In 2017 I wrote a critical review of Domenico Losurdo’s book on western Marxism for New Left Review, in response to which Gerry Downing posted a rambling, 11,000-word long blog post calling me a Stalinist. Decorated with a photo of him and me together at a demonstration, Gerry’s article systematically failed to tell the difference between quotes from Losurdo’s book, claims which I attributed to Losurdo, and my own comments. Thus, each of Losurdo’s claims for Togliatti’s greatness, on which I poured cold water, was furiously cited as evidence of my own Stalinist renegacy.
Four years on, Downing has still not worked out what quote marks mean. His letter to the Weekly Worker (March 4) is a deeply confused polemic, which circles around but never quite makes contact with my recent talk on the Stalinist and academic misrepresentations of Gramsci. The way it begins is telling. Downing says my “two heroes are Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti” - before citing me as saying that “Togliatti was not, except perhaps for a few years at the beginning of his career under the influence of Gramsci and Bordiga, a genuine revolutionary”. The “quote” is followed by the title and date of my article, in brackets.
Downing then continues: “We are left wondering what a ‘genuine revolutionary’ might be, because Togliatti’s lack of a revolutionary orientation was no bar to his progressivism, according to Broder.” He then goes on to denounce Togliatti as a Stalinist, presumably seeking to use my words against me.
The only problem is, the quote is not drawn from my article at all, but (Google reveals) plucked from a 2003 article in What Next? by Toby Abse. Gerry fails to refer to this in any way. I almost feel embarrassed on Gerry’s behalf. But it sets a tone for what follows.
A particularly absurd misrepresentation is the assertion that I claim Italian communism really began life in 1926, after Bordiga’s ousting from the leadership (flatly in contradiction with the entire thrust of my article, which emphasises both Togliatti’s distortion of Gramsci and the value of the Gramsci-Bordiga connection in 1921-26). Gerry also says I agree with Chris Harman - but, while the Socialist Workers Party doubtless looms large in Gerry’s imagination, I can’t say I think of Harman as much of an authority on material I’ve been studying for over a decade.
There are also many other pieces of fantasising here - in particular the claim that the Allies bombed northern Italian cities after the fascists were driven out, in order to crush the revolution. Which cities were these, Gerry, and on what dates were the bombings? And far from “ignoring” the revolutionary drives in the communist base in the war period, I have written several articles about it; I’ll happily send the comrade a copy of my forthcoming book on this very subject.
Because Gerry’s understanding of Italy sees no further than Stalin/Togliatti vs Trotsky (whose influence on the wartime dissident left was nil), he has no clue that the revolutionary opposition took organised form from the very start of the resistance, not just after the Salerno Turn, and wrongly assumes it began in northern Italy. I’d guess this is because he gleans his knowledge from contemporary US Trotskyist papers, which wrongly took demonstrative strikes organised by the Italian Communist Party as proof of a looming revolutionary upsurge, while remaining ignorant of the far left of the partisan movement in cities like Rome - or indeed the dissident communists in Naples in autumn 1943.
Gerry is angry about my “academic” writings on Italian communism. I have no university job, role or association; my article begins and ends emphasising the immediate political relevance of Gramsci and the need to free him from academic uses. It’s also free for anyone to read. Maybe Gerry should do just that - or, better, take a lie-down.
Yet again we see a relatively sound report on the latest machinations in Scotland by comrade Paul Demarty (apart from stating that Alex Salmond was awarded damages in the judicial review court case - he wasn’t: only legal costs) ending with the barest, driest, brittle bones of a communist alternative - “A federal republic with full national rights ought to be our immediate objective. This represents the only real response to the power of nationalist fantasies north and south of the Tweed” (‘Unionist wishful thinking’’, March 4).
Yet again I find myself demanding more flesh on those federal republic bones - a key component of the CPGB Draft programme no less - and no doubt yet again this demand will be treated with contempt by ignoring it or, at very best, given a derisory response, as was offered by comrade Peter Manson, along exactly the same lines as above.
How can “full national rights” be offered when England is 10 times bigger in population than Scotland? Or is that another sleight of hand, meaning, ‘Yes, you have full rights, but we really don’t think it would be a good idea for you to exercise those, and you’re too small anyway to survive without us so stop being so silly and sectional’? Or do you mean Scotland would have a veto, along the lines of the European Union? Who knows?
Perhaps the promised discussions on the Draft programme will elicit some exploration of this vital issue. We’ll see. Meanwhile comrades will be left to wonder why this is so routinely ignored.
Tam Dean Burn
Spit and sinew
Following the collapse of the USSR, someone rather astutely commented how there are only two global superpowers now remaining: the USA and public opinion. A direct line then runs to the industry of PR/public relations - nowadays a very substantial industry indeed. All of which is demonstrated by latest events surrounding the British so-called royal family, as well as preparations by Deliveroo to float on the stock exchange.
In the case of Deliveroo, a campaign has been launched to make creation of wealth for a tiny few seem desirable, democratic, liberating. Included is a provision by the founder/CEO, Will Shu, to give its food delivery ‘fleet’ a cash handout from a seemingly generous “thank-you fund”. The sum of £200 (or local currency equivalent) for those who have logged up 2,000 deliveries in total and for at least a year - up to £10,000 for the ‘top’ deliverers in each particular ‘market’. Global workers are, of course, nonetheless retained within the utter precariousness of zero rights in relation to sickness benefits, employer contributions to a pension scheme, neither mandatory nor optional trades union membership, etc.
In the case of our royal family, that designing of public opinion becomes even more subtle, complex and cunning. In order to set themselves up as attractive, modern and progressive ‘outsiders’ to the inherently anti-democratic machine that is the monarchy, a so-called prince and his wife have turned to American television and other corporate mass media by way of their public relations campaign - most pointedly as provided by fawning super-mythologisations from the likes of Oprah Winfrey.
As per Noam Chomsky and many other observers - most valuably of all, those of a communist discipline - capitalism’s ‘manufacturing of consent’ continues. If then understood in relation to the real needs of human beings (as well as the natural world, with which we need to harmonise), all such poisonous manipulation, destructive fabrication and simple lies have almost incalculably unhealthy consequences and outcomes.
For its part, capitalism understands how absolutely essential is this contriving and designing - the dominance of imagery and aspirations over reality and objective truths - if its state control is to stick. Within our practices, in making our own appeals to ‘ordinary’ citizens, Marxists must address these elements not only of the mind, but also of heart and spirit. Psychology is as important an ally or tool as intellectualism. If not recognised as such, Marxism will continue to fail in its historical duties and our precious mission.
Now, recalling not only a couple of recent articles, but also more generally, the Weekly Worker/CPGB comes across as rather too relaxed about aspects and considerations such as these. Dare it be suggested there’s the need for a tad less ‘dry’ intellectualisation and far more of some good old spit and sinew?
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