Saturday, July 26, 2014

Trotskyists and Gaza

It is, of course, possible to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic. Possible--but at least on the Left it is increasingly unlikely.

And so we come to the odd case of two Trotskyist grouplets. One tries very hard to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic, while the other has just thrown in the towel. They're down with Hamas.

The first group is the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). There's no disputing their anti-Israel credentials. When I was a member they supported the PLO, they referred to Israel as a "colonial-settler" state, and their proposed solution was a "socialist, democratic, secular state in Palestine."

That last phrase is often a fig-leaf to hide a more genuine antisemitism, and in my day we comrades were accused of just that. But I think we were honest then, and I have no doubt that the SWP is honest today. Anti-Israel they may well be, but they are certainly not antisemitic.

So what is this "socialist, democratic, secular Palestine?" It's a non-religious state where Jews and Palestinians live peacefully side by side. That happy outcome is only possible in a socialist society--one where the lion really will lie down with the lamb. To anybody outside the Trotskyist movement that seems impossibly utopian, which leads to others confusing it with antisemitism.

Nobody ever accused Trotskyists of being practical. In truth, the SWP (then and now) really did believe in this happy vision. They saw the existence of the State of Israel as standing in the way of its implementation. They also--less creditably--downplayed examples of Palestinian antisemitism, asserting that only a very small minority wanted to "drive the Jews into the sea," or some such. We looked at Palestinians through rose-colored glasses.

But with Hamas it is impossible to ignore outright antisemitism among the Palestinian leadership. Hamas' very raison d'etre is antisemitism--not any longer content with simply driving them into the sea, Hamas wants to kill the Jews.

And here's the surprising bottom line: As pro-Palestinian as the SWP was and is, they are resolutely against Hamas. Perhaps they'd even use the f-word--the one I'd use in private company. They accurately lump Hamas in with various Jihadi movements that they identify as both bourgeois and reactionary. They do not regard Hamas as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

This is evident from many articles over many years. But I'll cite only the one by Emma Johnson in the most recent issue of The Militant. In a remarkably even-handed account, she describes
  • The murder of three Jewish teenagers, along with the subsequent arrest of hundreds of Palestinian suspects;
  • The "lynching" of a Palestinian teenager, along with the arrest of three, Israeli-Jewish suspects;
  • The fact that Hamas has fired "dozens" of rockets into Israel, killing three civilians: "Ouda Lafi al-Waj, a Bedouin Arab who lived in the Negev; a Thai migrant farmworker in Ashkelon; and Dror Chanin, an Israeli Jew."
  • That Hamas has been using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
Much of the article is about how the Hamas-inspired war has damaged the legitimate political efforts of Palestinians, both in Israel and in the West Bank, to organize for a better world.
The military conflict has stoked tension between Jewish and Arab workers in Israel. 
“In factories with both Jewish and Palestinian workers, arguments and divisions exacerbate along nationalistic lines,” Shay Cohen, organization secretary of Koach La Ovdim (Democratic Workers’ Organization), said by phone from Haifa July 21. “Some of the feeling of solidarity has been eroded. The large majority of the Jewish population is behind the campaign. Among the Palestinians here there are those who protest and there are those who keep their heads low in face of the nationalistic campaigns.”
A sidebar photo caption highlights a pro-Palestinian demonstration in New York. The Militant quotes one of the participants, who hardly sounds like a Hamas supporter.
“Israel has its own country,” said Tahira Lakhani, 27, who was born in Pakistan. “Palestinians should have their own country. It should be like India and Pakistan. They don’t always get along but they don’t fight like this.”
So the SWP remains resolutely anti-Zionist, but its consistent opposition to Hamas sets it dramatically apart from other Trotskyist grouplets and the rest of the Left. Uniquely, the SWP is not antisemitic, and for this they deserve great credit and respect.

Not so Socialist Action, where an article by Michael Schreiber is as pro-Hamas as one can possibly get. Inadvertently proving that Hamas holds civilians as human shields, he writes
Airstrikes at the start of the land invasion killed at least four Palestinian children playing on a rooftop, while several nurses were injured when Israeli tanks barraged the al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital. The hospital had also been hit by airstrikes a week earlier, destroying the holding tanks that supply water to patients.
What parents in their right minds would send their children to play up on a rooftop in the middle of an Israeli air raid? Actually, I doubt those kids were playing--more likely they were cowering in fear.

Nowhere in the article is a reason given for the Israeli invasion (the rocket attacks are mentioned only in passing, as an unimportant event). We read only that the Israelis have been ruthlessly murdering civilians left and right. The Jews have advanced weapons, state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, and a blank check from Uncle Sam. For all that, per Schreiber's article, the evil Zionists hadn't managed to kill more than 750 Palestinians--out of a population of two million.

Why? Why would Jews purposely target civilians in Gaza, bomb for over a week, and then only get 750 of them? Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons--surely if they wanted some final solution to the Gaza problem they could eliminate the population within a couple of hours (if that long). Or failing that, they could drive the entire population across the border into Egypt within a day or two.

Even just using guys with machine guns they could've iced some tens of thousands by now. But 750? That's pretty pathetic as far as mass murder is concerned. It's not even high for wartime casualties. And still--the question is Why?

Mr. Schreiber never answers that question, so all we can do is infer. The inference is that Jews are sadistic bastards who love killing Arabs for fun--in between sucking the blood of dead babies. That, of course, is the Hamas line, and there is nothing in Mr. Schreiber's article that leads me to believe he disagrees.

Unless you're an anti-Semite, the only believable reason Israel has invaded Gaza is because of military necessity. The only reason there are so few civilian casualties in Gaza is that Israel (for obvious political and humanitarian reasons) is working hard to minimize them. And more--the only reason there are so many civilian casualties is that Hamas is sending their own children up on rooftops to die for their sorry, misbegotten cause.

The Militant understands that and reports that accurately, however reluctantly. Kudos to The MilitantSocialist Action probably also understands that, but they've bought in to the antisemitic groupthink that now pervades the Left.

That's really, really sad.

Further Reading:

Monday, July 21, 2014

The 47th SWP Convention

The Socialist Workers Party held its 47th Constitutional Convention in Oberlin, Ohio, in late June. It must have been a pretty tedious affair. The convention was preceded by an Active Workers Conference--a combination summer school and pep rally. Both events stretched out to a week.

My recollection is that conventions must occur every two years, but the 46th Convention happened in 2010--four years ago. So there's some extra-constitutional hanky-panky going on, though probably innocent enough. I think it results from there being very little for the Party to talk about.

Doug Nelson's article hits the four highlights of Party activity for the coming year:
  • Expand readership of the socialist press (aka The Militant).
  • "[F]ree the Cuban Five and defend Cuba's socialist revolution."
  • "[G]ive more leadership attention to organizing party members to work together in industrial workplaces."
  • Recruit new members.
This is an extraordinarily modest agenda--much less ambitious than what they proposed in 2010. It certainly does not rise to the dramatic changes in American politics proclaimed by Jack Barnes: “Like coming out of a long tunnel, the decades-long political retreat of the working class is more and more behind us."

This year's event attracted 320 participants, compared to 350 in 2010. So the Party is shrinking slightly. On the plus side they recruited three new members, whose names they proudly report: Sydney Coe, Jose Acosta, and Lara Canales. The latter two hail from Edinburg, TX, and will move to Houston to join the branch there. New recruits usually don't last long in the Party--most of them are gone within a couple of years.

If comrades' median age is 60, then their median life expectancy is about 25 years. That means they'll lose 4% of their membership every year due to natural attrition. Thus they need to recruit five to ten people annually just to break even, something they are not doing as the decline in convention attendance indicates.

So it's clear they need to recruit new members. What about the other items?
The party’s regular sales of the Militant and books on workers’ doorsteps over the recent period has been, and will continue to be, the bedrock of this perspective. “We have built a large periphery of readers,” said Barnes, “but we have only started to focus on getting to know them,” to have the discussions that will lead us to more workers, more fights and other activity we can join with them.
Simply astonishing! The Party has a long history of renewal campaigns, forums, and get-togethers aimed a Militant readers. It's not as though comrades haven't tried to reach their audience--Mr. Barnes simply insults his audience.

Such efforts have failed. The reason for that failure is the Party is stuck in an early 20th Century communications medium--a print newspaper on a rigid, weekly publication schedule. They need to employ social media. Even the grandma crowd is avid users of Facebook, not to mention anybody under the age of 50. The Party's risible efforts to engage readers with their current tools are laughable.

I don't understand the fascination for the Cuban Five. These are five Cubans convicted of espionage in 2001 and sentenced to long prison terms. I have not followed this case at all because I think it is unimportant. All appeals have been exhausted and no judicial proceedings remain. There is no defense case anymore. Indeed, one of the five was released on parole and repatriated to Cuba.

Nevertheless, the Party is on an extended campaign to--do what exactly? For the last year or so they've been touting the prison paintings of Antonio Guerrero, though not for any aesthetic value. Instead, according to Mary-Alice Waters,
...still ahead of us is organizing the kind of events that really tap into the opportunities to win support for this campaign among working people — to take this fight deeper into the working class where a “jury of millions” can be built. That’s where we find those who are attracted to the Five as revolutionary fighters, not suffering victims.
It's not clear to me how these guys are "revolutionary heroes." All they did was go to jail. A 13 year-old case around people of at best ambiguous moral or political credentials is a loser. I don't think the Party has won any traction with this.

Their support for Cuba seems misplaced. Unmentioned is the fact that Cuba is supporting Russia rather than the Ukrainian government. Fidel even remarked that he thought the Ukrainian government had shot down the Malaysian airliner. Both of these positions are at odds with The Militant's. And nowhere is "Venezuela" mentioned--odd since it is the major financier of Cuba's much touted internationalism.

Finally, they greatly exaggerate the turmoil within the American working class. The lede paragraph of Mr. Nelson's article illustrates.
The worldwide slowdown of capitalist production and trade over the last half decade has spurred the propertied rulers to intensify their offensive to whittle away at the living standards, job conditions, rights and expectations of working people. This is generating stirrings of labor resistance and a widening and sustained receptivity to communist politics not seen in decades, creating greater openings and responsibilities for proletarian parties.
Elsewhere, they contradict this: "No electable politicians are calling for a frontal assault on Social Security, Medicare, or other social benefits, or even dismantling the Affordable Care Act."

The Party's pessimism about the global economy is overstated. Yes--governments the world over are in debt. But as Tyler Cowen points out, this is a political problem rather than an economic one. The economy is actually doing pretty good: stock prices are at new highs because of corporate earnings, housing prices are rising slightly, and technology promises to dramatically improve our standard of living.

On the other hand, the industrial working class as it existed in the first half of the 20th Century simply doesn't exist anymore. The Party's tactic of selling Militants in front of plant gates is doomed to failure. Outside the public sector the union movement is not just dying, but arguably is dead and gone--witness the most recent AFL-CIO convention.

So there is no evidence of any stirrings of labor resistance, Mr. Nelson's long list of anecdotes notwithstanding. We're all petty bourgeois now--everybody is an entrepreneur. The Marxist template which The Militant wants to impose on reality simply does not fit.

The Socialist Workers Party is doomed. In twenty five years it won't exist.

Further Reading: