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Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Trotsky’s Marxism.” Panelists Ian Morrison (Platypus), Susan Williams (Freedom Socialist Party), and Jason Wright (International Bolshevik Tendency) were asked to address, “What was Trotsky’s contribution to revolutionary Marxism? At one level, the answer is clear. Above even his significance as organizer of the October insurrection and leader of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, what makes Trotsky a major figure in the history of Marxism is his status as the leader of the Left Opposition and, later, his founding of the Fourth International. But this panel asks whether stating this fact is sufficient for understanding Trotsky’s Marxism, or whether this might not in fact merely beg the question. The issue remains: What was it in Trotsky’s evolution from the period of 1905 through the Russian Revolution of 1917 that allowed him to become the leader of the Left Opposition and the great Marxist critic of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s? What of Trotsky, rather than ‘Trotsky-ism’?” An audio recording of the event is available at the above link. An earlier issue (PR #35) included Jason Wright’s opening remarks. What follows are Ian Morrison’s opening remarks.

TO SPEAK ABOUT TROTSKY’S MARXISM, and not simply Trotsky himself, is to speak, above all, about the distance traveled from the First to the Second Internationals, as well, of course, as that from the Third to the Fourth. In what manner had political organizations and the discontents those organizations sharpened changed over time, from the Gotha program to the Erfurt program, from the Zimmerwald Conference to the April Theses, all the way to the Transitional Program? The question of Trotsky’s Marxism also seems to presuppose that an essential framework, namely the critique of political economy, somehow remains valid throughout these periods, and that hence the idea of being a Marxist is stable through time. That is, the question of Trotsky’s Marxism suggests that through events such as 1848 and the Paris Commune, and, during Trotsky’s lifetime, the 1905 and October Revolutions—that however cataclysmic they were, however profoundly they transformed the political landscape—still, somehow, Marx’s original standpoint remains. There is no simple, straightforward approach to this.

Trotsky himself was attentive to changing circumstances, arguing that the Bolsheviks (and his leadership thereof) had left an indelible mark on the past, present, and future of Marxism. “Before Marxism became 'bankrupt' in the form of Bolshevism,” he wrote on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution,

…it had already broken down in the form of social democracy. Does the slogan 'Back to Marxism' then mean a leap over the periods of the Second and Third Internationals…to the First International? But it too broke down in its time. Thus in the last analysis it is a question of returning to the collected works of Marx and Engels. One can accomplish this historic leap without leaving one's study and even without taking off one's slippers. But how are we going to go from our classics (Marx died in 1883, Engels in 1895) to the tasks of a new epoch, omitting several decades of theoretical and political struggles, among them Bolshevism and the October Revolution? None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course. So the question is reduced to the simple advice to study [Marx's] Capital. We can hardly object. But the Bolsheviks, too, studied Capital and not badly either. This did not however prevent the degeneration of the Soviet state and the staging of the Moscow trials. So what is to be done? [1]

Trotsky’s answer here, in short, is to study and deepen our understanding of Bolshevism from the present “Thermidorian Reaction” all the way back to the party’s origins. No “Marxism” can be complete, Trotsky maintains, without taking up this task, and he himself inaugurated the work, particularly in The Lessons of October (1924), The History of the Russian Revolution (1930), and his autobiography, My Life (1930). It is curious, looking at this incomplete bibliography, how carefully Trotsky modulated the genre of his writing to fit different objectives: as a revolutionary politician, as a historian, and as a modern subject struggling to reflect on his own life. There is no other writer, it seems to me, who presents such a full account of the period in question. His insistence (and persistence) on this score tells us quite a bit about how he sought to register the profound discontents emerging during his lifetime and, subsequently, what it meant to be a “Marxist” in Trotsky’s eyes. Clearly, Trotsky saw no need to reconstruct Marx’s critique of political economy, which is not to say that he believed it to be anachronistic. On the contrary. But during the intervening history—between Marx’s time and Trotsky’s—it seems important to underscore that the object of critique had been transformed as well as the organizations that were being intersected. Turn-of-the-century social democracy and the post-war communist parties are, sociologically, quite unlike the political organizations that made up the First International. In The Lessons of October Trotsky is addressing a political party of which he is a leader, and perhaps more importantly, one that is in power. The dangers and responsibilities of that organization (“the party”) are first and foremost on his mind. The subsequent history makes it clear that when a political party loses its grasp on reality, its degeneration is rapid.

I believe that is one reason why Trotsky begins The Lessons of October with the curious claim that “we met with success in the October Revolution, but the October Revolution has met with little success in our press.” Trotsky develops this claim well beyond a technical critique of the press. Rather, he implies that although the October Revolution appears “objectively” to have been a success, “subjectively” it potentially is not. For reasons that are by no means self-evident, this history is repressed. The party as an institution appears, then, not only as a means for revolutionary action, but also, potentially, as a means for evasion, a political obstacle par excellence. This claim, no doubt, is peculiar. How could a nation be mobilized without being fully cognizant of its intentions? How could the desire to overcome the status quo that had united disparate groups of men and women during “October” somehow be forgotten, averted, recoiled from by the very people who were mobilized by that desire to escape the present? There are many difficult questions here that go well beyond the typical condemnation of bureaucracy.

In Trotsky’s view the results are obvious enough, since he writes The Lessons of October as a response to failure in Germany. He argues that such a forgetful approach,

though it may be subconscious—is, however, profoundly erroneous, and is, moreover, narrow and nationalistic. We ourselves may never have to repeat the experience of the October Revolution, but this does not at all imply that we have nothing to learn from that experience. We are a part of the International, and the workers in all other countries are still faced with the solution of the problem of their own ‘October.’ Last year we had ample proof that the most advanced Communist parties of the West had not only failed to assimilate our October experience but were virtually ignorant of the actual facts. [2]

On first glance it may appear that there is a question of sheer ignorance. There is also the technical problem of simply producing and supplying the intellectual material. These are hardly irrelevant factors. Nonetheless, these factors do not explain the phenomenon itself, especially since this is a problem that has deepened immensely over time. Historical distance has rendered the problem even more opaque, as “narrow and nationalistic” sentiments have only grown. The question worth asking is: Why is it the case that the great struggle associated with Trotsky took the form of a “historical struggle,” a struggle to remember the past, and not merely a struggle of agitation and force?

Marx describes how the leaders of the French Revolution emulated “the Roman republic and the Roman empire.” [3] Socialists in the nineteenth century sought to revert to the craftsman's guilds of the pre-modern city-states. All these impulses and discontents Marx sought to ground in his theory of Capital, tearing asunder all the crude parodies of the past. The leaders of October had no such illusions; the paradigm, it seems, had changed. They struggled over the “incomplete present,” appraising the meaning of their actions on a world-historical scale. It is no small wonder that modern social thought emerged contemporaneously in figures like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Trotsky (and the Bolsheviks) simply stand out as a profound expression of this historical shift, with an acute understanding of the “October” experience.

Trotsky is even clearer on this score in an appendix to his History of Russian Revolution. In a revealing passage, he writes,

The task of the historian [in the period of “Thermidorian Reaction”] becomes one of ideological restoration. He must dig out the genuine views and aims of the revolutionary party from under subsequent political accumulations. Despite the briefness of the periods succeeding each other, this task is much like the deciphering of a palimpsest, for the constructions of the epigone school are by no means always superior to those theological ingenuities for whose sake the monks of the seventh and eight centuries destroyed the parchment and papyrus of the classics. [4]

This is no hyperbole. One only needs to take a quick glance at contemporary “Marxism” to get a sense of how terribly cryptic this material has become.

What was the “ideological restoration” needed? The reader cannot help but be struck by seemingly anticlimactic conclusion of the History, where Trotsky speculates:

The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarized as succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces—in nature, in society, in man himself. Critical and creative thought can boast of its greatest victories up to now in the struggle with nature. The physico-chemical sciences have already reached a point where man is clearly about to become master of matter. But social relations are still forming in the manner of the coral islands. Parliamentarism illuminated only the surface of society, and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with monarchy and other heirlooms from the cannibals and cave-dwellers, democracy is of course a great conquest, but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October revolution was the first to raise its hand. The Soviet system wishes to bring aim and plan into the very basis of society, where up to now only accumulated consequences have reigned. [5]

If we are to believe that history is more then a set of contingent factors, more then an oversized pinball machine shooting us around every which way, or a form of “divine providence” as the pre-moderns believed, we must approach the present as historical, such that “the tradition of all dead generations [really does weigh] like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” [6] This was the project Trotsky had set for himself, and it is the essence of his Marxism.

As far back as 1906, Trotsky had written in his pamphlet, Results and Prospects, “History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution [of 1905] with the Great French Revolution, the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter. The 19th century has not passed in vain.” [7] If only one could be so optimistic today! We face the uncertain phenomenon of 1989 effacing not only “October” but 1789 as well. It may no longer be the case that, as Trotsky once claimed, “The whole of modern France, in many respects the whole of modern civilization, arose out of the bath of the French Revolution!” [8] |P

[1]. Leon Trotsky, “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (28 August, 1937). Available online at <>.

[2]. Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October, trans. John G. Wright (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1937 [1924]). Available online at <>.

[3]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K. Padover. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <>.

[4]. Leon Trotsky, “Appendix No. 2: Socialism in a Separate Country?,” in The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, The Triumph of the Soviets, trans. Max Eastman. Originally published in 1930. Available online at <>.

[5]. Leon Trotsky, “Conclusion,” in The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3. Available online at <>.

[6]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire.

[7] Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects. Originally published in 1906. Available online at <>.

[8]. Leon Trotsky, “In Defense of October” (speech delivered in Copenhagen, Denmark in November, 1932). Available online at <>.

June 20–24, 2011
Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago

Marxism and the bourgeois revolution

Spencer Leonard, "Marx’s critique of political economy: Proletarian socialism continuing the bourgeois revolution?"
Pamela Nogales, "Marx on the U.S. Civil War as the 2nd American Revolution"
Jeremy Cohan, "Lukács on Marx’s Hegelianism and the dialectic of Marxism"
Moderator: Chris Cutrone

The "bourgeois revolutions" from the 16th through the 19th centuries -- extending into the 20th -- conformed humanity to modern city life, ending traditional, pastoral, religious custom in favor of social relations of the exchange of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in contradistinction to the clerical 1st Estate who "prayed" and the aristocratic 2nd Estate who "fought," the commoner 3rd Estate "worked:" "What has the 3rd Estate been? Nothing." "What is it? Everything." Kant warned that universal bourgeois society would be the mere midpoint in humanity's achievement of freedom. After the last bourgeois revolutions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the "constitution of capital," the ambivalent, indeed self-contradictory character of "free wage labor." In the late 20th century, the majority of humanity abandoned agriculture in favor of urban life -- however in "slum cities." How does the bourgeois revolution appear from a Marxian point of view? How did what Marx called the “proletarianization” of society circa 1848 signal not only the crisis and supersession, but the need to fulfill and “complete” the bourgeois revolution, whose task now fell to the politics of “proletarian” socialism, expressed by the workers’ call for “social democracy?” How did this express the attempt, as Lenin put it, to overcome bourgeois society “on the basis of capitalism” itself? How did subsequent Marxism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s perspective on the crisis of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century still resonate today?

audio recording

The Marxism of Second International radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky

Chris Cutrone, Lenin
Greg Gabrellas, Luxemburg
Ian Morrison, Trotsky
Moderator: Spencer Leonard

The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) -- what they called “revolutionary social democracy” -- in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: “[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.” Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being “on the basis of capitalism” itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century -- as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “against the grain” of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?

audio recording

A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society held on March 19, 2011, at Left Forum, Pace University.

Panel Abstract: What was Trotsky's contribution to revolutionary Marxism? At one level, the answer is clear. Above even his significance as organizer of the October insurrection and leader of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, what makes Trotsky a major figure in the history of Marxism is his status as the leader of the Left Opposition and, later, his founding of the Fourth International. But this panel asks whether stating this fact is sufficient for understanding Trotsky's Marxism, or whether this might not in fact merely beg the question. The issue remains what was it in Trotsky's evolution from the period of 1905 through the Russian Revolution of 1917, that allowed him to become the leader of the left opposition and the great Marxist critic of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s? What of Trotsky, rather than Trotsky-ism?

Ian Morrison - Platypus Affiliated Society; University of Chicago
Jason Wright - International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT)
Spencer Leonard - Platypus Affiliated Society; University of Chicago
Susan Williams - Freedom Socialist Party

Transcript of Jason Wright's remarks in Platypus Review #35 (Click below):

Transcript of Ian Morrison's remarks in Platypus Review #37 (Click below):

A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, held on March 19, 2011 at Left Forum, Pace University.

Panel Abstract: What was distinctive about Vladimir Lenin's Marxism? What was its relationship to the other forms of Marxism and Marxists of his era? Was Lenin orthodox or heterodox? Was there a "unity" to Lenin's political thought, as Georg Lukacs argued, or do his major works -- What is to Be Done? (1902), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), The State and Revolution (1917), "Left-Wing Communism": An Infantile Disorder? (1920) -- express distinctive and even contradictory phases in Lenin's political development? How did Lenin's Marxism overcome -- or not -- other competing forms of Marxism? How should we understand Lenin's historical contribution to Marxism, today?

Chris Cutrone - The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Ian Morrison - Platypus Affiliated Society
Lars T Lih - Independent Researcher
Paul Le Blanc - LaRoche College

Transcript of Paul Le Blanc's remarks in Platypus Review #35 (Click below):

Transcript of Chris Cutrone's remarks in Platypus Review #36 (Click below):

Transcript of Lars Lih's remarks in Platypus Review #37 (Click below):

Platypus presents: Lessons from the history of Marxism

@ Left Forum
March 18-20, 2011

Pace University
next to City Hall, New York City
online registration page:

Please join us for the following panel discussions:

The Bourgeois Revolution: from Marx’s point of view

//Saturday, March 19 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review

James Vaughn - University of Texas at Austin, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Spencer Leonard - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jeremy Cohan (chair) - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Lenin’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:50 p.m. | room W607

Chris Cutrone - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Paul Le Blanc - LaRoche College
Lars T. Lih - Independent researcher
Ian Morrison (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg

//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:50 p.m. | room W606

Greg Gabrellas - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Stephen Eric Bronner - Rutgers University
Ben Shepard (chair) - The Platypus Affiliated Society

Lukács’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m. | room W607

Jeremy Cohan - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Marco Torres - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Timothy Bewes - Brown University
Timothy Hall - University of East London, U.K.
Chris Cutrone (chair) - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Aesthetics in Protests

//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m. | room E330

Chris Mansour - Parsons School of Design, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Laurel Whitney - Yes Men
Marc Herbst - Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Reclaim the Streets
Stephen Duncombe - New York University
Jamie Keesling (chair) - 491, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Debating Alain Badiou’s “Politics of Emancipation”

//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:50 p.m | room W615
Sponsored by the Demarcations

Bruno Bosteels - Cornell University
Chris Cutrone - The Platypus Affiliated Society, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Nayi Duniya - Demarcations journal
Saul Thomas (chair) - University of Chicago

Trotsky’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:50 p.m | room W607

Ian Morrison - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jason Wright - International Bolshevik Tendency
Susan Williams - Freedom Socialist Party
Spencer Leonard (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Marx and Engels’s Marxism

//Sunday, March 20 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review

Benjamin Blumberg - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Nathan Smith - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Pam Nogales - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Tana Forrester (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 23 | May 2010

[PDF]  [Video Recording]

In light of the recent economic crisis, Marxist theory has enjoyed a resurgence of interest. This most recent is the last of many returns to Marx’s work throughout the 20th century. Still, the question poses itself: Why return to Marx, yet again? What does this move tell us about our contemporary situation? Most important, what do previous returns to Marx tell us about capitalism and those who have self-consciously struggled against it? Why Marxism—and what must Marxism become?

On February 19, 2010, Ian Morrison of Platypus spoke with Leo Panitch, author and professor of Political Science at York University, about these and other topics. Below is an edited transcript of their public interview and of the audience Q & A that followed. The Platypus Review encourages readers to view the full video recording of the interview online at the above link.

Ian Morrison: People often use the dates 1968 and 1973 as touchstones—the first political, the second economic. Looking back, these moments are confusing in their close proximity: 1968 appears to many as a romantic outburst of revolution and yet, by 1973, leftist politics were marked by an increasingly compromised reformism. How are we to make sense of these two dates in combination?

Leo Panitch: 1968 represents not only the great anti-Vietnam mobilizations around the world and May ’68 in Paris, but also Prague. It represents the recognition that social democratic reformism had run up against the limits of state bureaucracy in reproducing capitalism, and that Soviet-style Communism as a progressive force had passed into history. For some this may have been clear earlier, but especially with the invasion of the Czech Republic in 1968, there was a recognition that both “capital-C Communism” and “capital-S Social Democracy” had passed their historic shelf life. These recognitions defined my generation politically; they defined the New Left. Some of us rushed off into Trotskyist parties. Others tried to build an independent Marxism or socialism that would yield a new, non-Leninist type of working class party. All have failed to build successful political organizations. I do not think we failed as much culturally or intellectually as we did organizationally.

IM: Using 1973 as a turning point, why was reform politics frustrated? A lot of politics in the U.S. and abroad celebrate the word “resistance” as a way to paper over the difficulties posed even by reform politics, much less something more radical. What do you see as the origins of that difficulty? Why is it that even reformism is in retreat?

LP: There had been a common and very naïve belief that you could win reforms within capitalism and have them pile up until, suddenly, you had gotten beyond capitalism. But by the midst of the economic crisis in 1975–76, it was clear that if you could not get beyond reform politics, that you would lose any reforms you had won. It was not enough simply to provide unemployment insurance; you had to get rid of unemployment, displace the labor market, establish a democratic system of economic planning, and so on. This became clear during the crisis of Keynesianism, the vast fiscal crisis of the state in the 1970s as full employment produced massive inflation.

There were reasons for this crisis that trade unions back then were reluctant to address that people on the Left are still loathe to admit. When I returned to Canada from England in 1972, nurses were making wage demands of 25–40 percent, and why not? They were just beginning to unionize, and noticed the gap in wages between themselves and doctors, while also noticing that industrial workers were now earning more than they. Well, a 40 percent wage increase is a revolutionary demand. It cannot be met without causing inflation, and yet young workers were making this demand in both the public and private sectors, since full employment was reached for the first time after the war in the 1960s. During my generation, you went to work and you realized that by the time you were 26 you had reached the height of what you would be able to earn individually. From then on whatever you got was based on a collective wage or salary increase for everyone working in your plant or your office.

With full employment one was unafraid of collectively demanding large wage increases. The main thing about the reserve army of labor is that it induces insecurity, the fear of being unemployed. For workers in the 1960s, if they got fired for demanding too much, they could go down the street and get another job. If their boss told them to work harder, it was not uncommon for a young worker to tell the boss to “fuck off,” because they knew they could pick up something else down the road.

What the labor militancy people had predicted in the 1940s and 1950s, that Keynesianism would yield full employment, actually occurred in the 1960s. People like Joan Robinson, who was not a Marxist, and Michal Kalecki, who was, had said that full employment would be a fundamental contradiction for capitalism, and this was proven in the 1960s, insofar as workers’ demands, alongside their refusals to work harder, had inflationary effects and ultimately squeezed profits. That contradiction worked itself out in the crisis of the 1970s. It was a worker-driven crisis in that it reflected working class strength. It also reflected how capitalism is competitive even under labor conditions unfavorable to capitalists, as bosses could not raise prices as much as they wanted.

The crisis of the 1970s showed that you could not pile up reforms to get beyond capitalism. You could mess capitalism up, you could make it function poorly, but that is all. Our inability to turn those militant workers into revolutionary socialists meant that by the end of the 1970s they lost their nerve with the retreat from Keynesianism and the rise of unemployment. They got frightened and trade unions were subjected to one defeat after another. The illusions that people had—that because you had working class militancy, workers will inevitably become revolutionaries without the intervention of ideology, party, and so on—these illusions expired. Leftists and liberals then turned on the working class, which increasingly came to be seen as reactionary rather than leftist as regards gender, the ecological crisis, and a host of other concerns.

IM: Speaking of gender and environmentalism, how do you see the new social movements in this context? What were their successes and limitations in light of the problems faced by the Left?

LP: Obviously, there is the legacy of the failures of the 20th century. It was all-too-easy in the 1930s to take a militant worker or someone in the unemployment marches and point them toward the Soviet Union. They would know nothing about the show trials, but would see full employment there, and see how the Soviet Union was positively aligned with the Spanish Civil War struggle, for instance. You could turn such a person into a Marxist. By the 1970s that was much harder to do. For one thing, there was the Cold War propaganda, though there was plenty of that in the 1920s and 1930s as well. But the increasing difficulty of trying to make militants into Marxists by pointing to the example of actually existing Communism as something positive stemmed chiefly from the objective limits and failures of the Soviet Union itself.

I do not think we lost much in 1989 when those regimes finally confirmed what most of us in the 1960s already understood – that Communism in that sense was historically passé. That is not to say that I did not admire those people who joined the Communist Party in 1968. They knew joining would make it harder to get a job and that their families would shun them; it took a lot of commitment. Most of them joined with the hope of democratizing those parties. I admired their courage, but mistrusted their prospects of success.

While I think we are better off without the model of the Soviet Union, I am also very frustrated by the anti-globalization movement: people instead erecting new idols out of Porto Alegre or Venezuela or the Zapatistas. Not that those struggles are unworthy of support and encouragement, but those who have observed these movements have tended not to ask the hard questions. It is like when Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the UK Labour Party Fabians, went to the Soviet Union in 1935, came back, and said, “I have seen the future and it works.” When I went down to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, there were people who in the same naïve way would visit a participatory budget meeting, listen to some description of it by a Workers’ Party bureaucrat, and come back saying, “I have seen the future and it works.” No one posed the hard questions that should have been asked about the limitations of participatory budgeting. Although it was remarkable that black women without formal education were deciding on whether a sewer or road would be built in their favela (shanty town), there ought also to have been discussion in those meetings over the general direction of the Workers’ Party, for instance, or over the class struggles taking place in Porto Alegre. Every time a sewer was built in the favela, the original owner of the land (occupied in the first place because it was previously too subject to run-off to be productively used) says, “Now this land is worth something,” and starts demanding that the city either recompense him for the land that was occupied or return the land. There was a class struggle going on in Porto Alegre over this, but such issues were ignored in participatory budget meetings, stymieing political development.

You could point to similar problems with the Zapatistas, which were mainly a military organization. However impressive the Zapatistas’ struggle, naïveté abounds on the Left that believes that they represent a perfect form of democracy. In general, we need to get away from making this or that movement into a model. The best form of solidarity is to try and go to struggles where they are taking place, where movements or parties with some revolutionary potential are building, and ask, “What are the obstacles you are facing? What are the things that are proving most difficult? What do you think that you are not going to be able to overcome?” Those are the things we need to learn. Having all these problematic models has been an enormous albatross around our necks in terms of building new organizations. It finally seems to be fading, fortunately. When someone hears that you are a Marxist, a revolutionary, or a socialist, it is much less likely they will imagine people being thrown in jail, dissenters being put into concentration camps, or trade unions being subordinated to the Party.

IM: As this economic crisis precipitates a return to Marx, many in American politics have been demanding a “new New Deal,” a renewed demand for a welfare state, full employment, and other reforms that seem difficult today. However, the New Left was premised on a critique of the welfare state. What are your thoughts on this nostalgia for strong government and state intervention given the leftist disenchantment with them in the late 1960s?

LP: For me, this was an astonishing development: In face of the crisis of Keynesianism and the defeat of trade unionism, those who had been most radical in their critique of reformism turned volte-face. For instance, Frances Fox Piven and her husband Richard Cloward famously wrote about how the welfare state demobilized and incorporated poor people by robbing them of their radicalism and subordinating them to agents of the state whose job required scouring households for evidence of men, since American welfare benefits are intended for support of single mothers. In the early 1980s in the face of Reaganism, Piven and Cloward, whose work and commitment to popular struggles remained exemplary in many ways, nevertheless offered a fulsome and rather undialectical support of the welfare state in The New Class War.[1] It is true there was a new class war from above, but leftists need to concentrate more in my view on the extent to which the people who needed the welfare state were also alienated from it, afraid of it, and felt it was not theirs to control. This was what fanned the popularity for Reaganite and Thatcherite anti-statist appeals in the first place. The same thing happened with Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. They undertook a radical critique of the educational system as social control, but in the 1980s turned to a defense of the Keynesian welfare state. Trying to retain the reforms that had been won, they bracketed their negative aspects and offered a one-sided defense.

That is the predominant politics today. In contrast with the mobilizing politics of the social movements in the 1960s, which were so important, leftist politics today has been for the most part a version of social democratic reformism. Whether or not they are “liberals in a hurry,” as Thomas Naylor termed the New Democratic Party (NDP), the politics of the Left has been very much on the defensive throughout the last 20–30 years. The leftist political impulse is still to get a piece of the state, push a policy, or win a reform. Certainly, reforms are necessary, but there are many problems with this approach we should not ignore. The reforms gained have been constrained and are increasingly compromised with neoliberalism. They do not build in a way that gets beyond the contradictions of capitalism. Nor, when gained, do they gather momentum towards greater reform. Far from being “stepping stones”—even if just stepping stones to more policy changes—the reforms of the last 30 years or so have had a demobilizing effect.

How do we grapple with this? You cannot win people over to a transformative politics without being able to offer them some immediate returns. Workers need more unemployment insurance, students lower student fees, etc. Winning immediate demands is necessary. But connecting those demands to a long-term strategy that understands the limits of those reforms is exceedingly difficult. I was in El Salvador in 1995, after the conclusion of the peace process by which the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), the revolutionary organization that had engaged in a long civil war in El Salvador, reconstituted itself as a political party from the predominantly military organization it had been during the Civil War. While there I met a FMLN leader who had been an important guerrilla commandante. He said, "You know what is wrong with this party, and everybody in it? They think the long-term is the next presidential election,” which would have been held in four years (in 1999). "That is the short term," he insisted. "We have to hope by 1999 we are a viable party with an activist base. The middle term is 2010, by which time we should aim to represent all progressive political forces in the country. The long term is 2020. By that point we should enter the state and carry through its radical transformation." The woman who led the education department and was taking me around looked at him, with tears in her eyes, and said, “In that case I am leaving the party. I cannot go back to people who have been through a civil war for more than ten years and tell them that they have to wait until 2020 before anything can happen.” That exchange captures the dilemma.

There is no easy answer for this problem. But I believe it is possible to build political organizations that can win reforms while remaining strong enough to convince people that those reforms are limited, constrained, and precarious unless revolutionary reforms, or structural reforms, are won. This would be the type of organization dedicated to something very different than reformism, and would seek that type of structural change by which, for instance, nationalization of the banks occurs, allowing for democratic planning. That way we could choose not to let automobile plants go out of business and to retain all the skills and equipment involved in tool- and die-making, directing them to ecologically sustainable uses. When you close a parts plant, as is happening now all across Ontario, Ohio, and Michigan, you lose not only salaries but an entire collective legacy of skills and capacities. You cannot save them unless you are able to redirect the capital that passes through the financial system. Doing this ultimately depends on making the financial system a public utility integral to a democratic planning process. I think people can be brought to understand this while demanding reforms that fall far short of it, knowing that while the reform may be limited and constrained it is necessary as a step towards structural or revolutionary change. But you need to have the type of committed organization and cadre that is willing to put the effort into doing that.

IM: On the issue of trade unions, there are many in the labor movement that in response to the financial crisis seek to return to class politics. But financial crises are not necessarily the best time for organizing unions, which have been shrinking for decades. How should the Left orient itself towards organized labor? I mean, is it just an issue of lacking people on the ground, a matter of historical defeats, or are there deeper structural problems the Left is failing to address?

LP: There are a number of reasons for the weakness of labor politics, including deep structural factors. Some of them are demographic; some involve the dynamic development of capitalism and recent transformations in labor processes and markets; some have to do with changes in trade unionism itself; and some are a matter of individual or generational shortcomings. In the great historical moment of socialism–from the Wobblies to the Marxist-Leninist parties and even to the social democratic parties–trade union leaders were prepared to risk their reputation with the workers, who had come to trust them, by coming out as socialists, as communists, as revolutionaries. This they did to win the workers over to a more radical politics. It was this commitment that led Marx and Engels to believe that trade unions could serve as schools for socialism. It was not because trade unions themselves were necessarily going to engage in revolutionary behavior, but because they could be the basis for cadres in the labor movement. It was from this perspective that Lenin’s What is to be Done? was written, shaped by the experience of union struggles in Russia in the 1890s, where cadres in the labor movement advanced an explicitly revolutionary politics.

In terms of the deeper structural issues, there is the decline of the industrial organizations of the old type, the emergence of more flexible labor markets, the enormous growth of the service sector, all of which make it harder to organize unions. In consequence, there is a greater turnover of membership, units are smaller, and so on. There is also the tendency toward bureaucracy within working class organizations, most acutely in trade unions but also in parties. Robert Michels called this tendency “the iron law of oligarchy” in his book Political Parties, published around the time of World War I.[2] He grappled with the problem that arises when the type of people who organize other people, who have the gift of gab and a willingness to accept risks, end up leaving the office or the shop floor to become full time functionaries. This happens because you need people dedicated solely to taking on this incredibly powerful set of capitalists that you are working for and that have plenty of material support. So people are paid to work as full-time organizers out of the union dues. These few full-time union employees control the union funds, when the next convention is going to be held, and whatever means of communication the organization produces. Inevitably there is a structural barrier that, while not impossible to overcome, creates difficulties: Full-time organizers tend to use union resources to avoid returning to the shop floor. They do not want to go back to the mine. They interact on a daily basis with journalists and bosses. They find out that the bosses do not eat babies for breakfast, that they are not evil, and that they too are subject to structural constraints of competition. That can change them. At the same time, the people who elected the union functionaries are deferential towards them– that is, they say that finally, there is someone standing and speaking up on behalf of the workers. The tendency of the rank and file is to give their leaders a large line of credit.

This is a tremendous structural problem in labor organizations, one that the labor organizations themselves and far too few Marxists have addressed. At the end of History and Class Consciousness, a book I find very problematic due to its teleological outlook, Georg Lukács says that the greatest problem of the working class movement is the problem of organization, and that it has hardly been theorized in the Marxist canon. He was right. Robert Michels was no Marxist, but a social democrat who ended up as a fascist supporting Mussolini in Italy. Still, he attempted to theorize working class organization. In the Bolshevik movement, Bukharin similarly regarded organization as a serious theoretical problem, while the rest swept it under the table. So, when speaking of structural problems, one cannot look only at capitalist labor markets, but must also contend with the structural problems of and within working class organizations. It is a topic to which the best Marxist minds along with the best organizers need to address themselves.

Audience Q & A

One of the unfortunate features of our international system is its existence as a system of empire. Canada, for example, has imperial ambitions directed against domestic indigenous peoples, as well as against Afghanistan, Haiti, and even against places within Europe, the U.S., and Canada that attempt to promote democracy. What does this international situation mean for organizing and what can Marxism tell us about it?

LP: The last 10 years I have been trying to develop a new Marxist theory of empire, since I am convinced that the old Marxist theory of imperialism has become a liability. When we hear the words “empire” and “imperialism,” we immediately think in terms of inter-imperialist rivalry, in terms of concentrated capitalist classes and monopoly capitalists who control the state. Even before 1914 that was, at least in some respects, a mistaken way of looking at the world. For the post-1945 period, this understanding is completely off-base. States are not simple representatives of concentrated monopoly capital, for one thing. But more to the point, the former empires have been integrated into the American empire. States with the strongest economic and political ties with the American state are precisely America’s former imperialist rivals, such as Japan and many of the nations of Europe.

The bourgeoisies of those states see the American state as the ultimate guarantor of property rights. Of course, this does not mean that their own states are unimportant to them or non-functional, nor does it mean that they become fully Americanized, or even transnational in some cultural sense. The French state is still French, the Italian still Italian, the Canadian still Canadian, but the bourgeoisies of these nations do not look to their own state to establish an exclusive sphere of accumulation for them. Other capitalist classes are encouraged to locate within the boundaries of those nation-states to accumulate and compete with domestic capital. The American state has led that struggle and has largely won it, removing capital controls, weakening protective tariffs, and so on.

The Luxemburgist argument that imperialism stems from an increasing difficulty to accumulate within one’s own borders was utterly ridiculous even before 1914. The notion that Theodore Roosevelt got involved in Central America because the American state had reached the end of the frontier is almost laughable. Yet this notion was constitutive of the political imagination of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and had a strong impact elsewhere. With respect to the American situation before World War I, California had barely been developed, and few capitalists had yet discovered "Fordism," i.e. how to realize profits and accumulate through sales to the same working class from which they extracted the surplus. It was assumed that capitalism would immiserate workers, when on the contrary it was already becoming the case that, with the formation of unions and a nascent form of the welfare state, workers could increase their buying power as their productivity increased. It was possible to accumulate domestically by deepening capital accumulation at home. Capitalism has not primarily depended on foreign adventures. This is especially true of the capitalism of the later half of 20th century, at whose helm stands the U.S.

Now, this is not to say that an empire with extended political rule does not exist. It does, and it oppresses all kinds of people. Above all, it stifles any revolutions wherever they threaten to impede the purposes of capital. That is the main thing it does, and it goes well beyond American capital. The American state is the representative of global capital. It stands up for the rights of capital anywhere and everywhere. It protects capital within its own boundaries as well, of course. But it is much more than that, and it is in this sense that America represents a global empire.

I do not think the Canadian state is properly defined as an imperial one. Certainly, indigenous people have been oppressed within Canada, but to use the term “imperialism” for such oppression evacuates the term of meaning. An empire is defined by its sway beyond its own borders. The empire we have today is the American state, which has been burdened with the responsibility of making and managing global capitalism and reorganizing other states so that they cooperate in that process. This is how empire exists today. The use of the term “imperialism” by most of the Left has been shaped by anti-colonial struggles. It is used to mean dependency, connecting development and underdevelopment with political dependency. One consequence of this is that when people see Canadian investment in Ohio they define Canada as “imperialist.” If there is a shift of the surplus from one place to another, for any of a wide range of reasons, it is enough for some to describe this shift as “imperialism.” It is an utterly useless way of thinking about a stage of capitalism distinguished precisely by the opening of borders to investment nearly everywhere. South Africa, for example, is certainly playing a sub-imperialist role in the southern cone of Africa, and maybe for all of Africa, but this is not primarily because of South African investment in Mozambique. The term “imperialism” is very emotive, and as such has become important for mobilizing people. I do not mind it being used in this looser sense, provided we recognize such usage as unscientific. So, in terms of the political struggles of indigenous people in Canada, the word “imperialism” might be quite useful rhetorically, but scientifically it is not worth much.

How would this apply to the U.S. going into Iraq, then? Can the invasion ultimately prove benign, or is this just the so-called new humanitarian imperialism that Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, talks about, or that the organization Doctors Without Borders talks about? Are these instances of “humanitarian imperialism” anything other than reorganizations of empire?

LP: No, they are reorganizations of empire. As effective and important as it was, the discourse of the new social movements was nevertheless problematic in that it centered on rights. It has proved too easy for the discourse of rights to mislead people into inviting the most powerful state in the world to establish rights for other people. You saw this above all in Rwanda until attention shifted to Bosnia, and then from one desperate area to another. It was the Left, the liberal left and sometimes the social democratic left, that called for the U.S. to intervene elsewhere in order to establish rights. After all, it is the only state capable of really doing it. But people forgot to ask, Why does the U.S. do this? Why does it suddenly concern itself with the rights of women in Afghanistan?

This does not mean that political leaders and various bureaucrats are not genuinely motivated by a desire for Afghan women to go to school if they want. But we should remember that they did not care much about that when they were fighting Communists, who were losing control and being defeated in Afghanistan primarily because in 1979–80 they moved too quickly to put village girls into school. If the American state goes into a country to establish rights, it does so for all kinds of reasons besides those of establishing rights. The main reason the United States bombed Yugoslavia was to show the rest of Europe that NATO would be the policeman of Europe in the post-Soviet world. It was not a primarily economic reason: It was not about pipelines, but about establishing NATO as the center of power in Europe. The main reason the U.S. went into Iraq was to ensure that Saddam Hussein would not be able to build up his oil revenues to the point that he would be subject to neither Saudi Arabian nor American control. Once the sanctions proved ineffective in blocking this project, the U.S. invaded. To the extent people justified these invasions on the basis of rights, they represent cases of “human rights imperialism” or, as Amy Bartholomew and Jennifer Breakspear put it in the Socialist Register in 2009, “human rights as swords of empire.”[3] This is why we need to better understand empire. It is not because rights are unimportant, but because a discourse in favor of human rights has often been used, both opportunistically and authentically, to justify imperialism. We ought to encourage supporting every way we can Afghan women struggling for their rights or, to take another example, Chinese workers struggling to develop an independent labor movement. But this is an entirely different position than the one adopted by the AFL-CIO, which demands that the American state not allow China into the WTO because there is no independent labor movement in China. There is a difference between people struggling to establish their rights and people asking the empire to impose them. The latter approach is incoherent, as the denial of those rights occurs with the tacit approval of the empire in the first place. The number of women who have been liberated in Afghanistan, even in the parts of Afghanistan that the U.S. or NATO controls, is minuscule not only because of the local forces at play, but because the actual liberation of Afghan women was never a strategic goal of the American intervention there.

I agree with what you said about the purposes and motives of U.S. military action, but must we not also remain critical of certain kinds of anti-imperialist politics? What complicates the issue for me is that we do not have an active, ideologically rigorous Left, a politically powerful, international Left could potentially provide true humanitarian support, among other things. I think it is this absence that leads to support for U.S. military intervention on supposedly “humanitarian” grounds, generating these politically hybrid characters such as Christopher Hitchens who are all over the place ideologically. It is an expression of the strangeness of the current moment. In the absence of a strong international Left, how does one avoid neoconservativism, on the one hand, and an anti-imperialism of resentment, on the other?

LP: First, I do not think that American state functionaries always have bad motives. Who knows what deludes people respecting their intentions and accomplishments. I doubt that even despite his cynicism Michael Ignatieff would prefer that basic civil rights were not established everywhere. I expect his motives are genuine, but he is blinkered. He fails to recognize that when the American empire installs those rights in other societies without effecting changes in the class balance or the basic structure of the state, then the “human rights” in question remain abstract and inaccessible except as vehicles for capitalist projects. This is not about motives. Dick Cheney may have had the worst motives conceivable, but these were not uniformly shared.

But you are right to pose this question. In a certain sense, we are all more internationalist than ever: Greeks in Canada, for instance, are able to function politically as though they are in Greece. They can watch Greek television and listen to Greek radio. They can read Greek newspapers that are not two months old. We are internationalist in the sense that the effects of globalization culturally, communicatively, and economically, make us much more aware of what is going on in the world. This is true for liberals and socialists alike. As a result, people want to see changes elsewhere. But in the absence of an international socialist movement, there emerges a tendency to throw money at problems via NGOs, for instance, which are extremely undemocratic in their internal organization. Greenpeace is a great example. Though I often admire the militancy of some of their actions, like their willingness to put a ship in harm’s way, what does Greenpeace as an organization accomplish, ultimately? It is very good at collecting five-dollar donations, door-to-door, but it fails to constitute of its benefactors a political force. There are activists, of course, but the people who give to Greenpeace remain isolated individuals. This is a real problem.

Young internationalists should commit to building political organizations in a non-naïve and unromantic way, and not just throw their support or voice their solidarity here or there. We need activists who strive to be political in the sense of understanding what they are running up against as well as what it is they want to do. This is what should have been asked of the Soviet leadership in previous generations. The tragedy is that at an organizational level this is a process of decades. People have to throw themselves into it, treat it as something more than a game, and commit for the long haul. This is hard. I think it is going to happen, though I do not know under what banner. I am not really sure if that is important. That may just be a matter of lexicon. It would not hurt if it were socialism, because that is a legacy worth maintaining. It would not hurt if it were Marxism non-dogmatically understood, because that is also a legacy worth maintaining. It would not even hurt if it were organized through a party, so long as our politics develop. |P

[1]. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and its Consequences(New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

[2]. Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul (New York: Dover Publications, 1959).

[3]. Amy Bartholomew and Jennifer Breakspear, “Human Rights as Swords of Empire,” in “The New Imperial Challenge,” ed. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, Socialist Register 40 (2004): 125–145.

Platypus members Chris Mansour and Ian Morrison were interviewed by Mitchel Cohen on “Steal this Radio," broadcast on Friday, April 2, 2010 at 11 a.m. Eastern Time.

Steal This Radio can be heard only over the internet, not on regular radio. To hear it, go to

Friday, February 19th, 2009.   7pm
Hart House, South Dining Room
7 Hart House Crescent,
University of Toronto

The economic crisis, as many commentators and critics are quick to point out, has rekindled interest in—and anxieties over—Marxism. Although many on the Left hope this renewed curiosity marks the beginning of a radical turn, similar revivals of anti-capitalist politics in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s failed to achieve the revolutionary transformations they sought.

Has Marxism returned as a significant political force? How might this translate into the possibility for a revitalized Left? Will the resurgence of Marxist theory provide opportunities for social change—or merely the opportunity to fail again?

Dr. Leo Panitch is Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto, and coeditor of the annual Socialist Register.

Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 19 | January 2010


Despite unrelenting state repression, there have been rumblings throughout the 2000s of renewed labor organizing inside the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). One result of this upsurge in labor organizing was the May 2005 re-founding of the Syndicate of Workers of the United Bus Company of Tehran and Suburbs, a union that has a long history, albeit one that was interrupted by the 1979 “Revolution,” after which the union was repressed. The unions’ leader, Mansour Osanloo, was severely beaten and thrown in the Rajaei prison where he remains in a state of deteriorating health. Osanloo is an Amnesty International “prisoner of conscience.”

Another important result of the new labor organizing has been the emergence of the Independent Haft Tapeh Sugar Workers Union which launched an aggressive 42-day strike in June 2008 over wage-theft and deteriorating working conditions. In 2009, the regime imprisoned five union leaders in an attempt to smash the union for “acting against national security through the formation of a syndicate outside the law.”

Since the dramatic street demonstrations that so captured the international media’s attention beginning on June 12 of this year, the direction of events inside the IRI has sparked considerable debate as well as confusion. The continuing rivalry between various power factions within the government lends itself to no easy predictions, while little is known of the internal dynamics of the Green Movement responsible for the demonstrations. The fate of an already vulnerable organized labor movement in this volatile environment is likewise unclear. Whatever the outcome of the current power struggles, the future of Iranian organized labor is now an international issue. Its right to organize is in desperate need of support.

Following the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference, and in order to better grasp this situation, Platypus Review Assistant Editor Ian Morrison sat down with Homayoun Pourzad, a representative from the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, to discuss the current crisis and the effects of “anti-imperial” ideologies on understanding the character of the IRI. Morrison conducted this interview, which has been edited for publication, on December 3, 2009.

Ian Morrison: Before we get into the current situation, could you explain the organization of which you are a part, the Network of Iranian Labor Unions (NILU)?

Homayoun Pourzad: The idea for the NILU first arose about three years ago. Some of us already had union experience dating from before the 1979 Revolution. It upset us that, with millions of workers, there were no Iranian unions independent of the state, but only the semi-official Islamic Workers’ Councils. What gave NILU its initial impetus was the Tehran bus drivers’ actions led by Mansour Osanloo and his friends.

There was a nucleus of independent labor organizations in various trades, but the government always moved quickly to stifle that independence. Iran’s Labor Ministry and the Ministry of Intelligence have standing directives to crush independent workers’ activities, regardless of which faction is running the country. The government is very brutal in its attempts to destroy the nascent labor movement.

On the surface it looks like not much is happening with union labor activity in Iran, but even in the face of government oppression, many workers are secretly engaged in organizing underground unions. These efforts have not yet peaked. Also, organizers have to walk a fine line, since once you get too big you are more easily detected. So labor organizers have to be careful how they recruit, and how many workers meet together at once. But the nucleus of the movement is in place and once the situation allows for it there will be a huge mushrooming of independent labor unions. The NILU operates in two different trade associations. We are also doing our best to start publication of a national labor press. The task is to make labor news available and to begin to provide some political analysis.

IM: Could you explain the political crisis in Iran that has unfolded since the election and how it is affecting your efforts to organize labor?

HP: First of all, anybody who tells you that they have a full picture is lying, because the situation is very crazy.

There are at least five dozen, semi-autonomous power centers, factions, and groups vying for influence. Not even [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali] Khamenei knows for certain what will happen tomorrow. But this does not mean there is complete anarchy. Speaking generally, there are at present four major centers of power, or rather, three plus one. The first three are Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards, while the fourth, the nascent popular movement, is of an altogether different character though is still remains somewhat amorphous. It is still finding its own voice, needs, and strengths—but it continues to evolve. For the foreseeable future, the first three powers will more or less effectively determine how things will turn out. This said, Khamenei is already weakened. This is for two reasons: He apparently has health problems and, more importantly, he has had made huge political blunders. In another country, people would probably say, “He’s only human.” But, in Iran, he is not only human. He is somewhere between human and saint, at least for his supporters and propagandists. But saints are not supposed to make blunders, at least not so many in so short a time!

IM: What is the relationship between the NILU and the nascent popular movement?

HP: There is no organic relationship between them, just as there are no organic relationships to speak of between the different elements of this movement. Mousavi does not even have an organic relationship with his own followers because of the pervasive power of repression. So, the nascent labor movement’s relationship with the popular movement is tenuous by both necessity and because of the way things have evolved. That said, we fully support their goals and will participate in all demonstrations. We even support Mousavi himself because he has remained steadfast at least up until now in defending the people. So long as he continues to do this, he deserves our support. Of course, if he changes tack, that is a different story. We think this is a truly democratic movement such as we have not seen in Iran before, including during the Revolution. Every group involved with the Iranian Revolution, without exception, believed only in monopolizing power; democracy was nobody’s concern. But now there is a very mature movement in that sense, particularly among the young people, and the fact that it has withstood so much violence in the last few months shows that it is deeply rooted. Many people were worried at first that the protests would fizzle out, but the continuance of the actions up to this day vindicate our support. The Iranian government has really gone overboard with stopping the protestors—it has been very bloody and violent—and still they have been unable to squash the protests entirely.

IM: But do you think Mousavi stands for workers’ rights at all? He seems to have a checkered political history.

HP: We do not know what his stance is. He seems generally favorable to workers’ rights, but, at any rate, our platform is not identical to his. The movement supporting Mousavi is a broad national-democratic front; we are all working with a sort of minimum program. The movement has formulated no long-term plans, and it is now in danger of being decimated. We do not have any illusions that anyone in the leadership of the Green Movement is 100 percent on board with workers’ rights, but this is not the time to discuss that. Right now, we are fighting a dangerously reactionary dictatorship. Things will become clearer as time goes on, but right now we do not seek to magnify the differences among those opposing the dictatorship.

IM: There are some who see Ahmadinejad, because he is so anti-American, as anti-imperialist, and thus as leftist. What is your response to such characterizations?

HP: Well, the problem with this argument is that it assumes everyone in the world who rants and raves against the U.S. or Israel is somehow progressive. Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Sada’am Hussein, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—these men are all more truly anti-American than any leftist. But the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad and his ilk is all demagoguery, as far as we are concerned. Either it is in the service of power politics, or else it is just a fig leaf to hide the disgrace of their own politics, which in all these cases is profoundly anti-Left and anti-working class.

IM: Still, in the peace movement here some people are uncomfortable taking a stand against Ahmadinejad or policies in Iran because they think that this is tantamount to supporting American policy.

HP: Well, I can tell you how every democratically minded person in Iran would reply: Ahmadinejad is essentially creating the ideal situation for foreign intervention. He is deliberately provocative. For instance, there is no need to use the kind of language he uses against Israel; it is genuinely odious, his frequent comments about the Holocaust and the like. But he speaks like this for a reason: He is a right-wing extremist seeking to rally his people through fear and hatred. That is what he is doing. To us it is actually incomprehensible how anyone could support Ahmadinejad just because he rants and raves about America. It really makes no sense to us. When I tell people in Iran that there are some progressive groups in America that support Ahmadinejad, they think I am pulling their leg. It makes no sense to them. But I know that this goes on and, to the extent it does, it gives the Left a bad name.

IM: What is your take on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is very popular on the Left in America? He is interviewed in progressive organs such as The Nation, for instance. He appears on the mass media as leading a front against America together with Ahmadinejad.

HP: We really do not know. We are really confused as to why Chavez is Ahmadinejad’s buddy. It makes no sense to us. It has made it almost impossible in Iran to defend his Bolívarian Revolution. When you have people being beaten or tortured, and so on, and then tell them, “Well, there is this government that supports your government, but these guys are good guys,” it is difficult to fathom, really. We hope that Chavez changes his policy, because when there is a change of government in Iran it will be accompanied by a total rupture with everyone who supported Ahmadinejad.

IM: What in your view is fueling the current crisis?

HP: Well, let me go back to a point I was making earlier. Ayatollah Khamenei, because of his errors, has seen his status diminished. He no longer has about him the mystique that once so terrified and intimidated people. Then you have Ahmadinejad, who has turned out to be a rogue element for the regime, one that is perhaps doing more damage than good for them right now. Then there are the Revolutionary Guards, who have the bulk of the real power in Iran. They have made a power grab all over the country, so that now they control the economy, the political situation, and the Parliament. Still, Khamenei, Ahmedinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards are in an ongoing struggle for power. They unite only in the face of common enemies, whether internal or foreign, and not always then.

The current crisis in Iran is best understood as a set of concurrent crises: First, there is the legitimacy crisis, which I discussed just now with reference to Khamenei; second, is the political crisis where the various factions within Iranian “politics” cannot agree on anything; third, is the economic crisis which the ruling class is utterly incapable of addressing. The country was in recession even before the election. What will bring the economic crisis to a head is Ahmadinejad’s plan to cut all the subsidies, which are quite big, between 15 to 20 percent of the GDP (though nobody really knows for sure the exact amount, due to the lack of transparency in the administration). The supposed populist Ahmadinejad intends to cut the subsidies for transportation, utilities, energy, and even for staples such as rice and wheat. After this happens, there will be spiraling inflation, of course. The cut in subsidies for energy and utilities will force factories currently operating at a loss and/or below capacity to engage in massive layoffs. That is when we will see a number of labor actions. There may also be short-lived and violent urban uprisings. But rather than these riot-like urban uprisings, we are focusing on organizing labor to bring the country to a halt if need be.

Iranian labor is in a really awful situation, arguably the worst since its inception a century or so ago. With millions of workers in the formal sector, we still lack official, legal independent unions. On the other hand, the situation is ideal for organizing. The labor force is ready for independent assertion, though they need the kind of support that only comes from dedicated organizers.

Iran’s spiraling political and economic crisis coincides with another crisis that is only just beginning, the international crisis regarding the nuclear problem. Diplomatic talks are failing, as was inevitable. We feel that the regime is trying to build a bomb, but probably not testing it for a while. There is a clear danger that this might lead to an air attack or to some other form of major military intervention, which would divert attention from the internal situation. Indeed, as I said above, this is what this regime is hoping for. It would be a monumental mistake if there were to be an attack against Iran, since the nuclear program can only truly be stopped if the popular movement becomes more substantial and is able to change the government, or at least force changes in its policies.

IM: So your sense is that, with the nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is actually trying to provoke aggression?

HP: Indeed. We condemn any kind of foreign intervention, but we also condemn Ahmadinejad’s provocative policies, in part because they are geared toward provoking just such an intervention. Anyway, we do not think the military route is the way to go with this, because it is not likely to succeed even in halting the nuclear program. We think the labor movement in Iran is poised to play a strategic role, even on the international stage, because once the working class organizes itself, it really can cripple the regime, especially given the current economic crisis. And, as I say, a major strike wave is looming in Iran.

The situation for Iranian workers right now is dismal. For the last 4 or 5 years the demand for labor has dropped. There is also the mania for imports that Ahmadinejad has encouraged for the last 5 years. The result is that across the country factories are facing shutdowns and bankruptcy. There is also an immigrant Afghan labor force of roughly seven hundred thousand, with whom we sympathize, and whose expulsion from the country we oppose just as we oppose the many forms of coercion and discrimination this government levels against them, but it is a fact that their acceptance of as little as 50 to 60 percent of normal salary exerts downward pressure on everyone’s wages. So, if you look at all these factors, you see that things are really awful for Iranian workers; their bargaining position is weak. In the current environment, once you go on strike or you have some sort of shutdown, they can easily fire you and find someone else.

The labor status quo has also changed. Few people are aware of this, but Iran once had very progressive labor laws. In the aftermath of the Revolution, it was very hard to legally fire workers. But now, 65 or 70 percent of the labor force consists in temporary contract workers who lack most basic rights. They can now get fired and be deprived of their benefits quite easily. This is what makes the situation so very ripe for organizing, and makes organization necessary, despite the regime’s brutal repression. They do not allow for any labor organizations independent of the state, and they are ruthless. The least that could happen to an exposed labor organizer is that he gets fired and thrown in solitary confinement for several months.

This year is critical for the Iranian labor movement in many ways, and we need support of all kinds. Iran is in great danger. The government acts like an occupying army. It treats the country’s ethnic minorities—Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs—as though they were foreign nationals. The resulting national disintegration grows worse day by day. At the same time, extremist groups are finding it increasingly easy to operate. Among the Sunni minority, fundamentalism is growing.

There is nothing to be said in favor of this regime, after the election. Before the election, there were perhaps some disparate elements within the government working toward reform, but this has ceased to be the case. All that remains is extremely retrograde: the government is ruining the country’s culture and economy, while sowing discord among the people. They are turning minorities against each other and against the rest of the country—Shia against Sunni, not to mention men against women—all because the Islamic Republic state wants to retain and expand power. When these methods fail, they turn to brutal and undisguised repression.

IM: I am wondering about the comparison of what is happening today to the 1979 Revolution. There were mass mobilizations then, with various leftist groups and parties involved, but when the Shah fell, it left a power vacuum that was filled by reactionaries. First, is the comparison salient? Second, is there the possibility of there emerging a power vacuum, and what can the labor organizers do in this situation?

HP: You are wondering if, because there is not a clearly formulated platform for the movement, that it may go awry, and extremist groups come to power? Of course, this is a possibility. But I think there are reasons to be optimistic. Thirty years of this sort of psychotic, pseudo-radical extremism has really taught everybody a lesson. You have to be either extremely naive, or a direct beneficiary of the system not to see that the country has been harmed. In general, the young people are more mature than their parents’ generation. The youth do not have the same romanticization of revolutionary violence, which was one of the reasons things got out of hand in 1979. It was not only the clerics that were extremists, practically every group endorsed revolutionary violence of one kind or another; it is just that in their mind their violence was justified, whereas everyone else’s violence was “reactionary.” The new generation does not hold those beliefs. Iranian society has a strong extremist strand, but I believe that is changing now. There is a belief in tolerance, in wanting to avoid force, and in trying to understand one’s political opponents rather than just crushing them. This is something extremely important and not altogether common in much of today’s Middle East.

Let me also say, along these lines, that Islam has never really undergone a Reformation. But we are seeing signs of this happening in the IRI today. It is happening very quietly in the seminaries. It could only happen where Islamists have actually come to power and shown beyond all doubt the inadequacy or even the bankruptcy of their ideas and their ideologies. This forces healthy elements within the clergy—not those who are out there to enrich themselves, but those who are religious because they are utopian-minded—to go back to their books, to the Koran, to revise the old ideas. Such clerics are not in the majority yet they are sizable and they are spread throughout the clerical hierarchy from grand Ayatollahs to the lowest clergy. Earlier, the idea of reforming the medieval interpretations of the Koran and Islam came mainly from Muslim intellectuals, but now a considerable part of the religious hierarchy is coming to the same conclusion. Some are operating in very dangerous circumstances. There is a special court of clergy, similar to the Inquisition courts, that want to silence them. But such ideas cannot be silenced so easily.

If there is a military attack on Iran, it will set back the progress of many years. This is exactly what the regime wants, at this point, which is why Ahmadinejad is so provocative. He wants the Israelis to launch an air strike. The West cannot simply bomb a few installations and think that it will all be done. The current regime would strive to escalate that fight. Even if Obama verbally condemns an intervention in Iran by another nation, Iran will use it as a pretext to expand the fight and things will rapidly get out of hand. It would provide him with a new recruitment pool, which is drying up, because right now the best and the brightest of Iran do not go into the Revolutionary Guards. Their recruits today are opportunists or those who simply need the money. The people are turning against the regime. What could change all this is if we came under attack, if, as they would claim, “Islam is threatened.” The regime might then successfully stir up nationalistic sentiments, perhaps not so much in Tehran, but that is only 14 million or so. Most of the country lives in smaller towns, and the only news they get comes from state broadcasts. These people could become recruits, leading to all sorts of awful things. In the meantime, at the very least we will continue to see street fighting, riots, and so on. The youth will only endure torture and being kicked out of schools up to a point. As it is, the regime opens fire on peaceful street demonstrations—I have seen it myself. The government’s hope is that some of the young people will arm themselves and fight back. That is one of the dangers here.

IM: You are here for the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference. What sort of relationships do you hope to build with other labor unions in America and around the world?

HP: First, I want to communicate to them what is happening in my country, that there is a labor movement and that it needs support. More specifically, even though there is no guarantee that this will change what this government is doing, we hope with the help of our American friends to put together an international committee of labor unions in defense of Iranian labor rights. The Iranian state does not even pretend to care what the international community or the general public thinks of them. Still, they are weaker now than ever before, and the regime is concerned about what might come after a military action or major sanctions. So, for the first time it looks like they are going to be sensitive to what trade unions, especially those against intervention, have to say, or what they will do. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s government has been sending envoys to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and courting it assiduously. They go out of their way to placate them, whereas ten years ago they did not give a damn what the ILO thought. So there may now be some scope to pressure the regime to release imprisoned labor organizers. In addition to that, we would like to inform the American labor movement and the public at large of the dangers of any kind of military intervention.

IM: Do you think there are any possibilities for a party of labor in Iran? That is a problem all over the world. Different labor organizations meet up, and there are groups that believe in various trade union rights, and they release statements to that effect. But there is no political body that consistently stands up for working people.

HP: I may have sounded too much of an alarmist, for I emphasized the dangers. But the opportunities are also great. Like I said, you have almost eight million workers in need of organizing. They will even be able to organize themselves, if the situation changes. The Green movement holds promise, I think. It came totally out of the blue; no one expected it, from the Ministry of Intelligence to the opposition and the foreign governments. This means there are elements that could coalesce into a progressive and democratic labor party. It should not be forgotten that Iran not only has a huge working class, but also a tradition of left-wing activity going back some 100 years. The working class in Iran, moreover, is not semi-proletarian as it was during the Iranian Revolution. This generation of workers has advanced political skills and a mature political worldview. You are no longer dealing with peasants just come to the city. Iran is fairly industrialized in many ways and these workers have their own subcultures. We have a good situation in that sense. So yes, there is a good possibility that we will have a strong labor party. The conditions are there, but none of this will materialize without a strong, deeply rooted labor movement.

So what needs to be done? We must put across to other sectors of society what the working class stands for. The protest movement is now primarily middle class. That is its primary weakness. But once labor strikes get underway in the next few months, we hope they will change how the Green movement sees the workers, themselves, and their moment. It is our job as labor activists to put across a genuine working class platform and to familiarize the country with working class demands.

We cannot, as some Left groups do, start condemning the Green Movement just because it lacks a strong Left component. It is the Left’s job to influence the movement and to see that its demands and wishes are incorporated--not just with respect to Mousavi, but to the movement as a whole.

We cannot start condemning the movement even if and when it starts lurching to the right, because, again, it is the Left’s job to be there side by side with it. By being there, I mean, for example, our press must also reflect their concerns and their needs. We should not be supercilious, but rather have a healthy dialogue with all the different contingents within it. Above all, we should not speak from above in a condescending manner. Only when we are side by side with the people who are fighting on the streets will they listen to us. In the last six or seven months, there has been an incredible growth of interest in the Left. This has been very spontaneous, among young people. If anything, the old generation mishandled their political situation and turned young people off by looking down on them.

If the labor movement gets its act together, it could really help the present popular movement, which, on its own, lacks the muscle to stand up to the regime. With the workers on board there can be economic strikes. In 1979, for months there were people yelling and clamoring in the streets, but it was only when the oil workers entered the picture that the Western governments told the Shah to leave.

Because of all this and because of the fact that the labor movement, by its nature, tries to avoid extremism or revolutionary romanticism, there is reason to hope. The labor movement’s pragmatism allows it to stave off the dangers of extremism from both Left and right. The two main labor unions, the sugar cane workers and bus drivers, are resolute in protesting against the status quo and advancing their political and social agenda. They are supported by over 90 percent of the work force. If you talk to bus drivers in Tehran they are all upset about what has happened recently, but you never hear anything disparaging about the union leadership and what they have done. This shows the kind of work organizers have done. This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing. They organized over several years and held many sessions with intellectuals who taught them constitutional rights, economics, and so on. But, of course, there have been mistakes, as is to be expected. But those mistakes were necessary in some ways, so that the rest of the labor unions will not repeat them. |P

Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 18 | December 2009


THE PERIOD FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR to the Cold War belies easy classification. Unlike the single decade associated with the New Left, this extensive and historically dense period, that of the “Old Left,” has to be broken up into decades. Indeed, this is done even in the popular imagination, in which the 1930s were a time of economic collapse and union radicalism; the 1940s, a time of “the common enemy,” fascism; and the 1950s, a time of refrigerators and consumerism, of complacency and automatic dishwashers. The 1920s are willfully neglected, or else acknowledged only with respect to the “Lost Generation,” an historical touchstone that, while important, draws us away from America, back to the Old World of Europe. But, as is often the case, actual history cuts against the grain of popular storytelling.


A union rally in 1947 held at Madison Square Garden in New York City to oppose the passage of the Labor Management Relations Act, generally referred to as the Taft-Hartley Bill.

When former SDS president Carl Oglesby sat down in the late 1960s to map out the contours of the New Left, he asked himself, with good reason, “Why New? Why not simply a continuation of the previous Left?” As an opening into this question, he poses others, “Why did the workers permit the purge [of communists], [why did] the people authorize the anti-Bolshevism, [why did] their leaders allow the top-down liquidation of McCarthy to provide, above all, for the continuation of McCarthyism by more subtle means?”[1] But these questions find no ready answers. So, instead, Oglesby attempts to cut against the idea of 1950s conservatism by claiming the decade also belonged to “the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cubans, the Algerians, [and] the decolonizing African states.”[2] He goes on to argue that the East is separate from “Western Culture,” which “appears to be distinguished by its failure to produce a class whose essential objectives transcend the capacities of the given order and whose presence would therefore force a structural transformation of the relations of production.”[3] Here we get the familiar paradigm. What is the new agency of revolutionary change, asks Oglesby and the New Left, now that the workers have failed us? The answers range from the intellectual and the student to the wretched of the earth and the subaltern.

We can no longer today evade the important questions. And the fact remains that, even if we are to believe that in the 1960s students and peasant rebels emerged as new agencies of social transformation, this does nothing to explain why the working class in the First World became depoliticized in the first place. Why was it that the revolutionary potential of the working class seemed to melt into air? How did the Old Left become depoliticized? To answer this question we must look at the history of the Left, both in terms of the possibilities it created and the fetters it imposed on itself.

First, to be clear, the conservative turn in the labor unions after the post-Second World War strike wave is an inescapably true historical development, culminating in the notorious 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The problem that confronted the New Left—the problem of a stymied organized working class—was real. The problem persists to this day, even as our understanding of this issue, which strikes directly at the question of creating a strong Left in the U.S., remains frozen in place. C. Wright Mills, one of the intellectual catalysts of the New Left, summed up the mood of the 1950s when he wrote that union leaders were “government-made men, and they have feared—correctly, as it turns out—that they can be unmade by the government… Neither labor leaders nor labor unions are at the present juncture likely to be ‘independent variables’ in the national context.”[4] Now, Mills was drawn to the idea that, at least in the postwar situation in which he found himself, intellectuals were what he termed “the independent variable.” For Mills understood, even if many of his New Left followers did not, that the isolation of the intellectual was nothing less than a symptom of Stalinism. Mills was not interested in “leaving behind” the working class, as a political program. At the same time, he was also acutely aware of the alliance between labor and the state forged in Roosevelt’s New Deal and maintained during the Second World War as part of the alliance with the Soviet Union. To the extent that the New Left brushed aside the hostility of the “hard hats,” it not only chose to ignore the issue but, no less certainly, also blocked its own way into the history of the Left. And this, above all, fatally compromised the New Left from the beginning.

Mills began working towards a theory of the shifting social groups, and the new post-war consolidations of power, while partially under the influence of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party, an intellectual tradition stemming from the Left Opposition (commonly referred to as Trotskyism). This thwarted tradition was bitterly aware of the nightmare unfolding in the 1930s. But, unlike the New Left, and unlike thinkers such as C. Wright Mills, Shachtman put forth a different and far more controversial conclusion in 1950: “It is not Marxism that has failed, as many gloomy critics find it so popular to say nowadays; it is the Marxian dogmatists who have failed.”[5]

To grasp why there is no adequate theoretical tradition in America, one must first abandon the idea of the radical 1930s so popular today, and focus instead on the preceding decade. As Christopher Lasch argued, “By the middle twenties American radicalism had acquired the characteristics it has retained until the present day: sectarianism, marginality, and alienation from American life.”[6] Unlike in Europe, American radicalism was not split by social democracy. In 1917, at the American Socialist Party’s emergency convention in St. Louis, it espoused an openly internationalist perspective, opposing on that basis America’s entry into the war. But such declarations must be viewed in proper perspective. At the only Socialist-led action in opposition to the war, which took place in Boston, “hundreds of Socialists were beaten and forced to kiss the flag on their knees.”[7] The anti-war tendencies in the U.S., which might have been the springboard for a radical international socialism, lacked effective organization.

It was not until the end of the First World War that these bad omens were fully realized in the actual politi­cal situation. As Shachtman recalled in a speech he gave in the late 1960s,

The once spectacular IWW had all but died-out com­pletely. The Farm-Labor party movement of the early twenties collapsed after the defeat of Senator La Follette in the 1924 presidential election. The official labor movement of that time was conservative, nar­row, smug, and small. Before it was split in 1919, the united Socialist Party had well over a hundred thou­sand dues-paying members in its ranks. It is certain that the communists and socialists parties had less than 20,000 members between them ten years later when the [stock marked crash] erupted.[8]


Max Eastman, James P. Canon, and Big Bill Haywood at the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern held in Moscow in 1922. At this meeting, Cannon successfully argued for the legal and open functioning of the Communist Party of America.

Displaying a stunning lack of perspicacity, the commu­nists of the 1920s set American Leftist politics on a col­lision course, a disaster on par with and in the tradition of the failed revolution in Germany, the botched general strike in Britain in 1926, and the crushed Shanghai Com­mune of 1927. Effectively writing off the entire organized working class in favor of underground irrelevancy, the majority of American communists adopted a supercil­ious attitude toward the explosive strike wave that swept the country in 1919. When, after years of inter-party struggle and the intervention of the Soviet government, the communists finally formed a legal party that working class Americans could actually read about and join, the radical tide had turned. At the 1921 founding confer­ence of the legal party, future leader of the American Left Opposition, James P. Cannon, lamented, “We have a labor movement that is completely discouraged and demoralized. We have an organized labor movement that is unable on any front to put up an effective struggle against the drive of destruction, organized by the mas­ters. We have a revolutionary moment which, until this inspirational call for a Workers’ Party Convention, was disheartened, discouraged, and demoralized.”[9] Future rationalizations for failing to strike when the iron was hot generally express, as did the Communist Party in 1919, contempt for the potential of the organized work­ing class in the U.S.

Following the reigning dogma of the Comintern in the mid-1920s, communists attempted to align themselves with the Farm-Labor Party movement. The rather remarkable assumption behind this was that the most advanced capitalist country in the world at that time had not yet developed to the stage where the formation of a genuinely proletarian party was appropriate. Indeed, it was thought American workers may even be incapable of forming something comparable to the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. The U.S. working class was, to the communists in the 1920s, unripe. But to leftists familiar with American trade unions, far from being “unripe,” the situation of American radicalism desperately called out for the theory and the kind of political support it received during the fight for a legal party. The American situa­tion was, in other words, plenty ripe; it just had to be “plucked” by an internationalist and revolutionary Left. As James P. Cannon pleaded, during his factional fight with the Comintern representative,

The American movement has no counterpart any­where else in the world, and any attempt to meet its problems by the simple process of finding a Europe­an analogy will not succeed. The key to the American problem can be found only in a thorough examina­tion of the peculiar American situation. Our Marxian outlook, confirmed by the history of the movement in Europe, provides us with some general principles to go by, but there is no pattern, made-to-order from the European experience, that fits America today.[10]

Yet, despite such pleas, American communists, along with their international counterparts, slid farther and farther to the right throughout the 1920s. It is on this very issue, and for this reason, that at the end of the decade Cannon broke with Stalinist orthodoxy in favor of Trotsky’s Left Opposition.

Commenting on the rightward drift of communists in the 1920s, Shachtman argued, “Everything that had distinguished Communists from Socialists at the time of the historic split between them after the First World War was sunk without a trace [by the start of the 30s]. In fact, the ‘Popular Front’ position of the Communist Party on all questions of theory and politics would have repelled the most extreme right-wing socialism at the time of the split in 1919.”[11] This statement may appear rather bom­bastic to the romanticized view of the radical 1930s, the counter-example undoubtedly being the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Bracketing for a moment the Moscow Trials and the unchallenged rise of fascism in Europe, let us take a closer look at the Popular Front politics of communists in the CIO. At this time communists had taken a monumental rightward leap: from a position of out-and-out disaffiliation with every non-communist union, the communists, under the aegis of the Popular Front, became uncritical cheer­leaders for Roosevelt’s New Deal, working closer to the Democratic Party than any previous American radical could ever have imagined.

The communists’ pernicious role in the New Deal alliance between labor and the state has had complex as well as lasting results. When the Second World War was in full swing and strikes threatened military production, the CIO, in line with Popular Front thinking, supported no-strike pledges, a portentous state directive that culminated after the War in the Taft-Hartley Bill. This in effect outlawed not only wildcat strikes but sympathy strikes and, indeed, all labor action deemed undesirable to the state. The legislation allowed the CIO to purge the communists, placing organized labor firmly within the dualistic Cold War framework, which profoundly affected political action in the following decades. These difficul­ties were further compounded by the failure of the CIO’s all too timid attempt of 1946–53, known as “Operation Dixie,” to organize in the South, a failure that helped trigger the Cold War merger between the CIO and American Federation of Labor in December 1955, which in effect ended the CIO’s period of militant organiz­ing. December 1955, as any good American history buff knows, was also the start of the Montgomery Bus boy­cott. The missed opportunity, during the birth of the New Left, simply takes one’s breath away.[12] Yet, the source of such problems lies in the 1920s, when American com­munists squandered the possibility of labor becoming an “independent variable,” rather than a lackey for the state.

In all matters essential to thinking through the his­tory of the American Left, especially the need for a party of labor, a place where the tension between reform and revolution can be dialectically propelled, the commu­nists of the past give us little critical insight; they even conspired against those who might have provided some. American communists offered ossified thinking and a shift to the right in practice, withering along with the New Deal they supported, dying in the war whose aims they could not influence. Yet, posed against this was a different current of thought, whose hopes were pinned on the unbounded dynamism of the American working class, a hope that goes all the way back to Marx, who wrote in Capital,

In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California with the seven-league boots of the locomotive.[13]

Three years before the first volume of Marx’s master­piece was published, the International Working Men’s Association (which Marx served as Secretary) wrote as follows to Republican Party leader and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln,

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the Ameri­can Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.[14]

In this same spirit, and in no less perilous a time, Trotsky proclaimed, completely out of sync with the dominant thought of the 1930s, most especially among “communists,” that a socialist America was not only pos­sible, but desirable:

The governments of Central and South America would be pulled into [the North American Soviet] federation like iron filings to a magnet. So would Canada. The popular movements in these coun­tries would be so strong that they would force this great unifying process within a short period and at insignificant costs. I am ready to bet that the first anniversary of the American soviets would find the Western Hemisphere transformed into the Soviet United States of North, Central and South America, with its capital at Panama.[15]

Why must this, even as a distant hope or dream, appear to the Left today, so concerned with “anti-imperialism,” as a sacrilege?

How did the Left depoliticize a generation, and future generations, up to this day? The question with which Oglesby began is where we too must start. But, rather than searching the nooks and crannies of either the university or the Third World for an alternative revolu­tionary subject, we would do better to revisit the history that Oglesby and the New Left first misunderstood, then obscured. It was Stalinism itself, and not the purging of the Stalinists from the American trade unions in the heyday of McCarthyism, that most fundamentally conditioned the subsequent rightward turn of the work­ing class. Moreover, the seeds of this were planted even before Stalinism had fully taken hold of American communism. At this critical juncture of history we can see, in figures like Shachtman and Cannon, glimpses of a nascent alternate future that had died by the end of the 1930s. The same might have been visible to the likes of Oglesby. Had he looked to it, the long detour of the New Left might have been avoided. That generation might conceivably have done what we must do now, namely un­dertake a critique of the history of the Left that, precisely because it takes a critical stance, declines to take the historical failure of the Left for granted. |P

[1]. Carl Oglesby, “The Idea of the New Left,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 2.

[2]. Ibid., 4.

[3]. Ibid., 9.

[4]. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 263–65.

[5]. Max Shachtman, “Reflections on a Decade Past,” New Interna­tional 16:3 (May–June 1950): 131–144.

[6]. Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Knopf, 1968), 40.

[7]. Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957), 96.

[8]. Max Shachtman, “Radicalism in the Thirties: The Trotskyist View,” in As We Saw the Thirties: Essays on Social and Political Movements of a Decade, ed. Rita James Simon (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1969), 10–11.

[9]. Draper, Roots of Communism, 341.

[10]. James P. Cannon, “The Workers Party Today—And Tomorrow,” in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Commu­nism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928 (New York: Prometheus Research Library, 1992), 137.

[11]. Shachtman, “Radicalism in the Thirties: The Trotskyist View,” 34.

[12]. For a fuller analysis on the effects of the New Deal alliance on the Civil Rights Movement, see Adolph Reed, “Black Particu­larity Reconsidered,” Telos 39 (Spring 1979): 71–93.

[13]. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 414.

[14]. Karl Marx, 29 November 1864, address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, The Bee-Hive 169 (7 November 1865).

[15]. Leon Trotsky, “If America Should Go Communist,” Liberty, 23 March 1935.