In an extraordinarily vituperative letter, Victor Jenkins savages the paper which he terms as “amateurish” and states: “If the Weekly Worker is a peacock, then it is one that has been mauled by rabid dogs on at least three occasions” (July 26).
As a reader of a fair amount of hard-copy media, it is impossible to not notice that there is a mediated connection between form and content. For example, compare Socialist Worker and the Daily Mail - both provide a quick, easy read which will not tax the reader’s time or intellect. Further compare the Weekly Worker and Le Monde Diplomatique - the layout announces that the content may require some attention to read, but will be of some importance: ie, you will probably learn something.
Jenkins is reading, or probably just looking at, the wrong sort of paper. If he wants something quick then much of the ‘left’ press can be flipped through in 10 minutes, though all you will learn is that capitalism is crap - which you presumably knew before handing over a quid. In my opinion the Weekly Worker is to be commended for at least attempting to require its audience to think and making content primary. This is especially important in Britain with its anti-theoretical tradition, where empiricism and impressionism are highly regarded and the most routine kind of trade union reformism is treated as radical.
Neatly this leads me to Jack Conrad’s discussion of Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme, which was a sort of attempt to con people into taking a socialist approach without them fully realising it. In my opinion this is an excellent article and the best short piece which I have so far seen on the subject (‘Sowing the dragon’s teeth’, July 26). I will limit my discussion then to just a few observations. Whatever one may think of Trotsky, Conrad is surely correct when he mentions that his band of latter-day followers, reformists, opportunists and epigones would not be recognised by him. The great majority of them have probably never read anything by Trotsky apart from the bits and pieces in their favourite Trot paper. The TP is ideal for a ‘left’ which prides itself on addressing bread-and-butter issues and where Marxist theory is regarded as an intellectual luxury, not really applicable to daily life.
Conrad mentions the Respect lash-up, where basic socialist principles were ditched in order to keep the Islamic contingent on board. Whilst the organisation has long gone, the policy of not ‘offending’ Islamic elements seems to have carried on. The SWP front, Unite Against Fascism, for example, opposes all fascism except Islamic fascism. According to the current Wikipedia article about this outfit, UAF’s vice-chairman, Azid Ali, is also community affairs coordinator of the Islamic Forum of Europe, which may go some way to explaining this. Objectively supporters of this organisation in recent actions are supporting paedophilia and opposing free speech. No wonder any decent working class person is repelled by these rotten liberals.
I was recently talking to two gay guys that I initially met during the anti-Job Seekers Allowance campaign in the late 80s. Both of them have joined For Britain, which calls for “one law for all”. I cannot really blame them when all that the ‘left’ can offer is apologia for those who would wish to chuck them off the highest local building.
Comrades should seriously consider Conrad’s comments on the various types of Labour Party interventions which are geared towards somehow changing this venerable institution into an instrument of working class struggle. It cannot be done and only creates more reformist illusions. In an eloquent final paragraph Conrad states:
“In practice that amounts to sprinkling routine trade union struggles, left Labourism, black civil rights, the feminist movement and pacifistic anti-war protests with socialistic fairy dust. The magic never works. Trade unionism doggedly remains trade unionism, etc. However, the magician manages to change something. The transitional method amounts to recruiting subjective revolutionaries and turning them into routine trade unionists, left Labourites, black separatists, feminists and pacifists. Thus Respect, Tusc, Left Unity and the rainbow coalition campaigns are not aberrations. They are the logical outcome of the much vaunted transitional method.”
I think that this is exactly right and goes much of the way to explain the ‘bath tap full on, plug out’ recruiting methods of much of the Trot left. They can only exist with a constantly renewed membership with little ‘memory’ of the group’s past.
Where do we go from here? Jack Conrad has decisively brought us to where we are now and I am reminded of Bob Avakian’s notion of doing “revolutionary work in a non-revolutionary situation”. Unfortunately, his pamphlet by this name is more about splits between US Maoist groups than actually addressing the title, which nevertheless remains relevant. We are in a situation where the vast majority of the ‘left’ is non-Marxist. If this matters - and I contend that it does - how can we realistically move on from here?
Jack has thrown down the gauntlet. Is there anyone out there who can pick it up?
Jack Conrad’s ‘Sowing the dragon’s teeth’ seems to me equal parts truth and error.
The epithet of ‘economism’, which Jack Conrad is fond of flinging at Trotsky, is completely undeserved. The economism that Lenin decried in What is to be done consisted in the belief that socialists need do no more than follow and support the spontaneous trade union activity of the working class in its struggle with employers in order to arrive at socialism.
Trotsky never regarded trade union spontaneity as a substitute for socialist education or political leadership. But neither did he dismiss the economic struggles of workers as inherently ‘sectional’ (by which I take Conrad to mean focussed on immediate demands of a particular workforce). He was rather at one with Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg in viewing the point of production as a primal battle ground of class struggle, in which the mass of workers (and not just the most conscious socialist elements) are thrown into combat with the class enemy, and learn the rudiments of solidarity and self-organisation.
He believed that socialists should therefore seek to take the lead in such struggles, impart to them a more conscious political character and strive to broaden them, to the extent possible, into the class-wide actions - such as rolling strikes or general strikes - which would be more important than electoral activity in any final contest for political power. (The St Petersburg soviet, which Trotsky headed in 1905, began as a city-wide body for the coordination of strikes; Rosa Luxemburg observed in The mass strike that the profound worker upheavals of 1905 and 1906 in Poland and Germany alternated between political and economic demands.)
For Trotsky, the possibility of revolution rested upon certain objective preconditions. A majority of the working class could never be won to communism as long as steady, incremental progress remained a viable course. Given the choice between marginal improvement and risking everything for a leap into the unknown, most workers will choose the former. World War I, however, had in Trotsky’s view inaugurated a period of terminal capitalist decline and crisis, in which the possibility of systematic reform was ruled out, and the masses were beset by urgent needs that the existing order could not fulfil. Under these conditions it was possible for a revolutionary minority of the working class, organised in a vanguard party, to gain the political confidence of the class as a whole, and lead it, through a series of ever bolder thrusts, to the conquest of political power in Europe and beyond.
This was not merely a ‘Trotskyite’ notion, but the major premise of the October revolution. To infuse the daily struggles of the proletariat with socialist consciousness; to supply workers with the programmatic tools needed to win their immediate demands and broaden their fight, is not the worship of spontaneity. It is an effort to link daily, practical struggles to the ultimate goal. If this transitional approach is to be called economism, then so indeed was the entire political methodology which the Transitional programme was largely an attempt to codify - that of the Bolsheviks in 1917, as well as of the Comintern in the decade that followed.
Perhaps the Comintern, by avoiding certain mistakes, could have escaped degeneration and charted a course to world revolution during the tumultuous inter-war years, even though, as we now know, it was wrong to believe that capitalism was doomed, no matter what. But I agree with Conrad that the Trotskyist movement never succeeded in coming to terms with the western capitalist stabilisation and expansion that followed World War II. Some sects clung to the Transitional programme like holy writ; they lived in denial that the crisis conditions Trotsky deemed necessary for implementing the TP had ceased to exist amid the post-war boom (an issue over which, among others, I parted company with the groups I belonged to in the 80s and 90s).
Some assured their followers, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that end days, though delayed, were close at hand; others still drifted away from Trotskyist orthodoxy in all but word to become the boosters of various reformist causes, identity politics or third-world guerrilla struggles and regimes. It was not only Trotskyist parties that degenerated. Maoists and anarchists lost momentum too. Sectarianism and reformism are the two most common pitfalls for revolutionaries in prolonged periods of stability.
The ‘golden years’ of the Keynesian welfare state are now long behind us. Yet they still form as much of a reference point for young Corbynistas and Sandernistas as the Russian (or Chinese or Cuban) revolutions did for the radicals of my (1960s) generation. Most of the neo-reformist crop aim to restore the glories of post-war decades through electoral-legislative means. What we seem to be witnessing is a rebirth of left social democracy rather than revolutionary politics.
I think Marxists should attempt to engage left-trending social democrats without fostering their illusions. We should pose to them the question of whether their reformist agenda is realistic. The answer will depend upon our assessment of contemporary capitalism. Past errors in theorising the state of the system as a whole should not lead us to minimise the importance of integral theory. Trotsky was wrong in his conclusion that capitalism was in its ‘death agony’ in the 1930s, but right in his criterion: objective conditions are decisive in the end.
If we are in a period of capitalist stability, then all the education and organisation that Conrad prizes will avail little to deflect the neo-reformists from their course. But if, as I believe, we are in a period of waning American hegemony and renewed crisis, more people may just start listening to an educated and organised minority that is trying to steer them to the left.
I found Mike Macnair’s recent series on intersectionality interesting and thought-provoking. In essence, Mike is arguing over four lengthy articles that the ‘intersectionalists’ falsely separate contradictions, oppression and discriminations, relating to race and gender in particular, from those of class.
Although Mike focuses on the Maoist origins of some of this thinking and was rightly pulled up on this by Yassamine Mather, given the marginal and cultish nature of Maoism in the UK (Letters, July 12), both she and Mike go on to include the so-called Eurocommunists as a political expression of this type of thinking in the 1970s and 80s.
Mike makes specific reference to the concept of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ (‘Mistaken versions of Maoism’, June 28), which was introduced into the 1977 version of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s programme, the British road to socialism. A great deal of the divisions within the CPGB in the 70s and 80s revolved around sharply differing interpretations of the concept and role of the BDA.
Mike’s critique of intersectionalism would have the role of the BDA (or popular front or other alliance) being to limit the labour and working class movement to “pure class issues”: eg, wages and other economic struggles, while the role of the other movements and social forces is to specifically campaign for and address those issues which have brought them into struggle, and which are to be delivered by them alongside or in parallel to progress on the economic front.
Mike and Yassamine are absolutely correct to demolish this type of thinking as representing a credible strategy for progressive and ultimately revolutionary change in Britain. But there is only one problem: this was never the position of the CPGB in the 1970s and 80s nor of the Eurocommunists, who comprised part of its leadership over these years. I think the elapse of time makes us either forget or caricature what the arguments were all about and how they are still relevant today.
Yes, some Eurocommunists probably did have an intersectionality perspective. Sue Slipman famously resigned from the CPGB executive committee to join the Social Democratic Party, claiming her politics had not changed. But these were not the political positions of the CPGB agreed at successive congresses and included in the 1977 BRS.
Roger Simon was probably one of the most articulate writers of the majority, centre-right CPGB approach - see his Gramsci’s political thought: an introduction (1982) and Introducing Marxism (1986). Robert Griffiths wrote an extremely good pamphlet attacking Simon’s book with the question, “Was Gramsci a Eurocommunist?” The answer was, of course, no and actually Simon had to admit that on questions such as the type of proletarian state which would replace the smashed bourgeois state and the nature and role of the revolutionary Communist Party, Gramsci had not developed Marxism-Leninism beyond Lenin or Stalin.
What Simon argued in both books was that there are a “wide range of progressive issues and campaigns that do not arise directly ... from the oppression of wage workers by capital. They are all related to class in some ways, but they cannot and shouldn’t be reduced to class struggles.” He stated: “A very wide range of democratic issues originate from the activities of the capitalist state” - specifically referencing “civil liberties and rights ... and oppression and discrimination based on nationality, race, gender ...”
A consistent key contention in successive editions of the BRS has been that capitalism not only exploits and oppresses people at work: it impinges and oppresses them in many other ways, in many aspects of their lives and settings: “Democratic issues constitute arenas where the two fundamental classes, working class and capitalist, enter into struggle. The hegemonic class is the one which succeeds in combining the interests stemming from those issues with its own interests so as to achieve national leadership of society” (Introducing Marxism pp34-35).
Compare this to Mike’s “the working class needs to take leadership of society” (‘Getting beyond capitalism’, July 5). I think this is absolutely right and indeed is a very evocative and powerful phrase. This was precisely what Lenin was talking about in What is to be done? when he called for the proletariat and its revolutionary party to address all issues affecting all classes and the state in order to develop a leadership role both in the forthcoming revolution and then to rule society.
If we take the ‘broad’ definition of the working class, to include all those who are dependent on a wage, salary, benefit or pension to survive, it is clear that the majority of those engaged in those wider social movements and campaigns and who stand to gain from the implementation of their demands are also going to be working class.
So, the CPGB strategic concept of a broad democratic alliance was never about a shopping list of economic demands for the workers; and democratic reforms for the intellectuals and middle classes. That is present-day comrades tilting at straw windmills and is useless.
I liked the concept of the broad democratic alliance, as it enabled us to say what we were for rather than simply against. And it forced communists, socialists, trade unionists and community activists to really think about what ‘alliance’ should mean. The fundamental point is that it needs to be mutually transforming, not a simple adding up of numbers or demands or a tactical exercise.
The emphasis on democracy and defining this as the extension of popular control (by the majority working class) over all areas of life (economic, social, political, cultural) should be a fundamental value for all working people and it will become increasingly clear through the development of class-consciousness that the replacement of capitalism by socialism is a necessary condition for the fullest development of democracy.
By engaging with and supporting the wider social movements, the labour movement would understand and support the specific demands raised by those movements. And those movements would better understand the role of class and that this is the fundamental division in society today; that no real progress - certainly no “irreversible shift of wealth and power” - could take place without this being addressed.
The whole working class would develop increasingly advanced class-consciousness: ie, to become a class for itself and understanding its revolutionary and historical mission to overthrow capitalism and class-divided society. Political parties representing the BDA (in those days principally Labour and communist) would express these integrated and coherent demands in their manifestos, policy statements and programmes.
The BDA was always directed at what was termed ‘monopoly capitalism’ or ‘state monopoly capitalism’. I think, to be honest, the early Communist Party of Britain, in its attempt to demarcate itself from the CPGB, struggled a bit to describe what it termed an “anti-monopoly alliance”, and the relationship between the labour movement and wider democratic and social movements, in its first redrafts of the BRS after 1988. More recent editions have, I think, captured this better.
My final points are around the required alliance “allowing the democratic and social movements to come in with their own demands and on their terms”. This can sound like Mike’s “holy trinity” of class, race and gender. But, if we insist all these movements can only be allied with if they include ‘We are also against state monopoly capitalism’, I don’t think we will get very far.
If we regard their issues and demands as legitimate and ultimately also springing from class-divided society, what we need to do is listen, debate, argue and as part of the “mutual transformation” process take on and adapt some (or many) of these issues and perhaps in languages which make sense to a much wider constituency - the majority of whom are depoliticised, angry, oppressed.
Mike in his ‘Mistaken versions of Maoism’ article quotes from people sceptical that a socialist revolution will specifically address gender and race issues. Mike himself states: “... there are no guarantees about what a revolution can deliver.”
But isn’t that actually the role and purpose of the broad democratic alliance - not only to be anti-capitalist, but also to provide confidence that a genuine working class government will positively address many of the specific issues developed by the women’s, anti racist, green/environmental, etc movements? Mike ends up negating the contribution and role of ‘identity politics’, instead of calling for a strategy to integrate them with class.
Mike and Jack Conrad are fond of quoting the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, that we aim for the “emancipation of the productive class without distinction of race or sex”. Yes, we do, but I think we need to be more specific about what we will actually do in relation to those other contradictions and oppressions, and define a more positive and tangible vision for our future society than simply the absence of capitalism or the capitalist class.
Good for Pete Willsman for putting up a fight at the Labour Party’s July 17 national executive meeting against the Zionist bullshit of “severe and widespread anti-Semitism” in the party.
While comrades from Labour Against the Witchhunt were outside lobbying the meeting, Pete was speaking up inside, highlighting Zionist support for Trump and, very sensibly, demanding evidence. Pete is only the latest collateral damage in the rightwing campaign to oust Corbyn, which shamelessly abuses anti-racist sentiment and ignores the real racism of the Zionist movement and the apartheid state of Israel.
As is their standard practice, the media has gone into overdrive with endless repetition and no investigation of the baseless charge that Labour is rife with anti-Semitism. The only ‘evidence’ on offer is not how many party members have been investigated and found guilty, but the large number of unproven allegations, which the anti-Corbyn witch-hunters find sufficient for their purpose of condemning Corbyn for “not dealing with anti-Semitism”.
The racist ideology poisoning the Labour Party is rightwing, not leftwing. It is called Zionism, not anti-Semitism.
For nearly 60 years, Cuba under communist rule has shown the world what great progress can be made under a centrally planned economy. Despite numerous attempts by the United States to overthrow the regime and decades of sanctions and embargo, the island nation has managed to become the envy of Latin American and indeed the world. Its healthcare, its universities, its workers’ rights and its standard of living far supersede those countries in the region, such as Haiti or the Dominican Republic, which have not had a revolution and liberated themselves from the talons of United States imperialism. Yet now, less than a year after the turnover from the revolutionary generation to the younger Miguel Díaz-Canel, it seems like Cuba is ready to throw away all the achievements of the last 60 years, and enter the orbit of US-aligned global capitalism.
Cuba has just ratified a new constitution. Some elements are laudable, such as the increased protection for the rights of sexual minorities and of women. However, far more pernicious are two clauses which promise to allow Cuba to revert to the economic system which it last had 60 years ago; those are the clauses which will permit private property and say that the Cuban state is not working towards establishing communism, but rather towards establishing socialism.
To understand what a radical departure this is from the history of the revolutionary period of Cuba, you just need to see the situation as it stands today. Even now, after the numerous market-orientated reforms of Raul Castro, the majority of the economy is state-run. Price controls continue to exist, and central planning continues to provide for the basic needs of all Cubans. Even the many new private enterprises which have sprung up tend to be either cooperatives, which are explicitly permitted in the Cuban constitution of 1976, or small, family-owned enterprises that cater for foreign tourists. The life of the ordinary Cuban is still as state-dominated as it has always been, and most would rather keep it that way. Communism might not yet have been achieved on the island, but it is still a cherished ideal - and now the government is throwing it all away.
If Cuba’s new constitution were being implemented 30 years ago, it would make sense. At the time, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev was instituting pro-market reforms, Deng was reinventing capitalism under the name of ‘communism with Chinese characteristics’ and communist parties from Vietnam to Angola were integrating themselves into the global market system. At the time, it seemed as if history truly was over, and it had been won by the capitalists.
But today we have a generation’s hindsight, and we know that the dreams of the liberal market reformers were made of imagination. They thought that market reforms would improve the lives of all, while also giving them more freedom; instead the poor of these communist countries have had their lot worsen, even as the parties and foreign capitalists have grown fat on the surplus value of their labour. Far from improving the lot of the workers, these communists-turned-capitalists have become amongst the most ruthless exploiters of their people on earth today.
Along amongst the countries which have had successful revolutions, Cuba kept its communist, Marxist-Leninist system, even as the rest were collapsing. True, it faced difficulties when subsidies from the Soviet Union collapsed, but it quickly found new patronage in Venezuela. Perhaps spurred on by the fact that the main leaders of the country remembered that they had fought for communism and the liberation of their people, Cuba refused to sell itself out to global markets, and remained an isolated example of what a country could do if it turned its back on global capitalism.
Today’s new generation of Cuban leaders seem to either be ignorant of the fate of the other so-called communist countries that have become capitalist, or want to enrich themselves in the manner that their ‘comrades’ have done in China and Vietnam. Of course, Cuba has never been perfect: it is an oppressive dictatorship, founded on notions which we as Marxists must reject, such as socialism in one country. However, until this month it served as an example of what a country could achieve while bucking the global capitalist order, and as a symbol to oppressed people globally that a radically different path was possible. But, with this new constitution, it appears that Cuba has decided to throw away even the pretence of being revolutionary, and wholly acquiesce to US-led capitalist hegemony.
Last week saw the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee of the House of Commons call for urgent action to combat a “growing crisis of data manipulation, disinformation and so-called fake news”. In fact, “democracy is at risk” they informed us.
Their report considers itself to be part of growing calls for “tougher government regulation”, notably in relation to the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour.”
This is a demonstration for all those on the serious left about how far removed from reality our so-called ‘real’ world is, nowadays. Things are largely controlled by such grotesquely self-preservationist machinations plus the near-lunatic fabrications of our capitalist elites.
So let’s compare this to the following series of concrete facts.
1. Right now, the bulk of the British electorate is being ‘sold a pup’ that isn’t yet house-trained - moreover, one that can’t stand the sight of visitors to its household (aka foreign workers!). The pup has been given the deceptively attractive name of ‘Brexit’.
2. A sizeable portion of the US electorate is being all but herded into a belief that the Democratic Party represents the holiest of holy pathways to eternal salvation from president Trump’s both viciously dehumanised and ruthlessly dehumanising regime. That deception, manipulation and coordinated campaign of black propaganda - the likes of which Josef Goebbels would have been glowingly proud - is being carried out by a furiously ‘sidelined’ establishment.
3. The CIA has been trying to topple Daniel Ortega’s socialist government of Nicaragua, in alliance with the corporate media. This is a government that has brought substantial improvements over recent years to healthcare, education, literacy, personal security, etc for its trade-embargoed citizenry.