara got around to replying to Dreier on May 4th in a Nation article titled “What Should Socialists Do in November?” Despite the nod to Hawkins that got Dreier so worked up, there’s a wink-wink, nod-nod aspect to his article that makes the difference between them vanishingly small:

Of course, I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican. Biden is part of a centrist party that has within it not just the oligarchs he favors but a progressive, labor-oriented wing, as well. Trump, on the other hand, is the leader of a right-wing party filled with reactionaries. It’s obvious that socialists would rather be the political opposition to a government composed of centrists than one of the radical right.

This is just another way to tell DSA’ers that it is kosher to vote for Biden. Like Earl Browder, who saw the need for the CPUSA to run its own candidates to give the appearance of class independence, Sunkara says his personal choice is a vote for Howie Hawkins. Very radical of him. Yet, who you vote for is personal, not political. Don’t you see?

If it is up to leftists to make personal decisions about who to vote for, why stand in the way of those who succumb to the pressure of voting for Biden? As Sunkara put it, “I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican.” Wink-wink, nod-nod.

Instead of—god forbid—using his authority to actually help build the Green Party, Sunkara subscribes to the theory of building a surrogate within the Democratic Party:

What I left unsaid is what kind of organization could spearhead this strategy—a “party-surrogate.” This would be an organization that, as Jared Abbot and Dustin Guastella argue in Jacobin, “would be internally democratic, financed by dues, focused on member mobilization, and organized around a workers’ agenda.” Such a vehicle could contest elections on the Democratic Party ballot line—not ordinary Democrats, but candidates bound together by a simple, common program, who eschew corporate funding and are propelled to power by a broad membership base.

This is the same Dustin Guastella who lectured Jacobin readers against trying to help start a new left party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose”. But Dreier is not assuaged by what Sunkara and Guastella tell DSAers and Jacobin readers in these kinds of circumlocutions.  He wants the Full Monty, with them on the stage fully naked, playing trumpets and banging the drums for Biden.

Missing entirely from both Dreier’s attack and Sunkara’s defense is any recognition of the gravity of the situation we now face. Economists, except those writing for the Hoover Institution or the Heritage Foundation, are predicting a plunge into Great Depression type misery with hunger, homelessness and the lack of healthcare on a monumental scale. Meanwhile, Laurie Garrett argues that a three-year pandemic is the best case scenario.

Facing such a disaster, what hopes can we place in either a Biden presidency or Sunkara/Guastella’s “party-surrogate” model that is based on incremental change through the election of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was the only Democrat to vote against Trump’s pro-billionaire bail-out. There are 236 Democrats in the House of Representatives and only 1 votes the right way? Is the idea to organize DSA to back candidates who think and act like A. O-C? To tell you the truth, I’d expect her to become much more like Nancy Pelosi than the other way around.

Right now there are wildcat strikes taking place all around the country. Imagine the impact it would have if DSA began organizing people to get jobs in meatpacking houses, Amazon fulfillment centers and other front-line essential companies. In the 1930s, the CP sent people into coal mines, steel mills and auto plants. The Trotskyists sent Farrell Dobbs into a warehouse doing the same kind of dirty work that Howie Hawkins did before he retired as a Teamster last year.

The SWP miscalculated in 1978 when it pressured me to take a job as spot welder in Kansas City. If I were in my 20s today, I’d be far more willing to become part of a radical working-class movement that is destined to take shape today under conditions unlike any I have seen in my entire life.

For the DSA to become part of this burgeoning movement, it will have to wake up to the reality we face today and drop the neo-Eduard Bernstein incrementalism. The idea of slow and steady change leading to a social democratic government in the USA 20 or so years from now is utopian. It is far more likely that we are headed into unimaginable disasters with maybe a million people victims of the capitalist back-to-work drive.

Young radicals to the left of the DSA have to figure out a way to consolidate their ranks and begin the process of building a revolutionary movement. Howie Hawkins and his running-mate Angela Walker are clearly too old to play this role but they can play a major role in drawing clear class lines that are so necessary today as we enter a period in which “catastrophe” is the norm.

Dreier worries that Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker will be spoilers once again. In reality, the true spoilers will be the Democratic Party machinery in NY that has already made ballot access for 3rd parties onerous. Given the absolutely horrendous Hobson’s Choice between Trump and Biden, more people than ever will be open to voting for the GP. Unlike Sunkara, Hawkins understands that it will take a revolutionary movement to win a Green New Deal and other major reforms so necessary today. That movement will use mass actions in the streets and the openness to new political ideas during election years to move the struggle forward.

Under normal conditions, people tend to be conservative. Not in the sense of the National Review but in the sense of going to work and returning home in the evening to stare at the TV. In the 1960s, I saw people forsaking their conservatism and becoming activists, including me. That was in a time of prosperity. Today, there is no prosperity. Instead, we face a headlong dive into the abyss. The only practical political response is to become revolutionary. Last year before the coronavirus struck, I wrote about crises down the road that would demand revolutionary action. I had no idea that such a time would come so quickly. In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote the Junius Pamphlet as a call to action against WWI and the need for worldwide revolution. We have to begin thinking in the same terms as Rosa Luxemburg who put it forward most eloquently:

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.

April 8, 2019

Left Voice impressions

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

On Saturday night I descended from my mancave on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to make the trek out to Bushwick in Brooklyn to attend the launch of issue 4 of Left Voice magazine at a place called the Starr Bar, whose website states that “We Celebrate and Support Movements for Social Justice”. With Manhattan being stripped of anything resembling a left counter-culture, this one-hour trip on the subway was necessary.

I had found out about the event from my old friend James Hoff, who will be joining the editorial board of the magazine. James is a CUNY professor who is unlike most tenure-track professors. Whether or not his pro-adjunct activism can jeopardize his bid for tenure next year is a secondary consideration. Solidarity evidently trumps career, bless his heart. In my view (and his, obviously), the fight for a living wage in academia is one of the most important facing the labor movement today. Like the auto industry in the 1990s, a two-tier pay structure was adopted by the bosses and the union bureaucrats who were willing to keep entry-level workers underpaid as long as the older base of the UAW could be mollified. If there is anything the capitalist class has learned over the past 300 years, it is how to keep the exploited divided. Fortunately, there are some people on the left who understand the need for a united working class in order to defend its own interests and in the long run create a society in which workers rule.

Left Voice has been on my radar for a couple of years at least. A supporter of the magazine has been posting links to articles on Marxmail, most of which end up on Facebook as well. Like Jacobin and CounterPunch, it has both a website and a print edition. Issue 4 can be purchased here. It has the theme of “Beyond Resistance: a Left that Fights to Win” that the speakers at the event reinforced through their experiences in the labor movement. This was a spirited meeting with about 75 people in attendance, with only a handful over 50. (In the interests of transparency, this includes me.) It is clear that the website is intended to gather together supporters around the magazine who can then help launch a new organization. While I have no idea whether the ISO’s excellent analyses of American and international politics will continue after their newspaper has stopped publishing, I have no doubt that Left Voice will be around for the foreseeable future.

I just plunked down $6 for a digital subscription today and encourage my readers to follow suit since the articles take the same tack I have been banging away at for the longest time and especially since Jacobin has gone full-tilt neo-Kautskyite. Articles like “Revolution or Attrition: Reading Kautsky Between the Lines”, “From Debs to the DSA? Rescuing America’s Revolutionary Tradition”, “A Green New Deal Can’t Save Us. A Planned Economy Can” and “A Socialist Case Against Bernie 2020” couldn’t be more timely given the Jacobin/DSA megaphone. (The last two are not behind a paywall and can give you a good idea of what the magazine is about.)

To get a clear idea of the difference between Jacobin and Left Voice, you can see how they deal with City University of New York issues. Two of the speakers at the event were CUNY adjuncts who spoke about the 7K or Strike Struggle that James Hoff is active in. Once you get on a tenure track like James, it is tempting to keep a low profile. CUNY is a very liberal institution but that kind of liberalism doesn’t mesh easily with working class militancy.

The adjunct struggle is close to my heart since my wife started out as an adjunct before she got on a tenure track at Lehman College, where she faced an uphill struggle. If she had been denied tenure, she would have been plunged back into the adjunct world with dire consequences for us economically. In 2017, I reported on the CUNY adjunct struggle that was the subject of an HM panel discussion. To my surprise, the ISO had lined up with a caucus in the PSC (the professor’s business union) that tried to strike a middle ground between CUNY Struggle (the adjunct’s caucus) and the administration.

If the ISO had tried to straddle the class divide, the same thing could not be said about Jacobin that landed foursquare in the PSC bureaucracy’s lap. One of the two adjuncts who spoke at the event mentioned how Barbara Bowen, the president of the PSC, had been interviewed by Jacobin at the same time Left Voice was providing a platform for CUNY Struggle. On March 23rd, James Hoff penned an article on 7K or Strike that is exemplary labor reporting:

As PSC President Barbara Bowen said in a recent Jacobin interview: “Whether the PSC will need to take [a strike authorization vote] again depends on the assessment made by the bargaining team and the union’s leadership bodies. If the union reaches a point in the current campaign where a strike authorization could be necessary, we will have an open discussion and a vote in our largest leadership body, the Delegate Assembly.” In other words, don’t worry: the leadership will tell the members when they’re ready for a strike. This top-down approach has been one of the key weaknesses of labor unions since their inception.  Indeed, creating a strict line between “leadership” (tasked with making all of the decisions) and the “rank and file” (whom are supposed to patiently wait to be mobilized when told) is one of the primary ways that union bureaucrats maintain power and control expectations and thus one of the main ways that unions have been absorbed into the very systems of exploitation they were designed to struggle against.

Because Left Voice stands with the rank and file union members and not the union bureaucracy, we are reprinting the response to the leadership’s letter below. If you would like to read the original letter, you may find a copy on the PSC’s website.

The class divide between Jacobin and Left Voice could not be more obvious.

As I was writing this article, my PDF of issue 4 just arrived in my mailbox. The graphics are as snazzy as Jacobin’s and the articles are quintessentially anti-Jacobin—not in the sense of the landed gentry but much more in the spirit of the sans culottes. I hungrily turned to the article on Kautsky because I remain so riled up by Eric Blanc’s idiotic defense of neo-Kautskyism in Jacobin. This will give you a flavor of the kind of analysis you can read in Left Voice (reminder, it is behind a paywall):

What was Luxemburg’s answer to Kautsky’s claim that there was no need to push for a general strike because the situation was not revolutionary? That his response was abstract, because one cannot consider whether the revolutionary elements of the situation are advancing without considering the action of the Social Democracy it- self. And she was right. The elections finally came in 1912, and the Social Democratic Party did spectacularly well. It received the most votes, more than twice as many as the second-placed party, and it gained 110 seats (fewer than the number it would have gained if the distribution had been proportional). But shortly afterward, World War I broke out, and the enormous strength that the Social Democratic Party had gained in Parliament was of no use, because the party had shifted its center of gravity away from class struggle.

Left Voice is a journal and nascent left group that is part of a Trotskyist international based in Argentina. I had originally intended to offer some thoughts on the problematics of such an organizational form in this post but decided not to include it in this post because it requires both more research and some careful consideration of its dynamics. I will say this, this current is on the ascendancy unlike Trotskyism in the USA as the utter collapse of the SWP would indicate as well as the dissolution of the semi-Trotskyist ISO. In a couple of days I will be posting a follow-up that will reflect my careful (hopefully) assessment of the Left Voice’s international network.


December 21, 2018

Can the Working Class Change the World?

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

The cover for Michael Yates’s “Can the Working Class Change the World?” was a stroke of genius. Ralph Fasanella’s “The Great Strike (IWW Textile Strike, 1912)” sets the tone for a book that has deep roots in working-class struggles in the USA and that shares the artist’s solidarity with the people who take part in them. Fasanella’s father delivered ice to people in his Bronx neighborhood and his mother worked in a neighborhood dress shop drilling holes into buttons. In her spare time, she was an anti-fascist activist. The family’s experience informed his art just as Michael Yates’s working class roots and long career as a labor activist and educator shapes his latest book.

Many years ago when I was a Trotskyist activist, the party was consumed with how to reach working people. To be frank, we would have learned more from Michael’s books than reading Leon Trotsky especially given the life experience outlined in the opening paragraph of the preface:

BY ANY IMAGINABLE DEFINITION of the working class, I was born into it. Almost every member of my extended family—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—were wage laborers. They mined coal, hauled steel, made plate glass, labored on construction sites and as office secretaries, served the wealthy as domestic workers, clerked in company stores, cleaned offices and homes, took in laundry, cooked on tugboats, even unloaded trucks laden with dynamite. I joined the labor force at twelve and have been in it ever since, delivering newspapers, serving as a night watchman at a state park, doing clerical work in a factory, grading papers for a professor, selling life insurance, teaching in colleges and universities, arbitrating labor disputes, consulting for attorneys, desk clerking at a hotel, editing a magazine and books.

Continue reading

August 19, 2018

David McReynolds in the context of American radicalism

Filed under: Gay,Kevin Coogan,obituary,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:16 pm

David McReynolds and long-time companion Shaman

The first time I ever heard the name David McReynolds was shortly after joining the SWP in 1967. At the time, the antiwar movement was a tripod made up of the Trotskyists, the CP and the pacifists. As the executive director of the War Resisters League (WRL) and a colleague of A.J. Muste who was to the peace movement in the USA as Bertrand Russell was to the British peace movement, David was a key figure.

David arrived in New York in the early 50s and eventually took an editorial job in 1957 with Liberation, a radical pacifist magazine closely tied to the WRL whose founders included three leaders of the pacifist leg of the peace movement tripod: Sidney Lens, David Dellinger and Muste himself. Both Lens and Muste were Trotskyists in the 30s before evolving in a pacifist direction. Lens was a member of Hugo Oehler’s ultraleft Revolutionary Workers League and Muste was the chairman of the American Workers Party that fused with Cannon’s Communist League of America in 1934 to form the Workers Party.

Although I was too much of a rank-and-filer to sit in on strategy meetings with these people, I always had the impression that the SWP got along better with Lens and Muste than they did with people who were ideologically pacifist from the get-go like David Dellinger and Norma Becker. They tended to bloc with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman at the time because they all were into “propaganda of the deed”, which didn’t mean setting off bombs but getting arrested in a civil disobedience protest. Despite not seeing these people interact with each other directly, I suspect that David helped to keep the various factions together since he was such a warm and empathetic figure.

But there was no doubt about his commitment to the sort of actions pacifist groups were carrying out for most of the 20th century. David participated in some of the more important civil disobedience actions in New York under the impact of the Cold War. In the 1950s, there were civil defense drills meant to minimize the effects of an H-Bomb being dropped on the city. Instructions were utterly lunatic as David pointed out in an oral history interview with the NY Public Library. People on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building were supposed to go to the 40th floor while those on the 40th floor and below were supposed to go into the basement. Here’s a newsreel from the time showing a drill. So you can imagine how a 9-year old like me would be scared out of his wits.

Those who refused to take cover during these drills were subject to a misdemeanor arrest. David, A.J. Muste, and Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day took part in protests at City Hall. Muste and Day served 6-month sentences and David somehow slipped through the fingers of the cops.

During the 50s, such protests managed to take place because it was difficult to smear pacifists using Red Scare tactics. The anti-nuclear movement was one of the few areas in which open socialists could operate since it involved issues that did not touch directly on the Red Scare. Like climate change, the fear of extinction was palpable especially since the slogan “Better dead than red” was gaining popularity in the 1950s.

David adopted civil disobedience tactics once again in November, 1965 when he burned his draft card at a protest in Union Square. I remember how the SWP wrestled with these tactics as they grew more popular. Clearly, they were helping to deepen antiwar resistance but they didn’t follow our Bolshevik norms. To show how warped we were, a few months before I joined the party I attended the SWP convention held in a NY hotel as an observer. A debate had ensued over whether our newspaper should take exception to the growing popularity of speaking out against the war as being “immoral, illegal and unjust” since it fostered pacifist illusions. Harry Ring, a leader of the party’s antiwar fraction, got up to oppose such a sectarian position. The fact that it was even considered showed how isolated we were from normal thinking.

In the oral history interview, David includes a fascinating anecdote that speaks volumes about his political approach. It seems that as a gay man who never hid his sexuality but never made a point of it, he never felt quite satisfied with such a defensive position. At one point he went to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg in the East Village in which during the Q&A a woman asked him why he wrote so much about homosexuality in his poems. He replied that he did so because he was a queer. That impressed David so much that he went up to Allen later and introduced himself, the beginning of a deep friendship. At a certain point, David became responsible for persuading Ginsberg to become a public figure opposed to the war. Ginsberg was wary at first since he saw himself as a poet and not a politician. David won him to our cause by making the point that writers had a responsibility to oppose the war. Thereafter, Ginsberg became omnipresent at protests.

In 1972, the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose lineage went back to Debs, suffered a split. Some of its rightwing leaders, who would soon become aligned with or even members of the Reagan administration, renamed the group Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Sensing where they were headed, Michael Harrington led a faction into the newly formed Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) that would merge with the New America Movement to form the DSA. Wary of Harrington’s orientation to the Democratic Party, a small faction went ahead and formed the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) that David belonged to until recently. He was the party’s presidential candidate in 1980 and 2000. Unlike the DSA, you don’t find much Marxist analysis being spouted by its members such as the kind you will find in Jacobin. Also, unlike the DSA, the SPUSA hearkens back to Debs’s opposition to the two-party system. Like Debs and Norman Thomas, David had no use for the donkey or the elephant. He preferred cats and radicalism.

I am not quite sure when I hooked up with David but around twenty years ago I began making it my business to learn more about what you might call native radical traditions. Since so much of the Trotskyist experience involved applying the Bolshevik legacy mechanically to our country, I decided that David’s experience would help me fill in the blanks.

For about a year, we would get together for lunch down in the East Village where we would chew the fat. One time I got a big kick out of how he was warmly greeted by Quentin Crisp when we walked into a restaurant, where Crisp was sitting at a table by himself. It reminded me of how bohemianism, including sexual openness, and socialist politics go together.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, being outed as a gay could get you expelled. Party leaders defended the policy since supposedly the FBI could get a party member to “turn” by threatening to out him or her to the party. Marxist scholar Christopher Phelps, who was working on an article about gays in the SWP titled “The Closet in the Party”, had gotten in touch with David to sound him out. This led to David writing an article for New Politics titled “Queer Reflections” that I urge everybody to read since it epitomized his sensibility and political instincts.

I EXPERIENCED LITTLE BIAS WITHIN the Socialist Party. The late, and nearly great, Samuel H. Friedman (a Jew who kept kosher and whose wife was an Irish Catholic) said to me “I’ve heard some nasty things about you, Comrade McReynolds, but I don’t believe them.” Dwight MacDonald once said “You aren’t one of those, are you?” But it was never used against me except by some of those around Max Shachtman (I always thought it ironic that Max ended up with Tom Kahn, whose homosexuality was an open secret, as one of the few who remained on his side to the end). Within the War Resisters League (WRL), where I worked on staff for 39 years, it was never an issue, not because there was some secret gay cabal in the WRL, but because the radical tradition of the secular pacifists was much more profoundly radical than that of most Marxists. Bayard Rustin wasn’t hired by WRL because he was gay (or black) but because he was incredibly talented. (Let it be noted, as part of the historical record, and as a reminder that even great leaders have feet of clay, that A.J. Muste, so clearly a mentor for me, resigned from the executive committee of WRL in protest against the hiring of Bayard, because he felt Rustin’s record of making indiscreet homosexual passes would threaten the organization. And Bayard himself, in 1969, when the WRL magazine WIN had a “gay liberation” issue, with pieces from Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and myself, phoned Ralph DiGia to say, “you guys are going to have to fire David — he will destroy the organization.” I never held this against Bayard, understanding only too well what his own experience had taught him.)

What makes David McReynolds so special was his ability to reflect the deeper traditions of the American left that go back to the early Communist movement, what Timothy Messer-Kruse called the “Yankee International”. Victoria Woodhull, who worked closely with Frederick Douglass, launched a Marxist current in the USA that competed with the one sanctioned by Karl Marx and that was led by Friedrich Sorge, a German immigrant. Sorge was not only exceedingly dogmatic, he was also hostile to Black-led protests since they might divide the working class.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

It is too bad that Marx regarded Woodhull as a spiritualist crank. Who knows? If she had received his benediction, we might be living under communism today. The tension between the Marxist high priesthood symbolized by Karl Marx in the 1870s or V.I. Lenin in the 1920s on one hand and the indigenous radical roots of living movements that sprout up according to their own rhythm and affinities has plagued us for nearly 150 years.

When people like Victoria Woodhull, Eugene V. Debs or David McReynolds come along, they deserve pride of place in building the revolutionary movement that is so desperately needed. The last time I saw David was in 2005 or so when I went to a brunch at Cynthia Cochran’s apartment on West 94th Street. She knew David for many years and admired him for the same reason she went with the “Cochranites” in 1954. In my discussions with David over lunch, we always came back to the need for a revolutionary movement that broke with the dogmatic obsession over the “Russian questions”. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, David knew how to put things into perspective. Sooner or later, the left will cohere around a program that emerges out of our living experience as Americans. David had a talent for sensing the mood of ordinary Americans.

Finally, for a really sweet and revealing interview with David that includes his story of how he decided to accept his homosexuality after meeting Alvin Ailey as a young man. It also includes some great photos of the young David McReynolds who was a handsome devil.

July 26, 2018

Bring back communism?

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

When I reviewed Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Alternative” in 2011, I found his argument that Marx considered the words socialism and communism interchangeable persuasive. While he did not rule out the use of the word communism, he certainly implied that it had drawbacks:

The term communism communicated something different when Marx wrote in the nineteenth century. Communism was the name Marx used to describe the society of free and associated producers — “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” But very few people think of communism that way now. In fact, people hardly think of communism as an economic system, as a way in which producers organize to produce for the needs of all! Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system — in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people.

When I was in the Socialist Workers Party, we never called ourselves communists because of its associations with the Soviet bureaucracy. After cult leader Jack Barnes decided to break with Trotskyist tradition, the word communist became ubiquitous mainly because it was the word preferred by the Cubans. As the party descended deeper into political mental illness, it began using the term worker-Bolshevik to describe party members. After hooking up with Peter Camejo in the early 80s, I repeated his warnings about sectarian appropriations of the USSR every chance I got especially on the net. For me, when a group puts up hammers and sickles or red stars on its website, or pictures of Stalin, Trotsky or Mao for that matter, I am always reminded of the words of the cop in “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we have here is a failure to communicate”.

Now that the term “democratic-socialist” has gained about the same currency as Che Guevara t-shirts or the “Kars for Kids” commercial on TV and radio, I have reached the boiling point. What does being for single-payer or against ICE have to do with socialism? Maxine Waters is identical to Bernie Sanders on these matters but described herself as a “capitalist” politician in a CNBC interview.

For that matter, what is the point of prefixing the word with “democratic”? Is the idea that you don’t want to be mistaken for one of those socialists who has good things to say about Fidel and Che? For Marx and Engels, socialism was a system based on both political and economic democracy in the sense of the Greek origins of the term. “Demo” + “cracy” = rule of the people.

After Marx’s death, Engels helped to influence the direction of the Second International that fell within the rubric of “social democracy”, a term that was interchangeable with socialist. It was only the failure of the Second International to oppose WWI that led to the formation of the Third International, or Communist International. From 1917 onwards, those who saw the USSR as a model labeled themselves communist proudly. The Trotskyists eschewed the term for the reasons alluded to above.

The problem facing the “hard left” today for lack of a better term is the ubiquity of the term “democratic-socialist” that has begun to suck all the oxygen out of the room. With many on the “hard left” attaching themselves to the Jacobin/DSA colossus like remoras to a shark, those of us who failed to be seduced by the charms of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are left out in the cold. Who are we? Where do we stand? What is our future?

I was left with such questions after reading the article “What is Millennial Socialism?” written for The American Interest by Ben Judah that consigns people like me to the dustbin of history:

“Revolution” was to a generation of socialists what Godot was to Vladimir and Estragon. Waiting for the revolution, anticipating the revolution, planning for the revolution, paralyzed a generation of socialists in Britain and America.

“We can’t sit around waiting; our chance is happening right now,” I remember my friend James Schneider told me when he co-founded Momentum to support Jeremy Corbyn. This attitude, and how prevalent it is, matters.

The idea of the revolution crippled a generation of socialist activists and intellectuals. Not anymore. Britain’s millennial socialists believe that the Labour Party can be made the vehicle for the revolution they want—breaking 1 percent financial capitalism—and they can achieve it through the ballot box.

This idea of the revolution could not be more different from the older generation. The old Left—think Perry Anderson and his New Left Review—went from believing Harold Wilson could open the path to socialism through the ballot boxes, to waiting expectantly for a May ‘68-type situation to emerge in the United Kingdom, to writing it off completely as a historic impossibility in the 1990s.

That old idea of the revolution—the massive crowds, the vanguard and the Kalashnikov chic—is so absent from millennial socialism that it’s hard to get across how important it was to the old Left. What for the new is commodified ironic Soviet kitsch was deadly serious to the founders of the New Left Review, for whom October 1917 was an inseparable part of thinking about socialism. Late-night discussions in the upstairs room at pubs in Islington about the exact moment to seize Parliament based on analysing Karl Liebknecht’s mistakes for when the ‘situation’ next comes round? That was the old 1970s Left. Go to the pub with millennial socialists and all you will hear about is party politics.

Guess what party politics is. Here’s a clue: A. O-C.

Get it? Ben Judah sees the division between dinosaurs like me and fresh-faced kids like Bhaskar Sunkara as being based on revolution versus electoralism. “Now—even more so since the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—millennial socialist activists are convinced that the hollow establishment parties that their forerunners disdained are instruments ripe for the taking.”

I don’t know quite how to put this but the only thing I spot on the horizon as ripe for taking are the millennials who hope to take over the Democratic Party. With A. O-C wilting under pressure on Israel and Palestine, the term might even be rotten-ripe.

Just a word or two about the provenance of The American Interest and Ben Judah. The American Interest is a magazine whose executive committee is chaired by Francis Fukuyama. The editorial board includes Anne Applebaum, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Mario Vargas Llosa. As for Ben Judah, he is the son of Tim Judah at the New York Review of Books, a long-time anti-Communist hack. Only 30 years old, Ben Judah was talented enough to become a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations between 2010 and 2012. Wow. Only 22 years old and making it big-time on a policy-making body funded by George Soros. Just the kind of person qualified to put the crown on the head of the boy-prince Bhaskar Sunkara.

If you want some help understanding democratic-socialism, you might want to consult Neal Mayer’s “What is Democratic Socialism” in (where else?) Jacobin. Mayer is on the DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee and obviously qualified to speak for the spanking New Left.

He proposes a “Democratic Road to Socialism” that is different from the one conceived by “our friends on the socialist left”, in other words the people Ben Judah describes as being into “commodified ironic Soviet kitsch”. Speaking for the DSA (and likely the Jacobin editorial board), Mayer writes: “We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.”

Oh, I see. Remind me not to write any more articles about winning socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.” I must have gotten such a silly idea from reading too much CLR James. I mean, for fuck’s sake, anybody writing such drivel understands about as much as Cuba in 1959 as I do about particle physics. Fidel Castro got started as a bourgeois politician just like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and only became a guerrilla after realizing that electoral politics in Cuba was a con game. Unlike most people seeking comfortable careers as professional politicians, Fidel Castro cared about the suffering of the Cuban people even if he didn’t live up to Sam Farber’s lofty standards.

Like most DSA’ers, Mayer sees work in the Democratic Party as a tactical question to be decided pragmatically:

To begin with, Sanders rose through an established party. Though political parties have suffered a profound degree of delegitimation, this has not sidelined them; their continuing economic and social impact ensure their continuing relevance. That they were nevertheless weakened gave individuals like Sanders who were not tainted with being part of the party establishment the advantage of operating inside these parties while retaining their branding as outsiders (this was also true of Corbyn in the Labour Party and Trump re the Republicans).

Had Sanders run as an independent, without the on-the-ground resources of the Democratic machine and the profile of running as a Democrat, it was highly unlikely — as he well knew — that his campaign would have had anywhere near the impact it did, just as attempts to form a left party outside the British Labour Party have generally and quickly faded. For all the discrediting of political parties, party politics remains a central site for being taken seriously. Starting a new party from scratch is something else and presents formidable difficulties.

Obviously, this is just another way of saying what Ben Judah said: “Now—even more so since the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—millennial socialist activists are convinced that the hollow establishment parties that their forerunners disdained are instruments ripe for the taking.”

Formidable difficulties if the goal is getting elected. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran an election campaign that generated 1,182 news articles and, according to people like Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, cost Al Gore the election. Nader got 2,882,955 votes, or 2.74 percent of the popular vote. While not quite in the same realm as Debs’s 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912, it was on a par with all his other runs. In fact, his showing was so impressive that people like David Cobb, Ted Glick, Medea Benjamin and other Green Party leaders conspired to deprive him of ballot status in 2004 just to make sure the Democrats would not have any competition.

On top of all this, Gallup reports that sixty percent of Americans believe that a third party is needed. Some of them might be only in favor of the sort of side show that Ross Perot ran but you can be sure that millions would be open to the sort of initiative that Ralph Nader represented. As long as the Republicans and Democrats continue to play hard and soft cop respectively to the American working class, that sixty percent is likely to grow.

Nader ran the kind of campaign that Debs ran even though it was not specifically socialist. If the entire left had thrown itself into building the Green Party as the ISO had, maybe we would have ended up with a much different constellation of forces today.

Two days ago, the Huffington Post published an article by Anthea Butler titled “We Know Protests Work. So Why Aren’t We Protesting?” that rued the failure of the left to have mounted any demonstrations against Trump since the Women’s March on Inauguration Day and the protests at airports in response to the Muslim ban. To a large extent, this is the result of having a weak and disorganized left. In the best of all worlds, a Green Party could have become the hub of a radical movement in the same way it functioned in Germany until people like Joschka Fischer turned the Greens into a conventional social democratic party.

In the final analysis, holding office for revolutionaries should only be exploited as a means of challenging the capitalist system. Until the German Social Democracy turned into a reformist swamp, it saw itself as an instrument of working class defiance of capitalist business as usual. In “What is to be Done”, Lenin praised its stances on issues of the sort the left is facing today:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

That’s the kind of party we need today. In fact, the DSA could evolve into just such a party if it dropped the Dissent Magazine/Michael Harrington/Scandinavian scaffolding it rests on and forged out on its own. Who knows, maybe the failure of any of these Sanderista elected officials to make the slightest difference to our lives will speed that process along. Let’s cross our fingers.

As for the question of what to call ourselves. I’ll be damned if started calling myself a “communist”. Socialist works just fine for me. No need to prefix it with “democratic” especially since that word rings so hollow today.


July 14, 2018

My 1968

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

The current issues of Jacobin and Bookforum are devoted to 1968. You can buy the Jacobin issue  for $12.98, a fair price considering the generally worthwhile content. I recommend in particular Paul Heideman’s “Half the Way With Mao Zedong” that deals with the implosion of SDS and Jonah Birch’s “How Beautiful It Was” about the May-June 1968 revolt in France. I was closer to their age when these things were going on and offer my reflections below. You can buy Bookforum at better bookstores and magazine shops. I have been subscribing to this magazine for about a decade now and consider it among the best available. Their approach is somewhat different than Jacobin’s and adopts much more of cultural critique angle. Go to Bookforum.com and have a look at the table of contents. You can also read a couple of articles that are not behind a paywall, including a brilliant take-down of John Updike who was a major literary figure 50 years ago, even appearing on the cover of Time Magazine. Author Christine Smallwood lets him have it with both barrels:

Updike was on the cover of Time magazine shortly after Couples came out. A little banner advertised the story: “The Adulterous Society.” Updike later said the decision to put him on the cover had been made before anyone at the magazine had read Couples, and after they read it, they regretted it. Like several of the contemporary reviews, the article willingly picks up the religious motifs of the novel, going on about the “black mass of community sex” and the absence of the old “Puritan gods.” Such overwrought symbolism is everywhere in Couples, and is just as unconvincing. In the end, the church that Piet has occasionally attended is burned down, struck in a storm by God’s own lightning bolt. But this leaves no impression on the reader, because no one in the book has felt anything resembling guilt, and the book has no vocabulary for dread, despair, or liberation. This is both its literary failure and a historical symptom. As Tony Tanner wrote in Adultery in the Novel,“A novel like John Updike’s Couples is as little about passion as it is about marriage; the adulteries are merely formal and technical.”

Now for my 1968 that starts in 1967.

In July, 1967 I made the most important decision in my life, next to getting married. I joined the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party, with the intention of joining the SWP after a few months. I am not sure whether the SWP had a candidate program in 1967 but I was under the impression that they scrutinized each applicant very carefully.

Sometime in late 1967, the SWP branch was voting on my membership application, which was the first point on the agenda. Headquarters were on 873 Broadway near Union Square and I sat in what amounted to a projectionist’s booth just above the main hall. Sitting there, I felt as vulnerable as someone in an orals exam for a PhD. After about 10 minutes, someone came up to usher me down to the meeting. As I walked toward a chair, everybody started applauding. I was a new member.

That meeting stuck out for two reasons. The next point on the agenda after the vote on my membership was a motion to expel Arne Swabeck, who had been in the Trotskyist movement since the early 30s and was prominent enough to earn a few minutes as a talking head in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”. For a number of years he had been evolving in a Maoist direction and the party had become fed up with him. I was hardly the person to fit into his shoes but among my liabilities, Maoism was not one. Indeed, what I saw didn’t exactly turn me on. An old friend from Bard College had been drawing closer to the Progressive Labor Party, a leading Maoist group that Swabeck would join after being expelled. He talked me into going to a contact class given by PLP leader Jake Rosen at his apartment in Washington Heights. I liked all his verbiage about the dictatorship of the proletariat but looked askance at PLP’s sectarian attitude toward the mass demonstrations. The other thing I remember about Jake’s talk was his playing with his toes as he spoke. If I had been to his class four years later, I would have repeated Gene Hackman’s immortal line in the 1971 film “The French Connection”: “Are you still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?”

The other reason I remember the SWP meeting was a warning sign that I might have been perceived as a “petty-bourgeois” element early on. Not long after I joined the YSA, the comrades learned that my father was a shopkeeper and that I was a Jew. Could they have considered me to be the kind of person that backed Max Shachtman in the late 30s? It turns out that my fears were unfounded but I regret that they did not vote no, looking back on the 11 years I wasted in the sect. I had worn my new trousers to the meeting, a pair of gold, wide-wale, bell-bottom corduroys that I bought on St. Mark’s Place. Sitting next to Susan Lamont, I was startled when she grabbed a fold of my trousers and said “petty bourgeois” to me.

Susan was a Barnard student. A few months later, Columbia University was the site of massive protests led by SDS. Susan and three other Barnard students were the only presence Trotskyists had at this politically key campus. They were Pat Grogan, who was the daughter of a powerful trade union bureaucrat and former mayor of Hoboken, Cindy Jaquith and Paula Reimers. I really liked Pat because she was smart, funny and outspoken. Susan, Cindy and Paula were rather colorless figures but totally devoted to building the Student Mobilization Committee against the War in Vietnam at Barnard and Columbia. The SMC was the main recruiting tool of the YSA but could not begin to compete with SDS politically. The SWP insisted that the SMC remain a single-issue group but most college students were interested in a multi-issue organization but not necessarily the YSA since its old left Trotskyist politics were a turn-off for most students.

Since I had been out of college for a couple of years, SDS didn’t really speak to my needs. Furthermore, I was so totally radicalized by the summer of 1967 that the amorphous, participatory politics of SDS struck me as weak tea. I felt at the time like Bruce Willis in that scene in “Pulp Fiction” when he walking around the ground level of the army and navy store to find a suitable weapon to attack the two men in the basement who were about to sexually assault his nemesis played by Ving Rhames. He finally settles for a sword that seemed equal to the task. For me, the SWP was that kind of weapon. If the goal was to overthrow the most powerful capitalist country in history, you better find a lethal weapon.

Looking back at this period, I would say that the SWP made a serious mistake by counterpoising the SMC to SDS. It would have made much more sense to work as the antiwar caucus in SDS. With our generally sensible approach, this would have won many young people fed up with both the arrogance of the Mark Rudd/Mike Klonsky/Bob Avakian leadership as well as the PLP-led Worker Student Alliance that tried to win students to a workerist strategy that made no sense in 1968. Ironically, the SWP would dust off the PLP orientation 10 years later and force petty bourgeois elements like me to say goodbye.

As much as I believed in Trotskyist politics, I was a fish out of water in the YSA and SWP. If you weren’t on a campus, there wasn’t much of a contribution you could make. What kept me going was the individual reading program that Les Evans enrolled me in. He understood that I was seriously interested in Marxist theory and keep feeding me titles.

Trotsky’s writings had a spellbinding effect on me. Although my reading had been mostly in novels, poetry and religious literature (my senior project at Bard was on St. Augustine’s “City of God”), I found his ability to get to the heart of the matter using incandescent prose a heady potion. Just around the time that SDS was leading the occupation of Low Library that would make us feel puny by comparison, I began reading Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution”. Sentences like these was like taking a powerful drug straight into the vein:

By the end of 1916 prices are rising by leaps and bounds. To the inflation and the breakdown of transport, there is added an actual lack of goods. The demands of the population have been cut down by this time to one-half. The curve of the workers’ movement rises sharply. In October the struggle enters its decisive phase, uniting all forms of discontent in one. Petrograd draws back for the February leap. A wave of meetings runs through the factories. The topics: food supplies, high cost of living, war, government. Bolshevik leaflets are distributed; political strikes begin; improvised demonstrations occur at factory gates; cases of fraternisation between certain factories and the soldiers are observed; a stormy protest-strike flares up over the trial of the revolutionary sailors of the Baltic Fleet. The French ambassador calls Premier Stürmer’s attention to the fact, become known to him, that some soldiers have shot at the police. Stürmer quiets the ambassador: “The repressions will be ruthless.” In November a good-sized group of workers on military duty are removed from the Petrograd factories and sent to the front. The year ends in storm and thunder.

I very well might have been reading this paragraph when the French student uprising began on May 2, 1968. Whatever the limits of the movement, there could be nothing more exhilarating than the giant steps students and then workers were taking to change society. For someone like myself, it vindicated my belief in the correctness of the SWP’s “old left”, working class orientation. In November 1968, George Novack wrote an article for the International Socialist Review titled “Can American Workers Make a Socialist Revolution?” that made us feel vindicated. If French workers living in relative prosperity could confront the state, wouldn’t our time be coming soon? George wrote:

The year 1967, for example, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution, when the workers did conquer power for the first time in history, opening a breach in the structure of world capitalism which has been widened and deepened by a series of subsequent socialist revolutions. Will this process never be extended to the United States when it has already come within ninety miles of its shores?

The general strike of ten million French workers in May-June 1968 disclosed an unsuspected readiness for anti-capitalist action in the advanced industrial West. Cannot the American workers become imbued at some point with a similar militancy?

This was the beginning of the end of the New Left and of SDS. The May-June events in France turned all these people into Marxist-Leninists. Well, not maybe all. Mark Rudd became the leader of the Weathermen that adopted Narodnik type terrorism wedded to a crude Third Worldist anti-imperialism that, like the traditional SDS, discounted the working-class. It was up to Mike Klonsky and Bob Avakian to make the Marxist turn, even if it was couched in the Maoist ideology of the PLP that would before long denounce the Communist Party in China.

On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be seeking a second term. This led to intense jockeying by Democratic Party “peace candidates” to get the nomination. Eugene McCarthy became the odds on favorite to get the nomination because his speeches were filled with bold, antiwar rhetoric even though buried beneath the rhetoric was support for negotiations rather than immediate withdrawal as the SWP favored (almost exclusively on the left.)

In his declaration for his candidacy on November 30, 1967 prior to LBJ’s resignation, McCarthy spoke for that section of the ruling class that worried about the costs of the war in terms of its transformation of a beatnik religion major into a hard-core revolutionary:

I am hopeful that a challenge may alleviate the sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government. On college campuses especially, but also among other thoughtful adult Americans, it may counter the growing sense of alienation from politics which is currently reflected in a tendency to withdraw in either frustration or cynicism, to talk of nonparticipation and to make threats of support for a third party or fourth party or other irregular political movements.

Threats of support for a third or fourth party or other irregular political movements? No, we can’t have that.

Students who became volunteers for the McCarthy campaign were said to be “getting clean for Gene”. The SWP published a pamphlet called the McCarthy Truth Kit that debunked his claims about ending the war as well as other flaws in his liberal program. Later on Robert Kennedy started his own primary campaign that was nipped in the bud by his assassination on June 6, 1968.

Just two months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. These two killings led to the general sense that American society was unraveling. Nothing is happening today that begins to approach the depth of the polarization in the USA that existed 50 years ago. For all of Trump’s hatefulness, the brunt of his attacks is on immigrants. In 1968, every male college student in the USA felt like he had a target on his back. What if the draft called and you ended up in Vietnam being forced to kill or dying yourself in a senseless imperialist war?

In the fifty years that separates us from that period, the biggest thing that separates them is the restabilization of bourgeois society through a ruling class strategy to put a damper on risk-taking. The neoliberalism that kicked in under Carter makes job security a thing of the past. In 1968, you could pick up the Sunday NY Times and turn to the business section that had classified ads in the back pages.

You would see an entire page and often two filled with jobs for college graduates, no experience necessary. I answered one placed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. with no expectations other than getting a flunky position as a claims approver or something. When I was interviewed in personnel, they gave me an aptitude test of the kind where you have to deduce from 3 figures what the fourth should be, something that comes easy to me. After looking at my score, the interview asked if I would be interested in becoming a programmer trainee. The rest is history.

Today, students are much more security conscious. The idea of a radical student strike like the kind that took place at Columbia has to be weighed heavily. Is there anything happening today that would make a lost school year worth it? The truth is that nothing since the war in Vietnam has had the same radicalizing impact. If you want to understand the phenomenal growth of the DSA, this is a partial explanation. There are bad things happening in the USA that must be opposed but going so far as to join a revolutionary organization that puts demands on your time and that might even lead to jeopardizing job prospects, there will naturally be a tendency to choose a weapon not as lethal as the one that Bruce Willis chose.


April 3, 2017

Demythologizing Old Bolshevism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev: best taken with a grain of salt

Something has been nagging away at me for the longest time about Lars Lih’s attempt to establish a kind of bloodline for the Bolshevik Party, with Marx begetting Kautsky and Kautsky begetting Lenin like patriarchs in the Old Testament. For those who embrace the heretical theory of Permanent Revolution, the bloodline naturally includes Trotsky. As should be obvious, this sort of pursuit is exactly how we end up sect formations rather than revolutionary parties.

Eric Blanc has written the second in a series of articles arguing against the idea that Lenin somehow dumped his old beliefs that Russia needed a democratic revolution that was “bourgeois in its social and economic substance” rather than socialist as he put it in “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” in favor of something similar to the theory of Permanent Revolution. I am quite used to these arguments by now but what caught my eye is his title “A Revolutionary Line of March: ‘Old Bolshevism’ in Early 1917 Re-Examined”. Line of March, of course, was the name of a Maoist sect in the 1980s founded by Irwin Silber who used to write dogmatic film reviews for the Guardian, a defunct American radical newsweekly. The “line of march” is basically the same concept as “revolutionary continuity”, a term that was bandied about in the Trotskyist movement around the same time. It is a way to establish your sect’s pedigree going back to Karl Marx.

The SWP’s cult leader Jack Barnes came to identical conclusions as Lih and Blanc in the Fall of 1983 when he broke with Trotskyist traditions and defended the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in an article titled “Their Trotsky and Ours”. Like a lot of the crap churned out by the SWP in this period, it is not online. (Contact me if you want a copy.) For Barnes and some non-Stalinist groups like the Democratic Socialist Party (now the Socialist Alliance) in Australia, they saw Lenin’s view of the revolutionary state as “algebraic”. In other words, it could progress so rapidly from a “democratic” to a “socialist” phase that it amounted to the same thing. The darn thing could make your head spin. Whoa there. Supposedly, both Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1960 were solutions to this algebra problem.

For Barnes, dumping Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution was key to becoming integrated into a New International of his florid imagination that included groups like the FSLN, the FMLN and the ANC. I wonder if the fact that Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa are solidly neoliberal under governments led by such formations might cast doubt on the usefulness of Lenin’s slogan (I doubt that it can really be called a theory). In 1959, Castro described the victory over Batista as rejection of what had happened for the better part of a century in Latin America: “Only half a revolution. A compromise, a caricature of a revolution.” I don’t know if this amounts to the same thing as Permanent Revolution but Castro was as determined to break with capitalism that year as Lenin was in 1917.

Obviously, Lih and Blanc have little in common with Jack Barnes. Their interest in the details of Bolshevik history is purely scholarly and mostly of interest to the people who read “Historical Materialism” and “Science and Society” where debates over the finer points of Bolshevik tactics from day to day in 1917 have a certain purchase.

All proportions being guarded, it is interesting that Barnes imposed a bureaucratic gag rule on the SWP membership after this ideological turn that was like the one Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev imposed on the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Basically, agreeing with Lenin’s slogan became a litmus test. If you agreed with Trotsky, you were singled out as an enemy of the party and eventually expelled from the CP in the USSR or Barnes’s minuscule sect.

The Triumvirs (as Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev were known) could not tolerate criticisms of their increasingly bureaucratic and anti-working class policies that were hated at the factory floor level. The NEP had generated class antagonisms and oppositions were forming to restore the democratic norms of 1917 and reallocate more funds to wages and other benefits. Workers assumed that Soviet democracy meant the right to criticize those at the top to win their demands, even if they had been Lenin’s most loyal lieutenants.

Indeed, it was their “legitimacy” as Lenin’s second in command that gave them a cudgel to use against Trotsky, who only joined the Bolsheviks six years earlier. That Lenin had referred to him corrosively, as was customary in Russian Marxist polemics, was to their advantage.

Trotsky first raised his criticisms in a short work titled “The New Course” in December 1923. Chapter five addressed the “line of march” question that he called “tradition” and that I would additionally describe as hide-bound tradition:

The undeniable fact that the most conservative elements of the apparatus are inclined to identify their opinions, their methods, and their mistakes with the “Old Bolshevism,” and seek to identify the criticism of bureaucratism with the destruction of tradition, this fact, I say, is already by itself the incontestable expression of a certain ideological petrifaction.

The shit hit the fan with “The New Course”. Using their control of the apparatus, the Triumvir whipped up a campaign intended to first isolate and then drive out its critics. Whether Barnes consciously looked to the Triumvirs for inspiration, this was the policy he carried out against his critics in the SWP who had the temerity to defend the theory of the Permanent Revolution—most of them veterans of the party who had “tradition” on their side.

A year later, a big fight broke out over Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” in which he addressed the questions posed by Lih and Blanc’s critique. Chapter two is titled “The Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry– in February and October” and gets to the heart of the matter:

Any further movement toward the attainment of power inevitably had to explode the democratic shell, confront the majority of the peasantry with the necessity of following the workers, provide the proletariat with an opportunity to realize a class dictatorship, and thereby place on the agenda – along with a complete and ruthlessly radical democratization of social relations – a purely socialist invasion of the workers’ state into the sphere of capitalist property rights. Under such circumstances, whoever continued to cling to the formula of a “democratic dictatorship” in effect renounced power and led the revolution into a blind alley.

In 1983, Frederick Corney wrote a book that was a collection of Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” and the response of his ideological adversaries. Among them, only Kamenev’s “Leninism or Trotskyism?” can also be read online. You can get a feel for the virulence of the anti-Trotsky campaign (that was a campaign against the masses as well) from these spittle-flecked sentences:

The petty bourgeois elements, in exercising this pressure upon our Party, naturally seek the weakest link in the chain, and as naturally they find this weakest link where people have entered the Party without being assimilated to it, and are possessed by a secret conviction, leaving them no peace, that they are more in the right than the Party, and that it is mere narrow-mindedness on the part of the Party, mere conservatism, tradition and adherence to this or that clique in leading positions, which prevents the Party from learning from its real saviours, such as Comrade Trotsky.

As is generally the case, when you can’t answer a fellow Marxist through data and logic, you can always rely on smearing them as “petty bourgeois”.

In fact, Trotsky did everything he could to avoid giving the appearance that he wanted to take over the Communist Party. In 1923, when Lenin was incapacitated by a series of strokes, he could have used the party leader’s authority to confront the Triumvirs. Lenin had become convinced that Stalin was a Great Russian Chauvinist, who despite his Georgian origins, had treated Georgia and Ukraine as Russia’s colonies. A year earlier, Lenin had written a “Testament”  that minced no words about Stalin. In his private discussions with Trotsky that year, he said that he was preparing a “bombshell” against Stalin and anybody who was in a bloc with him, including Zinoviev and Kamenev.

The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of “nationalist-socialism” (whereas he himself is a real and true “nationalist-socialist”, and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; “offended” nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest- to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades.

Eric Blanc refers to this period as one in which Trotsky was right to oppose bureaucracy. However, that did not excuse being “wedded to Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917, which is clearly contradicted by a wide range of primary sources”. I find this a little difficult to understand. If Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev had a better grasp of the tasks of the Russian Revolution than Trotsky in 1917, how could they end up becoming so determined to destroy its legacy in a series of maneuvers that smacked of back room capitalist politics? If “Old Bolshevism” was so susceptible to bureaucratic degeneration, maybe Trotsky was wise to keep his distance from a “tradition” that discouraged independent and critical thinking. This is a question that Eric Blanc should consider carefully as the author of an article critical of Bolshevik policies toward non-Russian nationalities. I should add that Blanc faults Trotsky for not opening an offensive against Stalin in 1923 over the national question. Whether or not he should be faulted is secondary to coming to terms with the character of “Old Bolshevism”. Trotsky eventually came around on such matters in his articles on Ukraine in the late 1930s after all, while Stalin—the quintessential Old Bolshevik—had the blood of Ukraine’s millions on his hands.

It turns out that the debate over Permanent Revolution did not come to an end after Trotsky’s expulsion and exile. Karl Radek, who had supported Trotsky in 1923, eventually caved in to Stalin like Zinoviev and Kamenev before him and became one of his worst flunkies. In chapter seven of “Permanent Revolution”, Trotsky takes up his defense of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry that the Stalinists were applying rigidly to China.

By 1927, Stalin had abandoned any notion of Lenin’s slogan having an “algebraic” quality. He reverted not just to the Two Tactics article but Second International stagism that posited the need for an extended period of capitalist development in countries like China. If China needed a bourgeois revolution, what better way to bring this about then to put the Communist Party at the disposal of the KMT? At this stage of the game, Plekhanov was the primary influence on Stalin even if he gave lip-service to Lenin’s slogan.

On April 12, 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek carried out a massacre against Chinese working-class revolutionaries in Shanghai that was facilitated by the Kremlin’s alliance with the KMT and the subordination to it of the Chinese CP. Bukharin, who had become Stalin’s chief ideologist in the late 20s before he too was purged and killed, came up with some remarkable formulations. He told the Fifteenth Soviet Party Conference (October 1926) that it was necessary “to maintain a single national revolutionary front” in China as “the commercial-industrial bourgeoisie was at present playing an objectively revolutionary role.” For his part, Stalin warned the Communists about trying to establish Soviets in China.

Despite the tendency to reduce Permanent Revolution into a formula for immediate socialist revolution at all times and under all conditions, Trotsky was quite cautious about the possibilities that existed in China. In the chapter on China in “Permanent Revolution”, Trotsky bears little resemblance to the caricature his adversaries such as Kamenev drew, which at times makes him sound like a Spartacist League member:

Does it follow from what has been said that all the countries of the world, in one way or another, are already today ripe for the socialist revolution? No, this is a false, dead, scholastic, Stalinist-Bukharinist way of putting the question. World economy in its entirety is indubitably ripe for socialism. But this does not mean that every country taken separately is ripe. Then what is to happen with the dictatorship of the proletariat in the various backward countries, in China, India, etc.? To this we answer: History is not made to order. A country can become ‘ripe’ for the dictatorship of the proletariat not only before it is ripe for the independent construction of socialism, but even before it is ripe for far-reaching socialization measures. One must not proceed from a preconceived harmony of social development. The law of uneven development still lives, despite the tender theoretical embraces of Stalin. The force of this law operates not only in the relations of countries to each other, but also in the mutual relationships of the various processes within one and the same country. A reconciliation of the uneven processes of economics and politics can be attained only on a world scale. In particular this means that the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in China cannot be considered exclusively within the limits of Chinese economics and Chinese politics.

I doubt that any of this will have much impact on Eric Blanc who is fully committed to rehabilitating the irredeemable. “Old Bolshevism” was nonsense back in the early 20s and even more so today. If you read Lenin’s “Two Tactics” followed by Trotsky’s “Results and Prospects”, you’ll find the differences striking. This is primarily a function of the articles serving different purposes. Lenin was writing as strategist. As is the case with most of his writings, the concern is over “what is to be done”. If he spent little attention to making the case for a working-class dictatorship over capitalist property relations theoretically, it is because he assumed his readers were familiar with Marxist theory that posited successive and distinct modes of production. Keep in mind that Lenin’s introduction to Marxism came through the writings of Plekhanov.

Plekhanov’s stagism looms large over Lenin’s early work on the development of capitalist agriculture in the Russian countryside that probably articulates more of a classic historical materialist analysis than anything he ever wrote and that catapulted him into the front ranks of Russian Marxism. In works like the 1908 “The Agrarian Question in Russia Towards the Close of the Nineteenth Century”, Lenin described the task of the Russian revolutionary movement:

The agrarian question in Russia towards the close of the nineteenth century has imposed upon the classes of society the task of putting an end to the old feudal past and sweeping clear the landowning system, sweeping clear the whole way for capitalism, for the growth of the productive forces, for the free and open struggle of classes. And this very struggle of classes will determine the manner in which this task will be accomplished.

Clearly, this is not in accord with Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, which constitutes the theoretical basis of Permanent Revolution and conceives of societies existing midway between the major stages of social history and that incorporates features from both. As I began writing about the Brenner thesis, nothing could be more obvious than Western European nations in the 1500s having both feudal and capitalist aspects. As is evidenced in the most recent scholarship on the “transition” debate, scholars such as Alex Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu are indebted to Trotsky’s dialectical understanding of social history even if Lih and Blanc fail to see much use in it. Perhaps their tendency to be so narrowly focused on Bolshevik history has put blinders on them.

This leads me to another point that is poorly understood in these debates. For Lih, there is a tendency to make an amalgam between socialism and the Soviet state. To sustain the idea that Lenin never projected anything more than a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, he cites Lenin’s articles written in April 1917 that only mention socialism in fleeting references and primarily as “steps toward socialism”. He notes approvingly what Menshevik historian Sukhanov said about October 1917 and socialism:

Was there any Socialism in the [Bolshevik] platform? No. I maintain that in a direct form the Bolsheviks never harped to the masses on Socialism as the object and task of a Soviet Government; nor did the masses, in supporting the Bolsheviks, even think about  Socialism … In general the central leaders of Bolshevism were evidently firmly bent on carrying out a Socialist experiment: this was demanded by the logic of the situation. But once again—before the eyes of the masses—they did not dot any of their I’s.

This misses the point entirely. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky were interested in whether Russia would conform to some fixed social science category like “socialism” as October 1917 drew nearer. Instead their focus was on the class nature of the state that ensued. In September 1917, Lenin wrote what was essentially his greatest contribution to Marxist theory: “The State and Revolution”. This was an examination of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which put the emphasis on the character of the state rather than the means of production. This meant the working class becoming the ruling class and putting restrictions on the freedom of other classes to pursue their own agenda both politically and economically. Did this mean that when the soviets became the new state in 1917 that socialism had begun? Keep in mind that Lenin quoted Marx on this question: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It is highly problematic to see the USSR in terms of fixed categories like “capitalist” or “socialist”. In “Revolution Betrayed”, Trotsky tried to define the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Given Trotsky’s superior analytical tools and the example he set of resisting both capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic misrule, it is impossible to sidestep the question of why his movement has failed to gain any traction. This has a lot to do with the movement’s inability to bridge the gap between theory and practical politics, mastery of which Lenin was second to none. In my earlier reference to Lenin being focused on immediate tasks of the mass movement, I would only add that he was far more adroit in movement building—something that was beyond Trotsky’s grasp. Ironically, Trotsky’s organizational principles were adopted from Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” Comintern in 1923 that served both the Triumvir’s need to bureaucratically control the international communist movement as well as Trotsky’s rather purist ideas about building revolutionary parties that have proven sterile.

My advice is to read Trotsky to help you understand class dynamics in the capitalist world and Lenin to help you work with others to build a mass revolutionary movement to transform that world. But best of all, build a new movement that does not worry about a “line of march” or “revolutionary continuity”. It is up to us to rethink Marxism and make it applicable to 21st century realities. In other words—become the New Bolsheviks.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.