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Marxism and the National Question

Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth?: Essays on the National Question, Pluto, 1998. Paperback, 120pp, £9.99.

Reviewed by John Sullivan

THIS IS THE latest publication of the International Institute for Research and Education, inspired by the late Ernest Mandel, which has produced a number of useful, although difficult to obtain, publications over the years. They are now being published by Pluto Press which should ensure wider distribution in bookshops.

Fatherland or Mother Earth? consists of seven essays, written over a number of years, most of which have already appeared in various journals. The general theme is familiar: that Marx and Engels did not produce a theory of the nation or nationalism, and that they ought to have done so. Fortunately the deficiency has been rectified by a number of writers, especially the Austro-Marxist, Otto Bauer. The first chapter, "Marx and Engels Cosmopolites", is the best, having been published in 1981, before liberation theology and ecology dominated political writing.

Löwy is rather defensive on the record of the founding fathers, and adopts an apologetic tone when debating with anti-Marxists. The worst example of this approach is Chapter 2, "Marx and Engels Eurocentrists?", written in reply to an article by Ephraim Nimni, which pleads that, although Marx and Engels got a lot of things wrong, they were good guys really. We are told that Nimni also had good intentions, although his article, later expanded into a book, presented Marx and Engels as Eurocentric chauvinists, by using the simple formula of ignoring their condemnation of capitalism’s oppression of the non-European world. Löwy drags out the old chestnut of Engels’ alleged chauvinism in referring to "non-historic nations" although the term is historically accurate. Prior to the rise of capitalism the "nation" consisted of the nobility, not the serfs. So, there had been Polish and French nations, but not a Ruthenian one.

In Chapter 4 Löwy moves to the well trodden ground of Austro-Marxism and Otto Bauer, its best known theoretician. Bauer is famous for defining a nation as those sharing a "common historical fate". He accepted that nations evolve and change which, according to Löwy, makes him an acute dialectical thinker. It certainly differentiates him from extreme, biologically-based, racism, but not from José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Falange, who explicitly adopted a Bauerist formula, nor from Norman Tebbit, who is quite happy with that concept of the nation. Once people of Indian origin support the English cricket team they will be English. This chapter is the worst in the book, as the author believes Bauer was a worthy heir of Marx. The absurdities of the Austro-Marxist formula, where the inhabitants of a city would go to different schools according to their claimed national origin, hardly need restating. Apartheid did not then exist, so it would be unfair to blame Bauer for not anticipating it.

Löwy is weak on the relation of theory to political practice. Where Lenin advocated national self-determination as both a democratic right and a strategy to overthrow the Romanov empire, Austro-Marxism’s nationality policy was a device to keep the Hapsburg empire together. Trotsky’s remark that if revolution was the locomotive of history, Austro-Marxism was the brake, hit the nail on the head. A party which prided itself on having turned against the monarchy two days before the conservative parties did was hardly subversive.

The last three chapters of the book, which deal with nationalism in the modern world, show the author as a benevolent person who would like the oppressed to get a better deal. There is little connection between the "Marxist" theory of the earlier chapters and his later ecological musings. For example, it may be too much to expect an answer to the problems of the conflicts between intermingled peoples, but it seems odd to ignore them.

It would be a pity if Marxists were to react to Löwy’s concessions to fashion by dismissing non-Marxist writers, or defending everything the founding fathers wrote. Löwy is right to subject Marx to criticism, but he prefers dross to gold. Non-Marxist histories of Eastern Europe have shown that most nations are recent creations and that Bauer was wrong to accept their claims to ancient pedigrees. Marx was neither a German nor a European chauvinist, but few would now accept his assessment of the Czech national movement – surely, we should be more critical of his observations on the Polish, Hungarian and Irish movements?

Löwy appends a comment to an article written in 1989, acknowledging that he did not foresee the conflicts which were to engulf the former Soviet bloc, as nationalists turned against each other and their own minorities. By that time no one who had met East Europeans, whether as students, workers or tourists, shared Löwy’s expectations of a liberating revolution. One can understand why the staff of the National Centre for Scientific Research should not wish to drag their Director from his office and rub his nose in the sordid realities of daily life, but they should have realised that even eminent scholars ought to get out more.

Max Shachtman, Soviet Defencism and "Unfalsified Marxism"

Sean Matgamna, ed, The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, Volume 1, Phoenix Press, 1998. Paperback, 603pp, £14.99.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

THE ALLIANCE for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) has done the socialist movement a service in publishing this book. Readers should not be put off by the forbidding format – wall-to-wall text, with minimal concessions to attractive layout – or by the AWL’s own well-deserved reputation as a rather cranky sect. For the book contains a wealth of valuable material from the history of the Workers Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL), the political tendency in the USA led by Max Shachtman.

This tendency never developed a following within the Trotskyist movement in Britain (although its journal New International was distributed in the 1950s by the Socialist Review Group, precursor of today’s Socialist Workers Party). Those British Trotskyists who rejected the view that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state were drawn to the state capitalist analysis of Tony Cliff, and the Shachtmanite view of the USSR as a system of bureaucratic collectivism never attracted much support. (A brief attempt by the late Ellis Hillman to import this theory into the Socialist Review Group in 1951 contributed to his speedy expulsion from that organisation.) So the material presented in this collection does, as its editor Sean Matgamna points out in his introduction to the volume, represent something in the nature of a hidden history as far as Trotskyists in Britain are concerned.

Most of the writings included are from the pen of Shachtman himself, and it must be said that he comes over as a quite impressive political figure. An intelligent and independent thinker (if occasionally a bit of an irritating smartarse), he was also a stimulating and entertaining writer. One of the best pieces reproduced here – a defence of the October Revolution from 1949 – wasn’t even written for general publication but as an internal document for the ISL. This does suggest that the WP/ISL was a unique phenomenon in the history of the revolutionary left – an organisation with a readable internal bulletin.

The opening section, which deals with the defence of the October Revolution, shows Shachtman’s critically-minded approach to Bolshevism. His article "The Mistakes of the Bolsheviks", which appeared in the New International in 1943, is a balanced critique of Leninist practice, which does not deny the anti-democratic features of the Bolshevik party in power.1 Another article, by Joseph Carter, has no hesitation in describing the Soviet Union under Lenin and Trotsky as "a sick, bureaucratized, revolutionary workers’ state". He writes: "In a healthy workers’ state there would be complete democracy, the working class exercising its power democratically through Soviets, trade unions, rival parties. This state of affairs, as is known, never existed in Russia. The political rule of the working class was expressed almost exclusively through the the dictatorship of the proletarian party, the Bolsheviks (with extreme limitations on Soviet and union democracy from the earliest days)."2 This critical attitude certainly contrasts favourably with the rigid orthodoxy of many Trotskyist groupings then and since.

There is, however, a central problem with this documentary collection, namely that it has been compiled with the aim of depicting a tradition of struggle for revolutionary principle – or "unfalsified Marxism", as Matgamna would have it – conducted by the WP/ISL in opposition to the supposedly Stalinophile deviations of mainstream Trotskyism. And who, you are invited to ask, represents the unique continuation of this struggle for principle today? Why, none other than the compilers of this collection, of course, the AWL!

Matgamna’s methodology never quite descends to the crudities of, say, Trotskyism versus Revisionism, the documentary collection produced by the old Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) – for one thing, the documents included here are of a qualitatively different order from the rubbish which mostly filled the WRP’s volumes – but there is a strong element of that sort of bogus tradition-building. This is apparent both in the editorial introduction and also in the selection of documents, which is interesting not only for what Matgamna includes but also for what he leaves out.

A more productive approach to the study of a particular political tradition, I would suggest, is to see it as consisting of human beings trying to analyse complex political issues, and to develop a practical response to these issues, in what are often adverse circumstances for the pursuit of revolutionary politics. Sometimes these comrades get things right and act with principle and even courageously, but at other times they make serious errors in their analysis, screw things up completely in practice, and even behave on occasion in a thoroughly unprincipled manner.

It is also, I think, necessary to recognise that a political tendency invariably contains a number of different strands. When people respond theoretically and practically to political challenges they do so in different ways, despite being members of the same political grouping. This is true even in the most monolithic, bureaucratically-run organisations (within the WRP, for example, Mike Banda held a distinctive pro-Maoist position which wasn’t shared by the rest of the leadership), and it is particularly so in the case of a democratically-organised tendency like the WP/ISL, which was not averse to debating its internal differences in public through the pages of the New International. These conflicts are worth studying – not as some exercise in navel-gazing, but because they contain lessons for political theory and practice today.

From the standpoint of retrospectively constructing an unsullied political tradition, of which your own revolutionary grouping is the sole inheritor, this sort of approach does not of course have much to recommend it. If you are trying to depict one particular tendency as the upholders of revolutionary principle, it rather muddies the waters to recognise that its leaders sometimes blundered and didn’t always act in a principled way. And if you are claiming this tendency as the embodiment of "unfalsified Marxism", it doesn’t exactly help your case if you show how its proponents spent a lot of their time arguing among themselves and accusing each other of adopting positions which were inconsistent with Marxism. Tradition-builders therefore prefer to present a version of history which has been put through an ideological blender and all the lumps removed.

This inclination to try and produce a homogenised revolutionary tradition affects the way in which the history of the Trotskyist movement in Trotsky’s own day is often presented. "Mainstream Trotskyism" is typically defined in terms of what Trotsky himself said and did. It is sometimes forgotten that, having been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929, he was able to publicise his views in numerous articles and books, whereas the Trotskyists who remained in Stalinist prisons were in no position to do the same.3 After the repression in the Soviet Union deepened, from 1930 onwards, hardly any of the documents which these imprisoned Trotskyists wrote ever got through to their comrades abroad. Yet, until their extermination by Stalin later in the 1930s, it was in the Soviet Union that the majority of Trotskyists were to be found, including the only leaders and theoreticians in the movement of a stature that was in any way comparable to Trotsky’s.

The account by Yugoslav oppositionist Ante Ciliga, in his book The Russian Enigma, reveals that, within the parameters of their common struggle against Stalinism, the Soviet Trotskyists of the early 1930s held opposing views on a whole range of fundamental questions, and that few of these views tallied with Trotsky’s own opinions – least of all on the class character of the Soviet state.4 Indeed, one of the last Trotskyist documents to make it abroad was an official statement of the Soviet Left Opposition written by Christian Rakovsky, who became the principal leader of the Opposition after Trotsky’s exile and the capitulation to Stalin by Preobrazhensky, Radek and others. The analysis of the Soviet Union in that document in fact amounts to a bureaucratic collectivist position, even if Rakovsky did not use that specific term.

He argued: "From being a proletarian state with bureaucratic deformities – as Lenin defined the political form of our state – we are developing into a bureaucratic state with proletarian, communist residues. Before our eyes there has formed and is being formed a great class of rulers which has its growing internal subdivisions, which grows by means of careerist co-option, direct and indirect nomination (bureaucratic advancement, fictitious electoral system). As the basis of support of this new class there is a type – also new – of private property; the possession of the state power."5

It is therefore questionable whether the view that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state was, as is often supposed, the position of actual mainstream Trotskyism. What was the common position among most Trotskyists at this time, however, was the view that, irrespective of how the Soviet state was defined, it should be defended against foreign conquest and capitalist restoration. (That was Rakovsky’s position and formed the basis of his own capitulation to Stalin in 1934. Faced with the threat to the Soviet Union posed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Rakovsky concluded that it was necessary for the Opposition to renounce its struggle against Stalinism and rally to the defence of the Soviet state.)

This position – that the Soviet Union was a new system of exploitation, a bureaucratic collectivist society, but that it should nevertheless be defended against imperialism – was, initially, Max Shachtman’s own view. Included in Matgamna’s collection is the article "Is Russia a Workers’ State?", published by Shachtman in the New International in December 1940, not long after the split with James P. Cannon and the majority of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had led to the formation of the Workers Party. In this article Shachtman concluded that, even though Russia was no longer a workers’ state but a new form of class society, if the Soviet Union were to come under attack from the capitalist world it would be necessary for revolutionaries to rally to Russia’s defence.

His argument is worth quoting: "Under what conditions is it conceivable to defend the Soviet Union ruled by the Stalinist bureaucracy? It is possible to give only a generalized answer. For example, should the character of the present war change from that of a struggle between the capitalist imperialist camps into a struggle of the imperialists to crush the Soviet Union, the interests of the world revolution would demand the defense of the Soviet Union by the international proletariat. The aim of imperialism in that case, whether it were represented in the war by one or many powers, would be to solve the crisis of world capitalism (and thus prolong the agony of the proletariat) at the cost of reducing the Soviet Union to one or more colonial possessions or spheres of interest.... There is no reason to believe that victorious imperialism in the Soviet Union would leave its nationalized property intact – quite the contrary.... imperialism would seek to destroy all the progress made in the Soviet Union by reducing it to a somewhat more advanced India – a village continent.... Such a transformation of the Soviet Union as triumphant imperialism would undertake, would have a vast and durable reactionary effect upon world social development, give capitalism and reaction a new lease on life, retard enormously the revolutionary movement, and postpone for we don’t know how long the introduction of the world socialist society. From this standpoint and under these conditions, the defense of the Soviet Union, even under Stalinism, is both possible and necessary."6

Only six months later, in June 1941, the Soviet Union did indeed come under attack, and not just from any imperialist power but from the most reactionary imperialist power of all – Nazi Germany. Here was a situation where, by Shachtman’s own analysis, revolutionaries were obliged to defend the Soviet Union. One would therefore have expected him to call on the WP to adopt a Soviet defencist position.

But Shachtman did nothing of the sort. Quite the contrary, in fact – he insisted that defence of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany could not be justified. His argument was that the fundamental character of the war had not changed, that it was still an inter-imperialist conflict, and that the German attack on the Soviet Union was a subordinate part of that wider conflict, with Stalin in a bloc with one group of imperialist powers against another. "In a struggle between Stalinist Russia and capitalist imperialism, on the one side, and another section of capitalist imperialism on the other", Shachtman asserted, "the revolutionary proletariat takes its position against both camps."7

This argument was, I think, entirely fraudulent, because the consequences of imperialist conquest and capitalist restoration, so eloquently described by Shachtman in the passage from "Is Russia a Workers’ State?" quoted above, would surely follow irrespective of whether the Soviet Union was in a military alliance with another section of imperialism.

The reason why Shachtman took this inconsistent and unprincipled line, I suspect, is that the adoption of a Soviet defencist stand by the WP would have put it in a position that was uncomfortably close to that of its main rival, the Cannonite SWP, who were enthusiastic defencists. If so, then Shachtman was guilty of putting the need to maintain a distinctive political profile for his own small group above the obligations of political principle (and in that, at least, it could be said that he provided a model for the later practice of comrade Matgamna and the AWL).

Another article, written two years later, underlined the incoherence of Shachtman’s position. "The Russian people have shown no signs of wanting the restoration of capitalism with its bankers and industrial monopolists", he wrote. "That is all to the good, for otherwise they would be the poor dupes of world reaction. The road to freedom for Russia does not lead backward but forward."8 He explained: "They do not want their country overrun and ruled by a foreign oppressor. And this is no ordinary foreigner, but a fascist. For long years, from Lenin’s day through Stalin’s, the Russian people have learned to feel a horror and hatred of fascism. The record of fascism’s conquests in Europe has only deepened this feeling. Their feelings in this matter are more than justified, and correspond with the interests and ideals of the international proletariat."9

From which one would presumably conclude that revolutionaries should be in a united front with the Russian workers in supporting armed resistance to the Nazi invasion. But Shachtman evaded this conclusion and took refuge in abstentionist propagandism: "The task of the revolutionary Marxists can be fulfilled only by taking these progressive sentiments into full account, while continuing their ’patient enlightenment’ of the masses as to the imperialist and reactionary character of the war itself, the harmfulness of political support of the war and the war regimes, the need of breaking with imperialism and the ruling classes, the urgency of an independent, internationalist road for the proletariat of all countries."10

After June 1941 Shachtman’s position came under fire from two sides within the WP. One grouping argued that the WP should stick to Shachtman’s original line and critically defend the Soviet Union against German imperialism. Ernest Erber wrote an article in the August 1941 issue of the New International putting this position and citing in its support the prediction in "Is Russia a Workers’ State?" of the effects that would result from imperialist conquest of Russia. He pointed out the absurdity of the WP’s line of accepting defencism with regard to China in its war against Japanese imperialism but rejecting it in the case of the Soviet Union’s resistance to German fascism. How, Erber asked, would opponents of Soviet defencism "ever be able to explain to a Russian worker why he should take the manufacture and transport of supplies to China into account when waging the struggle against Stalin but not the needs of the Russian front against Germany? How explain to the Russian worker that the conquest of China by Japan is of direct consequence to him, but the conquest of Russia by Germany does not matter sufficiently to require defensive efforts?" He concluded that it was therefore permissible and indeed obligatory for revolutionaries to form a bloc with the Stalinist regime on this issue.11

Another line of criticism was developed by Joseph Carter in an article published in the September issue of New International. He dismissed Shachtman’s excuses for rejecting Soviet defencism in the current situation as "mere sophistry". But Carter argued that a refusal to defend the Soviet Union against German imperialism was in fact correct, although for entirely different reasons from those put forward by Shachtman himself. Shachtman’s mistake, Carter argued, was that he had not broken sufficiently from the concepts of the old workers’ statist position and still regarded nationalised property as in some sense progressive. In reality, according to Carter, nationalised property in the form that it existed in the Soviet Union was not even potentially progressive, and the Soviet system – "reactionary-bureaucratic-collectivism", as Carter termed it – was regressive even in relation to capitalism. And that, in Carter’s view, was why it should be a matter of indifference to revolutionaries whether or not the Soviet Union was conquered by Nazi Germany.12

Shachtman did later come round to this point of view himself, and in 1948 the ISL adopted as its official position a version of bureaucratic collectivism based on Carter’s analysis.13 When he reprinted "Is Russia a Workers’ State?" in the 1962 collection of his writings The Bureaucratic Revolution, Shachtman edited out the part about defending the Soviet Union. But, in his introduction to that collection, he failed to acknowledge Carter as the originator of the theory of reactionary-bureaucratic-collectivism.

Shachtman’s aim, Ernie Haberkern has argued, was to construct his own bogus theory of continuity by presenting himself as the sole author of the bureaucratic collectivist position: "For this purpose it was necessary to conceal the fact that there had been two theories of bureaucratic collectivism. One, espoused by Shachtman, held that collectivist property forms were per se progressive, a conquest of the Russian Revolution that had to be defended no matter what class was the immediate beneficiary (or victim) of the social relations based on these forms. The other, originally proposed by Carter, insisted ... against Shachtman that the bureaucracy’s control of collectivist property condemned the working class to a new form of exploitation and represented a step backwards for modern civilisation."14

The 1941 dispute within the Workers Party is obviously not a insignificant one for an understanding of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. So how does Matgamna deal with it? The answer is that he almost entirely ignores it. The arguments of the Erber faction don’t even rate a mention, thus conveniently burying the fact that there was a Soviet defencist strand within the Shachtmanite tradition. As for Carter’s theory of bureaucratic collectivism as a regressive system which did not merit even critical defence by revolutionaries, given that this is Matgamna’s own position you might have expected him to at least give Carter his due. However, while the Carter document is partially reproduced, the polemic against Shachtman’s version of the theory is removed from the text and relegated to a brief reference in a footnote.15 Which only goes to show, I suppose, that even an unfalsified Marxist is not above a bit of sharp practice when it comes to upholding the continuity of unfalsified Marxism.

If Matgamna’s tradition-building project requires him to tinker with the real history of the WP/ISL, it also involves a parallel distortion of the politics of the Shachmanites’ "orthodox Trotskyist" opponents in the United States, represented by the SWP and its leader James P. Cannon.

The SWP’s applause for the Soviet armed forces during the war as "Trotsky’s Red Army" is made much of in this collection, which backs up the Shachtmanites’ anti-SWP polemics with illustrations of the offending articles and cartoons from the SWP’s paper Socialist Appeal. Shachtman himself insisted that this position on the Red Army was a necessary consequence of the pro-Stalinist politics implicit in the SWP’s Soviet defencism. But it seems to me that the Cannonites’ line stemmed not from an intrinsic softness towards Stalinism (which they were not inclined to) but rather from an effort to relate to the consciousness of US workers (which Cannon in particular certainly was inclined to – it was one of his political strengths). During the war the anti-fascist sentiments of the working class took the form of enthusiastic support for the Soviet Union in its resistance to the Nazi invasion. The Communist Party won widespread popularity for its Stalinist politics as a result, and I think that the SWP leadership with its "Trotsky’s Red Army" line sought to direct this pro-Soviet response towards the October Revolution and away from its Stalinist degeneration. They may have been wrong in this, but it hardly stands as conclusive evidence of a consistent Stalinophile deviation.

Post-war, the SWP along with other sections of the world Trotskyist movement had to grapple with the question of Soviet Stalinism’s expansion into Eastern Europe, along with successful seizures of power by indigenous Stalinist forces in Yugoslavia and China. These developments ran entirely counter to Trotsky’s predictions – which had anticipated that the inevitable outcome of the war would be Stalinism’s overthrow either by workers’ revolution or by capitalist restoration – so it is not surprising that Trotskyists had difficulty in comprehending the new situation.

But the SWP held out longer than most of the FI’s sections before designating these newly-Stalinised countries as a variety of workers’ state. (It wasn’t until 1955, for example, that the SWP finally came round to the FI’s ludicrous position that the seizure of power by a Stalinist-led peasant guerilla army had established a workers’ state in China.) Cannon later explained his reluctance to accept this position on the grounds that "I had a mortal terror of any conciliation towards Stalinism".16 Even after the FI’s Third World Congress in 1951 had officially adopted the formula "deformed workers’ states" for these new formations, Cannon still resisted it. "As far as I know this dispute is still unresolved", he wrote in 1952. "I do not accept the decision of the world congress. I do accept the political conclusion that we must defend these formations ...".17 In other words, while they were not workers’ states these countries should nevertheless be defended against imperialist attack and capitalist restoration – a position not far removed from Rakovsky’s attitude to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, or Shachtman’s in 1940.

The actual collapse of the Soviet Union did not, of course, involve foreign conquest (although imperialist warmongering in the form of Reagan’s armaments build-up was a certainly major factor in breaking the back of the Soviet economy). However, the results of capitalist restoration have been precisely the catastrophe that Shachtman predicted half a century before it happened. The destruction of nationalised property has indeed reduced Russia to the status of a Third World country – complete with business operations interlinked Colombia-style with organised crime – while the now unrestrained military domination of the United States, plus the damage done to the idea that there can ever be a viable alternative to capitalism, has indeed given capitalism and reaction a new lease of life, enormously retarded the revolutionary movement and postponed for we don’t know how long the introduction of the world socialist society.

The fact that Soviet workers themselves failed to defend nationalised property and even supported capitalist restoration only demonstrated the unfortunate fact that, disoriented by the experience of Stalinism, they became "dupes of world reaction". The same could be said for much of the Trotskyist movement. Those political tendencies who welcomed the collapse of Stalinism back into capitalism showed a complete inability to comprehend the most important political development of the late twentieth century. And these tendencies included not just those like the AWL or the Cliffites, who had adopted reactionary-bureaucratic-collectivist or state capitalist positions, but even the official British section of the Fourth International, organised around Socialist Outlook, which was formally committed to the view that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state.

Of course, you could argue that this is all a bit academic now that the Soviet Union is no longer around to be defended. But there are some general methodological issues at stake here. However rotten an institution may be, if it originates in the struggles of the working class and consequently retains "proletarian residues", then its destruction from the right can never be in the interests of the fight for socialism. Such a development invariably demoralises left-inclined working people and provides favourable conditions for the development of reactionary forces.

This applies not only to the Soviet Union but also, for example, to the Labour Party. The same mistake that was made by revolutionaries who rejected Soviet defencism is also committed by those who assert that the working class characteristics of the Labour Party have now become so attenuated that it is no longer worth conducting even defensive struggles within the party, and that a complete and final victory for the Blairites in transforming Labour into a purely bourgeois party on the model of the US Democrats will in fact have a positive effect, destroying the illusions of the masses in Labourism and opening up a political space on the left which some new party of socialist "recomposition" can fill.

The fact that The Fate of the Russian Revolution is edited by someone who rejects elementary defencist principles in relation to the Soviet Union undermines the usefulness of the book. Nevertheless, as I pointed out at the beginning of this review, the collection contains a lot of impressive material which provides some important insights into the Shachtmanite tradition. Hopefully the second volume will feature material covering aspects of that tradition other than its stand on the Soviet Union – for example the WP/ISL’s position on those organisational principles which divided it from the Cannonites no less fundamentally than the "Russian question" did, and which have more direct relevance to the fight for socialism today.


1. The Fate of the Russian Revolution, pp.168-74.

2. Ibid, p.297.

3. This point is made by Adam Westoby, Communism Since World War II, 1981, p.299.

4. Ante Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, 1979, chapters 6 and 8.

5. Quoted Westoby, p.299. Part of this passage is quoted by Gus Fagan in his introduction to Christian Rakovsky, Selected Writings on Opposition in the USSR 1923-30, 1980, p.57. Although the document from which the quote is taken, the "Declaration of April 1930", is included in this book, the passage itself – which should appear on p.173, between the second and third paragraphs – has for some reason been omitted. Perhaps Gus Fagan can explain this? [In a letter to the reviewer, Gus Fagan explained that this was merely a printing error.] The full text can be found in the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, No.6, pp.90-103.

6. The Fate of the Russian Revolution, pp.291-2.

7. Ernest Haberkern and Arthur Lipow, eds, Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism, 1996, p.120.

8. The Fate of the Russian Revolution, p.419.

9. Ibid, p.418.

10. Ibid, p.419.

11. Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism, pp.89-98.

12. Ibid, pp.98-113.

13. This position is stated in the 1948 ISL resolution "Capitalism, Stalinism and the Struggle for the World", which written by Hal Draper.

14. Ernie Haberkern, "The Myth of Max Shachtman", in Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism, p.185.

15. The Fate of the Russian Revolution, p.294.

16. Letter to Joseph Hansen, 28 March 1952, in James P. Cannon, Building the Party (1950-1955), 1987, p.4.

17. Ibid.

The Reality Behind the Irish Peace Process

Joe Craig, John McAnulty and Paul Flannigan, The Real Irish Peace Process, Socialist Democracy, 1998. Paperback, 187pp, £6.

Reviewed by Allan Armstrong

"BRITAIN NO longer has any selfish economic or strategic interest in Ireland." This is the keynote phrase in the current "Peace Process". It was first aired by John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1988 in negotiations with Sinn Féin. It was repeated by the Tory Northern Ireland Minister, Peter Brooke, in a major speech in 1990 designed to woo the Irish Republican leadership. It appeared again in the Downing Street Declaration of 1994 and the Framework Documents of 1995. By 1992, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness had already been persuaded: "Personally I believe they’re here because they wish to uphold the right and support the position of Unionism within the six counties, rather than any strategic or economic interests."

Once the Republican leadership had come to accept this view, the way was clear to abandon a quarter-century long revolutionary nationalist struggle to end British rule in the "Six Counties". The trouncing of the Tories, the parliamentary allies of the Ulster Unionists, in the May 1997 general election, cleared the way for a New Labour government to end support for "the position of Unionism in the Six Counties" and to make way for a pan-nationalist alliance of Sinn Féin, SDLP and the Irish Government, with the blessing of Clinton’s US government in the background.

The recent Socialist Democracy publication, The Real Irish Peace Process, is designed to undermine this central argument. It concentrates on the continued economic interests Britain has in Ireland, north and south, showing why Partition continues to be the favoured British policy. A state which has an interest in withdrawing from Ireland, if only it could do so gracefully, would hardly spend the £23.5 billion spent by Britain over the last 30 years in the "Six Counties". The authors argue that "Britain is a major imperialist power with worldwide interests to defend. It is inconceivable that it would allow its credibility or stability to be threatened so close to its shores when it has sought to project its power and influence in places such as the Falklands, in the Gulf War and in Bosnia".

Whilst there are now wider imperialist interests represented in Ireland than Britain’s, it is persuasively argued that US and European capital alike accept Britain’s policing role and back Britain’s Partitionist policy. Where the EU, British (and, it could be added, the US) Peace Process funds "have been used directly for economic development we have the usual multi-national suspects providing a low-wage economy with a choice of sweetheart deals with unions or straight union-busting".

The book goes on to show that Partition is, if anything, further cemented by the Good Friday Agreement. This gives constitutional recognition to Catholic nationalism for the first time within the new Stormont as well as to the traditional Orange Unionism. "It is based on the most sectarian of principles. Parties elected to it will have to register as orange, green or other.... This single provision is enough to condemn the whole deal and silence the nonsense that the deal is about overcoming division. As we can see, it is about precisely the opposite. It is about institutionalising and strengthening sectarianism."

The authors also attack the very notion of a "Peace Process": "There’s a term for a peace process in which demands for justice, equality and democratic rights are subordinated. That term is pacification.... British violence has been built into the peace process. They have used the state forces to push loyalist bigots through nationalist areas and turned a blind eye to a constant regime of violence by the ’pro-peace’ loyalist paramilitaries. The final Stormont ’agreement’ only became possible when the Orange card was played in an outburst of loyalist sectarian killing which was used to change the peace agenda from the framework document to Trimble’s heads of agreement.... A return to ’normality’ in the north means a return to some modern version of the sectarian society that existed before 1969."

The book also highlights New Labour’s continued support for the Union. Two weeks after becoming prime minister, Tony Blair visited Belfast to say: "My message is simple. I am committed to Northern Ireland." Despite the British governments’s superficial commitment to "democratic" and "peaceful" methods, these are only really demanded of the Republicans. The British state maintains its occupying army, has upgraded many of its fortifications, continues to underwrite the sectarian and heavily armed RIR and RUC, whilst turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of guns held by the Unionists and the numerous name changes of the fascist Loyalist death squads – the latest being the Orange Volunteer Force – which enable them to work within and without the "Peace Process".

Blair’s strategy for defending the Union is more sophisticated than Thatcher’s "No, No, No". New Labour now has a political strategy of "devolution-all-round", fronted by a reformed monarchy and a reformed Westminster. The growing demand for self-determination in Scotland and Wales has also to be contained. It is the prospect of this wider growing resistance to Blair’s "new unionist" project that demands a new internationalism from below, something this book unfortunately doesn’t consider, but which the Red Republicans believe is necessary.

However, the "Six Counties" remain the frontline and the still undefeated, if war-weary, "communities of resistance" the ultimate target of British policy. Socialist Democracy are to be congratulated for so thoroughly exposing the pretensions behind the "Peace Process".

This review first appeared in the December 1998 issue of Red Republican.

Examining the Nightingale’s Code

C.P. Lee, Like the Night: Bob Dylan and the Road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall, Helter Skelter, 1998. Paperback, 190pp, £12.00.

Reviewed by Robert Wilkins

WHEN BOB Dylan performed for the pope in 1997, it caused something of a furore in the press (though others of us, it must be said, were more horrified by the revelation that the former voice of youth rebellion was now an enthusiastic golfer). Mark Steel, for example, commenting on the papal concert in his Guardian column, condemned Dylan for capitulating to religious reaction and betraying the political ideals of his youth.

In reality, he traded in those ideals some thirty-five years ago. The singer’s leftist period was only a brief phase at the start of his musical career – his last "protest" album was The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1963 – and he subsequently repudiated these early political songs in the most provocative manner ("I knew people would buy that kind of shit, right? I was never into that stuff"). The number of songs recorded since then with some sort of progressive political content can be counted on one hand, with a couple of fingers to spare. The 1971 single "George Jackson", "Hurricane" from the 1976 Desire album and "Julius and Ethel", an outtake from 1983’s Infidels, are the few that come to mind.

Meanwhile, Dylan’s personal ideological position shifted sharply to the right, and by the 1970s he was lurching from backing the right-wing Jewish Defense League to propagating fundamentalist Christianity. One of the songs that did make it onto Infidels was "Neighborhood Bully", which indignantly rejects the view of Israel as an oppressive power, portraying it rather as an innocent and isolated victim of hostile Arab regimes. (The Israeli state "got no allies to really speak of", Dylan insists. What, not even US imperialism, Bob?) Comrade Steel’s accusations of selling out politically were thus somewhat belated, to say the least.

In any case, truth to tell, the early "protest" material often wasn’t up to much. Songs that concentrated on denouncing specific injustices worked well enough – "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", "Hollis Brown", "Percy’s Song" or "Who Killed Davey Moore?" – but when it came to political generalisations, Bob usually fell flat on this face. It wasn’t that he hadn’t come into contact on the folk scene with some politically more sophisticated people – Dave Van Ronk, whose arrangement of "House of the Rising Sun" Dylan appropriated for his first album, was a member of the faction led by Tim Wohlforth in the US Socialist Workers Party. But little of this political sophistication seems to have rubbed off on Dylan. I mean – "How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned?" Give us a break.

In Like the Night, C.P. Lee deals with the transitional phase during the mid-sixties when Dylan moved on from his "folk" style and began performing rock songs with electric backing – his classic period, as most would now agree. The book revolves around the famous May 1966 concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, the recording of which has finally been released officially by Sony, after decades of persistent bootlegging. Following an opening acoustic set, Dylan reappeared with a loudly amplified group (most of whose members would later find fame as The Band). His performance was interrupted by a growing barrage of boos and jeers, interspersed with episodes of sustained slow handclapping, and culminating in the heartfelt cry of "Judas!" by one particularly aggrieved folkie, just before Dylan and his musicians ended the show with a ferocious rendition of "Like A Rolling Stone".

Some of the bitterest critics of Dylan’s new musical style were to be found on the left. Like the Night relates a perhaps apocryphal anecdote about how, before the Glasgow concert, the local Communist Party (more likely the Young Communist League) held a special meeting "to decide how best to demonstrate their feelings about the direction that Dylan’s music had gone in. After much heated debate it was decided to buy tickets and attend the shows. If Dylan persisted in his madness of using an electric backing group positive action would have to be taken to point out to him the error of his ways. A vote was then taken on how best to protest. Slow handclapping followed by a walkout was decided on as the best way of registering their displeasure. This they duly did".

The irony was that the acoustic set which made up the first half of Dylan’s 1966 concerts passed off without any audible opposition. Yet, unlike the previous year’s British tour, during which he had made concessions to audience expectations by including a few of his old protest numbers, the 1966 set consisted exclusively of the more recent material with its stream-of-consciousness lyrics and not a single overtly political idea in evidence. Clearly it was not so much the lyrical content as the amplified music that the folk dogmatists took such exception to.

An entire book about a single concert might sound like an exercise in musical trainspotting. In fact, Like the Night shows a real feeling for the social, political and cultural background to the events, as well as communicating the excitement with which the author and others responded to the music. The book is also enlivened by interviews with members of the audience whom Lee has tracked down, including some of those who participated in the barracking of Dylan. (Time has not mellowed them: "He looked like Mick Jagger, posturing and strutting. It was all the worst elements of Pop.")

The book may not have the literary aspirations of Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus’s study of Dylan’s Basement Tapes, but on the plus side it generally avoids the pretentiousness of that work. Mind you, I could do without the in-depth textual analysis of the songs. The lyrics of "Visions of Johanna", "Fourth Time Around" and the like should, I think, be understood less as profound poetic statements and more as a product of unwisely mixing acid with amphetamines.

All the same, there was some great music made that night, and it’s worth paying tribute to. Ageing Dylan fans like this reviewer will obviously appreciate the book, while younger comrades who only know Dylan from his recent performances, as a croaking parody of his former self, should first buy a copy of the concert recording in order to understand what everyone got so worked up about back in 1966.