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The Class Basis of Marxism: A Mopping Up Operation

EXACTLY AS I expected, my article on Bosnia has unloosed a stream of protest, and, also as expected, it has shown how those most ready to rush into print draw their inspiration from emotion rather than reason. I do not, of course, include among these the rational and sober reply by Nick Davies ("Why Marxists Should Have Defended Bosnia (And Why They Shouldn’t)") in What Next? No.4, for the points he makes call for a more serious consideration. I hope that this will emerge from a proper debate taken up by others. Here I only intend to wipe away some of the small beer spilled by the ferment.

I do not think I need take much of a cloth to Amanda Sebestyen’s effusion ("Bosnia and Socialism", with its Philistine assumption that a book written as long ago as 1946 can have no value. For her descriptions of "little-boy Civil War fantasies of ’Trotsky would have been on my side’", of Marxism as "one vision or story among many", of Tito as a "Croat" (presumably his Slovene mother does not count in these heavily feminist circles), and of the notorious Stalinist World War Two witch-hunter Harry McShane, who left the Communist Party after a dispute over money, as "working on ethical breakthroughs", all show that she has yet to learn the difference between a discussion and a cascade of words.

I was disappointed to learn, however, that Joe Rassool’s long years in the movement have taught him so little respect for the theorists of classical Marxism, the historical setting in which they worked, or the class basis of socialist thought. And I am little short of amazed to find Dave Hollis and Paul Trewhela lending their assistance to such muddied thinking and such a wash of unfounded assertions ("Against Neutralism: A Response to Al Richardson on Bosnia").

First of all, it comes as something of a shock to discover that Marx’s truism that "right can never rise above the economic structure of a society and its cultural development" could be interpreted as an argument by me that "the right to combat genocide is meaningless under the capitalist stage of development". I am also dumbfounded at Rassool’s quoting the "blatantly racist" Engels writing in support of the demands of the minority nations in 1892 to refute my argument about circumstances changing, when I specifically pointed out that "by the end of the century the development of national consciousness among the minority peoples of the Austrian and the Russian empires made the demand for self-determination a necessary component of a revolutionary programme there".

Nor are Rassool’s incursions into history any more impressive. Does he really believe that Pol Pot’s Cambodia, which tried to annihilate its proletariat, or Stalinist Bulgaria, which began its existence with a purge of the Anarchist workers and peasants using a fascist militia, can be described as "the coming to power of the working class"? Does he really believe that Rosdolsky’s book, that sets out national claims for peoples among whom national consciousness had not yet arisen, is based upon historical methods of analysis? Is he really ignorant of the fact that in 1846-8 the Habsburg crown incited the Ruthenian peasants to massacre the Poles who fought for freedom, and turned the Croats under Jelacic upon the Hungarians? Does Walter Kolarz’s book really "deal with the Slavic peoples’ struggle for freedom", or show how all these territorial claims and counter-claims are ridiculously unhistorical and self-contradictory?

Comrade Rassool’s remarks about "ethnicity and gender" also show that he is evidently embarrassed by the class terms I attempt to apply to these issues. Where I wrote "bourgeois feminist prejudices", he reads the words without the class qualification, and then predictably goes on to talk about my "belittling women’s struggle for equality". But I was referring to such divisive bourgeois feminist arguments as that "all men are potential rapists", commonly emanating from those who seek to employ feminism as an adjunct to their careers. It is true that I am in general not at all repentant about attempting to apply a class analysis to the women’s movement, as Marxists are supposed to do to all political movements. Far from it. The Left has paid a heavy price for its neglect of class criteria in the women’s movement, not only with the increasing corruption of local government, but even in parliament, with its hordes of house-trained and well-heeled women intruded as candidates upon local Labour constituencies by Tony Blair in order to override party democracy. If Comrade Rassool wants to make the further discovery in his reading that there are classes among women as well – even among feminist women – let me recommend to him the superb Class Whore pamphlet. As for "ethnicity", are we now also expected to forget that there are classes in nations as well, or that the nation state is the expression of the historic interests of the bourgeoisie?

I regard it as a sign of the weakness of an argument that it has to distort what was actually said. I have never denied that the USSR had become "a travesty of socialism", as my preface to the book In Defence of the Russian Revolution makes clear. I have not "ignored the brutalities and atrocities" on all sides in the present Balkan wars. I have not denied that rape ever took place there – whether "mass" or not, I cannot judge, and I doubt the capacity of anyone else to judge its extent either. I have never condoned Vukovar or Srebrenica, still less Auschwitz and the Gulag. I do not take "a neutralist approach to the project of ’ethnic cleansing’".

Finally, I can only regard as laughable an argument that takes me to task for objecting to the anti-Serb propaganda of the bourgeois press, whilst lending credence to the Hague war tribunal only a paragraph later. Is this august institution also untouched by the class struggle? And if for him so many political movements and institutions in the last two centuries appear to be resistant to a class analysis, shouldn’t Comrade Rassool reconsider calling himself a Marxist as well?

Al Richardson

Bosnia, World War I, Anti-semitism and Marxism: A Reply to Joe Rassool

IN MY LETTER on Rosa Luxemburg and the differences with Lenin, in What Next? No.5 ("Luxemburgism versus Leninism"), I wrongly stated that Clara Zetkin stayed in the USPD until 1920. In fact, she went to the KPD in March 1919. Then where I relate examples of the "clashes in culture between the old associates of Rosa Luxemburg from the KPD and the KPP (Polish CP) between 1919 and 1924", the words "and the RCP(b)" should appear, so I apologise for any confusion.

Al Richardson is subject to an attack by one Y.S. (Joe) Rassool ("Against Neutralism: A Reply to Al Richardson on Bosnia") in the same number, and although I know that Al can fend for himself, I am indirectly involved, so feel obliged to respond. According to Joe, Al has departed from the "compassionate" outlook on Bosnia as represented by New Interventions. Well I wrote the statements on Bosnia that appeared in New Interventions, and as far as I am aware Al and I tended to agree that one should uphold a class position and not decline into support for one warring camp or the other.

The same Joe Rassool launched an extremely strange attack on me in the Autumn 1996 New Interventions where, by claiming to be able to get inside my head, he accused me, among other things, of being "pro-Serb, therefore pro-massacre". Joe’s three-page diatribe was a response to one page of editorial notes in the Spring 1996 number. I never responded, as Joe’s text distorted what I’d written, took me to task for the brevity that didn’t allow deeper explanation, and I saw no point in basing a debate upon confusion. I had written a much longer text entitled "Serbia and the Left" (November 1995), which was returned to me by the then editor of New Interventions, as it was not on disc and wasn’t in accord with his view – presumably one Joe would agree with – so he wouldn’t help out. That text circulated among comrades from the New Interventions milieu and was going to be used in another journal but eventually wasn’t. Rather than attribute genocidal tendencies to me Joe would do better to read what I write and not pretend to analyse my phrases and tone.

Are there two Joe Rassools? One Joe (soft cop) denounces Al for a departure from the supposed "compassion" of New Interventions, but the other Joe (hard cop) took me to task for a woolly sympathy for the 250,000 or so Krajina Serbs who fled or were forced out of the lands they had occupied for centuries (by the way, the Krajina Serbs had a sort of autonomy under Austria-Hungary, and post-1945 Yugoslavia had considered giving them an autonomous independent republic status). Joe, on the other hand, "regarded the Croatian/Bosnian counter-offensive in Krajina with the same glee we used to read about the counter-attacks of the Red Army against the German army in World War 2". No woolly neutralism here!

My notes had referred to the terrorist training camps manned by Iranians discovered by the UN troops, where explosives were being put into children’s toys (the deputy Defence Minister of the Izetbegovic government was thereafter fired due to US pressure, only to pop up later as head of Bosnian intelligence). Joe saw that as me objecting to "fighters from the Muslim countries" coming to Bosnia to take part in the war on the Bosnian side. After castigating me, he goes on to compare these obscurantist reactionaries to "those who went to join the International Brigade in 1936" (Spain). Surely a better comparison would be to those who went to support General Franco and Christianity?

Since I wrote those notes the client status of the Izetbegovic government in relation to Iran has become clear. The Times (1 January 1997) reported that Iran had financed Izetbegovic’s election campaign, the CIA saw him as "literally on their payroll", Iran had "co-opted" him, the Deputy Defence Minister Cenzic had "links to Iran" and that Iranian Revolutionary Guards – the force used against the Kurdish revolt and the labour movement in Iran itself – are active in Bosnia (rather than Joe’s comparison with International Brigaders, a better one would be with the Nazi Party’s Brownshirt thugs). The CIA are annoyed that Clinton armed the Bosnians only to help set up an Iranian bridgehead in Europe.

It seems that Joe has got upset over some isolated quotes from Engels that do appear dubious if taken out of the whole. There are many more. I remember professional anti-Communist scribes used to dish them up in assorted CIA-financed journals, Encounter for example, and thereby be able to prove that Marx was an anti-semite, etc. I won’t get involved in such an argument, as Joe is far cleverer than me, he went to university and learnt to get inside people’s heads by analysing their texts, but I feel that I must refute the ignorant comments on Engels’ supposed responsibility for the capitulation of the SPD’s majority during the 1914-18 war, and even, in part, for the Holocaust.

There is an abundant literature on the opportunist adaptation of the SPD’s right wing to German militarism, and of the struggles against both the adaptation and the right-wing by the revolutionary and centrist or pacifist sectors of the party. However, Arthur Rosenberg, in his book The Birth of the German Republic, 1871-1918 (Oxford University Press 1932, reprinted as Imperial Germany. The Birth ... 1918, Beacon Press, Boston Mass., 1964) presents a more all-round argument. Namely: "The decision of the Social Democrats to assist in the defence of Germany was in accord with the Marxist Socialist tradition. The Burgfrieden [civil peace – M.J.], on the contrary, appears less easily understandable today than it was seventeen years ago" (written in 1931 – M.J.). He continues: "It was only when the Social Democratic members of the Reichstag became convinced that the German government was conducting a war of conquest instead of a war of defence that they refused for the first time to pass further social credits" (p.73).

Arthur Rosenberg goes on to explain that the socialist workers were not prepared to tolerate an invasion of Germany by the troops of the Russian Tsar. He relates the attitude towards war of Marx and Engels, calling the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 a classic example. The European workers should all work toward a common aim but each country demanded a specific set of tasks. Moreover, the workers should have their own war aims. Engels had advised the SPD leaders that the next war should be conducted by revolutionary means. That called for an arming of the people, and when every worker had a rifle in his hands then the balance of forces between the classes would have changed already. Revolutionary defeatism wasn’t the Marxist attitude to war at the turn of the century, but what later became known as the Proletarian Military Policy. The Burgfrieden had no basis in Marxist teaching. Rosenberg relates how revolutionary wars need the energy and initiative of the lower classes, and gives the examples of revolutionary England, France and Russia. In the notes to chapter 3, on the war and the Burgfrieden, Rosenberg refers readers to Karl Marx by Franz Mehring (1919) for Marx and Engels regarding war.

Joe’s accusation that Engels could bear part of the responsibility for the Holocaust is an outrageous slur on both Engels and the German labour movement. It must be the first time that anyone, never mind a person passing himself for a Marxist, has spouted such tosh. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the German labour movement should know that it never tolerated anti-semitism. In the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 1993, Helmut Gruber, in his essay "Red Vienna and the ‘Jewish Question’", deals with the adaptation to anti-semitism by the Austrian SDAP (socialist party – M.J.), but he contrasts that to the stand of the SPD: "The positive actions of the SPD in Weimar Germany on behalf of Jews and against anti-semitism provide a stark contrast. There the SPD publicly countered racist contentions about Jews with carefully reasoned arguments to expose the fallacies of anti-semitism; it exposed anti-semitic incidents in the army, the courts and the bureaucracy; it attacked the activities of Judeophobic Nationalist groups in its election campaigns; and it cooperated closely with various Jewish organisations. In all of these activities Jewish intellectuals in leading party positions were particularly visible" (p.114). Gruber refers to countless publications on the subject so Joe has no excuse for remaining ignorant.

The July 1994 number of New Interventions published the talk of Mario Kessler to the October 1993 Revolutionary History AGM, on "Trotsky and the Jewish Question". Kessler is rapidly establishing himself as a major historian in the field of the Jews and the labour movement, and he has authored a number of books and many essays taking up different aspects of the subject, the last one (Die SED und die Juden: Zwischen Repression und Toleranz, Berlin, 1995) causing quite a stir. In the talk, he touched on the position of the KPD on the Jewish Question, which was really a continuation of that of the SPD. Prior to the Holocaust, apart from the occasion in summer 1923, when an attempt was made to reach out to the radical rightists, and a few dubious speeches were made (the one most quoted was by Ruth Fischer, Jewish herself), and the odd unfortunate article appeared (see Paul Levi’s references to it in his introduction to Trotsky’s Lessons of October, translated by me for the Spring 1994 Revolutionary History), the KPD had a proud record. The Ulbricht regime in the GDR, the subject of Kessler’s last book, besmirched that record, but the impetus came from the Slansky Trial and Stalin’s anti-semitic campaign. But it is total nonsense for Joe to pin the blame for the Holocaust on Engels or the German labour movement and he had no real evidence for such a charge.

P.S. Remnants of peoples = Völkertrümmer (noun, plural).

Mike Jones

The Marxist Approach to History: A Response to Al Richardson

AL RICHARDSON ("A Yeltsinite Hatchet Job on Trotsky", What Next? No.5) takes offence from the fact that I did not mention a certain name in my thesis "Trotskyism in Britain: 1931-1937".

The man in question played a certain role in our early years. I first met him at the LSE in 1927. He later joined the Communist Party, and was sent to Moscow in 1931 to report for the Daily Worker. He came back deeply aware that the reality was very different from what his party was telling us, and in this way he contributed to my own early development. By the end of the 1930s, like others, he had moved away from us, and is believed to have made himself responsible later for actions which we would strongly condemn.

My thesis was written eighteen years and more ago. Now suddenly Al seems to be hinting that I had some dishonest motive for not mentioning this man’s name there.

No one who reads the thesis at all attentively will fail to see that it names no more than a few of our activists. My own name, for example, is not mentioned, except as the author. I was primarily concerned, not with personalities and anecdotes, but to clarify the political questions with which we all had to struggle as best we could. I worked on the basis of the documentary evidence then available.

Is a historian wrong to accept Trotsky’s advice, when he wrote, in the preface to the first volume of the History of the Russian Revolution: "This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollections. The circumstances that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon strictly verified documents."

It is evident from the Bornstein-Richardson books that the methods of their authors differ widely from mine. I leave it to readers to judge which method produced work of greater value in the long run to militant workers, or brought out better the inner connection of the events.

But anyway, thankyou, Al, for making my point in such a practical way.

John Archer

The National Question in Scotland and "British" Chauvinism

YOUR CORRESPONDENTS John Sullivan (Socialism and the Scottish National Question (1)"), and J. Stone and M. Hill (Socialism and the Scottish National Question (2)") in What Next? No.5 dismiss the demand for Scottish self-determination as deriving from "tartan nostalgia" and "bourgeois separatism". They express the view that the demand for self-determination is "nationalist" and an expression of "national egotism".

However, those of us who recognise that the Scots are a nation, and that they are a national minority within the "United Kingdom", and one which obviously does not have the right of self-determination, would take a very different view. Why, for example, is a legitimate demand for self-determination "nationalist"? Was John Maclean guilty of "national egotism" when he raised the demand for a Scottish Workers’ Republic? The demand for self-determination comes from the Scottish workers themselves, and it is not based on "tartan nostalgia" or "bourgeois separatism".

If the intemperate comments of Sullivan, Stone and Hill merely represented their own "British" chauvinism, then their views could be lightly dismissed. Unfortunately, their views are representative of much of the left in Britain today. Those who aspire to be Marxists should examine the notion of the "British" identity in the context of Great Race Chauvinism. There, in its most reactionary forms, they will discover attitudes which are purely "nationalist" and which spring from "national egotism".

Adam Busby