James Turley asked last week whether in the context of the financial crisis we should suspend our polemics against other left groups in order to forge a more effective response (‘What sort of unity?’, October 30). His answer is a categorical no.
There are some points that need to be addressed. Firstly, what James means by the left he does not say, but we can assume he is including the Socialist Workers Party, which is the largest group. It could be said that the SWP had previously not been despondent. Quite the reverse: since the Respect project started, it had been on an upward curve. Now the party is despondent because of that failure and it is turning to other types of activity.
Secondly there is the assumption that the left cannot speak to the working class, and James even questions Chris Knight for having the temerity to imagine how we might do this. Further, there is the dismissive tone of Chris’s prediction of when there might be an outbreak of class-consciousness, which says more about James than the programme.
Thirdly, James reports that the paper sales of The Socialist are in the low double figures. Is it any wonder why this may be? Can James not see the irony of his own question? No-one would put themselves through the torture of having to read, as he puts it, the “snoozeworthy”.
Fourthly, there is the recurrent and easy target of the SWP and aspects of its own internal party organisation. Of course the SWP needs to examine its own programme, and all on the left need to be part of that debate, not just the SWP by itself.
The social-imperialism of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is a cancer on the left, and the job falls to us, says James, to remove it because such sentiments amount to sabotage of the anti-war effort and the SWP are preoccupied. But what effect has the AWL had on sabotaging the anti-war effort? The Stop the War Coalition has done a very good job sabotaging the movement from within, thanks to the likes of the SWP and Communist Party of Britain. In fact what relevance is the AWL to the left today? However, to treat cancer, it is not good practice to operate in an upstairs room of a pub while the patient is semi-inebriated, unless James thinks that drink is a good anaesthetic. These types of debating environments do not appeal to the working class - or even to the left, for that matter.
James says that Marxist analysis is supposed to guide effective action. We should at least strive to act in a way that is positive, resonates with the working class and shows that the left, including the SWP, can work together. The Halloween ‘Dancing on the Grave of Capitalism’ party was an action that to some extent managed to achieve those goals. They were achieved away from the internecine and sectarian debates of blogs, newspapers, email and pubs.
Is that what the left has been reduced to? Can it not imagine the potentialities that the financial crisis is opening up? If this is the case, no wonder the left, as James puts it is, in a “pallor of despondency”.
I have to respond to Jim Moody’s review of the London Film Festival and in particular his all too predictable comments on the Red Army Faction (‘Substitute for mass action’, October 16).
Revolutions and revolutionary initiative and leadership do not arise from some book of rules on how it’s done. Revolutions do not follow any orthodoxy. I’m sorry if you’re painfully constructing what you think will be the revolutionary leadership in the revolutionary party, which will lead us all down a revolutionary road you have carefully mapped out for us. You might just find that the masses have views, organisations and impulses all of their own, and that events turn up developments you haven’t planned for. The circumstances in which the RAF emerged were like that.
For a party that never tires of telling us the revolution is global, Jim’s views on the RAF are set into a nationalistic boundary. He suggests that the RAF were isolated individual terrorists with no connection to ‘the masses’, but you have to realise that the RAF was part of the revolutionary upsurge which had its greatest expression in the Vietnam war - part of the global imperialist offensive. The response of the revolutionary working class had different manifestations worldwide, but were part of the same mass, global uprising against imperialism and capitalism.
I suppose that if Baader-Meinhoff and the others had formed an international brigade to go and fight in the jungle of Vietnam alongside our Viet comrades, they would be hailed by Jim and respected, as were the international volunteers of the Spanish civil war. However, that clearly would have been absurd. European revolutionary socialists totally untrained and inexperienced in jungle warfare would have been blown away in an instant. But it wasn’t necessary to go to Vietnam to strike blows in their support. The US bases, their logistics, government and military supporters were in Europe. It was in Europe where a second front against US imperialism could be opened up. This was international solidarity linked to mass global struggle. The RAF denied the US military safe havens in Germany. This was true too of the actions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. The socialism and secularism, which dominated the Palestinian struggle at that time, was won through joint actions with groups like the RAF, 1st May and others.
The RAF had aims and tactics for dealing with the native European capitalist class too, in conjunction with the efforts of the student and progressive workers’ movement.
As you point out, whole sections of the German anti-Nazi, pro-union and socialist population respected and supported the RAF - more than a quarter of the population overall. The team had been formed as the armed wing of a mass popular movement, but it couldn’t just ebb away once the movement did somewhat and left them exposed. The die was cast. It’s not that they didn’t actually know how it was supposed to be done according to the book: only that revolutionary moments throw up demands then and there.
One of the things that baffles me about organisations like the CPGB is that you consider yourself in the vanguard, in the leadership of all aspects of the struggle, theoretical and practical. However, when it comes to the armed element of the clash, the masses will always just happen upon this spontaneously. God forbid that you and the vanguard would ever know what end of a rifle the bullets come out or how to organise defence of working class communities and military attacks upon the state’s bodies of armed men. In this regard, you are invariably the rearguard.
As embryonic forces of the workers’ own armed teams develop, it’s highly unlikely that everyone grabbing a gun or taking an untrained and suicidal turn at the front will form them. Armed squads will have to be developed, alongside every other aspect of preparation for the revolution, and that was how the RAF originally came to be formed. Circumstances took it beyond that remit and we can all be wise after the fact, but events tend to dictate their own pace and throw up their own responses. None of this makes them putschist. They weren’t attempting to seize power on their own. Don’t be daft.
Finally, I am surprised you accept with such ease the German state’s version of events: ie, that all the comrades committed suicide. Even liberals question the circumstances of their deaths and there are more than a few strong reasons for believing that they were murdered in their cells by the state. Their whole lives demonstrated their courageous confidence for a communist future. Suicide didn’t go with the T-shirt.
Although I disagree with the language in Tony Roberts’ letter, I think its essence is right (October 30). The rate of abortion is surely an important indicator of the health and degree of true civilisation of a society, and therefore an important policy issue for the left.
The fact that nearly 300,000 abortions are carried out in Britain every year and that this rate of abortion is three times the European Union average is surely a national and humanitarian disgrace.
The important and insightful Italian communist leader, Antonio Gramsci, identified the need for the left to engage with and be congruent with what he called the “common sense” in society. I think that in order to be more electorally successful and “to win the battle of democracy” there is merit in the left developing its own moral agenda - socially conservative to some but in reality about protecting the most vulnerable members of the working class and promoting the overall public health of the working class, and which is opposed to the current permissive PC liberalism that has done so much harm to morality and society.
We should not ‘support’ abortion. We should recognise it is an unavoidable necessity, which, if it has to take place, should be done legally and in conditions of safety. We should not support it as an extended form of contraception. We should recognise the damage abortion does to the mental health and long-term life chances of often young and vulnerable female members of the working class.
Conceptions arising from rape or incest or with identified genetic abnormalities are surely mitigating examples; terminations in such cases also contribute to the public health of the working class.
For our public health policy, however, we should surely be advocating a reduction of at least 50% in the first instance in the number of abortions, and for the vast majority, if not all, to be performed within 10 or 13 weeks: ie, when there is no chance of viability and the foetus has not yet developed into a recognisable human being.
This is absolutely not about banning abortion or forcing women to have unwanted pregnancies. It is emphatically not about forcing women into back-street, illegal and dangerous abortions. It is about saying that abortion is a very poor health and social outcome and that we should be developing strategy and policy to drastically reduce the need for it to take place.
Following the recent crisis at Radio 2, I was interested to learn that suspended presenter Jonathan Ross is in the middle of a three-year contract with the BBC. Ross presents the BBC’s Film 2008 and has his own Friday night TV programme. For doing that, the BBC is paying him £18 million over three years.
For the same amount of money, the BBC made the natural history programme Planet Earth, which took five years to make and has been sold to TV stations across the world. At the same time, in 2005, the BBC made the classic drama Bleak House for £6 million, which has also sold worldwide.
Instead of paying Ross more than £16,000 a day, the BBC should stick to what it does best. That is documentaries, classic drama productions and current affairs programmes.
I agree with Andrew Northall that Paul Flewers soft-soaps the genocidal, racist Nazi regime as the basis for his criticism of the former Soviet Union (Letters, October 16). Not only was Flewers’ soft-soaping of the psychopathic racists of Nazism surprising; equally astonishing was his remark: “I could compare Stalin’s Soviet Union with the capitalist democracies of its time, but what would that show other than to put Stalin and his crew in an even worst light.”
Oh, really. What capitalist democracies at the time did you have in mind, Paul? Perhaps you meant the United States with its racial segregation and its lynchings. Alternatively, you may have had in mind Britain, where, in the time of Stalin, the relatively light treatment of the working class and liberal democracy had arisen from the benefits of slave trade and the exploitation of the largest empire known in history. I think you have spent too much time in bourgeois academia and need to wise up.
And, Paul, what about more recently in Iraq, where over half a million people have died as a result of the sanctions imposed by the liberal US and UK regimes following the first war against Iraq in the 1990s?
While I believe that no socialist regime or communist leader is above criticism, it is obvious that much of the criticism of the former Soviet Union is one-sided. We must not forget that the level of repression in the Soviet Union in the time of Stalin, and indeed before Stalin, resulted from various factors associated with attempting to lead the transition to socialism in a backward country from the standpoint of general economic and cultural development.
But why only blame Stalin for this? Proletarian dictatorship in a backward country in itself represented a significant departure from Marxism, the leading proponent of which was Trotsky, whom Hillel Ticktin regards as possibly the greatest Marxist of the last century. Certainly, Lenin came to advocate this dictatorship as well, although not based on permanent revolution, but rather on what he thought was the imminence of the European revolution.
The failure of the revolution in the more advance countries isolated the Bolsheviks, foreseen in Lenin’s teaching about uneven development and the possibility of socialism in one country to begin with. The fear of counterrevolution leading to the suppression of factions in the Bolshevik Party, which was supported enthusiastically by Trotsky, certainly would have contributed to undermining democracy.
The continuing threat of counterrevolution undermined any struggle to develop a democratic socialist society. The liberal critics of Stalin often forget this.
This does not mean I absolve Stalin’s regime from any wrongdoings. What needs to be criticised, however, is the lack of democratic culture in the revolutionary movement as a whole, where individuals are expelled if they disagree with the leadership of any of the sects.
We must not forget that Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party not for opposing the Leninist strategy-for revolution, but for leading antigovernment demonstrations in 1927 in a period of rising tensions between the Soviet regime and imperialism. This arguably makes Stalin more tolerant than most of his critics in the sects today.
Whilst I have many disagreements with Mike Macnair - and, it should be said, many agreements too - I would like to point out the main weakness in John Robinson’s critique of Mike in the last issue (‘Succumbing to reformism’, October 30).
John speaks of the task of the revolution as being to smash the bourgeois state and put down counterrevolution in order to place the workers in the position of rulers so that they can be transformed. He quotes The German ideology to back up this conception. The problem is that the Bolshevik revolution and all other similar revolutions have shown that this method of transformation does not put the working class in place as political rulers. It puts in place an elite that rules through its control of the party and the state. That has to be the result of the Leninist shortcutting of the Marxist requirement, as set out by Engels, that “the class moves as a whole”, and of Marx and Engels that it is necessary to win within the working class the “battle of democracy”.
The idea that the working class can be transformed as a result of such a revolution into the “new man” is utopian. Ideas are a product of material conditions, but this is not mechanical. It takes time for ideas to change. Simply nationalising the means of production and instituting a plan cannot suddenly form a socialist consciousness in the working class. At best, it can have that effect within a vanguard minority. But therein lies the problem, the source of that vanguard minority imposing its will over the majority. It could take several generations before the working class became a truly socialist, class-conscious entity. In the best of all possible worlds, that vanguard minority would rule benignly, assisting its development along that path. Unfortunately, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.
As for The German ideology, I think it is dangerous to take some of these early writings and snatch quotes as though they represent Marx and Engels’ mature thoughts. In many of these early writings, and in the Communist manifesto itself, there are clear hangovers from Hegelianism and the statism that flowed from it. The later writings provide a better guide, with the rejection of many of those ideas of top-down transformation found in Marx’s criticism of precisely those ideas in, for example, the Critique of the Gotha programme, Marx’s address to the First International and his clear programme in favour of the working class liberating itself from below - bringing about the social revolution through its acquisition of capital by the creation of cooperatives and so on; the struggles around that would necessarily lead workers both to develop their own political and democratic forms, and to realise the need to gain political power for itself.
It’s on this last basis I’d take issue with Mike. I think that in developing specifically proletarian forms of property the working class necessarily creates proletarian forms of democracy - a direct democracy - and the natural hierarchical form of that is the workers’ council.
John Robinson brings up some interesting points in response to Macnair’s “profoundly true and important” book on revolutionary strategy.
First, the history of dual power (as a counter to the very class-ambiguous democratic republic), which was raised programmatically by the comrades in the Revolutionary Democratic Group. The problem with dual power, which caused me to consider neologisms further, is the notion that only the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are struggling for power. What about the small-business petty bourgeoisie and manager-coordinators, for example? What about the forces for a potential, class-wavering neo-Bonapartism? What about the underclasses outside the legal wage-labour system (like the lumpenproletariat)? In other words, where’s the “class-struggle democracy”?
Second, he brings up the time-old question of parliamentarism. Here I’d like to bring up a point raised by Lars Lih two years ago: Kautsky, contrary to what many under-educated followers of Lenin today would say, wrote a series of articles in the 1900s about Marx’s work on the Paris Commune which were translated into Russian just after the revolution. In these articles, Kautsky restated the pre-war revolutionary-centrist consensus that, even if parliaments were “conquered”, they would have to undergo radical democratic transformation. This is why the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party stated that “the full, consistent and firm realisation of all these political and social reforms can be achieved only by the overthrow of the autocracy and by the convocation of a constituent assembly freely elected by the entire people.”
Neither Robinson nor Macnair (the latter in his definition of “extreme democracy” and “Athenian democracy”) have fully revisited “the democracy question”. Why the fetish for that aristocratic principle of selection known as elections? Why no participatory (or even direct) democracy on the issues? Why no consideration for the classical democratic principle of selection known as sortition as a necessary replacement for elections?
Comrade Jack Conrad has decided to come back with another article on Stalinism’s victims (‘Dripping from head to foot with blood and dirt’, October 23).
Half is another appraisal and defence of the Secret Intelligence Service agent, Robert Conquest. His Great terror is regarded as “groundbreaking” and “an influential and an honest work of scholarship”. In order to support this Conrad quotes comrade Hillel Ticktin’s reassurance that Conquest “has researched the issue as well as anyone”. How can an agent writing during the cold war produce an honest work ? I’ve never heard of honesty being a rule of conduct for these services!
Conrad goes on to cite another horrendous cold war publication, The black book of communism, used as a basis for the European bourgeoisie to equate Nazism with communism (that is, communism equals Stalinism, in their naive brains), for whitewashing imperialism and Nazi collaborators in the Baltic States, etc.
He writes: “It gives a 20-million-total death toll (albeit for the entire period between 1917 and 1991). Part one, consisting of 15 chapters, one quarter of the entire book, is written by Nicolas Werth, a member of the Paris Institute for Contemporary History. Along with many recent writers, he boasts of gaining ‘access to the newly opened archives’.” Comrade Conrad is ignorant about the debate over the 20-million death toll Courtois used but Werth didn’t accept.
The chapters that deal with the USSR, which are the most serious of the book and the only ones in fact in which there is a reference to archival material, do not give any totals for the victims. Their writer is Werth, who declares explicitly that he considers the figure given by Conquest (five million) excessive. Relying on concrete documents, he notes 681,692 executions and 150,000 other deaths at the climax of the purge, in 1937-38.
While these numbers are frightening, they are “insufficient” for the comparison with Nazism that Courtois seeks. To produce the desired result, the maximum ‘estimates’ for Stalinist purges and also victims of the big famines in 1921-22 and 1933-34, plus all the dead during the three-year civil war that followed the October Revolution, are added up. Courtois just keeps adding up whatever he fancies and comes up with his nice round figure of 100 million victims of communism. Easy to remember, easy to sell!
Comrade Conrad has repeatedly tried to imply that I am a pro-Stalinist. Well, it sure would suit him if I was one, but that is not the case. I’m actually regarded as a staunch anti-Stalinist amongst my comrades. The Greek left still has pro-Stalin parties with a large base, but I’m not a member of any of them: I’m a member of a relatively small organisation that is anti-Stalinist and debunks ‘socialism in one country’. I don’t deny Stalinism’s role in the deaths in the great purge, in the gulags and in the famine.
However, the refutation of Stalinism is a task of the working class movement, not the bourgeoisie and its lackeys. Thus, not only do I belittle the utter cold war crap of R Conquest, financed and backed by the secret service, but I stand for the annihilation and destruction of such institutions that breed idiots like Conquest. I quote and use Getty’s work because it stands as the most scientifically based up to this day. I’m aware that Getty is no Marxist, but he is far from being a rat like Conquest.
To say that there were 1-1.5 million deaths in the gulags (2.7 million if we add convicts in the labour camps), and 700,000 executions is not to play things down - the figure is too huge to belittle! It stands as a complete condemnation of Stalin, who proclaimed that the USSR had reached socialism in 1936, had abolished classes, boasted of the most democratic constitution in the world and was heading to communism.
Comrade Conrad does, however, make some correct observations: For example: “It is absolutely clear that the gulag system cannot be compared with any ‘normal’ prison regime. It did not consist of extermination camps on the pattern of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. Nonetheless, the gulags exterminated.” Although I have to say that forced labour camps and prison labour have been imposed in bourgeois republics like the USA and France, and in the British empire - Australia as a matter of fact started off as a penal colony. Those camps also “exterminated” and there was not much fun and happiness there either.
Comrade Conrad attributes something between 10 and 20 million deaths to the Stalin regime simply because he thinks it is true. That’s all he can come up with for an argument. There is no reason why Conquest’s estimate has more credibility than if I said there were 50 million deaths. Comrades Conrad and Ticktin should do some more reading on the subject instead of just accepting Conquest’s unscientific estimates.
Polemics, if they are to be worthwhile, have to be based on a willingness to engage with the real ideas of opponents. Otherwise they do not rise above childish name-calling.
Paul Smith accuses me of “unconscious anti-Trotskyist bigotry” (Letters, October 30). Apparently I characterise the former Soviet Union “as a socialist society”. The problem is that I do no such thing.
As I explained in my offending article - ‘Dripping from head to foot with blood and dirt’ - Stalin’s bureaucratic socialism was a form of “anti-socialism” In that sense it was “no different from feudal, bourgeois, Christian, state or military socialism” (Weekly Worker October 23).
The adjectives are there for a good reason. Comrade Smith might just as well accuse me of saying the Soviet Union was a form of socialism when I say it was a form of “anti-socialism”. By the way, like Lenin, I take socialism to be the lower phase of communism (an idea comrade Smith contemptuously dismisses as “Stalinism”).
For me Stalin’s first-five year plan marked “counterrevolution within the revolution”. Comrade Smith may consider this “anti-Trotskyist bigotry” too. So be it. For as much I respect Trotsky as a Marxist, I consider him profoundly wrong when he glowingly reported that with the first five year plan: “Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface - not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity” (L Trotsky Revolution betrayed 1936).
Clearly comrade Smith does not want to engage with what I have written. But why go to the bother of putting into my mouth absurd ideas, especially ideas I clearly oppose? Presumably comrade Smith still believes that Trotsky was right, that the Soviet Union in the 1930s was a “degenerate workers’ state”.