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Archive for the ‘Marxism Today’ Category

Confronting the Stalinist legacy-Corey Oakley

Posted by admin On September - 20 - 2019 Comments Off on Confronting the Stalinist legacy-Corey Oakley


One of the magnificent features of the Arab revolutions is the ruthless manner in which they have exposed the dirty, duplicitous, hypocritical, blood-soaked truth about the global political establishment. As the revolutionary wave spread to envelop almost the whole of North Africa and the Middle East, Western politicians, diplomats, university heads, business executives and government bureaucrats squirmed, as evidence of their ties with the despots of the Arab world circulated across the internet.

Disgracefully though, some on the left have been tarred with the same brush. When revolution broke out in Egypt and Tunisia, the left was united in its response – celebrating the uprisings and denouncing the West for its role in backing the dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But when the revolt spread to Libya, it was a different story. Muammar Gaddafi1– before his recent embrace of the West – was once seen as a hero by many on the left. Among those who leapt to his defence were populist left wing leaders like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, who themselves still enjoy widespread support from the international left. While a clear majority of left wing organisations and groups voiced support for the Libyan uprising, a number either explicitly backed Gaddafi or surreptitiously undermined the revolution and attempted to depict it as a reactionary movement in alliance with US imperialism. Even of those on the left who supported the Libyan revolt, a number were hampered by their shady past of support for and collaboration with Gaddafi’s dictatorship. This history opened the space for right wing media hacks to have a field day, attempting to deflect attention from where it should have been: on the fact that the Arab revolution is a revolt against a system of brutal, authoritarian class rule across the Middle East and North Africa that the US and other imperial powers were instrumental in setting up and maintaining.

But the fact that the alliance between US imperialism, Zionism and Arab capitalism is the main enemy does not absolve the left from having to put its own house in order. That sections of the left were prepared to mount a semi-open defence of Gaddafi as he attempted to drown an inspiring, democratic revolt in blood, and that others have until very recently supported his barbaric regime, is a searing indictment of these groups’ claims to stand for human liberation and a demonstration that the cancer of Stalinism has not yet been exorcised.

It is important to document the history of left support for Gaddafi, which we will do below. But it is equally vital to explain it. There are only a few groups on the left today willing to openly argue that the model for socialism is authoritarian dictatorship. But the legacy of Stalinism runs much deeper than that. Stalinism infected almost every aspect of left wing politics, well beyond the official bearers of “socialist truth” in what were once monolithic communist parties. Stalinism transformed the way the left viewed revolution, leadership, states and classes, and their role in social struggle. It grotesquely distorted Marxism, replacing a vision of human emancipation achieved by working class insurrection with a shoddy collection of theories and mantras which so transformed the meaning of the word socialism as to make it applicable to the most hideous of regimes. These recent events demonstrate that while it is now 20 years since the collapse of official communism in the USSR, the struggle to rid the left of the legacy of Stalinism remains incomplete.

Libya and the left

At the head of those offering solidarity to Gaddafi’s tottering rule were the populist left leaders of Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, as WikiLeaks confirmed in some detail in February,2was a long-time ally of Libyan dictator.

In 2009, the US Embassy in Caracas wrote Washington about an African-South American summit held on the Venezuelan island of Margarita. Chávezhad called the meeting in an effort to highlight the historic unity between long-oppressed continents, though such public relations efforts were severely undermined by the roster of participants which included autocrats like Qaddafi and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. According to US diplomats, Chávez and Qaddafi congratulated each other on their “revolutions” during the ceremonies… Chávez declared “What Simon Bolívar [the Great Liberator of South American independence against the Spanish] is to the Venezuelan people, Gaddafi is to the Libyan people.3

Little wonder then that Chávez refused to denounce the massacres being carried out by Gaddafi’s regime, let alone give his backing to the revolutionaries.4In a televised speech, Chávez told his audience: “A campaign of lies is being spun together regarding Libya. I’m not going to condemn him. I’d be a coward to condemn someone who has been my friend.”5 Various of Chávez’s supporters were prepared to go much further. Venezuelan state television ran ongoing coverage viciously slandering the Libyan opposition and parroting the lunatic propaganda of the Gaddafi regime. Alimamy Bakarr Sankoh, President of the Hugo Chávez International Foundation for Peace, Friendship and Solidarity (HCI-FPFS), said:

Foreign powers, opposed to peace, unity and progress of Africa are in action again, leading a wicked campaign of treachery, deception and terrorism against Libyan leader, Muammar Al-Qathafi and the people of Libya. This time, the enemies of Africa are hiding behind the corrupt foreign media in their criminal attempts to attack and destroy Libya.6

Fidel Castro, in a widely circulated statement, expressed similar sentiments:

One can agree with Gaddafi or not. The world has been invaded with all kinds of news, especially using the mass media. One has to wait the necessary length of time in order to learn precisely what is the truth and what are lies, or a mixture of events of every kind that, in the midst of chaos, were produced in Libya… As for me, I cannot imagine that the Libyan leader would abandon his country; escaping the responsibilities he is charged with, whether or not they are partially or totally false.7

Both Chávez and Castro warned that the main danger facing Libya was Western intervention – an argument that was to be taken up by a number of groups and individuals on the left seeking to undermine the revolution. The widely read US-based website MRZine led the charge on this front, and on another – that of attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the revolt by casting dark aspersions about the nature of the revolutionary movement:

Now, the US naval war machine lies off the coast of Libya, and it is time for the American anti-war movement – such as it is – to remember who is the biggest enemy of peace on planet Earth: US imperialism. It is certainly not Muamar Khadafi, no matter what you think of him. And the conflict that is raging in Libya seems in important ways very much unlike the events in Tunisia and Egypt. The anti-Khadafi forces were armed from almost the very beginning of the uprising and included elements of the military. Unlike the opponents of Egypt’s President Mubarak, we know very little about who these rebel Libyans are – except that they have been getting lots of material help from the Americans and the French and other Europeans.8

Socialists, of course, must resolutely oppose imperialist intervention in the Arab world, which is aimed entirely at defeating the democratic revolution and ensuring the continued subjugation of the Arab people. Likewise, it would be wrong to deny that as the revolt spreads, all kinds of reactionaries and elements of the old regimes will try to attach themselves to the revolutionary movement and turn it to their own ends. But the campaign waged by MRZine – along with other Stalinists such as the Workers World Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (both in the US), as well as Chávez, Castro and others like Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – used the threat of imperialist intervention simply as justification for their refusal to break with Gaddafi, whose monstrous regime they consider to be progressive, if not actually socialist.

And while the majority of left organisations around the world have been willing to support the revolt, the list of leftist groups and individuals who have in the past lauded Gaddafi’s regime, and even received financial support from him, is depressingly long. The most notorious backers of Gaddafi on the left were undoubtedly Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain and their various international offshoots, such as the Socialist Labour League in Australia. Thankfully this group is today an irrelevant, withering sect. But there are many other major figures from recent left history who had a connection with Gaddafi. Arthur Scargill, the iconoclastic former head of the British miners’ union, met with Gaddafi to get support during the 1984 miners’ strike. Australian parliamentarians, along with many left wing activists, visited Libya during “solidarity conferences” in the 1980s. These included left Labor MPs Joan Coxsedge, Jean McLean and George Crawford, as well as former Nuclear Disarmament Party federal senator Irina Dunn. Another acolyte of Gaddafi was Bill Hartley, who had been the secretary of the Victorian ALP before the purge of the left in 1971.

More recently Libya hosted the third Al Mathaba “anti-imperialist” conference in 2000. It was attended by a combination of Third World dictators and, shamefully, representatives from leftist parties across the world. So alongside despots like Sam Nujoma from Namibia, Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe and Idris Deby from Chad sat representatives of groups considered part of the international left – the Cuban Communist Party; Shaffik Handal from FMLN in San Salvador; a representative of Hugo Chávez; Lula, of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (before he took power and endorsed neoliberalism); Gladys Marin, the General Secretary of the Chilean Communist Party; Marina Arismendi, General Secretary of the Uruguayan Communists. From Europe there was a delegation from the Italian Communist Refoundation Party, which at the time was held up by many on the international left as an exemplary party worthy of emulation. There was also a Spanish delegation led by José Cabo from the United Left.9

Castro, Chávez and socialist internationalism

Support for the revolutionary movement in Libya has not necessarily translated into strong condemnation of the supposedly left governments which have backed him. The Australian Socialist Alliance, for example, backed the revolution. But its criticism of Chávez and Castro for their repugnant stand has been less than thunderous. This is a major issue because Chávez in particular is regularly featured on the front cover of Green Left Weekly and praised in glowing terms. But the best GLW was able to do in the face of their hero siding with Gaddafi was to say: “Ignoring the brutal reality of Gaddafi, who has been a friend in recent years of the West and its allied dictators, risks breaking ties with popular Arab movements.”10 On the Green Left discussion list one prominent Socialist Alliance member Chris Slee wrote:

We need to be cautious about capitalist media accounts of what is happening in Libya and elsewhere. The reluctance of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments to assign blame for the violence in Libya is therefore understandable to a certain extent. Nevertheless it seems clear that the Gaddafi regime today is a corrupt dictatorship which has had close links to the imperialist powers (though they are now ready to dump him). I would have preferred some expression of support from Cuba and Venezuela for the struggle for democracy in Libya.11

At a time when the sight of Chávez and Castro refusing to side with the Libyan revolution was causing anger and angst around the world, not least from many who had seen them as inspiring anti-imperialist leaders, the best Slee could do was to advise caution and mildly suggest that he “would have preferred some expression of support”!

One of the people on the left who, to his credit, has the least time for the various Gaddafi-enablers is Marxmail co-ordinator Louis Proyect. But in attacking Chávez and Castro, Proyect still gives ground to the argument that it is a legitimate part of socialist diplomacy to sacrifice solidarity with a resistance movement in another country in order to maintain relations with its bourgeois government:

Now it should be clearly understood that there is nothing wrong with forming alliances with Zimbabwe, Iran or Libya. Countries that are trying to develop a foreign policy independent of imperialism will by necessity adopt a kind of socialist realpolitik. When the government of Mexico made the streets run red with the blood of student protesters in 1968, it was understandable why Cuba remained silent. When Cuba had few friends in Latin America, Mexico’s PRI had a shred enough of remaining nationalism to stand up to the OAS and trade with Cuba. Furthermore, Cuba was in its rights to maintain diplomatic relations with Spain when Franco was dictator. Beggars cannot be choosers.12

So in certain situations it is acceptable internationalist policy to let the odd massacre slide? This approach has nothing to do with the Marxist tradition. The Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia were not hostile to forming tactical alliances, but they did not privilege maintaining them at the expense of offering solidarity to struggles of the oppressed. The approach of the Bolsheviks was laid out by the Council of People’s Commissars in December 1917:

Taking into consideration that the Soviet government is based on the principles of the international solidarity of the proletariat and on the brotherhood of the toilers of all countries, and that the struggle against war and imperialism can be brought to a completely successful conclusion only if waged on an international scale, the Council of People’s Commissars considers it necessary to offer assistance by all possible means to the Left internationalist wing of the labour movement of all countries, regardless of whether these countries are at war with Russia, in alliance with Russia, or neutral.13

Whether it was the Brest-Litovsk agreement that ended the war, the Treaty of Rapallo signed with Germany in 1922 which provided for military co-operation to resist the French occupation of the Ruhr, or the negotiations with the reformists in France, tactical alliances with non-revolutionary forces were always subordinated to support for rebellions from workers and the oppressed in those countries. Brian Pearce summed up their approach:

Whatever tacking between the rival imperialist camps might be forced upon the Soviet government, support of the anti-imperialist fight in all countries without exception remained a constant element in its policy.14

There is nothing of this revolutionary internationalism in the foreign policy of Chávez and Castro today, who instead of subordinating the needs of their own state to those of the international revolution, are prepared to abandon resistance movements internationally in order to maintain grubby alliances that serve their own narrow interests.

The Socialist Alliance and Gaddafi

As noted, Green Left Weekly did make it clear that it supported the revolution against Gaddafi. On February 27 Peter Boyle – a leading figure in the organisation – wrote of Gaddafi’s Libya:

The Gaddafi regime said it provided its citizens with free education and health, though quality and access was uneven. Tellingly, Libyans who could afford it preferred to go to neighbouring Tunisia or Europe. It provided its workers with some welfare, but did not allow unions. Nor did it treat its significant number of “guest” workers equally or fairly, some of whom were placed in closed labour camps. A bizarre personality cult around Gaddafi was obvious. There was a pretence at popular democracy through a system of “people’s congresses”, but these seemed to have only a nominal existence.15

But Boyle’s determination to expose the failings of the Gaddafi regime is not exactly time-honoured. On returning from the Asia-Pacific solidarity conference, held in Libya in 1987, he wrote a shockingly sycophantic, fawning piece for Direct Action,16 praising to high heaven the achievements of Gaddafi’s regime and the Libyan revolution. According to Boyle, personal freedoms flourished in Gaddafi’s Libya:

Most Libyans I spoke to insisted that they felt more free in their country than in any other they had visited… In the capitalist Third World, an apartheid of wealth is enforced. The poor are banned from the expensive hotels unless they are there to provide obsequious service to the rich. Police and private security guards enforce this caste system. But in Libya, people felt free to move where they liked. Groups of Libyan youths wandered casually through the most expensive hotels, stopping occasionally for a cup of coffee or a meal.17

Not only were personal liberties guaranteed, but Gaddafi presided over a radical egalitarian society:

The second striking feature of Libya was its egalitarianism. I saw no shantytowns, no bedraggled beggars, and no obviously privileged people in chauffeur-driven limousines… The only opulent homes seemed to be those left by the Italian colonialists. These now served as public institutions of one kind or another… Libya’s egalitarianism is not one of shared poverty… The roads are crowded with private cars and in general people display a very easy-going attitude to life.18

Moreover, this wondrous state of affairs was not due simply to luck, or oil. It was the “revolutionary process” unleashed by Gaddafi’s 1969 military coup:

This prosperous egalitarianism is not simply a product of Libya’s oil wealth. Other Third World countries have small populations and large oil resources but remain marked by great inequality and sometimes by very poor social services. When Colonel Muammar Kaddafi and a group of fellow army officers seized power in 1969, a revolutionary process began. Since then there has been a major redistribution of wealth, and considerable investment in agricultural and industrial development. The Libyan revolution has imposed important restrictions on capitalism, and calls itself socialist… Private land may not be leased out, and private merchandising is also prohibited. These provisions prevent the exploitation of one individual by another, say supporters of the Green Book. Profit has been abolished and individuals are paid only for their own labour.19

Of course Libya was not perfect, Boyle admitted. But he was quick to reassure us that any lack of enthusiasm to match his own among Libyan youth could be put down to quite banal factors:

Like most Third World states, Libya suffers from an ongoing brain-drain to the West. The revolution’s critics say this is due to political repression, but I found that most students who had studied abroad had more basic motives for being reluctant to return. The main attraction of the West, for quite a few Libyan men, was its nightclubs and discos.20

As to the system of government, Boyle saw nothing ludicrous in the mad claim – repeated by Gaddafi as his security forces massacred demonstrators in the streets this February – that Gaddafi himself held no real authority in the state:

Most Libyans concede that Kaddafi does not lead the country on a day-to-day basis. His leadership tends to be more of a moral kind. He reputedly has no executive power.21

It is true that Boyle could find some faults with the revolution, such as bureaucratisation in the state apparatus:

The problems of bureaucracy in Libya are evident both internally and externally… [There are] numerous alliances the Libyan government has made with dubious political groups, governments and factions within other national liberation organisations. Often these links are the work of corrupt and inefficient foreign affairs officials. Internally, the massive waste of human and material resources attest to the problem of bureaucracy.22

But bureaucratisation, says Boyle (in a grotesque understatement of the realities of centralised control in the Stalinist states) “is a problem confronting all socialist societies”. And, of course, those things can be overcome, and should not take away from the overall positives of the situation:

Kaddafi claims to have discovered the perfect model of participatory democracy. And to be fair the people’s congress does allow a degree of control over the government not seen in capitalist parliamentary systems.23

The Socialist Alliance claims that it is simply sectarian quibbling to haggle over these historical facts. They are wrong. First, the historic support given by them to despotic regimes undermines the left’s claim that socialism is about human liberation, not despotism. It gives ammunition to the right, helping them bury the truth about the responsibility of the West for the tyrannical power structures of the Arab world under a mountain of accusations against the left. Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, would attack us no matter what we did. But he is much aided by the long history of leftists lauding reprehensible dictators as freedom fighters and socialists. So at the same time that Tony Blair, a recent convert, was declaring Gaddafi “immensely courageous and a force for good”,24Sheridan was able to write articles trying to paint the left as no better:

It was an iron rule of the Cold War that the more grotesque and horrible the communist regime, the more dedicated and active would be its fan club, its friendship societies and fellow travellers in the West. But no devotion was ever stranger than that lavished on the Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Of course, intellectuals always love money and Gaddafi had plenty of it. There was a period in my life where I couldn’t wait each week to visit the big news stand at Sydney’s Town Hall to read the new edition of the Workers News25… It was financed in part by Gaddafi’s munificence, and I rejoiced at the exotic ideological material it offered. In among the routine denunciations of uranium mining and calls for greater trade union militancy would be a couple of pages extolling Gaddafi’s fatuous and incoherent green book and the Libyan revolution.26

Sheridan was not alone. Andrew Bolt, the Melbourne Herald Sun’s favourite flat-earther, waded in, asking “What is it with the left and dictators like Gaddafi?”27 Milanda Rout in The Australian mocked the former Labor MPs who had all visited Libya as part of a solidarity delegation in 1989.28

But the problems raised by the Socialist Alliance’s sordid history of support for Gaddafi go well beyond giving space to a few right wing media hacks. They reveal fundamental issues with the whole conception of socialism advanced by Boyle and his supporters. Even if we allow for a moment (and we shouldn’t) that the Gaddafi regime was once the inspiring utopia that Boyle suggested in 1987, where is the explanation of how things went wrong? Surely the transformation of a country characterised by the abolition of the profit system and a “prosperous egalitarianism” into an authoritarian dictatorship would have been the subject of extensive study and discussion? When the USSR degenerated into Stalinist dictatorship, Trotsky and others around the world were consumed by their attempts to understand and explain what had gone wrong. But if you look through the archives of the Green Left Weekly site you cannot find a single article29 – prior to February 2011 – that seriously criticises the Libyan regime. When Obama belatedly declared his support for Tunisian democracy just hours before Ben Ali boarded a plane into exile, he was rightly mocked. How is this any different?

The fact is, in any case, that the truth about the Libyan regime was never as obscure as Boyle would have us believe. In a 1984 article in the International Socialism Journal Jon Bearman outlined the broad features of the regime, explaining that:

The 1st September revolution was not a socialist revolution but an anti-colonial revolution led by the intelligentsia. Qadhafi and the eleven other members of the Revolutionary Command Council, set up as the supreme authority after the coup, were not Marxists. Their motives have been essentially Arab nationalist… The most important single influence on their political development was that of Gamal Abdul Nasser, and it was his Egypt which provided the model of the sort of society they wanted to create in Libya.30

The working class played no role in the 1969 coup, and in no sense had political power. Although there were some unique features of Libyan society under Gaddafi, it was in essence similar to many other regimes that took power in the colonial world which asserted greater independence, nationalised key sections of the economy, allied themselves to the USSR or the Non-Aligned Movement, and in many cases called themselves socialist. Gaddafi was always deeply hostile to class politics and any form of political action by workers. Trotskyists and other Marxists were imprisoned during the “cultural revolution” of 1973-77. Of union action Gaddafi said: “The trade unions have nothing to do with politics – at no time and at no place. Trade unions and federations are professional organisations. It is the ASU [Arab Socialist Union] which engages in politics.”31 Gaddafi ruled through an alliance between the Revolutionary Committee movement and the state bureaucracy. These top-down structures, tightly controlled by Gaddafi himself (despite his claims, echoed by Boyle, that he was merely a “moral leader”) were concerned with the same thing that ruling classes are concerned with the world over – self-perpetuation and the accumulation of capital. As Bearman wrote:

It is in their capacity as a formation which controls capital and extracts surplus value for the accumulation of capital by the state that the state authorities in Libya, both the administrators and the revolutionary committees, constitute a ruling class – a state capitalist class.32

Initially – as was the case in many of the former colonial countries – Gaddafi was a popular leader. But the underlying class structure of Libyan society meant, inevitably, that popular reforms gave way to austerity, attacks on workers’ living standards, and the suppression of dissent.

Regardless of whether it was possible to predict the extent to which Gaddafi’s regime would descend into a version of Dante’s hell, no analysis based on Marxism could possibly conclude that Libya was a socialist country in the 1980s. Marx argued in the Communist Manifesto that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy”. This idea – a foundation stone of Marxism – was further developed by Marx, Engels and Luxemburg, and then by Lenin in the course of the Russian revolution. From Russia 1917 we get the most vivid example of what working class power and socialism means – the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state and its replacement by a new form of state power based on working class democratic control. Nothing remotely similar to this existed in Gaddafi’s Libya – indeed working class organisations were repressed from the beginning of his time in power.

Stalinism and the distortion of Marxism

To understand why some on the left could get it so dramatically wrong on Libya, we need to go back and examine the impact of Stalinism on the left over the last century. The starting point for this is examining the attitude of the left to Stalin’s regime itself. From the late 1920s until the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the USSR in 1989-91, the “Russian question”, in various forms, was the key issue facing the revolutionary left internationally. Anyone who called themselves a socialist, or was looking for an alternative to capitalism, had to figure out what they thought about the so-called “socialist third of the world”. Most importantly, they had to answer the question: were these countries in fact socialist? Find out how someone answered this, and you would be a long way along the path of understanding them politically. This is because the “Russian question” was not simply about Russia, it went to your whole conception of what socialism was, of the meaning of human liberation and the strategies needed to achieve it. It was, as Marcel van der Linden put it in his 2007 book Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, “the touchstone of theoretical and practical attitudes which lay claim to revolution”.33 Chris Harman, reviewing van der Linden, explained that:

This “Russian question” involved innumerable documents, polemics, tortuous debates and episodes of apparently petty point scoring. But the arguments involved were not a case of theory for theory’s sake. They had immense practical implications. If Russia was in some way socialist, or at least a “workers’ state” or a “post-capitalist society”, then siding with it was siding with the struggle for a socialist future for humanity as a whole. If, far from being in some way socialist, it was a more backward form of social organisation than capitalism, the logical thing to do was critically to support the Western capitalists in their moves against it. And, if it was essentially the same sort of society as that in the West, then what fitted was to argue, “A plague on both your houses.”34

For much of the last century most of the left outside the social democratic parties, and indeed many within, answered the question of whether Russia was socialist in the affirmative. That is they identified, partially in some cases, completely in others, their own vision of what society ought to be like with the actual existing society in one or more of Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam etc. Many good people joined the Communist Parties for admirable reasons – because they were working class militants; because they recognised the injustices of capitalism and wanted to fight for a different society. But the socialism that they aligned themselves with had nothing to do with human liberation, and nothing to do with Marxism. Stalin’s brutal one-party dictatorship represented not the continuation of the Russian revolution of 1917, but its defeat. To consolidate power Stalin had to annihilate everything that was revolutionary in Russia, including, in the end, all of those who had led the Bolsheviks and the revolution in 1917.

The fact that so many people who hated capitalism identified with the monstrosity of Stalin’s Russia was one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. There were some, though, who rejected the claim that the “socialist states” had anything to do with genuine human liberation. On the one hand were those among the anarchists and libertarians who rejected not only the Stalinist states, but also the Russian revolution and the Bolshevism practised by Lenin, Trotsky and others before Stalin rose to power. This group put forward the formula Lenin = Stalin, which was also promoted by both Stalinists and Cold War apologists for Western capitalism.

The other main group was the Trotskyists. They were unique in that they put forward a critique of Stalinism that based itself on defence of the October revolution in Russia. Their argument, at its base, was that as Trotsky put it as early as 1927, Stalin was “the gravedigger of the revolution”. But from the start of World War II, just before Trotsky was murdered by an agent of Stalin, the Trotskyist movement began to split into a series of warring groups over their analysis of the USSR. Some, led by Max Shachtman, developed a theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” to describe the Stalinist regime. Shachtman (though to be fair, not all who followed his theory) eventually came to see Russia as being worse than Western capitalism. The logical conclusion of this was siding with the West in the Cold War and support for the barbaric imperial project in Vietnam.

The so-called “Orthodox Trotskyists” stuck to the letter of Trotsky’s own analysis, that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state”. That is, they claimed that although the state machine was controlled by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the state was still in its fundamental form a tool of the working class, by virtue of state control of industry. This led them to characterise Stalinism as superior to the West, and to demand “defence of the Soviet Union”. The problem with this view became clear after World War II, with the Russian takeover of Eastern Europe. In none of the Eastern European countries were there workers’ revolutions, and yet in a very short space of time these states were organised on almost identical lines to Russia itself. If you accepted that they were socialist, you had to accept that it is possible to bring about socialism without a working class revolution. Not only that, “counter-revolutionary” Stalinism in fact played a deeply revolutionary role – bringing workers’ rule into the heart of Europe. This has profound ramifications for practical politics. After all, if it is possible to avoid the long, difficult road of workers’ revolution, why would you not do so?

The third main grouping was that based on the analysis of British socialist Tony Cliff, who argued that Stalin had carried out a counter-revolution in Russia and restored capitalism, if in a bureaucratic, statised form. From this, Cliff argued that the two imperial blocs in the Cold War were essentially the same, that full-blooded workers’ revolutions were needed in both East and West. Socialist Alternative today stands on the basic foundations laid down by Cliff.35

These arguments, between the Stalinists and the Trotskyists, the Trotskyists and the anarchists, and between the Trotskyists themselves, were waged fiercely. But the debate over the “Russian question” was in no sense arcane. It was a battle for the soul of socialism, a struggle to reclaim Marxism as a weapon for human liberation, to insist that socialism was about workers’ democratic control over society or it was about nothing.

Today, more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is fashionable on the left to dismiss debates about the class nature of the USSR as being a sign of hopeless sectarianism, or disinterest in anything that happened more recently than 1930. And it is true that in 2011 the “Russian question” is not nearly as starkly posed as it was during the Cold War. After all, most of the “socialist states” no longer exist. But the questions of the past have not gone away. It still matters if your vision of socialism or a “workers’ state” can be stretched to include an authoritarian dictatorship. And the capitalist class did not stop attacking the Russian revolution with the collapse of the USSR. They might not do it with the same gusto as the Cold War warriors of the 1950s and 60s, but there is no denying that the ideological campaign to discredit the Russian revolution and Bolshevism continues. The Russian revolution is still taught in schools – and though the way it is taught varies, it is incontestably the case that the purpose of these courses is to demonstrate that the project of revolutionary change carried out in 1917 was at best misguided or naïve, and at worst was from the beginning a project of violent utopianism inseparable from the later atrocities of Stalin. The main objection people still raise to socialism is that it’s a good idea in theory but can never work in practice. The Russian experience is invariably offered as the proof of this contention. Without a clear analysis of Stalinism it is next to impossible to resist the anti-socialist arguments that dominate society.

As well as the continued ruling class attack on the Russian revolution, the association of Stalinism with Marxism is still at the centre of the anarchist and libertarian critique. A couple of years ago there was an interesting online debate between US socialist Alan Maass and libertarian ZNet writer Michael Albert on “the relevance of Marxism”. Interesting, but frustrating, as no matter how often Maass tried, he could not convince Albert to debate him on the Marxism that his organisation, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) stood for, as opposed to Marxism as represented by the rulers of so-called “Marxist” states. In one part of the exchange Maass wrote:

If Albert thinks a debate with me and the ISO about the relevance of Marxism is useful, then he should address himself to our Marxism – not the fake Marxism of bureaucrats and dictators that we have always rejected and opposed.36

Albert replied:

I think I am speaking to the core views of Marxism, period. I think our disagreements indicate that. You wouldn’t let an advocate of capitalism say don’t talk to me about depressions, about starvation, about wars and colonization – that’s just bad capitalism, I am for good capitalism. I won’t agree to talk about Marxism and simply ignore what virtually all Marxists say they are for when they present institutional vision, what they have done and do when they are in power.37

There is no answer to this other than to establish that what happened in Russia is not simply “bad Marxism” – elements of Marxist politics that we would be better off without, just as a capitalist might prefer capitalism without economic crises – but rather nothing to do with Marxism at all. Maass drew the following conclusion from the debate:

People on the left today consider the “Russia question” to be a matter of historical debate, if they’re familiar with the issue at all – certainly nothing with relevance to today’s world. But I think that the debate between Michael Albert and myself has shown that our answers to the “Russia question” are still very important.38

This is true not only with regard to the anarchists, but in terms of some of those who would call themselves Marxist critics of Stalinism. How could the Socialist Alliance possibly put the case Maass did, when they persist in systematically glossing over the true nature of Stalinism and compare it favourably with the West? The Socialist Alliance’s forerunner, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, later renamed the Democratic Socialist Party – DSP), was describing Russia as “socialist” in their paper as late as 1987. Over the course of the 1950s, 60s and 70s most of the official communist parties increasingly distanced themselves from the USSR. But the SWP, which had its origins in Trotskyism, became ever more enamoured with the Soviet Union as it slowly creaked towards collapse. In October 1987 the SWP put out a joint statement with the ultra-Stalinist Socialist Party of Australia (even then an unapologetic defender of the line coming out of Russia – they had earlier distinguished themselves by backing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring in 1968). It was entitled “Socialism is only 70 years old”:

Compared with the length of time previous societies have been in existence, socialism is a youngster. When a new system is pioneering it’s [sic] way forward, it is not surprising that there are some difficulties, setbacks and mistakes. But already the achievements are history making. And today, despite all the hatred of the capitalist ruling class, despite all the opposition it can muster, the working people have proceeded to construct the new social order which embraces large areas of Europe, Asia and now appears in Latin America.39

Renfrey Clarke, reporting back from a 1986 trip to Moscow for the SWP’s paper Direct Action, gave an account reminiscent of the rosy reports given by Western journalists toured through the USSR by officials from Stalin’s department for useful idiots in the 1930s:

For an instant it seems you have identified the essential difference between the USSR and the United States. The Soviet Union is a society not at war with itself. It’s not paradise, but it’s remarkably free of the rage and despair never all that distant in present-day America…

By the end of my stay, I found myself concluding that what I had encountered in Moscow…was a society that for all its problems was rational rather than absurd, united and purposeful rather than cynical and alienated… That Soviet society works is something even hardened enemies of socialism are now being forced to admit.40

According to Clarke, revolution was not only unnecessary in the USSR, it was highly unlikely, given the esteem with which Soviet citizens regarded their government:

It is a profound distortion of reality to suggest – as the Western news media specialises in doing – that the Soviet government would be flung out of office if controls on dissidents were relaxed and Western-style elections held. My own thoughts are that the Soviet dissident movement, even if given totally free rein, would have enormous difficulty mustering the support of even 10 per cent of the population against the current Communist Party leadership. The great majority of Soviet citizens are firm supporters of socialism and of the party. The advantages of socialism are regarded as having been proven in practice, and the party as having earned the right to continue to lead the people forward… The creation of a thoroughly humane and liberated society in the USSR will require further daring economic, social and political reforms. But it will not require the fundamental, traumatic remaking of class relationships that is essential in the West. The Soviet workers and peasants have already made their revolution.41

This was written just three years before the Berlin Wall fell. And yet Socialist Alliance members have the gall to be outraged when we dare to associate their politics with Stalinism. It would be one thing if there had been an exhaustive debate in the party that led to a reassessment of articles such as those quoted above. But there has been no such thing. And this is what the DSP website has to say about the remaining countries that call themselves socialist today:

We consider all the countries where capitalism has been overthrown as great gains for the peoples of the countries concerned and for working people all over the world. Because of the priority given to social spending they have achieved a higher real standard of living than capitalist powers with a similar income.

These countries have our solidarity: we defend and support them unconditionally… At the same time we distinguish between those where bureaucracies have usurped the political rights and power of the working people (China,42 North Korea) and those where the governments, despite innumerable difficulties, act in the working people’s interests (Cuba, Vietnam).43

That anyone could claim that any of these countries, let alone North Korea (!) is “on the road to socialism” is a vile insult to everyone who has ever fought and sacrificed for the socialist cause. If that is socialism, then I would not blame anyone for wanting nothing at all to do with it.

Stalinism beyond the “Russian question”

Stalinist influence not only led most of the left to identify socialism with authoritarian, centralised dictatorships with statised economies. It also transformed the left’s understanding of class struggle, political power and the strategies and tactics of revolution. From the mid-1920s onwards, a key part of Stalin’s consolidation of power involved transforming Marxism from a weapon of revolutionary change into an ideological structure that would legitimise Stalin’s counter-revolution in Russia and justify Russian policy internationally.

The first of these revisions was the famous doctrine of “socialism in one country”, announced in 1924. “Socialism in one country” was the definitive self-justification of the Stalinist bureaucracy. As Trotsky wrote, “When they speak of the victory of socialism they mean their own victory.”44 Renouncing the international revolution was not only a declaration of peace with world capitalism. It was also a statement that the current state of affairs was no temporary phenomenon. The thesis of Marx and Lenin – that development towards socialism would mean the withering away of the state – was replaced by a “socialism” in which the state apparatus would grow ever larger. In this way it provided the beginnings of a framework in which socialism was about state ownership and control, not the struggle for workers’ power and the overthrow of the capitalist class. Of course this identification of socialism with a statised national economy is not unique to Stalinism. It is also a powerful part of the ideology of reformism. But it was the Stalinist states – first Russia and later in Eastern Europe, China and then many other parts of the colonial world – that in practice cemented the association between state-run economies and socialism.

The equation “state ownership equals socialism” was a complete departure from the Marxist tradition. In Anti-Dühring, Engels polemicised against the idea that “every statification…is socialistic.” If “statification” equals socialism, he reasoned, “then Napoleon and Metternich are to be counted among the founders of socialism” for nationalising tobacco production.45

The idea that one or more socialist states could exist with relative stability in a world still dominated by capitalism also laid the basis for reconceptualising socialism not as a global struggle against class rule, but simply one among many models on which a national economy could be built. Once the dimension of international revolution was taken out, socialist countries and capitalist countries could “peacefully co-exist”. Of course in practice there was often conflict between the “socialist” countries and the West – open and by proxy. But this was not fundamentally different from the conflicts between states that are inherent to world capitalism in the era of imperialism – managed by a mixture of military or economic struggle and diplomacy.

The ascendency of the notion that a state could be defined as socialist based on which countries they aligned themselves with, or whether they had a statised economy, meant that all of a sudden a dizzying array of states could become socialist, and in many cases revert back to capitalism, without any deep-seated class struggle, let alone a social revolution. The Committee for a Workers’ International (what in Australia is now the Socialist Party) at one time considered that alongside the traditional Stalinist states like China, the USSR, Vietnam and Cuba, you could add Laos, Kampuchea (Cambodia), Burma, Syria, Angola, Mozambique, Aden, Benin and Ethiopia as also being workers’ states.46

And if it is possible to create a workers’ state without social revolution, then why build an explicitly revolutionary party? What happens to the distinction between reform and revolution, and the argument seared into the minds of the generation of revolutionaries who built the Communist International: that breaking the hold of the reformist parties over the working class is a fundamental prerequisite for winning socialism? The answer, of course, is that they become less important, able to be abandoned in practice if not at the level of theory.

Stalin’s second major break with Marxism on the level of theory was to discard the idea that the working class had to maintain its independence from other social classes and fight for its own interests – what was to become the policy of the “popular front”. The first disastrous manifestation of this turn, which was to become the model for the treacherous role played by Stalinism in the colonial world, was the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. The founding conference of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in line with the policy elaborated by the Comintern when it was led by Lenin and Trotsky, took the view that if the revolution was to succeed it needed to be led by the workers and peasants, organised independently, and with a perspective of taking power into their own hands. But the Stalinisation of the Comintern in the mid-1920s turned this orientation on its head. Instead of building an independent workers’ movement, Stalin forced the CCP to subordinate itself entirely to the bourgeois nationalist Guomindang. This led to catastrophe. To try and keep the Guomindang on side, the CCP had to actively restrain the workers’ and peasants’ rebellion that the Chinese bourgeoisie so feared. Submitting (after considerable resistance) to Stalin’s directive, the CCP opposed peasant “excesses”, promoted illusions in the Guomindang and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and forced the workers’ movement to disarm – either burying their guns or handing them over to the Guomindang.

In April 1927, the consequences of this policy became clear. A general strike by workers in Shanghai, called to greet the approaching Guomindang army, was crushed by Chiang Kai-shek. Up and down the country, the Guomindang, which communist militants had been told was their ally, smashed up the working class movement, breaking strikes, murdering and terrorising workers and Communist Party members. The CCP, which had grown from fewer than 1,000 members to somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 over the course of the revolution, was obliterated. Stalin’s policy led the Chinese revolution to a devastating defeat. Decades later variants of the same class-collaborationist strategy led to crushing defeats and massacres of the left in countries like Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

The Chinese debacle did not, of course, dissuade Stalin, who was by then not the slightest bit interested in spreading revolution internationally. The communist parties existed purely to serve the interests of the new Stalinist ruling class in Russia. In the mid-1930s this meant trying to win support for Stalin’s foreign policy from any possible quarter, and in particular from the ruling classes of other countries. So Stalin forced the “popular front” on what were by then thoroughly malleable parties across the world. The Comintern executive resolved in 1936 that:

Today the situation is not what it was in 1914. Now it is not only the working class, the peasantry and all working people who are resolved to maintain peace, but also the oppressed countries and the weak nations whose independence is threatened by war. The Soviet Union, the invincible fortress of the world proletariat and the oppressed of all countries, is the focal point of all the forces fighting for peace. In the present phase a number of capitalist states are also concerned to maintain peace. Hence the possibility of creating a broad front of the working class, of all working people, and of entire nations against the danger of imperialist war.47

The popular front went a step beyond the demand for unity with the Guomindang in China. As the British socialist Duncan Hallas noted:

It was no longer even a question of subordinating the working class of a semi-colonial country to a supposedly “progressive national bourgeoisie” in the alleged interests of the struggle against imperialism – which had been itself a policy directly contrary to the decisions of the Comintern’s second congress. It was now a matter of subordinating the working classes and the national movements to the rulers of the two greatest colonial empires on earth, Britain and France!48

Goodbye to the working class

After World War II, Stalinism evolved even further from any conception of working class self-emancipation. Immediately after the war communist parties in countries like France and Italy entered bourgeois governments. After 1947, with the onset of the Cold War, the communists once again became isolated from the political mainstream in the West. But instead of turning back to the rhetoric of class struggle, as they had in the Third Period, they posed their arguments in terms of the “struggle against imperialism”. In Asia this meant armed guerrilla war in countries like Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, India and the Philippines. In the West, particularly Western Europe and Australia, a new wave of struggles led by the Communist Parties was connected to the immediate demands of workers. But at the same time we see the first stages of the “peace movement”, beginning with the Conference of Intellectuals for Peace held in Wroclaw in 1948, which led to the formation of the World Peace Council in 1950. This development was to decisively shift the ideological outlook of the international communist movement away from class struggle and towards a class-collaborationist or outright middle class orientation.

After Stalin’s death this process accelerated. In 1953 Russia announced that it had successfully manufactured a hydrogen bomb. The first move away from an orientation to workers’ struggle as the means to advance Russian foreign policy in the West had occurred when the USSR imposed the popular front strategy of forming alliances with bourgeois governments. The entry of the USSR into the arms race reinforced this trend. As Ian Birchall put it:

From now on it was clear that the defence of Russia did not depend on the international communist movement; it depended on the Russian nuclear defence system keeping pace with the American.49

Paradoxically, the entry of the USSR into the nuclear race coincided with a renewed stress on the idea of “peaceful co-existence”. An international meeting of communist parties in Moscow resolved in 1960 that:

The policy of peaceful co-existence meets the basic interests of all peoples, of all who want no new cruel wars and seek durable peace. This policy strengthens the positions of socialism, enhances the prestige and international influence of the socialist countries and promotes the prestige and influence of the Communist parties in the capitalist countries. Peace is a loyal ally of socialism, for time is working for socialism and against capitalism.50

This statement is an echo of the outright reformist orientation of the Second International. The acquisition of the bomb and the popular front policy had removed the working class from any agency in the struggle against world capitalism. And now “peaceful co-existence” – the ideological child of “socialism in one country” – signalled that the Russian state had no interest in the radical transformation of the world order but instead was concerned simply to maintain its place in that order. Class politics had given way completely to state diplomacy, and that diplomacy was directed at maintaining the status quo.

This latter factor was a vital element in explaining the Sino-Soviet split of 1960-61, and also the appeal of the new Maoist parties that emerged in the 1960s. Whereas Russia had, since the Yalta Conference in February 1945, succeeded in establishing itself as a great power, China was still underdeveloped and battling to improve its position. This explains the much more assertive nature of Chinese foreign policy and rhetoric. But Maoism – based as it was on a nationalist state bourgeoisie that came to power without any involvement of working class forces – did not abandon any of the underlying politics of Stalinism. While more aggressively hostile to the US (up until the early 1970s), it rejected any orientation to working class struggle, substituting in its place a range of strategies from guerrilla struggle and nuclear armament to state diplomacy.

In the West, the communist parties increasingly moved away from being creatures of Russian foreign policy and became integrated into the institutions of their own national states. In Into the Mainstream Tom O’Lincoln characterises the Communist Party of Australia as being located between three poles, the importance of which shifted over time: the Russian state, the Australian labour movement and the Australian bourgeoisie.51 This was largely true of the European parties as well. Through the 1950s and 60s, as Russian influence waned, the Communist Parties became much more similar to the mainstream social democratic parties.

All of these developments reinforced the increasing disconnect between the idea of socialism and the working class struggle. This had significant implications for the way the left as a whole – going well beyond the actual communist parties – viewed its relationship to class. Prior to Marx the concept of socialism had no single class identification. At the core of the ideological and political battles waged by Marx throughout his lifetime was the attempt to transform socialism from a utopian ideology into the world view and the theoretical tool of the working class. As Hal Draper put it, historical materialism, or Marxism as conceived by Marx, was “the theory and practice of the proletarian revolution”.52

In the period between the rise of the Second International in the 1880s and the Stalinisation of the communist movement in the late 1920s, the idea of socialism was synonymous with the movement of one particular class – the proletariat. The Erfurt Program adopted by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1891 was the founding document not only of German social democracy but of the broader European socialist movement that for the first time (with the exception of the British Chartists) was now appearing in the form of mass working class parties. This document – though criticised by Engels – signalled the formal adherence of the socialist movement to Marx’s core vision.

This social transformation [the abolition of capitalism] amounts to the emancipation not only of the proletariat, but of the entire human race, which is suffering from current conditions. But it can only be the work of the working class, because all other classes, notwithstanding the conflicts of interest between them, stand on the ground of the private ownership of the means of production and have as their common goal the preservation of the foundations of contemporary society… It is the task of the Social Democratic Party to shape the struggle of the working class into a conscious and unified one and to point out the inherent necessity of its goals.53

This class connection did not operate simply at the level of theory. Prior to Stalinisation, the leaders and the heroes of the Marxist movement were intimately associated with the working class struggle. Its icons were people like Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn, James Connolly, Joe Hill, Eleanor Marx, August Bebel and Bill Haywood. In Australia, figures like Tom Mann and Percy Brookfield were both union militants and the leaders of socialist organisations. Even for socialists who did not come from working class backgrounds, being won to socialism meant becoming a partisan of the working class struggle. So figures like Lesbia Harford in Melbourne,54 radicalised as a university student, went on to become fighters for the working class. There were, of course, intellectual figures in this period – from Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg to Kautsky and Plekhanov. But they were intimately connected to the workers’ movement. Those who abandoned that movement were in doing so seen to be abandoning socialism.

Under Stalinism, though, the heroes of socialism were the leaders of states, guerrilla fighters in the hills, parliamentarians and middle class intellectuals. Socialism stopped being about class and became simply an ideological label. The leading socialists in the public eye during the middle of the twentieth century were – aside from Stalin himself – people like Mao, Che Guevara, Castro, Ho Chi Minh. Even those who were leaders of working class parties or trade union leaders were for the most part – by dint of the reformist, class-collaborationist politics of Stalinism – increasingly distant from workers’ concerns; little different from the middle class social democratic politicians who spent their time hob-nobbing with the political establishment and only on rare occasions condescending to address a workers’ meeting or rally.

Stalinism and the Arab world

One of the places the ideology of Stalinism has had the most debilitating impact is the Arab world. The underlying reason for this is that while in the West there was a pre-Stalinist socialist tradition – remnants of which survived Stalinisation in either the Trotskyist, syndicalist or social democratic currents – this was almost non-existent in the Arab world. This meant that Arab socialism was, virtually from the outset, Stalinist. Because of this all the class-collaborationist politics, bureaucratic organisational practices and opportunism that characterised Stalinism in the West were magnified.

The popular front strategy that subordinated the interests of the working class and the peasantry to the supposedly progressive national bourgeoisie was hegemonic. In 1955 the leader of the Syrian Communist Party called on all “enemies of feudalism, reaction and imperialism to join forces” and stated that “The centre of our policy is to find meeting points, not disagreements, with all true nationalists.”55

But no section of the Arab bourgeoisie, even supposedly radical leaders like Gaddafi, was prepared to mobilise the masses for a determined fight against imperialism. In June 1969 Gaddafi opposed a popular war of liberation to free Palestine, arguing that the confrontation must be between regular armies. The Palestinian guerrilla movement, he stated, must rid itself of “fantasies” and operate only according to strategy laid down by Arab governments.56

The popular front policy was a dead end – it led to epochal defeats from Iraq in 1958 to the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. But despite these defeats the popular frontist approach has remained hegemonic on the left from the 1930s right up until today. The predominant idea on the left remains one of broad cross-class alliances rather than class politics. It was not just the official communist parties that adhered to this approach but virtually all the other radical currents that emerged in the 1960s in the Arab world.

Take the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP was hostile to Arab reaction, represented in its view by feudalism and capitalism – the rulers of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Jordan. But it was less critical of the “radical” Arab regimes: Algeria, South Yemen, Syria and at times Iraq and Libya. In March 1969 PFLP leader George Habash attacked the party’s rivals, the Democratic Front, as suffering from “infantile leftism”. He said: “We are not as against Arab regimes as they are. We criticise, but collaborate with Arab regimes, as Mao did with the Guomindang against the Japanese threat in China.” By tying themselves to these regimes the PFLP downplayed the need to build a mass revolutionary movement from below throughout the Arab world. It ended up providing a left cover for regimes like the Ba’ath in Iraq which gave it substantial funding in the 1970s. In 1970 Habash went to China and North Korea to win support and the Chinese began to send the PFLP considerable amounts of arms. But this was at a cost, as the Chinese opposed the PFLP’s attacks on conservative Arab regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia with which China was trying to curry favour.

All of this diplomatic intrigue served to reinforce the tendency to replace the class struggle as the centrepiece of Marxism with the ideology of classless “anti-imperialism”. Whereas for Lenin and the early Comintern the anti-imperial struggle was an important element of the world struggle against capitalism, it was emphasised that this did not mean simply reducing the anti-capitalist struggle to opposition to imperialism. Lenin warned against giving the national liberation movements a “communist colouration”. Yet by the 1960s the line between “anti-imperialist” and “socialist” had become extremely fuzzy. The new Arab left was not like the earlier communist parties, with their rigid adherence to the Russian line at any cost. (Like the Syrian Communist Party which proved its loyalty to Moscow at the cost of losing most of its membership by backing the formation of Israel in 1948.) Alliances to Russia or China, or their array of allies among the Arab states, were much more pragmatic and open to change. But the ideological framework of Stalinism – class collaboration, substitutionism, and an orientation to the existing states (be they “anti-imperialist”, “socialist” or both) – continued to dominate the thinking of the left.

The impact of Stalinism on the 1960s Western left

By the 1950s and 60s Russia had lost a lot of its radical gloss in the West. Its doctrine of “peaceful co-existence” with the West, alongside the bloody suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and Krushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin, made it less attractive to the new generation of young radicals that was beginning to emerge. But many of the political currents that arose to challenge official communism were still heavily impacted by Stalinism’s distortion of Marxism. A large section of the “new left” rejected the authoritarianism and conservatism of the Stalinists by abandoning not only “Leninism”, but the whole conception of the working class as the key agent of social change. Maoism, with its militant populist rhetoric and militarist tactics and organisational methods, could seem to provide a radical alternative vision of socialism. But in reality it was simply another version of Stalinism.

The Maoists had completely abandoned the conception that the struggle for socialism could only be led by the working class. They preached a “Third Worldism” that saw oppressed peoples, or even “oppressed nations” as being just as important as the working class. They glorified guerrilla struggle and replaced the working class as the key agent of social change with an amorphous “the people” – which was variously taken to mean the peasantry, oppressed national groups or minorities, students, the urban poor and elements of the middle class, as well as industrial workers.

At the height of the 1960s and 70s radicalisation these forms of substitutionism tended to be characterised by extreme revolutionary rhetoric, tight organisation, strict centralism, and in some cases the fetishisation of military struggle or other violent tactics including, eventually, terrorism.

What began as a movement in many ways resembling a super-idealistic children’s crusade to change the world was becoming increasingly grim and increasingly serious…the stakes had been raised. The vigorous campaign of calumny and slander directed against the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] by ruling class media and institutions, the growing climate of repression across the country, forced the radical movement to take itself seriously… SDS members began to search for political definition.57

There is no doubt that the revolutionary movement in the US in the 1960s needed to take itself seriously. As it grew the US state – the most brutal and uncompromising in the world – began to see it as a mortal threat. In this context the liberalism that had sustained the movement was palpably inadequate. But there was no current strong enough to argue for an orientation to the working class as the way out of the abyss. For most students, Maoism was the main model of “serious politics” on offer. It was a dead end that in the US case led to the implosion of SDS and to the lunacy of the Weather Underground, which followed the logic of Maoism to its end point and tried to bring the Third World guerrilla struggle to the US by planting bombs in the buildings of US corporations. This attempt to find a short cut to socialism, in the end both tragic and ridiculous, was an extreme version of the substitutionist politics of the era. On the one hand it was utopian, reckless and utterly lacking a strategic orientation to the one social force that could actually make a revolution, the working class. On the other hand the substitutionism of these years reflected an intransigent fighting spirit, the fusion of extraordinary revolutionary hope with a desperation not to let the moment of opportunity slip by. As one account put it:

Almost everyone in the movement in the years 1969-70 went a little bit crazy with the expectation of revolution around the corner and guilt for not doing enough to bring it about.58

On the face of it, the Trotskyist currents stood on ground completely different to that of the Third Worldist, populist Maoists. Their traditions claimed to go back, not to the Great Helmsman, but to the first four congresses of the Communist International and Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism. Yet in practice the differences were not always that great. Writing about the revolutionary left in Europe, British socialist Chris Harman commented:

What was common to both the soft Maoists and the would be “orthodox Trotskyists” was substitutionism: the idea that some other force could substitute itself for the working class in the creation of socialism. While the movement was on the up in Italy or France or Spain (or Britain, for that matter) this was not necessarily that apparent. Workers were in motion, and you had to be a fool not to relate to them (although, as always, there were a fair number of fools). But when, from the mid-1970s onwards the movement was checked, the substitutionism could easily lead revolutionaries to look to false gods – to the trade union bureaucracy, to liberal democracy, to armed lunacy, or even to changes in their own lifestyles.59

Official Stalinism was still a problem. The huge communist parties in countries like Italy and France played a key role in containing the revolutionary upsurge of class struggle that swept Europe in 1968 and after. But most debilitating, from the point of view of building a revolutionary alternative to the Communist Parties, was the impact Stalinist ideology had had on the left as a whole.

The long decline and the rebuilding of the revolutionary left

The radical wave of the 1960s and 70s, for all its hope, was not sufficient to overthrow capitalism in even a single country. As the movement finally exhausted itself in the late 70s and early 80s, the radical left was thrown into a crisis which sent its constituent parts flying in a variety of different directions. Some favoured outright reformism and joined the mainstream social democratic parties – like the Bennites in the UK. Those who had been in the Labor left where it was strong, in countries like Australia, slowly adapted to the rightward lurch of the party or else dropped out of politics altogether. Others trailed off into the various “movements” which became ever more self-absorbed, institutionalised, and separated from both each other and any real social struggle. In general the communist parties moved further to the right before finally succumbing to historical irrelevancy with the collapse of the USSR. On the far left, some lost the plot altogether and retreated to their monasteries to read scripture and play magical tunes that made quotes from Lenin and Trotsky coincide with their latest fantasy. But the vast bulk of the tens of thousands who joined revolutionary organisations in those radical years retreated into their private lives and withdrew from political action.

Another reaction to the retreat, which began in the 1980s and has gained wide support over the last decade, is attempts to regroup the different currents of the shrunken left into united organisations. There have been many variants of this. In Australia the SWP developed a regroupment perspective in the 1980s, embarking on a series of failed projects – from unity with the Russia-line Stalinists in the Socialist Party of Australia to the abortive Nuclear Disarmament Party. The renaming of the SWP as the Democratic Socialist Party and the establishment of the avowedly “non-party” Green Left Weekly in the early 1990s (in reality Green Left Weekly has always been controlled politically by the DSP) was part of this regroupment orientation. These attempts coincided with a broader orientation of the DSP towards establishing relations with a variety of international currents, many of them hard-line Stalinists. DSP organised conferences have been addressed not only by members of these parties, but even spokespeople from supposedly “socialist” countries like Vietnam.60

Many on the international left who advocate one form of regroupment or another would strongly reject the idea that the revolutionary left should engage in rapprochement with openly Stalinist organisations. And yet there has been a broad tendency over the last decade to downgrade the importance of major political differences, particularly when they relate to historical questions. This is not to say that organisational boundaries should be drawn on the basis of the exact characterisation of Stalin’s Russia. While the “Russian question” is still very important, there is no principled reason why meaningful unity could not be achieved on the basis of a common hostility to the Stalinist regimes, past and present, without clarifying their exact nature. But the question of Stalinism goes well beyond the narrow characterisation of this or that regime. Just as important are questions like the popular front, the relationship of the class struggle to the anti-imperialist struggle, the nature of the state, the role of the working class and its relationship with other social forces – all of which are heavily impacted by the legacy of Stalinism. What is needed above all, to break the historic grip of Stalinism over the left, is the reassertion of socialism as a movement based on working class struggle, not an ideological movement bringing together workers, sections of the middle class, guerrilla movements, national liberation organisations and leftish-sounding governments.

The Arab revolutions pose all of these issues point blank. They put mass revolutionary struggle back at the forefront of world politics, threatening not only Western-backed dictators but every regime in the region, including those that sections of the Arab and international left previously backed or had illusions in. The revolutions have also begun to raise all the questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics long dismissed as arcane theoretical disputes. What is the relationship between the democratic and socialist revolution? What is the role of the state apparatus? What attitude should the working class have to other social forces? How far can we trust middle class leaders thrown up by the struggle? On what basis can socialist and workers’ parties be formed? There are not simple answers to any of these questions, and many new ones will be posed as the struggle develops. But overcoming the legacy of Stalinism’s distortion of Marxism will be essential if a new socialist left which is capable of rising to the challenges posed by the first great wave of revolution of the twenty-first century is to be built.

1 We have used the most common spelling of the Libyan leader’s name used in Australia – Muammar Gaddafi – except where it is spelled differently in quotes from or titles of other publications.

2WikiLeaks cable 09CARACAS1284, CARACAS 1284.html, accessed 7 March 2011.

3Nikolas Kozloff, “WikiLeaks drag Venezuela and Libya through the mud”, Huffington Post, 22 February 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nikolas-kozloff/wikileaks-drags-libya-and_b_826785.html, accessed 25 February 2011.

4Events continue apace. At time of writing it cannot be ruled out that Chávez (or Castro) will turn around and opportunistically mouth support for the Libyan revolution. But the truth of their attitude, whatever comes after, was demonstrated in their first pronouncements, and they cannot be undone.

5Lynn Herrman, “Venezuela’s Chavez says US planning invasion of Libya”, Digital Journal, 1 March 2011, http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/304178#ixzz1 Faqh4ri5, accessed March 4 2011.

6“Statement: Qathafi is the legitimate leader of the Libyan people – HCI-FPFS”, Modern Ghana, 25 February 2011, http://www.modernghana.com/news/317961/1/ statement-qathafi-is-the-legitimate-leader-of-the-.html, accessed 7 March 2011.

7Fidel Castro, “Support Libya independence demands Fidel Castro”, 23 February 2011, http://europeaninternationalrelation.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/support-libya-independence-demands-fidel-castro/, accessed 7 March 2011.

8Glen Ford, “No Tahrir in Benghazi: a racist pogrom rages on against black Africans in Libya”, MRZine, 3 March 2011, http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/ ford030311.html, accessed 5 March 2001.

9“Al Mathaba/Anti-Imperialism Center”, http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/ world/libya/mathaba.htm, accessed 3 March 2011.

10Kiraz Janicke and Frederico Fuentes, “First Egypt, next Venezuela?” Green Left Weekly, 27 February 2011.

11Green Left discussion list, 28 February 2011, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ GreenLeft_discussion/message/73574, accessed 4 March 2011.

12Louis Proyect, “Qaddafi and the Monthly Review”, The unrepentant Marxist, 27 February 2011, http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/qaddafi-and-the-monthly-review/, accessed 28 February 2011.

13Jane Degras (ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, London, 1951, p.22.

14Brian Pearce, “Export of revolution 1917-1924”, Labour Review Vol.3 No.4, 1958.

15Peter Boyle, “Gaddafi’s Libya: from nationalism to neoliberalism”, Green Left Weekly, 27 February 2011.

16Direct Action was the paper of the organisation then known as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP – no relation to the UK organisation). The SWP renamed itself the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in the early 1990s and launched Green Left Weekly. The DSP has now dissolved itself into the Socialist Alliance, which is today largely a rebadged version of the DSP. Green Left Weekly is now the official publication of the Socialist Alliance. Of the 11 people elected to the Socialist Alliance National Executive at its 2010 conference, all but one had been members of the DSP when it was dissolved only days earlier. (see Socialist Alliance 7th National conference minutes, http://socialist-alliance.wikispaces.com/7th+National+ Conference++5#toc41, accessed 11 March, and Doug Lorimer, “New period of left unity launched?”, March 2010, http://directaction.org.au/issue20/new_period_of_ left_unity_launched, accessed 11 March 2011.)

17Peter Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”, Direct Action 612, May 1987, Sydney.

18Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

19Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

20Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

21Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

22Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

23Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

24Chris McGreal, “Tony Blair: Mubarak is ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’.”, The Guardian, 2 February 2011.

25Workers News was the paper of the Healyite and notoriously pro-Gaddafi Socialist Labour League.

26Greg Sheridan, “Dictators useful idiots happy to take his money”, The Australian, 24 February 2011.

27Andrew Bolt, “What is it with the left and dictators like Gaddafi?”, Herald Sun, 24 February 2011.

28Milanda Rout, “Left wingers change their tune on Gaddafi’s regime”, The Australian, 24 February 2011.

29Google search of Green Left Weekly site for the term “Libya” on 4 March 2011, http://www.google.com.au/search?q=site:www.greenleft.org.au+Libya&sourceid=navclient-ff&rlz=1B3GGGL_enAU264AU264&ie=UTF-8&hl=, accessed 4 March 2011.

30Jon Bearman, “Qadhafi and the revolutionary committees”, International Socialism Journal 24, London, 1984, p.105.

31Bearman, “Qadhafi and the revolutionary committees”, p.108.

32Bearman, “Qadhafi and the revolutionary committees”, p.119.

33Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, Haymarket, Chicago, 2009, p.1.

34Chris Harman, “Returning to the Russian Question”, International Socialism Journal 118, London, 2008.

35Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks, London, 1988.

36Alan Maass, “Marxism versus Coordinatorism”, Socialist Worker (US), 19 July 2002, http://socialistworker.org/Featured/Stories/Debate_Maass0719.shtml, accessed 20 January 2011.

37Michael Albert, “Albert rejoins”, Socialist Worker (US), 21 July 2002, http://socialistworker.org/Featured/Stories/Debate_Albert0721.shtml, accessed 20 January 2011.

38Alan Maass, “Reply to Albert”, Zcommunication, 27 August 2008 [not original publication date], http://www.zcommunications.org/reply-to-albert-by-alan-maass, accessed 20 January 2011.

39A leaflet distributed with Direct Action 621, October 1987.

40Renfrey Clarke, “Life in the USSR”, Direct Action 597, January 1987.

41Clarke, “Life in the USSR”.

42The DSP, after some debate, abandoned its characterisation of China as socialist in the 1990s. But the fact that China still appears on their website in their list of countries “on the road to socialism” speaks volumes about how serious they are about confronting their Stalinist heritage.

43Democratic Socialist Party, “What is the DSP”, http://www.dsp.org.au/node/134, accessed 7 March 2011.

44Quoted in Corey Oakley, “The defeat of the Russian revolution”, 25 March 2006 at http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=195:the-defeat-of-the-russian-revolution&catid=67:edition-100&Itemid=244, accessed 9 March 2011.

45Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1976, p.359.

46Ted Grant, “The Colonial Revolution and Deformed Workers States”, 1978, http://www.marxist.com/TUT/TUT4-4.html, accessed 4 March 2011.

47Quoted in Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, Haymarket, Chicago, 2008, p.146.

48Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, p.147.

49Ian Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, Pluto Press, 1974, p.84.

50Ian Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, p.82.

51Tom O’Lincoln, Into the mainstream: the decline of Australian Communism, Stained Wattle Press, Sydney, 1985.

52Hal Draper, “The principle of self-emancipation in Marx and Engels”, 1971, http://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1971/xx/emancipation.html, accessed 27 January 2011.

53The Erfurt Program, 1891, http://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/1891/erfurt-program.htm.

54Corey Oakley, “Rebels and revolutionaries: Lesbia Harford”, Socialist Alternative, July 2005.

55Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, The Communist Movement in Syria and Lebanon, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 1998, pp.46-47.

56William B. Quandt, “Political and military dimensions of contemporary Palestinian Nationalism”, in William Quandt, Fuad Jabber and Ann M. Lesch,The politics of Palestinian nationalism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1973, p.116.

57Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Collier Macmillan,London, 1987. Quoted in Chris Harman, The fire last time, Bookmarks, London, 1988, p.177.

58Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson, “SDS and the Movement”, Independent Socialist (USA), October 1969. Quoted in Harman, The fire last time, p.180.

59Chris Harman, “Crisis of the European revolutionary left”, International Socialism Journal 4, London 1979, p.65.

60Le Vinh Thu, “Vietnam: building an equitable, democratic and civilised society”, speech to the 2009 “World at a crossroads” conference organised by the DSP. http://links.org.au/node/1005, accessed 8 March 2011. (Le Vinh Thu has a long history as a representative of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Vietnamese government. He is currently Vietnam’s ambassador to Malta.)
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What happened to the International Socialist Organization?-Paul LeBlanc

Posted by admin On May - 28 - 2019 Comments Off on What happened to the International Socialist Organization?-Paul LeBlanc


What happened to the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is that it self-destructed. The outgoing leadership of the outgoing organization presented this fact to the world in its statement of April 19, 2019, “Taking Our Final Steps”. For many who are committed to the socialist cause, whatever criticisms or reservations they might have had regarding the ISO, this is truly a defeat. One of the purposes of what follows is to explore how and why this happened, and what it means for those who take seriously the struggle for revolutionary socialism.
For some years the ISO had existed as the largest and strongest revolutionary socialist organization in the United States. As its foremost leader, Ahmed Shawki, emphasized more than once, the primary take-away from this indisputable fact was that revolutionary socialism was a pitifully weak force in the United States. And yet, the disappearance of this organization certainly merits more than a shrug.
Despite facile critiques of the ISO generated by sectarian hostility, and despite genuine weaknesses and limitations of the organization (to be touched on later), there is no denying that the ISO demonstrated certain genuine strengths. Those strengths were a focal-point of an article I wrote in 2009, explaining why, despite some disagreements, I was about to join the ISO – “Why I’m Joining the International Socialist Organization: Intensifying the Struggle for Social Change,” appearing in the online Links: international journal of socialist renewal. There is little I would change in what I wrote then. But now, obviously, there is more that must be said.
While an active member of the ISO since 2009, I have never been part of its leadership. Nor have I been an “insider” in any of the political currents that wrote the final chapter of the ISO’s existence. From mid-January to mid-April of 2019, when this final chapter was playing itself out, I was not even present in the United States.
The collapse of the ISO in April 2019 has certainly generated confusion in circles that I frequent. I have been confronted by comrades with many years’ experience in the socialist struggle, beyond the borders of the United States, questioning how an organization claiming to represent some of the finest elements in the revolutionary Marxist tradition could so suddenly vanish.
A dissident majority took over their organization in the name of making it a more effective force for socialism, and then . . . quickly decided to dissolve it. This is certainly how it seemed from the outside, and how it appeared to me as I watched the process unfold during a three-month period while working in Europe. It can be argued, however, that this conflates a much more complex set of processes. The process that contributed to the majority takeover was different from the process that culminated in the decision to dissolve.
https://johnriddell.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/down-with-the-ban.jpg?w=… 150w” sizes=”(max-width: 301px) 100vw, 301px” />In the aftermath, my interrogating friends have been shocked – and I must confess that I too have been startled – by what has appeared across the internet from some quite vocal adherents of this triumphant and self-dissolving majority, explaining that they have been violated terribly by pernicious leaders, devastated by insult and injury. Some have displayed what seems to these seasoned activists an almost prideful disillusionment and a sometimes flippant cynicism.
This too raises questions, in the minds of interrogating friends, about how serious a revolutionary entity this organization could have been in the first place. Seeming to fade very much into the background, aside from a rhetorical flourish here and there, is the question of what it will take – actually, today and tomorrow, in very practical and organizational terms – to bring about an effective struggle against the multiple oppressions and poisonous degradations of capitalism. Instead, the primary focus has been on exposé, indignation, anger, pain, at times flowing into a destructive and depressing trashing of former comrades and former beliefs, with contributions laced with one variety or another of “purist” conformism, followed by multiple “likes” spiced by jokes and flashes of going one better than what the last person said. Some inclined to disagree have held back – in some cases because of their own demoralization and uncertainty, in some cases because they do not want to become the focal-point of online trashing. All of this has seemed to my outside interrogators to be the opposite of serious revolutionary politics.
Yet some of their critical reaction misses key facts and aspects of what actually happened. Nor can anyone who is politically serious – at least from the revolutionary end of the socialist spectrum – afford to be dismissive over the demise of the ISO. Consider these reflections from a seasoned and critical-minded militant from Chicago, with more than five decades of activist experience in the labor and socialist movement, who had never belonged to the ISO. His internet comments (April 19, 2019), endorsed by a number of people with similar experience and background, and are worth producing in full:
In his recent interview with [prominent former ISOer] Todd Chretien, Doug Henwood remarked about the ISO that it often punched above its weight. Bracketing its political positions and its organizational short-comings — who are we to cast the first stone? — Henwood called that one right. Given the standards of the American far-left it was indeed a “solid” presence.
In Chicago the ISO’s five branches had a real periphery, and they were recruiting at a slow, but steady, rate. These recruits were almost all young, raw activists. As recently as three months ago, they routinely drew eighty to a hundred people to city wide public forums.
Over the last eight years the ISO’s half-a-dozen CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] members have played a significant role in keeping the union involved in progressive causes from BLM [Black Lives Matter] to Fight For Fifteen. The CTU lit the fuse that eventually led to the “Red State Revolt” [the recent upsurge of teachers’ strikes]. Many ISO comrades spent extended time in Oklahoma and Los Angeles, not only as reporters, but also as participants.
Socialist Worker, both as a printed monthly, and as a daily on line, provided well written, and informative articles. Even when I disagreed with the conclusions, I generally learned something from them.
The ISR (International Socialist Review)  was an attractive quarterly with often scholarly contributions. Again, it wasn’t necessary to agree with all its conclusions, but isn’t contested opinion what Marxism demands us to do?
The annual Socialism Conference provided a platform for sessions beyond the ISO’s membership. It began with the premise that there is a need to relate to a bigger left than its own 800 or so members. Last year’s conference had around 1,200 attendees.
Better Off Red was its weekly podcast. WeAreMany contains hundreds of classes and talks ranging from the forgettable to the extraordinary.
Haymarket Books is, perhaps, the Crown Jewel in the ISO’s legacy.
Size and apparatus aren’t the only thing, they are not sufficient onto themselves in breaking out of the ghetto of the micro sect, but at the same time they are essential in carrying the hard won lessons of the past into the future. With flaws and mistakes granted, the ISO came close to playing that role. It leaves a vacuum on the American left that will be hard to fill with squabbling grouplets and contentious individuals.
Outside of its strongest center in Chicago, the ISO had branches (typically ranging between five and fifty members) and “twigs” (less than five members) throughout the country – 22 in the East, 19 in the Midwest, 10 in the South, and 10 in the West. The members were active socialists, some with significant influence beyond the ISO. For anyone who truly hopes to see a socialist future, it is essential to wrestle with the question of how and why such an organization could go out of existence. What can we learn? How can things be done better?
https://johnriddell.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/tax-the-rich.jpg?w=150&h… 150w” sizes=”(max-width: 262px) 100vw, 262px” />What follows will involve three components: (1) a summary of what I can piece together regarding what actually happened; (2) a tentative (and surely incomplete) analysis of why/how this happened; (3) notes on what those of us still committed to the revolutionary Marxist tradition might consider doing now. Analyses of what happened to the ISO have appeared online – some “connecting the dots” in a way that reinforces one or another very distinct ideological perspective, some reflecting a significant lack of political (and in some cases factual) clarity, some providing interesting ideas and possible insights but not – in my opinion – fully satisfactory. With one exception, I will not make reference to them as I try to work out my own understanding.
What happened
First were the tremors preceding the earthquake. The organization’s annual convention was coming up in March 2019, with pre-convention discussion opening in the autumn of 2018. A deep and open split soon rocked the ISO leadership body, the Steering Committee. An overwhelming majority of the Steering Committee constituted itself as an organized tendency. The once-dominant leaders of the ISO found themselves in a very small minority. A dissident upsurge took place within the membership, so that four tendencies emerged instead of two: Steering Committee Majority, Steering Committee Minority, Socialist Tide, Independence and Struggle (IS). This last tendency ended up being quite influential. It is described in an on-the-spot report from the national convention as having an orientation “not too dissimilar to the Majority position,” although “I felt it laid out actual proposals to move forward where the Majority current did not, particularly in the areas of party-building [tasks] and labor.” The IS tendency also seemed suspicious of some in the Steering Committee Majority who had long supported the once-dominant leaders.
From what I could gather from the massive pre-convention discussion (with an unprecedented number of pre-convention discussion contributions filling over 40 internal bulletins), there were several very clear issues that were of concern among those who were advancing the cause of the victorious rebellion.
There was need for greater openness and democracy in the election of leadership bodies (eliminating the self-perpetuation of leadership that resulted from outgoing leaders regularly presenting the organization with slates of candidates for new elections to those bodies).
There was insistence on greater transparency, collectivity, and accountability regarding the finances and functioning of the ISO.
There was also a decisive pushback against a routinism in branch practices, and against too great a focus on campus work, that had been promulgated by the leadership at the previous convention. Many had seen this conservative approach as being out of kilter, in the midst of accumulating social struggles, with the possibilities of a mass socialist movement taking shape in the United States.
Those whose leadership was being challenged were not, it seemed to me, villains or scoundrels – I had respected them as experienced people who had devoted their lives to building up a revolutionary current in the socialist movement. While definitely not in agreement with them on all things, and aware of some of their human limitations, I still saw them as reflecting the same kinds of values and commitments that had animated me and the other members of the ISO. Yet they seemed to have nothing substantial or coherent to say: the dissenters were dishonest and disloyal, “really” driven by a desire to support the Democratic Party. But this case was by no means proved. And they put forward nothing more, from what I could see, to provide any clear sense of political direction for the ISO.
Among the triumphant dissenters, however, there was also a lack of clarity around political strategy. A minority of the majority did favor rethinking the question of socialists in the Democratic Party. There was sharp and challenging thinking regarding connections of class, race and gender. There was a proposed “focus” on a variety of different struggles that seemed to add up, in fact, to a lack of clear focus. There were assurances that the new orientation (however that might actually be worked out) would result in membership growth, though it was not clear precisely how or why this would be the case.
From a few thousand miles away, I was inclined to see what were, clearly, impending changes as going in a positive direction – though the tone of some discussion bulletin articles worried me. There seemed an undercurrent of “good guys vs. bad guys” thinking, which can become toxic even in the service of the best of causes. I feared a split could result in the loss of valuable cadres and set into motion centrifugal forces that would weaken the organization. But I hoped for the best, and felt a kinship with those pressing for changes.
The earthquake came with the national convention – which was seen by many as a very democratic convention, culminating in a diverse new leadership. There was an absolute marginalization of the once-dominant and “intransigent” element of the old leadership, which didn’t seem inclined to put forward any clear political perspective in the face of this upheaval. I was out of the country when the convention took place. The best I can do is to offer this account from one of the Pittsburgh branch leaders who attended the convention:
Most of the proposals that stemmed from the IS [Independence and Struggle] current were adopted at convention including the perspectives on Labor concentration. A sharp yet comradely debate took place on the floor around the use of the Democratic Party and candidates like Sanders, AOC [Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez], etc. This was largely a debate between comrades supporting the IS platform and the Socialist Tide platform. The convention overwhelmingly supported the IS platform while also drawing important conclusions which were attributed to the Socialist Tide platform. And … our new leadership body includes representation from all three currents. …
In addition the proposal to allow branches to focus on real work and break from the monthly model of weekly meetings, paper sales, and study groups in addition to activist work was adopted. Branches will now have the freedom to decide what schedule makes sense for them. The weekly routines of the past were for many comrades overwhelming and easily led to burn out for many members, including myself. As a branch we will have to have some important discussions about our own routines and necessary changes to those routines so that we can free ourselves up to have a greater political impact.
We also have made some significant perspective changes particularly around the ISO’s campus perspective. This model has never quite fit our branch – this of course is no surprise to many of us. It has often felt like we were putting a square peg in a round hole for our branch, which has been mostly working class. This of course is not to say students are not working-class, but has led to some inorganic ways of working for us. Our branch was not the only one to report this and the moment we find ourselves in politically means we cannot have such a narrow focus.
And finally we accepted proposals to issue public apologies to address our shortcomings, particularly to comrades of color who have left the organization and those that have stayed to help shape our new organization. We are now in a much better position to rebuild in a more honest and transparent way, which will position us to grow and lead. We also adopted a proposal to publish a public report to summarize the debates and outcomes of our convention. … Another significant change was adopted to become a 501c4 organization, which will make our organizations finances more transparent as well as some changes in how dues are paid.
Weeks later, I had an opportunity to speak to another comrade whose assessment of the convention was much less positive. In contrast to previous conventions, he asserted, there was a marked absence of clear reports on the current political period, and of clearly articulated proposals flowing from such analyses. Instead, he told me, there were ongoing attacks on past organizational deficiencies and on the alleged misleadership that had been predominant up until then. He felt the acrimonious atmosphere prevented the marginalized former leaders from having an opportunity to express themselves in a manner that could be heard, short-circuiting serious political discussion.
I am in no position to make judgments either about the actual atmosphere or the specifics of discussions during the national convention. I know that at the convention’s conclusion there seemed among people I trust considerable optimism about the future of the ISO, and I hoped that optimism was well-founded, although I had an anxious feeling (based on accumulated memories from past organizational experiences) that things might not be so easy.
Then came the after-shocks. Two scandals erupted – (1) what was seen as a possible rape cover-up, and separate from this, though in some ways related, (2) revelations of what was seen as a pattern of abusive and unacceptable behavior by a central figure of the once-dominant leadership. Both indicated, in the minds of many, a badly flawed political culture at the organization’s core. Three additional facts of significance: (a) the alleged rapist, after getting off the hook, became a charismatic and popular leader of the triumphant IS tendency; (b) someone who was accused, perhaps unfairly, of facilitating the alleged cover-up was a prominent supporter of both the Steering Committee Majority and the IS tendency; (c) the person who revealed the unacceptable behavior of the central figure mentioned in point #2 had – she herself revealed – been involved in a covert relationship with that figure, but she was also a major force in the triumphant opposition.
This turn in the after-convention developments deserves strong emphasis. A very broad layer of members – dramatically disillusioned with the long-standing leadership after a very contentious internal debate, one with destructively personalized undertones – were now deeply shaken by what seemed shocking revelations having to do with key figures to whom they had looked for leadership in making the ISO a better, more vibrant and democratic organization. This would help unleash a public discussion that gave free rein to destructively personalized overtones.
The above-described earthquake and after-shocks resulted in a wave of resignations – from angry and disgusted dissidents, from marginalized and indignant former leaders, and from many others in between. As the organization seemed to be melting away, with plummeting morale among those who were left, a decision was made by the remaining membership, through a referendum, to dissolve the organization.
Although I feel what I have written so far provides some understanding of what happened, what must be wrestled with is why it happened.
Why it happened
The analytical framework I use in trying to make sense of what happened can be found in various writings (particularly the essays in Unfinished Leninism published by Haymarket Books in 2014), most recently articulated in “Reflections on Coherence and Comradeship,” published in various online sites, including Links: international journal of socialist renewal. What follows will not rehash those reflections, but they influence my analysis.
Avoiding sterile ‘vanguardism’

My thinking is very much influenced by my experience, from 1973 to 1983, in the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and in the milieu influenced by George Breitman, Frank Lovell and other veteran Trotskyists into the early 1990s. In my discussion of the ISO, I find myself drawn to making comparisons.
In some ways, the ISO was much better, more open, seemingly more democratic. While old mentors such as Breitman and Lovell were quite open and non-dogmatic in their approach, a dominant trend in the SWP, when I entered it, was less so.
There was often great suspicion in the SWP toward non-Trotskyist sources, and substantial cultural-intellectual pressure to conform to a specific set of views. One was expected to steer clear (in writing, publishing, speaking) of crowds and publications that were not “ours” – unless we were carrying out an “intervention” that was coordinated and guided by specified leaders. This was related to the notion that the SWP was, itself, the revolutionary vanguard party destined to lead the socialist revolution. Of course, we were not big enough to do so yet, but had a self-conception as the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. The dynamics of capitalism and the correctness of our own political program (a program which, therefore, must be strictly safeguarded) would bring about the desired results.
For reasons that I have explained in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, in Unfinished Leninism, and elsewhere, this ran counter to the actual history and development of our presumed model – the triumphant Bolshevik organization that Lenin and other comrades fashioned in order to make the Russian Revolution of 1917. Some of the older, more seasoned comrades seemed to have a better grasp of this, but the dominant subculture within the SWP was more rigid, and the younger comrades, brought into the party thanks to the 1960s radicalization (my generation), were trained and shaped in that subculture.
The ISO was better, more open, than this. By the time I joined it (and a pre-condition for my seriously considering to join), it was no longer afflicted by the fatal self-conception that turns so many would-be Leninist organizations into sects. It was very clear that it could not be the revolutionary vanguard party or even the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. It recognized, as Lenin explained in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, that the actual vanguard could not be a small group of self-proclaimed “vanguardists.” It could only be a layer of the working class, organically developing – under the impact of capitalism and the influence of socialist ideas – a consciousness, an accumulation of activist experience, a body of knowledge and know-how, and a deepening commitment to pushing back the oppression and destructiveness of capitalism, and struggling for a better world.
This revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class could not be produced artificially within the confines of one or another “Marxist-Leninist” organization. It would necessarily emerge from a more open and long-term process, and increasing numbers from this vanguard layer would organize themselves into groups dedicated to waging more effective struggles for dignity in the here-and-now and for a future society of the free and equal. In the midst of ongoing struggles and experience, some of these groups would come together, rallying even more activist workers into a common organizational framework – and this would constitute a revolutionary party worthy of the name.
The ISO had broken from the sectarian notion that it was the nucleus of the revolutionary vanguard party, enabling it to recognize that, along with others, it was part of a larger process through which such a party might actually come into being.
This allowed the ISO to be stronger and healthier, in important ways, than the SWP had ever been in the years of my own membership. There were other ways in which the ISO was different from the SWP, however, that struck me as making it far weaker.
Revolutionary continuity and activist experience

The SWP that I knew represented a revolutionary continuity – not simply in ideas and words and books, but in the actual life-experience of its members – that stretched back to the early decades of the twentieth century (the mass Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and the vibrant Industrial Workers of the World of “Big Bill” Haywood), to the founding and initial decade of the Communist Party, to the very beginning of US Trotskyism, to the massive working-class battles of the 1930s and 1940s. The ideas and sensibilities, the know-how, the mode of functioning in a revolutionary organization and in broader social struggles, a familiarity with the dynamic interplay of Marxist theory and practical political work – all of this was part of a rich subculture within which we grew as political people.
The ISO that I knew lacked that amazing inter-generational enrichment. It was started in 1977, out of a factional battle and split within a relatively small socialist group, and it grew to a very large extent out of experiences on college and university campuses. Its leadership and membership were shaped in a very different way, with a far more restricted set of experiences, than was the case with the old SWP.
In the period in which I was in the SWP, its nature enabled it to play very significant roles in the actual social struggles and movements of its time. This involved an effective challenge to the war in Vietnam, a cutting-edge approach to the fight for black liberation, and an influential role in the struggle for women’s liberation. The ISO proved capable of organizing large, energetic contingents in mass marches around one or another issue, and certain of its members proved capable of playing outstanding roles in certain trade union and social movement contexts. But the practical activism in social movements that was essential for SWP branches (justifying the weekly meetings and disciplined functioning that characterized them) was not the norm for the ISO – and this deficiency was all-too-often justified by what struck me as pseudo-revolutionary strictures against “movementism.”
It is important not to distort this point, which can be done in more than one way.
First of all, we are dealing with different contexts – from the 1960s to the 1980s saw considerable activism, while the decades that followed (a formative period for the ISO) were characterized by a relative activist downturn.
Second, there were activist opportunities that ISO activists were able to engage with that provided essential experience for those involved. The radicalization within the Chicago Teachers Union, in some areas ongoing abortion clinic defense work, and the growth of Pittsburghers for Public Transit provide only some examples of consistent, sustained and highly respected ISO involvement.
The second point demonstrates, however, that the activist downturn by itself was neither complete nor capable of explaining away this particular deficiency within the ISO as a whole. It is certainly the case that ISOers would often throw themselves into activist opportunities and sometimes would almost chase after such opportunities, although sometimes then not quite knowing how to function.
Overall, and in contrast to the earlier SWP experience, the ISO was not successful in developing – as part of the internal culture of branches throughout the country – sustained and consistent activism as an essential element in the political experience and consciousness of the membership as a whole. In more than one branch there existed, as one comrade has put it, a strong tendency that involved spending “too much time ‘building the organization’ – that became an end in itself – which could be in tension with participation in actual struggle” (again, the presumed danger of “movementism”).
The lack of genuine experience in social struggles showed in more than one way. All too many “dissident” ISOers of earlier years (including some who became dissidents only after several years of ISO education and training) seemed not to comprehend the insight from the Communist Manifesto that “Communists do not … set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.” Instead, while fully engaging in the actually-existing working-class struggles (according to Marx and Engels), such Communists give voice to the need for a thoroughgoing and internationalist working-class solidarity, they emphasize the need for political independence from the capitalist class, and they point to a “line of march” of the actual struggles of the working class that must lead from resistance to oppression and violence under capitalism to a socialist democracy. To understand what this actually means, it helps to have a certain kind of practical experience all-too-often lacking in the ISO.
As a consequence, when some dissident comrades raised criticisms of ISO inadequacies, it was not around our failure to work with others in playing a substantial, ongoing, consistent role in the various struggles of our time. Instead it was that we were “adapting to reformism,” failing to stake out a truly revolutionary standpoint around which to wage the struggles. For example, some earlier dissidents deemed it “adaptationist” to accept the anti-war perspective of a united front coalition instead of counterposing to it the creation of an anti-imperialist contingent. Such a contingent might attract far-left forces around a revolutionary banner, and this was seen as superior to mobilizing greater numbers of people for a “merely” anti-war action. Fortunately, the ISO majority was not inclined to veer in such an ultra-left direction.
But the lack of consistent participation by ISO members in actual struggles undermined the political development of comrades in a different way. For some members, the ISO was more or less an affinity group of those who believed socialism is a good idea, and also an educational and discussion group for those who share such an affinity. More than this, it was an outreach organization designed to draw more such people into the socialist circle. That was the purpose of paper sales, public forums, socialism classes and even – in the minds of some – participation in political demonstrations.
Despite the involvement of ISO comrades in serious Marxist education, many were inclined to see what we were about in terms that were not seriously Marxist. For some comrades, there was an inclination to see the ISO as an association of the good people, of pure souls, standing up against the immorality and viciousness of capitalism, animated by the hope or promise that the working-class majority also has the potential for such purity – and when that majority comes closer and closer to our understanding of things, there will be increasing class struggles culminating in a socialist revolution. There was insufficient activist experience of any depth and consistency to enable some comrades to evolve very far beyond this political level.
Natural causes – and lessons to be learned

Some accounts of the ISO’s death come close to attributing it to suicide brought on by unendurable disillusionment, others to outright murder cooked up by a conspiracy of scoundrels within the organization’s ranks. Perhaps closer to the truth would be the assertion that the ISO died of natural causes. To die of “natural causes” refers to death from internal factors rather than death from external factors, such as trauma from an accident, or murder, or suicide. Of course, there remains the question of whether this “death by natural causes” had to take place just now – or if it might have been fruitfully delayed for a time. Nor can one be satisfied to just leave it at that: “died of natural causes.” Surely there is more to be learned from this experience.
At this point, I want to make use of what struck me as one of the most thoughtful of the analyses I have seen on the ISO collapse – an essay by Saman S and Adam T (who left the ISO before the final crisis), entitled “Socialism in One Organization: Notes on the ISO Crisis,” appearing in the March 21, 2019 issue of a now-defunct online journal Failed Harvest. There are aspects of the analysis that I find unpersuasive, and points in which a rhetorical flourish (such as “socialism in one organization”) get in the way of clear thinking. And yet there are elements of very clear thinking in it, in my opinion, that make it worth consulting.
The authors refer to the same strength noted above – the ISO had avoided the sterile error of seeing itself as the revolutionary vanguard party (or the nucleus of such a party); instead it saw itself, by helping to keep revolutionary Marxism intact, as an element in the future development of such a party, based as it must be in an actual radicalizing layer of the working class.
This is how they put it: “We, in effect, were keeping Marxist ideas and organization alive until the working-class could save us. At that future point, ‘the upturn,’ we could go ‘back’ into the class as fighters, armed with some memory of the historical struggle and theory.” They describe a residual element of sectarian vanguardism in the ISO’s self-conception: “We came, like most sects before us, to think we were leaders without an army, rather than what we really were: a group of would-be rank-and-file soldiers whose army had been defeated.” They add: “Our politics were mostly good in the abstract. But in practice we adapted to the hostile territory.”
Decisive is an identification of the contradiction embedded within the strength: there was a commitment to preserving the seeds of revolutionary Marxism for the future resurgence of the class struggle and a mass socialist movement; there was also a determination to protect the structure that was preserving these seeds. “When the upturn that was meant to save us finally came, with the return of strikes, with the return of socialism-as-movement,” they write, “the SC Minority acted like deer in the headlights. They denied the importance of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America]. They clamped down on questions of organizational affirmative action. They pushed out anyone who threatened the structure they had built.”
There is also an avoidance of a “good guys vs. bad guys” scenario. We are offered a more serious, historical materialist approach: “To their credit the SC Majority, and the majority of the ISO rank-and-file, rejected this abject failure of imagination. This rebellion, however, exposed the extent of the rot. It was not just the SC Minority’s failure. It was an organizational and political failure. All of us were complicit, to one degree or another. Our organization had been meant to keep the ‘seed’ of Marxism safe until the ground was more fertile. But when the time came to plant it, our seed was denatured and mutated.”
But in an already-quoted comment, Saman and Adam make a point that is worth considering more closely. “Our politics were mostly good in the abstract. But in practice we adapted to the hostile territory.” Negative “adaptions” there surely were. Yet it is significant to say that the politics of the ISO (not least of which was the revolutionary Marxism that it represented) could be “mostly good” – and I would suggest this was true not only in the abstract, but also sometimes in actuality. There were good things done, and said, and written. Some of it is durable and can feed something positive into the living socialist movement that is taking shape in our time.
What next?
The paradox presented by Saman and Adam – that efforts to preserve “the seed of Marxism” ended with the result that “our seed was denatured and mutated” – can, they insist, be positively resolved. This is how they put it: “The good news is that half of this problem can be solved by turning into the new socialist movement and embracing it. Only in that collective struggle will our politics come back to life. The other half of the problem is more difficult to solve. It requires opening up a comradely and ongoing discussion about how revolutionaries should organize ourselves today; not just among ISO comrades, but all left-wing socialists.”
Based on the analysis developed above, however, it would be important to add and stress an additional component. There is a need not only for embracing the new socialist movement and opening up discussion on how revolutionaries should organize themselves, but also – and especially – the need to embrace, participate in, help advance, and learn from social struggles and social movements of the working class and all of the oppressed, as they push back against the violence and tyrannies of the status quo. This is not simply an add-on. It is essential. Without that, our Marxism and our revolutionary politics will be abstract, stilted, stunted, “denatured and mutated.”
How should revolutionaries organize themselves today in order to do what must be done?
We are not starting from scratch. There are residual elements from the ISO itself – formally independent entities that it helped bring into being and sustain: the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), connected with both the immensely valuable publishing operation of Haymarket Books and the yearly Socialism conferences. Former ISO members can connect with these and various other publications and conferences. There are also other socialist organizations, some avoiding the pseudo-Leninist trap of “vanguardism” – and former ISO members are considering options and possibilities. Realities are fluid, and other structures might be developed to facilitate networking and collaboration, as we seek to transform this defeat into a luminous victory.
May 2019
[Paul LeBlanc is a long-time socialist who was a member of the ISO from 2009 until its dissoloution thius year., he is the author of many books, includng Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1990) and Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (2014).]
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Revolution and revolutionary strategy in Latin America-G.LL. Williams  

Posted by admin On April - 1 - 2019 Comments Off on Revolution and revolutionary strategy in Latin America-G.LL. Williams  


February 24, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The need for social revolution and socialist revolution is rather obvious in Latin America — a need that stretches from Mexico to Argentina. While this need is different in the various countries of Latin America, the overall nature of the struggle for social revolution and socialist revolution in Latin America is very similar. The history of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America, since the twentieth-century, shows the necessity of such a social revolution and socialist revolution. For the Latin American Left that struggle continues today.

Most socialists in Latin America, and most people on the Left in Latin America, have noted the need for social revolution and socialist revolution in Latin America. Indeed for the past century and a half, every serious socialist and Left thinker has noted the need for social change in Latin America — specifically the need for a socialist revolution. This need for social revolution and socialism in Latin America is what gives the Left its particular power and strength. Yet the Left in Latin America has, so-far, failed to achieve the victory of socialism and socialist revolution. This is, of course, for reasons often outside the power of the Latin American Left itself, specifically the power of capitalism and the capitalist state in Latin America, and the power of U.S. Imperialism. Yet if the Left in Latin America is to ever achieve a continent-wide socialist revolution, then the Left will have to engage with the problems of making revolution and the problems of revolution and revolutionary strategy. As Lenin said: ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’.[1] There can be no revolution in Latin America without a revolutionary theory; there can be no revolution in Latin America without a revolutionary strategy.

The revolutionary struggle for socialism in Latin America today is the product of both history and politics, at the national and continental level. The distinctive nature of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America today means that any revolutionary strategy has to be both particular and universal. Particular in that it has to be adaptive to a number of different states and societies, from Mexico to Argentina, from Brazil to Venezuela, from Colombia to Peru. Universal in that it has to be a strategy for socialist revolution across the entire continent. Such factors mean that any socialist struggle in Latin America also has to deal with a number of different histories and politics, especially in the case of the political organisation of the Left and socialists in the various states and countries of Latin America. All of these factors combine to make the revolutionary struggle for socialism difficult in Latin America, but also vital for both historical and political reasons.

The struggle in Latin America today, given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth-century, has entered a vital phase since the turn of the century. This vital phase has been shown by the fate and struggle of most of the great socialist revolutions and Left-nationalist revolutions that occurred in Latin America in the past century.

The revolutionary struggle in Latin America has taken many forms over the past century. Today the revolutionary struggle in Latin America is primarily a political struggle and a social struggle because both are needed to achieve socialism in Latin America.

The revolutionary struggle in Latin America is primarily a struggle by the working class of Latin America. If Latin America is to ever achieve a socialist revolution today, it must be led by the working class of Latin America. This basic fact is a constant of any revolutionary strategy for Latin America.

There once was a time when the revolutionary struggle in Latin America relied on guerrilla warfare and guerrilla struggle. Today that is no longer the case. Today only political struggle can achieve a revolutionary struggle in Latin America. Except for a very few cases, that type of guerrilla struggle is no longer possible or useful in Latin America. There is also the reality that except for a few cases, namely the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the guerrilla strategy was a failure and a disaster for socialist revolution in Latin America — one that resulted in counter-revolution and defeat. Che Guevara was a revolutionary hero but his revolutionary strategy of guerrilla struggle was largely a failure for the struggle for socialism. In Latin America today the revolutionary struggle for socialism must rely on political struggles not military struggles. If the revolutionary struggle in Latin America is to succeed it must rely today on political struggles by the working-class of Latin America. The failure of guerrilla struggle, from Colombia to Peru, highlights the need for political struggle instead in Latin America. This does not mean that guerrilla struggle is useless in Latin America: in the right circumstances guerrilla struggle is perhaps natural and necessary, but better forms of social struggle need to be developed. Only political struggle can achieve revolution and socialism in Latin America.

The revolutionary struggle for socialism in Latin America has to engage with the politics and history of Latin America. This has always been true and will continue to be true for the struggle in Latin America. The politics and history of Latin America inform the struggle for socialism in Latin America. The revolutionary struggle in Latin America has a rich tradition and a rich history, going back to the revolutions of the twentieth-century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Chilean Revolution of 1970-1973, the Nicaraguan Revolution, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, are all examples for the Latin American Left to draw upon and learn from.

The social struggle for socialism in Latin America is more developed in certain places and areas in Latin America than others. This social reality is key to understanding the dynamic of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America; that is, that some areas are more politically advanced than others. In Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, the struggle for social revolution and socialism exists at a different level than it does in other parts of Latin America, particularly in places like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia. This is because Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have already undergone some form of social revolution since the twentieth-century. This division of the revolution in Latin America is another legacy of past politics and past struggles in Latin America. For the revolutionary struggle in Latin America today, it is vital to unite the working class struggle in all these countries and to develop them towards socialism. In the case of Venezuela, a key theatre of social revolution and revolutionary struggle in Latin America since the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1998, the social struggle is already beginning to enter a decisive phase. If the struggle for socialism is to advance and develop in Latin America then there must be a struggle in all the countries of Latin America.[2]

The political struggle for revolution in Latin America, however, must relate to the political reality of Latin America today. There cannot be a successful social revolution in Latin America today unless the Left engages with the concrete realities of the struggle in Latin America. Repeating the politics and history of the revolutionary struggles from the past, even from previous successes, is unlikely to achieve revolutionary victories in Latin America. Instead it is vital to develop a revolutionary struggle and a revolutionary strategy for Latin America that acknowledges the realities of politics in Latin America today. These will vary in the different countries of Latin America. They will, though, all share in common the need to develop a working-class struggle and a working-class politics as the heart of the revolutionary struggle for socialism in Latin America.

All revolutionary struggles must deal with counter-revolution and counter-revolutionary struggles. In the case of Latin America the primary opponents of social revolution in Latin America remain the capitalist states of Latin America and the spectre of U.S. imperialism. Any struggle in Latin America will have to deal with these opponents and find ways of overcoming them. The recent reality of counter-revolution in Brazil, since 2016, and the recent difficulties of the revolution in Venezuela, since 2002, shows how powerful the forces of counter-revolution remain in Latin America, at both the political and social level. The history and politics of counter-revolution and coups in Latin America, since the beginning of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, has always been a threat to social progress and social revolution in Latin America, as the history of the twentieth-century in Latin America shows. So long as capitalism remains a force in Latin America, the struggle in Latin America for social revolution and socialist revolution will remain incomplete. Recent and past events show the reality of what occurs when revolution fails in Latin American societies — the reality of capitalist and military dictatorships. The working class of Latin America cannot afford any further revolutionary failures.

U.S. imperialism is the ultimate foe of revolution in Latin America, and the foe of revolution anywhere in the world. U.S. imperialism was and is a factor in any revolutionary strategy in Latin America. It is important to stress that the reality of any revolution or revolutionary strategy in Latin America has to be thought of in relation to the reality of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. U.S. imperialism has always undermined the struggle for socialism in Latin America and across the world. The difficulties of the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela attest to this basic fact. The revolutionary struggle in Latin America must always remember this reality of U.S. imperialism and seek ways to overcome it, either by struggle or by solidarity with the struggle of the working-class in the United States itself. If U.S. imperialism is not confronted head on, then there is no chance for the success of social revolution or socialist revolution in Latin America. [3]

A key area for revolutionary politics and revolutionary strategy in Latin America remains the political divide of Latin America. This divide means that the revolutionary struggle in Latin America still needs to develop a working-class struggle and a working-class politics specifically for political struggle and political development. This aspect of the struggle in Latin America is a hangover from the twentieth-century and a reminder of the social problems and social divides in Latin American society, yet it also shows the importance of having a socialist politics of political development for the Latin American Left. If the Left is to advance in Latin America it will have to develop a social aspect of its socialist politics — one that can appeal to the poor farmers and workers of Latin America. Failure to develop such a politics will only delay a key aspect of the social struggle in Latin America: the unity between the working class and the rural farmers. Without unity between the worker and the farmer there cannot be social revolution or socialist revolution in Latin America. The urban/rural divide in Latin America, too, has always delayed the social struggle in Latin America. It cannot be allowed to delay the social struggle in Latin America today. The urban/rural divide is not unique to Latin America, but it is vital to the success of the revolution and revolutionary strategy in Latin America.

There have been many good writers, from the Left, on revolution in Latin America and revolutionary strategy in Latin America. Indeed some of the best writers and thinkers on socialist revolution have either come from Latin America or have thought about the problems of revolution in Latin America. This is because Latin America, itself, is a key theatre for the socialist revolutionary struggle. The thought of Che Guevara and Régis Debray instantly spring to mind whenever one thinks of the problems and politics of making revolution in Latin America.[4] Such Marxists and socialists have always thought long and hard about finding ways of making the revolution in Latin America. Together they form one of the key sources of socialist thought for revolution in today’s world. If any strategy or politics for revolution in Latin America is to be developed for today then it will probably require some aspect of the thought from the older socialist thinkers of the twentieth-century, and from the Socialist tradition in general. The ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Guevara and Mariátegui can still help us today in terms of developing a revolutionary politics and a revolutionary strategy for Latin America.

The struggle in Latin America shows the need for both political organisation and for social organisation. The Left in Latin America needs both political organisations and social organisations: socialist parties, socialist trade unions, and socialist organisations. No victory for socialism in Latin America can occur without such political organisation or social organisation. Latin America has a history and a tradition of such socialist parties and socialist organisations. For the Left in Latin America today it is vital that the politics, tactics, and struggles of such parties are resurrected for the struggle today. The socialist revolution cannot be won, anywhere, without a socialist party. [5]

How to achieve the social revolution and the socialist revolution in Latin America is a question of politics and strategy. It is also a question that the Left in Latin America will have to think hard and long upon given the reality of politics today in Latin America and the experience gained from the successes and failures of the revolutions of the twentieth-century. The nature of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America necessitates that the Left in Latin America think about the nature of the struggle – and how it connects to the international struggle for Socialism. Latin America, after all, is just one theatre of an international struggle for socialism and this means that success or defeat there affects the struggle for socialism everywhere else. The nature of U.S. imperialism in Latin America gives the social struggle a further reality and a further political problem. All this means that unity among the Left of Latin America is vital for any future success today or in the near future. In many ways the nature of the struggle for socialism in Latin America remains unchanged from what it was in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, in that the Left has to struggle against both national and international foes, against both the capitalists of Latin America and the imperialism of the United States. All of this makes the social struggle and political struggle in Latin America difficult — but not impossible. The struggle in Latin America continues today and it will continue until victory and the victory of Socialism.

[1] V.L. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, (1905)
[2] E. Guevara, Message to the Tricontinental, (1967)
[3] Defeating U.S. imperialism will, ultimately, require a socialist revolution in the United States.
[4] Régis Debray, The Revolution in the Revolution, (1967); Régis Debray, Latin America: The Long Revolution (1965)
[5] This point has been demonstrated by the revolutionary struggles of the nineteenth-century and the twentieth-century, where such struggles required some form of socialist party or socialist organisation to succeed. It is likely that this will remain the case for any revolutionary struggle in the present century – the twenty-first century.

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Iran: Class struggle and neo-liberal capital accumulation-Minna Langeberg  

Posted by admin On April - 1 - 2019 Comments Off on Iran: Class struggle and neo-liberal capital accumulation-Minna Langeberg  


February 25, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Recent months have seen protests throughout Iran, by teachers, nurses, labourers, retirees, oil industry workers, bazaar traders and shopkeepers, truck drivers, farmers, the unemployed, students, and many more.

The current wave of protests across the country is a continuation of those of December 2017- January 2018 that were brutally suppressed by the regime. Like the 2017-18 protests, they signal the deep crisis of legitimacy of the regime, as expressed by one of the most enduring slogans that emerged from those protests: ‘Fundamentalists, Reformists, the game is over’. The main slogan of current protests is ‘Bread. Work. Freedom’.

These protests are sporadic, self-organised, fragmented and generally small in size – but more or less continuous. They are grassroots protests against the current situation in Iran, which has reached a boiling point. These are protests of the working class, women, the poor, the unemployed, marginalised, the underclass and the ‘surplus population’ who cannot be absorbed into capitalist wage labour.

These protests are about starvation wages, slavery-like workers’ conditions, poverty and hunger, unemployment, inflation, currency devaluation, collapsed fraudulent financial schemes that have eaten up retirees’ savings, and systematic corruption at every level of government and society. Contrary to what has often been said, these protests are not merely about economic conditions, but about almost every aspect of life in Iran. And although US sanctions have worsened the economic situation, they are not the cause: the cause is a religious fascist regime that faces a deep crisis of legitimacy.

The crisis, to quote Gramsci, “…consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Or to put it differently, Iran is in a ‘revolutionary situation’ as described by Lenin, where those ‘above’ cannot continue to rule, and those ‘below’ do not want to be ruled in the old way. The regime, in deep crisis on all fronts — economic, social, political, cultural, international — can neither continue to rule through ‘hegemonic’ consent, nor can it continue to use sheer repression indefinitely. This is a time of monsters.

Let us examine briefly the recent context of these protests.

Neo-liberal capital accumulation

Neo-liberal policies of ‘structural adjustment’ were adopted by various administrations at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) under the auspices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Adoption of policies of privatisation and deregulation of the labour market in the past three decades have lead to disastrous consequences: unemployment, a huge reserve army of labour, an underclass and the working poor, growth of shanty towns and closures of factories and industrial production. Overall the result has been socialisation of poverty.

Iran’s economy is currently in recession due to deep structural problems that can only be addressed politically.

It is very difficult to show the exact extent of this structural crisis statistically because of the nature of data. The government sees publication of economic and social data as a political act; data is either suppressed and withheld, or highly manipulated for public consumption. What adds to the problem is the existence of parallel government organisations and agencies, which produce their own data conflicting one another and sometimes themselves.

However, we can provide some information. In a November 2018 report, the IMF predicted that Iran’s inflation rate would rise to 40% by end of the year, and that the economic recession would deepen into a 3.6% economic contraction in 2019, partly aided by US sanctions, the devaluation of the currency and falls in oil production and exports. This inflation rate is possibly an underestimation; some economists estimate the inflation rate to be 100%.

The IMF’s inflation rate is very different from the official inflation rate. The official inflation rate is produced by both the Statistical Centre of Iran (SCI) and the Central Bank (CB). According to the latter, the inflation rate was 18% for the 12-month period ending in December 21, 2018. But recent inflation rates produced by the Central Bank contradict the SCI’s rate and are much higher and more accurate – 25% for the 12 month period to Dec 2018. There are reports that the CB has been put under pressure by the government not to publish its data.

There is a system of national minimum wage in Iran, determined by the Supreme Labour Council within the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, composed of the Minister of Labour, employers representatives, workers ‘representatives’ (chosen by the Council itself) and a number of ‘experts’ in economic and social affairs. The national minimum wage is reviewed annually.

Reports indicate this minimum wage is so low, compared to the rate of inflation and cost of living, that it may cover only some 30% of living costs of a worker and her/his family. In other words, labour power can barely reproduce itself. Further, breaches of minimum wage payments are far too common, but the level of unemployment is so high, the size of the reserve army of labour so large, workers’ bargaining power so weak, and corruption so deep that there is no chance of seriously enforcing the law.

There are now plans to dismantle even this extremely low and barely enforced minimum wage. Some of the deregulatory measures proposed so far are the ‘floating’ of the minimum wage, introduction of a ‘multi-layered’ minimum wage, ‘regional’ minimum wage or ‘consensual’ wage, and exclusion of women household heads and rural workers from minimum wage and labour legislation protection altogether, all in the interest of ‘flexibility’, improving capital’s falling rate of profit and reducing the unemployment rate. These proposals have been advocated by various factions of the ruling class, members of the Parliament, Ministry of Labour officials, some ‘charity organisations’ and sham government-controlled ‘Islamic Labour Councils’. Many of the workers, whose terms and conditions are going to be further deregulated, are already on starvation wages.

The official rate of unemployment is over 12%, but in reality it is more than double that, perhaps between 25-30%. In some cities and regions, 60% of the population is unemployed. Realistically if all other categories such as ‘economically inactive population’ of working age, underemployment in the form of part time and precarious work (both very widespread), home-based work and ‘informal economy’ work are taken into account, we would arrive at a much higher unemployment rate. But as no data is collected on these categories, an unemployment rate more than twice the official rate is just an ‘educated’ guess.

Officially, the total labour force is just below 27 million, over 3 million of whom are estimated to be officially unemployed. Between 40- 42 million of the working age population is ‘economically inactive’. Some are students, but a large number are made up of ‘discouraged job seekers’, those with tenuous connection with the labour market, working from home, and absorbed into the informal sector. Officially, informal work is work not protected by the labour law and social insurance provisions. There is no data on the size of the ‘informal economy’ but it has grown massively in the past 10 to 15 years – an almost new phenomenon in Iran – the low official participation rate of about 40% is an indication of a huge reserve army of labour partly absorbed into this sector.

According to some estimates, 6 million people work in the informal economy. Of all the jobs created in 2015, only 30% had social protection and 70% were in the informal economy. Most of these workers are considered as ‘self-employed’, but, in fact, they are ‘wage hunters and gatherer’, engaged in ‘jobs without definition’: street peddlers, itinerant hawkers, fruits and vegetable sellers, taxi drivers and waste pickers. They can be seen everywhere across the cities, on street pavements, parks and subway stations where they sell whatever they can without paying rent or taxes. But, on the whole, the main categories of informal sector workers are street vendors, hawkers, and home-based and rural producers. Wherever there is high unemployment and poverty, there is also growth of the ‘informal sector’. Mostly young people, without any future prospects, and rural-urban migrants, are absorbed into this sector. A growing number of these informal sector workers have university-level education.

A broad sense of the reserve army of labour, therefore, beyond the officially unemployed, would include informal sector workers, those working from home, the ‘self employed’ as a disguised category of unemployed, forced part-time workers or the underemployed, precarious workers, that is, those without ‘permanent’ or clear contract of work such as hourly, daily or seasonal workers, those with ‘blank contracts’ (or ‘zero-hour’ contracts), ‘discouraged’ workers, ‘home-makers’, those categorised in the official data described as ‘not identified’, the sub-proletariat and the underclass. If all these elements and categories are taken into account, they may then amount to between 15 to 20 million of the working age population — an ‘educated’ guess again. If I am correct, then the size of this reserve army of labour, is quite close to the size of the employed population. This is alarming economically and socially. For some, these heterogeneous elements of the dispossessed, as well as the lumpenproletariat, should be theorised as sectors or factions of the working class – but this is a theoretical debate I cannot enter into here.

In Iran, 19 million of the population are slum dwellers and the marginalised. There is an overlap between them and some of the elements of the reserve army of labour described above, but they are not identical. There are also an estimated seven million child labourers, mostly between the ages of 5-10.

Decades of neo-liberal capital accumulation and kleptocracy have resulted in the growth of wageless proletarisation, precarious wage labour, shanty towns and child labour.

In terms of real wages, the fall has been dramatic in the past few years. During the first six months of 2018 estimates are of a 50- 90% fall in real wages, the lower rate being based on official inflation rate. This fall in real wages is partly due to the currency devaluations during that period, but also due to a very high inflation rate, and the government’s active neo-liberal policies of labour market deregulation and privatisations.

Likewise, there is no agreement on the definition of poverty line and thus the proportion of the population below the poverty line cannot be accurately determined.

The poverty line is generally measured in terms of income per month of a family of four. According to 2018 press reports, 33% of the population, or nearly 26 million, is below the absolute poverty line, and 6% of the population, or five millions, are starving: they cannot afford to buy enough food. On the whole, estimates of the population below the poverty line vary between 35-80%. An estimate of some 50% of the population below the poverty line would be a somewhat conservative one.

Iran ranks second in the world in proven natural gas reserves and fourth in proven crude oil reserves.

The drive towards privatisation began in the early 2000s with the 2006 amendment of Article 44 of the Constitution, allowing for the sale of state-owned companies. The Iranian Privatisation Organisation (IPO) was created by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance, and the government declared a large-scale privatisation program in its Fifth Five-Year National Development Plan 2015-2020, aiming at privatising about 20% of the state-owned enterprises each year.

But full-fledge privatisation of the economy, dismantling of the social wage, cuts to social spending and state-subsidies, and thus socialisation of poverty, were implemented during Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013). The main beneficiaries of these policies were the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and economic institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader Khamenei.

During the first half of 2018, privatisation grew by 100% compared to the same period a year before. Nearly $600 million worth of state-owned shares were transferred to the private sector during this period. In Nov 2018 IPO announced that the sale of some 60% of state-owned shares to the private sector, envisaged in the March 2017- March 2018 budget, had been achieved. The government expected to earn about US $2.5 billion from these sales that year.

Privatisation via IPO led to corruption, nepotism and shady deals. A network of insiders and semi-criminal and corrupt cronies of the regime has grown, who share in the looting of the country with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his clan. While the number of those living at or below the poverty line and in shanty towns inhabited by the ‘surplus population’ grow, privatisation and neo-liberal policies have created a highly polarized society and an explosive situation.

Labour rights and trade unionism

There is no trade union system in Iran and independent trade unions are banned. Workers lack the power of collective bargaining and are ‘represented’ by state-controlled Islamic Workers’ Councils, which are present in most workplaces and sectors of the economy. These Councils are supervised by the (Islamic) Workers’ House, affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions. The Islamic Labour Councils are by no means trade unions; they are tripartite organisations made up of the government, employers and (sham) worker ‘representatives’ who are selected based on their royalty to the regime and commitment to Islamic ideology. One of the tasks of these Labour Councils is workplace spying on militant workers.

The right to strike is not recognised by law in Iran, and labour strikes are brutally suppressed. Labour activist are routinely harassed, arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to long jail terms. Torture, beating and murder have been the modus operandi of the regime from its very inception, and are neither new nor isolated practices.

The International Trade Union Council (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2018 ranks Iran as a country with ‘no guarantee of rights’, that is, a country where ‘legislation may spell out certain rights, but workers have effectively no access to these rights’. The ITUC Report 2018 states that in Iran ”… many labour activists remain arbitrarily imprisoned and in dire detention conditions”.

Reza Shahabi’s case is an example of long prison sentences for labour and civil rights activists, and their mistreatment and torture by the regime. Shahabi, a leading labour activist of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburban Bus Company, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in 2010, accused of ‘collusion against national security’, a routine charge used by the Revolutionary Islamic Courts. He was also sentenced to one more year imprisonment for ‘spreading propaganda against the state’, fined, and banned from all trade union activities for five years. In March 2018 Shahabi was released from prison.

Esamil Abdi, a school teacher and secretary general of the Coordinating Council of Teachers’ Union, was arrested in 2016 and similarly charged with ‘collusion against national security’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the state’. He is serving a six-year prison sentence.

In May 2018, Mohammad Habibi, a teacher and member of teachers’ union was arrested during a peaceful gathering, and in August that year was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also banned from political and social activities for two years, and had a travel ban of two years imposed on him along with and 74 lashes.

Activists’ death in prison is common. Death occurs either following injuries received as a result of torture, or illness as a result of mistreatment and appalling prisons conditions and purposeful refusal of the regime to provide medical treatment. There are known recent cases of murder of imprisoned activists where the cause of death has been announced officially as ‘suicide’.

Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company and National Steel Company strikes

Against this background, two simultaneous waves of labour protests stand out, both in the largely-industrial southwest province of Khuzestan: the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company protests, and the National Steel Company protests in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province, a region of Iran devastated by the Iran-Iraq war, environmental decay, water shortages, poverty, ethnic minority oppression and emigration.

Haft Tappeh is located in the southwest province of Khuzestan, some 15 kilometres from the ancient city of Shush. The sugarcane company was established in 1961, occupies an area of 24 hectares of land and was the largest state-owned employer in the area. In 2015 the company was privatised, which led to 7000 job losses. There is an Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, that has a long history but in its present form was established in 2008 in the course of a 42-day mass strike over unpaid wages. The trade union is not recognised by the company and government authorities.

Haft Tappeh workers have been struggling for a number of years over a host of issues: four months of unpaid wages and benefits; corrupt and incompetent management; casualisation of work; formation of independent workers’ councils; and nationalisation of the company.

It has become fairly common in Iran for workers not to be paid, for five, six or even 12 months or more. Non-payment of wages is an indication of the deep structural crisis of the state and the economy. For reasons we cannot go into here, during the past three decades, capital’s profitability in Iran’s industrial and manufacturing sectors has fallen and financialisation of capital has grown exponentially, with finance capital being a particularly corrupt sector of the Iranian economy.

Strikes in Haft Tappeh started about November 2 and continued for over a month, bringing production to a standstill. It was especially during these protests that Esmail Bakhshi emerged as a prominent labour rights activist. In his speeches, he has repeatedly denounced kleptocracy, systematic corruption and mismanagement under the disguise of privatisation, attacked workers exploitation and argued for the nationalisation of the company and the formation of independent workers council.

On November 16, workers occupied the site of the Friday prayer in Shush, chanting angry slogans against the clergy and government authorities. Friday prayers are state-organised religious-political affairs, and Friday Prayer leaders are chosen under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. In post-revolutionary Iran they have become one of the main ideological apparatuses of the state and are a means of communicating official state policies and ideologies. They combine religion, politics and popular agitation. Invading and occupying these avenues is a serious step to take.

On Nov 18 the regime sent its anti-riot squads to Shush to flex its muscles, although fearing escalation, they acted cautiously and tried to avoid direct confrontation. The exercise was a warning signal on the part of the regime.

Bakhshi was arrested that day by security forces in Shush, together with civil activist Sepideh Gholian and 18 other workers. Other workers were released later, but Bakhshi and Gholian remained in jail. The latter was released on December 18 on bail.

Bakhshi was arrested on sham charges of endangering ‘national security’. During his 25 days in detention, there was a veil of silence on Bakhshi’s whereabouts and condition, except for the news on one occasion, that as a result of beatings, he had been taken to a local hospital with internal bleedings and a swollen face.

Bakhshi was released on bail on December 12. On January 4 he posted a letter on Instagram. In the letter Bakhshi revealed that during his 25 days in detention he had been subjected to torture, abuse and beating, and challenged the Intelligence Minister to a live televised debate on this issue.

In the open letter Bakhshi writes: “During the first few days, without reason or any conversation, they tortured me and beat me with their fists and kicked me until I was going to die. They beat me so much I couldn’t move in my cell for 72 hours. I was feeling so much pain that I couldn’t even sleep without suffering…Today almost two months after those difficult days. I still feel pain in my broken ribs, kidneys, left ear and testicles. But worse than the physical torture was the psychological torture. I don’t know what they did to me but I turned into a washed-up rat. My hands are still trembling. I used to walk with my feet firmly on the ground but I was humiliated into a different person. I still get severe panic attacks despite taking anxiety medication.”

Article 38 of Iran’s post-revolutionary Constitution states: “All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information are forbidden”. Article 7 of United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

But there is no Rechtsstaat (law-abiding constitutional state) in Iran. The system is arbitrary, brutal and violent. There are laws, but the state and its apparatuses, by routinely breaching them and violating the Constitution, have spread a general culture of lawlessness. No one feels obligated to abide by the law, especially the powerful and the rich.

Bakhshi’s torture by agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has caused much uproar and outcry in the mainstream media and social networks because he is seen not as an ordinary activist, but a brave and outspoken labour activist representing over-exploited workers and the underclass.

After the publication of his post, several sources, including Bakhshi’s lawyer Farzaneh Zilabi stated that Bakhshi had been under pressure by intelligence agents to deny his claims, and received threatening telephone calls almost every day.

Given the extent of public reaction to Bakhshi’s post in Instagram, Islamic Republic authorities felt they had to react. There was a myriad of authorities commenting on the issue.

On January 7, the head of Judiciary Sadegh Larijani, in response to Bakhshi’s letter and under pressure from public opinion, said he had ordered an investigation into the matter, but reminded Bakhshi that a prison is a prison and not a ‘hotel’.

On January 8, Iran’s Prosecutor General Office announced that an independent ‘expert committee’ had been formed and sent to Khuzestan Province to investigate the allegations of torture. He tried to side step the matter by alluding to the possibility that a single security officer’s conduct should not be generalised to the whole system and warned against the appropriation of the matter by ‘enemy and hostile media’. At the same time, Hesamaldin Ashena, President Rouhani’s advisor, announced the president’s order for ‘quick and accurate’ investigation into allegations of torture.

Yet, on the same day, Heshmat Falahat-Pisheh, the head of the National Security Committee of the Parliament announced that Ministry of Intelligence had denied torturing Bakhshi, and that, after investigations, the Committee had reached the conclusion that no torture had ever taken place. Rather, Bakhshi had been involved in scuffles with the security forces during his arrest. He further claimed Bakhshi was connected to the ‘Workers Communist Party’, an Iranian political party in European exile. He added that ‘foreign media’ had created the uproar over this matter and Bakhshi’s case before the Committee was closed.

On January 9, President’s Bureau Chief Mahmoud Vaezi repeated the Ministry of Intelligence’s denial of Bakhshi’s torture, and threatened that the Intelligence Ministry had the right to prosecute Bakhshi for allegations of torture.

The next day, Asghar Karimi, head of the Executive Committee of the Workers Communist Party of Iran in European exile stated in a press interview that Bakhshi had never been a member of the Party nor had he ever applied for membership.

On January 14, Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s Prosecutor General went further and announced that Bakhshi’s claims have been lies and ‘politically motivated’. He added Bakhshi was ‘no ordinary person’ and due to his connections with ‘certain places’ (that is, communist parties overseas), he has spread these rumours as a cover up for political purposes. He threatened that ‘if Bakhshi has committed a crime, he will be dealt with according to the law’.

On January 16, Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the vice-president of the ‘reformist’ faction Omid (Hope) in the Parliament repeated the Ministry of Intelligence’s denial of Bakhshi’s torture. He added that according to documents and confessions, Bakhshi has ‘been in contact with communist parties overseas’.

Earlier January 8, Bakhshi and his lawyer had managed to meet with some members of the reformist faction of the Parliament, who later announced that Bakhshi had somehow revised his story and had claimed he had only been beaten up by security forces.

Therefore, in the course of less than two weeks a myriad of authorities — the Minister of Intelligence, the Public Prosecutor, the Judiciary and the Parliamentary Committee on National Security — have denied Bakhshi’s torture, and reduced the case to ‘scuffles’ with security forces at the time of arrest. Moreover, they have turned the table, and changed Bakhshi’s position, from a complainant to that of a potential ‘accused’ with threats of legal prosecution hanging over his head. In addition to the usual ambiguous charges of ‘spreading propaganda against the state’ and ‘disturbing public order’, Bakhshi has now been accused of links with Iranian ‘communists’ overseas.

Both Bakhshi and his lawyer have responded to these threats, but they in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the experienced and organised brutal repressive apparatuses of the state. On January 16, Bakhshi’s lawyer defended Bakhshi’s claims to torture and asked authorities not to comment on cases still before the courts. The Islamic Revolutionary Court in Shush is still investigating Bakhshi’s case.

There were also other major arrests during the last two months of 2018. Ali Nejati, a retired Haft Tappeh worker and labour activist was arrested at his home in Shush on November 29 when the Haft Tappeh workers’ strikes were taking place. According to his lawyer, Farzaneh Zilabi, he was violently beaten by the security agents when he asked for an arrest warrant, despite his age and serious heart condition. Nejati had been arrested before in 2015 for his labour rights activities. In mid-December 2018, his lawyer Ms Zilabi announced he had been arrested in relation to previous records and participation in the Haft Tappeh strikes, but that he had also been charged with ‘endangering national security’, ‘spreading propaganda against the state’, and ‘disrupting public order’. Nejati remains in prison.

On December 17 and 18, the government arrested 40 leading steelworkers and strike organisers from the National Steel Company in Ahvaz. The steelworks complex came under close surveillance by security and intelligence forces. The plan is to create an Islamic Labour Council there. The arrested workers were gradually released, the last two of them on January 19.

The latest developments, at the time of writing, has been the broadcast of a program on national television on January 19, in which both Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian are placed before the cameras and deliver forced ‘confessions’ about their real subversive agenda of overthrowing the regime and their connections with Iranian ‘communist’ parties and groupings abroad. A day after the broadcast of this program, security forces attacked Gholian’s home, taking her and her brother away. According to the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, security forces attacked Bakhshi’s home and took him away around midnight on January 20. The Syndicate has demanded the release of Bakhshi, Nejati and other imprisoned workers.

The new managing director and creation of ‘Islamic Workers’ Councils’

Given the extent of the success of labour strikes in attracting public support, and fearing an escalation in the situation, the government paid some of the workers’ unpaid wages and, on December 1, appointed a new managing director for the company.

In mid November, the Judiciary announced that the previous managing director of the company had fled the country, after stealing $800 million. Other reports in December claimed he was still in the country. It is still not possible to confirm his whereabouts, given the Mafia-like connections amongst the state authorities and their cronies. The state in Iran is run like an organised crime syndicate.

The formation of Islamic Labour Councils is a major means of breaking workers’ strikes and creating divisions among workers. On December 31, intelligence forces and the Minister of Labour hastily set up sham elections for membership into the Haft Tappeh Islamic Labour Councils. The very existence of the Islamic Labour Councils is a cause of bitter divisions among workers and, under threats and intimidations, some of the striking workers joined the Council. Some 800 of Haft Tappeh workers took part in these elections and eight workers were elected as members of the Islamic Labour Council of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company.

On January 6, the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, the true workers’ representative recognised by the workers but not the government, published an announcement in which it rejected the Islamic Labour Council as a bogus anti-labour formation.

The announcement says: ”Physical violence and force is only one way of enforcing anti-labour policies, another means of suppression is through formation of Islamic Labour Councils…Workers are aware and know that the Islamic Labour Councils are neither labour councils nor do they represent workers’ interests; rather, their real task is to act as informers for government intelligence forces…The real nature of the Islamic Labour Councils is defending and protecting the interests of the state; they are anti-labour organisations….To those who yielded to intimidation and threats by intelligence forces, we say it is not late yet, and you can still return to the fold; to those who resisted and defended their honour and reputation, we say thank you and well done! ”

There have been numerous other protests by wage and salary earners in Iran during 2018, notably:

* Truck Drivers — Between May and December, truck drivers were sporadically on strike, including for 10 days in May and 17 days in October. These strikes, organised by the Free Truckers Union, were against high inflation, low fares, insurance costs, and spare parts costs. Truck drivers also demanded the removal of brokers from terminals, increasing pensions and punishing corrupt officials. These strikes spread to more than 300 towns and cities across the country and lasted several weeks. In October 2018, the regime cracked down, arresting hundreds of drivers, charging them with acting ‘against national security’, and threatening them with death penalty. Several international trade union federations, including the US, Italian and Danish transport trade union federations, declared their support for the Iranian truck drivers. On October 12, the International Transport Workers Federation condemned the death penalty charges against drivers.

* Teachers — In October 2018, thousands of teachers went on a two-day national strike in which they went to school but did not hold classes. The Coordinating Council of Teachers Union (CCTU) called the strike. Teachers condemned high inflation, low pay, privatisation of the education system and poor working conditions, and demanded the release of arrested teachers and trade union activists.

Teachers are one of the lowest paid professionals in Iran; they often live below the poverty line and have to resort to a second job in the ‘informal economy’, such as driving taxis, to make ends meet. At least two teachers were arrested during this strike. Later, a 65-year-old retired teacher and union leader, who had written materials critical of the regime, was abducted by Islamic Revolutionary Guards officers and involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. He was later released.

Other protests were by bazaar shop keepers and traders in June 2018, and taxi drivers, hospital employees, office workers, petrochemical workers, municipality workers, farmers and students throughout 2018.

There have also been protests by retirees and those who live off interests on their savings. In 2017, corrupt financialisation of the economy led to the collapse of large private banks and the disappearance of millions of Iranians’ savings. Private banks and financial institutions have been allowed to operate since 2000 and proliferated without Central Bank’s supervision. There were protests against the government and these institutions throughout the country and they continue to this day, but many people have been able to recover their savings.


Within Iran, teachers unions, bus drivers syndicates, the Union of Metalworkers & Mechanics of Iran, truck drivers unions, petrochemical workers, students and others have expressed their solidarity with Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz Steel Industry workers.

On January 9, the five major workers’ organisations — Workers of South Pars Projects, Petrochemical Workers of Mahshahr District and Imam Port City, Workers’ activists in Shush and Andimshek, and Workers of Tehran-Karaj Mehvar — published a statement in support of the Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz National Steel Industry workers.

IndustriALL Global Union and the International Trade Union Council Congress in Copenhagen have issued statements and passed resolutions in support of striking and protesting workers and have called for an end to the repression by the Iranian government. Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers Worldwide (IUF), to which the Haft Tappeh Workers Syndicate is affiliated, also issued a statement in November in support of Haft Tappeh workers.

In early December, more than 80 foreign trade unions and workers organisations wrote an open letter to the Supreme Leader Khamenei expressing their solidarity with striking Iranian workers and asked for the release of Bakhshi and others. Trade unions and labour federations from France, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Indonesia, Senegal, Egypt, Paraguay and a number of other countries signed the letter. French, British, German, Swedish, Danish and Canadian trade unions and labour federations have expressed their support and solidarity.


The Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company and the National Steel Workers protests are significant because they show the extent of working class consciousness and growing solidarity among sectors of workers in Iran, in the face of the common enemy that they correctly identify as capitalism and theocratic rule.

These protestors are also significant in the history of Iranian working class movement because of the nature of their demands: independent workers’ council, job security and an end to privatisation and casualisation of work. These are the common demands of the entire working class in Iran.

These protests are highly representative of the extent of anger among not only the working class but also the unemployed, the excluded and the marginalised — the social rejects and ‘surplus population’ of capitalism — against the regime and its pro-capital policies.

In both cases, protests that had started with demands over unpaid wages and working conditions have turned into protests against capitalism, neo-liberal privatisation and the deregulation of the labour market.

To keep them under control, the state met some of the lesser demands, such as the partial payment of wages, and beginning to deal with the re-classification of occupations, job security and casualisation of work, but the bigger demands of nationalisation of industries and formation of independent workers’ councils have not been addressed.

Iran’s state is a failed state that survives through sheer repressive control of the society. Its structural crisis is deep and intractable; there are parallel centres of power, some hidden and informal, others in bitter rivalry with one another, all equally corrupt and beyond any possibility of reform.

The situation is tense, but the struggle continues. This is by no means the end of the story.

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John Smith on imperialism (part 1),(Part-2),( Part-3), (Part-4)

Posted by admin On April - 1 - 2019 Comments Off on John Smith on imperialism (part 1),(Part-2),( Part-3), (Part-4)

Dispossessed workers, farmers, small producers still await their day of liberation
Posted Mar 19, 2019 by John Smith and Farooque Chowdhury

This is part one of a four-part interview of John Smith by Farooque Chowdhury. Click here to see all parts of the interview, which will be published in next several days. The interview begins by addressing how imperialism is defined. —Eds

Today, it is impossible to ignore the question of imperialism in any discussion concerning people as imperialism is distorting and destroying all aspects and areas of life. Ignoring the question of imperialism is synonymous to betrayal of people’s cause. John Smith, former oil rig worker, bus driver, telecommunications engineer, longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements, and author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, January 2016), discusses the question of imperialism in the following interview taken by Farooque Chowdhury during July 2018-February 2019.

The analyses, interpretations and observations made, the narratives presented, the terms used, and the way persons, politics, ideologies and trends characterized in the interview are completely of John Smith, and, those don’t always correspond to the interviewer’s opinion, interpretation, etc.

How do you define imperialism?

John Smith: The most succinct and concrete definition of imperialism that I can come up with is the subjugation of the entire world to the interests of the capitalist ruling classes of a handful of oppressor nations. This contains both the economic and political dimensions of imperialism—‘subjugation’ denotes the political subjection of governments, states and peoples to imperialist rule, while ‘interests of the capitalist ruling classes’ refers to their economic interests, essentially their appropriation of the lion’s share of the surplus value generated by the workers and farmers of the world, not just by those resident in their own countries. The summary definition also speaks of the ‘ruling classes of a handful of oppressor nations’, rejecting the influential view (which exists in many variants and whose most prominent exponents are Leslie Sklair and William Robinson) that these ruling classes have merged into a ‘transnational capitalist class’, and it therefore implies that the interests of these ruling classes may not coincide, that inter-imperialist rivalries persist. Furthermore, the definition advanced above can be developed to take account of ‘sub-imperialism’, that is, when the capitalist rulers of a subject nation in turn subject other, even weaker, nations and peoples to their political and economic domination.

What is/are the difference/s between the definition you are using and other definitions?

JS: The definition provided above is concrete in that it applies to now, as opposed to a generic definition applicable to all manifestations of imperialism throughout the ages. In the above definition, ‘imperialism’ is an analytical category that can be developed into a theoretical concept. In contrast, trans-historical, generic definitions of imperialism can only ever be descriptive, highlighting superficial features which different manifestations of imperialism in different periods of human history appear to have in common. As Lenin pointed out in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practiced imperialism. But ‘general’ disquisitions on imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background, the fundamental difference between socio-economic formations, inevitably turn into the most vapid banality.” The essence of contemporary imperialism is to be found in the contradictory social relations specific to capitalism, not in “human nature “or any other ahistorical abstraction.

That’s not to say that generic uses of the term are useless, or that the noun “imperialism” (and even more so the adjective “imperialist”) cannot be used to describe diverse forms of chauvinistic behavior and mentality—but unless we are conscious of the difference between imperialism as a descriptive term and as an analytical category, we will inevitably fall into the ‘vapid banality’ that Lenin warns against.

What’s really involved here is the need to go beyond the sterile formal logic so characteristic of bourgeois social science and learn how to think dialectically. If imperialism predated capitalism, pedants ask, how can it be intrinsic to capitalism? How can it be true that its essence must be found in capitalist social relations and not human society in general? To answer this question I like to use the analogy of patriarchy. It, too, predates capitalism—indeed, as Frederick Engels explained in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, what he called “the world-historic downfall of the female sex” coincided with the transition from fiercely egalitarian hunter-gatherer era to the earliest class-divided society. Not only did patriarchy predate capitalism, like imperialism, it was a necessary precondition for the rise of capitalism. Upon its arrival, and as part of the process of establishing its supremacy, this higher form of social organisation discarded elements of the pre-existing feudal or communal society which were inimical to its own nature—and internalized, made into its own, whatever was favorable to its further development. Both imperialism and patriarchy fall into the second category, which is why it is possible to say that both of these phenomena preceded capitalism but have long since become inherent qualities of capitalism. There are many people in subject nations (not least, their capitalist elites) who oppose imperialism but do not oppose capitalism, just as there are many feminists who oppose the oppression of women but do not acknowledge that this oppression is rooted in capitalist social relations. So it is that bourgeois nationalism, just like bourgeois feminism, is inherently conflicted and cannot provide a path towards liberation.

What aspects/factors have you taken into account while defining imperialism?

JS: Well, I think it is necessary to take everything into account! No single aspect of reality, especially not one as qualitatively important as imperialism, can be understood unless we have at least a working concept of the total system of interaction of which it is a part. This is an unavoidable difficulty which bourgeois social science attempts to evade by artificially dividing social science into mutually-exclusive “disciplines”, e.g. “politics”, “economics”, “sociology”, “anthropology” etc., each offering rival explanations of social phenomena, using incompatible methodologies, and expressing themselves in terminologies which are mutually unintelligible. The fatal limitations of such pseudo-science have become impossible to ignore, and so “multi-disciplinary” approaches have become more popular—but without the rigorous application of dialectical logic, this inevitably involves arbitrary or prejudiced selection of facts and results in eclecticism and indeterminacy. The one exception to this is the pseudo-science known as “economics—its high priests resist the contamination of its mathematical abstractions with concepts borrowed from politics, sociology, history etc. Their arrogance knows no bounds, and they sense they would not survive a serious encounter with other disciplines.

So, I have consciously attempted to apply everything that I have learned about human evolution over the past several centuries, especially about the evolution of global political economy since World War II, and most especially about its evolution since the 1970s, the dawn of the so-called neoliberal era. Of course, “taking everything into account” doesn’t get us very far, it is nothing more than a condition for our arrival at the beginning of the road to wisdom; further progress requires sifting, ordering, arranging and analyzing the mass of data, testing concepts against facts and using concepts to penetrate through the surface appearance of facts, searching for what Evald Ilyenkov called the “cardinal points of interaction “of the system being investigated.

To this end, I zeroed in on what analysis of facts soon revealed itself to be the most dynamic and significant transformation of the neoliberal era, namely the large-scale shift of production processes to low-wage countries, a development which was and is touted by capitalism’s apologists—and by far too many who call themselves Marxists—as definitive proof that, thanks to capitalist development, the imperialist North-South divide was fading into history. Instead, as I showed in Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, this development signifies the culmination of capitalism’s imperialist evolution, a qualitatively new stage in capitalism’s internalization of imperialism, in which the plunder of nature and super-exploitation of living labor now takes place primarily within the bounds of the capital-labor relation rather than through so-called primitive accumulation, territorial conquest and other forms of naked plunder, which capitalists inherited and enthusiastically adopted from the past and which they have far from abandoned.

What are the limitations of/problems with other definitions of imperialism?

JS: The liberal/mainstream notion of imperialism that permeates academia and bourgeois political opinion (and which, as I argue in Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, contaminates much of what in Europe and North America presents itself as Marxist political economy) proceeds from the elementary observation that the various empires that have existed during the past three millennia share one obvious characteristic, namely territorial conquest accomplished through military force. This is seized upon as the defining characteristic of imperialism, and the dismantlement of the territorial empires and granting of formal sovereignty is then taken as proof that imperialism belongs to the past, not the present. Such an approach rests on a complete divorce between politics and economics—imperialism is defined exclusively by political domination and the application of military force; the motive for such behavior might be economic, i.e. plunder of resources etc., but it might just as easily be geopolitics, megalomania, divine right or anything else.

The Marxist concept of imperialism is diametrically opposed to this. Capitalism’s imperialist impulse is rooted in the contradictions of the capitalist value relation. As Marx explained, increasing productivity of labor (through the substitution of living labor by dead labor, i.e. machinery) and falling rate of profit are two sides of the same coin; and as Lenin explained, capitalists in developed capitalist nations are obliged by the class struggle to purchase social peace by using some of their profits to bribe privileged layers of the working class. As a result, these capitalist ruling classes are compelled to augment the surplus value they extract from workers and farmers at home with ever-increasing flows of wealth from abroad. Both of the trends pushing in this direction became pronounced in the closing decades of the 19thcentury, provoking intensified empire-building and setting these rival ruling classes on collision course with each other, leading to the first imperialist world war.

Is there any fundamental difference between the way you define imperialism and the way Lenin or Marxist-Leninists defined imperialism?

JS: No, I don’t believe so, but what is different is the world of the 21stcentury compared to the world as it was 100 years ago. When Lenin, Zinoviev, Bukharin and other Bolshevik leaders developed the Marxist theory of imperialism, the relation between the handful of oppressor nations and the great majority of oppressed nations was a relation between countries and continents where capitalist social relations were fully established and where they were still embryonic, and the techniques of imperialist plunder that were available to the oppressors were largely those they had inherited from the past—brute force, usury, etc. Also embryonic was the rebellion of the colonized and enslaved peoples; this subsequently became vastly more powerful, forcing the imperialists to modify the forms of their domination by handing formal political sovereignty to venal and corrupt elites while negating any meaningful economic sovereignty. So, there has been substantial change in the external forms of continued imperialist domination, and the spread of capitalist social relations in the dominated countries has opened up new ways for imperialists to siphon wealth from these countries, but the essential nature of the imperialist relation has not fundamentally changed since Lenin’s time. On the contrary, capitalists in North America, imperialist Europe and Japan are today vastly more reliant on flows of surplus value from so-called developing nations than they were 100 years ago; in other words, they are even more parasitic than ever they were; and the world is as divided as ever it was between, in Lenin’s words, “a handful of oppressor nations and the great majority of oppressed nations,” with the significant change that the hard-fought struggle by the peoples have emancipated the national bourgeoisies of the oppressed nations, in other words a place has been found for their snouts in the trough, while the impoverished and dispossessed workers, farmers and small producers still await their day of liberation.

“Marxist-Leninist” refers to the ideology espoused by the bureaucratic rulers of the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and all those around the world who look to them for leadership, but in my opinion, there is no Marxism or Leninism in so-called “Marxism-Leninism”. We cannot get anywhere until we call things by their true names, so I insist on describing both the Moscow or Beijing varieties of these ideologies as Stalinist. This might upset some people or be misinterpreted as factional name-calling, but the alternative is to perpetuate an extremely harmful falsehood—one which is energetically promoted by bourgeois politicians and opinion-formers of all types, from the liberal left to the far right, all of whom are aware of how much damage they can do to the revolutionary workers’ movement by identifying socialism, communism and the liberatory ideas of Marx and Lenin with the disgusting brutality and corruption of the bureaucratic castes which once ruled the Soviet Union and which continue to rule over China (indeed, the capitalist ruling class presently in power in Russia is almost entirely composed of former “Marxist-Leninists”).

“Marxism-Leninism” served the rulers of the USSR and PRC not as a guide to action, but as a cloak of deception, a means of legitimizing their rule. They claimed allegiance to the same theories and philosophies as do I, but their doctrine of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism stands in the clearest possible contradiction with everything that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin stood for.

About John Smith
John Smith received his PhD from the University of Sheffield and is currently self-employed as a researcher and writer. He has been an oil rig worker, bus driver, and telecommunications engineer, and is a longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements. He is author of the Monthly Review Press book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, winner of the Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy Memorial Prize.
About Farooque Chowdhury
Farooque Chowdhury is a freelance writer based in Dhaka. His books in English include Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, and The Great Financial Crisis, What Next?: Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.), Dhakha: Books (2012), 190 pp.
John Smith on imperialism (part 2)

Imperialism is revealing its character: increasing parasitism
Posted Mar 22, 2019 by John Smith and Farooque Chowdhury
Topics: ImperialismPlaces: Global
This is part two of a four-part interview of John Smith by Farooque Chowdhury. Click here to see all parts of the interview, which will be published in next several days. Part 2 of the interview is concerned the broad tendencies of imperialism. —Eds

Today, it is impossible to ignore the question of imperialism in any discussion concerning people as imperialism is distorting and destroying all aspects and areas of life. Ignoring the question of imperialism is synonymous to betrayal of people’s cause. John Smith, former oil rig worker, bus driver, telecommunications engineer, longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements, and author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, January 2016), discusses the question of imperialism in the following interview taken by Farooque Chowdhury during July 2018-February 2019.

The analyses, interpretations and observations made, the narratives presented, the terms used, and the way persons, politics, ideologies and trends characterized in the interview are completely of John Smith, and, those don’t always correspond to the interviewer’s opinion, interpretation, etc.

Is there any difference between the way imperialism functioned during the Cold War and the way it is behaving now? And, what is/are the reason/s if there’s any difference?

John Smith: An almost impenetrable thicket of myths and falsehoods surrounds the so-called Cold War, which was anything but cold for the billions of people who live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The dominant narrative is that the war was between the “West”, led by the United States, which was trying to spread capitalism and democracy, and the “East” led by the Soviet Union, which was trying to spread socialism and communism. It is absurd to claim that the installation by the USA and its allies of countless bloodthirsty dictators from the Shah to Saddam to Somoza had anything to do with “spreading democracy”, but the first part of the dominant narrative is correct: the USA and its imperialist allies were indeed fighting a war to spread capitalism and crush any resistance to it. What is false is that the Soviet Union was trying to spread socialism and communism. On the contrary, time and again the fake revolutionaries who ruled the USSR provided crucial assistance to the imperialists. The Stalinist “stages” theory of history held that anti-capitalist revolutions were impossible in nations oppressed by imperialism — because the working class was too small and weak and because the task of the day was to abolish feudal and other pre-capitalist obstacles to the spread of capitalism — and its proponents argued that a protracted period of capitalist development was necessary before class contradictions in these nations could come to approximate those in the imperialist nations, and only then could the struggle for socialism could be put on the agenda. So, instead of leading struggles to bring revolutionary governments of workers and farmers to power, Moscow instructed the communist parties under its control to become junior partners in alliances with the supposedly progressive wing of the national bourgeoisie, leading to countless catastrophic defeats, Iran in 1953 and Indonesia in 1965 being two major examples. As Che Guevara said, “the indigenous bourgeoisies have lost all capacity to oppose imperialism — if they ever had any…. There are no other alternatives. Either a socialist revolution or a caricature of a revolution.”

It is notable that the only revolutionary victories during the so-called Cold War occurred under the leadership of communist parties that had broken at least partially from subservience to Moscow (Yugoslavia, China, Korea, Vietnam), or of revolutionary movements and parties that had never been in Moscow’s orbit in the first place (e.g. Cuba, Nicaragua, Algeria). Perhaps the most instructive example is that of Vietnam. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the victors — Truman, Churchill (assisted by Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, whose election as Prime Minister of Britain was confirmed mid-conference) and Stalin, met to share out the spoils of victory. Hoping to continue the USSR’s wartime alliance with the supposed to be the antifascist, progressive wing of imperialism, Stalin agreed that France’s Indochinese colonies should be returned to their rightful owner, namely France.

In defiance of this, on September 2 1945, before half a million people gathered in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam — but nothing was done to prepare an appropriate welcome for imperialist troops (including 20,000 soldiers of the 20th Indian Division, part of the Indian army under Britain’s colonial command) sent to enforce the nefarious decision taken at Potsdam. Instead, acting under Moscow’s orders, the ICP leadership greeted the first contingents of British troops to arrive (on 12-13 September) with welcome banners and attempted to shake hands with their commander, General Gracey, but were contemptuously brushed aside. Gracey seized government buildings, declared martial law, freed Japanese prisoners of war, armed them and used them as a temporary police force until French military forces arrived to reinstate their colonial rule. Following this utterly avoidable disaster, the Vietnamese liberation forces resumed their struggle and pledged to never again subordinate their interests to the foreign policy of another power.

Vietnam in 1945 was far from the only time that Stalin acted as an accomplice to imperialism’s crimes. Vietnam’s history has similarities with Korea’s, which Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed should be also divided and placed under military occupation (at their notorious February 1945 meeting in Yalta) — leading to the Korean War, in which the US dropped more bombs than had been used by both sides in the Pacific theatre of World War II. By 1953, two and half million Koreans lay dead, but even this did not crush their resistance to imperialist occupation. Aided by some 300,000 soldiers from China (whose social revolution triumphed in 1949), Korea’s working people, led by Kim Il-Sung and the Korean Workers Party, inflicted the first ever military defeat upon the United States, for which they have never been forgiven and for which they continue to be cruelly punished.

Moscow’s official policy throughout the Cold War was “peaceful coexistence”, code for class collaboration, and can be understood as the continuation of its post-war betrayal of the Korean and Vietnamese outlined above (there are many other nations and peoples on this list, not least the Jews of Europe and the people of Palestine, both of whom were betrayed by Moscow’s anti-Semitism and by its connivance with the establishment of Israel in 1948).

These facts are not widely known, not even among left-wing and progressive forces, because neither liberal nor conservative opinion-formers have any interest in reminding us of these facts, and neither do those left-wing movements who have their origins in the Stalin-led ‘communist movement’.

The dominant mainstream narrative on the Cold War has yet to be seriously challenged; on the contrary, the truth is buried under more and more layers of rubbish. Yet only a moment’s thought is needed to see its absurdity and its deeply reactionary nature. The “East” in the East-West confrontation was Moscow, yet Moscow is, geographically speaking, part of the West, the eastern edge of white Europe. The real East is invisible in this risible, incredibly Eurocentric narrative, and the same fate of invisibility befalls the entire South: the North-South conflict, i.e. the struggle between imperialism and its colonies and neo-colonies, is entirely collapsed into the so-called East-West conflict. Liberation struggles and revolutionary movements from Asia to Africa to Latin America are regarded as mere pawns of Moscow, without grievances of their own, without any agency of their own — this is not only absurd, it is also transparently racist.

Only by exposing the lies that are contained in the term “Cold War” can I answer the question about whether there has been any change in imperialist behavior since it ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Just as the very notion of the Cold War is premised on falsehood, it is also false that the West won the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the partial eclipse of the political forces that looked to Moscow for leadership has severely weakened an important prop of the imperialist world order. Far from inaugurating a unipolar world in which the USA and its imperialist allies could exercise untrammeled power, the post-Cold War world has seen accelerating chaos and disorder. The imperialists convinced themselves that they had won a great victory and celebrated by launching a series of wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, beginning with George Bush senior’s war on Iraq in 1991 in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin wall. But their hubris led to overconfidence, and each and every military adventure they have undertaken since the end of the Cold War has led them into a quagmire of death, division and recrimination, with nothing resembling a victory in sight. Unfortunately, if the imperialists cannot be said to have won the Cold War, neither can it be said that victory belongs to their adversaries, the working class and oppressed peoples of the world. Victory never falls into our lap, it must be fought for. What’s lacking are revolutionary leaders of the caliber of Lenin, Che, Fidel, Grenada’s Maurice Bishop, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and others, and political movements inspired by them, able to take advantage of the imperialists’ growing weakness and disarray.

Financialization and imperialism
Have monopoly finance capital and financialization impacted imperialism? And, how, if there’s any impact?

JS: We need some clarity about what these two terms mean. To take the first of them: as Lenin explained in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, monopoly finance capital is the result of two parallel processes that mark the transition to the imperialist stage of development: the process of concentration and centralization of capital, and the separation of ownership from management. The question, therefore, needs to be reformulated, because it suggests that monopoly finance capital is something external to imperialism, and exerts an impact on it from the outside. All of this underlines an essential point—when we talk about imperialism, we are not talking about imperialism in general, as it has existed throughout the ages, we are talking specifically about capitalist imperialism, the imperialist stage of capitalist development. Monopoly finance capital didn’t exist when Sargon the Great built the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia 4,300 years ago, or 500 years ago when the Mughal kings unified the Indian subcontinent!

Financialization can be defined in different ways, but at its most basic it refers, in the words of John Bellamy Foster, to “the shift in gravity of economic activity from production (and even from much of the growing service sector) to finance” (see John Bellamy Foster, “The Financialization of Capitalism,” [Monthly Review 58: 11, April 2007] where you will also see an excellent discussion of the origin of this term). So, financialization pertains to the sphere of circulation, where titles of ownership are exchanged but where nothing is produced. Yet the “shift in the gravity of economic activity” that John Bellamy Foster talks about is manifested in the fact that banking, insurance and other financial activities make up an ever-growing portion of the GDP of imperialist countries — which just goes to show that what bourgeois economists call “gross domestic product” has less and less connection with what is actually produced within a domestic economy.

With the notable exception of the Monthly Review school, recent studies of this phenomenon by avowedly Marxist and left-Keynesian economists attempt to theorize financialization in isolation from the transformations that have taken place in the sphere of production, especially the globalization of production processes and their large-scale relocation to low-wage countries. This is a serious flaw, but not so surprising, since these same schools of thought deny the centrality or even existence of imperialism. Nevertheless, many of these studies do shed light on the complex processes that make up this important phenomenon, especially the financiers’ ingenuity in converting hypothetical future income streams into present-day wealth, thereby generating vast quantities of what Karl Marx called fictitious capital, that is, financial assets whose value is disconnected from the actual productive activity (if any) they give title to.

Debt is the principal tool used to accomplish this. As Martin Wolf said shortly after the beginning of the financial crisis (Financial Times, April 1, 2008), “Between its low in the first quarter of 1982 and its high in the second quarter of 2007, the share of the financial sector’s profits in US gross domestic product rose more than six-fold. Behind this boom was an economy-wide rise in leverage [debt-financed investment]. Leverage was the philosopher’s stone that turned economic lead into financial gold. Attempts to reduce it now risk turning the gold back into lead again.” Yet the attempts to reduce debt that Wolf speaks of have been feeble, to say the least — according to the International Institute of Finance, aggregate debt (that is, sovereign, corporate and domestic debt) now stands at 320% of global GDP, compared to 270% on the eve of the global financial crisis in 2007. What’s more, some especially risky categories of debt are growing much faster, in particular, debt owed by private non-financial corporations in so-called “emerging economies”, who have been tempted by historically low interest rates. We can be certain that the next financial crisis — and there surely is one waiting for us around the corner — will wreak its havoc far beyond Europe and North America, where its effects were concentrated post-2007.

So, to answer your question, once again it’s not a matter of financialization impacting upon imperialism, but of imperialism revealing its own essential character — its increasing parasitism, i.e. the ever-greater importance of monopoly rents of all kinds and of rent-seeking behavior versus unmediated profit-making from productive activities.

Is it possible to differentiate monopoly finance capital and imperialist capital? Or, is there any need/requirement to make the differentiation for studying imperialism?

JS: I think it follows from my answers to earlier questions that “monopoly finance capital” and “imperialist capital” are synonymous. More important than the labels themselves are the meanings we attach to them, this depends on the context in which they are used, on what else we say. Technical terms and the names of theoretical concepts can all too easily be used to mystify rather than to clarify, to impress rather than to express.

About John Smith
John Smith received his PhD from the University of Sheffield and is currently self-employed as a researcher and writer. He has been an oil rig worker, bus driver, and telecommunications engineer, and is a longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements. He is author of the Monthly Review Press book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, winner of the Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy Memorial Prize.
About Farooque Chowdhury
Farooque Chowdhury is a freelance writer based in Dhaka. His books in English include Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, and The Great Financial Crisis, What Next?: Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.), Dhakha: Books (2012), 190 pp.
John Smith on imperialism (part 3)

Imperialist capitalism is heading towards a cataclysmic crisis
Posted Mar 23, 2019 by John Smith and Farooque Chowdhury
Topics: ImperialismPlaces: Global
This is part three of a four-part interview of John Smith by Farooque Chowdhury. Click here to see all parts of the interview. Part 3 of the interview is concerned the crises generated by the process of imperialism. —Eds

Today, it is impossible to ignore the question of imperialism in any discussion concerning people as imperialism is distorting and destroying all aspects and areas of life. Ignoring the question of imperialism is synonymous to betrayal of people’s cause. John Smith, former oil rig worker, bus driver, telecommunications engineer, longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements, and author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, January 2016), discusses the question of imperialism in the following interview taken by Farooque Chowdhury during July 2018-February 2019.

The analyses, interpretations and observations made, the narratives presented, the terms used, and the way persons, politics, ideologies and trends characterized in the interview are completely of John Smith, and, those don’t always correspond to the interviewer’s opinion, interpretation, etc.

Constraints of imperialism
What constraints is imperialism facing today?

JS: Just six words, but you could not ask a bigger question! The financialization phenomenon discussed in preceding answer, and the immense over-accumulation of capital, which it has fostered, is the surest sign that imperialist capitalism is heading towards a cataclysmic crisis, since the financiers’ ability to use debt to amplify profit streams and inflate asset values is finite. Their ability to resume this peculiar form of “wealth generation” despite the temporary interruption of the global financial crisis, has crucially depended on the zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) implemented by the central banks of the imperialist nations—the USA’s Federal Reserve has raised its interest rate nine times since November 2015, each time by 0.25%, but once inflation of around 2% is subtracted from its current level of 2.5%, the real interest rate in the USA is barely above zero. Central banks in the UK, Europe and Japan are yet to follow the Fed in moving away from ZIRP, their real interest rates are strongly negative.

Official interest rates (sometimes called the “base rate”) reflect the cost of money to private banks, large corporations and wealthy investors, and are much lower than those charged on loans to households and small businesses. It should not be thought that power over interest rates allows governments and central banks to dictate market conditions—rather, it is the markets, i.e. the owners of finance capital, who exercised dictatorship over governments and central banks. The official interest rate reflects the so-called “natural rate of interest”, determined by the supply of and demand for investment funds. The supply is vast, yet it is faced with a dearth of productive investment opportunities—there is plenty that needs doing, but capitalists calculate that expected profits are insufficient to balance risks.

Why is this so important? Unless capitalists think they will make more money by investing their cash in the production of goods and services than what they’d earn in interest if they left it in the bank, they will not invest. By pushing interest rates down towards zero or even into negative territory, central banks hope that capitalists will be stimulated to invest their cash and not just stash it in the bank. Ultra-low interest rates are therefore a sign of deep crisis—signifying that capitalists are exceedingly reluctant to invest, either because of a dearth of profitable investment opportunities, or because they perceive the risk of losing their money to be too high, or both. Given that real interest rates are lower than at any time in the history of capitalism, for the rate of investment to be so low (whether this is measured as a proportion of GDP or as a fraction of available funds for investment) in the imperialist economies and in much of the rest the world, is truly astonishing.

There are lots of complications which could be explored and qualifications which could be made about all of this, but I now want to move to a slightly different subject: given that ultra-low interest rates are a sign of deep malaise, how could they also be a means to support and further inflate the value of all manner of financial assets, from stocks and shares to bonds to real estate? Simply, because ultra-low interest on cash deposits in banks encourage the owners of this cash to purchase stocks and shares, residential or commercial property, bonds—anything which gives them title to a stream of profits or of rents or of interest payments that include a risk premium. Not only that, ultra-low interest rates encourage banks, large corporations and very rich people to borrow money in order to purchase even more financial assets, leading one Morgan Stanley banker to describe zero-interest-rate policy as “crack cocaine for the financial markets”. And, so it is that the extreme monetary policies pursued by central banks since 2008 (and indeed in the decade before the financial crisis!) have created money-making opportunities for the super-rich on a scale never seen before in human history. An indication of this can be gleaned from Cap Gemini’s annual World Wealth Reports, which report that the total wealth in the hands of the world’s “high net worth individuals” (that is, people who own more than $1 million in investable assets), more than doubled in the 10 years following the beginning of the global crisis, growing from $32.8 trillion in 2008 to $70.2 trillion in 2017—an increase of 114% in just 10 years, yet during the same period global GDP increased by only 27% (adjusted for inflation, these figures translate to 100% growth in HNWI wealth compared to a 24% growth in global GDP).

The final detail to be added to this picture concerns the consequences of these extreme monetary policies. Ultra-low interest rates have encouraged capitalists to borrow money to finance investments; but instead of investing in new means of production, the bulk of it has financed speculation in markets, inflating asset bubbles that are reflected in ballooning HNWI wealth discussed above; or in so-called intellectual property (IP), which generates monopoly rents for its owners but does not increase social wealth (and in many cases reduces it); or to finance share buy-backs, which increase the wealth of shareholders but which, again, do not result in any increase in the production of goods and services. Governments and central bankers are aware that all of this is storing up immense problems for the future, yet the capitalists they serve have become addicted to this “crack cocaine”, and so far only the USA has taken timid steps to restore interest rates to what they call “normal” levels.

The great fear is that, if ultra-low interest rates have stimulated asset inflation, higher interest rates will result in asset deflation, in other words another financial crash. And if they leave interest rates where they are, not only will asset bubbles, debt mountains and other pathological disorders continue to get worse, central banks will be deprived of the chief tool they need to prevent the next cyclical recession from rapidly gaining momentum and provoking another financial crash. Recall that, in the last three recessions in the United States, the Federal Reserve has slashed interest rates by an average of 5%, but this option is unavailable right now (because the Fed’s “policy rate” is currently 2.5%, or 0.5% when inflation is taken into account); and still less is it available to central banks in the UK, Europe and Japan where real interest rates are currently well into negative territory.

“Global yields lowest in 500 years of recorded history. $10 trillion of negative rate bonds. This is a supernova that will explode one day,” in the words of leading bond trader Bill Gross. The metaphor is apt—a supernova occurs when the energy fueling a star’s expansion becomes balanced by the gravitational force pulling it towards the centre. It may take eons to arrive at this moment, but when it does the star collapses on itself in seconds, and then explodes, scattering debris throughout its galaxy.

So, to get back to the question, the chief constraints confronting imperialism are those that arise from capitalism’s own internal contradictions, and these manifest themselves in the systemic crisis briefly described above. Their fundamental root lies in the nature of capital, which can be defined as self-expanding wealth, that is wealth which appears to grow magically by itself, a goose which lays golden eggs, but whose growth, as Karl Marx proved in Capital, depends on unpaid wealth generated by exploited workers, which Marxists call surplus value; augmented by wealth captured from working people employed in non-capitalist sectors of the economy, so-called accumulation by dispossession. As briefly described above, the financial system has allowed capitalism to turbo-charge capital accumulation, through the generation of vast quantities of fictitious capital, but in the end every single one of the $70 trillion in the hands of HNWIs can only become capital and remain as capital thanks to surplus value extracted from living labor. Thus, the fundamental constraint is the extreme and growing disproportion between the total mass of wealth in the hands of capitalists, on the one hand, and the quantity of surplus value it is capable of extracting from living labor in order to convert this wealth into capital on the other. And as Lenin explained, it is precisely this disproportion, which impels capitalism onto its imperialist trajectory.

Is it different from the days Lenin defined imperialism?

JS: Fundamentally, it is no different. What is different is that these contradictions are many magnitudes deeper and are also far more extensive. When Lenin wrote his famous book on imperialism in the middle of World War I, capitalism had yet to fully impose its social relations on the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America; the relation between imperialist nations and subject nations was a relation between capitalism and pre-capitalist social formations. This is one reason why I believe that capitalism’s contradictions are immeasurably deeper now than they were in the period that led to World War I and to the Russian revolution.

How is imperialism trying to overcome the constraints it is facing today?

JS: By escalating its assault on workers and poor people, by fighting to reverse the expensive concessions it has made to pacify the working class in imperialist countries, by intensifying its rape of mother Earth, by increasingly resorting to “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies, as manifested in currency manipulation, trade wars and the disintegration of multilateral institutions.

Imperialist Rivalry
Has imperialist rivalry taken on greater importance in recent years? It appears that a new anti-free trade faction has been developing, favoring protectionist policies in contrast to the longstanding goal of “free trade.” Fights among imperialist powers are also going on in the World Trade Organization. Is there any significance of these developments?

JS: The process by which economic contradictions translate into political rivalry and military confrontation is extremely complex and depends on many things—including contingencies such as the emergence onto the stage of history of mavericks like Donald Trump or the outcome of a finely-balanced referendum such as the one that led Britain to decide to withdraw from the European Union. It is not possible to predict with any degree of certainty how the post-WWII US-led imperialist world order will break up, just that it will break up. Will the Franco-German alliance survive the next stage of the European Union death agony? Will the USA maintain its close embrace of Japan, the country it nuked in 1945? Will China forge its own sphere of influence and take the next steps towards becoming an imperialist power?

Only by discussing the past and the present can we get a glimpse of the future. All I can say for sure is that there is a massive storm coming, and that the only way out is for workers to cease their reliance on any wing of the bourgeoisie and do what Russia’s workers and farmers did in 1917 and what Cuban workers and farmers did in 1959—to take power into their own hands, to carry out a socialist revolution.

About John Smith
John Smith received his PhD from the University of Sheffield and is currently self-employed as a researcher and writer. He has been an oil rig worker, bus driver, and telecommunications engineer, and is a longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements. He is author of the Monthly Review Press book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, winner of the Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy Memorial Prize.
About Farooque Chowdhury
Farooque Chowdhury is a freelance writer based in Dhaka. His books in English include Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, and The Great Financial Crisis, What Next?: Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.), Dhakha: Books (2012), 190 pp.

John Smith on imperialism (part 4)

Climate crisis poses a major political challenge to imperialism
Posted Mar 23, 2019 by John Smith and Farooque Chowdhury
Topics: ImperialismPlaces: Global
This is part fourth and final part of a four-part interview of John Smith by Farooque Chowdhury. Click here to see all parts of the interview. Part 4 of the interview begins with the relation of imperialism to ecological degradation and concludes with tips for new comrades interesting in studying the process of imperialism —Eds

Today, it is impossible to ignore the question of imperialism in any discussion concerning people as imperialism is distorting and destroying all aspects and areas of life. Ignoring the question of imperialism is synonymous to betrayal of people’s cause. John Smith, former oil rig worker, bus driver, telecommunications engineer, longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements, and author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, January 2016), discusses the question of imperialism in the following interview taken by Farooque Chowdhury during July 2018-February 2019.

The analyses, interpretations and observations made, the narratives presented, the terms used, and the way persons, politics, ideologies and trends characterized in the interview are completely of John Smith, and, those don’t always correspond to the interviewer’s opinion, interpretation, etc.

Climate crisis and imperialism
How is climate crisis impacting imperialism?

JS: “Climate crisis” is a euphemism for the capitalist destruction of nature, and is an extremely dramatic and terrifying manifestation of capitalism’s destructive and imperialistic nature. So, imperialism is certainly impacting the climate crisis! How, and in what sense, is the climate crisis impacting upon imperialism? Capitalism/imperialism is extremely proficient at externalizing the costs of its destructiveness, making other peoples and future generations suffer the consequences of its marauding nature, as the people of Bangladesh know only too well. Yet it is not immune from “blow-back” effects, such as when overfishing and run-off from intensive farming causes blooms of jellyfish that destroyed tourism and clog the water-cooling inlets of power stations, or the droughts and heat waves causing forest fires and the collapse of farming in large tracts of Australia and the United States. The climate crisis also poses a major political challenge to imperialism—they are working very hard to prevent public opinion and the world’s scientific community from coming to the conclusion that system change is necessary if we are to avert climate change.

Benefits and resource flow
Is there any benefit from imperialism?

JS: Yes—to the imperialists. And yes—to the middle class and the elites of the subject nations, who are given a place for their snouts in the trough that is filled by the world’s workers and farmers. And yes—to the workers in the imperialist countries, whose rulers divert some of the proceeds of imperialist exploitation to bribe privileged layers and purchase social peace. But these benefits are temporary and the price that workers in the imperialist countries are paying for being led into an alliance with the enemies of humanity is already high and will grow without limit. Which imperialist country will be the first to see a fascist movement come to power—France, the UK, Italy, USA…?

Has there been any change in the direction of flow of resources and benefits in imperialist system? How do you define the claim that resources flow to neo-colonies/countries being exploited by imperialism as a result of imperialism?

JS: No. I define the claim as complete and utter nonsense. (The following is drawn from my response to claims by David Harvey that the flow of resources from imperialist to developing countries has changed direction.)

In 2015, researchers based in Brazil, India, Nigeria, Norway and the USA published Financial flows and tax havens: combining to limit the lives of billions of people, which they fairly claim to be “the most comprehensive analysis of global financial flows impacting developing countries compiled to date.” Their report calculates “net resource transfers” (NRT) between developed and developing countries, combining licit and illicit inflows and outflows—from development aid and remittances of wages to net trade receipts, debt servicing, new loans, FDI and portfolio investment and repatriated profits, along with capital flight and other forms of financial chicanery and outright theft. They found that in 2012, the most recent year for which they could obtain data, what they call “developing and emerging countries” (which of course includes China) lost $2.0 trillion in net transfers to rich countries, equivalent to 8% of emerging nations’ GDP in that year—four times larger than the average of $504 billion in NRT transferred annually from poor to rich countries during the first half of the 2000s. When informed estimates are included of under-invoicing and other forms of rip-off and criminality that leave no statistical trace, NRT from poor countries to imperialist countries in 2012 exceeded $3 trillion, around 12% of poor nations’ GDP.

More generally, they report, “both recorded and unrecorded transfers of licit and illicit funds from developing countries have tended to increase over the period 1980-2011”. As for Sub-Saharan Africa, they report, NRT from this continent to imperialist countries (or tax havens licensed by them) between 1980 to 2012 totalled $792bn, that illicit transfers from Africa to imperialist countries as a proportion of GDP are higher than from any other region, and that capital flight from SSA is growing by more than 20 percent per annum, faster than anywhere else in the world.

In what they called “an ironic twist to the development narrative” the researchers concluded that “since the early 1980s, NRT for all developing countries have been mostly large and negative, indicating sustained and significant outflows from the developing world… resulting in a chronic net drain of resources from the developing world over extended periods of time”.

Where does China fit into this broader picture? Using sophisticated methodologies and on the basis of conservative assumptions, the researchers calculate that China accounts for no less than two-thirds of the total recorded resource transfer deficit of all “emerging nations” between 1980 and 2012, $1.9 trillion in all; the explanation for this high proportion being “China’s large current account surpluses and associated capital and reserve asset outflows,” and it accounted for 21%, or $2.8 trillion, of the total of $13.4 trillion in capital flight drained from all “emerging countries” to rich nations during these three decades.

Progressives and imperialist intervention
Are progressives and grassroots groups who face autocratic/despotic/anti-democratic rulers ever justified in lending support to—or inviting—imperialist intervention? What are the most common confusions/misunderstandings about imperialism associated with these sections of the left?

JS: No. But it is easy to make glib denunciations of peoples who are in an extremely painful and difficult situation—I think, for instance, of the Kurdish people, who have no state of their own because of the crimes of British, French and American imperialism, and also because of the chauvinism and extreme brutality of the Arab and Iranian capitalist rulers; and I also think of Jewish people who are confronted by virulent anti-Semitism, which, as history and contemporary politics shows, becomes inflamed at times of systemic capitalist crisis, when gentile capitalists seek to deflect popular resentment onto scapegoats. So, I’d like to avoid making generic statements and consider each specific example individually, and state that before we as socialists, as communists, as workers, criticize other peoples we have to demonstrate in deeds as well as words, that we, not hypocritical imperialists, are their most reliable allies.

What are the problems in studying imperialism today?

JS: To study capitalism is to study imperialism, and vice versa. And the only way that can be done, unfortunately, is by starting with the total system and the entire history leading up to it. Whether we like it or not, we cannot form a theoretical concept of any part of the total system of interaction unless we have at least a working concept of this total system. This is what Karl Marx meant when he said there is no “royal road to wisdom”, there are no shortcuts. So, we should not pretend that the task is easier than it actually is—but neither should we underestimate our own capacity to make progress, to stand on the shoulders of others, to rejoice in the fact that the hard work of those who have gone before us enormously amplifies the fruits that we can reap through our own efforts. Most important of all is honesty, integrity and hard work.

What are the confusions in the study of imperialism today?

JS: The most fundamental confusion is the one discussed in my answer to the second and eighth questions above. To repeat this extremely important point, but in a different way, we could say that there are two ways to approach the question “what is imperialism?” One would be to make a list of all of the different types of imperialism that have existed in known history, list the features they have in common, and generalize a theory out of this. The other is to study the actually existing socio-economic system, i.e. capitalism, and ask “what is it about capitalism that caused it to evolve into a new form of imperialism?”

The first approach, which at first glance seems perfectly reasonable, deals exclusively with forms of appearance and can only result in a description rather than a theoretical concept. A theory can only be generated from this approach by the addition of other premises, e.g. something about human nature—or about the nature of men, since the vast majority of emperors and imperialists have been male. This is, in my opinion, a bourgeois, positivist, pseudo-scientific approach that either ends up justifying imperialism (“it’s just human nature”), or denying it, since modern, 21st-century capitalist imperialism does not include one feature that is common to all other forms of imperialism, namely territorial occupation and domination.

The second approach is the one that is recommended by dialectical materialism and followed by Marx and Marxists. Capitalism must be studied both empirically and theoretically, including what makes this social system different from others that have existed in history and that have developed their own forms of imperialism. We then discover that the transition to capitalist imperialism was necessitated by the centralization and concentration of capital (i.e. monopoly capitalism), over-accumulation, or what could be called the hypertrophy of capital (when the mass of capital expands far beyond that which can be valorized solely by surplus value extracted from workers “at home”), and, connected to this, the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall that results from the replacement of living labor (the sole source of value) with dead labor, i.e. machinery. Imperialism—or rather, a historically new and very distinctive form of it—is then revealed as an increasingly important way to counter the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, a tendency which distills the very essence of the contradictions of capitalist social relations.

As for the “human nature” which plays such a role in bourgeois pseudo-scientific theories of imperialism, we can say that human nature combines many qualities and potentialities—e.g. for selfishness and for solidarity, for love and for hate—which of these potentialities become realized is profoundly influenced by the socio-economic system you live in and your place within it.

Another major source of confusion results from the artificial separation of economics from politics; imperialism is then seen as a relation of domination and subordination rather than as a relation between exploiters and exploited. This is quite typical of the bourgeois approach, since apologists for capitalism have great difficulty acknowledging exploitation of any type, or that a great part of the wealth currently being accumulated by capitalists in London, Paris and New York was extracted from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately (to say the least!), many avowed Marxists resident in imperialist countries deny this reality, I explain in my critique of David Harvey (see John Smith, “Imperialist realities vs. the myths of David Harvey,” March 22, 2018). In other words, students of imperialism should cast an extremely critical eye on everything they read on this subject, especially the opinions of people who claim to be Marxists (and I invite you, indeed I urge you, to cast an extremely critical eye on everything I say in this interview!).

What aspects of imperialism should a newer comrades look into? Where should they begin?

JS: Whichever aspects you find most interesting, whichever seem to you to be most important, whichever seem to be most puzzling and in relation to which existing answers seem insufficient. There really are a million different points of departure, but there is only one mountain peak!

We should begin with what is happening today, we should begin by opening our eyes to the world around us and formulating questions about everything we see that we don’t understand.

Thank you, John, for helping understand aspects of imperialism.

Thank you, Farooque, for asking such interesting questions. I look forward to hearing opinions of readers on the issues covered in this interview.


About John Smith
John Smith received his PhD from the University of Sheffield and is currently self-employed as a researcher and writer. He has been an oil rig worker, bus driver, and telecommunications engineer, and is a longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements. He is author of the Monthly Review Press book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, winner of the Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy Memorial Prize.
About Farooque Chowdhury
Farooque Chowdhury is a freelance writer based in Dhaka. His books in English include Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, and The Great Financial Crisis, What Next?: Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.), Dhakha: Books (2012), 190 pp.
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Fidel Castro:His political origin, rule, and legacy-Samuel Farber

Posted by admin On March - 23 - 2019 Comments Off on Fidel Castro:His political origin, rule, and legacy-Samuel Farber


Cuba has not been at the center of world attention for a long time, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet bloc considerably diminished the island’s importance to US imperialism. For the international left, political developments in other Latin American countries, especially Venezuela, have surpassed Cuba as a primary focus of attention. That does not mean, however, that the Cuban model has ceased to be a desirable, even if at present unrealizable, model for significant sections of the left, particularly in Latin America. For larger sections of the left, there is still considerable misinformation and confusion about the true nature of Cuba’s “really existing socialism,” a confusion that far from being of merely academic interest has a significant impact on the left’s conception of socialism and democracy. The lack of democracy and therefore of authentic socialism in Cuba is not only a problem of interest to Cubans, but also a critical test of how seriously the international left takes its democratic pronouncements.


The Cuban Revolution was an unexpected and welcome surprise to many. After the rebel army, supported by an important urban underground, smashed Cuba’s regular army, what began as a political revolution quickly became a social revolution, the third in Latin America—after those of Mexico in 1910 and Bolivia in 1952. For the anti-imperialist left in Latin America and elsewhere, it represented a successful defeat and comeuppance of the US empire, which had recently frustrated the Bolivian revolution and overthrown the reform movement of the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala in 1954.

The Cuba of the 1950s shared many traits with the rest of Latin America: economic underdevelopment, poverty, subjection to US imperialism, and after the military coup of March 10, 1952, a corrupt military dictatorship that became increasingly brutal as resistance to it increased. Military dictatorships were particularly common in Latin America at the height of the Cold War when they enjoyed the full support of Washington in the name of opposing “Communist subversion” in the region. Besides General Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, this was also true for such dictatorships as those in Venezuela, Colombia, Paraguay, Perú, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.

Yet Cuba was the only one among this group of nations that had a successful multiclass democratic revolution that less than two years after having taken power was well on its way to joining the Communist1 bloc of countries led by the USSR, right in the backyard of the United States. This dramatic change plus the social gains that were made by the Cuban people in education, health, and other social-justice issues, particularly in the early decades of the revolution, elicited the support of the old and new generations of anti-imperialist women and men.

What made that revolution possible? An answer to this question requires a discussion, on one hand, of the social structural conditions that facilitated a revolution, and on the other hand, of the political figures, particularly Fidel Castro, who harnessed those conditions to implement their own revolutionary goals. This particular combination of social structural conditions and political leadership also explains the overwhelming power that Fidel Castro was able to obtain as a revolutionary head of state.

On the eve of the revolution:Combined and uneven development

The Cuba of the 1950s occupied a relatively high economic position in Latin America. With a population of 5.8 million people, the island had the fourth highest per capita income among the twenty Latin American countries after Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and the thirty-first highest in the world.2 Cuba also ranked fourth in Latin America according to an average of twelve indexes covering such items as percentage of the labor force employed in mining, manufacturing, and construction; percentage of literate persons; and per capita electric power, newsprint, and caloric food consumption.3 Yet, its economy was characterized by a highly uneven and combined development. Its relatively high economic position in Latin America hid substantial differences in living standards between the urban (57 percent of Cuba’s population in 1953), and rural areas (43 percent), and especially between the capital city, Havana (21 percent of Cuba’s population) and the rest of the country. Thus, for example, 60 percent of physicians, 62 percent of dentists, and 80 percent of hospital beds were in Havana,4 and while the rate for illiteracy for the country as a whole was 23.6 percent, the rate for Havana was only 7.5 percent in contrast to 43 percent of the rural population that could not read or write.5

One important feature of this uneven economic development was the significant growth and advance of the mass media, which turned out to play an important role in the revolution. These included newspapers, magazines, radio, and particularly television, of which Cuba was a pioneer in Latin America.6 The largest weekly magazine Bohemia—with its left of center politics—counted its circulation in the hundreds of thousands, including its significant Latin American export audience. Bohemia published many of Fidel Castro’s exhortations to revolution during those periods when there was no censorship under the Batista dictatorship. After the revolutionary victory, television became an important vehicle for Fidel Castro’s interviews and speeches oriented to win over and consolidate support for the revolutionary government. Contrary to the African American poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 prophecy, this revolution was televised.

No oligarchy

Perhaps the most politically important distinguishing feature of Cuba’s social structure in the 1950s is that it lacked an oligarchy, that is the close organic relations among the upper classes, the high ranks of the armed forces, and the Catholic Church hierarchy, which had effectively acted as the institutional bases of reaction in many Latin American countries. In 1902, with the formal declaration of Cuban independence from the US occupation that had replaced Spanish colonialism in 1898, a half-baked and fragile Cuban oligarchy came into being, represented by the classic duopoly of the Liberal and Conservative parties that relied on the support of a weak, sugar-centered bourgeoisie devoid of a national project. At the same time, a class of predominantly white army officers—many of whom had served as generals in the Cuban war of independence in the 1890s—with organic ties to the Cuban upper classes, ran the army.

As in the rest of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the Catholic hierarchy, while influential, was not then, nor later, a major and decisive political actor, in contrast with the more crucial role it played in many other Latin American countries. One of the main causes of the weakness of this oligarchy was the sharp limits on Cuban independence established by the United States through the Platt Amendment imposed on the Cuban Constitution of 1901 granting the United States the legal right to intervene in Cuban affairs, which the Cubans were forced to accept as a condition of the “independence” of the island.

This half-baked oligarchic arrangement came crashing down with the 1933 revolution that succeeded in overthrowing the Machado dictatorship and established for a short time a nationalist government—strongly supported by the popular classes—that introduced labor and social legislation, and with it the foundations of a Cuban welfare state.7 The US government refused to recognize this government, which was soon overthrown with US support by the new plebeian army leadership of sergeants led by Fulgencio Batista who eliminated the old officer class. After the overthrow of the progressive nationalist government, the United States, in an attempt to provide some legitimacy to the unpopular government controlled by the former sergeant now turned Colonel Batista, agreed in 1934 to abolish the Platt Amendment. In return for a greater degree of political self-rule, Batista accepted, in addition to concessions such as maintaining the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, a new reciprocity treaty that perpetuated the reign of sugar, thereby hindering attempts to diversify the economy of the island through which other Latin American countries, such as Mexico, had achieved some success with their import substitution policies.

This is how the 1933 revolution produced no permanent resolution of any of the major social questions affecting the island, including badly needed agrarian reform, and led instead to open counterrevolution and then, under the contradictory pressures of US capital and the world market on one hand, and of the ever-present threat of working class and popular unrest on the other hand, to a variety of state-capitalist compromises involving the significant state regulation of the economy that discouraged foreign investment. The most important example was the case of the sugar industry where the state established, in 1937, a corporate entity to oversee the industry (Instituto Cubano de Estabilización del Azúcar—ICEA) and a detailed set of regulations of labor conditions, wages, and production quotas for the industry as a whole as well as for each sugar mill. These were the kinds of institutional arrangements that framed the social and political modus vivendi of the next two decades of Cuban history.

No major social class emerged totally victorious after the 1933 revolution, and although capitalism and imperialism strongly consolidated themselves, a capitalist ruling class of equal strength did not, in part because of its reliance on the US as the ultimate guarantor of its fate against any possible internal threat to its power and privileges. Instead, there was a numerically important Cuban business class that did not really rule but bolstered its privileged position and benefited as much as it could from the governments of the day. This Cuban business class initially supported the Batista dictatorship in a purely opportunistic fashion, but later abandoned it as the very corrupt government shook down businesspeople without even being able to guarantee law and order and a predictable legal and business climate. This helps to explain why prominent members of the business class, such as the very wealthy sugar magnate Julio Lobo, helped to finance Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement before it came to power.8

The Batista sergeants’ coup also led to the emergence of a new army headed by the former sergeants suddenly turned into colonels and generals, who never recognized or ceded their control to the newly trained professional officers schooled in the island’s military academies, to serve the Constitution in a nonpartisan manner. Instead, the Cuban army remained a fundamentally political, mercenary army whose rank-and-file members served on a voluntary basis in exchange for a secure job and salary, devoid of any purpose or ideology except for the personal enrichment of its leaders and the meager benefits that trickled down to its ranks.9 This explains the failure of the attempt by the academy-trained professional military officers—the so-called puros (the pure)—to overthrow the Batista regime in 1956 and, more important, the general apathy and unwillingness of the soldiers to fight the 26th of July Movement rebels.

Meanwhile, the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties lost much of their power and influence and were relegated to a less important role as new parties came into existence, which also failed to create a strong and stable role for themselves and collapsed as they were unable to face the new realities created by the Batista military dictatorship. In contrast, in Venezuela, the social-democratic Acción Demócratica (AD) and the Social-Christian Party (COPEI) managed to survive the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jimenez and emerged as strong and stable parties of the social and economic status quo after the Venezuelan dictatorship was overthrown in January 1958.

In 1944, Batista’s candidate lost the elections to the first of two liberal­democratic, but very corrupt, governments. These governments preserved, on the whole, the democratic features of the progressive 1940 Constitution, and introduced institutional changes such as the creation of a national bank to regulate the monetary and financial systems in the island. Nevertheless, they were unable to change the fundamental features of the social-political structure of the post-1933 Cuba. These were the features that remained unchanged all the way up to the eve of the revolution of 1959.

A large but weak working class

One of the main features of the large working class in Cuba on the eve of the revolution was that a substantial part of it was rural and centered on the seasonal sugar industry. The great majority of these sugar workers were wage-earning agricultural workers cutting, collecting, and transporting the cane, with a minority of industrial workers working on the processing of sugar and the maintenance, repair, and upkeep of the sugar mills. As we shall see later in greater detail, this made Cuba different from other less­developed countries where peasants dominated the rural landscape engaged in self-subsistence agriculture. It is true that in the 1950s new sectors of the working class had emerged as a result of a degree of diversification of the economy away from the sugar industry despite the constraints imposed by economic treaties with the United States. These included, besides the extraction of nickel and cobalt in eastern Cuba and oil refineries, the production of pharmaceutical products, tires, flour, fertilizers, textiles such as rayon, detergents, toiletries, glass, and cement.10 Nevertheless, sugar continued at the heart of the Cuban economy with the most important sector of the agricultural proletariat associated with it.

A study published in 1956 by the US Department of Commerce based on the 1953 Cuban census, cites farm laborers, including unpaid family workers, as constituting 28.8 percent of the labor force in the island, which could be considered as a rough approximation of the size of the rural working class in the 1950s. The same study also cites a group classified as farmers and ranchers as constituting an additional 11.3 percent of the total labor force. It is likely that the figures of both groups fluctuated through time as a result of movement between those two groups of poor farmers and ranchers seeking to seasonally supplement their income by selling their labor in the sugar industry, and also as a result of substantial migration from rural to urban areas. Even so, those figures indicate a much higher proportion—more than double—of salaried rural workers compared to peasants in the countryside.

It is thus ironic that the peasants that Fidel Castro came into contact with in the Sierra Maestra were not representative of the Cuban rural labor force. (Sugar is typically planted in flat rather than mountainous lands.) The structure of Cuba’s rural labor force in the 1950s also helps to explain why once Fidel Castro and his close associates adopted the Soviet system, they had a much easier time collectivizing agriculture into state farms than was the case in other Communist countries with large peasantries.

Besides the agricultural proletariat, Cuba also had a larger and more important urban working class. The same 1956 study classified 22.7 percent of the Cuban labor force under the category of craftsmen, foremen, operatives, and kindred workers, 7.2 percent as clerical and kindred workers, and 6.2 percent as sales workers. Service workers, except private households, constituted 4.2 percent of the urban working class, and private household workers 4.0 percent. These categories could be considered a rough approximation of the urban working class, for a total of 44.3 percent of the total labor force in the island.11

Over fifty percent of this two million rural and urban labor force was unionized, mostly under the control of the very corrupt Mujalista union bureaucracy, whose leader Eusebio Mujal had supported Batista since his second military coup in 1952, promising to keep labor peace in exchange for being ratified as the principal union leader. For its part, Batista’s government refrained from an immediate attack on labor’s gains, although it did not take long for it to gradually, but substantially, erode labor’s wages and working conditions. Mujal became even more bound to Batista after the dictator outlawed the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), the name adopted by the Communists at the time of the Soviet alliance with the United States during the Second World War, a move that increased Mujal’s control and that further eroded the already limited influence of that party on the organized working class in the island. According to an internal survey conducted in 1956 by the PSP, only 15 percent of the country’s two thousand local unions were led by Communists or by union leaders who supported collaboration with the PSP.12

The Communist Party’s influence on the Cuban working class had its militant heyday in the late twenties and early thirties, at the time of its “third period” ultra-left and sectarian politics. Its growth displaced the hold that the anarchists had on the working class from the late nineteenth century until the mid 1920s, both in Cuba and in the predominantly Cuban tobacco enclaves in Key West and Tampa in Florida to which Cuban tobacco workers would migrate—before there were immigration controls—because of strikes or poor economic conditions in the island. That growth allowed the CP to play a leading role in the 1933 revolution against the Machado dictatorship, a revolution in which the working class played a significant part. However, the CP “third period” policy against supporting the new nationalist revolutionary government that the Roosevelt administration refused to recognize significantly contributed to the failure of that revolution. Moreover, under the popular front policy adopted by the CP later on, and as a result of the nationalists refusing to work with the CP because of its conduct in the 1933 revolution, the Cuban Communists made a deal with Batista in 1938 providing him with political and electoral support in exchange for the CP being handed the official control of the Cuban labor movement. The defeat of the candidate supported by Batista and the Communists in the 1944 elections and the Cold War that began a few years later, dealt a severe blow to Communist political influence in general and their trade union influence in particular.

It was then that the labor representatives of the Auténtico Party—the former revolutionary nationalists of the 1930s—with Eusebio Mujal among them, who, along with other independent labor leaders who could be loosely identified as nationalist, took over the unions, sometimes based on the use of force and other assorted gangster methods. Soon after, Mujal emerged as the top leader of the only trade-union confederation, a role that he continued to play under Batista.

Opposition to the dictatorship grew among the large majority of Cubans. The working class found itself under the yoke of the double dictatorship of Mujal in the unions and of Batista in the country as a whole. Remarkably, as some authors have shown, there were many labor struggles that took place in that period, some with an open anti-Batista agenda.13 The Mujalista bureaucracy did not have total control of working-class unrest and there were some militant unions—like that of the bank workers—that managed to escape Mujal’s vise. However, these struggles did not translate into a strong and visible independent working-class organization opposed to the government. This was due to the fragmentary character of these struggles that lacked the continuity and cumulative impact that would have made a strong and independent working-class organization possible.

This was the context in which Fidel’s 26th of July Movement called for a general strike in April of 1958. The strike was a total defeat: the majority of the workers, union and nonunion, did not respond, and the minority who did was violently repressed by Batista’s police. This had very serious consequences for the revolutionary movement, as well as for the role that the working class would play in the revolution. On May 3, 1958, less than a month after the defeat of the April strike, the leadership of the movement met with Fidel Castro at Altos de Mompié in the Sierra Maestra to discuss the strike failure and how to proceed with the struggle.14 One result of this meeting was that Castro solidified his control of the movement by being named general secretary and commander- in-chief of the rebel army. The other was that the movement adopted guerrilla warfare as its central strategy and assigned the general strike to a secondary role only as the popular culmination of the military campaign. After Batista and his immediate entourage fled the country on New Year’s Day in 1959, Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement called for a general strike to paralyze the country to prevent a military coup. As the possibility of a coup greatly receded less than twenty-four hours after Batista’s departure, the planned general strike rapidly turned into a huge, multiclass national festival to celebrate the victory of the rebels and to greet Fidel Castro and his rebel army in its long east-to-west triumphant procession towards Havana where they arrived on January 8. This is how the active, organized fragments of the Cuban working class, and even more so the far larger number of workers who sympathized as individuals with the revolution, ended up as supporting actors instead of being the central protagonists in the successful struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. The FONU (Frente Obrero Nacional Unido)—a broad workers’ front formed and led by the 26th of July Movement in 1958, which included every anti-Batista political formation, and especially the Communists—was no political or organizational match for Fidel Castro and the broader 26th of July Movement, and only played a secondary role in the overall anti-Batista struggle. Neither the urban nor the rural working class played a central role in that struggle.

How Fidel Castro emerged:
The interface of social structure and political leadership

When the Batista coup took place on March 10, 1952, Fidel Castro had graduated two years earlier from the law school at the University of Havana. He was one of the many children of Ángel Castro, a turn-of-the-century Galician immigrant who became a wealthy sugar landlord in eastern Cuba. Although he never showed any political inclination while studying at the elite Jesuit Colegio Belén high school, after he entered the University of Havana in 1945 he became involved with one of the several political gangster groups at the university, for the most part formed by demoralized veterans of the 1933 Revolution battling each other for the no-show jobs and other kinds of sinecures used by the Auténtico governments then in power to coopt and neutralize the former revolutionaries.15 Then, while still in law school, he participated in two important events that came to have a deep influence on him: one was the 1947 Cayo Confites expedition that intended to sail to the Dominican Republic from a key off the Cuban coast to provoke a revolution against the Trujillo dictatorship. The expedition never got off the key due to Washington’s pressure on the Cuban army to squash it. The other event was the so-called “Bogotazo,” the massive rioting that took place in Bogotá, Colombia, after the assassination of Liberal Party leader Eliecer Gaitán in 1948. For Fidel Castro, the Cayo Confites expedition of some 1,200 men was an example of what he regarded as bad organizing and sloppy, hasty recruitment methods that led to the incorporation of “delinquents, some lumpen elements and all kinds of others.”16 Concerning the “Bogotazo,” although Castro had been impressed by the eruption of an oppressed people and by their courage and heroism, he remarked that

there was no organization, no political education to accompany that heroism. There was political awareness and a rebellious spirit, but no political education and no leadership. The [Bogotazo] uprising influenced me greatly in my later revolutionary life . . . I wanted to avoid the revolution sinking into anarchy, looting, disorder, and people taking the law into their own hands. . . . The [Colombian] oligarchs—who supported the status quo and wanted to portray the people as an anarchic, disorderly mob—took advantage of that situation.17

It was the disorganized and chaotic nature of these failed enterprises that shaped much of Fidel Castro’s particular emphasis on political discipline and suppression of dissident views and factions within a revolutionary movement. As Fidel Castro wrote to his then close friend Luis Conte Agüero in 1954,

Conditions that are indispensable for the integration of a truly civic movement: ideology, discipline and chieftainship. The three are essential, but chieftainship is basic. I don’t know whether it was Napoleon who said that a bad general in battle is worth more than twenty good generals. A movement cannot be organized where everyone believes he has the right to issue public statements without consulting anyone else; nor can one expect anything of a movement that will be integrated by anarchic men who at the first disagreement take the path they consider most convenient, tearing apart and destroying the vehicle. The apparatus of propaganda and organization must be such and so powerful that it will implacably destroy him who will create tendencies, cliques, or schisms or will rise against the movement.18

While still at the university, Castro later joined the recently formed Ortodoxo Party. It is clear that he was already involved in leftist politics and was interested in not only national but also international issues, such as the Puerto Rican independence movement and opposition to Franco’s Spain. The Ortodoxo Party was a broad political formation that had been created as a split off the increasingly corrupt Auténtico Party that held national elective office from 1944 until Batista’s coup in 1952. It was a progressive reform party that focused on the fight against official corruption and, among its various political positions, opposed Communism on democratic political grounds while also defending the democratic rights of the Cuban Communists against the local version of McCarthyism. Most important, it attracted a large number of idealistic middle- and working-class youth that later became the most important source of recruitment for Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement.

Castro became a secondary leader in that party and eventually ran as a candidate for the Cuban House of Representatives in the 1952 elections that never took place because of Batista’s coup. It was in response to that coup that Fidel Castro began to advocate and organize the armed struggle against Batista within the Ortodoxo Party itself. However, the party soon split into various factions, some of them abstentionist and some others favoring unprincipled coalitions with traditional, discredited parties opposed to Batista. None of them were able to prosper under the unfavorable conditions of a military dictatorship that differed dramatically from the functioning of an electoral party in a constitutional, even if corrupt, political democracy. The other anti-Batista parties were, for a variety of reasons, no better than the Ortodoxos. That is why Fidel Castro and his close associates started to act on their own and secretly began to recruit sections of the Ortodoxo Party and unaffiliated youth for the attack on the Moncada barracks scheduled for July 26, 1953. The political vacuum in the opposition to Batista considerably helped his recruitment efforts, since from the very beginning his consistent and coherent line of armed struggle against the dictatorship attracted the young people who had become thoroughly disillusioned with the irrelevance of the regular opposition parties.

Along with his emphasis on armed struggle as the strategy to fight against Batista, Fidel’s attack on the Moncada barracks was premised on a social program that included agrarian reform—a widespread popular aspiration—with compensation for the expropriated landlords, and a substantial profit-sharing plan for workers in industrial and commercial enterprises. These measures were not socialist or, aside from the nationalization of public utilities, collectivist, but were radical for the Cuba of the 1950s. Castro explicitly outlined this radical program in the speech that he gave at his and his fellow fighters’ trial after the Batista forces defeated the attack, which was later published under the title History Will Absolve Me, the final sentence of that speech.

It did not take long before Castro concluded that the combination of armed struggle with a radical social program was an obstacle to widening support for his 26th of July Movement—which he had founded after he and his Moncada companions were amnestied by Batista in 1955—and increasing his group’s influence within the anti-Batista movement, which on the whole was liberal-populist and progressive but not radical. That is why, although he continued to insist in the armed struggle to overthrow Batista (a position he never abandoned), by 1956 he had significantly modulated his social radicalism. This became clearly articulated in the politically militant but socially moderate Manifesto that he co-authored with Felipe Pazos and Raúl Chibás, two very prestigious figures of Cuba’s progressive circles, in the Sierra Maestra on July 12, 1957.19

The Manifesto, which rapidly became far better known than Castros’ History Will Absolve Me, conferred an enormous degree of legitimacy among the progressive anti-Batista public to Castro’s 26th of July Movement at a time when it had not yet fully consolidated itself in the Sierra Maestra. It turned out to be, in conjunction with a number of small but significant military victories against Batista’s troops, a major step in Fidel Castro’s journey towards becoming the hegemonic figure of the opposition camp. Moreover, the publication of the Manifesto in Bohemia, the Cuban weekly with the largest circulation in the island, during a period when Batista’s censorship had been suspended, deeply affected thousands of people, further propelling the 26th of July Movement towards their unrivaled hegemony over the other groups engaged in armed rebellion who had failed in their own confrontations with Batista’s armed forces. The Manifesto fell on fertile ground in a political culture where the notion of revolution, in the sense of a forceful overthrow of an illegitimate government, had wide acceptance, especially when the potentially divisive issue of a revolutionary, as distinct from a progressive reformist, social program, was set aside.

It is also worth underlining that Fidel Castro, like other left-inclined Cuban oppositionists (except for the Communists), kept his anti-imperialist politics to himself throughout the struggle against Batista, both in his more socially radical and moderate periods. Although he revealed his anti-imperialist sentiments in private to close associates such as Celia Sánchez,20 in public he limited himself to the democratic critique of US foreign policy for its support of Batista and other Latin American dictators. And when his younger brother Raúl Castro, as head of the Frank País Second Front elsewhere in Oriente province, ordered the kidnapping of American military personnel from the Guantánamo Naval Base to stop the United States from assisting the Batista dictatorship in its bombing of the rebel areas in June 1958, Fidel immediately ordered their release.

For a variety of reasons, anti-imperialism had become dormant in the Cuban political scene since the 1930s. Only the Communists and their close periphery used the term to describe and analyze US policies towards Cuba and Latin America.21 Yet, the Communists contributed to the fading of the anti-imperialist sentiment with the Soviet alliance with the United States in World War II, and their support for the Roosevelt administration, a popular policy in the island in the Communist and non-Communist left alike.

It was Fidel’s tactical ability to retreat from potentially divisive programmatic social issues that revealed him as the thoroughly political animal and master political operator and tactician he was, endowed with an acute sense of Cuban political culture and an uncanny ability to understand and to take advantage of specific political conjunctures to broaden his political base and support.

Part of what gave him room to tactically maneuver substantive political issues was that the inner core of the people he relied on was an heterogeneous group of militant “classless” individuals, in the sense of their not having a connection to any of the then existing organizations of any class. They were therefore not committed to, or bound by, any particular social program. And those who did, such as Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, knew Fidel well enough to trust him to move the political dynamic of the movement in a generally left direction.

Confirming the class heterogeneity of the group of people closest to Fidel, historian Hugh Thomas notes that the people who joined Fidel in the attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953, came from a wide variety of social backgrounds, including accountants, agricultural workers, bus workers, businessmen, shop assistants, plumbers, and students. Thomas further notes that the group of eighty-one persons that accompanied Fidel in the Granma expedition to Cuba in late 1956—nineteen of whom had participated in the Moncada attack—might have had an overall higher education than the Moncada group, but that it was socially heterogeneous, too. According to Thomas, both of these groups comprised Castro’s inner group of loyal followers.22 This inner group was later enlarged by people selected from the new urban volunteers and from a few thousand peasants in the Sierra Maestra and elsewhere in eastern Cuba. It should be noted that, with a small number of important exceptions, the peasant recruits had little or no history of organized peasant struggles and that in contrast with the rebel army recruits from towns and cities in Cuba’s eastern Oriente Province, the peasant recruits did not generally play any major leadership roles after the revolutionary victory.23

In addition to his political talent, Fidel Castro ascendance in the anti­Batista movement benefited from the occurrence of events beyond his control that cannot be explained either in terms of the characteristics of Cuba’s social structure or his own extraordinary political skills. To begin with, he physically survived the armed struggle against Batista without any significant injury, something that cannot be taken for granted when considering that out of the eighty-one people who accompanied him to Cuba in the boat Granma, no more than twenty survived the invasion and its immediate aftermath. Even more important was the failure of the other revolutionary groups to overthrow Batista by force, and the death of other revolutionary leaders who could have potentially challenged his leadership. One of them, José Antonio Echeverría, was a popular student leader who founded the Directorio Revolucionario, another political group engaged in the armed struggle against Batista. He was killed in a confrontation with Batista’s police on March 13, 1957 after attempting to simultaneously capture a radio station (where he managed to broadcast a brief speech shortly before being shot after he left the station) and carry out an assault on the Presidential Palace. The other potential rival was Frank País, the national coordinator of the 26th of July Movement, killed by Batista’s police in the streets of Santiago de Cuba on July 30, 1957. País was an independent-minded revolutionary who emphasized the importance of a clear political program and a well-structured 26th of July Movement, in contrast with the unclear, weakly structured organization more easily subject to the control of the top leader model that Fidel favored.24

But Fidel Castro’s emergence and ascendance to the top of the anti-Batista movement, his victory over Batista on January 1, 1959, and the great deal of political power he acquired after victory cannot be accounted for based only on his undisputable political talents and his good fortune. It was the interface between those two factors with Cuba’s social structure of that time—devoid of an oligarchical ruling class with firm organic ties to an ideologically committed army hierarchy, which could have effectively repressed attempts against its power, and of stable political organizations and parties that could have channeled the popular discontent—that made his trajectory possible.

Fidel Castro in power

Fidel Castro’s victory surpassed anybody’s expectations—his forces managed to eliminate the army from the Cuban political scene on January 1, 1959—and led him to power with an immense and virtually unchallengeable popularity. All other political groups and personalities had either been discredited or lagged far behind Fidel in popular support and legitimacy.

Once in power, Fidel behaved in a remarkably similar manner as when he was in the Sierra: as the unquestionable leader of a disciplined guerrilla army controlled from above that strictly follows the military orders of their superiors. To this he added, once in power, his extremely intelligent use of television and the public plaza to appeal to the widespread radicalization and growing anti-imperialist sentiment of the people at large.

Although he undoubtedly consulted with and listened to those in his inner circle, he acted on his own, even disregarding previous agreements while often refusing to accept criticism. He treated his close comrades as consultants and not as full peers embarked in a joint project.25 His key consideration was to be the one decision maker and remain in control of the political situation.

That is why, after victory, Fidel Castro prevented any attempt to transform the 26th of July Movement from the amorphous, unstructured group it had been during the struggle against Batista into a democratically organized, disciplined party. Doing so would have limited the room for his political maneuvering, particularly early in the revolution when his movement was still politically heterogeneous. At that time, such a party would have inevitably included the political tendencies that he abhorred. It was only in 1965—long after all the major social-structural changes had already been implemented and the liberals, social democrats, and independent anti-imperialist revolutionaries of the 26th of July Movement (see below) had either left the country or had been marginalized—that a so-called “democratic centralist” Communist Party uniting the 26th of July Movement with the Communists (and with the much smaller Directorio Revolucionario) was finally established in Cuba. However, for reasons discussed later, this party did not significantly impinge on Fidel’s ultimate control of what happened in Cuba.

Fidel’s turn to communism

Even today, most American liberals and many radicals contend that it was the United States’ imperialist policies that “forced” Fidel Castro into the hands of the Soviet Union and Communism. To be sure, the United States responded to the victorious Cuban Revolution in a predictably imperialist fashion similar to the way it had responded, earlier in that decade, to the democratically elected reform government of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and the Iranian nationalist regime of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953. However, the view that Fidel Castro was “forced” or “compelled” to adopt Communism is misleading because it deprives him and his close associates of any political agency and implicitly conceives them as politically blank slates open to any political path had US policy towards Cuba been different.

In fact, Fidel and the other revolutionary leaders did have political ideas. This became clear soon after the victory of the Cuban Revolution with the creation, in the revolutionary camp overwhelmingly composed by members of the 26th of July Movement, of a powerful pro-Soviet tendency oriented to an alliance with the PSP (Popular Socialist Party), the old pro-Moscow Cuban Communists. This tendency was led by Raúl Castro, a former member of the Juventud Socialista (the youth wing of the PSP), and by Che Guevara, who had never joined a Communist Party but was then pro-Soviet and an admirer of Stalin, notwithstanding the fact that more than two years had elapsed since Khruschev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in 1956. The new revolutionary government also had in its ranks an important non-Communist, anti-imperialist left (e.g., Carlos Franqui, David Salvador, Faustino Pérez), plus liberal (Roberto Agramonte, Rufo López Fresquet) and social democratic (Manuel Ray, Manuel Fernández) tendencies.

Fidel Castro did not immediately commit (at least in public) to any of those tendencies. Although he had been a leftist for many years and intended to make a radical revolution, he left it to the existing relation of forces inside Cuba and abroad, and to the tactical possibilities available to him given the existing relation of forces, to determine the path to follow while maneuvering to ensure that he remained in control. Had he gone in a different direction, Che Guevara would have immediately left the island and Raúl Castro would have gone into the opposition. Information found in the Soviet archives show that Raúl Castro briefly considered breaking with his older brother Fidel during the first half of 1959 when Fidel’s commitment to working with the Communists was in doubt.27

By the fall of 1959, less than a year after victory, it became clear that Fidel Castro was moving in the direction of an alliance with the USSR and, months later, towards the transformation of the Cuban society and economy into the Soviet mold. While he later claimed that he had been a “Marxist Leninist” all along, this was more likely a retrospective justification of the political course he took later, rather than an accurate account of his early political ideas. His decision was probably influenced by the fact that the victory of the Cuban Revolution coincided with the widespread perception in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the balance of world power had shifted in favor of the USSR. The Soviet’s test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile and the launch of Sputnik in 1957 had generated serious concerns in the US regarding Soviet supremacy in those key areas. And while the US economy was growing at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year, various US government agencies had estimated that the Soviet economy was growing approximately three times as fast.28 Also, quite a few things were happening in the Third World that favored Soviet foreign policy, such as the Communist electoral victory in Kerala, India in 1957,29 and a left-wing coup that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 195830 (countered by a US invasion of Lebanon that followed shortly thereafter). Successes in Laos31 and a domestic turn to the left by Nasser in Egypt and by Sukarno in Indonesia (both allies of the USSR) further bolstered Soviet power and international prestige.32 This constellation of events may have persuaded Fidel that were he to follow the Communist road, he could count on the rising power of the USSR to confront the growing US aggression against Cuba, support a total break with Washington, and implement a Soviet- type of system for which he had an affinity given the great social and political control that it would confer on him.

As an early step in his path towards Soviet-type Communism, in November 1959 Fidel Castro personally intervened in the Tenth Congress of the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC—Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba), the union central established in 1938, to rescue the Communists and their allies within the 26th of July Movement from a serious defeat in the election of the Confederation’s top leaders. Consistent with the findings of their 1956 survey, the PSP had obtained only 10 percent of the votes in the union elections that had taken place earlier that year as well as in the delegate elections to the Congress itself. Fidel Castro’s intervention allowed the 26th of July unionists friendly to the Communists to take control of the Confederation in what proved to be the short term. That was followed, in the subsequent months, by the purge of at least half of the union officials elected in 1959—some were also imprisoned—who were hostile to the PSP and their allies within the 26th of July Movement, thus consolidating the control of the latter two groups over the union movement. Shortly afterwards, in August 1961, new laws were enacted bringing the functioning of the Cuban unions into alignment with those of the Soviet bloc by subordinating them to the state and treating them primarily as a means to increase production and as conveyor belts of the state’s orders. In November 1961, at the eleventh congress of the CTC, the hard polemics and controversies that had gone on in the Tenth Congress were replaced with the principle of unanimity.

Then, topping it all, Lázaro Peña, the old Stalinist labor leader who, with Batista’s consent, had controlled the trade-union movement in the early forties (during Batista’s first period in power) was elected to the top post of secretary general of the CTC. With this move, Fidel Castro dealt the last blow to the last vestiges of autonomy of the organized working class and subjected it to his total control. It should be noted that notwithstanding the loss of some of their pre-revolutionary labor conquests, most Cuban workers were pleased with the gains they obtained under the young revolutionary regime, and therefore they did not protest the state takeover of their unions.

The sovietization of the island proceeded to encompass other areas of Cuban society, all under Fidel’s direction. In May 1960, the government seized the opposition press and replaced it with government-controlled monolithic media. This was clearly a strategic, long-term institutional move since the country was not facing any kind of crisis at that particular time. Other pro-revolutionary but independent newspapers, such as La Calle, were shut down some time later, as was Lunes de Revolución, the independent cultural weekly of Revolución, the 26th of July Movement newspaper. The abolition of additional independent autonomous organizations continued with the institution, by Fidel, of the Cuban Federation of Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas—FMC) in August 1960, which led to the disbanding of more than 920 preexisting women’s organizations, and their incorporation and assimilation into the FMC which became, by government fiat, the sole and official women’s organization.

Earlier, toward the end of 1959, Fidel’s government started to limit the autonomy of the “sociedades de color,” the mutual-aid societies that for many years constituted the organizational spine of Black life in Cuba. Few “sociedades” remained after that, but they totally disappeared by the mid­sixties, after Fidel’s government proclaimed that, given the gains that Black Cubans had made under the revolution on the basis of class-based reforms and the abolition of racial segregation, the problems of racial discrimination and racism had been resolved. For the next thirty years, total silence prevailed on racial questions, notwithstanding the evident institutional racism in a society that was being ruled by whites, and that lacked any significant affirmative action programs to address the situation.33 That silence basically continued the prerevolutionary taboo avoiding any open discussion of race that harked back to the so-called race war of 1912, which in fact never was a real war, but a massacre of Black Cubans.34

On April 16, 1961, shortly before the US Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Fidel Castro proclaimed the “socialist” character of the revolution. By that time, all of the above-mentioned changes, along with the nationalization of most of the Cuban economy—a process that ended in 1968, with the nationalization of even the tiniest businesses in the island probably making Cuba the most nationalized economy in the world—had set the foundations of a Caribbean replica of the Soviet system.35 The finishing touch was the formation of a single ruling party, a process that was finalized, after two previous provisional organizations, with the official foundation of the Cuban Communist Party in October 1965. Structured in the Soviet mold, this party allowed no internal dissent or opposition, and in effect ruled over the economy, under the leadership and control of Fidel Castro, through: (1) its “mass organizations,” such as the FMC (the women’s federation) and the CTC (the union central), that served as conveyor belts for its decisions and orders; and (2) its control of the mass media—all the newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations in the island—based on the “orientations” that came from the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

Although the Cuban Communist Party followed the fundamental outlines of the Soviet-style parties in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it also had characteristics of its own. One was the great emphasis it placed on popular mobilization—a device introduced by Fidel Castro—devoid, however, of any real mechanisms of popular democratic discussion and control (a feature that it did share with its sister parties in the Communist bloc). Another feature present in many of those mobilizations was pseudo-plebiscitarian politics, also introduced by Fidel, of having the participants “vote” right then and there, raising their hands to show popular approval for the leadership’s initiatives.36

Part 2 of this article will appear in ISR 113.

I use the term Communist for the sake of clarity, but I do not link present-day Communism with the communism of Marx, Engels, and many other revolutionaries who predate the rise of Stalinism. I also use communism in a generic sense to describe a class and socioeconomic system even though each communist country had its own peculiarities. Marxists use the term capitalism similarly, even though capitalist states, like the United States, South Korea, and Norway, are not identical.
Pedro C. M. Teichert, “Analysis of Real Growth and Wealth in the Latin American Republics,” Journal of Inter-American Studies I, April 1959, 184–185.
Marifeli Pérez-Stable, The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course and Legacy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 29.
Jorge Ibarra, Prologue to Revolution: Cuba, 1898–1958, trans. Marjorie Moore (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998), 162.
Yeidy M. Rivero, Broadcasting Modernity: Cuban Commercial Television 1950–1960 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).
See Samuel Farber, Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933–1960: A Political Sociology from Machado to Castro (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1976).
John Paul Rathbone, The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon (New York, Penguin, 2011), 210–211. Rathbone claims that Lobo gave $25,000 to the 26th of July Movement because the Movement threatened to burn his cane fields. However, shortly after the revolutionary victory the Cuban press, freed from any government censorship, reported that Lobo financially supported the revolution out of his own free will.
One of Batista’s first decrees after his successful military coup on March 10, 1952, was to order a substantial increase in the salaries of soldiers and policemen.
Jorge Ibarra, Prologue to Revolution, 18–19.
US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Foreign Commerce, Investment in Cuba: Basic Information for United States Businessmen, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956, 183.
Jorge Ibarra, Prologue to Revolution: Cuba, 1898–1958,170.
Steve Cushion, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrilla’s Victory (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
Julia Sweig, Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 150.
See the more detailed discussion of political gangsterism in Cuba in Samuel Farber, Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933–1960, 117–122.
Fidel Castro, My Early Years, ed. Deborah Shnookal and Pedro Alvarez Tabío, (Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press, 1998), 98. For more details about the Cayo Confites expedition and the politics behind it see Charles D. Ameringer, The Caribbean Legion. Patriots, Politicians, Soldiers of Fortune, 1946–1950 (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).
Ibid, 126–127.
Luis Conte Aguero, 26 Cartas del Presidio (Havana: Editorial Cuba, 1960), 73. These letters were published before Conte Aguero’s break with Fidel Castro. Castro’s emphasis.
For the text of the Sierra Maestra Manifesto see Rolando E. Bonachea and Nelson P. Valdés, eds., Revolutionary Struggle 1947–1958, vol. 1 of The Selected Works of Fidel Castro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), 343–48.
In June 1958, Fidel Castro privately wrote to Celia Sánchez that when the war against Batista finished, a bigger and much longer war would begin against the United States. Carlos Franqui, Diario de la Revolución Cubana, 473.
Thus, for example, an official pamphlet of the 26th of July Movement published in 1957 danced around the term imperialism “as already inappropriate to the American continent” although there were still forms of economic penetration and political influence similar to it. The pamphlet proposed a new treatment of “constructive friendship” so Cuba could be a “loyal ally of the great country of the North and at the same time safely preserve the capacity to orient its own destiny.” Movimiento Revolucionario 26 de Julio, Nuestra Razón: Manifiesto-Programa del Movimiento 26 de Julio, in Enrique González Pedrero, La Revolución Cubana, (Ciudad de México: Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales, 1959), 124.
Hugh Thomas, “Middle Class Politics and the Cuban Revolution,” in The Politics of Conformity in Latin America, ed. Claudio Véliz (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 261.
See the detailed biographies of many revolutionary generals in Luis Báez, Secretos de Generales, Havana: Editorial Si–Mar, 1996.
Unlike most other top leaders of the 26th of July Movement, Frank País had strong roots in the life of Cuban civil society. He and his family were very active in the Baptist Church, and his parents were among the tiny minority of Spanish Protestant immigrants to Cuba.
Carlos Franqui, Diario de la Revolución Cubana, (Paris: Ruedo Ibérico, 1976), 611.
For a detailed analysis of Che Guevara’s politics see Samuel Farber, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).
Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy 1958–1964 (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1997), 18.
Ibid., 77.
Jerry F. Hough, The Struggle for the Third World: Soviet Debates and American Options (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1986), 120.
William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (New York: Norton, 2003), 402.
Herbert Dinerstein, The Making of a Missile Crisis: October 1962 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 113.
Jerry F. Hough, The Struggle for the Third World, 120; and Jean Lacouture, Nasser: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1973), 230–35, 244.
For a recent brief but thorough examination of “structural racism” in Cuba see Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramírez, ¿Racismo “estructural” en Cuba? Notas para el debate” Cuba Posible, September 6, 2017. https://cubaposible.com/racismo-estructu….
Silvio Castro Fernández, La Masacre de los independientes de color en 1912, 2nd edition (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2008).
For details of the “revolutionary offensive” that nationalized all urban businesses see my article “Cuba in 1968,” Jacobin, April 30, 1968, https://jacobinmag.com/2018/04/cuba-1968….
An authentic plebiscite, such as the “Brexit” elections in Great Britain, assumes extensive public discussion previous to the elections, ending with a “Yes” or “No” secret vote at the ballot box.
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Revolution, capitalist restoration and class struggle in China-Chris Slee

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on Revolution, capitalist restoration and class struggle in China-Chris Slee

February 24, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party (CP), led by Mao Zedong, came to power after more than 20 years of war.  They had fought against the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek regime, and against the Japanese invasion of China.

For a time there was an alliance between the CP and Chiang Kai-shek against Japan, but this ended when Japan was defeated.  The CP, based in rural areas, won the support of the peasants through land reform and other progressive measures.  This enabled them to win the war, despite US military aid to Chiang Kai-shek.

Initially, the revolution was intended to be democratic, not socialist.  Those capitalists who had not been closely associated with Chiang Kai-shek were allowed to continue in business.

But after the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 there was a change.  The party’s policy became more radical

Workers were mobilised to investigate their employers, looking for things like tax evasion, theft of state property, etc.  Bosses were brought before mass meetings and confronted with accusations by their workers.  [1]

In October 1953 the CP stated that its policy was one of “transition to socialism”.  By 1956 nearly all capitalist property had been nationalised.

In the countryside agricultural cooperatives began to be formed.  Later there was a push to create collective farms.

Social gains

The early years of the revolution brought big gains for the Chinese people.  Health and education were greatly improved.

Prior to the revolution, a large proportion of the people lived on the brink of starvation.  Epidemics killed thousands every year.  While there were no reliable statistics, one estimate of the average life expectancy in China was 28 years.  Another estimate was 35 years.

By 1981 life expectancy had risen to 69.6 years for women and 67.0 for men.  [2]

Massive campaigns of vaccination and public health education, stepped up medical training and widely distributed health services virtually wiped out many diseases that were rampant in the past.

Medical services were brought to rural areas which had not previously seen a doctor.  The number of doctors was rapidly expanded, and rural people were trained as paramedics (known as “barefoot doctors”), who could provide a basic level of health care to their neighbours.

Urban workers also benefited from the revolution.  In addition to the health and literacy programs, they gained job security and other benefits, such as housing supplied by their enterprise.

Bureaucratic regime

However, the transition to socialism was hindered both by objective conditions (including the backwardness of China and the pressures of imperialism), and by the bureaucratic nature of the CP.

The state created by the revolution was a bureaucratised socialist state.

In 1956, the Chinese government adopted a system of ranks for state employees that included 30 grades, with the top grade receiving 28 times the pay of the bottom grade.  In addition to their salaries, higher-level party and state officials had special housing, cars, drivers, personal servants, meals, travel, etc.  [3]

The CP used repression against people who supported the revolution but disagreed with some of the government’s policies.

In 1956, following Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, there was a brief period of relative freedom in China.  People were encouraged to voice their criticisms.  Mao advanced the slogan:  “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”.

But in June 1957 there was a crackdown.  Many of those who had spoken out were arrested, or were sacked from their jobs in the cities and sent to the countryside.

This repression intimidated people from criticising mistaken policies of the Communist Party and the government.  This meant that mistakes were not corrected until they had become such big disasters that the leadership was forced to change course.

Great Leap Forward

One example was the so-called Great Leap Forward.  Launched in 1958, this was an attempt by Mao to force the pace of economic and social change, with disastrous results.

The transition to cooperative and collective farming was supposed to be voluntary, and was therefore expected to carried out gradually.  However, the apparent success of the early cooperatives caused Mao to call for the acceleration of the process.  This resulted in pressure being put on peasants to form collective farms before they were really convinced it was a good idea.

In 1958, collectivisation was taken a step further with the formation of the communes – much larger collectives involving tens of thousands of people.  While peasants in some areas supported the policy, in many other areas it was imposed from above.

At the same time, the CP leadership issued calls for enormous increases in production.  Workers and peasants were pushed to work at an excesssive pace.  Transport and supply systems collapsed.

Pressure on party and government officials to meet unrealistic targets led inevitably to false reporting.  Newspapers reported stories of amazing increases in production.

The result of the Great Leap Forward was a severe decline in agriculture – causing the reappearance of famine – and chaos in industry.

The Great Leap Forward reflected Mao’s voluntarist mentality.  (Voluntarism is the idea that, if we try hard enough, we can do whatever we like, regardless of objective conditions).

Beginning in 1959, these policies were partially reversed.  The communes lost much of their importance.  Smaller units became more important.  The peasants were allowed small private plots.  In some areas collectively owned land was contracted out to individual families.

China began to recover from the effects of the Great Leap Forward.  However, there was no public admission of mistakes, nor public criticism of Mao for his role in promoting the Great Leap Forward.  The cult of Mao was maintained.

Two factions

But within the leadership, a factional struggle was beginning.

One faction, headed by Liu Shaochi and Deng Xiaoping, were “moderates”.  They wanted no more voluntarist adventures like the Great Leap Forward.  They emphasised increasing production through material incentives.

The other faction, headed by Mao, was still prone to voluntarism.  They wanted to revive some of the policies of the Great Leap Forward period when the opportunity arose.

Cultural Revolution

In 1966, the Maoist faction launched the Cultural Revolution.  They made use of Mao’s prestige to mobilise youth to attack the wing of the bureaucracy that supported Liu and Deng.

Mao and his supporters used radical-sounding slogans to mobilise students against Mao’s opponents.  High school and university students formed groups of “rebels” or “red guards”.  Many party leaders at all levels were subject to denunciation, public humiliation and physical violence.

Mao’s faction tried to keep control of the movement, directing it against those seen as Mao’s opponents.  But some Red Guard groups got out of control and began attacking Mao’s supporters as well.  Some of Mao’s opponents were able to set up their own youth groups.  Some groups seized arms, and different groups began fighting each other.

The army was brought in to restore order.

Mao had to bring back many of the old cadres who had been purged, in order to get society functioning normally again.

Thus the Cultural Revolution ended in an uneasy compromise.

Right turn in foreign policy

At this stage, the United States government started putting out feelers to the Chinese bureaucrats.  It was looking for a deal with China at the expense of third world national liberation struggles (including Vietnam), and at the expense of the Soviet Union.

US secretary of state Henry Kissinger visited China in 1971, preparing the ground for US president Richard Nixon’s visit the following year.

The US trade embargo on China was progressively eased.  China moved towards a de facto political alliance with US imperialism, and adopted a generally reactionary foreign policy.

Deng’s return

In 1976 Mao died.  The Maoists were defeated in the ensuing power struggle.  By 1978 Deng Xiaoping had become the real leader of China.

The pro-imperialist foreign policy continued and even got worse.  In February 1979, Chinese troops invaded Vietnam.  The invasion occurred shortly after Deng had visited the United States, and it is reasonable to assume it was planned in collusion with the US government.  On March 1, the formal opening of full diplomatic relations between the US and the Peoples Republic of China occurred.

Wang Hui, a left-wing Chinese academic, later commented:  “The only reason for this otherwise senseless attack on a small neighbour was Deng’s desire for a new relationship with the United States.  The invasion was offered as a political gift to Washington, and became China’s entrance ticket to the world system”.  [4]

The Chinese troops met strong resistance and were soon forced to withdraw, but only after causing substantial damage and loss of life.  Chinese harassment of Vietnam continued for a number of years.  China continued to support the forces of the former Pol Pot regime – a genocidal regime which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and had been ousted by Vietnamese troops.

Market reforms

Deng introduced “market reforms”.

In the countryside, the communes were broken up and land was contracted to individual peasant families, who could sell surplus production on the free market.

Foreign owned companies were allowed to establish joint ventures with Chinese state and collective enterprises.  As the reform process went further, some wholly foreign owned enterprises were established.  Restrictions on the ability of Chinese citizens to establish privately owned enterprises were progressively eased.

Corruption spread as bureaucrats accumulated wealth for themselves and their relatives and cronies, in the context of growing private ownership of the means of production.  Many bureaucrats began to turn themselves into private owners of capital.

The Beijing massacre

But opposition to corruption – and to the bureaucratic regime – began to grow.  In April 1989 students protested in Beijing’s Tian An Men square.  They remained for more than a month and were joined by many non-students.  The army was ordered to remove the protestors, but the protestors talked to the soldiers and won many of them over.  Workers joined the protests, raising their own demands, such as job security, wages, and control over their workplaces.  [5]

Eventually the regime brought in new army units that used extreme violence to crush the movement.  A wave of repression followed.

Capitalist restoration

In my opinion, the repression of the 1989 upsurge helped prepare the ground for capitalist restoration.  The increased repression helped break the resistance of workers to the attacks on their job security, working conditions and welfare benefits.

Some Chinese intellectuals have made the link between the Beijing massacre and the subsequent intensification of “free market” policies.

Wang Hui, who participated in the Tian An Men Square protests, argued that the crackdown not only silenced calls for democracy, it also ended public debate about inequality.  Once the tanks had done their work, the process of marketisation speeded up.  [6]

Similarly Li Minqi, another participant in the 1989 protests, later said:  ”  To unleash a full-blown capitalism in China, workers had to be deprived of the extensive social and economic rights they enjoyed after the 1949 revolution….

“Popular participation in the revolt did threaten to undermine the project of capitalist development.  But the failure of the movement ensured that for a long time the Chinese working class would not be able to act as a collective political force….”  [7]

The privatisation of industry proceeded very rapidly during the 1990s, and continued more slowly thereafter.  The state sector’s share of industrial production fell from 100 percent in 1978 to 37.5% in 1999 and 31.6 percent in 2004.  [8]

Thirty million workers were sacked from the state sector in the late 1990s.  Corrupt managers enriched themselves while carrying out “restructuring” and privatisation, whereas the sacked workers got minimal compensation.

Transnational corporations increasingly used China as a base for producing goods for sale on the world market.  For example, Apple iPhones are made in China.

Today millions of Chinese workers are ruthlessly exploited by local and foreign capital.  Extremely long hours, physical punishment, fines and non-payment of wages are amongst the abuses suffered by many Chinese workers.

The most oppressed section of the working class are rural migrants working in urban areas.  According to Australian National University academic Anita Chan, writing in 2001:  “They are required to possess a ‘temporary residential permit’ and are trapped if the employer takes it away from them.  Their residential status is similar to foreign nationals living as guest workers.  They are not entitled to any of the benefits enjoyed by the local residents such as social welfare, schooling, the right to own property, to bring their spouses or children with them or even any right to residency.  Once their labor is no longer required, they are supposed to go back to their place of origin.”   [9]

(Since then, there have been reforms enabling some migrant workers to become urban residents.  But migrant workers continue to be super-exploited)  [10]

Privatisation destroyed China’s social welfare system.  A range of services such as health, housing, etc had been provided to workers via their workplace.  The loss of state and collective sector jobs meant the loss of these services.

The result of all these changes was a vast increase in economic inequality.  China has the second highest number of billionaires in the world, after the United States.  In 2018 it had 373 billionaires, not including those in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.  [11]

The state sector

China’s economy is now essentially capitalist, as indicated by the privatisation of the bulk of the means of production, and the conversion of labor power into a commodity.  Workers can only survive by selling their labor power to an employer.

But the most extreme ideologues of neoliberalism (both in China and elsewhere) are not satisfied with the degree of privatisation that has occurred so far.  State-owned enterprises remain dominant in certain strategic industrial sectors such as iron and steel, and electricity, and in the banking sector.  The neoliberals want more complete privatisation, and unfettered access to all areas of the economy for local and foreign capital.

The Chinese Communist Party has up to now resisted these pressures.  A strong state sector helps China maintain a degree of independence from the US and its allies.

It also helped China to recover from the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis.  The initial impact of the crisis was severe.  Twenty million migrant workers lost their jobs in the export-oriented manufacturing industries.  But the Chinese government was able to stimulate the economy by ordering state-owned enterprises to spend money, and state-owned banks to lend money.  This caused the resumption of rapid economic growth in 2009.  Government-funded construction projects provided alternative work for many of those displaced from the factories.

The continued existence of a strong state sector does not make China socialist.  In the past, before the rise of neoliberalism, many capitalist countries have had a significant sector of state-owned enterprises.  Australian examples include the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Qantas, etc.

We should also note that many enterprises in China that are called “state-owned” actually have a mixture of state and private ownership.

Popular resistance

Workers have been fighting back against the attacks on their job security, living standards and working conditions.  There have been thousands of strikes and protests by Chinese workers, as well as numerous protests by peasants against land seizures by local governments and property developers.  There have also been many protests against pollution and environmental destruction, as well as protests by ethnic minorities against discrimination.

Workers struggles

Workers have taken action over the non-payment of wages or social insurance contributions, and the failure to pay the compensation prescribed by law after the termination of employment contracts.  They have demanded higher wages, improved severance packages, shorter working hours, improved welfare benefits and reductions in workload.  Some retired and laid-off workers sought higher retirement payments.  Other disputes arose over arbitrary changes to working conditions, meals and housing allowances, as well as demands for government investigations into management malpractice during the restructuring of state-owned enterprises.

Tactics used by the workers have included strikes, blockades of roads, bridges and railway lines, sit-downs at the factory gate, protest marches, and petitions.

The response of the authorities to such protests has been a combination of conciliation, promises, threats, physical force and criminal sanctions against the leaders.

Nevertheless, the workers have often been successful in winning their demands.  [12]

Peasant struggles

Under the market reforms, collectively owned land was allocated to peasants on long-term leases.  In theory this gave them security of tenure.  But in practice many people from peasant families have been forced to leave the land.

Heavy taxes were imposed on peasants by local governments.  Much of the tax revenue was siphoned off by corrupt local officials.

Prices obtained by farmers from the sale of their crops were often insufficient to meet both their own expenses and the tax burden.  Many farmers got into debt.  Younger family members sought work in the cities to supplement family income.

In many cases local authorities have evicted peasants from the land so it could be handed over to property developers.  This has been a major cause of peasant rebellions.

Ethnic conflict

In areas inhabited by minority nationalities, discontent often takes a nationalist form.  In Tibet for example there have been numerous protests (some peaceful, others violent), and demands have been raised for independence or autonomy.

Tibetans feel that they are discriminated against.  Language is a key issue.  Mandarin Chinese is the main language used in government and in the upper levels of the education system. The Tibetan language has a secondary status.  This puts Tibetan speakers at a disadvantage in getting jobs.  The higher paid jobs are disproportionately held by Han Chinese.

In Xinjiang province, discontent amongst the Uigurs has been met with severe repression.  Hundreds of thousands of people are being held in detention centres.

Rebuilding the social safety net

Prior to the “market reforms”, people had job security and a basic social welfare system provided through the workplace, which provided them with nurseries, kindergartens, schools, healthcare, pensions and funeral services.

As the market reforms deepened, workplaces shed their responsibility for social welfare.  People lost pensions, healthcare and welfare benefits, and had to spend money buying them.

China’s healthcare system became one of the most commercialised in the world.  Individuals were expected to pay for their own health care.

But around the year 2000, the government began to rebuild the social safety net in areas such as health care, education and pensions.

The government’s share of health care spending began to increase a little, after a long period of decline.  The government also began a drive to increase the proportion of the population covered by various health insurance schemes.  Schemes for employees require contributions from both employers and workers.

Labour legislation

In 2007 three labor laws were adopted by the National Peoples Congress.

The Labour Contract Law puts some restrictions on the right of employers to hire and fire, and requires redundancy payments to be made after termination of a contract.

The Labour Arbitration Law established a conciliation and arbitration system to rule on disputes between workers against their employers.  It was soon overwhelmed by complaints from workers, leading to long delays in hearing cases.

The Employment Promotion Law deals with issues of discrimination in employment.

According to the China Labour Bulletin:  “The unprecedented wave of labour legislation in this period was.…a direct response to the pressure exerted by the workers movement over the previous decade.  A government committed to maintaining social order and harmony could no longer afford to ignore the strikes and protests staged by workers on an almost daily basis across the country…..

“What the government has not yet done, however, is to rigorously enforce its own laws or empower workers to safeguard their rights and interests on a collective basis.”  [13]

China has one officially recognised trade union federation, the All-China Federation of Trade unions.

The ACFTU does not organise strikes.  It does sometimes challenge violations of China’s labor laws by employers through legal channels.  But this is no substitute for a union that organises workers to fight for their rights.

Foreign policy

Mao used radical anti-imperialist rhetoric in the 1960s, but swung to an openly pro-imperialist foreign policy in the 1970s.  This policy was continued by Deng Xiaoping.

Since then China has moved away from its close political alliance with US imperialism.  Today China has good relations with the revolutionary governments of Cuba and Venezuela, as well as with other third world governments such as Iran that are in conflict with the US.

This does not mean that China’s foreign policy is consistently progressive.  China supported the racist Sri Lankan government in its war against the Tamil independence struggle.  China supplied arms to the government and gave it diplomatic support.

One motive for China’s position was its desire to gain access to ports on China’s trade routes across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and Africa, which are sources of oil and other raw materials for China’s industry.  In March 2007 Sri Lanka signed an agreement with China for the construction of a port at Hambantota on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

Is China Imperialist?

There has been a rapid growth of Chinese investments overseas.  Much of this investment is aimed at supplying Chinese industry with raw materials.  This is the case with Chinese investments in mining in Africa, for example.

But it is now going beyond this – for example, Chinese companies have been investing in ports in many European countries, including Greece, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.  In Australia, China has bought the port of Darwin.

China has been building big infrastructure projects in many countries.  These projects are usually financed by loans from China.  If the recipient government is unable to meet its repayments, China takes ownership.  The port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, which I mentioned before, is an example of this.

In the past I have described China as a bourgeois nationalist regime, meaning that it was capitalist, but the government was relatively independent of the imperialist powers.

But now China is starting to look like an imperialist power itself.  It has big overseas investments.  It intervenes in conflicts in other countries – for example, supporting the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils.  It has a military base in Djibouti, a small country in the horn of Africa.

On the other hand, foreign transnational corporations continue to use China as a base for production for the world market, ruthlessly exploiting Chinese workers.  In this respect China looks like a semi-colony of Western imperialism.

Thus China combines imperialist and semi-colonial features.

The need for socialism

Despite the partial reversal of some neoliberal policies, China remains a highly unequal society, where workers are ruthlessly exploited and lack job security.  The state represses the resistance of the workers to capitalist exploitation.  In my view it is a capitalist state.

The struggle for socialism will need to bring together workers, students and other oppressed groups.

An example of such unity is the solidarity of university students with workers at Jasic Technologies, who wanted to form a union and elect their representatives.  Students joined the workers in protests, and helped to publicise the case on the internet.  A number of workers and students were arrested.  [14]

This kind of solidarity, if repeated on a much larger scale, can help take China on the road to genuine socialism.

The above is was a talk given to Socialist Alliance Summer School, January 2019.


1.See Bill Brugger:  China: Liberation and Transformation, 1942-1962, p. 83-85 (Croom Helm, London, 1981)

2. Ruth and Victor Sidel:  The Health of China, p. 94  (Zed, London, 1982)

3. Les Evans, China After Mao, p. 86 (Monad Press, New York, 1978)

4. One China, Many Paths (ed. Chaohua Wang), p.65 (Verso, London, 2005)

5. John Gittings:  China Changes Face, p. 275-6 (Oxford University Press, 1990)

6. Mark Leonard, What Does China Think?, p. 30-31 (Fourth Estate, London, 2008)

7. One China, Many Paths, p. 314-5

8. Figures from retired researcher Sun Xuewen, quoted by Eva Cheng in Green Left Weekly, no. 695, 24 January 2007

9. Anita Chan, China’s Workers Under Assault; the Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, p. 8-9 (East Gate, New York, 2001)

10. Billy Beswick, At Peking University…

11. According to a survey by Swiss bank UBS and accounting firm PWC

12. Going it Alone: the Workers Movement in China (2007-2008), China Labour Bulletin, Hong Kong, 2009

13. Going It Alone, p.13

14. Au Loong-Yu, The Jasic Workers Mobilisation, a High Tide for the Chinese Labour Movement? International Viewpoint
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The French Yellow Vests: A self-mobilized mass movement with insurrectionist overtones-Kevin B. Anderson

Posted by admin On January - 22 - 2019 Comments Off on The French Yellow Vests: A self-mobilized mass movement with insurrectionist overtones-Kevin B. Anderson


January 22, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from New Politics — After rumbling on social media for weeks, the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement emerged suddenly on November 17, when no less than 300,000 protestors occupied roads, traffic circles in exurbs and rural areas. They wore the yellow safety vests the government requires all motorists to purchase, and which immediately became the emblem of the movement.  That week and the next, Yellow Vests also ventured into the heart of Paris, blocking the gilded Boulevard Champs-Elysées and almost reaching the nearby presidential palace.  From the beginning, women were unusually prominent in the local occupations and the street marches.  At the same time, the Yellow Vests chased away many politicians who visited their protest sites, including some from the left.

On November 17 and over the next several weeks of mass outpouring, the protesting crowds had to face typical French regime police brutality, whereupon they set up barricades on the Champs-Elysées and attacked the Arc de Triomphe and luxury shops. Slogans scrawled on walls and shouted in the crowds included calls for the immediate resignation of neoliberal President Emmanuel Macron, “Topple the Bourgeoisie,” and, in a reference harking all the way back to the Great Revolution of 1789, “We Cut Off Heads for Less Than This” (Alissa J. Rubin, “French Protestors Chide Macron,” New York Times 12/3/18).

But alongside this white-hot anger stood not the nihilism of pure destructiveness, but heartfelt aspirations for a more human future, what in dialectical terms is called the positive in the negative. As the Yellow Vests of Saint-Nazaire declared in November: “Our objective is not to destroy, but, quite the contrary, to build a more human world for us and future generations… The solution is in ourselves, workers, unemployed, pensioners of all origins and all colors” (Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Not since the near revolution of 1968 has France — or any of the so-called Western capitalist countries — witnessed anything like this, a massive, spontaneous, nationwide series of militant demonstrations that not only gained majority support, but also managed to block some crucial parts of the economy like oil refineries, putting the entire government on the defensive.  As one far left commentary put it, “a scent of revolution was hanging in the air” (“Une situation excellente?” Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes 12/6/18).  At the same time, it should be noted that 1968 was immensely larger, involving multiple sectors of society, and, with a smaller population than now, ten million workers on strike and nearly all major economic and educational institutions occupied by workers or students.  Nor should we forget the Black and Latinx ghetto uprisings in the US in the 1960s and after, or similar ones in France and the UK in recent years by impoverished people of color.  Still, the Yellow Vest movement is the first time since 1968 that a mass insurrectionary movement has burst out in a developed capitalist country that was based primarily in the white majority, let alone those in rural and semi-rural areas.

The French government, visibly shaken, was forced to give ground.  Despite promising in regal style in both his 2017 campaign and afterwards never to cede to street pressure, Macron was forced to back down partially and accede to a few of the protestors’ demands.

(The contagion crossed France’s borders too. Belgium experienced mass strikes by newly militant workers against austerity policies, while the iron dictatorship of Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rushed to ban the sale of yellow vests as a precaution.)

The precipitating grievance of the Yellow Vest movement was a planned hike in the gasoline tax for 2019, which would have hit especially hard the working poor and lower middle classes outside the major urban centers. These sectors of the population are increasingly dependent upon their automobiles to get to work and accomplish other life activities in an economy that is growing more and more delocalized. Meanwhile, the centralized state apparatus has concentrated its public transport initiatives on flashy high-speed rail between major urban centers while allowing local bus and train lines to deteriorate.

Initially, the government and the international media presented the protest as one pitting the economic grievances of some rural people against the Macron government’s overly high-minded ecological aim of discouraging automobile use. This slanderous narrative only enraged the Yellow Vests further, as well as the majority of the French people, especially the fact that Macron has been widely decried as “the president of the rich.”  At the same time that he raised the gas tax, his ISF tax cut for the very wealthy meant that “the 100 richest people in the country received the equivalent of a million euros ($1.14 million) each in tax reduction” (Paul Elek, “The Popular Volcano Is Back!”, Transform! Europe 12-8-18). Or as Marxist environmentalist Andreas Malm put it: “If anyone needed another lesson in how not to mitigate climate change, they can thank Emmanuel Macron. Scrap taxes on the richest, then slap higher taxes on fuels… Capitalist climate governance… always makes sure any actual burdens end up on the shoulders of the poor” (“A Lesson in How Not to Mitigate Climate Change,” Verso Blog 12-7-18).

The movement’s list of grievances and its socio-political character
By November 29, a number of other “directives of the people” had been sent to the government, going far beyond repeal of the gas tax. Many of these demands exhibited a working class or leftist bent, including, (1) repeal the ISF tax reduction on the rich, (2) raise the minimum wage, (3) more secure retirement benefits for all, (4) peg the salaries of elected representatives to the median national income, (5) good treatment for asylum seekers, (6) jobs for the unemployed, (7) class sizes no higher than 25 from nursery school through the twelfth grade, (8) full retirement at 60, and at 55 for those performing heavy physical labor, (9) concentrate housing and promote rail transport of goods for ecological reasons, (10) stop the closures of local train lines, post offices, and schools.  Other demands were of a more protectionist or nationalist nature: (1) big chains like MacDonald’s or Google to pay higher taxes, small shops or artisans less, (2) protection for French industry, (3) forbid the sale of national assets like dams and airports (4) send asylum seekers home whose cases have been rejected, (5) better integration of all those living in France, who should become French by learning the French language and the country’s history (Robert Duguet, “Les Cahiers de Doléances,” in Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre, Paris, Éditions Syllepse, December 2018).

To be sure, it is wrong to view the Yellow Vests as a conservative movement concerned only about high taxes and indifferent to the environment, especially since they moved to the left in the weeks after they burst onto scene on November 17.  But it is equally wrong to highlight solely the most progressive elements of their demands and other articulations.

The most concerning Yellow Vest demands are those about sending back rejected asylees and about becoming “French,” each of which have some racist overtones.  This is hardly surprising in a country that gave neofascist Marine Le Pen 34% of the vote in the 2017 national elections, with even higher levels in many rural areas. As Cédric Durand notes, “In this movement one finds cohabiting, amid great confusion, sentiments from the left and sentiments from the right, a large mass of people with little political experience, with anticapitalist activists and fascists” (“Le fond de l’air est jaune,” Contretemps: Revue de Critique Communiste 12-11-1. I will be quoting extensively from writers on the French. and global, in order to give a flavor of a debate that is still ongoing over the nature and meaning of the Yellow Vest movement.)

Or as the far-left Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes observed, during the December 8 protests in Paris, “New slogans appeared, like ‘Paris/Bourgeois/Submit,’ ‘Don’t Turn Out Migrants, Turn Over the Money to Us,’ and even the [singing of] the Internationale,” but at the same time some slogans were more ambiguous or possibly rightwing in nature. The Plateforme article also mentioned the “work carried out over the past four weeks by antifascist groups responsible for expelling the most openly far right groups from the marches.” This article also pointed to “the significant presence of youth from the suburbs in the riots,” a reference to the impoverished peripheries of Paris with large Black and Arab populations (“Macron ne lâche rien, le gilets jaunes non plus!” 12-13-18).

A November 28 declaration from the anti-racist, anti-police-murder Adama Committee, “The Popular Neighborhoods Alongside the Yellow Vests,” stated: “The popular neighborhoods are facing the same social problems as rural or exurban areas… affected by the hyper-[neo]liberal policies of Macron…. It also takes us several hours by car to get to work… plus we face 40% unemployment in some neighborhoods…. Racism, daily humiliations and police violence are added to these social inequalities. This [police] violence is also being experienced by the Yellow Vests today…. We are not ceding the ground to the far right, and we reaffirm our position against racism inside the Yellow Vests movement…. We call upon all residents of the popular neighborhoods to come out in massive numbers to fight for their dignity on December 1” (Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Despite some contradictions, the overall thrust of the Yellow Vests movement has been a progressive one: against neoliberalism, against economic inequality, against the centralized French state, and for grassroots democracy. Moreover, it has emerged outside the urban centers, in the very parts of France where the neofascists have been drawing much of their support. Let us look more at its social composition.

The Danger of Lassalleanism
The social strata that self-mobilized as the Yellow Vests were not typical leftwing constituencies, at least in the eyes of the dominant parts of the global left. More rural, more self-employed or working in small enterprises, they could be too easily dismissed as “petty bourgeois” by orthodox Marxists, who see them as the mass base of reaction and fascism.

This is a distorted perspective whose roots go back to Ferdinand Lassalle’s German socialist movement, a rival tendency to that of Marx, but which became an important founding influence on the Second (Socialist) International.  Lassalleans infamously regarded all forces outside the industrial working class as “one reactionary mass.” To Marx, this was a distortion of the Communist Manifesto, where he and Engels had declared: “Of all the classes that stand face-to-face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.” However, Marx and Engels did not mean by that a dismissal of the revolutionary potential of other non-ruling classes. Marx therefore retorted, in his Critique of the Gotha Program: “Has one proclaimed to the artisan, small manufacturers, etc., and peasants during the last elections: Relative to us, you, together with the bourgeoisie and feudal lords, form one reactionary mass?” (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875, Ch. 1.)

Lassalleanism forms a major part of the intellectual origin of the class-reductionist “workerism” one finds even today in some varieties of Trotskyism. It is also tied to how a large number of US liberals declare either that the rural areas can be written off due to demographic change (optimists) or that these areas will continue to control the Senate and thus drag the government permanently to the right despite the popular vote (pessimists).  But as the Yellow Vests movement shows dramatically, rural areas have never been monolithic, as rural people also suffer under the weight of capitalism, whether in its monopoly stage a century ago (bringing about the leftwing U.S. Populists) or in its neoliberal stage today (bringing about the Yellow Vests).

Moreover, if one is thinking about a real social revolution as opposed to electoral politics alone, or about fascist coups as a real possibility even in longstanding democratic republics, one has also to think about how the hard core of the state, the military-police apparatus, could be overcome. In that case, one has to consider that in most societies, the bulk of the military comes from the more rural areas and that on numerous occasions, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Chinese democratic uprisings of 1989, troops from outlying rural areas were sent in to crush the movement. They were able to do so in large part because the revolutionary movement had not succeeded in spreading outward to those rural areas, something Marx pointed out after 1871 with regard to France’s Paris Commune. Had that not been the case, those troops would more easily have gone over to the side of the revolutionaries, as occurred in Russia in 1917.  In countries like the US today, an attempted fascist coup seems nearer than social revolution. But that is all the more reason to consider how the left needs to go outside the urban centers, to interact with and win over those sectors of the population whose sons and daughters join the military in such large numbers.

This is not to deny the fact that downwardly mobile lower middle class (petty bourgeois) groups and rural populations drawn from the dominant ethnic groups (not of course members of oppressed minority groups like rural Blacks in the U.S. or Kurds in the Middle East) have at times formed the social base of rightwing populism and fascism, as theorists like Leon Trotsky and Erich Fromm have shown.  But such positioning is a product also of the state of the formation of revolutionary ideas and subjectivities at specific historical junctures, something that we as revolutionary leftists cannot control but that we are in a position to influence and help to shape.

The social composition of the movement
What does it mean to say, in the context of France and other industrially developed capitalist countries today, that the Yellow Vests are more rural, more middle class, and more white than other recent radical movements?  As the Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes notes: “First of all, the social composition of the movement. This novel uprising is characterized by downwardly mobile middle classes and social strata undergoing proletarianization. Certainly, the familiar strata of public and civil servants, service workers, wage earners from the industrial basins, and students are present. But a whole host of other social segments struggling to make ends meet seems to be at the forefront of the dynamic: employees of small and medium enterprises, shopkeepers, artisans, and the growing plethora of new forms of independent and precarious labor. The unity of this social diversity, beyond the rejection of Macron and his centrist politics (politics coming from right or left, it doesn’t really matter), lies in a generalized feeling of having had enough [ras-le-bol], anchored in the materiality of living conditions. The violence of downward mobility for some, the harshness of work for others; those who see their social rights crumbling or those who never really had these rights; those for whom the future suddenly appears to be much darker than they had expected, and those who grew up with a receding horizon of expectations” (“On a Ridgeline: Notes on the ‘Yellow Vests’ Movement,” Viewpoint Magazine 12-6-18).

Another new aspect, seldom remarked upon, is the large presence of women among the Yellow Vests: “Women are also at the traffic circles and blockades, at the leading edge of the demonstrations, and are acting as spokespersons. Visible on TV screens, they give the movement an unaccustomed image, since it is too often the men who do the speaking during social movements. First victims of precarity, of unemployment, and involuntary part-time hours, the women in yellow vests are denouncing the social conditions imposed upon them. They are a vital force in the movement” (“Nous sommes le peuple,” Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Rural sociologist Benoît Coquard amplifies this point: “In terms of gender there has been something remarkable in my view: There were almost as many women as men even though, as is typical, especially in rural areas, it is the men who assume public functions.  I would even say that the women took the initiative in creating the public gatherings. Many times, I observed here the divorced single mother eking out a precarious existence or the young single woman” (“Qui sont et que veulent les ‘gilets jaunes’?” interview in Contretemps 11/23/18).

The mainstream media obscured this fact, but women were also hit by brutal police repression, As the philosopher Frédéric Lordon intoned: “Whereas France Info had fed us to the point of nausea with images of the Necker hospital windows and a burning McDonalds, no midday news flashes last Monday [3 December] had yet informed us of the death of a woman in her eighties killed by a tear gas canister” (“End of the World?,” Verso Blog, Dec. 7, 2018).

One also has to think about how the working class has changed over the decades of neoliberal capitalism. As Jean-François Cabral notes, the working class of 1968 with its giant factories and powerful trade unions no longer exists in the same form, certainly not in France and other industrially developed countries: “The reality has become more complex.  Former proletarians have become self-employed entrepreneurs alongside small business owners who have to get their hands dirty? Is this really a problem?” (“Des gilets rouges aux gilets jaunes: la classe ouvrière introuvable?” Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

These are problems that go far beyond France, but what is notable about the Yellow Vests is the emergence of a movement against concentrated wealth and for its redistribution, as well as a host of other progressive demands, in a country that was worried in 2017 about a neofascist electoral victory and where both racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and sexism exist at significantly high levels. To be sure, the Yellow Vests are not an anticapitalist movement, but they seem to offer some real possibilities for a mass left that would embrace all working people, regardless of race, gender, or geography.

Comparisons and contexts
How can we contextualize the Yellow Vests in terms of recent popular uprisings and movements around the world?

Several commentators have linked the basically leaderless, spontaneous Yellow Vest protests to those since the Arab Revolutions of 2010-11, when the Tunisian and Egyptian masses toppled their autocrats.  These in turn inspired Occupy, the Spanish Indignados and other similar movements outside the Middle East.  Chiding those who still think of radical movements solely in top-down terms, the anarchist David Graeber writes, in light of the sudden emergence of the Yellow Vests, of “horizontality” replacing “older ‘vertical’ or vanguardist models of organization.” He adds that “intellectuals” need to do “a little less talking and a lot more listening” in relation to these new movements (“The ‘Yellow Vests’ Show How Much the Ground Moves Under Our Feet,” Brave New Europe, Dec. 11, 2018).  It is certainly true that many revolutionary movements, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to those that pushed out several Arab tyrants in 2011, have been leaderless and horizontal.

But Graeber’s argument has two major limitations. (1) He is still addressing the left, giving it lessons, not dialoguing with the actual movements, as seen in the fact that he doesn’t quote a single slogan or voice from the French protests, or any other one for that matter. Contrast that to our Marxist-Humanist tradition, which has published classics like Charles Denby’s Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, recording the words of those from the deepest layers of the oppressed, and where mass upheaval from below is not only described and celebrated, but also analyzed critically.  (2) More crucially, Graeber is at such pains to deny the charge that the Yellow Vests are nihilistic or reactionary, that he simply celebrates them, without raising the kinds of critical questions that intellectuals, theorists, and members of radical organizations need to do if they are to truly support such movements. For example, Tahrir Square was a magnificent example of horizontal revolutionary subjectivity, but at the same time, the genuinely revolutionary elements did not have a chance to build up their organizations or to develop a really clear-headed theoretical perspective. This resulted in their oscillation between, on one hand, allying with the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, or on the other, with the nationalist but authoritarian military (Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising, Stanford University Press, 2016). This does not mean that Graeber is wrong, however, to view the Yellow Vests as part of the revolutionary tradition that began in 2011, and in which he played such a crucial part at Occupy Wall Street.

A second context for the Yellow Vests has not been noticed very much, the link to several other rural uprisings against economic oppression over the past year.  In Oklahoma and West Virginia, US teachers staged militant and massive strikes last spring, managing to win some significant victories. Women were in the forefront of many of these strikes, which targeted pay so low that teachers had to take second jobs to survive. For their part, the teachers’ unions were more dragged along by events than in the position of leading these strikes.  The fact that teacher militancy broke out most massively in these predominantly rural states that had voted overwhelming for Trump showed that those areas had radical possibilities beyond the imagination of leftists and liberals still under the spell of the Lassallean paradigm discussed above. As education researcher Lois Weiner concludes, “the teachers’ movements are laying the ground work for a new labor movement in the South” (“Walkouts Teach U.S. Labor a New Grammar for Struggle,” New Politics 65, Summer 2018).

A less discussed but even more apt analogue to the Yellow Vests can be found in the Iranian protests and riots in rural areas last winter. In late December 2017 and into January 2018 a series of violent uprisings occurred in 80 small cities and rural areas that had been thought to have been the political base of the Islamist regime.  As an anonymous correspondent from inside Iran wrote at the time: “The protests expanded horizontally, covering most cities in northern, southern, and western parts of Iran. Small cities and places farther from the center, which before this movement were government strongholds, are rioting. It was amazing to see how large numbers of people in small cities of western Iran, who were not active in political crises in the past, came into the streets. In these cities the time between peaceful street protest to taking over the government centers and putting them on fire was very short” (An Iranian Marxist, “Iran Uprising after Five Days,” International Marxist-Humanist 1-3-18 — see also the articles on this site that month by Mansoor M, Ali Kiani, and Ali Reza).  As in France, areas of the country often dubbed “reactionary” came to the forefront of protests that were mainly over economic grievances: declining or unpaid wages, unemployment, corruption and favoritism, and ecologically disastrous mismanagement of their water supply.  While women’s rights was not an explicit issue in the protests and riots, some significant women’s demonstrations against the veil occurred during the same period. Many of the urban residents who had supported earlier protests against the regime were stunned, and even suspicious, hanging back from supporting the new upsurges in the rural areas.

The Yellow Vests movement also has a particularly French resonance, sometimes with nationalist overtones. Recall though, that this is a country whose modern republican system was founded through one of history’s great social revolutions, that of 1789. That revolution paved the way for both a modern democratic system that allows labor and socialist groups to organize and also a new form of class society, capitalism, with all its exploitation and oppression. Recall also that that “republican” heritage — especially the tricolor flag and the “Marseillaise” national anthem — has at least since the Russian revolution of 1917 been used more by the center and the right than the left, which has carried the red flag and sung the “Internationale.”  In addition, the left has — for good reason — eschewed for the most part the language of “the people” in favor of that of the “working class” or “popular classes.” Thus, it was a bit jarring for the French left to witness protests against the rich and against deteriorating economic conditions accompanied by the singing of the “Marseillaise,” the waving of the tricolor, and references to the French “people,” especially when those same protests called for revolution and sometimes even the guillotine. Often, the modern left has also tended to regard locally based anti-tax movements with suspicion.

But as historian Gérard Noiriel informs us, local resistance to the state by peasants and other popular classes had a long tradition in the centuries preceding 1789.  In many cases that resistance took the form of opposition to royal taxes: “Struggles against taxation have played an extremely important role in a French popular history,” i.e., the struggles of the pre-revolutionary French popular classes, for example, peasants and artisans. For many years, this was subsumed under labor and socialist movements that supported a stronger state and that channeled class anger in a reformist direction (“Gilets jaunes et les ‘leçons de l’histoire,” in Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre; see also Richard Greeman, “Self-Organized Yellow Vest Protest Movement Exposes Inequality and Hollowness of French Regime,” New Politics Online 12-3-18).

Rather than jump to conclusions, these are issues to consider and debate, given the changed world of neoliberal capitalism and, more recently, burgeoning rightwing populism and neofascism in the U.S., France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere.

Today, when Marxist and socialist discourse no longer dominates French intellectual life or plays major part in public discourse, and has even less influence outside the urban centers, is it surprising that a social movement of the 2010s has adopted (and adapted) the narratives that citizens receive in the public schools, which still cover the revolutionary origins of the republic.

That in no way makes the Yellow Vests a reactionary movement, as can be seen by its social content and context. Instead, it is a movement that expresses a type of revolutionary anger and energy that could really shake up the country, while at the same time it, like many other social forces today, faces the danger of seduction by the far right.

One issue of concern to the Yellow Vest movement is that the problem is not ultimately Macron or even neoliberalism, but capitalism itself. This is a system that for some decades now has been unable to raise or even maintain the standard of living that the masses achieved, in part through their own labor and social struggles, in the years 1945-75. But in this regard, left spokespersons like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Unbowed (or Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK) offer no real solutions either, except the mirage of a return to Keynesian welfare capitalism.

If the Yellow Vests have achieved anything, it is to expose Macron as a last holdout of neoliberalism, of a type of “free market” liberalism that rejects nationalism à la Trump and believes strongly in the European Union.

Whether a truly revolutionary movement, based on solid theoretical ground, can arise in France or elsewhere remains the question.

But the Yellow Vests have at least opened a breach, showing to themselves, the French people, and the world, that mass self-activity by working people is not only the most powerful weapon we have had historically, but that this weapon remains in stock, sharp as a knife, and ready to strike.  The question is, in what direction and toward what ends?

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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Socialists and the fight against racism-Review by Bill Mullen

Posted by admin On December - 3 - 2018 Comments Off on Socialists and the fight against racism-Review by Bill Mullen


Histories of American socialism and the fight against racism in the early twentieth century are laden with flimsy myths. On one account, the socialist movement was indifferent or silent, a lie buttressed by endlessly repeated citation of Eugene Debs’ claim that “We [the Socialist Party] have nothing special to offer the Negro.” On another account, the left hurled itself uncritically and unilaterally into support of the Comintern’s “Black Belt Thesis” advocating for the secession of African-Americans in the US South as an oppressed national minority. These polarized, caricatured assertions prop up a wider liberal consensus hardened by American anti-communist drift that Karl Marx himself—and Marxism more generally—are Eurocentrically tone deaf to the centrality of race and racism in the formation of capitalism. This school of misrepresentation reached its apotheosis in Cedric Robinson’s influential 1983 book Black Marxism. As Paul Heideman notes in his Introduction, Robinson asserted that Marx “consigned race, gender, culture, and history to the dustbin.” This, in turn, gave birth to a neologism meant to replace Marx and historical materialism itself: racial capitalism.

Heideman’s well-curated and annotated anthology of writings by US socialists dispels each of these myths. It is the single best anthology on the topic yet published, providing a wide-ranging, nuanced, critical, and, importantly, interracial representation of writings on race by the US left. It serves four particular uses for historians and activists. First, it restores the central influence of Marx’s own writings on slavery, colonialism and race on twentieth century US socialists. Second, it clearly and judiciously diagrams competing arguments and debates among early twentieth century US socialists about how to understand and combat racism. Third, it recovers a number of figures, texts, journals, and newspapers where these debates occurred, restoring a fuller portrait of socialism’s dynamism at its apex of influence on popular US consciousness. Fourth, it acknowledges analytical weakness, residual racism, and failure in political practice as constant accompaniments to socialist organizing. This is a reflexive approach to our own socialist movement, and thus a more usable tool for our time.

Heideman’s book is structured into five sections. “The Socialist Party,” part one, includes the full text of Debs’s 1902 speech “The Negro in the Class Struggle” from which his “nothing special” line is taken. The speech, important to read in entirety, shows that Debs’s criticism of racism was unequivocal, and that the greatest weakness of his Socialist Party was an inability to develop a clear strategy for organizing the working class across racial lines.

A. M. Simons follows Debs. He was an early member of the Socialist Labor Party and editor of the International Socialist Review—for a time the preeminent socialist journal in the United States—wherein his essay “The Negro Problem” was first published. The essay is significant for locating slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as cauldrons of unresolved US racial divisions in the working class, and as such shows the influence of Marx’s own writings. Heideman includes a key text by W. E. B. Du Bois—a member of the Socialist Party for one year—signaling his own ambivalence about socialist vacillation on interracial organizing—and two essays by Hubert Harrison driven by frustration with the Socialist Party’s compromises, especially in the South, where only Debs refused to speak to segregated audiences.

Heideman’s selections allow the reader to leave section one for section two on the Industrial Workers of the World with a clear understanding of why the latter felt it necessary to make interracial radicalism a cornerstone of the Wobbly movement. The IWW won two major victories organizing interracial unions: in the South (timber workers) and in Philadelphia where Ben Fletcher, a Black Wobbly, helped organize marine transport workers. In 1923, his essay “The Negro and Organized Labor” blasted the AFL and railroad brotherhoods for excluding Black workers. IWW leaders also reached out to Chinese and Japanese workers despite declaring, “To the I.W.W. there is not a race problem. There is only a class problem.” The IWW’s commitment to on-the-ground interracial organizing bested the Socialist Party during the World War I era.

The Wobblies also earned the support of Socialist Party members Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph when they launched the journal The Messenger in Harlem in 1917. Significantly, The Messenger also attracted writers from the Garvey movement, like W. A. Domingo. As much as any early twentieth century left journal, The Messenger represented African-American socialists in theoretical engagement with a broad menu of vital issues: not just racism but Bolshevism, World War I, labor organizing, strikes, and communist internationalism. Contradictions and weaknesses in The Messenger’s articulation of socialism are evident in its 1919 editorial “The Right and Left Wing Interpreted,” which simultaneously calls for interracial working-class revolution and a larger Black police force to keep down rioting. Owen and Randolph’s ardent support for Bolshevism morphed into a conservative drift as the Russian Revolution sputtered in the 1920s.

Heideman devotes an entire section of the book to The Crusader, a newspaper founded in 1918 by Caribbean immigrant Cyril Briggs. The weight assigned to what Heideman calls”project of one man” foregrounds the paper’s role as a bridge between Black nationalism and socialism after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Brigg’s secret companion society to the paper, the African Blood Brotherhood, attracted radicals like Claude McKay seeking to produce within socialist politics an analysis of radical Black nationalism, anti-colonialism, and imperialism. Significantly, McKay would join the Communist Party and travel to Moscow to testify on the conditions of Black Americans, giving momentum to Bolshevik support for Black self-determination. Essays here like the African Blood Brotherhood’s “Program” for Black liberation published in 1921 are key primary sources for understanding how US and West Indian revolutionaries shaped left internationalism after 1917.

The book’s final section, “The Communist Party,” has several strengths: it features the key documents produced by the Communist International on Black liberation—the Theses of the Second and Third Cominterns (the “Black Belt Thesis”); it carries entries by most of the leading theorists on Black liberation in the CP orbit—Robert Minor, Jay Lovestone, Lovett FortWhiteman, William Z. Foster; and it recuperates lesser known nuggets, like John Reed’s 1920 essay, “The Negro Question in America.” Heideman’s head notes, proficient throughout, are especially useful in this section, tracking the onerous effects of Stalinism on both shifts in the CP line, and more tragic effects like Fort-Whiteman’s incarceration and death in a Soviet prison camp. Where could Heideman’s volume be stronger? The book has only two female contributors—Kate Richards O’Hare and Jeannette Pearl. This limitation reflects the sexism of this period, which generated male dominance in the “theoretical” milieu of the early twentieth-century left, but the book might have added journalistic pieces by Grace Campbell, who joined the Socialist Party and Communist Party and helped co-found the African Blood Brotherhood, or Fanny Austin, who wrote on day workers, or Bell Lamb, who wrote on Black women in industry. The decision to end the book at 1930 also bespeaks the need—well established by this volume—for a sequel that includes the World War II period and the “popular front.”

That said, Heideman’s volume demands a place on every radical’s bookshelf. The text is as useful for political reading groups as for the classroom. It is an indispensable weapon for all of us in the fight against capitalism and racism.

Fair Use Notice
This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas – originality or continuity?-By Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On December - 2 - 2018 Comments Off on Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas – originality or continuity?-By Paul Le Blanc


December 2, 2018 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Although I consider myself a Trotskyist (just as I consider myself a Leninist and a Marxist), there is something that has gotten me into trouble with some friends who also identify as Trotskyists.[1]

Early in my short biography Leon Trotsky, I said: “A key dimension of Trotsky’s reputation is as a brilliantly innovative theorist.” That was okay – it was what came next that was the problem: “In looking at the ideas Trotsky put forward in his theoretical writings … I will be inclined to emphasize the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought, especially in relation to the much-vaunted theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, his prescriptions for defeating Hitler, and the much misunderstood Transitional Program.  All these are drawn from Marx and from revolutionary Marxists of Trotsky’s own time, including the best of Second International Marxism in the period leading up to 1914, as well as the collective project of the early Third International.”[2] I want to focus, here, on the substance of what Trotsky had to say on such things as permanent revolution and Stalinism and so on.  But first I want to take a little time unpacking this originality thing.

I think it is very unhelpful to turn Leon Trotsky into some kind of ideological icon, with a special set of theories presented under the banner of “Trotskyism,” for the purpose of elevating him (and those of us who worship the icon) above the rest of humanity – or at least above everyone else on the Left.  It can also lead to the fashioning of ideological measuring rods, with which we can beat those among us who seem to deviate from the Master’s Doctrine.  I think it is especially unhelpful to have a competing set of labels: there go some Marxists, here comes a Leninist, and that one over there is a Trotskyist, then there’s a Luxemburgist, here’s a Gramscian, and so on.  Trotsky (and Marx and Lenin and Luxemburg and Gramsci) didn’t see things that way. Trotsky considered himself a revolutionary socialist, which was the same for him as a communist – although he did believe that the whole set of Marx’s ideas and way of approaching things was so impressive and valuable, that he was happy to call himself a Marxist.  This is also true of such people as Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci – and in my book From Marx to Gramsci, I seek to demonstrate that these three revolutionaries, along with Trotsky and Marx and Engels, are best understood as being close enough in methodological approach and practical political orientation to be grouped together.[3]

Trotsky had an advantage over the others, due to the banal fact that he was able to live longer, enabling him to apply Marxist analysis to the most horrific tyrannies of the twentieth century – Stalinism and fascism (particularly fascism’s most virulent form, Nazism).[4]  We’ll return to that shortly – but first, let’s consider how Trotsky was inclined to define the term Marxist – especially in relation to the term Leninist.

One of the places Trotsky explored this was in the voluminous notes for his unfinished biography of Stalin.  He noted, “Marxism is in itself a historical product and should be accepted as such.  This historical Marxism includes within itself three basic elements: materialist dialectics, historical materialism, and a theoretical critique of capitalist economy.”  He went on to assert: “Leninism is Marxism in action, that is, theory made flesh and blood.”  It’s not that Marx was a theorist instead of an activist – he was active in the Communist League of the late 1840s and the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) of the 1860s and early 1870s.  But, according to Trotsky, “Lenin’s work differs enormously from the work of Marx and his old comrades just as much as Lenin’s epoch differs from that of Marx.  Marx, the revolutionist, lived and died as the theoretical teacher of young parties of the proletariat and as a precursor of its future decisive struggles.  Lenin led the proletariat to the conquest of power, secured victory by means of his leadership, led the first workers state in the history of humanity,” through the Russian Revolution, at the same time working for the global triumph of working-class rule, especially through the Communist International.[5]

Of course, just as Marx was lucky to have what Trotsky calls “old comrades” who made essential contributions to what he thought and was able to do, so it was with Lenin – his achievements were necessarily part of a collective endeavor. His comrades were especially concentrated in a centralized organizational network within the Russian revolutionary movement, a network known as the Bolsheviks.  Their revolutionary Marxist perspectives reflected the lessons and insights of accumulated experience, to which Lenin gave voice, and these, in turn, were a decisive influence within the early Communist International.[6]

Unfortunately, the forces in and around the Communist International were not successful in extending revolutionary working-class victories to other countries. The working-class regime of Soviet Russia was not only isolated in a hostile capitalist world, but it was severely damaged by a brutal civil war, and devastated by multiple tidal-waves of economic crises.

Within the new Soviet Republic, this generated authoritarian habits and inclinations within the apparatus of the Communist Party and Soviet state.  A self-interested bureaucracy crystallized that claimed to represent the old revolutionary commitments but, in fact, was going in a very different direction.   As Trotsky explained in his 1937 testimony to the Dewey Commission, at this point (back in the early 1920s) the bureaucracy initiated a campaign in which “all the old formulae of Bolshevism were named ‘Trotskyist.’  That was the trick.  What was the genuine thing in Bolshevism is opposed to every privilege, to the oppression of the majority by the minority.”  Stalinists now denounced this as “the program of Trotskyism.”[7]

Trotsky’s distinctiveness is that, unlike many, he sought to remain true to the original revolutionary perspectives.  In a sense he became original simply through applying old principles – as consistently and creatively as he could – to new realities. This brings us back to Marxism.

Marxism fuses a view of history, an engagement with current realities, and a strategic orientation for replacing capitalism with socialism.  The dominant interpretation of history shared by Marxists of the early twentieth century went something like this: since the rise of class societies (with small, powerful upper classes of exploiters enriched by vast laboring majorities) there have been a succession of historical stages characterized by different forms of economy – ancient slave civilizations giving way to feudalism, which has given way to present-day capitalism.

The growth of capitalism was facilitated by democratic revolutions that swept away rule by kings and the power of landed nobles, making way for increasingly democratic republics and capitalist economies.  The victory of the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) paves the way for the triumph of industrialization and modernization.  This creates economic productivity and abundance making possible a socialist future (a thoroughly democratic society of freedom and plenty, in which there will be no upper class and no lower class).  Capitalism also creates a working-class (or proletarian) majority that potentially has an interest in, and the power required for, bringing into being a socialist future.

Many Marxists consequently believed that there must first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution, followed by industrialization and modernization, before the necessary preconditions for a proletarian-socialist revolution can be created.  There seemed a crying need for such a bourgeois-democratic revolution in economically “backward” Russia of the early 1900s.  It was a land oppressed by the Tsarist autocracy and landed nobility (to which capitalists were subordinated as junior partners), with a small working class and a large impoverished peasantry.  Many Marxists concluded they should fight for the triumph of such a bourgeois-democratic revolution, so that capitalist development could eventually create the economic and political preconditions for a working-class revolution that would eventually bring about socialism.

For some Russian Marxists (the Mensheviks, influenced by “the father of Russian Marxism,” George Plekhanov), this meant building a worker-capitalist alliance to overthrow Tsarism.  Lenin and his Bolsheviks – profoundly skeptical of the revolutionary potential of Russia’s capitalists – called instead for a radical worker-peasant alliance that would carry the anti-Tsarist struggle to victory.  But even they did not question the “orthodox” schema: first, a distinct bourgeois-democratic revolution paving the way for capitalist development; later – once conditions were ripe – a working-class revolution to bring about socialism.[8]

Yet from a Marxist point of view, this schema provides a theoretical and political puzzle.  If the working class is as essential to the democratic revolution as the Mensheviks claimed, and if their direct exploiters are the capitalists with whom they are engaged in class struggle, then how can these mortal enemies be expected to link arms as comrades in a common struggle? And if – as Lenin insisted – the workers must, in fact, turn their backs on the capitalists (in alliance with the peasantry) to overthrow Tsarism, what sense would it make for them in the moment of victory to turn power over to their cowardly exploiters?

“Trotsky alone [was able] to cut the gordian knot of the Marxism of the Second International,” my friend Michael Löwy has argued, “and to grasp the revolutionary possibilities that lay beyond the dogmatic construction of the democratic Russian revolution which was the unquestioned problematic of all other Marxist formulations.”  Yet scholars Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, in their massive documentary volume Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, have provided a sharp and persuasive challenge to this. “Leon Trotsky, while certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution, was by no means its sole author,” is how they sum it up.  Among the others are Karl Kautsky, Alexander Helphand (who used the pen-name Parvus), Rosa Luxemburg, David Riazanov, Franz Mehring – and, one could add, Lenin, with his formulation “uninterrupted revolution.”  The phrase “permanent revolution,” and essential elements of the theory, can be found in works of Marx and Engels – especially in their writings of 1850.  With specific reference to Russia, the conceptualization crops up in their writings of the 1870s and 1880s – for example, in the 1882 introduction to the Communist Manifesto.[9]

Trotsky himself insisted that his “permanent revolution” conception overlapped with perspectives of other Marxists.  Some have characterized this as an effort to “minimize the originality of his conception” in order to “play down the supposedly ‘heretical’ nature of the theory of permanent revolution.”[10]  In fact, it seems Trotsky’s comments were grounded less in political expediency than intellectual honesty.  Far from being the unique innovation of Leon Trotsky, it is a perspective that flows naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself.  “Trotsky is deeply committed to one element in classical Marxism,” as Isaac Deutscher has observed, “its quintessential element: permanent revolution.”[11]  Revolutionary-minded theorists and activists – seeking to apply such Marxism to the world around them – will naturally come up with formulations going in a “permanent revolution” direction.

Yet it was Trotsky’s sparkling prose that most clearly and boldly formulated the interrelated elements of permanent revolution.  Trotsky’s formulation linked the struggle for democracy – the end of feudal privileges (especially redistribution of land to the peasants), freedom of expression, equal rights for all, rule by the people – with the struggle for socialism, a society in which the great majority of people would control the economic resources of society, to allow for the full and free development of all.  It also linked the struggle for revolution in Russia with the cause of socialist revolution throughout the world.

Trotsky’s version of the theory contained three basic points.  One: The revolutionary struggle for democracy in Russia could only be won under the leadership of the working class with support from the peasant majority.  Two: This democratic revolution would begin a transitional period in Russia in which all political, social, cultural and economic relations would continue to be in flux, leading in the direction of socialism.  Three: This transition would be part of, and would help to advance, and must also be furthered by an international revolutionary process.

One might go further, beyond countries like Russia: permanent revolution has application in the capitalist heartland, not simply in the less developed periphery.  Struggles for genuine democracy, struggles to end militarism and imperialist wars, struggles to defend the environment from the devastation generated by capitalism, struggles simply to preserve the quality of life for a majority of the people, cannot be secured without the working class coming to power and overturning capitalism.  This means our own struggles in the here-and-now also have a “permanent revolution” dynamic.  Nor can socialist victory be secured without the spread of such revolutions to other lands. Trotsky insisted on (in his words) “the permanent character of revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.” He added:
The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. . . . The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.[12]
But, again, this is plain Marxism, not some innovative theoretical twist of Trotsky’s.  And he never claimed otherwise.

After Lenin’s death, the rising bureaucratic apparatus headed by Stalin in the Communist Party and Soviet state instinctively gravitated toward a variant of “Marxism” that snapped all threads connecting the essential elements of Trotsky’s formulation of permanent revolution: connections between democracy, socialism, and internationalism. Stalin advanced the notion that this so-called “socialism” (burdened by scarcity and authoritarianism, problems that would eventually fade away if all comrades did what they were told) could be created in the Soviet Union itself, within a capitalist-dominated world.[13]  Therefore Communist parties in other countries (required to follow the Stalinist line) were expected to struggle for democracy and social reforms, but not socialist revolution, making alliances with “progressive capitalists” and creating regimes to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union.  This approach was interrupted briefly, from 1929 to 1934, by a so-called “left turn” (which we will examine shortly).

As Tom Twiss documents in his fine study Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy, Trotsky’s early efforts to analyze Stalinism contained some serious misjudgments.[14]  Still, early on he got much of it right.  Describing in 1932 the typical functionary of the Soviet bureaucracy, “who manipulates the general line [of the Party] like a fireman his hose,” Trotsky was merciless: “He eats and guzzles and procreates and grows himself a respectable potbelly.  He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticizing himself, and sees in all this the gist of the general line.”   A few million such bureaucrats constituted the governing apparatus, he added, and a majority of them “never participated in the class struggle, which is bound up with sacrifices, self-denials, and dangers. … They are backed by the state power.  It assures them their livelihood and raises them considerably above the surrounding masses.”

Using the analogy of the bureaucratization of the top layers in trade unions and working-class political parties, raising themselves above the working class they claim to represent, Trotsky argued that “the ruling and uncontrolled position of the Soviet bureaucracy is conducive to a psychology which in many ways is directly contradictory to the psychology of a proletarian revolutionist.  Its own aims and combinations in domestic as well as international politics are placed by the bureaucracy above the tasks of the revolutionary education of the masses and have no connection with the tasks of international revolution.”  His analysis is summed up with a single conceptually packed sentence:  “ On the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in a backward country, surrounded by capitalism – for the first time a powerful bureaucratic apparatus has been created from among the upper layers of the workers, that is raised above the masses, that lays down the law to them, that has at its disposal colossal resources, that is bound together by an inner mutual responsibility, and that intrudes into the policies of a workers’ government its own interests, methods, and regulations.”[15]

Far from portraying Stalinism as the product of an evil genius, Trotsky sees it as related to the more general development of a bureaucratic-conservative dynamic naturally deriving from historical circumstances, conditioned by specific economic realities.  This involves an analytical methodology quite recognizable to those familiar with the approach of Karl Marx.

Nazism, and fascism in general, are similarly analyzed by Trotsky through the employment of basic Marxist categories (and dovetailing with other Marxist analyses – for example, those of Antonio Gramsci in Italy and of Rosa Luxemburg’s close comrade Clara Zetkin in Germany).[16] Before exploring Trotsky’s analysis of fascism, we should note another aspect of Stalinism – its ultra-left turn of 1929-1934.

By the early 1930s, the urgency of stopping Hitler and the Nazi movement from taking power in Germany was absolutely clear to Trotsky.  But such urgency was something that the mainstream of the Communist movement proved incapable of grasping.  The reason can be found in the political disorientation generated by Stalinism.

Stalin’s dictatorship resulted from the failure of socialist revolution to spread beyond the confines of what had been the huge and backward Russian Empire, contradicting Bolshevism’s original revolutionary-internationalist expectations.  The resulting authoritarian bureaucracy, which dominated not only Soviet Russia but the entire Communist International, adhered to a shallow pragmatism characteristic of such regimes.  When a global economic depression began to devastate the capitalist world in 1929, such shallow pragmatism allowed revolutionary hopes to balloon among the bureaucrats, but these were expressed in a mechanistic and bureaucratic form.

A theory of three “periods” was advanced by the Stalinists: the first period (1917-22) had been one of revolutionary upheaval, revolutionary flow; the second period (1922-29) had been one of revolutionary ebb and capitalist re-stabilization; and the new third period, opening with the Great Depression, would usher in capitalist collapse and revolutionary triumph.  The future belonged to the world Communist movement headed by Comrade Stalin.  The greatest threat to revolutionary victory was posed not by fascists and Nazis – they were seen as foolish demagogues who would prove helpless in the face of history’s revolutionary tidal wave.  The real threat consisted of left-wing working-class currents that were not part of the Stalinist mainstream in the Communist movement.  Such elements (whether moderate socialists or revolutionary socialists) threatened to mislead the workers, drawing them away from the true revolutionary leadership of Comrade Stalin.  This meant they were, ultimately and objectively, twins of the fascists – instead of socialists, they should be considered “social-fascists.”[17]

Street fighting between German Communists and Nazis became a daily routine in the early 1930s, but an alliance against the Nazis with the massive German Social-Democratic Party – the so-called “social-fascists” – was unthinkable. And if Hitler’s Nazis took power, in the view of Stalin’s followers, the masses would soon turn against them, leading to Communist triumph: “After Hitler – our turn!”  This outlook harmonized well with the fierce and brutalizing rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization policies in the Soviet Union associated with Stalin’s murderous “revolution from above” of 1928-34.[18]

For Trotsky, the rise of Nazism could be explained by several convergent developments.  Nazism’s growing mass base came largely from what he viewed as “petty bourgeois” layers – farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants, white-collar employees, all of whom definitely did not want to be “proletarianized” and were becoming increasingly desperate for an alternative to the grim status quo and the deepening economic crisis.  They, and some “backward” layers of the working class, were for various reasons alienated from the “Marxism” associated with both the massive German Communist Party and the even more massive Social-Democratic Party, both of which were rooted in majority sectors of the country’s working class.  Petty bourgeois and alienated working-class elements flocked to a plebeian movement steeped in the ideological witch’s brew of super-patriotic nationalism and racism prevalent in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany. Fierce anti-Semitism was blended with vague anti-capitalist rhetoric.  Yet the Nazis drew much material support from substantial elements within the upper classes (aristocrats, financiers, industrialists) who detested Social Democrats and trade unions and who genuinely feared the possibility, particularly with the Great Depression, of the sort of Communist revolution that had triumphed in Russia a dozen years before.  The mass political movement the Nazis were building provided a counter-weight and ultimately a battering ram to smash the Marxist threat.

An essential ingredient in the growth of Nazi mass appeal was the earlier and ongoing failure of the major parties of the working-class left to provide a revolutionary solution to the problems afflicting society – the Social-Democrats thanks to the reformist and opportunistic moderation of their own bureaucratic leaders; the Communists thanks initially to their woeful inexperience, later compounded by the sectarian blinders of “third period” Stalinism. Especially when left-wing organizations and parties prove ineffective, Trotsky argued, petty bourgeois layers will be vulnerable to fascist appeals, drawing the more conservative layers of the working class along with them – which is exactly what was happening in regard to the Nazi movement, as masses of Germans were attracted by Hitler’s sweeping authoritarian certainties.

Trotsky called for a united front of Social-Democrats and Communists (including, as well, the dissident fractions of each), drawing on a conceptualization which the early Communist International had been won to – by Lenin, Trotsky himself, and others:  the notion that a working class divided between reformists and revolutionaries could still defend and advance its interests through a fighting unity. A united front must be formed, and within this context the revolutionaries, as the most effective fighters, could ultimately win the adherence of a working-class majority. This dynamic played out in Russia in 1917, when the reactionary General Kornilov was defeated by united working-class action, in turn giving the Bolsheviks predominant influence in the working class.  “Should the Communist Party be compelled to apply the policy of the united front, this will almost certainly make it possible to beat off the fascist attack,” Trotsky argued.  “In its own turn, a serious victory over fascism will clear the road for the dictatorship of the proletariat” – that is, for the working class to take political power and initiate a transition to socialism.[19]

In addition to breaking the Nazi threat and bringing a socialist transition in Germany, such a revolutionary development would likely generate similar revolutionary upsurges and transitions elsewhere, and by ending the Soviet Union’s isolation, thereby also helping to overcome the influence of Stalinism there and in the world Communist movement.  In addition to pushing aside the twin tyrannies of Hitlerism and Stalinism, the question is naturally raised whether such developments might have prevented World War II.

Of course, history took a more tragic turn.  Once Hitler came to power, the Communist International ultimately zig-zagged in the opposite direction, and by 1935 was calling for what some perceived as a sort of Super United Front – called the People’s Front or Popular Front. Communists were now supposed to unite not only with moderate socialists, but also (and especially) with liberal capitalist politicians, for the purpose of creating liberal capitalist governments that would form an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany.  Comintern spokesman George Dimitrov explained: “The toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism.”  As historian E. H. Carr has noted, “Lenin’s ‘united front’ had been designed to hasten the advent of the proletarian revolution,” while “Dimitrov’s ‘popular front’ was designed to keep the proletarian revolution in abeyance in order to deal with the pressing emergency of Fascism,” adding: “care was taken not to ruffle the susceptibilities of those imperialist Powers whose support the Comintern was seeking to woo for the anti-Fascist front.”[20]

Time after time, over the eight decades since then, revolutionary socialists have found old-time Stalinists and moderate socialists alike aggressively pushing forward that same political line.  In arguing against that, Trotsky didn’t devise some new theory, but simply continued to apply the united front perspective guiding the Communist International under Lenin.

The insights and perspectives that Trotsky developed in his time still have resonance and value for our own time. Yet there is – in the conclusion of these remarks – a question of method that deserves attention.  It is related to Trotsky’s caution against devising a set of presumably “orthodox Trotskyist” or “orthodox revolutionary” tactics to be applied “from Paris to Honolulu,” as he put it.  In discussions with Trotsky and others in Mexico in 1938, a seasoned U.S. comrade (Charlie Curtiss) expressed a concern that Trotskyists from various countries, in his words, “have an extremely mechanical approach to the problems of permanent revolution.”  He urged that “emphasis should be placed upon the study of each concrete case, not upon abstractions only but upon each concrete case.”  Trotsky agreed, chiming in that “schematicism of the formula of permanent revolution can become and does become extremely dangerous to our movement in Latin America.”  In seeking to provide leadership in workers’ struggles, he emphasized, it made no sense to “pose an abstract socialist dictatorship to the real needs and desires of the masses.” Instead, revolutionaries must start from actual “daily struggles to oppose the national bourgeoisie on the basis of the workers’ needs,” through this approach “winning the leadership of the workers” via democratic mass struggles helping workers gain power.[21]

Related to this was Trotsky’s criticism of comrades who “substitute a [seemingly revolutionary] monologue for actual political work among the masses.”  He expressed the same concern in various ways, at another time warning against an inclination, as he put it, to “terrorize the workers by some abstract generalities and paralyze the will toward activity.”  It is important to listen to and learn from others, in order to be able to communicate revolutionary perspectives in a way that makes sense to people – or as Trotsky put it, revolutionary activists “should have in the first place a good ear, and only in the second place a good tongue.”[22]

This connects with what Trotsky is reaching for in the Transitional Program of 1938. “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution,” he wrote. “This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”[23] Involving increasing numbers of people in actual mass struggles, in the here-and-now, for goals that seem quite reasonable to them but which come into sharp collision with the capitalist status quo – this is what helps to generate revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary struggle.

“How to mobilize the greatest possible numbers; how to raise the level of consciousness through action; how to create the most effective alliance of forces for the inescapable confrontation with the ruling classes” – this was the problematic with which Trotsky wrestled in this foundational document of the Fourth International, the global network of Trotskyist organizations. More than six decades after the founding, Fourth Internationalist Daniel Bensaïd shared his own understanding: “The concept of transitional demands overcomes sterile antinomies [contradictions or contrapositions] between a reformist gradualism which believes in changing society without revolutionizing it, and a fetishism of the ‘glorious day’ which reduces revolution to its climactic moment, to the detriment of the patient work of organization and education.”[24]

Here again, such insights are hardly unique to Trotsky. They are certainly essential to his politics, but they have also been an integral element in the methodology of revolutionary Marxism over the past 160 years, and part of the collective wisdom of the international workers’ movement for even longer.  They can certainly be found in Lenin and in the first four congresses of the Communist International.  And they can be found in Rosa Luxemburg’s earlier admonition at the dawn of the twentieth century, that the uncompromising struggle for social reforms is the pathway for the working class in achieving the consciousness, the confidence, the organization and the experience for realizing the aim of the socialist revolution.[25]

The fact remains that, along with the other aspects of the revolutionary ideas of Leon Trotsky touched on in these remarks, such challenging conceptualizations can be useful for us as we seek, today and tomorrow, to build effective struggles for freedom and socialism.

[1]This article is based on a talk given on July 5, 2018 at a conference in Chicago called Socialism 2018, which can be listened to at https://wearemany.org/a/2018/07/revolutionary-ideas-of-leon-trotsky.

[2]Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky(London: Reaktion Books, 2015), pp. 13-14. Two expressions of the criticism can be found in generally friendly reviews by Jeff Mackler, “Leon Trotsky, Revolutionary Fighter,” Socialist Action, October 15, 2015, https://socialistaction.org/2015/10/15/leon-trotsky-revolutionary-fighter/, and by Michael Löwy, “A most intelligent and insightful presentation of Trotsky’s thought and historical action,” International Viewpoint, 3 May 2015, http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article4010.

[3]Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), the elaboration of the common ground and continuity being made in the book’s long introductory essay, pp. 3-145.

[4]A representative collection of Trotsky’s writings in this later period is offered in Kunal Chattopadhay and Paul LeBlanc, eds., Leon Trotsky, Writings in Exile(London: Pluto Press, 2012).  One could argue that Gramsci – who lived until April 27, 1937 – was also in a position to analyze both fascism and Stalinism.  But his ten-year imprisonment blocked Gramsci’s ability to grapple with the German variant of fascism, as well as with the nature and meaning of Stalinism. Despite important insights, his analyses of the latter were sometimes “evasive” and necessarily “limited,” as noted in Emanuele Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition(New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 54.

[5]Leon Trotsky, Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, ed. by Alan Woods and Robert Sewell (London: Wellred Books, 2016), pp. 723, 724, 733.

[6]This is demonstrated – massively and well – in the seven-volume work of John Riddell and his collaborators on the early years of the Communist International, five published by Pathfinder Press and two published by Haymarket Books. Also see additional writings on the Communist International by John Riddell, available at his internet site “Marxist Essays and Commentary” – https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/.

[7]The Case of Leon Trotsky, Report of Hearings on the Charges Made Against Him in the Moscow Trials(New York: Merit Publishers, 1968), p. 319.

[8]For Trotsky’s account, see “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” in Stalin, pp. 763-780.

[9]Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), p. 43. Documentation on common ground between Trotsky and others can be found in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, eds., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record(Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009), and in Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and “The Peripheries of Capitalism”(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).  On Lenin, see Löwy, pp. 34-36, and Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party: A Revolutionary Collective,” Links, Journal for Socialist Renewal, July 10, 2018, http://links.org.au/lenin-bolshevik-party-revolutionary-collective.

[10]Löwy, p. 40. Löwy’s interpretation is powerfully and capably re-emphasized in the first part of an article (co-authored by Paul Le Blanc, who was responsible for the second part of that article) entitled, “Lenin and Trotsky” in Norman Levine and Thomas Rockmore, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Leninist Philosophy(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

[11]Isaac Deutscher, Introduction,” The Age of Permanent Revolution, A Trotsky Reader (New York: Dell, 1964), p. 18.

[12]Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 279.

[13]For more on the nature of Stalinist theory, practice and sources, see Paul Le Blanc, Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism,” Crisis and Critique, Vol. 3, Issue 1, 29 March 2016, http://crisiscritique.org/ccmarch/blanc.pdf.

[14]Thomas M. Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).

[15]Leon Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat” (January 27, 1932), in Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against German Fascism, ed. by George Breitman and Merry Maisel (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p. 213.  The most complete and rounded analysis can be found in Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed(New York: Doubleday Doran, 1937, which is consistent with the excerpt quoted here.

[16]See analyses of fascism in Antonio Gramsci, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. by David Forgacs (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), pp. 135-185, and in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. by Mike Taber and John Riddell (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).

[17]It has been shown that Nikolai Bukharin, briefly Stalin’s ally, played a key role in this “third period” theorization, but Stalin and those closest to him utilized it in far more extreme and destructive ways – see Nicholas N. Kozlov and Eric D. Weitz,“Reflections on the Origins of the ‘Third Period’: Bukharin, the Comintern, and the Political Economy of Weimar Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 24, No. 3, July 1989); also Georg Jungclas, “The Tragedy of the German Proletariat,” in Ernest Mandel, ed., Fifty Years of World Revolution, 1917-1967, An International Symposium(New York: Merit Publishers, 1967); and Theodore Draper, “The Ghost of Social Fascism,” Commentary, February 1967, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-ghost-of-social-fascism/#16.

[18]E.H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926-1929, Volume Three-II (London: Macmillan Press, 1976), pp. 638-643; C.L.R. James, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, ed. by Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 306-348; Allan Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985), pp. 19-22, 71-72.

[19]Trotsky, “What Next?” in The Struggle against German Fascism, p. 254.

[20]Georgi Dimitroff, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War(New York: International Publishers, 1938), p. 110; E.H. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935(New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 419, 426.

[21]“Latin American Problems: A Transcript, November 4, 1938,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, Supplement 1934-40, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979), pp. 782, 783, 784.

[22]“The Social Composition of the Party,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 489, 490.  See also Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, Thomas Twiss. Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

[23]Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p. 75.

[24]Daniel Bensaïd, Strategies of Resistance and “Who Are the Trotskyists?”(London: Resistance Books, 2009), p. 23.

[25]Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution,” in Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott, eds., Socialism or Barbarism: the Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg(London: Pluto Press, 2010), p. 48.


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