Thursday, March 14, 2013

Erik and the Zeitgeist

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 Ch├ívez 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.

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.

And so on.  Moreover all this comes after the summer and autumn of 2011 which saw the Indignados in Spain and the Occupy movement, in both of which a generalized anti-partyism was prevalent, and in a context of widespread disillusionment with mainstream political parties among the general public and vaguely autonomist movementism among students. Then came the spectacular rise of Syriza in Greece, accompanied by widespread enthusiasm for Syriza across the European left (including Tariq Ali and Richard Seymour), when it became apparent that Syriza had a real chance of winning the election.

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.

And this is the seventh:

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.

Lenin did not take this attitude, and the Comintern did not take it, because they were sectarians but because the left reformists and centrists had repeatedly betrayed the revolution – over the war, over the October Revolution, in the Italian Red Years, in the German Revolution of 1919 etc – and would continue to do so. In the TUC betrayal of the British General Strike of 1926, the left reformist union leaders (Swales, Hicks, Purcell) voted for the sell out along with the right/moderate union leaders.

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[1], 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.[2]

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’. 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)

It is inadvertent because Jones cites these facts not to suggest that Chavez should have gone further or may face problems, only to prove that he is not a ‘dictator’ or ‘Marxist tyrant’, but they show that the Venezuelan ruling class is reading and waiting to roll back the gains of the Chavez era at the first opportunity.

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.

John Molyneux


[1] Looking back Trotsky called it ‘the greatest historical example of the Popular Front’. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution(1931-9), New York, 1973, p.220.
[2] For a much fuller Marxist analysis of this whole question of ‘left’ or ‘workers’ governments the reader should consult the excellent article by Chris Harman, ‘The workers’ government’.


Anonymous said...

but what if no one wants to join these small revolutionary parties? Isn't there a chance that, despite your correct observations about state power, they no longer fit the needs of the epoch? After all where in the world have they actually broken though the low thousands in 70 years?

mark.krantz said...

Anonymous poses the wrong questions.

The fact that we face relentless attacks from the right (and more recently from the Left) is because despite our (low) numbers we are effective. As Jones says we 'punch above our weight.' Leninist parties are effective in the class struggle.

Those like Erik and co who keep calling for the building of a 'Left Party' should get on with trying to build one, rather than denouncing comrades committed to building Leninist Parties.

Anonymous said...

"Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise our unity will be purely fictitious...”


Your defence of Leninism is admirable, but I think you are missing half of the story in this article. You lump together various viewpoints, and then miss the crucial second part of the formula for revolutionary organisation: The reason for 'splitting' is in order to create the preconditions for uniting around our direct class interests with reformists.

Unless we want a future in a dead end sect, this is quite in important. As you know, reformists will always be vastly numerically greater than revolutionaries until the insurrection. In Europe we have seen a rapid growth of radical reformism (here I agree with Tad Tietze that the Indignados and Syrizia can both be seen as part of the same trend ). In the UK this is much more fragmented and confused, but nonetheless tangible.

Whilst it is true that many erstwhile revolutionaries have lost their critical faculties when welcoming these developments, our starting point should be that this is a Good Thing. This then leads to the question of how we relate to it, rather than to dismiss it. Questioning how to relate it means taking the second part of old Lenny’s formula above very seriously.

The 'uniting' bit can take many forms, and much depends on local factors and the strength of relative forces. In Greece I think the Syrizia’s ambiguous relationship to nationalism is deeply problematic, but are you also arguing that the IS should leave DieLinke, and that the attitude towards Melenchon displayed by the AntiCap party in France is correct? This seems to be your logic.

Given our tradition, it seemed strange that the words ‘united front’ was missing from the 1000s of words you wrote condemning reformism. I am not conflating the united front with those of a ‘special type’ I mention above, but not to mention this at all is bad education for your readership. It suggests a political perspective that stresses the necessity of the ‘splitting’ more than the ‘uniting’ in the current period. Have I got you wrong?

It is always the case that are unity with reformist workers and their leaders rests upon a coalescing of tactics and divergence of strategy. You are correct in pointing out that reformists have a different strategy to revolutionaries. No shit Sherlock. Does this rule all of the forms of unity with the reformist majority? Just some forms? In what circumstances? I think these are the questions the debate needs to move on to.

We split in order that we may unite.


Anonymous said...

There’s something really off about the way John lumps together critics of “Leninism” – “Laurie Penny, Owen Jones, Norman Geras, Nick Wrack, Roger Silverman, and Tariq Ali”. John seems to think that Norman Geras, a Blairite, Iraq war enthusiast , a retired professor whose blog is not followed on the left is the same as Laurie Penny, whose work is widely read by precisely the kind of people the SWP tries to reach (which is why she, and indeed Owen Jones, were repeatedly invited to speak on SWP platforms). Maybe I am over-reacting, but there seems something a bit dishonest about the way John illustrates his argument with a long quote from Norman Geras’ blog without acknowledging that Geras was in the piece John quotes attacking an article by Laurie Penny in the Guardian. And that Geras was attacking Laurie Penny precisely because she offered too much support to the SWP. In John’s current world, an article in the Guardian which mixes serious criticism and real praise for the SWP from a leading left wing figure is less important than a cranky gripe from an Iraq war supporter in a “blog”. It seems likely that this is because John wants to avoid the real issue at hand – he talks about anti-party ideas “blowing in the wind” or in the “zeitgeist”. But most of the articles questioning “Leninism” arise from a very specific issue , not the “wind” - That is the SWP’s appalling mishandling of two allegations of rape against Party full-timers. In one case, the SWP managed to rule by itself that an allegation of rape and harassment had no substance. In another, the SWP appeared to accept testimony of rape, but decided the organiser should merely be suspended for two years and prepared for a return to an SWP job despite the shocking evidence. Everyone outside the SWP and many inside it think both these cases are a disgrace. Anti-“party” feeling may be particularly high at the moment, in the era of the “Indignados” and so on, but it is hardly new. Ever since Joe Stalin many on the left have worried that “Leninist” parties will value their own party machine far above the ordinary folk. I don’t believe that has to be true, but the SWP seem to be going out of their way to show that it is. Both Laurie Penny and Owen Jones have their own politics, but they have actually been more friendly to the SWP than any other leftish commentator of any weight has done for years – until the SWP disgraced itself in this way. Trying to avoid this issue by talking about the need for “relentless hostility” against reformism seems to be a self-destructive way to avoid the SWP putting its own house in order by attacking others on the left. Many people had real hopes that John would play a positive role in helping the SWP navigate its way out of this crisis. He seems intent on crumpling up those hopes and throwing them in the bin –which is a tragedy only he can avoid.
Solomon Hughes

Colm B said...

Solomon, John has rightly drawn attention to a much wider and more crucial argument. To say that the root of this is a dispute within the SWP and that the rest is only a reflection of this, is to get things the wrong way around IMO. Owen and Tariq (and Erik) didn't have to make the distinction with revolutionary strategies and parties but they did. That is what John was taking up. It has a much wider resonance too, understandably so. And I think it has also informed and shaped the debate that has occurred on the blogs in recent weeks about the SWP - endless talk about 'bureaucracy' and 'monolithic' leadership, how vanguard parties are out of date, how Leninism might lead to Stalinism (which you allude to yourself) with little or no reference to either the political tasks socialists face today or the need to draw a sharp distinction between revolutionary and reformist strategies and embody that in an organised party that intervenes to challenge the hold of reformism in the working class movement. If that is abandoned, then why not organise on the basis of 'let's all just be nice to each other' and 'let's not be too hard and fast about anything', and why do we even need to bother with Lenin or any of those other quarrelsome people, or waste time examining earlier revolutionary moments and why they were missed. But these are stubborn questions. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute in the SWP, the attacks on the party, on the very notion of a Leninist Party, are out of all proportion. Look at it this way. I don't see revolutionary socialists threatening to refuse to work with Owen Jones or any other Labour Party member, despite the leadership of his party taking us into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (to name just two of their crimes). And again, just to keep a sense of proportion, figures with much more weight than Owen or Laurie (no harm to them) have worked with the SWP over the years. Just think of Tony Benn. But we don't just a love-in when Benn speaks at Marxism, there is a debate - a good debate, but often sharp, including from Benn himself - about whether socialists should be in the Labour Party. I believe that debate, in various forms, has been at the heart of much of the heat and light of recent weeks and John is right to take it up.

darren redstar said...

So many words, scattered in the defence of rapists

Anonymous said...

I went to many of those Benn meetings at Marxism, Colm, and the argument with Benn would never have taken the shape of saying 'Benn and Blair both believe....' followed by a long quote from Blair - but that is what John has done by bringing in Neocon crank Norman Geras into the equation to stand in for Laurie Penny. It seems like John's piece is driven by the narrow urge of the SWP to insulate its members from criticism over serious mishandling of two rape allegations. It reads like an attempt to try and comfort members unable to respond to criticism with a little dash of ultra left talk - that's why, as noted above, the "United Front" is wierdly missing, the idea of winning over people with reformist views that way has been replaced by an odd use of historical quotes about "unremitting hostility" to "left reformists" and the need to "regularly and methodically remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the labour movement". It's not a formula designed to win over people affected by either "anti-party" Indignado type feeling or reformist resistance to Leninism. It's an argument designed to corral SWP members inside the circled wagons. It is certainly not an argument to build the wider movement. There is a word for putting the narrow interests of the party ahead of the movement, beginning with an "s", which I think is what we see here.
Solomon Hughes

Anonymous said...

Setting aside the glaring omissions expertly pinpointed by Solomon, there are two important things missing from this post:

1) Any attempt to critically assess what Erik OW was actually arguing (in place of this we have a long ride on a favourite hobby horse)

2) An analysis of the working class as it is today, not in Tsarist Russia or whatever

This leads to a weird kind of insurrectionary idealism, where the revolutionaries have all the important questions answered and just need to hold the true line against reformist heresy. Now if in Britain, Ireland or anywhere else we had a well organised and militant working class then concentrating on the shortcomings of left reformism would make a lot of sense. But the working class across all of Europe and the US in such organisational disarray that the present grave crisis of neoliberal capitalism only increased the ruling class’ advantage (Greece is a partial, and special, exception to this). Before we can start daydreaming about workers’ militias and defending socialism from the armed bourgeoisie, we need to appreciate and crack on with the enormous task of reconstituting the working class as a viable political entity.

Banging on (and on!) about 1917, the errors of the Social Revolutionaries, the CNT and whomever else to make half-baked pronouncements like “history shows….”, “history proved….” is unhelpful at the best of times, and utterly self-defeating from the perspective of honest marxist analysis of the position we’re currently in. People aren’t so daft as to waste a load of time and money on windbags waffling about the details of an incomparably different society, we’ve got to do better than that. This isn’t to say, of course, that understanding class struggles in times past can’t sometimes be valuable, but events in an impoverished agrarian society can never be used to settle an argument of this kind, and only used for anything as sparing as absolutely possible. Similar restraint should probably be applied to predictions of a revolutionary situation in x years!

So the point is, people like Jones can be enormously effective allies in building the preconditions of a militant struggle for socialism, though we would of course hope to part company with those wedded implacably to parliament if at some stage the working class is in a position to achieve its political potential. Until that point, all we’re doing with the Lenin stories is reinforcing the comforting routines of marginalised trotskyism and confirming ordinary people’s negative views of the left.

Colm B said...

Solomon, the debates with Benn still raised the question 'Why are you still in the Labour Party?' to which the reply 'I was born in it, I will die in it and so on...' feel increasingly threadbare as the years go on. No strategy for reclaiming the Labour Party for the left, for instance. And also combined with a well-worn argument that 'we have too many socialist parties, not enough socialists', which answers precisely nothing. Still, Benn is massively influential, a wonderful contributor to the movement, and we need to work with and debate with him and people like him. But you raise the question of united fronts, working 'with and against' reformist organisations. But of course that is the method revolutionaries must use. What you seem to want to leave out is the 'against' part. We want to build the movement, socialism comes from below, but if a socialist party simply reflects the unevenness of the movement, in all its diversity, that is, doesn't try to win people to an understanding of capitalism and the need to overthrow it, then it ends up adapting to reformist consciousness, which is (understandably) the expression of the desire for change combined with a feeling of powerlessness to do anything about it. That's why debates about 'left-governments' and the lessons of Venezuela have such currency today. These are real expressions of people's hopes for change and resistance, but combined with illusions. That, it seems to me, is what John was taking up. To try to patiently explain these things, to engage in debate, is necessary for all of us, but it is not sectarian to do so. You seem to have your own strategy, which differs, in which case you should spell it out. And oskarsdrum, you say that 'we would of course hope to part company with those wedded implacably to parliament if at some stage the working class is in a position to achieve its political potential.' How would you know? And do you think that until that point we will just sail on as part of the same party or organisation? At what point should we break organisationally and politically with say, the Irish Labour Party (currently in government with Fine Gael, and with members at the senior level of the major trade unions)? Or the British Labour Party? Or do we wait until Syriza wins the next election, in spite some of its leadership saying that struggle now might cost votes, before revolutionaries build an independent organisation? Or should revolutionaries in Egypt right now just build 'the movement', or a 'reformist party' or a revolutionary party, or is the time right for that yet? These are of course real immediate questions, that will only be settled in practice. But I'm curious - what would you be basing your judgement on? Just an instinct or something? Marxists both analyse the current situation but also attempt to draw lessons from the past, so as to try to avoid the tragedies and mistakes, as best we can. Just saying 'don't mention the Bolsheviks, you'll put people off' doesn't really get us very far.

Anonymous said...

As you ask,Colm, the personal strategy I am spelling out is this :- John's post is, at the most literal level, a response to arguments about the SWP's handling of x2 rape allegations. He doesn't say it, but the articles he is responding to are prompted by this. I think - as someone who was an SWP member for 17 years, I am really concerned about how these allegations were mishandled, and feel they show the SWP is overvaluing its apparatus over principle. So my strategy would be (1) Don't mishandle rape allegations (2) Admit it when a mistake is made and sort it instead of trying to force the membership into some kind of spurious discipline on the wrong issue and (3) Don't hurl out doses of ultra-left language to try and insulate members from the fall-out. This is going to lead to a circle-the-wagons sectarian approach - Solomon Hughes

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Colm! I did think when writing it that the ‘how would you know?’ question is a bit of a weak spot. As you suggest, it would be dependent on a ruthlessly honest analysis of the class forces at the conjuncture in question. Talking about the Mensheviks seems to me a kind of displacement activity from having to confront our weakness and wonder seriously what to do about it. (as a sort of sidenote. A terrific example of what we need to avoid at all costs is provided by Martin Smith’s response to Gregor Gall’s assessment of working class organisation in the ISJ a few years ago [Gall – ; Smith –]. Smith’s reply is self-delusional, as political developments since then have shown (not making some jibe here by the way!)).

In thinking about making and conducting alliances, I’d suggest two (related) questions should be paramount –

(1) Do the actions of the group/organisation in question facilitate of hinder the self-organisation of the working class?
(2) Are there non-reformist alternatives open to socialists to broaden struggle?

Looking at Irish and British Labour as a whole, and any other generally pro-neoliberal forces, the answer to (1) is clearly ‘hinder’, and things aren’t quite so bad as to make (2) a no. My knowledge of Irish politics is shamefully terrible, but in general left reformists themselves working against social liberal parties are the most crucial allies we have, because unless workers get re-organised in quick time then any social crisis can only spell catastrophe. Importantly. I think you’d find very few left reformists who argue purely and simply for getting socialists elected as MPs. Almost all the currents that have survived the last few decades recognise that change through parliament is, at the very least, dependent on other social forces. It is more useful, probably, to draw a distinction between “electoralists” and other socialists – possibilities for alliances with determined electoralists will be limited indeed.

Moving from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Rifondazione gives us a perfect case of how to not ally with reformism, and you’d be right to say there’s a danger of my approach leading to exactly this. Participating in government as a minority party can surely only bring disaster. As for Syriza……I’m not well enough informed to make a judgement on how much or little support socialists should offer them, or at how much distance to stand. As I noted, the class forces in Greece are quite unique, so any strategic advice from outside needs to be based on a very thorough knowledge of the particular circumstances. But I’m quite open to the possibility that the most important sections of Syriza have succumbed to the electoralist temptation. Of course, groups to the left of Syriza have to be very wary of their own temptations….

Anonymous said...

What would be more useful for people at some remove from the Greek struggle, is to understand how it is that the working class is fighting back so much more effectively there than in other places. The economic crisis is similarly severe in the Baltic countries, say, and not much less so in Spain, Ireland or Italy. And in fact the living standards of the US working class are also in comparable crisis. So, could we learn something from strategies employed by socialists in Greece (Portugal, I suppose, too)? Did Synaspismos have a role in maintaining a level of organisation that we’re lacking elsewhere? Are Syriza mere temporary beneficiaries of the upsurge in struggle, or has their particular approach also contributed to the breadth of the fightback?

These are essential subjects for historical analysis. Likewise, although with care, the struggles and defeats of the 70s and early 80s – military defeats like Chile and Turkey, of course, but also failed socialist strategies in western Europe (reformist and revolutionary!). Before WW2, the material conditions are really very remote from post-industrial capitalist societies. No doubt there are some lessons there to be learned, but only by recognising the huge danger of mislearning non-lessons – and of re-inforcing counter-productive group sub-cultures.

I do apologise for the excessive length of this comment, I've never been good at concision.....

Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Anyone seen the cartoon in this week's Socialist Worker?

It has two Catholic priests reading the Leveson Inquiry Report. One says to the other 'Self-regulation's always worked for us.'

Replace them with two CC members and it's even more relevant.

[If you are using Internet Explorer 10, you might find some of the links I have used don't work unless you switch to 'Compatibility View' (in the Tools menu). That appears to fix the problem.]

Anonymous said...

Firstly, reducing John's argument to the alleged mishandling of two rape allegations and the numerous slurs against the SWP characterised as "truth" completely misses the real debate that supersedes this incident.

It's no coincidence that Richard Seymour has been, for at least the last year, attempting to rehabilitate Althusser and Poulantzas on his blog. And it's also no coincidence that his post on 1 Jan 13, before the DC report back, was arguing for a marxist patriarchy.

It really is politically dishonest to assert that these debates were simply a result of the rape allegations. And it is a profound weakness of the politics of the faction that their most coherent analysis is limited to one individual.

Whatever sympathies one might have with those who believe the DC mishandled the case it does not help those comrades argument when their political analysis of the state of the left and how to rebuild it is so narrow and limited. If they can't acknowledge the roots of their own arguments nor even recognise them then what hope have they of developing any coherency?

Nick Wrack said...

Dear, oh dear! John.
"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."
I note that you do not quote anything that I have said or written to justify what you write about me. Very poor.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps John is referring to the speech you gave at the 'Socialist Organisation and Democracy' event published in Weekly Worker?

I've provided a link:

I fail to see how not directly quoting from this speech/article (or anything else you've written about how the left should organise) in this blog post is misrepresenting you - if that's what you're implying Nick?

I agree with you that the left should continue to try to work together but that doesn't mean we ignore our political differences. As your speech makes clear.

Anonymous said...

while John makes many good points, the question is which leninist party? none of them, the sp, swp, workers power, cpgb, cpgb ml, cpb etc are really convincing. if there was a convincing leninist party, then i would join it. this is also part of the problem. none of the parties are convincing.

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