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)

Buy my book, 1% Free, here.

Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.