Principle, not dogma

No one can discredit Marxism better than ‘Marxists’. Mike Macnair responds to criticisms from Gerry Downing and Levi Rafael

I have been too busy at work to reply before now to comrade Gerry Downing’s letter of November 12 (‘Objectivist?’) or comrade Levi Rafael’s of November 19 (‘Bureaucracy’).

Comrade Downing argues that I “forthrightly embrace the politics of the Second International and reject the Third” - leaving out altogether the fact that the series that I wrote was just about the party question and the meaning of ‘democratic centralism’. I have argued at considerable length in my book, Revolutionary strategy, that the split in the Second International cannot and should not be undone. In the very series comrade Downing is criticising, as well in the book, I argued that a wager on civil war by western and central European social democracy - which they rejected - could have been victorious, while their actual choice to avoid civil war in 1918-21 left them facing a one-sided civil war (‘fascism’) and in the end a general European war much more destructive than a civil war vigorously prosecuted by the workers’ movement in 1918 and afterwards would have been.

What I reject is not waging civil war where it is necessary, nor the creation of a regular workers’ army and so on - but militarising the workers’ party, and then in 1921 presenting that local expedient as a general principle.


Comrade Downing claims that the failure of the Trotskyists in the 1940s was due to “mass murder of the revolutionary Trotskyists by the collaboration between the Nazis, imperialists and Stalinists”. Besides leaving out altogether the serious splits among the Trotskyists, about which I wrote in my article on the issue,1 he is under a delusion if he supposes that there were “masses” of Trotskyists subject to “mass murder”: the Fourth Internationalists started the war with under 10,000 organised members and ended the war with rather more, thanks mainly to growth in Latin America and Sri Lanka. The small nuclei of Trotskyists could only have triumphed against the masses of Stalinists, social democrats and left nationalists by the power of their ideas; and their ideas turned out to be adapted to the conditions of 1914-18 and not those of 1939-45, which was why they were crippled by splits and marginalised.

Is this a matter of complete determination by “objective conditions” and “mechanical objectivism” on my part? There are large philosophical questions about the usefulness of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ analysis; but let us leave these on one side. In 1943-48 ‘objective’ conditions of revolutionary crisis existed, in the sense in which Lenin spoke of them: the ruling class could not go on in the old way, and very broad masses were not willing to go on in the old way. In the upshot, capital and Stalinism between them were able to establish a new form of subordination of the proletariat - the ‘cold war’ - largely through capital making major economic concessions to both the European and Japanese proletariat, and to what became known as ‘third world’ capitals.

Considering the proletariat as a collective historical actor, or more narrowly considering the broad vanguard of the proletariat - the conscious activists of the workers’ movement - as a collective historical actor, the failure to use the opportunity to overthrow capital and the Stalinist regime was a subjective failure: mistaken choices, chiefly of supporting Stalinist political ideologies. Considering the Fourth Internationalists as a historical actor, they made subjective mistakes in 1939-48, which reduced their potential political impact, as it gradually became clear to broader layers that capitalist rule was being restabilised. But, largely, the fact that there was mass support for Stalinism, though it was a subjective error of the broad workers’ vanguard, presented itself to the Fourth Internationalists (considered as a subject) as an objective circumstance (one which they commonly refused to recognise).

Suppose there was a mass Trotskyist movement. In fact, such a thing existed in two places post-war, Bolivia and Sri Lanka. In both cases, the programmatic conceptions of the Trotskyists failed to deal with the rise of radical bourgeois nationalism in the cold war period; the Bolivians were politically defeated and reduced to fragments; the Sri Lankans ended up as a typical third-world social democratic party.

The underlying reason is the tendency for the ‘transitional method’ to fail to pose the question of political order, and hence a tendency for ‘united front tactics’ to collapse into popular-front variants.

‘Aha,’ says comrade Downing: Macnair fails to accept that the German working class could have taken power in 1923 and failed because of the “Kautsky-educated KPD [Communist Party of Germany] revolutionaries”; on the other hand, the “Lenin educated-in-dialectical-materialism Bolsheviks succeeded”; but, if the Provisional Government had succeeded in assassinating Lenin in July 1917, the Bolsheviks would have failed.

I decline to enter into the July 1917 counter-factual, except to say that I take comrade Downing to mean by “dialectical materialism” the willingness to enter into the leap-of-will, revolutionary initiative; and, if Lenin had indeed successfully “educated” the Bolsheviks in revolutionary initiative, assassinating Lenin would not have altered the result in October; so that comrade Downing’s argument is here a non-dialectical contradiction.

As to 1923, I think the arguments of Mike Jones are strongly persuasive: ‘Germany 1923’ Revolutionary History Vol 5, No 2,2 and ‘Germany 1923 and the Communist International’ Revolutionary History Vol 8, No33; and consider also the arguments of August Thalheimer in 1931: ‘1923: A missed opportunity? The German October legend and the real history of 1923’.4

That is, the idea that, firstly, Germany in autumn 1923 was analogous to Russia in autumn 1917 and, secondly, the KPD failed when it did not take the initiative is false: it radically overstates the degree of crisis of the German state and its room for manoeuvre. To make Russia in autumn 1917 analogous to Germany after the new Stresemann government’s abandonment of ‘passive resistance’ in the Ruhr and the policy of defaulting debts through hyper-inflation would require not the assassination of Lenin, but a separate peace between the Provisional Government and Germany in August 1917.

Misunder standings

This brings us to comrade Rafael’s apparent misunderstanding of my arguments, starting with Brest-Litovsk.

The seizure of power in October 1917 was a gamble on the spread of revolution into central and western Europe. No-one imagined until later that more than tentative steps towards socialism were possible on the basis of the resources of Russia alone. Even if the proletariat did not take power, Lenin argued in late September that a Russian peace initiative must succeed:

Such peace terms [without annexations and general self-determination of nations] will not meet with the approval of the capitalists, but they will meet with such tremendous sympathy on the part of all the peoples and will cause such a great worldwide outburst of enthusiasm and of general indignation against the continuation of the predatory war that it is extremely probable that we shall at once obtain a truce and a consent to open peace negotiations. For the workers’ revolution against the war is irresistibly growing everywhere, and it can be spurred on not by phrases about peace (with which the workers and peasants have been deceived by all the imperialist governments, including our own Kerensky government), but by a break with the capitalists and by the offer of peace.

If the least probable thing happens - ie, if not a single belligerent state accepts even a truce - then, as far as we are concerned, the war becomes truly forced upon us, it becomes a truly just war of defence. If this is understood by the proletariat and the poor peasantry, Russia will become many times stronger even in the military sense ...5

Contrary to this expectation, generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff chose to stab the German army in the back in December 1917-March 1918 for the sake of landlord-class solidarity against Bolshevism, by refusing peace on any terms short of radical German annexations from Russia.

To attempt to fight, rather than capitulating to these terms, in March 1918, would have been another gamble. If it had worked, it would have accelerated the German revolution. If it had failed, the Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries would have gone down fighting, like the Paris Commune.

On the other hand, the capitulation at Brest-Litovsk bought time for the organisation of the Red Army. But it did so at the expense of the minority (the narrow majority of the Bolshevik leadership) overriding the large majority in the soviets. The price was then (1) the need to rig or suppress soviet elections; (2) the turn of the Left SRs to terrorism, and the need for Red Terror in response to this; and (3) that this, in turn, helped the German, Austrian, etc, social democratic bureaucrats to mobilise support in the working class against a Soviet-model revolution.

I make the point with caution, and I do so in the light of the devastation of the international workers’ movement by Stalinism and its fall. But I do not think that it is now clear that overriding the majority in order to capitulate to German demands in March 1918 was right.

Where comrade Rafael gets the idea that I think capitalist rule was restored in 1921 (as opposed to the turn to partial capitalism under the New Economic Policy) I do not know. My point was that the Bolsheviks, making in 1921 an economic opening towards capital and the petty-proprietor classes (petty bourgeoisie and peasantry), thought it was necessary to balance it with a political closure against the petty bourgeoisie - essentially, the ban on factions. But they did not realise that by banning parties and factions they were banning the essential means by which the proletariat as a class could organise against the section of the petty-proprietor class, which is the labour bureaucracy.

Comrade Rafael argues - as he has before - that “bureaucracy is not something that can be ‘overthrown’”. On this issue I refer him to my article, ‘Trying Stalinism again?’ Weekly Worker May 29 2008, which replied to just such an argument.

Comrade Rafael also claims that the degree of atomisation of the workers’ movement is such that “to say that the labour bureaucracy is an auxiliary of the bourgeois state today is, I think, a bit of an exaggeration”. What is missing here is that the domination of the labour bureaucracy - that is, the procedural forms of bureaucratic control - functions at the present to sterilise otherwise promising attempts at large-scale workers’ organisation against capital: in the Brazilian Workers’ Party, in Rifondazione Comunista, in the Corbyn movement. And, in fact, the petty ‘turf’ interests of the small-time bureaucrats of the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, and so on in the UK, and their equivalents in every country, block any actual effective unification of the self-identified Marxists.

Comrade Rafael accepts that there is a need for democratisation of workers’ organisations, but he says that bureaucratic rule - meaning, the concrete instruments by which the full-time officials hold the ranks in subordination - cannot be overthrown. This is a simple, non-dialectical contradiction.

I agree that there is a need to discriminate against the bourgeoisie. How? Capital rules not by mass voting support for entities which call themselves ‘Bankers’ Party’ or ‘Bosses’ Party’, but by corruption, applied to entities which call themselves ‘Labour Party’ (UK), ‘Democratic Party’ (USA), and so on. To discriminate against capital is then to attack the means through which capital rules by corruption. For example, by banning the funding of newspapers and other media by commercial advertising; by treating payments to lobbying firms as bribes; by imposing a strict system of scale fees on the legal profession and treating payment of more than a scale fee for the type of dispute as a bribe; and by penalising these offences with property forfeiture in both the giver and the taker.

  1. ‘Heroes and sinners’ Weekly Worker October 15.↩︎

  2. marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol5/no2/jones.html.↩︎

  3. marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol8/no3/jones.html.↩︎

  4. whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/History/1923.html.↩︎

  5. ‘The tasks of the revolution’: marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/09.htm.↩︎