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Red-Green Unity and Class Politics

TWO ARTICLES on Red-Green Unity in the last What Next?, by Peter Tatchell ("Reds and Greens Unite!") and Terry Liddle ("Green Politics and Socialism"), raise key issues that need discussing, so here are my first comments.

Tatchell’s call for left unity on a "never mind the quality, feel the width" basis would lead to mutual paralysis unless it only concerned a technical collaboration on a joint electoral list on an agreed minimum basis. Liddle’s is a more thoughtful piece that could be a basis for debate, since, whereas Tatchell entertains naive illusions about the successes of such phenomena elsewhere, Liddle does recognise that the German Greens are being absorbed into the system they "set out to destroy".

The German Greens began as anti-nuclear and anti-militarist. Their electoral success has led increasingly to accommodation. So much so that left-wingers upholding those original aims have been leaving over the years, particularly in the recent period. The Green leader, Joschka Fischer, played a key role in initiating the war on ex-Yugoslavia, and since then, at the Greens’ conference in March, they have watered down their anti-nuclear stance.

The Greens are now a party, not just in government carrying out "modernising" policies such as benefit cuts but also helping German big business re-establish its military arm for imperialist intervention into areas it seeks to penetrate. The Fischer wing openly state their aim of turning the Greens into an orthodox liberal party to replace the Free Democrat Party, which shed its liberalism long ago and has been on the verge of extinction for a while.

It seems obvious to me that left wing parties that give up, or do not start with, a class outlook fall prey to every possible alien pressure and finally end up supporting the status quo. Like a boat navigating without charts and instruments, one can only end up on the rocks. An example of this is the Marxism Today people; some became Blairites, others are capitalist propagandists. The New Labour drift into crisis this summer illustrates what happens when no coherent world-outlook underpins a party; there are no values other than enthusiasm for free market capitalism at the heart of "the project", as the leaked memos show. Many of the so-called Trotskyist currents have, over decades, given up a class approach and instead taken up a range of liberal single issue demands.

Regarding so-called minorities, policies often imported from the USA have been taken up. Such policies were designed to prevent radical developments, to buy off the leaders of the oppressed and to create a middle class careerist layer loyal to the system. Whether it is "affirmative action", "quotas" or "women-only short-lists", not only do such demands not resolve the problem but actually create others. The "Blair babes" pushed working class candidates aside, not only men but women too, and working class people, male or female, have not benefited from their fast track career move.

This abandonment of a class approach led some of these Trotskyist groups to support reactionary nationalist gangsters and aspiring rulers who aimed both to improve their bank balances and to better their lifestyles by advancing a call for "self-determination" in the conflicts which broke out in ex-Yugoslavia. In a situation where that can only lead to dividing the working class, to war, to assisting imperialism – in other words, where there is no revolutionary dynamic – once again the non-class approach resolves nothing but actually creates problems, such as the tragedies left over in Bosnia and Kosovo.

So in order to avoid the inevitable trajectory followed by those giving up a class approach, one must base unity upon it, otherwise only a technical electoral collaboration could bear fruit.

Jim Riddle

Lambertism and the French Left

AFTER RECENT scandals most people would have thought that anyone connected with "Lambertism" would go into a long and welcome period of silence. Not so for Henry Balfour ("Trotskyism and Social Democracy", What Next? No.16) who lectures the left from the vantage point of what must be the rottenest Trotskcard (not Trotskyand, as Balfour typically gets wrong) bloc on the planet.

Articles published in Le Monde ("MNEF Histoire d’une Génération", 10-11 December 1999) exposed the modus operandi of this sect.

The MNEF, a student "mutual" fund responsible for health and insurance, was taken over in 1979 by an alliance of supporters of François Mitterand and Pierre Lambert (Pierre Boussel). Jean-Christophe Cambadélis (Camba), the leader of the Lambertist side of this marriage of convenience, performed the role of the British Labour Co-ordinating Committee in fighting against the left in the student union, UNEF-ID. Notably against Julien Dray, the then leader of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) student section. Not content with this, and their alliances inside the virulently anti-Communist trade union federation, Force Ouvrière (FO), the Lambertists milked the MNEF "mutual" funds with fictitious employees and a degree of corruption that now has the French courts busy for the foreseeable future. Involving, inter alia, former Lambertists who are now Socialist MPS, and who extend their anti-Communism to backing for Western imperialism, from the war against Iraq to Kosovo.

Anyone who has ever been involved in French left politics knows that there are two groups not to touch with a barge pole.

The first, Lutte Ouvrière (LO), is simply mildly eccentric, resting as it does on the belief that they alone of all Marxists have the entire explanation for Stalinism, family planning and a recipe for world revolution. It’s a surprise to no-one that their alliance with the LCR has now collapsed. If you’ve ever sat in a room with LO you’d be amazed that they ever deigned to work with what they consider lesser beings like Krivine.

The second, absolute poison, is the Lambertists/Parti de Travailleurs. Their electoral strategy, which Balfour cites, is a walking disaster: they have never risen to even the 1% level. In their drive against Maastricht and the euro they have not hesitated to find allies on the nationalist right. Their journals, such as Informations Ouvrières, make The Socialist look positively readable. On the left they are universally despised. I can well recall seeing them marching on May Day (separate from everyone else, be it noted) behind one of the most disgusting anti-Communist CIA-funded gangster "trade unionists" ever to pollute the French political landscape – André Bergeron, the leader of FO.

For someone from this background to attack Julien Dray and the Gauche Socialiste (GS), an honest left social democratic current which has had some modest success in reviving socialism within the Parti Socialiste, is a joke. The GS rightly reveres the memory of Jean Jaurès, a socialist who combined French republicanism with Marxism, and who paid with his life for his opposition to the First World War. I have frequently been to the café where Jaurès was assassinated, and it’s an occasion to reflect on what British socialism would have been like if we’d had a founding figure of his stature.

Pierre Lambert he wasn’t.

Andrew Coates

Karl Korsch: Some Comments

IF I MAY, I’d like to make a couple of comments on Dave Renton’s essay "Karl Korsch" in the last number of What Next? In this period of collapse, confusion and some rethinking in the left-socialist milieu, it is positive that Korsch’s ideas, among others, are brought to the attention of those who only know him as an ultra-left anathematised in the Platform of the Joint Opposition or are unaware of his contributions to Marxist theory.

To my comments.

It is incorrect to talk of a "majority of the USPD" voting to accept the "21 Conditions" of adherence to the Comintern at the Halle Congress. In an internal ballot, only 26% of the USPD’s membership had participated, though a majority for adherence was gained. That was apparently a result of a dislike for the "fratricidal struggle" and the fact that working people had more pressing concerns at the time. Opponents of the 21 Conditions advanced a motion rejecting the "unconditional submission of the national parties to an international central leadership", which was "incompatible with the huge differences in the economic, cultural and political relations of the individual countries", though it stressed its "proletarian solidarity with Soviet Russia". The congress vote was 236 for and 156 against the pro 21 Conditions motion. But that did not lead to a majority of members adhering to the KPD(S) and Comintern. In fact, only 280,000 or so, out of almost one million members, did so. After initially claiming 500,000 members, the VKPD revised the total to 350,000 (it had c.70,000 before the fusion into the VKPD); 340,000 stayed loyal to the USPD and the majority, possibly 400,000, simply dropped out, presumably in disgust at the split. The KPD would attract some of both sectors in the next few years through united front work.

Paul Levi, the KPD(S) chairman and the man responsible for drawing the USPD membership towards the Comintern, had expressed doubt about this method of creating a party. Ultimata on a take it or leave it basis, splitting over a motion rather than over deeds, would not be understood by the western European labour movement. He also expressed scepticism over the role of the ECCI. Such scepticism must have been widespread, and with hindsight it is obvious that such alien methods set back Communism in its modern infancy. The historian Wolfgang Abendroth was drawn to Communism while still at school and was pushed in the direction of the KPD(S) youth movement by his grandfather, though the latter chose to stay in the USPD after the split, as he "did not want to take part in the centralism" (Ein Leben in der Arbeiterbewegung, 1976, p.26). Korsch also had doubts about the 21 Conditions, presumably over the ECCI and the tendency towards rigid top-down structures.

He later set out some of his arguments when reviewing Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night. I’ll give a flavour of it:

"Members of Germany’s Independent Social Democratic Party did not know what they were doing when, at the Halle Congress ... together with twenty other ’Conditions for adhering to the Communist International’, they accepted the necessity for an ’illegal activity’ besides the regular activity of a revolutionary party. They had had some experience of ’illegal action’ in the 1914-18 war. They had built up a secret organisation of workers’ councils and in the last analysis of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, in order to end the war and organise the socialist revolution. They had got used to periods where the whole legal activity of revolutionary parties (apart from the still formally respected parliamentary sphere) was suppressed, their leaders persecuted, their institutions destroyed and the whole party thereby ’forced into illegality’. They believed, therefore, that the only thing the discussion in 1920 concerned was this element, which is indispensable for each really revolutionary action, and is present under the normal conditions of the class struggle (e.g. in organising a strike). They suspected the right wing, which opposed the 21 Conditions.... Therefore, they were unable to listen to the warnings from the left-radical Communists who, adhering to the tradition of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, stressed spontaneity in mass revolutionary action from the bottom up, as opposed to from the top down via an uncontrolled leadership. They did not foresee, and with their experience could not foresee, that from now on an ever greater part – and, finally, all their organisation and politics, tactics and strategy, their choice of enemies and allies, their theoretical convictions, language and habits, in fact all of their behaviour – would be dependent on secret orders brought often by dubious agents of unknown superiors, without the members having the least possibility of control. (In Communist circles this became known under the fine name ’democratic centralism’.)"

The KPD in its early years had a centralised but democratic structure (the ultra-lefts eased out by Levi wanted federalism and practised it where they predominated). A small Zentrale was controlled by a Central Commission composed of delegates from the districts. Congresses occurred regularly, in those years often in illegality and moving venue. Full time officials and editors were elected and subject to recall. Etc. This type of structure resulted from a rejection of the social democratic bureaucracy. It would all be dismantled by 1929, but "Bolshevisation" began it in the mid-’20s, with Comintern decisions ruthlessly implemented by Ruth Fischer’s leadership.

Korsch’s fundamental outlook was fairly consistent, but he did not always see the wood for the trees. His initial enthusiasm for the Fabian Society (he was also interested in Guild Socialism and Industrial Unionism in Britain) resulted from its attempt to advance positive ways of attaining socialism, as opposed to the Second International focus on propaganda for the final aim and an opportunist practice. Fabianism believed in education and the role of the subjective factor. Though Korsch accepted the need for the Marxist party, he saw it as auxiliary to organisations set up by the workers in struggle.

In the years up to the abortive 1923 uprising he was a supporter of the majority behind Brandler and its focus on united front work, transitional and day-to-day demands, and was a critic of the wrecking activities of Ruth Fischer and Co, whose ultra-leftism was paralysing and threatening to split the party. But, like a large proportion of KPD members, following the 1923 fiasco he lost his head. A lot of ordinary members were consumed by anger and disappointment. I have no idea what motivated Korsch, but probably it owed itself to his increasing criticism of developments in Soviet Russia, with the Comintern being seen as just an auxiliary tool of state policy.

After his expulsion from the KPD and the collapse of his own group he developed his criticism of both Second International and Soviet Marxism, the latter of which he saw as being rooted in the former and becoming an ideology justifying the practice rather than a critical guide to action.

Dave Renton is right to recommend Karl Korsch’s writings, which are rich in insights and attempts to get to grips with countless problems, even if he doesn’t always succeed. I have not seen the book by D. Kellner, nor have I more than skimmed P. Goode’s biography, so am unable to give an opinion, but I do recommend the essay by Erich Gerlach from International Socialism, which is a worthwhile introduction to Korsch. A couple of volumes of Korsch’s essays were published in Germany during the 1970s, but many of the items can be found in English in Living Marxism, International Council Correspondence and New Essays, all council communist organs edited by Paul Mattick in the ’30s and ’40s, and in less obscure journals such as Partisan Review or Modern Monthly, including the review of Out of the Night, a review of Trotsky’s Stalin, "The Marxist Ideology in Russia", etc. Marxism and Philosophy and the other titles mentioned shouldn’t be too hard to get hold of. Anyone wishing to cast off the dead hand of the junk that is passed down as Marxist theory on the left today will find Korsch refreshing and thought-provoking.

Mike Jones