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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Chalkboard #2: @ Taxonomy

The chalkboard series is where I think out loud.

Proposed Anarchism Taxonomy:

FIRST WAVE ANARCHISM (CLASSICAL ANARCHISM): from Godwin to Spanish Civil War, attenuated to present. Individualist, mutualist, collectivist, syndicalist, communist, etc.

SECOND WAVE ANARCHISM (LEFT ANARCHISM):
Phase One (1965-1985): countercultural (Diggers), Situationist (Motherfuckers), New Leftist (Yippie!, Bookchin). Phase Two (1985-present): anti-imperialist, Third Worldist, revolutionary (Love and Rage).

THIRD WAVE ANARCHISM (POST ANARCHISM?):
1985 to present: post-left (Bey, Black, Zerzan, et al), insurrectionary/communizing (Tikkun/Invisible Committee).

WHAT’S NOT ANARCHISM OR LIBERTARIANISM:
Free market “libertarianism” and “anarchist capitalism” which dates from 1967, or fascist “national anarchism” which spawned circa 1997.

The Left and Their Fetishes: “What’s Left?” April 2017, MRR #407

ONE

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843

I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.

Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.

Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.

As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.

Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.

What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.

TWO

Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”

One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.

DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.

Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.

I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.

Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.