Editorial: Between things ended and thing begun

“We are at the moment, to borrow Whitman’s words, when society ‘is for a while between things ended and things begun,’ not because of some symbolic date on the calendar marking the turn of the millennium, but because the old order is a-dying, in so far as it can no longer provide answers corresponding to the social needs of our point of development, though it clings successfully to power, because there is no class, no social force ready to push it off the historical stage.” —Daniel Singer

Though a great deal has changed since radical author Daniel Singer wrote those words in Whose Millenium: Theirs or Ours? in 1999, the description still seems appropriate nearly two decades later. The gulf between the glaring and multiple crises of capitalism and the creation of sizable class and political organizations with a coherent sense of how to move forward to challenge them remains great. There are clear signs of radicalization—both on the left and on the right—and clear signs of a shift among millions of people toward a rejection of the status quo. This has been reflected in revolutionary upsurges as well as descents into reactionary barbarism. But the process comes in fits and starts, leaps and retreats, not having produced new “infrastructures of dissent” that are yet able to sustain and build the social forces necessary to overcome capitalism.

In his essay, “Morbid Symptoms: What Did Gramsci Mean and How Does It Apply to Our Time?” Gilbert Achcar takes up a similar theme, deciphering Gramsci’s statement that morbid symptoms appear in the interregnum where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” As Achcar notes, in the wake of the global financial crash of 2008, the rise and fall of the Arab Spring, and the degeneration of mainstream bourgeois politics, we are again in the situation where the old is already dying and the new can not yet be born. The Left has begun to revive, but at the current moment the growth of new right and far right currents represent a startling and dangerous “morbid symptom” of the current crisis.

Before the morbid symptoms of degeneration and counterrevolutionary despair set in, Syria experienced a period of revolutionary hope that drew in hundreds of thousands in an effort to topple the hated Assad regime. Acclaimed UK writer Tony McKenna takes us through the terrain of the revolution—from the mass street protests of its early days to the armed struggle; the fractious role of Assad, who unleashed mass violence and deliberately promoted jihadist forces to weaken and divide the movement; to the competing regional and imperialist states fighting like vultures over Syria’s ruins. At the end, he critiques those on the left that turned their backs to the Syrian revolution and promoted the illusory idea that Assad represents some kind of anti-imperialist force in the region. Syria today, he explains, is “a zombified state which—having been artificially revivified by international forces—now holds the population in a kind of ossified death grip.”

In the United States, the expression of this morbidity Achcar refers to finds its acute representation in the person of Donald Trump, who has completed his first year as US president. In the ISR lead editorial on Trump’s first year, Lance Selfa notes that “the Trump era has produced a kind of political whiplash where a steady stream of outrages from Trump or his administration produces shock and resistance. And just as opposition to one outrage forms, another Trump outrage follows.” Sections of the ruling class, despite their distaste for Trump, made a “devil’s bargain” to push through tax cuts for the wealthy at the end of the year. This, along with other Trump outrages, leaves many with the unsettling sense that Trump is making strong headway with his reactionary agenda. Meanwhile, the Democrats stand to make electoral gains simply by not being Trump, and look to a murky Russia investigation as a way to get Trump out without having to address any substantial issues.

One of the most unnerving aspects of Trump’s victory was that prior to his election he had been recorded openly bragging of sexually assaulting women, and sixteen women had come forward to say he had sexually abused them. After the initial outpouring against Trump on his inaugural weekend, involving millions of protesters at the Women’s Marches, the question of where this energy was going was not clear. But as Elizabeth Schulte notes in her analysis of the #MeToo campaign, the spark of women coming forward in October to expose Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior produced a wildfire of women coming forward to tell their stories of harassment and abuse, from the upper echelons of Hollywood, Congress, and corporate suites, to working class and poor women in offices, factories, and fields. Though not yet an organized movement, #MeToo has already had a profound impact.

#MeToo has opened a window into the reality of what women face at work, given women and others confidence to come forward, and has completely changed the landscape of debate and discussion around the issue, much in the same way that #BlackLivesMatter did for the question of racist police brutality and murder. It also has opened a door to creating the kinds of organizations and struggles among women and other workers to challenge the rampant sexism and inequality on the job and connect the fight for better pay and conditions with issues of gender and race.

“There will undoubtedly be many more opportunities for organizing under the Trump administration,” writes Schulte, “because like so many issues that are mobilizing people under the Trump administration, #MeToo showed the potential for that accumulated anger and frustration to explode in places that we may not always expect.”

This coming year, there will be a strong gravitational pull exerted on activists and movements to shift gears and throw their weight behind Democrats. Liberal and progressive Democrats will play a prominent role in convincing those who were excited by Bernie Sanders and who are angered by Trump’s open sympathy for the Far Right (exemplified by his defense of fascist protesters in Charlottesville), his rampant racist bigotry, xenophobia, sexism, and support for policies benefitting his wealthy friends, to do everything in their power to get Democrats elected. But as both Selfa and Schulte point out, Trump’s victory came in large part out of a disenchantment with the probusiness, status quo policies of the Obama administration, and of Hillary Clinton. As long as the two-party political dance goes on, the alternating cycle between two parties representing wings of the same ruling class will continue—to the detriment of building the independent politics necessary for rebuilding the Left in the United States. As Selfa concludes, “Only mass mobilization of ordinary people can defeat Trumpism. Not Robert Mueller and not the Democrats.”

The bankruptcy of mainstream liberalism is displayed clearly in the enthusiasm that exists in some circles for the arguments presented about the poverty of white Appalachians in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In his essay, “Capital Offenses,” Matthew Stanley argues that the poverty Vance describes is the product not of a “culture of poverty” or “hillbilly psychology,” but of deep-rooted structures of inequality. Vance’s victim-blaming dovetails—and this is what perhaps explains its popularity—with arguments that purportedly explain why it is that Trump got elected, when in fact the majority of poor white people didn’t vote at all. As Stanley argues, “Among Democrats, imagining Trump’s base as one of ‘racist white workers’ feeds the mainstream line that the party should not tack left to get votes, but should in fact try to woo back wealthier, better educated, and ‘moderate’ Trump voters through the Clintonian ‘triangulation’ of appealing to their conservatism.”

Arguments blaming the poor for their poverty—an argument that has been applied to poor African Americans long before Vance’s book—conveniently shift the blame away from social and structural causes and provide justification by politicians from both parties for cutting social services in the name of ending a “cycle of dependence.”

Given the radicalization expressed by Sanders’s popularity, the “morbidity” of mainstream politics and the urgency of fighting Trump and the Far Right, as well as the urgency of building a new Left, what kind of politics should radicals and socialists turn to? In his essay “The New Deal and the Popular Front: Models for Contemporary Socialists?” Charlie Post answers his question with an emphatic “No.” Expanding on his response to a Jacobin article written by Democratic Socialists of America chair Joseph Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara, which offered a glowing account of the Communist Party’s popular front strategy of the late 1930s and ‘40s, Post argues that these authors present an idealized picture of the popular front and the New Deal. The reality is that Roosevelt’s New Deal was a reaction to the largest upsurge of class struggle in US history, and its aim was to contain these struggles, absorb radical discontent into the Democratic Party, and stabilize capitalism.

After adopting the popular front in 1935–36—a class-collaborationist strategy that called for broad antifascist fronts uniting the Left, labor, and liberal and radical bourgeois parties—the CP used its influence in the working class and trade union movement to assist Roosevelt in dragging any vestige of independent politics into the Democratic Party fold. Today, Post argues, “The politics of the popular front are even more unrealistic than in the 1930s and ‘40s.” Any effort by organizations like the DSA to back Bernie Sanders’s efforts to transform the Democratic Party will end up, as in the past, hitching the fortunes of workers and the oppressed to a party that will not, and cannot, represent their interests.

The significance of the Russian Revolution

If the 1930s can still be mined for political lessons, then certainly this is also true for the 1917 Russian Revolution. Over the past year the ISR has published a number of articles on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. We did so not simply because it was an important centenary, but because we think the revolution continues to be a vital reference point for anyone who wants to change the world today.

This issue of the ISR contains an important contribution on the Russian Revolution and its interpretation. Paul Le Blanc’s “Debating the Russian Revolution and Its Relevance” offers his most recent take on an ongoing debate between Le Blanc, Lars Lih, and Eric Blanc. The latter two have called into question a “long-standing understanding of how the Russian Revolution came to be made”—in particular, whether or not Lenin “rearmed the party” in April 1917, and whether “the earlier Bolshevik orientation—regarding Russia’s revolution being bourgeois-democratic, not socialist—remained the perspective guiding the Bolsheviks throughout 1917.”

The debate is important, argues Le Blanc. If we accept the need to once again “forge . . . an international working-class movement animated with a socialist consciousness,” then the experience of the only party, and the only working class, to have successfully overturned capitalism surely offers us organizational, tactical, and strategic lessons, as long as we don’t assume they merely need to be slavishly imitated. As Le Blanc points out, “our ‘October’ will most likely occur in a different month and in a different manner, within dramatically different circumstances.”

However, as Le Blanc explains by way of an introduction, there are those who would dismiss the usefulness of discussing the revolution at all. Jacobin magazine published a series of thoughtful articles last year on various aspects of 1917, some historical and some evaluating its significance today. The Fall 2017 issue of Jacobin, “The First Red Century,” however, contains two articles that seem largely to relegate October to history’s wastebasket.

The first, by Adaner Usmani and Connor Kilpatrick, offers a puerile dismissal of not only October, but revolutionary politics in general, as “obsolete.” Asking us to “stop worrying about the questions of 1917,” the authors smirk, “No matter how many freshmen come to your September screening of October, today the probability of such a revolution is infinitesimally small.” Ironically, the politics they promote as an alternative is the social-democratic reformism that predated the Russian Revolution.

In their zeal to bury the Russian Revolution, the authors completely blur the distinction between the emancipatory mass democratic character of the Russian Revolution and its subsequent Stalinist degeneration. Worse, while the they show disdain for 1917 (which they spend little time on), they inform us that the thoroughly Stalinized mass Communist Parties of post–World War II France and Italy, as well as the CPs of Brazil, South Africa, and India, are examples of how communism “traveled well.”

The authors enthuse that the experience of postwar communism’s growth into mass parties (until their decline and breakup in the 1980s and ‘90s) shows that “whenever and wherever Western Communist parties were strongest, it was because they were the most effective reformers, not revolutionaries. . . . It was not starry-eyed dreaming but everyday material victories that led 1.5 million people to attend Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer’s 1984 funeral.”

What they fail to mention is that Berlinguer led the Italian CP in its advocacy of a “historic compromise” with the conservative Christian Democrats in 1973, urging a policy of austerity and moderation, based on the argument that the recent coup in Chile proved that “anti-democratic reaction tends to become more violent and ferocious when popular forces begin to conquer the fundamental levers of power in society and the state.” In short—the more you compromise with the status quo, the less of a threat you become.

The authors even have the audacity to quote Lenin’s Left Wing Communism on the need to avoid “childishly ‘Left’ slogans.” How to do that? Focus on “tangible, achievable goals” like expanding the public library system. Revolution is dead. Long live moderate, piecemeal reforms.

Similar arguments are made in the final article, a folded insert written by Vivek Chibber, “The Twentieth Century Left Socialists Plenty of Lessons. Will We Heed Them?” Though Chibber, as Le Blanc notes, acknowledges the effectiveness of the Leninist concept of “cadre based” parties rooted in the working class, he turns his back on 1917. According to Chibber, the strategy of a “ruptural break” exemplified by 1917 cannot be repeated because the modern state’s “legitimacy” and “power of coercion” are too great to challenge head on. It is now necessary for the Left to “navigate a more gradualist approach” that focuses on “building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital.” Chibber calls for the Left to study the history of social democracy in Europe and to reject “state planning” (apparently proven unworkable in Stalin’s Russia) in favor of “market socialism”—an argument that became fashionable in 1989–90 during the collapse of “communist” Russia and Eastern Europe. The Left must, he concludes, “start down the road of social democracy and then to market socialism.”

Unlike Kilpatrick, Usmani, and Chibber, Marx never counterposed reforms to revolution. “The communists,” Marx wrote in the Manifesto, “fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” Against this, we are offered warmed-over Bernstein—the moderate reformist and contemporary of Rosa Luxemburg in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) who argued that “the movement is everything, the final goal nothing.” And this after both postwar Stalinism and social democracy have offered us ample proof that rather than overcoming capitalism, social democracy buttressed and defended it. The difference between Bernstein and Chibber, however, is that while Bernstein, writing at the time of social democracy’s growth into a mass party with electoral clout, argued that capitalism was naturally evolving in the direction of socialism, Chibber, on the contrary, advocates gradualism on the grounds that the structures of capitalism are too strong to be overcome.

Clearly, if there was an example of why we need to understand that the Russian Revolution is still relevant to the Left today, this is it. The best that can be offered in response is still the (no doubt old, but not outmoded) arguments of Rosa Luxemburg in her famous work, Reform or Revolution, against Bernstein:

People who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer, and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.

This journal has a different view than those who consider 1917 the epitaph for workers’ revolution: The Russian Revolution confirmed the centrality of creative, direct, mass action on the part of ordinary people as the starting point for real social transformation; the necessity of dismantling the old state and replacing it with the insurgent democracy of ordinary workers; and the importance for leading radicals and militants of the working class to be organized into a coherent political party capable of providing a lead to all the oppressed and exploited. Finally, in its defeat at the hands of Stalin’s bureaucratic apparatus, it confirmed that socialism must be international if it is to ultimately succeed.

Its failure was not preordained, but was a product—once it failed to spread—of insurmountable material circumstances. In 1917 ordinary workers, peasants, and oppressed peoples rose up, took power, and held it for some years, making a valiant attempt to end capitalism and completely reorder society on the basis of democratically planned socialized production and distribution. They saw their efforts as only the beginning of a worldwide movement of revolutionary reconstruction. But though there were other attempts at revolution—in Germany, Austria, Finland, and Italy, for example—they all failed, in no small part due to the influence exerted by reformist socialists like Germany’s SPD to derail them. The Bolshevik government was left stranded and besieged by internal and external enemies bent on restoring the old order.

The workers’ state survived and was able to fend off these assaults, but at an enormous cost—it became internally transformed into something unrecognizable to its initiators. The material foundations for a social transformation of society—already weak in economically poor Russia and dependent upon it being a “link in the chain” of international revolution—were undermined by years of devastating civil war. Industry and transportation collapsed; the most committed workers were absorbed into the Red Army, died at the front in the civil war, were absorbed into state duties, or fled to the countryside to scavenge for food; rationing and grain requisitioning was unavoidable but hardly desirable; famine was rife. Marx had once said that socialism could only be built on the basis of abundance, because with scarcity, “want is made general, and all the old crap revives.” In Russia the old crap revived, but in a new and unexpected way.

The regime survived, but it succumbed internally to a bureaucratic counterrevolution that has created confusion as to the real nature of socialism ever since. The model of bureaucratic state “socialism,” rather than the inspiring mass insurgent democracy of 1917, became the norm for what passed as “communism” for decades after. The real lessons of October can and should be rescued from this wreckage.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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