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Imperialism, Anti-Imperialism, and the Left. A Reply to Andrew Murray.

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Communist Party of Australia’s View of Imperialism.

Imperialism, anti-Imperialism, and the Left. A reply to Andrew Murray.

Imperialism, the Marxist historian Victor Kiernan claimed, shows itself, “in coercion exerted abroad, by one means or another, to extort profits above what simple commercial exchange can procure.” Andrew Murray begins Imperialism has Evolved since 1914, but it still Rules to World (Morning Star. 2.8.14. reproduced on 21st century Manifesto), by citing this assertion to observe that the “wars of 1914 and 1939 are the outstanding examples of what happens when that international system of extortion breaks down.” “Break-down and crisis” are as much a feature of “imperialism” as growth and slump are of capitalism. We might explain this, as a critic of Kiernan once noted, as the result of an inherent “atavistic” tendency to revert to type. (1)

Murray paints a picture of contemporary ‘imperialism’ in which there are “instruments of inter-imperialist mediation and control” such as Nato and the IMF, which bear some marks of “ultra” or “super” imperialism. That is, as Lenin put it in 1915, the view that there was underway an “international unification of national (or more correctly state-bound) imperialisms which “would be able to eliminate the most unpleasant, the most disturbing and distasteful conflicts, such as wars, political convulsions which the petty bourgeois is so much afraid of.”(2) At its most developed the idea of ‘ultra-imperialism’ would foresee a “single world trust” that would swallow up all states and enterprises. This, Lenin argued, simply would not happen.

Does the past show us the future? We can clearly set aside any idea of a single Capital dominating capitalism. Politically the existence of inter-state institutions, including international justice systems, does not eliminate rivalry between countries. There is no effective “global governance”. Conflicts have a recurrent source. “The shaper contradiction is between that world order managed and maintained by US power and those big powers which stand to a significant extent outside of it. There are two – Russia and China.”

Dominant, naturally, is the “US-led bloc”; the imperialism “constitutes the dominant system in the world today”. This is bound, hand and foot, to a policy of aggression, “the main driver of war lies in the policy of the US and the imperialist world order it has created to further its leading business interests, and those of its capitalist allies, Britain pre-eminent among them.” That is, despite signs of US “retreat” and “difficulties in the Middle East, it is “commanding” with world-wide military bases, and control of the (above) “inter-imperialist” bodies, like the IMF and Nato.

Anti-Imperialism.

Threaded into this analysis Murray states, “anti-imperialism now is at the heart of any serious progressive politics”. Sometimes it may lead progressive to “deal with contradictory cross currents”. One, is that “Russia’s role as a challenger to global US hegemony and the legitimacy of many national demands arising from the break up of the Soviet Union, may often mandate contingent support for the positions of the Putin government”. That is with the “contradictory” recognition that Russia has “corrupt oligarchic and repressive” practices, in “restored Russian capitalism.”

It is odd that anybody would consider that backing any aspect of Russian foreign policy is ‘anti-imperialist‘. It may be done with reasons, but if the government of Putin is the head of a capitalist state, meshed into the imperialist system, then how exactly it is a consistent part of anti-imperialism? It is hard to see many people rushing to the defence of one group of oligarchs fighting another.

One wonder how many other ‘challengers’ to US hegemony also “mandate” contingent support? To be supported (or in real terms, given kind words and some public show of endorsement) how far can a foreign policy trump a domestic one? A debate has begun on the US-left, with echoes in Europe, on Hamas. The American International Socialist Organization reject any backing for the violent, reactionary ISIS and Islamic State Islamists in Syria and Iraq. But they offer “unconditional but critical” support for the Gaza wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which has right-wing anti-socialist and anti-liberal policies. (3) The importance of their anti-imperialist battle with Israel over-rides their anti-democratic and corrupt practices.

Others might argue that it would be better simply to oppose Israel’s actions in attacking the Palestinians and depriving them of their rights than in to offer any succour to a group with a proven record of hostility to any form of left-wing and progressive politics. No amount of bluster about solidarity can disguise this side of Hamas. Israel’s actions need to be fought by a coherent movement, one not entangled in this dead-end. Such a push requires co-operation with Israeli citizens opposed to their state’s policies, and not a call to drive them into the sea. This is not to “blame” Hamas, it is simply not to take their political side.

Romantic third-worldism appears to have survived the collapse of any specific “non-capitalist” development after the fall of Official Communism and the rise of neo-liberal economics and politics. Perhaps we are seeing signs of a part others about to plunge into a second-youth, digging out dusty copies of Frantz Fanon to find inspiration for their “anti-imperialism”. (4) It continued to exist in the half-life of university “post-colonial” theory and some marginal groupuscules, like the French Les Indigènes de la République. These self-appointed representatives of the “natives” battle against neo-colonialist secularism and Marxism. They really are unconditional backers of Hamas, and treat the racist anti-Semite, ‘anti-Zionist’, and Holocaust denier, Dieudonné with great tenderness.

It is perhaps unfair to draw such conclusions from what are, at present, straws in the wind. But it is disingenuous to claim that you give “unconditional” support to a movement or party when you reserve the right to be “critical”. Heroes do not generally appreciate unfavourable comments, even if made very discreetly, from their fans. No doubt politics is full of tales of unrequited love. The left groups that popularised this and similar formulae in the 1960s and 1970s, notably the Trotskyist United Secretariat of the Fourth International, knew many such disappointments, from African national liberation movements, to the IRA, to cite but a few.

People often comment on a distinct strand of visceral anti-Americanism in what is left of post-war leftism and Communism. It could be said  that sometimes it plays a role not dissimilar to Marx’s eminently forgettable phobia against Tsarist Russia (Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the 18th Century, mid 1850s)  That led Marx to make some claims which can only be described in terms of conspiracies, the “secret collaboration between the Cabinets of London and St. Petersburg” back to Peter the Great(!). Today it is frequent to see people throw responsibility for wars and exploitation on the US in terms of intrigues, spying, most recently, through the etheral spheres of the Net.

The Communist Party of Britain (CPB) is, one hopes, made of sterner stuff. While there is a continuing regret at the demise of ‘actually existing socialism’ only a few have found a new home in the national conservatism of Putin’s Kremlin – though many more indulge its media, such as Russia Today. Andrew Murray notes that the Russian Federation’s actions in Ukraine have been circumscribed by the need to maintain “economic links with important Ukrainian enterprises”. The Communist Party of Britain, and some left groups, contains people who do not consider Russia imperialist. Murray suggests “otherwise” – on the basis of its international economic interests. This is indeed an illustration of how the left cannot “conditionally” align with any existing capitalist power. But mroe deeply is he seriously suggesting that it might be a good thing if Russia stood by the separatists? Why exactly? What socialist objective does that meet? It is bad enough having a right-wing pro-EU pro-US government with far-right involvement. But does a break-away solve the problems of the Ukraine? What criteria are being used to determine this?

Imperialism Otherwise.

It is the case that the “territorial” and “economic” mechanisms that states are caught up are shaped by the hegemony of one great power, the United States. ‘It’, or rather the fractions and networks that dominate the country’s economic and politics, has played a key (though, as is obvious, by no means exclusive) role in spreading the neo-liberal economic agenda. It has tried to exert, with no great success, territorial rights in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and across the globe. These actions have been a major cause of great, and continuing, bloodshed. (5)

But Murray’s “otherwise” has to be extended. There are plenty of ‘other’ factors to consider behind conflicts in the world today.Nor are things reducible to the US-leadership. However, adding the European Union to this list of powers still leaves us short of determining the overwhelming influence of a new ‘concert of imperialist nations’. To give one example,  the failure of the ‘Arab Spring’ can hardly be reduced to the machinations of the Pentagon, the EU, or the galaxy of US-inspired think tanks and ‘advisers’ on democracy. Domestic politics, state structures, and the rise of the “micro-powers” of Islamic coercion, and the pressures of economic flows, could be put into the very long list of causal factors at work behind the (still unsettled) outcome of these revolts. 

If there are forces for the left to support they can probably be best found in those determined to put democracy and social justice above religious and national concerns. Göran Therborn recently argued that the “new middle classes” in the developing world could divide into those who take sides, “either with the oligarchs against the poor, or with the people against the oligarchs. (6) This expresses a theme popular amongst journalists, that democracy is the central issue of our time and the basis for new cross-class alliances led, in the South, by a “modern” Westernised professionals and the intelligentsia.

The recent record (from the Arab World to Turkey) of such movements is not one of success. Syria has apparently melted down to a confessional war, stained by state mass murder and the rise of the totalitarian genocidal ISIS, which has spread into the Iraqi Islamic State. In Baghdad a confessional Shiite regime clings to power. Egypt has returned to a repressive military oligarchy. States founded on religious authority, repression, and sexual apartheid, from Iran to Saudi Arabia, remain in place.

Many Marxists have always argued that democracy is tied to the struggles of the labour movement, a more permanent, and more radical and better-founded basis for change. Therborn may be right that economic change means that its class bases have weakened. Yet it’s worth noting that Tunisia, a case apart in the Arab Spring, in which some hopes may still be placed, is marked by opposition to the domination by Islamists of a, sometimes stormy, partnership between intellectuals and the powerful trade union federation the UGTT (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail).

Western governments may create, or exacerbate wars. Their prime concern remains the economy. Neo-liberal economics do not rely on heavy-handed domestic repression. In Europe and elsewhere, it is the privatisation of the public sphere, and exploitation by a new class of rentiers, that is the most pressing threat. 

How does this affect  internationalism – something  basic behind genuine open-minded  ‘anti-imperialism’? Globalisation and mass migration have created a sense that the “distance” between lands is far less than it was 100 years ago.This is a fight that could unite people across the world against the ‘empire’ of those enlarging their grossly unequal territories, not divide them.  On this democratic and socialist basis we could be said to be “anti-imperialist”. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that corresponds today to the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, “anti-imperialist united front”, nor, given the diversity of  world politics and states, does one look likely to reappear.  There is no division of the world into clear-cut “camps” to choose. We have to make our own choices. (7)

References.

(1) Page 58. Imperialism. Pioneer of Capitalism. Bill Warren. NLB 1980.

(2) Page 12. V.I. Lenin. Introduction to Imperialism and the World Economy. N.Bukharin. (1915). Merlin Press. 1972.

(3) What do socialists say about Hamas? July 31, 2014

“We differentiate between utterly reactionary Islamist movements such as ISIS, and Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The latter two movements came into existence to resist imperialism and entered into many confrontations and struggles with Zionism and imperialism in defence of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and the Lebanese people.

We consider Hamas, which originated in the midst of the first Palestinian Intifada at the end of the 1980s, and won wide popularity among Palestinians because of its rejection of the concessions and surrender which Fatah offered to the Zionist enemy and the United States, and through its military resistance to the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza, to be a resistance movement against Zionism and imperialism.

From this perspective we unconditionally support Hamas when it is engaged in military or non-military struggles against Israel, because it weakens the Zionist state and terrifies the Arab regimes and the United States, and therefore strengthens the potential for class struggle in the Arab states against this imperialist system.

Our unconditional support for Hamas is not uncritical, however, because we believe that the movement’s strategies in the struggle to liberate Palestine – like the strategies adopted by Fatah and the Palestinian left before it – have failed and will fail in the future.”

(4) See: Capitalism, Class and universalism: escaping the cul-de-sac of postcolonial theory. Vivek Chibber. Socialist Register. 2014.

(5) “In the course of four decades of unremitting struggle, a military and political order was constructed that transformed what had once been a merely hemispheric hegemony into a global empire, remoulding the form of the US state itself” Page 110. Imperium. Perry Anderson. New Left Review. No 82 (New Series) 2013. See also, Imperium. Perry Anderson. Critical Thoughts. Andrew Coates. “The Bush administration’s shift towards unilateralist, towards coercion rather than consent, towards a much more overtly imperial vision, and towards reliance upon its unchallengeable military power, indicates a high-risk approach to sustaining US domination, almost certainly through military command over global oil resources. Since this is occurring in the midst of several signs of loss of dominance in the realms of production and now (though as yet less clearly) finance, the temptation to for exploitative domination is strong.”(P 75) The New Imperialism. David Harvey. Oxford University Press. 2005.

(6) New Masses? Göran Therborn. New Left Review. 2nd series. No 85. 2014.

(7) The anti-imperialist united front. Alliance for Workers Liberty. 2013.

Juan R Posadas, Trotskyism and Talking to Dolphins.

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That’s Not the Correct Line Comrade on the Left Unity Row.

Oh Yes it is!

 

The Girl who Talked to Dolphins was on BBC 4 last night.

This was a

Documentary telling the story of the most extraordinary experiment in the history of animal science. In the 1960s a powerful and charismatic scientist flooded a house. He then invited a young woman to live there full-time with a dolphin. Their intention was the ultimate in animal research – they wanted to teach the dolphin to speak English. What happened next would change all their lives. For the first time those involved in the experiment reveal the secrets of the Dolphin House.

This was great.

Trotskyism was also at the forefront of this great leap forward in interspecies communication.

Juan R Posadas, the Argentinian Trotskyist  is best known for his pioneering theories on UFOs and the probable existence of higher, communist, civilisations on other planets. He rightly observed that, “These beings from other planets come to observe life down here and laugh at humans, we who fight each other over who has the most cannons, cars and wealth.”

But he did not stop there.

Wikipedia notes,

Posadas led his movement into the development of various ideas that bordered on the New Age with writings about communicating with dolphins and humans giving birth under water.

Fortean Times explains,

Professor Igor Charkovsky’s experiments for the Soviet Academy of Sciences on ‘water birthing’ and his work on communicating with dolphins won the admiration of Posadas, as did unattributed “plans to conceive babies in space.” Charkovsky is today a celebrity of the New Age Californian bourgeois ‘water birthing’ circuit and his forays into human–dolphin communication interfaces are continued by Alexander Yushchencko at Kharkov Polytechnic, Ukraine.

In any event, Posadas’ disciples defended his most esoteric dolphin and water birthing ideas after his death, stating that: “Posadas highlighted the full significance of experiments the Soviets are making in communicating with animals (eg. dolphins) and in space exploration… this is the plane on which Comrade Posadas lived.” They also firmly believed that Posadas’ “radiant and living thought… laid down principles to see further into the future.”

Sadly these writings seem unavailable on the Web.

We await their immediate publication!

Written by Andrew Coates

June 18, 2014 at 11:39 am

Alain Badiou Renounces his Maoist Past.

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Alain Badiou: I was wrong, innit?

“The Greatest Philosopher since Plato and St Ignatius of Loyola”, as Terry Eagleton calls him, Alain Badiou, a dapper gent, wears his 132 years well.

The Tendance interviewed  him in Les Deux Magots.

“Cher Maître, is it ‘true’ that your latest book includes a 300 page self-criticism of your Maoist years and your support for the Khmer Rouge?”

“Indeed! Let me sum up my truth procedure: Regretter et se repentir, on peut toujours le faire. C’est très facile! One can always regret and repent, it’s always easy! As Spinoza said, it’s always a bit too easy. “

The great man paused, slipping into the fluent English he learnt as a Dalston pot-boy.

“I was wrong, innit?”

Dipping a chip into a bowl of mayonnaise he continued,

“When Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution, it was a Communist Invariant. But now only 40 years later we have to admit that there were some errors. Humiliating professors, for example and not performing any of my operas. I remain, however  fidèle to the Event. There have been dramas and heart-wrenching and doubts, but I have never again abandoned a love.”

“And Pot Pot”

“He was a bit of a lad, hein?”

“But times move on. L’Organisation Politique is set in new directions. After taking absolution I plan to retire to a Trappist Monastery in Belgium to brew an excellent beer. Here try some”.

 

………………….

Diagram of Badiou Truth Procedure. 

Written by Andrew Coates

April 1, 2014 at 10:58 am

Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. A Critical, Left, Review.

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http://covers.booktopia.com.au/150/9780871404671/karl-marx.jpg

Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. 2013.

“The point of my biography is to remove Marx from the 20th century/Cold War era binary opposition, in which he was either a keen analyst of capitalism and prophet of human emancipation, or an evil forerunner of totalitarian dictatorship and a deluded enemy of the free market. This latter, hostile attitude is still very widespread in the US. Describing Marx as a 19th-century figure, I think, makes it easier to consider his ideas.”

Jonathan Sperber. (Times Higher Education. 25.4.13).

“….very little achievement is required in order to pity another man’s shortcomings.”

Middlemarch. George Elliot.

When it was published last year there was praise for A Nineteenth Century Life. Diana Siclovan asserted that, “generations of students” will “get to know Marx” through Serber’s book. To Sperber’s many other reviewers, the picture that emerges is “rounded and humane”. He succeeds in “recreating a man who leaps off the page”. (Jonathan Freedland New York Times. 23.3.13.) The “historical Marx” is portrayed with “consummate skill” (Sheila Rowbotham. Times Higher Education. 25.4.13.).

To John Gray Sperber offers a “surefooted guide to the world of ideas in which Marx moved.” (New York Review of Books. 9.5.13) His awareness of the “revision of the history of socialist thought”, “downplaying the effects of the industrial revolution” and highlighting the centrality of religion, has for Diana Siclovan contributed to Sperber “extraordinary achievement”. (Reviews in History. August 2013.) Tristram Hunt compared the “brilliant embedding “ of A Nineteenth Century Life to the “Cambridge tradition of political thought.” (Guardian. 26.6.13)

Hunt refers to classics such as J.G.K.Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1973) and Quinten Skinner’s Foundations of Modern Political Thought. (1978). These books – amongst other landmark studies – were concerned with long-lasting transformations in the fabric of early modern ideas. The conditions which brought politics into the human, out from the divine, or cosmic, order, represented by, for example, Hobbess (Skinner’s more recent work) were far-ranging. In this, the ‘Cambridge’ writers explored normative political vocabularies, not only of Great Works but of wider social mentalités.

The claim that A Nineteenth Century Life provides a reconstruction of Marx, and what Gray calls the “world of ideas”, in the tradition of the Cambridge School’s work, on say, the emergence of “civic republicanism”, is high praise. Sperber himself finds his “model” for the biography not in previous lives of Marx but in Heiko Obermann’s Martin Luther, more of a “late-medieval than a modern figure”, and Ian Kershaw’s work on Adolf Hitler, that placed within with “the twentieth century of total war” (Page xvii). This show how to present a “complex individual” within the context of his or her time.” (Ibid)

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Coates

March 14, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Left may have good prospects in Euro-Elections.

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Left Prospects Good.

L’Humanité suggests that the left groups represented in the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (Gauche unitaire européenne)  may become the third largest force in the European Parliament after the liberal bloc.

Opinion polls indicate that in this year’s May European elections the group may have up to  67  MEPs, in place of the present 35.

In Greece with a projected 28, %  of the vote Syriza would get 8 deputies (4,7% and 1 in  2009). The Greek Communist Party with 6,3 (– 2,05 points) will still have 2 MEPs. In France,  the poll indicates 9% for the  Front de gauche, which would mean 7 (up from 4), with an overseas deputy added. . Izquierda Unida, in Espagne, could get as high as 12.8%, with 7  Parliamentarians, from 1 at present. Die Linke,  in Germany would remains stable at 8. In Portugal, stand at 11%  and 4 MEPs ; the Left Bloc at  6,%  and 3. A Latvian left alliance scores, according to this sounding,  32%  and 3. In Italy 5 may win on the Tsipras list,  in which  the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista participates Sinn Féin (a member of the the group)  may have  3  in Ireland.

The article notes that in Italy, Spain and Latvia these lists are coalitions and MEPs may decide to join other European parliamentary groups.

The far-right could also see its representation double.

Written by Andrew Coates

March 11, 2014 at 11:45 am

The Legacy of Stuart Hall (Dies aged 82).

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http://www.bfi.org.uk/sites/bfi.org.uk/files/page/stuart-hall-project-2013-bfi-poster-001-1000x750.jpg

Stuart Hall: 3 February 1932 – 10 February 2014.

“One of Britain’s leading intellectuals, the sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, has died age 82.

Known as the “godfather of multiculturalism”, Hall had a huge influence on academic, political and cultural debates for over six decades.” Guardian.

More Obituaries (from the left)  Here  and Robin Blackburn (with links and background) Here and commentary on Shiraz Socialist.

Stuart Hall’s legacy is significant and enduring. In the field of cultural studies, he played a big role in creating, in work on race, gender, ideology, post-colonialist studies, and sub-cultures. The opening up the Anglophone academy to Continental theorists, such as Althusser, Gramsci and Foucault, owes a debt to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which Hall directed from 1968 to 1979. More controversially his analysis of the Great Right Moving Right period and Thatcherism ended in Marxism Today’s Manifesto for New Times (1989).

Stuart Hall, in 1956, was a founding figure in the ‘First’ British New Left. Formed in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French  attack on Suez this was an attempt to create a democratic left opposed to both Stalinism and imperialism. It was determined not to repeat the dogmatic slogans of the post-war left. Hall’s A Sense of Classlessness (1958) addressed the new “consumer society” and its effects on working class communities.

As Editor of the original New Left Review (1960 1962) Hall introduced cultural topics into the journal, “to meet people as they are.” It challenged the traditional definitions of politics. The CCCS journal, Cultural Studies, described in the early 70s  a “major historical realignment in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. In these conditions, cultural studies were based on the “recognition of cultural domination as a special area of politics.”

Hall’s work is perhaps best understood within this context. It was political and not limited to academic ambitions, still less was it an effort to import theoretical novelties in order to make an impression in the university world.

In this vein Hall and his colleagues paid special attention to Gramsci’s work on hegemony, politics and Althusser’s theory of ideology (On Ideology. Cultural Studies. 1977). Hall’s Marxism, which he interpreted in an open-minded fashion, inspired by the analysis of shifting classes and parties in 19th century Europe, drew on the spirit of the method outlined 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse and not every sentence in Capital.

This approach, which could be called “eclectic” (in the sense of taking the best from theories) was very different from the “pure” Althussarians of the short-lived Theoretical Practice. It was some perplexity that the CCCS reacted to the assault on Theory in general and Althusser in particular by Hall’s comrade from the New Left, E.P. Thompson. Hall, like the author of the Making of the English Working Class had always underlined the importance of ordinary people’s experience and resistance.

Many on the left initially greeted Hall and his colleagues’ analysis of Thatcherism. It was considered, given his New Left background, and its focus on ideology, to be an attempt to break away from overly ‘economistic’ approaches to the rise of the New Right. As somebody at the CCCS during the period 1979-81 I personally found thee ideas extremely appealing. That they developed into the less accepted positions, of the magazine Marxism Today only gradually became apparent. When differences became clear there was a break up between those on the side of Marxism Today and those opposed. Some of the disagreements, on fundamentals about class, politics, and socialism, went deep. The debates were marked by strong feelings on both sides (see below).

Throughout Stuart Hall remained  greatly respected on the left, and more widely in Britain. Over the decades his reputation extended across the globe.

Those who knew him closely speak of his inspirational quality. We extend our condolences to all affected by his passing.

*********

Update: referencing to Stuart Hall’s legacy  today there is an important article by Ross Wolfe on the broader aspects of some of the theories associated with his name,

In this essay, I intend to argue that Marxism does contain the analytical tools necessary to theorize and deepen our understanding of class, gender, and race. I intend critically to examine, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, the arguments for race, gender, and class studies offered by some of their main proponents, assessing their strengths and limitations and demonstrating, in the process, that Marxism is theoretically and politically necessary if the study of class, gender, and race is to achieve more than the endless documentation of variations in their relative salience and combined effects in very specific contexts and experiences.

His conclusion,

As long as the RGC perspective reduces class to just another form of oppression, and remains theoretically eclectic, so that intersectionality and interlockings are, in a way, “up for grabs,” meaning open to any and all theoretical interpretations, the nature of those metaphors of division and connection will remain ambiguous and open to conflicting and even contradictory interpretations. Marxism is not the only macro level theory that the RGC perspective could link to in order to explore the “basic structures of domination” but it is, I would argue, the most suitable for RGC’s emancipatory political objectives.

This was posted here in June last year published by the North Star.

Stuart Hall, Thatcherism, Marxism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow.

“What matters is some sense of continuity through transformation – of political allegiances which won’t go away, of bedrock reference points – which does allow us to say something about the present conjuncture.”

Stuart Hall. Out of Apathy. Voices of the New Left Thirty Years on. Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group. Verso. 1989.

Amongst all the debates that have come out of the latest splits on the British left perhaps some of the most important have been about looking again at the 1970s and 1980s left. Feminism and party forms have been to the fore. But more recently people, notably Jules Alford, Richard Seymour  and the International Socialist Network, have begun to think about the way the left responded to the rise, and consolidation, of Thatcherism, and economic liberalism, during the same period. Today we tend to think of free-market policies as the fixed agenda of nearly all governments across the world, and in Britain, they seem the horizon of both the liberal-Conservative Coalition and Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership. But the 1980s saw heated debates about whether the Thatcher governments introduced something new into British politics, and if liberalism was a rational strategy for the country’s economy. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Coates

February 10, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Trotsky and his Critics. A Review.

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TROTSKY AND HIS CRITICS

Trotsky and his Critics. Revolutionary History Volume 11. Number 1. 2013.

For the revolutionary Marxist the struggle against reformism now changes itself almost completely into struggle against centrism. ….

Before taking seriously the fine words of the centrists concerning the “dictatorship of the proletariat” it is necessary to exact from them a serious defence against Fascism, a complete break with the bourgeoisie, the systematic upbuilding of a workers’ militia, its training in a will to fight, the creation of inter-party defence centres, of anti-fascist centres, the expulsion from their ranks of parliamentarians, trade-unionists, and other traitors, of bourgeois lackeys, careerists, etc. … It is precisely on this plane that one must now deliver the principle blows at centrism

Trotsky. Two Articles on Centrism. 1934.

Trotsky, the Editors of Revolutionary History note, was no “stranger to the cut and thrust of vigorous debate.” The leader of the Red Army and the Fourth International, “never hesitated, sharply to criticise the view of his rivals and to offer fraternal criticisms of those of his comrades and to reply to his critics with considerable energy.” (Page 5) However while his own polemics are widely available, “little of the material to which he was replying or which presented a critique of his views has been published.”(Ibid)

Others have been less generous about Trotsky’s “fraternal criticisms” and his energy-filled character. “Even Trotsky’s son Lev Lyovuich Sedov noted his “lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy, have increased. It is not ‘personal’ it is a method and hardly good in organisation of work.”(a never-sent letter to his mother Natalia Sedova 16th April 1936). (1)

A recent, hostile, biographer has observed, “Neither in private nor in public, though, did he suffer fools gladly; indeed he did not suffer them at all. He did nothing to correct the impression of being an arrogant know-all.” One could perhaps further illuminate Trotsky’s particular “polemical demeanour” with the observation that Trotsky saw “individuals as servants to an aim, and an idea rather than personalities in their own right.”(3)

Most of the articles in Trotsky and His Critics come from those on the sharp end of Trotsky’s polemics. They testify to the frustration of those attempting to debate about ideology and real political choices with somebody whom Pierre Broué called, “a giant dominating in his thought and his experience of a quarter of a century of revolutionary struggles” – a view, shared by the Bolshevik leader, that he was at few pains to conceal. (4)

The present volume of Revolutionary History presents newly translated contributions from a variety of sources. A common thread is that the majority come from those Trotsky described as “centrist”. That is, those democratic Marxists who rejected both Stalin and the ‘Third International’, then, Comintern, leadership, and the traditional social democratic ‘Second International’ of such bodies as the German SPD, France’s SFIO, and the Labour Party.

Nobody has written a satisfactory history of these organisations. They included the Independent Labour Party, ILP, (disaffiliated from Labour in 1932), the PSOP (Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (founded after their explusion from the French Socialist Party in 1938), the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), formed in 1935, with many smaller groups in Germany (represented here by the IVKO, Internationale Vereinigung der Komministischen Opposition) Holland (the party best known for its leader, Henk Sneevliet, and elsewhere.There was an centrist International, The London Bureau, or  International Revolutionary Marxist Centre (1932 – 1940) which liased between these organisations.

‘Centrists’ while expressing respect for many of Trotsky’s ideas (above all his opposition to Stalinism), failed to live up to his expectations. They did not restrict their democratic demands to inner party freedom. The majority opposed Leninist “democratic centralism”. They remained wedded to Parliamentary elections. Centrists were known to be hostile to the use of terror, and recoiled from violence. They stood for what is now known as human rights. As a result Trotsky called the ILP a “miserable pacifist clique” (5) Not surprisingly the leader of the French PSOP said that the Trotskyists would only be welcome in his party if they abandoned their vicious factionalism and denigration of ‘centrists” (6)

Yet Trotsky was also the head of the Opposition. If anybody needs to be reminded of what he was opposed to and the measure in which his fight against Stalinism was justified then some of the texts, notably by John Lewis, which defend the 1936 Moscow Trials, are there to remind us of what was at stake during the “historical events” that shaped these exchanges.

Boris Souvarine.

The Letter to Leon Trotsky (1929) by Boris Souvarine is probably the most significant text in Trotsky and His Critics. Souvarine flashed like lightening on the Communist left during the 1920s. His early political career was bound up with the foundation of the French Communist Party (PCF), time on the Comintern Executive Committee and his decision to defend Trotsky. Souvarine was fiercely independent.

At the beginning of the October Revolution in 1917 Souvarine expressed the fear that Lenin’s party would establish a dictatorship over the proletariat. (7) Perhaps one should bear this in mind, In Stalin (1935) he was already far from Trotskyism. A famous postscript added in 1939 concluded,

The force of things and the behaviour of men have contradicted all Lenin’s optimistic forecasts, his hopes in a superior democracy as much as his semi-libertarian ideas expressed in the State and Revolution and other writings of the same period, at the dawn of the revolution. Nothing in the individual theses of Trotsky has stood the test any better, in particular his wordy and abstract theory of the “permanent revolution.” Lenin died too soon to write the epilogue to the miscarriage of Bolshevism. Trotsky has not availed himself of the leisure afforded by exile to make a true and conscientious examination; even his memoirs do not make the contribution to history, which one has the right to expect from such a protagonist; his articles and pamphlets vainly paraphrase a hackneyed argument without throwing light on a single problem. The miscarriage of Bolshevism in Russia is coupled with the irremediable failure of the International, and the lessons of experience go far beyond the sphere of civil war. Democratic socialism in its various forms, in the name of legitimate defence against fascism, is almost everywhere allowing itself to be led, circumvented and compromised by dictatorial communism. 

The Letter teams with thoughts, not always well organised. Leninism was “Marxism simplified”. Russia was not communist but dominated by “peasant mysticism”. Souvarine struck more directly at Trotsky by remarking that, “The opposition itself did not oppose the “divinisation of Lenin and the canonisation of his work, or even to propose burning the entombed corpse along with its mausoleum.”(Page 16) he compared Trotsky’s ‘clarity’ with a “gramophone record”: a repetitive strain of invective. “His analysis classes people as Marxist, centrist and opportunist. He shows that this schema has little historical use, “centrism serves for you to avoid appraisals.”(Page 28)

On a number of important issues Souvarine illustrates the harmful way of classifying politics in this way. Trotsky ranged communists on their line on a range of issues, political ones in Britain, economy ones in Russia and tactical ones in China. If he fails that, “you class him on that side of ‘the barricade’ where according to you are to be found the bourgeoisie, the social democracy and the ‘centre-Right Bloc’.”(Page 29)

Souvarine takes Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? (1925) as an example. This book is essentially a lengthy polemic. It asserts, “We have shown above that the present British Parliament represent a monstrous distortion of the principles of bourgeois democracy, and that without the application of revolutionary force it will hardly be possible to archive even an honest distribution of the electoral regions in Britain, the abrogation of the monarchy and the House of Lords.”(8)

While awaiting this development Trotsky produced an account of how industrial conflicts, might end in the “strengthening of the revolutionary tendencies in the masses” and of the central role of trade unions as the “main lever of the economic transformation of country” A confident prediction that the Communist Party will take the place of the Independent Labour Party in relation to the Labour Party is marked by a complaint (with which we are already familiar) that the ILP itself is a “resurrection of centrism within the social-imperialist party” – of Labour.

The Letter observes that all this relies on “far too strict transposition of continental revolutionary processes into the British setting…”(Page 31) With the Stalinists you “both believed that the British industrial crisis was opening up revolutionary period.”(Page 31) Both were wrong. “You know as well as I do that communists do not exist in Great Britain.”(Page 32) Showing probably a greater unfamiliarly with British socialism Souvarine asserted that the British trade union left remains “disciples of Mill and Spencer.”(Page 34) There was a deeper fault. Working class reformism “is deeply rooted in the economy of capitalism, and its ideology is fed from abundant and diverse streams which you will no way uncover by crying betrayal, or choke them off by indiscriminately condemning all who contradict you by using one and the same sentence”(Page 37) The problems in Trotsky’s stand on Britain are repeated in your “position as regards the non-communist working class of every land….”(Page 35)

In short, Trotsky’s belief that he could dictate “day to day” tactics” for the left in other countries was already one of his characteristics before his expulsion from the Soviet Union gave him free-rein to do so. It can be traced to a wider tendency. In the famous debate on China, and the relations between the country’s Communists and the Kuomintang we already saw efforts, by both the Stalin-led (in fact still partially collegiate) leadership and Trotsky to “impose a Russian leadership upon a Chinese movement.”(Page 43)

One would like to have known more about the exact nature of Souvraine’s  later anti-Communism. If it bore a Cold War stamp the impression of complex, passionate and stimulating thought remains.

Spain and the POUM.

Souvarine remarked to Trotsky “anyone who contradicts it is more or less a traitor or a counter-revolutionary.”(Page 35) Few would be astonished to find themselves quickly anathematised. More unpleasant is the lingering stench from Trotsky’s efforts to tell the Spanish left what to do during the Popular Front and Civil War. He baldly declared in 1939 that, “is it not now clear that the POUM’s fear of the petty bourgeois public opinion of the Second and Third Internationals and above all of the anarchists was one of the principal causes of the collapse of the Spanish revolution?” (9) This Leyenda Negra of the cruel stupidity of the POUM   has been repeated many times since.

Wikebaldo Solano, in a more recent retrospective, tries to find excuses for Trotsky. Andreu Nin was a great friend of the leading figure of the Russian Revolution. But there were faults. Trotsky wrongly compared the French and Spanish Popular Fronts. The latter was not an “organic coalition” but an “electoral front”. Trotsky showed “total incomprehension” (Page 152) Trotsky initially greeted the 1936 victory. His latter judgements- that is his efforts to run a minuscule faction that would attack the PSOE was perhaps misjudged. But Trotsky had few real possibilities of being “informed about the Spanish revolution…”“Trotsky’s information was very deficient and always late in arriving.”(Page 155)

Ignacio Iglesias is less forgiving. Trotsky’s “illusions were basically wanting to see everywhere a repeat of the Russian October Revolution. “(Page 158) His analysis boiled down to pinning the defeat of the Republic on the lack of a Bolshevik-Leninist party in the Spanish revolution. Not even speaking Spanish he attempted to dictate policy. Above all, “Trotsky, just like Stalin, and just like Lenin before them suffered from a very serious fault, a real perversion of the spirit, in that his intolerance would turn political difference into heresy or even apostasy.”(Page 159)

Centrism’s Legacy.

There is much further interesting material, by the (later Stalinist) Mark Schmidt, on Spain. The articles by the German Opposition, and Jay Lovestone (who became a Cold Warrior) with a critical view of  Soviet Policy and World Revolution, are of interest. It would perhaps have been useful to introduce some of the debates on the ‘centrist’ that is independent anti-Stalinist left, to which we have already alluded to. Marceau Pivert is relatively unknown to an Anglophone audience, though the group he participated in, the Gauche Révolutionnaire  and subsequently the PSOP, were influential.

Pivert had a very different take on another Popular Front, the French Front Populaire, to the myths spun by Trotsky regarding the “betrayal” imminent revolution there. If his writings no longer hold many people’s attention, Pivert and his party, the PSOP, have had an enduring influence, both within the Parti Socialiste (he rejoined, post-war, its forerunner, the SFIO), and within the Front de gauche (FdG). Indeed it is hard to understand the importance of social republicanism and secularism in French left politics without him.

Stalinism.

In case we need reminding of how right Trotsky was on some issues the editors have included a text by a certain John Lewis.

Lewis was a Unitarian Minister in Ipswich during the 1930s. Extensive research (asking around) has shown that he was controversial – prone to argue with the congregation from the pulpit, and apparently a ‘Ladies Man’. Edged out, or simply moving on, Lewis went on to work for the Left Book Club, and became a leading figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain, where he edited its Modern Quarterly. An advocate of “socialist humanism” and Christian Marxist dialogue, paralleling efforts by the former French hard-line Stalinist, Roger Garaudy. Louis Althusser famously attacked him for these ideas.

Lewis’s ‘humanism’ had a distinct cast in the Stalin era. Cited by E.P.Thompson this was expressed by praise of the Soviet achievement. In 1946 he noted, that the “most cautious investigators” reveal “a respect for personality, an achievement of freedom from want an insecurity, an equality of opportunity, that has filled the Soviet people with boundless confidence and hope.”(10)

Perfectionists and the Moscow Trials. (1937) is included in Trotsky and His Critics . It is, the editors state, from “textual analysis” probably by John Lewis.

Lewis talks of social perfectionism, which means that people strive for the perfection of God. In reality Christians must have “to share in the responsibility for blunder suffering and crime.”(Page 126) He then helpfully announces, “there was neither blunder nor crime in the ruthless judgements in the Moscow trials (they) were a protective reaction against the most reckless political conspiracy that was ever directed ageist the lives and existence of a whole people; that at no previous stage in history could the treasonous acts of idealists have struck as deadly a blow to a vast population…”(Page 126)

This is the “Trotskyite idealist who is prepared to destroy Socialist reality for the sake of his perfectionist fantasies.”(Page 128) The Trotskyists could not admit that Stalin’s position was “anything but the ruin of the revolution.”(Page 127) They thus act as “if they had been right” and had “resolved to remove Stalin and his supporters from power in order to change the policy of Russia, stop industrialisation and collective farms, reverse the development towards democracy in Russia both internally and externally.”(Page 127)

As they could not win the masses to this policy of” self-destruction”, the masses had to be manoeuvred into doing so. The “apparently fortuities destruction of industrial plant was bound to undermine confidence in the government”(Ibid) These “wrecking activities of the Trotskyist ran parallel to the endeavours of the German and Japanese secret agents.”(Page 127) “Leon Trotsky…had got in touch with the German and Japanese authorities in view of an eventual war,”(Page 127)

And so it goes…

Trotsky and his Role.

Pierre Broué’s loyal biography of Trotsky dismisses those, like Isaac Deutscher, who would have preferred that after being forced out of the Soviet Union his subject had not founded the Fourth International, or to have tried to intervene in the day-to-day politics of the left in countries about which he was, at best, imperfectly informed. (11) Even had he withdrawn to a Watchtower, many of us would have been wary of such a political analyst or prophet, given Trotsky’s less than democratic record in the early years of the Soviet Union. The present texts, well-presented and explained, largely confirm this judgement.

Yet this article of John Lewis brings something to the fore: it shows what Trotsky was up against.

  1. Page 236. Victor Serge. The Course is Set on Hope. Susan Weissman. Verso 2001.
  2. Page 337 Trotsky: A Biography. Robert Service. Macmillan. 2009.
  3. Page 80. Stalin’s Nemesis. The Exile, Murder of Leon Trotsky. Bertrand M. Patenaude. Faber & Faber. 2009.
  4. Pierre Broué. Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution Fourth International, Vol. 4 no 1 April 1967.
  5. Leon Trotsky. Where is the PSOP Going? A Correspondence Between Marceau Pivert, Daniel Geurin and Leon Trotsky. 22 December 1938 March 1939.
  6. Le PSOP et le trotskysme. Marceau Pivert. Juin 36. 9th of June. 1939. “s’il abandonne les méthodes fractionnelles, le noyautage commandé de l’extérieur, les moyens de pression et de corruption ou de dénigrement systématique destiné à isoler ou à développer tel ou tel militant qualifié pour la circonstance de « centriste » en vue d’une opération analogue à la préparation d’une « citronnade », alors comme courant politique, le trotskysme peut et doit trouver place au sein du PSOP. »
  7. Les Vies de Boris Souvarine. Critique Sociale. 14 October 2008.
  8. Page 72, Where is Britain Going? Leon Trotsky Socialist Labour League. 1960.
  1. Where is the PSOP Going? Op cit.
  1. Page 318. The Poverty of Theory. E.P.Thompson. Merlin Press. 1978.
  1. Trotsky. Pierre Broué.1988