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Thursday, March 14, 2019

When Internationalism Mattered

Early March marked the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Third International, the Communist International or Comintern. For the most part, the anniversary went unnoticed.

An exception was an article in Jacobin by Loren Balhorn entitled The World Revolution That Wasn’t. Balhorn is a youthful contributing editor of Jacobin.

Not so long ago, the legacy of the Comintern still prevailed -- Communist Parties in virtually every country constituted, dominated, or greatly influenced their country’s left. Perhaps those of us who lived through or well remember that time should be grateful for its commemoration by Balhorn. But because Balhorn does not fully grasp the significance of the Communist International, he delivers a small favor, a very small favor indeed.

For Balhorn, the Comintern was a failure. Its history was quite simple:

The International’s first four years of existence witnessed multiple uprisings and revolutions, socialist and other radical organizations exploded in size, and it appeared that the world could really be on the cusp of socialist transformation.
Yet the Communists failed to realize this transformation. The Soviet Union remained isolated and grew increasingly authoritarian and stagnant. When it met its end in 1991, its failure triggered neoliberal capitalism’s truly total globalization and the collapse of the international left as a powerful force able to oppose it.

To illustrate the lost opportunity of the Comintern, Balhorn cites the planned German rising of October, 1923, an event that he derisively calls the “German Floptober.” Like so many liberal and social democratic accounts of the Weimar period, Balhorn buys into the myths of Communist incompetence, betrayal, and, contradictorily, both timidity and ultra-leftism. The reality was somewhat different, though, when viewed against the backdrop of social democratic perfidy. Like the liberals of today, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was willing to work with the devil to achieve or protect political goals and to avoid, at all costs, a socialist revolution.

In the case of the SPD, Communist calculations were necessarily shaped by the collaboration of the SPD with-- indeed, the eager recruitment of -- the German extreme right, the proto-fascist Freikorps, and the German army in the slaughter and defeat of Communist risings in 1918 (Spartacist), 1919 (Bavarian Soviet Republic), and 1920 (in the wake of the Kapp putsch).

The Kapp putsch is particularly instructive. When a counter-revolutionary plot of some Freikorps and army elements marched against the social democratic-dominated Weimar government, President Ebert and most of his SPD government fled Berlin, cautiously calling for a general strike against the coup. The workers responded and, within days, brought the rightists to their knees with the greatest, most paralyzing strike in German history.

Buoyed by their overwhelming demonstration of working class power, workers kept to the offensive, rising throughout Germany in a revolutionary wave. In Germany’s industrial heartland, workers formed a Red Ruhr Army of 50,000-80,000 armed workers supported by 300,000 miners. The Communist and left socialist workers defeated Freikorps and regular army units, eventually taking the entire Ruhr area.

Treacherously, the SPD government unleashed the forces sympathetic to the coup-- the Freikorps and the Reichswehr-- on the insurgents, resulting in the slaughter of hundreds if not thousands of Communist and Socialist workers. Most of the extreme right coup participants were amnestied, many later joining the ranks of the Nazis, while many strikers were punished.

Is it any surprise that Communists many times referred, in ensuing years, to social democrats as “social fascists”? In the case of Germany, the treachery of suppressing the left and collaborating with the extreme right emboldened and cleared the way for fascism. And certainly, the all-too-frequent collaboration of social democracy with reaction to forestall revolutionary change earned the enmity of revolutionaries.

Without the historical context of social democratic betrayal, liberal historians and the anti-Communist left have constructed the widely-held myth of Communist intransigent, ultra-left sectarianism in the working class movement.

Balhorn enthusiastically subscribes to that canard:

The failed German Revolution would have disastrous long-term effects, entrenching a divide between Communists and Social Democrats that greatly weakened the resistance to Hitler’s rise and culminated in the destruction of the German workers’ movement — one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.

Given the resolve of the era’s social democrats and liberals to defend capitalism against revolutionary change at all costs, Communists had no choice but to go it alone.

Moreover, the coddling of the Freikorps, the Reichswehr, and putsch-happy Nazis by the SPD and its Weimar allies made a tactical anti-fascist alliance nearly impossible in Germany. Nonetheless, the Communists sought working class unity in many instances, contrary to the liberal mythology that blames the rise of Nazism on Communist sectarianism.

In some places, like Saxony, SPD workers rebelled against the leadership’s anti-Communism and forced a united front government with the Communists (1923), defying the national SPD. Consequently, SPD leader and Reich President Ebert permitted the army to depose the government and suppress the Communist Party.

After the victory of the Nazis in the spring 1932 Landtag election in Prussia, it was the Communists who called for unity of action between SPD and KPD workers, as noted by the German Nobel Peace prize-winning journalist martyred by the Nazis, Carl von Ossietzky, a call that went unheeded.

It was, of course, the German Communists who issued the appeal for a general strike after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, an appeal rebuffed by the Social Democrats.

The realities of German Weimar history leading up to Hitler’s consolidation of power clash sharply with the mythologies promoted by liberal and social democratic historians. The facts point to a collapse of social democracy in the face of economic crisis and political reaction rather than a failure of Communism or the Comintern, as Balhorn would lead us to believe.

To leap from the failure of European revolutions in the early 1920s to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and to pronounce the Communist International therefore a failure and irrelevant is surely an ill-informed judgement. There is no way to explain the twentieth-century fight against (and defeat of) fascism without acknowledging the central role of Communism and the Comintern. The foundations for that fight were laid in the Comintern-organized internationalist defense of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, a heroic effort that even served as the centerpiece of an iconic Hollywood movie, Casablanca, and numerous other celebrated cultural artifacts of the time. The Comintern-organized international response to fascism’s assault on Spain remains, to this day, the most inspiring example of selfless solidarity with the cause of social justice.

Though the Comintern ceased in 1943, its legacy of Communist unity continued well after the war, through successful revolutions in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere and through the liberation of nearly all of the colonies. While the unity of the Communist movement was broken by the Chinese Communist Party and its allies, at one point, two-fifths or more of the world’s population was ruled by political organizations claiming adherence to Marxism-Leninism. At the same time, significant Communist organizations existed throughout the capitalist states.

To be clear, the Soviet Union fell because it lost the Cold War. Why it lost the Cold War is important, though a different conversation. But it is an improper conclusion to judge a state to be unworthy, flawed, or failed simply because it lost at war. Many just causes, many movements for emancipation have tasted defeat and, unfortunately, will again. And surely the sanctions wars conducted by today’s imperial bullies demonstrate that war is not only armies meeting on the battlefield. But the success or failure of the Soviet Union and the Communist movement must be judged by a careful and thorough look at the balance sheet, given the alignment of forces, the level of material development, the plans met, the benefits achieved, and the social progress won. Some thirty years after European socialism’s demise, opinion polls still show widespread nostalgia for the system in the former socialist states.

To say, as Balhorn does, that the Soviet “...failure triggered neoliberal capitalism’s truly total globalization and the collapse of the international left as a powerful force able to oppose it...” is regrettable. The logic of capitalism-- faced with the ineffectiveness of the Keynesian model-- triggered the return to market fundamentalism-- so-called “neoliberal capitalism;” the relegation of millions of well educated workers from the former socialist countries to the capitalist labor market did indeed dramatically lower the cost of labor globally, fueling the growth of profits and global trade expansion.

But once again, it was social democracy, including its liberal and Labour embodiment, that yielded to triumphant capital’s assault upon public institutions, welfare, regulation, living standards, wages, and social protection, an assault that pundits have dubbed “neoliberalism.” With the failure to manage the system through Keynesian prescriptions, social democracy quickly surrendered to the forces of brutal, unfettered, unreconstructed capitalism.

Just as timid “socialists” preferred to placate the right in the 1920s rather than join with the forces of revolutionary change, the social democrats of today make common ground with the corporate globalists and the market fetishists, thus, paving the way for the growth of right-wing populism.

Balhorn concludes:

The political landscape today is nothing like 1919... We are still at the beginning of a potential mass socialist movement — a priceless opportunity we cannot afford to waste… Today the distinction between revolution and reform appears less immediately relevant. With overall levels of class struggle and organization still at historic lows, and insurgent politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn popularizing socialism in a way not seen in decades, it seems obvious where the action is… The problem is that no revolutionary left of any significance exists. To abstain from the breathtaking developments in electoral politics will ensure only that nobody notices that socialists are trying to pull them to the left at all.

Yes, the ‘problem’ is that the revolutionary left is very weak-- still reeling from the loss of the Soviet Union and the social democratization of many Communist Parties in the post-war and Perestroika era. But the labor movement is very weak as well. The peace movement has fallen upon hard times. In fact, nearly all social justice movements have declined in recent years. That is only more reason to redouble our efforts to build them.

Yes, the ‘political landscape’ is not 1919; it is more like 1914! With the rivalries between imperialists heating up nearly every day, there is an urgent, dire need for action, action against war, action that has not been forthcoming from existing political forces. War danger on the India-Pakistan border, drone attacks in Somalia and Afghanistan, threats of invasion in Venezuela, plots of “regime change,” fighting in Syria and Yemen, the abrogation of treaties, aggressive war games, death-dealing sanctions, and nuclear saber-rattling are just a few of the daily threats to peace that could explode at any moment, just as they disrupted the appearance of peace at the turn of the last century.

Balhorn’s contrast between ‘reform and revolution’ is not useful. There are no revolutionary agents that have not won the confidence of the masses through fighting for immediate reforms challenging capital and ameliorating the suffering of working people. Conversely, reformism has never won enduring concessions from capital unless insurgents or revolutionaries were breathing down the necks of the capitalists-- that’s the dialectics of political struggle.

We should be mindful of the fact that the success of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Corbyn, and others is as much or more a matter of mass dissatisfaction searching for an expression (as it is to some extent with Trump) than it is any commitment to a particular ideology. The Democratic Party (and to a lesser extent, the Labour Party) has never been a friendly home for socialism. Since the time of Woodrow Wilson, the notion that the Democratic party can be enlisted to tame corporate capitalism has been dashed by its corporately-controlled leaders. To think that a new generation of young, dynamic, and capable progressives can transform the Democratic Party is either wishful or muddled thinking. For the moment, the Democratic Party and a burst of social democracy may be ‘where the action is,’ but history suggests that it will not be there for long. It must be compromised or grow independent and more militant.

As in 1919, the task of revitalizing the revolutionary left is urgent. Decades of social democratic degeneration into a cheerleader for “a rising tide lifts all boats,” a sponsor of market solutions, and an apologist for obscene inequality, underscores the need for an authentic anti-capitalist movement.

At the same time, the emergence of left trends in the US and the UK signals a popular thirst for a new politics and legitimizes a conversation about socialism. That conversation should not, must not be constrained by electoral fetishism or shepherded into old, compromised institutions. How this trend evolves will, of course, help shape the left of the future. We must help to shape it.

But the revitalization of an independent left, a Marxist-Leninist left will be the necessary step toward a genuine anti-capitalist and revolutionary left and our greatest contribution.

That is the real lesson of the Communist International.

Greg Godels

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Forgotten Anniversary

In contrast to four years ago, the anniversary of the electoral victory of the Greek political party, SYRIZA, passed almost unnoticed by the US and international left. Thanks to a posting by Nikos Mottas, we are reminded of that once celebrated event.

Apparently, it is easy to forget the euphoria of the great majority of the reformist and anti-capitalist international left accompanying SYRIZA’s success in the Greek elections, promising to overturn the regimen of austerity that brought Greece to its knees. It must be easy to forget the ascent of the youthful, charismatic, and photogenic SYRIZA leader, Alexis Tsipras, who charmed everyone from The New York Times liberal Paul Krugman to even some in the Communist movement.

I remember well the disdain cast on those who defended the decision by the Greek Communists (KKE) to refuse partnership in the SYRIZA government. Left pundits pointed to KKE rejection of collaboration as another example of Communist “sectarianism.” The KKE was vilified for refusing to legitimize a social democratic electoral victory that would both fail to rescue Greek workers and betray the cause of socialism.

In the words of Motta in his In Defense of Communism article:

From the very beginning of SYRIZA's electoral rise, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was the only political power which, actually and honestly, exposed the real nature of Alexis Tsipras' party. Back in 2012, various leftist and reformist forces in Greece, including SYRIZA, exercised immense pressure to the KKE, in an effort to extort its collaboration with a future “left government.” Both bourgeois and opportunist media attacked the KKE for its refusal to join a “left” political alliance under SYRIZA.

Looking back, the four years of SYRIZA were a disaster for the Greek people. As the Mottas quote below reminds us, SYRIZA and its right-wing populist allies brought:

  • Full implementation of all the anti-people, anti-worker measures of the previous austerity memorandums (2010-2014) signed by the governments of PASOK [social democrats] and ND [conservatives], which include immense cuts in salaries and destruction of labour rights.

  • Unprecedented tax enforcement against the working class and popular strata, including increase in VAT [value-added tax] and dozens of increases in “special” taxes. At the same time, numerous tax evasion laws in favor of the big capital remained intact.

  • Cuts in pensions and retirement age limits, decrease of lump-sum allowances, while through the so-called “Katrougalos law” a whole category of insurance contributions was imposed.

  • The tax enforcement on one hand and the continuous reductions in pensions and social benefits on the other, led to monstrous primary surpluses. These surpluses in state budget have been a result of extreme austerity imposed on the working people. From the budget's 55 billion euros, only 800 million euros are being used by the government as part of a supposed “social policy.”

  • Implementation of every project that benefits the big capital, from the destructive gold mining in Chalkidiki and the conversion of Attica into a field of profit-making large businesses (casinos, Elliniko redevelopment, etc) to the privatization of the country's airports, major ports (e.g. Piraeus, Thessaloniki), of the Public Power Corporation (DEI), etc.
In addition, the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition collaborated closely with US-NATO imperialist ventures, including in Syria. Instead of offering an escape from the austere, repressive, capital-friendly policies of PASOK and New Democracy, SYRIZA-ANEL entrenched, even expanded those policies. In short, SYRIZA betrayed the Greek people who supported politicians proving to be sell-outs rather than liberators. For those in the international center-left and left who invested heavily in what they believed to be a rebirth of progressive militancy, SYRIZA proved to be an embarrassment.
Lessons Learned?

For Mottos, the lesson of SYRIZA is transparent:

The four years of SYRIZA governance has destroyed any illusions. The perception that a bourgeois government can exercise a pro-people, pro-workers policy within the limits of the capitalist system has been totally bankrupted. A major lesson that comes out of the SYRIZA experience is that the rotten exploitative system cannot be managed or reformed in favor of the workers' interests.

And yet much of the left-- both the “respectable” and the radical left-- continues to cling to the hope that a reformist political formation can steer the capitalist ship in a more humane, more just direction. Many still believe that the institutions so thoroughly and solidly constructed by capital to promote its interests can be used to serve working people.

Certainly some worthy, but contingent concessions have been won against capital in moments of severe stress on the system-- wars, economic crisis, mass upheaval-- but they were made only to shield the capitalist system from even more drastic outcomes: revolution or breakdown. It is precisely in those moments that the Leninist left sees the opportunity to advance beyond capitalist reforms and overthrow capitalism.

And that underscores the difference between Communists and revolutionary socialists and their social democratic rivals: Communists never surrender their maximum program of overturning capitalism while consistently supporting any and all reforms that challenge capital’s authority or erode its economic dominance. The most radical Social Democrats, on the other hand, see reforms and the fight for reforms as intrinsic, incremental steps on the road to socialism. Consequently, they are prepared to compromise with, to accommodate capital in order to secure even minimal steps toward reforms-- collecting the crumbs does not make a cake!

For example, despite popular disgust with the profit-anchored US healthcare system, Democratic leaders, time after time, dilute healthcare legislation to appease capital and avoid political struggle. It is painful to watch them retreat before the battle is joined. They refuse to fight for what is necessary, instead settling for what they believe is possible.

In countries like the UK or the US, where social democracy is experiencing a rebirth in parties that have for decades mutated into capitalist instruments, into corporate clients, Communists can be the most principled fighters against the predictable ruling class assault mounted against these leftward trends. At the same time, they cannot get caught in the trap of legitimizing social democratic ideology, of endorsing the social democratic ‘road’ to socialism.

The rise of so-called ‘Democratic Socialism’ in the US-- personified by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-- signals the profound political crisis of the US two-party system. And the success of Trump was as much a failure of the corporate-dominated, market fundamentalist Democratic Party to address that crisis.

But the renegade social democratic trend emerging in the Democratic Party is likely more a face lift than a new soul. There is little reason to believe that the Democratic Party leadership will allow real change beyond rousing its liberal-minded base. Pelosi, Schumer, and the rest are charged with and determined to arrest or compromise that trend as illustrated by their dismissal of the “Green New Deal.”

Nonetheless, the popular rise of soft-left alternatives marks a welcome trend, possibly foretelling opportunity for even more leftward options. Ocasio-Cortez frequently punctures the smug facade of the corporate-dominated political establishment; Ilhan Omar has challenged the unrestrained political bullying of AIPAC; and Tulsi Gabbard has boldly critiqued the imperial foreign policy consensus. But all three have been hammered swiftly by the media and their party’s mainstream. What conclusion can be drawn about the prospects for reforming the Democratic Party? For pursuing these goals within the Democratic Party?

The history of the post-World War II era demonstrates the bankruptcy of the social democracy that Motta references. Social democracy has taken the working class no closer to socialism. The reforms won have as quickly been eroded. Since 1980, North Atlantic social democracy has shamefully devolved into conservative-lite, embracing an emaciated state, the rule of the market, a minimal safety net, and ruthless competition. In Europe, social democracy has collapsed-- rejected by the people or betrayed by its leadership-- with the last ruling Party (Spain’s socialists) hanging onto power by a slender thread.

As Motto does, we should draw lessons from this collapse and not pray for the social democratic resurrection as do influential thinkers like Thomas Piketty, Yanis Varoufakis, and their ilk.

With the collapse of social democracy and the ugly rise of bogus populist nationalism, the only credible road of promise for the working class is revolutionary socialism.

Greg Godels