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All Power to the Councils! A Review

by Sasha Simic
Socialist Review
September 2012

The Russian Revolution of October 1917, which ended the situation of dual power in favour of the workers' councils (soviets), was never intended to be confined within Russia's borders.

Germany, as one of Europe's most industrially advanced nations, was seen as a key battleground for the future. And almost a year after Russia's revolution the Bolshevik strategy was vindicated by the German Revolution of November 1918. Initially the German Revolution seemed to replay events in Russia, but with the prospect of a far easier transition to full workers' power.

This book presents a groundbreaking documentary history of the workers' councils that emerged. Included are the most fascinating speeches, articles, programmes, letters and manifestos.

The revolution advanced rapidly throughout Germany. On November 9,  Philipp Scheidemann of the socialist, but reformist SPD, announced from Berlin that Germany was a parliamentary republic. Meanwhile the revolutionary Karl Liebknecht declared Germany to be a socialist republic.

But which one was it to be?

The next weeks and months would witness a struggle for the future of Germany. Would it become a bourgeois parliamentary republic under the "control" of left wing ministers or a socialist republic under the direction of the workers' councils? The question was settled in December 1918 when the Congress of Councils voted to liquidate itself. This was a triumph for the leadership of the SPD.

The anarchist Gustav Landauer, who played an honourable role in the council movement, declared, "I know of no more disgusting creature than the Social Democratic Party."

One SPD minister, Gustav Noske, conspired with the army command to physically eliminate revolutionaries, declaring, "Someone must be the bloodhound." As a consequence of working class loyalty to the SPD all of these figures had key positions within the councils and they used their influence to demobilise the working class.

Karl Liebknecht exposed their calls for "unity" on the left: "They want to steer the movement into 'quiet waters' in order to save the capitalist order. They want to take power out of the workers' hands by re-establishing a political order based on class and by defending an economic order based on class." That they did. And they triumphed. The councils were wound up.

The failure to build a credible alternative to the SPD cost Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and 2,000 revolutionaries their lives.

This book presents a wealth of information about how the councils worked, what they stood for and how they were undermined. Editor and translator Gabriel Kuhn is to be congratulated for collecting a broad range of memoirs and commentary on the period from people who were at the centre of the revolution including brilliant and stirring accounts from Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

I didn't agree with the political conclusions of many contributors—some wrote their memoirs many years after the facts and with a clear political agenda. The best reports are those nearer the events of this great, tragic episode of working class history. Read it to get a flavour of a time when we came tantalisingly close to taking power in one of the most advanced countries in the world—an episode which left us with the biggest "what if" we can ask of history. Read it to prepare for the next time so we won't be fooled again.

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to the Author's Page

Global Slump in International Socialism

Global Slump

by Joseph Choonara
International Socialism
October 11, 2011

A review of David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Spectre, 2011), £12.95; and Leo Panich, Greg Albo and Vivek Chibber (eds), Socialist Register 2011: The Crisis This Time (Merlin, 2011), £25

David McNally’s Global Slump and the latest Socialist Register add to the growing body of Marxist literature on the current crisis of capitalism [1]. Here I will focus on the former work but utilise some of the essays in the latter, which contains an eclectic series of takes on the crisis, to 
make my case [2].

And there is a case to be made against McNally. Needless to say, Global Slump has its share of positive aspects. It is an avowedly Marxist 
analysis [3]. It presents a lively account of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 and the great panic that followed in autumn 2008 as Lehman Brothers collapsed. In addition, the author identifies throughout with the oppressed and exploited. This is all commendable. However, I will focus on the theoretical core of McNally’s book, which is composed of arguments that are flawed and inconsistent, backed up by evidence that is weak or at times simply wrong.

McNally’s targets are those “radical political economists” who “say that Western capitalism underwent a great boom for a quarter of a century (1948-73), only to fall into a crisis or depression from which it has, for forty years, never recovered” [4]. This includes John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, of the Monthly Review tradition, who do tend to present late capitalism as a stagnating system [5]. But McNally also criticises U.S.-based Marxist Robert Brenner, International Socialism’s current editor Alex Callinicos, and its former editor Chris Harman, for defending a more nuanced position that sees 1982-2007 as a prolonged period of weakness for the capitalist system, described by Callinicos as a “long-term crisis of overaccumulation and profitability” [6]. What then are McNally’s arguments and how do they stand up to scrutiny? His main points are these:

(1) We are wrong to regard the period from 1982 onwards as one of capitalist weakness. In fact, McNally argues, there was a recovery of profit rates and considerable growth during the period from 1982 to 2007, in particular in the economies of East Asia.

(2) Our account wrongly regards the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s as a yardstick against which contemporary capitalism should be measured, and against this it will inevitably be found wanting.

(3) Accounts of financialisation prevalent within radical and Marxist political economy are inadequate, and McNally offers a superior and original account of this process.

Taken together these arguments would amount to a devastating critique of works by authors associated with this journal and many other Marxists who have written on the crisis.7 I shall assess each claim in turn.

How dynamic was the “neoliberal boom”?

McNally writes, “I dissent from the views of many radical theorists . . . who see the last forty years as one of uninterrupted crisis, or a ‘long downturn’. Instead I show that the neoliberal period saw a quarter-century cycle of capitalist growth that transformed and expanded the world economy, ultimately producing a whole new centre of world accumulation, based in China, while dramatically increasing the size of the world working class” [8]. And again, “While agreeing that capitalism entered a deep slump in the early 1970s, I submit that a sustained (neoliberal) recovery began in 1982 . . . for twenty-five years after 1982, the trend line for profitability was a rising one and the system underwent a sustained wave of expansion in which the world economy tripled in size” [9].

The careful long-term studies by the late Angus Maddison show that world GDP rose by 140 percent from 1982 to 2007 (ie it was 2.4 times as big in 2007 as 1982) [10]. It more than doubled in size; it did not triple in size as McNally claims. But is this even a helpful way of characterising a period? The decade from 1930 to 1940, during which capitalism was experiencing its worst ever crisis, saw 27 percent growth across the major economies for which Maddison has data [11]. This compares pretty well with the 36 percent growth of the global economy in the decade from 1982 to 1992. Growth figures like these prove little.
What about McNally’s argument that the profit rate trended upwards from 1982? He writes of the period inaugurated by the “Volcker Shock”, which saw U.S. interest rates rise sharply from late 1979, “Wages and inflation were tracking down; profits were tracking up. The result, as Doug Henwood notes, was that ‘the central bank led class war succeeded in more than doubling the profit rate for non-financial corporations between 1982 and 1997’. The neoliberal expansion was clearly underway” [12].

We can ask two pertinent questions about this “doubling of the profit rate . . . between 1982 and 1997”. Is it reflected in McNally’s data? And, assuming it is, does it make McNally’s case? The first issue is easily resolved. McNally presents a graph by Simon Mohun measuring U.S. profit rates from 1964 to 2001 [13]. In the period from 1982 to 1997 profit rates rose from 6.5 percent to just below 10.5 percent. This is clearly not a doubling of profit rates. Yet just a few lines below the graph McNally reasserts that “there can be little doubt that the doubling of the US profit rate between 1982 and 1997 that Henwood identified was very real” [14].

Mohun’s graph presents the “pre-tax average profit rate” for the U.S. economy. What about measures of the non-financial profit rate in the US, which is, after all, what McNally claims doubled in the period? Fortunately, Anwar Shaikh has produced figures for just this in the latest Socialist Register. He shows non-financial profit rates rising from approximately 9 percent in 1982 to 13 percent in 1997 [15]. By no stretch of the imagination is this a “doubling”. No wonder McNally’s claim is “surprisingly controversial”, especially on what he disparagingly calls “the intellectual left” [16].

But even if McNally presented accurate figures, would it be legitimate to gauge the success of the global, or even the US, economy in this manner? The answer is no. The year 1982 marked the low point of profitability—a trough [17]. The year 1997 was a subsequent peak. As is well known, profit rates tend to rise and fall through each business cycle. In order to show a secular trend it is necessary to consider profit rates through entire cycles or at the very least compare troughs with troughs and peaks with peaks. Using McNally’s methods I might measure an average temperature in Cairo at the height of summer as 21 degrees in one year and be astonished to find the next year that it had risen to 36 degrees. I could achieve this through the simple expedient of measuring the temperature at night in the first year and during the day in the second—from trough to peak! This kind of data tells me very little about the trend from year to year.

The same applies to McNally’s more general claim that “for twenty-five years after 1982”, i.e. from 1982 to 2007, “the trend line for profitability was a rising one”. The end point comes just after the next peak in profit rates (2006 according to Shaikh’s data). Let us instead measure from trough to trough: according to Shaikh’s graph, profit rates rose approximately from 9 percent in 1982 to . . . 9 percent in 2008.

What needs to be explained is not a fictitious rising trend in the profit rate, but why the downward trend from the 1950s through to the early 1980s ended. Again the article by Shaikh gives a useful insight into this. He shows the “counterfactual” profit rate if “corporate non-financial real wages maintained their post-war relation to corporate non-financial productivity.” Until 1983 wages had tended to rise with productivity. But, as Shaikh demonstrates, wage increases slowed considerably after this date. Had they continued to rise, profit rates would have fallen pretty much continuously throughout the neoliberal period [18]. In other words, there is strong evidence that the main factor stabilising profit rates was the attack on labour launched in this period and the intensified exploitation that resulted [19].

This combined with limited restructuring in the major capitalist states to raise profitability from its low point in the early 1980s, at least for a time. But because the restoration of profit rates was only a partial one, capitalists increasingly looked outside the spheres of the economy generating new value through the exploitation of workers. Instead they turned to financial activities that could generate short-term profits. So McNally acknowledges the development of “complex financial instruments [which] might have been profitable for a while, but they were obscure, deceptive and volatile. Built upon fantasies, deceits and nonsensical formulas, the value of these ‘assets’ was impossible to calibrate” [20]. This means that even what we have seen to be a rather limited restoration of profitability “must be treated with care given the widespread phenomena of fictitious profits based on financial manipulation and accounting fraud” [21].

A global boom?

If the core of capitalism was far from dynamic in the neoliberal period, what about the wider system? McNally argues that it is necessary to “treat the world economy as a totality” and avoid setting too much stock on the performance of particular national economies at the core [22]. Nor, he insists, can we rely on “national economic indicators” such as GDP to assess the world economy [23]. Nonetheless, a couple of paragraphs after making this claim, when he wants to show that “while the neoliberal expansion (1982-2007) did not reach the heights of the Great Boom, it compares favourably with every other phase of capitalist history,” he produces a table giving annual average compound rates of GDP growth [24].

Unfortunately, these do not really demonstrate much at all. The world figures from 1870 that he presents are suspect both methodologically (for reasons McNally himself gives) and also because much of the globe had not yet reached the point where there was rapid capitalist accumulation. The data lumps together vast swathes of the world where capitalism had barely established itself with the core of the system. Setting aside these points, we find that world GDP grew 2.11 percent per annum from 1870 to 1913, compared with 3.05 percent from 1973 to 2001. Once we take into account that in the earlier period the world population grew considerably less than in the latter, we find that the neoliberal “boom” period resulted in lower levels of per capita average compound growth than 
1870-1913, a period that contains what was until the 1930s known as the Great Depression (1873-96). It is simply not acceptable, based on this data, to treat the neoliberal period as one exhibiting growth that compares favourably with every period other than the long boom.

It is, of course, quite true (and universally acknowledged by Marxists) that capitalism has become in many ways more globalised in the recent period. Trade, and cross-border production and investment have all grown considerably [25]. But here, as elsewhere, McNally uses dubious measures. So at one point he writes that 1980-2005 “saw a quadrupling of the world’s so-called 
export-weighted global labour force”. What is the “export-weighted” labour force? It is “an estimate of working class size based on exports to world markets”, calculated by measuring a country’s labour force and multiplying it by the share of exports in GDP. By this measure we are told that in East Asia “the working class increased nine-fold—from about 100 million to 900 million” [26] whereas later we are told that the employed working class, surely a much more sensible measure, was 120 million in China alone in 1978, rising to 350 million by 2003 [27]. Given the huge discrepancies, it is not clear what the export-weighted figure, favoured by the IMF and World Bank, really establishes. Using this measure I can show all sorts of absurd things—that the labour force for Saudi Arabia tripled between 1998 and 2008, for instance [28].

Similarly, on foreign direct investment (FDI), McNally writes, “By 2002 China was the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment, which had increased fifty times over just seventeen years, from $1 billion to $50 billion per year between 1985 and 2002” [29]. China’s FDI figure for 2002 was $52.7 billion, just above that for France ($51.5 billion) [30]. However, this was based on a collapse of FDI into the United States due to the recession of 2001-2. By 2004 FDI into the US had reached $95.9 billion, overtaking China’s ($60.6 billion) by a considerable margin [31]. By 2010 the gap had grown, with the United States receiving $228 billion in FDI, more than twice China’s $106 billion [32]. None of this is to dispute the huge growth of the Chinese economy, and the role that external investment has played in this, but McNally’s sloppy and selective use of data undermines his case.

It is also true, as McNally does make clear, that China is in many ways exceptional. Investment remains concentrated in the core economies of the North plus some regions of China. Indeed, almost the entire decline in manufacturing in the Global North is, he argues, accounted for by China’s rise [33]. But even the rise of China needs to be seen in perspective. As a recent article in New Left Review argued, “China is still a developing country, far from having ‘caught up’ with the advanced economies. Although its population is nearly 300 million larger than that of all the high income countries combined, China’s national output is less than a fifth of theirs, and its exports around a tenth” [34]. China has a long way to go, and there is nothing at all inevitable about its growth continuing as it has over the past decade.

Shifting the boundary

One other aspect of McNally’s analysis of the neoliberal “boom” needs to be addressed. Having argued that we have witnessed a period of twenty-five years of rising profitability and impressive growth, he then states that the “wave of capitalist expansion began to falter in 1997 with the crisis in East Asia . . . After that regional crisis, and even more so after the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the United States in 2000-1, a massive expansion of credit did underpin rates of growth, creating profound sources of instability in the financial sector. So, while the entire period after 1982 cannot be explained in terms of credit creation, the postponement of a general crisis after 1997 can” [35].

Now this is a strange argument at a number of levels. In a footnote he taxes me with having “considerably confused” an earlier version of this account when I accused him of “shifting the date of ‘financialisation and credit-driven growth from the early 1980s to 1997’' [36]. McNally conceives of financialisation as a much longer process, stretching back to the 1970s, a point I am happy to concede. However, the rest of my criticism still stands:

There are . . . several problems with his periodisation . . . it is not clear that the rapid accumulation in East Asia was concentrated in the period from 1981 to 1997. Chinese growth rates remained high even after 1997 . . .  By contrast, Japan, the biggest East Asian economy, grew steadily in the 1980s but then stagnated after 1991 . . .McNally does not sufficiently explore the relationship between accumulation in East Asia and the larger Western economies. Is there evidence that somewhat increased profitability in the West led to a wave of investment in East Asia concentrated in the period before 1997? This certainly does not seem to hold for the 1980s when, for instance, foreign direct investment into the East Asian economies remained fairly constant and low relative to investment in the major OECD economies . . .

While the East Asian economies certainly helped fuel credit growth in the United States after 1997, for instance by building up large reserves of U.S. Treasury bonds, many of the elements that would be carried to grotesque proportions in the run-up to the current meltdown were already in place. The first sharp rise in the U.S. debt to GDP ratio was between 1981 and 1987, followed by a second sharp rise from 1997, which accelerated after 2001” [37].

Indeed, the new material in McNally’s book heightens my suspicions. For instance, he writes of East Asia, “By the early 1990s an overheating economic expansion was being fuelled by waves of speculative investment that drove real estate and stock prices sky-high. So long as quick profits were being made, the hot money kept on coming” [38]. This sounds to me like an episode of “credit driven” growth in the very arena that McNally sees as central to the expansion of global capitalism prior to 1997. We could add to this the surge in debt in Japan from the late 1980s that helped to create the country’s property bubble, the collapse of which Hugo Radice’s article in Socialist Register describes as the first in a series of “speculative ‘bubble’ crises” of the neoliberal era [39].

Fixated on a golden age?

What about the second claim made by McNally, namely that we remain fixated on the long boom that followed the Second World War? He writes, “These were the golden years of Western capitalism, and they have become such a powerful cultural marker that even many left wing critics treat them as the norm. If capitalism is not replicating the Great Boom, then they declare the system to be in crisis” [40].

If this were the case, it would be instructive if McNally analysed profit rates prior to 1945 in order to compare them with the post-1982 period. However, he does not. He only mentions profit rates before the long boom with reference to the run-up to the Great Depression of the 1930s: from “1925 to 1929, the United States and international economies were certainly booming . . . Profits soared . . . With profits rising, businesses feverishly built factories and invested in new technologies, all in the expectation of yet greater profits to come” [41]. Yet three pages later we discover, “The over-investment boom of the 1920s had actually started to depress profits by 1927-28”.42 Again there seems to be confusion between “up” and “down.”

However, the long boom does stand out in the history of capitalism. What marks it out is not so much the pace at which GDP could grow in the short term or the level that profit rates could attain; the boom is marked by its sustained nature. According to one recent study of the U.S. economy, GNP growth43 often peaked at much higher rates in the pre-war period, but it also crashed regularly, causing sharp contractions in the economy. The period 1900-46 saw contractions every 3.9 years on average, with an average length of 18.1 months and average decline in real GNP of 6.7 percent. The period 1947-2007 saw contractions every 6.1 years, with an average duration of 10.4 months and decline in GNP of 1.5 percent.44 What had been a frenzy of boom and bust gave way, at least for a time, to more placid oscillations—with growth never reaching the dazzling heights it had before, but continuing for far longer and with less devastating interruptions, leading to greater overall expansion in the long run.

This change, which was echoed in other major economies, was founded on a profound shift in capitalism from the late 1920s onwards, which accelerated during the Second World War, described by Harman as a “turn to state capitalism”.45 Even when the mobilisation for war ended, levels of state spending and economic intervention remained extremely high.

This transformation had implications for the post-war period. The impact of the Great Depression and, in particular, the war itself led to a sharp peak in profit rates in the late 1940s.46 Marxists might have expected this to translate into high levels of accumulation, which in turn would put pressure on future profit rates [47]. However, in the post-war period the decline in profitability was slowed because large amounts of value were channelled away from accumulation in a colossal process of waste creation—notably through arms production undertaken by states such as the United States and Britain during the Cold War. This was the system that Tony Cliff, Michael Kidron and Chris Harman would come to call the “permanent arms economy” [48].

The shift in capitalism did not eradicate the tendency towards crisis, merely deferring the problems and altering how they were ultimately to manifest themselves. So the post-war period did see a long decline in profit rates in the major economies, but at a much slower rate than would otherwise have been the case. There were other tensions developing. The boom encompassed less militarised states—notably Japan and Germany—which were able to enjoy the generalised expansion of the system without themselves bearing the burden of arms spending, allowing them to outpace the United States during this period.

In the course of the boom the economy became more global as areas outside the traditional core of the system grew—with trade expanding far faster than production and capitalism increasingly relying on chains of production that spanned borders. The system was coming up against the limits of state capitalist accumulation, even as the long decline in profit rates helped generate a period of crises from 1973 to 1982. The outcome of this did involve some reorganisation of national economies in the face of intensifying competition. So Harman wrote of the U.S. economy in 2001:

The U.S. ruling class had not just been prepared to sit back and watch while Japanese capitalism challenged its global economic hegemony . . . major U.S. firms responded to the increased competitive challenge from Europe and especially Japan by a sustained programme of rationalisation and re-equipment. This began in the early 1980s. It was then, for instance, that the U.S. auto giants began to undertake programmes designed to re-establish their domination of both the US and global market in the face of competition from Toyota and Nissan . . . Along with this went a strategy of accelerated investment . . . Behind the free-market, neoliberal rhetoric designed to impose US trade policies on the rest of the world lay a willingness to rely on state intervention, state capitalism, when it came to bolstering the power of domestic capital [49].

The continued high levels of state intervention, along with other areas of continuity such as high levels of waste production, are important. They show that the transformation of capitalism that took place from the late 1920s to 1945 was not reversed, even if capital was now organised on a more international basis than before and waste generation could no longer defer the tendencies towards crisis as it once had. It is this that makes the comparison with the long boom—in which profit rates were sufficiently high and sustained to maintain the form of capitalism that had developed—an apt one.

Between stagnation and dynamism

As we have seen, the crises of the mid-1970s and early 1980s did not restore profitability to the kind of levels seen through much of the earlier post-war period. During the twentieth century, especially in the long boom, the “units of capital” making up the system had expanded enormously. States, now themselves major players in the economy, were not prepared to allow crisis to sweep through the system and take down large chunks of it. The attempts to bail out and restructure the system, combined, as we have seen, with a colossal driving up of exploitation of workers, helped to produce a recovery. But to restore profit rates fully would have required what Karl Marx described as a crisis “in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead [capitalism] back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide” [50]. In the absence of this, capitalism retained strong tendencies towards stagnation that coexisted with the dynamism produced as those presiding over the system competitively reorganised their capitals and sought new areas of the globe into which to expand.

Of course, the system was not in a period of permanent stagnation. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that there was stagnation across Latin America for much of the 1980s and from the 1990s in Japan (then the world’s second biggest economy); the USSR (estimated at anywhere from a third to a half of the size of the US economy) collapsed in the early 1990s, and its successor states suffered sharp contractions in 1998; there were countless meltdowns afflicting areas of the Global South; economies such as the “Asian Tigers” faced crisis in 1997; and even in the US there were sharp recessions in the early 1990s and early 2000s.

Understanding the weakness of profitability and the tendency towards stagnation in the period from 1982 helps to grasp the vicissitudes of this period. It also allows us to grapple with the roots of the current crisis, including the rise of what many Marxists call today financialisation. It is to this that we now turn.

A unique account of financialisation?

McNally agrees with us that “while the crisis is not about finance per se, the financial sector has indeed assumed a new significance in late capitalism” [51]. But McNally promises more, “a unique account of financialisation” no less [52]. He tells us that this is original because “I underline the historic transformation of world money that occurred after 1971, when the U.S. government ended the convertibility of dollars for gold, thereby launching an era of floating exchange rates for currencies. It is here that I locate the roots of the proliferation of exotic instruments such as financial derivatives, which featured so prominently in the financial meltdown of 2008” [53].

Thus the “structural foundation of financialisation” lies, for McNally, in “the legal decommodification of world money in 1971-3” [54]. He also adds an earlier “structural foundation of financialisation” in the form of the “so-called Eurodollar market,” based on the trade in dollar-denominated assets outside the legal jurisdiction of the United States [55]. The creation of the first Eurodollars dates back to 1957. So clearly a number of episodes, in which 1971 was an important turning point, were involved. But there is nothing at all original about such an account. For instance, Alex Callinicos writes:

The re-emergence of globally integrated financial markets characterised by a high degree of international capital mobility was a process that took several decades. The first real break in the managed financial system of the early post-war years…came at the beginning of the 1960s. The emergence of the Eurodollar market allowed currencies to be traded beyond the borders of their issuing state. But the increasing power of financial markets was demonstrated by the prolonged crisis of the pound sterling from the late 1950s onwards and by the growing monetary instability surrounding the dollar that eventually led the Nixon administration to break the link with gold in August 1971 [56].

David Harvey writes of the period of “neoliberal hegemony, 
1970-2000,” “A different kind of system emerged, largely under U.S. tutelage. Gold was abandoned as the material basis of money values and thereafter the world had to live with a dematerialised monetary system. Flows of money capital, already moving freely around the world via the Eurodollar market . . . were to be totally liberated from state control”[57].

According to Peter Gowan, “From the mid-1980s on, proprietary trading in financial and other assets became an increasingly central activity for the investment banks, and for many commercial banks, too. This turn was connected first to the new volatility in foreign-exchange markets after the dismantling of Bretton Woods; and then to the opportunities created by domestic financial liberalisation” [58].

Robert Wade writes:

When the Bretton Woods system collapsed in 1973 all this [limitation of trade deficits, restrictions on private capital flow, the stability of the main economic parameters, etc] changed . . . The adjustment mechanisms that had kept trade imbalances in check under Bretton Woods no longer worked. Now that the US was not obliged to pay for its imports in gold, or in dollars backed by gold, and could instead pay with dollars or Treasury bills without supply-side limits, American deficits began to grow, as did the number of dollars in circulation worldwide.

The corollary of the U.S. current-account deficit, now standing at 6 percent of the country’s GDP, was the swelling of other countries’ central bank reserves, most of which consist of dollars and dollar-denominated debt instruments. The increase in central bank reserves provided the basis for rapid credit expansion.

World liquidity surged, and the owners and managers of finance put pressure on governments to remove restrictions on cross-border capital flows. A few major OECD economies, notably the United States and the UK, opened their capital accounts during the 1970s; other OECD economies followed through the 1980s, joined by growing numbers of developing countries in the next decades. At the same time there was a proliferation of private financial organisations, thanks to the removal of the constraints on finance imposed by the Bretton Woods regime. They include insurance companies, pension funds, stockbrokers, investment banks, mutual funds, venture capitalists, hedge funds and financial management companies . . . These vast pools of funds have changed the face of the world economy [59].

The significance of these shifts in the world economy is almost 
universally recognised by Marxist and radical left writers on political economy. Of course, it should be added that the undermining of Bretton Woods, which helped to pave the way for financialisation, was a consequence of something else—the contradictions within the permanent arms economy that saw the non-militarised state capitalisms of Germany and Japan outpace the U.S. economy, and the resulting U.S. trade deficit. McNally seems to draw similar conclusions, writing that “other capitalistically developed economies of the North grew more quickly than did America, constrained as it was by massive military spending” [60].

McNally goes on to outline the way speculation in foreign exchange rates grew with the new system of floating currencies. He writes that “the over the counter market in currency-related instruments (derivatives) soared from $1.2 trillion in 1992 to $4.2 trillion 15 years later” [61]. These dates are important because they show that, whenever the “structural foundations” were laid, the really dramatic expansion of these markets came much later. The same is true of other financial markets. Personal indebtedness grew especially fast in the United States in the 1980s and the 2000s; the shadow banking system overtook the traditional banking sector in the early 1990s and grew incredibly rapidly until 2007 [62]. McNally notes that although “securitisation of mortgages had been around since the 1970s”, “it did not really take off until the early 1990s . . . But the sheer, unbridled explosion occurred from 2000 on” [63]. Similarly, financial profits, as a proportion of the total, in the United States grew in two huge surges, from 1985 to 1994 and then from 2001 to 2007.

Marxists have highlighted many important changes in capitalism that allowed finance to flourish. To McNally’s emphasis on the emergence of floating exchange rates we could add the potential for new technology to simplify certain complex operations undertaken by banks, the global expansion of capitalism that required more sophisticated financial markets to increase the fluidity of capital across borders, the conscious political decisions of our rulers to promote finance, and so on. Such changes help to explain how financial markets could expand. But even taken together, they do not fully explain why financial markets did expand and why they did so with such rapidity.

The weakness of capitalism in the neoliberal period, its inability to produce the kinds of return on investment it had produced, not in the 1890s or 1910s, but during the immediately preceding decades, was of fundamental importance in spurring capital to enter into and expand financial markets. But this is the very element that McNally has rejected in his account, leaving him with “structural foundations” and an interesting narrative of financialisation, but an absence of real explanation [64].

Crisis and resistance

McNally concludes Global Slump with two chapters covering the impact of the crisis on the oppressed and exploited of the world, and the potential for resistance. There are plenty of stories, both horrific and inspiring, in this section. But the strategic advice on offer is a little disappointing. McNally seems to see the potential for resistance as concentrated among the most downtrodden and oppressed. For example, his discussion of the U.S. labour movement focuses almost entirely on immigrant labour, adding as an afterthought that “the self-organisation of workers of colour will also have to confront the problem of drawing white workers into the struggle.” This “is not accomplished by trying to find a common ground of ‘class unity’ that ignores or downplays the very real social hierarchies—based on race, gender, sexuality, and ability—that frequently divide workers” [65]. Here, in common with much contemporary writing on the left, class is seen as just one among many kinds of identity in a kaleidoscope of struggle.

At times McNally’s writing is reminiscent of the first flushes of the anti-capitalist movement between the Seattle WTO protest of 1999 and that in Genoa against the G8 in 2001. This language captured the enthusiasm and desire for unity in that period, but through its celebration of the new it tended to gloss over historical arguments—on questions such as parliamentarianism, the role of the state, the relationship between class and oppression, etc—which were to have profound consequences in the period ahead. There is much revelling in “social struggles that . . . bring together racial, gender, class, urban, and rural experiences, ‘producing a complex, multidimensional kind of resistance’” and exhortations to radicals to “seek to further the important strides already made in building new organisational capacities able to lead mass insurgencies from below” [66].

It is worth considering what forms of resistance have been most powerful during the “great slump,” namely the movements that in early 2011 overthrew dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. These were in many ways classic revolutionary mobilisations, though of course they had their share of originality. The most visible expressions of the movement were the crowds of “workers, small business people, artisans, the unemployed and underemployed whose families can’t support them, those who toil in the shadow economy of petty street-trading and hustling” gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But, as Anne Alexander has shown in her articles for this journal, mobilisations of groups of workers within their workplace were crucial to the actual ousting of Hosni Mubarak. It is this continued mobilisation that creates the conditions in which the revolution can deepen from a political to a social and economic challenge to the existing order [67].

Taking up broader questions of oppression is vital in any revolutionary movement, but crucially that means tying these issues to the group in society whose collective resistance can most effectively challenge capitalism—and that remains the working class. The strategic issues this poses will be resolved through both shared activity and political debate. The need for revolutionary parties, committed to a revolutionary transformation of society, clear on the historical lessons hard-won in the twentieth century and capable of working within wider movements, has not vanished; it is intensified in the current period. “Without a rebirth of mass struggle, it is impossible to get much beyond the sphere of small radical groups, some of whom do good work, others of whom are more intent on squabbling,” writes McNally [68].

Unfortunately, struggle tends not to arrive on schedule. The work done in the here and now, by relatively small groups of revolutionary socialists, will be important if we are to attempt to shape and strengthen the struggles that do emerge in the future.

For such groups, clarity about the nature of the period we have passed through and the one we have entered will be essential. Despite the tone of much of this review, I consider McNally an important revolutionary and Marxist thinker. His contribution and the challenges he poses in this field should raise the level of debate on the nature of the crisis. However, this book is unworthy of his abilities. I hope his future interventions will avoid overstating the trends he identifies or exaggerating his own theoretical originality.

1: I surveyed the earliest Marxists accounts, written up to summer 2009, in Choonara, 2009a. Since then there have been several major works on this theme, including David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital (2010), which I reviewed earlier this year (2011); Alex Callinicos’s Bonfire of Illusions (2010); Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism (2009); Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy’s The Crisis of Neoliberalism (2011), which is reviewed in the current issue of this journal; and various writings by Guglielmo Carchedi, including the piece that also appears in this issue.
2: The standout essays from Socialist Register are those by R Taggart Murphy on Japan, Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty on derivatives, and the Anwar Shaikh piece that I cite below. However, all of these authors have previously produced similar essays elsewhere.
3: Although at times it seems rushed. For instance, at one point McNally writes, “We sell a commodity (usually our labour),” and later, “Labourers are compelled . . . to sell their labour to an employer” McNally (2011), 73, 114. He clearly means “labour power”, not “labour.” This is a rather important distinction. See, for example, the discussion of David Ricardo in Marx (1969), 399-400.
4: McNally (2011), 26.
5: See Choonara (2009a), 93-96, for my critique of the Monthly Review tradition’s writings on the crisis.
6: See McNally (2011), 201-202, footnote 61. There are important methodological differences between Brenner’s approach and those of Harman, Callinicos and me. However, Brenner reaches similar conclusions about the overall trajectory of the system. See Choonara (2009a), 96-99.
7: And, sadly, they seem to have been accepted by several astute Marxists in or close to our tradition. Lee Sustar recently deployed an earlier version of McNally’s arguments in his critical review of Harman’s Zombie Capitalism for the U.S. publication International Socialist Review. See Sustar (2011), and the glowing review of McNally’s book from the same publication, McDonald (2011). The book has received a similarly positive write-up from Charlie Post in the Canadian publication New Socialist (Post, 2011) and from Pam Frache in the Canadian Socialist Worker (Frache, 2011), along with praise from the Dutch International Socialists (Zwan, 2011).
8: McNally (2011), 9.
9: Ibid., 26.
10: Calculated in 1990 International Geary-Khamis from Angus Maddison’s tables. See
11: Thirty major Western European economies, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the USSR, eight major Latin American economies, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Turkey.
12: McNally (2011), 36.
13: Ibid. Callinicos (2010), 57, presents the same graph, though obviously to make an entirely different case.
14: McNally (2011), 49.
15: Shaikh (2011), 48. On profit rates, see also Harman (2010).
16: McNally (2011), 36.
17: At least in the data McNally is using. The dates for the peaks and troughs in profit rates are slightly different in Carchedi’s article in this issue of the journal.
18: Shaikh (2011), 49-50.
19: Similar points are made in Carchedi’s article in this issue of the journal and in Harman (2009), 236-237.
20: McNally (2011), 19.
21: Ibid., 49.
22: Ibid., 37. A bizarre complaint given the effort he expends attempting to show a rise in U.S. profit rates. Indeed, he doesn’t discuss profit rates outside the US economy. He does say that investment is about capturing “global profits (or surplus value)”, but nowhere does he establish that there is, say, a global rate of profit, discuss the evidence for its existence or explain how it might be formed.
23: McNally (2011), 37-38.
24: Ibid., 38.
25: Harman (2009), 255-275.
26: McNally (2011), 51.
27: Ibid., 134.
28: Calculated from World Bank, databank; Central Department of Statistics and Information, Saudi Arabia.
29: McNally (2011), 54.
30: Unctad, World Investment Report 2003, chapter 1. Technically, McNally is wrong about China being the biggest recipient of FDI-the figure for Luxembourg is $125.6 billion, though this has more to do with the country’s tax regime than with productive investment.
31: Unctad, World Investment Report 2005, overview.
32: Unctad, World Investment Report 2011, overview.
33: McNally (2011), 55.
34: Nolan and Zhang (2010), 107.
35: McNally (2011), 41.
36: McNally (2011), 214, footnote 208.
37: Choonara (2009a), 92-93.
38: McNally (2011), 59, my emphasis.
39: Radice (2011), 26. A more detailed account is provided in Murphy (2011), 160-163, which also appears in Socialist Register.
40: McNally (2011), 27.
41: Ibid., 63, my emphasis.
42: Ibid., 66, my emphasis.
43: GNP is roughly speaking the total goods and services produced by workers residents of a particular country; GDP is the total goods and services produced within a particular country’s borders.
44: Tymoigne (2008), 11, table 1. See also the striking graph on the same page.
45: Harman (2009), 153-155.
46: Carchedi considers some of the reasons for this in his article in this issue of the journal.
47: Those not familiar with these arguments can consult Choonara (2009b), 68-83; Harman (2009), 68-75.
48: For summaries of the theory, see Harman (2009), 161-190; Choonara (2009b), 134-137; Pozo (2010).
49: Harman (2001), 45-47.
50: Quoted in Panitch and Gindin (2011), 1-2.
51: McNally (2011), 10.
52: Ibid., 88.
53: Ibid., 10.
54: Ibid., 214, footnote 208.
55: Ibid., 91.
56: Callinicos (2010), 61.
57: Harvey (2003), 62; see also Harvey (2010), 24.
58: Gowan (2010), 172.
59: Wade (2006), 116-117.
60: McNally (2011), 90.
61: Ibid., 94. Bryan and Rafferty also make 1971 a key turning point in their article on derivatives in Socialist Register, adding that “many forms of derivative began life or were resurrected as an attempt to escape the constraints of national capital controls, and in so doing contributed to the de facto breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime”(Bryan and Rafferty [2011], 204).
62: Shadow banking includes areas such as hedge funds and money funds that lie outside the traditional system of deposit-taking banking.
63: McNally (2011), 102.
64: For my attempt to explain financialisation as a consequence of declining profitability in the value-producing areas of the economy, see Choonara (2009a). See also Harman (2009), 277-304, and Callinicos (2010), 20-63.
65: McNally (2011), 171.
66: Ibid., 159, 160.
67: Alexander (2011).
68: McNally (2011), 178.


Alexander, Anne. “The Growing Social Soul of Egypt’s Democratic Revolution”, International Socialism 131 (Summer 2011),

Bryan, Dick, and Michael Rafferty. “Deriving Capital’s (and Labour’s) Future,” Socialist Register 2011.

Callinicos, Alex. Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World (Polity, 2010).

Choonara, Joseph. “Marxist Accounts of the Current Crisis,” International Socialism 123 (Summer 2009a),

Choonara, Joseph. Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (Bookmarks, 2009b).

Choonara, Joseph. “Decoding Capitalism.” International Socialism 129 (Winter 2011),

Duménil, Gérard, and Dominique Lévy. The Crisis of Neoliberalism (Harvard, 2011).

Frache, Pam. “A Clarion Call for Resistance.” Socialist Worker (Canada) (May, 2011), http://

Gowan, Peter. A Calculus of Power: Grand Strategy in the Twenty-First Century (Verso, 2010).

Harman, Chris. “Beyond the Boom.” International Socialism 90 (Summer 2001),

Harman, Chris. Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (Bookmarks, 2009).

Harman, Chris. “Not all Marxism is Dogmatism.” International Socialism 125 (Winter 2010),

Harvey, David. The New Imperialism (Oxford University, 2003).

Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital (Profile, 2010).

Marx, Karl. Theories of Surplus Value, volume 2 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1969).

McDonald, John. “Recession and Resistance.” International Socialist Review 78 (July-August, 2011).

Murphy, R. Taggart. “A Loyal Retainer? Japan, Capitalism and the Perpetuation of American Hegemony.” Socialist Register (2011).

Nolan, Peter, and Jin Zhang.  “Global Competition After the Financial Crisis.” New Left Review 64 (July-August 2010).

Panitch, Leo, and Sam Gindin. “Capitalist Crises and the Crisis this Time.” Socialist Register (2011).

Post, Charlie. “A Crucial Book.” New Socialist (January 20, 2010),

Pozo, Gonzalo. "Reassessing the Permanent Arms Economy.” International Socialism 127 (Summer 2010), http://

Radice, Hugo. “Confronting the Crisis: A Class Analysis.” Socialist Register (2011).

Shaikh, Anwar. “The First Depression of the 21st Century,” Socialist Register (2011).

Sustar, Lee. “What are the Roots of Capitalist Crisis?” International Socialist Review 77 (May-June 2011).

Tymoigne, Éric. “Minsky and Economic Policy: ‘Keynesianism’ All Over Again?” LevyInstitute working paper 547,

Wade, Robert. “Choking the South.” New Left Review 38 (March-April 2006).

Zwan, Maina van der. “Interview David McNally: ‘Het Heden als Geschiedenis Begrijpen.’” De Socialist, May 30, 2011.

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We the Children of Cats in Junbungaku

by Will E
Junbungaku: Japanese Literary News and More
September 7, 2012

In “Paper Woman,” the first story of Hoshino’s debut collection We, the Children of Cats, the narrator (also named Tomoyuki Hoshino) ends the story by proclaiming the death of literature:

Paper’s absence taught me that novels are already meaningless, that their meaning has always been illusory. There is no one left who craves words like she did, who wants to absorb them completely and be read herself in turn.

And she wanted me to do the same to her, to absorb her and let her read herself off me. I responded as well as I could, imperfect as I am. But I was all she had. She wanted so much to connect with so many more, but only I ever made the attempt. And it was too much for me to bear alone.

This is the first of many instances while reading We, the Children of Cats that illustrates Hoshino’s obsession with the power and meaning of literature, and if anything, the collection proves Hoshino (the character/narrator)’s antithesis: literature will not only live on, but thrive, if authors like Hoshino continue to write and be read.

In Tomoyuki Hoshino I see Kenzaburo Oe’s first true successor: a daringly intelligent, political writer capable of beauty and darkness, one that sees the power that is still capable of the written word. But Hoshino, roughly thirty years Oe’s junior, is also a product of a more contemporary, fractured Japan, a citizen who grew up surrounded by the creeping shadows of postmodernism and magical realism.

But Hoshino, who would also compare favorably to the post-modernist proclivities of Kobo Abe, feels fresh in the current landscape of Japanese novelists. Surreality is certainly no stranger to contemporary Japanese literature and it’s certainly the kind of literature that often is translated into English, hoping to strike that Murakami goldmine, but in Hoshino there is a certain amount of control that many others either lack or eschew. Each moment is crafted, specifically engineered for meaning. Which is not meant to say that Hoshino is an easy writer, or that his stories feel artificial. Hoshino’s prose always exudes a confidence, a message that what you’re reading is important and meaningful, even when the outlandish, or otherworldly, obfuscates that meaning you know lies beneath the surface.

The difference between Hoshino’s “surreal” and the rest of Japan’s “surreal” most likely is a product of Hoshino’s clear influence from Latin American literature, specifically Borges and Garcia Marquez. It colors his work, even when the stories aren’t taking place in Latin America or reference Latin American culture. I hesitate to call it a rhythm (what is more clichéd than when talking about Latin American culture), but it is a feeling, and in “Milonga for the Melted Moon,” the Marquez-ian influences are overwhelming; it’s like taking the short punch of “Eyes of a Blue Dog” and drawing it out for far too long. There are moments of transcendent beauty in “Milonga,” but unlike the rest of the stories in the collection, it borders on the tedious.

The other stories in We, the Children of Cats are intense, meticulously crafted stories imbued with a sense of controlled chaos, whether it’s about a Japanese man who tries to become a resistance fighter in a nameless Latin American nation, or a boy who imagines his absent father so intensely he becomes almost real again, or a couple who mysteriously grow new invisible sex organs. Even the title story, in which a married couple argues about having children, is defined by the two natural disasters that frame the couple’s lives. Whether working in a realist or surrealist mode, Hoshino writes with an intensity and clarity that makes the beautiful magnificent or the darkness terrifying.

In his afterword, translator Brian Bergstrom discusses at length the idea of transformation as a theme throughout Hoshino’s work, which is certainly compelling, but what struck me as Hoshino’s bone to pick, that itch that as a writer he just has to scratch until his skin cracks and bleeds, is the problem of identity in contemporary society. He explores variations of this theme in each story almost like a checklist, leaving no manifestation of it unturned. In “Air,” it’s gender identification, “Chino”: ethnicity and class, “We, The Children of Cats”: nationality re: societal values, “Sand Planet”: nationality re: colonialism and globalization. But the question at heart always boils down to: “Who am I, and with whom do I belong?” and/or “Am I alone?”

It’s a powerful question, a universal one, and so whether his stories take place in Japan or in Latin America or in a dreamland, Hoshino is adept at striking that raw nerve. Hoshino offers no pat answers, but the way he explores the question has led me to believe he is one of the best authors writing in Japan today. His work demands to be translated and read. Let’s provide the audience for Hoshino that the Paper Woman so desperately craved.

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Reflections of a Weather Underground Veteran

by Kim Moody
New Socialist Webzine
August 25, 2012

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, the "founding" document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and as one would expect there are conferences and reflections galore. Most of these will focus on the early SDS, but in reality there were at least two SDSs, the Port Huron Statement SDS from 1962 to about 1966 and the SDS that followed until its split and explosion in 1969. David Gilbert's Love and Struggle concerns the second SDS taking shape in 1966 just before much of the student movement took a new direction and I left SDS for more explicitly socialist politics. Despite only a slight overlap in SDS, much of what Gilbert writes about in this memoir is deeply familiar to me.

In fact, for the first seventy pages I felt a strong identification with Gilbert as his radical, then revolutionary politics evolved. What moved him to the left was what moved me and many others. First, he mentions the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins by Black students heroically confronting segregation. I remember well the very day I heard of these on the radio, how it affected me emotionally, and later sent me to seek out the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore. Then the explosive phase of the Civil Rights movement that followed with Birmingham and Selma. A little later it was the U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam. 

These were among the things that moved a generation of white, mostly middle-class youth to see the realities of US society and to draw radical, even revolutionary conclusions. National liberation movements were on the rise in the Third World and soon Europe would explode in student and class conflict. The world, it seemed, was moving toward dramatic change.

How would this change taking shape across the world come about? With the U.S rulers at the centre of oppression at home and abroad an enormous responsibility rested on the shoulders of this New Left. Debate about how to accomplish change at home was intense. Somewhere in the mid-1960s a fork in the road appeared for this emerging radicalism. I took one road, Gilbert took the other.

Allure of "Marxism-Leninism"

In the broadest sense this other road was defined by "Marxism-Leninism," drawn mainly from Maoism but widely practiced in the Third World liberation movements. In the United States, it would call itself the "New Communist" movement and would be the dominant trend on the revolutionary left for a decade or so. Though this trend as a whole did not necessarily reject the working class as the major agent of change, the particular variant Gilbert embraced did [1]. The path I took Gilbert derisively dismissed as the traditional Old Left path that sees the working class as the central agent of change. The path he took we derisively dismissed as "Third Worldism." Before looking in more depth at the theory and practice involved, it is worth summarizing Gilbert's development as he describes it.

The first thing to be said is that although Gilbert still— after thirty years in prison for the famous 1981 "Brinks job" (discussed below)—holds the politics he developed in the second half of the 1960s he is no hack. Much of the book involves his reflections of what went right and wrong in the organizations he embraced or supported. Some might dismiss this simply as Maoist "criticism, self-criticism," which is,  in fact, his way of putting it (though he is critical of the practice). However, the reflections seem sincere and real.
He readily admits when he doubted positions he acted on or simply made a mistake, even if this is all done in a very particular ideological framework.

As he describes his evolution, he moved from liberalism to social democracy to radicalism and finally to becoming a revolutionary. He studied Marx, even reading three volumes of Capital, more than I had managed by the mid-1960s, and Lenin. The types of actions he participated in were those many of us experienced. He was in the 1968 student strike at Columbia and helped occupy buildings. Two years later I would help occupy the New School for Social Research in New York. When the Panthers became the leading organization in the Black Power movement Gilbert saw supporting them as important. The political tendency I belonged to, which later became the International Socialists (not connected to today's Canadian group of the same name), also saw supporting the Panthers as important, in fact well before the "Marxist-Leninists" did. Yet there were fundamental differences in the political frameworks in which these similar actions took place.

In 1966, the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a tightly organized "vanguardist" group, invaded SDS. A few of us fought for an alternative working-class direction, but the main response was what became the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) tendency, which soon split into RYM I and RYM II. 

Central to the politics of RYM was the conviction that the white working class of the United States was so thoroughly racist and privileged by imperialism that it could not play any role in the revolutionary process. Blacks and other oppressed people would be at the centre of revolution in the United States, perhaps even able to make the revolution on their own. White youth, however, were somewhat of an exception both because their age made them supposedly less integrated into racist structures and ideology and because the new youth culture separated them from the mainstream.

Weather Underground

From this set of ideas came the Weather Underground in 1970 after the 1969 split in SDS. As Gilbert describes it, their analysis saw the Black, Latino and Native American people of the US as part of the worldwide national liberation movements that began with the Chinese revolution, the Cuban revolution, the long-standing struggle of the Vietnamese, and the guerrilla movements in Latin America. These movements were seen as the force for world revolution. In this scenario the role of sympathizing whites in the United States was to act as support for Black organizations at home and national liberation movements abroad. This was to be the function of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO).

The nature of this support was based on the correct observation that the United States, with its military, CIA, etc. was the major roadblock to national liberation and revolution throughout the Third World as well as at home where repression against the Panthers and others had become extensive, deep and violent. However, the Weather analysis argued, the increasingly obvious defeat in Vietnam showed that U.S. imperialism was not invulnerable. It could not be everywhere at once. The more national liberation movements there were the more difficult it would be for the United States to repress and defeat them all. In this context, the role of white revolutionaries in supporting liberation movements was to add to the "armed struggles" and as much as possible distract U.S. imperialism from repressing the Panthers at home and murdering the peoples of Third World. 

This the Weather Underground attempted to do for six years with a series of twenty bombings of government, corporate and defence-related installations. Gilbert emphasizes that they were careful to avoid hurting anyone, so the bombings were timed when the facilities were empty. The infamous "Townhouse" explosion that killed three WUO activists in 1970 was accidentally set off by the activists themselves. Of course, the subsequent bombings did not stop the repression at home. Nor can the bombings take credit for the US defeat in Vietnam or the "Vietnam Syndrome" that kept US military adventures to a minimum for a period after the defeat—credit for that goes to the Vietnamese and the massive anti-war movement in the United States and around the world. 

As is often the case in left-wing organizations, failure or limited impact led to internal fights and the eventual dismantling of the Weather Underground in 1976. Gilbert went "above ground" for a while in Denver, but, clinging to the politics of white support for national liberation, by 1979 he was underground again, this time in support of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a splinter from the Panthers that was supposedly engaged in "armed struggle." Support for the BLA involved fund-raising via "expropriations." It was in this capacity that he and several others, including his partner Kathy Boudin, were busted for the botched Brinks job in 1981 in which two policemen and a Brinks guard were killed. Despite the fact that he was not a "shooter,", this would send Gilbert to prison for the rest of his life.

Political blind spots

While most of those in the 1960s who accepted the RYM/Weather analysis did not go underground or bomb anything, they, nevertheless, faced the dilemma that analysis posed. In effect, the idea that the white working class, still a majority of the U.S. population, was to be completely written off due to the reality of racism, led to a number of problems. The revolution would have to be carried out by a minority of the population—not the 99 percent, but the 12 percent?

Additionally, the racism of the white working class would remain unaddressed as they had been written off as hopeless and this huge part of the population left outside the revolutionary process, perhaps to be "re-educated" after the revolution. Obviously this raises the question of just what such a  "revolution" would be  like assuming it had any chance of victory.

There was a major blind spot in this approach. The "Marxist-Leninist" parties seen as leading these revolutions were highly authoritarian, as were the societies created where they triumphed. One-party dictatorships were the norm. None of this enters into Gilbert's discussion until toward the end and then only in passing. His only explanation for the top-down state of these movements and the more recent capitalist direction of their regimes is to blame this on the pressures of imperialism. As real as those pressures may have been, it is, nonetheless, the case that the parties and movements that rule in countries like China, Vietnam or Cuba chose the direction of their formative policies based on the Stalinist model of the USSR or China and their ruling parties [2]. So it was that those who took the fork in the road followed by Gilbert were unable to have any critical analysis of the movements they supported, indeed, viewed such criticism as racist. Their vision of revolution was simply the taking of power by a single vanguard party following a "people's war."

Another blind spot was that of class. Occasionally class is mentioned positively, as in the case of the Prairie Fire Organization that followed RYM, but class exploitation and working-class struggle never really became part of the analysis of U.S. society for most of the groups that followed this orientation. This meant not only writing off the majority, but misunderstanding the Civil Rights movement and even the Black Power phase that followed. 

As the late Manning Marable and others have pointed out, the Civil Rights movement, first in the South then in the North, owed much of its power to the fact that it was primarily an urban working class-based movement, albeit with a largely middle-class leadership. Similarly, though the base of the Panthers was often characterized as "lumpenproletarian," it was, in fact, in working-class communities in Oakland and Brooklyn that the Black Panthers were most successful. Indeed, the Panthers even had a caucus in a local of the United Auto Workers union in the Bay Area.

In looking at the Black movements of the 1960s, Gilbert doesn't even mention such things as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the scores of Black union caucuses that spread across industry as the general labour upsurge took off in the second half of the 1960s or the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968 where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Nor can he see that the urban uprisings of that era were working-class-based as well. African Americans in motion somehow lose their class position. Despite the Weather Underground's focus on white youth culture in the early 1970s, Gilbert never mentions one of the best know examples of the youth rebellion's expression in the working class, the  1972 Lordstown GM strike, "the Woodstock of the working man," as one of the strike leaders put it.

In effect, the analysis put forward by RYM, Weather Underground, and others in that period analytically detached the African American population from the U.S. social formation, despite the fact that that is where their oppression is rooted, and re-conceptualized it as an organic part of the Third World national liberation movements. It was a faulty  method made easier by a focus almost entirely on the radical Black organizations of the era, rather than on the realities and potential power of the African American population. So, the social power of Black America was reduced to the nationalist politics of ever shrinking and more desperate organizations such as New Afrika and the BLA. It was a cul-de-sac.

Of course, no one succeeded in building a viable revolutionary socialist movement with significant roots in the working class in that era. Indeed, today the Left is in dire straits in most of the developed capitalist world. But the situation we now face is a new one. Capitalism is clearly in global crisis (not collapse), even if worse in some places than others. New types of resistance have arisen: the Arab Spring, mass strikes in China, new immigrant organizations in the US and the Occupy movement, just to mention the most obvious ones. It is essential that socialists support and help build these movements—not as vanguardist know-it-alls, nor obedient servants, but as participants with some good ideas of our own.

For some people new to social activism, however, the romanticism and dedication of the Weather Underground may have appeal. The "politics of the deed" may be more rewarding in the short term. They may even seem like a short cut to social change. After all, the perspective of building a socialist movement rooted in social movements and the working- class struggles of the day is a long range, difficult, if sometimes exciting, one. As tempting as a short cut might seem, however, the militancy, actions, and daring a revolutionary movement needs to bring about "another world" will not be found "underground," but in the workplaces and streets for all to see.

[1] For a more balanced history and analysis of the New Communist movement see Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (2002).

[2] For a Marxist analysis of this in Cuba see Sam Farber, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (2012).

Kim Moody is the author of U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition (Verso, 2007) and is currently a Senior Research Fellow with the Work and Employment Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. He was present at the Port Huron SDS Convention in 1962.

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Sending Signals about Political Graphics

by Rick Poynor
August 9, 2012

Signal no. 2, 2012, published by PM Press. Design: Alec Dunn & Josh MacPhee. Illustration: Røde Mor 

If you are interested in the use of graphic art and communication in political struggles, don’t miss the latest issue of Signal, which has just come out. The first issue appeared in 2010, and for the last few months Amazon has been sending status updates saying that the new issue would be later than expected. The publishers must have unjammed the logs, though, and in the end it arrived early.

I can’t think of any other design or visual arts publication quite like Signal in form and content. “Journal” is exactly the right word here because Signal, published by PM Press in Oakland, California, is half way between a magazine and a book in appearance and tone. Its dinky size, combined with astutely pitched, matt-laminated cover designs, make it immediately intriguing and attractive. The page design is poised between scholarly seriousness and newsstand techniques of appeal. Signal is generously illustrated and would be rewarding merely to browse, but everything about it says: read this (because it will be a pleasure).

The journal is edited and designed by Alec Dunn and Josh MacPhee, who are both members of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative. Dunn is an illustrator and printmaker now studying at a nursing school in Pittsburgh. MacPhee is an artist, activist and curator based in Brooklyn. “We are internationalists,” they write. “We are curious about the different graphic traditions and visual languages that exist throughout the world.” Signal benefits greatly from the breadth of their non-American interests, which seem unusual to me in an American publication. Here’s MacPhee in an interview with the British radical magazine Red Pepper last year:

Over here in the States when you see any political graphics or artwork used at all, a lot of it is the same set of images, which have been used over and over again. But there is an incredibly rich amount of artwork and aesthetics that have been used in left/anti-authoritarian/liberation struggles all over the world, and I think we are in some ways hoping to expand the base of what people here think is possible.

It’s easy for a lot of political graphics to blend into our sensory landscape. For example, you see a poorly copied poster with a fist or a peace sign or an anarchy symbol and it’s an easy thing to ignore, because it’s boring! And often those uncreative, ineffective, posters are tied to uncreative and ineffective protests. Obviously, it’s not quite as simple as that, but I think we’re looking for ways that cultural work can help clarify political movements and work with them to feel more urgent or effective.

Opening spread

Opening spread

Spread from an article about Oaxacan street art considered in the Mexican context

The new issue has stories from Mozambique, Portugal, Mexico, Japan, Denmark, and early 20th-century London, as well as an American piece about the lost legacy of Gestetner art — an expanded version of a text first published online by the AIGA’s Voice (I’d prefer the space to have gone to an all-new essay). For me, the stand-out article in this issue is Kasper Opstrup Frederiksen’s illuminating reassessment of the graphic output of the Danish radical collective Røde Mor (Red Mother) from 1969 to 1978—they also had a band. This gives the flavor of their fire-breathing 1974 manifesto:

. . . the [highbrow art] culture monopoly works as a means to consolidate bourgeois power and the spread of bourgeois ideology in the working class. The bourgeois artist participates whether he likes it or not and whether he is conscious of it or not—in this repression. Contrary to this, we will make our art available to the working class and help to create a political, proletarian art.

Even in 1974, this kind of thinking was dated as both political analysis and communication strategy, and the article is clear-sighted about its shortcomings. But Red Mother’s socialist realist art inspired by Mayakovsky’s Rosta Windows and Frans Masereel still possessed graphic power. And, as Frederiksen writes, “the collective still serves as a reminder that by sharing information and pooling resources, artists can generate new exit routes from everyday life under capitalism as well as actively change people’s perspectives and values.” Clearly, new methods will need to be found now, and Signal’s commitment to visual communication could help to sharpen thinking about the task.

Page from an article about the Røde Mor radical collective

It has to be said that there are some moments of shaky editing, and the caption style is inconsistent, with figure numbers used in the text in one case but not elsewhere. It would be good to have information about contributors, making it easier to follow up interesting trails. In outline, though, Signal is already in vigorous shape, with a strong vision of what it wants to know and what it exists to do. To become fully established, it needs to appear regularly once a year; the last gap was too long. I also hope they will update their website with some new material. Take a look at the journal and support an excellent cause.

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Byzantium Endures: A Review in NewCity Lit

by Greg Baldino
NewCity Lit
August 20, 2012

History is written by the winners, but more and more we are finding the winners to be unreliable narrators of their own victory. Nowhere in the history of the twentieth century is this more prominent than in regards to the horrors of the Holocaust. The writings of historians can give us an ever-evolving version of how, who, when and where, but they can only do so much with the question of why. In that regard, fiction is perhaps better equipped to make sense of the dark confusing turns of our past.

Enter Michael Moorcock. Known best in the United States for his series of transgressive sword-and-sorcery novels, his literary reputation in the United Kingdom was for his literary works and his new-wave speculative-fiction novels about the metatemporal harlequin Jerry Cornelius. In the early eighties, Moorock took one of the supporting characters from the Cornelius cast, one Colonel Maxim Arturovich Pyat, and began a four-volume saga of historical fiction, recently brought back into print by PM Press.

In the first volume, Pyat is a Ukrainian teenager at the time of the October Revolution with ambitious notions that he is a technological genius and the son of a brave Cossack soldier.

Journeying from city to city in a shifting Eastern Europe awash in both bohemian excess and wartime devastation, he’s as unreliable as any narrator could possibly be. As he changes roles from engineering student to black marketeer and back again, Pyat is revealed as a cocaine-addicted half-Jewish naif, in almost comic contrast with his adamant racism. “Byzantium Endures” is in essence two novels, in the Swiftian tradition of satire. On one level, it is the story of Pyat’s pursuit of recognition in the mad modern world of the twentieth century. But reading between the lines, the unconscious evils of Pyat’s ignorance reveal dark truths about himself as both a character, and as an allegorical stand-in for Western civilization’s compliance with the ultimate culmination of millennia of antisemitism.

It is a comic novel, though not a comedic one, utilizing the tropes and techniques of both modern farce and classical Commedia dell’Arte. One such scene that exemplifies Moorcock’s use of comic misdirection for emotional impact is the scene mid-novel where a triumphant sexual romp reveals itself through Pyat’s obliviousness as a drug-fueled rape. For all his selfishness, ignorance and hate, there is a charismatic energy to the man that is found in all the truly terrible ideologues in history. Reflected in Pyat, we see not the man who sent millions to the gas chamber, but the millions who let him under the delusional guise of profit and progress.

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London Peculiar in City Book Review

by Jamais Jochim
City Book Review
June 21, 2012

Michael Moorcock always makes for fascinating reading. London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction is a self-exploration, with a number of his previously unpublished essays, articles, and opinions. He ranges far afield here, from Christmas in World War II to looking at why Conan is an American phenomenon. There is a lot of material on a wide variety of subjects, making for an interesting read. There is a reason that he has helped define the fantasy genre, and this book explores that.

From a fan’s perspective there is a lot here. Most authors would merely release a biography of some sort and let the fans be happy with that. As Moorcock has always been a brilliant author, it would have been a let-down; instead, he has put together a book that gives the reader a personal insight into his world, with not only his history looked at but also his opinion. Although the book does occasionally get into some dry material, and the amount of detail in some areas can bog things down a little, such as the detailing of his army miniatures, the book does give some valuable insight into the author, making it a valuable read.

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What Modern America Is All About: On the Ground, A Review

by Laura Tanna
Jamaica Gleaner
August 26, 2012

A Jamaican's take on the United States at one of its most stimulating periods of political and social growth

This book, edited by a scion of the Jamaican Kennedy clan—though he prefers to be acknowledged on his individual credits—was given to me by a media colleague who knew that I had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1969, hotbed of student radicalism in the '60s, after meeting my future husband upon my arrival there in 1965.

Yes, can you imagine Dhiru Tanna giving a rousing speech on behalf of the movement against colonialism on the steps of Sproul Hall? But he did, and we both took the student movement at Berkeley in our strides as part of our education. We were global before most people knew what was entailed in that term.

But what my colleague here didn't know was that although I started high school in a segregated town in Indiana, and then became the first American to ever attend the Shia Imami Ismailia Secondary School in Kampala, Uganda—a Muslim school for those of you who aren't up on your Islamic terminology—I also ended my secondary school education at Friends Seminary—a private Quaker New York school where most of the students were Jewish or Episcopalian - while living in Greenwich Village, so that between Berkeley and the Village, while helping to edit The Journal of New African Literature and the Arts (JONALA) while in California.

I can probably appreciate Sean Stewart's book better than most people in Jamaica or, for that matter, in the United States of America. Now, normally, I take a very low profile, usually eliminating myself from interviews to the extent that most people don't even realise those which I have done. But in this case, I want you to know that I am qualified to tell you that this is a brilliant book.

One of my Jamaican friends in Miami picked it up and was mesmerised by the posters and magazine covers from the '60s' underground press reproduced in On The Ground.

Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, we can't reproduce them for you here, but what Sean has done is to research the publications which were instrumental in fomenting the fight for human rights, whether they be against the war in Vietnam, or discrimination against people of colour, or discrimination against women or those whose sexual orientation is not that of most others. The underground press started on the former, but over the years, showed the way towards the liberation of all others.

Now Sean Stewart, born and raised in Kingston, then having migrated to North America, appreciated that in these small local presses, in some cases no more than mimeographed handouts on street corners, herein lay what press freedom and social progress is all about.


His editing takes a little time to grow on the reader, but it is useful. He selects excerpts from interviews with, or writings by, various underground editors or authors—whether they be Jewish high-school students, middle-class Midwesterners or members of the Black Panther movement—and isolates them into subjects within chapters.

After a while, you get to know the different personalities and move with the times and the themes that Stewart has selected. In so doing, he creates a superb history of America at one of its most stimulating periods of political and social growth. Anybody wanting to understand what modern America is all about should read this volume.

It's not always easy. Some of it is disconcerting, discombobulating for those not familiar with this decade, but persevere. You will start to grasp what motivates the baby-boomer generation that now holds sway in positions of power, or that motivates those who resent the potential liberalism represented by the ideas put forth in the underground press.

Paul Buhle in his preface proclaims: "We changed journalism, battled repressive laws" and they had fun in the process. Jamaicans should especially appreciate this book because it speaks to individuality, neither conformist nor non-conformist. It deals with the sacredness of human life, examines the moral courage of direct action during the civil rights movement, and illustrates how journalism became a lifestyle of total immersion, both political and cultural.


I have pages of quotations of relevance from this volume, too many to share with you here. For example, this quote from Ben Morea, of Black Mask, The Family, which illustrates the power of music, something Jamaicans understand, and these were free concerts.

"There was a certain cultural antagonism between the ghetto-dweller and the youth, the hippie. They didn't quite have the same background, so our role was always to try and ease that tension . . . We'd have black bands or steel drum bands, rock bands, and Latin bands all playing together so the audience would be all three. I mean that was our goal, it was conscious. We would try to bring together art and politics or ghetto and hippie—we were always trying to bridge gaps."

On The Ground, available on, is probably going to be difficult for you to find in a local bookstore, but look for it, read it, and appreciate how Jamaicans of all backgrounds contribute to understanding our global culture and how it has evolved.

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Asia's unknown uprisings: v.1 in CHOICE

by H. T. Wong
October 2012

Katsiaficas's latest book is consistent with his radical Marxist politics. The Eros effect will pave the way for a worldwide revolution from below and create a world based on human love. He demonizes the US and Japan: "Korea was so ravaged that a literal sea of blood was spilled in the twentieth century at the hands of both Japan and the United States ... South Korea's economy remains ruled by the dictatorship of the neoliberal market." He also chastises the European and US dismissal of Asian influence on recent popular global uprisings. Anyone who identifies with Katsiaficas will love this book; however, Katsiaficas (Wentworth Institute of Technology) remains an ideologue well short on objectivity.

His 160-plus interviews include only citizen activists. Korea's deep authoritarian political and social roots were not created by the US. The US military has shielded South Korea from hostile totalitarian North Korea. Thirteen chapters explore major Korean uprisings from the 1894 Rice War to the 2008 Candlelight Protest, Jeju and Yeosun Insurrections, and the overthrow, assassination, and incarceration of Korean presidents. There are thirty-four tables and eleven charts, graphs, and maps.

Summing Up: Recommended. For general readers and undergraduates, because it fills a void in English-language studies on Korea.

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Three Reviewed in Lambda Literary

by Sarah Burghauser
Lambda Literary
September 2012

One morning, a seventeen year-old girl opens her high school English textbook to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and reads her favorite lines aloud:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? 
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. 
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

She lifts a peach from the fruit bowl in her kitchen and considers it: “Do I dare eat a peach?”  Three possible answers to this simple question spur a trinity of parallel lives in Monahan’s sparkling new novel.

Twenty-four years later, on one path, that girl is Katherine, a physician who contacts an old lover who had left her for Catholicism.  On a second, she is Kitty, a married woman who falls for her female English professor.  On a third, she calls herself Antonia, a lesbian separatist who helps found an all-women’s commune built on a renovated oil rig.

What unfolds will delight, surprise, and challenge readers to ask hard questions about faith, identity, fate, and choice.

While the premise may sound overcooked to some (al la Gwenyth Paltrow’s Sliding Doors), the superb writing in Three (Flashpoint Press) far offsets any reservations skeptics may have about plot.

Even though all three characters have a different set of details and circumstances, the same symbols, tropes, and metaphors shadow each character’s plot line–like ghosts of their alternate selves; they are three versions of the same story.  Reference to the ocean, for instance, is a strand consistently pulled through the life of each character.

Likewise, all three share the same sense of humor and deal with health and illness in similar ways: in one scene, Katherine mocks her patient’s choice to “honor the pain” in her shoulder rather than accepting medical advice from her physician.

In another scene, Antonia scorns her separatist comrades for renouncing any kind of western medicine in favor of chanting, which has severe consequences.  Kitty also copes with pain and health when her father falls ill.

In each instance, despite the trio’s snarky critique of a New Age dilettante’s approach to healing, they all have an intuitive inclination toward the spiritual, and a deep belief that “the universe” has a way of interceding in our lives.

With an air of myth, an acute sense of irony, a climactic sex scene you’ll never forget, and a nod to Jeanette Winterson (Oranges are Not the Only Fruit), this savory book will keep a smirk of pleasure smeared across your face at every pithy dialogue, sharp observation, and lyrical turn of phrase.

Succulent, charming, and sexy, Three is a book you’ll want to come back to.

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