Defeat was fault of enemy machine guns

Mike Macnair replies to Dave Brown and Gerry Downing who argued last week that the defeats of the 20th century are not grounds to rethink the strategic ideas of the early Comintern

Comrades Dave Brown and Gerry Downing argue that the defeats of the 20th century are not grounds to rethink the strategic ideas of the early Comintern (Letters, May 17). They argue that these defeats were due not to the limits of those ideas, but to the scab role of the trade union, social democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies. This orthodox Trotskyist argument is worth a little more of a reply than there is space for in a letter.

On two secondary points I think comrade Downing misunderstands the argument of my May 10 letter. I said that if the rise of Nazism had not happened, the SPD majority would appear vindicated. The point is not to ?excuse? the SPD majority for their conduct in 1918-19: in fact, their conduct did lead to the rise of Nazism, as comrade Downing says. The point is one of method. We cannot simply stop short at the October 1917 victory and ignore the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy which followed - any more than we can stop short at the temporary stabilisation of the Weimar republic in the mid-1920s and point to it as an achievement of Ebert-Scheidemann, ignoring the rise of Nazism which followed.


In relation to post-World War II welfarism, I said that this was a system of concessions aimed to strengthen the US policy of ?containment? of Stalinism by making the front-line capitalist states, especially in Europe and Japan, more attractive to the working class. Comrade Downing says that by this argument ?the struggles of the working class are permanently written out of history?. This is nonsense: obviously, capital would have had no need of concessions in order to ?contain communism? if the working class had not struggled for concessions.

My point was simply that the concessions were part of the post-war global regime, and that, now the USSR has fallen, capital is seeking to take the concessions back - thus disproving the line of the Labourites and similar parties, that loyalty to the capitalist state and the ?national interest? would enable permanent reforms in the interest of the working class.

On the central issues, the arguments of comrades Brown and Downing are like saying of a battle: it was correct to attack the enemy head-on; we were only defeated because they outnumbered us two to one and had machine guns against our pistols: we should go on attacking the enemy head-on. The scab role of the trade union and social democratic bureaucracies in 1918-19 in Germany (and elsewhere) was entirely predictable from late 1914 on. Subsequent events have repeatedly confirmed that in the event of a revolutionary crisis these political forces will act to restore capitalist order.

Neither were the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state and its impact on the parties of the Comintern entirely unpredictable, since they were predicted by Kautsky, Martov, and Luxemburg in 1918 on the basis (a) that the alliance with the peasantry was a false strategy, and that (b) the working class as a class needs political democracy and liberty in order to rule society. But it is perhaps fair to assume temporarily for the purposes of argument that these developments were not predictable in 1918-23.

Even so, it was clear from 1937, after the role of the popular fronts in Spain and France became clear, that the parties of the Comintern would also, in the event of a revolutionary crisis in the imperialist countries, act to restore capitalist order. This too has been confirmed by subsequent events.


Any serious Marxist strategy therefore has to assume in advance that the social democratic and ?official communist? parties will play a scab role if they can. They have to be seen as part of the enemy camp, though they are also ?false friends?. The objective relation of forces hence has to be judged on the basis that they are part of the enemy camp. To complain that they have betrayed the movement is a point worth making to any militants who believed they would not do so. To formulate strategy on the basis that they will not is just plain stupid.

These parties are able to play this scab role because they go into revolutionary crises commanding the support of the majority of the organised activists of the working class movement. Within periods of revolutionary crisis, the far left grows - but so do the traditional mass parties. This is the evidence both of the post-World War II crisis which comrade Downing sees as support for his ideas, and of the smaller crises in Europe in 1968-75.

By contrast, in 1917 in Russia, before the crisis broke out the Bolsheviks led the majority of the organised activists, with the Mensheviks only temporarily attaining a majority on the basis of the inflow of newly radicalising workers.

This poses two fundamental strategic problems. The first is that the seizure of power in a single country in the absence of a mass-scale Marxist international will inevitably lead, not to triggering the revolution more widely, but to a repeat of the strategic isolation of the Russian Revolution: because the labour bureaucracies in other countries will predictably scab.

Gamble against long odds

We may in an acute crisis in the future wind up having to gamble against long odds in this way. That is, we may be faced, as the Bolsheviks were, with the choice between a gamble on the international workers? movement and lying down to be shot in a rightist military coup. But our task now is not to promote the idea of a gamble (= a repeat of 1917/revolution in a single country). It is to promote the means by which the odds can be shortened: the international unity of the working class.

Hence, what is needed is to fight now for the international unity and common action of the working class as a class and the workers? movement as a class movement under capitalism. This line is counterposed to the common far-left practices of (1) political concessions to nationalist ?realism? on immigration controls, etc, for the sake of formal unity with left Labourites; (2) little-British (in reality Atlanticist) calls for withdrawal from the European Union, and (3) abandoning solidarity with the workers? movement in ?third world? countries attacked by imperialism for the sake of an illusory ?anti-imperialist? alliance with nationalist, islamist, etc reactionaries.

Second, the central strategic problem is to win the majority of the workers? movement to Marxist politics before the outbreak of revolutionary crisis.

It should be utterly obvious that this is not a matter of creating an organisationally separate ?left? version of the social democratic or ?official communist? parties, since - however subjectively unwilling to scab - such a party would wind up in practice scabbing (or being politically impotent) when confronted with the choice between participating in or supporting a ?left? government on the one hand, and the interests of the working class on the other. Witness the Poum in the Spanish revolution; witness more recently the Brazilian Workers? Party, Rifondazione Comunista and so on.

What is central is to pose a strategic alternative to the nationalist, bureaucratic-statist and class-collaborationist policy of the trade union, social democratic and ?official communist? bureaucracies. And this, in turn, has to be a policy of (1) class-political independence both from the capitalist and petty-proprietor parties and from the state; (2) radical democracy both in the state and in the working class movement: that is, the subordination of the managers, officials and leaders to the ranks; and (3) the international unity in action of the working class movement, not at some future date, but under capitalism.

Chain of national revolutions

Clinging to the first four congresses of the Comintern is no use for this purpose, since (as I have argued in my 2004 series on imperialism) the ?anti-imperialist front? is in fact a form of class-collaborationist policy, and (as I have argued in my long 2006 series on strategy) the documents of the first four congresses of the Comintern both abandoned any real idea of workers? democracy through the ban on factions and Bonapartist military centralism in the party, and substituted the idea of a chain of national revolutions, and of copying the Russians, for the international action of the working class under capitalist rule.

The idea of a ?transitional programme? is even less use, since the attempt to form a bridge between present, pure-trade unionist, consciousness and the struggle for power evades all three of the problems - class-collaboration at the level of government; democracy and the subordination of the officials to the ranks; and the international unity of the working class. The ?transitional method? thus licenses every futile attempt to create a new organisational break with the social democratic and ?official communist? apparatuses without a political break.

The arguments of comrades Brown and Downing simply fail to face up to these issues. ?No!? they say. ?We should invite the workers? movement to go over the top - defeat was the fault of the enemy machine guns, not of the generals? inability to find a way to deal with them. Refusal to invite the workers? movement to attack the machine guns head-on is (to use a phrase in Gerry Downing?s letter) ?pessimism about the causes of defeat?. The argument is entirely worthless.