Monday, November 30, 2009

No Platform for Nazis!


The recent appearance of BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has generated much discussion over the question of his right to a platform on the BBC and, more generally, over the issue of free speech for fascists. For me this is an old question about which I made up my mind in the course of the struggle against the National Front in the seventies. At that time we, Anti- Nazi League supporters and the left generally argued the case for no platform in every student union and trade union we could and pretty much won the argument throughout the labour and student movement. Today there is a new generation of fascists (the BNP, EDL etc) and anti- fascists and we need to have, and win, the argument again. This is my contribution.

The first reason for refusing Nick Griffin and other BNPers a platform on the BBC and elsewhere in public life is simply that they are NAZIS. I am not opposed to giving them a platform because I don’t agree with them or don’t like them. I don’t agree with (and actively dislike) Tories, and indeed Blairites, but I don’t want to no platform them. Its because they are NAZIS i.e. fascist followers of Adolf Hitler. Some people don’t realise this because it has long been Nick Griffin’s strategy to present the BNP as just British Patriots, but in fact Griffin and other BNP leaders, like fellow Euro MP Andrew Brons, are long standing hard core Nazis who go back to John Tyndall, the NF and Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists (Hitler’s main supporter in Britain). Moreover Griffin is surrounded by hardcore Nazi thugs, like Tony Lecomber, with numerous convictions for racist violence and terrorism.

Nick Griffin

John Tyndall on left

Oswald Mosley in the 30s

Tony Lecomber (5 convictions under Explosives Act, 12 convictions total)

Some people who know the BNP are Nazis don’t realise what this means. Nazis are not just people with unpleasant views. They are a political movement bent on winning power with the aim of destroying democracy (and freedom of speech), destroying the labour movement (who are all ‘Communists’ in their eyes) and driving out, by intimidation and force, non- white ethnic minorities. Whatever Griffin may say in public, the BNP aim of achieving a white only, non- multicultural Britain could ONLY be achieved by smashing the trade unions and socialist organisations and violent intimidation and persecution of people of colour, and Griffin knows this.

The second main reason for not giving the BNP a platform is that we are not just talking about words here. Every time and everywhere the BNP gets a foothold or an airing of its views there is an increase in racist violence and attacks. This is what happened in SE London when the BNP had its headquarters in Welling, culminating in the racist murder of Steven Lawrence. Its what happened with former BNP member, David Copeland , the nail bomber who bombed Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho. Griffin will not go on TV and openly urge violence but that’s what his thug sympathisers on the street will hear and act on.

Stopping the BNP (and other fascists) from growing and building influence, including by stopping their marches, and denying them public platforms is therefore both a political duty, a necessary act of solidarity with all vulnerable minorities AND, for everyone of colour, LGBT people, Jews, Muslims, trade unionists, socialists etc a matter of self preservation. To put it personally, if the BNP were in power I, and people like me, would be in prison at best and most likely dead. In a town or community where they were dominant I and people like me would not be safe to walk the streets. Anyone who doubts this should check the historical record and see what the fascists did to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, to Antonio Gramsci in Italy, to Andreu Nin in Spain and to hundreds of thousands of rank and file socialists across Europe, long before they started on the Holocaust.

Some Common, but Mistaken, Arguments for giving the BNP a Platform

1. Put Griffin on TV, he’ll only make a fool of himself.
Griffin was bad on Question Time, but the publicity he received enabled the BNP to get 3000 enquiries for membership. Every time Griffin or other BNP leaders get these platforms they get more publicity, become more accepted as part of the ‘mainstream’ and gain support.
2. The way to defeat the BNP is by rational argument. Rational argument will work for some people (mostly people who wouldn’t join or vote BNP anyway) but it will not work for many of those the BNP is trying to attract. The BNP’s essential appeal is not rational but emotive. Their appeal is to bigotry and hatred, to people who are fearful and want scapegoats and ‘strong leadership’. Gaining public platforms, such as on the BBC, increases that appearance of strength, as does successfully marching in the streets. Denying them a platform and driving them off our streets shatters that image of strength. The ‘master race’ doesn’t look very masterful when it is forced to flee with its tail between its legs.
3. The BNP are not Nazis because they British not German. This is an argument based on historical ignorance. The German Nazis are the best known example of fascism, but fascism was and is an international phenomenon and movement, which took power in Italy, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Rumania, Japan and elsewhere, and struggled for power in other countries including France and Britain. Today there are neo-nazi movements across Europe including in Russia and outside Europe, in the USA and India.
4. The British people have too much sense to be won over by the BNP. This argument can seem plausible and hard to answer without attacking ‘the British people’ but it is wrong on a number of grounds. Try out, for example, ‘The British people have too much sense to vote for Margaret Thatcher’. Or ‘The British people have too much sense to interested in trashy nonsense like Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity- Get me Out of Here.’ It is not true that the British have some special gene of common sense, unlike Germans, Italians etc , which makes them immune to fascism. What stopped Mosley in the thirties was not ‘British’ common sense but anti-fascist militancy at the Battle of Cable St. and elsewhere. Also the BNP does not have to win over all, or even most, of the British people (and the same applies to fascist movements in other countries). The fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain etc did not gain power by winning majority support but by being put in power in situations of extreme economic or political crisis by the ruling class of those countries in order to smash the left and the workers movement. For that they did not need to achieve a majority only a credible sixe and strength. This can certainly be achieved by the BNP in the future IF we let them.
5. Freedom of speech is an absolute principle, which must be granted even to Nazis.
No, it is not an ABSOLUTE principle in this or any other society and cannot be. I do not have an absolute, or any kind, of right to turn up at the BBC and be allowed to speak on Question Time or any other programme, I have to be invited and so does Nick Griffin. Even elected MPs cant demand the right to be on TV, much as they’d like to. Try exercising absolute freedom of speech at the Tory Party Conference or the Labour Party Conference (remember Walter Wolfgang who shouted ‘Rubbish!’ at Jack Straw and was manhandled out by heavies.) Try exercising any kind of freedom of speech in a court of law when the judge tells you not to and you will end up in jail for contempt. In fact there thousands of such restrictions on freedom of speech, in the armed forces, in many jobs, on schools, in the police, and so on. You do not have, and should not have, a right to stand in the street and yell racist abuse at people (indeed you can be arrested for behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace for a lot less than this). Yet, although the BNP may choose its words carefully this is essentially what the BNP does. They should be stopped before they get too strong for them to be stopped.

What all the above arguments have in common is that they treat the struggle against fascism as if it were some kind of reasoned debate with victory going to the side that presents the most logical arguments ( ‘Now is mass unemployment in Germany really caused by the Jews ? Let’s examine the evidence’) It is not. History shows that it is a social and political struggle ( an aspect of the class struggle) which if the fascists get strong enough will culminate in civil and world war. Defeating Hitler cost 50 million lives. I say ‘ Never Again! Stop them now – by any means necessary !’

John Molyneux
November 30, 2009

Obituary for Chris Harman

Chris Harman (1942-2009)

Chris Harman was my comrade for forty one years.From 1983 to 1997 I wrote a weekly column for Socialist Worker of which he was then the Editor. Also since the early eighties I served with Chris on the Editorial Board of International Socialism Journal, which in recent years he has edited. To say that his death is a dreadful loss is an understatement. What follows is a slightly longer i.e. uncut version of the obituary that appeared in The Independent on 19 November.

Chris Harman, editor of International Socialism Journal and, before that, of Socialist Worker, and leading figure in the Socialist Workers Party for more than four decades, died last week in Cairo of a heart attack. This was all the more shocking because it was so unexpected. His death came as a real bolt from the blue.

Chris radicalised while still at school, and was an active socialist even before he went to Leeds University in 1962. By the time he arrived to do a PhD at the LSE in 1965
he was already a force on the left and writing for International Socialism. At the LSE he played a key role in the Socialist Society which, in turn, led the LSE sit ins that helped trigger the whole British student movement of that time.

Chris’s commitment to political activity never weakened. Over the years he could be seen at countless meetings, rallies and demos and he died only hours after speaking at a conference of Egyptian socialist activists. There is no doubt that his main contribution to the socialist cause he served all his life was as a writer and theorist, but like Marx he thought ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world, the point is to change it’ and everything he wrote was part of the project of building a revolutionary workers organisation, the SWP, capable of actually taking on capitalism.

As his long editorship of Socialist Worker (1982- 2004) showed, Chris was always a party man fiercely loyal to the SWP, but his intellectual stature was such that he always had an influence beyond party ranks. Everyone on the left who was serious about the Marxist analysis of the contemporary world, had to take Harman seriously. At the time of his death he was, in my opinion, the foremost Marxist theorist in the world.

To justify that claim here is a brief summary of his most important intellectual contributions.

First, his ongoing analysis of Russia and Eastern Europe. He adopted from Tony Cliff, the view that these societies were not socialist but state capitalist and took over, also, the task of applying this analysis to the Stalinist regimes in the period of their decline. In 1967 he wrote ‘Russia: How the Revolution was Lost’, explaining the rise of Stalin in Marxist terms, and in 1970 produced the exceptionally prescient ‘Prospects for the Seventies: the Stalinist States’ which accurately diagnosed their underlying economic weakness and foresaw their fall. This was followed by Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, on workers’ revolts against Stalinism and then by a series of brilliant articles analysing Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika, as they happened, which had the dividend of steering the SWP and its international partners through the rocky waters of 1989-91 that disoriented and demoralised so many on the left.

Then there were three major works of history. The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918- 23 (1982) dealt with one of the most important but lesser known episodes of modern history: the five years after the First World War when Germany was far closer to socialism than to fascism, and when, but for a loss of nerve by its leaders, German Communism might have taken power in a revolution that would have forestalled both Hitler and Stalin.. The Fire Last Time – 1968 and after (1988) was a masterly analysis of all those struggles which had shaped Chris in his youth – the US black revolt, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the student revolt, May 68, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and so on. Of the many books written on that time this is by far the best because as well as capturing the period’s spirit of rebellion it also offered a sustained explanation of it.

However, A People’s History of the World (1999) is in a league of its own. To have condensed the history of humanity into seven hundred pages without dumbing down is feat enough but the book’s centrepiece is an original analysis of the rise of capitalism, which builds on the insights of previous historians, to present the first fully international account and theory of the system’s historical genesis. The People’s History was written for the millennium but will far outlive the moment of its production, providing a vital work of reference for socialist activists everywhere.

Most important of all has been was Chris’s relentless critique of the world capitalist economy. He sustained this at every level from the popular booklet (The Economics of the Madhouse) to the superb synthesis of theory and evidence that characterised his main economic works, Explaining the Crisis (1984) and Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (2009). Whenever capitalism enjoys a period of prosperity its supporters claim it will last forever and that the spectre of crisis has been exorcised. Chris never countenanced this. Basing himself on the theory of the declining rate of profit in Capital Vol 3, which he defended against all comers, he always insisted that sooner or later boom would turn to slump, and could justly claim that the sudden eruption in 2008 of the worst crisis since the thirties vindicated his arguments. Moreover in recent years he more and more integrated into his economic analysis the threat posed by climate change and how this would sharpen the struggles engendered by the crisis.

These major interventions were accompanied by a ceaseless stream of articles on an array of topics ranging from philosophy to riots. Frequently these would prove to be of central strategic importance. Such was The Prophet and the Proletariat’ (1994) which was crucial in pioneering an analysis of political Islam, even before 9/11, and thus preparing socialists to combat war and Islamophobia.

To write of Chris the private person is less easy because of his deep shyness but sometimes, in the company of friends and after a few pints the reserve would slip, and it should be said he was a kind and decent man who never gave a thought to personal advancement.

At a personal level his partner Talat, and children Seth and Sinead will feel his loss most acutely. Politically it will be shared by revolutionary socialists and Marxists across the world. Nevertheless we retain the example of his unswerving commitment and his rich theoretical legacy and that we can celebrate.

John Molyneux

Monday, October 12, 2009

On Party Democracy


It really needs to be said that the first things to be forgotten are just the first points, the most elementary things…
The first point is that there do in fact exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led. The whole science and art of politics is based on this primordial, irreducible (in certain general conditions) fact…
In the formation of leaders the premise is fundamental: does one wish there always to be rulers and ruled, or does one wish to create the conditions where the necessity for the existence of this division disappears?…Nevertheless, it needs to be understood that the division of rulers and ruled, though in the last analysis it goes back to divisions between social groups, does in fact exist, given things as they are, even inside the bosom of each separate group, even a socially homogeneous one … and it is mainly on this question that the most serious “errors” come about… It is believed that when the principle of the group is laid down obedience ought to be automatic… or even that it is beyond discussion… So it is difficult to rid the leaders of dictatorial habits, that is, the conviction that something will be done because the leader thinks it is correct and rational that it should be done: if it is not done, the “blame” is put on those who “ought to have” etc.

Antonio Gramsci [ Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings, New
York, 1970, p.143-4].

This article examines the much disputed issue of internal party democracy in the light of the Marxist tradition and past and recent experience. It considers the challenge offered to the Marxist theory of the party by the German sociologist, Robert Michels, in the belief that facing and attempting to answer this challenge yields insights into the real nature of the problem. On this basis it seeks to reformulate the issue of party democracy in a way different from that in which it is usually posed on the left, namely as a goal continuously to be striven for rather than a norm simply to be observed.

The Tradition

When, in 1847, Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, an international secret society composed mainly of German artisans, which duly became the Communist League and for which they composed the Communist Manifesto, it was on condition that, amongst other things, ‘ The organisation itself was thoroughly democratic, with elective and removable authorities’ [Frederick Engels, ‘On the History of the Communist League’, Marx/Engels, Selected Works, Vol.3, Moscow p.195].

This condition was neither accidental nor arbitrary, but central to the new world view and political practice which they had persuaded the League to adopt, namely the doctrine of class struggle outlined in the Manifesto, in which the transformation of society – the revolution- was to be accomplished by the working class itself. Prior to Marx and Engels, and prior to the emergence of the modern working class, the dominant form of revolutionary organisation was the secret club or conspiracy – a model inherited from the French Revolution of 1789 – which envisaged the transformation of society from above following a coup d’etat by a dedicated and enlightened few. Traces of this, essentially bourgeois, concept of revolution were every where in the European movement of the 1840s and Marx and Engels considered party democracy a crucial means for combating them. ‘This alone [a democratic party structure] barred all hankering after conspiracy, which requires dictatorship’. {Ibid. p.196].

Thus the commitment to inner party democracy was inscribed in our tradition from its very inception and it has been reinscribed many times since. ‘Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party must be quite free’, wrote Lenin [Vol.10 p.442], ‘…unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class …the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.’ [Vol. 11 p.230 – 31].

Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed in 1936 insisted:

The inner regime of the Bolshevik party was characterized by the method of democratic centralism. The combination of these two concepts, democracy and centralism, is not in the least contradictory. The party took watchful care not only that its boundaries should always be strictly defined, but also that all those who entered these boundaries should enjoy the actual right to define the direction of the party policy. Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?

Similarly Duncan Hallas in 1971

Such a party [a revolutionary socialist party] cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work. [Duncan Hallas,‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party’ in Party And Class, 1971]

To this it should be added that this is not just a question of the Marxist or revolutionary party. The overwhelming majority of working class organisations of all types – trade unions, parties, campaigns, co-operatives, tenants associations etc. – are at least established with democratic constitutions and aspirations. The working class is the socialist class because, amongst other things, it is the democratic class. The economic role and position of the working class, making and operating the decisive means of production in modern society, producing the bulk of its wealth, concentrated in large workplaces and towns and integrated into a global division of labour gives it a) the power to defeat the capitalist class; b) the ability to inaugurate the transition to a fully classless society because it can be both the producing and the ruling class at the same time – in other words it can create structures (the Paris Commune, Soviets, factory councils etc.) which enable it to control production and govern society democratically.

The Experience

And yet… And yet everyone who knows something of the history of the socialist and Marxist movement and anyone who has had any experience of it over the last thirty or forty years knows also that the question of inner party democracy has been an ever recurring issue.

The most obvious and important example, of course, is supplied by the Stalinist parties. In the parent Stalinist party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union every shred and semblance of democracy was extinguished by the Stalinist counter- revolution. The Communist Parties in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam etc. more or less followed suit and if the regimes in the Communist Parties of Western Europe bore a less draconian character, not having a secret police to hand, they nevertheless were not remotely democratic.

However, for us now, the undemocratic nature of the Stalinist parties poses the least theoretical problems. It is clear that in the Stalinist states the Communist Parties had become instruments of rule, not of the working class, but of new bureaucratic ruling classes and therefore had to be undemocratic in the extreme, as the only way of containing the contradiction between their actual function and their declared aims, as did the other parties of the international communist movement once they had become agents of Soviet foreign policy rather than working class emancipation. *

Something similar applies to the traditional social democratic parties with their dual character as bourgeois workers’ parties (Lenin) i.e. parties with working class membership and bourgeois leadership and policy. In these cases their mass working

*Clearly I am here taking for granted the Trotskyist and state capitalist (Cliff) analysis of the Stalinist states and the evolution of the Comintern.

class base obliged these parties to retain some elements of democracy (conferences with some real debate, elected leaders etc.) but also to develop blocking mechanisms capable of preventing the worker majority from asserting itself or imposing its will. In the case of Old Labour (Blair’s New Labour became even less democratic) the two most important of these mechanisms were the block vote in the hands of the trade union bureaucrats and the ability of the parliamentary leadership (especially when in office) to ignore or go directly against the decisions of party conference. The best analysis of how such a party works was provided by Cliff and Gluckstein’s The Labour Party- a Marxist History.

More theoretically challenging is the recurrence of the democracy issue in avowedly non- Stalinist, non- social democratic or libertarian organisations. Let us take a few examples drawn from throughout the history of the socialist movement. First there was the conflict between Marx and the anarchist, Bakunin, in the First International. Bakunin denounced Marx’s authoritarianism and called him a ‘dictator over the proletariat’. Marx replied by accusing Bakunin of operating a secret society inside the International (the International Brotherhood a.ka the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy) in which there was no democracy of any kind but rather an unelected ‘collective and invisible dictatorship’ of Bakunin [see John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, London, 1978, p28}. Famously in debates about the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, Trotsky attacked Lenin, saying ‘In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead …to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, then the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation; and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.’ (L. Trotsky, Our Political Tasks, 1904, New Park p.77). At the same time Luxemburg upbraided Lenin for his ‘ overanxious desire to establish the guardianship of an omniscient omnipotent Central Committee’ and his creation of a ‘bureaucratic straitjacket, which will immobilise the movement and turn it into an automaton manipulated by a Central Committee.’ (Rosa Luxemburg, Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, 1904, cited in Marxism and the Party op.cit. p.98-99).

The international Trotskyist movement in the thirties was plagued with complaints, disputes, and splits over real or alleged violations of inner party democracy and Trotsky was frequently led wearily to lament petty bourgeois elements who wanted to debate and discuss for ever. In the most important of these splits, that in the American Socialist Workers Party in 1939-40, the question of the ‘party regime’ presided over by James P. Cannon, played a not inconsiderable role (along with the fundamental political and theoretical issues such as the Russian question, the position on the war, the social composition of the party, and dialectical materialism). *

· For Trotsky’s side of this dispute see L.Trotsky In Defence of Marxism: Against the Petty Bourgeois Opposition, New Park Publications, London 1975. For Cannon’s see James P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, Pathfinder 2001. Commentators on this dispute from this journal’s tradition have tended in general to side with Trotsky and Cannon, but to have some sympathy with the Burnham/Schachtman opposition on the ‘regime’ question. {See Cliff, Trotsky Vol. 4 and C.Bambery ‘The Politics of James P. Cannon’ International Socialism 36 p}.

After the Second World War the pattern on the Trotskyist left remained broadly the same. In virtually every faction fight or split, and they were far too numerous to document here, the issue of inner party democracy would raise its none too beautiful head.

At one end of this particular spectrum lay the Socialist Labour League/ Workers Revolutionary Party which, from reasonably promising beginnings in around 1956,
degenerated into the ever more erratic personal dictatorship of its ‘philosopher’ thug leader, Gerry Healy. Healy deployed a combination of an idealist version of the dialectic and highly materialist fists to terrorise intellectuals and worker militants alike until it all fell apart in 1986, amid accusations (apparently true) of the
systematic sexual abuse of female comrades. At the other end was the ‘ultra-democratic’ International Marxist Group, British section on the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International, and followers of Ernest Mandel. The IMG went so far in the opposite direction that it arrived in the seventies at a situation of institutionalised permanent factions (at least three at any one time), none of which had a working or consistent majority. At this point ultra democracy seems to have turned into its opposite in that the majority of the members were made unable to assert any kind of stable strategy or line.

Between these extremes lay a multitude of small Trotskyist or semi- Trotskyist groups with a wide variety organisational practices and internal regimes. However, the general isolation of such groups from the mass of the working class meant that the tendency to become a sect, dominated in practice by a few individuals, was pretty strong.

In continental Europe, one consequence of the greater strength of Stalinism was the tendency for splits from the Communist parties to be Maoist rather than Trotskyist influenced. The result, in the sixties and seventies, was the proliferation in Italy, Spain, Germany, France etc of Maoist and ‘soft’ Maoist of ardent revolutionary intentions and some considerable size e.g Potere Operaia, Lotta Continua, and Moviment Communista. The legacy of Stalinism and the specific example of the Great Helmsman ensured that such parties had much less in the way of democratic traditions than the Trotskyists and a greater inclination to the adulation of their general secretaries.

The most promising development in these years (in my opinion, of course) in terms of its politics, growth and democratic openness was the IS/SWP in Britain. I had joined the SLL Young Socialists in January 1968 only to leave shortly thereafter, repelled by its terrifying authoritarianism. I joined the IS in about June of that year and at my first conference found the organisation divided into at least five (!) short-lived tendencies or factions.. Despite some serious splits in the leadership in 1975-6 and 1979 (basically over coming to terms with the downturn in industrial struggle) the overall tendency was for the Central Committee steadily to increase its hegemony within the organisation, but there were always concerns being raised, rightly or wrongly, about the issue of internal democracy – at one point there was actually a Faction for Revolutionary Democracy (aka FRED).

In the recent split in RESPECT two very different concepts of democracy were counterposed. The SWP and its supporters took their stand on the ground that they had the support of the large majority of Respect members and would win a majority at the Party’s annual conference. George Galloway and his side relied on the fact that they included the party’s most prominent publicly elected representatives (Galloway himself, as the only MP, Salma Yaqoob and a majority of the Tower Hamlets councillors) plus the key national official, Linda Smith (who, as nominating officer, legally “owned” the name). In this conflict the Gallowayites felt entitled simply to dismiss and ignore the conference, and indeed attack the SWP for the ‘undemocratic’ practice of ‘packing’ the conference i.e. getting its supporters elected as delegates.

The purpose of this brief and very superficial survey is not to engage in retrospective ‘democratic’ judgment (for Marx against Bakunin, with Lenin against Trotsky and Luxemburg, or 0/10 for Healy, 6/10 for Mandel or whatever) but simply to demonstrate that the problem of internal party democracy is a recurring one and that therefore it is necessary to consider its objective i.e. its social basis.

The Problem

For Marxists, as historical materialists, this ought to be the obvious starting point but in fact this aspect of the problem has received relatively little attention. On the one hand it has been frequently asserted that the leadership of small revolutionary group X do not constitute a materially privileged bureaucratic stratum, in the sense that the trade union and Labour leaders, or the Communist Party leaders in Stalinist states, clearly do, and that therefore it is unmaterialist to think there can be a serious problem over democracy in such a group. On the other Trotsky provided a sociological explanation as to why ‘petty bourgeois elements’ would be prone to make unreasonable demands for excessive democracy

A worker spends his day at the factory. He has comparatively few hours left for the party. At the meetings he is interested in learning the most important things: the correct evaluation of the situation and the political conclusions. He values those leaders who do this in the clearest and the most precise form and who keep in step with events. Petty-bourgeois, and especially declassed elements, divorced from the proletariat, vegetate in an artificial and shut-in environment. They have ample time to dabble in politics or its substitute. They pick out faults, exchange all sorts of tidbits and gossip concerning happenings among the party “tops.” They always locate a leader who initiates them into all the “secrets.” Discussion is their native element. No amount of democracy is ever enough for them.
(L.Trotsky An Open Letter to Comrade Burnham, In Defence of Marxism, 1940)

In contrast Duncan Hallas provided an illuminating account of how the degeneration of inner party democracy can result from a false perspective. In his 1969 article ‘Building the Leadership,’ Hallas showed how the aforementioned Socialist Labour League, after promising beginnings, ruined itself through its continued adherence to a perspective of imminent economic catastrophe (drawn directly from Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme) throughout the prolonged boom of the fifties and sixties .

The effect on the work of the SLL in Britain was even more striking. Discussion, which is dangerous to the leadership, can be checked by hyperactivity; and this, in turn, is justified by the nearness of crash. The membership, driven at a frenzied pace, has a high casualty rate. A large proportion is always new – and therefore does not remember the non-fulfilment of past prophecies. A vicious circle is set up which makes the correction of the line more and more difficult. “Building the leadership” – which is, of course, identified with the organisation – becomes a substitute for serious political and industrial work. Serious militants are repelled and the “revolutionary youth” come to make up an ever larger proportion of the activists. The leadership, which alone has much continuity, becomes unchallengeable and finds it less and less necessary to check its policies and practice. (

Hallas’ contribution here is an important one and capable of wider application. The tendency that manifested itself in extreme, indeed grotesque, form in the SLL/WRP could also manifest itself in more moderate forms in much saner organisations.*

· * I know little about the internal life of the Militant Tendency (now Socialist Party) but it seems likely they experienced similar problems during the mid-to-late eighties when their perspective of a mass left wing emerging in the Labour Party was being systematically falsified.

The Hallas argument, however, can be reversed and used to defend complacency. Since the perspective is ‘correct’, it can be said, there is no need to worry about democracy. If the function of party democracy is to achieve a correct perspective, the claimed existence of a correct perspective, could either render democracy superfluous or constitute proof of its healthy existence. But this line of argument is flawed in its own terms: the coincidence at one point in time of broadly correct perspective and defective democracy does not guarantee their persistence. The causal relation may flow, not from false perspective to lack of democracy, but from lack of democracy to false perspective. Also it is mistaken to base the case for party democracy solely on its providing the necessary inputs and checks to control the perspective. Democracy is also necessary to educate and train the members to argue for socialism in the class ** and to retain ‘ownership’

** A point powerfully made by Isaac Deutscher. ““When the European communist went out to argue his case before a working class audience, he usually met there a Social Democratic opponent whose arguments he had to refute and whose slogans he had to counter. Most frequently he was unable to do this, because he lacked the habits of political debate, which were not cultivated within the party, and because his schooling deprived him of the ability to preach to the unconverted. He could not probe adequately into his opponent’s case when he had to think all the time about his own orthodoxy”. (cited in Duncan Hallas, ‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party’, in Party and Class, 1971 p.21 )

of the party by its members and, ultimately, the working class.

A different but interesting light is thrown on this whole question by Robert Michels in his book Political Parties, first published in 1911. Michels was a pupil of Max Weber and a member of German Social Democracy prior to the First World War who, after the war, became a supporter of fascism and Mussolini. In Political Parties Michels propounded his so-called ‘iron law of oligarchy’ according to which any large scale political party or organisation will inevitably be ruled by a small self perpetuating elite at its centre.

It is organisation that leads to the domination of the elected over the electors … Who says organisation says oligarchy. (Robert Michels, Political Parties, Free Press, New York 1968, p.15)

Duncan Hallas comments
The equation “centralised organisation equals bureaucracy equals degeneration” …leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions. For what is really being implied is that working people are incapable of collective democratic control of their own organisations. Granted that in many cases this has proved to be true; to argue that it is necessarily, inevitably true is to argue that socialism is impossible because democracy, in the literal sense, is impossible.
This is precisely the conclusion that was drawn by the “neo-Machiavellian” social theorists of the early 20th century [e.g. Michels –JM] and which is deeply embedded in modern academic sociology. (ibid.)

Hallas is absolutely right here (and in becoming a fascist Michels was, in a sense, following the logic of his own argument) but unfortunately pointing out the reactionary conclusions of an argument is not the same as refuting it, and the fact is Michels makes a powerful case, based precisely on his experience and knowledge of the socialist movement, particularly in Germany.
Political Parties is a large and dense book. In it Michels argues ‘the mechanical and technical impossibility of direct government by the masses’ (Michels p.63) and observes
It is easier to dominate a large crowd than a small audience…It is a fact of everyday experience that enormous public meetings commonly carry resolutions by acclamation or by general assent, whilst these same assemblies, if divided into small sections, say, of fifty persons each, would be much more guarded in their assent. Great party congresses, in which are present the elite of the membership, usually act in this way…The impotence of direct democracy, like the power of indirect democracy, is a direct outcome of the influence of number…in the great industrial centres where the labour party sometimes numbers its adherents by tens of thousands,it is impossible to carry on the affairs of this gigantic body without a system of representation. The great socialist organisation of Berlin…has a member roll of more than ninety thousand. (Ibid p.64-5)
He then describes the tendency of the representatives to establish their independence from and hegemony over the represented. He notes ‘the establishment of a customary right to the office of delegate’ (p.81) and the need for leadership felt by the masses including ‘ the cult of veneration among the masses’ (p.93) – Michels cites especially Lasalle, but also Garibaldi, Guesde and Marx; today, of course the list could be much longer and more grotesque.
Michels notes the general superiority of the professional leaders over the rank-and-file in respect to culture and education (p.107) and comments on the stability of leadership in socialist parties.
No one who studies the history of the socialist movement in Germany can fail to be greatly struck by the stability of the group of persons leading the party.(p.117)
Moreover, he argues, the leaders strive actively to maintain their position.
In proportion as the chiefs become detached from the mass they show themselves more and more inclined, when gaps in their own ranks appear, to effect this not by popular election, but by cooptation, and also to increase their own effectives wherever possible by creating new posts upon their own initiative. There arises in leaders a tendency to isolate themselves, to form a sort of cartel, and to surround themselves, as it were, with a wall, within which they will admit those only who are of their own way of thinking. Instead of allowing their successors to be appointed by the choice of the rank and file, the leaders do all in their power to choose successors for themselves, and to fill up the gaps in their own ranks directly or indirectly by the exercise of their own volition. (p.126)
When there is a struggle between the leaders and the masses, the former are always victorious if only they remain united. At least it rarely happens that the masses succeed in disembarrassing themselves of one of their leaders. (p.168)
Michels analyses the role of ‘bourgeois elements in the socialist leadership’ (p.238 ) and ‘labour leaders of proletarian origin’ (p.277) while noting the ‘psychological metamorphosis of the leaders’.
The average leader of the working class parties is morally not lower, but on the whole higher, in quality than the average leaders of the other parties… Yet it cannot be denied that the permanent exercise of leadership exerts upon the moral character of the leaders an influence which is essentially pernicious. (p.205)
Michels also explains why neither syndicalism nor anarchism, for all their rhetoric, are able to overcome these oligarchical tendencies, citing, amongst others, the familiar example of Bakunin and his secret unelected dictatorship inside the First International ( p.327). However, underpinning all Michels observations, acute as many of them are, and running like a thread throughout Political Parties is what he calls ‘the formal and real incompetence of the mass’ (p.107) The ‘iron law of oligarchy’ is an iron law because the masses are inherently incapable of running their own organisations or democratically controlling their leaders.
The incompetence of the masses is almost universal throughout the domains of political life, and this constitutes the most solid foundation of the power of leaders. The incompetence furnishes the leaders with a practical and to some extent a moral justification. (p.111)
And we should be clear, for Michels this incompetence is innate and general, as is the drive of leaders to dominate. It is a question of human nature. Almost certainly, we see here the influence of Nietzsche’s “will to power’.
The apathy of the masses and their need for guidance has as its counterpart in the leaders a natural greed for power. Thus the development of the democratic oligarchy is accelerated by the general characteristics of human nature…The desire to dominate for good or evil, is universal…every human power seeks to enlarge its prerogatives. (p.205-6)
The Marxist Response
This, of course, is where a Marxist response to, and critique of, Michels must begin. The various facts, tendencies, and patterns of behaviour observed by Michels are not universal or general characteristics of human nature but products of class society in general and capitalist society in particular. (Notice how for Michels human nature conveniently furnishes ‘leaders’ with the urge to dominate and ‘the masses’ with the urge to submit). And it is precisely on this point that Bukharin in his 1921 study Historical Materialism takes issue with him (as far as I know Bukharin is the only major Marxist to have attempted a rebuttal of Michels, though there is also a brief response by Sidney Hook in Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, New York 1933 p.312.)
…what constitutes an eternal category in Michels presentation, namely, the "incompetence of the masses" will disappear, for this incompetence is by no means a necessary attribute of every system; it likewise is a product of the economic and technical conditions, expressing themselves in the general cultural being and in the educational conditions. We may state that in the society of the future there will be a colossal overproduction of organizers, which will nullify the stability of the ruling groups. (
But here Bukharin is treating Michels’ book, which he describes as ‘very interesting’ primarily as an objection to the possibility of a future classless society (and accordingly deals with it in the very last section of Historical Materialism). However, in relation to the transition to full socialism Bukharin accepts that Michels points to real problems, though he remains confident they can be overcome.
But the question of the transition period from capitalism to socialism, i.e., the period of the proletarian dictatorship, is far more difficult. The working class achieves victory, although it is not and cannot be a unified mass. It attains victory while the productive forces are going down and the great masses are materially insecure. There will inevitably result a tendency to "degeneration", i.e., the excretion of a leading stratum in the form of a class-germ. This tendency will be retarded by two opposing tendencies; first, by the growth of the productive forces; second, by the abolition of the educational monopoly. The increasing production of technologists and of organizers in general, out of the working class itself, will undermine this possible new class alignment. The outcome of the struggle will depend on which tendencies turn out to be the stronger. (ibid.)
Clearly, writing in 1921, the question of the transition to socialism was uppermost in Bukharin’s mind, but for our purposes he is not addressing the key point. To argue that the oligarchical pressures derive from capitalism not human nature and will therefore be overcome post-capitalism, in the transition to socialism, is all well and good, but the revolutionary socialist party has to be built under capitalism, with people who are products of capitalism, when the oligarchical pressures are intense.
When I first considered the challenge posed by Robert Michels (when I was researching for Marxism and the Party in the early seventies) I concluded that while the iron law of oligarchy was generally valid for social democratic type parties, trade unions and similar organisations, it did not apply to Bolshevik type parties. This was because central to the Bolshevik model was the restriction of party membership to a) those who placed the overall interests of the working class above any sectional interest (i.e. were internationalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and non-sectionalist) b) militant activists working under the discipline of party organisations. Such a membership, though necessarily a minority of the class, would not be ‘incompetent’ and would be able to democratically control its leadership. This seemed to me sound in theory and confirmed in practice by the example of the Bolshevik Party which was highly democratic, especially in 1917.
In making this judgement I was much influenced by an observation Tony Cliff regularly used to make about the trade unions to the effect that the trade union bureaucracy, with its conservative and undemocratic practices, rested on the passive majority of the union membership as opposed to the active minority. And also by the argument made by Chris Harman in his 1969 article ‘Party and Class’ on the fundamental difference between the Leninist and Social Democratic models of organisation.
It will be an organisation that combines with a constant attempt to involve in its work ever wider circles of workers, a limitation on its membership to those willing to seriously and scientifically appraise their own activity and that of the party generally. This necessarily means that the definition of what constitutes a party member is important. The party is not to be made up of just anybody who wishes to identify himself as belonging to it, but only those willing to accept the discipline of its organisations. In normal times the numbers of these will be only a relatively small percentage of the working class; but in periods of upsurge they will grow immeasurably.
There is an important contrast here with the practice in Social-Democratic parties. Lenin himself realises this only insofar as Russia is concerned prior to 1914, but his position is clear. He contrasts his aim – a really iron strong organisation”, a “small but strong party” of “all those who are out to fight” – with the “sprawling monster, the new Iskra motley elements of the Mensheviks”. (50) This explains his insistence on making a principle out of the question of the conditions for membership of the party when the split with the Mensheviks occurred.
Within Lenin’s conception those elements that he himself is careful to regard as historically limited and those of general application must be distinguished. The former concern the stress on closed conspiratorial organisations and the need for careful direction from the top down of party officials, etc.
Under conditions of political freedom our party will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable for the collective thousands of workers that make up the party. (51)
Of much more general application is the stress on the need to limit the. party to those who are going to accept its discipline. It is important to stress that for Lenin (as opposed to many of his would-be followers) this is not a blind acceptance of authoritarianism. The revolutionary party exists so as to make it possible for the most conscious and militant workers and intellectuals to engage in scientific discussion as a prelude to concerted and cohesive action. This is not possible without general participation in party activities. This requires clarity and precision in argument combined with organisational decisiveness. The alternative is the “marsh” – where elements motivated by scientific precision are so mixed up with those who are irremediably confused as to prevent any decisive action, effectively allowing the most backward to lead. The discipline necessary for such a debate is the discipline of those “who have “combined by a freely adopted decision”. (52) Unless the party has clear boundaries and unless it is coherent enough to implement decisions, discussion over its decisions, far from being “free” is pointless.
Centralism for Lenin is far from being the opposite of developing the initiative and independence of party members; it is the precondition of this.By being part of such an organisation worker and intellectual alike are trained to assess their own concrete situation in accordance with the scientific socialist activity of thousands of others. “Discipline” means acceptance of the need to relate individual experience to the total theory and practice of the party. As such it is not opposed to, but a necessary prerequisite of the ability to make independent evaluations of concrete situations. That is also why “discipline” for Lenin does not mean hiding differences that exist within the party, but rather exposing them to the full light of day so as to argue them out. Only in this way can the mass of members make scientific evaluations.
(Chris Harman, ‘Party and Class’ in Cliff, Hallas, Harman, Trotsky, Party and Class, London 1971 p.59-61).(
At that time Harman’s perspective, and mine, was to build Leninist parties of this kind in Britain and internationally, in the belief that the objective conditions had developed which made this possible. “For Western capitalism is once again creating conditions for the convergence of working-class protest and revolutionary politics that could change the world.” (Michael Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War, Penguin, London 1970, p.174).
Unfortunately experience, nearly forty years of it, has shown this to be a rather complicated business, and this in turn has implications for the question of party democracy. Between its birth as a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 and its conquest of power as a mass party in October 1917, lay only 14 years. Those fourteen years included a full scale revolution in 1905, a catastrophic world war and the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917. In contrast the Socialist Review/ Internationalist Socialist/ SWP tradition has endured almost sixty years, forty since our emergence as a mini- party in 1968, without any comparable experiences. In Russia the period of reaction (which was intense and nearly destroyed the Bolsheviks) began in 1907 and lasted five years before it was swept aside in 1912 by mass strikes following the massacre of workers at the Lena gold field. In Britain the downturn in class struggle set in in the mid to late seventies, and, with some fluctuations and partial recovery, has remained at a low level to this day. Moreover, while the level of struggle has generally been low, there has not been any sustained or generalised repression. And, of course, basically the same conditions have applied for all left organisations in Western Europe and North America over this period.
Lenin devotes the early chapters of Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder to expounding the relationship between Russian conditions and experience and Bolshevik organisational principles. (Lenin focuses on ‘discipline’ but as we have seen discipline and democracy are intimately connected).
As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat…
The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people…Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved…
Russia achieved Marxism—the only correct revolutionary theory—through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment. verification, and comparison with European experience.
On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement—legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms.
(Lenin, Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder
And Lukacs comments
The Bolshevik concept of party organization involved the selection of a group of single-minded revolutionaries, prepared to make any sacrifice, from the more or less chaotic mass of the class as a whole…Lenin’s concept of party organization presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution... Had the historical predictions of the Mensheviks been correct, had a relatively quiet period of prosperity and of the slow spread of democracy ensued, in which – at least in backward countries – the feudal vestiges of ‘the people’ had been swept aside by the ‘progressive’ classes, the professional revolutionaries would have necessarily remained stranded in sectarianism or become mere propaganda clubs. The party, as the strictly centralized organization of the proletariat’s most conscious elements – and only as such – is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period. ‘Political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organization questions,’ said Lenin, ‘and anybody who accepts or rejects the Bolshevik party organization independently of whether or not we live at a time of proletarian revolution has completely misunderstood it.’
(G. Lukacs, Lenin -A Study on the Unity of his Thought ) (
Unfortunately the times we have lived through have not, a few exceptional moments apart, been a revolutionary period and the revolution has only been ‘actual’ in the most abstract sense. It has therefore not been possible to restrict party membership to ‘a group of single - minded revolutionaries, prepared to make any sacrifice’, or even to people prepared to be consistently active in party organisations. There has not been much choice about this. When Harman wrote ‘The party is not to be made up of just anybody who wishes to identify himself as belonging to it, but only those willing to accept the discipline of its organisations. In normal times the numbers of these will be only a relatively small percentage of the working class; but in periods of upsurge they will grow immeasurably,’ he, and the rest of us envisaged a party of many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, growing in time of revolution to hundreds of thousands (the Bolsheviks were about 26,000 in February 1917 and between 200,000 and 400.000 by October) not a group of tens or a few hundred. To have restricted the membership of the SWP to the criteria of commitment required by the Bolsheviks would, in our non- Bolshevik conditions, have reduced the party to the low hundreds at best, and would anyway have been false, ‘toy’ bolshevism, since such fanatical ‘revolutionaries’ would have lost the other key pillar of Leninism, the ability to ‘ maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people’, and degenerated into an isolated sect. Consequently circumstances obliged us to operate with a membership, a substantial proportion of which were not sufficiently engaged to exercise democratic control over the party.
The question of repression and illegality plays an interesting and contradictory role here. On the one hand conditions of illegality create huge obstacles to the proper formal functioning of party democracy, to the convening of regular meetings and conferences, to the holding of regular elections, to the provision of accurate party statistics and so on (‘Under conditions of political freedom our party will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable ‘ Lenin). Moreover, illegality may strengthen the claims of discipline over democracy, insofar as sometimes they can conflict. On the other hand repression resolves the problem of an engaged membership: if the penalty for party membership is possible exile to Siberia, or imprisonment, torture and death, the passive armchair member is taken care of and members have a massive, perhaps life or death, stake in the determination of party policy. Of course, this is in itself offers no guarantee of democracy, as the example of many Stalinist parties show, but it does help with one aspect of the problem.
Another factor that has to be considered her is the long time scale involved. Gramsci says somewhere in the Prison Notebooks that a prolonged siege is always debilitating, and many people capable of intense resistance and extreme sacrifice for a short time are unable to sustain the same commitment over a long period. To this must be added the crucial role played by the level of the class struggle. A major element in Michels’ ‘incompetence of the masses’ is not lack of technical competence but lack of confidence, which the capitalist socialization process breeds in working class children as surely as it breeds confidence in the children of the bourgeoisie. The principal antidote to this lack of confidence, and therefore vital for internal party democracy, is the experience of collective resistance and struggle, of organizing and leading strikes, picket lines, occupations, demonstrations, workplace branches and the like ( in the case of students – speaking at mass union meetings, leading college occupations etc). Not only does participation in such activity raise members’ confidence as individuals it also means that when they take up an issue inside the party they often do as a representative of a collective in their workplace or college. In conditions of downturn, where party members’ typical experience at work is defeat or isolation their confidence to take on the party leadership is undermined. Even if they remain active revolutionary socialists the feeling may develop that in addition to fighting the bosses, the government, the system, the media and probably their own union leaders, all as a small minority, arguing with their own party is just too much.
In these conditions the other side of the coin of a passive rank-and-file, namely a leadership that becomes accustomed to leading unchallenged is virtually certain to develop or at least begin to develop.

Having so strongly stressed the anti-democratic pressures at work on and in any would be revolutionary party it necessary also to note that there is a major counterveiling tendency. In opposition to Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ there exists, in any party or organization whose leadership does not wield the combined sticks and carrots of state power, an almost as universal ‘law of democracy’. In any voluntary organization, where membership does not itself confer material privilege, even the British Tory Party or the Nazi BNP, there is an element of democracy in that the leadership requires the consent of the rank-and-file in the form of its continuing membership and support. We are familiar with this phenomenon in relation even to heavily bureaucratized trade union leaderships. Even right wing union leaders, like Joe Gormley of the NUM in 1972-4 or Derek Simpson today, are obliged to defend their members interests and respond to their demands to some degree, on pain of losing their membership (and with them the dues that pay the leaders’ salaries) entirely.*
* This point has been made previously by the radical (though non- Marxist) sociologist, Alvin Gouldner. ‘ According to Alvin Gouldner, in all organisations there is “a need that consent be of the governed be given – at least in some measure – to the governors… And if all organisations must adjust to such a need for consent, is there not built into the very marrow of organisation an element of what we mean by democracy?” Gouldner cited by S.M.Lipset in the Introduction to Robert Michels op.cit. p.29.

This democratic pressure from below is all the stronger in a small far left socialist party, even if it remains overtly passive, because a) the leaders are plainly not motivated by desire for material privilege, there being none on offer (though sometimes the desire to maintain material security may be a factor); b) the rank- and –file are motivated overwhelmingly by conviction and c) it is not difficult for them to vote with their feet and leave. To give an example from the organization I know best, namely the British SWP, it is well known that the SWP leadership remained pretty stable through the nineties and early noughts and was seldom subject to serious challenge. But this was on condition that it ran the party within the narrowly prescribed limits of Trotskyist revolutionary socialism. If the SWP leadership had, as opposed to making strategic or tactical errors, ever clearly crossed class lines or contravened basic socialist principles or made moves to renounce Marxism, there would undoubtedly have been an outcry and, if the outcry was not rapidly successful, a mass exodus. This is not to suggest that the SWP leadership ever wanted to do any of these things . I know of no evidence of this whatsoever. Nevertheless the objective pressure was there and it was a democratic pressure – a pressure to lead the organization in conformity with the wishes of its members. Moreover, it is clear that in general this inherent democratic pressure will, given favourable conditions, be capable of considerable expansion.
Some conclusions
What conclusions follow from this analysis? First and foremost that the case made for the importance of party democracy made by all the classical Marxists and cited at the start of this article retains all its validity, but it must be understood that the achievement of this democracy in practice under capitalism is far from easy.
From a Marxist perspective it is possible not only to integrate the anti-democratic pressures cited by Michels but also to elaborate on them. Capitalist socialization, through the family and school, instills obedience and subservience in working class children, practically from birth. A ‘good’ baby is one who sleeps and feeds to order, a ‘good’ child is ‘no trouble’ and does what its parents tell it. A successful pupil is one who accepts the agenda of the school and its teachers. .(See Paul Willis, Learning to Labour, Farnborough. 1977 and S.Bowles and H.Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America, RKP, London 1976) A ‘deviant’ teenager has ‘a problem with authority’. Ruling class children are likewise trained to obey the rules but, especially via the Public Schools, their education also contains a significant stress on developing leadership qualites.
The world of work is invariably hierarchical and undemocratic. Working class occupations consist overwhelmingly of following orders, ruling class ones of giving them, and middle class ones of enforcing decisions from above on those below. What is completely lacking from most peoples lives is any experience of democracy other than the extremely limited business of voting once every so often in a parliamentary or local elections. By far the most important exception to this is trade unionism, which does provide some working people with the experience of saying no to those in authority over them, but as we know only too well, this is a highly uneven and fluctuating process and offers an ongoing regular democratic engagement to only a small minority.
The act of joining a revolutionary organization constitutes a major rebellion against this conditioning but it does not in itself eliminate it. The anti- democratic pressures continue to operate on and within the party. This is why party democracy is not something that can be guaranteed by any constitution or fixed set of institutional arrangements (which is not to gainsay the necessity of democratic constitutions and institutional arrangements) but also requires the development and maintenance of a democratic culture i.e. a culture of frank and open debate in which party members are encouraged to speak their mind. Such a culture has to be embodied in institutions and practices, of course, the most important and permanent of which is the principle of the Party Conference or Congress as the party’s sovereign body, but the precise nature of these institutions and practices must necessarily be adapted to specific circumstances and change over time.
Nor is party democracy a political or moral norm which can be established simply by the will or good behaviour of leaders (or members). For every would-be revolutionary party internal democracy is a goal, a relationship between members and leaders, that has to be continually worked and striven for in the same sense that the correct relationship of party to class has to be continually striven for – indeed the two relationships are intimately connected. Deficiencies in democracy, like errors in perspective and tactics, are inevitable, but not reasons for despair. The point is to correct them.
In this ongoing struggle there are no grounds whatsoever for renouncing either the Leninist concept of the vanguard party or democratic centralism. On the contrary the Leninist democratic centralist party is both necessary for the success of the revolution and the most democratic form of political organisation. The case for the Leninist party rests on arguments in no way limited in their validity to Russia or to the historical period of the Russian Revolution. Rather these arguments refer to features of capitalist society and the working class struggle which are pretty much universal and permanent: a) the centralised nature of the capitalist class and its state which demands centralisation on the part of its adversary; b) the bourgeoisie’s ideological hegemony – ‘the ruling ideas are ideas of the ruling class’ – which requires the waging of an ideological struggle in society and within the working class, a struggle that can only be conducted by a party based on ideological and political clarity; c) the unevenness in the levels of working class consciousness, confidence, organisation and struggle which require the welding together of the most advanced elements in the class to defeat the reactionary, scab elements and increase their influence over the vacillating majority; d) the existence, on the basis of this unevenness, of mass reformist (or Stalinist or nationalist) parties which will hold back or betray the revolution, and which must be combated by a revolutionary party which retains its political and organisational independence. Moreover, these theoretical arguments, powerful in themselves, have been confirmed in practice positively, by the role of the Bolshevik Party in the victory of the Russian Revolution, and negatively, by the defeats in Italy, Germany, Spain etc precisely for the want of such a party.
As far as democracy is concerned all other forms of political organisation - the Social Democratic party, the trade union, the ‘loose’ anarchist or autonomist federation or clique, the single issue campaign etc. – are subject to exactly the same anti- democratic ‘oligarchic’ pressures from capitalist society without the same resources to resist them. No other form of organisation compares with the Leninist Party in terms of its ability to equip its members with the political education that enables them to assess the overall political situation and their own party’s work. No other form of organisation practices a comparable level of intervention in such a variety of issues, campaigns and struggles,(a matter particularly emphasised by Lenin in What is To Be Done?) thus potentially training its members as political generalists able to hold its leaders to account. I do not doubt that SWP branches have many defects but one would only have to compare the topics discussed at a typical SWP weekly branch meeting with those at an average Labour Party ward (do they still meet?) to get the point. At the former you might get the economic crisis one week, Palestine the next, followed by fascism and the BNP the week after; at the latter it would be more likely to be the jumble sale, the local pavements and who fights which seat in the local elections, if that.
Furthermore the element of party discipline inherent in democratic centralism – the notion of unity in action in implementing party policy – far from undermining or infringing democracy is an essential democratic provision. Without it the party could engage in the most democratic process of debate and decision making only to see those decisions come to nothing when they were ignored or flouted by the party leadership, as was routinely the case with Old Labour, and as would be most likely to afflict a would-be revolutionary organisation at decisive moments in the class struggle, especially the moment of revolutionary insurrection, when the political and psychological pressures on party leaders would be most intense.*
* See L. Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924) for Trotsky’s analysis of how such pressures affected even the Bolshevik leadership in October 1917, which was also an oblique commentary on the failure of the German CP to seize the revolutionary opportunity in autumn 1923.
If the case for the Leninist party remains compelling it would, however, be wrong to identify Leninism with one narrowly defined organisational model or set of practices. Lenin himself, in his last speech to the Comintern in 1922, while insisting on the international importance of the Bolshevik experience warned against the mechanical imitation of Russian organisational methods. (See Lenin, Collected Works Vol.33, p.430) For example on the question of factions there are at least two views currently taken by avowed Leninist Parties, namely the British SWP and the French LCR. Both would accept Trotsky’s statement, quoted earlier, that
... The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?

But whereas the SWP has put the emphasis on the temporary and not permitted permanent factional organisation, partly to try to avoid the ingrained tendency of Trotskyist groups to split, the LCR has taken the opposite view and sought to maintain unity by allowing permanent tendencies. I have alluded above to the fact that this policy did not work well for the LCR’s co-thinkers in Britain, the IMG, but the LCR,with their recent electoral success and launch of the New Anticapitalist Party, have fared much better with it. However, a substantial objection to this model is that might lead to paralysis of the party leadership in crucial situations where speedy and decisive action is required. Nevertheless this is a debate which can be had between Leninists, and which depends on very concrete circumstances.

This last proviso applies to much of this debate. The principle of the need to struggle to realise and improve democracy in the revolutionary party is permanent, the precise means of achieving this are likely to vary over time. But in general what is needed is, in Gramsci’s words, organic centralism not bureaucratic centralism, ‘democratic centralism that is “centralism” in movement, so to speak, that is, a continuous adjustment of the organisation to the real movement’ (A. Gramsci, The Modern Prince and other writings, New York 1970 p.178). This means working, at each stage in the class struggle, to establish a political culture and set of political practices that facilitate democratic debate and decision making and develop the political knowledge and confidence of the rank-and-file.
This is a problem that has to be solved and re- solved not on paper but in practice (and it will never be fully resolved this side of the overthrow of capitalism). Nevertheless a clear statement of the problem, an awareness of the challenge involved, may help. That has been the aim of this article.

John Molyneux
15 May 2009


Monday, September 07, 2009

On Shakespeare, Money and Power

This article was written for the programme of "Timon", directed by Matt Beresford, and performed at the Baron's Court Theatre in London, 1-12 September 2009.

According to Marx, ‘Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money’. In the section on ‘Money’ in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx quotes extensively from Timon of Athens

“Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, Gods, I am no idle votarist! ...
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
... Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench…etc


“O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
‘Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen’s purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer,
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian’s lap! Thou visible God! Etc…

Shakespeare, says Marx, stresses especially two properties of money:

1. It is the visible divinity — the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.

2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.
The distorting and confounding of all human and natural qualities, the fraternisation of impossibilities — the divine power of money — lies in its character as men’s estranged, alienating and self-disposing species-nature. Money is the alienated ability of mankind.

And just as Marx can use Shakespeare to analyse the power of money so Marx can be used to sum up the essence of world depicted in Timon of Athens.
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

Shakespeare’s hostility to money and money grubbing is not confined to Timon. It is also the theme of The Merchant of Venice. This fact has largely been obscured by the controversy about the play’s alleged anti-semitism, but whether or not Shylock is an anti-semitic stereotype (I think not), he is a money lender and the judgment of Portia is not so much a condemnation of Shylock as of the logic of money lending, of usury.

If Shakespeare understands but despises the power of money his distaste for power –political power- is even more intense and pervasive. Richard III is about a man who kills, and kills and kills again, including children, to gain and retain power until he himself is killed. Macbeth is about a man (and a woman) who kills and kills and kills again, including a child, to gain and retain power until he is ‘on blood stepp’d in so far…returning were as tedious as go’er’. Hanlet is about a man who fails to gain power and loses his life because he is not capable of ruthless cold blooded murder. Prince Hal’s transformation into the man of power, King Henry, involves the repudiation of, and crushing of his own feelings for, Falstaff. Above all, Antony and Cleopatra depicts the radical contradiction between the logic of power and the logic of love.

Shakespeare’s heroes, including his tragic heroes, are people of passion – Lear, Othello. Coriolanus, Antony, Romeo etc – and often they are betrayed by their passions. His victors, those who end up holding the reigns of power – Malcolm, Fortinbras, Bolingbroke, Octavius – are not his heroes. They are secondary figures who pass quietly through the main action – like Stalin through the Russian Revolution - to pick up the crown amid the carnage. They are men of ‘cold calculation’ with ice in their veins. Psychologically they are closest to his outright villains like Iago, Goneril, Regan and Edmund.

The familiarity of all this is so striking.It is more or less impossible to contemplate Shakespeare’s plots, characters and themes without thinking of Enron and Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Northern Rock, Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney, Blair,Brown and Mandelson. It is forty five years since the great Polish critic Jan Kott, in the most influential book on Shakespeare of the sixties, identified the bard as ‘Our Contemporary’ [“Kott is undoubtedly the only writer on Elizabethan matters who assumes … that every one of his readers will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night” Peter Brook, Introduction To Shakespeare: Our Contemporary].

Shakespeare was our contemporary then and is our contemporary now. It is worth reflecting on why this is the case and how it could be so. It is NOT because he offers ‘timeless’ insights into an unchanging human condition The human condition is not unchanging and there are no insights out of historical time but there are profound continuities and parallels between one historical period and another. All artists are products of their times and the greatest artists are those who, amongst other things, respond most powerfully to the deepest currents and characteristics of their epoch. This is just what Shakespeare did.

Shakespeare wrote amidst the birth pangs of capitalism – that is a society based on generalised commodity production and production for profit. The birth of capitalism was an international , not a national, process [Shakespeare is an astonishingly international writer] . It began in Italy, in the city republics of Florence and Venice, as early as the 13rh century, but it stalled there in the early 16th century, and its development continued northwards through Germany, the Netherlands and England. Its first successful live births were the Dutch Republic and Cromwell’s Commmonwealth, both in the 17th Century. Culturally it brought the Italian Renaissance, the Reformation and the Elizabethan and Dutch ‘Golden Ages’.as well the foundations of modern philosophy and science [Descartes and Galileo].

It was experienced by artists, and more widely, as a massive expansion of human freedom and development of the individual personality – compare Cimabue and Titian, Chaucer and Shakespeare – but it was also a time of bitter struggles and terrible defeats – for example the German Peasant Wear of 1525 or the sack of Rome in 1527. Moreover it was a time in which the terrible inhuman alienation inherent in capitalism could be grasped, if only intuitively, as a presentiment of the future. The supreme artists of the time – Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Rembrandt – each arise at and express different moments in this process, but each grapples in his own way with this profound contradiction.

As regards Shakespeare’s understanding of, and hostility to, money, it is necessary to understand that money was then ‘an issue’ in the way that it has seldom been since. This was because although money as such had been around for millennia, the rule of money, its all pervasive domination of society, was something new, arriving hand in hand with the development of capitalism and commodification , and therefore a matter of debate (in a way that it was not in later ages which took it for granted.) Luther, and others, made the corruption and especially the buying and selling of indulgences a key feature of their critique of the Church. At the same time John Calvin, the key ‘ideologist’ of the Dutch Revolution, wrote an article arguing that usury was NOT a sin. The Catholic Church’s condemnation of usury was rooted in its feudal opposition to capitalism and the need to keep bankers, money lenders, and aspirant bourgeois in their place.

Regarding power this was a period of the most intense struggle, or rather struggles, for power right across Europe, ranging from the feuds of the Medici and the Pazzi in Florence to the horrors of the Thirty Years War in Germany, from the 80 years of the Dutch Revolt against Spain, to the intrigues and vengeance of the Elizabethan court, and the fratricidal conflict of the English Civil War. It is the age of Macchiavelli (who Gramsci identifies as a proto – Robespierre ) as much as the age of Erasmus. At bottom this was a class struggle between the rising Bourgeoisie and the old feudal aristocracy, but at the time none of the participants or observwers could be conscious of this, or indeed achieve any rational understanding of the conflicts and this made the struggles, interpreted variously as wars of religion or purely personal ambition, seem all the more bitter and senseless.

Standing at the cusp of this historical turning point Shakespeare looks back and forward. As part of the rising middle class he relishes the richness of the moment in his language, his imagery and his characters, but he also feels keenly the loss of ‘merrrie’ feudal England and has no love at all for men of power who, he suspects, will emerge victorious from the maelstrom.

‘In my beginning is my end,’ wrote T.S. Eliot. We live now in capitalism’s end game but the contradictions that now are writ large across the globe, between use value and exchange value, production for need and production for profit, were there at the beginning and Shakespeare’s intuitive grasp of them is the reason his so relevant today.

John Molyneux
21 August 2009

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Michelangelo and Human Emancipation

Michelangelo stands at the very summit of human fame, or celebrity as we now call it. His position is secure among that very small band of individuals – Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Mozart, Da Vinci and so on – who seem to tower over history, much as one imagines the Colossus of Rhodes, and whose status is commonly given a universal, transcendental character.

Remarkably, he attained this pinnacle within his own lifetime, as a glance at Vasari testifies, when he was ranked even higher than Da Vinci in the genius stakes (though I think it is fair to say that Da Vinci has subsequently outdistanced him a little, thanks to helicopters, the Mona Lisa and Dan Brown) and it is probably now close to unassailable as far as the wider culture is concerned, as opposed to the specialism of art history.

Such a reputation is, of course, a decidedly mixed blessing. One downside of it, becoming the object of endless banality, has been fixed forever in a single line by T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. ‘In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo’. And it is almost enough to deter one from even attempting to write on the man. Another is the indignity, shared with Van Gogh, of being Irving Stoned (in The Agony and the Ecstasy) and then being played in the film of the same name by Charlton Heston (a fate Van Gogh was mercifully spared) opposite Pope Rex Harrison. Naturally such appropriation by the world of capitalist kitsch has brought with it a corresponding rejection from the avant garde. An elderly and very austere artist friend of mine, a systems painter from the sixties, tells me he detests Michelangelo’s grandiloquence and much prefers Verrocchio. According to Robert Hughes, Barnett Newman once said,’ I thought our quarrel was with Michelangelo’, prompting Hughes’s riposte ‘.' Well, bad luck, Barney. You lost.’ (For what Newman actually wrote on the subject see ‘The Sublime is Now’ in C. Harrison & P. Wood, Art in Theory 1900-1990, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, p.573.)

Nevertheless, despite Eliot’s implied warning and despite the vast amount of guff written on the subject, it is precisely this question of Michelangelo’s exalted standing that I wish to investigate in this paper, not in order to challenge or undermine it, for as we shall see I basically think it is justified, but in order to help explain it and place it on a less transcendental, more solid, more earthly, more historical foundation. The investigation will focus on, and move between, several related questions: 1) what explanations can be offered as to the causes and nature of Michelangelo’s reputation and his artistic achievement? 2) What is the relation between Michelangelo’s art and history? 3) What is the nature of Michelangelo’s response to that history as seen in his art? Which amounts to offering a certain ‘interpretation’ or way of looking at that art. Obviously no attempt or claim is made to offer complete or definitive answers to any of these questions – one of them alone would require a book – but it is hoped that these tentative and rather speculative observations can none the less move the discussion on to more fruitful ground.

The existing ground is not very fertile. The story begins, of course, in Renaissance Florence with the widely expressed view that Michelangelo’s achievements were attributable to, and explicable in terms of, divine inspiration. How literally this was believed is hard to tell but Vasari spells it out in some detail.

WHILE industrious and choice spirits, aided by the light afforded by Giotto and his followers, strove to show the world the talent with which their happy stars and well-balanced humours had endowed them, and endeavored to attain to the height of knowledge by imitating the greatness of Nature in all things, the great Ruler of Heaven looked down and, seeing these vain and fruitless efforts and the presumptuous opinion of man more removed from truth than light from darkness, resolved, in order to rid him of these errors, to send to earth a genius universal in each art, to show single-handed the perfection of line and shadow, and who should give relief to his paintings, show a sound judgment in sculpture, and in architecture should render habitations convenient, safe, healthy, pleasant, well-proportioned, and enriched with various ornaments. He further endowed him with true moral philosophy and a sweet poetic spirit, so that the world should marvel at the singular eminence of his life and works and all his actions, seeming rather divine than earthy.

G. Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, OUP, Oxford 1991, p. 414.

But unless one believes in this kind of personally interventionist god, this is not very helpful (and if one does, further explanation, certainly of the kind I shall attempt, seems superfluous). Three hundred and fifty years later and the level of analysis had not advanced.

Each supreme artist whom God hath sent into the world with inspiration and a particle of the imperishable fire, is a law unto himself… Michelangelo belongs to the genus of deep, violent, colossal, passionately striving natures; not to like Raffaello… to the smooth… calmly perfect tribe.

(J.A. Symonds, The Life f Michelangelo Buonarroti, Vol.2, London, Macmillan, 1911, p. 174)

In the second half of the twentieth century, Ernst Gombrich, unable or unwilling to invoke God, simply substitutes genius and throws up his hands.

The beginning of the sixteenth century, the Cinquecento, is the most famous period of Italian art, one of the greatest periods of all time. This was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, of Raphael and Titian, of Correggio and Giorgione, of Durer and Holbein in the North, and of many other famous masters. One may well ask why it was that all these great masters were born in the same period, but such questions are more easily asked than answered. One cannot explain the existence of genius. It is better to enjoy it.

(E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Oxford, Phaidon, 1978, p.217-8)

If we are not getting very far in terms of explaining Michelangelo’s existence, maybe we can do better when it comes to establishing the nature of his achievement. We can again go back to Vasari and this time we find not religious mysticism but fairly clearly defined technical criteria.

Design is the imitation of the most beautiful things in Nature in all forms, both in sculpture and in painting, and this quality depends on having the hand and the skill to transfer with great accuracy and precision everything the eye sees to a plan or drawing…and the same is true for relief in sculpture. And then the most beautiful style comes from constantly copying the most beautiful things …

Neither Giotto nor those early artisans did this…But the man who wins the palm among artists both living and dead, who transcends and surpasses them all, is the divine Michelangelo Buonarroti, who reigns supreme not merely in one of these arts but in all three at once.

(G. Vasari op.cit pp. 277-8 p. 280)

Unpick this statement and we find three definite claims. 1) Michelangelo is supreme by virtue of his technical skill; 2) technical skill consists in the classical notion of ‘mimesis’, accurately copying nature; 3) the key thing is to copy, ‘imitate’ beautiful things. That Gombrich, essentially, follows this view can be seen from the fact that he entitles the chapter of The Story of Art dealing with the early fifteenth century (Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, Van Eyck etc) ‘The conquest of reality’ and that on the early sixteenth (Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael) ‘Harmony attained’, and we must remember that Gombrich spoke for whole generations of art historians in this.

Moreover it is clear that in these claims and in this narrative there is an important element of truth , both about the development of art as a whole at this time and, specifically, about Michelangelo. I for one would think it close to impossible to stand before the David in the Academia or the Moses in S.Pietro in Vincoli – these giant statues carved from single blocks of marble - and not be awestruck at the level of sheer technical skill involved in their creation. Has any human ever lived more adept than Michelangelo in the carving of stone? However it is equally necessary to question aspects of this account and to reject the notion that is anywhere near the whole story.

First of all it is necessary to question whether Michelangelo’s prodigious skill in shaping stone (and paint) according to his will was in fact skill in ‘imitating’ nature or representing ‘reality’. So hegemonic, in Western culture, has been the Renaissance view of these matters and so accustomed have we become to the element of truth in its claims to naturalism (for example, single point perspective and plastic shading ) that we generally ‘miss’ or leave unsaid the numerous really obvious ways in which this art is not naturalistic at all. For instance the David is an eighteen foot high stone object which does not and cannot resemble in any way – dimensions, colour, texture, mobility, - a sixth century BC shepherd boy, of whose actual appearance we have no knowledge whatsoever, and whose very existence is likely mythical. Likewise ‘The Creation of Adam’: of what could this possibly be a ‘naturalistic’ or ‘realistic’ representation? Even Adam’s muscles and God’s beard are idealised. When it comes to Baudrillard’s hyper reality, his simulacrum of a simulacrum with no underlying referent, Michelangelo beats CNN and the Gulf War any day.

But even if we set those sort of considerations aside, and adopt the conventional usage of naturalism, neither Michelangelo’s own artistic trajectory nor his standing can satisfactorily be accounted for in these terms. On his death bed, aged 88, Michelangelo is reputed to have said ‘I am dying just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession’. Yet, clearly, as he got older he moved further and further away from ‘technique’ in the naturalist sense and more and more towards a ‘freer’ and more ‘expressionist’ handling of the stone. Compare an early and late work on a similar subject – the Pieta in St. Peter’s, Rome, made in his early twenties, with the Pieta (or Deposition) in the Florentine Duomo, made in his eighties. The first is a technical virtuoso piece, staggering in its ability to render the folds in Mary’s raiment and the veins on the back of Christ’s hand. The second is rough hewn and ‘unfinished’ and Christ is strangely missing his right leg. Yet to my eyes the later work has an artistic power and merit that far exceeds that of the earlier one. If Michelangelo’s artistic achievement rested primarily on technique and so-called naturalism he would stand with Holbein or Hals not, as he does, with Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Bach.

Thus we are compelled to leave the supposedly safe and objective waters of technical skill for the apparently subjective and dangerous waters of ‘interpretation’. We have to attempt to confront and deal with what Michelangelo or rather his work is actually saying. For understandable reasons many art historians and critics shy away from this in relation both to Michelangelo and art in general, but some fools rush in where angels fear to tread and there is no doubt some wonderful nonsense has been written on this score. For example Rolf Schott in the Thames and Hudson monograph on Michelangelo writes:

The pressure of everyday existence has dimmed, for our generation, the memory of mankind’s divine origin. Michelangelo’s work is a visual statement of what the world has lost – the sense of wonder aroused by the mystery of human existence and human form.

As an artist, Michelangelo is impersonal. His visual work tells us nothing about the man himself or his environment.

(Rolf Schott, Michelangelo, London, Thames & Hudson, 1975, p.7)

These lines make no sense even in their own terms, never mind as an interpretation of Michelangelo. Assuming ‘the world’ once had a ‘sense of wonder aroused by the mystery of human existence and human form’, when did it have it and when was it lost ? Was it around in the High Renaissance for Michelangelo to make a visual statement of it? Is it only our generation that has mislaid it and was this really due to ‘the pressure of every day existence?’ How can it possibly be true that ‘his visual work tells us nothing about the man himself or his environment’? If the only thing Michelangelo’s work told us, and it is not, was that the artist was very interested in the male body, that would be of some considerable significance.

The only reason for quoting Schott here (and Gombrich, and Symonds) is that it seems to me that such writing, often high flown but vacuous, sets the tone for how Michelangelo is perceived and received in our culture. Apart from seeing Michelangelo as primarily a ‘naturalist’ the other major difficulty has been caused by seeing him as primarily a religious artist. Obviously he was a ‘believer’, a sincere Christian, and obviously much of the work was commissioned by the church and had overtly religious themes or subject matter - all of that went with the territory and the time. But it does not follow from this that the driving force of Michelangelo’s art was some pure and lofty spirituality, anymore than piety was the dominant quality of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In my opinion there are few artists for whom Marx’s insight that ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’ and that ‘the earthly family is …the secret of the holy family’, are more apposite and more essential.

Take for example, the David. This is based on a bible story but its motivation was thoroughly secular and ‘political’. It was commissioned in 1501 by the Operai of Santa Maria del Fiore (a sort of committee of public works) on behalf of the new republican government of Florence to celebrate the recent ousting of its Medici rulers and its independence from Sforza Milan and the Roman Papacy. The symbolism is obvious. In that the work also has a ‘deeper’ more universal reference and resonance this is because it is a humanist statement about “man”. (Clearly any such claim needs to be unpacked and this will be – a little later).

Then there is the so-called Dying Captive or Dying Slave which stands now in the Louvre. The titles are posthumous attributions, not Michelangelo’s, and the work itself contains no indication that the young man is a slave or captive, except in some metaphorical sexual sense – a ‘love slave’? – or that he is dying except on the sense of an orgasmic petit mort. De Tolnay, an esteemed Michelangelo expert, says he is ‘a dreaming adolescent shaking of the bonds of sleep’ and Sala, following de Tolnay, but edging a little further, says ‘In fact this figure is not dying at all, but rather absorbed in a dream- like state…somewhere between the languorous sensuality of an adoloscent ephebe and the wistfulness of a captive restrained none too convincingly.’ (C. De Tolnay cited in C. Sala, Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect, Terrail, Paris 1995 p.170). These are degrees of evasion. The capacity of art historians not to see what is literally in their faces never ceases to amaze me, for this is blatantly a work of homoeroticism. I do not say that homoeroticism is all that it is about, but it is manifestly its driving force. And indeed the moment one casts aside the taboo and the four centuries old veil of hypocrisy it is manifest that homoeroticism is a major driver of Michelangelo’s art as a whole. Not only is the naked male body overwhelmingly the predominant motif, but there are several works which are not far off being mass orgies of male flesh (e.g. The Battle of the Centaurs, parts of The Last Judgment) and there are others, ostensibly religious in theme, where male nudes appear, in numbers, with no conceivable narrative or theological justification - there are four frontal male nudes in the background to The Holy Family, and more than twenty in the interstices of The Sistine Ceiling. This short paper cannot possibly do justice to the role of homoeroticism in Michelangelo’s work but I raise the issue simply to reinforce the point that religious subject matter does not guarantee or correspond to religious content. And no matter how pious the artist it does not preclude the art serving as a means to express thoroughly earthly concerns.

At this point I need to move swiftly from the negative to the positive, from what Michelangelo’s work was not, to what it was. To do so I believe it is essential to see Michelangelo in relation to his times. By his times I do not mean, principally, events but the broader and deeper social forces at work in the society in which he lived. Some major works are occasioned by specific events - Picasso’s Guernica is the obvious example – but Picasso’s cubism and his whole way of painting and representing the world was conditioned by the social relations of capitalism in its imperialist phase, as was demonstrated by John Berger in his book The Success and Failure of Picasso and his article ‘The Moment of Cubism’. When Hyacinth Rigaud painted Louis XIV, he was painting not just the features or personality of the Sun King but the whole social institution of absolute monarchy. Moreover it is necessary to understand those times, those social forces, in a Marxist i.e historical materialist way. Only the Marxist theory of history, that is a theory that sets out from the development of the forces and relations of production and their expression in class struggle is able to identify correctly the underlying forces at work in a society and to which artists in general, but especially great artists, respond.

It is, I suppose, necessary to insist at this point that this methodology is not a reductionist or economic determinist one. The artist – Michelangelo or whoever – is not denied their creativity, originality or personal vision, based on their unique experience. Least of all are they seen as simple vehicles or ciphers for class interests or class ideologies. (It is true that the Althusserian, Nicos Hadjinicolaou, propounded a view close to this in his Art History and Class Struggle, but this not the kind of Marxism or the kind of art history I propose). The artist is an individual human being who not only reflects the wider society but actively responds to it, often critically, but what the artist responds to has to be part of the analysis and, generally speaking, the greater the artist the more profoundly they will engage with the deep social forces, rather just superficial appearances, of their moment in history.

In the case of Michelangelo the best starting point for grasping his situation is a quotation from Frederick Engels in what may seem an unlikely location, namely the Introduction to The Dialectics of Nature – Engels is discussing the birth of modern science not art but it remains extraordinarily relevant

Modern natural science dates, like all more recent history, from that mighty epoch which we Germans term the Reformation, from the national misfortune that overtook us at that time, and which the French term the Renaissance and the Italians the Cinquecento, although it is not fully expressed by any of these names. It is the epoch which had its rise in the last half of the fifteenth century. Royalty, with the support of the burghers of the towns, broke the power of the feudal nobility and established the great monarchies, based essentially on nationality, within which the modern European nations and modern bourgeois society came to development.

In the manuscripts saved from the fall of Byzantium, in the antique statues dug out of the ruins of Rome, a new world was revealed to the astonished West, that of ancient Greece: the ghosts of the Middle Ages vanished before its shining forms; Italy rose to an undreamt-of flowering of art, which seemed like a reflection of classical antiquity and was never attained again. In Italy, France, and Germany a new literature arose, the first, modern literature; shortly afterwards came the classical epochs of English and Spanish literature…

The dictatorship of the Church over men's minds was shattered; it was directly cast off by the majority of the Germanic peoples, who adopted Protestantism, while among the Latins a cheerful spirit of free thought, taken over from the Arabs and nourished by the newly-discovered Greek philosophy, took root more and more and prepared the way for the materialism of the eighteenth century.

It was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants - giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning. The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations. On the contrary, the adventurous character of the time inspired them to a greater or less degree. There was hardly any man of importance then living who had not travelled extensively, who did not command four or five languages, who did not shine in a number of fields. Leonardo da Vinci was not only a great painter but also a great mathematician, mechanician, and engineer…. Albrecht Durer was painter, engraver, sculptor, and architect, and in addition invented a system of fortification... Machiavelli was statesman, historian, poet, and at the same time the first notable military author of modern times. Luther not only cleaned the Augean stable of the Church but also that of the German language… The heroes of that time had not yet come under the servitude of the division of labour, the restricting effects of which, with its production of onesidedness, we so often notice in their successors. But what is especially characteristic of them is that they almost all pursue their lives and activities in the midst of the contemporary movements, in the practical struggle; they take sides and join in the fight, one by speaking and writing, another with the sword, many with both. Hence the fullness and force of character that makes them complete men.

I apologise for the length of the quote which I have cut as much as possible, but which, without mentioning Michelangelo’s name, nonetheless fits him like glove, even down to the building of fortifications which he did for Florence in 1529. The key points are 1) that the Renaissance is part of the birth of capitalism, or more precisely an episode in the transition from feudalism to capitalism;2) that the transition from feudalism to capitalism is a lengthy and complex international process (not a series of separate national processes).

Capitalist production and capitalist social relations develop, at first slowly, within feudalism – in its interstices, as Marx put it, primarily in the medieval towns – and its social bearer, the bourgeoisie’ (originally the burghers or ‘townsmen’) are literally the middle class, subordinate to the feudal nobility, who are the dominant class, but superior to the peasants, artisans and fledgling proletarians or wage labourers. The bourgeoisie develops economically and culturally before it achieves political i.e. state power. The fairly prolonged period in which bourgeois power more or less rivals that of the aristocracy sees the rise of the absolute monarchs who raise themselves above the contending classes, playing them off against each other but ultimately preserving the old feudal regime. The bourgeoisie’s conquest of state power and establishment of full blown capitalist states involves a series of struggles revolutions and wars, in which there are victories and defeats, steps forward and steps back, over several centuries. The most important victories are the Dutch Revolt of (and establishment of the Dutch Republic at the end of the 16th century), The English Revolution of 1642-7, the American Revolution of 1774 - 76 and the French Revolution of 1789- 93. The French Revolution, together with the contemporaneous Industrial Revolution in Britain is decisive. The bourgeoisie will now rule the world though mopping up operations continue well into the 20th century.

The place of Florence in the early part of this story has been extensively documented by FrederickAntal in the first chapter of his classic study Florentine Painting and its Social Background.

The great economic power of Florence … grew up chiefly in the twelfth century and expanded during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to dimensions unparalleled elsewhere in Italy or indeed Europe. Its foundations were threefold; the textile industry, the trade in textiles and other products, and banking….In all these industries it was no longer the master-craftsman but the capitalist entrepreneur, who disposed of the wares to the customer… The industry of Florence, particularly the cloth industry and the international trade connected with it, was undoubtedly the most important enterprise of an anearly capitalist character in the whole of the later Middle Ages…The same Florentine citizens who were the world’s greatest industrialists and merchants were also its chief bankers.

(F.Antal, Florentine Painting and its Social Background, Routledge & Keegan, Paul, London 1948, pp 11- 13)

The was the economic foundation of the Renaissance, Early and High and it should be noted that the association of artistic ‘golden ages’ with periods of spectacular wealth is common in the history of art – Venice just after Florence, Antwerp and then Amsterdam in the late16th and 17th centuries, Paris in the 19th and early 20th, New York post World War 2 and, even, in a small way, London in the 1980s and 90s, are all examples. Arnold Hauser puts it thus:

The new artistic culture first appears on the scene in italy because this country also a lead over the West in economic and social matters, because the revival of economic life starts here, the financial and transport facilities of the crusades are organised from here, free competition first develops here, in opposition to the guild ideal of the Middle Ages and the first European banking system arises here, because the emancipation of the urban middle class takes place here earlier than in the rest of Europe.

(A. Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 2, Routledge & Keegan Paul, London p.9-10)

To properly outline the interconnections between this economic development and the specific art of Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Ucello, Donatello, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli and so on is beyond the scope of this paper, but certain general features can be outlined. The most fundamental thing is that this art of the 14th and 15th century achieves – I’m tempted to say wins or forges for you can see it developing painting by painting, artist by artist– the three dimensional space, within and behind the picture frame, within which can be depicted urban and rural spaces, solid objects and, above all human actions and human personalities. This is an optimistic art characterised by ‘freedom and effortlessness of expression… grace and elegance’ (Hauser, op.cit. p.7) which serves as a visual accompaniment to the rise of humanist philosophy. The sense in which the work of Leonardo, Raphael and the younger Michelangelo constitutes the culmination of this process is clear.

Overall the birth of capitalism in its early stages (and this is true in Italy, in the Netherlands, in England , in America and in France) is experienced by the mass of people, and especially the middle and lower middle classes, from which most artists and intellectuals spring, as a massive expansion in human freedom, a liberation from the restrictions, bonds and superstitions imposed by the church and the feudal aristocracy who were, of course, close ideological and practical allies, and thus a huge emancipation of the human personality. Two works by Michelangelo, the David and The Creation of Adam, express this more clearly, more powerfully and more beautifully than, perhaps, any others in European history.

As we have already noted the David was commissioned as a work celebrating political liberty in a quite definite sense, but just as Picasso’s Guernica was painted in response to a particular war crime but has emerged as a statement about the crime of war in general, so the David has been pretty generally read as a statement about ‘man’. The ‘perfection’ of the body and its sheer scale guarantee that is seen as a celebration, but there is more to it than that. Unlike his predecessors in sculpting this subject, Donatello and Verocchio, who show David after the defeat of Goliath with the giant’s head at his feet,Michelangelo shows David before the battle, thus providing a basis in the narrative for David’s frowning forehead and making it a work which looks to the future in anticipation of the decisive struggle. Moreover the David is not in fact in ‘perfect’ proportion; the head and hands, especially the right hand holding the stone, are slightly too large and this has the effect of making David a brain as well as a body and a doer and maker as well as an object of desire. Thus what the David celebrates is not ‘man’ as he is, but a vision of the whole man that he has the potential to become. As Gramsci says ‘ … in putting the question “what is man?” what we mean is: what can man become? That is, can man dominate his own destiny, can he “make himself”, can he create his own life?’. (A.Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart, London 1971, p. 351)

The Creation of Adam depicts the moment God brings Adam to life but visually it is Adam not God who is the ‘star’ of the painting and indeed of the whole Sistine Ceiling. This is very much a humanist creation. The predominance of this panel over all the others, visually as well as in historical reputation, is both because of its content (the ‘moment’ of creation ) and because it is the panel with most sky and therefore most light, and because of the clarity of its forms in their semi – symmetrical composition. This semi- symmetry also hints at the potential always latent in the biblical notion of God creating man in his own image, namely the materialist (Feuerbachian, then Marxist) reversal whereby man creates God in his own image. But ‘man’ who creates God is ‘man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again’ (Marx) and the God he creates is a dream, an idealised fantasy of what he might become. When God (Michelangelo) creates man he creates him as a young man in his prime, and when man (Michelangelo) creates God he creates him as a wise and benevolent old man.

The possibility of a homoerotic reading of this scene is, or should be, obvious. God and Adam yearn for each other. But this homoerotic element actually contributes to the ‘universality’ of the image. In Michelangelo [and up to now I have simply reflected this without comment] the male figure/’man’ represents or ‘stands for’ humanity. This could hardly be otherwise in such a male dominated society, and was indeed general practice, at least linguistically, until well into the 1970s. However when I look at Adam (and this also applies, though less strongly, to the David) I think Michelangelo’s homoeroticism has ‘softened’ his depiction . He is a beautiful, but not a macho, man. There is Hegel’s profound dialectic of slavery at work here. The slave is freer than the slave owner. Mankind is represented by the despised gay man.

However, as we move from the Sistine ceiling to the wall behind the altar, i.e. The Last Judgement, we enter a different emotional world. The frescos on the ceiling participate in the same humanist optimism as Leonardo or even Giotto before them. The Last Judgement is a work of extreme anguish. Only a quarter to a third of the fresco, the top least visible part, shows those raised up by Christ to heaven and no particular attempt is made to depict their eternal joy. Two thirds of it focuses on the torments, mainly mental, of the damned. Hauser writes:

… it is no longer a monument of beauty and perfection, of power and youth , that arises here, but a picture of bewilderment and despair, a cry for redemption from the chaos which suddenly threatens to swallow up the world of the Renaissance…

The Last Judgement … is the first important artistic creation which is no longer ‘beautiful’ and which refers back to those medieval works of art which were not yet beautiful but merely expressive.

(A. Hauser. op.cit. p.105)

Nor is the Last Judgement a one off. All Michelangelo’s major art works that follow it – the Conversion of St.Paul and the Crucifixion of St.Peter frescos, the Florentine Pieta, and his last work, the Rondanini Pieta, share a similar gloomy, perhaps tragic, atmosphere . By Renaissance standards these pieces might be judged wanting - they are not beautiful depictions of beautiful things, and they certainly lack ‘perfection’ or ‘harmony’ – but I think they are among his finest art. I see affinities here with the Shakespeare of King Lear and The Tempest, and the Rembrandt of The Jewish Bride and the late self portraits.

The question, however, is what produced the profound change in mood. For those disposed to the biographical approach to art history there is an obvious answer: the onset of old age and the approach of death. And there is clearly some truth in this, especially in the case of the Rondanini Pieta, on which he was working to within days of his death. It cannot , however, be any thing like the whole story because as Hauser has shown (See A. Hauser, Mannerism: the Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin Of Modern Art, Routledge& Keegan Paul, London 1965 especially pp4-16 ), Michelangelo’s shift in style, is part of a much wider shift in style in Italian and to some extent, European art – the move to Mannerism. We need therefore to look again to the wider society, to history.

What happened between the Ceiling (1508-12) and the Wall (1535- 41)? Lots of ‘events’ certainly. Many great artists died: Botticelli, Da Vinci, Del Sarto, Giorgione, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Corregio, as well as Holbein, Durer, Grunewald and Bosch outside Italy. In 1512 Cardinal Giovanni de Medici with the aid of Papal troops restored Medici rule in Florence, ending a period of republican democracy under Piero Soderini (and Niccolo Macchiavelli). In 1527 the forces of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V defeated Rome and sacked the city, after executing one thousand of its defenders. Faced with this development, the citizens of Florence seized the opportunity to overthrow their Medici rulers for the second time (the first was in 1494), and to re-establish their republic. Michelangelo rallied to their support and in 1529 accepted a commission to design the city’s fortifications. But Pope Clement VII made a deal with Charles V to use the emperor’s troops to recapture Florence and return it to Medici hands. In 1533, Alessandro de'Medici was created Duke of Florence bringing an end to the republic and inaugurating 200 hundred years of hereditary Medici rule. The sacking of Rome and the defeat of Florence effectively brings the Renaissance to an end (except for the late Titian in Venice). While all this is happening in Italy, Luther has launched the Reformation in Wittemburg in 1517 and this has led the German Peasant War of 1525, in which Luther sided with the aristocracy in ferociously crushing the Peasant revolt, he had himself called forth. In response to the Reformation came the Counter- Reformation: humanism was eclipsed, Pope Paul III revived the Holy Inquisition (1542) and convened the Council of Trent (1545) to repel the Protestant threat. And, most importantly in the long run, the opening up of the Americas, following Columbus, combined with the Ottoman threat in the Eastern Mediterranean, following the fall of Byzantium, moved the economic centre of gravity of Europe from the Mediterranean to the North West and the Atlantic sea board.

But it is not so much the events as their wider import that is crucial here. Let us recall that it was Florence’s (and Italy’s) role as pioneer of capitalism in Europe that was the economic and social foundation of the Renaissance. Then let us also recall that Italy did not at all maintain its leading position, economically or socially. Italy did not produce a bourgeois democratic revolution, did not make the transition to a fully fledged capitalist state, did not even find the ‘leader’ that Macchiavelli called for in The Prince to unify the nation, until the Risorgimento in the mid -19th Century and consequently experienced centuries of relative cultural decline – Giotto, Da Vinci and Michelangelo gave way to Canaletto and Canova.- while economic and cultural supremacy passed north to the Netherlands and England. The early 16th Century was thus a crucial turning point in the history of Italy, and also Germany as Marx and Engels were to explain, and therefore of Europe and the world. It was one of those moments when the door of history begins, tantalisingly, to open, inviting us to step through into a golden future, only to slam shut in our faces. The closest parallel I can think of is the 1920s and 30s when the hopes aroused by the Russian Revolution were dashed and ended in the nightmare of Stalinism and Fascism. Michelangelo’s late works were produced in the early modern ‘Midnight of the Century’. (the phrase is Victor Serge’s). In fact the next major wave of the struggle, the international struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism, was only a couple of decades and a few hundred miles away – the Dutch Revolt began two years after Michelangelo’s death – but neither he, nor anyone else, could possibly have had any sense of this at the time.

This raises the question of how much of the history I have been talking about would Michelangelo have been aware of and how it would have influenced his work? Clearly, in the terms that I have been using (feudalism, capitalism, bourgeoisie, etc.), he could not have been conscious at all – this kind of analysis only becomes possible with Marx. Moreover, Michelangelo was a professional artist who depended, to live and to work, on commissions from Medicis and Popes and who, in order to survive, had often to keep his counsel and sometimes make his excuses and leave. But we do know where his sympathies lay. We know that the young Michelangelo was sympathetic to Savonarola, the Dominican priest and popular democrat who led Florence from 1794 till he was deposed by the Pope and the Medici and burned at the stake in 1498. We know that he was often in conflict with his Medici and Papal masters and that he supported the Florentine Republic of 1527, leaving the city in disgust when Medici rule was restored. We know that in later life his ‘Platonic’ friendship with Vittoria Colonna in Rome involved much discussion of ‘Lutheran’ type ideas, which were regarded as heretical by Papacy. He would therefore most certainly have been sensitive to the changed political, moral and cultural climate. After all it resulted in the painting over of the genitals in The Last Judgement on the orders of Pope Paul IV in 1559!

But it so happened that Michelangelo produced, during these years, a series of major works, among the greatest in his whole output, which express with exceptional intensity this moment in history. These works are the so-called ‘slaves’ or ‘captives’. The first two, The Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, both from 1513, are still close on form and spirit to David and Adam. But then, between 1519 and 1533 came Atlas, the Young Slave, the Bearded Slave and the Awakening Slave, who in age, size and physique are nearer to the Christ of The Last Judgement. They were all intended for the tomb of Julius II whose centrepiece was to be the awesome Moses, and they are all left ‘unfinished’. Their unfinished character gives rise to one of those art historical disputes that has not been, and probably cannot be conclusively resolved. Why are they unfinished? Are they unfinished because Michelangelo was obliged, by circumstances beyond his control, to leave them that way? Did he consciously, or unconsciously, choose not to finish them? In which case are they really unfinished? If he really wanted to produce finished work, why did he not finish one of the series before starting on the next? My personal inclination is to believe they were deliberately left as they are because they are so powerful that way.

Anyway, conscious or unconscious, intended or unintended, the effect is the same – four giant figures struggling for freedom from the stone but still held captive by it. And they do not just capture the essence of that moment, they also make a powerful statement about human history and the struggle for human emancipation as a whole. For, today, nearly five hundred years later, we are still slaves fighting for our freedom, and still gripped by the rock of class society, alienation and ‘the muck of ages’.

Now the question posed at the beginning of this paper – on what does Michelangelo’s status as a giant of human history and culture rest - has received an answer. It is by no means a comprehensive answer, many aspects of Michelangelo, such as his architecture, and many of his works, have been neglected, but hopefully it grasps the main point. In his workas a whole Michelangelo expressed, more than any other artist, the hope and the dream of the Renaissance and the despair and misery of the betrayal and crushing of that dream. And as always the art that penetrates most deeply into, and responds most powerfully to the social relations and forces of its time is also the art that achieves the greatest ‘universal’ appeal and validity.

John Molyneux
June 28, 2009