Antifascism: Pros and cons

Saturday’s lopsided standoff between fascist and antifascist demonstrators in Boston, in which the latter outnumbered the former roughly a hundredfold, has been occasion for some relief among liberals scandalized by images of Charlottesville. I would caution against any overhasty optimism, however: Claudio Segrè, biographer of Mussolini’s heir apparent Italo Balbo, reminds us that the first Italian fascists were initially viewed as clowns in November and December 1920, fringe elements that could hardly be taken seriously. “They suffered from unsavory backgrounds and reputations,” writes Segrè, “not the stuff out of which to create a mass movement.” Just two years later they were in power.

Quartz reports that linguistic analysis of billions of Reddit comments has shown a marked increase in the use of alt-Right rhetoric and conspiratorial dog whistles (about “globalists,” “Soros,” “cultural Marxism,” and “Zionazis”). A suspect sample set, one might counter, but the numbers are suggestive either way. With Trump’s presidency spiraling out of control, losing far Right credibility with the bombing of Syrian airbases and the firing of Steve Bannon, its former supporters might look for new outlets to express their political discontents. Outlets other than the carnival sideshow of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign. But are more feelgood mass rallies like Boston really the answer to right-wing radicalization?

Fifteen years ago, massive antiwar marches took place in major cities across the US and around the globe. Impotently, they proclaimed “not in our name.” The invasion of Iraq happened anyway; the demonstrations did nothing to stop it. Participants in these marches could comfort themselves with the thought that their voices had been heard, but they weren’t really interested in stopping imperialism. Evidence of this can be seen in the near total collapse of the antiwar movement in 2008, as the various “soft fronts” of the ISO and FRSO — e.g. the ANSWER Coalition, whose members marched arm-in-arm with Howard Dean supporters and other Democratic Party pacifists — were liquidated into vegan bake-sales for the election of Barack Obama.

I’d similarly contend that most of the people who showed up in Boston on Saturday are not all that serious about stopping fascism. Most of them were liberals eager to reassure themselves that “we’re better than that,” with a meatspace analog to the #ThisIsNotUs hashtag that briefly circulated on social media. Gus Breslauer points out in a note for the Guy Debord Club of Houston that “communists are the only ones who can make fascism impossible.” Antifascism on its own is not up to the task, as we indicated in the previous post: Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. “Communists are the ones best equipped to effectively fight it if it continues to grow,” Beslauer continues, “since they are the only ones who can confidently say they not only want to destroy fascism, but all of what makes fascism possible.”

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Solidarity after Charlottesville

Like everyone else watching the Charlottesville protests, I was appalled by the violence and hateful rhetoric displayed by white nationalists over the weekend. I cannot, however, say I was surprised. Chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” as a group of fascists surrounded to defend a Confederate monument wielding Tikki torches (okay, I laughed a little at that) put the lie to the quaint notion that antisemitism is dead and gone in this country. Just like in the past, it seems to reemerge whenever there are economic anxieties and racial unrest, linked closely with anti-black racism as well as anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim xenophobia.

Emma Green made this point three days ago in an article which ran in The Atlantic: “Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment have long been intertwined in America. When the Jewish factory worker Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted of murder and lynched in 1915, two new groups simultaneously emerged: the Anti-Defamation League, which fights against bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the second Ku Klux Klan, which began by celebrating Frank’s death.” Similarly, Eric Ward’s Political Research essay “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” forcefully argues that “antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within white nationalist thought.” (It’s worth reading also for its insights into the early LA punk scene).

Regarding various “antis” like anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, readers of this blog will know I am influenced by the Bordigist critique of anti-fascism and the councilist critique of anti-imperialism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that fascism and imperialism are not to be opposed. If these political orientations are to be salvageable for Marxists at all, it is important to acknowledge most forms of actually-existing anti-fascism and anti-imperialism are awful. The best anti-fascists and anti-imperialists out there already admit this, of course, and know that in doing so they are not denigrating the lives that have been lost or the sacrifices that have been made.

Marx understood this well enough himself, writing in 1850: “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies. And in maintaining this as our position, we gladly forego cheap democratic popularity.” Internationalist Perspective put out a good response a little while ago entitled “Antifa? No Thanks,” in which they claimed: “By framing the conflict as one between fascism and democracy, the partisans of antifa are making the first choice seem logical and necessary, and are thereby, despite their combativeness, acting as water carriers for capitalism.”

Horkheimer’s old adage from 1939 still rings true: “Whoever is not willing to speak of capitalism should keep quiet about fascism as well.” Gilles Dauvé’s debate with the British group Aufheben is worth revisiting in this context, in order:

  1. Jean Barrot [Gilles Dauvé], Fascism/Antifascism (1982)
  2. Aufheben, “Review of Barrot’s Fascism/Antifascism (1992)
  3. Gilles Dauvé, “Reply to Aufheben” (1998)

Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. The chorus of tweets from Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Nancy Pelosi, and other reactionaries condemning the white nationalists lend credence to Bordiga’s infamous quip that “the worst product of fascism is anti-fascism.” Politically, perhaps, it can be. Although I’d say that the human toll, the dead and brutalized bodies scarred by fascist goons, is fascism’s worst product in absolute terms. Going to the rally at Union Square on Sunday, there were a fair number of signs from the woke Democratic Party “resistance,” showing that class collaborationism indeed remains a real danger.

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Bordiga on Sorel

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It is as­ser­ted that in or­der to elim­in­ate so­cial in­justice, all that is re­quired is to re­late every com­mod­ity’s ex­change value to the value of the labor con­tained with­in it. Marx shows — and will show later, pit­ting him­self against Bak­un­in, against Las­salle, against Dühring, against Sorel and against all the oth­er lat­ter-day pyg­mies — that what lies be­neath all this is noth­ing oth­er than the apo­lo­gia, and the pre­ser­va­tion, of bour­geois eco­nomy.

For about ten years or so pri­or to the Oc­to­ber Re­volu­tion, re­volu­tion­ary syn­dic­al­ism had been fight­ing against so­cial-demo­crat­ic re­vi­sion­ism. Georges Sorel was the main the­or­eti­cian and lead­er of this cur­rent, even if earli­er ante­cedents cer­tainly ex­is­ted. It was a move­ment which was par­tic­u­larly strong in the Lat­in coun­tries: to be­gin with they fought in­side the so­cial­ist parties, but later split off, both be­cause of the vi­cis­situdes of the struggle and in or­der to be con­sist­ent with a doc­trine which re­jec­ted the ne­ces­sity of the party as a re­volu­tion­ary class or­gan.

The primary form of pro­let­ari­an or­gan­iz­a­tion for the syn­dic­al­ists was the eco­nom­ic trade uni­on, whose main task was sup­posed to be not only lead­ing the class struggle to de­fend the im­me­di­ate in­terests of the work­ing class, but also pre­par­ing, without be­ing sub­ject to any polit­ic­al party, to lead the fi­nal re­volu­tion­ary war against the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem.

Sore­li­ans and Marx­ism

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A com­plete ana­lys­is of the ori­gins and evol­u­tion of this doc­trine, both as we find it in Sorel’s work, and in the mul­ti­far­i­ous groups which in vari­ous coun­tries sub­scribed to it, would take us too far off our track; at this point we shall there­fore just dis­cuss its his­tor­ic­al bal­ance sheet, and its very ques­tion­able view of a fu­ture non-cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.

Sorel and many of his fol­low­ers, in Italy as well, star­ted off by de­clar­ing that they were the true suc­cessors of Marx in fight­ing against leg­al­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ism in its pa­ci­fist and evol­u­tion­ist guise. Even­tu­ally they were forced to ad­mit that their tend­ency rep­res­en­ted a new re­vi­sion­ism; left rather than right wing in ap­pear­ance but ac­tu­ally is­su­ing from the same source, and con­tain­ing the same dangers.

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Demonology of the working class

One of the most common charges leveled at Marxists is that, for all their atheistic pretensions, they retain a quasi-religious faith in the revolutionary dispensation of working class dictatorship. “It’s become an almost compulsory figure of speech to refer to Marxism as a Church,” observed the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1951. Barthes was reviewing a book by the surrealist author Roger Caillois, which had just been released, but if anything the use of this lazy metaphor has grown more frequent over time. Just a few years after Barthes’ review was published, the public intellectual Raymond Aron came out with a polemic cuttingly titled The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955). He’d lifted the title from a bon mot by the philosopher Simone Weil, who despite her youthful Bolshevism in the twenties had gone on to publicly debate Leon Trotsky during the thirties. Repeating this old anticommunist jibe, Aron quipped that “in Marxist eschatology, the proletariat is cast in the role of collective savior… that is, the class elected through suffering for the redemption of humanity.” Evidently, in Aron’s understanding, workers were held up as an object of mythic exaltation among the socialists.

To be sure, some of the language adopted by Marxists — e.g., heresies, dogma, sects, orthodoxy, schisms — is clearly borrowed from theological disputes. Furthermore, the recantations made by ex-communists at times seems to lend credence to this view. You need look no further than the famous 1949 essay collection The God that Failed for proof of this fact. Wolfgang Eckhardt’s newly-translated study of The First Socialist Schism (2016), on the split between Bakunin and Marx in the Workingmen’s International, is only the latest in a very long line of examples. André Gorz opened his Farewell to the Working Class (1980) with a chapter on “The Working Class According to Saint Marx,” riffing on the section of The German Ideology dedicated to a critique of “German socialism according to its prophets.” Gorz thus concluded that “orthodoxy, dogmatism, and religiosity are not accidental features of Marxism, since the philosophy of the proletariat is a religion.” More recently, the former Situationist TJ Clark confessed that his own Farewell to an Idea (1999) will likely be seen “as a vestige of early twentieth-century messianism.” Clark sardonically added that “if I can’t have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan” (though he got this last part a bit mixed up, as we shall see).

Socialism, however, is not about worshiping but rather abolishing the worker. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, perhaps the two most prominent theorists of proletarian revolution during the nineteenth century, by no means deified the class they felt might lead to the socialization of humanity. In their first written collaboration, from 1845, the young firebrands maintained:

When socialist writers ascribe [a] world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. In the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, and even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete. The conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, and at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life, and cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.

Expanding on this passage, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted on the terrestrial foundations of the Marxist hypothesis. “If [Marxism] accords a privilege to the proletariat, it does so because on the basis of the internal logic of its condition… apart from any messianic illusion,” he claimed in Humanism and Terror (1947). “Proletarians, ‘who are not gods,’ are the only ones in a position to realize humanity. Marxists discern a mission in the proletariat — not a providential, but an historical one — and this means that, if we take the proletariat’s role in the present social constellation, it moves toward the recognition of man by man…” Nevertheless, in the meantime workers are hardly godlike; indeed, they’re barely even human, if Marx and Engels are to be believed. As the former would later explain in Capital (1867), “manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity.” His description is reminiscent of the lyrics to that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “Sixteen Tons,” written about a Kentucky coal miner in 1947: “Some people say a man is made outta’ mud / A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bones / A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong / You load sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Over and above the image of the proletariat as divine redeemer, here emerges a picture of the proletariat as beyond redemption. Workers have sold their souls to the company store. Consider the following lines from Marx’s Capital on the topic of automation: “An organized system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from an automatic center, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, instead of the isolated machine, a vast mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power [dämonische Kraft], at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs.” Little wonder that the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga drew upon these words in elaborating his own “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil,” from 1951. Quoting Marx, who in turn was quoting Goethe, Bordiga explained how, “by incorporating living labor into capital’s lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labor in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil’.” The dispossessed (which is, after all, just another word for “proletariat”) are thus demonically possessed by the alienated products of their labor. For Marx, this was all part of “the magic and necromancy [der Zauber und Spuk] that surrounds the products of labor on the basis of commodity production.”

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the Hungarian communist dissident turned born-again Marxist, is one of the only theorists in recent memory to have grasped the demonic character of the working class. In his brilliant 2006 essay “Telling the Truth About Class,” Tamás framed his view by contrasting it with that of the British cultural historian EP Thompson:

There is an angelic view of the exploited (that of Rousseau, Karl Polányi, E.P. Thompson) and there is a demonic, Marxian view. For Marx, the road to the end of capitalism (and beyond) leads through the completion of capitalism, a system of economic and intellectual growth, imagination, waste, anarchy, destruction, destitution. It is an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word, a “falling away of the veils” which reveals all the social mechanisms in their stark nakedness; capitalism helps us to know because it is unable to sustain illusions, especially naturalistic and religious illusions. It liberated subjects from their traditional rootedness (which was presented to them by the ancien régime as “natural”) to hurl them onto the labor market where their productive-creative essence reveals itself to be disposable, replaceable, dependent on demand — in other words, wholly alien to self-perception or “inner worth.” In capitalism, what human beings are, is contingent or stochastic; there is no way in which they are as such, in themselves. Their identity is limited by the permanent reevaluation of the market and by the transient historicity of everything, determined by — among other contingent factors — random developments in science and technology. What makes the whole thing demonic indeed is that in contradistinction to the external character, the incomprehensibility, of “fate,” “the stars,” participants in the capitalist economy are not born to that condition, they are placed in their respective positions by a series of choices and compulsions that are obviously manmade. To be born noble and ignoble is nobody’s fault, has no moral dimensions; but alienation appears self-inflicted.

Marx is the poet of that Faustian demonism: only capitalism reveals the social, and the final unmasking; the final apocalypse, the final revelation can be reached by wading through the murk of estrangement which, seen historically, is unique in its energy, in its diabolical force. Marx does not “oppose” capitalism ideologically; but Rousseau does. For Marx, it is history; for Rousseau, it is evil.

Here Tamás was somewhat unfair to Thompson — not to mention Rousseau — but his caricatured presentation served to throw their perspectives into sharper relief. Thompson may have been guilty, from time to time, of romanticizing the English working class, but he entertained no illusions as to the hellish conditions out of which it emerged. After all, it was Thompson who wrote of “the denizens of ‘Satan’s strongholds’ [inhabitants of proletarian neighborhoods in industrial cities], of the ‘harlots, publicans, and thieves’ whose souls the evangelists wrestled for in a state of civil war against the ale-houses.” Every religious doctrine of the age, stated Thompson, had to be “held up to a Satanic light and read backwards” so as to properly grasp their context. One popular Methodist refrain, which he noted in his Making of the English Working Class (1963), spoke of factories as follows: “There is a dreadful Hell, / And everlasting pains, / Where sinners must with devils dwell, / In darkness, fire, and chains.” Regarding “that monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve” (to quote Capital), Thompson echoed Marx’s military metaphor in describing “…an unsettling element in the formative working-class community, a seemingly inexhaustible flow of reinforcements to man the battlements.”

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Non-identity and negation

“Identitarianism” and the
affirmation of difference

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we are generation identity, blood and soil

Renovators and renegades

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In a classic 1952 essay on “The Historical Invariance of Marxism,” Amadeo Bordiga identified three contemporary forms of opposition to Marxist theory. First of all there were the bourgeois apologists, who denied the validity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Next there were the Stalinists, who verified Marx’s insights in word but falsified them in deed. Last but not least came the renovators, who tried to modernize Marx’s concepts — i.e., the “self-declared advocates of revolutionary doctrine and method who nonetheless attribute its current abandonment by most of the working class to defects and initial gaps in the theory which must be rectified and brought up to date. Deniers — falsifiers — modernizers. We fight against all three, but we consider the third group [of adversaries] to be the worst of the lot.”

Bordiga’s hardheaded “invariance” was of course largely strategic, meant to sustain a set of principles against unwarranted revisions, additions, subtractions, etc. Marxism addresses itself primarily to history, to changing conditions which must be dealt with on their own terms. Principles, while not totally sacrosanct, should not be compromised at a whim, in order to accommodate regression or to rationalize defeat (Stalin’s motto of “socialism in one country,” for example, was only adopted after it became clear that proletarian revolution had failed in the West). Recently, however, it has again been suggested that Marxism must be supplemented, augmented, or otherwise updated so as to be more inclusive or appeal more to a broader range of people. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism at least poses this as an open-ended question: “How do we assess the many different theories that attempt to describe the structure of race, gender, and class?” Questions like this seem to suppose definite answers, though, which invariably prove weaker than the original line of inquiry.

Yesterday, in a discussion about how to conceptualize race under capitalism, one ostensible left communist remarked that “there are any number of left communists who are ready to explain to you where ‘intersectionalism’ fails, but how many of them can account for why it exists?” Another discussant then asserted that “a left communist fusion with identitarian points of view is necessary. We need to do more than dismiss a whole perspective just because of differences in language and analysis.” Terms such as “identitarian” and “identitarianism” are of fairly recent vintage, stemming from several sources, hence polysemic. Black socialist critics like Adolph Reed use these terms to denote “essentialized ascriptive identities, commonly referred to as identity politics.” Here the identities in question are multiple, referring to discrete groups whose distinct characteristics, fluid social relations, are fast-frozen and held aloft as if solids. Or else they are snatched from the air, from the misty realm of ideology — as the reified distillate of cultural stereotypes. For the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, “identitarian” signified just the opposite, the idea of a harmonious social totality in which every antagonism had been surreptitiously removed.

Anyway, I objected that a fairly widespread identitarian movement already exists across Europe and the United States. It is one with which socialists must not fuse, however, under any circumstances. Since 2002, the extreme right-wing nationalist Bloc Identitaire has been active in France. Now it has managed to set up a branch in England and establish a foothold in America. Generation Identity, as it calls itself, is the logical culmination of the “identity politics” foolishly embraced by many parts of the Left these last few years. “Our only inheritance is our blood, soil, and heritage,” reads their headline, with clearly fascist overtones. “We are heirs of our destiny.” Just a couple months ago, the National Policy Institute (NPI) held an entire conference devoted to identity politics in Washington, DC. Claus Brinker, who covered the event for the website Counter-Currents, reported that it aimed to ascertain “the future of white racial identity politics.” In the comments thread of a post several years ago by Red Maistre, “On Identitarianism: In Defense of a Strawman,” Maoist veteran Carl Davidson argued that the real enemy was tacit “white male identity politics.”

Tacit or not, it is clear that formations like Generation Identity and Bloc Identitaire represent something new. When I brought them up, the aforementioned discussant did not seem to appreciate it. “You must have been confused by my terminology,” was the reply. “I did not mean that particular brand…” My response was to ask what the approved brands of identitarianism might be, expressing my concern that drawing distinctions of this sort is reminiscent of the attempt to distinguish “good” from “bad” nationalism. Special pleading routinely accompanies support for the “nationalism of the oppressed,” and relies on a similar logic. One wonders if a similar rationale might not be used to justify cheering on various national liberation projects, like every other Maoist and Trotskyist sect. Even anarchists can get in on some of this action now, with the PKK’s Bookchinite municipalism. Why not just ditch the whole left communist schtick if what you really want is to wave a Palestinian, Kurdish, or Naxalite flag? Continue reading

The works of Leon Trotsky

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This post has been a long time coming. Not only because it’s taken time to track down and convert some of these massive files into manageable sizes, though that also. Rather, it is more that I’ve been busy reassessing my own relationship to Trotsky’s works. Some reflections on his career, in thought and in deed, follow the documents posted below. For now, here are all fourteen volumes of his Writings during his last exile, from 1929 to 1940, along with his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution, his biographical works (his autobiography, biography of Lenin, and incomplete biography of Stalin), along with some of his earlier works (Results and Prospects, Terrorism and CommunismAn Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, Exhausted Peoples of Europe, The Permanent Revolution, Problems of Everyday Life, Literature and Revolution, and Lessons of October).

Assorted Writings
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  1. Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution (1920) and Results and Prospects (1906)
  2. Leon Trotsky, An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, and Exhausted Peoples of Europe (1915)
  3. Leon Trotsky, Dictatorship vs. Democracy: A reply to Karl Kautsky on Terrorism and Communism (1919)
  4. Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Foundations for a New Society in Revolutionary Russia (1922)
  5. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1923)
  6. Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924)
  7. Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (1928)
  8. Leon Trotsky, My Life (1928)
  9. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (1933)
  10. Leon Trotsky, Writings on Literature and Art (1905-1940)
  11. Leon Trotsky, Diary in Exile, 1935
  12. Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence (1940)

History of the Russian Revolution
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  1. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 1: The Overthrow of Tsarism
  2. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 2: Attempt at Counterrevolution
  3. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: The Triumph of the Soviets

Writings, 1929-1940
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  1. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1929
  2. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1930
  3. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1930-1931
  4. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1932
  5. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1932-1933
  6. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1933-1934
  7. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1934-1935
  8. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1935-1936
  9. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1936-1937
  10. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1937-1938
  11. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1938-1939
  12. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1939-1940
  13. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, Supplement (1929-1933)
  14. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, Supplement (1934-1940)

Enjoy. If you like this post and are looking for some other free downloads, check out my past entries dedicated to the works of Marx and Engels as well as those of Roland Barthes.

Leon Trotsky drawing

My reevaluation of the legacy of Leon Trotsky is largely due to my belated exposure to the left communist tradition. Or, more specifically, the writings of the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga. To be more specific still, Bordiga’s early writings — from 1919 to 1926 — have left a deep impression on me. As will become clear, I’d hardly endorse his entire corpus. Particularly his later stuff tends to be more hit or miss, though there’s still quite a bit to be learned from his undying (invariant) Bolshevism. His article “Against Activism” is an instant classic, and his longer essay on “The Factors of Race and Nation in Marxist Theory” is epic as well.

Council communism is a tradition I’m decidedly less keen upon. Early on, in the 1920s, when the Dutch councilists Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek hadn’t yet completely forsaken the role of the party, there was perhaps a little more substance to their arguments. Later, when Otto Rühle and Paul Mattick took up the mantle of council communism, their politics tended to devolve into empty moralizing and a quasi-religious faith in the spontaneity of the masses. Nevertheless, Mattick’s various articles on economic theory and his critique of nationalism are excellent. They almost cannot be recommended highly enough. Karl Korsch intersects with this milieu in his flight from Leninism, but only to his detriment.

One final factor has been decisive in this process of reevaluation: the critical and theoretical edifice left by Korsch, Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt School (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm). Unlike Bordigism or council communism, I have been thoroughly acquainted with this body of literature for some time now. It has informed my own writings and opinions since college. Still, in reviewing Trotsky’s writings I have focused a bit more on the orientation of these figures vis-à-vis Trotsky and Trotskyism.

With respect to Trotskyism, the innumerable tendencies that lay claim to the theoretical and practical lineage of Bronshtein himself, I am much less enthusiastic. Like his famous biographer, Isaac Deutscher, I even find the founding of the Fourth International somewhat perplexing. Understandable, perhaps, in that his friends in the Left Opposition abroad were defecting, or else being tortured and shot, but perplexing nevertheless. It was a non-starter from the word “go.” Trotsky still put out some great essays and texts during this period, and some of his squabbles with Shachtman, Eastman, Burnham, and Rivera are entertaining, if not all that enlightening. Cannon was certainly a great organizer, but was a piss-poor theorist. Only orthodox Trotskyism has anything redeeming to say after the 1950s and 1960s, especially James Robertson and the Sparts. Today, I suppose I retain some respect for Alan Wood of the IMT, ignoring his Bolivarian boosterism, the Spart-lite star-brights in the IBT, and the polemical pricks in the League for the Revolutionary Party. But that’s it.

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The International Socialist Organization is a hodgepodge of brainless Cliffite heterodoxy, academic jargon (mostly in and through their publishing house, Haymarket Books), and the latest in trendy activism (intersectionality, “x lives matter” hashtags, and so on). I’d almost say they’re unworthy of the name. Anyone who is interested in Trot genealogies, check out this. The author is a social democrat, basically, but his sprglord game is tight and so he can be relied upon for encyclopedic information.

Robert Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: A Documentary Analysis of the Movement (1990)

In a series of upcoming posts, I will try to briefly summarize my thoughts regarding each of these camps or schools. Spoiler alert: Trotsky belongs to a bygone era of revolutionary politics. A gulf divides his work from the present. Even within his own epoch, some of his positions seem to have been ill-advised. But perhaps this is the wisdom of retrospect, as the line he took on anti-imperialist “national liberation” was made in the context of approaching war (on the eve of each world war). The “united front” tactic is not as universally applicable as Trotskyists would like to believe; nor is it as universally inapplicable as Bordigists believes. Nevertheless, in every instance, Trotsky the man is far more salvageable than contemporary Trotskyism.

P.S. — I am of course fully aware that the headpiece used for this post is a malicious representation of Trotsky, taken from a Polish anti-bolshevik propaganda poster from 1919. Nevertheless, I have decided to keep it, because it is fucking metal.

Against activism

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In this short article first published in 1952, Amadeo Bordiga addresses “activism” as “an illness of the workers movement” that exaggerates the “possibilities of the subjective factors of the class struggle” and neglects theoretical preparation, which he claims is of paramount importance. Recently a number of texts have emerged to challenge the unquestioned paradigm of “activism” among Marxists and radicals. Here’s a brief list that I’ve compiled:

  1. “Activism,” by Amadeo Bordiga (1952).
  2. “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” by Theodor Adorno (1968). Some notes on the decoupling of theory and practice.
  3. “Resignation,” by Theodor Adorno (1969). Responding to accusations made against the Frankfurt School.
  4. “Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation,” by L’Organisation des jeunes travailleurs révolutionnaires (1972). Following the wave of radicalism in 1968.
  5. “Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents,” by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti (2003). From the antiwar years.
  6. “Introduction to The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century: Toward a Theory of Historical Regression,” by Benjamin Blumberg for Platypus (2009).
  7. “Additional Remarks on the End of Activism,” by Theorie Communiste (2011).

As I’ve written elsewhere, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others — one might add Luxemburg, Pannekoek, or Trotsky — would have found the word “activism” [Aktivismus, активизм] unintelligible, especially with respect to their own politics. Nowhere does it appear in any of their writings. Lenin only mentions “activists” [активисты] after 1918, and mostly then in connection with certain Menshevik factions that were “actively” opposed to Soviet power. Even when he’d use roughly equivalent terms like деятели [often translated as “activists,” though more literally “doers”], Lenin’s usual attitude was derisive. He referred, to give just one example, to “some local ‘activists’ (so called because they are inactive).” 

Bordiga’s article thus provides a vindication of sorts, coming from one of the old-timers who was involved in revolutionary agitation and organizing after 1917. Victor Serge described Bordiga as “exuberant and energetic, features blunt, hair thick, black, and bristly, a man quivering under his encumbrance of ideas, experiences, and dark forecasts.” Davidovich, for his part, praised “the living, muscular and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” Anyway, most of the others from this period didn’t live long enough to see “activism” become the modus operandi of the Left. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, the classical Marxist pairing of theory and practice gave way to the hazier binary of “thought” and “action.”

Here I think Bordiga is nicely complemented by some lines by Theodor Adorno, writing in a more scholarly vein:

Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant the pseudo-reality within which actionism moves…[A]ctionism is tolerated only because it is considered pseudo-reality. Pseudo-reality is conjoined with, as its subjective attitude, pseudo-activity: action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevated into an end in itself. (“Resignation” in Critical Models, pg. 291)

The only thing I disagree with in the following article is Bordiga’s characterization of the USSR as “state capitalist,” by which he means something quite different than Tony Cliff (but which seems inadequate nonetheless). I like that he repeatedly invokes Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: A Infantile Disorder (1922), which is especially remarkable given that Ilyich aimed many of his sternest criticisms in that book at Bordiga. Translation modified here and there for readability’s sake.

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Activism

Amadeo Bordiga
Battaglia Comunista
November 7, 1952
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It is necessary to insist on the word. Just like certain infections of the blood, which cause a wide range of illnesses, not excepting those which can be cured in the madhouse, activism is an illness of the workers movement that requires continuous treatment.

Activism always claims to possess the correct understanding of the circumstances of political struggle, that it is “equal to the situation.” Yet it is unable to engage in a realistic assessment of the relations of force, enormously exaggerating the possibilities based on subjective factors of the class struggle.

It is therefore natural that those affected by activism react to this criticism by accusing their adversaries of underestimating the subjective factors of the class struggle and of reducing historical determinism to that automatic mechanism which is also the target of the usual bourgeois critique of Marxism. That is why we said, in Point 2 of Part IV of our “Fundamental Theses of the Party”:

…[t]he capitalist mode of production expands and prevails in all countries, under its technical and social aspects, in a more or less continuous way. The alternatives of the clashing class forces are instead connected to the events of the general historical struggle, to the contrast that already existed when bourgeoisie [began to] rule [over] the feudal and precapitalist classes, and to the evolutionary political process of the two historical rival classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat; being such a process marked by victories and defeats, by errors of tactical and strategical method.

This amounts to saying that we maintain that the stage of the resumption of the revolutionary workers movement does not coincide only with the impulses from the contradictions of the material, economic and social development of bourgeois society, which can experience periods of extremely serious crises, of violent conflicts, of political collapse, without the workers movement as a result being radicalized and adopting extreme revolutionary positions. That is, there is no automatic mechanism in the field of the relations between the capitalist economy and the revolutionary proletarian party.

It could be the case, as in our current situation, that the economic and social world of the bourgeoisie is riddled with serious tremors that produce violent conflicts, but without the revolutionary party obtaining as a result any possibilities of expanding its activity, without the masses subjected to the most atrocious exploitation and fratricidal massacres being capable of unmasking the opportunist agents, who implicate their fate with the disputes of imperialism, without the counterrevolution loosening its iron grip on the ruled class, on the masses of the dispossessed.

To say that an objectively revolutionary situation exists, but that the subjective element of class struggle (i.e., the class party) is deficient, is wrong at every moment of the historical process. A blatantly meaningless assertion, a patent absurdity. Continue reading