By Zoltan Zigedy (Greg Godels)
October 16, 2017
Marxists have been prolific correspondents, engaging others in polemics and collective ideas. The Marx and Engels correspondences, for example, number 1,386 letters! Marxism is, or should be, a collaborative effort.
Thus, I read the recent Sam Webb/Max Elbaum correspondence with some interest. Webb was the National Chairperson of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) for fourteen years until 2014. Elbaum was a sympathetic chronicler and active leader of the so-called “New Communist Movement” (NCM) in the 1970s. It is important to note that the CPUSA and the NCM were bitter rivals at that time.
So, it is strange that they exchange warm emails today, sharing the pleasantries of senior life–swimming, camping, time with grandkids, and marathon running– while adding their voices to the chorus calling for an all-out effort on behalf of the Democratic Party in the 2018 elections.
Or is it strange?
Webb holds the dubious distinction of leading the CPUSA down the rabbit hole of irrelevance. After the death of long-time CPUSA leader, Gus Hall, Webb and his cohorts transformed the CPUSA into a social democratic organization, eschewing both the legacy of the Communist Party and much of its organizational structure. Webb further entrenched the “lesser-of-two-evil” electoral strategy that began with the panic over the Reagan victory in 1980. The final years of Hall’s chairmanship and the Webb era snuffed out the last measures of the CPUSA’s political independence, turning it into a servile handmaiden to the Democratic Party.
Webb resigned from the eviscerated CPUSA the year after he gave up the national chair.
Elbaum’s career emerged very differently, but landed in nearly the same place as Webb’s. Elbaum, like many other veterans from the 1960s student movement, moved away from the radical democratic reformism of that era in the direction of a more anti-capitalist ideology, Marxism-Leninism. Unable to overcome their infection with the anti-Communist virus of the Cold War, many were drawn to the militant rhetoric of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that was simultaneously befriending Nixon’s administration and roundly condemning the Soviet Communists and most of the World Communist Movement. With amazing chutzpah, Elbaum and the New Communist Movement found no contradiction in the two positions. But by the end of the 1970s, the opportunism of the CPC was more than even the most faithful could hold their noses and swallow. China’s Communists had sided with the US against every legitimate liberation movement in Africa, including the ANC. The Red Guard anarchy and the Gang of Four excesses tested the conviction of the devoted, leading to defection for all but the most cultish.
Elbaum’s political journey continued, but swung sharply away from Leninism. The hyper-sectarian model embraced by NCM generated a sharp reaction, an extreme swing away from the classic Leninist notion of a vanguard party with a centralized, but democratic structure. Having little or no experience with Leninism apart from the brief heyday of the NCM, Elbaum began a steady retreat towards social democracy, a trend expressed in the US by investing in the perceived positive, progressive potential of the Democratic Party. Where Webb argues for unquestioned conformity to the Democratic Party leadership, Elbaum opts for a more critical attitude with the hope of steering the Democrats leftward.
Judging by the odyssey of Sam Webb and Max Elbaum, many roads lead disillusioned radicals, Marxist short-timers, and weak-kneed Communists back to the Democratic Party. Of course, many of the privileged (and violence-prone), elite-school New Lefties have been welcomed back to the Democratic Party as well.
In retrospect, two notions have provided excuses for disillusioned Marxists to retreat to the social democratic camp: first, the perceived threat of fascism as present or around the corner and, secondly, the firmly held conviction that resistance to fascism necessitates some kind of broad, anti-fascist front. Both notions, though widely cited, belong to the theoretical legacy of the Marxist-Leninist left. And both were elaborated most clearly and authoritatively by the Communist theoretician of fascism, Georgi Dimitrov.
Dimitrov on Fascism and Anti-fascism
Hardly a day goes by without someone on the left raising the shrill alarm of fascism. As Diana Johnstone reminds us in her brilliant essay on Antifa, “…historical fascism no longer exists.” What does exist, however are movements, formations, and personalities that bear various common features with historical fascism. Of course, we should not diminish the active role of these movements, formations, and personalities in their vicious attacks on the democratic and economic gains won by working people.
But these elements have always been a part of the political landscape of the US, both before, during and after the era of historical fascism– the Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the Liberty League, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, the John Birch Society, George Wallace, the Tea Party, Trumpets and Trumpettes, etc. It is far harder to identify a time in US history when the fascist-like elements did not exist as a significant force. For that reason, vigilance and militant resistance is always important. But that is a far cry from urging that something identical with historical fascism is now imminent. If the wolf is always lurking in the shadows, is it helpful to cry “wolf”?
This should in no way be construed as a dismissal or underestimation of many of the forces arrayed around and unleashed by President Trump. They, like their predecessors, are present as a reserve army for the ruling class should political matters get out of hand. They should be met with the same resolute resistance as the left has mounted in the past against rabid hate-mongers and right-wing terrorists.
Historical fascism arose as a response to the success of revolutionary socialism, in Dimitrov’s words: “Fascism comes to power as a party of attack on the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, on the mass of the people who are in a state of unrest…” Clearly, there are, with perhaps a few exceptions, no serious threats to capitalist rule today, certainly not in the United States; there are few revolutionary movements contesting state power. There can be no counter-revolutionary “open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital” when there is no revolution to counter.
While Dimitrov warns of the dangers of fascistic tendencies and urges their resistance, he reminds us that: “The accession to power of fascism is not an ordinary succession of one bourgeois government by another, but a substitution of one state form of class domination of the bourgeoisie — bourgeois democracy — by another form — open terrorist dictatorship.” Few of the harbingers of fascism today acknowledge this point. Since the right in the US manages its agenda well within the confines of a corporate dominated two-party system, why would it need to move to an open terrorist dictatorship?
In a real sense, the premature cry of “fascism!” disarms the revolutionary left, the advocates of socialism. Instead of building an alternative to the failed two-party system, a system that demonstrates a constant rightward shift, Webb, Elbaum, and far too many on the left argue for compromise with those who have been fully compliant with this rightward drift. They misunderstand or distort much of what we have learned about historical fascism.
Contrary to the vulgar distortion of Dimitrov’s views, fascism did not come to power in Germany because sectarian Communists refused to work with Social Democrats. Dimitrov is clear on this: “Fascism was able to come to power primarily because the working class, owing to the policy of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie pursued by Social Democratic leaders, proved to be split, politically and organizationally disarmed, in face of the onslaught of the bourgeoisie…” and owing to “…their campaign against the Communists and [failure] to accept the repeated proposals of the Communist Party for united action against fascism.”
Webb and Elbaum neither understand the historical basis of fascism nor grasp the Marxist theory of united front designed to meet the fascist danger when it arises. Rather than viewing the united front as a specific historical response to a specific historical development, they generalize the united front tactic to a universal response to the ascendency of the right.
If fascism is on the horizon, they argue, then we need to adopt a united front policy that brings together any and all forces willing to stand in its way. But that is not the lesson that Georgi Dimitrov– the Communist who stood against and defied the Nazi judiciary when charged with the Reichstag fire– drew from the experience of historical fascism:
Whether the victory of fascism can be prevented depends first and foremost on the militant activity of the working class itself, on whether its forces are welded into a single militant army combating the offensive of capitalism and fascism. By establishing its fighting unity, the proletariat would paralyze the influence of fascism over the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, the youth and the intelligentsia, and would be able to neutralize one section of them and win over the other section.
Second, it depends on the existence of a strong revolutionary party, correctly leading the struggle of the working people against fascism. A party which systematically calls on the workers to retreat in the face of fascism and permits the fascist bourgeoisie to strengthen its positions is doomed to lead the workers to defeat… [my italics]
Both Webb and Elbaum have long given up on building “a strong revolutionary party,” either for its own sake or for a battle against fascism. Instead, they take their lead from the Democratic Party, a pathetic answer to the rightward shift of the last four decades.
They fail to grasp the application of the united front strategy to US conditions. Rather than tail the Democrats, Dimitrov, writing specifically in 1935 about the US, called for the creation of a third party and for a decisive break with the bourgeois parties (the Democrats and the Republicans):
It is perfectly obvious that the interests of the American proletariat demand that all its forces dissociate themselves from the capitalist parties without delay. It must find in good time ways and suitable forms to prevent fascism from winning over the wide mass of discontented working people. And here it must be said that under American conditions the creation of a mass party of the working people, a Workers’ and Farmers’ Party, might serve as such a suitable form. Such a party would be a specific form of the mass People’s Front in America and should be put in opposition to the parties of the trusts and the banks, and likewise to growing fascism. Such a party, of course, will be neither Socialist nor Communist. But it must be an anti-fascist party and must not be an anti-Communist party.
Of course, this was written at a moment when historical fascism was at its zenith internationally. Today, without the imminent threat of fascism, the prescription for a break with the Democrats is even more urgent.
It is not simply a question of stopping fascism, but a question of winning people away from it with a peoples’ program.
Those who confuse the anti-fascist united front with capitulation to the leadership of liberals or social democrats often see the problem of united action as left-sectarianism. Certainly, sectarianism, characterized by Dimitrov as finding “…expression particularly in overestimating the revolutionization of the masses, in overestimating the speed at which they are abandoning the positions of reformism, and in attempting to leap over difficult stages and the complicated tasks of the movement…” was then and remains a significant obstacle to building a Communist Party or a third party.
But Dimitrov gave equal attention to the dangers of right opportunism:
…we must increase in every way our vigilance toward Right opportunism and the struggle against it and against every one of its concrete manifestations, bearing in mind that the danger of Right opportunism will increase in proportion as the broad united front develops. Already there are tendencies to reduce the role of the Communist Party in the ranks of the united front and to effect a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology.
Nor must we lose sight of the fact that the tactics of the united front are a method of clearly convincing the Social-Democratic workers of the correctness of the Communist policy and the incorrectness of the reformist policy, and that they are not a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology and practice. A successful struggle to establish the united front imperatively demands constant struggle in our ranks against tendencies to depreciate the role of the Party, against legalist illusions, against reliance on spontaneity and automatism, both in liquidating fascism and in implementing the united front against the slightest vacillation at the moment of decisive action.
Thus, it is a mistake to surrender the revolutionary program to appease tactical alliances or coalitions. Joint action is possible, maybe essential at times, but without sacrificing the integrity and revolutionary ideology to tactical partners. This is a nuance lost on those rushing to uncritically embrace the electoral slates of the Democratic Party and to hide the goal of socialism under a basket.
Those abandoning the struggle against capitalism, for socialism, should be honest about their change of heart. They should not hide behind an inflated threat or a misrepresented tactic.
Historical fascism was a mortal, worldwide threat in the 1930s and 1940s. Communists devised special tactics to broaden and deepen the fight against it. They did so without illusions about the commitment of other forces or without corrupting or compromising their principles. They led and won that fight, except, unfortunately, in Spain.
A similar threat may arise again when revolutionary forces present an existential challenge to the conventional rule of the capitalist class.
Or it may not. That will depend, as Dimitrov points out, on the balance of forces between revolutionaries and their adversaries.
But those who imagine a world without capitalism should not be misled by false prophets who pretend to find a road to socialism through the Democratic Party. Those who aspire to socialism should not be seduced by naysayers who insist that the struggle for socialism should be postponed until all of the specters and ghouls of the right are exorcised.