Matgamna’s picture of the revolutionary left in disarray

July 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm (AWL, left, liberation, Marxism, political groups, posted by JD, publications, reactionay "anti-imperialism", revolution, Shachtman, socialism, stalinism, trotskyism)

Paul Hampton of the AWL reviews The Left in Disarray by Sean Matgamna

Why is the revolutionary left in such a mess today, despite the economic problems of the last decade, the crises of many neoliberal states, the enormous size of the global waged working class, the potential power of the trade union movement and the signs of revival in left politics? The answers to why the Marxist left is in such a state are comprehensively hammered home in this collection of essays. The book is a tour de force history of the revolutionary left over the past one hundred years. The short answer is: Stalinism.

But the syphilis of Stalinism is not only about the states that were or still are ruled by Stalinists. It is also about how the ideology of Stalinism has taken root even among the anti-Stalinist and social democratic left. Sloughing off this Stalinism is an essential prerequisite for reviving the authentic Marxist left.

Why disarray? Matgamna tells the story of the degeneration of the revolutionary left with great verve. The revolutionary left that emerged from the 1917 Russian revolution was essentially healthy. It had opposed the First World War and arose triumphant to lead the Russian workers to power. These revolutionaries formed the Communist International, a school of revolutionary strategy that by the early 1920s had built mass communist parties made up of the finest working class militants internationally.

The principal blow came with the isolation of the Russian workers’ state, already depleted by three years of bitter civil war and compounded by the backwardness of the inherited Russian social formation. Concomitantly, no communist party was able to lead the workers to power outside Russia.

The result was the bureaucratisation of the Russian workers’ state. The bureaucratic tentacles strangled the organs of soviet democracy, the trade unions and finally the Bolshevik party — the last living mechanism through which the Russian workers could exercise their rule. The Stalinists “revolution from above” defeated the Left Opposition, imposed forced industrialisation and collectivisation, and destroyed democratic, national and civil rights. After 1928 the new bureaucratic ruling class held the levers of control over the surplus product and inaugurated a totalitarian semi-slave state. After that, the Communist Parties acted as the overseas agents of Russian foreign policy, as well as incipient bureaucratic ruling classes in places where they got a foothold.

The monstrous form of the Stalinist counter-revolution threw most of the revolutionary left back to a state of reactionary anti-capitalism, shorn of working class agency and of the consistently democratic programme they had once espoused. The tiny forces that coalesced around Trotsky put up a spirited rearguard action, keeping alive the flame of authentic Marxism during the 1920s and 1930s. But the Trotskyist movement itself was wrecked on the cusp of the Second World War, its main forces unable to explain the expansion of Stalinism outside of the USSR and later to understand the revival of capitalism in the post-war epoch. Most of the post-Trotsky Trotskyists embraced the Stalinist advance into Eastern Europe, China and beyond as somehow creating “workers’ states” (without the active intervention of workers), or painted despotic post-colonial regimes as somehow the embodiment of permanent revolution.

Matgamna itemises the bitter array of failures in the years after the Second World War. Among the litany of terrible errors were: • Support for North Korea’s war in 1950 • Failure to support the East German workers uprising in 1953 • Uncritical support for the Vietnamese Stalinists • Uncritical support for the Castro Stalinists in Cuba after 1960 • Soft backing for Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution • Opposition to Israel’s right to exist after the 1967 war • Backing Catholic chauvinism in Northern Ireland • Opposition to the UK joining the European Union from 1971 • Fantasies about the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia • Support for clerical-fascist theocracy in Iran from 1979 • Support for Russia’s murderous war in Afghanistan in 1980 • Support for Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982 • Backing Iran against Iraq in their sub-imperial conflict during the 1980s • Siding with Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait 1990-91 • Support for Serbia’s assault on the Kosovars in 1999 • Softness and refusing to condemn Al Qaeda in 2001 • Support for Saddam in the 2003 war • Uncritical backing of Islamist Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq, even as they slaughtered workers.

Matgamna eviscerates the justifications used by sections of the left for these stances. He is scathing about the “anti-imperialism of fools”, a species of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” that leads to support for despotism under the cover of anti-Americanism. He also denounces “left antisemitism”, defined as the exceptional denial of fundamental national rights to Jewish people (including the right to their own state) and demonisation of all Jewish people for the crimes of the Israeli state.

Sloughing off these rationalisations for reactionary politics is essential for renewing the revolutionary left. Matgamna’s descriptions of the practices and ideologies of the post-Stalinist left are often thought-provoking. The left Stalinist embalming of Lenin is described as the work of a “Leninolator” and of “Lenin-olatry”. The Stalinist picture of the world is “totalitarian utopianism” and the former Trotskyists who capitulated to Stalin “self-depoliticised ex-Bolshevik social engineers”. Liberal interventionist are dubbed “mañana third campists”, their “socialism” always for the distant tomorrow.

The text also has engaging cultural references — tales of Prester John, Kim Philby, slaves crucified on the Appian Way, Marlon Brando and others. Avid followers of the left will enjoy Matgamna’s pen portraits of the principal leaders of the post-war Trotskyist groups in Britain.

Gerry Healy led the SLL and WRP until it exploded after his sexual abuse of members was made public in 1985. By then Healy had sold the organisation to the Libyan, Iraqi, and other Arab states, as an agency to spy on the left and refugees. The Healyites were characterised by their millenarian catastrophism, their frozen words of Trotsky used to justify political lurches, and by gangster politics.

Ernest Mandel was the principal theoretician of the post-Trotsky Fourth International, responsible for rationalising its adaptation to the Stalinist “workers’ states” in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. Mandel died in 1995, a few years after the collapse of Stalinism had destroyed his theoretical edifice, leaving a movement clinging to a venerable name while desperately wondering where the “revolutionary process” had gone.

Ted Grant spawned the current Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal. He redefined socialism as “nationalise the top 200 monopolies” and an enabling act. He peddled the fantasies of “proletarian Bonapartism”, the military substitutes for working-class agency under Stalinism, but also in Syria, Portugal and latterly Venezuela. Grant’s supporters eulogise the capitulation of Liverpool city council while evading concrete political questions with fantasy sloganeering. Grant did not teach his followers to think, but to do political parrot work.

Tony Cliff was a purveyor of toy-town Bolshevism, a man who bent the stick so far on the revolutionary party that the SWP came to represent a parody of third period Stalinist mono-factions. Cliff joked about trying to find your way around the London Underground with a map of the Paris metro, but the legacy he left was more akin to a map of the Moscow sewers. For the SWP, nothing is forbidden in pursuit of organisational advantage. This makes for an increasingly incoherent group that is now a galaxy away from the Marxism of its origins.

If the history of the left is so miserable, what examples of hope are there? There is much to learn from the small third camp Trotskyist tradition around Max Shachtman and Hal Draper which survived during the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the left have sobered up over Syria, where few socialists could support the Daesh terror even by implication, and where most recoiled from any support for the barbarous Assad regime. Similarly, the Brexit vote saw sections of the left abandon their previous nationalist positions. There is something of a revival in social democratic reformist projects.

The bigger picture includes some disarray among our main enemies, the ruling classes, as illustrated by Trump and May. Most of all, the politics of the AWL provides the most important embodiment of hope.

The AWL has forged a living tradition of rational Marxist politics, with realistic assessments of the great global events of the last half century and a series of interventionist political conclusions aimed at mobilising the working class and transforming the labour movement.

The AWL has renewed the great Marxist tradition from a century ago. We do not start from scratch. All is not lost. Much of the left may be in disarray, but the forces of independent, third camp Marxism are alive. With our help, the new generation of socialists will make this politics their watchword.

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Matgamna: What is Trotskyism?

August 23, 2016 at 5:47 pm (AWL, class, history, labour party, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, socialism, trotskyism)

We publish the following piece by Sean Matgamna (of Workers Liberty) in the light of recent scare stories about alleged ‘Trotskyist’ infiltration of/influence over, the Labour Party:

Shachtman (rt) with Trotsky & Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1937

What is Trotskyism? (written 2007)

Click here for the debate around this contribution.

19th and 20th century socialism is a house of many rooms, cellars, attics, alcoves, and hidden chambers (not to speak of private chapels and “priest-holes”).

There are in it the utopian socialists of our pre-history reformists and revolutionists, parliamentarians and insurrectionists, “direct action” anarchists and union-building syndicalists, council communists and kibbutz-building utopian Zionists.

And then fascists sometimes proclaimed themselves socialists (national-socialists). So did many Third World political formations, often more fascist than socialist, such as the “Ba’th Arab Socialist Parties” of Iraq and Syria.

And Stalinism. The political reflections and tools in the labour movements of the Russian Stalinist ruling class proclaimed themselves “communists” and “socialists”, and for much of the 20th century were accepted as the main force of communism and socialism, in bourgeois propaganda as well as their own.

The great names of real socialism are numerous, and are far from being at one with each other: Gracchus Babeuf, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Auguste Blanqui, Mikhail Bakunin, Ferdinand Lassalle, Louis Michel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and his son Karl, August Bebel, George Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Jules Guesde, Jean Jaures, Victor Griffuelhes, Paul Lafargue, Laura Lafargue, Eleanor Marx, Pavel Axelrod, Peter Kropotkin, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Jim Larkin, Eugene Debs, Christian Rakovsky, Henry Hyndman, Ernest Belfort Bax, William Morris, Keir Hardie, Klara Zetkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Shliapnikov, Leon Trotsky, Chen Duxiu, Antonio Gramsci, Leon Sedov, James P Cannon, Leon Lesoil, Pantelis Pouliopoulos, Abram Leon, Ta Thu Thau, Henk Sneevliet, Max Shachtman…

The Communist International picked up and subsumed many of the threads of earlier socialism, and wove them into a more or less coherent strategy of working-class struggle for power — the direct action of the French and American syndicalists, the political “syndicalism” of the De Leonites, the revolutionary parliamentarianism of Liebknecht, the sometimes acute criticism by communist-anarchists of the parliamentarians of the pre-1914 Socialist International, the concern with national liberation of such as James Connolly, and all that was healthy in previous socialist activity and theorising.

They denounced bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism in the name of the fuller democracy of workers’ councils — their criticism of bourgeois democracy would later, like so much else, be annexed and put to its own pernicious uses by totalitarian Stalinism.

The Russian working class, in their unprecedented creativity — for instance, in creating soviets (workers’ councils) — and the Bolsheviks who led them to victory had in life found solutions to many of the problems that had perplexed earlier socialist thinkers.

What had all the different strands of socialism in common? What, with their different methods, tempos, and perspectives, did they seek to achieve?

All of them — the socialist reformists such as Keir Hardie, too — sought to abolish capitalism and the exploitation and wage-slavery on which it rested, and to replace it with a non-exploitative, rational, humane society.

Their ideas of what would replace capitalism differed greatly, for instance between anarchists and Marxists, but all the socialists sought to replace private ownership of the means of production and exchange with collective social ownership by the workers and working farmers.

All of them — in one way or another, with one qualification or another — looked to the working class, the slave-class of the capitalist era, to achieve this great social revolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Herman Benson, aged 100, is still an anti-Stalinist socialist democrat

February 19, 2016 at 4:54 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, posted by JD, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States)

Also published in the current issue of Solidarity:


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

Herman Benson was a founding member, along with Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others, of the Workers Party, which broke from the US Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British group of the same name) in 1940 following a debate about how to understand the Stalinist state in Russia.

While the SWP majority maintained that the USSR remained some kind of “workers’ state”, however “deformed” or “degenerated”, a large minority, which went on to become the Workers Party, argued that it was a deeply oppressive society based on a new form of class exploitation. They developed their ideas into what became known as “third-camp” Trotskyism, arguing that the global working class must constitute itself as an independent force against both the two camps of US-led capitalism and Stalinism.

Herman was a member of the Workers Party National Committee, and labour editor of its paper, Labor Action. Later, he founded the Association for Union Democracy and was its first Executive Director. In 2012, he contributed to a Workers’ Liberty symposium of recollections and reflections from activists involved in the “third camp” tradition, which can be read here.

He spoke to Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty about the debates which are examined in The Fate of the Russian Revolution Volume 2: The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism, in which some of his writing from the time is included.  At 100 years old, he is – almost certainly – the last surviving member of Shachtman’s Workers Party


What, for you at the time, were the primary motives for siding with the opposition in the 1939-40 battle?

In 1939, I was not an old-time Trotskyist. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP), in 1930, at the age of 15. By the time the Trotskyists joined the SP, the depression, the rise of Hitler, and the destruction of German Social Democratic Party turned me into a kind of Leninist, but one repelled by crazy antics of “Third Period” Stalinists and then by their popular-front turn. When the Trotskyists left the SP in 1937, I, along with many other YPSLers, went with them.

I mention this to explain why I never gave much weight to the complaints against Cannon’s bureaucratism. They [the “old-time Trotskyists”] went through unexplained factional frictions and personal combinations in the Communist League of America (CLA, the first US Trotskyist group, founded by Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern in 1929), not me. Even now, I don’t think our disputes of that period shed any light on the question of the party.

Old-timers could vent their grudges against Cannon, but for me, and most in early opposition, the immediate issue was clear: the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland was an oppressive “imperialist” attack, to be condemned.

At that point, everybody would still be for defence of the Soviet Union if it really came under attack. It took a long period of intricate debate over complex ideological issues to free even us from notions of defending one of the most oppressive regimes in history. The “orthodox” majority said, “we’re not defending the regime, only nationalised property”. People like [Albert] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow needed more time.

Do you think The Fate of the Russian Revolution Vol. 2 accurately conveys the substance and the balance of the disputes between the two strands of Trotskyism in the 1940s?

I think the editor does a great job, although I may be prejudiced. For me, reading it at 100, it activates the juices of a 24-year old zealot. One minor quibble, though: what’s the point of the final extract from Trotsky on dialectical materialism?

Looking back, do you see any of those issues in a new light?

Of course. More than half a century has elapsed. The world refused to evolve as we hoped or expected. But that’s the big story.

The Workers Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL) tradition didn’t hold up in a discrete form, but rather diffused, in different ways and in different directions, into other organisations. Do you think that was inevitable? If not, how could it have been avoided?

I do think that the demise was “inevitable”, whatever that word means. Both sides in the 1939/40 dispute counted on worldwide socialist revolutions in the post-war period. When capitalist democracies and Stalinist dictatorships emerged intact, the political-social foundation of that position was undermined. The WP splintered, and the SWP , as the book describes, was transformed into something alien.

A kind of desiccated, academic Marxism found refuge in the universities, without connection to workers’ revolution. In the United States, most nominally “socialist” currents lost any distinguishable socialist quality. Once, socialism meant concentration of industry in the hands of the state (nationalised property) and a planned economy in a democratic society. Now, each group has transmuted socialism into an amorphous dissatisfaction with the status quo plus whatever their hearts desire. The perspective of a traditional socialist society emerging from a workers’ revolution and a workers’ state has vanished and is not likely to be revived here. In that atmosphere, the WP could not survive.

Do you think the debates of 1939/40 have relevance for socialists today? If so, what is it?

I believe there is a lot to learn from the old WP/SWP dispute, not only for socialists, Marxian and others, but for all crusaders for social justice. In the broadest sense, it reminds us that when our ideology appears somehow to justify a horror or an act of oppression, maybe there’s something flawed in our ideology.

More to the point, especially for me, those discussions restore the defence of democracy in society as a central theme not only for socialists but for all who seek social justice. In that sense, reflection on those debates, for those who undertake it, is an antidote for the persisting residue of Stalinist thinking in the labour and socialist movements.

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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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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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The Anti-Imperialism of Fools: A Cautionary Tale for the Brit Anti-War Left

December 8, 2014 at 8:47 pm (Chomsky, ex-SWP, imperialism, intellectuals, internationalism, islamism, israel, Marxism, Middle East, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Shachtman, solidarity, stalinism, trotskyism)

Above: about as “anti- imperialist”-foolish as you can get: Rees, Murray and Galloway

By Camilla Bassi

‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’

Preface
The day after 9/11 I attended a local Socialist Alliance committee meeting in  Sheffield, England, as a representative of the revolutionary socialist organisation,  the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) comrades  present discussed the 9/11 attack as regrettable in terms of the loss of life but as  nonetheless understandable.They acknowledged the attack as tactically misguided, yet refused (when pressed to do so) to condemn it. Later, in November 2001, at a public meeting of the Sheffield Socialist Alliance, I shared a platform with a then  national committee member of the SWP to debate the US and UK war in Afghanistan. Besides from agreeing on opposition to the imperialist war onslaught, I was alone on the platform in raising opposition to the Islamist Taliban rule and in arguing for labour movement solidarity with forces such as the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which resist both imperialism and  Islamism and demand a rogressive, democratic secular alternative.

The SWP  comrades present, both on the platform and from the floor, alleged a political error  on my part and those who argued along with me. Their rationale was that, to fully oppose the War on Terror, we had a duty to oppose the main enemy and greater  evil – US and UK imperialism – and this alone. Anything else, they argued, would  alienate the masses of disillusioned, angry British Muslim youth that socialists needed to win over.

The SWP’s dual camp of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ (a socialistic inversion of imperialist war discourse of ‘the status quo versus  regression’) came to dominate England’s anti-war movement. They publicly  launched their initiative the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) ten days after 9/11, with the aim of mobilising a broad political grouping against the War on Terror.

Since then the SWP vanguard of the StWC has, at critical moments, steered the political course that England’s anti-war protests have taken. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Stop The War Coalition and the rise of neo-Stalinism

March 5, 2014 at 8:35 pm (apologists and collaborators, capitalism, class collaboration, democracy, Europe, ex-SWP, Guest post, history, Human rights, imperialism, internationalism, John Rees, Lindsey German, Marxism, national liberation, Shachtman, socialism, stalinism, Stop The War, trotskyism, USSR)

Above: neo-Stalinists Rees, Murray and Galloway

Guest post by George Mellor

“The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflict to oblige humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society, or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obliged to become a Marxist; no one is obliged to swear by Lenin’s name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed towards this, the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends” – Leon Trotsky (1938)

Many readers will be familiar with the concept of the ‘Third Camp’ – independent working class politics that refuses to side with the main ruling class power blocs (or ‘camps’) of the world. At the outbreak of WW2 the majority of would-be revolutionary socialists (and quite a few reformists as well) supported Russia, seeing it as some form of socialist state. However a minority (the ‘Third Camp’ socialists, mainly grouped around Max Shachtman) disagreed, viewing it as imperialist – of a different type to Western imperialism, but imperialist nevertheless.

Some on the left who came out of the Third Camp tradition (and, remember, the SWP was once part of that current and over Ukraine has shown signs of returning to it) now come to the defence of capitalist Russia. In doing so these acolytes of Putin – the neo-Stalinists – use the same framework to defend Russian imperialism as their predecessors did to defend ‘Soviet’ imperialism.

The basic framework they take from the arsenal of Stalinism is the view of the world as divided into two camps: on the one hand the peace-loving countries who supported Stalin’s USSR and on the other, the enemies of peace, progress and socialism. In the period of the Popular Front (1934-39) this found Russia aligned with the bourgeois democracies of the West, but between 1939 and ’41 that policy was superseded by an alliance with Hitler and the Axis powers. The consequence of both policies (and the intellectual zig-zagging required of Comintern loyalists) was that communist politics were subordinated to Stalin’s foreign policy, effectively cauterising the revolution in the inter-war years and disorientating socialists for over a generation.

For today’s neo-Stalinist the world is divided into Western imperialism on the one hand and China, Russia and other states (like Iran and Venezuela) that broadly identify with them against the ‘West’ on the other. Their conclusion is that socialists must stand up for China, Russia, or, indeed, any state or movement (eg the Taliban) that finds itself in conflict with ‘The West’. Seeing the world through this lens has led them to support Russian imperialism against Western imperialism, turning them into Putin’s Foreign Legion.

With the advent of the Ukraine crisis the neo-Stalinists were faced with the following problem: Russia invaded (using traditional Stalinist / Fascist methods) another county, after the people of that country overthrew the incumbent, corrupt, government. From what bourgeois – let alone socialist – principle does Russia have the right to invade an independent country? Of course there is none and so the neo-Stalinists have to invent one or two: the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) ten point statement is just such an invention.

The StWC statement provides a rationale which adds up to telling us the fact Russia has invaded a sovereign country is not as important as the new cold war (I feel a moral panic or, perhaps, political panic coming on as StWC functionaries stalk the land warning us of the dangers of ‘the new cold war’). Woven through the ‘ten points’ is the continual attempt to demonise the 1 million-plus movement which overthrew the Ukrainian government. They claim the movement is fascist / neo-con / in collusion with the European Union – in fact every bad thing one can think of. Such demonization is straight out of the Stalinist playbook, a classic example of blaming the victim. The character of the Ukraine movement has been largely shaped by its experience of greater Russia chauvinism: the idea that a pure democratic let alone socialist movement would spring fully formed out of the Euromaidan was never a possibility. For sure fascist and ultra-nationalist forces played a prominent role, and maybe even paid agents of the EU were present: the point is how should socialists relate to the million-strong movement and how can we seek to influence it? This is simply not an issue for the neo-Stalinists because they have written off the Ukrainian rebels as one reactionary mass not worth a second look.

In truth the StWC statement is neither here nor there, (a blogger at The Economist has taken apart the non sequiturs, half-truths and downright lies of the neo-Stalinists in a point by point rebuttal): it is simply a particularly crude example of the ‘campist’ world view.

For the neo-Stalinists the `hard headed’ geopolitical realties of the need to defend Russia against the ‘West’ always trumps the truth, morality, political principle and consistency: just as they support the invasion of the Ukraine and fit the facts around this, so they support the butcher Assad (crimes against humanity, mass murder, poison gas user, indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, starvation, state-sponsored terror, wholesale torture) and in that case, support for sheer barbarism.

Of course socialists are unlikely to affect events in the Ukraine, let alone Syria: however even if we can only proclaim it, we have a right – and a duty – to say we support neither Western or Russian imperialism but fight for independent working class action.

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US revolutionary cartoons revisited

January 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm (anti-fascism, Art and design, AWL, civil rights, class, From the archives, history, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States, workers)

Between the 1930s and 1950s the revolutionary socialist (ie Trotskyist and, later, Shachtmanite) press in the USA made use of the wit and skill of talented cartoonists such as ‘Carlo’ (Jesse Cohen). In an Era of Wars and Revolutions, a new collection of their work, gives a snapshot history of the times: the rise of the mass industrial union movement in the USA, the great strike wave of 1945-6, the fight against ‘Jim Crow’ racism, World War Two, the imposition of Stalinism on Eastern Europe, and more.

Sean Matgamna (editor of In an Era of Wars and Revolutions) writes:

That “one picture can be worth a thousand words” is true, but only up to a point. A photograph or a painting cannot properly nail down, explain or explore ideas. A complicated piece of writing has no visual equivalent.

Yet a well-done cartoon is a powerful political weapon. A few bold strokes by an artist can convey an idea more vividly and fix it more firmly in the viewer’s mind than would an editorial or an article.

A cartoon is drawn to convey an idea, a point of view, an interpretation of what it depicts, and its meaning. Cartoons by their nature simplify, caricature, exaggerate, lampoon, and play with archetypal images.

A cartoon is highly subjective, yet it draws on commonly recognised symbols. The image, idea, interpretation fuse in the drawing. Drawn to convey an idea of people, things, institutions, classes, states, and of their inter-relationships, a cartoon distills the artist’s conception of what is essential in those people, events, entities, institutions, relationships.

The cartoonist is licensed to distort everyday reality so as to bring out a view, a “seeing”, analysis, critique, historical perspective of it. Its ciphers, emblems, archetypes vary to allow for the artist’s individual slant (like, in this collection, Carlo’s characteristic rendition of the top hat-fat archetypical bourgeois laughing at the gullibility or helplessness of workers).

All of a cartoon, all its details and references, are consciously or subconsciously chosen to convey a point of view, a nailed-down perception, a historical perspective. In old socialist cartoons the worker is always bigger and stronger than his enemies. He needs only to be awakened to an awareness of his strength.

It is almost always a “he”. The socialists who drew these cartoons were, themselves and their organisations, militant for women’s rights, but little of that is in their work.

One of the difficulties with old socialist cartoons for a modern viewer is that the stereotype-capitalist wears a top hat and is stout or very fat. In some early 20th century British labour movement cartoons he is named, simply, “Fat”. Fat now, in our health-conscious days, is seen as a characteristic of lumpenised workers and other “lower orders” people.

Much contemporary comedy is a hate-ridden depiction of the poor, the disadvantaged, the excluded, the badly educated, by physical type – fat and slobby. Where most of the old racial and national caricatures have been shamed and chased into the underbrush, no longer tolerable to decent people of average good will, the old social-Darwinian racism against the poor is rampant still, unashamed and not often denounced.

Even so, the old symbols, the fat capitalist and the big powerful worker, are still intelligible. They depict truths of our times as well as of their own. These cartoons still live.

They portray US politics, governments, the class struggle, the labour movement, America’s “Jim Crow” racism, Stalinism at its zenith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal”, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism. They present clean and stark class-struggle socialist politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.

A few are from the 1920s, but mainly they cover the quarter century after the victory of Hitler in Germany in 1933. and the definitive consolidation of Stalinism in the USSR.

Across the decades, they still carry the emotional hostility to the master class and solidarity with their victims that they were drawn to convey; the socialists’  abhorrence of the Stalinist atrocities that discredited and disgraced the name of socialism (they themselves were often among the targets); the desire, hope and drive for a re-made world — a socialist world. They blaze with anger and hatred against the horrors of America’s all-contaminating Jim Crow racism.

These cartoons were of their time, and what their time and earlier times led socialists to expect of the future. They were often mistaken. Government repression during World War Two was less fierce than the severe persecution of socialists and militant trade unionists in World War One and afterwards, led them to expect.

In the later 1940s, like most observers, they saw World War Three looming. In fact, the world settled into a prolonged “balance of terror” after Russia developed an atom bomb in 1949 and the USA and Russia fought a proxy war on Korean soil which ended in stalemate. The economic collapse which the experience of the 1930s led them to expect did not come (though in fact the long capitalist upswing took off only with the Korean war boom of 1950-3). Plutocratic democracy in the USA, during the war and after it, proved far less frail than the Marxists feared it would.

Over many years I have collected photocopies of these cartoons, buried as they were in files of old publications for six, seven or eight decades. I think others will be moved by them too.

What Peadar Kearney wrote fifty years after their time of the Fenians, the left-wing Irish Republicans of the 1860s and 70s, speaks to the socialists of the era covered by this book as well:

“Some fell by the wayside

Some died ‘mid the stranger,

And wise men have told us

That their cause was a failure;

But they stood by old Ireland

And never feared danger.

Glory O, glory O,

To the bold Fenian men!”

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Old comrades

November 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm (good people, James P. Cannon, Jim D, left, Marxism, political groups, revolution, sectarianism, Shachtman, socialism, solidarity, song, trotskyism)

I’ve just returned from a get-together with some old comrades – in a couple of cases (well, three to be exact), people I’ve known more or less since first getting involved with the serious left in the early-to-mid seventies. It dawned on me that as well as being comrades they’re some of my oldest and closest friends. And one of them, at least, I rate amongst the most admirable and principled people I’ve ever known.

I also learned a new (well, new to me) sectarian song that some readers might enjoy:

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