Thursday, February 03, 2022
Poker in the Strand by John Molyneux ----- This is another old article posted for reference. It it is based on my experience as a poker player in London in the mid-sixties (when I was already a rebel but before I became a socialist). It was originally published as a contribution to ab anthology 'Players: conmen, hustlers, gamblers and scam artists', edited by Stephen hyde and Geno Zanetti, Thunders Mouth Press, New York, 2002. One of the attractions of this anthology was that contained contributions from the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Blaise Pascal, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Brecht and Saul Bellow. So on this one occasion I found myself published alongside the giant's of world literature. ----- Of course, it's all different now. For a start, nowadays there are always beggars and rough sleepers in the doorways in that part of The Strand. In those days, in the mid-sixties, I had to go to New York, to the Bowery, to see such things and very shocking it was too. In those days of The Beatles and Mary Quant there was 'something in the air' in swinging London but this is not an exercise in nostalgia for that mythologised golden age, this is an exercise in nostalgia for a particular place, a particular institution, in the London of that time, which existed at a much lower, more subterranean level of sixties society. Nor is there now any visible trace of this institution - I checked it out just the other day. The building is still there, of course; they haven't knocked down and rebuilt The Strand but from the street, there's no sign that En Passant ever existed - well, there wouldn't be, would there? But if you had passed that way when I first visited in 1965 and were not in the know, you would also have seen nothing. I first found my way there with a chess-playing friend when I was sixteen by tagging along with (more accurately trailing along after) the chess master, Bob Wade, and some prodigious young chess players after a London chess tournament. I was still at school, just starting to find my way round London by night and had very little idea where I was going, except that it was in a vague way notorious. Anyway, we followed Wade and his disciples to a shop in The Strand, nearly opposite The Savoy and just in between The Adelphi and Vaudeville theatres. The shop sold off property lost on London Transport and had a U-shaped glass front for the display of its wares. The shop entrance set back in the center was, obviously, closed but just before the entrance, on the right hand side, was an unmarked door which, when tried, turned out to be open (permanently as I discovered later). Behind the door was a dingy bare wooden staircase, which led our band to the first floor above the shop. This turned out to be a large, minimally decorated room devoid of people or signs of life, except for several long tables with chairs and benches and, on the tables, a few chess sets. Wade and his group sat at one table, my friend and I at another. They chatted and, as serious chess players do, started to set up positions and analyse them. We, feeling very awkward, half tried to eavesdrop on their conversation and half played our own game. Soon, however, we became aware of sounds, voices, faint but quite animated, coming from above and we saw there was another staircase leading upwards. After about twenty minutes a rather nondescript man came up the stairs from the street, passed through our room without a word and disappeared upstairs to the next floor. Fifteen minutes after that, another nondescript but to us rather tough-looking guy came down the stairs and left, again without a word. No one from the Wade group made any move towards going upstairs so neither did we. After an hour or so they left and we followed with our tails between our legs. When I came back, now three months older and three months bolder and just turned 17, with my friend from school, Chris Carvell (who went on to become a croupier at The Golden Nugget), we climbed the second set of stairs to the En Passant proper. The En Passant was a poker club, hiding behind the very tiniest fig leaf of a chess club. Actually, this is not quite true. It was really a poker game, not a club. There was nothing one could join, no membership fee or list, no records of any kind, no entrance fee, no reception or receptionist, no doormen, no security - though the people who went there, some of them at least, were more than capable of dealing with any trouble that might present itself and capable, if they chose, of creating more trouble than any doorman or security could handle. There was just a game of poker, occasionally two games - seven or eight men sitting round a table playing cards permanently. Every now and then a player would get up and go to be replaced by someone waiting or there would be a vacant seat till the next punter arrived but the game would go on. In its heyday the poker game at the En Passant ran continuously 24 hours round the clock, one endless game of cards without beginning or end. It was also, to my knowledge, the hardest game in London at that time and by hardest, I mean the one with the highest average level of skill in which it was most difficult to be a regular winner. In every society at given points in time, there exist unofficial places, hidden from the overwhelming majority, where intriguing social interactions take place. Such were the 'buffet flats' frequented by the likes of Bessie Smith on the black music scene in the US in the twenties, or the extra-legal raves in the 1987 'summer of love' or the squatter organized events in Hackney today. Such was the En Passant. These places are either completely unknown to the mainstream society or else radically different in reality to whatever vague public image they might have developed. The danger is that if they are not recorded, all knowledge of their existence may be lost. It may be true that 'one picture is worth a thousand words' and one may wish that Brassai could have been transported from Paris in the thirties to record the scene at the En Passant but he wasn't, so now the only recourse is to words based on memories. I have already given some impression of the En Passant's grim physical appearance. Let me add that the second floor, the scene of the action, resembled the first in its barren dinginess. It may have been above street level rather than below it but the En Passant was a dive of the first water. With no decor or decoration worth mentioning, lighting that was adequate but on the dim side and furniture consisting only of the main card table, a couple of spares and a scattering of chairs, this was minimalism resembling that of a Carl Andre brick sculpture. In addition, there was a kitchen-cum-office, whence tea and not much else was served - no alcohol, occasionally a sandwich. There must have been a toilet and washroom - punters spent days and nights there - but I don't remember them. They could not have been very salubrious. Looking back, however, I have no doubt that this very minimalism, this absence of distractions, the 'purist' focus on the main thing, men playing poker, was one of the En Passant's attractions. Regarding the origins and history of the En Passant, I can say very little.I encountered the place as an established fact in circumstances in which the last thing on my mind was historical research or enquiring about the past and there is no book to look things·up in. All I know is the hearsay I picked up on the poker scene, which amounts to this: the En Passant was set up and opened, l don't know when, as a bona fide chess and card club (hence its name taken from the chess move, en passant) by an emigre Russian entrepreneur known as Boris Watson. Boris, whom I played poker with and therefore got to know in the extremely limited sense one did get to know people in the poker world, closely resembled in girth, facial appearance and manner, the actor Sidney Greenstreet, who played the fat man in The Maltese Falcon. For Boris, the En Passant was one of three related business ventures, the others being The Mandrake, a drinking club in Meard Street in Soho and The Prompt Corner, a chess cafe at the corner of Pond Street and South End Green near Hampstead Heath. The Mandrake closed and The Prompt Corner was sold to a Greek Cypriot called Mr Kanou (who appeared to dislike the chess players but nevertheless tolerated them with the result that The Prompt remained an interesting place for some years). The En Passant also failed but in a peculiar way. Boris's problem was that he was a very bad but completely compulsive poker player. Over a period of time he lost so much money in his own game that he had to hand over control of the 'club' to two of the most regular and successful players, who then paid him a modest weekly rent. It was these two, Ted Iles and Colin Kennedy, who ran the game at the En Passant during all my time there. Their method was to work alternate twelve-hour shifts, organizing and running the game, playing in it and cutting the pot - taking sixpence or a shilling for the house out of every pound bet - at the same time. They were an unlikely partnership. Ted, who was clearly the dominant one of the two, was a large, thick set man, supremely solid rather than fat, in, probably, his late thirties or early forties. (I do not know his exact age or that of anyone else featured here and I don't think seventeen year olds are good at estimating the ages of their elders). He was an ex-policeman - rumour had it that he had been kicked out of the cops in disgrace following some involvement with a teenage runaway girl - but he also possessed a powerful intelligence having been a county standard chess and bridge player. Everything about Ted Iles exuded strength, hardness and there was something else, a hint of real malevolence, a touch of evil just below the surface. Colin Kennedy was about ten years younger, a gangly, rather shy, somewhat intellectual gay Irishman. By what route he arrived at the En Passant I do not know but he was something of an oddity in that environment. Although he was cool and competent in his management of the poker game, he can1e over as weak in comparison to the intimidating Ted. This was certainly Ted's view. "My partner is a wanker", he would say from time to time. Despite this, Colin Kennedy wasa formidable poker player. There are many kinds of poker and they are played with a wide variety of rules and arrangements in different venues, clubs and parts of the world. Classic 'Draw Poker', in which each player is dealt five cards face down and then draws, i.e. exchanges one, two, three or four cards to try to improve his hand, is the form of the game most often featured in films and on TV, usually as a plot device-but in my experience it is hardly ever played, at least in clubs as opposed to private games. The same is true of 'pure' Five Card Stud - one card dealt face down, one face up, followed by three up cards with a round of betting after each - probably because, for all the legends about 'Aces-in-the-Hole' and so on, the vast majority of hands are very low, less than one pair and this is not conducive to exciting play or big pots. Today the dominant form of poker is 'Texas Hold'em' imported from Las Vegas; in the sixties it was generally Five Card Stud stripped deck, that is with cards below the seven removed, which greatly increases the size of the average hand. At The Strand, however, the main game was Seven Card Stud - two down cards and one up card, followed by three more up cards and a final down card with five rounds of betting in all. In my opinion, Seven Card is the best, most interesting and most demanding form of poker. The five rounds of betting allow for sustained and subtle bluffing and remarkable feats of card reading (working out an opponent's hand) and from time·to time, produce a buildup to a real dramatic showdown in which everything depends on the players' correct judgement on whether to call, pass or raise. All poker is a combination of luck and skill: luck in what cards you are dealt, skill in how you bet them. In the long run, therefore, poker is a game of skill like bridge or chess because in the long run the luck evens out. But the fact that luck plays a big part in the short run and is the main factor determining who wins each hand is what makes poker attractive to the gambler in a way that chess is not. The weak player can always tell himself he has a chance of beating even the strongest professional and, in the short run, he does have such a chance. At the same time the weak player can always tell himself, and anyone else, that the reason he lost was because he was unlucky. But the balance of luck and skill is not the same in all kinds of poker. Texas Hold'em with its high antes, heavy betting on the first two cards and its flop of three cards at once is a version that increases the element of luck. Seven Card Stud is a version that maximizes the element of skill. This was especially true of the way the game was played at the En Passant. The ante put in by the dealer and the first bet from the player showing the highest card, were very low, usually only one shilling, occasionally half a crown in a 'big' game. After that, betting was pot limit, i.e. if there was three shillings (or three pounds) in the pot, player A could bet up to three shillings (or three pounds), then player B could call that bet and raise up to nine shillings (or nine pounds). This meant that it was possible to play very tight, sitting and waiting patiently for a very good initial hand, without losing too much in antes (high antes work against this strategy). However, once a pot got going, the size of the bets could escalate rapidly, especially in the later stages. A hand that began with bets of a few shillings could end in bets of thirty, fifty or even hundreds of pounds if there. were raises and re-raises. This put a very high premium on precise judgement in certain highly pressured situations. After Seven Card Stud, the next most popular game at The Strand was Dealer's Choice. In this, the dealer got to choose which version of poker would be played for that round (eight hands if there were seven players). Dealer's Choice was poker for aficionados. In fact, unless you were quite experienced, or very sharp, you would not be able to understand how to play the games at all, never mind how to play them well enough to cope with the sharks at the En Passant. Players chose the most weird and .won derful versions of poker imaginable and often invented new forms on the spot. Characteristic features of these Dealer's Choice games were: proliferating wild cards - not just deuces wild but leaners (adjacent cards of the same suit, 9-10 of Hearts, A-2 of Clubs etc) or jumpers (next but one cards of same suit, 6-8-10 of Spades etc) or pairs (so that Kings up, KK55, equaled four kings); hi-lo games where the pot was divided between the highest and the lowest hand; multiple rounds of betting with complex card exchanges. A typical game, therefore, might be announced by the dealer as follows, "We'll play ... Seven Card hi-lo, leaners wild, changes on the third, fifth and last cards, dealer sees the changes, simultaneous declaration". Sometimes the cards lost their usual values and were measured by their point count or some strange combination of the two, as in Seven Card Stud, eight point count and the best hand, three exchanges. In this, only cards up to eight counted for the point count side of the pot while everything counted for the best hand side. In this game what you wanted was something like 88877 - very strong for both point count and best hand. What you didn't want was AAAJ10 or KKQQ4 - no use for the point count and probably beaten for best hand. One key feature of Dealer's Choice was that players delighted in inventing games with tricky rules that gave an advantage to the dealer; an extreme example of this was 'the Tim Swindle', invented by my friend Tim, the complexities of which I shall not attempt to describe, save to say that if you understood how the Tim Swindle worked, you simply didn't play, no matter how good your cards, unless you were the dealer when you played whatever you had. Despite its giveaway name, there were many occasions on which the Tim Swindle proved an effective way of relieving mugs of their cash. Other aspects of poker at The Strand also contributed to the game's particular atmosphere. There was the fact that it was illegal, which created an attractive frisson of danger for the middle class elements in the clientele. Legal poker was available in London at this time, at established casinos, such as Crockford's or the Victoria Sporting Club but these games, initially, were organized in a very genteel way with low stakes and restricted betting limits. They had none of the drama and tension of a pot limit game. The illicit status of the En Passant game, however, raised an interesting question. How was it possible for an illegal poker game to operate undisturbed twenty four hours a day on one of central London's main thoroughfares without even a lock or a doorman on the door? I don't know for certain but I can think of only one plausible explanation: the cops were being paid off, which, given what we know about the Met in the sixties is hardly surprising. Then there was the absence of any croupiers or dealers, the players dealing for themselves and finally, the use of actual cash instead of chips. These features, which if not absolutely unique, were at least pretty unusual, both made for a heightened feeling of gritty realism, like the use of black and white in classic film noir. In the end, however, it was not the minimalist decor or the kind of poker, or the cash pots or any of these things that made the En Passant what it was. It was the people who went to play there. The majority of these fell into three main categories: a criminal, small gangster element from London's East and West Ends; a middle class intellectual/professional element - lawyers, journalists and the like - and the professional poker players. Each of these groups brought its own particular 'flavour' to The Strand but it was the interaction between them that was the crucial factor in the game's distinctive atmosphere. The small gangster types all had Runyonesque nicknames: Johnny the Builder, Chills Tony, Little Art, Jumbo, Scouse Billy, Paddy George, Chrissy Doobie, Brian the Burglar and such like. By and large, these were hard men, some with that keen, hunted look in their eyes that, in my experience, goes with having been in prison. Johnny the Builder wasa small wiry man, middle aged going on old, with a harsh rasping voice that testified to chain smoking and could hardly utter a sentence without several expletives. "Fucking cards. I ain't seen a fucking pair since bloody eight o'clock". That sort of thing. Chills Tony, whose nickname certainly had the desired effect on me, was probably in his late twenties. He was lean, muscled and had a fearsome reputation. One day a newcomer to the scene, whose name I forget, got into a dispute with Chills over the table. He was a young man, early twenties, tall and broad shouldered. Either he fancied his chances or just got carried away but he wagged his finger in Tony's face, "Don't do that, son", said one of the older hands sitting next to the youngster. "He'll hit you over the head with an iron bar!" And such was the matter of fact realism of this helpful advice, that the young man realized instantly that he was making a mistake and the matter was sorted. However, the enormous Jumbo, whose soubriquet did not deceive, once told me that in his view, Chills Tony was not the hardest man at The Strand, the honour belonged to Little Art. "If I had to I could just about handle Tony", said Jumbo (I did not really believe this Jumbo was too nice), "but Little Art ... no way!" Little Art was, or had been, a stunt man on one of the first Bond films, it was said - and Little Art's strength, Jumbo explained, lay in his exceptional speed. Interestingly, physical violence was a rarity at the poker table, despite the presence of these potentially violent men. I think the psychological aggression of the game itself worked as a kind of sublimation. In all my poker-playing days I only once saw an actual serious blow struck at or around the table. That was by Vivian, the Irish queer basher, in a dispute over a £5 bet and happened not at The Strand but at The Primrose Club in Belsize Park, an altogether safer place. 'Vivian 'earned' his living by picking up gay men (no one used this term yet), taking them to The Strand Palace Hotel or somewhere similar, bashing them and robbing them. I was told that he once turned up to play at the En Passant with notes covered in fresh blood. But Vivian was an outsider, a pariah even among the villains. On one occasion I found myself obliged to share a cab with him. He complained bitterly of the coldness of the English. "No one seems to want to be friends", he said. That this might be related to his 'profession' did not seem to occur to him. Violence away from the table was a different matter. Paddy George, for instance, was disfigured by a large and hideous scar from the corner of his mouth to his ear - clearly the product of some knife or razor attack. George hung out with the terse and hard-bitten Scouse Billy. One day George and Billy disappeared from the scene. The word was that they were on the run. Apparently some doorman had tried to deny them entry to a late-night drinking club. With the aid of a third accomplice, they had captured the doorman, dragged him into the back of a car, cut up his face with a broken bottle and thrown him out of the car at speed. I never saw either of them again, except for one night on Greek Street I saw Scouse crossing the road towards me. "Hi Billy", I said, without thinking. He swept past me without a word and dodged into an entrance. The most attractive personality among the viilains, to me at any rate, was Brian the Burglar. Brian was thirtyish, tall, good looking and generally charming. In a delicious irony, his real surname was Law. His nickname, however, was a simple statement of fact; he was a professional thief, a housebreaker. His method of earning a living was to go to an apartment block in a fairly well heeled area at an appropriate time - say 2pm when people were likely to be out - ring the doorbell and, on receiving no reply, effect an entry by means of a piece of plastic, like a credit card. He would then help himself to whatever cash, jewellery or other portable valuables were lying around and beat a hasty retreat. Brian's career was assisted by the unstated policy of the Metropolitan Police at that time (I don't know if it is still the same today) not to investigate house break-ins, on account of their great frequency. This meant that so long as he did not get caught in the act, he was in the clear, barring any accidents such as getting stopped and searched in a car full of stolen goods. Despite this 'indulgence', Brian, when I met him, had already been inside a couple of times and was therefore looking at a long stretch should he be convicted again. In his personal dealings I found Brian both affable and genuinely kind. For some reason he took a liking to me and for a time, took me under his wing, which greatly assisted my transition from isolated callow youth to member of the rather louche poker scene. On occasion, after an all-night poker session, we would drive out at dawn to have breakfast at London Airport. I remember it then as deserted, eerie and vaguely exciting - now it has changed beyond recognition. The thing with Brian was that you felt that if you ever really needed help, he would go the distance for you and this I tried to reciprocate. As poker players, the villains - with the exception of Jumbo who was definitely 'loose' and weak - were generally quite good. They were sharp, intelligent, nobody's fools and usually had plenty of bottle at the table. They were not the best however. I think this was because for them, poker was a leisure, not a work activity. They had other means of earning their living and therefore did not play with the absolute intensity and 'commitment' necessary to be a consistent winner, a real professional. The middle-class element brought an essential ingredient to the En Passant: its money. Every poker game needs its quota of mugs or losers to supply the lubricant to keep its wheels turning smoothly. If the proportion of pots and tight players in a game gets too high, the game dries up and becomes no good to anyone. This was especially true of a game like The Strand where the House was cutting the pot. By the standards of many clubs and private games these were quite good players but by the standards of The Strand they were a weak link, inferior to both the villains and the pro-gamblers. Typical of the middle class crowd were men like the young lawyer, Jeff Abrahams, Stewart Reuben (who was part of the chess - poker crossover and who is still around as an organizer of chess events), Charlie Gale and the journalists, Jeremy Hornsby and David Spanier. Charlie Gale lived with and off his parents in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He had been to Oxford but he preferred ducking and diving to the disciplines of a proper job or career. I knew Charlie from the Prompt Corner and it was partly through me that he got involved in poker. Often we would drive to games together in his tiny Fiat car. An interesting case was David Spanier. He was quite a prestigious journalist at The Times, who won some kind of European Journalist of the Year award for his reporting on the Common Market and who played in the 'famous' private game with Al Alvarez and Anthony Holden - famous because they were media people who publicized their own exploits. In later years, Spanier presented himself as a poker 'expert', writing a book, making the odd TV appearance etc. but at The Strand he was a mug. The news that 'David of The Times' was on his way would always raise spirits at the table since it meant that a welcome injection of cash was coming. On one occasion, I fleeced Spanier in a two-handed game of Dealer's Choice with the crude device of repeatedly choosing the Tim Swindle. David, for all his intellectual status, seemed unable to work out the fairly obvious catch. These middle class characters were, of course, drawn by the frisson of danger provided by The Strand's low life clientele but they had to pay for their thrills at the table. From among this group there was one individual who stood out, at least from my point of view, and who is the only person from those days I'm still in touch with. This was Maurice Sumray. When I first saw Maurice at the En Passant he was a small unshaven man in his mid-forties, scruffily dressed and wearing a floppy old cordouroy hat, which made him look a down and out. "Ask him for a lift home", said Ted Iles one morning, with a psychological insight that was in a way typical of this unpleasant man. "He may look like a tramp but he has on E-type Jag parked downstairs." So I did and he agreed and this proved the start of our friendship. Maurice was a Jewish artist who had set aside his art to make a pile of money with an engraving business. At this point in time, he was busy dissipating his fortune on wine, women and poker. He had a beautiful house in Muswell Hill with an extraordinary private art collection, including a small original Picasso(!) and other great 20th century originals. His wife, Pat, was also stunningly beautiful - in an artistic bohemian not bimboish or show business way - but there was evident strain and pain in the relationship, maybe because of Maurice's gambling and philandering. Superficially, Maurice could be cocky, cheeky, arrogant, aggressive and humorous by turns. There was always a inkle in his eye, which could be exceptionally charming to women and men alike and which is still there now that he is eighty. But the real thing about Maurice was that he had been, was, a serious artist, a real painter. He had exhibited at the Whitechapel and Gimpel Fils galleries and been described by Wyndham Lewis as one of 'the best artists in England' and knew Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and such. He therefore understood all too well the high calling of being a real artist and beneath his bluff, gruff exterior, there was a deep sadness and profound human sympathy with the downtrodden, which showed itself in his work and his half denied left wing politics (he remembered Mosley and the Battle of Cable St in the East End) and his choice of company. Like me, Maurice also played chess at the Prompt Corner and was close friends with Brian the Burglar. The professional poker players were the kings of the En Passantand, at the same time, its humble servants and its lowly parasites. They were, of course, few in number. Apart from Ted Iles and Colin Kennedy there were only three real pros: Ray 'Doc' Joseph, Paddy Joe and Irish John Turner. Ray Joseph was a tall, thin young man in his late twenties, with a long face and long bony fingers, which handled the cards with elegant precision. Ray had once been a student at the nearby London School of Economics but had abandoned his studies for poker. He was the extreme example of the 'scientific' player. Someone who knew all the odds and stuck strictly to them - the tightest man at the table who would wait hours for a decent hand if necessary. They called him 'the Doc' in honour of Dr. Death, the wrestler who strangled his opponents into submission. (To have someone 'strangled' is poker parlance for having a hand so strong that the other player(s) cannot possible beat it. In stud, this is not uncommon e.g. in Five Card Stud a pair of Aces has the whole table strangled if no pair is showing and there is no possible straight or flush). Away from the game, Doc was an amiable fellow but he could be tetchy at the table, especially if things were not going well. He was married with children and found playing for a livinga strain. "I have to clear two grand a year before I start to live," he would say, referring to his domestic commitments. Certainly Doc was tight but he was also a very skillful subtle player, a good 'reader' of the cards and master of the unexpected raise and deceptive bet or check. I once asked Ray if his reputation for caution didn't make it difficult for him to get paid when he did have a hand. "Yeah," he said, "but there are compensations." "How do you mean?"I asked. "Well, you don't get people trying to bluff Jumbo out of a full house, do you!" The Doc could sit quietly, almost unnoticed, in a game for many hours but at the end of the night he was usually ahead. Sometimes he would go for a drink with other players, especially the pros but usually he would go home to his family in Blackheath. When I first met them, John Turner and Paddy Joe were mates, two young Irishmen who had come over on the boat together when they were sixteen and graduated from snooker hustlers to poker pros. By the time I left the scenea few years later, their ways had parted as John's star rose and Joe's declined. Paddy Joe was small, quiet of voice but intense in his feelings and concentration. He lived a life totally devoted to and within the gambling world, moving from poker game to roulette wheel to dice table and always back to poker again. Ray Joseph once said of Joe, "Sometimes he plays like a God and sometimes like a complete mug". His passion for the game enabled him to play very tight for a long time and then go absolutely fearlessly for a really big pot. Then the fearlessness could suddenly turn into reckless self-destructiveness. One night in a big five card stripped deck game, not at The Strand, Joe patiently built his last five pounds into £450. He then put the lot - a small fortune in those days - in a single bet on a pair of Queens against a showing Ten, only to be called and outdrawn with a middle pin straight on the last card. When Joe was doing well he would rent a nice flat, buy himself a good suit and watch these were the limits of his ambition. When he was broke he would give up the flat for a bedsit, pawn the watch and suit and hustle to get back in the big time. Some pro players, Ted Iles for example and I was like this too, are not really gamblers; they play a game of skill for money and have no interest in betting for its own sake. Joe was a fantastically good poker player but he was also a mad compulsive gambler. This was probably his downfall. Occasionally Joe would interrupt his gambling binges to take in a movie. The last time I saw him he had been entranced by the Woodstock film and had started smoking dope. John Turner was the most fearsome and most feared player on our circuit. He was probably the best poker player in London at the time and certainly the best I saw. Medium to short, stockily built, barrel chested, he was the Diego Maradonna of the poker table with a personality to match. Ted Iles once said of him that John Turner managed to play more cards, drink more booze and sleep with more women than anyone else he knew. At the table, John Turner was all energy and action. From the moment he sat down he sought and usually achieved a personal domination of the game. His method was to unleash a flurry of small bets and raises combined with a stream of mildly aggressive banter, in such a way as to make himself the center of attention. This simultaneously created the illusion - and it was an illusion - that he was basically a loose player and aroused the envy of almost every other player in the game. Unlike Ted, there was nothing seriously malicious in John Turner but he used his pugnacious personality to provoke other players to engage with him. When you played with John Turner you felt harried, got at and personally challenged so that you put your money in the middle when you shouldn't and whenever that money was substantial, you could be sure that Turner would produce the goods. This was only possible because John was a superb 'reader' of both cards and people. No player I ever saw made fewer mistakes, fewer errors of judgement in betting, calling and passing in crit ical situations. If Turner had a weakness, it was his heavy drinking but even this he could turn to his advantage. He would turn up at the table obviously the worse for wear and spread some easy money around. Then he would sober up rapidly and catch people on the rebound who thought he was still drunk. The interesting thing about John was that despite his aggressive, provocative personality and his way of getting under everyone's skin and making them play badly, almost no one bore a grudge against him or actually disliked him. On the contrary, he was generally popular, especially with the villains, who aamired his 'bottle'. What happened to him later I've no idea, but I fear that in the long run, the drinking must have taken its toll. Naturally, not everyone at The Strand fitted into my three main types. There was, for example, Tony Tea - a rather camp youngish man, employed by Ted to make the tea. Whenever Tony could scrape together enough from his doubtless meager wages, he would chance his arm at the table - not very successfully. From time to time Tony would appear with the odd younger lad in tow, who would also do a stint in the kitchen. It was clear from the odd comment he made that Ted lies had a certain 'interest' in these young gay men but Ted was overtly straight and my guess is that his interest was 'psychological' rather than directly sexual. Another gay guy on the En Passant scene for a time was Johnny Mew. Johnny was a somewhat rough looking, working class man in his forties, who, I was told, had had a rich sugar daddy. The sugar daddy had died and left Johnny a very considerable sum - maybe £30,000 or something like that. But Johnny was a total poker addict and the world's worst player. While he had money, Ted courted him, reserved him a seat at the table, even allowed him to stay in his flat and drip fed him credit £10 at a time. In this way, Johnny Mew, who always lost, contributed £100 or more a night to the En Passant game and the house cut until his inheritance was all gone and Ted discarded him like a used rag. So far I have spoken only of men. Obviously in the mid sixties, the poker scene as a whole and The Strand especially, was overwhelmingly male but there were a few women players. Two that I remember were Diane and Edna. Diane, I hardly knew at all but Jumbo claimed to have had an affair with her and Brian the Burglar, from the manner of his greeting of her that I saw on one occasion, may also have had some kind of relationship with her. She was, as far as I can recall, not a bad player. Edna, I came to know very well. She was half Italian, half Irish, swarthy of complexion, plump and in her forties. Edna was sort of half professional. On the one hand, she was a very regular player who was certainly not a mug and who clearly lacked the source of income to sustain a losing poker habit. On the other hand, she clearly was not in the same league as the Doc or John Turner. Edna played sometimes at The Strand and could just about survive there but, generally, she preferred the gentler game at The Primrose, which anyway was nearer to her Kilburn home. Both on and off the table, Edna was kind and friendly to me in a mildly maternal way. One aspect of The Strand of which I am more aware today than I was at the time, was its 'whiteness.' The poker scene as a whole was very cos mopolitan. A number of the clubs I used, including The Primrose and the Double One, were run by Asians and frequented by many Indian, Pakistani and Chinese players. There was also substantial participation from the Greek community but none of this was true of the En Passant, which remained almost exclusively white (though, as we have seen, very Jewish). Not, I hasten to add, that there was a colour bar. As far as I can recall, no one of any description was barred from The Strand, especially if they had money to lose but it seems it was just not a place black and Asian people felt drawn to. Finally,I should say something about my own position within this scene. My main distinguishing feature was my youth. At seventeen, just out of school, as I was by some distance the youngest person around and as a result they called me Schoolboy John. By education and background, I was closest to the middle class professional/intellectual element but I was a rebel and tended to despise the respectable bourgeois types (except the bohemian Maurice). Also I had little or no money so I had to play to win like the real pros. A feat I managed in a small way most, if not all, of the time. Luckily for me I was not a gambler - games of chance held no interest for me - or an addict and when the time came for me to move on in my life,I was able to give up poker without difficulty. Up to this point, I have not offered up what dominates most depictions of poker on the page and the screen, namely the tall poker tale or the description of the dramatic pot. This has been intended as a deliberate corrective to the way poker is usually represented. Mostly poker features in stories as a plot device, a set piece scene focusing on a single hand, leading to a gunfight or a confrontation between hero and villain. Typically, all we see is a huge pot in which the guy required by the storyline to be the winner has four Aces against the predetermined loser's four Kings, or the dramatic climax in which The Man does or does not have the Jack of Diamonds in the hole to make a straight flush. Real poker is not like that. Ninety, no ninety nine percent of the time, it is a matter of routine pots in which Two Pair beats a pair of Kings or a Straight outdraws a pair of Aces and winning at poker is basically a question of trying to ensure that when you have the Two Pair against the pair of Kings, you win more money than you lose when the hands are reversed. This is why poker is a boring game unless it is played for stakes that are high enough to hurt if you lose. You've got to really care that you have a pair of Queens and your opponent only has Jacks or Tens and you have to be very pleased that you managed to pass your Aces Up when you read the other guy for Three Fours. Only the money makes you that. Nevertheless, there were some incidents that stood out and which I can still remember more than thirty years later. One of these involved Maurice Sumray and Ray Joseph. It was Seven Card Stud and on the fourth card, Maurice, holding a pair of Aces (showing A6 with A4 in the hole) bet the pot. The Doc, showing Q10, raised just below the maximum but strong bet. Maurice, mistakenly, called - unless it was an out and out bluff, which was unlikely, Ray would never raise in that situation unless he could beat the possible Aces. On card five, Maurice hit a four making Aces Up and the Doc drew an irrelevant seven. Maurice checked. The Doc paused, checked his hole cards, pondered some more and eventually said, "I don't believe you've got Aces Up!" He then bet the pot. The remark riled Maurice. "Is he allowed to make comments like that?" he said. "At Crockfords they'd call that 'cheating"'. Colin Kennedy, who was in charge, shrugged his shoulders. "This is not Crockfords", he said. "Right, I call", said Maurice, his dander up. On the sixth card neither player improved and Maurice checked again. The Doc bet the pot. As he leant forward to place the money in the middle, Maurice grabbed him by the wrist and looking straight in his eyes, said, "Don't worry, I'm staying to the end, whatever you bet. But if you've got the Three Queens I think you've got, you'll never get a penny of the money." Doc never wanted trouble at the table, he already regretted his 'clever' remark but her wanted the money, badly. "Calm down, Maurice. Just play your cards," he said, extricating himself. Maurice called the bet, anything but calm. When the final down card was dealt Maurice saw that the Doc only had a few pounds left. "I set you in," he announced rather pompously. Ray Joseph called immediately. "Aces Up", said Maurice, defiantly. The Doc turned over his inevitable Three Queens. In an instant Maurice reached forward, seized the pot, comprising some £80 - £I00 in five and ten pound notes, tore the notes in half and then again into quarters and threw the whole lot high into the air. To this day Maurice, with his artist's eye for the visual, recalls the scraps of paper money 'floating down to the table like confetti'. At that point Maurice simply got up and walked out. Anywhere else he would have been barred, probably for life; at The Strand a phone call to Ted a couple of weeks later and he was back, everything forgotten and forgiven. Apparently he and Ray Joseph had a good laugh about it in later years. Another particularly spectacular and memorable pot, possibly the biggest ever played there, featured Brian the Burglar, flush with the proceeds of a lucrative job, Colin Kennedy running the game, an unnamed American serviceman on his first visit and Ted Iles, not playing but attending to some business in the office. The American had sat down earlier in the evening and said he would play, call or pass (i.e. cover any bet made at the table without limit). He had played quietly for several hours without being involved in any dramatic action. Brian arrived sometime in the small hours in a rather excited mood. He too announced he would play, call or pass. Normally only one person could be call or pass at one time but by this time, people had sort of forgotten the Yank and nothing was said. (Strictly speaking this was Colin's fault). After a while the American was dealing with Brian to his left and Colin on his right. It was Seven Card and Brian showed an Ace, Colin a ten and the Yank a deuce. Brian, as high card, opened the compulsory half-crown and received three or four callers, including Colin. The Yank raised the pot, fifteen shillings. Brian just called and the others passed but Colin re raised three pounds more. The Yank called and Brian raised another tenner. Colin and the Yank called. This was already exceptional. betting for the first of five rounds of betting. The next card made no apparent difference to anyone - a five to the Ace, a seven to the ten and a Jack lo the deuce. Brian bet forty pounds, Colin called and the Yank raised another hundred. Brian called and Colin, after a long pause, declared that he was going all in the hundred plus another hundred and twenty. The Yank, who was starting to sweat profusely, checked his money in his wallet and, with a touch of agitation in his voice said, "I call". At this point Brian rather triumphantly announced, "Well I'm raising. How much is there in the pot?" Colin counted the large pile of notes. "With your one twenty, it comes to nearly eight hundred", he said. Brian reached into his inside pocket and fetched out a huge roll of notes. "I raise five hundred", he said. The American's face fell through the floor. Frantically he checked his wallet."I can't cover the bet", he mumbled. "Then you must fold", said Colin, with a slight smirk. "You said you were playing call or pass". "No, no. I'll go all in". "Oh no you won't", said Brian, starting to get angry. "Call or pass is call or pass". There was a general muttering of agreement round the Table. Everyone was tense - it was a huge pot by the standards of the game and the time - but everyone was on Brian's side. The Yank was getting desperate. "I - I'll get the money", he said. 'I'll leave the hand here and I'll get the money. Give me an hour". "Hmm ... ", Colin hesitated. "Look mate", said Brian, who had made a decision. "I've got three Aces here and you're strangled. I'd swallow it if I were you". He flipped over his hole cards to prove his point. "I've got over a hundred and fifty in this pot. I want to carry on. I'll get the money", the American protested. Then a voice came from the back. It was Ted. "I have to tell you that if you get the money, we shall be cutting the deck before the hand continues". This was decisive. Ted had rumbled that there must be a rigged deck and the Yank knew he was rumbled. "I - I'm getting the money", he said, and rose from the table. He was running before he reached the door. Everyone knew he wasn't coming back. Colin, who had three tens back-to-back, now suggested the pot should be split. "No way", said Brian with his three Aces. "What we will do", said Ted, taking control, "is deal out the top cards to see what would have happened, then we'll reshuffle the deck and deal again for real". Colin wasn't happy but he couldn't buck Ted. The next three cards [illegible] the absent Yank. But when they're - dealt, there was a bitter twist. Colin paired his seven to make a full house but Brian did not improve. And that was how Colin won the biggest pot in the short history of the En Passant. "Oh well! Easy come, easy go", said Brian the Burglar. When now, from the vantage point of middle age and a new century,I reflect on the En Passant and my experience of it, two things stand out: one personal, one social. Personally, it assisted and in large part effected, my rapid transition from a socially isolated, nerdish, certainly very gauche adolescence into the adult world. In the space of a few months it enabled me to leapfrog over the 'normal' teenage scene of dances, parties, pubs, dates - from which I had largely felt excluded by the peculiarities of my sheltered upbringing. Hindsight has revealed this to bea mixed blessing but at the time I was deeply grateful. Socially,I think it was symptomatic at a subterranean level of a trend that was evident in the higher reaches of the culture in the sixties, namely the arrival on the stage of a young non-deferential working class which challenged the hitherto uncontested cultural hegemony of the traditional middle and upper classes. In its own tiny way, therefore, the world of the En Passant was a part of the cultural wave that gave us Saturday Night and Sunday Moming, Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and indeed, The Beatles. And from the clear fact that John Turner was loads smarter than David Spanier and Brian the Burglar an infinitely preferable human being to Ted Iles or Jeremy Hornsby, I learned the invaluable lesson that, contrary to everything I had been taught at school, neither intelligence nor decency were linked to social status or respectability.
Sunday, January 23, 2022
State Capitalism Today The concept of state capitalism is associated by many on the left with past debates about Russia. The argument as to whether Russia or the Soviet Union was communist, socialist, a degenerated workers’ state, some kind of bureaucratic collectivism, or state capitalist is often held up as a typical example of far-left sectarian squabbling over obscure issues of terminology, and therefore as an issue which, now that the Soviet Union is no more, we should all set aside and move on from. However, I want to suggest that that there is much more at stake in the question of state capitalism than what label should be attached to Russia or other “communist” countries. Rather, the issue goes to the heart of our understanding of: a) the nature of capitalism; b) the Marxist critique of capitalism; and c) the essence of socialism. In this article I intend to discuss the whole matter without reference to the Soviet Union or that episode in history, important as it was, but with reference to current debates about capitalism, China, current geo-political conflicts, and ecosocialism. Let’s start by going back to basics. Capitalism and private property It has long been widely assumed—in the academic world, on much of the left, and in general public discourse—that capitalism is essentially defined as a system based on private ownership of the means of production. If you google “capitalism: definition” or “the meaning of capitalism,” the following appears: An economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. Merriam-Webster offers the following definition: An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1976) says: Capitalism, n.: Possession of capital or wealth; system in which private capital or wealth is used in production and distribution of goods And Wikipedia begins its entry: Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. The Cambridge Online dictionary concurs: An economic, political, and social system in which property, business, and industry are privately owned, directed towards making the greatest possible profits for successful organizations and people. In the face of such unanimity, who can argue? Surely the proposition is simply a matter of fact or else true “by definition.” Except that private ownership of the means of production cannot, in itself, be the defining characteristic of capitalism for the simple reason that it has existed in numerous non- and pre-capitalist societies. Thus, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome the two main means of production were land and unfree labour (slaves), and both were privately owned. In European feudalism in the early Middle Ages, all the land of the kingdom was, “theoretically,” the private property of the king, and in practice most of it was the private property of the landed aristocracy and the church. On the other hand, more or less every capitalist economy has contained some degree of state ownership of the forces of production, and in many instances that degree has been very substantial. Thus, in Germany the railways were nationalised after WW1, and during the Weimar Republic large sections of mining, banking, and shipping were taken into public ownership. In France there was a big wave of nationalisations after WW2, including the railways, Renault, the electricity and gas industries, and Credit Lyonnais and other banks. While in the UK after the War, nationalised industries included the railways, London Transport, the BBC, British Airways, British Coal, British Steel, the Bank of England, British Gas, and the Post Office. The emergence of capitalism as the dominant economic system in the world occurred over several centuries, essentially from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. What this centrally involved was not the establishment of private property but three connected processes: the spread of commodity production (i.e. production for sale on the market rather than consumption by the producers); the transformation of labour power into a commodity (i.e. the spread of wage labour and the development of the modern working class or proletariat); the winning of state power by the bourgeoisie in a series of revolutions (the Dutch, the English, the American, the French, etc.); and the transformation of the state into an instrument of bourgeois class rule. The spread of capitalism globally occurred primarily through imperialism or the pressure exerted by imperialism, in which the state played a crucial role, militarily, politically, and economically. If capitalism in the dominant Western countries tended, as a broad generalisation, to favour laissez-faire and free trade, in countries of belated capitalist development, such as Japan or the so-called Asian Tigers, the state tended to play a larger, more active economic role. The overall outcome of this is that capitalism exists as a global system of competitive capital accumulation in which competition rages both between giant multinational corporations (usually closely linked to particular states) and between capitalist states themselves, as in USA v China v France v Japan, etc. Hence the idea that capitalism, either in the past or today, can be seen as simply a system of private ownership, or that states and state-owned industries can be seen as somehow separate from or outside capitalism or as a non-capitalist sector in the economy, is completely unsustainable. Moreover, there is now abundant evidence that nationalised industries owned and run by capitalist states operate fundamentally on the same principles of profit and loss and exploitation of their workers as private capitalist businesses: Aer Lingus, ESB, Iarnród Éireann, and Bus Éireann are examples of this in Ireland, but other examples could be provided from around the world. The Marxist critique of capitalism Marx was of course against private ownership and control of production, and wanted to replace it by social ownership (of which more later), but this does not at all mean that his critique of capitalism can be reduced to a critique of private ownership. Marx’s starting point in his critique was a profound analysis of alienation (in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 ) which showed how alienated labour (labour that is sold, i.e. wage labour) estranges humans from the products of their labour, from themselves, from their fellow human beings, and from nature. This was combined with a critique of the bureaucratic state in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which rejected the idea of the state as representing society as a whole. Marx developed his analysis of alienated labour into an analysis of exploitation which showed how capitalism was based on the extraction of surplus value (profit) from workers’ labour, first clearly formulated in 1847 in Wage Labour and Capital and later developed in Capital, and a historical theory of class struggle between exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed, set out in The Communist Manifesto, which culminates in the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat and, it was to be hoped, the victory of the proletariat, thus establishing a society where accumulated or dead labour serves living labour rather than vice versa and all class divisions are overcome. To depict this total critique and vision of human liberation as essentially an argument about state ownership versus private ownership is to narrow it and falsify it. Moreover, Marx’s critical analysis of capitalist production contains an important strand, the law of the concentration and centralisation of capital, which underpins the tendency within capitalism for the state to take over more and more means of production. Competition between capitalists means, says Marx, that “one capitalist always kills many.” Capital accumulation means the “concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals.” Thus, free market capitalism, by its own laws, becomes transformed into monopoly capitalism with the concentration of ever larger amounts of capital and production in the hands of ever fewer and larger companies. This tendency has been empirically confirmed by the development of capitalism over the last 150 years, and can be visibly observed today in the domination of global oil, gas, steel, and car production, of banking, retail, computing, and social media, by handfuls of giant corporations that have become household names—BP, Shell, Mittal, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, WallMart, Amazon, Google, etc. Theoretically, Marx speculates, the limit of this centralisation would be ‘when the entire social capital was united in the hands of rather a single capitalist or a single capitalist company,” but in practice what is more likely is that increasing spheres of production are taken over by the state. This development was explored and predicted by Engels in his famous work Socialism: Utopian or Scientific. Engels comments on the rise in the nineteenth century of joint-stock companies and trusts, and then continues: In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society—the state—will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication—the post office, the telegraphs, the railways… But, the transformation—either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership—does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine—the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers—proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. [My emphasis – JM] Nor was it just Engels who wrote on these lines. There was extensive discussion within the Marxist movement of tendencies towards state capitalism, particularly in conjunction with imperialism, long prior to the advent of Stalinist Russia: Connolly (as we shall see), Lenin, and Bukharin, among others, all used the term in various ways. This discussion cannot be reviewed here, but it is worth noting the contribution of Bukharin, who, in his study of imperialism in 1915, identified two contradictory tendencies in the development of capitalism: a tendency towards internationalisation (it would be called globalisation now) and a tendency towards statification. On one thing Bukharin, who was close to Lenin, was emphatic: the state takeover of productive forces (“nationalisation”) in no way altered the capitalist nature of either the productive relations or the state. He wrote: With the growth of the importance of state power, its inner structure also changes. The state becomes more than ever before an “executive committee of the ruling classes”….Being a very large shareholder in the state capitalist trust, the modern state is the highest and all-embracing organisational culmination of the latter. In response to then-fashionable talk of “state socialism” and “war socialism” regarding the state’s takeover of industries during World War I, Bukharin replied: What is that picture of present-day "State Socialism" which appears to be a "change in principle"? From the foregoing analysis the answer seems to follow with irresistible logic: We have here the process of accelerated centralisation within the framework of a state capitalist trust, which has developed to the highest form, not of State Socialism, but of State Capitalism. By no means do we see here a new structure of production, i.e., a change in the interrelation of classes; on the contrary, we have here an increase in the potency of the power of a class that owns the means of production in quantities hitherto unheard of. To apply to such a state of affairs a terminology fit for post-capitalist relations, is not only very risky, but also highly absurd. "War Socialism" and "State Socialism" are purposely being circulated with the direct intention of misleading the people and of covering up by a "good" word a very ungainly content. The capitalist mode of production is based on a monopoly of the means of production in the hands of the class of capitalists within the general framework of commodity exchange. There is no difference in principle whatsoever whether the state power is a direct expression of this monopoly or whether the monopoly is "privately" organised. In either case there remains commodity economy (in the first place the world market) and, what is more important, the class relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. 22 It follows from the above that (as far as capitalism will retain its foothold) the future belongs to economic forms that are close to state capitalism. There remains one argument which appears both within and outside Marxist circles against even the theoretical possibility of a thoroughgoing state capitalist society. It is that whatever about the nature of nationalised industries within a predominantly private capitalist country, the moment the state sector becomes dominant or total there is a qualitative shift: the economic laws of capitalism no longer apply and the society ceases to be capitalist. This argument was neatly summarised by James Burnham in his important book The Managerial Revolution. The term “state capitalism” seems to be due to a misunderstanding….When the state owns only a part, and a minor part, of the economy, with the rest of the economy remaining capitalist private enterprise, we might correctly speak of “state capitalism” in connection with that minor state-owned part: since, as we have seen, the economy remains in its balance capitalist and even the state-owned part may be directed primarily to the benefit of the capitalist part. But the “capitalism” in “state capitalism” is derived not from the state-controlled part. When the latter disappears, or becomes negligible, then the capitalism has disappeared. There is no paradox in saying that 10 times 10% state capitalism, far from equalling 100% capitalism, equals 0% capitalism. The multiplication is of state, not of capitalism. Though the mathematics would be much more complex, it would be nearer an analogy to say that, just as 10% state capitalist economy equals only 90% capitalist economy, so 100% (or even 80% or 70%) state economy would have eliminated capitalism altogether. This objection might be valid if the statification were in a single, global, state-run economy, because then the competition between capitals which generates and enforces the drive to maximise profit and accumulate capital, which is the central dynamic of capitalism, would be absent. However, if, as is actually case, the process of statification is accomplished in one or several separate countries which remain in economic and therefore also geo-political and military competition with other states and economies within the world market, the principle features of capitalism—the exploitation of workers to maximise profit, competitive capital accumulation and compulsion to grow, and production for profit rather than human need—will continue. Socialism, the state and the working class Having rejected the view that capitalism can be defined essentially as a system of private property, I want now to turn to the idea that state ownership is an essential characteristic of socialism. The equation of state ownership with socialism is even weaker than the equation of private property with capitalism. Just as there were many pre-capitalist societies founded on private property, and many capitalist societies which included a large measure of state ownership, so there were numerous manifestly non-socialist societies based largely on state or collective property. These include various instances of what Marx called “the Asiatic mode of production” and what Karl Wittfogel called “Oriental Despotism,” such as Moghul India and imperial China, along with Pharaonic Egypt, Mamluk Egypt in the Middle Ages, and the Aztec and Incan empires. For Marx and Engels and all revolutionary socialists before the advent of Stalinism, socialism was first and foremost the self emancipation of the working class. The idea that state ownership separate from working-class emancipation constituted socialism was ruthlessly mocked by Engels. He writes: But of late, since Bismarck went in for State-ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious Socialism has arisen, degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkyism, that without more ado declares all State-ownership, even of the Bismarkian sort, to be socialistic. Certainly, if the taking over by the State of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of Socialism. If the Belgian State, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic compulsion, took over for the State the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the Government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes—this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in Frederick William III's reign, the taking over by the State of the brothels. Similarly, James Connolly in 1899 argued: One of the most significant signs of our times is the readiness with which our struggling middle class turns to schemes of State or Municipal ownership and control, for relief from the economic pressure under which it is struggling. Thus we find in England demands for the nationalisation of the telephone system, for the extension of municipal enterprise in the use of electricity, for the extension of the parcel system in the Post Office, for the nationalisation of railways and canals. In Ireland we have our middle class reformers demanding state help for agriculture, state purchase of lands, arterial draining, state construction of docks, piers and harbours, state aid for the fishing industry, state control of the relations between agricultural tenant and landlord, and also nationalisation of railways and canals. There is a certain section of Socialists, chiefly in England, who never tire of hailing all such demands for state activity as a sign of the growth of the Socialist spirit among the middle class, and therefore worthy of all the support the working-class democracy can give. But all this notwithstanding, we would, without undue desire to carp or cavil, point out that to call such demands “Socialistic” is in the highest degree misleading. Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism—it is only State capitalism. Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism—if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials—but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism To the cry of the middle class reformers, “make this or that the property of the government,” we reply, “yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.” This is entirely consistent with the way in which Marx and Engels always posed the abolition of capitalism and the transition to socialism. In The German Ideology they state, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement [i.e. the movement of the proletariat – JM] which abolishes the present state of things.” In The Poverty of Philosophy, “Just as the economists are the scientific representatives of the bourgeois class, so the Socialists and Communists are the theoreticians of the proletarian class [not of state property – JM].” In The Principles of Communism, Engels makes the first principle “Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.” The Communist Manifesto begins with an account of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat which will culminate, Marx and Engels say, in the downfall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat. Then they continue: We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible. And in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels writes: Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution. Whilst it forces on more and more of the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialized, into State property, it shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property. [Emphasis in the original] In all of these formulations, and in Marxism as a whole, it is the proletariat or working class that is the driving force, the key element, the subject of the historical process. The proletariat wins state power and establishes state ownership of the means of production, not the other way round; state ownership is established and this raises up the proletariat. Socialism is not a blueprint for a planned economy based on state ownership drawn up by advanced theorists who enlist the proletariat (or some other social force) to help set it up; it is the form of society the proletariat must establish in the process of liberating itself. Yes, the proletariat requires a state and state ownership in order to take possession and control of the main means of production; it cannot do this as individuals or workplace by workplace. This a key point of difference between Marxism and anarchism. But this state is not the existing capitalist state taken over by the proletariat, For Marx this was the key lesson from the experience of the Paris Commune. “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz. that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.’”. Instead, the capitalist state must be dismantled and replaced by “the proletariat organised as the ruling class,” which Marx called “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” In short, for Marx and Engels and for James Connolly (and the same was true of Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky, Lukacs, Gramsci, and all the revolutionary socialists prior to Stalinism), there could be no socialism without the leading role of the working class. Relevance today The concept of state capitalism has vital strategic relevance for the whole socialist movement internationally. If the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism can be realised simply through state ownership, then there is no necessity for working-class revolution. On the contrary, capitalism can be overcome and socialism instituted by a variety of means. It can be achieved by the gradual extension of public ownership by a social democratic or reformist government through parliamentary legislation. For many decades this was the central strategic goal of the mainstream of social democracy, and after it was increasingly abandoned in favour of neoliberalism, it remained the defining aim of left reformists such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn. Substantial statification can also be realised by “modernising” nationalist military (or military-linked) political forces, such as Nasser in Egypt, or even imposed from above by a foreign army, as was done by the Russian army in much of Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. Of course, there will be times when revolutionary socialists will call for the formation of a left government committed to major reforms, including nationalisation, and will support such a government against the right. Here an understanding of the concept of state capitalism is important because it reinforces the point that such a left government is only a stepping stone towards workers’ power and socialism, not in itself the actual inauguration of socialism. There will also be many occasions when socialists demand the nationalisation of particular companies or industrial sectors, particularly when they are claiming bankruptcy and throwing their workforce on the dole. Again, the concept of state capitalism is a useful reminder that such nationalisation is only a reform—revolutionaries do fight for reforms—within capitalism and that nationalised firms and industries remain capitalist (i.e., they continue to operate with capitalist relations of production, and class struggle continues within them). This is important because certain types of reformist trade union leaders will try use the status of nationalisation as an argument for holding back workers’ struggle in these sectors. Another question, growing more important by the day, where the concept of state capitalism is vital, is China. Four decades of spectacular economic growth have raised China into the world’s largest economy and made it the principal economic, political, and military rival to the United States and its informal empire. The US has responded as empires always do when faced with an emergent challenger (much as Britain responded to the rise of Germany in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century). Since Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2012, it has been shifting its foreign policy and military focus from the Middle East to South East Asia. Now with Biden and the recent AUKUS deal, the concentration on China is intensifying to the point where some commentators, such as John Bellamy Foster of the Monthly Review, are speaking of a new cold war. This development lays a potential trap for the left, summed up in the phrase “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Since the US and its allies are lining up against China, and we know they are imperialist liars and robbers, there must be something good about China. This is a very dangerous “principle” for socialists. For example, the fact that in 1914 all the propagandists of the British Empire denounced the Kaiser’s Germany for its brutal militarism and expansionism did not mean it wasn’t brutal, militarist, and expansionist—it most certainly was—ask Rosa Luxemburg! I shall return to this later, but in the instance of China this kind of reaction can be reinforced and given a spurious Marxist gloss by arguing that China is not fully capitalist, or is even partly socialist, and not imperialist because of the size of its state sector and the key role of the state in directing the national economy. In this vein, John Bellamy Foster writes: Even more important than external geopolitical relations in determining China’s future is the internal legacy of the Chinese revolution. The CCP retains strong support from the Chinese population. Moreover, despite the development of the various integuments of capital in China, a number of key strategic-economic variables, related to socialism, free it in part from the “antagonistic centrifugality” that accounts for capitalism’s “uncontrollability” as a system of social metabolic reproduction.11 The noncapitalist sector of the Chinese economy includes not just a large sector of state ownership, but also both state control of finance through state-owned banks and the continuing absence of the private ownership of land. Substantial state ownership of basic infrastructure and finance has allowed for the continuation of economic planning in key areas, associated with a much higher rate of investment. This kind of analysis misses a number of significant facts 1. The Chinese Revolution of 1949, which established the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, was not in any shape or form a workers’ revolution. It was brought about by a military conquest of the cities from the countryside by Mao’s peasant-based People’s Liberation Army. The working class did not intervene in any active way in this process, and at no point was there workers’ power, workers’ control of industry, or workers democracy (or any kind of democracy) under the Maoist regime. 2. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms from 1978 onwards, which for those who identify socialism with state ownership would be seen as a key counterrevolutionary moment, were accomplished without resistance from below and without substantial structural change in the Chinese state. 3. The Chinese economy is highly integrated into the capitalist world economy. China is the largest US merchandise trading partner, the biggest source of imports, and the third-largest US export market. China is also the largest foreign holder of US Treasury securities, which help fund the federal debt and keep US interest rates low. In addition, China’s stock markets are some of the largest in the world, with total market capitalisation reaching RMB 79 trillion (US$12.2 trillion) in 2020. 4. China has a broad, well-established and very rich bourgeoisie. According to Credit Suisse estimates, the number of dollar-millionaires residing in China totalled 5.3 million individuals, ranking second after the United States in the world. Within this, China has a very large number of super-rich. According to one estimate, China now has the largest number of billionaires, 1058, of any country in the world. Possibly more accurate is Forbes’ ranking of China as still being in second place to the US, with 698 to 724, but Forbes also comments that Beijing has added 33 billionaires in the last year and now hosts 100, beating by one New York City for the title of city with most billionaires. 5. This bourgeoisie presides over a highly unequal society. According to the World Bank, China’s Gini coefficient (the standard measure of income inequality in which 100 equals maximum inequality) stands at 38.5—more unequal than Ireland (32.8) and the UK (34.8), but slightly less unequal than the US (41.5). Most importantly, China has a massive, highly exploited working class with very poor conditions of work and no proper trade union rights but a considerable record of struggle. In addition to this straightforward evidence demonstrating the capitalist nature of China, there is the fact that the Chinese regime is extremely authoritarian, brutal, and repressive. Amnesty International reported in 2020 that “China remained the world’s leading executioner—but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret,” and has also estimated that China carries out more executions than all other countries combined. Then there is the long-standing repression of Tibetans, Tiananmen Square dissidents, Uyghurs, and other Muslims and Hong Kong protestors. The idea that China is somehow semi-socialist leads both to a tendency to minimise this brutality and to the association of socialists with it. An understanding that China is not, and has not been, in any way socialist, but is rather state capitalist, cuts through this apologetics. Painting China red is also an example—the most important example—of a tendency on the left known as “campism.” This is the idea that the essential division in the world is between two camps of countries: an imperialist camp headed by the US (and including its allies) and an anti-imperialist camp who oppose US hegemony. In this view, the job of the left is to solidarise with the anti-imperialist camp and not be too critical of its leaders, and certainly not to work for the overthrow of any of these allegedly anti-imperialist regimes—an activity seen as objectively (and probably subjectively) siding with US imperialism. Which regimes are considered part of this “progressive” camp varies with the current focus of US policy and the current alignment of said regimes. Thus, at different times it has included Syria, Venezuela, Libya, Cuba, Iraq, Ukraine, Putin’s Russia, Belarus, and others. Along with engaging in anti-US rhetoric, having a substantial state sector is commonly regarded as a significant qualifying characteristic for membership of the “anti-imperialist” camp. Two major difficulties with this approach are: a) that it takes anti-imperialist rhetoric at face value when in reality it is entirely opportunistic and not matched with actions or, worse, is combined with imperialist and sub-imperialist deeds—Syria and Russia are a case in point; b) that it ignores the class struggle within the so-called anti-imperialist camp and denies the masses in these countries any right to rebel or resist their oppression. Assad, Gaddafi, and Maduro are not representatives or benefactors of the Syrian, Libyan, and Venezuelan working classes. Again, the concept of state capitalism safeguards against these dangers. Finally there is the question of the environmental and climate crisis—the overarching global issue of our time and of the decades to come. When Marxists and ecosocialists say the problem is not human beings as such, or over population or industrialisation as such, or “the idea of economic growth,” but capitalism, many “greens” and environmentalists will simply reply, “But the Marxist/communist/ socialist countries have been an ecological disaster and just as committed to endless economic growth.” Leaving aside the terminology, they are right. China is again a key example. China overtook the US as the world’s leading carbon emitter in 2006, and now, at 2777 million tonnes per year, it emits more CO2 than the US (1442m), India (714), and Russia (458) combined. Within this, China is the world’s greatest producer of coal by a considerable margin. In 2020, China accounted for over 50 per cent of coal production worldwide. China is also by a long way the world’s largest producer of environmentally disastrous cement and of private cars. Of course, it can be said that this is because of the size of China’s population, but that doesn’t change the immense global problem it is creating. It can also be said that Xi Jinping is promising to do better, but so is everybody, and this ignores the fact that the Chinese government, like all governments, has known this crisis was looming for a long time and done nothing. The concept of state capitalism is therefore vital to the ecosocialist case in that it explains that the commitment to environmentally damaging growth characteristic of so many of these “actually existing” socialist societies is derived not from their “Marxist” ideology but from their capitalist nature and their compulsion to compete within the world capitalist economy. Thus we can conclude that although the theory of state capitalism was elaborated in response to the phenomenon of Stalinist Russia, it was deeply rooted in classical Marxism, set out before the Russian Revolution even occurred, and remains vital for understanding the contemporary world and for dealing with the political challenges facing socialists today. .
Marxism and Fascism From Irish Marxist Review 30. This article does not attempt to be an exhaustive survey of the Marxist literature on fascism, which is vast. Rather it is an overview of how the Marxist analysis of fascism was developed with a focus on the writings of Leon Trotsky, who contributed more than any other individual to the Marxist understanding of this phenomenon, supplemented by some thoughts on more recent developments. The Marxist theory of fascism was developed in response to the emergence of a mass fascist movement and the threat which it posed to the workers’ movement and to socialism, i.e. it developed as a series of concrete analyses of current political phenomena, neither as a priori abstract theorising nor as historical reflection. Fascism first appeared as a significant force in Italy and Germany during the deep economic, social, and political crises that followed the First World War. Hitler founded the National Socialist German Workers Party in February 1920, and Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party in November 1921. Fascism was a new historical phenomenon, qualitatively different from previous authoritarian or autocratic regimes such as Tsarist Russia, the Kaiser’s Germany, or the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Consequently there is no theory of fascism, or even the concept, in Marx and Engels or in Kautsky, Luxemburg, or Lenin. The closest approximation to a precedent in the writings of Marx and Engels is the concept of ‘Bonapartism’, derived from analysis of the French Second Empire, the regime of Louis Napoleon III, and set out by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and elsewhere. Louis Napoleon established his dictatorship by means of a coup d’état in December 1851, after a period as elected president following the 1848 Revolution which ended the reign of Louis-Philippe. Bonapartism was a regime characterised by a strong executive, absence of democratic rights, and repression of republicans and the left. It expressed, Marx argued, a situation where ‘the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired the faculty of ruling the nation.’ The state achieved a certain relative autonomy balancing between the two basic classes and playing them off against each other, although ultimately acting in the interests of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie gave up its direct political power in order to preserve its social power intact. These concepts proved useful building blocks for the future analysis of fascism, but given the immense difference in scale, ferocity, and historical importance of the reaction imposed by Napoleon III and that of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, they could not in any way substitute for such an analysis. Fascism in Italy: the first response The fact that fascism first became a really threatening phenomenon in Italy meant that it fell to Italian Marxists to be the first to attempt a theoretical account of it. Unfortunately they did not acquit themselves well in this regard. The dominant Marxist in Italy at the time of the rise of Mussolini’s movement (1920-21) and his assumption of power in October 1922 was the initial leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Amadeo Bordiga. Bordiga was a hardened ultraleft with an abstract propagandist conception of the party. He saw fascism as simply another aspect of bourgeois repression and drew no real distinction between fascism and bourgeois democracy, and consequently did not see the need for any specific or concrete analysis of it. As a result, the main political report, authored by Bordiga, presented to the Rome Congress of the PCI in March 1922 barely mentioned fascism. Bordiga opposed any notion of a united-front strategy against fascism and, indeed, the whole concept of the united front adopted by the Communist International in 1922, with the consequence that the PCI failed either to perceive the threat posed by Mussolini or to organise any specific resistance to his conquest of power. Gramsci was better than this in that he, probably alone among the Italian Communists, did see the possibility of the fascists taking power, but he only produced a few journalistic articles on fascism, not a rounded theoretical analysis, and he, like Bordiga and under his influence, opposed the idea of an anti-fascist united front until the mid -twenties. Clara Zetkin In fact it was the German Communist Clara Zetkin, close comrade of Rosa Luxemburg, who produced the first substantial Marxist analysis of fascism. This was in Zetkin’s Report to the Comintern Executive in June 1923. The first merit of Zetkin’s analysis was that she grasped the deadly serious threat posed by fascism. Her report begins: Fascism confronts the proletariat as an exceptionally dangerous and frightful enemy. Fascism is the strongest, most concentrated, and classic expression at this time of the world bourgeoisie’s general offensive. It is urgently necessary that it be brought down. This is true not only with respect to the historic existence of the proletariat as a class, which will free humankind by surmounting capitalism. It is also a question of survival for every ordinary worker, a question of bread, working conditions, and quality of life for millions and millions of the exploited. She also identified fascism as a symptom of the profound crisis of capitalism—‘We view fascism as an expression of the decay and disintegration of the capitalist economy’—and a product of the fact that this decay was inflicting massive impoverishment not only on workers but also on intermediate layers such as intellectuals and the lower middle classes. And she indentified a key difference between fascism and the kind of bloody counterrevolutionary terror witnessed in Hungary in 1921 under the Horthy regime as lying in the fact that whereas the Horthy terror was the work of ‘a small caste of feudal officers’, fascism had a mass base among a ‘broad social layer, broad masses’.. Zetkin saw fascism as a kind of historical punishment for the failure to carry through to victory the proletarian revolution, a failure for which the Social Democrats and even to some extent the communist parties were responsible. In a perceptive passage she noted: Masses in their thousands streamed to fascism. It became an asylum for all the politically homeless, the socially uprooted, the destitute and disillusioned. And what they no longer hoped for from the revolutionary proletarian class and from socialism, they now hoped would be achieved by the most able, strong, determined, and bold elements of every social class. All these forces must come together in a community. And this community, for the fascists, is the nation. They wrongly imagine that the sincere will to create a new and better social reality is strong enough to overcome all class antagonisms. The instrument to achieve fascist ideals is, for them, the state. A strong and authoritarian state that will be their very own creation and their obedient tool. This state will tower high above all differences of party and class, and will remake society in accord with their ideology and program. Zetkin rejected the predominant social democratic approach to fascism, which was to reduce it purely to violence and criminality and thus to something to be dealt with just by police measures. She noted that fascism always combines violence with ‘a sham revolutionary programme, which links up in extremely clever fashion with the moods, interests and demands of broad social masses’ and therefore must be combated politically and ideologically as well as by force. However, she insisted it was necessary to Meet violence with violence. But not violence in the form of individual terror—that will surely fail. But rather violence as the power of the revolutionary organized proletarian class struggle. This in turn necessitated the formation of ‘a proletarian united front … Workers must come together for struggle without distinctions of party or trade union affiliation’. Moreover, the mass united front needed to be capped by the call for a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government … [This] slogan is virtually a requirement for the struggle to defeat fascism’. Many of the themes in Zetkin’s report were later taken up by Trotsky in his analysis of the rise of the Nazis, but, although her report was adopted by the Comintern Executive in 1923, it did not remain Comintern policy for long, being overturned in 1924. As John Riddell writes: In his opening report to the Fifth Comintern Congress in 1924, its president, Gregory Zinoviev, abandoned Zetkin’s analysis … by claiming that … ‘The Social Democratic Party has become a wing of fascism … The Fascists are the right hand and the Social Democrats are the left hand of the bourgeoisie’. This ultra left position excluded the possibility of united action involving Communist and Social Democratic workers—the very error that had crippled resistance to Italian Fascism during its rise to power in 1921-22. Stalin went even further with this theory of ‘social fascism’. In September 1924 he wrote: Firstly, it is not true that fascism is only the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie. Fascism is not only a military-technical category. Fascism is the bourgeoisie’s fighting organisation that relies on the active support of Social-Democracy. Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism. There is no ground for assuming that the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie can achieve decisive successes in battles, or in governing the country, without the active support of Social-Democracy. These organisations do not negate, but supplement each other. They are not antipodes, they are twins. It is important to understand that Zinoviev and Stalin were not really moving leftwards here or taking genuinely ultra-left positions, like Bordiga for example. Rather, they were using ultra-left phrases as a cover for a rightward drift involving opportunistic alliances with forces such as Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang in China and the leaders of the British TUC. As we shall see, this pattern was to repeat itself with disastrous consequences in 1928-33. Trotsky’s analysis This brings us to the most important Marxist analysis of fascism, that of Leon Trotsky. Two preliminary remarks about this: The first is that it was made in the most difficult circumstances and it was an extraordinary achievement that it was made at all. In 1927 Trotsky was expelled from the CPSU; in 1928 he was forcibly exiled to Alma Ata on the border with China; in 1929 he was deported to the Prinkipo Islands off the coast of Turkey, where amongst many other difficulties, news from Germany took a long time to arrive. Yet in these conditions in which most mortals would have been pretty exclusively concerned with their own fate, Trotsky managed, between 1928-34, to write a series of major articles on the events in Germany as they unfolded, which collected together form a book of almost 500 pages, whilst in the same period writing a book-length study of the Third International After Lenin, his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution, his autobiography My Life, and a stream of articles on subjects ranging from unfolding events in Russia to China and Spain. The second preliminary mark to be made is that Trotsky’s theory was not the product of a stand-alone special study or scholarly research (like ,say, his History of the Russian Revolution); rather it was developed in, and out of, a polemic and political struggle against the line on fascism of the Moscow-dominated Comintern. In 1928 the Comintern, under Stalin’s direction, adopted an intensified version of the ‘social fascism’ position of Zinoviev and Stalin in 1924 which became known as ‘Third Period Stalinism’. History since World War One was divided into three periods: 1917-24, the ‘first period’ of revolutionary upsurge; 1925-8, the ‘second period’ of capitalist stabilisation; and 1928 onwards, the ‘third period’ of the final crisis of capitalism and renewed revolutionary upsurge. The communist parties were instructed to abandon united-front work, to form breakaway ‘red’ trade unions, and to treat social democratic parties as fascist and often as the main enemy. Trotsky considered this ‘periodisation’ to be completely arbitrary and remote from the actual course of the class struggle and also extremely damaging to the struggle against fascism at precisely the moment this was becoming most acute. It was damaging because: a) by claiming that the Social Democrats and the Centre Party government of Brüning were fascist it suggested that fascism was already in power and there was nothing particular to fear from Hitler and the Nazis; and b) by labelling the Social Democrats as fascist it blocked the formation of the workers’ united front needed to stop Hitler. The first aim of Trotsky’s polemic was to warn the German workers and communists of the terrible danger they were facing, and to this end he deployed all his considerable rhetorical powers. It is the duty of the Left Opposition to give the alarm: the leadership of the Comintern is driving the German proletariat toward an enormous catastrophe, the essence of which is panicky capitulation before fascism!… The coming to power of the National Socialists would mean first of all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the destruction of its organizations, the eradication of its belief in itself and in its future. Considering the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany, the hellish work of Italian fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National Socialists… Germany is now passing through one of those great historic hours upon which the fate of the German people, the fate of Europe, and in significant measure the fate of all humanity, will depend for decades… Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for anyplace; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left! But this was far from being just powerful rhetoric. Trotsky’s predictions and his urgency were based on a developed and concrete analysis of the fundamental nature of fascism and Nazism. Its central idea was Trotsky’s grasp of the class nature of fascism as a movement of the petty bourgeoisie, driven to despair by the acute crisis of capitalism and by the inability of the workers’ movement to resolve that crisis. At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium—the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpen proletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. And the fascist agency, by utilizing the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job. After fascism is victorious, finance capital gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, directly and immediately, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive, administrative, and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the cooperatives. When a state turns fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini—the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role—but it means, primarily and above all, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated … Therein precisely is the gist of fascism. For Trotsky it was fascism’s character as a mass movement based on the enraged petty bourgeoisie that distinguished it from other right-wing authoritarian rulers and regimes and made it such a deadly threat to the workers’ movement and to socialists. It gave fascism, both in Italy and in Germany, the ability through its combat squads to take on and smash the organisations of the workers’ movement at the base, in the communities, on the streets, and in the workplaces in a way that was not possible for an ‘ordinary’ military dictator. The petty bourgeois social base of the fascist movement was also the key to understanding its ideology, including its virulent anti-Semitism. Standing above the proletariat but beneath the big bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie felt squeezed in conditions of extreme capitalist crisis between the two basic classes in society: on the one hand exploited and bankrupted by the power of finance capital and the banks; on the other pressured by the working class with its trade unions and its demands for decent wages and conditions. It therefore turned to a narrative which depicted the banks and the left as different wings of a conspiracy against ‘the German nation’, i.e. themselves, orchestrated, of course, by the Jews. The bankers, the Rothschilds, etc. were Jews; the communists (Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky, etc.) were Jews, hence the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. The big bourgeoisie, even those who supported Hitler with money, did not consider his party theirs. The national ‘renaissance’ leaned wholly upon the middle classes, the most backward part of the nation, the heavy ballast of history. Political art consisted in fusing the petty bourgeoisie into oneness through its common hostility to the proletariat. What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath. Impotent before big capital, the petty bourgeoisie hopes in the future to regain its social dignity through the ruin of the workers. As Social Democracy saved the bourgeoisie from the proletarian revolution, fascism came in its turn to liberate the bourgeoisie from the Social Democracy. Hitler’s coup is only the final link in the chain of counterrevolutionary shifts. The petty bourgeois is hostile to the idea of development, for development goes immutably against him; progress has brought him nothing except irredeemable debts. National Socialism rejects not only Marxism but Darwinism. The Nazis curse materialism because the victories of technology over nature have signified the triumph of large capital over small. The leaders of the movement are liquidating ‘intellectualism’ because they themselves possess second- and third-rate intellects, and above all because their historic role does not permit them to pursue a single thought to its conclusion. The petty bourgeois needs a higher authority, which stands above matter and above history, and which is safeguarded from competition, inflation, crisis, and the auction block. To evolution, materialist thought, and rationalism—of the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries—is counterposed in his mind national idealism as the source of heroic inspiration. Hitler’s nation is the mythological shadow of the petty bourgeoisie itself, a pathetic delirium of a thousand-year Reich. In order to raise it above history, the nation is given the support of the race. History is viewed as the emanation of the race. The qualities of the race are construed without relation to changing social conditions. Rejecting ‘economic thought’ as base, National Socialism descends a stage lower: from economic materialism it appeals to zoologic materialism… Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms … Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism. In order to argue for the strategy of a united front which Trotsky believed was essential for stopping the rise to power of Hitler in particular and fascism in general, he had to take on and refute in detail the theory that the Social Democrats were social fascists or that social democracy and fascism were twins. And here it must be remembered that among German communist workers at this time, memories were still fresh of the betrayal of the German Revolution of 1919–23 by the SPD and the complicity of its leaders in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Trotsky made his case not by dropping or even softening his criticism of social democracy but on the basis of understanding how its political role and social base differed from that of fascism and arguing that the victory of fascism would mean the annihilation of social democracy along with the destruction of all forms of independent workers’ organisation. The task of fascism lies not only in destroying the Communist vanguard but in holding the entire class in a state of forced disunity. To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of the workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions. For, in the last analysis, the Communist Party also bases itself on these achievements. The Social Democracy has prepared all the conditions necessary for the triumph of fascism. But by this fact it has also prepared the stage for its own political liquidation. It is absolutely correct to place on the Social Democrats the responsibility for the emergency legislation of Brüning as well as for the impending danger of fascist savagery. It is absolute balderdash to identify Social Democracy with fascism. The Social Democracy, which is today the chief representative of the parliamentary-bourgeois regime, derives its support from the workers. Fascism is supported by the petty bourgeoisie. The Social Democracy without the mass organizations of the workers can have no influence. Fascism cannot entrench itself in power without annihilating the workers’ organizations. Parliament is the main arena of the Social Democracy. The system of fascism is based upon the destruction of parliamentarism. For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions. But for both the Social Democracy and fascism, the choice of one or the other vehicle has an independent significance; more than that, for them it is a question of political life or death. Trotsky’s advocacy of an anti-fascist united front between the KPD and the SPD was ignored by both parties with the disastrous consequence, which he entirely predicted, that Hitler came to power without serious resistance in January 1933. This negative confirmation of his analysis was not, however, the end of the matter. Stalin soon realised that the establishment of a Nazi regime in Berlin posed a direct military threat to the Soviet Union. Hitler and German imperialism wanted lebensraum for an expanded Germany in the East. Stalin responded to this threat by trying to form an alliance with Britain and France, i.e. with British and French imperialism (as in the First World War), and in line with this he brought about a complete transformation in Comintern policy. In 1934, about a year after Hitler’s victory, the Comintern began a 180-degree turn from the extreme ultra-leftism of the ‘Third Period’ to the class collaborationism of the Popular Front. The policy was pioneered by the French Communist Party, which formed an anti-fascist alliance with the Socialist Party and the Radical Party (a thoroughly bourgeois party headed by Eduard Daladier, prime minister of France on several occasions). It was then adopted as an international strategy at the Comintern’s Seventh Congress in 1935. The essence of the Popular Front was the unity of all ‘democratic’ forces, including bourgeois ones, against fascism. Trotsky was just as critical of the Popular Front strategy as he was of the preceding ultra-leftism and he developed this criticism in relation to events in France, with the formation of a Popular Front Government in 1936 under Leon Bloom, and in Spain, with the election, also in 1936, of a Popular Front Government met by Franco’s attempted fascist coup, the uprising of the Spanish working class (above all in Barcelona), and the three-year-long civil war. For Trotsky, the Popular Front represented a ‘betrayal of the proletariat for the sake of an alliance with the bourgeoisie’. It not only sabotaged the developing French and Spanish Revolutions but was also completely ineffective as a method of combating fascism. This was because the defeat of fascism required, as he had argued in relation to Germany, the united mobilisation of the working class, but this would be completely blocked and undermined by an alliance with outright bourgeois parties and forces, i.e. political formations inherently opposed to working-class action. The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: ‘Communists’ plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant prove equal to zero. A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralyzing the revolutionary force of the proletariat. Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants the spirit of supreme self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their own emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the bourgeoisie means beforehand to assure defeat in the civil war. Once again the course of events, most tragically in Spain, was to confirm the accuracy of Trotsky’s analysis and warnings. Since 1945 there has been, thankfully, no historical experience of fascism comparable to that between the wars and no theoretical contribution on the subject comparable in importance to Trotsky’s. There has been a major debate on the nature and causation of the Holocaust to which many Marxists, including a number from the International Socialist traditional , have contributed, but I am treating that as outside the scope of this article. There have also been a series of contributions which are essentially defences, applications, or developments of Trotsky’s approach. Again, I am not going to survey this literature here. However, there are two significant changes that have occurred since the struggle in the 1930s which have strategic implications for the fight against fascism and which I want to flag up here. The united front today The first concerns the nature of the united front. The united front as advocated by Trotsky in the 1930s and previously by the Comintern in 1922 (including, very strongly, by Trotsky ) was essentially an agreement to form a common front between the two main political forces in the international working-class movement, the Social Democrats and the Communists. What Trotsky argued was that the leaderships of the communist parties should approach the leaderships of the social democratic parties with a view to reaching a concrete agreement for anti-fascist resistance. If such an alliance was established it would, he believed (and with good reason), mobilise millions of workers behind it. But neither in Ireland nor in most countries today is a replica of such a united workers’ front an objective possibility. On the one hand the Social Democratic or Labour parties are nowhere near the social force they were in the 1920s or ’30s, either in terms of roots in the organised working class or as physical organisations. (The SPD, for example, had significant combat groups for street fighting.) The communist parties, on the other hand, barely exist. It has been necessary, therefore, to find another route to establishing the required united front. A useful model in this regard is provided by the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) formed in 1977 to combat the rise of the neo-Nazi National Front (NF) in the UK. The ANL was launched by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in alliance, not with the Labour Party as a whole, but with individual left Labour MPs (such as Neil Kinnock and Peter Hain), some trade union groups and officials (e.g. Ernie Roberts of the AEU), and various sporting figures and celebrities (Jack Charlton and Brian Clough). It worked closely with the musical movement Rock Against Racism, also launched by SWP members (David Widgery, Red Saunders, and Roger Huddle) and which was supported by many leading bands of the day such as The Clash, Steel Pulse, and the Tom Robinson Band. It operated, very successfully, through a combination of large street mobilisations against NF rallies and meetings, big music carnivals attracting up to 100,000 people, and mass leafleting campaigns when the NF stood in elections. This three-pronged approach played a major part in the political defeat and marginalisation of the NF. The ANL was then revived in the eighties to counter the rising British National Party of Nick Griffin and again met with considerable success. The fact that forty years on, Britain has not seen the emergence of a large fascist organisation, comparable to that which exists in many countries, is due, in no small measure, to the campaigning of those years. This experience stands in stark contrast to France where the far-left failed to campaign actively against the Front National, which before long became too large to be dealt with in this way. Circumstances differ in different countries and at different times, but the united front as an alliance driven by revolutionaries in conjunction with some reformists and progressive figures from civil society accompanied by mass grassroots mobilisations still seems the way to go in most cases in order to counter rising far-right movements. The key is to find the organisational form that best facilitates the active mobilisation of the maximum possible numbers on the ground. The Far Right today The second issue I want to raise is more complex and analytical in that it concerns the debate on the nature of the far-right parties, movements, and governments that we are currently facing. They are large in number and very varied in character, ranging from the very evidently neo-Nazi such as Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary to the much milder UKIP in Britain, with many others somewhere in between such as Trump and his assorted followers, the Modi Government in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Victor Orban and Fidesz in Hungary, AfD in Germany, the Lega in Italy, the Swedish Democrats, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly Front National), and our Irish rag bag of Yellow Vests, Irish Freedom Party, and National Party. Some on the left deal with this problem by simply labelling all these varied right-wing forces fascist, especially if they in any way engage in racist messaging (which is effectively all of them), and some even include under the fascist label mainstream right wingers like Thatcher, Johnson, or Leo Varadkar. This is very unhelpful in that it deprives the category of fascist of any specificity and obliterates the important distinction between those politicians and parties that operate within the framework of bourgeois democracy and those prepared to move beyond it. It has the same flaw, on a lesser scale, as the Stalinist theory of social fascism in that it breeds a baleful complacency. To put it in concrete Irish terms, if Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael are fascist, why worry about the much smaller National Party. For those basing themselves on Trotsky’s analysis, the key distinction was between, on the one hand, far-right, or racist populist or conservative nationalist parties which nevertheless remained within the limits of bourgeois parliamentary democracy in that they accepted election results and did not engage in street fighting and were therefore not fascist (UKIP in Britain being an obvious example), and on the other hand, parties that” a) came from a clearly fascist or Nazi heritage; b) were run by an inner core that subscribed to some version of Nazi ideology, e.g. the Jewish conspiracy theory; and/or c) possessed a combat or proto-paramilitary wing which were therefore judged to be definitely fascist. What was crucial about this distinction was that it was presumed that if the latter came to power they would, like Hitler, move against parliamentary democracy and establish a dictatorship and, simultaneously, smash up labour movement organisations including the trade unions. But this distinction, real and necessary as it is, does not exhaust the matter. What the last twenty years or so has thrown up is parties and forces that seem to vacillate or hover between these two categories and possess some characteristics of each of them. Donald Trump is a case in point. Trump came to power in 2016 from outside the traditional centre of US politics but nevertheless through the vehicle of the mainstream Republican Party and without an independent street fighting force. For this reason, those of us basing ourselves on Trotsky rejected the idea that Trump was fascist. Others, notably Cornel West, Judith Butler, and John Bellamy Foster of Monthly Review, disagreed. Foster cites Trump as an instance of a wider phenomenon which he calls ‘neo-fascism’ writing of: movements in the ‘fascist genus’ (fascism/neofascism/post-fascism), characterized by virulently xenophobic, ultra-nationalist tendencies, rooted primarily in the lower-middle class and relatively privileged sections of the working class, in alliance with monopolistic capital. This can be seen in the National Front in France, the Northern League in Italy, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the UK Independence Party, the Sweden Democrats, and similar parties and movements in other advanced capitalist countries. Michael Lowy also deploys the concept of neo-fascism in a similar way but makes clear the difference between neo-fascism and the fascism of the past. One of the most disturbing phenomena of recent years is the spectacular rise, worldwide, of far right-wing, authoritarian and reactionary governments, in some cases with neo-fascist traits: Shinzo Abe (Japan), Modi (India), Trump (USA), Orban (Hungary) and Bolsonaro (Brazil) are the best known examples… Neofascism is not a repetition of fascism in the 1930s: it is a new phenomenon, with characteristics of the 21st century. For example, it does not take the form of a police dictatorship, but respects some democratic forms: elections, party pluralism, freedom of the press, existence of a Parliament, etc. Naturally, it tries, as far as possible, to limit these democratic freedoms as much as it is able with authoritarian and repressive measures. Nor does it rely on armed shock troops, such as the German SS or the Italian Fascists. In a similar vein has been the use of the term ‘creeping fascism’ to describe virtually all the movements and governments of the racist right, including that of Donald Trump. This has been developed in book form, particularly in relation to Britain, by Neil Faulkner and others in Creeping Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It. This issue of which organisations and governments should be named as fascist and where the borderline exists, if at all, between far-right or right-wing populists, etc. and actual fascists requires major discussion, including a concrete analysis of parties such the Front National/National Rally and the Italian Lega and governments such as Bolsonaro’s that is not possible here. However, I do not find the concept of neo-fascism, still less that of ‘creeping fascism’, convincing. What they both do is blur what seems to me the very important distinction, a matter of life and death, between regimes which annihilate and crush both parliamentary democracy and the organisations of the labour movement and regimes which do not. But in asserting that this distinction is vital we should not fall into the opposite trap of considering the character of parties and regimes to be fixed and immutable. The phrase ‘The leopard does not change its spots’ is not helpful here. Political leopards change their spots all the time, as the history of Social Democratic and Communist parties shows. Parties and leaders can move in different directions, moderating and/or radicalising. The Swedish Democrats had their origins in Swedish fascism; this in itself does not mean they still are fascist. Oswald Mosley began as a mainstream politician, including serving as a minister in the Labour government of 1929-31, and then became a full on fascist. Donald Trump did not run for president on a fascist basis, and his administration, for all its racist, sexist, and authoritarian awfulness, was not fascist in that it did not, for example, abolish congress, halt elections, or dismantle the trade union movement. Nevertheless, there was a moment in late 2020 after his electoral defeat when it looked as if he might try to move in an outright fascist direction. In the event, he did not, especially after the debacle of the 6 January incursion, and he remained with the framework of the Republican right. But, again, that could change in the future. This is why there needs to be concrete analysis. At the same time, concrete analysis requires a theoretical foundation, and, I would argue, the theory developed by Trotsky in the 1930s remains the best starting point for such contemporary work.