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.

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?














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.

Vote for Stein to Build the Left


If this election cycle in the United States has proven anything, it is the decay of the political system now firmly mirrors the decline of US military and economic hegemony. The crisis of American capitalism has two bookends: economic and political turmoil under Nixon in the early 1970s – solved for a time by neoliberalism – and the end that was hastened by Bush’s wars, now coming to a dénouement under the next presidential regime. American capitalism no longer hides its rottenness: the Clintons are openly corrupt and abetted by an entire institutional structure devoted to living off the continued easy access to capital, exploitative trade deals and hawkish military intervention promised by Hillary and Bill part deux, while Donald Trump is a clown of a politician seemingly chosen by the ruling class to ensure a Clinton victory through his own buffoonish behavior.

Where does this leave the radical Left in the United States?

Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, Green Party candidates for President and Vice-President, have articulated a political agenda open to anti-austerity, pro-working class policies. During the Green presidential convention, an organized socialist faction helped insert a section into the national platform endorsing economic democracy and anti-capitalism. Stein and Baraka were given unprecedented access for national Greens to the media, including an hour-long interview on CNN, where they were able to discuss Left policies and critiques openly. Even Ralph Nader was never granted this courtesy during his runs.

Yet the Left electorate is not coalescing around Stein (or any other candidate for that matter); she’s polling at between 2-5% nationally.

Lack of Left electoral strength during a time when the right is resurgent and the working class has begun to cry out for solutions to the permanent crisis of late capitalism can, to an extent, be blamed on the usual culprits: election laws meant to prevent growth of independent political movements, the large amounts of campaign cash needed to win offices, media hostility, and hereditary voting blocs that create ideological walls against exit from Democratic or Republican parties. The decline of the American industrial working class, partly a product of this long-cycle of accumulation’s turn to financialization for super-profits, but also clearly manufactured by the political establishment in both major parties in their drive to kill the strength of American labor unions, manifests itself in the lack of support for independent left alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans. The Sanders phenomenon pointed the way towards what could happen if a significant part of the left electorate bolted from the two parties – but that break was momentarily halted after Sanders tried to herd his supporters back into the Clinton camp.

If the radical electoral Left wants to begin reasserting itself as a political force in the United States, the Stein/Baraka Green Party ticket needs to receive 5% of the popular vote on Tuesday.

That result won’t reignite conscious political class struggle in the United States on its own. Rosa Luxemburg was quite correct a century ago that class struggle arises and peaks due to external shocks and tends to be pushed spontaneously into new forms by the masses of unorganized workers; we can’t yet know what that will look like for the United States. What the result would do is help with the dialectical counterpart of that spontaneity: a growth of an organized, potentially radical political party and a space for a radical culture of dissent to grow so that when spontaneous class struggle occurs, that organization can interact with and help guide the movement. This interplay of spontaneity and organization is the crucial dialectic that the Left here has been unable to fully understand or capture for the last half-century.

5% would mean that the Greens are entitled to millions in federal electoral funding, but this funding could go towards hiring organizers, staffers and funding campaigns at every level. A weakness of the party and the Left would turn to strength. Media would likely be forced to bring a Green or left representative on to discuss policy decisions made by the next presidential regime, and masses of potential supporters would be exposed to Left ideas regularly for the first time. Green ballot lines would allow the Left to run against the Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government. The next time real class struggle happens at any level, the Left would be more ready to build upon it, and might lay the groundwork for it with organizing on economic and political issues at those levels.

Karl Kautsky once observed that elections are “are a means to count ourselves and the enemy and they grant thereby a clear view of the relative strength of the classes and parties, their advance and their retreat.”[1] Kautsky’s flaws as a theorist notwithstanding, he is here correct to the extent we understand elections will never be a perfect means to count how powerful the Left is, or could be in a revolutionary moment. Parliamentary politics are not a perfect representation of the class struggle, nor could they be.  What they allow us is the possibility of examining the level of class-conscious electoral support parties may have and to build organizations and a political culture that could help guide the class struggle.

Conditions are ripe for a truly radical, anti-systemic movement – in fact they may be getting a bit rotten. The question for the Left is whether or not we will cast our votes to help build a space where radical politics can function and grow, bit by bit. I hope you will join me tomorrow in casting a vote for Jill Stein and then joining together in building a movement.

[1] Kautsky, Karl. The Social Revolution. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co, 1902.