Bourgeois revolution and Walter Mitty polemics - part 6

My penultimate article in this short series deals with the so-called 'bourgeois democratic' revolution. Once again Sean Matgamna - the patriarch of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - clumsily, perhaps cynically, categorises our approach as "formed" in, and "still" displaying, "patterns of Stalinist politics" (all quotes from comrade Matgamna unless otherwise stated are from his 'Critical notes on the CPGB/WW'). He can, of course, faultlessly, almost miraculously, prove that contention in his surreal inner world. There he revels in the status of an intellectual titan. But, poor man, he is unable to deliver anything of substance in the harsh, unforgiving external world. Comrade Matgamna might imagine himself as the modern-day Leon Trotsky. To the rest of us he resembles Walter Mitty. Only for unthinking devotees and the oafishly naive do comrade Matgamna's polemics have any worth. Sad. Point by point, we have shown that, when it comes to the CPGB, comrade Matgamna's polemics are a bumbling concoction of hyper-sensitive petulance, burlesque fabrication and in all probability self-deception. Yes, it is quite conceivable that comrade Matgamna is actually proud of the tedious, sloppy nonsense that he has written (significantly Cathy Nugent, editor of Solidarity, the AWL's fortnightly paper, has not deigned to publish his 'Critical notes'). This charge of Stalinism, semi-Stalinism, or ex-Stalinism has already been encountered on a whole number of fronts - the Leeds debate, bureaucratic socialism and the USSR, Afghanistan, Ireland, Palestine, the Socialist Alliance and the United Kingdom's constitutional monarchy system. Far from being put on the defensive, as he presumably expected, we simply, almost effortlessly, turned the tables. Comrade Matgamna found himself in the dock and we proceeded to show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that his polemics were either woefully misinformed or transparently dishonest. It is no different with the 'bourgeois revolution'. True to form, comrade Matgamna begins badly. He traces back our commitment to extreme democracy not to Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. Rather he considers that our programme - unconsciously - originates in the mid-1920s and, even more off-beam, the stageist theory of revolution. Here is what the patriarch writes: "I suspect that your strange vision of Britain ... can only be understood in terms of the old Stalinist dogmas about a two-stage revolution, even in advanced countries ... and some background, or subconscious, notion that because the monarchy and other pseudo-feudal relics have survived - through three and a half centuries of bourgeois rule! - the 'bourgeois democratic revolution' has yet to be completed in Britain. This strange notion is less of an eccentric rarity than it should be. It was in circulation outside Stalinist ranks, amongst the New Left Review people, in the mid-60s. EP Thompson debated it with them, and they later shamefacedly admitted that Thompson had been right." A slight problem. Ever since our existence as a CPGB faction was openly announced with the publication of The Leninist in November 1981, we have consistently argued against all such wrong-headed theories. Take a look at that programmatic warhorse Which road? - the first version appeared in 1983. Nowhere in that book will the reader find the "old Stalinist dogma about two-stage revolution". Except, that is, as an object of criticism. Hence, whereas the 'official communist' British road to socialism programme envisaged a transition to socialism by a series of left and ever lefter Labour governments and a smooth, almost imperceptible, transition to socialism (by which was meant the universal nationalisation of the means of production), we held out another prospect. British national conditions had to be fully taken into account, Labourism positively overcome, democratic rights greatly extended, yes. But the general principles defended and applied were solidly based on Marxism and in particular the resolutions of the first four congresses of the Third, Communist, International. Hence we argued for the "smashing of the bourgeois state" as the "central task before us today" and the transition from capitalism to communism "through workers' councils or soviets" (J Conrad Which road? London 1991, p75). Put another way, the minimum programme culminates in the working class assuming state power. What goes for Britain goes for other capitalist countries - backward, medium and advanced. So, looking at the Chinese revolution in the 1920s, our faction had no problem in attacking the Stalin-Bukharin two-stage theory. Though employing the celebrated Leninist formulation of the 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship' in order to provide an orthodox cover, the Stalinised Comintern actually wanted to promote the coming to power of the national bourgeoisie in China. Stripped of its rhetorical leftwing veneer, the so-called bloc of four classes always granted first place to the bourgeoisie. After the 'bourgeois democratic' revolution, after the bourgeoisie had come to power, so went the theory, after a whole, extended, period of capitalist development and the proletarianisation of the population, conditions would eventually ripen for socialism and the socialist revolution. But not before that. Suffice to say, this programme owed nothing except superficialities to Leninism. It was in actual fact repackaged Menshevism. An unexceptional observation made in the pages of The Leninist and then the Weekly Worker. Undoubtedly there will be many, quickly passing, ups, downs and turns between the outbreak of a revolutionary situation and the moment of revolution itself. Yet, as we stress, the struggle for extreme democracy, democracy with a definite social content, is in essence a process of growing dual power and working class self-liberation. At no point do we expect, let alone fight for, an extended period of stable, or constitutionally institutionalised, extreme democracy under the conditions of capitalism. Not surprisingly then, both myself and my close comrades, have gone to considerable lengths to expose the rotten theory of the uncompleted bourgeois revolution, as articulated by the likes of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn and peddled under their aegis by New Left Review. We have studied Edward Thompson's excellent rejoinder, The poverty of theory, and in particular the work done by the Canadian leftwing historian, Ellen Meiksins Wood. She has, we should add, taken forward Thompson's pioneering work with considerable success. Moreover, year after year, going back to the mid-1980s, we have held many Communist University sessions on this subject. Weekly seminars in London have also promoted long-term collective education around the books written by Meiksins Wood: eg, The pristine culture of capitalism and Democracy against capitalism. As a result, our Weekly Worker articles are infused with a fully theorised rejection of the all too common notion that Britain's bourgeois, or capitalist, revolution is incomplete - an idea that has been used by the Blairites and their 'leftist' fellow travellers to justify New Labour's programme of so-called modernisation. Changes such as House of Lords reform, granting Wales an assembly and Scotland a parliament, proportional representation for European elections, executive mayors, etc, are said to represent a long overdue shedding of feudal residues and therefore steps towards completing the job supposedly begun by Cromwell in 1642. I have explicitly and repeatedly reject all such notions - almost ad nauseum. Neither the House of Lords nor the monarchy are feudal or semi-feudal leftovers. Like the House of Commons, the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament, they are thoroughly modern, made and constantly remade, and thoroughly capitalist institutions. What of the historical paradigm of bourgeois democracy? The English revolution of 1642-49 was bourgeois only in the sense that it was in the last analysis led by, and put in power, the 'middling sort': eg, capitalist farmers such as Cromwell himself. Their intentional aim was, however, not to introduce industrial capitalism, and certainly not democracy. Industrial capitalism came about much later, and through contingency, not design. As for democracy, to the extent that democratic advances were made, they came about against stiff resistance from Cromwell and the other grandees of the New Model Army. The source of democracy was not the bourgeoisie nor the development of capitalism. Democracy came from below, from the army rank and file, the urban poor, the small farmers and rural labourers. Not from above. As illustrated by the famous Putney debates and the Ware soldiers' parliament, democracy found its expression in John Lilburne and William Walwyn, the army's elected agitators, the Leveller party and the 'Agreement of the people' - certainly not the "gentlemen". The pattern displayed by the English revolution was repeated subsequently. In America 1776, France 1789, Germany 1848, Russia 1905, etc, the bourgeoisie proved itself to be wary of, or downright hostile to, democracy. In every case the ongoing democratic impulse originates from below and makes progress against varying degrees of bourgeois opposition. So we can say, with the admitted risk of oversimplification, that capitalism goes hand in hand with the forward march of democracy only to the extent that the working class is organised, politically conscious and pits itself against capitalism. That is why, I for one, find the term 'bourgeois democracy' to be highly problematic. Why I find 'democracy under capitalism' much more preferable. The former is often associated with the Whiggish, liberal, version of history, whereby the bourgeoisie are pictured as brave fighters for liberty, fraternity and equality and modern-day capitalism the pinnacle of democracy. Neither is true. Those who treat Marx's words ahistorically and uncritically will conclude that once again Jack Conrad has deviated from Marxism. But Marxism is a scientific - ie, rational, testable, alterable and constantly enlarging - body of theory which is designed to further revolutionary practice, not a lifeless, fixed dogma. It is undoubtedly the case that in the Communist manifesto and elsewhere the Marx-Engels partnership wrote of the 1789 French revolution in terms of the epochal rise of the bourgeoisie, which marked the triumph of industrial capitalism and capitalist social relations. The revolution is credited for having swept away feudalism, introducing political democracy (which also benefited the working class) and ensuring the unrestricted growth of an already developed capitalism. This created the potential for further working class progress and the possibility of socialism. Hence between the years 1843 and 1848 Marx hoped to see a revolution in Germany which broadly conformed to his imagined bourgeois revolution in France. Naturally the bourgeoisie would lead the bourgeois revolution - and with the help of the working class and the other popular strata a democracy, with the full panoply of rights and liberties, duly emerges from the womb of feudalism. Of course, the bourgeoisie could, unlike their French brothers, recoil from the revolution and seek an accommodation with the autocracy. In those, latter, circumstances, the results might be very different. Hal Draper, in particular, has examined in detail the programmatic development undertaken by the Marx-Engels partnership under the testing conditions of the German revolution of 1848 and its immediate aftermath. The obvious problem they confronted was that the bourgeoisie did not act as the vanguard of the revolution and democracy. On the contrary this class and its grey, uninspired and servile representatives in the Frankfurt assembly strove might and main to keep the revolution within safe, constitutional limits and hold back the revolutionary energy of the common people. By 1850 Marx-Engels realised that the bourgeoisie in Germany could not be pushed into making revolution and that what was needed therefore was a strategy of permanent revolution, whereby the working class, in alliance with the peasantry, takes the revolution progressively forward, in step with its own numerical strength and combativity, all the way to the tasks of socialism. Despite this innovation made by Marx and Engels they continued to comment on the modern past in terms that conformed with the standard notion of the bourgeois revolution - the bourgeoisie battles it out with the forces of feudalism in the shape of the aristocracy and monarchy. Having established themselves in power, the bourgeoisie encourage the flowering of democracy - helped along by working class pressure. After 1848 all that was said to have changed is that the bourgeoisie had grown cowardly and fearful of the working class and thus reconciled to absolutism. Nevertheless the basic model of France remained and became a given for leftwing historians and Marxist leaders alike - unfortunately neither Marx nor Engels conducted a proper historical materialist investigation into its class forces and social realities. Hence the 'bourgeois democratic revolution' theory trotted out by both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in Russia (their operative conclusions were, of course, radically different). The bourgeois is equated with capitalism and projected backwards to the medieval burghers of town and city. Monarchy and absolutism is in a similar muddled fashion equated with feudalism. Whereas the Mensheviks narrow-mindedly insisted upon bourgeois leadership of what they called the bourgeois revolution, Lenin and his comrades put forward a strategy not dissimilar to the one advocated by Marx-Engels in 1850. The bourgeoisie could not lead the bourgeois revolution against feudal tsarism. This gave the working class - in alliance with the peasantry - the opportunity of taking the lead and in due course, according to the balance of forces nationally and internationally, taking the revolution uninterruptedly towards the maximum programme and socialism. However, as shown by Meiksins Wood and others, the French Revolution did not overthrow feudalism. Nor was it led by capitalists - nor did it aim to introduce capitalism for that matter. The French monarchy and aristocracy fundamentally based their power to extract surplus labour from the immediate producers on the strong central state, not feudal fief and vassalage. The bourgeois who led the French Revolution - Marat, Danton, Robespierre - were not capitalists, but typically lawyers, journalists and minor office-holders. They wanted to end the monopoly the aristocracy had over top state positions, not usher in capitalist social relations. George Comninel - a former pupil of Meiksins Wood - argues that Marx and Engels inherited, and did so in an "uncritical manner", the dominant Whig, or liberal, version of the French Revolution (G Comninel Rethinking the French Revolution London 1987, p56). That is why their account is so often factually mistaken and theoretically contradictory. In the name of historical materialism Comninel demands a Marxist confrontation with liberal history, just as Marx confronted liberal political economy in Capital. Admittedly I am no expert on the French Revolution; nor for that matter an expert when it comes to other such chapters of history. But I have studied hard and done my best to seriously think. And on the basis of weighing up the various pros and cons it seems to me that a number of the key historical categories used by Marx, Engels, Lenin and other Marxists - when it comes to the 'bourgeois revolution' and 'bourgeois democracy' - were fundamentally incorrect. That said, whether I am right or wrong here, it strikes me as bizarre, to say the least, that comrade Matgamna can even vaguely suspect - all the while, of course, citing the necessity of "concrete analysis" - that our "strange vision of Britain", in which the working class takes the lead in the battle for democracy, "can only be understood" in terms of the Menshevik two-stage revolution and the Nairn-Anderson thesis of completing the "bourgeois democratic revolution". How to explain it? As far as I can fathom him and the pap he calls polemic, I am forced to conclude that either the patriarch is staggeringly dishonest or monumentally stupid. Jack Conrad * Leeds, lies and Owen MacThomas - part 1 * Afghanistan and Owen MacThomas - part 2 * National questions and the AWL patriarch - part 3 * Sectarian amateurism and the complacent world of Sean Matgamna - part 4 * Matgamna's platonic republic - part 5