July 14th, 2020 | 57 mins 51 secs
abolition, berniesanders, black reconstruction, bobby seale, bpp, conjure feminism, deep roots, democratic, eric foner, huey newton, memphis, sean mcelwee, socialist, spinoza, stacey abrams, the black panther party, zoltan hajnal
A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac has finally arrived in our own times. To begin our discussion of where we are and what our tasks are, let me first of all lift up Stacey Abrams. In 2018 Stacey Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia, and when she showed up to vote for herself she was at first denied because the records wrongly showed that she had already voted in absentia. She very narrowly lost that election, but she did use her newly enlarged platform to begin a crusade against voter disenfranchisement. I want to second her prescription: what the present moment calls for is greater democracy, greater voter participation. “We have to expand our vision of who belongs in the big tent of progress, invest in their inclusion, and talk to them about what’s at stake. This formula is no guarantee of triumph - but I can promise that without it, we don’t stand a chance of conquering the future.” (Abrams, p. 220). There is a dogma on the far left that the elections are all rigged, and that we need revolution. When we discussed Lenin, we saw that he organized for revolution in part by engaging in electoral politics. In this episode I’m going to engage with Abrams’ project, evaluate the gains Black Americans have made since the Voting Rights Act, and arrive at an electoral strategy for leftists who want more than just bourgeois reforms. We will begin our discussion with a reprise of our earlier discussion of the Black Panther Party. Let’s dive in…
We ended our discussion about the Black Panthers with a meditation on the mass support they had and it’s evaporation due to four factors identified by Bloom and Martin in their 2013 masterpiece “Black Against Empire.”
The Panthers were victims of their own success. Nixon made key capitulations in order to preserve the larger system of white Power. There were four things that led to the BPP’s decline in the early seventies.
Increased membership along with the killing, jailing and exile of its most experienced cadres led to more and more occasions where inexperienced leaders made mistakes. Using the law and guns to protect a community from a tyrannical state is a difficult thing to do even for highly trained people such as Newton and Seale. The rapid growth of the BPP meant that it was difficult to train all the newcomers in best practices or for them to be fully integrated under a coordinated central command. Telling the story of the BPP is a fraught endeavor, and I apologize because the Party meant so many different things to different people in different places. Furthermore, the FBI was able to exploit the relative inexperience of new cadres along with agents provocateurs to instigate conflicts with other Black power groups like US in California. These FBI instigated feuds were often quite bloody and violent. Many Panthers fled the country, among them Memphis’ own Lorenzo Kombao Erwin who spent time in US jail but also in Cuban jail for protesting the government there.
Nixon ended the Vietnam War, and with that the Panthers lost the support of the white antiwar movement. It happened so quickly that Panther leader David Hilliard when he gave a speech saying “We say down with the American fascist society!...We will kill Richard Nixon,” was booed offstage in November 1969, because he hadn’t realized the audience was no longer receptive to the idea of overthrowing the US government.
Nixon opened trade with China, and part of that deal was that Mao would stop supporting the Black Panthers. This was typical of Mao, who as discussed in a previous episode abandoned revolutionary groups in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and so on when those groups had served his geopolitical interests.
Nixon brought massive numbers of Black people into the public sector, so there was much less generalized poverty in the Black community. The Black middle class that was strengthened in this way was much less interested in violently confronting the US government. I think that clearly the school breakfast programs that started at this time in public schools were part of this effort to undercut the BPP.
I want to read the last two paragraphs of this book in their entirety because they are so brilliant. The political clarity on display here is striking. The authors reflect on the current political moment. They focus on the inability of any of today’s so-called revolutionaries to appeal to society as a whole, which tells you that the phenonomenon was a mass democratic movement. The book was published in 2013; I leave it to you to decide how applicable this is 7 years later:
“While minimovements with revolutionary ideologies abound, there is no politically significant revolutionary movement in the United States today because no cadre of revolutionaries has developed ideas and practices that credibly advance the interests of a large segment of the people. Members of revolutionary sects can hawk their newspapers and proselytize on college campuses until they are blue in the face, but they remain politically irrelevant. Islamist insurgencies, with deep political roots abroad, are politically significant, but they lack potential constituencies in the United States. And ironically, at least in the terrorist variant, they tend to reinforce rather than challenge state power domestically because their practices threaten -- rather than build common cause with -- alienated constituencies within the United States.
No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party and may not happen again for a very long time.” (Bloom, 401).
The Black Panther Party saw its power expand in the context of lingering segregation, deep racial inequality, and the unpopular war in Vietnam. At the same time, in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the halls of American governance were flooded with Black politicians riding a wave of newly enfranchised Black voters. This effect was magnified as the Democratic Party responded to the disaster of the 1968 Democratic Party convention by reforming the nomination process to be more democratic via the McGovern Fraser Commission. Here is how Bloom and Martin describe this Black entrance into US electoral politics: “Black representation among party delegates more than doubled by 1972, to about 15 percent. Black electoral representation generally ballooned in the early 1970s. Whereas in March of 1969, 1,125 black people held political offices across the United States, by May 1975, the number had more than tripled to 3,499. This figure included 281 black officeholders in state legislative or executive offices, 135 mayors, 305 county executives, 387 judges and elected law enforcement officers, 939 elected board of education members, and 1,438 people holding other elected positions in municipal government.” (p. 348).
Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In 2007 he gave us “Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics.” In this book he discusses how Black Power revolutionaries adapted to the new environment where Black people were being brought into the traditional power institutions. You should get a copy and read it. Though there was broad consensus around the need for a politics expressive of a common racial solidarity, very real political differences among Black people made the formation of a united front elusive.
In the first two years of the 70s there was a general aspiration to forming a Black united front. This agenda was developed and promoted at the Atlanta Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and a smaller meeting of Black notables in Chicago in September 1971. These meetings were just preparation for the 1972 National Black Political Convention. The historical context for these events is important.
Black people had entered the halls of government in a great burst of new democratic access at the same time that the Black Panther Party had successfully mobilized the Black community in the street. Cointel pro had visited white terror on the leadership of the Black radical movement. In 1971 the Cointelpro program was officially disbanded, and the Congressional Black Caucus held hearings that exposed “government lawlessness.” (Johnson, p. 99). The segregationist Dixiecrat Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running in the Democratic Primary for President. Nixon was tearing down Johnson’s War on Poverty. The stakes were high in 1972, and white liberal and left political groups, placated with Nixon’s reduction of forces in Vietnam, were abandoning the Black Panther Party. All of this contributed to a felt need for Black political radicals to find a relationship with the newly elected Black establishment.
Radicals in the movement were wary of united action with moderate politicians, whom they more and more accused of selling out. Elected Black politicians were interested in slow reform that wouldn’t hurt their chances at reelection. Cedric Johnson identifies three paths that had prominent support in the movement. (Johnson, pp. 90-92).
First off was the “favorite son” path. Julian Bond was a civil rights activist and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had led voter registration drives in the South throughout the 60s. Later, he served as a representative in the Georgia state legislature. In 1970 he began shopping around an idea called the “favorite son” tactic. The idea was that Black people in each state would run their own candidate in the Democratic Presidential Primary, and that in doing this they would build up a pool of delegates to help them gain leverage in who the Democrats chose as a presidential nomination.
Second was the possibility of having one Black presidential candidate that all groups would rally behind. This was the idea that Percy Sutton endorsed. Percy Sutton was a freedom rider who later served as a lawyer for Malcolm X. They could point to the relative success of Dick Gregory’s Presidential run in 1968. Dick Gregory, who is a hilarious stand up comic, got 500,000 votes in 1968, which was greater than the margin of the popular vote that Nixon beat Humphrey by. Sutton and others wanted to repeat that experience on a grander scale. It somewhat tarnishes the moment that the candidacy of Shirley Chisolm, the first Black Woman who ever ran for President in a major party primary, was pushed to the side by this still very male dominated movement.
Third of all, the hard Black Nationalist proposal was to form an independent Black Political Party. This idea was championed by radical activists who had their political education inside the Black Panther Party and other Black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam and US. The literary genius Amiri Baraka led this effort. Julian Bond wasn’t the only Black establishment figure arguing against this idea, but Cedric Johnson makes it seem like he was leading the charge. Bond, correctly as it turned out, perceived that despite the fact of Black people sharing the experience of racial oppression, they also hold a diversity of political opinions. What came out of the Gary congress was not a united political party, or even an institutional coalition. The various parties recognized they had too many differences for that, but they did produce a document, the National Black Political Agenda. The “Gary Declaration” is the introduction to the Black Agenda, and you should all read it. It is a testament to the political aspirations of newly enfranchised people who are finding power, and as important a document to our understanding of the American project as is the Declaration of Independence. Here’s a small excerpt, quoted by Johnson:
“The Crises we face as Black people are the crises of the entire society. They go deep to the very bones and marrow, to the essential nature of America’s economic, political and cultural systems. They are the natural end product of a society built on the twin foundations of white racism and white capitalism… Our cities are crime haunted dying grounds. Huge sectors of our youth - and countless others - face permanent unemployment. Those of us who work find our paychecks able to purchase less and less. Neither the courts nor the prisons contribute to anything resembling justice or reformation. The schools are unable - or unwilling - to educate our children for the real world of our struggles. Meanwhile, the officially approved epidemic of drugs threatens to wipe out the minds and strength of our best young warriors. Economic, cultural and spiritual depression stalk Black America and the price of survival often appears to be more than we are able to pay.” (p. 107; https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gary-declaration-national-black-political-convention-1972/)
Essentially, the split in the Black movement came from a tension between radicals and establishment types. Elected officials had to think about what their constituencies, the people who had elected them and the people they represented, wanted them to do and say. Radicals don’t have constituencies, and so they are not responsible to anyone, but then their actions and statements are of less consequence. Here is how Cedric Johnson describes the results of the national convention of 1972:
“In the months following the convention, the majority of black politicos distanced themselves from the progressive agenda created at the meeting. The 1972 Gary Convention was a shotgun wedding of the radical aspirations of Black Power and conventional modes of politics. This marriage would not last nor would it produce the kinds of offspring that black radicals desired. Although it possessed the aura and rhetoric of movement politics, in essence the Gary Convention was an attempt to form an elite, race brokerage apparatus. To operate effectively, the convention and its subsequent Assembly structure required the discipline and legitimacy of establishment parliamentary bodies. Without the effective means to ensure the support of black politicians - particularly mainstream party regulars - the convention’s agenda could not be an effective bargaining tool with the major parties as the organizers envisioned. Although the strength of radical forces threatened both the legitimacy and the preeminence of old guard civil rights forces and the emergent black political elite, these same radical forces helped to bolster the position of black political moderates within mainstream institutions. Inasmuch as black politicos were in a more advantageous position to negotiate directly with the Democratic Party and major public institutions, they readily established themselves as the chief race brokers in the post-segregation context.” (p. 129). All of this reads as a terrible disaster some 50 years later, now that it is clear that the election of Black people into public office has clearly not helped the wellbeing of Black people very much. We should comment some on how much political representation has helped Black people because the picture is complex. But let’s assert the truth that Black entrance into political life after the voting rights act did not lead to the eradication of racial inequality.
That’s not just some personal observation, though I expect it is intuitive to my listeners. Zoltan Hajnal is the Associate Dean at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, and he draws on a large body of work that demonstrates racial inequality in America didn’t change much after the large influx of Black politicians into the halls of government after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 2007 saw the publishing of his well researched “Changing White Attitudes toward Black Political Leadership.” Quote: “Despite large gains in the number of black elected officials across the country, there has been only moderate change in basic indicators of African American well-being and, even more importantly, almost no change in various measures of racial inequality. Though black officials have controlled the mayoralty in seven of the ten largest cities in the country and have achieved nearly proportionate representation in the House of Representatives, figures comparing black to white poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment remain largely unchanged.” (Hajnal, p.2). On the other hand, Professor Hajnall’s work does show that having Black people in positions of power has changed the attitudes of White people in a less racist direction, increased White trust in Black leadership somewhat. In 2017 Hajnal struck again, and I highly recommend owning a copy of his “Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics.” You should own a copy, because this book is full of important information and insightful, often counter-intuitive interpretations of the data. Hajnal investigated the relationship between voters’ identities along various axes like race, class, gender and education level, and whether or not voters got what they wanted out of government. He shows that Black people lose the most in our political system, that Black people lose more than do High School dropouts or poor people. The left is fond of saying that corporate interests are what make our society uneven, but as Hajnal points out the wealthy get what they want only about 38% of the time. That’s the same percentage approximately as White people, both groups getting about 6% more of what they want than do Black people. It just so happens that a lot of poor white people also want lower taxes and less public spending. From Hajnal: “The top 10 percent of earners win on policy 37.9 percent of the time, while the top 1 percent win 36.8 percent of the time. This is a better success rate than among the poor [at around 36%], but surprisingly it is not much better… Blacks lose more regularly than Whites regardless of their class status. Among Whites, the income gap is in the expected direction but still small (38.8 percent winners for wealthier Whites vs. 36.9 percent for poorer Whites). Whites win more often at all class levels.” (Hajnal, Dangerously Divided, p. 127). He shows that wealthy Black people get less of what they want out of the political process than poor white people get. He shows that poor white people tend to want the same things that wealthy white people want, which is a good explanation of why we can’t have nice things. And he shows a direct correlation between the increasing losses of the Democratic Party and those of Black people in the course of the last four decades. The more the Democratic Party wins, the more Black people win. The problem is that the influx of Black politicians in the 70s came with such high hopes that the modest gains since then seem unimportant. But those gains were not unimportant. We’ve seen in this podcast over and over again that people who wield power are themselves constrained, that the exercise of power requires trade-offs. Toussaint Louverture accepted that Haiti would be part of France so long as that meant freedom for the former slaves there. The Bolsheviks disastrously had to suppress free speech to protect their political project in 1921. Garcia Oliver urged the Catalan anarchists to surrender their barricades to fight Franco. We have to expect that Black people in power after 1970 were faced with similar problems.
So, I’m moving on now to the situation that Black politicians have faced when they enter the halls of power, because there are lessons there for anyone concerned with how to get and use power, especially for the socialist audience that I assume is listening.
At the local level across this nation the arrival of Black people in positions of power in City Hall was met with a wave of state legislation that disempowered cities. In a collection of essays edited by Kate Aronoff that came out in 2020 entitled Democratic Socialism-American Style: we own the future, Bill Fletcher Jr. observes: “Republicans have deployed their bases in rural areas in order to surround municipalities and introduce legislation that blocks the ability of municipalities and counties to introduce reforms...Republican-controlled state legislatures have blocked the ability of municipalities and counties to introduce living-wage increases and environmental reforms without approval from the state legislature.” (pp. 95,96).
In 2013 Ravi K. Perry blessed us with “Black Mayors White Majorities: the Balancing Act of Racial Politics,” in which he tempers for us the idea that Black mayors didn’t get anything for Black people. Bill Fletcher Jr. discusses how when Harold Washington became the mayor of Chicago a bloc of white city aldermen worked to block his appointments and legislation attempts. Perry helps us nuance this view. Washington didn’t accomplish nothing. He was successful at limited social welfare efforts because he opened city hall to various civic organizations and increased city contracts to minority owned firms from nine to sixty in the span of three years. A similar pattern developed under Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and under Carl Stokes in Cleveland: city contracts to Black owned businesses became a ready vehicle for some limited racial uplift. I think socialists should meditate on that before they begin a blanket denunciation of Black capitalism. Perry goes on to discuss in detail the path of Black mayors in Toledo and Dayton Ohio to demonstrate how Black leaders in White majority cities can rally the public to their agendas by putting forward policies that benefit everyone, not by jettisoning the interests of Black people but by highlighting how programs that benefit Black people benefit everyone, things like increased spending on education. From Perry: “This book explores how two mayors effectively used a new strategy in majority-white contexts. By strategically (and usually rhetorically) linking the needs of African Americans with the interests of whites, these mayors demonstrated that it was no longer political suicide to advocate for black interests” (p. xix).
The situation for Black congressmen and women is similarly limited. In 2011 Christian R. Grose gave us an important book synthesizing several decades worth of research on how successful Black representatives have been at working for racial uplift. That book is “Congress In Black and White: Race and Representation in Washington and at Home.” The research shows unsurprisingly that Black representatives who serve majority Black districts will vote consistently in the interest of Black people (Grose, p. 16). In the mid-nineties the nation saw a wave of gerrymandering, and many of the Black representatives who had majority Black constituencies suddenly had to win races in majority white districts. This is where it became important as Zoltan Hajnal points out that Black politicians in power, even if they aren’t able to enact change because of whatever political constraints they work under, they still change white peoples’ attitudes just by responding to the public will in a fair way. In several places Black representatives kept their seats despite the gerrymandering, but afterwards they changed how they voted. Black representatives from majority white districts are much less likely to vote in ways that exclusively speak to a Black interest. In fact, in terms of voting behavior there are three factors that affect whether someone will vote with Black interests in mind: (1) the race of the representative has a minor effect, (2) the race of that representative’s constituency has a large effect because politicians like to be re-elected, and (3) if someone belongs to the Democratic Party they are much more likely to vote in the interests of Black people. That third item, the effect of the Democratic Party needs a little explanation, because belonging to the Democratic Party comes with its own limitations and empowerments. A socialist movement that wants to enter the halls of power using the Democratic Party as a vehicle should pay close attention to how Black politicians have navigated this terrain.
There are three ways that a Congressional representative can wield power. First off, every member of congress provides what is called constituency services. That includes hiring people in the district for their offices, advocating for people in their district, helping them get information about government programs and grants. Constituency services sound like a yawnfest, but it’s important that the public can call their representatives because democracy isn’t just about the vote last time it’s also about the vote next time and it’s good that representatives are responsive to the will of the public in their day to day decision making. And for the most part they are. For Black congressional representatives, one easy win for Black people is just hiring Black people, just as we saw that it was for Black mayors. Hiring people is one place where a representative has nothing constraining what they do, and it turns out that Black representatives definitely hire more Black people than do White representatives regardless of party affiliation.
Secondly, representatives can vote. Most people will vote along party lines, and the representatives with the most seniority set the priorities for what legislation to put forward. Ranking members of committees are in a position to put forward legislation, and they are also by right of the committees they chair, likely best positioned to help other members of congress get special projects in their districts.
A lot of money gets apportioned to special programs that are targeted to particular districts, and this is the third way a member of congress can wield power. On the other hand, as just pointed out a representative’s ability to bring home the bacon can depend upon their agreeing to vote along party lines and back committee chairpersons’ legislative proposals. It’s a hierarchy, in other words, and voting is the part that a representative has the least control over. Seniority can provide some amount of space to vote according to one’s conscience. Seniority is what you get if you win enough elections. Winning elections is what you get if you respond to the will of your constituencies. That’s how our democracy works, you’re welcome for the civics lesson!
Since this podcast is for a far left audience, we have to discuss how bad the Democratic Party is. The Democratic Party is weak. Anyone who has had any dealing with them knows that the party itself is not particularly strong, but I think one of the best portraits of the party in our times was provided by Donna Brazile in her excellent book about the 2016 election entitled “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-Ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” Here is her estimation of the Democratic Party in the wake of the Obama presidency: “I had learned a great deal about the dysfunction inside the party in the last ten hours. As I saw it, we had three Democratic parties: the party of Barack Obama, the party of Hillary Clinton, and this weak little vestige of a party led by Debbie [Wasserman Schulz, then Chair of the DNC] that was doing a very poor job getting people who were not president elected. As I saw it, these three titanic egos -Barack, Hillary, and Debbie- had stripped the party to a shell for their own purposes. Barack never had seen himself as connected to the party. He had not come up through it the way Joe Biden and Hillary had, but had sprung up almost on his own and never had any trouble raising money for his campaigns. He used the party to provide for political expenses like gifts to donors, and political travel, but he also cared deeply about his image. Late into his second term, the party was still playing for his pollster and focus groups. This was not working to strengthen the party. He had left it in debt. Hillary bailed it out so that she could control it, and Debbie went along with all of this because she liked the power and perks of being a chair but not the responsibilities. I know these three did not do this with malice. I knew if you woke any of them up in the middle of the night to ask them how they felt about the Democratic Party they would answer with sincerity that they loved this party and all it had done for the country and for them. Yet they had leached it of its vitality and were continuing to do so. In my three months I was going to do what I could to bring that life back.” (Brazile, pp. 41-42). So, it’s not much of a deep state really. The Democratic Party is just a loose coordination of political campaigns. Democratic politicians are literally only as powerful as the number of votes they can get. The votes of the poor matter as much as the votes of the wealthy, but Black votes matter less, so the research tells us. But why is that?
Stacey Abrams has a story about Black votes that I think is as good an explanation as any as to why Black people get so little of what they want from the political process in our nation. Because her story gives us a clear political direction for work as socialists, as people committed to collective uplift, I will leave that to the end of this podcast. Let’s consider now the picture all of this paints, the situation that awaits us in the halls of power, if socialists are going to someday find themselves in the halls of power.
What does all of this mean for those of us who want to transform the world we live in? It means there is no way for us to see radical change come out of our government without convincing the majority of people we are right. Politicians can’t push forward socialist measures, not because of corporate interests, but because their constituencies are resistant to socialist measures. There are no socialists at the top of the hierarchy in the congress because no socialist has won enough elections to get seniority. Because there are no socialists with seniority radical legislation doesn’t get proposed or voted on. The inability of Black representatives to pass things like reparations is not because Democrats are white supremacists, but rather because the Democrats are responsible to the public who up to now doesn’t support reparations. What’s worse, is that there is a kind of inertia inherent to the situation. The representatives that do get elected to fight for greater equality are constrained in all these ways, so they can’t make things suddenly much better overnight. Because people had such high expectations they become disillusioned with the political process, and these historically disenfranchised groups stop participating in the process before anyone can get seniority and pass radical legislation. People who do dedicate their lives to patiently passing what legislation they can in the short term end up with a career of compromise decisions, or with votes that were once popular but aren’t now: like when Bernie Sanders voted for the 1994 Crime Bill, which had overwhelming public support at the time. And then voters judge them on their voting record as if they were free to vote for free Ice Cream but chose Mass incarceration instead, i.e. voters look at their record without considering context or history or anything, especially radicals newly minted. And the politicians that would combine progressive politics with the ability to legislate progressive policies, say if there were suddenly broad popular support for such, get denounced by radicals.
How can we build power? It’s too big a question for a library of books. It’s a question we have to answer in practice. One thing that could help is if we stopped treating politicians as though they should be our saviors. We should understand and educate and repeat and realize that politicians can only vote according to what society wants in that moment. It should be the work of activists and organizers to move public opinion in a progressive direction: we shouldn’t expect politicians to do that. If we push politicians to do unpopular things, to propose unpopular laws like single payer health care, we sabotage their ability to do anything. They won’t succeed at passing an unpopular law, and then they won’t get re-elected. They will never get seniority, and we’ll never see our legislation put to a vote. There is no path to power for us that does not pass through a successful campaign of persuasion.
If you’re not reading Sean McElwee, do you even want power? Sean McElwee is a data scientist who studies political change. In 2016 a collection of essays came out from Wicked Problems Collective entitled “What Do We Do About Inequality,” and it included one by Sean McElwee called the Ideological Straight Jacket. It’s dope. You should read it. It’s an update on Marx’s Grundrisse. In that article he discusses all the research showing how rich people believe they deserve to be paid much more than us, though they actually contribute much less to our society, and how because they think inequality is fair they block people from rising in the social hierarchy. If you geek out on sociological research about inequality and political power, you should know Sean McElwee’s work by now. You probably also ought to know about the 2014 Martin and Gilens paper that showed that the wealthier you are the more likely it is that your policy preferences will become law. McElwee points out the thing that most folx don’t know about Martin and Gilens’ findings: that average citizens for the most part agree with economic elites’ policy preferences. But Sean McElwee has a strategy for changing opinions. It turns out that people do not change their minds because of political campaigns. Incremental legislative gains do change people’s minds, and we can get incremental gains if we work to increase voter turnout for moderate Democratic candidates. Maximalist demands set up a cycle of high expectations and disappointment which depresses voter turnout and sabotages long term power building. It’s all here in this article from Vox linked in the transcripts that you should read, being as if you’ve listened this far you probably care about actually getting power for progressive causes (https://www.vox.com/2020/4/17/21224140/bernie-sanders-elizabeth-warren-joe-biden-2020-democratic-primary).
We are currently going through a period where there is mass unrest, insurrection even, against police brutality and mass incarceration. The oppression itself is not new. The fact that people denounce the oppression is not new either. What is new is that there are strong indications that a large majority of White Americans seem to have found their way to agreeing that Black Lives Matter. We can speculate as to why that is. Zerlina Maxwell, the author of this year’s “The End of White Politics,” speculates that White America could care more now because White people suffering from COVID are experiencing physical pain caused by white supremacy (Minute 41, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/zerlina-maxwell-end-white-politics-how-to-heal-our/id425400236?i=1000480107671). I agree with Mx. Maxwell, and I also want to point out that this democratic mass movement for racial equality is happening in the same country where Bernie Sanders didn’t win the Democratic Primary. Bernie Sanders lost the old fashioned way: he didn’t get enough votes. By a lot. So, people are motivated to act for racial equality, but not convinced they need a socialist President. As noted previously its the feelings of their constituencies that drive voting behavior of members of congress. We saw historically high voter turnout in 2018 and in the primary for moderate democrats. The generation of Democratic politicians, many of them being part of that wave of Black representatives that flooded the halls of government starting in the 70s, people like House majority Whip Jim Clyburn, having spent long decades fighting against Republican gerrymandering and the racial illiteracy of White America, those Democrats who were motivated to become politicians because they saw the Democratic party ditch the racist Dixiecrats, those Democrats now have seniority and a strong public mandate to pass a New Deal for racial equality. It just won’t call itself socialist, and we won’t get to be big fucking heros. And these Democrats are already doing everything they can to respond effectively to this movement. Here’s a list of things the protests following George Floyd’s murder have won, and this is far from exhaustive:
Murder charges were filed against all four officers involved in killing George Floyd. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/03/george-floyd-police-officers-charges/).
Congress passed a law that outlaws chokeholds and does away with qualified immunity. Who knows if it will pass, but nothing would prevent legislation like it once we get Trump out of the way.
After banning the use of chokeholds (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/us/george-floyd-protests.html), Minneapolis has decided to disband its police force and rethink public safety. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/minneapolis-police-abolish.html).
A Michigan School Board Superintendent was fired for saying that George Floyd was to blame for his own death. (https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/michigan-school-district-superintendent-fired-after-facebook-comments-about-george-floyd.html).
Here in Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich has announced they are launching a program of restorative justice. (https://www.wmcactionnews5.com/2020/06/22/district-attorney-general-announces-new-community-justice-program/?fbclid=IwAR3XRWQWHMPrRQX_aRab1zj3q2ysqgj34NLuv-Mj9eZeBGdZnLzzQzVsH_0).
Here is a long list of monuments to Confederates, slavers and white supremacisthat have been taken down worldwide since the murder of George Floyd (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_monuments_and_memorials_removed_during_the_George_Floyd_protests).
Mississippi has taken the confederate flag off of their state flag.
A wave of corporate symbolic gestures and substantive actions have shown that capitalists are falling in line to support racial equality (https://justcapital.com/news/notable-corporate-responses-to-the-george-floyd-protests/). Quaker Oats ended Aunt Jemima. Pepsico is going to spend 400 million dollars to promote Black people into management and uplift Black businesses. Adidas has committed to hiring at least 30% of new positions with Black and Latinx people. IBM stopped investing in facial recognition software. Those are just a few, there’s a link to the long list of corporations getting behind this in the transcripts.
Are Capitalists fundamentally driven by profit? Yes. Does that make them more or less indifferent to inequality? Yes, all else being equal. But also, Democratic politics during a time of general insurrection can mean, in Lenin’s terms, that the ruling class cannot continue to rule in the way it has done. We should welcome these clearly progressive developments, even rejoice in them, and we can do that in a clear eyed understanding that they do not mean we can stop fighting inequality. We can, and we must do both.
I remember working with Black Lives Matter activists in Bridgeport Connecticut in 2016. I pointed out how rare it was that police officers ever get indicted, and how the courts have decided that the police can get away with murder all they have to do is say they feared for their lives. My point was that we needed a revolution. I’ll never forget the response of one of the Black activists there: he said they knew that already and that if all they could do was make it more expensive, then that was something they needed to get. They were putting in the work so that the Police would have to pay money when they killed a Black person, so that police killing Black people would happen less often. And if I loved Black people then that would be enough for me to want to do the work too. And now Democrats in Congress want to end the qualified immunity that allows Police officers to kill with impunity. If we loved Black people we would try and help Democrats win in November so they can do that.
I’m saying all of this as we near the end of a podcast about Socialism’s Past, Present and Future because I do believe we are on the cusp of world historic changes. If socialists cling to their cynicism about the Democratic Party and electoral politics, then they will simply be left out of the power arrangement that results. Or even worse, White centered socialists will succeed in suppressing the vote by claiming the system is rigged and this will help Trump win. This movement is bigger than Bernie Sanders, bigger than the Democratic Socialists of American, thank god, because the DSA isn’t big enough at a paltry 70,000 members to lead society. There is a real democratic movement happening that is producing change, that will produce change, and if you are a socialist you should get involved not where socialists are necessarily, but where an honest evaluation of the present opportunities has us positioned to make progress.
Stacey Abrams is a genius, by the way. She should be governor of Georgia right now. Brian Kemp stole the election in 2018 by a host of underhanded and illegal tactics. Abrams didn’t sue for the position, because doing so would have meant not being able to sue for systemic change. She had a choice between wielding power or helping to reform the system in a more democratic direction. In this year, 2020, Henry Holt and Company published her crucial meditation on our political moment “Our Time Is Now.” You should read this book right now. You should pause this podcast and order the book so you don’t forget. You should read this book before you read Marx’s Capital. The message of the book is simple: political progress today depends on us winning the fight for greater voter participation. She points out here that even though voter suppression targets Black people it hurts all of us. “Voter suppression typically targets the marginalized, the disadvantaged, and the inconvenient… But the effect is broader and exponentially more pronounced. These communities tend to share a common belief that political leaders should pass laws to guarantee equity and justice, and they vote that way. However, the disenfranchisement of individuals and entire populations from democracy through the booby traps of registration, access to the ballot, and ballot counting works to divide groups, often leaving the privileged unscathed by the process but hurt by the outcomes. Representative democracy is a brute force exercise, where who counts matters. Rigging the game affects all the players on the team, even those who are not targeted… In states where voter suppression is common, so too is an aggregation of power in the hands of conservatives who have a shared strategy for stripping away abortion rights… We hear about Russian interference, hacked machines, and more and more people who doubt the system. Abroad, authoritarians and dictators win elections and reshape democracies into parodies of freedom. The same world leaders who once feared disappointing American leaders now use our compromised elections to justify their own behavior. When disinformation campaigns target black and brown voters to scare them away from the polls, the source might as easily be Russian as Republican. Saving democracy is not an overblown call to action- we are in trouble… But we do know what to do. America has always been a crucible for democratic innovation, and our hallmark is our willingness to learn and grow. Fixing our broken democracy stands as a foundational prerequisite to progress. Our work to achieve universal health care access, education parity, social and economic justice and more - they each depend on the fundamental obligation that undergirds them all, eradicating voter suppression and ensuring that our elections are fair fights.” (pp. 123-124). Abrams’ impassioned appeal for a movement for democratic rights recalls to me Marx’s point in 1848 that the revolutionary National Assembly ‘only needed everywhere to counter dictatorially the reactionary encroachments by obsolete Government in order to win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective” (Marik, p.191). Further, Abrams points out that the blue wave of 2018 proved that the demographic changes in American society have ripened, and now all we need to do to produce revolutionary change is engage that democratic process. Key to this effort is reaching out to people Abrams’ calls low propensity voters. These are not swing voters: these are not voters who vote for a different party each election. Low propensity voters are people who voted once and didn’t see dramatic change and therefore decided not to vote again. We have to impress upon people the importance of voting, that the change has been stymied, but that the potential for change is real and is more real now than it has been. Calls to boycott the 2020 election, efforts on the left to suppress the vote for Democrats are going to hurt poor and working and Black people. Anyone who tries to tell you Biden is just as bad as Trump is lying to you. We will be discussing this type of left reactionary in detail in later podcasts, but in our very next episode we are going to discuss the bellwether issue of our generation: The Syrian Revolution. The reactions of the far left to that revolution will reveal to us the priorities and liabilities inherent to the traditional US far left, and help us understand the transformation that will be needed to make the left once again into a powerful and righteous force in the world.
Aronoff, Kate, ed. We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. The New Press, 2020.
Abrams, Stacey. Our Time is Now. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 2020.
Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.
Grose, Christian R. Congress in black and white: Race and representation in Washington and at home. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Hajnal, Zoltan L. Changing white attitudes toward black political leadership. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Hajnal, Zoltan L. Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2007.
Perry, Ravi K. Black mayors, white majorities: The balancing act of racial politics. U of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Rothstein, Richard. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing, 2017.
Wicked Problems Collective. What Do We Do About Inequality? CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
Music: Walt Adams, Loose Bolts; else Harry Koniditsiotis
June 30th, 2020 | 1 hr 5 mins
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, lenin, leninism, poland, progressivism, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, ukraine, victor serge
Correction: I cannot find anywhere Stalin uses the phrase "internal colonization."
What Stalin did was colonization, and forcible starvation of millions of people, a world historic moral crime. There are no factual errors in the account presented here, other than this mistake about a phrase. Stalin called his crimes "collectivization," a disgusting euphemism designed to cover over his evil deed. My understanding of Stalin's thinking in this period relies on the work of Timothy Snyder, who discusses this point here at hour 1 minute 12:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA
There is a particular historical subject that Marxists should think through, and that subject is Poland. Poland was historically carved up between Russia in the East and Prussia in the West. It was the bellwether issue of its time, with all true progressives supporting Polish independence from autocratic Russia. Consider this passage from Marx’s inaugural address to the 1st international. The issue of Poland here is considered on equal footing with the injustice of chattel slavery in North America: ““It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference, with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia; the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is in St. Petersburg, and whose hands are in every Cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics… The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes” - “Inaugural Address” of the First International, 1864 [Anderson, p67] We’ve spoken about the abolition movement and Marx’s place in it, but we haven’t talked about Poland, and its importance to Marx. Our left movement has spent nearly half a century in the wilderness. If anyone reads Marx they do Capital once or twice and that’s it. They don’t know his abolitionism, and they know even less about the history of Marxist ideology and practice in Eastern Europe, in the area between Germany and Russia. This episode is an attempt to remedy this lapse somewhat and to encourage you the listener to take an active interest in this region that has more to do with history than most think. I’m going to discuss the Polish Commonwealth, some of the political consequences of its dissolution which still impact us today and then tell the story of the Russian Revolution from the point of view of one of its satellites: Ukraine.
Let’s start far enough back that we get a good idea for the circumstances that made a thing like Ukraine possible.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, later known as the Polish Commonwealth, was a republic that dominated Eastern Europe from the late middle ages to the early modern period. It was a republic of landed nobles with an agrarian feudal economy. The nobles voted for a parliament and a king and enjoyed certain rights and protections. The commonwealth was international: among its nobles were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and Slavs, and a large diversity of religions was tolerated. Various ethnic minorities settled in and contributed to the wealth of Poland including the Cossacks, the Tartars and the Jews. In 1772 the Commonwealth was partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania destined to be progressively annexed by Tsaritsa Catherine II, and Polish territory stretching as far east as Warsaw falling under Prussian administration. I’ve never quite understood why anti-colonialist studies never include Eastern Europe: it just seems to be excluded from the history altogether. The story of Poland and Ukraine is where landlocked states like Prussia, the Russians and the Austrians had their colonies, and the holocaust is the culmination of that history.
In the early days of the Commonwealth, the Ukraine had been divided between the Lithuanian lords around Kiev in the East and the Polish nobility around Galicia in the West, but in 1569 the Lithuanian areas in the south, today’s eastern Ukraine around Bratslav, Kyiv and Volyn’ were ceded to Poland. The Ukrainian territories then at the cusp of modernity were a mix of Orthodox Christianity, Slavic languages and culturally Lithuanian lords now under Polish domination. The Ukraine became a melting pot in early modern Europe, where Polish became the language of high culture, where becoming Catholic was a route into high society and where the older ways of Eastern Orthodox religion and Slavic language became the mark of a newly impoverished lower class. The best book to read on this topic is Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of National. Quote Snyder: “As Germany was divided among Lutheran and Catholic princes, as France massacred its Huguenots, as the Holy Roman Emperor paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, and as even Spain’s formidable power was challenged in the Netherlands and undermined by the Inquisition, Poland-Lithuania alone combined religious toleration, institutional reform, and territorial expansion” (Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations [TRN], p115).
But the Commonwealth was also still a feudal domain, and Cossacks were refused recognition as lords with voting rights. So, in 1654 they joined forces with Muscovy to wage war on the Polish Commonwealth. So it always is, a nation’s sovereignty and security are always weakened by the inequalities it tolerates among its peoples. The alliance between the Cossacks and the Muscovites gave birth to the myth that Eastern Ukraine belongs to Russia. The war between the Commonwealth and Russia ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo where Russia absorbed much of Eastern Ukraine. To Ukrainians this war was the rising up of the Cossacks to defend their rights and Orthodox religion. From the Russian point of view this was the foundation of a Russian empire. The Cossacks understood their alliance with Muscovy as temporary: Muscovy saw it as a permanent establishment of a divine order. This is important because this historical alliance became the founding myth justifying the Czar’s domination of Ukraine and Crimea: it also became the justification of Putin’s meddling in Ukrainian elections and subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Because Ukrainians opposed this Russian domination, Putin needed to cast the west as his enemy and try to influence our election in 2016. For Putin all of this is necessary because of this treaty long ago in 1654.
Snyder explains to us how back in the 17th century Muscovy was changed by this encounter with the Cossacks of Kiev: “Thus the transfer of part of Ukraine exposed Muscovy to new ideas. Muscovy inherited, along with Kyiv, Orthodox churchmen formed by the controversies of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Union… In the second half of the seventeenth century, not before, books were translated in Moscow in large numbers. The source languages were Greek, Latin, and Polish, and the translators were churchmen from the Commonwealth… Having adapted to the cultural attraction of western Christianity in the age of Reform, Ukrainian churchmen confronted in Muscovy a state and a church with limited cultural connections to the Byzantium they claimed to embody. Although Kyivan churchmen had never before regarded Moscow as a center of Orthodoxy, they adapted quickly to the new political situation of the second half of the seventeenth century… After Andrusovo, Ukrainian churchmen sought to draw the support of their new sovereign by recasting the history of Muscovy in a way that linked church and state, and dignified their position. Their cooperation with the Muscovite dynasty involved the invention of Russian history. One Ukrainian churchman invented the idea of the ‘transfer’ of the Kyivan princely seat to Moscow, an idea which came to organize Russian national myth and historiography” (Snyder, TRN, p118). Does all of that sound very remote and unrelatable? Well, yes it is remote, but that just goes to show how dumb it is to claim Russia has a right to dominate the Ukraine based on it, but that’s the claim underlying Putin’s current war in the Ukraine.
After the partitions of Poland of 1772 and 1795 Galicia, a southern part of the Polish Commonwealth, became a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, Austria. In 1783 the Habsburg monarch Joseph II founded a seminary and a university for Greek Catholics, and in the 1830s several seminary students produced a dictionary in the local peasant dialect spoken by Ukrainians there. The Greek Catholic peasants helped suppress the revolution of 1848 in Austria, and in return they were given a limited franchise and formal legal equality. In reality, the Polish aristocracy still dominated local power politics. The Greek Catholic Church became the site of Ukrainian political longing, first for reunification with Russia and a reconnection with Russian dominated Kiev, but more and more for a united Ukrainian nation state. The 19th century saw the unification of Germany and Italy, and a dozen national minorities in Eastern Europe began to develop their own dreams of national sovereignty. At the same time, Austria actively promoted the Ukrainian national aspiration over the Russophilia many Galicians felt. Any such national movement requires a dictionary and a founding set of literary texts. Because Czarist Russia forbade the printing of any such material, the Ukrainian cause was saved by half of it’s imagined geographical area being subject to Austrian rule. Similar literary projects were happening in Polish Prussia around Lithuanian identity, but the Belorussians, who had a distinct language, were not able to produce such a tradition because their entire geography was dominated by Russia. In 1898 the founding literary work of the Ukrainian nation was published: Hrushevs’kyi’s History of Ukraine-Rus’. This book told the story of a people, and was part of a general trend towards mass politics. After the French revolution the dream of democracy, the rumor of popular participation in politics, meant that aspiring leaders of political movements had to find ways to appeal to the masses. It was no longer possible to rule for very long by divine right. The foreign rule of the Polish over the Ukrainians, like that of the Russians over the Belorussians, or the British over the enslaved and native peoples, was often justified by the notion that these peoples had no written history. The History of Ukraine-Rus’ laid out the history of the Ukrainian people. As with so many such projects, a group of intellectuals systematized the language of local people, created literary works from it and then had to try and popularize their productions all in an effort to reveal to people their supposedly innate national identities. The first generation of Ukrainian nationalists were satisfied to promote their interests by agitating for greater minority rights, but frustration with corruption in the Habsburg institutions of power led the next generation to more radical demands. The rise of nationalist ideas accompanied the arrival of socialist politics. In 1890 Ivan Franko, the son of a German blacksmith and a Polish noblewoman “cofounded a peasant Radical Party oriented toward the socialist transformation of Galicia… In 1897 he broke loudly with Polish politics (writing in German) and with Ukrainian politics (writing in Polish). Already a friend of Hrushevs’kyi, Franko now became his protege. On Christmas Eve, 1899, the two men and the other leaders of a new National Democratic party published an appeal to all classes of Ukrainian society for the general endeavor of national sovereignty… By 1900, Franko was an advocate of Ukrainian independence with what he and others of his generation called ‘ethnographic’ borders. Like Franko, many of the leading Galician Ukrainian national activists in 1900 had been socialists ten years before. This was exceedingly common in the Europe of the day, not least in Poland...The general connection between the seemingly contradictory ideas of socialism and nationalism is that the idealistic faith in the yet untried people; the particular impulse that pushed Ukrainian activists from socialism to nationalism was real competition with the Poles. Ukrainians influenced by Drahomanov believed that Ukrainian socialism would arise from the Ukrainian people, Polish socialism from the Polish people, and so on.” (Snyder TRN, pp130-131).
The Ukraine was a contested battlefield throughout WWI and the Russian Civil War. After the Russian Revolution, Ukrainians felt optimistic enough to declare the existence of an independent state, but such was not their fate. After Lenin’s failed military adventure in Poland, during which the Ukrainians fought with Poland, Poland and Russia signed the treaty of Riga, whereby the Ukraine was divided much as it had been before the war, except whereas before it was divided between Czarist Russia and the Habsburgs, it was now divided between Soviet Russia and Poland. In the middle 20s Stalin brought direction of Ukraine’s economy under the control of the central soviet. All property became state property, and all state property was managed from Moscow. As we pointed out whilst discussing the Russian Revolution as a democratic movement, Stalin was able to exploit the situation of the early 20s to consolidate absolute power. Although the left opposition represented a large part of the Russian population, it lost the contest for power, with disastrous consequences for the Ukraine. But how do we know that the Ukraine’s fate would have been any different if Lenin had lived to see the 30s, or if Trotsky of Rakovsky had gotten the upper hand in 1927? We know what difference it would have made because of Lenin’s final testament.
1921 in the USSR saw the ban on parties, but it was also the beginning of a long physical decline for Lenin. While he did not seem to comment on the need to revive democratic traditions in the party and in the soviets, Lenin was clearly repulsed by the Russian chauvinism he perceived in Stalin towards the smaller nations that had historically been part of the Russian empire, specifically in Georgia and the Ukraine (Hensman 52-63).
If Germany was an ideological blindspot for Lenin, his final writings, the so-called Testament that was largely unpublished before 1956, show a Lenin that clearly understood two things: (1) that the socialist revolution would have to spread to Asia, and (2) that the new socialist project would succeed or fail based on how it managed a transition away from Russian Empire. Later, we will discuss American attempts in the 20th century to transition away from Empire. The whole 20th century is the story of unraveling Empire. Lenin urged that Russia should protect the autonomy of Russia’s former possessions. As he declined, Stalin ascended by a series of cunning political maneuvres. As General Secretary, Stalin led a diplomatic effort to force Georgia into economic unification with Russia. In one meeting, Stalin’s envoy Ordzhonikidze, whom I assume history has forgotten bc his name is so difficult to pronounce, physically assaulted his Georgian counterpart. Rohini Hensman writes: “Alarmed by a letter from an old Georgian communist accusing Ordzhonikidze of threatening them, Lenin sent Alexei Rykov to Georgia to investigate. Rykov returned and reported back to Lenin in early December 1922, and Lenin was deeply upset by the ‘image of a Communist governor behaving like a satrap in a conquered country” (Hensman, p55). Lenin stated in no uncertain terms that Russian nationalist chauvinism was the gravest threat to the Communist effort, equal only to the threat posed by Western aggression: “We, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence… That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nations, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question… The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism. “ (Lenin, Letter to the Party Conference, Dec. 30-31 1923, Hensman, p58)
Instead, Stalin set out in 1928 on a process of forced collectivization in the Ukraine, a decision that would ultimately lead to the deaths by starvation of around 6 million Ukrainians. By 1924 it was clear that the Bolshevik revolution was not going to spread into western Europe. The original Bolshevik line that the revolution would have to spread internationally to succeed seemed to have been decided, and as Stalin got rid of people like Trotsky who wanted greater democracy in the USSR, he began pursuing what was euphemistically called “Socialism in one country.” Behind closed doors Stalin called this policy “internal colonization,” because it was thought that in order for a nation to enter the industrial age it would need to exploit colonies. Because Stalin imagined the Ukraine was internal to the Soviet Union, internal colonization just meant actually colonizing the Ukraine, which of course is just regular imperialism exactly the way that Czarist Russia had occupied the Ukraine since 1772. Collectivization is the name he gave for the process of state seizure of farmland, forcing peasants to work it and then taking the crops as state property. During the Russian Civil War days, from 1918 through 1921, the Bolsheviks had fought against peasant uprisings in an attempt to secure enough food to keep starvation from killing first the factories and then the workers. Peasants who hoarded grain while the peoples of the USSR starved to death were called Kulaks, a word meaning tight fisted. The kulaks were people whose greed exacerbated the generalized starvation engulfing the Slavic world since the Czar had plunged all of Europe into WW1, and Lenin was right to fight against them on a case by case basis. Things had changed by 1930 when Stalin announced his intention of completely liquidating the Kulak class. What he meant by that was mass murder in order to impose state ownership on the whole of the agricultural output. It’s worth dwelling a moment on the nature and scope of Stalin’s crimes, because people often shrug and admit that it was bad without having any idea of how bad it was. Timothy Snyder describes what the policy meant in practice in his excellent book Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin [BL]: “The troika, composed of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state procurator, had the authority to issue rapid and severe verdicts (death, exile) without the right to appeal. Local party members would often make recommendations: ‘At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, ‘we create kulaks as we see fit.’ Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by troikas. In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 people were forcibly transported from Soviet Ukraine as kulaks. Such an action meant about thirty thousand peasant huts emptied one after another, their surprised inhabitants given little or no time to prepare for the unknown. It meant thousands of freezing freight cars, filled with terrified and sick human cargo, bound for destinations in northern European Russia, the Urals, Siberia, or Kazakhstan. It meant gunshots and cries of terror at the last dawn peasants would see at home; it meant frostbite and humiliation on trains, and anguish and resignation as peasants disembarked as slave laborers on the taiga or the steppe… All in all, some three hundred thousand Ukrainians were among the 1.7 million kulaks deported to special settlements in Siberia, European Russia, and Kazakhstan.” (Snyder, BL, pp26-27). Like Robespierre, Stalin was imposing state power on society: this was the culmination and natural outcome of a socialist movement that in the early 20s had given up on democratic organizing and given free reign to its desires to impose “utopia” on humanity from above. Party activists communicated to peasants that Stalin had a 1st Commandment: the grain belongs first of all to the state and after that can be given to the peasants. The peasants knew the 1st commandment was “thou shalt have no God before me,” and they understood the new regime as a reimposition of feudalism by the State. Other examples where the state takes over as the boss in an older labor form include the Italian Republic in southern Italy and the 13th Amendment whereby slavery was outlawed in the US unless someone went to prison. The peasants of Ukraine rose up against the new system of peonage, but the rebellion was crushed. The worst of the repression happened in 1930 after the crop had been planted, and that year’s crop was particularly bountiful. Bad weather and the mass deportation of Ukraine's best farmers assured the next year’s crop yield would be much worse. Stanislaw Kosior reported in August of 1931 that yields would be low, but his superior Lazar Kaganovich told him the problem was theft, so Kosior intensified repression. The peasants, having no choice, met their quota by handing over their seed grain: at that point they were sabotaging the next year’s yield under threat from the state. By July of 1932 party leaders in the Ukraine had successfully communicated to Stalin that a famine had begun there and that Soviet policies were going to make it worse. The documentation of these facts is now indisputable, thanks to the empirical data and private letters made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Stalin decided that if collectivization was failing it was the fault of the peasants, that they should be starved in collective punishment and that above all the problem should be hidden from view of the world lest the reputation of socialism should be tarnished. What a sick joke. Local party leaders in the Ukraine who complained were sacked and deported, and their calls for Red Cross intervention were ignored. Unlike Lenin, who in 1921 asked for and received international aid for famine victims in the USSR, Stalin didn’t see the people’s wellbeing as the source of his right to rule. His right to rule was his power over the truth and over life and death. “Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of success. Resistance to his policies in the Soviet Ukraine, Stalin argued, was of a special sort, perhaps not visible to the imperceptive observer. Opposition was no longer open, for the enemies of socialism were now ‘quiet’ and even ‘holy.’ [here Snyder quotes Stalin] The ‘kulaks of today,’ he said, were ‘gentle people, kind, almost saintly.’ [unquote] People who appeared to be innocent were to be seen as guilty. A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. These were not merely Stalin’s musings in Moscow; this was the ideological line enforced by Molotov and Kaganovich as they traveled through regions of mass death in late 1932.” (Snyder, BL, p41). Such terribly distorted reasoning was only possible in 1932 because over the course of the previous decade the ban on factions had become a permanent institution, because public and even private debate was radically precluded, and everyone who disagreed with Stalin had been sent into exile, including nearly all of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries: Kamenev, Rykov, Rakovsky, Zinoviev and Trotsky. All of these men had opposed Stalin’s plan of forced collectivization. All of them had been labeled enemies. We are far indeed from Marx’s tenure in the garden of Epicurus where events in the heavens have a multitude of explanations, and where this whole plurality of voices is needed to reach an understanding of the world. Stalin isn’t in the same category as the socialists of the Paris Commune who demanded complete freedom of the press.
In politics we often find we have enemies, but having an enemy shouldn’t become the foundation of our politics. When we replace the foundation of love for the people with the foundation of hatred for our enemies, we end up in this place where Stalin is, we end up justifying any sacrifice, even the people we supposedly love, and we lose our most important ability: to change our mind when confronted with new evidence. What’s more, when we are absolutely set on defeating an enemy rather than on gaining for our loved ones, the logic of the absolute enemy takes over our enemies as well, making compromise impossible. The mass starvation of the Ukraine became a talking point in Hitler’s political campaigns, and fed his rise to power. Stalin would later use the fact that the USSR was invaded by Hitler, and had beaten Hitler back, to retroactively justify the famine in the Ukraine.
At this point the historical ties between Ukraine and Poland become important. Many Ukrainians began to flee the Ukraine to Poland where they pleaded with Polish authorities to get the word out to the rest of the world and to do something. 85,000 ethnic Poles were murdered in the Soviet Union between 1937 and 1938, under suspicion of plotting against socialism. Foreign nations were considered to exist on the other side of a class line: if someone had a connection to Poland they were thought to have a loyalty to global capitalism as such. This may sound outlandish, but later when we dig into the politics of the Party for Socialist Liberation, the PSL, we will find this same kind of reasoning involving proletariat and bourgeois nations. Though Stalin imagined Poland was plotting against him and against the socialist revolution, Poland was actually trying to find a politics that would let them live side by side with the USSR in peace. Poland didn’t sound the alarm about the Ukrainian famine because they had just signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, who in 1939 repaid them by splitting Poland down the middle, taking the eastern half and letting Hitler take the western half in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In order to cover up the world historical crime of causing the starvation of 6 million Ukrainians, Stalin then tried to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia. In Poland, Hitler and Stalin pursued the same policy on different sides of the border: they murdered anyone who could take part in Polish state building: doctors, lawyers, politicians, professors, writers, scientists. They were fighting a war against reason itself in the name of political projects based not on political compromise but on zero sum thinking where success could only mean the annihilation of one’s enemy. The most well known, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, of these massacres was at Katyn, where 22,000 Poles were systematically slaughtered by an NKVD that had been forged in the forced starvation of Ukraine.
It’s easy when one talks of millions of deaths to lose all sense of the loss involved. Some half a million Poles were murdered by Stalin in the latter half of the 1930s, and each one of them was a human being with a life and a place in the world. We should tell the story of at least one of them to communicate a little what a catastrophe this was. One of the Poles who was arrested and sent to Stalin’s camps was Jozef Czapski. Czapski was taken because he was an artist and from an aristocratic family. He had the remarkable good luck in his youth to discover Proust as an aspiring artist in Paris starting in 1924. There he encountered and befriended many of the people who had inspired the characters in Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” In the camp where Czapski was taken the inmates, who were mostly scholars of one sort or another, taught each other classes. Czapski taught a class on Proust’s Search for Lost Time. These class notes were later collected, and an English translation was published in 2018. In them Czapski tells the story of the death of Bergotte, a character in Proust’s novel. Bergotte was a writer of popular trash fiction. One day as Bergotte is wandering through an art exhibit he is struck by a painting by the then unknown Vermeer. It is a landscape of several houses on a beach, and Bergotte is particularly taken back by the exquisite attention the artist paid to a certain patch of yellow roofing. The artistic perfection on display, produced in utter isolation and a lack of recognition, confronts Bergotte with the rude realization that the novelist sacrificed the quality of his own art in order to have public appeal. He feels he has cheated himself and his art, and then he dies. The image of Vermeer, the artist committed to creating something of high value in the context of utter isolation closely parallels Czapski’s own experience there in the camps. Czapski would survive the camps and live to a ripe old age. Many other brilliant people did not.
Hitler’s political project, which we explore in detail elsewhere, involved using the German state to destroy the states of Eastern Europe so that his German people could colonize those lands. He explicitly referenced the history of America’s genocide of native peoples as an example to the Germans of how a great people acts, and he specifically identified the Ukraine as the key to the success of his political enterprise. Ukraine was to become the breadbasket of the new German empire, and it’s people were to be for Germany what Black enslaved people were to the United States. When Hitler’s forces arrived at the furthest East places they could conquer, Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, they found lands that had already suffered Stalin’s so called “internal '' colonization. The people in those nations who had collaborated with Stalin then very actively collaborated with the Nazis, by a vast majority. The crimes of the NKVD were in everyone’s very recent memory, and the Jews were an easy scapegoat. Communists and Nazis both agreed the Jews were to blame, and the former commisar’s in Stalin’s bureaucracy almost every last one of them participated in and often initiated the mass shootings that started the Holocaust. In 1942 Hitler became aware that he would not be able to take Moscow, and he also became aware of the mass shootings of Jews that was being organized by Lithuanian nationalists. It was at that moment when he gives up the idea of sending all the Jews to Siberia or to Mauritania, which had been his idea up to that moment, and settles upon the “final solution.” The image we have of the holocaust, of the death camps, touches on a reality, there really were death execution sites, though typically they did not include barracks or “camps.” The story we get from Hollywood is falsely comforting. The story in popular culture is of death camps and of heros who save Jews from those camps. Half of the people who died in the holocaust were shot, then dumped in mass graves, and the majority of people who had an opportunity to save Jews did not because doing so would put their own lives at risk. It’s crucial that we understand that ordinary people, people like you and me, allowed the holocaust to happen and participated in it because of decisions made that created the situation of the holocaust. Hitler set up camps for his political enemies and for diabled people as part of a eugenicist project in 1933, nearly a whole decade before the holocaust begins. If we think that camps of immigrants in the US are harmless, it is because we have forgotten or never knew this history.
The Ukraine is the center of WW2, though we remember it being a secondary character or an extra in the drama. More Ukrainians died fighting German fascism than did Americans. Timothy Snyder in this excellent speech (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTJwCCAF2lA ) from 2017 about Germany’s historical responsibility points out that 3.5 million Ukrainian civilians were murdered by German forces in WW2. Three million Ukrainians died fighting in the Red Army. The Ukraine was the center of Hitler’s colonial project. With the subjugation of the Ukraine under Russia and the mass famine of 1932 fresh in their personal memories, Ukrainian nationalists volunteered to join Fascist gangs in committing the holocaust in order to get the arms to fight later for a Ukrainian nation state. That is not to excuse their crimes, but to understand them. Much of this history was not understood in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but Ukrainians would have remembered them as lived experience following WW2. We rarely ever understand the cold war, or the founding of NATO in this context, as world changing events that ended the destructive Russian domination of Poland that had gone on for several centuries. Instead, the left thinks of NATO as western imperialism embodied. Again, this is not to provide apologetics for the hamfisted antics of the CIA in Eastern Europe, but to understand them. Stalin was objectively an evil man doing evil things, and it was easy to justify illegal actions to fight him. It wasn’t easy to tell that the habit of illegal CIA operations could only undermine America’s claims to legitimacy as a world power and claims to being a democratic society. If time allows, a whole series of podcasts should be done about the history of US interventions in the 20th century. For now, we note these issues in passing, finish briefly telling the history of Ukraine to date, and discuss why it’s important today that the international community defend Ukrainian sovereignty. Considering this long history of Russian and German colonization of the Ukraine, and its terrible consequences, it is stunning to witness the current indifference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that started in 2014! Yeah, I’m calling you out Michael Moore. How dare you belittle the impeachment of Trump, talk about it as though it had no importance, without even mentioning Ukraine, when Ukrainian lives were on the line, when the entire postwar peace in Europe is on the line. We’ll come back around to that.
Inevitably, a discussion of Ukraine has brought us to the question of what to do in the aftermath of the empire? Hitler and Stalin both sought to found an empire by first dominating the Ukraine. Now Putin is attempting the same thing. After WW2 the Soviet Union annexed large parts of Poland, Eastern Germany, all of Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Romania. In the early 1950s Stalin began gearing up a purge of Jewish people, but to do so parts of the bureaucracy had to be turned against each other in a cycle of mutual recrimination where each party hopes to save themselves by throwing their fellow bureaucrats under the bus. This was the precise mechanism that had led to the Polish purges of the late thirties. By the early 1950s the bureaucrats in the soviet system understood this game, that it meant their doom, and they wisely declined to play it. This does not mean the danger wasn’t real, or that things couldn’t have gone another way. We’ll speak at some length in a later podcast of the shameful role French intellectuals in particular played in providing rhetorical cover for the purges and show trials. Suffice it to say that chief among these traitors was Sartre, who had some idea that a Jewish purge was developing just as he was beginning a strong turn towards support of the Communist cause around 1952. Sartre’s hypocritical silence on this issue is all the more striking because of his previous attention to the problem of European anti-semitism (Judt, Past Imperfect, p184). Timothy Snyder’s account of the rise of fascist ideology we face today, the excellent book The Road to Unfreedom [TRU], includes a vital condensed telling of Ukrainian history under Soviet rule. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians resisted Stalin, it must be admitted with the help of the CIA, throughout the 40s and 50s and were then sent to the gulags. Most of those who survived to see Khrushchev take power in 1953 were released. The Ukraine became a populous center of Soviet industrial production. In the seventies Brezhnev declared that Russia had “really existing socialism” implying that all national differences within the Soviet Union had been transcended, and Ukrainians who resisted cultural erasure in the 70s often were sent to mental hospitals. In 1986 one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters occured in the Ukraine because of the culture of the suppression of the truth that reigned in the Soviet System. If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries on Chernobyl, you should go and do that after this podcast episode. In order to save the USSR from humiliation Gorbachev needlessly exposed millions of Ukrainians to dangerously high doses of radiation. The discussion of this crime among Ukrainians led to a national discussion of the mass starvation of a generation prior, which very similarly had been forced on them to “save the reputation of socialism.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence from the Soviet Union. And this is where we begin to encounter associates of Donald Trump in the story about Ukraine.
In earlier podcasts I spent a great deal of time discussing the Russian Revolution, and I did that because in Russia socialists came to power and in wielding power found themselves directly in contradictions that we in the USA have not faced. Wielding power as Marxists, as Socialists and as Communists posed the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to our ideals, because sitting in power always demands trade offs and sacrifices. Even if the Russian revolution because of when and where it happened could only have ended in tragedy, especially so, we must learn from it. In tending to these historical issues we can gradually redeem our movement and the socialist project as such. The inability to come to terms with this past has left us vulnerable in the present moment in ways I want to discuss later in this podcast once I’ve developed the background some. We have to reflect on the crimes of Stalin, because we should know our faults better than our opponents do and because those crimes are a part of socialism that we cannot simply disown. I hope that much has been made clear in previous podcasts. The worst crimes were committed from what Tony Judt has called “retroactive necessitarianism,” which is the idea that because we know how history ends, any sacrifice is justified in accelerating our trip there. In conversation with Timothy Snyder, Tony Judt describes the embrace of such ideas in the 20th century as the infinite breaking of eggs in the making of an impossible omelette.
“This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgement on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information...All the same, for much of the past century many social democrats who would have been horrified to think of themselves as anything other than Marxist - much less as ‘liberal’ - were unable to make the ultimate move into retroactive necessitarianism. In most cases, they had the good fortune to avoid the choice. In Scandinavia, accession to power was open to social democrats without any need to overthrow or repress existing authorities. In Germany, those who were not willing to compromise with constitutional moral constraints took themselves out of the social democratic consensus. In France, the question was irrelevant thanks to the compromises imposed by republican politics and in England it was redundant thanks to the marginality of the radical left. Paradoxically, in all these countries, self-styled Marxists could continue t o tell themselves stories: they could persist in the belief that the Marxist historical narrative informed their actions, without facing the implications of taking that claim seriously. But in other places - of which Russia was the first and exemplary instance - access to power was indeed open to Marxists precisely because of their uncompromising claims upon history and other people. And so, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there was a sharp and enduring schism between those who would not digest the human consequences of their own theories, and those for whom these same consequences were nasty in just the way that had thought they would be, and all the more convincing for that reason: it’s really hard; we’ve really got to make the difficult choices; we have no choice but to do bad things; this is a revolution; if we are in the omelette making business, this is not the moment to coddle the eggs… The kind of truth that a believer was seeking was not testable by reference to contemporary evidence but only to future outcomes. It was always about believing in a future omelet that would justify an infinite number of broken eggs in the present. If you ceased to believe, then you were not simply abandoning a piece of social data which you had apparently misread hitherto; you were abandoning a story that could alone justify any data one wished so long as the future payoff was guaranteed. (Thinking the Twentieth Century. pp. 91,94,97).
Here at the end of a long meditation on the outcome of a very specific type of socialism, Bolshevism, in a very specific context, Ukraine in the 20th century, right here, this is where I want to situate a discussion of Capital.
As Tony Judt explained, there’s a version of Capital that reads like a holy text. According to this reading it lays out an inevitable series of events. The story goes something like this. Capitalists are greedy: they need more and more profit. To get more profit they will improve the means of production, automate as much as possible and drive down the value of labor. As labor gets devalued, the wage will fall and living standards will become unsurvivable. The workers will choose to defend their lives, and they will rise up. When the workers rise up they will form a council government that will organize production democratically. The moral of this story is that we should sacrifice everything to accelerate the arrival of these events. What’s even better, since we personally only have one life to live, is that we force as many other people as possible, through persuasion or violence, to sacrifice themselves to accelerate the coming of these events. I have been developing a stronger version of Marx than this: the Marx who wrote Capital to reject the commodification of humanity, but we have to deal with this other Marxism, for which humans are just fodder for the engine of history.
Finally, let me lift up Victor Serge again. Victor Serge spent his youth as an anarchist in Paris, the son of exiled Russian revolutionaries. Anarchism in Paris at that time was taken by the idea of propaganda of the deed. That meant individual acts of terrorism and/or assassinations of political figures. Several of Serge’s friends received the death penalty for conspiracies, and he was sentenced to 5 years of solitary confinement, though it seems he was guilty of nothing more than having guilty friends. He served 3 years of his sentence and then as German forces threatened France in WW1 he was released. He moved to Spain immediately to take part in the attempted revolution there. In 1919 he moved to Russia to help build the Soviet Union. In the 20s he joined the Left Opposition, and in 1933 he was arrested by the NKVD, an organization he had served in. He spent two years in a gulag in Orenburg, plenty of time to ponder the dark timeline that he had been swept into, plenty of time to ponder the failure of the Bolshevik project. Copyrighted in French in 1939, first appearing in translation in 1981, and then reprinted in 2015 by the New York Review of Books, Midnight in the Century is a stream of consciousness novel about the experience of the left opposition in the gulags. In this book we find the Bolsheviks waxing nostalgic for the days “when there was still freedom in the revolution.” (102). It’s a beautifully written book of historical fiction, full of sadness and hope, and in it the Russian Siberian wilderness plays an important role. Victor Serge is essential reading for understanding how that generation of Bolsheviks who made the revolution, then survived Lenin and were betrayed by Stalin, how they understood their own defeat and what it meant for Europe.
The book is a personal document about Serge’s experience in the gulag, but it is also a political polemic, explicitly echoing Trotsky’s jeremiads warning Europe about Hitler. For instance, he speaks directly to the idea he knows is pushing the German KPD to boost the German Nazi party against the Social Democrats: the idea that if Nazis get into power then the communists can ride the pendulum back to replace them. As I read this passage I imagine that instead of the Social Democrats he’s describing making a common front with the Democratic Party to kick out Trump. “The only chance for salvation is a common front with Social Democracy and the Reformist trade-unions. It’s madness to expect to win the masses away from their leaders, cough Joe Biden cough when the proletarian spirit has become stabilized within the old parties. And when you yourselves are hardly much better than the people you’re denouncing! Bernie Sanders ... There are still some imbeciles who say that Hitler should be allowed to take power, for he’ll use himself up rapidly, go bankrupt, dissatisfy everybody, open the way for us… The time to fight to the death is before he takes over. Once Hitler has power, he will keep it… Stalin gave Hitler his strength by driving the middle classes away from Communism with the nightmare of forced collectivization, famine, and terror against the technicians. Hitler, by making Europe abandon the hope of socialism, will strengthen Stalin. These grave-diggers were born to understand each other. Enemies and brothers. In Germany, one is burying an aborted democracy, the child of an aborted revolution. In Russia, the other is burying a victorious revolution born of a weak proletariat and left on its own by the rest of the world. Both of them are leading those they serve - the bourgeoisie in Germany, the bureaucracy here at home - toward a catastrophe.” (p. 76).
In everything I’ve read about the oppositionists, even when they were in the Gulag, is that they never gave up on the power of collective organization and collective thought, aka free expression, to transform the world. And if they were to be buried in Siberia, they were certain that they were the seeds of trees a future generation would shelter under. Before Stalin’s determination to destroy even the memory of them, they remained defiant. Here is one telling bit of dialogue between oppositionists that must surely be based on a real or on several real conversations: “‘We’re right, comrades. Right, like stones are right to be hard, like the grass is right to grow, for the Revolution doesn’t want to die out. Without us, there would be nothing left of it but reinforced concrete, turbines, loudspeakers, uniforms, victims of exploitation, humbugs adn informers. Now you see it, now you don’t! But we’re here - like the ocean floor, and the trick is spoiled!... Let’s rest in the sunshine for a while. Maybe tonight they’ll lock us up int eh cellar of the Security building. Keep that in mind and you’ll savour this sunshine all the more. I’m teaching you wisdom! One day you’ll die down on a cot ina disheartening darkness. Then remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.’ ‘And thought?’ asked Rodion. ‘Thought? Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?’ ‘Midnight’s where we have to live then,’ said Rodion with an odd elation.” (pp. 117,118)
It’s hard to imagine, but I’m telling you, Victor Serge wrote a stream of consciousness novel about men and women doomed to die unremembered who were convinced their cause would win in the end, and he convinces us in the telling that history will vindicate them. Under the Siberian sky, in a kind of enormous garden, Serge’s writing invokes not despair but the infinite potential in nature, the fact that no matter how dark the path may be the natural world holds up for us the image and example of absolute freedom. There is an infinite series of events of which we make up a finite part. Serge writes about the sky as though he were intentionally orienting us towards infinity. One of the novel’s oppositionists is Ryzhik, and I want to end this episode with a passage where Ryzhik describes the Siberian countryside: “‘On the Yenisey,’ said Ryzhik, ‘it was even more beautiful than here. The earth seemed to light up from within. Even before the snows had melted the grasses came to life and light filtered into the tiniest twig, the tiniest streamlet. You walked on light. The flowers have cool, light colours. Only the stars resemble them. You leave the house one morning, you go out onto the plains, straight ahead, for there’s nothing anywhere, nothing but the horizon and the same horizon beyond the horizon. You’re alone, alone like… Ah! I can’t really say like whom, like what. Well, like a stone at the bottom of a well, and you don’t know what’s happening to you. You want to sing, you feel the earth is on a spree. It’s something marvellous, unique; anything might happen. That’s it, you’re going to turn around, just like that, and there right in front of you, in the emptiness, will be a great happiness. What kind? You have no idea, but it's possible, that’s sure. And you do turn around and you see birds arriving. They’re coming through the sky in clouds. They’re coming with great flapping wings, and the light is climbing, the stones have a luminous polish, there are flowers, the steppe is singing in silence. Nothing happens to you, of course, but everything is possible.” (p. 70).
Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Czapski, Józef. Lost time : lectures on Proust in a Soviet prison camp. New York Review of Books, 2018.
Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Serge, Victor. Midnight in the Century. New York Review of Books, 2014.
Snyder, Timothy, and Tony Judt. Thinking the twentieth century. Random House, 2013.
Snyder, Timothy. Black earth: The Holocaust as history and warning. Seal Books, 2015.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.
Snyder, Timothy. On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Yale University Press, 2002.
The front page of the Chicago American 1935
Space Noise by Martin Klem
Calculating Catastrophe by John Barzetti
Theme by Harry Koniditsiotis
June 23rd, 2020 | 59 mins 45 secs
activism, anarchism, assad, berniesanders, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, jacobin, jacobin magazine, karl leibknecht, katie halper, lenin, leninism, limonov, max blumenthal, national socialism, progressivism, putin, red brown, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, southern poverty law center, splc, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, the spanish civil war, trotsky, useful idiots, victor serge
[extensive fact checking of Reid-Ross' Multi-Polar Spin article at the bottom]
On April 25th I was blessed to be able to interview Alexander Reid-Ross. Before our interview he was good enough to give written responses to my questions, and those are presented below.
How would you like to be introduced on the podcast?
Alexander Reid Ross, PhD candidate at Portland State University and doctoral fellow at Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right
How is your plague experience going?
Not bad, home schooling the kid and polishing up my dissertation at the moment.
How important is leg day?
It’s a significant factor in a healthy regimen. You don’t want to do leg day until you have confidence in your upper body, but leg day can really help you with some of those other exercises in unexpected ways. Also, you don’t want to give the impression that you’re only there to work on glamour muscles. The fact is that everyone respects leg day, but not everyone can get there, which is fine. It’s important for people to have the freedom in the gym to go at their own pace and live their own lives without trying to fill everyone’s expectations. It’s easy for a gym to fail by not being a good environment for people to grow and live up to their self-image of who they want to be. So the really important thing is that we have different hopes and wants, and we can help each other along the way.
How did you first get interested in radical politics?
I had a diverse group of friends in elementary school who helped me open my mind about a lot of things. I always looked up to MLK, and thought civil rights extended to LGQT people who made up the broader community of my friend groups back then. We made an AIDS quilt together, shoplifted from a local grocer, and dumpster dove in back allies because we didn’t have much else to do and no money to spend. When I got the chicken pox in 5th grade, I stayed at home for two weeks listening to Nirvana, Madonna, and Weird Al, and decided that school was a cog in a factory system that churns out stereotypes ill befitting of the complexity of human relationships. So I decided at that young age to try to “be myself,” whatever that meant. I was a sort of mischievous anarchist puck until I got out of college. I read a ton of philosophy and Marxist literature, doing odd jobs until the economic recession put me on the street. I squatted and took up dumpster diving again until I joined the Earth First! Journal and from there worked my way back into academics.
What is your understanding of how the Nazi party gained power in Germany? What lessons are there for us in that history?
There’s so much that your historical account articulates that’s true—a lot of blame to go around, for sure. The Depression was perhaps most responsible, because the Nazis existed on that street level and built infrastructure for people disenfranchised from political life. They were a motley fringe, and when unemployment skyrocketed, reality fell apart, and their syncretic mythopoesis provided a way for people to restructure their lives around “self-help.” The Conservatives were the actors who actually facilitated the Nazis’ rise most effectively, and also in a totally haphazard and foolish way. The Center Party and the Peoples Party used the Nazis to try to get the upper hand on one another, while also encouraging the paramilitary forces. The main issue with this cut throat polity is that they didn’t expect or anticipate the future backfire. And lastly, the left became from the start a fractured force that undermined itself at every turn. After the Depression, the public did not trust the SPD, while the KPD worked with the Nazis to undermine both the SPD and the mainstream conservatives. So I think the political situation was frenzied without a lot of clear thinking and with a lot of emphasis on cloak-and-dagger betrayal.
Paxton writes about a phase of a fascist movement where the leadership is sort of the guest of conservative forces and has to work to somehow expand its power. How far do you think Trump’s movement has gone in expanding its reach?
I think the Trump case is fascinating, because it skipped the total fascist state phase. It used fascists to enter power, and has aspects that are fascist—particularly visible in immigration policy. It works toward an authoritarian-conservative world system, though, which incorporates international fascist groups. It’s hard to say how much these groups have benefited from Trump. The answer is likely complex. Some fascists have been able to enter prominent positions, but the street-level fascist movement does not think Trump ultimately supports their goals, and some regret supporting him. I think there was an arc where fascist groups tried rearing their ugly face in public at Charlottesville, were disgraced immediately by their own members, and then went into a terrorist phase, which appears to have been unwound by important FBI actions earlier this year. They’re in disarray at this point. Although white nationalists have climbed important structural ladders under Trump, this can also be undone. The important thing now is to repudiate their academic positions, eugenics, and so forth, so that they can’t root into the public consciousness.
In your personal experience, is the Spanish Civil War still a big deal in radical circles? Do you have a favorite story from the Spanish Civil War?
The Spanish Civil War was more significant when the left support for the YPG/YPJ returned to that Bookchinite evangelism for veterans of the war and for rescuing its legacy. I had never heard of it until I visited Barcelona in 2008. In Spain, it’s obviously extraordinarily significant. It was also significant in the legacy of post-war revolution and anti-colonialism, as you find autogestion policies in the early years of Algerian independence and elsewhere. The intellectuals who were involved—Hemmingway, Orwell, and Hughes, for instance—left their mark on our aesthetic memory, and its cultural importance can be seen with recent films like Pan’s Labyrinth. Its complexity is also extremely important, and the legacy is often left behind, due to the conflicts that arose within the Popular Front, which was itself a fairly unique model based on important discourses taking place in the mid-1930s that differed from the Second International blocs (like the SFIO-involved Bloc des gauches or the SPD-KPD drama in Germany). In a way, it is more of a wound than a glorious history. And when you look at what has happened in Syria, the splits and factionalism, the sectarianism, I suppose that the comparisons and the relavence of the war remains in the terrible defeats and terror of the left.
What is your understanding of why the Spanish Republic was lost?
The easy answer is that Republic was lost because it did not receive support from the Anglo-American alliance, although Hitler and Mussolini sent support to Franco. Sending equipment to the Spanish government, which was being invaded by its own army, would have made a significant difference, and could have forestalled Hitler’s quest to conquer the world, saving millions of lives. Instead the West left ramshackle groups of anarchist militias, Trotskyite subversives, and Stalinists to fend for themselves against a formidable opponent. However, when you get into the granular details of the Falangists and other far-right parties, you will find that, working within the state were serious political agents who sought to devastate the left through brutal violence as well as censure. They chased left-wing politicians out of many towns throughout the country, hounded journalists, and set the stage for the Franquista invasion. And deeper still, Republican agents made huge mistakes, like the political assassination of a highly regarded Catholic politician, Calvo Sotelo, shortly after their greatest electoral victory. There were waves of church burnings and murders of religious leaders, as well, which marked revolutionary excesses that would be used against the Republic in France and the US to prevent intervention. Many people say it was the anarchists or the Stalinists who broke ranks and fought among one another that ultimately destroyed the Republic, but their infighting was also a symptom of the larger fact that they were losing—like dogs cornered who fight themselves instead of the one cornering them—and they lost the war in Madrid after Durutti was shot largely because they were simply outgunned, out-trained, and overwhelmed.
Who is Andy Ngo?
He’s a weasly propagandist who masquerades as a journalist while promoting far right extremists. I think his parents were forced into exile from Vietnam, and he is a devout anti-Communist as a result. I do not understand how one would support people who hate refugees with that history, but everyone makes compromises.
In the whole Andy Ngo saga, what did you learn about the media that surprised you?
I think Newsweek’s behavior was shocking. They rolled out the red carpet for this professional embellisher and far-right enthusiast. I did not think that they were so incompetent and bad at decision-making.
What does this episode teach us about how to consider the media we consume?
I think it showed how the mainstream media is not in fact a monolithic bloc as many on the left believe, supporting some general propaganda model that doesn’t actually function in daily life. There are different media groups with different objectives and opinions, and those are often inscrutable. I am not a media studies scholar so much as I study information networks, so I can’t really speak further on that.
Why did people call you part of an anarchy-neocon cabal?
It mostly goes back to my hatred of the lunatic President of the rump state of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, who is a blight on the world. I supported the movements of Arab Spring that opposed dictatorships. In Syria, these movements were non-violent at first, but brutally crushed by Assad. In response, militants formed the Free Syrian Army, a nebulous force that existed in name alone and included a number of different factions. The FSA’s more democratic elements were overshadowed by the Islamists, who had more experience fighting, and as Assad buried hundreds of thousands of civilians in the rubble of barrel bombs, ISIS and the Islamists attacked those democratic forces too. The US refused to intervene to protect the civilians of Syria with a no-bombing zone, allowing Assad to perpetrate gas attacks against rebel-held areas. When in 2016 and 2017, members of the American left began ridiculing the people dying in their thousands, denying the atrocities, and antagonizing humanitarians. By that point, it became too much for me, and I started to investigate the networks that were perpetrating terrible disinformation campaigns. When I published some articles about these people and their collaborators, not out of a desire to intervene but a pure disgust for the contempt of humanity, one of the ringleaders, Max Blumenthal, insisted I was involved in a “cabal of interests” targeting peace activists. He claimed I was engaged in a conspiracy with people I’d never met (or heard of), and insisted that I was trying to push the US into another Iraq War (which I opposed at the time). Anyway, that’s what happens with conspiracy theorists—everyone’s in a cabal to them.
Can you outline for us the network of geopolitical actors and media outlets pushing conspiracy theories about a new McCarthyism?
It really kind of started with The Nation and Glenn Greenwald. Fascists often insist they’re targeted by McCarthyism of the left, and Greenwald has been defending them for thirty years or more, so he’s got the experience. When the Democratic National Committee figure Robby Mook stated that the DNC hacks were likely tied to Russian information campaigns, Greenwald tweeted that this was a McCarthyite campaign against Russia. The Nation is involved in an important Russian lobby group in the US, the Committee for East-West Accord, and so went to work pressing this ball up the court. This lobby group and the people tied to it tend to support an axis of geopoliticians who come from right and left and desire a “multipolar world” in opposition to neoliberal “unipolarism,” with Moscow gaining ground as the major power in a Eurasian sphere of influence. Of course, since Moscow wanted Trump in power (and so did Assange), these interests manifested the populist promise of white nationalism in an authoritarian-conservative world system with hack leftist pundits doing the dirty work of making illiberal arguments to prop up a conservative state.
Major newspapers like the LA Times and the Washington Post hosted editorials by The Nation’s publisher and their allies accusing the Dems of McCarthyism almost immediately, which was crazy. Regardless, a host of state-connected propagandists with bylines in alternative media in the US were able to encourage this discourse with the amplification of Russian state media like RT and Sputnik, all while claiming the mainstream media was implicated, without noting that major newspapers were publishing the same accusations at the time. There was, by October, complete saturation of the media with these claims of McCarthyism against liberals and leftists who criticized Trump for, among other things, denying connections between his campaign and Russian politicos, encouraging Wikileaks hacks, and claiming those hacks were tied to a disinformation campaign centered in Russia.
In Black Earth Timothy Snyder discusses Hitler’s environmentalism, his obsession with lebensraum and a struggle for scarce resources. What is the connection between Dugin and environmentalism, and what is the appeal of fascism to environmentalism more broadly?
Dugin explicitly calls for fascists making inroads with “green theorists,” which broadly means greens who endorse a Marxian understanding of political ecology, because he sees these actors (people like me) as focal points for a potentially nativist uprising against liberal capitalism. Dugin holds a weirdly Heideggerian Traditionalist point of view that sees the global economy as a destructive force, and one of his favorite US theorists is John Zerzan. He believes in returning to smaller patriarchal communities not unlike peasant collectives under a powerful, central Imperial ruler (although he may not use that term). The roots of Dugin’s contacts with the US go back to the 1980s third positionist movement with people like Derrick Holland, a reactionary Catholic who supports distributism and the organic food movement, and Roberto Fiore, who was involved in the Italian fascist movement that produced the eco-radical “Hobbit Fest.” Ecological movements since the 19th Century have had sections that involve strange nativist fantasies about “returning to blood and soil,” in which Jews are viewed as the central power over modern urbanism (despite mostly living in poor, rural shtetls at the time), and perfect “Aryans” are viewed as emerging from “rootedness in the land” rather than cross-cultural communication. Fascists view modern conservatives as dominated by Zionist Jews, and see themselves as anti-Semitic missionaries in the quest to reunite the people with their nation in ethno-territorial terms. For this reason, their idea of a “state” is not the same as a nation-state, but more of an updated version of an archaic empire like Tsarism, Kaiserism, and Bonapartism.
Back in March, 2018 you wrote an article for the SPLC about multipolar spin. Would you tell us what that article was about, and what occurred after it was published?
The article was about the networks of disinformation purveyors mobilized by Russian media to cast doubt on cases involving Russian interests, like the downing of MH17, the Skripal case, and the use of chemical weapons by Assad. Max Blumenthal, one of the worst actors, threatened to sue the SPLC, insisting that I was involved in a conspiracy against peace activists. The SPLC folded, issuing a retraction and apology, which stated that my article was not removed due to inaccuracies but to the upswelling of resentment that it caused. In short, I presented an actual propaganda model, which was clearly proven by the groups and networks that assembled to oppose my article. However, their networks were too deeply rooted in the left and too powerful for even the SPLC. It was very depressing for many people who want justice for Syrians, myself included. Blumenthal has since threatened a number of publications, like The Guardian and Buzzfeed, if I’m not mistaken, but my article was referenced in a review of his latest screed in the London Times, which found that not only did the book include brazen falsities but that it had “blown a hole” in his publisher’s reputation. And it has. At this point, he is now peddling the right-wing conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is a bioweapon invented by the US and Gates Foundation.
It’s a little over a month now since we started social distancing, and we have seen far right groups publicly rallying to reopen the economy. What are they thinking? What does Alex Jones gain from these public displays?
These are really quite small rallies, and they’ve been encouraged by the far right all the way up to the President of the US. They serve multiple purposes, keeping the grift going for right-wing media like Alex Jones to sell his snake oil and make money. They also act as a strategic operation in the ongoing hybrid war against liberals from the far right, which involves disinformation and violent paramilitary threats. These groups, such as Joey Gibson’s Patriot Prayer, make incursions into urban and liberal enclaves in the Pacific Northwest from more rural areas where the Patriot movement is stronger. In doing this, they transfer the feeling of being under siege that is promoted in their own radio shows—i.e., survivalists who believe they are surrounded on all sides by their enemies bring the same paranoia to urban areas by leading violent rallies where they are often outnumbered 2-to-1. Currently, the impact of “stay at home” orders matched with violent paramilitaries in the streets might spread a feeling of being “under siege,” but mostly it makes people frustrated because it’s stupid. People have more freedom than Joey and Alex want us to have, and when the time comes to rise up, rise up they will.
Among people you know in the radical community, what is the general attitude about the 2020 election?
It is quite split. There are a number of people who don’t believe it’s important—either way we lose, it’s “lesser of two evils,” down with the system, and so on. There are others who support Trump, like Žižek did in 2016, thinking he will continue to oppose the “Deep State,” and will be better in foreign policy terms than the neoliberals under Biden (won’t attack Iran or Syria or Russia). There are some who are so disenfranchised by Sanders’s failure that they haven’t made up their minds yet—they want to try to push Biden toward the left by remaining as critical of him as Trump, but from the left. This is a petulant strategy in our current conditions. “Trump is building a wall and banning all green cards, but we want free college, so we can’t endorse Biden” is in my view a totally irresponsible position. Sanders, himself, said as much. I don’t support a Popular Front strategy, partly because there are no left-wing groups relevant or smart enough to stand autonomously from the liberals without embarrassing themselves. I support socialism from below, which means taking electoral politics seriously and not in some vulgar “politics of domination,” as Jeet Heer called it. While unions have their problems, and the Democratic Party is not an uncompromised entity by any stretch of the imagination, it is vastly superior to the white nationalism currently riding shotgun on the Trump bandwagon, both in terms of social movement strategy and in terms of real value.
music by: The Hoarders, Rudy in the Rain and Harry Koniditsiotis
June 18th, 2020 | 59 mins 29 secs
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, karl leibknecht, lenin, leninism, national socialism, progressivism, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, victor serge
Some of my listeners, I hope, are committed antifascists, people who show up in public to fight the fash. Welcome, brothers and sisters! I too have counterprotested the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. We deplatform them and deny them a legitimate presence in the public square. This is all for the good. The German SPD also did those things, and they were organised for fighting fascists on a much grander scale than we currently are. What the German SPD failed to do was to block Hitler’s ascent to power politically. Understanding this history is crucial if we are to understand how to work for political progress when the occupant of the White House is an open fascist.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to mention here the sources I draw on for my understanding of the German revolution and just make the citations in the transcripts. These books are excellent: Pierre Broue’s The German Revolution reprinted in 2005, a collection edited by Marrius S. Ostrowski called Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution first available in English in 2019, Arthur Rosenburg’s excellent 1936 History of the German Republic [HGR], and for general Prussian history Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom. Do you ever think to yourself Marxists would save themselves a world of error if they would just read a good history of Prussia. Just me? Okay.
Ferdinand Lasalle founded the General German Workers’ Association, the forerunner of the German SPD, in 1863. Lasalle was a true believer in big government and in the Prussian bureaucracy, and in private he courted Otto von Bismarck because Lassalle was convinced that Bismarck could be persuaded to provide universal suffrage. This was not an unreasonable expectation, as the Prussian state had a long history of progressive reform, but a meaningful vote had proven elusive. In the Prussian Landstag the deputies were chosen by the vote of a college of representatives. The college of representatives was split into three equal parts which were each elected by a different tax bracket. This meant that low income people, the vast majority, could only ever get one third of the vote in the college of representatives which elected their version of the house of representatives. Moreover, Bismarck systematically abused the process to ensure the Landstag remained in conservative hands, favoring the interests of rural constituencies, that is rent collectors (Clark, 560). In such circumstances a movement for radical democracy was necessarily a revolutionary movement, and this is why Marx uses the terms democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat interchangeably (Marik, 191, 208). As discussed in a previous episode, the dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx understood it was an armed force comprised of the working classes that would defend the gains of a democratic revolution. The failure and scandal of Lassalle’s collusion with Bismarck, alongside the Imperialist ideology of the middle German classes, led in Germany to a widespread discrediting of working in Democratic coalitions, and a kind of workers’ chauvinism. Marx and Engels did not realize that the German worker’s movement they had inspired had lost faith in radical Democracy. Arthur Rosenburg comments: “The relation of the Social Democrats to the German middle classes, and in general to all the other groups of the population who were not industrial workers, was indeed very different from what Engels imagined. Engels believed that it would be possible to bridge the gap between the socialist party and the middle classes; social democracy as the only actually progressive party of the nation might then be a real popular movement, capable of attracting ever increasing groups without great effort. Actually the rigid contrast of “bourgeois” and “social democratic” and the isolation of the socialist skilled workers, which could not be removed even by the occasional entry of middle-class individuals into their ranks, already existed at that time...The old social-democratic movement of 1848 had vanished from the political horizon of Europe. Its place was taken, even if very inadequately, by the various socialist parties and groups” (Rosenberg, Democracy and Socialism [D&S], p. 299). Lenin's Leftwing Communism an Infantile Disorder is paradigmatic of Lenin the small 'd' democrat.
In 1920 when the Bolsheviks were at the peak of their power and prestige, radicals around the world were attempting to repeat the experience of the Russian Revolution, mostly failing. As previously noted, Lenin’s party rode a mass democratic movement into power, but in these other places like Germany, communists set up committees and attempted to seize power with or without a democratic mandate. Though the Bolsheviks were desperate to spread the revolution to avoid the isolation that they ultimately fell into, they tried to convince the international movement to work within democratic parlements where they existed and to address society at large, not just the workers movement. The classic text of Bolshevik strategy that came out of these discussions is Lenin’s Leftwing Communism-an Infantile Disorder. (The word “infantile” would be more accurately translated as “naive” meaning the disorder comes more from the inexperience of the new communist movements than from an inability to mature).
Lenin’s argument hinges on the insistence that a small party, one that does not represent a large part of society, must realistically assess its reach and not attempt too much too soon. “One must not count in thousands, like the propagandist belonging to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses… we must ask ourselves, not only whether we have convinced the vanguard of the revolutionary class, but also whether the historically effective forces of all class -- positively all the classes in a given society, without exception -- are arrayed in such a way that the decisive battle is at hand…” (351). In a situation where the party has been unable to lead society, unable to capture a plurality with its program, Lenin says that revolutionaries must support liberal bourgeois candidates, that to not do so would be a crime against the proletariat. This orientation was informed by Lenin’s experience organizing for socialism as a party that was outlawed by the Czar. Without the right to free speech and assembly, which the political right wing were constantly threatening, socialists had no path to power.
Lenin could change strategy in an instant. For instance the slogan of all power to the soviets was his line in April of 1917, but that wasn’t his line in March of 1917, and it wasn’t his line in December of 1917. But when it comes to the electoral strategy of the revolutionary party Lenin is categorical: the Bolsheviks always before 1920 participated in liberal parliaments, and never putting up candidates where doing so could spoil an election against the center left. In the context here “Labour” refers to the moderate center left, and “Liberal” refers to right wingers like Churchill. While Trotskyists have historically rejected the idea that Labor was a bourgeois party, it is clear that Lenin did think that Labor was a bourgeois party, right or wrong (Hicks). Knowing that Lenin thought the Labor party was bourgeois is essential to understanding his electoral strategy laid out here. “If the Hendersons and the Snowdens [center left] reject a bloc with the Communists, the latter will immediately gain by winning the sympathy of the masses and discrediting the Hendersons and Snowdens; if, as a result, we do lose a few parliamentary seats, it is a matter of no significance to us. We would put up our candidates in a very few but absolutely safe constituencies, namely, constituencies where our candidatures would not give any seats to the Liberals [i.e. Churchill] at the expense of the Labour candidates... In September 1917, on the eve of the Soviet revolution, the Bolsheviks put up their candidates for a bourgeois parliament (the Constituent Assembly) and on the day after the Soviet revolution, in November 1917, took part in the elections to this Constituent Assembly.” (346). One should recognize here the utter commitment to democracy that Lenin adopts from Marx in the phrase “give leadership to the masses,” which he urges all mature revolutionaries must do (p. 351). This was the same spirit that moved Marx to write in 1848 that he hoped a revolutionary National Assembly would “win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective” (Marik, 191). Lenin insisted that communists must participate in this way in bourgeois parlements even in contexts where democracy was handicapped by autocracy, under the Czar, and even after a revolutionary seizure of power, after November 1917. What’s of first importance in all of this is that the party participates in educating society, and especially the working class, on the importance of lifting up leadership that is independent of privileged classes. Liberal reformists [Labor] had to be supported where socialists couldn’t win, and the party had to explain in clear terms that such reformists could not be sufficient to the needs of the most vulnerable.
Overreaching, Lenin argues, means failing to even do what is within one’s ability. “Science demands… that account be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country, and also that the policy should not be determined only by the desires and views, by the degree of class consciousness and the militancy of one group or party alone… It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to ‘rule’ along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemans and Noskes [whom Lenin blamed for the murders of Leibknecht and Luxembourg]. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution: what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support… the fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys… indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdesn defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority...” (pp. 340-343). Let me put a fine point on this by updating Lenin’s formula: if most American workers follow the lead of the Bidens, then socialists must participate in electoral work to help workers see the results of a Biden presidency in practice, and we must help Biden defeat the forces of Donald Trump.
In a situation where the majority supports not the socialist but the liberal candidate, Lenin said that socialists must support the liberal while loudly criticizing them. This is what he considered meeting society where it was. This is further proof that Lenin believed in democracy as a fundamental value, that he rejected the idea that a small enlightened clique should seize power and impose their will on other people. Considering the history of 20th century socialisms, we should embrace his tactics, unite with the center to smash the right, and build for the moment when our message can be heard: society must rally democratically to the most vulnerable under their own leadership.
As we saw in Russia in 1917 a network of democratic soviets, which had begun in 1905, fought for power against the Czar and won. In Germany, soviets were not institutions that had similarly sprung up amongst the people because of a governmental vacuum spanning decades. The bulk of the German soviets developed amongst the soldiers and sailors in Germany’s armed services, people who were not motivated by any ideology but rather solely for the purpose of ending the war.
The situation of German socialists at the end of WW1 was very similar to that of the French revolutionaries of 1789. They inherited the position of state power after the collapse of the former regime. The nation had a military that was organised partially into soviets, but that was completely behind the government. We’ve spoken earlier about how the Prussian state provided a managed democracy where rich peoples’ votes meant more. Underneath that official form of state power was a patchwork of compromises the Kaiser had made with the various regions that were brought under his rule. The cabinet that was tasked with leading the work of forming a government was composed of six socialists, three of each tendency. “Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg represented the Majority Socialists, and Haase, Dittmann and Barth the Independent Socialists. ” [HGR] What kind of government would these socialists produce was the question of the day. Would they create a democratic republic or would they create a soviet style socialist state based on the Russian model?
There was already at the end of the war a split between socialists who had voted for war bonds and supported the war (the Social Democratic Party, SPD), though as we saw many of these supported military defense of Germany but not expansion, and those who had opposed the war from the beginning (the Independent Social Democratic Party, USPD). The SPD more or less preferred a democratic republic that would respect the property of the big landowners. There is something to the idea that at this juncture the SDP was following the LaSallean line of working within a democracy dominated by the bourgeoisie, with one major difference: the new German state was offering real equality of representation while the Prussian state systematically worked to make sure poor people were not represented.
The USPD held to what they imagined was the revolutionary aspect of Marxism interpreted now through the lens of the recent Russian revolution. But the context had changed radically, and the ideologues were largely unable to keep up. Under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser and Landstaag the only reasonable position for people who favored democracy was to be a revolutionary. Under a system where there was real democracy, one vote for each person, the Marxist position became ambiguous. It could mean that the working class had to be rallied to defend the democratic republic, or it could mean the time had come for the working class to abolish democracy. It all depended on whether you thought that socialism had to be democratic, had to respect the rights of people who differ from us, or if you thought it could be imposed from above. Within the German far left those who were losing their patience with democratic reform were beginning to favor what they took to be Russian style Soviet rule, the imposition of socialism from above by a minority of supposedly enlightened workers.
Now, as pointed out in previous episodes, Marx had expected a democratic movement to create republics where all people had a vote and had rights, and he advocated from 1848 onwards that when such a republic came about that it would have to be defended by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Russian experiment showed that if society were organized instead in democratic councils that the state could transition directly into socialism. In the attempt, the Russians ruined democracy by driving the masses out of government by the imposition of minoritarian rule, and ended up with a totalitarian state where a ruling clique owned everything and everyone. The far left fringe in Germany was trying to impose socialism from above without the democratic upswell that had vaulted the Bolsheviks into power to begin with in Russia. The Germans failed badly. Led by Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, they had to go to communities that didn’t have soviets yet and urge them to form soviets. Despite the antidemocratic ideas then circulating in the USPD, these groups were invited to help form the new government. The majority of the population, and of the socialist movement, even a large group among the Sparticists who wanted to end private property, believed that the existing institutions should not be attacked but discouraged through education and reform. For the most part the socialists in Germany wanted to win over the rest of the population. On the far left people believed that if workers were told the truth they would choose to run production democratically, i.e. they would choose socialism. But there was a further left fringe that did not want to wait for society to catch up to their point of view.
The German communists who split off from the German Social Democratic Party were the first to eschew democratic politics and try to take power as a minoritarian party in 1919. The slur that people leveled at Lenin, that he was anti-democratic, was true of Karl Leibknecht. Germany was the first place where the strategy people thought had worked in Russia was applied somewhere else, and because it was exported without the democratic component it failed. The resulting split in the German socialist movement coupled with an anti-liberal politics, made Germany vulnerable just at the moment when a new ideological virus was spreading throughout Europe. That virus was fascism, the highest form of which was that of the German Nazi party. But to understand how fascism arose and developed in Germany, we have to understand the splits in the socialist party, because it’s out of that wound that the infection would spread.
I spoke in an earlier podcast about Karl Kautsky being forced to vote for war bonds. Another socialist who was forced to vote for war bonds was Karl Leibknecht, who had been drafted and was part of the soldiers’ soviets movement. Karl Leibknecht played a key role in leading both the split in the socialist movement and the Spartacist uprising in 1919, and what’s clear from his actions throughout this period is that he acted not out of concern for his fellows, nor to mobilize society, but out of guilt over his participation in WW1. Leibknecht more than anyone in the movement was committed to leading Germany into revolution by the Russian method, regardless of whether the circumstances supported it. Though he and his group, the Spartacists, were invited to help form the new government, because the majority of Germany opposed the establishment of soviet style socialism he led a boycott of the republic. The agitations of Leibknecht led to a wave of protests in December 1918, with violence being committed on all sides. The Russians seem to have actively supported this agitation, seemingly oblivious to the different German conditions and the decline of democratic values in the movement. On the last day of 1918 the socialists who could not bear to wait and educate, those who abandoned democracy as such, founded the German Communist Party, the KPD. At this point the USPD withdrew its support for the republic.
The insurrection on their left imperiled the democratic coalition that the SPD was trying to form. If they were going to stop Germany from devolving into civil war, they had to show that the rules would be applied fairly to all. The KPD would test by open insurrection the SPD’s resolve to defend the republic. In Russia the workers of St. Petersburg could rely on certain parts of the military from the very beginning, and Bolshevik influence in the Russian military expanded throughout this period. In Germany on the other hand, the workers were being called to insurrection against a military that was firmly behind the republic. The departure of the USPD from the republican coalition government had one important exception: Emil Eichhorn was police chief in Berlin. The SPD tried to replace him, but failed. When protests broke out on January 4th in Berlin, they spiraled out of control.
Broue correctly compares this episode to that of the July days in the Russian Revolution. In July a mass protest movement took place in St. Petersburg that was not supported in the rest of the country. The Bolsheviks helped lead the protesters, who could not be persuaded against marching. Eventually, Trotsky was able to convince the protestors in St. Petersburg in July to disperse. The army arrived a very few hours later, and would have massacred the protesters. The Russian movement in July was not ready to take power nationwide, and the Bolsheviks bided their time. Not so with the Berlin workers led by Leibknecht.
Workers in Berlin, emboldened perhaps with the knowledge that the local police chief was in their pocket, became increasingly provocative. In fact, a large group of workers was allowed to occupy the police station and arm themselves, and the building had to be retaken by force of arms. Though the rest of the country was not behind the rebellion, they persisted. The SPD in power was facing on one side a sizeable minority to their left that was intent on wrecking their project, and on the right were people eager to see the young democracy fail for their own purposes. Unable to call upon a police force, the Socialists were forced to call upon the army to put down the rebellion.
Now, the Prussian army was well known for its tendency to flaunt civilian control. Going back probably before 1809 there was a culture in the army of insubordination, particularly to civilian authority, but in 1809 Major von Schill defied the Kaiser and together with Russia attacked Napoleon’s armies. Schill was afterward considered a national hero. Napoleon was so unpopular at that point that the Kaiser had to accept that because of the Major’s initiative Prussia was thereafter at war with France. In 1904 when there was an insurrection in the German colony of Namibia, General Trotha led a genocide against the locals over and against the protestations of the civilian authority there in the person of the Governor Theodor Leutwein. It’s not clear that the Kaiser could really command the army against the will of its generals, and for sure the SDP couldn’t.
The Freikorps shock troops who arrested Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg took it upon themselves to execute the beloved socialist leaders. The socialists who had ordered the army to put down the insurrection, in particular Gustav Noske, a basket weaver from Brandenburg who had been made into the minister of military affairs, was villainized for the deaths of Leibknecht and Luxembourg. Though no one could ever prove Noske explicitly ordered their deaths, it was always blamed on him. According to this logic, opposing authoritarian socialists with state power will always make someone a traitor to the cause. The entire movement of socialists in Germany for a democratic republic was from this moment forward considered to be enemies of progress, enemies of the international communist movement. When the fascist parties rose up to attack the republic under the social democrats, they would find willing partners in the newly formed German Communist Party [KPD].
In the years that followed the Spartacus uprising, it was not the policies of the Weimar republic that angered people so much as it was that the poverty of the government crippled implementation. There were guarantees made for workers’ rights, but it didn’t seem to matter much in the context of high unemployment. Germany had to pay hard indemnities to the allies because of its ‘war guilt,’ which is still exaggerated to this day. And it must be said, the standard of living for regular Germans was severely impacted by the loss of its empire. When people lose their privileges, watch out!
The word “fascist” was coined by Benito Mussolini. It comes from an Italian word that can mean a bundle of items or a group. Mussolini started his political career as a prominent part of the socialist movement in Italy. He was put in jail for five months in 1911 for participating in a demonstration against Italy’s imperialist war in Libya. He translated two works of Kropotkin from Russian into Italian. He combined anarchistic libertarian ideology with a Nietzschean disdain for Judeo-Christian values and rejected the more traditional socialist values of democracy and equality. But as we have seen with the German KPD and the Stalinists, lots of socialists around this time were rejecting democratic values. Mussolini’s path from anarchism to fascism ran through Charles Maurras, George Sorel and the Cercle Proudhon. If you haven’t read Alexander Reid-Ross’ Against the Fascist Creep, then what are you doing with your life? Go read it. Also, if you are interested in the intergenerational cross pollination of fascism into and out of left politics, go read Alexander Reid-Ross. The important thing to understand about Musolini in the context of the aftermath of the German revolution, is that Adolf Hitler got the inspiration for his National Socialist party from Musolini, right down to both of them embracing anarchism.
Anarchism has a lot of different styles and flavors, and the only thing they really all have in common is the assertion that “you” should not be able to tell “me” what to do, ever. What the various anarchisms fill in the identities of “you” and “me” with determines the character of that anarchism. For Kropotkin the “me” that has to be free from “you” is the communal village. For Musollini and Hitler the “me” that had to be free from any outside control was the ethnically defined nation. They both envisioned a nation without a state. They both hijacked state power for the project of reviving a sense of ethnic nationhood that involved race war over resources. This is the core of fascist ideology: that the real world is just open warfare between racially defined nations for control of resources. Any idea of solidarity across ethnicity, whether that be in socialism or in Christianity or whatever, is just a lie people told you to make you do things you wouldn’t naturally do, things like protect the rights of minorities etc. Early fascist movements grow out of divided or defeated socialist movements and adopt similar rhetoric. Hitler attacked the Jew as the origin of Capitalism and of Communism. Once fascists got into power they never followed through with the socialist part of their program, but they did attack minorities.
In 1919 a young up and comer failed artist and army veteran named Adolph Hitler joined one of the multiple ultra-right patriotic parties in Germany. He joined the one called the German Workers Party. It seems Hitler was very charismatic, and after he took leadership of the party the renamed it the German National Socialist Workers’ Party. Alexander Reid-Ross does an excellent job at summarizing the moment in 1919 when Hitler’s party get its big break, so I’m going to quote him at length:
“The government attempted to dissolve the Freikorps, which responded by marching on Berlin. The putsch attempt was named after a civil servant named Wolfgang Kapp and was joined by Ludendorff, Ehrhardt, and Waldemar Pabst, the man responsible for the killing of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. After the military refused to act against the putsch, the government fled Berlin and called a general strike, which led to the end of the coup attempt. However, the general strike turned into an armed uprising, and militant workers in the industrial Ruhr region formed a Red Army, putting the government there under worker control. Although they had refused to move against the Kapp putsch, the military joined the Freikorps against the Red Army of the Ruhr, killing and torturing hundreds of people. The leftists fought back bravely, declaring “No atrocities, no revenge, no punishment; only love for humanity and justice!” But the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ councils ended in bloody oppression. Ensuing economic destabilization compelled the Weimar government to ask France for a delay in payment of war reparations, but Germany was instead met with a coordinated occupation of the Ruhr by the French and Belgian armies in 1922. The Social Democrats and trade unions responded to the occupation with ‘passive resistance,’ and the French authorities expelled 100,000 unionists and state officials, along with their families. The Ruhr crisis and the ensuing political crisis with France created a political opportunity. Hitler seized on the model of Mussolini’s fascism, its populist pageantry, and the showmanship demonstrated in that year’s March on Rome. On the eve of November 8, 1923, Hitler proclaimed a ‘national revolution’ at a crowded meeting in a beer hall in Munich, leading General Ludendorff and other paramilitary members of the ‘Patriotic Movement’ in an abortive putsch attempt on the government of Bavaria. Though the sardonically named ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Munich failed, his ensuing trial gave Hitler an important public platform to espouse his anti-Semitic beliefs. During his light jail sentence, he dictated his political manifesto, Mein Kampf, to his deputy Rudolph Hess.” (pp.51-52). After the beer hall putsch Hitler’s career really takes off, not just in southern Germany where his party originated from, but throughout Prussia as well.
Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of the typical development of fascist movements. Typically, there is a period of grassroots mobilization. All across Europe, in the wake of failed Russia style coups people saw the left as an authoritarian threat, and part of the impulse of fascism is resistance to that. But also, capitalism was failing working people who turned to national solidarity in the context of a collapse of international solidarity. In Italy and Germany conservative governments faced with insurgent socialism from above movements, economic collapse and governmental disfunction were faced with a choice about whether to partner with far right groups or not. In the 20s and 30s fascists across Europe were reaching for state power, and in all but two instances conservatives successfully resisted them. Conservative governments in Romania, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Denmark, Holland and Norway rejected sharing power with fascists. In Italy in the 20s and in Germany in the 30s, conservatives who had lost any hope of ruling together with left centrists looked to the populist appeals of fascism to shore up their power. We see our own conservative movement split on this subject, with a small but important “never Trump” movement campaigning openly for Joe Biden in a rejection of the far right. What role did socialists play in all this, for better or for worse? We’ll continue to focus on the German case.
The best book I’ve found detailing the struggle against fascism by the German SDP is William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945. In this book Sheridan-Allen discusses how the fascist movement came to dominate German society by focusing on the experience of a small German town called Northeim in lower Saxony. He shows us the shift this community makes through the 20s and 30s from a place where there is no Nazi party at all, and even a strong Socialist Party, to one where the Nazis are strong enough to put all the socialists in camps. One of the more frightening things I noticed in this history is just how powerful the socialist movement was compared to our movement today. They held state power. Their membership included important community members. They ran electoral campaigns, held rallies and organized sports leagues. They still didn’t keep Hitler out of power.
In general the fact that the SDP sat in power during a time when the worldwide economy was tanking meant that people blamed them for the bad economy. Fascist governments somehow get more powerful the worse things get, because they can always blame someone else. Democrats, radical or moderate, are responsible for what they do in power. Antidemocrats, fascists and Stalinists don’t have to be particularly cunning to ruin the public’s perception of a government when forces beyond their control like a worldwide economic depression cause the public pain. But the SDP did fail at things they could have done, things within their control, and that’s what I want to focus on to better get a grip on how Socialists can resist fascism.
Because of their cynical orientation to truth, the Nazis were able to change and craft their message to suit the audience. If the only reality is race war, political ideas just weapons people use in that war. The National Socialists could be all things to all people. They could represent themselves as champions of workers against bosses. They could represent themselves as champions of the nation’s industry. Crucially, they communicated to Germans that they were both progressive and traditional. They had a radical program for change in a context where people were hurting, and they had a message of national greatness. Now, I don’t think we should try and win people over with “America First” rhetoric, but I very often wonder how the far left expected to gain popularity by consistently trashing America. It seems like we could easily communicate that America has great potential from a left perspective. We fail a serious hurdle leaving this emotion for the fascists.
The Nazis could be incredibly popular with the middle class who was losing their property. The SDP not only didn’t work in government to protect the property of the middle classes, but revelled in their immiseration. Anyone who lost their livelihood could collect unemployment, but people didn’t want to be a burden. People want to contribute to their community and be recognized as contributing something of value. The Nazi party gave people a sense of importance and self worth in ways the SDP could not. The Nazis put forward a rhetoric that blamed socialists for Germany losing WW1 and falling into an economic depression, but that rhetoric stuck because the SDP legitimately couldn’t connect to people beyond a politics of class. It was ultimately a failure of the socialist movement to lead society as a whole that doomed the SDP and Germany. From Sheridan Allen:
“To the Socialists the Nazis were a threat only insofar as they might attempt an armed coup d’etat. Serious politics was a matter of rational appeals and positive results. Since the NSDAP [the Nazi party] seemed incapable of either, they could not constitute a political threat. Nazi propaganda seemed to illustrate this, for it consistaently pinned two labels on the SPD ‘Marxisten’ and ‘Bonzen’ (approximately, ‘wardheelers,’ with overtones of corruption). The labels are of course contradictory; it is difficult to conceive of fervid radicals who are simultaneously comfortably venal. But effective propaganda need not be logical as long as it foments suspicion, contempt, or hatred. The choice of the two words not only had that effect upon the bourgeoisie, it summed up the dilemma of the Social Democrats precisely. The SPD was not ‘Marxist,’ though it used language that made it appear so. Thus it was doubly encumbered, for it was unwilling to be a revolutionary party at a time when the best defense of democracy may have been social revolution, and secondly, its revolutionary tradition made it incapable of seeking or receiving the support of any but the working class. Furthermore, the SPD’s defense of democracy meant, in practical terms, defense of a status quo which was identified in the minds of most Northeimers with national humiliation and economic ruin...Thus the SPD could not keep the middle classes from flocking to the banners of the NSDAP, for the Nazis were known as real radicals. It was not enough to preach loyalty to democracy or to the Republic. Most Northeimers obviously felt no reason to respond to such an appeal. The way to undercut Nazis was not by blind opposition but by a counterprogram sufficiently attractive to awaken in the hearts of the bourgeoisie the kinds of hopes that the Nazis were able to arouse. Instead, the Social Democrats concentrated on holding the loyalty of the working class and saw the Nazi threat in terms of armed rebellion. Thus, no matter how hard they tried, Northeim’s Socialists did not provide effective opposition to the Nazis.” (pp. 54-55). In other words, the German SDP wasn’t trying to lead all of society, and the parts that didn’t correspond to their idea of agency, anyone who wasn’t a socialist worker, slipped away from them into the ranks of the fascist opposition.
The communists made the mistake of imagining their rivals the Social Democrats were worse than the fascists. This led them to working with the Fascists at crucial junctures, leading to workers identifying fascism with progress. In March of 1931 the Communists joined forces with the fascists in a campaign to dissolve the Prussian Parliament. In 1932 the KPD helped the Nazis in promoting and supporting a wildcat strike in Berlin. The communist orientation to a politics of class resentment led them to opposing social democracy when they should have been uniting with the SDP to fight fascism. In fact, according to the KPD the social democrats were the main enemy, because they were a roadblock to top-down socialist revolution. The KPD thought somehow that if the Fascists took power, this would allow them to win a greater victory when the pendulum swung back the other way. That is not how history turned out. As it happened the Nazi victory led to WW2 and the holocaust. The German people didn’t so much react to Nazi governance with horror and a return movement to the left as they were exhausted by the war.
Last year Ece Temelkuran gave us an insightful book about how her country Turkey slid into authoritarianism. Ms. Temelkuran is a veteran of the Gezi Park protest movement of 2013. Her book is entitled “How to Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.” I don’t agree with everything she says, but it’s worth the afternoon or so it takes to read the whole thing. She talks about this myth of a pendulum in regards to Slavoj Zizek, who endorsed Donald Trump in 2016. She talks about how as fascism gains power, there is no rock bottom from which one would have to turn upwards. “During the 2015 elections in Turkey, our post-structuralist anarchist/militant citizen and all those who theorised and believed that there is a political bottom to hit had to physically grapple with government supporters trying to put fake votes in the ballot box. They had thought that this was the lowest life could sink to, until they experienced the referendum of 2017 on extending the government's powers following the failed coup. Once again volunteering to monitor ballot boxes, they soon drew the depressing conclusion that election fraud was even more brazen than the previous time. Although volunteers meticulously monitored the voting process, when the counting began and it became clear that Erdogan would not win, the Higher electoral Board changed the election law from one hour to the next, following pressure from the leader himself, and egregious fake votes for Erdogan were deemed valid. The opposition came to understand that, with the authoritarian regime having seized state powers, even if there were to be a political reawakening, it was almost impossible to stop the political tide with their accustomed political behaviour. They were hurtling down past the new political and moral bottom, unimaginable until it had actually happened. And as for our post-structural anarchist, like half the country who voted against Erdogan in the referendum that made him sole ruler of Turkey, he felt this latest blow would be the death of him. He was not to know that the afterlife would be even worse. The death of our particular anarchist… wasn’t at all accidental. It would have been foreseen much earlier had the progressive opinion leaders of the time not wasted years expecting a political metamorphosis to occur out of the total collapse of politics, and thus been quicker to inform the masses.” (pp.130-131).
Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of how the various fascist movements historically ended. Fascist movements who successfully entered state power then had to struggle against liberal institutions to maintain and expand that power. They had to overcome legal institutions and norms. By the end of 1932 political differences in Germany had become so polarized, the Nazi agitation so successful in generating a mass base, and the socialist movement so disfunctional that the conservative von Papen government appointed Hitler as the Chancelor in an attempt to establish some kind of order. They saw the Nazi party as a way for them to give the nation direction, and they thought they could use Hitler without him getting the upper hand. This is precisely how Mitch McConnell has handled Donald Trump. In Hitler’s case the arson attack against the Reichstag building in February of 1933 allowed him to successfully persuade President Hindenburg to grant him special emergency powers. This began the final stage of the fascist movement, the stage that only the German movement was able to reach: radicalization. In this stage, Germany began the build up to a war of conquest where they colonized Eastern Europe in the name of German racial supremacy and a war against Bolshevism. Hitler weaponized the German state against the state powers of Eastern Europe in the belief that in the resulting chaos, with the German army occupying these other countries that the German race would awaken to its historical task of dominating other races and eradicating world Jewry. The Trump administration has been struggling to tame the justice department and foil the democratic party’s attempts to contain him, but in a second Trump term the radicalization of his movement will combine with his increasing ability to flaunt the law. There is no world where Trump supporters of today turn on him in his second term: they have to believe his narrative about coronavirus or accept guilt for having imperiled or sacrificed the lives of their family members. The psychological pain in admitting guilt over Trump’s crimes against humanity and democracy would be too great, so the false narrative must be believed, and greater crimes will be called for. This cycle of pain, corruption and degradation continues in this way until Trump’s enemies are all in camps, until America is ethnically cleansed, until a cataclysmic war stops the fascist juggernaut.
When I first came to socialist politics, I imagined that Fascism came about in Germany because the German revolution had failed. It’s closer to the truth to say that the German revolution succeeded in achieving a democratic republic, but then undemocratic strains in the socialist movement sabotaged that republic, creating the opportunity for Hitler to take power. German communists adopted the false idea of Lenin having successfully imposed socialism from above. If that were possible, they reasoned, then the real obstacle to socialism was democracy itself. The Spartacists and the KPD then believing that down was up and up was down, worked to undermine the democratic government believing falsely that a victory for the fascists would create a pendulum swing back to their side. They did not perceive that the fascist movement once in power could only be stopped by being pushed out of power by conservatives or if allowed to radicalize by the conclusion of a long war between the fascists and bare humanity. They did not have the benefit of hindsight that we do. German socialists attempted what they thought was the Russian route to power, and the reaction to that top down authoritarian socialism was an equally authoritarian right wing movement. Communist abandonment of democratic values and open collaboration with fascists allowed Hitler to take power.
Ostrowski, Marius S. Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution: Selected Historical Writings. Springer Nature, 2019.
Paxton, Robert O. The anatomy of fascism. Vintage, 2007.
Rosenberg, Arthur. A History of the German Republic. Methuen, 1936.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. Beacon Press, 1939.
Ross, Alexander Reid. Against the fascist creep. Ak Press, 2017.
Temelkuran, Ece. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. HarperCollins UK, 2019.
Art: German SDP poster, Weimar Era, "Worker, open your eyes! Vote SDP!" (https://www.akg-images.co.uk/archive/Arbeiter--Augen-auf!-Wahlt-SPD-2UMDHUU7MBJ4.html).
At High Stakes by Alan Carlson-Green
Calculating Catastrophe by John Barzetti
June 16th, 2020 | 1 hr 11 mins
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, lenin, leninism, progressivism, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, victor serge
Spinoza is often thought of as the thinker who stated most strongly that might makes right. “By the right of Nature, then, I understand the laws or rules of Nature in accordance with which all things come to be; that is, the very power of Nature. So the natural right of Nature as a whole, and consequently the natural right of every individual, is coextensive with its power. Consequently, whatever each man does from the laws of his own nature, he does by the sovereign right of Nature, and he has as much right over Nature as his power extends” [Spinoza, Political Treatise, Collected Works p. 683). What the “might makes right” interpretation of Spinoza misses is that he doesn’t believe that we can know what exactly is possible in Nature, and that by our nature we seem to be constantly expanding that right. Spinoza doesn’t think that whatever human beings have done is right and shouldn’t be questioned. His point is rather that the action that the physical world presents us with, the arc of history, is something we only see a small part of, somewhere in the middle of it. Whatever a body can do consistent with its necessity is right, but we have no idea what all bodies can do or what is ultimately necessary for them. Whatever “the right” and “the good” are is still being striven for. Power and righteousness for Spinoza consist in humanity’s striving for a greater understanding of nature, that is for freedom. This freedom is the highest passion: it is the passion reason guides us to as we move towards a life we really want to live. The better we understand Nature, what is possible for us in it and how we want to act and exist, the closer our thinking is to the general historical act as it races on to completion in the thinking of god/nature. We’re really just repeating in a different language what we already covered in the previous discussion of Freedom, the problem of evil and WW1. What has been left out of that discussion up to now is what difference in our finite attitude or orientation is needed to progress towards that freedom. If whatever we try to do is finding its way to good, then how come it matters if we do one thing and not the other? Is just any kind of acting/living good because it's natural? Is there a good life, and a way to strive for it that is better than some other kind of living? We’re going to work towards an answer by returning to Spinoza’s discussion with Blyenburgh, and then we’re going to let this philosophical meditation on ‘the good’ inform a discussion of the Russian Revolution.
For Spinoza, redemption is a matter of desire. The bad action is contrary to nature only in the sense that it displeases us. If a person can manage by circumstance or education to perceive their best interest then even grave sins should cause no regret since they worked for the greater good, or helped the repentant to better understand the good. Regret he thinks is bad for us in that it is a meditation on our limitations, something that cannot lead to us being better able to do what we think is good. Some people may be crippled by circumstance, i.e. they may be so impacted by circumstances that the good becomes unattainable, for most of us Spinoza thinks it's possible to make honest mistakes and then learn from them. The act itself is less important than the desires it enflames and is the result of. When we find ourselves captured by a passion or belief that does not serve our deeper intentions, then Spinoza says we are finding a deeper passion, the passion to not be constrained, the passion to be free. Crucially, this requires connected more strongly to the needs of the community that supports us. Here’s a quote from the Ethics:
“If we can always have in readiness consideration of our true advantage and also of the good that follow from mutual friendship and social relations, and also remember that supreme contentment of spirit follows from the right way of life, and that men, like everything else, act from the necessity of their nature, then the wrong, or the hatred that is wont to arise from it, will occupy just a small part of our imagination and will easily be overcome… We ought, in the same way, to reflect on courage to banish fear; we should enumerate and often picture the everyday dangers of life, and how they can best be avoided and overcome by resourcefulness and strength of mind.” Spinoza, Ethics V, 10, Scholium p369
-Spinoza, Ethics, p363
So, when Spinoza says that might makes right, he is saying that our greatest freedom lies in building a community that lifts each of us up into being the best people we can be. Anyone who is thinking about Hobbes at this point can compare and contrast, because Hobbes on the contrary thought people were essentially animals and that a powerful state was needed to coral them.
Spinoza’s claim, and I think he’s right, is that a conscience, an awareness that there is a right and wrong though the specifics may be murky, is part of human nature, part of what it means to be a person among people. Blyenburg may not have been able to understand Spinoza, or he may have chosen not to read his letters carefully. Whatever the cause, Blyenburgh accuses Spinoza of claiming that all people are animals, and not in a nice way. In this quote coming up, Spinoza claims that worship of God makes us better people, and what he means by that is that working to understand our world and place in it makes us a better person. For Spinoza God is the natural world. Notice how Spinoza is calling Blyenburgh in, trying to bring the other man back into a relationship of cooperation even as he sets some rigid barriers. He is using the language of God because that is the language that Blyenburgh understands: “I owe you many and sincere thanks for having confided in me in time your method of philosophising, but I do not thank you for attributing to me the sort of opinions you want to read into my letter. What grounds did my letter give you for attributing to me these opinions: that men are like beasts, that men die and perish after the manner of beasts, that our works are displeasing to God, and so forth?... For my part, surely I have clearly stated that the good worship of God, and by their constancy in worship they become more perfect, and that they love God. Is this to liken them to beasts?” (Spinoza L21, p.823)... If you had read my letter with more care, it would have been obvious to you that our point of disagreement lies in this alone: are the perfections received by the good imparted to them [mankind] by God in his capacity as God, that is, by God taken absolutely without ascribing any human attributes to him -- this is the view I hold -- or by God in his capacity as judge? The latter is what you maintain.” (823). Spinoza is saying that people are better, are more good and closer to their Nature, when they choose the good because it is good, rather than because they don’t they will be punished. The desire to do good is true when the heart wishes for the good, and false when the heart wishes the good not for its own sake but so as to avoid punishment. People who do the right thing out of fear of punishment will stop doing the good thing as soon as the credible threat of punishment is removed. He goes on to talk about how we are free to the extent that we affirm our actions, to the degree that our actions are intentional. I’m sure we can all think about some things we have done or from time to time still do that are not who we really want to be. The example I always give is eating Ice Cream. Most of the time I want to lose weight more often than I want to eat Ice Cream, but every now and then I’d rather have Ice Cream. Somewhere in all that its easy for me to lose sight of what food is about, which is to help me live a healthy life. Again Blyenburgh doesn’t understand, but the way he poses the question leads Spinoza on a particularly interesting path. Blyenburgh: “Let us now take for granted that God, as God and not as judge, bestows on the godly and the ungodly such and so much essence of will as he wills that they should exercise. What reasons can there be why God does not desire the actions of the one in the same way as the actions of the other?” (Spinoza, L22, p.829). Spinoza’s response gives us a clue about how the same physical action, taken with one of two different motivations, can lead a person towards the good or towards self destruction. The avatars for each tendency will be the classical figures from ancient Greece: Nero and his brother Oreste.
It’s pretty typical of Spinoza in a case like this to try and engage his interlocutors' imagination. It’s as if Spinoza had to break up the tight limits in the other that constrained what was believable, what was possible. Beyond that limit is an encounter with the infinite, and that is where we find a greater freedom, though it means losing some idea we are safe with.
Oreste and Nero are brothers. Oreste has been away at war with their father Agamemmnon. Nero stayed behind and ruled under the mentorship of their mother Clytemnestra. But Nero chafes under her control. When Agamemnon returns from the war, Clytemnestra kills him. The brothers then conspire to kill their mother Clytemnestra. Oreste does this out of a sense of responsibility to avenge his father’s death, and to cleanse his household of the taint of her incestuous relations with Nero. Nero wants Clytemnestra dead so he doesn’t have to put up with her domineering ways. One sees in Nero through the whole episode a confusion about what is in his best interests, a rejection of the natural order. Look, ancient Greece was a complicated place, and Spinoza isn’t trying to affirm the rightness or not of the Greek worldview, of its patriarchal values much less of the institution of Greek slavery. He’s telling a story to make a point, the same way he used the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He isn’t a fundamentalist, but he see that in these stories people were finding a proximate language for true experiences that were no doubt bigger than those stories. Nero could not find redemption in his actions, because those actions could never give him what he wanted, power over other people. People saw his motivation, lifting himself over them and rejecting however the community had chosen to live together. Oreste humbly accepts the terrible act his cursed family heritage has forced on him. Nero could neither be recognized by his community after his crime, nor make sense of it from anything in his experience. The tale is told that Nero took his own life. Orestes, having humbly accepted the task he was fated to accomplish, and by letting all in his community know of his act and its reasons, was restored to his father’s throne, having ended a cycle of disfunction that went back in his family several generations.
Quothe Spinoza: “I have sufficiently shown that that which constitutes the specific reality of evil, error and villainy does not consist in anything that expresses essences, and therefore it cannot be said that God is its cause. For example, Nero’s matricide, insofar as it contained something positive, was not a crime; for Orestes too performed the same outward act and had the same intention of killing his mother, and yet he is not blamed, or at least not as Nero. What then is Nero’s crime? Nothing else than that by that deed he showed that he was ungrateful, devoid of compassion and obedience… Finally, I should like it noted that although the actions of the pious (that is, those who have a clear idea of God in accordance with which all their actions and thoughts are determined) and of the impious (that is those who have no idea of God but only confused ideas of earthly things, in accordance with which all their actions and thoughts are determined), and , in short, the actions of everything that exists, follow necessarily from God’s eternal laws and decrees and constantly depend on God, they nevertheless differ from one another not only in degree but in essence. For although a mouse is as dependent on God as an angel, and sorrow as much as joy, yet a mouse cannot on that account be a kind of angel, nor sorrow a kind of joy.” (Spinoza, L23, p.833).
Now we are ready to discuss the Russian Revolution, a movement that like all revolutions sprang from a sea of contradictory impulses.
The Czar’s government at the end of the 19th century was the greatest champion of reactionary politics in all of Europe. They partitioned Poland, colonized central Asia and preserved feudalism. The idea of the nation, of an ethnically homogeneous body of people who work together for their common good but often at the expense of minorities, competed in the early Marxist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the more humanistic idea of a united working class. In early 1905 these two ideas lived side by side with each other in Russia. The peasant communalistic philosophy of the Narodnik movement dovetailed with the smaller but important organizations of the industrial working class. Russian workers toiled under a double burden, to make a profit for their Russian bosses meant first clearing the hurdle of the cost Russian bosses incurred from the fees associated with the financing they received from French and British banks. At the same time, the peasant craftsmen were not concentrated in the urban centers the way they had been in revolutionary France, and the nobility retained their traditional privileges. It was a mess. There’s an idea of history that it should follow a linear progression. The story seems to be that a country develops guilds, then a strong mercantile class, then steam power and gunpowder, then representative Democracy... yada yada… end of history. Russia got industrial production before it had strong guilds and mercantile interests that could challenge the Czar, and that situation upset the usual story of historical progress. That traditional story, as we have seen, was not Marx’s ultimate idea, but it was the story told by traditional Marxists. The necessity of passing through a capitalist phase, which was synonymous across Europe with liberal systems having a severely limited democratic form was a dogma, and it’s why before 1905 no one in the socialist movement imagined that Socialism could be achieved in Russia (Lowy, p. 43). The next revolution in Russia, so they figured would be bourgeois democratic, that is a strictly limited democracy at the service of the class of bourgeois investors.
From its very beginnings, the Russian Social Democratic Party [RSDRP] was committed to democracy. Hell, it’s right there in the name! To get there from a context of autocratic rule over a mixed economy meant appealing to the working class, yes, but also to the broader society, especially including the peasantry. We return to the excellent and scholarly Soma Marik: “Lenin put forward a complex view. On the one hand, he was arguing that the working class had to fight for democracy, and in the course of doing so, to win over a majority. The struggle for democracy was an essential part of the struggle for socialism, because thereby the proletariat could ensure a majority bloc in a country where it was by itself in a minority. This was an argument directed towards the socialist activists and advanced workers. At the same time, he emphasized the democratic content of the immediate program to win over the non-proletarian masses. In particular, even at this stage, Lenin was turning to the majority of the nation. He wrote that the struggle to achieve political freedom could not be waged in isolation by the working class. The workers’ party had to: ‘Inscribe in its banner support for the peasantry… insofar as the peasantry is capable of a revolutionary struggle against the survivals of serfdom in general and against the autocracy in particular.’...Marik continues… The orthodox position, in 1898, was stated unambiguously in the manifesto of the First Congress of the RSDRP, held in Minsk. The manifesto stated that the Russian bourgeoisie was weak and cowardly, and the working class had to take up the task of winning political freedom in order to pursue more energetically the struggle against capitalism.” (pp.274-275).
Lev Davidovich Bronstein, aka Leon Trotsky enters our story here. He was the son of a fairly well off farmer in the Ukraine. The family was Jewish. After spending some time in a small study group where he moved from Narodnik ideas to Marxism, in 1897 at the tender age of 18 Trotsky broke his teeth as an organizer reviving a union that had been outlawed in Nikolayev. His efforts resulted in organizing 200 of the 10,000 or so dock and factory workers there, most of whom were Eastern Orthodox. In early 1898 the leaders of the Union and the reading group were all imprisoned. Trotsky ended up in jail in Moscow where he benefited from meeting other revolutionaries, and where he first heard of Lenin. Then the Czar had Trotsky sent to Siberia from which he escaped in the Summer of 1902. By October he was in London to meet with V.I. Lenin.
In the years before the first World War there was split in the Russian Democratic Socialist movement that deserves some attention. It has been used unjustly to paint Lenin as an anti-Democratic authoritarian. The split came our of a meeting where the majority got behind Lenin. From that moment forward, supporters of Lenin were called majoritarians, or Bolsheviks. This is so despite the fact that the Bolsheviks were a minority in the larger party. The Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903 was an illegal party, but besides its membership it had a larger realm of fellow travellers. In 1903 they debated about whether to include this larger periphery into voting membership status within the party. Lenin opposed bringing in these peripheral groups because under the conditions they had to face, being an illegal party, he did not think they could function democratically with a sudden influx of new members. This is the old democratic problem of education. If the new members were uneducated, then how could they be expected to benefit from having a vote? Instead of rushing to form a political party, as Axelrod insisted they do, Lenin rightly perceived that a process of education was necessary so that workers could understand the very demanding organizational environment that they all struggled under before making decisions regarding the overall direction of the party. Viewed from this angle, the fact that this vote happened at the same moment and meeting when Axelrod and his group were trying to kick Lenin out of the editorial board of the party’s paper, and the Menshevik side is revealed as the less democratic. The Mensheviks wanted to flood the party with a lot of uneducated members who they could mold after themselves, pushing to the side Lenin and those who thought like him. Note Lenin in 1903, showing not only care for open debate in the Democratic Socialist Party, but also holding back the Mensheviks’ tendency to confuse the party for the class as a whole: “There can be no talk of throwing anyone overboard in the sense of preventing them from working, from taking part in the movement. On the contrary, the stronger our Party organisations, consisting of real Social-Democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the Party, the broader, more varied, richer, and more fruitful will be the Party’s influence on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it. The Party, as the vanguard of the working class must not be confused, after all, with the entire class.” (Lenin, p.286). [quote from One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (the crisis in our party), 1904] I want to repeat that last bit, because it will be important later: Lenin opposed forming a mass party in the specific context of Russia because he rejected the idea that the party should imagine it speaks for the people, that its prerogatives and priorities are the same as society as a whole. The devotion to the radical democratic tradition meant not having a party full of low energy members, being committed to education in the form of a newspaper and participation in struggle, and encouraging the soviets in 1905 without trying to replace the soviets with the party. The Russians, more than any other party at this time in Europe, debated and labored over the question of party organization. The debate is well worth studying in detail, and a good place to start is Moira Donald’s Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists 1900-1924. No one on either side of the debate in 1903 thought that they were arguing deep ideological principles: they thought it was a disagreement about party policy. They were wrong, and the faultlines the argument revealed were important for what came next. There were efforts at reunification sporadically through the next decade, but they came to nothing. The two groups organized separately, occasionally working together. Trotsky was not at the Congress where the RSDP voted in favor of Lenin’s side, and though he agreed with Lenin he remained with the Mensheviks’ organization and consistently argued for reunification. He stood a little outside of both parties because unlike almost anyone else in the Socialist movement at the time at least after 1905 he thought a socialist revolution was possible in Russia: maybe he thought that because in 1905 he worked so closely in the soviets. Over the next decade, Lenin’s ideas would come closer to Trotsky’s, culminating in 1917 with the excellent State and Revolution. We’ll get to that, but first we have to talk about 1905.
In January of 1905 the workers of St. Petersburg organized a peaceful march on the Winter Palace, Russia’s White House. They were joined in the march by Father Gapon who had organized a right wing worker’s organization. Their politics were different, but their immediate goal was the same. So, they marched separately and struck together. They came to the Czar in a spirit of humility, asking for reform and bread. The Czar refused to hear their petition and ordered the army to fire upon them. The resulting wave of strikes and protests threw the Czar’s government into disarray. Soon a condition of general strike brought the Russian economy to a standstill. Trotsky arrived from Vienna in time to join the newly minted soviets.
Trotsky at this time wrote his famous essay “Results and Prospects,” which declared that in Russia because the bourgeoisie was not strong enough to produce a parliamentary democracy as the French had done, that the peasants and workers would provide the muscle to overthrow the government and then because of their importance in the movement, these classes would immediately set about socializing the economy and state. He was alone in thinking the Russian revolution could spill over into socialist tasks. Lenin and Luxembourg both thought in 1905 that the peasants would accomplish the revolution but then the bourgeoisie would end up forming a government that consolidated their class rule as had happened throughout Europe in 1848. We should forgive people for imagining the future will be like what they have experienced in the recent past, and sometimes it’s true that what happens next is like what happened before. That is not how things went down in 1905. In October the movement successfully convinced the Czar to guarantee freedom of the press in what was called the October Manifesto. By November it was clear that these were empty promises, and the movement rallied that month to the cause of Polish independence and that of several sailors from Kronstadt who were going to be court martialed for participating in the strikes. Again and again we find these early Marxists combining anti-imperialism with radical democracy and an insistence on the freedom of the press. We’re still firmly planted in the garden of Epicurus, under that sky of many opinions. By December, People had just about made up their mind to stage an insurrection and take over the government when on December 3 a small army of the Czar’s police, backed up by Cossacks, encircled the preparatory meeting of the Executive of the Soviets, presided over by Trotsky. The assembly merely continued through its agenda. In “The Prophet Armed” Isaac Deutscher describes the scene, and you can read that in the transcripts. Essentially, the arresting officer interrupts the meeting, and Trotsky acting as the moderator insists that the officer wait his turn on stack. The officer waits his turn and reads his arrest warrant. The meeting carries on as if he weren’t there, so he goes outside to get a bigger force of police. Trotsky used the time this won them to have their documents destroyed.
“A trade-union spokesman was just declaring his union’s readiness to join in the general strike, when a detachment of soldiers and police occupied the corridors. A police officer entered the room where the Executive was sitting and began to read a warrant of arrest. It was now only a question whether the Soviet would carry its own weakness and humiliation with dignity. Resistance was ruled out. But should they surrender meekly, gloomy-faced, without a sign of defiance? Trotsky’s pride and his sense of stage effect would not permit him to preside over so flat and disheartening a scene. But as he could not afford any serious act of defiance, he could relieve the gloom of the situation only with humour. And so he turned the last scene of this spectacle into a witty burlesque of a bold performance. As the police officer, facing the Executive, began to read the warrant of arrest, Trotsky sharply interrupted him: ‘Please do not interfere with the speaker if you wish to take the floor, you must give your name and I shall ask the meeting whether it wishes to listen to you.” The perplexed officer, not knowing whether he was being mocked at or whether he should expect armed resistance, waited for the trade-union delegate to end his speech. Then Trotsky gravely asked the Executive whether he should allow the officer to make a statement ‘for the sake of information.’ the officer read the warrant, and Trotsky proposed that the Executive should acknowledge it and take up the next item on its agenda. Another speaker rose. ‘Excuse me’, the police officer, disconcerted by this unheard of behaviour, stammered and turned towards Trotsky, as if for help. ‘Please do not interfere’, Trotsky sharply rebuked him. ‘You have had the floor; you have made your statement; we have acknowledged it. Does the meeting wish to have further dealings with the policeman?’ ‘No!’ ‘Then, please, leave the hall!’ The officer shuffled his feet, muttered a few words and left. Trotsky called upon the members of the Executive to destroy all documents and not to reveal their names to the police. From the hall below rose the clangour of broken revolver-locks -- the delegates were carrying out Trotsky’s order. The police officer re-entered, this time leading a platoon of soldiers. A member of the Executive rose to address the soldiers: ‘The Tsar,’ he said, was at this very moment breaking the promise of the October Manifesto; and they, the soldiers, were allowing themselves to be used as his tools against the people. The officer, afraid of the effect of the words, hurriedly led the soldiers out into the corridor and shut the door behind them. ‘Even through closed doors’, the speaker raised his voice, ‘the brotherly call of the workers will reach the soldiers.’ At length a strong detachment of police entered, and Trotsky declared ‘the meeting of the Executive closed.’ Thus after fifty days ended the epic of the first Soviet in history.” (pp. 118-119).]
They say the past is a foreign country, and this is doubly true of Russia in the early twentieth century. I cannot recommend highly enough Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. It’s beautifully written by a scholarly eye-witness and participant to the events described, a classic of world literature. As you might expect, the very beginning of the 20th century in Russia saw an accelerating wave of strikes that peaks in 1905 and then recedes.
The revolution of 1905 failed, and its leaders ended up in jail or in exile. Trotsky would have to escape from Siberia a second time. But the revolution of 1905 saw the first formation of the soviets, and in 1917 those soviets would come back stronger as civil society stepped into the vacuum of governance that accompanied the collapse of the Czar’s regime. Writing in the 1920, Trotsky would have this to say about the period just after 1905: “The Russian proletariat learned its first steps in the political circumstances created by a despotic state. Strikes forbidden by law, underground circles, illegal proclamations, street demonstrations, encounters with the police and with troops -- such was the school created by the combination of a swiftly developing capitalism with an absolutism slowly surrendering its positions. The concentration of the workers in colossal enterprises, the intense character of governmental persecution, and finally the impulsiveness of a young and fresh proletariat, brought it about that the political strike, so rare in western Europe, became in Russia the fundamental method of struggle. The figures of strikes from the beginning of the present century are a most impressive index of the political history of Russia… Beaten in the December uprising of 1905, the proletariat during the next two years makes heroic efforts to defend a part of the conquered positions. These years, as our strike figures show, still belong directly to the revolution, but they are the years of ebb. The four following years (1908-11) emerge in our mirror of strike statistics as the years of victorious counterrevolution.” (Trotsky, pp. 26-27).
Lenin writes in 1905 that the party press should only publish authors who agree with the party line. This is often trotted out to paint him as opposed to free speech, but he never tried to stop party members from publishing criticisms of the party in nonparty press. Furthermore, he often insisted that minoritarian viewpoints be represented in the party press. From Soma Marik: “Lenin’s own pr-1917 practice show him to be more flexible than the article suggests. In 1910, when the Central Committee plenum decided to close down the factional papers, it also decided to issue a special discussion bulletin. Lenin took the position that articles defending the party line should be printed in the party press meant as the party’s mouth-piece, while articles questioning the party line would be published in the discussion bulletin. During the war years, when censorship tightened everywhere, a suggestion by Lenin showed that he did not actually rule out party activists writing in the non-party press. He only stressed that the official party press must reflect the party line.” (p. 288).
In February of 1917 a wave of strikes and protests occurred in Russia. The army was called out to massacre the protest movement. The army refused, and the Czar was deposed. The resulting provisional government, organized under the liberal Kerensky as executive and with a representative Duma, existed side by side with a network of soviets. The soviets represented workers in factories, but also various peasant communities. In other words, there were two forms of government: one cobbled together with remnants of the old regime and one that had crystallized within society over the course of the previous half century of struggle. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks agreed that the resulting government would be a bourgeois, or in today’s parlance a limited or managed, democracy. And then German authorities smuggled Lenin into Russia where he set off an ideological bomb. When he descended the platform on April 3rd. Lenin pointed out that the conditions that had brought about the revolution of February were all still present: the war, famine, the claims of foreign bankers on the profit from Russian industry. He went further and said there would be yet another revolution led by workers and peasants. He went further, agreeing with Trotsky against the whole tradition of socialist thought, to claim that the state that resulted from these revolutions could be socialist. By October of the same year, events would prove him right. A few years later, the project would be hopelessly imperiled, and a decade later the revolution will have been buried by Stalin. But in 1917 Lenin’s party would champion the slogan all power to the soviets and mean it. The soviets would vote the Bolsheviks into power. The progress of Lenin’s party in 1917 is the rise of a democratic coalition ready to lead society.
For one thing, the party became a mass party, with membership increasing ten-fold in a matter of months, from 23,000 in February to 240,000 six months later (Marik, p.335). Lenin’s previous insistence that the party had to remain small to function democratically was adapted to the new conditions, that the party could now operate legally and openly. What Lenin didn’t adapt was his insistence that the party not consider its viewpoint to be the same as that of society at large. The slogan “All Power to the Soviets” dates from June of 1917: it was a sincere call for society to flood into these democratic bodies to create a government of the people. The democratic institutions would require defensive bodies, what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that is why democratically run soviets were organized within the Czar’s army. The fact that revolutionaries were often punished by being drafted and sent to the front accelerated this tendency. The army, largely composed of peasants, then became a conduit for revolutionary messages to reach the peasants. Because the Bolsheviks had successfully organized within the army, they were able to lead the military operations that successfully resisted a rightwing coup led by General Kornilov in July. From a place of obscurity in February, by October the Bolshevik Party leading society. 20 million people were represented in the soviets, and even in the Duma, the Czar’s old Congress, the Bolsheviks had increased their votes from 75,000 to 198,000 in the context where support for other parties was plummeting (Trotsky, p.564). Following the July coup attempt, the Bolshevik campaign for all power to the soviets and a socialist government got majority approval in the Second Congress of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of Urals, in a Conference of Factory and Shop Committees in Kiev, in the Petrograd Soviet, in the Kiev Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, in a regional congress of Soviets in Finland, in the Saratov Soviet, in Kronstadt, in Reval, Dorpat, Wenden, Petrograd and Moscow (Marik, p.348). Though a vote for a Bolshevik takeover narrowly lost in the Donetsk region of the Ukrain in October, a Bolshevik takeover got majority support in [from Marik]“the Moscow regional Congress, the All-Siberian Congress, the regional Congresses at Minsk (ByeloRussia), the Northern Caucusus, provincial Congresses in Vladimir and Tver, etc. But the most important was the Congress of Northern Soviets. Represented in it were Soviets from Petrograd, Moscow, Archangel, Reval, Helsingfors, Kronstadt, Vyborg, Narva, Gatchina, Tsarskoe Selo, the Baltic Fleet, the Petrograd Soviet of Peasant Deputies, the Petrograd district Soviets, and the soldiers organizations of the Northern, Western, Southwestern, and Rumanian fronts.” (p. 349)
To summarize, the Czarist government had been so weakened by its constant imperialist wars that civil society was forced to organize soviets to perform the functions of government. Then the Czarist government was overthrown by its own army, which refused to massacre the population to force them back into slave like labor conditions. Then a democratic movement within these soviets demanded that the Bolshevik party overthrow the remnants of the Czarist government. That is the context in which the Bolsheviks stormed the winter palace on the 25th of October, or November 7th depending on which calendar you use. Their takeover of power was further ratified at an All Russian Peasant Congress that met in December (Marik, p.355).
Now, theoretically, because workers in society have a real material interest to end exploitation, a state composed of them is supposed to require less coercion over time. Meaning the withering away of the state is supposed to be driven forward by the empowering of exploited people in democratic institutions. This faith was betrayed by the Bolsheviks after they took power. It is important to understand why.
The immediate task of the newly formed Soviets was to end Russian participation in WW1 and to protect the new revolutionary government. That was a conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. the armed defense of democratic gains, which they had inherited from Marx and now felt duty bound to uphold. And so they did. There was an immediate tension created by the fact of armed conflict to protect the new democratic forms. The extreme situation the soviets found themselves in, having inherited a cycle of famine, a communications and transportation system marred by world and civil war, and being invaded by all of the former Czar’s allies America, Britain, France in addition to the ongoing German assault, having to then fight peasant uprisings, all of these threats compounded until in the defense of the new state the Bolsheviks were gradually forced to extinguish democratic soviet rule, free speech and individual rights. According to Spinoza, doing the right thing is an ability, and sometimes circumstances cripple us so we lose that ability.
On 29th of October, 1917, a coup led by a far rightwing Colonel Poldovnikov caused the deaths of 200 people in all. At the same time, the Railway Union was threatening to strike unless the Bolshevik government stopped fighting, and the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionary parties were calling for a coalition government that would exclude the soviets and Lenin and Trotsky. From Marik: “On the 30th [of November], Krasnov’s Cossacks went into action, but were defeated by the Red forces at the battle of Pulkovo Heights. On November 2, Krasnov was arrested in Gatchina. So mild was Bolshevik rule at this stage that he was released on his word of honor, which he violated immediately, by going to the Don and becoming the leader of a Cossack anti-Bolshevik movement.” (p. 383). Immediately after the Bolsheviks led a democratic movement to seize state power, moderate socialists joined forces with the far right to overthrow that democratic government. Similarly, in Finland, a democratically elected socialist government was smashed by a right wing coup accompanied by a terror campaign wherein 23,000 people were massacred. The right wing, pro-Czar reaction to the first democratic government Russia had ever had, took the form of brutal mass murder.
Victor Serge was the son of emigree Russian revolutionaries who returned to Russia in 1918 to support the Soviets. Though an anarchist from his teenage years, Serge became a member of the Soviet Secret Police,and then later after resisting the Stalinist turn he became a victim of the Soviet Secret Police. He was sent by Stalin to the Gulag before being saved by a campaign of international pressure led by Andre Gide. If anyone is really interested in all the details of the first red terror, I highly recommend Soma Marik again, but also Serge’s excellent books Memoirs of a Revolutionary and Year One of the Russian Revolution. In the latter book he gives us this summary that from what I can tell is completely true and unbiased. He begins by invoking the way the generals of the capitalist world used capital punishment to make their men go on killing the enemy: “Remember above all the experience of these last ten years. The discipline of all the armies of the Great War, all of them so lavish in heroism, rested in the end on terror: does anyone know the number of those sent to the firing-squad by courts-martial? In central europe, in Finland, in Spain, in Italy, in the Balkans, capitalism when threatened has resorted to the White terror, which is elevated by fascist dictatorship into a permanent system. Besides, it is out of White terror that Red terror is born. The workers and peasants, little enough inclined to take to the sword, in view of their inexperience in power and the generous idealism of many revolutionaries, learnt their lesson from the defenders of Tsardom and of capitalism. It is even somewhat disconcerting to see the leniency of the victors towards the vanquished, both after the fall of the autocracy and after the October rising. After the Red October, the ultra-reactionary leader Purishkevich was quietly set at liberty. The Cossack ataman Krasnov, captured with arms in his hands, was released on parole. The Moscow Junkers who massacred the workers in the Kremlin arsenal were simply disarmed. It took ten months of bloodier and bloodier struggles, of plots, sabotage, famine, assassinations; it took foreign intervention, the White terror in Helsinki, Samara, Baku and the Ukraine, it took the blood of Lenin before the revolution decided finally to let the axe fall! This in a country where over a whole century the masses had been brought up by the autocracy in the school of persecutions, flogging, hangings and shootings!” (Serge, p. 351).
Nevertheless, in the fall of 1917 the Constituent Assembly created a consitution declaring the “Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People” that asserted the separation of church and state, freedom of speech and assembly and abolishing legal discrimination based on race or nationality (Marik, p. 395-397). The All-Russian Congress of Soviets was established with one delegate for every 25,000 voters. It would meet every six months to elect the Central Executive Committee which combined the functions of executive and legislative branches. Though these soviets met fairly irregularly due to the ongoing civil war, they actually met more often than required by the constitution, and their actual makeup in those first few years was majority non-communist party members. The famine conditions led to the Bolsheviks requisitioning grain, which led to peasant rebellions and worsening famine conditions. In Baku Bolsheviks relinquished power after losing an election, and then were massacred. The civil war strangled soviet democracy, but for a brief period that soviet democracy did exist. Where the Bolsheviks failed is in not understanding that the governing system has to have room for people who disagree, even who disagree fundamentally. If there’s unanimity in your meetings something is very wrong. Soma Marik comments: “In this early period, the Soviets did make a beginning in replacing bureaucracy by elected and accountable officials. If, within a year, 25 percent of them at the gubernia level, and 50 percent at the city and volost level were replaced, it shows that despite civil war, this function of training common people remained with the Soviets for quite some time, and was accepted in principle by the Bolsheviks. Thus when Lenin said that ‘the socialist character of Soviet, i.e., proletarian democracy… lies in the fact that… for the first time a start is made by the entire population in learning the art of administration,’ he was not exaggerating greatly. Soviets went on developing everywhere… However, this growth of Soviet power was soon halted. The most important factor was the isolation of the revolution. No Russian Marxist believed that socialism could be built in one country, least of all in backward, peasant-majority Russia. As early as 1906, Trotsky had predicted that the russian Revolution would have to seek help from the world revolution, or perish in the face of world counter-revolution. Lenin repeated this view in 1918. But the world revolution could not be hurried along… The October Revolution was followed by a counter-revolution, which received unstinted support from the imperialists. And almost all opposition parties drew close to the counter-revolution, and failed to demarcate clearly between opposition to the government on the one hand and armed rebellion against the Soviet power on the other. Consequently, the democratic forms decayed. In Petrograd the last fully free and democratic elections were held in June 18-24, 1918. The Bolsheviks obtained 48.5 percent of the delegates, the Left SRs 12.2 percent, the Right SRs 17.6 percent, the Mensheviks 11.1 percent and independent 10.7 percent… the decline of multiparty Soviet democracy was closely connected to the Civil War, which began in July 1918. The sudden collapse of multiparty democracy turned the Soviets into administrative organs rather than the combination of executive and legislative bodies that Lenin had sought. Working class participation, however, did rise, not only in the lower levels, but also at the top. In 1918, in twenty of the most important departments of the state economic administration, officials of proletarian origin and delegates from working-class organizations accounted for 43 percent of the total, as against 38 percent with a record in the former Tsarist bureaucracy. But as the Soviets collapsed due to the Civil War and the dispersal of the proletariat non-elected ‘revolutionary committees’ or expanded party committees, replaced them in many places. Thus, non-elected, unrepresentative bodies began to be set up. With the elected, militant workers being replaced, functionaries now became more important. By the end of 1920, there were 5,880,000 such functionaries, and less than 2 million industrial workers. In Vyatka, Stalin found that out of 4,766 members of the staff of the Soviet authorities, 4,467 were former Tsarist officials. It was not a Bolshevik drive for complete power that caused this process. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks registered this process with great unease as when Lenin said in 1919, at the Eighth Party Congress: ‘The Soviets, which by virtue of their programme are organs of government by the working people, are in fact organs of government for the working people by the advanced section of the proletariat.’... Victor Serge spelled out the change with precision and clarity: ‘With the disappearance of political debates between parties representing different social interests through the various shades of their opinion, Soviet institutions, beginning with the local Soviets and ending with the Vee-Tsik and the Council of People’s Commissars, manned solely by communists, now function in a Vacuum: since all the decisions are taken by the party all they can do is give them the official rubberstamp” (p. 399-401). So much for Epicurus. As popular participation in the state receded, control of the factories was more and more taken over by the state. This was all taking place in the context of a famine. The Bolsheviks were forced to requisition grain from the peasants, and they reserved their sharpest personel for the army and the government. Meaning the people they sent to take grain from the peasants were the talentless and opportunistic. In places like Smolensk where soviets were set up early, their tended to not be rebellion. In places like Tambov province soviet style government was set up after grain requisitioning began and peasants joined the anarchist-extreme-right-wing armies that fought against the Bolshevik led state. In Kronstadt it was this later movement that revolted. For anyone interested in the Russian Civil War I cannot recommend highly enough a collection of essays edited by Donald J. Raleigh entitled Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power 1917-1953. Go read all the books. Truly perceiving enemies on all sides, the Bolsheviks began to consolidate power for people who were proven to be on their side. The result of this was that the economy as a whole became property of the state. Over the course of 1920-21 the Bolshevik party took control of the factories, the unions and the press. In 1921, after many failed coup attempts against the Bolscheviks and an assassination attempt against Lenin they ban other parties, thereby shutting down the presses of the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries and the Anarchists. Though these actions were considered temporary stop-gaps needed to face the crisis, Stalin would exploit the growing material interest of the bureaucracy itself to make these measures permanent. Lenin’s death in 1924 opened the field for hostilities between Stalin and the growing opposition to him within the Bolshevik party and society.
Opposition to Stalin’s culture of patronage and corruption began with Lenin, who shortly before his death wrote against allowing Stalin to stay in government. Trotsky raised criticisms of Stalin’s course in the early 20s, and by the mid 20s was organizing a block within the party for democratic reform. There is a long period in the early twenties during which Trotsky argues for lifting the ban on other parties, but within the rules laid down previously by the Central Committee. This meant that beyond debating for reform within the Central Committee and discussing these matters with his friends he didn’t canvas, publish or otherwise try and organize people outside of the party. It’s important to understand that because Trotsky was not a part of the Bolshevik party until 1917, people inside that party thought of him as an outsider. Because he had been part of the Menshevik party between the years of 1905 and 1917 he was associated with the Menshevik party that in part was plotting to overthrow their government. Not just that, but Trotsky was constantly of a different opinion from everyone else in the Party. When the Party was ramping up grain requisitioning, Trotsky proposed selling the grain on an open market so the peasants would get paid for their product and would cooperate with its distribution and not hoard it. His ideas were voted down, and when the ongoing requisition policy inspired a revolt at Kronstadt, they sent Trotsky to put it down. Immediately after the revolt the Central Committee instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP) which allowed peasants to sell their grain on a market. No one listened when Trotsky called upon the Central Committee to open membership into the party for people willing to be educated. A year later, Stalin flooded the party with new people who were not educated by who depended on him for a paycheck. This was how Stalin guaranteed his power base, by building within the party and government a network of graft and corruption loyal to him. It wasn’t until the mid-1920, around 1925 that Trotsky and some others began to organize a resistance to Stalin among the public, against the laws the Bolshevik state had adopted. The government, which was by then in every factory, beat Trotsky and company to the workers, and in 1927 when the opposition attempted to hold a march in St. Petersburg the workers shunned them. There was a real social base to Stalinism.
Every now and then some smartass will suggest that Trotsky or someone else should have just shot Stalin early on. What this idea misses is that when you’re trying to be a legitimate government you don’t just shoot people you don’t like. You want to build institutions whose rules people respect and that are applied fairly. It was precisely because Trotsky followed the rules for so long, hoping that the workers would see through Stalin and that a democratic upsurge would sweep him out of power, that Trotsky finally lost. The rules were stacked against him. Lenin left a final testament urging people to remove Stalin from power, but Trotsky submitted to the rules of the Central Committee and didn’t publish it. In 1929 part of Lenin’s testament was leaked to the press, and had a limited effect. People involved in the communist movement had trouble believing that the thing was rotten at the top, and that it had to be resisted.
After 1991 lots of old soviet archives were opened up, and Pierre Broue, a historian and author of dozens of books about the Russian Revolution, was able to get at a trove of documents Stalin had suppressed referring to the left opposition. The result was a book published in 2003 called “Communistes contr Staline: Massacre d’une generation,” and if you can read French I highly recommend it. Much of what follows is drawn from those pages.
The organized opposition to Stalin, under Trotsky and Zinoviev, did not end with their deportation, though they were deported in 1927. Groups of activists that had worked with Trotsky began protesting forced deportations of opposition leaders from the very beginning, starting with a rally at the train station where Trotsky was sent away.
Adolph Abramovich Joffe had participated in the revolutionary movement in 1905 and the one in 1917. In fact, he had led the Bolshevik faction in the St. Petersburg Duma in 1917, and been a lead negotiator when the Soviets negotiated a peace treaty with Germany to end WW1. But Joffe had a medical condition that was very painful and difficult to treat. When the opposition was expelled from the Soviet Union, he knew that his health would make him a strain on the resources of the left opposition in exile, so he took his own life. His final letter to Trotsky is deeply moving. In it he blames Trotsky for not acting more forcefully sooner against Stalin. “Dear Leon Davidovich, we are bound together by ten years of work in common and, I hope, of personal friendship, and that gives me the right to tell you, at the moment of farewell, what seems to me to be a weakness in you… But you have often renounced your right position in favour of an agreement, a compromise, whose value you overestimated. That was wrong. I repeat: politically you have always been in the right, and now more than ever you are in the right. Someday the party will understand this, and history will be forced to recognise it.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/joffe/1927/letter.htm). Joffe’s wife Maria was also politically active, and would survive being sent to Stalin’s camps for the Bolsheviks. In her memoir, One Long Night, she writes about how the Bolsheviks resisted Stalin to the end, many dying in hunger strikes, and many like her second husband being shot and buried in mass graves.
In the early 30s, when the left opposition in Russia was suppressed, workers in factories began organizing their own resistance. Stalin still wasn’t powerful enough to massacre them all, which would happen in the late 30s. When the second generation of opposition leaders were suppressed, workers struck spontaneously. Stalin appeased the masses and consolidated the security apparatus to hold them in check, using ethnic divisions and nationalist patriotism to straddle the heaving social body.
Though the opposition was broad, encompassing a left and a right within the communist movement, those who differed with Stalin on issues other than Democracy, who were willing to be silenced, eventually capitulated, as was the case with Radek, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Preobrajensky, Rhykov and so on. Their capitulations only meant their dishonor, since all of these old Bolsheviks were murdered essentially for having disagreed with Stalin. As with any political movement, the participants varied in their consciousness of their goal, but the one thing that lent moral clarity, what gave the opposition coherence, was the insistence on democracy and free speech. In June of 1929 Rakovsky urged his fellow oppositionists not to capitulate despite Stalin’s temporary left turn: “Above all, the total absence of a plan to restore democracy in the party means there is no guarantee that the gains of today will endure.” (Broue, p159). It is furthermore impossible to imagine that had the party been reformed that collectivization would have been pushed ahead so cruelly and stupidly as Stalin did starting in 1928 through 1932, causing the death of 6 million Ukrainian peasants. The Bolsheviks who disagree with Stalin were all murdered by him, some in gulags and others in show trials. From 1927 to 1929 Trotsky organizes the resistance from exile within the Soviet Union.
In 1929 Stalin banishes Trotsky to Turkey and cuts off licit correspondence between opposition members. Trotsky is defiant. If you didn’t know that the left opposition in the USSR had broad popular appeal, then the image of Trotsky tilting at windmills sets for you a bad example. This Trotsky fights when he knows he cannot win. “He felt nothing in common with those historic personalities of whom Hegel says that once they have accomplished their ‘mission in history’ they are exhausted and ‘fall like empty husks’. He would struggle to break out of the vacuum in which Stalin and events were enclosing him…” (Deutscher, TPO, p4). Deutscher here explains how Trotsky protested against his exile to Turkey by Stalin. “Even if at the moment it seemed vain to invoke history for justice, he could do nothing but invoke it.” What Deutsher gets wrong, and what Broue shows, is that Trotsky was appealing not just to posterity for symbolic justice, but to a vibrant resistance movement in the USSR for actual justice.
When Trotsky begins publishing in The New York Times in 1929 he is doubtless addressing himself to the opposition movement in the USSR and to the international socialist movement. He was addressing himself to textile workers who struck in Leningrad in May of 1928 (130). Soviet Society would offer its response with opposition movements that were led independently of Trotsky in 1931 when Lominadze and several other party officials are exposed trying to establish oppositionist peasant’s unions (213) and then spontaneously, without leadership when in April of 1932 2,500 workers struck in Ivanovo-Voznessensk (241).
Broue quotes Isabell Longuet:
“Stalin himself tells us, in a speech from November 19, how many there are. According to him 10,000 party members voted against the majority platform in the previous congress, and had therefore had their memberships revoked, but that 20,000 Trotsyists had not voted at all and ‘were not free from Trotskyist ideology.’” (133).
Deutscher seems to be aware of social unrest in the USSR of this time, but writes about it not as though it were an expression of people’s historical agency but as if it were simply another material condition: “amid the upheavals of collectivization and industrialization, he expected shifts in the nation to produce great shifts in the ruling party as well.”(Deutscher).
Trotsky wasn’t fighting the good fight against any and all odds: he was fighting with the knowledge that he could win. The subsequent activity of the Trotskyist left in the 20th century shows that this image of Trotsky as Don Quixote seriously damaged the left’s ability to attempt a politics engaged with real political possibilities, and what’s more it gets Trotsky completely wrong. Trotsky would be the opposite of Don Quixote, not someone who could not face the changes of a new world, but one who could see, though in a limited way, how the present world cannot remain as it is. That Trotsky is closer to the reality of what the man was, and a better example for all of us.
After murdering opposition to his tyranny within the party, Stalin moved on proactively to massacre people who might oppose him, beginning with Polish intellectuals and leaders in the communist movement, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by massacring the leading figures in Poland itself.
The Polish purges targeted the most intelligent, educated and cultured groups because these were capable of free thinking, and because these stratum of Polish society were aware of Stalin’s intentional starving of the Ukraine. Having strangled those demanding free speech and democracy within his own movement, Stalin set about invading and dominating the countries all around him in an attempt to extinguish free thought itself. Those in the left opposition who capitulated in the early 30s did so because they did not see possibilities in historical progress but only necessities. “Capitulation is based on the perception of the current moment as permanent” (Broue, p217) declared the oppositionist Tsintsadze in 1931. If we think of Stalinism as inevitable, of these terrible moments of purge and show trial as exemplary of human nature when it tries for socialism, then we too are capitulating, becoming less Trotsky and more Don Quixote. What we have chosen to see in the Russian Revolution, a severe and distorted vision of human limitation, should instead be read as a measure of human resolve to resist. Like Robespierre, Stalin had to wage a war against society, and we should never imagine that he won a final victory. Society, after all, survives us all and can not indefinitely accept the yoke of servitude.
Lenin and his party went to extraordinary lengths to protect free speech and democracy. They gave up on these things only under the crushing weight of terrible circumstance. There are several reasons why this is important. The narrative that says the Russian revolution was led by authoritarians and that Stalinism was the necessary result is embraced by conservatives and Stalinists. The temptation to agree with the Stalinists on this point in the name of some kind of imagined realpolitik is ever present for the socialist left. That politics fails at every hurdle, because it does not understand that Stalin was vaulted into power by a democratic movement which he then strangled. The conservative mistake is the mirror image of the Stalinists: the conservative doesn’t see that socialism can be an expression of deep democratic values. For those of us who claim to be Democratic Socialists, a full accounting of the Russian Revolution is absolutely essential because of its successes and its failures. The false images of it survive in modern Stalinism and Maoism, calling to young radicals it syrren song leading them into political irrelevance and anti-Democratic values which are the same thing. There is a left that embraces the statist, top down socialism of Stalin. The difference between them and us is the difference between Nero and Oreste.
If, like Oreste, the socialist movement can stand before the community and make an honest accounting of this past, work together where we can and make the case for more, then we may find a place within the political community, a path to advocate our point of view. And because we are willing to model good behavior by working with those who cannot see as far as we can, we will win them over to a moment where society can dominate the state, or in other words we can win them over to a democratic way of life. On the other hand, if we decide that we cannot persuade those who oppose us, if we act as though war is our only path, as if we can impose socialism on people from above, then like Nero we will find every door closed to us. Roughly speaking, Stalin is Nero, and Trotsky is Oreste. They both killed the Czarist regime, Stalin for his own sake and Trotsky for the sake of revolution. The better we know that story, the better we know our own potential, and that potential is only as powerful as our politics is democratic. This is the natural corollary to the socialist root idea that we are better off cooperating with other people: that we are best lin ked in cooperation when everyone gets an equal say in what we do. Socialists have never won by imposing their ideas from above, and wherever they have tried to they have failed. In Russia we won by mobilizing democratic forces from every part of society, and then we lost when we were unable to continue that mobilization. If we consider for a moment just how dark and unjust the world was at the turn of the 20th century, we will no longer puzzle that the project of building a society based on mutual respect of all people had such a difficult time getting started and even had a couple false starts. In podcasts to come we will discuss the travails of socialists in Germany and Spain who struggled to relate to democratic values in the wake of the Russian Revolution’s stunning promise and betrayal.
Broué, Pierre. Communistes contre Staline. Fayard, 2003.
Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Outcast. Oxford University Press, 1963.
De Spinoza, Benedictus. The collected works of Spinoza. Vol. 2. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. VI Lenin. Selected works. Vol. I. Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow, 1946.
Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Raleigh, Donald J. Provincial landscapes: local dimensions of Soviet power, 1917-1953. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.
Serge, Victor. Year one of the Russian Revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
Sgambato-Ledoux, Isabelle. Oreste et Néron. Spinoza, Freud et le mal. Classiques Garnier, 2017.
Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian revolution. Haymarket Books, 2008.
June 11th, 2020 | 34 mins 37 secs
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, evil, germany, imperialism, kautsky, leninism, progressivism, socialism, socialist, strategy, world war 1, world war one, wwi
Before we talk about WWI I want to discuss the problem of evil. Some of my listeners may not know the Trolley problem. In the Trolley problem you are driving a Trolley, and it is hurtling down a track at a group of people. You can switch the trolley onto another track where there is only one person. Should you allow a group of people to die, or choose that one person should die? There are endless variations on this basic scenario. What if the one person was your mother? What if instead you were a doctor and could save several people by murdering one person and harvesting their organs to give to the other people? The thing is, we all know the answer to this dilemma. We all know it’s wrong to take a life, and so whatever tradeoff we have to make to save more life we ought to make. What the problem points out is that doing this simple right thing is really hard. It can be a matter of skill, something that you can only succeed at if you have practiced and if you aren’t tired or handicapped. It can even be impossible to do the right thing. This is the problem of evil in its simplest form: we cannot escape the knowledge that there is a right and wrong, but we often find ourselves incapable of doing the right thing. I want to lay all of this out, because this view is fundamentally different from a certain view of evil that I will call superstitious. It’s superstition, completely unfounded, to imagine that people are inherently evil. There are many versions of this idea, but the one most people will be familiar with is the fall of Adam and Eve into original sin. Historically, socialist revolutionaries after WWI think that the German Social Democratic Party’s voting for war bonds shows a fundamental flaw in those people and that ideology. The thinking in terms of original sin, of those socialists and their ideas being fundamentally wrong keeps us from seeing how they ended up doing that in its context. And in failing to see the context, we fail to understand their actions.
In order to break out of superstitious thinking about evil that labels certain people as fundamentally evil in their nature, we can’t do better than to examine what Spinoza says about it. For Spinoza all things are in and part of God. To imagine that god has specific qualities, or occupies a certain place, or wants certain things but not others, is to limit God and to betray the concept of God. For Spinoza, God is infinite. So, eveything that is done anywhere for whatever reason is willed by God. This attitude was rejected by the church, but even people within the enlightenment puzzled over it. Many of them did believed in a transcendent God that sat beyond the realm of human activity. Many of them believed the biblical story of the fall of man where Eve gives the apple to Adam and they both realize they are naked and get kicked out of the garden of Eden. But they couldn’t escape how reasonable Spinoza’s argument was. How could there exist anywhere something that God had not willed? This is the essence of the question William Blyenburg addresses to Spinoza in a letter in 1665. Specifically, Blyenburg asks Spinoza if as Spinoza maintains all acts are willed by God and are therefore not evil, how can it be that God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden for original sin?
Spinoza argues in the following way. Adam’s acts are imperfect only from our point of view as limited human beings. From God’s point of view all actions fit perfectly into the divine plan, a plan that we cannot fully know. In other words a specific act can be evil on its own terms: it doesn’t express the kind of people we would like to be. On another level that act fits into a historical chain of events that then condition what it is possible for us to do next; they shouldn’t be denied, forgotten or repressed. We are most free, so Spinoza claims, when we best understand the conditions that limit us and act according to what is most necessary for us. On yet a third level, under the aspect of eternity all acts are perfectly in their place in the overall act and idea God. Whether the consequences of an act, the act taken from the point of view of history on the second level, can be turned to something better, something progressive, depends in Spinoza’s estimate on our understanding them. I want to quote Spinoza about freedom here, because the idea that someone can only be as good as they have understood their circumstances is going to be crucial to a fair discussion of socialist attitudes and decisions regarding World War 1: “Our freedom lies not in a kind of contingency nor in a kind of indifference, but in the mode of affirmation and denial, so that the less indifference there is in our affirmation or denial, the more we are free. For instance, if God’s nature is known to us, the affirmation of God’s existence follows from our nature with the same necessity as it results from the nature of a triangle that its three angles are equal to two right angles. Yet we are never so free as when we make an affirmation in this way. Now since this necessity is nothing other than God’s decree… hence we may understand after a fashion how we act freely and are the cause of our action notwithstanding that we act necessarily and from God’s decree. This, I repeat, we can understand in a way when we affirm something that we clearly and distinctly perceive. But when we assert something that we do not clearly and distinctly grasp - that is, when we suffer our will to go beyond the bounds of our intellect - then we are not thus able to perceive that necessity and God’s decrees; however, we do perceive the freedom of ours that is always involved in the will (in which respect alone our actions are termed good or bad). If we then attempt to reconcile our freedom with God’s decree and his continuous creation, we confuse that which we clearly and distinctly understand with that which we do not comprehend, and so our effort is in vain. It is therefore sufficient to us to know that we are free, and that we can be so notwithstanding God’s decree, and that we are the cause of evil; for no action can be called evil except in respect of our freedom.” (Spinoza p.825)
On this account evil is a consequence of our limited abilities to know what is best for ourselves. We have an awareness of what we want, but a limited one, and as we pass through the experiences of our life it is hoped that we reflect on the results of pursuing what we want, and that we find a clearer understanding of what we want. This is the road to freedom, and because we walk this road one step at a time we are stuck with this awareness that we do not yet perfectly see what we need to do to be more free. Only under the aspect of eternity, where all things present and past occur in an infinitesimal flash, can all the the things, us included, be said to be completely free.
If anyone wants to ask a question, or help clear me up on something about this, please @ me. We now have the philosophical tools we need to understand the problem of socialists reacting to the approach of World War 1.
The debate around the causes and origin of WW1 is probably interminable. The beliefs people hold about it often say more about who that person is holding the belief and less about the real events. I’m going to lay out the version of the lead up to WW1 that I learned from reading Lenin and from conversations with other people in the Marxist left. Then I’m going to talk about what I learned engaging the latest scholarship on the start of WW1.
The basic story is this. World War one happened because of imperialism. The Capitalist market needs to expand, to generate ever larger profits. From the period of capitalism where small companies compete for market share comes the existence of monopolies, and monopoly capital causes such intense competition for markets that it sets nations on a collision course inevitably leading to world war. Because the German Social Democratic Party was essentially reformist it had delusions that the bourgeois states would reform towards socialism. The reformist illusion went hand in hand with the idea that monopoly capitalists had economic incentives to avoid the destructiveness of war. However, leaving the bourgeois imperialist classes in power made conflict and war inevitable. Had The German SDP, the Socialist Party in France, Labour in Great Britain and the various trade unions in all these countries stuck to the principle of international working class solidarity then they would have been able to stop the bourgeois ruling class of Europe from sending workers to kill their class brethren in the other countries by pursuing revolution to unseat the warmongering bourgeois class. Those who knew better, but did not fight against the rush to war, people like the formerly most important leader in terms of Marxist theory Karl Kautsky, were guilty above all because as the leadership of the conscious workers movement they could have stopped the march to war by taking a strong stand against it. Only the Bolsheviks in Russia and their partners in the 3rd international took the correct position on the eve of war, which was to organize workers internationally for the defeat of all the bourgeois powers, each group working on the national level taking advantage of wartime circumstances to fight their own national bourgeoisie. Had Socialists across Europe resisted the war as was called for at the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915, then Europe could have avoided the obscene spectacle of workers of the various nations fighting each other in a war that served only the interests of competing national cliques of capitalists. I’m just typing this all out from memory, so likely there’s a smarter version somewhere with better attention to detail, but I think this corresponds fairly well to the common understanding of events from the point of view of revolutionary Marxist thinking today. Let’s attack this version with facts and see if it holds up.
The war of 1870 came about because France thought they could win, Bismark was willing to allow it to happen for his own political gain and the Habsburgs thought they should be able to sit on the throne of Spain. The excuse for it was a French diplomat having sent a letter to the Prussian King William Friedrich the 3rd to swear to oppose any attempt of the Austrian Hapsburgs to sit on the Spanish throne after Queen Isabella had been deposed in the Spanish revolution of 1868. Though the Prussian King was also against the expansion of Austrian power, the high handed tone of the letter set off a war frenzy in Prussia and Austria. The military cooperation that resulted between the two Germanys led after the war to the political unification of Germany. The existence of a strong state in the center of Europe was new. So long as the middle of Europe was occupied by a lot of squabbling little fiefdoms, great powers on either side of Europe could play them off each other and nibble away at territory in Poland and Hungary or in the Rhineland. With a strong centralized Germany after 1871 France found its interests aligned more and more with those of Russia. In the context of broad social support for Imperialism, with powerful imperialist political movements in France, Germany and Russia, the stage was set for an alliance between France and Russia against Germany. That does not mean that war was inevitable. It does mean that the events of 1914 were prepared by the situation that 1870 created. At the same time, Prussia, with one of the most modern armies in Europe, was now tied to the defense of Austria-Hungary, a sprawling commonwealth that encouraged the cultural autonomy of all these burgeoning nationalist movements where Russia was promoting political radicalism and rebellion, the better to turn these nationalist movements against Austria and then to dominate them from Moscow in the name of pan-Slavic identity.
Let’s say that WW1 had many causes. Sean McMeekin, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Turkey, in “The Russian Origins of the First World War” has laid out a strong case for supposing that in the days following the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Russian and French diplomats conspired to take advantage of the situation to start a war against Germany on two fronts, supported in the west by Great Britain. In 1914 Russia was watching an expanding network of railroads destroy its traditional natural defense of geographic remoteness on its western borders. It was also clear to Russia that with every passing day Turkey was being equipped by the British maritime industry to challenge Russian naval hegemony on the Black Sea. Then as now Russian trade with the rest of the world depends crucially on access to Crimean ports and free passage through the sea of Marmara. If Russia was going to halt this steady encroachment on its imperial interests, it needed a war, and time was running out.
The Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, of 1914. Prussia and Austria develop an ultimatum demanding Serbia officially renounce its claims to independence. This was done instead of a localized punitive military mission, which the Austrians hoped would not result in war with Russia, as many prior crises had been resolved. The Austrians issued an ultimatum because their imperial partner Hungary didn’t want violent confrontation.
On July 20-23rd the French president Poincare meets with the Czar in St. Petersburg. The Russians and the French know about the ultimatum at that point and leave no written record of what they discussed at this key meeting. On July 25th the ultimatum is announced (McMeekin, pp. 65-66). That same day Russian troops begin to mobilize, and simultaneously the German SDP mobilizes mass demonstrations against the war. But by then Russia had already set in motion its invasion (Dorrien, pp. 194-195). On July 26th the news of Russian mobilization arrives in Berlin, alarming authorities there. It is worth noting that the Prussian state was not run democratically, and that furthermore the Prussian army didn’t always obey the Kaiser. During the 400 years that stretch out from the 30 years war to WW1 Prussia had been the site of countless invasions from all directions. Given the sudden and unexpected mobilization of Russia over the German demand for a statement from Serbia, an excuse for war really, it is natural and right that Germans prepared themselves for self defense. The question remained whether they would try against all expectations to avoid the war with Russia that was already in motion. It was not a foregone conclusion that war with Russia would mean war with Great Britain, but the strategic choice on the part of the Germans to invade France through Belgium really cinched the entry of the UK into the war. The leadership of the German Social Democratic Party hoped to avoid an official declaration of war in the faint hope of avoiding it, and their position in the Reichstag was not strong. The Reichstag gave the votes of wealthier and more privileged strata of society three times the weight of the rest of the population. Moreover, the Reichstag’s motions could in principle be ignored by the Kaiser, or by the military, or both. SDP opposition to war in the Reichstag would have been merely symbolic. Moira Donald has provided us a detailed account of Kautsky’s actions that first week of August, 1914.
“It is impossible to know precisely what role Kautsky played in the discussions on war credits. However, the presumption made at the time, and by many commentators since, that Kautsky vacillated and then succumbed to the patriotic tide instead of giving clear internationalist leadership at this important moment of crisis, is probably not entirely accurate. Kautsky’s own account of events concentrates on his initial support for abstention on the war credits vote. On 1 August Kautsky and Hugo Haase had drafted a statement for the Fraktion in which they assumed that it would refuse to vote for war credits. On 3 August he was summoned to a meeting of the SPD Fraktion (although he did not himself have a vote as he was not a member of the Reichstag) to discuss the vote the following day in the Reichstag on special finance for the war. He intended to push for abstention, but discovered that this was no longer seen as a viable option. By this meeting of the Fraktion on 3 August, party opinion had moved to discussion of rejection versus acceptance. In fact the right-wing members of the Fraktion had already decided to vote for war credits whatever the decision of the majority. Once it became clear that abstention would not be acceptable to the majority, Kautsky tried still to exert some influence over the final outcome, proposing conditional acceptance. In the face of a massive vote in favour of war credits of seventy-eight for to only fourteen against, Kautsky tried to use his position as one of the drafters of the party’s official declaration to demand that the German government should renounce any annexations or violations of neutrality. Only after the event did Kautsky discover that his clause had been deleted from the SPD statement at the demand of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. Thus, what the international socialist world heard, along with the German people, on 4 August 1914 was that the SPD had given its support of the German government’s declaration of war. In late November 1914, just before another vote for war credits took place, Kautsky again urged for the inclusion of an anti-annexationist clause to no avail...Not having a seat in the Reichstag, unlike Liebknecht, he was not forced to make a public choice and he did not believe in empty gestures. Should he have called over the heads of the party to the masses to rise in revolution? Theoretically he could have done so, but no one was more painfully aware than Kautsky that in this instance the party in voting for war credits was following the masses themselves, rather than leading them. In July 1914 he told Adler that the time was ripe for a mass strike in Austria to protest against the looming war, but he could see not the slightest sign of mass protest action. To have tried to incite mass action would not only have been futile, it would have split the party… Having lost the battle on war credits, Kautsky directed his efforts not at how to stop the war but at the nature of the victory or defeat which would follow the war. If Social Democracy had proved itself incapable of preventing war from breaking out, he did not believe that it was realistic to argue that there was anything Social Democrats could do to stop a war in progress. In Kautsky’s view, in a war situation it was legitimate for Marxists to defend the national territory, but not legitimate for them to call for territorial gain. He did not argue the case for defensive war, i.e. analysing who was the aggressor, and supporting the nation which had been attacked. Instead he argued that socialist in every country involved in the war had the right to self-defence, regardless of which government was responsible for the war.” (Donald, pp 189-191).
I would like to suggest that Lenin and Leninists have been unfair to Kautsky. He could have decided to make some grand gesture of political purity and denounced the whole world, but then he would have still not stopped the war, and he would not have had the chance to make the case within the party against annexations. Maybe Germany would have been forced either way into military conflict with an invasion of the Czar’s armies, but it is still an open question to me whether Germany needed to invade Belgium to preempt a French invasion. The massacres committed by German soldiers of civilians in Belgium doesn’t seem to me to have helped with German self defence. In fact, that invasion seems to have made England’s choice of whether to enter war. What clarifies Kautsky’s predicament for me is the knowledge that in a situation where he had very little power, he found what it was that he needed to be doing. He found what was necessary for him to do to make the strongest case possible for Germany not leading a war of conquest even if Germany was being attacked. His clarity about the situation he was in provided him a freedom to act in a situation where someone else who may have had delusions of grandeur might have done nothing at all, might have split the party making progress against the prowar majority even harder. If anyone thinks they could have done better than Kautsky, (1) I encourage you to give the matter some serious study, and (2) please explain to me how because I cannot fathom it.
We can consider Kautsky’s acts as a necessary evil. That he signed his name to a statement endorsing World War 1 cannot be denied. That he was correct to do so given the circumstances, given it was his best chance at minimizing the damage and risk all around him were rushing into, also cannot be denied. Kautsky knew that the present moment might overcome him, that the actions of that moment might be constrained, imperfect, or what earlier we called ‘evil,’ but he also had to have seen that we would have to accept that those events as part of history, as having formed the circumstances we would have to act within afterwards. As Marx famously said, we can free ourselves, but not under conditions of our own choosing.
So, how did the story Leninists tell about World War 1 hold up in contact with facts?
With all apologies to Lenin, World War 1 didn’t happen because the nations of Europe were strongly pursuing their own best self interest or corporate market share so much as it was the result of the worst actors finding resolve at the very moment when those who should have known better couldn’t muster a clear intention. On the other hand, in Lenin’s favor, England clearly enters the war because they need French and Russian cooperation to maintain the British empire. Russia clearly felt they couldn’t maintain their empire if England kept arming the Turkish Navy. France conspired with Russia to start the war because France couldn’t tolerate a united Germany in the context of national competition for resources. In the years leading up to World War 1 there were countless minor diplomatic crises involving one imperial power or another trying to edge in on some other powers trade relations or sphere of influence. It must be said, the economics of empire work the way they do at that time because imperialism was a mass phenomenon, a way that European governments coped with the tumultuous arrival of mass politics. We have already remarked on how Marx thought the new production methods implied that the tensions inherent to modern mass culture would finally dissolve the old privileges and find a higher sublimation in radical democracy.
On the other hand, Kautsky wasn’t a renegade, he did everything possible to prevent war and to prevent the defensive war from spilling over into an offensive one where Germany took advantage of the situation to try and annex new territory. The case was clear for German self defence; Russia was mobilizing its forces for an assault while Germany was trying to work things out peacefully with Serbian which was legit harboring terrorist protofascist insurgents. Germans were never going to have a democratic government so long as Germany was divided into several dozen fiefdoms. If German unification threatened the prevailing order, that was only because Europe was driven by imperial ambitions. It was possible for Germany to choose not fight a war of expansion, but at the same time a stong case could be made that if Germans failed to take the initiative to take the fight to the Russians in Poland and to the French in France itself that they were missing their best chance to mount a good defence and avoid having to fight on two fronts at once. The part of the story where any of this is Kautsky’s fault or even something he could influence, that part is clearly false. Kautsky and Lenin were both right about one thing: the Czar had to be resisted. Because of their respective positions in history, the two men were constrained to different political choices. Germany was destined to get a bourgeois parliamentary democracy that pleased no one, and Russia was not going to get democracy at all, though the Bolsheviks were the best hope for progress. The story of how the Bolsheviks led a democratic insurgency in 1917 and then failed to protect it is the subject of our next podcast.
I will leave you with the words of another great Marxist of Kautsky’s generation, the man who introduced Marxist political thought into the Russian context. In an essay on the role of the individual in history, Plekhanov writes:
“The ideals of the so-called Russian ‘disciples’ [the Marxists] resemble capitalist reality far less than the ideals of the subjectivists. Notwithstanding this, however, the ‘disciples’ have found a bridge which unites ideals with reality. The ‘disciples’ have elevated themselves to monism. In their opinion, in the course of its development, capitalism will lead to its own negation and to the realization of their, the Russian ‘disciples’’ - and not only the Russian - ideals. This is historical necessity. The ‘disciple’ serves as an instrument of this necessity and cannot help doing so, owing to his social status and to his mentality and temperament, which were created by his status. This, too, is an aspect of necessity. Since his social status has imbued him with this character and no other, he not only serves as an instrument of necessity and cannot help doing so, but he passionately desires, and cannot help desiring, to do so. This is an aspect of freedom, and, moreover, of freedom that has grown out of necessity, i.e., to put it more correctly, it is freedom that is identical with necessity - it is necessity transformed into freedom. This freedom is also freedom from a certain amount of restraint; it is also the antithesis of a certain amount of restriction. Profound definitions do not refute superficial ones, but, supplementing them, include them in themselves. But what sort of restraint, what sort of restriction, is in question in this case? This is clear: the moral restraint which curbs the energy of those who have not cast off dualism; the restriction suffered by those who are unable to bridge the gulf between ideals and reality. Until the individual has won this freedom by heroic effort in philosophical thinking he does not fully belong to himself, and his mental tortures are the shameful tribute he pays to external necessity that stands opposed to him. But as soon as this individual throws off the yoke of this painful and shameful restriction he is born for a new, full life, hitherto never experienced; and his free actions become the conscious and free expression of necessity. Then he will become a great social force; and then nothing can, and nothing will, prevent him from ‘Bursting on cunning falsehood/ Like a storm of wrath divine…’” (pp 145-146).
June 9th, 2020 | 51 mins 38 secs
2020, activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, election, joe biden, leninism, progressivism, socialism, socialist, strategy, woke
Jason Hicks recently received an MA in Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary and along with the Degree received the Charles Briggs award. I met Jason as part of activism in solidarity with the Arab Spring, and in this podcast we discuss his article laying out the socialist case for supporting Joe Biden for President. You should also take time to read his article, his book suggestion and other related materials linked below.
(recorded May 23, 2020)
Israel, Jonathan. A revolution of the mind: Radical enlightenment and the intellectual origins of modern democracy. Princeton University Press, 2009.
June 4th, 2020 | 32 mins 44 secs
1848, activism, anarchism, berniesanders, capital, communism, democracy, democratic, karl marx, leninism, marx, paris commune, progressivism, socialism, socialist, strategy, the communist manifesto
The first socialists were not political. Groups like the followers of St. Simon were trying to block themselves away from the rest of society and create a utopia as an example to everyone else. At the same time you had radical democrats, many of whom remembered the French revolution as a kind of lost glory or lost opportunity. Marx was one of these radical Democrats. Some say that in the late 1840s he became a socialist, which they think means he stopped caring about individual rights, like the right to property, but started caring about collective rights, such as the rights of factory workers to the wealth they produced. I just got done providing for you a reading of Capital that is radically humanist, that emphasizes the importance of fighting against fetishized relationships between people. That means, at the very end of his career his philosophy was still Epicurian, meaning it was still a science at the service of human happiness, still ethically a humanism. So, how did his followers end up abandoning radical democracy? I’m going to argue that Lenin was still a radical democrat, but that Stalin was not. Still, what you don’t get from studying the ideas of these “great men” is how a certain society made them possible.
After the dumbest revolution, France ended up with a restored monarchy, first Louis 18th was put on the throne by Napoleon, and then later by Louis Phillipe. Louis Phillipe had been one of the so-called progressive nobles and a part of the Jacobin club. When the terror broke out in 1793 LP fled France, living in Philadelphia for a while. When Napoleon took power in 1799 LP returned to Europe, and having never plotted against the revolution, returned to France in 1814 to reclaim what royal property hadn’t been sold off. Under Bonaparte a law was passed to return to the nobility some of their wealth. Did I mention the French revolution was dumb? I’ve mentioned it. Moving on… Following a rebellion against oppressive state measures in 1830, Louis Phillippe became the king, and he kept power by letting the bourgeoisie have a colonial adventure in Algeria. It’s under the rule of Louis Phillippe that Marx moves to Paris in 1843 to begin work at a radical newspaper. By that point Marx had gotten too radical to teach in Prussian universities or for the Prussian press, which suffered new suppression that year. If you’re looking for a moment when Marx turns away from enlightenment radicalism and democracy towards a socialism from above, this is probably that moment. I happen to think that in moving to a discussion of class Marx was recognizing that free individuals must come from free social settings, that you can’t be said to enjoy liberty if you are starving to death. We have talked about all this. What’s more, he must have felt acutely the political isolation of the radical enlightenment, and he seems to have been deeply motivated to make enlightenment ideals into a social reality, something to move the masses. What could be more democratic?
To the point, Riazanov tells us Marx balked at joining the League of the Just, later the Communist League, in Paris until they came around to his way of thinking on these grounds: “He did not join this League because its programme was too greatly coloured with an idealistic and conspiratory spirit which could not appeal to Marx.” (64). Riazanov should know: he was the Bolshevik that founded the Marx-Engels Institute in Soviet Russia after 1917. Marx objected to idealism because he associated it with small conspiracies, and he knew this to be an undemocratic dead end. In his “Two Souls of Socialism,” Hal Draper gives us more details about this point, how Marx could only be a socialist in a group that was democratic: “Before they joined the group which became the Communist League (for which they were to write the Communist Manifesto), they stipulated that the organisation be changed from an elite conspiracy of the old type into an open propaganda group, that ‘everything conducive to superstitious authoritarianism be struck out of the rules,’ that the leading committee be elected by the whole membership as against the tradition of ‘decisions from above.’...In the socialist movement as it developed before Marx, nowhere did the line of the socialist idea intersect the line of democracy-from-below...Marx was the first socialist thinker and leader who came to socialism through the struggle for liberal democracy.” (Draper, Two Souls of Socialism, pp11-12, quoting Marx). It’s not clear where Draper gets his quotes from as he doesn’t cite them. But it’s very likely Marx did say such things, since we can cite Engels in this Confession of the Communist faith (question 14). Note how revolutionary action by the proletariat here is seen as the solution against the violence of the upper class in defence of oppression:
“Question 14: Let me go back to the sixth question. As you wish to prepare for community of property by the enlightening and uniting of the proletariat, then you reject revolution?
Answer: We are convinced not only of the uselessness but even of the harmfulness of all conspiracies. We are also aware that revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily but that everywhere and at all times they are the necessary consequence of circumstances which are not in any way whatever dependent either on the will or on the leadership of individual parties or of whole classes. But we also see that the development of the proletariat in almost all countries of the world is forcibly repressed by the possessing classes and that thus a revolution is being forcibly worked for by the opponents of communism. If, in the end, the oppressed proletariat is thus driven into a revolution, then we will defend the cause of the proletariat just as well by our deeds as now by our words.”
During the revolution, Marx advocated armed uprisings to protect democratic gains against legally enshrined feudal priviledges. The phrase he used for the resulting power arrangment was the “Dictatorship of the Democracy.” After the March revolution of 1848 a dual power existed in Prussia. This meant that there were democratic assemblies, a National Assembly, that vied for power with the older government. Marik: “The establishment of a Liberal cabinet had not come about because of the constitutional agitations but because of the March Revolution, which breached feudal legality. The real reason for Liberal objection to the establishment of democracy was not that it was to come through dictatorship, but rather, that this dictatorship would give power to the exploited people. In a subsequent article Marx wrote that the National Assembly: ‘only needed everywhere to counter dictatorially the reactionary encroachments by obsolete Government in order to win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective.” (Marik, p.191)
The attitude of Marx, though not always the attitude of so-called Marxists, was always to adjust one’s theory in the light of experience. After the defeat of the revolution of 1848 Marx did just that. Remarkably, he never gave up on radical Democracy. This is the period where he formulates his idea of “Permanent Revolution,” or the idea that the most vulnerable and oppressed could forge by democratic means a polity that would end class divisions. In the context of a Europe dominated by governments that allowed no meaningful political participation by the masses, the only realistic attitude for a democrat was revolutionary. Only by attacking material inequality could a democracy be established where some were not more capable or powerful than others. This is the fruition of a long meditation in Marx’s life on the nature of democracy, a period that saw the writing of the Communist Manifesto, a period where Marx, so the legend has it, becomes a Marxist. Soma Marik remarks: “Both the dominant strategy of proletarian independence and hegemony, and the subordinate tactics involving occasional collaboration with the bourgeoisie were tried out in the revolution of 1848 and both were modified in the light of experience. What emerged was the final version of the strategy of permanent revolution explained most elaborately in the “Address of the Central Authority to the Communist League” of March 1850…’While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible… It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power… and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonism but the abolition of class.’” (Marx, cited in Marik, p141). Here Marx is addressing a society of revolutionaries. What do his words mean in context? Marik goes on to explain what actions went along with Marx’s permanent revolution line just prior to and just after his 1850 Address cited above. In the leadup to the events of 1848, Marx had to oppose multiple conspiracies within the radical democratic movement to general insurrection. Note in this passage how Marx feels the need for an armed working class at the moment when a democratic government is being threatened by an armed feudal reaction, and that in another context he argues against hasty action, preferring in Cologne to emphasize educational efforts, in each case the goal is to spread democratic governance and the enlightenment philosophy of equal rights for all. The thrust of Marx’s political project was to popularize and then defend from its enemies the widest possible democracy: the armed defense against reactionary counter revolution is what he meant by “dictatorship of the proletariat.” “Whenever the relation of force was clearly against the revolutionary people Marx was opposed to insurrection. For instance on September 25, 1848, when the authorities tried to provoke an insurrection, Marx prevailed on the Committee of Public Safety that they had helped to found, to retreat in good order. This may be contrasted with the event of September 11 to 13, when taking advantage of the popular discontent against the army Marx and other communists, acting through the Democratic Association and the Workers’ Society, demanded the mobilization of the civic guard and the direct election based on the universal suffrage of the Committee of Public Safety in order to fight counter revolution. Gerhard Becker points out that this was the only revolutionary governmental organization in 1848 composed of the people themselves. As the name indicates, Marx’s aim was to create a revolutionary democratic agency to carry out a thoroughgoing revolution. But the existing popular consciousness at the national level meant that in Cologne, an advanced outpost, he had to proceed slowly. In Cologne they followed a policy of building a Worker’s Society with its own paper, Freiheit und Arbeit, a Democratic Association, and the NRZ. From the beginning the latter functioned as a proletarian mouthpiece of the Democratic bloc in attacking feudal monarchist counter-revolution, but from the very first issue it also criticized the bourgeoisie for not being revolutionary.”” (Marik, p143). In the event, the Bourgeoisie, believing a broad franchise would mean the abolition of their privilege, drew back from revolution, leaving entrenched interests largely untouched. Germany would have a Kaiser for another 71 years. Revolutionaries had to decide whether to abandon the coalition between liberals and radicals. Navigating between capitulation to liberal monarchists and the abandonment of coalition politics, Marx and Engels plotted a middle path. The working class would be organized independently in coalition with liberal reformists until the working class movement was strong enough to assert itself politically. They utterly rejected conspiratorial politics then embodied by Banqui, who was a figure whose idea of a small revolutionary clique dominating society became then and now a bogeyman warning the people away from left politics. Leftists who now embrace that way of thinking are playing to conservative narratives.
It’s worth quoting Marik at length as she is one of the few people who have written about Marx’s theory in light of what Marx did in practice, in his actual organizing work. “After the failure of the revolution, when the Communist League regrouped in London, the balance sheet was drawn in the March Address. It pointed out that in general in the past revolution the petty-bourgeois democrats had hegemonized the working class. After insisting on the need for a proletarian party, it went on to explain that the worker’s party should march together with the petty-bourgeois democrats as long as the existing regime was not overthrown, but should organize separately the working class so that the petty bourgeois leaders could not consolidate the state with a few paltry reform measures. This process of unity and struggle with the petty bourgeois leaders had the aim of consolidating the proletariat and even winning over sections of petty bourgeois masses who at the beginning of the process followed the Democratic Party. The revolution was not to end with the conquest of state power by the proletariat. The immediate aftermath of the conquest of state power was seen as the concentration of the ‘decisive’ productive forces in the hands of the working class. Throughout this period of permanent revolution the task of the communists was to fight for the establishment and broadening of workers’ democracy backed by the proletariat in arms.” (Marik, pp144-145). Soma Marik’s Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism goes on in this way to provide a detailed accounting of Marx’s lifelong insistance on democratic control as the goal of the progressive movement and as the means of achieving that goal. She very rightly holds up the failures and notable successes of the movement for women’s rights within this broader democratic movement. It is perhaps textbook and cliche to note that once women were allowed into the workplace it became harder to deny them equality based on gender. Seldom is the story told of how brave women like Clara Zetkin’s engagement in the workers’ struggle enabled a burdgeoning feminist movement to get its feet. Soma Marik tells that story.
Our focus is different, so I’ll just urge you to buy and read Soma Marik. Her book is worth the effort ten times over. I want to finish the discussion of Marx here and move on to why the socialist movement in western Europe rejected democratic values. Naturally, many people identify Marx with the later course of that movement, with an undemocratic socialism based on economism and class antagonism. One can sympathize if people misunderstood the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat,” interpreting it as undemocratic. Late in their life Marx and Engels had to face a socialist movement that became less and less united in a commitment to radical democracy. I go back and forth with myself wondering what Marx and Engels could have done, if anything to counter this misunderstanding. I think Marx took radical Democracy for granted, and Engels just wasn’t aware that there was a problem, or couldn’t imagine a way to be relevant if he opposed the Lassallean tendency too overtly. If you have some insight into this, as always please @ me. I’ve already pointed out earlier that Capital should be read as an attack on the treatment of people as things, an affirmation of the need to treat all people, even the lowest in society, as having agency in their own lives. But what about Marx’s final political engagements? Again, I can’t in the space of this podcast do Marx’s whole development justice: you have to read Marik to get that. Let me just discuss briefly what Marx said about the Paris Commune, and we’ll move on.
In a sense we are justified to skip ahead like this. The 1850s and 60s were a time of ascendent reaction in Europe, with very little possibility for democratic politics. Aside from the possibility of Italian reunification that opened when Napoleon 3rd went to war with Austria, there was little reason for optimism, and the lack of opportunity likely accounts for the fact that through this period the phrase “dictatorship of the Proletariat” vanishes from Marx’s work. His writings of these decades are full of economics and invective against Russian imperialism. What’s more important still, Marx and Engels both considered the Paris Commune of 1871 to be the first real life example of what they meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat.
From his exile in London, Marx publicly and privately expressed his belief that the Paris uprising was a bad idea, because he thought it would fail. Nevertheless, once the Commune was established, Marx gave it his support and rallied the English working class to it. It is often the case that a progressive and democratic movement gets out over its skis. We will see this same situation in Spain in the 30s, and again this year if Sanders is the candidate in the general election. We’ll be visiting both topics in detail in later podcasts. In the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that because of the Paris Commune the Manifesto was in part outdated, and in the Russian version of the Manifesto in 1884 Engels had The Civil War in France, their masterful work on the Commune, published in the same volume. You get the idea: Marx and Engles were big time stans for the Commune.
The France of Napoleon 3rd, who was like the Trump of his time, had been suckered into starting a war with Prussia in 1870 because nationalists in France had objected to Bismark’s attempts to put an Austrian Habsburg on the throne of Spain after Queen Isabella was dethroned in a revolution. Does that seem silly? It was very silly. Prussia had just gotten done mopping up the much larger Army of Austria through the use of advanced technology: the train and the needle gun (Clark, pp538, 539, 548). Then the provisional government allowed the National Guard to be slaughtered by the Prussians by intentional bad battlefield tactics. In this context, their seizure of power later is shown for what it was: an act of insubordinate self defence. The first task of government is to protect the lives of its citizens, and when a government fails to do that, or intentionally harms its citizens, it loses any legitimate title to being a sovereign state. This is not the last time we will make that observation. Into this vacuum of legitimacy the proletariat stepped, and with this act they became the first government in history based in the working class.
Following the overthrow of the Bonapartiste regime on September 4th, 1870 a provisional government was set up by Louis-Adolphe Thiers and others at Versaille. For their part the socialists in Paris established a committee called the Republican Socialist Committee, emphasizing that what they wanted was to establish a public realm, a Republic, a polity consisting in a publicly owned set of ressources. Quote Marik: “This Committee demanded, by a manifesto, the municipal elections, the control of the police by the municipalities, the elections and control of all the magistrates, absolute freedom of the press, public meeting and association, and so on.” (Marik, p202). The resulting elections saw rural France sending to Paris some 400 monarchists, a reactionary majority. The rural peasants of France still did not trust Parisian Republicans after the terrible mismanagement of the French Revolution. We have mentioned how stupid that revolution was. The left had a mere 150 delegates, but among them were the best revolutionaries of their time: Victor Hugo, Louis Blanc, Gambetta and Garibaldi. All the greats. More importantly, the city was protected by the National Guard, an army of citizen soldiers. On March 18th, 1871 the provisional government tried to seize the cannons of the National Guard, who promptly revolted. There’s the dictatorship of the proletariat Marx was talking about: an armed body of workers taking over the defence of the nation when the ruling class had proven that it could or would not. The Central Committee in Paris didn’t miss a beat and continued planning municipal elections. In those elections, out of a total of 90 seats the socialists and radicals got 60 with the liberals getting 18. These elections resulted in a body with a representation that was not majority working class, but which was majority radical. The composition of this body was nevertheless four times more working class than any parliament before it. According to Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat was achieved once the National Guard had seized Paris. Why? Because they were defending a democratic movement in Paris from a reactionary government that sought to suffocate it. Once again the source of a state’s sovereignty is civil society. At that moment, with elections still to come, no state had been established, but civil society was poised to provide one. The Commune had been rudely thrown into existence largely by forces beyond it.
Crucially, the dictatorship of the proletariat thus formed depended for its existence on its ability to lead all the other classes of society, not in France as it turned out, but in Paris. The results of the municipal elections were due to all layers of society rallying to the cause of the Parisian proletariat. At least that is the version Marx claims as exemplifying his political project. We’ll get into the abstract nature of the working class later. The point is that the dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx understood it required working class leadership of all society, and the accomodation of a plurality of interests. Marik remarks on how the middle classes of Paris were convinced to rally to a working class government: “The past few months had shown that the French bourgeoisie, in pursuing a narrow class goal, was going against the national interest. In the first place, they refused to put up a resolute defense against the Prussians for fear of a radical revolution. Moreover, in accepting the German terms, including the payment of a massive indemnity, the Thiers government decided to float an internal loan. Newspaper reports claimed that the bankers who were prepared to back the loan also agreed to give Thiers and others 300 million francs as commision. Again, on March 10, 1871, the National Assembly adopted a law on overdue bills which set a seven-month moratorium for payments on security made from August 13 to November 12, 1870. No moratorium was allowed for payment on securities contracted after November 12. This meant that workers, the petty bourgeoisie, small traders and small industrialists were hard hit, while big capital was not. Finally, the National Assembly also refused to defer the payment of house rents any further. Such were the concrete events which pushed the lower middle classes towards the proletariat. But this proletarian hegemony was established partly by default of the upper classes, without adequate preparation on the part of the proletariat itself.” (Marik, p204)
After 1871 the socialist movement in Europe, having lost much of the generation who remembered 1848, and having had multiple disappointments with democracy, lost it’s connection to the tradition of radical democracy that originally informed Marx and Engels. We face a similar problem now. When people make criticisms of democratic institutions, one can rarely tell if the criticism aims at gaining real democracy or at giving up on it all together. Liberal hypocrisy is real, but does that mean we should give up on human rights as though they were nothing more than a lie some people use to get power?
In a future podcast, we will talk about the German Revolution. One of the really interesting figures from that revolution was Arthur Rosenberg. Rosenberg was a historian of ancient Rome until he was drafted into WW1. After Germany’s defeat in 1918, Rosenberg joined first the Independent Social Democratic Party, and then the Communist Party of Germany [KPD]. He was part of the far left wing part of the KPD in 1924, the part of the party that was still calling for a Socialist seizure of power. Around 1925 he began to argue that the German Socialist Workers Party had figured out a better strategy for representing workers’ interests because revolution was then impossible (http://sdonline.org/30/arthur-rosenberg-1889-1943-history-and-politics-between-berlin-and-new-york/).. He left the KPD in 1927, disgusted at the domination of the KPD by Moscow. When the Nazi’s took power he fled Germany, finding teaching posts in Liverpool and later Brooklyn. He died in 1943, and his books went through a period of renewed interest in the 60s.
In the another podcast I’ll discuss the democratic successful Russian revolution and the undemocratic failed German revolution. I can’t help but think that Rosenberg’s later historical writings must have been preoccupied with why his revolution failed. The answer, it seems to me, is for the same reason that the Black Panthers’ revolution sputtered out: they didn’t compel a big enough part of society. Here is how Arthur Rosenberg understood the development of socialist politics after the failure of the Paris Commune:
“The Berlin workers honoured the memory of the March dead, the barricade fighters who had fallen on March 18, 1848, in the same manner as the Parisian proletarians kept alive the memory of the Commune. Nevertheless the socialist workers of the German Empire had no vital connection with 1848 and consequently the example of that revolution could teach them nothing concerning the present… In France the radical workers were unable to forget that the June struggles of 1848 as well as the suppression of the Commune of 1871 had taken place with the approval of an assembly elected by general suffrage. Napoleon III had employed general suffrage in order to bestow a semblance of popular approval on his shady Empire. In 1867 Bismarck had introduced general suffrage for the Reichstag of the North German Confederation, and in 1871 for the new German Empire. From the point of view of the revolutionary labour movement the results were extremely wretched. The German people continued to present Reich-Chancellor Bismarck with the majorities which he desired. As far as any larger opposition parties existed in the German Reichstag, they represented the interest of the liberal capitalists or of the Catholic petty bourgeoisie. Now general suffrage no longer appeared to be such a menace to the monarchies and the wealthy upper classes...Anyone who judges the historical facts of the nineteenth century objectively must undoubtedly come to the conclusion that the social significance of general suffrage was greatly exaggerated before 1848 and just as greatly underrated afterwards. The temptation to consider general suffrage as something which would automatically work wonders was too great to be resisted. When the miracles failed to materialize, as is easily understood, the entire arrangement fell into discredit. Actually general suffrage cannot work wonders, but can only function within the limits permitted by the social structure existing in a country. If a completely ignorant group of people, unable to read or write, having no understanding of political concepts, and kept in a state of ideological and economic subjection, suddenly receives the franchise, it is incapable of deriving any advantage from it… [Personal Note: when we talk about Russia and managed democracy this bit about Napoleon III will come back to bite us]... General suffrage has just as little value in more developed countries if the government is in a position to falsify the election results at will or to nullify the propaganda of the opposition by means of police suppression. France under Napoleon III furnishes the classic example of such employment of general suffrage… In 1882 Engels considered it unnecessary to demonstrate the historical bond which united his own socialist movement with the democratic past, since there were no longer any social classes anywhere in Europe, with the exception of Russia, which could have been moved by an appeal to the traditions of revolutionary democracy.” (Rosenberg, Democracy and Socialism, pp 219-221, 217.)
So it happened that in 1914 the Russian SDP alone in Europe represented the radical Democratic Marxist position. That is the story we will tell in upcoming podcasts: the story of Lenin the small ‘d’ democrat.
Draper, Hal, and Dan Gallin. The two souls of socialism. Highland Park, MI: International Socialists, 1966.
Israel, Jonathon I. The Enlightenment that Failed. Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748–1830, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2019.
Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Ri͡azanov, David Borisovitch. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Vol. 5. Martin Lawrence, 1927.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. New York, Knopf, 1939.
Music by: Harry Koniditsiotis
June 2nd, 2020 | 1 hr 3 mins
abolition, berniesanders, black reconstruction, conjure feminism, deep roots, democratic, eric foner, kinitra brooks, memphis, socialist, spinoza
“Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;-
O miserable Chieftain! Where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; no thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou has great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.” (Jones, The Common Wind, p. ix).
This podcast has several sections. First I’m going to discuss conjure feminism and my appreciation of it from the standpoint of a Spinozist, myself, who believes in eternal life. Then I’m going to discuss the history of the United States through its most important part being the history of Black liberation, and the role that socialists played in it. Then I’ll discuss my own specific place in all of this, starting from a sociological study of southern racism to the history of Memphis TN as I know it. Let’s dive in.
“Kinitra D. Brooks is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio” reads the back cover of her 2018 collection of essays entitled Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror. It’s a book about recognizing the accomplishments of Black women in horror fiction. It’s a book that reveals a new canon of writing that one hopes is entering the mainstream. People may recognize names such as Octavia Butler, Gloria Naylor, Tananarive Due, Nnedi Okorafor and others. It is also a book about people who come back to life, about zombies and ghosts. I found this book after attending a conference, the Spindell Philosophy conference in 2019 entitled: "Black Feminist Figures: Interventions and Inheritances." I felt like I was a freshman just learning about Philosophy for the first time, like a new world was being revealed to me. The world that was being revealed to me was folded into the one I lived in, somehow corresponding point for point with my own but hidden until now. Dr. Brooks was articulating a system of thought called conjure feminism. Now, I’m not an expert on this newly developing school of thought. You should read Kinitra D. Brooks. But I was struck by a couple of ideas she was putting forward from this discourse: they have become an important part of how I, with a very different identity, have come to see the world. The first idea was that of the epistemological exclusion of Black women’s knowledge traditions, and the second idea that goes along with it is the idea of intergenerational ethics, a collective responsibility for the actions of our family, our community. What was done by and to Black women in the past has been written out of history, often with the intention of hiding crimes or of ignoring human endeavors of real merit. Conjure feminists are excavating the knowledges of their ancestors in a project that gets at the core of and questions the foundations of philosophy. The project of lifting up the voices of Black people from the past has become for me a sine qua non, an essential condition, of any progressive politics. Consider the first sentence of Black Lives Matters activist Charlene A. Carruther’s canonical 2018 book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements: “Unapologetic is an offering to our ancestors, my family, our movement, and the generations who will hold the struggle for Black liberation to come.” (XIII).
Kinitra Brooks wrote a must read article about epistemological exclusion and embodied knowledge in emergence magazine. https://emergencemagazine.org/story/myrtles-medicine/ In that essay Dr. Brooks discusses her journey of self discovery as she unearths a knowledge of her own great-grandmother. “Existing within me is a powerful urge to rediscover the folkways that transitioned with her death. It’s an urge that helps direct me to discover spiritual traditions through which my Mama Myrt may guide me from the ancestral plane. It is for me to help reconnect the line of healers in our family: to strengthen what has frayed and to reveal what has been covered by my family’s own fight for respectability and formal education. And so I use the formalized intellectual pursuits so hard-won by my grandparents and parents and interweave them with the folk traditions and medicines that were privileged by my great-grandmother. The more I learn about my great-grandmother, the more I come to understand the rootworking tradition to be a vital yet undervalued form of knowledge for our times. My family’s journey to recover our ancestral lineage reflects the active and ongoing search for lost knowledge in the work of generations of Black feminist thinkers.” In terms of intergenerational responsibility for past actions, Dr. Brooks’ great-grandmother Myrtle gave us a useful shorthand for the problem. From Brooks: “Hey baby, who’re your people?” It’s a very personal story, but in the making public of what Dr. Brooks knows from her great-grandmother the reader is taught about a story that had been pushed away, suppressed and considered unimportant. Black women’s stories, the excluded stories of oppressed people in general, stories in my life that are not traditional cis white male, normal, publicly owned and affirmed, these stories are an enormous part of all of us. It’s maybe the majority of what our lives are made of.
I was also struck by the apparent tension between this work and what one would call a rationalist position. During the Q&A people wanted to know if the assertion that conjure feminists are making that they communicate with their ancestors doesn’t contradict reason. Dr. Brooks took a nuanced view, claiming that her people are practical and that rather than her thought being irrational she prefers to call it non-rational. (https://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/event/colloquium-kinitra-brooks-conjure-womans-garden-black-womens-rootworking-traditions). She’s keeping a connection to the rational, as the bringer of science and food, but challenging our understanding of the rational as exclusionary towards Black women’s knowledge, connection to the ancestors.
I didn’t find anything irrational about the idea of communicating with the ancestors, but it’s because I am convinced by Spinoza’s proof of eternal life.
Here is that argument in a nutshell. All that happens materially is part of an infinite sequence. One way of getting an idea of the infinity of the material sequence is to perceive that we do not know the beginning of the events we experience, and we do not know their end. Likewise the mental events we experience are part of an infinite sequence. The events of our lives are physical and mental, and sometimes both, in the happy event that we correctly understand something. Both sequences begin before and continue after the limited experience we would have to call our self. That self is a finite part of the whole, meaning it is limited in space and time, but the sequence extends infinitely before and after our lives. That sequence is something we partake in but cannot exhaust. Just as the physical consequences of our lives go on after our death, so too do the mental consequences. The ideas we have do not come from us alone, come to us from an infinite past and contribute to an infinite future. To put all of this in simpler terms, we survive our death in the consequences of our life for other people, in the impact we’ve had on them and in their memory of us. On Spinoza’s account the more we uplift our fellows the closer we grow into the likeness of God, who Spinoza identifies with the power of the Universe, the path towards a greater personal freedom lying straight through the struggle for collective freedom. This isn’t an afterlife that will satisfy the simple religious scriptures: it is not the persistence of our limited, finite selves in some other world. But it does mean that we are always in communication with what came before, most proximally our ancestors, and that our actions continue to contribute after our death to the ongoing creation of world history. Conjure feminists are relevant to all of us, not just to Black women, because Black women lived, acted in their own right, in ways that still impact all of us though we may be unaware of them. As a white anglo-saxon protestant Southern male, not knowing and recognizing the importance of Black history is to not know myself. That this intergenerational movement tends towards a greater freedom for all of humanity is my faith, and that’s why I claim Harriet Tubman or Toussaint Louverture. Their fight is mine, because the fight to put an end to the historical consequences of slavery is the fight white southerners must fight to reclaim their own humanity. We are together in that our fate hinges on that of these United States of America.
These days you watch the news and have to wonder what does it mean to be an American. The President has decided that the federal government can do nothing to prevent or address the crisis. Is America just a great big pyramid scheme where Trump and his family sit atop a throne of bones? I’ll start with the big picture of what I take to be the meaning of American history, and then I’ll narrow the focus in all the way down to myself. The meaning of America is the liberation of the slaves. So there are competing Americas, and that’s why we should all be grateful that in 2019 Eric Foner blessed the world with the enlightening and erudite history of the reconstruction entitled The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.
As discussed previously, the enslaved people of the United States took advantage of the opportunity the civil war presented them to take up arms, to stop work and strike against the monstrous southern economy and then to organize to fight for their rights. The whites who fought the civil war on the side of the North were transformed by their experience. They had started fighting the war to preserve the union, but then they fought and died side by side with Blacks in a terrible war. The experience of the civil war and the continued southern resistance to reconstruction pushed the politics of the Republican party to the left. Remember that the Republicans then were the progressives, the party of Lincoln, the party of preserving the union, and then by the mid 1860s the party of abolition. To demonstrate the intensity of this political shift, consider that Lincoln was the left wing of the possible in the Republican party in 1860 and his plan was (1) not allowing the spread of slavery west, and (2) slowly liberating the slave while forcing them to leave the US in a scheme they called ‘colonization.’ By 1870 the Republicans had, over armed resistance of half the country, passed amendments that ended slavery, defined the formerly enslaved as birthright citizens and formally gave them the right to vote. I would suggest that these were not moral giants who by the force of intellect and will gained enlightenment. It was in the fight itself, in being seized by the machinery of history, that they found old beliefs and attitudes would no longer serve. They revisited the foundation of this nation, its constitution, with three key amendments, 13, 14, 15.
The 13th Amendment states that slavery or “involuntary servitude” shall not exist in the United States “except as punishment for a crime.” If you haven’t seen the documentary “13th” you should. It’s about how our justice system systematically targets black people and how once they are in that system they can lose their freedom and their right to vote. The language for this exemption was very common in American law going back to Thomas Jefferson’s never enacted Land Ordinance of 1784 (p. 46). The 13th amendment has allowed racist individuals to abuse their positions in the legal system to reenslave Black people. Incidentally, the left needs to start running progressives for sheriff everywhere: we’re really abandoning black people to racists when we disengage from races where law enforcement officials are voted into office. The early founding fathers thought that forced labor would give prisoners a reason to be proud and was preferable to solitary confinement, branding or execution, but by the 1860s this language was adopted unconsciously because it was such common legal language. Jefferson had failed to convince the other draftees of the Declaration of Independence to accept his statements there denouncing the institution of slavery, so he tried to pass what legislation he could to limit it, hence the land ordinance. Philosophically, the idea of making criminals work is premised on natural rights: if you infringe on someone’s rights, say to property or life, then by the logic of your own act your rights are forfeit. Ta Nehisi-Coates makes this same kind of argument in favor of reparations: that a formerly enslaved people had the product of their labor systematically taken from them via red lining, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, and that the rest of society has benefited from that expropriation and should repay that wealth. This is an argument that Marx makes, and before him Locke: the property rights of the very wealthy can be violated without breaking the spirit of property rights, because that wealth was built on the exploitation of the labor of the very poor. The right to property, according to Locke and Adam Smith, is based on the idea that when you mix up your labor with natural objects you have a right to the product. Now, the 13th amendment said that the slaves were free according to the highest law of the United States, in an Amendment that could not be overturned by Congress, the President or the Supreme Court. What exactly it meant to no longer be a slave is an ongoing debate. There was an enormous body of law that applied to the slaves, and deeply entrenched social practices on top of that. The case law after reconstruction that addressed what it meant legally for slavery to be ended produced a “separate but equal” justification for segregation, but it also gave us language to the effect that the second article of the 13th amendment gave congress the power to legislate to get rid of “the badges and incidents of slavery.” That language, the constitutional right that congress has to address the ongoing material legacy of slavery, has mostly remained a dead letter (p. 170). The biggest thing to come out of it was the law in 2009 defining a hate crime. It’s staggering to imagine that congress had the legal power to oppose Jim Crow on the grounds that it was a holdover from slavery and chose not to until the middle of the 20th century. The 13th amendment for all of its clear flaws, gives us resources to fight legally against mass incarceration, and if anyone is interested in addressing all the unpaid labor that women traditionally have done in the domestic sphere, the 13th amendment gives us resources to fight for that also because it explicitly outlaws “involuntary servitude.” The enforcement of the 13th amendment was all but nil in the US after reconstruction, and what that enforcement could mean or look like is still very much an open question, and one that will be decided by future elections.
Because the republican congress during reconstruction passed some laws that let some black people vote, the 14th amendment was the first amendment that black people could vote for or against. The 14th is the first place in the constitution where citizenship is defined, and it’s very broadly defined as people born in the United States. The 14th is the first place where the constitution guarantees citizens equal protection under the law, which was the principle for instance behind the recent decision that gay marriage should be legal. The 14th also guarantees equal protection not to citizens, but to persons and that is why immigrants have legal rights even if they aren’t citizens. All of this is undeniably progressive, but the 14th casts a shadow as well. The 14th also says that states who deny the vote to black males will have the number of representatives they are allowed reduced proportionally. They never enforced that part, but it had an important impact anyway. It explicitly uses the term “male,” and thereby excludes women from voting. The debate over this language split the abolitionist movement. Wendell Phillips is famous for having said they had to take on one issue at a time and that “this hour belongs to the Negro.” To which Elizabeth Cady Stanton replied “Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?” (Kazin, p. 55). She used some racist language while arguing that Black men shouldn’t be given the vote before white women. Later, the women’s suffrage movement advanced in the 1910s in part through an alliance with Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, a party that explicitly excluded black people (Lepore, p. 387). Some, even a great many, suffragettes used the argument that more white women voting would help strengthen white centered identity politics, and even had success in this way getting women the right to vote. Holy White Feminism Batman! I’m not going into it very deeply. That’s a subject for a whole nother set of podcasts. I just want to point out that coalition politics is hard, and that if the interests of different groups intersect in places it’s likely they diverge in others. This is why it’s important to know what you’re about, and what your coalition partners are about - and how far they support what you support. When the Combahee River Collective in 1977 proclaimed “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity… If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” they were pointing out that freedom for Black women would require freedom for both Black men and white women, and they were echoing Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s point. Black women are at the intersection of race and gender. I don’t read that as an intentional erasure of how whiteness has been used as a wedge between abolitionists and feminists, or of how Chinese immigrants were regularly thrown under the bus in compromises like the 14th amendment that said you couldn’t deny voting rights to Black men but didn’t say that all persons or citizens had voting right.
The language of the 14th and 15th amendments doesn’t provide a positive affirmation of voting rights, and that has been the cause of much evil. The Republican majority that passed the 15th amendment explicitly believed that the south would not pass requirements for voting registration that would be so difficult that Blacks would be disenfranchised, which is exactly what happened. Those reconstruction Republicans thought so long as requirements had to be equally applied the south would refrain because prohibitively high bars for voting registration would limit the voting rights of poor white southerners too. In the event, wealthy and politically powerful southern whites rather liked the fact that poor southern whites would also have great difficulty voting. The whole dynamic in the post war south was that the powerful had to split poor whites from Blacks to maintain the rigid social hierarchy. The great difficulty of the 15th amendment was that though it’s second article gave congress the power of enforcement, the supreme court case law that interpreted that amendment left enforcement to the states. In the south that meant disenfranchisement until the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But at the same time that civil rights movement was successful in part because Black people who moved out of the south could vote based on 15th amendment protections and voted together with Northern liberals. It’s a bit like rock climbing: you have to get a foot hold before you can lift yourself up.
In 1865 General Sherman famously gifted confederate land to some of the formerly enslaved, but the land was taken back by confederates later. In the years immediately following the civil war in a very few places formerly enslaved Blacks squatted on the land. Michael Kazin’s 2011 book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation cites Bayley Wyatt, spokesman for one of these initiatives in Yorktown, Virginia: “We has a right to the land were we are located… Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; that the reason we have a divine right to the land… And then didn’t we clear the land, and raise the crops of corn, of cotton, of tobacco, of rice, of sugar, of everything?” (p. 59) Such initiatives were the exception rather than the norm. For the moment, the majority of Black folk put their hopes in the newly acquired rights of voting and of individual property. When those rights seemed elusive the fight for them tended to preoccupy progressives. Socialist takeovers of factories and collectivization of agriculture were not on the horizon, but social progress was. The whole country seemed to have been exhausted by the effort of freeing the formerly enslaved. Many abolitionists retired from political life. Others like Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony went on to focus on fighting to protect and expand voting rights.
Other abolitionists like Wendell Phillips moved from abolition to the fight for labor rights. The struggle for the eight-hour day had begun. Karl Marx had written a letter to Abraham Lincoln congratulating him on the emancipation proclamation and had gotten a very nice letter back from the state department. In the late 1860s with Marx’s encouragement the headquarters of the International Workingmen’s Association moved from London to New York (p.54). The IWA and Marx were important to keeping Britain out of the war on the side of the south. English industry at the time was particularly dependent on cotton, and the workers of Manchester suffered terribly during these years. The British ruling class was sympathetic to the southern cause, but could not overcome the public’s sympathy for the northern cause and for the plight of the enslaved Blacks in America. Marx’s abolitionism is not well enough understood, but lucky for us that in 2010 the University of Chicago Press published Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins: on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, which includes an entire chapter devoted to Marx’s thinking about the Civil War and race. The 1860s was the decade Marx finished Capital Volume 1, and during this time Marx also produced a great deal of writing about the Civil War, writings that sadly have not gotten much attention. He believed that the civil war had prepared the way for future socialist revolutions, but he didn’t simply apply class categories to the US. He didn’t try to recast enslaved people as some kind of proletariat before he started thinking. He started with the actual conditions in America. The usual European categories didn’t apply. Instead, the constant influx of immigrants deepened the divide between skilled and unskilled labor. Indeed, when the next mass labor movement occured in America it was with the leadership of the Knights of Labor whose great innovation was organizing skilled and unskilled labor, including Black and White workers. That generation led massive labor strikes embracing a multi-ethnic labor movement, a movement that founded May Day to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre (Mason, pp. 108-147) and that founded International Proletarian Women’s Day to commemorate a 1908 protest of women workers in NYC (Marik, p.111). I’m going to post a bibliography in the transcripts so that people can read all of the books.
Socialists may have agreed on better labor conditions for white workers, but not all socialists were as sympathetic to Black workers or as interested in issues of race. There was plenty of material to muster an argument against support for the North in the Civil War. As of 1860 the northern United States was advancing a colonialist project in the west and exploiting wage labor in a growing industrial sector organized along capitalist principles, but Marx was early and consistent in his support for the northern war effort. Other Marxists, like Eugene Genovese would denounce this Marx as an aberration and as a liberal (p. 82). Genovese is not the only Marxist who preferred a Marx that put class over race: he was part of a tradition of white socialism. Many of the German emigres to the United States were silent about slavery or openly in opposition to abolition (p.84). I want to challenge socialists to give Marx some serious study, because he was a democrat who opposed slavery and because that set him apart from his fellow radicals and from many who carry his flag today. The reduction of all political contests to class has blinded many socialists to the very real vulnerability race and racism poses to all working people, and led many socialists to sacrifice helping oppressed people in order to sharpen contradictions, heighten tensions or accelerate history and other such nonsense.
I can hear my old comrades now lecturing me about the limits of reform and the need for revolution. They would say that you don’t have to be an accelerationist to see that incremental change exists to preserve more fundamental inequalities. I would say that incremental change helps us reach new horizons and gives us strength to address fundamental inequalities. Real quick let’s get something straight. The world needs revolutionary change. But telling people that revolution is what they need right now right now, at a moment when fascists control the White House, is like telling someone who just had a heart attack that they need to run a marathon. Yes, if they could run a marathon that would be better, but there has to be something they can do now to prepare themselves for running a marathon. There has to be a political equivalent of eat more fruits and vegetables and go for a walk every now and then.
That being said I still believe voting is not enough. People tend to think that we have power because we have representation in government. But this is actually not correct. Our representatives have power because we give it to them. Lincoln is the prime example. His emancipation proclamation was simply legal recognition for a free state the former slaves had already achieved in part. Lincoln was not even the most progressive Republican running for the nomination. His opponent William H. Seward was the only abolitionist candidate for President, but Lincoln could be managed by the democratic upsurge of the people. The Democrat, read conservative and proslavery, candidate John C. Breckinridge later ended up fighting for the Confederacy. A Breckenridge presidency would have been a disaster. You don’t get a civil war if Breckinridge is president, and for much the same reason that you won’t have a civil war if there’s a second Trump term. A reactionary president who wants to undo reconstruction has plenty of ways to legally and illegally advance that agenda. The period from reconstruction to the civil rights movement saw the accumulation of a mountain of legal precedent to allow states to strip Black people of almost every right they enjoy today, and all of that is in the realm of political possibility. White supremacy doesn't have to declare war at that point to get what they want. Trump wins by crippling our government and destroying legal norms. Lincoln was the moderate who could be forced to radical action in the face of events created by we the people. As Frederick Douglass said of him: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed hardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him from the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesmen to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” (Blight, pp. 7,8).
Marxists who are class first fundamentalists misunderstand the concept of class as such. Marx developed the concept of the working class to express human solidarity in a novel way. It was normal in his day for white people to act together in their own interests, or for British people to act together in their own interests. During Marx’s time in England he noticed that the struggle to better the lives of British workers was constantly undermined by the existence of an Irish undercaste. Engels wrote extensively about the plight of the Irish under British colonial rule even before the great famine of 1845-1849 during which England exported massive amounts of food from Ireland as a potato blight ravaged a basic Irish staple food. A million and a half people died and another million emigrated (pp. 117-118). Marx and Engels came to understand that Irish nationalism and the fate of the British working class were entangled. The stronger the Irish nation was, the better able Irishmen would be to demand a fair wage, and British workers then wouldn’t have to accept lower wages to compete with impoverished Irishmen. But so long as the British ruling class could convince British workers to take pride in their social position over the Irish, they would be unable to win shorter working hours and better pay. Racism was a trap to keep the working class divided and conquered. It’s probably from these considerations that Marx was able to perceive that emancipation in the southern United States was a victory for the workers of the whole world. The idea of an international working class is based on humanistic, that is liberal values of democracy and human rights. Marxists who think from humanistic values consider the material conditions first, use class categories to better understand the tensions in society that allow for the possibility of change, and then act to build momentum to lift up the most vulnerable. Marxists who start the other way around, with ossified class categories they impose on the facts, often believe that people of one nation are more proletarian than people of another nation are, and reproduce the same racist divisions the capitalists use to divide us. We’ll be speaking more about this dynamic in podcasts to come.
In so many ways the second founding, still incomplete, brought America back to what it had always claimed it was. Because slavery was so clearly a contradiction of the explicit ideals the founders had put forward in the Declaration of Independence, of freedom, equality and democracy, the constitution before the 13th amendment only refers to slavery euphemistically. The amendment outlawing slavery is the first time the word “slavery” appears in the constitution. Now, all those years the southern states denied the right to vote to black people with poll taxes and such. If you haven’t seen the movie Selma, you really ought to. There is a heartbreaking scene where the character played by Oprah Winfrey tries to register to vote, and they make her recite the bill of rights from memory, and they continue with such tests until she inevitably fails. All that time no state was ever penalized as provided for under the 14th amendment, but since the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been struck down and Alabama recently wanted to close all the offices in majority black counties where you could get a drivers license at the same time that they made having a drivers license mandatory to vote, maybe we ought to look at enforcing that part of the 14th amendment? What’s clear is that the intentions of the framers of the second founding amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments was not really honored until the civil rights movement, and those amendments have a lot of potential that remains untapped. Those amendments disrupted racist social patterns and thereby racist attitudes in the North and West. The changed attitudes of whites in the North and West gave the civil rights movement a base of support broad enough to pass legislation protecting civil rights in the 1960s. It should then be expected that this legislation would change racial attitudes in the south, and lucky for us 2018 saw the publication of a deeply researched book that documents just that.
I need to uplift here for all of you the excellent 2018 book Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen. You guessed it: it’s a book about the way the history of slavery has crippled democracy in the US South. If you don’t have time for the whole book, you can watch the authors discussing it from a link I’ll post in the transcripts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiMiq2rxJPk
There’s an impulse among white Americans, and this is true of Southerners and Northerners, to believe the legacy of slavery is largely in the past. There’s another impulse to believe that the politics and culture of white supremacy haven’t changed at all since the founding of the United States. Both of these attitudes are wrong, and they both lead us to inaction. Narratives that declare that nothing ever changes allow us to never try and change anything. They are lazy narratives and should have no place in progressive organizing. The antidote is more knowledge to see how things have changed and to see the present moment as dynamic and charged with potential. Let’s go back to Epicurus and understand that at the bottom of everything is the swerve.
I am a Southerner born and raised. I’m a white cis male. Most everyone I know in that category had an uncle who swore up and down that the civil war was not about slavery, but about states rights. The history books happen to be unequivocal on this subject: the civil war was fought because the southern states felt they had the right to uphold slavery. Later, after the passage of the 15th amendment giving black men the right to vote, congress had to pass laws in 1870 and 1871 to protect southern blacks against the violent terrorism of the Klu Klux Klan. Southerners cried that this was a violation of states rights. States rights arguments are not always and necessarily about race, but after the civil war white supremacy always used arguments based on states’ rights. In those first few years the federal government sent agents into the south and arrested hundreds of klansmen, brought thousands of criminal cases, forced the klan’s leadership into exile and effectively broke the organization. But the northern states lost their taste for enforcing reconstruction, and by the end of the century Jim Crow descended on the South. The Civil Rights Movement was largely an attempt to call the United States back to order, back to enforcing the legal rights secured in the second founding, which was explicitly an attempt to recall the country to its rationalist ideals of human rights, freedom and democracy.
It won’t be a surprise to many of you that racism in the South goes together with conservative politics and states rights like beans and cornbread. But there are places and times in the south when a progressive politics has asserted itself. Acharya et al. offer us an explanation for why white people living in the Black Belt where chattel slavery was most prevalent have remained much more conservative than white people living anywhere else. They explain this by way of “Behavioral Path Dependence,” which basically says that social practices are self reinforcing. The attitudes and beliefs that made white identities in the context of slavery and then Jim Crow were prevalant in these regions and did not simply disappear with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. That is fairly intuitive. It is keenly interesting that the passage of these laws did disrupt patterns of white supremacy and thereby changed attitudes, especially in places that before the civil war did not rely intensively on slave labor. We often think that it works the other way around: that we have to change the culture and then the laws will easily follow. But while progressive ideals, at least certain ones, seem to have carved out a fiefdom on social media and in entertainment, they’ve largely left racist and reactionary attitudes intact: conservatives have their own media.
Deep Roots is not a work of popular nonfiction. It is a deeply researched reference of hard data that meticulously documents (1) “that Southern whites who live in areas where slaveholding was more prevalent are today more conservative, more cool to African Americans, and more likely to oppose race-related policies that many feel could potentially help blacks…  that these attitudes grew out of the historical incentives to subjugate African Americans -- incentives that strengthened through the antebellum period and morphed in the postbellum period into significant institutional and social customs designed to keep blacks in socially, politically, and economically marginalized positions… [and 3] that these divergent historical attitudes have been passed down over generations to create, in part, the contemporary political cultures we detect today. In other words, Americans’ political attitudes are in part a direct consequence of generations of ideas that have been collectively passed down over time, via institutions such as schools and churches and also directly from parents and grandparents… As we shall see, however, some outcomes have attenuated over time with interventions such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.” (p.14). There is a chain of mental events that began long before us and continues long after us, and the more we participate in it the closer we are to God. These laws helped to change racist attitudes. We tend to think that we have to change peoples’ attitudes before we can hope to pass laws, but the historical evidence is that attitudes formed over centuries of white supremacy are only superficially changed by persuasion campaigns. A lot of political science and political thought revolves around asking how can people be mobilized or persuaded. Instead, Deep Roots discusses how social practice and historical institutions like slavery can dominate public opinion across generations. In the words of Acharya and company: “Scholars and political analysts focus on… what contemporary factors serve to change people’s minds… the bulk of this research, which focuses on contemporary factors and contemporary interventions, implies that large changes in the political attitudes and behaviors of Americans are rare, costly, and short-lived.” (pp. 12-13). In a later podcast we will talk about how a well organized group of liberals were able to pass the Civil Rights Act, etc., but for the moment I just want to underscore that the research shows this legislation is one of the most important factors shifting public opinions on racial matters. The leaders of the civil rights movement can be applauded for pushing for these laws, and so I wouldn’t want to feed the narrative that white America was the agent behind any of this change. It’s complicated. We’ll get to it. We live in a political climate where people on the right and left more and more doubt that government can do anything to change the world we live in. It is good to point out how wrong that is, so that we don’t miss real opportunities to help.
The data leads the authors to conclude that the Civil War polarized the south between places with a low and a high slave population before the war. Before the Civil War density of slave population was a poor indicator of political leaning, with everyone who could vote tending to be pro-slavery (p. 110), but from the Civil War on the places where there had been higher numbers of enslaved people tended strongly to be more conservative (p. 116).
Acharya and company point out that East Tennessee had a lower slave population than West Tennessee. William Brownlow was from East Tennessee and served as governor from 1865 to 1869. His political path was typical. “Himself a slaveholder, Brownlow at that time argued that ‘God always intended the relation of master and slave to exist’ and that church and state ‘provided for the rights of owners, and the wants of slaves.’ However, Brownlow’s support for slavery conflicted with his strident pro-Union sentiment in the years leading up to the Civil War, during which he campaigned vigorously across the state trying to unite Tennesseans against secession and to cast slavery as an economic wedge issue. ‘The honest yeomanry of these border States, four-fifths of whom own no negroes and never expect to own any,’ he incredulously complained, ‘are to be drafted, forced to leave their wives and children to toil and suffer, while they fight for the purse-proud aristocrats of the Cotton States.’ After the war, Brownlow’s position on slavery changed yet again, and he aligned with abolitionist and republican institutions.’ Brownlow eventually became a Republican governor of Tennessee, developing an extremely testy relationship with cotton interests from the eastern parts of the state. His attitude throughout was representative of that of many upcountry whites: once defenders of the institution of slavery, they later came to oppose secession over the issue, all the while holding firm racist beliefs.” (p. 106). In the immediate aftermath of the civil war it was not clear if southerners who had not owned slaves would have more solidarity with white former slave owners or with their fellow toilers the newly freed slaves. Jim Crow came about to maintain the flow of wealth to a white minority by splitting the southern working class along race lines, and to ensure that the Black vote never communicated into political power. But Jim Crow took time to impose on the South because the North governed the south for several years after the Civil War as an occupying army. The eventual reintegration of the rebel Southern states after the Civil War was premised on a compromise whereby the South gave up outright slavery but was allowed to remain segregated in a strict racial hierarchy. The disciplining of black bodies by their slave masters became a public task, and the reliance on slave labor was in large part preserved by the way that the 13th amendment was applied in the South. That Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In other words, anyone who broke the law could be impressed into forced labor. The state took over the relationship of master to slave in the southern economy. A huge number of things was made illegal for black people, things like not having a job. If someone didn’t work, they could be arrested and forced by the state into servitude. Black people who organized for better wages or working conditions were lynched. Black people who tried to buy houses or land or who tried to vote could be lynched. Black people who went to the law for justice were lynched. The whole white community would publicly lynch such people in a carnival atmosphere. The resulting shared guilt reinforced racist attitudes which led to more lynchings. On February 23rd of 2020 in Brunswick Georgia Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead after two white men, not police, tried to arrest him while he was out jogging. Brunswick Georgia is part of Glynn County, which had an antebellum slave population of 2,839 and a white population of 825 according to the 1860 census, which is a very high slave population. The two murderers Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael saw Ahmaud run past their house and followed him on suspicion that he was responsible for a break in where Travis’ handgun was stolen from an unlocked truck. Gregory McMichael was a former cop, but the presumption that as a civilian they had the right to convict and execute Ahmaud without any evidence speaks to an older tradition of Jim Crow. The first prosecutor recused herself from the case, because she was friends with Mr. McMichael. The second prosecutor refused to arrest McMichael saying that McMichael’s actions were legally sanctioned under Citizen’s Arrest. Yes, we know that is how Jim Crow works: selective application of the law to give white people the power of life and death over black people. It’s unlikely McMichael would have been arrested and charged if a video of the lynching had not caused a public outcry. That being said, here’s a quick Public Service Announcement:
ahem My fellow white people,
When a video of a lynching comes out, don’t share it on social media. Share the story or a petition or a group to organize for justice, but do not share the video. Sharing a lynching snuff film on social media will cause terror to black people who see it, fulfilling the purpose of such a murder, which is to terrorize black people and reinforce the idea that their bodies are available for abuse by white people. I posted the video of Ahmaud Arbery in a moment where I was outraged at the injustice of it, and I immediately took it down when I saw black people on my timeline calling for us not to post it. They are right. End of PSA.
Shelby County in Tennessee is where I live. It had a population in 1860 that was 35% enslaved, which is fairly high. The story in Memphis is a little different. Here is how I understand it. If you want to know more, you should read Wanda Rushing’s Memphis and the Paradox of Place, Globalization in the American South, from which I learned most of what follows regarding Memphis history, and then follow that with Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South. One great thing about Zandria Robinson’s book is that as you read it you can take breaks to listen to some of the great Memphis hip hop she discusses. I learned a lot there about the recent cultural achievements in my own hometown.
Memphis was not the site of any major Civil War battle, though it was a major hub for trading cotton. The Yellow Fever epidemic destroyed the old city government. The place had no government for a decade during the 1870s. Anyone with money left town. What was left was a lot of poor Irish, Italians, Jews and Blacks who had to work together somehow to bury the thousands who were dying of the plague and thereby try to stop the disease from spreading. The way it was told to me was that locals sent out handbills to all the area around complaining that we had no hospital and no police. This attracted every imaginable sort of criminal. We still name certain neighborhoods after the men who came into the vacuum of legal institutions to establish themselves as city bosses: Rozelle-Annesdale for instance. E.H. Crump was probably the most important, and there’s a statue of him at the entrance to Overton Park. The parks and sewer system date from this time, when wealthy people from outside came in to make Memphis their property. They wanted big luxurious park spaces in the European style. They also wanted to commemorate a legacy of white supremacy which did not entirely fit the actual history of Memphis, but the idea of that legacy was important for justifying the dominance of the new regime which was white supremacist. That’s why they had the cotton festival. There was a parade where at each station some racist psychodrama was played out. At one station a Black man was depicted averting his gaze from a beautiful white woman. They named one of the parks after Nathan Bedford Forest, the founder of the KKK, buried him there and put up a statue of him riding a horse. In the sixties, when the city wanted to build an interstate through Overton Park some hippies and ladies clubs banded together and won a court case to stop it. That’s why Sam Cooper Boulevard dead ends at Overton Park. It was a landmark case that affected a lot of other places as well. In 1968 the national guard was called in to put down a sanitation workers’ strike, during which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In the decades since there’s been a lot of white flight to the suburbs, and south main was gentrified, or what they used to call urban renewal. After decades of activism trying to get the city to take down the statue of Nathan Bedford Forest, some of which I took part in, the statue was finally brought down thanks to social pressure generated by local activists like Tami Sawyer and political machinations by Mayor Jim Strickland. They sold the park to a private company who took the monument down. Privatization was used to dismantle white supremacy, how’s that for a plot twist?
I love my city. The food is good. The people are friendly, and there’s plenty of injustice to fight. I like to think we started out fighting the Yellow Fever together, and that all these uppity carpetbagging white supremacists are just hanging out until they can find their next grift somewhere else. Events here don’t usually make national news, and the local radical scene tends to be vaguely drawn back and forth by the larger progressive movement, but I think people have tended to focus on our local issues for better and for worse.
1977 was the year Elvis died, and a year later I was born. After I’m gone that big river will keep flowing without me, but I’ll have been a part of it. There is a chain of events that began long before us and continues long after us, and the more we participate in it the closer we are to God. If Spinoza is to be trusted then I’ll live on to the measure that my actions helped other people, and I like to think I’ve done some of that. I may do more, but I’ve learned to be humble. I found out trying to be the whole thing keeps you from even being as big a part as you can be. Just show up and work is my advice.
I’m not particularly attracted to activism that is specific to my identity. I haven’t been active working for veterans rights, although it’s a real crisis in this country. I’m a socialist, so all of these oppressions matter to me. In any given moment I lift up the most urgent issues, and usually that’s not anything personal to me. To me socialism is the idea that we are more free together, and that all of the problems matter. Deciding what to focus on at any given time is more about judging where one can make progress against the worst injustices. This podcast is part of an ongoing project of mine to understand and account for the socialist tradition. It requires some congratulations and some apologies. What ties all of this together for me personally is the idea of grace.
Spinoza’s idea of the afterlife includes a concept of grace, that when we make our lives about helping other people we participate in God, that the more we participate in God the more connected we are to that big river of time. I have to say I haven’t always made myself proud, but I’m going to keep trying until the day I die. My attitude to that is the attitude of all stoics: I don’t intend to be around when my death happens so it is of no concern to me. My time in the Navy, and my encounter with the people of the Middle East, changed the course of my life, and I hope we here in this country never lose sight of the million ways our fate is tied intimately to the fate of all people everywhere. I drank from the Nile, so the legend is I’ll always return there.
As noted before Spinoza’s conception of an afterlife doesn’t really satisfy people who want their small identity, who they are specifically, to go on up to heaven and continue to be them. In fact, according to Spinoza the more we let go of the idea that our little ‘me’ is important the more we participate in what never dies. It also doesn’t exactly satisfy people who worship their ancestors. The infinite sequence of events that we make up a small part of includes mostly people whom we are not directly related to. Spinozan grace, or a close relationship with God, is directly translatable to Marx’s idea of international solidarity. It includes all of the people who contributed to make the world you inhabit, all of those who grew the food and built the machines, all of those whose thoughts inspired the actions that created our nations, businesses, clubs and movements. All of those people are part of the past we inherit and bequeath. It includes the common wind that whispered ‘freedom’ to Toussaint Louverture and the sky over Epicurus’ garden. Look up any time you like and catch a glimpse of forever. No one person can see it all, and the more we participate in it, the more of ourselves we give to the course of human history, the more we have a share in eternal life.
If Ms. Myrtle were to ask me “Hey baby, who’re your people?” I might have to answer Spinoza. My great-great-grandfather was kidnapped by Norwegian pirates and jumped ship in NYC, but my family doesn’t speak Norwegian or celebrate constitution day on May 17th. I had to google when Norwegian independence day was. I might have to say Don is my people. Don is one of the great Memphians interviewed by Zandria
I attend to the African American experience in particular. The experience of having been enslaved, and now being less so, is the core of the rationalist experience and the best of the American project. The idea of Freedom is the highest passion, the passion we call reason. Reason demands of us that we work most of all for a greater share of freedom for the most downtrodden. The more you do that the greater share of grace you will have, the closer to the progressive action of God and the greater share of eternal life you will have. The Black experience of liberation, still incomplete, is something that always brings us back to this passion for freedom, something that always brings us back to reason.
Until our next episode, go join the activity of the social mass towards freedom and win for yourself riches in heaven.
Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. LSU Press, 1991.
Bloch, Ernst. Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left. Columbia University Press, 2018.
Brooks, Kinitra D. Searching for Sycorax: Black Women's Hauntings of Contemporary Horror. Rutgers University Press, 2018.
Brooks, Kinitra D., and Kameelah L. Martin, eds. The Lemonade Reader: Beyoncé, Black Feminism and Spirituality. Routledge, 2019.
Carruthers, Charlene. Unapologetic: A Black, queer, and feminist mandate for radical movements. Beacon Press, 2018.
Collective, Combahee River. 'A Black Feminist Statement'. na, 1977.
Kazin, Michael. American dreamers: How the left changed a nation. Knopf, 2011.
Lepore, Jill. These truths: A history of the United States. WW Norton & Company, 2018.
Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Mason, Paul. Live working or die fighting: How the working class went global. Haymarket Books, 2010.
McAward, Jennifer Mason. "Defining the badges and incidents of slavery." U. Pa. J. Const. L. 14 (2011): 561.
Nadler, Steven. Spinoza's “Ethics”: An Introduction." (2007).
Rushing, Wanda. Memphis and the paradox of place: Globalization in the American South. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Art: Erin Bakken
Music: Fire, Then Nothing by Da Sein
May 28th, 2020 | 1 hr 1 min
1619, activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, french revolution, haiti, haitian independence, leninism, progressivism, slave, slave revolt, slavery, socialism, socialist, strategy, toussaint louverture
“Hi, my name is Lelyn R. Masters, and I stan the French revolution. I think if you love something political you should criticize it mercilessly.”
The French Revolution was awesome and super dumb. By that I mean its revolutionaries, compared to the revolutionaries of any other time, had the most opportunities given to them and made the least of them. Firstly, the French revolutionaries didn’t have to overthrow the government or fight for the ability to assemble. The ancien regime collapsed and then called on the etats generaux to try and save it. Secondly, instead of making an enduring government, the revolutionaries followed every conceivable policy to destabilize the country. Let’s briefly go over that history.
The King’s problem was that he could not tax. The typical feudal relationships ensured that he could require the nobility to tithe, and the clergy made a contribution, but in the 18th century the merchant class was generating so much wealth that it dwarfed what the king could command. A third of France’s wealth at this point came from trade with San Domingo, for instance. The French state was bankrupt by 1786 because it had helped to finance the American revolution. The Americans wanted freedom, and the French king wanted to deprive his rival England of a source of wealth. Because the nobility were fighting the king for a greater share of power, he wouldn’t be able to ask them to help him with finances, so in 1788 the king decided to convene the etats generaux. The three estates were: (1) the nobility, (2) the Catholic clergy, and (3) the merchants and professions. Such parliaments were typically convened at the will of the sovereign. Before the one in 1788 the estates general had not been called upon for about 500 years. Once convened, a majority of the members, which were elected by men of property, wanted political reform. They wanted an end to feudal privilege and a certain amount of democracy. They had the example of the American revolution to show them what could be gained. The king wanted none of it, so he dismissed them. But the Etats Generaux refused to disband, and instead they set about to write a constitution. The king could not disband them by force, because by then the etats generaux had formed a citizens militia. The king tried to escape the country, and was put in jail. At that point the etats generaux, now calling itself the National Assembly (NA), functioned as the de facto government of France.
The NA expanded the ability to vote and abolished the old system of tithes. However, it did not immediately set up a new system of taxation. Instead, it issued assignats, which were a kind of bond, that they expected would be redeemable after they had sold the church’s property. The state took over management of the Church in what was called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. All church wealth was taken over by the government who then took on the responsibility to pay the clergy. Obedience was expected. People naturally rebelled against having a new kind of worship forced on them from Paris. So, they decided to steal all church property and sell it off to fund the government. Then they made the clergy take an oath of loyalty to the revolutionary government. Now, the clergy were also divided between poor and rich, so they weren’t necessarily opposed to a progressive distribution of wealth or to democracy. We know quite a lot about the attitudes of the French people because an Etats Generaux must be precluded by a collection of cahiers de doleances, or statements of grievance. Before 1788 60,000 such statements were collected from nobles, clergy and commoners. The statements were edited in each parish by those who could read, usually the clergy. The overall picture that emerges is the desire for a constitutional government that included the king, a system that was less corrupt, where feudal privileges were abolished and where taxation and justice were fairly practiced (Davidson 10-12). But the seizure of church property that followed from the etats generaux, and the imposition of the oath especially, made the clergy into enemies of the revolution. Nearly half of all priests refused to take the oath, which in its wording was insulting to their religious faith, and when they did the state would jail them, force them to leave the country and then even replace them with a priest who had taken the oath but was guaranteed to be hated by his new parishioners.
The French Revolution is usually associated with atheistic terror. Nothing could be further from the truth. The radical core of the French revolutionary vanguard, the Brissotains and so on, were atheist, and they promoted nonviolent dechristianization. They were not the ones provoking religious revolt in France. It was the party of the Montagnards’ insistence on imposing religious reform, or subordinating the clergy to the French state, in the name of “religious regeneration” that caused the terrible schism in French society. The fact that academics and conservatives have been able to scapegoat the intellectual inheritors of Diderot for these crimes is an injustice. (Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, p.27-29). The heavy handed way Robespierre had of murdering his enemies went hand in hand with the Abbe Gregoire’s insistence that the clergy preach a certain religiosity alongside preaching the constitution.(Sepinwall, p110-114).
Wealthy peasants, for there were many such, greedily bought up church land. In doing all of this, rather than simply creating an institutional progressive tax policy, the NA created from a population that was either neutral or positive about the new government to one that was antipathetic to it. Add to this the fact that the assignats didn’t increase real wealth in the country, hence they were like printing money and caused inflation so that food shortages got worse, and it’s no surprise that most of France rose up in rebellion against them, some clamoring for restoration and some for a more radical revolution. The ongoing economic crisis along with an awareness that the rest of Europe was not happy that the privileges of kings were being questioned led to an expansionist war that France started and justified as “spreading democracy.” The best that can be said for this ethos of spreading the revolution is that the ideals of the French revolution eventually inspired other people: the revolutionary army did very little to change the map of Europe. The regular drafts the war required led to revolt. The revolutionary government was tremendously unpopular, and so ironically as it progressed it broadened the franchise but participation in elections shrank. They could only keep power by murdering lots of people, and fell to a tyrant when Napoleon took power finally in 1799.
There is a long Marxist tradition that views the French revolution as the first one where working people made a difference. Mostly this is recognized as only a precursor to proletarian revolutions to come. The problem with this story is that the san-culottes do not remotely resemble the modern proletariat. The sans-culottes, meaning the people who didn’t dress fancy, have been identified as a precursor to the proletariat, but the sans-culottes were not just the very poor, but were also small time merchants and professionals, bakers, carpenters and blacksmiths. Worse, the sans-culottes role in the revolution was mainly to serve as a mob that more privileged classes, such as the Montagnards with Robespierre at their head, would call upon to obstruct the democratically elected NA when things didn’t go their way. Ultimately, Robespierre’s downfall came because the sans-culottes realized that he didn’t really have their best interests in mind, after years of famine and war. The result of all this is that France had a government that was constantly unstable and that swung between (left) revolution and (right) restoration for the next nearly 200 years.
The French Revolutionaries, rather than founding a government that could lead society, again this is the task of any government, created divisions that destabilized almost a dozen governments over the next two centuries. Historians struggle to answer the question of when did the French revolution end, and Ian Davidson answers by saying that it ended in 1968 when DeGaul stepped down from power. It was the first time executive power had been transferred without mass upheaval, and without a change of regime in about 180 years, indeed despite the so-called revolution of ‘68.
Quote Davidson:”The irony of this interminable sequence of instability is that almost all of these regimes started with the equivalent of a new Constitution, which most of them, with the exception of Napoleon and the first Restoration, prefaced with a new (but of course different) Declaration of the Rights of Man. So when Tocqueville made a mordant reference in 1856 to ‘the nine or ten Constitutions which have been set up in perpetuity in France in the past sixty years’, it was not because he could not count, nor because there had been so many Constitutions a perpetuite that they were no longer worth counting, though that was probably part of his meaning. No, the prosaic fact is that between the first Revolutionary Constitution, of 1791, and the Constitution of the Second Empire of 1852, there were seven Constitutions, two Charters (one for the first Restoration, of 1814, and one for the July Monarchy of 1830) and one Acte additionel (for the brief restoration of Bonaparte in the 100 Days of 1815). In other words, there really were, as Tocqueville had said, nine or ten Constitutions, depending on your definition of the term.”
There are at least two lessons for us from this revolution, who was obsessed by these events of course. They make up the core of Marxist ideology. (1) The working class must have its own independent political party. It simply will not do to rely upon Robespierre to look after us, because then the working class becomes just a weapon for settling arguments among the ruling classes. (2) A revolutionary government must be radically democratic. That is to say that a revolutionary government must base its sovereignty, its right to rule, on the will of the people and to do so it must in principle work for their well being. Robespierre’s government claimed to affirm universal human rights, but regularly and arbitrarily jailed, murdered and stole from people whose only crime was disagreeing with Robespierre. It was the state trying to dominate society, and for Marx real revolution must work the other way around: society must dominate the state. By emphasizing economic alienation, rather than religious alienation as did Marx’s contemporaries, in the German Ideology Marx put forward that if people can be lifted out of poverty then they will stop being fooled by certain religious discourses. That is the secret of this quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.“ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people#cite_note-2) Marx thought that material inequality had to be addressed first through education and radical democracy, and that afterward dogmatic religion wouldn’t be needed. And though he idealized the Jacobins as being somehow unwittingly the servants of history, there’s a real tension there with the fact that their heavy handedness turned society against the state and Marx insisted that society dominates the state in the last instance, that in revolution previously submerged social tensions arise and cause radical change. Marx never wrote a book clearly analyzing the French revolution, took different and contradictory positions regarding it over the course of his life, and it probably remained something of a mystery to him (Furet). Marx and Engels are not a great resource for understanding the French revolution, instead you should read Davidson and Francois Furet.
What we can say is that the imposition of a state religion caused divisions in French society that set back progressive goals for at least another century and a half. Unless a government or a revolutionary group aspiring to become the government can lead society, they likely will not hold onto power for very long. We have already seen this at work in other contexts: the decline in popularity of the Black Panther Party, for instance. We’ll be collecting such examples.
There were nevertheless some positive gains for the cause of poor and working people in the French revolution. In August of 1790 they put an end to noble titles and put to an end the payment of feudal dues and duties. It was a tiny part of the nation’s wealth, but it’s still a big deal. It was so little money that many nobles voted to end it, and there was never a protest movement to restore them. Part of what made the French revolution possible was that there was so much wealth coming in from sources that were not connected to the feudal system. Then the French government enforced the wall between church and state guaranteeing religious freedom, though as pointed out before they did this in an overly heavy handed way. What’s more, the French revolutionary army marched over Europe abolishing feudal obligations and selling church property everywhere they went. They got all the way to Moscow. Now, wherever these armies went they inevitably retreated, and the monarchy and feudal rights of nobles were reinstated all over Europe. But the idea and experience of liberation lived on and inspired revolutions in all of these other places like Belgium and Prussia and Austria. The struggle for democracy continued, and had its ups and downs, but the radical Democratic movement that became the 1st international comes out of these struggles. And while we couldn’t say the French are responsible for the revolutions that took place later across Europe and in the French Antilles, we couldn’t say they didn’t help by spreading the idea. In Prussia serfdom was making less and less dollars and sense to even the landed nobility and junkers who had serfs. The existence of cheap wage labor side by side with fixed rent feudalism plus the long ferment of the Prussian enlightenment culminating with the latest craze for Adam Smith among the Prussia bureaucratic class all taken together meant that Prussia was ripe for reform anyway. Napoleon provided a catalyst, but it was by decree that Frederick William III freed the serfs, who then had to revolt in order to make the decree real. (Clark, 327). Their revolt was intended to enforce the law for the sake of the general will, a theme we will develop in greater detail when we discuss Marx’s revolutionism. This is likely where Hegel got the idea of social contract theory: that once a society has declared something, such as universal suffrage, there develops a historical force compelling people to make it an actuality. Until the word becomes deed or vice versa society has unfinished business. In this context the idea that all people have rights, and the ability of reason to change their world, will become a powerful undercurrent in the social fabric, a whisper on the wind that all events seem to imply. How else could the masses of Europe understand their sudden liberation from feudal bondage? Human rights is a check we are trying to cash, a promise to ourselves we often do not keep. The declaration of the rights of man was explicitly an attempt to establish among the human race a society of equals, and that meant that the government would have to act against the inherited oppression of privilege and hierarchy. How does an idea become reality? It must spread: it must be passed around in society. It advances in different ways amongst different peoples.
This miracle would happen late in Italy, in the 1860s, and while the former peasants in Sicily would find the new Republic’s taxes to be as harsh or worse than feudal tithes, they were free to leave. This is why as soon as there was an Italy, there were Italian Americans. (Mangione, p72).
The second reason why we revere the French revolution is because starting in July of 1789 the founding of the National Assembly by the Third Estate meant a broad suffrage. More people could vote. As we’ve noted, as the suffrage broadened during the French revolution, actually participation in elections declined. This was caused by the imposition of the state over religious opinion among other things. The wild political oscilations that reverberated afterwards were finally ended in 1848 with the ascent to power of Napoleon 3rd, after which it would be another two decades before something like real democracy would return to France, and then in the form of the Commune of 1871.
We are used to thinking that ideas don’t matter, but when they become social movements they really do matter. Roger Chartier has said with some justice asserted that the enlightenment didn’t so much start the French revolution as the French revolution started the enlightenment (Sepinwall, p. 11). For the masses of Europe and North America the French and American revolutions really did start the enlightenment, that unhappy child. Unhappy, because it had only had brief tastes of what a free and democratic society could be like, and newly born because ideas that had been buried since the Greeks were now moving masses of people.
The legacy of the French Revolution has one unambiguously positive aspect: the example of Democratic rule. It showed that a government could exist that in principle recognized equality between citizens, with each getting one vote, and that fought to preserve their rights. The question this immediately poses to us is why it didn’t persist. France had a democracy for all of four years, and because Robespierre needed the support of the Parisian masses to maintain his power, it had direct democracy for almost a year. Why wasn’t it able to create real equality? Why did it fail to protect the “rights of man” that it had proclaimed?
Marx was clearly inspired by the French revolution. He thought Hegel imagined the state could dominate society. One lesson screaming to be learned from Robespierre’s terror was how impotent a state would prove if it tried to dominate society. Marx thought that in the last instance things went the other way around, that society ultimately determined the form and substance of the state. If society was divided into classes, then the state would have to be the form their mediation took. To be a radical democrat in that context means working to give everyone an equal vote, and an equal status in society. All of Marx’s project, and indeed the majority of European 19th century thought, turns around the question of what went wrong in the French revolution. The ideals expressed by the French revolutionaries are not questioned in themselves among progressives for another century, but the failure of revolutionaries to form a government living up to them is understood by all as the central political problem to resolve. I have put forward here that the French revolution failed because while it signified democracy, it did not embody it. Though it formally declared that every man had a vote, by trying to impose the state’s will on an unwilling society in the form of religious tyranny, it had already communicated who and what would be excluded. The National Assembly, rather than find the policies and trade offs around which society could be unified, or at least pacified, busily identified its enemies and proceded to provoke them to civil war. In the podcasts that follow we will step through the history identifying other times and places where revolutionary governments got this right and where they got this wrong. The problem is essentially one of education and tolerance for differing opinions and ideas, essentially the problem of free speech and conscience. Let me show my hand: I’m trying to call my audience back to Epicurus’ garden where a plurality knows best which way the wind blows. I set my sail next, for Haiti.
Davidson, Ian. The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny. Profile Books, 2016.
Hunt, Lynn. Family Romance of the French Revolution. Routledge, 2013.
Furet, François, and Karl Marx. Marx and the French Revolution. University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Lefebvre, Georges, and Timothy Tackett. The coming of the French Revolution. Vol. 19. Princeton University Press, 2015.
In 2018 Julius S. Scott published an excellent book about how the ideals of the French revolution spread amongst enslaved people in the Caribean. His book is entitled “The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution,” and you should get a copy and read it all the way through. I’ll be using Scott’s account to frame C.L.R. James’ classic on the Haitian Revolution: “The Black Jacobins.” Time and again James speculates rather lamely about how the Haitian revolutionaries could have known x, y and z, important things like the fact that Napoleon was sending an army to reenslave everyone and not to help them as was the public story.
Scott fills in those blanks and gives us a stronger impression of how big a difference the transmission of ideas can make.
In the 17th century merchants from Europe began sailing to the new world, investing money there, making fortunes there. We pointed out earlier that this wealth is a big part of why the monarchy in France fell. But the Caribbean, and the new world in general, was still a very wild place. It was very easy in those early years for slaves to escape, for indentured servants to escape, for drafted soldiers to escape. The escapees often founded their own political institutions, sometimes known as colonies and sometimes called maroons. All of these streams of people who rejected the place society had prepared for them became a kind of masterless class that put up a constant resistance to the state powers who were trying to impose upon the area a certain political order as the 18th century progressed. The political order of the maroons was majority Black, spoke all the languages of the world, was nourished by licit and illicit trade, and was geographically centered around the ports. The sailors of Europe, overworked, bearing the burden of all the risks and hardships of seagoing life, prone to desertion and mutiny, were natural allies of these communities of formerly enslaved and brought with them a steady stream of news from the other side of the Atlantic.
In 1739 after a long military conflict, Britain was forced to recognize the political independence of several maroon communities in so-called ‘cockpit country’ in North West Jamaica, which was a short sail from the southeastern tip of Cuba, another center of maroon activity. Maroon activity on the Haitian island was mainly centered around Cul-de-Sac in south central Santo Domingo. While one island or the other might belong more or less to a particular European power, geographic peculiarities and the relative ease of sea travel compared to land travel could mean that ceratin localities were more naturally linked to foreign powers. This is the case of southern Santo Domingo, which was cut off from the rest of the island by tall mountain ranges and often felt closer to Spain via Cuba and Venezuela than it did to France.
History understood as a series of actions by great men is usually pretty unrealistic, but there’s no getting around the fact that Toussaint L’ouverture was a genius. It’s true that in any such case, a confluence of events and circumstances came together to enable the hero, but in Toussaint’s case the circumstances just serve to better frame his excellence. Born a slave, he would lead his people to freedom, and in doing so he would defy three of the greatest empires the world has seen. No wonder that in the 1938 C.L.R. James chooses Toussaint L’ouverture for a hagiography, lifting up his life as one well spent, as a model for the independence movements about to grip Africa. Born a slave, Toussaint L’ouverture had risen to be the steward of his master’s livestock, and read classical literature (91). His favorite was Abbe Raynal’s History of the Two Indias.
The book was a history but also a denunciation of the colonial system, and despite the fact that Raynal’s name was listed as its author, Raynal himself did not write the most controversial parts. The most controversial parts were written by Denis Diderot. Ostensibly a straightforward and non ideological description of the system of colonialism from India to the Caribbean, the Histoire des Deux Indes was commissioned by Etienne Francois de Choiseul, who was the foreign minister in charge of France’s Navy and colonies. Choiseul had hoped the book would inspire more colonialism. The project was too big for one author, so Raynal hired a team. In 2019 Andrew S. Curran gifted us with a biography of Diderot, and he describes the Histoire des Deux Indes in these terms: “Despite the fact that the History’s disparate points of view often come into direct contradiction - the inevitable pitfall of multiple authors - the most powerful portions of the book unequivocally put forth a vision of history according to which tyrants, magistrates, and priests had not only instituted various forms of despotism in Europe, but had exported it to the world’s colonies. French censors had no illusions about the implications of the History. Shortly after the book became widely available in France, it was banned by an arret du Conseil in December 1772 [almost two decades before the French Revolution]… Diderot’s contributions to the History, which vary from a few sentences to chapter-length interventions, functioned as the capstone to his diverse political writings. Though Raynal had theoretically limited the scope of the History to the East and West Indies, Diderot was among those contributors who forcefully turned the critical focus of the book back on Europe itself. One of the more interesting contributions that he furnished for the third edition of the History is a cheeky note that he directed to Louis XVI himself. Having picked up the habit of addressing monarchs in a familiar tone, Diderot speaks to the young king in the informal and forward tu form. He warns the doomed Louis XVI that the country as a whole is a powder keg: ‘Cast your eyes over the capital of your empire and you will find two classes of citizens. Some, wallowing in wealth, flaunt a luxury which provokes indignation among those not corrupted by it’ A paragraph later, the aging philosophe predicts that empires such as his own ‘cannot endure, without morals and virtue,’ then asks the king why he continues to condone the ‘insatiable greed’ of his courtiers, allowing all the ‘protected men’ of his kingdom to shelter themselves from the burden of taxation while the people ‘groan’ under the weight of their leview. Toward the end of his diatribe, Diderot gives his king a choice: accept the infamy of the do-nothing tyrant or transform the country and achieve true glory. Diderot embedded many other such messages in the History as well, even when he was not speaking to the king directly. On the subject of freedom of the press, for example, the philosophe was categorical: ‘Wherever the sovereign does not allow the people to express themselves freely on economic and political subjects, he provides the most convincing evidence of his inclination to tyranny.’ As influential as Diderot’s views on the French monarchy would ultimately become in the years leading up to and during the Revolution, his writing on the colonies was at least as significant. In addition to underscoring the fundamental injustice of much of the colonial enterprise as a whole- repeatedly condemning his era’s conquerors for appropriating lands that did not belong to them - Diderot forcefully attacked what he believed to be his era’s most glaring evil: the ongoing business of African chattel slavery. By the time that Diderot became involved in the History of the Two Indies, French slave traders were delivering thirty thousand enslaved Africans to the Caribbean on an annual basis, adding to the half million slaves who were already toiling on the three major French islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and especially Saint-Dominique. In all, French ships had carried well over a million souls to the islands since the trade had begun in earnest, 120 years before… In addition to rejecting the era’s illegitimate race science, he attributed the existence of the trade, which had always been blamed on Africans themselves, to European greed. He also solemnly informed readers of the History that the responsibility for the forced enslavement and murder of millions of Africans not only lay with slave merchants and planters, but regular Europeans as well: ‘The insatiable thrisrt for gold has given birth to the most infamous and atrocious of all trades, that of slaves. People speak of crimes against nature and they do not cite slavery as the most horrific. The majority of Europeans are soiled by it, and a vile self-interest has stifled in human hearts all the feelings we owe to our fellow men’ Diderot’s most prescient and rhetorically awe-inspiraing passages on slavery come, however, when he predicts the rise of a Black Spartacus who will wave the ‘banner of liberty’ and lead an army of former slaves agaisnt their master, leaving the ground stained with their former oppressors’ blood. This is, of course, precisely what happened in Saint-Domingue a decade later, when a brilliant tactician and Revolutionary soldier named Toussaint Louverture.” (pp. 364- 366).
From the Julius S. Scott we know that throughout the 1770s slaves throughout the American colonies were electrified by news that in England Lord Mansfield had liberated a former Virginia slave named James Somerset. The news set off a string of escapes and attempts to get to Great Britain (p. 79). During the American revolution, slaves were supposedly offered freedom if they fought for Great Britain, but those who did so were more likely to be sold back into slavery as not (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzd06DRvRKA). Great Britain temporarily suspended the slave trade during the American revolution, and picked it back up afterwards. Nevertheless, news of the progress of the abolitionist movement in Spain, France and Great Britain continued to feed the hopes of the enslaved throughout the 1780s, and then news of the storming of the Bastille and the forming of a National Assembly in Paris hit the Caribbean like a bomb.
What tale flew on the breeze in SanDomingo? Quothe James: “Meanwhile, what of the slaves? They had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Before the end of 1789 there were rising in Guadeloupe and Martinique.” Ian Davidson again gives us a concise summary of the important events:
“Saint-Domingue was one of the richest of France’s colonies, and its plantations produced enormous wealth in the form of sugar, rum, coffee and cotton. Its economy was essentially built on the slave trade; the dominant and slave-owning population consisted of 30,000 whites, but all the work was done by 500,000 black slaves. In between were 27,000 mulattoes, who were free but not white. Brissot had founded the Societe des amis des Noirs in 1788 but failed to get any support from the Assemblee nationale constituante for the abolition of slavery. Part of the problem was that some of the Revolutionaries had a personal stake in the plantation business: not just some of the right-wing members of the Feuillant Club, like the Lameth brother, but also, as we have seen some of the left-wing Girondins. On March 8, 1790, the National Assembly passed a decree setting up assemblies of local self-government in the colonies, for which only the whites could vote and in which only the whites could sit. From this point on, the Revolutionaries simply blanked out the question of slavery; the only related question they were prepared to debate was what rights, if any, to give to mulattoes. More than a year later, on May 15, 1791, the National Assembly gave citizenship to mulattoes, but the colonial whites refused to implement the decree. This refusal led to the rising first of the mulattoes, then of the blacks, in August 1791, under the command of Toussaint Louverture.” (pp. 80-81). The view from Santo Domingo was a little different.
The whole dynamic then was to keep news of the ongoing revolution for human rights and the push for abolition from getting to slaves in the colony. One anecdote form Julius S. Scott will illustrate the point: “As early as the fall of 1788, the Crown issued orders ‘to abolish every press’ in Saint-Domingue ‘in order to keep the flame of liberty from spreading to the Colonies,’ a move which led to an effective news blackout lasting at least ‘several weeks’... Confronted with a group of enthusiastic recruits ready to sail from France to Saint-Domingue in 1792, he [General A.N. de la Salle] took a different approach. Aware of the explosive potential of the watchewords and rituals of the French Revolution if applied in the colonies, the general instructed his charges to alter their banners and caps, which displayed the slogan ‘Live Free or Die,’ to read ‘The Nation, the Law, the King.’” (p.107). We do not know who exactly was informing the slaves of San Domingo, but we know that they were aware of everything that was said or written in Paris regarding their potential freedom. From Scott: “Passing along reports of slave unrest near Cap Francais, colonial officials reported in October 1789 that a ‘multitude of printed materials’ had apprised the population of developments in Paris. Despite careful precautions, ‘all that is done or written, particularly on the issue of the emancipation of the blacks’ made its way past dockside police. Not surprisingly, blacks at the Cap soon understood that the tricolored cockade symbolized the newly won emancipation fo the whites from their ‘masters’ in France.” (p.114). Slaves across San Domingo began wearing the tricolor cockade pinned to their hats in defiance of their masters (Image 1.).
In March of 1791 two regiments of soldiers arrived in San Domingo to help the royalists against the republicans, the revolutionaries known as Patriots. From James: “The inhabitants of Port-au-Prince prepared elaborately to win them over from the royalist government. They opened the cafes to them, greeted them with music and dancing and unlimited food and drinks, told them that the Government was the counter-revolution, as indeed it was. The soldiers refused to obey their commanders and the Governor, and joined the Patriot party. [The General leading the royalists] De Mauduit’s own soldiers, hitherto loyal, under the crossfire of the population and the new arrivals from France, were caught up in the revolutionary ardour. Turning on De Mauduit they murdered him… Hostile as the small whites and the Patriots were to the rich Mulattoes, they did not disdain the alliance of the Mulatto Patriots… All this took place in march 1791, but something else had also taken place. The French soldiers, on landing at Port-au-Prince, had given the fraternal embrace to all Mulattoes and all Negroes, telling them that the Assembly in France had declared all men free and equal” (pp. 82-82). Long before the official ratification of liberating the slaves, they had themselves seized upon the opportunity the revolution gave them to take their own freedom. From that moment the French revolution and the liberation of the slaves were synonymous, and from that we get some idea of why later Toussaint Louverture would resist attempts at Haitian independence.
Julius S. Scott describes the start of the rebellion, which was far from spontaneous: “On the night of 22 August 1791, even as planter deputies made their way toward Cap Francais to convene a regional assembly, slaves in the rich northern plain encircling the Cap began their rebellion. For weeks black leaders had spread word of the intended uprising, and when the moment arrived, the widespread and well-planned nature of the rebellion caught whites defenseless. Within hours after slaves first rose on an estate located nine miles from the Cap, as many as 100,000 slaves learned about and joined the revolt, setting fire to plantations and cane fields and mercilessly attacking slave owners and their families. Immediately officials in the Cap sent delegations to Cuba, Jamaica, and the United States to request assistance in fighting the black rebels, but they received only half-hearted cooperation. To compound their problem, just days after the rebellion in the northern provinces, mulattoes and blacks in the west triggered a second wave of armed uprisings. Pitched battles between government troops and poorly armed insurgents resulted in thousands of deaths on the rebel side, but these defeats failed to subdue outlying groups who continued to raid and destroy plantations.” (p. 137).
A few months after the revolt began Toussaint Louverture decided to join it. He was giving up a relatively comfortable life as the privileges administrator of his master’s three plantations for an uncertain war and certain hardship. The revolutionary free army was organized into two bands, one led by Jean Francois and the other by Biassou, the latter of whom Louverture would serve as a physician. After the French National Assembly declared Mulatto rights in May, the local slave owning class in San Domingo refused to implement the decree. The royalists took advantage of this situation to recruit the mulattoes to their cause, and so throughout the summer the mulattoes fought on the side of the monarchy. At this point, both the royalists and the patriots opposed freeing the slaves. The army of former slaves could devastate the countryside, but they were not strong enough to take the cities, and so in the fall of 1791 Toussaint Louverture negotiated a surrender. In that surrender he promised to protect the colonial establishment and return his army into slavery, but in doing so he preserved their lives and the freedom of his officers. The priority was to preserve their power and memory for a moment when circumstances would be better. The planters rejected the negotiation. James: “So disdainful was the Assembly that it would not include the negotiations in the minutes. Toussaint had plenary powers, and in a vain attempt to break down the pride of the colonists he secretly reduced the number to be freed from 400 to 60. The colonists would not hear of it. Then and only then did Toussaint come to an unalterable decision from which he never wavered and for which he died. Complete liberty for all to be attained and held by their own strength.” (p. 107). The immediate result of all this was a stalemate.
Events began to accelerate. In April of 1792 the army of royalists and mulattoes besieged Port-au-Prince. Confronted with this news Paris dithered. If they sent an army to put down the slave revolt, that army could be won over to the royalist side at just the moment when tensions between the royalists and the republicans was sharpening in Paris. The new French government had by that point run out of money, so it invaded its neighbors to spread the revolution and to seize more church property. In July 1792 these efforts had led to a route and Prussia invaded France. The Prussians were determined to put down the revolution and strengthen the French King’s position. On August 9th one of the revolutionary clubs in Paris, the cordelliers who championed representative democracy, declared a revolutionary commune in Paris. The next day they issue an order of summons for the commander of the National Guard Antoine Jean Gailliot who was defending the king in the Tuilleries. When Gailliot arrived at the Hotel de Ville he was lynched, and a mob descended upon the Tuilleries and arrested the King. From that moment on any semblance of sharing power with King Louis was over. With the arrival of representative democracy bolstered by revolutionary action in the streets, it was clear to everyone that the abolitionist cause had won in Paris. This indisputable fact broke the alliance in Haiti between the mulattoes and the royalists. The republican governor of Santo Domingo, Sonthonax asserted Mulatto equality, but also kept the regime of slavery for the moment. The army of former slaves led by Biassou and Jean Francois forged an alliance with the King of Spain. Toussaint Louverture was made a colonel in the Spanish Army fighting for the Spanish crown.
Spain went through a liberal revolution starting in about 1808, but prior to that it was a nation whose entire economy was premised on extracting wealth from colonies in South America. Here is how Anthony Beevor describes Spain around the time that Toussaint Louverture fought for it: “The code of the hidalgo (Spanish nobleman) forced him to despise money in general and the earning of it in particular. The census of 1788 showed that almost 50 per cent of the adult male population was not involved in any form of productive work. The army, the Church and, above all, the vast nobility were a dead weight on the rest of the population. It was perhaps this statistic which provoked the well-known saying that ‘one half of Spain eats but does not work, while the other half works but does not eat.’” (p. 6). As for life in the colonies, here is how Eduardo Galeano describes the treatment of the natives who worked in Spanish mines (he is not exaggerating): “The colonial Latin American economy enjoyed the most highly concentrated labor force known until that time, making possible the greatest concentration of wealth ever enjoyed by any civilization in world history. The price of the tide of avarice, terror, and ferocity bearing down on these regions was Indian genocide… While metals flowed unceasingly from Latin American mines, equally unceasing were the orders from the Spanish Court granting paper protection and dignity to the Indians whose killing labor sustained the kingdom. The fiction of legality protected the Indian; the reality of exploitation drained the blood from his body.” (pp.38-39).
All of this to say that Toussaint Louverture was fighting for Spain not because he really believed it was worth fighting for. He fought for Spain for the same reason he had tried to surrender to the white slave owning class in SanDomingo: to preserve the social movement for freeing the slaves. He was not of the school so common today according to which one must make every action about the purity of one’s ideals. He was intensely practical, and C.L.R. James is right to hold him up as an example of good revolutionary leadership. Toussant Louverture didn’t need to fight every battle all the time, and he doesn’t owe us an explanation for his actions. Toussaint Louverture had one overriding ambition, and that was to free the slaves of SanDomingo. Freeing the Haitian slaves, then protecting that freedom, offered the world a positive example that drove progressive, liberatory politics for generations afterwards. In the 30s when C.L.R. James is writing, he’s offering Toussaint Louverture as a positive role model of how African revolutionaries should act: and clearly revolutionaries need to get weapons and material support somewhere, meaning they have to learn how to play one imperialist power off another the way Louverture did. In his role as a colonel in the Spanish Army, Toussaint Louverture conquered a large part of San Domingo. It was easy for French royalist forces to surrender to him, because he always granted amnesty to his former foes, and everywhere he went he freed slaves. Back in Paris, the King Louis XVI is put on trial and on January 21, 1793 is beheaded in Place de la Concorde. The British, eager to fight the revolution and gain from a reinstituted slave trade attempt to invade San Domingo, landing troops on September 9th, 1793.
The French republican governor Sonthonax, exasperated by Spanish armies, and at the same time hassled by Royalists and expecting the British invasion, finally gave in to the needs of the moment and freed, and what was the same thing, armed the formerly enslaved population of San Domingo in August of 1793. From then on Toussaint Louverture and his sizable army, equipped at Spain’s expense, would fight for their freedom and for the glory of revolutionary France.
In January of 1794 the peoples’ convention in Paris received its first delegates of color. The convention declared the abolition of slavery, and though a counter revolutionary France under Napoleon would send an army to try and reenslave Haiti, he would fail. James recounts to us the scene that day in the National Convention: “The three deputies of San Domingo entered the hall. The black face of Bellay and the yellow face of Mills excited long and repeated busts of applause. Lacroix (of Eure-et-Loire) followed. ‘The Assembly has been anxious to have within it some of those men of colour who have suffered oppression for so many years. To-day it has two of them. I demand that their introduction be marked by the President’s fraternal embrace.’ The motion was carried amidst applause. The three deputies of San Domingo advanced to the President and received the fraternal kiss while the hall rang with fresh applause. Next day, Bellay, the Negro, delivered a long and fiery oration, pledging the blacks to the cause of the revolution and asking the Convention to declare slavery abolished. It was fitting that a Negro and an ex-slave should make the speech which introduced one of the most important legislative acts ever passed by any political assembly. No one spoke after Bellay. Instead Levasseur (of Sarthe) moved a motion: ‘When drawing up the constitution of the French people we paid no attention to the unhappy Negroes. Posterity will bear us a great reproach for that. Let us repair the wrong - let us proclaim the liberty of the Negroes. Mr. President, do not suffer the Convention to dishonour itself by a discussion.’ The assembly rose in acclamation. The two deputies of colour appeared on the tribune and embraced while the applause rolled round the hall from members and visitors. Lacroix led the Mulatto and the Negro to the President who gave them the presidential kiss, when the applause started again. Cambon drew the attention of the House to an incident which had taken place among the spectators. ‘A citizeness of colour who regularly attends the sittings of the Convention has just felt so keen a joy at seeing us give liberty to all her brethren that she has fainted (applause). I demand that this fact be mentioned in the minutes, and that this citizeness be admitted to the sitting and receive at least this much recognition of her civic virtues.’ The motion was carried and the woman walked to the front bench of the amphitheatre and sat to the left of the President, drying her tears amidst another burst of cheering.” (pp.140-141).
C.L.R. James puts forth Toussaint Louverture as a model leader in the late 30s in the hopes that he will inspire African independence movements. The portrait of Toussaint in power is clearly exemplary. For one thing, Toussaint was for many years a faithful servant of France, until the counter-revolution happened there. The idea of Haitian independence was secondary to him to the task of protecting the liberty so newly acquired for the former enslaved peoples of San Domingo, and freedom was easier to maintain when it was guaranteed by a major power. When counter-revolution turned the tide against progressives in France, Toussaint Louverture easily played one French leader against the other. Wherever Toussaint Louverture went, wherever he conquered, wherever he ruled, he granted amnesty to his former enemies and guaranteed the rights of all. Ex slave owners were guaranteed the right to own their plantations, but they couldn’t own slaves. Taxation was applied moderately and fairly. In a few places, formerly enslaved people were given land to work communally. In 1798 he beat the British who had invaded in an attempt to reimpose slavery.
In 1801 he had one of his own generals executed for leading an insurrection which would have led to a massacre of whites. Moise and others in the rebellious north wanted to seize the property of the white former slave owners and redistribute it to formerly enslaved people. The problem was that these whites still played an important role in the economy, helping San Domingo maintain trade relations with the rest of the world, and ensuring their safety was important to the power sharing arrangement Toussaint Louverture had fought several wars to attain. The uprising had occurred in the context of Napoleon deciding to send an army to San Domingo with the not so secret but not publicly known mission of reimposing slavery. The whites on the island, having owned slaves, could be expected to be loyal to Toussaint and hence to the continued freedom of former slaves, unless and until an occupying army fought to reimpose slavery. In such a circumstance the formerly enslaved would have to fight against the whites for their continued freedom, indeed for their very lives. Everything depended on the intention of the approaching army, but it is not clear that anyone in San Domingo could have known for sure that the intention was to reimpose slavery. Toussaint Louverture was surely better informed than we are, but that doesn’t mean he made the right choice. He crushed the Moise rebellion because he still held out hope of peacefully governing San Domingo, but it is clear to us now that this hope was misplaced. Given that the constitution he wrote that year set up San Domingo to be ruled by executives who stayed in office for life, he clearly did not think democracy would help Haiti given the general education level. Those whites he could spare he had deported; many others were successfully encouraged to leave. In April of 1802 Napoleon’s army left France. In May Toussaint Louverture was arrested along with some of his generals. Because Toussaint Louverture had defended the lives of the whites on San Domingo for so long against an insurgency to his left, the armed masses of San Domingo entered the war against Napoleon split amongst themselves, some even fighting on the side of the French in the mistaken belief that Napoleon would defend their liberty. What C.L.R. James says about these decisions teaches us a great deal about the awful trade-offs required of those who wield political power. Toussaint Louverture had to spare the whites to keep power in 1794, but could no longer protect them with Napoleon’s army in transit. I personally think that taking a human life is the worst thing you can ever do, but that sometimes history forces our hands. It’s acceptable in my mind to kill those who owned slaves to gain the freedom for those slaves. Sic semper tyrannis. The cost to the Haitian revolutionaries was that they had to fight a war for their independence against a large and well armed force while they were themselves divided. Here is how C.L.R. James discusses the matter:
“Bonaparte was not going to be convinced by Toussaint’s justice and fairness and capacity to govern. Where imperialists do not find disorder they create it deliberately... They want an excuse for going in. But they can find that easily and will go in even without any. It is force that counts, and chiefly the organised force of the masses. Always, but particularly at the moment of struggle, a leader must think of his own masses. It is what they think that matters, not what the imperialists think. And if to make matters clear to them Toussaint had to condone a massacre of the whites, so much the worse for the whites. He had done everything possible for them, and if the race question occupied the place that it did in San Domingo, it was not the fault of the blacks. But Toussaint, like Robespierre, destroyed his own Left-wing, and with it sealed his own doom. The tragedy was that there was no need for it. Robespierre struck at the masses because he was bourgeois and they were communist. That clash was inevitable, and regrets over it are vain. But between Toussaint and his people there was no fundamental difference of outlook or of aim. Knowing the race question for the political and social question that it was, he tried to deal with it in a purely political and social way. It was a grave error. Lenin in his thesis to the Second Congress of the Communist International warned the white revolutionaries - a warning they badly need- that such was been the effect of the policy of imperialism on the relationship between advanced and backward peoples that European Communists will have to make wide concessions to natives of colonial countries in order to overcome the justified prejudice which these feel toward all classes in the oppressing countries. Toussaint, as his power grew, forgot that. He ignored the black labourers, bewildered them at the very moment that he needed them most, and to bewilder the masses is to strike the deadliest of all blows at the revolution.” (pp.286-287).
Toussaint Louverture had left his movement without leaders, since he had not imagined the French would have to be resisted. His generals were either imprisoned or enlisted in the French army. Nevertheless, the French were defeated in 1803, and Haitian independence was gained largely by the instinct and genius of the formerly enslaved masses. Historians have tended since that time to give an exaggerated amount of credit to yellow fever. In Haiti, for the first time anywhere a slave revolt had succeeded in creating a viable state. The consequences for the whole world were profound.
Had the French under Napoleon, or the British before him, succeeded in reimposing slavery in Haiti, England probably would not have abolished the slave trade. The Brits would have had a material interest in the slave trade that would have made it hard for them not to enter the civil war on the side of the Confederacy. Beating slavery in Haiti, in a very real sense, helped the North win the civil war. Another key point that kept England out of the civil war, though it desperately needed cotton for its textile industry, was the work of Karl Marx in educating the Manchester workers about their common brotherhood with the enslaved peoples of the United States. A whole international network of people passing around ideas about freedom and our need for solidarity with each other worked together to ensure the victory of the North in the Civil War. The success of the Haitian revolution gave an example for enslaved people in the South who refused to continue moving the Southern economic machine and joined the Union Army wherever it went. In the US South, Black slaves took the opportunity to free themselves, crippling the slavocracy with a general strike. But it wouldn’t be until W.E.B. Dubois’ masterful Black Reconstruction in America was published in 1935 that they would get credit in the halls of academic history. Before then it was thought that Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves, but no, Lincoln just ratified formally what slaves had already made a fact, just as the National Convention in France had merely legally ratified the free condition that Haitian slaves had fought for and won already. I don’t mean to say that without Toussaint Louverture these multitudes wouldn’t have been freed, because no one could know such a thing, but it’s obviously the case that Toussaint Louverture, Denis Diderot, Karl Marx, Nat Turner and a whole generation of revolutionaries helped progress the cause of Abolition, and they couldn’t have done so if there hadn’t been some rumor on the wind, something in the birdsongs and sea shanties, some murmuring tale about freedom and human rights. And it’s that idea of radical democracy that will drive the struggle for social change in Europe throughout the 19th century, and that’s the story I will tell in the next podcast about Marx and the radical democratic tradition.
In the foreword to Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind, Marcus Rediker quotes Wordsworth poem “To Toussaint Louverture,” written in 1802, and I want to end this podcast with a reading of that quotation. When it was written Toussaint Louverture was being kept in one of Napoleon’s jails, and would soon die of pneumonia. I leave it to you to ponder if the spirit of Toussaint Louverture doesn’t still haunt our world.
“Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;-
O miserable Chieftain! Where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; no thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou has great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.” (p.ix).
Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Hachette UK, 2012.
Curran, Andrew S. Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely. Other Press (NY), 2019.
Davidson, Ian. The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny. Profile Books, 2016.******
Galeano, Eduardo. Open veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent. NYU Press, 1997.
Robinson, Cedric. "A Critique of WEB Du Bois' Black Reconstruction." The Black Scholar 8.7 (1977): 44-50.
James, Cyril Lionel Robert. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Penguin UK, 2001.
Scott, Julius S. The common wind: Afro-American currents in the age of the Haitian Revolution. Verso Books, 2018.
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