Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 10, 2015

The latest data on my blog versus the Militant

Filed under: cults,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 12:50 am

Screen shot 2015-06-09 at 8.43.58 PM Screen shot 2015-06-09 at 8.44.23 PM

November 14, 2014

Goodbye Leninism

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm
When the Books Don’t Cook

Goodbye Leninism


On August 2nd Ian Birchall wrote an article titled “Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?” for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) website that has touched off an ongoing debate. For those trying to create an effective anticapitalist movement, Birchall’s article makes plenty of sense since it goes a long way toward putting the icons of October 1917 where they belong, into the historical archives. For those, however, who want to trace their lineage back to the Bolshevik revolution, like the connection that the Catholic Church makes between Pope Francis (a pretty good guy by the evidence) and Saint Peter, there is a need to uphold the sanctity of “Leninism”. Yet nobody outside the ranks of a Leninist party or the Catholic Church takes the lineage claims very seriously, especially people like me who went through such a painful experience (Leninism, not Catholicism.)

Ian Birchall, like many of the people involved with the RS21 website, was a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. This group lost many members after it failed to take action against a top leader who allegedly raped a young member, a failure that led to an ongoing crisis that I discussed in an earlier CounterPunch article. SWP leader Alex Callinicos warned members that the revolt was less about the rape charge than it was about defending the party from an attack on “Leninism”, a ploy that probably accelerated the rush to the nearest door.

Read full article

July 4, 2014

Alex Callinicos: take a look in the mirror

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’s nearly 12,500-word article in the latest International Socialism (Thunder on the Left) reminds me quite a bit of the kind of explanation I heard from former members of the SWP in the USA over the years about the group’s collapse. It was not the fault of the leaders but of objective conditions that the SWP went from nearly 2000 members in 1978 to just over a hundred today. It was almost inevitable given the decline of the trade union movement that supposedly would have nourished the sect’s growth. That decline was in turn an inevitable outcome of a hollowing out of the industrial sector and the loss of blue-collar jobs. It should be noted that the SWP leadership itself never bothered to provide much of an explanation for the loss of 95 percent of its members. In their eyes the party was always poised to take advantage of great opportunities looming on the horizon. Indeed, if you do a search on “opportunities” on the Militant newspaper website, you will find links to 982 articles. This was typical:

In the months ahead, the party will reach out to get an expanded hearing among working people on the roots of the world economic crisis and a fighting road forward for our class; take advantage of possibilities to advance the campaign to free the Cuban Five and defend the Cuban Revolution; and opportunities to join strikes and social struggles of workers against attacks by the rulers and their government.

To Callinicos’s credit, he avoids this kind of cockeyed optimism even though, like Jack Barnes, he refuses to acknowledge his own role in a torrential loss of members. Like the sympathizers of the American SWP, he relates his sect’s trouble to objective conditions:

This decline is a consequence of two processes, one long term, the other more short term. In the first place, the general tendency in advanced capitalist societies towards the greater fragmentation and individualisation of social life erodes the bases of many mass organisations—not just political parties, but mainstream churches and many of the other institutions that helped to impose a degree of order and security during the early chaotic phases of capitalist development. This phenomenon was already visible during the post-war boom, when it was diagnosed as “apathy”, a disease of “affluence”.

Secondly, neoliberalism—a result of the ruling class response to this insurgency—has accelerated the tendency to fragmentation and individualism and weakened working class organisation. But it has also reshaped bourgeois politics as the mainstream parties have converged on acceptance of neoliberalism. What in France is called la pensée unique (the “sole thought”) ideologically integrates the political elite with media bosses, big capital more generally, and much of the academy in acceptance of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy as defining the horizons of rational social life.

My explanation differs from ex-members of the SWP in the USA and Callinicos’s. It paraphrases what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are hemorrhaging members.”

What they fail to grasp is the primary obstacle such groups face in becoming massive. Tens of thousands of socialist-minded workers, students and even middle-class professionals are not willing to join a group that imposes an ideological straitjacket on its membership. The “program” of both SWP’s was always understood to be virtual encyclopedia of positions on historical and international questions that it was almost impossible to support unless you had gone through an apprenticeship in the organization that included indoctrination in new members classes, etc. It was the kind of training a Jesuit would receive.

Despite such self-imposed constraints, groups such as the American and British SWP’s can enjoy relative success. At its high point, my sect was the largest group on the left just as was the case with the British SWP. Taking into account the revolving door tendencies of both groups to lose burned out members, they could have stayed close to the top of their game.

But both crashed on the reefs as a result of an inability to change course. If it was a single-mindedness of purpose and ideological homogeneity that allowed such groups to enjoy rapid growth, it was exactly the same tendencies that made it impossible to avoid a disaster. Although such “Leninist” groups have formal guarantees for the democratic rights of the membership, the leadership will always dig in its heels when it has a big stake in the outcome of a debate. In the American SWP, the top leader had become fanatically committed to the “turn toward industry”, to the point of likening party members who disagreed as “Marielitos”, the counter-revolutionary Cubans who arrived in Florida on boats. In the British SWP, the dividing line was not over policy but over the refusal of the leadership to take action against one of its own who had raped a younger female member. As I said, the American SWP lost 95 percent of its membership but so far the British SWP’s losses have been somewhat smaller—only 700 according to Callinicos. Of course, there is no doubt that as long as the current stonewalling tendencies of the leadership group remain intact, those numbers will grow.

While there is not much point in covering all of the points made in Callinicos’s gargantuan article, there are a few worth honing in on.

In reviewing the tendencies of broad parties like Syriza to suffer “organizational implosion”, Callinicos puts the blame on the aforementioned economic tendencies. Leaving aside the question of whether Syriza has imploded, I was struck by his reference to a broad-based party that included the SWP as a constituent:

Disarray set in among the radical left before the onset of the economic crisis: thus George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within Respect in August 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to develop.

What a strange analysis. As if the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have been a green light for Galloway to launch his attack. Leaving aside Galloway’s mercurial personality and Labour Party bad habits, the real cause of the crisis in Respect was the SWP’s unaccountability. Whenever you have a “democratic centralist” entity operating in a larger mass movement or a broad party, there will be friction since decisions will be made at caucus meetings beforehand. I should know. That’s how the American SWP operated. We called ourselves “The Big Red Machine” and that’s why people outside our ranks hated us.

For those who bothered to read Callinicos’s attacks on the party members who fought against the rape cover-up, you will remember that he said that the real disagreement was over “reform versus revolution”. SWP members like Richard Seymour were renegades from Marxism, pinning their hopes on Syriza type formations rather than tried and true Leninist formations like the SWP. Feeling vindicated now that Greece is still a capitalist country, Callinicos says “I told you so.”

The proof of Syriza’s failure was its support for “the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission.” It turns out that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s support for Juncker was highly qualified. Le Monde reported:

“If Europe doesn’t democratize soon, it will suffer a major cohesion” he said and when asked whether or not he supports the candidacy of Juncker for the president of the European Commission he explained that “although he’s a tough opponent of his policy”, he recognizes the right to preside, as long as his party won the largest number of seats.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Apparently this is not good enough for Callinicos. The leftists who are now in Syriza would be better advised to join Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Antarsya that got 20,389 votes in the 2012 elections as opposed to Syriza’s 1,655,022. You have to remember that the Bolsheviks started off small. As long as you have a correct program, victory is assured. That is why it was so necessary to hound Richard Seymour and friends out of the SWP. They were a scratch that could have turned into gangrene, don’t you know?

As might be expected, Callinicos returns once again to a defense of “Leninism”, the last refuge of a scoundrel. As might be expected, Callinicos feels the need repudiate Lars Lih’s argument that Lenin sought nothing more than to build a party in Russia modeled after Kautsky’s party in Germany since that comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of the “left reformism” of Syriza. For Callinicos, Paul Le Blanc and Mick Armstrong of the Socialist Alternative in Australia, there is this thing called “Leninism” that was implicit as far back as 1903 but became fully manifested at the Prague Conference of 1912.

I will probably have more to say on this since Paul Blackledge, a case-hardened Callinicos lieutenant, attempts to refute Lars Lih in the same issue of International Socialism but will offer some thoughts on what Callinicos says here:

While a welcome corrective to the standard bourgeois caricature of Lenin as a demonic totalitarian, this interpretation has subsequently been used by Lih and others to argue that Lenin had no distinctive or original approach to revolutionary politics in general or party organisation in particular. This would have come as a surprise to Lenin himself, who after all wrote “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920 in order to introduce Western revolutionaries to the specific political experiences of the Bolsheviks, but also to contemporaries such as Georg Lukács, who, through the debates in the early Communist International, developed a hard-won understanding of Lenin’s originality.

Callinicos is right but that’s the problem unfortunately. There’s a lack of clarity in the above quote but basically it makes an amalgam of two separate questions. Lih’s contribution was less about “revolutionary politics” than it was about organizational questions. Keep in mind that Lih’s key work was an 888-page examination of “What is to be Done”, a work focused on questions such as the role of a newspaper, democratic centralism, etc. That being said, by 1920 Lenin had certainly come to the conclusion that an “original approach” to party organization distinguished the Comintern parties from the Second International. The 21 Conditions was the most obvious sign of that but even more obviously was the application of “democratic centralism” to the German Communist Party when Paul Levi was expelled with Lenin’s endorsement over his public attack on the ultraleftism that was jeopardizing the German revolution. It was the sort of narrow understanding of democratic centralism that would become enshrined at the Bolshevization Comintern conference three years later under Zinoviev’s command.

Displaying a shamelessness on the order of a Washington bourgeois politician, Callinicos spends a thousands words or so defending his party’s understanding of the “woman question” against Sharon Smith of the ISO who views Tony Cliff’s analysis as lacking to say the least. If Callinicos can’t make the connection between a certain theoretical deficiency in the SWP and the commission of inquiry that asked the female rape victim about her drinking habits, then he is beyond help.

In his conclusion, Callinicos writes:

The present crisis is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible.

Now I have no idea what is going on in the French NPA since the comrades are not particularly engaged with the English-speaking left (who can blame them?) but I doubt it has anything to do with a rape investigation that had more in common with those conducted in the American military than what we would expect from a Marxist party. In terms of attempts to destroy an organization, my suggestion to Alex Callinicos is that he takes a look in the mirror at his earliest convenience. There he will find the miscreant most responsible.


The ISO versus Socialist Alternative

Filed under: Counterpunch,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm
Todd Chretien
CounterPunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 4-6, 2014
The ISO Versus Socialist Alternative

Sectarian Delusions on the American Left


Another International Socialist Organization Internal Bulletin has been leaked to the public over on the External Bulletin website, home to a group of former members. It contains an article written by long-time leader Todd Chretien that targets Socialist Alternative (SAlt)—the group that is rightfully proud of their comrade Kshama Sawant being elected to the Seattle City Council and for her role in the passing of a $15 minimum wage.

I have been partial to Chretien in the past because of his close ties to the late Peter Camejo, whose gubernatorial campaign in California he helped organize in 2003. I worked closely with Camejo in the early 80s and confess to having stolen all my best ideas from him.

The ISO’s chief criticism of Socialist Alternative’s electoral strategy is that it is “triumphalist”, a musty term from the Marxist lexicon. Specifically, Chretien regards SAlt’s call for a hundred independent candidates to run in the 2014-midterm elections as an “overblown perspective”. In his view, her victory did not necessarily mean that political conditions had ripened to the point where such a large number of candidates would be forthcoming. Such “triumphalism” might even be catching–to the point where ISO’ers would be seduced into believing that it was feasible to form a new “broad” party in the near term, or that regroupment of the far left was the order of the day. Heaven forefend.

read full

June 13, 2014

Goodbye, Lenin

Goodbye Lenin


I hope that CounterPunch readers will forgive me for taking valuable time away from my film reviews of neglected treasures while I answer one of my critics from the “Leninist” left. As it happens, Paul Le Blanc, the International Socialist Organization’s avuncular scholar of Bolshevik history, devoted pretty much of a whole chapter to me in his latest book “Unfinished Leninism” (the chapter has the same title) and I would like the opportunity to use CounterPunch for my reply.

I am not accustomed to answering points made in a book but since many of the arguments about what Lenin stood for and whether he has any relevance for today’s left take place in books and in Historical Materialism, a high-toned print journal behind a paywall, I really have no choice. As a strong believer in the Internet, I would prefer to debate there since I see it as the modern counterpart of the Gutenberg press, the primary means of communication of our rebel forerunners. My guess is that if the quarrelsome Lenin were alive today, he would be conducting his debates on the Internet as well.

As a history professor, Le Blanc is obviously much more comfortable holding forth from a lectern or the printed page. That’s true for the rest of the ISO as well that sees the Internet as a necessary evil. As a handy tool to distribute an electronic version of their print publications, it would be much better if it weren’t a breeding ground for bilious critics and those who circulate their top-secret internal bulletins.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/13/goodbye-lenin/

March 28, 2014

The ISO’s secrecy fetish

Filed under: Counterpunch,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm
It’s Time for an Open and Transparent Left

The ISO’s Secrecy Fetish


The International Socialist Organization published an article on March 6th by Tim Koch titled “Openness” and the left that opposed making their internal documents public either voluntarily or involuntarily as was the case recently when digital versions of the bulletins from their most recent convention were circulated on the Internet. I can understand why this aspiring Leninist group was aggravated over this violation of their confidentiality because there were some rather embarrassing revelations about the ISO’s stagnation, as well as what some regarded as a damningly inadequate response to a party member’s sexual attack on a non-party member.

I dealt with the stagnation question in an earlier article for CounterPunch and will now turn to the questions raised by Tim Koch since they go to the heart of what kind of left needs to be built in 2014. As a general rule, I do not think that modeling yourself on the Russian Social Democracy is a very good idea, but that being the case maybe the ISO should reflect on how “internal” the discussions were in the party they are supposedly emulating.

In 1905 Lenin wrote an article blasting the Russian liberals for making their party documents secret:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Tim Koch and his comrades are used to thinking that Lenin’s faction—the Bolsheviks—was the real party in Czarist Russia as opposed to the fake socialists. However, its own members did not regard the Russian social democracy in such purist fashion, particularly Lenin who viewed the right-leaning Mensheviks and the centrists grouped around Leon Trotsky as part of the same plucky but unhappy family. From 1903, the time when factional divisions began to emerge, to 1917 when a definitive (and harmful, in my view) break occurred between the left and the right internationally, debates took place in the party newspapers on an ongoing basis, resembling a Marxist version of the food fight in “Animal House”. To get a flavor of the acrimony, just consider the title of Lenin’s 1911 article Judas Trotsky’s Blush of Shame. It was an ongoing flame war in full view of all Russian social democratic members, just the sort of thing that would give our present-day “Leninist” leaders nightmares.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/28/the-isos-secrecy-fetish/

February 18, 2014

Notes on a staggering ISO

Filed under: aging,Counterpunch,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 11:03 am

Counterpunch February 18, 2014

The Slow Death of “Leninism”

Notes on a Staggering ISO


It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.

In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.

Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.

read full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/18/notes-on-a-staggering-iso/

October 10, 2013

A Letter to Comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

Dear Comrades:

We are a group of former ISO members from the Chicago district.

We left the organization over the past two to five years (at different points) but remain loyal to the ISO and the politics of International Socialism.

We estimate we have one hundred years combined experience in the ISO.

We have developed, or have on reflection developed, some serious concerns about organizational practice within the ISO and its approach to its membership and political perspectives.

Some of us were dealt with in a uncomradely and undemocratic manner upon raising political disagreements. Some of us were forced out of the organization.

Some of us were part of leadership teams that acted (at times) in an uncomradely and undemocratic manner towards comrades who raised dissenting viewpoints; such actions were not individual aberrations at the level of district or branch committees but were directed from the highest ranks of the ISO.

All of us began to ask questions about the underlying causes of these problems and, while we are not in agreement on everything, we have come to a few conclusions.

full: A Letter to Comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO)

July 22, 2013

Recent debates in the British SWP over Leninism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Martin Smith, aka “Comrade Delta” and formerly the national chairman of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, just resigned from the organization undoubtedly to relieve pressure on the party leadership that colluded to clear Smith of charges of raping a 19-year-old party member. As an irritant to the party minority (or looming majority), nobody could top Martin Smith even if they tried. When this young party member brought charges against Smith, the investigating committee asked about her drinking habits. Who could put up with such an affront except Smith’s cronies and party members who had surrendered their independence of mind? If this reminds you of how the Catholic Church, corporations, the military, and other bourgeois institutions deal with sexist behavior, you’d be right.

For me the interesting question has always been whether the party would have been roiled by mass resignations and open factional warfare if this incident had not taken place. Clearly the party was fragmenting along one political line or another for some time. The first significant split occurred in 2010 when John Rees and Lindsay German left the party to create a group around the website Counterfire mostly around differences over strategy for the mass movement.

In the more recent defections and drawing of factional lines by members still within the party, there have been debates over policy but also over the fundamental question of how to build a revolutionary organization. The members most publicly committed to the “Leninist” status quo, such as Alex Callinicos and John Molyneux, have had to put up with challenges from a range of party members including long-time Cuba “expert” Mike Gonzalez. If Gonzalez was only half as sharp on Cuba as he was on “Leninism”, I for one would be most grateful. Sam Farber, of course, is a lost cause.

After Callinicos wrote a piece for the January 2013 Socialist Review titled “Is Leninism finished?” that brazened out the sectarian status quo, he was answered by Gonzalez in an internal article titled “Who will teach the teachers” that has been circulated widely on the Internet, that dastardly petite-bourgeois medium. I liked the final paragraph best:

We should stop trading quotes from Lenin. Not that he has not much to teach us, but that the first lesson he will offer is that the forms and methods of organization of revolutionaries will be shaped by the historical circumstance, and will change constantly as those circumstances change. There are no rules to be applied, no constitutions to obey. There is a revolutionary method – one part of which acknowledges that the teachers must themselves be taught by those they set out to instruct.

While Gonzalez’s article was only for the eyes of party members, recent issues of Socialist Review reveal the debate spilling over into the public sphere. In the June issue, Ian Birchall wrote a piece titled “What does it mean to be a Leninist?” that echoed Gonzalez. This sentence pretty much encapsulated Birchall’s view and hopefully that of the faction that is challenging Callinicos:

There is no such thing as the “Leninist party”, outlined in What Is To Be Done? or any other instruction manual.

I was also pleased to see Birchall’s reference to Lenin’s worries over the organizational proposal of Wilhelm Koenen that exhibited a schematic approach to “Bolshevik” norms.

In his final speech to the Communist International in 1922 Lenin insisted: “The resolution [on organisation] is too Russian; it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners… They must assimilate part of the Russian experience. Just how that will be done, I do not know.”

I referred to Lenin’s remarks when I wrote an article titled “The Comintern and German Communism” back in 2000 or so. Now I am not so sure whether Lenin should get off the hook completely. Despite his uneasiness with Koenen’s resolution, he voted for it. More worryingly, he was adamantly for the 21 Conditions that represented a departure from the more 2nd Internationalist conceptions of party-building. Despite Lars Lih’s contention that Lenin remained a Kautskyist to the end, I am afraid that a “new party” did emerge under his stewardship. However, I am not referring to the Prague Conference of 1912 that people like Paul Le Blanc regard as a definitive break with Menshevism and the ratification of a “revolutionary” party-building model that groups like the SWP (and the ISO arguably) identify with. Instead I am talking about the efforts to impose rigid guidelines in the early 1920s under the hothouse conditions of the victorious revolution and the hatred for the Second International bred by its support for World War One.

Probably the worst part of Koenen’s resolution is item #46: “The party as a whole is under the leadership of the Communist International.” [emphasis in the original]. This, of course, is the conception fully embraced by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev alike that led to a disaster in Germany. The best thing for Germany would have been for the Comintern to butt out.

Callinicos gets in the last word in an article in the latest issue of Socialist Review titled “What sort of party do we need?“ As might have been expected, he reduces the differences to one over “reform” versus “revolution”, as if belonging to a revolutionary party is some kind of condom that protects you against counter-revolutionary practice. Without adequate protection, you open the door to the nasty germs of reformism. One foolish act can haunt you for the rest of your life. This Platonic understanding of “revolutionary” has little in common with the way that the Bolsheviks functioned. It has more to do with sacraments taken in the Catholic Church that protect you from Satan.

Unfortunately Callinicos has nothing to say on the more interesting question, namely how the organizational principles of the SWP developed. To make a long story short, Tony Cliff embraced the more conventional understandings of democratic centralism that were handed down from Trotsky to his next generation of followers even if he decided that the “workers state” ideology was to be discarded. I doubt that any of the groups based on these precepts, from Cliff’s to Ted Grant’s, really gave much thought to the question of why you would form a group based on a given analysis of the “Russian question”. Did Lenin ever consider the position one takes on when the French revolution became degenerated a litmus test? Nor has Alex Callinicos ever considered why the norm of “internal documents” has some special hallowed importance in “Leninist” organizations. The truth is that none were published in Lenin’s day prior to the seizure of power in 1917. If it was a practice never carried out in the days of the printing press, how much more irrelevant does it seem today when everything is either digitized or easily converted from print to electronic format?

To conclude, it seems obvious that things are very fluid on the far left in terms of the “Leninism” question. There are three approaches that appear to be crystallizing, largely out of discussions prompted by Lars Lih’s book on “What is to be Done”, initiatives being taken in Australia and France by groups committed in the past to one degree or another to Zinovievist practices, and perhaps most powerfully by the crisis in the SWP. One approach is supported by Callinicos and other Trotskyist groups such as those led by Alan Woods and Peter Taaffe. Basically, nothing has changed for them. There is a clear line that connects them to Wilhelm Koenen’s organizational guidelines presented to the Comintern in 1921, even if not carried out to the letter. These guidelines were absorbed and deepened in the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern presided over by Zinoviev.

The second approach is embodied by groups like the Socialist Alliance in Australia and the NPA in France that have moved radically to drop the Zinovievist baggage. Groups moving in this direction are the ISO in the USA and the Socialist Alternative in Australia that understand that something was wrong in the way that the SWP conducted itself but are reluctant to go so far as to break with some key “Leninist” norms, most particularly being organized around a program that is fairly tightly circumscribed. This leads to a party that is homogeneous and by necessity subject to a glass ceiling on future growth.

The third approach was first developed by Solidarity in the USA, a group launched in 1986 as a multi-current formation dispensing with Leninist norms. Unfortunately inertia and aging cadres have served to limit its usefulness. Today, I look forward to multiple initiatives taking place in Britain to break with “democratic centralism”, at least in the way it is understood by groups like the SWP. I am very encouraged by the example being set by the comrades who resigned en masse from the SWP now known as the International Socialism Network. They are iconoclasts organizationally in exactly the fashion that is needed. By, for example, publishing their steering committee minutes on the Internet, they are clearly thinking outside the box. More power to them.

Finally, there are the young people associated with the North Star website who are becoming a pole of attraction for others in the USA who want to lay the groundwork for a new left committed to socialism and the right of every member of an organization that emerges out of a long and necessary process to be treated with respect. Revolutionary organizations operating in capitalist society are not some kind of coming attraction of the socialist world we all seek, but we can certainly hope that they can at least operate on the basis of genuine equality. In my time in the American SWP, I always felt that there was a hierarchy in some ways worse than the banks and insurance companies that employed me. This was a complaint I heard repeatedly about the British SWP’s central committee that in its own way was as unaccountable as a corporate board.

Those days must come to an end, not just from the standpoint of respect for the individual, but out of a need for collective thinking—the only way to make an organization powerful. If the American SWP had paid more attention to the concerns that the ordinary member had over the “turn to industry”, perhaps the group might have not imploded (this leaves aside the question of course whether it could have ever developed into a mass party.) If the British SWP had not taken the word of a top leader like Martin Smith automatically over the word of a 19-year-old female, the crisis would have not happened.

In any case, without ceding any ground to some of the lamer conceptions that go along with the word favored so much in autonomist circles, a whole lot more “horizontalism” is needed—the sooner the better.

July 7, 2013

The ISO’s multiple personalities

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

In the 1950s pop culture was obsessed with multiple personality disorder, an illness that was often confused with schizophrenia. Someone who had multiple personalities was “schizoid”; in other words they were split into two or more identities (the term schizo is Greek for split). For example, the film “The Three Faces of Eve” starred Joanne Woodward as a woman with three personalities. You can see the specific amalgam between the two diseases in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” where Anthony Perkins was himself as well as his dead mom.

Ahmed Shawki

Now you might ask yourself what in the hell this has to do with Marxism. Okay, let me explain. I see the ISO as suffering from multiple personality disorder. I just finished listening to their long-time leader Ahmed Shawki address their recently held conference in Chicago on “Perspectives for the Left”. The talk went about as far as you can go in calling for a break with Zinovievism at the same time as Paul Le Blanc, their resident expert on “Leninism”, is going around giving speeches on why the 21 Conditions and Morris Lewitt’s rant to the American SWP’s 1945 convention about being “monopolists” in the sphere of politics made sense in their day. I would only say that even if these sectarian initiatives made sense in their day, it is a big mistake to bring them up now. It is like taking the skeletons out of your closet, putting them in formal wear, and making them the guests of honor at a dinner party. The best place for these skeletons right now is six feet under.

It strikes me that the American ISO and the people who departed the British SWP are on the same wavelength in terms of political analysis but obviously in an existentially different place when it comes to Zinovievism. In contrast to Callinicos’s group, Shawki and Richard Seymour see eye to eye on SYRIZA. That’s progress! After all, once you are outside of a group like the SWP and convinced that trying to recreate a “healthy” one is a task not worth undertaking, then you become driven by that logic to explore new opportunities such as Ken Loach’s Left Unity or whatever else comes your way. Clearly, the British left is much further ahead than the American left in shedding the dead skin of “Leninism”.

Most of Shawki’s talk was devoted to an examination of the “catastrophism” that the 1960s left operated under. Most of us assumed that the radicalization that had sunk deep roots into the student, Black, women’s, and gay movements would eventually reach the working class even as this outlook was less pronounced in the American SWP. Shawki describes a split in the IS group that led to the formation of the ISO that reflected this “revolution is just around the corner” urgency. His faction was skeptical of the “turn” toward the industrial working class that the American SWP would itself embark upon just a few years later. That, in my opinion, is the main reason the ISO has grown. Instead of sending its cadres into coalmines and meat-packing plants, it allowed them (or directed them—I have no way of knowing) to work as teachers or social workers. That is why the SWP, which had close to 2000 members in 1972, now numbers 100 while the ISO that started out with 100 is probably at least 1500 members strong.

Speaking of numbers, Shawki addressed the “glass ceiling” question that I have referred to on many occasions. In my view the “Zinovievist” model is very good at going from 100 to 1000 members (and vice versa of course.) What is not good at is getting to 10,000 or—better yet—100,000. Shawki does not use the term “glass ceiling” but refers to a “plateau”. He asks why the NYC local of the ISO cannot get past the 150 mark and move to 2-300.

He answers his own question by saying that the group has to find ways to accept people who do not agree with every dotted I and crossed T of the ISO. Of course, the main obstacle to turning this into a reality is the very culture that has been created in the ISO over the past 30 years or so. In the entire time I have interacted with ISO’ers on the Internet over the past 15 years or so, I have yet to run into a single member who departs from the groupthink that inevitably determines their interaction with other leftists—the kneejerk tendency to defend the party line on every single question. In the SWP we used to call this “loyalty”. It virtually makes independent thinking an impossible task. In groups such as these, there is a kind of division of labor. The full-timers who write for the magazine or those who serve on the national committee do the thinking while the “Jimmy Higgins” go out and sell the newspaper. In the American SWP, whenever we “recruited” a new member who had a long history of thinking and writing for themselves, we always felt better when they abandoned one of their “old” positions that we were uncomfortable with. It was like antibodies reacting to an infection.

I should add that the only ISO’er who departed from the norm was Todd Chretien who emailed a few times about 10 years ago expressing some doubts about the ISO’s position on Nicaragua and asking me for some references. About a year later I stopped hearing from him. It was not clear to me whether his comrades had laid down the law about consorting with Satan or whether my own obnoxious personality had done the trick.

Shawki said that the ISO would be taking some new initiatives to facilitate this more open (or less Zinoviest) approach that in the future might help to incubate an American SYRIZA. First and foremost is the relaunching of the International Socialist Review, which is described as a “new web site and a new print format”. I don’t know. If it was up to me, the ISR should have gone whole hog and followed the format of Links, the publication of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. Links is truly diverse and begins to satisfy the needs addressed in Lenin’s “What is to be Done”—a journal that can unite socialists and facilitate debate. For example, there is a fawning interview in the ISR with Vivek Chibber by Jason Farbman but no place to offer a comment. I would have loved to give the so-and-so a piece of my mind. You would think that an earlier fawning interview conducted by ISO member and Chibber dissertation student Jonah Birch would have sufficed.

The truth is that the ISO probably shares to a significant degree Alex Callinicos’s aversion to the Internet, where all sorts of riffraff hang out. It is too bad that there is a lingering hostility (albeit veiled) to a means of communication as important to the 21st century as the Gutenberg press was to the epoch of the bourgeois revolution. One wonders if the ISO is capable of spawning a single member who had the smarts and the backbone to begin a blog as audacious as Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb. I think that would go a long way in helping to transform the ISO, even though it might risk letting the genie out of the bottle.

In any case, despite my obvious skepticism about whether the ISO can make such a turn, I offer them a probably unsought “good luck”. Nothing would make me happier than to see a 10,000 strong ISO and me eating my words. Such a group could really begin to make a difference politically in the USA and god knows we need that.

I want to conclude with an article I wrote about a decade ago. It was written as an ex post facto declaration of a new way of doing business for the SWP—obviously something that never would have happened in an outfit that allowed Morris Lewitt to rant about being “monopolists” in the sphere of politics. I invite Ahmed to plagiarize large portions of it. Nothing in fact would make me happier.

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year which in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.


While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.


We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.


This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.


One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.


Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.


As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.

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