Rest in Power, Grace Lee Boggs
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]
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
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.
You can order a copy of the book here
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Owen Jones’s piece in yesterday’s Guardian – ‘Antisemitism has no place on the left. It is time to confront it‘ – acknowledges the fact that this foul poison exists not just on the traditional extreme right, but also within the pro-Palestine movement and sections of the left. To some of us, this is merely a statement of the obvious, and something that we have been banging on about for years. But the importance of Jones’s piece cannot be overestimated: much of the left (and that includes the Guardianista liberal-left) refuses to acknowledge that the problem even exists. It is to Owen Jones’s credit that he has broken this taboo.
Jones’s article has its shortcomings: he repeats, for instance, the old canard that “Some ardent supporters of the Israeli government oppose all critics of Israeli policy and accuse them of anti-Semitism (or, if those critics are Jewish, of being “self-hating Jews”)”: I, for one, have never heard such arguments being used by defenders of Israel, although the claim that they are is treated as an established fact by ‘anti-Zionists’.
And Jones does not deal with the crucial issue of ‘absolute anti-Zionism’ – a more widespread and pernicious problem on the left than crude, racist antisemitism. ‘Absolute anti-Zionism’ is opposition to the very existence of the Jewish state. From that all the overt anti-Semitism and covert softness on anti-Semitism to be found on the left and within the PSC and BDS movements, follows. It is the so-called ‘One-State solution’ and is the thinly disguised sub-text of slogans like “Palestine must be free – from the River to the Sea.” It is the policy of the SWP and much of the rest of the British kitsch-Trot left. Stalinists of the Morning Star variety in theory back the Two States position, but you’d be forgiven not realising this from what they say within the labour movement and write in the Morning Star. Until he very recently clarified his position, and came out clearly for two states, it seemed quite possible that Jeremy Corbyn was a one stater.
And on the subject of Corbyn, Jones’s piece is also weak: it’s simply not good enough to argue (as does Jones) that “He [ie Corbyn] could not possibly have known the personal backgrounds of every individual who has joined him at the many rallies he has attended over the years.” Whether Corbyn knew the politics of each and every one of the many anti-Semites he’s been filmed and photographed alongside, and in some cases is on record defending, is not the issue: the issue is that now that he does know who these people are, he should clearly denounce them and disown them by name – instead of blustering about how he deplores all forms of racism and is in favour of peace. And, surely, Corbyn knew exactly what the politics of Hezbollah and Hamas were when he welcomed them as “friends.” For the record, I make these comments as someone who has just voted for Corbyn.
For sure, Jones’s piece does not go far enough, or make its case as plainly as it should: but it’s an important breakthrough for the ‘anti-Zionist’ liberal-left, and all the more welcome because its published in the absolute anti-Zionists’ respectable, mainstream mouthpiece: the Guardian.
Above: Jones (left) with arch-critic Alan Johnson after the publication of Jones’s Guardian piece
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.
The leading American Trotskyist, James P Cannon spoke at a memorial meeting in New York for Leon Trotsky on 22 August 1945. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just taken place (August 6 and 9), and Cannon used the occasion to express his outrage at the atrocity:
What a commentary on the real nature of capitalism in its decadent phase is this, that the scientific conquest of the marvellous secret of atomic energy, which might rationally be used to lighten the burdens of all mankind, is employed first for the wholesale destruction of half a million people.
Hiroshima, the first target, had a population of 340,000 people. Nagasaki, the second target, had a population of 253,000 people. A total in the two cities of approximately 600,000 people, in cities of flimsy construction where, as reporters explain, the houses were built roof against roof. How many were killed? How many Japanese people were destroyed to celebrate the discovery of the secret of atomic energy? From all the reports we have received so far, they were nearly all killed or injured. Nearly all.
In the [New York] Times today there is a report from the Tokyo radio about Nagasaki which states that “the centre of the once thriving city has been turned into a vast devastation, with nothing left except rubble as far as the eye could see”. Photographs showing the bomb damage appeared on the front page of the Japanese newspaper Mainichi. The report says: “One of these pictures revealed a tragic scene 10 miles away from the centre of the atomic air attack”, where farm houses were either crushed down or the roofs torn asunder.
The broadcast quoted a photographer of the Yamaha Photographic Institute, who had rushed to the city immediately after the bomb hit, as having said: “Nagasaki is now a dead city, all the areas being literally razed to the ground. Only a few buildings are left, standing conspicuously from the ashes.” The photographer said that “the toll of the population was great and even the few survivors have not escaped some kind of injury.”
In two calculated blows, with two atomic bombs, American imperialism killed or injured half a million human beings. The young and the old, the child in the cradle and the aged and infirm, the newly married, the well and the sick, men, women, and children — they all had to die in two blows because of a quarrel between the imperialists of Wall Street and a similar gang in Japan.
This is how American imperialism is bringing civilisation to the Orient. What an unspeakable atrocity! What a shame has come to America, the America that once placed in New York harbour a Statue of Liberty enlightening the world. Now the world recoils in horror from her name.
One preacher quoted in the press, reminding himself of something he had once read in the Bible about the meek and gentle Jesus, said it would be useless to send missionaries to the Far East anymore. That raises a very interesting question which I am sure they will discuss among themselves. One can imagine an interesting discussion taking place in the inner circles of the House of Rockefeller and the House of Morgan, who are at one and the same time-quite by accident of course-pillars of finance and pillars of the church and supporters of missionary enterprises of various kinds.
“What shall we do with the heathens in the Orient? Shall we send missionaries to lead them to the Christian heaven or shall we send atomic bombs to blow them to hell?” There is a subject for debate, a debate on a macabre theme. But in any case, you can be sure that where American imperialism is involved, hell will get by far the greater number of the customers.
What a harvest of death capitalism has brought to the world! If the skulls of all of the victims could be brought together and piled into one pyramid, what a high mountain that would make. What a monument to the achievements of capitalism that would be, and how fitting a symbol of what capitalist imperialism really is. I believe it would lack only one thing to make it perfect. That would be a big electric sign on the pyramid of skulls, proclaiming the ironical promise of the Four Freedoms. The dead at least are free from want and free from fear…
Long ago the revolutionary Marxists said that the alternative facing humanity was either socialism or a new barbarism, that capitalism threatens to go down in ruins and drag civilisation with it. But in the light of what has been developed in this war and is projected for the future, I think we can say now that the alternative can be made even more precise: the alternative facing mankind is socialism or annihilation! It is a problem of whether capitalism is allowed to remain or whether the human race is to continue to survive on this planet.
We believe that the people of the world will waken to this frightful alternative and act in time to save themselves…
Brian Denny of the nationalist No2EU campaign, claims (MS June 24) that “Cameron is already building an alliance for his strategy which stretches from the CBI to the more unhinged parts of British Trotskyism”
I presume by “the more unhinged parts of British Trotskyism” Mr Denny is referring to people like myself and the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who refuse to endorse his reactionary nationalist anti-EU stance. Would Mr Denny care to provide one single shred of evidence for his claim that we are in an “alliance” with Cameron? If he fails to do so (as he must) I shall expect an apology. And readers may care to consider who, in this debate, is in reality “unhinged”.
The author is a leading member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, an organisation that has not always been clear-cut in its analysis of Islamism, so this article is of great significance. It first appeared in International Viewpoint:
After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher Jewish supermarket: thinking through the new and rethinking the old
By Pierre Rousset
We should start with a worrying observation.
Heads of state understood the importance of the events of January. Representatives of “democracies” and dictatorships alike, they came to Paris and locked arms together to show solidarity “at the highest levels”. A spectacular gesture if ever there was one!
On the other hand, a significant segment of the radical Left thought it was just business as usual. To be sure, some organizations published declarations of solidarity (and deserve genuine thanks for this) as well as articles grappling with the significance of the events. But many others felt it was enough to score debating points, correct as they may have been (against cross-party national unity, for example); or had as their first concern the need to distance themselves from the victims (declaring “Je ne suis pas Charlie” [“I am not Charlie”] in flagrant disregard for the message intended by those saying “Je suis Charlie” [“I am Charlie”]); or, far worse, felt the urgent task was to assassinate morally those who had just been assassinated physically.
Soon after the events, I co-wrote an article with François Sabado in which we specifically sought to understand what was so unique about the event and its implications in relation to our tasks.  No doubt, much more needs to be said on that score, but I’d like the text that follows (and which deals in large measure with the state of radical-Left opinion) to be read in conjunction with the previous one to avoid pointless repetition.
The unique character of the event
I’ll be referring in particular to an interview with Gilbert Achcar, with which I agree on many points of analysis, but which also contains a number of surprising blind spots. The first of these has to do with the unique character of the event. Gilbert seeks to trivialize the whole affair. “The reaction [to the attacks] has been what anybody would expect. […] These were quite similar reactions from appalled and frightened societies [the USA after 911 and France now] — and, of course, the crimes were appalling indeed. In both cases, the ruling class took advantage of the shock […] There is nothing much original about all this. Instead, what is rather original is the way the discussion evolved later on.” 
Gilbert is quite right to point out [elsewhere in the same interview] that it is extremely exaggerated to place the Charlie Hebdo attack and the September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers on the same footing. And yet millions of people spontaneously took to the streets following the French events, unlike what happened following previous no less atrocious attacks, such as the murder of children in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse.