Trotsky and My Grandfather

Leon Trotsky turned 38 on Nov. 7, 1917, the day of the November Revolution. He was President of the Petrograd Soviet, the early Soviet Republic’s first foreign minister, and Lenin’s only real equal as a theorist of revolution. Within a decade he would lose his political stature, outmaneuvered by the alliance of Josef Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin. 

Yet Trotsky and his writings have stood all the decades since as a beacon for those who believed in the ideals of the Revolution and socialism free from bureaucratic control. Trotsky’s Left Opposition was hounded by Stalinist agents, its descendants a squabbling pack of sectarian grouplets – but the ideas he generated and the alternative he represented of a humane socialism are still bright lights for those who have found their way to Marxism.
 
I was one of those who stumbled onto Trotsky’s writings as a teenager feeling his way through radical politics. I wasn’t a red-diaper baby; my parents had little history of political activism. I wasn’t dragged to rallies or protests as a kid, though my mother talked about participating in long-ago marches against the war in Vietnam. Ironically my grandfather, Thomas LaVenia, was a top aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare.
 
When I am feeling particularly wry, I consider myself the universe’s Marxist joke on my grandfather.
 
Trotsky’s appeal lies in the possibility that the destiny of the Revolution, as with all politics, is not set in stone. That there was no inevitable path to Stalin’s horrors and its betrayal of revolutionary ideals. That the next time, we can build it better.
 
Perhaps our own destinies are not foreordained; a grandson should not atone for the sins of his elders.
 
Trotsky’s ideals explain why so many have flocked to their banner: a socialism run by workers through their democratic councils and not the bureaucratic nightmare of Stalinism; an unwavering internationalism and commitment to cross-border solidarity and revolution; an understanding of Marxism as a tool of critical reasoning to begin constructing a better world.
 
I suspect that Trotsky, like Rosa Luxemburg, the other dissident twentieth century Marxist to sustain a following through the years, has an importance beyond his theories has kept him relevant to new generations of radicals. He represents for many the spirit of countless groups that argued for another path to socialism. Their names are obscure to most now: the council communists, the Worker’s Opposition, the syndicalists, the POUM and other radicals in the Spanish Civil War, the 60’s protest groups against the Vietnam War and American imperialism, but also those today who have begun to question capitalism and turn towards socialism.
 
My road has been colored by the knowledge that any alternative will be built after a long road of organizing and struggle, and that even in defeat – much like Trotsky’s – we can continue on to battle anew. 
 
Men like Stalin inspired no one except through fear, and no one now flocks to their banners. My grandfather was no Stalin, but he knew how to use power to attack the powerless. Those of us who wish to build a different world must understand their example as well as Trotsky’s.
 
I like to think that Trotsky understood all of this. That the Revolution, and its legacy, could inspire future generations to fight. This is clear when we see that the man who wrote and thundered about revolution could write words such as these:
 
“Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”
 
I doubt there is a more fitting epitaph for the Revolution, or call to arms for those of us who dare to commit to its ideals.
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Afghanistan: Why We Won’t Leave

In case you missed it, my latest essay on Counterpunch:

Afghanistan: Why We Won’t Leave

Trump’s recent decision to add troops in Afghanistan has nothing to do with combating terrorism (or mining mineral resources, or confusing militants as to when the U.S. military might finally leave), no matter what the endless stream of pundits and think-pieces have argued since it was announced. After 16 years of occupation the Taliban control 48 of nearly 400 administrative units, the Islamic State has established a foothold, the United States supplies almost the entirety of the military and civilian budget, the Afghan military is incapable of functioning without U.S. support, opium production has increased so that Afghanistan supplies 77% of the world’s heroin, and by the end of the next fiscal year the total cost of the 16-year Afghan war alone will be $1 trillion. Afghanistan and Pakistan have engaged in their worst border clashes in years as militants shift back and forth between both countries at will. Chinese troops operate openly in the country and conduct joint security exercises with Afghan forces. Russia is now debating a military intervention, ostensibly to counter the growing Taliban threat.

Trump, like Obama, had promised on the campaign trail to end the war. The war itself is deeply unpopular, and his stance on ending the war (like Obama’s before it) may have helped secure his victory in crucial states with high casualty rates. Now less than a year into his term Trump has decided to increase troop levels by 3,900, which his generals had requested earlier this summer. Since it is unlikely to help his dismal popularity ratings, what rationale would he have to do so? The usual suspects – combating terrorism and stabilizing the Afghan state – collapse quickly with even cursory investigation. After 16 years the Afghan government is little more than a puppet state, and after spending nearly a trillion dollars the United States clearly has no desire to build an economy and social programs that would modernize the country and loosen the reactionary social relations that give the Taliban and IS strength. The plan itself is one simply recycled from the early Obama era when Joe Biden was its pitchman.

No doubt this is, in good part, due to the inertia of the American empire. Representatives of the military-industrial complex have done very well selling the War on Terror; the ruling class – or the Power Elite if you prefer – seem to have a consensus that the war must continue not only to aid their own pockets and to give the military a place to test its new toys, but also because the empire should not voluntarily leave a place once it has been conquered. While it is true that Trump has staffed his administration at higher levels with generals, the national-security state’s apparatus seems to be able to control policy much like previous regimes. It is merely more visible because Trump’s unpredictable nature has caused the apparatus to show its face more often than it likes, and the generals have been more willing to accept roles with overt policy-making implications that in previous eras would have been done behind closed doors.

The real reason is that Afghanistan is a forward operating base for the U.S. military in Asia in its attempts to counter China’s inevitable rise, whatever the official justifications for maintaining troops there are. China’s $900 billion Belt and Road Initiative aims to lay the trans-continental infrastructure to allow its transition from great power to world-hegemon. Its projected land routes go north around Afghanistan and south through Pakistan. Given that the United States recently began a “Pivot to Asia” strategy aimed at building an economic and military partnership with Asian states to balance China, and that the economic side of that – the Transpacific Partnership – was temporarily defeated, there has been an increased emphasis on its military part by the national security state.

In addition, India, alarmed at China’s rise and open provocation on its eastern flank, has already signed an historic agreement to allow U.S. warships and aircraft to use Indian bases for “refueling, repair, and other logistical purposes.” The United States conducted joint naval war games with India and Japan this summer. It is clear that the United States is turning towards India at the same time as Pakistan moves closer to China’s sphere of influence. China has signaled its displeasure at these containment efforts, even as it expands its military footprint into the South China Sea and Africa. Given that Afghanistan borders the northern and southern route of China’s New Silk Road, and India has openly aligned itself with the United States, what is the likelihood of American troops leaving Afghanistan?

Because of this, it is more likely we will see an open-ended presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan than troops leaving for good at any point in the short or medium-term. Indeed, there is no domestic political group that will force the war to end. The anti-war Left in the United States is virtually non-existent outside of a small fraction of consistently anti-imperialist groups. Bush and Obama’s presidencies proved the bulk of protesters over the last decade to be anti-Republican Wars, but quite happy to ignore the imperial actions of a Democrat. The litmus test for any leftist movement going forward has to be its stance on foreign policy and consistent, unwavering anti-imperialism. Until then the rationale for keeping troops in Afghanistan is just too great for the American empire as it looks to balance the rise of China and to shore up alliances with regional powers like India. America’s longest war will get that much longer, and unfortunately there’s not much yet we are likely to do about it.

 

Confronting Neo-fascism With Class

The re-emergence of the white nationalist right, like a nightmare vomited up from the depths, is enough to make one reach for Marx’s observation that history happens twice – first as tragedy, then as farce. Wearing white polos and khakis – a farce of a uniform if you think about it even briefly – they gathered in Charlottesville to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee, military leader of the South’s chattel slave-owning class. It is no wonder that Karl Marx wrote extensively on the American Civil War and sent a letter of congratulations to Abraham Lincoln upon his re-election in 1864. Marx understood the Southern planters as reactionaries and a threat that had to be crushed – so much so that he saw the Northern capitalist class as a progressive force in the struggle. A century later Barrington Moore, Jr. wrote in his classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy that the American Civil War was the last bourgeois revolution: the smashing of the planter aristocracy and freeing of the slaves prevented the seeds of fascism from germinating at a national level even as Jim Crow repression ravaged the South.

Neo-fascism has arisen at the same time as class struggle politics slowly returns to the European and North American left. Suddenly we can once again imagine vastly different futures, some far better and many terribly worse than the present. History is back and we are no longer going to be allowed to stumble into a technocratic neoliberal order ruled by the free market and its increasing acceptance of varied identities, genders, races, etc. as long as we are all, ultimately, consumers of its products. This has created much consternation on the part of a political and professional caste unused to large-scale criticism and unsure of the rules in an era of systemic decay. The future may be, as Rosa Luxemburg once posited, Socialism or Barbarism, but we are a long way from either. For now there is not much besides the slow-motion collapse of the old order.

There are at least two questions that spin out of this: how can the neo-fascists best be defeated, and what role should those of us committed to Socialism play that can propel us to one of the better futures? This is not a small matter, for though there are as yet only tiny numbers of open neo-fascists willing to march with torches to defend monuments to slavery, there are certainly far more who will vote for candidates like Trump and Marine Le Pen who express those views in more coded language. Socialism as an organized force is laughably minuscule compared to the numbers of sympathizers with far-right politics.

One method is, of course, to meet the marches of white nationalists with counter-demonstrations. This happened in Charlottesville with a united crowd of marchers, some like Antifa willing to defend against neo-fascist provocations with force, and many others there to protest with their bodies, signs, and voices. It is clear that these are intensely important acts, but neo-fascists are not scared of violence and protest-as-violence is part of the fascist credo. Also, while this deals with an immediate problem, how can it deal with the structural forces that cause racism, nationalism, and fascism? Frankly, it cannot. Confusing the removal of monuments with defeating endemic socio-economic relations that underpin white supremacy is an all-too-likely outcome if the only way we engage neo-fascism is counter-demonstrations and statue disposal.

Another tactic is the development of a class politics that addresses the socio-economic issues that are, in the last instance, at the root of the white nationalism’s reemergence (and of course of the revival of socialist ideas as well). This is the beginning of an more extended answer: authoritarian right-wing movements thrive in areas with high unemployment, perceived pressures from immigration, ethnic/racial conflict, lack of social services, and poor educational opportunities. Much of the United States fits this profile too closely for comfort. A real program that afforded socialized universal health care for all, a right to employment at living wages, a guaranteed income, a massive investment in public and cooperatively controlled local jobs and businesses, renewable energy, a right to housing, labor rights – all these things would have the potential to cut off at the knees the potential base of a reactionary right.

Yet what organization will deliver this program? The Democratic Party, stuffed to the brim with a professional managerial class that long ago ditched its working class allies in order to grab at more Wall Street cash? My own group, the Green Party, adopted a socialist plank into its platform last year, but has been stymied – as have so many others -by draconian election laws and the realities of campaign finance in the United States, as well as pure vindictiveness from Democrats and Republicans over the years. Classic social democracy was a bargain between a portion of the working class and capitalists: in exchange for labor peace so big industry could reap profits, redistribution of wealth through social programs aided a large swath of the population. What segment of the elite need labor peace now? New Deal programs were also designed to benefit white, usually male, workers and to specifically exclude African-Americans, migrant workers, immigrants, and many women. Any class program would immediately confront both the need for a more radical track and the need to address race and gender issues (amongst others) as well.

The answer, I think, is that a subculture must be consciously constructed to convey to the masses of working people an anti-fascist, class politics that understands capitalism as the ultimate enemy. Education, media, and social groups: these were at the core of the political, socialist, left of a century ago alongside the parties. It is difficult to build a party that has a radically different idea of what a better future should be without a base that understands and breathes those ideas. To do this means to confront the systemic racism that emboldens neo-fascists and their allies that is bolstered by centuries of policy enacted by Republicans and Democrats. It means to demand a full accounting why statues are allowed to come down and members of Trump’s business council are praised for resigning while doing nothing to change the brutal economic policies that perpetuate unemployment, poverty, poor housing, and lack of health care. Perhaps – I hope – it also means confronting a foreign policy that funds and arms right-wing reactionaries as long as they coincide with U.S. government interests.

I know that this is all necessary; I don’t know if any of this is possible. There are enormous impediments to all of this, most importantly who will do it? I think a party – or parties – could arise while doing this work, but can the enormous organizing effort required be done before we end up in one of the worse futures (I hesitate to call it a dystopia because dystopias are always just over the horizon, never here)? I’m not sure – but it seems to be clear that those of us who want a better future – socialist even! – need to reflect on how to get from here to there, and why our current strategy (whatever there is of one) may not be the best one to get us to that point. Building the subculture we need alongside the parties we want is the only way to confront the rise of the Neo-Fascists and to answer – with class – the question: Socialism or Barbarism?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Huge Victory for the Anglo Left – quick thoughts

Results are still coming in, but it looks like an astonishing result for Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, and perhaps the biggest win for the Anglo left since the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. This is another incredible turn of political events, begun last year with the unexpected vote for Brexit, Trump’s victory, the rise of Marine Le Pen, and now the success of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left.  Some thoughts:

  1. The political uncertainty is linked completely to the decay of the old order, constructed by the Anglo-American alliance in the ruins of the Second World War and reconstructed by Thatcher and Reagan in the early 1980s. Rapid swings in politics – not really seen in the West since the late 60s/early 70s when the system first began to decline – are becoming almost normal in this era.
  2. At its heart is the terminal decline of the US regime of capital accumulation, which has created clear misery for the majority of the working class in the United States and the Western world. The economic reality is reflected in the resurgence of the Left – still mainly the social-democratic left – and the far Right.
  3. This was completely unthinkable even five years ago! Even a year ago! The rapid rise of Corbyn in the UK – let on the Labour leader ballot paper because he seemed no threat to the establishment and who was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters during and after an attempt by his own party members to overthrow him in a coup – has to be seen as an important bellweather for the Anglo Left. By this I mean it will have an impact across the English-speaking world at the very least, and very likely more. It means even in a first-past-the-post system, the Left now has a chance to articulate its message and win seats against liberal and conservative opposition.
  4. Corbyn and Labour ran on an anti-austerity, anti-interventionist program. It was not perfect by any means, but was farther to the Left than any large party has run in the English-speaking world in decades. Corbyn speaking frankly about British imperialist policy and blowback to it after the attacks in Manchester, and London, is a watershed moment.
  5. The electorate doesn’t seem to have wanted Brexit refought, but they took seriously what Brexit might look like under a Tory administration.
  6. UKIP voters seem to have deserted the Tories in droves and voted for Labour – which shows how the supposedly right-wing, xenophobic working class vote might be turned to the Left with the correct program.
  7. The biggest losers on the night besides the Tories are the Blairites (hopefully good riddance to JK Rowling’s obnoxious political Tweets) and the Lib Dems. Cleggmania is over! Both represented the triangulation only possible during a neoliberal era where the demands of capital and a good portion of the middle and upper-segment of the working class was willing to vote for those policies. No longer – and to the rubbish bin of history they go.
  8. I think this will have a remarkable impact, at least psychologically, on the chances of the Left elsewhere. What will happen in the UK will have to wait until the morning, and perhaps another election in the fall. Congratulations indeed all around, comrades!

The Revenge of Class and the Death of the Democratic Party

My Counterpunch article in case you missed it:

The Democratic Party of my lifetime – the coalition of Wall St finance capital and identity-politics voters that arose during the 1980s and 90s – is dead. It has been killed, quite ironically, by the revenge of class politics – the kind once championed by the Democrats. Decades of economic misery and the hollowing-out of vast segments of the American economy, which the Democratic Party participated in gleefully, has led to the inchoate rage which found expression in the fun house mirror version of class struggle politics: Donald Trump.

Barack Obama’s presidency will be seen as the high-water mark of this Democratic Party. The reign of finance capital, on the rise since the 1970’s and the shift within capitalism from productive industry to the financialization of everything, grew to a point where Obama used the machinery of state to not only rescue finance capital after its 2008 collapse but to extend its rule by crushing any attempts at a left-Keynesian solution to the crisis. Occupy Wall Street, a class-conscious response to austerity politics, was exterminated by Democratic mayors under dictates from Obama’s White House.

Obama’s electoral coalition was driven by the professional class that had arisen to manage the various segments of the financialized economy. Since they derive significant benefits from late capitalism, the professionals eschew class-struggle based politics. What this group wants is a slow expansion of individual rights. The liberal illusion is that this gradual expansion of rights is inevitable, that progress is slow-but-steady, and more radical attempts to deal with the economic system are unwanted or impossible. It is a perfect illusion for professionals within capitalism to have: moderate progress and no need to mention class. Capital very well accomodated itself to these demands during the Obama years and showed itself willing to incorporate same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, etc. The point is not that these gains are insignificant – they are indeed important – but that they do little to address the larger inequalities within capitalism and have been used to split professionals from the working class.

Thus the collective trauma of the liberal class after Trump’s win is very much that of a group illusion being violently shattered. Every subclass manifests ideological justifications for its position, and the wrenching defeat of Hillary Clinton – who had the full might of the media apparatus behind her – shows there are no longer enough votes to continue mining in new sectors of the identity-politics class. This class reaction to defeat is a comical extension of itself: talk of fleeing the country is only possible because they are credentialed professionals with portable skills across international borders. Working class individuals are to be left behind to resist, or be crushed by the new regime.

Indeed it was that working class of the Rust Belt that handed the Democratic Party its defeat. Trump is no savior of workers, but he understands what successful elites have from time immemorial: to win the backing of a disaffected working class means you acquire a strong base of support against other elite factions. The inchoate rage of the working class (many of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012) is a product of a half-century of structural decline coupled with conscious policy decisions that decimated the workforce. Clinton signed NAFTA, Obama failed to press forward on card-check unionization rules, and none of them moved to repeal Taft-Hartley. It is also a product of post-war order that took apart class-struggle unions and attacked class struggle parties, making it nearly impossible to organize in the private sector. Until mid-century there was a healthy class-conscious culture buoyed by labor and socialist media, organizations and education. Its loss has opened a space for the rise of a right-wing that gives a distorted voice to working class concerns.

Many will point to Bernie Sanders as a rebuttal to the terminal decline of the Democratic Party’s drift into the party of identity politics and Wall St. It is true that Sanders voiced a social-democratic agenda warmly received by workers and a good part of left-leaning petty-bourgeois Americans. But remember: the professional identity-politics voters in the Democrats fiercely rejected Sanders. He won states with large working class populations not tied to the professional identity-politics class, and he usually needed support from independents in open primaries to do so. Class-struggle politics can be tied to expanding personal freedoms, but it is anathema to a professional class and party whose existence depends upon the largesse of finance capital.

Class, then, has had its revenge on the illusions of the professional caste. This likely signals the terminal decline of the Democratic Party. Hemmed in by campaign donors from moving left and by the ideology of its party functionaries, there will be little room for it to maneuver in Trump’s America. The capitalism of the early 21st century also prohibits a return to the classic social-democratic bargain of mid-century. While social-democratic programs like a massive public works plan for full employment, income redistribution and social programs are still possible within capitalism, but the old alliance of labor and a section of big capital will not materialize because capital no longer needs or wants to use those programs to create and sustain profits by developing a mass of well-paid workers in production industries. Thus any group implementing reforms on the left will be immediately challenged and forced to either radicalize towards socialism or acquiesce to the demands of capital. The Democrats cannot do this and will remain boxed into their strongholds; within Congress a Sanders (or Warren) will be allowed to posture while in the minority but will not be allowed to build a platform to take the party in a more leftward direction. Trump, because he is bourgeois, will conversely be permitted to throw sops to workers in exchange for their electoral support. It is a cruel return of working class politics that cannot be won without building a radical left party capable of challenging the system at the ballot box and in the streets.