Saturday, December 9, 2006

Parting With Leninism (2006)

From the December 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Extracts from an email received from a reader who has recently broken with a Leninist organisation, the New Communist Party (publishers of the 'New Worker')

"Act in haste and repent at leisure." So runs the old adage and it is true for me, at least in respect of my joining the New Worker readers' group. Actually, I was debating whether or not to continue my subscription at all and when I finally decided to do so I thought it might be best to become more actively involved. However, the more I read the more aware I became of too much that is indefensible.

By no means does this apply to everything. Indeed, Ray Jones' article, "What have communists got against capitalism", was a clear and succinct summary of Marxism by which the case was well stated. I could hardly disagree with it and shall keep it for reference purposes. It is with the espousal of certain causes I must firstly take issue. Jones lists a number of immediate causes to be pursued: " . . . better wages and conditions, better education, better health services, better housing, a better environment, against war, against authoritarianism and injustice and for more democracy (workers' power), and against racism, sexism and homophobia, which can divide workers . . . "

Which brings me to the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, i.e. North Korea] where some of these things may have been achieved, at least in part, but many are non-existent. Including the word "Democratic" in the state's title does not mean that state is so. In what meaningful sense can the word democratic be applied to North Korea? How can a party, the NCP, proclaim opposition to authoritarianism and yet ally itself with one of the most authoritarian states in the world, not forgetting Vietnam, another country in which the popular will finds no real expression? I'm sure there are all manner state bodies supposedly dedicated to demotic purposes, but the Dear Leader and his beribboned and medal-festooned generals seem unconcerned with any such institutions.

The use of the word "progressive" in the New Worker appears to be as part of an oxymoron as in, "progressive governments like those of Iraq (pre-invasion) and Syria" (Editorial, 20 October) As these two administrations were largely secular in the context of the Middle East, women did indeed achieve a measure of emancipation denied in more Islamic states. But this was within authoritarian states in which opposition was (is) ruthlessly suppressed and the use of torture commonplace. Both these states had (and probably have) imperialist ambitions of their own. Not on the scale of the USA, admittedly, nor do they have the military where with all, but that does not prevent them being aggressive states. To use the word progressive in relation to Ba'athist parties is to deprive it of any meaning or worse. Like Alice's Humpty Dumpty, it means whatever you want it to mean. How can it be that communists are prepared to give support to some of the most reactionary regimes and movements in the world?

The same editorial ran, "The Muslim community is under attack because it is almost entirely opposed to Anglo-American imperialism's 'war against terror' which is no more than a war against Muslims." Capitalism, and therefore Imperialism, does not give a damn for religion, for any race or creed. Profit alone is its motivation and that, in a competitive world, means geo-political control over markets and resources. Of course it will use differences between people, race, religion, football (useful worldwide to reinforce national allegiances), to divide and weaken potential opposition. This can be clearly seen in Iraq at the moment, where there is a far greater toll of the indigenous population due to inter-Muslim strife than is presently due to coalition military action. In fact, one group of Muslims, the Sufis who were viciously persecuted by Saddam Hussein's "progressive" regime, were freed from their terrible incarceration following the fall of the Ba'athists.

Having read the above the obvious questions are, why did I renew my subscription to the New Worker and why did I join the reader's group? Having posed them both to myself I conclude that I was trying to hang on to something that has been a significant part of my adult life. Even since I first became involved in politics in my later teens I have been ideologically torn between two quite incompatible understandings of Marxism, the Leninist model and the very much more libertarian approach of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The attraction of the Leninist model is that it offers the seeming possibility of immediate action and demands with the ultimate goal, Communism, in mind. But, however laudable they may be reforms become the political objective in themselves, they are the reason the Trade Unions established the Labour Party. They are not and cannot be stepping-stones to the revolution. A revolution to vanquish capitalism and establish socialism can only happen through the active agency of the working class; it cannot be carried out by a vanguard party on its behalf. This is the Leninist fallacy, for if the working class is so motivated it does not require some pre-existing party to act as its surrogate. If a need for a disciplined vanguard party exists then the working class is not ready to seize the moment, the vast majority are still integrated into the capitalist ideological mindset. Then, should the vanguard party take power it inevitably ends up ruling a reluctant working class, the dictatorship over (not of) the proletariat, no matter that the members of that party are dedicated and sincere. Then the supposed final goal becomes enabler of tragedy.

For years I've intellectually, and arrogantly, justified the actions of Stalin, Mao Zedong, Enver Hoxha and their ilk in terms of their life and death struggle for socialism with capitalist encirclement and intrigue. I have argued that the crimes laid at their door were largely trumped up and exaggerated or caused by a reaction to imperialist pressure. I have been little more than a left wing David Irving, doing injury to history, denying the victims, for the cause. A cause that was always doomed to fail when Lenin found himself master of a largely war broken peasant country which led him to establish a state that would become ever more entrenched rather than wither away. Trotsky would have made no difference had he assumed control after Lenin's death as he was of the same authoritarian ilk. The state capitalism that subsequently developed did serve the historical purpose of sweeping away feudalism in Russia and developed a working class that can now play its part in choosing socialism. As is the way with all forms of capitalism, state as well as free market, this was achieved at a dreadful cost paid by the workers.

Frustrating though it undoubtedly is, there can be no short cut to socialism. Either the vast majority decide to embrace it or it does not occur. Socialism is not inevitable, the conditions are ripe for it, but if workers the world over fail to implement it, then there is also the possibility of barbarism. Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, all serving as paradigms of one dreadful possible future. Promoting the socialist cause is undoubtedly hampered by its association with totalitarian regimes both past and present or with the reformism of Labour, a seeming easier option of socialism without much of an effort, that has undoubtedly brought benefits only for them to be whittled away in the interests of profit.

Our world is faced by major threats from war and environmental disaster, both fuelled by the insatiable appetite capitalism has. There is a desperate need for socialism, but it's not to be found behind the barbed wire in North Korea. It is incumbent on all who award themselves the epithet communist to place their hands on their hearts and say, to themselves as much as to anyone else, whether they really see a future for humanity in such a place.

Dave Alton

The Actor and the King by Ret Marut - a short story

From the anarchist website, libcom

'Ret Marut' is better known as the novelist B. Traven, whose most famous novel, 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre', was made into the classic film of the same name. The following short story/parable was written under the pen name of 'Ret Marut'. There is a fascinating biographical sketch of Ret Marut aka B. Traven aka Hal Croves at the libcom website here.

It seldom happens.


Yet once it did occur that an actor chose a king to be his friend.

Or perhaps it was the other way round. But in the end it makes no difference.

The two of them were honest and sincere friends. They quarrelled and were reconciled, as is generally the custom between true friends.

For two years their friendship held.

The actor made no more ado about this friendship than he would have done about a friendship with any other mortal.

One afternoon they went strolling together in the park.

The actor had played a king the evening before. But not a Shakespearean king. The royal patron of the theatre could not endure those. For Shakespeare's kings, notwithstanding their divine right, were quite ordinary men who loved and hated, murdered and reigned - just as it suited their intents and purposes.

The part of the king in the play of the previous evening, however, had been written by an author who was an anarchist at the age of eighteen, though later he was appointed a privy councillor.

It is understandable that this part should have delighted the king enormously and gave him occasion to converse with the actor on the problem of representing kings on the stage.

- 'What is the sensation you encounter, dear friend, when you appear in the role of a king?'

- 'I feel myself to be totally a king, with the result that I would be incapable of any gesture which does not suit the character of a king.'

- 'That I can understand very well. The crowd of extras, bowing before you as the stage directions instruct them to do, sustains your sense of majestic dignity and suggests to the audience that you are indeed a king.'

- 'Even without the supporting actors I remain a king in the eyes of my audience - even if it should happen that I must be quite alone on stage and deliver a monologue!'

This magnificently artistic conception of the actor's stimulated the king to draw a strictly circumscribed comparison between himself and the thespian king.

- 'But nonetheless, there remains an unbridgeable abyss between a real king and a theatrical king. However remarkable your performance as a king, you cease to be a king as soon as the curtain descends. Suggestibility and dramatic illusion put an end to your majesty as soon as they cease to operate. Whereas I, my dear fellow, I remain a king even when I lie in my bed!'

To this the actor rejoined, 'My dear friend, your comparison applies to both of us. No more than a short while ago we drove in a carriage to the gates of this park. Countless people lined the streets or ran behind us. They waved - you returned their greeting. They shouted as loud as they had breath, "Long live the King!" and "Hurrah!" - you smiled. Rather smugly. But if these people should ever cease to play their parts as unpaid extras, then you also - and not only in your bed, but also in the clear light of day - you also, my friend, will cease to be a real king!'

The king halted abruptly in his tracks.

He stared fixedly at the actor.

His lips grew pale and began to quiver.

Suddenly he turned on his heel.

Briskly he walked to the carriage and rode home.

Alone.The friendship was at an end.

The friends never saw one another again.

And never again did the king attend the theater. He became a thinker.

Became obsessed by the notion that he was a quite ordinary mortal.

Consequently had to abdicate.

Died five years later.

His mind deranged.

It was said.