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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Tankies, but no Tankies: “What’s Left?” June 2017, MRR #409


My friend’s a tankie.

A tankie is someone who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still supports existing “socialist” states like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Communist Party Stalinist hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States.

It’s more accurate to say an acquaintance I knew from way back when wants to “friend” me on FB, and I’m not sure I want to accept the request because he’s a tankie.

My friend Garrett was originally a fellow New Leftie when we met at Ventura Community College in 1970. He was a member of New American Movement, an organization founded to succeed Students for a Democratic Society. NAM was structurally decentralized, politically quasi-Leninist, equal parts democratic socialist and socialist feminist, with a special interest in Antonio Gramsci. Garrett was an assistant professor who, when the voting age was reduced to 18, organized a bunch of us under-21 antiwar youngsters to run for Ventura city council and school board.

When I went off to UCSC as an undergraduate junior transfer in 1972, Garrett got a teaching gig at UCB. I visited him a few times in Berkeley while he was an associate professor. It was the height of ideological battles and street fights between Revolutionary Union Maoists, Draperite Trotskyists, Black Panther Party cadre, et al, in Berkeley from 1972 to 1975. Ostensibly, Garrett taught courses on neo-Marxism—covering thinkers like Lukács, Marcuse, Gorz, and Kołakowski—but he was a hardcore Trotskyist by then. I didn’t know which of the 57 varieties of Trot he subscribed to by the time I moved with my girlfriend down to San Diego to attend graduate school at UCSD in 1976. But when I visited Berkeley in 1979 after that girlfriend and I broke up Garrett had gone off the deep end. He’d been relieved of his professorship under mysterious circumstances, lived in a loose Psychic Institute house in south Berkeley, avidly followed Lyndon LaRouche’s US Labor Party, and was obsessed with Joseph Newman’s perpetual motion machines. I was told a particularly bad acid trip accounted for the changes. Garrett sent me a copy of the headline from the Spartacist League’s party paper in the summer of 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which read: “Hail Red Army!”

I had almost no contact with Garrett for the next thirty-seven years. I moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and briefly glimpsed a bedraggled Garrett walking along the sidewalk while I drank coffee at the old Cody’s Bookstore glassed-in cafe sometime around 1993. I asked after him whenever I came across Trotskyists—SWP, ISO, BT—tabling at events, but most had no idea who I was talking about and those who did avoided my eyes. One day in early 2002 I ran into a familiar face from Ventura’s anti-war movement, a woman named Carlin, who said Garrett had moved to Chicago, where he was now a day trader. And that’s how matters stood until I got Garrett’s friend request on my FB profile fifteen years later.

I could only suss out so much from Garrett’s FB wall without actually confirming his friend request. His profile picture was conservative enough—his bearded visage in a suit and tie—but his cover photo was of a pro-Russian poster from East Ukraine done in a Soviet socialist realist style with armed partisan soldiers circa 1918, 1941, and 2014 captioned in cyrillic which translated into “The fate of the Russian people, to repeat the feats of fathers: defend their native land.” There was a pro-China post calling the Dalai Lama a CIA agent, and a pro-Russian post supporting Assad as Syria’s only chance for peace. A meme proclaimed “Hands Off North Korea” with a smiling, waving image of Kim Jong Un, while another meme featured a slideshow of neoconservative talking heads under the banner “Children of Satan.” There was a link to a video decrying Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians, and another to a weird video featuring Putin and Trump dancing to The Beatles “Back in the USSR.” His FB info confirmed that he resided in Chicago and dabbled in stock market trading, and when I googled him I learned that Garrett had once been arrested and spent time in prison. But I learned nothing about the charges, the sentence, or the time served, only that he had made several failed attempts to void the conviction through habeas corpus filings.

His criminal past was no problem. His tankie tendencies were.

We acquire our friends throughout our life, from where we live and work to begin with, but then from communities of shared interest and activity. The former are friends by circumstance, and the latter friends by choice, or so we tell ourselves. The fact is it’s far more complicated. For much of my life I made friends at work, school, or where I lived, allowing the context of my life at the moment to determine who my friends were. As a consequence I made friends who were frequently racist, sexist, homophobic, or completely lacking in political sensibilities, if not outright conservative. But when I consciously engaged in political association and activity, I also let the circumstance of my politics determine who I befriended. So while I made much of belonging to anarchist affinity groups where I shared political theory and practice with people I considered friends, ultimately my political engagements determined who I associated with and befriended. Such people might share my politics, and might not be overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you, but they were often cruel or stupid or angry or lacking in empathy. Indeed, given that the political fringes are overwhelmingly populated by individuals who are socially lacking and psychologically damaged, my pool of potential friends had serious problems from the beginning.

Because of our propensity to make friends based on the context we find ourselves in, that old aphorism about “choosing one’s friends wisely” seldom applies, especially when we realize that we rarely know anybody very well and that people are constantly changing. I might not consciously decide to befriend the rabid Maoist whose bloodthirsty calls to “liquidate the bourgeoisie” or “eliminate the Zionist entity” irk me no end, but I might also start to admire and have affinity for him as we work together politically. And stories of political adversaries who become fast friends despite, or perhaps because of their battles with each other are legion. The mechanisms of how we become friends might be somewhat capricious, but surely we can decide whether to remain friends once we’ve become buddy-buddy?

Let’s take an extreme example to make the resulting conflicts obvious.

I once had a passing acquaintance with crypto-fascist Boyd Rice. My loose affinity group of anarchist friends in San Diego put out four issues of a single sheet broadside style 11×17 @ zine called “yada, yada, yada” circa 1979. One of the issues was called the “dada yada” because its theme was surrealism and dadaism, and it involved one of our group, Sven, collaborating with Boyd Rice and Steve Hitchcock to produce. The rest of our affinity didn’t contribute to or much approve of the project, although I did meet Boyd and attended a performance of an early version of his band NON with him playing rotoguitar. I was disturbed by the fascist imagery and symbolism so prominent in the industrial subculture of the day, in which Boyd seemed to revel. But when I argued with Sven against his association with Boyd, he argued back that you should never end a friendship simply over political differences. This was before Boyd Rice augmented his fascist flirtations with a virulently racist social Darwinism and an involvement in Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan. Whenever people ask me whether Boyd and I were ever friends, I assure them I wasn’t.

I should have realized that the position that one’s personal affection for an individual trumps whatever political conflicts exist is just a roundabout way of saying “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” And when we fail to point out the sin to the sinner, we are in danger of becoming complicit in defending the sinner’s sin by being silent about it. Few of us are brave or honest enough to tell our friends exactly what we think of them, often because we don’t want to lose their friendship, go out on an emotional limb, or do something personally uncomfortable. So we do a disservice to those victims of racism or fascism when we make excuses for our friends, when we treat their racism or fascism as merely “points of view” rather than aspects of their behavior with real consequences for real people.

But aren’t we all human beings? None of us are wholly good or purely evil. Individual humans are multifaceted and complex, with good and bad qualities which are frequently combined so deeply together that it’s almost impossible to characterize any one individual as just one thing. Therefore we should give people, especially our racist or fascist friends, the benefit of the doubt because “they are human and have feelings too” and none of them are “bad people.” Actually, we should be glad they’re human because we want them to suffer when we take away their power to act on their racism and fascism. We want them to suffer because change means suffering. But if we’re not willing to confront our racist and fascist friends, if we’re unwilling to challenge the power behind their racist or fascist behavior no matter how casual or flip, perhaps it’s time to stop being their friends.

I was familiar with anarchist/libertarian crossover politics, but the Boyd Rice incident was the first time I encountered Left/Right crossover politics as part of punk, itself rife with “transgressive” countercultural crossovers. I hadn’t been aware of the original dada/surrealist crossover, with Evola and Dali trending ultraright and Buñuel and Breton trending ultraleft. Left/Right crossover politics seem to be the idiocy de jour however, with everything from National Anarchism to Steve Bannon calling himself a Leninist. I’m afraid that Garrett’s pro-Assad, pro-Kim Jong Un, pro-Putin tankie politics have much the same flavor, an implicit Red/Brown crossover with allusions to LaRouche and blood libel.

I think I’ll pass on Garrett’s friend request.