1924, not 1921
Peter Manson’s ‘Pretence of democracy’ (Oct ober31) is spot on in analysing the bogus democratic centralism of the Socialist Workers Party: the slate system of central committee elections, the impossibility of forming any real tendencies or factions, and the elitist protection of the leadership by denying the membership any real participation in political debate and decision-making. They are indeed “treated as mere pawns by a self-perpetuating leadership”.
This is truly bureaucratic centralism and not the real democratic centralism, as practised by the Bolsheviks in the time of Lenin. The Grantite organisations, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and Socialist Appeal, operate a similar regime and, coming from the Workers Revolutionary Party tradition, I can testify to a similar regime there before the 1985 split - only partially remedied in the WRP (Workers Press) in its period of ‘Glasnost’ from October 1985 to about January 1997. The International Marxist Group/United Secretariat of the Fourth International had a somewhat better tradition in that respect, but that morphed into an abandonment of the struggle to build a revolutionary party at all by repudiating all centralist discipline. The Lenin quote used by Peter - “universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action” - is entirely apposite.
However, I must disagree with his proposition that there were two Bolshevisms or Leninisms in theory and practice - that before the civil war and that of war communism - where “the Bolsheviks were forced to militarise themselves. They also believed, not without foundation, that the world stood on the cusp of revolution, and that, consequently, the newly formed communist parties should organise along similar lines. This was a mistake, and one, regrettably, never corrected.”
This is straying into dangerous territory. We are sure that Peter will not go as far as the notorious anti-communist, Robin Blick, in his 1995 book, The seeds of evil, Lenin and the origins of Bolshevik elitism: “The roots of Stalin’s tyranny lay in Lenin’s repudiation of the ‘classical’ Marxist tradition and his unambiguous enthusiasm for Jacobin terrorism and intrigue.” When in Healy’s Socialist Labour League as Robert Black he published Stalinism in Britain, a Marxist analysis, which, though a useful exposure of the machinations of the Stalinists, did tend towards Stalinophobia. This later became outright anti-communism via the French Lambertists, who were indeed very Stalinophobic, and consequently soft on imperialism itself.
But Peter surely does not deny that war communism was necessary in the time of civil war? The point to be made is that it went on too long. Six years of World War I and civil war and a bad 1920 harvest resulted in the huge Povolzhye famine from winter 1919 to 1922, which took five million lives, followed by several peasant uprisings, the biggest of which was the Tambov rebellion (August 1920). This was followed by the Kronstadt uprising (‘Soviets without communists’, March 7-17 1921).
Trotsky recounts that by late 1919 60% of locomotives were inoperable and experts advised that by late 1920 they would be almost all out of service. Sabotage by anti-party elements in the train workers union was suspected. Trotsky tells us that Lenin sent him to the Urals in the winter of 1919-20 and put him in charge of economic work and later all transport. From his observations there, he proposed what is in essence the New Economic Policy adopted on Lenin’s motion a year later:
“The present policy of equalised requisition according to the food scale, of mutual responsibility for deliveries, and of equalised distribution of manufactured products tends to lower the status of agriculture and to disperse the industrial proletariat, and threatens to bring about a complete breakdown in the economic life of the country. The food resources are threatened with exhaustion - a contingency that no amount of improvement in the methods of requisition can prevent. These tendencies toward economic decline can be counteracted as follows:
“(1) The requisition of surpluses should give way to payment on a percentage basis (a sort of progressive income tax in kind), the scale of payment being fixed in such a way as to make an increase of the ploughed area, or a more thorough cultivation, still yield some profit;
“(2) a closer correspondence should be established between the industrial products supplied to the peasants and the quantities of grain they deliver; this applies not only to rural districts (volosts) and villages, but to the individual peasant households as well.”
He presented this to the central committee in February 1920. Lenin wrongly opposed it and it lost by 11 votes to four. Trotsky then militarised transport - the war with Poland had begun in earnest from late April 1920, giving him the perfect rationale - and he got the locomotives repaired, and revived the transport system. Wrongly Trotsky meekly accepted his defeat on war communism at the 9th Congress (March 29 - April 5 1920). He implemented it, including in the trade unions, thereby sparking the dispute with Lenin on the matter, when the conflict should have been on ending war communism. By the 10th Congress on March 8-16 1921, Lenin had come around to the idea of the NEP, as Kronstadt erupted.
None of this had any adverse implications for the inner-party democracy of the Bolsheviks or the advice the Comintern gave to international delegates on the inner regimes of communist parties given at the first four congresses. It was the 5th Congress in 1924 under Zinoviev (then in the anti-Trotsky troika with Stalin and Kamenev) that began the process of ‘Bolshevising’ the international communist parties with the gross revisionist theory of socialism in a single country, at the same time as the inner democracy of the Bolsheviks themselves was attacked. This was the crucial link in the degeneration of the Comintern, completed in the 6th Congress of 1928, which established Stalin as unchallenged leader of the bureaucracy (although his personal tyrannical dictatorship via the secret police did not begin until his 1934 murder of Kirov). Bolshevisation replaced the independent, thinking leaders who emerged internationally inspired by the Russian Revolution with the likes of Earl Browder (USA), Harry Pollitt (UK) and Ernst Thälmann (Germany) - theoretically challenged hacks who followed Moscow’s line unquestioningly.
A few years ago, I attended a lecture at the SWP’s Marxism, where Alex Callinicos assured us that it was only in 1926 that the Italian Communist Party became a real communist party. Actually, it was that Congress in Lyons that finally ‘Bolshevised’ (ie, Stalinised) the Italian Communist Party in a collaboration between Gramsci and Togliatti, who now took control as the direct agents of Stalin’s Comintern. Most of the left, including Bordiga, could not attend as a result of fascist controls and lack of Comintern support. The ‘Bolshevisation’ of the party was accomplished by the adoption of the document, ‘The construction of the Communist Party as a “Bolshevik” Party’, part of the Lyons Theses. Thesis 25 asserts:
“The Communist Party needs complete ideological unity in order to be able at all moments to fulfil its function as leader of the working class. Ideological unity is an element of the party’s strength and political capacity; it is indispensable to make it into a Bolshevik party.”
Need we point out that, if this applied in April 1917, we would not have had the October revolution? And we can well appreciate why Callinicos agreed so strongly with that formulation.
My apologies for not having replied to Gerry Downing’s nonsense sooner, but I have been abroad (Letters, October 17). My absence though enabled Gerry to send in a second dose of bilge (October 24).
It is indeed generous of Gerry to have shared with us the insights of his daughter’s BA essay on Jean-Paul Sartre and Marxism. I suspect though that Dr Downing’s father was not her best or most able student!
Unlike Gerry I don’t pretend to understand all the subtleties of the different philosophical schools; nor do I much care for the exaggerated significance that Gerry attributes to them. At the end of the day most philosophy is a means of understanding the world from the perspective of the individual. As with existentialism, it focuses on the individual as an entity in itself, divorced from its social surroundings.
Gerry says that Marx saw himself as “nothing but a rebellious, middle class Jew”. So did Hannah Arendt. Ron Feldman’s introduction to her The Jew as pariah remarks on how “Arendt’s solution to her own ‘Jewish’ problem was not to repudiate her Jewishness nor blindly affirm it, but to adopt the stance of a conscious pariah - an outsider among non-Jews and a rebel among her own people” (p47).
Arendt says of the role of the Jew: “As soon as the pariah enters the arena of politics, and translates his status into political terms, he becomes perforce a rebel. Lazare’s idea was, therefore, that the Jew should come out openly as the representative of the pariah, ‘since it is the duty of every human being to resist oppression’” (p77).
It would seem that Marx and Arendt were not so dissimilar! As Lev Lafayette argues in ‘The existentialism of Hannah Arendt’, there are “good arguments” against the idea that Arendt was an existentialist, “not the least being that Arendt did not conceptualise the human experience within the singular, such is common with almost all other existentialists”.
He goes on: “Instead, Arendt focused very strongly on the human experience as a member of the polis ... To Arendt it was in this environment that human beings, with conscience, meaning and motivation, were made. Whilst other existentialists, often in an elitist fashion, view mass society with disdain or despair (even in Sartre’s famous quote, ‘Hell is other people’), for Arendt it is far worse. Arendt shared a disdain for the trivial and inauthentic life, but she ties this again with the lack of interaction in the public sphere, both mocking and horrified of the concept of freedom being limited to the private home, such as the happiness achieved from owning (or being owned by) a cat, or the happiness of tending to a flower-pot; in short - ‘small things’, freedom within the space of four walls.”
Likewise in Martin Cohen’s The essentials of philosophy and ethics, to which I contributed the section on Zionism, he writes: “her diagnosis of society’s ills is partly centred on what she thinks is a regrettable invasion of the ‘public’ sphere, with its duties to protect the weak, by private interests and private profit, which recognises no such duties.”
Contrast this with Gerry’s nonsense about how Arendt believed the welfare state “corrupts the realm of free action of the capitalists” and her “subjective, individualist concerns with self, invading her private sphere”. I suspect Gerry is confusing Arendt with Ayn Rand!
Even worse is Gerry’s utter nonsense about how Arendt sat at the feet of the Nazi philosopher, Martin Heidegger. And the result? “... and here the early relationship between Zionism and Nazism began to blossom”.
I consider myself an expert when it comes to Nazi-Zionist collaboration. I can confidently say that neither Arendt nor Heidegger played any part in it. The basis of such collaboration was laid down in 1919 by Alfred Rosenberg, minister for the Ostland and the Nazi Party’s main theoretician: “Zionism must be vigorously supported in order to encourage a significant number of German Jews to leave for Palestine or other destinations” - quoted in Francis Nicosia’s The Third Reich and the Palestine question.
As Nicosia noted, Rosenberg “intended to use Zionism as a legal justification for depriving German Jews of their civil rights” and he “sanctioned the use of the Zionist movement in the future drive to eliminate Jewish rights, Jewish influence and eventually the Jewish presence in Germany”.
The idea that Arendt, herself a refugee from Nazi Germany - who went to France and then the United States, not Palestine - played any part in Zionist collaboration with the Nazis is simply a flight of fancy. In her essay ‘Zionism reconsidered’ she described how, for the Zionist movement, “Not even the events of 1933 roused their political interest; they were naive enough to see in them, above all, a god-sent opportunity for an undreamt-of wave of immigration to Palestine. When the Zionist Organisation, against the natural impulses of the whole Jewish people, decided to do business with Hitler, to trade German goods against the wealth of German Jewry, to flood the Palestine market with German products and thus make a mockery of the boycott against German-made articles, they found little opposition in the Jewish National Homeland, and least of all among its aristocracy, the so-called kibbutzniks ... once more these Palestinians underlined the fact that they were interested only in the existing and prospective Yishuv, the Jewish settlement ...” (p139).
That doesn’t sound to me like support for Zionist-Nazi collaboration. Likewise her comment on Herzl’s statement in his diaries, when he said that the anti-Semitic countries would be the Zionists’ friends and allies, was that this would cause an “utter confusion, in which nobody could distinguish between friend and foe, in which the foe became the friend and the friend the hidden, and therefore all the more dangerous, enemy” (p148).
Which precisely describes the situation today, where the friends of the Zionists are the worst anti-Semites.
Arendt’s exposure in Eichmann in Jerusalem of the dealings of Rezső Kasztner, the Hungarian Zionist leader, with Eichmann - and her revelations of just a small portion of what took place, including her damning observation that if there had been no Jewish leadership then far fewer Jews would have died - led to the vicious Zionist attacks on her. She described the Zionist campaign against her thus:
“[It was] conducted with all the well-known means of image-making and opinion-manipulation, got much more attention than the controversy ... [it was], as though the pieces written against the book (and more frequently against its author) came ‘out of a mimeographing machine’ … the clamour centred on the ‘image’ of a book which was never written, and touched upon subjects that often had not only not been mentioned by me, but had never occurred to me before” (Eichmann in Jerusalem pp282-83).
When Gerry says, “That Zionist-Nazi relationship ideologically survived the war and the holocaust for Arendt and other Zionists”, this is spoken out of sheer ignorance. There is not a word of truth in it. Yes, indeed, there was a love affair between Heidegger and Arendt and it was resumed after the war. What are we to make of it? I suspect very little politically. I can only repeat that human personal relationships aren’t always logical extensions of our political beliefs. Sometimes opposites attract. Gerry is nothing if not a banal reductionist. Arendt also married Heinrich Blucher, a Marxist, yet she never claimed to be a Marxist.
Arendt was a cultural Zionist - part of an extreme minority trend exemplified by Ahad Ha’am and Judah Magnes. They supported a Jewish homeland, not a Jewish state, as did Einstein. The suggestion that Arendt “assisted in developing the modern ideology of Zionism” is so far from reality as to be barely worth commenting on. Arendt wrote: “The real goal of the Jews in Palestine is the building up of a Jewish homeland. This goal must never be sacrificed to the pseudo sovereignty of a Jewish state” (The Jew as pariah p192).
As I have already explained, clearly Heidegger was a thorough reactionary, though whether all of his philosophical insights should be thus condemned I will leave to others. Perhaps we should also condemn the art of Salvador Dali? And perhaps Orwell’s 1984, given his later adoption of anti-communism? Although Gerry will probably not understand it, his bastardisation of Marxism is fundamentally undialectical in not seeing the contradiction between the individual and what they produce.
Gerry’s second letter adds little to the first. Yes, Arendt supported Abraham Lincoln and the north against the south. So too did Karl Marx! Gerry’s treatment of the hanging of 38 Santa Sioux is utterly dishonest. He says that Lincoln “presided over the greatest mass execution in American history on December 26 1862”. The implication is clear. Lincoln was responsible for these deaths.
In fact originally 303 Indians were sentenced to hang and Lincoln commuted 264 of the sentences. He came under massive pressure from the settlers to hang all of them. Governor Ramsey of Minnesota warned Lincoln that, unless all 303 were executed, “private revenge would on all this border take the place of official judgment on these Indians (The collected works of Abraham Lincoln p493).
Yes, formally this was the largest single execution, but in practice thousands of Indians were exterminated in the campaign to settle the west. We should remember that Britain, three years later, in the ‘Governor Eyre controversy’ in Jamaica, hanged over 1,000 of those who took part in the rebellion. Imperialism was and is a bloody affair. To paint Lincoln as one of its most bloody exponents is historically inaccurate. His decision to commute the sentences of 87% of those sentenced to hang was a recognition of what the Sioux had experienced. And to attribute this to Arendt is absurd.
To say that “the fascistic concept of the Untermenschen shines through all of Arendt’s works” is mere hyperbole, unsupported by anything by the way of fact. In the Origins of totalitarianism Arendt savages imperialism, anti-Semitism and totalitarianism. She added new chapters to the 1958 edition as a result of the Hungarian Revolution, which the Stalinists suppressed.
Gerry has become drunk on his own rhetoric. What is remarkable is that despite all his philosophical ‘insights’ Gerry is not above subscribing to the nonsense that the number of Jews in the US administration helps determine its foreign policy. The proof of the pudding as always lies in the eating!
Paul Demarty makes some very good points about migration and what the response of the working class movement to it should be (‘Another avoidable tragedy’, October 31).
I would like to make a few points of my own. It seems that most of the Vietnamese who died in the Essex container were economic migrants, and not ‘trafficked’, as first reported by the British media. Most male Vietnamese migrants in Britain are, according to a Guardian article, employed in illegal cannabis factories. The female Vietnamese migrants are, apparently, employed in nail bars, which are often used to launder money made from these cannabis factories.
The idea that female Vietnamese migrants in Britain have been ‘trafficked’ into sex slavery is a fiction occurring only in the mind of feminists who want to undermine the sex industry. A quick look at the Adult Work website - the premier website for escorts in the UK - shows that there are only three women from Vietnam working as escorts in Britain, whereas there are more than 640 from Poland, 460 from Hungary and 1,440 from Romania.
In my hometown of Wisbech there is little sign of any Vietnamese migrants. However, there are increasing numbers of black people - Caribbean and Nigerian - who have been economically cleansed from London and the south-east, Fenland having the lowest house prices, and therefore rents, in East Anglia, apart from the depressed seaside town of Great Yarmouth. At the same time, since April 2004, more than 8,000 migrants have come to Wisbech mainly from eastern Europe to work in the food processing factories, boosting the population of the town from around 23,000 to more than 31,000 today.
As Paul Demarty points out in his article, across Britain, 4,000 tons of apples have gone unpicked because of a 30% drop in migrant labour, as many migrants, especially from eastern Europe, have, because of Brexit, returned to their home countries or have gone to work in Germany or France, etc. I cannot see apple pickers being replaced by robots any time soon, although in the long run it is quite possible - picking apples will be one of the last jobs on the land to be automated. However, 95% of jobs in food processing factories will soon be replaced by robots - the only thing stopping this is that it is currently cheaper to employ migrant labour than invest in robots.
Following the Essex container tragedy, I have seen an awful discussion of it on a local Facebook page in Fenland. The discussion goes something like this: ‘39 illegal immigrants freeze to death and the media and the left go into overdrive. But 30,000 British pensioners freeze to death every year and they don’t give a fuck.’
At the same time, a close relative, who works with eastern European migrants in a food processing factory, points out: “Jeremy Corbyn following the Labour conference wants to flood Britain with migrants, especially Muslims” - he’s an avid Daily Mail reader. Ironically, whilst he’s all for Brexit, he’s also worried that the eastern European migrants he works with will be forced to give up their jobs after Brexit. He’s also very worried about the homeless, especially those living rough in Norwich. This dual consciousness also seems to apply to the working class as a whole, with reactionary and revolutionary viewpoints existing at the same time.
Whilst we must call for open borders and the unity of the working class, including the unionisation of all workers, local and migrant, communists must also explain that we support the development of countries such as Vietnam, so that young people from those counties are not forced into becoming economic migrants.
I can’t find much in the Weekly Worker (or other leftwing newspapers) about the recent Adobe scandal in Venezuela. That proprietary cloud-based software was ripped away from a whole country by a law signed in by Trump. The company took the opportunity to offer no refunds and to deny access to individuals and business to any of their existing work stored on the service’s cloud.
This story came to me because I’m a volunteer programmer for the Inkscape project - a Free and Open Source alternative to one of the tools that Adobe was providing. Our users in Latin America were able to direct artists to our software and explain what ‘Software Libre’ was and why is was important politically to invest in using it over proprietary software like Adobe.
Sorry if this is a rehash of news you’ve already printed. But it seems like an important facet to the story of workers’ rights in the world, especially as software becomes more important.
Software freedom activist
The Tories want this to be the ‘Brexit election’ (and in one sense it will be). But it must be the Grenfell election - it is first general election since the tragedy of June 14 2017, when 72 people were killed in a death trap, which had been waiting for an accident to happen. This was the biggest single loss of life in London since World War II.
The politics of Grenfell should be front and centre of this campaign. The election is a democratic opportunity to make the Tory government accountable. It should be one of the central issues raised in every election meeting and by everybody canvassing on the doorstep. A good starting point was Corbyn in the Commons on June 28 2017, when he attacked the policies which contributed to the disaster, including the 40% cuts in local authority budgets and the failure of building inspections.
The prime minister, Theresa May, hit back, saying that dangerous cladding and lax inspection began under the last Labour government. Of course, the allegation of criminal negligence goes beyond the policies of one party or one government, to the crown-state itself, as represented in the ministry of housing, communities and local government.
May was correct when she told the House of Commons that Grenfell was a “failure of the state - local and national”. But even here a cover-up was going on. She admitted the state had failed to help the victims, but only after the fire. She said that “people were left without belongings, without roofs over their heads, without even basic information about what happened, what they should do and where they should go to seek help” (Daily Express June 22 2017).
The state had failed long before that. The ministry of housing, communities and local government is a bureaucracy protected behind a wall of secrecy. It depends for its funding on HM treasury. It is not democratically accountable for its actions or its failures. It failed to invest in housing and in fire safety and to regulate landlords and building firms making money out of renovations, and to ensure that the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea worked to protect its tenants and residents.
The Grenfell disaster is the responsibility of Tory government policies and behind this the failure of the state. In a crisis, the crown-state reaches for its Standard Operating Procedures. Set up a public inquiry, headed by one of her majesty’s ex-judges, and divert attention away from those responsible at the very top. Then build a non-political monument to all who died.
The government set up the Grenfell Memorial Commission in September 2018. The secretary of state for communities, James Brokenshire MP, said: “The government has always been committed to working with the community to create a fitting memorial, with the prime minister giving her personal commitment that the bereaved, survivors and community will decide what happens to the future of the Grenfell Tower site.”
At the same time the London Fire Brigade has been put in the frame by the Grenfell inquiry. There has been a drip-feed of stories pointing to the LFB and what happened after the fridge-freezer on the fourth-floor flat burst into flames. Before a single fire-engine had arrived, everything that brought disaster was already in place, months or years before.
There were no extra-high ladders, sufficient breathing equipment, sprinkler systems and strong fire doors, while the necessary training was absent. Covering the walls with flammable cladding made the building into a death trap. Most of these factors are down to insufficient investment in public services and the failure of the state to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the people; the failure of the state to regulate and inspect the safety of buildings.
The controversial question focused on whether more people could have escaped on the night. Here the finger is pointed at the ‘stay put’ policy. If flats are sealed, concrete shells, it is safer to stay and be rescued. Going down whilst firefighters are coming up could disrupt rescue efforts, and most deaths come from deadly toxic smoke and fumes.
‘Stay put’ was a national, not a London, policy. Similar fire hazards were awaiting ignition in tower blocks throughout England. Over 190 local councils across the country had fitted fire-dangerous cladding to their tower blocks. And ‘stay put’ was the story that Jacob Rees-Mogg blundered into, reminding the country that class is at the heart of it. As the rapper, Stormzy, said, “This ain’t about politics. It’s about the people who govern us lacking the most basic humanity or empathy” (The Guardian November 5 2019).
This disaster shines a powerful light on contemporary Britain. It shows the consequences of 30 years of failed economic policies. It is a powerful reminder that the UK is a deeply class-divided society and that life’s chances depend on which class you are born into. It brings out the nature of political power in the UK’s broken ‘democracy’. Unaccountable political decisions, taken by national and local government in England, resulted in death, injury and life-changing trauma.