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On April 8, 2017, for the closing plenary of its 9th Annual International Convention, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion, 1917–2017, at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Tasked with reflecting on the historical significance of 1917 for the Left, the panel brought together Bryan Palmer, Chair of the Canadian Studies Department at Trent University and author of numerous histories of the Left; Leo Panitch, Professor of Political Science at York University, author, and co-editor of the Socialist Register; and Chris Cutrone, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Pamela Nogales, of Platypus, moderated. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Held April 8, 2017 at SAIC as part of the 9th annual Platypus International Convention.

Panelists:

Chris Cutrone (School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Platypus)
Leo Panitch (York University; editor of
Socialist Register)
Bryan Palmer (Trent University, author of
Marxism and Historical Practice)

Description:

The First World War manifested an economic, social and political crisis of global capitalism, – “imperialism” – which sparked reflection in the mass parties of the Second International on the task of socialist politics. The revisionist dispute, the “crisis of Marxism” in which Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky first cut their teeth, shaped their understanding of the unfolding revolution as a necessary expression of self-contradiction within the movement for socialism. Even the most revolutionary party produced its own conservatism, hence the need for self-conscious, revolutionary leadership to avoid “tailing” the movement. 

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky thought that leadership adequate to the revolution of 1917 required historical consciousness. They drew upon Marx’s appraisal of the democratic revolutions of 1848, in which Marx identified the historical contradiction which had developed in bourgeois society and necessitated the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Bolsheviks maintained that a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution could spark a workers' socialist revolution in Europe, subsequently allowing for a struggle for socialism. Lenin held that political forms such as “the state” and “the party” must be transformed in and through revolution. Yet the meaning of 1917 was already contentious in 1924, as Trotsky recognized in his pamphlet, Lessons of October. Trotsky would spend the rest of his life fighting “over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International[s]” to maintain socialist consciousness.

Whether in the Popular Fronts of the 1930’s, the Chinese Communists in 1949, or the New Left of the 1960’s, the Left sought to understand itself – both positively and negatively – in relation to the aims and outcomes of 1917. The historical consciousness of its primary actors disintegrated into various oppositions: Lenin the Machiavellian versus Luxemburg the democratic Cassandra; socialism versus liberalism; authoritarianism versus libertarianism. Meanwhile, the futility of the politics shared by Lenin and Luxemburg has been naturalized. It is tacitly accepted that what Lenin and Luxemburg jointly aspired to achieve, if not already impossible a century ago, is certainly impossible today. The premises of the revolution itself have been cast in doubt.

Questions for the panelists:

  1. What were the aims of the 1917 Russian Revolution?
  2. What was the self-understanding of its Marxist leadership?
  3. How has the memory of 1917 changed in the course of the 20th century?
  4. Why does the legacy of 1917 appear arrayed in oppositions?
  5. Are we still tasked by the memory of 1917 today, and if so how?
  6. In what way, if any, does the present moment present a new opportunity to reassess 1917 and the self-understanding of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky?

Held April 8th, 2017 at the 9th Annual International Convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago.

Speakers:

Erek Slater (International Marxist Humanist Organization; Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241)
Yasmin Nair (Against Equality; Freelance journalist)
Mel Rothenberg (Chicago Political Economy Group)
Leo Panitch (York University)

Description:

In her seminal 1900 pamphlet, Reform or Revolution?, Rosa Luxemburg
stated that if the socialist movement lost sight of its final goal,
there would be nothing to distinguish it from liberal politics. Yet she
also claimed that the desiderata of liberalism could only be fulfilled
through the struggle for socialism. Though still widely read,
Luxemburg’s critique has only grown more enigmatic as the relationship
of these two competing ideologies blurred in the 20th century.

The 1930’s Popular Front alliance of Communist Parties and liberals,
initially conceived as a temporary strategy to defeat Fascism, proved to
be a lasting reformist coalition. Socialism regressed from a politics
of social revolution to a seemingly more radical version of the liberal
protest against exploitation and oppression. When the working-class and
its trade-union leadership began to lose their radical veneer, the
1960’s New Left sought new revolutionary subjects in the social
movements coalescing around race, gender, and sexuality, seemed to offer
a radicalism surpassing the liberal-labor alliance of the time. Yet
the 70’s saw the integration of the New Left into the political
establishment by way of the Democratic Party, paralleling the fate of
the Communists. Now, liberals champion the new social movements, to
which socialists ostensibly oppose a “class-first” perspective.

In the recent election, Clinton represented the neoliberal
establishment which opposed identity politics to the “working class”
concerns voiced by Sanders. For Clinton supporters, the Sandernistas
were “Brocialists” who reduced the problems of society to economics,
neglecting other forms of oppression.

How do both camps fall short of the fulfillment of all liberal
desiderata? What would it take for a Left to define itself beyond
liberal politics? In what ways is the contemporary Left’s relation to
the Democratic Party a legacy of previous capitulations to liberalism?
How has the lack of a self-conscious Left opened the way for regressive
movements to fill the void of emancipatory politics? How can the Left
oppose the establishment parties without simply replacing them?

In spite of many different political currents and tendencies, perhaps the most significant question informing the "Left" today is the issue of "political party.” Various "Left unity" initiatives have been taking place in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent downturn, following Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, alongside continuing "post-political" tendencies inherited from

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?

An interview with Dr. Leo Panitch conducted on February 19th, 2010, at the University of Toronto.

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.

Transcript in Platypus Review #23: