Notes on Pham Binh’s Resignation

by John Halle on August 28, 2013

A week or so ago, I posted to Facebook Chomsky’s admittedly rather incendiary remark that “Lenin and Trotsky were the worst enemies of socialism in the 20th century” accompanying it with the question of how many of those who cite Chomsky approvingly in other contexts are ready to endorse his views on this matter.

1917 today, 1917 tomorrow, 1917 forever!

The responses probably should have been predictable with the usual battle lines between Chomskyan anarcho/libertarian socialists and Leninite/Trotskyite democratic centralists on the other re-establishing themselves with remarkable speed and vehemence.

This was not a problem. Debate on the underlying questions is more necessary now than it has ever been. Rather what was a problem, for me, was the tone and substance of two of the responses.

The first, from a well known Marxist economist, was to attack me for raising the question in the first place.The second was from an ISO member who characterized Chomsky’s view of Lenin as “on the right of international Marxism” as “embarrassing”, “ridiculous” and “absurd”.   When I responded that while Chomsky may be wrong, it is generally a mistake to describe Chomsky’s views in these terms, this was claimed as indicative of “my reasoning skills” having “malfunctioned”.

I bring this up in connection with the Pham Binh’s announcement that he is leaving the North Star to, in his words, “take care of long-neglected problems and people in my personal life.”

I have never met Binh in person, our exchanges limited to on-line interactions, my knowledge of his political perspective derived from reading his various postings to North Star and elsewhere. Based on these I can state with some certainty that while he may very well have disagreed with Chomsky he would neither have regarded the question as inappropriate, nor would he have ridiculed those who weighed in on either side.

In fact, what the North Star was set up to do was to allow for frank and serious discussions between sectors of the left which, as the exchange above made clear, remain at odds and unable to work together with the hope that some kind of organized, effective united front could emerge from these efforts.

I should say that as I regard myself on the anarcho-libertarian side of most of these questions, I often found myself a bit alienated from some of the discussion at North Star. This was particularly the case when angels-dancing-on-pins matters of Marxian theory such as the Falling Rate of Profit were passionately debated, engagement and interest seeming to be taken as an article of faith by all sides.  I’m with Doug Henwood on this. It gives me a headache.  Another problem for me was the focus on the minutiae of foreign policy with a view toward determining which side or sect in various conflict zones should be supported and what “support” means.  While I recognize the roots of these debates in the long and to a large extent noble tradition of left internationalism, my position, essentially that of Jean Bricmont, is to be more or less unconditionally suspicious of military intervention, particularly on “humanitarian” grounds, so my general tendency was to pass these, and their hundred column inch comment threads, over.  I’ll also mention here my  discomfort with the gender imbalance among contributors and commentators which became increasingly conspicuous and problematic.

All that aside, what I found healthy about the North Star was the willingness of many of the participants to engage in self-criticism based on an openness to the likelihood that some of the dysfunctionality of the left is self-imposed-a continuing legacy of strategic and tactical mistakes and faulty assumptions rooted in the past.

These still haunt us and prevent us from doing what is necessary to build a movement. And while we don’t know what they are-what should be maintained and what should be jettisoned- we should know by now that averting our eyes to the problem doesn’t do anyone any good.In particular, what Binh was able to recognize was that the success of OWS was intrinsically linked to its having adopted precisely those aspects of bottom up organizing which adherents of democratic centralism have long repudiated.  Binh was one of the few from the neo-Marxist left who was open to discussion along these lines, the normal mode to respond with either incomprehension, or more commonly, greater or lesser hostility.

That said, those of us who, like myself, were from the beginning predisposed to be sympathetic to the prefigurative, anti-authoritarian organizing model of OWS also had to own up to its eventual failure which was itself intrinsically linked to fundamental philosophical assumptions, namely, its failure to devise an infrastructure which would have allowed it to withstand the massive and eminently predictable assault on it by the state in its traditional role as a militarized servant of capital.

What this means is that it is time for all of us to begin to ask questions and North Star seemed to be emerging as a forum where non-dogmatic and healthy discussion of the sort which is necessary could take place.  If this takes off, as it still might, Binh’s role will be seen as having been seminal.

Binh’s valedictory posting included a typically great line: “Different forces and individuals on the left have used my role here as an excuse to avoid engaging The North Star, its arguments, its activists, its writers, and its readers. That will no longer fly, and so new cop-outs will be necessary.”

Let’s hope that whoever is taking over will find themselves as able as Binh (and previously Ben Campbell) in charting the course which they set for the site.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

José M. Tirado August 28, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Well said!

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Chris Lowe August 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Thanks for this, for appreciating Binh’s role, and for appreciating and participating in self-criticism.

I look forward to seeing how NS emerges after September.

A big question for me is whether NS can be nimble enough to avoid having sectarians at the micro scale or what I’m going to call “sectoral sectarians” at the larger scale (anarcho-libertarian socialists & left communists, democratic socialist/social democratic socialists, Marxist-Leninists of different sorts) box NS in as yet another sectoral sectarian space. (That’s one reason I’m skeptical of any quick move to try to create an electoral vehicle as was recently suggested.)

Good luck.

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Charles August 28, 2013 at 7:57 pm

“That said, those of us who, like myself, were from the beginning predisposed to be sympathetic to the prefigurative, anti-authoritarian organizing model of OWS also had to own up to its eventual failure which was itself intrinsically linked to fundamental philosophical assumptions, namely, its failure to devise an infrastructure which would have allowed itself to withstand the massive and eminently predictable assault on it by the state in its traditional role as a militarized servant of capital.”

Well you’ve earned my respect. I haven’t met any OWS anarcho-superstars willing to admit as much. It’s the sort of realization that could actually lead to productive outcomes.

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