Platypus 2011 President’s report
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. | §