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.


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!

From Russia (to Philly) With Love?

The hysteria behind the hack of DNC emails and subsequent leak to websites The Hill and Wikileaks is disturbing, as it is a clear sign of government-media collusion to spin away the damaging content of the leak by drumming up anti-Russian sentiment in the United States. There is no clear link between the documents and the Russian Intelligence Service (FSB) or its Military Intelligence (GRU) – but government contractors examining the email claim the purportedly sophisticated spy agency was clumsy enough to leave metadata implicating Russia all over the docu-dump. After the initial clamor about the dirty dealings of the DNC, the full-throated roar against Russian interference in US politics seems to be rather timely (though not timely enough for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz). Wikileaks (though apparently not The Hill) is now denounced as a patsy for Vladimir Putin.

If it seems rather odd that Russia – on the brink of open military cooperation between the United States and its forces in Syria – would choose this moment to embarrass the Democratic Party, you are not alone in thinking so. Risking diplomatic censure with a release of documents that do little to damage the election prospects of the Democratic Party other than cause consternation on the part of Sanders supporters (because honestly, who didn’t realize the DNC was rigging the game for Clinton) doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. It’s surely possible Russian agencies did this, but I would venture it’s also likely they didn’t, and Democratic partisans are using this to cover up the content of the emails and to stoke the fires of anti-Russian hysteria that could be used by a future President Clinton – as well as red-baiting Sanders supporters and smearing Trump supporters as anti-American (since he is supposedly pro-Russian).

Also conveniently forgotten in all this is the United States government has directed its intelligence agencies to spy on 193 countriesYou can, in fact, read this document for yourself: faa-fg-cert-2010-a-exhibit-f-foreign-power-list. Foreign Government Section 702 Certificate even allows for spying on foreign-based political organizations, i.e. political partiesEdward Snowden’s document release let us know the U.S. government spied on the now-president of Mexico when he was running for office and at least two-dozen other political leaders.

Just, y’know, something to consider when wondering what the media chooses to cover. Or not cover.



We Need A Mass Anti-War Movement

In the wake of the deaths in Nice, Jeffrey St. Clair points out:

“One of the primary elements missing from the world polity the past nine years—especially in the United States—is the antiwar movement.”

It’s maddening to be an anti-war activist in an era where the election of Barack Obama, who continued Dubya’s imperial wars, led to the shriveling up of the movement that had been millions strong from 2001-2008. There’s good research done by political scientists Heaney and Rojas that while the hard core of anti-war, anti-imperial activists were protesting US militarism, most of the protesters were simply Democrats upset that Bush was carrying out a war under a Republican banner.


A strong anti-war movement would serve as an ideological counterweight to the rising tide of right-wing nationalism across Europe and the United States. Injecting historical context and contemporary criticism of  European and US imperial policies in the Middle East and North Africa is no small matter when millions who know nothing about this are groping around for answers and finding little but neo-authoritarian groups who provide them.

It would also provide a bulwark and breeding ground for domestic left-wing politics especially during times of great class struggle. Is it any wonder that a revolution was born in 1917 from the anti-war movement in Russia,  and the rise of the 1960s anti-war movement paralleled those for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights? Being able to see an holistic picture of how the state and ruling class order the world for their profit can only help the left’s growth.

It’s also a litmus test for how far the left has gone and has to go; not being able to criticize the imperialism of your own government – of the global hegemon – points to the immaturity of left forces. As a Marxist and Green, it was always clear that Bernie’s entry into the Democratic party would end with his capitulation, but it was especially so given his milquetoast critique of US foreign policy and refusal to define himself as robustly anti-imperial against the former Secretary of State. If you can’t do that against the living embodiment of US imperial power, your “left-wing”campaign for president is not serious.

We are reaching – I think – a point where the illusions of the old politics are being stripped away. Building a new mass anti-war movement is not only possible, it’s probable. Unlike last time, there cannot be any wavering on the need to put a fundamental critique of US hegemony at the center of the movement. To sacrifice this is to compromise the integrity of the movement itself in the hopes attracting only moderately committed members, something that was done in 2004. We cannot let it happen again or the left will continue to wander in a wilderness of its own making.





Corbyn, The Left, and Settling Accounts

The conflict between the left within the British Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, and the rest of the parliamentary party has exploded into open conflict. I would like to suggest that this is a potentially important moment for the British left. Perhaps it is also an important moment for the global left; it is certainly part of the structural unraveling of the “Third Way” neoliberal turn in social-democratic parties that the British Labour Party and the U.S. Democratic Party best exemplified from the early ’90s until today.

Details of how this fight occurred are readily apparent: the Labour left has been marginalized since the party fights during Thatcher’s reign. Corbyn was allowed on the ballot by fellow MP’s who saw no harm in it but who had misread the tea leaves of how the party membership felt after seven years of austerity budgets. He won in a landslide (59.5% of the vote). After decades of taking the left for granted, the neoliberals and careerists had been soundly thrashed, even though they are the majority of Labour electeds in Parliament.

Corbyn has ties to the socialist and union movements and seems to be a principled, fairly honest politician. Of course his principles are at odds with the majority of those in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP): antiwar, anti-austerity, Euroskeptic, and not a neoliberal. The no-confidence vote taken today by the PLP members shows clearly that the size of the left within the parliamentary party is small: Corbyn garnered 40 votes as opposed to 172 against (13 did not vote and 4 papers were spoilt). Fully 80% of Labour MP’s rejected Corbyn, even while the vast majority of the party voted for him in a landslide nine months ago. Nonetheless, Corbyn adamantly refuses to step down as leader in the face of what is a coup attempt.

This type of open fight has rarely occurred inside a social-democratic party at this level in the last 30 years, but it will become increasingly common as the world-system organized around US hegemony and its regional allies, born out of WWII, reaches its death-spiral. Within capitalism, and really within the long cycle/Kondratieff wave beginning in 1945, left-reformist parties like Labour played an important role in buttressing bourgeois control. During the first, productive phase of the long wave, parties like Labour were allowed entry into government provided they abandon any pretense to socialism. Their role in this era of expanding core industrial production was to represent the interests of a large labor aristocracy of organized workers who were happy with secure jobs and large welfare states; Labour and its sister parties kept the working class in check while allowing business to make huge profits in the industrial sector. Policies passed during this era of Keynesianism helped sustain the demand for goods that rebuilt the world-economy – and given that capitalism in the core still saw the possibility of increasing returns in productive capital until the early 1970s, Labour (and the Democrats) had a seat at the table as a left-guardian of the capitalist order.

The rise of financialization after the early 70’s saw a crisis of capital accumulation in core productive industries meant there was a decreasing role for social-democratic parties; the industrial working class was to be killed off along with industry. The pivot these parties made, Labour included, was to absorb the middle-class liberals who benefited from the new economy but demanded identity politics reforms, and to attract finance sector backers. Workers were an uneasy afterthought, in a weak position as the productive economy contracted and finance ballooned – but we should remember that parties have a logic of their own, and workers were a part of the reformist electoral coalition (they just weren’t really represented at any level beyond marginal lip-service).

This brings us back to Labour and Corbyn. This isn’t the first example of social-democratic disintegration as the party’s apparatus refuses to budge from neoliberal careerism: PASOK in Greece imploded, the PSOE in Spain has seen serious erosion of its base, and most other social-democratic parties are under increasing pressure from a re-energized left. It is, however, the first example of a high-profile fight in a core country with the possibility of a split. To now the fights have occurred in (semi)peripheral states.

The potential of sharpening the ideological contradictions and clarifying a left, anti-austerity (perhaps even socialist) platform purged of neoliberal holdovers is a distinct possibility given the structure of the world-system. It is likely to not to be the last debate in coming years as the system collapses into something else; the potential for a return of open class struggle in the electoral arena is possible as well.

That is why the left may win regardless of what happens to Corbyn and his bloc, if it is able to regroup and educate around the outcome. If Corbyn and his 20% of the PLP are backed by the Labour membership, the 80% of Labour MPs who do not back Corbyn (and who are not backed by the party members) may split and form their own, centrist party. They may fade into irrelevance as leftists stand for Labour seats instead, but at least the untenable situation will end and voters will have a clear ideological choice. If Corbyn loses the left could choose to exit the Labour Party once and for all, but taking a significant portion of the membership with it into a new coalition of the anti-austerity left – though this would require serious leadership to do and the willingness to suffer short-term electoral defeats.

I think we are very likely to look back on this fight as the first, and not the last, within the old reformist “big tent” left parties. It remains to be seen what the left, and the radical left, can do with the results.














A Left-Alternative to Brexit?

The global Left is adrift. Look no further than Thursday’s Brexit vote in the U.K.: the choice is between remaining within the European Union – a body specifically designed to empower the (Northern) European bourgeoisie and block moves to the left on a national or supra-national level, and returning power to the British ruling class and its Parliament. Neither outcome is a particularly inspiring one for the left;  even though there are strong signs that this is a being perceived referendum on neo-liberalism and the stagnant economy, it is the right that has capitalized and stirred popular fears of job loss due to increased immigration.

Another era saw dreams of a Socialist Federation of Europe, where a democratic federation aided equitable distribution of resources, jobs and wealth. Democratic planning by workers and citizens would replace the rule of banks, bondholders and bureaucrats. This revolutionary world seems far off.

Imagine if the European Left – the anti-austerity bloc that has arisen in the last half decade – produced a real program for a federation of states that chose to leave the European Union. Brexit from the EU could be campaigned for as the first step towards a new alliance specifically designed to bolster the working class, protect and expand social programs and move towards a democratically planned economic bloc.

I won’t hold my breath – the intellectual decay of the left is nowhere more apparent when the boundaries of acceptable thought in its most radical parties abut what exists, not what should exist.