Friday, March 8, 2013

...but a step

The Internationalist Socialist League of Israel / Occupied Palestine is an organization whose statements are worth following, if for no other reason than that they are a rare example of Israelis consistently opposed to Zionism. The occasion for the letter below is the ISL's announcement that they were breaking off their lengthy discussions with the League for the Revolutionary Party in the U.S. (an announcement to which I can't directly link as it is on a Facebook page). The LRP's response (for a change, a timely one) suggests that the ISL has not been fully forthcoming in explicating the political substance of the dispute. However much ultimately is disclosed by either party, the dispute strikes me as being firmly in the realm of the tragicomic, befitting the outdated spirit of secret diplomacy marking the discussion to date.

On one point we are agreed: The question of how to organize is a political question. I might even venture to say that it is the key political question for those opposed to capitalism at this point in time. Given that capitalism is already in the process of destroying the productive forces necessary, not only for its own continuation but for the emergence of socialism, I think it is fair to say that the historic tribunals of future generations will judge individuals and groupings according to the question: did they improve the organization of those opposed to the persistence of capital, or did they diminish it?

I pose it this way, being not at all sure of the verdict that would be rendered on me. There are more important matters at stake than personal prestige.

But the question, though it can be asked in much the same way as it was a century ago, cannot plausibly be answered in the same way. It is this--and not its application to the LRP--that I object to in the use of the word "centrism". Consider, for example, one of Trotsky's several attempts to define this term. In it he says, among other things, "Between the opportunist and the Marxist the centrist occupies a position which is, up to a certain point, analogous to that occupied by the petty bourgeoisie between the capitalist and the proletariat; he courts the approbation of the first and despises the second."

In the time at which this was written [in 1934], it was a very precise description. To attempt to transpose it to the present, however, poses more than a few difficulties. If centrism is to be defined as that which takes a certain attitude between the separate poles of opportunism and Marxism, then what can we describe as the material incarnation of Marxism today? Another definition I have seen attributed to Trotsky (though I can't find an original citation) is "revolutionary in words, reformist in deeds."

There are plenty who are revolutionary in words and who, if they are not openly reformist in their deeds, it is only because their deeds are so paltry, so hard to distinguish from their more or less ample words, that there is nothing by which to judge. The sad fact is that, at present, if a grouping of whatever size proclaims itself to be Marxist, "centrism" in its classical definition is the best that can be hoped for from it. In effect, we are all centrists. In Adam's fall we sinned all, as the Puritan primers used to say.

Being not only a Marxist but one from a Jewish background, however, the metaphysics of original sin never made much sense to me. I am more inclined to judge by present deeds. In a situation where there is no revolutionary pole against which to hold the centrists accountable, the question then becomes, what kind of practical challenges are objectively posed by our political situation which, if taken up earnest, will enable the fallible and mistrained human material which has come down to us through several generations of ideological stagnation and regression to begin to stand up as revolutionaries? Denouncing the LRP as centrist does nothing to clarify, either to those who remain within that organization or to others who may be in your audience, what those concrete tasks might be.

Your status as a small organization in a colonial-settler state puts you in a paradoxical and exceptional situation. The social basis for a revolutionary program in the country in which you live is one from which you are at least partially cut off by language, culture, geography and police action. That you have arrived at a unique understanding of the key questions of Zionism and the necessity of socialist revolution led by the working class of the region, and have sought means of actively putting that understanding forward in such an unfavorable situation, is testimony to your exceptional individual qualities. The separate existence of the ISL as a propaganda group is thus not an atavistic remainder of prior stages of struggle but a commendable outcome of an ideological advance.

Yet you also occupy a position within a region that is now in the throes of a revolutionary situation, albeit within the one state therein that is largely immune. The character of the ISL as a revolutionary organization is therefore being put to an active test. Since there were no genuinely revolutionary organizations in place in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, etc. at the outset of the ongoing uprisings, the minimum outcome to be hoped for from such a situation would be the emergence of such an organization in one or more such countries, battle-tested and ready, like the Bolsheviks of 1906, for the next such outbreak. (And that is only the minimum.) If the existence of the ISL serves in some way as a catalyst to such a development, so much the better.

Hence the import of the first question I asked [B] when he announced your break in discussions with the LRP: What are your plans for international work? I don't expect you to disclose anything to me that you would not feel comfortable discussing publicly--in fact I would urge you not to. But what sort of strategy would you like to see socialists in other countries pursuing, and what would be your basis for deciding on discussions and/or joint work with them? If the only outcome of your announced break with the LRP is to give "another cause for the demoralization of the LRP leadership and members," that hardly strikes me as constructive. Rather, it contributes to the cynical denigration of internationalism that is already rife in the international far left.

I find your concluding remarks about the LRP and pragmatism similarly perplexing. Rarely can they be accused to varying their tactics in search of what works. If anything, the accusation of pragmatism, that is, of judging the truth value of propositions by the utility of the practical actions they encourage, might fit better against certain of my formulations. Past attempts to elevate matters of philosophical outlook into points of political principle hardly commend it as an approach, and my hope is that you will collectively resist that temptation. If there are aspects of your engagement with the LRP that you believe have given you a better insight into the Marxist method than you had before, by all means share that publicly.

One last point: In the document by Trotsky which I cited earlier, he also says that centrism "inclines to substituting, in the place of political principles, personal combinations and petty organizational diplomacy." In the spirit of avoidance of petty diplomacy, I have not said anything in this letter that I would not be comfortable putting my name to publicly. Therefore, with some slight edits for the sake of public comprehensibility and to avoid "naming names," I will be posting this on my website later today.

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