Erik and the Zeitgeist
On Saturday 6 March I attended a talk in Dublin by Erik Olin Wright hosted by Lookleft (magazine of the Workers Party). The talk was billed as Wright offering an analysis of the history of the left in terms of three traditions – the ruptural (revolutionary), the insterstitial (anarchist/utopian) and the symbiotic(reformist) – a arguing for some kind of cooperative combination of all three. In the event this was not the perspective he outlined. Rather Erik rejected the ruptural/revolutionary option outright and instead proposed a sort of non-aggression pact between the interstititial/anarchist and the symbiotic/reformist strategies, with the utopian and pre-figurative experiments in cooperatives and the like operating alongside and within the framework of ‘strategic reforms’ from a ‘left government’ which would improve the situation of the working class within capitalism.
The idea that such a perspective represents some kind of ‘new thinking’ is a mistake, to which I shall return, but it is clear that in this matter Erik is certainly in touch with the zeitgeist or at least one strand of it. The liberal media (The Independent, The Guardian etc), the left blogs and so on have been awash, recently, with claims that Leninism is over, that vanguard parties have had their day, that broad left unity is the only way forward and so on. Such is the mantra of among others Laurie Penny, Owen Jones, Norman Geras, Nick Wrack, Roger Silverman, and Tariq Ali. Here is Tariq Ali in his obituary of Hugo Chavez:
[Chavez] was a socialist democrat, far removed from any sectarian impulses and repulsed by the self-obsessed behaviour of various far-left sects and the blindness of their routines...He was very clear; much more so than some of his over-enthusiastic supporters: ''I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don't think so. But if I'm told that because of that reality you can't do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour – and never forget that some of it was slave labour – then I say: 'We part company.' (Tariq Ali Hugo Chávez and me _ World news _ The Guardian.htm)
And let us be clear, Tariq is writing this approvingly. Owen Jones says
But the truth is that Britain urgently needs a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity…. That doesn’t mean yet another Leninist sect, lacking any semblance of internal democracy, obsessed with replicating a revolution that took place in a semi-feudal country nearly a century ago. The era of Leninist party-building surely ended a long time ago… The era of the SWP and its kind is over; a new movement is waiting to be born. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/british-politics-urgently-needs-a-new-force--a-movement-on-the-left-to-counter-capitalisms-crisis-8459099.html
And Norman Geras adds
No member of the left who is also a genuine democrat should be pleased to see the left weakened by developments that detract from its democratic and pluralist breadth. But an exception should be made for sects whose commitment to genuine democracy is skin-deep at best and non-existent at worst. The SWP is still defending a concept of the vanguard party that entails a monopolistic attitude to both political representation and intellectual debate. The left not only doesn't need this; it should now be entirely beyond it.Roger Silverman, formerly a leading member of Militant (now the Socialist Party), says
As the class struggle reawakens from its relative state of hibernation, it is to be hoped that the healthiest elements from within the existing left groups will abandon their obsolete pet shibboleths and join together with the fresh ranks of the new mass movement.
Here it should be noted that an anarchist/autonomist type strategy which downplays the role of the state (Hardt and Negri) or rejects the taking of state power altogether (see John Holloway’s ‘How to Change the World without Taking Power’) can more easily coexist with a strategy of a reformist government of the left than either of these strategies can coexist with a revolutionary Marxist perspective of building a revolutionary party and smashing the capitalist state. They, the anarchist/autonomists, do their thing at the base, in the localities etc., while the reformists do their thing at the level of government. Two interesting historic precedents for this are: 1) the early 20th century ‘economist’ tendency in Russian Social Democracy who argued that the job of Social Democrats was to restrict themselves to supporting the economic struggles of the working class and not get involved in political struggle which, as Lenin explained at the time, meant leaving politics to the liberal bourgeoisie; 2) the Spanish Revolution where the anarcho-syndicalists refusal to take state power (on the grounds of being opposed to any kind of dictatorship) morphed into support for the bourgeois liberal/ Communist/reformist Popular Front government.
So there is no doubt Erik Olin Wright is picking up on ideas that are ‘blowing in the wind’ at the moment, but that does not make them correct. In fact the whole trend seems to be based on ignoring or ‘forgetting’ the historical experience out of which Bolshevism and the Communist International emerged and the historical experience of ‘Left’ governments from Russia to Chile.
Bolshevism developed, from 1903 to 1917, in a struggle against left populism (the Socialist Revolutionaries) and the Mensheviks. The SRs were not revolutionary socialists because they based themselves on ‘the people’, i.e. the peasants, not on the proletariat, but they thought they were, hence their name. The Mensheviks (Plekhanov, Martov etc) considered themselves orthodox Marxists, not reformists like Bernstein. All those, in Russia and internationally, who campaigned for a ‘broad’ ‘united’ etc left party (with no separate organization of revolutionaries) ceaselessly denounced Lenin as a dogmatic sectarian splitter. Lenin’s detractors included such genuine revolutionaries as Luxemburg and Trotsky but history proved Lenin right. The October Revolution was made against a ‘left’ government of the day.
The most important, most fundamental difference between the other parties of the Second International and the Bolshevik Party was that the former were coalitions of right reformists, left reformists and revolutionaries, the latter did not have a reformist or left reformist wing. Drawing on this lesson, the Communist International was built on the basis of unremitting hostility not only to the right wing reformists such as Noske, Ebert, Schiedemann, Turati, etc but also to the left reformists and centrists such as Kautsky, Crispien, Serrati and so on. In 1920 Lenin drew up ‘21 conditions’ of membership for parties wishing to join the Comintern. They make interesting reading today. Here are the first two:
1. All propaganda and agitation must bear a really communist character and correspond to the programme and decisions of the Communist International. All the party’s press organs must be run by reliable communists who have proved their devotion to the cause of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat must not be treated simply as a current formula learnt off by heart. Propaganda for it must be carried out in such a way that its necessity is comprehensible to every simple worker, every woman worker, every soldier and peasant from the facts of their daily lives, which must be observed systematically by our press and used day by day.
The periodical and other press and all the party’s publishing institutions must be subordinated to the party leadership, regardless of whether, at any given moment, the party as a whole is legal or illegal. The publishing houses must not be allowed to abuse their independence and pursue policies that do not entirely correspond to the policies of the party.
In the columns of the press, at public meetings, in the trades unions, in the co-operatives – wherever the members of the Communist International can gain admittance – it is necessary to brand not only the bourgeoisie but also its helpers, the reformists of every shade, systematically and pitilessly.
2. Every organisation that wishes to affiliate to the Communist International must regularly and methodically remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the labour movement (party organisations, editorial boards, trades unions, parliamentary factions, co-operatives, local government) and replace them with tested communists, without worrying unduly about the fact that, particularly at first, ordinary workers from the masses will be replacing ‘experienced’ opportunists.
7. The parties that wish to belong to the Communist International have the obligation of recognising the necessity of a complete break with reformism and ‘centrist’ politics and of spreading this break among the widest possible circles of their party members. Consistent communist politics are impossible without this.
The Communist International unconditionally and categorically demands the carrying out of this break in the shortest possible time. The Communist International cannot tolerate a situation where notorious opportunists, as represented by Turati, Modigliani, Kautsky, Hilferding, Hillquit, Longuet, MacDonald, etc., have the right to pass as members of the Communist International. This could only lead to the Communist International becoming something very similar to the wreck of the Second International.
Which brings me to the question of a ‘left government’. In the absence in Europe of anything resembling a left government (as opposed to a mainstream Labour or Social Democratic government) for decades it is not surprising that this is seen as an enticing prospect. And, of course, socialists would and should vote for, support and defend such a government against the right. However, they should not fall in love with it, join it, or have illusions about it.
The left wing argument for a ‘government of the left’ is that even if it did not break immediately with capitalism or with the capitalist state it would nevertheless be able to ‘open the way’ or ‘point the way’ to the socialist transformation of society. The historical experience suggests otherwise.
Consider first the example of the Provisional Government in Russia that issued from the February Revolution. Formed on the basis of a mass popular insurrection and involving Mensheviks and SRs, this government must have seemed at the time to be the very incarnation of a left government, and at the beginning it commanded near universal popular support, including from the moderate wing of Bolshevism (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin). When, in April, Lenin arrived at the Finland Station and proclaimed no confidence in the Provisional government most of ‘the left’ thought he had taken leave of his senses. But Lenin was right. In practice this government continued its collaboration with the bourgeoisie, continued the imperialist war, failed to give land to the peasants and failed even to call a constituent assembly. Far from ‘opening things up’, in reality it opened the way to the counter revolutionary Kornilov coup. Had it not been overthrown from the left, by the workers led by the Bolsheviks, the probability is, as Trotsky observed, that fascism would bear a Russian, not an Italian name.
Other historical examples are the French and Spanish Popular Front governments of 1936, both of which arose on the basis of mass workers’ struggle and ‘unity of the left’ but neither of which opened the way to the transformation of society. On the contrary both paved the way for fascism – directly in Spain, indirectly in France. Then there is the case of Popular Unity in Chile in 1970-73 where the outcome was the Pinochet coup.
There is a fundamental reason for this. It was explained by Marx in relation to the Paris Commune and emphatically restated by Lenin in The State and Revolution (which, by the way, was a polemic mainly against left reformism): ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state apparatus and wield it for its own purposes’. [Marx, The Civil War in France.] But the essence of the kind of ‘left government’ we are talking about is that it would not smash or dismantle the existing capitalist state. It is clearly not possible to rule with the aid of, and on the basis of, the existing state while smashing it at the same time. But if the capitalist state is not smashed and replaced by a new workers state, it may permit the left government to implement a few reforms for a period, but it will remain as a guarantor that these reforms will not fundamentally damage capitalism and it will remain ready to strike against the government if it tries to go too far or if the balance of forces shifts in its favour.
A left government is therefore not an end in itself and certainly not a stable period of transition to socialism, rather it represents a highly unstable moment in the class struggle destined to be overcome either by the working class moving forward to full power or the capitalist class restoring ‘normality’ by taming the government or destroying it.
To some on the left it may seem that the government of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela refutes this argument. Owen Jones has claimed that Chavez ‘has proved it is possible to lead a popular, progressive government that breaks with neo-liberal dogma’. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/hugo-chavez-proves-you-can-lead-a-progressive-popular-government-that-says-no-to-neoliberalism-8202738.html. However the Chavez government is a special case in that left governments usually get elected in situations of serious crisis in which there is very little room for manoeuvre (as would be the case with Syriza, or almost any left government taking office now) but Venezuela had the benefit of massive oil revenues. ‘GDP per capita has more than doubled…oil exports have surged from $14.4bn to $60bn in 2011, providing revenue to spend on Chavez’s ambitious social programmes’ (Owen Jones, as above) Also the severe limitations on what Chavez has been able to achieve are inadvertently made clear in the same Owen Jones article. Jones notes:
The private media enjoys a 90 per cent audience share and routinely pump out vitriolic anti-Chavez propaganda,.. [There is]an ineffective and often corrupt local police and justice system, the spill over from conflict in neighbouring Colombia…The government is beginning to roll out a national police force, but urgent action is clearly required. …Venezuela’s oligarchs froth at the mouth with their hatred of Chavez, but the truth is his government has barely touched them [My emphasis -JM]. The top rate of tax is just 34 per cent, and tax evasion is rampant. (As above)
To go back to where we started, Erik Olin Wright has a simple answer to all these arguments and he put it forcefully at the Lookleft Forum. It is that left reformism (the symbiotic strategy) is the only option because workers’ revolution just isn’t going to happen – he would, he said, put any amount of money on it. In this matter also Erik has lots of people – maybe even the zeitgeist - on his side, enough for him to feel he could assert this as a fact without really presenting arguments for it.
History, however, shows that revolutions do happen and that the 20th century witnessed a large number of revolutionary challenges by the working class. To this must be added the facts of the present deep global economic crisis of capitalism combined with the rapid onset of climate change (demanding an international solution beyond the reach of any national left government) and the need for the overthrow of capitalism, rather than its reform, becomes compelling. In my opinion the likelihood of revolutionary outbreaks and attempts by the working class in the next twenty years or so is extremely high. The real problem will be winning – and that will need a revolutionary party not an alliance of ‘interstitial’ and ‘symbiotic’ strategies or a broad left party a la Syriza or Kautsky's SPD.
 Looking back Trotsky called it ‘the greatest historical example of the Popular Front’. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution(1931-9), New York, 1973, p.220.