Saturday, October 19, 2013

Beyond the fragments (1981)

From the May 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last March, at the Central Hall, Westminster, four left wing leaders took part in what they modestly describe as the Debate of the Decade (the debate of the decayed would have been more accurate). The purpose of the event was to try once again to unite the Left into big movement rather than its present factions, each ultimately loyal to the Labour Party, but each maintaining their own petty and obscure positions (one says that Russia is a 'deformed' workers' state, another insists that is is a 'degenerate' one and a third affirms that it has been a socialist state all the time).

Leftist followers paid up to £6 a ticket to listen to the nostalgic rhetoric of the platform poseurs. Tony Benn (Labour Party) urged the assembled to elect a future leader of the Labour Party who would be honest, principled, radical . . . had he said that the best man for the job must be a lapsed aristocrat and Minister of Industry in a government under which unemployment doubled the hint might have been a little too obvious. Then there was John Cleese of the Socialist Workers' Party who did a passable impersonation of Paul Foot, and Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group who did an embarrassing impersonation of Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov. The Leninist followers loved it all. The fourth and final fragment to address the microphone was Hilary Wainwright, co-author of a book called Beyond the Fragments (Merlin Press).

The book presents a criticism of certain aspects of the Left which socialists would not wish to argue with. Wainwright, Segal and Rowbotham have discovered (through experience) that Leninist parties are repressive, authoritarian bodies. They pointed out that their arrogant leaderships see themselves as the personification of socialist wisdom and how this tends to reduce internal party freedom of thought or action. Rowbotham seems to understand that experience is the greatest leader and perhaps we are not being over-optimistic in suggesting that she implies Lenin was wrong when he wrote that "The working class, exclusively, by its own effort is able to develop only trade union consciousness". (What Is To Be Done?)

She may well have quoted from Marx and Engels' circular letter of 1879 to the leaders of the German Socialist Workers' Party:
When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle-cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic leaders.
The fragment critics are right to reject the anti-democratic assumptions of Leninism, but we would be more convinced of their integrity had they stated at any point in their two hundred and fifty-three-page book that Lenin distorted Marx and that the place for socialists is outside the Leninist Left. Instead we get references to such enemies of the working class as the Socialist Workers' Party and the Communist Party as fellow socialists, comrades and good militants.

Secondly, the age-old Leftist of what they call 'utopianism', but which is in fact theoretical clarity, is rejected by Rowbotham:
In order to explore, we need good maps . . . We need to be able to take stock of the situation and communicate any general principles to other wanderers. We have to establish certain staging points to refuel and assess the journey. This means we have to sit back momentarily from our immediate response to the route and try to sum up the relationship of what we have travelled to the whole journey. Some of this will be from our experience, with information from other travellers' tales and from any existing maps. Some will be speculation about the way things will be likely to go. Our summation of the whole may be incomplete and imperfect, but we still need it in order to get our bearings. Even if we abandon this assessment subsequently, the attempt can still be decisive and the effort to be as accurate as we can is still vital if we are not to trundle down every dead end or take enormous detours. (pp. 54-5) 
In short, you cannot embark upon the path to socialism unless you know what socialism means. Rowbotham's discovery of this point makes it all the more disappointing that nowhere in the book is there a single definition of socialism.

Thirdly, it is argued in the book that the fragments of the Left-political factions, trade councils, tenants associations, the women's and gay movement, radical publishers - should unite. Certainly, they unite, for working class strength lies in unity. But what is to be the purpose? Once the fragments have become a patchwork what will they say, do or achieve? Beyond the fragments to where  . . . and why . . . and how . . . and when? Many questions, but our authors provide no answers which go beyond the sterile claim that we must unite to get rid of the Tory government. In December 1904 a Socialist Standard editorial applied itself to the question of 'Socialist Unity':
We are all for unity. We believe that unity of party organisation based upon unity of purpose, unity of principle and unity of method is the one thing desirable. But today we are only sure that such unity of party organisation, so far as the various groups of socialists in any country are concerned, would be at the expense of  unity of purpose, principle and method . . . Unity is an important factor in the growth of a party but it is not the most important. Better far to have a party, however small, with common principles and a common end, than a party, however large, which is bound by no tie save party interest. We, therefore, who differ from those other parties in essential principle - inasmuch as we accept the principle of class struggle while they do not - cannot consent to unite our forces with theirs. It would weaken both parties - and the weakening would be more disastrous to the uncompromising section than to the revisionist.
This is why the Socialist Party of Great Britain has preserved its independence since 1904 from all the fragments which working class discontent has thrown up. We are not hostile to them because we like being on our own or are temperamentally aggressive, but because we have a programme of uncompromising revolution which stands in total opposition to the piecemeal reform policies of the fragments. We have gone beyond the fragments. Wainwright, Segal and Rowbotham are to be applauded for having recognised the political rut which the Left is in, but the lesson which they and their fellow fragments must now learn is that until they climb out of the ditch of reformism they will never go beyond the muddy theory which obscures their political vision.
Steve Coleman

A tale of two schisms (1982)

From the January 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The International Communist Current, which has been waiting since its inception for the working class to arm themselves and "smash the state", has recently been troubled by some internal opposition - some members decided that in the absence of the long-awaited "revolutionary war" the next best thing to smash would be the ICC. In a letter to the Socialist Party of Great Britain these ex-ICC members accuse the ICC of being "a bureaucratic sect" which "cannot accept criticisms" and uses "methods worthy of Stalinism". The ex-members have formed a new group which is publishing a duplicated journal called News of War and Revolution. In it they make two criticisms of the ICC: firstly, that "it contained a permanent elite to run the organisation and take its decisions", and secondly, that most of its predictions about "events in the real world" have been proved wrong.

It is rather odd that the ICC's "permanent elite" and undemocratic structure should be a surprise to these ex-members. After all, the ICC is an avowedly Leninist organisation which claims to admire and base itself upon the Bolshevik party. Bolshevism made no claim to be a respecter of majority decisions, but is based on the principle of rule by the vanguard. Some time ago the writer was at an ICC meeting and suggested to the speaker that the only way to achieve real socialist democracy is by democratic political organisation. The speaker's reply was that the ICC is a Leninist organisation aiming for "proletarian dictatorship" and is not interested in the niceties of democracy. Those who show contempt for the democratic process - for whatever reason - will before long degenerate into the kind of "Stalinist methods" of which the ICC is now accused. The link between Leninism and Stalinism is not an accidental one. But despite the cries of indignation from those who have left the ICC, they are no more interested in real democracy that the ICC is. It is particularly pitiful that the ICC's romantic illusions about bombs and barricades have led to the traditional allegations about certain members being police agents. (This matter is dealt with in an article in News of War and Revolution entitled "ICC Uses State Terror".)

The second criticism by the ex-ICCers is that the ICC's predictions about society are wrong. Basically, the ICC believes that since 1914 capitalism has been collapsing, and that this collapse will soon lead either to world war or armed revolution. Repeating Leninist cliches about the imminent collapse of capitalism and the need to arm the proletariat, the ICC has completely failed to understand that the old insurrectionary tactics of France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 (which were capitalist revolutions) are not applicable in 1982. The pathetic fact about the ICC - and their counterparts in the other Leninist sects - is that they are preparing to fight a violent capitalist revolution which happened long ago. Those who have been wise enough to leave the ICC would do well to learn that Leninism is completely opposed to the present-day interest of the working class. But from their literature, we suspect that the ICC breakaway group are rather slow learners.

Blind Ali
Meanwhile, another Leninist sect - the International Marxist Group - is undergoing a rather traumatic experience: its shepherd has abandoned the flock and is trying to join the Labour Party. In the May 1981 Socialist Standard we reported a debate at the Central Hall, Westminster, in which Benn and Company put the case for the Labour Party and Leninist chiefs, Paul Foot and Tariq Ali put the case against. It is worth quoting the concluding words of Tariq Ali's speech in the debate:
. . . we are opposed to Labourism, that weak, sickly and pathetic political ideology which has dominated the British working class. It must be displaced if we are to move forward.
(The Crisis and the Future of the Left, p.74, Pluto Press.)
No sooner had the masses stopped applauding Tariq's rhetoric than he had filled out an application form to join the Labour Party. Explaining his decision to resign from the IMG and join Labour in an article in City Limits (27/11/81), Ali states: "I have joined the Labour Party without renouncing my political views". Now, what are his innocent followers in the IMG to make of that? At one moment they are told to oppose "the weak, sickly and pathetic ideology" of the Labour Party and then are informed that their leader has joined the Labour Party but still holds the same views. By the same logic, Tariq might tell his followers to oppose the Tories, but then to join the Tory Party in order to demonstrate such opposition. Not all members of the IMG are convinced by their ex-leader's "tactics" and rumour has it that some of them will be proving the truth of the old saying that one Leninist is "a militant", two "a faction" and three "a schism".
Steve Coleman


Close of Play (2013)

The Action Replay column from the October 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

This summer’s Ashes series was a success financially, with matches sold out, and in media terms, with lots of interest in England’s victories and Australia’s relatively weak performance. But behind the scenes cricket at the top level is encountering plenty of problems.

Essentially, Test cricket, with five-day matches that often end in draws or are ruined by rain, is losing out in popularity to shorter versions, especially Twenty20 (T20), where each side bats for just twenty overs and a game generally takes about three hours. Matches can be played in the evening, increasing their attractiveness to live crowds and those watching on TV.

T20 is also popular with many players, who can earn far more from it than from Tests. The highest-paid cricketer last year was the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni with income of $31.5m, the vast majority of which comes from product endorsements rather than directly from playing in Tests and the Indian Premier League. But he still got $3.5m from playing. Meanwhile, top England players get at most £400,000 a year on central contracts from the England and Wales Cricket Board. Up-and-coming young players may have to make a choice between Tests and T20, since rather different skill-sets are needed for both.

It is often claimed that T20 has led to cricketers becoming fitter and more agile. But it may also be behind poorer performances at Test level, particularly from Australian players. The Australian domestic competition is the subtly-named Big Bash, or, to give it its full name, the KFC T20 Big Bash League. Like all the shorter versions, it prioritises big hitting over patience and technique, so it is bound to undermine true Test quality. Also, pitches are prepared to increase the chances of a clear result.

According to Cricket Australia, ‘The league has been successful in attracting a new, diverse fan base in its first two years with its mix of big hits, great value and explosive action… If you look at the average crowds and TV audiences over the past two years, the league compares more than favourably with other sports and has claims to being the most popular summer sports league in the country’ (bigbash.com.au).

So competition is not just among teams but among sports and indeed different versions of the same sport.
Paul Bennett