Lars T Lih has performed a valuable service by debunking the hagiographic fable that Lenin went hiking in the Swiss Alps with a copy of Hegel’s Logic after the outbreak of World War I, and came down the mountain armed with a new understanding of Marxism, radically different from that of the Second International. In opposing the war, Lenin clearly thought he was upholding the International’s anti-war declarations, which had been betrayed by most of the organisation’s leaders, including - most treacherously - Karl Kautsky.
By stressing the continuity between Lenin and the pre-1914 Kautsky, however, Lih neglects the discontinuity in Kautsky’s own thinking. It is true, as Lih points out, that in his most radical work, The road to power (1909), Kautsky takes a revolutionary position that greatly influenced Lenin. In opposition to the SPD right wing, who viewed imperialism and militarism as a set of mistaken and reversible government policies, inimical to the true interests of the majority of ruling classes, Kautsky argues that the grab for colonies, along with a growing arms race, were integral to the advanced capitalism of the early 20th century. These policies would inevitably exacerbate tensions among rival imperialist powers, provoke anti-colonial revolts and sharpen class antagonisms in Europe. The answer to imperialism and the looming threat of war, he wrote, is not disarmament treaties and protocols among imperialist powers, but proletarian revolution.
The leading theoretician of the Second International did not, however, continue to uphold these views until the eve of World War I. I am part of the Revolutions Study Group at the Brecht Forum in New York City, which has been carrying on an in-depth study of European socialism. One of the works we are reading, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 by Karl Schorske, shows that Kautsky began backtracking on his revolutionary views shortly after putting them in print. Beginning in 1910, Kautsky tended to regard his principal adversary within the SPD not as the Bernsteinian ‘revisionists’ against whom he had previously taken up the cudgels, but the party’s far left, headed by Rosa Luxemburg. By 1912 he had “abandoned his earlier position that the arms race was the inevitable accompaniment of imperialism. He no longer viewed the ‘physical force’ aspects of imperialism as of its essence” (p245). Militarism had now become the policy of small capitalist cliques instead of the tendency of capitalist classes as a whole. “The imperialist interest of Britain and Germany could … be better served by an agreement between them, in which other western European nations would have to join” (ibid.) Kautsky now advocated “exploiting the ‘pacific tendencies’ which he felt to be inherent to imperialism” (ibid p246).
Kautsky had, in other words, fully two years before the outbreak of the war, embraced the liberal view of imperialism, against which he had polemicised in 1909. If Lenin was not fully aware of Kautsky’s rightward drift, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and others who would eventually form the core of the Spartakusbund certainly were.
The SPD’s Luxemburgist left and its Kautskyite centre again joined forces in 1913 to oppose the military appropriations for which the party’s deputies had voted in the Reichstag. But the differences that divided the two groupings were to persist throughout the war: the centre continued to regard the conflagration as the result of a series of mistakes that could be rectified by pacifist propaganda and international diplomacy. The left - both of the SPD and among anti-war socialists of all countries - contended that peace could only be achieved by the overthrow of belligerent governments. It was to draw a bright line between these two tendencies that Lenin raised the slogan of ‘revolutionary defeatism’, arguing that the first duty of anti-war socialists was to work for the overthrow of their own bourgeoisie.
May the Lord bestow his blessings on the saintly Mark Fischer for such a sensible and ecumenical piece on religion and party membership posted on the CPGB website (‘Faith and communists’: www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/religous-communists). Having been brought up as a staunch, austere Catholic, I can say that, as a Marxist, I shall be eternally grateful to the Holy Mother Church for her teaching and discipline. I recommend it highly.
All that stuff about a life led in the service of others, the casting aside of worldly things, the ethical life being the only life, of suffering and humiliation being good for the soul, virtue being its own reward, etc prepares one ideally for the rigours, privations and sacrifices of life as a revolutionary. I often feel, in a mysterious way, that I have led a life inspired by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the soldier-priest and founder of the Jesuits, the vanguard party of Catholicism.
Marx made no systematic critique of religion, since he considered that German classical philosophy had pretty much pulverised it into nothing and that there was not much more he could usefully add. But the issue has gained some contemporary relevance with the emergence of a nasty, strutting, god-knocking New Atheism, that is fashionable among people who affect a radical stance, but have no radical commitment, and are at root quite reactionary. It was kicked off by Christopher Hitchens’ book on Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an enjoyable, if a little predictable, hatchet job - though not half as funny or effective as Monty Python’s devastating Life of Brian - still, after 35 years, the Gloria in excelsis of atheism.
The events of 9/11, and the war ideology it fostered, turned god-knocking into a secular credo at the service of Nato. In 2004 Sam Harris published The end of faith: religion, terror and the future of reason, an open attack on Islam as the evil responsible for everything that is bad in the world. Hitchens followed with God is not great: how religion poisons everything, a superficial and repetitive ‘knocking copy’, also aimed at Islam, though less openly.
But the high priest of the New Atheism is, of course, Richard Dawkins, author of The god delusion. Unlike Hitchens and Sam Harris, both vulgar and opportunist polemicists, Dawkins is a serious and committed thinker. Brought up in an intellectually pressured environment, but one largely devoid of social contact, he was equipped to make a significant contribution to genetics, but it prevented him from understanding religion. His atheism is as correct as it is pointless.
Nothing can make him realise that, however much he continues to bang on about it in numerous articles and TV appearances, however many books he publishes proving that it’s all made-up baloney, people who believe in god will continue to do so because they get something out of it. Indeed, he has lately become quite a tiresome windbag on the issue of god’s non-existence.
Marx’s approach was very different. Very much the product of enlightenment humanism - his pet phrase was “nothing human is alien to me” - Marx searched for the rational and human content of alienated and irrational beliefs. Religion is the soul of a soulless world. Marxists are therefore philosophical materialists, not militant atheists. Picking a fight with god is a waste of time.
Poor Dawkins, he can’t be happy man. I saw him the other day, walking hurriedly along Wigmore Street, wrapped up in his thoughts and arguing with himself, oblivious to his surroundings.
And so endeth the lesson.
I disagree quite strongly with Peter Manson’s characterisation of ‘No2EU, Yes to Workers’ Rights’ as “left nationalist” (‘Back into our shells?’, April 10). This is part of an increasingly tiresome characterisation of the Communist Party of Britain and the editorial position of the Morning Star. While there are some individuals who may be described as “left nationalist”, they are unfortunate, but are small in number.
Peter tries to pray in aid the late Bob Crow, but I recall Bob being interviewed on the Sunday Politics by Andrew Neil just a few short weeks before his shocking and tragic death, stating very clearly and very sharply he was certainly anti-European Union, but very much pro-European and pro the working peoples of Europe.
In the wake of the two Farage-Clegg television debates, with those two appalling characters, the need for an independent working class politics which is anti-EU, but internationalist and socialist, has become desperately obvious. I see No2EU as very much an important and refreshing initiative to develop precisely such an independent working class politics and an independent working class intervention in the European elections. I was pleased the name has become more explicitly oriented to the labour movement, instead of the rather abstract concept of ‘democracy’.
The institutions and rules which comprise the European Union are about the organisation of one of the three major world centres of capitalism, indeed imperialism. The central question must surely be whether, as part of our struggle against capitalism across the continent of Europe, we seek the overthrow and destruction of the institutions and rules of the EU, or their reformation and democratisation.
I agree that those who advocate the abolition of the EU have a duty to set out an alternative approach to working class and institutional unity across Europe. As Lenin once said, “From their daily experience the masses know perfectly well the value of geographical and economic ties, and the advantages of a big market and a big state” (‘The right of nations to self-determination’). I personally think the Party of the European Left is playing an increasingly important and effective role in developing such a compelling and attractive alternative vision, and it is interesting many of its component parties are increasingly seeing the EU as irreformable.
We cannot just wish nationalism away or advocate a nationality-less internationalism. The Leninist approach was to struggle with nationalism, if possible to replace nationalism with internationalism - or at least to strengthen nationalism’s democratic and progressive manifestations and to weaken its reactionary side. It is unlikely there are many positive aspects to the nationalism of an imperialist country, but we do need to positively engage with the grip it exercises over large sections of the working and middle classes.
Advocating socialism for one’s own country does not necessarily represent a narrow, go-it-alone left nationalism. In fact, making socialist revolution at home is the biggest contribution to internationalism a working class movement can make.
I have heard both Robert Griffiths and John Foster argue in public that radical social change in Britain is most unlikely to be isolated from similar and widespread upheavals across Europe. But clearly socialists and communists have a duty to describe how we will settle accounts with our own capitalist class, irrespective of what happens elsewhere.
I hope that as many partisans of the working class as possible lend the fullest possible support for No2EU, to salute the outstanding contribution of the late great Bob Crow and, just as importantly, to help develop an independent working class politics which is anti-EU, but pro-Europe, pro the working peoples of Europe, and for their greatest possible unity in purpose and action.
Firstly, if I recollect correctly, nobody in this exchange about immigration has tried to deny that supply and demand has an effect on the price of labour - which is a commodity, after all, to be bought and sold on the market.
Stephen Diamond (Letters, April 10) refers to Peter Turchin, who gives us a history lesson, in that the Black Death killed half of the population and consequently real wages tripled. Turchin also refers to high birth rates in the past as an additional cause of an increase in labour supply. Surely Stephen Diamond is not suggesting enforced eugenics as a means of protecting our living standards.
Likewise I previously mentioned in passing that the entry of women into the labour market lowered wages. In the US the demands for job equality of African Americans also had its own effect in slowing down wages. Should the labour movement have supported discrimination on the grounds of sex and race? Or shall we allot blame to those older workers who insist upon staying in their jobs, while youth unemployment soars? After all, young people do not possess the sort of savings, paid-off mortgage or upcoming pension that the elderly allegedly enjoy, do they? Let’s be ageist in our search for scapegoats.
It is often pointed out that immigration rules are largely in the interests of businesses - they let in workers from low-wage countries so they can be more easily exploited and used to drive down the wage levels of the locals. But we must realise that the only way to change this would be through a powerful working class movement which had the ability to force change upon the government. And if this were the case, then it could also force change on the concrete material issues which migration impacts on (low wages, less jobs to go around, lack of affordable housing) - and, of course, a united working class is much more effective at fighting for its own interests, as opposed to one divided along national/racial/citizenship lines. So we are more likely to actually achieve something by being internationalist in regards to immigration.
The reasonable-sounding position that ‘There’s not enough to go around for everyone, so what we have should be kept solely for those first here’ is totally antithetical to a socialist perspective. A truly working class perspective leads us to resent not each other, but what causes the shortages of resources in the first place.
Migration, for sure, generates a lot of problems, but what is the alternative? Any attempt to simply curtail it leads to a lot of suffering and plenty of draconian policies. From a working class perspective, workers from another country are not qualitatively different from workers from another gender, younger workers or workers from a different area of the same country. We are socialists for one reason only - to remove the root cause of our social problems: capitalism. The solution doesn’t lie in withdrawing into these sectional interests of (simplistically put) ‘First here, first served’.
Socialist Party of Great Britain
As a community member of Unite, I would like to comment on Public and Commersial Services Union militant Dave Vincent’s article in last week’s paper (‘Questions for Serwotka’, April 10).
First, Dave is incorrect. Len McCluskey was never a member of the Militant Tendency, “leading” or otherwise. However, between 1983 and 1987, Len did fully support the building of 5,500 council houses, six sports centres and two new parks by Liverpool City Council, when he was a Transport and General Workers Union full-time official with the responsibility for Liverpool dockworkers.
Second, a merger of the PCS and Unite would probably lead to the merger of the broad left groupings - currently Left Unity in the PCS and the United Left in Unite. This would be a very good thing if it led to a more open broad left in the merged union. As a member of Unite, I have tried on six occasions, via email, to join the United Left without success. All I can conclude is that the United Left is a secret self-perpetuating clique in support of the Unite bureaucracy.
Third, a merger of the PCS and Unite would put community members of Unite, some of whom are claimants of job seekers allowance and employment and support allowance, in the same union as people who work in job centres. This would be a good thing if it led to the merged union leading a campaign against the department for work and pension’s targets placed on job centres for sanctions against benefit claimants - one million of whom in the last year, according to Michael Meacher MP, have had their benefits stopped and then referred by job centres to food banks.
Fourth, a merged union would be better able to publicise the petty nature of the sanctions regime in job centres. For example, some claimants have had their benefits stopped for being five minutes late for an appointment. There is the famous case of a blind lady having her benefit stopped after she turned down a job as a window cleaner. Another example, as reported in April’s edition of Socialist Appeal: ex-offender job seekers in the north-east are having their benefit stopped for not turning up for non-existent appointments which job centre staff have made up.
Fifth, an article in The Independent (March 9) revealed that the PCS faces a pensions crisis, with an estimated £65.5 million combined deficit on two of its schemes. This is more than double the annual income of the PCS, which is £27.6 million. The pension deficit probably explains why the PCS bureaucracy is intent on such a rapid merger with Unite.
On balance, given the recent rapid development of the open Grass Roots Left in Unite, which has a vastly more democratic structure than the United Left, I would agree with Dave Vincent’s analysis that Marxists in both unions should oppose the proposed merger of the PCS with Unite.
A comrade has showed me a brief email he received following my election to Left Unity’s national council: “I have a question for Yassamine. Now that she has been elected to the LU national council, does she think that it is just because she’s a woman? And, as she’s against quotas, why did she stand? Doesn’t she feel patronised? Does she merit the position? Can you see how stupid this ideological thing is? I really hope so.”
First of all, I should clarify that I was not elected to the national council on the basis of the quota system. I secured the third largest number of votes in the first round and was therefore elected at that opening stage. So this was a vote for my politics, not my gender.
I am positive that the overwhelming majority of comrades who voted for me did so in solidarity with the politics I raised in my election statement, which also made explicit my support for the Communist Platform and its founding principles. I also hope they took into account my political experience in real revolutionary situations, both as a Marxist activist in Tehran and as fighter in Iranian Kurdistan. It could be that some comrades thought my work as a member of the coordinating committee of Left Unity Iran might also be of some benefit to the new party. Many comrades will be aware of the work I have done with others in the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign, which takes a principled position against both imperialist aggression and the clerical regime.
In addition, I have written extensively for the academic journal of socialist theory Critique as well for the Weekly Worker, and these contributions have been widely circulated and commented on. So, while I cannot speak for every voter, I am reasonably confident that no-one voted for me solely on the basis of my gender.
Indeed, it is patronising to simply jump to the assumption that any woman who is elected - despite her experiences in the struggle internationally and the positions she advocates on contemporary issues - must, simply by dint of her sex, have been a beneficiary of a (formal or informal) quota system.
A crucial and fiercely fought strike is taking place in South Africa now. Some 80,000 platinum miners are striking against the brutal mining multinationals and the government that backs them.
The strike is at a critical point. Workers have been on strike for three months. The biggest platinum conglomerates, the Chamber of Mines, and the state are united in their determination to crush the demand for a living wage of R12,500 a month (£175 a week). A victory for the mineworkers has huge possibilities for transforming the position of workers in all sectors of the economy. The strikers have stood against intimidation, arrests, financial hardship and the threat to their jobs. They are battling heroically.
On Thursday April 24 Anglo American, the chief representative of the rapacious employers, is holding its AGM in London. We want to be there supporting the miners.
There is another protest planned by Actsa (Action on Southern Africa) at the same time, raising Anglo American’s treatment of its ex-miners with silicosis. Thousands of former gold miners are suffering from silicosis, without the compensation, testing and care they need. The protest will call on Anglo American and all the companies that made their fortunes from apartheid gold to pay up now. Obviously we support the Actsa protest, but we also want to raise the strike.
South Africa is at the centre of some of the most important battles by the world’s working class. Please come on the protest if you can. Assemble at 1pm outside the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, Broad Sanctuary, London SW1.