Letters

Shibboleth

Jack Conrad’s reply (September 7) to my letter of the previous week put forward the opinion that the differences between Lenin and Kamenev in April 1917 were “one of shade, even temperament”.

I realise that words only have the content we give them, but I am at a loss to understand how Conrad thinks his opinion squares with Lenin’s description at the time - that there was a “clamour of protest” from those calling themselves “old Bolsheviks”.

And who was the leader of these “old Bolsheviks” Lenin is referring to? Unlike Conrad, I do not see this as a question of presumption, but rather one of simple fact. It was Kamenev who had written a piece published in Pravda No27 (responding to Lenin’s April theses) that ‘Letters on tactics’ was a direct response to.

In that Pravda article, Kamenev had outlined the significance of the dispute in terms that any normal reading would indicate was much more than “one of shade, even temperament” - “As for comrade Lenin’s general scheme, it appears to us unacceptable …”

But of more importance than speculating about why Conrad chooses to disagree with the view of the main protagonists at the time regarding the degree of seriousness of the dispute caused by the April theses is what Conrad lays out as the supposed basis of that dispute and how he goes on to use that as a justification for the CPGB’s current-day opportunism.

Conrad poses the central point of the dispute in terms of a minor tactical issue of timing around when to stop giving critical support to the Provisional Government and start agitating for soviet power. It is clear that this was a part of the dispute, but it was also more than that.

Contrary to Conrad’s assertion, I did not deny that Lenin described the soviets that existed in April 1917 as the concretisation of the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” slogan. Perhaps he can quote from my letter where I did so? Lenin does indeed write: “The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies - there you have the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ already accomplished in reality.”

But Lenin’s point was that the concrete manifestation of this slogan had worked out very differently from what they had previously envisaged. Therefore, to continue using ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ was to effectively give political support to the Provisional Government. That is why anyone continuing to use the slogan should be “consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques”. This is what I argued in my letter and it is just a matter of historical fact.

Now to what extent this represented some kind of “break” in the overall continuity of Bolshevik thought (and perhaps also therefore represents a vindication of Trotsky’s alternative understanding of the revolutionary process, which more closely mirrored the perspective outlined in Lenin’s April theses) is, I guess, a matter of interpretation. To harp on about this is to miss the point, by taking something of a biblical approach to the text rather than trying to understand the underlying political method being used (to borrow one of Conrad’s regular put-downs of alternative views to his own).

It is not a matter of my imagination that the CPGB used this slogan throughout the discussions at the Communist University to describe the processes occurring in Russia right up to the revolution itself - in direct and explicit contradiction to Lenin’s advice to the contrary. Disagreeing with Lenin on any issue is, of course, perfectly fine, but doing so while at the same time claiming they are the (only?) ones standing in continuity with the political method of Lenin is a bit hard to take seriously.

It is also not my imagination that this is directly related to their conflation of the forces that made the 1917 revolution (the proletariat supported by the peasantry) with popular frontist alliances between proletarian and bourgeois parties ever since then. Even if he might be reluctant to say so openly, I am sure Conrad remembers our conversation where he explicitly made that connection.

While he is less direct in his letter, the basic argument remains the same. Conrad argues: “Neither in spirit nor in practice did this Bolshevik-Left SR government have anything to do with the popular fronts advocated by the ‘official communists’ (and a few years ago by the SWP in its Respect phase).”

This is not any kind of concession to my position, as Conrad also argues that “When it comes to government, it is programme that provides the litmus test.” So, for Conrad there is no difference in quality between an alliance of the organisations of the oppressed (proletariat and peasantry) and an alliance of the organisations of the oppressed with organisations of its oppressors (proletariat and bourgeoisie).

Apparently, either one of these could be the vehicle for implementation of the “full minimum programme” of the Marxist party representing the proletarian component in that alliance (for the purposes of this letter, I will accept the CPGB’s use of ‘full minimum programme’ as synonymous with a programme capable of achieving a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, as in October 1917).

As Conrad and the CPGB are so keen on what they understand to be the lessons of 1917, they might like to think what Lenin would have thought of the idea that the problem with the Provisional Government was merely one of its programme being insufficient rather than its inherent cross-class nature (in the sense of being an alliance of the oppressed workers and peasants with their bourgeois oppressors in the form of the Cadets). Instead of ‘Down with the 10 capitalist ministers’, the CPGB’s approach would seem to be much more like ‘Convince the 10 capitalist ministers’.

Given that Conrad used the example of the SWP and Respect, it should be noted that the CPGB gave political support to SWP members standing as Respect candidates in the general election at the time. To head off the clamour of outrage by CPGBers reading this letter, I do realise that this was critical political support. But the comrades should take the time to think about why the critical part of that support did not include a call to break with popular frontism in general or even just the bourgeois components of this particular popular front. And they might further consider whether this failure was therefore implicit political support to popular frontism.

Perhaps they will fall back on the ‘programme is the litmus test’ argument. But even here the CPGB failed to carry out the perspective they claim motivates them. The CPGB had members and supporters inside Respect who put forward amendments to the programme at the yearly conferences. Were these amendments to implement the CPGB’s ‘full minimum programme’? No - instead they were limited to more radical versions of some reformist demands.

It is interesting that Conrad feels the need to describe my understanding of these issues as “borderline madness”. In my experience, when the leader of a tiny group substitutes substantive political discussion with this kind of apolitical slur it has a clear purpose. That is to stop the members of their group from thinking too seriously about the opposing view being put forward. The implication is clear. If any CPGB member was to show themselves to be open to the perspective I was putting forward, then the central leader of their organisation would have already marked them as slipping into madness.

This is related to the point in my original letter about this debate being taken up openly in 1917. Conrad attempts to brush this aside by asserting that “of course, open debate was the norm amongst the Bolsheviks”. But he makes no attempt to explain why, if that really was such a well-known and established norm, Lenin felt it necessary to explicitly explain that “we unanimously concluded that it would be advisable openly to discuss our differences” (Lenin’s emphasis) and that “Complying with this decision concerning a discussion, I am publishing …”

So, just to be clear - there was a vote taken on whether to openly debate this issue. Lenin published his pamphlet because he was complying with the result of that vote. It is logical to assume therefore that the vote could have gone the other way, with the discussion being kept internal. I fail to see how the foreword to ‘Letters on tactics’ can be read any other way. This was an example of the real Bolshevik norm regarding openness of discussions. Decisions on whether or not to debate any issue openly (in the public press) were the result of internal discussion and votes - just as with any other political activity.

Why Conrad feels the need to dispute this is quite strange, given it is so obviously the case from the evidence of Lenin’s foreword to ‘Letters on tactics’. I suppose if you have turned your particular understanding of the term ‘democratic centralism’ into a shibboleth, in the way the CPGB have, then ignoring contrary facts is probably the best way to go.

To once again borrow another quote, it would seem that for their own reasons the Jack Conrads of this world want to, or need to, deceive themselves.

Alan Gibson
Co Cork, Ireland

Overboard

Unsurprisingly, former Spartacist League member Jim Creegan goes very overboard in his condemnation of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) founder Michael Harrington (‘Leftwing of the permissible’, September 7).

Harrington made many errors during his political career, but he was right about one thing: “The vocation of a radical in the last portion of the 20th century is to walk a perilous tightrope. He must be true to the socialist vision of a new society and constantly develop and extend its content; and he must bring that vision into contact with the actual movements fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread.”

He continued: “If the radical becomes totally obsessed with their vision, they will fall off that tightrope into a righteous irrelevance; if they adapt too well to the movement we hope to inspire, they will fall into a pragmatic irrelevance. Our task is to balance vision and practicality, to fight not simply for the next step, but for the next step in a voyage of ten thousand miles.”

I admit that Harrington and the organisations he founded wavered to the right of the tightrope too often - turning the Democratic Party into a social democratic labour party, with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) or DSA as its left edge, was never on the cards - but Creegan fails to even recognise the issue that Harrington was trying to deal with. He does not recognise his own “righteous irrelevance”.

And let’s get the facts right. Harrington openly and unequivocally demanded that the US get out of Vietnam in 1968; he didn’t wait until 1970. (Yes, 1968 was still too late; his ‘realignment’ strategy led him to compromise too much with the Socialist Party right wing - specifically his mentor, Max Shachtman). In the late 1970s, in the pages of The Nation, Harrington admits that he should have helped build an ‘Out now!’ movement along the lines of what the Socialist Workers Party (US) did in the 60s. In the 1970s and 80s he apologised, repeatedly, for his ‘stupid’ behaviour regarding Students for a Democratic Society and he condemned the US’s “criminal war” in Vietnam in his final book. (Had he not also done so earlier, then there was no way that the new left veterans of the New American Movement would have ever chosen to merge with Harrington’s DSOC in 1982.)

Furthermore, whatever its other failings in regard to its relationship to the left wing of the labour officialdom - and they were real - the DSOC explicitly supported the Ed Sadowski insurgency in the United Steelworkers as well as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and some of its members were involved with the Association for Union Democracy. If Creegan doesn’t believe this, he should try to get his hands on 1970s issues of the DSOC’s Democratic Left newsletter.

Had Harrington been a genuine cold warrior, there is no way that the DSA would have ever critically supported the FSLN (Sandinistas) against the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, as it did. The DSA also sponsored a national speaking tour in 1988 by Rubén Zamora, then vice-president of the El Salvadoran FMLN - another target of US imperialism.

As for “support for Israel”, all this has meant for the DSA is support for a two-state settlement along the lines of what Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom, in Israel, have advocated since 1993. Undoubtedly, for Creegan and others who write for the Weekly Worker, this is still ‘Zionism’ (and, admittedly, there were Labour Zionists in both the DSOC and early DSA), but, I promise you, real Zionists - the ones who write apologies for the strangling and bombing of Gaza and worry about Israel’s ‘demographics’ - do not agree. The DSA also explicitly supported the first intifada.

In any event, the DSA has never treated Harrington’s writings as holy writ in the way that, say, orthodox Trotskyists have done with James P Cannon. The DSA has never enforced a ‘Harringtonite’ orthodoxy. This gives Creegan’s condemnation of Harrington a particularly musty air. It’s long since time for all American Marxists to move on from heaping anathema on someone who has been dead since 1989 and spend far more time focusing on how to build the “far left of the possible” today.

Jason Schulman
New York

Reminder

Jim Creegan’s article is a great reminder of the consistent anti-working class aggression of ‘centrist’ Democrats. “What happened” indeed, Hillary?

Arthur Birnbaum
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Our heritage

Supporters of Labour Party Marxists attended the seventh Wigan Diggers Festival on September 2 to distribute leaflets and generally introduce our politics to people attending. The annual festival is a mixture of politics, music and drama celebrating radical politics and working class struggles, with a particular emphasis on the 17th century revolutionaries of the Digger movement, whose leading light, Gerrard Winstanley, came from Wigan.

Despite the atrocious weather conditions (torrential rain and stormy winds that wrought havoc with the LPM stand!), the event was successful, although understandably attendance was somewhat down on previous years. Although the festival has something of a ‘family day out’ feel to it, several aspects of the event struck me as worthy of comment. The first was the nature of the stalls and the groups represented: these ranged from contingents from left groups such as the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star, through to local campaigns protesting against cuts in the health service and education. Trade unions such as the RMT, Unite and the BFAWU were also represented, along with craft stalls and fundraising activities for local ‘good causes’. On the main stage a variety of folk and indie bands performed political and other folk standards, whilst two short plays brought to life the politics of the 17th century Putney Debates and the democratic demands of the Chartists in the 19th.

This ‘field of folk’ and these political and cultural offerings were a snapshot of the nature of the broad labour and socialist movement as it now exists in many localities throughout Britain: a combination of established ‘traditional’ labour and trade union organisations, the familiar left groups selling papers and advertising the next big demo and mobilisation (along with the not so familiar in the form of a Zapatista solidarity group, albeit from Manchester, not Chiapas!), and a range of single-issue campaigning groups. This local rootedness and sense of identification with the area’s radical past was a clear strength: stalls highlighting Wigan’s connection with the Spanish civil war or the struggles within the mining industry bore testament to that - as did, of course, the Digger theme, which brought the whole event together. However, this was not some quaint ‘heritage’ festival with participants dressed in 17th-century costume to add to the atmosphere of ‘Merrie England’: with varying degrees of success the organisers and many of the participants were attempting to link the politics and the struggles of the past with those of today.

On a small scale this festival is to be applauded for seeking to show these links and build a popular tradition that celebrates our revolutionary forebears. In doing so it counters the official heritage narrative widely propagated, both in the media and in so many local festivals. Every locality has a radical tradition of working class struggle that should be commemorated and celebrated in festivals, meetings and publications. Large and small events from the Durham Miners Gala through to the commemorations of the Levellers at Burford, the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, the deported trade unionists from Tolpuddle and, of course, Winstanley from Wigan show what can be done and, with all their limitations, point to how our movement should start to reclaim its past and build its future.

This relationship between the past and the present in the politics of the working class movement will become increasingly important. Amongst the many setbacks that have occurred since the 1980s has been the way that the knowledge of the history of working class struggle and political challenge to the status quo has been diminished and lost, even amongst many activists.

The radicals of the English Revolution, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, are a case in point. In the late 1960s and 70s historians published a wide range of political manifestoes from the 1640s and 50s and introduced us to a new world turned upside-down during the English Revolution. This was part of a wider flowering of historical work and research covering all aspects of British history from the late Middle Ages, which countered bourgeois narratives of gradual reform and organic evolution, and replaced the cosy tales of ‘our island story’ with a grand narrative of revolution and struggle.

Celebrations of these struggles, such as the Wigan Diggers Festival, must go hand in hand with a widening and deepening of our knowledge of these revolutionary aspects of our own history. The Weekly Worker and the CPGB’s Communist University have a key role to play in this process by publishing historical material and organising conferences and meetings to highlight these important historical events and movements as part of the wider process of rebuilding and re-arming a revolutionary movement in Britain.

James Harvey
Liverpool

Pay rise now

The government has announced the end of the public-sector pay cap for police and prison officers. It has also hinted at ending the pay cap altogether by talking about the need for more flexibility in the future.

Whilst welcoming this U-turn by the Tory government, Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition remains highly critical of government policy on public-sector pay. They should immediately lift the 1% cap for all public-sector workers, including nurses, doctors, teachers and firefighters, who have seen their pay cut by thousands of pounds over the last seven years. We call for coordinated industrial action by public-sector trade unions to force the government to change its position.

Even the 1.7% rise for prison officers, and the 1% one-off bonus for police on top of the 1% cap, is way below inflation, which has risen to 2.9%. These are pay cuts in real terms. Even more to the point, there will no extra money to fund these small pay increases - they will have to be funded within present departmental budgets. That means other services will be cut back further.

The announcement by the Tories was deliberately divisive, suggesting they value some public services above others. We have always said that all public-sector workers provide vital services for the whole community, and should all be rewarded appropriately.

There is plenty of money in the economy. Britain is the 5th richest country in the world. There is no need for pay restraint. Austerity could be ended tomorrow: a 5% wealth tax on those earning over £100,000 per annum would prevent the need for cuts, as would the collection of taxes worth £120 billion pa that wealthy companies and individuals avoid or evade paying.

As recently as in the queen’s speech this June, the Tories refused to end the pay cap. This was supported by local MP Mark Pawsey. It would be interesting to know if he now supports this partial about-turn by his government, and whether he agrees with us that the time has come to end austerity.

Pete McLaren
Rugby Tusc

Kick in the guts

Most likely I’m not alone amongst your readership when feeling kicked in the guts by last week’s articles from Peter Manson (‘Apologists for mass murder’, September 7) and Tony Greenstein (‘Don’t abandon Palestinian cause’). The beyond-cruel facts and ultra-sordid information contained within them makes it extremely hard not to lose hope for humankind - let alone for the building of socialism.

Who can be anything other than utterly disgusted by the demonic betrayals of South Africa’s African National Congress government? Betrayals of truly historic gains, many of them secured as individuals (along with previous others in their party and movement) over rabid racism; most specifically, over ‘post-colonialism-compliant’ apartheid. Who could fail to be utterly revolted by Israel’s demonic justifications of its customised version of that supremacist/sub-fascist system?

If not connected to such abjectly toxic and often deadly matters, it might have been possible to see all such bullshit/smokescreen attempts by the governments of both Israel and South Africa merely as comic pantomime. Of course, none of that is to forget the UK’s Stalinist Morning Star running in full fancy dress alongside an equally farcical-comedic South African Communist Party. However, these intercontinental events and developments remain both accurately and most usefully described as “festering anti-working class viruses erupting from their pustules of politico-spiritual decadence”.

Rather than generating pessimism or any such knee-jerk reactions of despondency or despair, all genuine communists and any real socialists should find a boost to their spirit - as well as re-enforcement to their inner resolve - from the fact that the Weekly Worker provides a space for such insights and evaluations as those from comrades Greenstein and Manson. I share that enthusiasm, even if heavily tempered by the fact that a single, operationally consolidated media outlet (and thereby a powerfully amplified voice for our communist ideas, ideals and values) would provide incalculably far greater opportunities for traction and engagement with all working co-citizens.

For my meagre part, I continue with my own underlying ‘Bolshevik-styled’ good vibes bonded to concretely constructive fury. By which I mean fury directed towards any and all dehumanising formulations or ‘demonically disguised’ versions of capitalism (not to forget any of its bestially imperialist rampages).

Incidentally, by way of a similar ‘kick in the guts’, as mentioned at the outset, surely your readers should remain conscious of this. Very regrettably - but accompanied by a virtual cascade of recent indications - precisely that same expression may prove to be applicable to Corbyn’s Labour Party (the expression relating to viruses and pustules of ‘politico-spiritual decadence’, that is). Of course, time alone will bring us an answer. Meanwhile, we should hold on tightly to our aspirations for genuine - aka ‘kosher’ - leftward growth in Labour, all in the hope we’re not merely pipe dreaming!

Bruno Kretzschmar
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