Monday, November 8, 2010

The History of the Russian Revolution: Preface (excerpt)

Excerpt from The History of the Russian Revolution: Preface by Leon Trotsky

In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.

The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.

The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis – the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions.

Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the rôle of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.

The difficulties which stand in the way of studying the changes of mass consciousness in a revolutionary epoch are quite obvious. The oppressed classes make history in the factories, in the barracks, in the villages, on the streets of the cities. Moreover, they are least of all accustomed to write things down. Periods of high tension in social passions leave little room for contemplation and reflection. All the muses – even the plebeian muse of journalism, in spite of her sturdy hips – have hard sledding in times of revolution. Still the historian’s situation is by no means hopeless. The records are incomplete, scattered, accidental. But in the light of the events themselves these fragments often permit a guess as to the direction and rhythm of the hidden process. For better or worse, a revolutionary party bases its tactics upon a calculation of the changes of mass consciousness. The historic course of Bolshevism demonstrates that such a calculation, at least in its rough features, can be made. If it can be made by a revolutionary leader in the whirlpool of the struggle, why not by the historian afterwards?

However, the processes taking place in the consciousness of the masses are not unrelated and independent. No matter how the idealists and the eclectics rage, consciousness is nevertheless determined by conditions. In the historic conditions which formed Russia, her economy, her classes, her State, in the action upon her of other states, we ought to be able to find the premises both of the February revolution and of the October revolution which replaced it. Since the greatest enigma is the fact that a backward country was the first to place the proletariat in power, it behoves us to seek the solution of that enigma in the peculiarities of that backward country – that is, in its differences from other countries.


Thomas Cain said...

Dear Mark,

I know it's been a while since I've posted, and I apologize. A lot has happened since our last conversation. I tried emailing you but I received a delivery failure notice.

This excerpt seems all the more timely with the advent of the Middle Eastern revolts. Can you tell me what your opinion of the situation is?

Mark said...

I agree that the excerpt is timely given the situation that is unfolding in the middle east, but more than that I think it is a superb illustration of the dialects on a social scale and I think reiterates or emphasizes the points I made in my previous article about the importance of leadership.

Its interesting that recently David North utilizes a portion of this extract from Trotsky, to emphasize the very opposite point, that somehow the masses can lead themselves to socialist revolution spontaneously[1]. He manages to do this by eliding a portion of his quote of Trotsky, and ignoring the rest of what Trotsky says.

Trotsky's quote is quite clear about the role of the leadership. In the part of the quote that North omits, Trotsky writes, "Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses." Later in this excerpt he writes "Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box."

In relation to the situation in the middle east, and more specifically Egypt I think this very relevant. The events of the past few weeks have been very inspiring. The conditions in Egypt are ripe for a socialist revolution, with the wages of the working class being driven down and food prices rising. In the last days the working class has increasingly played a more direct role in protests initiating strikes through the unions.

Economic demands are clearly being raised but it is not uniform at this point or consistent, the only point of consistency throughout the demonstrations seems to be the resignation of Mubarak. The movement in Egypt faces danger from several directions, first from the Mubarak regime who still receives support from the US, but secondly from various bourgeois and petty-bourgeois reformers who only see the Egyptian revolution in bourgeois democratic and nationalist terms.

I think the demands, especially the economic ones need to be articulated more clearly and fought for more vigorously and also linked to the other democratic demands, in effect this means a fight for a transitional program appropriate to the situation in Egypt.


Thomas Cain said...

I think I understand your position. I could be attaching too much importance to North and the SEP, but I fear that their position may throw further confusion onto the demands of the protesters. All the SEP seems to be doing is shouting warnings for the proletariat to mobilize their own "independent movement" without any specifics as to how they should do this or even why. They are playing no direct role in the revolts aside from passive journalism, nor are they trying anything to the contrary. It would be the same if a starving desert dweller was thrown a fishing pole, and was then left alone with the words: "There. Now you will no longer be hungry."

It would have been nice if they had even made some videos or interviews of the revolting Tunisians or Egyptians, but instead they have limited themselves to Australia. If I'm wrong, however, what could be keeping them from documenting this event live?

It is also disheartening to see that Steiner and Brenner's web site has not commented on the Middle Eastern revolts in any capacity.

Mark said...

My guess is that the journalism of WSWS is having very little impact on the events in Egypt. Apparently there is someone in the party that can write or translate to Arabic, yet they have made no statements in Arabic in relation to the events in Egypt. Even if you were to translate these WSWS articles into Arabic they would be of very little use to organizers on the ground there. As you say, they offer little of any specifics about the organization needed, or far more importantly the program needed. These articles are clearly not for Egyptian readers, they are for people who are already committed to the views of the WSWS. In effect they are talking to themselves, convincing themselves.

It has become a WSWS cliche to call for new forms of organization, but if you examine situation in Egypt, organization does not appear to be the main problem, the Egyptians have sustained a protest for close to three weeks now bringing out millions of people and fought off security forces there. I think the main problem in going forward, especially post Mubarak, will be that of program.

As for Steiner and Brenner, I'm not sure at this point what their plans are, but I feel it would be good for them to comment on situation, as there is dearth of genuine Trotskyist views on the web.

Thomas Cain said...

I have read the article that you mentioned earlier. North's treatment of the text is shameless and disgusting.

Do you have any idea as to what news Marxists should follow, (if, indeed there is any) if the WSWS is turning petty-bourgeois?

Mark said...

Keep in mind that pretty much every news source is going to have petty-bougeois or bourgeois influnces. You need to be able to read between the lines and seperate whatever the information that is being presented from the biases of the reporter or journalist and try to form your own picture of what is happening. The same applies to the WSWS, as a source of information it is not terrible, they do highlight some of the more important world events, but you need to keep in mind that most of the articles there do not go far beyond rewites of articles in the AP, New York TImes, Washington Post, etc, and for reasons we have already discussed, the "perspectives" are quite limited. I would even suggest that part of the reason the party is so theorectically poor and subject to petty-bourgeois influences as that they so consummed by their journalistic activties. But that is the choice they have made, all their efforts seem to be oriented toward more coverage, when what is actually needed is more thought and more leadership, not a passively reacting to events as the appear in the news media, but an active intervention into the world, anticpating events before they happen and being prepared to intervene.

As for myself, when I follow something in the news, I look at a variety of sources. The google news agregator brings together a lot of different source you can check. For coverage of Egypt I think Ajazeera has been one the better sources of news.

Thomas Cain said...

Using the aggregator sounds like a good strategy. This is probably the most elementary question imaginable, but how does one prove that the capitalist media operates in favor of the bourgeoisie? My observations, unfortunately, are based on gut instinct and on little understanding of how it actually works. Any book or source that may enlighten me on this matter is welcome.

Mark said...

There nothing wrong with instinct, after reading the news from different sources, you should develop an instict about what is factual, what is the bias of reporter or news organization, and what might be disinformation as the case may be. But what is the instinct based upon? The science of Marxism is historical materialism, from this we should able to explain the bias of reporters and news organizations from the material premises of society, and we should also be able to construct a picture of what is happening within an event provided he have sufficient information. Read some of the fundementals of historical materialism, like the first chapter of the German Ideology

Mark said...

Just to add another point about the North article. Not only is it a gross misrepresentation of Trotsky, but I think its main purpose is to absolve the WSWS/SEP from any responsibility to development of socialist consciousness in the region. They have one article now in Arabic, a translation, but its main purpose is to denounce the Obama administration with only a brief statement to the demonstrators.

But even if they actually tried to seriously address the demonstrators, what would say at this point? The Steiner and Brenner polemics demonstrate that they don't understand the problem of the development of socialist consciousness. Today they call for "popular organs of power", "to fight to overthrow and replace the surviving sections of the Mubarak regime with a workers’ government" But this would be only be understood if the movement in Egypt were already a socialist movement. The movement certainly has those elements and could be pushed in that direction, but it could be equally co-opted in the direction of bourgeois democratic revolution, and that is actively being pushed by the Western powers like the US, and people ElBaradei. Who is pushing in the other direction?

Thomas Cain said...

A Miami Herald article that I recently skimmed through indicates that it is the Egyptian military who will be doing the main pushing. In perhaps an effort to downplay the revolts, the language is littered with words like "reform", "transition", and "restructuring". Neither a TODAYonline article or the Herald mention the protesters at all, except to say that the military is "reassuring" them of economic reform. Shockingly, or perhaps not, Mubarak's cabinet remains intact with no guarantee as to whether they will leave. The protesters are likely being divided by the military's phony reform policy and as a result, weakening.

If you're correct about the SEP trying to absolve themselves of responsibility, could the be in the midst of being guilty of a historic crime? To me, it sounds similar to Daniel Guerin's description of the groups involved in labor movement reformism (Guerin, 103):

"In the beginning...the [Black/Brown] shirts took the workers by surprise, and their reply was feeble. But...their own leaders...systematically put a brake on their militancy"

Granted, the analogy is far from perfect. I just cannot help but notice that the SEP's lack of commitment to socialist consciousness is in effect giving rise to shallow, pacifist politics. This is not to even speak of their belief of "spontaneous socialism". If this is truly Trotskyism, they must have at least paused in their stale that they could throw a dollop of Kautskyism along with it.

Mark said...

A military dictatorship is possibility to keep in mind given ties between the Egyptian military and the US, but I think it would be unlikely at this point for the military not carry forward at least basic bourgeois democratic reforms given the strength and organization of the protests. They could return much stronger than before.

If we hold the SEP responsible for failure to develop socialist consciousness we would have to hold responsible dozens of other groups also claiming to be Trotskyist. As a small political sect with no real authority among the working class, the SEP leadership is only responsible to their members, and these members keep raising their hands "unaminously" meeting after meeting. Apparently the members are happy with the direction party is going.

Arguably the ICFI had a stronger connection with the Fourth International than the other groups, maybe that is why I initially joined the party, and maybe that is what brought you here to my blog. But we are entering a period of revolution, Egypt is only the starting point. I think organizations like the SEP, will prove themselves grossly inadequate to the demands of the situation if they haven't already done so, and I think genuine Marxism and Trotskyism will find a greater audience for those looking for the way forward.

Thomas Cain said...

This question isn't entirely in line with the Middle Eastern revolts, but I had another question about an issue that, in my opinion has been seldom touched upon by the SEP or "Marxism" in general.

There has been news as of late regarding digital piracy. Sony has sued several individuals that have created software tools that function to circumvent control over their PlayStation 3. This includes the ability of users (though the tools may not directly contribute to this in some cases) to share games and software. The threat of the abilities of this "homebrew software community" to Sony's business has resulted in them taking extraordinary measures out of the PATRIOT Act playbook, among them attempting to seize user's comment records on Youtube and Twitter.

For my part, I am convinced that digital piracy is justified in full. It is a logical expression of the illogical and exploitative hurdles put in place by the capitalist digital market. DRM and the like only serve to bleed dry the purchasing power of the masses. But I am not sure if this is a proper way to consider the problem in the context of the class struggle. Do you have any idea as to how the question of P2P and digital piracy should be handled?

Mark said...

The claims of ownership of knowledge or information can all be grouped together under category of intellectual property.

As I see it, intellectual property is an extension of capitalist mode of production, and wouldn't exist under a socialist economy. It may be the case that capitalism is strengthened by things like patents which promotes the development of useful ideas, but at the same time this artificial restriction of use of ideas by competing firms represents a brake on the development of productive forces and the production of use values. And in the case Microsoft, whose intellectual property has become part of the social and productive infrastructure, it is much more problematic.

I do think intellectual property requires more analysis, because its laws not the same as commodities. The price of such a product is not simply proportional to the amount of labor time invested in the production. Yes there are labor costs which in most cases are recouped with the sale of the product, but that is a fixed cost, after which the owner can produce many copies for little cost and can receive substantial revenue. The owners can do this because they granted exclusive rights to production which is not same with commodities. It could be analyzed as a commodity to the extent that rival firms can produce something that has equivalent use value, but I think it could also be analyzed as something like rent in the case of many kinds of software, patents and other copyrighted works.

Of course these thoughts are just the starting point what should be a bigger investigation, but maybe it gives you some ideas.

Thomas Cain said...

Thanks for your last comment, Mark. What is your opinion of the protests in Wisconsin? I also wanted to ask your opinion of charter schools.

Mark said...

I haven't had time to study the protests in Wisconsin, but clearly they are very significant after a long period of a virtual absence of mass working class struggles in the US. And what is happening in Wisconsin is spreading to other states, as other state governments are trying to pass through the same kind of cuts to public services and to the wages and benefits of state employees. The mass resistance to these cuts is an encouraging sign, but as with Egypt, spontaneity can only carry these demonstrations so far.

About the charter schools I do not know much except the proponents are advocating the free market ideology be applied to school system. This is part of a broader trend of deregulation and privatization of government services. And the results have generally been to deteriorate the standards of these services while generating large profits for the companies involved.

If you have a more specific question maybe I can address it, but opinions or assessments are not of much use unless they are based on a careful study of the information that is available.

Thomas Cain said...

You're right about the question not being very specific. At the time I had just watched Guggenheim's "Superman" documentary and I didn't know what to think; up until that time I had been following the Wisconsin strikes or the Middle Eastern revolts. Needless to say, my mind wasn't very clear when I wrote that last question. Feel free to disregard it.

On the other hand, I had just read this article and watched the video embedded within.

Damon's remarks to the crowd, clearly edited for either time or content, managed to move me due to the consistent tone of anger that lingered in his voice. One of the problems, however, was when he made a brief remark about being peaceful somewhere, which lay in direct contrast with what the article was preaching: General strike.

Even more odd was the complete lack of appeal to class consciousness in Damon's remarks. There was no mention of the proletariat, Karl Marx, and he seemed to lump union members with their leadership. If it weren't for the fact that he was openly calling for Governor Walker to go, he could have been a Tea Party member.

Here is where my question comes in. When appealing to the workers, how can a socialist overcome the stigma that has been awarded Marxism in the United States? Is there any way to make a clear Marxist stance without further alienating the workers to the capitalist parties?

Mark said...

I'm not impressed with this so called "intervention" of the SEP. What exactly was acomplished? The workers/demonstrators were already against Walker, and the unions had already threatened a general strike well before the SEP had discovered this demand, so the idea had already been known and conceived of as the next logical step for many workers. The SEP would like you think that somehow the support for Damon's remarks on these rather easy points of agreement implies support for the SEP, but that is far from the case.

The last point, the formation of strike committees, was hardly justified, besides the routine denouncement of the union leaders, and didn't receive much crowd response. Could it be that even in their degenerated state that workers still have some alegience to the unions? This point is rejected by the SEP because according to David North, the unions are organically reactionary, he even brings in a dialectical psuedo-argument to prove the point in his pamphlet "Marxism and the Trade Unions." While the union leaders need to be critically examined, what ends up happening with SEP "interventions", is that they spend most of their time denouncing union officials rather than organizing, raising demands, and building a bridge to socialist consciousness. I think it is worth reviewing Chapter 5 of MWHH, the section "American Trotskyism and Strike Committees: the Minneapolis Teamster Strikes", to consider what a real Trotskist intervention might consist of.

As far as your question goes, the problem of the stigma of socialism. Indeed Damon doesn't raise the issue of socialism, this is probably related to stigma of socialism and his own opportunism in trying to say things that have a crowd response. But I don't think the result would be much better if he gave lecture on Marx and socialism. The practice of Trotskyism is about building a bridge between the present state consciousness and that of socialist consciousness. Its fine to apeal to the anger against Walker and sentiments for a general strike, but what do you with that state of consciouness? The practice of Trotskyism is to raise transitional demands, reforms that have a wide apeal yet are organically incompatible with the capitalist system. Of course there must be some level of explanation about the class system in raising suvh demands. The general strike is not such a demand but a tactic used to achieve such demands. And to actually examine demands raised by North in this struggle, which have long since disappeared off the front page of the WSWS, there is little of any revolutionary content there.

Thomas Cain said...

I read the chapter that you spoke of, and it was very enlightening. I'm going to try and describe the problem of the SEP's so-called intervention, just so I can comb through the crap. Please tell me if I made a mistake along the way.

-The SEP treats the trade unions, point blank, as political bogeymen. To make this argument they point to the existence of the "labor bureaucracy" that has proved hostile to the demands of the proletariat. They thus claim that the very form of the trade union itself is to blame, and that it would be political suicide to say otherwise.

-However the SEP, and North in particular, use very selective examples and refuse to look at the trade unions in their proper historical context. Steiner and Brenner counter North by showing examples of how worker's unions have operated against bourgeois interests. Steiner and Brenner don't seek to avoid trade unions and denounce them in a blanketed fashion, they seek to transform the trade union as an accessory to the organization of worker's struggles, and ultimately, for socialism. It is a question of an ideological struggle between the "spontaneous" pull of bourgeois ideology and that of socialist consciousness. The party must therefore struggle within the unions instead of alienating workers by damning them.

-The Wisconsin workers may have an attachment to their trade unions because they represent the ironclad fruits of their social struggles. Not even their leadership's capitulations to Walker would be able to completely dissolve such a bond. This is because (and Steiner and Brenner didn't say this, I'm just musing) the union "form" that North detests so much doesn't have an inherently reactionary character. It is determined by the political allegiance of their leadership and the degree of class consciousness that pervades within. The SEP rejects this fact, and thus they will be counterpoised to the proletariat by rejecting their familiar forms of organization.

Again, feel free to point out mistakes. I just don't want to miss anything important in my dialectic quest.

Mark said...

I think there some problems with your interpretation of Steiner and Brenner. They are in agreement with the SEP about the qualitative degeneration of unions, but their position is not to "transform the trade union as an accessory to the organization of worker's struggles." In the past it was common for Trotskyists to work within the unions, placing demands on union leaders both to provide leadership to the struggle and also expose the inadequacy of the union leadership. But this is not always an appropriate strategy, it is only an appropriate strategy to the extent union leaders have a pretense about conducting a struggle, in cases where union leadership seeks to block a struggle or sabotage it, the organization of strike committees is appropriate.

In the case of the SEP, they wholly reject the former approach as they reject doing any work within the union. They rationalize this abstentionism through North's argument about the trade union form. In the case of latter approach, the SEP calls for strike committees but does nothing to bring them into existence. This is another form of abstensionism, one rationalized by North in "Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness."

So the method of the SEP ends up being sterile propogandism, "abandond the unions! form strike committies! join the SEP! attend our conference in April!" They do nothing address the immediate problems that workers confront in terms of actually successfully organizing a struggle, and if the stuggle fails, the SEP will predictably blame the unions for this failure or the workers for not heading their advice.

I think the point that Steiner and Brenner are making is that workers can only be won to the cause of socialism in course of waging a struggle. When workers enter the stuggle they may still have an alegience to their union and they may still have illusions in the Democratic party, but the point is, that these bonds can only be broken when they find themselves fighting against the union leaders and Democratic politicians in order to realize their aims. And of course the main objective is not to break these bonds but to actually help the workers achieve victory and in the process to develop socialist consciousness in the working class.

Thomas Cain said...

The conclusion that I drew based on the "accessory to the class struggle" remark came from this paragraph (Ch.5, p.140):
Thus the test of the Russian experience plays havoc with North’s theory. If it were possible for the Bolsheviks to use the unions as one of their “instruments of the insurrection,” then clearly the union-form is not organically impervious to the revolutionary content of the class struggle. In other words, the class interests of workers are not “inevitably subordinated” to capitalism purely by virtue of this form. It all depends on the extent to which revolutionaries can overcome the prevailing “line of least resistance.”

It was the "instruments of insurrection" quote that left a lasting impression on me. At the time, assuming that the unions should be "accessories" made the most sense. In any case, your remarks have only a growing concern that I've had with Steiner and Brenner's material: for every time that I read certain chapters, the more unconscious distortions I tend to make. Perhaps I need to change the way I read these things....Oh well.

Speaking of Steiner and Brenner, do you know if they are even considering the formation of a new party? Have you found anything in particular, or parties, that would satisfy your political needs? For my part, I don't know where to search. Ever since the degeneration of the ICFI has become more clear and pronounced, the more skeptical I become of any parties that call themselves socialist. Perhaps this is not an entirely bad development in of itself, it does lead one to feel rather isolated. One person's Marxism becomes another person's bourgeois liberalism.

Mark said...

Ok, I see where you are coming from. Yes, they do believe that indeed the unions will play a role in the revolution. And if you read Marx, he said the unions were the defence organizations of the working class, that they were in fact necessary to train workers in the struggle against capital, but he also noted their conservative tendencies. I think you also make the correct point, that the character the union form takes depends on the degree of class consiouness of the workers, and for a long period we had a decline in class consciousness. Why is it that unions can only be nationalist and pro-capitalist in ideology? Why can't we have socialist unions? And would the work to establish strike commities, which would essentially be a rank and file union, inevitably suffer the same fate as the established unions? These questions completely evaded by David North and the SEP, but for them it doesn't matter because they do absolutely no work to organize workers anyway.

It is amazing that no one in SEP understands how much of a huge revision David North is making by equating the union form with a reactionary force, and how he is actually taking an anti-Marxist position. How can the SEP claim to be defending the Wisconsin workers? The massive demonstrations recently came about over what is essentially a union right, the right of workers to collectively bargin with their employer.

As far as Steiner and Brenner goes, I can't speak for them obviously, but I believe their thinking is that they didn't want to declare a new international consiting of only a handful of people, they thought the what was most important was to clarify theoretical issues and that is what they focussed on. I agree with position to a good exent, because Marxism has been so degraded over the last century, the first step should be clarify theorectical matters. The situation is difficult in the US, we have a "left" movement, but it so disoriented and confused. You can look at all the so called "left" or "socialist" parties and reach the same conclusion. At any rate, I don't know if the time is right to start a new party, but I think much more could be done through their site. Obviously things are starting happen now, and people are looking for answers, so I think much more could be done in enunciating a Trotsyist perspective, and from there we could find the base to form a new international.

Thomas Cain said...

Sorry for posting another comment so soon, but there was something else I meant to ask about.

Your mention of the degradation of class consciousness has raised another issue that the ICFI hasn't bothered to explain in-depth: The causes of this degradation, and how future generations can further lend weight to the ideological struggle for socialist consciousness.

Two events that we can start with (not now, obviously) are the aftermath of the Second World War (with the brutal Soviet and American occupation of Germany) and the dissolution of the Soviet bureaucracy in the early nineties. This is not to mention the fragmenting of the Fourth International and Trotsky's assassination. In my opinion, these were opinions of capitalist and imperialist triumphalism that provided a catalyst for union and worker degeneration.

The most important of these events to examine, in my opinion, is the Nazi holocaust. Norman Finkelstein has provided numerous occasions to show how the Israeli state and numerous propagandists in the US have literally profited off of this degeneration of consciousness.

I'm not trying to imply that Steiner and Brenner, or anyone else, should drop everything and become historians, of course. At this point though, I'm convinced that the clarification of these "theoretical issues" goes hand in hand with outlining the causes of these historical symptoms.

I'm also willing to accept that I'm too personally invested in these specific events, and may have missed the forest for the trees. Using the Nazi holocaust as a justification for the "there's no alternative" argument of those with the petty-bourgeois stripe is something I've heard quite often in the past couple of years. Such ignorance should be combated as well. The ICFI will likely do nothing in this respect. Nick Beams' last piece on the "Political Economy of the Holocaust" was terrible.

Sorry for ranting. On to my question. If you were to conduct a general historical analysis of the causes for the loss of class consciousness, where would you turn?

Mark said...

Perhaps this is something you would like to investigate and write about?

It is a complex question, and I think only an in-depth investigation can answer it, one based upon the method historical materialism. You need to trace the material development of capitalism in the US and connected with the development of world capitalism, and find its reflection in consciousness of workers. It would require a good deal of empirical research, of course guided by the Marxist method. Why did anti-communism take root in the unions? What is the American Dream, and what did it mean for workers? How did the unions evolve and what is the relationship between this evolution, the development of material factors, and the development of other ideological factors? And what is the relationship between these processes and development of Trotskyism and Marxism over the same period? As far as the material factors, at least for the US, I think that a strong component was the strength of US capitalism over Europe and Japan who suffered a significant loss of infrastructure following World War II. Maybe this gives you a starting point to consider.

Thomas Cain said...

Thanks for your opinion, Mark, it does give me a better idea of where to start. I must make clear though that the present stage of my life will not make such an investigation possible. Distractions riddle each day, not to mention the fact that I've never done any kind of empirical research, except through secondary sources. Truth be told, I can barely get through the first chapter of Marx's 'Das Kapital'. After being forced to realize and understand the ICFI's degeneration, I have tried to base my politics solely on the armament of the proletariat, so that I will not fall into the same trap as North has. But I have no established discipline in understanding Marx's Capital. I get lost almost immediately. The best I have been able to do is to memorize Trotsky's "Their Morals and Ours" to combat the ideology of the petty-bourgeois, along with memorizing his and other writings that I've managed to gather. Your piece on dialectics helped a bit in understanding some of the text, but it's as if there's some blockage lodged in my capacity to understand the material.

Sorry. There is a question in this. When you first tackled Capital, how did you go about trying to understand it all?

Mark said...

Maybe it is obvious or maybe it is not, but Marx's Capital is not something must be tackled all at once. To be honest I haven't read all of Capital, but at this point I believe I have read most of it or skimmed the other parts. The problem, and we would lucky if most so called "Marxists" had this problem, is that Marx lavishes detail on facts that we take for granted in our daily lives, he is extraordinarily thorough in his logic and proofs. If you have the preparation and interest, reading Marx can be very enjoyable not to mention valuable, but for many it can be frustrating.

I don't what you've read of Marx but Capital is not necessarily the best place to start, it is an elaboration and culmination of his scientific work, but it is not necesarrily the best place to start for understanding the method of Marxism. Before I owned a copy of Captital, I had a copy of Marx's collected works edited by McLellan, and I spent much time reading everything in the archives of MIA ( If you read the collected works, you will notice that Marx's correspondence contains valuable insights as well.

In my opinion the best work for understanding the methodology of Marxism is the first chapter of the German Ideology. This was a signifigant miletone in Marx's development and is the first elaboration of the materialist conception of history. If you want to go deeper into Marx's early methodological considerations, you can look into his "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right." I read this in book form, and the introduction was a very well researched discussion of Marx and his influences. I think all the works Marx wrote in this period are good to be familer with, "The Holy Family", "Poverty of Philospophy", and of course "The Communist Manifesto". If you read the "Grundrisse", you can find an outline of Capital, and also many of methodolical issues that Marx considered before writing Capital.

My approach has been to read and reread the works of Marx, I haven't done this in any specific order, it was usually in response to my own requirements. When I was in the SEP, I felt it was important to do a serious review of Marx's work in relation to dialectics, because everyone else was brushing this theoretical work aside, and treated dialectics like it was some ornament to decorate your phrases with. We had an education subcommittee of which I was a part, but no conception of what our approach to Marxism was, what to teach, what should be read be read and why. We ended up with a reading list constructed purely on an ad hoc basis.

In relation to dialectics, I felt that what Marx wrote on the subject was not sufficient for understanding his own use of dialectics, so I tried to find different significant historical examples. I think it is helpful, but unfortunately it is incomplete and only skims the surface of German idealism, which was a very important influence for Marx. I still believe we need a more systematic exposition on Marxist dialectics.

So my advice, if you are serious about writing, is to start with some of the basics and gradually read some of the more in depth works like Captial, and when you start with Capital you don't have to read it all at once. The first chapter is difficult, but very important for what follows in Capital. You can learn a lot in the process of writing too. We have the example of Trotsky who used the organization of the freemasons as an opportunity to apply and learn the historical materialist method[1].

I think the project you suggest is actually very important. Troskyism is in shambles today as is the labor movement, but the later is starting to resurface. What happened over this period of time? It is a question that I still ask, and one I don't have a good answer for.