Tuesday, April 2, 2013

SWP contradictions (3) (1991)

From the August 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism, says the SWP, cannot be established in one country. Capitalism cannot be abolished within the borders of a single state because capitalism is an international system. Any attempt to do so is bound to fail. An isolated anti-capitalist state would still have to trade with other countries. So it would still be subject to pressure from the world market to keep its prices competitive by exploiting its working class and investing the proceeds in cost-saving equipment. The end result would be some form of national state capitalism, not socialism.

This is all good stuff and perfectly true. So we shouldn't support movements that seek solutions to social problems within a national framework? Well no, not exactly, say the SWP, we must support "all genuine national liberation movements".

So we are being asked to support movements that are either bound to fail or stand for the establishment of some national capitalist state. But why? Why should we support either type of movement? The SWP, however, insist that we should support movements like the Vietcong in the 60s and the Sandinistas and the PLO and the IRA even though they know that all these can achieve is some form of capitalist regime. 

Some of their fellow Trotskyists try to get out of this contradiction by arguing that what the Vietcong and the Sandinistas established, and what the PLO and the IRA would establish would not be a form of capitalism, but some anti-capitalist transitional form. The SWP, quite correctly, won't have anything to do with this nonsense: in the context of world capitalism all countries must eventually conform to the pressures of the world market to run their economies in a capitalist way.

But, since the SWP does support these movements, on their own admission they are supporting movements to set up capitalist states and regimes. Which is an absurd position for people calling themselves "international socialists" to take up. Genuine international socialists would be advocating international (or, more accurately, world) socialism, not national capitalism, as the solution to the problems of workers and peasants in places like Vietnam, Nicaragua and Palestine.

The SWP position here is not just contradictory. It has disastrous practical consequences, as during the recent Gulf War when it led to them supporting Iraq "militarily but not politically" as they themselves put it. Since they knew perfectly well that Iraq was a capitalist country, this means that they were knowingly supporting one capitalist country in a war against another capitalist country. They were knowingly telling Iraqi workers that it was right for them to die in defence of the interests of their capitalist ruling class. A worse betrayal of socialist principles is hard to imagine.
Adam Buick

SWP contradictions (2) (1991)

From the July 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Russia, says the SWP, is not socialist but state capitalist. The workers there are exploited, like those in the West, by a privileged ruling class who live off the surplus value they produce. So far, so good. But for how long has Russia been state capitalist? From 1918 when Lenin proclaimed that state capitalism would be a step forward for backward Russia? No, not at all, says the SWP, Russia didn't become state capitalist until 1928.

So what was Russia before 1928? Well, says the SWP, it was the "deformed Workers State" that other Trotskyists say it still is. To understand this peculiar term you need to know something about Leninist and Trotskyist ideology. According to this, only a minority of workers can understand socialism; the majority can never advance beyond a trade union consciousness and support for trade-union based reformist political parties. The workers, therefore, on this view, need to be led by a vanguard party composed of the minority of revolutionaries. A "Workers State" is what this vanguard party establishes after the previous capitalist ruling class has been overthrown. So it is not actually a state controlled by the workers, but a state controlled by a vanguard party in the name of the workers.

When Lenin died in 1924 a struggle for power developed between a group led by Stalin and another led by Trotsky. It was the Stalin group that emerged victorious. Trotsky analysed this as a victory for the "bureaucracy" in the vanguard party over those in it who genuinely represented the workers (his group—naturally). Actually, it was a struggle within the ruling party which didn't involve the workers at all. It is this purely political event that, according to the SWP, meant that Russia went state capitalist in 1928.

This is an absurd position. If Russia was capitalist after 1928 it must have been capitalist before as well, since the economic position of the working class was exactly the same before 1928 as after. Excluded from ownership and control of the means of production, they had to work for wages and produce profits which went to maintain a privileged elite of Party and state officials. Political conditions weren’t all that different either: Russia had been a one-party state since Lenin's time and, with Trotsky's enthusiastic approval, the trade unions had become instruments of the state to discipline workers and mobilise them to work harder.

In saying that Russia only became state capitalist in 1928, the SWP is perpetuating the myth that Russia before 1928 was some sort of "workers" regime, even socialist (a recent issue of Socialist Worker said Stalin "smashed socialism" in 1928). This reveals a lot about the SWP's own conception of what they mean by the "workers state" they advocate. It too would be compatible with the rule of a vanguard party claming to represent the workers. It too would be compatible with the working class continuing to work for wages. So it too would be state capitalism, not socialism. 

Next month: the contradiction between saying socialism can't exist in one country and supporting nationalist movements.
Adam Buick

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (2013)

Film Review from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard


As part of the Step Into the Dark season, the Barbican recently screened the German 'expressionist' silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) with live piano 'four hands' accompaniment by Neil Brand and John Sweeney. The film was directed by Robert Wiene in 1919 in Berlin and cast Werner Krauss as Dr Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare the somnambulist. It was made in the revolutionary period after the Great War when film censorship was abolished by the Council of People's Representatives, and a film Different From the Others (1919)written by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld could depict homosexuality in a sympathetic light.

Dr Caligari is a tale of hypnosis and murder imbued with fear, gloom, and oppression in a dislocated world. It was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer in Berlin in February-March 1919. They had both fought in the Great War and their experiences had made them anti-militarist and anti-authoritarian.

1919 in Berlin saw Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, the spontaneous 'Spartacist' working class uprising, described by Paul Levi as ‘the greatest proletarian demonstration in history, proletarians standing shoulder to shoulder with their weapons and red flags ready to do anything.’ The SPD government brought in Freikorps soldiers to crush the revolutionary uprising, and socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered.

Dr Caligari has its origins in Janowitz's memories from 1913 of a sex murder in Hamburg, and Meyer's experience of harsh therapy sessions with a military psychiatrist. Janowitz and Meyer also visited a fairground sideshow in Berlin where they saw a man in a hypnotic state predicting the future. Dr Caligari indicts authority, war, the state, conscription and the slaughter of millions of the working class in the Great War. Cesare symbolises the human used as a tool and violated by the state, and authority is seen as inherently insane (Dr Caligari and the lunatic asylum director are the same person).

Dr Caligari is celebrated for its 'expressionist' production design by the painters Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig. The designs are reminiscent of Kirchner's 'expressionist' paintings of Berlin streets. The 'expressionist' design is jagged architecture, stark geometrics, and oblique projected chimneys on pell-mell rooftops, tree-like arabesques, and buildings out of 'normal' perspective in chiaroscuro lighting. The aesthetics influenced films Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Batman Returns (1992) by Tim Burton.

There is controversy about the flashback framing device used in the film which was not in the original story. With the framing device Franzis the narrator is seen as insane and the story a figment of his deranged imagination, and the figure of the lunatic asylum director represents benign authority. Is then Dr Caligari not a revolutionary but a conformist bourgeois film? But the film's ending is not shot realistically: lines have not been straightened and 'expressionist' perpendiculars removed; we have not returned to conventional reality. All the characters such as Cesare and Jane are in the Lunatic Asylum but where is the 'murdered' Alan? Is Franzis right about Dr Caligari?
Steve Clayton

SWP contradictions (1)

From the June 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

"The Labour Party is drenched in the blood of ordinary workers in the Middle East, slaughtered for imperialist rule." SWP "Marxism '91" Programme
The Labour Party, says the SWP, stands for capitalism; if elected it will attack the workers and serve the bosses; Kinnock and the other Labour leaders have blood on their hands for supporting the Gulf War. All very true. So we shouldn't vote Labour? No, no, no, says the SWP, you should vote Labour—and at the next election, as in previous ones, they will produce posters calling on workers to vote for all Labour candidates, including Kinnock, Kaufman and the other war-supporters. Why?

The SWP's facing-both-ways attitude to the Labour Party arises from their contempt for the intellectual abilities of most of the working class. As Leninists and Trotskyists, they think that only a minority can come to acquire a socialist consciousness and that it is the task of this minority to lead the rest of the workers, who are considered incapable of advancing beyond support for trade unions, reforms and reformist parties.

So the SWP is trying to do two things: build a vanguard party and acquire a following of ordinary workers. The attacks on Labour and talk of socialism are aimed at organising the minority who alone can understand these things into the disciplined party that is to play a leadership role, while appeals to "fight the bosses" and "kick out the Tories" are directed at winning followers amongst the inevitably Labour-voting ordinary workers. After all, if you believe, as the SWP does, that most workers cannot understand socialist ideas there is no point in appealing to them on this basis. Why cast pearls before swine? Just tell them that the Tories, not capitalism, are to blame for their problems and urge them to go on voting Labour.

In fact, of course, not only can a majority of workers come to understand socialism but they must if socialism is to be the outcome. Only a majority revolution can lead to socialism as a classless, democratically-run society of free and equal men and women. Minority and minority-led revolutions can only lead to the continuation of class rule in one form or another—as happened in Russia after 1917 under Lenin and Trotsky, which the SWP take as their model, where the leaders of the vanguard party installed themselves as the new bosses while the mass of the workers continued to work for wages. This was state capitalism, not socialism.

Once you recognise, as all genuine socialists must, that workers are capable of coming to want and understand socialism then the attitude to take towards the Labour Party is clear: complete opposition, as to all the other parties of capitalism. Don't, vote Labour any more than vote Tory. Struggle for socialism.

Next month: the contradiction between saying Russia was state capitalist after 1928 but not before.

Adam Buick

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Deceased. (2013)

Editorial from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

For Hugo Chavez, there were no affectionate obituaries in the corporate press last month to describe his qualities and achievements and to ignore his less savoury actions as a holder of state power. Obits of this kind are reserved for the deaths of Western leaders, their allies and their puppets, and Chavez was none of these.  As almost every newspaper and TV channel told us, he was ‘a controversial figure,’ which in media code means a politician that does not support Western interests.   We were invited to disapprove.

Outside the exclusive circle of the corporate media, in the independent leftist press and on leftist websites another Chavez was evident:  Chavez, the hero, the reformer, the charismatic leader, the man with the common touch. Here we were invited to celebrate Chavez’s rejection of the West and Western capitalist values, and his building of a new form of popular socialism in Venezuela, spearheaded by social reforms. 

Political obits of whatever colour are brand labels which demand only that we identify where our loyalties lie.  In reality, Chavez’s rejection of the West and his proclamation of a new popular form of ‘socialism’ were rhetorical moves in a political game that had nothing to do with economic fact.  During his presidency, he kept open the doors on the flow of Western capital into Venezuela, while introducing a familiar programme of nationalisation and social reform.   He did not cease to preside over an exploitative capitalist economy, nor did he cut off economic relationships with the West.

Where now for the country? Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s vice president and named successor appears determined to hold on to power and is using his control of the state to crush opposition. It seems likely then that Maduro will lead the Chavistas back into power at the forthcoming elections and, if he does, it is doubtful that there will be any immediate change of policy – barring some unforeseen political upheaval.

Nevertheless, whoever fills the vacuum left by Chavez, and whatever policies they pursue, there remain certain mundane realities of capitalism that the new leaders of Venezuela must acknowledge and the country’s working people must endure. The Venezuelan economy must remain competitive on the international markets or it will die.  Workers must therefore be exploited.  Whether they are exploited by the Chavista state through its nationalised industries, by local corporations or by new employers likely to be brought in to support the country’s undercapitalised economy will make little difference to their lives.

The degree to which they are exploited will continue to depend on fluctuations in the economy, on their own capacity and will to resist the inevitable downward pressure on their incomes, and on government policy.  The fact of their exploitation, though, is inevitable. So is their relative poverty, their limited freedom of choice, and the lack of control they have over their lives. None of this will change until they and working people everywhere have ceased to put their faith in governments and charismatic politicians whatever claims and promises they make.