Book reviews, etc.

Some of these items take the form of reviews of books. Some might not. Hence the "etc."


The Contradictions of "Real Socialism"

Front cover of The Contradictions of Real Socialism

The Contradictions of "Real Socialism": the conductor and the conducted, Michael A. Lebowitz, 2012, Monthly Review Press, ISBN 978-1-58367-256-3 (paperback), ‹› .

The leaders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, 1922-1991) used the terms "real socialism" and "actually existing socialism" to "distinguish their real experience from merely theoretical socialist ideas." (page 7) Lebowitz asks how that system actually functioned, how it reproduced itself, and why it "yield[ed] to capitalism without resistance from the working classes who were presumably its beneficiaries".(p. 7)

Interesting questions. Especially to those of us who want to construct a more humane system than the capitalism that defeated the USSR.

Lebowitz offers interesting answers. First, he discusses (in chapter 1, especially pages 33-36) the method he thinks we should use to examine such questions. He describes this method as Marx's dialectical approach. I don't claim sufficient expertise in Marxism to evaluate how well his method matches Marx's. But it at least relies upon facts and repeatedly raises illuminating questions. I count those as two good things in an analytical method.

He begins his analysis (on page 36) by focussing on "an obvious surface phenomenon -- chronic shortage." What effects resulted from constant shortages of consumer goods and inputs for producers? How did individuals and institutions cope with shortages? What results did those coping mechanisms have?

Writing in a highly fluid (though sometimes a bit repetitive) style and with an intense focus on particulars from which he abstracts to generalities, Lebowitz repeatedly iterates through the steps of his analytical cycle: Notice a particular fact. Examine its implications. Generalize from them. Encounter a contradiction. Take that as a particular and repeat the process.

SPOILER ALERT: If you want to experience the suspense of following his examinations, skip the rest of this mini-review.

With fascinating examples and clever arguments full of many valuable points beyond the scope of this mini-review, Lebowitz concludes that the Soviet system created internal dynamics that resulted in two fatal flaws. Those dynamics concealed necessary information from the central planners. They also created a working class accustomed to passivity and alienated from the system that supposedly served it.

What aspect of the system caused these undesirable results? Lebowitz blames what he calls "vanguardism", the mistake of creating a party to act on behalf of the working class instead of invigorating workers to act on their own joint initiatives and in their own shared interests.

Lebowitz does not drop this conclusion on us from the sky. He leads us to it step by step through his careful Marxist analysis. Many others, anarchists in particular, have come to a similar conclusion by other routes.

At the end of the book, Lebowitz remains solidly Marxist. Mildly statist also, at least for a transition period. He eloquently, vividly, and thoroughly nails the coffin lid on vanguardism, however, for which Marxists and anarchists both should thank him.

He ends the book with a call for a "society of associated conductors" instead of one conductor (the vanguard party) and many conducteds:

Vanguard Marxism comes in different varieties. There are those in power for whom it serves as theoretical justification of their position. There are also those far from power who accept the theory but whose main criticism of Real Socialism has been that it was the wrong vanguard in power. The latter group may be critical of the lack of workplace democracy and the evils of an ill-defined "bureaucracy," but as long as they embrace the theory of a conductor without whom the music of the future will never be realized they do not offer a real alternative. As long as their politics do not make the "key link" central to both theory and practice, that is, as long as they do not understand the importance of the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change, it is all more of the same.

In practice, it is essential to build those institutions through which people are able to develop their capacities and make themselves fit to create a new world. But there is a theoretical condition as well. A philosophy of praxis, a philosophy of freedom, a political economy that expresses the logic of the working class -- these are the characteristics of a Marxism that can be a weapon for the associated conductors. (page 188)

How to do that remains for us to discover, presumably by trying whatever looks best to us, just as did those who fell into the error of vanguardism and didn't get out of it in time. A careful understanding of this book, however, should help prevent repeating that mistake.

-- Russell Herman, 26 March 2014

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A New New Deal

Front cover of A New New Deal

A New New Deal: how regional activism will reshape the American labor movement, Amy B. Dean and David B. Reynolds, 2009, Cornell University Press, ISBN 978-0-8014-4838-6, ‹› .

Contrary to the book's misleading main title (which suggests that it focuses on federal policy), the book urges labor unions in the United States to convene and lead broad coalitions to build local power in regions centered on cities.

Using case studies of several such regional powerbuilding efforts, the authors advocate for a model that stands on three legs: "deep coalitions, policy work, and aggressive political action." (page 10)

These broad, deep coalitions seek to link all oppressed constituencies "to establish long-standing connections rooted in a common effort to build governing capacity over time." (p.11) These coalitions require willingness to support each other's goals and even sometimes to "put the concerns of other coalition partners first in the interest of the coalition as a while." (p.11)

The policy work gets focused through "think-and-act tanks" that do research, develop policy goals, and monitor government agencies. "These organizations develop and propagate a broad vision of what's wrong and what to do about it." (p.11) They do so "in constant interaction with the grassroots labor and community organizations these policies are intended to serve --and whose action is necessary to implement them." (p.12) They also foster the coalitions.

"[P]olitical power building involves far more than just endorsing candidates and getting out the vote. It involves educating candidates about the labor movement and the needs and goals of working people." (p.13) It also means recruiting and training champions to support the people's agenda. It means getting these champions appointed to governmental positions and elected to offices. Then it means supporting them in implementing the agreed-upon people's agenda.

Though several localities across the country have implemented approximations of this regional powerbuilding strategy, it requires a significant shift from the focus that many unions have on solely serving their current members. That shift, however, offers the chance to build a broad-based movement that can gain sufficient power to serve all their members and the whole local working class better than any organization could serve their members in isolation.

The authors focus exclusively on the United States. Their analysis appears to ignore the global economy. Given that they seem to write primarily for current leaders of U.S. unions, they may have chosen that focus wisely. Their analysis and rhetoric will generally seem acceptable to many mainstream union leaders in this country.

Acceptability, however, does not guarantee correctness. This book's analysis needs the broader (and somewhat deeper) insights available from, for example, Solidarity Divided. Solidarity Divided, on the other hand, needs the very practical advice offered by A New New Deal on how to build serious local power. At least one local powerbuilding project in the United States reports that they have based their work on a study of both books.

Union and allied activists will benefit from reading and discussing this book. We will also gain strength from implementing many of its recommendations.

If you need to participate in a discussion of this book before you have read it,
this PDF opens in new window, 127kbcheatsheet offers a ten-page ultra-condensation of the book.

-- Russell Herman, 30 July 2011

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Gene Sharp on nonviolent action

Front cover of Waging Nonviolent Struggle


Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential, Gene Sharp, 2005, 598 pages, ISBN 978-0-87558-162-0.



Front cover of Power and Struggle


Power and Struggle, Part One (pages 1-105) of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp, 1973, ISBN 978-0-87558-070-8.



Front cover of The Methods of Nonviolent Action


The Methods of Nonviolent Action, Part Two (pages 109-445) of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp, 1973, ISBN 978-0-87558-071-5.



Front cover of The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action


The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action, Part Three (pages 449-902) of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp, 1973, ISBN 0-87558-072-6.




All four books published by Extending Horizons Books ‹›, an imprint of Porter Sargent Publishers, Inc.

Some people describe those of us who advocate nonviolent action as naive dreamers unconnected to the gritty real world. Gene Sharp's books with their pragmatic focus based on actual real-world examples show some of us don't deserve that naive label.

Some advocates of nonviolence, however, dislike Sharp's pragmatism. Some of those motivated by religious beliefs fail to understand that other motives can sustain nonviolent discipline. Gandhi and King, though they both had long-term allies who did not share their religious motives, sometimes wrote as if they thought only religion could reliably motivate nonviolence. Those who think that underestimate their fellow humans, as many of Sharp's historical examples demonstrate.

A quote from the preface to Waging Nonviolent Struggle (page 5) illustrates Sharp's real-world focus:

My understanding of the requirements for effective anti-dictatorship struggles arose not only from anti-Nazi resistance movements, but also from meeting with Burmese opposition groups on the Thai-Burmese border areas and in Thailand in the 1990s. I met with Panamanian democrats protesting against Noriega in 1987. I met with students and opposition leaders in Beijing in parts of May and June 1989, and was in Tiananmen Square as the troops first entered. I also met with ministers of the independence-minded governments of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as they were struggling to secede from the Soviet Union in 1991. Brutal political reality can focus the mind on the difficulties of applying nonviolent struggle against extreme dictatorships.

One thing that is clear from these experiences is that nonviolent struggle has operated in situations of much violence and often in struggles where at least some of the nonviolent resisters had great faith in the power and necessity of violence, although they still chose and effectively used nonviolent struggle.

It is also clear that nonviolent struggle is an important part of political reality. It has often been belittled or ignored by persons, movements, or governments that "know" that the "real" power derives from violence. However, nonviolent struggle is another very powerful form of force.

Waging Nonviolent Struggle, Sharp's newer compendium, appeared in 2005. It revisits some examples from the 1973 volumes. It also adds major new sections on strategic planning for nonviolent struggle.

In what order should a beginner read them? First, get all four books, flip through them to see what awaits you, and skim any bits that particularly catch your interest. Read Power and Struggle (part one of the 1973 trilogy), then Waging Nonviolent Struggle, then parts two and three of the trilogy (skimming some of the numerous examples from history and topics well covered by Waging Nonviolent Struggle).

Why read part one of the 1973 trilogy first? Because in its first half (just under 50 pages), it comprehensively explains the source of political power -- not just the source of the power of nonviolent action, but the source of all political power.

Political power comes from cooperation. Rulers can seek to gain willing cooperation or to compel unwilling cooperation, but if they don't get sufficient cooperation of some form they don't rule. People can choose whether to cooperate or not. They can withdraw their cooperation from oppressors and cooperate instead with formations that suit them better. With appropriate organizing, they can sustain those choices in spite of severe attempts to repress them. They can also often win.

The quick-reading 100 pages of Part One of the 1973 trilogy states that fundamental principle of nonviolent action clearly and directly. The hundreds of pages in the other volumes give us careful details on how to implement that principle, illustrated by numerous examples from history.

The more of us who learn and use these techniques, the more we can cooperate to create our own examples and make our own history.

-- Russell Herman, 17 May 2011

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Doing Democracy

Front cover of Doing Democracy

Doing Democracy: the MAP model for organizing social movements, Bill Moyer, JoAnn McAlllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, 2001, New Society Publishers, ISBN 9780865714182, ‹› .

A basic manual for those of us working to guide society. Get it, read it, use it, tell other organizers about it.

This book presents the Movement Action Plan (MAP), a model for how people-power movements succeed in creating social change.

It outlines the four roles (preferred ways of working for social change) of activists. It sketches how activists serve in each role effectively and ineffectively (sometimes even counterproductively). It explains the tensions among people who prefer different roles. It demonstrates why successful movements welcome all four roles when done effectively. It points out that some organizations and individuals specialize in specific roles but the movement as a whole needs all four.

Even if this book only explained this dynamic around the four roles of activists, it would serve us well. If all of us understood this dynamic, our coalitions and movements would function much better.

But the strategic insights keep coming.

According to MAP, movements must win public opinion three times:

Movements win the public to these three views at different times as they develop through the eight stages of movement success. The tasks the movement must focus on vary from stage to stage (as do the tactics the powerholders will tend to use in opposing our movements). Accordingly, different activist roles have different degrees of prominence in the different stages.

This book offers a model. Its model simplifies matters by omitting many real-world complexities. As do all useful models. That simplification makes models useful because it helps us think about the overall structure of complex processes. As long as we use models to help us think about the real world and not attempt to follow them unthinkingly, they can serve us well.

Understanding the MAP model of social change can help organizers understand where we've gotten to in the process, why we have the particular opportunities and problems we have at this stage, and what we need to do to move forward.

Doing Democracy explains the MAP model in the first half of the book. The second half illustrates the model by applying it to five movements in the United States: civil rights, anti-nuclear energy, gay and lesbian rights, breast cancer, and anti-globalization. Organizers leading all sectors of our broad movement will find this book helpful.

-- Russell Herman, 15 May 2011

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Solidarity Divided

Front cover of Solidarity Divided

Solidarity Divided: the crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, 2008, University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-25525-8, ‹› .

The authors briefly sketch the history of trade unions in the United States and then use a detailed examination of the Change to Win (CTW) split from the AFL-CIO in 2005 to diagnose the current difficulties of organized labor in this country and offer their prescriptions of what to do about them.

The authors' diagnosis: U.S. unions took a wrong course when they adopted Gomperism (a form of business unionism that emphasizes service to members within an acceptance of capitalism and support for the international policies of the U.S. government).

Their prescription: U.S. unions must convert to social justice unionism. Unions must see themselves as part of an international social justice movement that serves the interests of the worldwide working class. They should organize multi-constituency blocs to take power in cities rather than just organize workplaces or industries. Central Labor Councils offer a prime vehicle for building social justice unionism.

This book deserves widespread discussion. Fortunately, recent experience shows that many union activists and non-union social justice activists find its topics quite interesting. Given a convenient opportunity, they gladly engage in lively discussions with each other over this book.

In late 2010 and early 2011, I led two six-session discussion groups on this book. If you would like to lead discussion of this book, this PDF opens in new window,106kbset of questions (requires Adobe Acrobat. For free download of Adobe Acrobat, visit Adobe.) includes many of the ones I used to prompt discussion in our groups.

If you need to participate in a discussion of this book before you have read it,
this PDF opens in new window,111kbcheatsheet offers a nine-page ultra-condensation of the book.

-- Russell Herman, 4 April 2011

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