This is a response to Mike Macnair’s comment (Letters, March 29) on Jim Creegan’s article, ‘Walking the tightrope’ (March 22).
While Mr Macnair does raise several historical questions, the main polemical point of his intervention seems to be that we don’t have to worry today about ‘gradualism’ but rather concentrate our struggles against imperialism. I wholeheartedly disagree.
Which is not to say that making a strong stand against imperialist aggression is not important. But when that becomes a substitute for challenging the power of capital at home, then I would say it is just a cover for sounding very ‘left’ while accommodating oneself to the ethos that ‘There is no alternative’.
Sure, reformism is not on the agenda today the way it was in the 1950s, for instance, given the domination of neoliberal austerity. But the concept of gradualism encompasses much more than that. It’s the expression on the political realm of pragmatism as an ideology. By this I don’t necessarily mean the philosophy of James or Dewey, or the common sense notion that we have to work with the conditions that are given to us and not conditions as we would like them to be. Rather, this form of pragmatism is the idea that we must trim our goals to what is attainable within the system, what Trotsky characterised as “bowing down before the accomplished fact”. This is the malady that pervades much of the DSA and Jacobin. Of course, revolutionary struggle in some immediate sense is not on the agenda today, but it is the responsibility of genuine leftists to fight for a perspective that opens the road in mass consciousness to revolutionary struggles. For a group like the DSA that means fighting for a decisive break from the Democratic Party and working toward an independent working class party based on socialist policies. Many of the Sanders supporters who have joined DSA could be convinced of that perspective were the argument for it made clearly.
And while gradualism in relation to reformist movements is not on the agenda today, what has replaced it is the form of gradualism that reduces the role of the left to ameliorating the pain caused by neoliberalism. Syriza is a perfect example of this kind of gradualism. Or, to be more accurate, Syriza is today playing a dual role - on the one hand, it has become the wilful proxy of the European institutions for inflicting pain on the Greek people dictated by Brussels. On the other hand, Syriza turns around and adopts its other hat when it faces its constituents by claiming to do everything it can to ameliorate the terrible conditions that are being imposed on Greece (as if they have nothing to do with imposing those conditions). It’s a fascinating example of political acrobatics.
Syriza’s record level of unpopularity in recent polls indicates that the marketability of this stage performance will soon expire. What happens after that will depend to a great degree on the ability of a genuine leftwing opposition to capitalist austerity, one that did not get caught up in the illusions of ‘gradualism’, to win the hearts and minds of the millions who placed their hopes in Syriza. To prepare for this conjuncture, the Greek left should not dismiss the idea of gradualism as an irrelevant remnant of a bygone era, but understand the destructive impact of the contemporary form of a gradualism tailored to the age of austerity.
Comrade Creegan’s letter (April 5) reasserts his original position. In substance, he is clinging to a ‘strategic’ orthodox view of the post-1956 ‘New Left’ - including in this the Trotskyist groups which were influenced by the ideas of the ‘New Left’. This is the idea that it is mass strikes, and mass street action, which are the foundation of a revolutionary perspective: “the culmination of a succession of initiatives from below.”
This strategic orthodoxy has been repeatedly tested to destruction by ‘New Left’ groups. In reality, a necessary consequence of this strategy is that unity has to be founded in agreement on tactics - the next “initiative from below” - not on the acceptance of a common political programme. The result is either simple sectarianism, or - as in the British Socialist Workers Party and many other groups - both opportunism on substantive demands and sectarianism on practical organisational issues.
The result is both a succession of ephemeral initiatives which lead nowhere, and the Life of Brian image of the far left. The consequence of this tradition and image is that, even where Marx is widely thought to be worth reading and there is a degree of broad radicalisation, as has been the case in recent years, there is a repulsion among newly radicalising forces from actually organising as Marxists, which leaves control of the broad movement in the hands of bureaucrats and their very tepid reformist political representatives.
Trying yet more of this stuff is a waste of all of our time because the ephemeral ‘initiatives from below’ divert attention from real organising work which could be done. And it serves as an indirect left flank guard for the capitalist regime - because its obvious worthlessness and the Life of Brian sectarianism it involves steers newly radicalising forces towards the bureaucracy’s class-collaborationist projects.
The project is sanctified by the New Left’s sanctification of Rosa Luxemburg and damnatio memoriae of those who disagreed with her tactical judgments in 1910. I am fairly sceptical as to whether the ‘New Left’ version is actually Luxemburg, as opposed to a selective version to fit the Cold War view, defended in different ways by both Schorske and Peter Nettl, that only the revisionist Bernstein and the romantic-utopian (interpretation of) Luxemburg represented real alternatives (see my outline discussion ‘Her life and her legacy’ in Weekly Worker, August 16 2012). The point of recent uses is, however, to effect an intellectual closure in favour of “from below” mass-action-ism.
In this context, I don’t propose to enter into a long polemic about the counterfactual whether a 1910 escalation on the SPD side would have led to the German Reich cracking up, or to a big defeat for the SPD along the lines of the 1921 ‘March Action’, which I think is far more likely. I certainly don’t accept that the break-up of a parliamentary coalition is a sign that the rulers cannot go on in the old way: this is the small change of parliamentarism, and to give it too much weight is “parliamentary cretinism”. I cited Day and Gaido for their documentation of the dispute on imperialism, not for their interpretation of it, which is perfectly orthodox ‘New Left’. I drew attention to the fact that a significant part of the mass-action left joined the pro-war camp in 1914 - a point which comrade Creegan does not deign to answer.
Lastly, comrade Creegan claims: “I find Macnair’s remark that gradualism was only an important issue when it was promoted by social democracy during the cold war a little on the bizarre side. Parliamentary gradualism has been deep in the DNA of bourgeois democracy since its birth ...”. I find this idea bizarre. Are we to call John Pym, Oliver Cromwell & co, or Robespierre & co, or the American revolutionaries of the 1770s, “gradualists”? Equally, is the celebration by the capitalist politicians and media of 1989, of 1991, and of subsequent ‘colour revolutions’, “gradualism”?
The far left, clinging to a dogma which responded to Cold War conditions, has made fetishes of the revolutionary moment, of ‘from below,’ and of strikes and street actions. The result is complete disorientation when the capitalist regime turns to celebrating such moments.
Jack Conrad’s articles are always compulsory reading and his one on referenda and the European Union was no less so (‘Against a second referendum’, March 8). However, taken as a whole, I felt Jack came down slightly on the wrong side of that dialectical contradiction within Marxism-Leninism, between democracy and dictatorship.
Jack and the Weekly Worker group argue consistently and correctly that democracy and dictatorship are two sides of the same coin, and one must always ask, democracy (power) for which class, and dictatorship against which one? Socialist revolution by the working class and its allies means overthrowing and smashing the rule and state of the capitalist class and the establishment in its place of a state of the working people. This is democracy for the working class and its allies and a dictatorship against the ruling classes which has been overthrown by the socialist revolution.
However, the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat has included a tension between democracy and power exercised by and/or on behalf of the working people. It is obvious both in theory and in practice that a dictatorship unconstrained by the genuine democracy and control of the class on whose behalf it is being exercised can become oppressive to sections of that very same class.
Included in my own conception of socialism and communism has always been a much higher degree of direct participatory democracy than at present. Government and the administration of society should be everybody’s business. The working class and state power should be constantly accountable and subject to the peoples it serves, if it is to continue to be legitimate, to draw energy and inspiration from the masses and to lead eventually to the dissolution of formal state structures into public self-government by the working class and working masses.
People vote in their millions every week, and pay for the privilege, for crappy TV shows like Britain’s got talent or I’m a celebrity. Why shouldn’t we want the same people, but even more of them, to express their views on a similarly frequent basis on rather more important issues facing us, and therefore to participate more meaningfully and directly in both policy formulation and implementation?
If we support greater use of forms of direct democracy under socialism, then we should fight for them in the here and now under capitalism. Of course, there will always be a role for representative or delegate democracy, which may even continue to be dominant under socialism. But at the very least we, as democrats, socialists and communists, should be fighting for direct forms of democracy to supplement and enhance these.
I think it is perfectly appropriate for referendums to be held to take big, strategic decisions on questions of principle and societal directions of travel, including on moral questions, such as abortion, and then require other forms of decision-making and democracy to work through the detail and carry them out.
With reference to the title of Jack’s article, I thought it right to have a referendum in 1975 as going into the then European Economic Community represented a significant change in the strategic focus and direction of the United Kingdom - largely throwing our lot into the European project and implicitly signing up to the integrationist agenda. As opposed to the traditional stance of remaining a declining imperialist power, aloof and hostile to Europe, a special relationship with the United States and the Commonwealth, and maybe a return to past glories.
I thought it equally right to hold a further referendum 41 years later in 2016, given Europe had evolved into something significantly different to what was claimed to be on offer in 1975, and given Europe had become such a major fault line in British politics, especially with the electoral success of Ukip (eg, coming first on 27% in the 2014 EU parliament election).
Yes, I thought David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ was pathetic and I know the offer of a referendum was part of an unsuccessful attempt to contain internal divisions within the Conservative Party. Yes, both sides asserted, exaggerated, blustered and misled throughout the campaign. Nonetheless, it was still right to hold the referendum, all sides had fair opportunity to express their views and counter opposing points, and a decision was taken which should be respected.
Following that principle, I believe there should be a referendum on both the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU and the proposed future relationship with the EU. The electorate should have options which include at least: endorsement; leave without an agreement; remain within the EU on current terms, renegotiate the terms of leaving.
Alvin Toffler, in his book The third wave (1980), discussed that, as opinion polling has become more sophisticated and accurate, and also that juries are (as per Magna Carta) selected at random and yet are able to exercise really fundamental decisions and consequences over accused, victims and wider society, why can’t we (and nearly 40 years later with all modern methods of communication) use this to provide an element of decision-making within modern society?
While there may always be a role for elected representatives, whose main current work and expertise is devoted to the formulation and implementation of policy, this could be supplemented and enhanced by taking into account the views of randomly selected sections of the population, to ensure decision-making as a whole is properly reflective of the wishes of society.
These random, temporary selections would instantly engage sections of the people in decision-making without having to go through the weeding-out processes used by established bureaucratic political parties, which attract by definition people wanting to be career politicians and to make a living out of it. This approach would ensure that, although there might continue to be career politicians, real influence over decision-making would be placed in the hands of people who are not politicians and people whose main interest may not be politics as such.
We must start to develop an approach to democracy in line with Marx in The German ideology and Lenin’s State and revolution, where politics is increasingly taken out of the hands of career politicians and bureaucrats, and starts to become literally everyone’s business, alongside all the other aspects of people’s work and lives. Politics is genuinely democratised and formal state apparatus and functions gradually wither away in favour of ongoing, public self-government and administration.
There are therefore at least three sets of mechanisms we could use to govern and administer modern society:
1. Representative or delegate democracy (MPs, councillors, etc), who are selected/elected to spend a significant amount of time proposing, considering and scrutinising legislation and helping hold members of any executive authority (a government or administration) to personal, political and public account.
2. Whole-electorate referenda to determine key and fundamental questions of principle and direction of travel. These should include being able to be initiated by a sufficient number of ordinary electors, elected representatives, representative bodies (including councils, national assemblies, House of Commons).
3. Randomly selected sections of the electorate and population asked to express their views on a whole range of matters, including big questions of principle, matters of nuance and practical detail of implementation. These would support, enhance and supplement the operation of formal elected representative assemblies.
The respective balance between these three components (there may be more) would evolve over time, according to which are most effective and efficient at reflecting and meeting the needs of the population.
I think that raising comprehensive and consistent demands, which include at least three distinct, broad forms of democracy and their radical expansion, as being of vital importance in the here and now, and also in helping to define the form of the truly democratic, socialist and communist society we want to achieve.
Sparks of war?
I seriously think we are in a period equal to that just prior to World War I, when a perfect storm was building and apparently unrelated conflicts started to converge, requiring only a single and relatively minor event to kick it all off. Of course, the conflicting powers were already up for it and looking for such a flash to ignite the touch paper.
Absurd though it seems, it looks like the ‘western powers’, Nato et al have chosen to seize on the attempted murder of an ex-Russian spy as the excuse to activate their global grouch against Russia. I will spare you the obvious factors mitigating against this bloke’s fate being determined by some evil mastermind in the Russian government (doubtless with a monocle and a cat), with a spook rubbing a nerve agent on his front doorknob, then sneaking away without being seen, perhaps in a Mr Blobby chemical-proof suit. Particularly when you could hire a kid with a brick in a sock for £50, not to mention a hit-man with a high-power telescopic rifle with a mile range at not very much more money, no questions asked.
What is perhaps surprising in this rapidly deteriorating situation is that the so-called peace movement, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Stop the War Coalition, etc, have been silent. There have certainly been no urgent mass protests to stop the war - I mean the war: you know, the one we will be in!
Just as the ‘left’ seems scared to dismiss the ‘anti-Semitism’ scam, so it is with anti-Russia-ism. No-one wants to say that Putin is actually the fall guy here, so by default we allow the warmongering agenda a relatively safe passage - despite knowing how this propaganda game has been played over the last century, from the secret treaties to the Zinoviev letter, the dodgy dossier and much else.
A section of the Pentagon seems to believe that an actual shooting war with Russia, as close to US soil as possible, is a good idea. Certainly, a Hillary Clinton victory could have seen the start of such an engagement within weeks, if not days, of her election, with the promised imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria. This would have resulted in major ground and air battles with Russian forces, quickly spreading to their respective fleets. The election of ‘the wrong president’ stopped this imminent clash, but it has not taken too long to dint Donald Trump’s proposed neutrality and isolationism. America is now on board, baiting the Russian bear and joining in the current bitter diplomatic spat over the alleged spy poisoning, not to mention reshuffling the pieces in the Syria theatre.
Throughout the period, Nato has continued to undermine the ‘Russian buffer’, winning more and more Slavic and former Warsaw Pact countries into its sphere. The rightwing coup against an elected president in Ukraine, with its rush to join the European Union and Nato, and the consequential ethnic cleansing and isolation of the Russian population, was a key strategic move - eased by EU funding and the promise of an early move towards membership and the possibility of migration to western Europe. Meantime, the largest movement of troops, tanks and artillery since World War II is continuing apace right around Russia’s borders, with military aircraft stationed within striking distance of its cities and military bases.
And now we have the poisoned door-knocker allegation, and the need to stage the anti-Russian bogyman pantomime - upping the ante across the world, withdrawing diplomats, closing embassies, tightening sanctions, freezing accounts. Short on even a shred of evidence and flatly contradicted by Porton Down and before any international inspectors’ report, we are told that Russia ‘has form’, including the previous clashes with perceived western interests in the Crimea and Ukraine, and Russian interference in the US presidential election. The vile provocations of Boris the buffoon, saying that Putin himself gave the order to have the spy killed and comparing the forthcoming World Cup in Russia with the 1936 German Olympic Games and Putin to Hitler, might in earlier periods have been enough to kick off a war on their own.
The conflagration, should it come, could be of epoch proportions. It is inconceivable that such a war would remain conventional or be short, although does anyone in the USA actually think there would be anything at the end of it which would look like a worthwhile victory? Perhaps there is a foolish belief that Russia would quietly accept the new situation and not get involved - or at least back off when it got to the nuclear stage?
My political involvement went up by several stages at the age of 14, when US warships were on a collision course with the Soviet navy - heading for Cuba with nuclear missiles, with the world standing on the brink of all-out nuclear war. I fear we are back at that juncture again - only this time nobody seems to believe it. Everyone is quite calm about the current situation, without even a verse of ‘We shall overcome’ from the once dynamic peace movement.
We seem to be sleepwalking into a worldwide nuclear engagement. Or am I reading too much into all this? Someone please tell me I am.
What a sheer pleasure it was to read last week’s edition of the paper, given how it positively bulged with counter-offensive onslaughts allied to clear-minded appraisal. In the process, a healthy splash of futurism and a large dollop of dignity were reintroduced to our communist camp, for some peculiar reason those precious attributes often being neglected or even actively undermined.
Inconspicuously tucked away elsewhere within online media last week, The Guardian’s Gary Younge reported how he had asked one of Martin Luther King Jnr’s long-term aides why the man had delivered that famous speech about Vietnam, when MLK must have known it would “ruin his relationship with the White House and cost the civil rights movement a lot of support and funds” (as Younge posed the matter). “He had the Nobel prize,” said O’Dell, “and he didn’t know how long he was going to live. He wasn’t but 39, but he wasn’t going to live much longer, and that meant he didn’t have but maybe a few more speeches to give. So he had to say what he was going to say.”
If taking that report at face value, it seems Martin Luther King Jnr held within his consciousness a ‘dual’ reality. On the one hand, he tried to portray the USA as being open to reform (and thereby to its own salvation); on the other hand, he knew perfectly well that capitalist/imperialist America is both structurally and unchangingly brutal. He recognised how America will be always murderous of any serious threat to its domination.
It occurs to me this revelation and set of facts, highly poignant in their own right and original context, also provide an insight into both why and how many Jewish people systematically fool themselves when it comes to acknowledging the true nature of Israel’s state apparatus. And then directly following on, how and why they delude themselves about the always oppressive and often barbaric actions of its various governments.
In order to sustain his theory of continuity within the Bolshevik Party, Lars T Lih omits to discuss the small matter of Lenin’s April theses and Letters to the party in the run-up to the party conference a few weeks later; despite the fact that these documents reveal just how deep the crisis was in the party, following the February revolution.
Either it would be fit to lead the coming struggle or it would capitulate to the reformist tendencies within its own ranks (cf. the SDP and other parties within the Second International in 1914); ie, Kamenev and co who were tail-ending the provisional government. Yet, as Lih would have it, there was no need to ‘rearm the party’ in April 1917; that this is a falsification of history on Trotsky’s part. The same scenario is played out again here in Lih’s analysis of the secret treaties, vis-à-vis the question of defencism (‘Biography of a sister slogan’, April 5).
On the one hand, post the February Revolution, Lih is correct to point out that the Bolsheviks (including Lenin) had to abandon the principle of defeatism; because the party was now confronted by a new conjuncture, wherein a proletarian revolution was both possible and necessary. Albeit, unlike 1905, the country was in the midst of an imperialist war, which had already killed millions of Russian soldiers. Therefore, as long as the masses were prepared to defend the fatherland from German imperialism, the Bolsheviks had to adopt a defencist position (albeit not the kind envisaged by Kamenev and co). On the other hand, the Bolshevik’s strategy of taking and holding on to power, via the Soviets (dual power), also changed; because the revolution, which was now underway, would have to go much further than previously envisaged. Clearly, as a result of three years of a disastrous war (despite the secret treaties, which revealed the equally predatory nature of the old regime), the Russian bourgeoisie (in the form of the provisional government) was subservient to its imperialist allies. Therefore, a bourgeois democratic revolution was no longer possible. As long as the Bolsheviks supported this strategy (either by giving critical support to the provisional government or replacing it), Russia would end up as a vassal of its imperialist allies (or even Germany). Therefore, the programme of ‘old Bolshevism’, which Lenin subscribed to (ie, up until April 1917) was now redundant. Yet he was the first among the Bolshevik leaders to realise that this had to go (cf. Kamenev and co, who still clung to it). The new conjuncture meant that the strategy for a ‘democratic revolution’ had to give way to the struggle for a ‘commune state’, as a first step towards socialism. Thus, as Trotsky argues in his History, Lenin realised that the need to rearm the party politically was essential to the revolution. Cue the April theses.
Unlike Lih, Trotsky gives a dialectical-materialist account in his History of the Russian Revolution. But, as I have said in a previous article, there are two histories: the first was published in 1919, and although it is less well known, it is more reliable (ie, a less factional account) than the second - longer - History, which was published in the early 1930s. (Space prevents me from explaining why this is; suffice to say, it has a lot to do with the degeneration of the party, as a result of the civil war, wherein the ensuing factional struggle led to the defeat of Trotsky’s Left Opposition and his expulsion from the party, etc.) Consider these extracts from the first version:
“Hoisting themselves on the shoulders of…the army, the petty-bourgeois parties [both in the provisional government and the soviets] overawed the proletariat and befogged it with ‘defencism’. That is why Lenin at once came out furiously against the old slogan of ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’, which under the new circumstances meant the transformation of the Bolshevik party into the left wing of the defencist bloc. For Lenin, the main task was to lead the proletarian vanguard from the swamp of defencism out onto firm ground. Only on that condition could the proletariat at the next stage become the axis around which the toiling masses of the village would group themselves. But in that case, what should our attitude be towards the democratic revolution [dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry]? Lenin was ruthless in refuting ‘the old Bolsheviks’ who, ‘on more than one occasion’, he said, ‘played a lamentable role in the history of our party, repeating senselessly formulas they have learned by rote instead of studying the peculiarities of new living reality…. Is there any reality in the old Bolshevik formula of comrade Kamenev that the bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed? No … there is not. The formula is antiquated. It is worthless…” [1919 version, p125. Note here Trotsky is quoting from Lenin’s Assessment of the situation, written a few days after the April theses].
Trotsky then turns to Kamenev’s editorial in Pravda, 15 March 1917: Following on from his now famous remark, “No; the people will remain intrepidly at their post, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell”, we can skip to, “ our slogan is no empty cry ‘Down with war!’ which means the disorganisation of the revolutionary army and the army becoming ever more revolutionary. [Correct!] Our slogan is to bring pressure (!), an attempt(!) to induce (!) the warring countries to initiate immediate peace negotiations to end the war. Till then every one (!) remain at his post (!)” [Trotsky’s exclamation marks. NB: He also reminds us that this is the same programme as that of Kautsky and co, History, p129].