Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 1, 2021

The Socialist Equality Party Member who rejected sectarianism

Filed under: sectarianism,Socialist Equality Party,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:21 pm

On March 8th, I received an email from Shuvu Batta, a former member of the NY branch of the Socialist Equality Party that publishes World Socialist Website. He had recently been expelled on the typical bureaucratic basis that Trotskyists seem to have purloined from 1930s Stalinism. He wrote:

I came across your site and while I may not agree 100% with what you’ve written, I think your critique on the SEP is correct. I was a former SEP member who after 2 and half years around the organization, have been forced to admit that the party line on the trade unions is absolutely incorrect and more-over an anti-worker stance. A former member wrote a scathing critique of the trade union line and our party politics which I was able to read. After sharing the critique to other comrades, I was put up for disciplinary action and eventually expelled.

He included a number of attachments written by him and replied to by David North’s cohorts. I believe he has made an important contribution to Marxism by taking on the SEP’s grotesque misinterpretation of Trotsky’s ideas and demonstrates a keen awareness of Marxism that persuades me that a new generation of revolutionary socialists is being born. In the memorial meeting for Ernie Tate, Tariq Ali struck a rueful note about Marxism being at a low ebb. Unless you are preoccupied with the academic left that uses NLR or Historical Materialism to carry out its debates, you will miss the reality that thousands of people in their 20s to 40s are embracing Marxism at a higher level than I ever saw in the 1960s and 70s. When you read two of his contributions to the debate within the SEP, you’ll agree with me that Comrade Batta is part of the cream of the crop.

1. From a document titled “My Defense of Democratic Centralism and a Critique of Sectarian Politics”:

Are we sectarians?

The founding document of the Communist movement, of which we are a fragment, is the Communist Manifesto.

Near the end of this document it is written that:

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of  the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.

Communists fight for the immediately achievable goals of the working class while preparing the ground for its ultimate aim of seizing political power on a worldwide scale. By denying the internal contradiction within the trade unions between the bureaucracy and the working class and furthermore by labeling virtually all left-wing movements as “psuedo-left” we have followed a clear sectarian line which has divorced us from the mass movements of the working class and revolutionary segments of the petty bourgeoise and youth, thereby divorcing us from the momentary interests of the working class. This has been increasingly apparent in our reaction to the gains won by Chicago Teachers in the CTU, our slander against Amazon workers fighting for unionization and our “intervention” in the George Floyd Protests.

Our participation in the George Floyd protests which involved tens of millions of workers and youth around the world was concentrated almost exclusively through our WSWS writing and social media activity. Furthermore the line advanced by our party failed to address the momentary needs of the masses in protest, calling for an end to racism and police brutality. Rather than employing the dialectical method, connecting the immediate needs of the masses with the ultimate goal, as so powerfully outlined by Trotsky in the Transitional Program, we offered no such demand to workers and youth. Rather our writing focused on simply laying out the case for socialism and calling on the working class to join our movement, a movement which had no significant role in the organization and in the on-the-ground agitation for this “world-historic” event.

Our denial of the trade unions as organizations in which cadre should have physical participation has placed us in a similarly sterile situation in regards to Chicago teachers. In our “Lessons of the Betrayal by the Chicago Teachers Union” we downplay and avoid the fact that immediate and real gains were won by Chicago teachers in their strike, namely that almost all grade school classes won’t open until March, teachers have been put on a priority list for vaccinations, and they can opt out of returning if they feel unsafe, though it’ll be unpaid leave.

These gains are by no means enough in granting the security and well being of teachers, but 68% of the membership voted FOR the deal. Had we had forces in the union, actually fighting with the teachers and explaining to them why they must reject the deal, and in its stead advance more radical, aka transitional demands, we would have been able to win further gains for workers and develop real ties to them. It is only in this dialectical process of struggling alongside the working class and against bourgeois consciousness that we will be able to win immediate and practical gains for the working class, and further aid them in the process of developing socialist consciousness.

Instead our policy on this issue has been to advance the demands for workers to join our rank and file committees while breaking from their union activity, thereby we are advancing a sectarian demand calling for the split between workers in our rank and file committees and the workers in the unions. As analyzed by C’s document, the correct, ie. the Trotskyist practice that we should adopt is to utilize both our rank and file committees as centers of organization and education for the advanced workers while developing consistent work within the trade unions to popularize increasingly radical demands and develop socialist consciousnesses with the workers where the workers are.

Our incorrect and sectarian line of the trade unions has now pitted us against militant sections of Amazon workers, who recognize the desperate need for organization and are reacting with enthusiasm to the unionization drive in the BHM1 plant in Bessemer, Alabama. In an article which I have written but now denounce titled “The unionization vote at Alabama Amazon facility”, we are calling on workers to vote NO to unionization despite the fact that it would provide a platform of organization for thousands of atomized workers while initiating a mass union drive in Amazon around the country. Furthermore it would provide a platform for cadre to radicalize workers within the union and build a strong nucleus. In effect by calling on workers to vote NO we are supporting the line of companies like Amazon and Walmart, which recognize that unionization would indeed bring immediate gains to workers and pose a threat to their profits, hence their ramping up of anti-union tactics and propaganda.

The line that we are following runs counter to our document “The Globalization of Capitalist Production and the International Tasks of the Working Class” written in 1993 in which we declared “The party must strive to create new forms of struggle among these workers [i.e. those already in unions], including factory committees and even trade unions, organized independently and in opposition to the AFL-CIO.”

The demands for factory committees within existing trade unions has been completely abandoned, and in pursuit of our “independent rank and file committees” we have abandoned the fight to create new trade unions among unorganized workers, instead advocating for workers to from what are essentially Soviets under the leadership of the party; we are demanding workers to immediately form revolutionary organs ignoring the transitional steps necessary to make this demand effective.

A thorough critique of our trade union line can be found in both C’s critique and the critique of Alex Steiner, in his article “The trade union form and the butchery of dialectics”. We have not responded to Steiner’s criticisms even though they reveal severe weaknesses in our practice that has on the whole been ignored. This is why it is essential for us to seriously discuss our party line and critically analyze the results of our sectarian politics over the past few decades.

2. Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Joseph Kishore spreads lies about an Amazon worker and former party member: The worker responds:

Comrade Batta advised me that this article that appeared on the Permanent Revolution website “is more current and gives a deeper exposure of the SEP.” So, the two together will give you a sense of how a grain of sand can create a pearl of political wisdom although sand hardly conveys the level of irritation the SEP can produce.

April 13, 2021

Literature and Revolution

Filed under: literature,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:55 pm
Albert Maltz: Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art.

On March 21, the NY Times profiled John R. “Rick” MacArthur, a trust fund magnate who is the publisher of Harper’s, a magazine that dates back to June 1850. Like its liberal cohorts, The Nation, The New Republic and Atlantic Monthly that are all over a century old as well, it was at the mercy of deep-pocketed men whose commitment to the left can prove mercurial.

For example, when Martin Peretz owned The New Republic by virtue of his wife’s largess (a heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune), he turned it into a Zionist propaganda machine. When magazine publisher and DP funder Win McCormack bought The New Republic in 2016, many on the left—including me—were delighted to see Chris Lehmann named editor. Lehmann left the bad memories of Peretz behind and turned the magazine sharply to the left, even outflanking The Nation. Only last month it was announced that McCormack had replaced Lehmann with Michael Tomasky, a self-described Tough-Minded Liberal (TLM) who wrote venomous attacks on Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns. So, you are left with McCormack’s whims or that of any other of these rich bastards. As A.J. Liebling once put it, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

I’ve been a Harper’s subscriber for about 40 years now and have generally been satisfied by the content. It has only been recently that I have felt like I’ve been stabbed in the back again. The Harper’s Open Letter stuck in my craw. Even though it did not mention anybody involved with the “cancel culture” by name, it was obviously directed at the left. With signatures from Thomas Chatterton Williams, Bari Weiss and J.K. Rowling, it was clearly aimed at BLM activists, anti-Zionists, transgender rights and any other leftist causes that were supposedly trampling on the rights of people with bully pulpits at the NY Times. Signatories like Bari Weiss, David Brooks, and Michelle Goldberg evidently needed protection from vicious Tweets.

Williams, a biracial contributing editor to Harper’s, and MacArthur worked closely together on this project as was reported in the March 28 NY Times:

And so last July, when another American expatriate in Paris, Thomas Chatterton Williams, was looking for a place to publish a broadside against the “intolerant climate” to which some of the most famous writers in the world — Salman Rushdie, J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, among others — had signed their names, he emailed Mr. Beha. The letter was already finished and approved, but Mr. MacArthur liked it enough to add his name, and Mr. Beha published it in full online.

I should add that despite being editor, Beha would never dare to challenge MacArthur. His boss’s reputation for firing impudent editors is legendary.

Long before the Harper’s Open Letter had appeared, I wrote a brief email to Beha about a Williams column from January 2020 that irked me. Tobi Haslett, a Book Forum contributor, had written a brutal take-down of Williams’s latest memoir that included this barb:

What he cannot grasp is that any effective challenge to white hegemony would have to take place not in the perfumed realm of private choices and elective affinities, but on the harsh terrain of real life: where collective struggle is waged, and wealth is made and spread. Apart from a single glancing mention (in parentheses) of the social democrat Bernie Sanders, there is no serious and explicit treatment of the gap between rich and poor.

In keeping with his steady attacks on the left, Williams reminded Haslett that “Regardless of what progressives would like to think, by this ostensibly commonsensical measure, most black and Latino Americans can be safely defined as conservative.” Now, remind me what it was that Freud said about projection, especially since Williams joined the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as a visiting fellow about a year after he answered Haslett. There he joins Charles Murray, the F. A. Hayek Emeritus Chair in Cultural Studies at AEI, who is best known for writing “The Bell Curve”, a book arguing that since Blacks are genetically hobbled by lower IQ’s, it is a waste of money to fund social programs that benefit them.

Every Harper’s op-ed I’ve seen by Williams since first encountering that one has been a repetition of his basic talking points that are distilled from gaseous 20th century liberalism, not much better than a Max Lerner op-ed from a 1965 NY Post. Mostly, I have ignored them except for my brief complaint to the editor but Williams’s latest in the current issue provoked me into writing something in reply.

Titled “Campaign Literature” and targeting a NY Times op-ed by Viet Thanh Nguyen for calling out poets and fiction writers for avoiding the big political questions of the age, particularly white supremacy, Williams’s goal is to defend art against the propaganda that outrages him. Viet Thanh does not mince words:

My problem with “craft” is not only that it’s not even art, but also that it’s espoused by writers who speak of the labor of craft and the workshop but who generally have no theory of labor, its exploitation or the writer as worker. No surprise that writers without such a theory have little to say about politics, and why the norm for writing workshops is not to deal with politics.

“Colonizers write about flowers,” Ms. Hindi writes. “I want to be like those poets who care about the moon. Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.”

This is my kind of poem.

“I know I’m American because when I walk into a room something dies,” Ms. Hindi writes. “When I die, I promise to haunt you forever.”

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Viet Thanh Nguyen, which was of zero interest to Williams, was his background. He was the son of  Vietnamese parents who fled to the USA in 1975 to escape Communism. As a youngster, he became curious about the war that shook up his family’s life and began reading as much as he could, particularly from the Vietnamese perspective. That led to an anti-colonial politics that remains key to his own fiction.

As is customary, Williams creates a straw man out of a more complex person to his left. He reduces Viet Thanh to demanding that “all writers will have to take up overt activism” when in fact, he simply praises those who take a stand in their writing. He singles out the crime novel for its ability to diagnose the American malaise. “So-called genre literature has been better than so-called literary fiction and poetry when it comes to the kind of critical and political work that unsettles whiteness and reveals the legacies of colonialism. Smart crime writers, for example, are often political because they know that an individual crime is a manifestation of a society that has committed wholesale crimes.”

While not exactly upholding “art for art’s sake”, Williams identifies with writers who write from their own experience such as Ralph Ellison, the African-American author of “The Invisible Man” and his patron saint. In 1963, Irving Howe, a former Trotskyist, took Ellison to task in Dissent Magazine in terms reminiscent of Viet Thanh: “How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?” Williams obviously sees Ellison’s rebuttal to Howe as equally applicable to Viet Thanh Nguyen:

In Ralph Ellison’s coruscating 1964 rebuttal to this well-meaning but condescending account, which unfavorably contrasted both Baldwin and Ellison himself with Richard Wright, he argued against denying, “in the interest of revolutionary posture,” that nonrevolutionary, non-political possibilities of “human richness” also exist, even in terrible circumstances and among seemingly oppressed demographics. To do so, he wrote, is “not only to deny us our humanity but to betray the critic’s commitment to social reality. Critics who do so should abandon literature for politics.”

I had a sense of déjà vu reading Thomas Chatterton Williams versus Viet Thanh Nguyen. When I first began to become radicalized in 1967, I carried a lot of ideological baggage from the Cold War about the West’s cultural superiority. Their artists painted tractors; ours were abstract expressionists. Their writers wrote proletarian novels; ours wrote about the human spirit. It was only the spectacle of B-52s bombing peasant villages that helped me get past my anti-Communism. I’d be okay with the proletarian novel even if it meant achieving peace and self-determination in Vietnam.

It was only after meeting with George Novack in 1967, shortly after joining the SWP, that I began to see that you can have your cake and eat it too. It was the Trotskyists who respected the writer’s integrity, while at the same time leading the fight against imperialist war. George filled me in on the writers of Partisan Review, who had broken with the CP and championed both literary modernism such as the novels of James Joyce and world revolution. Among the most prominent of them were James T. Farrell, the Irish-American novelist who wrote the trilogy “Studs Lonigan”. Unlike the typical proletarian novel that had square-jawed workers fighting the good fight against the bosses, Farrell’s eponymous hero is seen in the final page cursing a May Day parade for the commotion that disturbed the peace he sought on his death bed.

The other was Edmund Wilson, the literary critic that I had some familiarity with from high school days. The school librarian, a one-time leftist herself, urged me to read “Axel’s Castle”, Wilson’s survey of modernist poets and novelists since it had a chapter on James Joyce, whose “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” had become my favorite novel. At the time, I had no idea that in 1931, when “Axel’s Castle” appeared, Wilson had already begun to question the introspective symbolist aesthetic it championed. After two years of the Great Depression, he once remarked to his friends how selfish it was “to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers are taking a beating.” In other words, he was responding to the same kinds of urgency as indicated in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s op-ed.

By 1938, Wilson had hooked up with James T. Farrell and the luminaries at Partisan Review who identified with Leon Trotsky both as a revolutionary leader and as someone who had a dialectical understanding of the relationship between literature and revolution. In the early days of the USSR, Trotsky warned against trying to create a “proletarian” culture. You might even say that he sounded a bit like Thomas Chatterton Williams in a 1923 article titled “Communist Policy Toward Art”:

It is childish to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.

That dovetailed perfectly with the high modernism that reigned at the Partisan Review. This was not to speak of Leon Trotsky’s authority as a leader of the Russian Revolution. Furthermore, at least one of the writers championed in “Axel’s Castle” saw himself a proletarian novelist, even if it didn’t correspond to the CP’s definition. When James Joyce heard about his being disparaged at the Writers’ Congress in Moscow chaired by Karl Radek, he rose to his own defense. In conversation with his friend Eugene Jolas, he pointed out that all his characters, from Dubliners to Finnegan’s Wake, belonged to “the lower middle classes, and even the working class, and they are all quite poor.”

Published in 1938, Edmund Wilson’s “The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subject” was the first major attempt at achieving a grand synthesis. In the chapter on “Literature and Marxism”, he defined the aesthetic that would define Partisan Review:

Trotsky is a literary man as Lenin never was, and he published in 1924 a most remarkable little study called Literature and Revolution. In this book he tried to illuminate the problems which were arising for Russian writers with the new society of the Revolution. And he was obliged to come to grips with a question with which Marx and Engels had not been much concerned — the question of what Mr. James T. Farrell in his book, A Note on Literary Criticism, one of the few sensible recent writings on this subject, calls ‘the carry-over value’ of literature. Marx had assumed the value of Shakespeare and the Greeks and more or less left it at that. But what, the writers in Russia were now asking, was to be the value of the literature and art of the ages of barbarism and oppression in the dawn of socialist freedom?

What in particular was to be the status of the culture of that bourgeois society from which socialism had just emerged and of which it still bore the unforgotten scars? Would there be a new proletarian literature, with new language, new style, new form, to give expression to the emotions and ideas of the new proletarian dictatorship?

There had been in Russia a group called the Proletcult, which aimed at monopolizing the control of Soviet literature; but Lenin had discouraged and opposed it, insisting that proletarian culture was not something which could be produced synthetically and by official dictation of policy, but only by natural evolution as a ‘development of those reserves of knowledge which society worked for under the oppression of capitalism, of the landlords, of the officials.

Now, in Literature and Revolution, Trotsky asserted that such terms as “proletarian literature” and “proletarian culture” are dangerous, because they erroneously compress the culture of the future into the narrow limits of the present day.’ In a position to observe from his Marxist point of view the effects on a national literature of the dispossession of a dominant class, he was able to see the unexpected ways in which the presentments of life of the novelists, the feelings and images of the poets, the standards themselves of the critics, were turning out to be determined by their attitudes toward the social-economic crises. But he did not believe in a proletarian culture which would displace the bourgeois one.

Given Ralph Ellison’s sharp rebuttal to Irving Howe, one might assume that he would be part of the Partisan Review crowd. Ironically, all of his fiction appeared in “New Masses” in the 1930s, the literary voice of the Communist Party edited by Mike Gold, the author of the 1929 “Go Left, Young Writers”, which upheld the “proletarian literature” prevailing in Stalin’s USSR. Gold would have no use for namby-pambies like James Joyce. He was for the 1930s equivalent of Joe Sixpack:

The old Masses was a more brilliant but a more upper class affair. The New Masses is working in a different field. It goes after a kind of flesh and blood reality, however crude, instead of the smooth perfect thing that is found in books. The America of the working class is practically undiscovered. It is like a lost continent. Bits of it come above the surface in our literature occasionally and everyone is amazed…The young writer can find all the…material he needs working as a wage slave around the cities and prairies of America.

Does this sound anything like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s op-ed? Certainly not. Although Thomas Chatterton Williams would have you believe that it was some sort of “cancel culture” exercise that would result in any novelist or poet being expelled from some literary society for touting J.K. Rowling, Viet Thanh has very little power in the publishing world that churns out 25 novels about family dramas in the suburbs  for every one that aims to plunge a stake through the heart of imperialism. The men and women who make decisions about what gets published or not belong to an elite that comes out of the Ivy League and that relies on an old boy’s network. Rick MacArthur decides to hire Thomas Chatterton Williams as a contributing editor since his “color-blind” politics meshes with his own sense of privilege and sanctity (sanctimoniousness might be more accurate.) The same kind of self-selection goes on routinely in publishing. I ran into it at Random House, even if they relied on Joyce Brabner to shit-can the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

This is not to speak of the academic training most writers get today in places like the University of Iowa or NYU. Do you think that writer’s workshops are breeding grounds for Bolshevism? Instead, they are largely responsible for convincing the young aspiring novelist to write about what they know best, like their father’s alcoholism or their first romance, either heterosexual or homosexual. Not something so irrelevant as trying to get a union going at Amazon.

Returning to the Partisan Review, its trajectory after 1940 was to the right. Like some of intellectuals under Max Shachtman’s influence, the editors saw the USSR as a new type of society that was as bad in its own way as capitalism. Once the patriotic fervor over Pearl Harbor kicked in, many of them naturally came to the conclusion that the USA was a model for the rest of the world, a conclusion Shachtman reached in the 1950s himself. So sharp was the Partisan Review’s turn to the right that contributor Dwight Macdonald decided a new leftist alternative to both it and the Stalinist New Masses. He created a magazine called “Politics” that attracted a number of the old Partisan Review crowd that had no stomach for the Cold War. Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson were unrepentant leftists who joined up but James T. Farrell, like Jon Dos Passos, became a raving right-winger.

Eventually, Partisan Review found its métier. Like other literary magazines such as Encounter and the Paris Review, it accepted funding from the CIA in order to promote the Cold War mythologies that had my brain twisted like a pretzel when I entered Bard College as a freshman in 1961. I am not sure when I read it, but I am certain I read Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” at Bard. I was curious to see what the former Bard professor had to say in the highly regarded novel. All I knew about Ellison’s time there is that he used to get drunk at Adolph’s Tavern (as did I) and pick fights with the townies.

I might even find time to read it again just to get a handle on a political current within Black America that has a high-profile character like Thomas Chatterton Williams taking a position with the American Enterprise Institute. Surely, something toxic is at work. But wouldn’t it be more productive to engage with his adversary Viet Thanh Nguyen, who might at least give me an idea of what new writers are about? It has been ages since I have read fiction, after all.

His website offers up samples of his work. I opened a short story titled “Look at Me” that convinced me that Viet Thanh is a writer for our epoch. Son of Vietnamese parents who fled Communism, his story is about an American army veteran sick with cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the war in Vietnam about to take revenge on the executive responsible. It is the best short story I have read in years and proof that literature and revolution are not only compatible but necessary. Never forget, however, what Hollywood 10’s Albert Maltz once said, “Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art.”

February 8, 2021

Ernie Tate’s “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”

Filed under: biography,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume One, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
268 pages. Resistance Books. $15.00

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume Two, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
394 pages. Resistance Books. $20.00

Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The distinctly Scottish burr belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.

It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.

After enjoying dinner with Ernie and Jess that evening, I offered to bring my camcorder over to their hotel room where I would interview them. A decade ago I had begun an oral history project of Trotskyist veterans and Ernie’s reflections on a career as a revolutionary was one that deserved to be recorded, as did Jess’s.

As the camera rolled, the stories I heard from them transfixed me. Over the years I have learned that the lives led by people on the far left are often far more adventurous and dramatic than any novelist could concoct if for no other reason than their Sisyphean quality.

The son of an impoverished Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ernie dropped out of school when he was thirteen years old. Since his only hope for the future was factory work, he was relieved to find a job at a spinning mill where he would find himself in the sort of dead-end, low wage job that was at the heart of the textile-based industrial revolution of the British isles a century earlier.

In a much more low-budget vacation than the one he took in South Beach, a twenty year old Ernie went to Paris in the summer of 1954 to stay at a hostel. When he went out on the street one morning, he ran into an immense parade of trade unionists and Communists carrying banners with red flags and hammer-and-sickles. Dien Bien Phu had just fallen to General Giap and the French left was out on the streets celebrating. Ernie said that this was a transformative moment. As a young worker, he identified with the Vietnamese and the French workers even if he had no clear idea what socialism meant. He was sure, however, that the Soviet Union was on the right side of history.

Jess had her own amazing stories to tell, the most memorable of them involving her role in transporting money on Robert Williams’s behalf to his followers in the USA. When she was in Cuba as part of a delegation organized by the Canadian Fair Play for Cuba Committee, she had come into contact with the NAACP leader who had fled trumped-up charges of kidnapping a white couple. Williams’s real crime was to organize armed self-defense squads against KKK terror in North Carolina. Given the American Trotskyist campaign to defend Williams, he felt confidence enough in Jess to entrust her with substantial sums. Of course, given the high security alerts around Williams, she was taking a chance that she too might have ended up on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list.

A year or so later I learned that the stories Ernie related to me that day came to him with surprising fluency because at the time he was immersed in the research that would culminate in the publication of a two-volume memoir titled “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”, one that is filled with such tales and, as I am sure Ernie would admit, of a Sisyphean character. For us, as it was for Max Horkheimer who put it memorably, “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

That being said, much of Ernie’s memoir can be described as a joy ride through history. As I related to him midway through reading it, it reminded me—despite myself—of the good times I enjoyed when I was out on the streets selling socialist newspapers. There’s very few pleasures, including a room facing the ocean on South Beach, that can compete with the ones you experience as a committed revolutionary secure in the knowledge that you are part of a movement challenging a capitalist class that is a threat to the survival of humanity and all life on earth.

Trying to escape the brutal poverty in Belfast, Ernie immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1955 where he ran into Ross Dowson at the Labour Bookstore that was the headquarters for the tiny Trotskyist movement in Canada. Dowson was something of a hair shirt, leading a monk-like existence at the bookstore, where he hoped to replenish a movement that had been hollowed out by the witch-hunt. He lived in a tiny apartment in the back of the bookstore that did not even have a shower or bath. Over the years when he became a full-timer for the party, Ernie learned that Dowson was determined to make everybody live by his norms, even when it posed risks to their health and morale.

Of course, when you are young and full of enthusiasm for the imminent victory of the socialist revolution (Ernie thought that the revolution would take place no later than 1960), you are willing to make all sorts of sacrifices. For Ernie and a small cadre of adventurers, this meant going on newspaper and literature sales campaigns across Canada in rickety vans, one of which was a converted poultry truck that retained a fowl odor (pun intended) no matter how many scrubbings with strong disinfectants had been applied.

After a decade in the Canadian party, Ernie accepted an assignment to move to London where he would try to establish a Trotskyist party. Like the Americans whose orientation had a major influence on the Canadians, this meant placing a major emphasis on building the Vietnam antiwar movement and recruiting activists who had become radicalized through the protests. That was how I became a member of the American movement myself. After learning that the SWP was spearheading the antiwar movement, I decided that this was where I belonged.

For Ernie, this meant working closely with the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation that had established a Vietnam International War Crimes Tribunal. For a public anxious to learn about the origins and nature of an imperialist war that sought to turn the clock back to before 1954, this was in effect a European version of the teach-ins taking place in the USA. It was Ernie’s chance to turn the tide of history back to that summer when he was radicalized by the mass celebrations in the streets of Paris. A new victory would take place in the 1970s, finally establishing the right of Vietnamese to determine their own destiny.

Working with Bertrand Russell meant working with Ralph Schoenman, who was Russell’s secretary and who spoke in his name. At the time many people had a suspicion that given Russell’s advanced years it meant that directives issued in his name were actually traceable to Schoenman who some regarded as a Svengali taking advantage of a nonagenarian. Ernie makes a convincing case that Russell was intimately involved in the workings of the Tribunal and spoke entirely for himself even if he was forced sometimes by old age and infirmity to keep a low public profile.

The portraits of Russell and Schoenman are carefully etched in the memoir, the former coming across as a moral exemplar committed totally to the liberation of the Vietnamese people and the latter a force of nature confronting all sorts of obstacles standing in the way of the Tribunal. Reading Tate is a reminder of how difficult it was in the early years of the antiwar movement to establish the legitimacy of a war crimes tribunal. Charles De Gaulle, despite his reputation for being a thorn in Uncle Sam’s side, was hostile to it as was the Swedish government. As Schoenman was storming heaven and earth to establish its right to exist against elite resistance, he had to face all sorts of internal problems some of which were of his own doing. Prickly personalities serving on the tribunal were frequently at each other’s throats, including Jean Paul-Sartre who was all too ready to take offense even when it seemed that he was someone most prone to giving it.

As a kind of moderating influence, Isaac Deutscher’s role was indispensable. As one of the most respected Marxist scholars in the world and a journalist whose insights were respected universally, his background in the internecine struggles of the Trotskyist movement prepared him for resolving disputes within the tribunal, often conferring with Ernie Tate on how to deal with what appeared to be intractable problems.

In the course of consulting with Deutscher, a friendship developed. Despite having established himself as a revolutionary organizer and activist with a good command of his movement’s theory, Ernie was always aware of his working-class roots and somewhat capable of being intimidated by the intellectuals his work with the tribunal brought him into contact with. In my favorite passage in the memoir, he recounts a discussion with Deutscher that conveys in a few words the tension that often exists on the left between the intellectual and the worker-activist:

I remember once when he made a few disparaging comments in my company about the Fourth International, that I took to be a questioning of its very existence and which got my back up a little, I faced him directly on the issue, sort of poking fun at what he was saying. I posed a hypothetical situation to him, that of an imaginary apolitical young worker, who after reading a Deutscher book, for example, might become convinced of the need for socialism and shows up on Deutscher’s doorstep to ask him advice about what he, the young worker, should do to help bring about this fundamental change. For me, I said, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment because from what I knew from history, without their own organization, workers won’t get anywhere and I would tell the young worker to join my group as the first step in trying to build such an organization which could help lead workers in transforming society. What would you tell the young worker? I asked him, and I knew I was appealing to his background as an active revolutionary leader, of which I knew he felt proud. Momentarily, he looked a little bit non-plussed, probably thinking that I had a bit of a nerve challenging him like that, but he came back, surprisingly, saying he would recommend the same thing. Better that than nothing, he said, in a sort of backhanded compliment.

After his work with the tribunal was finished, Ernie turned his attention to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign whose most prominent spokesman was Tariq Ali. Ernie’s memoir makes an interesting contrast with Ali’s “Street Fighting Man: an autobiography of the Sixties”, a very lively memoir that unsurprisingly puts the celebrated author in the foreground.

Perhaps because of his humble background, Ernie chose to downplay his own role and personality. You will find very little of the self-regard that goes into most autobiographies by veterans of the Trotskyist movement that was most egregiously on display in Irving Howe’s “A margin of hope: An intellectual autobiography”. For Ernie Tate, the real interest is in the personalities he encountered over a fifty-year career in the movement, for whom he retains considerable affection even when they were driving him a little crazy.

For someone like me or for veterans of the broader socialist movement, the memoir will be richly rewarding since it is a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful account of the revolutionary life. With his dry sense of humor and a perfect grasp of the psychology of his subjects, reading Ernie Tate delivers the pleasure that will never be found in fiction, especially in a period of history when the novelist is trained at places like the University of Iowa writers workshop to focus on personal and family matters.

For young people coming around the radical movement today who are trying to figure out what to do next in a period of deepening reaction, the memoir is a reassuring testimony to how a mass movement can erupt when a people has decided that it can no longer endure existing conditions. If the mid-50s had the advantage of an actually existing socialism in Russia, China and Eastern Europe, we are in a period that lacking such “liberated territories” at least leads to the conclusion that capitalism no longer has the ability to satisfy the basic needs of millions—perhaps billions—of people demanding their place in the sun. For them, just as was the case for Ernie Tate in 1954, the need for revolution is more urgent than ever.

October 6, 2020

The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today

Filed under: Argentina,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Not long after I praised Left Voice and one of its editorial board members Juan Cruz Ferre in an article titled “Marxist alternatives to Jacobin”, Juan asked for my opinions on a video that his comrades in Argentina made titled “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today”. What I am going to write in this article might surprise Juan, who surmised that “we have strong political differences, in particular with regards to the ‘Leninist’ organization.”

In fact, we don’t have “strong political differences” as far as I know, except for my support for Howie Hawkins’s presidential campaign and objection to Left Voice editor Nathaniel Flakin’s belief in the revolutionary potential of looting and arson, which is admittedly widespread on the left. Most everything else that Left Voice publishes is right on the money. For example, I just cross-posted Nathaniel’s “Could Hitler Have Been Stopped by Voting for the ‘Lesser Evil’?” to FB and Marxmail. He draws exactly the same conclusions that I drew in a 2016 article titled “Misusing German history to scare up votes for Hillary Clinton”.

Indeed, there’s not a single word in “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today” that I would take exception to. Almost everything I write reflects the education I got in the SWP even if indirectly. For example, although Juan endorses the Brenner thesis, I rejected it on the basis of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development that attempted to explain the contradictory nature of Czarist Russia, where feudal-like conditions in the countryside stood side-by-side with some of the most technologically advanced factories in the world. I simply applied that to the 16th century, when the nascent capitalist system in Europe relied on pre-capitalist modes of production to “take off”. Marx deals with this in chapter 31 of V.1 of Capital, after all. If Juan agrees with Brenner that capitalism developed in the British countryside and diffused to the rest of the world, who am I to quibble? Charles Post, another Trotskyist thinker, agrees with him as do many others. This should not get in the way of uniting around more important questions of how to overthrow capitalism today.

I would say that even on more contemporary questions where we differ, it boils down to how we apply Trotsky’s Marxism rather than on whether or not we are Trotskyist. (I am no purist, of course. Bukharin is my go-to guy on ecology.) As Juan told me, his group in Argentina split from Nahuel Moreno’s group over the Turkey-Armenia genocide. You can bet that both sides defended their stand on the basis of what Trotsky wrote. That’s fairly typical of the Trotskyist movement. Jeff Mackler, who recruited me to the Trotskyist movement in 1967, is an ardent supporter of Bashar al-Assad, while I have written over 250 articles denouncing Assad. It’s all a matter of interpretation.

Back in 1981, when I began working with Peter Camejo to develop a non-sectarian current in the USA, he told me that the most difficult question is how to define the parameters of a revolutionary organization. Some things would be obvious, like not backing capitalist parties but others were harder to pin down. For example, when I joined the SWP in 1967, anybody who defended Lenin’s “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” would be shunned. But after Jack Barnes decided that Lenin’s theory trumped Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, you had to switch gears and line up with Barnes or else be shunned—even expelled. This has been the practice pretty much since the 1924 “Bolshevization” Congress of the Third International that was introduced by Zinoviev. Since then, every Leninist group has had splits over differences that should have never become litmus tests.

For Trotskyist groups, the program becomes the accumulation of all the party positions taken since its inception. Back in 1967, shortly after I joined, I asked a veteran party member up at SWP headquarters to define our program. He pointed to the shelves in our HQ bookshop and said, “That’s our program.” By contrast, the program in The Communist Manifesto, as well as the German Social Democracy’s Erfurt Program (that Lenin sought as a model for the Bolsheviks), was minimalistic. For example, “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” That’s in the Communist Manifesto. Who could disagree with that, especially now?

I will return to these questions after saying a few things about “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today” that I urge everybody to watch. This is a professionally made and totally engaging documentary that features Juan’s comrades in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and the USA talking about the relevance of Trotsky’s ideas to their country’s past and present. As they speak, you see the most amazing footage of Trotsky from his youth until close to the time of his death that I have never seen before, as well as photographs. In addition, there are also film clips and photos of some of the most important class battles of the 20th century, especially Spain in the 1930s.

There is no question that if Trotsky’s recommendations had been followed, especially in Germany, the world would look a lot different today. Unfortunately, the relationship of forces between the Trotskyist movement on one hand and Stalinism and Social Democracy on the other made this practically impossible. Emilio Albamonte is the leader of the Party of Socialist Workers in Argentina, Juan’s party. In the final half of the film, he quotes Isaac Deutscher who said this was a case of a tiny boat carrying an enormous candle.

Albamonte, who looks to be about my age, tries to summarize the rocky attempts to build a Fourth International without minimizing the setbacks. Mostly, he attributes this to objective circumstances, which is undeniable. After WWII, the Communist Parties became hegemonic because of the facts on the ground of Soviet “socialism” and because an inspiring peasant-led revolution in China had taken place under Communist leadership.

However, the narrow, nationalistic “socialism in one country” of both the USSR and China led to irresolvable contradictions that eventually led to a return to capitalism. A consequence of which included the collapse of pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing parties everywhere. This meant that Trotskyism finally had the possibility of winning workers to its banner by operating on a level playing field.

One can understand the optimism of Albamonte and the young people featured in the film. While Trotskyism lies in smoldering rubble everywhere else in the world, these comrades feel the wind in their sails. If you check the Wikipedia entry on the Left Fraction—Fourth International, you might conclude that they really have no competition. Furthermore, their flagship section, the Party of Socialist Workers in Argentina, dwarfs any Trotskyist group I know of. From Wikipedia:

The Socialist Workers’ Party has presence in several unions. They occupy seats in the leadership of the Buenos Aires subway union (AGTSyP), is part of the joint Multicolor slate that leads nine sections of the teachers’ union of the Buenos Aires Province (SUTEBA), they also were part of the opposition slate in the Buenos Aires Graphic Federation and is part of the union leadership in several graphic companies. The Violet slate (whose members include PTS militants and independent activists) is the main opposition slate within the telephone union (FOETRA), the PTS also leads the opposition slate in the food union (STIA), where it is part of the union leadership within the factories with the largest number of workers. Aside from its presence in unions and guilds, the PTS has an extensive presence within internal commissions and delegates in industrial companies (soapmakers, soda workers, metalworkers, steelers, etc.), services (railroad workers, aeronautical workers, etc.) and state and health workers, etc.

To some extent, this is a function of the historic legacy of Morenoism in Argentina that got a foothold no other Trotskyist party ever achieved. While Leon Trotsky was proud of the SWP’s role in organizing the Teamsters, it never came close to achieving Moreno’s success.

About 45 years ago, I led a faction fight in the Houston branch of the SWP that defended Moreno’s party, which was also called the Socialist Workers Party, rumored to be in homage to our own. The fight was over a working-class mass action perspective versus urban guerrilla warfare. In Argentina, Moreno had competition from Robert Santucho’s People’s Revolutionary Army that was carrying out bold actions such as kidnapping bankers for ransom, hijacking meat trucks and distributing the goods in working-class neighborhoods, etc. When I gave my pre-convention report to the branch, I emphasized how similar we were to Moreno. Like us, he was organizing mass actions. Of course, we were organizing middle-class students against the war in Vietnam and they were organizing factory sit-in’s. Our ties were based on a rejection of guerrilla warfare and not much else.

The bloc with Moreno ended later in the 70s and I can’t even remember the details. He went on to build a group called the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) that like so many Trotskyist groups descended into bitter faction fights, about which I know nothing. When I asked Juan what the fights were over, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s before my time.”

In 1988, the MAS split into 20 different groups, with Albamonte’s being the first to go. I have no idea if he learned painful lessons from that experience that made him and his comrades overcome the amoeba-like tendencies of most Trotskyist groups, but more power to them.

Frankly, nothing would make me happier than to see Left Voice reach a critical mass that would allow them to form a new group that might have the potential to grow rapidly. With the dissolution of the ISO, there is a real vacuum in the USA that is ready to be filled. Given the 1930s-like social and economic crisis that Albamonte alluded to in the film, people are looking for something with teeth in it rather than the gummy DSA. Even if the comrades failed to transcend their Zinovievist origins, they could still play a huge role in the class struggle. The SWP never had more than 2,000 members in the 1970s but you’d be surprised what a steel-hardened, zealous revolutionary group can get done under the right circumstances. Of course, when the 1970s turned into the time of disco, cocaine and polyester leisure suits, we sort of lost our way. Jack Barnes hoped to save our souls through the turn to industry but instead we lost our minds.

September 6, 2020

Harry Braverman’s class analysis of early American history

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Harry Braverman, 1920-1976

In doing some research for an article on Harry Braverman for a major project underway on the left, I wanted to put some of his lesser-known work in the foreground. Even if the Wikipedia entry on Harry Braverman understandably devotes the lion’s share of its entry to his “Labor and Monopoly Capital,” there’s much more of his contributions to Marxism that need to be fleshed out.

Braverman was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in the late 1930s, the youth group of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP). At that time, James P. Cannon’s Communist League of America had dissolved itself into the SP to engineer a left-wing split. In “History of American Trotskyism,” Cannon congratulated himself for carrying out the split that produced the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that left SP a “dead husk.” Braverman’s eventual affiliation with the Socialist Union and Monthly Review were acts that repudiated Cannon’s sectarianism.

Wikipedia has a brief mention of his writing for SWP periodicals as Harry Frankel, a name he used to avoid being blacklisted from industrial jobs long before McCarthyism began. Eighteen of those articles appear along with seven he wrote for The American Socialist, the Socialist Union magazine he co-edited with Bert Cochran. Available on the Marxist Internet Archives, they remain as relevant today as the day they were written. Braverman wrote for a working-class readership but never spoke down to it like some sectarian groups. His talent for combining scholarship with clarity led him to a long and productive career at Monthly Review.

In a series of four articles written for the SWP’s theoretical journal Fourth International in 1946, Braverman examined early American history from a Marxist perspective. Except for the Communist Party’s Philip Foner, scholars from the Progressivist tradition, like Charles Beard, dominated the field.

In “Class Forces in the American Revolution,” Braverman distinguishes himself from Communist Party leader Earl Browder who had proclaimed that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.” You’ll find little of the breathless embrace of 1776 from bourgeois historians like Daniel J. Boorstin, or even leftists like Sean Wilentz. For Braverman, the goal was to identify the class alignments that Boorstin and Wilentz tend to obfuscate in the name of “democracy.”

Unlike the Communists, who created the Jefferson School to honor a founding father, Braverman used the tools of historical materialism to put Thomas Jefferson into context. Braverman quoted Jefferson’s statement when British merchants forced down tobacco prices, they left slave-owners like him in a bind: “A powerful engine for this purpose, was the giving good prices and credit, till they got him more immersed in debt than he could pay, without selling his lands or slaves.”

Braverman wrote, “In this paragraph, Jefferson reveals more of the springs of revolutionary action in his class than in the whole Declaration of Independence.” That’s about as succinct a summary of the American Revolution that you will ever find.

In a follow-up article titled “How the Constitution Was Written,” Braverman examined Alexander Hamilton, the man glorified in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit. He writes that “Hamilton’s system was unified by a single conception: The establishment of the rule of the bourgeoisie.” Dispensing with Founding Father chic, as Ishmael Reed puts it, Braverman saw Hamilton as a man consumed with the need to solidify capitalist rule:

The bourgeoisie stood on a too narrow base, a fact which Hamilton sensed and which he sought to correct by his feverish efforts in behalf of manufacturers. It was not until the middle of the 1840s that manufactures surpassed commerce in the relative composition of the bourgeoisie. In the meantime the opening of the western lands and the admission of new agricultural states to the union increased the weight of the planters. Already during the decade of the great struggle, two new states were admitted who cast their votes in the Jefferson column in the election of 1800.

After knocking Hamilton off his pedestal, Braverman next takes on Andrew Jackson. Sean Wilentz wrote a Jackson biography that downplayed his role as a defender of slavery and a mastermind of Indian removal. While young radical historians such as Tom Mertes took down Wilentz for “Whitewashing Jackson,” when “revisionist” history influenced by Howard Zinn was its peak, Braverman was far ahead of his times for charging Jackson with crimes against humanity.

In “The Jackson Period in American History,” he wrote, “Andrew Jackson became a link of special configuration in the chain of planter Presidents that began with Thomas Jefferson and ended forever with Jefferson Davis. The attitude of this group of Presidents towards slavery was progressively modified as cotton fixed the “peculiar institution” on the South. Thomas Jefferson was a passive opponent of slavery. Jackson takes his rightful place in the progression as an active defender of slavery, as the planters travelled the sixty-year road to Jefferson Davis.”

As for Indian removal, Braverman was an outspoken defender of indigenous rights. He wrote, “It is only necessary to add that when the bourgeoisie, through the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, tried to block the planters from the Indian lands, Jackson paid no heed, saying, ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.’”

Finally, in “Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism,” he offers a critique of Frederick Jackson Turner, a Progressivist historian who argued that the frontier was decisive in American history and that its chief result was “democracy.” Braverman regards this as the heart of Turner’s thesis and stresses that his writings deal mainly with the Jackson era.

Braverman’s goal is to a group of historians who borrow from Marxism at the same time they hurl “envenomed shafts” against consistent and avowed Marxists. They include Charles A. Beard, Vernon L. Parrington, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., and Louis Hacker. Referring to Beard’s claim that Jackson created a farmer-labor democracy, Braverman presents a class analysis that remained consistent through his forty-year commitment to socialist values:

But the historian may protest that the workers and farmers got a hearing in Washington from the Jackson administrations. What of the protection of the land interests of the farmers? The ten-hour laws? The mechanics lien laws? The progress made, especially by the workers, is beyond dispute. First of all, however, it must be understood that such concessions did not directly endanger the planting class, and, for that reason, they could countenance reforms which gained for them national electoral support. Let us recall how John Randolph, planter spokesman in Congress, challenged the bourgeoisie: “Northern gentlemen think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves.”

August 24, 2020

Thoughts triggered by the 80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s assassination

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

This week a number of links to tributes to Leon Trotsky showed up on my Facebook timeline. Most came from groups still dreaming about the possibility of a new Trotskyist international. They were occasioned by the eightieth anniversary of his assassination on August 21, 2020.

In a New Politics article inspired by the anniversary, Dan La Botz posed the question “On the 80th Anniversary of Trotsky’s Assassination—What If He Had Lived?” Since Dan has just published a novel “Trotsky in Tijuana” was his “attempt to understand Trotsky the man and the political leader by projecting his life into a future he did not live to see.” These are the sorts of questions La Botz said he grappled with in the novel:

In my novel, I ask more particular questions both political and personal: What would have become of Trotsky if he had survived and lived in Tijuana for the next thirteen years? How would he have analyzed the Second World War and how would he have explained the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler’s Germany? What would he have thought of the expansion of the Communist system to Eastern Europe? Seeing the stress he was under, might his wife Natalia have sought a Freudian, Reichian psychoanalyst to work with him? Might Trotsky have had another love affair like his earlier affair with the artist Frida Kahlo? What would have happened to his project, the creation of a Fourth International and its fractious national sections and strong-willed leaders? How would he deal with aging?

I never thought much about these questions before, partly because “alternate history” type fiction along the lines of “If Hitler Had Won WWII” don’t interest me that much. I passed on Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”, which imagines a world in which a victorious Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the world. My focus is exclusively on the past and the present. My only concern about the future is whether we will make it to the year 3,000 given the insanity of the capitalist system in what Trotsky accurately described as the “death agony of capitalism”, the original title of The Transitional Program.

If Trotsky had trouble enough in trying to get a Fourth International off the ground in the thirties, he would have had even bigger problems in the forties and fifties, if he lived that long. Soviet Russia came out the war cloaked in glory after having been instrumental in defeating the German war-machine. For an embattled and isolated Trotskyist movement, hopes tend to be pinned on some cataclysmic event that will push the masses in the direction of a group, no matter how small, that has the “correct” analysis and strategy.

That kind of apocalyptic mentality existed in every Trotskyist group, even in the Socialist Workers Party that had a more secure mooring in reality than others that had less contact with the “Old Man”.

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an “absolute decline” in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution “has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

The choice for the worker’s movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face “savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution.” The workers would rise to the task since it was “in a revolutionary mood” continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky’s conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a “catastrophist nature”. He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky’s catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas’s “Fascism and the Third International” as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their “third period” strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:

…if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes — unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period — then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy — the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need.

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states that “the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not “a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party.”

What was the source of these false projections? “To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.” Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 45.

The “catastrophism” of the Trotskyist movement is built into the manifesto that created it, the Transitional Program. This is the political legacy of Trotsky’s uncritical acceptance of the perfect wisdom of the early Comintern. How could it be otherwise, since at that time Trotsky itself was one of the key leaders. He made it his business to straighten out any wayward Communists, like the French, who stepped out of line. The organizational legacy of the Trotskyist movement is in Zinoviev’s schematic “Marxist-Leninist” model. The ultraleftism of the political roots and the sectarianism of the organizational roots make for a powerful inhibition to growth. As we struggle to create new political and organizational paradigms, it will be important to shed ourselves of such counterproductive models.

April 10, 2020

The SWP and Social Distancing: a Study in Abnormal Political Psychology

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19,cults,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm


In the photo below, dated March 15, 2020, you will see a group of mostly senior citizens defying the call for social distancing. Who could they be? Rightwing Christian evangelists? Libertarians standing up for liberty?

Nope. Instead, you are looking at members of the Socialist Workers Party at a memorial meeting for one of their members who died last month. The Militant newspaper reported that more than sixty people were in attendance. That’s probably about half the membership, and 1,900 less than when I was a member back in the 1970s. What happened to all these people, including me? Most either drifted away or became victims of a purge in the early 1980s when they fought to preserve the party’s Trotskyist heritage. Over the past decade, the dropout rate accelerated mostly as a result of the party adopting increasingly peculiar positions. Of the remaining 100 or so, their activism mostly consists of going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses peddling the books and newspapers of what most would view as a cult.

Was there some sort of death-wish at work in this March 16th memorial meeting? If you are a typical member, there might be some relief in such an outcome. Many have jobs at Walmart despite college degrees and professional past. That in itself does not earn them brownie points with the long-time cult leadership that lives in Manhattan high-rises even more pricey than my own. Under social pressure, members must send in “blood money” to sustain the SWP. Such donations come from the paltry bonuses they receive at Walmart and other low-paying venues. Maybe, in the back of their minds, an end-run on a ventilator would be welcomed as euthanasia.

Continue reading

February 21, 2020

Encountering Malcolm X

Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,Kevin Coogan,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm


Watching the six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” on Netflix stirred up powerful memories of how important he was to my political evolution. While the documentary is focused on exploring the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) role in his murder, it also sheds light on Malcolm’s post-NOI political odyssey. By creating a rival movement to the pseudo-Islamist sect, he risked a fatal encounter with four assassins on this date fifty-five years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Just six weeks before his death, I heard Malcolm X speak at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went with my girlfriend Dian, who was on midterm break from Bard College, just like me. I remember taking a seat about ten rows from the podium and being perplexed by the five or so leaflets on the chair that advertised rallies or meetings geared to radicals. Although I was much more of an existentialist liberal a la Camus in 1965, I was eager to hear Malcolm speak. Little did I know at the time that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a sect I would join two years later, organized the meeting. The Trotskyists placed leaflets on the chairs to draw people closer to the party, an approach that the Internet would supersede just as Facebook would supersede the mimeograph machine.

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December 11, 2019

On John Marot’s peculiar understanding of the New Economic Policy

Filed under: Bukharin,New Economic Policy,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 12:48 am

No, John Marot, he did not “facilitate” Stalin’s forced collectivization

John Marot’s review in Jacobin of Samuel Farber’s “Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy” includes a defense of the New Economic Policy (NEP) based on Nikolai Bukharin being a lesser evil to Stalin’s forced collectivization. Leon Trotsky is also accused as an accessory after the fact:

But neither Farber nor the Trotskyist orthodoxy Farber attacks recognize Bukharin’s faction as the last line of defense against Stalin’s dictatorship, the only alternative to it. Instead, both think the Trotsky and Left Oppositions in the party under the NEP were champions of party democracy, offering viable options to the “rising Stalinist dictatorship” beginning as early as 1923, when Trotsky supported “a relatively democratic opening.”

Like Lars Lih, John Marot has little use for Trotsky. I wrote a much shorter piece on Marot four years ago that might help serve as an introduction to this much longer article.

Unlike Farber, who was hostile to all the Bolsheviks because of their alleged dictatorial methods, Marot sees Bukharin as at least having the merit of defending NEP Russia. If Marot was a Trotskyist, he might have described it as a “deformed workers state” rather than what would become a “degenerated workers state” under Stalin. Trotskyists use these terms to draw a contrast, for example, between Cuba and North Korea. That being said, Marot wouldn’t be caught dead sounding like a Trotskyist, especially for its leader’s support for Stalin’s forced march toward industrialization that was ultimately the USSR’s undoing:

The unpalatable truth is that Trotsky and the Left supported Stalin’s eighteen-month-long campaign against Bukharin and his partisans, and the Left Opposition’s backing of Stalin facilitated his victory. Nor did Trotsky’s support for Stalin over Bukharin have anything to do with advocacy of party democracy. It was driven by what Trotsky believed were more important considerations.

The NEP perhaps did not measure up to Farber’s “participatory control.” Certainly, it did not measure up to the gold standard of an “authentic socialism,” a democratic socialism. That is not the standard by which to judge the NEP. And it understates the self-determination the immediate producers — workers and peasants alike — enjoyed during this period.

For people unfamiliar with the musty annals of Soviet history, you might get the impression that Stalin and Trotsky were in cahoots against the NEP from Marot’s claim that “The unpalatable truth is that Trotsky and the Left supported Stalin’s eighteen-month-long campaign against Bukharin and his partisans, and the Left Opposition’s backing of Stalin facilitated his victory.” The truth is that the Left Opposition had been gagged to one degree or another ever since its formation in October, 1923. By the time Stalin embarked on his forced collectivization/rapid industrialization policies in 1929, Trotsky was in exile and his supporters still in the USSR reduced to scattered groupuscles of true believers in world revolution and socialist democracy. They would have about as much responsibility in “facilitating” Stalin’s victory as my critiques would have if Jacobin ever broke with the Democratic Party. Numbers count in politics. As Stalin once put it, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”

Before evaluating Nikolai Bukharin and the historical forces that made the NEP untenable, a word or two about John Marot might be useful. He is a history professor at Keimyung University in Korea and an acolyte of Robert Brenner, i.e., a Political Marxist. For PM’ers, the transition to capitalism begins with the transformation of “property relations” in agriculture, with a prime example being the introduction of lease farming in England in the 15th century that forced farmers to compete with each other and hire wage labor. The PM’ers tend to apply this criteria to developments prior to the 20th century, like Charles Post’s writings on 19th century America that characterize slave plantations as “pre-capitalist.”

Marot has the distinction of applying the Brenner thesis to Russia in the 20th century. In a distinctly odd fashion, at least among Marxists, he does not believe that there was capitalism. His 2012 book “The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect” puts it this way succinctly on page 2 of the introduction:

Against the party-leadership [i.e., Lenin, Trotsky, et al], I argue that a workers’ state could not substitute itself for the operation of capitalism in the Russian countryside because capitalism was not operating there in the first place. That is the first point. The second point: because the Russian peasantry was not subject to operating in a capitalist manner, it was, perforce, organising its life in a non-capitalist manner. The workers’ state attempt to freely and without coercion effect a transition in agriculture from a non-capitalist to a socialist mode of production had failed by the late 1920s.

Mechanically applying England’s transition to capitalism beginning in the 15th century, Marot views self-provisioning, small farms producing surpluses to the market as “pre-capitalist”. So, even though Czarist Russia had factories larger and more advanced than some West European nations, it still remained “feudal”. One cannot help but wonder how this would apply to South Africa where Bolshevik-like radical land reform would result in millions of poor Blacks ending up with their own small farm producing primarily for their own needs and secondarily for the market. Would that mean South Africa had become “feudal”? It is absurd to even pose the question.

Although Marot viewed “pre-capitalist” farming as the Achilles Heel of the Soviet Union, his Jacobin article appears to shed that belief to some extent. While not exactly concerned with how the USSR could have become industrialized under such backward conditions, he seems to see the countryside as having great possibilities, if not exactly socialist:

The mir, or peasant repartitional commune, managed the political and economic affairs of the peasantry in the villages in much of Russia, and had done so for centuries. Its officers, drawn from older, more experienced peasants, were elected in peasant assemblies, where decisions required unanimity in a great majority of cases. In their own sphere, the peasants obviously had hegemony.

Repartitional tenure assured the equitable distribution of communal land among the peasants, periodically redistributing it when required, a process determined by the greater tendency of those who had large plots to subdivide and bequeath the resulting smaller plots to their male children compared to those who had smaller plots, preventing the formation of an agrarian proletariat of any significance, under the NEP as well as under czardom.

So, if the preconditions for socialism rest on capitalist farming as well as capitalist manufacturing, why not simply allow the NEP-man and the Kulak to reign supreme? As long as the Bolsheviks retained state power, couldn’t the maturation of the “forces of production” pave the way for socialism? This is what Kautsky believed, right? Furthermore, this is how many Maoists account for China’s rapid development taking place.

Much analysis of the NEP has an ideological stamp. For example, you are likely to get a Trotskyist orientation reading Isaac Deutscher and a Bukharinite version from Stephen F. Cohen. Trying to find a scholar without an axe to grind, I came across Moshe Lewin’s “The Immediate Background to Soviet Collectivization” that appeared in the October 1965 Soviet Studies most helpful. It describes the NEP as a policy that had run its course by 1929. To see it as an alternative to the real unfolding of historical events involves an unfortunate Utopian way of thinking. By 1929, the Soviet state had become a dictatorship run by Stalin, abetted unfortunately by Bukharin—his eventual victim.

In 1927, the NEP had failed to produce the equilibrium between the farming and manufacturing sectors that existed under capitalist conditions in 1913. The state could only collect about half the amount of grain and lacked reserves against war or famine. This meant that workers were going hungry. Despite allowing factories to run on a for-profit basis, manufactured goods were expensive and of poor quality. Since state payments for grain were below the cost it took to produce them, peasants raised livestock or non-food products such as cotton.

There were alternatives to market relations in the countryside but the Stalin-Bukharin dominated state did little to sustain them. Despite Lenin’s belief that co-operatives were essential to socialist development in the USSR, there was little support for them or for state-owned (sovkhozy) or collective (kolkhozy) farms. In essence, the state had a laissez-faire attitude toward agriculture even when it had become clear that the NEP was a ticking time-bomb. It was the responsibility of Stalin and Bukharin to steer it in the right direction but they were asleep at the wheel.

Although you would have little inkling of this from Marot’s article, the Stalin-Bukharin team had begun to move toward the Left Opposition’s positions by 1927. Lewin writes:

About this time, Rykov [ally of Bukharin] had fairly clearly adopted an ‘industrializing’ line. He had accepted not only the need for perekachka (the pumping of resources out of the agricultural sector into industry) but also the principle of priority for heavy industry. He and Kalinin and Bukharin were prepared to limit the activities of the kulaks and to adopt more energetic measures in favour of collectivization. But so far as they were concerned, the objectives were moderate ones only, and any such measures were to reflect a proper degree of prudence.

None of this went beyond the brainstorming phase unfortunately. It only moved to the front burner in October, 1927 during a grain crisis. While Stalin’s assault on the countryside is often described as a war against the kulaks, the capitalist farmers using wage labor, most grain was being produced by the middle layer, the serednyaki. As opposed to the lowest level of peasants that produced mostly for their own needs using family members, the serednyaki were much more like the typical small farmer in the USA that produces for the market. The problem was that unlike American farmers they had no incentive to produce for the market since there were few commodities they could purchase with their money. This was a formula for disaster and certainly not to be overcome within the traditional NEP framework.

Despite Stalin’s decision to move ahead with forced collectivization against Bukharin’s objections, there was little preparation in effectuating such a transition as Lewin points out. Despite Stalin’s reputation as a forceful administrator, there were no signs of any “revolution from above”, as Marot put it, during 1928. The were was only one agronomist for 50 kolkhozy, a ratio similar to the number of doctors per patients in Mississippi. In 1929, top Stalinist leader Kalinin complained that there were zero research institutes relating to collectivized agriculture, whereas there were 30 studying industrial problems.

Instead of taking the kind of approach you might have seen in Cuba in the 1990s after the demise of the USSR, Stalin used brute force against the NEP-men and the better-off farmers. As might be expected, the normal commercial networks were trashed, without anything to take their place. Lewin writes, “In a country suffering from scarcity, the only result was even greater chaos. This was all the more true since this particular struggle, carried on, among other reasons, under the watchword of abolishing ‘pseudo-cooperation’, resulted in the destruction of the handicrafts sector and of small-scale industry, acts of which the regime bears the consequences to this day, and which contributed to a deterioration in the standard of living of the masses.” As the forced collectivization radicalized, the cost to the Soviet economy and its people only grew astronomically. Trotsky wrote about the impact in “Revolution Betrayed”:

Caught unawares by the radicalism of its own shift of policy, the government did not and could not make even an elementary political preparation for the new course. Not only the peasant masses, but even the local organs of power, were ignorant of what was being demanded of them. The peasants were heated white hot by rumors that their cattle and property were to be seized by the state. This rumor, too, was not so far from the truth. Actually realizing their own former caricature of the Left Opposition, the bureaucracy “robbed the villages.” Collectivization appeared to the peasant primarily in the form of an expropriation of all his belongings. They collectivized not only horses, cows, sheep, pigs, but even new-born chickens. They “dekulakized”, as one foreign observer wrote, “down to the felt shoes, which they dragged from the feet of little children.” As a result there was an epidemic selling of cattle for a song by the peasants, or a slaughter of cattle for meat and hides.

Obviously, this turn of events would be opposed by anybody outside of the ranks of Grover Furr and Roland Boer. You have to assume that Marot would have backed Bukharin against Stalin, just as I would. As someone who has written favorable reviews of Bukharin’s more philosophical books and praised his understanding of ecology, I regard him as Trotsky’s intellectual and political peer. Unfortunately, he has a very large stain on his career that explains why he was incapable of resisting Stalin. For most of the 1920s, he had been Stalin’s yes-man and an enemy of Soviet democracy.

While Marot sees Leon Trotsky as an anti-democratic bogeyman lending support to Stalin’s forced collectivization, Bukharin had the kind of power that Trotsky lacked. And what did he do with it? Helped Stalin develop his grip on the state apparatus. This took place on two levels, both ideologically and politically. As a strong supporter of socialism in one country, Bukharin broke with classical Marxism’s emphasis on international revolution. It was this misbegotten theory that subordinated the Communist Parties to bourgeois parties worldwide. It was only through the victory of Communist Parties that could have relieved the pressure on the USSR and made forced collectivization indefensible. Rather than given due consideration to the Left Opposition’s call for permanent revolution, Bukharin did everything he could to make it sound contrary to “Leninism”.

He was not the first to ostracize Trotsky. Before him, it was Zinoviev who sought to isolate Trotsky. He wanted to deflect blame from the German disasters in 1921 and 1923 under his leadership that I have written about extensively. This led Zinoviev to propose the “Bolshevization” of the CP’s everywhere, a tendency that penalized dissidence.

All the “old Bolsheviks” followed Zinoviev’s lead, with Bukharin’s participation made  worse by his inability to conceive of and act on alternatives to the NEP during its obvious implosion late in the 1920s.

Bukharin wrote an article in 1924 titled “The Theory of Permanent Revolution” that rehashed all the old slanders against Trotsky, including the “minimizing” of the peasantry. Referring to Trotsky’s book “1905”, Bukharin takes exception to the assertion that a victorious proletarian revolution would inevitably come into conflict not only with the bourgeoisie but also with the peasantry. Trotsky wrote:

This contradiction in the position of a workers’ government in a backward country, with an overwhelmingly peasant population, can be solved only on an international scale, in the arena of the world proletarian revolution. Compelled by historic necessity to break down the limitations of the bourgeois-democratic framework of the Russian revolution, the victorious proletariat will be compelled also to break down its national state limitations, that is, it will consciously strive to convert the Russian revolution into a prologue of the world revolution.

Bukharin’s objection to making the Russian Revolution contingent on the success of the world revolution in 1924 obviously anticipates the theory of socialism in one country. For that matter, what Trotsky wrote is not that much different from what Lenin wrote before him. In a “Speech on the International Situation” delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, “The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.” Bukharin surely remembered Lenin saying this but forgot to remember in 1924 when he was badmouthing Trotsky.

Bukharin’s article concludes with the kind of polemics that gave Leninist groups a bad name: “Thus, in spite of Comrade Trotsky, Comrade Lenin considered that Trotsky’s theory did underestimate the role of the peasantry, and however much Comrade Trotsky would like to evade the admission of this fundamental and cardinal error, he cannot evade it. One cannot play at hide and seek.”

If this sort of ham-fisted polemics was his only failing, Bukharin would not look nearly so bad. Bukharin was the architect of both opportunist and ultraleft strategies that undermined the revolutionary movement in two nations that had powerful Communist Parties.

If you’ve heard the term “Third Period”, you might associate it with the German CP’s notion of “social fascism”. This meant that the workers had to combat both the Nazis and the Socialist Party, the “social fascists”. It was not Stalin who came up with this insane policy, even though it was often tied to him. Instead, it was Bukharin who made a speech in 1927 that alluded to a “third period” in which a new approach to the SP was necessary. No longer would there be a united front of the kind that Lenin proposed in 1921 after the March Action debacle in Germany. Instead, there would be a “united front from below” that was of course impossible to carry out given the CP’s sectarianism. While it would be an overstatement to say that Bukharin’s ideas gave birth to the CP’s support for a “red referendum” sponsored by the Nazis that would remove an SP governor, it certainly didn’t help.

This ultraleft turn was the result of a disaster in China that was the product of Stalin and Bukharin’s opposition to the theory of the permanent revolution. Like all the “old Bolsheviks”, except those that agreed with Trotsky, this was a stagist conception that nearly upended the Russian Revolution when Lenin’s April Theses seemed to contradict long-held Bolshevik policies. Once Trotsky was isolated due to repeated attacks by Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev and Bukharin, it was much easier to apply “stagist” concepts to the colonial revolution, especially in China where the CP was instructed to subordinate itself to Chang Kai-shek. Just a few weeks before the massacre Chang Kai-shek unleashed against the CP in China, the Kuomintang was invited to join the Comintern. Bukharin wrote what amounted to an invitation:

What is essentially new and original is that now the Chinese revolution already possesses a centre organised into a State power. This fact has enormous significance. The Chinese revolution has already passed the stage of evolution in which the popular masses struggle against the ruling regime. The present stage of the Chinese revolution is characterised by the fact that the forces of the revolution are already organised into a state power; with a regular disciplined army … the advance of the armies, their brilliant victories … are a special form of the revolutionary process.

Given the disasters in China and Germany, the Stalin-Bukharin team was anxious to muzzle the Left Opposition since an open discussion might result in them being demoted from their lofty posts. Isaac Deutscher describes Bukharin’s fury directed against any criticisms from these quarters:

None, however, excelled Bukharin. Only a few months earlier he still appeared to be in amicable intercourse with Trotsky. Now he stood by Stalin’s side, as Zinoviev had stood there two years earlier, an assailed the Opposition with reckless virulence, exulting in its plight, brag threatening, inciting, sneering, and playing up to the worst elements in the party. The kindly scholar was as if transfigured suddenly, the thinker turned into a hooligan and the philosopher into a thug destitute of all scruple and foresight. He praised Stalin as the true friend of the peasant smallholder and the guardian of Leninism; and he challenged Trotsky to repeat before the conference what he said at the Politbureau about Stalin “the gravedigger of the revolution”. He jeered at the restraint with which Trotsky had addressed the conference, a restraint due only to the fact that the party had “seized the Opposition by the throat”. The Opposition, he said, appealed to them to avert the ‘tragedy’ that d result from a split. He, Bukharin, was only amused by the warning: “Not more than three men will leave the party—this will be the whole split!”, he exclaimed amid great laughter. ‘This will be a farce not a tragedy.’ He thus scoffed at Kamenev’s apology:

When Kamenev comes here and … says: “I, Kamenev, have joined hands with Trotsky as Lenin used to join hands with him and lean on him”, one can only reply with homeric laughter: what sort of a Lenin have they discovered! We see very well that Kamenev and Zinoviev are leaning on Trotsky in a very odd manner. (Prolonged laughter and applause.) They “lean” on him in such a way that he has saddled them completely (giggling and applause), and then Kamenev squeals: ‘I am leaning on Trotsky’. (Mirth.) Yes, altogether like Lenin! (Laughter.)

A year later, Trotsky would be expelled from the party and exiled to Alma Alta. Soviet cops would drag him to the train awaiting his departure. Whatever he wrote in critical support of Stalin’s rapid industrialization (that he would just as rapidly repudiate as soon as he saw where it was going), Trotsky lacked the power to change the course of the NEP. After seven years of demonization, anybody regarded as a Trotskyist would have to endure the indifference, or in the worst case, hostility of the Soviet masses that a state-controlled media and broad administrative support could engender.

Just before his exile, Trotsky spent the day in Moscow on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution accompanied by Kamenev and Nikolai Muralov, a member of the Left Opposition who Stalin had executed during the Great Terror. At Revolution Square, he attempted to give a speech to workers advancing to the Lenin Mausoleum (something Lenin would have never approved.) Deutscher describes the reaction:

At once policemen and activists assailed him. Shots were fired. There were shouts: “Down with Trotsky, the jew, the traitor!” The windscreen of his car was smashed. The marching column watched the scene uneasily, but moved on.

Bukharin helped to create the atmosphere that made this kind of reactionary behavior possible. It also helped to forestall any possibility that a viable NEP could have been created since it was obvious that by 1927 conditions had degenerated to the point that careful and respectful discussion between Communists was impossible. Stalin was well on his way to ruling the Soviet Union like Genghis Khan, as a chastened Bukharin would put it to Trotsky.

One can understand why John Marot would be supportive of the idea of the NEP persisting well past 1927. The problem is that material forces determine history, not ideas. By 1927, Stalin had accumulated all the power he needed to move forward with a disastrous policy. Through his ideological bias against Leon Trotsky, Marot has done Marxism a disservice. I urge readers of this article to read Trotsky’s Platform of the Joint Opposition that will shed light on his views about the NEP and other hotly contested matters. Although I have long ago rejected the idea of a Trotskyist movement, I find Trotsky’s writings indispensable.


October 11, 2019

Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Jewish question,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

Recently, Pluto Press came out with Nathaniel Flakin’s “Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers.” It pays tribute to another Jewish Trotskyist who displayed incredible heroism and dedication to proletarian internationalism. Like Leon, Monath was a left Zionist starting out, but became convinced that Zionism was a hopeless illusion. And like Leon, he was caught by the Gestapo in his youth and died at their hands.

Flakin has performed a yeoman’s service by digging through archival materials, the few letters that Monath wrote, and memoirs by his contemporaries to help bring this obscure figure to life. While there is virtually nothing in this biography that refers to the current period, we cannot help but consider the parallels to Trump, Orban, and Modi’s persecution of the “other”. If being a revolutionary in 1941 France or Belgium required enormous courage, there are other difficulties we face today. We have few worries about being hauled off to a torture chamber in countries like the USA or England. Instead, we have to swim upstream to defend a revolutionary socialism that has become unfashionable. Our problem is indifference rather than repression. We are grateful to Nathaniel and his comrades at Left Voice for having the iron will so necessary to defend the ideas of Karl Marx in a period when the spirit of compromise and pragmatism infect so much of the left.

The first paragraph of Flakin’s Introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book:

It is late 1943 in Brittany in north-western France. For three years the population has been suffering under the Nazis’ increasingly brutal occupation regime. In the city of Brest, however, there are astounding scenes of fraternization: Young French workers and equally young German soldiers greet each other with raised fists. An illegal newspaper reports from Kerhuon, ten kilometers from Brest: “On August 6, German soldiers marched through the city and sang the Internationale,” the anthem of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Between 25 and so German soldiers from the Brest garrison had organized themselves into illegal internationalist cells. They obtained identification cards and weapons for the French resistance. They felt so confident that they began to ignore the basic rules of conspiracy. They met in groups of ten. “It was madness,” recalled their comrade Andre Calves, decades later.

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