An outburst from a cult apologist

Jose G. Perez jgperez at SPAMnetzero.net
Sun Dec 31 23:16:58 MST 2000


>>Fred's connection to reality is obviously not strong.  Linking this list,
or Lou these days, with Peter Camejo, and saying we are more shrill
versions of Camejo, is just totally nuts.  I mean, if Barnesites, of the
present and love-lorn variety, are going to attack List subscribers they
could at least dream up something that has some vague connection to reality.

>>The notion that we are all petty-bourgeois who hate the 'turn to industry'
and the working class is also a hoot.  Barnes and Waters are totally
petty-bourgeois in background and have never been anywhere near the working
class.  They've sat in offices on their bums for 35 years, issuing orders
and purging people.  Talk about the ultimate expression of the managerial
mentlaity of the petty-bourgeoisie.<<

    Let me start with a disclaimer. Fred Feldman and I were kindred souls in
the SWP, played a similar role in the party (at least in the 70's) as
scribblers for the party press and we were (and I hope still might be, in
some
sense) friends. Fred was, I believe, also smarter than I was but then again
so were lots of other people in the SWP and look what it got them.

    What I do have over him now, I think, was the good luck to have been
assigned to go and report on Nicaragua for a year in the mid-80s, during
which time I also had the good fortune to have the comrades in New York
alienate me and piss me off so thoroughly that when my hitch a Militant
correspondent in Managua was up, the LAST thing I wanted to do was come back
and "party build" in the Detroit (or any other) branch or even do the
correct "Trotskyist" thing and start a faction fight to save the party from
itself. So I wound up staying in Nicaragua until 1988, and that, I think,
has made all the difference in our political outlooks.

    Nevertheless, I *agree* with Fred that the broad and variegated current
(perhaps "drift" is a better term) of ex-SWPers & similar folks on this
list, and elsewhere, is essentially an "anti-turn" and in that sense
"Camejoite" current. It's just that, where he puts a minus, I now put a
plus.

    What did Peter Camejo propose and represent in the SWP? The tendency
towards wanting to reach out more broadly, to speak in common, everyday
language. What led to his separation from the party was his proposal around
1980 to wage a "fusion" or "united socialist" campaign in the New York
mayoral race; seeking to link up with especially the layer of Latino
activists who have been re-energized by the Nicaraguan revolution. And this
was NOT Peter's only proposal or idea in the direction of opening up the
party, making it less sectarian, he repeatedly put forward ideas in THIS
direction (most often, not counterposed at all to whatever the SWP had been
doing at the moment) at least from the mid-70s on that I knew of.

    This sort of thinking is the very antithesis of the narrow, "turn to
industry" first adopted as such by the February 1978 NC plenum.

    It is often forgotten, and the current SWP leadership does everything
possible to muddle up the history, that there were TWO DIFFERENT TURNS,
changes in orientation, carried out by the SWP in the post-Vietnam War 1970s
that were called at the time "the turn." The first was a pragmatic,
"opportunistic," if you will, turn towards working class organizations and
communities generally, INCLUDING the unions. This was the "turn" of the
party's greatest relative influence in the radical movement, and among
working people generally. It was embodied in the Camejo-Reid 1976 election
campaign, which lived up to its billing of "the biggest socialist campaign
since Debs."  It was the turn of the New York lower east side District One
fight for community control of schools, the Boston fight to defend busing
and school desegregation, the Chicano-Latino conference against la migra (in
which Peter directly played a central role), the turn of the "Watergate"
suit against the FBI and other US political police agencies. It was a turn
that projected a conscious relaxation of party membership norms, making
branches and party discussions accessible to working people who might have
other personal responsibilities and commitments beyond the SWP.

    It was not without all sorts of weaknesses, blind spots and
contradictions. The idea of small "community branches," for example, was
artificial and wrong for a party like the SWP as a universal, nationwide
orientation. In only a couple of places had there been struggles, and an
effective SWP participation in them, so as to give any reality to the
"community branch" concept. And it highlights a weakness in the way the SWP
approached then and still does all sorts of questions, which is the placing
of an organizational "bet" that such-and-such a strike or struggle will "pan
out."

    Those kinds of "mistakes" of course, are at any rate inevitable, and in
the fullness of time, "mistakes" 1,000 times worse seem to be brilliant
strokes of revolutionary strategy. Witness, for example, the Moncada attack,
where most of the comrades were massacred, and the rest imprisoned. Yet
today, July 26 is celebrated, yes, CELEBRATED, as the beginning of the Cuban
revolution. It is, I think, an especially Trotskyist vice to look back on
past actions and "judge" them as guilty or innocent of helping or harming
the cause. What July 26 shows is, I think, that ones "mistakes" --if that is
what they are-- are not nearly as important as what one does with them.

    In the case of the SWP, the broad turn towards working class communities
and organizations generally was explicitly and categorically REPLACED at the
Feb. 1978 plenum of the National Committee with "THE" turn,  the one "to
industry." The earlier turn, codified in the 1975 "prospects for socialism"
resolution, and especially Barry Sheppard's organization report to the 75
convention, was now seen as merely a preparatory half-step whose main virtue
had been to put the SWP in a position to see what it really needed to do.

    This turn was motivated NEITHER by a need to do a "therapeutic"
operation in  the petite-bourgeois party ranks, NOR by an appeal to a
permanent, unvarying strategic orientation. It was based on a very concrete,
specific, and dead wrong analysis of the conjunctural situation. We believed
that the ruling class offensive then underway would spark major class
battles like those of the 30's only revised and corrected by the lessons of
the radicalization of the 60s.

    In terms of method, of how to approach political questions, the turn was
wrong. It is the idea of predicting where the political ball will land in a
year or two, and pre-positioning yourself there, and necessarily it means
turning your back on where the ball is in play today. But what really did
the SWP in was not just that it was the wrong method (trying to anticipate
the course of political developments) but that the SWP never looked back,
never drew up an honest balance sheet. Instead, the leadership launched a
campaign to "strengthen" and "reconquer" so-called "proletarian norms of
functioning," completely suffocating the internal political life of the
party, lobotomizing it.

    The whole thing, of course, was stark, raving bonkers but we did not
realize it. The point is, even if we made the initial mistake, we SHOULD
have realized it a couple of years later, when it wasn't just a question
that the hoped-for working class explosion hadn't materialized, but that, in
fact, it was palpably further away, and when it wasn't a question that we
might miss some opportunity somewhere, but we could see right before our
eyes an antiwar, anti-intervention movement taking shape in which we were
basically on the sidelines. We did NOT realize it because we were focused on
the working class upsurge, the one which was to come, which existed only in
our imaginations. When the class finally moved as a class, then we would be
vindicated. But it never did.

    To begin with, the industrial turn was just a short term maneuver in the
military sense, a redeployment of forces, an exercise in the operational
art. That was ALL. It was based on the idea that the center of U.S. politics
had moved decisively and irrevocably to the surplus-value-producing
industrial working class. The next big political developments and movements
would take place there, that's where you had to be if you wanted to be part
of the working class side of the political life of the country. Thus, at
least in theory, it should have been a mistake that could and should have
been corrected, the propositions on which the orientation were based were
subject to empirical verification.

    When life showed that things were not going the way the SWP thought, it
should have been consciously and explicitly said and corrected. It was not.
Instead it was mystified and turned into a grand meta-historical strategic
scheme, complete with a whole reinterpretation of history since the time of
the Bolsheviks. The late 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s were
written off as a weird aberration. The entire post W.W.II period --the
extension of the October revolution into Eastern Europe, the liberation of
China from imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation, the Korean
War in which the capitalist system was extirpated from the northern half of
the country, the Cuban Revolution, the sweep of the anticolonial revolution
throughout the third world, the heroic struggle and glorious victory of the
people of Vietnam-- was derided as a "long detour" that was now coming to an
end with the world revolution resuming its "main course" in the advanced
imperialist countries.

    And although if memory serves the official documents said that Nicaragua
and Grenada marked motion back on the "main course" of world revolution, the
truth is they fit in perfectly with the long detour schema, we just didn't
want to say it because that would mean you were still on the detour not the
main road. The main road being, of course, big class battles in the
imperialist heartlands, with the eventual replication of something along the
lines of the Russian Revolution "model."

    The truth is that Nicaragua and Grenada were additional proof that there
was no "model," that whoever it was that said that for a revolution to be a
real revolution it must be unique, hit the nail right on the head. The
Zinovievist/Cominternist "Leninist Strategy of Party Building" was
essentially the same kind of mistake as that made by many Latin American
revolutionaries in the 1960s who tried to replicate the Cuban "model."

    It was in that context that a couple of years after THE "turn" -- the
one to industry -- Peter Camejo proposed this united socialist ticket in New
York.

    On its face, it seemed eminently logical. There were in New York
hundreds, perhaps thousands, of activists who looked to and identified with
the Cuban
revolution, and were inspired by the Nicaraguan victory. (Just one small
example: even BEFORE that
Nicaraguan victory, there were maybe 50 Cubans emigres in their 20s
regularly attending and participating in meetings of the basically
pro-revolution Antonio Maceo Brigade --and only ONE was an SWP member. There
were perhaps a couple of hundred people who belonged to or actively worked
with the Puerto Rican Socialist
Party. There were hundreds, nay, thousands of unaffiliated other radicals
who
would have been open to a regroupment effort. Yes, there were many thousands
more --and especially the handful of more prominent "radicals"-- who used
the Nicaraguan revolution, or the Mariel boatlift, of the Iran hostage
crisis, as the occasion to make a separate peace-- on what they hoped would
be generous terms-- with the ruling class. But that's not important.

    The key wasn't the tens or hundreds of thousands of former student
radicals who turned their back on the struggle, but the few thousand that
were looking for a way to continue it. In  retrospect, I think this is
unchallengeable. There was, in fact, no mass radicalization of working
people in the late 70s or the 80s. The actual opportunity that presented
itself was to consolidate as much of the 60's generation as possible,
conscious that it would be but a small minority, serving as a pole of
attraction for the new radicals that come up with every new generation,
whether they be dozens, or thousands (and as it turned out, there would
shortly be many thousands, around the nuclear freeze, southern Africa and
central America solidarity movements especially. It was not on a 60s scale
but then again even a party of several thousand would have been inadequate
to take advantage of all the opportunities for socialist education,
recruitment and organization the 80s presented. Yet at this point the Left
was in such shape that this generation was overwhelmingly lost to the
movement.)

    I do not know how well or effectively Peter and those who agreed with
him laid out this logic of his position. I was away at the SWP leadership
school when the debate actually broke out, and much more focused on events
in El Salvador and the Caribbean basin generally than on New York. So, apart
from being vaguely disturbed by the factionalism and
extremism of the majority over what was after all "just a tactical
question," I didn't follow the discussion or think much about it. It was
only later, when I was in Nicaragua and saw hundreds and thousands of young
Americans visiting the country that I realized what a stupid mistake it had
been to reject it out of hand as being counterposed to "the turn."

    And it was some time later before I realized that the majority was
actually right in this sense: the "turn" and what Peter proposed were, at
bottom, incompatible; pursuing the real opportunities that actually existed,
as Peter proposed, and "The Turn," which had by then achieved (and still
retains, as Fred's post reveals, the status of dogma, an unimpeachable,
absolute truth) went in two opposite directions.

    The actual opportunity that really existed in the post-Vietnam 70s and
1980s was to begin pulling together a much broader revolutionary socialist
party that
incorporated many of the activists and leaders from the various struggles
and movements that emerged in the youth radicalization, i.e., to begin
reversing the stupid mistake of the early American CPers who could not
see their way clear to remaining in a party that had the likes of Eugene V.
Debs as its most prominent figure and spokesperson, and making it a party
really worthy of what Debs represented politically.

    The point is, there simply isn't anything else for people like us to do
apart from trying to work with others like us who have been thrown up by the
actual historical process. The SWP's whole approach has been to rely on
"revolutionary continuity" i.e., programmatic purity, as the guarantee of
success.

    Leaving aside the question of just how "pure" this particular program
is, the whole approach is wrong. As Marx and Engels correctly saw when they
were in their 20s, the communist movement is not a doctrine but essentially
a social product of the development of capitalism. And as Engels highlighted
decades later in his notes on the history of the Communist League, it is not
in the heart of the industrial proletariat itself but rather on its fringes,
that this communist current first takes shape and expresses itself. For all
sorts of reasons, mostly having to do with the strength of American
imperialism and its ability to buy off a broad layer of the working people,
the communist movement in the U.S. remains in that diaper stage.

    Marx and Engels viewed their role essentially as giving a conscious
scientific, theoretical expression to this actual movement, but the movement
itself was primary. That's why they write in  the manifesto that the
Communists have no separate principles by which to shape and mold the
working class movement. They would be, I think, quite thoroughly appalled by
most of the thinking of most of the groups that claim to follow their ideas.

    Fred is right when he says the Proyectites (I kind of like the name --
it suggests both a firmly rooted, material, elemental substance but at the
same time has a futuristic ring: I imagine some explorer 50 years from now
giving the name to peculiar rock formations found only in the caves of
Titan) are as far from "The Turn" as it is humanly possible to get, and then
some. But then again, I would warn Fred that writing long emails defending
the turn against the petite-bourgeois hordes that pollute the internet is a
quintessentially "Proyectite" form of political praxis.

    It is a "Proyectite" activity because it is horizontal, networked and
neural in nature; not structured and hierarchical. It reproduces the kind of
exchanges and interconnections among communists of various nationalities and
currents that existed in the 1840s, the ferment and debate among various
circles and figures identified with the democratic and revolutionary left of
those days, that gave birth to the communist manifesto and Marxism as such.
And after the revolutions of 1848 failed, this is the kind of non-structure
Marx and those identified most closely with him consciously adopted,
ditching the worn-out form of the tightly organized and relatively
homogeneous programmatic nucleus, the Communist League. The weekly sessions
of Dr. Marx's circle in the private room of a London pub; the exchange of
letters and correspondence with old friends and comrades scattered near and
far. The occasional visit to London by a comrade/opponent of the heady days
of 1848, accompanied by much reminiscing and pub crawling. The articles on
every conceivable subject under the sun.

    This is, of course, as Fred quite rightly points out, the very
antitheses of the "Leninist Strategy of Party Building." And that, of
course, is the real cult, the cult of the party, which Fred continues to
profess unabashedly, he believes it. The party is the real object of cultism
in the SWP and other Leninist [poor Lenin!] organizations. The center of the
political cult isn't Jack, he is at best a secondary deity. It is the party,
or rather The Party.

    Fred, like the rest of us, is a human being and, undoubtedly such long
and deeply held beliefs may quite properly be considered part of his
"psychology." Now, I've always viewed psychoanalysis as a profession only a
touch less askance than tarot card reading and stock picking. But quite
apart from that, the beliefs in question are POLITICAL beliefs and they need
to be dealt with as such, not dismissed with psychoanalytic cracks. Even if
one were to grant, for arguments sake, that the psychoanalysis is correct,
you STILL need to deal with his positions POLITICALLY. It could very well
BOTH be true that these positions play some prominent role in his
psychological makeup AND that they are correct political propositions.

    From his email that you reproduced, however, it does seem to me that
Fred is quite able to analyze things politically from his point of view with
a great degree of insight. It is true that this sort of activity we're
engaged in represents the logic of the kind of direction that Peter was
trying to nudge the party towards at least since the mid-70s, and probably
well before that (the mid-70s is just when I got to know Peter and became
more aware of it). And it is true that this sort of "networking" represents
an alternative orientation to that of the turn and the "Leninist Strategy of
Party Building." Fred of course rejects it out of hand, but at least he is
conscious of what he is doing.

José


----- Original Message -----
From: "Philip Ferguson" <plf13 at it.canterbury.ac.nz>
To: <marxism at lists.panix.com>
Sent: Saturday, December 30, 2000 10:14 PM
Subject: Re: An outburst from a cult apologist









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