Archive for the 'history' Category

Black Working Class Radicalism in Oakland

Black Panther Party members outside of a Safeway, in the East Bay, during the Safeway boycott (photo by Stephen Shames).

Historian Robert O. Self, in his book on geography, capitalism, and its affects on the Black population in the San Francisco East Bay, wrote:

In the workplaces and communities of midcentury West Oakland, African American residents forged a distinct laborite culture that blended class politics with civil rights.  Based in the Brotherhod of Sleeping Car Porters and other black railroad unions, as well as the left wing of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) on the docks and the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCSU) on the ships, this culture extended its influence broadly through the East Bay…This culture extended its reach across time.  Black longshoremen, veterans of the brutal class wars on the docks in the 1930s, articulated an internationalism that would, by the 1960s, influence Oaklanders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as they founded the Black Panther Party.  Black leaders from the railroad unions established political strategies in the 1940s that would guide a generation of activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  From one decade to the next across the second half of the century, these neighborhoods were home to a rich range of laborite, community, civil rights, and eventually black liberation politics.

Oakland provides an excellent vantage from which to launch an inquiry into this history.  Best known as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party in 1966 and as a national fulcrum of black radicalism throughout the late 1960s, Oakland was also a major seat of African American influence in California politics beginning in the late 1940s and the home of an extensive tradition of black social advocacy and organizing.  Indeed, the generation of black activists before the Panthers developed strategies, alliances, and sources of power that profoundly shaped the political terrain of race in both the East Bay and California as a whole.  Recovering the story of that generation, men and women who achieved none of the national media exposure and fame of the Panthers and faced little of the state-sponsored harassment and investigations, allows us to appreciate both the surprising continuities as well as the jarring divergences between the activists of the 1940s and 1950s and those of the 1960s and 1970s…The long postwar black liberation movement in the East Bay featured a fluid political environment in which philosophies and strategies competed with and interpenetrated one another.  Above all, in the decades after World War II, civil rights in Oakland stood less for civil rights than for economic rights, the foundation on which black American political demands had rested since the 1930s (5-6, 12).

Reference

Self, Robert O.  2003.  American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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History and Consciousness

In his work History and Class Consciousness György Lukács (1885-1971) wrote:

In his celebrated account of historical materialism Engels proceeds from the assumption that although the essence of history consists in the fact that “nothing happens without a conscious purpose or an intended aim”, to understand history it is necessary to go further than this.  For on the one hand, “the many individual wills active in history for the most part produce results quite other than those intended–often quite the opposite; their motives, therefore, in relation to the total result are likewise of only secondary importance.  On the other hand, the further question arises: what driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into these motives in the brain of the actors?”  He goes on to argue that these driving forces ought themselves to be determined, in particular those which “set in motion great masses, whole peoples and again whole classes of the people; and which create a lasting action resulting in a great transformation.”  The essence of scientific Marxism consists, then, in the realisation that the real motor forces of history are independent of man’s (psychological) consciousness of them (46-47).

Source

Lukács, Georg.  1971.  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

The Popular Front and Feminism

Report on Congress of American Women (LexusNexus).

James R. Barrett writes about the Communist Party USA’s strategy of the Popular Front during the Great Depression and the Second World War:

[M]any of the roots of modern feminist movement are located in the Popular Front organizations of the postwar period. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, as women poured into the Party, they organized national and state commissions on the status of women, raised the issue of women’s rights, and joined with liberal middle- and working-class women in consumer and feminist organizations. The creative thinking of Mary Inman, a theorist whom the feminists of the 1970s often invoked as a mother of the new movement, outlived her 1943 expulsion from the CPUSA. Communist women built on her ideas regarding the special exploitation of women, going beyond the Party’s usual language of class. By the late 1940s, such activity had pushed the CPUSA beyond its narrowly economic interpretation of women’s oppression and produced a campaign within the Party against what came to be called “male chauvinism.” The Party launched the Congress of American Women (CAW) in 1947, which was deeply influenced by Communists but also included many prominent and many anonymous early feminists. Born in the midst of political reaction, the organization was short-lived, but what survived of Popular Front-era women’s activism brought the issues of feminism into the labor movement and a variety of consumer and community groups. The Party’s activities also drew African American women to feminism, highlighting their tripple oppression, and laid the roots for Black feminist theory…The tragedy of these Popular Front women activists, as Landon Storrs (2003) has shown, was that while the Communist party provoked and to some degree nurtured this early feminism this same political link, in the context of postwar political repression and CPUSA sectarianism, helped to isolate them and limit their potential to create a mass feminist movement. The effect of such repression was severe enough that left-wing feminists covered up their close contacts with the CPUSA and their early feminist work in unions, consumer groups, and other Popular Front organizations even as they pioneered “second-wave feminism” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Barrett, 544)

Source:

Barrett, James R. “Rethinking the Popular Front.”  Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 4 (Oct. 2009): 531-550.

The Purging of Local Cadres and “Appanage Princes” in Russia

Boris Efimov,  "Ezhov's Iron Glove" (1937)

Boris Efimov, "Ezhov's Iron Glove" (1937)

J. Arch Getty writes about the 1935 party membership purge (or proverka [verification] program):

Since the late 1920s, regional party leaders had become powerful political actors on a par with feudal barons.  They controlled the police, courts, trade unions, agriculture, and industry in their territories.  Responsible to Moscow for fulfillment of plans, they ran hierarchical organizations based on patronage and personal power.  Stalin had referred to them in 1934 as “appanage princes,” who pigeonholed Moscow’s orders rather than fulfilling them…

Because membership in the Trotskyist or Zinovievist organizations implied party membership dating back into the 1920s, “genuine” ex-oppositionists were likely to have workerd their way up from the rank and file into leadership positions in local political machines…The tendency of local elites to deflect the purge downward to the rank and file was almost certainly a response to the need to find enemies somewhere without risking the loss of experienced members of their own machines, even if they had dubious backgrounds.  Purge discourse was flexible.

The Central Committee was not satisfied with this result.  The frequent intervention from Moscow to stop local verifications and restart them, along with subsequent criticism of local administration…are evidence of Moscow’s displeasure…

Regional party committees had begun the proverka verification in May 1935.  The following month, however, many of them were brought up short by the Central Committee, which criticized them for paying only cursory attention to the process and for hastily expelling large numbers or ordinary rank-and-file members (and few leading comrades) from their own machines…

Moscow party leaders were concerned that the mass expulsions could create embittered enemies among ex-party members…Moscow party officials not only kept an eye on those expelled but checked into their moods as well.  Sometimes these ex-members were characterized as enemies.  On other occasions, Yezhov and others explicitly noted that most ex-members were not…(Getty, 205-209)

But despite the efforts and concerns of the Central Committee:

the screening operations remained in the hands of the local leaders, who naturally used them to their own advantage

Sometimes, though, the expulsions threatened well-connected members of local political machines.  This often happened at local purge meetings when rank-and-file party members made accusations against their superiors.  Such criticism from below had to be blunted and reversed by the local elite in order to protect “their people.” (ibid., 222)

Source

Getty, J. Arch, Oleg V. Naumov and Benjamin Sher.  The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

The Mode of Production Debate in the Philippines

A Hacienda Luisita peasant plants rice in a freshly tilled field (Photo by Jack Stephens).

A peasant plants rice in a freshly tilled field in Hacienda Luisita, Tarlac, Philippines (Photo by Jack Stephens).

In her book on the Communist Party of the Philippines (MLMZT) author Kathleen Weekley briefly goes over a debate about whether the Philippines was really “semi-feudal” or more “capitalist” in nature:

The first substantial critique of this formulation from inside the national democratic movement came in the late 1970s from Rigoberto Tiglao, who presented a dependency theory perspective on the economy, concluding that concentration on the peasantry as the social base for the revolution was ill-conceived. The gist of his argument is that the Philippines is a “peripheral capitalist social formation” in the global capitalist order and was so even during the years of American colonialism. “It was precisely the capitalist means of production which made possible the transformation of Philippine agriculture into an export-producing sector.” Citing the extent of mechanization in key crop industries and the relationship of tenant farmers to the system of market forces, he concludes that “the ‘landlord class’ in the Philippines [is] more of an agrarian bourgeoisie” the biggest of whom ‘together with transnational corporations [control] the industrial component of the export industries…as well as the comprador enterprise.” the political aspects of peripheral capitalism have important implications for revolutionary strategy, Tiglao argued. “Limited sources of capital accumulation” he says, “result in explosive intra-elite struggles.” Martial law was imposed in order to manage these struggles, but it is not “semi-feudalism” that is the “social base of this fascism” as the CPP puts it. Rather, “the Philippine industrial bourgeoisie is the social basis of such political authority [and] rural and urban working class movements rapidly erode whatever level of stability such a centralized authority has achieved.” In other words, the CPP ought to concentrate its efforts on organizing and mobilizing working class resistance to the Marcos dictatorship, rather than organizing the “peasantry” into an army to fight a protracted war in the countryside, ignoring the real source of capitalist power.

In 1987, a Negros news magazine, Viewpoints, published an anonymous article criticizing the CPP analysis of Philippine society as “semi-colonial, semi-feudal.”…

The Viewpoints article countered that while a feudal superstructure remains on the island [of Negros], the economic base is largely capitalist. The crisis in the sugar industry, brought on by various factors including reduced demand from the U.S., plummeting world sugar prices, escalating production costs and shrinking domestic consumption, reached catastrophic proportions in the mid-1980s. That crisis, the Viewpoints author argued, has “shown that the sugar planters must bear the costs of production and are subject to the financial risks inherent in the industry. It follows, then, that the plantation workers cannot properly be regarded as “peasants.” While they labor on the land, the workers’ interests and aspirations are different from those of the peasnt.

“Given the choice between tilling his own land and working in a factory at satisfactory wages, it is highly probable that the farmworker would choose the factory job. (Weekley, 57-58)

When Jose Maria Sison, one of the founders of the CPP and its first chair, and latter a consultant for the National Democratic Front, got out of prison he delivered a series of lectures at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines in order to answer these criticisms:

Agricultural land totaling 12 million hectares in 1980 is the principle means of production. It produces the food staples for domestic consumption, the overwhelming bulk of surplus products for export and some amount of raw materials for local processing.

There is negligible use of modern farm technology beyond peasant brawn, hand tools, plows and work animals on lands devoted to rice, corn and coconut, all of which comprise 90.4 percent ot total agricultural land. The promotion of costly imported farm inputs and equipment during the 1970s affected only a few hundred thousands of hectares. Estimates range from 500,000 to 800,000 hectares.

…No more than 4 percent of total agricultural land is worked by tractors and other farm machinery.

Every piece of modern equipment in the agricultural, Industrial and service sectors of the economy is imported. It is paid for with foreign exchange earned on raw material exports, mostly agricultural…

Even hand tools are imported to the extent of 85 percent. And of course, the remaining 15 percent are fabricated locally from imported metals. There are no well-established industries which produce from the available local raw material basic metals, basic chemicals, capital goods and the like.

According to NEDA figures, there were nine million peasants and farm workers, accounting for 52 percent of employment; 2.5 million industrial workers, 14 percent; and six million service sector workers, 34 percent, in 1979, which was a year of economic growth still bloated by excessive foreign borrowing.

These figures indicate, therefore, that peasants and farm workers comprise 78 percent of direct producers of goods and industrial workers 22 percent. There are four peasants for every industrial worker.

Only 74 percent of industrial workers are in manufacturing; and in turn 70 percent of workers in manufacturing are employed in small fabricating and repair shops, each employing less than ten workers and therefore hardly qualifying as truly manufacturing enterprises.

The figure for employment in the service sector is bloated by decreases of employment in the agricultural and industrial sectors during the 1970s. Agricultural employment went down from 59 percent in 1970 to 52 percent in 1979; and industrial employment from 17.6 percent in 1970 to 14 percent in 1979. The employment rate of the real producers of goods has decreased from year to year since 1979. (Sison, 81-83)

And while still in prison, earlier in 1982, Sison and de Lima (released around that time), wrote:

It is said that farm workers are now 55 percent of the farm population and are bigger in number than the peasants with definite plots to till…It is difficult to make a national survey distinguishing the farm workers who depend mainly or wholly on their wages and the poor and middle peasants who augment their income as farm workers. But assuming the figure is correct, it does not mean any significant advance into capitalism away from semifeudalism…it means that the semifeudal economy is bursting at the seams with surplus labor it cannot employ…

Land concentration mainly by landlords and semifeudal rich peasants continues. Foreign and local farm capitalists still have to deal with local owners of land. However, the new-type of landlords take the initiative of employing capitalist processes such as getting crop loans, using imported agricultural inputs, hiring farm workers, etc. (ibid., 49-50)

Sources

Anon. “The Negros Enigma.” Viewpoints 2, no. 15 (1987), reprinted in Diliman Review 36, no 4, quoted in Weekely.

Sison, Jose Ma. and Julieta de Lima. Philippine Economy and Politics. Philippines: Aklat ng Bayan, 1998.

Tiglao, Rigoberto. “Non-Progress in the Periphery.” The Diliman Review (1979), quoted in Weekley.

Weekley, Kathleen. The Communist Party of the Philippines 1968-1993: A Story of its Theory and Practice. Quezon City, Philippines: University of Philippines Press, 2001.

Italy During the Time of the Soviet Revolution

Italian factory occupation

Italian factory occupation

In their edited work, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, editors Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith write about the period right before the founding of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI):

[I]t was not until the spring of 1920, on the eve of the great Turin metalworkers’ strike, that Gramsci began to pose correctly the relation between mass institutions and the revolutionary party.  He then wrote an article-destined, to the horror of the P.S.I. delegates, to be described by Lenin as “fully in keeping with the fundamental principles of the Third International”-entitled “For a Renewal of the Socialist Party”, in which he said, notably: “The existence of a cohesive and strongly disciplined Communist Party which, through its factory, trade-union and co-operative nuclei, co-ordinates and centralises within its own executive committee all of the proletariat’s revolutionary activity, is the fundamental and indispensable condition for attempting any Soviet experiment.”  But by this time, as Gramsci was to recognise with bitter self-criticism in subsequent years, the task of national co-ordination of the proletariat’s revolutionary activity had been left too late.  The April metalworkers’ strike was in fact the high point of revolutionary mass struggle in the postwar years; and it was only after its defeat that the Ordine Nuovo group attempted to sink its theoretical differences with Bordiga, in order to participate in the process of creating an Italian Communist Party.  It was only after the defeat of the factory occupations in September, i.e. after the effective end of the period of postwar revolutionary upsurge, that the Party was in fact formed-on Bordiga‘s terms. (Hoare and Smith, xl)

Source

Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections from the Prison Notebooks.  Eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith.  New York: International Publishers, 2008.

Ho Chi Minh on Readdressing Strategy

Ho Chi Minh

On July 15th 1954 Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) addressed the Sixth Plenum of the Viet Nam Workers’ Party Central Committee on negotiating peace with the French colonial forces.  He took up a pragmatic and strategic stand of setting up a cease fire in order to bring about an eventual socialist revolution.  Obviously negotiations didn’t work but Ho still left all avenues open in the short term (while still protecting long term goals):

Our previous motto was ‘Resistance to the end’.  At present we must put forward a new one: ‘Peace, unity, independence, democracy’.  We must take firm hold of the banner of peace to oppose the US imperialists’ policy of direct interference in, and prolongation and expansion of, the war in Indochina.  Our policy must change in consequence: formerly we confiscated the French imperialists’ properties; now, as negotiations are going on, we may, in accordance with the principle of equality and mutual benefit, allow French economic and cultural interests to be preserved in Indochina.  Negotiations entail reasonable mutual concessions.  Formerly we said we would drive out and wipe out all French aggressive forces; now, in the talks held, we have demanded, and the French have accepted, that a date be set for the withdrawal of their troops.  In the past, our aim was to wipe out the puppet administration and army with a view to national reunification; now we practice a policy of leniency and seek reunification of the country through nationwide elections. (Ho, 135)

The elections for reunification were opposed by the puppet forces in the south and the United States.

Source

Ho Chi Minh.  Ho Chi Minh: Down With Colonialism! New York: Verso, 2007.


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