Diane Abbott made a particularly stupid comment when interviewed on the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme on Sky News (May 9). She has taken to trying to talk very slowly - either in a vain attempt to add ‘gravitas’ or, more likely, to try and enable her brain to keep pace with her mouth.
Asked whether Labour could ever win a general election again, Abbott replied that Eric Hobsbawm had written a widely circulated article in 1978 entitled ‘The forward march of Labour halted?’ and that “proved to be completely wrong”. Completely wrong? The following year the Labour government of James Callaghan was defeated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, who then remained in office for the following 18 years, winning four general elections on the trot. Labour did eventually return to office in a landslide in 1997, but Abbott and her wing of Labour refused to accept New Labour as real Labour and claimed the period between 1997 and 2010 was an anathema. So that is either 18 or 31 years (and counting) out of office. I don’t think comrade Hobsbawm did get it “completely wrong”, did he?
What Hobsbawm argued in 1978 was that despite the rise of ‘the left’ in the 1970s in both the Labour Party and the trade unions - new policies and constitutional changes in the former, rising industrial militancy in the latter - this was masking a dangerous loss of support for the Labour Party and trade unions within the wider working class and wider society. The advance of ‘the left’ was increasingly Pyrrhic in nature. Given the contraction in electoral support for the Labour Party over the following 20 years or so, popular support for the anti-trade union legislation of the Conservative governments and the reduction in trade union membership from 13.5 million in 1979 to six million in 2020, it seems to me Hobsbawm’s analysis was pretty prescient.
He never argued that the working class was ceasing to exist, as many claim today. What he said was that with economic and technological changes came social, cultural and political changes, and those who failed to recognise these and keep up risked being marginalised and discarded. He argued that economic and technological changes were resulting in the decline of the traditional industrial core of the working class, but that the class as a whole was changing, evolving and increasing in size overall. This sort of historical-materialist analysis ought to be bread and butter to those who consider themselves Marxists.
What Marxists and communists needed to do therefore was understand these changes and develop strategies which positively engaged with the newer sections of the working class: build strong, mutually transformative alliances between the traditional industrial core and the newer sections of the working class, between the traditional labour movement and the range of progressive new forces and movements which were developing around gender, race, the environment, anti-imperialism, national liberation and a wide range of democratic and civil rights.
These were responding to contradictions and oppressions in society, which ultimately did stem from the monopoly-capitalist nature of the economy and society, but were not necessarily perceived as such by those being motivated in struggle and could not be simply reduced to the economic contradiction between labour and capital and the struggle over wages and living standards. The traditional industrial working class was never to be abandoned, but a strong, mass, democratic alliance, built around the core labour movement with the struggle for wages and living standards at its centre and encompassing a wide range of progressive demands, was a means of engaging with and helping transform the changing, evolving, broad working class, into a “class for itself” - initially for fundamental progressive social change and ultimately for socialism.
The Labour Party today faces an existential crisis precisely because it has become increasingly disengaged and disconnected from both the organised working class, despite the trade union link, and the wider, changing and newer sections of the working class.
Rather than make fatuous comments about one historical Marxist intellectual and one article 43 years ago, Abbott would be better engaged with working out what the basic role and purpose of the Labour Party should be (it doesn’t appear to have one at the moment), and then strategies and policies to translate that into building electoral support.
It seems to me the present Labour Party, through name, history and composition, has to include being the electoral voice of the organised labour movement and from that basis strive to become the electoral voice of the wider working class in all its complexity and diversity - building an electoral coalition which respects and understands that complexity and diversity, but is based on the greatest possible mass and class unity.
The other point is that the Labour Party is the electoral wing and electoral machine of the organised labour movement. It has to win elections, especially general elections, otherwise it is completely useless to all its potential constituencies. That doesn’t mean abandoning all left or radical polices, even assuming that would work, which it probably wouldn’t. But it does mean a recognition that, if the Labour Party is not capable of winning future elections, it will become superfluous and irrelevant to the working class and progressive movement.
It also means, as per Hobsbawm, that ‘winning’ the Labour Party to ‘left’ policies which do not connect with or make sense or are credible to working people, or electing politicians like Corbyn, Abbott and now Starmer to leadership positions, is also completely useless if they themselves are not able to connect with working people or articulate their basic interests.
War on drugs
I’d like to applaud Daniel Lazare’s article in the recent Weekly Worker (‘Drugs war bad’, April 29). He opens with desperate people fleeing Latin America and it’s just like the desperate refugees fleeing to Europe. The desperation and the refugees are in the mainstream media, but the underlying causes are usually left out: ie, in Europe, the wars launched by the US and its Nato allies over the last two decades that have laid waste to vast swathes of the Middle East; and, south of the USA, not just US-backed military regimes and rapacious corporations - but drugs.
Lazare recounts some of the ills suffered by families, children, refugees fleeing Central America and, as he says, “All this not despite the war on drugs, but because of it.” The more intensely the ‘war on drugs’ is fought - all over the world, as well as in Central America, the worse the drug problem becomes.
Governments used to be pretty well unbothered by drugs: one can remember ST Coleridge and his laudanum, Queen Victoria and her cocaine - and then there was the pleasure that Charlie Parker experienced when he found that heroin could be bought over the counter in Belgium.
Lazare dates the drug war to Nixon’s actions in 1969 and we have the notorious quote from his man, John Ehrlichman: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
So the ‘war on drugs’ was a weapon then and it continues to be a weapon now. This war is almost worldwide, in part because if the US government says ‘Jump’ then they expect everyone to say, ‘How high?’, but also because the other governments can use it as a weapon too. Not least because drugs are so easy to plant.
In the Ehrlichman quote we have hippies and blacks, but we can safely expand this to the left and the poor. For instance, though surveys have shown that the use of marijuana in the US is much the same among young whites as it is among young blacks, the police mainly target young blacks - and poor whites. I’ve seen it suggested that if the police targeted ‘frat boys’, as they do kids on the streets, then their parents would have lawyers screaming blue murder over harassment.
The police (anywhere?) can stop and search poor people and it’s an easy ‘bust’. A TV programme a few years ago had an American sheriff bemoaning the fact that his officers spent the bulk of their time chasing drugs; it’s easy and they can build up their career with loads of convictions. The problem was that they spent little time on ‘real’ police work - like murder, rape and burglary.
And how serious are the consequences of drug use? Things have got more complicated with modern synthetic drugs, but in general, as far as I’m aware, medical authorities agree that the most dangerous drugs to health are alcohol and tobacco. There are even statements from time to time from senior police folk (maybe retired) that the worst drug use that they have to deal with is alcohol.
There is another problem here too. Martin Short wrote a book many years ago about prohibition. He looked at those fighting for it and then on through the years of Al Capone and the rest. Towards the end he says that before prohibition the main link between organised crime and politicians was that the latter would sometimes hire thugs from the former to break up meetings of their opponents and cause similar mayhem. After prohibition, however, organised crime gangs owned politicians, judges, police and so on.
Why? How? Because there was so much money involved. I would suggest that the money involved in the ‘drug wars’ far exceeds that of prohibition and so, I think one can safely conclude, the corruption must far exceed that of the earlier period too. The HSBC bank was fined $1.9 billion in 2012 for laundering money for, among others, Mexican drug cartels.
A Guardian account of the affair had this to say: “In Mexico the bank ‘severely understaffed’ its compliance department and failed to implement an anti-money laundering programme despite evidence of serious risks. A complex scheme known as the black market peso exchange (BMPE) was used to launder the cash.”
So, it was ‘understaffing’ that was the problem. Of course, this record fine was imposed on a British rather than an American bank, but I find it hard to believe that a lot more big banks weren’t into this particular honeypot. As to other corrupt actors? It would appear from constant news stories that officialdom in most Central American countries is up to its eyes in it.
The only major tales in the mainstream media tend to be of the drug abuses of governments’ opponents - from FARC in Colombia to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and many more. Legalising drug use would end many of the problems, but that is not something that capitalist governments want to take more than a few steps towards: eg, the US states that have legalised marijuana use. They find it useful and, as Lazare ends his article, quoting the Communist manifesto, capitalism’s existence is “no longer compatible with society”. So what do they care?
I was one of those who attended the most recent Zoom meeting of the CPGB’s ‘A week in politics’ Online Communist Forum, and found myself agreeing as usual with the main points, while inspired by the seriousness with which people addressed the topics for discussion. This time it was the recent elections in Britain and the growth of the respective national and regional divides aka nationalism.
As I said at the meeting, these nationalisms come over not as a response to another nation - a larger competing or colonising nation - but as a revolt against the centralised regime of one’s own status quo: that is, Europeans rebelling against Europe and the ‘British’ against Westminster.
How do we address this? If what is behind this local nationalism is discontent with Westminster - in many ways justified - it’s not alienation from the ‘other’, but from the centre. It’s not basically xenophobic. Do voters in the north and Midlands resent Londoners and southerners as foreigners?
So, to increase a desired sense of control, the answer is not independence, but federalism. In a socialist federation, power would come from the bottom up. It’s workers control applied to politics, within a wider local and regional political structure. I’ve never been a fan (as previous letters attest) of self-sufficient units like prehistoric settlements or roving hunter groups. Yet neither do I go for all-powerful leaders and a state separate from society.
In opposition to national isolation, we need interrelation: that is, decisions and knowledge flowing from all corners to an assembly of delegates. Such a chamber would be our local senate, in contact with other senates based on their own federal structures and all advising a worldwide delegate body. Ours might be held in the current House of Lords, when that unelected body is abolished!
Cliff Slaughter died on May 3 2021 at the age of 92. His important contributions to Marxist theories include ‘Religion and social revolt’ (Labour Review May-June 1958), ‘What is revolutionary leadership?’ (Labour Review October-November 1960) and ‘Lenin on dialectics: an introduction to the Philosophical notebooks of Lenin’ (1962).
He was won from the Communist Party by Gerry Healy after the crisis there following Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech outlining the crimes of Stalin, and the subsequent invasion of Hungary in the same year to put down that revolutionary uprising, proving that nothing had really changed.
Peter Fryer was expelled from the Communist Party for honestly reporting on the suppression of that revolution. He and Brian Behan led some hundreds from the CPGB into the Socialist Labour League from 1956 to 1958. Fryer, the best of that crew, resigned in mid-1959 because Healy now reversed the relatively open orientation he had adopted to working class organisations and imposed the old bureaucratic-centralist regime. But Cliff Slaughter and a number of other ‘red professors’ remained and paid the price of unconditional capitulation to Healy, certainly after the mid-1960s.
Slaughter led his group’s repudiation of the heritage of the Russian Revolution via the works of István Mészáros: “Learn and develop the insight of István Mészáros in the closing chapters of Beyond capital that the future mass socialist movement will be inherently pluralist, with its component parts developing through their growing and necessary ability to coordinate their efforts (and thus achieve class-consciousness not to accept ‘control’ and a supposed ‘revolutionary consciousness’ already formed by professed Marxists from above).”
Slaughter’s and Mészáros’s formulation of the relationship between party and class is neo-Kautskyite. Ridiculously he proposes that Lenin’s pre-1917 orientation (the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry) constituted an adequate perspective for the revolution, whereas the truth is the revolution was lost without the repudiation of that orientation and the transformation of the party into a weapon for the overthrow of capitalism via the April theses.
Most shockingly of all Slaughter says that Mao Zedong’s ‘bloc of four classes’ perspective was correct in 1949, as against post-war Trotskyism. The message is that third-world popular frontism trumps post-war class-struggle Trotskyism, with all their transitional programmes and class-independence struggles for the overthrow of capitalism (deeply flawed though these programmes were). No, a thousand times no! The class deserves far better than reformism hidden behind pseudo-revolutionary phrases like this!
If Slaughter is right about socialism not being on the agenda in 1917, then Trotsky’s famous theory of permanent revolution is meaningless and without content; the Russian Revolution was merely a bourgeois national revolution, and so is the political content of the struggle of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky and its international manifestation - the revolutionary Comintern in its first four congresses. In order to achieve this volte face Slaughter capitulates to both Kautskyism in accepting the old social democratic theories of the party and of stages in the revolution; and goes even further than Tony Cliff’s state capitalism in attributing a historically progressive historic role to Stalinism.
Unbelievably Slaughter repudiates the entire history of Trotskyism and his own life’s work (deeply flawed though it was) and there was no-one left in his group to object. He avers not merely that there were some exceptions to the theory of permanent revolution: the entire thing was always rubbish, according to our renegade.
Slaughter continues, “[Trotsky] went on to question which classes would solve the task of the democratic revolution and how those classes would relate to each other”. Trotsky did not “question” this, but was absolutely sure that only the working class could lead the revolution and it could not simply be a ‘democratic’ revolution, but an ‘uninterrupted’, permanent one. He and the Bolsheviks agreed that only the working class could lead the coming revolution because of the small size and belated development of the bourgeoisie and its subservience to both the tsar and foreign capital. On this point, both were equally opposed to the Mensheviks.
And here we get the blatant lie. In quoting from Trotsky’s Permanent revolution (1905), he says: “... the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ would [now comes the Trotsky quote] ‘have to carry through to the end the agrarian revolution and democratic reconstruction of the state’. In other words, the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry would become the instrument for solving the historically belated task of the historically belated bourgeois revolution” (my emphasis).
But “and peasantry” is not in the Trotsky original quote. Further Trotsky is referring to the social content of this dictatorship and not what ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ - an entity which Trotsky never endorsed in all his writings - might do. Slaughter added it to confuse us on what Trotsky’s real position was. To clarify matters, the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ means a bloc of the two classes, possibly on an equal footing in government, while the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ means the working class, via its revolutionary leadership of the soviets ruling and leading the peasantry in a governmental alliance.
There were many occasions when Lenin came remarkably close to Trotsky’s Permanent revolution, as the following passages show:
Trotsky: “The formula which the Bolsheviks have here chosen for themselves reads: the proletariat which leads the peasantry behind it.”
Lenin: “Isn’t it obvious that the idea of all these formulations is one and the same? Isn’t it obvious that this idea expresses precisely the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry - that the “formula” of the proletariat supported by the peasantry remains entirely within the bounds of that very same dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry?” (my emphasis).
Trotsky comments: “Thus Lenin puts a construction on the ‘algebraic’ formula here, which excludes the idea of an independent peasant party and even more its dominant role in the revolutionary government: the proletariat leads the peasantry, the proletariat is supported by the peasantry, consequently the revolutionary power is concentrated in the hands of the party of the proletariat. But this is precisely the central point of the theory of the permanent revolution” (original emphasis).
This is how those dreadful enemies of Slaughter since the mid-50s, the ‘Pabloites’, have bowdlerised it. And this was also the game that Radek, Zinoviev and later Stalin played in China in the 20s and 30s - the two-stage theory that resurrected Lenin’s old formulation, repudiated by him in the April theses, and extended it back, politically reviving the old Menshevism. This was the policy which destroyed the Chinese revolution in 1927 and led to the admired ‘victory’ of Mao Zedong’s theory of the bloc of four classes in 1949. He took power in the name of this bloc in 1949, which politically excluded the working class, but he did not institute a deformed workers’ state (with the working class still politically excluded) until 1952-53, when the advent of the Korean war meant their erstwhile allies in the national bourgeoisie became too unreliable for government.
This is the popular-frontist two-stage policy still pursued today by the South African Communist Party and by Maoist and other Stalinist forces from Peru to India, Nepal and the Philippines, to give a few examples. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution provided the basis for the only consistent revolutionary programme for these countries.
And the final insult to the name of Trotskyism: Slaughter explained that bourgeois-democratic revolutions after 1917 were all led by Stalinists (he could never handle Cuba) and “it was only via this path - and not via the bourgeoisie - that nationalist capitalist states could be achieved; and that is the historic role the various Stalinist regimes, ‘workers states’ played. They prepared and effected the transition of the nation to capitalism”.
Well, there we have it! This implies the Bolsheviks were wrong against the Mensheviks, Trotsky was wrong against Stalin, and present-day Trotskyists are wrong against Stalinists everywhere. Stalinism has played a historically progressive role and their opponents on the left deserved what they got for attempting to obstruct this progressivism.
In the swamp Max Shachtman, Raya Dunayevskya, CLR James and Hal Draper - mediated through the works of Georg Lukács, István Mészáros, Cyril Smith and Cliff Slaughter - now trump Lenin and Trotsky as political models, as well as on the intimately connected question of internal democracy and the need for a workers’ state. We must continue the struggle without and against them: that fight will strengthen new revolutionists now emerging to replace them; they will supersede them and annul their failures.
In 1983, Rafael Eitan, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, said: “We declare openly that the Arabs have no right to settle on even one centimetre of Eretz Israel … Force is all they do or ever will understand. We shall use the ultimate force until the Palestinians come crawling to us on all fours.” Today, we are seeing the use of such force in Sheikh Jarrah - an area of occupied and illegally annexed East Jerusalem.
Beginning from May 2 2021, Israel has begun its attempts to forcibly evict 26 Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. These families consist of refugees since the Nakba (the 1947-49 expulsion and forced exile of over two-thirds of the population by Zionist forces) and have been denied their United Nations-mandated right to return home. They were relocated in the neighbourhood when it was under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967.
Israeli propaganda attempts to present the idea that the homes being seized were once owned by Jews. This is a complete lie - the Jordanian authorities were the ones to finance the construction of the homes. Since the early 1970s, Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah have been battling a series of Jewish settler organisations, who filed lawsuits claiming the land belonged to them. Many Palestinians have been kicked out of the neighbourhood and replaced by Israeli settlers. The current stand-off and protests came about after an Israeli court ruled in favour of Nahalat Shimon International, an organisation based in the US; and Ateret Cohanim, another settlement group that seeks to take over the properties.
In its bloody quest to eliminate Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the settler state has left no stone unturned. Combat-clad murderers have been sent in to terrorise Palestinian sit-ins with skunk water, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and shock grenades. Protestors have been physically assaulted, kneeled on, choked and shot at with live rounds. On May 7, the Israeli police forced their way into the neighbourhood, as Palestinians and solidarity activists gathered to break their Ramadan fasting in solidarity with 40 Palestinians, including 10 children.
As Palestinians gathered to demonstrate against the forceful eviction of dozens of residents, Jewish settlers - including Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawmaker and a follower of Meir Kahane (the founder of the violent US Jewish Defense League, who advocated the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians) - arrived at the scene. Ben-Gvir set up a provisional office across the street from where Palestinians were having their post-fast Iftar meal, while other settlers, who chanted racist slogans, such as “Death to Arabs” and called for all Palestinians to be thrown out from the neighbourhood, pepper-sprayed the Iftar table.
On the same day, a video surfaced on social media, which showed Ben-Gvir, along with Jerusalem deputy mayor Arieh King, disparagingly yelling at a Palestinian who was apparently wounded by Israeli police, yet returned to protest against the evictions of Palestinian families. Ben-Gvir is heard shouting: “Abu Hummus, how is your ass?” Then, King himself joins in the shouting: “Did they take the bullet out of your ass? It’s a pity it did not go in here,” he added, pointing to his head. It is not surprising that King used this sadistic rhetoric. He is the director of a rightwing settler organisation named the Israel Land Fund, which constantly targets the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. In 2017, King told an Israeli newspaper that up to 500 Israeli families would move into Sheikh Jarrah within the next decade. The precise method of doing this has been made clear now: namely Zionist terrorism.
The colonialist attempts to evict Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah are patently illegal. The Palestinians consider East Jerusalem to be their capital (as does most of the planet). Israel captured East Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. In the immediate aftermath, it passed the Municipalities Ordinance (Amendment No6), which authorised the extension of Israeli law and administration to East Jerusalem and empowered the interior ministry to unilaterally enlarge the municipal boundaries.
In 1980, Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem as part of the Basic Law of Jerusalem, which declared that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” To cement the annexation, the Israeli government approved the ‘Master Plan 2000’ - a massive scheme to rearrange the boundaries of the city in such a way that it would ensure a permanent demographic majority for Israeli Jews at the expense of the city’s native inhabitants. In other words, the Master Plan was a blueprint for a state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign, which saw the destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes and the subsequent eviction of numerous families.
In response to the 1967 act, the United Nations security council adopted resolution 252, which affirmed that “acquisition of territory by military conquest is inadmissible”. The resolution also stated: “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, including expropriation of land and properties thereon, which tend to change the legal status of Jerusalem are invalid and cannot change that status.” This view has been reiterated with regard to the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah.
“We call on Israel to immediately call off all forced evictions,” UN rights office spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva on May 7. He emphasised that East Jerusalem “remains part of the occupied Palestinian territory, in which international humanitarian law applies” and that Israel is not authorised to “impose its own set of laws in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem .... The occupying power ... cannot confiscate private property in occupied territory.”
Under international law, he said, it is illegal to transfer civilian populations into occupied territory and this “may amount to war crimes”. Colville urged the Israeli regime to depart from behaviour that further contributes to “a coercive environment or leads to a risk of forcible transfer.” He added: “We further call on Israel to respect freedom of expression on assembly, including with those who are protesting against the evictions, and to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force.”
In today’s world, the settler-colonial logic of ideological obliteration has been aided by social media giants. These platforms have again displayed their cosy relations with Israeli colonialism by censoring, limiting or shutting down the accounts of those users who have uploaded and shared video content and images about the Zionist attacks in Sheikh Jarrah. This wide-ranging campaign of erasure will come to an end only if the world univocally opposes the annihilationist and annexationist agenda of Israel.