Four books to fan the flames of discontent

From the heroic class struggles of late nineteenth century America, to an environmentally toxic, tyrannical, all too possible near future, here are some mid-winter readings likely to stimulate your dissidence.

Unsurprisingly, the fiasco of the climate change summit in Copenhagen led me to Margaret Atwood’s latest eco-disaster novel “Year of the Flood” (McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 2009, 431 pages). Not a watery deluge, but a dry killer tide of disease (like an H1N1 on steroids) wipes out most of humanity. The imaginative prowess and literary skill of Canada’s most celebrated fiction writer set the stage for the unspecified plague by presenting a dystopia just one remove from present day late-capitalism in decay.

It is a world of advanced social disintegration and environmental ruin. Murderous impoverished ghettos bump up against privileged gated communities whose members are numbed by mindless consumerism. And running amok, through town and country, is a bizarre assortment of bio-engineered animal species, not all of which are benign. Giant corporations govern the fragmented world order with unabashed venality and total impunity. Their enforcement arm is aptly called CorpSEcorps, a lethal private security army, a fitting successor to Blackwater – Xe and company.

“Year of the Flood” could be considered a sequel to Atwood’s highly acclaimed “Oryx and Crake”, except that it is a parallel tale that arrives at a common point – a handful of surviving ordinary-people encounter a bizarre group of ‘blue’ mutant humans with a hyper-active libido.

The author has confected a tale that is half-prediction, half satire – like a blend of George Orwell and Jonathon Swift. So, through the eyes of the finely drawn protagonists Ren and Toby, a sex club dancer and a waitress respectively, we learn of the suspect serums of HelthWyzer (rhymes with Pfizer), the immortality vending CryoJeenyus, the soma-like HappyCuppa, the indulgent AnooYoo spas, and the notorious Painballers (inmates of a Survivor-reality prison camp). A malicious Painballer is hunting Toby, who earlier escaped his control when she fled the Sticky Zone where she was a hapless server of Secretburgers.

The disappointing aspect is that the foremost resistence to the pervasive repression and moral decay is a hippie vegetarian cult, God’s Gardeners, who absurdly, self-righteously try to blend religion and science. Is this the author’s conscious snub of the working class movement and the materialist left, or is she prodding us to see what will be if socialism doesn’t soon gain more traction?

While “Year of the Flood” is very derivative of “Oryx and Crake”, though more overtly feminist in its portrayal of personal relationships and gender oppression, that really constitutes an argument for reading both novels. Given Atwood’s pungent satire of present trends, her latest writings, redolent with anti-capitalist implications, may leave you wondering why she is not a Marxist firebrand.

There was a time when hundreds of thousands of American workers defied politicians, courts, the cops and paramilitary gangs to strike for decent wages and union rights – and when over a million men voted for a revolutionary socialist to be President (before women won the right to vote). The first great U.S. mass radicalization against deadly work conditions and miserable exploitation produced a generation of proletarian rebels. “Eugene V. Debs, A Biography”, by Ray Ginger (Collier Books, New York, N.Y., 1962, 543 pages), is the story of the leading voice and most resilient symbol of that late 19th century generation.

Eugene Debs (1855-1926), a shy, polite son of Terre Haute, Indiana quit school to labour as a boilerman on the Vandalia railroad. When his friend fell under a train and died, Debs quit and pledged to reform the horrendous working conditions by recruiting for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Starting with conservative views about strikes and political action, Debs radicalized alongside his co-workers, founded the American Railway Union, and became a leading proponent of industrial unionism and class struggle politics. He became a prominent national figure due to his tireless, eloquent and courageous leadership of the Great Northern Railway strike of 1877 and the famous Pullman Boycott of 1894 (for which he went to jail). He quit the Democratic Party and embraced socialism as the solution to economic tyranny, poverty and waste. Though the momentous labour struggles he led suffered vicious repression, and often had mixed immediate results, they laid the basis for mass working class self-organization. They also challenged the complacent, pro-capitalist policies of the dominant craft unions, symbolized by Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labour, with whom Debs frequently clashed.

The author portrays Debs in all his complexity. He was a chivalrous Victorian gentleman whose fiery speeches were the bane of the ruling class; a proponent of sedate home and family values who lived mostly on the campaign trail, away from his wife Kate for months at a time. He eschewed the comforts of union office, and routinely gave away his money, even his overcoat and jacket, to fellows he met who appeared to be in need. Debs’ extreme selflessness had a political counterpart in his aversion to fight for his policies within his own organizations. This applied especially to the U.S. Socialist Party, whose candidate for President he was on four occasions. The SP was a broad coalition of disparate currents, from anarcho-syndicalists to Marxists to pro-business reformists. Although the SP enjoyed a massive radical base, boasting up to 135,000 members and nearly half a million subscribers to its weekly newspaper Appeal to Reason, not to mention a host of other publications, its apparatus was dominated by crass reform politicians, dubbed ‘sewer socialists’ for their association with basic municipal improvements. Under their influence, the SP capitulated to the craft unionism of the AFL, to its tolerance of racist job segregation, and to the patriotic hysteria linked to the imperialist First World War.

In all his years as the leading spokesperson for the SP, Debs only once attended a convention of his party. He refused to organize a fight for revolutionary socialist policies within the organization, believing that his job was ‘to convert the rank and file, who would then convert the leaders’. Unfortunately, this extended to a belief that revolutionary politics would spontaneously survive and prosper in a broad, undisciplined party riven by factions. Another weakness was his view that, despite widespread racism and sexism, socialists should advance no special measures, no affirmative action policies for any distinctly oppressed section of the working class: his answer to oppression under capitalism was socialism, full stop.

Debs’ dream of the SP as the voice of a united, triumphant working class, independent of the bosses’ parties, was publicly desecrated when the party backed the capitalist Progressive Party in the 1924 election. After the vote, the Progressives dissolved and the discredited SP shrivelled. The nascent Communist Party, champion of the Russian Revolution (which Debs ardently supported, in contrast to the ambivalent SP leadership), attracted the bulk of radicals.

Although Debs’ health was broken by the two and a half hard years he served in an Atlanta, Georgia prison for opposing WW1, his militant spirit, his promotion of industrial unionism and mass action, his faith in socialism as the antidote to capitalist exploitation and war, continues to inspire generations of fighters for social justice and workers’ power. The great socialist was a leading campaigner for civil liberties and defender of victims of capitalist repression, from the Haymarket Martyrs to Big Bill Haywood. He identified closely with the victims of capitalist injustice. No one expressed the thought more forcefully, more eloquently than he did in his own defense in 1918: “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

This biography is worth reading, if only for the many fabulous quotes from some of the greatest speeches ever delivered by a working class leader. Despite its superficiality in dealing with Marxist theory, competing tendencies on the left, and questions of political strategy, Ray Ginger’s book is artfully packaged with fascinating details, delivered in a heart-warming fashion, about a great man and a great time in American labour history.

“The Sweetest Dream – Love, Lies, & Assassination – A Novel of the Thirties”, by Lillian Pollak, (iUniverse, Inc., New York, 2009, 370) is a charming account of the friendship of two young women who were part of the next wave of rebellion. For those yearning to know what it was like to be active participants on the radical left in Manhattan during the Great Depression, this story of the conflicting relations between the young Trotskyists and Stalinists of the time is the ticket.

For the author, Lillian Pollak, born in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1915, and today still a “Raging Granny” anti-war activist, this zestful romantic novel is also autobiographical. Her keen eye and great powers of recollection have produced a vivid account of the streetscapes, new artistic movements and key political events of the thirties. The latter include the powerful sit-down strikes of 1934 across the United States, the rise of fascism in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, and the seminal defense campaigns for victims of state terror Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys.

Pollak, from personal experience, richly portrays as too few others have done the central leaders of the left opposition Communist League of America and its successor Socialist Workers’ Party, James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and Joseph Hansen. She transports us to Mexico where she met the co-leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Fourth International, Leon Trotsky, as well as legendary artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and members of Trotsky’s beseiged household in Coyoacan.

A great strength of the novel is its representations of the young Jimmy (and Jane) Higgins of the revolutionary workers’ movement, the heroic grass roots activists who marched, sang, carried banners and sold the communist press at street corners, even door to door in Harlem. They defied capitalist conventionality, and denounced the betrayal of the principles on which the Russian Revolution and the Communist parties were based. The main protagonists of the novel are two of those militants. But the life-long relationship between beautiful, vivacious Ketzel, born to affluent Mexican parents, and the plain, but indomitable Miriam, the daughter of the poor New York Jewish ghetto, is strained almost to the breaking point by their differing responses to revelations of the worldwide crimes of the Stalin bureaucracy – until the much-feared tragedy occurs, the assassination of Trotsky in 1940.

The fact that the two young women were unwitting acquaintances of the murderer, Ramon Mercader, is the cruel fulcrum of the story. It also exposes one significant flaw in the narrative. On page 313, Ketzel and Miriam are told of the imminent plan to kill Trotsky. “Your Old Man is doomed. It’ll be soon, my dear.” Inexplicably, neither one of them informs Cannon, or any SWP leader, or the guards at the fortress villa in Coyoacan, that Mercader, alias Frank Jacson, is on his way. This jagged pebble is harder to swallow than the copious typos that have survived the second printing of the book.

Nonetheless, “The Sweetest Dream” is a wonderful, lively, well-written period piece and a very compelling read. It is full of insights into Depression-era living conditions, a tenderly related story of friendship, love and disillusionment. Moreover, the novel is an indispensable source about a time of social turmoil when many thousands of North Americans rallied to the radical cause, and dared to dream of a better world.

The fourth book in this short survey transports us to the post-WW2 capitalist boom. “Marxism in Our Time”, by Isaac Deutscher (Ramparts Press, San Francisco, 1973, 312 pages) is an anthology of speeches, articles and interviews that document one remarkable person’s struggle to keep revolutionary theory alive and potent in a period of working class political retreat.

Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967) was a Jewish-Polish political activist expelled from the Polish Communist Party in 1932 for “exaggerating the danger of Nazism”. In 1938 the Stalinist Comintern dissolved the Polish party under the pretext that it was corroded by “Trotskyist and Pilsudskist influences” and had become an agency of fascism and the police. Members of its Central Committee sought refuge in Moscow, but were imprisoned and executed as traitors, on Stalin’s orders.

A life-long opponent of capitalism and Stalinism, Deutscher’s chief difference with the Trotskyist movement was his view (in 1938, and subsequently) that it was premature to launch the Fourth International. His voluminous writings are steeped in the classical Marxist tradition. Best known is Deutscher’s masterwork, his three volume biography of Trotsky, “The Prophet Armed”, “The Prophet Disarmed”, and “The Prophet Outcast”. Among his other acclaimed works are “Stalin: a Political Biography” 1949, and his anti-Zionist “Non-Jewish Jew and other essays” (editied by Tamara Deutscher) 1968.

The present outstanding collection merits serious study. It includes: “Trotsky in Our Time”, “The Tragedy of the Polish Communist Party” (which exposes the destructiveness of the Comintern’s policy zig-zags from opportunism to ultra-leftism, and back again), “The Roots of Bureaucracy”, “On Socialist Man” and “Discovering Das Kapital”.

Two chapters of the book seem particularly relevent at this end of the first decade of the 21st century. In “Marxism in Our Time”, notwithstanding the post-war boom, Deutscher returns to the very essentials in the Marxist critique of capitalism: “there is a striking contradiction between the increasingly social character of the process of production and the anti-social character of capitalist property”. To those who say such a critique is obsolete, that “since (John Maynard) Keynes, capitalism knows how to plan the economy”, Deutscher asks: has capitalism “ever planned except for war purposes?” “Is planning congenial to capitalism?” Looking back at the decades since the 1960s, at his insistence on the anarchic character of the capitalist mode of production, its proclivity to war as an extension of its cancerous growth and clash of monopolies, and the overall steady proletarianization of humankind, Deutscher and Marxism seem to stand up rather well.

“Marxism and the New Left” presents a cogent argument against those who, responding to the apparent decline in class struggle in the most developed countries, would discount the working class and socialism. We still encounter such views, including in the so-called ‘Zeitgeist movement’ which calls for a purely ideological break with religion, militarism, the big banks and powerful conspirators, without grasping the need to organize working people to take control of the economy.

Speaking to students at Binghampton, New York in 1967, Deutscher said: “Some of you, on the so-called New Left, want to leave behind all ideology in favor of pragmatism… But pragmatism is also an idea… you are only exchanging one ideology for another.”

Concerning political differences on the left, which are often blamed for lost opportunities for revolutionary change, he counters: “All human thinking and all human organization is subject to differentiation. Whether you like it or not, ‘squabbling’ is the stuff of life; do not be contemptuous of it.” “The (U.S.) Communist Party did not want to ‘squabble’ with Roosevelt, and it supported fully and uncritically the New Deal… The members of the CP from Marxists became Rooseveltians. Then the Communists did not want to ‘squabble’ with Stalin, to criticize his policy, and therefore they allowed themselves to be turned into mere stooges of Stalin’s policy. In this way they committed moral and political suicide. They did not want to ‘squabble’ with Stalin, nor with Roosevelt – and you will not be much wiser if you too shun ideological debate.”

He noted that “the New Left is confined mostly to students and intellectuals.” “The role of students is transient. They are not a stable element in society.” They can be a vanguard of fascism or communism. Likewise “Lumpenproletarians don’t change society. If the basic classes change society, then the lumpenproletarians may follow them. But when I speak of the working class, I do not have in mind the trade unions, which are only a bureaucratic outgrowth of the working class…” “…Crumbs from the table of the affluent society do not satisfy you and they do not satisfy the young workers. Have you tried to talk to them?”

Thus Deutscher formulated an appeal to New Leftists to involve themselves in the working class and its struggles, and at the same time to keep in mind clarity of purpose, that is, programmatic clarity in the process of struggle.

“Do not delude yourselves that your aim — “participatory democracy”… — is anything more than a vague and meaningless slogan. It implies that you want to participate in the management of society as it is; but the society as it is excludes you from participation by definition. For this, a new form of society is needed. And when you proclaim the end of ideology you also implicitly accept the dominant ideology of the very society which excludes you from participation, the very society against which you are in revolt.”

Well said, Old Mole. The Deutscher anthology “Marxism in Our Time” is an important tool in the toolkit of all who are determined not to re-discover the wheel, but rather to stoke the engine of revolutionary change. -Barry Weisleder