Comrade Pham Binh’s letter of April 19 makes a series of distinct points and I will respond to them largely in order.
1. On comrade Binh’s protest against the “method of debate”: it is completely normal in printed or web debate to respond to arguments published elsewhere which you do not intend to repeat, and I stated at the beginning of my piece that we had cut comrade Binh’s article and gave a clear reference to where the full text could be found. There is nothing in this method at all inconsistent with “rigorous and honest debate”.
2. I stand by my characterisation of comrade Binh’s view of the Occupy movement. Comrade Binh’s own title for his piece is ‘Over a Cliff and into Occupy with Lenin’. He says that Occupy has functioned in practice like the much-sought-after but never replicated vanguard party that Lenin helped create in early 20th century Russia. He goes on to quote Lenin, in Leftwing communism, arguing that revolutionary discipline comes from (to summarise) the combination of (1) class-consciousness, tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism with (2) an ability to link up with the broad masses and (3) correct political strategy and tactics. For tenacity, self-consciousness and heroism he links Occupy with the US civil rights movement and the Black Panthers.
He also says that: “The correctness of Occupy’s tactics and political strategy is deeply felt by huge numbers of people because both have proven to be unmatched in effectiveness. This mass feeling explains why the ideas, values, and methods that animated [Occupy Wall Street], such as general assemblies, modified consensus, autonomy, horizontalism, direct action and direct democracy, dominate all corners of Occupy.”
He emphasises that “Lenin’s vision of revolution was fundamentally inclusive, not exclusive, and the same is true of Occupy’s vision.” It would, I think, have made more sense for comrade Binh to back off from what is, frankly, obviously OTT praise of Occupy, rather than to accuse me of mischaracterising his position.
3. On the “multi-tendency party”, I said that the CPGB’s conception of what is needed is rather sharply different from common versions - and I attributed the commonest version to Louis Proyect and to the Mandelites. I did not make clear, as I should have, that I regard comrade Binh’s argument about Occupy not as an example of this sort of “multi-tendency party” conception, but as an example of what I said slightly later in the piece, that: “Meanwhile, the anarchists and semi-anarchists episodically reinvent the square wheel of ‘direct action’ coupled with the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’: producing, as they have always produced, ephemeral spectaculars which draw in wider forces briefly, but evaporate quickly ...”
4. On Leftwing communism, my argument is not that Lenin actually exactly asserted the later orthodoxy, but that he spun the pre-1914 Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s orthodox Kautskyism (as against Luxemburg and the ‘direct action’ left) as an example of the uniquely long and successful experience of Bolshevism (as against the ‘youthfulness’ or ‘childhood disorders’ of the post-1918 western left). The effect of that spin was to create the conditions for the development of the orthodox dogma that the fundamental split came in 1903.
It is, of course, true that Marx and Engels used the concept of ‘party’ in the sense of an unorganised political trend. I think it is highly unlikely that Lenin was speaking merely in this sense in 1920 after the long dominance of the model of the German Social Democratic Party as an organised party.
5. On ‘Lassalleans’ and ‘Marxists’ in the proto-SPD: certainly there were sharp differences, and these persisted after 1891. But both the ‘Lassalleans’ and the ‘Marxists’ when they unified in 1875 were already agreed on the fundamental questions of ‘class’ not ‘popular’ politics, and of working class political action, as opposed to the political indifferentism of the Proudhonists and the direct-action fetishism of the Bakuninists.
6. It is certainly true that US politics is different from politics elsewhere: if for no other reason than because (as Engels said of 19th century Britain) the US “exploits the entire world”. But it is still not a 19th century politics. On the one hand, the mass influence of the ‘fractured heritage’ of the left is gone pretty much everywhere. On the other, the practical political significance of rather small left groups and parties has not “been completely uprooted and destroyed” even in the US. In particular, radical movements are steered back towards the Democratic Party not just by the dominance of the two-party system, but also by the continued influence in the left and the labour movement of the Communist Party of the USA, of its very numerous unorganised ex-members, and the wider influence of the ideas of ‘official’ communism.
On the other hand, “the ideas, values, and methods that animated OWS, such as general assemblies, modified consensus, autonomy, horizontalism, direct action and direct democracy” is merely a reinvention of the ideas of one branch of this ‘fractured heritage’: Bakuninism.
On other foot
Among the things that Barbara Finch gets a bit wrong in her letter (April 19) is the Jewish religious law of Halitza (Levirare marriage).
According to her, “childless Jewish widows have to go through a disgusting and degrading ceremony if they want to free themselves from their brother-in-law’s right to have a child by them, as proxy for their dead husband. This involves kneeling to take off the brother-in-law’s shoe and being spat on by him; some brothers-in-law blackmail the widow for money or other favours before they agree to this ceremony.” She describes this as “medieval barbarism”.
Had she bothered to consult the source - not medieval, but much older (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) - she would have realised that she had it back to front. It is the brother-in-law who is duty-bound to marry the childless widow; and if he refuses, she must degrade him publicly by removing his shoe and spitting in his face. See also www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Halitza.html.
This law of Levirate marriage played an interesting part in English history, as it was used by Henry VIII to argue that it was his religious duty to marry Catherine of Aragon, the childless (and most probably virgin) widow of his elder brother, Arthur. (Later he changed his mind, but failed to persuade the pope that it was all a big mistake.)
On other foot
On other foot
I entirely agree with Barbara Finch’s criticisms of my letter (April 19). I should have been more precise when I wrote, “If equal rights for Arabs and Israelis means no Israel, then that is a price well worth paying.” What I was saying was that equal rights for Arabs and Israelis will mean no Israel as a Zionist entity - which is, of course, what the current demands for recognition amount to. It goes without saying that Jewish Israelis have the right to continue living in Israel as equal citizens with their Arab neighbours.
Of course, the bigots of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, to say nothing of many racists of the far right, will choose to leave. It will be no loss. The same occurred in Rhodesia and South Africa. In addition, many Israelis have two passports and it is the right of such a state to insist that those holding two passports make a choice. Many of those in Israel currently, such as the Russian Jews (or one-third non-Jews) didn’t want to be there, but the Zionists campaigned for over a decade for the United States to shut the immigration doors (as they did during the holocaust). But a secular, unitary state cannot be founded on the expulsion of its inhabitants and, in this, I agree with Barbara.
As regards the Socialist Workers Party, Barbara is correct to deny a whole analysis based upon a single line, but unfortunately it is not just a single line. When Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign invited Lenni Brenner, author of Zionism in the age of the dictators and 51 documents, to speak on holocaust memorial day, the Zionists mounted a vigorous campaign to exclude him from all publicity materials. They did the same with Hajo Meyer, a survivor of Auschwitz and a noted supporter of the Palestinians.
What was remarkable at the time was that the SWP criticised SPSC for inviting Brenner, who has written extensively on Zionist collaboration with the Nazis. Leave aside that it was a New Labour gimmick to institute holocaust memorial day, given their appalling record in respect of the deportation of Roma. But the SWP was recognising the Zionist monopoly over the holocaust and saying that Palestinian solidarity organisations would just have to grin and bear it and not challenge the Zionist claim to represent the resistance (as well as the Judenrat and other collaborators).
In Brighton some years ago, the SWP openly organised a joint meeting with Zionist speakers at which all criticism of the Zionist record in the holocaust was excluded - I know, because I intervened in one such session to point out a few home truths. In search of a fake anti-fascist unity, the SWP has tended to compartmentalise the holocaust on the one hand and anti-fascism on the other, and to repeat the mantra, ‘Never again’, without ever analysing how the Zionists use that specifically.
Arthur Bough denies that capitalism is in decline (Letters, March 8). In so doing, he adopts positions consistent with bourgeois propaganda.
The category of decline follows from Marx’s dialectical method. Marx assumed that capitalism - like every other natural and social entity - had a birth, maturation, decline and death. He discovered the law that regulates the system. This is the law of value. In other words, the contradiction between use and exchange value provides the dynamic for changes in the labour process and the mode of the extraction of the surplus product.
The essence of a declining capitalism is a weakening of the hold that the value form has over social relations. It is marked by a growth of forms of capital and labour-power unproductive of value and surplus value, and a disintegration of the source of value - abstract labour.
Some of the consequences of decline are the domination of capital by finance capital; the tendency to monopoly; the emergence of institutions trying to organise and manage the global economy; nationalised and regulated entities; increased bureaucracy; state provision of welfare; and the socialisation and politicisation of economic relations generally.
In contrast, Bough derives his ideas of decline from three non-Marxist sources. The first is Stalinism, the second bourgeois economics and the third is the Soviet economist, Kondratiev.
From Stalinism, he takes the proposition that ‘decline’ means either a terminal crisis or an absolute drop in the standard of living of the working population. As the system is not yet facing proletarian overthrow and capitalism is still capable of creating new jobs, he concludes there is no economic crisis and therefore no decline (‘The crisis is financial, it is not economic’, October 13).
From bourgeois economics, Bough takes the idea that decline consists in the falling growth rates of national economies. He argues that, despite falling growth in the US and major European economies, capitalism has generated growth in some developing countries. He cites - as evidence of a tendency - the 2007 pre-crash growth rates of Mauritania (18%) and Angola (26%). He thinks these figures prove that capitalism as a whole is not in decline.
Finally, from Kondratiev, he takes the notion of decline as a falling rate of investment in technology. This corresponds to waves within long cycles that Kondratiev predicted would last for 50 years. Using trade figures, Bough argues that capitalism is now in an ascending wave of the cycle. Bough dismisses Trotsky’s criticisms of Kondratiev’s schema as undialectical and states that - contrary to appearances - the global economy is now experiencing an upturn. It is therefore neither in decline nor in crisis.
Following Kondratiev, Bough is forced to argue that there has been no essential change in the operation of the law of value: 21st century capitalism is fundamentally no different from 19th century capitalism. Political events such as the October revolution (and the Stalinist defeat lasting 70 years) have had little or no effect on the development of the system.
Denial of decline drives him to defend some absurd positions. These include that the export of finance capital abroad has not been a source of revenue for imperialist countries; that Stalinism did not influence bureaucratic forms of control over workers during the cold war; and that no distinction can be made between productive and unproductive labour.
It is not clear, therefore, whether Bough is a Marxist. His rejection of reality is consistent with bourgeois ideas that the value form gains increasing hold over social relations each time capitalism recovers from a downturn and that the ruling class has not made any concessions to workers.
Indeed, if Bough is correct, there is no reason to believe the system should ever significantly alter or come to an end. If he is a Marxist and thinks that capitalism is still in a healthy, mature phase, then he has a responsibility to outline the conditions that would precipitate its decline. I doubt whether he is capable of doing this.
Nice cup of tea
The irony of history is that the current crisis of capitalism has led to a crisis of the left. Since the financial crisis began in 2008, we have seen expulsions, resignations and splits in left organisations ranging from Socialist Appeal to the Socialist Workers Party. The CPGB/Weekly Worker have not been immune to this crisis of the left - hence the splits over what orientation Marxists should take towards the Labour Party.
As Robbie Rix recently explained in his fighting fund column, the Weekly Worker will be hard hit by the Royal Mail’s increase in first-class postage to 60p on April 30 (‘Extortionate’, April 12). For all the organisations of the left, who produce hard copies of their publications, it is very likely that this price rise will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The leaders of these organisations will exert enormous pressure on their members to make up the shortfall by increasing their monthly standing orders. However, the result of this increased financial commitment, in a time of austerity, will be that we will see even more expulsions, resignations and splits over the coming period.
It is likely that most of the former students who recently joined left organisations will use this increased financial commitment as an excuse to end their period of socialist measles. The left, who have built their organisations on the shifting sands of radicalised students, will be left high and dry, and increasingly dependent on older, affluent, middle class members. However, these members have as much connection with the real world of food banks and doorstep lenders as the man in the moon.
As Dave Vincent has indicated, the CPGB now has a deep entryist policy in regard to the Labour Party, which is very similar to Alan Woods’s centrist Socialist Appeal. Such a policy of sitting in meetings of Labour Party branches waiting for the arrival of the massed ranks of the impoverished working class has doomed Socialist Appeal to oblivion. The thesis of the CPGB of playing the “long game” in regard to Labour Party entryism will be a finished recipe for resignations and splits similar to Socialist Appeal. If this thesis is followed, we may as well take off our slippers, put our feet up and have a nice cup of tea, whilst we wait for better times.
Nice cup of tea
Nice cup of tea
Off the cliff
First off, I’d like to welcome the article on Mélenchon (‘Momentum builds behind France’s third man’, April 12). The New Anti-capitalist Party had it coming for its sectarianism in the European Union elections, but not mentioned in the article is the need for the parties on the left to call for proportional representation (probably of the German sort).
I’d also like to welcome Paresh Chattopadhyay chipping in (Letters, April 12). I sympathise with his views regarding the need to abolish generalised commodity production, but he’s really off the cliff to suggest that every single iteration of generalised commodity production is capitalistic, that capitalism doesn’t need to rely on markets (consumer goods and services, labour and capital). His definition of ‘state capitalism’ really stretches things too far, I think.
Strategically, though, his line is ultra-leftist through and through. Real parties are real movements and vice versa (so most of today’s ‘movements’ and today’s electoral ‘parties’ don’t count). The working class cannot become the ‘worker class for itself’ without constituting itself into a mass political party-movement in the real sense, distinct from and opposed to all the other ‘parties’. Taking the SPD model to a new level these days requires that the party-movement create new internal party organs: ie, central and executive workers’ councils replacing traditional central and executive committees; lower party councils replacing traditional party committees.
I do agree with Paresh on his criticism of the Bolsheviks’ sloganeering. They should have called, as Lars Lih noted, for a revolutionary provisional government to carry out the minimum programme; and this RPG should have been similar to Mao’s central people’s government and (to a lesser extent) Castro’s pre-1976 council of ministers in relation to formal accountability to some revolutionary convention (called for by Bukharin and others on the left to replace the constituent assembly and congress of soviets).
Off the cliff
Off the cliff
I welcome Ted Hankin’s views on world peak oil (Letters, March 29). Hankin argues that the consequences of the peak “must deal the final blow to ‘productive forces’ theories of socialism”. However, further on, Hankin continues: “… unlike Tony Clark, I do not write off Marxism as ‘obsolete’ because energy abundance was taken for granted within the doctrine: the point is to bring the theory into line with reality (this goes for environmental degradation as well).” This at least affirms that Marxism does have an obsolete side to it, in that it excluded the central role of non-renewable energy in the development of capitalism and the expansion of the productive forces.
Marxism not only took energy abundance for granted; Marxism is also based on the abundance theory of communism - in Marx’s view communism was only possible in a state of abundance. He may not have directly advocated the productive forces theory of socialism, but, since for Marx the precondition for communism is abundance, it is clear that productive forces theory find its lineage in Marxism.
I believe communism is mostly the result of ideological struggle and transformation, not the result of abundance. The productive forces theory views expanding the productive forces as the essential goal for the attainment of communism, with the ideological side taking the back seat. While expanding the productive forces is desirable and necessary up to a point, I certainly would not subscribe to the view that it inevitably leads to communism.
Good to see that Terry Gavin was honoured for her lifetime of work for republican and other political prisoners (Letters, March 15). Terry not only campaigned for republican prisoners with the late sister Sarah Clarke but also, in more recent times, for political prisoners and ‘dissidents’ in Tibet and China. Well done, Terry.
World to win
The results from the first round of voting in the French presidential elections were another indication of a growing rage against the liberal-capitalist political establishment, a rage which the populist right has been the most successful at galvanising. Marine Le Pen’s Front National is now going to be a key player in French politics (both in the run-up to the second round of voting and in the period of political and economic upheaval to come).
Whilst the campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche was successful in creating widespread enthusiasm, pushing Hollande’s rhetoric to the left and drawing in thousands, the inescapable fact is that ultimately the far right won the battle for the hearts and minds of the young and disenfranchised. Polls before the election demonstrated how FN is the most popular party amongst the French youth and it is clear that in recent years they have established a solid base amongst young working class people. For a youth who have had their dignity robbed by mass unemployment, Le Pen’s nationalist rhetoric offers a sense of pride and belonging (one based on vicious exclusionary nationalism).
Equally Le Pen’s noises on the economy - at a time of crisis throughout Europe that has cast doubt amongst the masses as to the merits of globalisation - have made it easy for her to tap into this discontent. The success of Le Pen (and to an extent Hollande and Mélenchon) is largely due to the rejection of neoliberalism and the tyranny of ‘finance’.
Bourgeois analysts have already started arguing that the election result demonstrates the similarities between far right and far left: Dominic Lawson argued in The Independent, for example, that these ‘protectionist’ ‘totalitarianisms’ should be counterposed to liberal democracy and economic ‘freedom’, which, of course, has resulted in a perfect and wholly self-regulating socio-economic system. This argument from liberals is to be expected: capitalism and its accompanying liberal politics go into crisis; the class struggle intensifies; and resistance to capital takes different, ‘illiberal’ forms which hegemonic forces within society must absorb or defeat. The anger that fuels the radical left also has the potential to fuel the populist right, and unfortunately this is what has occurred in Europe since the financial crisis hit in 2008.
The rise of the English Defence League; the 500,000 votes for the British National Party in the last general election; and the UK Independence Party’s current performance in the opinion polls - all indicate a similar rise of right-populist sentiment in the UK. Large sections of the capitalist media have played their part in fuelling this (whipping up anti-intellectualist feeling in response to the resistance of students and lecturers to the government’s education reforms; framing the August riots as down to ethno-cultural problems; attacking public sector unions for not accepting austerity for the good of the nation; treating the Muslim community with suspicion, etc). It is likely that if this trend continues there will be an attempt by the capitalist class to usurp leadership of the populist movement in order to maintain social relations within society as they are in the politically turbulent years to come. What this means is the inevitable betrayal of the class by the right, as the populists become the willing servants of capital, and so the popularity of the right must falter sooner or later.
If the left internationally is going to combat the rise of the right it must do so by addressing the systemic causes of the crisis we are currently facing. Capitalism itself is falling to pieces - no government intervention, cliques of bankers or low-paid migrant worker have caused the crisis. We must rearticulate problems perceived as ethnic and cultural, in terms of class and the functioning of global capitalism in the 21st century. In doing so, we strive to unify all workers, students and unemployed people.
Communists must address the rise of rightwing populism and halt its further development by winning back the workers. This can be done if the left achieves meaningful unity around a programme for an alternative to crisis, war and poverty - intervening in the workers’ struggles, as the capitalists try and rob from our class the concessions gained after World War II, and challenging the ‘progressive’ credentials of the populists (Mélenchon did well in exposing how Le Pen’s plan to end state “refunds” for abortion will be a serious attack of women’s rights). Winning those frustrated with the status quo is possible for the left even in its current state, as George Galloway’s election in Bradford West demonstrated. However, there is a world to win and establishing unity on the left is going to be a vital precondition.
World to win
World to win