Putting out the trash
Economic and political interpenetration both internationally and nationally makes a mockery of the Revolutionary Democratic Group's 'democratic permanent revolution'. Mike Macnair concludes his response to Dave Craig of the RDG
In my first (March 29) article in response to comrade Craig, I demolished his argument from British labour movement history for a dialectic Chartism-Labour-new Chartism, which he uses to imply that a new "republican socialist" mass workers' party was on the present agenda. In my second article, I similarly critiqued the more general argument for "democratic permanent revolution" as leading to the idea that a 'national democratic revolution' is on the agenda for Britain.
Strictly speaking, this destroys the logical and empirical basis for comrade Craig's arguments. But comrade Craig's arguments were buttressed with a number of side arguments, which - like his central arguments - appeal to the traditions of post-war Trotskyism, and in particular the Cliffite variant. His central argument on the relation of the national and international also betrays a complete misunderstanding of dialectical reasoning. To allow these errors to stand unchallenged would be miseducative. This article is therefore devoted to putting out as much as possible of this trash.
Theory, programme, party
Lenin in What is to be done? argued that "without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement".1 Comrade Craig has paraphrased the statement on more than one occasion (eg, February 15). On one interpretation and at one level, it is manifestly true. At another level, it has been the charter for all the caricature 'Leninist' sectarians, and this is how comrade Craig uses it.
The level at which it is true is in a sense completely banal. If no-one argues for the revolutionary overthrow of the state, then, however deep the crisis of the state, there will not be an internal revolution. The state may well be conquered from the outside (as happened to the western Roman empire in the 5th century, or to many pre-capitalist states between the 16th and 19th centuries); but there will not be a "revolutionary movement". To argue for the overthrow of the state is to argue against what is; and to do so therefore is inherently to argue from theory.
This is, in fact, the level at which the argument is being used in What is to be done? The whole pamphlet is a response to various criticisms of Iskra for carrying too much theoretical polemic and material on political and constitutional issues, in proportion to what would now be called 'industrial coverage'. The particular context of the statement, in chapter 1, is that Lenin is responding to arguments that Iskra was 'too hard' on the Russian 'economists', against the German Bernsteinian 'revisionists', and so on. These were all tendencies which argued that the workers' movement should not advocate the revolutionary overthrow of the existing states, but instead concentrate on 'realistic' reforms. Lenin's opponents in Rabochoye Delo were refusing unity with Iskra, because they wanted a paper which did not print violent polemics against these tendencies. It is not Lenin who is arguing for a split or the suppression of differences within a united organisation here, but his opponents.2
The level at which the statement is false is if it is used to claim that there is one true and predictable route to the overthrow of the capitalist power, which is developed in the accumulated theory developed by the class movement, and any deviation from this theory justifies an organisational split or refusal to unite. Thus for comrade Craig "without a theory of revolution there can be no revolutionary programme" (February 15); and the necessary theory (a) "begins from the Russian revolution" and (b) is "a new theory of permanent revolution".
At a high level of abstraction, the problem with this idea is that it is a scientism. That is, it treats human politics as if it were an engineering task. Humans, however, have free will or 'agency' and are hence not as predictable as engineering materials. Further, complex systems in general (of which human society is an example) display less rigorous predictability than the materials and conditions employed in engineering.
In consequence, while we can make categorical claims that certain political projects are false, like socialism in a single country, we cannot legitimately make categorical claims that very specific political projects are true. Equally, unlike engineers, we cannot categorically deduce the micro-level of the detail of political tasks from our general scientific understanding of human society. We have to work with general principles, which can be expressed in a maximum programme and partially concretised for current conditions in a minimum programme; and with tactics, which are adapted to the immediate short-term political situation.
The same general theoretical framework may lead to quite radically different conclusions as to concrete tasks (as is massively visible among the orthodox Trotskyists); and quite radically different theoretical frameworks may support common political conclusions. To take a (Russian) historical example, before October 1917 it is tolerably clear that Lenin and Trotsky continued to hold different strategic views ('permanent revolution' and 'democratic dictatorship') - the Trotskyists' claim that the April theses amounted to Lenin adopting Trotsky's position is provably false. But in relation to the character of the party programme and political tasks in the revolution of 1917, these different theories led to the same conclusion, and this fact allowed Trotsky, along with the Mezhrayontsi, to join the Bolsheviks.
The basis of a party is therefore a formally adopted common programme - not an agreed body of theory. A common programme can be adopted by people who disagree on questions of theory. This does not mean that we should not discuss questions of theory. But it does mean that we should not make agreement on questions of theory a precondition for unity. But comrade Craig argues for a revolutionary Marxist faction, and he argues that "without a theory of revolution there can be no revolutionary programme" and that "we need a new theory of permanent revolution". This amounts precisely to basing a ("revolutionary") party on agreement on theory or ideology. This sort of reasoning is an ideology of the 57 varieties of caricature 'Leninist' sect.
Comrade Craig's Cliffite conception of revolution (discussed in my previous article) means that he has no understanding of reformism. This is expressed in the argument in his January 7 article for "the formation of a mass party of reform" and his statement that, "We want a split between the liberal and socialist wings of Labour, and the unification of the advanced part of the working class, with socialists and communists in one party - not, of course, a new Labour Party, but a party founded on the radical democratic traditions of Chartism." In this context, comrade Craig argues that Marx favoured 'one huge army': the participation of Marx and his co-thinkers in a mass party of reform or united front party, the First International being the critical example.
These arguments involve a complete incomprehension of the internal dynamics of the Labour Party. The Labour right does not consist of a 'liberal wing' (we might as well call it a 'Tory wing', since Labour governments as often as not end up promoting Tory ideas). It consists of the wing of the party which grasps fully the fact that for the workers' movement to obtain concessions through playing a role in government, it is necessary to commit fully to doing the job of a capitalist government (and in particular to Britain's role in the US-led world imperialist system).
The Labour left wants the concessions and wants Labour governments; but it does not grasp what the capitalists and their state actually require of a Labour government. Hence lefts can all too easily become rights: witness Ramsay MacDonald, witness Harold Wilson, witness Neil Kinnock, witness a good many of today's Blairites. Hence, also, the left clings to unity with the right, as the only way in which it is possible for there to be a Labour government. It is for this reason that there is no present dynamic towards an actual split of the right and left of the party.
In point of fact, the same can be seen, in conditions of much more serious crisis of the reformist project, in France. In spite of the disastrous result of the Socialist Party in the 2002 elections, in spite of openly taking opposite sides in the referendum on the European constitution, at the end of the day the left of the SP preferred to remain with the right rather than to enter into an anti-liberal coalition with the communists and the far left.
Underlying comrade Craig's errors is a misunderstanding of the nature of reformism. Reformism does not consist in the struggle for reforms under capitalism. Nor does it consist in the use of legal or electoral methods for this struggle. It does not even consist in saying that the present task of the workers' movement is not to overthrow the state, but to fight for reforms - which is undoubtedly true. Rather it consists in making clear political commitments to the capitalists that the reformist party will never seek their overthrow. In the case of the Labour Party, this commitment to the capitalists consists first and foremost in the system of bans and proscriptions which prevents communists and other left parties from affiliating to the Labour Party. There are other elements, discussed in my first article.
In this way, the existence of more than one workers' party is not our choice. It is the reformists' choice. Excluding forces to their left - most recently Militant - is part of the way they show the capitalists that they do not propose to challenge capitalist power. Groups the size of the CPGB or RDG could perfectly well simply join the Labour Party, since we are not strong enough to call that commitment into question. But as soon as we got significant strength, like Militant in the 1980s, we would be expelled. We can have one big party by joining the Labour Party. But we would be required either to shut up about elementary Marxist ideas and make our own commitment to not promoting the overthrow of the capitalist state - or to refrain from organising effectively and remain merely a micro-group.
As I said, this reflects comrade Craig's underlying SWP-think. Revolution is a desirable mass mobilisation, not a last desperate resort in a crisis. Reformism is only to be contrasted to revolution by its gradualism and seeking reforms through constitutional means. In this framework the stubborn insistence of the Labour lefts on continuing their unity with the Labour rights is incomprehensible. Surely they ought really to want to unite with us in a new mass party of reform? No, comrade, they do not. The essence of reformism is precisely commitment not to challenge the overall rule of capital and the unity of the lefts with the rights.
Comrade Craig concludes his first article by arguing that the CPGB has failed to raise the "mass party question" either in relation to the McDonnell campaign or in Respect, because we recognise in our hearts that "'Marxists for the Marxist party' will cut no ice". He concludes his second by arguing that "What Mike has to answer is whether the CPGB's position is for a Marxist party and against any other kind of workers' party. The answer always comes back that the CPGB is opposed, but will join if others create it. This means tailing reformism, conceding hegemony and ruling out any fight for non-sectarian communist leadership of the political movement."
Both arguments are nonsense, but nonsense of a sectarian character.
In the first place, Respect is a (registered) political party. We have (critically) supported moves in Respect to make it more party-like in the sense of getting it properly organised and getting accountability. We have also argued for concrete policies which break with its populist/popular frontist character. In elections, we have urged a vote only for working class candidates, aiming to break the cross-class alliance aspect of Respect.
Secondly, the McDonnell campaign is a campaign for the election of McDonnell to the leadership of the existing mass workers' party of reform - the Labour Party. In relation to this campaign, the CPGB has argued for critical support to McDonnell - but also for policies to sharpen the political edge of the McDonnell campaign.
Both these types of initiatives are attempts at agitational work: 'few ideas to as many people as we can reach'. In consequence, they aim to seize on issues which are immediately agitational. The 'party question' is immediately agitational within existing parties only in rather a limited way.
Meanwhile, our propaganda continues to argue for the unity of the Marxists on the basis of openly fighting for a Marxist programme. In relation to the SWP, this line is counterposed to the SWP's bureaucratic regime and increasing abandonment of Marxist fundamentals. In relation to the Marxists within the Labour Party, we argue for them to unite both among themselves (they are as much divided into squabbling sects as the Marxists outside Labour) and to unite in practical common work together with Marxists outside the Labour Party. (We do not call on them to leave the Labour Party. We are for a Marxist party which works both inside and outside the Labour Party.) This is a propaganda task because - while there are lots of Marxists relative to the number of CPGB members - the obstacles to unity of the Marxists come from the elaborate dogmas of the far left about the 'revolutionary Marxist party' and (since the1970s 'the united front'). It therefore involves 'many ideas to few people', for no other reason than because it inherently involves 'many ideas'.
Comrade Craig counterposes to this policy agitation for the mass republican socialist party. Unless we back comrade Craig's petty manoeuvres in the micro-relic Socialist Alliance we are called 'sectarian' and alleged to have 'abandoned republicanism'; because we prioritise proposals to Respect, or the McDonnell campaign, which we think have immediate agitational force, we are claimed to be not attempting to pose the party question. But this is no more than Spartacist stuff: 'Because you didn't put everything you want in your motion, you don't really want it.'
Spartacist stuff is, of course, a negation-caricature of 'Pabloism' within the frame of 1970s new left Trotskyism. For the new left Trotskyists the main danger was 'propagandism'. That meant that their papers became - as Socialist Worker, The Socialist and Solidarity still are - dominated by fake-agitation which purported to address the masses, though in fact very few people bought (buy) the papers in question. It also meant that programmatic ideas which they thought could not be the subject of immediate agitation got dropped.
The Spartacists and similar groups responded within the same frame: to attempt agitation around a full Trotskyist programme, with a long list of demands at the end of every leaflet. The RDG is firmly in this mould: for example, issuing a leaflet to the spring 2003 anti-war demonstrations which contained a long list of demands including the idea of a 'provisional republican government'.
'Tailism' is part of the same discourse. The remote source is Lenin in What is to be done? attacking Rabochoye Delo for avoiding an outright polemic against terrorism: "Rabochoye Delo, however, not only follows this 'tactics-as-process', but elevates it to a principle, so that it would be more correct to describe its tendency not as opportunism, but as tailism (from the word tail). And it must be admitted that those who are determined always to follow behind the movement and be its tail are absolutely and forever guaranteed against 'belittling the spontaneous element of development'."3
Lenin is concerned, here as elsewhere in the earlier part of What is to be done?, with tendencies which adapt to the programmatic level of the existing movement rather than arguing for a way forward. He is not obsessed with 'initiatives in action': on the contrary, this was the objection to Iskra raised by Rabochoye Delo's Martynov, that Iskra did not issue sufficient 'calls to action' for 'concrete demands' 'promising palpable results'. It was this line precisely which Lenin characterised as "tailism".
Lukács, in History and class consciousness, inverted this argument altogether. For Lenin, the Kautskyan who wrote What is to be done?, the task of the party press is to help the workers to think politically about the society as a whole, and it is this which is giving leadership. For Lukács, defending the 'minority party' thesis of the early Comintern, the workers cannot think politically except when they are actively in struggle (with the result that outside the revolution, only the 'vanguard' minority can think politically). 'Tailism' therefore consists, for Lukács, in the failure to propose and lead 'initiatives in action'.4
History and class consciousness was published in English translation in 1971, and was used by the younger leaders of the newer far-left groups to justify their obsessions with unofficial industrial action and 'minority actions' in general. 'Tailism', in Lukács's interpretation of it, became a stick with which to beat the older organisations - especially the 'official' CPGB, Militant and the Healyite Socialist Labour League - which took propaganda tasks, and the official trade union and Labour structures, seriously. In a degraded form, this has been a central part of SWP orthodoxy ever since.
Comrade Craig is using the term in exactly this way. The CPGB is in his view 'tailist' because we are willing to participate in and give critical support to other people's initiatives in action with which we disagree - like Respect and the McDonnell campaign, and because our positive line - of the unity of the Marxists on a common platform - does not yield immediate 'initiatives', we are yielding the initiative to others. Martynov would have said the same of Lenin.
Now, of course, the fact that Lenin said something does not make it right. Comrade Barry Biddulph, for example, has argued in these pages that Lenin was wrong in What is to be done? and his opponents - especially the young Trotsky - right.5 It is a widely held view. However, we are entitled, without canonising Lenin, to judge the validity of particular political strategies on the basis of their results. In this case the answer is plain.
It is not merely that Lenin's Kautskyan insistence on political leadership, as opposed to 'initiatives in action', produced an effective party organisation which, in around 1911-14, won a majority in the Russian workers' movement, while the Mensheviks were blown with the political wind and unable to organise. It is not merely that Kautskyism in western Europe produced real parties, while the semi-syndicalists like the DeLeonists produced merely sects. It is also a matter of judgment on the 1970s European new left, including its Trotskyist components. Nothing more than sects has resulted from this policy.
Comrade Craig is also like much of the 1970s new left in insisting that his schemas are 'dialectical'. The schema in which Labour must be replaced by a new Chartism in the form of the 'republican socialist party' is to be a negation of the negation. The relation between the national democratic revolution and the international socialist revolution is to be 'a dialectic'.
In fact, comrade Craig displays a perfect incomprehension of dialectical reason, which displays itself most clearly in his February 15 article. Here we are given a concrete illustration of what comrade Craig considers to be dialectical reason:
"In democratic permanent revolution, the relationship between democratic revolution and socialist revolution is understood in a dialectical way. Permanent revolution is the unity of opposites - the unity of democratic revolution and socialist revolution. There is a parallel here with how we understand the commodity as the dialectal unity of opposites - use-value and value.
"I will use the analogy of a plug and a socket. The plug and socket form a unity of opposites. The current flows through them when they are united as one. The plug and socket exist as separate entities, even though they only work together. If we want to understand how they work, we can pull them apart and examine them as separate and opposite components.
"It is necessary to draw a clear and sharp distinction between these opposite poles, whether use-value and value or democratic revolution and socialist revolution. We identity these opposites not because we want to separate them, but because we want to properly understand how they combine together."
A plug plugged into a socket is in a sense a unity of opposites. A plug is by definition not a socket, a socket is by definition not a plug. But to reason dialectically is not primarily to separate the two: this is the task of Aristotelian logic, the Linnaean classification of biological species, or the 'reductionist programme' in the physical sciences. The point of dialectical reason is to grasp that the plug and the socket can only be understood together and, indeed, as part of a larger whole: the electrical circuit. If (to fantasise) archaeologists of the remote future who did not use mains electricity and had no memory of it, dug up large numbers of plugs but no sockets in the ruins of today's buildings, they would no doubt conclude that these were 'ritual objects'.
Dialectical reason, in other words, inverts the idea that to understand the whole we need to understand the parts separately. It insists that to understand the parts we need to grasp the self-movement, or processes of change, of the whole. And this is the other side of comrade Craig's incomprehension of the dialectic. Processes of change are wholly absent or, rather, are grasped not through the contradictions of the totality, but merely as 'trends'. Comrade Craig's world in his articles is largely a static world, in which all that changes is the subjective plans and intentions of the workers' movement: 'combined and uneven development' stays uneven in the same way, and so on.
National and international
"Nation-states," writes comrade Craig, "are the locus of political power and class rule. On the other hand, capitalism is an international economic system or mode of production." And "It makes obvious sense to distinguish between the national political revolution and its opposite, the international economic revolution. A national political revolution is the transfer of political power from one class to another in a particular state. The international economic revolution is the revolutionary transformation of the economy on an international or global scale."
This is, to be blunt, nonsense. To begin with, private property and the public realm are mutually interpenetrated negations. That is, private property is the not-public, and is meaningless without its separation from the public, and the public as such is equally meaningless without the separation of the private. The existence of private property presupposes the public realm and vice versa. In the real world of class societies, the public is identified with the state and hence with political power. The capitalist economy, which rests on the exchange of private property, without the public power is thus inconceivable.
In the concrete, states - for example - protect the private property of capitalists against workers simply taking the total product: this is part of the domain of the law of theft. There is much more that could be said on this, but not space here. They also grant personality to corporations; and this is not merely a legal fiction, but a quite real role, because without the intervention of the state to regulate corporations, the risk of theft by the managers would be so high as to hold most capitalists to the level of family business and local partnerships.
What protects British corporations' private property in India against simple taking by Indian workers? The answer at a certain level is the Indian state. But, as we saw in the 1950s-60s, when British holdings abroad were extensively expropriated, the right to property abroad depends on a relation between state where the owners are and the state where the property is. This relation was in some areas in the high-colonial period direct imperial rule. But in other areas (Turkey, for instance, or Latin America) foreign owners were protected by the working of the global state system and international law, backed up in the last resort by the threat on the part of the world hegemon state - Britain - to use force. After World War II the US replaced Britain as the world hegemon state. As part of this change, the formal colonial empires were almost entirely dismantled and replaced by relations like those which previously affected Turkey or Latin America. It remains the case that capitalist property rights abroad are at the end of the day protected by the international state system - now headed by the US as world hegemon.
In reality, this is also true of the capitalists' property rights at home, too. If capitalist class rule is temporarily overthrown or even merely seriously threatened, in any country, the US will - if it can - intervene. There are numerous instances in the last 50 years. It intervenes not only in the interests of US owners, but also of their allies from their own class - Chilean, Nicaraguan, etc owners.
It is thus utterly illusory to imagine that world capitalism is a purely economic, state-free entity. It should incidentally be said that to imagine it is to reject the grounds of any theory of permanent revolution, since on the basis of this fantasy, the overthrow of capitalist class rule in any one country (and its replacement with comrade Craig's "state capitalism under the dictatorship of the proletariat") would have no impact on any other country such as even to suggest a growing-over into "world socialist revolution."
Conversely, capitalist class rule in any single country is not a purely political entity. Comrade Craig recognises this de facto when he argues that "democratic revolution cannot coexist with private capital. The rights of 'the democracy' and the rights of shareholders are incompatible" (March 22).
How do the capitalists control the state? The answer is partly through constitutional commitments, especially the 'rule of law' and 'human rights' - ie, the sanctity of private property - which form the basis of the loyalty of the state officials. But it is also partly because all taxes derive from surplus, so that if 'national profitability' declines, so does tax income, through falling profits and falling pay. Equally, all capitalist states borrow on a massive scale on the financial markets, so that a 'capital strike' can rapidly paralyse the normal functioning of the state.
The level of interpenetration of economics and politics on both the international and the national scale thus precludes the sort of argument comrade Craig attempts to construct.
International and national
We cannot speak of the international purely-economic or the national purely-political. Equally, in truth, we cannot speak of the purely-international or the purely-national: hence comrade Craig's argument that a Marxist party could only exist as an international is nonsense.
The state and the international system of which it is part are mutually interpenetrated negations. The state is by definition not the level of the international, but in the absence of the level of the international system it would make no sense to speak of the nation-state and we would instead, like the ancients, speak of cityÂ-states or world-empires and of 'non-citizens' or 'barbarians' as their outside. Conversely, we cannot speak of an international system without its being composed of nation-states.6
The same is true of the international workers' movement under this world order. There is an international workers' movement, but it is necessarily composed at least in some sense of national components.7 And it is true of both economics and politics. There are global economic dynamics, within which there are national economic dynamics, within which there are local economic dynamics. And there are global politics, within which there are continental, national and local politics. Each level of differentiation involves the same sort of mutual interpenetrated negations.
To provide an example in the concrete, the creation of the Scottish Socialist Party was the creation of a unitary left party "not programmatically delimited between revolution and reform". Where did this idea come from? The answer - visible in the role of Murray Smith as well as in the chronology, etc - is the Mandelite Fourth International. But the Mandelite Fourth International took the idea from the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), and generalised it on the basis of the development of the Italian Rifondazione Comunista. In this sense, the movement was from national politics, in Brazil and in Italy, to international politics, and from there back to national politics.
The SSP was also - and precisely because it was a unitary left party "not programmatically delimited between revolution and reform" - a nationalist party. And this nationalist limitation has proved to be fatal (just as the search for a 'left government' has proved to be fatal to the character of the Brazilian PT as more than a simple reformist party, and so on). The national limitations of the RDG's analysis (this time British national limitations) preclude this understanding and leave comrade Craig still proclaiming the SSP as a model after the project has crashed.
The same movement back and forth between the national and the international could affect the idea of a Marxist party. It is perfectly true that it is necessary for Marxists to work for unity at the international level. But, just as the Brazilian PT, a national initiative, could be partially translated onto an international level, if we could achieve a unitary Marxist party in any one country, that would give a powerful impetus to the case for unity of the Marxists at the international level.
Moreover, we can right now combine campaigning in the existing national movement for unity of the Marxists, on the basis of the open defence of basic Marxist principles, with campaigning for the same thing in the existing international movement. The CPGB attempts it - with limited success, but a great deal more visibly than the RDG. The key is campaigning in the existing movement.
Comrade Craig's alternative is to build an international "revolutionary Marxist" tendency, by which he means one committed to the so-called "revolutionary theory" which is the RDG's "democratic permanent revolution" nonsense. The RDG has certainly achieved nothing of the sort - understandably, because on the evidence of his January-March articles, the Spartacists, Workers Power and so on are infinitely more competent Marxists than comrade Craig. But, even if it could be achieved, it would be no more than another among the several international Trotskyist sects.
Like the rest of comrade Craig's arguments, this is the sort of sect thinking we (the Marxist left) need to get out of our own heads if we are to make any progress.