PATRICK BENTON, in his excellent article in the last edition of What Next? No.2 ("The Socialist Labour Party and the Crisis of Social Democracy"), says we should locate the emergence of the SLP in the crisis of Social Democracy. I feel however, that we need to be a little more precise.
In truth, Social Democracy, or reformism, has, since its emergence, lurched from crisis to crisis with varying results. But, in Britain, over the last two or three years, it has enjoyed a relatively stable period under the leadership of Tony Blair. It has been riding high in the polls for quite some time and looks a nailed-on certainty to win the next election. Under Blair, the right wing have achieved almost total hegemony and the splits that plagued the Labour Party are apparently a thing of the past. At the moment an impartial observer would probably ask: "Crisis, what crisis?" Of course, in power this "happy" state of affairs can not endure.
The emergence of the SLP is really the reflection of a crisis in a marginalised section of left reformism and, of course, in the various remnants of "hard-core" Stalinism. It is, what these dead-end ideologies see as the solution to their current difficulties or, if you like, represents their efforts to overcome their own crisis. It can in no way be described as a genuine attempt to solve the more general crisis of working-class leadership.
The current crisis of Stalinism in Britain is the product of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and for the ultra-left reformists it is their continued and seemingly relentless marginalisation within the Labour Party at the hands of the right wing. A situation for which they must shoulder much of the blame themselves.
Bringing up the rear, apologising for and legitimising this project comes a third group, assorted disoriented so-called Trotskyists who, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, no longer see the necessity for not crossing the river of blood that separates Trotskyism from Stalinism.
The result of this obscene regroupment project is a particularly repulsive form of rightward-moving centrism. Unfortunately, many good comrades have been caught in the claws of this pincer movement.
These good comrades are not helped by the likes of comrades Dudley and Palmer, who, also writing in the last issue of What Next? ("The Socialist Labour Party: Why Bob Pitt is Wrong"), attacked Bob Pitt’s analysis of the SLP with a lengthy rationalistic diatribe which refuses to learn from history.
Dudley and Palmer complain bitterly that the "gradual Thatcherisation of the Labour Party has driven many thousands of would-be militants out of active politics in disgust". True, but many thousands of those thousands could have been saved if the revolutionary left had been able to adopt a correct policy and orientation towards these militants.
The most recent example – prior to the emergence of the SLP – of an incorrect orientation, was that adopted by the SWP following the OMOV battle. Hundreds of potential revolutionaries were encouraged to sign a declaration vowing never to join the Labour Party again and were co-opted into the SWP. There, their legitimate despisal of the Labour and trade-union bureaucracy was allowed to remain on a subjective level and their retreat from a struggle against it confirmed. How many of those militants remain in politics today or are simply languishing in the irrelevant world of the SWP?
Incidentally, following the Clause IV campaign there was another example of an incorrect orientation and policy, this time from a group within the Labour Party: Socialist Organiser. They chose to shift their programme to the right, adopting a sort of lowest common denominator position which led them, amongst other things, into pushing the military spending policies of French and German imperialism as socialist! They must take a large part of the blame for so many good comrades falling into the hands of the SLP.
However, Dudley and Palmer should be made aware that when it comes to driving would-be militants out of politics in disgust (or worse), Stalinism and left reformism could teach the SWP and even the right-wing Labour leadership a trick or two. While you are in the SLP you are not, as you seem to think, helping to bring up baby in the correct fashion. You are confronting a fully grown, experienced, street-fighting gang and I wish you all the luck in the world ‘cos you’re going to need it.
For what it is worth, my advice to militants in the SLP is to shed your illusions in its potential as quickly as possible. Yes, fight from within for it to adopt a revolutionary programme if you can. And try to turn it away from sectarianism and towards the masses by opposing its conceited electoral policy, by all means. But, be prepared for a quick exit when unsuccessful. Time and revolutionary socialists are precious and we cannot afford to waste either.
I AGREE with much of what Patrick Benton has to say in his article "The SLP and the Crisis of Social Democracy" in What Next? No.2, particularly concerning the need for an organised struggle within the Labour Party against the Blairite ultra-right. But his uncritical use of the now-fashionable concept of "globalisation" seems to me to undermine his central argument.
The extent to which current developments represent a fundamental shift in the character of the world economy is in fact a disputed issue. The recently-published book Globalization in Question by Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson presents a detailed case against the more extreme claims of globalisation theorists. The authors argue cogently that the powers of international capital are not absolute and that national governments are far from helpless in the face of world economic forces. Of course, they write from a reformist perspective, but Marxists should at least give serious attention to their analysis.
It is ironic that acceptance of the globalisation thesis unites the ultra-left with the Blairite right. When Blair declares that no redistribution of wealth can be contemplated by a Labour government operating within the present world economic system, ideologists of the pseudo-revolutionary left, far from denouncing this as political cowardice and demanding radical economic measures, simply endorse Blair’s reassurances to the rich that they have nothing to fear from a government under his leadership. Geoff Pilling, for example, in an article entitled "’Globalisation’ and the British working class" (in History, Economic History and the Future of Marxism), informs us that "no concessions will be possible under a future Labour government, indeed the leaders of the Labour Party say as much".
Martin Thomas took a similar line in the May 1996 issue of Workers Liberty, where he argued that "the new world regime of capitalism leaves little space for reform politics short of an internationalist revolutionary assault on finance capital". In contrast to dyed-in-the-wool sectarians like Pilling, Martin Thomas is committed to work in the broad labour movement, including the Labour Party. But it is difficult to see what meaningful demands can be placed on a Labour government if developments in the international capitalist economy have rendered reforms impossible. Or is comrade Thomas perhaps thinking of submitting a resolution to the Labour Party annual conference along the lines of "conference declares that no significant reforms can be achieved by the labour movement short of a revolutionary assault on international capital"?
The disarming effects of this political line can be seen in the Alliance for Workers Liberty’s intervention in student politics, where the Blairite hacks argue that the economy is incapable of sustaining grants at a living level and that a system of student loans must therefore be accepted as inevitable. As Socialist Action has argued in criticism of the AWL, to raise the slogan of "free education" is empty propagandism which plays into the hands of the Blairite right unless concrete proposals can be made as to how a Labour government could afford to pay for this. But, if an elected government is powerless in the face of global economic forces, how can any such proposals be made?
The issue of globalisation has recently been the subject of articles in the Socialist Workers Party’s journal International Socialism and in Workers Power’s Trotskyist International. Contributions to What Next? on this important issue should I think be encouraged.
What Next? is not a historical journal, and there are obvious limits to the space it can devote to discussion of the history of our movement. But there are some points I would like to make about the Walter Held-Van Heijenoort debate in issues Nos.1 and 2 of the journal, so I thought it would be appropriate to raise them in the form of a letter.
Jean Van Heijenoort’s reply ("The German Revolution in the Leninist Period") to Walter Held’s article "Why the German Revolution Failed" typifies an approach to the history of the October Revolution and the early Communist International which is continued by most Trotskyist groups today. It is an approach which refuses to confront the possibility that any major political errors were committed during the early, heroic years of the Communist International and seeks to answer criticisms almost exclusively through the use of quotations from Lenin and Trotsky, which are treated as holy writ.
This method owes little to the spirit of Karl Marx whose motto was "doubt everything". It undermines the defence of the October Revolution against its enemies, who are able to portray Leninists as mindless dogmatists. And it miseducates young people drawn to revolutionary politics, in that it depicts the movement as consisting of a succession of infallible leaders, rather than of human beings grappling with complex political issues, not always successfully. The undoubted fact that Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders won important victories and taught us invaluable lessons should not lead us to deny that they also made serious mistakes and even carried out politically reprehensible actions.
Van Heijenoort’s uncritical approach was perhaps excusable at the time his article was written. Then, with a monstrous Stalinist regime in power which claimed to be and was popularly recognised as the legitimate heir of the October Revolution, Trotskyists understandably saw the task of upholding the principles of Bolshevism as taking precedence over the need to reassess Bolshevik political practice. And in any case the extensive literature on the early Comintern to which we now have access, and which enables a proper reassessment to be made, was unavailable to comrades like Van Heijenoort. Today, though, a more critical and informed attitude is both possible and necessary.
However, while I am more in sympathy with the critical approach which Walter Held adopts, I think there are some problems with his analysis. His criticisms of the ultra-leftist tendencies prevalent in the early Communist International, and his support for the political line of German Communist leader Paul Levi, is one-sided. It is certainly true that ultra-leftism was a permanent problem among Communists of that period. But, while their conception of political strategy was fundamentally mistaken, these were subjective revolutionaries who were completely committed to the overthrow of capitalism. The challenge which confronted the KPD and Communist International leaders was to harness these comrades’ revolutionary commitment while persuading them of their political errors.
Unlike Lenin, Levi evidently lacked the patience necessary to deal with this challenge effectively. Willie Gallacher, who was a British delegate to the Communist International’s Second Congress, recounts a confrontation with Levi during a commission at the congress. A confirmed ultra-leftist at the time, Gallacher had given an exposition of his anti-parliamentary views, in response to which Levi "made an extremely vicious personal attack on me. Lenin upbraided him for this, saying: ’You must not speak that way of Comrade Gallacher. Comrade Gallacher will make mistakes, but he will always be loyal to the revolutionary movement’".
Levi repeated this approach to the ultra-left at the KPD’s Second Congress in October 1920, when he mounted what the historian Helmut Gruber terms a "vehement attack" on his leftist opponents and drove them out of the party, despite the fact that their views probably had majority support among the membership. The Comintern leadership believed, rightly in my view, that this split was premature. They therefore established fraternal relations with the Communist Workers Party (KAPD), which the ultra-lefts formed after leaving the KPD, and admitted it into the International as a sympathising section. When the KAPD was finally excluded from the International in 1921, the issues had been clarified in the minds of German workers and the Comintern leadership had demonstrated its sincerity in trying to win over the KAPD membership to revolutionary politics.
This did not mean that Lenin was soft on ultra-leftism. But he distinguished between the mistaken politics of working class militants and the irresponsibility of leaders who should have known better. In the case of the latter, he made no concessions to diplomacy. Victor Serge recounts Lenin’s demolition of Béla Kun at a meeting of the Comintern Executive following the catastrophe of the March Action in Germany: "Lenin spoke in French, briskly and harshly. Ten or more times, he used the phrase ’les bêtises de Béla Kun’. My wife took down the speech in shorthand, and afterwards we had to edit it somewhat: after all it was out of the question for the symbolic figure of the Hungarian Revolution to be called an imbecile ten times over in a written record!"
For what it’s worth, my article on the Socialist Labour Party in What Next? No.1 ("The SLP: Why Arthur Scargill is Wrong") tried to make this distinction between hammering irresponsible leadership and taking a comradely attitude towards confused rank-and-filers – a point which seems to have escaped comrades Dudley and Palmer in their reply in issue No.2 of the journal ("The SLP: Why Bob Pitt is Wrong"). While a sharp polemic against Arthur Scargill’s political blundering is absolutely necessary, it is also essential to maintain a friendly dialogue with the hundreds of genuine militants who have joined the SLP. In this regard, I would suggest, we can learn a lot more from Lenin than we can from Paul Levi.
Thank you for the copy of What Next? No.2, although I doubt whether the editorial board will find this letter quite the kind of thing you want to publish or acceptable to the readership to which, so far as I can judge, your review is directed.
Al Richardson’s article (why publish it first?), in my opinion, tells us a lot more about himself and what he imagines his place is in the scheme of things than it does about Marxism ("The Progress and Stagnation of Marxism"), What Next? No.2). Has he not himself contributed, not inconsiderably, to the state of things today in which, faute de mieux, some accept poor stuff as "Marxism"?
In one sense his piece only goes over old ground, repeating what he has been saying for years. No one would think that he has been the leading spirit behind the journal Revolutionary History since its inception, including responsibility for the selection of its contents. (And don’t accept any nonsense about his having "had to put things in because the editorial board told him to"!) The contents of that magazine have been more or less generally characterised by a certain method, which is not, in my opinion, a Marxist one. I cannot explain this more clearly than by quoting from something which an American Marxist wrote recently:
"the method which consists of approaching history principally from individual experience poses problems. In fact, if we focus upon the intentions of the actors and on what we think are their personal motivations, we risk losing sight of the general historical issues. What interests us in this study is not the fragmentation and personalisation of the events, but their general evolution. Two complex processes unfolded at the same time in those years of change before, during and after World War Two, namely the formation of the industrial unions of the CIO and the consolidation of new institutions of state from the New Deal onwards."
The history of the efforts to construct in Britain a section of the Fourth International as Trotsky envisaged it, still has to be written. What we have so far consists largely of anecdotage, of gossip, usually malicious (of this the late Ellis Hillman was possibly the most extreme exponent), and of speculations passed off as "fact" about this or that person’s "real" motives. Consequently, these accounts make no sense. Some of your readers may be familiar with my doctoral thesis on the early years of Trotskyism in Britain. There I did not yet, of course, reckon with how dreadful later writings purporting to be our "history" would be, because I was the first into the archives. If you read it, you will see that I attribute no motives to anyone without some evidence to go on; I try to concentrate on the political problems and how we tried, in our own ways, to cope with them; and, finally, my own name does not appear at all except as the author.
Has no one made sense of the politics of Healy? Or must we go on for ever having to put up with the "demonisers" and the "deifiers", writing outside of space and time, in terms of some people being "good", because the writer thinks so, and others "bad".
It is significant that, when Richardson chides everyone impartially for having "abused democratic centralism", he does not present himself as knowing anything about the practical problems of running an organisation. Consequently he cannot account except in terms of "original sin" for the assumption by certain comrades, in the light of personal characteristics, of roles of domination which, by no means only in Healy’s case, have led the organisations, if not always to destruction, at any rate to paralysis. (It would be a good thing for Richardson to read what Lenin wrote about Control Commissions: let him look in the Collected Works!)
Then he is displeased with the word "centrism", though I am not clear whether that is with the word itself, with the large number of people to whom it can properly be applied, or with the way in which it tends to be used as a term of abuse – that is, without the necessary political justification. The solution is easy. Let Richardson apply his mind to inventing a new terminology which will more effectively enable us to differentiate between all the various currents which move about between reformism and Bolshevism. Of course, he might have some difficulty because, if I understand him aright, he would have us believe that either Bolshevism has ceased to be relevant, or that we have ceased to be able to grasp its lessons.
Reading his article brings back to mind what Trotsky said about people who are "eternally trying to quench their thirst by drinking salt water" – or, as someone else put it, "are endlessly packing their bags for a journey on which there is little chance that they will ever set out". There are, I realise, a good many people like this around, but I see no reason why it should be your job to devote your time and talents to giving them a platform. Trotsky once wrote that the greatest problem which faces worker-militants is always – what to do next? Richardson is a member of a teachers’ union; how does he apply his conception of the world to strengthening the union and its capacity to fight?
Now – as to later articles. The argument about Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party seems to me to have missed the main point. That point is not whether or not we all have to be in the Labour Party. It is that the SLP is essentially a Stalinist organisation, an attempt leading to some kind of "Renovated" Stalinist Party. It is, of course, it goes without saying, an anti-Trotskyist party. Crushing us is one of its principal functions. Of course, it attracts a certain number of militants at this stage. But it is also destructively hostile to the Labour Party, in the same sense as the old Communist Party had fundamentally the same position towards the Labour Party in both the "Third Period" and the "Popular Front" – it must never be allowed to get power. Remember how in 1945 the CP was calling for a continuation of the wartime coalition. Recall how, in the Third Period, the CP put up "independent" candidates irrespective of whether they let a Tory win or not, even in 1931. Similarly, in the Popular Front, the majority in parliament, as in France, was to be subject to the Liberals.
This is the reason why Stalinism has always ignored the profoundest processes at work in the working class and expressed in the inner life of the Labour Party: the conflict between the tremendous potential strength of the proletariat on the one hand, and on the other hand the dead weight of democratic-pacifist-reformist-religious ideology with which, through the petty bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie tries to dominate the workers’ thinking. Scargill, accordingly (and this is completely consistent with his own semi-syndicalist style), turns his back on the divisions which are now starting to emerge inside the Labour Party. Even in the rather quiet place where I live this division is revealing itself.
This is not the place for me to spell out that conception of the Labour Party and the role of the Trotskyists which the Militant Group worked out in 1936. Bornstein and Richardson [in their 2-volume history of Trotskyism in Britain, Against the Stream and War and the International – ed.] set out to discredit the Militant Group and to make themselves the standard-bearers for the Workers International League, which faced them with the problem of why the Revolutionary Communist Party fell to pieces in 1949-50. Having to have some "bad man" to blame, Richardson ascribes "base" motives to James P. Cannon and to Healy, in terms of their personal psychology. But can he, please, invent for us a "sincere-ometer", so that we can be sure of people when we take them in. I personally seconded Healy’s admission to our movement in 1937, as the record shows. Why? Because my wife Mary and I had worked for some months with him in the North of England. We found him energetic, devoted, reliable and, not least, eager to read books and to learn. Was that all a pose, a plot on his part? Simply to ask the question is its answer.
We shan’t get much improvement in our Marxism as long as the discussion goes on in the abstract and in detachment from the real world out there. That is why I ask you, please explain to me, because I do not understand, why on earth do you provide Richardson with space? Does his name help to sell the journal? To whom?
What would I like to see? It is your platform, the basis on which you propose to use your positions in the trade unions and the Labour Party to get closer to worker-militants. When I see that, I shall be better informed about the people I am talking to. Meanwhile, as you know, I stand on the ground of the Fourth International, re-proclaimed in 1993, and of the International Workers Association. You will learn nothing about these organisations, their programme and their activity from the Richardsons of this world. But that is the direction in which I take the liberty of suggesting that you should look.
But anyway, you will be able to see them in action early in 1997, when there will be a big public meeting in London, with an international platform, against Privatisation, Deregulation, Maastricht, the IMF and the World Bank, based on the recent Open World Conference in France which attracted delegations from seventy countries.
In "Why the Socialist Revolution Has Failed" (What Next? No.2), Jack Bernard certainly chooses an important question to answer! However, I’m not sure that he is on the right track.
What is refreshing about comrade Bernard’s article is his rejection of the traditional Trotskyist explanation in terms of betrayals and misleadership exemplified by Walter Held. Held’s article ( "Why the German Revolution Failed") presages the approach of the majority of post-war Trotskyist factions who believe that if only the influence of their rivals were to be destroyed and the class could be won to their perceptive and principled view of the world, the gates of heaven would open. Although Trotsky spent much time arguing against such sectarianism, he surely laid the groundwork for it in the opening line of the Transitional Programme: "The crisis of humanity is the crisis of leadership of the working class", a point which Jack does not make.
In his article Jack insists on recognizing the decisive role of "objective factors", looking at the character of modern imperialism, the United Nations, the World Bank, multinationals, the long boom, etc, etc. The problem with Jack’s approach is that it is an objectivist mirror image of Held’s version of Trotskyism sharing the same fundamental flaws – the reduction of the "subjective factor" to the question of the party and the separation of life into "objective and subjective factors".
In my opinion the arena of the most powerful forces in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary politics is that of the conscious and unconscious needs, desires and fears of people, an arena where the objective and subjective are dialectically entangled and cannot be separated into "factors". Why has the socialist revolution failed? Look at the power of racism, sexism, family loyalties, identifying with employer as provider of livelihood, national identities – the way these are moulded by the structures of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, transmitted forward from the objective conditions of times long past through the power of such agencies as the church, school and Disney.
All this has a practical impact on the problem of revolutionary organisation. It means that things like the women’s movement, autonomous black organisations, etc, are not "merely" important in fighting for the interests of a particular group but are necessary to any socialist strategy. The struggle for revolutionary consciousness cannot be left to the revolutionary party alone, however principled, correct and competent.
If I were to pick out one objective/subjective complex which has confounded revolutionary expectations going right back to Marx, it would have to be "the socialisation of the forces of production". On one level Marx’s predictions on this question have been richly vindicated. The production of any commodity today is a truly global phenomenon – the raw materials, the machinery, the transportation, the food and clothing of the workers who make the product, the machinery, the finance in the production process – the list is endless and circumnavigates the globe more than once.
The Marxist leap of faith was to assume that this objective socialisation of the forces of production would find its subjective reflection in class solidarity, workers of the world being aware of themselves as the unified engine of the world, moving from that to being a class for itself – a revolutionary class. But life ain’t like that.
What has actually happened, at least in the industrialised "advanced" economies, is that this global "socialisation of the forces of production" has lead to the atomisation of the everyday life of the working class. Precisely because the production of each unit commodity is spread so widely, the geographical concentrations of class have been broken up. There is a separation between where people live and where people work. In short, working class communities have largely been destroyed.
This is why the miners’ strike was so bitter. Mining was one of the few industries in this country where there were communities based around a productive focus. This, on the one hand, engendered a militancy and class consciousness that went beyond the point of production itself, it was the resistance of an entire community. On the other, this is why the Government has been so determined to smash the miners and destroy those communities. A similar thing can be said about the Liverpool dockers today.
In the "third world" the situation is far different. "Socialisation of the forces of production" means "proletarianisation", the break up of small village communities and peasant economies, the tendency towards greater concentration of workers in the towns, or larger groups of agricultural workers in the countryside. This is one reason why some of the most militant and revolutionary aspirations have emerged many more times in these regions than in the "first world" during the last half century.
None of this means that Jack Bernard’s predominantly objective obstacles to the revolution count for nothing, nor, for that matter, that misleaders, bureaucrats and betrayals have not taken their toll. But unless we look beyond the situations where the objective and subjective can, approximately, be separated, we will miss the main story.
JIM DYE ("Don’t Shoot", What Next? No.2) and the various ultra-lefts (including the Spartacist League) are wrong in their attempts to defend the handgun maniacs. This is not because they are incorrect about the necessity of the working class learning to use weapons and military techniques – on the contrary. Indeed Dye is a living proof that the left should orient itself rather more in this direction since he himself evidently knows nothing of arms and their use. If he is serious he should join the Territorial Army and encourage his friends to do so. He might then learn that pistols, revolvers or handguns, as they are now known, are used in the armed services to equip officers only. They are used to intimidate mutineers and shoot soldiers who are running away. They are murder weapons pure and simple. They would be no earthly use in an insurrection but might be of value in assassination attempts – such as are only too frequent in Northern Ireland.
The sort of fat ignorant clowns who go in for pistol shooting should be put in Marine uniforms and be forced to march 50 miles in mid-winter and bad weather over the Scottish highlands carrying a backpack full of stones – instead of a heavy machine gun. This should soon cool their ardour for deadly weapons and the playing out of their cowboy fantasies. I include in these strictures idiots like James Robertson of the Sparts who, I am told, has a number of friends, rather unpolitical "good ol’ boys", who drink whiskey together and show off their weapons to each other. Rather Freudian behaviour but I blame their mothers myself for not slippering them more severely when as little boys they exposed themselves.
The left should not go down this road. Rifle shooting, stalking and orienteering are different and I would support them. So I would unarmed combat. But hand-guns – no! We do ourselves no favours by this silly "I am more extreme and violent than thou" posturing. Leave that to the Sparts. And before we utter let us know what we are talking about. The Dunblane parents have a point – it is a good one. An automatic pistol can kill dozens at a very short range while a hatchet, as we have seen in another horrible case in Birmingham, cannot do nearly so much damage.