Armed militia

Jack Conrad rightly criticises the negative reaction of supporters of Left Unity to the comments made by a spokesperson of the Green Party, who argued in favour of an armed militia (‘A well-ordered militia’, February 5). He outlines how this critical response is based on the opportunist desire for political respectability and a deferential attitude towards the institutions of the bourgeois state.

He provides a historical study of the importance of armed militias for bourgeois revolutions, and he quotes from a resolution of the Communist Platform: “As the class struggle intensifies, conditions are created for the workers to arm themselves and win over sections of the military forces of the capitalist state. Every opportunity must be used to take even tentative steps towards this goal. As circumstances allow, the working class must equip itself with all weaponry necessary to bring about revolution.”

In general terms it would be relatively straightforward to agree with this perspective as an expression of an orthodox Marxist conception of the relationship of the possibility of armed struggle within a revolutionary process. However, it is necessary to be critical of aspects of this standpoint without also endorsing the reformist approach of the leadership of Left Unity.

It is important to understand that the viewpoint of Conrad is based on a historical analysis of the past and it is in relation to this context he utilises many comments from the works of Trotsky in order to support his approach. But what is omitted from his argument is consideration of the present political situation and how it relates to the role of violence. Hence it is necessary to recognise that people in many countries are repelled by the use of violence by the forces of nation-states and terrorist organisations. It could be argued that this mood is inherently reactionary because it tends to uphold the status quo, but it can also be suggested that pacifist-type views can be progressive because it is possible for Marxists to point out that the major cause of war is the expansionist tendencies of imperialist countries and the defence of economic and political privileges by reactionary elites. Hence pacifism is compatible with the goal of principled socialists to bring about a world without violence on the basis of world revolution. Only with the advance of socialism can we realise a world without coercion, intimidation and violent conflict.

Conrad could reply to this argument and indicate how Lenin rejected this standpoint as an accommodation to bourgeois pacifism. Instead it is necessary to follow Lenin’s example of the advice given by hypothetical proletarian women to their sons: “... learn the military art properly. The proletarians need this knowledge not to shoot your brothers, the workers of other countries ... [but to] fight the bourgeoisie of their own country, to put an end to exploitation, poverty and war, and not by pious wishes, but by defeating and disarming the bourgeoisie” (VI Lenin, ‘The disarmament slogan’).

Read this comment carefully: its emphasis is on the disarmament of the bourgeoisie. The importance of arming the workers is a means to this end. What is strategically important is to realise a world based on the condition of peace. This aim cannot be realised within capitalism, or by an appeal to the ruling class to become peaceful. Instead we have to support revolutionary struggle in order to create a peaceful world. In this context the issue of arming the proletariat is essentially a means to a greater end - the generation of peace based on the overthrow of capitalism. It is this approach which is necessary in order to evaluate the question of armed militias, but Conrad prefers to pose the issue as a ‘thing in itself’ or with a ‘self-sufficient’ relationship to other issues. The result is to provide an impression that only a violent revolution is possible.

Conrad may utilise the following comments in reply: “Our slogan must be: arming of the proletariat to defeat, expropriate and disarm the bourgeoisie. These are the only tactics possible for a revolutionary class, tactics that follow logically from, and are dictated by, the whole objective development of capitalist militarism.” And: “But the disarmament ‘demand’, or more correctly the dream of disarmament, is, objectively, nothing but an expression of despair at a time when, as everyone can see, the bourgeoisie itself is paving the way for the only legitimate and revolutionary war - civil war against the imperialist bourgeoisie” (ibid).

What is being argued is that if the mood of pacifism and disarmament is separated from, and opposed to the standpoint of, class struggle, the result can be demoralisation and ultimate acceptance of the domination of imperialism. But if the aims of disarmament and peace are connected to a perspective of the overthrow of capitalism, and the realisation of socialism, then what is being proposed can be constructive and principled.

This point relates to one of the most important issues of today: how can socialists promote the transformation of the present mood and yearning for peace into support for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism? Unfortunately Conrad, no doubt unintentionally, evades this question because his focus is narrowly about the validity of armed militias. What is actually at stake is the issue of the connection of class struggle to the importance of peace. If we can convince people that a potentially peaceful world can be realised on the basis of achieving socialism it may be possible to gain more adherents to our cause.

Trotsky outlines important criteria for the necessity of armed militia in the Transitional programme. He indicates that the character of the political process in Italy, Germany, France, Austria and Spain has demonstrated the necessity of workers’ self-defence. The events of the class struggle have shown that without the workers organising armed militia they are likely to be defeated. This is because the very upsurge in the mass movement has led to the development of the forces of counterrevolution that are dedicated to the physical defeat of the working class. In this context workers’ self-defence was, or is, crucial. The lack of this type of organisation has contributed to the defeat of the working class in the Europe of the 1930s. The workers’ militia is important, argues Trotsky, because it contributes to the enhancement of the class-consciousness of the proletariat, and success of these defence organisations enables the balance of class forces to be transformed in favour of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The problem of political passivity in relation to the militancy of reaction can be overcome in relation to the effective role of the workers’ defence squads.

Trotsky elaborates his standpoint in his work On France. He outlines how the militancy of fascism is preparing the basis for the development of the physical character of class struggle. Consequently: “The duty of a revolutionary party is to foresee in time the inescapability of the transformation of politics into open armed conflict, and with all its forces to prepare for that moment, just as the ruling class are preparing.” The major point that Trotsky is making is that we have to relate the question of the formation of the workers’ militia to the circumstances of the class struggle.

Conrad would seem to disagree and argues: “Trotsky pours scorn on this proposition: it means, he says, that the workers must permit themselves to be ‘slaughtered until the situation becomes revolutionary’.” Conrad’s Trotsky seems to be an advocate of armed militias for all times and places. But the major point Trotsky is making is that the question of the formation of workers’ militia should be related to strategy. In this context what is important is that the development of these organised detachments should be capable of enhancing the class-consciousness of the workers and contribute to their ability to defeat the forces of reaction and the class enemy. Instead of this approach, to Conrad the role of the militia has almost miraculous powers in generating a revolutionary situation: “Revolutionary situations do not fall from the skies. They take form, mature and find direction in no small measure because of the long and patient preparatory work done by the Communist Party, including popularising the idea of ‘a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms’.”

This standpoint is almost mystical. The actual generation of a revolutionary situation is based on the intensification of the class struggle, and the related creation of a mass movement that is able to promote the prospect of the revolutionary transformation of society. In this context the Communist Party will have an important ideological role in developing credible arguments for socialism. Thus in countries like the UK it is presently not possible to develop a mass movement for socialism because of the lack of a socialist culture. Hence the issue of the armed militia is entirely secondary, and its significance will only be promoted by the development of the class struggle.

Most acts of political violence are caused by the actions of imperialist states, reactionary elites or the role of religious fundamentalism. This situation is generated by the justification of violence as the only basis to resolve conflict. The formation of socialist states will uniquely create societies that aim to establish peaceful relations with countries regardless of ideology or political preferences. However, these socialist societies will also have the aim of promoting world proletarian revolution, and so this aim may result in capitalist countries being aggressive and willing to engage in military action in order to topple revolutionary regimes. In this situation it is necessary to establish standing armies in order to defend national integrity. The experience of the Russian civil war indicated that only a standing army was an effective basis to oppose the aggression of counterrevolutionary armies.

Hence in terms of the development of revolutionary societies the aim of an armed militia becomes an anachronistic and antiquated demand. Furthermore, most people within socialist societies will have pacifist inclinations and so will not want to join a people’s militia. Instead people should be encouraged to join a revolutionary Red Army that hopefully will never have to engage in military action. The Red Army will be ready to act in terms of national defence, but its major activities should be caring and humanitarian, such as medical work.

In conclusion, the views of the Left Unity spokesperson should be rejected because they can only envisage the role of the existing army within the context of defending caring capitalism. Jack Conrad has reacted to their opportunism in a dogmatic manner and is an uncritical advocate of violent revolution. Instead our aim should be to defend a strategy of peaceful revolutionary change and to support a perspective of world revolution in terms of the possibilities of principled peaceful coexistence. However, we recognise that reality might not develop in accordance with our intentions and so we should support the right of armed defence in relation to ensuring the success of the revolutionary process.

Phil Sharpe

No platform?

According to Ian Donovan, who apparently considers himself a communist, there are alienated Jews who are so committed to anti-racism that they have “doubts about the historicity of aspects of the Nazi genocide” - ie, they deny the holocaust (Letters, February 18). No doubt it is the deep commitment of some members of the British National Party for the standard of living of the working class that leads them to demand the deportation of all black people.

Donovan states that, despite my involvement in Palestine solidarity work, I am more concerned with past Jewish suffering than the mass murder of Palestinians today. Maybe he would like to substantiate this particular lie? When I spoke in support of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions at the Unison national conference in 2007 and 2008, it was in response to Zionists who labelled the motion “anti-Semitic”. I found it quite easy to explain to delegates that it was precisely because of the holocaust and anti-Semitism that Jewish people should be the first to oppose what Israel was doing to the Palestinians.

The vast majority of Jewish people involved in Palestine solidarity work make the connection between the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism and fascism and what Palestinians experience today. Donovan has managed to find one or two people who believe that Jewish (in fact Zionist) oppression of the Palestinians means there was no holocaust.

Donovan targets Jewish people who are involved in solidarity work, since his support for the Palestinians is strictly confined to writing abusive and ill-informed letters. The idea of him standing on a picket line outside an Israeli shop selling settlement goods would no doubt horrify him. Activism is not something that he finds particularly attractive.

I am, though, surprised that he feels the need to lie and allege I threatened him with violence. In June 2005 Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods and others, Jewish and non-Jewish, picketed a Socialist Workers Party meeting at Bookmarks, which hosted Gilad Atzmon as a speaker. Yes, I do believe that socialist and leftwing groups should not host an anti-Semite or any other racist, but that is not the same as calling for him to be no-platformed.

When Donovan quoted an obscure, 10-year-old email, I was somewhat bemused. Having never threatened any socialist with violence, why should I have threatened him? With difficulty, I located the email and it states, in response to a statement of Donovan that he would cross the picket of Bookmarks: “if you were to break a picket line calling on people not to go to the talk, then my attitude to you would be the same as to anyone who breaks picket lines”. In other words, I would consider him a scab. There was no threat of violence.

It is also a lie that I tried to get an Atzmon meeting cancelled in Brighton. We were going to picket it and then it was called off. We didn’t, however, call for it to be cancelled.

As for Stephen Diamond, I am all in favour of criticism of the Jewish or any other religion. However, when Atzmon refers to a Judaic god (whose existence I deny), he does it in order to explain the present-day oppression of the Palestinians. In other words, it is the Jewish religion itself, not settler colonialism, that explains the racism of Zionism. I am equally opposed to those who locate the barbarity of Isis in the Islamic religion.

As a Marxist, I perfectly understand that religion is an ideological construct that justifies war and much else.

Tony Greenstein

Not so weird

In the 21st century, sovereignty is always a fiction - anywhere, any time. This was even true of the US president in the last century. The sovereign is supreme, accountable to no-one. The sovereign is self-referential, dependent on no-one, independent of all. The sovereign creates their own conditions in and through which they live. The sovereign is the author of their own decisions, their edicts are their own. The sovereign is the authority. Carl Schmitt was awry in saying the sovereign alone decides the exception: for the sovereign, there is no exception, only the sovereign - only themselves and those they rule, and that relationship of supremacy, superordination and subordination.

The Syriza-Anel government is not sovereign. Since January 26, the Syriza leadership has presided over a small state body that is a sub-government, a quasi-government. They may make decisions, make electoral promises, but they are not masters of the destiny of Greek society. In the vernacular, Syriza is the troika’s bitch. They are owned. But can they, will they, do a pseudo-runner, make a break for it, trying to run free of the obdurate capital relation?

The simple fact is that change needs means. Syriza lack them. On January 25 they persuaded 36% of the electorate to vote for them. They promised the earth - or at least the end of austerity - and the electorate was not convinced. Their fans abroad, waving, not drowning (for the time being, that is), were swept along in the hullabaloo, the carnival, the prospect of the first anti-austerity government since the 2008 crash.

To their great credit, some CPGB members and this newspaper had the foresight to point out the dangers in constituting the government, judging that having to engage in what could only be a negotiating farce would harm the credibility of the hope that is the socialising of society, the process that is necessary to live according to the socialist aspiration. Echoing Christian Rakovsky, one may call them the ‘professional dangers’ of elections.

However, I have been somewhat inaccurate: they argued not just dangers, but prescribed that Syriza should not take office. Better to win the election and tell the society, addressing workers and allied strata, that the scope for progress is so narrow that Syriza could only be, in effect, the instrument of the troika. When I first read this perspective, I thought it rather odd, strange, a bit weird. But now, as events have shown?

But not taking office isn’t Syriza. No, Syriza are constitutionalists, conventional, and have a sub-government team somewhat detached from the party: Leo Panitch says the last time that either the central committee or even the executive committee met was late December. Today’s Greece, the European and world conjuncture, the 21st century as a whole, require quite a different politics. And without it the disastrous Syriza U-turn will be one amongst many.

On how the turnaround took place, readers may be interested in a set of documents purported to come from the current Greek ‘negotiating’ team (https://uk.scribd.com/YanniKouts). I’ve pulled out choice quotes and added some commentary in different voices, starting with the matter of privatising Piraeus docks, a fiefdom of the Greek Communist Party:

“On privatisation and the development of publicly owned assets, the government is utterly undogmatic; we are ready and willing to evaluate each and every one project on its merits alone. Media reports that the Piraeus ports privatisation was reversed could not be further from the truth. Indeed, quite the opposite holds, as foreign direct investment will be encouraged, as long as the state secures a stream of long-term revenues and a say in labour relations and environmental issues” (Yanis Varoufakis, address to the Eurogroup, February 11, pp3-4).

Public-private ‘partnership’ (think victim and vampire) is what Greece needs: “We want to revive infrastructure projects with public and private sector investors” (p3). This all makes sense, as “We are committed to sound public finances” (p2). Therefore “Continued primary surpluses will remain our mantra” (p5) - primary means before interest payments.

Indeed, we propose a maximum such surplus of 1.5% of GDP when “the present disturbed economic situation has stabilised and for as long as necessary to achieve the underlying goals” (p5). You really can trust us, we are not flight-by-night wideboyz.

And all this is plausible, despite certain appearances that we ourselves have cultivated, not least to get elected, because “we are not tied to any interest groups” (p2) - such as workers and the poorer self-employed. (Peter Bratsis says that Greece is the world leader in self-employment: 30% of the workforce, 37%-38% if you include family-only businesses - which proves a significant problem for tax collectors.)

Let’s be frank: the troika is our friend, not our fiend, so it makes sense for us to sometimes take the initiative (but only minor ones: we know our place), requesting that “IMF technical staff should work closely with the Greek team to assist in developing a sustainable debt programme” (background paper, p11). After all, from our technocratic vista, this is all about technique, not politics.

Not satisfied with three institutions ruling over us, we have even taken the opportunity - unlike the awkward squad known as New Democracy - to add a new one: “The Greek authorities have asked the secretary general of the OECD, who has accepted, for technical assistance in devising, implementing and monitoring this new reform agenda” (p12).

Oh yes, there’s also a little bit of bookkeeping that needs tidying up: “we are eager to find ways of writing off the accumulated penalties on taxpayers in arrears that have mounted up to €70 billion” (Varoufakis, address to the Eurogroup, February 12, p15). So let me get this right. Michael Roberts has said that the Greek state owes €333 billion. Assume the ratio of uncollected tax to penalties is a generous 10:1 (it’s more likely to be far, far more). That makes €700 billion in total. This means that far more than twice the sovereign debt lies unclaimed within Greece itself, simply because of a highly inefficient capitalist state. That, amazingly, is the scale of this detritus, a capitalist society - and culture - that has ground on for the best part of 200 years. And, despite any rhetoric, this is what, in substance, is defended within the horizon of possibilities of the Syriza leaders and their followers: a capitalist horizon. Even so, we remain, as ever, committed: “Privatisations will not be stopped” (second background paper, p19). Our word is our bond.

What is totally missing from the framework agreed last Friday are these concepts proposed by Varoufakis: humanitarian crisis; model of Greek growth; a state-created development bank; debt sustainability. Instead the persistent focus remains: repay the debt, in full. The troika is much less interested in growing the Greek economy; as the Eurogroup statement has it, all must be done “on the basis of the conditions in the current arrangement”.

Alexis Tsipras was unambiguous in his first address to parliament on February 8 in this Guardian report: “he said his government did not have the right to prolong the five-year bailout deal that has foisted austerity on Greece, and felt a duty ‘not to disappoint’ those who had voted him into power. ‘We see hope, dignity and pride returning to Greek citizens. Our obligation and duty is not to disappoint them.’”

Has this already been transformed into widespread despair, humiliation and shame? Probably not. Even so, as Marx put it, “Shame is a kind of anger turned in on itself.” And when it is turned outwards? And which political forces, formed into organisations, are best placed to address those emotional states, emotions that are capable of being repeated, enacted, day after day, becoming habitual, hardening into rigid, robust affective structures that simply won’t go away, born by millions of people awaiting catharsis? It was Thomas Scheff who saw “humiliated fury as the key affect in Hitler’s life.”

As the Eltham march demonstrated during the 2011 London riots, affects are a powerful motivating force, ripping through the constraints of discourse, shredding it, acquiring independence, transforming people. Prometheus gave us fire, and the politics of the Syriza leaders is playing with fire. Varoufakis spoke of capital and the Minotaur, feeding incessantly on human flesh. But the Minotaur, like Santa, has his little helpers. Fuelled by fire, they only need to be set in motion.

Jara Handala

Worker’s wage

Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is furious that two leading politicians have once again brought politics into disrepute - and we have laid down a challenge to local prospective parliamentary candidates on the questions raised.

Malcolm Rifkind is a former foreign secretary and present chair of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which oversees Britain’s intelligence agencies. Jack Straw is former home secretary and foreign secretary. Both earn £65,000 pa as MPs, and earned much more as ministers. They are wealthy people. Why do they need extra money?

It is clear both MPs want to use their positions to earn extra money in advisory roles. We are talking over £5,000 per day. Having have been caught on camera, both are saying they did nothing wrong. Let ordinary people be the judge of that.

In my view, this is the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of MPs are being paid for consultancy and advisory work, despite being on salaries three times the national average. They are paid to be full-time MPs, and should be doing full-time jobs, leaving no time for these immoral earnings.

I am standing for Tusc in Rugby and, if elected as an MP, I would only take the average worker’s wage, which is about £25,000 pa. That is more than enough to live on. The rest I would put back into the community and the labour movement, as my friend and fellow Tusc candidate, Dave Nellist, did as a Labour MP. I would work full-time for local people.

The involvement, yet again, of both Labour and Tory MPs in using their positions for personal gain only confirms the view about politicians that ‘they are all the same; they are in it for themselves’. The fact that they all, including the Lib Dems, propose massive further public spending cuts, whilst they profit individually, beggars belief.

I would challenge all the Rugby candidates to explain how they would avoid the trappings of power. Would any of them join me in only taking the average worker’s wage? Do any agree with MPs being able to use their position for additional personal gain? The people of Rugby, and from further afield, will be interested in their answers.

Pete McLaren