Bridging the divide

Danny Hammill reports on the CPGB’s weekend school ‘Against economism’

At present the revolutionary left is divided into feuding theoretical fiefdoms. All the various left groups are engaged in a ceaseless primordial struggle for supremacy and domination. Ideological gurus conduct vicious internecine warfare - internally and externally - in order to defend their revealed truths, which must of necessity be defended to the bitter end against all other contra-doctrines and beliefs. Fragmentation and eventual disillusionment is the inevitable result.

We need to break out of this profoundly sect-like mentality. The Communist Party of Great Britain’s weekend school, ‘Against economism’, showed that the legacy of mistrust and narrow rivalry can be broken down and transcended. Yes, the old spirit of instinctive dogmatism was not altogether absent. But at the same time we also saw a heartening degree of theoretical movement - albeit of a limited nature - from many of the comrades who attended.

CPGB comrades enjoyed a frank and open exchange of views with supporters of the Marxist Bulletin group, the Revolutionary Democratic Group, the Trotskyist Unity Group and Ian Donovan, editor of the Trotskyite journal Revolution and Truth. Also present were ‘non-aligned’ comrades. The school was composed of four sessions: Iskra and economism (Mark Fischer); Lenin versus imperialist economism (Steve Riley); Lenin and the permanent revolution (John Bridge); modern Trotskyism’s tendency to economism (Marcus Larsen).

The entire British left, both in its Trotskyist and (dwindling) ‘official communist’ form, is saturated with economism. In a sense, the left does not know how not to be economistic in its orientation - as the school revealed. Hence it is vital to study this question scientifically. However, as comrade Mark Fischer of the CPGB reminded us, when looking back at the history of economism and the struggle waged against it by Lenin, there are “no predetermined lessons”. We need to grasp the historical specifics of economism, said comrade Fischer,and then fill the old labels and categories (‘economism’, ‘imperialist economism’, etc) with a new content -and hence gain a new insight into the true nature of modern-day economism. In Lenin’s day, economism was a by-product of the infant nature of the workers’ movement. Contemporary economism, on the other hand, is a manifestation of its senility - and, particularly in Britain, of good old fashioned empiricism.

The seminal text of ‘anti-economism’ is of course VI Lenin’s much vilified What is to be done? In this fierce polemic Lenin famously argued that consciousness can only be brought to the working class from the ‘outside’. Ever since, hordes of philistines and the professionally ignorant - one T Cliff most notably - have damned Lenin for either having an ‘elitist’ conception of socialism - ie, a socialism without the need for workers’ self-activity and workers’ power - or alternatively having fundamentally changed his mind in the storm year of 1905.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as comrade John Bridge of the CPGB argued. Lenin did not think that “academics from the ivory tower would enlighten the ignorant masses” - or, for that matter, that the tanks of the Red Army could deliver socialism from the ‘outside’. All that Lenin meant was that socialism - just like the Marxist programme and scientific truth in general - does not arise spontaneously from the clash between worker and boss. Or, as comrade Fischer put it, socialism comes from “outside of an immediate, particular set of social relations - ie, the worker-boss one”.

In reality, Lenin’s conception was profoundly democratic. It was the task of the communist movement to “remake the class into the democratic hegemon of society” (John Bridge), which requires the highest level of political consciousness possible and the maximum degree of working class independence. This was the essence of Iskra-ism.

The economists thought otherwise. Whereas Lenin advocated that communists should become “tribunes of the oppressed”, the economists’ model was that of a trade union secretary. This debilitating narrowness was expressed in the now notorious and “pompous” (Lenin) formulation by Martynov, that communists aim to “lend the economic struggle itself a political character”. In practice, this meant that the workers’ movement ceded all the democratic-constitutional-political tasks to the bourgeoisie, while the workers got on with the economic or ‘bread and butter’ tasks.

Surely a brief perusal of today’s left press - such as Socialist Worker or The Socialist - reveals the same dismal ‘trade unionist’ approach to the workers’ movement. Is there anybody who can seriously argue that Socialist Worker acts as a “tribune of the oppressed”? For example it remains eerily silent on the right of Scotland and Wales to self-determination and on how that right should be won and exercised. Here, as explained by comrade Steve Riley, we have our modern-day version of imperialist economism. To a larger or lesser degree - normally a larger one - this economism infects the whole of the British left.

It was interesting to note the response of the comrades from the Marxist Bulletin group. Indeed, they seemed quite genuinely puzzled that the CPGB placed so much emphasis on economism. Surely the economism outlined by comrades Fischer, Riley and Bridge died out in Russia a long time ago? Sure, comrade Alan Gibson said, we all agree - probably - that the Socialist Party or the SWP are “classic economists” in that they separate the economic from the political. But most of the Trotskyist left does not do that - certainly not the Marxist Bulletin group! The MB comrades appeared to be morally offended by the constant accusation from the CPGB that they are economists.

In order to refute this “odd” (MB’s favourite word) charge, comrade Barbara Duke said that the Marxist Bulletin group does not believe that the struggle for a five percent pay rise leads by “absolute logic” to socialism. Definitely not. The job of her comrades is to “instill revolutionary consciousness into the struggle for five percent in order to take it further” … towards socialism no doubt. What is this but a modern-day variant on the old Martynovian struggle to “lend the economic struggle itself a political character”? The Marxist Bulletin’s innocent denials were made even less convincing by an examination of a supplement (October 1) it eagerly handed out at the school. In this documenton the RMT and the Steve Hedley dispute, we are informed that “railworkers need what all workers need - secure jobs, good pay, strong unions, decent free healthcare, good education, and more leisure time”. Not a mention, you notice, of what workers really need so they can take control of their own lives - political power to make revolution. Without posing hegemonic demands, championing the right of all the oppressed against every democratic shortfall - the monarchy, the Lords, British troops in northern Ireland, etc - all directed against the state, the left is merely calling for workers to be treated as “better-fed cattle”, as one CPGB comrade wryly put it.

Another manifestation of economism, as comrade Bridge stated, is one which imagines that strikes produce political consciousness. Strikes and voting Labour lead to socialism - eventually. Essentially, this is the schema of the British left. The old ‘official communist’ British road to socialism was an example of this rightwing economism. The Transitional Programme of Leon Trotsky spawned a more leftwing variant. We need to lead a ruthless struggle against economism in all its multifarious shapes and forms.

However, the Marxist Bulletin has started to move. The comrades who put together this journal insist with passion that the CPGB’s stress on the importance of the demand for a federal republic is a text-book example of the CPGB’s (Stalinist-derived) ‘stageism’. They have consistently counterposed their abstract demand for a workers’ government to our concrete transitional demand for a federal republic - ‘Why do we want to swap a bourgeois constitutional monarchy for a bourgeois republic?’ What the workers need is “socialism”, presumably on the basis that the British bourgeoisie have long since carried out the so-called ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ (1640s?) and it is now time to ‘move on’ - fast.

But as the debate unfolded, comrade Gibson conceded that the federal republic slogan “could be useful”. Naturally, the comrade added an immediate caveat - “useful” as part of an overall revolutionary programme. Somehow comrade Gibson has failed to notice that the CPGB’s demand for a federal republic is indeed part of its draft programme. But never mind. The real question we need to tease out of comrade Gibson is exactly when it would become “useful” - seeing how there is a national question in Scotland and Wales - as well as Ireland - and we live under a monarchy. We look forward to continuing this debate.

One of the main functions of the school was to attempt to demolish mythology - whether it be of the Trotskyist or Stalinist sort. Comrade John Bridge set about this essential task in his opening on ‘Lenin and permanent revolution’. For decades, our Trotskyist comrades have insisted that there is a world of difference between the revolutionary plan outlined by Lenin in his Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution and that expounded in Leon Trotsky’s Results and prospects. In Two tactics, so the story goes, Lenin was guilty of the heinous crime of ‘stageism’, which prepared the ground for Stalinism. He only redeemed himself by becoming a ‘Trotskyist’ in April 1917 when he wrote what has become known as the April theses. In these theses,thank heavens, Lenin saw sense at last and embraced Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, eloquently laid out in Results and prospects. Apparently, the subsequent events of the October Revolution ‘proved’ Trotsky to be right and Lenin to be wrong (pre-April theses, that is).

Nonsense, replied comrade Bridge. In essence - give or take this or that that nuance or literary formulation - both Lenin’s Two Tactics and Trotsky’s Results and prospects share the same outlook. Both agreed that the bourgeoisie was counterrevolutionary. Both agreed that socialism could not be built within the national confines of Russia. Where is the supposed chasm between the two theories?

Yes, Lenin launched vituperative polemics against Results and prospects. However, Lenin’s ire was in reality directed against Parvus, a collaborator of Trotsky’s, for his leftist formulation of ‘Not a tsar, but a workers’ government’ - which glaringly ignored the crucial role of the peasantry (ie, the overwhelming majority). Indeed, going by historical evidence, it seems Lenin had not even read Trotsky’s book.

Of course, the Stalinite lie-machine exaggerated and amplified the differences. Nothing odd about that. But it is tragic - and unnecessary - that the Trotskyists also echo and give voice to this obvious myth. Somewhat depressingly, the Trotskyist movement has accepted the terms of debate laid down by the Stalinites. What an own goal. Real history shows that the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” (Lenin’s supposedly dread expression from Two tactics) became a reality in 1917. The monarchy was abolished and the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship” became realised in the soviets - albeit, until October, in the peculiar and novel form of dual power. In other words, we see a clear line of continuity between Two tactics and the April theses, however much the Trotskyists maintain otherwise.

But a close examination of this myth reveals another source of economism. Using the name of Lenin’s theory of a revolutionary alliance between the proletariat and peasantry, Stalinite orthodoxy resuscitated the Menshevik theory of bourgeois revolution - every country had to go through its ‘democratic stage’ in alliance with the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie - whether that be China 1927, Spain 1936 or France 1968. Hence the communist parties had to divide their activities into two: on the one hand push, pressurise and support the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie, and on the other hand struggle around economic or ‘bread and butter’ issues. A road to disaster. Trotskyite orthodoxy also believes in a (bourgeois) democratic ‘stage’ - but its version of permanent revolution only applies to the backward countries. The bourgeoisie has performed its historically allocated ‘democratic role’ in countries like Britain or the USA. Tragically, in the backward countries the bourgeoisie has let the side down and the proletariat has to tidy up the democratic ‘mess’.

Hence the hostility shown by Trotskyists to any talk of a federal republic or constitutional issues in general. Here the ‘bourgeois (democratic) revolution’ took care of all that stuff. Now it is down to the good old slog between the worker and the boss, combined with the dream of the socialist republic. No need for all this ‘awkward’ political stuff about a federal republic. It only confuses workers.

Somewhat unconvincingly, comrade Donovan argued that the Stalinites exploited the “loophole” in Lenin’s algebraic formulation of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. This “loophole” took concrete shape in China 1927, when the Comintern instructed the Communist Party to subordinate itself to the bourgeois Kuomintang. You see, said the comrade, here we saw a concrete ‘application’ of Lenin’s wrong formula. Naturally, no such “loophole” existed in Trotsky’s formulations.

More stuff and nonsense, according to comrade Bridge. The Stalinites cynically used Lenin’s formulation as a mask behind which they revived the old Menshevik schema - ie, to subordinate the workers’ movement to the bourgeoisie. Far from being an application of Lenin’s slogan, it was its living opposite. Using comrade Donovan’s logic we might as well dump terms like ‘socialism’, ‘communism’, ‘proletarian internationalism’, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, etc. All full of “loopholes”. And turned into their opposites by the Stalinite bureaucracy.

Comrade Marcus Larsen looked at Trotsky’s Transitional programme - which is peppered with economistic “loopholes”. The objectivist-catastrophist method behind the TP leads - by one route or another - to economism. It was premised on the 1938 belief - not entirely naive under those concrete historical conditions - that even the most minimal of economic demands put forward by the Trotskyists - organised as sects - would send the capitalist system toppling over. History itself has disproved this spontaneist schema. Trotskyists should rethink and reread the TP with a less dogmatic frame of mind.

However, that does not mean there is nothing to be learned from the TP. For instance, one of its demands is for “arming the workers” - something modern-day Trotskyists look at aghast. The CPGB has been ridiculed for demanding this as one of its minimum demands - and for putting it in election addresses. In that we are just following in the footsteps of the Second International and that great revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. Comrade Donovan, rather lamely, argued that this demand of the TP essentially only applied to the USA, where it is more of a “cultural question”. Since Britain is not in a revolutionary situation, to demand the arming of the workers is foolish and objectively ultra-leftist, he said.

As many comrades retorted, it would be a very funny communist minimum programme that did not aim to take us to the point of revolution. Arming the workers only in a revolutionary situation says more about the Trotskyites’ conservatism and economism that our own supposed ultra-leftism. (The 1926 General Strike saw rudimentary workers’ defence corps; the miners organised hit squads in 1984-5; and it was a pity indeed that the 1992 London poll tax demonstration was not armed to fend off police attack.)

The CPGB reiterated its offer to the Trotskyist comrades to join the CPGB - with full factional rights. They can do so tomorrow. But could a CPGB member join the Marxist Bulletin? Nevertheless, we are confident that the ideological icebergs that have traditionally divided the revolutionary left can and will melt away.