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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Eradicating the Bacillus”



In the US, the last few months have seen a host of celebratory salutes to, tributes to, and commentaries on the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Serious research and thought were reflected in many, reminding us of both the sacrifices and achievements made by the workers of many nationalities who established the first sustained workers’ state, the USSR. Authors and speakers touched on many aspects of the Revolution and its rich legacy of fighting for socialism and ending imperialism.



Needless to say, little (or none?) of the victories of twentieth century socialism spawned by the Russian Revolution found its way into the monopoly media; the fete for the Bolshevik Revolution was held on alternative websites, by small circulation journals, and in small meeting halls and venues. This would neither surprise nor disappoint Vladimir Lenin; rather, it would conjure memories of the difficult and stubborn work of the small, often disputatious Russian Social Democratic Party in the years leading up to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.



This doesn’t mean, of course, that the mainstream capitalist media had no commentary on the Russian Revolution. They did.



And it was relentlessly and uniformly negative. No warm words of any kind were spared for Russian workers of 1917 and their cause. In fact, in a year when the media and its wealthy and powerful collaborators decided to resurrect the spectre of Soviet Russia in a new, hysterical anti-Russia campaign, moguls mounted a lurid, anti-Communist campaign unseen since the Cold War.



The New York Times unleashed their rabid neo-McCarthyite commentator (Communism Through Rose-Colored Glasses), Bret Stephens, to spew his venom and unsparingly and gratuitously denounce anyone that he could even remotely connect with the Revolution, from those wearing “Lenin or Mao T-shirts” to Lillian Hellman. Progressives, Jeremy Corbyn, and, predictably, Bernie Sanders are condemned, part of the “bacillus” yet to be “eradicated,” to reference his clumsy, vulgar paraphrase of Winston Churchill. They, like any of us who find any merit at all in the Soviet experience, are “fools, fanatics, or cynics.”



Then there was the nutty Masha Gessen-- the favorite of NPR’s resident bootlicker to wealthy patrons, Scott Simon-- who analyzes the Soviet experience in a strange brew of mysticism and psycho-babble. Even The Wall Street Journal reviewer of her new book (The Future is History) concedes that she “puts forth a[n]... argument full of psychospeak about ‘energies’ and an entire society succumbing to depression.” He goes on: “She begins with the dubious assertion that one of Soviet society’s decisive troubles derived from the state prohibition against sociology and psychoanalysis, which meant the society ‘had been forbidden to know itself.’”



“Dubious” assertion? Or whacky assertion?



But Gessen will always be remembered for embracing the term “Homo Sovieticus,” a term that will undoubtedly prove attractive to those mindlessly active in the twitter universe.



For reviewing Gessen’s book, reviewer Stephen Kotkin had the favor returned with a glowing review in The Wall Street Journal of his book, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941. Joshua Rubenstein-- himself the author of another catalogue of Stalin’s evil, The Last Days of Stalin-- engages the usual verbal histrionics: “despotism,” “violent and catastrophic,” “ruthlessness and paranoia,” “draconian,” “remarkable cruelty,” “calamitous,” “crimes,” “ideological fanaticism.” These, and other shrill descriptions, pile up in a mere ten paragraphs. Rubenstein clearly reveals his anti-Soviet bias when he describes Soviet aid and assistance to the elected Spanish anti-fascist government in 1936 as an “intervention.” The interveners were the Italian and German fascists; the Soviets were, unlike the Western “democracies,” the only opponents of intervention.



Kotkin’s service to the WSJ and the anti-Soviet cause were rewarded with a long op-ed piece in the Journal in the weekend Review section (November 4-5, 2017). The Princeton and Stanford professor tackled the topic, The Communist Century, with great vigor. He sets the tone with the dramatic claim that ...communism has claimed at least 65 million lives, according to the painstaking research of demographers.”



The victims-of-Communism numbers game was elaborated and popularized by Robert Conquest, a writer whose career overlapped on numerous occasions with the Cold War propaganda efforts of the UK Information Research Department, the US CIA, and the CIA’s publishing fronts. Conquest owned the estimate of 20 million deaths from the Soviet purges of the late 1930s. At the height of the Cold War, this astounding figure met no resistance from “scholars” at elite universities. Indeed, every schoolgirl and schoolboy in the crazed, rabid 1950s “knew” of the tens of millions of victims of Stalin’s purges.



Unfortunately for Conquest (though he never acknowledged it) and the many lemming-like academic experts, the post-Soviet archives revealed that his numbers were vastly inflated. In fact, they had no relationship whatsoever to the actualities of that nonetheless tragic period.



Kotkin’s claimed 65 million victims of Communist misdeeds should, accordingly, be taken with less than a grain of salt, though it is curiously and mysteriously well below the endorsed estimate of his mentor, Martin Malia. Malia, the author of the preface to the infamous Black Book of Communism (1994), endorsed that sensationalized book’s claim that 94 million lives were lost to Communism. Some contributors to the Black Book retracted this claim, noting that it was arrived at by an obsession with approaching the magic number of 100 million victims. They subsequently “negotiated” (or manufactured) a tally between 65 and 93 million. Such is the “rigor” of Soviet scholarship at elite universities.



Kotkin, like most other anti-Communist crusaders, gives away the numbers endgame, the purpose behind blaming uncountable victims upon Communism. For the arch-enemies of Communism like Conquest and the participants in the Black Book, it is imperative that Communism be perceived as equally evil with or more evil than Nazism and fascism. This charge of moral equivalence is targeted at the liberals who might view Communism as a benign ally in the defense of liberal values or social reforms. No one has done more to promote this false equivalency than Yale professor Timothy Snyder with his shoddy, ideologically driven book, Bloodlands.



Of course, the Washington Post also has its resident guardians of anti-Soviet dogma in Marc Thiessen and the incomparable Anne Applebaum. Applebaum has enjoyed a meteoric career from graduate student to journalist covering Eastern European affairs to the widely acknowledged leader of anti-Soviet witch-hunters. Her marriage to an equally anti-Communist Polish journalist-turned-politician further strengthened her role as the hardest charging of the hard-charging professional anti-Communists. Her consistent work denouncing everything Soviet has earned her a place on the ruling class Council of Foreign Relations and the CIA’s “active measure,” the National Endowment for Democracy.



She “celebrated” the Bolshevik Revolution on November 6 with a several-thousand-word Washington Post essay raising the feverish alarm of a return of Bolshevism (100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.) Applebaum repeats a favorite theme of the new generation of virulent anti-Communists: the events of November 1917 were a coup d’etat and not a revolution. Of course, this claim is hard to square with another favorite theme-- the Bolsheviks numbered only two to ten thousand followers. How do you reconcile such a tiny group “overthrowing” the government and the security forces of the fourth most populated empire in the world?



The Bolsheviks lied. Lenin was a liar. Trotsky was a liar. “So were his comrades. The Bolsheviks lied about the past… and they lied about the future, too. All through the spring and summer of 1917, Trotsky and Lenin repeatedly made promises that would never be kept.” Further, Lenin’s henchmen used the “tactics of psychological warfare that would later become their trademark” to mesmerize the population. That same easily charmed population was to later fight for socialism against counter-revolutionary domestic reaction and foreign intervention in a bloody five-year war (1917-1922), the same supposedly easily tricked population that laid down their arms and refused to fight for the Czar or his “democratic” successors. This neat picture of perfidy surely exposes a belief in both superhuman, mystical powers possessed by Lenin and an utter contempt for the integrity and intelligence of the Russian masses.



But it is not really the historical Bolsheviks who are Applebaum’s target, but today’s “neo-Bolsheviks.”



And who are the “neo-Bolsheviks”?



For Ms. Applebaum, they are everyone politically outside of her comfortable, insular world of manners and upper-middle class conservatism. First and foremost, she elects to smear the social democrats in Spain and Greece, along with Jeremy Corbyn, who may consider “bringing back nationalization.” Similarly, their US counterparts “on the fringes of the Democratic Party” (Bernie Sanders!) are condemned because they embrace “a dark, negative version of American history” and “spurn basic patriotism and support America’s opponents, whether in Russia or the Middle East.” (Sadly, my social democratic friends will likely not allow these ravings to shake their confidence in Applebaum’s equally inane pronouncements on Communism.)



But the “neo-Bolsheviks” exist on the right as well! She identifies them as those rightists who “scorn Christian Democracy, which had its political base in the church and sought to bring morality back to politics…” “If some of what these extremists [on the right] say is to be taken seriously, their endgame-- the destruction of the existing political order, possibly including the U.S. Constitution-- is one that the Bolsheviks would have understood.” In Applebaum’s bizarre world, there are Bolsheviks of both the left and right lurking under our beds! Safety is only found in the bosom of Christian democracy, that post-war artifact cobbled together by the Western powers to counter the parliamentary rise of Communism.



The anti-Communist graffiti artists, the professional defacers of the Soviet legacy, are legion. Books and commentaries by others, like Victor Sebestyen, Serhii Plokhy, Douglas Smith, Svetlana Alexievich, Amy Knight, and Catherine Merridale, join the authors reviewed here in churning out new grist for the anti-Communist, anti-Soviet mill.



With many Soviet sources now available, the practice of Cold War defamation has become a riskier business, an enterprise possibly bringing embarrassment to the most outrageous fabricators. Accordingly, the most sophisticated among the new generation of Cold Warriors have turned in a new direction: the 1930s famines in then Soviet Ukraine. With little risk of exposure and eager cooperation from the virulently anti-Communist, extreme nationalists now installed to govern Ukraine, they have started a new victim-numbers race to rally the cause of anti-Communism, a new narrative of Red wickedness.


Applebaum is right about one thing. There is evil in the air.



But it is the vicious slander of everything Red, especially the legacy of the Soviet Union.



Greg Godels (Zoltan Zigedy)

zzsblogml@gmail.com


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Inescapable Contradictions


Marxists favor the term “contradiction.”
A discussion of “contradiction” as a Marxist technical term can become quite tangled and obscure, particularly when the discussion proceeds to Hegelian philosophy. But some clear and simple things can be said about contradictions without delving deeply:
  • Marxists use the term to indicate a conflict between elements, social forms, forces, processes, or ideas that expresses a fundamental opposition rather than a conflict that arises by accident or happenstance.
  • Contradictions are not resolvable without an equally fundamental or qualitative change in the antagonists or their relations (Mao Zedong, in his writings, chooses to allow for conflicts [“contradictions”] that are non-antagonistic as well).

Thus, the conflict between dominating and dominated social classes (the capitalists and the working class, for example) represents a contradiction since opposition is fundamental to the nature of the classes and cannot be resolved without a radical and qualitative change in their relations. The dominated class must become dominant or it must eliminate the relationship of domination.

In Marxist revolutionary theory, the class contradiction is the most important contradiction, the contradiction that informs social analysis and socialist strategy.

But other contradictions exist in capitalist society, in politics, in economics, in culture, in foreign policy, and in virtually every aspect of life under capitalism. When class contradictions become particularly acute, they manifest in the sharpening of contradictions in every other aspect of the dominant social form. When the contradictions, the underlying conflicts, result in dysfunctionality, Marxists recognize a systemic crisis.

Contradictions Abound!

Today, in the US, in the wake of the greatest economic downturn since the Crash of 1929, contradictions are found in every aspect of public life. The increasingly apparent class contradiction is exemplified by growing inequality, poverty, and social chaos. The explosive opioid epidemic (recognized only because it has crossed the racial and class “railroad tracks”) generates initiatives from all factions of bourgeois politics. Pundits cry out for punitive action or enhanced social service support, sometimes both. But they fail to locate the causes of the epidemic, causes that are located under the surface of bourgeois society. They fail to recognize that desperate acts accompany desperate circumstances. Wherever poverty and social alienation increase, anti-social, harmful behavior rises as well.

The contradiction between a brutal, uncaring, social regimen and the most fragile, the most marginalized people is as old as class society and the thirst for wealth. The economic ravage of the small towns and cities scattered across the Midwest attest to this contradiction. Capitalists exploited the workers for their labor until they could wring no further profit; then they tossed them aside and left them with no good jobs and no hope. Crime and other destructive behaviors will only increase, unless the contradiction is resolved with a departure from the profit-based system, an alternative profoundly alien to the two major political parties.

They, too, are fraught with contradictions. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties score low in poll approval (see, for example, CNN Poll: Views of DemocraticParty hit lowest mark in 25 years); since 2008, both have failed to advance their programs even when enjoying complete legislative and executive dominance (2009-2010, 2017-); and both parties are afflicted with dissension and division.

The fundamental contradiction in US politics arises from the fact that the two dominant political organizations, the Democratic and Republican Parties, are capitalist parties, yet they pretend to represent the interests of the 70-80% of the US population that have nothing in common with the capitalist class and its loyal servants. While the two parties have skillfully posed as popular while unerringly serving elites, the economic crisis, endless wars, and growing inequality have unmasked their duplicity.

Consequently, factions have broken out in both parties. The Republicans have sought to contain the nativists and racists, the religious zealots, and the isolationists and nationalists within the party while maintaining a corporate agenda. The Democrats have similarly attempted to hold the social liberals, the neo-New Dealers, the social democrats, the environmentalists, and the minorities in a party fundamentally wedded to promoting capitalism and market solutions. Neither strategy can escape the contradictions inherent in a system of two capitalist parties.

The Tea Party movement, Trump, and the Bannonites threaten to shatter the Republican Party. The slick corporate Republicans have lost their magic, unloading vitriol on the vulgar, crass Trump, who deviates from the corporate consensus. The Republican infighting exposes the damage in the party.

The Democrats are exposed as well by the fissure between the Sanders followers and those who are so fearful of working people and wholly beholden to Wall Street and corporate money that they can’t even co-exist with Sanders’ mild reformism. The schism is so great that fundraising has nearly collapsed. And the revelations of DNC collusion with Clinton’s campaign confirmed by Donna Brazile, a long-time ranking insider, demonstrate the rigid, undemocratic nature of the organization. The fact that Brazile also improperly fed debate questions to Clinton only serves to highlight the corruption of the Party and its leaders.

While both Parties are expert at diversion and deflection, the depth of the political crisis, the sharpness of the contradictions, have generated levels of hypocrisy and hysteria unseen since the height of the Cold War. After the debacle of the Clinton Presidential campaign, the Democrats, in collusion with many elements of the security services and most of the monopoly media, mounted a shrill anti-Russia campaign. Crudely, they have relied on the emotional remnants of anti-Sovietism to lodge a host of unsubstantiated charges and a campaign of guilt-by-association. To anyone awake over the last half century or so, the charge of “meddling in the US election” is laughable for its hypocrisy. Have we forgotten Radio Free Europe or Radio Marti? Or a host of other examples?

The high flyers of the stock market-- the social media giants-- added ridiculous claims of Russian sneakiness to appease the powerful investigative committees and deflect from their own profitable, but vile and socially harmful content.

Reminiscent of the worst days of the so-called McCarthy era, the targeted party-- in this case the Republicans-- recoiled from the struggle for truth and tried to out-slander the Democrats. Today, they are ranting about an obscure, meaningless uranium deal swung by the Democrats with the wicked Russians.

The first fruits of the farcical Mueller Russian fishing expedition-- the Manafort indictment-- say nothing about Russia and everything about the corruption infecting US political practices. At best, we will discover that Ukrainian and Russian capitalists are just as corrupt as our own.

Other cracks in capitalist institutions signal intractable contradictions. Both the widespread charges of sexual impropriety in the entertainment industry and the tensions between the players and owners in professional football are symptoms of weaknesses in two of capitalism’s most effective instruments of consensus. Both sports and entertainment are critical mechanisms of distraction that dilute political engagement.

The ever-expanding charges of sexual abuse within the giant entertainment monopolies are spreading to other workplaces, like the government and the news media. While the media are aggressively pursuing the prominent actors, directors, producers, government officials, and other high profile suspects, they wittingly ignore the contradiction that underlies these offenses. In most cases, the malignant behavior grows out of the power asymmetry of employer to employee. Invariably, in these instances, the employee’s reluctance to resist, to come forward, to fight back springs from the fear of retaliation, loss of employment, blacklisting, etc. In other words, it is not akin to other sexual abuses that come from misuse of physical power. Instead, these crimes are possible because of economic power, the power afforded by capitalist economic relations. Indeed, these crimes and similar exercises of employer power exist in many more workplaces and far beyond the world of celebrities. Of course, the corporate media are unwilling to explore the general question of employer abuse that extends beyond celebrities to millions of powerless victims.

Similarly, the conflict over standing for the national anthem is a battle between employees-- admittedly among the highest paid in the world-- and their employers, the owners of the professional football teams. When Houston Texans owner Robert C. McNair called the players “inmates” it was a not too subtle, vulgar reminder to the players that they are subservient to the owners. What emerged as a legitimate protest against the blacklisting of quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been reshaped by management into a battle over workplace rights and the terms and conditions of employment, a fundamental class contradiction.

Who Rules the World?

As long as capitalism has existed in its mature, monopoly form, it has demonstrated an inherent, relentless global predatory tendency, a form of exploitation that Lenin dubbed “imperialism.” For most of the twentieth century, imperialist governments were obsessed with smashing the leading anti-imperialist force, the socialist countries, while, at the same time, maintaining-- often with force-- colonial and neo-colonial relations with other nations and nation-states. Thus, the leading contradiction of that era was the opposition between the socialist community, along with its allies in the national liberation movements, and its capitalist adversaries (most often led by the US) and their military blocs (NATO, SEATO, etc.). In mid-century, the capitalist offensive took the virulent form of fascism.

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the socialist community, the US and its most powerful allies declared global victory. Far too much of the unanchored left accepted this declaration, failing to see the various and varied resistance to US and capitalist hegemony springing up throughout the world as fundamentally and objectively anti-imperialist. Far too many disillusioned leftists retreated to vague, moralistic, and decidedly class-blind notions of human rights or humanitarianism, a “leftism” that squared all too neatly and conveniently with the decidedly self-serving concept of “humanitarian interventionism” concocted by the ideologues of imperialism.

But what many foresaw as an “American 21st Century” proved to be an illusion. The basic contradiction between the US and anti-imperialist forces of resistance and independence and the historic contradiction between US imperialism and its imperialist rivals operate as profoundly as they have at any time in the history of imperialism. The dream of “Pax Americana” dissolved before endless wars and aggressions and the emergence of renewed, new, and undaunted oppositional centers of power.

The long-standing Israeli-US strategy of goading and supporting anti-secular, anti-socialist, and anti-democratic movements in emerging nations, especially in predominantly Islamic nations, has failed, even backfired. Though recruited to stifle anti-capitalist movements, these politically backward forces have turned on their masters to stand against occupation and aggression.

The imperialist reaction to these developments has left failed states, environmental disaster, economic chaos, and disastrous conflict in its wake.

In addition, US and NATO destruction has generated a refugee crisis of monumental proportions, flooding the European Union with immigrants and fueling both a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment and the ensuing growth of nationalist politics. Anti-EU and anti-US sentiment grow accordingly.

While the US has not lost its ability to wreak havoc and destruction, it has clearly failed to secure the stability that it had long sought in order to cement the global capitalist order.

Indeed, there are significant sectors of the ruling class that now benefit from the chaos. The military-industrial sector is undergoing a dramatic revival of production and arms sales thanks to the fear and chaos stoked since the end of the Cold War, particularly with newly invented fears of Russian design and aggression along with constantly rising tensions.

The US energy sector, revitalized by new technologies, is now looking to wrestle markets from their traditional suppliers. Many of the sanctions against Russia and the isolation of Qatar and Iran are about capturing natural gas markets in Europe. In this regard, US capitalism benefits from instability and hostility in the Middle East and Africa, where volatility in energy production can only redound to the more stable US suppliers, protected by US military might. The conflict in Nigeria, continued chaos in Libya, the tension between former Iraqi and Kurdish allies, the confounding and disruptive moves by the traditionally staid Saudis, the destabilizing of Venezuela, and, of course, the sanction war with Russia all advantage US energy production.

This contradiction between the post-Cold War avuncular role of the US in guaranteeing the pathways toward global corporate profits and the contrary role of accepting a multi-polar world and forging US policy solely to advantage US capitalism is intensifying. It is a product of the failure of the US to impose what Kautsky (1914) called “ultra-imperialism,” the illusion of collaborative imperialism.

By employing the Marxist conceptual tool of “contradiction,” we are afforded a coherent picture of the crisis facing the capitalist order, particularly in the US. The picture is revealed to be one impervious to the theoretical programs (or anti-programs) favored by the social democrats or anarchists who dominate the US left (and much of the European left). Without a revolutionary left, the forthcoming debates will only be between defending the idealized “peaceful” global order of a stable, regulated capitalism or those salvaging an inward-looking, vulgar nationalism; it will only be between those dreaming of a mythical kingdom of class harmony with a generous net to capture the most disadvantaged and those leaving fate to market forces. All are roads that have long proved to be dead ends.

The intensifying contradictions of capitalism call for another option: a revolutionary movement for socialism.

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Nobel Prize for a Return to Reality?


University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler won the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics for telling economists something that everyone else already knew. One of the pioneers of what has come to be called “behavioral economics,” Thaler has put forward the earthshaking, profound claim that people do not always, or consistently, act rationally.

Now why would this seemingly commonsensical observation deserve a Nobel Prize? Why would anyone believe otherwise?

Until the catastrophic collapse of the global economy in 2007-2008, a significant portion of US academic social sciences was constructed on the assumption that public, political, and economic behavior could be understood through the prism of individual self-interest and the presumption of rational choice. Though the crash cast a shadow over the absolute dominance of that assumption in the field of economics, it remains the methodological pillar of great swaths of social scientific research today. The crisis was a much needed reminder of the folly of investing “rationality” in economic life.

Thaler’s Nobel recognition will put little more than a dent in the long-reigning ideological disposition to see the individual as fundamental to scientific analysis, along with the individual’s self-acquired interests and rationally-determined goals. Anglo-American social scientists will continue to embrace individual rational choice as the centerpiece of their explanatory framework, as the fundamental building blocks for understanding human behavior.

The Story Behind the Story

The idea of the importance of individuals, interests, and reason in explaining human action is not a new one. Aristotle’s conceptual model-- the practical syllogism-- sought to expose the logic of human action, basing it upon individual ends or desires and the knowledge of how to attain those ends and desires. But Aristotle did not believe that reason and interests determined human action with the force of logic. Instead, he wondered why, in real experience, they did not produce the expected results, why people acted differently from what was, in fact, their best interests. He was convinced that individual self-interest, reason, and knowledge were not sufficient to explain how people behaved. The break in the chain of goal-setting and deliberation was, he surmised, weakness of the will (ἀκρασία). In this regard, Aristotle anticipated Thaler by over two thousand years.

With the ascendancy of capitalism and its ideological superstructure, the role of individuals, reason, and self-interest took on a new importance. At the heart of the capitalist world view is the notion that the individual should have the opportunity to place satisfaction of his or her wants at the center of her or his world and enjoy the opportunity to strive to realize those goals without the restraint of others (what came to be today’s popular, uncritically embraced concept of freedom). The centrality of rights-talk in the modern era follows inexorably.

At the same time, the capitalist world view required a social component to protect and promote the opportunities afforded to individuals. Individuals cannot pursue every whim without denying some of the whims of others. Conflict would necessarily follow if everyone pursued goals with no consideration of others.

On the face of it, the two ideas-- individual freedom and social constraint-- collide, since one person’s intended actions may, indeed likely will, intersect with the realization of another’s intended action. Hence, it would appear that guaranteeing freedom of action in the particular is not always compatible with guaranteeing everyone the same freedom of action at the same time. Everyone can’t go through the same door at the same time; someone’s freedom of action must cede to the freedom of others.

Reconciling individual freedoms became the great challenge for thinkers in the capitalist era. The solution, exemplified canonically by the work of Hobbes, sought to resolve the conflict between clashing “freedoms” through the mechanism of a contract, agreement, or constitution. Reaching into the toolbox of rationality, defenders of the capitalist ethos argued that rational individuals would see that it was obviously in each and every person’s best interest to accept constraints on individual actions. People would recognize that it was reasonable to surrender complete autonomy to a common good. Thus, the consent of individuals to forego some freedom of action would serve as the bridge between individual choices and the common or general will, between the individual and the social. It would be possible to both avoid the anarchy of unrestrained freedom and to create a civil society, while retaining individualism, rationality, and the core of freedom as much as would be reasonably possible.

While this defense of the capitalist world view raises as many questions as it answers, it met its greatest challenge from the rise of the workers’ movement and the clash of classes. The challenge was best articulated in the work of Marx and Engels. They argued that individual interests and collective or common interests are qualitatively different. They saw classes as having interests over and above individual interests taken alone or in the aggregate. Thus, it is possible for most workers to believe individually that it is in the interest of each and every one of them to sign a labor contract and work in a privately owned coal mine under barely tolerable conditions while it is true that it is in their interest as a class to overthrow the private ownership of that mine and not accept the contract.

How could both be true?

Marx and Engels maintained that from the class perspective, from the perspective of the working class as a social whole, the elimination of the wage system and private ownership of the means of production represents the true interest of the workers. Or, if you like, there is a contradiction between the interests of the workers as individuals and as a class.

This claim is not dissimilar to the classic tenet of informal logic, the fallacy of composition: properties ascribable to each individual in a class of individuals cannot be necessarily ascribed to the class itself; properties of the parts are not transferred as properties to the whole. For example, most of the poor people in the world may be hungry, but the class of poor people is not, in any proper sense, hungry.

The intellectual defenders of capitalism seek to place shared rational choice (a fictitious “vote”) at the center of its explanation of civil society, of the legal, moral, and political edifice consensually constructed to promote individual freedom. Marxists, on the other hand, argue that individual consensus cannot exhaustively account for class interests and the ensuing action and interactions of classes. The realm of the social is, in important ways, autonomous from the realm of the individual. Bourgeois social thinking, grounded in the individual, leaves a host of social phenomena untouched, unexplained.

However, it is not the logical divide between the personal and the social, the gulf between the individual interests and class interests alone that challenges the worldview erected from individualism, self-interest, and rationality. The two centuries following the rise of industrial capitalism saw a growth and development of the working-class ideology with Marxism at its core.

In the aftermath of the Second World War and the Chinese Revolution, the capitalist world view lost its luster as more and more people in more and more places seriously considered the socialist option. Newborn countries freed from the colonial yoke considered socialist development as an alternative to the course recommended by their former colonial masters. The Marxist method that gave priority to class in social analysis found new adherents worldwide. The momentum of Communism threw capitalism into a panic, not only in politics, but in ideology as well.

Foundations and think tanks mounted a war on the growing credibility of the socialist option. Thinkers began to work feverishly to meet the challenge of shoring up the capitalist ideology against the success of class analysis.

As S.M. Amadae demonstrates in her brilliant book Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (2006), much of the new thinking to legitimize capitalism sprung from Ford Foundation support, along with the RAND corporation and its stable of hired guns (the Ford Foundation played a similar role in supporting the effort on the cultural front as Frances Stoner Saunders documents in her equally impressive book, The Cultural Cold War).

While Amadae is no advocate of socialism, she clearly sees the construction of a scientifically credible theory as an increasingly urgent and conscious effort to arm the capitalist West ideologically against socialism’s growing popularity. Her careful research shows the commitment to re-found anti-Marxist social science on the rock of rational choice theory and its close variants.

Rather than accept the existence of an explanatory framework that goes beyond a universe of individuals, rationality, and narrow interests, the new thinking, as embodied in the pioneering work of Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow, simply denies that there is any coherent social choice beyond individual choice.

The Arrow argument exhibits an interesting turn.

Arrow demonstrates (1951) mathematically that it is impossible (“the impossibility theorem”) for the rational choice calculus to generate coherent collective preferences from individual preferences. For Arrow, this result supports a skepticism about social goals expressed as collective preferences. While the import of Arrow’s findings might have generated a healthy debate, the elevated emotions of the Cold War era and the ideological needs of the anti-Communist academy promoted the theory-- rational choice theory-- to the head of the class. A theory that “rigorously” dismissed the intelligibility of class interests was too valuable to subject to serious scrutiny.

One might have equally and reasonably objected that any theory that could not account for collective preferences was theoretically defective. One could turn the tables and argue, as Marx would undoubtedly have, that collectives, social phenomena were as real, as objective as individuals. So, a calculus that could not explain class interests was theoretically “skinny;” foundations built on individuals, self-interest, and rationality alone were not sufficiently robust to serve as a foundation for the social sciences. If rational choice theory cannot account for collective preferences, then jettison rational choice theory! But in those feverish times, Western academia-- bourgeois social science-- would not countenance this reductio ad absurdum argument.

From the Arrow moment, rational choice theory spread quickly to other social sciences. Nobel laureates followed in its wake. This theory and its variants served as a basis for “grounding American capitalist democracy. In its guise as ‘objective’ or ‘value free’ social science, it is difficult to appreciate the full import of social choice, public choice, and positive political theory for reconceptualizing the basic building blocks of political liberalism. In light of the Cold War ideological struggle against the Soviets, this enterprise of securing the philosophical basis of free world institutions was critical,” in the words of S. M. Amadae.

Rational choice theory has penetrated deeply into the pores of social science, especially in economics and especially in the US. Its methodological ascendance has established it as a gatekeeper against the inroads of Marxism in Western social theory. Ironically, it has even penetrated into Western Marxism under the guise of “Analytic Marxism;” scholars trained in rational choice theory drew the conclusion that methodological individualism, self-interest, and rationality were incompatible with major tenets of Marxism-- a surprising conclusion to all but Marxists!

The struggle for a new politics based on the rejection of the dominant capitalist ideology cannot be won without critically addressing the failings of rational choice theory. A revolutionary socialist ideology must confront it directly. It has left much of the social sciences in the US a barren, but ideologically pure apologist for capitalism. It contaminates public policy, justifying the explosion of inequality and the obsession with public sector austerity.

Professor Thaler’s award acknowledges its failings in a small way, but leaves the dogma intact.

Greg Godels (Zoltan Zigedy)


Monday, October 16, 2017

Georgi Dimitrov: An Antidote to False Prophets and Naysayers



Marxists have been prolific correspondents, engaging others in polemics and collective ideas. The Marx and Engels correspondences, for example, number 1,386 letters! Marxism is, or should be, a collaborative effort.
Thus, I read the recent Sam Webb/Max Elbaum correspondence with some interest. Webb was the National Chairperson of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) for fourteen years until 2014. Elbaum was a sympathetic chronicler and active leader of the so-called “New Communist Movement” (NCM) in the 1970s. It is important to note that the CPUSA and the NCM were bitter rivals at that time.
So, it is strange that they exchange warm emails today, sharing the pleasantries of senior life--swimming, camping, time with grandkids, and marathon running-- while adding their voices to the chorus calling for an all-out effort on behalf of the Democratic Party in the 2018 elections.
Or is it strange?
Webb holds the dubious distinction of leading the CPUSA down the rabbit hole of irrelevance. After the death of long-time CPUSA leader, Gus Hall, Webb and his cohorts transformed the CPUSA into a social democratic organization, eschewing both the legacy of the Communist Party and much of its organizational structure. Webb further entrenched the “lesser-of-two-evil” electoral strategy that began with the panic over the Reagan victory in 1980. The final years of Hall’s chairmanship and the Webb era snuffed out the last measures of the CPUSA’s political independence, turning it into a servile handmaiden to the Democratic Party.
Webb resigned from the eviscerated CPUSA the year after he gave up the national chair.
Elbaum’s career emerged very differently, but landed in nearly the same place as Webb’s. Elbaum, like many other veterans from the 1960s student movement, moved away from the radical democratic reformism of that era in the direction of a more anti-capitalist ideology, Marxism-Leninism. Unable to overcome their infection with the anti-Communist virus of the Cold War, many were drawn to the militant rhetoric of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that was simultaneously befriending Nixon’s administration and roundly condemning the Soviet Communists and most of the World Communist Movement. With amazing chutzpah, Elbaum and the New Communist Movement found no contradiction in the two positions. But by the end of the 1970s, the opportunism of the CPC was more than even the most faithful could hold their noses and swallow. China’s Communists had sided with the US against every legitimate liberation movement in Africa, including the ANC. The Red Guard anarchy and the Gang of Four excesses tested the conviction of the devoted, leading to defection for all but the most cultish.
Elbaum’s political journey continued, but swung sharply away from Leninism. The hyper-sectarian model embraced by NCM generated a sharp reaction, an extreme swing away from the classic Leninist notion of a vanguard party with a centralized, but democratic structure. Having little or no experience with Leninism apart from the brief heyday of the NCM, Elbaum began a steady retreat towards social democracy, a trend expressed in the US by investing in the perceived positive, progressive potential of the Democratic Party. Where Webb argues for unquestioned conformity to the Democratic Party leadership, Elbaum opts for a more critical attitude with the hope of steering the Democrats leftward.
Judging by the odyssey of Sam Webb and Max Elbaum, many roads lead disillusioned radicals, Marxist short-timers, and weak-kneed Communists back to the Democratic Party. Of course, many of the privileged (and violence-prone), elite-school New Lefties have been welcomed back to the Democratic Party as well.
In retrospect, two notions have provided excuses for disillusioned Marxists to retreat to the social democratic camp: first, the perceived threat of fascism as present or around the corner and, secondly, the firmly held conviction that resistance to fascism necessitates some kind of broad, anti-fascist front. Both notions, though widely cited, belong to the theoretical legacy of the Marxist-Leninist left. And both were elaborated most clearly and authoritatively by the Communist theoretician of fascism, Georgi Dimitrov.
Dimitrov on Fascism and Anti-fascism
Hardly a day goes by without someone on the left raising the shrill alarm of fascism. As Diana Johnstone reminds us in her brilliant essay on Antifa, “...historical fascism no longer exists.” What does exist, however are movements, formations, and personalities that bear various common features with historical fascism. Of course, we should not diminish the active role of these movements, formations, and personalities in their vicious attacks on the democratic and economic gains won by working people.
But these elements have always been a part of the political landscape of the US, both before, during and after the era of historical fascism-- the Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the Liberty League, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, the John Birch Society, George Wallace, the Tea Party, Trumpets and Trumpettes, etc. It is far harder to identify a time in US history when the fascist-like elements did not exist as a significant force. For that reason, vigilance and militant resistance is always important. But that is a far cry from urging that something identical with historical fascism is now imminent. If the wolf is always lurking in the shadows, is it helpful to cry “wolf”?
This should in no way be construed as a dismissal or underestimation of many of the forces arrayed around and unleashed by President Trump. They, like their predecessors, are present as a reserve army for the ruling class should political matters get out of hand. They should be met with the same resolute resistance as the left has mounted in the past against rabid hate-mongers and right-wing terrorists.
Historical fascism arose as a response to the success of revolutionary socialism, in Dimitrov’s words: “Fascism comes to power as a party of attack on the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, on the mass of the people who are in a state of unrest…” Clearly, there are, with perhaps a few exceptions, no serious threats to capitalist rule today, certainly not in the United States; there are few revolutionary movements contesting state power. There can be no counter-revolutionary “open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital” when there is no revolution to counter.
While Dimitrov warns of the dangers of fascistic tendencies and urges their resistance, he reminds us that: “The accession to power of fascism is not an ordinary succession of one bourgeois government by another, but a substitution of one state form of class domination of the bourgeoisie -- bourgeois democracy -- by another form -- open terrorist dictatorship.” Few of the harbingers of fascism today acknowledge this point. Since the right in the US manages its agenda well within the confines of a corporate dominated two-party system, why would it need to move to an open terrorist dictatorship?
In a real sense, the premature cry of “fascism!” disarms the revolutionary left, the advocates of socialism. Instead of building an alternative to the failed two-party system, a system that demonstrates a constant rightward shift, Webb, Elbaum, and far too many on the left argue for compromise with those who have been fully compliant with this rightward drift. They misunderstand or distort much of what we have learned about historical fascism.
Contrary to the vulgar distortion of Dimitrov's views, fascism did not come to power in Germany because sectarian Communists refused to work with Social Democrats. Dimitrov is clear on this: “Fascism was able to come to power primarily because the working class, owing to the policy of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie pursued by Social Democratic leaders, proved to be split, politically and organizationally disarmed, in face of the onslaught of the bourgeoisie...” and owing to “...their campaign against the Communists and [failure] to accept the repeated proposals of the Communist Party for united action against fascism.”
Webb and Elbaum neither understand the historical basis of fascism nor grasp the Marxist theory of united front designed to meet the fascist danger when it arises. Rather than viewing the united front as a specific historical response to a specific historical development, they generalize the united front tactic to a universal response to the ascendency of the right.
If fascism is on the horizon, they argue, then we need to adopt a united front policy that brings together any and all forces willing to stand in its way. But that is not the lesson that Georgi Dimitrov-- the Communist who stood against and defied the Nazi judiciary when charged with the Reichstag fire-- drew from the experience of historical fascism:
Whether the victory of fascism can be prevented depends first and foremost on the militant activity of the working class itself, on whether its forces are welded into a single militant army combating the offensive of capitalism and fascism. By establishing its fighting unity, the proletariat would paralyze the influence of fascism over the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, the youth and the intelligentsia, and would be able to neutralize one section of them and win over the other section.
Second, it depends on the existence of a strong revolutionary party, correctly leading the struggle of the working people against fascism. A party which systematically calls on the workers to retreat in the face of fascism and permits the fascist bourgeoisie to strengthen its positions is doomed to lead the workers to defeat… [my italics]
Both Webb and Elbaum have long given up on building “a strong revolutionary party,” either for its own sake or for a battle against fascism. Instead, they take their lead from the Democratic Party, a pathetic answer to the rightward shift of the last four decades.
They fail to grasp the application of the united front strategy to US conditions. Rather than tail the Democrats, Dimitrov, writing specifically in 1935 about the US, called for the creation of a third party and for a decisive break with the bourgeois parties (the Democrats and the Republicans):
It is perfectly obvious that the interests of the American proletariat demand that all its forces dissociate themselves from the capitalist parties without delay. It must find in good time ways and suitable forms to prevent fascism from winning over the wide mass of discontented working people. And here it must be said that under American conditions the creation of a mass party of the working people, a Workers' and Farmers' Party, might serve as such a suitable form. Such a party would be a specific form of the mass People's Front in America and should be put in opposition to the parties of the trusts and the banks, and likewise to growing fascism. Such a party, of course, will be neither Socialist nor Communist. But it must be an anti-fascist party and must not be an anti-Communist party.
Of course, this was written at a moment when historical fascism was at its zenith internationally. Today, without the imminent threat of fascism, the prescription for a break with the Democrats is even more urgent.
It is not simply a question of stopping fascism, but a question of winning people away from it with a peoples' program.
Those who confuse the anti-fascist united front with capitulation to the leadership of liberals or social democrats often see the problem of united action as left-sectarianism. Certainly, sectarianism, characterized by Dimitrov as finding “...expression particularly in overestimating the revolutionization of the masses, in overestimating the speed at which they are abandoning the positions of reformism, and in attempting to leap over difficult stages and the complicated tasks of the movement...” was then and remains a significant obstacle to building a Communist Party or a third party. But Dimitrov gave equal attention to the dangers of right opportunism:
...we must increase in every way our vigilance toward Right opportunism and the struggle against it and against every one of its concrete manifestations, bearing in mind that the danger of Right opportunism will increase in proportion as the broad united front develops. Already there are tendencies to reduce the role of the Communist Party in the ranks of the united front and to effect a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that the tactics of the united front are a method of clearly convincing the Social-Democratic workers of the correctness of the Communist policy and the incorrectness of the reformist policy, and that they are not a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology and practice. A successful struggle to establish the united front imperatively demands constant struggle in our ranks against tendencies to depreciate the role of the Party, against legalist illusions, against reliance on spontaneity and automatism, both in liquidating fascism and in implementing the united front against the slightest vacillation at the moment of decisive action.
Thus, it is a mistake to surrender the revolutionary program to appease tactical alliances or coalitions. Joint action is possible, maybe essential at times, but without sacrificing the integrity and revolutionary ideology to tactical partners. This is a nuance lost on those rushing to uncritically embrace the electoral slates of the Democratic Party and to hide the goal of socialism under a basket.
Those abandoning the struggle against capitalism, for socialism, should be honest about their change of heart. They should not hide behind an inflated threat or a misrepresented tactic.
Historical fascism was a mortal, worldwide threat in the 1930s and 1940s. Communists devised special tactics to broaden and deepen the fight against it. They did so without illusions about the commitment of other forces or without corrupting or compromising their principles. They led and won that fight, except, unfortunately, in Spain.
A similar threat may arise again when revolutionary forces present an existential challenge to the conventional rule of the capitalist class.
Or it may not. That will depend, as Dimitrov points out, on the balance of forces between revolutionaries and their adversaries.
But those who imagine a world without capitalism should not be misled by false prophets who pretend to find a road to socialism through the Democratic Party. Those who aspire to socialism should not be seduced by naysayers who insist that the struggle for socialism should be postponed until all of the specters and ghouls of the right are exorcised.

Greg Godels (Zoltan Zigedy)