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The Progress and Stagnation of Marxism

Al Richardson

IT HAS become plain to many, both inside and outside the working class movement, that what is today regarded as Marxism really functions as a justification for semi-religious sects, with their own gurus and interpreters, their own pretensions to orthodoxy, and their own versions of the Apostles’ Creed.

So a precondition for a rebirth of the revolutionary movement must be the restoration of the true essence of Marxism as a tool for understanding reality. This cannot be done without an honest discussion that cuts across all the groups as they stand at present, for even within Trotskyism, which after all is a critique of Stalinism, Marxism seems to have lost its critical edge, has retreated from methods of analysis based upon class, and has become a badge of identity rather than a directional compass. In order to understand why Marxism has come to this sad pass in the hands of those who have made the most serious attempt to grapple with it, it is necessary to take into account not only our movement’s poor class content and implantation, which are partly a result of its marginalisation by Stalinism, but also what has generally happened to Marxism since it left the heads of Marx and Engels.

If we agree that ideas are a reflection of material reality, then we must also accept that what is regarded as Marxism is not itself immune from the operation of dialectical laws. This can be illustrated on the positive side by grasping why the Communist Manifesto coincided with the year of European revolutions, why the Paris Commune was the background to the acceptance of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and why the revolutionary upsurge of the Russian masses gave rise to Trotsky’s Results and Prospects and Lenin’s State and Revolution.

But it can also be illustrated in a negative sense. The degeneration of Marxism into a formalistic evolutionary dogma in the days of the Second International had as its background a European boom in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Its further degeneration into the persecuting orthodoxy of a Byzantine state accompanied the nightmare of Stalinist counter-revolution, and a further emptying of its class content took place during another European boom that extended from the end of the Second World War up to the 1970s.

Of course, history never repeats itself mechanically, and during each of these periods the working class threw up vibrant new organisations, but what concerns us here is how they degenerated by taking identical steps rightwards. These were always in the direction of liberalism, and for a very good reason. Marxism sees the essence of politics as the confrontation of the basic classes. Liberalism, on the other hand, sees politics as the jockeying for position of various interest groups, classes included, which it is the business of the state to regulate. The Marxism of the Second International began to soften the edge of its criticisms of liberalism during the "revisionist" controversy, and ended up entering various bourgeois governments, first of all in France, and then in Belgium, Germany, etc, during the First World War. The Third International arose as a class protest against this accommodation, but after a brief ‘"Third Period" sectarian binge in 1929-34 Stalinism followed this same lamentable path with its Popular Fronts with "Progressive" Liberals, Tories and churchmen, not to mention bitter enemies of the labour movement and imperialist war-mongers, which in Britain at least even put it on the right of the Social Democracy. Trotskyism, which similarly began as a class critique of Stalinism, ended up giving priority to non-class movements such as feminism, black power, Third World nationalism, ecology, student radicalism, the politics of the personal, etc. This is, of course, a straight repeat of the Popular Front, for Trotskyism could only degenerate by accommodating to Stalinism, just as Stalinism could only do the same by accommodating to Social Democracy, and as Social Democracy did to Liberalism in the first place.

What is important to realise here is that it took considerable time for the logic of this development to find its formal ideological expression in the organisations in question. German Social Democracy finally abandoned its Socialist identity with the Bad Godesberg programme, and the British Labour Party has only just dropped its Clause IV. Only very recently have Stalinist parties come to admit that they are really Social Democratic rather than Communist organisations. In the meantime, and this is what I believe we are witnessing with Trotskyism as well, theory functioned in order to bridge the gap between the traditions and official identities of these organisations, and the real positions that they occupied within the class struggle. All the old slogans and concepts remained on show, rather like fossils in a geological museum, but their revolutionary essence had long been drained away

This ideological degeneration of the Trotskyists could not take the same form as it did with Social Democracy or Stalinism, which were much larger organisations, often enjoying office, and even state power. Considerable material means and masses of functionaries enabled them to make the necessary molecular adjustments as time went along. But Trotskyist organisations have only occupied leading positions in the working class in certain countries, at certain times, and for particular reasons. Conditions determine consciousness, and the very existence of massive organisations hostile to revolutionary politics condemned the Trotskyists to a marginal existence. Their inability to influence events at large more often reflected itself in dogmatism, sectarianism and apocalyptic catastrophism rather than outright revisionism, though attempts were sometimes made to present themselves as the interpreters of world historical forces, the mysteries of which were not revealed to others. But on the whole, Trotskyist organisations have shown that they were particularly prone to degeneration into social expressions of religious sectarianism.

Religious forms of thought differ from scientific concepts by their adherence to symbolism and myth, to form rather than content, and the living thoughts of Lenin and Trotsky have suffered badly in the hands of their epigones. The groups of the present day use the classics of Marxism as quarries to extract scriptural texts for shaping into factional clubs to be used for beating other groups over the head, the more savage beatings being reserved for those who are closest to their own positions. The methods by which the pioneers of Marxism reached their conclusions have been largely discarded, whilst the slogans and finished concepts have been worshipped, mummified, and finally entombed. A positive mania for labelling has gone on, with the superstitious assumption that having placed a label on some phenomenon you have somehow explained it. The label of "centrism", for example, has been thrown around like water, applied to organisations that differ so markedly from each other that it has rendered the concept meaningless, apart from the fact that many of the groups so labelled are nearer in their class assumptions to liberalism than to Social Democracy or Stalinism. This compulsive labelling is especially amusing in this case, for Marxism defines centrism as an unstable formation in movement either to the right or the left, and the question of its becoming "ossified" hardly arises. In such a way Marxist thought has become atomised by a process of minute logic chopping, and rendered ultimately incoherent. Dialectical methods of perception have been turned into their opposites, into something like the theory of ideal forms as envisaged by Plato, or the rigid categories of Aristotelian logic. Movement, becoming and transformation are noticeably absent from the Marxism that is preached by these groups.

Nowhere is this more true than with the theory of the revolutionary party. "Democratic centralism" began as a way of organising an entire working class movement, not a prescription for a petty-bourgeois sect. Lenin proposed it for the whole of Russian Social Democracy, Menshevik as well as Bolshevik, but it has now become transformed into a secret conspiracy whereby the revolutionary organisation works out its politics behind the backs of the working class, and then appears in public with a finished programme pointed like a gun at its head. Lenin, of course, later admitted that he had bent the stick too far in his original proposals, but even at the time he believed that non-party workers should be encouraged to write in to the paper and take sides in the differences within the party. If the party’s paper had not already publicly informed them of these differences, how could they be expected to write in and take sides in them? Democratic centralism was, moreover, envisaged as a method by which an accepted leadership should be allowed to test its politics in practice before submitting them to the scrutiny of the rank and file. But today we have individuals with no record of struggle at all proclaiming themselves as revolutionary "leaders", not only based on groups with barely a hundred members in one country, but even on the international plane, where this absurd conspiratorial discipline is also expected to apply. The secretive military conception of democratic centralism so dear to these would-be revolutionaries is a clear reversion to Blanquism, and has nothing Leninist or Trotskyist about it at all.

And not only is the party organisation fetishised, but so is the very existence of the party. Trotsky, of course, was very clear on the differences between a revolutionary group and a party, and always held that whereas the latter must keep its organisation separate at all times, the former could best function as part of some larger working class organisation with a view to helping a differentiation within it in the direction of a revolutionary party. In Britain he argued along with Lenin that the Communist Party should function within the Labour Party, and that his followers in the thirties should carry on work in the Communist Party, then in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and then in the Labour Party. Trotsky gave not the slightest encouragement to his few dozen supporters in this country to operate as a separate party outside the other institutions of the working class. He called the ILP a sect when its membership was believed to include 30,000 workers. Still less is there any warrant for our modern "fighting propaganda group" that does nothing in the broader labour movement, whilst touring around all the other groups making an aimless factional nuisance of itself. And for good reason: there has never been a revolutionary party formed by recruitment in ones and twos to a sect. Lenin’s organisation was the Majority section of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, did not set up its separate party organisation until 1912, assumed the title of "Communist" during and after the revolution and not before it, and in any case contrary to myth never officially styled itself "the Bolshevik Party" at all. This is apart from the fact that until it accepted a revolutionary policy – the April Theses – it could only be regarded as a revolutionary party with considerable reservations in any case.

With the idea of the revolutionary party so drained of all blood and life, soviets could not be expected to emerge unscathed. Here there has been an extraordinary fetishisation of the Russian model, which has been expected to emerge in an identical form in other countries, either bearing its selfsame Russian label, or thinly Anglicised as "community councils". What is a general phenomenon of the class struggle at times of acute polarisation has not been distinguished from its peculiar Russian setting. To start off with, soviets were not "pure" revolutionary working class organisations (if such purity can be imagined in the class struggle). Nor were they mere groupings of trade union delegates, like our trades councils, but included delegates from all the working class parties as of right, petty-bourgeois democrats, peasants and soldiers, as well as from trade unions, which were historically weak in Russia. They represented not only the working class, but the entire as yet undifferentiated revolutionary democracy that emerged from Bloody Sunday in 1905 and the fall of the Tsar in 1917. They were thus, by the definition of our purists, a "Popular Front", and the Bolsheviks broke up this inter-class alliance by placing the demand for "All Power to the Soviets" upon their Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leadership.

The same mechanism here may perhaps be something along the lines of demanding that the leaders of the trades unions and the Labour Party break with the bourgeoisie and take the power into their own hands, similar to the slogan which used to appear on the front of Labour Briefing. For even in times of crisis, the potential for working class power – dual power – must appear within the organisations that the working class regards as its own, which will not be the same in other countries as in the Russia of 1917. The fact that the Paris Commune was a transformed city council did not prevent Marx from describing it as the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, just as Trotsky ascribed the same character to the Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias of Catalonia in 1936.

This Bolshevik policy of 1917 was the supreme example of how to counterpose the United Front to the Popular Front. The Menshevik and SR leadership of the soviets wanted to keep their alliance with the petty-bourgeois democrats and the Provisional Government, and had indeed reconvened the soviets in 1917 with this very purpose in mind. To this the Bolsheviks counterposed the slogan of soviet power, but they were only able to do this by entering the soviets themselves. This is the real method by which Popular Fronts are destroyed and the united front is substituted for them. The idea that revolutionaries must never operate inside an organisation that is part of a Popular Front, promulgated by the Spartacists and others represents a sectarian abdication of the class struggle, and is an invention out of whole cloth. Our opposition to Popular Fronts is, of course, on principle. But whether revolutionaries should be inside or out of them while trying to break them up is a purely tactical question, not one of principle. Contrary to the imaginings of these sectarians, Trotsky never repudiated the initial decision of the Chinese Communist Party to enter the Guomindang, only its remaining there in vastly changed circumstances (Revolutionary History, Vol.5, No.3, pp.270-1). Even on a smaller scale, when Trotsky was asked about our attitude to peace councils in Britain in 1936, which included bourgeois politicians and clerics as well as Stalinists and Social Democrats, his reply was that mere denunciation from outside was useless, and that to break them up the revolutionaries must enter in order to argue for the expulsion of their bourgeois components. So here again we see how Trotsky’s concepts have been mummified or fossilised, and rendered incapable of being applied to the living struggle.

Transitional politics have also received a terrible mauling at the hands of Trotsky’s epigones. Here the Trotskyist movement at least had the excuse that it was never given the opportunity to assimilate the Transitional Programme before it was presented to the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938. Trotsky’s hopes that it would first be discussed within the sections – at least in the American Socialist Workers Party – were to be disappointed. And the fact that the Fourth International from 1943 onwards tried to counterpose the slogan of soviets to demands for a return to bourgeois democracy showed how little of its method had been absorbed. But an examination of this programme in the plain sense of the words actually contained in it shows that its transitional character lies precisely in its posing the necessary tasks of the working class to the existing majority leaderships of that class, whatever they might be in any given country. It does not call for the setting up of hoped-for but yet distant institutions, but is a real fighting programme intended to be applied given the existing institutions of the working class.

Caricatures of this policy have been legion within the Trotskyist movement. The Workers Revolutionary Party once launched the slogan of "Make the Left MPs Fight", without defining who they ought to fight and what they ought to fight for, apparently ignorant of the fact that the left MPs have never been the majority leadership of the working class in this country. Others have tried to take the programme as a whole as an ultimatum, making co-operation with them conditional upon accepting every statement in it. This converts the programme from being a bridge between the revolutionaries and the working class into being a barrier to the progress of either.

Obviously, here again the importance of this programme lies in how it was constructed by means of the transitional method. The world has greatly changed since the Second World War, and however relevant it was in its day, it can no longer be applied as it stands. Again, what is important here is the method, and not the finished formulation. But however we do interpret it, one thing is certain: transitional politics lend no support to those who say that the working class has to abandon the struggle within its own existing institutions and join a self-proclaimed "revolutionary party" of a few hundred petty bourgeois, "as if the masses could somehow live outside of the conditions of the actual class struggle".

The class theory of the state has similarly slipped into oblivion, worshipped from afar but never applied to developing reality. The entire "official" Fourth International held that in the 1940s the states of Eastern Europe had been transformed by "structural assimilation" from bourgeois states into workers’ states. Michael Löwy has since tried to argue that the petty bourgeois intelligentsia had replaced the proletariat as the instrument of permanent revolution in the Third World. The Spartacist analysis of Cuba pretended that at one point the petty bourgeoisie had wielded state power. My attempt in the preface of In Defence of the Russian Revolution to remind the movement of Lenin’s basic definition of a workers’ state as "a bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie" with two exceptions was met with insult and ridicule wherever it was reviewed. Yet no one has formally repudiated Lenin’s State and Revolution. It has been quietly left on the altar and bowed to now and again, but has not been taken down for any use.

Of course, there were always those within the Trotskyist movement who realised that serious degeneration had taken place, but this was typically explained, not by history, but by myth, that of "Pabloite Revisionism". By his theories of centuries of deformed workers’ states and entrism sui generis Pablo had apparently represented a capitulation to Stalinism. Yet anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the history of the movement knows that this began long before, when James P. Cannon criticised John G. Wright’s support for the Warsaw uprising and condemnation of Stalin for conniving at its destruction, when Tito was lionised as an "unconscious Trotskyist", and when uncritical support was extended to Mao and Ho Chi Minh. The truth of the matter is that Cannon, Healy and the rest of them had all voted for Pablo’s thesis of "War-Revolution" at the "Third World Congress" of 1951. Healy, who even tried to cover up the news of the persecution of the Chinese Trotskyists, published a translation of Pablo’s La Guerre qui vient, as The Coming World Showdown. When Pablo first began to express some minor criticisms of Tito, it was Mike Banda who objected, and when the motion for the suspension of the leadership of the French section came up on the International Secretariat, the vote was Pablo for, Cannon for, and Healy for, with Mandel and Maitan against. Cannon quickly changed his mind when Pablo turned Cannon’s own favourite trick against him by starting up a faction inside his own organisation, and Healy hurriedly threw in his lot with him when questions began to be asked about his rather rough wooing of Peng Shuzi’s daughter. At the same time neither side in this split had the slightest thing to say about the betrayal of the revolution in Bolivia, where one of their sections was the main leadership of the working class in the country.

It may seem surprising with this very critical look at what Trotskyism has become that I should still regard a basic apprenticeship in Trotskyism as a necessary precondition for the formation of a Marxist programme and organisation. But it should also be realised that the crisis of leadership not only applies to the mass organisations, but also finds reflection in the ranks of the revolutionaries, as the Bolsheviks themselves experienced in April 1917. The Trotskyist organisations not only contain self-proclaimed leaders, whose aspirations to the mantles of Lenin and Trotsky are not matched by their record of struggle, but also the finest, the clearest thinking, and the most self-sacrificing militants of our class, who unlike all too many of the cadres of Social Democracy or Stalinism, have not joined its organisations for reasons of self-advancement. On the rare opportunities in which they are allowed to discuss freely with others, they often bemoan the sectarian aridity of their leaders, the mistaken nature of one or other of their policies, or the rigidity of their groups’ internal regimes. Never in my experience of the Trotskyist movement has there been so much general discontent amongst the rank and file of the various groups at our poor performance and general ineptitude.

Any such comrades who have patiently endured this very destructive criticism may well agree with some of its main thesis, whilst being outraged at the way it has been discussed and the statements it contains. They have every right to be. Let a real discussion on the present impasse of Marxism begin, across the groups and within the groups, so that some sort of renewal of Marxist theory can emerge from the free discussion of these problems, and an appropriate organisation be formed to deal with them.