Party, program, and class

The September 2018 edition of Revolution or War opens with a piece by Robin on the new efforts at regroupment surrounding the journal Intransigence.1 Framed as a review of the second issue, the article proceeds to summarize its contents and then discuss the prospects for groups inspired by the traditions of the communist left. Although broadly appreciative of the project’s goals, objections are raised about Intransigence’s editorial line and overall methodology.

In responding to this piece, we hope to accomplish several things at once. First of all, to clarify to ourselves and others where we situate ourselves historically. We can then show how this self-understanding informs our stance on questions of party, program, and class. Second, to extend the spirit of open engagement evinced by the article in Revolution or War. Of course, we will be frank about points of disagreement, but not in order to create scandal or polemic. Last but not least, we would like to use this as an opportunity to invite other groups to join in the regroupment effort, if they consider it, as we do, to be a worthwhile cause.

A couple caveats should be made right off the bat. Prometeo does not speak for Intransigence as a whole, nor for any of the groups involved. Indeed, as of writing, we are not among the four official member organizations. Nevertheless, we feel as though we might hazard a response, as an exercise in clarity and group cohesion.

Of publishing and political principles

To begin then with some common ground, the critique first acknowledges that “the basic positions of the journal [i.e., Intransigence’s statement of principles] are typical of the communist left.” But the author hastens to add that these positions are “too summary,” by which we take him to mean they are stated without enough elaboration. If the phrasing of these principles is somewhat terse, this is deliberate. For us, this is in fact the source of their strength — they are blunt, stripped-down, and concise. Subsequent pieces published in Intransigence can argue these points at greater length or in added detail. What they aim to provide is a general orientation, rather than a comprehensive program, a shared framework by which to gain our bearings.

However, the author’s complaint about the lack of a properly political statement in our principles is well-taken. As things stand, he observes, “there is no mention of the dictatorship of the proletariat or destruction of the bourgeois state.”2 Indeed, this is a significant oversight on our part, not just concerning proletarian rule in the distant future but also the present day-to-day reality of bourgeois rule here and now. Midterm elections are coming up here in the United States, so we should look to be one hundred percent clear about our deprecatory attitude toward electoralism and representative politics more broadly. Generally speaking, it would help to have a better sense of how we relate to the state as such so we can orient ourselves toward it moving forward. Our seventh principle already makes it known that we see a revolutionary party as necessary for the political victory of the proletariat, “the nerve center of the class,” so we should simply draft another.

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Socialism’s foreign policy

Introduction: Remembering Karl Liebknecht

Walt Auerbach

Karl Liebknecht was not a great theorist. Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, with whose name he will be forever linked, he wrote no major treatises on forms of protest or political economy (and even had his doubts about the labor theory of value).1 Nor was he a skillful politician. Before the war he was mostly known for being the son of Marx’s colleague and SPD cofounder,2 while after the war he was far too reluctant to break from social democracy once and for all.

Yet Liebknecht was a man of principle. Sebastian Haffner, a famous liberal historian, described him as “one of the most courageous men Germany ever produced.”3 He proved himself capable of sudden flashes of insight, moreover, some of which can be read in the fragment that follows. Liebknecht wrote this piece in April 1918 from Luckau prison. Although rambling at times and jotted down hurriedly, it deals with crucial themes such as the dialectic of inside and outside, subject and object, consciousness and conditions. It thereby remains relevant today.

What Liebknecht hopes to ascertain here is what Trotsky attempted to theorize some years later as the “propitious moment,” specifically in connection with the failed German revolution, reflecting on the lessons of October 1917.4 Georg Lukács couched the problem in rather more philosophical terms as the Augenblick — that is, the fleeting glance or blink of an eye in which the class-conscious proletariat can subjectively intervene within the objective course of events and disrupt the capitalist totality. Often this was discussed as the “ripeness” of conditions.

“Rosa and Karl went to their deaths almost somnambulistically,” Paul Mattick later recalled.5 Indeed, a grim sense of foreboding hangs over their last articles, as if they already knew what was in store for them. Today, a century after the crushing the Spartacist revolt and the murder of its leaders, it is fitting to revisit works left by these slain revolutionaries.

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On the lumpenproletariat

An historical reconstruction
and a conceptual critique

The concept of the “lumpenproletariat” sits uneasily within Marxian class analysis. It is an unstable, even incoherent category, not only in terms of its theorization but at the level of social reality itself. Nowhere did Marx or Engels or their successors provide a rigorous or exhaustive account of lumpens as a group or lumpenization as a process. Rather, there are snippets of text which can be compiled regarding the lumpenproletariat’s role in modern life.

Politically, most Marxists would agree this role is negative — or rather has been at crucial junctures in the past. From the lazzaroni of Naples in 17991 through the garde mobile of Paris in 1848,2 up to the tsarist черносотенцы in Russia after 19053 and the fascist Sturmabteilung in Germany during the interwar period,4 members of the lumpenproletariat have often served counterrevolutionary ends. At best, they are considered unreliable; at worst, predisposed to corruption. Either way, lumpens are not to be counted on when push comes to shove.

Yet these are merely scattered instances, not an overarching framework of society. While perhaps of anecdotal significance, they cannot be used to predict how this segment of the populace would act in any given situation. Historic tendencies may of course be noted, but it is important not to make the present just an index of the moments that led up to it. Otherwise one risks lapsing into vulgar empiricism,5 always a temptation for historians.

Moreover, communists must be extra careful when the concept is deployed against a backdrop like the migrant crisis. Condemnations of lumpen criminality all too easily echo rightwing rhetoric about “law and order.” Such talking-points are already pervasive in the media, with horror stories reported nightly on the news. Xenophobic and racist attitudes are fueled by middle-class fears of gang violence, which is but the flipside of police violence. Ultimately, crime itself is determined by whatever the bourgeois state deems to be legal or illegal at the time.6

A pair of recent articles have been published advancing a left communist approach to this question. Nuevo Curso examines the brutal effects of lumpenization in Spain alongside heightened xenophobia,7 while Workers’ Offensive looks back on the glorification of the lumpenproletariat by the Black Panther Party in the US.8 Both articles raise a number of salient points, some of which bear repeating, but do so in a rather ham-fisted manner. Greater precision is required for their message to come across, if they want to avoid maudlin moralistic postures.

What the present essay aims to accomplish is thus an historical reconstruction of the category, as well as a critique of its contemporary uses. It will be divided into three primary sections, each subdivided into two subsections:

  • First, it will highlight some ambiguities in the Marxist definition of the lumpenproletariat to show how vague it is. These are not simply the result of confused thinking, either, but reflect the real messiness of life at the fringes of capitalism.
  • Having clarified the core concept and furnished a material basis, its ideological function can now be laid bare from left to right. On both poles of the political spectrum, the figure of the lumpenproletariat is by turns glorified and vilified.
  • Characteristically “lumpen” practices such as looting and rioting may then be interrogated to see whether they impede working-class militancy. Put otherwise, must revolution be on the table for counterrevolution to even be possible?

Just to be clear, the goal here is not to place lumpenproletarians at the forefront of proletarian struggle or make them into the vanguard of the class. Still less does this essay want to replace the proletariat as the identical subject/object of history, as workers remain uniquely positioned to overthrow the capitalist system. Least of all does it seek to rehabilitate the lumpenproletariat as a group or deny how awful the process of lumpenization can be.

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Venezuela: Neither government nor opposition

Below you will find a translation of Nuevo Curso’s article “Venezuela: ni goberino ni oposición” originally published January 23, 2019, the day of the massive opposition march. Nuevo Curso is a Spanish left communist organization with a tremendous — indeed, almost daily — output of articles. Our comrades in Workers’ Offensive, a Miami-based left communist group, translated this one and posted it on their website. They did so in the belief that

the interests of the global working class (not just the one in Venezuela) lie not with any faction of capital, but on the contrary come into direct opposition with every capitalist faction… In order to fight for their own interests independently as a universal class, workers must break from the influence of capital lest it remain imprisoned by their chains. Neither the opposition nor the pseudo-socialism of Chavismo can liberate the working class in Venezuela from the crisis that they are suffering from: a crisis which has its basis in “the impossibility of an independent development of Venezuelan national capital in the conditions of today’s capitalism,” as Nuevo Curso says.

Another recent article worth checking out is the International Communist Tendency’s “Against All Capitalist Factions! For Proletarian Independence,” which makes similar points. Looking further back, Sergio López’s 2009 article for Kosmoprolet, “President Chávez is a Tool of God,” highlights continuities between the Maduro regime and that of his celebrated predecessor. Today it is easy to forget that Maduro was Chávez’s hand-picked successor, merely continuing the latter’s disastrous policies. Nevertheless, as internationalist communists we must fight any imperialist intervention undertaken by “our own” states meddling in the affairs of others.

Hopefully we will be setting up a discussion in NYC soon talking with Venezuelan communists and anarchists who oppose both the miserable Maduro government and the equally miserable Guaidó opposition.

 

Today the world is looking at a Venezuela that rises in the face of a call for an opposition march.1 The call for an opposition march is an open call for insurrection and a promise of amnesty to the soldiers that decide to abandon their loyalty to the government.2

This morning we saw some clashes in the streets.3 As a prelude yesterday, after the uprising of a group of soldiers of the Bolivarian National Guard was met at once with the approval of the international press,4 about thirty small protests broke out.5 Streets were blockaded, businesses were looted and garbage was burned in El Valle, Catia, and Petare.6 The places mentioned are known to be longstanding Chavista fiefdoms.

Today, it doesn’t seem as though the protests will become massive.7 Nor does it look as though the rebellion of the military will move beyond occasional uprisings of non-commissioned officers and troops.8 This, however, does not mean that the situation will not lead to savage repression and/or international military intervention.9

At this time, the focus is on the US, which warned its citizens of civil confrontation and supported the call for insurrection by the National Assembly.10 US support for the opposition was demonstrated by Vice President Pence through a video, which allowed Maduro to present the mobilization as a “fascist coup d’état ordered by the US.”11

In reality, the architecture of the opposition was not mapped out in the North, but rather in Brazil. Itamaraty has become the real headquarters of the Venezuelan opposition12 and the Bolsonaro government has not hesitated to use every means at its disposal for its purposes, including pointing the figure at Venezuela for the ELN attack in Bogotá.13 In reality, the bid of Brazil and Chile suffices with the reorganization of the opposition under the new leadership of Juan Guaidó, its call for insurrection, and a climate of civil conflict.14 The effects of this leadership have already brought nothing but gains for Bolsonaro, Brazilian capital, and Itamaraty: Bolsonaro was able to stage his continental leadership as well as discipline Argentina.15 He was able to restore the regional institutional architecture16 and, in line with his strategic vision, reinterpret the new deal between Mercosur and the EU.17 This has allowed Maduro to feed among Europeans their reticence against the opposition and to win among them, for the moment, an anti-interventionist attitude.18

Brazil, Colombia and the US on the one hand, Russia and China on the other, the EU somewhere in the middle… The spoils of Venezuela are at stake in a battle of imperialist alliances, split between the government and the opposition.

If its seems as though Venezuela’s implosion has no end,19 if the dependence of each internal force on a different imperialism becomes evident,20 it is because the crisis departs from and always returns to the same cause: the impossibility of an independent development of Venezuelan national capital in the conditions of today’s capitalism.21 There is no country — national capital — that can escape from the conditions of imperialism. This is why there is no “national liberation” possible and why nationalism, whether chavista or oppositionist, is nothing but a prison.

There is no possible national solution in Venezuela that does not involve more violence and hunger. Nationalism, whether governmental or oppositionist, is a reactionary prison.

In Venezuela, as in everywhere else, the real alternative is the same that we face these days in Mexico: to serve as the cannon fodder of the battle between factions of national capital or to fight independently, as workers, for universal human needs leaving aside “national interests” once and for all.22 The national interest is nothing other than the interest of a national capital that goes nowhere and that in its flight forward, be it by one road or another, threatens to destroy us all.

In Venezuela, as in Mexico or anywhere else, the real alternative is either to serve as the cannon fodder of the battles of national capital and its allies or to fight independently, as workers, for universal human needs.

Notes

1 Anonymous. “Venezuela protests: ‘Four dead’ as thousands rally against Maduro.” BBC. (January 23, 2019).
2 Anonymous. “Crecen las presiones para ‘tumbar’ a Maduro, y un Guaidó paciente ofrece amnistía militar.” Urgente24. (January 20, 2019).
3 EFE. “Caracas amanece con protestas contra Nicolás Maduro.” La Tercera. (January 22, 2019).
4 Anonymous. “Un grupo de militares se alzó contra Maduro, que logró capturarlos.” La Política Online. (January 21, 2019).
5 Anonymous.“Se multiplican las protestas en Caracas a horas de una decisiva marcha opositora.” Clarín. (January 22, 2019).
6 Rosibel Cristina González. “En los sectores populares las protestas son políticas.” El Nacional. (January 23, 2019).
7 Alonso Moleiro. “Aumentan las protestas contra Maduro en la víspera de la marcha opositora.” El País. (January 23, 2019).
8 Anonymous.“Venezuela: una crisis que se intensifica y agudiza los enfrentamientos.” Clarín. (January 22, 2019).
9 Anonymous. “¿Hacia una invasión de Venezuela?” Nuevo Curso. (January 14, 2019).
10 Anonymous. “Updated Demonstration Alert.” US Embassy Caracas. (January 22, 2019).
11 Anonymous. “Venezuela: Maduro accuse Washington d’avoir ordonné ‘un coup d’État fasciste’.” En Direct. (January 23, 2019).
12 Catalina Göpel. “Brasil recibe a la oposición venezolana y articula ‘transición’.” La Tercera. (January 17, 2019).
13 EFE. “Bolsonaro pide al gobierno venezolano que no ‘dé guarida’ al ELN.” El Estímulo. (January 19, 2019).
14 Andrew Rosati y Fabiola Zerpa. “En municipios, oposición se reorganiza para enfrentar a Maduro.” Perfil. (January 17, 2019).
15 Mar Centenera y Heloísa Mendonça. “Mercosur y Venezuela, en la agenda del encuentro entre Macri y Bolsonaro.” El País. (January 16, 2019).
16 Natasha Niebieskikwiat. “El Gobierno analiza una propuesta de Chile para reconvertir la Unasur.” Clarín. (January 18, 2019).
17 Natasha Niebieskikwiat. “Acuerdo UE-Mercosur: Bolsonaro le dio luz verde a Macri para avanzar.” Clarín. (January 19, 2019).
18 Anonymous. “Nicolás Maduro se reunió con embajadores de la Unión Europea.” Clarín. (January 19, 2019).
19 Anonymous. “La implosión Venezolana.” Nuevo Curso. (January 7, 2018).
20 Anonymous. “Bombarderos Rusos en Venezuela.” Nuevo Curso. (December 12, 2018).
21 Anonymous. “¿Tiene Venezuela futuro?” Nuevo Curso. (January 1, 2018).
22 Anonymous. “Dos Méxicos, dos alternativas universales: Tlahuelilpan vs. Matamoros.” Nuevo Curso. (January 22, 2019).