Power, socialism, and the communist movement

I stopped by a neighborhood organization recently to inquire about upcoming actions against our local Republican congressman, and in the course of the conversation with a young staff person, she mentioned to me that their aim is to “build power,” as they engage in their day to day activities.

Her response didn’t surprise me. Power, after all, is a reality in social conflicts. It counts a lot in deciding the outcome of clashes between contending sides in disputes over one thing or another. The sheep seldom comes out the winner when matched against the wolf.

But the conversation reminded me of an article on power, socialism, and the communist movement that has been gathering dust, so to speak, on my Google cloud. I began it months ago with the expectation that it would see the light of day long before now, but what with the election last year, and Trump’s first 100 days, I got preoccupied and, as a result, its stay on the cloud was extended. And had it not been for this recent conversation, it would have probably remained there.

In the communist movement of the 20th century where I spent most of my adult life, the main frame for understanding and changing the world was the balance of power among contending class and political forces. If the balance tilted toward the capitalist class and its allies, the prospects of progressive and radical change narrowed; or, still worse, if the tilt turned into a decisive swing, they disappeared and democratic movements found themselves on the defensive, as they do now. If, on the other hand, the balance shifted towards the working class and its allies, opportunities arose to expand economic, social, and political rights and freedoms. The New Deal period comes to mind.

Going a step further, a seismic shift in power to the advantage of the working class opened the door to a socialist future. This shift, however, was only the first moment of an extended process in which the working class and its “vanguard” party secured, consolidated, and expanded their power to radically construct a new state, economy, and society. Whatever facilitated this process was welcomed and needed little or no justification. Meanwhile, anything that hindered it was to be resisted by any means necessary.

In this framing, socialist values, norms, and aims — most importantly the creation of a field of action on which working people and their allies become the actual creators, architects, and producers of a new society that is democratic, egalitarian, sustainable, and humane — took a back seat to the exigencies of power against socialism’s “enemies.” If there were any tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, or dangers in such an approach and practice, they were rarely acknowledged and thus more rarely the subject of any serious examination.

Now, it was one thing to hold this view in the early part of the last century, when socialism was in its infancy and it felt like a turning point in human history had arrived, compelling everyone, in the words of “The Internationale” (the song of the international communist movement) “to stand in their place.”

But to subscribe to it long into the second half of that century, as I (and most communists) did, is quite another thing.

A critical look at the experience of socialism should have told us that a transfer in power, while necessary, is nothing close to a sufficient condition for socialism. Nor is it the defining feature of a socialism that measures up to its ideals, aspirations, and potentials.

Frederick Engels once wrote that revolutions are authoritarian affairs that turn on the question of power. He failed to add that once power passes from the hands of the old ruling elite, a process, both structured and spontaneous, of devolving and decentralizing power to democratic institutions and a popular majority should ensue on a broad scale.

This didn’t happen in the Soviet Union, except for a short burst of freedom in the early days. Instead, power became further centralized and it begat still more centralization in fewer and fewer hands in order to combat socialism’s opponents and build a new society in circumstances that were less than ideal.

Moreover, what was temporary and contingent became permanent and institutionalized as it acquired a social constituency, consisting of upper and middle level leaders and managers of the party, state, and economy that had a stake in maintaining the existing political, economic, and ideological setup. This made it a stubborn thing to uproot, even when conditions changed and popular desires for a more democratic and humane socialism grew.

Power, in short, became detached from socialism’s overarching essence, values, and aims. Stalin, it goes without saying, played an outsized role in this process. His desire for unchecked power, reinforced by his distortions of marxism and skewed notions of building socialism in encircled and backward Russia made for a hyper explosive brew. And the fallout was staggering — to the Soviet people, first of all, but also to the image and future of socialism.

Indeed, a near singular emphasis on the accumulation and centralization of power led to the eventual meltdown of the USSR as well as other socialist countries in Eastern Europe with barely a whimper from the class that the ruling parties claimed to represent.

But well before that happened, what seemed unimaginable became the ideologically sanctioned practice of Soviet authorities under Stalin: torture, executions, and show trials, labor camps and mass incarcerations, relocations of entire peoples, gross violations of democratic rights, the hollowing out of democratic institutions, massive surveillance and an accompanying climate of fear and suspicion, and the deaths of millions of innocents.

After Stalin’s death, the worst practices of those years ended and attempts were made to liberalize Soviet and the Eastern European socialist societies, but each attempt quickly ran up against concentrated bureaucratic and political power — sometimes police authorities and military might — that placed narrow limits on the reforming impulse. As a result, democracy and human freedom remained formal and cramped, civil society languished, and an independent press and culture worthy of the name never saw the light of day. Dissent fled into the kitchen and other crevices of private life.

It is ironic that U.S. communists — and again, I was one of them — expressed great outrage at the mention of the McCarthy period’s violations of democracy and attacks on communists, but, with some notable exceptions, had little to say about the social disaster and horror of the Stalin period and the long arc of unfreedom and eventually stagnation that followed. And when we did, it was either to say that no other alternatives were available, or an admission (at times reluctant) that “mistakes” were made, or an insistence on a “balanced” assessment of Soviet socialism.

Our mistake, however, wasn’t so much an inability to recognize irony. But more to the point, it was an indefensible failure of political, moral, and intellectual imagination, caught, as we were, in an embedded internal culture and world movement that resisted by and large critical thinking and reflection on such matters.

Responsibility for the downgrading of socialist values and humanism and the reduction of democracy from core features of socialism to simply instruments of policy — not to mention the transformation of a marxism that is dialectical, open to new experience, and subject to critique into Marxism-Leninism, a rigid ideology that legitimized practices that were inhumane, undemocratic, and anti-socialist — lies, in the first place, with its communist protagonists in the 20th century. However, a measure of responsibility also falls on Marx, Engels and especially Lenin. In their efforts to counter utopian notions, place socialism on a materialist theoretical foundation, and elaborate a path to socialism in the heat of contentious battles, they sometimes made sweeping assertions without delineating the limits of their application or the operation of competing tendencies. or shades and subtleties of meaning. Nor did they give in many instances sufficient emphasis in their analysis to socialism’s democratic, ethical, and emancipatory vision as an essential frame for the elaboration of revolutionary and socialist practice.

Even if we assume that the 21st century leaders of the left have learned the necessary lessons from the experience of the 20th century, we still have to ask what measures are necessary to guarantee that power and its practitioners are subordinated to (and, when necessary, reined in by) socialist values, norms, vision, and democratically constituted bodies.

This is a discussion for the many who are laboring in today’s vineyards, but I will make a few general observations.

1) Power should never again be the property of any one party (or movement). There is little evidence for the notion that under socialism social contradictions disappear and thus obviating the need for a multi-party system. Certainly, the idea of a constitutionally enshrined vanguard party should be left in the past, where it made its unfortunate entrance.

Much the same can be said about state-controlled media. Experience abounds that an independent and broadly based media is crucial in socialist as well as capitalist societies. Among other things, it is a key, and sometimes the only, reliable voice that will expose misdeeds and corruption at the top levels of official society.

2) There must be legal prohibitions on unchecked use of power that eviscerates democratic freedoms and rights. E. P. Thompson, the great British historian who wrote in the Marxist tradition, made this observation in his famous afterword to Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (1975):

“I am told that, just beyond the horizon, new forms of working class power are about to arise which, being founded upon egalitarian productive relations, will require no inhibition and can dispense with the negative restrictions of bourgeois legalism. A historian is unqualified to pronounce on such utopian projections. All that he knows is that he can bring in support of them no evidence whatsoever. His advice might be: watch this new power for a century or two before you cut down your hedges.”

Good advice, even if we believe with great conviction that we will never be so wrongheaded or shortsighted as were many communist leaders in the last century.

3) Power has to be devolved and decentralized to the people and popular institutions. In other words, the socialist state, economy, culture, and society have to be creatively transformed and thoroughly democratized and socialized in accordance with the emancipatory values and vision of socialism. And the only hope of such an outcome is a multi-racial, working class-based, majoritarian movement of great depth, understanding, and unity, that acts as socialism’s midwife and stays engaged long into its old age.

In case you think I have been hard on Engels, let me end with a quote from Marx’s closest collaborator that is germane and incisive:

“If the conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that.”

Syria and diplomacy

The use of chemical and biological weapons in Syria in recent days is outrageous no matter who pulls the trigger. It should be universally condemned. But the Trump ordered airstrikes on Syrian targets, even if the Asad government was the perpetrator (still to be proved, although not out of the realm of the possible by any means) are no answer.

It may seem counter intuitive to many, but only a turn to restraint, diplomacy, compromise, and cooperation in the Syrian conflict and the Middle East in general stands any chance of bringing some semblance of peace and measure of stability to the Syrian people. For such an approach to succeed, Russia has to be a full and equal participant. The Asad government has to be at the table too – not to mention other representatives of Syrian society. The UN has to coordinate and lead the process. Iran, Turkey and other governments in that region also have to part of the process The international community must ramp up pressure as well on Saudi Arabia to end its funding of extremist groups and the Netanyahu government has to be kept at bay.

Immediate action to assist and bring relief to the millions of refugees, fleeing war zones, is imperative. Some will relocate in Syria, while others will seek refuge here and elsewhere around the world. And they should be welcomed, not turned into dangerous pariahs and likely terrorists.

In the longer term, a 21st century “New Deal,” to rebuild the Middle East should become an order of business for the world community, and especially the U.S. and European Community.

Trump and his team will resist such an approach. They thrive in an environment of fear, hatred, suspicion, and threats. It conceals their political agenda and becomes a rationale to build up U.S. military capacity. To  make matters worse, the White House could see a vigorous military response to the Syrian crisis as a unique opportunity to stop the precipitous slide in Trump’s popularity.

What adds to the problem is that much of the foreign policy establishment is yet ready to execute a u-turn in its approach to Syria and the Middle East.

Obviously, public pressure and intervention is necessary in these circumstances. We can begin by contacting our representatives in Washington.

Loose Ends

* Just as the toleration of the unrelenting sexist and misogynist attacks on everything about Hillary Clinton in last year’s election tells us something about our society’s attitudes toward women and women’s equality. So too does the absence of a public uproar over Fox’s decision to continue to employ Bill O’Reilly, despite his record of repeated sexual assaults against women at Fox. Long past time for him to take a walk.

* ESPN fumbled the ball on Monday morning; its top story wasn’t coach Dawn Staley and her South Carolina women’s basketball team that won the NCAA championship yesterday against Mississippi State women, the team that upended the seemingly invincible Connecticut women. Staley is the second African American woman to win a championship in women’s college basketball and is now one of the main faces of women’s basketball.

* More than one article recently has remarked on the militarization and escalation of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. And much of this is happening without any significant challenge either at the congressional or grassroots level. And to think that some suggested last year that a Trump administration would offer a redirection of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. How to change that is a major challenge for the movers and shakers in the progressive, left, and peace communities. Among other things, the many sided assault by Trump and his gang makes this easier said than done.

* Republicans are talking again about repealing Obamacare, notwithstanding their shellacking only two weeks ago. If they do, they will face the same dilemma:

“I don’t know what has changed,’’ said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. “The bill went down because it was too bad for Republican moderates and not bad enough for their conservatives. I don’t know how they reconcile the divides within their own conference, never mind find any Democratic votes.”

And even if Trump and the various factions of the GOP do have some meeting of the minds and come up with a new version of Trump/Ryancare, there is little reason to think their own constituents – not to mention Democratic and independent voters – will like it any better. More likely is that they will use the ballot box to express their anger next year.

The fissures, tensions, and contradictions that rent the GOP have been evident for some time, but they have taken on a new coloration since the Republicans became the governing party. The health care debacle could be but the first of a new level of intra-party fighting. Let’s hope.

* I didn’t expect Trump to say anything about the brutal and unprovoked murder in New York of an older African man; he was too busy attacking Colin Kaepernick for exercising his democratic right to protest racist injustice and murder. But other public figures should have (and maybe some did that I don’t know about.) Racism kills. Always has, but in the atmosphere created by Trump – and the right and alt-right – we can expect more racially motivated hate crimes like this. Seems like each of us has to find ways – small as well as big – to protest these racist crimes as well as challenge the enablers of them in high places – the White House in the first place.

* I got to admit I don’t like or use the term “The Resistance,” to describe the array of organizations and people opposing Trump. I use resist and resisting, but I stay away from The Resistance. It seems, to me anyway, too clubby, too small circle, and too unfamiliar to many people. Not everybody is young. There are other ways, I believe, to characterize the diverse and far flung opposition to Trump’s policies that will more likely strike a chord with the American people. It’s not a big issue, but the more general point is –  language matters in politics. And in choosing one expression over another to capture a political reality, the point of departure isn’t what sounds good to our ears, but what resonates with people far beyond our immediate circles.

*Poets very seldom rule the world, but they often stand witness to misrule. And in doing so, give us inspiration and courage. Yevgeny Yevtushenko stood witness.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was the outstanding people’s leader of the 20th century. He left us an unparalleled legacy. Nobody combined a liberating and humane vision, strategic insight, and practical know-how as well as he did at the time or since. Below is a brief excerpt from his speech, “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break the Silence”  delivered at Riverside Church in New York City (1967). Still resonates. Or should I say it resonates even more?

” … we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

Back to the bench

I’ve decided to bench once again the term “center,” as in a political coalition of the center and left. That’s where it had been for years. But in the wake of Trump’s election, I decided to bring it back into action. My hope was that it would give emphasis to the necessity of constructing a coalition that is broad and diverse enough to contest the Trump administration and the Republican controlled Congress.

Or, to put in a little more polemically, I thought it would offer an alternative to the small-ball, ideologically driven, “blow up the Democratic Party” politics that were making the rounds on social media. The latter has a militant tone for sure, but, in dissing people, organizations, and sections of the Democratic Party occupying the middle of the political spectrum, they become a very poor strategic counterweight to resist the concentrated power of the extremist juggernaut entrenched in Washington and a majority of state capitals now.

On their best days, small ball politics can make some ripples, but what they can’t do is set into motion and sustain powerful waves of opposition to effectively oppose Trump. Only a dynamic, broadly constructed – and at times contentious – coalition that includes the center as well as progressives and the left, older establishment organizations as well as new social movements, and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer as well as Bernie Sanders has that capacity. And even if assembled, albeit through dint of great effort, compromise, and creativity, the going will still be hellacious in present circumstances.

Moreover, much of center is trending in a progressive direction, realizing that the days of a centrism that turns on the unalloyed blessings of globalization, financialization, and triangulation are over.

So, you might be thinking, why bench the term? What’s the problem? The term, I found, in its brief run over the past few months, confused more than clarified. Rather than being understood as a broad and fluid political current that evolves and is an absolutely necessary part of the far flung opposition to Trump, it is, for some people, nothing more than a term of derision, signifying an attempt to recycle the corporate driven policies and ideology of the Clinton presidency. For others, less ideologically inclined and new to politics, it is too vague a term to shed much light on what kind of alliances and coalition relations are necessary, if we have any chance of turning back the anti-democratic and authoritarian impulses and polices of Trump and gang.

Now I realize that no terminology is going to magically put everybody on the same page. Nor will any term resolve longstanding political differences of the varied groupings that make up the resistance to the Trump administration. We’re still going to lock horns, for example, over the Democratic Party – its nature and reform (and radical) possibilities. No doubt differences will crop as well over the role of the labor movement and other traditional social organizations aligned to the Democratic Party. Nor will everybody be on the same page as far as how to engage the Trump administration. Finally, the discussions will continue on the merits (or weaknesses) of an economic-working-class populism that subordinates (and sometimes is deaf to) issues of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality.

None of this, however, changes my decision to bench “center.” I haven’t quite figured out what I will put in its place. But I do know this: what I won’t bench is is my conviction that broad and flexible strategic and tactical concepts of struggle that unify people and organizations, politically and socially varied in outlook and composition, is imperative at this moment.

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