No sport, nothing on television; what else to do on a Sunday afternoon in self-isolation but write a letter to the Weekly Worker?
In his supercilious review of the left press’s response to the Lenin anniversary - in which he argues everyone’s out of step but us - Mike Macnair dismisses Tony Cliff’s four-volume Lenin: building the party with a joke from John Sullivan - Cliff’s work was “like a biography of John the Baptist, written by Jesus Christ” (‘Lenin avatars’, April 30). True, there are no jokes like the old jokes, and Sullivan was often funny and occasionally perceptive, but I assume Macnair uses this approach because he hasn’t actually bothered to read Cliff’s book.
A pity. Cliff is certainly open to criticism on a number of points, but there are many valuable insights in his work. For example, of the many who have written on Lenin, Cliff was one of the few who actually had experience of working in illegal conditions (in Palestine).
Macnair commends Nick Chaffey of the Socialist Party for understanding that “programme is fundamentally important”, which makes him “massively more advanced” than those influenced by Cliff. Now Cliff is often accused of being obsessed with numbers, but from his own bitter experience in the 1930s and 1940s he understood one simple fact - the best programme in the world is useless if there is nobody to fight for it and put it into practice. Of course, Cliff was interested in real numbers of recruits, unlike the present-day Socialist Workers Party, which thinks claims of numbers are enough to fight its battles. But an organisation which in 30 years has not managed to recruit more than 30 members might feel some self-criticism is in order.
But the real thrust of Sullivan’s criticism is that Cliff was always interested in studying the past, not as an academic pursuit, but because it helps to illuminate the present. Now there are huge dangers in this - we can’t learn from the past unless we get it right and are honest about it. And maybe Cliff sometimes oversimplified the past to draw lessons for the present. But his basic purpose was surely correct - that is what socialist history is all about.
And Macnair, who also uses history for his own purposes, is not innocent. Thus he praises Comintern’s “tactics of intervening in the USPD’s debates” with the Zinoviev speech which led to the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) voting for affiliation at Halle. But the debate had no influence on the outcome - most delegates were mandated in advance, so Zinoviev’s rhetoric did not affect the vote. The actual process whereby the majority was won was more complex and would repay study.
This may be the result of ignorance. But there is worse. He tells us that in Respect “the SWP … preferred when canvassing to pretend to be left Labourites”. Now I was heavily involved in campaigning for Respect and I never heard any suggestion of such pretence. Unless Macnair can document this claim he would seem to be guilty of fabrication.
Most important of all, Macnair trivialises the central theme in Cliff’s work. He tells us Cliff “saw Lenin as a man with a ‘nose’ for ‘turns’”, leading to the “SWP’s actual practice of tailing whatever moves”. As far as I can establish, Cliff never used the “nose” image - though it was sometimes used by his critics. What Cliff did argue was that a central task of the party was to learn from the class. As he wrote in Portugal at the crossroads, “In short they [the party] have to learn from their fellow workers as much as - or more than - they have to teach ... The job of party leadership is to generalise the experience of the party militants and to lead them as they lead their fellow workers … [The party] has to be the most apt learner, the most sensitive ear and the firmest will.”
And it is this central element of Leninism that is studiously neglected by the Weekly Worker and its erudite mentor, Lars T Lih. The Weekly Worker spends its time lecturing the rest of the left on its failings - it never imagines it has anything to learn. And when I asked Lih at a Historical Materialism conference about learning from the class he failed to reply.
Who invented soviets? Russian workers, who had probably never heard of Lenin, let alone read Kautsky. Lenin - albeit a bit belatedly - understood their importance and incorporated them into his strategy.
After all, unless the role of the party is to learn and generalise from the activity of workers, what becomes of “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”? - and that really is the “soul of Marxism”.
Macnair sneers that Cliff believed, “if it moves, salute it”. The International Marxist Group in the 1980s had a neater formulation - they accused the SWP of saying, “If it moves recruit it. If it doesn’t move, stick a poster on it.” I always took it as a compliment.
Most comrades will be aware of the bad news that came in last week that the Jewish News and the Jewish Chronicle have both been saved from terminal collapse: not surprising, given their role in helping to rid the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn. They will expect, and be expected, to carry on this sterling work in ridding the party of all socialists - or ‘Trots’, as they’re sometimes called.
Jewish Voice for Labour carried a story, ‘Trouble at t’mill’, dated Wednesday April 29, about a row between a Tory MP, Richard Halfon, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The story draws from items in the above named titles and apparently Halfon has claimed that the BoD has become a “political broadcasting service” for Labour.
JVL seemed to think that this is some sort of joke, but I reckon it’s actually a lot more sinister. The BoD got the Labour leadership contenders down on bended knee on their ‘10 commandments’ and they all claimed to be Zionists - just like Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon and Tommy Robinson, to name but a few.
Keir Starmer has made some promises and now I think the other Zionists want some results, and they’re getting very cheeky. He’s talked the talk - now let us see him walk the walk. And the way for him to do that is to get rid of, preferably, all of the socialists in the Labour Party. For a kick-off the call has gone out (from the above named titles) to get rid of Corbyn’s ex-shadow ministers, Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy, for the crime of talking to, among others, Tony Greenstein and Jackie Walker.
They quote the 10 commandments: “Any MPs, peers, councillors, members or CLPs who support, campaign or provide a platform for people who have been suspended or expelled in the wake of anti-Semitic incidents should themselves be suspended from membership.” The lack of “anti-Semitic incidents” is not their concern, but anyone talking to these criminals should be shot - sorry, I mean expelled.
We know that accepting the commandments was a stupid, anti-democratic act: even a bridge club wouldn’t accept this level of interference in its disciplinary procedures. But Sir Keir has done it and so, presumably, because he was elected leader we all have to accept it. You can only talk to people approved by the BoD. We can only wonder at the lack of this power given to Jeremy Corbyn on his election.
All of this nonsense is done, of course, without any input (sorry, interference) from the membership. Just like the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance lack of definition, the expulsion and/or suspension of (for instance) Tony Greenstein, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson - just to mention some of the higher-profile victims - all of this stuff has been done behind the backs of the members, though not of the press, and Sir Keir is, it seems, determined to keep it that way.
If Sir Keir dares to give them the heads of these two black, female party members, then there will be even more outrage than there is already - and there is already quite a lot. I think that most members, trade union affiliates and so on, if told that they could not talk to Tony Greenstein or Jackie Walker (or anyone else for that matter), would say, ‘Fuck off!’ and I note at the time of writing (May 3) that quite a lot online already have. In the face of great difficulty, party members are going to have to find ways to express this outrage within the party - maybe some demands to suspend Sir Keir?
In compensation for the loss of socialism in the party Sir Keir wants to give us patriotism! “Labour should be patriotic and proud of it, says Starmer,” reads The Guardian headline on May 1. How better to celebrate Labour Day? He’s a bit worried about people in Bury voting Conservative because Labour isn’t patriotic enough. It’s reminiscent of an article in The Guardian just after the election trying to explain why Labour lost. They came across a 92-year-old who’d been in the Durham Light Infantry or some such and the answer was clear.
Pat McFadden MP had a similar line in The Observer of December 29 last year: “Fundamentally it [the Labour Party] should believe that British power and influence - both hard and soft - is a force for good in the world.” I’m sure his words would be echoed from India to Jamaica, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Ireland.
Sir Keir no doubt sees ‘patriotism’ as the way forward for his career: perhaps at some stage he may write a preface of a future edition of Johnson’s Churchill biography, saying how good it is. And for the Labour Party? Perhaps we need to add the Chelsea Pensioners to the BoD in overseeing not just discipline, but policy too.
In his reply to us on the coming US election, Daniel Lazare argues that we show an “unduly national perspective” when we conclude that Biden’s Democratic Party represents a lesser evil (Letters, April 30). He agrees that Trump and the Republicans threaten to impose a dictatorship if they win again, but argues that their extraordinary threat to democratic rights is more than matched by Biden’s record of waging imperialist war around the globe. “So,” Lazare concludes of Biden, “while he’d be better in Wisconsin, he’d be worse when it comes to the rest of the world, where US power predominates.”
We do not doubt Biden’s record of racism and capitalist austerity policies, nor his bloody imperialist warmongering, though we take issue with Lazare’s illusions that Trump is to be preferred from a global perspective. But, first, questions of method.
What Lazare mistakes for an “unduly national perspective” is actually the Marxist approach of deciding which position to take in an election, based on what will best advance the potential for working class organisation and struggle. We and Lazare agree that the Republicans threaten a sweeping overturn of democratic rights in the US, including further attacks on voting rights and the right to join a union, so the question should be simple to answer: it will be far more difficult for the working class to organise and struggle if its most basic rights to do so are eviscerated by Trump and the Republicans’ authoritarianism.
Lazare expresses with remarkable clarity his abandonment of a perspective based on working class and oppressed peoples’ struggles, when he responds to our warning that in their authoritarian drive the current Republicans aim to overturn long-held legal precedents: “Since when do socialists line up behind judicial precedent?” he asks. The answer, of course, is that we do so whenever they establish democratic rights that need to be defended against reactionary attempts to overturn them.
We understand that the Supreme Court - with justices appointed to unlimited terms and confirmed by a grossly undemocratic Senate - is not a neutral umpire over class and democratic issues. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that many established legal precedents were won by mass struggles. The strike waves of the 1930s, for example, forced the judiciary to establish the precedent that “freedom of contract” is not inviolable and that the government and courts can intervene to protect workers’ union rights and enforce the minimum wage, workplace safety and environmental protections. The current Republican Supreme Court justices are determined to overturn those precedents, and socialists should be in the forefront of struggles to defend them. By defending democratic rights, we can help the working class learn to use them to organise and win struggles. Otherwise the working class will never achieve the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state.
It’s a sad state of affairs when someone like Lazare, who has established a reputation as a Marxist scholar of the US constitution, fails to see why socialists take sides concerning legal precedents that entrench democratic rights. But such are the consequences of abandoning a perspective based on working class struggle. Lazare further demonstrates those consequences in his views on imperialism and global struggles.
Lazare should recognise that American militarists would have a far freer hand to wage imperialist wars around the world if the masses at home were deprived of the right to protest and to vote them out of office. Instead, he relieves himself of the burden of facing that reality by nurturing illusions that Trump is some kind of dove.
Biden, Lazare reminds us, is “an arch-imperialist who’s been neck-deep in every major US crime of the last 30 years, from the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan to the destruction of Libya, Syria and Yemen, covert assistance to al Qa’eda, and support for the neo-Nazi-spearheaded coup in the Ukraine. If his first major campaign ad was an attack on Trump for not being tougher on the Chinese, it’s because American aggression is in his bones,” whereas Trump “won in 2016 because he opposed US misadventures in Syria and the Ukraine.”
Trump’s bluster against US wars abroad was hardly a significant factor in his stealing the 2016 election. Nor was it truthful about his own past attitudes or indicative of his policies since taking office. He famously claimed to have been an early opponent of Bush Jr’s Iraq war in 2003, but this is no truer than most of his self-serving boasts; in fact he supported the US invasion and hailed its military success at the time. As to Afghanistan, there are now slightly more US troops there than when Trump took office, and the Pentagon plans to deploy more this summer. Overall, Trump has increased US troop numbers in the Middle East and has dramatically escalated its use of drone missile attacks, leading to skyrocketing numbers of civilian deaths.
Now that he is in charge of the Iraq war, he continues the US’s crimes. The bloody slaughter of civilians in the recapture of Mosul from Islamic State continued under Trump’s watch. Most recently, after he engineered the assassination of Iranian general Soleimani in Baghdad in January, the Iraqi Council of Representatives voted that all foreign forces should leave the country. Trump, offended, responded by threatening to impose sanctions against Iraq and by deploying 3,500 more troops to the region.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the people of Iran, Yemen and Palestine would hardly welcome a continuation of Trump’s policies. Trump tore up Obama’s treaty with Iran (imperialist though its conditions were), intensified sanctions against the country and openly threatens war. As if asserting US imperialist hegemony, he has also pressured the European Union to restore sanctions against Iran. Trump and his adjunct, Kushner, warmly befriended the Saudi ruler, MBS - butcher of his domestic opponents, as well as the Yemeni people. And Trump has openly sided with Israel’s apartheid rule and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, breaking with the bipartisan hypocrisy of a separate, nominally sovereign Palestinian state.
A word or two on Ukraine. Here Trump looks like a moderate when it comes to the west-versus-Russia rivalry over the imperialist exploitation of that country. That’s because of his devotion to, and often slavish apologetics for, Putin. Lazare cites the Democrats’ support for “the imperialist war effort in Ukraine’s eastern provinces”, as if Trump had withdrawn military aid to Kiev, and as if Nato had invaded and seized those provinces, not Russia. He refers casually to “the neo-Nazi-spearheaded coup in the Ukraine”, overlooking that the Maidan movement in 2014 rested on a mass, anti-oligarchical mobilisation despite the influential rightwing elements in it, and that there were far-right (Russian) nationalist elements on the other side as well. And in the war in eastern Ukraine, there are fascistic forces like the Azov Brigade on the government side. But there are also Nazis on the pro-Moscow side, and the bulk of Nazis across Europe are enthusiasts for that side as well as for Putin.
As to China, as Lazare points out, Biden is attacking Trump “for not being tougher on the Chinese”. But Trump is doing the same; he wants to make China the scapegoat for his disastrous handling of the pandemic and is attempting to rally support for a conflict by promoting the conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 virus was produced by a Chinese laboratory.
In short, Trump is as much an imperialist as any Democrat; socialists have no business preferring him on that score.
Lazare agrees that electing Biden over Trump would “buy time for working class and oppressed people to use their rights to vote and to organise in unions”, but he assumes that calling for a vote for Biden and the Democrats “will bind [the masses] all the more securely to one such party and hence to the ‘Repocratic’ duopoly as a whole”. On the contrary, nothing will bind the masses more tightly to the Democratic Party than Trump and the Republicans establishing authoritarian rule and denying working class and oppressed people their right to vote and to organise struggle.
That is why it’s important to reject nonsense ideas of a duopoly that ignore the fundamental difference that has opened between the two major ruling class parties. The Republicans are now a party of white nationalist authoritarianism, determined to eviscerate voting rights, union rights and more. The Democrats are no less a party of imperialism, but they can hope to hold political power only if people of colour have the right to vote and have their votes counted; and they do not generally want to wipe out the unions they rely on for their electoral efforts. Socialists should encourage the working class to take advantage of the opportunity to choose its opponent for the next four years, and to use their surviving democratic rights to organise and challenge the capitalist class and all its political representatives.
Walter Daum, Matthew Roberts
In his article, ‘Only choice we have’, Rex Dunn is surely right to suggest that Marxists can learn much from studying Trotsky’s Transitional programme of 1938 (April 30). Rex argues that Trotsky’s chief insight was that, without a socialist revolution, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of humanity. This now appears more relevant to today’s circumstances than ever. Rex mentions ecocide, the inability to eradicate disease, inequality and social disintegration as aspects of global catastrophe. This threatens the continued survival of civilisation worldwide. He could also have mentioned continued wars, deepening depression, unemployment and the threat of nuclear extinction.
Comrade Dunn thinks a global socialist revolution based on the overthrow of the capitalist class and the establishment of democratic planning worldwide is the only effective means of preventing this catastrophe. This means that socialists need to focus their attention on building a new Marxist International that can support and coordinate the development of class consciousness and the spread of revolutionary activity wherever and whenever the working class engages in collective action. If Rex’s response to catastrophe is correct, certain questions come to mind.
Firstly, does this mean that a new Marxist International is likely to be built in the present period? Not if socialist and communist groups and individuals do not attempt to develop a political economy that explains the contemporary epoch of decline and transition.
This epoch is highly contradictory. It requires organised and disciplined study within and outwith institutions of higher education and activist groups. Moreover, a rigid preoccupation with targeting and blaming past revolutionary leaders, such as Trotsky, for workers’ defeats is likely to continue to be an effective barrier to the re-emergence of a socialist and communist consciousness. Many socialists and communists still seem to be unaware of the impact that Stalinism has had on their understanding of Marxist theory and practice. Thankfully this is changing. For example, writers and researchers for this newspaper have made a sharp distinction between the “bureaucratic centralism” of most groups that remain loyal to the Third and Fourth Internationals and the “democratic centralism” of the Second International, Lenin and Trotsky. The substitution of the one for the other is a direct result of the Stalinist doctrine that Bolshevism consisted of a party of a new type.
Secondly, does it mean that a new International will be built on the basis of Trotsky’s programme? Yes and no. If there are elements within the programme that are still relevant to today’s conditions, they can be preserved in any new document. Calling for the establishment of workplace committees and other forms of workers’ control such as soviets might be examples of this. Overall, however, I am inclined to think that the best way to preserve the rational elements within the programme would be to supersede it. This means the creation of a new programme that addresses the problems of socialist revolution today, including the role of the culture industry and social media. It entails making as sharp and clear a distinction between socialism and communism, and social democracy and Stalinism, as possible. It means demonstrating the non-utopian nature of the socialist and communist project.
For example, ‘going back’ to the transitional programme will involve a critical evaluation of the notion of transitional demands. What did Trotsky mean by stating they act as a bridge between the minimum and maximum programmes? Is there any relationship between the accommodation of many Marxist groups to left social democracy and transitional demands? Or is the root of their support for reformism in Trotsky’s notion of a degenerate workers’ state? For example, it is arguable that Trotskyists’ defence of the USSR’s nationalised property relations explains their adaptation to Stalinism.
Finally, how inclusive should a new Marxist International be? Should it be like the First International and include class-struggle anarchists or Marxist/anarchist hybrids, such as people who identify with the Italian autonomist school of Marxism? Or should it include only those socialist and communist groups that embrace the electoral sphere as part of the class struggle? Should it include individuals and groups that characterise regimes such as the former Soviet Union as in some sense ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’? Certainly I could never be in the same political organisation as George Galloway and his allies from the Stalin Society, such as Joti Brar.
Comrade Dunn suggests that a new Marxist International should win over the most advanced workers to the idea of socialist revolution. He gives the example of workers in the ‘big tech’ companies. These workers are not only potentially powerful because they are productive of value, but because they have the knowledge and skills to disable the repressive apparatus of the state. Trotsky’s call to arm workers and create militias is now limited by the development of powerful productive forces. Military technology is now so advanced that armed workers and militias can be rendered helpless and eliminated from the air. Constant aerial bombardment of civilian targets destroys any and every move towards transforming the class struggle into a civil war.
A goal of a new Marxist International may therefore be to end all forms of civil war - including the class war.
Paul B Smith
I have to query the continued indulgence of Rex Dunn.
The latest article on Trotsky’s Transitional programme is another appalling effort, although I am grateful for the comrade’s unerring ability to cut through any insomnia problems his readers may be experiencing.
It is not only the patronising and boring mode of presentation (where the reader is constantly prodded into shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘So what?’). Or the feeling that I’m reading a comedian who can’t deliver a punchline. The real problem is that the Weekly Worker has featured many articles down the years criticising and contextualising the transitional method in great detail (Dunn should probably look up the word ‘archive’ when the terrible urge to write takes hold). An article that then merely takes us back to a kind of dogmatic Trotskyist year zero, where all the intellectual labour of the past 20 years has been erased, or probably unnoticed, is bound, comrade editors, to provoke a certain amount of indifference or even resistance on the part of readers.
When I first came across the CPGB in the mid-1990s, it was engaged in a rapprochement process with a group of far-left fragments. The Weekly Worker archive from that period is instructive, as it had muscular editorial debates, reminding comrades from other groups that the paper was not a bulletin board for any ephemeral musings that these groups put forward at times. There was even a denial to some of an automatic right to reply if debates got tedious and circular. The point being that contributions were judged on their contribution to the reforging of the CPGB. The editorial parameters of this were very broad and inclusive, and it didn’t always go perfectly. I remember one printed contribution on the ‘ontology of Paul Weller’ by the long-extinct Trotskyist Unity Group that was actually quite distressing.
It does strike me that some of this interventionist culture has disappeared and we have instead at least some of the facets of a passive bulletin board that people such as Rex Dunn pin posters on. The comrade editors may, of course, have reams of correspondence to hand from Dunn’s many fans out there. But I somehow doubt it.
Piers Corbyn, the brother of the former Labour leader, has been taking part in anti-lockdown protests. His view is that there is no pandemic, and he has led demos in Glastonbury, Somerset. Jeremy Corbyn’s brother has argued that there are more sinister forces at play behind the present crisis. In a previous demo he referred to the microchip agenda, which aims at bringing people under the total control of the elite. I am also far from convinced that the present crisis is only about the pandemic.
Some time ago I wrote a letter to the Weekly Worker which made reference to the transhumanist, microchip agenda, which is about fusing humans with technology under the control of those who rule us. Most of the left seem to be unaware of this secret agenda. The human microchip - the first stage of transhumanism, symbolised by ‘the Borg’ in fiction - is obviously aimed at preventing the socialist transformation of society: that is, real socialism. Transhumanism is therefore the lockdown which we should be worried about. With everyone under technological control, it would mean game, set and match to the ruling class: that is, fascist totalitarianism brought to perfection.
One writer who has done a lot to expose the elite’s microchip and transhumanist agenda, is David Icke. However, while Icke does a good job in exposing the inner elite’s agenda, he doesn’t do so from a leftwing point of view; rather he does so from what I would describe as a liberal, semi-conservative standpoint. This is why, up to now, he has failed to openly challenge the private ownership of the means of production by the very elite he is exposing and condemning. Icke calls for revolution and the downfall of the ruling class, but doesn’t seem to understand that the downfall of capitalism logically leads to social ownership of the means of production, on which communist society, humanity’s natural state, is based.
Piers Corbyn appears to be familiar with David Icke’s writings. The latter is certainly right to expose the microchip and transhumanist agenda of those in the shadows. Hopefully, Piers Corbyn will not make the same mistake as Icke, who embodies the strange contradiction of exposing, condemning and calling for the downfall of the ruling class by revolution, while at the same time demonising communism.