Time for a radical rethink
CPGB comrades attended the June 26-29 Permanent Revolution school. A good event, but there are some important questions for the comrades to face up to, reckons Mark Fischer
Permanent Revolution comrades will have every reason to be pleased with their school. The numbers were about the same as last year - 70-plus comrades registered over the three days. The atmosphere was relaxed and comradely, and the school’s 14 sessions covered a wide range of interesting subjects (possibly too many to do justice to, in fact). And, while you could not say that the whole thing was animated by the sort of boisterous sect elan that sometimes lights up the gatherings of other groups, there was a determination to be serious about tasks the group sees as key to the coming period. An altogether more useful approach, in other words
The comrades may also have been pleased simply to be here at all. I was informed that two years ago some sturdy young buck from the majority of Workers Power - today led by a Richard Brenner daily becoming more politically erratic - told the expelled minority comrades who went on to form Permanent Revolution, “You’ll be dead in six months”.
The PR comrade who recalled this was understandably pleased that this prediction - like the rest of WP’s perspectives - has proved to be woefully flaky. The comment was, however, typical of the thoroughly soured relations that existed in that sect by the time of endgame. (A bitterness that was not the exclusive preserve of the majority, either. For revealed plans of a little factional vandalism from minority comrades such as Mark Hoskisson, see Weekly Worker July 6 2006. The minority was clearly determined to leave as big an exit wound as it could.)
It is good that PR has survived, even if it has not exactly prospered. First, because in contrast to the spirit that prompted the mutual snarl-fest that both sides engaged in at the time of the split, we do not want the situation where communist organisations are damaged beyond repair and cadre simply scattered. But, more than that, judging from this event - and having cleared a certain space for themselves on the revolutionary left with a worthwhile and interesting journal - the comrades may potentially have something valuable to contribute to the reconstitution of Marxist politics.
In particular, the speech by comrade Hoskisson to the final plenary of the school - which called for “a radical rethink” of the political nostrums of the revolutionary left - was a breath of fresh air compared to the self-satisfied bilge and self-delusion that normally passes for perspectives from much of the rest of the left. More of that later.
Roots of failure
For me, the PR school underlined that here is a trend in a process of transition. Unsurprisingly therefore, at other times in the school, we saw a clash between these professed aspirations to thinking anew and a political incoherence the comrades have inherited from the hard Trotskyist tradition they hail from.
Thus, while the comrades have a declared intention to critically re-engage with the real heritage of Bolshevism and its relationship to democracy, they continue to adhere to a method - codified in Trotsky’s Transitional programme - that can only lead to the creation of rigid sects on the fringes not simply of society, but of the workers’ movement too.
Why do we say that this congenital failure is rooted at the level of programme in this way?
First, because of the catastrophism of the TP. For Trotsky, capitalism was more than simply moribund. It faced immediate extinction, was writhing in its “death agony” (L Trotsky The transitional programme New York 1997, p111). It could no longer develop the productive forces. Chronic stagnation was endemic to the system, despite the introduction of new machines and technology. Moreover, “decaying capitalism” could in general not introduce systematic social reforms or a raising of the masses’ living standards.
In such dire circumstances, any need for deep proletarian organisation in contemporary society was bypassed. The simple defence of existing economic gains through such demands as a “sliding scale of wages” and hours would virtually propel the class to spontaneously reach out to revolution as - given the nature of the crisis - every serious economic demand of the workers “inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and the bourgeois state” (ibid p114).
The meagre forces of the Fourth International would then be catapulted to the head of the multi-millioned masses in a final and apocalyptic collision with capital. Rooted as the Trotskyist comrades were in the distorted, militarised understanding of party organisation codified in the early resolutions of Comintern, this could only produce tiny, undemocratic grouplets, profoundly isolated from the class.
Second, because of the TP’s cramped vision of the relationship between democracy and the fight for working class rule. Essentially, democracy is reduced to merely adefence of the existing “rights and social conquests of workers” (ibid p115).
In effect Trotsky was reduced by extreme organisational weakness into advocating a particular apocalyptic version of economism: ie, the workers would through strikes and other such elementary struggles find their “bridge” to revolutionary demands and revolutionary consciousness.
Thus, for Trotsky, the TP represents a programmaticretreat from works such as the 1934 ‘Programme of action for France’ and lodged in the Trotskyist movement not simply a profound political weakness, but an innate tendency to create sects.
Time for debate
So definitely time for a “radical rethink”, comrades. With this in mind, it is worthwhile criticising the format of the school which - if taken as a template for similar events in the future - would not facilitate that serious approach. Simply put, the sessions were too short (most were an hour and a quarter, some even shorter). Inevitably, this produced two problems.
First, top-table speakers almost invariably overran the 20 minutes they were asked to stick to, cutting into time for discussion from the floor. Speakers were told beforehand that they would be encouraged to intervene in the debate as it developed with the audience, but none did in any of the sessions I attended. Most simply took more than the time allocated to them in the first place - some considerablymore.
As a consequence, more or less every meeting I was at had a very truncated discussion period, with chairs sometimes announcing three-minute time limits before anyone had spoken. These restrictions too often produced frustratingly incomplete sessions - particularly when a controversial debate was featured, as with the debate on fascism between PR and the CPGB, or when a comrade such as Costas Lapavitsas with considerable expertise on a particular subject was the speaker.
I emphasise that I am not carping about the motives of the PR comrades. All the chairs I encountered were fair and inclusive, and I heard no complaints from anyone else. But PR comrades have to give themselves more space for the arguments and critical dialogue to develop. Sessions at our Communist University are twice as long - which possibly explains why CPGB comrades were tardy in some debates at the PR school. They are used to a slower unravelling of the arguments and sometimes the chance to contribute several times during the discussion.
Allowing the time and space for political clarity to be fought for seems to me essential if PR is serious about its declared aim of a root and branch reassessment of our history. Without it, there is a danger of political and organisational fragmentation. A danger exacerbated by the absence of either a currently viable unity project on the left or a clear organisational focus for it as a trend. Its comrades may fade away into other areas of work in the movement.
This impression was reinforced in the Saturday June 28 session titled ‘Is the party over?’ with Hilary Wainwright and John McDonnell MP. In the course of the debate, Bill Jefferies of PR commented on the September Convention of the Left (which he is involved in organising). He quite rightly pointed to the decade-long history of failures of the revolutionary left to build worthwhile unity projects. So, he suggested, there should be limits to what we expect out of initiatives like the convention in this period. The last thing we needed for it to do was “adopt another bad programme” like the failures that have cluttered up the last 10 years or so. Instead, it should “agree on the key action points you can work around. Then through a process of learning, experience and cooperation perhaps out of that can develop a new organisation - who knows what it will be.”
Replying directly to Bill, I emphasised that “doing stuff is good” - no-one disagrees on that mundane level. But alongside any activity we engage in, it is “essential that we conduct a forensic examination of what we did wrong” in the 20th century that landed us in this dung heap in the first place. Some PR comrades who spoke after me tended to take this as a suggestion that we go into some sort of Marxist purdah until we have the world and everything in it straight in our heads, which was not at all what I was driving at. In fact, comrade Mark Hoskisson outlined what I think to be the central theoretical project for today’s left in his closing remarks to conference.
Learn from mistakes
One hundred and sixty years after the Communist League of Marx and Engels, he pointed out that communism “has not triumphed anywhere”. It is surely long overdue for the left to account for its manifest failures and to seriously address the “fundamental” question of “how we can rebuild a vibrant socialist left that can really start to make a difference in society”. The split with WP that gave birth to PR in the first place “did create a space” and the “time for a radical rethink” for his comrades, he told us.
He vividly contrasted that objective need to the approach of the activist-blind Socialist Workers Party: “The Unison strike ballot was a gift to them because now it doesn’t matter that the shop stewards’ movement actually needs rebuilding before we can start to make serious advances in the workplace. We can forget about that because it will all be solved by the ‘fantastic’ opportunity of the Unison strike on July 14-15.” That sort of “self-delusion” does not serve anyone, the comrade bluntly stated.
So what is to be done? First, we need to “learn from our mistakes” - and not simply the last decade or so of the forlorn left unity projects. What was needed was a fundamental examination of the key question of “party and the whole history of Bolshevism”. Centrally, “the process whereby the Bolshevik Party was transformed from a political party of struggle into an instrument of the state. We have to look at the impact of that process on it as a party. What the transformation of cadre to commissar meant.”
Generalising this, the “legacy of the Bolshevisation of Comintern” has to be critically examined. The impact of this process was to create “a form of democratic centralism that was alien to the Bolshevik Party up to about 1920, maybe 1919.” This distorted form was “then replicated by Trotskyism”.
In contrast, “the party that has to be built” has to establish a relationship with the workers that relies on winning a “moral authority” conferring on it leadership, not a predatory or conspiratorial manipulation of the organisations of the class.
The second major task must be “to rescue the real tradition of Bolshevism”, something that is inseparable from rebuilding “a movement that is conscious of itself as a class movement … a class-conscious trade union and workers’ movement”. Alongside this, “a socialist movement” must be built, something that disseminates the politics of socialism much more widely through clubs and cultural activities, where “young people can learn and participate without the sects having a narrow, predatory approach to them”.
Third, and indispensably, “we need an organisation of revolutionaries that is open, transparent and totally honest” about their communist aims.
There was much to agree with in this speech. What is clear is that at least some leading comrades in PR are beginning to address the central questions of party, class, democracy and programme that the CPGB has been discussing in some depth for a number of years now.
We will be returning to some of the controversial political questions that were flagged up during the debate at this useful school and - more generally - look forward to developing further discussions and practical work with the comrades of Permanent Revolution.
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