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ISR Issue 54, July–August 2007


Ten years of the International Socialist Review

THE FIRST issue of the International Socialist Review appeared ten years ago, in the summer of 1997. The opening editorial announcing its publication staked out what we considered the justification for the inauguration of a self-consciously Marxist magazine in the United States:

The mainstream consensus among the defenders of capitalism is that socialism has collapsed and the free market has won. But look at what the “triumph” of the market really means. Millions of lives are being sacrificed on the altar of profit. Throughout the world, governments committed to the “best business climate” are busily hacking away at workers’ wages and the social safety net.

We argued that the collapse of Stalinism, which had for so many years distorted the real meaning of socialism and Marxism, as well as growing class and social tensions were creating the initial conditions for a revival of class struggle worldwide, a rebuilding of the Left, and within it, a genuine Marxist current. Yet the legacy of McCarthyism in the United States, which had uprooted left politics and organization from the labor movement, and the retreat of the New Left (as well as its “party-building” variant) after the sixties had once again left a political vacuum on the left that wasn’t going to be filled overnight.

Quoting a 1971 essay by British Marxist Duncan Hallas, we concluded:

"The events of the last 40 years largely isolated the revolutionary socialist tradition from the working classes of the West. The first problem is to reintegrate them."

The Review…will stake out an argument that the working class is key to transforming society; that revolution, not piecemeal reforms, is the only way to eliminate the profit system; that only an international struggle of workers, which challenges all forms of sexual, racial and national oppression, can ever hope to win.

We should have added that we would present a consistent line of opposition to U.S. imperial dominance, given that war was such a dominant feature of the decade.

As part of that reintegration process, and of building a broader Left, we have considered it essential not only to present Marxist politics and analysis, but also to open up the pages of the magazine to the broader Left with whom we share both common politics as well as some important differences. We have not always succeeded in our goals. For example, we would like the ISR to contain a great deal more debate, and we sometimes have sacrificed deeper theory for making sure we were covering topical subjects thoroughly; but we have made the attempt, and in the end must leave it to readers to judge the results. The task of making a more sharply defined set of politics (Marxism) relevant to a new generation while at the same time establishing the ISR as a link in the debates and concerns of the broader Left is a balancing act, and we don’t always stay on the wire.

It is instructive to remind ourselves how much has changed in ten years. In 1997, the Wall Street Journal, flush with exuberance over several years of economic boom, declared that “A new consensus is emerging from boardrooms…: ‘The big, bad business cycle has been tamed.’” Globally, the neoliberal “American model”—deregulation, privatization, and “flexible” labor markets—had established itself as the leading economic model. The U.S. economy, after going through a period of relative decline in the 1970s and 1980s, was able to rebound and establish itself as the dominant world economic power.

Through a string of mostly successful military interventions abroad—from the first Gulf War to Clinton’s bombing of Serbia—the U.S. had overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the U.S. considered itself poised to use its refurbished economic, political, and military clout to alter the balance of world power permanently in its favor.

But there were a number of underlying contradictions, some that were obvious, and others that in hindsight are much easier to see (which this journal did not completely miss). There were the accelerating extreme inequalities of wealth, not only between nations, but between classes within nations; inequalities that were beginning to produce a growing revolt, most prominently in Latin America (and heralded by the 1994 Zapatista uprising), against the twisted priorities of neoliberal capitalism. And there were the underlying problems of overproduction, debt, and trade imbalances that threatened to turn the world economy toward crisis and put an end to Washington and Asia’s “economic miracle.” The outbreak of the Asian crisis heralded a period of growing economic and political tension. Indonesia, the worst hit, saw its economy contract 20 percent, creating mass immiseration; and on its heels, the fall of Indonesia’s dictator Suharto, amid mass protests. The crisis became worldwide in 2001, most dramatically in Argentina, where economic collapse again produced a mass movement that brought down several different presidents.

It appeared that class struggle, and with it a new Left, was reemerging, not only in Europe and Latin America, but also in the United States. Ahmed Shawki’s “Between things ended and things begun” (ISR 18, June–July 2001), summarized the volatility of the period:

Class inequality and social polarization have accelerated over the decade of the 1990s, and they form the underpinnings to a new radicalization internationally. In the U.S., this radicalization has taken several forms. To name just a few of the high points, workers at United Parcel Service (UPS) won a major victory in 1997; trade unionists, environmentalists, and other activists shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999; Ralph Nader campaigned for president in 2000, representing the first significant left-wing alternative to the Democratic Party in decades; and activists won significant victories against the death penalty, while criminal justice issues became a focal point for an emerging, new civil rights movement. Internationally, we saw the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the French public-sector strikes of 1995, and the revolution in Indonesia in 1998, to name only the most notable events. These struggles represent the birth of a new Left after decades of, at best, stagnation and, at worst, outright retreat and defeat.

The dynamics of this process were changed, and in some places halted, by the events of September 11. The process of radicalization continued in Latin America, in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in particular. But domestically, the September 11 attacks altered the political terrain for both the U.S. ruling class and for the new social movements. The Bush administration seized what it considered a window of opportunity to attempt to redraw the map of South Asia and the Middle East, under a new doctrine that involved regime change and unilateral, preemptive military action. Bush’s approval rating soared, and there was widespread support, domestically and internationally, for Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan.

September 11 had the opposite effect on the social movements. For the Left, in the United States especially, it was a dark period. The global justice movement that burst onto the scene in Seattle and was followed by the birth of the World Social Forum movement faltered and weakened. Global justice activists, handicapped by conceptions of globalized capitalism that seemed to leave no space for national imperialist projects, sank back into relative inactivity under tremendous patriotic pressure.

The 9-11 attacks accelerated the collapse of liberalism that had become so conspicuous in the Clinton years. That was already apparent and was noted in an article by Lance Selfa in the first issue of the ISR in 1997:

At the height of the [Clinton] boom not one liberal politician has proposed any modest change to better people’s lives. Modern liberalism is no longer a vehicle for social reform, no matter how gradual or modest. It is a vehicle for managing the status quo. The leaderships of the labor, Black, women’s, and gay movements, who have endlessly preached the “realism” of subordinating social struggles to Democratic Party electoralism, have reached a dead end.

Liberals were stunned into inaction (or active patriotic outrage) by the Twin Tower bombings, and Bush was able to push through pretty much everything he wanted, domestically and abroad, with virtually no opposition from the Democrats. Meanwhile Bush used the recession that broke out in 2001 to implement further attacks on the working class. The Right began once again to dominate politics.

The first sign of a shift began with the mass protests that preceded Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. It appeared as if a mass antiwar movement was in the offing. But this proved to be in some ways the high point of the struggle against the war for some time to come. In part this was a result of the political immaturity of the movement. Many felt that they’d protested and the war happened anyway. But the liberal lights of the antiwar movement in the U.S. also played a role in weakening the antiwar movement by channeling antiwar sentiment into the 2004 presidential campaign of prowar Democrat John Kerry. As we wrote in a 2004 editorial:

This year’s presidential election has witnessed the almost complete collapse of the U.S. Left into supporting the second party of big business. Using the logic that “Anybody But Bush” should be in the White House, a pro-big business, prowar, conservative Democrat is being touted as the only realistic choice in this election…

We later commented,

Because the antiwar movement has yet to develop within it a substantial pole of opposition to the bipartisan project of U.S. imperialism, Kerry was able to pass off his plans for a more competent administration of U.S. imperialism while winning the majority of votes of those who marched and demonstrated against war. With an antiwar movement that placed itself on hold for the election season, no large mainstream voice exposed the war on Iraq and the war on terrorism for what they really are—two pieces of U.S. imperialism’s plan for the early twenty-first century.

Yet if the war on terror had the effect of retarding the development of radical impulses, in the long run it has had the effect of deepening the radicalization that had begun to appear before 9-11. As the Bush administration unraveled on various fronts from the Iraq occupation to growing wealth disparities to corruption, his credibility slowly eroded.
The almost complete lack of serious opposition from the Democrats, however, gave him a great deal of breathing space, allowing the administration to survive intact, for example, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Up until the November 2006 election, the Democrats’ (non) strategy seemed to be to wait for Bush to fail.

But the unraveling continued, and was bound to have a cumulative effect on the political situation. These developments came to a head around the 2006 midterm elections, which became a referendum on the war. Republicans were swept from office and the Democrats, who we initially expected to run in the same pre-election groove, proved more combative (within certain limits) than we expected. The electoral shift reflected a much deeper sea change in mass consciousness.
It has already become clear that this pre-presidential election period will be very different from the previous one. The dynamic of that one was toward the right, as Democrats pandered to Bush, the liberals pandered to Kerry, and the antiwar movement sat on its hands. This time, the trend is reversed and the pressure is by and large from the left. It appears now that liberalism, rather than being dead, is on life-support. The Republicans are splintering and Bush is universally hated even among many former supporters. The Democrats now feel pressure to out-liberal each other (universal health care is again an issue!), driven by expectations among the broader population that they should do something to reverse Bush’s disastrous course. As Lance Selfa wrote in ISR 53:

Similarly, a political climate that nurtures increased demands and hopes that the government will actually address real social problems can be a spur for the creation of social movements that historically are the only vehicles through which long-term social change has been won. On the one hand, when politicians are forced to talk about genuine issues like the health care crisis, it spurs on people to organize to demand that these promises be fulfilled. On the other hand, when the corporate-dominated political system fails to fulfill those demands—as it most often does—those who thought that “voting for change” was sufficient can conclude that they can only depend on themselves to fight for the change they want.

Last spring’s mass immigrant rights protests were significant as a harbinger of what is to come. They sprang from a deep well of anger among primarily working-class immigrants, and revealed to us both the potential to turn anger into action, but also the weaknesses of the political traditions of the Left that must be rebuilt to provide the solid backbone of such struggles.

The political awakening of broader forces, the awakening of class-consciousness, and the development of a more politically conscious, independent Left, is only in the early stages. But it is more thoroughgoing than in the 1990s because it comes at a time when class polarization has deepened, and the Iraqi quagmire is revealing the horrors of the system more deeply. The affects are cumulative: Millions were shocked by TV images that showed New Orleans disappearing under a flood with nothing being done about it, and were angry over the indifference to the suffering of Blacks in New Orleans. Many are beginning to see this as part of the racist indifference and hostility that has also been turned on Arabs and Latino immigrants in this country. They are outraged by a level of class inequality that has taken on obscene proportions not seen since the 1920s, where today 130,000 people have as much wealth as the poorest third of the country. Millions are appalled by rampant corruption, war profiteering, and drastic cuts in desperately needed social services while billions are being spent each week to destroy Iraq.

The ups and downs of the struggle have exposed how important is clarity of vision and politics; the importance of consistent anti-imperialism; independence from the Democratic Party; the importance of mass action over legislative maneuvering, and so on. It is in this context that what we wrote in the first ISR editorial back in 1997 is even more appropriate today:

Today, large numbers of people are beginning to question the priorities of the system, and they are asking questions that need answers. Why do so many starve? Why are politicians cutting social services? What is behind the scapegoating of minorities and immigrants? How can the labor movement fight back? How can we reverse the attack on women’s rights? What’s behind the crisis in Russia? Can Blacks and whites unite?
We hope to continue to answer and debate these questions as part of, to use the title of that first editorial, “arming a new generation of Marxists.”

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