Your article in last week’s Weekly Worker declared in advance that the Convention of the Left would be a “talking shop” aimed at adopting a few “platitudes” (‘Convention talking shop’, September 18). This was a very negative approach, one which seemed to inform your attitude on the weekend.
The CL in Manchester brought together more than 300 militants, trade unionists and socialists from many organisations and from none. They came together in the middle of the most serious financial crisis for decades and after a traumatic period for the British left - a period that has seen attempts to set up militant socialist alternatives to New Labour end in splits, collapse and recrimination.
In its limited aims of bringing the British left, in and outside the Labour Party, together to start a discussion of the problems that face us, the CL was an undoubted success. If leading members of the CPGB had spent more time in the CL sessions, and less time hanging around their stall outside, they would have heard a serious and very democratic discussion of important issues facing the left.
Where else would you have found an interesting debate between leaders of the Labour Party left in parliament and those who want to break from Labour - a discussion about the trade union link, disaffiliation and possibilities of changing the LP? Where else would you have found leading members of the FBU, RMT and PCS unions engaging in discussion with rank and file militants over the problems of getting a new party, rebuilding the trade unions and fighting the pay freeze? Where else could you have found a lively 90-minute discussion of the state of the women’s movement, involving the National Assembly of Women, Feminist Fightback, a female Labour MP defending Labour’s record, and the Abortion Rights campaign?
And all these debates were conducted in a comradely fashion, in a structured debate that ensured huge numbers of floor speakers, in welcome contrast to the normal ‘top table’ domination of such meetings. The debates tested people’s arguments, made people think, and informed us all of the different campaigns and discussion forums going on all over the country.
Yet at the very start of this process, at its very first meeting, you dismiss it as a talking shop and “certainly not a serious attempt to forge organisational unity”. Maybe the debate did not reach the dizzy heights of the Campaign for a Marxist Party - but doesn’t the CMP also do a lot more ‘talking’ than campaigning? Isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black?
Just like the rest
Chris Strafford makes some very good points in his article on the Convention of the Left. He states that over the last decade of a New Labour government, there has been no principled unity of the left within a single Marxist Party. The left groups have aimed to protect their own sect integrity, at the same time as creating electoral fronts, “halfway houses” which they control. I think this is true.
However, he then goes on to say that only the CPGB saw the Socialist Alliance as a possible starting point for a higher organisation. As a founder member of the Coventry Socialist Alliance in 1992, I remember well that when the SWP closed down the SA those of us who were left formed the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform. The SADP was divided on one basic principle - and that was whether to campaign for a Marxist party or for a federalist halfway house with no criticism of the left groups, including the Socialist Workers Party, which had just closed us down!
At the final meeting of the SADP, the CPGB comrades present voted for the halfway house solution against the resolution for a Marxist party from the Democratic Socialist Alliance. If they had voted the other way, the SADP would have been committed to building a Marxist party. The resulting halfway house new Socialist Alliance that the CPGB voted for is amongst those groups organising the Convention of the Left, which Chris Strafford is so ably criticising!
Chris goes on to condemn the bureaucratic centralist methods of the left groups, whereby they set up front organisations which their central committees control. Examples are the SWP and Respect and the Socialist Party and Campaign for a New Workers’ Party. What is required is democracy, accountability and open discussion. Again I agree wholeheartedly.
However, I would put it to Chris that the Campaign for a Marxist Party has seen the CPGB behaving in a replica manner to other left groups Instead of opening the CMP up for democratic participation, they have closed it down and used it as a front for their own organisation.
I have noticed that the CPGB make some good criticisms of other left groups in the Weekly Worker. However, when you look at their own methods of organisation, they don’t seem to know any way of behaving other than the traditional ones they criticise.
Just like the rest
Just like the rest
I just got back from a few days away and then spent the whole day on Shields beach reading two issues of the Weekly Worker. Heavy!
I get the distinct impression that the CPGB is in the process of leaving the traditional left camp and becoming something else - still left, of course, but deeply into what we called the ‘third camp’ in the days of the old cold war, when we thought most of the world was part of some sort of socialistic get-up, be it ever so bureaucratic. It coloured our view of what was and what had been - even what could be and how it could be.
Now the bets are off, the world is starting to rotate on its head and none of what we experienced and thought we had seen really existed. You are now telling us it wasn’t the way we thought it was - none of it. I’m still struggling to grasp what you actually think was happening and why, but, you know, another few days on Shields beach and maybe I’ll see - that’s if you actually know what was happening and why.
Whilst your article ‘SWP dumps John Rees’ (September 18) gave some useful information about the factional divisions on the SWP’s central committee, it left me very puzzled about the politics behind the dispute, which I, perhaps naively, assume is not merely a matter of personality clashes.
I find it very hard to understand the political logic behind the downgrading of Left Alternative by the CC (or its dominant faction) at the very time when the Labour Party is clearly heading for a massive electoral defeat and when the depth and duration of the economic crisis makes it far easier to argue in favour of some form of socialist politics than has been the case for two (or possibly three) decades.
Any new left party, alliance or electoral bloc will only come out of continuous hard work over a relatively long period of time and it is ridiculous to assume that good votes will be obtained in every locality or on every occasion. To effectively abandon the electoral field until after the next general election seems very unwise, to say the least. Disillusioned working class voters breaking with Labour who might have been won over to a left alternative may well be lost to the Tories, to the British National Party (as in Stoke and Barking) or to abstention (along American lines, where a 50% turnout is predominantly a turnout of the wealthier 50% of the population). Such abdication is a betrayal of the class the SWP claims to represent.
The Left List’s poor results in the London elections of May 2008 (which you suggest was the reason for Rees’s sacking) were the product of a particular conjuncture - namely, the three-way split on the left (Left List, Respect, Unity for Peace and Socialism) and the marked polarisation between Livingstone and Johnson that was such a dominant feature of the closing days of the campaign.
A willingness to engage in serious electoral work in the medium to long term at the national level (or at least in the range of constituencies contested by the Socialist Alliance in 2001) would demonstrate the correctness of the belated decision to break with Galloway and abandon the popular front for the united front, because the underlying tension between Respect’s (here I mean Respect Renewal’s) socialist minority (mainly International Socialist Group/Socialist Resistance and ex-SWPers) and its non-socialist communalist majority (itself an unstable amalgam of genuinely fanatical political Islamists like Ridley and Nasseem and careerist businessmen whose links with Jamiat-i-Islami and the east London mosque are largely instrumental and not ideological) is bound to explode in the face of sustained competition from any force with a consistent commitment to class struggle politics.
In such circumstances Galloway would side with the Islamists and the socialist elements would eventually have to admit the error of their ways. To liquidate the Left Alternative is in effect to give Galloway another lease of political life, perpetuating a road block to a genuine realignment of the class-struggle left.
In ‘Knitting’ (September 18), Robbie Rix says: “… we had 15,566 readers last week - a bit of a drop from our previous high of over 40,000 and something I can’t really explain.”
One reason for the fall could be the lack of articles on the SWP and concentration on the minuscule and largely irrelevant Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The main article last week, with ‘SWP dumps John Rees’ as the front page headline, could rectify the situation.
I once met ‘comrade’ Rees, and his manner (as well as speech at a meeting) confirmed your assessment of him as a ‘control-freak’. There are many good and genuine rank-and-file SWP members, particularly in Manchester, but their deeply hierarchical structure enables people like Rees to rise to the top and stay there - like Bob Labi and Niall Mullholland of the Committee for a Workers’ International and Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky in the USSR.
Could your Jack Conrad be similar?
The article by Moshé Machover on the Zionist polemics of Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty was excellent (‘Propaganda and sordid reality’, September 18). It was as good a piece of deconstruction of these social-imperialists as I’ve read.
As to whether Matgamna is a Zionist or merely an outright apologist for them, this is, in the words of Oscar Wilde, a distinction without a difference. The early 1980s was when anti-Zionism and support for the Palestinians began to take off in the labour movement. At that time I chaired the Labour Committee on Palestine (renamed the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine after a Workers Revolutionary Party take-over), with Andrew Hornung, of Socialist Organiser/AWL as secretary. Andrew was a committed and sincere Jewish anti-Zionist who was as appalled as I was at where his organisation was going.
However, it did not come out of the blue. On Ireland SO had been retreating from support for republicanism into a form of federalism. Indeed Matgamna went further, in one article calling for the repartition of Ireland in order that the majority Catholic counties of Armagh and Tyrone could be incorporated into the free state. Likewise they had an abstentionist policy during the Malvinas/Falklands war.
What is at the heart of AWL politics is not, as the subtitle to Machover’s article suggests, the fact that Matgamna has “swallowed a large chunk of Israeli propaganda”, which he clearly has, but what has led him to be so receptive to this garbage.
When SO began its move towards a Zionist position in the mid-1980s, I was heavily involved in debating with them. I spoke at their conference on a number of occasions and I debated with both Matgamna and his acolytes. I never failed to point out the alliance that Zionism had always sought with imperialism and its ideological affinity (and worse) with anti-semitism, as a means of ‘encouraging’ Jewish emigration to Palestine. I dwelt at length on the racist and settler-colonial nature of the Israeli state and Zionism itself, but to no avail, because, as Moshé explains, the standard retort of these ignoramuses was that Zionism was just another form of nationalism. As if that was some kind of excuse.
As Moshé points out, Matgamna’s love affair with Zionism is not based on any deep knowledge or understanding. He conflates Israeli and Jewish nationalism, whereas Zionism has always opposed the idea that the Israeli Jews (or Hebrews, as Moshe calls them) are a nation. For David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, supporters of such a position were derisively referred to as ‘Canaanites’. Likewise to say that Jews, from China to France, who don’t even speak the same language or share the same territory, are members of one nation is to take a leaf out of the Protocols of the elders of Zion and anti-semitic conspiracy theories.
When the AWL began to positively support the idea of a two-states solution, which in essence is one state plus a Bantustan (or series of such), it placed itself in favour of an imperialist solution of the problem. Yet imperialism has no need for a Palestinian state. There are many people (though declining today) who support a two-state solution - not because they support the anti-Arab racism inherent in every aspect of Israeli society, but because they can see no other practical alternative. Norman Finkelstein, who no-one would accuse of Zionism, is one such person.
But Matgamna can see nothing wrong with a state where only Jews can utilise 93% of the land, or where over half the Arabs in Israel live in ‘unrecognised’ villages liable for instant demolition, or where a Judaification programme is at the heart of internal colonialism.
All this is nationalism and any attempt to oppose it is to “demonise” Zionism. Of course, for the AWL it is not Zionism, but anti-Zionism, which is demonic - hence why they have consistently opposed any attempt to give practical support to the Palestinians. When the campaign for a boycott of Israel took off, the AWL couldn’t restrain themselves in their efforts to defend Israel.
We should not therefore be surprised that, just as the AWL supports the occupation of Iraq and previously supported the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, they now de facto support any future bombing of Iran.
Uncritical Stalinists are very much a rarity these days, but one can still have the dubious pleasure of encountering them now and again if one strays into the wrong place at the wrong time - or regularly peruses the letters page of the Weekly Worker.
Much of Andrew Northall’s letter was answered by Mike Macnair in the same issue (‘Stalinist illusions exposed’, September 18). However, there remains the matter of the repression under Stalin’s regime, and in particular the period to which Northall refers, when Nikolai Yezhov ran the secret police during 1937-38.
Northall is perhaps a little unusual in that he accepts the figures of the repression during the Yezhovshchina that have been released since the collapse of the Soviet regime; perhaps I’m being a little presumptive here, but I can’t imagine, say, Harpal Brar using such tainted information. Nonetheless, it is fascinating that he considers that the 1.5 million arrests and 700,000 executions in two years “affected only a minuscule proportion of the population” of the Soviet Union. With a population of 170 million, this would equate in the Britain and Germany of the period to around 400,000 arrests and 200,000 executions.
Now, as truly murderous and barbaric as the Nazi regime was to its opponents, if one looks at the figures for Nazi Germany for that period, they are considerably lower. The first few months of the Nazi regime saw some 45,000 political prisoners being held in concentration camps, mostly for a short (if extremely unpleasant) period. The camp population then fell off considerably, as did the number of deaths of inmates. By June 1935, there were 23,000 political prisoners in state prisons; by December 1938 there were 11,265; those held in Nazi camps were considerably fewer in number. The numbers of deaths were nothing like as large as those in the Soviet Union - a few dozen per annum in each camp, rising to, in Buchenwald, 771 in 1938 and 1,235 in 1939, and these were mainly the result of casual ill-treatment and disease, not state-endorsed executions.
Furthermore, political prisoners in Nazi Germany were indeed political opponents of Hitlerism, such as members and supporters of the Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party and smaller organisations, sworn enemies of fascism. During the Yezhovshchina, there was a popular joke in the Soviet Union about the man who answered the door to the GPU’s snatch-squad: ‘No, you’ve got the wrong flat; the communists live upstairs.’ Now, whilst this oversimplified matters somewhat, there were a large number of Communist Party members swept up during this period, people who were, unlike those arrested by the Nazi state, loyal Soviet citizens. Some, no doubt, had some minor criticisms of the regime - such is the nature of things - but that does not mean for them, and indeed for the vast majority of those arrested, that their loyalty to the system was in doubt.
The destruction of the organisations of the German labour movement, the arrests of anti-Nazis and the horrific treatment that they received broke the back of the resistance to the Nazi regime, and, although resistance amongst the German population continued, the regime managed easily to contain it. Yet the numbers of those incarcerated and killed were small compared to the numbers arrested and executed during the Yezhovshchina. So why was it that the Soviet regime thought it necessary to arrest 1.5 million people, force them to confess to imaginary crimes (Khrushchev alluded to the methods used in his ‘secret speech’ in 1956), and to execute about half of those arrested?
If the Nazis defeated the opposition to their rule with far fewer arrests and executions, why did Stalin and co feel the need to arrest and execute so many people, not least when one considers that opposition to the Soviet regime was nothing as powerful and extensive as that which had existed in Germany when the Nazis took power in 1933? The “people of the past” whom Northall tells us were the main victims of the repression were indeed that: they had been terrorised, defeated and broken long before 1937. The Soviet regime was by then politically secure: so why the need for such extensive terror?
Finally, we come to the question of the effects of the Yezhovshchina. Northall assures us that “the Nazi fifth column had been eliminated”. Now, whilst organised resistance to the Soviet regime barely existed, there was an undercurrent of discontent, and the consequences of this emerged during World War II. There was collaboration with the Nazis throughout occupied Europe, but it was particularly severe in the parts of the Soviet Union that the Nazis were occupying: between 500,000 and a million Soviet citizens took German pay, some of them fought against the Soviet partisans and armed forces, and the renegade Soviet general, Andrei Vlasov, led a force of some 50,000 men on the Nazi side. What other occupied European country saw such a level of collaboration?
In his article, ‘Stalinist illusions exposed’, Mike Macnair was too easy on ‘comrade’ Stalin and the illusion promoted by to-the-core Stalinists. In the fourth paragraph, where he talks about rightist technicist (‘revisionist’) and ultra-left voluntarist (Stalinist-proper) tendencies, he forgets that post-war Stalin himself was mainly on the technicist side.
Just as after the civil war, the devastation after World War II left ample opportunity for ‘roaders’ to sneak into the system, all with Stalin’s approval: Voznesensky (although he got axed), Rodionov, Popov, Povkov and so on. In fact, according to one Yoram Gorlizki (Ordinary Stalinism: the Council of Ministers and the Soviet neopatrimonial state, 1946–1953), post-war Stalin, even while chair of Sovmin, was not active in ‘government’ (read economic) affairs at all, never attending meetings of the Sovmin bureau/presidium.
He instead focused on ‘national security’ concerns (hence the ‘kitchen cabinet’ meetings of the informal politburo, so, to be sure, Khrushchev was right about Stalin’s own flagrant violation of party rules). Meanwhile, that proto-Dengist Beria never wanted party guys to interfere in ministerial assignments and promotions.
Ultimately, Stalin’s own technicism culminated in the absence of near-death plans to get rid of Khrushchev or Malenkov (and their technicist patron-client networks), instead focusing on Molotov and Mikoyan (latter on part of the ‘Anti-Party Group’), plus Beria (if only because of his notorious NKVD-based patron-client network).
The idea of building ‘socialism in one country’ and the slogan for the seizure of power that is socialist revolution are often confused. Partisans of both Trotskyism and Stalinism are probably equally to blame. Tony Clark’s version of this continues the confusion, unfortunately (Letters, September 11).
The common misconception, promoted by the partisans of Stalin, is that calls for socialism equal the call for building the first stage of communism confined to the borders of a single country (namely, Russia).
First, even the worst epigones of Stalin would never argue that ‘socialism in one country’ was a slogan. It was what they believe the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was building, and could be accomplished without the advent of world revolution, something they had come to peace with after 1921. They even dated it: 1936. Voilà, we have socialism!
This is a far cry, in my humble opinion, from what Lenin and everyone else was talking about. Lenin’s article quoted by Tony, ‘On the slogan for a United States of Europe’, is about a slogan, not an analysis of whether the development of the productive forces exist within a country and the political devolution of the state could begin. When Lenin states, “... because it may be wrongly interpreted to mean that the victory of socialism in a single country is impossible ...” in opposition to the slogan of ‘United States of the World’ it is precisely synonymous with ‘socialist revolution’, not a ‘socialist society’, which few then were even discussing (www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/aug/23.htm).
He argues later in the same essay that “after expropriating the capitalists and organising their own socialist production, the victorious proletariat of that country will arise against the rest of the world - the capitalist world - attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries, stirring uprisings in those countries against the capitalists, and in case of need using even armed force against the exploiting classes and their states.” In other words, extend the revolution to the “rest of the world”. Wow, talk about flaming ultra-leftists - Tony ought to consider where he aims his polemical retard next time: Lenin, that dirty little Trot!
In all seriousness, Lenin is arguing within the generalised socialist understanding that the struggle for socialism is an international one that will start in one country. In this, Lenin and Trotsky are alike and share no disagreements here.
1924, not 1915
The doctrine of socialism in one country had its origins in 1924, not, as Tony Clark states, in 1915. Its author was Bukharin, not Lenin. It was officially adopted by the Communist International in 1926. By 1928, it was associated with Stalin, the consolidation of counterrevolution worldwide and the national interests of the USSR.
The doctrine was a rightwing, nationalist response to the defeat of the October revolution. It was anti-semitic and a form of national socialism. The civil war had wiped out proletarian democracy at home. Social democracy had destroyed it abroad. Bukharin argued that the building of socialism was realisable within the national limits of the Soviet Union independently of the rest of the world, as long as imperialists did not overthrow the regime by military means. It became the defining dogma of Stalinism.
The mature period of the doctrine coincided with Stalin’s purges and the elite’s attempt to extract an economic surplus from the working class by brute force and atomisation through police methods.
Its decline started with the elite’s realisation that repression was an insufficient means of securing stability. Quasi-market forms of competition were also required. The decline of the doctrine gained momentum in the 1950s after Stalin’s death. Khrushchev’s speech and the invasion of Hungary in 1956 marked the beginning of its end.
The doctrine’s terminal phase corresponded to the disintegration of the system prior to the 1980s. This led to a full embrace of the market, the assertion of local nationalism, war and attempts to halt the process of further collapse manifest in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union today. There is a large body of literature on the doctrine that readers can consult. They might like to start with Appendix II of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Contrary to Stalinist opinion, it is neither ultra-left nor counterrevolutionary to accept Trotsky as an authority on the topic.
Nonetheless, some readers might prefer to study part 4, chapter 1 of Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin. They will discover from these and other sources that there is absolutely no evidence that Lenin supported the doctrine.
If these sources are accurate, why, Clark asks, did Lenin use the phrase “socialism in one country” in 1915? The answer is that, in 1915, Lenin was preoccupied with hopes of socialist victory, not with despair caused by defeat.
In 1915, Lenin was imagining the period after the proletariat has taken power. This is when the transition to socialism becomes possible. Lenin understood that the tendency for democratic planning to supersede market forces would be more advanced in one part of Europe (for example Britain rather than Russia) than another. He was not imagining, as Bukharin did in 1924, that a particular nation (especially one as backward as Russia) could become socialist in isolation from and in the absence of proletarian revolutions elsewhere. To insinuate that Lenin made this claim, as Clark does, is casuistical and dishonest.
1924, not 1915
1924, not 1915