An Honest Response to a Dishonest Critique

The Communist League of Richmond Responds to Shama Bismas

When bad faith debaters have difficulty debunking their opponents’ arguments, they turn to the “Gish gallop.”  The Gish gallop seeks to provide a surfeit of poorly constructed, dishonest, trivial, and illogical arguments– in other words, it seeks to bury the opponent in so much nonsense that it is impossible for them to respond to all of it in a timely fashion.  

The Communist League of Richmond has found ourselves on the receiving end of a Gish gallop in the form of an article by Shama Bismas – Proletarian Internationalism and “Anti-Imperialist” Harringtonism Cannot Co-Exist – writing in response to our open letter to the principled Marxists in DSA

Given the quantity of sloppy arguments leveled against us, we won’t respond to every point, but will use a few examples to illustrate the poor quality of Bismas’s piece.

  • We are accused of stating that “‘the chances’ of revolution in the United States ‘are low’”.  Note the gap in the quotation marks – Bismas is omitting the full quote in order to dishonestly claim that we do not believe that a revolution can likely occur here.  They even go so far as to claim that we believe that we might as well flee to another country.  Later in their response, Bismas quotes the full sentence: “the chances that the next revolutionary wave will begin in the US, or anywhere else in the imperialist core, are low”, an ironclad indication that they were aware of what our position really is and simply lied about in earlier in their article.  

The position that the next wave of revolutions is more likely to begin in the weak links of capitalism, in those countries dominated by imperialist countries, is entirely different from claiming that a revolution is unlikely to occur ever in imperialist countries. 

The entire thrust of our letter was to explicitly call for the left to orient itself towards a revolutionary strategy, and we call for revolution throughout our piece. 

Furthermore, we state “In an age of anti-imperialist struggles, a capitalist market in near-permanent crisis, increasing worker militancy, and privations and instability caused by climate change we can be assured that revolutions will occur at some point in the future. The question is whether Marxists will wait until it is already too late to form a party, or if we will begin that long journey while we still have time.” 

Considering we are openly aiming this statement and call for party-building at Marxists in the United States, can there be any doubt that we believe a revolution can, should, and must occur here?

  • We are accused of rejecting Lenin’s strategy of turning the imperialist war into a civil war.  It’s true that we have not engaged in a fully exhaustive analysis of Lenin’s strategy for revolution and opposition to imperialism in what was intended to be a timely and brief intervention, nor did we quote the phrase verbatim.  However, the idea that we reject or neglect Lenin on this point is totally bogus.  We state, “As long as the US is an advanced, capitalist state, it will be imperialist. We must confront the capitalist state with a movement that can threaten it, not plead with it to become something it can never be.”  Moreover, we say, “Elections are but one means of organizing and preparing the working class for revolution, readying the class not to liquidate themselves into the capitalist state but to smash it and replace it with a workers’ state.”  We are clearly positing the necessity for revolution as a response to the lukewarm social democracy of much of DSA, and as the solution to imperialism.  That we neglected to say the “magic words” that Bismas so desperately wants to hear does not change the fact that our letter’s content is consistent with the revolutionary example of Lenin.
  • The author themself has a tenuous grasp on revolutionary defeatism.  We call for mobilizing workers in the United States to fight imperialism and the US government’s complicity in Israel’s crimes but the author denounces us for not mobilizing US workers against the governments of Russia, China, and Venezuela.  We stand for socialist revolution everywhere and the bourgeoisie nowhere.  However, the essence of revolutionary defeatism is precisely that workers of an imperialist country can best contribute to that struggle by combating their own bourgeoisie.  This is the meaning behind the famous Marxist slogan, “the main enemy is at home!”  We do not apologize for opposing US wars abroad and for opposing Iron Dome funding.  To put these tasks on the backburner until the Palestinian proletariat overthrows the Palestinian bourgeoisie (a development, to be clear, that we would enthusiastically welcome) is to disguise dereliction of our duties as anti-imperialists behind a mask of ultra-left “principle.”
  • Bismas engages in a bizarre interpretation of a clause in a sentence praising soldiers’ mutinies in Vietnam, falsely alleging that we are surprised by this and don’t consider it to be an important aspect of anti-imperialist and revolutionary strategy.  But a mere three paragraphs above this sentence, we state that we are “contrast[ing] two examples from recent US history: the Vietnam and Iraq anti-war movements.”  We do not consider mutinies of soldiers in imperialist armies to be extraordinary in the annals of the history of revolutions, rather we illustrate that Vietnam War mutinies are extraordinary when specifically compared to the anti-Iraq War movement, where GI resistance was less frequent and often less militant.  Any honest reader can see that we praise these actions and in no way diminish them, and criticize anti-war movements which have failed to take up these tasks.  Bismas criticizes us of rejecting or downplaying the very tactics we loudly support!
  • The author accuses us of seeing CIA socialism as the original sin of DSA and not accounting for previous anti-Marxist currents in world history.  But Michael Harrington’s association with Bayard Rustin and Norman Thomas, and the latter two’s association with the CIA is simply a fact – why would we lie to our readers to conceal this?  How can Bismas accuse us of being Harringtonites while whining at us for revealing this unsavory aspect of Harrington’s background?

We never stated that this is the only problem or the biggest problem with DSA, and we sharply criticize DSA’s failure to acknowledge and act on a Marxist theory of the state later in the piece at the end of the section “What’s at Stake.”  This failure to arrive at a Marxist theory of the state is one of the very same grounds that Marx criticized the Lasalleans on in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.” 

We excoriate the SPD in our article as a den of “followers of academic fads, proponents of ‘socialist imperialism’, and advocates of the peaceful cooperation between classes”.  The author complains that we fail to address Bernstein and Lasalle, but any Marxist who is not being deliberately obtuse would understand that Bernstein’s revisionists and the remnants of Lasalleanism are exactly who we are criticizing.

  • It is implied that we support Tlaib and Omar.  This is yet another strawman.  It is alleged that we support their politics, and DSA’s international line in toto.  But we explicitly say that some of the rank and file of DSA– not their elected officials like Tlaib or individuals unaffiliated with DSA like Omar – may be taking “the very first baby steps” in the right direction.  Hardly a ringing endorsement, given that it requires two qualifiers, “baby steps” and “very first”!  We are not stating that the DSA has the right position, or even that most of its furthest-left members do – we are plainly saying that their stances are still undeveloped and require correcting.  That is precisely why we are pushing them, and asking them to continue to engage with us to further that development.
  • We are accused of support for Kemalism in one of the most strange digressions of Bismal’s response.  Bismal’s argument is essentially that the Turkish state is Kemalist, Erdogan is the head of the Turkish state, Ilhan Omar supports Erdogan, some DSA members have praised Omar (presumably on stances other than her embrace of Turkey’s nightmarish regime), and we have written an open letter to the better segments of DSA pushing them on their organization’s support for imperialism and lack of revolutionary strategy.  There are, hence, four degrees of separation between CLR and the positions Bismal sleazily attributes to us and some of the links are extremely questionable.  This doesn’t stop Bismal from breezily generalizing about “the DSA rank-and-file, and by extension, the CLR.”  Kemalism should obviously be opposed by any Marxist organization but the idea that we are promoting Kemalism by failing to denounce it by name in an article meant to be an intervention in a specific conflict involving Israel and democratic centralism is totally specious.  All communists should also support the right to an abortion, but nowhere in Bismal’s piece do they express support for this right – are they by omission supporting the anti-abortion movement?  Not every article on imperialism needs to include a laundry list of every instance of imperialism in the contemporary world that one condemns.  Such a line of argumentation reeks of bad faith and can’t be taken seriously by intelligent people.

This brings us to the most consequential error in Bismal’s error-ridden piece – the idea that we believe “‘anti-imperialism’ is merely a placard, a collection of foreign policy opinions.”  We wrote our letter because no amount of posturing online, staking out positions in publications, or engaging in microscopic acts of activism by microscopic organizations can bring about proletarian revolution and end imperialism. 

In order to actually intervene effectively against capitalism and imperialism, a proletarian party guided by sound Marxist theory is needed.  Only a party can coordinate and execute revolutionary tactics and strategy at a scale big enough to really win.  We wrote this letter not to score points in a “more ultra-left than thou” contest, but to make a practical intervention in the struggle to form a party.

Lenin famously declared that “revolution teaches.”  Indeed it does, but failure teaches as well.  Many DSA members are stunned by the actions of the NPC and the venom of the NPC’s defenders. It is our hope that we can reach many of these people and help them to see the need for an authentic revolutionary strategy and a genuine revolutionary party, so that they can play a role in the gathering of forces – until now, disparate – that might fuse into a party, without liquidating a revolutionary line into a counterrevolutionary one. 

It is still our goal for our letter to spark responses from individuals and groups inside and outside of DSA – but we can only hope that the responses will be more productive, thoughtful, and honest than the piddling little hatchet job provided by Shama Bismas.

– from the Communist League of Richmond

2 responses to “An Honest Response to a Dishonest Critique”

  1. Much of the content of this response is related to criticisms of rhetoric, (“the Gish gallop”, “bad faith”, “strawman”, etc) which is fair enough but has nothing to do with the use of dialectic to interrogate methodology.

    CLR’s stated position, in the original piece, on the “chances” of revolution in the “imperialist core” is highly relevant to the discussion as it completely informs the methodology used in the original piece. CLR can only tangentially connect their position to revolutionary Marxism by posing a counterfactual in which a revolutionary upsurge will only, and with great certainly, occur in a non-“core” country, and thus the position of revolutionaries in the United States should be to prepare a cross-class “mobilization” capable of obstructing US imperialist intervention against this hypothetical revolution in the non-“core”. Note that this is explicitly stated in CLR’s piece: “The first real test of the Marxist movement in the US will likely be mobilizing to stop the crushing of a revolution elsewhere by our own ruling class and its state. … [the DSA NPC demonstrates] a lack of commitment to the task of building a robust movement which could actually challenge imperialism here and abroad” CLR favorably cites the experience of the SDS, an organization they explicitly acquiesce was “petit-bourgeois” but whom they also praise as an “independent revolutionary organization”.

    CLR explicitly states that the anti-Vietnam war movement (in contrast to the anti-Iraq War movement of 2003) was successful in so far as it was “a significant factor in the withdrawal from Vietnam.” The CLR does not appraise the “revolutionary” leadership of the anti-Vietnam War movement in its capacity to strategically advance a proletarian revolution in the United States, because CLR explicitly states they view this as unlikely and not a major concern. This author’s point was that the historical example of Vietnam points to the fundamental flaw in CLR’s methodology. The national liberation resistance in south Vietnam was in fact led by socialist revolutionaries (this author will set aside whatever flaws may have existed in the Vietnamese socialist leadership, or what effect that had on internal contributions to the present outcome in Vietnam, as she did in the original piece) and the outcome was a workers’ state in south Vietnam. This author’s contention is that within this paradigm of “core” (ie industrially advanced countries with an imperialist monopoly-capitalist class) and non-“core” (ie less industrially developed countries in the colonial and semi-colonial periphery rife with pre-capitalist agrarian relations of production) countries, the victory of socialist revolution in a non-“core” country without an accompanying revolutionary victory in the “core” (meaning a proletarian revolution) led to the eventual full restoration of capitalism in Vietnam. This author suspects this may in fact be an example of one of the points this author makes which the CLR dismisses as “trivia”, but, if so, this is sheer Yankee solipsism on CLR’s part. CLR’s argument directly concerns a disagreement over international affairs, and a significant portion of their argument hinges on their analysis of a historical movement that concerned itself with an international issue. The fate of Vietnamese socialism, and the success or failure of the “revolutionary” leadership of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States in aiding in the advance of revolutionary socialism in either the United States or Vietnam, is directly relevant to the merits of CLR’s arguments. If the post-war history of Vietnam is not relevant in a discussion of the anti-Vietnam War movement, then, as this author initially pointed out, “anti-imperialism” is simply a placcard or a collection of foreign policy opinions. Vietnam itself disappears into the mist, and “Vietnam” (like “Palestine”) today merely exists as a moral crusade to whet the appetites of petit-bourgeois Yankees. (In reality, the US proletariat is not insulated from the post-war history of Vietnam as evidenced by the preponderant representation of the Southeast Asian diaspora within the US workforce relative to their share of the overall US population.)

    CLR’s assertion that the next revolutionary upheaval will not occur in the “core”, but will happen “elsewhere”, and that the task of revolutionaries in the “core” is to mobilize in this event to stop “imperialism” from counter-revolutionary intervention, is so important to their thesis that they include it in an “understand[ing of] what imperialism is and how it works” necessary to grasp the “special duty” of “Marxists in Virginia”. (The implication that Virginia is more “core” than, say, Iowa, is simply humorous.) In spite of this, they do not define what the “core” is. Elsewhere they pay lipservice to Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the export of surplus financial capital to foreign markets”. China, Russia, and the Gulf states export surplus financial capital to foreign markets. Are China, Russia, and the Gulf states part of the “core”? These questions are highly relevant if one concerns oneself with international proletarian revolution in the 21st century!

    CLR writes “the position that the next wave of revolutions is more likely to begin in the weak links of capitalism, in those countries dominated by imperialist countries, is entirely different from claiming that a revolution is unlikely to occur ever in imperialist countries.” Yet in their initial document, CLR writes “the chances” of such an event (revolution in an imperialist country) “are low”! What is missing in this equation is that Lenin was writing at a time when the overwhelming majority of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East were either direct colonial possessions of the European, North American, and Japanese monopoly-capitalists, or were semi-colonies administered by semi-feudal ancien régimes, and the overwhelming majority of the population of these countries were employed in pre-capitalist agrarian relations of production. This author quoted Lenin’s “The Main German Opportunist Work on the War” to illustrate that Lenin’s actual position was that the “salvation” of the majority of the world’s population would be through a revolution waged by the proletariat in the imperialist countries, which would overthrow the international bourgeoisie and smash the boundaries of national partition. Today the situation is very different. The majority of the world’s nations have a sizeable industrial proletariat. Monopoly-capitalism is more deterritorialized than it was ever before. The era of national-democratic revolution in the colonial world has largely passed. The standard of living is also declining for the proletariat in many imperialist countries such as the United States.

    “Call[s] for party building”, “call[s] for the left to orient itself towards a revolutionary strategy”, etc, are not the same thing as political centrality of the proletariat. This point is rather obvious given the conclusions that CLR draws.

    This author did not “accuse […CLR] of rejecting Lenin’s strategy of turning the imperialist war into a civil war.” The reality of this situation is no “left anti-imperialists” in the United States actually advocate this. (The result of this position would likely be some sort of focoist adventurism and thoroughly undesirable) This author’s point is that the nature of inter-imperialist conflict differs now than it did during the era of inter-imperialist war, and Lenin’s strategy was developed for the realities of his time. In World War I, the imperialist powers chartered formal military-diplomatic alliances and engaged in open frontal assaults of revanchist territorial conquest against each other even within continental Europe. In the process of so doing, they drafted tens of millions of workers and slaughtered around 20 million workers in trench conflict. Within this context, Lenin’s strategy was to call on workers in each European state to transform the war into a civil war against the bourgeoisie of their homeland. As Lenin correctly pointed out, this amounted to a call for workers to struggle for the defeat of “their” bourgeoisie in the war. But the desired end result was not the victory of one imperialist power over the other, (eg Lenin was not arguing that German imperialism was a “lesser evil”) but the collapse of the imperialist world-system. (This is the meaning of the second Lenin quote given in the header of this author’s original piece.) At present day, proliferation of nuclear armaments has made this form of inter-imperialist competition nonviable. What has resulted, especially since the collapse of the USSR, is a proliferation of proxy conflicts in which imperialist interference is increasingly transactional and multipolar. A perfect example is the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict; an ethnonationalist war waged by two local national bourgeois, with imperialist and regional expansionist powers supplying arms to both sides.

    It is actually CLR who demonstrates “a tenuous grasp on revolutionary defeatism”, equating it with a “movement” (which, as we’ve pointed out before, could be led by the “radicalized petit-bourgeoisie”) in the present day to “threaten US imperialism”. (Largely equated with US militarism) CLR equates “combat[ing] their own bourgeoisie” with “not mobilizing US workers against the governments of Russia, China, and Venezuela”. (To be clear, this author calls for organizing the international proletariat to overthrow the international bourgeoisie. The author only briefly mentioned Venezuela in passing to mock CLR for viewing support of its corporatist and quasi-Bonapartist government as “baby steps” towards proletarian internationalism) The “mobiliz[ation]” in question is purely hypothetical at this junction; this is an exchange of polemics on the Internet, and nowhere did Lenin ever urge revolutionaries not to polemicize against any other bourgeoisie besides “their own”. (See the Lenin quote from “The European War and International Socialism” in the author’s original piece; “German imperialism … is monarchist …” Were CLR to apply their dogmatic misreading of Lenin consistently, the workers of China and Russia would also be compelled to abstain from criticism of US imperialism. The irony of CLR’s position is that if Israel ever fully re-aligned with Russia or China against the US, (as this author has demonstrated, Israel has strong economic and diplomatic relations with both of these countries) they would, if applying their own creed consistently, be compelled to refrain from criticism of Israel! Regardless, the USA is not currently at war with Russia or China, in fact the past twenty years or so of geopolitics has seen a meticulous avoidance of such a direct conflict. The US and the PRC are each others’ #1 trading partners, and the proletariat of the US and the PRC are connected in a single circuit of production and distribution of commodities.

    The CLR accuses this author of “putting the tasks [of] opposing US wars abroad and for opposing Iron Dome funding [note: not the same thing as opposing imperialism, US or otherwise] … on the backburner until the Palestinian proletariat overthrows the Palestinian bourgeoisie”. This perfectly illustrates that the CLR, like so many “anti-imperialist” tendencies and factions within the vestigial US left, view with cynicism the prospect of proletarian revolution as a realistic solution to solving social crisis. This author used two explicit examples; the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the national independence of South Sudan, (and many more examples could be added to the list, such as the defeat of Americo-Liberian supremacy in Liberia, the national independence of Eritrea, the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan as a neo-colonial client state of the US, etc) to illustrate a clear and obvious point: the Zionist regime in Palestine (including its Palestinian national-democratic client regime in the West Bank bantustan) will either be overthrown at the hands of proletarian revolution, or it will continue to persist, or be restructured into an equally brutal and repressive regime which accommodates the existence of the Israeli bourgeoisie, (as has been the case of the white South African bourgeoisie, etc) the further emergence of the Palestinian bourgeoisie, and the brutal exploitation of both Palestinian and Jewish workers. If one is not a Marxist, and is merely a humanitarian concerned with “solidarity with the Palestinian people”, one should oppose the financial and military support of the Zionist regime by all imperialist powers, not just the US. If a President Tlaib cut off all US funding to and support for Israel, Israel would receive even more funds and support from Russia and China. If one is a Marxist, one should not view proletarian revolution as a “back burner” project.
    “Anti-imperialist duty” in the context of CLR’s methodology and stated position, is nothing more than phrase-mongering, to mask their professed aims of movementism and cross-class collaboration with a stratum of the petit-bourgeoisie over international policy reforms.

    The purpose of this author’s intervention into CLR’s commentary about GI resistance during the US occupation (and CLR’s interpretation is absolutely a chestnut of latter-day “anti-imperialism”) is not “bizarre interpretation” but to lay bare CLR’s petit-bourgeois class-consciousness. In CLR’s viewpoint, GI resistance was solely a byproduct of “revolutionary organizing” by an alliance of the white petit-bourgeoisie and “oppressed communities”. (ie Afro-Americans and Puerto Ricans) CLR deliberately obfuscates the class-character of Afro-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the 1960s US, who were then, as they are today, overwhelmingly proletarian. (A main difference today being that the Black and Hispanic bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie in the US has grown in size) CLR, like many contemporary white left groups, romanticizes the Panthers (who, like much of the white left at the time, saw large swathes of the Afro-American reserve army as “lumpen”) while ignoring other Afro-American revolutionary socialist groups who correctly understood the role of organizing the US proletariat around economic struggles in building the revolutionary class-consciousness of the US proletariat. No consideration is given to the concrete, material class-relations which may have been contributing factors to the emergence of GI resistance. The separation of “oppressed communities” (ie the ethnic/national minorities in the 1960s US, who were overwhelmingly proletarian) from GIs (who were preponderantly Black, Latino, etc) is an abject obfuscation, whether willful or not. This betrays a skepticism about the dynamism of the proletariat as a political subject, and a fundamentally petit-bourgeois conception of a political vanguard.

    The purpose of this author’s critique of CLR’s conception of “CIA socialism” is quite simple. The CIA is not needed to explain why Michael Harrington had shitty politics. The Panthers, RU, etc, had been extensively infiltrated by the FBI, that does not make their politics a “FBI socialism”. The criticism of Harrington given in this piece is essentially a TrueAnon-esque “anti-GLADIO” conspiracy theory, (it’s worth pointing out that according to CLR’s logic, the SDS leaders they admire were two degrees of separation away from “CIA”) implying that if you remove “the CIA” from the sort of reformist and revisionist politics espoused by individuals such as Harrington, that makes great lengths towards solving the problem. (Perfunctory phrasemongering against the historic SPD’s “advoca[cy] of the peaceful cooperation between classes” aside) This is most beautifully articulated by CLR’s adoration of a faction of the DSA leadership’s endorsement of the lukewarm social-democratic cabinet of Peru’s national government as “baby steps” towards “proletarian internationalism”.

    This author did not accuse CLR of supporting Tlaib. This author used Tlaib as an example of a DSA leader who opposed the Iron Dome bill. This author was using Tlaib’s position to illustrate that mere opposition to the Iron Dome bill in of itself does not constitute opposition to imperialism, nor does it demarcate “proletarian internationalist” politics.

    Nowhere did this author accuse CLR of “support[ing] kemalism”. This is asinine. The purpose of Omar’s example was to illustrate that critics of Bowman within the DSA (who CLR are openly tailing) have a double standard when it comes to Zionism and kemalism. This is because the Palestine question (as an abstract moral signifier) is a unique area of fascination for the petit-bourgeois US left. (The author does not dare psychoanalyze this.) Bringing up Turkey in a discussion of the Middle East is not a nonsequtior . As pointed out by this author, the Turkish bourgeoisie is directly propped up by the Israeli bourgeoisie. Israel and Turkey collaborated for decades in brutally repressing the Palestinian and Kurdish national liberation movements. CLR’s abortion analogy is childish and asinine.

    CLR concludes by saying “we wrote our letter because no amount of posturing online, staking out positions in publications, or engaging in microscopic acts of activism by microscopic organizations can bring about proletarian revolution and end imperialism.” This author is somewhat bewildered by this. CLR’s piece was literally published online, was staking out a position in a publication, (a blog) and CLR is a small organization. (This author will refrain from pejorative demonyms such as “microscopic” since the small size of groups such as CLR is not entirely due to subjective act.) Is this author at fault for replying online and staking a contrary position? The end result of this logic is that groups like the CLR are free to issue statements without criticism.

    CLR wants to inculcate the Lasallean petit-bourgeoisie of the DSA rank-and-file in “a proletarian party guided by sound Marxist theory”. If they have any success, the end result, given DSA’s class-composition and CLR’s conceptions of “a proletarian party” and “sound Marxist theory”, will likely be a repeat of the NCM sects. As Marx and Engels famously said, “[communists] have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”

    Try to have a happy new year,
    Shama

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  2. Once again you are accusing us of saying things we didn’t and not saying things we did.
    .
    Your response begins with a lie. According to you we say “revolutionary upsurge will only, and with great certainly, occur in a non-“core” country” while we say it is most likely to BEGIN there, not only OCCUR there. . You continue to harp on this idea that we say that the chances for revolution in the US are low again and again and again though we never say this, explicitly say the opposite, and explain that we say the opposite in our response. Funnily enough, your inability to distinguish between our argument and the idea that revolution is impossible in the capitalist core is startling evidence of the very lack of dialectical thinking of which you accuse us.

    I think that’s all the response this deserves.

    -William Sullivan

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