Pantomime analogies, beanstalks and 'science'

Would a Marxist party in Britain be a 'halfway house' on the road to a communist international? Mike Macnair responds to Dave Craig

Comrade Dave Craig’s article, ‘Back to the future’, displays deep incomprehension of my original arguments against his views - either that or it is completely dishonest.1 Hopefully, however, I can reply to it in such a way as to clarify some of the issues.

Regrettably, we cannot entirely disregard the peculiar, strained pantomime analogy with Jack and the beanstalk (comrade Craig construes this story in the style of the early christian apologist, Lactantius, who found signs of the coming of Jesus in Jewish prophecies and Sybilline oracles; or of the far-fetched interpretations of the muslim scholars in their glosses on the more obscure bits of the Quran). We cannot entirely disregard it, because comrade Craig says that “the future is the world of our communist imagination”, which “is a very different place from the present world, where the working class is weak and divided”. But this separation is the mark of utopianism.

The future grows out of the past, on the basis of the combination of objective dynamics and human choices. “The present” does not exist: it is merely a label which we give in the ordinary course of human perception to the expectation that the immediate future will be similar to the immediate past. At least, we expect that it will be sufficiently similar to the recent past for us to act on that assumption. For example, in typing this I assume that the keyboard I saw a few milliseconds ago is still there.

Of course, this assumption is sometimes misleading: as where a driver thinks that the road ahead is wet, only to find that it is black ice. A transition from quantity to quality has taken place (the water on the road has frozen) and a different sort of action is required. Grasping the risk of black ice and being prepared to act accordingly involves grasping the contradictory development of freezing/thawing/freezing that leads up to it. Hence the need to use ‘fuzzy logic’ systems in certain sorts of automation, where true/false = on/off logics produce either failure to recognise change, or breakdown through excessively frequent switching.

Such transitions from quantity to quality also and notoriously take place in human affairs. Revolutions are the standard example, and the ground of the hostility of the cold war academy to dialectics. But such transitions may equally be counterrevolutionary: as in the rise to ascendancy of the German Nazi party, unexpected by the social democrats and seen as ephemeral by the communists, until they found their organisations smashed. More recently, Thatcherism, the global neoliberal turn and the fall of Stalinism was just such a qualitative shift which wrong-footed the left and the workers’ movement, because it was hard to believe that things would not go on in the old way.

If we pay careful attention to the contradictory dynamics at work in society, however, it is possible to grasp the risks (never certainties) of such radical transitions in the near future. We are also enabled to choose how to act in the present in order to maximise the chance of a favourable outcome. Our choices are grounded in understanding the dynamics of the recent past.

Comrade Craig sent me some years ago the programme of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, of which he is the leading member.2 At that time I thought the first part of the programme was merely standard Trotskyism, apart from the concepts of “democratic revolution” leading to a “dual power republic”. But, though I disagreed with the comrades’ analysis, the second part was a serious effort to grasp the objective historical dynamics of British political economy and politics as they had developed up to the 1980s. It was on the basis of this analysis that the comrades formed the view that the weakest link in the chain of capitalist rule in this country was the archaism of the constitutional order (monarchy, royal prerogatives, etc). Hence the possibility of a “democratic revolution”, which would create a “dual power republic”, which in turn would pose the question of soviet power; and hence the centrality at the present stage, in Britain, of a “republican socialist party”.

The problem even then was that the frameworks of the international and national analyses were wholly separate. Of course, the fact that Britain lost its formal empire in the 1950s-60s was recognised, as everyone writing after the 1950s did. But there was no recognition of the day-to-day impact of global, of US and of European politics and political economy on British politics and the politics of the British left.

To give merely two examples. British Trotskyism, including the British Socialist Workers Party, has been and continues to be deeply influenced by the ideas of US SWP leader James P Cannon (“Leninist combat party”), and more recently by those of the leaders of the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in the 1970s (fetishism of soviet forms, reinterpretation of the “united front”). The Scottish Socialist Party was an attempt to apply the Mandelite Fourth International’s idea of a “party not programmatically delimited between reform and revolution” (though its leaders could not openly say so). This idea, in turn, was an attempt to generalise the success of the Brazilian Workers Party. Politics, in other words, is already international as well as national (and local).

In the RDG programme, the analysis of Thatcherism was not placed within the framework of the global neoliberal/financialising turn, and it thus addressed the early 1980s (decline of British industry) rather than the later 1980s, 1990s and 2000s (resurgence of London as a global centre of finance capital, with multiplier effects throughout the economy of southern England).

A particular and critical consequence of this is the RDG’s idea that British constitutional archaism is the present weakest link of capitalist rule, an idea which addresses the immediate political climate in which Charter 88 was launched. It is, of course, perfectly true that Thatcher used the absence of an entrenched constitution in this country to force through a radical redistribution of power and wealth, which was at the expense of northern and Midlands industrial capital, as well as of the working class. As of the 1980s, this use of power was in formal contradiction with the international ideological offensive round ‘human rights’ and constitutionalism which the US state was promoting, enabling some leftists to assume the guise of constitutionalists against British archaism. It also immediately appeared not to have solved the problem of ‘British loss of competitiveness’.

But by the 1990s the British economy had been reshaped as primarily driven by financial operations, and the USSR had fallen; Thatcherism on the economic and governance front thus appeared nationally and internationally as the wave of the future. There are perfectly genuine contradictions around the British constitutional order. But as of now they are a subordinate element in British politics. No-one except any leftists still attached to the small surviving Charter 88, and the RDG, imagines any more that British constitutional archaism is the immediate weakest link of capitalist rule in this country.

The ideas of the “democratic revolution” and the “republican socialist party” were a reasonable response to the British politics of the 1980s, but radically over-theorised those conditions. As a result, they have under present conditions turned into a project which lacks objective grounds in the dynamics currently growing from past into future: a utopia. The result of this loss of the objective basis of the RDG’s arguments is that to defend their conclusions comrade Craig is forced to increasingly implausible arguments. This, in turn, led to my sharpness in the series of articles criticising his views.

It is for this reason that comrade Craig cannot and does not respond to any of the empirical claims of my series. Instead, he offers an analogy of Jack and the beanstalk turned into prophecy; accuses me accepting the mainstream ‘no alternative to capitalism’ line because I refuse to think that his particular utopia is on the agenda; and, ultimately, says that because I criticise Trotskyism and accuse the RDG of an insufficient break with Trotskyism I must be defending ‘Stalinism’.

Party, programme, ‘science’

The CPGB has argued that we need to fight for a party based on three very general principles: (1) that the working class needs to take over the running of society; (2) that it needs for this purpose radical or extreme democracy both against the capitalist state and within the movement against the labour bureaucracy; and (3) proletarian internationalism: ie, the international unity of the workers’ movement.

I should say as an aside that comrade Craig thinks that “the idea that the working class ... should run society” expressed in one of my articles “is surely a reference to the aim of socialism and common ownership”. Actually, no, it isn’t. It is a reference to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. That is, the idea that socialism or communism, meaning the abolition of classes, can only come about through the political rule of the working class, the propertyless class. If there was true socialism and common ownership there would be no classes and hence no proletariat as such and no dictatorship of the proletariat. The political rule of the working class means rule over propertied classes, primarily of petty family producers (farmers, etc), and of owners of intellectual property in the form of monopolised special skills (managers and bureaucrats). These classes will continue to exist in the first period after the overthrow of capitalist political rule.

Comrade Craig says that such a party would not be Marxist: “I simply made the mistake of thinking the National Marxist Party would be Marxist”. I should therefore repeat, for the umpteenth time, the justification of calling a party based on the three principles outlined above ‘Marxist’. It is, in the first place, quite simply, that this is the sort of party Marx and Engels fought for after the collapse of the First International, and these are the fundamental principles of the tendencies which were characterised as ‘Marxist’ by Bakuninists, Lassalleans, christian socialists and so on, in the 1870s-90s.

Secondly, I have argued repeatedly that, though these differences between ‘Marxists’ and non-‘Marxist’ socialists first became evident in the late 19th century, they continue to underlie major political differences in the workers’ movement today. I will not repeat these arguments, but simply refer the reader to the fuller argument in my long ‘strategy’ series, especially the first, second and last three articles.3

But then this poses the question of what comrade Craig means by what would be a Marxist party. It is fairly clear that he does not mean ‘self-identified as Marxist’, since, on the one hand, the sort of party the CPGB is proposing would be self-identified as Marxist, and, on the other hand, he does not seem to regard the ‘official’ communists and Maoists, who are also self-identified as Marxist, as Marxists.

The answer is to be found in comrade Craig’s paeans to science. He tells us: “A scientific theory of permanent revolution is essential for communist politics across the world.” There is more in part of his prophetic interpretation of Jack and the beanstalk:

“Next is the hen which lays the golden eggs. The golden eggs are surely a reference to revolutionary science. Science is the weapon of the working class against all prejudices and superstitions. It can empower workers to change the world. The working class is the only class that can apply science to the service of humanity, rather than capital’s pursuit of profit and greed. The best science supports the development of the communist programme. This includes the scientific analysis of capitalism, permanent revolution and communism.”

The problem with this is simple. I share comrade Craig’s belief that the working class needs to think scientifically and to “apply science to the service of humanity”. But “science” is not any particular set of results. It is a method of approaching reality which allows us an increased power of understanding and changing the world. A fundamental part of this method is precisely that there are no “final” results which have to be held as dogma. Newton supersedes Aristotle and Ptolemy, Einstein supersedes Newton and it is perfectly possible that a new theory will come along which supersedes Einstein. Equally, new research may rehabilitate in a new form an old theory thought to have been discredited: as occurred with ‘catastrophism’ in relation to the extinction of species, and in relation to continental drift.

Going along with this character of science is a fundamental point. A scientific approach is opposed to treating any particular theory as dogma. It is therefore opposed in principle to writing any particular theory - including scientific method itself - into the basis of membership in a political party. Hence (for a Marxist example) Engels’ comment to Kautsky in 1891 that “After the liberation of German socialist science from Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law, what more brilliant idea than to subject it to a new Anti-Socialist Law to be thought up and implemented by the officials of the Social Democratic Party.”4

When Lenin wrote in What is to be done? that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”, he was polemicising against the argument that the party press should not carry theoretical articles because these would (to paraphrase) put off the workers. That is a very different matter from arguing that a scientific theory, like ‘permanent revolution’ or even more narrowly the RDG’s version of ‘permanent revolution’, should be part of the basis of a party. As the CPGB has argued since the 1990s, and I said in my article of April 12 2007, the necessary basis of the party is a programme of political tasks - not any particular theory.

People may come to the same conclusions on political tasks on the basis of different theories: this was perfectly clear in the case of the Bolshevik majority, which included ‘lefts’ as well as ‘Leninists’, when it backed the April theses, let alone the Bolshevik Party of summer-autumn 1917, which now included the Mezhrayontsi. A ‘party’ based on commitment to a single particular theory, like permanent revolution, will - necessarily - be a sect. It will also - necessarily - be unscientific.

Another element of the scientific method is that it is grounded in empirically testable predictions. This is equally true of the scientific study of past history: a theoretical argument in history predicts what researchers will in future find in archives or (in archaeological study) in the ground. Marxist, as opposed to Hegelian, dialectical reason, shares this character. Marx and Engels commented in The German ideology that “The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.”5

This, of course, brings us back to the empirical arguments - and the theoretical ones - that I used against comrade Craig in my March-April 2007 series.6 Since comrade Craig has made no attempt to answer any of them, I will not repeat them. The point is simply that it is now at least extremely doubtful whether ‘permanent revolution’ was an accurate characterisation of what happened in Russia in 1917-21 or of any of the following revolutions in ‘backward’ countries. In particular, the Russian Revolution was part of an international revolutionary crisis - ie, the class movement began on an international scale, and both the ‘proletarian’ appearance of the Russian Revolution and its reverberations around the world reflected the prior international growth of the Second International.

How is it “scientific” for the RDG to invent a new theory of “democratic permanent revolution” without first asking whether the empirical evidence supports ‘permanent revolution’ itself? How is it “scientific” for comrade Craig to write an answer to my series which addresses not a single one of my empirical points?

Marxists, Trotskyists and Stalinists

Comrade Craig claims that “In Britain the Marxist movement was shaped by the Russian Revolution and the counterrevolution of 1921-23. Decades of struggle between Stalinism and Trotskyism forged British Marxism as it is today ... This ‘Stalino-Trotskyist’ heritage forms the parameters of this debate.” Later, he goes on to say that “If the RDG is ‘Trotskyist’ then surely the CPGB is Stalinist.”

It does not follow. Marxism as a trend and a movement is an international movement; it is one which includes unorganised, as well as organised, Marxists; and it is one in which we can look back to the ideas of earlier Marxists which have been forgotten by the organised movement and make them live again. In Britain it is true that the preponderant organised Marxist trends have been the old ‘official’ CP, and the fragments of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of the 1940s: Workers Revolutionary Party, Militant, International Socialists/SWP. But - for example - the IS of the 1970s was significantly influenced by the ideas of the Italian ‘spontaneists’ of the period. If organised Maoism has been weak, unorganised Maoism has had significant intellectual influence. Both trends have revived the ideas of the ‘left’ and ‘council’ communism of the 1920s. The unorganised right split from the official CP after 1956, which took its ideas from American and French ‘Marxist humanism’ (example: EP Thompson), has also had very substantial influence. There has never been a simple choice that to be a Marxist you had either to be a Trotskyist or a Stalinist.

When I say that the RDG is, or that comrade Craig’s arguments are, ‘Trotskyist’, I mean that he defends a set of ideas most of which are identifiably common with the international organised Trotskyist movement. I gave concrete examples. His response is then not to respond to the concrete examples of his own and the RDG’s practice at all, but to say: ‘Since you criticise me for being a Trotskyist, you must be a Stalinist’.

It would be much closer to target to accuse me personally of being a Kautskyite or an Austro-Marxist or a Menshevik-Internationalist (I refuse to saddle anyone else in CPGB with these labels). It would still be wrong (I explain why in the critique of the Kautskyite line in my strategy series, and in my more recent series on ‘permanent revolution’7). But it would be closer to the truth than ‘Stalinist’.

To buttress his argument, comrade Craig accuses me of a “Stalinist” method of argument. For instance, I said that comrade Craig is “still mired in Marxism-Trotskyism-Tony Cliff Thought” and I gave as an example his use of Cliff and Gluckstein on the history of the British labour movement. He says that “I could have quoted other sources, but did not. Don’t quote the New testament or Mike will claim that you are a christian!”

The reality is that my article went on to explain that Cliff’s, and Gluckstein’s, historical narratives about Chartism and Labourism are false, and that use of other historical literature - or of the primary sources - would readily show that they are false. This falsity means that comrade Craig’s use of Cliff and Gluckstein falls to be explained by common ideological commitments. If he wishes to disprove this argument, he needs either to show that the arguments of Cliff and Gluckstein are widely accepted outside the organised and unorganised Trotskyist movement or to cite historical primary sources to prove that Cliff’s and Gluckstein’s arguments are true. In fact, he merely says that he could have quoted other sources - but cites none.

If comrade Craig quoted the New testament as a rhetorical flourish, or to describe what christians believe, I would certainly not call him a christian. But if he quoted the New testament as historical authority for the proposition that it is true that Jesus rose from the dead and later ascended into heaven, I would have no hesitation in calling him a christian. Cliff’s and Gluckstein’s arguments about the history of the British labour movement are a closely analogous case. Like the gospels, Cliff’s and Gluckstein’s book is a work of historical apologetics, not historical science.

Is it then ‘Stalinist’ to want to hold comrade Craig to scientific standards of argument? What then becomes of his argument that “science is the weapon of the working class ...”?

The most bizarre aspect of comrade Craig’s attempt to force “British Marxism” into the Procrustean bed of “this ‘Stalino-Trotskyist’ heritage” is on policies towards the Labour Party. He tells us that “The ‘Trotskyists’ want to win the Labour left away from the Labour Party. Therefore they argue for socialist or left unity.” In contrast, “the ‘Stalinist’ strategy supports the unity of the Labour Party and hence an all-class popular front”.

Think about this just a little. Were the Militant Tendency comrades throughout their long history in the Labour Party ‘Stalinists’? Are Labour Briefing or Workers’ Action ‘Stalinists’? I leave aside the entryist wing of the descendants of Militant, Socialist Appeal, who are in process of becoming ‘official’ communists via their relations with the Chávistas and Cuba. I do so because this process of becoming ‘official’ communists is also affecting the SWP, which is outside the Labour Party and has been for the better part of 40 years, and in both cases it is driven by international politics.

Conversely, did the ‘official’ CPGB cease to be ‘Stalinist’ in the ‘third period’ around 1930, or when, in the 1930s, it campaigned for the people’s front without the Labourite strategy of the British road, or when it suddenly lurched into third-periodism in the period between the Hitler-Stalin pact in1939 and the German invasion of the USSR in1941?

The truth is that Stalinism and Trotskyism were and are tendencies defined by international perspectives, not by particular tactical views towards the Labour Party. Equally, the CPGB’s arguments for the unity of the Marxists on the basis of a Marxist political programme are defined by international perspectives. This is not just a matter of theory. It is also lessons we draw from the recent failures of ‘left unity’ projects in other countries: Brazil, Italy ... The Mandelites argue that these projects ‘leave open the question of reform or revolution’. But the reality is that they leave open more concrete and pressing questions: radical democracy versus rule-of-law constitutionalism and bureaucracy; class politics versus inter-class coalitions; nationalism versus proletarian internationalism.

Labour and ‘halfway houses’

I should not need to say this, but I suppose comrade Craig’s argument means that I do need to. Neither I nor the CPGB believe in Labour’s reformability or in defending “the unity of the Labour Party”.

The difference between us and comrade Craig on this issue concerns two questions. One is a simple matter of empirical judgment. Is the dynamic towards a mass split in the Labour Party - which has been a real one since 1918 - at present (in the recent past and immediate future) the dominant political dynamic or a subordinate one? I would answer that at present the Labour and trade union left is characterised by clinging to unity with the right, no matter how much the right kicks them and the working class. The reason is partly the absolute weakness of the direct class movement and class struggles; partly the left’s complete lack of an alternative perspective.

Secondly, the question is whether a new dawn would open if we had a new Independent Labour Party of the 1930s-40s, a British equivalent of Rifondazione or an English equivalent of the SSP, which went no further than these parties did in breaking with class-collaborationism, statist reform projects and bureaucratic control in the party and unions, and national roads to socialism? Comrade Craig argues that such a party, with the single addition that it must advocate a republic, is the necessary “broad left party”, only within which a real “revolutionary Marxist” party, defined by its adherence to “democratic permanent revolution”, could be built.

In contrast, the CPGB argues, and I have argued, that such parties lead only to brief hope and long demoralisation. It should be obvious which view is better supported by the evidence of the recent past: the Brazilian PT and Rifondazione have joined capitalist governments and their lefts split; the SSP has imploded.

The real alternative is not any sort of national revolutionary project, even one which hopes (“democratic permanent revolution”) that the democratic revolution in one country will trigger the socialist revolution internationally. It is to build the workers’ movement as an international movement of common oppositional action under capitalism; one which aims for the working class to take over; and one which is radically democratic in its internal affairs, its demands on the state and its vision of the future.

‘Halfway’, national and international

It follows from what I have just said that the working class needs an international or international party. Not an international party committed to “democratic permanent revolution”, as comrade Craig argues: that would be merely another addition to the long list of international sects.

Nonetheless, the CPGB argues immediately for the unification of the Marxist left in Britain into a single party on the basis of the three principles and a concrete political programme developed on that basis. Is that, as comrade Craig argues, a “National Marxist Party”, and as such merely another kind of halfway house?

This is a more serious argument than any of comrade Craig’s other points. It is, however, wrong.

The CPGB does not argue that a unitary party of the Marxist left on the basis of fighting for working class rule, radical democracy and internationalism - and no more - is a task just for Britain. On the contrary, these principles are a sufficient basis for the sort of organisation the working class needs both in any country and internationally: just as much in Iran or in Argentina as in the US or in Japan. The concrete features of politics vary from country to country: but we do not live in a world divided into pre-capitalist states, capitalist states and ‘workers’ states’, with different historical tasks in each case. We live in a world ruled by capital globally and through capitalist political regimes everywhere.

In that context, to build a party in this country is to play a part in building the sort of international that we need: just as to build in one locality is to play a part in building the sort of national party that we need.

The CPGB is not the sort of party we need, but a campaign for it. Similarly the Campaign for a Marxist Party. Where we are now (where we have been in the recent past, and where we can expect to be in the immediate future), neither the CPGB nor CMP has the material resources needed to organise internationally. Moreover, as I have just said, there are national specificities in politics. For example, The French Socialist Party is not British Labour; the PCF is not the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain; the LCR is not the SWP. And so on.

At an international level, the workers’ movement needs principled aims and the struggle for closer solidarity. What it does not need is commonly agreed tactics, except in relation to institutions like the Euro-elections.

There are numerous international sects for a number of reasons, but three are basic. The first is bureaucratic centralism: no sustained unity is possible without accountability of the leaders to the ranks, self-government of the localities (and hence of national parties in an international) and public reporting of internal debates. The claimed commitment of Maoists and Trotskyists alike to the first four congresses of the Comintern inevitably legitimates bureaucratic centralism.

The second is the belief, shared by comrade Craig, that a ‘revolutionary party’ requires agreement on ‘revolutionary theory’. Thus every theoretical difference turns into an issue of u‘revisionism’ and ‘the influence of alien classes within the organisation’, leading to splits.

The third is the impulse of national organisations, as soon as they reach a certain size, to create an organised ‘international’ with its own ‘international committee’ representing ‘sections’ of their hangers-on and fellow-travellers in other countries. This is the sort of organisation the CPGB has called an ‘oilslick international’. The problem is that the existence of the international organisation, inevitably dominated by the national group that initiated it, prevents the comrades in other countries from developing a real programmatic line for their own country: because the tactical turns and disputes of the ‘mother party’ spill into the international organisation and its discussions. The Socialist Party’s ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International, used to be characterised by the common tactic of entryism everywhere; the International Socialist Tendency (largely) faithfully follows the tactical twists and turns of the SWP; and so on.

Hence, to campaign for a workers’ international no more means immediately organising an international than campaigning for a Marxist party means immediately declaring that one has been set up. In both cases, what is meant is action at every opportunity, both at national level and where it is possible internationally (ie, on the web, in events like the social forums and so on), to spread the ideas of a Marxist party and of a new international.

If it happened - I have to say that it is not very likely - that a Marxist party emerged in Britain without similar developments taking place elsewhere, I hope we would continue this sort of campaigning: not set up a new oilslick international. But if an international did emerge, a Marxist party - one committed to working class rule, radical democracy and internationalism - would take its proper place as the British section of the new international. It would not be a ‘halfway house’ to stop short of such an international.

In fact, of course - as I have said before - the RDG is a more ‘purely British’ organisation than the CPGB. The ‘theory of [national] democratic permanent revolution’ is based on purely British conditions. The policy of the ‘republican socialist party’ ignores the experience of other countries. Comrade Craig picked up the idea that we need an international before we can have a Communist Party from a Turkish comrade speaking at Communist University two years ago. He has now picked up the idea of accusing the CPGB of ‘Stalinism’ from the polemics in the CMP and in particular from the Democratic Socialist Alliance.

But the initial plausibility of either argument is low, and the plausibility of either as a defence of comrade Craig’s line is microscopic. He should draw back from what are becoming increasingly weird arguments.


1. Weekly Worker January 10.

2. Now available on the RDG’s website: www.rdg.org.uk/programme/index.htm.

3. The 2006 series (under the heading, ‘The revolutionary party’) is available on the CPGB website: www.cpgb.org.uk/theory/series.htm.

4. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/letters/91_02_23.htm, on the ‘scandal’ of the publication of the Critique of the Gotha programme.

5. C Arthur (ed) The German ideology London 1974, p42.

6. Weekly Worker March 28, April 5, April 12 2007.

7. In particular see ‘Leading workers by the nose’ Weekly Worker September 13 2007.