New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

The Trotskyists

Geoffrey Hellman
The New Yorker
December 16, 1939
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The political group familiarly known either as the Trotskyists of the Trotskyites is officially called the Socialist Workers Party. A lot of its members feel this name is confusing, since the Party has just about as little patience with the Socialists as it has with the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, President Roosevelt, and Father Coughlin, all of whom the Trotskyists would like to blow up. It regards itself as the orthodox Marxist Party and it looks upon the regular Communist Party as at best a rather contemptible reformist group. During the eleven years of its existence it has consistently maintained direct contact with Trotsky and an uncompromising policy of world revolution against all existing forms of government, every one of which it considers too far to the right. Despite the amount of noise which its members make and the frequency with which they come up in conversation, there are only some two thousand Trotskyists in the country, of whom around six hundred are in New York.

The Trotskyists, who prefer this term to “Trotskyites,” came into being on October 27, 1928, when three members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in New York — James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and Max Shachtman — were expelled for spreading Trotsky’s doctrines instead of Stalin’s. Trotsky was advocating worldwide revolution while Stalin was insisting on confining the revolution to Russia for the time being. Trotsky had been banished to Turkestan the year before for holding the views he did and was subsequently expelled from the Party. In July, 1928, when the Sixth World Congress of the Communist Party was held in Moscow, Trotsky, still in Turkestan, prepared a detailed criticism of Stalin’s national political program. Translated into the various languages of the delegates attending the Congress, copies of this were distributed by the Party to the twenty-odd members of the Congress’s Program Commission, one of whom was Cannon. Although his copy was plainly marked “confidential” and was to be returned to the convention officials, Cannon was so impressed by it that he not only failed to give it back, a gross breach of Party etiquette, but smuggled it into this country and showed it to his friends, including Abern and Shachtman. These men also concluded that Trotsky’s plumping for universal revolution was a sounder idea than Stalin’s plan of concentrating on Russia itself, and they sought to bring other American Party members around to their point of view. Expelled, after a trial, by Jay Lovestone, then head of the Communist Party in America, the three rebels formed a Trotskyist group, known first as the Communist League of America. Lovestone himself was expelled from the Party six months later, for objecting to Russia’s domination of Communist policies in other countries, and founded the Independent Labor League of America, which opposes both Trotsky and Stalin. As the Cannon-Abern-Shachtman offshoot grew in size and began to win over many Stalinists, the hostility of the mother Communist Party toward it became increasingly bitter. In 1934, the League, by then an affair of several hundred members, changed its name to the Workers Party of the US. In 1936 and 1937 it enjoyed an extended flirtation with the left wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialists. It joined the Socialist Party, took over the left-wing Socialist magazine, the Appeal, and called itself the Appeal Group of the Socialist Party. At the end of 1937 the Socialists kicked out the group because they considered it too radical. With it went a good many regular Socialists. The group then adopted its present name, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP].

The Trotskyists and the Stalinists have been calling each other reptiles, jackals, and general no-goods for so many years in their papers, magazines, and speeches that when the Soviet-Nazi [Molotov-Ribbentrop] pact was signed a couple of months ago I supposed the Socialist Workers, pleased at the discomfiture of the American communists, would be going around with broad grins and a great I-told-you-so air. To check up on this and find out about the party in general, I got in touch with a college classmate of mine who is now a leading Socialist Worker intellectual and a regular contributor to the Socialist Appeal and the New International, respectively the Socialist Workers’ semi-weekly newspaper and monthly magazine. To help me gain the proper perspective, he took me to the party’s headquarters at Thirteenth Street and University Place, the street entrance to which is marked by a discreet sign reading, “Labor bookshop. Books of all publishers. Second floor.” We walked up a rickety flight of wooden stairs and entered a room containing a couple of bare wooden tables, two or three chairs, and seven or eight young men, one of them a Negro, who were arguing violently whether Russia should be regarded as a communist or a fascist country.

My companion disappeared into an adjoining office to arrange for me to meet Mr. Shachtman, and I studied various printed slogans hanging on the walls of the room, among them “The time to apply our action program is now!”, “Every class struggle fighter a two-a-week subscriber!”, “Open the doors to Nazi victims,” and “There is work to be done!” In one corner of the room hung an oil painting showing Trotsky, Lenin, and several other people, with the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” lettered on the top. While I was looking around, the loud conversation in the room ceased and everyone began to stare at me. A clean-cut young man in a brown tweed suit came up and asked me whom I was looking for, but before I could reply, my guide came out with Shachtman, a shortish, snub-nosed man of thirty-five with a tiny mustache and an air of great jollity. I was struck by his resemblance to one of the figures in the painting, and he informed me that it did indeed represent him and that the picture was the work of Diego Rivera, who had given it to the Party in 1933, when he came here to do the Rockefeller Center mural that was subsequently destroyed. In addition to Trotsky, Lenin, and himself, Shachtman pointed out likenesses of Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, James P. Cannon, and two or three other people whose names I didn’t catch. I gathered that these persons hadn’t posed together and that the picture was a symbolic one.

We went into another room, which was decorated with a second sign saying “There is work to be done!” and a painting by Rivera, depicting Lenin, Trotsky, and six or seven other people. Shachtman pointed to one of them and said, “That’s the man who took the Winter Palace in 1917.” I found out later that Rivera had, in 1933, been considerably more generous to the Lovestonites than to the Trotskyists, having presented them with twenty-one large murals, most of which portray the history of the United States in a way that would never help anyone pass an examination at Groton. These are located at the Lovestonite headquarters on West Fourteenth Street. Rivera must have been above small Leftist differences, for one of his paintings there shows, among others, Stalin, Trotsky, Lovestone, Cannon, and William Z. Foster. Foster, with Earl Browder, assumed the leadership of the American Communist Party after Lovestone was expelled.

Continue reading

The life and works of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro

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The following series of interviews from the early 1990s gives a good sense of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro’s life and work. You can download a selection of his writings by clicking on the links immediately below.

Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

Memories of John Dewey, confrontation with Jacques Derrida, visits with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Claude Lévi-Strauss

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David Craven: It has been suggested by some people that you were involved behind the scenes in the Erwin Panofsky/Barnett Newman debate that took place in the pages of Art News in 1961. Could you confirm or refute this claim?

Meyer Schapiro: Yes, I was in Israel in the Spring of 1961 when I read Panofsky’s letter in Art News. I sent Barnie one letter, with the understanding that my counsel be kept confidential, in which I pointed out that Panofsky was wrong. I told him to check a large Latin Dictionary and he would see that both sublimis and sublimus are acceptable, as demonstrated by their appearance together in Cicero’s citation of a passage from Accius. Both bits of advice appear in the first letter. Everything else in those two letters was contributed by Barnie himself.

DC: What type of relationship did you have with the philosopher John Dewey?

MS: I was a student of John Dewey, whose classes I very much enjoyed. Dewey asked me to do a critical reading of Art as Experience in manuscript form. The book is important, of course, but it is marked by a tendency to treat humanity and art as extensions of nature, as products of nature, without dealing with how humanity reshapes and remakes nature, hence also itself. This lack of emphasis on mediating nature, on humanity using craft and art to redefine itself, is a problem of the book.

DC: Did you ever meet the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch when he was in the U.S.?

MS: I admire his work very much, but I only met him once or twice. His critique of the Stalinist misuse of Marx’s thought is of fundamental importance.

DC: How often did you see Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo when they were in New York City in the early 1930s?

MS: We met with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo several times. Diego was very entertaining and on one occasion he railed with great emphasis against color reproductions of artworks.

Lillian Milgram: Frida was quite taken with Meyer. She gave him gifts a few times, including a pre-Columbian figurine that we still have.

DC: On October 6, 1977, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a presentation at Columbia University, in which he responded to your refutation of Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1886 oil painting of shoes that is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This presentation by Derrida would later appear in a longer version as “Restitutions” in his book La Vérité en Peinture (1978). Derrida’s paper is surprising because of how the whole tenor of the piece becomes so shrilly ad hominem.

Yet on the one occasion when I had a chance to talk with Derrida up close, in April of 1983 when he was speaking at Cornell University, I found him to be quite approachable and unpretentious, even though I was taking issue with some things that he had said in his public talk about Western Marxism.6 He welcomed this exchange and was much more put off by the sycophantic behavior of some other people in attendance. This is why I find Derrida’s reaction to you so surprising and perhaps uncharacteristic.

MS: He was challenged strongly by many people in the audience. I was abrupt with him, because he neither understood nor cared to understand the nature of my criticism. Furthermore, I discovered later that Heidegger changed his interpretation of the Van Gogh painting when he did an annotated commentary of his own essay and that he ended up admitting that he was uncertain about whose shoes they were. This material will appear in volume 4 of my selected writings.

One of Derrida’s obvious shortcomings is that he entirely disregards artistic intention in his analysis. Continue reading

Andrei Burov

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Burov was a member of the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) and an avowed disciple of Le Corbusier living in Moscow. He designed a number of workers’ clubs during the 1920s, none of which were ever realized.

What he did become known for, albeit somewhat obliquely, was a brilliant bit of Corbusian architecture which appeared in the Eisenstein film The General Line (1927, though released in 1930 after some delays). Some stills from the film are reproduced below, along with some text by the architect and historian Vladimir Paperny.

Recently Owen Hatherley wrote up a piece for Calvert Journal called “Block Party,” in which he touched briefly on Burov’s later work.

From the late Thirties, some architects tried to devise ways of industrializing the creation of individualist, anti-modernist apartment blocks. The earliest is probably a 1938 block on Leningradsky Prospekt by Andrei Burov, who was once such a disciple of Le Corbusier that he even copied his fashion choices (those little round spectacles). Here, the ceramic ornaments of leaves and suchlike are made from prefabricated panels, as are the balustrades and cornices.

By this point, of course, Burov had remade himself as a model Stalinist in architecture. Paperny recalls:

In 1938 the interiors of the Slate Historical Museum were redesigned. This is the very same Historical Museum that Le Corbusier dreamed of demolishing. It had been constructed by V. Sherwood and A. Semenov…The renovations were done by the architect Andrei Burov, “a tall blond man, speaking fluent French” — that was how he was seen in 1935 in Athens, where he had stopped off upon returning from an architectural congress in Rome — a decade after his construction of the model constructivist dairy farm for Eisenstein’s film Generalnaia linia (The General Line) [a.k.a. Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New)]. Here in the Historical Museum design he made a 180° turn from the design philosophy of his former friend Le Corbusier. The interiors created by Burov, in the words of one scholar of art, “express profound principles, inherent in ancient Russian architecture, particularly in the “classical” models of the architecture of Kiev, Vladimir, and Moscow, and whim are undoubtedly related to the traditions of antique, primarily Greek, art.” In Burov’s design, continues the scholar, Russian art ceases to be “an exotic, provincial curiosity” and becomes “the original force with which the folk genius creates, on the basis of antique tradition, a new architecture, unsevered from and connected to, but in no way ceding to, the architecture of the Byzantine era, the proto-Renaissance or the Renaissance.”

There’s a broader thesis at work in these lines, which will become clearer in the following passages. In his excellent thesis, Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin, Paperny describes two main cultural forces at work in Russian history. Culture One corresponds to a destructive, youthful tendency and lines up with the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s. Culture Two, by contrast, covers a more monumental, venerable tendency and lines up with Stalinist architecture. You can read my review of Paperny’s book for more details.

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When Andrei Burov, in 1927, was set designer for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Generalnaia linia (The General Line) [a.k.a. Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New)], his basic idea was that he “works in film not as a decorator but as an architect.” He considered that he should construct a real building, one that would continue to function after the shooting. (It was only because of technicalities that he did not succeed in this.) Film critics of the 1920s rated very highly the idea of such a collaboration of the architect with film, since even feature (non-documentary) films had to show “life as it should be.” Burov shared this position: “film must…show that which is and that which should be” — a position quite similar to the idea of zhiznestroenie. Continue reading

Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism

Christoph LichtenbergEva Curry
Alex KhasnabishChris Parsons


This spring, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a series panels on “Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism” in New York, Frankfurt, Halifax, Thessaloniki, and Chicago. The panel description reads: “It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Marxism and anarchism. They emerged out of the same crucible — the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.

There are a few different ways these ideologies have been taken up. Recent worldwide square occupations reflect one pattern: a version of Marxist theory — understood as a political-economic critique of capitalism — is used to comprehend the world, while anarchist practice — understood as an anti-hierarchical principle that insists revolution must begin now — is used to organize, in order to change it. Some resist this combination, claiming that Marxism rejects anti-statist adventurism, and call for a strategic reorganization of the working class to resist austerity, and perhaps push forward a “New New Deal”. This view remains wedded to a supposedly practical welfarist social democracy, which strengthens the state and manages capital. There is a good deal of hand waving in both these orientations with regard to politics, tactics, and the end goal. Finally, there have been attempts to leave the grounds of these theories entirely — but these often seem either to land right back in one of the camps or to remain marginal.

To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these ideas must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. In what ways does the return of these ideologies represent an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost? Where have the battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?”

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-Halifax hosted on February 1, 2014, at University of King’s College. The speakers participating in Halifax included Christoph Lichtenberg, Alex Khasnabish, Chris Parsons, and Eva Curry. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found online.

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Christoph Lichtenberg: When I think of Marxism and anarchism, I think of two tendencies within the workers’ movement, both of which see themselves as revolutionary, as opposed to the tendency that is known as Social Democracy, which would work through reforms. I think of Marxism as interchangeable with Leninism or Trotsykism. I do not associate it with Maoism or Stalinism. I think of anarchism in its best representation as exemplified by people like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or anacho-syndicalism. There are some commonalities between the two tendencies. I just want to highlight three of them: I think Marxism and anarchism agree on the need for the liberation of humanity through the destruction of capitalism. I also think that we agree on the fact that there is a class struggle going on between the exploiters and the exploited. And finally, I think we agree on the need to destroy the existing, oppressive, capitalist state structure. What happens after that is where we diverge.

The conflict really began with the creation of the alliance with Social Democracy by Bakunin and his followers, and what it meant is that they maintained a somewhat secret organization within the First International and started to publish articles that were critical of Marx. There was a lot of going back and forth over organizational matters, but, as with every organizational dispute, at the heart of it is really politics. The difference in politics between Marxists and anarchists really came to the fore at the 1872 Congress of the First International in The Hague, when there was a big debate between the Bakunin faction and the Marx followers about the role of the state in the transformation towards socialism. The Marxists argued that there was a role of the state in the transformation towards of socialism while followers of Bakunin insisted that the state should immediately be replaced by self-governing workplaces and communes. The Bakunin faction lost that debate and were expelled from the First International for maintaining their secret organization.

Bakunin

Around 1880, Kropotkin and other Russian revolutionaries announced the need for a permanent revolt through word, gun, and dynamite. This set the anarchists, particularly in Russia, on the course of anarchist terrorism, which removed them from the masses and isolated them.

The October Revolution in 1917 is the key event to understanding revolution. The Second International collapsed in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War because the different sections of the International ended up supporting their own governments’ war efforts. So rather than being internationalists, they sided with their own national governments, which Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who led the Bolsheviks, identified as a complete betrayal of the spirit of socialism. The main thing he learned from the collapse of the Second International was the need for revolutionaries to set up a separate organization from the reformists — the need for a vanguard party.

Continue reading

Trotskyism in Greece: An interview with Andros Payiatsos

Nikos Manousakis
Platypus Review 64
March 2, 2014

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On November 22, 2013, Nikos Manousakis, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Thessoliniki, interviewed Andros Payiatsos, Secretary General of Xekinima or “Start,” the Greek chapter of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Nikos Manousakis
: Tell us about the Greek chapter of the CWI. What are its involvements politically, its connection to the wider international organization, its ideological background, and what are Start’s aims in present-day Greece?

Andros Payiastos: Xekinima, which can be translated as Start, has a long history that dates back to the period of the Junta, the military dictatorship from 1967-1974. It was originally a small group that operated illegally under the Dictatorship of the Generals and, in 1974, joined the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Xekinima had evolved in a Trotskyist direction, although not with full clarity at the outset, and was involved in the uprising of the Athens Polytechnic in the autumn of 1973. Start members joined PASOK when the latter was created in 1974. Around the same time Start came into contact with the British counterpart of the CWI, then called Militant, which was working inside British Labour. The group has had an interesting and a complex development since then. In its initial period it was very successful within PASOK, which, in the 1970s, was an entirely different organization from the one we see today — with thousands of working-class fighters and radical left activists. It was also very bureaucratic. But Xekinima was very quickly expelled. From 1975 onwards, Xekinima has worked as a tendency outside PASOK, although it directs itself at the PASOK rank and file.

Then in the late 1980s, a discussion began to develop in Greece and internationally about the character of working-class parties, labor parties, Social Democratic parties, etc., and there was a move in the direction of abandoning them. So Xekinima, too, shifted toward independent work and abandoned any kind of relationship with PASOK. Furthermore, in the 1990s, Xekinima came out openly as an independent organization with a stated aim of rebuilding the forces of the Left, describing PASOK as a bourgeois party, which had abandoned any link to working-class interests.

The 1990s were a very difficult period. The Left, as a whole, was in crisis as a result of the collapse of Stalinism and was confronted by a major ideological offensive by the bourgeoisie globally. It is fair to say that the entire Left was in crisis, even in tatters! Many organizations split and Xekinima also suffered from such clefts.

NM: This in spite of the fact that Xekinima had a different ideological or Trotskyist background?

AP: The Trotskyist current, although it was the only one that had predicted Stalinism was a temporary historical phenomenon and that it would collapse in one way or another, nevertheless paid the cost of the collapse of the Stalinist left. Because the collapse had an adverse, negative effect on the struggles of the working class, on the consciousness of the working class, on leftist working-class organizations, and on the leadership of the trade unions, etc.

NM: So you understand 1989 to have been a turning point for the Left in Greece and globally?

AP: Without any doubt! And Xekinima paid a cost for 1989. Actually, it is fair to say that Xekinima was able to restart, to rebuild its forces, having contracted to a small group by the late-1990s, when leftist movements found new life as the repercussions of the financial-economic crisis in southeast Asia were felt internationally, by the effects of the anti-globalization movement, and then the anti-war movement. It was this rebirth that followed the collapse of the Left in 1989 that also allowed Xekinima to rebuild its forces and become one of the significant forces on the Left today.

NM: How would you define the present goals of Xekinima?

AP: The general goal, of course, is the transformation of society. Capitalism is a deadly system leading to the barbarism that we experience today. How we get to transform society is the main question and a difficult one because the entire Left claims, in one way or another, that they are struggling for a socialist society, but historically the Left has proved incapable of achieving that aim. We have two goals given the present state of things in Greece: The first is to develop a transitional program that reflects the needs of today, define the aims for the working class to fight for, launch proposals about how that fight should develop, in other words a plan of struggle for the working class in order to be able to face this barbaric attack by the troika and the Greek bourgeoisie. The second is to try to bring together the forces which agree on the fundamental tasks of our epoch, I mean forces from the rest of the Left with an orientation toward revolutionary Marxism.

The Greek left is in turmoil — reflecting the depth of the current crisis on the one hand and the deficiencies of the (international) Left on the other. What is very important, however, is that there are significant forces inside all of the major left formations which are in opposition to the ideas or political lines of the central leaderships of those left formations. Such forces exist inside SYRIZA, but also inside the ANTARSYA coalition, and the KKE, the Greek Communist Party. These forces understand the necessity of a transitional program as I have described above and, also, the vital importance of the United Front. Continue reading

Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning

       Manuel Kellner | Henning Mächerle
Wolf Wetzel | Jan Gerber
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Platypus Review 63
February 1, 2014
Image: Antifascist
conference (1922)
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Since the Nazi seizure of power eighty years ago anti-fascism has been integral to left-wing politics. The struggle against fascists and Nazis is morally self-evident, so that political anti-fascism seems to be similarly self-evident. Yet in past periods of history, the politics of anti-fascism was completely different, as was the understanding of what it contributed to leftist politics more generally. Still certain continuity can be discerned in anti-fascism’s retention of anti-capitalist claims. Where does this come from? What was anti-fascism and how has it changed? How do the category and concept of anti-fascism help us to understand both historical and contemporary political realities? What does anti-fascism mean today in the absence of fascism as a mass movement?

What follows is an edited transcript of an event organized by The Platypus Affiliated Society in Frankfurt on April 30, 2013. The discussion addressed the different historical and political implications of anti-fascist politics in order to throw into relief the underlying questions and problems of left-wing politics in the present.
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Opening remarks

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Wolf Wetzel:
This discussion is itself an historical event. The Left is at present so fractured, that it is impossible, even forbidden, to have discussions with each other.  We would normally never see a group like this on a platform together. Yet the problem of the Left is also one of anti-fascism.  Many people from the “Antifa” [anti-fascist movement] here in Frankfurt have refused to attend this discussion, since on the evening before an anti-Nazi march, they can only meet to discuss plans of action. They cannot allow themselves to discuss anti-fascism itself because for them to do so on the day before an action would be demobilizing.  This is remarkable given that formerly such discussions of political substance were commonplace.

The other issue is the intense mutual criticism of the different positions represented on this platform. Who can speak with whom? When is it a betrayal? When is it bourgeois, even counterrevolutionary? The assemblage here — representing anti-German, Trotskyist, German Communist Party (DKP), and Autonomist positions — could meet nowhere else in the Federal Republic. Even though I oppose many of the views represented here, these meetings are valuable because they show where these political differences come from and what lessons can be drawn from them.

I want to raise the question of the role Nazism plays today and how to understand the Nazis. This is a big question, one that is too often avoided by anti-fascists themselves. But one must ask: How threatening are they? Are they dangerous materially, politically, or ideologically? Also the historical question must be raised: Who in the ruling apparatus and state institutions of the 1930s when the Nazi Party was on the rise had an interest in their program? If the system itself is in crisis and the political elite hit rock bottom, what prevents the Left from coming to power (something much more likely in the 1930s than it is today)? At that time, it was an existential crisis for the political and business class: Would the conflict arising in the capitalist crisis be answered in a rightwing, fascistic way, or in a socialist way? Might not the crisis conclude with the bursting apart and transcendence of the capitalist system itself?

When we demonstrate against the Nazis we should ask what significance they have, not how many of them there are — 200 or 500. Such figures anyway sometimes get exaggerated in order to inflate the sense of the threat the Nazis pose.

We must discuss what role neo-fascist organizations, their parties, and their armed groups play. My view is that conditions today are massively different from the 1930s. The fascist movement then and today cannot be equated. The political class and the political system have become something quite different. It is absolutely necessary to ask where the true menace lies. I do not believe that the neo-Nazis are the driving protagonists of German racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism are mainstream and have the support of the majority.  These arrived a long time ago at the center of society. They are represented by political power. The National Democratic Party (NPD) and the other, less organized neo-Nazi groups only express consistently what is already established as mainstream.

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Henning Mächerle: What we are discussing here today depends on the fact that the German workers’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s failed. The Communist Party of Germany was defeated. At the time, it was the biggest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and it failed without organizing any significant armed resistance or, indeed, interfering with the functioning of the Nazi Party on a large scale. The dilemma of the German Left is that we drag this historical burden along with us. That we are mortgaged to history in this way is the occasion for this debate on anti-fascism. To advance our discussion first we need to understand fascism. That is only possible when we describe society as a class society and understand that it is one in which the owners of the means of production — the ruling class — have a compelling interest in the maximization of profit for which a large number of people must sell their labor power. Because of this, the workers’ movement formed and, through its decisive battle with the capitalist class, shaped the last 150 years. For Eric Hobsbawm, the October Revolution was the decisive point of the “short 20th century” that first showed the possibility of establishing a non-capitalist, perhaps socialist society of free and equal people.  The Left was then — unlike today — a truly serious social movement. It was comprised of people who were not primarily ensconced in universities, but had normal wage work and social interests. The big problem of the Communist Party was it only represented a specific milieu within the workers’ movement. Continue reading

Know your enemy

Image: Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
Nemesis and crime (1808)

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It would appear that the International Socialist Organization has launched a defamatory campaign intended to discredit me. Various members of the ISO have been gunning for me ever since I leaked a number of embarrassing internal bulletins from their organization last week. These were sent to me by several different members and former members of the ISO who were troubled by some of the developments taking shape within the organization of late. Some of these documents revealed their leadership’s inaction in resolving an incident concerning a member who had been accused of rape. Apparently this went unreported to the rest of the organization’s membership for more than seven months, until accidentally being brought to light by a few errant statements made in public regarding “Comrade Daniel” (the ISO’s rough equivalent to “Comrade Delta” across the pond).

Preconvention Bulletin 19 — which was only released a couple weeks ago — explained the sequence of events as follows:

During the investigation, it was revealed that two members of the current (2013) XVBC [Xville Branch Committee] had known a year prior that an accusation had been made, one of whom was also on the SDBC with “Daniel” at the time of the incident (July 2012). As of July 2013, no one had spoken to the victim, no disciplinary action had been taken against “Daniel,” no fewer than five Xville comrades knew that there was an accusation, including two members of the (2012) SDBC, and the ISOSC [ISO Steering Committee] was also aware.

Who knows if it would have ever been disclosed to the general membership if someone hadn’t posted about it on Facebook? How embarrassing. No wonder they’re so upset.

Anyway, enough about what the ISO mishandled or got wrong. There’s a clearly established protocol for how to deal with such leaks. If they don’t like the message that someone is spreading, the easiest way to resolve the matter is to kill the messenger. So let’s what calumnies they’ve concocted to convince people that I am untrustworthy. Right now this is the message they’ve decided to circulate:

Anyone who considers defending or associating with Ross Wolfe should always have this reposted, a defense of the FBI arrests of Palestine solidarity activists, as a reminder of what he is. Not just an utterly racist, elitist, sexist troll with a creepy, nasty obsession with wanting Muslim women unveiled. But also an utter scumbag and danger to the Left, ready to call for a state crackdown on activists, no matter what their background. Know your enemy.

Pretty boring stuff, really. The only problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it loses a lot of its effect when such accusations (“racist,” “sexist,” “troll”) are so routinely and casually made. Indeed, these all come from the ISO’s standard repertoire of abuse, terms used to tar anyone who crosses their path. When articles written by a few former members of the ISO critical of the leadership were published on Counterpunch a few months back — on “The Merchants of Shame” and “The Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO” — the response was to dismiss the criticisms out of hand based simply on the venue where the articles had appeared. Sofia Arias wrote up this neat bit of guilt-by-association in an article hilariously titled “Contributing to a Constructive Debate”:

[The Renewal faction has] definitely found a new home at Counterpunch. Counterpunch is literally the last dwelling place that anyone with principled anti-oppression politics would ever go. And I take you to be sophisticated enough to know this, which is why I’m saying it. It has a dwindling readership of the old (white) (male) left. Why? Because it continuously repeatedly uses sexism and misogyny to attract readers (“Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care, and Tits”), anti-Semitism (defense of Gilad Atzmon against a campaign initiated by Omar Barghouti, Ali Abunimah, and other BDS activists), out-and-out transphobia (initiating a series of “debates” sympathetic to Trans Exclusionary Rad Fems).

Counterpunch was called out by Jacobin magazine this past summer for its transphobia, and was subsequently threatened with a lawsuit by the vile trans-misogynist Cathy Brennan, who locks arms with the state to destroy trans leftists. Which publication, Counterpunch or Socialist Worker, republished Jacobin‘s call for solidarity? You can take a wild guess.

No one needs to lecture me about some of the truly odious material Counterpunch has been known to publish. With regard to anti-Semitism, one can look not only to Gilad Atzmon but also to Israel Shamir, an apologist for Pol-Pot and Holocaust denier. Should the former ISO members’ decision to have an article published on a site like this be considered an excommunicable offense? I really could care less what someone chooses to publish an article. But evidently the ISO prefers quasi-Stalinist tactics of “amalgamation,” guilt-by-proximity. Continue reading

Amidst the ruins of the Soviet avant-garde

Isa Willinger on her film
Away from All Suns!

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Originally published at the architecture website uncube. Several weeks ago I posted another interview with the director.

Architecture was once considered fundamental to the rethinking of society and the shape it took. This is the premise of Away from All Suns! a new feature-length documentary by filmmaker Isabella Willinger, a documentary filmmaker based in Munich and Berlin, whose work focuses on gender, social upheavals and human rights. Her film examines the relics of Constructivist architecture scattered throughout Moscow and attempts to tease out what’s left of their revolutionary past. Upon their construction, these buildings embodied the emancipatory change promised and, at least for a time, instituted by the Bolshevik Revolution. Over three-quarters of a century later, suspended in a fragile purgatory between decay and demolition, structures like the Narkomfin Building (1928-30) and the Communal Student House of the Textile Institute (1929) still stun in their radical and emphatic newness.

These buildings seem to rise “from a time more modern than my own,” Willinger says at the beginning of the film. And yet they are just one part of the story. The film’s narrative juggles a cast of unconnected characters, each of whom occupies — in one sense or another — three revolutionary residences. As becomes apparent over the course of the film, their paths are intrinsically bound up with the misfortunes of their storied addresses; like the buildings themselves, they are imperiled by increasingly conservative, reactionary forces that, buoyed by a galvanized corporate sector, threaten their existence, if not that of democratic Russian society. Even so, they persist against great odds, with mixed feelings of nostalgia, hope, and helplessness.

Willinger recently premiered Away from All Suns! at the Istanbul Architecture Film Festival, where it was awarded the top prize. Ahead of its European DVD release, she talks to Sammy Medina for uncube about her film, the Soviet avant-garde, and the bleak future of Russian architecture.

Archival newsreel footage of a Soviet parade with a wooden model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) carried through the streets

Newsreel footage of a parade with a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s
Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) in the streets

Interview

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Sammy Medina:
 
When did you first visit the modernist ruins in Moscow?

Isa Willinger: I first visited them in the summer of 2010. I was actually researching a completely different film topic in Moscow then and was not planning on making a film about them at all. On my walks through the city, I felt an affinity to the Constructivist buildings that I would come by randomly and began to photograph them. Moscow as an urban space and also as a cultural space has something very inaccessible about itself, something even unwelcoming and closed. In retrospect, I think the buildings were the only thing in Moscow’s cityscape I could visually and culturally connect with.

Sammy Medina: What was it about them that impressed you?

Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seemed like gigantic signs in the city. I have no background in architecture, so initially I wasn’t aware of the spatial and urban concepts behind them. In the course of making the film, this obviously changed, but I have never lost the sense of my initial impression. I’ve always continued to see and treat them as signs, rather than architecture. Continue reading

“Identity” — the bane of the contemporary Left

From a brief exchange

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Identity is the bane of the contemporary Left. Should the forces of revolution rise up tomorrow, “leftists” will spot-check them, making sure they are comprised of the “right” identity groups. If they are not properly composed, the Left will call off the revolution, suggesting that more “marginalized” people need to be involved in the leadership, in speaking roles, and so on. It wouldn’t matter that the revolution would’ve benefited everyone, made life bearable and indeed even exhilarating for the entirety of the marginalized, inclusive of all the working class, the overwhelming majority of the social order.

Carole Brémaud, Le ruban blanc (54 x 72 cm, acrylique)

Nothing impresses the Left unless all of the proper identitarian symbolics are observed and lip-service is paid. The Left today does not offer universal human emancipation. All it offers is tokenism, and merely linguistic emancipation for token groups. Anything that promises more — the Left will check, stop-and-frisk, and put an end to. Continue reading

Internationalism fails

Chris Cutrone

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This article is reposted from Platypus Review no. 60. Generally, I agree with its assertions about “anti-imperialist” politics in the present. Nevertheless, this should not be taken to mean that I support US military aggression overseas (not that I have any say in the matter). On Facebook, a heated exchange between James Heartfield, Chris Cutrone, Spencer Leonard, and Reid Kotlas followed. If they don’t mind, I might repost snippets of that argument as a supplement.

The “anti-imperialist Left” considers itself opposed to all U.S. government action as “imperialist” on principle. But, as Trotsky wrote to his followers in 1938, “Learn to think!” while one may oppose the government politically, to oppose the government putting out a fire, especially when there is no alternative agency for doing so, is nonsense. But the “Left” today is not the inheritor of Trotsky, but rather of what he pitilessly assailed, the policy of the Stalinist “Popular Front Against War and Fascism” of the 1930s, for which the shibboleth was, “Which side are you on?”

The idea is that the defeat of imperialist policy creates possibility for an alternative, and therefore one must always be against imperialism to be on the side of an alternative to it. Historically, Marxists have understood such a strategy in terms of either “revolutionary defeatism” or “revolutionary defensism.” Simply put, the defeat of an imperialist power is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative to the government of the imperialist country; whereas the defense of a country against imperialist attack is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative in the subaltern country. Importantly, these are not pacifist positions against war, but rather political military strategies in time of war, moreover with the aim of revolution.

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Historically, there are two examples of success of these strategies of revolutionary defeatism and revolutionary defensism: the role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution is regarded as a success of revolutionary defeatism, in which the defeat of the Tsarist Russian Empire undermined the government and gave rise to political and social revolution; and Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Revolution, in which the defense of China against Japanese imperialist attack undermined the nationalist Kuomintang and allowed for Communist-led revolution. Continue reading