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21st Century Socialism – by LOUIS PROYECT.

2 Feb

Fifty years ago, Peter Camejo ran for Senator from Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy. He didn’t win but did manage to recruit many young people to socialism through a stump speech filled with jokes. One of them had to do with life under socialism. There would be such an abundance of goods that money would no longer be necessary. He’d say something like this: “You go to a grocery store and there is filet mignon. Nothing would prevent you from sticking a dozen under your jacket and sneaking out. But instead of being arrested for shoplifting, you’d be referred to a psychotherapist for doing something so crazy. All you can eat is one, right?”

Today, it would be difficult to make such a speech since we are far too aware of the costs to the planet from cattle ranching. Most socialists are speaking about the need to prevent the Amazon rainforest from being leveled to the ground. Do we accelerate global warming to supply beef to fast-food restaurants? If Peter were alive today, he’d be among the loudest voices against Bolsonaro.

In his 1970 campaign, Peter was trying to popularize the ideas found in Leon Trotsky’s 1934 article “If American Goes Communist.”  Trotsky’s words sound somewhat crass as if he were making a sales pitch to men in the admittedly backward but wealthy country: “The average man doesn’t like systems or generalities either. It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”

 

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Since Trotskyists were not in power anywhere, they were under no obligation to cope with the brutal realities of economic development like the Sandinistas put up during the 1980s. They were content to criticize them from afar, their stock in trade.

They explained the Soviet failure to match American productivity in the 1950s and 60s as a function of bureaucratic rule. If the USSR returned to its democratic roots, the workers would forge ahead and produce all the food, cigars and amusements that Stalinism could not. But history played a trick on the Trotskyists. Instead of a socialist utopia, the Russians ended up with a capitalist dystopia under Yeltsin. While Russia recovered from Jeffrey Sachs’s shock therapy, it still staggers along economically because of oil market vicissitudes and imperialist sanctions. Discontent, however, hardly produces anything resembling a Trotskyist new wave. Instead, opposition to Putin remains within time-dishonored liberal economic parameters.

In debates over whether socialism was feasible or not, Trotskyism had little to offer except formulaic assurances that workers democracy would set things right. The big debates happened elsewhere and were over whether a planned economy, democratic or undemocratic, could work as efficiently as the capitalist marketplace. Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises wrote numerous books and articles arguing that planning in and of itself necessarily leads to an irrational and inefficient allocation of resources. Following in their path, Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan reinforced libertarian orthodoxy. It was only the 2008 financial crisis that shook the confidence of the Republican Party establishment with Greenspan confessing: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

 

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Jeffrey Sachs had a similar epiphany after seeing how his version of market-driven economics failed to produce miracles in Bolivia, Poland or Russia. Now writing articles defending Bernie Sanders against charges that he is a “radical,” Sachs sounds like he has imbibed Trotskyist literature: “The ruling class—dominated by billionaires like Donald Trump and the vested interests that prop him up—have played the same name-calling game for decades.”

Despite the fiery rhetoric targeting billionaires, neither Sanders nor Sachs has given up on the capitalist system. Like Hayek, they regard markets as a sine qua non for rational economic behavior. When Elizabeth Warren described the difference between her and Sanders as “He’s a socialist, and I believe in markets,” she was inaccurate. They are both marketeers. You’ll never hear Sanders making a pitch for public ownership of the means of production and a planned economy. Briefly put, he is for Norway, not Cuba. He is too smart to sound like Peter Camejo’s 1970 stump speech since that will shut the doors to MSNBC and lucrative book contracts.

Almost everybody has a good word for markets today. NYU sociology professor Vivek Chibber, who Bhaskar Sunkara regards as a major influence, sounds positively Hayekian in an article he wrote for Jacobin’s special issue on the Russian Revolution.

“What is more challenging is the issue of economic planning. We have to start with the observation that the expectation of a centrally planned economy simply replacing the market has no empirical foundation. We can want planning to work, but we have no evidence that it can. Every attempt to put it in place for more than short duration’s has met with failure.”

 

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Sam Gindin, who is far more revolutionary-minded than Chibber, also conceded the need for markets to Jacobin readers:

The power of capitalism, Hayek claimed, is that it brings such otherwise internalized, hidden knowledge to the surface while socialism, no matter how much it hopes to plan, cannot effectively access or develop the knowledge on which successful planning would rest.

For all its inherent ideological and class biases, this critique can’t be ignored. Hayek cannot be countered by arguing that capitalists themselves plan. Aside from the fact that the scale of organizing a total society in a nonmarket way is of a different order of magnitude than addressing a single, even vast, corporation, internal corporate calculations under capitalism have an advantage that centralized socialist planning would not have: they have external market prices and market-driven standards by which to measure themselves.

Much of this is reminiscent of the arguments I heard for Market Socialism 30 years ago when I discovered Internet mailing lists (this was prior to the Web, blogs and social media.) Throughout the 1980s, economists in the Soviet bloc blamed the lack of market mechanisms for all their problems. Alec Nove, a Scottish economist, identified with their grievances and called for a mixture of planning and markets. In his 1983 “The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited,” Nove hoped to debunk Lenin’s claim in “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” that “Capitalism has simplified the work of accounting and control, has reduced it to a comparatively simple system of bookkeeping, that any literate person can do.”

 

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Striking the same note as Sam Gindin, Nove maintains that Lenin was naïve:

A large factory, for instance, making cars or chemical machinery, is an assembly plant of parts and components which can be made in literally thousands of different factories, each of which, in turn, may depend on supplies of materials, fuel and machines, made by hundreds or more other production units. Introduce the further dimension of time (things need to be provided punctually and in sequence), add the importance of provision for repair, maintenance, replacement, investment in future productive capacity, the training and deployment of the labor force, its needs for housing, amenities, hairdressers, dry-cleaners, fuel, furniture…’Simple’, indeed!

Markets, however, are not just about figuring out which drill-press to buy when you are investing a new factory that makes furniture. Nor, it is about figuring out how much to charge for a rocking chair that comes off the assembly line. It is about the price of labor. When a market can’t bear the price of a unionized worker in an American plant, capital will take wings and fly to places where labor is more affordable.

We are now well into the 21st century. Should we continue to see economic efficiency as a litmus test for a healthy socialist system? Why should we see like a state, as anarchist scholar James C. Scott put it? For Scott, men with few apparent similarities all adhered to a “high modernist” vision. High modernism’s goal was to expand production in agriculture and industry as the best way to meet human needs. For him, this included both Robert McNamara and Leon Trotsky. Such men believed that scientific knowledge was key to governing and producing according to a plan. That, at least, was Scott’s conclusion even though it is hard to see any kind of science or planning at work when McNamara was Secretary of Defense and bombing the hell out of Vietnam. A Hells Angel on methamphetamine would have likely made the same decisions based on the Cold War psychoses that made such a war possible.

 

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The underlying but unstated assumption for the “high modernists” is that the nation-state must achieve economic growth on its own, like pulling itself up by its bootstraps. As long as capitalism has existed, politicians and political theorists shared this understanding. The 17th-century treaties of Westphalia established the bootstrap basis for nation-state economic development in Europe. Afterward, gunboats went forth and imposed this model on the rest of the world at the point of a bayonet. The model was well-suited to dividing and conquering Africa and the Middle East.

In the pre-modern world made up primarily of city-states funded by tributes extracted from peasants, there was little market-driven competition as we know it today. The Ottoman Empire was typical. It became “the sick man of Europe” because it failed to adopt the labor-saving machinery that capitalism was producing in the West. Like the USSR in the 20th century, it collapsed because it failed to compete in global markets. As long as the nation-state exists and as long as money is the basis for commodity exchange, a country like Cuba or the former Soviet Union has to play by the rules of global capitalism. Unless you can export commodities at a cheaper price than a competing nation-state, your economy will suffer, and the citizenry will grow restive.

A recent N.Y. Times article reminded me how restive Americans can become when the economy loses its competitive edge in the global marketplace. Titled “In Crucial Pennsylvania, Democrats Worry a Fracking Ban Could Sink Them,” it cited the state’s lieutenant-general John Fetterman, who proudly called his state “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” Fracking was not only critical to the state’s economy, but to the “union way of life.” He worried that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s call for an immediate end to fracking would destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs. If given a choice between Donald Trump and environmental health, Pennsylvania’s workers would choose Trump even if it meant a higher cancer rate. The article quotes Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania: “At the end of the day, if I don’t have a job, if I don’t have health care, if I can’t take care of my family, it doesn’t matter if we have global peace and gun control and everything else.”

In Australia, climate change has already led to disastrous consequences. Will the death of billions of animals convince voters to follow a different path than Pennsylvanians? Perhaps not. Keep in mind that coal is Australia’s second-largest export behind iron ore. In 2016-17, it exported 202 million tons of thermal coal and 177 million tons of metallurgical coal with a combined value of $54 billion. The coal industry provided around 47,000 direct jobs and a further 120,000 indirect jobs across Australia.

In countries not endowed by plentiful reserves of oil, gas and coal, manufacturing provides the most reliable path to economic progress. Indeed, fossil fuels are subject to the chaotic speculation of global markets and that economists identify as the “resource curse” that keeps Venezuela dependent. (Of course, imperialist sanctions on both Venezuela and Iran are just as much to blame.) With China looming as a major competitor to the USA as the 21st century lurches forward, competitive pressures will likely force both countries to forsake environmental regulations and impose labor discipline to compete on the world market. Other nations will follow suit, as long as the profit motive remains sacrosanct.

 

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In 1961, a musical titled “Stop the World—I Want to Get Off” opened first in England and then on Broadway. There are few revivals nowadays, but the title lives on as an apt description of how some people feel about late capitalism, especially when I read through the N.Y. Times in the morning. Unlike Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, I have neither the means nor the motivation to go live on Mars.

The 20th century was all about the competition between capitalism and socialism. Which system could best help prepare a nation-state for success in the next century? It was like trying to figure out whether a Harvard or a Yale degree would land you a better job. It turns out that both systems appear to be incapable of resolving the global contradictions that neither Hayek nor Trotsky anticipated. We know that capitalism doesn’t work except for the capitalist class. Why would I say the same thing about socialism? The answer: as long as we understand socialism to be co-equal with the nation-state, it will never succeed.

The Bolivarian revolution in Latin America faced insurmountable odds. While some on the left find it easy to fault Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales for not carrying out a genuine socialist revolution, they forget that classical Marxism ruled out building socialism in a single country. In 1847, Frederick Engels wrote a short work titled “The Principles of Communism” that took the form of a catechism. He posed questions that would be of interest to socialist-minded workers and then provided the answers. One of them was, “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” He replied:

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

 

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If that was true in 1847, it is a hundred times truer today. Electronic communications, the spread of capitalist property relations to every corner of the world, jet travel, multinational corporations, interlocking financial institutions, television and radio, and global trade agreements such as the WTO compel the socialist movement to adjust to new realities. The ruling classes have dozens of institutions that help sharpen their struggles against the working class. The World Economic Forum is just one of them. Meanwhile, workers try to solve their most pressing problems within national borders. We are not even where we were in the early 2000s when the World Social Forum met regularly in places like Porto Alegre in Brazil.

Engels counted on England, America, France, and Germany as the liberated territory that could help transform the rest of the world. The 20th century left pinned its hopes on Russia for most of the 20th century. More recently, clusters of nations in the global south have stepped into the breach. In my over half-century of Marxist advocacy and activism, I have seen the terrain shift. First, it was in Indochina, where Eisenhower warned about a “domino effect.” It turned out that he had little to worry about since the surrounding nations had little support from China, despite Mao’s phony revolutionism. Next, it shifted to Central America, where this time Soviet Russia pulled the plug. Nicaragua might have been the shining example that would have inspired other revolutions, but perestroika meant that it became a pawn the Kremlin was ready to sacrifice. The last and most promising development was the Bolivarian revolution that had the potential of transforming Latin America from top to bottom. Once again, this regional bloc of radical governments failed to meet expectations. Perhaps, the best explanation for their failure was to remain within the nation-state context. They might have taken their namesake Simon Bolivar’s advice to heart: “In the unity of our nations rests the glorious future of our peoples.”

If and when a new revolutionary bloc of nations emerges, its most urgent task will be to begin implementing a planned economy across borderlines. Whether planning is second-best to Hayekian markets is immaterial. The most pressing need is to share resources, technical expertise, and environmental preservation within the liberated territory as a demonstration that socialism can work. In a small way, Cuba’s ability to withstand the human costs of hurricanes, to feed and educate its people, and provide medical care on the island as well as around the world is more important than its ability to compete with other sugar-producing nations.

 

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NO WAR BUT CLASS WAR!

 

One understands why there is so little interest in thinking globally or regionally in advanced capitalist countries. In the USA, you get the most virulent form of nationalism because it is an empire. Does this have a disorienting effect on the left? While the Green New Deal contains many positive features, it is a program for the USA and not the planet.

Even if Bernie Sanders was elected President and joined by a majority of “democratic socialists” in Congress, the Green New Deal remains woefully national in scope. Poorer countries are now supplying fossil fuels that provide energy to wealthier ones. They will also be the source of the minerals that batteries require to store the energy windmills, solar panels, etc., generate. Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles will require up to 43% of the cobalt and 50% of the lithium produced globally. Those minerals are plentiful in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where militias fight over mines as spoils of a brutal civil war. The Africans endure child labor, human rights violations, land grabs, and environmental pollution while Western corporations are busy making profits off of “Green” technology. If the marketplace governs the relations between nations rather than an overarching planned economy, can we expect the people living in the Congo to ever enjoy the living standards of Americans or even the right to live in peace?

In 1965, Che Guevara went to the Congo to fight for its liberation. He went where a fighter/doctor was needed. He joined Fidel Castro on the Granma in 1958 and then went to Bolivia in 1967. Argentine by nationality, he always saw himself as an internationalist. In a 1964 speech to the UN, Che denounced the imperialist exploitation of the Congo:

I would like to refer specifically to the painful case of the Congo, unique in the history of the modern world, which shows how, with absolute impunity, with the most insolent cynicism, the rights of peoples can be flouted. The direct reason for all this is the enormous wealth of the Congo, which the imperialist countries want to keep under their control. In the speech he made during his first visit to the United Nations, compañero Fidel Castro observed that the whole problem of coexistence among peoples boils down to the wrongful appropriation of other peoples’ wealth. He made the following statement: “End the philosophy of plunder and the philosophy of war will be ended as well.”

Not content with words, he took action a year later to confront the imperialists on the battlefield. As we understand today, Che’s guerrilla warfare in both the Congo and Bolivia lacked the preparation carried out by the July 26th Movement in Cuba. His motivations were exemplary even if he failed to understand the importance of a mass movement to back up the armed struggle. With millions of people waking up to the dead-end of capitalism across the planet, we need to begin building a worldwide movement that can finally fulfill Che Guevara’s dream.

 

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One understands why there is so little interest in thinking globally or regionally in advanced capitalist countries. In the USA, you get the most virulent form of nationalism because it is an empire. Does this have a disorienting effect on the left? While the Green New Deal contains many positive features, it is a program for the USA and not the planet.

Even if Bernie Sanders was elected President and joined by a majority of “democratic socialists” in Congress, the Green New Deal remains woefully national in scope. Poorer countries are now supplying fossil fuels that provide energy to wealthier ones. They will also be the source of the minerals that batteries require to store the energy windmills, solar panels, etc., generate. Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles will require up to 43% of the cobalt and 50% of the lithium produced globally. Those minerals are plentiful in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where militias fight over mines as spoils of a brutal civil war. The Africans endure child labor, human rights violations, land grabs, and environmental pollution while Western corporations are busy making profits off of “Green” technology. If the marketplace governs the relations between nations rather than an overarching planned economy, can we expect the people living in the Congo to ever enjoy the living standards of Americans or even the right to live in peace?

In 1965, Che Guevara went to the Congo to fight for its liberation. He went where a fighter/doctor was needed. He joined Fidel Castro on the Granma in 1958 and then went to Bolivia in 1967. Argentine by nationality, he always saw himself as an internationalist. In a 1964 speech to the UN, Che denounced the imperialist exploitation of the Congo:

I would like to refer specifically to the painful case of the Congo, unique in the history of the modern world, which shows how, with absolute impunity, with the most insolent cynicism, the rights of peoples can be flouted. The direct reason for all this is the enormous wealth of the Congo, which the imperialist countries want to keep under their control. In the speech he made during his first visit to the United Nations, compañero Fidel Castro observed that the whole problem of coexistence among peoples boils down to the wrongful appropriation of other peoples’ wealth. He made the following statement: “End the philosophy of plunder and the philosophy of war will be ended as well.”

Not content with words, he took action a year later to confront the imperialists on the battlefield. As we understand today, Che’s guerrilla warfare in both the Congo and Bolivia lacked the preparation carried out by the July 26th Movement in Cuba. His motivations were exemplary even if he failed to understand the importance of a mass movement to back up the armed struggle. With millions of people waking up to the dead-end of capitalism across the planet, we need to begin building a worldwide movement that can finally fulfill Che Guevara’s dream.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

 

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No War but Class War! None are more helplessly enslaved than those that believe they are free. New – Used Left Wing & Progressive Books & Memorabilia https://www.facebook.com/Fahrenheit451bookstore/

 

 

 

NO NUKES – US deploys “usable” nuclear weapon amid continuing war threats against Iran.

1 Feb

The Pentagon deployed a new, smaller nuclear warhead aboard the ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee as it sailed into the Atlantic last month in the midst of the spiraling crisis with Iran. The weapon, known as the W76-2 warhead, has an explosive yield of roughly five kilotons, a third of the destructive power of the “Little Boy” bomb that claimed the lives of some 140,000 people in Hiroshima in 1945.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) revealed the deployment this week, citing unnamed civilian and military figures. It stated that two of the 20 Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles onboard the USS Tennessee and other subs will be armed with the W76-2 warheads. Each missile can be loaded with as many as eight such warheads, capable of striking multiple targets.

 

First launch of a Trident missile on January 18, 1977 at Cape Canaveral, Florida

 

The new weapon has been rolled out with remarkable speed. The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for the development of “a low-yield SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile] warhead to ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses” and close “an exploitable ‘gap’ in US regional deterrence capabilities.”

The pretext for the warhead’s deployment was the unsubstantiated claim that Russia is developing similar weapons and has adopted a doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to win” by utilizing low-yield nuclear weapons, with the expectation that Washington would not retaliate with strategic warheads for fear of initiating an all out thermonuclear war. The Pentagon’s argument has been that a low-yield and rapid reaction ballistic missile is needed to “restore deterrence.”

The report by the FAS strongly suggests, however, that this alleged Russian doctrine is a pretext and that “it is much more likely that the new low-yield weapon is intended to facilitate first-use of nuclear weapons against North Korea or Iran.”

It points out that both the US National Security Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) envision the use of nuclear weapons in response to “non-nuclear attacks, and large-scale conventional aggression,” and that the NPR explicitly stated that the W76-2 warhead was designed to “expand the range of credible US options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack.” Washington does not rule out a nuclear strike, including against non-nuclear armed countries like Iran.

 

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The deployment of the USS Tennessee with its new “usable” nuclear warheads came at roughly the same time as President Donald Trump huddled with his top aides on December 29 at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, ordering the criminal drone missile assassination of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, one of Iran’s top officials. The drone killing was carried out at Baghdad’s international airport five days later.

In a report Thursday, NBC News, citing unnamed senior US officials, established that at the same meeting in Florida, “Trump also authorized the bombing of Iranian ships, missile launchers and air defense systems… Technically, the military can now hit those targets without further presidential authorization, though in practice, it would consult with the White House before any such action.”

The report warned that “the two sides remain in a dangerous boxer’s clench, in which the smallest miscalculation, some officials believe, could lead to disaster.”

In other words, for all the talk of war having been averted following the act of war and war crime carried out by Washington in the murder of Suleimani, the reality is that the world remains on the knife’s edge of a catastrophic military confrontation, which could rapidly escalate into the first use of nuclear weapons in three-quarters of a century.

The threat against Iran is part of far broader buildup to global war through which US imperialism is seeking to offset the erosion of its previously hegemonic domination of the global economy by resorting to the criminal use of overwhelming military force.

 

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After securing a $738 billion military budget for 2020 with the support of an overwhelming majority—Democratic and Republican alike—in the US Congress, the Trump administration is now preparing to push through a 20 percent increase in the budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency overseeing the buildup of the US nuclear arsenal. This $20 billion budget proposal, made public this week, represents only a fraction of the more than $1 trillion the US is projected to spend on “modernizing” the arsenal over the next three decades—plans that were set into motion under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama, before Trump took office.

Trump is a war criminal. His threats to carry out the “obliteration” of Iran and to rain “fire and fury” upon North Korea are not merely hyperbole. The “usable” nuclear weapons to commit such atrocities have already been placed in his hands.

As the Senate impeachment trial of the US president limps to an ignominious close, it is striking that Trump’s greatest crimes, including acts of war and his threat to drag the world into a nuclear war, feature in no way in the charges against him. On the contrary, the articles of impeachment center on allegations that he withheld lethal military aid to Ukraine and has been insufficiently aggressive in confronting Russia.

This charge is made, as Newsweek pointed out this week, after the Pentagon staged an unprecedented 93 separate military exercises between May and the end of September of last year, all of them simulating or preparing for war against Russia. This includes practice bombing runs less than 500 miles from the Russian border and the steady build-up of ground forces in the three Baltic states and Poland, together with escalating US air deployments described as “bomber assurance” and “theater security” programs.

The drive to war has its source not in the diseased mind of Donald Trump, but rather in the insoluble crisis of global capitalism. There exists no antiwar faction within the US ruling class, including its Democratic representatives, only tactical differences over how US imperialist interests should best be pursued on the global arena.

The struggle against a new imperialist world war and the threat it poses to the survival of humanity can be based only upon the struggles of the working class, which is engaged in a wave of strikes and social upheavals across the planet. These emerging mass struggles must be armed with a socialist and internationalist program to unify workers in the common fight to put an end to the source of war and social inequality, the capitalist system. BY Bill Van Auken

 

Published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI)

 

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No War but Class War! None are more helplessly enslaved than those that believe they are free. New – Used Left Wing & Progressive Books & Memorabilia https://www.facebook.com/Fahrenheit451bookstore/

 

The Last Time Democracy Almost Died!

28 Jan

Learning from the upheaval of the nineteen-thirties.

 

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The last time democracy nearly died all over the world and almost all at once, Americans argued about it, and then they tried to fix it. “The future of democracy is topic number one in the animated discussion going on all over America,” a contributor to the New York Times wrote in 1937. “In the Legislatures, over the radio, at the luncheon table, in the drawing rooms, at meetings of forums and in all kinds of groups of citizens everywhere, people are talking about the democratic way of life.” People bickered and people hollered, and they also made rules. “You are a liar!” one guy shouted from the audience during a political debate heard on the radio by ten million Americans, from Missoula to Tallahassee. “Now, now, we don’t allow that,” the moderator said, calmly, and asked him to leave.

In the nineteen-thirties, you could count on the Yankees winning the World Series, dust storms plaguing the prairies, evangelicals preaching on the radio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt residing in the White House, people lining up for blocks to get scraps of food, and democracies dying, from the Andes to the Urals and the Alps.

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson’s Administration had promised that winning the Great War would “make the world safe for democracy.” The peace carved nearly a dozen new states out of the former Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires. The number of democracies in the world rose; the spread of liberal-democratic governance began to appear inevitable. But this was no more than a reverie. Infant democracies grew, toddled, wobbled, and fell: Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, Yugoslavia. In older states, too, the desperate masses turned to authoritarianism. Benito Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922. It had taken a century and a half for European monarchs who ruled by divine right and brute force to be replaced by constitutional democracies and the rule of law. Now Fascism and Communism toppled these governments in a matter of months, even before the stock-market crash of 1929 and the misery that ensued.

 

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“Epitaphs for democracy are the fashion of the day,” the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, dismally, in 1930. The annus horribilis that followed differed from every other year in the history of the world, according to the British historian Arnold Toynbee: “In 1931, men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work.” When Japan invaded Manchuria, the League of Nations condemned the annexation, to no avail. “The liberal state is destined to perish,” Mussolini predicted in 1932. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.” By 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, the American political commentator Walter Lippmann was telling an audience of students at Berkeley that “the old relationships among the great masses of the people of the earth have disappeared.” What next? More epitaphs: Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia. Authoritarians multiplied in Portugal, Uruguay, Spain. Japan invaded Shanghai. Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. “The present century is the century of authority,” he declared, “a century of the Right, a Fascist century.”

American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation. “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” F.D.R. said in his first Inaugural Address, telling Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. But there was more to be afraid of, including Americans’ own declining faith in self-government. “What Does Democracy Mean?” NBC radio asked listeners. “Do we Negroes believe in democracy?” W. E. B. Du Bois asked the readers of his newspaper column. Could it happen here? Sinclair Lewis asked in 1935. Americans suffered, and hungered, and wondered. The historian Charles Beard, in the inevitable essay on “The Future of Democracy in the United States,” predicted that American democracy would endure, if only because “there is in America, no Rome, no Berlin to march on.” Some Americans turned to Communism. Some turned to Fascism. And a lot of people, worried about whether American democracy could survive past the end of the decade, strove to save it. “It’s not too late,” Jimmy Stewart pleaded with Congress, rasping, exhausted, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in 1939. “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.” It wasn’t too late. It’s still not too late.

 

Benito Mussolini marching with soldiers.

 

There’s a kind of likeness you see in family photographs, generation after generation. The same ears, the same funny nose. Sometimes now looks a lot like then. Still, it can be hard to tell whether the likeness is more than skin deep.

In the nineteen-nineties, with the end of the Cold War, democracies grew more plentiful, much as they had after the end of the First World War. As ever, the infant-mortality rate for democracies was high: baby democracies tend to die in their cradles. Starting in about 2005, the number of democracies around the world began to fall, as it had in the nineteen-thirties. Authoritarians rose to power: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald J. Trump in the United States.

“American democracy,” as a matter of history, is democracy with an asterisk, the symbol A-Rod’s name would need if he were ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act can the United States be said to have met the basic conditions for political equality requisite in a democracy. All the same, measured not against its past but against its contemporaries, American democracy in the twenty-first century is withering. The Democracy Index rates a hundred and sixty-seven countries, every year, on a scale that ranges from “full democracy” to “authoritarian regime.” In 2006, the U.S. was a “full democracy,” the seventeenth most democratic nation in the world. In 2016, the index for the first time rated the United States a “flawed democracy,” and since then American democracy has gotten only more flawed. True, the United States still doesn’t have a Rome or a Berlin to march on. That hasn’t saved the nation from misinformation, tribalization, domestic terrorism, human-rights abuses, political intolerance, social-media mob rule, white nationalism, a criminal President, the nobbling of Congress, a corrupt Presidential Administration, assaults on the press, crippling polarization, the undermining of elections, and an epistemological chaos that is the only air that totalitarianism can breathe.

 

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Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition. Mussolini called Italy and Germany “the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today,” and Hitler liked to say that, with Nazi Germany, he had achieved a “beautiful democracy,” prompting the American political columnist Dorothy Thompson to remark of the Fascist state, “If it is going to call itself democratic we had better find another word for what we have and what we want.” In the nineteen-thirties, Americans didn’t find another word. But they did work to decide what they wanted, and to imagine and to build it. Thompson, who had been a foreign correspondent in Germany and Austria and had interviewed the Führer, said, in a column that reached eight million readers, “Be sure you know what you prepare to defend.”

It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent. American democracy in the nineteen-thirties had plenty of critics, left and right, from Mexican-Americans who objected to a brutal regime of forced deportations to businessmen who believed the New Deal to be unconstitutional. W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that, unless the United States met its obligations to the dignity and equality of all its citizens and ended its enthrallment to corporations, American democracy would fail: “If it is going to use this power to force the world into color prejudice and race antagonism; if it is going to use it to manufacture millionaires, increase the rule of wealth, and break down democratic government everywhere; if it is going increasingly to stand for reaction, fascism, white supremacy and imperialism; if it is going to promote war and not peace; then America will go the way of the Roman Empire.”

The historian Mary Ritter Beard warned that American democracy would make no headway against its “ruthless enemies—war, fascism, ignorance, poverty, scarcity, unemployment, sadistic criminality, racial persecution, man’s lust for power and woman’s miserable trailing in the shadow of his frightful ways”—unless Americans could imagine a future democracy in which women would no longer be barred from positions of leadership: “If we will not so envisage our future, no Bill of Rights, man’s or woman’s, is worth the paper on which it is printed.”

If the United States hasn’t gone the way of the Roman Empire and the Bill of Rights is still worth more than the paper on which it’s printed, that’s because so many people have been, ever since, fighting the fights Du Bois and Ritter Beard fought. There have been wins and losses. The fight goes on.

 

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Could no system of rule but extremism hold back the chaos of economic decline? In the nineteen-thirties, people all over the world, liberals, hoped that the United States would be able to find a middle road, somewhere between the malignity of a state-run economy and the mercilessness of laissez-faire capitalism. Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on the promise to rescue American democracy by way of a “new deal for the American people,” his version of that third way: relief, recovery, and reform. He won forty-two of forty-eight states, and trounced the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, in the Electoral College 472 to 59. Given the national emergency in which Roosevelt took office, Congress granted him an almost entirely free hand, even as critics raised concerns that the powers he assumed were barely short of dictatorial.

New Dealers were trying to save the economy; they ended up saving democracy. They built a new America; they told a new American story. On New Deal projects, people from different parts of the country labored side by side, constructing roads and bridges and dams, everything from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Hoover Dam, joining together in a common endeavor, shoulder to the wheel, hand to the forge. Many of those public-works projects, like better transportation and better electrification, also brought far-flung communities, down to the littlest town or the remotest farm, into a national culture, one enriched with new funds for the arts, theatre, music, and storytelling. With radio, more than with any other technology of communication, before or since, Americans gained a sense of their shared suffering, and shared ideals: they listened to one another’s voices.

This didn’t happen by accident. Writers and actors and directors and broadcasters made it happen. They dedicated themselves to using the medium to bring people together. Beginning in 1938, for instance, F.D.R.’s Works Progress Administration produced a twenty-six-week radio-drama series for CBS called “Americans All, Immigrants All,” written by Gilbert Seldes, the former editor of The Dial. “What brought people to this country from the four corners of the earth?” a pamphlet distributed to schoolteachers explaining the series asked. “What gifts did they bear? What were their problems? What problems remain unsolved?” The finale celebrated the American experiment: “The story of magnificent adventure! The record of an unparalleled event in the history of mankind!”

There is no twenty-first-century equivalent of Seldes’s “Americans All, Immigrants All,” because it is no longer acceptable for a serious artist to write in this vein, and for this audience, and for this purpose. (In some quarters, it was barely acceptable even then.) Love of the ordinary, affection for the common people, concern for the commonweal: these were features of the best writing and art of the nineteen-thirties. They are not so often features lately.

Americans reëlected F.D.R. in 1936 by one of the widest margins in the country’s history. American magazines continued the trend from the twenties, in which hardly a month went by without their taking stock: “Is Democracy Doomed?” “Can Democracy Survive?” (Those were the past century’s versions of more recent titles, such as “How Democracy Ends,” “Why Liberalism Failed,” “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” and “How Democracies Die.” The same ears, that same funny nose.) In 1934, the Christian Science Monitor published a debate called “Whither Democracy?,” addressed “to everyone who has been thinking about the future of democracy—and who hasn’t.” It staked, as adversaries, two British scholars: Alfred Zimmern, a historian from Oxford, on the right, and Harold Laski, a political theorist from the London School of Economics, on the left. “Dr. Zimmern says in effect that where democracy has failed it has not been really tried,” the editors explained. “Professor Laski sees an irrepressible conflict between the idea of political equality in democracy and the fact of economic inequality in capitalism, and expects at least a temporary resort to Fascism or a capitalistic dictatorship.” On the one hand, American democracy is safe; on the other hand, American democracy is not safe.

 

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Zimmern and Laski went on speaking tours of the United States, part of a long parade of visiting professors brought here to prognosticate on the future of democracy. Laski spoke to a crowd three thousand strong, in Washington’s Constitution Hall. “laski tells how to save democracy,” the Washington Post reported. Zimmern delivered a series of lectures titled “The Future of Democracy,” at the University of Buffalo, in which he warned that democracy had been undermined by a new aristocracy of self-professed experts. “I am no more ready to be governed by experts than I am to be governed by the ex-Kaiser,” he professed, expertly.

The year 1935 happened to mark the centennial of the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an occasion that elicited still more lectures from European intellectuals coming to the United States to remark on its system of government and the character of its people, close on Tocqueville’s heels. Heinrich Brüning, a scholar and a former Chancellor of Germany, lectured at Princeton on “The Crisis of Democracy”; the Swiss political theorist William Rappard gave the same title to a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago. In “The Prospects for Democracy,” the Scottish historian and later BBC radio quiz-show panelist Denis W. Brogan offered little but gloom: “The defenders of democracy, the thinkers and writers who still believe in its merits, are in danger of suffering the fate of Aristotle, who kept his eyes fixedly on the city-state at a time when that form of government was being reduced to a shadow by the rise of Alexander’s world empire.” Brogan hedged his bets by predicting the worst. It’s an old trick.

The endless train of academics were also called upon to contribute to the nation’s growing number of periodicals. In 1937, The New Republic, arguing that “at no time since the rise of political democracy have its tenets been so seriously challenged as they are today,” ran a series on “The Future of Democracy,” featuring pieces by the likes of Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. “Do you think that political democracy is now on the wane?” the editors asked each writer. The series’ lead contributor, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, took issue with the question, as philosophers, thankfully, do. “I call this kind of question ‘meteorological,’ ” he grumbled. “It is like asking, ‘Do you think that it is going to rain today? Had I better take my umbrella?’ ” The trouble, Croce explained, is that political problems are not external forces beyond our control; they are forces within our control. “We need solely to make up our own minds and to act.”

Don’t ask whether you need an umbrella. Go outside and stop the rain.

Here are some of the sorts of people who went out and stopped the rain in the nineteen-thirties: schoolteachers, city councillors, librarians, poets, union organizers, artists, precinct workers, soldiers, civil-rights activists, and investigative reporters. They knew what they were prepared to defend and they defended it, even though they also knew that they risked attack from both the left and the right. Charles Beard (Mary Ritter’s husband) spoke out against the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, when he smeared scholars and teachers as Communists. “The people who are doing the most damage to American democracy are men like Charles A. Beard,” said a historian at Trinity College in Hartford, speaking at a high school on the subject of “Democracy and the Future,” and warning against reading Beard’s books—at a time when Nazis in Germany and Austria were burning “un-German” books in public squares. That did not exactly happen here, but in the nineteen-thirties four of five American superintendents of schools recommended assigning only those U.S. history textbooks which “omit any facts likely to arouse in the minds of the students question or doubt concerning the justice of our social order and government.” Beard’s books, God bless them, raised doubts.

Beard didn’t back down. Nor did W.P.A. muralists and artists, who were subject to the same attack. Instead, Beard took pains to point out that Americans liked to think of themselves as good talkers and good arguers, people with a particular kind of smarts. Not necessarily book learning, but street smarts—reasonableness, open-mindedness, level-headedness. “The kind of universal intellectual prostration required by Bolshevism and Fascism is decidedly foreign to American ‘intelligence,’ ” Beard wrote. Possibly, he allowed, you could call this a stubborn independence of mind, or even mulishness. “Whatever the interpretation, our wisdom or ignorance stands in the way of our accepting the totalitarian assumption of Omniscience,” he insisted. “And to this extent it contributes to the continuance of the arguing, debating, never-settling-anything-finally methods of political democracy.” Maybe that was whistling in the dark, but sometimes a whistle is all you’ve got.

 

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The more argument the better is what the North Carolina-born George V. Denny, Jr., was banking on, anyway, after a neighbor of his, in Scarsdale, declared that he so strongly disagreed with F.D.R. that he never listened to him. Denny, who helped run something called the League for Political Education, thought that was nuts. In 1935, he launched “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” an hour-long debate program, broadcast nationally on NBC’s Blue Network. Each episode opened with a town crier ringing a bell and hollering, “Town meeting tonight! Town meeting tonight!” Then Denny moderated a debate, usually among three or four panelists, on a controversial subject (Does the U.S. have a truly free press? Should schools teach politics?), before opening the discussion up to questions from an audience of more than a thousand people. The debates were conducted at a lecture hall, usually in New York, and broadcast to listeners gathered in public libraries all over the country, so that they could hold their own debates once the show ended. “We are living today on the thin edge of history,” Max Lerner, the editor of The Nation, said in 1938, during a “Town Meeting of the Air” debate on the meaning of democracy. His panel included a Communist, an exile from the Spanish Civil War, a conservative American political economist, and a Russian columnist. “We didn’t expect to settle anything, and therefore we succeeded,” the Spanish exile said at the end of the hour, offering this definition: “A democracy is a place where a ‘Town Meeting of the Air’ can take place.”

No one expected anyone to come up with an undisputable definition of democracy, since the point was disputation. Asking people about the meaning and the future of democracy and listening to them argue it out was really only a way to get people to stretch their civic muscles. “Democracy can only be saved by democratic men and women,” Dorothy Thompson once said. “The war against democracy begins by the destruction of the democratic temper, the democratic method and the democratic heart. If the democratic temper be exacerbated into wanton unreasonableness, which is the essence of the evil, then a victory has been won for the evil we despise and prepare to defend ourselves against, even though it’s 3,000 miles away and has never moved.”

The most ambitious plan to get Americans to show up in the same room and argue with one another in the nineteen-thirties came out of Des Moines, Iowa, from a one-eyed former bricklayer named John W. Studebaker, who had become the superintendent of the city’s schools. Studebaker, who after the Second World War helped create the G.I. Bill, had the idea of opening those schools up at night, so that citizens could hold debates. In 1933, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation and support from the American Association for Adult Education, he started a five-year experiment in civic education.

 

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The meetings began at a quarter to eight, with a fifteen-minute news update, followed by a forty-five-minute lecture, and thirty minutes of debate. The idea was that “the people of the community of every political affiliation, creed, and economic view have an opportunity to participate freely.” When Senator Guy Gillette, a Democrat from Iowa, talked about “Why I Support the New Deal,” Senator Lester Dickinson, a Republican from Iowa, talked about “Why I Oppose the New Deal.” Speakers defended Fascism. They attacked capitalism. They attacked Fascism. They defended capitalism. Within the first nine months of the program, thirteen thousand of Des Moines’s seventy-six thousand adults had attended a forum. The program got so popular that in 1934 F.D.R. appointed Studebaker the U.S. Commissioner of Education and, with the eventual help of Eleanor Roosevelt, the program became a part of the New Deal, and received federal funding. The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.

The federal government paid for it, but everything else fell under local control, and ordinary people made it work, by showing up and participating. Usually, school districts found the speakers and decided on the topics after collecting ballots from the community. In some parts of the country, even in rural areas, meetings were held four and five times a week. They started in schools and spread to Y.M.C.A.s and Y.W.C.A.s, labor halls, libraries, settlement houses, and businesses, during lunch hours. Many of the meetings were broadcast by radio. People who went to those meetings debated all sorts of things:

Should the Power of the Supreme Court Be Altered?

Do Company Unions Help Labor?

Do Machines Oust Men?

Must the West Get Out of the East?

Can We Conquer Poverty?

Should Capital Punishment Be Abolished?

Is Propaganda a Menace?

Do We Need a New Constitution?

Should Women Work?

Is America a Good Neighbor?

Can It Happen Here?

These efforts don’t always work. Still, trying them is better than talking about the weather, and waiting for someone to hand you an umbrella.

 

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When a terrible hurricane hit New England in 1938, Dr. Lorine Pruette, a Tennessee-born psychologist who had written an essay called “Why Women Fail,” and who had urged F.D.R. to name only women to his Cabinet, found herself marooned at a farm in New Hampshire with a young neighbor, sixteen-year-old Alice Hooper, a high-school sophomore. Waiting out the storm, they had nothing to do except listen to the news, which, needless to say, concerned the future of democracy. Alice asked Pruette a question: “What is it everyone on the radio is talking about—what is this democracy—what does it mean?” Somehow, in the end, NBC arranged a coast-to-coast broadcast, in which eight prominent thinkers—two ministers, three professors, a former ambassador, a poet, and a journalist—tried to explain to Alice the meaning of democracy. American democracy had found its “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment, except that it was messier, and more interesting, because those eight people didn’t agree on the answer. Democracy, Alice, is the darnedest thing.

That broadcast was made possible by the workers who brought electricity to rural New Hampshire; the legislators who signed the 1934 federal Communications Act, mandating public-interest broadcasting; the executives at NBC who decided that it was important to run this program; the two ministers, the three professors, the former ambassador, the poet, and the journalist who gave their time, for free, to a public forum, and agreed to disagree without acting like asses; and a whole lot of Americans who took the time to listen, carefully, even though they had plenty of other things to do. Getting out of our current jam will likely require something different, but not entirely different. And it will be worth doing.

A decade-long debate about the future of democracy came to a close at the end of the nineteen-thirties—but not because it had been settled. In 1939, the World’s Fair opened in Queens, with a main exhibit featuring the saga of democracy and a chipper motto: “The World of Tomorrow.” The fairgrounds included a Court of Peace, with pavilions for every nation. By the time the fair opened, Czechoslovakia had fallen to Germany, though, and its pavilion couldn’t open. Shortly afterward, Edvard Beneš, the exiled President of Czechoslovakia, delivered a series of lectures at the University of Chicago on, yes, the future of democracy, though he spoke less about the future than about the past, and especially about the terrible present, a time of violently unmoored traditions and laws and agreements, a time “of moral and intellectual crisis and chaos.” Soon, more funereal bunting was brought to the World’s Fair, to cover Poland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. By the time the World of Tomorrow closed, in 1940, half the European hall lay under a shroud of black.

The federal government stopped funding the forum program in 1941. Americans would take up their debate about the future of democracy, in a different form, only after the defeat of the Axis. For now, there was a war to fight. And there were still essays to publish, if not about the future, then about the present. In 1943, E. B. White got a letter in the mail, from the Writers’ War Board, asking him to write a statement about “The Meaning of Democracy.” He was a little weary of these pieces, but he knew how much they mattered. He wrote back, “Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.” It meant something once. And, the thing is, it still does.

 

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Published in the print edition of the February 3, 2020, issue, with the headline “In Every Dark Hour.”
Jill Lepore is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of history at Harvard University. Her latest book is “These Truths: A History of the United States.”

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