Mike Macnair is fundamentally wrong when he says: “Marxists are not in the first place anti-imperialists; or democrats; or tribunes of the oppressed; though we need in immediate politics to be all of these things. We are advocates of the fundamental transformation of society - communism, which can eliminate the basic drivers of all forms of oppression. We are, in particular, advocates of the view that this transformation can only come about through the emancipation of the proletariat, the class of wage-workers who lack productive property, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, working class rule over the society” (‘Exploitation and illusions about “anti-imperialism”’, May 22).
This argument is, behind its confusing phraseology, actually economistic, similar to the trend that Lenin referred to as ‘imperialist economism’. It misrepresents the functional relationship between democratic questions and the overthrow of capitalism, and attempts to unlink them.
In the real world, they are inseparable. The history of the workers’ movement is littered with the withered husks of those would-be socialist organisations which have tried to uncouple ‘socialist transformation’ from the duty of consistent opposition to all forms of oppression, or to downplay the importance of communists acting as a tribune of the oppressed here and now on the grounds that only the revolution can resolve these questions.
Being a tribune of the oppressed is not just a manifestation of the ‘needs’ of “immediate politics”, which implies that when those ‘needs’ change this can be dispensed with. It is a fundamental precondition of the social revolution against capitalism, as Lenin explained in polemics that are very relevant to this debate.
He wrote: “Capitalism and imperialism can be overthrown only by economic revolution. They cannot be overthrown by democratic transformations, even the most ‘ideal’. But a proletariat not schooled in the struggle for democracy is incapable of performing an economic revolution” (Reply to P Kievsky, August-September 1916).
This argument of Lenin’s perfectly answers Mike’s complaint about my position that “it is not sufficient to publicly advocate the defeat of UK military operations overseas … nor to argue practically for the creation of the most effective possible anti-war movement as the only way possible to contribute to such a defeat … ‘Taking a public side’ is for Ian the essential dividing line.”
The reason why is obvious from the above. It is a question of enabling the proletariat to be “schooled in the struggle for democracy”. If a given struggle (to expel the imperialists from Iraq) has a democratic content, then for a communist organisation to evade openly advocating such solidarity is to evade the necessary ‘schooling’ of the proletariat that prepares it to “perform an economic revolution”. Or, to put it another way, to openly advocate ‘taking sides’ in such situations is a manifestation of the perspective of the Communist manifesto that we “disdain to conceal our views and aims”. The aim being to promote fully communist consciousness.
The arguments against ‘taking sides’ are linked in Mike’s case to a critique of Lenin’s theory of imperialism that seems to me obscurantist and wrong. On this the majority of the CPGB disagree with him, and basically endorse Lenin’s theory of imperialism as Marxist orthodoxy. Though there does not seem to be a response to Mike from the CPGB majority - not that I have been able to find anyway.
Mike’s view of imperialism is based on a number of arguments. One, that capitalism has, right from the very beginning, been ‘imperialist’ in the traditional, mainstream definition of the word: ie, capitalist powers have conquered other less developed nations in order to secure markets, supplies of raw materials, labour, etc. Two, capital always operated across borders even in its pre-monopoly days. And, three, a rather strange argument, that capitalism reached its peak in the mid-19th century with the passage in Britain of the Ten Hours Act and the creation of limited liability companies, which were concessions to the working class and the middle class, and hence diluted pure capitalist free competition. Taken together, these things mean that for Mike there is no fundamental difference between the imperialist capitalism of today and the colonial capitalism that preceded it.
His third argument seems to me to be very weak and subjective, and hardly coherent enough to need much refuting. Capitalism always in any phase of its existence has had to make concessions to other classes, so why the Ten Hours Act or limited liabilities should be so significant is not clear at all. It is not as if British capitalism stopped expanding as a result of such concessions. But in any case, while Lenin’s theory of imperialism had its economic basis in the growth of monopolies and finance capital, it was fundamentally about politics and the role, again, of democratic questions. This is explained most clearly in his polemical pamphlet against Pyatakov’s ‘imperialist economism’:
“What is the present war being fought over? … England, France and Russia are fighting to keep the colonies they have seized ... Germany is fighting to take over those colonies ... The real essence of the present war is not national, but imperialist. In other words, it is not being fought to enable one side to overthrow national oppression, which the other side is trying to maintain. It is a war between two freebooters over the division of their booty, over who shall rob Turkey and the colonies” (A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism, 1916).
In other words, Lenin distinguished between national wars - that is, wars for the liberation or consolidation of nations - and wars that were purely predatory. Lenin argued that the last of the progressive wars by the major powers of western Europe was in 1871, when Bismarck consolidated the unification of Germany through the defeat of Louis Bonaparte’s France. Marx and Engels supported Germany in that war, at least in the phase that could legitimately be called a national war.
By the end of the century, such national wars by the dominant European powers were impossible. This change was mediated by the so-called ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s, which had its counterparts elsewhere and which cemented a monopoly of a few European powers over most of the globe.
Economic phenomena, of course, underlay these changes - the growth of finance capital, monopoly, the export of capital. But the idea that there was some economic phenomenon which was absolutely decisive, separate from questions of democracy and politics, that made early 19th century ‘imperialism’ essentially the same as 20th century imperialism is to attack not just Lenin’s theory of imperialism, but Marx and Engels also. If Mike wishes to do this, then fine. This will not be an easy task. But, just to underline what the views of the founders of Marxism actually were on these questions, I will quote Marx on the exploits of Napoleon I:
“… the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution performed the task of their time - that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society ... The first one destroyed the feudal foundation and cut off the feudal heads that had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled-out land properly used, and the unfettered productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders it swept away feudal institutions everywhere …” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).
Marx’s attitude to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 is more guarded, and condemnatory of the despotic, anti-democratic character of Bismarck’s ‘enlightened’ absolutism. But his endorsement of the German side as waging a justified war of national consolidation is clear: “On the German side, the war is a war of defence; but who put Germany to the necessity of defending herself? Who enabled Louis Bonaparte to wage war upon her? Prussia! … If the German working class allows the present war to lose its strictly defensive character and to degenerate into a war against the French people, victory or defeat will prove alike disastrous.” (‘First address on the Franco-Prussian war’).
Criticising Lenin’s theory of imperialism for failing to retrospectively designate capitalism in the 19th century as just as ‘imperialist’ as that of the 20th century is all very well. But logically, Mike should aim this criticism at Marx and Engels also, or perhaps even more, for not condemning this ‘imperialism’, for not noticing it, for not sounding the alarm, for not putting forward a revolutionary-defeatist, ‘anti-imperialist’ programme similar to that Mike puts forward today, for not calling for the defeat of the imperialist-capitalist states of their days in reactionary wars.
Or, conversely, he should be upbraiding Lenin for being too hard on 20th century imperialism, for being too categorical that it was only capable of waging reactionary wars, for not realising that imperialists like Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson, and even arguably Kaiser Wilhelm II and Nicholas II were just as capable of waging revolutionary, national wars as earlier ‘imperialists’ like Napoleon I.
So which answer to this theoretical/programmatic conundrum will Mike choose? This is not a trick question, nor is it sarcastic or supercilious. It is a matter of theoretical consistency, of correctly educating comrades as to the importance of clarity in theory. If a change in the position of Marxists on a crucial current programmatic question with such deep historical roots is proposed, then clarity and consistency is essential. Either that is the case or there is ground to suspect that something opportunist, not really Marxist, is being advocated under the cover of ‘developing’ Marxism.
Left Left Unity
I have always supported the idea of a broad party to the left of Labour that would include a spectrum from the left of the Labour Party to the far left. I have therefore been extremely disappointed in where Left Unity is going, or rather not going.
I sent an open letter to Left Unity from my website earlier this year (http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/left-unity-conference.html) and asked that it be published on LU’s website, a request that was ignored. I notice though how Fred Leplat, a prominent member of Socialist Resistance, has an article on the website and certain other members have privileged access. Clearly some people are more equal than others.
Despite having a flying start, LU has become entangled in the sectarian politics of feminist and anti-racist identity politics, which 20 years ago were characterised by Women for Palestine and Jenny Bourne of the Institute of Race Relations as profoundly reactionary. But then who is to say which identity trumps another identity? It has led to LU becoming an organisation primarily focused on itself. In prioritising the demands of a few inconsequential feminists with no political base, whose desire is not to be challenged politically, but for people to accept their arguments because of the ‘identity’ of those who make them, it has abandoned the most basic democratic norms. It wasted a whole day last November in London debating a constitution for an organisation 100 times as large.
Since then most mailings from the centre have concerned elections for the multiplicity of posts in LU. Barely a word has been issued concerning prioritising campaigns such as the destruction of the NHS or the welfare state. Bogus issues of interest to just a handful of careerists, such as intersectionality, have been deemed of more importance instead. It is little wonder that LU didn’t see fit to stand candidates in the European elections when it has such pressing internal issues to deal with. The result is that the UK Independence Party and its anti-immigration policies have been given a free ride and LU has abandoned what could have been an effective platform for introspective navel-gazing.
As a political activist in the student movement, Irish, anti-fascist, unemployed and Palestine solidarity campaigns for the past 40 years, I have wondered in amazement at where LU’s leadership believes it is going and its complete lack of strategy, as the old, seasoned cooks of the left - Socialist Resistance, the Socialist Workers Party émigrés and people like Andrew Burgin, Liz Davies and Kate Hudson - have taken an organisational and political grip over LU.
LU’s leadership could do worse than to look at the success of Syriza in Greece and try and learn some lessons. However, I fear that they are too fixed in their views and politics to learn lessons from anyone. They insist on following the same strategies that embraced Respect and destroyed the Socialist Alliance. Politically, LU has demonstrated complete impotence on questions like Ireland. My conclusion is that the time for success has now passed and what is left is a terrible missed politically opportunity.
I have therefore decided that no purpose is served by my continuing to remain a member and I have decided to resign from Left Unity.
Peter Manson reports on the generally very poor results for the left in the local and Euro elections (‘Once again a sorry joke’, May 29) - but not in Lewisham.
Lewisham People Before Profit stood 22 candidates and targeted two wards in Deptford. We gained over 4,000 votes in these two wards and are now the principal challenger to Labour not only in these wards and Telegraph Hill, where we gained 25%, but in three other wards: Rushey Green, Bellingham and Catford South. We gained an average vote of 588. We have a realistic prospect in four years of winning our first seats. Toby Abse, a member of Left Unity’s national council, gained 677 votes in Brockley ward.
The Socialist Party/Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition were able to ride on our coat tails and obtain some of the best Tusc results in London. Disappointingly, the SP left PBP after Chris Flood was not selected in the Whitefoot by-election. PBP sought to reach an accommodation with the SP to avoid a clash this May, but an agreement could not be reached. An understanding in Telegraph Hill could have resulted in the SP regaining their seats on the council along with John Hamilton of LPBP.
In total, we gained 12,957 council votes to complement our 6,000 first-preference votes for the borough mayor. We understand we gained twice this figure in second-preference votes.
Our broad, inclusive and non-sectarian approach - opposing cuts, privatisation, calling for an end to the mayoral system, demanding more council housing, campaigning all year, opening an advice centre and food bank, taking an active part in supporting local campaigns, running a people’s polytechnic, supporting workers in struggle, taking direct action, standing in every by-election, having stalls at every local fete and distributing thousands of newsletters and flyers over the past five years - is starting to gain a level of social weight and critical support. We now have over 100 members.
Naturally, after our vote in Lewisham, we are likely to stand parliamentary candidates in every seat in Lewisham in 2015. We are also keen to work with others to stand a London list in the Greater London Authority elections in 2016. I would strongly urge those socialists and communists who live, work or study in Lewisham to join us in LPBP and strengthen the socialist current in our organisation. The votes for candidates in Lewisham can be viewed at www.lewisham.gov.uk.
Just one correction to Peter Manson’s article: Keith Morrell in Southampton’s Croxford ward was not elected under the party description of Tusc, but stood as an independent.
Lewisham People Before Profit
I am disheartened that the Weekly Worker gave virtually no coverage of the Green Party of Wales and England’s recent success in the local and European elections. In comrade Manson’s article, he claims that only the Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Conservatives and Ukip stood more candidates than Tusc. This is simply not true. Tusc stood 560 candidates, while the Greens stood 1,845 candidates. Overall, the Greens gained 18 councillors (an increase of around 10%) and gained an MEP in the South West.
I am not a Green sympathiser; however, I believe we must dedicate more columns of our paper to the Greens, as (unfortunately) the left is in such a sorry state that they are considered, by some, to be a socialist party. Whether we like it or not, the Greens are a growing force on the left and many, especially in Left Unity, wish to ape its structures and politics. As a paper of polemic, as a paper of debate and as a paper designed to educate the wider left, I believe it is imperative for us to address the rise of the Greens and point out how, fundamentally, it cannot advance the interests of the working class in any meaningful sense.
I myself used to be sympathetic towards the Greens and it was only by talking to comrades involved with the CPGB/Weekly Worker that I was able to see it for what it is - a petty bourgeois party which (much like the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru) panders to the left, as it knows this is the only way it will have any electoral purchase in the present day. A cursory glance across Europe will provide anyone with the answer as to what the Greens will do when they become a more ‘respectable’ and mainstream force with the ability to take power.
The Weekly Worker is an instrument which provides an arena for the hot-button topics of the left to be debated and has striven to educate the left as a whole. To continue this proud tradition we need to pass comment on the Green Party so we can collectively begin to debunk the myth that the ‘Green model’ of ‘responsible capitalism’ is the correct response to capitalist decay and austerity. Now I’m sure many of us would rather read articles about revolutionary theory (myself included) rather than an article about why the Greens are not a working class force. However, it would appear we must re-teach the elementary ABC of how socialists ought to deal with parties like the Greens (just as we must deal with issues such as safe spaces and intersectionality).
If we continue to ignore the Greens, then those already caught in the trap of branding their politics as ‘socialist’ will continue to do so, whilst more and more good comrades will get sucked into supporting their wishy-washy left populism.
Badge of honour
The issue is straightforward. On September 18 the people in Scotland will vote for or against the 1707 Act of Union. I am strongly in favour of people voting ‘yes’ to end the union. The reason is simple. It is in the interests of the Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish working class. It is in the immediate interests of defeating the Tory coalition and in the democratic interests of the working class to take a step towards a republic.
Will a ‘yes’ vote trigger a world revolution? No of course not. But the future depends on the future class struggle, as always. A socialist case for ‘yes’ does not depend on giving a facile guarantee of world communism or ‘socialism in one country’. ‘Vote yes for socialism’ is no more than a false promise of jam tomorrow. What we do know is that a ‘yes’ vote will end the British road to socialism. It will be healthy to clear out all that old crap.
In Scotland there are three trends - unionists (46%), nationalists (37%) and republicans (22%). At present nationalists and republicans are intertwined. In socialist politics we have unionist socialists, nationalist socialists and republican socialists. Voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is in reality a three-sided contest. As for the ‘evil’ of republican socialism, you see no evil, hear no evil and certainly do not report on it.
The CPGB have come up with a peculiar theory: Scottish nationalism is supporting ‘yes’; therefore anybody supporting ‘yes’ is a Scottish nationalist! On this definition ‘Scottish nationalism’ is spreading to England. In the north of England there may be more ‘Scottish nationalists’ than there are in Scotland. Maybe a majority in Ireland, Wales and Catalonia are for a ‘yes’ vote. Are they now presented as ‘Scottish nationalists’? What do the Palestinians think about the threat of ‘Scottish nationalism’, compared to US-British-Israeli imperialism? According to Weekly Worker definitions, ‘Scottish nationalism’ is becoming a global brand!
London is, of course, a different planet and socialists in London are mainly neutral or sit on the fence. The CPGB from its London base is mounting a holy crusade against all alleged Scottish nationalists across the world. In wearing the T-shirt with the slogan, ‘Another Scotland is possible’, at the Left Unity founding conference, it was alleged I had been stirring up optimism. A leading member of the CPGB called me “McFreeman” - a badge of honour which I wear with understandable pride.
Finally the Weekly Worker claims: “There is no principled socialist campaign for Scottish independence. In this referendum there is a principled ‘no’ position advocated by comrades such as those in Glasgow South LU.” But the Weekly Worker is not backing the “principled ‘no’ position”. It has got its own special position, which is steering clear of ‘principle’. Unlike Sandy McBurney, the CPGB lacks the courage of its own convictions.
The CPGB argues a case for voting ‘no’, because, by definition, anybody saying ‘yes’ is a Scottish nationalist. The Weekly Worker then says don’t vote, but abstain. This is not a tactic in the class struggle. We can argue whether this is ‘London calling’ or positioning as ‘catwalk communism”.
Two armies, red and blue, line up for battle. Then along comes the CPGB dressed in a nice little purple and green number, standing out of the crowd, being noticed, looking so pure and unsullied. It is the infantile method condemned by Lenin in Leftwing communism.
Neutral on god
The CPGB harbours no intention of launching a war against religion, let alone doing to death those who profess their faith in god, according to Mark Fischer on the CPGB website. This can be taken as a tacit admission that previously this was precisely what Marxists did. In this way, to be sure, Marxists have alienated millions from the struggle for socialism and continue to do so. Thus alienated, this religious element became easy fodder for counterrevolution.
The ascendency of Marxism on the left did untold damage to the struggle for socialism and in the past the Nazis-racists, Satanists, could always claim they were struggling to defend western civilisation from communist atheism. It seems that there are many people on the left who have still not learnt the damage done to socialism by the Marxists.
On most of the far left, Marxism itself has been turned into a religion. Many regard Marxism as 100% true - that is why they call themselves Marxists. The truth is that Marxism contains truth and falsehood - like many narratives, it is a mixture of both. Thus we can see that Marx was wise when he declared, ‘All I know is that I am no “Marxist”’.
The danger arises when those of us who choose to limit our thinking to the parameters defined by Marx in the 19th century seek to impose these limitations on other people and indeed on society at large. Socialism and communism are societies based on public ownership of the means of production, free from exploitation and oppression. It is not a struggle about whether god exists or not. This is what Marxism turned it into. All those who support the programme for socialism should feel comfortable joining a party for socialism. Such a party should remain neutral about the existence or non-existence of god. In other words, atheists and believers should be able to form a united front in the struggle for socialism.
Saying to religious people, ‘You are welcome to join the party, but the party denounces the existence of god’ is not a credible position to maintain, and there is no reason why any religious person should feel reassured by the good intentions of Mark Fischer and other Marxists who have unnecessarily made enemies of religious people as a result of the mistakes Karl Marx made in his evaluation of religion.
My view is that Marxist leadership of the left will continue to alienate millions - this would be completely unnecessary with a correct, leftwing approach to religion and atheism. We want to win over people because they support social ownership, regardless of whether they believe in god. The party should maintain neutrality in the struggle between theism and atheism, even if 99.9% of party membership were atheists. Atheism and theism should remain a non-party matter.
Recently, the SWP ran another article on Syria which again expresses their view of supporting the ‘Syrian rebels’, repeating the lie that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and - just as serious a slander - that Hezbollah are part of an attempt to ‘cleanse’ Sunni Muslims in Syria (‘Syria’s revolution had too many enemies’ Socialist Worker May 13). Here I will draw attention to just two of the SWPs lies.
Lie 1: the rebels had “no defence against … the regime’s poison gases”. This was the lie used to try to justify the west’s proposed bombing of Syria in 2013. In fact, the rebels are the ones using chemical weapons. The United Nations stated that the rebels used gas in 2012 and the August 2013 gas attacks have also been proven to come from the rebels.
Lie 2: “The scale of the cleansing of Sunni Muslims at the hands of the regime, its militias and Lebanese Hezbollah forces has left a deep and bitter sectarian legacy.” This really is disgusting. As is well known, the vast majority (70%) of the Syrian government army are Sunni and the ‘rebels’ have deliberately murdered any Syrian Sunni who has spoken against the ‘rebels’ abusing Sunni Islam to justify their war on the Syrian people.
In fact, Hezbollah have never indulged in sectarian cleansing of Sunnis: quite the opposite. The situation for Shia (Hezbollah, of course, being mostly Shia in composition) in the world (ignored by the left) is terrible. As I type this, yesterday saw more Shi’a civilians targeted by the ‘Syrian rebel’ group ISIS in Iraq. Given the context of ongoing anti-Shia genocide, it is an act of perversity for the SWP to add their voice to a narrative that justifies genocide and it is hard to understand why the SWP adopts such a shrill tone in supporting the US-backed rebels.