Use reason, not expulsions, to defeat anti-Semitism in our movement

May 15, 2016 at 3:49 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, labour party, left, Marxism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", reformism, stalinism, trotskyism)

Three more councillors suspended from Labour day before electionsJackie Walker was suspended pending an investigation

We republish below, a new piece by Sean Matgamna, the person who has done more than any other individual to force the question of anti-Semitism onto the agenda of the British left.

As usual with Sean, it’s a balanced and well-reasoned piece that takes full account of the political context in which comments are made, and he is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

But I personally think he’s wrong in simply dismissing as unreasonable, concerns about Jackie Walker’s Facebook comments. I can agree that her comments should not have been dealt with by disciplinary action, but they were not unproblematic. As Sean doesn’t quote Walker’s comments, I will:

“As I’m sure you know, millions more Africans were killed in the African holocaust and their oppression continues today on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews …

“Many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. So who are victims and what does it mean? We are victims and perpetrators to some extent through choice”

I would ask, what is the relevance of Jewish slave-traders in the 17th century to anti-semitism today? I genuinely don’t understand what point Jackie was trying to make.

That may be partly because I haven’t seen the whole conversation the comments were part of, but could someone explain what the point was? The only interpretation I can see is that the role of Jews in slavery somehow mitigates anti-semitism today. If that’s not the point, then what was it? I’d be very happy to have it explained.

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Mobilise reason to fight anti-Semitism
By Sean Matgamna

Jackie Walker, a woman of mixed African-Jewish background, and vice-chair of the Labour Party’s left-wing group, Momentum, has been suspended by the Labour Party on grounds of anti-semitism. The charge of anti-semitism is based on a fragment of a Facebook conversation from some months ago. Her anti-semitism consisted in the statement that Africa too had experienced a Holocaust.

The Labour Party now has a regime of capricious and arbitrary instant exclusions. This paper and its predecessor Socialist Organiser have argued that anti-semitism in the labour movement needs to be rooted out. But this Red-Queen-in-Alice-in-Wonderland off with their heads regime is not the way to do it.

For decades, from Israel’s June 1967 Six Day War and with renewed energy after the 1973 Yom Kippur Israeli-Egyptian war, hostility to Israel has been a major, and seemingly ever-growing, force in the labour movement and in the Labour Party. Some of that is a just hostility to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But there is more than that. There is often a blatant anti-semitism.

In June 1967 Israel occupied that part of pre-1948 Palestine which the United Nations partition plan of 1947 had designated for an independent Palestinian state, to exist side by side with Israel. That Palestinian territory had been occupied and annexed in 1948-9 by Jordan and Egypt, and a small part of it by Israel. Now all of pre-war Palestine and Gaza was under Israeli control. Various Israeli offers to vacate the newly conquered territories in return for peace and recognition by the Arab states were rejected. Israel’s occupation of that Palestinian land has so far lasted half a century. It has turned Israel into a regional imperialist power (in the sense that Marxists had called the pre-World-War-2 Czechoslovakian, Polish, and Yugoslav states imperialist: they ruled over minority peoples repressed to various degrees by the Poles, Czechs, Serbs).

Israel has been a grubby and brutal imperialist power in its treatment of the Palestinians. As with any other imperialist occupation, Marxists have demanded that the occupying power, Israel, get out of the Arab-majority territories and allow the Palestinians to have their own state there. That there were special problems was not to be denied. In 1967, no Arab state recognised Israel’s existence, or its right to continued existence. Only the PLO and a couple of states, Egypt and Jordan, do so, even today. The PLO before the June 1967 war had been controlled by Egypt and fronted by Ahmad Shukeiri, who proclaimed the PLO’s objective in the slogan: drive the Jews into the sea.

This was altogether too reminiscent of Hitler, then only twenty years dead. Any taint, approximation to, or suggestion of anti-semitism was still held to be unclean politics, far outside what was acceptable to labour-movement people. But with an enormous exception: the Stalinist movements everywhere had spent the years from 1948-9 to 1953 in a scarcely-disguised anti-semitic clamour against “the Zionists” and against Israel.

In Stalinist show trials in Russia’s satellite states in Eastern Europe, such as the Czech Slansky trial of 1952, recently-prominent Stalinists accused of all sorts of treasons were indicted above all as being Zionists. They were jailed, and some hanged. The Stalinist parties everywhere conducted large-scale propaganda against Zionism. It was then that the assertion that the Zionists were tools, and political and moral accomplices, of Hitler and the Nazis, appeared and went into circulation. In the USSR, a projected show trial of Jewish doctors who had attended the leading Stalinists was set in train. It was abandoned when Stalin died in March 1953. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin in 1956, and his anti-semitism suddenly became a matter of public record. Many Jews left the Communist Parties. Stalinist anti-Zionist anti-semitism was banked down. But not everywhere. Open anti-semitism became a force in Poland as late as 1967-8.

The orthodox Trotskyists, including the Palestinian Trotskyists, declared themselves against both sides in the Israeli war of independence in 1948. The Workers Party in the USA supported Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Naturally, Trotskyists denounced the Stalinist anti-semitic campaigns of 1948 to 1953. In 1956 and after, its anti-semitism was part of their denunciation of Stalinism. How did those attitudes turn into fervent support for the Arab states against Israel? What were the political processes by way of which much of what had been official Stalinist doctrine in 1948-53, denounced as anti-Semitism by the orthodox Trotskyists, came to be fervently accepted and propagated by them?

The objective basis for it was the fact and the accompanying brutalities of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian-majority territories. Its subjective basis was the peculiar version of anti-imperialism which the Trotskyists adopted from the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 onwards, an anti-imperialism coloured and sculpted by the belief that in the colonial and semi-colonial world the Stalinists were, by virtue of their militancy against the US and its allies, leading the first stage of an anti-capitalist and essentially working-class world revolution.

Thus the orthodox Trotskyists came to be impassioned defenders and advocates of one of the great imperialist blocs contending for mastery in the world. They made criticisms of Stalinism, but never allowed them to affect the basic commitment to ” defend” the USSR and its spawns and replicas. The same sort of anti-imperialism was brought to bear on the antagonisms between Israel and the Arab states. The anti-colonial movements in the Arab world were construed as part of an”Arab Revolution”, which in turn was part of the “Colonoial Revolution which was part of the world revolution. The Grant tendency (later Militant, and today the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) even discovered in 1965 that Ba thist (non-Stalinist) Syria had in thhis historical process become a “deformed workers state”.

Israel, which after 1967, though not before, became closely allied with the USA, was part of the imperialist bloc. The Palestinians and the Arab states, such as Nasserite Egypt, opposing Israel were part of the progressive anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist bloc. And of course the Palestinians facing the superior might of Israel naturally attracted the reflex sympathy and support of socialists.

The Trotskyists shift from their attitude in the 1948 war and after was first a shift to a new denial that Israel was a historically legitimate state. From the end of Arab-Israeli hostilities in 1949, the Trotskyists had taken the existence of Israel as a fact. When in 1956 Israel joined France and Britain in invading Egypt (the Suez crisis), the Trotskyists properly took sides with Egypt, but did not conclude that Israel, the ally of Britain and France, had no right to continue existing. In the grip of a belief that the” Arab Revolution” was or would soon become socialist, Gerry Healy, the leader of the main British orthodox Trotskyist group, published a small pamphlet on the Suez crisis in which, astonishingly, he threatened that if the Israelis did not change to the right side in the world revolution, the side that the Arabs and their colonial revolution were on, they would soon face a bloody holocaust that would make Hitler’s massacres seem “like a tea party! The organisation that could allow Healy to publish such a thing — what could make the murder of six million Jews in Europe seem like a tea party?– was politically sick; but the same organisation, at roughly the same time, could publish a valuable expose of Stalinist anti-semitism.

The shift to a radical opposition to the existence of Israel came by way of widespread acceptance of the post-1969 PLO proposal to replace Israel with a secular democratic state in all of pre-1948 Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs could live as equals. The PLO no longer shouted “Drive the Jews into the sea”, but, with its seemingly benign proposal for Jewish-Arab equality in a common secular democratic state, it was thereby all the more effective in spreading the idea that Israel was not a legitimate state, that it should never have come into existence, and that it should be put out of existence as soon as possible. Any idea that this could ever be done by Israel agreeing to abolish itself as a state and put its citizens at the mercy of its long-time bitter enemies was ludicrous.

And it was an approach unique to the Jewish state: to no other nation state was there such an attitude. In practice the approach could only mean what Shukeiri’s “Drive the Jews into the sea” had meant: conquest of Israel, depriving the Hebrew nation of national rights, and killing as many Israeli Jews as necessary to do that. A combination of hostility to Israel’s continuing occupation of Arab-majority territories and the pseudo-benignity of the secular democratic state proposal made the formula widely acceptable to people who would never accept the same programme — that Israel was not a historically legitimate state and should go out of existence — presented as the “drive the Jews into the sea” that it was and in practice could only be. Thus the idea of Israel’s historical illegitimacy became widely accepted on the left, including the Labour Party left; and then, what followed from it, since Israel was so unreasonable as to refuse to abolish itself: support for any armed Arab (or, latterly, Islamic, i.e. Iranian) action against Israel.

Not just a proper socialist and democratic support for Palestinians attempting to drive out the Israelis from Palestinian majority territories, but support for suicide bombs against Israeli civilians and for the mouthings and actions against Israel of such as Saddam Hussein. Labour MPs held to such views, and not only honest and well-meaning political fools like the late Ron Brown MP. When in 1994 the soft-left Labour MP George Galloway, on camera, addressed Saddam Hussein, praising the butcher’s strength and in Arabic pledging support for the conquest of Jerusalem, the right-wing Labour establishment left it to the Tories and the press to protest. Galloway’s continued membership of the Labour Party was at that point never questioned, other than that Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity) said that he should be removed as an MP.

And now, under a left-wing leadership, we have a regime in the Labour Party where Jackie Walker, a woman of mixed African-Jewish background, can be summarily suspended for daring to call the long historical martyrdom of Africa, notably the slave trade, a Holocaust equivalent to the Hitlerian massacre of six million Jews. Are such glosses on history now full-blown anti-semitism? Not something maybe to disagree with or question, or denounce, but something incompatible with membership of the Labour Party? The Labour Party that for so long had George Galloway as one of its ornaments?

I repeat: anti-semitism on the left needs to be fought against and destroyed. This paper, and its predecessor Socialist Organiser, have been fighting it within the left and in the labour movement for over three decades. The main fight, however, has to take the form of debate, discussion, political education and re-education. The suspension from the Labour Party of a Ken Livingstone for pretty blatant anti-semitism on the air is just and necessary. The removal of Jackie Walker is preposterous. It is the sort of response in mirror image that the hysterical left in student unions have sometimes employed against those Jews they deem not hostile enough to Israel and thus Zionist and racist.

The Palestinians are oppressed by Israel and therefore are entitled to the support of honest socialists and consistent democrats. Is heated support for the Palestinians from now on to be incompatible with Labour Party membership? Is indignant, or exaggerated, or hysterical denunciation of specific Israeli acts to be branded racist, incompatible with membership in the new Labour Party?

We need to specify what left anti-semitism consists of, in order to debate, educate, and clarify. These, I think, are its main features.

1. The belief that Israel has no right to exist. That is the core of left anti-semitism, though it comes in more than one version and from more than one root, ranging from the skewed anti-imperialism of the orthodox Trotskyists through Arab nationalism to Islamic chauvinism.

2. The belief that Israeli Jewish nationalism, Zionism, is necessarily a form of racism. That this racism can only be expunged if Israel, Zionists, and Jews abandon Israeli nationalism and support of any kind for Israel. That Jews Jewish students, for example can only redeem themselves if they agree that the very existence of Israel is racist.

3. The view that Israel alone is responsible for the conflict with the Arab states (and, now, with Islamic states). The idea that Israel alone is responsible for creating Arab refugees, and is uniquely evil in doing so. In real history about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out in 1948. In the following years the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab territories numbered about 600,000. Israel integrated the 600,000; the Arab states mostly refused the Palestinians citizenship or even the right to work.

4. The claim that the Palestinian have a “right of return”, that is, the right to the organised settlement in Israel of six million people, only a tiny and dying-off number of whom were born in what is now Israel, is one of the many codes for in fact demanding the self-abolition of the Jewish state and justifications for war to conquer and abolish it because it will not accept the demand. It is not the equivalent of free immigration to the UK, or even of mass migration to the UK of millions from Syria, Libya, and Africa. Its equivalent for Britain would be the organised settlement in the country of sixty million people. Socialists should be in favour of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians for compensation and for letting individual Palestinians into Israel. Support for a collective right of return is only another form of the demand to conquer and destroy Israel, if it will not surrender.

5. The idea that the forced migration of 700,000 Arabs was a *unique* evil is also extravagantly wrong. In 1945, about 13 million Germans were driven out of Eastern Europe and German East Prussia. They were driven into a Germany reduced to ruins by wartime bombing, where economic life had seized up and millions were starving. At least half a million are reckoned to have lost their lives in that ethnic cleansing. Only obscure German nationalists now propose to reverse that forced population movement and to drive out the Poles and Czechs who live where Germans once lived.

6. There is a peculiar form of Holocaust semi-denial current on the left. I have never heard of anyone on the left who denies that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis (though, in the nature of things, someone will now jump out from behind a bush wearing a “Hitler was Framed” badge, and call me a liar). What many on the left deny is that this unique fact of history had repercussions that we should at least try to understand, with some sympathy for the surviving Jews and their decendents. On the left the Holocaust is not denied, but it is relegated almost to the status of a “virtual fact”. In truth, the Holocaust discredited all Jewish-assimilationist programmes, including ours, the socialist one. It created the will for a Jewish solution to the Jewish question and for the creation of Israel. There is not to be surprised or scandalised in that. The Holocaust should be appreciated as a real fact of history, with repercussions and reverberations, and not as something outside the history we are all part of, as a sort of side-show, as a two-dimensional hologram rather than the enormously weighty, reverborating event it was and continues to be.

7. The idea that there are good peoples entitled to all rights, and bad peoples, entitled to none. That too is something I have never heard anyone voice explicitly. But it is there as an underlying implicit subtext in the idea that we are concerned with national rights only for the presently oppressed, i.e. in this case the Palestinians.

8. There is no one-state solution. Not through, as now, Israeli domination of the whole territory and Palestinians living indefinitely in a limbo of Israeli occupation, nor through a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” incorporating Israel after its Jewish population have been killed or overpowered by Arab or Islamic states. The only just solution that can serve both Jews and Arabs is two states: a sovereign Palestinian state in contiguous territory, side by side with Israel.

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Ellen Meiksins Wood: Marxist who put class at the centre of her analysis

January 15, 2016 at 4:49 pm (Andrew Coates, capitalism, capitalist crisis, class, democracy, economics, intellectuals, Marxism)

Re-blogged from Tendance Coatesy:

Ellen Meiksins Wood, the wife of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, has died of cancer at the couple’s Ottawa home at the age of 73.

Reports 

She was a noted intellectual figure on the international left, whose studies of class, politics and political ideas influenced several generations of thinkers and activists.

Wood’s writings were thought-provoking and luminous.

She first came to a wide left audience with The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (1986). This was a collection of her intervention in debates, conducted through the pages of New Left Review, and the Socialist Register,  that took place in the wake of Eric Hobsbawm’s famous polemic, The Forward March of Labour halted? (Marxism Today 1978 – expanded in book form with replies from supporters and critics in 1981).

Many left intellectuals not only backed Hobsbawm’s view that the material importance of class institutions in shaping politics was declining with the drop in numbers in the industrial working class, but extended this to question the relationship between class and politics itself.

Post-Marxists began to argue that a plurality of ‘democratic struggles’ and social movements would replace the central place of the labour movement in politics. Some contrasted  ‘civil society’ a more complex and open site of democratic assembly to the alleged ‘monolithic’ vision of politics embodied in the traditional labour movement. In a diffuse way this was associated with the once fashionable idea that “a “post-modern” society dissolved reality in ‘simulacra’. Others claimed it  meant the end of “grand narratives” – or more bluntly, that the ideas of socialism and the Left was splintering so quickly that only a fragmented series of ‘critical’ responses were possible against neo-liberal regimes of ‘governance’.

Wood argued for the importance of class in shaping not just political interests but the potential constituency of  radical socialist politics. Fights over power were at the centre of Marxism and these were part and parcel with disputes over exploitation and the appropriation of the social surplus. The ‘new social movements’, the women’s movement, the rising ecological movement, campaigns for racial and sexual equality, were interlaced with class conflicts. Democracy could not be abstracted from these relations. To appeal, as writers such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe did, to the formation of a new hegemonic strategy based on  relations of “equivalence” between various democratic demands ignored the basic facts about class and power. Like her comrade Ralph Miliband Wood saw socialism as an effort to bring together people around the central issues of exploitation and oppression in democratic organisations that could shape politics. This had historically been the result of conscious action, and this kind of collective work was needed more than even against a very real and growing grand narrative – the reality of neo-liberal economics and government assaults on working people, and the unemployed – in building a new regime of capitalist accumulation.

In academic as well as left-wing activist  circles Wood became known for her “political Marxist” approach to history. This focused on the issue of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and social property relations.  The Pristine Culture of Capitalism 1992  was a summary of this approach. It was also directed against the views of Perry Anderson (Editor of New Left Review) and Tom Nairn (today best known for his Scottish nationalism). In the early days of the Second New Left they had asserted  that the so-called ‘archaic’ British state was a reflection of a an equally ‘pre-modern’ capitalism. They also claimed that the ‘supine’ bourgeoisie – who abdicated political rule to the ‘aristocracy’ (which they claimed continued to dominate UK politics in the early modern period) – had been mimicked by a “supine” working class. In later writings Anderson talked of the need for a new wave of democratic modernisation to bring the country into line with the ‘second’ bourgeois revolution of modernity.

Wood, by contrast, pointed out, had a developed capitalism, indeed it was the most ‘modern’ form of capitalism. Its state form was related to its early advance, and its allegedly old-fashioned trappings – from the Monarchy downwards – had not thwarted capitalist expansion but arisen in relation to needs of its own bourgeoisie. The labour movement had developed in struggle with these forces, not in deference to them.

On all the essential points present-day Britian was no more, no less, ‘modern’ than anywhere else in Europe or in any contemporary capitalist state. Indeed it was for long a template for bourgeois democracy. In particular Wood attacked the claims of Tom Nairn that in some fashion Ukania (his ‘funny’ word for the United Kingdom, modelled on the novelist (1880 – 1942) Robert Musil’s term for the Austro-Hungrian empire, Kakania – shit land) owed its economic difficulties to its constitution.  Economic problems  arose at root from the general contradictions of capitalist accumulation, in a specific form. The problems of British democracy were due to its capitalist character – it is hardly alone in having a Monarchy to begin with – not to the issues Nairn-Anderson dreamt up about its sonderweg.

More widely Wood is known as an advocate of a version of the ‘Brenner thesis’ (after Robert Brenner’s article, Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe”1978). The creation of market relations in British agriculture were considered to be the foundation of modern capitalism. The essential condition was separation from non-market access to the means of subsistence, the means of self-reproduction. Wood argued that it was the capitalist transformation of agriculture, followed by the rise of merchant class expanding these forms through international trade, created the ground of Western capitalism.  It was also responsible for the distinctive state forms that emerged in Britain.

In the Agrarian Origins of Capitalism (1998) Wood summarised her views,

The distinctive political centralization of the English state had material foundations and corollaries. First, already in the 16th century, England had an impressive network of roads and water transport that unified the nation to a degree unusual for the period. London, becoming disproportionately large in relation to other English towns and to the total population of England (and eventually the largest city in Europe), was also becoming the hub of a developing national market.

The material foundation on which this emerging national economy rested was English agriculture, which was unique in several ways. The English ruling class was distinctive in two major and related respects: on the one hand, as part of an increasingly centralized state, in alliance with a centralizing monarchy, they did not possess to the same degree as their Continental counterparts the more or less autonomous “extra-economic” powers on which other ruling classes could rely to extract surplus labor from direct producers. On the other hand, land in England had for a long time been unusually concentrated, with big landlords holding an unusually large proportion of land. This concentrated landownership meant that English landlords were able to use their property in new and distinctive ways. What they lacked in “extra-economic” powers of surplus extraction they more than made up for by their increasing “economic” powers.

Wood’s political stand was firmly within the Marxist ambit. In 1999 she stated (The Politics of Capitalism) ,

…all oppositional struggles—both day-to-day struggles to improve the conditions of life and work, and struggles for real social change—should be informed by one basic perception: that class struggle can’t, either by its presence or by its absence, eliminate the contradictions in the capitalist system, even though it can ultimately eliminate the system itself. This means struggling for every possible gain within capitalism, without falling into the hopeless trap of believing that the left can do a better job of managing capitalism. Managing capitalism is not the job of socialists, but, more particularly, it’s not a job that can be done at all.

The broader  focus on the links between capitalism and state forms continued in her study Empire of Capital (2003). This analysed how the “empire of capital” (rather than the vague ‘globalisation’ or the rhizome of Hardt and Negri’s  ‘Empire’) shapes the  modern world through “accumulation, commodification, profit maximization, and competition.”

Wood’s later works, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2008) and Liberty & Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment  were ambitious attempts to narrate and analyse Western political thought in the light of class categories.

Wood had a profound influence on countless people.

She was a democratic Marxist, a feminist, a perceptive writer and a force for good.

Homage to her memory.

Remembering Ellen Meiksins Wood

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The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism

December 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, literature, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, Uncategorized)


Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.


The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.

______________________________________________________________________

A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ecljgu22im9yfjh/dec-all.pdf?dl=0

Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).

 

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An initial attempt at a socialist and humanitarian response to the Paris massacres

November 15, 2015 at 6:29 pm (capitalism, democracy, Europe, fascism, France, Human rights, humanism, internationalism, iraq, islamism, Jim D, Marxism, Middle East, modernism, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", solidarity, terror, turkey, war, workers)

What follows is a statement drawn up by myself. It is based in part upon the AWL’s statement in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I have not discussed it or “cleared” it with anyone. Critical comments are welcome -JD:

To massacre ordinary workers enjoying a drink, a meal, a concert or a sporting event after work, is a crime against humanity, full stop.

What cause could the Islamist killers have been serving when they massacred 130 or more people in Paris? Not “anti-imperialism” in any rational sense — whatever some people on sections of the left have argued in the past — but only rage against the modem, secular world and the (limited but real) freedom and equality it represents. Only on the basis of an utterly dehumanised, backward looking world-view could they have planned and carried out such a massacre. Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement at least as much as the capitalist ruling class – In fact, more so.

Modern capitalism includes profiteering, exploitation, and imperialism, but it also includes the elements of civilisation, sexual and racial equality, technology and culture that make it possible for us to build socialism out of it.

Lenin, the great Marxist advocate of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, long ago drew a dividing line between that socialist struggle and reactionary movements such as (in his day) “pan-Islamism” [in our day, Islamism]: “Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism.”

We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or even (unless we’re present) comfort the bereaved. What we can do is analyse the conditions that gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed; and keep clear critical understanding of the way that governments will respond. This must not be mistaken for any kind of attempt to excuse or minimise this barbarity or to use simplistic “blowback” arguments to suggest that it is simply a reaction to the crimes of “the west” or “imperialism.”

Immediately, the Paris massacre is not only a human disaster for the victims, their friends and families, but also a political disaster for all Muslims, refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe. The backlash against this Islamic-fundamentalist atrocity will inevitably provoke anti-refugee feeling and legislation, attacks on civil liberties and hostility towards all people perceived as “Muslims” in Europe: that, quite likely, was at least one of the intentions of the killers. The neo-fascists of Marine LePen’s Front National seem likely to make electoral gains as a result of this outrage.

The present chaos in the Middle East has given rise to the Islamic fascists of ISIS, and their inhuman, nihilist-cum-religious fundamentalist ideology.

Throughout the Middle East, the rational use of the region’s huge oil wealth, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and taunt others, is the socialist precondition for undercutting the Islamic reactionaries.

In Afghanistan, an economically-underdeveloped, mostly rural society was thrust into turmoil in the late 1970s. The PDP, a military-based party linked to the USSR, tried to modernise, with measures such as land reform and some equality for women, but from above, bureaucratically. Islamists became the ideologues of a landlord-led mass revolt.

In December 1979, seeing the PDP regime about to collapse, the USSR invaded. It spent eight years trying to subdue the peoples of Afghanistan with napalm and helicopter gunships. It was the USSR’s Vietnam.

The USSR’s war had the same sort of regressive effect on society in Afghanistan as the USA’s attempt to bomb Cambodia “back into the Stone Age”, as part of its war against the Vietnamese Stalinists, had on that country. In Cambodia the result was the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, which tried to empty the cities and abolish money; in Afghanistan, it has been the Islamic-fundamentalist regime of the Taliban. In Iraq the West’s bungled attempts to clear out first Saddam’s fascistic regime and then various Islamist reactionaries, and introduce bourgeois democracy from above, have been instrumental in creating ISIS.

Western governments will now make a show of retaliation and retribution. They will not and cannot mend the conditions that gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which they themselves (together with their Arab ruling class allies) helped to shape. Ordinary working people who live in war-torn states and regions will, as ever, be the victims.

Civil rights will come under attack and the efforts of the European Union to establish a relatively humane response to the refugee crisis will be set back and, quite possibly, destroyed.

These blows at civil rights will do far more to hamper the labour movement, the only force which can remake the world so as to end such atrocities, than to stop the killers.

Public opinion will lurch towards xenophobia. Basic democratic truths must be recalled: not all Middle Eastern people are Muslims, most Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists, most of those who are Islamic-fundamentalist in their religious views do not support Islamic fundamentalist militarism. To seek collective punishment against Muslims or Arabs, or anyone else, is wrong and inhuman.

The first, and still the most-suffering, victims of Islamic fundamentalist militarism are the people, mostly Muslim, of the countries and regions where the lslamists are powerful.

The only way to defeat the Islamists is by the action of the working class and the labour movement in such countries, aided by our solidarity.

Refugees seeking asylum in Europe do not in any way share blame for this massacre. In fact, many of them are refugees because they are fleeing Islamic-fundamentalist governments and forces like ISIS. To increase the squeeze on already-wretched refugees would be macabre and perverse “revenge”.

We must remake the world. We must remake it on the basis of the solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality which are as much part of human nature as the rage, hatred and despair which must have motivated the Paris mass-murderers.

We must create social structures which nurture solidarity, democracy and equality, in place of those which drive towards exploitation, cut-throat competition and acquisitiveness and a spirit of everything-for-profit.

The organised working class, the labour movement, embodies the core and the active force of the drive for solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality within present-day society. It embodies it more or less consistently, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far we have been able to mobilise ourselves, assert ourselves, broaden our ranks, and emancipate ourselves from the capitalist society around us.

Our job, as socialists, is to maximise the self-mobilisation, self-assertion, broadening and self-emancipation of the organised working class.

We must support the heroic Kurdish forces who are fighting and defeating ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq, opposed by the Turkish government. We must demand that our government – and all western governments – support the Kurds with weapons and, if requested, military backup: but we will oppose all moves by the governments of the big powers to make spectacular retaliation or to restrict civil rights or target minorities or refugees.

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Osborne discovers the North … 150 years late

November 2, 2015 at 8:57 pm (economics, engineering, Marxism, populism, posted by JD, Tory scum)

By John Cunningham (also published by Workers Liberty and Solidarity newspaper):

The sham of Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’

It is alarming and deeply disturbing to see that some people, many of whom should know better, have swallowed George “high-vis” Osborne’s fantasy-speak about building a “Northern Powerhouse”.

This is more amazing when you consider that ever since the Industrial Revolution there has always been a “Northern Powerhouse”, and it was the Conservative Party and Thatcher that destroyed it.

Without the coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, engineering and textiles of northern cities like Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Newcastle (to which Scotland and South Wales must also be added), Britain would have remained, as in early Tudor times and before, a rather unimportant European offshore island. Take away the north, and the industrial revolution would have happened somewhere else, with British capitalism ending up a mere shell, reduced to making cuckoo clocks or stuck in an agrarian-based economy.

Instead Britain for a time was the most powerful nation on earth, with a huge empire backed up by the largest navy the world had yet seen. It was no idle boast that Britain was the workshop of the world. Manchester, for a time, became its second wealthiest city. Britain produced over half the world’s cotton, coal and iron and totally dominated manufacturing. Most of this came from the north.

According to an 1835 survey Britain had 1113 cotton mills. Of those 943 were in Manchester and the surrounding region. If today it has become a cliché to say that you can’t buy anything that isn’t made in China, think what the situation must have been like in 1870 when Britain produced 46% of the world’s manufactured goods. In 2007 Chinese products accounted for 17% of the world’s exports. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels penned the Communist Manifesto they wrote eloquently and with admiration for the dynamic thrust of capitalism and the way it had transformed the world (as right wing historians are always telling us, as if they are the only ones to have ever read the Manifesto!).

Yet, it is the north of England, probably more than any other part of the world, that inspired and informed the famous lines “All that is solid melts in the air, all that is holy is profaned”. While Marx wrote Das Kapital in the scholarly seclusion of the British Library Reading Room in London, its analysis, observations and rich detail are rooted in the Manchester of Friedrich Engels.

Clearly Osborne has latched on to the north at least 150 years too late. In a sense Osborne is talking about a phenomenon that has been around for a long time — regional disparities in development.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Stalin’s Englishmen: the lessons for today’s left

October 23, 2015 at 12:31 pm (academe, anti-fascism, history, intellectuals, left, Marxism, posted by JD, stalinism, USSR)

“Why the interest? It’s a psychological detective story. Why should clever men at the very heart of the Establishment, who enjoyed its trappings, seek to betray it? Why did they devote their lives to a known totalitarian regime, abandoning friends and family, ending their lives in lonely exile in Moscow? How did they get away with it given their drunkenness, drug-taking and sexual promiscuity? Are there other spies still to be uncovered?  (Andrew Lownie, International Business Times)

The release of over 400 previously unrevealed MI5 and Foreign Office files provides some fascinating insights into the psychological and personal motivations of Burgess, Philby, Maclean and the rest of the Cambridge spy ring and their associates, as well as the sometimes hilarious incompetence of the British security services. However, the underlying political motivation of these upper class Stalinists who’d started out as genuine anti-fascist idealists in the 1930s, has been evident to astute observers for many years, and carries important lessons for serious socialists to this day. Sean Matgamna describes the political background in this 2004 article:

From left: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby.

In The Climate of Treason Andrew Boyle recounts a conversation which took place amongst a group of young communists in the summer of 1933, in Cambridge. Some of them would become the famous traitors who would be exposed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, after having served the USSR as double agents within the British secret services for decades.

Kim Philby had just come back from Germany, and he reported to his friends on what he had seen. There, at the beginning of the year, Hitler had been allowed to come to power peacefully. The powerful German Communist Party (KPD) could rely on four million votes; it had hundreds of thousands of militants; it had its own armed militia, and the strength to physically crush the fascist groups in most of the working-class districts of Berlin — and yet it had put up no resistance at all to the Hitlerites. It had allowed itself to be smashed, without a struggle.

In the years when the Nazi party was burgeoning, the KPD had refused to unite with the Socialists (who had eight million votes) to stop them; and now that the capitalists had brought the Nazis to power, the KPD slunk into its grave, without even token resistance.

It is one of the great pivotal events in the history of the labour movement, and in the history of the 20th century. The Second World War, Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe the decline and decay of the revolutionary working class movement — all of these things grew out of Hitler’s victory over the German working class movement. Unexpected, and enormous in its consequences, the collapse of the KPD was almost inexplicable.

In fact, the KPD acted as it did on Stalin’s direct orders. Stalin had decided that it was in the USSR’s interests to let Hitler come to power because Hitler would try to revise the Treaty of Versailles and “keep them busy in the West while we get on with building up socialism here”, as he put it to the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann (who he would later have shot).

In Cambridge in that summer of 1933 the young men who listened to Philby’s report tried to make sense of the German events. The Communist International was still denying that any catastrophe had occurred at all, denying that the KPD had been destroyed. It was still playing with idiotic slogans like: “After Hitler, our turn next.” Those who wanted to stay in the Comintern had to accept this way of looking at it. But was the International correct?

More daring than the others, one of the Cambridge group suggested that, maybe mistakes had been made. Maybe they should have fought. Maybe Stalin’s critics — Trotsky, for example — had been right. Maybe, after all, Stalin did not quite know what he was doing.

“No!”, said Philby, very heated. He denied that the KPD had made mistakes, or that Stalin had got things wrong: further, he denied that, where the affairs of the labour movement were concerned, Stalin could be wrong. As the infallible Pope cannot err where “matters of faith and morals” are concerned, so Stalin could not err where the affairs of the left were concerned. He denied that there was any left other than Stalin. “W…why,” the future KGB general stuttered, “W…what-ever Stalin does — that is the left.”

It is a statement which sums up an entire epoch in the history of the left. What Stalin did, that is, what the Stalinists in power did — that was the left! The official accounts of what they did; the rationalisations and fantasies which disguised what they did; the learned “Marxist” commentaries on the “reasons” for what they did; the deep “theoretical” arguments which were concocted to explain why “socialism” in the USSR was so very far from the traditional hopes and goals of the revolutionary left; the codification of Stalinist practice, written over and into the basic texts of socialist learning, turning them into incoherent Stalinist palimpsests — that was now “the left” and “Marxism”. The left was restyled out of all recognition.

A movement rooted historically in the French Revolution, whose drive for democracy and equality it carried forward against the shallow, empty, and false bourgeois versions of these ideas, now championed a tyrannical state ruled by a narrow intolerant elite.

A movement dedicated to collective ownership and therefore needing democracy because collective ownership is, by definition, not possible unless ownership is exercised collectively, and thus — there is no alternative — democratically, nevertheless championed the idea of ownership by an undemocratic state, itself “owned” by a narrow elite, and confused it with collective ownership. Read the rest of this entry »

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Grace Lee Boggs RIP

October 6, 2015 at 8:23 am (Anti-Racism, civil rights, good people, Jim D, liberation, Marxism, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States)

Rest in Power, Grace Lee Boggs

GLB

Grace Lee Boggs passed away peacefully on Monday morning aged 100. We are so grateful for the vision of justice and human connection that she gave us and feel incredibly privileged to have been able to share her story with others [writes her namesake, film-maker Grace Lee]

POV is streaming the film [‘American Revolutionary’] for free until Nov 4: www.pbs.org/pov

JD adds: In her youth, Grace Lee Boggs was a member of the ‘Shachtmanite’ Workers’ Party and a key figure in the CLR James/Raya Dunayevskaya “Johnson-Forest Tendency”, playing a pioneering role in the development of ‘Third Camp’ revolutionary politics. She remained firmly and actively on the left for the rest of her life, though she moved away from Trotskyism, towards (as I understand it) a more “Third-Worldist’ political philosophy and community activism in Detriot, where she and her auto-worker husband lived from the 1950’s. Anyone who knows more about her is welcome to comment below.

New York Times obit, here

A more detailed appreciation from Comrade Coatesy, here

H/t Daniel R

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Matgamna on the two Trotskyisms

September 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, USSR, war)

August was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police (remembered by his grandson, here). Workers’ Liberty is publishing a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna, puts the record of the two sides into perspective:

_________________________________________________________________________


Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.

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You can order a copy of the book here

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Stalinism is the absolute negation of Marxism

August 11, 2015 at 7:42 am (democracy, Guardian, history, Human rights, labour party, Marxism, posted by JD, stalinism, trotskyism)

My old comrade John Cunningham makes an important point (one that needs to be hammered home more often) in a letter published in today’s Guardian:


Above: Serge, anti-Stalinist Marxist

Jonathan Jones (Labour centrists like me aren’t cynics: we’re the left’s only true ethical wing, 8 August) regurgitates, yet again, the tired old myth that Marxism and Stalinism are somehow basically the same. That the one emerged from the other. This is nonsense (as nonsensical as the idea that there is such as creature as a “Corbynite”). The democratic left, the far left, the anti-Stalinist left (call it what you will) in the UK and elsewhere has a solid and honourable record of anti-Stalinism, actually much better and more consistent than either Labour centrists or the right (Labour or Tory). The left’s analysis and critique of Stalinism, through the writings of Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky, Victor Serge, the Critique group in Glasgow, the now defunct journal Labour Focus on Eastern Europe and numerous contributors to the New Left Review (to name just a few of the many voices involved) has been thorough, detailed, nuanced and totally damning.

The centre left and right, by contrast, have had little to offer other than moral outrage, which they were all too ready to drop when circumstances suited them. The left in western Europe has nothing to apologise for in its attitude to Stalinism. As for “the chains of a brutal history”, the left was the first to expose the crimes of Stalin and has fought long and hard to destroy those chains. Stalinism is not a continuation of Marxism, on the contrary it is the absolute negation of it.
John Cunningham
Adlington, Lancashire

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Interview with Kirill Medvedev, Russian socialist, poet and musician

August 2, 2015 at 11:26 am (democracy, Feminism, Human rights, liberation, Marxism, music, Paul Canning, poetry, protest, Russia, stalinism)

From LeftEast:

Yevgeniy Zhuravel interviews Kirill Medvedev (above), a Moscow-based poet, translator, and activist. He is the founder of the Arkady Kots band.

YZ: Can you tell a bit about yourself and how did you became a leftist? It seems that in Russia till recently it was not a common political choice.

KM: I became a self-conscious leftist at the beginning of the 2000s. There is a rather typical scenario for that generation of the Russian left, which emerged mostly from the Soviet intelligentsia of different levels of prosperity. Many of us were still able to spend our childhood under still rather comfortable conditions, so we were able to absorb the humanistic code of the Soviet intelligentsia, and then suddenly found ourselves in the historical hole of the 90s, when this code turned out to be not only redundant, but simply made survival difficult. Some of our parents had believed that shock therapy and total privatisation are the necessary stages on the way to democracy, others voted for the failed Communist Party, and some became quickly disappointed and depoliticised. The new left emerged  from this trauma, but not out of a desire for revanche, but with the feeling that both nostalgia for Soviet times and jolly anti-Sovietism, which brought most of the intelligentsia to support Putin, are dead ends; that if one wants to be a citizen and a political subject, some hard work is required in order to build a new political culture and environment. Sometime during 2003-2004, I started getting an idea that maybe this thankless job—being part of the left—is not the worst way to spend the next decade or two.

YZ: The band that you are a part of is called Arkadiy Kots, after the Russian translator of “The Internationale”. Who are the people in the band, why this particular name was chosen and what musical and political traditions do you follow?

10462453_966785860005098_2077991549690448503_nKM: The name seemed to be appropriate because Kots was simultaneously a poet, a translator, an activist and a sociologist; he wrote a study on the Belgian unions from the beginning of the 20th century. Such synthesis is interesting to us. Oleg Zhuravlev, with whom we founded the group, is a well-known young sociologist, member of the “Public Sociology Lab” collective, which does research on the recent protests in Russia and Ukraine. They just published a book in Russia, which will be released in Holland soon. Nikolay Oleynikov is a member of the renowned art-group “What has to be done?”(Chto Delat?). His work is related to antifascism and gender problems. In fact, in the Free Marxist Press, we published his collection “Sex of the Oppressed”, the discussions of sex and politics. If Oleg brings to the group the spirit of research, Nikolaj the spirit of militant queer carnival. Anya Petrovich and Misha Griboedov are more professionally connected to music: they are practically the musical directors of the group, fighting, for example, with my horrible unprofessionalism. Gosha Komarov, an activist of the Worker’s Platforms, which unites the most workerist (proletarian) part of the left radicals, is a multi-instrumentalist. This is the backbone of the group, we are all convinced communists, but, as it happens, we occasionally end up playing with people who do not share our views, which gives us some openness and a chance not to turn into a sect.

We translate a lot to Russian – from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to old Italian anarchist songs. We write songs based on poems of Russian poets and write our own: “Be Involved in Political Struggle”, “It is not shameful to be a worker” etc., which hide uneasy reflections about our own political subjectivity.

Overall we try to juxtapose maximised aesthetic openness with a clear political message, to get out of the boundaries of the radical left, subcultural milieu. Right now we are working on an album devoted to the history of the worker’s movements, from Luddites to Zhanaozen, with a support of Confederation of Labour of Russia, whose congress we recently opened with our Russian versions of songs “Bread and Roses” and “Power in a Union”, and gave a concert after the end of it.

YZ:You started the Free Marxist Press publishing house back in 2008. How did it evolve? What did you print recently and what are the plans?

KM: It all had started with samizdat (DIY?) books – “Why I am a Marxist?” by Ernest Mandel, Pasolini’s “Communist Party – to the Youth”, “Marxism and Feminism” by Marcuse etc. Later on we started making small press runs at print shops. Producing a book from A to Z—translation, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, distribution – for me personally was an important experience, though a little bit exotic, mixing the spirit of completely unalienated creative work a la William Morris, on the one hand, and the productionism of the 20s, on the other. Being engaged in the material production of a book one gets into a very special relationships with a text which it contains. Read the rest of this entry »

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