KEN COATES’ "Open Letter to John Prescott" (What Next? No.12) was obviously a heartfelt defence of those Old Labour values which were common currency within the party leadership as recently as John Smith’s time. But I’m still not clear what Ken believes the attitude of the Independent Labour Network (ILN) should be towards those of us who wish to continue the fight against Blairism inside the Labour Party.
The whole thrust of the ILN, so far as I can make out, is to stand candidates against Labour. This, indeed, is the basic message of Ken’s own article, which asks "can New Labour avoid an electoral challenge?", and concludes that, failing a revolt by John Prescott against Blair (a somewhat unlikely scenario), the answer is no.
In these circumstances, as I pointed out in my original article ("The Independent Labour Network: Another Sectarian Dead End?", What Next? No.11). Labour Party members who are publicly involved with the ILN are automatically open to disciplinary action and possible expulsion. In fact this has already happened to ILN members in Leeds. Ken doesn’t explain how this fits in with the original conception of the ILN as an organisation bringing together socialists inside and outside the Labour Party.
He also fails to present a convincing case – or, for that matter, any real case at all – for standing independent candidates against Labour. Comrade Coates’ own understandable outrage at New Labour’s contempt for the poorest sections of society – single mothers, pensioners and others – isn’t a sufficient argument. It is not enough for socialists to be convinced that the Blair government is a pro-capitalist administration acting against the interests of working people and that an alternative is needed. Working people themselves have to be convinced of this, and in large numbers, if electoral challenges to Labour are to win anything other than derisory support. At the present time, this is plainly not the case.
The farcical collapse of the London Socialist Alliance, the electoral bloc of which the London ILN was a part, surely demolishes the belief that the time is ripe for confronting Labour at the polls. The nominal reason for this collapse was that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) withdrew after Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) rejected a joint list for elections to the European Parliament and insisted that it would stand on its own. The SWP was obviously worried that Scargill would get a higher vote than the Socialist Alliance, and wanted to avoid political humiliation.
But the SLP in London in now virtually non-existent on the ground, and half its list for the Euro-elections consists of members of the Stalin Society – a grouping led by Harpal Brar, who believes that the Moscow Trials were a model of socialist legality! If the London Socialist Alliance could be out-polled by an outfit like the SLP, does this suggest that we are in a situation where significant sections of the working class are ready to rally to a socialist alternative to Labour? I think not.
This isn’t to say that socialists should reject standing against Labour in all circumstances. Even if he had avoided getting himself expelled from the Labour Party, Millbank would undoubtedly have prevented Ken Coates from being re-elected as a Labour MEP, so there is an argument for an independent candidacy in his case. But such challenges have no political credibility unless the candidate has a base of support within the working-class electorate, and are therefore an exception. If it is adopted as a general strategy for the left, opposing Labour in elections can only have the result of isolating us from the conflicts that will inevitably emerge within the existing labour movement – the trade unions and the Labour Party.
JOE RASSOOL ("Bosnia and Al Richardson", What Next? No.12) accuses Al Richardson and myself of trying to "impose [our] views as the definitive ones on all subjects" in What Next? and New Interventions. Neither of us has any power over what goes into What Next?, while only I have any influence regarding the contents of New Interventions, and articles appear in most issues that I do not agree with. I only recall two occasions when we decided to not use articles: one by Robin Blick, which rather than continuing the debate he’d opened up, started another; the other an accusation by Paul Trewhela that a Revolutionary Communist Party member had issued a death threat against him, to be executed by the IRA, which we thought unlikely. And both cases were when Ken Tarbuck was still editor.
Rassool calls the article on the National Question by himself and his associates ("Against Neutralism: A Reply to Al Richardson on Bosnia", What Next? No.5) "carefully researched". Yet they asked "whether the xenophobic and great power views of Engels of 1849 and afterwards did not play a part in the capitulation of the main body of German socialism to imperialistic militarism in 1914". Also: "whether the absence of critical debate over Engels’ weltanschauung of 1848 within the German socialist movement in the twentieth century did not carry within it some of the seeds of the holocaust".
To me it would appear that Rassool and Co’s article is not based on a serious study of Marx and Engels (why didn’t they accuse Marx, too, as the outlook and approach was a shared one?), but on a superficial quoting of their more recent critics. Rassool does not even include the Neue Rheinische Zeitung as a source.
Just a couple of examples. Engels in the NRZ, 18 June 1848, on the Prague Uprising. The Germans are condemned as a "nation which throughout its history allowed itself to be used as a tool of oppression against all other nations.... A revolutionised Germany ought to have renounced her entire past, especially as far as the neighbouring nations are concerned. Together with her own freedom, she should have proclaimed the freedom of the nations hitherto suppressed by her. [Whereas] She has fully endorsed all the old oppression of Italy, Poland, and now of Bohemia too, by German troops". He criticises the National Assembly at Frankfurt for being "faint-hearted", describes the Czechs who had risen up as "gallant", and sees the Germans as bearing "responsibility for the ruin of the Czech people, [and for having] betrayed them to the Russians".
Or Engels again in the NRZ, 3 July 1848, on Germany’s Foreign Policy. He explains how Germany had for many decades furnished mercenaries to help the British put down the North American war of independence, to counter the French revolution, how it intervened in Holland to prop up the House of Orange, in Switzerland and in countless other countries. He blames not just the governments but "to a large extent" the people, too. He talks of their "delusions" and "slavish spirit", and suchlike, but he hopes that as the Germans are now "throwing off their own yoke, their whole foreign policy must change too".
By picking out articles like the above-quoted, one could conclude that Marx and Engels were Germanophobes.
Regarding the letter by Rassool’s Bosnian professor friend S. Bajric, I will restrict myself to a few points, as Al Richardson has already responded to him. I have to admit to not being an expert but I uphold the arguments set out in What Next? No.9. They were not an article but the second part of a letter, the first part of which appeared in What Next? No.8, the idea being to sketch the outline of how I believe one should approach the question. Obviously, I can’t explain the history of the churches, the development of the different scripts, nor the struggle for the use of the vernacular, but these things are mentioned in the books I quoted. Originally, my letter referred to Bogomilism and the fact that scholars disagree regarding its influence in Bosnia, also whether Bogomils converted en masse to Islam. Scholars disagree on much about the history of the South Slavs, but the point is to try to establish enough knowledge from which one can sketch out a political orientation ’ that was my aim.
My objection to the term "ethnic cleansing" regarding Bosnia is that it is both unscientific and racist. It was first used by the Ustashe regime in Croatia during World War II, regarding Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, the idea being that all of them were inferior racially to the Croats. Someone relaunched the term in the course of the Bosnian conflict, it was taken up by the media and then by the "lazy lumpen anglo-saxon left" (term taken from Freedom, 6 March 1999, describing the taking up of "institutional racism" and similar "pretentious concepts and phrases" imported from the USA by what used to be known as the "loony left"). But as the Bosnian Croats, Muslims and Serbs have the same ethnic origin the term is both meaningless and racist, as its use implies that whoever uses it sees superior and inferior people.
JUST BEFORE every great social transformation there is a tendency for middle-class layers to attack Marxism under the guise of attempting to "reform" it. Such is the character of Bob Pitt’s article "The Transitional Programme and the Tasks of Marxists Today" in What Next? No.11.
According to Pitt, Trotsky’s Transitional Programme is wrong, its predictions invalidated by reality, the method false. And the attempt to erase the past under cover of provoking a discussion is made to appear as a "militant" stance, rather than a headlong rush to abandon any pretence of standing against the New World Order.
As we all know, the Transitional Programme was a guide to action against decaying capitalism and Stalinism, and in that sense it provides the only alternative to both social systems.
On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Lenin asserted that he might not witness a revolution in his lifetime – and this in the midst of an imperialist slaughter of enormous proportions. Trotsky, after having led a revolution, defeated an imperialist invasion and crushed the Whites in the civil war, believed firmly that imperialism was a system in decay, having nothing progressive to offer humanity. He anticipated that World War II would bury it for good.
Just as Lenin underpredicted during World War I, Trotsky overpredicted. But does that mean that all he said was wrong? Did imperialism emerge strengthened as a result of World War II or did it lose half the planet? Was the growth of Stalinism and the creation of Stalinist states – particularly China – a sign of the relative strength of imperialism or a sign of its relative weakness?
Does the fact that the world revolution hasn’t yet occurred lead us to believe that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is invalidated by history and therefore wrong; or does it lead us to the opposite conclusion – that it is a historical necessity to get out of the impasse we are in? Does the long post-war boom – which in fact conditioned the petty-bourgeois layers in the imperialist capitals, be they London, New York or Paris – mean that: "look, Trotsky said the revolution would happen, and our problems would be solved – it didn’t, so Trotsky was wrong"?
Let’s not forget that when there wasn’t a severe economic crisis the Healyites were predicting a crash round the corner, and now when a real possibility exists their remnants (and that is what we are dealing with in comrade Pitt) are saying the opposite. Such is the irony of history.
An original viewpoint is expressed which will add a new dimension to Marxism, one that hasn’t been heard before, when Bob Pitt states the following: "Nor was it the case that economic collapse followed within months of the outbreak of the war. On the contrary. Wartime demand boosted production, mopped up unemployment and helped to resolve the economic crisis.... In the course of World War II, GNP in the United States increased by two-thirds. And during the quarter-century after the war, far from being stuck in an economic blind alley, world capitalism succeeded in generating the greatest expansion of production in its entire history."
Imperialist war thus leads to boom; therefore Marxism, which is based on false perspectives, is wrong. If one applies this logic to the current imperialist war against Yugoslavia, the US-led NATO attacks are being made in order to destroy the Balkans and then rebuild them, thus leading to a new 25-year boom. If, on the other hand, we argue that imperialist wars aren’t the sign of booming social systems (in the case we are referring to: capitalism) but part and parcel of social systems in decay and decomposition, we end up drawing different conclusions from those of Bob Pitt.
In the Communist Parties during the 1970s a revisionist trend started to emerge which wanted a "reformed" Stalinism and attempted to throw out the baby with the bathwater. They are now running imperialist governments (Italy) and ministries (France) and are involved in neo-colonial wars. In the Trotskyist movement a similar trend is occurring (Vanessa Redgrave as a UN spokeswoman for refugees, etc).
The American New World Order has its place in history – an attempt to resolve the crisis of imperialism by unifying it, as Hitler tried to do. And Trotsky did argue after writing the Transitional Programme that prognoses are conditioned by a multitude of factors, which under certain circumstances change and even invalidate the prognosis, without however altering our basic concepts: that imperialism is doomed, whether a group of revolutionaries abandon their views of a lifetime or whether they don’t.
History, or more exactly imperialist history, had a brief respite with the assumption of leadership by the USA. Trotsky even predicted this eventuality. This doesn’t mean that American leadership is eternal or that the Transitional Programme and consequently Marxism are invalidated, just because capitalism continues to exist. Death still comes to the living.
The middle-class left, burdened with years on the sidelines of political life, should at least attempt to deal with issues that concern people, such as war, poverty and unemployment, and less on theorising about how everything past Marxists did was wrong and misguided – at least if they want to have any political credibility.
All other paths lead to total theoretical confusion, disarray and disintegration into the liberal milieu, whose main priorities are sadly identical to the neo-imperialist agenda: "human rights for refugees", the struggle against bloodthirsty dictators, tolerance and so-called "anti-racism", etc, whilst at the same time mounting a rearguard attack on all those who assert that capitalism and Stalinism are dying.
Bob Pitt needs to change paths, but the above comments will probably lead to a hardening of his resolve and take him in the opposite direction. Either way, we are entering an era in which everybody is heading to where they belong: with barbarism or with socialism.