The “anti-fascist” vs. “anti-imperialist” Left: some genealogies and prospects

Platypus 2011 President’s report

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, May 1, 2011 (audio recording).

The usual ways of categorizing various trends on the “Left” today have become less useful for distinguishing politically and indicating potential future developments. Trends have defied historical or expected trajectories — if these in fact ever applied properly — and so call for a new and different approach to sort out what we’re dealing with today and are likely to encounter going forward.

Other categories of the “Left:” Platypus has been rightly recognized (if only occasionally and intermittently) for traversing if not transcending these categories in the approach of our project:

1.) Socialist vs. liberal: Supposedly rooted in “class perspective,” as in “bourgeois-liberal” and “proletarian-socialist” (but not class character in terms of sociological “position,” but rather in Marx’s sense of the “petit bourgeois” horizon of politics thus aligning intellectuals with the “petite bourgeoisie”). But also perhaps expressing the antinomy of individual vs. collective freedom, certainly in ways we would not resolve as apparently simply as historical “Marxism” has done, for instance characterizing the Right as prioritizing “liberty” while the Left prioritizes social “justice.”

2.) Libertarian vs. authoritarian: The characterization supposed of the anarchist vs. Marxist division. Less about sociological position than political practice and concomitant organizational method: “horizontal” vs. hierarchical; decentralized vs. centralized, etc.

3.) Anti-Stalinist vs. Stalinist: The supposedly “Trotskyist” perspective, and perhaps the most problematic, considering the ISO/U.S. and others (SWP/U.K., et al.). This is not reducible to the libertarian vs. authoritarian division although apparently related to it; at an earlier, relatively less degenerate historical stage of the “Left,” this would have been characterized by internationalist vs. nationalist perspectives.

Because Platypus is in fact concerned with overcoming what are today inaccurate characterizations of the problems facing emancipatory perspectives moving forward, we must externally, publicly problematize but also internally not use unproblematically such categories, which are inherited unthinkingly from the “Left” of prior historical moments.

The set of categories we need to confront, which applies both clearly to the present but also to what might appear to be a rather obscure history, stemming from the earliest manifestation of “Stalinism” in the late 1920s-early ’30s, is that of “anti-fascism” vs. “anti-imperialism.”

We have, in large measure, the history of the German “Left” since the 1960s to thank for these categories, “anti-fa” and “anti-imp,” which however have a much greater international and historical significance than may apparently be the case. Indeed, we need to confront these categories as the true manifestation of the real controversies besetting the “Left” today, and for deep historical reasons.

Of course, for many, the distinction between “fascism” and “imperialism” is without a difference: fascists are imperialist and imperialists are fascistic. But this is only at the most superficial, pejorative meaning of these categories. What they refer to, analytically, and politically, however, are quite different kinds of problems. So, it becomes a matter of how one prioritizes the concerns of one’s politics. Are one’s concerns primarily “anti-imperialist” or “anti-fascist?”

In Tariq Ali’s book Trotsky for Beginners, there is a passage [p. 143] in which the Stalinist characterization of Trotsky as “fascist” is ridiculed by Ali, in light of the need for united anti-fascist political struggle by the Communists and Social-Democrats (and others) against the Nazis in Germany. But Ali’s “Trotskyist” common sense should not be taken at face value. Rather, one needs to understand why the Stalinists — that is, the vast majority of Communists, internationally, at the time — would have found this characterization of Trotsky’s perspective as “fascist” plausible:

We should not assume that Trotsky was right and the Stalinists wrong, however tempting this may be in retrospect. The Stalinists thought that Trotsky’s perspective would have meant strengthening — caving in to — the Social Democrats, who in turn would not scruple to unleash the fascists against the Communists, as indeed happened earlier in 1918-19 in Germany and during the Russian Civil War. Trotsky’s perspective was that the Communists could get the upper hand on the Social Democrats and indeed lead and split them in a united fight against the fascists. Perhaps. But this is precisely what the ISO and others think can happen today with the Islamists against the imperialists, or what “Trotskyists” earlier thought could happen in drawing close to the Stalinists, as the Pabloites (Mandelites) thought. In many respects this is an insoluble problem, and a key reason why tactical or even strategic judgments made by Marxists in earlier eras should not be hypostatized as abstract, timeless principles. Trotsky’s position was the more optimistic and indeed more interesting position in the dispute, but not some unalloyed truth we can reckon today.

The other side of the anti-imperialist/anti-fascist divide also comes from this period of Stalinism in the late 1920s-early ’30s. That is, why did the Communists make common cause at times with the Nazis, for instance in protests against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles? Out of “anti-imperialism,” namely, to have the forces of the Entente occupying Germany (French African troops in the Ruhr valley) removed. The Nazis had their own brand of “anti-imperialism” with which the Communists thought they could make common cause. [Show clip from Kiss of the Spider Woman: ~1:10:10 – 1:13:30.] Now, such “anti-imperialism” should remind us of the ISO with respect to Hezbollah, Hamas, and even al-Qaeda (Tariq Ali, after all, did publish the collected writings of Osama bin-Laden!).

It’s tantalizing for us to sympathize with Trotsky’s position as the path not taken. Even if Trotsky’s approach to fighting fascism had prevailed, it would have presented new problems. The point is that it didn’t, so we can only learn from it so much. We cannot afford to short-circuit the question of political judgment and turn the matter into one of abstract principles, quickly devolving into a moral or ethical stance: “Unite and fight against the Right!”

For who is the Right, essentially? In other words, who was the more dangerous Right? In some respects, this seems rather straightforward, the Nazis were the more dangerous and the Social Democrats the less dangerous Right. But is this really true, in terms of the actual, concretely practical political situation? Certainly the German and Russian counterrevolutionary civil wars, among other examples, demonstrated the vicious character of Social Democracy as a Right-wing force.

Now, we are clearly more sympathetic to the anti-fascist rather than anti-imperialist “Left.” This can be found in our orientations towards the Anti-Deutsch and others as our preferred objects of critique — more interesting, in certain respects, as objects of critical engagement, to be redeemed in some way. But we should not naturalize this but rather recognize how the current situation came about historically. For the worst offenders of the anti-imperialist “Left” today actually have roots in the anti-fascist “Left.” In other words, today’s divisions would not have applied in the past.

The ISO itself began as a more anti-fascist than anti-imperialist “Left” organization, for instance, prioritizing anti-Stalinism over anti-imperialism. This would have been the case until fairly recently, indeed perhaps one could say up to the collapse of Stalinism in 1989. In regarding the anti-fascist Left of Christopher Hitchens, Kanan Makiya, and others, we should recognize that the critique of Baathism in Iraq, for example, as fascist, is not enough to resolve the problem of imperialism in U.S. policy.

Another example is the RCP, which has in certain respects come to prioritize an anti-fascist as opposed to anti-imperialist politics.

But there are serious problems with the anti-fascist as well as the anti-imperialist “Left.” So it is important for us to be aware of this divide so that we can properly discern its — entirely symptomatic — character. We cannot afford to be either anti-fa or anti-imp in prioritizing our approach to the problem of the Left. | §

11 Responses to “The “anti-fascist” vs. “anti-imperialist” Left: some genealogies and prospects”

  1. Renegade Eye says:

    Defining yourself as “anti,” leads to binary thinking. See this.
    It leads to simpleton ideas, as reflexively being for, whatever the US is against. I would say 98% of the time where US imperialism puts an X, I put an O. The times I put an O at the same spot, it’s for another reason.

    I’m in the International Marxist Tendency. We are not a party, but a tendency in mass working class organizations. We believe Ted Grant’s axiom, if you’re outside the working class’s mass organizations, you are outside of everything that matters politically. When the masses move, they always first go to their traditional groups. They don’t go to the Spartacist League, RCP or even the IMT. In France 68, membership grew in tremendous numbers in the Communist and Socialist Parties, as well as unions. Not being in a mass party or union, for a group, means they are a sect.

    The failure of Stalin’s “third period turn,” was shown by his move to the right, and the popular front strategy.

    I wish you would take time, to studying Ted Grant’s analysis. I’m not saying that in cult like manner. He has been wrong, and we print his mistaken ideas too.

  2. I agree that Trotsky’s “Learn to Think” makes an invaluable point regarding “taking sides.”

    Regarding the IMT, in the U.S. there is no labor or mass working-class party of any kind. There are unions, but that’s a different matter, I think.

    That’s at least one reason why Platypus, which started in the U.S., positions itself organizationally as something other than a political party, why we’re not defined by programmatic political positions, etc. We don’t think it’s a matter of taking positions, today, but rather investigating the death of the “Left” so that it might possibly be reborn.

    My talk on the “anti-fascist vs. anti-imperialist Left” was an attempt to open a way of looking into a significant division on the (dead) “Left” today that needs to be overcome on both of its sides.

  3. Renegade Eye says:

    When the IMT was formed in the US, after examining the groups, decided we had to build from scratch.

    I don’t see a fascist threat in the US. There is no material basis for fascism. In fact it’s undesirable by capitalists, because it can get out of control. I don’t think of imperialism as a policy, but a stage of capitalism. Again its best to define yourself by what you’re for.

    That’s at least one reason why Platypus, which started in the U.S., positions itself organizationally as something other than a political party, why we’re not defined by programmatic political positions, etc. We don’t think it’s a matter of taking positions, today, but rather investigating the death of the “Left” so that it might possibly be reborn.

    Idealism?

    I see the left and right as drunks, and IMT as temperance. It’s not an intellectual problem, as much as a leadership problem.

    In Pakistan we have more than 200 chapters. We’re in factories, schools etc. We fight both imperialism and Islamism there. There we are the Marxist wing of the Pakistan People’s Party, a party formed with a socialist program and out of the 1968 revolution. The PPP is now corrupt, and at the service of imperialism. Still workers and peasants associate it with Ali Bhutto’s socialist program. We are the Marxist wing, fighting for a Marxist program for the PPP.

    At one time in the UK, we had a few MPs, and 8,000 members, with 200 full time organizers. We took over the Labour Party’s youth group.

    The point is that we don’t operate like most on the left. We’re based as a tendency in mass organizations.

    In the US at this time, we don’t have a mass party of labor. That is why this was formed:

    http://www.masspartyoflabor.org/

    My disagreement with you is not on premises, but conclusions.

  4. “This can be found in our orientations towards the Anti-Deutsch and others as our preferred objects of critique — more interesting, in certain respects, as objects of critical engagement, to be redeemed in some way.”

    This is no surprise to me, but keep in mind, saying “Anti-German” is like saying “Trotskyist”: there are many different flavors. Which of the 57 flavors of Anti-German do you regard as redeemable?

    Do you really think the neo-conservatives at Bahamas are “redeemable”? Keep in mind these are people who have explicitly stated their disinterest *forever* in any kind of left politics, preferring instead a position of defending liberal democratic capitalism against all collectivist tendencies. Why is this a more “redeemable” position than the Trotskyism of the ISO/SWP?

  5. @ negative potential:

    I think that the ISO/U.S. and the SWP/U.K. are just as Right-wing — conservative/affirmative of the trajectory of the status quo — as the self-avowed neo-conservatives/neo-liberals, if in a complementary, inverted sense. It’s like the case of Christopher Hitchens or Kanan Makiya or Fred Halliday vs. Tariq Ali. One is not Left while the other is Right. These are all species of the Right, containing disintegrated, fragmented shards of the historical Left. The question is the symptomatic interest — the more or less interesting symptom in question.

    In terms of the Anti-Deutsch, Bahamas et al. are clearly an interesting symptom of recent history. I am interested in the kernels of truth, however distorted in expression, they contain. Such tendencies are not interesting at the level of positive political program, but for the negative light they cast upon the present in terms of the history of the Left. They are symptoms of the historical death of the Left. Perhaps the less controversial and more apparently reasonable cases are the more banal/uninteresting ones. Especially since the “Left” is no practical force for emancipation today, the salient instances of the “Left’s” self-immolation are standing reproaches to the status quo, for they are eruptions of potential consciousness that have been cut short, unfulfilled. For what must be attended to and worked through is the pathology of the “Left,” which shows what the (otherwise repressed) content of emancipation must be.

  6. But one constant theme of Platypus’s critique is that the Maoism of the New Left was a political stillbirth. This is the position from which you criticize Badiou and Zizek.

    Bahamas, being a product of the dissolution of the Kommunistischer Bund, is presumably not of any redeemable interest to you, because being Maoists (albeit pro-USSR Maoists), they never had any “good” politics to begin with. Their sudden adoption of Adorno and Horkheimer in the early-90s reads like a political mid-life crisis.

    ISF (whose awful text you published) might arguably be “better” in terms of lineage, coming out of the left-social democracy of the Sozialistische Büro with some council communist influences, but even that isn’t in the political lineage you lay claim to.

    Hitchens and Malik are both ex-Trotskyists, which presumably makes them more interesting to Platypus. There is no corresponding figure in Germany that represents a shift from Trotskyism to neo-conservatism of the anti-German type.

    What I’m saying is that from the Platypus perspective, all these groups had “pathological” politics, not just since they started cheerleading for Israel.

  7. All of this is true (although I pointed to Kanan Makiya, not Kenan Malik, though the latter is also an important figure, but on a different score).

    For us in Platypus “all bets are off,” which means that the differences among (post-New Left, but especially post-1990s) “Trotskyists,” “Maoists” et al. don’t matter so much. There’s a general collapse in which the different traditional lineages don’t matter as much as they might have previously. We try to be careful to work against any default affinities that may come from misleading familiarities, i.e. affinity to (ex-)”Trotskyists” owing to greater familiarity. Some anarchist traditions (e.g., Murray Bookchin) might have more in common with Marx and the most interesting historical figures of Marxism than many and possibly most “Marxists” today do. (Post-)Trotskyism is not necessarily better and may indeed be worse in many respects today than what might be available in other traditions.

  8. Marq Dyeth says:

    Chris,

    Both your writings on this site and the material developed by the Platypus Affiliated Societies have argued that pretty much everything to come out of the Left since the Russian Revolution has been a dogs breakfast. And that we would do well to reconsider the forgotten lessons (not?) learned from that time, that repeat themselves later. In many ways I agree with you. Much of what the Left has to offer is stale, repetitive, and unhelpful for the present day.

    But there is a living tradition of Leftist radicalism in the U.S. Not a powerful or popular one to be sure, but one whose ideas seem to me to engage productively with the present conditions in this country. For example, James Boggs’ ‘Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook’ (1963.) Boggs’ writings seem valuable if you and the Platypus Societies are interested in re-founding the Left on the basis of some theoretical clarity before you approach political unity as a project.

    Another relevant example here is Chicago’s own J. Sakai, of ‘Settlers’ (1983) fame. His essay/interview ‘When Race Burns Class’ is available online and it seems to address both sides of the anti-imperialist/ anti-fascist antimony and to tie them together nicely with a theory of settler colonialism and subsequent de-settlerization. Kasama put it on their site a minute ago but noone seems to like it much there, either.

    To summarize, don’t you think it’s a little premature to dismiss EVERYTHING about the late twentieth century’s Left(s)? Especially, correct me if I’m wrong, on the basis of a philosophy of history, instead of on the basis of the careful investigation that can only come from actively intervening in the world outside of the realm of ideas?

    Otherwise much appreciation for what you and yours are trying to do here.

  9. Marq Dyeth says:

    …Or The Johnson-Forest Tendency in the US, the Chicago-based Sojourner Truth Organization, the writings of the Midnight Notes Collective, Socialism ou Barbarie in France, Potere Operaio in Italy, and the whole range of Autonomy-related feminisms such as Selma James, Maria Mies, and Silvia Federici.

    I’m not looking for a point-by-point argument regarding writers and activists who you don’t have a lot of familiarity with, but it would be good to see some acknowledgement of the fact that there are a ton of left thinkers and writers and doers post-1968 who don’t fall into the easy categories of Maoist anti-imperialism, non-profit co-optation, or conservative sectarian blindness.

  10. I have a straightforward response: I think that Marxism and the Left more generally degenerated after the crisis of WWI and the revolutions that followed. It is for this reason that I pointed (in this article) back to problems of the 1920s that have not been overcome or transcended to this day. I think that all tendencies after that time are symptomatic of the disintegration and regression of Marxism and the Left. While certain attempts at recovery of the deeper history have been made, all have been problematical. I am certainly aware of most if not all of the tendencies you mention, but I don’t find them to be productive points of departure: I don’t find them to be truly new. The question of Platypus and my perspective, however, is a different matter. I think that exponents of all the tendencies you mention may provide interesting perspectives to include in the critical conversations on the death of the Left and prospects for a reformulation of Marxism today that Platypus seeks to host.

  11. […] vs. ‘anti-imperialist’ Left: Some genealogies and prospects,” available online at <http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1203&gt;.↑2. Jim Creegan, “Hot Autumn in New York,” in Weekly Worker 886 (October 20, […]

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