A recent on-line exchange between Joel Wendland, managing editor of Communist Party USA theoretical journal Political Affairs, and David Walsh, a writer for the World Socialist Web Site, demonstrates embarrassingly what ails the US left: a shortage of Marxist understanding. Ostensibly, the dispute reflects different positions on the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, but in reality it exposes the foolishness of fealty to the Democratic Party and the silliness of infantile leftism. Sadly, both positions are common within left circles and both positions are caricatures of Marxist thinking. With respect to the substantial question – whether the impeachment process should be initiated against Bush and/or Cheney – neither disputant manages to engage the issue.
To begin, we would hope that all would agree that the political scene would be improved with Bush and Cheney’s exit, provided that the exit would not in any way strengthen their allies. But we must ask if there are any political elements that would benefit from Bush and Cheney remaining to complete their term. Outside of a shrinking minority of hard-core Bushites, the only possible beneficiary would be opportunistic Democrats who might see their prospects for victory in the 2008 Presidential election improved. They subscribe to the old, cynical Nixonian dictum of leaving their opponents “twisting in the wind.” At times, Wendland seems to reflect this position. His impassioned defense of Representative John Conyers, a solid progressive Democrat with a long history as an often lonely voice for social justice, is commendable, but beside the point. Surely, Wendland knows or suspects that Conyers’ reluctance to pursue the impeachment matter is part of a quid pro quo of his acceptance as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Party leader Pelosi made it clear well before the election that she would not countenance an impeachment effort. Only this fact can explain how Conyers pressed the impeachment issue before the interim elections and discreetly dropped it after his appointment to the important chairmanship. Whether Conyers likes the arrangement is something we can’t know, but there can be little doubt that pressure was brought to bear. If nothing else, this is a lesson in bourgeois politics.
Thus, the question becomes can we and should we tactically press for impeachment, with the hope that enough pressure will move the Democrats including Conyers to initiate the impeachment process. This is, of course, different from asking if the impeachment process can be carried through successfully. Only the skill and determination of those pressing for impeachment can determine that, along with the continuing collapse of support for Bush’s policies. Yet whether it is successful or not, the process will expose publicly the backwardness, corruption, and criminality of the Bush administration – surely, a good thing. Wendland argues that “nothing will get done and badly reflect on the Democrats” if the impeachment process is pursued, but little is getting done now. Whether from the Democrats lack of zeal or from Bush vetoes, little has changed since the interim elections. And the people know it: opinion polls place Congress’s approval ratings below Bush. So much for Wendland’s concern for the reputation of the Democrats.
Moreover, impeachment proceedings would more likely occupy the Bush administration with defensive maneuvers at the expense of advancing its agenda.
Marxists understand tactics. Actions which further the understanding of working people, which push the intensity of struggle to higher levels, which lead to more advanced popular initiatives, also advance the cause of socialism. Impeachment is one such action. It is only a diversion if one has sights on the 2008 Presidential election and only the election. It can be harmful only if one has little confidence that the public’s disapproval would deepen from the exposure of the case against Bush and Cheney. Wendland fails to understand that debating the wisdom of impeachment has become divisive, while pressing the case against Bush and Cheney is potentially unifying, even though disagreeable to the Democratic Party leadership.
Wendland suffers from a poverty of ideology. He has become so convinced that the evils of US capitalism and imperialism are embedded in the Republican Party that he embraces the other ruling class party – the Democrats – as an agent for change. His comment that “The current Democratic leadership is the jost progressive and politically astute set of insiders that the party has had probably since the New Deal.” would be laughable if it weren’t so shamefully fawning.
As for his opponent in this “debate”, David Walsh, we are treated to an old, tiresome tactic. Walsh wastes few words on the debate topic – impeachment – opting, instead to raise the specter of “Stalinism”. For Walsh, the currency of the impeachment issue is secondary to identifying his enemies on the left. His sights are firmly set on the Communist Party USA and not the Bush administration. He ominously tells us that “Great historical issues are involved here”. And off he goes on a recounting of the historical sins of the CPUSA. Wendland is right not to be drawn into the pettiness of left-sectarian politics, though one would hope that a CPUSA luminary would have offered a more spirited defense of his party’s history, a history which Walsh characterizes as a “history of treachery and criminality.”
Walsh lives in a world of fantasy and larger-than-life heroes and villains. We owe Lenin great thanks for developing the expression, “infantile leftism.” Stalin can be nothing less than evil incarnate, we must worship every word uttered by Leon Trotsky, and world revolution would have been long completed if only the wicked Communists had not treacherously retarded it. This is a strange brew of the great individual in history and romantic illusion. It seemingly never occurred to Walsh that the ruling classes of virtually every nation have mounted an unprecedented, ruthless and desperate struggle against “godless” Communism since the time of the Bolshevik revolution while, according to his delusional account of history, they have failed to see that the Communists are actually the capitalists’ ally in suppressing the working class. But then everyone but the members of his tiny sect is an enemy of the working class on Walsh’s view.
But this is the disposition of those who confuse Marxism with religious fervor. There is no room for the idealism of thousands, if not millions, of Communists who died at the hands of the class enemy fighting for the cause of socialism. They were mere dupes, mere puppets of evil leaders. On this view, the unprecedented clash between Communism and Capitalism that dominated the twentieth century was nothing but a monumental diversion. The action was not on the stage, but in the lofty box seats occupied by the ultra-left.
Of course the role of Stalin, the Bolshevik and CPSU leadership must be honestly addressed, though it can shed no light on the impeachment debate. There are still those who profess Stalin’s infallibility, though they are few in number. There are vastly many others who see nothing but monstrous crimes in the Stalin period. Walsh seems to fall into that category. Interestingly, citizens of modern day Russia place Stalin in high esteem and still prefer Soviet socialism to the capitalist option they face today. Walsh would see them as dupes, like the millions of dedicated Communists who struggled against capitalism in the twentieth century. We prefer to think that an assessment of this earlier period in Soviet history requires a bit more balance than that offered by the Robert Conquests, J. Edgar Hoovers, and Ronald Reagans of the West.
Should we look for “great historical issues”, as Walsh pontificates, we might want to note that the history of the Trotskyite movement is one of attacking the left with greater vigor than it does the clear and present enemies of the working class. Walsh’s screed is only another example of this action. He should face the historical fact while tackling “great historical issues” that Trotskyism has failed to take root among masses of people because of this tendency. Instead, Trotskyite groups splinter interminably in great baptismal rituals of purification. Sadly, this has been a rite of passage for many idealistic youth on the left.
Finally, we turn to the characterizations of Representative John Conyers at the hands of the two disputants, Wendland and Walsh. We think their views on Conyers shed midday light on their respective politics and Marxist shortcomings. John Conyers has a long history of initiating and supporting left, progressive, and unpopular causes. His current leadership on the single payer, universal health care issue is the jost recent example of a continued devotion to pressing the political agenda beyond what “respectable” politicians will accept. As such, he is a leader who can help us escape the morass of cynical, corrupted bourgeois politics. On the other hand, he is a Democrat. And accordingly, he is limited by the back room deals, corporate shilling, and electoral expediency that pass for discipline in the Democratic Party. To understand the function and role of bourgeois politics is essential to a basic Marxist understanding, an understanding that leads inevitably to the necessity of an independent, third party. Unable to be even marginally critical of the Democratic Party, Wendland is forced into vast exaggeration of the Party’s ability to change the political landscape. Walsh, on the other hand, holding vigorously to a simplistic good versus evil theology, dismisses all effort within the Democratic Party. His depiction of Conyers as “a corrupt career politician… who politically exploits the population in Detroit” is ignorant at best, chauvinistic at the worst. Neither reflects a Marxist analysis.