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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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The Left and the Democratic Party :The Experience of Almost a Century-Dan La Botz

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on The Left and the Democratic Party :The Experience of Almost a Century-Dan La Botz


What can socialists today learn from the experience of the left in the past as it grappled with the issue of electoral politics? Over the last 50 years, American leftists have in general adopted two alternative strategies for dealing with the question of electoral politics. On the one hand, some attempted to build a movement to reform or even to take over the Democratic Party, while others chose instead to work toward an independent political party to the left of the Democrats. Each of these strategic approaches has encountered tremendous difficulties in making headway in the American political system. Today, with Donald J. Trump as president, with the Republicans controlling Congress and most state governments, and after Bernie Sanders’ remarkable campaign for president and the astonishing growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), debate over political strategies is more intense than it has been for decades. So we turn here to look at the first of these strategic approaches, the attempt to reform the Democratic Party, to influence it, or simply to use its ballot line.

The idea that the left should work to reform the Democratic Party in order to defend democratic rights and the standard of living and social benefits of the working class, as well as to prepare the ground for a struggle for socialism, actually has a long history that goes back to the 1930s. The Communist Party (CP), which had been founded in 1919 and been illegal and underground until 1921, finally emerged in the mid-1920s with a legal organization prepared to engage in political campaigns. Communist candidates in the 1920s received only a tiny number of votes in those elections.1 In 1922 and 1923, the CP attempted to take over the Farmer-Labor  Party movement, but ended up driving out other labor groups.2 With the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the beginning of the Great Depression, Communist strategy began to change.

The Communists ran William Z. Foster, one of the country’s leading labor union strategists and organizers, as their candidate for the presidency of the United States (his third campaign) in 1932. Foster strongly opposed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt that year and also opposed the first New Deal; following the ostensibly revolutionary line of the Communist International at that moment, American Communists warned that FDR could become a fascist.3 Their slogan was, “Fight for Socialism, or the Blue Eagle [symbol of the New Deal’s National Recovery Act] Will Wear a Brown Shirt.” But after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933, virtually unopposed because of the disastrously sectarian stance of the German Communist Party as well as the passivity of the German Social Democrats, Joseph Stalin, who had become the leader of the Soviet Union, changed the Communist International’s line. In 1935, the Communist International adopted the Popular Front strategy, arguing that the Communists should form a bloc with all other anti-fascist parties, including capitalist parties, to oppose fascism and to pressure their governments to strengthen their military forces and form alliances with the Soviet Union.

The Communist Party of America had some difficulty for a few years attempting to figure out what this new Popular Front policy meant for the United States, where neither a parliamentary system nor political coalitions existed, and where two capitalist parties, Republicans and Democrats, dominated. In the mid-1930s, the Communists once again worked with other leftists in an attempt to form a Farmer-Labor Party, but in 1936 they also ran Earl Browder as a Communist candidate for president and unofficially and tentatively began to support the Democratic Party.4 When a group of Socialist Party (SP) members broke away and created the American Labor Party to support Roosevelt, many Communists in New York State voted for Roosevelt on the ALP line.

Led by Browder, the Communists decided by 1937 that Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition was the “specific form of the Popular Front in the United States.”5 The Communists argued that their role in the Democratic Party was to strengthen the New Deal wing of the party against more conservative Democrats and to push for a foreign policy of “collective security” against the Axis powers. Then, when Stalin signed the Nonaggression Pact with Hitler in 1939, collective security was abandoned, and Roosevelt was suddenly denounced as a warmonger. After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, however, the Communists, principally to support the USSR, became fervent supporters not only of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party but also of the U.S. government and its war effort. Support for the war led the Communists to work to suppress workers’ strikes and to oppose  black civil rights protests or demands that might weaken support for the U.S. government, disrupt war production, or undermine the fight against the Axis powers.6

The Communists’ commitment to the Democrats in the late 1930s also made them opponents of building any party to the left. As Browder explained to the CP’s tenth convention, held in 1938, the Democratic Front was not fighting for a socialist program, but,

If we cannot have socialism now, and obviously we can’t until the people change their minds, then in our opinion, while the present capitalist system exists, it is a thousand times better to have a liberal and progressive New Deal, with our democratic rights, than to have a new Hoover, who would inevitably take our country onto the black and sorrowful road of fascism and war.7

This argument, calling for support for the Democratic Party as the lesser evil, together with the view that the Republican Party was ultimately the party of war and fascism, has been the CP’s fundamental position from the 1930s until today. And even when, in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, the Communists ran their own candidates for president and vice president, the party and its members often actually worked in the Democratic Party and supported its candidates. From the view that the Democrats were the lesser evil flowed the Communists’ opposition to the creation of a labor party or any other left party. In the later 1930s, the Communists opposed “launching artificial third parties, which can only split the people’s ranks.”8

The CP ran no candidate in 1944, unwilling to challenge Roosevelt even symbolically while he led the United States, which was allied with the Soviet Union during World War II. When, as the war was ending, Roosevelt died and the more conservative Harry Truman succeeded him, Congress began to turn to the right and the Cold War began. The Communists suddenly rediscovered independent political action. Particularly motivated by the change in the U.S. government’s hostility toward the Soviet Union, the Communists supported the presidential bid of Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture. Communists played a very large role in the new Progressive Party created to be the vehicle of Wallace’s campaign, which had a platform calling for national health insurance, an expanded social welfare system, nationalization of the energy industry, and, most important for the CP, a friendly posture toward the Soviet Union. The Communists became the principal organizers of Wallace’s campaign, though many of the party’s union leaders refused to go along, arguing that it would lead to greater division in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the end, Wallace won only 1,156,000 votes out of about 49 million votes cast, a demoralizing defeat for him and the CP.9

The Wallace campaign, however, represented an aberration; the Communists soon returned to support for the Democratic Party. The Communists’ consistent if sometimes critical support for the Democratic Party and its presidential and congressional candidates through all of the vicissitudes of the Democrats’ history meant that, even if it preferred progressives, it usually ended up in the general election backing the Democrats’ regular capitalist candidates, virtually all of whom were defenders of American militarism and imperialism abroad and of exploitation and racism at home.

The political efficacy of the Communists’ strategy, beyond the occasional election here or there of a more progressive congressional representative, mayor, or city councilperson—such as Vito Marcantonio10—is extremely difficult to measure, but certainly it has not been significant. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, the period of the McCarthyite persecution of the Communists—as well as of the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution and Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—the party, reduced in size and influence, had virtually no political impact. From 1968 to 1984 the CP once again ran its own presidential candidates, though as before the party simultaneously continued to support Democrats. Their support for Democrats had no impact on the rightward movement of the Democratic Party from the 1940s to today. Yet, the CP continues to have a strategy of working within the Democratic Party with the goal of pushing it to the left and strengthening the progressive forces within it.11

The Socialist Party and
Independent Politics

Let’s turn further back now to look at the experience of the Socialist Party of America. The SP actually had a long history of independent political action dating back to its early years. As the party’s most popular leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, said himself, “It is for me to say to the thinking workingman that he has no choice between these two capitalist parties, that they are both pledged to the same system and that whether the one or the other succeeds, he will still remain the wage-working slave he is today.”12

Debs was the SP’s presidential candidate in every election from 1900 to 1924. In 1912 he received over 900,000 votes, 6 percent of the total, a record never equaled again by himself or any other leftist candidate in a U.S. presidential election. Presbyterian minister and SP leader Norman Thomas picked up the mantel in 1928, but received only 267,000 votes that year. After the stock market crash and the Great Depression, in 1932 voters turned against Republican Herbert Hoover and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt by an overwhelming 22.8 to 15.7 million votes. Thomas’s vote total in that election reached 884,000, nearly as large as Debs’ vote in 1912, but with a much larger population and many more voters, it represented a far smaller percentage than Debs had achieved.

The SP declined throughout the 1930s, principally as a result of the attraction of Roosevelt and the New Deal, but to a lesser extent because of the loss of part of the organization—all of the California Socialist Party—to the Trotskyists who had entered the party and ran away with a significant piece of it.13 The SP’s “Old Guard” split away, and its most prominent labor leaders, Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky, and labor attorney Louis Walman created the American Labor Party in 1936. Their plan was to make support for Roosevelt palatable to socialists who didn’t want to vote for him on the “bourgeois” Democratic Party line.14 That year of Roosevelt’s greatest victory, Thomas received only 188,000 votes. As Thomas’s biographer writes, “The Socialist Party lay in ruins.”15

During the rest of the Norman Thomas era, the SP became ever smaller and weaker. Thomas’s vote declined to only 98,560 in 1940. Thomas did worse in 1944 and a little better in 1948 with about 160,000 votes, but by the mid-twentieth century, the SP seemed unlikely to break out of its marginal position. After the outbreak of the Cold War, Darlington Hoopes stood as the party’s candidate in 1952 but received only 20,000 votes, and the SP put forth no presidential candidate in the period from 1956 through the 1960s. With the SP out of the picture, the old Socialist Labor Party and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party ran candidates, but their candidates received a miniscule number of votes.

The Realignment Strategy

What then, after such a debacle, should be socialists’ political strategy? In 1958 Max Shachtman and a group of his comrades from the Independent Socialist League (ISL) entered the SP bringing with them a new political strategy.16 Shachtman, a former Trotskyist and leader of the ISL, soon became one of the dominant figures in the SP and offered the party a way out of the political doldrums in which it had been stalled for more than twenty years. His theory was that the SP could play a key role in transforming the Democratic Party into a progressive force for social change.

In the postwar period, Shachtman, a former revolutionary socialist, had begun to rethink his politics. He came to believe, for example, that the Labour Party government in Britain “had demonstrated the possibility of expropriating the bourgeoisie by parliamentary means.”17 He had begun moving toward the Democratic Party in the late 1940s and early 1950s.18 By 1961, Shachtman for the first time actually advocated that Socialists support a Democratic Party candidate, and soon he was suggesting that his followers work in the Democratic Party reform clubs, a message he carried into the civil rights movement as well just a few years later.19

Shachtman now developed a broad political strategy, which came to be called “realignment.” His realignment strategy was based on the idea that the SP could be the catalyst of an alliance between the labor unions and the civil rights movement within the Democratic Party. As part of that strategy, Bayard Rustin, a member of Shachtman’s organization, worked with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the March on Washington, which was supported by Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and the progressive labor leaders and their unions. In the mid-1960s, Shachtman’s strategy seemed to have legs.

Shachtman and his followers actively pursued this strategy while also modifying it. Initially oriented toward the progressive, formerly CIO unions, by the late 1960s he and his followers became supporters of the conservative union leader George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, as well as of the more moderate wing of the  black movement led by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. Most important, Shachtman and his group, breaking with the socialist tradition of opposition to imperialism, became supporters of the U.S. war in Vietnam.20 They did so not only because of their belief that Stalinist Communism (in the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist states) was a system more reactionary than capitalism, but also because of their affinity with the Johnson administration and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. In the 1972 presidential election, this view led Shachtman to first support candidate Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, a hawk. Then when Jackson was eliminated in the primaries, Shachtman rejected George McGovern’s anti-war campaign and backed the liberal Hubert Humphrey, who had the endorsement of the AFL-CIO.

Michael Harrington, a protégé of Shachtman and a supporter of his Democratic Party realignment strategy, had long been disturbed by his mentor’s rightward drift and finally broke with Shachtman in 1972 over the Vietnam War, calling for a negotiated peace—but not, like the anti-war movement, for immediate withdrawal. Harrington and his supporters opted to back the liberal anti-war candidate George McGovern for president. The split between Shachtman and Harrington effectively destroyed what remained of the old SP, and Harrington went off to form a new organization in 1973, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which later merged with the New American Movement to create DSA in 1982.21

Harrington, however, continued to believe leftists should be, as he often said, “the left wing of the possible,” which meant in practice the left wing of the Democratic Party. Harrington had become close to Democratic Party leaders in the 1960s as a result of his journalism. His book about poverty in the United States, The Other America (1962) was an enormous success and gave him personal entrée to the highest echelons of the Democratic Party. He came to work with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aides Sargent Shriver and Frank Mankiewicz and had opportunities to meet with Cabinet members. As Harrington wrote, “It was all very heady and exciting to be arguing with Cabinet officers and indirectly presenting memos to the president.”22 All of this led him to turn right. “By 1960 I had begun to understand how wrong I had been to accept the simple, revolutionary scenario of the young Marx. The change began when I first made real contact with workers and  blacks and realized, among other things, that the Reutherites were the genuine, and utterly sincere and militant, left wing of American society.”23

In his book Socialism, published in 1970, Harrington argued that under the impact of the labor upheaval of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party had been transformed into a social democratic party. Subsequently, during the postwar period, Harrington argued, the unions had built “a political apparatus which is a party in everything but name. … Then in the elections of 1968, special circumstances revealed the extent to which the unionists had become a political party in their own right.” And, he added, “As a result the unions were the decisive element in the Humphrey campaign in a way that had not been true in the Kennedy and Johnson races of 1960 and 1964.”24 Harrington recruited to his new group, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, not only many United Auto Workers officials, but also other labor leaders such as Jerry Wurf, head of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and William Winpisinger, top official of the International Association of Machinists.

Harrington’s central political realignment strategy remained fundamentally that of Shachtman, but now with a new twist: Socialists could be the catalyst that would fuse not only labor and the  black civil rights movement, but also anti-war liberals, and could make the Democratic Party a labor party capable of bringing socialism—by which Harrington now meant social democracy—to America. Economic and political developments, however, did not go as Harrington had foreseen.

The Democratic Party:
Crisis and Reaction

The Democratic Party that emerged from the New Deal era of the 1930s and existed until the early 1960s was, as it had always been, firmly under corporate domination. But it also included a congeries of interest groups: wealthy capitalists, professional politicians, leaders of the corrupt big-city machines, southern white racists, labor union officials, and northern  black leaders. The decisions about the party’s candidates and its platform were made in the famous “smoke-filled rooms,” where a handful of white men struggled to advance their groups’ interests. Though some states held party caucuses and a few others held primary elections—in the South they were “white primaries” that excluded  black voters—nevertheless, the choices of candidates and rulings on policy were made by a handful of power brokers and generally confirmed at the national convention by delegates who were professional politicians and loyalists.

The enormous social upheaval of the 1960s—the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, together with the ghetto rebellions that burned cities across the country as well as the emergence of the women’s movement—began to challenge the Democratic Party leadership as well as the old structures and policies. Before 1972, though  blacks represented 12 percent of the U.S. population, they had only about 2 percent of delegates at the Democratic Party’s National Conventions. In Mississippi, where  black people were routinely denied the right to vote, civil rights activists organized a rival state party convention in 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). They elected delegates and sent 64 representatives, led by  black activist Fannie Lou Hamer, to the Democratic Party National Convention. The Democratic Party Convention, however, refused to seat the MFDP delegates, so liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey and party leader Walter Mondale arranged a “compromise” to seat two MFDP delegates alongside the all-white regular delegation. The MFDP refused the insulting offer. This enormously increased the pressure on the Democratic Party. Lyndon Johnson’s support for the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s drove many southern whites out of the Democratic Party and attracted the newly enfranchised southern  black voters. They wanted a voice and vote in party decisions. And  blacks were not the only ones demanding greater representation; so too did the party’s anti-war activists and the newly organized feminists, as well as increasingly active young people.

In 1968, after incumbent Lyndon Johnson—facing tremendous opposition because of the Vietnam War—had withdrawn from the race, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party’s nomination, defeating peace candidate Eugene McCarthy despite the fact that Humphrey had not won a single primary in his own name. His victory at the convention took place as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police department beat and arrested left-wing protestors outside in what a U.S. government report called a “police riot.”25 The scandal of Humphrey’s nomination led the Democratic National Committee to create a special commission—the McGovern-Fraser Commission—to rewrite the rules of the party. The commission’s new party rules did three principal things. First, they reduced the role of state party officials as delegates to no more than 10 percent and restricted the number of political office holders. Second, they relaxed the rules for choosing delegates, eliminating literacy tests and residency requirements used particularly in the South to exclude  black voters. Third, they established criteria for affirmative action to insure the inclusion of racial minorities, of women, and of young people proportional to the population. These rules were accompanied by an expansion of the political primary system to more states, 40 out of 50 (the others using party caucuses).26 These rules had a dramatic effect on the 1972 Democratic Party Convention, which was effectively taken over by the party’s left wing—with disastrous results for both the party and the party’s left.

In 1972, at the peak of the anti-war movement, the liberals—using the new rules—succeeded in winning a majority of the delegates to the Democratic Party National Convention and chose the liberal, anti-war South Dakota Senator George McGovern as the party’s candidate. Faced with the insurgent rebellion, the party leadership, which remained deeply committed to the war in Vietnam and largely opposed to a greater role for  blacks, rebelled. The Solid South’s politicians and white voters accelerated their exit from the party, migrating en masse over the following years into the Republican Party. The big-city machines abandoned McGovern, who had betrayed them by throwing Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley out of the convention and replacing him with a delegation led by the  black leader Reverend Jesse Jackson. Under the leadership of George Meany, the AFL-CIO for the first time in its history did not endorse the Democratic Party candidate, taking an official position of neutrality in the contest between McGovern and Nixon—while Meany, who refused to meet with McGovern, went golfing with President Nixon and his Cabinet,27 thus making his preference clear.

The Black Political Convention of 1972 also failed to endorse McGovern. Utterly abandoned by the Democratic Party—with the exception of California and Washington, DC—McGovern went down to defeat, winning only 37.5 percent of the vote to Richard Nixon’s 60.7 percent, while the Electoral College vote was an astounding 520 for Nixon and 17 for McGovern, the 17 being the votes from the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. The lesson of 1972 was clear: If the Democratic Party’s left wing succeeds in taking control of the convention, the party organization and the unions will walk away, preferring to see a Republican victory than to yield control to a left-wing insurgency. Harrington’s realignment strategy had been given a practical test and had failed.

The result of the disastrous 1972 election was that in less than a year the Democratic Party repealed some of the McGovern-Fraser reforms and went on, over the next several years, to reinforce the power of the party’s central leadership. In 1981 the report of the Hunt Commission, chaired by North Carolina Governor James Hunt, led the Democratic Party to create the so-called “superdelegates,” and so by 1982, the party leadership was firmly back in control. The superdelegates were described in 2016 as “the embodiment of the institutional Democratic Party—everyone from former presidents, congressional leaders, and big-money fundraisers to mayors, labor leaders, and longtime local party functionaries. Nearly six-in-ten are men, close to two-thirds are white, and their average age (as best we could tell) is around 60.”28 The superdelegates, who were pledged to no particular candidate, made up almost 15 percent of the Democratic Party National Convention that year; there were 4,765 delegates of whom 714 were superdelegates. Democratic Party reform had been crushed. Was reform still possible at all?

Things had not developed as Harrington had projected. His plan did call for driving out the southern racists, but it did not work out as expected. Following Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, most of the Solid South’s white voters gradually left the Democratic Party, which in some areas became a party of the  black minority. Almost the entire region became Republican. At the same time, the Democratic and Republican parties both turned to television advertising, diminishing if not eliminating the significance of the big-city machines. As for the radicals and liberal activists, by 1975 the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement were both practically dead, and those forces largely evaporated.

The labor movement, on which Harrington put the entire weight of his strategy, had begun to come under attack in the late 1960s, a process that continued relentlessly and mercilessly into the 1980s and beyond. By the late 1970s, employers were closing plants and moving production to the South or overseas, demanding contract concessions, opening new non-union workplaces, and wherever possible eliminating unions altogether. The unions’ leaders, including those aligned with DSA, provided no vision, no strategy, and most important, no action to defend the working class.

The premises of realignment strategy had completely disappeared. Nevertheless, DSA continued to pursue its orientation to the Democratic Party, though without any real strategy or clear goals. Harrington’s biographer writes that in 1976, “Harrington was prepared to support virtually any candidate the Democrats nominated that year, except for [the Southern racist George] Wallace.” Harrington would work to influence the platform.29 During the period from the 1980s to the 2000s, DSA’s position on American elections differed little from that of the Communist Party. It worked to support liberals in the primaries, but then backed virtually any Democrat against the Republicans while the entire Democratic Party slid to the right.

The Inside-outside Strategy

The Maoists developed another strategy, or at least a variant of an old one. When in the early 1960s the Soviet Union and China fell out, Mao accusing Nikita Khrushchev and his successors of having followed the “capitalist road,” the world Communist movement also divided. The pro-Soviet Communist parties split, as the Maoist factions went off to found their own communist parties that flourished between 1960 and about 1980. Initially extremely sectarian and ultra-left, some Maoists became interested in electoral politics by the 1980s. As descendants of Stalinist Communism, even if some were critical of that experience, the Maoist groups—and there were many—tended, once they became interested in electoral politics, to pursue the old pro-Soviet Communist Party’s Popular Front approach of working in the Democratic Party.

The campaign of the  black Representative Harold Washington for the mayoralty of Chicago in 1982-1983 was a turning point for the Maoists. Washington—a longtime member of the Chicago machine, never a civil rights activist, an opponent of abortion rights, and not even a liberal—was running as a Democrat against both the Republicans and the racist Democratic Party political machine of which he had been a part.30 The Maoists rallied to his campaign as a struggle against racism, which it absolutely was, providing operatives and foot soldiers. After his hard-fought victory, Washington chose some of the Maoists to serve in the new city government.

So, with the Washington experience under their belt, in 1984 when Jesse Jackson ran for the presidential nomination in the Democratic Party on a progressive platform, the Maoist organizations quickly moved to support him. This was the old Communist Popular Front, but with a difference. Some of the Maoists also worked to build Jackson’s campaign organization, the Rainbow Coalition, as an independent organization or social movement.31 Jackson put forward a very progressive platform, and he and the Rainbow Coalition appeared at the sites of struggles against racism and at labor union picket lines around the country. That year he won 3.2 million votes, 18 percent of the total, carried two states, and sent 358 delegates to the convention—a quite significant showing, though some on the left viewed Jackson as a protest politician whose authority derived not from the  black working class, but from recognition by the business and political elites.32 Jackson and his supporters went on that year to back the Democratic candidates in the general election.

Jackson ran again in the 1988 primary campaign involving five candidates, which was won by Michael Dukakis with ten million votes (42 percent), while Jackson came in second with nearly seven million votes (29.4 percent). Jackson’s supporters on the left hoped that with such a spectacular showing he would run as an independent candidate, but he went to the Democratic Party Convention and made his famous speech, the heart of which was this passage:

Common ground. That’s the challenge of our party tonight—left wing, right wing.

Progress will not come through boundless liberalism nor static conservatism, but at the critical mass of mutual survival. It takes two wings to fly. Whether you’re a hawk or a dove, you’re just a bird living in the same environment, in the same world.33

Jackson had made it absolutely clear in this abject capitulation to the party’s establishment that he wanted his followers to remain in the Democratic Party, to back its candidate—the neoliberal Dukakis. A part of the left, among them many Maoists, had kept the Rainbow Coalition alive from 1984 to 1988, but when Jackson returned to the Democratic Party, the Rainbow disappeared, and shortly afterwards so too did most of the Maoist parties. Now much smaller, Maoist groups continued into the 2000s to support Democratic Party candidates while also building independent social movements outside the party, but without any general strategy for changing the Democratic Party itself.

In the 1984 Democratic primaries, DSA declined to support Walter Mondale and also failed to support Jesse Jackson, though many DSA members worked on the Jackson campaign. Only after Mondale won the nomination did DSA endorse him. In 1988, DSA endorsed and worked hard for Jackson in the primaries. The two Jackson campaigns briefly revived the old hopes of realignment among some DSA members, though by the 1990s the left’s influence had declined dramatically and the neoliberal Bill Clinton’s star was rising. At present, no left group appears to believe, or at least no group takes an official or public position, that it or some coalition it might lead could take over the Democratic Party.

In practice, by the 1990s, there was little difference between the strategies of Communists, Maoists, and DSA. All backed Democratic Party progressive candidates in the primaries and called for voting for the Democrat against the Republican in the general election. Those with better connections in the labor,  black, or women’s organizations attempted to influence the platform, for what that was worth. Most worked to build social movements outside of the party, though when Election Day arrived, they often attempted to turn those movements out to vote for Democrats. Yet, while most of the small American left was working to push the Democrats to the left, the party now led by Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council continued to move, apparently inexorably, to the right. Interestingly, in 2000 the DSA membership was torn between Democrat Al Gore and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and consequently failed to endorse anyone.

Socialist Candidates
in the Democratic Party

The Bernie Sanders Democratic presidential campaign of 2016 suddenly offered another possible model for the left. Sanders ran as a self-declared “democratic socialist” candidate in the Democratic Party. His campaign had an enormous impact on the country and especially on the broad left, leading thousands to join DSA. Furious at the Democratic Party for its treatment of Sanders, frightened by Trump, and inspired by the Sanders campaign, some DSA activists now propose to run openly socialist candidates within the Democratic Party with the goal of building from these experiences a future independent socialist party. So far, DSA has endorsed only a few such candidates, so this strategy remains untested. And other DSA members have remained committed to the old strategy of supporting progressive Democrats.

What Are the Chances of
Changing the Democratic Party?

Some still believe the Democratic Party can be reformed, but socialist Kim Moody argues that “the Democratic Party appears even more impregnable” than it did in the past. It is ever more centralized, and, as he writes,

The party has become a well-funded, professionalized, multi-tiered hierarchy capable of intervening in elections at just about every level. It selects candidates, provides funding, furnishes endorsements, offers media relations, and supplies computer and digital campaign and get-out-the-vote services. In Congress and most state legislatures, its leaders impose a high level of party discipline, such that for the last two decades 90 percent of floor votes in both houses have been along strict party lines.34

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party’s precinct work was done by armies of labor union and community volunteers who staffed phone banks and went door-to-door campaigning and then getting out the vote. Today things are quite different. By the 1960s, radio and television ad campaigns had begun in many areas to carry the burden of campaigning. Today, “paid consultants, mass mailings, pollsters, computer experts, media gurus, and services from profit-making outfits specializing in campaign wizardry have replaced the old clubhouse (or reform club), union, or county foot soldiers.”35

With the growth of economic inequality, Democratic Party donors, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars, exert enormous influence on the three major committees that disperse their money: the Democratic Party National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Large corporations such as Microsoft, Pritzker, Time Warner, and Blackstone Group, and wealthy individual donors, contribute far more money to these committees than do the labor unions. Crowdfunding, managed by groups such as ActBlue, is supposed to have democratized political fundraising. But it becomes another source of money from business and the wealthy because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows corporations, labor unions, and individuals to give as much money as they wish to Super PACs, which can advocate for or against candidates. As Moody writes, “All of this adds up to a party that, even more than in the past, is both highly undemocratic and structurally tied to the business PACs and wealthy donors that fund their committees and preferred candidates.”36

As Moody suggests, few challenges to incumbent Democrats are successful: “Since World War II, only between 1 and 2 percent of congressional incumbents have lost a primary challenge, with the rate of incumbency hovering above 90 percent.” Bernie Sanders’ campaign confirmed the Democratic Party leadership’s commitment to the organization and opposition to challenges from the left. Moody points out that of 712 superdelegate votes, Sanders won only 44 and a half, just over 1 percent. Of the 232 Democrats in both houses of Congress, only ten endorsed Sanders, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, with 75 members, gave Sanders only one endorsement. Finally, “of the 3,170 Democratic Party state legislators, Sanders won the endorsement of just 91, less than 3 percent.”37

The Problem of the Democrats’ Influence on the Left

Beyond the issues raised by Moody about the virtual impossibility of having an impact on the Democratic Party, there is the question of the Democratic Party’s influence on those leftists who attempt to work in it. Given the Democratic Party’s organization, its fundraising capacity, its size, and its influence, it would be naïve to think that one could work in that party without being seriously affected by it. After all, when one enters an organization, one becomes subject to its rules, to one degree or another accepts its program, forms relationships with its leaders and members, becomes involved in its activities, and may become dependent upon its organizational and financial resources.

Consider the Democratic Party principle that all primary candidates are expected to endorse and work for the winner of the primary, who becomes the candidate in the general election. A progressive Democratic candidate opposing a regular Democrat with the usual problems—neoliberal politics, belief in austerity, support for militarism and imperialism—must now endorse and work for that same person. Of course, one can on principle refuse to do so, but that will certainly make that person an enemy of the party, which will in the future be on guard and take revenge. The party platform, almost surely full of fine phrases about equal opportunity and a better life for all, also often contains commitments to balanced budgets, a strong military, and defending America’s interests abroad. What does one do?

Take the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member whose victory in a Democratic Party congressional primary in New York in June 2018 stunned the country and thrilled DSA members. Just a few weeks later, she came out for all Democrats, which included Andrew Cuomo and all Democrats. The New York City DSA leadership criticized Ocasio-Cortez for her endorsement of Cuomo and other Democrats, writing, “We reject the illusion that the Democratic Party is, or will become, an institution serving the interests of the U.S. working class.”38 Nevertheless, the candidate that DSA had endorsed turned to support a devious and conservative Democratic Party governor.

Leftists thus sometimes find themselves backing candidates whose principles and programs they oppose, providing a left cover for the candidate while discrediting themselves.

There is another problem as well. As leftists in the Democratic Party form relationships, they will be exposed to the blandishments and perquisites of power, the easy availability of money, equipment, cars, and other resources, as well as further access to even more influential people with more to offer. The temptations are many, and while not all succumb, the Democratic Party can exert a powerful negative force on left groups and individuals.

Today the Democratic Party liberals are doing everything they can to keep the Resistance from becoming an independent movement. The Democratic Alliance, a foundation made up of liberal donors that wishes to move the Democratic Party to the left, is giving millions of dollars to groups such as Indivisible, which now has a staff of 40 and 6,000 volunteers. Billionaire George Soros is giving large donations to progressive groups such as the Center for Community Change, Color of Change, and Local Progress. The clear if unstated goal is to keep Resistance activists voting for liberal Democrats, rather than setting out in an independent direction.39

We have more than a hundred years of socialist electoral experience in the United States, and some 80 years of leftists attempting to influence or reform the Democratic Party. The history suggests that there is little if any chance of ever doing so. The history of the nineteenth century suggests that only a genuine national crisis, accompanied by a massive national movement—in that period a movement for the abolition of slavery—can lead to a realignment of the political parties. And the experience of the twentieth century suggests that only in periods of tremendous mass upheaval do we see even the beginnings of independent political action, a subject that we will turn to in a future article.



The Communists ran William Z. Foster and Benjamin Gitlow for president and vice president in 1924 and again in 1928; out of about 30 million votes cast in 1924, the Communists received 36,396, and in 1928 with about 36.5 million votes cast, the Communist candidates received 48,770 votes. (See the Encyclopedia Britannica accounts of the elections available online.)
Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (Random House, 1986 [1960]), 29-51.
In 1932, Foster won about 100,000 votes out of approximately 38 million votes cast. (See the Encyclopedia Britannica online for accounts of the elections with votes cast for each candidate.)
Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1957), 332. In the 1936 election, Browder won just over 80,000 votes out of 63 million votes cast.
Cited in Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 115.
Charlie Post, “The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History,” Against the Current, July-August, 1996.
Cited in Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (Basic Books, 1984), 210.
Cited in Howe and Coser, 332.
Howe and Coser, 470-78; James Barrett, William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 232-35. The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party candidate Farrell Dobbs got only 13,613 votes that same year.
Alan Schaffer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress (Syracuse University Press, 1966), 52. Earl Browder first insisted that the Communists back Marcantonio.
John Bachtell, “A radical third party? I agree!” People’s World, January 22, 2015. Despite the title, Bachtel, Chair of the Communist Party USA since 2014, argues for working politically through the Democratic Party.
Eugene V. Debs, “Outlook for Socialism in the United States,” International Socialist Review,September, 1900.
David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party: A History (The Macmillan Company, 1955), 253-54.
Robert J. Fitrakis, The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America and the Decline of the Socialist Party (Garland, 1993), 185.
S.A. Swanberg, Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist (Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1976), 206.
Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 1994), 262, 271-77.
Max Shachtman, “Aspects of the British Labor Government,” New International (17, January-February 1951), 12; Labor Action, July 23, 1951, cited in Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (Basic Books, 1987), 56.
Drucker, 242-43.
Drucker, 270-71.
Drucker, 288-89.
Maurice Isserman, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (Public Affairs, 2000), 256-302.
Michael Harrington, Fragments of the Century (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973), 175.
Harrington, Fragments, 178-79.
Michael Harrington, Socialism (Bantam Books, 1973), 306, 324-25.
The Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, summary here.
Judith A. Center, “1972 Democratic Convention Reforms and Party Democracy,” Political Science Quarterly (Vol. 89, No. 2, June 1974), 325-350.
Bruce Miroff, The Liberal’s Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2009), 184-89.
Drew Desilver, “Who Are the Democratic Superdelegates?” Pew Research Center.
Isserman, The Other American, 330.
Florence Hamlish Levinsohn, Harold Washington: A Political Biography (Chicago Review Press, 1983), passim. Hamlish Levisohn makes it clear that Washington was not only not a radical, he was not even very liberal. Gary Rivlin, Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race (Henry Holt and Company, 1992), passim.
Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso, 2002), 275-78.
Adolph L. Reed Jr., The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 123-26.
Jesse Jackson, Democratic Party National Convention Address, 1988.
Kim Moody, “From Realignment to Reinforcement,” Jacobin, January 26, 2017.
“NYC-DSA Statement on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Endorsement of Andrew Cuomo and ‘All Democratic Nominees,’” www.socialists.nyc/statements/ocasio-cuomo/.
Kenneth P. Vogel, “The ‘Resistance,’ Raising Big Money, Upends Liberal Politics,” New York Times, Oct. 7, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/07/us/politics/democrats-resistance-fundraising.html.
Posted Electoral Politics, Left Politics, United States
About Author
DAN LA BOTZ is a co-editor of New Politics. This article is based on a chapter in his book Le nouveau populisme Americain: Résistances et alternatives à Trump (Paris: Syllepse, 2018).
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The state of the Palestinian struggle :25 years since Oslo—Toufic Haddad interviewed by Phil Gasper

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on The state of the Palestinian struggle :25 years since Oslo—Toufic Haddad interviewed by Phil Gasper


Last year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. ISR editorial board member Phil Gasper spoke to Toufic Haddad about what has happened since then and the current state of the Palestinian struggle. Haddad is the author of Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I. B. Tauris), released in paperback in 2018.
It’s twenty-five years since the Declaration of Principles (DOP) was signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Looking back now, this agreement, [which was the first of several reached between the two sides, and which are commonly referred to as the “Oslo Accords”] is totally in tatters from the point of view of the Palestinians and the aspiration to set up any kind of independent Palestinian state. Can you give us some of the history of where Oslo came from, how things have developed in the last twenty-five years, and how we got to the situation today?

There’s a lot to address in that question but I will start by debunking the impression that surrounded—and continues to surround—the accords, and that propagates the notion that they represented a bona fide peace agreement between the Israeli government and the PLO. Not only does the track record of what happened belie this, but twenty-five years on we have a lot more evidence indicating that what was happening was anything but a form of historical reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinian people that was intended to lead towards peace or Palestinian statehood. On the contrary, a “peace process” mythology was deliberately cultivated to obfuscate clear shortcomings of the accords themselves, the context in which they were reached and implemented, and the ends toward which these agreements were employed. Analysis of these dimensions ultimately discloses far more problematic—in fact, sinister—agendas, not only of Israel and the US, but the entire Western bloc of states that politically and financially backed, and continue to back, the “peace process.”

One would expect, at the very minimum, that a bona fide peace process would work to at least nominally address and amend the historical sources of conflict between the parties, ending the atrocious human rights situation the Palestinian people have lived in since 1948 within historical Palestine and beyond, with the majority of the population displaced from their land and homes, and those within Palestine existing under conditions of military occupation and hardship since 1948, denied the right to self-determination, etc. But the DOP does not even mention the word “occupation” let alone indicate that a Palestinian state is to be its end game. These suspicious elisions should be read in parallel with the failure to adequately address political critiques of the accords themselves, which were voiced most eloquently at the time by prominent Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. In fact, whole strata of Palestinian intellectuals and elites from most political factions, including some within Fatah, were against the accords, and understood very well that they were taking place within a context of gross power asymmetry. It was also well known that the PLO was politically and financially cornered at the time. The movement’s main international allies —the Eastern bloc and the nonaligned movement—had collapsed by the time of their signing, which was the height of a unipolar world under US hegemony. In this regard, the Oslo process was very much a move on behalf of US imperialism to consolidate an arrangement in its favor, to take advantage of the historical opportunities that had arisen, especially after the 1990-91 Gulf War, when the main Arab funders of the PLO stopped supporting the movement, blaming it for having sided with Iraq—a characterization that wasn’t entirely accurate but one the Arab states used to rid themselves of the Palestinian issue, which they had long sought to do.

If you read the biographies of the main negotiators, it’s very clear that the PLO was also financially bankrupt. Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei), for example, who was a negotiator and in charge of the PLO’s finances, recounts in his biography that the organization had less than two months’ funding before it was penniless at the time Oslo was signed. The PLO had already cut 70 percent of its budget for its “state in exile,” and was teetering on the verge of collapse. This financial pressure would also come on the backdrop of a larger historical decline of the movement whereby the PLO had transitioned from a more emancipatory political agenda in its earlier days, towards a “pragmatic” alignment within the “international consensus” by the late 1980s, including accepting the two-state solution and UN resolutions—even though institutions like the UN were gravely implicated in the creation of the Palestinian problem to begin with. So, this sort of rightward shift in Palestinian politics starting in the early 1970s reaches its apex around the time of Oslo, where the PLO was desperate for options that could ensure the movement’s survival. Here, the non-democratic practices that had been institutionalized in the PLO over the years of the movement’s rightward shift, would severely impair Palestinian strategic positioning, insofar as the survival of the personage of Arafat and the rule of the Fatah party over the PLO was equated with the survival of the  movement overall.

Keep in mind that in the early 1990s, the US, through the Madrid Process and the Washington Process, had a formal peace process going, but still considered the PLO a “terrorist entity” that was not recognized by Israel or the US. Independent Palestinian representation in negotiations was thus denied, and still only formally took place through Jordan, which had its own designs on Palestine. Knowing that the PLO was cornered financially and politically—not just from the West, but now from its backers—the US and Israel “put the squeeze on”. Acting through Norwegian diplomacy, the US allowed for the creation of a back door “escape” path for Arafat, through the Oslo channel, where the surrender on important political positions could take place away from public scrutiny or democratic oversight. Through this back channel, the PLO would de facto concede on two significant positions that continue to haunt the movement today. First, it accepted the concept of self-rule in the occupied territories without a full end to the Israeli occupation or guarantees that this was the final outcome of the process. This functionally meant that it was the groundwork for eventually creating an autonomy scenario, with no assurances that the process would lead to statehood or sovereignty. It’s important to underscore here that this was a long-standing aim of the US and Israel, as their own solution to the Palestinian issue. Second, the PLO also accepted through Oslo an agreement that contained no solid guarantees that settlement construction or expansion would end. This too would prove catastrophic as it allowed Israel to build settlements while negotiations continued, changing the strategic map that supposedly was being negotiated.

Did the PLO raise this at all in the talks?

In the case of accepting the principle of autonomy, this was fundamental to the accords and could not be avoided. Either the Palestinians accepted it, or there would have been no accords. From the Palestinian perspective, acceptance of the principle of autonomy was interpreted as accepting a state that was only temporary, without considering if temporariness became permanence. As to the issue of settlements, the PLO believed its ability to obtain a clause within the accords that stressed the agreement of both sides to “not prejudice final status negotiations”—one of which was settlements—meant that they were protected from Israeli settler expansionism. But Israel simply claimed its settlement expansion was due to the “natural growth” of the settler population, because settlers have “large families,” and it was unreasonable to prevent it. Irrespective, while the PLO was aware to varying degrees of the dangers of the agreement and its loose wording that was reliant upon “good intention,” it certainly did not anticipate how Israel would interpret and implement the accords, nor Washington’s wholesale backing of this interpretation/implementation. Perhaps more importantly to stress, though, is the fact that the PLO had very little leverage to change the conditions on offer. The leadership’s very survival and return to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) from exile, was thus seen as the best the movement could achieve under the circumstances, and Oslo allowed for this. So they went with it.

This brief and general description of how some aspects of the accord came about sheds light on how the entire character of the negotiations between the parties resembled a situation whereby Israel was the party which actual held all power, and was internally deciding what it was conceding on and what not, rather than actually negotiating things with the Palestinians. In fact, there is a quote from Shimon Peres in 1994, who said when they were negotiating the economic accords that “we are negotiating with ourselves”—because the Palestinians had zero leverage to influence this internal Israeli debate.

Here we need to shed light on Israeli and US interests as well. We know the Palestinians wanted an end to occupation and their larger demands around national self-determination realized. But Israel and the US always ideologically and strategically rejected Palestinian national self-determination because it represents a strategic competitor to the Zionist narrative and project and was considered part of the “radical Arab national” camp tied to an anticolonial, anti-imperial agenda. Israel and the US were concerned instead with how best to manage the large Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel “governed” (through military occupation), and which had become increasingly rebellious during the First Intifada,1 and represented a long-term challenge to the principle of the “Jewish democratic state.” The historically dominant political faction in Israel (the Labour Party) that led the Oslo process thus had envisioned “autonomy” for Palestinians as the best way to manage their “Palestinian problem,” at least in the near term, and saw the Oslo process as an avenue for realizing this. Autonomy differed from sovereignty, as it retained Israeli power over the autonomous zones and created a scenario whereby Palestinian affairs could be managed indirectly through a leadership willing to administer autonomy. In other words, it was the logic of subcontracting and leveraging the autonomy leadership to address Israeli security, political, and economic goals, while allowing for Israel to continue its settlement impetus. This was to allow Israel to continue its long-standing policy of attempting to unite the conquests of 1948 with the conquests of 1967. Autonomy allowed for Israel to nominally get the Palestinians off the Israeli “books,” and if the Palestinians didn’t like it, they could simply leave, or might be encouraged to do so, through some means or another.

But it’s important to recognize here that there’s a contradiction in Israeli policy and even in American policy insofar as, on the one hand, Israel and the Americans want the Palestinians off the Israeli books and out of their direct control, financially, demographically, and security-wise, etc., but, on the other hand, they can’t entirely let go of the Palestinians, because doing so creates the basis for the nucleus of a national project and its organizing and strengthening. So US, Israel, and Western donor approaches to Palestine have constantly been structured by this tension of “separation and control.” This has had repercussions on the nature of the entity created through the accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA). It has meant that the PA has been shaped by contradictory forces. It is designed to provide a singular body to cater to Israeli subcontracted needs vis-à-vis the five hundred villages and cities of the West Bank, and the two million people in Gaza. But allowing this singular body to have too much power creates problems for Israel and the US, insofar as it can serve, in theory at least, as the basis of continued Palestinian national aspirations and organizing.

It should also be emphasized of course that the Oslo accords contained no guarantees that the whole process was to be run according to international law or UN resolutions, which were, and are, important cards the Palestinian movement holds, at least morally and legally. But not only was the process not being governed by these principles, but the accords themselves created no forms of independent arbitration within them. If any disagreements arose between the parties during negotiations, the only arbiter Palestinians could defer to was the US, or a committee that Israel also had to agree to. This created a self-referential system, where the Palestinians had no effective leverage to have somebody adjudicate differences independently, according to international legal norms. In this respect, the entire process reproduced all the power asymmetries of the situation on the ground around the negotiations table, and we see that in all aspects of the agreement that came about: in terms of security, economically, politically, etc.

On top of all this, was the mythology built around the Oslo process, which attempted to characterize the process as a bona fide peace process. This came in the form of the historic handshake on the White House lawn, and the provision of Nobel Peace Prizes to Peres, Rabin, and Arafat, which all aided in mystifying this process.2

The real benefit of this, from Israel’s perspective of course, was that Israel was able to pocket the concessions of the Palestinians from the get-go, while the Palestinians were forced to accept an arrangement whereby their national claims could, in theory, one day be addressed in “final status negotiations,” albeit without any guarantees that this would take place in accordance with their legal rights and historical claims. Among the key achievements Israel was able to pocket were: the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel, and all that meant in terms of “security”; Israel’s realization of an autonomy scenario through the creation of a Palestinian Authority with delimited self-governing powers, with no requirements to turn this into anything bigger; and, just as important, the ending of the international boycott of Israel, which at the time, was much more powerful than the BDS movement today. Consider for a moment that the PLO had more international recognition than Israel before the peace process. This effectively ended with the accords, allowing Israel to integrate into world capital with access to markets in India, China, and beyond. Israel thus pocketed all these important economic, political, and security achievements, and the Palestinians were left hanging on to a process that was toothless to realize their national liberation aspirations. In fact it was designed to abort it. The “separation and control” model that Israel was able to achieve through Oslo effectively laid the cornerstone of implementing apartheid, though the world characterized this as a step towards peace.

It’s also worth highlighting that once Israel pocketed its achievements through Oslo, it had an interest to freeze the process overall, lest it lead to pressure to address Palestinian claims, as the latter hoped. My research has shown that Israel instigated events that created a security pretext, allowing it to freeze the political process with the Palestinians and, moreover, to implement “closure” over Palestinian towns and cities. Closure was not the only answer to Israel’s security dilemmas, but also was a convenient way in which Israel could separate and control Palestinians behind a security pretext, while building settlements in areas from which Palestinians were prevented from now accessing thanks to the accords’ Orwellian division of the territorial map—dividing the OPT into Areas A, B, and C, H1, H2, etc. The Palestinian suicide bombings of the mid-1990s enabled Israel to say, “You know, Israel has to have its security, before it can have peace.” But the suicide campaigns were part of ongoing conflict dynamics on the ground, where far more Palestinians than Israelis were being killed daily during the 1990s. More significantly though, Israel dramatically escalated tensions in the middle of the peace process––assassinating top Palestinian political and grass-roots figures. Some of these assassinations were even against members of Fatah, and thus sent clear messages that Israel intended to do what it wanted on the ground irrespective of the accords and the nominal “peace” it was pursuing. When some Palestinian factions responded to these provocations and attacks, it allowed Israel to put the brakes on the peace process overall, beneath the guise of security, and with the Western states backing them in this freeze. This, of course, generated even more explosive conditions on the Palestinian side, because there were already large doubts amongst the factions and elites regarding the extent to which Oslo could work. Alternatively, Israel’s security pretexts led to scenarios whereby it now sought to negotiate new agreements to implement already existing agreements. The political return for Palestinians was getting less and less, while Israeli leverage over the Palestinians only increased institutionally, and was backed by the Western donor community who were now bankrolling the Palestinians leadership.

When things finally came to a head in the summer of 2000 at the Camp David summit, Arafat was effectively presented with a fait accompli by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US President Clinton, who pressured him to accept the parameters of a final solution that negated all of the main Palestinian demands—statehood, return, Jerusalem, the end of settlements, etc. When the Palestinian leadership rejected this, Israel and the US effectively reverted to their pre-Oslo approach to the Palestinians, boxing them in and smearing them as “not a partner to peace.”

Then, the Israeli government allowed one of Israel’s biggest war criminals—Ariel Sharon, architect of some of the worst massacres in Palestinian history—to enter the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, in yet another major provocation. It is this act—together with sending thousands of police the next day to the compound during Friday prayers, killing seven worshippers—that ignited the Second “Al Aqsa” Intifada. It is this context that allowed Israel to further entrench the system it created through Oslo, and eventually to get rid of the pretense of negotiating with the Palestinians at all.

Here it is worthwhile noting the cunningness of what took place when seen in a historical perspective: beneath the guise of a peace process Israel and the Western donor community, led by the US, facilitated Arafat to build the Palestinian Authority under extremely politically sensitive conditions for the Palestinians, based upon vague notions that it could lead to the achievement of Palestinian rights. In his weakness, Arafat accepted the role of going down this path, even though the principle of “self-governance under occupation” had been rejected by the PLO since the 1970s, and was seen as treasonous. The creation of the Palestinian Authority, however, was not designed to lead toward a Palestinian state, but toward its prevention and that of other Palestinian rights. Only Arafat had the ability to build the PA under these sensitive conditions, and he was to be exploited by donors and Israel toward that end. Arafat’s personal charisma and historical legitimacy supposedly insulated the process from being accused of conceding on Palestinian rights and being a collaborator government. However, once he rejected the political diktats of Camp David, he no longer was considered a “partner to peace,” but became an “accomplice to terror.” Moreover, Israel used the Second Intifada to pull out the guns, and basically eradicate any institutional, political, or military resistance to their aims—on the popular level, and within the PLO, as well as within the leadership, including ultimately Arafat himself.

This is where the World Bank and Western donors come in, because in the early period—1993 to 2000—the donors funneled billions of dollars into the Authority, some on-budget and some off-budget, so that Arafat could create the PA and “buy-in” from sufficient sectors of the population, and particularly local Fatah organs, into the Authority to be the governing party. He needed this money to carry out the controversial task of constructing an authority under such sensitive conditions. Once he became a political enemy of the Israelis however, donors stopped funding him, and the World Bank and the IMF came in and accused Arafat of corruption and lack of “good governance.” In truth, it was the donors themselves who actually facilitated the “corruption,” because it was they who facilitated off-budget accounting and “buy-ins.”

Arafat thus became politically expedient after his rejection of the Camp David diktats and after he constructed the PA, the main apparatus implementing autonomy. After that he was killed—first politically as “not a partner of peace,” then institutionally by the World Bank and IMF, who forced institutional reforms on the PA which marginalized him from the apparatus of the authority. While his final physical elimination is still shrouded in mystery, focusing on his actual death overlooks the significance of the elimination of Arafat historically, politically, and institutionally.3 Death through assassination simply ensured that this was permanent.

It is worth underscoring how the World Bank and IMF used neoliberal theories around good governance to push reforms of the PA from 2000 to 2004 that marginalized Arafat from the structure that only he could have created. These supposed reforms entailed the creation of the position of prime minister (which was then filled by Mahmoud Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen) and the redirection of all funds to an IMF-audited Ministry of Finance account, away from the powers of the President (Arafat). The World Bank and the IMF pressured Arafat to agree to all these “reforms,” which he did, believing they would ensure his political survival. In truth, they laid the grounds for his elimination, while clarifying the line of succession for who would follow him.

During my research I came across classified documents from 1993, just around when the Oslo process was taking place, which reveal that the US government used a kind of “game theory” to analyze who would be the winners and losers of the Oslo process under different potential scenarios. Here the US backed scenarios that, according to their own analysis in these documents, would lead to Israel and Jordan becoming the institutional winners of the Oslo process. This means that not only was peace, statehood, or justice never in the cards for the Palestinians, but that the US never really changed its position vis-à-vis the movement, and believed in scenarios that ultimately saw Israel and Jordan being the real mediators and governors of Palestinian claims, indirectly leveraged through the PA. These powers never cared for Palestinian nationalism, a Palestinian state, or a genuine independent Palestinian leadership. The process overall was not supposed to lead to statehood; it was supposed to allow Israel to continue to dominate the West Bank and Gaza, while facilitating the management of the “Palestine problem” through some form of Jordanian-Palestinian mix of powers locally on the ground. In practice, the accords have indeed led to Israel “winning” institutionally, while the role of Jordan has also become increasingly important. In fact, the Trump administration has begun to actively float the idea of reviving a Jordanian suzerainty over the Palestinians.

So, this whole process, with Arafat’s marginalization, accelerated the transformation of the Palestinian leadership, which came to play a different role. Maybe you can talk a little about that, as well as what it reveals about the class divisions in Palestinian society.

It’s important to emphasize that donors wanted the Fatah party to be the only viable political entity that could play the role of administering the self-governing areas within the Palestinian Authority-Oslo arrangement. Fatah was seen as a secular nationalist party, very much aligned with the regional order of “moderate Arab states.” Donors identified Arafat as politically controllable, because Fatah’s ideology did not believe in interference in internal Arab affairs and did not hold to larger ideological socialist, communist, or Islamist ideology. It was very much a pragmatic movement. So, Fatah was identified by both the Arab regional order and the West as the party to take charge. Oslo facilitated this Fatah domination of the Palestinian Authority structure. Moreover, Arafat always attempted to run the PLO within a neo-patrimonial logic—namely, with himself as the charismatic leader at the top, personifying everything within his person and his brilliance (or non-brilliance!) and avoiding the creation of institutions with democratic controls. This ensured his maneuverability on top. His methods of rule also crucially relied upon control over finance, with his personal signing of checks used to pay a layer of various Fatah elites who could control the show on the local level for him. Donor financing of Arafat allowed donors to get in on this game as well. Occupying the commanding financial heights over the PA donors essentially gave Arafat political and financial “rope” to construct the PA as a crucial apparatus necessary for managing Israel’s “Palestinian problem.” When these powers moved against him, taking away that rope, it was crucial to save the baby from the bath water. Eliminating Arafat however was necessary since his continued survival meant that he might radicalize, once he was boxed out.

Abu Mazen had his own political differences with Arafat, particularly because he believed Arafat was an opportunist. Indeed, that Arafat spoke out of both sides of his mouth. On one hand, he was not naive to Israeli and US intentions, and this is important to say, because part of his legacy is that people say Arafat was a collaborator and did all of these things for the Israelis. Fair enough: there was security coordination with Israel and he did agree to Oslo, etc. But on the other hand, when the Second Intifada happened, partly out of fear of losing the “streets,” Arafat did not attempt to crush the uprising in rivers of blood, as he was requested to do by Israel and the Western powers. Instead, he actually covertly allowed for a military dynamic to develop within parts of Fatah, with that task basically taken up by Marwan Barghouti, who at the time was Secretary General of Fatah in the West Bank. Although it was never Arafat’s intention to engage in an open military campaign, and it had more to do with him not wanting to lose the street, and looking to making tactical gains to improve the Palestinian strategic position in negotiations, it is important to acknowledge that Arafat was mercurial and not under anyone’s thumb, particularly. Ultimately, Israel launched a massive military campaign that went after the entire nationalist camp engaged in the Intifada and attempted to crush it, with moderate success. The reconstruction of the post-Arafat PA thereafter was to be much more strictly controlled by donors and Israel, with World Bank and IMF reforms facilitating that. But the point to emphasize is that Arafat tried to play both sides, attempting to survive on both the international stage and on the local stage, under impossible conditions.

Abu Mazen felt Arafat’s approach was flawed, and a strategic mistake. He didn’t feel that armed struggle had any enduring political relevance for the Palestinians after it had played its historical role during the movement’s early years. Instead, he felt that the movement needed to invest strategically in nonmilitary means, because, in his logic—and there is a basis to it—Israel would love to destroy the Palestinian movement and wipe it out. Military struggle, in the context of such gross power asymmetries and the war-on-terror logic that was prevalent at the time (and which preceded it as well), would give the basis for Israel to use its overwhelming power to crush the Palestinian movement. So, Mazen was strategically against militarism. This of course was popular with donors, plus he was no less a neo-patrimonial leader than Arafat. He too needed funds and could be allotted political and financial “rope” of his own to perform the task of administering the autonomy scenario. But his ability to take control and perform this task effectively in the context of the denouement of the Intifada was complicated.

The international community’s attempts to consolidate a new post-Arafat era by supporting elections in 2006 resulted in the massive victory of Hamas in the Legislative Council elections. This was a catastrophic failure for donors, who correctly understood it as a threat to the entire Oslo project. Their only way to deal with it was to back Israel’s moves to isolate and crush Hamas, preventing it from taking power. All the high-toned theory used to justify good governance, elections, and democracy so as to marginalize Arafat, was now thrown out of the window by the donors. They reverted to directly financing the presidency (under Abu Mazen’s control) rather than the institution of the prime minister (which they pushed to create) and the ministry of finance, because both were expected to be under Hamas control after elections. Let’s not forget that the CIA also got involved and tried to instigate a coup against Hamas, ultimately leading to the division of the West Bank and Gaza under different Palestinian leaderships. Donors then began to pour finance into the West Bank, while cutting off Gaza and backing Israel’s aggressive siege and military maneuvers there.

When we thus talk about the larger question of the transformation of political leadership of the Palestinian movement, what we essentially see is Fatah and Abu Mazen fighting for their political survival, and being kept afloat by donor aid and the cronyistic arrangements they were able to erect locally.  But because they are tied to the Oslo process and tied to its financial lines, Palestinians can see little return from backing it politically any more, if ever they did so in the first place. (Let’s recall, Oslo never had a local referendum, let alone a national one). This political bankruptcy led inevitably to the emergence of new political actors on the scene, attempting to fill the political and leadership vacuum. Hamas played this historical role, given its  headstart as the most viable political alternative to Fatah at the time, that already had an anti-Oslo agenda, that had independent financial lines, and that also developed a military potential during the Second Intifada. Moral and political legitimacy increasingly shifted towards Hamas, which filled the massive hole in Palestinian politics created by the failure of Fatah and its bet on the Oslo process to fulfill Palestinian rights, not to mention the weakness of Palestinian left forces, which is another discussion.

One should bear in mind that the Hamas/Fatah division is actually of great benefit for Israel, because it essentially lets it off the hook for engaging in negotiations. Moreover, Israel actually has different strategic interests in the West Bank and Gaza, and has historically approached each territory differently: the West Bank is much more important to Israel ideologically and strategically, while as far as Israel is concerned, Gaza can “sink into the sea,” as Rabin once said. The division, and Israeli and donor fostering of it, has important implications in turn for the Palestinian leadership, and particularly for Abu Mazen, because one of the main cards he has in his hands is that the PLO represents the “sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people.” Donors feared Abu Mazen’s weakness and lost political ground to Hamas, and hence ended up more than doubling the amount of aid they give to the PA, even though it was “half” the political territory (without Gaza). This pretty much explains the existing scenario, whereby donors maintain the buoyancy of Fatah and the PA in the West Bank, while Gaza is this territory that is to be contained and beaten, with the “lawn mowed” there every few years so as to prevent the contagion of this model spreading to the West Bank.

The heavy pumping of money into the West Bank entrenched a sclerotic Abbas/Fatah regime, with the expected class dimensions this entails. Moreover, because Fatah is the only power allowed to really operate there, and because the neo-patrimonial logic of Fatah rule is even worse under Abu Mazen, we witness the bloating and degeneration of Fatah. Functionally, governance of the West Bank became a fight between different branches of Fatah over which parts of the movement would enjoy the pie, given that no external party was really going to challenge them. In one village I went to, Fatah had splintered into six different clusters all vying for control over the local municipality. This speaks to the decadent political and financial culture that has been fostered in the West Bank under Abu Mazen and donor backing of him.

Initially under the peace process, there was this mythology that the donors would fund viable economic projects within the logic of a “Marshall Plan” (their words), and which could anchor and nourish political peacemaking. Of course, no Marshall Plan ever materialized. What happened instead was donor support for Fatah elites and its cronyistic system designed to ensure the movement’s survival and administration of autonomy. The only capitalist investment to take place was politically determined (namely filtered through Israeli and donor political and economic interests) and then further filtered by the neo-patrimonial interests of competing Fatah subordinates. Capital was directed toward the most speculative, lazy, and predatory endeavors, given that no “rational” capitalist would invest in a place like the OPT given its political uncertainty, and Israel would not allow any competitive industries to emerge, consistent with its longer historical efforts to “de-develop” the OPT.  This also explains why we see today the evolution of the Authority taking on more and more repressive qualities locally in its control of the West Bank, because it very much sees the West Bank as its last bastion. From the PLO-Fatah-Abu Mazen perspective, they used to control the diaspora and the whole PLO movement, but today don’t control Gaza, and see the West Bank as their last stronghold.

We’re basically at time, so perhaps you could wrap up on where things are going. The strength of the Palestinian movement has always depended on support from other parts of the Arab world, but the Arab uprisings have been pushed back and much of the Middle East is in chaos. So where does that leave the next steps for the Palestinian movement?

The Palestinian movement used to be the flagship movement of the Middle East and of the Arabs—supposedly—but since the Arab revolutionary process in 2010, it has been significantly marginalized, even in nominal terms. The onset of strong regional counterrevolutionary forces, together with the internal political divisions, have also led to an extreme deterioration of the situation. Certainly, Gaza is on the front end of this, in terms of the three military campaigns, getting clobbered in the siege, leading to explosive humanitarian conditions that are the worst in fifty years of occupation without question. So, this explains why Gaza is exploding right now, because there’s no political horizon and the situation on the ground is desperate. Gaza is a poisoned environment: it’s the world’s largest concentration camp, the water is not drinkable, 80 percent of the people are food dependent, and unemployment levels are the highest in the world. The West Bank, though marginally better off economically, is also a churning volcano that is equally unstable, but has no organized political actor to harness these dynamics. This is why the West Bank continues to witness upheavals that fail to gain traction and sustainability towards clear political ends. These efforts are aborted by Israel first, and Fatah second. These dynamics of course are exacerbated by the policies of the Trump administration, and the acceleration of Israeli settler colonial designs on the West Bank, empowered by the former.

The Palestinian movement overall is thus in a moment of genuine political crisis without a clear path forward. The Oslo “bet” failed, while the militarization of the Intifada also failed. Now we see political actors in Gaza experimenting with popular demonstrations and forms of nonviolent protest and struggle that try to reassert the Palestinian movement, and put it back on the political stage. While these struggles are inspirational, and show significant transformations in popular organizing, they have a long way to go, because the movement has so many external enemies and remains divided internally as well. Fatah, in particular, is resisting Hamas gaining political fruit from these actions and seeks to squeeze the movement financially by cutting finances of public sector employees it was still paying in Gaza, for the past decade. Israel and the donors aren’t making any major political concessions on the question of Gaza, either, and simply want to avoid a situation at this stage that spills over to Israel or the West Bank. The main thing we can say at this stage is that we see new shifts in the Palestinian movement to think outside the box of the preexisting structures, and to try and see what is possible by, in part, asserting a new kind of politics, while waiting to see what happens with the revolutionary dynamics in the Middle East.

At this stage, the region’s revolutionary processes are in retreat and are not in a position to support the Palestinians. I find it fascinating that Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh4 gives speeches now in front of political billboards that have Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela on them. This is because Hamas is forced to actively think outside the military model it had relied upon, to try and reassert the human dimension to the Palestinian cause. Here Hamas is not leading, but following the popular grass-roots efforts to rethink Palestinian national activity and its tactics and strategies, with dynamics in Gaza at the forefront.

A significant factor in the success of these efforts will be determined by the extent to which solidarity can be built around this activity internationally and particularly in the West. Here I believe a new periphery of allies can be won to the Palestinian cause, embedded in the new social movements emerging to challenge the Trump agenda and the broader right-wing populist swing we witness globally. It’s helpful to keep in mind that Palestinians are still on their land, still demanding their rights, and still demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice for it. Toward this end, they seek and need political allies that can help them in their effort to reorient their struggle to meet the challenges before them. Without this solidarity, it will be difficult to make significant gains and sustain the momentum of struggle, with its heavy losses. In this regard, building the BDS movement in the West, and educating a new periphery of political actors will be important. Part of doing this will entail making the connection between Israel as a reactionary, pro-US satellite in the Middle East and the role that Israel plays globally, and even in Western capitalism, in terms of the influence in the war on terror, on securitized politics, on domestic policing, etc. We see the Harvey Weinstein case, for instance, and the use of Black Cube, an Israeli consulting firm used by Weinstein to conduct investigations against women who made accusations against him. Cambridge Analytica was also using Black Cube and another Israeli consulting firm, all of which are run by ex-Israeli Mossad and Shin-Bet personnel. All of these technologies and techniques of repression, which are used in typical military engagement theaters, are now being applied in civilian matters to address the concerns of powerful capitalists in the US, together with local government and big government. They have been used against the Palestinians for years, but their migration to the West is bringing the war home, so to speak. Building a movement against this kind of politics will entail building a critique against this logic, in which Israel plays a large part. I think these are some of the important avenues where we can make connections, in addition to the very clear and direct fact that US tax dollars are being used to support Israel, to the tune of more than three billion dollars a year. Since 1948, Israel has received more than 250 billion dollars from Washington, which obviously could have been used toward much better ends domestically.

These are the connections we need to be making in an era characterized by the collapse of the political center, and economic stagnation post-2007. The world economic crisis has created potential to build new movements, and reeducate people, because the traditional structures, narratives, and political constellations that used to run the show are collapsing, delegitimized, and weak. It’s also clear that there is new movement happening at the base. The politics of Palestine needs to be part of these new movements and this new process of reeducation, if we really want to build an alternative to US capitalism, US imperialism in the Middle East, and to finally see an end to this bloodshed, which is to the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians and all the people of the Middle East. Right now, we have a system that’s just aligned around militarism, domination, and colonialism, which is veering domestically towards fascistic, or increasingly nationalistic kinds of politics. It is very scary. So, this is the political challenge before us. Palestine has a lot to offer those movements. It hasn’t left. It’s still there, and it continues to provide an inspiration to become engaged politically and struggle for what you believe. We need to take advantage of the new tools that exist to rebuild our movements, and make success possible. Palestine, and world survival, may depend on it.

Thanks to Adam Fendos for transcribing this interview.

An uprising by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories which began in December 1987.
Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were respectively the Israeli Foreign Minister and Prime Minister at the time of the Oslo negotiations. Together with Yasser Arafat they were awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
For the last two years of his life, Arafat was prevented from leaving his Ramallah compound by the Israeli army. In late 2004 he became seriously ill and was allowed to travel to Paris for medical treatment. He died there in November 2004. There has been persistent speculation that he may have been poisoned.
Haniyeh has been the political leader of Hamas since May 2017.
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In Defence of Bolshevism By Max Shachtman

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In Defence of Bolshevism
By Max Shachtman
Phoenix Press, 2018 · 311 pages · $15.00

–Review by Paul Le Blanc

This is an important work on Lenin and the Bolshevik tradition. While many have been profoundly impressed by the valuable work of Lars Lih in Rediscovering Lenin (2006), Max Shachtman was articulating and documenting many of the same points in the late 1930s, through the 1940s and 1950s, and into the early 1960s. His defense of Bolshevism was articulated over and over, with facts and citations buttressed with brilliant turns of phrase, sometimes with entertaining (even hilarious) flourishes—and often with challenging, inspiring, illuminating insights.

“The Russian revolution of 1917, which Lenin led, [was] a socialist revolution that established a genuine workers’ government,” Shachtman argued in a 1957 letter to Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas. and In the years leading up to that revolution Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were animated by the conviction that “socialism can and will be attained only by the fullest realization of democracy.” Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union had not “carried out the ideal and principles of the socialist revolution to a logical conclusion” but instead had “betrayed and destroyed it,” as he put it several years earlier, and “if we defend the Bolsheviks today, it is in the interest of historical objectivity but also because we remain loyal to the emancipating fight for socialism.”

Political background

The editor of this volume is Sean Matgamna, leader of a small British group associated with the publication Workers Liberty, whose perspectives are elaborated in a lengthy introduction. His group adheres to a theory that Shachtman developed upon breaking with Leon Trotsky in 1940, viewing the Soviet Union as a new form of class society, what Shachtman and his cothinkers called bureaucratic collectivism. The importance of this volume, however, transcends such matters, and has more to do with Shachtman’s earlier convictions—which remained within him as a powerful residue through his later years.

Shachtman began his political life in the Young People’s Socialist League, youth group of the Socialist Party of America, in the glory days of Eugene V. Debs. As with many Eastern European immigrant youth of the time, he was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and he became a leader of the Young Communist League in the early 1920s, going on to help James P. Cannon create the International Labor Defense (ILD). The ILD defended the rights of all working-class and left-wing activists of that time, most notably the immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Cannon concluded, in the late 1920s, that the perspectives of Leon Trotsky represented a genuine alternative to the bureaucratic and authoritarian degeneration of the Communist movement. Shachtman joined with him, and both, along with handfuls of others, were expelled from the US Communist Party. Shachtman began this phase of his political life as one of the central leaders of the revolutionary socialist current associated with Trotsky, with whom he collaborated closely throughout the 1930s.

Among Shachtman’s contributions during the volatile Depression years was his editorship of the theoretical journal New International; two of the articles in this volume date from that time. One is an incisively critical review of a memoir written by Angelica Balabanoff, who had played an important role in the early Communist International before joining the anti-Communist wing of the socialist movement. The other is a brilliant discussion of the relationship of two outstanding revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. The balance of the items in this volume is drawn from the period after Shachtman’s break with Trotsky, but deal mostly with matters around which he was in harmony with his former teacher.

Shachtman’s later political orientation evolved in a social-democratic direction, ending in a 1958 merger into the Socialist Party of America. He was a mentor to an important younger layer of US socialists, including Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin. Such protégés had a powerful impact on social struggles and political thought on the left in the 1960s. Shachtman never renounced his earlier pro-Bolshevik beliefs, but they were now refracted by a political evolution at odds with his earlier revolutionary standpoint. In Left Americana I recall:

When one heard Shachtman explain himself [as I did in 1968], one heard passionately revolutionary syllables forming stolidly reformist words. Uncompromising notions of class struggle became inseparable from a commitment to the far-from-radical officialdom of the AFL-CIO and to its place in the Democratic Party, and the defense of socialism from Stalinist betrayal added up to an alignment with the US government in the cause of Cold War anti-Communism—all with a Marxist flourish.

Despite this evolution, the analysis, scholarship, and insights in Shachtman’s pro-Bolshevik essays are worth engaging with. In illuminating what actually happened in history, Shachtman was being true to revolutionary cause—even while veering from it in his latter-day orientation.

Shachtman’s defense of Bolshevism

In contrast to Shachtman, the former Communist educator Bertram D. Wolfe—who became an increasingly conservative anti-Communist propagandist for the US State Department—devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to attacking and slandering the Bolshevik tradition. Shachtman’s critique of Wolfe’s influential work on Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the Bolshevik party,Three Who Made a Revolution, is presented in abridged form. Missing from the substantial fragment is the apt characterization of “Wolfe’s style . . . the polite mockery, the faint air of condescension, the misplaced irony, the elderly skepticism toward the Russian Revolution and its leaders which is so fashionable nowadays.” But we do find in this book reference to Wolfe’s “innuendo, clouded allusions, grunts, grimaces, pursed lips, winks and nods” and a pointed suggestion that Wolfe was “just a little … careless with his innuendos.”

Shachtman focuses attention on two sentences thrown out in passing—“Just in passing!” Shachtman thunders—containing “more insight than can be found in any two chapters of Wolfe’s book.” Here are the sentences:

Nineteen five and nineteen seventeen, the heroic years when the machine was unable to contain the flood of overflowing life, would bring Trotsky to the fore as the flaming tribune of the people, would show Lenin’s ability to rise above the confining structure of his dogmas, and would relegate Stalin, the machine-man, to the background. But no people can live forever at fever heat and when that day was over and Lenin was dead, the devoted machine-man’s day would come.

“Then why the title Three Who Made a Revolution?” asks Shachtman. “The facts presented by Wolfe show this to be a falsification and the above quotation confirms it. The title he gives his book is therefore utterly misleading.” He concludes: “It would of course be very awkward to load a book with a title like Two Who Made a Revolution and One Who Made a Counter-Revolution, but one merit it would have: it would be accurate.” Stalinists insist on a continuity of Lenin and Stalin to enhance the latter’s authority, and anti-Communists do it to discredit Lenin.

Confronting widespread accusations of Lenin’s intolerance, Shachtman observed: “Nine times out of ten, Lenin’s ‘intolerance’ consisted, for the opponents, in the fact that he refused to accept their point of view on a question.” Pushing hard against the notion that Lenin’s Bolshevik organization was authoritarian, he insisted that “the Bolshevik movement had, on the whole, more genuine democracy in its organization, more freedom of opinion and expression, a freer and healthier internal life, than at least nine-tenths of the other socialist or trade-union organizations of Europe,” and that “the hideous monolithism of Stalin’s regime was entirely unknown—it was not even dreamed of—among the Bolsheviks. Political tendencies were formed without let or hindrance, and if they dissolved it was not under compulsion of any kind. . . . Lenin’s collected works, which were composed largely of open ‘inner-party’ polemics and the files of a dozen different factional papers and pamphlets provide inundating evidence of this rich, free and open party life.”

Contested terrain

Most items in this volume emerged from the context of debates on the left. Pride of place is devoted to “Under the Banner of Marxism.” This is aimed at Ernest Erber, a prominent member of the Workers Party who in 1948 announced his withdrawal from revolutionary politics with a lengthy critique of Lenin’s theory of the state and of the Bolsheviks’ 1917 decision to take power. Shachtman employs bell, book, and candle—not to mention lightning and thunder, peppered with humor and passion—in defending both. Why did Leninism give way to Stalinism? Shachtman responds:

Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the critics of Bolshevism answer the question this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because they took power. Stalinism (the destruction of the Russian workers’ power) followed ineluctably from the seizure of power by the proletariat and Lenin’s refusal to surrender this power to the bourgeois democracy. Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the revolutionary Marxists answer the question in this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because the workers of other countries failed to take power.

Particularly fascinating is the substantial summary of a 1951 debate at the University of Chicago between Shachtman and Alexander Kerensky, exiled leader of the provisional government that Lenin and the Bolsheviks ousted in 1917. Kerensky, employing a quote from the anarchist Proudhon against Marx, claimed that “Communism is nothing more than inequality, subjugation, and slavery,” characterizing his 1917 struggle with the Bolsheviks as “not a fight between capitalism and socialism, but between freedom and slavery.” Kerensky concluded: “Stalin is the most able, most talented disciple of Lenin.” In contrast, Shachtman insisted:

The road out of the blind alley into which society is being driven more and more, lies in the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy receives its clarity, purpose and guarantee in the struggle for socialism; the struggle for socialism lies in the hands of the working class—the beast of burden, the despised of the earth—whose will to victory was forever underlined by their first great revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

This perspective—compromised in some of what Shachtman later did, but never repudiated by him—is essential to the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Here we can find not only Shachtman at his best, but also a diverse lot of others: Tony Cliff, C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Ernest Mandel, Hal Draper, James P. Cannon, Leon Trotsky, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, and many more.  Growing numbers of socialists, today and tomorrow, may find something of value in what this tradition has to offer.

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The legacy of Maoism in India-Review by Samantha Agarwal

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India After Naxalbari:
Unfinished History
By Bernard D’Mello
Monthly Review, 2018 · 384 pages · $27.00

The success of a counter-hegemonic challenge to Hindu authoritarian rule in India will require a critical assessment of the successes and failures of the nation’s left forces, including the Maoist movement. The release of Bernard D’Mello’s India After Naxalbari could not be better timed. D’Mello’s tour de force is both a history of modern India and its “rotten liberal democracy,” including the left’s challenge to it, and a fine-grained look at India’s Maoist movement. It combines a sharp historical account with critical analysis, along with some original theoretical insights.

The legacy of princely rule and colonialism following independence left the Indian countryside highly stratified along caste and class lines. D’Mello’s account begins with the post-World War II peasant uprisings that he views as the “precursors” to Maoism in India. In their short lifespan these struggles posed a significant challenge to the power of the former landlord class, along with overturning some of the most pernicious practices of the caste system (such as vetti, the caste-based system of bonded labor in Telangana). The Communist Party of India (CPI) played a leading role in some of these struggles, most notably those of Telangana (1946–51) and Tebhaga (1946–47).

While the armed uprisings of this period had already engendered significant internal divisions within the communist movement, it was not until the following decades that these contradictions became irreconcilable. While D’Mello does not go far into the history of the 1964 split, which resulted in the creation of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), we know that the dominant current in the party was in favor of a parliamentary path to power (“national democratic revolution”) through an alliance with the progressive sections of the Congress Party. By contrast, party dissidents eschewed the parliamentary path in favor of a “peoples’ democratic revolution” through mass work led by the workers and peasantry.

The radical rhetoric of the CPI-M was quickly put to the test—once again by the self-activity of the masses. In March 1967, in the village of Naxalbari (in West Bengal) a revolutionary Krishak Samiti (peasant organization) within the CPI-M undertook a political program to abolish landlordism, including the burning of land records, the looting of food grains, and the seizing of promissory notes and other legal records related to the debt peasants had incurred over the years. Armed with bows, arrows, and spears they formed defense squads and peasant committees, in which women played a prominent role, in several villages. The movement awakened Indian society to the “intolerable conditions of economic oppression and social humiliation” of the poor and landless peasantry (Banerjee).

Meanwhile, the CPI-M, which had for the first time assumed control of the West Bengal state government through a United Front coalition, quickly turned against the revolutionary movement and launched a counterinsurgency. The nascent struggle was no match for the repressive apparatus of the state. Seventeen people were killed, and hundreds more were arrested. The leaders of the Naxalbari uprising and many of its supporters were summarily expelled from the party.

Undeterred, the party rebels went on to form the CPI-ML in 1969 under the leadership of Charu Mazumdar. What was to follow were a series of “Naxalbaris” from roughly 1969 to 1975, which, as D’Mello points out, were fairly heterogenous, including in their level of adherence to the “annihilation of class enemies” line. Perhaps the most controversial of these political eruptions was that of Kolkata 1970–71, where party leaders incited urban youth to destroy all symbols of bourgeois education, including monuments and statues of nationalist writers and poets, and relocate to the countryside to join the class war.

It is in his discussion of the CPI-ML (People’s War), formed in 1980 in the state of Andhra Pradesh as an outgrowth of CPI-ML, that D’Mello provides the clearest exegesis of the theoretical and strategic considerations of the early Maoist movement. The People’s War group, following the ideas of the Chinese Revolution—as formulated by Lin Biao in his 1965 pamphlet—believed that revolution could only be won through a “protracted peoples’ war” (PPW). The PPW would begin with a “new Democratic stage led by the workers in a worker-peasant alliance and could only transition to socialism after taking power at the national level.” This would tactically be built through the formation of revolutionary bases in the countryside from which they “can go forward to final victory.”

As it played out, Maoist praxis looked very different from its theory—and in the first phase of the movement it faced staggering defeat. D’Mello provides a laundry list of reasons for defeat including the “neglect of long, hard and patient underground work that should have preceded the launch of armed struggle,” the neglect of military requirements, the failure to pursue the “mass line” or to build organization among the urban proletariat, and the lack of a democratic process in the movement. But D’Mello seems to understand these outcomes as the result of a failure to adhere closely enough to the principles of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than an inherent contradiction in the strategy itself—a major weakness in D’Mello’s analysis, to which I will return.

During the second “phase” of the Naxalite movement (roughly 1977–2003), D’Mello suggests that the “mass struggle” line—missing from the first period—gained greater purchase. As the Emergency was lifted in 1977, mass organizations affiliated with various offshoots of the Indian Maoist movement including CPI-ML (PW) in AP and CPI-ML (Liberation) and CPI-ML (Peoples Unity) in Bihar began to thrive. Notably, SIKASA, whose base consisted of workers and peasants around the coalfields of Singareni in Northern Telangana, organized not just on issues of the workplace, but also on those of the “hearth” (against-slum demolition) and “bread.” Similarly, MKSSS, part of the CPI-ML (PU), organized Dalit landless laborers against caste-based exploitation, mostly in the Jehanabad subdivision of Gaya District.

Yet the promising mass-based activity of this period quickly degenerated as state reaction and repression intensified. According to D’Mello the “mass organizations were, in effect . . .  driven underground.” Importantly, during the mass activity phase, underground activities—namely the building of a guerilla base in the border areas of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa continued apace. The tactical retreat to these guerilla areas beginning in the 1990s intensified during the “third phase,” taking us up to the present moment. After the 2003 merger of the two largest Maoist outfits (CPI-PW and MCC) under the umbrella of CPI-Maoist, the movement was characterized by episodic guerilla attacks and raids met with heavy state violence. D’Mello displays impressive knowledge of this period of state repression—which has afflicted not only the Maoists and their supporters, but also many more civilians who are unaffiliated with the Maoists—undoubtedly in part thanks to his longstanding participation in India’s civil liberties and democratic rights movements.

Does D’Mello draw the correct conclusions from the history of the Maoist movement? In part, yes. On the question of strategy, he rightly criticizes the Maoists’ overemphasis on armed struggle to the neglect of mass work. But D’Mello does not go far enough in dealing with the difficult question of armed struggle. Although he does not state it clearly in his final chapter “Reimagining New Democracy,” one can gather that the author is of the view that the armed struggle must continue alongside the development of democratic activity. Herein lies his weakness: building up strong, democratic mass movements in any modern society—where the state has an indisputable monopoly of violence—necessitates open political activity. This is particularly true of India where the state has for many years been acting with complete impunity against its “greatest internal security threat”—the Maoists—and mowing down anyone who comes in its way. The embrace of violence prior to the construction of a mass base has foreclosed in many parts of India the possibility of mass-based revolutionary activity. And, as argued by Kunal Chattopadhyay in his excellent article “The Path of Naxalbari” (2010), it paves the way for what Trotsky called “substitutionism”—where the party substitutes itself for the self-activity of the masses.

D’Mello’s other main critique of the Maoists is also accurate. The Maoists completely failed to build up the “workers” part of its peasant-worker unity—in other words, it has no meaningful base among workers in the urban core. Yet, D’Mello could have gone further and considered how this might be accomplished in the future. He recognizes that the Indian labor movement is plagued by the “peculiar differentiation” of the Indian working class along lines of status (regular/casual), caste, religion, ethnic origins, and gender, and also by the ever-expanding reserve army of labor. But how might the Maoists go about bringing together these heterogeneous sections of the Indian proletariat that often display contradictory interests? Clearly this would be a central part of climbing out of the current impasse.

Finally, while the author correctly argues that the future of the Maoist movement must pay more attention to gender, caste, nationality, and religion, he curiously avoids historicizing the Naxalites’ failure to systematically take up these “special oppressions.” Here, one would have to turn to the work of others, such as Krishna Bandyopadhyay (former member of CPI-ML) who contends that the party never took a stand on gender liberation, nor did it develop an adequate mechanism to deal with gender oppression within the party. Rather it peddled the line—common to almost every left party in India— that “women will automatically become free when society is liberated.” Likewise, Sujatha Gidla’s recent book, Ants Among Elephants, illustrates how the Maoists prevented local Dalit leaderships from taking up the mantle of caste annihilation, and how both casteism and sexism were deeply engrained in the internal culture and norms of the party. Grappling with these past blunders is an essential part of building a new and vibrant left.

These omissions aside, India After Naxalbari is required reading not only for those with an interest in Maoism, but also for anyone invested in building a counterforce against India’s neoliberal order and the growing menace of Hindu authoritarianism.
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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.

1968 and the troubled birth of the Turkish left-Carol Williams

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The 1960s and 1970s were years of the most intense class struggle in modern Turkish history.1 It was a period bookended by two military coups. The first, in 1960, opened up a liberal period in which socialist ideas flourished and working class organisation grew. But politically unstable governments were unable to contain the forces it unleashed. After the warning shot of the 1971 “soft” coup failed to rein them in, the 1980 coup slammed firmly shut the space to organise. The following three years of military rule largely destroyed the left and re-stabilised the system, establishing a less tolerant political atmosphere for the imposition of neoliberalism. A turning point had been marked in 1968, when the student occupation movement politicised a generation of students, pulling many into radical politics. Sparks from the movement ignited the working class, ­transforming the sporadic struggles of the 1960s into protracted industrial action. But the left, dominated by Stalinist and Kemalist politics, drew the young activists into guerrilla warfare and street clashes with fascists and was unable to build out of the confident, combative working class struggles.

The Turkish nation-state was formed out of the decaying Ottoman Empire and declared a republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Heading the one-party (Republican People’s Party, CHP), bureaucratic, authoritarian regime, Atatürk set out to fashion, with a series of reforms, a modernised, secular nation in which a capitalist class could develop and take the country into the 20th ­century. In doing so he pitted modernism against “backward” religion and cleaved the nation along ideological lines—Kemalism against Islamism—such that the development of modern Turkey has been carried out as an ideological, and at times physical, tug of war between the two, encapsulated today by the CHP and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But by the time of Atatürk’s death in 1938 there had been little progress, the country remaining poor and undeveloped, relying on agriculture.

The country’s fortunes changed dramatically after the Second World War as Turkey’s access to Soviet shores on the Black Sea via the Turkish Straits made it central to Cold War geopolitics. Having hedged its bets during the war, Turkey now committed firmly to Washington and the West. In accepting the terms of the 1947 Truman Doctrine—aid from the United States in return for democratisation and a liberal economy—the regime that had ruled Turkey since the First World War voluntarily made way for bourgeois democracy and introduced multi-party elections.

In 1950 the opposition Democrat Party (DP), headed by Adnan Menderes, won a landslide election victory that marked major political, economic and social changes. Flush with American money and electoral success, Menderes set out to rebuild Turkey. A 1958 Time article called him “the Impatient Builder”, referring to his frantic building schemes of dams and factories,2 which made the 1950s Turkey’s first period of sustained economic growth and structural development.3

In the second half of the 1950s, the economy faltered, as Menderes’s “planless industrialisation”4 led to huge deficits, massive debts, inflation and a thriving black market, and he began to lose support. In response he cracked down on dissent, even using the Kemalist armed forces against the Kemalist CHP (famously sending in the army to prevent the opposition leader speaking at a regional rally), and appealed to religious sentiment. The CHP had become more tolerant of religion after 1947, but the Democrat Party extended the relaxation of secularism, for example, allowing the return of the Arabic call to prayer and increasing the number of religious schools and the building of mosques. Such moves were seen as diverging from Kemalism. While they increased Menderes’s support in the countryside, they struck fear into the hearts of the intelligentsia and military.

On the morning of 27 May 1960 junior officers of the armed forces staged a coup. A statement announcing the military takeover was broadcast over the radio by General Alparslan Türkeş, who would later go on to build the Turkish fascist movement. Menderes’s Democratic Party was banned and he and two other ministers were hung for treason. The president was imprisoned and the military and universities were purged.

The coup was a watershed. Uncharacteristic of military coups but in concert with the general global trend of Keynesianism and consensus politics of the time, the new 1961 constitution liberalised the political system, allowing for the formation of socialist, but not communist, parties. But the CHP was unable to benefit from the liberalised atmosphere. In the 1965 elections the Democrat Party resurrected itself as the Justice Party (JP), headed by Süleyman Demirel, an engineer in charge of dam building under Menderes, and won 52.9 percent of the vote to the CHP’s 28.7. Demirel represented a new layer of the bourgeoisie, the self-made men from the countryside and the fast-growing provincial towns (the DP had been more city based).

The economic downturn of the late 1950s was brief and growth returned and increased throughout the 1960s. With a series of five-year plans that pushed import-substitution industrialisation (ISI) policies, the industrial sector grew steadily at an average of 10 percent per year.5 “By the end of the 1960s, the character of Turkey’s economy and society had changed almost beyond recognition”.6 In 1945 nearly 85 percent of employment was in agriculture and just over 15 percent in industry and services. By 1970, agricultural employment had nearly halved to just under 47 percent while the numbers employed in industry and services more than tripled to just over 53 percent.7 The modernisation of agriculture, including the importation of thousands of tractors and a growing road system financed by the Marshall Plan, sent migrants, mainly Kurds,8 flocking from the countryside to the major towns and cities, in particular Istanbul and Ankara. Between 1950 and 1960 some 1.5 million (1 in 10 villagers) migrated and the population of the four largest cities increased by 75 percent.9

In addition to these material changes to people’s lives, the American military presence was highly visible in all areas of the country. Under the Truman Doctrine the US took over financial support for Turkish military modernisation from Britain. Over the 1950s as well as the İncirlik Air Base, where strike aircraft armed with tactical nuclear weapons were stationed and which continues to be a NATO base, other military bases, radar stations, communications nodes and naval facilities were constructed all over the country. In addition was the Sixth Fleet based in the Mediterranean which, in the late 1960s, ­consisted of “more than 4,000 sailors stationed on two attack carriers with more than 150 combat aircraft, escort ships, nuclear submarines, an amphibious task force and supportive service ships”10 which made regular rest and relaxation stops at Turkish ports. “By the late 1960s, there were almost 30,000 US military personnel on Turkish territory. For a country which was proud that it had never fallen under the colonial yoke, this was no small feat”.11 The extent of the American military presence gave a visible focus to the resentment of US involvement in Turkey’s economic and political life and became the target of protests in the 1960s.

The left

Before the First World War there existed in Turkey a vibrant, multi-ethnic left that was destroyed by the Armenian genocide and the expulsion of the Greek population. The left that emerged in the 1960s was no reflection. The ideas that dominated throughout the period were a product of the Kemalist state and the Stalinist regime, a synthesis of Kemalism and Stalinism.

The relaxation of censorship under the new constitution saw a flourishing of left-wing literature, newspapers and journals, and translations of texts from Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong, as well as Harold Laski, John Strachey, Roger Garaudy and Herbert Marcuse.12 The major discussion on the left throughout the decade was how Turkey could develop and what forces could lead that process. The entire debate was framed in Kemalist terms of development—ridding the country of feudal, backward forces of reaction—and independence from US imperialist interests that were holding the country back.

With communist parties still banned, the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) operated abroad as a foreign bureau of Moscow throughout the 1960s. Despite its distance, however, its Stalinist politics were to play a central role through the next two decades and key members, unable to operate openly as communists, joined the first legal socialist party, the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP). TİP was initially set up in February 1961 by a group of trade unionists with the intention of “bringing all workers together in a single party to save them from being controlled by other political parties”.13 A year later, without the weight of a mass movement behind it, TİP stalled and Mehmet Ali Aybar, a well-known left intellectual and lawyer, was approached to head the party. He attracted other intellectuals, most notably Sadun Aren, Behice Boran and Mihri Belli, all ex-TKP, and fashioned the party into a reformist, electoral machine.

TİP was distinct and radical in two ways. It was the first class-based party representing the working class (contrary to the Kemalist notion of populism, which denied the existence of class). This forced other parties to reassess their class basis, particularly the CHP which, after TİP’s electoral gains in 1965, made a swift left turn rebranding itself as left of centre. TİP’s second unique feature was contrary to the Kemalist ideal of nationalism: it embraced the Kurdish issue, providing a political home for Kurdish socialists and students and integrating for the first time the Kurdish movement with the left.14 TİP challenged the secularism/Islamism dichotomy that Kemalism had created. But rather than make a clear break with Kemalism, the party instead insisted it was Kemalism’s true face.

TİP’s programme was based on Kemalist concerns that the backwardness of the countryside and the uneducated villages constituted an ever-present threat of reaction. In order to create the conditions to eradicate feudal elements and educate the countryside, economic development was of prime importance. Key to achieving this was economic and political independence from the US, which had restrained Turkey’s industrial development by prioritising its comparative advantage in agriculture. It argued for an economy run by the state in the ­interests of working people.

However, ideological differences within the leadership of TİP meant it was never able to create a united perspective and it was confused over key concepts of socialism, class and party. This left it vulnerable and within it a strong Stalinist faction, led by Belli, developed. It argued for a national democratic revolution (NDR) to overthrow feudal elements and complete the Kemalist “revolution”.

In many ways the NDR line was the same as TİP’s focus on development based on independence from the US. The major difference, however, was that of agency. For the NDR, the tiny working class, still in the initial stages of developing class consciousness and organisation, could not bring about socialism in Turkey. Believing the Kemalist armed forces were progressive, they insisted on an authoritarian, top-down military regime to implement and run socialism and argued the time was ripe for such a move—the army had proved its credentials in the recent coup.

Aybar argued vociferously against a military intervention, counterposing the NDR line with a “socialist revolution” (SR). While the 1960 coup had resulted in a more open society, he believed another coup would result in fascism. But a more class-based, theoretical opposition came from Boran who argued there can be no short-cut to socialism. For her, socialism required the active participation of the people:

According to the advocates of a “short-cut”, popular support can be maintained by doing things that benefit people and that would eventually become a people’s rule. Those who support such views misunderstand that rule of the people, as they take it as the passive support of the people… A regime that really depends on the people, however, is a form of regime where the people actively participate in all decision-making processes, in governing, the preparation of reforms and their execution.15

Boran was unique in this period in having some conception of contradictory consciousness. She argued that without a long-term struggle to organise and generate working class consciousness, any authoritarian regime “would have to deal with the masses who would cling to their old political beliefs and traditions…and as the masses would have to make economic sacrifices when realising reforms, how would they then support this new regime?”16 But, however radically sections of TİP spoke, their programme and strategy was determinedly reformist. TİP’s democratic socialist revolution would be won through participation in parliamentary politics.

In 1965 TİP won an unexpected 3.2 percent (270,000 votes) and 15 seats in parliament. This was a substantial success for such a new party and Aybar proclaimed “never before has a socialist party taking part in elections for the first time won so many seats”.17 Socialist representation in parliament for the first time created an electric atmosphere among the left. But the reality was that TİP’s vote was very small. The 15 MPs were the result of an election system that favoured small parties—an anomaly of an arrangement designed to prevent ­authoritarianism. (After TİP entered parliament the electoral system was swiftly changed, contributing to TİP’s much reduced vote in 1969.)

The success and weakness of TİP’s election results gave Belli the confidence to attempt a coup at the party’s third congress in 1966 in Malatya. In a very heated and public faction fight, he fought for the NDR perspective. When put to the vote Aybar won and the NDR faction was expelled, but the party came out of the congress severely weakened. Belli began a new journal, The Turkish Left (Türk Solu), which brought together all those opposed to the official party line, and used it to attack Aybar. The internal divisions that would prise TİP apart in the heat of 1968, under the pressure of first the militancy of the student movement and then the invasion of Czechoslovakia, had been exposed.18

Rising tensions

In the shift from Atatürk’s one-party regime in 1946 to multi-party democracy, the ban on trade unions was lifted, although the right to strike remained outlawed. In 1952 many unions came together in the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-İş), formed with funds, advice and training from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the American Federation of Labour. From the start the American-styled Türk-İş declared itself a “non-political union”, emphasising its “absolute independence” from political parties and commitment to nationalism, even banning union officials from taking official positions in political parties.19

In the more open atmosphere following the 1960 coup, the growing working class was confident and militant. The first sign of this militancy and the developing organisational strength of trade unions came just six months after the new constitution was approved. The 1961 constitution included the right to strike but there were delays in passing it into law. In December, 100,000 workers from the most industrialised centres of Turkey marched in six columns to Saraçhane, Istanbul, for a mass meeting to protest against the delays, chanting slogans such as “strikes are a right not a favour” and “a trade union without strikes is like an army without guns”.

Union organisation developed steadily throughout the 1960s. In 1961 there were 511 unions with a little under 300,000 members. By 1970 there were 737 unions with nearly 820,000 members.20 Throughout the decade the number of strikes and strikers involved in action steadily grew.21 A clear sign of workers’ militancy was the number of unofficial strikes, which one estimate (there are no official figures) puts at 38 involving 70,000 strikers between 1963 and 1968, many of them taking place in larger factories of over 1,000 workers.22

In this increasingly militant atmosphere, the Türk-İş leadership’s ­determination to maintain good relations with employers and government was repeatedly exposed. One example was the Kozlu strike in the Zonguldak mining region in 1965 when 6,000 miners walked out in protest at unequal distribution of bonuses and barricaded the mine for three days. Security forces attacked, shooting dead two miners. Rather than defend the miners, the Türk-İş leadership denounced the strike as illegal and accused strikers of being communist provocateurs.23 From 1965 the number of trade unions leaving Türk-İş grew and it was becoming increasingly clear that many among the rank and file no longer trusted the federation.24

Resentment with Türk-İş came to a head in 1966 with the strike of 2,200 workers at the Paşabahçe glass works in Istanbul. A union at the plant attempted to break an existing agreement but Türk-İş did a deal with management. Ignoring the official Türk-İş position, five unions formed a strike support committee25 and raised a substantial 46,000 lira and 10 tons of fruit in solidarity.26 At the end of the strike the leadership suspended the unions for their role; four of them went on to establish an alternative organisation, the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DİSK), in February 1967.

The formation of DİSK was an important development in the workers’ movement. It grew rapidly in private sector factories that had grown in the 1950s and 1960s concentrated in the big industrial centres of Istanbul, İzmir and İzmit in the west of the country. Türk-İş membership remained concentrated more in the old state industries that grew in the 1930s, in steel, textiles, cement, coal and sugar which, due to state planning, had been distributed around the country. After DİSK’s formation there was a sharp increase in the number of strikes and growth in unofficial strikes, many of them struggles to join a union affiliated to DİSK.

While the working class was finding its feet, the student movement was taking an active and militant role in national politics throughout the 1960s. The student movement was born an ideological movement, an ally of the Kemalist bureaucracy.27 In Atatürk’s newly forged nation-state, schools and universities were not only about producing the future elite, they were also important in instilling in the youth their role as defenders of the nation. In his 1927 “Address to Youth” Atatürk appealed to youth to defend the nation not only from foreign invaders but also from national leaders who “may unite with the political ambitions of the invaders for their personal interests… Your first duty is to protect and defend forever Turkish independence and the Turkish Republic… The strength that you will need is present in the noble blood that flows through your veins!”. Such was the import of the elite role delegated to youth that some see them as a distinct “caste” in Turkish society.28 It is little wonder that the power of this message struck a chord with students at key junctures.

Student confidence to take up the role Atatürk had vested in them had already been boosted when a mass student protest in defence of university autonomy appeared to spark the 1960 coup. A proposal from the Menderes government in February 1960 for political science faculties to come under the Ministry of Education provoked a major student demonstration on 28 April 1960, which police attacked, shooting one student dead. The protests spread to Ankara and on 11 May the Military Academy and thousands of universities and high school students took to the streets. It was two weeks later that the military took control of the country. The coup had been planned for some time and whether or not it was sparked by the student protests, their proximity to the coup makes it easy to appreciate the students’ sense of agency in affecting political change.

Students increasingly took to the streets to intervene in national politics as defenders of the Kemalist project. In 1962, 10,000 protested in Istanbul against the suggestion of amnesty for the DP ministers of the deposed government and again in 1963 at the proposed release of the deposed president Celâl Bayar from jail. In response to the Cyprus crisis in 1964, when the US intervened to prevent Turkish forces invading Cyprus in defence of the Turkish population, tens of thousands of students protested in Istanbul calling for the “army to Cyprus” and 20,000 in Ankara where they stoned the Greek embassy.

The discussions being carried out on the left regarding the road to Turkey’s development and, crucially, its independence from imperialist forces struck a chord with student Kemalism. TİP’s electoral success in 1965 and its persistent challenges in parliament regarding the scale of the US military presence gave it a growing influence among students. TİP set up a student organisation, the Ideas Clubs, under the umbrella of the Confederation of Ideas Clubs (FKF), as an alternative to the staid and “semi-corporatist” student unions.29 FKF grew rapidly and TİP members won all the elections. Under the influence of TİP’s more radical politics students began to take more direct action.

In 1965 students at Istanbul University began a “Use Turkish Oil” campaign, accusing the US of “exploiting” Turkey, and a month later a boycott saw Coca-Cola banned in university canteens. Such was the students’ concern for the national economy that when petrol workers announced a strike, 5,000 students occupied the headquarters of the petrol workers’ union demanding the strike be postponed as it would damage the competitiveness of Turkish oil.30

Throughout 1967 TİP became more influential in student politics and, through the FKF, its student activists were able to pull around them wider groups of students. But TİP’s embrace of Kemalism pandered to the students’ nationalism. In the second half of 1967 the Sixth Fleet visits to Istanbul and İzmir became a target for students. At the end of June, 4,000 demonstrated in Istanbul, with the slogan “Army and youth, hand in hand”, and in October students attacked US soldiers in İzmir. The return of the Cyprus issue in November 1967 saw left-wing students join a right-wing protest of 100,000. While the right-wing slogans attacked Greece and Cypriots, the left attacked both US imperialism for preventing the Turkish government from intervening and the Turkish government for its passivity and kowtowing to US imperialism.31

TİP’s influence among the students would not last, however. Its passive, reformist commitment to parliament meant its influence among students would be seriously challenged in the heat of 1968.


The electrical sparks of student struggle that jumped from terminal to terminal across Europe in the spring of 196832 struck Turkey in June and ignited the tensions that had been building throughout the decade, first among students and the following year among the working class. The Turkish press had been following in detail the European student uprisings and alarm was raised about their similarity with the student complaints in Turkey. The country was “waiting for the uprising”33 and it broke unexpectedly in one of the most apolitical faculties on 10 June. A group of students at the Language, History and Geography Faculty of Ankara University surrounded the head of the Student Union demanding changes to the examination system. A student called out “Let’s boycott!”, “Let’s do what the students are doing in Europe!” “Without any organisation or instruction, suddenly, as if previously planned in detail, around a hundred students spread out around the exam rooms calling on students to leave. It was as if they had been waiting for the call. Suddenly the exam rooms were emptied”.34

News of this spontaneous occupation and the support it had received reached Istanbul. Two days later Deniz Gezmiş, an activist who would become a legendary figure on the Turkish left, strode into a lecture theatre in the Law Faculty of Istanbul University and gave a rousing speech calling for support for the Ankara occupation—the lecture theatre emptied. Within days the occupation movement had spread throughout most universities, technical schools, private academies and teacher training institutions. Demands centred on university reforms, both general, for example, freezing university fees and the inclusion of students in the university administration, and local, for example, Istanbul University students demanded cheap, set course books and an end to oral exams.35 Right-wing students attempted to attack the occupations but these initial attacks were small, unorganised and easily fought off. On the whole these first occupations were met with some sympathy from public opinion and the CHP initiated discussions on university reforms. University adminstrations conceded many of the demands, bringing the occupations to an end by the end of June.

The spontaneity of the occupations wrong-footed the TİP dominated FKF, which had been planning a series of modest campaigns for the autumn, and it hesitated about whether to take part, sparking accusations of passivism from NDR students. Within a few days, however, the FKF re-orientated and took a leading role that was to make it the leading student organisation.36 But its hesitation exposed tensions within the movement that were to be central to the first splits.

The movement broadened the discussions among students, from university reforms to national problems, particularly the fight against American imperialism. The ideological confusion within TİP, however, was reflected in the student organisation, with divisions between supporters of Aybar’s SR line and Belli’s NDR. In the FKF these differences were expressed in base terms between passivity and militancy: with a focus on parliament, SR students argued for peaceful protest; with a more revolutionary perspective, the NDR students encouraged militancy. In an atmosphere of growing confidence, having successfully occupied their universities and fought off right-wing attacks, the militancy of the NDR students began to resonate with students and protests began to take on a harder edge, and attract a more violent response.

On 15 July students attacked US sailors in Istanbul in several separate incidents, resulting in 15 arrests. A protest against the arrests was followed by a 4.30am police raid on a student dormitory in Istanbul. During the raid a student was either pushed or fell from a window and died from his injuries a few days later. On 17 July in an angry protest at the police attack and the visiting Sixth Fleet, around 1,000 students gathered outside the campus in Istanbul near Taksim Square. TİP student leaders tried to hold back the militant mood and argued not to march the one kilometre down to Dolmabahçe where the Sixth Fleet was docked. The fighting talk of NDR students, however, connected with the mood and the angry protest marched to the dock, where a number of US sailors were thrown into the sea and the fleet was forced to leave. The incident became symbolic of the tenacity of the student movement.

At the beginning of the new academic year in the autumn of 1968, as it became clear the administrations had failed to implement the demands of the summer, a second wave of occupations hit the universities. They were still spontaneous but were now led by socialist students and began with more radical demands: rather than “revolution in education”, the demand was now “education for revolution”. (It should be borne in mind, however, that the revolution most students had in mind was that of Kemalism.) Alarmed at the continued radicalism, the right wing increased their attacks, and this period saw the beginning of violent clashes on the campuses as left-wing students defended themselves against fascist violence.

The growth of the far right

The occupation movement of June had burst into an electric atmosphere fuelled by events in Europe. Their spontaneity and rapid escalation alarmed the right wing which led attacks on the occupations. While at first small and disorganised, they were the beginning of what was to become a 10-year period of fascist organisation, mobilisation and growth.

The fascist movement was built by Türkeş, the pan-Turkist and Hitler supporter who had made the radio announcement of the 1960 coup. He headed the fascist National Action Party (MHP) and formed its paramilitary wing known as the Grey Wolves.

From 1968, the “Grey Wolves” (Bozkurtlar) were increasingly in evidence in the streets of the larger cities, particularly Ankara and Istanbul. Numbering between several hundred to a few thousand, their uniformed marches and demonstrations and their violent clashes with leftist groups attracted much interest in the press… which did not fail to draw comparisons with fascist and Nazi youth groups.37

In August of that year the existence of commando training camps came to light, where, Türkeş claimed, 1,000 young men were being trained in street fighting to combat the communists.38 While Türkeş was responsible for the growth of the fascist movement in Turkey, it was the US that was responsible for Türkeş himself. He had been enlisted by the US under Operation Gladio, a covert NATO operation during the Cold War creating “stay-behind” armies to support official NATO forces in the event of Soviet invasion and to counter internal enemies. Türkeş’s Special Warfare Department, formed in 1965, is considered to be the one of the key founding organisations of Turkey’s “deep state”.39

It was not only fascists who attacked the student occupations. Right-wing Islamists, encouraged by the anti-communist rhetoric of Demirel’s Justice Party (AP, successor of the Democrat Party), often joined the Grey Wolves in their attacks. On 23 July, on the eve of anti-US demonstrations planned by teachers and students in the small town of Konya in mid-west Turkey, a group of 3-4,000 far-right Islamists rampaged through the town attacking teachers’ associations, left-wing bookstores, the local newspaper, casinos and night clubs.40

The birth of the revolutionary left

A further explosion of student occupations erupted in 1969 with regular university closures and increasingly violent right-wing attacks on campuses. Police were regularly called in to make arrests and search for weapons, making hauls of sticks, guns, Molotov cocktails and even dynamite. By the autumn, the attacks had become shoot-outs and a number of students were killed. In February 1969, on what would become known as “Bloody Sunday”, a protest of 20-30,000 students and trade unionists against another Sixth Fleet visit was attacked by 10,000 Islamists and fascists with sticks and knives killing two and injuring 200.41 Throughout 1969-70 the Grey Wolves increased their attacks on the left, resulting in thousands of deaths on both sides.

At the beginning of 1969 the NDR students were pulling the FKF into more militant actions, for example burning the car of US ambassador Robert Komer. The increasing number of demonstrations, particularly over Sixth Fleet visits, increased tensions between SR students who wanted to keep the protests peaceful and NDR students who were pushing for each demonstration to become a confrontation. At the fourth FKF Congress in October 1969 NDR students took control of all positions, expelled SR students and renamed the organisation Dev-Genç (Revolutionary Youth). But while the militant rhetoric of the NDR had found an echo among students frustrated by the passivity of parliamentary politics, as the violence increased the militant students found themselves increasingly alienated from the main student body. This became clear in March 1970 when attempts to organise events to celebrate the Independence War of 1919-23 were overshadowed by further fascist attacks, shootings, police raids and university closures. What was to have been a mass demonstration brought just 3,000 together at Istanbul University; it was cancelled when it was known that fascists were waiting to attack. It was the end of student politics. Campuses had become war zones. Activists now looked beyond the universities to the growing workers’ and peasant struggles.

The NDR takeover of the FKF at the end of 1969 not only ousted the SR from student leadership. It also exposed a split within the NDR that had been growing throughout the year, the basis of which was the NDR’s inconsistent practical radicalism—leading and pushing militant actions—combined with its view that the revolution would be carried out by radical soldiers.42 This left a passive role for the youth who were simply to prepare the conditions for the army to act. As the student movement escalated, radical students influenced by the ideas of Che Guevara, Carlos Marighella and Régis Debray as well as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao took a leading role. Together with the active role ascribed to students by Kemalism in defending the nation and the increasing confidence they had gained from leading occupations and taking up arms against fascist attack, they began to see their self-organisation as the basis for a revolutionary movement, and the ideas of Latin American guerrilla tactics became increasingly attractive.

One student leader who arose from the occupation movement was Mahir Çayan, a Maoist who stressed the need for an autonomous revolutionary party. He led a split from NDR and formed the People’s Liberation Party-Front of Turkey (THKP-C) in 1970. The need for self-organisation was supported by another group around Gezmiş, more influenced by Guevarism, which argued the vanguard party would arise from the revolutionary army. They left the NDR and formed the Turkish Peoples’ Liberation Army (THKO). The remaining NDR followers stood behind Doğu Perinçek (who today leads the nationalist Patriotic Party—Vatan Partisi), from which a group led by İbrahim Kaypakkaya, the Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Turkey (TİİKP), was later to split. Kaypakkaya was also a Maoist and the only leading activist to break fundamentally with Kemalism.

The idea of a peasant war was encouraged by an outbreak of land occupations which drew the young Maoist activists, who helped organise demonstrations and meetings. In the village of Atalan occupations called for the equal distribution of state land controlled by six large landowners, in Urfa peasants occupied and planted state land, and in Söke 100 villages occupied to demand land reform. Throughout 1971 and 1972 the guerrilla groups carried out a series of attacks, kidnapping US military personnel in order to protest against the US presence and staging bank robberies to fund the “peoples’ war”. But just as the young revolutionaries were taking to the countryside, the working class was beginning to organise.

The workers move

The energy and confidence of the 1968 student movement fed into the workers’ movement, turning the sporadic struggles of the 1960s into more concerted action.43 Union membership had continued to increase throughout the decade, from 446,000 in 1963 to nearly 767,000 in 1969, with an average union density over the period of 60 percent. Strike statistics give the impression that the period 1968-70 was not especially militant; 1968 saw a low in the number of strikes, 54 from the 101 of the previous year. The average number of days lost to strike action per year between 1964 (the first full year when strikes were legal) and 1967 was nearly 339,000. Between 1968 and 1970 it was little over 210,000, with 1968 registering just 175,000, the lowest number of working days lost to strikes in one year since 1964.44

But these figures should not be mistaken for a lack of worker militancy. After the formation of DİSK in 1967 there was a rise in the number of unofficial strikes and “resistances”: stoppages, slowdowns and sit-ins, and, crucially, occupations, a new tactic that did not register in strike statistics and that was a clear influence from the student movement.45 A wave of occupations that continued throughout 1969 began with the Derby Factory in Istanbul in 1968 over workers’ attempts to join the DİSK-affiliated Tyre Workers’ Union (Lastik-İş). Fearing their reduced representation in the tyre sector, Türk-İş set up an alternative union, and pressure and intimidation from management, including threats of the sack and holding back wages, was put on workers to join. When Derby management announced it was about to sign a deal with the Türk-İş union, workers occupied the factory, welded the doors shut and posted patrols and look-outs. The occupation was visited by students, who chanted “Workers and youth, hand in hand”. Four days later bosses gave in to the demand for a referendum, which returned an overwhelming vote for Lastik-İş, forcing management to concede all the demands.46

The successful Derby occupation was the first of a wave of occupations that continued the following year, many over the right to join a DİSK-affiliated union. At the Singer factory in January, 520 workers occupied in protest at the sacking of three workers who had left a Türk-İş union to join DİSK. At the DemirDöküm cast iron factory in Istanbul the police and armed forces were used, for the first time, to break an occupation. Workers at the factory had resigned from a Türk-İş union to join the mineworkers’ Maden-İş, affiliated to DİSK, and demanded employers sign an agreement. Management refused and used intimidation and scare tactics, firing five workers and beating others up. On 31 July, of the 2,500 workers at the factory, 1,850 went into occupation. After five days, the water and electricity were cut and police attacked with sound and smoke bombs. When families and friends outside the factory beat the police back, 4,000 gendarmes, 10 tanks and 15 armoured vehicles were brought in to surround the factory. Workers finally agreed to leave but, still defiant, refused to return to work and employers eventually gave in, agreeing to pay workers for their time in the occupation and to raise wages.47

The US military bases were also affected by strike action. In April 1969 workers began a six-week strike walking out at the İzmir base demanding wage increases. The strike spread to facilities in Istanbul, Ankara and Adana. Timed to coincide with bilateral negotiations over the status of US forces in Turkey, the action caused alarm in the US Congress, which demanded from Turkey protection of its bases from strike action.48 Despite the earnest actions of the guerrilla groups, it was strikes rather than military personnel kidnappings that contributed most to reducing the US presence.49

The militancy spread also to the growing middle class. Teachers and civil servants did not have the right to strike. In December 1969 the left-wing Union of Teachers of Turkey (TÖS) and the Primary School Teachers’ Union (İlk-Sen) organised a four-day countrywide strike involving 109,000 teachers, demanding the right to strike, getting rid of foreign, mainly American, educational experts, and the reinstatement of sacked trade union activists. In a clear sign of the conflict between the bureaucracy and the government, and of the growing weakness of Demirel, when hundreds of teachers were suspended, the Council of State overturned the decision, and when the government applied to the courts to close the two unions, the courts rejected the application. In an attempt to pacify civil servants, Demirel designed a new Personnel Law proposing significant wage increases at both lower and upper levels of the bureaucracy. However, judges, public prosecutors, non-commissioned officers, civil police, technical personnel in state enterprises, state accountants and post office workers all rejected the plan. The Civil Servants’ Union (Türk-Persen) called a protest in Ankara on 14 June 1970 at which thousands of the educated middle class took to the streets in revolt.

But it was the manufacturing sector that was posing a serious threat to industrial capital. In a rapidly developing economy, with a private sector heavily subsidised by cheap credit and cheap resources provided by the state sector, industrial struggles quickly won improved wages. Between 1963 and 1970 there was a 26.7 percent increase in real wages.50 But what employers could not tolerate was interruptions in production due to strikes and occupations. With wages rising, production slowing and the newly formed working class developing in militancy, employers became increasingly alarmed. Together with Türk-İş, the government devised plans for changes in trade union laws with the express aim of wiping out DİSK.51 A meeting of DİSK workplace representatives called for a protest.

The response of the working class to this attack took even DİSK by surprise. On 15 June 1970 tens of thousands of workers (estimates vary between 70,000 and 150,000) across Istanbul downed tools and walked out. They marched from four points of the city, pulling workplaces out along the route. Traffic on the main arterial route between Istanbul and Ankara was brought to a halt as workers marched toward the centre. The following day the protests continued and grew in number, as marchers aimed to converge in the city centre. What began with a peaceful, festival atmosphere turned violent, however, as the state determined to prevent the marchers coming together by erecting police barricades and closing the bridge across the Golden Horn. Workers broke through the barricades, forced the release of arrested marchers and at one point attacked a factory belonging to the Demirel family. Police attacks saw five people killed, including one police officer, and 200 injured. Although centred on Istanbul, the protests drew solidarity actions in other, mostly industrial areas. In İzmir 12 workplaces held sit-ins, in Ankara workers occupied the National Press House. Protests were held in the industrial areas of Gebze and İzmit, and the small towns of Adana and Gaziantep in the south-east of the country.

As workers were taking to the streets to defend their union, DİSK officials were meeting with the Labour Minister. Startled by the strength of support, the union that tens of thousands of workers turned out to protect turned tail and DİSK chairman, ex-Communist Party leader Kemal Türkler (who was assassinated by fascists shortly before the 1980 coup), announced on the radio the protests “should be peaceful and respect the constitution” and called on protesters to return to their homes.52 Later that evening martial law was declared. The DİSK leadership had in one swipe cut the head off the movement. It was repaid when, under martial law, DİSK-affiliated union offices were raided by police, documents seized and officials arrested. Protests were banned and many districts were put under surveillance and factories cordoned off by the military. Yet some factories in and around Istanbul refused to return to work, for example the Derby Factory and DemirDöküm. But the state and employers would take their revenge by sacking and blacklisting over 5,000 workers, the majority of whom were activists who had years of experience in trade union struggle. The dilution of this leadership seriously weakened the working class in the following struggles.53

The 15-16 June protest was highly significant. The government called it a dress rehearsal for revolution.54 An absurd exaggeration, but it was a glimpse of a revolutionary force. It was a purely political action in defence of a trade union federation that involved not just DİSK members; a large proportion were members of Türk-İş-affiliated unions and un-unionised workers.55 The make-up of the protests also cut across the Kemalist-Islamist cleavage with supporters of the CHP and AP marching together. It was the first time many of the strikers had taken action and it took strike action to areas that had previously not been involved in industrial struggle. And, crucially, it demonstrated the existence of a confident and militant working class in Turkey.

While TİP members joined the protests, the TİP leadership did no more than announce its support. By now TİP had fallen apart. In its second electoral test in 1969 it did badly with a loss of 60,000 votes and a reduced parliamentary representation from 15 MPs to two. This was partly due to changes in electoral laws, but the continuing public faction fights weakened the organisation. More damaging was the loss of support from DİSK when Aybar shifted the party’s focus to the peasantry after the disappointing working class vote in 1965. The hope of working class unity that TİP had represented was now lost as political confusion saw the party implode with differences “among social classes and social strata, between intelligentsia and workers, and workers and peasants”.56 The intelligentsia split between the two main blocs, the Aybar bloc and the Aren-Boran bloc, the latter gaining the leadership at the October 1970 Congress. Aybar resigned.

Faced with growing class struggle, the Demirel government was paralysed. Pressure from the bureaucracy and right-wing defections from the party left it incapable of dealing with the growing political crisis. In March 1971 the military intervened for a second time in Turkey’s turbulent modern history with a “coup by memorandum” demanding Demirel “end the ‘anarchy’ and carry out reforms ‘in a Kemalist spirit’”.57 Demirel resigned.

Apart from TİP, this second military intervention was initially welcomed by almost the entire left. But the post-coup repression was to end any illusions in the progressive potential of the Kemalist armed forces. Under the cover of martial law the army led a vicious witch-hunt against not only the left but anyone with progressive liberal sympathies; when the Israeli consul was kidnapped and killed, over 5,000 leading intellectuals were arrested.58 Included in the mass arrests were the leadership of all left organisations, including TİP, NDR and the Kurdish movement. Left political parties were banned, trade unions suspended and a bloody counter-guerrilla operation carried out. By 1974 Gezmiş, Çayan, Kaypakkaya and many other brave, but ultimately mistaken, revolutionaries had been executed by the state.

The 1971 military intervention temporarily halted but did not deflect the trajectory of events. Despite its temporary success in swiftly smashing the revolutionary left, by the time the activists were released from jail, when an amnesty was declared in 1974, the mass youth following of the left had grown enormously.59 A number of new parties were formed and while none made any electoral in-roads, election results showed a distinct leftward shift from which the CHP benefitted. “With enviable strategic vision [Bülent] Ecevit tried to renovate the base of the CHP by channelling the new working class militancy which had been revealed in the 15-16 June demonstrations and which the left had so far tragically ignored”.60 In 1973 he took the CHP to election victory with 33.3 percent of the vote, but it was not enough to form a government so they went into coalition with the newly formed Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP) led by Necmettin Erbakan.

What is notable, however, is that while the CHP failed to win enough votes to form governments, over the years of industrial struggle it did increase its nationwide share of the vote, from 27.4 percent in 1969 to 33.3 percent in 1973 and 41.4 percent in 1977. More significantly, the CHP was particularly successful in working class and poor neighbourhoods in the larger cities. In the shantytown areas of İzmir and Istanbul, for example, its vote increased from 22.6 percent and 21.8 percent in 1969 to 44.2 percent and 47.5 percent in 1973. What’s more, there was a dramatic shift away from electoral support for the AP in the notoriously conservative coal mining area of Zonguldak, with gains mostly going to the CHP. In this region the AP’s vote declined from 55.6 percent to 38.2 between 1969 and 1973, while the CHP’s increased from 30.7 percent to 39.8, rising further to 45.7 percent in 1977.61

The revolutionary left, however, were not in a position to benefit from this. Three years in prison had led to a frank soul-searching and general agreement that guerrilla activities had been a military and political failure and led to the loss of some of the best cadre, and that activists were not connected to, and therefore could hardly claim to represent, the working class.62 But this reassessment of their politics and strategy and tactics was made in the absence of a class-based analysis of Turkey. The militancy of China’s “people’s war” trumped Moscow’s passive reformism and Maoism became dominant. But as the movement grew, the left split. The Çayan group broke into myriad grouplets, the biggest being Perinçek’s Proletarian Revolutionary Enlightenment (PDA) and Revolutionary Path (Dev-Yol), which would go on to be the main organisation to confront the fascists.

The splintering movement was now developing a destructive sectarianism involving physical attacks. Dev-Genç more than once stormed TİP offices, attacking its leaders and destroying party material, and rival groups would physically attack others to prevent them from selling their papers.63 It is generally thought that it was left rivalries that the police were able to exploit to ignite the 1977 May Day disaster in Istanbul when shots fired drew a police response and a stampede in which at least 34 people were killed.

While the revolutionary left were splitting into small sects, the reformist left were splitting into small and ineffective political parties. After the amnesty four new socialist parties were set up: the Socialist Revolution Party (SDP) around Aybar; TİP, in a new form set up by Boran; the Turkish Labour Party (TEP), a continuation of the NDR set up by Belli that fizzled out in the mid 1980s; and the Socialist Workers’ Party of Turkey (TSİP). Sections of them all, by different routes, would come together in the still active Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) in 1996. One notable development in this period was the return to the scene of the Turkish Communist Party (TKP), which, as the recognised sister organisation of Communist parties worldwide, grew quickly.

The ruling class strike back

The second half of the 1970s saw both a quantitative and qualitative shift in class struggle. Union membership continued to grow and working class morale and confidence remained high. Between 1974 and 1980 the average number of days per year lost to strike action was a little over 911,000, with peaks of over a million in 1977, 1979 and 1980. The debt default as a result of the 1977 oil crisis sent Turkey back to the IMF for fresh funds, which brought also austerity measures and wage controls. But these were met by fierce resistance. Strike activity rose in 1979 and jumped massively in the first half of 1980. On the eve of the 12 September coup, hundreds of thousands of car, rail and textile workers were due to walk out.64

This period was the high point of DİSK’s organisation as it took over from Türk-İş as the dominant federation.65 With industrial expansion continuing in central Anatolia, DİSK was able to broaden its organisation nationally and among municipal, textile and metal workers. Whereas pre-1971 strike action was by and large limited to the private sector in the industrialised centres in the west of the country, the second half of the 1970s saw a marked growth in public sector action in workplaces throughout the country and many were political in nature. In February 1975, teachers’, local government auditors’, engineers’ and architects’ associations held demonstrations in 52 provinces (out of 67) over trade union rights, collective contracts, unemployment and the cost of living. In March 1976, education personnel, telecommunications workers and auditors held a demonstration in Ankara over “fascist” oppression and in January and February 1977 demonstrations were held in Denizli, Bursa, Zonguldak and Ankara over economic and democratic rights.66

Attempts by governments to hold back the workers’ movement provoked a number of large-scale struggles. A major political strike began in 1976 when the National Front government proposed to retain the state security courts, established under military rule after the 1971 coup. Some 100,000 workers responded to DİSK’s call for a general strike and demonstration in opposition.67 The proposal was shelved. The following year a major confrontation broke out between the employers’ organisation MESS and DİSK-affiliated Maden-İş. After nine months of failure to reach agreement, 10,000 workers at 31 workplaces began strike action. Workers eventually won a partial victory with wage increases and improved bonuses, but “group contracts” were imposed, effectively derecognising the union.68

By now DİSK was controlled by the fast growıng TKP, which had taken over all the key positions at the 1975 conference, shifting the entire balance of influence within the Turkish left. But, rather than focus on building and strengthening its organisation in the new areas it had gained, the TKP bureaucracy focused on ensuring its domination of the federation and carried out sectarian purges of all other left influence, “acting virtually as a political police force within DİSK to prevent all other socialist ‘infiltration’”.69

Weakened by internal wrangling and dominated by the reformist TKP, DİSK feared the growing militancy of the working class. A strike in January 1980 at Tariş, an agricultural processing complex near İzmir that employed some 10,000 workers, exposed the now spineless DİSK leadership. Over the previous few years, several socialist organisations had established a presence among the workforce. The strike erupted when workers heard that the AP government planned to sack some of them and employ its own supporters, including many fascist militants, in their place. It turned into an occupation and soon gathered wide support from the surrounding working class districts. The government sent in 10,000 troops, equipped with armoured vehicles and helicopters, to break the occupation and pitched battles erupted and spread to the surrounding neighbourhood, where barricades were erected and holes dug to prevent the movement of tanks. But, rather than build on the energy of the spontaneous action, DİSK retreated in the face of the military might of the state and sent a delegation of officials in to encourage workers to end the action, to which workers replied: “if you break the resistance, we’ll break your head”. But left isolated, the strike went down to defeat and hundreds were sacked and arrested.70

Pre-1971 workers’ actions had been offensive and had won gains in improved wages and work conditions. In the second half of the 1970s, struggles were defensive, and the bosses and the state turned to direct state violence in order to defeat major struggles. But capital was not united enough to present a unified political response. The military, after the 1971 coup, had been unable to either establish a coherent and stable regime or address the divisions between industrial, commercial and landowning capital. These divisions were reflected in the plethora of political parties throughout the 1970s71 and the continual changes in unstable coalition governments (nine in nine years), often with the fascist MHP or Islamist MSP holding the decisive vote, which boosted the confidence of the fascist movement.

The few years that followed the formation of a National Front coalition government in 1975, with the MHP and Türkeş as deputy prime minister, saw a marked increase in armed groups and fascist attacks. Between 1975 and 1978, deaths from political violence rose from 35 to nearly 1,000, and by 1980 the figure was 3,500.72 As well as daily street violence the right wing carried out vicious massacres. Largely believed to have been sanctioned by the state was the Kahramanmaraş massacre in a Kurdish region of south-east Turkey. In a week-long attack, Grey Wolves and Islamic fundamentalists burned and slaughtered 111 men, women and children, not only attacking Alevi Kurds but also known leftists. In Çorum in the north of the country the same groups carried out a massacre between May and July 1980 killing over 50 Alevis and leftists. On a local level, whole neighbourhoods became known as the stronghold of fascists or leftists, and the left, particularly Dev-Yol, became embroiled in political violence.

But the left were blinded by Stalinist politics into seeing the fascist assaults as attacks on left-wing organisation rather than attacks on the working class. There was no political strategy for fighting fascism: “The left groupings never undertook anti-fascist struggle as part of the struggle of the working class… Despite their rhetoric the anti-fascist struggle was waged solely as a means of establishing their dominance in any particular locality”.73

It was on the pretext of political violence that General Kenan Evren announced the military’s most violent coup in September 1980. In reality it was a number of factors including the inability of governments to rein in industrial action and the fear of a rising Islamic fundamentalism (with an eye to the 1979 Iranian Revolution) that led to the army intervening for the third time in 20 years, bringing to an end the political crisis sparked by 1968.


The Turkish left emerged at the same time as the rising student and workers’ movement, when it was still trying to understand itself and the conjuncture into which it had been thrust. The tragedy of the Turkish left was not that the pre-existence of Kemalism prevented a Marxist analysis of Turkey when it was most needed:74 we make our own history but not under circumstances chosen by ourselves.75 The tragedy was the Stalinist politics that rejected the working class as a revolutionary force and played into Kemalist ideas that saw Turkey as a colony under the yoke of imperialist forces. The scale of US political, economical and military involvement certainly helped to fuel such perceptions. But Stalinism offered no alternative to Kemalism. Instead it fused with Kemalism and dragged a generation of activists into a rancid nationalism that still pervades much of the Turkish left today, and saw the revolutionary left fragment into groupings fashioned along the only lines offered at the time, Maoism and Guevarism. Stalinism created the confusion within TİP, which knew itself as an organisation of the working class but was shaped by nationalist politics, and left it vulnerable to the factionalising that finally tore it apart.

The result was that the potential of the left to unite the working class was destroyed, instead exacerbating religious and ethnic divisions, weakening the movement. From 1973 Kurds built their own autonomous organisations and went through a rapid process of radicalisation that led to the formation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978.76 Moreover, the lack of an effective left in Turkish politics meant the uncontested rise of political Islam; as the left weakened, political Islam grew. What is more, the failure to recognise the fascist movement as an attack on the working class and mount an anti-fascist campaign left the movement to grow so that, today, the fascist MHP is the third party in Turkish politics and the Grey Wolves remain a live organisation.

There was an inevitability to the trajectory the left took. But it was only partly derived from the conjuncture of existing forces. What determined it ultimately was what was absent; revolutionary politics based on the agency of the working class that could have drawn the most radical student, worker and Kurdish activists together to help drive an anti-fascist movement and build working class organisation. In 1968 the Turkish left was finding its feet in the heat of the struggle. It has the space now to ensure its political clarity before the fire next time.

Carol Williams is a socialist living in Istanbul.


1 Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Roni Margulies, Camilla Royle and Chris Stephenson for their comments and advice.

2 Time, 3 February 1958, quoted in Bali, 2010, p15.

3 Zürcher, 2003, p238.

4 Aydın, 2005, p30.

5 Aydın, 2005, p38.

6 Quoted in Mello, 2010, p24.

7 Tanrıvermiş and Bülbül, 2007.

8 McDowall, 2013, p401.

9 Keyder, 1987, p137.

10 Holmes, 2014, p69.

11 Holmes, 2014, p51.

12 Landau, 1982, p25.

13 Ünsal, 2002, p76.

14 Bozarslan, 2012, p2.

15 Quoted in Ulus, 2011, pp67-68.

16 Ulus, 2011, p68.

17 Quoted in Lipovsky, 1991, p97.

18 Ünsal, 2002, p296.

19 Algül, 2015, pp118-119; Koç, 2010, p171.

20 Millioğulları, 2007, p56.

21 Millioğulları, 2007, p65.

22 Salâh, 1984.

23 Sosyalist Barikat, 2004.

24 Atesoğulları, 2003, p8.

25 Ateşoğulları, 2003, p8.

26 Sosyalist Barikat, 2004.

27 Alper, 2009, p208.

28 Mango, 1999, p261.

29 Alper, 2009, p351.

30 Alper, 2009, p285.

31 Alper, 2009, pp316-317.

32 Harman, 1998, p38.

33 Alper, 2009, p355.

34 Zileli, 2000, p289.

35 Alper, 2009, p360.

36 Alper, 2009, pp358-359.

37 Landau, 1982, p594

38 Alper, 2009, p374.

39 Holmes, 2014, p53.

40 Alper, 2009, p373.

41 Alper, 2009, p404.

42 Alper, 2009, p430.

43 Many thanks to Nuran Yüce for our discussion on this period.

44 Millioğulları, 2007.

45 Koç, 2010, p231.

46 UID-DER, 2016.

47 Sosyalist Barikat, 2006.

48 Holmes, 2014, pp75-77.

49 Holmes, 2014, p204.

50 Millioğulları, 2007, p61.

51 Ulus, 2011, p119.

52 Ateşoğulları, 2003, p35.

53 Koç, 2010, p234.

54 Ulus, 2011, p120.

55 Ateşoğulları, 2003, p35.

56 Ulus, 2011, p86.

57 Zürcher, 2003, p271.

58 Zürcher, 2003, p271.

59 Samim, 1981 p73. Ahmet Samim was the pseudonym used by political commentator Murat Belge in the repressive conditions after the 1980 coup.

60 Samim, 1981, p74.

61 Mello, 2010, p18.

62 Salâh, 1984.

63 Ulus, 2011, pp113 and 119.

64 Salâh, 1984.

65 Millioğulları, 2007, p68.

66 Koç, 2010, p268.

67 Salâh, 1984.

68 Yurtsever, 2008, p240.

69 Samim, 1981, p79.

70 Yurtsever, 2008, p242.

71 Aydın, 2005, p41.

72 Mello, 2013, p102.

73 Salâh, 1984.

74 Samim, 1981, p64,

75 Marx, 1977, p300

76 Bozarslan, 2012, p3.


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Ateşoğulları, Kamil, 2003, 15-16 Hazıran: İki Uzun Gün ve Bir Uzun Yürüyüş [Two Long Days, One Long March] (Birlişik Metal-İş Yayınları).

Aydın, Zülküf, 2005, The Political Economy of Turkey (Pluto Press).

Bali, Rıfat (ed), 2010, Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s Through the Reports of American Diplomats (Libra).

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Holmes, Amy Austin, 2014, Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945 (Cambridge University Press).

Keyder, Çağlar, 1987, State and Class in Turkey: A Study in Capitalist Development (Verso).

Koç, Yıldırım, 2010, Türkiye İşçi Sınıfı Tarihi: Osmalı’dan 2010’a [History of the Turkish Working Class: From the Ottomans to 2010] (Epos).

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Lipovsky, Igor, 1991, “The Legal Socialist Parties of Turkey, 1960-1980”, Middle Eastern Studies, volume 27, number 1.

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Marx, Karl, 1977 [1852], “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in David McLellan (ed), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford University Press).

Mello, Brian, 2010, “Communists and Compromisers: Explaining Divergences within Turkish Labor Activism, 1960-1980”, European Journal of Turkish Studies, number 11.

Mello, Brian, 2013, Evaluating Social Movement Impacts: Comparative Lessons from the Labor Movement in Turkey (Bloomsbury).

McDowall, David, 2004, A Modern History of the Kurds (I B Tauris).

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Salâh, Mehmet, 1984, “The Turkish Working Class and Socialist Movement in Perspective”, Khamsin: Journal of Revolutionary Socialists of the Middle-East, number 11, https://libcom.org/library/turkish-working-class-socialist-movement-perspective

Samim, Ahmet (Murat Belge), 1981, “The Tragedy of the Turkish Left”, New Left Review, I/126.

Sosyalist Barikat, 2004, “Ankara’yı Sarsan Ayaklanma: Kozlu Direnişi” [The Revolt That Shook Ankara: The Kozlu Resistence] (March), www.barikat-lar.de/barikat/20/tarih20.htm

Sosyalist Barikat, 2006, “31 Temmuz 1969’dan günümüze yansıyan ışık: Silahtar Demir Döküm Grevi” [The Silahtar Demir Döküm Strike: The Light That Shines from 31 July 1969 to Today] (August), www.barikat-lar.de/barikat/43/tarih43.htm

Tanrıvermiş, Harun, and Mehmet Bülbül, 2007, “The Role of Agriculture in the Turkish Economy at the Beginning of the European Union Accession Negotiations”, Journal of Applied Sciences, volume 7, number 4.

UID-DER, 2016, İlk Fabrika İşgali: DERBY [DERBY: The First Factory Occupation] (7 January), http://uidder.org/ilk_fabrika_isgali_derby.htm

Ulus, Özgür Mutlu, 2011, The Army and the Radical Left in Turkey: Military Coups, Socialist Revolution and Kemalism (I B Taurus).

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LA Strike: Self-Mobilization of Workers and Communities—: Ndindi Kitonga, Lilia Monzo, Ramona Rivera, Kevin B. Anderson

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on LA Strike: Self-Mobilization of Workers and Communities—: Ndindi Kitonga, Lilia Monzo, Ramona Rivera, Kevin B. Anderson


In January 2019, a massive strike of over 30,000 public school teachers stunned the Los Angeles power structure when it received massive, almost unanimous public support, especially in the city’s large Latinx and Black communities.  Latinx students now make up 75% of the city’s over 600,000 public school students. Even the anti-labor Los Angeles Times, which had issued dire warnings ahead of the strike, felt compelled to run a front-page headline on the third day that began with the words, “L.A. Teachers Bask in support for strike.”

This support, and the sustained pickets and rallies of teachers, students, parents, and other community members, forced the school board of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) to concede considerable ground.  Everywhere, the union placards of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) were printed in both Spanish and English. The mass outpouring in favor of the strike also helped change the national conversation about the privatized charter schools that are eating away at public education. And just as the West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona teachers’ strikes of 2018 paved the way for this one in LA, so the LA strike is very likely to be followed by major teacher strikes in Oakland, Denver, and other cities.

What Teachers and Students Are Facing

Public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, lack adequate social services and are subject to the worst impulses of neoliberalism. These attacks on public education disproportionately affect poor students, students of color, immigrant children, students whose primary language is not English, and those with disabilities. For months and years, LA teachers have been demanding a modest wage increase along with lower class size, accountability for charter schools, more support staff (nurses, counselors, librarians, etc.), less standardized testing, re-investment in education programs, and a stop to random searches and policing of students. A previous strike in 1989 demonstrated how demanding only a wage increase was short-sighted. LAUSD did meet teachers’ demands in ’89 but also increased class size, cut down on support staff and programs, and heavily charterized the district.

By 2014, a slate backed by progressive caucuses brought a new leadership to the UTLA. Moreover, the reinvigorated union lost hardly any members despite the reactionary Supreme Court decision making it harder for public sector unions to maintain their membership by making it “voluntary” even for workplaces with union contracts.

As a result of the January 2019 strike, the teachers won something on all of these issues, although in some cases only marginally. The seven-day strike commenced on Monday, January 14, Teachers wore #redfored, in/with the spirit of their fellow teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona who had engaged in similar labor struggles in 2018. Teachers would report to their respective school site at 6.30 am and picket heavily during school drop-off. A daily rally was held in downtown LA at the LAUSD headquarters. After the rally, teachers would return to their schools to picket at the end of school. Other actions involved protesting at the homes of school superintendent Austin Beutner and Monica Garcia (one of the more obstinate board members). Beutner the new superintendent is an investment banker with no teaching or education administration background.  He was also a deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa and has ties to billionaire Eli Broad.

Supporters from many political leanings joined teachers on the picket lines. In particular, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)-LA, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and Black Rose/Rosa Negra (BRRN) were among the leftist groups that were conspicuously in solidarity with teachers picketing and offering resources, while several from the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO) participated as individuals. Teachers also coordinated their strike activity with other labor actions across the city.

Strike Day # 5 with Jason Torres-Rangel, LAUSD teacher, and activist. After a day of picketing schools, teachers marched some more to support a labor action at a hotel in Koreatown with Unite Here!

Southeast LA

At an elementary school in a mainly Latinx neighborhood in southeast LA, parents and community members, many of whom were Spanish speakers, sustained a daily teachers’ picket line by joining it and by offering food, drink, and a place to meet. A home near the school was volunteered as an impromptu strike headquarters, where teachers could rest, hold discussions, and get food and drink.  At this school, both the teachers and the community were almost 100% Latinx.  In the early days of the strike, the union representative announced that their demands for a raise had been won, but that they were holding out for other issues, that “We need to fight for the kids.”  In this spirit, they stayed out another week in order to win some gains on issues like librarians, nurses, and reduced class size.  A handmade sign by a young teacher stated: “I Miss My Students but I Love Them Way Too Much to Not Fight for Their Future.” Community members were solidly in support of the strike too, stating over and over again that “the kids are the future.”  There didn’t seem to be a single parent who didn’t support the strike at a school where the teachers were also overwhelmingly Latinx.

During the first days of the strike, a few thousand teachers, parents, and community members also rallied in predominantly Latinx East LA at LAUSD’s Local District on Soto Street. There were lots of speakers as demonstrators took over the streets.  Signs included “Honk for Public Education,” which almost all passing cars did, and the bilingual “El Maestra Luchando Tamibien está ensenando–Teachers Protesting are still teaching.”

South LA

Intense picketing also took place at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles. This school is comprised predominately of working-class Latinx students and is not unlike others in the district. Teaching has traditionally been a white middle-class female profession. Indeed, in a nation where 50% of the public school students are people of color, 80% of the teachers are white. These demographics are vastly different in the LAUSD, however, where Latinx educators account for 43% of all LAUSD teachers, with the rest mainly white, Black, and Asian.

Finding themselves on the intersections of race, class, and immigration status, Latinx parents and students encountered at the teachers’ strike considered this struggle to be both an economic and racial justice matter and were very supportive of the teachers’ actions. Again and again, the Latinx teachers reminded attendees that the struggle was about students, their communities, and their futures. There was little emphasis on teacher wage increases. The language of “class struggle,” “ruling elite,” and “racial justice” was evoked in many public spheres, in a way not witnessed before. One teacher stated that this was a “righteous struggle towards the liberation of working-class people everywhere”.

Others have commented on the racial aspects of this strike here.

West LA

In relatively affluent West LA, the strike also proceeded with great enthusiasm.  At one elementary school, teachers, parents and students kept up a spirited picket line, even on cold and rainy days.  Some parents brought food and drink for the teachers, who were also invited to rest at a home near the school gate. Passing cars often honked in support, and no animosity toward the strike was expressed.

Afterwards, Latinx working women at a drycleaners in the area said that they had kept their children home during the strike “because we have to show solidarity with the teachers.”

Downtown LA Demonstrations

In the lead up to the strike, 50,000 teachers and community members rallied on December 15 to put forth their demands. Once it was clear that a settlement between Superintendent Austin Beutner, the LAUSD board and UTLA was unlikely, teachers began preparing to strike. The first important action involved a UTLA-led city-wide rally to garner support from the general public. The giant rally of 50, 000 educators and their supporters was held in Downtown LA in late December of 2018 Teachers marched from city hall to the Broad Museum, financed by billionaire Eli Broad, chanting, “When our students and teachers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up. Fight back!”

Part of the reason the destination was the Broad museum is that Eli Broad has spent a lot of his time and money on neoliberalizing education in Los Angeles and promoting charter school expansion. This great “philanthropist” has opposed tax increases on the wealthy. He also donated over $2 million to secure a reactionary, pro-charter majority on the LA school board in the 2017 elections. Turnout was a dismal 17%, allowing Broad and his friends to basically buy the election.

These pre-strike activities were very important in ensuring success and public favor in this struggle. While a fight for equitable wages is more than enough reason to strike, teachers saw this as a myopic goal. They understood that the district, the charter school machine and the media (Beutner is a former CEO of the LA Times) would put out a counter-narrative to suggest that vulnerable children were now at the mercy of uncaring educators who had walked off the job. Teachers are supposed to be altruistic, making it difficult to challenge anyone who appears to be working against the interests of kids. They knew that the lack of a cohesive movement and public buy-in would open the door for more school privatizers in the future who would employ the language of school choice to convince communities they are offering a better education, which of course they are not. Before this strike, the union and many grassroots organizations spent many weeks reaching out to their communities to discuss the full scope and nature of the strike.

A grassroots organization working on this very issue emphasized the economic and social harms that come to children who do not have adequate services and offered local public education workshops on why/how charter schools exploit communities. It also worked with groups the union has historically had a difficult time reaching, such as undocumented immigrants. Finally, it mobilized and established a fund for striking teachers along with community resources for parents in need of childcare.

During the strike, another massive rally was held on Friday, January 18. Again, there were 60,000 or more participants, stretching all the way from the western edge of Grand Park to City Hall and taking over the surrounding streets as well.  The mood was boisterous and upbeat, with teachers and the community smelling victory as the school board’s attempts at anti-teacher propaganda continued to fall flat. Handmade signs read, “I Am More than a Test Score,” “California is 46 out of 50 in school funding,” “On Strike for Our Students,” “Respect for me and my students,” and “I Stand with LA Teachers.”

Charter School Strike

One charter school that has gained union representation by the UTLA, Accelerated Schools in predominant Latinx and African American South LA, also experienced a strike, which ended in victory after eight days, a little longer than the large public-school strike.  In addition to wages and health benefits, these teachers won somewhat greater job security after having been subject to a harsh system where they were not notified until April if they were going to be teaching in the next school year. Many were let go without explanation at the end of each school year, helping to create a 50% turnover from 2016-18.

While they did not gain tenure, a new severance package for teachers who are not retained is intended to mitigate somewhat the current atmosphere of fear, of a Trumpian “you’re fired.”

Other Sectors of Labor

On Tuesday, Jan 22, the last day of the strike, another layer of labor came onto the streets to support the teachers. Some 1600 firefighters marched at 6AM alongside the UTLA “Red for Ed” marching band, along with a fire truck.

They were in town from all over the US for a convention of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Overcoming Anti-Labor, Anti-Student Charter Schools

Over the past two decades, mainstream political forces have supported charter schools, whether rightwingers like George W. Bush, or liberals like Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, not to speak of Democratic Governors Jerry Brown (CA) and Andrew Cuomo (NY).

The charter school lobby has bestowed hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions on these and other politicians that support them.

The LA teachers’ strike is a turning point in the defense of public education carried out by unionized teachers who have some autonomy, allowing them to raise the kinds of critical questions in their classes that create greater awareness of social issues and problems, without fear of arbitrary termination. While control over new charters lies at the state level in California, the teachers succeeded in forcing the previously pro-charter LA school board to pass a resolution calling upon the state government to stop new charter schools in the district, where at present they control about 20% of the students. This vote, carried out over the objections of 1000 angry pro-charter demonstrators, suggests that the worm has turned in terms of public opinion about charters, and not only in LA.

Charter schools pay their CEOs (basically private owners of the schools) extremely high salaries, instead of putting the money where it needs to go. They also tend to teach to the tests (English and math only) so that they skew their “success” rates. Their primary focus is only English and math, since this is what the state of California is now requiring for competency. Charter schools only get state funds based on attendance and test scores. They’ll often have no physical education, no art, and no music programs, but they will still find money to pay for attendance officers to make sure every kid is in school every day.

They can kick kids out for basically any reason, including illegal reasons (has an Individualized Education Program, usually for a disability) which means they keep the kids they want to make them look good. However, test scores overall STILL have not improved despite their own false reports.

Most charters are non-union, which means high teacher burnout, something they cover up. Not having a union is also a way billionaires can chip away at union rights across all sectors, not only teachers, as anti-labor Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did for eight years, until his stinging defeat last November.

That said, there is a small, small fraction of charters that fills a needed niche in public education, but these charters tend to have unions, and are typically started by teachers or educational professionals that have an educational philosophy they believe works. These are not common and hard to run since it’s all about how much money you get per student that enrolls.

What Was Achieved and Where to Go from Here

The LA teachers’ strike officially ended on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, with the district meeting some teacher demands. While there is somewhat of a public consensus that the district and the union came to a historic agreement, many teachers are not completely satisfied with the deal that UTLA negotiated on their behalf. The deal promises a class reduction of one student for every school year (two for special classes) and minimally increases the number of support staff, like librarians, nurses, counselors, and psychologists. The deal also includes some provision for expanding green spaces in schools, reducing standardized testing, and involving UTLA in decisions concerning the accountability of charter schools among others.

As Maricela, a Chicanx woman, artist, activist, and Language Arts teacher at Hawkins High School in South LA stated concerning the deal that UTLA negotiated on their behalf.: “We go to work tomorrow no matter what! A no vote means the contract isn’t adopted. 50% plus 1 vote is needed to adopt the tentative agreement. Teachers are pissed  and feel like higher ups sold them out by announcing it to the public before bringing it to a vote first.”

According to Mel. T., immigrant from Fiji and homeless rights activist and organizer: “Frustrating! The news coming through is that UTLA members voted to accept the deal. What’s frustrating is that with the amazing protest turnout by UTLA members in one of the hardest rain-hit weeks in LA, they could have asked and got so much more for our students, including the removal of Beutner, a hedge fund manager who has no business being a county school district superintendent.”

“Regardless of how I feel about the UTLA negotiations and agreement I want to make one thing clear. The teachers strike these past 1.5 weeks has been one of the most inspirational events I have ever witnessed. I’ve been to a few marches and demonstrations but to see our teachers out in the freezing cold, shivering in the rain, losing thousands of dollars but doing it all for the love of their students was magical. You galvanized Los Angeles and this will lead to many more actions on so many human rights issues because of your Sacrifice and Courage. And those are exactly the 2 words you deserve. Sacrifice because you knew you would lose so much and did. Hanging on by a thread from losing your paychecks to knowing your students would lose schoolwork and the heartache of knowing some would go hungry because they can’t afford to eat but having the Courage to go through with it because you knew you had to do it for their very future.”

A Last Word… On Schools and Capitalism

Public schools are important sites for struggles for both students and workers, be they teachers or support staff. The #redfored wave continues with public schools in Colorado, Oakland, and  Virginia preparing to take action in their bid to save public education. But what is the relationship of these teachers’ strikes to the larger struggle for a humanist alternative to capitalism?

In their 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels include among the demands of the communists something that was very radical for those times, when even a basic education was a privilege of the wealthy: “Free education for all children in public schools.” Three decades later, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx specifies that he does not support turning over the schools to the capitalist state: “‘Equal elementary education’? What idea lies behind these words? Is it believed that in present-day society (and it is only with this one has to deal) education can be equal for all classes?” and also, “Elementary education by the state’ is altogether objectionable. Defining by general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc… is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school…”

Public school is an extension of the bourgeois government, an institution that often serves dominant class interests; nevertheless, it is very much a compromise born out of the struggles of working-class folks. What that means is that we have to theorize what school can be in a new society. It also means that means we consistently fight for and defend public, free, and secular education.

The mass teachers’ strike in LA and the equally massive community participation it generated show that the working people of LA want to defend, expand, and improve public education for all of our youth.  The scent of a larger change also hangs in the air, as both the teachers and the community now view themselves in a new way, as empowered drivers of positive changes in our educational system.

Will a well-organized labor union like UTLA, now under the leadership of progressives, continue and deepen the struggle, helping it to spread across the state and the country?  Will UTLA find more ways to reciprocate the support it received from some of LA County’s most oppressed sectors — low-wage service workers, for example — by using their organizational resources to help these workers to gain union representation?  Will UTLA speak out more forcefully on issues around Black Lives Matter or the movement to abolish ICE?  Will the teachers find a way to speak out on capitalism itself, even as they rightly concentrate their fire on some of its most hypocritical and noxious local representatives, like Beutner and Broad?

Originally posted at The International Marxist-Humanist.

Posted Education, Social protests, Teacher unions, United States
About Author
Kevin B. Anderson is a California-based sociologist and Marxist humanist. He is Professor of Sociology, Political Science and Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.
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Revolution and revolutionary strategy in Latin America-G.LL. Williams  

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 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.
latin america
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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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On fire: A dialectical heritage-Jason Devine  

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on On fire: A dialectical heritage-Jason Devine  


February 24, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Heraclitus has come down to us as the philosopher of Πάντα ῥεῖ, of the view that everything flows. This immediately calls to mind the image of water. Indeed, a saying of his that most commonly attends discussions of his philosophy is the following: “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.”[1] However, this can only lead to false impressions. For fire plays a far greater and more fundamental role for Heraclitus, as both an element and a metaphor, than water ever did. Fire expresses and is the eternal alteration between life and death, movement and rest, between uniformity and diversity viz. what has come to be known as the dialectic.

It should be recalled that Hegel consciously built his system on the basis of Heraclitus. As he once famously stated, “there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic.”[2] In taking over the latter’s dialectic he also absorbed his notion of fire. But the dialectic does not remain still. Not merely do its forms change, but the human comprehension of the dialectic varies as well. Thus we find Hegel’s dialectic more concrete compared to Heraclitus, while fire was reduced to a subsidiary function within the totality of Hegel’s system. And yet fire and the dialectic remained inextricably bound together.

Finally, in considering Marx, we find yet another alteration in the conception of fire and dialectics. Here Marx’s materialist outlook is an advance on the idealism of Hegel, and yet also represents, on one level, a return to the materialism of Heraclitus. This is a true concretisation of the dialectic. And yet, unlike the previous two, fire does not play an important conceptual role for Marx. Rather it sinks to the level of a mere metaphor for the dialectic of human activity. By examining the development of the notion of fire in the dialectics of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx light can be cast on the essence of their dialectical thought. More specifically, when we look at the continuity and discontinuity of the imagery of fire across these three great thinkers, we can see how they dialectically passed the torch of the dialectic as a tool of enlightenment.

According to Hegel, the history of philosophy is the dialectical progression of human thought. Since the principle by which this development occurs is the dialectic, this history is also a history of the dialectic itself. As such the importance of Heraclitus is that he took “the dialectic itself as principle.”[3] For Hegel the latter is an unfolding totality, one which moves from the abstract to the concrete. As he stated in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:
The advance requisite and made by Heraclitus is the progression from Being as the first immediate thought, to the category of Becoming as the second. This is the first concrete, the Absolute, as in it the unity of opposites. Thus with Heraclitus the philosophic Idea is to be met with in its speculative form; the reasoning of Parmenides and Zeno is abstract understanding.[4]

Here the logical and the historical are united.[5] Everything before Heraclitus is seen as abstract, one-sided, merely preparatory. Hence he and his philosophy were viewed by Hegel as both temporally and logically subsequent to the Eleatics. He echoed the same sentiments later on when he stated that “As the first concrete determination of thought, becoming is also the first genuine one. In the history of philosophy it is the system of Heraclitus that corresponds to this stage of the logical Idea.”[6] For Hegel, then, Heraclitus is the first real step forward in the development of human thought. This he accomplished by positing the dialectic, and thereby concretising previous thinking. It is no wonder then that, as noted above, Hegel held him in such high regard. Nor can there be any doubt of the importance which a study of Heraclitus holds for understanding Hegel’s method and system.

Marx and Engels, unsurprisingly, both studied Heraclitus but only ever wrote about him in passing.[7] His importance to them was less theoretical and more so historical. This is not to say that they did not esteem his philosophy. As Marx wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle upon receiving the latter’s book on Heraclitus: “I have always felt a great TENDERNESS for this philosopher, whom I prefer above all the Ancients save Aristotle.”[8] Engels, for his part, argued that Heraclitus was an important philosophical forerunner:
When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.[9]

In light of Engels’ statement that the “old Greek philosophers were all born natural dialecticians,” this can only mean that, similar to Hegel, he held Heraclitus to be a founder of the dialectic.[10] But a distinction should be noted here. According to Hegel the importance of Heraclitus is the place he holds in the progression of the Absolute Idea i.e. the former interpreted the latter idealistically. Engels, however, understood Heraclitus to be an early materialist philosopher and, therefore, represented an initial advance in humanity’s conceptual grasp of material reality. While it is true that neither Marx nor Engels produced a systematic study of Heraclitus, this cannot obviate the powerful influence the latter had on philosophy in general, and dialectical logic in particular.[11]

The exact details of the life of Heraclitus are not known. The information that exists is, like his philosophy, fragmentary. What can be assured, as Robinson has remarked, is that Heraclitus “lived during the period spanning the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century BC.”[12] Further, he was an aristocrat and lived in the Greek port city of Ephesus. The latter was a place of great wealth, serving as a commercial hub in the ancient world. It was here that Heraclitus is said to have written a single book entitled On Nature, although there is debate as to whether this is true or not.[13] Whatever he actually wrote, all that has come down to us are fragments which, a careful reading reveals, have common threads binding them together.[14]

In fragment 30 Heraclitus lays bare the nature of reality, stating that “The cosmos, the same for all, none of the gods nor of humans has made, but it always was, and is, and shall be: an ever-living fire, being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.”[15] Heraclitus’ meaning here can be taken as both literal and symbolic. First, he is asserted that everything is literally made of fire as it is the basic element of reality. This, therefore, includes the other basic elements: “The turnings of fire are, first, sea; and of sea, half is earth and half fiery waterspout…Earth is poured out as sea, and is measured according to the same ratio it was before it became earth.”[16] While stating that the different elements transition between each other, his assertion is that fire is the primary element which underlies the others and to which they return: “Fire lives the death of earth, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth that of water.”[17] Hence a cycle is formed with fire being both the beginning and end viz. the entire universe is an infinite ring.

Secondly, therefore, Heraclitus’ also means fire in the symbolic sense of the continual flux and change of fire as it burns: its form is always altering and yet it remains the same. This constant change is not chaotic however, as his mention of measures imply that this movement is ordered, structured, and lawful. In what is presumed to be the introduction to his work Heraclitus wrote that “This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it…all things come to be in accordance with this logos.”[18] He stated further that “it is necessary to follow this what is common. But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.”[19] What is the logos? It is fire and as the latter takes many forms, we should not be surprised to find the logos under different names. Thus “All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as good for gold and gold for goods.”[20] This exchange is the turning between opposites, so that “Fire is want and satiety,” or, in other words “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger.”[21] The logos is Fire, and Fire is God: the whole of existence.

This is shown further in fragment 10, where Heraclitus argues that “Things taken together are whole and not whole, being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity, and out of a unity all things.”[22] Fire, then, stands for the process of the unity and division of opposites, or what Engels referred to as the “interpenetration of opposites.”[23] This all-embracing process determines everything: “War is the father of all and the king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as humans, some he makes slaves, others free.”[24] Hence, war is fire and fire is war: “For fire will advance and judge and convict all things.”[25] Furthermore, chaos is order and order is chaos: “It is necessary to know that war is common and justice is strife and that all things happen in accordance with strife and necessity.”[26] The lawful order of reality, then, arises out of the eternal flux of its process. As Heraclitus wrote, “The most beautiful arrangement is a pile of things poured out at random.”[27] Chance and necessity, life and death, unity and division: everything is a universal alteration.

It is clear from the above that when Heraclitus made references to God he did not mean so in either a monotheistic or polytheistic sense. No his philosophy was an ancient materialism: if not atheistic, then at least pantheistic. Certainly, according to the logic of his thought, there is reason to believe that his whole point in referring to the logos by different names was intended to elucidate the unity amid diversity. It was also likely intended to aid the understanding of those who read his work by shining a light on popular ignorance. And this is why fire best represented the whole matter: for fire is always moving, always altering, and yet remaining the same: “Changing, it rests.”[28] The creation of fire arises from destruction and in destroying it creates.[29] This means, further, that this eternal process of change is self-regulating, as is implicit in fragment 30 quoted above. In other words, there is an inner logic to reality i.e. precisely the logos. The logic of Heraclitus, then, is dialectical and its most lucid expression is fire.

In leaving Heraclitus and turning to Hegel, we find a number of dialectical transitions. For example, fire remains a symbol of the dialectic, but its conceptualisation differs viz. the framework shifts from a materialist pantheism to absolute idealism. Further, where the dialectic is implicit in the thinking of Heraclitus, it is explicit in Hegel. In fact, we can characterise this development as the move from ancient to modern dialectics. From a Marxian perspective, then, Hegel represents both a progression and a retrogression compared to Heraclitus. In order to properly appreciate the historical significance of the former, his relationship with the latter must be illuminated and cognised.

Hegel, in the second part of his Philosophy of Nature, “Inorganic Physics,” discussed the four elements of air, fire, water, and earth. As these follow upon the elementary particles, which, for Hegel, is a moment of unity, of identity, the four elements therefore represent a moment of diversity, the splitting into opposition of the original self-identity. He classifies the four into a similar structure viz. air as a phase of universal, abstract unity, fire and water as a phase of particular, mediated antithesis, and earth as individualised identity. Though the elements differ amongst themselves in their concreteness, each taken alone is abstract as opposed to their concrete unity:
The individual identity, by which the different elements in terms of both their difference from each other and their unity with each other are bound, is a dialectic which constitutes the physical life of the earth, the meteorological process. It is in this process alone that the elements, as dependent moments, have their existence, being generated in it and posited as existent.[30]

The Earth itself, then, is the totality, the integration of the elements and hence is the moment of a self-unity. What matters here is not the scientific basis or lack thereof of Hegel’s writing. Rather it is the very structure, the logic of his conception. As Thomas Posch has argued “it may thus be said that all categories developed in the Science of Logic have their respective counterparts in the Philosophy of Nature (and also in the Philosophy of Spirit); moreover, the succession of the logical categories and of their respective counterparts is roughly the same.”[31] This can also be said for his History of Philosophy. In other words, the question here concerns Hegel’s dialectical method.

Within this general context, Hegel wrote the following passage about fire itself, and which can only be considered Heraclitean:
The elements of the antithesis are (a) being for itself not the indifferent being of rigidity, but rather being for itself posited in individuality as a moment, and therefore material selfhood, light identical to heat: fire. This element is materialised time, absolutely restless and consuming, and causes the self-consumption of the subsisting body as it conversely destroys the body through its external approach. In consuming another, fire consumes itself.[32]

When Hegel stated that “fire…is materialised time,” he was referring to Heraclitus, especially to the latter’s “ever-living fire.” Fire, for both thinkers, is the continual flux, the constant change of reality. The manifold of appearances are always altering, but the essence remains the same viz. the permanent diremption of unity, its re-establishment via the fusion of its oppositions, and the eventual self-division.[33] It should be recalled that Heraclitus was not conscious of this principle and thus presented the dialectic abstractly or, as I stated above, implicitly. Accordingly, only with Hegel was it made explicit, or further concretised. That is to say, the dialectic was shown to be not a mere dance between unity and division, between immediate and mediate, but, more specifically, the movement from the abstract to the concrete, the unfolding of the totality.

Yet the reference to time in relation to fire does not refer only to constant transmutations in general. Hegel, in his section on Heraclitus, in his History of Philosophy, provides an overview and systematic reading of the latter’s philosophy by referring to most of the fragments. There he wrote that “Understanding the abstract process as time, Heraclitus said: ‘Time is the first corporeal existence,’ as Sextus (adv. Math. X. 231, 232) puts it…Corporeal here means abstract sensuousness; time, as the first sensuous existence, is the abstract representation of process.”[34] Since time is the abstract expression of process, therefore fire, as a more concrete expression of the latter, is materialised time. And we can see the same formulation in the Philosophy of Nature: “Time, as the negative unity of being outside of itself, is just as thoroughly abstract, ideal being: being which, since it is, is not, and since it is not, is.”[35]

What, though, exactly is this process? To answer the question it must be emphasised that Hegel did not believe that Heraclitus actually held that fire was truly the basic principle. Rather he stressed that while some ancient authorities argued that fire was primary, and others held other elements to have that status, he denied all four of them that role. Thus he wrote that
Heraclitus could no longer, like Thales, express water, air or anything similar as an absolute principle—he could no longer do so in the form of a primeval element from which the rest proceeds—because he thought of Being as identical with non-being, or the infinite Notion; thus the existent, absolute principle cannot with him come forth as a definite and actual thing such as water, but must be water in alteration, or as process only.[36]
Hegel here argued, quite logically, that the basic principle for Heraclitus was the dialectic, the flux of opposites, and therefore could not be a sole element. Heraclitus had said that “We step into and do not step into the same rivers. We are and are not.”[37] This is what Hegel phrases as the identity of being and non-being. Yet Hegel’s argument was undoubtedly an instance of his making explicit what was implicit in Heraclitus. Indeed, he went on to remark that
To Heraclitus the truth is to have grasped the essential being of nature, i.e. to have represented it as implicitly infinite, as process in itself; and consequently it is evident to us that Heraclitus could not say that the primary principle is air, water, or any such thing. They are not themselves process, but fire is process; and thus he maintains fire to be the elementary principle, and this is the real form of the Heraclitean principle, the soul and substance of the nature-process. Fire is physical time, absolute unrest, absolute disintegration of existence, the passing away of the ‘other,’ but also of itself; and hence we can understand how Heraclitus, proceeding from his fundamental determination, could quite logically call fire the Notion of the process.[38]
To Hegel, fire is both a symbol and a physical manifestation of the higher, single principle: the unity and opposition of Being and non-being. Being is what it is because it is not non-being, and vice versa. However, being inextricably bound, being mutually dependent, they are not different, but the same. Hence, instead of being two poles standing apart and structuring each other, it is actually a self-opposition, a self-determining. As there is no determination by an external other, hence finitude, but rather a self-relation, it is thus an infinite relation.[39]

As we can see, Hegel repeated Heraclitus but not exactly. More particularly, Hegel, aside from his idealism, held that no element could predominate among others. Where he did repeat Heraclitus, following the nature of the dialectic, was in the idea of eternal change. Time continues on and does not stop. However, we cannot touch or see time: it is immaterial. Fire, then, as ever changing, ever consuming, is a materialisation of time, and therefore perfectly exemplifies the negativity of the dialectic, the unity and division of Being and non-being.[40] Hegel explicitly made this the bedrock of his system:
This universal principle is better characterized as Becoming, the truth of Being; since everything is and is not, Heraclitus hereby expressed that everything is Becoming. Not merely does origination belong to it, but passing away as well; both are not independent, but identical. It is a great advance in thought to pass from Being to Becoming, even if, as the first unity of opposite determinations, it is still abstract…This philosophy is thus not one past and gone; its principle is essential, and is to be found in the beginning of my Logic, immediately after Being and Nothing.[41]
With this passage Hegel not only gave a brief overview of the beginning of his Science of Logic, but he also disclosed a most compact summary of his dialectics. Further, in grasping the latter as the foundation, it should be quite comprehensible that we find Hegel’s method and categories replicated across his system. It is an organic whole and each part represents a possible entry point for grasping the totality; all are interrelated.[42] Therefore, any one of Hegel’s works can be taken as a means to light the way in studying his entire philosophy.

In leaving Hegel and advancing towards Marx, we again find a materialist understanding of the dialectic. But this was not a simple repetition of the materialism of Heraclitus: the dialectic is not a circle, but a spiral.[43] Indeed, Engels argued in 1859 that an aspect of Marx’s “establishing the dialectical method” after Hegel, was divesting it “of its idealist wrappings.”[44] More specifically this involved the “elaboration of a world outlook that was more materialist than any previous one.”[45] Marx’s scientific socialism, therefore, recognised the materiality of existence, but not in the form of a basic element. Fire, as will be seen, plays no key role in Marx’s thought. Rather, it serves as a symbol for the foundation of his dialectical logic: labour, practical human activity.

The identification of fire and the dialectic was replicated by Marx, but the form this took changed over the course of his career. For example, in 1841, while a Young Hegelian, he was working on his doctoral dissertation. Here he provided a systematic Hegelian reading of Epicurus. Marx wrote that, “Time, on the other hand, is the fire of essence, eternally consuming appearance, and stamping it with dependence and non-essence.”[46] In view of the analysis above it is clear that there is nothing specifically “Marxist” in this formulation: time as an eternal process, as an all-consuming perpetual fire which expresses the dialectical flux between essence and appearance. At this moment it could not have been otherwise; so that, although Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation under the sign of atheism, he was repeating the form and content of the Hegelian reading of Heraclitus.[47]

Years later, in 1857, amidst the heat of his intensive studies in political economy, Marx wrote in his notebooks that “Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time.”[48] The dialectic of fire, as perpetual transformation, as destructive creation-creative destruction, still persists, but not as the basic building block of reality, nor as an expression of the Absolute Spirit coming to consciousness. No, here it stands as a metaphor for the open-ended power of human agency. It is no longer a mystical logic, but the logic of labour.[49] As Marx wrote just before the above line:
The transformation of the material by living labour, by the realization of living labour in the material – a transformation which, as purpose, determines labour and is its purposeful activation (a transformation which does not only posit the form as external to the inanimate object, as a mere vanishing image of its material consistency) – thus preserves the material in a definite form, and subjugates the transformation of the material to the purpose of labour.[50]
Reality is in a permanent flux: the only constant is change. To describe this unstable condition as an eternal, self-regulating fire can only be done symbolically. Nor does the pre-ordained logic of God’s plan guide the hands of humanity. It is not by some higher will that humanity changes its environment, determines its existence, but rather it is only according to its own agency. It is human activity that is self-determining, self-regulating, self-creating, self-structuring, etc. Human existence is social and this social world is the product of labour, of the collective re-shaping of the natural world over time. Labour is the practical blaze that clears away the past and opens a way for the future.

The theoretical transition point in Marx’s conception of the dialectic was in 1844. It was in that year that Marx was busy with a number of studies and among which he began, but did not finish, a critique of Hegel’s philosophy. In his opinion,
The outstanding achievement of Hegel’s Phänomenologie and of its final outcome, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle, is thus first that Hegel conceives the self-creation of man as a process, conceives objectification as loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation; that he thus grasps the essence of labour and comprehends objective man – true, because real man – as the outcome of man’s own labour.[51]
For Hegel the scope of the human drama is a historical process of development, of self-becoming. Humanity, the subject, is faced with an alien world, the object: it struggles with it, fights with it, alters it. Through the alienation process it comes to see itself in the object, to recognise itself in it. Humanity comes to being, comes to self-recognition, by overcoming the alienation viz. subject and object become one. Hence Marx goes on to argue that “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence of man – as man’s essence which stands the test: he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour. Labour is man’s coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man.”[52] By “modern political economy” Marx here especially referred to the work of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, and David Ricardo. But “modern political economy” at that time was, of course, bourgeois political economy and, hence, trapped within the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production: increasingly it was degenerating into vulgar economics, moving away from its original scientific insights and falling into pure ideology.[53]

Labour is alienated under capitalism viz. it takes place in the context of a class-divided division of labour where, consequently, the average products of labour, and labour itself, are privately bought and sold on the market.[54] Classical political economy takes this fact to be timeless, as essential to labour itself. Hegel, despite his great historical grasp, accepted this premise, and his understanding of labour was consequently itself alienated. Therefore, Marx continued,
The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour. Therefore, that which constitutes the essence of philosophy – the alienation of man who knows himself, or alienated science thinking itself – Hegel grasps as its essence; and in contradistinction to previous philosophy he is therefore able to combine its separate aspects, and to present his philosophy as the philosophy.[55]
Hegel’s achievement here was also his failure. The same alienated understanding which allowed him to grasp the essence of philosophy and the development of humanity, also meant that he “fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself.”[56] Thus, for Hegel, the coming-to-be of humanity is actually the coming to be of God viz. the identity of subject and object is determined on an idealist basis. This is why Marx’s point about the “essence of philosophy” being “alienated science thinking itself” is key. Marx was moving away from philosophy and struggling for a scientific method and outlook, towards what he termed the “new” materialism.[57] This was achieved the following year with the writing of his theses on Feuerbach and the German Ideology. It was precisely the historical focus on human practical activity that constituted the basis of scientific socialism.[58]

Labour, however, does not just produce our food and clothing, build housing, etc. It also creates our social relations and provides the basis for human thought. Marx discussed this fact in the course of a critical attack on Proudhon, which made in an 1846 letter to Pavel Annekov. Written just before he began work on his Poverty of Philosophy, this is one of the most important pieces of Marx’s oeuvre, and one that remains, even today, woefully under-read and understudied by Marxists. As Marx argued:
M. Proudhon has very well grasped the fact that men produce cloth, linen, silks, and it is a really great merit to have grasped such a small matter! But he has not grasped that, according to their productive forces, these men also produce the social relations amid which they manufacture cloth and linen. Still less has he understood that men, who produce their social relations in accordance with their material productivity, also produce ideas, categories, that is to say the abstract ideal expressions of these same social relations. Thus the categories are no more eternal than the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.[59]
This is the material, historical basis for the growth of human consciousness, of knowledge, of what Marx termed the ideal. However, this is still a generalisation and does not address the specifics of how this process develops. On this question Aristotle had already provided an essentially correct argument. According to him, it was through the experience of repeatedly perceiving different phenomena that general concepts began to emerge in our consciousness. As this process was repeated and compounded, even more abstract and general concepts, expressing the universal essence of the variety were and are formed.[60] Yet, in light of Marx, the weakness of Aristotle’s position here is obvious: he treats the development of concepts or categories, as simply a result of the repetition of perception. But, as we have seen, humans are no passive observers; rather they are active agents. Ergo, it is through the reiteration of practical activity and its comprehension i.e., the process of active abstraction, that knowledge arises.[61]

Further, it should be recalled that the history of humanity is one of class struggles. With the growth of the class-divided division of labour, theory and practice are increasingly specialised and relatively divided. The performance of mental and physical labour tends to become the purview of specific social groups. More specifically, sections of the ruling class become focused on the systematisation of abstract thought. Aristotle had already rightly noted that “those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics.”[62] Or, in the words of the German Marxist August Thalheimer, “As Aristotle said, leisure is the premise of philosophy.”[63] Of course though, Aristotle was not a Marxist: he was not making a historical analysis of the development of society. Rather, he was simply describing how society functioned in his time. In order to understand the rise of philosophy we need to look elsewhere.

August Thalheimer provided the first popular Marxist analysis of the development of abstract thought. He argued that there were “universal material conditions for the development of philosophy and science and for the disintegration of the popular religion in ancient times.”[64] Of these he listed “the first in importance” as “the advance in the development of the productive capacity, in the productiveness of the economy, in the mastery of nature” which was “distinctly connected with the development of private property and a commodity economy.”[65] Continuing on he argued that the “second and closely related condition” was that “with the development of a commodity economy in which merchant capital and money capital grow up alongside of the priestly class and the landowners, a new class of people appears who enjoy free time, who have leisure to develop themselves and to dedicate themselves to art and science.”[66]

As an example of this historical dialectic, Thalheimer referred to Greece, for it was there that “the development of philosophy and natural science is closely related to the development of Greek commercial cities on the coast of Asia Minor, where, as early as the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., there emerged a materialistic viewpoint opposed to the priesthood.”[67] The cities which Thalheimer emphasised were “Miletus and Ephesus” and which stood “culturally and economically, far above contemporary Greek development.”[68] The intellectual revolution seen here was not only based on the leisure afforded the wealthier classes, but also on
the fact that through the growth of commercial shipping the intellectual horizon of these Greeks of Asia Minor was tremendously widened. These first Greek merchants traversed the whole Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, etc., with their merchant ships. They came to know many strange peoples, religions, manners, and customs.[69]

Ephesus, of course, was the home of Heraclitus.[70] And so, underlying the abstract fire of the latter, we find the concrete fire of human practical activity. Yet this is only one aspect of the question. The full scope of the practical basis of philosophy, of systematised abstract thought, can and should be extended. To be more specific, while Thalheimer built upon Aristotle’s second insight into the formation of philosophy, the first was later developed by the English Marxist George Thomson. He argued that the extensive development of the commodity value-form was directly reflected in growth of philosophy in ancient Greece. For example, in regards to Heraclitus he asserted that the “concept of a self-regulating cycle of perpetual transformations of matter is the ideological reflex of an economy based on commodity production.”[71] How exactly though? In Thomson’s words,
civilised thought has been dominated from the earliest times down to the present day by what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, that is, the ‘false consciousness’ generated by the social relations of commodity production. In early Greek philosophy we see this ‘false consciousness’ gradually emerging and imposing on the world categories of thought derived from commodity production, as though these categories belonged, not to society, but to nature. The Parmenidean One, together with the later idea of ‘substance,’ may therefore be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value.[72]
Thomson’s argument here is a stellar contribution to the Marxist critique of philosophical history. Yet, though essentially correct, it contains an incorrect formulation. That is, Thomson here, and elsewhere, makes the formation of philosophical categories and systems the automatic product of the economy. But human thought is not mechanically produced by the impact of the social environment. No, the growth of knowledge is an example of the power of human activity. Therefore, it was not merely the surplus product produced by slave labour, or the new experiences of the rising class of merchants, which aided the development of Greek philosophy, but also the theoretical examination, the active cognition of the repeated acts of commodity exchange developing in the bosom of the slave economy.[73] This is precisely the historical basis for the parallel which Lenin noted between the commodity and the syllogism.[74]

This short study on the history of dialectical logic began with the fire of Heraclitus, progressed to Hegel’s system, and finally moved on to Marx’s method and outlook. We now find that we have returned to Heraclitus, for it was never any sort of fire which set the practical and intellectual world in motion, but rather the dialectic of human practical activity, or what Marx in his earlier period called labour. The dialectic of humanity, then, is the materialisation of the latter. But in this logic, history is not automatic: it is consciously made by humans:
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity…The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals.[75]
These “real individuals” are not automatons, they have consciousness. So that their activity, whether fully understood or not, is always conscious. To quote Lenin, “The concept (cognition) reveals the essence (the law of causality, identity, difference, etc.) in Being (in immediate phenomena)—such is actually the general course of all human cognition (of all science) in general.”[76] We study being, the object, objective reality, and piercing beyond its immediate surface reach its essence and this gives rise to our concept of it. In turn, we use the concept to understand the essence of new, different beings. All of this occurs within social activity. We move, then, from the concrete to the abstract, and from the abstract to concrete. Hence, although human consciousness reflects reality, it is not a dead mirror, it is not an effect of an impersonal structure.[77] Indeed, it is an expression of the infinite creativity of human agency: we humans collectively forge our reality.

All of our existence therefore is a product of past and present labour viz. of historically developing human activity. As the subject-object, the self-creator, humanity is not the product of any God, nor a “natural” development. In the words of E.V. Ilyenkov,
Nature as such creates absolutely nothing ‘human’. Man with all his specifically human features is from beginning to end the result and product of his own labour. Even walking straight, which appears at first sight man’s natural, anatomically innate trait, is in actual fact a result of educating the child within an established society.[78]
Because we have created this world, it is within our collective power to change it. Yet this can only be done by understanding our current society in its contradictions and revolutionising it “in practice.”[79] In this task there is no better organon than Marx’s dialectical logic. But to grasp the latter we must study it and understand it in its dialectical formation. Heraclitus was the first dialectical logician and all subsequent developments in logic can been seen as refinements in the logos he first set down. The questions is: does one reject or critically accept this heritage? For Marxists, we must unequivocally claim Heraclitus as our teacher, avowing ourselves as his pupils. In the coming revolutionary conflagrations, this ancient thinker still has much to teach us.

[1] Heraclitus, “Fragment 12,” in A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, ed. Patricia Curd and tran. Richard D. McKirahan Jr. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996), 36.
[2] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greek Philosophy to Plato, trans. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 279.
[3] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 279.
[4] Ibid., 279.
[5] This combination was accomplished, however, on an idealist basis. Engels set forth the materialist understanding of the dialectic between the logical and historical as follows: “Even after the determination of the method, the critique of economics could still be arranged in two ways — historically or logically. Since in the course of history, as in its literary reflection, the evolution proceeds by and large from the simplest to the more complex relations, the historical development of political economy constituted a natural clue, which the critique could take as a point of departure, and then the economic categories would appear on the whole in the same order as in the logical exposition. This form seems to have the advantage of greater lucidity, for it traces the actual development, but in fact it would thus become, at most, more popular. History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line, and as this would have to be followed throughout, it would mean not only that a considerable amount of material of slight importance would have to be included, but also that the train of thought would frequently have to be interrupted; it would, moreover, be impossible to write the history of economy without that of bourgeois society, and the task would thus become immense, because of the absence of all preliminary studies. The logical method of approach was therefore the only suitable one. This, however, is indeed nothing but the historical method, only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences. The point where this history begins must also be the starting point of the train of thought, and its further progress will be simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course. Though the reflection is corrected, it is corrected in accordance with laws provided by the actual historical course, since each factor can be examined at the stage of development where it reaches its full maturity, its classical form.” See, Frederick Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Part One, Franz Duncker, Berlin, 1859,” in Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 225.
[6] G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991), 144.
[7] The only extensive socialist study of Heraclitus was written by Ferdinand Lassalle. This work, Die Philosophie Herakleitos des Dunkeln von Ephesos, can be found online: https://archive.org/d etails/diephilosophieh01l ass/pag e/n3. However, upon reading it Marx found it wanting and wrote to Engels that “Heraclitus, the Dark Philosopher by Lassalle the Luminous One is, au fond, a very silly concoction. Every time Heraclitus uses an image to demonstrate the unity of AFFIRMATION and NEGATION—and this is often—IN STEPS Lassalle and makes the most of the occasion by treating us to some passage from Hegel’s Logic which is HARDLY improved in the process; always at great length too, like a schoolboy who must show in his essay that he has thoroughly understood his ‘essence’ and ‘appearance’ as well as the ‘dialectical process.’ Once he has got this into his speculative noddle, one may be sure that the schoolboy will nevertheless be able to carry out the process of ratiocination only in strict accord with the prescribed formula and the formes sacramentales. Just so our Lassalle. The fellow seems to have tried to puzzle out Hegelian logic via Heraclitus, nor ever to have tired of beginning the process all over again… Despite the fellow’s claim, by the way, that hitherto Heraclitus has been a book with 7 seals, he has to all intents and purposes added nothing whatever that is new to what Hegel says in the History of Philosophy.” See Karl Marx, “Marx to Engels, 1 February 1858,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 40, Letters 1856-59 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 259-260. This judgement was echoed decades later by another interpreter of Heraclitus: “Lassalle, in two ponderous volumes noted above, made the first and most elaborate attempt to reconstruct the system of the Ephesian philosopher. His work exhibits immense labor and study, and extended research in the discovery of new fragments and of ancient testimony, together with some acuteness in their use. Lassalle has a very distinct view of the philosophy of Heraclitus. But it is not an original view. It is, in fact, nothing but an expansion of the short account of Heraclitus in Hegel’s History of Philosophy, although Lassalle makes no mention of him, except to quote upon his title-page Hegel’s well-known motto, “Es ist kein Satz des Heraklit, den ich nicht in meine Logik aufgenommen”.” See, G.T.W. Patrick, “Introduction,” in The Fragments of the Work of Heraclitus of Ephesus On Nature, trans. G.T.W. Patrick (Baltimore: Press of Isaac Friedenwald, 1889), 4. Lenin, in his philosophical studies, essentially repeated the same criticisms: “One can understand why Marx called this work of Lassalle’s “schoolboyish”…Lassalle simply repeats Hegel, copies from him, re-echoing him a million times with regard to isolated passages from Heraclitus, furnishing his opus with an incredible heap of learned ultra-pedantic ballast. The difference with respect to Marx: In Marx there is a mass of new material, and what interests him is only the movement forward from Hegel and Feuerbach further, from idealistic to materialistic dialectics. In Lassalle there is a rehash of Hegel on the particular theme selected: essentially transcribing from Hegel with respect to quotations from Heraclitus and about Heraclitus.” And he ended his notes on Lassalle writing categorically that “In general, ΣΣ, Marx’s judgment is correct, Lassalle’s book is not worth reading.” See, V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Lassalle’s Book The Philosophy of Heraclitus the Obscure of Ephesus,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 339-340, 353.
[8] Karl Marx, “Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle, 21 December 1857,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 40, Letters 1856-59 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 226.
[9] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 30.
[10] Ibid., 29.
[11] This importance cannot be stressed enough. Indeed, the father of formal logic, Aristotle, clearly posited the laws of logic in opposition to Heraclitus: “For a principle which every one must have who understands anything that is, is not a hypothesis; and that which every one must know who knows anything, he must already have when he comes to a special study. Evidently then such a principle is the most certain of all; which principle this is, let us proceed to say. It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect; we must presuppose, to guard against dialectical objections, any further qualifications which might be added. This, then, is the most certain of all principles, since it answers to the definition given above. For it is impossible for any one to believe the same thing to be and not to be, as some think Heraclitus says.” See, Aristotle, “Metaphysica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 736-737. On this matter we should recall the words of Lenin: “NB: At the beginning of The Metaphysics the stubborn struggle against Heraclitus, against his idea of the identity of Being and not-Being (the Greek philosophers approached close to dialectics but could not cope with it).” See, V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Aristotle’s Book Metaphysics,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 366.
[12] T.M. Robinson, Heraclitus, Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 3.
[13] Ibid., 3.
[14] Again, from Marx’s letter to Lassalle: “I am all the more aware of the difficulties you had to surmount in this work in that ABOUT 18 years ago I myself attempted a similar work on a far easier philosopher, Epicurus —namely the portrayal of a complete system from fragments, a system which I am convinced, by the by, was—as with Heraclitus—only implicitly present in his work, not consciously as a system. Even in the case of philosophers who give systematic form to their work, Spinoza for instance, the true inner structure of the system is quite unlike the form in which it was consciously presented by him.” See, Marx, “Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle,” Collected Works Volume 40, 316.
[15] Heraclitus, “Fragment 30,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37. Lenin, in regard to this statement, commented that it was “A very good exposition of the principles of dialectical materialism.” This is high praise indeed coming from Lenin, and it should further emphasise for all Marxists the necessity to study Heraclitus in order to grasp dialectical logic. See, Lenin, “Conspectus of Lassalle’s Book,” 347. I would add that when Lenin referred to “dialectical materialism” he should be taken to mean Marx’s method. As I have argued elsewhere, there is no philosophy of dialectical materialism and Lenin, for a number of reasons, was mistaken on this question. See, Jason Devine, “On the “Philosophy” of “Dialectical Materialism”,” accessed 30 January 2019, http://links.org.au/node/4667 and Jason Devine, “‘Dialectical Materialism,’ Ideology and Revisionism,” accessed 30 January 2019, http://links.org.au/dialec tical-materialism-ideology-revisionism.
[16] Heraclitus, “Fragments 31a and 31b,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[17] Heraclitus, “Fragment 76a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[18] Heraclitus, “Fragment 1,” in A Presocratics Reader, 30.
[19] Heraclitus, “Fragment 2,” in A Presocratics Reader, 30. This is echoed in Hegel: “It marks the diseased state of the age when we see it adopt the despairing creed that our knowledge is only subjective, and that beyond this subjective we cannot go. Whereas, rightly understood, truth is objective, and ought so to regulate the conviction of every one, that the conviction of the individual is stamped as wrong when it does not agree with this rule.” See, G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), tran. William Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 35.
[20] Heraclitus, “Fragment 90,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[21] Heraclitus, “Fragment 65,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38; Heraclitus, “Fragment 67,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[22] Heraclitus, “Fragment 10,” in A Presocratics Reader, 34.
[23] Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 62.
[24] Heraclitus, “Fragment 53,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[25] Heraclitus, “Fragment 66,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[26] Heraclitus, “Fragment 80,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[27] Heraclitus, “Fragment 124,” in A Presocratics Reader, 35.
[28] Heraclitus, “Fragment 84a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37. Hegel certainly had this in mind when he wrote that “Appearance is the process of arising into being and passing away again, a process that itself does not arise and does not pass away, but is per se, and constitutes reality and the life-movement of truth. The truth is thus the bacchanalian revel, where not a member is sober; and because every member no sooner becomes detached than it eo ipso collapses straightway, the revel is just as much a state of transparent unbroken calm.” G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, tran. J.B. Baillie (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), 105.
[29] This indissoluble unity between creation and destruction was emphasised by Bakunin when he was still a Young Hegelian: “Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” Mikhail Bakunin, “The Reaction in Germany: From the Notebooks of a Frenchman,” in Michael Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, tran. Sam Dolgoff (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), 57.
[30] G.W.F. Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference /archive/hegel/works/na/nature2.htm.
[31] Thomas Posch, “Hegel and the Sciences,” in A Companion to Hegel, eds. Stephen Houlgate and Michael Baur (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), 180.
[32] Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive /hegel/works/na/nature2.htm.
[33] As Hegel said later in his Philosophy of Nature, “life is essentially the concept which realises itself only through self-division and reunification.” Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.m arxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/na/nature3.htm.
[34] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 286. Although this fragment is no longer considered to have been written by Heraclitus it does not matter, because in Hegel’s time it was not thought spurious and he therefore had every reason to accept it.
[35] G.W.F. Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 3 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference/ar chive/hegel/works/na/nature1.htm.
[36] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 286.
[37] Heraclitus, “Fragment 49a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 36.
[38] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 287.
[39] This is, likewise, an aspect of Hegel reading Heraclitus idealistically: “This one is not an abstraction, but the activity of dividing itself into opposites; the dead infinite is a poor abstraction as compared with the depths of Heraclitus. All that is concrete, as that God created the world, divided Himself, begot a Son, is contained in this determination.” Ibid., 284.
[40] “Precisely for the reason that existence is designated a species or kind, it is naked simple thought: nouς, simplicity, is substance. It is on account of its simplicity, its self-identity, that it appears steady, fixed, and permanent. But this self-identity is likewise negativity; hence that fixed and stable existence carries the process of its own dissolution within itself. The determinateness appears at first to be so solely through its relation to something else; and its process seems imposed and forced upon it externally. But its having its own otherness within itself, and the fact of its being a self-initiated process – these are implied in the very simplicity of thought itself. For this is self-moving thought, thought that distinguishes, is inherent inwardness, the pure notion. Thus, then, it is the very nature of understanding to be a process; and being a process it is Rationality.” Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 114-115.
[41] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 283; “If we look more closely at the particular form worn by a philosophy we see that it arises, on the one hand, from the living originality of the spirit whose work and spontaneity have reestablished and shaped the harmony that has been rent; and on the other hand, from the particular form of the dichotomy from which the system emerges. Dichotomy is the source of the need of philosophy…Life eternally forms itself by setting up oppositions, and totality at the highest pitch of living energy is only possible through its own re-establishment out of the deepest fission…When the might of union vanishes from the life of men and the antitheses lose their living connection and reciprocity and gain independence, the need of philosophy arises. From this point of view the need is contingent. But with respect to the given dichotomy the need is the necessary attempt to suspend the rigidified opposition between subjectivity and objectivity; to comprehend the achieved existence of the intellectual and real world as a becoming.” G.W.F. Hegel, The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, eds. H. S. Harris and Walter Cerf (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 89, 91.
[42] “Each of the parts of philosophy is a philosophical whole, a circle rounded and complete in itself. In each of these parts, however, the philosophical Idea is found in a particular specificality or medium. The single circle, because it is a real totality, bursts through the limits imposed by its special medium, and gives rise to a wider circle. The whole of philosophy in this way resembles a circle of circles. The Idea appears in each single circle, but, at the same time, the whole Idea is constituted by the system of these peculiar phases, and each is a necessary member of the organization.” Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, 20.
[43] “By describing its circle it expands itself as the subject of the circle and thus describes a self-expanding circle, a spiral.” Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, tran. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 746; “The circle in which simple reproduction moves, alters its form, and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 545; “The capitalistic mode of production moves in these two forms of the antagonism immanent to it from its very origin. It is never able to get out of that ‘vicious circle’ which Fourier had already discovered. What Fourier could not, indeed, see in his time is that this circle is gradually narrowing; that the movement becomes more and more a spiral, and must come to an end, like the movement of the planets, by collision with the centre.” Engels, Anti-Dühring, 324; “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.” V.I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 361.
[44] Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’,” 225.
[45] Ibid., 223. This is what Engels, decades later, would refer to as “the dialectical method and…the communist world outlook.” See, Engels, Anti-Dühring, 13.
[46] Karl Marx, “Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 1: 1835-1843 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 64.
[47] “Philosophy, as long as a drop of blood shall pulse in its world-subduing and absolutely free heart, will never grow tired of answering its adversaries with the cry of Epicurus: Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them, is truly impious. Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus: ‘In simple words, I hate the pack of gods,’ is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It will have none other beside…Prometheus is the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” Ibid., 30-31.
[48] Marx, Grundrisse, 361.
[49] “In other words, the Notion is the soul of all, thus it is self-moving, i.e. it is God. This is the very basis of Hegel’s dialectic. Contrariwise, the premise of Marx’s dialectic is human activity, and in the first place, labour.” Jason Devine, “Dialectical logic in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’,” accessed 4 February 2019, http://links.org.au/dialectical-logic-plato-parmenides-hegel-marx-critique-political-economy.
[50] Marx, Grundrisse, 360-361.
[51] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), 132.
[52] Ibid., 132.
[53] “The nearer to our time the economists whom we have to judge, the more severe must our judgment become. For while Smith and Malthus found only scattered fragments, the modern economists had the whole system complete before them: the consequences had all been drawn; the contradictions came clearly enough to light; yet they did not come to examining the premises, and still accepted the responsibility for the whole system. The nearer the economists come to the present time, the further they depart from honesty. With every advance of time, sophistry necessarily increases, so as to prevent economics from lagging behind the times. This is why Ricardo, for instance, is more guilty than Adam Smith, and McCulloch and Mill more guilty than Ricardo.” Frederick Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), 154.
[54] As Marx’s studies progressed and his understanding matured, he later distinguished between labour and labour power.
[55] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 132-133.
[56] Marx, Grundrisse, 101.
[57] “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” Karl Marx, “Theses On Feuerbach,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 617.
[58] “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice… The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Ibid., 617.
[59] Karl Marx, “Marx to P.V. Annekov,” in Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy: Answer to the “Philosophy of Poverty” by M. Proudhon (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 174.
[60] “So out of sense-perception comes to be what we call memory, and out of frequently repeated memories of the same thing develops experience; for a number of memories constitute a single experience. From experience again–i.e. from the universal now stabilized in its entirety within the soul, the one beside the many which is a single identity within them all-originate the skill of the craftsman and the knowledge of the man of science, skill in the sphere of coming to be and science in the sphere of being…When one of a number of logically indiscriminable particulars has made a stand, the earliest universal is present in the soul: for though the act of sense-perception is of the particular, its content is universal–is man, for example, not the man Callias. A fresh stand is made among these rudimentary universals, and the process does not cease until the indivisible concepts, the true universals, are established: e.g. such and such a species of animal is a step towards the genus animal, which by the same process is a step towards a further generalization.” Aristotle, “Analytica Posteriora,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 185.
[61] “When Hegel endeavours—sometimes even huffs and puffs—to bring man’s purposive activity under the categories of logic, saying that this activity is the ‘syllogism’ (Schluß), that the subject (man) plays the role of a ‘member’ in the logical ‘figure’ of the ‘syllogism,’ and so on,—THEN THAT IS NOT MERELY STRETCHING A POINT, A MERE GAME. THIS HAS A VERY PROFOUND, PURELY MATERIALISTIC CONTENT. It has to be inverted: the practical activity of man had to lead his consciousness to the repetition of the various logical figures thousands of millions of times in order that these figures could obtain the significance of axioms. This nota bene.” V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 190.
[62] Aristotle, “Politica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 1135.
[63] August Thalheimer, Introduction to Dialectical Materialism: The Marxist World-View (New York: Covici Friede, 1936), 62.
[64] Ibid., 60.
[65] Ibid., 61.
[66] Ibid., 61.
[67] Ibid., 62-63.
[68] Ibid., 63.
[69] Ibid., 63-64.
[70] Marc Shell, building on previous Marxist work, has offered the following brilliant insight: “The monetary form of exchange, which Plato feared, informs many fragments of Heraclitus. Of these, one of the most telling is the simple fragment that reads, ‘The way up and the way down are one and the same.’ Heraclitus of Ephesus refers not only to the transformations of fire (pyros tropai) but also to its monetary exchanges (chrysou antamoibai). The way up and the way down refer to sale and purchase. Ephesus, a port on the Mediterranean, was a trading center between Sardis (the capital of Lydia, where gold was minted) and major trading nations (such as Phoenicia). The way to which Heraclitus refers is (in part) a road like that between Sardis and its port, Ephesus.” Marc Shell, The Economy of Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 60-61.
[71] George Thomson, Studies In Ancient Greek Society, Volume II: The First Philosophers (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955), 282. For Thomson this influence logically extended beyond Heraclitus: “The power of abstraction embodied in the Platonic theory of Ideas and in Aristotelian logic was an intellectual product of the social relations created by the abstract process of commodity exchange.” Ibid, 321.
[72] Ibid., 301.
[73] Marc Shell is therefore not quite correct when he attributes the “ingenious” recognition of the connection between the development of commodity production and Greek philosophy to Thomson. See, Shell, The Economy of Literature, 39. The fact is that much of Thomson’s analysis traverses Thalheimer’s pioneering work. Whether the former read the latter is unknown, for Thomson does not cite him. Regardless, by the time Thomson was writing, Thalheimer had long ago been deemed persona non grata by the official Communist movement. See, Robert J. Alexander, The Right Opposition: The Lovestoneites and the International Communist Opposition of the 1930s (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 136-138.
[74] “In another section of his notebooks Lenin again connected Hegel and Marx. He wrote that ‘The beginning – the most simple, ordinary, mass, immediate ‘Being’: the single commodity (‘Sein’ in political economy). The analysis of it as a social relation. A double analysis, deductive and inductive – logical and historical (forms of value).’ Lenin directly maintained that both Hegel and Marx start with the barest category and, therefore, that the commodity plays the role of ‘Being’ in Capital. Lenin thus made an even more explicit equation between the two thinkers than he had previously suggested. This thought could have occurred to him in the course of his studies, or he could have had Engels’ well-known 1891 letter to Conrad Schmidt in mind, where Engels gave the latter advice in regards to studying Hegel. Engels, near the end of his letter, wrote that ‘If you compare development from commodity to capital in Marx with development from Being to Essence in Hegel you will get quite a good parallel: here the concrete development which results from facts; there the abstract construction.’ Lenin may have been thinking of this, but even if he did not, it does not truly matter. More importantly is that both Engels and Lenin drew a parallel between the process of development of the commodity and the basic categories of dialectical logic.” Jason Devine, “Dialectical logic in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’,” accessed 7 February 2019, http://links.org.au/dialectical-logic-plato-parmenides-hegel-marx-critique-political-economy.
[75] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 36-37.
[76] V.I. Lenin, “Plan of Hegel’s Dialectics (Logic). (Contents of the Small Logic (Encyclopaedia)),” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 316. The three parts of Hegel’s Science of Logic are Being, Essence, and Concept, (also translated as Notion).
[77] “Alias: Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic,” 212.
[78] E.V. Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers: 1982), 71-72; “On the contrary, following Spinoza and Marx, Ilyenkov didn’t act on the premise that a human is a dead automaton, but he starts from a living, object oriented active subject –an animal or a human…Just this mental train enables us finally to overcome the dead end of old psycho-physical dualism. The act of thought or psychic act doesn’t start in Ilyenkov’s logic from external stimulus, and doesn’t finish in meaningless mechanical response. It starts from spontaneous directed to its object activity of living subject.” Alexander Surmava, “Evald Ilyenkov and The End of Stimulus – Respond Paradigm” accessed 6 February 2019, http://www.academia.edu/340 90482/Evald _Ilyenkov_vs_Lev_Vygotsky.
[79] Marx, “Theses On Feuerbach,” 616.
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