Error of method
Ian Birchall’s reply to my article on the treatment in the left press of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lenin (‘Lenin avatars’, April 30) begins by condemning my article as “supercilious” and as arguing that “everyone’s out of step but us [CPGB]” (Letters, May 7). Towards the end, he says that “The Weekly Worker spends its time lecturing the rest of the left on its failings - it never imagines it has anything to learn.”
This is a very basic error of method. The “everyone’s out of step but us” snark is a reference to the old joke about a mother watching a military drill, saying of her son: “Look at my Johnny - he’s the only one in step.” But, while the point of parades is to display unanimity, the point of discussion is to learn through disagreement. And it is perfectly possible for one person, or a minority, to be the only ones who have got the right answer - as Galileo was on the shape of the solar system, Semmelweis on doctors washing their hands, or Wegener on continental drift. Perhaps (as several left economists argue) the Marxist minority should defer to the marginalist majority?
In effect, Birchall is suggesting that minorities ought to defer to majorities, because this is to “learn from the movement”. Sharp polemics against majority views are thus to be taken as “supercilious” (and so on).
But, while it is certainly true that the CPGB is a very small minority in the left, the Socialist Workers Party tradition is also a very small minority in the larger workers’ movement, relative to the Labour right - and even to the part of the labour and trade union left which, though no longer organised by the ‘official’ communists, remains politically influenced by their ideas. And the Labour Party is (currently) a minority in the society relative to public support for capitalist parties. Indeed, it should follow from Birchall’s arguments that the minorities which emerged in the SWP over the ‘Delta affair’ should have deferred to the party majority …
Of course we have things to learn. But minorities have things to say which are precisely about matters where they disagree with majorities. To refuse to say these things in the name of deference is not only to silence ourselves, but also to promote ‘group-think’ in the larger movement of which we are part. In a left which as a whole is plainly in trouble, but keeps on trying to do what it was trying to do in the 1960s-70s with clear diminishing returns, that would actually be a dereliction of duty.
As to the more specific points, the lesson comrade Ian claims Cliff learned from the 1930s-40s is that “the best programme in the world is useless if there is nobody to fight for it”. This is at one level obviously true, but at another level dodges the problem faced by the 1940s Trotskyists - why there were no forces. There was, of course, also massive repression of the Trotskyists; but if repression could be guaranteed to suppress ideas, we should all give up altogether. The better explanation is that the course of events in 1941-45 produced a massive growth in political support for ‘official’ communism, on the one hand, and, on the other, splits in the Trotskyist movement - both over Soviet defencism and over defeatism versus ‘proletarian military policy’ more generally. Both resulted from the fact that the Trotskyists’ programme was not “the best programme in the world”, but rested on predictions about the likely course of the war, which had been radically falsified. (I should add that the immediate introduction of rationing and directive planning by the belligerents in 1939 made the famous ‘transitional demands’ of a sliding scale of wages and of hours, etc lose all political purchase.)
I will admit that it is a very long time since I read the first three volumes of Cliff’s Lenin (in the late 70s and early 80s), that I haven’t kept a hard copy of it, and that I didn’t feel the need to revisit it online to write a journalistic squib about the left press’s treatments of the anniversary.
My point about the “concrete analysis” and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) is not particularly to praise the speeches. It is to explain Lenin’s criticism of Béla Kun, György Lukács and their objections to any sort of engagement with the USPD, on the ground that its character was to be inferred from the (Kautskyite) character of its majority leadership. This inference from the character of the leadership to the character of the base has been characteristic of a large part of the far left’s response to the Corbyn movement - the other side of this response being merely to tail Corbyn as a good leftist, without criticising his and his co-thinkers’ substantive politics.
SWP canvassers for Respect claiming to be “left Labourites” - ie, former Labour voters disillusioned by Blair - was my personal experience of canvassing for Respect, alongside SWP comrades, in East Oxford, and of arguments put forward at Respect meetings. I would be perfectly willing to accept that this was not the invariable practice; but I rather doubt that it had no basis in SWP policy, given the point about the SWP putting on protective coloration more generally, as in Globalise Resistance.
Who invented soviets? Trotsky, who was fairly centrally involved, claimed in 1905 (London 1971, pp104-05) that the Petersburg Soviet was created because the factional struggles between the left parties and their clandestinity meant that non-party organisations had to be created (by the left) to engage the masses, and that the organisational form was modelled on the February 1905 tsarist government’s ‘Shidlovsky Commission’ to enquire into workers’ grievances, which was supposed to have included workplace delegates (the workers’ parties boycotted the elections and the commission failed). The anarchist, Voline (Vsevolod Eikhenbaum), claimed that it had an antecedent existence in January 1905, but was then repressed by the state and reinvented later by the left groups (but his narrative is actually internally inconsistent).
Trotsky’s narrative is, in fact, most consistent with the resolutions of the April 1905 Menshevik conference on trade unions, which called (point 2) for “the setting up of regular meetings of representatives of the various trade unions or of representatives of industrial establishments … so as to establish continuous contact among them”. ‘On informal organisations’ stated: “there are arising various kinds of informal associations of workers” and that “the conference recommends ... Assisting such associations to emerge and to multiply …” (both in R Elwood Resolutions and decisions of the CPSU Vol 1, Toronto 1974, p76). This existing Menshevik policy - based on western European antecedents - is the best explanation of the notoriously predominant role of Mensheviks in the early stages of the Petersburg soviet.
Of course, trade unions, trades councils and workers’ associations of one sort or another - which the soviet in its initiation mimicked - were certainly created by the workers themselves and long antedate Marxism. But in modern society the process is a dialogue between the spontaneous impulse of the working class to associate for the defence of common interests and the input of minorities with particular ideas, such as that the working class should seek to take political power. The input of the permanently organised activist minority can add to the creativity - or it can poison it, as is the case with the organisational model of top-table-dominated bureaucratic centralism, which is promoted by the Labour and trade union bureaucracy and most of the left. To insist on “learning” and “generalising experience” as the exclusive tasks of this minority is, in fact, to prevent ever overcoming that poison.
Ian Birchall asks, “Who invented soviets?” and then answers: “Russian workers, who had probably never heard of Lenin.” What I would like to know is what soviets is he talking about: 1905 or 1917?
In 1905 workers’ councils arose spontaneously out of the January-February 1905 strike and were independent of any external initiatives. Their popularity derived largely from the absence of political party agitators in their midst. They expressed the workers’ political and economic demands in a situation where trade unions were non-existent and where the political parties held little influence. It was all very different in 1917.
The February strikes had been spontaneous like those in 1905, but the soviets had not arisen directly out of them, as they had 12 years earlier. They resulted from the combined efforts of politicians and workers’ leaders: the politicians of the Duma Committee and the members of the Workers’ Group sitting on the Central Committee for the War Industries, which installed itself in the Tauride Palace on February 27 and set up a provisional executive committee of the council of workers’ delegates, to which committee several socialist leaders and members of parliament attached themselves. This explains why, when the first Provisional Soviet met, it contained no factory delegates.
What had changed from 1905 was the way the parties saw soviets as a springboard to power, and they manipulated and engaged in all kinds of chicanery to gain influence. The soviet became the scene of party factional infighting. What took place reflected Lenin’s own conclusions on the 1905 soviets, when in 1907 he described the future approach to take: “... that Social Democratic Party organisations may, in case of necessity, participate in inter-party Soviets of Workers’ Delegates, Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, and in congresses of representatives of these organisations, and may organise such institutions, provided this is done on strict party lines for the purpose of developing and strengthening the Social Democratic Labour Party …” Never to give “all power to the soviets”.
As Trotsky said, “Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets ...” In his view, the soviets existed only to allow the party to influence the workers. “The party set the soviets in motion; the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers and to some extent the peasantry.”
The soviets were a dispensable means to an end for the Bolsheviks and, as early as December 1917, Maxim Gorky could write that the revolution was not attributable to the soviets, and that the new republic was not one of councils, but of people’s commissars.
Another form of workers’ democracy had developed in 1917 and that was the factory committees (fabzavkomii.) They mushroomed and expanded, as the soviets increasingly lost contact with the mass of workers. The Bolsheviks, while playing lip-service to the idea of workers’ control, emasculated them of their power by political decree and made them accountable to state ministries.
So I ask Ian, which soviets were invented by the workers to represent their interests: 1905 or 1917?
Socialist Party of Great Britain
Ian Birchall marshals a well-argued defence of Tony Cliff and his emphasis on recruiting new members to the Socialist Workers Party. At the same time, Ian’s criticism of the CPGB’s failure to recruit more than 30 members over the last 30 years is well-founded. Whereas the SWP continuously call for people to ‘join the socialists’, it is many years now since the CPGB called for people to ‘join the communists’.
As a former member of Militant - and its successor, the Socialist Party in England and Wales - I can remember being given a leaflet in 1978 asking me to “become a Militant supporter”. Since then, SPEW, just like the SWP, continuously asks people to ‘join the Socialists’. Why does the CPGB not ask readers of its widely read Weekly Worker to ‘join the communists’? All I can conclude is that either the CPGB has something to hide (which I doubt) or it wants to hide its modesty under a bushel.
In the same issue of the Weekly Worker, CPGB guru Jack Conrad explains that the mass Communist Party he envisages will be built from the top down. The problem is that on the left there are few cadres still alive today. The sad death of Neil Davidson, following the death of Colin Barker, has weakened the left considerably. However, both Neil Davidson and Colin Barker were members of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21), a split from the SWP in 2013, which has had the good sense to double its membership since the split by asking people to ‘join RS21’.
Jack Conrad - and his close associate, Mike Macnair - are not getting any younger. If the CPGB fails to open itself up to new members it will remain an irrelevant sect, albeit with a widely read paper. Without new members, especially from amongst the younger generation, the CPGB will shrivel up and die, and take its much-loved Weekly Worker with it to the grave.
I find it difficult to understand what the CPGB is trying to do in the Labour Party. All I can conclude is that the CPGB’s isolation from the British working class has led it to copy the deep entryist tactic of the Workers International League (better known as Socialist Appeal), the British section of the International Marxist Tendency. Socialist Appeal currently sees the 90,000 people who voted for Richard Burgon in the Labour Party deputy leadership contest as its target audience for recruitment.
If the CPGB through the same deep entryist tactic also sees these 90,000 Labour Party members as its target audience for recruitment, it should come out and openly say so. Alternatively, if the CPGB sees its task to organise the left through its Labour Party Marxists and Labour Against the Witchhunt fronts, it should also come out and openly say so. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that these 90,000 Labour Party people are virtual members who can easily disappear from Labour at a drop of a hat. This can clearly be seen from widespread discussions on social media that, following the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party never will be, nor ever has been, a vehicle for the building of socialism in Britain.
Lenin often remarked that “an ounce of experience is worth a tonne of theory”. Lenin was also fond of the Russian proverb, “Life teaches”. Why should any sane, right-thinking communist want to be in a party - ie, Labour - which treats its dissident members so badly? I know this from bitter experience last year, when my local Corbynistas opposed my application to rejoin. To put it bluntly, why should we have to go through the anguish and distress of being expelled from the Labour Party as part of Sir Keir Starmer’s purge of socialists?
Daniel Lazare has been a recent (since November 2019) addition to the writing team for the Weekly Worker, focusing on politics in the United States.
I found myself disagreeing with some points being made by Lazare and began reading his contributions more closely. I have found these articles increasingly bizarre, in terms of analysis, logic and politics (and proscriptions). A common theme is Russia, combined with an appearance or veneer of Marxist or leftist language and rhetoric, as well as plugs for Lazare’s own books about the US constitution.
One of the early articles (November 28) was about Russia-bashing, and how this reflects an instinctive hatred of Russia by the Democrats. He speaks encouragingly about attorney general William Barr’s upcoming investigation into this Russia-bashing (a recent consequence, at the time of my writing this letter, being the pardoning of Michael Flynn). ‘Russiagate’ again appears in the December 12 article. In the January 24 article, Lazare tries to discredit the impeachment of Trump as being a result of Democrats following blindly an out-of-date US constitution.
There are a couple of strange articles in the February 23 and February 29 issues about Bernie Sanders (who Lazare refers to as a “self-proclaimed socialist”). This was a time when Sanders was in front for the Democratic nomination. Included in the first is that Sanders was ahead because of the outdated US 18th century political system. Again Russia comes up with the mention of the “2016 innocuous meeting between Trump officials and the Russian lawyer” and how Sanders, if he wins, will be under pressure to be tough on Russia and increase arms sales to Ukraine. The second article is entitled ‘Subordinate to the bourgeoisie’, with an introduction that reads: “It is true that Sanders mobilises the working class, but for what?” One would expect some attempt at a class analysis, but in fact the article is all about Russia, beginning with the unforgivable statement by Sanders, when there were claims that Russia was trying to help him, that Russia should stay out of the US elections.
John McClain and Jeff Bezos are quoted (in terms of statements they made about Russia) so as to discredit Sanders by some kind of association. The article includes the statements that Robert Mueller did not conclude there was any “collusion” between Trump and Russia, suggesting again that this Russiagate was a hoax, as well as the bizarre statement that “Russia is one of the defining questions of the epoch”, whatever that is supposed to mean. One asks oneself who such an article, supposedly about Sanders, is supposed to serve?
Lazare’s March 12 article was written when it was clear that in fact Joe Biden would be the Democratic nominee. Whose turn is it to be discredited? We hear from Lazare about Biden’s significant cognitive decline, and how he is a “brain-addled serial war criminal”. A good comparison of Biden and Trump in terms of US foreign policy appears in the letter by comrades Daum and Roberts in the May 7 issue, which is also a reply to Lazare’s articles and to another bizarre (and politically illiterate) statement by Lazare that Trump won the 2016 election because of opposing US interventions in Syria and Ukraine (where “and Ukraine” is the most bizarre part).
Recent articles (April 2 and 23) are on the coronavirus. The thrust is about the incompetence of the US in its handling of the pandemic and how this is a sign of the decline of the US as a global power. Any mishandling of the epidemic in the US is a result of Trump’s incompetence and moronic nature, and the fact that any action to actually help human beings is alien to him - as well as the background of extreme (including racial) inequality and the lack of a coordinated national health system in the US. But instead Lazare tells us that it was the “Democratic attempts to drive Trump from office because of being overly cosy with Moscow” that was responsible for Trump’s lack of attention and incompetence in late January 2020. The last article ends up with how Russia, China and Germany will jostle for control, once the US disappears as a front-runner in the world.
Nobody that I am aware of claims that Trump’s election in 2016 is the responsibility of Russia (rather than what it was - the stupidity of large sections of the electorate, who somehow thought that Trump would do something for them, in addition to a backlash against the first black president). However, the disinformation by the Russian Internet Research Agency had some particularly pernicious aspects (other than just the plain spreading of lies) and this included targeting black communities with pseudo-revolutionary and pseudo-black nationalist language. This use of such revolutionary-sounding language (including the expression, “white monopoly capitalism”) for ulterior aims was also developed by Cambridge Analytica for the Zuma regime in South Africa, to defend itself against charges of corruption.
The only people who bristle at the mention of Russian interference are Trump and his friends, who see this precisely as a suggestion that his winning is the responsibility of Russia rather than himself (among other things), and Putin and his cronies.
I see little connection between Lazare’s writings and progressive politics, other than his bandying around pseudo-Marxist language. In one of his articles he suggests that the US left should make a central point of their programme a revision or abolition of the US constitution, which makes zero political sense. The common themes echo, whether by accident or design, the rhetoric coming from Putin: that the political system and values of the USA (and Europe) are bankrupt, these countries are on the decline and others, such as Russia, are there to fill the gap. What kind of Russia? This has no connection with socialism, whether on a national or international scale, but rather with a nationalism with explicit racist content.
I would point the reader to an interesting and heartening article in The Guardian on May 8 (Victory Over Fascism Day) about other kinds of traditions in Russia: ‘Europeans and Russians should remember what bound them together: anti-fascism’.
Not an Erfurtian
Lars T Lih’s article marking the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth (‘The centrality of hegemony’, May 7) includes many of the same themes contained in his Lenin rediscovered - themes that he collectively labelled “Erfurtianism”. While the anniversary article does not contain the term ‘Erfurtian’ itself or any mention of the Erfurt programme, the content is much the same: the German SPD as a model party to be emulated, the necessity of bringing the light and air of political freedom to the working class, the historical mission of merging socialism with the worker movement, and Karl Kautsky as the principal theorist and exponent of revolutionary social democracy in the decades before World War I. As Lih put it in Lenin rediscovered, on all of these points, “Lenin was a passionate Erfurtian”. I see major flaws in this conceptual framework.
It is astonishing, first of all, that Lih would write a more than 600-page book seeking to equate orthodox Marxism with the Erfurt programme without once mentioning Engels’ criticism of the (unchanged) draft of the political section of that programme for failing to call for the overthrow of the Prusso-German military state and the establishment of a democratic republic. Lih doesn’t engage with this simmering issue within German Social Democracy because he defines orthodoxy merely as allegiance to what Kautsky called the “merger formula”: ie, “Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement”. This general formula sets the standard for orthodoxy too low, because it does not take into account Marx’s and Engels’ equally important writings on the programmatic demands and political tactics needed to challenge and ultimately break through the restrictive legal barriers of an undemocratic political order. On the programmatic and agitational demand for a democratic republic, Engels was the voice of Marxist orthodoxy, not the Erfurt programme.
As for whether Lenin should be called an Erfurtian, that can be settled by comparing the Erfurt programme to the programme adopted by the Russian Social Democrats in 1903. The Russians - following Plekhanov’s draft programme of the mid-1880s and not the Erfurt programme - declared that the party “takes as its most immediate political task the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a democratic republic, the constitution of which would ensure: 1. Sovereignty of the people: that is, concentration of supreme state power wholly in the hands of a legislative assembly, consisting of representatives of the people [elected by universal, equal and direct suffrage] and forming a single chamber.”
Lih doesn’t mention this foremost demand of the Russian programme in his book or his article and argues instead that the goal of the Russian Social Democrats in overthrowing the autocracy was merely to obtain the “freedom” that the Germans had achieved under their constitutional monarchy. This definition of freedom substitutes the goal of Russian liberalism for that of the Russian Social Democrats. The Russian Social Democrats’ aim in establishing the hegemony of the proletariat in the democratic revolution was not merely to obtain the freedom to exist as an opposition party like the SPD, but for the workers and peasants to seize political power themselves. For the Russian Social Democrats, anything less than full democracy was not freedom, but just a modified form of tyranny. Lih glosses over these different meanings of freedom.
Lastly, Lih is silent on the challenges to Kautsky’s standing as the voice of revolutionary Social Democracy in the years prior to World War I - particularly the dispute that broke out between Kautsky and Luxemburg about whether to support the strikes and demonstrations in 1910 demanding suffrage reform and a democratic republic in Germany. Jim Creegan defended Luxemburg’s position in this dispute in a letter back in April 2018, so there is no need to repeat the details of that argument here. I just want to say that this dispute pushed the issue of a democratic republic to the centre of Social Democratic political debate in Germany, just as Plekhanov and Lenin had pushed it to the centre of debate in Russia earlier.
I am writing from the United States, where we still don’t have a democratic system of equal political representation. Lenin is still relevant for us, because he was the most dogged and consistent advocate for the democratic republic in the Second International. Lih’s ‘Centrality of hegemony’ touches glancingly on many of these crucial issues, but in the end remains too wedded to the abstract ideal of a ‘model’ SPD and the vagaries of a general ‘merger formula’ that neglects the difficulties of tactics.
In his letter last week, Lawrence Parker substitutes a supercilious contempt for serious criticism (May 7). That suggests a sectarian attitude rather than an obligation to engage with the subject.
He chooses to ignore the facts that brought the Transitional programme of 1938 about: Stalinism was responsible for the rise of fascism in Germany, as an excrescence of a decaying capitalist system, which could only alleviate its contradictions by means of another imperialist war. Comintern was on the side of the counterrevolution in Spain and throughout the world. No wonder the capitalist media applauded the Moscow show trials. Stalin was a man they could do business with (as Roosevelt did). What else were revolutionaries like Trotsky supposed to do, other than try and build a new international - even though he was starting without a broad foundation?
But isn’t there a parallel with this today? We are living in a period wherein capitalism is undermining itself through its dependence on new and more reckless forms of finance capital. As Yanis Varoufakis has pointed out, another crash was coming before the pandemic erupted. At the same time, capitalist ecocide becomes deeper and pandemics are becoming more frequent. Meanwhile the left as a whole is tiny, riven with sectarianism and is even more impotent than it was in the late 1930s. Despite the odds, should we not strive for a new international, or just carry on as we are? Where does Parker stand on these questions?
Clearly he doesn’t take any of this seriously; hence he says I’m “a comedian who can’t deliver a punchline”. Then he delivers his coup de grâce: he accuses me of trying to drag the left back to a “dogmatic Trotskyist year zero”. What he means is that those who have a balanced view of Trotsky’s contribution to Marxist theory and the history of the socialist struggle (which includes his mistakes) should shut up. But what is he afraid of? Why resort to supercilious contempt?
If he really wants to be taken seriously, Parker should deal with the Transitional programme in its Marxist context: ie, Trotsky’s political economy, in which the idea of decline and transition plays a central role. If he thinks that is rubbish, then so is Marx.
Need above profit
Who to believe - the World Health Organisation, which in the past eradicated smallpox, or David Icke, ex-sports presenter, one-time messiah and now conspiracy theory fanatic? Why am I not surprised that Tony Clark comes down on the side of Icke?! “His view is that there is no pandemic” (Letters, May 7).
So let me get this straight: those in power have decided that the best way to control us is by shutting down entire industries and putting a huge spanner in the process of accumulation. As plans go, it’s dumber than dumb. I have news for the more naive comrades out there: the elites have pretty much had us under total control for nearly a century and have not had to resort to extreme measures. In fact mass consumption and debt is a far better method of control than any crackpot ideas David Icke can imagine.
The truth is that this pandemic could not have come at a worse time for the bourgeoisie, which is why they are doing everything in their power to argue for an end to the lockdown. Every question by every establishment journalist since the start of the lockdown is about when it will end. The Telegraph are desperately trying to rewrite the laws of nature in order to get the lockdown ended!
The problem for the elites is that most people support the lockdown because people only go out to be wage-slaves to pay bills - it isn’t out of masochism. If going to work can kill you, it kind of defeats the whole point! What really freaks out the ruling elite and its hangers-on is the idea that people may be developing a new consciousness: no longer are they worried about the lazy neighbour who can’t be bothered to get a job and lives off welfare, but instead they are concerned by the neighbour who is going out to do non-essential work! This is the kind of qualitative leap that must happen if communism is to supplant the bourgeois system of rule.
The lockdown has actually reclaimed humanity from the inhuman, consumerist agenda, from a system which makes humans subservient to the process of accumulation. However imperfect, what we are witnessing is the creeping of human need being put above bourgeois profit. In actual fact we are also witnessing a loosening of the control that the bourgeois have over the masses, and we have the lockdown to thank for that too.
The pandemic is, of course, real. Science is leading the way and the vested interests of one stripe or another don’t like it, and the noise we are seeing - from the Telegraph to the likes of Icke - is a reaction against real and fundamental change.
Lawrence Parker asks how long the Weekly Worker is going to put up with Rex Dunn. I’m asking how much longer is it going to subject the readers of its letters column to the increasingly bizarre ruminations of Tony Clark?
UFOs? The Borg? Come on!