Learn lessons

It is helpful to have Ian Birchall’s response (Letters, September 21) to my article on the anniversary of the 1973 Chilean coup (‘National roads to disaster’, September 7). The open discussion of disagreements has some chance of making progress in understanding and playing an educational role. I suppose that what comrade Birchall’s first two paragraphs ask of us is the common culture of the early 21st century left: that minorities should be deferential to majorities for the sake of unity and displaying appropriate humility for the fact that we are a minority.

But the deference of minorities to majorities in the name of unity, if it goes beyond agreement to majority decision-making in common actions, and is taken to require deference in stating disagreements, can neither produce progress in understanding nor education. And the culture of deference results at the end of the day in the sort of political culture which produces on a small scale affairs like the ‘Delta case’ in the Socialist Workers Party; on a larger scale the inability of the Labour left to actually fight the right (as in the Corbyn period); and on an even larger scale ‘Lysenkoism’ and all the rest of the ‘planning irrationalities’ of the Soviet regime.

I should say that my piece was not intended to be an in-depth engagement with the SWP’s analysis of Chile, but a superficial look at what the left were saying in their papers about the anniversary of the coup - with some reference to older material, because articles marking the anniversary weren’t all out at the time that I wrote. I am happy to accept that Mike Gonzalez took the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) seriously in 1984. The argument that the MIR was poisoned by its guerrillaism was, in fact, already in comrade Birchall’s own 1973 article together with Chris Harman, which I did cite. I don’t disagree with this point.

That said, though the ‘Cliffite tradition’ rejects guerrillaism, Alex Callinicos continues to polemicise against opponents on the basis that Russia, Chile, etc show the need for the militarised “Leninist combat party” (James P Cannon’s formula; Callinicos has various diplomatic versions). An example not long ago was in his debating comrade Birchall in 2013. I commented not long after that the logic of Callinicos’s argument was that only the guerrillaist ‘prolonged people’s war’ strategy could work (‘Left Unity’s contradictory aspirations’, November 28 2013).

However, guerrillaism is not, I think, a complete explanation of the MIR’s failure. Gonzalez - and before him comrade Birchall and Chris Harman - made the point that the MIR wound up giving critical support to the Popular Unity government. This transition from anti-parliamentarism to critical support was one already commented on by Trotsky in 1931, on Spain:

“Parliamentary cretinism is a revolting sickness, but anti-parliamentary cretinism is not much better. We see this most clearly in the fate of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. The revolution poses political questions directly and at the present stage gives them a parliamentary form. The attention of the working class cannot but be concentrated on the Cortes, and the anarcho-syndicalists will secretly vote for the socialists or perhaps the republicans. To fight against parliamentary illusions without fighting simultaneously against the anti-parliamentary metaphysics of the anarchists is less possible in Spain than anywhere else.” (‘The Spanish revolution’, May 1931).

I cite this passage partly because, though comrade Birchall refers to my citation of Lessons of October, he does not refer to that in the same note to Trotsky’s 1931 ‘Spain: on the slogan of Soviets’ (September 1931), which is part of the same discussion as that I have just quoted. And Trotsky’s material on Spain is, in fact, much more pertinent to Chile (and to modern politics more generally) than Lessons of October.

The Spanish anarcho-syndicalist CNT union confederation and the Chilean MIR are not the only examples of the political helplessness of parties affected by anti-parliamentary cretinism, when actual pre-revolutionary crisis develops. There are numerous examples: a recent one is the extraordinary zigzag course of the SWP’s co-thinkers, the Revolutionary Socialists, in the political crisis in Egypt in 2011-13.

The problem underlying this failure is that revolutionary crisis poses the question of central coordinating authority, to substitute for the failure and/or sabotage of capitalist coordination. Local institutions, like the Russian soviets, German or Austrian Räte of 1918-19, or Chilean cordones industriales, cannot solve this national-level coordination problem.

The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself. So far, so good. But the act of the working class itself is not only strikes, shop stewards committees and so on. It is also, and just as necessarily, the creation of permanent workers’ organisations - trade unions, cooperatives, collectivist political parties.

And this, in turn, is not only a matter of “specific historical circumstances - in particular the level of class struggle and the self-activity of the working class”. It is also a matter of the conscious voluntary choices of the existing left. In 1967-76 the “level of class struggle and the self-activity of the working class” were high: but the left chose either to cling to the old ideas of social democracy and ‘official communism’, or to build a series of sects.

We have to commit to choosing otherwise under less propitious conditions if we are not going to just repeat the mistakes we made 50 years ago.

Mike Macnair


Paul Demarty’s article on reparations was right on many points (‘Beyond our repair’, September 14). In particular, his argument that reparations are intended to correct present wrongs, rather than past ones, seems to me irrefutable.

The fact is that distance, both in time and place, has a profound influence on our moral psychology. In the same way that modern Britons cannot muster outrage at the atrocities of the Normans, no sane person weeps at the thought that the world will end in millions of years. Since reparations are intended to correct present wrongs, and are much less suited to that purpose than socialism, I agree with Demarty in that I oppose reparations on strategic grounds.

On the other hand, I do not think the strategically sensible choice is perfectly just; and this ought to be frankly acknowledged. Our moral psychology might be fixed, but this does not entail that we should follow our sentiments to the detriment of our reason. We may feel more strongly about the poverty we see in Britain than the extreme poverty of developing countries, but that does not nullify our obligation to liberate the world’s poorest people. Similarly, we may struggle to feel concerned by historical crimes when their effects seem to have disappeared with time, but I am not convinced we are right to do so.

The morals of reparations may present an unsolvable philosophical problem. Fortunately, the politics of reparations are much easier to handle.

Talal Hangari

Five phases

In reply to Jack Conrad, who asserts that the USSR collapsed into state capitalism in 1929 due to the adoption of the first five-year plan, we hold that there were five successive phases of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR from October 1917.

1. The rule of the soviets led by the Bolsheviks, from October 1917 to the period just prior to the death of Lenin (January 1924) and the Fifth Congress of the Comintern (June-July 1924). Then the soviets/workers’ councils ruled, presaged by the Paris Commune of 1871. This was real workers’ democracy. There is a separation of the executive; the central committee of the Communist Party, the legislature; the party congress decisions, which are carried out by the central committee and a relatively independent judiciary. Due process and soviet legality obtains.

It must be stressed, however that this is still a real dictatorship: the executive is obliged to prevent the degree of separation between the three arms of the state that a free bourgeois democracy has. The capitalist class is suppressed, they cannot vote and their parties are not allowed to operate: ‘For or against the revolution’ is the criterion for all legality and freedom of speech, etc. But inner-party democracy still operated - albeit restricted by the unfortunate decision of the 10th Party Congress ‘ban on factions’ in 1921.

2. The interregnum, 1924-28 - still relatively democratic in inner-party democracy to begin with, but an increasingly repressive period of political struggle between Zinoviev, Stalin, Bukharin, Kamenev and Trotsky. Zinoviev was dominant initially, the Right Opposition of Bukharin was in alliance with Stalin from the mid-1920s, and Stalin emerged at the top in 1928.

3. The consolidation of the rule of the bureaucracy, with Stalin as its central representative (1928-34), and the end of the original Bolshevik Party as a political entity. Some non-Bolshevik opposition still exists, but is increasingly repressed. The working class is now totally politically expropriated by the bureaucracy, yet that same bureaucracy still rules on its behalf - as shown in the universal free welfare, health and education systems, the total absence of unemployment and homelessness, paid holidays for all, etc. Production is according to the central state plan (albeit hideously undemocratic and bureaucratically distorted) and not for profit. No inheritance, no private ownership and no last testaments/wills are allowed; Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, inherited nothing on his death.

4. The Great Purges etc, December 1934 (Stalin’s assassination of Kirov) to March 1953 (death of Stalin) and execution of Beria in December 1953. The secret police mass-executed and assassinated all real and imagined opponents unchecked, on Stalin’s instructions.

5. Return of the rule of bureaucracy, 1953-91. Nikita Khrushchev, with help from former marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov, smashed the rule of the NKVD secret police in a coup in June 1953; the secret police then became an arm of the bureaucracy again, as in 1928-34.

The distorted dictatorship of the proletariat still remained in the economy and in the welfare state up to the destruction of the degenerated workers’ state by Boris Yeltsin in August 1991.

Gerry Downing
Socialist Fight


Sometimes I do not know what to make of our Gerry Downing. A nice enough guy, but is he stupid, dishonest or both?

One week he blithely characterises my approach to the post-1928-29 Soviet Union as “state-capitalist”; the next he admits that this was a blunder (Letters, September 21 2023). But to excuse himself he says the 1928-29 date is the same as Tony Cliff’s: therefore, so he reasons, Jack Conrad must agree with Cliffite state capitalism.

As far as I know, Robert Conquest and other cold war warriors date the overthrow of the Provisional government to October 1917. So does Jack Conrad. What conclusion should one draw from this? Presumably that Jack Conrad is a cold war warrior.

Instead of engaging with my series of recent articles on the Soviet Union, which included a critique of state capitalism, comrade Downing turns a blind eye and just makes things up. Silly.

It is the same with his bogus claim about the “fusion attempt” between the CPGB and the AWL “in the early 2000s”. There were talks, true. Not about fusion, though.

Myself and Mark Fischer met Sean Matgamna, Martin Thomas and a whole string of leading AWLers over the course of a few months. They thought they had all the answers when it came to Israel-Palestine, the ‘official’ CPGB, the minimum-maximum programme, the Labour Party, the Soviet Union, etc. We quickly, thoroughly and almost effortlessly disabused them. Everything was written up in the Weekly Worker. It is easy to check the archives.

Jack Conrad

Marxist inability

Prompted by Jack Conrad’s recent epic series on the Soviet Union and despite Daniel Lazare’s unfettered (not to say blood-splattering) critique of that “Conradian gaze” (‘Once more unto the breach’, September 14), it occurred to me to attempt an equivalent take on things. I am doing so, even though most of the observations and suggestions below have been previously aired in the letters pages of the Weekly Worker - all courtesy of its policies for democratically centralist openness of debate.

The outcome of that attempt forms what could be called a finite culmination of my personal engagement with the paper over the past nine years or so, hopefully having done so in a healthily fresh-spirited manner, style and tone, whilst shaking off the dust from earlier encounters with Marxism-Leninism/Trotskyism (most substantially the Workers Revolutionary Party of the early to mid-1970s). This coincides with a seemingly eternally dragged-out realisation that to combine nascent working class consciousness with the building of a party that genuinely represents its interests is like trying to combine a diamond with a pearl.

But where the devil to begin with that “gaze” of mine? Well, maybe with how and where Marxism could be typified as having a tendency to foster both over-intellectualisation and an associated over-complication of matters, even to the point of generating meltdown between its exponents. In contrast, Daniel Lazare’s latest article presented matters in a more straightforward, clear-cut mode by highlighting that rather simple, but generally unacknowledged, fact of how the far right seems to know almost at a gut level how to take political advantage by promoting ‘obvious truth’, and thereby getting a free ride on the back of it (‘Investigations drag on and on’, September 21). All of which is actually pretty unsurprising - although it seems to escape the grasp of most of our 21st-century Marxist left! This despite the fact that what’s required in this context is not exactly rocket science: on the one hand, it’s all just a reflection and, on the other, simply an integral part of what lies at the heart of being human.

Deviously calculating and indeed very dangerously opportunist far-right organisations are managing to prosper right now because an at least apparently honest presentation of objective reality by them is naturally attractive - most notably when part of an ‘emotional’ appeal to underlying social and economic resentment from those who know deep down they’re being routinely manipulated and lied to. These are the disillusioned, disaffected, distrustful and also profoundly disoriented sections of society - the proverbially ‘lost and neglected’ individuals amongst any of capitalism’s populations around the world. So surely that aspect must be regarded as one of the more important - a particularly powerful one in play in our current period. It arises whilst our largely discredited Marxist/communist so-called ‘movement’ offers nothing much by way of an appealing alternative, let alone an inspiring one.

All in all, who can really dispute that, whilst we sink, what thrives are those perfectly well-known dangers of the prospering of the far right in its all but predestined journey towards fascism. Quite disgracefully, we are failing, while in their reactionary, ‘primitivist’ and very crude form, they are gaining ground largely because they understand how higher, less purely rational, but more ‘spiritually’ oriented ideas are required in order to secure engagement with the working class. As already said (but its absolute centrality makes it worth repeating), where those purist elements of 21st-century Marxism stick to their starkly more traditionalist guns - attitudes and accompanying policies that only offer a single wavelength of messaging and enlightenment (and consequently of that potential inspiration) to the population - in actual fact human beings are designed to be more organic, more deeply attuned and so more complete.

There is, of course, another side to things - a darker side, to which Marxism must be sensitively attuned: how human beings, obviously including the working class, have a huge propensity for operating within a cognitive dissonance - arguably straightforward hypocrisy and outright selfishness. A good example of this is where populism and extreme rightism currently paint risks of climate change and global warming as threats to our ‘way of life’ in the sense of the resulting mass migration will threaten the stability of our economy and standard of living.

According to the world view of the far right, that threat arises from ‘illegal’ immigration from the global south in multiple millions (rather than in those tens of thousands, as currently is the case). In their version the currently comfortable will need to ‘protect’ what they’ve got against that future horde of alien, state-benefits-sucking and often also ‘rapist’ insurgents - all part of a covert and calculated ‘replacement’ of our western civilisation by diluting the bloodline of our precious nation-states! And, goddamnit, many elements within the western working class readily opt to go along with that abominably self-centred, purely self-preservatory narrative. (This, of course, is also explained by how imprisoned and poisoned they have become by living under a capitalistic paradigm.)

My own family were victims of the last main period in history where a development of far-right politics, progressing into rabid fascist cunning, outplayed revolutionary leftwing abilities and sensibility (albeit most specifically in its aberrational Stalinist manifestation). My father, grandfather and uncles were targeted and forced to flee - or chucked into the Buchenwald concentration camp - for being members of the German Communist Party (not Jews, which they weren’t). The primary objective of Nazism, of course, was the elimination of Bolshevism rather than exclusively of Jews - all of which nowadays has become largely airbrushed out of our history books, and incidentally about which maybe a certain Tony Greenstein plus his ilk might like to take note. (A distinctly monomaniacal - bordering upon straight obsessive - mood seems to best describe their preoccupations with the state of Israel, lock-stepped sub-fascistic Zionist machinations, et al).

Equally we could ask whether all other comrades will accept that life is not a series of silos; whether we’ll ever learn not to think in compartments, where our enemy of capitalism is that ‘oneness’. In that same vein - but also in a more freewheeling manner and mood - maybe this should be expressed: stop bickering, comrades. Stop all that nit-picking and back-biting and finding of intensely detailed fault, where a family-bond type ‘loyalty’ both to each other and to shared ambitions and widest horizons seems to be almost absent.

A suspicion might well pop into mind that our current isolation and associated social, cultural and political impotence leaves too much time on our hands - so much so that things can drift into zones of the self-indulgent. As a result, unproductive, static or otherwise relentlessly cyclical analyses can pretty readily appear to be more a matter of clinical-grade psychological ‘displacement’ for those immense frustrations we suffer - resulting in an ability to put into action our core ideas and programmes.

But maybe that’s just another ‘obvious truth’.

Bruno Kretzschmar

Dictatorship again

I am not sure who Andrew Northall is referring to when he implies that the points I am making have been refuted by unnamed individuals (Letters, September 14). I certainly haven’t seen any refutation, so it would help if Andrew could point out one or even two to me. Those who have responded to me don’t seem to get the simple point I am making.

The first I ever made was that Marxism is a flawed doctrine. At the political level Marx misrepresented the meaning of the term, ‘dictatorship’, and then claims, under the influence of Blanqui, that dictatorship is necessary to defend socialism. Andrew says that Marx meant working class rule when he used the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as if I don’t understand what he meant. So let me make it perfectly clear: the argument is not about what Marx meant, or whether working class rule is necessary: rather it is about whether the term ‘dictatorship’ is scientifically correct terminology for working class rule.

Some people may be upset when I point out that Marx misled the communist movement by misrepresenting the meaning of ‘dictatorship’ in relation to working class rule, but it has to be said. I have also pointed out that ‘dictatorship’ when necessary should be limited to emergencies, in the way it was used under the Roman republic, from where the term actually derives.

Before his transition to totalitarianism, Lenin was, of course, right to castigate the limitation and distortion of bourgeois democracy. He was also correct to point out that bourgeois democracy was an advance on feudalism, the medieval ‘totalitarianism’ practised by the Catholic church and the feudal monarchs, whose methods can be described as Stalinist before Stalin. The problem for Lenin is that bourgeois democracy is more progressive than totalitarianism, whether medieval or modern. Andrew, like most communists, failed to grasp the contradiction within Lenin relating to his transition from democratic socialism to totalitarianism, following the suppression of factions in the Communist Party in 1921. These communists only see the positive side of Leninism, while not being aware of its negative side. Trotsky was aware of the negative aspects, but supported Leninist totalitarianism, which he later named ‘Stalinism’ after he lost power.

I have pointed out that dictatorship, Marxist or otherwise, outside of an emergency situation, is a reversion to feudal type of rule and worse. Hence the killing of people like Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Trotsky, etc. When he was making the transition from democratic socialism to totalitarianism, Lenin himself pointed out the meaning of the term ‘dictatorship’ as ‘rule untrammelled by any law’. This is a perfect definition, which cannot be improved upon. How can this lead to socialism? Most communists who have been miseducated by Marx on this question and don’t understand what the term ‘dictatorship’ means usually refer to all forms of bourgeois rule as a dictatorship, which contributes to ultra-leftism in the struggle against fascism. Trotskyist opposition to the popular front, after the ultra-left phase in the Comintern, is a good example. So this issue isn’t of academic interest only.

According to Andrew, the vast majority of communists believe in what “Tony calls democratic socialism”. But the idea of democratic socialism came, if I am not mistaken, from the British working class movement, and the vast majority of communists, rather than supporting democratic socialism, ended up supporting Marxist dictatorship theory and Leninist totalitarianism. Although Marx meant working class rule when he used the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, this doesn’t change the fact that it was an incorrect use of the term, which has had serious consequences for the communist movement.

Andrew argues that the vast majority of communists, while supporting democratic socialism, differ from me because they have a class understanding of democracy. But it should be clear to Andrew and other communists that the two terms combined - ie, democratic socialism - view democracy from a clear class perspective.

One thing is clear though: a regime based on democratic socialism would not have communists executed because they disagreed with the leadership of the party. So where were all these communists who Andrew tells us agree with democratic socialism, but who went along with this type of thing in the past (until Khrushchev blew the whistle at the 20th Party Congress back in 1956)? I am not saying there wasn’t a positive side to Stalin. Without the crash programme of industrialisation, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have survived the Nazi onslaught. But many communists have a one-sided view of Stalin, only seeing the positive side.

What is clear is that the Leninist totalitarianism that comrades like Andrew seems to adhere to, and which is referred to as ‘Stalinism’ by the Trotskyists, collapsed with the Soviet Union back in 1991. How did the CPSU lose power so easily, when there was no mass uprising against communism? These are questions that communists, including Andrew, need to address.

Focusing only on the positive achievements of the Soviet Union, while mostly ignoring the negative side, isn’t going to get the communist movement anywhere. It wasn’t the positive aspects of the Soviet Union which led to its collapse, but the negative aspects. Andrew says that communists have been analysing both the positive and negative side for decades, but the point is, that never saved it from collapse. Why? Because Leninist totalitarianism can’t cope with open democratic debate.

What was it about Leninism which led to Gorbachev failing to achieve the goal he was aiming at: ie, democratic socialism? When Trotsky lost power in the Stalin period he referred to Leninist totalitarianism as ‘Stalinism’, but at least Trotsky began to return to democratic socialism, even though his transitional programme still referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat like the Stalin constitution of 1936 and the CPB’s Britain’s road to socialism.

Andrew tells us that the 1961 programme of the CPSU outlined a programme for a democratic socialist society, but that this programme was never implemented, but he doesn’t ask why it wasn’t implemented. My reply is Leninist totalitarianism. Like Andrew, I defend the positive side of the Soviet experience, but we need to remember that it was the negative side which led to its collapse - not to mention that Leninist totalitarianism has undermined support for socialism all over eastern Europe, which can only be won back by democratic socialism. Trotskyists need to come clean and stop blaming Leninist totalitarianism on Stalin alone, while ignoring the role Trotsky played in its establishment.

By the way, I have never argued that dictatorship equals totalitarianism. For instance, Franco’s Spain was a dictatorship, but it would be inappropriate to call it totalitarian, but a dictatorship certainly opens the gates to totalitarianism.

Andrew obviously hasn’t grasped the point I have been making but I can’t hold it against him. We communists have all been miseducated on a simple issue by Marx - the meaning of ‘dictatorship’ - although Lenin made it clear what the term means when he was making the transition to totalitarianism.

Another point about Andrew’s reply to me is that he appears to dismiss the creeping energy crisis, which is now being expressed in rising prices, - what you would expect if world oil production has peaked, while demand for oil continues to grow. If Andrew can’t see that the energy crisis is potentially the greatest challenge facing modern society, this again is down to Marxism, which views industrial capitalism as arising from the circulation of money, rather than cheap, abundant energy. Some people view the climate crisis as more urgent, but the point is that emissions of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels will obviously decline, as these fuels become more expensive to use.

Finally, I have argued that being does not determine consciousness, but influences it, so the Marxist position, which gives the greater power to being, is wrong. There is no quantum physicist that I know of who would disagree with me on this point.

Tony Clark
For Democratic Socialism