Ian Donovan’s latest diatribe is so full of contradictions and non-sequiturs it is difficult to know where to start (Letters, June 21). So let us deal first with the central point of his previous letter (June 7), which claimed that the reason Grassroots Black Left walked out of Labour Against the Witchhunt was the decision to exclude Socialist Fight. Apparently this decision resulted from the CPGB trying to “impose their own chauvinist agenda on LAW”.
Ian now appears to accept that the GBL comrades voted for SF’s exclusion (or “supported the purge”, as he puts it), yet he still insists that his June 7 letter had “nailed the reason why an important group of black activists bailed out”! Having started his latest contribution by describing GBL in that way, however, he dismisses my factual correction by rubbishing this “important group” - didn’t I know GBL are mere “left reformists”?
Nevertheless, he adds that “the CPGB’s chauvinism and defence of the British ruling class against charges of racism still managed to alienate [GBL], given a bit of time”. This is an example of Ian’s customary practice of making totally speculative assertions without any attempt to back them up.
The reason for SL’s exclusion was, of course, its blatant anti-Semitism. This takes the form of its contention that a major factor in imperialism’s support for Israel is the “overrepresentation” of Jews in the ruling class. It is obvious that Ian genuinely does not understand why this assertion is anti-Semitic, so I will try to explain. It is based on the assumption that ruling class Jews are able to determine the policy of imperialist states like the US - with the implication that without such “overrepresentation” foreign policy would be markedly different. If only there were fewer Jews at the top … Ian himself (eventually) admitted that support for Israel is in the interests of imperialism, yet he still persists in that claim. In other words, blaming the Jews has all the hallmarks of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
But, says Ian, SF cannot be anti-Semitic because “the CPGB have admitted in writing, several times, that our comrades do not hate Jews”. And, for him, “Hatred of Jews is the very definition of anti-Semitism.” I do not agree that this is an adequate definition. As Ian himself writes, “Any ideology that treats particular groups of human beings as less than fully human or undeserving of equal rights on grounds of nationality or ethnic origin is racism.” But it is obvious that you do not have to “hate” people of a given ethnicity to favour discriminatory measures against them.
I pointed out in my last letter (June 14) that Dave Vincent - who advocates immigration controls against, for example, eastern Europeans - is not motivated by racism, but by national sectionalism, as he fears such migrants might be prepared to undercut current wages and conditions. I have no objection to using the description ‘racist’ for people who say, “No more Polish vermin”, to use Ian’s own example. But that surely does not mean that all those (including comrade Vincent) who favour immigration controls are racist - or that actual racists necessarily “hate” Poles, blacks, Jews or whatever, when they advocate discriminatory measures against them. Until the second half of the last century discrimination against women was routine, but did the establishment which upheld such discrimination consist exclusively of males who hated women?
Returning to discrimination, or prejudice, directed specifically against Jews, would Ian agree that those who say that Jews are ‘mean’ might not actually “hate” them, yet they are still being anti-Semitic? And, I have to say, Ian’s assertion that in opposing such tropes we are expressing “a philo-Semitic bias in favour of Jews” itself smacks of anti-Semitism.
Equally absurd is Ian’s opposition to such groups as Jewish Voice for Labour, which was set up to oppose Zionism and the Zionist-backed campaign of ‘anti-Semitic’ smears within the Labour Party. He writes: “Those who advocate separate Jews-only political groups to ‘fight’ Zionism, as Moshé Machover does, can be justly called semi-Bundist.” Apparently they believe that “Jews are morally superior to non-Jews, who always need a Jewish voice to give them the seal of approval”! This accusation would be hilarious if Ian were not so deadly serious about it.
He continues: “As someone who is intimately acquainted with white South African politics, I wonder why Peter did not advocate separate whites-only groups to ‘fight’ apartheid?” Well, if under the notorious Group Areas Act a couple of black households had been threatened with eviction from an otherwise all-white block of flats, and the rest of the residents had got together to oppose this, stating, ‘Black and white, we are one community’, that would certainly have been worthy of support.
Ian seems to have no objection to an individual Jew stating their objection to Israel and Zionism, but if two or more Jews come together to declare their joint opposition to what is, after all, the separatist politics of Zionism, he labels that “semi-Bundist”!
Let me deal now with Ian’s dogmatic contention that capitalism has always promoted, and must always promote, a racist ideology. He writes: “... the systematic oppression of minorities was and is linked to some kind of colonial and later semi-colonial question, which are fundamental to imperialist capitalism. This is why the masses of such origins will always be treated as inferior ...”
He is right to say that racism largely derived from colonialism (although there is also the question of slavery, particularly when it comes to racism in the US). In order to justify the British empire, we were told that ‘we’ had gone round the world bringing civilisation to inferior peoples. Schoolchildren were encouraged to marvel at the pink-shaded areas on the atlas, marking out all the countries whose citizens ought to be grateful for such British benevolence; every March, Empire Day was promoted as a patriotic holiday.
But with the ending of colonialism and the empire, there was a sea change: there now came into being the Commonwealth (in 1958 Empire Day was replaced by Commonwealth Day - whatever happened to that?). Now children were no longer taught that ‘we’ were superior to the peoples of the former empire, but that we were all equal - British, Nigerians, Indians, etc all have a common interest and are working together for our ‘common wealth’.
In other words, when the empire ended, so did the need to justify it in such an aggressive way. It is a total non-sequitur to say that, because it was promoted through a racist ideology, such an ideology must of necessity continue indefinitely. Today anyone with eyes can see that the ideology promoted by the establishment is anti-racist.
Ian really ought to spend an evening watching television. Whether it is the news, soaps, game shows, sports programmes or advertisements, over and over again he will find evidence of the dominant anti-racist nationalism - the notion, as I put it in my last letter, that “‘we British’ - worker and capitalist, black and white - have a common, united interest” leaps out at you. But, absurdly, Ian contends that the anti-racism implicit in that phrase is “not part of a reactionary ideology”, even though it is based primarily on the denial of class divisions. It is, of course, true that anti-racism has always been central to the working class’s emancipatory ideology, but that has not stopped the ruling class taking it over and perverting it in the interests of the bourgeoisie.
What does Ian say when I point out that home secretary Sajid Javid was described as possibly the next prime minister by a writer in the rightwing Sunday Telegraph? He compares Javid to the “minority of privileged blacks” who acted as overseers under slavery and to the Jewish ‘kapos’ in Nazi concentration camps, who were given limited responsibility before meeting their death alongside all the others! I suppose that comparison must apply to Barack Obama too.
Somewhat contradictorily, however, a few sentences later he implies that, although “the masses” of “blacks, Muslims and others” will “always be treated as inferior”, people like Javid are part of “a tiny group of bourgeois” who “can escape”. So he is no longer a slave, after all. But the question still arises: why did the Tories promote him to home secretary (and possibly prime minister)? How does that help generate the racism that Ian says the ruling class relies on?
He states: “The anti-racism of the British ruling class is only for respectable outward show.” But surely it is the bourgeoisie itself that decides what is “respectable”. In the days of empire, the very appointment of a black man to such an important post would have been considered completely lacking in any ‘respect’ for the British people.
And the contention that the bourgeoisie’s anti-racism is only for “outward show” is another one of those unsubstantiated assertions. Or perhaps Ian can provide us with evidence of the ruling class’s underhand moves to promote racism: eg, Tory circulars urging local parties not to select black candidates; demands that the BBC sack all non-white newsreaders; instructions from chief superintendents for the police to specifically target blacks for stop and search ...
In fact the bourgeoisie’s anti-racist political correctness is all too real. Take the case of Jonathan Friedland, a senior executive at Netflix, the online TV and movie company, who has just been sacked for using the word ‘nigger’ when discussing sensitive expressions with colleagues - and then repeating the word when questioned by the HR department about the incident “in front of two black employees” (The Sunday Telegraph June 22). There was no suggestion that he was using ‘nigger’ as a slur, but Netflix boss Reed Hastings said: “... his descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work showed unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity, and is not in line with our values as a company.”
I think I understand the actual racism at work here. Netflix believes that black people are so weak and sensitive that they cannot even bear to hear a word that was once commonly used as an insult.
Finally let me deal with Ian’s outrage at the following statement that appeared in the Weekly Worker: “We in the CPGB, unlike some, are not minded to fling around accusations of racism - or treat racism as the greatest crime one can ever commit” (‘Elephant in the room’, May 5 2016). Ian declares: “The latter phrase is quite an amazing statement from supposed anti-racists and Marxists.”
So racism is “the greatest crime one can ever commit” then? If someone makes a racist comment, should they be treated like a mass murderer?
Let me give you an example from personal experience. When I was a teenager, my sister asked my father, “What would you say if Peter brought home a coloured girl, Dad?”, to which he replied, “I’d be disgusted.” However, when a decade later I not only “brought home” a black woman, but married her, far from being “disgusted”, he grew to love her. I was so pleased he had not been sentenced to life imprisonment.
The point that Eddie Ford was making in the article Ian quotes appeared a few sentences later: “Should we write off everyone who advocates some form of immigration control or utters words perceived to be discriminatory? No, as a general principle, open debate is the best means to combat bigotry and backwardness.”
Absolutely correct. And that applies to Ian Donovan’s anti-Semitism too.
Ian Donovan alleges that “those who advocate separate Jews-only political groups to ‘fight’ Zionism, as Moshé Machover does, can be justly called semi-Bundist. Only semi-Bundist, because they do not go all the way and advocate a Jews-only political party, as the Bund built.” In his customary manner, he mischievously misrepresents my views by drawing a red-herring analogy.
The Bund, which existed before the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and helped to found it, demanded the right to be a national component within the RSDLP on the grounds that the Jews in the Russian empire were a distinct nation with its own language and other national attributes. Lenin’s counter-argument was misplaced, as I explained in my article, ‘Zionist myths: Hebrew versus Jewish identity’ (Weekly Worker May 16 2013).
Whichever side you take in that historical debate, it is beside the point and has zilch to do with the argument in favour of Jews in this country forming ad-hoc groupings for combating the official (‘mainstream’) Jewish leadership’s fake claims. The Board of Deputies of British Jews impertinently presumes to represent all Jews in this country in supporting the Zionist colonisation project and the Israeli settler state. And the Jewish Labour Movement, with similar positions, deceptively pretends to speak for all Jews in the Labour Party. These lies must be publicly refuted. Clearly, the only credible way to do this is for dissenting Jews to speak up as Jews and declare: ‘Not in our name’. In order to effectively organise such public declarations, it is obviously necessary to set up single-issue, ad hoc Jewish groupings, nationally and within Labour.
In another of his red-herring analogies, Ian disingenuously wonders “why Peter did not advocate separate whites-only groups to ‘fight’ apartheid?” The analogy is fatuous: whites were not a minority in Britain and there was no official body with a status comparable to that of the BoD or the JLM that supported apartheid in the name, specifically, of all white people. Support for apartheid was led by the British government, officially representing all British citizens.
Ian’s attack on Jewish groupings in Britain and in the Labour Party, set up in the struggle against Zionism, is a thoroughly reactionary attempt to undermine this struggle … in the guise of ‘anti-racism’.
The way forward
Mike Macnair should be thanking me, because my article, ‘Trotskyism and May 1968’ (June 14), has enabled him to clarify his own position (Letters, June 21). This can be reduced to two main themes, which are also related: firstly, the question, à la Marx, of “material force”; secondly, the question of defending the Soviet Union in the face of imperialist aggression, led by the USA post-1945.
He agrees that his talk to the London Communist Forum was “abstract”. But what was the point? Since in it he gives the impression that he goes along with the idea that bureaucratic collectivism “was adopted by the British, French and German establishments”; that this is not only a fact: it also operated as a material force, which goes a long way towards explaining the degeneration of post-war Trotskyism. Compare my argument that it degenerated because, come the 1930s, Stalinism had become a counterrevolutionary force within the world working class, whilst Trotskyism was relegated to the margins of the class struggle, which pushed it towards the periphery during the post-war period (hence the arguments about revisionism and liquidationism). Therefore, despite the shake-up of 1968, Trotskyism shifted the epicentre of the world revolution to the colonial sector, whilst in its own imperialist heartland it focused more and more on peripheral struggles at the expense of the working class.
As for saying that he had addressed the question of Stalinism as the main material force, etc in an article written in 2007, isn’t Mike being a bit presumptuous to assume that everyone present was au fait with this over a decade later - let alone myself, who only became a Weekly Worker supporter in 2012-13?
Apropos Mike’s point that the enemy (imperialism) “will always be too strong for us’ (hence the implication for the far left is: why bother?). To put it as succinctly as I can, I thought that both myself and Jack Conrad made it clear that, following the May events in 1968, French imperialism was rattled; but it was saved by the counterrevolutionary role of the French Communist Party, acting as the guard dog for its Moscow masters. Thus the May events did not develop into a revolutionary situation, despite the fact that the world had witnessed the largest general strike in history - tens of thousands of workers had occupied their factories, etc.
On the other hand, Mike’s point about “Soviet defencism” is right: “As Trotsky argued in 1940 … the actual available alternative was not ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’, but just Washington, and as a result the massive social destruction that has followed 1989-91 in both east and west …” Therefore, Mike disagrees with the demand of Mandel (Germain) in 1947 “for the immediate withdrawal of [Soviet] occupation troops from eastern Europe, [which] had it been implemented, would have led in short order to new world imperialist aggression against the USSR”. No doubt, this would have begun with the occupation of eastern Europe by US imperialism and its allies. I believe that I had covered this point in my article: viz my introduction to the section on ‘1947’: Just as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had been previously, Mandel was motivated by rational optimism: ie, he hoped that the working class would rise up and resist the primary enemy - US imperialism and the threat of another destructive war. Compare this to the Soviet bureaucracy, which “merely” wanted a buffer zone, etc.
Today the far left occupies a similar position to that which Trotskyism found itself in, although there are some important differences. Firstly, even before the cold war arose, via socialism in one country/peaceful coexistence, Stalinism had opened the door to the post-war boom and the “society of the spectacle”; along with the theories of structuralism/poststructuralism. It follows that the latter, by means of the “logic of disintegration”, provides an intellectual fig leaf for the former, along with the atomisation of the masses, without which neoliberalism would have been much harder to impose (therefore it is encouraging to see that Mike is now addressing this issue via his articles on intersectionality).
Secondly, as a consequence, the far left today is even more marginalised than post-war Trotskyism, which accounts for its complete disarray (See the letter that followed Mike’s on the ‘Left Unity crisis’).
Thirdly, whilst The Soviet Union is no more, we are still living with its poisonous legacy (the social weight of Stalinism). In this regard, it should be remembered that this phenomenon also gave reformism a new lease of life. But now this is coming to an end. The rise - and (imminent) fall - of Corbynism is evidence of this. Reformism grows old, but it never changes its spots. It will always side with the bourgeois state. Next stop - a big crisis of the whole bourgeois order? If so, we must try and be properly prepared.
Therefore, in the light of all these points, the question of the way forward needs to be debated further in the pages of this paper. It should be noted that, although the situation in Britain today is by no means analogous to the early 1920s, the Third International was able to change its position on the question of the Labour Party. To this end, the CPGB should be prepared to do the same: ie, on the basis of the evidence. Therefore it should be open to discussion vis-à-vis its existing ‘Theses on the Labour Party’.
Just what was the point or value of Rex Dunn’s article on ‘Trotskyism and May 1968’? What a complete waste of two pages. What tedious, self indulgent nonsense. Is anyone seriously interested or bothered about the most intimate and obscure debates and nuances between various trends within what in the big scheme of things are just micro-currents with little or no relevance or impact on the working class or labour movement?
Attempting to read and understand the views of Cannon, Shachtman, Healy, Slaughter, Cliff, Pablo, one is irresistibly drawn to the analogy that these are bacteria in a putrid Petri dish, subdividing endlessly, and each intensely hostile and toxic to each other, but of no relevance to the wider real world. Rex, I am sorry - no-one is interested, no-one cares. Trotskyism taken as a whole, let alone the million and one amoebic subdivisions, has had virtually no impact whatsoever on world history or more directly on people’s lives.
Yes, I would agree that the Left Opposition in the Soviet Communist Party had some important criticisms, but even then was guilty of an other-worldly, abstract and visceral hostility and sectarianism to anyone in authority and power trying to formulate and implement actual policies to improve the condition of working people. Their political positions were argued for and ultimately comprehensively defeated.
Trotsky’s Revolution betrayed has some retrospective academic interest, but this was written by an intensely narcissistic, vainglorious individual, who found himself completely out of touch with the majority of the Bolshevik Party, and became insanely jealous of those elected to power and authority in place of himself.
Trotskyism in all its vituperative and poisonous varieties has always asserted it was impossible for the Bolsheviks with the support of the great majority of the working people and masses of Russia to carry out socialist revolution and build a strong, independent, socialist country, despite the vast geographical, natural and human resources of that amazing country.
The fact is they went ahead and did precisely that, converting a desperately poor, backward, war-ravaged country into a major world superpower, with absolutely guaranteed minimum decent standards of work, housing, education and health for all working people - better than those available in any capitalist country.
How does Rex imagine in his faintest dreams (or nightmares) why and how the Soviet people managed to ultimately contain, turn round and defeat the existential threat represented by the Nazis to both the Soviet state and the Soviet people? Because, ultimately, they felt it was their society, their country and their survival which was at stake. Rex manages to note that Burnham and Shachtman “attacked national ownership of industry and national planning”. Very socialist, very revolutionary! Not. We know Trotskyists in a variety of guises, covers and conspiracies did their damnedest to undermine and destroy the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s, but, thankfully, failed miserably and were dealt with according to law.
Rex’s big defence of Trotskyism after his turgid regurgitation of some of the twists, turns and nuances of its past political positions can be summarised as: ‘We are not responsible for the failure to turn 1968 into a socialist revolution, as we had no presence, credibility or influence among those in the working class and wider social strata.’ Quite. That has always been the case and even more so now.
Rex throughout his article cannot help noting the total irrelevance of various Trotskyist groups to the working class, including words like “powerless”, “impotence”, “rapid degeneration of the remnants of the Trotskyist movement” (from what?) Can Trotskyism in all its infinite varieties and subcultures point to one significant benefit, gain or contribution for the advancement of working class interests? No.
I agree that communism - whether in the east, in the socialist USSR, China, Vietnam, etc or in the ‘advanced capitalist democracies’ - has a complex and controversial history. But it is a real, rich and genuine history, part of the revolutionary and liberation trend within the working class movement.
Stalin was an advocate of “peaceful coexistence with imperialism”?! Nonsense. Ever heard of the formulation, “two camps locked in class struggle”? Yes, there was a clampdown and imposition of communist-led governments in eastern Europe, following the smashing of their previous fascist, capitalistic and feudal regimes by the Red Army. But this happened after United States imperialism comprehensively intervened and subverted the democracies in France and Italy to exclude the democratically legitimate communist parties from participation in government.
Yes, the models of socialism imposed subsequently required major structural reform and transformation to become more democratic and participatory, which unfortunately did not happen. But it is surely without question that communism has had a massive and positive impact, both in leading to socialist transformation of Russia and the states of central and eastern Europe, creating modern advanced societies, and even in western Europe, obtaining major social reforms in education, health, employment and industry after World War II.
The central point must be - and is in complete contrast to Trotskyism - communism and communist parties have always been deeply rooted in the working class and labour movements. They have always been a significant and integral components of the working class; they are part of the working class and emerge from the working class, and express the need for socialism to replace capitalism.
Reading and studying the history of Trotskyism may be an obscure academic interest even medically therapeutic for some. But it is pretty irrelevant and pointless to the strategic tasks of equipping and supporting the working class to start to think consciously, in its own interests and in opposition to the capitalist class, and to develop a revolutionary and transformative strategy to take power and establish socialism, as the first immediate stage of a number of key phases towards full-scale world communism.