Who are the Marxists?
At the July 4 fringe meeting of the Socialist Workers Party's Marxism school, Hillel Ticktin outlined his contribution to the forthcoming manifesto of the Campaign for a Marxist Party. In this edited extract of his speech, he draws definitional lines and criticises some terms and practices of the CPGB
We are living in a period of transition between capitalism and socialism, which was opened up, in the first instance, by the Russian Revolution. This period of transition was halted - to some extent turned backwards - by the power of Stalinism. It was physically blocked through the awful warning that Stalinism presented and then through the degeneration and ruination of Marxism itself. That degeneration cannot be understood except in this context.
Now, unlike 20 or 30 years ago, we live in a period when Stalinism is coming to an end (not wholly, of course - after all, there is the Chinese party, which may be capitalist, but still sees itself as communist). It is fairly clear too that social democracy has come to an end. The new situation produced by both these factors permits us to move forward. In other words, we can now begin to develop Marxism in a way that was impossible before.
However, while the removal of the power of Stalinism is a great step forward, there is an enormous task in terms of explaining the difference between Stalinism and socialism, of recovering and developing Marxism. Part of that task must include defining who are the Marxists and in this respect there may be certain differences amongst us.
But I am sure we agree that the nationalist concept of socialism in one country - which was developed by Bukharin and then adopted by Stalin - is in no sense Marxist. In fact it stands totally in contradiction to Marxism, which is internationalist. Furthermore, it never was socialism in one country, of course - it simply meant that a new ruling group was to take power and was used as a slogan to obscure what was actually happening.
Nobody who supports socialism in one country is a Marxist. That includes those who supported the Soviet Union or today support China or Cuba. It may be that such people are confused, but they are not Marxists. Neither Maoists nor unregenerate Stalinists are Marxists. The same applies to ‘anarcho-Marxists’ - they are actually anarchists.
That only leaves Trotskyists, then. Even if their individual policies are wrong, they were the only Marxists during the period of Stalinism - and that remains the case down to the present day: there is nobody else. To call a Maoist a Marxist is to profane the name of Marxism and of Marx himself.
Neither Marcuse, Althusser nor Gramsci can be regarded as Marxists. Gramsci, as we all know, supported socialism in one country. Marcuse was not a Marxist for quite another reason, in that he did not support the leading role of the working class. As for Althusser, he remained a Stalinist - I know there is an argument going on in the CPGB about that.
Stalinism removed the movement of categories and replaced them with static structures. Take Marx’s famous statement in the third volume of Capital, where he refers to the form of the extraction of surplus product - the form whereby surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers, which determines the relation of rulers and ruled.
This crucial statement immediately establishes the relationship between surplus labour, surplus value and the politics which then follow. What Stalinism and Althusser did is simply look at particular structures - Stalin emphasised base and superstructure, but turned it into a static relationship. That method is very much part of Althusser, who is in the direct line of Stalinism. By contrast, the method of Marxism is one of abstraction, which is very different from the method of generalisation. Althusser, however, talks of ‘generality one’, ‘generality two’, etc, etc. This is not Marxism.
So we are left, therefore, with a series of independent people and the Trotskyist movement. There is nothing else. It is true that Trotskyism became frozen, but it is also true that it successfully preserved Marxism by rejecting socialism in one country. That is absolutely crucial.
The second important role of the Trotskyist movement was to defend the demand for socialism today. That is what permanent revolution means. Trotsky’s argument in 1905 was that capitalism was declining and the bourgeoisie no longer had any positive role. However, Torab Saleth in his recent two-part article calling into question the theory of permanent revolution, queries the whole concept of the tasks of the bourgeoisie (Weekly Worker June 5, 12).
Well, he is wrong. Marx is very, very clear in Capital, where he wrote pages about the wonders the bourgeoisie had performed. It was impossible to progress directly from the utter backwardness of feudalism, slavery or the Asiatic mode of production to socialism - that would be absurd. Capitalism performs a particular function. That is not to say that a series of stages must always be followed, but capitalism had to come into being.
In 1906, when Trotsky was writing about the revolutionary nature of the period, a small part of which is in Results and prospects, he quoted bourgeois newspapers putting forward bourgeois liberal demands. The bourgeoisie needs free speech and elections. It may have been that only the proletariat could actually win such demands, but one cannot say that achieving them is simply the role of the proletariat - they come from within capitalism itself. That is why Trotsky said the proletariat would take on the tasks of the bourgeoisie - those tasks do exist.
Obviously the situation is no longer the same as in 1905 - there is no country today which is not capitalist. In consequence there is only one demand - and that is for socialism. The tasks of the bourgeoisie have been performed. Stalinism constantly invented new barriers, new tasks, new stages. But those who stand for two, three, a hundred stages do not seem to me to be socialists.
We live in an age of confusion and the problem is that we ourselves, the Marxists, have become confused. In large measure, this is down to the nature of Stalinism, but it also has to do with the changing nature of the world. While the Trotskyists preserved Marxism, many of the groups - not all of them - inevitably became both fossilised and partly Stalinised themselves. For some of these groups, their understanding of the workers’ state could just as well have been that of Stalinism.
First and foremost, however, this confusion is a reflection of the epoch itself, which is characterised by the operation of three separate sets of laws: those of capitalism, those of the decline of capitalism and those of a transition. It makes it very difficult to understand where we actually are and it is this that has to be theorised and developed. It is no longer simply a question of exploitation and the workers selling their labour-power. It is also, inter alia, a question of the power of finance capital, the growth of casual employment and the increasing number of people involved in unproductive labour - sometimes even in labour conflicting with the survival of humanity.
This period also reflects back on the period of Stalinism and of social democracy. Many on the left have not broken with the trade unionist compromises. When I wrote in Critique condemning the closed shop, I was attacked from within Critique. The problem with the closed shop is that it is essentially economistic; it can even be racist and xenophobic. When people defended the printers in Wapping, they were defending something which on one level was indefensible. Standing for a limited economic class gain can be opposed to political advancement.
In the second place, we have to stand for a clean sweep of all the Stalinist forms, both in reality and in the verbiage. In the Soviet Union there was a system of semi-forced labour, of exploitation and atomisation of the workers, of torture. One has to express one’s abhorrence of that regime and to explain why it was one of counterrevolution that had nothing whatsoever to do with socialism.
It is therefore obligatory to use words which cannot be misunderstood or misinterpreted. That is why I disagree with the term ‘bureaucratic socialism’, used by the CPGB. ‘Workers’ state’ might just as well be employed. I understand that Jack Conrad means something entirely different by it, but it is essential to employ terms which other people understand, words which have a real history. If you call the USSR an example of ‘bureaucratic socialism’, then 99% of the world will think that you regard it as a form of actual socialism. I do not understand how ‘socialism’ cannot be socialism, as though the first stage of communism is regarded as being necessarily defective. Historically, as we all know, Marx never identified the first stage of communism as socialism. In fact he did not like the word ‘socialism’.
So it is implied that somehow the Soviet Union was on the road to communism, which is exactly the opposite of the truth. Now, I understand that, for example, Mike Macnair and Jack Conrad stand in different positions. Nonetheless, if you use those words, you condemn yourselves and your organisation - there is no way around it. The world has turned against Stalinism. It is not ‘Uncle Joe’ any more. Today Stalinism is identified as the worst type of regime, and with justification.
Similarly, the words ‘workers’ state’ can mean anything at all and are used to mean anything at all. It makes no sense to continue to use the term in relation to the Soviet Union. What worker would want such a state? The fact that people use this phrase shows that they do not understand the nature of the Soviet Union or of the epoch. They do not understand where we are. We cannot invent terms to suit ourselves. We have to use terms that people understand and can relate to.
Finally I would like to point out that the CPGB’s attitude to Trotsky, in my view, is an indicator of Stalinism. The fact is that the prime person who was fighting Stalinism in the 1920s was Trotsky. That we have a theory at all, that is understandable, is down to Trotsky. As you know, I have written that in the 1930s his viewpoint was not clear and at times it was conflictual. Unfortunately the Trotskyist movement tried to introduce their own particular version and the result was the ‘workers’ state’ theory, which I think is nonsense.
However, the fact is that Trotsky was Stalinism’s prime opponent. If there is anybody who is a beacon of light, it is Trotsky himself. But there has been a highly emotional antagonism to Trotsky, which was particularly true in the Soviet Union, even though many might privately have agreed with a lot of what he said. But they still came out with very strong attacks against him, because the regime was incessantly pouring out bile which people ended up accepting.
I have to say, that is what I find is written in the Weekly Worker too. There are from time to time attacks on Trotsky which are completely unnecessary and usually untrue. Take Jack Conrad’s reference to Trotsky as a centrist before 1917 - it is just nonsense. If you are going to say that, then you have to explain why. The fact is that Trotsky stood not to the right of Lenin, not between Lenin and anybody else, but to the left of Lenin. Trotsky stood for socialism, while Lenin stood for the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, which was utterly confused. Even if you do not think it was confused, you have to accept it was to the right of Trotsky’s position. On the war, you could say that he differed from Lenin, but this did not make him a centrist. Of course, if you invent two poles, you can always put someone in the centre. But the fact is that Trotsky stood on the left from 1905 onwards. There is no question about that.
In a certain sense one’s attitude to Trotsky shows exactly where one stands on Stalin. I do not mean that every word of what Trotsky said is beyond criticism, as with some people who call themselves Trotskyists. Trotsky made his own mistakes. Lenin made many more. But there are not the same attacks on Lenin as on Trotsky. One has to ask why. It is not because Trotsky was anti-worker, or that he was not one of the two authors of what happened in 1917 - he was. He may have been even more important than Lenin. So one has to ask where those making such criticisms actually stand.