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Monday, October 16, 2017
Georgi Dimitrov: An Antidote to False Prophets and Naysayers
Marxists have been prolific
correspondents, engaging others in polemics and collective ideas. The
Marx and Engels correspondences, for example, number 1,386 letters!
Marxism is, or should be, a collaborative effort.
I read the recent Sam Webb/Max Elbaum correspondence
with some interest. Webb was the National Chairperson of the
Communist Party USA (CPUSA) for fourteen years until 2014. Elbaum was
a sympathetic chronicler and active leader of the so-called “New
Communist Movement” (NCM) in the 1970s. It is important to note
that the CPUSA and the NCM were bitter rivals at that time.
it is strange that they exchange warm emails today, sharing the
pleasantries of senior life--swimming, camping, time with grandkids,
and marathon running-- while adding their voices to the chorus
calling for an all-out effort on behalf of the Democratic Party in
the 2018 elections.
is it strange?
holds the dubious distinction of leading the CPUSA down the rabbit
hole of irrelevance. After the death of long-time CPUSA leader, Gus
Hall, Webb and his cohorts transformed the CPUSA into a social
democratic organization, eschewing both the legacy of the Communist
Party and much of its organizational structure. Webb further
entrenched the “lesser-of-two-evil” electoral strategy that began
with the panic over the Reagan victory in 1980. The final years of
Hall’s chairmanship and the Webb era snuffed out the last measures
of the CPUSA’s political independence, turning it into a servile
handmaiden to the Democratic Party.
resigned from the eviscerated CPUSA the year after he gave up the
career emerged very differently, but landed in nearly the same place
as Webb’s. Elbaum, like many other veterans from the 1960s student
movement, moved away from the radical democratic reformism of that
era in the direction of a more anti-capitalist ideology,
Marxism-Leninism. Unable to overcome their infection with the
anti-Communist virus of the Cold War, many were drawn to the militant
rhetoric of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that was
simultaneously befriending Nixon’s administration and roundly
condemning the Soviet Communists and most of the World Communist
Movement. With amazing chutzpah, Elbaum and the New Communist
Movement found no contradiction in the two positions. But by the end
of the 1970s, the opportunism of the CPC was more than even the most
faithful could hold their noses and swallow. China’s Communists had
sided with the US against every legitimate liberation movement in
Africa, including the ANC. The Red Guard anarchy and the Gang of Four
excesses tested the conviction of the devoted, leading to defection
for all but the most cultish.
political journey continued, but swung sharply away from Leninism.
The hyper-sectarian model embraced by NCM generated a sharp reaction,
an extreme swing away from the classic Leninist notion of a vanguard
party with a centralized, but democratic structure. Having little or
no experience with Leninism apart from the brief heyday of the NCM,
Elbaum began a steady retreat towards social democracy, a trend
expressed in the US by investing in the perceived positive,
progressive potential of the Democratic Party. Where Webb argues for
unquestioned conformity to the Democratic Party leadership, Elbaum
opts for a more critical attitude with the hope of steering the
by the odyssey of Sam Webb and Max Elbaum, many roads lead
disillusioned radicals, Marxist short-timers, and weak-kneed
Communists back to the Democratic Party. Of course, many of the
privileged (and violence-prone), elite-school New Lefties have been
welcomed back to the Democratic Party as well.
retrospect, two notions have provided excuses for disillusioned
Marxists to retreat to the social democratic camp: first, the
perceived threat of fascism as present or around the corner and,
secondly, the firmly held conviction that resistance to fascism
necessitates some kind of broad, anti-fascist front. Both notions,
though widely cited, belong to the theoretical legacy of the
Marxist-Leninist left. And both were elaborated most clearly and
authoritatively by the Communist theoretician of fascism, Georgi
on Fascism and Anti-fascism
a day goes by without someone on the left raising the shrill alarm of
fascism. As Diana Johnstone reminds us in her brilliant essay
on Antifa, “...historical fascism no longer exists.” What does
exist, however are movements, formations, and personalities that bear
various common features with historical fascism. Of course, we should
not diminish the active role of these movements, formations, and
personalities in their vicious attacks on the democratic and economic
gains won by working people.
these elements have always been a part of the political landscape of
the US, both before, during and after the era of historical fascism--
the Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the Liberty League, Father
Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, the John Birch Society,
George Wallace, the Tea Party, Trumpets and Trumpettes, etc. It is
far harder to identify a time in US history when the fascist-like
elements did not
exist as a significant force. For that reason, vigilance and militant
resistance is always important. But that is a far cry from urging
that something identical with historical fascism is now imminent. If
the wolf is always
lurking in the shadows, is it helpful to cry “wolf”?
should in no way be construed as a dismissal or underestimation of
many of the forces arrayed around and unleashed by President Trump.
They, like their predecessors, are present as a reserve army for the
ruling class should political matters get out of hand. They should be
met with the same resolute resistance as the left has mounted in the
past against rabid hate-mongers and right-wing terrorists.
fascism arose as a response to the success of revolutionary
socialism, in Dimitrov’s words:
to power as a party
on the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, on the mass of the
people who are in a state of unrest…” Clearly,
there are, with perhaps a few exceptions, no serious threats to
capitalist rule today, certainly not in the United States; there are
few revolutionary movements contesting state power. There can be no
terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and
most imperialist elements of finance capital”
when there is no revolution to counter.
Dimitrov warns of the dangers of fascistic tendencies and urges their
resistance, he reminds us that: “The
accession to power of fascism is not an ordinary
succession of one bourgeois
government by another, but a substitution
of one state form of class domination of the bourgeoisie -- bourgeois
democracy -- by another form -- open terrorist dictatorship.” Few
of the harbingers of fascism today acknowledge this point. Since the
right in the US manages its agenda well within the confines of a
corporate dominated two-party system, why would it need to move to an
open terrorist dictatorship?
a real sense, the premature cry of “fascism!” disarms the
revolutionary left, the advocates of socialism. Instead of building
an alternative to the failed two-party system, a system that
demonstrates a constant rightward shift, Webb, Elbaum, and far too
many on the left argue for compromise with those who have been fully
compliant with this rightward drift. They misunderstand or distort
much of what we have learned about historical fascism.
to the vulgar distortion of Dimitrov's views, fascism did not come to
power in Germany because sectarian Communists refused to work with
Social Democrats. Dimitrov is clear on this: “Fascism
was able to come to power
primarily because the working
class, owing to the policy of class collaboration with the
bourgeoisie pursued by Social Democratic leaders, proved
to be split, politically and organizationally disarmed,
in face of the onslaught of the bourgeoisie...” andowingto
“...their campaign against the Communists and [failure]
to accept the repeated proposals of the Communist Party for united
action against fascism.”
and Elbaum neither understand the historical basis of fascism nor
grasp the Marxist theory of united front designed to meet the fascist
danger when it arises. Rather than viewing the united front as a
specific historical response to a specific historical development,
they generalize the united front tactic to a universal response to
the ascendency of the right.
fascism is on the horizon, they argue, then we need to adopt a united
front policy that brings together any and all forces willing to stand
in its way. But that is not the lesson that Georgi Dimitrov-- the
Communist who stood against and defied the Nazi judiciary when
charged with the Reichstag fire-- drew from the experience of
Whether the victory of fascism
can be prevented depends first and foremost on the militant activity
of the working class itself, on whether its forces are welded into a
single militant army combating the offensive of capitalism and
fascism. By establishing its fighting unity, the proletariat would
paralyze the influence of fascism over the peasantry, the urban petty
bourgeoisie, the youth and the intelligentsia, and would be able to
neutralize one section of them and win over the other section.
it depends on the existence of a strong revolutionary party,
correctly leading the struggle of the working people against fascism.
A party which systematically calls on the workers to retreat in the
face of fascism and permits the fascist bourgeoisie to strengthen its
positions is doomed to lead the workers to defeat… [my
Webb and Elbaum have long given up on building “a strong
revolutionary party,” either for its own sake or for a battle
against fascism. Instead, they take their lead from the Democratic
Party, a pathetic answer to the rightward shift of the last four
fail to grasp the application of the united front strategy to US
conditions. Rather than tail the Democrats, Dimitrov, writing
specifically in 1935 about the US, called for the creation of a third
party and for a decisive break with the bourgeois parties (the
Democrats and the Republicans):
It is perfectly obvious that
the interests of the American proletariat demand that all its forces
dissociate themselves from the capitalist parties without delay. It
must find in good time ways and suitable forms to prevent fascism
from winning over the wide mass of discontented working people. And
here it must be said that under American conditions the creation of a
mass party of the working people, a Workers'
and Farmers' Party, might
serve as such a suitable form. Such
a party would be a specific form of the mass People's Front in
America and should be put in
opposition to the parties of the trusts and the banks, and likewise
to growing fascism. Such a party, of course, will be neither
Communist. But it must be
an anti-fascist party and must
not be an anti-Communist
course, this was written at a moment when historical fascism was at
its zenith internationally. Today, without the imminent threat of
fascism, the prescription for a break with the Democrats is even more
is not simply a question of stopping fascism, but a question of
winning people away from it with a peoples' program.
who confuse the anti-fascist united front with capitulation to the
leadership of liberals or social democrats often see the problem of
united action as left-sectarianism. Certainly, sectarianism,
characterized by Dimitrov as finding “...expression
in overestimating the revolutionization of the masses, in
overestimating the speed at which they are abandoning the positions
of reformism, and in attempting to leap over difficult stages and the
complicated tasks of the movement...”
was then and remains a significant obstacle to building a Communist
Party or a third party. But Dimitrov gave equal attention to the
dangers of right opportunism:
...we must increase in every
way our vigilance toward Right opportunism and the struggle against
it and against every one of its concrete manifestations, bearing in
mind that the danger of Right opportunism will increase in proportion
as the broad united front develops. Already there are tendencies to
reduce the role of the Communist Party in the ranks of the united
front and to effect a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology.
Nor must we lose sight of the fact that the tactics of the united
front are a method of clearly convincing the Social-Democratic
workers of the correctness of the Communist policy and the
incorrectness of the reformist policy, and that they are not
a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology and practice.
A successful struggle to establish the united front imperatively
demands constant struggle in our ranks against tendencies to
depreciate the role of the
Party, against legalist
illusions, against reliance
on spontaneity and automatism,
both in liquidating fascism and in implementing the united front
against the slightest
vacillation at the moment of decisive action.
it is a mistake to surrender the revolutionary program to appease
tactical alliances or coalitions. Joint action is possible, maybe
essential at times, but without sacrificing the integrity and
revolutionary ideology to tactical partners. This is a nuance lost on
those rushing to uncritically embrace the electoral slates of the
Democratic Party and to hide the goal of socialism under a basket.
abandoning the struggle against capitalism, for socialism, should be
honest about their change of heart. They should not hide behind an
inflated threat or a misrepresented tactic.
fascism was a mortal, worldwide threat in the 1930s and 1940s.
Communists devised special tactics to broaden and deepen the fight
against it. They did so without illusions about the commitment of
other forces or without corrupting or compromising their principles.
They led and won that fight, except, unfortunately, in Spain.
similar threat may arise again when revolutionary forces present an
existential challenge to the conventional rule of the capitalist
it may not. That will depend, as Dimitrov points out, on the balance
of forces between revolutionaries and their adversaries.
those who imagine a world without capitalism should not be misled by
false prophets who pretend to find a road to socialism through the
Democratic Party. Those who aspire to socialism should not be seduced
by naysayers who insist that the struggle for socialism should be
postponed until all of the specters and ghouls of the right are