Teaching the sect’s line

AWL review: Education or training?

Mike Macnair reviews: Cathy Nugent (ed) 'Marxist ideas to turn the tide: readings and reflections on revolutionary socialist strategy'. Phoenix Press/Workers’ Liberty, 2013, pp138, £5

The far left has a curious relationship to the history of the movement. At times and in relation to some parts of the history it is so uncritical that the left groups appear as ‘1917 re-enactment societies’. At other times, it is uncritical in the opposite direction: ‘That was then - this is now’, or a version of Henry Ford’s “History is bunk”. Usually, this sort of ‘wholly new situation’ argument is a preface to reinventing the square wheel, whether the ‘new’ is to be some form of Bakuninism (‘Occupy’ and so on) or some form of Fabianism (most varieties of the broad-front project).

Marxist ideas to turn the tide is a collection of readings printed for those attending the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Ideas for Freedom weekend school in June.1 It expresses itself, in Cathy Nugent’s introduction and in some of the pieces, as being about critical appropriation of the history of the movement, and especially the early years of the Communist International (1919-22). But I have to say that it seems to me to lean towards uncritical appropriation of parts of the Comintern’s policies, in places almost re-enactor-ish in style, with uncritical rejection of other parts.

The book contains, beyond the brief introduction, five reprints from the post-1917 movement and the early Comintern; two reprints of older articles by Trotskyists; seven reprints from the AWL and its predecessor organisations; and a version of AWLer Martyn Hudson’s conference paper, for the 2013 Delhi Historical materialism conference, on the 1920 Comintern Congress of the Peoples of the East.2

So far this is largely a collection of materials available elsewhere,3 put in a handy printed form, presumably for the use of people attending Ideas for Freedom on the assumption that it would be inconvenient for them to access the material online using one or another mobile device. Since, at least from my experience at the Ideas for Freedom sessions, speakers were not asking participants to consult the texts in detail, the point of the book is less obvious. As compared to what is available online, the selection of materials looks in some respects odd.

After Cathy Nugent’s introduction, the book opens with the concluding passage of Rosa Luxemburg’s What does the Spartacus League want? (December 1918), which emphasises that the Spartacus League “is not a party that wants to rise to power over the mass of workers or through them ... [it] is only the most conscious, purposeful part of the proletariat” and the League’s refusal to participate in governmental power with the rightwing Social Democrats. This serves as a sort of long epigraph to the book.


Thereafter, the book is divided into four parts. The first part, ‘Context’, consists of Al Glotzer’s 1946 review of the 1945 English translation of volume 1 of The first five years of the Communist International (FFYCI); Paul Hampton’s review of John Riddell’s Toward the united front volume (Chicago 2013) of the proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern;4 and Trotsky’s December 1922 report to a meeting of the Communist fraction of the 10th All-Union Congress of the Soviets on the Fourth Congress of the Comintern (less its first three paragraphs), printed under the title, ‘Conditions for revolution’. This last text is largely an analysis of the international political situation in the mid-1920s, though it discusses briefly the ideas of the united front and the workers’ government, before moving into the political and economic situation and tasks in Russia.

Glotzer provides an uncritical examination of the early Comintern, and a view of the world in which he was writing immediately after World War II entirely framed by Trotsky’s idea of the ‘crisis of revolutionary leadership’ as sufficiently accounting for the absence of a post-war revolutionary movement equivalent to that in 1918-20. Hampton’s review is mainly a fairly detailed summary of what can be found in Riddell. He identifies the period, as Trotsky and Radek did, mainly as one of stabilisation and the struggle to win the majority of the working class (p20). By doing so he de facto overestimates the direct relevance of what he calls the “holy trinity” (also p20) of transitional demands, united front and workers’ government today. These were policies for minority, but mass, communist parties. Today we have scattered left grouplets, faced with the bureaucratised shells of mass workers’ organisations. The element of Trotsky’s report of the Congress which assesses the economic and political context is, of course, an exactly contemporaneous assessment.

What is missing here is an assessment of the period in hindsight. For example, is the rather widespread view (outside the Trotskyist milieu) that revolution in the west was not really on the agenda in 1918-23 right or wrong? (My personal view is that it is wrong, at least for 1918-20, and in addition that, whether working class rule was on the agenda or not, civil war remained on the agenda in continental Europe until it actually materialised, most spectacularly in 1939-45.) Why, as a matter of analysis, is it wrong, if that is what you believe? How did this issue affect the judgments made by Comintern then? And what can an explanatory analysis tell us about the very different situations in and after World War II, through the cold war, in the period of the breakdown of the cold war structures between the late 1960s and 1991, and now? On this issue Paul Hampton’s discussion addresses only the question of imperialism and the ‘anti-imperialist united front’ (AIUF) of communists and various forms of nationalists.


The second part, ‘Ideas’, consists of three pieces. First is Trotsky’s famous March 1922 text, On the united front, addressed to France. By its inclusion in FFYCI, this text has tended to overshadow among Trotskyists the December 1921 Comintern Theses on the united front.5

I commented on the limited direct relevance of the Comintern policy of the united front to small grouplets in my report of Ideas for Freedom in this paper (June 27). I will repeat one point only: the present situation of the left is, in fact, weaker than the situation of the early CPGB - which was too weak, according to Trotsky, to apply the policy of the united front. We do not have a party, even a weak one, but only a series of factional fragments or sects. Our present problem is not to win the masses to our large minority party. It is to create a small minority party which could have a chance of becoming first a large minority, and then a majority.

Second is an article by Clara Zetkin on the ‘workers’ government’ slogan, which Bruce Robinson translated some time ago from a text originally published in December 1922, though clearly written before the Fourth Congress in November-December.6 Zetkin argues for using the slogan, in spite of the scabby character of social democratic governments up to that date, and against the idea that ‘a workers’ government’ can be used as a synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat (working class rule), but is less clear about what it positively is: a feature which her article shared with the Fourth Congress discussions and resolution.

Third is an April 1924 fundraising and organising appeal by Antonio Gramsci for the Ordine Nuovo magazine, reproduced here under the title, ‘What kind of party?’ (it was previously published in translation under the equally misleading title, ‘The programme of L’Ordine Nuovo’).7 It projects the use of the Ordine Nuovo as a clandestine organiser, in the style of the Russian Iskra, under the conditions required by the developing fascist regime. This is pretty much completely irrelevant to present-day conditions, except in the barest outline - the idea of building an educational network round a regular journal, which is an absolute banality of the modern far left, derived ultimately from Lenin’s What is to be done?


The third part, ‘Retreat’, consists of Alfred Rosmer’s ‘La légende du trotskysme’ from February 1925,8 here without the introductory section and given the title ‘The myths of anti-Trotskyism’, and Paul Hampton’s review of Lars T Lih’s Lenin (London 2011).9 Rosmer’s article is a contemporary account of the faction struggle in the Russian CP in 1923-25. Rosmer was an ‘unorthodox’ Trotskyist (so attractive to the AWL, which identifies itself with ‘unorthodox’ Trotskyism); but this sketch of the faction struggle is pretty orthodox Trotsky, as is Glotzer on FFYCI. To 21st century eyes it surely understates the extent to which the prior institutional choices made by a leadership, including Lenin and Trotsky, facilitated the victory of the bureaucratic regime (it is noteworthy in this context that Hampton’s review of Riddell does not address the beginnings at the 3rd and 4th Congresses of Comintern of what was later to be called ‘Bolshevisation’).

Equally, the choice of texts means that the continuing faction struggles in the Russian CP down to Stalin’s double police coup successively against the ‘lefts’ and against the ‘rights’ in 1928- 29 de facto go missing. The narrative is shaped by the selection of texts, so as effectively to place primary blame on Grigory Zinoviev for the development of the bureaucratic regime (as does Trotsky and the origins of Trotskyism, from which the Rosmer translation is taken). Yet Zinoviev preceded Trotsky in identifying the meaning of Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’,10 and fought in opposition in 1925-28; and, though he capitulated in 1928-29, so did many of Trotsky’s closer co-thinkers.

Hampton’s review of Lih’s Lenin is appropriately summed up by its conclusion: “Lenin is an inspiration for those who share his dreams and fight the latter-day philistines”. The narrative is the same as Glozter and Rosmer: a heroic period of the Russian Revolution and Comintern, ended by Lenin’s death and the victory of the Bukharin-Zinoviev-Stalin troika over Trotsky in the succession struggle.


The fourth part, ‘Inspiration’ contains the remaining pieces from AWLers: ‘The nature of our action programme’, being a section from the 1977 Manifesto of the AWL’s predecessor, the International-Communist League, and Sean Matgamna’s ‘What is an action programme?’ from the same period;11 the letter to the left groups, ‘How to make left unity,’ also printed as a leader in Solidarity (May 1 this year); Liam McNulty and Paul Hampton on ‘The United States of Europe’;12 Martyn Hudson on the Congress of the Peoples of the East; and Sean Matgamna on ‘An end to “apparatus Marxism”’.13

It is convenient to comment on these in reverse order. Matgamna on ‘Apparatus Marxism’ is in origin the     introduction to a substantial polemic against the part of the left which took a pro-Serbian line in the 1999 Nato intervention in the Kosovo war. Stripped of this context, the text is abstract. ‘Apparatus Marxism’, it argues, is the subordination of politics and truth to the needs of ‘building the party’. It is frankly questionable how a pro-Serbian line in 1999 would have served anyone’s ‘partybuilding’ projects, as opposed to being a political error driven by the idea of the AIUF. The identification therefore functions merely to smear political disagreement with Matgamna’s ideas, ad hominem, by identification of his opponents with the emissaries of the Stalinised Comintern (pp131- 34), Eduard Bernstein (p135) and the schematic ‘materialists’ among the young German socialist intelligentsia criticised by Engels in his August 5 1890 letter to Conrad Schmidt (pp137- 38). This sequence is an obvious amalgam, like the “anti-Soviet bloc of rights and Trotskyites”: a clear piece of ‘apparatus Marxism’.

Martyn Hudson’s paper on the Congress of the Peoples of the East is difficult to assess because of the form in which it appears, amphibious between the academic and the political. Like the narrative in the ‘Retreat’ part, Hudson is inclined to blame Zinoviev for the things he dislikes about the Congress - and he has an obvious basis for doing so in the fact that Zinoviev was the organiser. Yet the basic strategic approach which formed the political basis of the project of the Congress was Lenin’s conception that the revolution would necessary involve the rising of the petty bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks’ policy of winning peasant support by appropriating the distributivist land programme of the Social Revolutionaries, and Lenin’s arguments in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.

Hudson nods fairly extensively towards ‘Orientalism’, and draws on Dipak Chakrabarti’s critique of “universalising Marxist explanations” and alternative suggestion of “workers ... pre-individualist in consciousness and thus incapable of participating consistently in modern forms of politics and political organisation” in his 2001 Rethinking working class history: Bengal 1890-1940.14 This use lets him identify Zinoviev as experimenting in 1920 with the idea that “through communalism, ethnicism and the multiple faith programmes of the east the Congress would lever the masses into an uprising against the empire of ‘Capital’” (p124).

As history, the paper as printed here is both badly underdocumented on the Congress itself, its context and its preparation - and from a comparative historical perspective ignores the role of (heretical) Christian religious ideas, and the partial persistence of pre-capitalist guild forms, in the formation of the early workers’ movement in Britain.

As politics, the text in its present form assumes rather than argues the falsity of the strategic conception of the anti-imperialist united front (I should say that I agree that it is false) - and then, because the AIUF strategy actually grapples with a real issue of global political subordination of some countries to others and some ethnicities to others, Hudson in a sense reinvents aspects of the politics which has been derived from the AIUF by the left, in the form of fashionable left-academic ideas of identity politics.

When I debated AWLers on imperialism in 2004 they were still holding on to the idea that the AIUF was a Stalinist deformation of the policies of Lenin and the early Comintern leadership, by way of using caveats and secondary comments in Lenin’s writings against the main line of the texts. It is thus a step forward that both Hampton and Hudson recognise that the early Comintern leaders got it wrong on this issue. But it is two steps back to blame the errors of the collective leadership, including Lenin and Trotsky, on Zinoviev.

Europe: transitional?

On the ‘united states of Europe’ we in the CPGB are broadly in agreement with the AWL: that the workers’ movement needs to act on a European scale, and to propose its own Europe, not utopian schemes of national socialism. Liam McNulty and Paul Hampton make a competent fist of working their way through the history of the left’s attitude to the slogan of the ‘United states of Europe’. There are two missing elements of the history.

The first, which may have affected the ability of the Russian CP leadership to use the issue against Trotsky (as it did), is that the ex-leftist Parvus (who is referred to on p117 as influencing Trotsky on the issue) after his pro-German war effort approach in World War I, entered in the early 1920s into a bloc with rightwing industrialist Hugo Stinnes to promote European unification.15

The second, which is the ‘biggie’, is the cold war context of the formation of the European institutions we know today. The belief that the USSR was a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ and the Soviet-bloc regimes ‘deformed workers’ states’, and hence ‘Soviet defencism’, was all orthodox Trotskyism. This logically implied fighting for a policy of breaking with the ‘western’ alliance systems, including the European treaties and institutions (European Economic Community, etc, as they were then called), and joining the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon). Very few Trotskyists were actually prepared to go this far; indeed, even ‘official’ communists sought at most ‘Finlandisation’ of western Europe. But this context certainly created a pull towards the idea that breaking with ‘Europe’ would be in some sense ‘progressive’.

A peculiarity of the account is the identification of the slogan of the United States of Europe as a “transitional slogan”. This identification was made by Jack Bernard in his introduction to the printing of Trotsky’s 1923 article (cited at p120) in What Next? (1997).16 In the original article, Trotsky argues that the slogan is the necessary international counterpart of ‘For a workers’ and farmers’ government’, already adopted by the Fourth Congress: not quite the same thing as a ‘transitional demand’ as theorised in the 1938 Transitional programme.

Today, it would be obviously senseless to call the slogan of the United States of Europe a ‘transitional demand’ in either of the usual senses of that term. On the one hand, the EU and its institutions already exist, having been created by the capitalist states, and our approach has to be for the overthrow of these institutions in favour of working class rule through radical democracy, as we stand for the overthrow of the parliamentary monarchy in the UK. On the other, far from the slogan “stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class”, the dominant mood in the class, not just in the left, is plainly dominated by anti-Europeanism - and not just in Britain, though Britain is an extreme case.

The need for the working class to act politically on a European scale is an objective necessity. This necessity is given both by the actual existence of the EU institutions through which the capitalist class acts on a European scale, and by the economic reasons which Trotsky already identified in 1923, and which have if anything increased in force since then. But, though it is essential for the left to raise this issue, the argument is ‘transitional’ only in the sense of being necessary to the achievement of working class power, and therefore to the transition to socialism: it is neither a bridge to present consciousness nor a bridge between the minimum and maximum programmes.


Paul Demarty on May 16 replied in this paper on behalf of the CPGB Provisional Central Committee to the AWL’s May 1 ‘unity offensive’ letter, under the title, ‘Pull the other one’: ie., that we did not regard this as a serious proposal (the reasons are given by comrade Demarty).

An additional point should be made here. The AWL proposes a “transitional organisation” which would be a “coalition of organisations and individuals” (like the old Socialist Alliance or the present-day Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition). It would be “transitional” because “it would recognise the aim of deepening the cooperation, and discussing through the differences, sufficiently to cohere into a fully united, fully coordinated party” (p112).

The meaning of this ‘cohering’ may be illustrated by a comment on the early 1920s CPGB on p113: “It was at first a ramshackle organisation, quite different in tone and trend from one area to another.” There is an echo here of Martin Thomas’s and Jim Denham’s 1993 comment on the old International Socialism group (which became the SWP): that “IS between the late 1960s and the early 1970s was very different from the SWP today. It was a lively, loose, ramshackle organisation. Many small groupings criticised the leadership’s economism.”17

‘Cohering’, then, implies ceasing to be “ramshackle” in the sense of marked differences in “tone and trend” between different localities. What, then, would AWL leadership comrades make of the Bolsheviks in 1917, whose spring 1917 debate on attitudes to the Provisional Government (the context of Lenin’s April theses) was conducted in public between the Vyborg district committee, the Petrograd committee, and the all-Russian central committee, and whose Siberian organisation remained in organised unity with the Mensheviks until November 1917?18 Would this not be a “ramshackle” organisation which had not yet “[discussed] through the differences, sufficiently to cohere into a fully united, fully coordinated party”?


The two pieces on programme date from 1976-77 and the period of the break-up of the AWL’s predecessor organisation the International- Communist League, formed by a short-lived fusion between Workers’ Fight (the Matgamnaites) and Workers Power.19 It seems that the Workers Power group was more enthusiastic for having a summary general party programme than Workers’ Fight: the 1977 I-CL Manifesto is not available as a whole on the AWL’s website and does not seem to have had a successor, while Workers Power and its oil-slick ‘international’ have produced more than one general programmatic text.

“The nature of our action programme” (pp102-05), from the 1977 Manifesto, is bogstandard Trotskyism on the Second International and the maximum and minimum programme, with a slight ‘Luxemburgist’ tinge presumably picked up during the group’s 1969- 71 participation in IS and the slightly longer participation in IS of the Workers Power side. Unlike the majority of the Second International, it argues, the Bolsheviks “built a revolutionary party which was uniquely sensitive to the creativity of the working class ... which ... absorbed the lessons of its struggles ... and codified them scientifically, thus educating a stable cadre” (pp103-04, emphasis added). This formulation fits absolutely the standard 1970s (and prior) far-left and cold warrior narrative of Bolshevism as a party, rather than a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, with the particular James P Cannon feature of the “stable cadre”.

The idea of transitional demands is to “[link] the goal of socialist revolution with the day-to-day organic struggle imposed on the working class by capitalism” (p102, and repeated in different forms throughout). “The full socialist programme was broken down into a linked chain, each link of which might successively be grasped, and the movement hauled forward, depending on the degree of mobilisation ...” (p104, emphasis added). The “stable cadre” of the party, in other words, lead the masses, “initially, at the beginning of the struggle in which they could learn, formally backward politically” (p103) step by step to the seizure of power. The denial at the end of the text that “transitional demands are clever devices to manipulate the working class, to con them into socialism” (p105) is thus completely unconvincing: by the text’s own argument, that is what they are.

The second text, Sean Matgamna’s ‘What is an action programme’, represents a step back even from the level of commitment to organising on the basis of a political programme represented by the 1977 Manifesto. The “manifesto signifies an attempt to start a process of educating and developing the organisation’s cadres in the politics of the Transitional programme” (p107). And “[W]e do not present or serve up even a much more simple action programme in toto: the organisation uses its judgment to decide how to swivel the various elements in the programme so as best to use them in any concrete situation” (p108). The programme “is not a blueprint, a fixed document ... It can only live and develop in and through the practice of the revolutionary party ...” (p109).

The effect is that the party programme unavoidably becomes merely the practice of the party’s leadership. The basis of the party is its “stable cadre”. They are united not by a common and clearly identified political platform - a programme - but by agreement to the theory of ‘transitional demands’ - or, indeed, merely by loyalty to themselves as a group and their top leaders. ‘Coherence’ is then sect coherence - as is visible in the now 50-year history of the Matgamna tendency’s pursuit of James P Cannon-style ‘raiding entry’ short-term unity operations.


It should now be apparent why I said at the beginning that Marxist ideas to turn the tide seems to me to combine elements of uncritical appropriation of early Comintern policy with elements of uncritical rejection. The uncritical rejection appears in relation to the AIUF: a little more critical than was the case in 2004, but still not really critically examined. But, so far as this issue can be cordoned off, the treatment proceeds on the basis of a ‘heroic period’ of the Comintern in Lenin’s lifetime and before the defeat of Trotsky, as opposed to the ‘apparatus Marxism’ of all that followed: ‘S is for sad Stalinism, that gave us all such a bad name, and T is for Trotsky the hero ...’

Reprinting the materials from the 1970s on programme, as opposed to rewriting them, imports into this book, published in 2013, the whole baggage of the 1970s far left’s cult of What is to be done? read through the prism of the 1903 split, the long history of Bolshevism and so on, which Lars T Lih’s work shows is historically false. It is a paradox of the book’s damnatio memoriae of Zinoviev that the “stable cadre” is, in fact, in origin (via Cannon) derived from Zinoviev’s mythological History of the Bolshevik Party - in its character as an instrument of the troika’s struggle against ‘Trotskyism’.

The discussions of ‘cohering’ and of “ramshackle” organisations in the May 1 2013 ‘unity’ letter show that this is not merely an accident: under the facade of open discussion, the AWL leadership is actually still thinking in these sect terms about the basis of party organisation.

There is a curious passage in the 1977 I-CL Manifesto extract in which it is said - falsely - of the pre-1914 German SPD: “Left and right had in common a bureaucratic, elitist conception of socialism. Their operational image was one of pedagogic teacher to passive pupil ...” (p103). The Gradgrind image of education used here is violently misconceived. In the first place, if the student remains passive no amount of pedagogy will allow them to learn. But secondly, education is about providing the student with the tools to access information for themselves, to construct their own arguments and make their own decision. At any level beyond the very elementary, it can only work by confronting the student with problems. At the level at which education in Marxism has to work, which is education for adults, that means confronting them with unresolved and debated problems: learning through dialectic. By contrast, training drills into the recipients by endless repetition a single practice.

Is Marxist ideas to turn the tide an educational book? Or is it training in the AWL’s particular version of Trotskyism? For what it is worth, it seems to me to be the latter.  




1. For a report of the school see ‘Missing the pointWeekly Worker June 27.

2. So identified on his work page: www.ncl.ac.uk/sacs/staff/profile/martyn.hudson#tab_publications. I say “a version of”, because, though the version in Marxist ideas to turn the tide bears the some of the stigmata of left academic discourse, it also looks as though it has been cut.

3. Unless otherwise indicated in footnotes, the texts can be readily found on the Marxists Internet Archive (www.marxists.org).

4. Available (serialised) at www.workersliberty.org/blogs/paulhampton; cf also my own review: ‘Not a school of strategyWeekly Worker February 21.

5. www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/4th-congress/united-front.htm.

6. It has been on the AWL website since February 2009 at the latest (www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/02/20/clara-zetkin-workers-government-1922). The opening lines make clear that it was written before the Fourth Congress.

7. In Q Hoare (ed) Antonio Gramsci - selections from political writings 1921-26 London 1977, chapter 55. The introductory part of the article has been cut.

8. From La Révolution Prolétarienne No2, the English translation from A Rosmer and others of Trotsky and the origins of Trotskyism (London 2002, pp94-113), there under the title, ‘About the “final warning” given to Trotsky: the myth of Trotskyism’. Again, the introductory part of the article has been cut.

9. www.workersliberty.org/blogs/paulhampton/2011/05/22/lenin-dreamer; cf also my own review: ‘Lenin’s strategy: illusory or realistic?Weekly Worker August 4 2011.

10. See RB Day Leon Trotsky and the politics of economic isolation Cambridge 1973.

11. Both available at www.workersliberty.org/extra?page=3.

12. www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/04/12/what-do-socialists-say-about-united-stateseurope.

13. Published in 2001 as ‘“Apparatus Marxism”, twin of “academic Marxism”’: www.workersliberty.org/story/2007/08/22/apparatus-marxismtwin-academic-marxism.

14. Princeton 2001. The quotations are from the blurb of Chakrabarty’s book (I have not yet read the book itself).

15. ZAB Zeman and WB Scharlau The merchant of revolution Oxford 1965, pp270-74.

16. www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Back/Wnext4/Intro.html; both introduction and article are also on MIA.

17. http://archive.workersliberty.org/publications/readings/trots/power.html.

18. Spring debate: this is notorious, but the geographical variety of Bolshevik politics is also discussed more extensively in A Rabinowitch Prelude to revolution (Bloomington 1968) and The Bolsheviks come to power (London 1979). Siberia: RE Snow The Bolsheviks in Siberia 1917-18 Madison 1977.

19. For the AWL’s account see note 17. Googling does not seem to produce an account from the Workers Power side.