Archive for November, 2012

From the river to the sea

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

PSC logo.At first glance, who could oppose the Palestine Solidarity Campaign?

The very name implies one of the most noble human aspirations — solidarity with a people. And in particular a people like the Palestinians, whose suffering is genuine. No doubt many people who join the PSC, attend its demonstrations, donate money to it or encourage their unions to back it are expressing their support for the idea of solidarity with the Palestinians.

But there’s a difference — a huge one — between showing solidarity with the Palestinians and supporting the PSC. Despite the PSC’s best efforts to convince everyone that these are one and the same thing, they aren’t.

And this becomes obvious whenever things heat up in Israel and Palestine, and when war is in the air.

Last week, I found myself at the demonstration of the PSC opposite the Israeli embassy in Kensington.

The call for the demonstration focussed on the Israeli air offensive against Gaza and was issued at a time when the only casualties seemed to be Hamas fighters, in particular Ahmed al-Jabari, the leader of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Still, by the time demonstrators began to arrive at the embassy, things had gotten worse and a number of civilians — on both sides — had been killed.

The demonstration would have focussed on those killings, right? It would have called for a cease-fire or something like that, wouldn’t it?

But the very first thing I heard was not a call for an end to the violence — which would have been understandable and would have gotten sympathy from anyone — but instead was the chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free“.

From the river to the sea?

Sorry, but there’s no way to be polite about this. That chant, and the PSC’s own logo of a map of Palestine from the river to the sea, and the subsequent chanting of “Israel out of Palestine” really could mean only one thing.

The demonstrators, or at least the people leading the chanting and making up the slogans, were supporting a one-state agenda, a solution to the century-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians by demanding that one side pack up and leave.

As it’s unlikely the Israelis are going to do this voluntarily, realistically what the demonstrators were calling for was the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine.

Not from the illegal settlements in the West Bank — no one mentioned those.

The Jews are to leave “Palestine” — from the river to the sea.

This is an exterminationist agenda. I don’t think that’s too strong a term.

These are not people who dislike Israelis or Jews, or who want to discriminate against them, or put them in their place, or treat them as second class citizens. That would be ordinary anti-Semitism.

This is a different kind of anti-Semitism, the kind that imagines a Palestine without its six million Jews, from the river to the sea.

An exterminationist anti-Semitism whose solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be another Holocaust.

Of course one expects to see radical Islamists at a demonstration like this — after all, that’s been their agenda for decades.

But it’s not the agenda of the mainstream Palestinian national movement, not anymore. It’s been nearly a quarter of century now since Arafat and the leadership of the PLO embraced the two-state solution, which paved the way to the Oslo accords.

Palestinian President Abbas isn’t calling for driving the Jews into the sea. The Palestinian trade unions aren’t calling for that.

But that’s what the Palestine Solidarity Campaign was doing in Kensington — that’s their agenda.

So what was the Socialist Party doing there — a party which historically opposes the boycott of Israel and which supports a two-state solution? On their website, they write that “The Palestinians and the Israeli Jews have a right to their own separate states.” They don’t say that one of those states will be in
Palestine, and the other — in the sea?

And what was the SWP doing there, for that matter? Do they too support the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine?

It is fitting and proper for people who are shocked by the violence, and angry at the decision of the Israeli government, to protest and to show their solidarity with Palestine.

But to do so by chanting for the destruction of the Jewish state is to do the Palestinians no service.

For socialists to participate in such a demonstration is a disgrace.


This article appears today in Solidarity.  It has also been published on Harry’s Place and on the 4theMembers blog.

Max Shachtman and his legacy

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Max Shachtman.In 1975, at a conference in Boston, I met a local socialist activist and when I asked him where he fit in politically, he replied that he was a “1946 Shachtmanite”.

I learned that a lot of leftists could describe themselves in that way. One could be a “1939 Shachtmanite” (meaning an orthodox Trotskyist) or even a “1925 Shachtmanite” (still loyal to the Communist Party).

I guess I could be described as a “1971 Shachtmanite”, that having been the year I first heard of Max Shachtman — and first heard him speak.

The conventional wisdom on the far Left is that Shachtman at some point ceased being a leftist. If you are a Stalinist, you can date that back to Shachtman’s adherence to the international Left opposition in the 1920s. Orthodox Trotskyists tend to date Shachtman’s breaking ranks to 1939-40, when he famously disagreed with Trotsky on the class nature of the Soviet Union. Some of Shachtman’s own followers decided that in the late 1950s, Shachtman ceased being a Marxist when his led his organisation, then called the Independent Socialist League, into Norman Thomas’ moribund Socialist Party.

But being too young to have experienced any of Shachtman’s various “betrayals” I first encountered him in 1971 as the revered, if still controversial leader, of a faction which had taken over the Socialist Party only a couple of years earlier and which was implementing his strategy of “realignment” — trying to turn the Democratic Party into a labour-led Social Democratic Party.

At the time, Shachtman was embroiled in his final faction fight. His protege, Michael Harrington, was in the process of leading a breakaway faction known as the “Coalition Caucus”, and the split would be over a number of issues, of which the Vietnam war was just one.

I first encountered Shachtman on the flight from New York to San Francisco in December 1971. We were going over to attend the convention of the SP’s youth section, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). Shachtman was holding court on the plane, addressing both his own followers and Harrington’s supporters as well. As we approached California, I remember flight attendants pleading with him to sit down, as he continued one of his speeches.

At the time I thought — don’t they understand that this is Max Shachtman, a man who knew Lenin and Trotsky, founding editor of the Daily Worker, leader of the Young Communist League, the man who represented Trotsky at the founding congress of the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution? Probably not. Eventually Max took his seat.

At the convention itself, Harrington — who was still the national chairman of the Socialist Party — was scheduled to address us one night, and then head back to the east coast. Shachtman would speak the following night.

I’d never heard Harrington speak, and was stunned by his eloquence and intellect. I think everyone in the room felt that we were hearing perhaps the best orator the American Left had ever produced, and one of its most profound thinkers. Harrington was proposing that a “new class” had arisen in America, a class of university educated middle class people who took positions based on moral judgments, opposed the Vietnam War, supported civil rights and equality for women, and so on. The old rigid socialist ideas about the working class and the conservative, pro-war trade unions had to be re-thought.

Shachtman addressed us the following night. By then I was practically a signed up member of Harrington’s Coalition Caucus, certain that the man had to be right, had spoken so well.

Shachtman was supposed to speak, I think, on the growing rift between the Soviet Union and China. But instead, he chose to deliver a stinging riposte to the absent Harrington. He began by paying tribute to Harrington’s eloquence, comparing his speech to the sounds of a great symphony orchestra. Here the string section, there the bassoons. Shachtman’s followers were already giggling and he was only warming up.

His speech lasted at least a couple of hours and was an extraordinary mash-up of Yiddish-influenced New York Borscht Belt standup and hard-core revolutionary socialist theory.

It was laugh-out-loud funny, but it was also full of ideas, many of them explained as stories.

For example, to drive home the centrality of the trade union movement in any kind of “coalition politics”, Shachtman told a story — at some length — about how the Communist Party had once persuaded the Chicago Federation of Labor to support the formation of an independent labor party. When the founding conference was held, the union federation was given one delegate with one vote, and a whole slew of Communist front organizations were also each given one delegate with one vote each. The Communists rammed through their entire programme over the objections of the union, and as the Party explained it later the conference was a great success — because only one delegate had walked out!

By the end of the evening, I was hooked. Shachtman was not only a brilliant orator with a razor-sharp wit, but also represented a century of continuous revolutionary history. He had indeed visited Moscow in the time of Lenin, had stood as Trotsky’s bodyguard during his exile, had helped run the historic Minneapolis teamsters strike, and there he was speaking to us, an audience of young socialists at the beginning of the 1970s. He embodied everything that was extraordinary about being a revolutionary socialist, and like many others I fell under his spell.

Within a year, Shachtman had died, and the question of his legacy became a point of contention between various leftist factions.

As I’ve said, the most widely-held opinion is that Shachtman at some point sold out, betrayed the cause, abandoned the Left for something else. In the forty years since his death, the argument has been muddied a bit by the fate of his followers, some of whom became neo-conservatives, served in the Bush administration, even became opponents of the trade unions.

One of Shachtman’s followers at the time, Max Green, who was the YPSL national secretary and who recruited me to the organization, by the early 1990s was publishing books denouncing trade union involvement in politics. Josh Muravchik, the YPSL national chairman at that time, publicly renounced socialism in a recent book after drifting right-wards for many years. The YPSL vice-chairman, Carl Gershman, was appointed by Ronald Reagan to head up the National Endowment for Democracy, a post he still holds thirty years later.

But Shachtman cannot be judged based on what some of his followers chose to do later in life. We must judge him based on the ideas he espoused in his time, understanding that it was a different time from ours.

In the debate with Michael Harrington over the question of the centrality of the trade union movement to the struggle for a better society, I think Shachtman was right and Harrington was wrong. There was no “new class” which made its political decisions based on moral judgements, as Harrington argued back then. In later years, I grew close to Harrington and even considered him a friend, and I think that in many ways he carried on Shachtman’s tradition in the organization he founded — whereas Shachtman’s own followers drifted away.

On the question of the Vietnam War, nearly everyone now says that Shachtman and his followers were wrong; that American imperialism was brutally trying to put down a popular, national uprising and socialists should always be on the side of the small, oppressed nation. But as Guardian science writer Ben Goldacre is fond of saying, “it may be a little more complicated than that.”

Shachtman belonged to that generation of Trotskyists who witnessed the slaughter of their Vietnamese comrades at the hand of Ho Chi Minh and his Stalinists. They didn’t have a warm spot in their heart for “Uncle Ho” any more than they did for “Uncle Joe” Stalin.

And while they may have opposed the methods used by the American ruling class to wage war — such as the savage carpet bombing of Vietnam — they didn’t want to see those Ho’s Stalinists in power in South Vietnam either.

Socialists at the time were making difficult choices, just as they did during the Korean War, and the Second World War before that. The choices they made were not always right. Many revolutionary socialists couldn’t bring themselves to support British imperialism in the fight against Hitler, for example. But no one should doubt the sincerity of those beliefs.

By the time Shachtman died just before the November 1972 presidential election, his vision of the transformation of the Democratic Party into a Social Democratic Party was in tatters. The liberal wing of the party had taken control, but it was anti-war middle class liberals running the show, with the unions nowhere to be found. The AFL-CIO couldn’t bring itself to endorse the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, for the same reasons that Shachtman wouldn’t either.

But four decades on, Shachtman’s legacy lives on in many ways, not least of which having taught a generation of Leftists that there is no socialism without democracy, and that regimes which suppress liberty (such as Ho’s Vietnam or Castro’s Cuba) are undeserving of sympathy or solidarity.

He put the trade union movement at the center of a progressive strategy at a time when unions were still seen by many leftists as simply bastions of pro-war, racist conservatism (which to a certain degree was true — but that wasn’t the whole truth).

And for me, as a very young leftist at the time, he was a living link to a great and inspiring tradition stretching back to Trotsky, Lenin, Engels and Marx.

LabourStart goes from strength to strength

Friday, November 9th, 2012

This is nice – on a website of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Comet, rotten apples and capitalism

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

This article appeared in Solidarity today.


The announcement that another high street retailer, Comet, had bit the dust was hardly unexpected. We’re in the midst of a recession, competition is fierce, the company had long been in trouble. There’s not much Marxists can add to the debate — or is there?

We can of course start with an analysis of the inevitability not only of Comet’s collapse that also the (barely-noticed) collapse of its American rival Best Buy, which withdrew from the UK market in the midst of a recession before you could say “bad idea”.

And you don’t have to be much of a financial wizard to predict the eventual failures of those high street electronics retailers still standing — primarily Curry’s.

Capitalism is a constantly shifting, fiercely competitive environment and at a time when anyone can order anything online, why would someone go the old-fashioned route to buy, say, an MP3 player or laptop computer on the high street?

Anyone who’s been inside a Curry’s or Comet recently can tell you that this can be an entirely unpleasant and demoralising experience, one that many of us would avoid at all costs.

Marxists would go a bit further than that and say that an outstanding feature of the collapse of Comet is the fact that the venture capitalist who bought the business eight months ago for just £2 will probably lose no money at all, and might even make a profit as he sells off unsold stock, shops and so on.

And the company’s 7,000 staff who all face the sack? No one will do much for them — and they’ll be added to the increasing number of people seeking work and living on the dole.

But what struck me in the coverage of Comet’s collapse in the Sunday Times, for example, was the way in which it was none of this really was the focus of the story. Not the 7,000 workers (this is the Sunday Times, of course), and not the nature of technology and the likely death of high-street retailers in this field.

No, the entire focus of their coverage has been on Henry Jackson, the “smooth talking American” who had picked up Comet for less than the price of a cappuccino last winter.

The Times was keen to show that it had predicted that Jackson’s period at the helm of Comet would end badly and showed its headline from last February — “Starry couple behind Comet” — with a photo of Jackson and his wife.

Mrs Jackson gets noticed in this week’s coverage with just a quick mention of how her husband devoted time to “helping his glamorous Canadian wife Stacey forge a semi-respectable career as a pop star”. Jackson, it seems, was so keen to help his wife — perhaps to help her move up to a “fully-respectable” rather than “semi-respectable” career — that he sent out regular emails to his contacts in the City “urging them to buy her music”.

The article I’m quoting from didn’t appear in the gossip columns of the Sun, or in OK or Hello — it appeared in the business pages of the Sunday Times.

It reeks of misogyny, of contempt for women, but more than that, it plays up to an image of “smooth talking Americans” that sneak up on good, old-fashioned British businesses, buy them for a song, milk them for all they’re worth, and then toss them aside, destroying the lives of hard-working British families.

It’s all part of a broader narrative that divides capitalists into two classes — the worthy ones, who run productive family businesses that create jobs, and the others.

The others are often described as “vultures” or “predators” who are value-less scoundrels who are in the business just to make a quick buck. They are often Americans, often linked to Wall Street or New York, and there’s more than a hint of xenophobia in all this.

The fact is that Henry Jackson was trying to make a quick buck made him no different from Kesa, a French-owned concern (more bloody foreigners) that had previously owned Comet.

Kesa which got out at the first opportunity and passed on what was a ticking time bomb to Jackson. Kesa, like Jackson, was only interested in making money.

The notion that there are good, productive family-owned businesses — especially at the level of Best Buy, Comet and Curry’s — is an utterly reactionary one, and a fantasy. It’s part of the world-view that says that the global economic crisis was caused by greedy bankers, rather that being something endemic to capitalism itself.

Marxists have the often-thankless job of telling the unvarnished truth, which is that lowlife like Henry Jackson and his “glamorous” and “semi-respectable” wife are not the rotten apples in the barrel.

All the apples are rotten because the barrel rots them. The system itself is rotten, the rules are rotten, and that is truth we need to tell.