Sunday, December 31, 2006

Professional Revolutionaries (1987)

Editorial from the October 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

A recurrent criticism levelled at leftist politicians and parties is that their philosophies - or what pass for them - are rooted in a conviction that they know better what is good for the workers that the workers do themselves; indeed, the electoral success of the Conservatives since 1979 is said to be the fruit of a populist appeal to "set the people free", to let the punters sink or swim in a juice of their own making. Whether or not we accept the good intentions of the left, it is undeniable that the carefully constructed, major projects of modern reformists have everywhere been crushed by the sobering realities of capitalism, to a point where cynicism and caution are as widespread as seaside sewage.

The damage done by piecemeal improvers to the movement for a truly free society has been more than matched by the programmes of self-styled vanguards, who share with them a belief in strong leadership and its unstated corollary, a contempt for the passive and malleable prole. Utterly discredited as their doctrines are, they still draw support from those impatient with argument and democracy and attracted by theories that purport to offer a short cut to the new society by placing organisation above the battle of ideas. For what, after all, could be more thoroughly twentieth-century than revolution to order, eruption by instalment and instruction, and the transfer of the power of decision to a brain outside the body to be moved? As somebody famous should once have said, the worst torture is to have your head filled with ideas that may never be applied in your lifetime.

The idea that an intellectual elite could lead a politically ignorant majority into a new society was inimical to the founders of the socialist movement, who always advocated an extreme form of democracy. They wanted the revolution made in the fullness of time by an immense and politically organised class, and their programme would have made violence unnecessary in the capture of political power. When Marx called the communists "the advanced section of the proletariat", he had nothing in mind like the bolshevik doctrine about the proper relation between "the party of the proletariat" and the class. He was wanting, rather, to emphasise the importance of theory, to show that the workers could not, until they understood the society they lived in, create any real alternative. The victory of the idea is the effect of its persuasive power and its relevance to workers' experience; it is won in open competition with other theories; it can never be imposed from above.

The intellectual vanguard is modelled on the structure of the army, and borrows some of its characteristic and typical features: strict discipline, subordination, hierarchy, unity of command. The most active elements, the special instruments of historic change, are militarised and in command of an obedient majority. The working class is replaced by the party; the party is replaced by party organisation; the party organisation is replaced by the general staff. Ostensibly a triumph of the working class, in reality it confirms their impotence.

Bolshevism is the doctrine, not of a working class party in highly industrialised society, but of a specifically Russian group of intellectuals, professionally trained and working in perfect harmony; an exclusive and irresponsible elite. Most of the workers who gave them support did so because their promises were attractive, and not out of shared ambition. Having taken power in the name of the proletariat, they quickly discovered that the class whose vanguard they claimed to be would not always follow them; and seeing the class were ignorant of the obvious, did not hesitate to drive where they could not lead.

Professional revolutionaries of our time have not, then been the midwives of a new world but incompetent and bloody surgeons who have not been able to foretell the results of their operations. Their apologists - including those who ended up with scalpels in their heads - place after the revolution what should come before it. This simple inversion, which makes nonsense of historical materialism, is the essence of an ideology as relevant to the socialist task as ballroom dancing.

All the enemies of freedom are repulsive, but few more so than those who destroy it for the sake of an objective they have themselves distorted and debased. As the big dipper of capitalism hurtles on in the dark, there is still no shortage of self-appointed champions of the people offering to lead us all to securer ground, but with no guarantee that it won't be below the surface. Political education, on a wide scale and of sufficient depth and continuity, may be utopian to the left; it is the only course for socialists.

Shelley: a socialist poet

From the World Socialist Movement website


I became acquainted with Shelley in 1944. At the time I was eighteen years of age and a Republican remand prisoner in Belfast jail. I liked poetry and, searching for something readable in the prison library - a cupboard which they opened twice weekly to the accompaniment of bawling screws, who could see no justification for delay in lifting one of the books - I found a treasure: The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Eventually I got my own copy of Shelley and, over many, many years, I have prized it as the first real socialist literature I ever read. It is, I think, fitting that, on the bi-centenary of his birth, an appreciation of his life's work should appear in a socialist journal.


Poets, with their abstract notions of freedom and justice, can momentarily help a prisoner transcend the ignominy and degradation that the prison system imposes. But Shelley's ideas of freedom and justice were no way abstract; his was no mere solace for the soul. Yes, there were the odes To The West Wind, To A Skylark, To A Cloud; beautiful word music in the classical tradition of English metrical composition.


But, more importantly, there was the wisdom that stripped to its essential ugliness a system of society that dissipates, wastes and destroys wealth in order to make its rich richer while mentally and physically impoverishing the producers of that wealth. There was the vision of a new world, a world of dignity and equality where cash would not be the measure of human need. And there was the indignation, the anguish, even the pain - sometimes written in a spontaneity of anger that defied the discipline of well-marshalled prosody. Here was a text book of revolutionary thought that showed the futility of the cause for which I was imprisoned and extended my vision beyond the empty rhetoric of nationalism.


During his lifetime Shelley had come to Ireland to protest at the misery of the peasantry. Some Irish nationalists have equated this with sympathy for Irish nationalism but Shelley, whose constituency was the toiling masses everywhere, did not subscribe to the myth that the English working class were the beneficiaries of English imperialism. Thus, after hearing of the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819, Shelley wrote the Masque of Anarchy in which he describes the contemporary condition of the working class in England:

Asses, swine have litter spread

And with fitting food are fed;

All things have a home but one -
Thou, Oh Englishman, hast none!

This is Slavery—savage men, Or wild beasts within a den Would endure not as ye do—But such ills they never knew.


This poem, consisting of some ninety one short stanzas of varying lengths was written at Leghorn in Italy. According to his wife, Mary, when Shelley heard how the military murderers had waded into a peaceful reform protest "it… aroused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion". According to some purists, that anger adversely affected the quality of the poem.


Whatever its poetic qualities, Shelley's Masque of Anarchy must rank, from a working class standpoint, as the most chdactic of English poetical works. His verse castigates every rotten facet of capitalism: its law, its judiciary, its priests, its parasite class and the foulness of its oppression. His words bear the reader along the path of anger and frustration seeking, it would seem, retribution, revenge. But Shelley, in an age when violence was the tool of revolution, was too deeply perceptive of the need for democratic action if the revolution which he craved was to realise his vision. True, he makes us angry, makes us loathe this evil that murders people for profit but, on the crest of our anger, he stops us:

Then it is to feel revenge

Fiercely thirsting to exchange

Blood for blood -and wrong for wrong -

Do not thus when ye are strong.


What then? What should we do when "we are strong"? Shelley, the democratic socialist says we should use the unassailable power of our numbers. Poetically, he says we should think . . . decide:

Stand ye calm and resolute,

Like a forest, close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war.

(… )

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

Ye are many - they are few.


In 1888 Marx's daughter, Eleanor, and her partner, Edward Aveling published an appreciation of Shelley under the title Shelley's Socialism. The justification for their assumption is abundant throughout Shelley's poems and prose writings. In one of his notes to Queen Mab, Shelley quotes Godwin with approval: "there is no real wealth but the labour of man".


Prometheus Unbound, The Masque of Anarchy, Queen Mab, The Ode to Liberty, these, with his prose writings, his prologues, his sonnets and his songs chronicle the misery of the peasant and the wage slave but always, there is the optimism of the true revolutionary; the clarity of vision, as here in Prometheus Unbound, of a future where:

The Loathsome mask has fallen the man remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man

Equal, unclassed, tribless and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king,

Over himself, just, gentle, wise.


Queen Mab is a vision of the past, present and future of mankind. In it Shelley attacks kings, war, commerce and, in particular, priests and religion. In fact the criticism of christianity, in the poem as well as in prose notes attached to it was so hard-hitting that when it was republished in the 1820s the publisher was sent to prison for blasphemy. Queen Mab became the work that publishers used in defiance of the restrictive press laws of the time. Each time they were convicted of blasphemy. But as a result Queen Mab, and thus Godwin's social ideas, came to be widely read in Chartist and radical circless.


In this passage from Queen Mab he criticises the way money contaminates all human relationships:

All things are sold: the very light of Heaven Is venal;

Earth's unsparing gifts of love,

The smallest and most despicable things

That lurk in the abysses of the deep,

All objects of our life, even life itself,

And the poor pittance which the laws allow

Of liberty, the fellowship of man,

Those duties which his heart of human love

Should urge him to perform instinctively,

Are bought and sold as in a public mart

Of undisguising selfishness, that sets

On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.


He saw money, "paper coin - that forgery of the title deeds", as capitalism's instrument of theft; he saw slavery as a natural result of property society; he saw the poverty and alienation of the masses and, especially, did he decry the intellectual poverty and deception which capitalism inflicted on its wage slaves.


In part V of Queen Mab Shelley attacks commerce which he sees as a product of selfishness in the sense of people wanting to sell their surplus for money rather than give it to others to satisfy their needs:

Commerce! Beneath whose poison-breathing shade

No solitary virtue dares to spring,

But Poverty and Wealth with equal handScatter their withering curses, and unfold

The doors of premature and violent death,

To pining famine and full-fed disease,

To all that shares the lot of human life,

Which poisoned, body and soul, scarce dragsthe chain,

That lengthens as it goes and clanks behind.


It is quite clear that Shelley was expressing Godwin's idea that, in a just society, producers would give away their surplus produce free rather than sell it for money. Hence his opening description of commerce as "the venal interchange of all that human art or nature yield; which wealth should purchase not, but want demand, and natural kindness hasten to supply". When he later describes what will happen when people are motivated by the "consciousness of good" he naturally states that they will have no need of "mediative signs of selfishness" - of money - and that "every transfer of the earth's natural gifts shall be a commerce of good words and works".

This commerce of sincerest virtue needs

No mediative signs of selfishness,

No jealous intercourse of wretched gain,

No balancings of prudence, cold and long;

In just and equal measure all is weighed, One scale contains the sum of human weal, And one, the good man's heart.


Part V of Queen Mab ends as follows:

But hoary-headed Selfishness has felt

Its death-blow, and is tottering to the grave:

A brighter morn awaits the human day, When every transfer of earth's natural gifts Shall be a commerce of good words and works;

When poverty and wealth, the thirst of fame,

The fear of infamy, disease and woe,

War with its million horrors, and fierce hell Shall live but in the memory of Time,

Who, like a penitent libertine, shall start,

Look back, and shudder at his younger years.


In one sense this argument as to whether or not Godwin and Shelley were socialists is anachronistic since the modern idea of socialism, as the solution to the problems of a majority wage-working class within a capitalist industrial society, had not yet come into being. This is partly why in this article we have used the word "communist" rather than "socialist" to describe the moneyless equal society advocated by critics of the essentially agrarian class society that existed before industrial capitalism developed. It was of course the low level of development of the means of production that accounts for the frugal, even Spartan, character which the pre-industrial communists were obliged to give to the egalitarian society they advocated, but it still remains true that people like (in England) More, Winstanley and Godwin and Shelley and (in France) Morelly, Babeuf and Buonarotti were forerunners of the socialist industrial society of abundance that we modern socialists now advocate.
Richard Montague

Chavism (2007)

Book Review from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. By D. L. Raby. (Pluto Press.)

Though relatively unknown in Europe, Latin America has its own tradition of Marxism or, rather, of "Marxism-Leninism". Descended from the bourgeois-democratic ideology that motivated those who "liberated" Latin America from Spanish rule in the first part of the 19th century, it has been more nationalist and anti-imperialist than pro wage-working class even though committed to trying to improve the lot of "the people".

As this book inadvertently shows, Cuba illustrates this well. The Cuban revolutionaries who overthrew the Batista dictatorship in January 1959 did so in the name of the anti-Spanish Cuban revolutionary tradition and adopted the cry of "Patria o Muerte" (Fatherland or Death). It was only later that the revolution was declared to have been "socialist".

In Venezuela too, Chavez, who was first elected president in 1998, did not declare himself a "socialist" till some years later (in December 2004). But, unlike Castro, Chavez does not claim to be either a Marxist or a Leninist, but a new type of socialist - "a socialist of the 21st century". For leftwingers, after deceived hopes placed in Yugoslavia, then Algeria, then Vietnam, then Nicaragua, Venezuela has become the new Mecca. Raby's book is, in fact, an attempt to defend "Chavism" as a socialist strategy.


Her argument is that the strategy of traditional "Marxism-Leninism", with the indispensable role it attributes to an all-knowing, centralised vanguard directing everything, as exemplified not only by the old pro-Moscow Communist Parties but also by Trotskyists and Maoists, has never worked and never will. Using Cuba and Venezuela as examples, she says that, while a vanguard is still necessary, the main thrust must come from the popular masses having a special relationship with a charismatic leader such as Castro and Chavez have proved to be. According to her, this relationship is not a simple one of leader and followers, but one where the leader somehow interprets and expresses the inchoate wishes of the people (which seems rather mystical).

In what most people wouldn't immediately regard as a flattering comparison, Raby likens Castro and Chavez to other charismatic Latin American leaders such as Peron in Argentina. There may be something in this since Peron, too, praised the workers and enjoyed considerable working class support.

Raby also examines three unsuccessful revolutions - Chile, Portugal and Nicaragua. Of particular interest to us is Chile since what happened to Allende in September 1973, when he was overthrow and died in a coup led by General Pinochet, is always being used as an argument against the possibility of establishing socialism through peaceful, democratic means. Raby confirms the analysis we made at the time: that (quite apart from having state capitalism rather than socialism as its aim) a key factor was that Allende had become president in 1970 with only 36 percent of the popular vote and that he never enjoyed majority popular support:

"with a president voted in by only 36 per cent of the electorate and a coalition which only briefly achieved a little more than 50 per cent (in April 1971), there was no real mandate for revolutionary change."

So it wasn't an example of a successful coup in the face of a determined majority such as would exist before socialism could be established.

Venezuela, being a leading oil-producing country, enjoys considerable income as rent, which the Chavez government has redirected from the luxury consumption of the rich towards improving education and health provision for the mass of the people. We don't want to belittle this but it's not socialism. Raby agrees but says that, as "an eventual worldwide defeat of capitalism" is "an ideal which may or may not be realisable some time in the future", this is the best socialists can hope for at the present time. Socialists should therefore, she says, lower their sights and not go for socialism but only for what one of the writers she quotes, Antonio Carmona Baez, calls a "state-led economy run by socialists". We don't agree. Surely, one of the lessons of the 20th century has been that national state capitalism is not a step to socialism and is in fact unsustainable in the long run.

Adam Buick



Further Reading:
Cuba: No Workers' Paradise (October 2003 Socialist Standard)