Rinse and repeat
Gerry Downing’s intervention into the debate between Gil Schaeffer and myself provides yet more proof that the readiness with which he is prepared to place his wisdom on display is surpassed only by his inability to think or engage with anything that broadly challenges the blinkered world view he has inherited from Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party (Letters, June 18). Whereas the exchange with comrade Schaeffer occasionally entailed us talking past each other, the discussion proceeded in good faith and the miscommunication mainly stemmed from the fact that we are largely unfamiliar with each other’s politics. Comrade Downing has no such excuse. He has been a regular reader and letter-writer to this publication and knows me personally.
Whenever I have spoken on my ideas at Communist University and at Communist Forums, comrade Downing has diligently raised his objections at length, with me responding in kind. This is only healthy. What is frustrating, however, is that Gerry’s latest missive simply repeats exactly what he has said at these forums and in his writings: the letter from Lenin to Shliapnikov in October 1914 that Gerry always digs up is cited once again; he repeats his ‘argument’ about the party of Engels, Kautsky and Bebel amounting to a “party of the whole class” that would welcome all and sundry regardless of their politics or views on the party programme; he parrots the - historically illiterate - claim that Lenin and others learnt the need for ‘transitional politics’ and the united front in 1905 (!); and, for all his bluster about dialectics, he proudly parades his rather Manichaean understanding of thought and ideas: you see, if somebody is or becomes a ‘bad guy’ - like the third-campist, Hal Draper, or the renegade, Kautsky - then this appears to render everything that they had ever said obsolete and useless from the perspective of the class struggle.
Gerry’s latest intervention makes clear that he obviously sees no need to engage with the responses to his previous objections, let alone to think about the possible implications of newly translated historical material from German or Russian for his understanding of the history of the revolutionary movement. Why? Well, he is in that most enviable position of already having the answers. And not just to these significant historical questions either, but on the “programme for socialist revolution”. Nobody is perfect though, and the price that comrade Downing seems to have paid for such visionary insight is his sense of irony: “Many will join self-professed radical and revolutionary groups, and many will be miseducated in the programme for socialist revolution there. However, many of the vanguard will not join a group, but will listen and learn” (my emphasis).
The sad fact is that, for all Gerry’s pretensions, readers would be hard-pressed to find a more succinct example of miseducation on the programme of revolutionary Marxism than his recent correspondence. So, in the interests of listening and learning, let us now attempt to grapple with the déjà vu that arguing with Gerry invariably entails, and respond to his points.
Nowhere have I claimed that Kautsky “was going great guns” up to 1914, only to then “inexplicably collapse”. Even a cursory look at my work shows that, in hindsight, the thought of the revolutionary Kautsky that Lenin admired was not without its shortcomings - on imperialism, the nature of democracy, the nation-state and so on (some of which were shared by Lenin, I should add). Kautsky’s main shortcoming was clearly his life-long tendency to place unity before clarity, as evinced by his contrasting resolutions on government participation to the Second International that were recently reproduced in this paper (‘Power, not office’, May 28). This trait may partly account for his later concessions to the party leadership in 1909 and so on.
What I do claim, following Lenin in particular, is precisely - as Gerry puts it - that Kautsky “became a ‘renegade’ against his former revolutionary self and organisation”. Either Gerry cannot understand the term ‘renegade’ or he simply thinks that Lenin was fundamentally wrong in his assessment of Kautsky. To make such an argument would, of course, be fine, but Gerry wants to paint his historical illiteracy in a Leninist gloss. So it is that he cites Lenin’s letter to Shliapnikov from October 27 1914 about how much he now hates and despises Kautsky. But the real question is this: why does Lenin focus so much hate on Kautsky when many other leading thinkers of the International had even worse positions on the war?
As I have made clear on numerous occasions, to find the answer Gerry needs to consider the letter written by Lenin to the very same Shliapnikov, just four days later, in which the latter is urged to read, or have translated, Kautsky’s Road to power to see just exactly how Kautsky is reneging on the revolutionary perspectives outlined there. Lenin upheld these ideas in the face of Kautsky, who was now abandoning them. This is why I do not ascribe the same groundbreaking significance to Lenin’s study of Hegel in Switzerland that Gerry - very much in WRP mould - does. Lenin already had the solid strategic foundations of “revolutionary social democracy” on which to conduct his further struggles and develop his ideas. Kautsky, by contrast, collapsed.
But Gerry does not stop there. He thinks he has struck gold in making the case for Lenin disavowing the early Kautsky by quoting Vladimir himself: “Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago [1898? - GD], that Kautsky has the ‘subservience of a theoretician’ - servility, in plainer language: servility to the majority of the party, to opportunism.” For Gerry, this passage is supposed to summarise how Lenin changed his mind on Kautsky: he had been a shit since 1898, after all. The problem is, however, that Luxemburg’s forthright (and vindicated) criticisms of Kautsky cannot be from 1898 - when she was one of his closest allies - but from the fall-out between the two in 1910. None of this seemingly matters to Gerry, of course, but at least on this occasion he does have the humility to place a question mark at the end of his ignorance: so much for the “real evidence of this revolutionary tradition” (to be fair to Gerry, this quote is also misused by groups such as Socialist Appeal and leftwing thinkers like Michael Löwy).
Gerry must either claim that Lenin was simply wrong about Kautsky all along, or that there was an epistemological break in Lenin’s thought, represented by the period in Switzerland during the outbreak of the war. But Gerry obviously knows Lenin better than the man knew himself: the latter, claims Gerry, was actually all about forming a “party of a new type” in State and revolution - this in spite of the fact that the concept appears nowhere there, nor in Lenin’s Collected works as a whole. But what would I know, given my supposed “contempt” not only for “Lenin’s study of Hegel”, but “the whole history of philosophy” (!).
What I explore in my own research is how the renegade Kautsky hollowed out the revolutionary strategic perspectives outlined in the Erfurt programme of Bebel, Engels, Kautsky et al. In the process, the minimum programme for workers’ power became a minimal programme for workers’ integration into the capitalist state. This leads to another sense in which Gerry is wrong: his talk of the “transformation of opposites” and the “victory of the counterrevolution” in 1914 sounds grand, but is ignorant to the fact that 1914 also forced the revolutionary opposition in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to get its act together and fight for the original revolutionary outlook of the party. They were marginalised and harangued by the leadership and its apologists, but stayed in the SPD until 1917, with the best elements thereof providing the cadre and leadership of the German communist movement.
Poor history begets poor politics, as evinced by Gerry’s comments on the democratic republic and the minimum programme. Perhaps I am not operating on the same plane as the comrade, but in just one paragraph he manages to demonstrate that the democratic republic amounts to a number of competing things all at once. It is “legitimate” (if part of a transitional programme), but if it is part of a minimum programme and supposedly “not linked to the overthrow of capitalism at all”, then it is a “simple reformist demand”, as is the “the replacement of the standing army by a people’s militia”. What is more, “demanding the replacement of the standing army by a people’s militia now is an ultimatistic, ultra-left demand to hide its reformist essence, not at all applicable as an agitational demand now (or the basis for unity in the Labour Left Alliance, for example) in this time of reduced class conflict, though still necessary as propaganda”. Is there not such a thing as a revolutionary minimum programme? History suggests that there is: and even though there remain minor differences between us, I am glad that comrade Schaeffer and I agree on this.
The muddle in which Gerry finds himself is rooted precisely in his “miseducation” regarding the history of the Marxist programme. It leads him to disagree on the history of German social democracy - not only with Lenin, but with Marx and Engels themselves. For them the minimum programme was the political basis on which the working class would come to power. This would, they claimed, not occur within the framework of the Bonapartist state or the monarchy, but of the democratic republic and the armed people. From the 1880s onwards at least, Engels fought – alongside his comrades, Bebel and the younger, revolutionary Bernstein - for this basic strategic perspective. But for Gerry this ABC of Marxism is at best “legitimate”, necessary as “propaganda”; and at worst ultimatist maximalism. Whether he likes it or not, the logic of what Gerry is saying is to paint the approach of Marx and Engels as Bernsteinite “51% socialists”, who saw the socialist revolution as a merely “objective process”. What a joke.
Gerry’s temerity in charging the SPD’s Erfurt programme with mimimalism, while rejecting the programmatic demand for the armed people in a body such as the Labour Left Alliance, is astounding. The LLA is a ‘broad left’ formation that is well to the right of anything that Kautsky or even Bernstein produced: but raising a central tenet of Marxist republicanism in that body is apparently ultra-leftist? Riddle me that one.
I am afraid to say that the “wall of separation” which the comrade finds between capitalist reality and the socialist revolution in the Erfurt programme (and thus the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party) merely reveals the wall of separation between his self-professed Marxism and his stubborn ignorance of the history of our movement.
I welcome Jack Conrad’s letter (June 18) criticising what I wrote regarding our work in ‘broad’ formations, as it gives me the opportunity to try to clear up some misunderstandings and explain my position a little more clearly.
First of all, let me quote what I wrote in my report of the June 6 online aggregate meeting of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists (LPM) comrades, to which comrade Conrad took issue:
“As the first to speak from the ‘floor’, I stressed the two-sided nature of broad fronts: while, as comrade Conrad had emphasised, they can lead us nowhere in such a form, they almost always give us the opportunity to intervene and fight for principled politics. We had, of course, intervened in the Socialist Alliance, the SSP, Respect, etc, while today LPM comrades are intervening in the [Labour Left Alliance].
“However, I warned of the dangers of our comrades actually leading such bodies, which is what happened with the LLA. A long-standing former member of ours ended up effectively running the new alliance, once the [Labour Representation Committee] pulled out, and as LLA secretary she felt obliged to reflect the views of the ‘broad’ majority on the organising group in bulletins, website statements, etc. In my view, we must avoid taking up such senior posts within broad groupings.”
On reflection, that last sentence is a little too prescriptive: it would have been better to state, ‘we should be wary of taking up such senior posts ...’ I am, of course, talking here about political factions or groupings like the LLA, not single-issue campaigns, such as Labour Against the Witchhunt, or those like the Stop the War Coalition, which was originally set up by the Socialist Workers Party. The problem with the SWP’s self-imposed role in the STWC was that it declined to use its leadership to advance the kind of working class politics we need. Comrades like John Rees and Lindsey German restricted their speeches at demonstrations, etc to the need to oppose a particular military intervention and never used the opportunity to stress the need for a totally different social order.
However, when it comes to political groupings like the LLA, things are rather different, since they are set up to advance a particular set of politics. As with single-issue campaigns, they usually give us the opportunity to fight for our own - specifically Marxist - policies, but the difference is that very often the politics adopted by the majority will be totally opposed to ours. Imagine in the LLA, for example, that just before the December 2019 general election a motion was agreed which stated: ‘The main priority is the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government committed to the socialist policies contained in its manifesto.’ LPM comrades totally disagree with that approach, but what would happen if one of them was the LLA’s official spokesperson?
In his letter, comrade Conrad stated: “We ... reject the bureaucratic notion that members of ours who have been elected to leading positions in trade unions, leftwing fronts, the Labour Party, etc, are obliged to silence themselves and merely implement the positions of the majority.”
I totally agree: Marxists must speak out for what they believe whenever they can. But there could well be a huge problem in doing so in the above scenario. If the leading committee instructs you to draw up, post and circulate a statement in favour of the above motion, what would you do? Refuse to do so and instead write a statement setting out the need to totally transform the Labour Party and reject the call to run a less anti-working class form of capitalism? Or write one official statement, and then another, giving your own, opposing point of view?
The point is, we need to fight within organisations like the LLA as a principled opposition grouping - rather difficult if our comrades are the official leaders. However, as I have said, this is not an absolute. For example, if there was a rank-and-file rebellion against the existing leadership, then it would be useful to have a comrade at the top openly siding with the rebels. That is why we should be wary of taking up senior leadership positions in political factions where the majority is to our right.
I reject the implication that this is a “timeless formula”: in fact it is the opposite. It is meant as a warning against the huge problems that could arise and advising comrades to think carefully about the possibilities. However, I totally agree with comrade Conrad’s statement: “Tactics should be based on a concrete assessment of a concrete situation. They are designed to take advantage of particular opportunities or guard against particular dangers. To fight this or that battle all manner of campaigns, actions and forms of organisation can be considered.”
Ironically, I also agree with this: “Decrees to the effect that we cannot initiate, or countenance comrades taking a lead in establishing, an organisation where we would be in a minority, where the majority would almost certainly pursue opportunist, broad-frontist politics, are utterly alien to our approach.” I was completely in favour of LPM comrades supporting the call to establish, and helping to found, the LLA. Unlike Momentum in its current state, it would provide them with a very useful site for struggle.
But things became a little more problematic when Labour left groups like the LRC had a change of mind and pulled out, leaving one LPM comrade in particular running the show. How can you simultaneously be the leader and opposition?
Maren Clarke’s latest missive is, in the words of the Temptations, ‘A ball of confusion’ (Letters, June 18). First, she denies basic facts described by Marx about the nature of socialised capital - the transitional form of property between capitalism and socialism - then she uses arguments about the nature of socialism as though they are relevant to this period of transition.
Maren Clarke denies the proposition that “socialised capital” is the property of the workers. In Capital volume 3, chapter 27, Marx and Engels describe two types of socialised capital: the worker-owned cooperative and the joint stock company. Marx says: “The capitalist stock companies, as much as the cooperative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” What does this socialised capital consist of? “With the development of social production the means of production cease to be means of private production and products of private production, and can thereafter be only means of production in the hands of associated producers: ie, the latter’s social property, much as they are their social products.” Of course, it does not stop this productive capital being capital! The clue is in the description, “socialised capital”. It is entirely consistent with it being a transitional form of property.
“The cooperative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist: ie, by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”
As Marx says, he saw the means of the extension of this cooperative property on a national basis as being via the use of credit: “The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of cooperative enterprises on a more or less national scale.”
This is consistent with what Marx wrote in the Grundrisse: “As the system of bourgeois economy has developed for us only by degrees, so too its negation, which is its ultimate result.” And, as Engels wrote to Bebel, “... as demanded by the Paris Commune, the workers should operate the factories shut down by the factory-owners on a cooperative basis. That is the great difference. And Marx and I never doubted that in the transition to the full communist economy we will have to use the cooperative system as an intermediate stage on a large scale. It must only be so organised that society - initially the state - retains the ownership of the means of production, so that the private interests of the cooperative vis-à-vis society as a whole cannot establish themselves.”
This process, furthered by credit, leads, Marx says, to “the implicit latent abolition of capitalist property - mainly with reference to industrial capital”. And, of course, in this transitional period control rests directly with the workers in each socialised capital, not with the state, which - if we are talking about such a period, where capital still dominates - could only itself continue to be a capitalist state. Why on earth would workers want to hand control over their socialised capital to the capitalist state? Even when that state becomes a workers’ state, as Engels states above, its only role is to act as the nominal owner of the means of production.
And the only difference between the cooperative and the corporation as forms of “socialised capital” is the fact that in the latter the existence of shares enables the owners of those shares to exercise control over capital they do not own. The shareholder is merely a lender of money-capital to the corporation - no different than a bank that lends it money-capital, or a bondholder, or indeed a landlord who might lease land or property to the corporation. For having loaned the use-value of this capital, the lender is entitled to a market price for it - ie, rent or interest/dividends - but they are not then entitled to continue to exercise ownership rights over something they have just sold, any more than a shopkeeper is entitled to exercise ownership rights over the Mars bar they have just sold to you!
Even bourgeois theorists understand that. So Maren Clarke’s defence of the continued exercise of control over socialised capital by shareholders is not only contrary to the analysis provided by Marx and Engels, but even lags behind the understanding of bourgeois theorists. Socialised capital, as Marx and Engels describe, is the collective property of the “associated producers”. It is only the peculiarities of the joint stock company and the ability of the ruling class to have framed company law that enables them to exercise control over this property they do not own.
Maren Clarke says that my depiction of socialised capital seems to leave capitalism free of the capitalist, but seems blissfully unaware that that is precisely what Marx and Engels describe by: “Transformation of the actually functioning capitalist into a mere manager, administrator of other people’s capital, and of the owner of capital into a mere owner, a mere money-capitalist” (Capital volume 3, chapter 27). Or, as Engels puts it in Anti-Dühring, “All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist no longer has any social activity, save the pocketing of revenues, the clipping of coupons and gambling on the stock exchange, where the different capitalists fleece each other of their capital. Just as at first the capitalist mode of production displaced the workers, so now it is displacing the capitalists, relegating them, just as it did the workers, to the superfluous population, although not immediately to the industrial reserve army” (pp359-60).
And, yes, these workers who take on the role of being a “functioning capitalist” must have as their function the maximisation of profit, because this is a transitional form, not socialism! But Maren seems to have bought into the Lassallean view criticised by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha programme, if she thinks that, under socialism, it also will not be necessary to extract surplus value, because, in order to more quickly expand the means of production so as to raise productivity, and create the conditions for communism, an even greater production of surplus value is required - a fact that Lenin understood perfectly well.
Maren also does not seem to understand that the questions I was raising in relation to property were not ones I was seeking answers to, but were precisely in the vein that Marx describes in the Communist manifesto: questions we put before the working class, along with the answers to those questions. I am perfectly well aware of the answer to why asset prices have been inflated. The point is to put those questions in front of the working class, so that they can understand the true relation of the ownership of and control over socialised capital.
And it is precisely these questions that are relevant in conditions of such transitional forms of property, because it is the political struggle for that control that now represents the class struggle - and I accept entirely that such a struggle involves violence, because the ruling class will resist giving up that control. But, here again, Maren conflates this transitional period with socialism itself. So she talks about arms workers being told to find alternative employment, and fishing workers told to only fish sustainably. But who is to do this telling? Here and now, if we have the condition that Marx and Engels describe, where workers in a cooperative are involved in arms production or fishing, who does Maren think is going to give these instructions, if not the current capitalist state? Why would socialists be in favour of such a state having that power?
When she talks about workers removing managers, this simply seems to reflect that she has not read Marx’s and Engels’ analysis, because in that analysis they set out that those managers are workers: they are drawn from the working class and so to deny those workers a vote, simply because they are managers, administrators, etc, seems perverse.
Similarly, this comment is thrown out: “Except, as mentioned above, under socialism workers will not exercise control of the company: society will!” Really? So society - all 65 million people in Britain - will sit down and decide how best this or that widget is to be produced each day? They will have the intimate knowledge of all aspects of production of each of the billions of different components and use-values required for production, so as to make these myriad of decisions that must be continuously made in the production process? That is absurd. Of course, control in each enterprise will have to be reserved on a day-to-day basis by the workers, the “associated producers”: “every individual actually at work in production, from manager down to the last day-labourer”. At best, all that society can hope to exert control over is the overall goals of production, and, even then, it is inevitable that conflicts will arise between these top-level goals and the decisions of workers in each enterprise, which will have to be resolved.
But then perhaps Maren thinks that “society”, having made these decisions, will simply impose them on the particular groups of workers in such situations, by sending in the troops to enforce them, to break up their strikes and resistance against it, to utilise the secret police to infiltrate the worker’s organisation in the enterprise, and make the ring leaders disappear.
Although somewhat strangely titled, the article, ‘Calling a different tone’, makes a much-needed intervention in the monolithic messaging on the left surrounding police violence and racism (June 18).
Understanding police violence exclusively through a race analysis leaves much untouched: state violence, unchecked male violence, the militarisation of the police and the proliferation of guns on the streets. When cops pull someone over in the UK, where the rate of gun ownership is less than one 20th the American, they have almost no reason to fear that the person they’ve stopped may be armed with a gun. That’s not true in America, where a cop gets shot just about every day. So long as the US is a gun country, the police will always be liable to mistake a suspect’s wallet or smartphone for a gun.
Police violence is a far larger problem than racism on its own can explain. Indeed if we woke up tomorrow and racism was a thing of the past, we would still have several hundred white people killed in the US per year by the police. Stratford’s call for a more robust politics - which doesn’t rely on simplistic explanations, but is willing to probe for deeper, multi-faceted problems - is badly needed. Only a broad-based analysis and platform, not disparate group identities, can effectively counter capitalism.
A comrade recently drew my attention to a piece on the Jewish Voice for Labour website by the journalist, Ian Cobain. This gives some quotations from John Newsinger’s book The blood never dried: a people’s history of the British empire, which provides just a small account of some of the monumental crimes committed over the centuries - not just slavery, but against India, China, Ireland and more. With the current concern over Black Lives Matter and over what to do about statues, this would seem to be a perfect time for the working class of Britain to learn a bit of history.
What little is taught in school - even with a mention or two of slavery - tends to be swamped by nonsense such as the last night of the Proms, Union Jack bunting for royal birthdays and the like. The history of working class struggle in Britain is also well worth catching up with. In popular discourse the Luddites and Captain Swing tend to be seen as the villains instead of the real villains they were fighting. Even now, most of the history of Britain, on film and TV, consists of the antics of assorted kings and queens - and very popular it is too.
The little that peeps over the edge of the trenches of ignorance, such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Peterloo, are just tiny tips of massive icebergs. There is a rich history of working class struggle and, going back to the peasants and others, of the oppressed over the centuries. This history, not surprisingly, is also one of brutal suppression by the ruling class. And not just in Britain.
A little knowledge of this history might help to reduce hopes raised by liberals - lots of this in the media - that ‘the government should do’ this or that. History is quite clear on the matter - they’re not going to (though they might pretend with a ‘commission’ or a ‘determination’ to do something or other and even make the occasional ‘concession’, which may or may not be actually delivered - and certainly won’t be funded).
And then we have statues. Tony Clark wants to “spare Churchill” (Letters, June 18). Why? He’s got at least one pub named after him. And, talking of pubs, they don’t seem to have come up in recent controversies - and there are plenty of dodgy pub names. Perhaps it’s because they’re all shut and many of them may never reopen (unfortunately).
The most ubiquitous statue in the UK is surely that of Queen Victoria - many celebrating some jubilee and her ascension to be the ‘empress of India’. With her dressed in her ‘Victorian’ frock, they tend to take up quite a lot of room. There must be far too many for a museum or park: perhaps some could be ground down to provide ballast for a railway line or something.
However, the room vacated could be better utilised to replace the vast number of public conveniences that have been closed over the last few decades. I suggest that we have a national programme (come on, Boris) of Winston Churchill ‘Gents’ and Queen Victoria ‘Ladies’. Apart from anything else, this would enable a political statement to be made by someone standing shoulder to shoulder (once the two-metre rule is dropped) with someone merely seeking relief.
Mike Martin complained in a letter last week about a comment I made in a recent article about David North’s Socialist Equality Party (‘Race über alles?’ June 11). I wrote that it has seen its “share of craziness” since the Healyite implosion of the mid-1980s. But Martin says the remark “has an almost obligatory character”, as if I was determined to come up with something to show that I’ve been keeping my distance.
But there was nothing obligatory or off-hand about the comment - for the simple reason that the SEP’s craziness is impossible to avoid. This is a party that has pulled itself up by its bootstraps following the spectacular Healyite implosion of the mid-1980s. But, while returning to Trotskyist orthodoxy in many respects, it continues to cover up many of Healy’s worst crimes, while inventing new positions of its own that are no less reprehensible. It has never fully owned up to the authoritarianism, violence and cult of personality that characterised Healy’s reign, for instance, and it continues to embrace Healy’s charge that top members of the US Socialist Workers Party colluded in Trotsky’s assassination in 1940 and that it is somehow implicated in the 1977 shooting death of a 28-year-old Healyite named Tom Henehan.
Such accusations are baseless and absurd. In their own modest way, they’re no different from the slanders Moscow put out in the dark years of 1937-38 about a Trotsky-Hitler conspiracy. (This was a year before Stalin entered into his own Hitler conspiracy that nearly led to the destruction of the USSR). Since its regroupment, moreover, the SEP has come up with a novel thesis about the labour movement, which is that unions are now bourgeois through and through, and there is therefore no longer any reason for workers to join or defend them. This is a straight-out scab position that led the World Socialist Web Site to oppose a United Auto Workers attempt to organise a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2017.
So there is good reason not to touch the SEP with a ten-foot pole. As for The New York Times ‘1619 Project’, the WSWS was correct in attacking reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’s pseudo-biological lament that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA” of the United States. But the WSWS has staked out an oddly conservative position for itself by complaining that efforts by people like Hannah-Jones to “discredit the revolution by focusing on the alleged hypocrisy of Jefferson and other founders contribute nothing to an understanding of history”. Alleged? The hypocrisy that enabled Jefferson to prattle on about democracy - while repeatedly raping his slave, Sally Hemings - is nothing short of glaring, and it’s impossible to understand the American Revolution in the slightest without grappling with what it meant. If Samuel Johnson’s famous jibe - “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” - still rankles, it’s with good reason.
So, yes, WSWS still does some good work, and, yes, its December 2018 analysis of US police shootings is “a major contribution to socialist literature”, as I stated in that article. But there is ample reason to keep a proper distance from such a strange and dubious outfit.
I attended the Black Lives Matter London protest the past weekend and found it to be an interesting and unique mixture of age groups, differences of political slogans and ideas - and, by the end, especially tactics.
The demo, which began in Parliament Square, was put on by the official BLM organisers for London. It took on a pluralistic, carnival-like atmosphere with lots of young people dancing, music, food and symbolic physical gestures in line with the wider international movement. The politics at this point of the day were broadly about highlighting both contemporary and historical injustices with a heavy emphasis on non-violence and bringing all sections of society on board, with the broad message that British society is, fundamentally, structurally racist.
Tactics tabled included writing to MPs, organising your own local BLM protests and generally spreading the word to your neighbours. I believe the emphasis on this form of spontaneity represents the somewhat diffuse nature of a somewhat ‘memetic’ movement, but also a desire from within to make BLM beyond reproach from the rightwing press. Interestingly I only spotted two representatives of classical lefty groups the whole day - one from the Revolutionary Communist Group and the other from the SWP. Apart from that, this seemed to me, from those I spoke to, like a moment of political initiation for a generation of activists.
Which leads into what happened next. As the BLM speakers and the vast majority of the gathering dissipated, a small rump of maybe a hundred people remained in the square. At this point, three young women who identified themselves as the Nation of Islam addressed what remained of the crowd and the tone drastically changed. Pacifism in the face of a violent white state was denounced. The emphasis on structural racism shifted to fighting an occupational force and getting militantly organised. As with the first, essentially separate, rally the majority of the audience was politically inexperienced and largely led by this small grouping, who raged against the police, using anarchic and frenetic language to get the crowd going.
NOI slogans included defunding the police, preparing for combat with the racist state and short slogans about Britain being built by, then stolen from, the black people. The NOI activists then led this smaller grouping on a series of direct actions, occupying Westminster Bridge, before going on to block various roads and roundabouts, attempting to cause maximum disruption. It was reminiscent of the anti-globalisation movement in tactical terms. The politics at this point were completely fused with the action itself. The action was the politics. This culminated towards the end when the march met a large council van, which then attempted to speed away, clipping a series of demonstrators. That dramatically escalated the ‘direct action’ element of it all.
Aggressive confrontation with the police ensued and the driver was arrested - though I could find no reporting of this incident anywhere online. The police seemed unsure of how to react due to the obvious optics of the situation. These teenagers had no problems telling the police exactly what they thought of them though, which was cathartic, if not much more. While I respect the bravery of these young people in expressing their rage, I worry that such rage without longer-term organisation is ephemeral. Akin to letting air out of a balloon. Here’s hoping otherwise.