Thursday, July 26, 2012

Take the long way home: Sam Marcy's "Perestroika: a Marxist Critique"

Now in its' second decade, Sam Marcy's Perestroika: a Marxist Critique [1990] has lost little of its immediacy or authority.  Like many of the older Marxist classics, it is not the product of ivory tower or armchair philosophizing.  Marcy's collection of three dozen articles grappling with implications of the Gorbachev reforms were written to explain to US workers the changes occurring in the USSR, and what attitude Marxist-Leninists were taking toward them.  In this respect, Perestroika joins other books produced at startling conjunctures in the world class struggle: Lenin's Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky [1918] and Leon Trotsky's In Defense of Marxism [1940] come immediately to mind as being of comparable weight and scope.

Why read a twenty year old book about a nation that no longer exists and a political struggle that was lost and - we are told repeatedly - will be forever irrelevant?

There are several reasons.  First and foremost, the book is filled with fascinating historical analysis covering the entire history of the communist movement.  In brief digressions Marcy distills the class content and vicissitudes of everything from the French Revolution to the NEP, from Soviet employment policy to the Marxist theory of the state.  He revisits issues in Marxist history that have generated reams of controversy, such as the class nature of the Soviet state, confidently demolishing the likes of Max Shachtman, Tony Cliff, Milovan Djilas, George Orwell, Claude Lefort, and the claims of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.

Sam Marcy [center] in a rare public photograph

Second, Marcy's book provides entre into a time and mental landscape today telescoped out of existence.  The period 1987-1990 is rich in events and developments that shaped the social reality of the following decade.  The period saw the victory at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, where Cuban internationalist volunteers, the armed forces of Angola, and SWAPO cadre defeated Praetoria's apartheid army.  In Central America, the Nicaraguan FSLN pulled back from taking the "Cuban road" toward overthrowing capitalism, eventually dissolving into what is today nothing more than a capitalist electoral outfit.  In the United States, labor strikes at Eastern Airlines and Pittston Coal seemed, for a time, to promise a break in the wholesale rout of organized labor.  The period culminated in the 1989 US invasion of Panama, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the 1991 US-led coalition invasion of Iraq.  Despite defeat of its proxies in Southern Africa, Washington took steps forward in securing its position vis a vis imperialist rivals.  In South America, state after state implemented austerity to pay their debts to imperialist banks in New York, London, and Paris.

Throughout the entire period, Marxist-Leninists in the United States followed two crucial but divergent tendencies pursued by socialist states: the rectification process in Cuba and Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms [though Marcy and I would both dispute the word reforms] in the USSR.  Perestroika focuses entirely on the USSR, and not on the Cuban experience.  This is primarily because the progressive/radical/left/
protest milieu where Marcy's Workers World Party did most of its work had an atmosphere thick with Popular Front/peaceful coexistence politics informed by the CPUSA, which for decades followed the current line of whatever Kremlin leadership sat in Moscow.  In this period, Marxist-Leninists had to fight for political class clarity against a propaganda onslaught rationalizing every move of the Gorbachev forces as being the only existing socialism.  I recall as a young member of the US Socialist Workers Party tabling on college campuses and at Central America solidarity events after work and being continually questioned about Gorbachev's policies, and being upbraided for my obvious lack of enthusiasm for their capitalist direction.  Gorbachev was certainly the flavor of the month in 1987-1990.

Marcy's party today: Zuccotti Park 2011

Because Marcy's book tells the story of what became a historic defeat, the overall effect is sobering.  But the book will be important for revolutionary youth today both for its copious examples of what not to do, and for its example of how Marxists approach and analyze the living class reality before us.  For that reason alone, it has continuing relevance.

Perestroika: a Marxist Critique can be read here or here.


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