Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Against the Left (Part 2) (1978)

From the September 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard


No army at war can dispense with an experienced General Staff if it does not want to be doomed to defeat. Is it not clear that the proletariat can still less dispense with such a General Staff if it does not want to allow itself to be devoured by its mortal enemies? But where is this General Staff? Only the revolutionary party of the proletariat can serve as this General Staff. The working class without a revolutionary party is like an army without a General Staff. The Party is the General Staff of the proletariat. (Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism).
Vladimir Lenin has much to answer for when one considers the political confusion of the British working class. It is fashionable for those who have read little or nothing of either Marx or Lenin to speak of "Marxism-Leninism" — a meaningless term because both bodies of thought were the results of different historical influences and conceptions of class struggle. Lenin's Bolshevism was the product of a semi-feudal society in which the working class was vastly outnumbered by peasants only recently emancipated from feudal serfdom. Marx had looked to the workers of industrialised capitalist countries to organise for Socialism. It is not the purpose of this article to fully explain the Socialist criticism of the Russian Revolution, but to examine the theory which Lenin advanced: Bolshevism. Our argument is not with misguided Russian workers and peasants in 1917, but with the modern successors of the Bolsheviks who continue to advocate a theory which has proved to obstruct rather than advance the cause of Socialism.

Why then was Lenin not a Marxist? Central to Lenin's theory was the belief that to persuade the Russian population of the need for Socialism would take five hundred years. Therefore, the programme of democratically gaining control of the State was rejected and replaced by a commitment to minority insurrection followed by dictatorship.

Let us consider the differences between Leninism and Marxism on the vital question of who makes the revolution, the working class, the overwhelming majority, or the vanguard. In What is to be done? Lenin asserts that

There could not have been social-democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without . . . The working class, exclusively, by its own effort is able to develop only trade union consciousness . . .

Here is what Marx and Engels had to say about such arrogant vanguardism:

As for ourselves, in view of our past, there is only one road open to us. For almost forty years we have emphasised that class struggle is the immediate driving power of history, and in particular that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the great lever of the modern social revolution; we, therefore, cannot possibly co-operate with people who wish to expunge this class struggle from the movement. 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 persons from the middle class. (Letter to the German Socialist Workers' Party, 17th September, 1879).

From the start the Socialist Party of Great Britain recognised that the October insurrection would not lead to Socialism. As evidence of the conditions came out of Russia, our critique was developed. In Britain we alone predicted the State capitalist outcome of the revolution, long before Stalinism was reluctantly exposed by certain sections of the Left.

The Bolsheviks revolution was unreservedly applauded among the Left in Britain. From Labourites like Ramsay MacDonald to Utopian reformists like Sylvia Pankhurst (editor of the Women's Dreadnought, later to become Workers' Dreadnought) to anti-parliamentarians like Hodgson and Bryan of the British Socialist Party, the Bolsheviks were looked upon with unqualified admiration. The smashing of the Constituent Assembly, the crushing of the Left Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, the anarchy of so-called War Communism, the attacks on the Russian peasants ... all of these things went unrecorded (or else were justified) in the Left wing press.

In January 1919 the Bolsheviks invited sympathetic European and American parties to form a new, Third International. The Labour Party and the ILP declined the invitation, both hoping to revive the reformist Second International which had collapsed when its constituent parties had supported the war. The Socialist Labour Party, the British Socialist Party and two other small Left groups, the Workers' Socialist Federation and the South Wales Socialist Society, gave their support to the formation of a Bolshevik-styled Communist Party of Great Britain which was established in August 1920. The ILP leader, Ramsay MacDonald analysed the reasons for the support given to the new International:

The Third International is the product of two things — Russian conditions . . . and a dogmatic logic which spins policy from fancied necessity. The grand coup d'etat in Russia and its successful defiance of the whole of armed and financial Europe have properly roused the enthusiasm of democrats all over the world and have particularly affected those who have entered the Socialist movements since 1914. They find it impossible to pay tribute to the courage and strength of will of the Russian leaders and to demand that European reaction and spitefulness shall let them alone, without also supporting the Moscow International. (From an editorial in the Socialist Review).

Looking now at the present image of the openly reformist, pro-parliamentary, eurocommunist Communist Party of Great Britain one could easily forget the militancy and bolshevism upon which it was originally based. Despite the change, the Communist Party has always been committed to three principles: the belief that the Bolshevik method of revolution and the soviet based regime should be imitated in the West; the reform of capitalism; the need for leadership in order to fulfill the first two aims. Their first election manifesto, published in 1929, indicated adherence to the above principles:

. . . the Communist party is not a mere parliamentary party, but the leader of the workers in the class war in all its forms, whether it manifests itself in strikes, elections, demonstrations or other forms. Recognising that the working class can only conquer capitalism and become the ruling class by the creation of its own instruments of power (i.e. workers' councils composed of delegates from the factories and the mass organisation of the workers) and the impossibility of the working class capturing and utilising the capitalist state ... it participates in elections, in parliamentary action, in all forms of political activity as a means to the preparation of the working class for the act of imposing its will . . .

(Our emphasis)

This advocacy of the virtue of the Soviets came ironically at a time when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, under Stalin, was stripping the Soviets of any power they had possessed.

Secondly, on reforming capitalism, the 1929 manifesto advocated 'the seven hour working day', 'non-contributory old age pensions at 60 years of age at least equivalent to the wages when employed', '10 shillings per week for adult unemployed', 'a national minimum wage of £4 a week', 'abolition of tied cottages', 'the raising of the school leaving age to 16' and the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords'. This from the party which criticises the SPGB for getting nowhere in seventy years! Their justification for the sterile list of demands was that

The struggle for reforms in the present period leads to revolution.

Fifty years later the struggle for reforms — many of them the same futile demands — still leads to nothing but the continuation of the capitalist system. Thirdly, the 1929 manifesto proclaimed the CPGB's commitment to the leadership principle:

It has as its aim the leadership of the working class in the overthrow of capitalism.

Throughout the Stalinist atrocities orthodox Communists continued to sing the praises of the Soviet system. When SPGB speakers stated that there was no Socialism in Russia our meetings were often broken up; when we criticised the purges as the instrument of a brutal dictatorship we were called Trotskyists or fascists. In the 1940s a branch of the SPGB invited the Communist Party to debate and received a reply saying that
The Communist Party has NO dealings with renegades, liars, murderers or assassins.

The SPGB, which associates itself with followers of Trotsky, the friend of Hess, has always followed a policy which would mean disaster for the British work¬ing class. They have consistently poured vile slanders on Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party, told filthy lies about the Red Army, the Soviet people and its leaders, gloated over the assassination of Kirov and other Soviet leaders, applauded the wrecking activities of Trotskyite saboteurs in the Soviet Union, and are in short agents of Fascism in Great Britain.

The CPGB refuses with disgust to deal with such renegades. We treat them as vipers, to be destroyed.

The SPGB analysed later revolutions such as the Chinese and the Cuban, which were based on the Bolshevik model and praised by sections of the Left, as steps towards State capitalism. The Chinese revolution and the ensuing Sino-Soviet argument caused a split in the CPGB, with the so-called Marxist-Leninist Communist parties supporting Mao whilst the mainstream of the party remained loyal to Kremlin foreign policy.

In the first article of this series it was argued that the emergence of the Labour Party dealt a damaging blow to the political consciousness of the British working class. The birth and subsequent activity of the Communist Party has added to that confusion to an extent which is incalculable. The political fallacies which the Communist party has spread have buttressed the complacency of the ruling class and contributed to the continued political ignorance of the working class.
Steve Coleman

For communism – but what else . . ? (2013)

Book Review from the December 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

For Communism – An Introduction to the Politics of the Internationalist Communist Tendency. (ICT. £3)

The ICT sounds just like one of the myriad Trotskyist sects which mix and match a dozen or so radical-sounding words (‘workers’, ‘international’, ‘communist’, etc) to create a formulaic name.  In fact, they are not, but are instead one of the main groupings of the left communist political tradition. This was the political tendency criticized by Lenin in his ‘Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’ in 1920, mainly for their alleged sectarianism. The UK section of the ICT is the Communist Workers’ Organisation (CWO) who have debated with us on a number of occasions this last 30 years or so.

This pamphlet is well-structured and there is much for socialists to agree with, such as this:
‘Socialism or communism (for Marx these concepts were synonyms) is not a condition or programme which can be put into practice by a party or state decree, but a social movement for the conscious overcoming of the capital relation, the doing away of the state, commodity production and the law of value . . .  Communism will destroy the capitalist state and end national borders. It will overcome money, wage labour and commodity production. Communism means doing away with the power of control of a special class. For this reason, communism is synonymous with the liberation of the working class from all forms of exploitation. This liberation can only be the work of the working class itself’ (p.11).
The CWO also agree that the so-called socialist countries were really a form of state capitalism, that attempts to reform capitalism won’t work and that left-wing parties offer no way forward. They also take the same view as us on wars, the futility of ‘national liberation’ struggles and terrorism.

So far, so good. But the CWO (like other left communists) also believe that trade unions are an intrinsic part of the repressive apparatus of capitalism and that socialists cannot use conventional ‘bourgeois’ democracy as part of the revolutionary process, but must create ‘workers’ councils’ instead. More seriously still, the CWO – like other left communist groups – have a broadly Leninist conception of revolution which turns the revolutionary process upside down.

Heavily influenced by a particular interpretation of sections of Marx’s German Ideology, where he wrote that the ruling ideas in any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, the CWO take the view that a majority socialist revolution is impossible because the mass of the working class in capitalism is always going to be inculcated with ruling class ideas about the system. This leads them to the equally Leninist view that a revolution with only a minority of socialists is all that is possible and that only after this will the working class be able to shake off capitalist ideas.

One of the many problems with this view is that this effectively constitutes having the pregnancy after the birth. Another is that the CWO have made it more explicit here than they normally do that after the minority revolution they will be aiming to set up a workers’ state, which for us is a contradiction in terms. Its role will be to run capitalism while attempting to spread socialist consciousness and move society in some sort of vaguely socialistic direction:
‘A so-called ‘workers’ state’ or the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is, in the first instance, a political category. Nevertheless, a ‘workers’ state’ will take measures for the improvement of the conditions of life of the working class (reduction in the working-day, free access to the health and education system, etc) and try to direct production for the needs of society . . . [but] as long as capitalist commodity production in the rest of the world continues to exist, the diktat of the law of value holds’ (p.38).
Sadly, these were exactly the kind of ideas that lead to the state capitalist dictatorships in Russia, China and elsewhere and the CWO seem to have learnt nothing from these events that goes beyond a romanticist fascination with them. A so-called workers’ state running state capitalism (nationalisation of industry, attempts to plan the market, etc) is no more likely to lead to increased socialist consciousness among the working class now than it was in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, when it ended up setting the cause of socialism back by decades.

It is a great shame that the CWO and others like them have yet to assimilate this fundamental lesson from the history of capitalism.  A shame because some of their ideas are sound enough, but are rendered impotent because of their left communist failure to break completely with Lenin, even if Lenin conversely had no trouble breaking with left communism.

Against the Left (1978)

From the August 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

The SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN has consistently maintained that the 'left-wing', despite their claims to being socialist are, in reality, reformist rather than revolutionary organisations, with no more than a sentimental attachment to the working class. In the first of a series of articles providing a searching analysis of the left, we begin with the historical origins of leftism. Future articles in the series will deal with — Bolshevism, Stalinism and the Communist Party; Trotskyism; Sectarianism and Principles, concluding with a look at the Road Ahead.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses . . . this distinctive feature; it has simplified the class antagonism. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)
THROUGHOUT RECORDED HISTORY there have been oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, rulers and ruled. Marx and Engels were not the first to recognise this historic antagonism of interests, nor were they the first to seek a future society based on egalitarianism. Philosophers have sought The Good Society' for as long as there has been human misery. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, conditions developed which gave rise to the conviction that society based on class division and exploitation could be ended.

The rise of industrial capitalism broke down the complex class relationships of feudalism and created two classes: the capitalists, who own the means of wealth production and distribution and live in comfort by accumulating rent, interest and profit, and the working class who produce the wealth of society in return for wages and salaries that roughly equal the cost of survival. In the course of production workers are exploited by producing a surplus over and above the value of the wages and salaries paid to them. This exploitative system, by using new technological inventions and by forcing workers to expend as much labour as possible for the price paid, created the potential for an abundance of wealth. Such material abundance is a prerequisite for a society based on the satisfaction of human needs. The fruits of this technological progress did not benefit the producers of wealth because, under capitalism, production takes place with a view to profit and not for use.

It was Marx and Engels who, by examining the economic laws of capitalism, were able to see a practical alternative to class society. Their concept of socialism (which was by no means a well developed formulation) was based on the working class winning control of the State machine and abolishing the class ownership of wealth. The new society would be based on 'an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all'. Marxism was essentially different in two important ways from other political philosophies. Firstly, its theory (for Socialism) was inseparable from its practice (political struggle). One can no more be an 'inactive' Marxist than an armchair footballer. Secondly, Marxism has no claim to be 'in the interest of all' — it is the political expression of the interest of the vast majority: the working class.

What was the reaction of the nineteenth century working class to their new-found means of emancipation? The history of the British labour movement in these years was twofold. On the one side was the emergence of the industrial trade union movement for the defence of wages and conditions of employment which has culminated in the well organised trade union movement of today. On the other side was the political movement of the working class from which emerged the Labour party.

In 1824 and 1825 the Combination Acts, which were passed to prevent the organisation of trades unions at the time of the French Revolution, were repealed. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century some workers were beginning to realise that the employed had a common interest to protect and that the defeat of one group of workers could best be averted by the formation of a union of all workers. In 1830, after the defeat of the cotton spinners' strike, John Doherty, an Irish Catholic, founded a General Union, the National Association for the Protection of Labour which claimed a membership of 100,000 by 1831. The NAPL advocated co-operative production (it was a forerunner of modern ideas of Workers' control), but attempts to organise co-operatives by constituent unions, such as the Operative Builders' Union failed when faced with a series of lock-outs. The NAPL collapsed because of divisions which existed between workers, cunningly fostered by employers.

The next attempt to form a General Union was led by the Utopian Socialist, Robert Owen. In 1834 he formed the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. Its significance has been overstated by labour historians; it claimed a membership of 500,000, but was certainly less than half that. One reason for its collapse was the series of lock-outs of its members in Derby, Leicester and Glasgow. Another was the intensification of State action against the unions, such as the famous case of the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834. The new Whig government, having supported parliamentary reform in 1832, was anxious to demonstrate its loyalty to the ruling class. Its suppression of workers' combination was a most convincing display of class loyalty. The workers, on the contrary, were lacking in confidence and education. Because of the former they were dependent on middle class leadership and because of the latter they were easily misled, as seen in 1832 when they rioted in the streets to give their employers the vote and in the failure of Chartism in the 1840s. The abortive attempts by workers to form a General Union in the 1830s signified the beginning of working-class consciousness. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that in the 1830s there were still more cobblers than cotton spinners in Britain and the concentration of workers into vast, impersonal places of employment was yet to be fully experienced.

At this stage in the history of the working-class movement political ideas became most significant. So far the story has essentially been one of workers struggling to improve the price of their labour-power and conditions. Once this struggle came into conflict with the State, as representative of the employing class, a political question presented itself: How far can the working class improve its position within the capitalist system? Looking at it from a bourgeois point of view capitalism had everything going for it. With progressive reform and scientific development it seemed that the luxury of the ruling class and the condition of the working class could improve infinitely. According to Marxism the system contained irreconcilable class antagonisms which were bound to produce increasing misery for the workers. The Left found itself divided between these two analyses. On the one hand they claimed to accept the Marxist critique of capitalism, but on the other they were tempted by the optimism and immediacy of reformism with its promise of making capitalism run in the interest of the workers. Increasingly, trade union leaders were won to the idea that the unions should co-operate with the State. They were soon to be attracted to parliamentary careers in the Liberal party which cynically exploited the working class vote.

There were two organisations at the end of the last century claiming to stand for Socialism: the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society. Both organisations comprised philanthropic leaders who saw the working class as incapable of changing society for themselves. This was in opposition to Marx's 'Provisional Rules' of the First International which stated
That the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves.
Neither the SDF or the Fabian Society stood for Socialism, but for the reform of capitalism. Socialism was accepted as the ideal, but the sincerity of idealism was no substitute for revolutionary principles.

The SDF was set up in 1881 by a group of disillusioned Liberals, led by H. M. Hyndman. Amongst its main leaders were H. H. Champion, Eleanor Marx, Belfort Bax, Tom Mann and John Burns, both leaders of skilled unions, and William Morris, the craftsman, poet and chief financial contributor to the SDF. Within the SDF there were certainly a number of sound Marxists, but, as an organisation, its effect was negligible and its reform programme was in contradiction to its claim to be Socialist.

The Fabian Society was based far more upon popular Christian morality than on any principles of a serious nature. Its motto described its gradualist approach to social change:
For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.
The SDF and the Fabians failed to win mass working-class support. At the same time the trade unions were becoming increasingly effective, for example in the success of the dockers' strike in 1889. Objectively, the prospects for Socialism seemed quite good. Engels, in a moment of excessive enthusiasm wrote that
The masses are on the move and there is no holding them any more. The longer the stream is dammed up the more powerfully will it break through when the moment comes. (Marx and Engels on Britain p. 523)
Indeed, those who see history as a series of progressions would find it strange that by the dawn of the Twentieth century the stream of working-class consciousness was as dammed up as ever and the moment which Engels predicted showed no signs of coming. History is not simply the record of events occurring when the moment is ripe, but is as much the story of the effect of ideas and movements on material circumstances as that of the environment on men and women.

The first factor in the ascendancy of leftism was the decline of the First International. Marx had worked since 1867 to bring the International Working Men's Association, the international association of trades unions and progressive political organisations, to adopt Socialist principles. At first he had to defeat the followers of Proudhon. From the 1870s until the collapse of the International the anarchist doctrines of Bakunin prevailed and Marxism was rejected. Despite the existence of the International, few British trade unionists were won over to orthodox Marxism. They were more concerned to limit their efforts to the industrial struggle which could never fundamentally alter the cause of their oppression.

More important in the rejection of Marxism was the rise of the Labour Party. The few independent representatives of labour elected to the House of Commons after 1867 were soon seen to be, in the words of Joseph Chamberlain, 'mere fetchers and carriers for the Gladstonian party'. This disillusion led the trades unions to consider forming their own political party to defend their interests. On 13th January 1893, at the Bradford Labour Institute, one hundred and twenty delegates from various branches of the SDF, the Fabian Society, Keir Hardie's Scottish Labour Party and a few trades unions, assembled to consider establishing an independent labour party. The object of its formation was not to unite socialists, but to defend the unions. After the defeat of the engineers' strike in 1898 the TUC received a resolution from the Railway Servants' Union asking it
to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next parliament.
Following the acceptance of this resolution by the 1899 Trade Union Congress a conference took place, on 27th February 1900, at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, which appointed the Labour Representation Committee consisting of two members of the SDF, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trades unionists. In the election of 1900 the new Independent Labour Party put forward ten candidates of whom two (Keir Hardie and Richard Bell) were elected. In the 1906 election, following the Taff Vale case in which strikers were legally discriminated against, the number of ILP members elected was trebled.

So, by the beginning of the present century trade union representatives were sitting in parliament. Surely, one might think, it was better to elect to parliament people who were at least sentimentally attached to the working class rather than avowed capitalists.

The record of the last seventy years, after six Labour Governments, has proved otherwise. The SPGB argued from its formation (in 1904) that only Socialism can provide a solution to the problems of the working class. Trade union efforts can only provide limited success and reforms can only eliminate aspects of the system and not the system itself. The rise of the Labour party as a political expression of trade unionism has caused inestimable damage to the revolutionary movement for Socialism.
Steve Coleman

Socialists and Local Government (1928)

From the June 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. Rimington (Leicester), asks, would the S.P.G.B. fight local elections in view of the fact that local bodies are part of the machinery of capitalist administration ultimately subject to the control of the central government? Another correspondent signing himself "Revolutionist," asks similar questions with regard to Boards of Guardians. He asks : "What actions would a member of the S.P.G.B. adopt on the Board of Guardians, seeing that these institutions exist to issue out charity, thus tending to keep the workers quiet and helping the capitalists by administering capitalist law."

Both correspondents appear to be considering this question from a standpoint which leaves out of account the reason for which the S.P.G.B. seeks to control the machinery of government, and also the method by which we seek to gain control. Our purpose and our method both invalidate comparison with the Labourites, I.L.P.ers and Communists who at present secure election to local and national bodies. None of them has behind him the backing of a majority of Socialists. All are elected on reform programmes, not by Socialists but by reformers of various schools.

Secondly, we want control of the machinery of government, national and local, because that is essential to the achievement of Socialism. This is our reason for contesting elections. We do not invite Socialists to vote for our candidates because of the possibility of getting "something now" on either local Councils or in Parliament, but because we cannot afford to leave this machinery in the hands of the capitalist class. All candidates on local Councils are limited in two directions — by the wishes of the electorate and by the over-riding powers of the central government. The Socialist, provided he carries out Socialist policies, is free from the first limitation. He can justify himself to the electors and retain his seat only by doing what his Socialist backers want. The Labourite or Communist elected on a reform programme, is in an entirely different position. He must please his electors, which means that he cannot consistently carry out a Socialist policy. Almost invariably he is, for instance, compelled to refrain from "wasting the ratepayers' money." The Socialist, backed by workers who understood that rates are ultimately a burden on property owners, not on workers, would be free from this and other restrictions.

The other limitation is control by the central government. While the central government is in the hands of the capitalist class it is obvious that local bodies can act only within the limits which it suits the government to impose. Here again it is for the Socialist electors to decide whether in any given issue it is better to act within the law or defy it and have their powers taken away. The important point to bear in mind all the time is that while Socialism cannot be achieved by local Councils, whether they accept or reject these laws, neither the Socialist members of such Councils nor their electors would be under any illusion. This is not true of the reformist members of local Councils.

With regard to the handing out of "charity" to the workers, "Revolutionist" appears to overlook the fact that the capitalists will see that this charity is issued (for their own sakes) whether Boards of Guardians do it or not.

Does "Revolutionist" seriously hold that starvation makes Socialists, or that Socialists cease to be Socialist when they receive "charity" from the Boards of Guardians? The problem before us is to make Socialists. The existence of a Socialist electorate is a sufficient, and the only solvent of all these minor problems of action. 
Ed. Comm.