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A Visit to New York

1. Looking for left-wingers

For the New Year, I visited my mother living in New York. I thought I don’t want her to be alone, and she is a rather old lady now. Why should we care about strangers, who are old and lonely, and forget our own relatives? We all know how it is to be alone and without things to do, when we are out of work. Our parents, when they are retired, are like unemployed people… They have little to do, and hence our visit for them is really a holiday.

So, having gotten a ticket to New York in October, on December 24th I flew in.

Once in New York, I started looking for people whom I can contact. I am a leftist, and so I was looking for left people.

The first person I looked up on Internet was Louis Proyect, “an unrepentant Marxist”, as he calls himself, https://louisproyect.org/ I turned to this guy because has some good analysis, which is more than various political parties can offer. For example, type in word “Ukraine” in his blog, and you’ll be able to find rather interesting articles on the situation in our country. However, I don’t share his perspective. See my critique of one of the articles posted in his blog titled “Ukraine: an oligarchic rebellion in Donbass”, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1169052219830672&id=100001777160586

In particular, the article says that the war in Ukraine was started by the oligarchs in the East of the country. It completely ignores the role played by the oligarchs of the West and Central Ukraine. The real cause of the war are the colliding material interests of oligarchs both in the Donbass region and in the central and Western regions of Ukraine. In particular, if the oligarchs of the East, such as Alexander Efremov, didn’t put up the armed resistance, and declared “independence”, their property, after Euromaidan, would be looted, just like the property of Yanukovich.

This point of view becomes more clear if we examine various other similar conflicts on the  territory of the former Soviet Union, such as the war in Chechnya, the war in Moldova (the Trans-Dniester Republic), the war in Georgia (the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions), etc.

The perspective which Louis Proyect supports is really the perspective of European and American capital, as can be seen by the fact that the article criticized above was published in “Le Monde Diplomatique”, Polish edition. In any case, the real causes of the war in Ukraine must be discussed separately, and deserve a long and detailed explanation, as many people in Ukraine, young people included, seem to blame the war on “Russia”, or “Putin”.  

On the page of Louis Proyect, I was able to find an article by a young Iranian Marxist, Arash Azizi, describing his experience in a Trotskyist organization, https://www.facebook.com/notes/arash-azizi/after-trotskyism-what-some-personal-thoughts/10154868462150970 This topic is close to me, as for a number of years I have considered myself, and still consider to be, a follower of Trotsky, especially of his critique of Stalinism. However, I was not able to find any organization which would suit me.

Arash Azizi has rejected a Trotskyist organization called “International Marxist Tendency” (IMT), led by Alan Woods, of London, after working inside the organization for a number of years. The reasons he has joined IMT, in the first place, are the following:

“it stood on unapologetic socialist politics (of much importance to me, it didn’t follow much of the international left by supporting the Tehran regime), because the Trotskyist Anti-Stalinism appealed to me, because its political strategy of working inside the NDP (of Canada) to win a majority for Marxist ideas in the country’s main working-class party seemed plausible and because it boasted many hard-working people who took their politics seriously”. 

So, what are the reasons why he left the IMT? The organization is a sect. Instead of building on political basis of unity, it offers a sectarian, dogmatic approach:

“To be a member of the IMT, you’d need to share in an article of faith that I’ll try to honestly summarize as such: “IMT [with a membership that is today probably around 2000 worldwide, at most] is the only genuine Marxist organization on the planet. It alone has the “correct ideas” [an astonishing term that even the Catholic Church doesn’t use with such certitude], which are encapsulated in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Trotsky [maybe, a book or two by Rosa Luxembourg] and those continued by Ted Grant and the IMT. It alone can offer the workers the revolutionary leadership that is needed to win power and build socialism.”

“In IMT, you’d often hear that if a revolutionary movement happens while IMT is still a small organization this is a bad thing since “we need time to prepare”

So, the sectarianism turns out to be counter-revolutionary. Moreover, it stifles any theoretical development:

“work of no Marxist writer or theoretician after Trotsky’s death in 1940 is worth considering, except for the few fellows that have had the honor of working with the IMT”

I disagree with Arash on the point of why Trotsky’s “4th International”, founded in 1938, didn’t flourish. Arash says it was because of repression:

“Trotsky and his followers were some of the most persecuted people on the planet in the post-war period. Imagine being active in a situation in which, in addition to the usual animosity of the state and the capital, you’d have to battle large socialist states and massive communist parties around the world who, at times, would even go to the length of physically exterminating you.”

Arash is being apologetic for Trotskyism. In history, there have been a number of persecuted organizations, who nevertheless managed to grow, even in the times of persecution, and especially because of it. A number of religious and working class organizations immediately come to mind. 1) Christians in the times of the Roman Empire (thrown to the lions, among other things). 2) Protestants and Puritans in the times of the Reformation (e.g. the family of Benjamin Franklin, being Puritans, had to emigrate from England). 3) Working class unions, such as IWW of Bill Haywood. 4) Social-democratic parties at the end of XIX – beginning of XX century, such as the German Social-Democratic party (e.g. law against socialists under Bismarck), and the Russian Social-Democratic Labor party (e.g. almost all of the first congress participants were arrested).

So, we should attribute the smallness of Trotskyists’ organization not to persecution, but to another cause. Arash writes:

“In Trotsky’s lasting image, the political party is like a piston box that guides the steam-like energy of the masses.”

In my hypothesis, it is this “steam energy” that has been lacking from Marxist politics since the start of WWII. The revolutions we’ve seen in the wake of WWII were peasant revolutions, such as the Chinese revolution, and they were not led by proletariat.

I believe that since the start of WWII, the working class can no longer be considered the “revolutionary”. The society has entered the age of computers, automation of production, nuclear energy, and such. As example, we can bring the work of such people as Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, John von Newmann, another mathematician working on computers and laying foundations for nanotechnology, Ross Ashby (systems theory), Claude E. Shannon (information theory), etc. These developments imply a new stage in industrial revolution, one that leaves the proletariat behind, just like the first stage of the industrial revolution has left behind the peasantry as a revolutionary class. 

I contacted Arash, and asked for his recommendations of left-wingers in New York. He recommended me 2 things: 1) the magazine “Jacobin” and 2) the Democratic Socialists of America.

The “Jacobin” magazine was started in New York by Bhaskar Sunkara, “the son of middle-class South Asian immigrant”, according to “The New York Times”, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/21/books/bhaskar-sunkara-editor-of-jacobin-magazine.html

Beginning of the magazine goes back to year 2009, when Bhaskar was in college. The magazine came out in print in 2010. I see it as an expression of the growing radical sentiment among the American young people. The New York Times writes about the magazine: “Since its debut in September 2010 it has attracted nearly 2,000 print and digital subscribers, some 250,000 Web hits a month, regular name-checks from prominent bloggers, and book deals from two New York publishers.”

The magazine puts out a slick cover, e.g.

It takes scholarly articles and presents them in a popular way, e.g. “when Seth Ackerman, a graduate student at Cornell University, turned in a scathing analysis of the Constitution’s inherent conservatism for the second issue, Mr. Sunkara knew it needed something to really pop. “Seth had a title with nine words and a semicolon,” he recalled. “I crossed it out and wrote ‘Burn the Constitution.’ ”

I skimmed through the magazine, and found most of the articles there to be in a liberal, not revolutionary line.

The article I found most interesting is about the present moment in development of PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/pkk-ocalan-kurdistan-isis-murray-bookchin/

The article touches, although indirectly, on a very important problem of our times: “Marxism-Leninism” is a bankrupt ideology. However, the PKK has started its revolutionary struggle in 1980’s by adhering to this ideology. After the arrest of its leader, Abdullah Ochalan, in 1990’s, the party has started to change its ideology. So, what are the goals of revolutionary struggle, when we no longer subscribe to dogmas of “Marxism-Leninism”?

 The party adopted the ideology of Murray Bookchin, 1921-2006. This ideology seems to embrace popular assemblies, development of civil society, its self-organization, self-rule, as opposed to a vanguard party and conquest of state power.

“Bookchin’s post-capitalist vision was a radically downsized society, organized around autonomous, ecologically sustainable municipalities. These municipalities — called communes — would replace large cities, which he believed to be a threat to the environment and a hindrance to direct democracy.

To bring about this society, Bookchin favored a combination of political action and prefigurative organizing — the creation in the here and now of structures such as cooperatives and democratic associations that could foreshadow a better society. Political action and these experiments would, Bookchin argued, begin to empower ordinary people in their communities.”

“Armed seizure of the state has been replaced as a goal with a focus on building prefigurative structures in civil society”.

My take is that renouncing violence has been the price Abdullah Ocalan, leader of PKK, had to pay in order to preserve his life, after the arrest in 1999:

“I want to see that the PKK stops the armed struggle and I want to dedicate myself to this goal. I want a PKK that is not against the state and which assumes a legal status”.

Yet, in spite of this writing, we hear of PKK, or its splinters, battling both the Turkish state and the ISIL. BBC writes (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-20971100 ):

“The group, which has Marxist-Leninist roots, was formed in the late 1970s and launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government in 1984, calling for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey.

Fighting flared up again after a two-year-old ceasefire ended in July 2015.

Now the PKK is being targeted in a bigger Turkish security crackdown, following the botched July 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by mutinous Turkish officers.”

It seems that PKK has no choice: either fight an armed battle, or be smashed by the Turkish state and the ISIL.

Getting back to the coverage of PKK by “Jacobin” magazine, we hear:

“The PKK’s supposed move from a dogmatic “Marxism-Leninism” to libertarian socialism also resonates with the wider view that twentieth-century socialism failed because of misplaced trust in the state and the party”

What was wrong with the so-called “XX century socialism”, by which we mean the kind of societies which were represented by the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, China and others? In my opinion, it is the fact that power has resided not with the people, but with bureaucracy – either one man, or a small group. The decisions which were made by this group were first to protect their own interests, and later to enrich themselves by plundering the state property.

Organizing the civil society, in various directions – as advocated by Murray Bookchin, and now adopted by PKK – can be an antidote to this illness.  

***

The “Jacobin” magazine has “reading groups” in many parts of the United States, for example in Brooklyn. These groups have their own FB page, and thus organize live meetings, in addition to discussions online about the content of the magazine and related issues. For example, https://www.facebook.com/groups/brooklynjacobin/?fref=ts The group plans an “anti-inauguration viewing party” on January 20th,  in downtown Brooklyn, hosted by such people as Naomi Klein, a left liberal journalist.

I believe these “reading groups” represent “circles” from which a political party may be formed. However, considering the overall direction of these groups and the magazine as left liberal, I doubt that it will come to pass. The U.S. will not tolerate another “Democratic party”.

***

Issues raised in this section:

  1. Causes of the war in Ukraine
  2. Crisis of Trotskyism as a sign of crisis of Marxism (IMT)
  3. Crisis of “Marxism-Leninism” and “XX century socialism”, and search for alternatives (PKK)

Continued here

 

 

 

 

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