Closing plenary: 1917-2017: 100 years after the Russian Revolution - Platypus 2017 International Convention
Held April 8, 2017 at SAIC as part of the 9th annual Platypus International Convention.
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)
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:
- What were the aims of the 1917 Russian Revolution?
- What was the self-understanding of its Marxist leadership?
- How has the memory of 1917 changed in the course of the 20th century?
- Why does the legacy of 1917 appear arrayed in oppositions?
- Are we still tasked by the memory of 1917 today, and if so how?
- 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?
A workshop on the Against Equality collective by Yasmin Nair, at the 9th annual Platypus International Convention. Moderated by Nunzia Faes.
Yasmin Nair: Writer, Activist, Academic Editor at Large for Current Affairs, Freelance writer and reviewer for: Baffler, Verso, Vox, Current Affairs, Alternet, In These Times, Daily Dot, Monthly Review, Electronic Intifada, Windy City Times, and others.
Held April 8th, 2017 at SAIC as part of the 9th annual Platypus international convention.
Bill Pelz (Director of the Institute of Working-Class History)
Djamil Arbia (Protagma)
Brit Schulte (Support Ho(s)e, Slutwalk Chicago)
The bourgeois revolutions strove to subordinate the power of the state to the interests of civil society. Yet the revolutions of 1848 disappointed, resulting in the recrudescence of the state, which rose above society to maintain “order.” Revolutionaries were divided over how to respond. Could the state serve as a means of emancipation? Or was it a force of counter-revolution that had to be smashed? For Marx, the capitalist or “Bonapartist” state had to be smashed, but this could only be accomplished by constituting a new state power, a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, that could realize the emancipatory potential unleashed by capitalism. Instead of either accepting or rejecting it, the proletariat had to render the function of the Bonapartist state self-critical.
In his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx warned his followers against regressing to the Lassallean affirmation of the state. Such capitulation was an ever-present risk, tempting the workers to support the political reconstitution of capitalism through state power, rather than the overcoming of both capitalism and the state through social revolution.
After World War I, organized labor was increasingly integrated into the state. In supporting the New Deal, Communists deferred to capitalist state welfare, downplaying the goal of revolution. In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act, in aiming to protect the rights of workers, subordinated organized labor to the state, which had to balance these rights against the "interest of the public in the free flow of commerce." As the AFL and CIO became core constituencies of the Democratic party, the class struggle was repudiated, in favor of a partnership of Labor and Capital brokered by the state.
While the New Left initially reacted against this parochial arrangement, the 70s witnessed a turn toward militant labor organizing, particularly in the public sector. However, this "grassroots upsurge" coincided with the decline of the welfare state and the rise of neoliberalism, whose champions—Democrat as well as Republican—used state power to launch an assault on the labor movement.
How does the State function today? How is it the product of a history of Leftist struggles? Is there a way in which workers in the “Era of Trump” are able make sense of and redeem Labor's history with the State, to develop, as Marxists contend, a dialectical, rather than affirmative or negative relation to the State?
Held April 8th, 2017 at the 9th Annual International Convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago.
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)
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?
A pre-convention panel put on Thursday, April 6, 2017 at UIC, from 6-8 pm. Moderated by Gregor Baszak.
Catherine Liu (University of California, Irvine)
Pam Nogales (PhD. Candidate of American History, NYU; Platypus)
Danny Jacobs (PhD. Candidate of Economics, University of Houston; Platypus)
Dan Rudin (PhD. Candidate of Journalism and Media Studies, UCSC; Platypus)
Reid Kotlas (Socialist Party USA; Platypus)
Leftists today lament the strength of neoliberal hegemony. The use of “hegemony” underlines the ideological dimension of the neoliberal order; it suggests that mass ideological legitimacy — and not the triumph of pure force or of back-door machinations — has made neoliberalism politically possible. What were the ideological shifts in political and social consciousness that provided the grounds for neoliberal hegemony? What role did the Left play in this historical transformation of mass consciousness?
Freedom, the rallying cry of socialism, has now served for decades as the stated ideology of the upward redistribution of wealth. These past decades have seen stagnating wages and a widening income disparity—although women, LGBT people, people of color, and others who once faced legally enforced, identity-based social exclusion now appear to be more “free” than they were during the pre-neoliberal period of high Fordism. These two aspects of neoliberalism, its identitarian inclusiveness and its anti-working class agenda, appear to go hand-in-hand. Despite the dubious, partial success of the politics of the New Left, we are probably as far as ever from the goal of global socialism.
In light of this history, how can we imagine a future for the Left, especially in the Age of Trump? How could the Left move beyond organizing the expression of frustrated expectations within neoliberalism — beyond organizing the left wing of neoliberalism itself — to generate the kind of theory and practice required to politically overcome capitalism? And are we already in the process of overcoming neoliberalism in the wake of Trump’s recent political mandate for change? Has the Left become the agent of the status quo, seeking to preserve neoliberalism from uncertain changes that the Trump phenomenon implies?