Thoughts on the Relevance of the IS Tradition

The crisis in the SWP, which many of my readers are no doubt aware of in excruciating detail, has raised a lot of questions about the tradition it comes out of – the tradition of British International Socialism which I and many others in the ISO identify wholeheartedly with. I’m not in a position to comment on the crisis myself (though I will say I stand fully behind the statement made by our Steering Committee, as well as articles by Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato). What I can contribute are some thoughts on the issues it raises with the general tradition.

The ISO has its convention coming up this weekend, and for our preconvention discussion I wrote a fairly lengthy document on the continuing significance of the IS tradition, with special emphasis on the British part of that tradition. My document is and will remain an internal matter, but some of my conclusions were along the lines of the following:

1) The conception of the IS tradition held by many in the SWP and even my own comrades is too narrow and restrictive. We can speak of a general International Socialist current in both Britain and America, although each differed in key conclusions made on matters of importance (i.e., seeing the Soviet Union as state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist).

2) Nevertheless these two united on a method that attempts to salvage the classical Marxist tradition in light of the crisis of Trotskyism, tied up with certain predictions Trotsky made toward the end of his life and the mistaken conceptions of which were compounded by his more devotional followers in the leadership of the Fourth International. We can call this the International Socialist method, which emphasized above all that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, leading to the slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism.”

3) Despite its current crisis, the British IS tradition out of these two was the only one to create something stable both in terms of intellectual output and organization, and therefore it’s vital we take on board much written in that tradition – methods of class-struggle unionism and Leninist party-building come to mind – even as we revise much of what is wrong our outdated in the writings of its leaders. This is the same approach Cliff and other leaders of the SWP used on Trotsky’s writings, and it would be in his words “the greatest tribute we could pay to them” to critically examine their ideas.

Suffice it to say, I think there is much valuable to learn from in the history of the British IS tradition, and it would dismay me to see comrades draw the lesson from this crisis that we need to upend our whole theoretical apparatus.

This is not to say there haven’t been major failings within the tradition. The fact of the crisis over “Delta” and that the CC have been able to use the word “feminist” as a curse word against the opposition draws our attention to something deeply disturbing within the SWP as regards its history on the question of women’s liberation. It is a fact that Tony Cliff had to be hit over the head repeatedly to see the importance of this question. And even when he did, this is what he came up with:

Only in the struggle to transform social relations do people change. It is the workplace that opens up to women the widest opportunities to struggle to organise and hence to change themselves. It is through involvement in social production that women, like men, are anchored as workers into the relations of production which are the pivot of class society. Marxism is about class power, and in the workplace this comes into sharpest focus.

In other words, Cliff’s position in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, despite whatever historical importance the book has as a document, ends up reducing the fight for women’s liberation to a question of class, in which their oppression as women rather than as workers was negligible or could be discounted. I would hope that even members of the SWP as currently constituted would not share this position.

I would like to note in passing that in our tradition, thankfully others did not allow Cliff to have the final word. This includes the articles of John Molyneux in ISJ, who insisted again and again, as against Cliff, Lindsey German and Sheila MacGregor that there was in fact a real material advantage derived by working-class men in the oppression of women; David McNally, formerly of the Canadian I.S. has also done some interesting work in our tradition that engages with the work of Marxist feminism of Johanna Brenner and Martha Gimenez, with the conclusion that relations of labor to capital are all genderized as well as racialized. And to recent articles by Sharon Smith and Tithi Bhattacharya in our own SW.

Basta. While I’m deeply interested in the question of Marxism and women’s liberation (and I hope to have something more substantial to say about it here eventually), my aim here is a bit broader. I was interested to read the commentary of “Roobin,” an SWP member who maintains the blog “Through the Scary Door,” and has contributed to Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb on occasion. Here is what Roobin has to say on the question of the relevance of our tradition:

The old ‘orthodoxy’ such as it was, was the three pillars of the IS, state capitalism, permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution. The last two are now void and the first isn’t such a tremendous intellectual head start any more. The SWP has no programme. What makes the party different and how? Why is it a distinct organisation?

This interests me because I worked toward the question of the relevance of our tradition in an almost entirely different way. But let’s take what he says as a useful starting point.

Roobin says that the permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution “are now void.” This may be true. I have yet to fully wrap my mind around the debate, but Neil Davidson’s notion of the fading relevance of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (as expressed in his article, “From the Theory of Permanent Revolution to the Law of Uneven and Combined Development” and his book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions) does seem to invalidate any future “deflected” permanent revolution as well.

To use one example Davidson gives, Paul Blackledge at one point refers to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1978 as a “doubly deflected” permanent revolution.” In other words, Cliff’s original notion was that the permanent revolution had been deflected by conditions in the Global South guaranteeing the working class would be unready to seize power when presented with the opportunity. But in the case of Nicaragua, the working class remained for the most part passive throughout the whole conflict between Sandinistas and contras. Thus, “double deflection.”

But as Davidson says, this is conceptual overstretch with a vengeance. There are cases in which a permanent revolution was indeed deflected: the classic case of China in 1927, and one might also note Iran in 1979, in which the working class effectively crippled the Shah’s counterrevolution but did not possess the organization to contend for power properly. But can a notion of “deflection” really apply to cases in which the working class never entered the stage?

I would say this poses greater problems for Cliff’s theory than just irrelevancy. In fact I have written about one of the cases Cliff considered in his classic article: that of India, where the working class due to various reasons that he himself identified never played a consistent role in its bourgeois revolution from 1921-47. I would think the work of Davidson requires us to take a further step back from all notions of permanent revolution in the world today; much as Cliff’s article took a huge step back from Trotsky’s original theory.

As for the permanent arms economy. This was a notion developed mainly by Michael Kidron, and after he rejected its implications by Chris Harman; the idea being that during the postwar boom Western capitalism had avoided crisis by shoveling vast amounts of profits into arms, which counteracted the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. I agree with Roobin that this particular “old orthodoxy” is now entirely faded in relevance. It simply does not apply to our world anymore. We no longer live in a bipolar world of two capitalist camps, but in a monopolar world of increasingly multinational capitalism, and we require new theories to deal with this reality.

But I would reject any notion that because of this, we should no longer pay attention to the theory of the permanent arms economy. Although we live in a fundamentally different period, the method used in approaching this concept may still have a lot to teach us. Furthermore, it was the work of authors within the British IS tradition, Harman and Callinicos, who gave us the tools we need to understand the decline of the permanent arms economy. Their work points out the roots of the crisis of the late seventies and early eighties, in which the dominance of the US was challenged by the resurgent economies of West Germany and Japan, which relied on American military might vis-a-vis the Soviet Union while they expanded their exporting power against America itself. This might have a lot to teach us about the current period.

Roobin says of the last “old orthodoxy,” that of state capitalism, that it “isn’t such a tremendous intellectual head start any more.” I conceive that this statement is based on the collapse of the Eastern bloc; the notion being that Soviet-style state control of the economy is for the most part dead and buried. There are only five remaining Stalinist countries; of these three (China, Vietnam and the so often neglected Laos) have gone the way of the market, while Cuba is preparing to go on the same path. Which leaves North Korea all alone in an increasingly archaic form of state capitalism.

So it may be true that Stalinist-style state capitalism is dead. But saying this makes our theory of state capitalism irrelevant is to do the theory itself a great injustice. The theory as I understand it is, to abuse a phrase, that state capitalism is not a thing diametrically opposed to market capitalism, but a tendency inherent in all capitalist societies. Cliff’s original theory was based on the contributions of Lenin, who noticed the wartime management of the German economy; but more importantly Bukharin, who described the cartelization of capital and predicted a scenario in which a world economy could be made up of competing national capitalist cartels (nation-states). This, wrote Cliff, was what had come to pass in the Soviet Union, the glacis states, China, Indochina, Cuba and parts of the Middle East and Africa.

But to say this is the end-all-be-all of the theory of state capitalism would be doing it a disservice. After all, this type of state management of the economy was a tendency all over the world. Chris Harman during his polemics with the Militant noted, with not unjustified glee, that if countries like Burma and Syria which had nationalized “the commanding heights of their economies” were deformed workers’ states, then surely Britain, with its nationalized education, health and other sectors was a workers’ state as well. We could say that Keynesianism is an incomplete manifestation of the tendency toward state capitalism – one that in the current world is being very rapidly broken down.

But this leaves out other countries. India, my first love, has never gotten much attention in this field. But after the bourgeois revolution of 1947, India had a state sector that could compete on good terms with those of the explicitly Stalinist countries, and its leader Jawaharlal Nehru justified this in terms as explictly “socialist” as those of Stalin, Mao or Castro. It was a mixed economy, to be sure – but we should remind ourselves that Stalinist states such as China, Hungary, Yugoslavia were never themselves entirely free of the internal market compulsions.

What I’m saying, in other words, is that a lot of work still remains to be done on the question of state capitalism. We might use the insights developed by Cliff in analyzing the CP-led market economies of China, Vietnam and Laos. This is a gaping hole in our tradition. Or we might turn our attention to the various eras of state policy in capitalism – at one time, the vicious pursuit of primitive accumulation to establish it (developed by Davidson as well as Henry Heller), to the era of imperialism as described in Lenin/Bukharin, to state capitalism as pursued under Stalinist and Keynesian guises, to the current era of multinational capital and the state gutting itself under the doctrines of neoliberalism.

To summarize: I think that even if they are no longer relevant to the current era, the “old orthodoxies” of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution may still have insights we would do well to take on in analyzing our current conditions. What I am asking for is for comrades in the IS tradition to employ the same critical spirit of comrades like Cliff, Kidron, Harman and Hal Draper used to establish solid understandings of their period and the kind of Marxism that was required for it – even as they revised the fundamental conclusions of Trotsky and those who went before them. This is nothing less than a plea for the dialectical method: concrete analysis of concrete conditions.

But even if we recognize that certain things in the history of the British IS tradition may have gone by the wayside in the grand historical sense, surely not all of it has. I found it particularly surprising that among all the numerous documents produced by members of the SWP opposition, no one has yet mentioned what the party was historically quite successful at. I mean its methods of class struggle unionism and of Leninist party building. I don’t have the time to develop these thoughts in depth. But it seems to me from my own time in the ISO, it is these two things that come up most often in our work, and go back to the direct experience of the British IS tradition.

Class struggle unionism as proposed by the IS tradition may seem like a fairly uncontroversial proposition. But given the state of the left, it clearly is controversial. The (minuscule, back-biting) American far left shows this well enough. There are any number of approaches to unionism – from that of the Militant tendency (in the US, formerly Labor Militant and now Socialist Alternative) which attempt to gain union office on principle as a way to advance class struggle, to that of the LRP, which punches above its weight if only on the internet, whose approach seems to consist of having their (being generous here) two rank and file militants call for a general strike every other week. This isn’t to speak of the numerous tiny ultraleft and anarchist groups (IWW, SEP, various unsavory groupings thrown up by Occupy) who consider unions a tool of the bosses.

It is only the ISO – the sole representative of our tradition in the US – whose members have engaged in successful class-struggle strategy in the leadership and union rank and file. Surely this is due at least in part to what we learned from the British IS – we certainly know their publications well enough, as they’re cited in all of our articles on the subject.

I don’t have time to go into depth on the question of party building. Last year there was a whole series of exchanges on the subject between Pham Binh, an ex-ISO member with an axe to grind, and Paul Le Blanc, one of our current leaders, formerly of the American SWP and Solidarity. Others contributed to the exchange, which was productive at some points and frustrating at others, particularly when Pham kept insisting despite all evidence to the contrary that there was no separate Bolshevik Party up till 1917. Underlying this is a basic mistake in methodology – a fetishism of organizational forms which may have been appropriate at a certain place and time (revolutionary Russia) but may not be incredibly helpful in 21st century America if we try to ape them exactly.

In other words, what I’m talking about is a search for Leninism as a method rather than a set of organizational forms or precepts. I think in this sense, Cliff’s Lenin biography has significant use, since it draws out Lenin’s method of problem solving in extremely concrete ways. Some have problems with Cliff, particularly his insistence on the notion of “stick bending. I think this is legitimate, as it is to question in general how the SWP ended up where it is now if they were formally at least following what he laid out. To my mind the best contribution on the topic so far is Le Blanc’s recent article “Leninism is Unfinished,” a principled and comradely reply to Callinicos’ “Is Leninism Finished?” which is all the more notable since it comes from outside our particular tradition.

We could note many other examples. I believe the analysis of political Islam in our tradition, provided by Chris Harman in “The Prophet and the Proletariat” is one of the most important of them. The analysis of other traditions has proven worse than useless, as they all end up believing in practice if not theory that Islamism is “fascist” or automatically set on course for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Surely if once again practice judges the truth, it is no accident that the foremost left current in the Egyptian Revolution is the Revolutionary Socialists, an IST group.

I could go on. I have lots to say about current debates within the tradition – the analysis of the current world economy as in the debate between Dave McNally and Joseph Choonara, for instance. Another time. I think I have made my point – it is vital for everyone in the tradition who is not a bureaucrat, hack or rapist to renew the use of International Socialism as a living and vital Marxist method. Abandoning it would be lunacy.

Some references – I am in a hurry here with a new job and don’t have time to be as scholarly as I would like.

Tithi Bhattacharya, “Locating the source of oppression,”

Alex Callinicos, “Is Leninism Finished?”

Joseph Choonara, “Once more (with feeling) on Marxist accounts of the crisis,”

Joseph Choonara, “The relevance of permanent revolution: A reply to Neil Davidson,”

Tony Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party (vol. 1),

Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

Tony Cliff, “The Employer’s Offensive,”

Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia

Bill Crane, “The Bourgeois Revolution in India (Part 2),”

Paul D’Amato, “The SWP Crisis and Leninism,”

Neil Davidson, “From the deflected permanent revolution to the law of uneven and combined development,”

Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket, 2012)

Chris Harman, “Better a valid insight than a wrong theory,”

Chris Harman, “The Prophet and the Proletariat,”

Chris Harman, “The Storm Breaks: Crisis in the Eastern Bloc,”

ISO Steering Committee, “The Crisis in the SWP – Britain”

Michael Kidron, “Imperialism – Highest Stage but One,”

Paul LeBlanc, “Leninism is Unfinished,”

Paul LeBlanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin: A response to Pham Binh,”

Pham Binh, “Mangling the Party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,”

David McNally, Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labor and Liberation (SUNY, 2000)

David McNally, “Explaining the crisis or heresy hunting? A response to Joseph Choonara,”

John Molyneux, “Do working class men benefit from women’s oppression?,” International Socialism 2.25

Roobin, “An ounce of theory is worth a ton of action,”

Sharon Smith, “Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Liberation,”





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The Return of Arrested Development


Around this time last year, it came to my attention somehow that the show Arrested Development was coming back on the air. Its last episodes (embarrassingly, I can recall the precise date) aired on 10 February, 2006, at which time I was a sophomore in high school. From that time in my life, the cancellation of AD was probably one of the things that sticks out – along with certain more minor events in my life, such as my parents’ ongoing and acrimonious divorce, or my constant ongoing frustration around girls. I cannot recall getting very emotional as a teenager, ever, but the end of Arrested Development brought it out of me somehow.

So when I realized the show was coming back on the air, I was kind of nonplussed, aside from a general positive reaction. There are, as I see it, a couple reasons for this. While the 16 year old me had little better ways of expressing his alienation than the one-size-fits-all outlet of commodity fetishism, the 22 year old me had available a variety of ways to do this, alcohol being the outstanding method. Of course, it’s also hard to get so excited about one show coming back in particular when pretty much every cancelled show gets to come back at some point – those I love (Futurama), and those I hate (Family Guy), excepting of course Joss Whedon’s neglected and perfect Firefly.

I imagine seven years ago, the new episodes would have been one of the few things to make me really happy. Of course, I’m excited to see them in a few months, but this has to be heavily qualified. This is for several reasons. First, despite the short timeframe which they were given, the show’s writers managed to wrap the series and tie a bow around it, which is much better than is possible for many series. And second, because television as a medium of culture is so immediate that it tends to go bad quickly. Which is not to say great TV cannot be made, but as an intervention in society, the cultural products (except for series like The Wire, which being on HBO was in any case free from the constraints of normal TV production) tend to have a short sell-by date based on immediate appeal. And therefore, the best TV tends to emerge as a reaction to and commentary on its period.

For Americans at least, Arrested Development is one of those shows that defines an era. This era was the first administration of George W. Bush. For a number of reasons, it is right to mark these four years or so as a turning point in American history and culture. For the purposes of this discussion, the “high points” of this era are:

  1. The completely obvious and shameful stupidity of our president (the president of “Is our children learning,” “I’m the decider,” and “My Pet Goat”) which marked the decline of our political culture,
  2. The war on terror, the height of which was the plainly phoney war Bush launched into in Iraq, followed by the surreal proclamations of victory – “Mission Accomplished” and so on – against a growing anti-imperialist and anti-American trend all over the world, including the developed West,
  3. The apex of the neoliberal economic boom, followed by its abrupt end. This is symbolized best by the rapid collapse of the energy firm Enron in 2001. This made the most clear latent class anger that has always existed in American society, underlying the precipitous decline of the class struggle since the ’70s.

Arrested Development, I recently realized while re-watching the show for the upteenth time, is most effective as it responds to and critiques the excesses of our ruling class along these lines. The ongoing references to the rhetoric of the war on terror, I would imagine, might make the show somewhat incomprehensible to non-Americans, or those Americans who came of age after that period.

In its setup, AD mirrors almost too well the circumstances of the end of the boom, and its impact on the American ruling class. The show starts with the retirement party of George Bluth, head of the Bluth Company, a real-estate firm in southern California. As his wife and children raise toasts to his career, boats of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) arrive at the corporate yacht to arrest him for investment fraud, an obvious reference to the executives of Enron – Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. The show is incredibly incisive as it mocks the decline of this executive class. It is noteworthy, for instance, that all the members of the spoiled Bluth family continue to demand paychecks from the company even as they refuse to work for it.

Perhaps more significantly, the paranoid slapstick that was the first Bush, Jr. administration is matched by the surreal happenings in AD – and here, it gets hard sometimes to tell fiction from reality. Any except the segment of the American population which has spent the past ten years living under a rock cannot recall the circumstances leading up to the Second Gulf War with anything but a mixture of outrage and horror. Looking back on it now, the press conferences seem staged and pantomimed, with Bush half leering at us as he tells us in complete sincerity that Saddam Hussein has links to al-Qa’eda, has access to yellowcake uranium, is part of an “Access of Evil” with Iran and North Korea. It beggars belief.

Arrested Development is almost hyper-aware of its own backdrop. Throughout the second season (aired in 2004-5, the same period in which Bush’s acolytes were scrambling to find some sort of “weapons of mass destruction” in occupied Iraq) the show’s characters are drawn into the national slapstick. Buster is enlisted into the Army by his mother, who was afraid of being seen as unpatriotic by a Michael Moore impostor. George Bluth, Sr. (whose name, along with that of his son GOB, has a more than coincidental relationship to those of the dynastic 41st and 43rd presidents) is discovered to have built homes in Sadaam’s Iraq that violate the sanctions – a vicious parody of the cozy relationship enjoyed by Reagan, Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other neocons and neocon enablers with the Middle Eastern strongmen they now sought to overthrow.

The woman GOB marries on a dare joins the army as well, and to prove her penchant for daring, becomes a very thinly fictionalized version of the torturer Lyndie England, of Abu Ghraib Prison. In a scene as bizarre as it is hilarious, a map supposedly pointing to WMDs in Iraq actually turns out to be a picture of Tobias’ testicles taken with his camera phone. When Michael, GOB and Buster finally travel to Iraq to clear their father’s name, they discover a warhead in the attic of a model home their father indeed built – but the warhead is just one of the shoddy house’s many Home-Fills.

So I think it’s pretty clear that Arrested Development‘s timeframe is the Bush administration. In one sense, it’s hard to imagine the show outside of that background. Seemingly, at least, a lot has changed. Instead of a silver-spoon fratboy, the face of our government is now a sophisticated constitutional law professor, who happens to be black as well. No longer does the US invade sovereign nations. Scratch that – we still do (Libya, Pakistan, dozens of other countries that host our armed forces) – but when we do, it is with a bit more research than the rationale which was dreamed up in 2003.

As I said, changing times pretty much guarantee changing TV. It would be hard to imagine a show like 24 in the Obama era – Homeland fits our contemporary nation much better. But on the other hand, a comparison of those two shows, which I’ve made before, also remind us of the continuities between the Bush era and the Obama era. We remain at war with a mysterious and brown foe with a bearded face and turban. Our government continues to assault the civilians of other nations on a daily basis. Considering how many flying death robots have been deployed under Obama, it would even seem the war on terror has grown more bizarre and frightening than it was under Bush. Most of all, our economy has returned to a prolonged state of crisis, and as ever, the corporations and financial institutions are bailed out while the working class pays for their losses.

Maybe I was too quick to pass judgment. The Obama administration is as rife with jingoism and hypocrisy as the previous one. I can’t imagine any show better than Arrested Development to take this on – for a new era.

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The Marxist Analysis of the Second World War – A Contribution to the Discussion



The Second World War looms large in the consciousness of practically every nation. In most of the West, without exception it is regarded as the Platonic ideal of a “good war.” The military effort to defeat Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1940s is probably the ultimate Good Thing done by our people and our government, no matter where you live (at least if you live in the West). Had our boys not gone to war, so the saying goes, we would all be speaking German now, which stands in for the unimaginable destruction and violence that would have come along with the other side winning.

Even after over a decade of cultural programming in the U.S. to make us believe in Islam as the ultimate existential threat, which followed four decades of the same with Communism, neither of these has quite the same menace for us that Nazi Germany has. The fascinating evil of The Triumph of the Will, Operation Barbarossa, the gas chambers, and so on has if anything increased as more time separates us from them. In fact, a large part of the success of anticommunist and Islamophobic ideologies has been based on likening their target to the “totalitarianism” and “fanaticism” of which Nazism is the exemplar. Our collective cultural hangover from the war goes on and on with the effect of us being very often unable to make sense of it in a comprehensive way.

The position of the Marxist left in all of this cultural trauma and remembrance is somewhat ambiguous. Unlike almost all others, we are in a position to see clearly the real causes of the war: the defeat of the revolutionary wave following 1917, the rise of fascism as an extreme solution to the instability of capitalism in those years, the uneasy settlement between the major powers following the Versailles Treaty. Unlike liberals, we know Versailles was an inevitable outcome of an imperialist world system rather than the victors being mean to the vanquished. And no one but the revolutionary left can see the intimate connection between the end of the imperialist war and the revolutions of Russia, Germany and others – this is more often than not simply left out of the history books due to a lack of understanding by bourgeois historians.

Yet even on the segments of the left that are gifted with this clear sight about the causes of the war there is very often a complete failure to apply these insights. It is only with the space that decades of time allows us that we can take a fresh look at the causes of the war, the policy of Trotsky and his followers as the bearers of our revolutionary tradition during the war, and begin to make some tentative judgments on whether they were right or wrong.

Therefore, Donny Gluckstein’s recent book A People’s History of the Second World War (Pluto Press, 2012) should be regarded as a key contribution. I will say upfront I haven’t had the chance to read it. I have, however, listened to Gluckstein’s talk on his book from this year’s Historical Materialism Conference in London, and read reviews of it in various socialist publications. I want to respond both to Gluckstein’s argument and the critique of it by John Molyneux in the Irish Left Review.

Both Gluckstein and Molyneux should be given their due as preeminent socialist historians and activists of the British SWP. Gluckstein is the son of Tony Cliff, the longtime leader of the SWP, and is the author of The Western Soviets, The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy, and The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class. Molyneux is a prominent SWP writer and theoretician, now a member of its Irish sister organization. He is the author of What is the Real Marxist Tradition, Marxism and the Party, along with numerous articles and books of visual-arts critique.

The debate over Gluckstein’s book should be regarded as of key importance in establishing a coherent analysis of the wartime period. From the debates between Gluckstein and his reviewers, it is clear that such an analysis does not yet exist within our tradition. This essay is intended as a small contribution toward that understanding.

Imperialism versus the “People’s War”?

I will begin by trying to summarize what I have gleaned is Gluckstein’s argument. I disagree with it, but it is important and worth taking seriously. Briefly, he says that WW2 should be understood as two separate wars, running in parallel: the imperialist war and the people’s war. Both of these terms are drawn from Marxist discourse in the twentieth century. An imperialist war is a conflict between two imperialist powers or groups of powers; in these situations, revolutionaries should not pick a side rather but strive to create the conditions under which the war could transform into a revolutionary conflict between exploiters and exploited.

This analysis was developed in the wake of the Social Democracy’s collapse into patriotic blocs with the ruling class on the eve of the first great conflict of the type, the First World War. On the other hand, the people’s war was a term first brought into the left by Stalinists who argued not just the working class, but all classes (the “people”) of nations under attack by fascism had an objective interest in its defeat. In such a situation, therefore, the patriotic blocs that caused Communism’s break with the Second International were on the agenda again and even necessary; contrarily, pressing the demands of the working class was a block to the formation of these blocs, which objectively aided fascism.

Racist Dr. Seuss cartoon depicting the Japanese-American "fifth column."

Racist Dr. Seuss cartoon depicting the Japanese-American “fifth column.”

Gluckstein develops his own view of the “people’s war” that is separate from the Stalinist one. An example of unambiguous people’s war might be the guerrilla struggles in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece. Here, nationalist and Communist partisans with popular support waged successful national liberation struggles against the occupying German and Italian forces. These struggles were explicitly framed as such, and it is fair to say that most of the partisans and their supporters expected a socialist outcome rather than merely removing the fascists. Similar things can be said about the struggles to remove the Japanese in French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.

An example of unambiguous imperialist war, on the other hand, might be the U.S. versus Japan in the Pacific; this was a conflict between two imperialist powers that had been started long before 1941, and was without question over the control of the Pacific Ocean and its resources. The war was conducted on both sides using the most brutal tactics and the most vile racist propaganda. Japan was not fascist,[1] and there was no sense of anything but an imperialist, top-down struggle to displace it from its holdings. Except by implication of its connection with the war in Europe, there was nothing of the popular, anti-fascist struggle that was seen there. This war, according to Gluckstein, includes the Pacific as well as the North African and Eastern European fronts.

The war in Western Europe, however, is best framed as a combination of both imperialist war and people’s war. While the British ruling class waged war against Germany to maintain its imperialist possessions rather than out of any genuine anti-fascist sentiment (indeed, Winston Churchill was on the hard right and an admirer of Mussolini), the same could not be said about British workers, whose leftwing and democratic inclinations impelled them to join the armed forces and fight an anti-fascist war. The same might be said of France, and later on, the United States.

The many battles, fronts and theaters in the war can be understood as part of the imperialist war, the people’s war, or a combination of both. Though the two wars ran in parallel to each other, says Gluckstein, there were major points of disruption when they came in conflict, thus exposing their fundamentally opposed natures.

An example of this is the 1944 uprising in Warsaw led by the Polish nationalist Home Army with Communist involvement. When the Germans had been pushed to the western side of the Vistula by Soviet forces, the uprising occurred to drive them from Warsaw before the Red Army could arrive. Soviet troops settled on the other side of the river. They refused to send supplies to aid the rebels and even refused to allow US and British planes refueling behind their lines if they should want to drop off their own supplies.[2] Gluckstein says this shows the two opposed wars coming into conflict with each other. An independent Poland was directly contrary to what Stalin sought, hence, he waited for the Nazis to crush them before moving in himself.

There are many other points of such conflict: the Allied invasion of Greece to subdue the Communist-led ELAS/EAM national liberation movement, the British defeat of nationalist rebels in the Dutch East Indies, and the rehabilitated Vichy forces doing the same to the Viet Minh in Indochina (Gluckstein 2012b).

John Molyneux in his review gives Gluckstein credit for addressing the imperialist character of the war, but has problems with his characterization of various struggles as a “people’s war.” He writes:

Gluckstein doesn’t succeed in giving a clear definition of what he means by People’s War. He himself acknowledges it is ‘problematic as an idea and might appear insufficiently rigorous’ [p.12] and he is not able to distinguish it satisfactorily from national war or class war – all wars have a class content and are, in some sense, manifestations of class struggle, and most national wars have a social dimension to them (certainly wars of national liberation do).

Second, his concept of ‘two distinct wars’ or ‘two parallel wars’ involves the notion of a single People’s War but it is not really plausible to describe the resistance struggles in Europe and the anti-imperialist struggles in Asia as part of a single war or the same war except in so far as they are aspects of the Second World War as a whole. Nor is it convincing to speak of distinct People’s War in Britain or the USA where no separate armed forces or fighting takes place, except in the very broadest sense of the people’s war that is waged throughout the history of class society. In other words he tries to stretch the term too far and ends up shoehorning struggles into it which don’t fit.

Third, Gluckstein refers on a number of occasions to the existence of ‘parallel wars’ but his own analysis shows that far from running in parallel these different struggles both intersect and, at times, sharply conflict with one another.

I think Molyneux is right where he questions the existence of a “people’s war” going on in the US and British armed forces. Whatever the intentions of American and British workers in these armies, they objectively served the interests of their rulers, which was to defeat the Axis for the sake of defending their imperial possessions or acquiring new ones. These soldiers went to war to defend democracy against fascism, but soldiers in countless wars have fought to preserve democracy and ended up objectively serving imperialism.[3] To try to understand the Western front as anything other than an inter-imperialist conflict is a concession to American or British patriotic sentiment. Of course, this viewpoint would have significant consequences for socialist strategy, which I’ll get to later.

Fundamentally, I think “people’s war” is an anti-Marxist concept. It assumes the fundamental unity of interests of classes in a nation, both proletariat and bourgeoisie. Marxism does not deal with “peoples,” but with social classes, and secondarily, nations. We can understand and speak to the dynamics of both class and national struggles, but not the struggles of whole “peoples,” especially on an international scale. Thus, it is an extension of Popular Front politics that cannot be adapted to fit within a framework based on class struggle.

Gluckstein proposes a “people’s war” which is separate from the imperialist war. In defense of this concept he writes, “The book freely admits it is ‘problematic as an idea’, pointing out its evanescent character and rapid dissolution as a movement after 1945. Maybe a different term can be found, and although it is true that the war from below lacked homogeneity, the concept of ‘people’s war’ captures the complexity of events” (Birchall and Gluckstein 2012).

As I wrote, however, this can only be defined through artificial separations and clubbing together of diverse conflicts. It makes little sense to club together the service of American and British workers in the imperialist armies in France, with the nationalist uprising in Poland. This has no explanatory value.

I also agree with Molyneux that Gluckstein’s proposal of “two parallel wars” is incoherent and, at a certain point, nonsensical. “There was such a thing as the Second World War, so its underlying character can and should be investigated. And the discovery of parallel wars within it shows, to use the language of dialectics, that the Second World War represented a ‘unity of opposites,’” Gluckstein writes. But as Molyneux says, a dialectical unity exists within a single whole, rather than two entirely separate, even if “parallel” wholes.

Two, Three, Many World Wars

Molyneux believes that the Second World War was one conflict, and it was an imperialist war. I question this very much. I think we call “World War Two” was not one war, but several wars that mutually impacted upon each other, if not in the terms Gluckstein suggests.

I’ll take the example of the war in the Pacific. This was a conflict that occurred independently of the war in Europe, as I said. But what many people do not realize is that it began long before the war in Europe, and therefore it had its own separate dynamic. The conquest of Manchuria and the rape of the rest of China, as well as other developments leading right up to Pearl Harbor are all part of a separate conflict that set Japanese imperialism against Anglo-American imperialism. It was not unaffected by the war in Europe, but these connections were based only on Germany’s alliance of convenience with Japan – their war aims did not significantly overlap. Well into the conflict, the American military brass spoke openly of “two wars,” one in Europe and one in the Pacific.

Defining the war in the Pacific as imperialist overall does not preclude the existence of national or class struggles within it – aspects of what Gluckstein calls the unitary “people’s war.” But these do not determine its overall character. Moreover, these national liberation struggles were fought on, and assisted by both sides. Whereas the Chinese people in their war against Japan found their objective allies in Britain and the United States, the Burmese and Indians in their national liberation struggle against Britain looked to Japan as their ally.

Probably Gluckstein’s most convincing case for parallel wars is the Eastern front. But even here, I do not understand why the war fought between partisans and Germany should not be understood as separate from the war fought between Germany and the Soviet Union. The fundamental conflict was between Soviet imperialism and German imperialism with its allies – which, once again, does not preclude the existence of national liberation struggles within the war, but these were part of the overall conflict and their outcome was determined by its result.[4]

The band of hostile brothers in a German commemorative print of the Munich Agreement.

Chamberlain and Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini – the band of hostile brothers in a German commemorative print on the occasion of the the Munich Agreement.

Ernest Mandel, the late theoretician of the Fourth International, has a formulation different from both, found in his article “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two,” which Molyneux quotes favorably in his own analysis. Mandel says that we are dealing with no less than five separate wars:

  1. A worldwide conflict between Anglo-Franco-American imperialism and German, Italian, and Japanese imperialism.
  2. The national liberation struggle of China against Japan.
  3. The progressive self-defense of the Soviet Union, a workers’ state, against German imperialism.
  4. National liberation struggles by the people of India, Ceylon, Burma, Indochina and Indonesia, waged against British, French, Dutch or Japanese imperialism.
  5. The resistance in Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy and France against German and Italian occupation. (Mandel 1976)

I think Mandel’s formulation is incredibly problematic. He does not sufficiently justify why, if there was one war on a global scale, the other wars did not form component parts of the first. Moreover, the resistance in Poland ill matches the character of the Yugoslav and Greek resistance, and the anti-fascist and class struggles in Italy and France were completely different from both of them in substance. Of course, just like Molyneux and Gluckstein, I do not believe that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, and therefore would say the war on the Eastern Front was an imperialist war.[5]

Before I lay out my own position, for convenience I will sum up the ones I have described so far. Gluckstein believes there were two wars, a people’s war and an imperialist war running side by side. It was revolutionary to participate in the first, but not the second. Molyneux in contrast believes there was only one war, an imperialist war, which nevertheless required working class participation. Mandel believes that there were five wars, of which one was imperialist and four were progressive, and therefore requiring revolutionary participation.

I believe that all of these formulations give ground to the idea of a Stalinist-type “people’s war,” even if this is contrary to their intentions. Gluckstein and Molyneux believe in the common interests of the working class in Britain and America with their rulers. Molyneux says this outright, while Gluckstein tries to square the circle by introducing the concept of parallel wars. Mandel matches them by asserting the progressive nature of the war in the East and the French resistance, ignoring the reactionary and imperialist aspects of both. Whatever the formulation, all of these propose common interests between workers and the Allied ruling classes in defeating fascism.

Gluckstein says there were two wars, Molyneux one, Mandel five. At the risk of complicating things beyond understanding, I propose that there were three:

  1. The war in Western Europe and North Africa between German and Italian imperialism on one side, and British, French and American imperialism on the other, including anti-fascist and class struggles in Italy and to a much lesser extent in France.[6] This began in September 1939 with the declaration of war by the Allies and ended in May 1945 with the surrender of Germany.
  2. The war on the Eastern European front between German imperialism and its allies against Soviet imperialism, including numerous national liberation struggles against both. This began in June 1941 with Operation Barbarossa and also ended in May 1945 with German surrender.
  3. The war in the Pacific between Japanese imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism, including numerous national liberation struggles, also against both. This war started in September 1931 with the Manchurian Incident, and concluded in June 1945 with Japanese surrender.

Whether they think there were one, two, or five different wars, the formulations of Molyneux, Gluckstein and Mandel all require us to lump together a variety of wars that are inter-imperialist and anti-fascist, national and class struggles. For Marxists all of these are completely different from each other in nature. On the other hand, my view of three separate but mutually interpenetrating imperialist wars allows us to see the common laws of motion in each.

First, the three conflicts were separate. The conflict in the Pacific began a full decade before Pearl Harbor, with the conquest of Manchuria. At this point the central dynamic was one of Japanese imperialism versus the Chinese national liberation struggle; ten years later this would shift to one of conflict between Japanese imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism. But as the Chinese national liberation struggle certainly did not end or shift dramatically in its character when America entered the war, these two phases of the war interpenetrate, forming a single dialectical unity.

The conflict in Eastern Europe, as well, was presaged by German expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic states and invasion of Finland. This also includes, most famously, the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. These cleared the deck for the central conflict between German and Soviet imperialisms.

Second, the three wars were mutually interpenetrating. Most practically, the invasion of Poland by Germany meant the beginning of war in the west. While they waged war in Europe, the leaders of Britain and France never had their colonial empires in Asia very far from their minds.[7] To defeat them in Asia, the Japanese required that they were pinned down in Europe by Germany. Similarly, the fate of the Soviet offensive in Eastern Europe depended greatly on the opening of the offensive in France.

Third, all of these conflicts were imperialist. The fundamental struggle was for the re-division of territory, colonies, and profits in each of them. The world working class had no objective interest in whether America or Japan won in the Pacific, nor – not to put too fine a point on it – whether the Soviet Union or Germany and its allies won on the Eastern Front.

This is very much in keeping with the revolutionary Marxist perspective of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg in the First World War. Molyneux, along with many other sincere revolutionaries during and after the war, believes that fascism represented such an extreme danger to humanity that it was necessary for revolutionaries to intervene on the Allied side. But fundamentally, inter-imperialist conflicts tend to run on a continuum in terms of the barbarism, destruction and extermination they unleash.

Red Army and Wehrmacht fraternize at the victory parade in Brest-Litovsk after the partition of Poland.

Red Army and Wehrmacht fraternize at the victory parade in Brest-Litovsk after the partition of Poland.

To put it bluntly: what makes the Nazi war machine in Eastern Europe substantially different from its imperial predecessor in the same territory? And, in the same terms, what differentiates the holocausts perpetrated by British and French imperialism different from the Shoah, the only event we feel comfortable calling a holocaust today?[8]

As in all imperialist wars, each of these three conflicts opened the possibility of nations that are oppressed or colonized by one side freeing themselves in alliance with the other. National liberation struggles, at least according to the Marxist tradition, are equally progressive regardless of the context. It is just as progressive for India to free itself in alliance with Japan as it is for Indonesia to free itself in alliance with Britain.

Revolutionary Participation in an Imperialist War?

The bulk of Molyneux’s argument is his elaboration of revolutionary socialist tactics (or what they should have been, anyway) during the war. For the most part, his position is a restatement of the “proletarian military policy” which Trotsky urged his followers to adopt shortly before his death (Trotsky 1940a and b).[9] The essence of the strategy was that revolutionaries should join the armed forces and call on the working class in Allied nations to do so as well, but at the same time expose the imperialist aims of the ruling class and fight for the transformation of the military struggle against fascism to a working-class basis, which primarily meant the empowerment of trade unions as vehicles of military struggle. Molyneux writes:

… despite the fact, amply documented by Gluckstein, that the Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin governments and the ruling classes they represented (I do not accept the notion that Russia was still a workers’ state), fought the war for their own imperialist interests and not for democracy or anti-fascist principle, it was nevertheless in the interests of the working class internationally that Nazi Germany and its fascist allies were militarily defeated. To put the matter sharply and clearly I think that revolutionary socialists should not have been neutral on D-Day or at Stalingrad.

In support of this it should be noted that the position of neutrality or a ‘plague on both houses’ appears to have had no serious resonance with any of the working classes in any of the belligerent countries. Whereas in the First World War initial war fever steadily waned as the war developed and turned eventually into outright revolutionary opposition (in Russia and Germany), no such process occurred anywhere in the Second World War. On the contrary the large scale radicalization that took place did so as part of pursuing the war against the Axis.

Moreover working class instincts and inclinations were objectively correct in this. Neither they at the time, nor we with hindsight, can be indifferent to the consequences of Nazi/fascist victory. It would have been an utter catastrophe for all the workers of Europe and very possibly the world. Fascism destroyed all independent working class organization in Italy, Germany and Spain. Had Hitler and co. won they would done the same everywhere else. The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, 20 million or so Russians, up to 500,000 Roma, millions of Poles and so on. If they had won how many more would they have exterminated? It true, as we have seen, that Roosevelt, Churchill and co were not fighting an anti-fascist war in the sense that they were motivated by opposition to fascism but objectively, whatever their motives, they were fighting fascist regimes and it is a simple fact that the victory of the Allies resulted in the demolition of the fascist regimes and the restoration, at least in Western Europe, of bourgeois democracy (Molyneux 2012).[10]

I applaud this formulation for drawing out the issues at stake precisely and clearly. I believe, however, that his argument is based on an analysis that is limited to Western Europe, and a very mistaken analysis at that. It requires detailed unpacking, so I will take some time with it before analyzing the consequences of his position for socialist strategy.

First: bourgeois democracy was not restored in all of Western Europe. Franco’s rule was maintained in Spain, with which Britain and the United States made a separate peace. The victory of bourgeois “anti-fascism” in France and Germany meant the continuation of dictatorial rule and the atomization of the working class in Spain – and also, Portugal. I question the characterization of the Franco and Salazar regimes as fascist,[11] but the Iberian Peninsula remains a very significant exception to the assertion that bourgeois democracy was restored in the West.

Second: bourgeois democracy was reestablished in France, Italy and West Germany at the cost of derailing the progressive/revolutionary struggles by members of the resistance, partisans and antifas. It required the collaboration of the Stalinist CPs to impose an explicitly counter-revolutionary settlement on the working class. Even during the war, the aims of the continental working class were directly opposed to those of the Allied rulers.

Third: bourgeois democracy was certainly never established in Eastern Europe. Red Army occupation of these countries led to the imposition of an equally counter-revolutionary settlement, that of Stalinist state capitalism. Unless I am very mistaken, Molyneux would not see the imposition of Stalinism as “progressive” in any sense.

In other words, the imperialist victory against fascism meant the end of progressive struggles that had been waged on the margins of the wars in Eastern and Western Europe. A counter-revolutionary settlement was imposed on the whole continent. In Greece, just to point to the most extreme example, this meant an invasion by Britain to decapitate the radicalizing national liberation struggle.

Fourth: the outcome of limited bourgeois democracy in the West objectively meant the restoration of the empires of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Whereas the Indian and Burmese freedom struggles had gained the edge over Britain during the war, decolonization in Indochina, the East Indies, Africa and the Middle East would take further wars lasting years or even decades.

Is this progressive?

Is this progressive?

Furthermore, I find that Molyneux’s account, like many of the war even on the left, is more or less in awe of fascism. No doubt, it represented a catastrophic setback to the working class of Italy and Germany, as well as the territories both occupied. But this was not a permanent defeat. One of the great merits of Gluckstein’s book on the Nazi regime is that it reminds us how hamstrung the German war effort was because of the state’s fear of the latent power of the working class. The invasion of Poland had been launched despite the fact that it would cause war in the West because of an slowdown in the German economy, which the regime feared would cause working-class unrest. During the war rationing could not be fully implemented, conscription could not be extended to requisite levels, and armaments factories did not even have two shifts until late in 1943. In other words, German society never reached a complete war mobilization because the Nazi regime feared a repeat of 1918 or 1923. When the hammer-blows of war began to rain down on Germany itself, workers were quick to rediscover their interests, especially in the form of the antifa battalions (Gluckstein 2011).

Going along with these points, the logic of Molyneux’s position might have some very disturbing humanitarian consequences. The Allies committed some of the most horrible crimes against humanity in the wartime period: the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What “objective interest” did the international proletariat have in the incineration of thousands of German and Japanese workers? No more interest, I would think, than they did in the Shoah.

“I think that revolutionary socialists should not have been neutral on D-Day or at Stalingrad,” says Molyneux. This is all very well. But what does a position in favor of the Allied forces in these battles mean – or rather, what would it have meant for the revolutionaries attempting to deal with them? Since fascism “destroyed all independent working class organization” in its home and threatened to do the same elsewhere, what concrete policy would revolutionaries follow to stop the threat? Would they join the army? Would they call on workers to stop strikes that harmed the war effort, like the Stalinists did?

I do not disagree with the truth of what Molyneux says: fascism meant the defeat of the working class as well as barbarism and extermination on a mass scale. In the face of this, I understand why many sincere revolutionaries believed that suspending the class struggle was what was required. But I respectfully disagree. Workers have no “objective interest” in the victory of their rulers in any imperialist conflict, and posing the question as one of extermination is, to my mind, something like moral blackmail.

One fact that Molyneux seems to ignore is that, during the course of the war, some revolutionary groups in the Allied nations did pursue an explicitly antiwar policy. I am thinking primarily of the American SWP, and the split from them led by Max Shachtman, the Workers’ Party. Both these groups won credibility by leading strikes against organized labor’s no-strike pledge, for which they were denounced by the Stalinists, and persecuted by the American state under the Smith Act.[12] What does Molyneux think of their efforts? Should they have desisted and joined the army?[13]

What frustrates me most of all about Molyneux’s argument, however, is the fundamentally Eurocentric terms he deals in. Though he refers at the beginning and end of his review to anti-colonial struggles in the context of the war, the substance of his analysis deals only with Europe. In what follows, I will try to correct this with the case of India, since it is the country I am most familiar with from my own studies, as well as the country in which these questions were posed most sharply.

Molyneux quotes Gluckstein’s summary favorably, so I will start from there:

On 3 September 1939 Indians woke to discover they were at war. London did not bother to ask for approval, unlike Dominions such as Canada or Australia. When Churchill told the Commons that ‘India has a great part to play in the world’s struggle for freedom’ that did not include independence for India’s 400 million, a population that exceeded the maximum number conquered by the Third Reich.

One consequence of the ‘struggle for freedom’ was the Bengal famine of 1943… It consumed between 1.5 and 3.5 million lives despite civil servants describing the previous harvest as ‘a good one’… This continued an appalling record – 12 major famines since colonization began. In the 1860s an Indian economist [Dadabhai Naoroji – B.C.] had discovered the basic cause: a sum greater than the sub-continent’s land value was drained off annually to support British occupation and profits…

The 1943 famine was directly connected to India’s involvement in the Second World War, because after it began eleven times the usual number of soldiers were maintained at the country’s expense.

Field Marshall Wavell… pointed out ‘the very different attitude towards feeding a starving population when there is starvation in Europe’. Churchill was unabashed… sending food amounted to ‘appeasement’ of the Congress Party. The official record notes that the Canadian PM had 100,000 tons of grain loaded on a ship bound for India but was ‘dissuaded by a strong personal appeal from Winston’ from sending it (Gluckstein 2012a).

The history of the war in India included not just suffering, but active and militant resistance. Initially, the Congress Party had wavered over whether India should support Britain’s war effort. Gandhi and Nehru both instinctively opposed fascism, but they did not budge from the position that Indians could not wage war for freedom when their own country was not free. Britain’s officials obstinately refused to meet their most basic requests: autonomy in administration and prosecution of the war effort, and a guarantee of independence immediately following the defeat of Germany and Japan. Thus was launched the Quit India agitation, a mass campaign of violent and nonviolent resistance involving millions of Indians at its height, which was brutally repressed by the British.

What does Molyneux think about all this? He says:

In the colonial countries it would have been necessary [for revolutionaries] to argue, in opposition to the Communist Parties, against any idea of deferring the struggle for independence. Clearly a risen and free India, and even more so a workers’ India, would have been a huge assistance to the struggle against Fascism and an infinitely harder country for Japan or Germany to subdue than an India still subjugated by Britain.

But whether “a risen and free India” would have been “a huge assistance in the struggle against fascism” and “infinitely harder” for Japan and Germany to defeat is really beside the point. This is sloganeering, not the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. Britain stood in the way of Indian independence, and this was part and parcel of its imperialist war against Germany and Japan.[14]

Bose reviews the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the all-female regiment of the INA.

Bose reviews the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the all-female regiment of the INA.

In this situation, why should the Indian people see Japan or Germany as their main enemies? They knew enough to decide this question for themselves: thousands of Indian prisoners of war in Southeast Asia joined Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which fought to liberate India alongside the Japanese. Bose and the INA won enormous popular support within India even though they only breached its northeast corridor, when they were thrown back at Imphal in 1943.

What should have been the position of Indian revolutionaries? The Trotskyists, the few that there were in India, joined in the Quit India agitation. The more numerous Trotskyists in Ceylon led illegal strikes on plantations tasked with supplying food for the war effort. From what he wrote, Molyneux seems to think they were right. But I do not see how he squares this with his support for the British war effort as a whole, considering that he believes the war to have been one united conflict. If the international working class had a direct interest in defeating fascism, and if India stood to aid this effort, shouldn’t the Indians have done their utmost to aid Britain?

Molyneux is also hesitant in his analysis of the war’s impact on the neutral countries: “I do not think that in neutral countries such as Ireland or in South America, socialists should have called for joining in the War,” is the only remark he makes. But why not? If the world’s working class had an objective interest in defeating fascism, wasn’t it the responsibility of revolutionaries in Ireland and Latin America to make sure that they joined in the struggle? To limit ourselves to Ireland alone, the consequence of this position would have been a subordinate alliance with Britain while it occupied Irish territory in Ulster.

Conclusion: The Revolution that Wasn’t There

What, therefore, was the correct strategy for revolutionaries to take in World War II? Of course, it would depend on the place. In the imperialist countries, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan, it meant very practically the continuation of class struggle and antiwar propaganda against the state. This, of course, required a great deal of bravery in extremely adverse conditions. Severe repression was meted out to those in the Allied nations who broke the no-strike pledges and agitated against the war, even if it did not match that of fascism in its sheer ferocity.

In times of war as well as peace, socialists have always found themselves in the ranks of national liberation forces, whose struggles we regard as objectively revolutionary. Revolutionaries in Eastern Europe could, and did, find themselves in the liberation struggles of Poland, Yugoslavia, and Greece against Germany, just as their counterparts in India and Ceylon struggled against British imperialism.

As these struggles moved in a radical direction, the specter of revolution was raised, just as it had been in World War I. By the end of the war, even Catholic partisans in Italy were speaking openly of the need to abolish capitalism. The people who had defeated Germany in Yugoslavia and Greece fought fascism from a left-wing stance, and expected socialism after the war. Similarly, the end of the war in the Pacific meant the defeat of Japan and the decline of Britain, and therefore the liberation of China, India, Burma, Indochina, the Philippines, and the East Indies from the imperialist yoke.

The First World War ended with the opening of a global war of the proletariat and oppressed peoples of the world against capitalism. The Second could have ended in the same way. This was, indeed, the outcome Trotsky had predicted before his death. It did not happen, because the forces of imperialism, which includes Stalinism, turned out to be stronger, more alert, and quicker on their feet than he had expected.

Needless to say, that the Stalinist and Social-Democratic leadership of workers in the Allied countries succeeded in enlisting them in the “people’s war” played a major part in forestalling the class struggle in the imperialist countries, whereas in the last war their struggles had broken out into revolution.

But this was a possible outcome, and it was the duty of revolutionaries at the time to do their best to bring it to fruition. In this respect, the record of Trotskyists in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Eastern Europe, India, Ceylon and other places is unimpeachable. The ambiguities and contradictions in the formal Trotskyist position on the war allowed militants within that movement to emphasize the parts of it that best accorded with their revolutionary, class-struggle instincts. But the blueprint itself, however one warms it over and rephrases it, lost its value even before Trotsky wrote it down.

Nevertheless, his followers carried the roots of our tradition across the explosion of war, barbarism and extermination brought on world capitalism, in both its “democratic” and fascist forms. We owe them our homage – which most of all means a clear understanding of their motivations. And saying they fought the “people’s war,” in whatever way it is posed, is an insult to their memory.


[1] Japan during the war was a straight military dictatorship. There had never been a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie to smash working class resistance. Indeed, the Japanese working class had never been ready to take power, as the German and Italian workers had. These countries are the home of fascism in its classic form – and I would argue, the only real fascist countries to date (see note 11 below). Factions within the Japanese military, particularly Kodoha (The Imperial Way) and Toseiha (Control) drew on different aspects of European fascist ideology, but both assumed top-down military rule and rejected any participation by civilians in the imperialist project.

[2] The arrival of the Red Army at the banks of the Vistula was the culmination of what was probably the speediest advance in military history, causing troops to far outrun their supply lines. Thus they were not in a position to militarily aid the uprising, though as Gluckstein points out it would have been possible to send supplies. Stalin was not interested in this because the Home Army’s success would place another barrier in the way of Soviet subjugation of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.

[3] Taking the history of the United States alone, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, both Gulf wars, and Afghanistan all come to mind.

[4] Just as Yugoslavs and some Poles looked to the Soviet Union for aid in gaining their freedom from Germany, so Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians fought alongside the Wehrmacht for their freedom from Russia. It goes without saying that nations never gained independence from Germany, and moreover the consequences of collaboration would lead many to participate in the Shoah. For any Marxist, this is one of the most thorny issues of the war and I don’t want to provide a final answer to it, just to point out that it is there and deserves much more thought.

[5] I view the Soviet Union as imperialist based on the oppression of nations internal to the USSR and its interventions in Finland, Poland and the Baltic states. Of course, this understanding is based on Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, which I do not plan on debating here. Gabriel Kolko, the American left historian, tries to deal with the same issues as Gluckstein in his classic work The Politics of War, but his understanding of the Eastern Front, and particularly of Stalin’s actions in Greece, is hamstrung because he cannot see the USSR as imperialist.

[6] The anti-fascist struggle by the Italian partisans was much broader and more radical than that of the French resistance, despite the mythmaking attempts by Mandel in the article I quoted above. France did see anti-fascist and class struggles, but on a much lower scale than in Italy or the other occupied European countries. In his review of Gluckstein’s book, Ian Birchall, also of the SWP, discusses the reactionary character of the Resistance. Gaullists and Stalinists collaborated in a strictly patriotic struggle which lauded the killings of German working-class conscripts under the slogan “à chacun son boche” – everyone should kill a German. On the other hand, French Trotskyists consistently attempted to reach German enlisted men through a paper they produced, Arbeiter und Soldat, to which they received some positive response (Birchall and Gluckstein 2012).

[7] The war in the Pacific had a quite decisive impact on the Eastern European war as well. Japan’s rulers looked just as much toward Mongolia and Siberia as they did toward Pacific and Southeast Asia as parts of the future “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” While the Nomonhan Incident/Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939 (which ended with the humiliation of Japan by the Red Army) ended their expansion toward the north at the time, a decision to strike north and west again instead of south and east would have pinned down the Soviet Union on both sides. It was only because the non-agression treaty with Japan held that Red Army units deployed in Siberia could be moved west, which saved Moscow from the Wehrmacht in the winter of 1941.

[8] It’s possible to argue that German imperialism was worse because the number of bodies from the Shoah vastly outweighs the atrocities of Britain, France and the Soviet Union during the war years. But is the number of bodies a useful Marxist category? And what practical impact does this have on our strategy and theory? In addition, if you added them up, I would hazard a guess that the number of deaths resulting from British atrocities in South Asia alone in the ninety years from the Mutiny to independence compares to that of the Shoah – in which case, it is not a matter of the numbers but rather of the shorter amount of time in which Nazi Germany killed millions, and the unique methods it employed to do so. It could be said that for Germany, a late-developing power emerging from a very recent and catastrophic defeat in WW1, its imperialist crimes were compressed into a much shorter timeframe than that allowed to the older and more “civilized” imperialism of Britain.

Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt by Richard Gott (London/New York: Verso, 2012) is an excellent and valuable synthesis on the violence and barbarism that Britain unleashed worldwide in building and consolidating its empire (1747-1857 or so). As he writes, “… Britain’s imperial experience ranks more closely with Chingiz Khan or Attila the Hun than with those of Alexander the Great… the rulers of the British Empire will one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the twentieth century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale.”

[9] Molyneux starts from a similar position to Trotsky, but his argument does not entirely match. The “proletarian military policy” is gleaned from several sketches Trotsky composed very near the end of his life with the purpose of elaborating the Fourth International’s wartime strategy – the term itself is not that of Trotsky, but of James Cannon. The American SWP and the British WIL adopted it as their official line, but it was challenged by the French CQI and the American Workers’ Party, which still considered itself a part of the International (Prometheus 1989). It is doubtful how many Trotskyists adopted this strategy, and even when they did, it proved ambiguous and failed as a guide to concrete policies (see note 12 below).

[10] At the end of his review, Molyneux notes three conflicts which he believes provide precedents for his view of WW2: the Spanish Civil War, the American Civil War, and the German occupation of Paris during the Commune. Since a reply to this does not fit easily anywhere else, I will do it in this footnote.

Molyneux argues that Spanish revolutionaries in 1936-9 gave the Republic military support against fascism, while seeking to overthrow it from within. But first of all, this is not the same as the strategy he proposes in WW2 – nowhere does he mention British workers fighting fascism on the Continent at the same time they prepared to overthrow Churchill, and indeed, this would be a nonsensical position. But he is also ignoring a decisive shift in nature of the war as it wore on – from a mass antifascist uprising based on the working class that resulted in a situation of dual power, to a proxy conflict between Italy/Germany, supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union, supporting the Republic. This shift of course was predicated on the extermination of the organs of workers’ power, the crushing of the revolutionary organizations, and the murder of many revolutionaries.

The German occupation of Paris in 1871 can be similarly disposed of. Molyneux argues here that the imperialist war between France and Prussia was turned by the establishment of the Commune into its opposite – a revolutionary war to abolish capitalism. I find this confusing. Did the Parisian workers ally with Thiers against Bismarck or vice-versa? No – the Commune was based on revolutionary opposition to both, with the hostility between the government of the Commune and Versailles ending in a war that marked the death of the revolution. Bismarck actually released a number of French prisoners of war to aid in the suppression of the Commune. The very institutions of the Third Republic were forged in combat with the Commune and collaboration with Prussia, just as the counterrevolutionary settlement after WW2 in Europe was imposed in opposition to the class, national and antifascist struggles in Greece, Italy and France.

Molyneux’s mention of the American Civil War in this context is actually very disappointing. The Civil War was not an inter-imperialist conflict. It was a revolutionary war to abolish slavery, in which the Northern bourgeoisie was a key protagonist – see my article on leftist views of the movie Lincoln. Molyneux should know that it was on this basis that Marx supported a cross-class alliance – because in 1861, this was both possible and necessary. The years 1939-45, as I have tried to summarize, tell a very different story.

[11] Franco had defeated the Spanish Republic in a conventional military conflict, and the fascist party in Spain – the National Falange led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera – was demobilized early on in the war. Later, they were told to merge with the Carlists, a traditionalist Catholic movement supporting the royal claims of the younger line of Bourbon pretenders to the throne, centered in Navarra. This was a bitter pill for the Falangists, who saw themselves as modernizers. I think Spain was a case in which the ruling class found it still possible to rule through the traditional institutions of the military and the Church, rather than having to resort to the battering ram of fascism. Of course, this was only possible thanks to heavy military support from fascist Italy and Germany. (For the record, I do not believe Romania, Hungary, etc were fascist either, based on a similar rationale).

[12] The WP split from the American SWP in 1939 over the defense of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, a conflict immediately precipitated by the Soviet invasion of Finland. Of the existing Trotskyist groups, they were probably the ones to draw the sharpest line against any notion of a “people’s war” or “war to save democracy.” The January 1942 issue of their newspaper, Labor Action, ran the following slogan on its masthead: “The War to Save Democracy: End Jim Crow.”

Since before the split, Shachtman and his followers had defended the strategy of the Third Camp, independent of the Entente powers, the Axis, and the Soviet Union alike. While their erstwhile comrades in the SWP officially adopted the “proletarian military policy” (note 9, above) they rapidly broke with it in practice. A 1942 editorial in its magazine Fourth International by James Cannon said the following:

We considered the war upon the part of all the capitalist powers involved—Germany and France, Italy and Great Britain — as an imperialist war.

This characterization of the war was determined for us by the character of the state powers involved in it. They were all capitalist states in the epoch of imperialism; themselves imperialist—oppressing other nations or peoples—or satellites of imperialist powers. The extension of the war to the Pacific and the formal entry of the United States and Japan change nothing in this basic analysis.

While Cannon wrote that the defense of the Soviet Union, still a workers’ state, was progressive (as was the Chinese freedom struggle against Japan), he maintained that the military efforts of Britain and France were primarily intended “to maintain their lordship over the hundreds of millions of subject peoples in the British and French empires.” To defend this, he wrote, “means to defend their oppression of the masses of Africa and Asia, above all it means to defend the decaying capitalist social order” (Cannon 1942). These documents from New International, Labor Action, and Fourth International, are available online along with much more, thanks to the untiring work of Einde O’Callaghan.

[13] I do not mean to say that joining the army was not a legitimate decision, even for a revolutionary. Molyneux is right to argue that both in Britain and America, support for the war effort was consistently high. I think that revolutionaries could, at the time, make the decision to join the armed forces since this was where the working class was going – but without having any illusions in the war effort, and seeking opportunities to agitate against it from within. Duncan Hallas, much later a leader of the British SWP, had joined up, but after the war led a strike in the British Army in Egypt. Such actions led to the quick withdrawal of Britain from the colonial world. What Hallas did is very different from the scabbing that Stalinists openly engaged in during the war.

In the article I quote above in note 11, Cannon also did not call on revolutionaries to resist conscription: “The Trotskyists go with their generation into the armed forces. We abide by the decisions of the majority. But we retain our opinions and insist on our right to express them.”

[14] I have written elsewhere about the class character of the Indian freedom struggle. I will just say that a “worker’s India” was nowhere in the cards during the 1940s. Furthermore, in practical terms a free India would have actually served to hinder the struggle against the Axis. It is far more convenient to wage war with the existing army and state apparatus than to move to an entirely different system in the middle of struggle. I don’t think Molyneux would argue on these terms for the suspension of the freedom struggle, but it is hidden in the logic of his position.


Birchall, Ian, and Donny Gluckstein (2012). “Review and Response: A People’s History of the Second World War.”

Cannon, James (1942). “A Statement on the War,” in Fourth International 3.1, pp. 3-4.

Gluckstein, Donny (2011). The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class. Chicago: Haymarket.

Gluckstein, Donny (2012a). A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance versus Empire. London: Pluto.

Gluckstein, Donny (2012b). “War, Resistance and Revolution.” Lecture at the 2012 Historical Materialism Conference in London, UK, November 10th.

Mandel, Ernest (1976). “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two.” Lecture transcript from the International Marxist Group Conference, London, UK.

Molyneux, John (2012). “Review: Donny Gluckstein, A People’s History of the Second World War,” in Irish Marxist Review 1.4, pp. 89-98.

Prometheus Research Library (1989). Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’ – Prometheus Research Series No. 2.

Trotsky, Leon (1940a). “How to Really Defend Democracy.” Fourth International 1.5, pp.126-127.

Trotsky, Leon (1940b). “Some Questions on American Problems.” Fourth International 1.5, pp. 132-135.


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Homeland – Season Two Recap

My opinion of the show Homeland, which I’ve previously written about, varied dramatically across the second season, which ended with a bang last Sunday. My general assessment of the show’s politics has not changed – it was and remains the liberal side of 24, war-on-terror imperialism given a shave and some perfume for the Obama era.

Many spoilers lie ahead. If you haven’t seen the second season, you may want to stop reading.

One thing I was fairly pleased by was the termination of Brody’s “Manchurian candidate” status. They prolonged it a bit, but it was obvious from episode four with his arrest and interrogation by the CIA that he was never going to hold high office. They made him a Congressman, which is unlikely enough given his character, and thankfully they decided that was enough. I don’t think I could have continued watching the show if he had ascended into higher office. I have a certain tolerance for kitsch, but I have been extraordinarily generous to this show given its awful politics and Brody the vice-president would have certainly tipped the show over the edge.

In fact, season two passed without any major changes in our main characters, which I was pleasantly surprised by. In the case of Brody, I was afraid that he would be flipped back to “our side” and become unrealistically repentant. Fortunately, the season ends by showing him still a faithful Muslim, and still holding certain anti-American political beliefs which I’m guessing both the show’s creators and much of its audience find rather discomfiting in their reasonableness.

Brody's martyr video comes back to haunt him this season. Too bad he has trouble opening his mouth, so no one could understand what he was saying.

Brody’s martyr video comes back to haunt him this season. Too bad he has trouble opening his mouth, so no one could understand what he was saying.

He showed himself to be a free agent when he participated directly in the assassination of VP Walden, and though I think this is left ambiguous, I’m pretty sure the episode which shows his conversation with Abu Nazir points to a role in the attack on t

he CIA in the finale. Of course he would deny this in front of Carrie – but the show’s writers are good enough that Brody doesn’t necessarily have to necessarily be on one side or the other. He can have strong feelings for Carrie while remain perfectly convinced an attack on the CIA is the right thing to do, and I’m not sure how much I would disagree with him given the character history.

While we’re on the subject, I thought this article by Laila al-Arian, a wonderful Palestinian-American journalist and activist (who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in DC) was pretty much spot on in terms of the show’s overall Islamophobic content. I do disagree with her a bit in that I think the characterization of Brody – I think the show allows for him having motivations that may have nothing to do with religion. That said, I do agree with Laila that Islam is the show’s “other,” if in a slightly more dynamic way than in 24 or Zero Dark Thirty, and that this justifies indefinite detention, racial profiling, and so on. I can’t say this enough times, so please don’t misunderstand me when I praise the show’s relative merits within its genre.

On the subject of Carrie I don’t have much to say, as she has not changed one bit that I can tell – she remains both insane and practically clairvoyant, a sort of demented Cassandra thrust into the war on terror. We saw her obsession with Brody retreat a bit, then come back full force, with all the gratuitous sex scenes that entails. One of the reasons I was particularly happy with the ending of this season was that it ruled out pretty definitively the idea of Carrie and Brody being “happy together” – as if they could even conceive of what happiness is. Though once again, they rolled out just enough string for us to see this as a possibility.

(While we’re on the subject, I don’t really care that much for Saturday Night Live, but this sketch taking on Homeland was AWESOME. “She’s downing pills with white wine… her eyes are pointing in five different directions… great, now she’s going into one of her jazz freakouts” (Estes). “David, she’s only violated my trust every time I gave it to her. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t trust her again” (Saul.)

If there was one character whose trajectory I find questionable in this series, it is that of the Brody family collectively. His son was never really a character to speak of, and Morena Baccharin remains the beautiful, tormented wife who finally jumps ship for Mike as we all knew she would, but Dana was the one who really had potential as a character, with her bond with Brody over his faith and her skepticism toward all things Washington.

Unfortunately the storyline with her and Finn Walden in which they kill a random working-class woman and then have their political connections cover it up for them got pretty cringe-inducing at times, and her guilt and naïveté never really came through in a coherent way to overcome that – the story just sort of meandered along and then was dropped, with the attack on the CIA forming a convenient deus ex machina to kill off Finn so it can’t be brought up again. I don’t see much room for any story left in the remaining Brodys now that the sergeant has departed.

I’m also concerned about the character of Saul a little bit. Throughout, he has been just barely believable as the only person with a conscience in the Agency (OK, Carrie has a conscience too, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of any major decisions, such as having sex with Brody, again). Saul’s Jewishness makes him into sort of the Old Testament prophet of the series, the sole moral voice crying in the desert of sin. He even has the thick beard and a voice that can go from gravelly to shrill in seconds to go along with it.

But to appropriate Spike Lee’s famous phrase, at a certain point he turns from the moral conscience of the show into the “magical Jew” who guides Carrie’s and everyone else’s behavior while shaking his head silently about their faults. Nevertheless, it seems that Saul may become at least the acting head of the Agency with the death of Estes and other bigwigs in the attack that ends this season, so I am interested to see if his moral qualms about the dirty business of American empire will be affected when he is in charge.

Some interesting politics are also thrown up in the course of the second season as well: we find out that both Abu Nazir and Roya Ahmad, Brody’s al-Qa’eda master and his handler respectively, are Palestinian refugees whose families fled the Nakba in 1948. I noted in my last article about Homeland that its original inspiration was the Israeli series Prisoners of War; it seems that show’s creators are also onboard as executive producers in our version. Israeli cinema and television have a long and storied liberal strain in their pro-genocide material that experts on the matter have called “shooting and crying,” which this show certainly owes a great deal to.

Since he's smiling you can't really tell he's a terrorist mastermind from this picture. But just wait until he schools Carrie on Islamic morality.

Since he’s smiling you can’t really tell he’s a terrorist mastermind from this picture. But just wait until he schools Carrie on Islamic morality.

In any case, it is rare enough that the Nakba is mentioned in American media, and when it is, people are not bold enough to come out and say the Palestinians were chased from their country without a quick addendum being added about the Arab armies having told them to flee or the Mufti of Jerusalem’s collaboration with Hitler. I was shocked to find mention of 1948 not once, but twice or more in Homeland this season without any of these typical justifications – just sort of set alongside the attack that killed Isa, hinting that maybe those Muslims do have some kind of reason to turn to terror. Unfortunately this was not developed into anything at all, just left hanging there. Something that was clearly such a formative experience in the life of the show’s main nemesis you would have hoped for something a little more concrete, but I guess the Israeli origins of the show make it incredible enough that the Nakba was even mentioned.

While we’re on the subject of Abu Nazir: very, very sloppy, as Laila writes in the article I linked to above. This is not just limited to his long arm that commands a force equipped with helicopters and death squads in the mainland United States, although I spent a lot of time cursing at the screen for those. In the first episodes, we have him meeting with Hezbollah commanders – while later on in the season we have Carrie reminding him as she is his captive about a certain occasion in which his soldiers massacred a large number of Shia children.

Now, I am not an expert on the finer points of political Islam, nor do I expect the show’s writers to be. Nevertheless, a little bit of fact-checking might have made them aware that there is no love lost between Salafism (the puritanical Sunni strain of political Islam dominant in al-Qa’eda and such related groups, and presumably Nazir’s affiliation) and the Shia revivalism in Lebanon that finds its political expression in Hezbollah. Not to say that Sunni and Shia Islamists would categorically never work together, but I think it is quite unlikely a man who is known for sectarian killings of Shia children would ever find himself breaking bread with the leadership of Hezbollah unless they were planning on putting a bullet in his head.

These kind of moments don’t just make me cringe. They are an expression of the limits of the Homeland brand of liberal imperialism that we know all too well. It may play kissyface with “good Muslims,” but at a certain point the mask falls off and it becomes clear the show neither knows nor cares about Muslim people, which is pointed out all too well by the fact the writers apparently don’t care enough to get their facts straight on the inherent complexities of Middle Eastern society. The show can never rise above this fundamental limit, and I can pretty confidently predict these banalities will spell its demise.

Overall a good season. It skated pretty close to the edge sometimes, but held back. We’ll see how they do next year.


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What Adam Lanza Tells us about Mental Illness

I’m not going to talk about the actual story of the tragic killing of 26 in Connecticut on Friday. It is hard to write about, and I believe most people know the story well enough already.

I don’t know if Adam Lanza was mentally ill. It seems probable, but all the speculation about what he might have been seem, well, counter-productive, to say the least. The media’s endless pontificating about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc, is harmful not just because it stigmatizes mental illness. It distracts us from the root causes of it in what is by any way you look at it a profoundly sick and alienated society.

Similar to our obsession with serial killers, the random outbursts of people with, for example, schizophrenia (a word which almost no one, I think, has any idea what it really means) form part of a comforting narrative that the causes of random violence and inhumanity lie external to the fundamental workings of a capitalist society, in some sort of weird fucked-up-ness that cannot be explained, though it is perversely fascinating.

I write this because, as happens with these things, the perception of Adam Lanza, who he was and why he did what he did, become much more important than who he actually was and why he did what he did. As with Columbine, as with Virginia Tech, the events and the killers become a sort of mirror on which we project the things lurking in our collective neuroses: Judeo-Christian morals, mental illness, gun control, the nuclear family and so on.

As a case in point, we have the article by “Anarchist Soccer Mom” and the various responses to it: here and here.

Now, the article is by a mother whose son clearly has some kind of mental disorder that causes outbursts of random and violent behavior toward his mother and other loved ones. “The girl who was thursday” complains that this stigmatizes the mentally ill by not giving her son’s unique perspective, and goes on to insinuate that she collaborates with psychiatrists in mistreating her son through the prescription of antipsychotics which can be counter-indicated for young people.

This seems to me to be fairly typical of the sentiment thrown up by the sketchier edges of the disability movement. The assumption here is, and it is one we need to keep in mind, that the mentally ill are not just ciphers for “treatment” and normalization – they have their own unique views which do not match those of society in general, and may not need treatment, in fact, psychiatric treatment may be harmful. When united with the idea that the mentally ill are far more often victims of violence than its perpetrators, which is perfectly correct of course these two reasonable assumptions can turn into something toxic.

The problem with this view is that mental disorders often do indicate violent behavior, especially toward loved ones. I don’t know what disorder “Anarchist soccer mom’s” son might have. But I do know that even for young people with bipolar disorder, violent behavior is, while not common, certainly not unheard of. People who are known to myself and my family have had experience with the same behavior she describes of her son: threats to kill oneself and others, attempts to make good on these (by, for example, picking up a knife) at which point they have to resort to very similar emergency protocols, locking their child downstairs, evacuating the house or taking them to an ER.

Pretending that this doesn’t happen is wishful thinking. It doesn’t help the mentally ill at all to assume that they are not – well, ill. Nor does it help at all those who have to deal with that illness. In the capitalist United States which never really had a welfare state to speak of, and the social safety net of which is rapidly being shredded to the glee of both major political parties, this is their families first, last and always.

It’s actually kind of sad that I should have to demonstrate that mental illness is an illness rather than a unique and even desirable or romantic viewpoint on the world. It strikes me as bizarre, not to say incredibly condescending, for someone to say that the incredibly dark moods I enter into as a result of my brain chemistry is “romantic” in some way, or that it is “romantic” that I find it nearly impossible to relate to even those closest to me, or carry on a basic conversation.

So is it unreasonable that “anarchist soccer mom” is afraid of her son? I don’t think so. I would be afraid for her if she wasn’t. Will her son massacre random strangers some day, as did Adam Lanza? Probably not. But the same neglect our society shows toward her and her son is what unleashes the Adam Lanzas, the Seung-Hui Chos, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Kliebolds on the world. In our society, while the greatest purveyors of violence are our own government and ruling class, it is always the ordinary people who will pay the price for their neglect.

When I read her post, I couldn’t help thinking of my own mother. She is probably the smartest, strongest, and most caring person I know. Over the past eight years, she battled against the great adversity emerging out of a very bitter divorce to earn enough money through a poorly-rewarded freelance writing career for herself and her two sons, to feed, clothe and educate them. Her two sons both happened to have what is called major depressive disorder, one of them being much worse than the other.

Tears come to my eyes when I think of all she went through to try and fix what was wrong with my brother, and to a lesser extent myself and my uncle, who moved in with us a month before I went to college. She had no help from anyone in dealing with a high school student whose addled brain chemistry would simply not allow him to get out of bed. I don’t want to reveal too many details, but when the school authorities blame you as a parent for your child’s truancy and failing grades, well…

I thank the nonexistent deity that my brother and I have not threatened to harm others or ourselves (well, most of the time). It is hard enough dealing with depression.

I’m not sure how to respond to the second article from Jezebel, a leftwing feminist website whose pieces I usually appreciate. The thrust of the piece seems to be that focusing on mental illness in the case of Adam Lanza is a distraction from the more important issue of gun control.

Not sure what to say about this, except to point out the wonderful ability of the capitalist system to turn something that seems perfectly unobjectionable and even humanitarian (for example, sending college graduates to teach in inner-city schools) into its opposite. Actually existing gun control on a national scale will almost certainly not mean restrictions on white, rightwing or genuinely mentally ill psychotics obtaining guns.

What it will mean is the extension of stop-and-frisk programs that currently assist in the subjugation of people of color in New York City to every community in the United States. Gun control is a panacea to middle-class liberals – it is very unlikely to cause a decrease in crimes like this, and is almost certain to cause a steep increase in police violence against our lower classes.

Talking about mental illness is not a distraction. If this tragic event sparks a national conversation on how to better take care of people like Adam Lanza, and this can get united with the demands of the mentally ill for top-quality care on a national scale, then we will be able to say that something good came out of it.

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The Bourgeois Revolution in India, Part 2


In the last section of my essay on the bourgeois revolution in India, I gave some account of the early independence movement, and thereafter traced its development alongside that of Marxism. The early Comintern developed a blueprint for Communists attempting to strategize around nationalist demands in colonial situations, and this blueprint was developed with specific reference to the situation of India. I then suggested the different ways in which this blueprint was adopted by the Stalinist CPI from its founding in 1930 until independence, and by the 4th International led by Leon Trotsky.


Marxist Perspectives: The International Socialist Tradition (1963-present)

In this section, I want to attempt several different things. First, to continue with Cliff as he departed from orthodox Trotskyism, while at the same time preserving the insight of Trotsky for the current world situation. For our purposes, this discussion will be centered around a discussion of his brilliant article, “Deflected Permanent Revolution.”

At the same time, I will try to unite his insights with those of his comrades John Rees, writing on the democratic revolution and the socialist revolution, and Alex Callinicos, who is largely responsible for the most coherent Marxist viewpoint on bourgeois revolution. Finally, I will deal with Neil Davidson, whose book on bourgeois revolution is the most important book on the subject to date. I will attempt, based on the previous discussion, to explain what the contributions of Cliff, Rees, Callinicos and Davidson help us to understand about Indian independence, as well as what they do not.

“Deflected Permanent Revolution,” written in 1963 for International Socialism, is an outstanding contribution to postwar Marxism. Cliff, observing that Trotsky’s prediction of socialism or barbarism by war’s end had been invalidated, set out to reconstruct the theory of permanent revolution on this basis. Western capitalism had stabilized, as had Stalinism, regarded by Cliff and his few co-thinkers as a form of state capitalism.

Nevertheless, the world situation had changed substantially outside the spheres of the great powers. In China and Cuba, social revolutions had taken place that produced societies closely resembling that of the Stalinist USSR. Similarly, countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and succeeded in separating themselves from imperialism through mass freedom movements – these produced state capitalism in some places, and mixed economies in others. Trotsky had clearly been wrong when he expected that the only way to overthrow imperialism was a socialist revolution led by the working class.

This is not a picture of Tony Cliff.

This is not a picture of Tony Cliff.

Why was Trotsky wrong? Cliff wrote that objective conditions in the colonial world that Trotsky could not have foreseen had blocked the development of working-class consciousness, the subjective condition for a socialist revolution. This had to do with colonial repression as much as the disorganization foisted on the labor movement by a semi-urban, semi-rural economy that imperialism had failed to develop beyond its own immediate profit interests.

Millions of workers in the developing world, wrote Cliff, only worked for a wage part of the year with the goal of gaining enough money to maintain subsistence in their rural homes, to which they returned as farmers. They still identified as peasants rather than workers, which blocked the development of a coherent trade-union movement as the precursor to class-consciousness.

Trade unions that did develop ran up against the obstacles of Stalinism and nationalism. Organizers did not rise organically from the workers, but came from the left-leaning nationalist and Stalinist groups outside the class. Workers became dependent on these organizers to solve their problems, rather than developing a sense of class solidarity that could be employed in struggles with the bosses. Here, Cliff is referring explicitly to the Indian case.

So the working class in these countries was incapable of putting an end to imperialism. However, the crisis of imperialism in its colonial and semi-colonial possessions made revolutionary change inevitable. Cliff proposed that in this situation, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia could take revolutionary agency. The colonial intellectuals were the ones tasked with some of the running of their countries, but their advancement was blocked by imperialism, at which they felt resentful.

Being of high education, they simultaneously felt a deep connection to their colonized nation and contempt toward its lower classes, making them in their opinion the nation’s natural representatives. In a colonial crisis and with the support of mass movements of the peasantry, they could overthrow imperialism in their countries, but engineer systems that would contain further development within the limits set by capitalism. As such, the permanent revolution Trotsky had proposed was deflected in the absence of a revolutionary proletariat toward the establishment of state capitalism (Cliff 1963).

Though Cliff wrote of China and Cuba primarily, he intended his article as a sketch of developments broadly explaining all the successful anti-colonial movements – particularly, the Free Officers in Egypt and the Congress in India. In this respect, his thesis was certainly a step forward. Though Cliff is much maligned by orthodox Trotskyists, he was, I think, quite orthodox in his approach. He salvaged Trotsky’s permanent revolution in the only way possible. The only alternative would be to pretend that real independence for these countries had not taken place, a view many Trotskyists indeed took.

However, broad strokes only get us so far. There are similarities between China, Cuba, Egypt, and India that are summed up well by Cliff’s article, but also vast differences between them. The Stalinist intelligentsia leading a mass peasant insurgency to overthrow a corrupt landlord regime (China) is not the same as a relatively small band of left-nationalist guerrillas taking power in a deep crisis and with worker and peasant passivity (Cuba). Nor is a coup by young nationalist officers against a decrepit semicolonial state (Egypt) the same as a mass movement of workers and peasants with a stable middle-class leadership toppling the strongest colonial state the world has ever known (India).

Cliff regarded China and Cuba as “the classic, the purest, and most extreme cases” of deflected permanent revolution, while India, Egypt, Algeria and Ghana among others were “deviations from the norm.” This is understandable in the terms of classical Marxism, which presents the bourgeois revolutions similarly. The Great French Revolution of 1789 is “the classic, purest and most extreme case” of bourgeois revolution because of its rapid development beyond the limits of the old order based on a mass democratic upsurge.My objection to Cliff’s formulation is similar to an objection to those conceptions of traditional Marxism that have France as the exemplar of bourgeois revolution. If the aim is to cement the dominance of the anti-colonial intelligentsia and forestall a revolution from below, isn’t one path that accomplishes this just as effective as another? If the Indian middle class could accomplish this without establishing full state capitalism, then why should theirs be considered a “deviation” – certainly a huge deviation considering India’s size and importance in terms of the developments Cliff is dealing with.

One other objection: in 1947 Cliff had written, correctly, that the Congress was the representative of the Indian bourgeoisie. In “Deflected Permanent Revolution,” however, it is the intelligentsia, rather than the bourgeoisie, which leads the way in the anti-colonial revolutions. This should be seen as an attempt to rescue Trotsky’s idea that the bourgeoisie of colonized nations remained weak and vacillating, scared by resistance from below and compromising with imperialism wherever possible. The anti-colonial revolutions were pursued against, rather than with, the bourgeoisie.

In India, however, this was clearly not the case. There is a well-documented history of Indian capitalists supporting the Congress. Several leading industrialists became devotees of Gandhi. His statements that workers should seek moral purity rather than higher wages perfectly suited them. Gandhi could not have survived as a leader – or the Congress as an organization – without their generous support. Because of the peculiarities of the Indian transition to capitalism which Cliff perceived so acutely, the bourgeoisie had no reason to be afraid of a working-class and peasant insurgency a la Russia in 1917 (the major exception, of course, would be the Naval Mutiny of 1945). But the leadership of the Indian bourgeoisie in the freedom struggle is unaccounted for by Cliff. Further contributions in his tradition would, however, correct this oversight.

Very quickly, I want to consider one such contribution before I move on to what I believe is of more weight. John Rees’ article “From the Democratic Revolution to the Socialist Revolution” is a major reexamination of the Marxist concept of the relationship of democracy to socialism, and the telescoping of democratic and socialist demands, since Lenin and Trotsky a key assumption of Marxism.

Rees’ article covers revolutions over the entire modern era. His analysis of each of them is fascinating, but does not bear repetition here. The thrust of the piece is an attempt to understand revolutions that, while they overthrew undemocratic regimes, did not end in a socialist transformation, instead stopping short at bourgeois democracy. When Rees wrote the article in 1999, there were many examples of this near to hand: the Eastern European revolutions of 1989-92, the end of apartheid South Africa in 1993, and the Indonesian revolution of 1997. We might now add Venezuela in 2002 and ongoing, Bolivia in 2004, and the Arab revolutions of 2011 – though the outcome of these remains very much contested as I write.

What Rees proposes is a renovation of Marx’s concept of a political revolution versus a social revolution. While revolutionary socialists assert the link between democratic demands and socialist demands, such a link does not have to exist in practice. In a revolutionary ferment, sections of the bourgeoisie are perfectly capable of transforming the state to be more democratic in appearance at the same time they strive to maintain their economic dominance. In fact, doing the one assists in the other. Rees writes of Indonesia:

The elections, which there had been plans to delay, were called for June 1999… The People’s Democratic Party (PRD), the party furthest left on the Indonesian political spectrum, was legalised and allowed to stand in elections, although some of its leading figures remain behind bars…

But the regime did not just trust the outcome of the elections to pro-democratic sentiment. It has reshaped the armed forces, giving the police a separate structure it did not have before. It recruited hundreds of thousands of ‘civilian militia’, armed with shields and bamboo canes, and under military command. And it continued to spread religious and ethnic conflict through agents provocateurs. The aim is not to totally suppress the movement in the Suharto manner, but to keep it within the bounds of the election process and so destroy the possibility of a revolutionary alternative arising among the mass of the population, a fear common in ruling circles at the start of 1999…

The Indonesian bourgeoisie, including its liberal wing, is in an analogous position to the bourgeoisie that Marx described in 1848. It is even now ‘grumbling at those above, trembling at those below’… But the Indonesian liberal bourgeoisie is not in this condition because it is tied to an old feudal order by its late development, but because it is tied to an already developed capitalist state, which they want to reform but not to overthrow. They are also confronted by a working class of far greater size than that which so terrified the German bourgeoisie in 1848.

The Indonesian student movement and the left have been caught off guard by these developments… they expected the state to resist any such change and assumed that it would have to be fought for in a ‘proper’ democratic revolution.” (Rees 1999).

This is, in continuation of Cliff’s work, a further step away from orthodox Trotskyist assumptions. Revolutions invariably begin with democratic demands, but they will also end with them if revolutionaries are not prepared to create the link between democracy and socialism in practice. A social revolution can be deflected into a political revolution – and, as we see in the examples he lists as well as others like Portugal in 1973 and Iran in 1979, all of them have been in some way or another.

So far as I know, this is the only famous painting with the phrase "bourgeois revolution" in the title.

So far as I know, this is the only famous painting with the phrase “bourgeois revolution” in the title.

This can help us to understand Indian independence as well. Revolutionary movements like them begin with democratic demands, and in India, it began and ended with them. Trotsky forecast a struggle for independence on a socialist basis, but there was no inevitability about this, and indeed it did not emerge. In fact, the Congress took over and reformed the colonial state, rather than smashing it from below. Trotsky and his early followers had excluded this as a possibility. Indian independence was a political revolution – but as we will see, it resembled earlier social revolutions in its consequences.

The third contribution is the article “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism” by Alex Callinicos. Written for the summer 1989 issue of International Socialism commemorating the bicentennial of the Great French Revolution, Callinicos’ article is a major broadside against academic revisionism at the same time as it seeks to reestablish a coherent Marxist concept of bourgeois revolution.

The revolutions of England, France and so on, wrote revisionists, were heavily misinterpreted by Marxists. In the first place, the concept of a bourgeois revolution was incoherent. How could there be a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie directly leading – which we see in none of the classic cases? Furthermore, how could these revolutions establish capitalism when some of these countries were already mostly capitalist (England), failed in their transition (Holland) or did not reach their industrial takeoff until decades afterwards (France)? And how were they “democratic” as Marxists claimed if they took place at the expense of the vast majority?

Callinicos answers all these charges. In his view, the bourgeoisie does not necessarily have to “lead” a bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie is the main beneficiary. But even in the classic cases, many, if not most, capitalists stood aside or even sided with absolutism, as in England and France.

This is linked to another of the charges: Callinicos argues that there is nothing necessarily “democratic” about the bourgeois revolution, thus clearing up a major ambiguity in the Marxist tradition on the subject. The American Civil War, the Prussian unification of Germany, the Italian Risorgimento and the Meiji Restoration in Japan – all of these events were carried out from above.

Bourgeois revolutions, in essence, include any revolution that leads to the establishment of what Callinicos calls an “independent center of capital accumulation.” In the early days of the modern era, capitalism only had tenuous footholds in Western Europe. The Dutch Revolt, English Civil War, and French Revolution therefore, were key in the rise of capitalism as a world system. They overcame feudal obstacles that stood in the way of capitalist development.

Later revolutions would consolidate capitalism in a single country so could compete with previously established powers. The Meiji Restoration was launched in direct response to the threat of Western imperialism. It would establish capitalist relations, in the process transforming Japan into a power capable of competing with the West for colonies and profits. This implantation of capitalist relations by the state was another legitimate form of the bourgeois revolution (Callinicos 1989).

Capitalism by the 19th century was a worldwide system whose progress could not be reversed. But this did not end the era of bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie of colonized countries aspired to independent centers of accumulation just as their masters had accomplished for themselves hundreds of years previous. Here Callinicos returns to Cliff’s concept of the deflected permanent revolution. He notes the connection between these events and the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century – the revolutions in China and Cuba among others had cleared the countries of imperialist domination, so they could compete as full partners within the capitalist world system.

This “consequentialist” view of bourgeois revolution was taken up and developed substantially by Neil Davidson his recently published book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? This nearly 800-page tome, which remains lively and fertile throughout, cannot be summarized in this article; I can only give my strongest recommendation that everyone read it for themselves.

Of the connection between bourgeois revolutions and the “deflected permanent revolutions” explored by Callinicos, Davidson argues there is little reason not to consider these events as bourgeois revolutions themselves. Certainly, in cases like that of China in 1927 and Iran in 1979, the permanent revolution was deflected. Other countries, like India, however, did not have the same possibility of a political revolution transforming into a social revolution: there was no working-class revolutionary agent, and therefore, no permanent revolution to deflect (Davidson 2012).

Buy, read, and meditate on this book.

Buy, read, and meditate on this book.

What happened in countries like India, he suggests, is very much similar to the normal path of capitalist development taken earlier in Europe. In both of these, a bourgeoisie develops in the interstices of a system that blocks it from transforming itself into a ruling class. So a revolution is accomplished to remove those barriers, leading to either the bourgeoisie constituting itself as the ruling class or a new bourgeoisie forming out of the middle-class intelligentsia that led the revolution. In either case, the bourgeoisie becomes an independent player on the world stage.

But there is an important difference between bourgeois revolutions taking place before and after the establishment of capitalism worldwide. Before this point, revolutionaries were forced to overcome the barriers of feudalism through force, which explains to a certain extent the mass character of the revolutions in Holland, England, France, and perhaps the United States.

But after the worldwide transition to capitalism was on its way, its achievements were there to be adopted by feudal or tributary states, as happened in Japan. Or a state existing over already recognizably capitalist societies could be reformed from above to eliminate obstacles to their full development as independent players within the system, as happened in Canada. Capitalism had been introduced through the banners of mass, democratic social revolutions. But after the turning point, they could stop at being political revolutions, as capitalism as a social system was already well entrenched.

Davidson is correct to link anti-colonial revolutions with the previous bourgeois revolutions: both, as we have seen, took various paths, from above and from below. Some mobilized the masses to smash the previous state, while others accomplished their goals through a military effort followed by intensive reforms.

In this respect there is little to differentiate India, China, Cuba and Egypt in the twentieth century from France, the United States, Italy and Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth. All of them were revolutions that established a new social order with the same goal: independent capitalist accumulation.

We can see the implications of this analysis for Indian independence pretty clearly. It was a bourgeois political revolution. The nascent Indian bourgeoisie replaced the British as the ruling class, and the state was reformed to make India an independent center of accumulation as well as to enshrine bourgeois democracy. But the process ended there.

Gandhi as a Bourgeois Revolutionary

The independence movement, therefore, succeeded in freeing India from Britain. India became a capitalist power in its own right, pursuing policies independent of both main power blocs.

Its course to modernity was, of course, punctuated by many fits and starts. In the Nehru era, a significant attempt was made to establish industry through import-substitution in a state capitalist model. This effort was successful up to a point, but failed to guarantee the ruling class sufficient profits and incentive to invest. After this, India was opened to the global market beginning in the 1980s (Chibber 2003). But regardless, an independent center of capital accumulation was established.

Today, India is a capitalist power of global significance. Not only did its economy boom after the transition away from state capitalism, but its bourgeoisie also became assertive and predatory on the international market. The largest steel company in the world today is an Indian company, acquired from British and other hostile European interests. Such has led to the slogan “India Shining,” put forward by the BJP government of 1998-2004.

At the political end, the Indian state is well on the way to becoming an imperialist power in its own right. It flexed its muscles by assisting Sri Lanka in ending the Tamil national liberation struggle, it maintains a protectorate over Bhutan and a cool hostility toward developments in Nepal, while it bolsters the Burmese junta against China. We can already see hints of a major realignment that will bring the United States and India closer together, leaving out its eternal rival, Pakistan. These things make little sense without an understanding of the victorious development of Indian capital after 1947.

To elucidate this process somewhat more, I will spend the last part of this article focusing on M.K. Gandhi, the eccentric, mystical and dictatorial commander of what I consider to be the bourgeois revolution in India. If a king is in essence a relationship between people, in which “the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person,” (Trotsky 1971) then we should not hesitate to analyze a leader of such stature as Gandhi from a similar perspective. We may find out a lot about the social relations of India’s bourgeois revolution by analyzing him.

Unfortunately, Gandhi is very poorly understood by the left. This was true in his own time. Depending on the period, Stalinists either looked to him as a genuine representative of the nationalist and democratic demands of the Indian masses, or as a traitor who was bound up with British imperialism. Trotskyists as we have seen took the second line exclusively. One major historian of Indian socialism writes of him as a “British spy and saboteur of Indian interests” (Chowdhury 2007). In one respect it is refreshing to be reminded that Gandhi’s personality cult is not unchallenged in India. But such a view, I think, blocks real understanding of his role.


Yeah… I have no words.

The left in the United States, where I am based, has similarly spilled much ink over the years reviling Gandhi. This is understandable. While Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence was a formative influence on progressive struggles including the early black civil rights and anti-war movements in this country (Isserman 1993), in more recent times, his often-quoted line that we should “be the change we want to see in the world” has become a justification for passivity and identity politics. Any revolutionary organization can and should draw a sharp line between socialism and Gandhism.

One article from the International Socialist Review puts it like this:

Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence, whose moral force propelled several mass movements forward in their initial phases, repeatedly held back the struggles at key moments. As a result, privileged groups in the urban centers and countryside were able to detach the struggle for political independence from the struggle for radical social change–and thus thwarted Gandhi’s own goals of social justice. The British were gone, but the bureaucracy and police they built up still functioned with little change–and continued to repress workers’ and peasants’ uprisings. Gandhi’s will had been strong, but class forces proved stronger.

And Gandhi never promoted the class force–workers–that could have helped him in his final struggle to unite Hindus and Muslims. Only class struggle could have achieved what Gandhi’s purely moral mission attempted.

The movement didn’t have to turn out in such a mess. Potentially revolutionary situations existed in the periods 1919-22 and 1946-47, but no mass party with revolutionary goals had been forged to steer the movements to victory (Moradian and Whitehouse 2000).

This is a well-put, concise and fairly representative statement on Gandhi’s legacy from the left. I must not be misunderstood: it is incredibly important to reject neo-Gandhian politics. But such an attitude should not deter us from a real historical appreciation of the man’s role in Indian history. From this perspective, the article is completely unsatisfactory.

I will start from the terms of the article. Moradian and Whitehouse say that Gandhi’s philosophy “repeatedly held back the struggles at key moments.” He “never promoted” the working class as a force to unite Hindus and Muslims. Class forces “proved stronger” than his struggle for justice.

I find all this somewhat odd. Gandhi was not a revolutionary socialist. He was horrified by united working class action, whether against the British or Indian bosses. He did “hold back the struggle” – but what if there were reasons for holding back these struggles that had nothing to do with Gandhi’s moral philosophy, and everything to do with the objective needs of the independence movement?

He also never accomplished “social justice” – but what if that had not been his goal, or that of the larger movement? He did compromise with the British, but what if he had a legitimate interest in doing so from his perspective? What if he was not the representative of the Indian masses, as all accounts of his “betrayal” assume? What if, in other words, he was a bourgeois revolutionary?

Events like the famous Salt March give context to this. The Salt March and the agitations around it were an incredibly popular struggle in the history of the independence movement, probably the most popular since the early 1920s. With one demonstration, Gandhi managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Indians in anti-British action. At the same time, historians on the left have criticized the Salt March because it did not challenge British power directly or cut at Britain’s economic stranglehold.

This is precisely the case. But the Salt March was not intended to challenge British power directly. From the perspective of the nascent Indian ruling class, it was a complete success. It showed the British that the Congress was capable of mobilizing the masses, and that therefore they should take them seriously. They did so, and thereafter would ignore Gandhi’s demands only at their own peril – as when they obstinately refused to accept his most minor demands for autonomy in order to form an anti-fascist alliance with the Congress during World War II. Furthermore, the march did not threaten to radicalize or upset the order overly much, which was exactly what the bourgeoisie wanted. Consequently, Gandhi demobilized the movement. It was no longer necessary.

I will give a further example: Gandhi’s famous confrontation in 1932 with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the acknowledged leader of the castes formerly known as “untouchables” – he called them Dalits (oppressed), which became a badge of honor. Ambedkar, who was concerned to increase the weight of his own community within Indian politics and the independence movement, had successfully agitated for the reservation of separate Dalit electorates.

Under the electoral system of the Raj, a certain amount of seats on the councils tasked with the running of the state was set aside for different minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc. The reserved seats were divided between joint electorates – in these contests, everyone eligible could vote – and closed electorates, in which only members of the community in question could vote.

Gandhi was horrified at this prospect. He announced a fast unto death, a frequently used tool in his political arsenal which, although it was effective when he did it, has become clichéd and performative in contemporary Indian politics. Ambedkar confronted by Gandhi’s moral blackmail agreed to the Poona Pact, which allowed for the reservation of “backward caste” seats but on the principle of joint electorates.

The roots of this argument may seem arcane. But everyone at the time understood what Gandhi had accomplished. The mass Dalit movement led by Ambedkar was a huge potential obstacle to national unity under Congress hegemony. Dalit representatives elected by Dalits would increase Ambedkar’s stake, thus giving more room for his people to contest national unity, which under Congress leadership meant upper-caste domination, discrimination and extreme poverty of the lower castes.


Gandhi with Bose.

A final example: in 1939, Subhash Chandra Bose was elected to be President of the INC, a position elected yearly but which held considerable authority. Bose, who had a background in the militant wing of Indian nationalism, sought to take advantage of the war situation to wage an immediate armed struggle for independence. India could win its independence in alliance with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Such plans were anathema to Gandhi. Not only did they go against his nonviolent convictions, but a militant struggle with the left-wing Bose as its leader could possibly undermine his own position within the Congress if the movement was perceived as successful. Gandhi held off Bose with complaints that Congress as an organization was not ready for an all-out militant struggle. Meanwhile, he worked behind Bose’s back to win over the members of the Working Committee, the body charged with day-to-day policy under the direction of the President. When Bose brought his plans to the committee again, no one supported him and he was forced to resign. Gandhi had marginalized a potential radical threat to his leadership.Understanding Gandhi as a bourgeois revolutionary makes these events more comprehensible. Gandhi wielded power expertly on behalf of the Indian bourgeoisie, which was hegemonic in the nationalist movement. He could mobilize the masses while ensuring for the most part they did not move beyond the narrow needs of this class. Furthermore, he could marginalize threats to bourgeois dominance within the Congress, and either demobilize or emasculate movement outside it which threatened to open the floor to the aspirations of the Indian masses, especially of the backwards castes.

These all make sense much more if we consider that his efforts were to establish Indian capitalism, rather than merely the morals of an eccentric. Indeed, Gandhi was recognized by all his contemporaries, whether friends or enemies, as an exceedingly clever politician in addition to being a brilliant strategist and organizer.

Two major objections might be made to the idea of Gandhi as a bourgeois revolutionary. I have tried to anticipate them. The first is that Gandhi himself did not see the future India as recognizably capitalist. What he imagined is well known – called Ram-raj (rule by the god Ram of the Indian epic, the Ramayana), it was a loosely connected country of traditional villages, with people in their traditional occupations and living self-sufficiently. Consequently a major regression of the productive forces was entailed. In the twentieth century, this was obviously a utopia.

But bourgeois revolutionaries have never, or almost never, articulated clearly the system they succeeded in establishing. It is very hard to mobilize the masses by promising they will be exploited even more viciously. Consequently, idealistic figures have typically led the most radical wing of the bourgeois revolution, with its ultimate goals in the end escaping them. Cromwell advocated the rule of the saints, Robespierre called for the rule of reason, and Gandhi wanted the rule of Ram. What they succeeded in getting was capitalist England, capitalist France, and capitalist India. Ideology is not important. What matters is whose interests they represent, and in the case of Gandhi, this was clearly the bourgeoisie.

Or in other words:

Bourgeois revolutions exist at the intersection between objective historical processes and conscious human agency. As ‘episodes of convulsive political transformation’ they involve forms of collective action, including the intervention of political organisations of various kinds. But bourgeois revolutions also arise from and contribute to ‘the increasing predominance of the capitalist mode of production’. As such, they tend to involve a gap between the intentions of the revolutionary actors and the objective consequences of their struggles (Callinicos 1989).

I would go further and argue that Indian independence as a bourgeois revolution matches more closely the rare cases in which the bourgeoisie themselves have taken on an objectively revolutionary role as a class (the American Civil War is one) than other bourgeois revolutions which have taken place entirely without bourgeois participation (German and Italian unification) or even against them (the Chinese Revolution of 1949).

A final objection might be made. The quote from the above ISR article regards Gandhi’s main failure as the partition of India, causing millions dead and untold suffering, which I think represents the typical left-wing view. If Gandhi was leading the bourgeois revolution, couldn’t it have been accomplished without so much death?

I would answer, again, that in the first place it was not about what Gandhi wanted. He courageously opposed Partition. But it goes deeper: Partition worked out just fine in terms of establishing India as a center of accumulation. Capitalism doesn’t care about suffering and death; we should know that well enough.

A few words about the history of Partition might be in order. It can be kind of hard even for area specialists to understand. What it reminds me of is nothing so much as a slow motion train wreck, albeit one with millions of people on the train, and the survivors being raped and butchered as they tried to get out.

The amazing thing is that even a few years before, there was no indication things would be this way. Throughout the 1940s, we get the Muslim League demanding a separate country for the Indian Muslims, but sitting down with the Congress at the negotiation table time and again.


Jinnah (center) with Ambedkar (right) and E.V. Ramaswamy, the Dravidian nationalist leader (second from right)

What Jinnah and his cohorts wanted were guarantees from the Congress that the majority Muslim provinces in the northwest of the country and in Bengal would have autonomy. This was understandable as the demand that their representatives, the Muslim League, would be able to stop anything they didn’t like coming out of the central government.

The revisionist account of Jinnah, which I believe is correct, is that for him Pakistan was in essence a bluff rather than a real demand. He believed the Congress would accept power sharing at the center rather than have a divided country. He was wrong. The Congress leadership was willing to spin off a few provinces in exchange for uncontested power at the center (Jalal 1994). We see this in the complete unreality of Jinnah’s pronouncements following independence: “You may go to your temples, you may go to your mosques…”

Furthermore, Partition was very much functional, perhaps even necessary, in terms of the successful development of capitalism in India. By 1947, a united India promised a perpetual balancing act between the Congress and the Muslim League. This could lead to communal violence and instability with every minor political crisis.

From the point of view of the Indian ruling class, a short and very bloody separation was preferable to long-term instability. In the longer term, the ruling class also stood to gain by being able to pose as the defender of the unitary Indian nation against the Pakistani “other,” which has surely done its part to forestall the development of caste, regional and class solidarities that might threaten to destabilize the accumulation of capital.

Therefore, we can clearly see Gandhi in the pantheon of bourgeois revolutionary leaders. This is not to say that he spoke for the entire national movement at every point. But the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie, which funded him, are refracted through his role. The bourgeoisie was hegemonic within the Congress, and Gandhi was their representative.

Those further left, like Bose, or the CPI for that matter, failed to successfully challenge Gandhi because they never acquired a social base which could break the hegemony of the bourgeoisie over the nationalist movement. It is doubtful that anyone could have succeeded at this given the course of Indian history under the Raj.

Gandhi played to the interests of the bourgeoisie at every point by advocating national unity, by systematically demobilizing potential threats from within the Congress and those posed by mass agitation outside it. He could lead the masses forward with a remarkable degree of confidence that they would not escape his control. At the end of his life, when the Indian capitalism he had opened the door for could actually be established, he was sidelined in favor of the more pragmatic Nehru. But he left an indelible stamp on the Indian bourgeois revolution, and thus on Indian capitalism itself.



The one face of India’s premier city…

Marxism has much to offer the study of Indian history. But previous perspectives of a vacillating or eternally conservative or comprador bourgeoisie, consistent with the assumptions of the revolutionary years of the Comintern and then Stalinism, fail to explain Indian independence in a useful manner. They cannot account for the existence of a confident, assertive bourgeois class that succeeded in establishing its own dominance. The contributions of Cliff, Rees, Callinicos and Davidson writing in the International Socialist tradition offer us the best theoretical framework to understand this history.

Outside of India, socialists should recognize the events leading up to 1947 as a bourgeois revolution, much in the same sense as the English, French and American revolutions. A perspective that shows the leaders of the Congress, especially Gandhi, as constantly holding back a revolutionary movement may satisfy the polemical needs of the time. But these should be united with more sophisticated historical knowledge.

This view of Indian independence dispels firmly any notion of “semi-colonial, semi-feudal” relations of production. India is a modern capitalist country that has experienced a bourgeois revolution, which, unlike many, was democratic in its impact. Chronic underdevelopment of the countryside, deep penetration by multinational corporations, and cooperation between the Indian state and imperialism are all products of a bourgeois ruling class that knows its own interests and is able to act on them.

India may shine for them, but right next to the skyscrapers of Mumbai are the darkened slums in which millions of people live hand to mouth through temporary work, or frequently do not live at all. India is by no means immune to the crises of the world capitalist system of which it is a fully integrated part.

Marxism, not caste liberation, feminism, environmentalism or Gandhism, is the essential fighting tool of Indian revolutionaries. Unfortunately, the hegemony of Stalinism and Maoism over the Indian left and workers’ movement has so far blocked the development of genuine Marxist trends. Both have ignored the pressing questions of caste and women’s liberation from a narrow class-reductionist perspective. Indian radicals have more than a little reason to be suspicious of Marxism because of this.

It is necessary to establish, against Stalinism, that India is a fully capitalist country. With the perspective of a completed bourgeois revolution, revolutionary Marxists in India can look to the contradictions of Indian capitalism, and orient toward those currently best prepared to be progressive forces. These include Dalits, tribal peoples, the oppressed nations of Kashmir and the northeast, Muslims, women and LGBT groups.


… and the other face.

As a modern country, while it operates by the same general laws of capitalist motion, India is a somewhat unique social formation. The ruling class since independence has become a master at exploiting divisions based on religion, language and caste, just to name the three most important. Unfortunately its management is so expert that development of a united Indian working class will be a long time coming. The very course of the development of capitalism, as we have seen, militates against this prospect.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs, including the extended strike by Maruti Suzuki workers in Haryana, and the one-day national general strike by twelve union federations in February of last year. Marxists must have the best appraisal of a country’s history, of the current period and the correct tactics to act on their knowledge. We should hope for the growth of a genuine revolutionary movement in capitalist India that can break the chains of both nationalism and Stalinism.

References for Part 2:

Callinicos, Alex (1989). “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” International Socialism 2.43, pp. 113-171.

Chibber, Vivek (2003). Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP.

Chowdhury, Satyabrata (2007). Leftism in India: 1917-1947. Basingstroke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cliff, Tony (1963). “Deflected Permanent Revolution,” International Socialism 1.12

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

Isserman, Maurice (1993). If I Had a Hammer: The Decline of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois.

Jalal, Ayesha (1994). The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Moridian, Meneejeh, and David Whitehouse (2000). “Gandhi and the Politics of Non-Violence,” International Socialist Review 14.

Rees, John (1999). “From the Democratic Revolution to the Socialist Revolution,” International Socialism 2.83

Trotsky, Leon (1971). “What is National Socialism?,” pp. 522-533 in Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. New York: Pathfinder.


Filed under History

What I thought about the movie “Lincoln”

Steven Spielburg and Tony Kushner’s film Lincoln seems to have drawn a lot of attention, especially on the American left. Unsurprisingly it has polarized us like no film since Avatar. I would argue the Civil War is still pretty poorly understood by most on the left, though all of us will know the catchphrases like “second American revolution,” etc.

There have been many reviews of Lincoln from a revolutionary socialist perspective, leaving completely aside the broader left. Some of them are: one, two, three, four. This is not one of them, because frankly there are too many. Some have been pretty good, others have been awful, and I don’t want to add another that will cause interminable pointless arguments on the Facebooks.

So instead, since I’ve decided all these reviews are mistaken in some respect on the basis of my probably somewhat decent knowledge of the Civil War era, I’ll post my thoughts in the form of bullet points about leftist misconceptions of the film and let you all correct yourselves based on them. You’re welcome.

1. “Lincoln represents Obama.”

This is the least serious left-wing attitude toward the movie. True, Kushner and Spielberg may have thrown out comments here or there to this effect. They may even believe it themselves. But are we seriously comparing the most revolutionary event in US history, the death of slavery, with the half-assed attempt at healthcare “reform” that didn’t really reform anything? We are supposed to be materialists, not establishment liberals like the creators.

And secondly, has no one heard of the intentional fallacy? Look it up if you haven’t.

2. “It shows that the only way you get things done is electoral politics.”

For anyone who saw the movie but doesn’t know the history very well, assume it is more or less as it is shown. It is in the midst of the war. Lincoln and his cabinet believe that the South may fall before abolition of slavery can be cemented as the war’s purpose. Which may or may not have been the case, but the important thing is that they believed it could happen. Lincoln was originally a moderate, but became firmly convinced abolition was both necessary and inevitable over the course of the war. So he made the decision to stall peace negotiations to achieve it.

We see in the movie how the fate of slavery hangs in a delicate balance between the efforts of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, the Copperhead Democrats opposing them, the conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats somewhere in the middle, all of which could be swayed by public opinion which was in favor of abolition but not yet of racial equality. Do electoral politics matter? Well, yes. They decide whether slavery will survive or not.

Of course, they were not the only thing that did matter, and we are right to emphasize black self-emancipation, abolitionism before the war, etc. But Lincoln’s wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill in January 1865, was what made the difference. I don’t see how anyone can play down its significance.

3. “It reinforced the notion radicals should compromise to get things done.”

Also ignorant of the history – even in the brief glimpse we get in the movie, which I would really have hoped people would pay attention to. Thaddeus Stevens, around whose character the argument revolves, might be my favorite figure of the era. He was a genuine revolutionary, an American Jacobin. He sought, as he said in the movie, to crush the slaveocracy through brutal repression, confiscate their property and turn it over so that their former slaves could establish themselves as prosperous freeholders. This was the real promise of Reconstruction, which was defeated.

But Stevens was also very much a pragmatist. He knew where and when to make strategic compromises, which could and did include obscuring his firebrand views on racial equality. This is not just true of what we saw in the movie. Stevens was the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which if not the most powerful position in Congress is one of the two or three – not to mention his national stature as a leader of the Republican Party. He never would have achieved these roles, especially in the conservative climate at the beginning of the war, if he had not been willing to compromise.

The important thing, as Tommy Lee Jones’ Stevens says, is that this gets results. “There are very few things I will not say to end slavery,” he says. The man worked all his life for racial equality. He is a hero. Don’t equate him with piddling left-liberals like Kucinich who come running when Obama calls.

4. “There aren’t any black people.”

I will not take on the dishonest account of one review which says that blacks are completely absent. The film starts with Lincoln being lectured on racial equality by a black soldier, for Chrissakes. I am willing to concede, as one much more intelligent commentator wrote, that there could have been a more active black presence in the film without getting in the way of the main storyline – Robert Lincoln running into an abolitionist meeting led by his father’s black servants in the White House was one example that sticks out in my mind.

But I think, overall, this argument misses the point. True, there were no black soldiers, freed slaves or ordinary black men or women who have a constant active role over the course of the movie. But there are also no ordinary white people who have such a role – and white people also played an active role in ending slavery.

Recognizing this is not to create racist and unhistorical assumptions about white people like Lincoln freeing the slaves out of their own kindness and strength of character. Because I think blacks do have a very strong presence in the film, not individually, but collectively. This is made most clear in the opening of the session which passes the 13th amendment. As the debate is about to commence, several dozen blacks, presumably important personalities invited as guests, enter the mezzanine to observe the proceedings.

I thought this was a brilliant scene. When the important white men decide whether or not to legally free millions of slaves, black people sit above them, as if in judgment. The elites will be held responsible for what they do.

5. “It was only about the political elite.”

Yes. It was. But this is not a criticism of the quality or accuracy of Lincoln. It is an assertion than Spielberg and Kushner should have made a different movie.

Abraham Lincoln was a fascinating individual. At the time and place a man like him was needed to accomplish a revolution, he stepped into the role. It made a huge difference that he was in charge at that time and that place. If he had been unseated by McClellan in the 1864 election, just to use the most blatant example, the latter would have almost certainly conceded Southern independence, perpetuating slavery for decades or centuries longer. Progressive struggles are not won merely through a large number of bodies and having history on their side. They need individuals to perceive their goals and to lead them forward or backward in the correct manner. Lincoln was one such person.

It is legitimate to question why this movie was made and not others – one about Frederick Douglass, for example, one about black self-emancipation seen from their point of view, or one about black soldiers (in fact, an excellent movie about black Union soldiers, Glory, has been made). Of course, the reason for this is racism, and we all know it. Hollywood is and will probably remain uncomfortable with overly bold assertions of black agency in the Civil War, and will prefer to deal with it through a liberal, great-man-theory-of-history lens. We should challenge this and call for excellent movies to be made about those stories.

But this was not what Lincoln was. It is a positive sign that the left is skeptical of art describing only the point of view of the elite. But, as I have tried to show, what elites do matters. The Civil War was a heroic effort at the top as well as the bottom.  It was the last time in history the American ruling class would play such a role. Lincoln was a hero as an individual who made an incredible difference. And this merits recognition.

In the current climate of historical revisionism about the Civil War, I find it amazing that Lincoln could be as progressive as it was. It did not show the South as equally heroic, did not carp about the struggle for “states’ rights,” did not weigh the aim of ending slavery against the suffering caused by war. We know all these notions are very prevalent in popular history, in common knowledge about the war, and in the fiction, drama and movies made about it. It would have been easy for Spielberg and Kushner to write a Lincoln along these lines.

But they didn’t. They showed Lincoln for the revolutionary he was. They showed the war as it was – a righteous and revolutionary struggle to eliminate the absolute evil of slavery from the country. And they did not apologize for this. And at a certain point, everything else is just detail.

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