Sunday, November 27, 2016

*****Desperately Seeking Revolutionary Intellectuals-Then, And Now

*****Desperately Seeking Revolutionary Intellectuals-Then, And Now  

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
Several years ago, I guess about four years now, in the aftermath of the demise of the Occupy movement with the shutting down of its campsites across the country by the police acting in concert with other American governmental bodies I wrote a short piece centered on the need for revolutionary and radical intellectuals, or those who had pretensions to such ideas to take their rightful place on the activist left, on the people’s side, and to stop sitting on the academic sidelines. Or wherever they were hiding out, hiding out maybe as far back in some cases as the Vietnam War days which saw much of the current senior contemporary academia turn from the streets to the ivied-buildings, maybe hiding out in bought and paid for think tanks with their bright-colored “wonk” portfolios like some exiles-in-waiting ready to spring their latest wisdom, maybe posing as public intellectuals although with no serious audience ready to act on their ideas since they were not pushing their agendas beyond the lectern, maybe some in the hard-hearted post 9/11 world having doubts about those long ago youthful impulses that animated "the better angels of their natures" have turned to see the “virtues” of the warfare state and now keep their eyes averted to the social struggles they previously professed to live and die for, or maybe a la Henry David Thoreau retiring to out in some edenic gardens in Big Sur or anywhere Oregon like some 60s radicals did never to be heard from again except as relics when the tourists pass through town.

One of the reasons for that piece was that in the aftermath of the demise of the Occupy movement a certain stock-taking was in order (and which is in 2015 and beyond still in order). A stock-taking at first centered on those young radicals and revolutionaries that I ran into in the various campsites and on the flash mob marches who were disoriented and discouraged when their utopian dreams went up in smoke without a murmur of regret from the masses they professed to be fighting for (and with not a little hostility from that same work-a-day mass hostile to people hanging out and not working, or not doing much of anything, as well but mainly indifference to the fight these idealistic youth were pursuing, really their fight too since that had been pummeled by the main Occupy culprits, the banks who got bailed out, the mortgages companies who sold them a false bill of goods, the corporations more than ready to send formerly good paying jobs off-shore leaving Wal-Mart for the unemployed. Now a few years later it is apparent that they, the youth of Occupy have, mostly, moved back to the traditional political ways of operating via the main bourgeois parties who let the whole thing happen (witness the New York mayor’s race, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders et. al) or have not quite finished licking their wounds (they couldn’t believe as we elders could have told them after all the anti-Vietnam War actions, including the massive May Day 1971 arrests that the government had no problem crushing their own, their own young if they got out of line).

Although I initially addressed my remarks to the activists still busy out in the streets I also had in mind those intellectuals who had a radical streak but who then hovered on the sidelines and were not sure what to make of the whole experiment although some things seemed very positive like the initial camp comradery, the flow of ideas, some half-baked on their faces but worthy of conversation and testing, the gist for any academic. In short, those who would come by on Sundays and take a lot of photographs and write a couple of lines about what they saw but held back. (I would argue and this may be the nature of the times that the real beneficiaries of Occupy were all those film students and artists, media-types who made the site their class project, or their first professional documentary.) Now in 2015 it is clear as day that the old economic order (capitalism if you were not quite sure what to name it) that we were fitfully protesting against (especially against the banks who led the way downhill and who under the sway of imperialism's imperative made it clear finance capitalism writ large is in charge) has survived another threat to its dominance. The old political order, the way of doing political business now clearly being defended by one Barack Obama and his hangers-on, Democrat and Republican, with might and main is still intact (with a whole ready to take his place come 2016).
The needs of working people although now widely discussed in academia and on the more thoughtful talk shows have not been ameliorated (the increasing gap between the rich, really the very rich, and the poor, endlessly lamented and then forgotten, the student debt death trap, and the lingering sense that most of us will never get very far ahead in this wicked old world especially compared to previous generations). All of this calls for intellectuals with any activist spark to come forth and help analyze and plan how the masses are to survive, how a new social order can be brought forth. Nobody said, or says, that it will be easy but this is the plea. I have reposted the original piece with some editing to bring it up to date.          
No, this is not a Personals section ad, although it qualifies as a Help Wanted ad in a sense. On a number of occasions over past several years, in reviewing books especially those by James P. Cannon, a founding member of the American Communist Party in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and when that revolution began to seriously go off the rails followed the politics of the Trotsky-led International Left Opposition  and eventually helped found the Socialist Workers Party in America, I have mentioned elsewhere  that building off of the work of the classical Marxists, including that of Marx and Engels themselves, and later that of Lenin and Trotsky the critical problem before the international working class in the early part of the 20th century was the question of creating a revolutionary leadership to lead imminent uprisings. Armed with Lenin’s work on the theory of the imperialist nature of the epoch and the party question and Trotsky’s on the questions of permanent revolution in less developed capitalist countries and revolutionary timing the tasks for revolutionaries were more than adequately defined. A century later with some tweaking, unfortunately, those same theories and the same need for organization are still on the agenda although, as Trotsky once said, the conditions are overripe for the overthrow of capitalism as it has long ago outlived its progressive character in leading humankind forward.   

The conclusion that I originally drew from that initial  observation was that the revolutionary socialist movement was not as desperately in need of theoreticians and intellectuals as previously (although having them, and plenty of them, especially those who can write, is always a good thing). It needed leaders steeped in those theories and with a capacity to lead revolutions. We needed a few good day-to-day practical leaders, guys like Cannon, like Debs from the old Socialist Party, like Ruthenburg from the early Communist Party, to lead the fight for state power.
In that regard I have always held up, for the early part of the 20th century, the name Karl Liebknecht the martyred German Communist co-leader (along with Rosa Luxemburg) of the aborted Spartacist uprising of 1919 as such an example. He led the anti-war movement in Germany by refusing to vote for the Kaiser’s war budgets, found himself in jail as a result, but also had tremendous authority among the left-wing German workers when that mattered. In contrast the subsequent leadership of the German Communists in the 1920’s Paul Levi, Henrich Brandler and Ernest Thaelmann did not meet those qualifications. For later periods I have, as mentioned previously, held up the name James P. Cannon, founder of the American Socialist Workers Party (to name only the organization that he was most closely associated with), as a model. Not so Communist Party leaders like William Z. Foster and Earl Browder (to speak nothing of Gus Hall from our generation of '68) or Max Shachtman in his later years after he broke with Cannon and the SWP. That basically carried us to somewhere around the middle of the 20th century. Since I have spent a fair amount of time lately going back to try to draw the lessons of our movement I have also had occasion to think, or rather to rethink my original argument on the need for revolutionary intellectuals. I find that position stands in need of some amendment now.
Let’s be clear here about our needs. The traditional Marxist idea that in order to break the logjam impeding humankind’s development the international working class must rule is still on the historic agenda. The Leninist notions that, since the early part of the 20th century, we have been in the imperialist era and that a ‘hard’ cadre revolutionary party is necessary to lead the struggle to take state power are also in play. Moreover, the Trotskyist understanding that in countries of belated development the working class is the only agency objectively capable of leading those societies to the tasks traditionally associated with the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century continues to hold true. That said, rather than some tweaking, we are seriously in need of revolutionary intellectuals who can bring these understandings into the 21st century.

It is almost a political truism that each generation of radicals and revolutionaries will find its own ways to cope with the political tasks that confront it. The international working class movement is no exception in that regard. Moreover, although the general outlines of Marxist theory mentioned above hold true such tasks as the updating of the theory of imperialism to take into account the qualitative leap in its globalization is necessary (as is, as an adjunct to that, the significance of the gigantic increases in the size and importance of the ‘third world’ proletariat). Also in need of freshening up is work on the contours of revolutionary political organization in the age of high speed communications, the increased weight that non-working class specific questions play in world politics (the national question which if anything has had a dramatic uptick since the demise of the Soviet Union), religion (the almost universal trend for the extremes of religious expression to rear their ugly heads which needs to be combated), special racial and gender oppressions, and various other tasks that earlier generations had taken for granted or had not felt they needed to consider. All this moreover has to be done in a political environment that sees Marxism, communism, even garden variety reform socialism as failed experiments. To address all the foregoing issues is where my call for a new crop of revolutionary intellectuals comes from.
Since the mid- 20th century we have had no lack of practical revolutionary leaders of one sort or another - one thinks of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and even Mao in his less rabid moments. We have witnessed any number of national liberation struggles, a few attempts at political revolution against Stalinism, a few military victories against imperialism, notably the Vietnamese struggle. But mainly this has been an epoch of defeats for the international working class. Moreover, we have not even come close to developing theoretical leaders of the statue of Lenin or Trotsky.
As a case in point, recently I made some commentary about the theory of student power in the 1960s and its eventual refutation by the May 1968 General Strike lead by the working class in France. One of the leading lights for the idea that students were the “new” working class or a “new” vanguard was one Ernest Mandel. Mandel held himself out to be an orthodox Marxist (and Trotskyist, to boot) but that did not stop him from, periodically, perhaps daily, changing the focus of his work away from the idea of the centrality of the working class in social struggle, an idea that goes back to the days of Marx himself.

And Mandel, a brilliant well-spoken erudite scholar probably was not the worst of the lot. The problem was that “he was the problem” with his impressionistic theories based on, frankly, opportunistic impulses. Another example, from that same period, was the idea of Professor Regis Debray (in the service of Fidel at the time ) that guerrilla foci out in the hills were the way forward ( a codification of the experience of the Cuban Revolution for which many subjective revolutionary paid dearly with their lives out in bloody nomadic jungles of the American continent). Or the anti-Marxist Maoist notion codifying the experiences of the third Chinese revolution that the countryside (the “third world with its then predominant peasantry now increasingly proletarianized) would defeat the cities (mainly the West but the Soviet Union as well in some circles) that flamed the imagination of many Western radicals in the late 1960s. I could go on with more examples but they only lead to one conclusion- we are, among other things, in a theoretical trough. The late Mandel’s students from the 1960s have long gone on to academia and the professions (and not an inconsiderable few in governmental harness-how the righteous have fallen). Debray’s guerilla foci have long ago buried their dead and gone back to the cities. The “cities” of the world now including to a great extent China had broken the third world countryside though intense globalization. This, my friends, is why today I have my Help Wanted sign out. Any takers?

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