Learn from past
Ian Birchall is right that polemical exchanges can become “wearisome” (Letters, May 21). A common reason is that, shifting from issue to issue, they may fail to make progress on the original disputed question.
Let me remind readers what this was in this case. My article, ‘Lenin avatars’ (April 30), argued that the treatment of the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth in the Morning Star, The Socialist and Socialist Worker and on the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website, in different ways used Lenin as an icon or ‘avatar’ for the different groups’ current politics. To this end, I drew attention to points which I argued were historical errors, or gaps in the reasoning, of these articles.
Comrade Birchall’s first letter (May 7) claimed my article was “supercilious” - a characterisation he repeats in his latest letter. I saw no reason for making such a claim other than what followed: his allegation that I argued, “everyone’s out of step but us”. That is, that as a small minority we (the CPGB) and I in particular ought to display deference to the more successful ‘Cliff tradition’ (I take it that comrade Birchal does not think we should display deference to the Morning Star when it uses Lenin in support of the history of ‘actually existing socialism’). This was the basic point of my first reply.
In his latest letter comrade Birchall asserts that this argument of mine is the equivalent of “attributing to one’s opponent a position that they have not put”. But he still doesn’t explain what specifically about my April 30 article is “supercilious”. And he responds to my giving examples of minorities being right by saying that many more minorities are wrong; and by putting in the same category David Icke, who is an obvious fantasist and should not be taken seriously, and Piers Corbyn, who is probably wrong, but offers evidence-based arguments which should be taken seriously. Thus his latest letter is still based on the claim that an argument is probably wrong if it comes from a small minority.
By ‘deference’ I do not mean that comrade Birchall is arguing that we (the CPGB or I myself) should shut up altogether (which is how I think he must be understanding it when he says that I attribute to him a position he doesn’t hold). Rather, he seems to be claiming that we should give a stylistic tug of the forelock to the majority view in order to show humility on the basis of our own lack of numbers: that is, to display deference to the Socialist Workers Party (at least, presumably, when he was a member).
This is also reflected in his later point that “we should start with a recognition that none of us have made the revolution”. I am all too familiar with this argument - it was made by supporters of the American SWP when they broke with Trotskyism in the early 1980s in the name of this recognition (they argued that western leftists needed to show such humility in relation to the Cuban leadership round Castro and to the Sandinistas, who had ‘made the revolution’).
This stylistic forelock-tugging to more famous authors is a fairly common feature of articles in left academic and semi-academic journals, including International Socialism and Historical Materialism. If the author is then going to go on to disagree with the fundamental premises of the person to whom the forelock is tugged, the action is merely obfuscatory.
As commonly, however, the display of humility actually entails being enmeshed in the false assumptions of the person to whom this stylistic deference is paid. The most visible recent example of this effect is in relation to ‘intersectionality’, which has for the past several years served the agenda of imperialist warmongering (via ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’) and the interest of the labour bureaucracy in suppressing inconvenient speech. Forelock-tugging to ‘intersectionality’ views and authors has crippled the ability of the left to robustly defend freedom of speech against these political operations.
Comrade Birchall’s first letter offered a number of arguments in favour of what can broadly be called the ‘Cliffite’ view of Leninism and the ‘party question’. I responded to these arguments in my May 14 letter replying to him. From his non-response to these points in his May 21 letter I suppose I should take it that he accepts what I wrote. Instead, he moves onto other issues.
Comrade Jack Conrad can ‘fight his own battles’ as to the issue of programme discussions in the SWP, and the CPGB’s view - which I share - that we (meaning the left and the labour movement in general) can have no right to privacy or confidentiality in relation to political arguments and differences.
As to comrade Birchall’s claim that we (CPGBers) never praise work by people whose broader politics we disagree with, I can right now recommend without qualification Allan Struthers’ article, ‘Rent strike in the Covid conjuncture?’ on the RS21 website (May 18) - a really serious attempt to engage a central question in the present crisis. I would also point to a number of my own reviews in this paper in the past, which unequivocally praise the book in question, even if they raise some points of difference. For example, my review of Boris Kagarlitsky’s Empire of the periphery (April 1 2009); of Paul Mattick’s Business as usual (February 23 2012); of Richard B Day’s and Daniel Gaido’s Discovering imperialism (March 8 2012).
Then there is my review of a book that engages directly with how past debates are relevant to the present, without being an immediate guide: John Riddell’s excellent Toward the united front collection of documents and debates from the Fourth Congress of Comintern (February 21 2013). It’s true that, as comrade Birchall says, we don’t have a “road map” for the future; but we can try to avoid ignoring the past in ways which lead us to make the same mistakes over and over again.
I was disappointed with Ben Lewis’s and Jack Conrad’s May 21 comments on my letter of May 14 regarding Lars T Lih, Lenin and Erfurtianism. They expressed strong disagreements with my conclusions, but ignored my reasons for making them. That is not a productive method for advancing debate.
The core of my disagreement with Lih is that he says the primary goal of Lenin and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in overthrowing the autocracy was to obtain the “freedom” that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) already enjoyed under the German semi-absolutist monarchy. I said that this formulation substituted the goal of Russian liberalism for that of the Russian Social Democrats. The primary goal of the RSDLP was the establishment of a democratic republic with a worker and peasant majority, not just the freedom to operate as an opposition party like the SPD under a state controlled by the bourgeoisie. The single best indication that Lih downplays this primary demand of the Russian programme is that the words “democratic republic” appear only once in Lenin rediscovered - and then only as a mass demand advanced by the workers and not as part of an analysis of the central ideological and political issue of the Iskra period.
Since I consider Lenin’s writings on democracy and political agitation during the Iskra period extraordinarily useful in analysing our political predicament in the US today, I think it is important to point out the flaws in Lih’s influential work. First question: do Lewis and Conrad not see this problem in Lih’s treatment of Russian Marxism?
Seeing flaws in Lih’s characterisation of Lenin’s democratic ideology and politics, I naturally wanted to understand the reason for his oversight. I attributed it to his concept of Erfurtianism. Rather than anything I said about Lih’s work on Lenin, it was my criticism of Erfurtianism that triggered Lewis’s and Conrad’s rejoinders. I said I was astonished that Lih could write a more than 600-page book seeking to equate orthodox Marxism with the Erfurt programme without once mentioning Engels’ criticism of that programme for not calling for the overthrow of the Prussian military state and the establishment of a democratic republic. Lewis and Conrad apparently find it astonishing that I brought up Engels’ critique at all.
Lewis avoids any discussion of whether there was a problem with the SPD’s cautious tactics of legal electoralism by lecturing me for supposedly implying that Engels was an all-knowing revolutionary Cassandra, for ignoring the fact that the Erfurt programme was an improvement on the Gotha programme, and that Kautsky wasn’t personally responsible for the original draft of Erfurt.
He protests too much. Kautsky himself was all too aware, particularly in The road to power (1909), that the SPD’s preferred tactic of a peaceful “battle of the ballot” within the undemocratic German state might have to give way to a legally forbidden “battle for the ballot”, perhaps employing the tactic of a mass strike. When such a mass battle for electoral reform and a democratic republic did break out in 1910, Rosa Luxemburg supported it, while Kautsky condemned it and refused to publish Luxemburg’s articles in Die Neue Zeit. Whether this episode constituted a crucial turning point in the degeneration of German social democracy is secondary to the recognition that the compromise embedded in the Erfurt programme for the sake of preserving the legal status of the party could not be contained forever.
Engels was no Cassandra, but in his critique he did point out that peaceful, reformist complacency could leave the party unprepared in a political crisis: “To touch on that is dangerous, however. Nevertheless, somehow or other, the thing has to be attacked.” Lewis labels this reference to Engels’ concern about complacency “original sin-type argumentation”. How clever. If we believe that Engels identified a genuine political threat, we are not supposed to talk about it, because then we would be guilty of original sin-type thinking about the history of the entire Second International.
Just as a matter of personal history, I would like to inform Lewis that the source of my thinking about tactics is not Marxism, but the US civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. In Martin Luther King’s famous ‘Letter from the Birmingham jail’, he declared that “the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.” In response to those who said the fight for freedom must wait for a more propitious moment, King replied: “This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never’.” I see parallels in the history of Marxism with King’s struggle against those who argued that the time wasn’t right for mass civil disobedience.
Is this a search for original sin? I believe that studying those periods in history where similar tactical debates were most intense is the best way to educate ourselves about the complexities of challenging an undemocratic social and political order. One last question for Lewis: On what planet is investigating this problem of tactics a “recycling” of “cold war historiography”?
Jack Conrad plays word games. He says that I paint Engels as a “rejectionist” of Erfurtianism because the Erfurt programme did not include his call for a democratic republic and the overthrow of the German military state. Rather than a rejectionist, Conrad claims that Engels was a “critical Erfurtian”. I say this word play is hopelessly anachronistic, because the concept of Erfurtianism didn’t exist in 1891. It was made up by Lars T Lih in 2006. Only the writings of Marx and Engels - collectively called Marxism or scientific socialism - existed in 1891, along with the efforts of social democrats in various countries to apply the general principles of Marxism to their particular national conditions. No-one at the time even dreamed that the Erfurt programme or Kautsky’s commentary deserved its own ‘ism’.
Kautsky, in a passage from his commentary on Erfurt quoted by Lih, put the emphasis where it belongs: “In order for the socialist and the worker movements to become reconciled and to become fused into a single movement, socialism had to break out of the utopian way of thinking. This was the world-historical deed of Marx and Engels. In the Communist manifesto of 1847 they laid the scientific foundations of a new modern socialism, or, as we say today, of social democracy.” This world-historical founding happened once, not a second time with Kautsky, who, as Lenin put it, only “reproduced the basic ideas of the Communist manifesto”.
Let me give two examples where Lih’s concept of two foundations for Lenin’s thinking is misleading. One is the introductory paragraph of chapter 1 of Lenin rediscovered, where Lih first quotes Lenin’s acknowledgement that Kautsky’s merger formula in his Erfurt commentary reproduced the basic ideas of the Manifesto. Lih goes on to say: “So important were these [two foundational] books to the young Lenin that he translated both of them into Russian.” Wow, sounds like solid proof that these two books carried almost equal weight in Lenin’s mind. It sounds that way until you find out that Lenin also translated other books from the west into Russian, including the Webbs’ History of trade unionism. You don’t establish intellectual influence by selectively picking only those books that fit your thesis.
A second and more substantial example is Lih’s treatment of the draft programme produced by Plekhanov and the Emancipation of Labour group in 1885. Lih grants that this text formed the basis of Lenin’s own draft programmes, but then runs a check list comparing the Russian programme to the Erfurt programme and declares that Plekhanov’s draft was acceptable only because it passed the Erfurt test. This is pure invention. Lenin read widely and was a convinced follower of Plekhanov’s Marxism before he ever read Kautsky’s Erfurt commentary, because Plekhanov passed the check list of the merger formula contained in the Communist manifesto and other writings by Marx and Engels. Neil Harding and Richard Mullin are much more reliable on Lenin’s early intellectual and political development than Lih.
Once he gets away from trying to prove that Lenin was an Erfurtian rather than an orthodox follower of Marx and Engels, Lih has some very important things to say about the theory and content of Lenin’s agitational writings, the arguments in What is to be done? and the difference between what Lih calls Lenin’s concept of a revolutionary democratic party vs competing theories of a ‘class’ party. That’s what we should be talking about.
Chase your tail
During a discussion on the press at the Communist Forum on Sunday April 24 a comrade referred to The Guardian’s “long reads” - not as a recommendation, but as an example of what the mainstream media are doing now: in this case there are podcasts, as well as the printed version in the paper.
I was struck by one of them: ‘Rebecca Willis has spent years having candid discussions with politicians about climate change. This is what she learned …’ (May 21). A pretty thankless task, I think we can agree, and with no great surprises.
She opens her chat with a young MP (all were anonymised, so they could talk freely), who said that “she regularly speaks for her party on climate change, telling people about the need for action to tackle emissions. And yet, she said, there was a catch: lots of people in the constituency she represents have jobs in an industry responsible for huge amounts of carbon pollution.”
So there we have it: politicians want to do things, but there are problems. The conditions for human existence may be coming to an end, but there are jobs to consider. One would not expect an MP to have much interest in the ‘social relations of production’ or of ‘alienated labour’. The result of this research is pretty much what you would expect - a lot of MPs are worried, but what can they do about it?
As Greta Thunberg and many others are aware, they’re not actually going to do anything about it. As somebody or other said not so long ago, “Most people are better able to contemplate the end of humanity than they are to contemplate the end of capitalism.”
It’s a bit like some of the arguments over Trident: the workers in Barrow-in-Furness need the jobs. Any government that would get rid of nuclear submarines, and hence leave Nato and an alliance with the US, is not going to leave workers on the scrap heap. In fact only a workers’ government could do such a thing: apart from anything else, there are plenty of old submarines that need dismantling.
But what about climate change? The government was warned about a pandemic years ago - number one on the risk register! But doing anything about it was clearly too expensive - there are shares to support, bonuses to be paid and taxes to be avoided. But the pandemic was invisible, and largely still is. Climate change is rather more obvious: Australian fires, Californian fires, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, droughts. So I think that we can safely say that governments are not going to do anything - yet.
The bourgeoisie will only act if they see that their interests are directly threatened or if they fear the enemy at the gates. In the latter case they will grant the smallest concessions they can and remove them later - or open fire.
But this ‘long read’ was about British politicians, what about those who really know the danger? Extinction Rebellion has three demands in the UK.
Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
That is, the government - a subset of the politicians already mentioned - must ‘do something’!
So Extinction Rebellion is in the same quandary as the politicians above. Something must be done and the government must do it, But they are not going to - so shout louder.
This is a common situation for liberals and much of the left, whoever they are. There has been, for instance, some excellent reporting in The Guardian (ignoring for now their keen witch-hunting): for instance, on the ‘Windrush generation’ scandal. It is only widely known because of this reporting, and the government continues to drag its feet - presumably in the hope that (1) most of the victims will die and (2) everyone else will forget about it.
We have - often in The Guardian again - tragic, scandalous and criminal tales of the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, prisoners, immigrants and asylum-seekers, women, children … The usual response is, again, that the government must ‘do something’ - sometimes that even reaches an editorial comment. The government continues not doing anything, or making things worse, but for a liberal the cry is enough - more cries to follow.
Another ‘solution’ is that ‘we’ have to change. ‘We’ must stop looking away, ‘we’ must stop using so many plastic bags, ‘we’ must change how we live. ‘We’ are to blame. So we - or the government - need to do ‘something’. What else might we do? As is often said, the left in particular and the working class in general is currently very weak. But capitalism is still in terminal crisis, so what can we do?
Clearly, socialists and the working class movement must continue to attack and castigate governments and politicians, but, as a further minimum, I suggest that we continue to read and support the Weekly Worker. I have been especially impressed by Jack Conrad’s ‘The importance of being programmed’ - in particular the last part, with “broad is bad, mass is good” (May 21).
To fight climate change, for instance, we might get a ‘broad alliance’ of liberals and lefts, but then we would always have to worry about “lots of people in the constituency she represents have jobs in an industry responsible for huge amounts of carbon pollution”.
It’s called ‘chasing your tail’.
My view of the European Union is that it is a capitalist structure, perhaps proto-imperialist, but my analysis is different from that of much of the left. Though there is much wrong with the EU - and the same goes for the UK and the USA - I do not support secession from any of these, but rather call for their radical reform. However, I see at the moment no possibility of a mass working class movement which can achieve that in any of the three.
I sense that a number of thinkers in your ranks are also against leaving the EU at the present conjuncture. Some clearly feel we are in desperate straits and I would add that the struggle to leave the EU only encourages the vilest political elements here and on the rest of the continent. The present events, including a massive depression triggered by a new infectious disease, really does look like the end of British pretensions to greatness in any form.
I am in agreement with Walter Daum and Matthew Roberts, who call for a vote for Joe Biden (Letters, May 7). Not that I expect sunny, fertile uplands, let alone a new heaven and a new earth, under a president like Biden, but the alternative of four more years of Trump is surely a real threat to ‘democracy’ internationally and US civil liberties, such as they are.
Even our limited bourgeois kind of liberties is greatly preferable to a fascistic takeover of the most important country in the world in the nuclear era, where global warming is in full career. Things change politically, of course, and at the moment are doing so very swiftly. But, as far as I can see, there is no mass working class movement at the moment which could do the fundamental job anywhere on the planet.
We have to hope that a mass left develops, even if we are not in agreement with it altogether, but find in it a milieu for our ideas to be debated, our activity supported and where, even if very small, we might have an impact.
“Unlike Maren Clarke I am not a dogmatist. Rather than ignorantly dismissing Icke as a crackpot, why not engage with what he is saying?” writes Tony Clark (Letters, May 21).
I am not a dogmatist; I am just a bit picky about where I go to get information. I could choose anyone of the six billion people on Earth, why pick David Icke? Engaging with him is a waste of time and energy. There must be literally millions of more interesting people to engage with.
Personally I will take my information on viruses from an organisation that does the hard slog up the mountain of scientific research - all peer-reviewed and properly processed - rather than one-man-conspiracy theorist David Icke, who does a quick lap round his rather eccentric garden and wouldn’t know a peer review if it slapped him in the face.
There is much money to be made in peddling lies. Surely one of the benefits of communism is that the truth will hold a much more vaunted space, given the money incentive to lie and spout claptrap will disappear. And the likes of Icke will possibly disappear with it. Though maybe he is just an attention-seeker (the one thing he isn’t is credible).
“I am willing to listen to any argument which says that communism is not our natural state if it is presented in a serious way,” says Tony Clark. And that is the difference between us, I am not willing to listen to any old argument. Frankly I don’t have the time - no-one does!
A quick look at David Icke’s website shows the strange world in which he and his supporters live.
Last October, an article by Makia Freeman recommends his latest book The trigger. Above the article is a picture of a Satanist pentacle and the words, “Sabbatean Frankist death cult did 9/11 and controls the world today”. We are reassured that Icke is not peddling “a Jewish conspiracy, not exactly ... it only appears to be so, because the inner core of those hiding behind Jews are Zionists, and the inner core of Zionism is Sabbatean-Frankism - a Satanic cult which exploits Jews to achieve its own ends.”
Tony Clark’s suggestion that David Icke can be “engaged with”, as if he were a political journalist or a university lecturer, is absurd. Icke belongs with the followers of Lyndon LaRouche or L Ron Hubbard. Discussion would be a waste of time.
He has to go
Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has been very critical of many of the aspects of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. We have written to our local Tory MP, Mark Pawsey, twice, outlining our concerns and we await his response with genuine interest.
We would now like to give credit where it is due. Mark Pawsey has just written to all his constituents, calling on the government’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, to resign, or to be removed from office, for the breaking of lockdown rules during the pandemic. This is absolutely the right call to make. Cummings helped draft the lockdown guidelines, and these must apply equally to everyone, if we are to collectively beat this virus.
He broke the lockdown guidance in a number of ways:
1. On finding out his wife was ill, possibly with Covid-19, he went to see her and then, instead of immediately self-isolating for 14 days as per the rule, he returned to work (at No10 Downing Street). The guidelines are quite clear about quarantine: seven days if you have Covid symptoms; 14 days if you have been in contact with someone who has the virus.
2. He then drove 260 miles to Durham, rather than stay at home, which was the advice at the time.
3. While in Durham, he drove 30 miles to Barnard Castle. This was not for exercise, as allowed under the guidelines. He says they went to test his eyes while driving, but it was also his wife’s birthday!
4. On that same day, they walked along the river Tees, when both of them should have been still been self-isolating.
Dominic Cummings did not need anyone else to look after his child (and no-one else ended up looking after him anyway). He has a brother-in-law who lives nearby in London in case of any emergency.
We therefore, on this occasion, fully agree with Mark Pawsey - Dominic Cummings has to go.
Secretary, Rugby Tusc