Chris Cutrone’s letter (January 9) raises three issues: the question of method; the historical claims which he reiterates, and which I continue to consider to be largely straightforwardly false; and the questions of liberalism, its ‘promise’, the relation between the dictatorship of the proletariat, socialism and communism, and more broadly the nature of general human emancipation. The third of these questions was raised in passing in his initial critique, and I did not really deal with it in my initial reply; it is an important issue, and also will need too much space for a letter. I will reply separately on it and discuss only method here.
Comrade Cutrone says in his letter: “I use terms in their strict Marxist sense, which can be quite peculiar, rather than colloquially.” This must be taken to refer to the question of crisis, which I pointed to in my reply to him (December 18) as an example of different uses of Marxist jargon; the implication is that my usage is colloquial and his is “strict Marxist”. The boot is on the other foot: the quickest search on Marxist Internet Archive will show that Marx’s use of the term ‘crisis’ corresponds to my use of it (as referring to a short, chaotic period or moment of decision) and not to Cutrone’s. There doesn’t appear to be any support for his in Hegel’s very limited use of the term either.
On the other hand, Cutrone’s use of it as meaning - roughly - persistent, severe problems, or an impasse, is the common coin of media headline-writers (including those of the left). It is presumably from this media-usage source, via the supposed long-lasting “crisis of Marxism”, over which the Marxists’ opponents crowed in the press after Eduard Bernstein’s defection, and via the acceptance of this idea by Georges Sorel and later left critics of ‘mechanical Second International Marxism’, that Cutrone’s version of ‘crisis’ originates, though there may also be an element of influence on the left of the ‘official’ communists’ ideas of long-lasting or permanent economic crisis - eg, RB Day The ‘crisis’ and the ‘crash’ (1981) and Cold war capitalism (1995).
This point is not a “nit-pick”. In the first place, comrade Cutrone’s characterisation of his usage as “strict Marxist sense” - with the corollary that other (in fact, common Marxist) usages are not “strict Marxist” - is an example of the tendency of his method to produce an intellectual closure: only Cutrone’s usage is to count as “Marxist”. Secondly, the usage of the term as in his “crisis of liberal politics - a crisis in civil society expressed by the metastatic state”, by making ‘crisis’ into a normal condition, obliterates the possibility of thinking that the strong state might be a normal feature of ruling liberalism. This particular usage of ‘crisis’ is thus deeply implicated in the core structure of Cutrone’s argument. (I deny that it is Marx’s usage, but I do not deny that it is one possible ‘Marxist’ usage; I do not deny the ‘western Marxists’ - Frankfurt school, etc - the name ‘Marxist’, but merely argue that their approach is fundamentally wrong.)
Second, comrade Cutrone alleges that my reply “mistak[es] dialectical arguments for alleged ‘vacuous circularity’”. I defend the view that any “dialectic” which rests on Hegel’s initial critique of sense-perception in the Phenomenology and the Encyclopedia logic, and that therefore constructs ‘dialectic’ as a dialectic of subject-object and intersubjectivity, rather than a dialectic of processes of material change in time (the future as the not-past and hence interpenetration of past and not-past), is driven towards flying from the concrete to the abstract and never returning to the concrete; and therefore licenses arguments which are tautological (Marx’s comment on several of Hegel’s arguments) or vacuously circular.
Marx commented in the Grundrisse: “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception ... the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.” (The whole section from which I have extracted this quotation is worth careful attention.)
The concrete in this account “is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation”. This is reflected in Marx’s practical method of work, well illuminated by Rob Beamish in Marx, method and the division of labour (1992): Marx’s process of abstraction/theorisation involved repeated return to ‘the concrete’, in the form of study of recent empirical studies, and of alternative theorisations, of the issue.
Cutrone’s method, in contrast, uses the ‘dialectical’ character of his reasoning as a licence for not returning to the concrete, but instead treating a particular (false) historical narrative as incontrovertible by virtue of its forming part of a ‘dialectical’ argument. Compare Marx to Engels on Lassalle, 1858: “He will discover to his cost that it is one thing for a critique to take a science to the point at which it admits of a dialectical presentation, and quite another to apply an abstract, ready-made system of logic to vague presentiments of just such a system” (https://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1858/letters/58_02_01.htm).
Finally, Cutrone remarks that “Dick Howard is not mistaken to draw the continuity between the young and mature Marx.” I can’t see what the point of this comment is. I said of Howard’s book The spectre of democracy, on which Cutrone relies, that it contains “vulgar ‘Marx leads to totalitarianism’ stuff, not much improved by being passed through French former leftwing ‘anti-totalitarians’ (Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort), combined with speculative, idealist (roughly, symbolic-interactionist) readings of recent French and US history - and with low-grade Marxology, which takes no account of the arguments of Hal Draper and others.” There is no suggestion in my article of an “epistemological break” between the young and the ‘mature’ Marx (though there are, of course, changes and developments in Marx’s ideas); rather, in my opinion Howard misreads the ‘young’ Marx as much as he misreads the ‘mature’ Marx.
Eddie Ford advises Syriza not to take power “prematurely” because it wouldn’t be able to do much to further the cause of the workers, but will end up itself applying austerity (‘What if Syriza wins?’, January 8).
That’s indeed what would happen. But what is “prematurely”? Before a majority of workers in most countries want socialism? If so (and I agree) then this applies to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They got to power on the basis of “peace, land and bread”. So that, not socialism, was their ‘mandate’; which they did implement in part, but, of course, they ended up establishing state capitalism, not socialism, for the same reasons that, without a mandate for socialism but only for leftwing Keynesianism and without support for socialism in most other countries, a Syriza government will end up running capitalism, inevitably on its terms.
Eddie Ford’s article about the prospect of a Syriza election victory touches on debates that I have had over various hypothetical scenarios, one being what socialists would do if they achieve a majority in a single country, while all the others lagged behind in socialist consciousness. The conclusion most often reached is similar to Eddie’s - communists should therefore constitute themselves as a party of extreme opposition and not take power.
I believe this reflected the thinking of the Left Mensheviks and Martov, who, too, recognised the prematurity of their situation and declined to either carry out the programme of another class - carry out its historical mission - or become an agent of capital. The Socialist Party of Great Britain policy is also to refrain from working on the terrain of capitalism. For anyone wishing to bring about a new and better world, history is replete with examples of where reformism required a pact with the devil and the forming of a government meant being sucked into running the system.
However, Eddie misses another issue. The SPGB has always refused to produce a minimum programme, because it recognises that many will vote for those immediate demands rather than in support of its socialist objective. We have argued that a socialist party which advocated reforms would attract non-socialist support from those interested in all or some of the reform measures, and that this non-socialist support would sooner or later swamp the socialist elements until the party has no better claim to working class support than that of the Labour Party.
As Eddie says, even if Syriza wins, they will inevitably lose because they are not in control of European capitalism, much less global economic events. Workers will not thank us for trying to lead them up the garden path. We socialists may well lose our credibility and workers will lose their confidence if a socialist party seeks an opportunistic relationship with the working class for the sake of political office. It is revolutionary posturing that is guaranteed, for sure, to backfire upon us.
Eddie Ford’s advice to the Greek left - don’t take power - is hard to credit. In a situation where the working class in Greece has suffering severe austerity for the last five years and is now in a position where it is likely to elect a Syriza government, which says it is going to fight austerity on behalf of the working class, the response of the CPGB seems to be, ‘Don’t fight back - you can’t win. The troika won’t back down - accept reality and wait for better times.’ Unbelievably defeatist stuff from an organisation that claims to be Marxist!
It is as if at the start of the miners’ strike in Britain the CPGB had said to the miners, ‘Don’t go on strike. You are going to lose, as the Tories are determined to use the full gamut of state power to close your pits. Accept the pit closures and wait until better times when the mass of the working class have been won to Marxism.’ Or to say to the Chilean working class in 1970, ‘Don’t try to take power - it will only lead to bloody defeat.’ The CPGB says it stands for the creation of a European communist party. How will such a party be created if not in the heat of working class battles against austerity that are obviously on the horizon? To warn against the struggle for power is the line of the labour bureaucracy and not the line of communists.
Eddie states that the “chances are” that the EU will not back down over its imposed austerity in Greece because the stakes are too high, in that any victory for the Greek working class will encourage workers throughout Europe to fight back and demand an end to austerity. Yes, this is precisely why we must do all we can do build solidarity with the working class struggle in Greece against austerity - their struggle is our struggle in an immediate, concrete sense and the vanguard of the working class in Europe knows this. I have little doubt that if the struggle of the working class in Greece deepens and reaches out to workers in the rest of Europe we will see the European ruling class make significant concessions to the European working class in order to forestall any further radicalisation.
Of course, Eddie says he wants to build solidarity with the struggle of Greek workers, but it is hard to fathom how you can successfully do this, while stating that their struggle is doomed to defeat if they try to take power. I would contend to the contrary - if the Greek working class don’t struggle to take power (and in that struggle reach out to the workers in the rest of Europe) they are doomed to defeat.
In these circumstances communists in Britain should be doing all we can to build concrete solidarity with our comrades in struggle in Greece. In Left Unity in Scotland we have affiliated to the Greece Solidarity Campaign and are trying to organise a speaking tour for militants of the Greek left in order to explain and discuss the importance of the anti-austerity struggle in Greece for workers in Britain and in the rest of Europe.
Left Unity Glasgow South
Thank god Alun Morgan was on hand last week to remind the clueless armchair Marxists of the CPGB of the revolutionary gospel according to Ted Grant (Letters, January 8). “Events, events, events will teach the masses,” reiterates the comrade: don’t bother with that silly theory business - thinkin’ ’bout stuff and criticising flawed ideas and whatnot - just get on board the endless strikes and walkouts conveyor-belt and all will be right. “Events will teach the masses,” says Ted Grant. Events like the Snowden data leaks; events like the endless, self-perpetrating murder-fests in north Africa and the Middle East; events like the 2008 recession and the ongoing instability of the euro zone perhaps?
Comrade, we’ve had ‘events’ a-plenty. We’ve had events coming out of the wazoo. The reputability of the bourgeoisie has been nose-diving, the ruling class has been coming apart before the very eyes of anyone who would care to look. Meanwhile, basic freedoms we won and took for granted are snatched away, because even they pose too much of a threat. The best answers they can give us is ‘more of the same’ - if we’re lucky, capitalism with a human face.
And despite all this, the left still has failed time and again - and quite spectacularly so - to make gains that would even vaguely threaten the stability of ruling order. Comrade Morgan laments “Marxists standing on the sidelines” with their “pure revolutionary programmes” - is there anything more clichéd than a pure-strain Marxist with their pamphlets and Woolfie Smith beret? Well, yes, actually: how about the secret Marxist, the Marxist who throws their weight behind whichever movement presently waves the most sort-of-red flags (or green if no other option presents itself); the Marxist without one iota of faith in the base intelligence of the unthinking human herd.
There is so much talk amongst left sectlets about the alienating tedium of discussing ‘dead Russians’ (Left Unity is frustratingly full of it) and yet it certainly seems to me that the amount of verbiage spilt over dead Russians pales into insignificance compared to the endless repetition of that incessant left mantra, ‘Just one more strike, just one more strike, just one more ...’ (events, events, events). Forgive me, comrade, if I hesitate before I jump on the bandwagon. I’ve heard it all before; in fact day to day in the wider left I hear little else.
And for all his criticisms of Eddie Ford’s conclusions on Greece, comrade Morgan has precious little to say about his analysis. In fact he agrees with comrade Ford that the Syriza government is doomed to failure, that yes, of course, the intensity of international pressure will force it to make “rotten compromises”. They should be supported nonetheless, given full backing. And then, once Syriza is swept aside by its own inadequacies and compromises - crushed by contradiction and the ongoing attacks of the capitalist class - while the Greek working class is left battered and broken, who shall step into the void? ‘Real’ Marxists, of course! The pressures imposed by the financiers of Europe will obviously by this time have abated, and there is no chance that the forces that dragged the tolerable moderates of Syriza rightwards into oblivion will continue to exert their influence on the next emergent government. First Syriza, then us!
The logic is nonsensical. What evidence is there to suppose that it is left socialists, armed with stronger Syriza sound-alike principles, that will capture the Zeitgeist? Why not popular rightists? For those who haven’t noticed, Greece has its fair share of them, and they’re unlikely to whither away in the face of an enfeebled left government. Maybe it was the immigrants after all?
The whole point of comrade Ford’s article was to make clear that the objective political conditions make the promises, like those of LU’s Andrew Burgin, of a real worker’s party taking the reins for the first time in an aeon (just like Spain’s Popular Front in 1936 - look how well that turned out) a complete daydream fantasy. At best, a prematurely in-power Syriza will function as a demoralising machine: tentative hopes and dreams on the input, crushed spirits and cynicism as an output. Even the electoral reliance of the party on the 50-MP top-up speaks volumes about how far the project still has to go; it would not have a mandate to govern without utilising the undemocratic mechanics embedded within the bourgeois state.
So by all means defend Syriza against the inevitable onslaught from the US and EU. But why propagandise for them? Why push the party line? Why endorse their present, wrongheaded aims? And surely if in Greece then why not here, and why not a little further to the right? Isn’t the Labour Party our least-worst option? In essence: why actively contribute to the illusion?
Spell it out
I welcome Ian Donovan’s prompt response (Letters, January 8). My suggestion (Letters, December 18) isn’t anti-working class at all. Encouraging ‘unskilled’ non-permanent residents to become ‘skilled’ workers would help make a dent in the ‘aristocracy of skilled labour’, or however ‘labour aristocracy’ was originally defined by Engels and his peers.
The undercutting had quite a boom during the migration of so many eastern Europeans to other parts of Europe, as Mike Macnair himself noted weeks ago about capitalist ‘freedom of movement’. These numbers were not subject to the stigmatisation or pariah treatment of illegality/semi-illegality.
Ian’s call for a “working class union [...] across national borders” ignores something called ‘labor imperialism’ (The US spelling of the term should be more than adequate for Ian to identify the culprits). Leaving aside politics, what I mean here is that the less influential unions are pressured to toe the line of the most influential ones in any joint collective bargaining arrangement.
In any event, my suggestion was aimed at the situation of non-unionised workers, not at “trade union narrowness”.
Ian Donovan claims that the “posture” of the CPGB leadership “of being in favour of the freedom of migration has a curious exception where it comes to some who need it most: Palestinians expelled from their homeland by Zionist Israel, whose territorial integrity ... the CPGB supports”.
What is he talking about? First of all, the CPGB does not support the “territorial integrity” of Zionist Israel. We are for the abolition of this state. However, only an Arab revolution can deliver true liberation to the Palestinians and a democratic settlement achieved in its wake would necessarily recognise the right of the Israeli-Jewish nation to self-determination. On comrade Donovan’s alleged “exception”, we say:
“... for a democratic settlement to be possible, Palestinians must have the right of return - this is a right of habitation decided upon individually, or by family group ... Communists demand substantial compensation for the Palestinian people as a whole from the state of Israel for the historic injustice that was perpetrated upon them” (thesis 30, ‘The Arab awakening and Israel-Palestine’ Weekly Worker June 30 2011).
This letter is to urge you to support Keith Henderson in his battle against the GMB trade union bureaucracy, led by Paul Kenny, at the employment appeal tribunal beginning on February 10. They are challenging the result he won at the employment tribunal on September 30 that “a substantial part of the reasoning behind dismissing the claimant was because of his philosophical belief and that was an affective cause of his dismissal”. That “belief” was “leftwing democratic socialism”, so socialism is effectively on trial here.
He was dismissed from his job as a regional organiser by the GMB for mounting a picket at the House of Commons on November 30 2011 demanding a decent pension for low-paid GMB members. They had democratically decided on the action at their branch meeting.
A number of Labour MPs respected the picket. This did not please the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his office contacted the GMB general secretary, Paul Kenny, indicating their displeasure. Mr Kenny phoned Keith and shouted at him, saying that an article he had written was “too leftwing”. Keith lost his tribunal case for unfair dismissal. However, the judge concluded that, as he had contended, “leftwing democratic socialism is a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010”.
The tribunal went on to hold that, although the principal reason for Keith’s dismissal was his conduct, “a substantial part of the reasoning behind dismissing the claimant was because of his philosophical belief and that was an affective cause of his dismissal”.
Outrageously, the rightwing bureaucrats of the GMB have now gone to the employment appeal tribunal to overturn this latter part of the ruling, because every militant and socialist can now cite it if victimised by their employer or trade union - or both in unison (pun intended: this is increasingly common).
They are so determined to extinguish this chink of light opened up for rank-and-file trade union militants and socialists by Keith’s principled struggle that they have already indicated that, if they lose at the EAT, they are willing to take the case to the court of appeal. It has already cost GMB members hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal fees!
John McDonnell MP wrote to Paul Kenny on October 18 2013: “On the day of the coordinated industrial action on pensions in November 2011, Keith did a great job in organising picket lines at parliament and I joined those picket lines. The atmosphere on the picket line was good-natured and in the best traditions of the trade union movement of solidarity. Many Labour MPs supported the strike and rightfully respected the picket lines. This appears to have upset some in the office of the Labour leader. …
“This must be the first time a trade union, and possibly any employer, has been found to have considered a person being a leftwing democratic socialist as part of the reasoning for sacking him. I am sure you agree that the union would not want to be associated with any finding of discriminatory treatment of an employee on the basis of his belief in democratic socialism.”
We call on all serious trade unionists and socialists to support the demo outside the Employment Appeal Tribunal - Fleetbank House, 2-6 Salisbury Square, London EC4Y 8AE (the nearest tube station is Blackfriars) - at 8.45am on Tuesday February 10 and to attend the hearing itself on February 10-12 to show solidarity and give moral and political support to Keith in his struggle, which is on behalf of the entire working class.
Sign the petition at http://bit.ly/hendersonpetition. We urge all serious trade unionists and socialists to express their support for Keith by writing to Paul Kenny, GMB general secretary (Paul.Kenny@gmb.org.uk) to urge Keith’s reinstatement and an end to witch-hunts against socialists in the GMB.
Nothing is more distressing to the well regulated mind than to read in a paper dedicated to the self-liberation of the working class that the future of humanity may rest on the beneficence of extra-terrestrial reptiles (Letters, January 8).
Fortunately it may turn out to be untrue - it was, after all, Tony Clark who repeatedly predicted in the pages of the Weekly Worker that rising oil prices would soon mean the end of capitalism. Much earlier in his political development he claimed that, in so far as Joseph Stalin was responsible for mass deaths in the Soviet Union, his victims deserved to die. Comrade Clark should be a contestant on the BBC’s The unbelievable truth to see how many gems he could smuggle past us.
There is, of course, a certain consistency in his approach. He is an elitist. First he believed that the great leaders would direct the working class to power and, when they failed, he put his faith in capitalism’s forthcoming oil crisis - unfortunately oil remains more likely to destroy humanity’s future on the planet than to save it. Does he despair? Not in the least: he looks to another bunch of great leaders. This time not human, but semi-divine, extra-terrestrial reptiles. Essentially he has got religion. His belief in reptiles is no madder than the faith of Christians who search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat - except when they go home they find a community of fellow-believers, while poor Tony is all alone. The difference between madness and sanity is often as narrow as that.
Karl Marx wrote something along the lines of religion being the opium of the people, the heart in a heartless world. So long as life on earth is cruel and irrational, people will turn to religion and fantastical remedies. But people’s religious beliefs are hardly ever as irrational and brutal as capitalism itself.
Dave Douglass’s little letter on the Posadists is amusing, but we would be better off concentrating our attention on preserving this planet as best we can. Present scientific knowledge knows of no planets that are even potentially habitable that aren’t several light years away and we have no way of travelling at anything like the speed of light to save even a tiny minority. The terraforming of Mars, if such a thing were possible, might make it somewhere an elite might escape to if they fuck up this planet, but Mars would be swallowed by the sun at much the same time as Earth.
As for Posadas’s fantasy aliens, they may always have been communists. They may have liberated themselves or even have been liberated by Tony Clark’s reptiles. We just don’t know. But the present infatuation with space travel is driven by the fact that 90% of space expenditure is military and, despite what comrade Posadas’s aliens might have achieved, the ruling class certainly has no intention of getting rid of wage-slavery.