This essay is a criticism of the perspective that the 1990s and 2000s represented a “transitional period” between a “downturn” of class struggle in the US during the 1980s and the onset of a future “upturn.” This perspective, originally developed by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the mid-1990s, found itself displaced in the SWP by the idea that “the 1990s are the 1930s in slow motion”; however, it was revived by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the US after its break with the SWP. The seminal remotivation of the perspective from the ISO is Ahmed Shawki’s “Between Things Ended and Things Begun,” which appeared in the summer of 2001. The perspective was upheld subsequently in an internal document for the ISO’s National Convention 2007.
Today, the “transitional period” perspective (TPP) seems to have been retracted by the ISO leadership; I say it “seems” this way because it has never been formally retracted in writing, despite being formally promulgated in writing. (Here I mean “retracted” in the strict sense that the perspective is admitted as having been wrong even at the time it was proposed.) The rejection of the TPP was indicated, in the first place, on the floor of the ISO’s Convention 2013, in response to arguments put forward in an earlier version of this piece. Later, at his Socialism 2013 talk on “Perspectives for the Left,” Shawki distanced himself from “Between Things Ended and Things Begun,” saying, “Rereading it, there are so many mistakes in that article.” Unfortunately, he didn’t go into detail, noting only the “absolute underestimation” of the neoliberal transformation of society; still, since the article’s main thesis is the TPP, it is fair to assume that this perspective has been abandoned, at least rhetorically.
Since I was, I believe, the noisiest critic of the TPP within the ISO, I suppose I should be happy that it has been effectively discarded. And indeed I am–but I am not happy that this has become yet another example of a “silent switch” in the group’s political policy. Additionally, and related to the preceding, I do not think that the comrades have really broken with the underlying schema of the TPP, which predicts that the US should be currently experiencing an “upturn” in class struggle. In any event, since my work is, to my knowledge, the only systematic attack on the TPP–as opposed to a mere “declaration” of its falsehood from some Subject-Presumed-To-Know–I thought it would be useful to reproduce the arguments in a more accessible medium. (The original document was a submission to the ISO’s 2013 Pre-Convention Bulletin series. It has been substantially revised.)
[An earlier version of this essay was presented at Historical Materialism Toronto, May 2012.]
The end of the US military occupation of Iraq on December 31, 2011, although by no means an end to US imperial intervention in the country, augurs a radically new context for the political development of Iraq. This essay will argue that it also shows the need for a fundamental critique of strategies in the US antiwar movement, as the real process by which the occupation ended falsified the conceptions of both the liberal and left wings of the movement.
The liberals’ expectation that some combination of executive and legislative action by the Democratic Party would end or at least ameliorate the war was false; it will be shown, in fact, that the Democrats’ commitment to antiwar policies collapsed as soon as they gained control of Congress and the White House. However, the left wing’s contention that the occupation would be expelled by the triple action of a US civilian movement, US military movement, and Iraqi national resistance was also incorrect.
It will be seen that both wings of the movement derived their strategies from distinct readings of the same historical phenomenon: the movement against the US war on Vietnam. The conclusion suggests that opponents of imperialism in the US need to take a wider view of the nation’s political history, looking particularly to its legacy of explicitly anti-imperialist movements in order to discover new models of activism relevant to the current conjuncture.
Virtually all writing on democratic centralism is boring. This is true. So why write about it? Well, one must do the done thing. More ominously, you may consider this a kind of apologia ex ante for what I plan to get up to on this blog.
The recent discussion on democratic centralism, at least in the International Socialist (IS) niche of the Trotskyist corner of the cubbyhole of the revolutionary left, has been sparked off by the accelerated degeneration of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Here, I think, we have mostly grabbed the stick by the wrong end. The organizational problems of the SWP–which are assuredly legion–are, in my view, derivative of a major crisis of strategy (or “perspectives” in the IS argot) that extend back at least to the election of Blair, if not the fall of the USSR. The similitude with the decline of the American SWP (no relation) is striking: when the perspective is wrong, yet somehow cannot be corrected, its “implementation” can only be directed by people who do not directly encounter its consequences, be they disconnected leaders or passive hand-raisers.
The demand to rehearse the timeless verities of democratic centralism in such a situation is manifestly self-serving on the part of the leadership faction; rather than discuss the obligation of comrades to follow the line, one should discuss the obligation of the line to follow reality. In any event, is it not after all typical that the quantity of discussion of democratic centralism is inversely proportional to the quality of understanding?