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Socialism in the 21st Century

SectsToday must be a strange day for the Socialist Workers’ Party. The national conference of the RESPECT coalition takes place on the same day as a “RESPECT renewal conference.” The latter is hosting George Galloway, Ken Loach and several other people prominent on the left. The national conference will be forced to content itself with German, Rees and the usual faces of the SWP.

It reminds me of something I overheard a long time ago. Someone asked, “Where are all the comrades now?” It’s a fair question. The days of the Second International saw alliances between parties with membership in the millions. Those must have been heady days when the revolutionary emigré community would furtively flit from imperial capital to imperial capital, printing their newspapers and disseminating them.

The great Transport strike brought London to a halt and the Miners made a British Prime Minister burst into tears on the floor of the House of Commons. Even after the slaughter of the First World War, Germany had gone through a revolution that removed the Kaiser and the nation had a socialist President. In Austria, the barricades were up. In Russia, Bolshevik workers triumphed against Kornilov and then overthrew the criminal, Kerensky.

Where did it all go so wrong?

We know, or think we know, the answer to that. From the disillusioned former student radicals to the proponents of a post-modern world, everyone seems to have an answer.

I do not accept inevitability as a valid historical judgment. Despite that, if I were asked to pick the point at which the world went down the wrong path, it would be the decision to hold on to the gains of the October Revolution at the expense of proletarian democracy. That decision led to the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy over the Old Guard of the Party, the Old Guard which Lenin and Trotsky had sought to rely on, to protect the revolution between that time and the time when the more developed European working classes would move back to the offensive.

Yet hindsight is, as ever, 20/20. Had I been Trotsky or Lenin, I do not doubt that I would have made the same decision as they did.

Why is any of that relevant to an article entitled “Socialism in the 21st Century?” The change in character of the Soviet Federation, later Soviet Union, caught up the left in the disintegration of the Third International until that international was little better than Stalin’s political pawn – proof of which was given when, to extract concessions from the British and Americans, Stalin ordered the Comintern to be wound up.

As a result of this, socialists today do not simply contend with “the bourgeoisie.” As any ful kno, the midget little sects contend with one another too. From the AWL to the SP, from the SWP to the RCP(M-L). Why? Because history stands between them.

Arguments over what the USSR turned into, what China was or is, whether or not to support sides during the Korean War…these arguments broke and twisted all the socialist organisations that were independent of Stalin’s Comintern. Those organisations not independent of the Comintern had an altogether different problem which is not relevant to this discussion.

The names of all the famous Marxists of the 20th Century, after the death of Trotsky, are synonymous with the splits that they led. Max Schactmann, Tony Cliffe, Ernest Mandel, Ted Grant…all names well known amongst the left, all led splits. The argument from this has been that the extreme left is simply prone to splits – and, one must admit, the prima facie evidence is compelling when coupled to some damning but comedic indictments of this tendency.

Splits, as often as not, were the result of cults of personality outgrowing the personality that spawned them. They were the results of personal disagreement. Some were even differences over tactics. Clearly splits aren’t a feature liable to disappear from far left politics any time soon – as the comic lockout of the SWP from the national headquarters of RESPECT proves.

Is there a solution to all of this? The Socialist Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty probably stand as the largest of the far left groups – and repeatedly all three sides devote ink to denigrating the positions of the others. One could rationalise and trace out the differences between the SWP and SP over the USSR, or between the AWL and SP over entryism and so on – but the truth is much simpler I sometimes think.

Each Party commits the same sin that the Labour leadership commits, the one all of us denounce it for – the one that these three parties denounce it for incidentally. That sin is one of sacrificing principle for the sake of position. This is done within the trade unions – whether on the CWU or TGWU, where broad left members of the SP or elected executives of the SWP and so forth simply do not give the lead to workers that they should be giving.

Beyond that, these parties act like sects rather than parties. They engage in repeatedly revisionist history – trying to write rivals out of their part in previous movements. They are often aggressive with members of the other parties. I’m not saying Labour is better of course; Labour and many unions have often done as much as possible to expel communists, close down irksome trades’ councils and generally deaden the voices of radical democracy.

At least I can go along to a Labour branch meeting and get normal conversation from people. The school teachers, the civil servants…workers generally are more likely to attend Labour gatherings than anything remotely associated with the anoraks and misfits who seem to characterise the far left. When they’re not anoraks or misfits, they seem to be politically naive in the extreme or else out to use these groups for their own purposes – as the SWP have recently learned to their cost.

Now might be considered an appropriate time to call for the resurrection of that tired banner, “left unity” – but the truth is, the last thing I want is for these groups to merge and/or join Labour. We don’t need to return to the debates of the Fourth International on what the Soviet Union was, and whether or not Eastern Europe was capitalistic or a series of deformed workers’ states. We don’t need six verses on who-was-right-and-who-was-wrong in the recently demised Socialist Alliance.

What I think we do need is stability. What we need is a clear programme. What we need is the freedom to debate ideas – from whatever part of the left they come. It is my view that the SWP and SP are particularly problematic in these regards. The AWL is the group, ironically, which I know least and will not presume to speak on.

Can these things be obtained within the context of the Labour Party? The Labour Representation Committee was founded in 1900 by the trades unions, to which affiliated the young ILP. It was a political movement owing something to the Owenites, to the Fabians, to guild socialism, to Christian pacifism and even to Marxism. It was formed in such a way that disparate groups could unite behind a common banner and argue their own platform with other members.

The historical context of the Party suggests that these things can be obtained within Labour – though that founding principle has been seriously challenged over the years, with repeated expulsions and proscriptions of many groups. I do not think we have democracy within Labour – but that is something we can work towards, even if it means abolishing the trade union block vote. This is one of the two reasons why I am a member – the other is that I support this party because even in the here and now, the party can still exact gains for the working class, regardless of whether or not it challenges capitalist principles to do so.

That is not an illusion in social democracy or in capitalism; I have illusions in neither and seek the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a dictatorship by the working class through democratic councils of workers. Yet to abandon concrete gains in the here and now is an insult to millions of workers for whom life would be that bit more difficult without a Labour government.

I have been told that I have no place within the Labour Party because of my views – but I will not renounce them. They are views which many Labour voters and Labour members have held down the years, since the formation of the party. Whenever someone tells me that I shouldn’t be a member of Labour, that person is without fail a supporter of the current leadership and terrified of change.

By now, I hope the relevance to “Socialism in the 21st Century” is abundantly clear. Socialists stand in a difficult position. As if fighting the power of the property-owning classes was not enough, we have to contend with people on our own side who maintain illusions in groups that bottle it all too easily when the going gets tough. Beyond those, we have to face the unceasingly hostile bureaucracy of the Labour Party itself, willing to use draconian measures to preserve some mythical purity in the party ranks.

Once these things have been overcome, we’re still only at the beginning of the struggle. The only way to win against the matters already mentioned is to organise ourselves, so that we have stability, a freedom of discussion and an agreed programme – on that basis we can appeal to the masses and win support fairly and honestly. Even then, with the majority of the working class on our side, the battle with the bourgeoisie is still left unfought.

The Socialist Workers’ Party may engage in all the popular or united fronts that it wishes – but that will not disguise the gaudy colour of that party; it will not cover up the checkered history of the SWP, nor the cheapness of its political analysis. They have themselves to blame for their current predicament – just as the SP’s Campaign for a New Workers’ Party has itself to blame for the quagmire in which it currently resides.

For myself, I’m quite happy to discuss my views with comrades within the Labour Party and with workers outside it. I’m quite happy to do my bit campaigning for the Party without giving up my right to an opinion, and my right to canvass support for that opinion. I will happily post leaflets and glad-handle doorbells in exchange for the right to criticise the leadership of my own Party, without fear of reprisal. That is what Socialism in Britain in the 21st Century should be about. Socialism is not dead; it just hasn’t been reborn yet.

  1. adrian
    November 19, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    Had I been Trotsky or Lenin, I do not doubt that I would have made the same decision as they did.

    Then you are morally bankrupt.

    You’d bad other parties and close down elected assemblies because you lost the election? (Lenin)

    You’d tell the workers they couldn’t have a trade union and then order the army to “shoot them down like partridges” when some of those same workers demand a restoration of political freedoms. (Trotsky)

    You deserve Stalin if that is the way you behave.

    willing to use draconian measures to preserve some mythical purity in the party ranks.

    Eh, no. To get rid of people who are members of other Leninist political parties. And who lie about it to boot.

  2. November 20, 2007 at 7:21 am

    Adrian, this is an important discussion for senior members of the party like yourself to have – don’t be the clichéd, venom spitting philistine. You can engage in genuine discussion without it.

    Yes Trotsky at first demanded that trade unions be merged with the government. That was after the point at which I mentioned things began to go down the wrong path. You are mistaken if you think that anyone here doesn’t know their revolutionary history.

    Had I lived in Russia in 1917 and following years, the role of Alexandra Kollontai might have been given to me – but I doubt it.

    The whole problem stemmed from the civil war. The Bolsheviks won the elections – with the Left Social Revolutionaries they formed an absolute majority in the government of the Soviets. The unpopularity of fighting a civil war against people who would have installed their own Bonaparte meant they should relinquish power?

    To whom? Kerensky? Even Martov, leader of the Mensheviks realised in the aftermath of the civil war that in truth there was no alternative except Bolshevism. To win power and then hand it back was to go through the civil war all over again. The dual power Mensheviks would have invited another Kornilov.

    Truthfully if you think Lenin bankrupt for that, I challenge your understanding of Russian history. Who, faced with a choice like that, would decide to return to a new civil war? Would you?

  3. adrian
    November 21, 2007 at 12:33 am

    I am sorry, it’s not philistine to point out that the core idea of Leninism – democratic centralism – is a fast route to the GuLag because it is founded on the suppression of opposition.

    By the way, the Bolsheviks got stuffed in the election to the constituent assembly – even after they arrested the cadets. The soviets hardly consisted of a body elected by universal sufferage.

  4. November 21, 2007 at 6:58 am

    I dispute that this is the nature of democratic centralism. You know the occasion of Trotsky’s demand for the militarization of labour that you spoke of? Well it was Lenin – among others – who spoke against that, declaring that even against the so-called workers’ state, the workers should be able to provide organised opposition.

    The suppression of opposition an the logic of the single party system that led directly to Stalin was nothing to do with democratic centralism and everything to do with the civil war, Kronstadt and the role the opposition played during a time of crisis. This survived the civil war and was even extended by the ban on factions within the Bolshevik Party because elements of the party demanded the restoration of proletarian democracy.

    I’ve outlined above both my sympathy for such a demand and my opposition to it, in the example of the civil war.

    As for the representation of the Soviets, you are correct – they are not chosen on universal suffrage, but they had infinitely more authority than the constituent assembly. That’s why no workers went on strike to stop Lenin as the ‘new Kornilov’ when he disbanded it. I would contend that the Soviets, by eliminating the input of the bourgeoisie, were more representative of the population, thus freed from class obligations. Even lawyers and other senior professional types had representation on the Soviets; funny then how they elected huge Bolshevik majorities but the consitituent assembly didn’t.

  5. November 21, 2007 at 7:11 am

    Incidentally, Adrian, were you aware that both Lenin and Trotsky imagined that other political parties would come into existence over matters of policy within the new workers’ state? They believed that to be the route to greater efficiency in the state.

    That this didn’t happen is more to do with immaturity of Russian economic development and, as belaboured by now, the knock on effects this had during the civil war etc.

  6. November 21, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    In regards to the Bolsheviks losing the election:

    I think one simply has to point to Lenin’s post-election analysis — the left and right SR split happened after the candidates were on the ballots. The Left SRs had the same agricultural policies as the Bolsheviks in the countryside, and the people who voted for the SRs in the countryside thought that they were voting for the Left SR agricultural policy, when in actuality, because the candidates lists were made before the SR split, they ended up voting for Right SR candidates.

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