[Marxism] Cowards, scoundrels and complete imbeciles

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 13 08:00:39 MST 2004

The Militant is the organ of a small group in the USA called the 
Socialist Workers Party that I and a number of other Marxmail 
subscribers belonged to, some more recently than others. I dropped out 
in late 1978. At one time it was the largest group on the left in the 
USA in terms of active cadre. Although it was prevented by reactionary 
legislation from being a member party of the Fourth International, it 
was de facto one of the largest and most influential parties. Trotsky 
the considered the SWP leadership to be outstanding and held out hopes 
that the rest of the Trotskyist movement could live up to its example.

In the early 1980s the SWP began to disassociate itself from Trotskyism 
and to consider itself part of an embryonic new international consisting 
of the CP in Cuba, the FMLN, the FSLN, the New Jewel movement and other 
revolutionary groups. A large part of this turn involved shedding 
elements of Trotskyist doctrine, the theory of permanent revolution in 
particular. What it could not shed, however, was the sectarianism of the 
Trotskyist movement. In fact, as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s and the 
new century, the group lost many members and influence as its 
sectarianism deepened. Furthermore, while this turn provided an 
opportunity to engage with broader Marxist thought, including figures 
like Mariategui who had an enormous influence on Latin American 
revolutionary socialism, the opposite has taken place. Not only was 
Trotsky's Marxism deemphasized, the entire tendency of the past 20 years 
or so has been to accept party leader Jack Barnes as the premier Marxist 
thinker of the epoch, an entirely unlikely proposition at best.

Since the mass movement continues to impinge on the consciousness of 
this small group, it is forced to engage with it even as an adversary. 
This is especially true for the antiwar movement that has emerged over 
the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which is like an 800 pound gorilla 
sitting on its doorstep. Since the SWP was a key player in the Vietnam 
antiwar movement, it has to "make the record" for its current members 
and sympathizers, who were veterans of this movement.

While Marxmailers have very little confidence in the revolutionary 
capacity of this small group, there has been a steady drumbeat of 
criticism of the SWP's position on Iraq in the letters section of the 
Militant by former members and current sympathizers. In the current 
issue, you can read a letter by John Riddell who was a leader of the 
Canadian section of the Fourth International in the 1960s and 70s. I am 
not sure what happened to him in the intervening years.

Although written in a deferential tone, Riddell (who had written a 
complaint about SWP abstentionism before) mounts a serious challenge to 
the Militant:

"With respect to Iraq, the Militant has stressed the obstacles 
represented by the military prowess of U.S. imperialism, the reactionary 
character of the Baathist current, and the political disorientation of 
antiwar protests. All this is true, and it makes the fight for 
withdrawal of imperialist troops more difficult—but not impossible.

"I hope the Militant will say more on the transitional forms through 
which working-class solidarity with the Mideast peoples undergoing 
imperialist occupation can be expressed."

full: http://www.themilitant.com/2004/6807/680735.html

Penetrating through the opaquely obsequious formulations, Riddell is 
trying to say something like this:

"Look, comrades, I know that the Iraqi resistance is not worth 
supporting and that the antiwar movement is led by a bunch of disgusting 
petty-bourgeois elements, but isn't there *something* that can be done 
to force the USA out of the country?"

The answer to Riddell is highly revealing, despite its patently bad 
faith and cagey refusal to put things forward in a straightforward 
manner. You sort of have to read between the lines, just as you would in 
a CP newspaper during the late 1930s.

The job of answering Riddell is given to Argiris Malapanis, whose reply 
appears under the heading "It’s what you’re for that counts, not what 
you’re against". Put simply, this means it is not enough to be against 
imperialism. You have to be against capitalism as well. He says:

 >>The so-called resistance in Iraq today is dominated by remnants of 
the Baathist regime. To the degree other forces are involved there is no 
indication that they represent anything that’s progressive. The act of 
throwing a bomb or firing a missile at a U.S. troop unit or helicopter 
in Iraq today doesn’t automatically make one progressive. None of these 
forces have announced to the world that they are for a program that’s in 
the interests of the exploited majority—unlike the National Liberation 
Front (NLF) in Algeria, for example, when it waged guerrilla warfare 
against French colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s. National liberation 
movements like the NLF have always put forward a program explaining what 
they are for, even when they were forced to function in completely 
clandestine conditions.<<

and, elsewhere:

 >>Being against Saddam Hussein, or even “anti-imperialist,” however, 
doesn’t make one progressive either. What counts is what you are for. 
The Stalinists, like others on the “left,” often say they are for 
“democracy,” as the CP USA so eloquently explains. Because their 
existence is based on class collaboration, not a revolutionary 
class-struggle orientation, they end up on the bandwagon of one or 
another imperialist power that imposes certain bourgeois democratic 
forms as part of its imperialist offensive and occupation. Once the 
fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat ceases in practice to be 
at the center of the program of a workers party, everything else follows.<<

full: http://www.themilitant.com/2004/6807/680736.html

Now, I am not sure to what degree this kind of politics is a function of 
forgetting what Trotsky and other Marxists said about anti-imperialist 
struggles or instead a conscious rejection of them. The article even 
comes dangerously close to saying that imperialist intervention was a 
good thing, allowing a representative of the CP in Bahrein to speak for 

 >>These individuals were euphoric about what they described as the 
result of U.S. imperialist intervention in the Middle East since the 
opening of the 1990s. There are more openings, more space, for 
communists to function openly in Bahrain today, they emphasized, 
comparing the current conditions to 25 years ago when CPers and other 
opponents of the regime were routinely jailed, tortured, killed, or 
forced into exile, and when tolerance of secular organizations was 
virtually nonexistent.<<

Any normal person would follow the logic of this to the conclusion and 
end up supporting the US intervention. If US troops make it possible for 
Iraqi "communists" to organize, why endorse the March 20th protests? 
More specifically, why not denounce the protests as reactionary. I 
suppose that it is easier for the SWP to write meretricious items like 
this and simply ignore the protests altogether.

Needless to say, this was not Trotsky's outlook at all. Trotsky always 
took the side of a colonial country against imperialism, no matter the 
character of the resistance. In 1937, on the occasion of an upcoming 
convention of the Trotskyist movement in the USA, Trotsky wrote a letter 
to Mexican artist Diego Rivera that took up the sectarian objections of 
a faction led by Hugo Oehler. Oehler and his co-thinkers thought that 
supporting the Kuomintang against the Japanese invasion of China was a 
betrayal of class principles--in other words, the same position put 
forward by the Militant today. (The entire article can be read at: 
http://makeashorterlink.com/?U25C52567.) He writes:

 >>We do not and never have put all wars on the same plane. Marx and 
Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great 
Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two 
nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the 
bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy . . . at all 
events, Catholic reactionaries. When Abdel-Krim rose up against France, 
the democrats and Social Democrats spoke with hate of the struggle of a 
"savage tyrant" against the "democracy." The party of Leon Blum 
supported this point of view. But we, Marxists and Bolsheviks, 
considered the struggle of the Riffians against imperialist domination 
as a progressive war.l77 Lenin wrote hundreds of pages demonstrating the 
primary necessity of distinguishing between imperialist nations and the 
colonial and semicolonial nations which comprise the great majority of 
humanity. To speak of "revolutionary defeatism" in general, without 
distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a 
miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the 
service of the imperialists.

In the Far East we have a classic example. China is a semicolonial 
country which Japan is transforming, under our very eyes, into a 
colonial country. Japan's struggle is imperialist and reactionary. 
China's struggle is emancipatory and progressive.

But Chiang Kai-shek? We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, 
his party, or the whole ruling class of China, just as Marx and Engels 
had no illusions about the ruling classes of Ireland and Poland. Chiang 
Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But 
today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the 
remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It 
is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is 
struggling. Only cowards, scoundrels, or complete imbeciles can refuse 
to participate in that struggle.<<

Trotsky was right. Only cowards, scoundrels and complete imbeciles would 
refuse to participate in such struggles.


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