Friday, February 24, 2017

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Review

Trotsky arriving in New York featured on front page of the Forward

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a review that was originally published in the journal International Socialist Review, Issue 104, Spring 2017.

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
By Kenneth D. Ackerman, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, 2016

Reviewed by Alex Steiner 

The recently published book, “Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution”, by Kenneth D. Ackerman, has much to offer the reader.  It also has some serious problems.  Before getting to those let me discuss why the book deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in the life and ideas of Trotsky, the history of Marxism in America,  New York at the time of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

Ackerman’s book is the first full length account of a brief though crucial period in the life of Trotsky, his 9 weeks in New York prior to his return from political exile to Russia in 1917, where he would play a decisive role in the October Revolution.  Previous accounts of Trotsky’s stay in New York were scattered in personal memoirs,  contemporary  newspaper accounts, and a few magazine articles with a very specific and narrow focus. (One such article went to great lengths to track down the identity of a wealthy Bronx resident who befriended Trotsky’s family.)  Trotsky’s own account of his stay in New York consisted of a few pages in his autobiography, My Life.  These few pages contain some precious insights and anecdotes but provide few details and make no assessment of the impact of his intervention into the politics of the radical movements in New York.

 Ackerman has performed a sterling job in bringing all this material together and creating one coherent narrative of this period. In the course of his research he has also uncovered a number of previously unknown facts about this period that fill in many of the gaps.  More important, the restoration of a previously fragmented historical narrative allows us to gauge the political significance of Trotsky’s impact on the history of Marxism in the United States.  It turns out that Trotsky’s intervention in the factional struggles then emerging in the Socialist Party over America’s entry into World War I would play a decisive role in creating the nucleus of a left wing opposition that would later go on to found the Communist Party.  This requires a radical revision in the historical understanding of the birth of American Communism, one that future historians cannot ignore.

To cite one example of Ackerman’s diligence, he located the manifest for the passenger ship Montserrat that brought Trotsky from Spain to New York in January of 1917.  From the list of passengers he was able to provide some insight into the social background of some of the other passengers on the trip and Trotsky’s reaction to them.   Trotsky’s own brief account of this episode, consisting of one paragraph in My Life, provides few details.  In his account he writes that of one of the characters he meets,

A boxer, who is also a novelist and a cousin of Oscar Wilde, confesses openly that he prefers crashing Yankee jaws in a noble sport to letting some German stab him in the midriff.[1]

Ackerman tells us that the “boxer” Trotsky mentions was a larger than life adventurer named Arthur Cravan who later published his reminiscences of his encounter with Trotsky.  It was not by accident that Cravan left a lasting impression on Trotsky.  It turns out that this colorful figure really was related to Oscar Wilde and he really did fight a match with ex world champion Jack Johnson.  After arriving in New York Cravan became associated with the Dadaist movement, but he quickly burned his bridges with the avant-garde scene in New York. He moved with his wife, the poet Mina Loy, to Mexico in 1918 and shortly after that disappeared at sea while trying to navigate a small sailboat to Argentina.

The day Trotsky arrived in New York, he was given a hero’s reception.  Both the New York Times and the New York Tribune sent reporters and featured  a story  about Trotsky on their front page the next day although he was still little known to English speaking readers.  To the East European immigrants he was something of a celebrity.  They knew of him from his days in the leadership of the 1905 Russian revolution and his subsequent trial.   He was featured on the cover of the mass circulation Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward the next day.  The German language and Russian language papers also carried stories about this hero of the Russian Revolution arriving in America.

There have been many legends about Trotsky’s activities while he was in New York, the great bulk of them fanciful fictions. Trotsky addressed this topic in My Life where he wrote,

If all the adventures that the newspapers ascribed to me were banded together in a book, they would make a far more entertaining biography than the one I am writing here.
But I must disappoint my American readers. My only profession in New York was that of a revolutionary socialist. This was before the war for “liberty” and “democracy,” and in those days mine was a profession no more reprehensible than that of a bootlegger. I wrote articles, edited a newspaper, and addressed labor meetings. I was up to my neck in work, and consequently I did not feel at all like a stranger.[2]

Ackerman’s book devotes an entire section to debunking many of the legends surrounding Trotsky’s time in New York, including the anti-Semitic legend that Trotsky was being financed by wealthy Jews as part of a plot to take over the world. Such legends, fed by White Guardists and other reactionaries, mushroomed after the Russian Revolution.  It is interesting to note that very similar conspiracy theories have resurfaced in recent years, especially since 9/11.  Ackerman’s account of Trotsky’s activities in New York reinforce Trotsky’s own characterization and fill in many details.

 The main focus of the book is Trotsky’s conflict with the conservative leadership of the Socialist Party of New York.  In 1917 the Socialist Party in the United States was on the cusp of becoming a major political force, challenging the iron grip of the two capitalist parties, the Republicans and Democrats,  who had defined the political physiognomy of the country since the Civil War. In the Presidential election of 1912 the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V. Debs obtained over 900,000 votes.  Socialists were elected to Congress and won local and state wide positions in dozens of cities throughout the country.  

The Socialist Party was particularly strong in New York where it played an influential role among the vast immigrant communities that came from Eastern and Central Europe in the previous two decades. The immigrant communities that supported the Socialist Party vastly out-numbered the native born socialists, a situation very different than that in the rest of the country.  New York’s foreign-born comprised a full 30% of the white population. [3]  The largest of these groups were the Yiddish speaking Jews from Eastern Europe.  New York had no less than 6 Yiddish daily newspapers at that time, the largest and most influential being the Jewish Daily Forward which had a circulation of over  200,000, rivaling the circulation of the New York Times. There were in addition to the Yiddish newspapers, 4 daily newspapers in Russian, 3 in German and several other foreign language dailies.  Many of these newspapers had a left wing and socialist orientation. In addition to the pro-Socialist Forward, the  German language New Yorker  Volkszeitung  had as its editor in chief Hermann Schluter, a one-time personal friend of Marx and Engels.

The nominal head of the Socialist Party in New York was Morris Hillquit, an immigrant from Latvia who assimilated into American society and became a successful lawyer with a plush apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive.  To his credit Hillquit often took on cases for little or no compensation to defend working class victims of ruthless employers and the state.  He was the official attorney of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union.   When the government began their attacks on the socialist press after America entered the war, Hillquit defended journals like Novy Mir and The Call from war time censorship and suppression.  Hillquit also had political ambitions and in the 1917 election for Mayor of New York, received 145,000 votes, 21.7 % of the total cast in a three way race.  But although Hillquit held genuine socialist convictions, he was no revolutionary.  Hillquit was a “pragmatic” politician, a reformist socialist of the type that could be found in the right wing of the German Social Democratic  Party prior to 1914.

The big issue facing American socialists at that time was opposition to the preparations by the Wilson Administration to enter the European War on the side of Britain France and Russia,  a threat that was becoming ever more concrete in the early days of 1917. The immigrant communities in New York, who comprised the bulk of supporters of the Socialist Party, were fervently opposed to America’s entry into the war, not only out of deeply held socialist convictions, but also fueled by their hatred of the Czarist regime in Russia,  from whose pogroms many had fled.  Hillquit and the Socialist Party leaders in New York were opposed to American entry into the War but their opposition went only so far. They refused to advocate mass action against the war should the U.S. enter the war. They made it clear in their policy pronouncements that although they opposed America’s entry into the war, they would be loyal patriots should it come down to that.

Although he had never met Hillquit prior to arriving in New York Trotsky knew the type he represented very well.  He was the embodiment in America of the social patriots he had met in Vienna and Paris.  Men who gave sterling speeches against war only to be caught up in the fever of war and patriotism once war broke out.  Trotsky always considered the social patriots beneath contempt and by 1917 had come very close to Lenin’s position that in case of war between imperialist countries, it was the duty of socialists to turn that war into a civil war against their own bourgeoisie. It was thus inevitable that Trotsky’s arrival in New York would signal a confrontation between him and Hillquit. 

Ackerman depicts a series of meetings and rallies in which this conflict was played out.  This begins with a meeting in the Brooklyn apartment of Ludwig Lore, then the editor of the German language socialist paper  the New Yorker Volkszeitung.  It was at this meeting, arranged on the day after Trotsky’s arrival in New York, where Trotsky first met the leaders of what would become the left wing opposition within the Socialist Party.  Besides Lore, Trotsky met for the first time the young Louis Fraina. Also present at this gathering was another person who would go on to play a pivotal role in the left opposition in the Socialist Party, the lawyer Louis Boudin.  Of the Russians present,  besides Trotsky,  there were the future Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin, Alexandra Kollontai, Grigorii Chudnovsky and V. Volodarsky. To the assembled guests Trotsky soon  laid out his position – that the left in the Socialist Party should organize itself independently  of its conservative leadership in New York and be prepared to challenge them on the all important war question.  Bukharin and Trotsky, while agreeing on fundamentals, disagreed as to tactics, with Bukharin advocating an immediate split while Trotsky insisted that the left opposition would be more effective working within the Socialist Party.  They eventually agreed not to advocate a formal split but to launch an independent journal that would speak for the left. Fraina was immediately inspired by Trotsky’s ideas and would go on to become his main advocate and protégé in America.  Trotsky and Fraina struck up a personal friendship and began to collaborate from that day.

Ackerman recounts the drama of Trotsky’s first official introduction to the New York socialist movement when he was the featured speaker at a rally in the historic Great Hall of Cooper Union just two weeks after his arrival. Trotsky’s speech, reprinted in the  English language socialist daily, The  Call, as well as the Russian language Novy Mir, where both he and Bukharin where contributors, was a more or less open challenge to Hillquit and his conservative opposition to the war.  Trotsky said,

The Socialist Revolution is coming to Europe and America must be ready when it comes. Socialists were caught napping when war started but they must not be nodding when revolution comes. In France, the soldiers who come out of the trenches say, ‘ We will get them.’ The French think that the soldiers mean they will get the Germans, that they want to kill the workers in the other trench. But what they really mean is that they will ‘get’ the capitalists’. [4]
Front page of Novy Mir

On Febrary 5 there was a major event at Carnegie Hall at which the Socialist Party was to lay down its official position on the war.  Hillquit was the featured speaker. Trotsky was in attendance along with 4,000 others in the standing room only audience. Trotsky’s reaction to the speech was published in Novy Mir the next day.  Trotsky had no particular criticism to make of the speech itself, but he was highly critical of the company Hillquit chose to surround himself with on the stage.  These were pacifists such as the Reverend Frederick J. Lynch  of New York Church Peace Union and the suffragette Elizabeth Freeman of Women’s Peace Party.  Trotsky wrote that these people may talk about peace but,

…when they hear the first shot will gladly call themselves good patriots [and] start supporting the government machine of mass murders persuading the crowds that in order to reach ‘fair peace’, and ‘eternal peace’ it is necessary to fight the war until the end. [5]

He went on to ask why had the Socialist Party agreed to share the stage with these “bourgeois priest-like pacifists”? While Trotsky  refrained from laying the responsibility for this on  Hillquit by name,  the target of his ire was unmistakable. Thus began a conflict whose culmination would only come in August 1919, long after Trotsky left New York,  when the left wing of the Socialist Party formalized their split and formed the Communist Labor Party at a convention in Chicago.

Trotsky finally confronted Hillquit in person when he and Louis Fraina were invited to participate in the Socialist Party’s Resolutions Committee to draw up an official statement on the policy towards the war.  The Committee met at the Socialist Party offices in a townhouse on East 15 Street in Manhattan. Hillquit soon learned that there would be no compromise with Trotsky and Fraina.  It became clear that Hillquit and his supporters could not accept a resolution that denounced any support for “national defense” and in the event of mobilization for war called for “mass action” opposing war. Hillquit had the majority and his version of the resolution – a mild statement against war but also leaving room for support for the war effort should it be mandatory – passed.  Trotsky and Fraina were allowed to present a minority report.

The battle between these two factions continued to be played out in other venues. The two conflicting resolutions were brought to a vote of the entire membership in early March at the Lenox Casino, a building in Harlem often rented by the Socialist Party for large meetings. At this meeting, Fraina argued for the minority resolution among the 200 or so delegates that managed to make it in the face of a blizzard.  The final vote was 101 to 79. This close vote, showing that Hillquit’s control of the Party was tenuous, emboldened the opposition.

Writing years later in My Life, Trotsky reserved the harshest assessment of the leaders of American socialism for Morris Hillquit, of whom he said,

A Babbitt of Babbitts is Hillquit, the ideal Socialist leader for successful dentists. [6]

Ackerman also captures another meeting in Cooper Union that March  featuring the most prominent Socialist in America, Eugene V. Debs.  Debs had heard of Trotsky and specifically invited him to join him on the stage for the meeting.  This was the only time Trotsky met Debs.  It is not known what they discussed if anything of substance, but Trotsky does recount that when Debs saw him he “embraced me and kissed me.”[7]  In his speech Debs made it clear – without mentioning names – that when it came to the conflict between Hillquit and the Trotsky-Fraina group, he stood solidly with Trotsky and Fraina.  As did another leader of the Socialist Party from the west, the future founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon.

But perhaps the most dramatic account in Ackerman’s book is that of the confrontation between Trotsky and the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward.  At that time the Forward Building was a 10 story behemoth that loomed over the largely Jewish Lower East Side neighborhood of Seward Park. It functioned not only as offices of the daily paper, but also served as a community center, the hub of all political and cultural activity in the neighborhood. When a Forward columnist published an editorial supporting Woodrow Wilson’s effort to bring America into the War,  Trotsky, who had contributed to the Forward, was incensed at this betrayal of socialist principles.  According to one account Trotsky travelled from his office in the tiny basement occupied by Novy Mir in St. Marks Place to the fortress known as the Forward Building on East Broadway for a face to face encounter.  Once there he confronted the Forward’s editor, Abraham Cahan and there ensued a no holds barred shouting match.  From that day on Trotsky had nothing but contempt for the Forward which he would later characterize as a newspaper,

“…with its fourteen story palace…with the stale odor of sentimentally philistine socialism, always ready for the most perfidious betrayals.” [8]

Facade of the Forward building today
Clock on top of the Forward building
There are many good reasons to read Ackerman’s book, but no review can be complete without mentioning the problems contained in this popular history.  In reconstructing a historical narrative for which lots of pieces are missing, it is sometimes necessary to take some liberties and speculate as to what people said or thought in the absence of historical records.  It seems that Ackerman stretches his speculation a bit too far in some cases.  For instance, in a chapter describing Lenin’s reaction to a letter he received from Alexandra Kollontai about the argument Trotsky had with Bukharin over the direction of the left opposition, he speculates as to Lenin’s reaction. He writes,

Did he [Lenin] roll his eyes at the story? Or maybe stifle a laugh? How typical of Trotsky, Lenin must have thought, this  Menshevik straddler with his “sheer false pride”, who always it seemed, had to interfere and insist on winning an argument, even in America.[9]

It is true that the differences Lenin had with Trotsky prior to the Revolution of 1917 sometimes led to very harsh exchanges between the two. That is part of the public record. But Ackerman’s speculation as to Lenin’s motives in this case would reduce those differences to little more than personal  animosity. 

Another example of unwarranted speculation can be found in the following characterization of a certain Mr.  Alexander Weinstein, a Russian businessman possibly connected with British intelligence.  Ackerman writes on page 106 that “Alexander Weinstein, [was] possibly a relative of Gregory Weinstein, editor of Novy Mir.”  Yet on page 199, he writes, that “Alexander Weinstein, [was] the likely relative of Gregory Weinstein, the editor of the radical Novy Mir.”    How did the very guarded “possibly” on page 106 become the far more assertive “likely” on page 199? It’s a minor point of course and something a good editor should have caught.

Far more serious however is the author’s apparent indifference to the substance of the arguments that were being fought out in the American and international socialist movement over the war.   While the author does summarize the views of Trotsky and others, he also makes it clear in many ways that he has little sympathy for Trotsky’s views.  This in itself is not necessarily a problem. But it is incumbent that a historical account of Trotsky takes his ideas seriously and presents them with some degree of integrity.  Instead, Ackerman, when presenting Trotsky’s thoughts on the war and patriotism, seems to dismiss them out of hand without seriously considering them. For instance, suggesting that Trotsky’s attitude, as evidenced by one of his first interviews in New York,  was beyond the pale. He writes,

Just as curious was his [Trotsky’s] performance with the New York Call …Trotsky’s talk turned to politics and Trotsky chose to jump right in with a slam at his new country. [10]

Ackerman does little to hide his disdain for Trotsky’s radical stand against the war while expressing sympathy for Trotsky’s moral courage. But ideas do matter. For Ackerman it is self-evident that practical politicians like Hillquit had the better approach!  The fact that these very questions had been bitterly debated within the international socialist movement for decades and had been the subject of much theoretical work by Lenin, Trotsky and others never enters Ackerman’s narrative. While Ackerman, to his credit, does try to present the ideas of others with whom he disagrees, his disdainful approach trivializes those same ideas.  

On a final note, Ackerman writing of the Forward building as it exists today, having been sold by the Forward publishers some years ago, explains that while the bas-relief portraits of Marx, Engels, Ferdinand LaSalle and Friedrich Adler still grace its imposing entrance, it is now a luxury apartment building where the least expensive apartment goes for a million dollars.  Ackerman is not unaware of the irony.  Manhattan has changed mightily since 1917, as has the political climate of America. Another example is the current status of 77 St. Marks Place, whose basement once housed the offices of Novy Mir, where Trotsky and Bukharin worked.  You can today rent a three bedroom apartment there for $5,000 per month. That is not considered high by Manhattan standards.

77 St. Marks Place today where Novy Mir had its offices in 1917.

This speaks volumes about the changed circumstances we face today.  The culture that nurtured a lively socialist movement in the United States 100 years ago has disappeared along with the wave of radicalized immigrants  and American workers that supported it.  That culture needs to be rebuilt in a very different environment today, when once again the threat of war is looming.

Image of Marx on the Forward building's facade.

[1] Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Penguin Books, 1984), 277.
[2] Ibid, 279.
[3] This and other statistics on the relative weight of immigrants and the influence of the Socialist Party in different parts of the United States can be found in the classic study of American socialism by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It didn’t happen here: Why socialism failed in the United States (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)
[4] New York Call, January, 26, 1917. Quoted in Ackerman, 82.
[5] Leon Trotsky, Novy Mir, February 8, 1917, Reprinted in War and Revolution, Volume 2, 379. Quoted in Ackerman, 124.
[6] My Life, 284.
[7] My Life, 285.
[8] My Life, 284.
[9] Ackerman, 143.
[10] Ackerman, 47.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Trump and the crisis of liberalism

by Frank Brenner

It is tempting to say that 2016 marks the death of liberalism, but that's probably wishful thinking. What is dead, though, is the old 'centrist' political consensus, i.e. the pendulum swings from centre-left to centre-right that made mainstream politics in the West about as predictable (and stable) as an old grandfather clock. Now the swings are much more extreme - or rather the swings to the right are. (One might add that what led up to this was a major shift rightward of the 'center' itself from Reagan/Thatcher on – what Tariq Ali rightly dubbed the “extreme center”.)

On the left, whenever the pendulum swings beyond the centre, it hits a buffer: Syriza, Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn. I imagine more names will eventually be added to this list, from Italy, Germany, France for example. The reason is that it is MUCH HARDER to swing to the extreme left than to the extreme right. On the right you never swing OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM, no matter how extreme your politics. But on the left you can only be extreme by shattering the system. Any left wing agenda that accommodates capitalism is a buffer AGAINST extremism, no matter the rhetoric. The self-styled 'radical' Syriza couldn't even tolerate giving up the Euro, let alone capitalism.

These buffers are not just 'bad' politicians. Though personal corruption undoubtedly plays a role, as does being in a relatively privileged class position, these are only contributing factors, not the essential cause. The essential cause is pragmatism, which is to say the defining of politics as the art of the possible. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras caved in to Eurozone blackmail – why? “I chose my country over my party,” he declared, a banality which made no sense given that most of his country had just voted to reject the blackmail. Bernie Sanders caved in to the DNC and the Clintons – why? Because the most important task was to stop the election of Donald Trump – except that Clinton turned out to be the ideal candidate for Trump to run against.

The art of the possible turns out to be a prescription for disaster – precisely because we now live in an era of extremes, and this overturns the expectations of what is or isn't possible. The possible is not just a category bound up with objective factors like the state of the economy, it is also bound up with the state of mass consciousness. It is relatively straightforward to know what the masses need, it is another matter to know what they want or at least are willing to accept, harder still to create the conditions where what they need becomes what they want. It is just this 'subjective side' of political life that is now in turmoil. Nearly a decade after the Wall Street financial meltdown, mass consciousness is finally catching up, which is to say, it is becoming as extreme as the underlying economic situation. What was possible for the entire postwar period isn't so any longer, and what was impossible no longer is.

To say that mass consciousness is extreme does not mean it is revolutionary. All it means is that the masses are open to embracing extreme change – which could be revolutionary but equally could be reactionary. For now at least, the latter possibility seems more likely, but that outcome is no more inevitable than a revolutionary one. Brecht had it right when he called his play about Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

A familiar line of thought has it that the left dealing in facts, the right in emotions. This misses the mark. The masses who voted for Trump or Brexit were not just responding to emotional appeals (racism, xenophobia etc.). They were responding to real conditions of economic inequality and insecurity. The choices on offer were the status quo (which Clinton personified) or a leap in the dark – and for 60 million people the leap seemed the better way to go. But the 'change' option didn't have to be Trump, it could also have been Sanders. The extremism of the masses remains open-ended.

(One example of this open-endedness is worth citing. The historian Jill Lepore reported that many Trump voters she met during the campaign compared Trump to Lincoln: they saw him as an emancipator. This may boggle the mind – mind-boggling being a recurring feature of extreme eras – but it also doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how the Great Emancipator's halo can quickly turn into a curse for Trump.)

Something Hannah Arendt once said bears thinking about: “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” Put this another way, you have to have A CONVINCING NARRATIVE to sway mass consciousness. The right has such a narrative: it offers a choice of scapegoats and also a social project – make America great again. The left has at best a patchy narrative since its anti-Wall Street rhetoric is often co-opted by the populist right, and it has no convincing goal, since it either isn't socialist or pretends that socialism is just a nebulous term, synonymous with feel-good phrases like social justice.

Occupy exemplified this problem: it offered a statistic – the 1 percent – and little else. Sanders was open about calling himself a socialist but said nothing about what socialism would look like in America. Occupy wanted unity of the 99 percent; Sanders wanted unity with the Democrats. But unity that isn't tied to clarity of purpose is just the old pragmatism – and that no longer works in an era of extremes.

*     *     *     *     *

Liberalism may not be dead but it is in deep crisis. One feature of that crisis is the way many liberal and left intellectuals and artists have responded to the election. Overwhelmingly, this layer backed Clinton and are shocked and bitter about the outcome. Blaming 'whitelash' is a familiar refrain in these circles. To be sure, Trump's appeals to racism played a role in the election, but 'whitelash' doesn't begin to explain the many white workers in rust belt states who had voted for Obama twice and who now voted for Trump. The eagerness of the liberal left to buy into 'whitelash' shows that while prejudices about race or sex are beyond the pale, prejudices about class – as in 'white trash' – are still acceptable. What is striking about this is the absence of critical thought from the very people who make their living by thinking.

Jill Lepore makes an important point about liberalism in a recent radio interview. She contends that there is a major difference between 'progressives' in our time and those of the Gilded Age of the 1890s. Back then, as now, there was a vast group of underprivileged who felt 'left behind' by major economic, social and cultural change: the onset of industrialization  then, globalization today. But there was a big difference in the reaction of progressives: many of them embraced the cause of the underprivileged, from muckracking journalists pillorying the Robber Barons to movements for social reform to alleviate poverty and inequality. The results of those efforts were mixed, but the social sympathy of progressives was markedly on the side of the underdogs.

Not so today. 'Progressives' have little sympathy for those left behind by globalization. The reaction of most liberals to the ravages of deindustrialization is a shrug: those jobs are gone and it's just too bad. (See for instance the post-election columns of Paul Krugman in the NY Times.) Of course Trump's promises to revive the smokestack economy are empty rhetoric but at least he acknowledged there was a problem and appeared to give a damn about it. Modern-day 'progressives' don't spend much time worrying about what happens in the 'flyover states'. And unlike their predecessors they are much enamoured of today's Robber Barons who reside in Silicon Valley. The canonization of a venal figure like Steve Jobs is typical of this mindset.

I would add to Lepore's point by noting a similarly stark contrast between today's progressives and those of the two major radicalizations of the last century, in the Thirties and the Sixties. In both those radicalizations, there was a viable socialist left (and a viable labor movement) that kept the issue of class front and center. This was of course much truer in the Thirties than the Sixties, and as the Sixties gave way to a very long Big Chill, class largely disappeared from consciousness in the welter of identity politics. The disappearance of class from left wing discourse coincides with the disappearance of utopia, of socialism as THE alternative to capitalism. Liberalism and even much of the left bought into the There Is No Alternative line of Thatcher. Identity politics is how progressives make a virtue of accommodating themselves to capitalism. And so now we have the great irony that class makes a comeback, not from the left but from the populist right.

I would also add that this non-progressive character of today's 'progressives' is evident in the fawning of many prominent artists and intellectuals over Obama. There has been a strenuous effort to refashion Obama, to make him out to be a heroic icon of liberalism that the reality of his politics doesn't even come close to matching. There was the Nobel Peace Prize (for what – drone strikes and kill lists?), there was Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's film about Lincoln as an Obama ancestor, this year there is even a Hollywood biopic about the Obamas' first date with all the dramatic appeal of a Sunday school lesson.

Since the election this fawning has continued, with an added sense of ruefulness. Dave Eggars, a talented writer, feels compelled to declare that with Obama's departure, “the days of decency are gone.” I wonder if Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden would agree that the last eight years have been “days of decency”. Or how about the 8 or 9 million families that lost their homes post 2008 while watching the big banks get bailed out? Zadie Smith, another talented writer, gave a talk in Berlin a couple of days after the US election and offered her audience the following considered opinion: “As my dear, soon-departing president well understood, in this world there is only incremental progress.” This is said without a trace of irony. The sense you get from such remarks is that Obama is 'one of us', one of the 'decent' people – literate, thoughtful, hip, a good man trying his best. To spell this out is to make plain the appalling lack of critical thought that the fawning over Obama expresses. It's also to make evident that artists bereft of an allegiance to the dispossessed become bereft of their moral compass.

*      *      *      *      *

The crisis of liberalism is also the crisis of liberal democracy. The incoming Trump administration will be fundamentally different from its predecessors: it will be an authoritarian government, rule by a strong man. To that end, Trump has stacked his cabinet with military men and billionaires. The Secretary of State is now Exxon Mobil, the Treasury is now (as it has been under Clinton, Bush and Obama) Goldman, Sachs, Amway runs the Education Department, Texas oil runs the energy department etc. This is not just an extremely right-wing government, it is quantity turned into quality. As the Italian academic Ugo Mattei argues, the role of the public and private have been reversed. The economic base of private capital has reshaped the political superstructure in its own image, so that politics is now run like a corporation, and it is run by corporate executives. The liberal democratic ideal of the government as a counterweight to corporate interests was always more illusion than reality, but now it has ceased to be even an illusion. This is the inevitable outcome of 2008. The cancer of social inequality has eaten up liberal democracy. This doesn't mean that Trump is omnipotent, quite the contrary. It's easy to foresee many and varied crises that will afflict the new administration and possibly even lead to Trump's impeachment. But whatever happens personally to Trump, there will be no going back to “the days of decency”. Either the system will continue its descent into authoritarianism and worse, or a new, social, democracy will emerge from the ruins of its liberal predecessor.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

After the Trumphant: What Next?

Note: We are reprinting below a question we received from Thomas Cain to our post “Vote for Nobody”.

The comment is followed by a response from Frank Brenner.


This post expresses most of my own feelings on bourgeois elections in general, though I admit that I have never bothered to even register to vote. But despite your assertion that there will be a great opportunity for revolutionary socialism, I feel a sort of despair emanating from your piece, or maybe I'm only projecting. Trump's election, contrary to our expectations, raises questions that I can't find the answers to: Should we re-evaluate our assessment of events thus far? Should we have a discussion on Fromm and Reich (not that I'm an expert on either)? And most of all, what should we do now? I know that we're just individuals and that we can't wage the revolution or just wish a party into existence.

Thousands protest in front of Trump headquarters in New York


It's understandable to feel down at this moment. Only sectarian idiots have no doubts. But ask yourself this: would you be just as nonplussed if Clinton had won? And if not, why not? Is there not in this let-down feeling a little hankering for things to go back to being normal? It's a conservative feeling, and one that ought to be resisted. Reality has thrown up something radically new, we need a theory that can be as radical as reality.

Of course Freud and Reich are relevant, but not in a mechanical way. They can help elucidate the attraction of a figure like Trump, the charisma of the authoritarian leader. To liberals Trump seemed a buffoon, as did Hitler back in the day. But to fearful, angry middle class and working class people, he seemed very different, the man who would straighten out the mess in Washington and in the country. His role on reality TV created this image, and Fox News constantly pushed it. Trump's main mentor, besides his father, was Roy Cohn, who taught him the basics of a demagogue: Lie, lie, lie, deny, deny, deny. So Trump's political lineage is from Cohn to McCarthy and thence back to the fascism of the 1930s.

But the analogy to Hitler is a limited one: Trump is - or rather aspires to be - a Bonapartist. This is not yet fascism. The distinction is especially important now, to avoid confusion and even despair. All that's happened is an election. The country is split but the winners haven't been mobilized - yet - into a fascist force and the losers haven't been crushed. The worst thing about throwing up one's hands is that you become a party to your own victimization. Demagogues like Trump depend on that. Here we need to be guided by Marx and Trotsky as well as by Freud, and not allow ourselves to become overly impressed by power. Which isn't to deny there are big dangers in this situation, it's rather to insist that our enemies aren't omnipotent, though they would very much like us to believe they are.

The rise of Trump means the end of the old norms of bourgeois democracy. The 2000 election and the aftermath of 9/11 already foreshadowed this. Obama, as it turns out, was just a passing interlude. The fate of Obama's 'legacy' – which Trump and the Republicans are set to wipe out in their first months in office – is in striking contrast to Roosevelt's New Deal, which survived largely intact for half a century, until Reagan. Along with Clinton's defeat – despite her overwhelming support from the establishment – this shows that liberalism is at a complete impasse. The next time some 'pragmatic' political hack starts talking about 'electability' – who's going to believe her/him? From the standpoint of socialist politics, this is all to the good. And so, by the way, will be the repeal of Obamacare – a ridiculous patchwork made to order for private insurers and big pharma. Trump and his minions can't make the need for medical care go away: they will reap a whirlwind of anger that will stoke a movement for free Medicare for all.

There have already been demonstrations against Trump. This will only grow as he and the Republicans take over and start wreaking havoc. The big question is: who will dominate this movement? Will it be the Democrats, who will inevitably destroy it? Or the anarchists and identity politics crowd, who will inevitably disorient and fragment it? One thing is sure: left-wing voices will have a chance to be heard – assuming they have something relevant to say.

Frank Brenner