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International Socialist Review Issue 01, Summer 1997


Arming a new generation of Marxists

The need for socialist ideas is greater today than in decades–and so is the potential for rebuilding a socialist movement. That, in essence, is the reason we are launching this, the first issue of International Socialist Review.

The mainstream consensus among the defenders of capitalism is that socialism has collapsed and the free market has won. But look at what the "triumph" of the market really means. Millions of lives are being sacrificed on the altar of profit. Throughout the world, governments committed to the "best business climate" are busily hacking away at workers’ wages and the social safety net.

War and ethnic rivalry escalate as rulers in the Balkans, Africa and elsewhere play the card of racism and national hatred to shore up their sagging power.

In the U.S., more money is spent on prisons than on schools, and the bipartisan attack on welfare, Medicaid and Social Security will put hundreds of thousands of children and elderly, immigrant and native-born, into the streets.

The lack of an alternative and a sense of desperation has produced an opening for the far right. In France, for example, Jean-Marie LePen, leader of the fascist National Front, won 15 percent of the 1995 presidential vote.

But the same conditions that have opened the door to the growth of the far right are also pushing workers into struggle. Over the last several years we have seen the reemergence of mass strikes in France, Germany, Canada, South Korea and elsewhere.

The situation today is reminiscent of the conditions that prompted Karl Marx to pen the Communist Manifesto in 1848. These are conditions that will produce future struggles–that will far surpass those of the 1960s.

But though the conditions are ripe for change, the ideas are lacking. The ideas of Marx, Trotsky, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg–the self-emancipation of the working class must be the conscious, revolutionary act of workers themselves–have been buried under the dead weight of Stalinism and reformism. Socialism came to be seen as something brought from above by elected officials or all-seeing bureaucrats, as something that replaced one kind of tyranny with another.

The collapse of Stalinism, the dismal record of social democratic and labor parties in Europe and elsewhere, and the horrible contradictions of world capitalism open the door to reclaiming the legacy of genuine Marxism. But much of the left that looked to China, Russia and Eastern Europe as somehow alternatives do not see it that way–they are depressed rather than exultant. The result is that they can no longer imagine creating a viable alternative to capitalism. Most look to the Democratic Party, even as Clinton happily slashes away at social programs. Many have even become supporters of

so-called humanitarian U.S. or U.N. military intervention. And many write off ordinary workers as incapable of changing society. The best we can hope for now–so the argument goes–is some form of humanized capitalism.

But a humanized capitalism is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as "humanitarian intervention" by the U.S. military, a Democratic Party committed to the needs of minorities and the working class, or a CEO committed to a better quality of life for ordinary workers. These are not blemishes, but core features of capitalism.

Today, large numbers of people are beginning to question the priorities of the system, and they are asking questions that need answers. Why do so many starve? Why are politicians cutting social services? What is behind the scapegoating of minorities and immigrants? How can the labor movement fight back? How can we reverse the attack on women’s rights? What’s behind the crisis in Russia? Can Blacks and whites unite? The International Socialist Review aims to take on these kinds of questions.

There is a massive political vacuum in U.S. politics on the left. This in part explains the gap between workers’ growing anger and their still lack of confidence to challenge the bipartisan attack on their wages, conditions and social services.

In the U.S. the history of the socialist and working-class movement is one of mass explosion, often followed by defeats which often severed the continuity from one phase of the struggle to the next. The result has been that with each upturn of struggle the lessons of the past had to be relearned. The most devastating defeat–that of the McCarthyite witchhunts of the 1950s–drove socialist ideas out of the labor movement. Revolutionaries had barely begun to rebuild that tradition in the heat of the struggles of the 1960s before the onset of economic crisis in the mid-1970s, and the start of the movement’s decline cut that process short.

The tasks outlined for revolutionaries by the British socialist Duncan Hallas in 1971 remain an eloquent statement for socialists today: "The events of the last 40 years largely isolated the revolutionary socialist tradition from the working classes of the West. The first problem is to reintegrate them."

The Review aims to arm a new generation of Marxists with the lessons of past struggles as well as the theoretical means to tackle new ones. It will stake out an argument that the working class is key to transforming society; that revolution, not piecemeal reforms, is the only way to eliminate the profit system; that only an international struggle of workers, which challenges all forms of sexual, racial and national oppression, can ever hope to win; and finally, that socialists must built an organization, rooted in the day-to-day struggles of workers themselves, to overthrow capitalism and build society anew.


Zaire: A U.S.-made dictator falls

The U.S. government showed little sympathy for its old friend, Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, as his downfall reached an advanced stage earlier this year. In denouncing the "sad conditions that many people in Zaire live in," White House spokesperson Mike McCurry declared in April that "Mobutuism is about to become a creature of history."

It was an ironic choice of words. For almost four decades, Mobutu was the monstrous creature of the U.S. government in central Africa–paid off, propped up and set in motion by the CIA.

Mobutu first came to prominence as an army officer in the final days of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule over Zaire, then known as the Congo. Faced with strikes and riots–and demonstrations at home in opposition to a war in Africa–the Belgian government decided to grant independence and elections in 1960 in the hopes that a friendly government would come to power. But the new government was headed by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the main leader of the struggle against colonial rule.

Fresh from the humiliation of the Cuban revolution in 1959, the U.S. government viewed the Congo as the next domino ready to fall under the influence of the USSR. The CIA set out to buy influence, and one of its first purchases was Mobutu, the chief of staff of the army. When Lumumba threatened to go to the USSR for military support, the U.S. gave the green light for a coup. Mobutu declared martial law, placed Lumumba under house arrest and later had him murdered.

Thanks to U.S. backing, Mobutu survived the five years of civil war that followed and, in 1965, installed himself as president. In the Cold War battle against the USSR, he was the U.S.’s top ally in central Africa, counted on to safeguard Western access to the region’s mineral wealth. Zaire became a launching pad for U.S.-backed military adventures, including the CIA’s dirty war against the pro-USSR Angolan government in the late 1970s. In return, the U.S. propped up Mobutu whenever he faced opposition at home. Using U.S. aircraft and supplies, Belgian, French and Moroccan troops put down several armed revolts during the 1960s and 1970s.

So long as Mobutu helped keep central Africa safe for Western interests, the U.S. was willing to tolerate a great deal from the dictator, including his "Zairianization" campaign. Cities, provinces and the country itself were given "authentic" African names–Mobutu himself took the name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga, which, according to an official government translation, means: "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake." More to the point, "Zairianization" involved the nationalization of some 1,500 foreign-owned companies, including much of the mineral industry.

The campaign was partly to give a nationalist cover for Mobutu’s relationship with Western imperialism. But it was also to get his hands on the loot. Mobutu began systematically plundering the Zairian economy, amassing a personal fortune today estimated at $5.5 billion. Mobutu and his cronies simply stole from the state-run mining company. When mineral prices began to decline in the 1980s, company executives not only pocketed every dollar of revenue but looted their own operations, selling off everything from spare parts to fuel and smuggling huge amounts of minerals out of the country.

The result was a catastrophic decline in production–Zaire produced 459,342 metric tons of copper in 1980 and just 33,600 in 1994. The story has been the same throughout the economy. According to the World Bank, Zaire’s per capita Gross National Product fell by 4 percent per year since 1970.

Yet these figures don’t capture the disastrous state of Zaire’s economy. Real wages are estimated to be at one-tenth the level they were at the end of colonial rule. Nearly nine-tenths of the country’s road system is unusable due to neglect, leaving less than 1,000 miles of paved road in a country the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Public transportation for the 4.5 million inhabitants of the capital city of Kinshasa amounts to a fleet of ancient Volkswagen minivans. Zaire may be the richest nation in Africa in terms of natural resources, but more than 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

It is no wonder therefore that Zairians welcomed the armed rebellion of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). Though the U.S. began to distance itself from Mobutu in the early 1990s, demonstrators at the celebrations that greeted the rebels on their march to Kinshasa denounced the "troika" behind Mobutu–Belgium, France and the U.S.

But whether a Zaire run by the rebels will do more than replace the elite around Mobutu–whether it will challenge Western imperialism–is far from certain. Part of the guerrilla struggle against Mobutu since 1960, rebel leader Laurent Kabila is a recent convert to the free market. His rebels have signed huge deals with Western companies to revive Zaire’s mining industry–with the AFDL as part owners. Kabila’s main backers are Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan Vice President Paul Kagame. Both led guerrilla struggles against Western-backed regimes but have since become reliable U.S. allies. What’s more, while the rebels are backed by many of Zaire’s mass of different ethnic groups, the rebel army is dominated by Tutsis and has attacked Hutu refugees from Rwanda. Some of the Hutu refugees were soldiers and militia members involved in the former Rwandan government’s 1994 genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. But the majority are ordinary Hutus who have become pawns in Zaire’s civil war.

The rebellion in Zaire is a fitting revenge against one of the world’s cruelest dictators. But whether it does more than replace the elite at the top of Zaire with a new set of rulers–perhaps more democratic but still dedicated to safeguarding their own wealth and the interests of the West–depends on whether ordinary Zairians take action.


A step backward for abortion rights

Whether willingly or with reluctance, most liberals (with the notable exception of The Nation’s Katha Pollitt) abandoned one principle after another to keep in step with Clinton when he galloped to the right in the months before last year’s presidential election. Most of Clinton’s liberal supporters claimed they wanted his reelection only to soften the blow of Republican cuts. But now, with Clinton safely in office for another term, most liberals have adopted wholesale Clinton’s conservative policies–most of which he stole from the Republicans–providing living proof of the bankruptcy of campaigning for Democrats as the lesser of two evils.

The abortion rights issue is a case in point. "People would like to see fewer abortions," announced Kate Michelman, leader of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARRAL), as she unveiled NARRAL’s new campaign to help the Clinton administration reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies by 30 percent. The occasion was the League’s annual luncheon celebrating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the right to legal abortion. It was attended by First Lady Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al and Tipper Gore, who urged the pro-choice movement to reject "extremism" and start forging unity with abortion foes on points of agreement. Afterward, Michelman gushed that the appearance by "three members of the presidential team" was "an extraordinary demonstration of the commitment on the part of the administration to a woman’s right to choose."

In reality, Clinton has undermined the basis for women’s right to choose–obvious to all but those with the shortest of memories. His 1992 campaign promise to pass a Freedom of Choice Act vanished as soon as he took office. A report issued by NARRAL last year showed that during Clinton’s first term, Congress had the worst anti-choice voting record in its history. Last year, even while vetoing Congress’ ban on the late-term abortion procedure known as intact D & E, he said he was willing to pass a ban which made an exception to protect a woman’s health. In response this spring, a group of Democrats led by Sen. Tom Daschle set out to prove once again that they could out-do the Republicans by proposing an even more restrictive bill banning all late-term abortions–but which allowed abortion in the case of "grievous" physical health problems, to make it palatable to Clinton. Meanwhile, many states, rather than wait for Congress to act, have gone ahead and passed their own bans on late-term abortions. Rather than a step forward for abortion rights, Clinton’s presidency has been a step backward.

Yet Michelman’s views have now been adopted–and even amplified–by others purporting to support abortion rights. "The pro-choice movement should give God a seat at the table," urged feminist Naomi Wolf in an April 3 New York Times editorial in which she decried the nation’s "shamefully high abortion rate." In it, Wolf echoed Hillary Clinton, calling on pro-choice supporters to join abortion opponents to lower the abortion rate–by campaigning for easier access to adoption as well as birth control, and, like Clinton, singling out teen pregnancy. And Wolf lambasted the pro-choice movement for framing its defense of abortion rights around "a woman’s right to choose," which she claims is "neutral" and "abstract."

But there is nothing abstract about the right to choose–certainly not for the three million women in the U.S. who face unplanned pregnancies each year. Every one of these women deserves the right to choose whether or not to carry her pregnancy to term. And there is nothing abstract about the consequences of losing the right to choose–whether it is the result of waiting periods, parental consent laws, or the imposition of state-wide bans on late-term abortions. Not only must women bear the physical and emotional trauma of unwanted pregnancy and childbirth, but, in this society, women ultimately bear the responsibility and the financial burden of raising children into adulthood. For these reasons, the choice whether to terminate a pregnancy must belong to the woman alone.

The right to choose was central to the women’s movement which won the right to legal abortion in 1973. Between 1969 and 1973, tens of thousands of women and men held hundreds of protests across the U.S. which made women’s right to choose a central demand–along with equal pay, childcare, and an end to discrimination–of the women’s liberation movement. Women cannot hope to be treated as the equals of men unless they have full control of their reproductive lives.

Those who, like Naomi Wolf and Kate Michelman, once defended women’s right to control their own bodies, are now calling on pro-choice activists to embrace those same anti-abortion zealots who seek to deprive women of this right. They are doing more than shifting gears in the struggle for abortion rights. They are abandoning it. They are no different than those liberals who once fought for welfare and now find themselves endorsing Clinton’s version of welfare "reform." At a certain point, quantity becomes quality.

Clinton: bipartisan president

Liberals justified Clinton’s shredding of social programs in his first term as an unfortunate necessity, the outcome of a weak economy and a resurgent Republican right. Yet now that the economy is booming and the Republican "revolution" is in full retreat, the cuts have not been reversed but are intensifying. The crisis now is one of the nature of liberalism itself.

The recession of the early ’90s shaded into the weakest recovery of the century. Growth was so anemic that recovery felt like lingering recession. Massive budget deficits and staggering government debt were menacing enough to frighten workers, who accepted austerity cuts for fear of an even bigger bust.

The only disagreement between Clinton and Gingrich was how far and how fast to dismantle the social welfare gains won by the great struggles of the 1930s and ’60s. Clinton’s option was to gradually slice away at social programs. But Clinton’s scalpel was too small for the Republican "revolutionaries," whose approach to all social problems is the meat cleaver. Gingrich’s suicidal shutdown of the government to force through deeper cuts settled the issue. Clinton was re-elected because his opponents insisted on presenting themselves as the "Greater Evil."

For the first time in a decade the economy is now in a real boom. Growth rates are the best since the mid-80s. To be sure, these rates were only average during the decades of the postwar boom. They are now acclaimed in triumphalist fashion as the second coming of American capitalism. While the boom lasts, the excuses of the ’90s–that Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and child welfare are not affordable–have melted with the exuberance of prosperity. But though the excuses evaporate, worse cuts continue, with capitalist greed the only remaining justification.

On the basis of optimistic economic forecasting the Congressional Budget Office was able, on paper, to project $225 billion in new government receipts in the next five years. Under the old austerity budget, Clinton proposed slashing Medicare by $100 billion, unlike the evil Republicans who wanted to cut it by $125 billion. Now with the prosperous new budgetary windfall of $225 billion, Clinton and the liberals could propose to roll back the cuts. Surely that would be a politically popular move. Instead they are for cutting Medicare even more–by $115 billion. The new-found government money is to go for a capital gains cut, a tax break for the rich to lock in their recent stock market profits. Oh, the wonders of lesser evilism.

For Medicare, read all other social programs. The obscene destruction of Head Start for kids, of food stamps for the unemployed and working poor, the wholesale shredding of welfare–approved by the Democratic Party liberals–are to be implemented in the second term, without a drop of deficit justification. What remains of welfare is rapidly being privatized. Arms contractors like Lockheed who got plush government contracts during the Cold War are now going to be compensated for the end of the Cold War with plush welfare contracts. Even orphanages will now be run for profit. As for the orphans themselves, they and any other kids 13 or over who commit violent crimes are to be tried as adults and placed in adult prisons. Meanwhile the Consumer Price Index is to be cut by some undisclosed amount so that Medicare and Social Security payments are brought down, as well as all union contracts with COLA (cost of living allowances). And this is just for openers. The beginning of the second term makes Clinton’s first term seem like a riot of progressivism.

The boom phase of the business cycle underscores the underlying class and political dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Despite the hype about the best economy in decades, the social wage is cut in both booms and busts. There will be no return to the postwar boom, living standards will not rise but will decline, reforms will not be granted, and take-backs of past gains will continue. This rising tide does not lift all boats. Instead, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said last year, "The rising tide has lifted the yachts." These are not the indices of a healthy system.

What is true about capitalism is true about its political parties. At the height of the boom not one liberal politician has proposed any modest change to better people’s lives. Modern liberalism is no longer a vehicle for social reform, no matter how gradual or modest. It is a vehicle for managing the status quo. The leaderships of the labor, Black, women’s and gay movements, who have endlessly preached the "realism" of subordinating social struggles to Democratic Party electoralism, have reached a dead end. They have nothing to show for their efforts. The idea that change can only come from a struggle from below has compelling urgency. The job of revolutionaries is to win that argument with all those whose illusions will continue to be shattered in Clinton’s second term.

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