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Althusser, Hegel and Stalinism

Louis Althusser, The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings, Verso, 1997. Paperback, 264pp, £16.00

Reviewed by Jonathan Joseph

THE FRENCH philosopher Louis Althusser is notorious for his anti-Hegelian and anti-humanist stances; positions with which I would largely concur. However, this new book sheds light on Althusser’s early work where it is revealed, shock horror, that he was indeed sympathetic to Hegelian and humanist views. Just as Althusser famously pronounced that there were two Marx’s, an early "humanist" Marx and a later "scientific" Marx, separated by an "epistemological break", so it seems there were two Althussers.

For some, including, rather surprisingly, the Althusser scholar Gregory Elliott, this is great news. The book itself pronounces that these writings will restore the "unknown Althusser" to the centre of Marxist philosophy (despite this being an antinomy!). I for one am not so sure. Certainly the main essay on Hegel is a fine piece of work. But it is not much more that a good example of Hegel scholarship. It certainly does not add to our understanding of Marxism.

It is Althusser’s break from Hegelian Marxism and his radical recasting of Marxist categories that makes him an important figure. And whilst his contribution is deeply flawed, he has given Marxism an important range of new concepts. For this reason, by far the most interesting essay in this collection is the appendix "On Marxism" which marks a transition in Althusser’s work Rejecting his earlier Hegelian influences, Althusser argues that Marx "wished to found the science of history, not on men’s ‘self-consciousness’ or the ‘ideal objectives of history’ (the realisation of freedom, the reconciliation of ‘human nature’ with itself, etc...), but on the material dialectic of the forces of production and relations of production, the ’motor’ that determines historical development ..." (p.245).

Althusser’s formalistic adherence to the productive forces/relations distinction might be questioned, but this is moved away from in his later works when a structured totality of social relations is emphasised against economic reductionism. However, Althusser’s attack on the view that Marxism is the subjective expression of a class is a crucial move.

Therefore, the dialectic is not something that is "plastered on reality". It has a very precise character as defined by the findings of scientific enquiry. "It is not for a metaphysics of nature to deduce the structure of reality; it is the role of the sciences to discover it" (p.250). Rejecting the grand systems of the Hegelians, and the corresponding view among Marxists that Marxism explains everything or that it is the expression of the (practical) universal subject, Althusser continues, "a scientific theory does not exhaust reality, but remains always approximate (Lenin). Materialism reminds science and human practice of their own limits" (p.255).

Now the weaknesses of Althusser are well known. He overemphasises structure at the cost of human agency, his conception of a "structure-in-dominance" leads to a relativism regarding political and ideological elements, he tends towards the view that science stands above the ideology of everyday society and so on. But most so-called Trotskyists don’t bother with this line of argument. For them the issue is resolved simply by reminding us that Althusser was a Stalinist. Such a stance is not only lazy and ignorant but is ironically misplaced.

What this new volume reveals is that Althusser’s adherence to Stalin is strongest in his early days and that it complements his Hegelian and humanist influences. It is the determinacy of Hegelian dialectics and the subjectivist emphasis on human spirit that is closest to Stalinism. Thus Althusser’s letter to Jean Lacroix positively cites Zhdanov (p.222), advocate of socialist realism, which of course upholds the view that socialist culture can be created through human will (as against Trotsky’s view in Literature and Revolution that it is the material conditions that provide the basis for the development of culture).

Althusser’s later works are still tainted by Stalinism (or more precisely Maoism), but they at least break philosophically from the neo-Hegelian basis of Stalinism – the mono-linear view of historical development, economic reductionism, universal subjectivity and human voluntarism. In doing this Althusser has done us a huge service. I am prepared to put my head on the block here and state that Althusser’s contribution to Marxist theory is immensely greater than that any of the so-called post-Trotsky Trotskyists. His enriching of Marxism may have been seriously flawed, but at least it was an enrichment.

The irony, then, is that those "Trotskyists" who attack Althusser for being a Stalinist are usually the nearest thing we have ... to Stalinism. Bible bashing with their quotes from the 1930s, they apply themselves, not to the materialist task of studying today’s conditions, but to the pious duty of interpreting the holy books. Trotsky’s statement that the crisis of the working class is the crisis of leadership is used to sanctify the most voluntarist forms of subjectivism, often flying in the face of actual objective developments.

If we are to put our own house in order, a serious reappraisal of the likes of Althusser is an important task. His philosophical positions offer far more than the sterile regurgitation of "inverted" Hegel or rehabilitated Plekhanov which are comically passed off as orthodox Marxism. But for this very reason, the early Althusser is not the best place to begin.

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party from its Beginnings to its Expulsion

Blows Against the Empire: The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, 1935-1964. (Revolutionary History, Vol.4, No.3.) Series editor, Al Richardson. Socialist Platform/Porcupine Books, 1997. Paperback, 333pp, £10.00.

Reviewed by T. Perera

THIS BOOK covers the history of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) from its foundation in 1935, through its adherence to the Fourth International in the late 1930s, its illegal activity during the Second World War, its attitude towards the country’s independence, the contentious issue of the state language, and its role in the Hartal of 1953, to its joining a coalition government led by the SLFP in 1964, which led to its expulsion from the Trotskyist world organisation.

The editors have assembled materials tracing the development of the island’s oldest political party – once a major force in the local political scene that led large and militant trade unions and strikes and had at one point a parliamentary contingent of 17 representatives. The selection has been slanted towards accounts and documents from the local movement itself.

Kumari Jayawardene provides the background to the formation of the party while Ranjit Amarasinghe charts its transition from an independent organisation to a coalition partner. Two interviews, hitherto unpublished, given to Bob Pitt – by the late Prins Rajasooriya during his visit to Britain in 1990, and by the legendary Mark Anthony Bracegirdle in London in 1995 – are included.

Veteran Trotskyist Meryl Fernando gives a detailed account of the period 1939-60. He joined the party during wartime while still a university student. He later represented the LSSP and the LSSP (Revolutionary) as MP for Moratuwa, from 1956 to 1964. He comments that the Samasamajists in the immediate postwar period had "the potential of being the unifying force to rally the anti-imperialist forces around the slogan ’Independence from British rule’ and by calling upon the British to quit Ceylon. In such a situation there was the possibility of drawing the minorities behind the working class banner by guaranteeing democratic rights, and in particular the Tamil minority the right of self-determination. Although this was on the agenda of the day, both the LSSP and the Ceylon Unit of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI) failed to launch a struggle to compel the British to leave Ceylon".

Charles Erwin, an American left-wing writer, contributes an article investigating the evolution of the movement in India during the 1940s.

On the eve of India independence, in February 1946, the sailors of the Royal Indian Navy rose in revolt. Bombay was at the centre of the uprising. It spread to Karachi, Calcutta and Cochin. Indian ratings on 74 ships, 4 flotillas and 20 shore establishments took part. For six days they were `free’ from the colonial masters and superior officers. Within days general strikes gripped the cities and towns of the subcontinent. The BLPI walkouts from factories were staged. The Bombay Evening News blamed "Trotskyist rowdies" for instigating the general strike of 300,000 textile workers. Police and military units opened fire on demonstrators, culminating in an eight-hour battle at Castle Barracks. Hundreds died of gunshot wounds. The shock-waves were felt in Delhi and London.

The Indian National Congress was hostile to the ratings. The British Prime Minister informed parliament that Congress had officially disclaimed involvement in the revolt. Congressman Sardar Vallabhai Patel demanded unconditional surrender by the sailors. Jinnah too asked for surrender. Nehru was slightly more ambivalent and Mahatma Gandhi subsequently said "the ratings had been badly advised".

Personal concerns of the sailors sparked the revolt and soon fused with the national liberation struggle. There are some who even see the British government’s decision to pull out in 1947 as being precipitated by the naval revolt. Within days the British announced the Cripps Mission which brought a new plan for departure. The Indian Naval Revolt is now almost a forgotten episode.

Other items reprinted include articles by N.M. Perera on the language issue, Colvin R. de Silva on Independence, Philip Gunawardena on revolutionary defeatism, Leslie Goonewardene on the Third International, Edmund Samarakkody on the assassination of Bandaranaike, V. Karalasingham on the 1956 general election, Bala Tampoe on the Hartal, and an interview with Selina Perera which appeared in the American Socialist Appeal in 1939.

The editors acknowledge that the picture assembled does not amount to a history; rather it provides a few of the materials on the basis of which a history could be written.

This article was first published in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times, 21 December 1997.

The Golden Afternoon of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party

Blows Against the Empire: The Lanka Samaja Party 1935-1964 (for details see previous review).

Reviewed by Ajith Samaranayake

REACTIONARIES AND renegades alike of all shades and hues might scoff and mock at the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), now a pale reflection of its former revolutionary self, but the LSSP does have its historians and archivists.

Some time ago two LSSPers, Wesley Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe, brought out a collection of its early papers, including secret documents from the Colonial Office which have been released for public scrutiny. Now Revolutionary History, a British publication which still keeps the flame of Trotskyism alive, has brought out this volume which covers the golden age of the LSSP. The years covered are from 1935, when the party was founded, to 1964 when the party entered into a coalition government with the SLFP – the Great Betrayal in the eyes of the purists.

The LSSP, however enfeebled it might be, can be happy that it still evokes such devotion from Trotskyists, for clearly this publication is a labour of revolutionary love. It is one of a series covering Trotskyist movements in Greece, Vietnam and Bolivia, and the editors claim that this covers four-fifths of the countries where the creed of Leon Trotsky flourished.

The editors have drawn extensively from both the publications of the LSSP and the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI) and their internal publications, as well as from Trotskyist publications in Britain and the USA. What this demonstrates is that, whereas in Sri Lanka the only publications about the LSSP that are available are Leslie Goonewardene’s short histories, there is quite a considerable collection scattered abroad.

To read this book is to be reminded that the LSSP in its prime was a singular phenomenon. It was not only Sri Lanka’s first genuinely radical political party but by some historical quirk also assumed the status of the largest and most powerful Trotskyist party in the world. This itself is ironic because later it was claimed that its principal leader for most of its lifetime, Dr N.M. Perera, was not even a Marxist, let alone a Trotskyist.

The origins of the LSSP are well known, so we will not recapitulate that part of this history. Rather what is of interest to us here is the first split in the LSSP in 1945, which saw Philip Gunawardena and Dr N.M. Perera retaining the original name of the LSSP while Dr Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene, among others, appeared as the Ceylon Unit of the BLPI. The BLPI was of course the Indian party which all LSSPers joined. However, back in Ceylon after the war, the party split on the above lines, a split which was never really healed, as we shall see, although the party was unified in 1950. At every point of crisis in the party, the LSSP-BLPI split has come to the surface.

According to Y.R. Amarasinghe, himself an LSSPer on whose unpublished doctoral thesis the editors freely draw: "Being Trotskyist, the two parties naturally had no fundamental differences, yet they were not without mutual hostility and petty squabbles. The Bolshevik Samasamajists criticised the LSSP’s line as ‘organisational Menshevism’. The basis for their contention was the advancement by Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera of the need to broaden the base of their party by associating with other radical groups in the country. Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera had put forward such views whilst in exile in India. The militants who had then rejected this idea and opted for a well-knit revolutionary organisation were the same men who later came to lead the Bolshevik section."

The differences between the two parties then were on method rather than principles, although the BLPI was the more rigidly doctrinaire of the two. In fact, Dr Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene were the theoreticians of the LSSP even after the party’s unification and after Philip Gunawardena openly rejected Trotskyism, dubbing them "potheguras" ["doctrinaires" – literally, "book-teachers"]. While the LSSP stood for a broad mass party, the BLPI adopted the position of a cadre party, a well-knit revolutionary organisation with an advanced political consciousness.

It is also interesting to study the positions which the two parties adopted towards the Independence granted to Ceylon in 1948.

Both parties had contested the first general election in 1947 separately, the LSSP winning ten seats to the BLPI’s seven. Here, again, there is an important clue to the mind of the two parties. The LSSP which stood for mass politics gained more seats than the more exclusivist BLPI. It is also worth noting that the LSSP’s seats were in the countryside (Philip from Avissawella and N.M. from Ruwanwella), while the BLPI’s were in and around Colombo (Colvin from Dehiwela-Galkissa and Leslie from Panadura).

This is perhaps the most important clue, for Philip and N.M. may have realised that if the party was to stand a chance as a parliamentary proposition (an idea to which the party as a whole was to be increasingly attracted later), they had to shed the exclusivist position. Theoreticians of the BLPI such as Doric de Souza (Philip’s accusation against Doric that he was a police spy was the bitterest source of the split), who were insulated from the demands of mass politics, felt no such urge.

Anyway, the BLPI took up the more radical position, calling Independence a fake, voting against the motion in parliament and boycotting all celebrations including the opening of parliament by the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother. On the other hand, N.M. Perera wrote: "None but opportunists and the purblind will deny that the masses in Ceylon are faced with a period of reaction. The flag-waving and syncopated chauvinism of the Senanayakes and Kotelawalas have thrown to the surface the worst kind of ultra-nationalist sentiments. The petit-bourgeois masses are beginning to rally round these sentiments pushing to the background the weakened proletariat, weakened after the May-June general strike of 1947. Class issues have temporarily got blurred."

Again, it would appear that the LSSP, while seeing that there were serious shortcomings in the Independence which had been granted, saw that the mass tide was against them and sought to recognise this reality, while the more theoretical BLPI thought that there was a mood of revolutionary ferment in the air. The BLPI, and the Communist Party which was then collaborating with them, organised a mass rally against the "fake Independence" which the LSSP did not join, although it boycotted the first sitting of parliament.

The greatest moment of the now unified LSSP was admittedly the Hartal of 1953. There is no dispute that this was entirely organised, led and executed by the LSSP, with the VLSSP-CP* [note] only in a subordinate role. What was significant about it was the enthusiasm shown by the masses, who not only struck work but brought transport to a standstill by squatting on roads and railway lines, the women baking hoppers [rice pancakes] on them.

But again, it was a one-day affair. Edmund Samarakkody, although being in the LSSP himself, argues that "the LSSP leadership, despite the unmistakeable moods of the workers and other sections of the masses, decided to keep to their plan of a mere protest action and called off the Hartal, and prevented the masses from continuing the struggle". On the other hand Leslie Goonewardene, advancing the official position, writes: "Finally, and most important of all, it was the considered view of the LSSP (as well as, we believe, the VLSSP-CP United Front) that the mass movement had reached only the stage of protest against the action of the government in imposing the burdens it did on the masses, and not at a stage where it was aiming at the overthrow of the government." In short, in spite of all the organisational work done by the LSSP and the early heroic sacrifices of its leaders the masses were not yet ready for struggle.

What followed then has the ring of inevitability. The LSSP had high hopes of victory at the general election of March 1960 which followed the assassination of Prime Minister [S.W.R.D.] Bandaranaike. In fact, there is a piquant vignette of Leslie Goonewardene, then on a visit to London, telling a group of British Trotskyists and a Tamil Trotskyist in Soho Square that he had to cut short his tour and return immediately because there was a good chance of the LSSP forming a government.

Philip Gunawardena, who had broken with the LSSP by then, nursed the same illusion. But after the short-lived United National Party (UNP) government it was to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that the people turned again in July 1960. The LSSP had a no-contest pact with the SLFP and was still nursing illusions about forming a government with the latter, but in the event the SLFP gained a comfortable majority and again the LSSP’s hopes were dashed.

The golden afternoon was decidedly drawing to a close. In 1963 all three left parties, the LSSP, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) of Philip Gunawardena and the Communist Party, came together in the United Left Front (ULF) in one last spasm of radical energy, but it would appear that even as this burst forth it carried the seeds of its own ultimate dissolution. For, not many moons later, the ULF was carrying out negotiations with the SLFP to form a government and, surprisingly, even the normally intransigent Philip Gunawardena was enthusiastic at the idea.

However, finally, his mercurial temperament came to the surface and he demanded that two SLFP cabinet ministers who had opposed him during his time as agriculture minister in the Bandaranaike government should be removed if he was to join the government. Not surprisingly, Mrs Bandaranaike as Prime Minister was not ready to do this, while she seems to have had reservations also about admitting a Communist Party into her government in the light of international repercussions and Sri Lanka’s friendship with China, which was then embroiled in a bitter ideological dispute with the Soviet Union.

What is interesting, in the light of allegations against the LSSP that it had crept into the government by the back door, is that is that all three parties still stood for an SLFP-ULF government. According to Amarasinghe, the secretaries of the three parties had written to the prime minister saying that a "coalition was not possible" on the lines indicated by the prime minister, that is excluding the MEP and CP.

However, as everybody knows, it was only the LSSP which entered the government. The resolution to that effect was moved [at the LSSP special conference of June 1964] by Dr N.M. Perera and secured an overwhelming majority, while those who opposed it, such as Edmund Samarakkody and Meryl Fernando (both MPs) and Bala Tampoe and V. Karalasingham among others, walked out of the party.

There was, however, a third resolution sponsored by among others Dr Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene and Doric de Souza, which "called upon the conference to authorise the party towards forming a ‘progressive government’ subject to three conditions: an agreement on measures that would enthuse the masses and secure their active participation, capable of being implemented in one year; that the government should be between the SLFP and the ULF; and that the LSSP should obtain the three portfolios of Finance, Nationalised Services and Internal and External Trade". The sponsors of this resolution remained within the LSSP but did not accept cabinet office in the SLFP-LSSP government that was subsequently formed.

The towering figure behind the LSSP’s entry into the government was of course Dr N.M. Perera. N.M. was always the most practical of the LSSP’s leaders and as a longstanding MP and a former Leader of the Opposition had a keen sense of power. He, no doubt, saw that the LSSP had exhausted the possibilities of parliamentary gradualism and that an alliance with the SLFP offered fresh possibilities.

Perhaps, for the LSSP, he saw a possibility of entering the village in alliance with the SLFP, although, as later events were to make clear, this held no benefits for the LSSP. In fact, if the LSSP wished to enter the village it should have done so much earlier when the possibilities for this existed abundantly, but in their obsession with the working class they were to postpone this until it was far too late.

To end on a piquant note – V. Karalasingham, a leader of the left tendency which opposed a coalition and broke away (although he later rejoined) paints a picture of the future which is not so very different paradoxically enough from the romantic vision of a [Sinhala-nationalist novelist] Gunadasa Amarasekera hero. He writes: "Much as the living ruins now languishing in the ranks of the government evoke our ’disinterested sorrow’ the fact is that in conformity with the law of development, the new life has already arisen out of the disintegration of the old leadership of the LSSP. Revolutionary Marxists from the ranks of the swabasha [native language speakers], in particular the Sinhala-educated intelligentsia from the universities of Peradiniya, Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya and the pirevenas [Buddhist schools] of Ceylon. These are the elements who take over from now and they do so on the higher plane of the positive achievements and enduring conquests already made. This is the guarantee that the new revolutionary leadership shall take the movement to its historical goal."

As events were to prove, this was an idle but tragic vision. Neither N.M.’s vision of the LSSP entering the countryside in alliance with the SLFP nor Karalasingham’s vision of a native intelligentsia inheriting the LSSP’s mantle was to materialise. The Sinhala-educated intelligentsia did give the leadership, but that was to the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a story yet to be fully told.

This article was first published in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer, 23 November 1997.

Note: * Philip Gunawardena refused to participate in the 1950 unification of the Samasamajist movement and formed his own organisation, the Viplavakari (Revolutionary) LSSP. In the early 1950s the VLSSP operated in an alliance with the Communist Party. Back to text.

All Blairites Now? New Labour’s Rank and File

Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd, New Labour – New Grass Roots Party? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Political Studies Association, April 1998. £2.50 from Paul Whiteley, Dept of Politics, University of Sheffield, Elmfield, Northumberland Road, Sheffield S10 2TU. Make cheques out to University of Sheffield.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

ULTRA-LEFTS who insist that the class character of the Labour Party has fundamentally changed often like to portray recent recruits to the party as a bunch of middle class yuppies. Whitely and Seyd’s academic study of Labour Party membership demolishes this stereotype. It shows that new members are in fact less middle class than those who joined before the 1990s, indicating that, despite the leadership’s right-wing trajectory, the Labour Party is still the vehicle though which working class political aspirations are expressed.

The authors find that the post-1990 intake is less actively involved in the party, though this is understandable, given the current low level of activism in the labour movement generally. They also claim that Labour is "a grassroots party which is increasingly congruent with New Labour policies". But is this true?

In a Guardian article entitled "Blair’s Armchair Support", which summarised their paper, the authors wrote that "there have been significant shifts in opinions over time in the direction of Tony Blair’s positions. Regarding redistribution, 88% agreed or strongly agreed that ’income and wealth should be redistributed to ordinary working people’ in 1989/90, but this was reduced to 67% by 1997". However, what the figures reveal is that the decline in support for a class-based redistribution policy is largely accounted for by a rise in those who "neither agree nor disagree" – up from 8% to 20%. Those who "disagree" or "strongly disagree" with redistribution have only increased from 12% to 14% – hardly a ringing endorsement of Blair’s rigid opposition to tax rises for the rich.

The passivity of many new members is not exactly good news for the leadership, either. If these members don’t even bother to vote in internal party elections, this rather undermines Blair’s idea of by-passing leftie Old Labour activists by means of OMOV ballots.

Furthermore, as the crisis over the selection of the Labour candidate for London mayor demonstrates, even those who do vote can’t be trusted to vote the "right" way. Some of the Millbank Tendency have now concluded that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all! But attacks on party democracy can only intensify conflict between the rank and file and the apparatus. The "congruence" between leaders and led may prove to be more fragile than the authors imagine.