Of Trotskyists & stockbrokers: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” May 2021

Is this just ultra-revolutionary high-voltage subjectivism of a petty-bourgeois gone wild—or what?
—Otto Wille Kuusinen, on Trotsky at Comintern’s Sixth Congress

Anyone who has been through the Trotskyist movement, for example, as I have, knows that in respect to decent personal behavior, truthfulness, and respect for dissident opinion, the ‘comrades’ are generally much inferior to the average stockbroker.
—Dwight MacDonald, The Root is Man

“Lenin and Trotsky were sympathetic to the Bolshevik left before 1921,” the man insisted. “Really they were.”

He was in his late thirties, clean cut and wore a working class wool flat cap I’d come to associate with Bolshevik wannabes. I kept arguing with him in front of his literature table in San Diego’s Balboa Park at an anti-Soviet Afghanistan invasion rally circa 1980. The table belonged to some Trotskyist group. It wasn’t the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—the main Trotskyist party that claimed to be Communist and was the vanguardist “loyal opposition” to the Communist Party-USA during the 1930s through the 1970s. (The SWP has since renounced their Trotskyism for Castroism in 1983, formally broke with the Fourth International in 1990 and sold their headquarters in 2003. Yet they will always and forever sell their newspaper, The Militant.) Rather, it was some sect—Spartacist League, Bolshevik Tendency, Socialist Alternative, Freedom Socialist Party, Revolutionary Socialist League, ad nauseam—that was one of a myriad of splinters among an ever expanding array of Trotskyist factions active in American politics at the time.

The Left expanded in the 1960s/70s, with Maoist New Communist Movement and Trotskyist groupuscules proliferating wildly. But whereas Maoism was on the wane by the 1980s, Trotskyism continued ostensibly to grow, not by prospering but by multiplying through division which reflects Trotskyism’s signature sectarian style of forever splitting over the slightest ideological difference. Among a list of scathing criticisms of Trotskyism, Dennis Tourish accused it of putting a “premium on doctrinal orthodoxy rather than critical reflection and innovative political thought” which promoted not expansion but fragmentation and ultimately led to a “sectarian, ultimatist and frequently manipulative attitude to the rest of the left, and the labour movement.”

I’d dropped out of graduate school at UCSD and was deliberately not seeking employment, preferring to hang out on campus, write, do politics and drink all day long. I was getting into punk but I still had my long hippie hair. By contrast, my debating adversary looked upstanding, high-and-tight if you like, following the example of the SWP’s “turn to industry” which mandated its members seek factory employment, cut their hair, dress conservatively and not do drugs to get in good with the working class. Of course, most young workers in those days were growing their hair out, dressing flash, smoking dope, and fucking shit up on the job. But that’s a different story.

I was a revolutionary left anarchist just starting to transition into left communism back then. And as I recall, the Trotskyist I was disagreeing with hoped to have his cake and eat it too. He extolled not just Trotsky but Luxemburg and Bukharin, and disingenuously praised various Left factions in the Bolshevik party to include Shliapnikov’s Workers Opposition, Sapronov’s Democratic Centralists, and Miasnikov’s Workers Group. I argued that the Bolshevik left had rightfully attempted to reform the party from within to make it more open and democratic and he argued that they were necessarily disciplined in 1921 after first the Party’s Tenth Congress and then the Comintern’s Third International Congress. At issue was Trotsky’s proposal that the Russian trade unions be made instruments of the Bolshevik party and Soviet state. This was opposed by groups like the Workers Opposition which proposed giving trade unions autonomy in directing the economy. In other words, the stakes were workers’ control of industry.

“But Lenin and Trotsky also denounced trade union anarcho-syndicalist deviationism,” he said with emphasis. “Both Party and Comintern majorities opposed the Bolshevik left on this count and voted to censure them. And both Lenin and Trotsky reluctantly submitted to democratic centralism and voted with the majority to criticize, discipline and ultimately ban all leftist dissent in the party in order for the new Soviet state to survive and be strengthened as the bastion of the future world revolution.”

“Like Trotsky and Lenin ‘reluctantly’ massacred Makhno’s Ukrainian partisans and the Kronstadt Soviet’s uprising,” I shot back. “Trotsky, the bloody butcher of Kronstadt. Turnabout was fair play when Trotsky lead the Left Opposition within the Bolshevik party against Stalin in 1923 and was forced into exile, then assassinated with a Stalinist ice pick.”

“Go fuck yourself!” he suddenly snarled. “You petty bourgeois snot!”

Now, I may have been a facile, undisciplined dilettante back in the day, but I was also pretty aggro and downright nasty. I loved being called names.

I consider myself a Marxist, although that’s not entirely accurate. I value much of what Karl Marx promulgated but I don’t consider it gospel. I reject Marx’s belief in progress as when he argued that British imperialism in India was ultimately a good thing because it would modernize Indian society. And I consider Marx’s historical materialist schema of the stages of economic development (ancient, feudal, capitalist, socialist modes of production) as descriptive rather than prescriptive. In turn, I readily accept additions to my Marxism when I consider them appropriate, like Rosa Luxemburg’s emphasis on working class spontaneity in social revolutions. I’m also interested in world-systems theory, the methodologies of which often arise from a Marxist analysis but are not limited by it.

I maintain parallel interests in other forms of theory like left anarchism and Buddhist economics that I consider to have radical potential. I find that exploring various diverse, often contradictory modes of thought stimulating and fruitful in challenging preconceived thinking and creating new ideas out of a clash of old concepts. Finally, I believe Marx himself acknowledged that there was much he didn’t understand—from the so-called “Asiatic mode of production” to “post-capitalist” societies—that forces me to be humble about claiming that my own thinking is complete and correct. It helps me to avoid the mistakes and dogmas of the various political systems to which I subscribe.

Ultimately, I find Marxist theory valuable not as economics or politics or philosophy but as critique. Marx rejected both dogma and utopian thinking for “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

Many orthodox Marxists might still consider my politics facile, undisciplined and dilettantish and me a petty bourgeois snot. I usually reply in kind. My criticism of Trotskyism threatens to become endless, covering at minimum the Johnson-Forrest Tendency (News & Letters), Marcyism (Workers World Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation), Third Camp Schachtmanism (Hal Draper, International Socialist Organization on the left; Social Democrats-USA on the right), and over a dozen Trotskyist Internationals (FI, CMI, CWI, COFI, CRFI, IBT, ICFI, ILCWI, IST, ITC, ICU, LFI, USFI). I have some sympathy for neo-Leninism—Leninism that rejects a vanguard party strategy—like the early New American Movement or current anti-state communist organizations like Unity and Struggle. But I have critiques of all 57 varieties of Marxism-Leninism as well as neo-Marxism, neo-Leninism, social democracy, anarchism, syndicalism, de Leonism, even my own fractious left communism.

Trotskyism’s sorry legacy was recently underscored by the Trotskyist political party Socialist Alternative (SAlt) directing its members to join the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in a reprehensible example of entryism. DSA has flourished over the last four years by campaigning “to elect democratic socialists to office, using the Democratic Party ballot line.” And DSA’s constitution makes clear that “[m]embers can be expelled […] if they are under the discipline of any self-defined democratic-centralist organization.” SAlt disingenuously claims that DSA’s “national ‘ban’ on members of democratic centralist organizations joining” is a “Cold War holdover […] originally created to prevent Marxists from joining DSA,” all the while overtly opposing DSA’s electoral party strategy with SAlt’s work to form their own “social democratic” (read Leninist vanguard) party.

Never mind that DSA was founded by Marxists or that many of DSA’s non-SAlt members are Marxist. The rule warning members of expulsion for being “under the discipline of any self-defined democratic-centralist organization” does not “specify a political belief or even membership in an organization, instead targeting those who aim to form a ‘party within a party’.” The threat of forming a “party within a party” transcends Trotskyism to implicate Leninism as a whole. I was a member of the Santa Cruz chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization in 1974/75. I witnessed the ultra-Maoist Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Youth Brigade quite openly direct its cadre to join our organization in blatant entryism, taking over VVAW/WSO and gutting it in preparation for the founding of Bob Avakian’s scumbag Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). I don’t need to be reminded of how Leninists splinter the Left and destroy halfway decent socialist organizations.

POSTSCRIPT: Socialist Alternative and its spokesperson Grace Fors are exceedingly careful with the words they use in order to sidestep the main issues around SAlt’s blatant entryism. This obfuscates the debate surrounding Leninism’s tactic of forming a “party within a party” to infiltrate, disrupt and take over targeted political organizations and parties. Fors has stated “we are not conducting any ‘secret entryism.’ Socialist Alternative members will be joining DSA openly and honestly, stating clearly their dual membership and their political positions in a comradely way.” The point has never been that SAlt’s entryism is secret. As Barclay, Casey, Clark, et al point out in their article, historical examples of entryism (Trotsky’s orders to his followers to “ally” with the French Socialist Party, Cannon’s US Workers Party entry into the Socialist Party of America, and PLP’s entry into SDS) were rarely clandestine. And as I point out in my example of the RU/RYB’s takeover of the VVAW/WSO,  their entryism was overt and known to all. Openly proclaiming one’s intent to mug one’s victims doesn’t make the act of mugging them any less despicable.

It can be argued that DSA itself practices a kind of half-assed entryism in that it encourages its members to work within the capitalist Democratic Party while maintaining itself as a separate reformist organization. What happens then if such entryism is supercharged with vanguardism?“[W]e see Trotskyism as the historical continuation of Marxism,” Fors states. “Maintaining our independent organization plainly reflects our belief that a tight-knit Marxist party working in conjunction with a broad multi-tendency Left has the best chance to succeed.” This is a roundabout way of saying that SAlt is a Marxist-Leninist-Trotyskist vanguard party whose cadre organization and democratic centralist practice has no problem in setting itself up as a “party within a party” when it suits. To decry “[s]ectarian mudslinging” while practicing sectarianism is typical of how Leninism operates. Or as Victor Serge once implied of Trotsky as Stalin’s “loyal opposition”: “He who does not cry out the truth when he knows the truth becomes the accomplice of the liars and falsifiers.”

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
History of the Russian Revolution (3 volumes) by Leon Trotsky
From Lenin to Stalin by Victor Serge
The Prophet Armed, Unarmed, Outcast (3 volumes) by Isaac Deutscher
The Root is Man by Dwight MacDonald
“Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism and Cultism”, including introduction, by Dennis Tourish (What Next? #27, 2003)
The Dangers of Factionalism in DSA” by Barclay, Casey, Clark, Healey, Meier, Phillips, Riddiough and Schwartz (In These Times, 3-30-2021)
“What Some in DSA Get Wrong About Socialist Alternative” by Grace Fors (In These Times, 4-15-2021)

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Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

 

I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m OK with anybody but Trump. Even a candidate offering the most incremental ruling class difference will do. Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Biden. I’m nothing if not pragmatic so I’ll even settle for Joe Biden.

But maybe I’m not being practical, just a pushover. This is little more than the classic either/or contradiction between reform versus revolution posed by Rosa Luxemburg and so often debated in Leftist circles. Let me state my case for why radical social change (aka revolution) is a good thing.

Capitalism is a killer. It’s an economic system that is in endless crisis and that fosters deadly social crises. Capitalism generates vast inequalities of wealth and power that, in turn, foments antagonistic social divisions. It is a system that undermines democracy, freedom and autonomy through exploitation, imperialism and oppression. Based on maximizing profits and economic growth above all else, capitalism fosters alienation, perpetuates violence and destroys the planet. We need to destroy capitalism in order for us, our communities, our world to survive.

Postmodernism is the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that proposes a piecemeal “resistance of everyday life.” Meanwhile, capitalism is an actually totalizing system that permeates to the furthest corners of the globe and the deepest reaches of the human psyche. The Vietnamese defeat of the powerful US military in asymmetrical “David vs Goliath” warfare belies that the VietCong were backed by the North Vietnamese Army and a highly centralized Communist Party. A totalizing capitalism needs to be overthrown by a total social revolution.

The genius of capitalism as a totalizing system based on human labor power and the sale of that labor power is to convince us that the basis for that system is as universal and natural as the air we breath, and thus invisible. That our working class agency doesn’t exist and that our true identities reside in anything but our class, in a multitude of postmodern cultural identities reduced to impotence by that very same capitalism. Our task once again is to reconstitute our agency by transforming our “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”

At best, voting is harm reduction. At worst, it obfuscates where our real power comes from. Our power doesn’t come from electoral politics, but from the self-activity and self-organization of working people. Our power doesn’t end with nor is it contained by our class. Nor is our power limited to collectively withholding our labor. From daily collective resistance through disrupting business-as-usual to creating alternative networks of dual power; our options are myriad. Ours is not state power, but a true social power that arises from class self-emancipation.

Maoists were fond of opining “dare to struggle, dare to win.” But to Mao’s “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall,” libertarian socialists counter “if it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough.” It goes without saying that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. We must build workers’ movements with teeth, those with the power to force the hands of those in power. The odds are stacked heavily against us, and our timeframe must be measured in generations, if not centuries. Our choice remains a Luxemburgian one between socialism or barbarism, even if our chances for socialism are slim.

This strident screed is almost pure left communism. But the older I get the less I feel the need for any kind of purity—theoretical, practical or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit that my default “class über alles” politics doesn’t work well dealing with those ur-divisions—sex and race—that preceded the rise of capitalism by millennia. I don’t propound the thesis that “race/sex is a social construct” so much as I ignore contradictions based on race and sex altogether. The Old Left and the New Left did a far better job grappling with and integrating a class-based analysis with concerns over racism and sexism. And that’s not my only political contradiction.

I’ve downplayed my involvement in electoral politics by contending that voting minimizes harm. US politics has allowed me, as a California resident, to claim that I voted for “far left” Bernie Sanders while conveniently ignoring that the Democratic party candidate is likely to be “reactionary scum” Joe Biden. Thus I can claim the moral high ground by saying I voted my conscience while sidestepping the fact that my vote was essentially wasted. Which is just one step shy of arguing that all voting is a waste, bringing us back to the reform versus revolution debate.

I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s Semiotext(e) volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvère Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base” who wrote: “[p]olitical autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.I considered this an intriguing method to bridge the divide between anarchism and Marxism, a brilliant way to move forward politically, and a powerful tool for getting things done. Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered such a strategy not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness.

I’ve since realized that such a strategy rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. As an anarchist-Marxist I thought it possible to synthesize differences from below and to develop a “general line” through shared direct action. Perhaps at the height of some revolutionary situation, but as a rule synthesis and unity are the exception when it comes to finding common theoretical ground through common political activity.

Autonomy’s flaccid approach conveniently evades the almost laughably Aristotelian logic of Luxemburgian “reform or revolution” while simultaneously threatening to devolve into grouplet politics. “Grouplet politics is not an embryo of revolutionary politics,” wrote Goren Therborn. “It is a substitute for it.” Paul Costello describes the history of the US Left over the past several decades—and my own “pure” politics by implication—as the epitome of “grouplet politics.” He cedes that capitalism “has once again proven its great stability, resilience and flexibility” and argues that “we can no longer afford the luxury of small sect politics, with the delusion that it is revolutionary politics in embryo.” Costello insists that we shift the “terrain out of the left ghetto and into the mainstream” and recommends the more nuanced, integrative Hegelian/Marxist dialectical logic of Antonio Gramsci. [Theoretical Review #31, 1983]

A Leninist, Gramsci was intent on forging the working class into a counter hegemony capable of revolutionary “wars of position” that simultaneously entailed a long march through the institutions of capital’s hegemonic apparatus. “[W]hile remaining faithful to the value of total transformation beyond capitalism,” Walter L. Adamson argues. “Gramscian revolution also offered a gradualist approach consistent with the cultural and political complexity of the West and devoid of the means-ends paradoxes which plagued classical Leninism.” [Theory and Society, v6 n3] Gramsci’s subtle Marxism, in particular his targeting of the cultural superstructure of Western capitalist societies, has lead him to be appropriated by both Eurocommunism and the neo-Fascist Nouvelle Droite. Philosopher André Gorz, a neo-Marxist schooled in Gramsci, developed the strategy of non-reformist reformism to bridge the divide between reform and revolution in Strategy for Labor:
[A] struggle for non-reformist reforms—for anti-capitalist reforms—is one which does not base its validity and its right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales. A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. The changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

I’ll revisit this soon. Next column: Traditionalism.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Social Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi
“Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy” by Paul Costello
“Beyond ‘Reform or Revolution:’ Notes on Political Education in Gramsci, Habermas and Arendt” by Walter L. Adamson
Gramsci and Marxist Theory ed. by Mouffe
Where Have all the Fascists Gone? By Tamir Bar-on
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Reform and Revolution” by André Gorz
See also Nicos Poulantzas on Gramsci, revolution and structural reformism

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