Archive for the ‘Solidarity’ Category

Menshevik Georgia: Online debate with Workers Liberty

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

Last week, the British left newspaper Solidarity published this review of my book. Today, they published my rebuttal:

Paul Vernadsky in his review of my book, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-21, is right to highlight the importance of this period for today. And he comes to the heart of our disagreement at the very end of his essay when he refers to the idea that “an impoverished, backward society cannot skip historical stages.” He calls this “Menshevik dogma”. No, Paul, that’s not “Menshevik dogma”. That’s Marxism.

But leaving aside whether that’s more Martov or Marx, that phrase has proven to be absolutely true. The last century showed us many examples of attempts by revolutionaries – sometimes, but not always, well-meaning ones – to skip historical stages. (Think of China, all of Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and Cuba.) In every single case, without exception, the result of skipping historical stages – mainly, skipping democracy – was the nightmare of totalitarianism.

Paul’s main charge against the Georgian Mensheviks is that they “could have remained part of Soviet Russia,” but chose not to. He makes this point several times in his short piece, chiding the Georgians for ignoring “the alternative of remaining with Bolshevik Russia.” This is a very basic historic error: Georgia was never part of Soviet Russia. Georgia had been part of the Russian empire, and remained very loosely connected to Russia during the months of the Provisional Government, but when the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, the Georgians – like many other parts of the empire – rejected their rule.

Had they taken Paul’s advice anyway, and voluntarily joined what later became known as the “happy family of Soviet peoples” three years before they were forced to by the Red Army, how would that have benefited anyone in Georgia? For three short years the Georgians benefited from a largely free political system, had powerful trade unions independent of the state, and enjoyed the benefits of an agrarian reform that managed to avert the famines that were destroying Russia. Does anyone seriously believe that the earlier arrival of the Cheka, led in Georgia by the sadistic Lavrenty Beria, would have been a good thing?

(Paul describes that invasion in 1921 as a ‘mistake’, but it was not. It was a crime, a premeditated one, and Stalin and cronies were the culprits.)

Paul’s over-reliance on Trotsky’s worst book – the one he wrote to justify the invasion of Georgia – means that he neglects to mention what we can now learn from the archives, things that Trotsky would not have known in 1921. For example, the fact that the Georgians came extremely close to a shooting war with the British Royal Navy, which wanted to shell Georgian soldiers who resisted the armed provocations by Denikin’s White armies. The main British interest was in toppling Lenin, not in propping up small border states like Georgia, and relations between London and Tiflis were never warm.

Trotsky makes much of the killings of Georgian Bolsheviks, and Paul quotes this uncritically, though the source of the story (a Russophile British journalist) is not entirely credible, and later publications (including Zhordania’s) contest the truth of the story.

Paul makes only the briefest mention of Georgia’s free and independent unions, who get a full chapter in my book, and I understand why. For it is here that Trotsky appears in the worst light, in his campaign to bring unions in Soviet Russia under full state control. Trotsky’s proposals to militarise labour were so outlandish that other Bolshevik leaders, no fans of trade unions themselves, rejected them.

Paul also dismisses the success of Georgia’s independent cooperatives, neglecting the evidence that they were, in fact, gradually coming to dominate whole sections of the economy. This slow transition to a social democratic welfare state may not be as exciting as “war communism” but it also had far fewer innocent victims.

“This was no socialist paradise,” he writes, and he’s right. But the Georgians never claimed to be building a socialist paradise on earth. That was something Trotsky and the Bolsheviks claimed for Russia. The Georgians were much more modest in their aims, more realistic and more humane.

One of the biggest problem with Paul’s argument is that he writes as if it is 1921. The Bolsheviks are on their way to creating a wonderful new society. The Mensheviks have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

But a century has passed, and we now know things we did not know then. We know how the Bolshevik experiment turned out.

And we know that being consigned to the dustbin of history – a fate that Trotsky himself, who coined that unfortunate phrase, would later share with the Mensheviks – was not the worst thing that could happen to a political movement.

Why Sanders and his supporters are now backing Clinton

Monday, August 8th, 2016
"I intend to do everything I can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States."

“I intend to do everything I can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States.”

Over the course of the last year, millions of Americans voted for Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist candidate who offered a program of radical change. According to public opinion polls, nearly all of them are now going to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. They will do so even though she remains a widely disliked and untrusted candidate who is often seen as being the candidate of the “Establishment”.

Some polls put the number of former Sanders supporters now backing Clinton as high as 90%. Most expect the numbers to be even higher as the November election draws closer.

Clinton has gone from being the candidate of Goldman Sachs and the one-percent to being the candidate we will vote for.

There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the fear of Donald Trump winning the election has persuaded many of us that any alternative would be preferable. In that sense, many on the American left are echoing the decision by French socialists in 2002 to support the hated Jacques Chirac rather than to allow Jean-Marie Le Pen to win the presidency.

The second is that a full year of the Sanders campaign actually had an impact. This is true even though the candidate fell short of the number of delegates required to win the nomination of his party. Take the Democratic Party’s platform, which revealed how far to the left the party has turned. Sanders himself was the first to point this out. In every speech he gives – including his address on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – he emphasizes how many of his ideas made it into the final program of the party.

There are counter-arguments to both of these points. But those arguments are gaining little ground among Sanders supporters.

One of those argued that choosing Clinton over Trump is a form of “lesser-evilism.” At some point, one simply has to say “no” and vote for a candidate who is not seen as evil at all, such as the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

Another argument is that all of the Democratic Party’s concessions to Sanders are meaningless. No Democratic politician is obligated to do what the party platform says, including Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton has publicly embraced many of Sanders’ positions in recent weeks, there’s no reason to believe she’ll carry any of it out once elected.

There is little evidence that either of those arguments have had much of an impact on Sanders supporters. They certainly haven’t persuaded me.

Jill Stein’s campaign still languishes on the fringes of American politics, with no chance of reaching the 15% in public opinion polls that would guarantee the Green politician a place in the upcoming presidential debates. (Stein is averaging just 4% in the latest polls, and is likely to receive considerably less than that on election day.)

Sanders supporters in large numbers are embracing the position advocated by the largest left organization in America in the 1960s, the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS supported the Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson over Republican Barry Goldwater. They did so despite all their reservations about Johnson. Johnson ran on the slogan “All the way with LBJ!” SDS answered with “Part of the way with LBJ.”

It was a good slogan that expresses the view of many regarding Hillary Clinton today.

The argument that Clinton doesn’t really believe in the $15 an hour minimum wage, or single-payer health care, or debt-free college tuition (among many Sanders positions she has adopted in recent weeks) misses the point.

The left understands that its job when someone wins the presidency on a left-liberal platform is to mobilize to ensure that they live up to their promises. This is why the civil rights movement came alive in the 1960s. This is why the great March on Washington in 1963 came about to pressure a liberal Democratic administration to live up to its promises. Such protests would have had little impact if the Republican Richard Nixon had won the 1960 election. But the Kennedy-Johnson administration was vulnerable to pressure, and the result was the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Food stamps, the abortive “war on poverty”, various civil rights laws, and more.

If Clinton wins the election on November 8th, all those millions of Sanders supporters who grudgingly voted for her, will need to be mobilized to force her and Congress to enact as much of the Democratic Platform as we can. Sanders has launched a new organization, “Our Revolution”, which is devoted to precisely that.

As for Donald Trump, there is a tendency among some on the left to say that while he’s bad, he’s really no different from Clinton. In some ways, some have said, he’s better. He opposed job-destroying “free trade” deals like TPP and NAFTA, and he’s seen (by some) as being less likely to lead the US into pointless wars in the Middle East.

Such a view of Trump is delusional. Trump is a racist, sexist, and right-wing bully who is America’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. There is more than a whiff of fascism in his campaign. To not see the differences between him and Hillary Clinton is to be blind.

Fortunately, if the polls are right, the vast majority of Sanders supporters understand this. Given a choice between Hillary Clinton, who has been forced against her will to run on the most progressive platform the Democrats ever had, and Donald Trump, most liberals and leftists know what needs to be done.


This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Bernie Sanders: The primary is over, and now the real work begins

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was the largest mobilisation of the American Left in history. He won more than twenty states and over ten million votes. His vote total was more than triple that achieved by Ralph Nader in 2000, and five thousand times larger than the votes won by the last Socialist Party candidate for president back in 1956. And he came incredibly close to defeating Hillary Clinton and capturing the Democratic nomination.

No one expected this kind of success, least of all Sanders himself. And yet certain factors such as the post-2008 economic crisis and the growing up of new, post-Cold-War generation for whom the term “socialist” is not toxic, made the Sanders campaign possible. For American socialists, the Sanders campaign has settled the question of whether one needs to work within the framework of the Democratic Party or outside of it, and completely vindicates the strategy first proposed a half century ago by some of the country’s leading socialists.

By early June, and especially in the wake of Sanders’ weak performance in the California primary, it has become obvious that Clinton will be the Party’s nominee for president. In a video address to his supporters, Sanders made clear that while the “political revolution” he has been preaching continues, and he encouraged everyone to get more active, to run for office and so on, his own race for the presidency is essentially over.

In his view, the main task facing his supporters and everyone else in the next few months is to ensure that Donald Trump is not elected president. While he did not endorse Clinton, he seems to have let up on most attacks against her, and will almost certainly endorse her at the July Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia if not sooner.

This will certainly divide Sanders’ own supporters, many of whom have adopted a “Bernie Or Bust” attitude. Some supporters say they’ll abstain on election day, others will write in Sanders’ name, still others will support the Green Party’s candidate, Dr Jill Stein. Media speculation that significant numbers of Sanders’ supporters might back the Libertarian Party or even vote for Donald Trump seem unfounded.

So, what happens now?

In the weeks running up to the Convention, while the Sanders campaign won’t be trying to woo super-delegates, they will be quite busy. Sanders has something like 1,900 delegates, and they will be a powerful voting block in support of progressive changes to the Democratic Party platform. Sanders has made it clear that he intends to fight for a platform that reflects his views rather than Clinton’s, and he has a good chance of winning on some key issues, such as the call for a $15 hourly minimum wage (Clinton supports $12).

In addition to fighting for a better platform – and holding the candidates accountable – the Sanders campaign will focus on changing the rules that made it so hard for him to win this year. This includes allowing independent voters in each state to vote in the Democratic primaries, and for a weakening or abolition of the system of unelected super-delegates.

And Sanders intends to fight to remove party functionaries including Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz. Schulz, a member of Congress from Florida, who has been working behind the scenes all year to ensure a Clinton victory. Her brazen partisanship has triggered a challenge as one of Sanders’ supporters, Tim Canova, is now running against her. A few days ago, the Florida AFL-CIO declined to endorse Schulz, showing how angry she has made progressives by her behaviour.

The Democratic National Convention, which begins on 25 July, promises to be one of the most exciting in decades. People have already compared it to 1980, when liberal challenger Ted Kennedy was the favourite in the hall, despite Jimmy Carter winning the nomination. Kennedy’s address was a highlight of the convention as he upstaged a weak and disliked sitting president. It is possible that Sanders, who is expected to address the Convention, may receive a similar welcome.

There will also be a lot of activity outside the hall, with several groups planning activities, including street demonstrations. Some people have already compared the atmosphere to that in 1968, when the Democrats chose to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a deeply unpopular figure closely associated with the Vietnam War. Both Carter in 1980 and Humphrey in 1968 went down to defeat in the November general elections.

Most observers believe that the vast majority of Sanders supporters will rally behind him when he endorses Clinton. They will support Clinton with little enthusiasm. One is reminded of the 1964 election, when student leftists heard the slogan “All the way with LBJ” (LBJ being President Lyndon B. Johnson) and replaced it with “Part of the way with LBJ”. In 1976, socialist author Michael Harrington wrote an article entitled “Voting for Carter – without illusions”. One expects something similar from most of the organised left in the US this year.

There will also be a certain amount of tactical voting. People in states that expect to go Democratic will feel more able to abstain or vote Green. But in states where Trump has a chance of winning, it is likely that pretty much the entire left and labour movement will support Clinton.

The most important question is not whether or not to support Clinton, but what to do in the long run. What happens on the morning after the November general election? Regardless of whether Clinton or Trump win, America needs a strong and independent Left.

A number of organisations already see themselves as being at the heart of such a Left, including Democracy for America, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, and Democratic Socialists of America. All of them are organising and recruiting new members.

Whatever happens next, this much is clear: Bernie Sanders’ campaign has changed American politics beyond recognition. Opportunities for the Left have been created which never existed before.

I for one cannot remember a more exciting time for the American Left.

 

 

 

This article appears in Solidarity.

Proud to be a Zionist

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016
Mapam campaign poster 1944

Mapam campaign poster 1944

Jeremy Corbyn’s brother recently made headlines by tweeting that “#Zionists cant cope with anyone supporting rights for #Palestine”. That the tweet took place in the context of a heated discussion about how the Labour Party is coping with increasing allegations of anti-Semitism is not the point. The point is that the word “Zionist” has become toxic on the British Left, and I have a problem with this.

On one of the Sunday morning radio shows, Jonathan Freedland was asked about this. He quoted the Israeli author Amos Oz who said that “Zionist” was like a family name. There always needs to be a first name, such as “Religious Zionist” or “Socialist Zionist”. But Freedland himself, when asked, said he’d rather not use the label “Zionist” to describe his own views as it would just cause confusion.

There are really two approaches to dealing with political labels that become toxic. One is to accept reality and abandon them. The other is to be defiant and embrace them. (more…)

Trumbo: Stalinists as Victims

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016
Browder.

Earl Browder, American Communist Party leader.

“Trumbo” is a the latest in a series of Hollywood films that looks back nostalgically at the McCarthy era, a time when the good guys were blacklisted writers accused of membership in the Communist Party, and the bad guys were the US government, studio bosses, and right-wing media.

The first of those films was probably “The Way We Were” (1973) starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Made only a few years after blacklisting had ended, when the Cold War was still raging, it became a template for future films on the subject. The film takes place over several decades, as Streisand and Redford fall in and out of love. In the opening scenes, Streisand plays the very young Katie, a committed activist, and is initially shown as campus leader of the Young Communist League (YCL). (more…)

The patriotic traitor

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

petainThe title of Jonathan Lynn’s new play “The Patriotic Traitor” could refer to either of the play’s two protagonists. One, Marshall Philippe Pétain, betrayed France to the Germans in 1940, while believing all the time that was doing so in order to save the country. The other, his disciple and close friend Charles de Gaulle, was branded a traitor by the Vichy regime and sentenced to death when he fled the country for exile, to take on leadership of the Free French forces.

The play, which just opened at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, is a tour de force. The venerable Tom Conti is so good as Pétain that he completely dominates the stage whenever he appears. One wonders if Pétain himself had that same charisma and intelligence. As for de Gaulle, played by Laurence Fox, he comes off as a thoroughly unlikeable character, even if history were to prove him right. (more…)

Global union target of disinformation campaign

Monday, February 15th, 2016

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity


The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is not an organization that many of you will have heard of. Which is odd, considering that it is one of the largest membership organizations in the world. (more…)

The Sanders Revolution

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

Bernie_Sanders_Madison

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.


Sixty years ago, the Socialist Party ran its last presidential campaign in the United States.

In its heyday, the party could capture upwards of a million votes, achieving this result in 1912, 1920 and again in 1932. The best result was the first one, when Eugene V. Debs led the party to six percent of the national vote. But less than a quarter century after Norman Thomas won nearly 900,000 votes at the height of the Great Depression, the total number of votes the Socialist could muster nationwide was a mere 2,044. Its final Presidential candidate, the successor to the legendary Debs and Thomas, was the little-known Darlington Hoopes. (more…)

What’s wrong with Star Wars?

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.


starwarsSocialists begin our understanding of culture with Marx’s oft-quoted comments about the ruling ideas of an age being the ideas of the ruling class.

Living under capitalism, we understand that just as we are critical of the structure of the society we live in, and the behaviour of its ruling class, so we are also critical of its cultural and intellectual production. (more…)

The mass psychology of Islamo-fascism

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.  Please feel free to post comments there.


Wilhelm Reich.

Wilhelm Reich.

There can be little doubt that the murderous ideology of Islamic State is a form of fascism. In discussing how the Left should react to it, it is therefore necessary to return to our sources, to learn how earlier generations of socialists understood – and fought – fascism.

In that fight, Trotsky was of course an inspiring and authoritative figure. As opposed to the Stalinists, who saw no difference between the Nazis and the Social Democrats (and indeed sometimes preferred the Nazis), Trotsky understood fascism to be a mortal danger to the working class. (more…)