Thorny questions

In his review of Clara Zetkin: national and international contexts, Ben Lewis raises some important questions and makes a welcome commitment to begin the vital task of translating the central writings of Clara Zetkin (‘Preached principle, promoted unity’, April 24).

One of his central aims seems to be the illustration of Zetkin’s anti-feminism and her polemics against the bourgeois women’s movement. While this is all true, it gives a far too one-sided view of her struggle. It has been shown by numerous historians (and from her own writings) that Zetkin, like Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand and all other communist advocates of women’s liberation, faced a struggle on two fronts. They all fought just as strenuous a battle within their own parties for immediate demands, organisation, education and promotion of women and against persistent sexist and derogatory attitudes. Their struggle to win women to Marxism was consistently undermined by lack of support, inactivity and even blatant opposition from their own parties.

Zetkin was confronted by a specific problem in the early 1900s because of reluctance among the Social Democratic Party of Germany leadership to back a campaign for the equal right to vote. Opponents argued that women were not ready for this, as they were politically backward and likely to vote for rightwing parties. They could not be trusted. It was an impossible situation for Zetkin and her allies. How could she win women who were becoming politically aware to a party which did not advocate this demand? With the tenacious spirit described in the review, she used all efforts to win the argument, including her editorship of Die Gleicheit, the SPD’s women’s journal. In 1907 she secured a commitment from all parties of the Second International to include a call for universal suffrage in party programmes and materials.

Zetkin was a major influence on Kollontai and Armand also because of her advocacy of special women’s departments within the party. Comrade Lewis refers to the 1920 Guidelines for the communist women’s movement, which included the requirement that a party ‘create special institutions’ to recruit, organise and educate women. She headed such a section in the SPD and edited Die Gleicheit from 1892. Under Zetkin’s influence and with her encouragement, Kollontai fought in vain for a similar body within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party from 1905. It was only in the aftermath of the revolution in 1919 that the Zhenotdel was set up - and then only after a mass conference of women had started the process themselves.

So, while Zetkin advocated unity in the class struggle, she also demanded separate organisation within the party - with permanent representation on the central committee. She believed that the party needed to take special measures in promoting women. She was a co-founder of a separate women’s international - the International Socialist Women’s Congress - which first met in 1907. Later she, Kollontai and others formed the Communist Women’s Section within Comintern.

Finally, it is important to state that her politics on other questions was not divorced from her work on the woman question, as the reviewer seems to suggest. Under her editorship, Die Gleicheit placed itself at the heart of the left in the SDP and was a vociferous opponent of revisionism and social-imperialism. The meetings of the International Socialist Women’s Congress from 1913 were scenes of fiery debates on war.

Delving back into Zetkin’s work will provide much fascinating material - but it is only of real value if we tackle the many thorny questions that she and others faced. The history of the communist women’s liberation movement is a very challenging one.

Anne McShane


It is particularly disconcerting to find some on the left who stigmatise immigrants as the objective allies of capitalism and, as such, a threat to ‘indigenous’ workers, as Stephen Diamond does in his latest letter (April 24).

It is assumed that immigrant workers are immune to class conflict and incapable of class struggle. For sure, some because of their visa status are less able to resist oppression and are indeed more vulnerable to being blackmailed because of their illegality, but the majority of the immigrants are here perfectly lawfully and are exercising (to use Stephen’s own phrase) “equal treatment for citizens as a bourgeois-democratic right”. It is only when it is possible to prevent people from being played off against each other that immigrants cannot be used for wage-cutting or for worsening working conditions.

Nowhere has it been suggested that we should passively accept attacks on our pay and conditions. Nowhere has anyone condoned the use of scabs or strike-breakers. Instead, what has been pointed out from my very first letter is the necessity of organising via the trade unions by the working class themselves. A more successful strategy is not the one being proposed by Stephen of an entrenched ‘them and us’. Rather, we should be urging our unions to devote a lot more of their resources to recruitment, which is not based on a moralist stance, but one of mutual self-interest - the original motivation that brought workers together in unions in the first place. Nowhere has it been suggested that this will be quick and easy. Unfortunately, many trade unionists have never been able to think or act beyond the proposition that migrant workers belong to the country they have left and therefore do not belong where they work.

We should, however, be very wary of any tactic that appeals to the state to introduce legislation, which would not only be futile, but prove possibly counterproductive. Workers will perceive more chance of its success by voting for the UK Independence Party.

It is not disputed that a labour shortage does cause wages to rise and thus puts workers in a comparatively stronger bargaining position. Naturally, employers will always seek to counteract such a situation by importing often cheaper, more compliant workers, which in turn intensifies competition among workers, and by fermenting xenophobia amongst workers fighting over crumbs in low-waged, unskilled jobs - the temptation to blame your unemployment or low wage level on foreign labour is strong. Nevertheless, the blame lies elsewhere and we all know where - in the bank balances of business, not in the pockets of some poor migrant seeking to eke out a living.

I cannot speak for the “open borderists [who] will never explain to workers why international revolution doesn’t entail the immediate levelling of wages”. But I will answer as a socialist who supports the abolition of the wages system and not its levelling. Marxian economics does not measure the level of exploitation by how high or low wages, are but by reference to the amount of surplus value produced, as compared with the amount of wages paid, whether high or low. By this measure the workers of the advanced countries are more exploited than those in less developed countries, despite their higher wages, because they produce more profits per worker.

But if I was pushed to take a position on levelling, it would be this one. In the week after the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, I demand that all workers of the world receive the immediate levelling of health and safety laws, the levelling of the value (and quality) of a person’s life. No-one is ‘relatively’ a lesser person than another.

Alan Johnstone
Socialist Party of Great Britain

Left vote

In the article largely about the local elections, Peter Manson writes: “... in the absence of a Labour anti-cuts candidate, then, of course, [small left groups’ candidates] too should be supported”. In respect of local elections, he might be forgiven for overlooking the SPGB standing in wards in Islington and Lambeth in London.

In respect of the Euro elections, the SPGB are standing 14 candidates in two regions: South East England and Wales. Not as many as the left-nationalist No2EU (46 candidates in 7 regions), but more than the other two parties mentioned, the Socialist Labour Party (four candidates in one region) and the Socialist Equality Party (eight candidates in one region) put together.

While unreciprocated support is often offered for Labour, unreciprocated support for the SPGB might demonstrate to workers how sincere calls for ‘unity’ from the left are (or are not), but the SPGB conception of ‘unity for socialism’ isn’t about yielding compromise.

I understand that “the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee has yet to make a decision”, but, as historic US socialist Eugene Debs once said, “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”

Jon D White

Sullied idea

In his letter of April 24, Susil Gupta says that using the term ‘Stalinism’ is wrong, as under Lenin or Trotsky the historical development of the Soviet Union would not have been any different from what generally happened under Stalin and his followers. He might be right, but the problem is that the Stalinists chose to designate the outcome of the proletarian revolution as ‘socialism’, even though it had taken place under circumstances most unfavourable to any kind of long-term proletarian rule, which would define ‘socialism’ in a Marxist sense.

This is what has sullied the idea of socialism within the international working class up to this day and will probably do so for quite some time to come. So, when Gupta claims there was no reason to talk about the “revolution betrayed”, he is wrong. Indeed, he is also wrong when he says that Trotsky and others had put all the blame on an individual like Stalin. It was, on the contrary, Trotsky who argued that Stalinism was a result of socioeconomic backwardness and the Soviet Union’s isolation caused by the failure of the international proletarian revolution, especially in the most developed countries.

However, one should not ignore the fact that under Stalin terrible crimes were committed, which do not automatically flow from the need to engage in what might be called ‘primitive accumulation of capital’. It was the crimes against certain national minorities that proved important in enabling Hitler’s armies to penetrate deep into the Soviet Union in the first part of World War II. The pro-German tide was reversed when these same nationalities came to realise that the Nazis were at least as brutal as Stalin’s forces.

This is one of those historical facts that cannot simply be explained by the level of the productive forces in the Soviet Union. Personality is a factor to be taken into consideration in any materialist view of history.

Anton Holberg


I should like to add one small point in connection with Eddie Ford’s excellent piece on Cameron’s ‘religious conversion’ (‘Cameron decides to do god’, April 24).

I am frequently infuriated by Christians who bleat about their religion being marginalised in British public life. While unelected senior office-holders in one Christian organisation in this country have the right, simply because of the post they have in that organisation, to vote in the country’s legislature, the idea that Christianity is being marginalised in Britain’s public life is preposterous: rather, it has institutionalised political privilege.

Under the CPGB’s Draft programme, of course, this profoundly undemocratic situation would cease with the abolition of the House of Lords.

Tim Reid


The best antidote to religion and other forms of superstition is involvement in the collective, democratic struggle for socialism itself. Of course, the party will obviously seek to free such comrades from their religious illusions. It is, however, primarily the unity that comes from revolutionary social practice, from the shared tasks and hardships of the struggle, that will do the job most effectively.

As long as it is expected that religious belief will/must vanish during party work or once socialism is established, religious or spiritual persons are still seen as second-class persons and not treated equally. We saw how in the socialist (or ‘socialist’) countries many people remained religious. You could say that, as that was not real socialism, this doesn’t mean anything - in real socialism, religion will disappear (and if not, we will violently remove it). On the other hand, we may begin to understand that a yearning for something higher than us, something eternal, may always be within many people, even in a classless society - Marx might have been wrong to see religion only as a product of class society.

Perhaps it was the lack of the spiritual dimension which made it so easy for many communists to kill comrades with whom they had worked together closely for decades; the lack of love ... because love is nothing ‘rational’. Someone who starts out loving all creatures, and also ends up hating the capitalists and all who are responsible for destroying creation, will fight them. But someone who only hates - and doesn’t fight because he loves mankind - will never achieve that. If we are not more friendly and helpful than those of other political persuasions - better human beings - then things will never work out and a new society, a new type of man, will never be reached.

The revolutionary of the future must be a spiritual one. Just as he works to change society, so he must change his inner self. Change in society will not automatically change anyone deep inside - but this is necessary for permanent success. So spirituality must be seen as part of the socialist struggle, not its superstitious and esoteric enemy.

So socialist/communist organisations must represent more than people coming together to fight capitalism. They must be the cells of the future society we are struggling to achieve - including by our own behaviour and the way we treat people. This has nothing to do with the illusion of creating a socialist island within capitalist society. But it means stressing that the behaviour of each one of us is much more important than any party programme: if you are an asshole, you won’t sell even the best party programme. But if you are honest and authentic, and people feel that they can trust you, they will forgive your political mistakes.

Che once talked about the “exemplary behaviour of each revolutionary”, but meant this only in the sense of the heroic guerrilla struggle. We must clarify what this exemplary behaviour would look like in our simple daily lives.

G√ľnter Meisinger

Victimised rep

More than 30 people showed up at a protest to support victimised trade union rep and Weekly Worker supporter Lee Rock at the beginning of his employment tribunal in Sheffield.

Lee is the most well known and experienced trade union activist in the local department for work and pensions (DWP) and was sacked for “unsatisfactory attendance” in February last year. In normal language: he was off sick for 11 days over the 12 previous months, hitting the so-called “consideration point” for disciplinary action. If nothing else, his tribunal shows the draconian methods and rules that are now being brought into ‘modern’ workplaces.

Amongst Lee’s supporters demonstrating outside the tribunal were not just fellow members of his Sheffield branch of the Public and Commercial Services union, but also PCS members from other parts of the country, members of other unions and a couple of Left Unity comrades.

Around 15 of them filed into the tribunal room to show their support for comrade Rock - to the obvious bemusement of the judge. And to the equally obvious bemusement of those on the public benches, the judge then went on to adjourn after five minutes, as he and the two panel members had not actually read the case file. This might sound astonishing - after all, what are these people being paid for? But normal practice is for these sorts of employment tribunals to be settled out of court - ie, the employer pays the sacked worker a certain sum to avoid the costs of hearing the case.

Not so in comrade Rock’s case. An initial (very low) offer of a financial settlement was withdrawn at the last minute. Clearly, this case has become something of a cause célèbre and his employer, the DWP, is hell-bent on setting an example.

As is stated on the national PCS website, “We are clear that Lee would not have been dismissed for his level of sickness if he was not a well-known rep. Our concerns are supported by the fact that his trade union activity was unnecessarily and inappropriately referred to in the recommendation for dismissal.”

Just after he was sacked, comrade Rock was banned from all DWP premises nationally, with no reason given. The report on the PCS website comments: “We have no knowledge of this having ever happened with another sickness-related dismissal.” Management also tried to prevent Lee from representing other union members, despite his pending tribunal - a clear breach of normal procedure. One PCS member who was denied representation by comrade Rock actually initiated her own employment tribunal on this precise matter - and won.

Comrade Rock’s case is scheduled to finish on May 1. Messages of support, sent to tina@cpgb.org.uk, will be passed on to comrade Rock.

Tina Becker

Hurt feelings

Ian Birchall is evidently upset at the brief critique of Tony Cliff’s theory of ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’ I included in my recent article (‘Throwing babies out with the bathwater’, April 17). He charges me with deliberately misrepresenting Cliff’s views, though the motive for any such misrepresentation appears obscure. It seems that my nefarious activity is in the service of promoting a rival theory that I believe has greater coherence, proved capable of analysing the phenomenon of Stalinism and anticipated with some real accuracy the means of its final overthrow and destruction.

What is strange about comrade Birchall’s letter is not his belief that I am mistaken, but the defensive tone of it. If I am wrong about Cliff, it would suffice to point out my errors with the relevant quotes and let Cliff speak for himself. It appears that comrade Birchall sees the issues raised by my critique as a matter of something akin to honour, not whether a particular understanding is right or wrong. This does suggest that comrade Birchall is not so confident of the correctness of Cliff’s theory.

Regarding the law of value, he quotes some statements from Cliff’s work that appear to show that he believed, contrary to my critique, that the law of value was primary in the ‘state capitalist’ USSR. For instance, Cliff’s assertion that “even if the form of activity of the law of value in the Russian economy is very complicated and full of deep, internal contradictions, the law of value is nevertheless the central decisive factor in the movement of the Russian economy”; and furthermore that “The law of value is thus seen to be the arbiter of the Russian economic structure as soon as it is seen in the concrete historical situation of today - the anarchic world market.”

The comrade seems to assert that a failure to take these statements at face value means an ignorance of Cliff’s views. But I am sure that comrade Birchall is aware that I am far from the only person to have drawn this conclusion from Cliff’s writings. Notwithstanding the reference to “the concrete historical situation of today” in Cliff’s main work, as quoted above, when he actually tries to elaborate how the law of value was manifested in the Soviet economy, Cliff’s reasoning often flatly contradicted these abstract statements.

Comrade Birchall himself quotes Cliff as saying that “if one examines the relations within the Russian economy, abstracting them from their relations with the world economy, one is bound to conclude that the source of the law of value, as the motor and regulator of production, is not to be found in it.” He links this with Cliff’s analogy that Russian state capitalism was like ‘one big factory’ that paid its workers in kind. For comrade Birchall, Cliff was here engaging in a mere hypothesis or abstraction in order to illustrate one side of an idea.

Even if this were granted for argument’s sake, however, when Cliff addresses the other side of this polarity it does not help comrade Birchall’s case. Comrade Birchall again quotes Cliff: “Hitherto Russia’s backwardness has ruled out any question of flooding foreign markets with Russian goods. On the other hand, Russian markets are kept from being flooded with foreign goods by the monopoly of foreign trade which only military might can smash. The combination of these two facts till now relegates the commercial struggle to a place of secondary importance, and gives the military struggle pride of place.”

It is telling, however, that the very next sentence, following on from this passage, in the most recent edition of State capitalism in Russia at least, is this: “Because international competition takes mainly a military form, the law of value expresses itself in its opposite: viz, a striving after use-values.”

Cliff then goes on to elaborate: “But as competition with other countries is mainly military, the state as a consumer is interested in certain specific use-values, such as tanks, aeroplanes and so on. Value is the expression of competition between independent producers; Russia’s competition with the rest of the world is expressed by the elevation of use-values into an end, serving the ultimate end of victory in the competition. Use-values, while being an end, still remain a means.”

And more: “The fact that the Russian economy is directed towards the production of certain use-values does not make it a socialist economy, even though the latter would also be directed towards the production of (very different) use-values. On the contrary, the two are complete opposites. The increasing rate of exploitation, and the increasing subordination of the workers to the means of production in Russia, accompanied as it is by a great production of guns but not butter, leads to an intensification, not a lessening, of the oppression of the people” (citations are from State capitalism in Russia, as found on the Marxist Internet Archive: www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1955/statecap).

This much more concrete exposition of Cliff’s theory starkly contrasts with his immediately following statement in the text, quoted earlier by comrade Birchall: “... the law of value is thus seen to be the arbiter of the Russian economic structure as soon as it is seen in the concrete historical situation of today - the anarchic world market.” In fact it contradicts it, renders it an abstraction, a theoretical non-sequitur that serves only to underline Cliff’s inconsistency and reluctance to openly break with the Marxist tradition in the manner of more consistent third-camp theorists like Shachtman. But that does not change the fact that in reality, insofar as it is concrete, Cliff put forward a third-system theory.

Cliff unconvincingly attempts to parry the conclusion that I drew in my article, that this is in effect “a non-socialist society in which the law of the determination of value by socially necessary labour time - the most fundamental law of capitalism - [has] been abolished”, by pointing out that capitalist powers such as the USA and Nazi Germany had taken similar measures in wartime. However, he was not describing the USSR only in wartime, but rather its general mode of operation.

Since my article was only partly about Cliff vs Daum, I was not going to fill it up with extensive quotes from Cliff. But my interpretation of these matters is hardly unique. One aspect of this controversy, equally important and closely linked to the material above, is the question of whether labour-power was a commodity in the USSR. Cliff asserted that it was not in this passage, also from State capitalism in Russia:

“‘Oscillations in the market price of labour-power’ take place in Russia, perhaps more so than in other countries. But here too the essence contradicts the form. We shall elaborate this point somewhat, as it will throw light on the central point we intend to prove, that in the economic relations within Russia itself, one cannot find the autonomy of economic activity, the source of the law of value, acting.”

Notwithstanding comrade Birchall’s vain caveat about the scope of matters ‘within Russia itself’, this gave rise to sufficient controversy that Duncan Hallas, in a debate with some of Cliff’s most fervent devotees, was moved at one point to note: “If labour-power is not a commodity in the USSR, then there is no proletariat. Moreover, if labour-power is not a commodity, then there can be no wage labour/capital relationship and therefore no capital either. Therefore there can be no capitalism in any shape or form” (www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1980/xx/eeursoc.htm).

I do not have the space to go into this in more detail here, except to note that the assumption that underlies Cliff’s view of the law of value is normative: the view that if a society is modified almost beyond recognition so that many of the forms of capitalism are done away with, then the law of value ceases to operate.

But the law of value is not something that only operates in pure conditions, nor is it a product of those pure conditions: it is a product of a level of historical development where a partial development of the productive forces coexists with material scarcity to force society to calculate its relations in terms of strict equivalence. If competition is superseded by monopoly, the law of value modifies its operation on the basis of the law of value itself. Likewise if capitalist economic forms are modified in the direction of state monopoly to the point that different capitals become one, competition is suppressed and even money is abolished, the law of value leads this to chronic economic stagnation, the collapse of growth and finally reversion to a less rigid capitalist model.

This can only be overcome by a working class regime consciously struggling to overcome scarcity through international revolution and a development of the productive forces on that basis. An initially socialist regime that gives up on that struggle inevitably becomes an instrument of the law of value: ie, an instrument of capital - notwithstanding its initial intentions and no matter how unusual its form from the point of view of a preconceived idea of what capital is.

Finally I would note that comrade Birchall dismisses the usefulness of ‘predictive power’ in Marxism with the statement that “Marxists, from Marx and Lenin onwards, have not been too hot at prediction”. This is no doubt true about specific events: Marxism is not fortune-telling. But in terms of the analysis of complex phenomena using a materialist method, Marxists ought to be on strong ground. Not in anticipating events in detail, but rather in outlining the general shape of how a phenomenon like Stalinism is likely to develop through its own internal logic.

If an analysis, such as Daum’s, can be shown to have anticipated events, then that does amount to real evidence that it might have been on the right track - as opposed to other analyses, whose conjectures were falsified by events. If comrade Birchall wants to dispute the actual evidence I provided, then I am willing to be corrected, but only by something that answers substance with better substance. Not by protestations of hurt feelings, however understandable they may be, given the lifelong commitment of those involved.

Ian Donovan