Ellen Meiksins Wood: Marxist who put class at the centre of her analysis

January 15, 2016 at 4:49 pm (Andrew Coates, capitalism, capitalist crisis, class, democracy, economics, intellectuals, Marxism)

Re-blogged from Tendance Coatesy:

Ellen Meiksins Wood, the wife of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, has died of cancer at the couple’s Ottawa home at the age of 73.

Reports 

She was a noted intellectual figure on the international left, whose studies of class, politics and political ideas influenced several generations of thinkers and activists.

Wood’s writings were thought-provoking and luminous.

She first came to a wide left audience with The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (1986). This was a collection of her intervention in debates, conducted through the pages of New Left Review, and the Socialist Register,  that took place in the wake of Eric Hobsbawm’s famous polemic, The Forward March of Labour halted? (Marxism Today 1978 – expanded in book form with replies from supporters and critics in 1981).

Many left intellectuals not only backed Hobsbawm’s view that the material importance of class institutions in shaping politics was declining with the drop in numbers in the industrial working class, but extended this to question the relationship between class and politics itself.

Post-Marxists began to argue that a plurality of ‘democratic struggles’ and social movements would replace the central place of the labour movement in politics. Some contrasted  ‘civil society’ a more complex and open site of democratic assembly to the alleged ‘monolithic’ vision of politics embodied in the traditional labour movement. In a diffuse way this was associated with the once fashionable idea that “a “post-modern” society dissolved reality in ‘simulacra’. Others claimed it  meant the end of “grand narratives” – or more bluntly, that the ideas of socialism and the Left was splintering so quickly that only a fragmented series of ‘critical’ responses were possible against neo-liberal regimes of ‘governance’.

Wood argued for the importance of class in shaping not just political interests but the potential constituency of  radical socialist politics. Fights over power were at the centre of Marxism and these were part and parcel with disputes over exploitation and the appropriation of the social surplus. The ‘new social movements’, the women’s movement, the rising ecological movement, campaigns for racial and sexual equality, were interlaced with class conflicts. Democracy could not be abstracted from these relations. To appeal, as writers such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe did, to the formation of a new hegemonic strategy based on  relations of “equivalence” between various democratic demands ignored the basic facts about class and power. Like her comrade Ralph Miliband Wood saw socialism as an effort to bring together people around the central issues of exploitation and oppression in democratic organisations that could shape politics. This had historically been the result of conscious action, and this kind of collective work was needed more than even against a very real and growing grand narrative – the reality of neo-liberal economics and government assaults on working people, and the unemployed – in building a new regime of capitalist accumulation.

In academic as well as left-wing activist  circles Wood became known for her “political Marxist” approach to history. This focused on the issue of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and social property relations.  The Pristine Culture of Capitalism 1992  was a summary of this approach. It was also directed against the views of Perry Anderson (Editor of New Left Review) and Tom Nairn (today best known for his Scottish nationalism). In the early days of the Second New Left they had asserted  that the so-called ‘archaic’ British state was a reflection of a an equally ‘pre-modern’ capitalism. They also claimed that the ‘supine’ bourgeoisie – who abdicated political rule to the ‘aristocracy’ (which they claimed continued to dominate UK politics in the early modern period) – had been mimicked by a “supine” working class. In later writings Anderson talked of the need for a new wave of democratic modernisation to bring the country into line with the ‘second’ bourgeois revolution of modernity.

Wood, by contrast, pointed out, had a developed capitalism, indeed it was the most ‘modern’ form of capitalism. Its state form was related to its early advance, and its allegedly old-fashioned trappings – from the Monarchy downwards – had not thwarted capitalist expansion but arisen in relation to needs of its own bourgeoisie. The labour movement had developed in struggle with these forces, not in deference to them.

On all the essential points present-day Britian was no more, no less, ‘modern’ than anywhere else in Europe or in any contemporary capitalist state. Indeed it was for long a template for bourgeois democracy. In particular Wood attacked the claims of Tom Nairn that in some fashion Ukania (his ‘funny’ word for the United Kingdom, modelled on the novelist (1880 – 1942) Robert Musil’s term for the Austro-Hungrian empire, Kakania – shit land) owed its economic difficulties to its constitution.  Economic problems  arose at root from the general contradictions of capitalist accumulation, in a specific form. The problems of British democracy were due to its capitalist character – it is hardly alone in having a Monarchy to begin with – not to the issues Nairn-Anderson dreamt up about its sonderweg.

More widely Wood is known as an advocate of a version of the ‘Brenner thesis’ (after Robert Brenner’s article, Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe”1978). The creation of market relations in British agriculture were considered to be the foundation of modern capitalism. The essential condition was separation from non-market access to the means of subsistence, the means of self-reproduction. Wood argued that it was the capitalist transformation of agriculture, followed by the rise of merchant class expanding these forms through international trade, created the ground of Western capitalism.  It was also responsible for the distinctive state forms that emerged in Britain.

In the Agrarian Origins of Capitalism (1998) Wood summarised her views,

The distinctive political centralization of the English state had material foundations and corollaries. First, already in the 16th century, England had an impressive network of roads and water transport that unified the nation to a degree unusual for the period. London, becoming disproportionately large in relation to other English towns and to the total population of England (and eventually the largest city in Europe), was also becoming the hub of a developing national market.

The material foundation on which this emerging national economy rested was English agriculture, which was unique in several ways. The English ruling class was distinctive in two major and related respects: on the one hand, as part of an increasingly centralized state, in alliance with a centralizing monarchy, they did not possess to the same degree as their Continental counterparts the more or less autonomous “extra-economic” powers on which other ruling classes could rely to extract surplus labor from direct producers. On the other hand, land in England had for a long time been unusually concentrated, with big landlords holding an unusually large proportion of land. This concentrated landownership meant that English landlords were able to use their property in new and distinctive ways. What they lacked in “extra-economic” powers of surplus extraction they more than made up for by their increasing “economic” powers.

Wood’s political stand was firmly within the Marxist ambit. In 1999 she stated (The Politics of Capitalism) ,

…all oppositional struggles—both day-to-day struggles to improve the conditions of life and work, and struggles for real social change—should be informed by one basic perception: that class struggle can’t, either by its presence or by its absence, eliminate the contradictions in the capitalist system, even though it can ultimately eliminate the system itself. This means struggling for every possible gain within capitalism, without falling into the hopeless trap of believing that the left can do a better job of managing capitalism. Managing capitalism is not the job of socialists, but, more particularly, it’s not a job that can be done at all.

The broader  focus on the links between capitalism and state forms continued in her study Empire of Capital (2003). This analysed how the “empire of capital” (rather than the vague ‘globalisation’ or the rhizome of Hardt and Negri’s  ‘Empire’) shapes the  modern world through “accumulation, commodification, profit maximization, and competition.”

Wood’s later works, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2008) and Liberty & Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment  were ambitious attempts to narrate and analyse Western political thought in the light of class categories.

Wood had a profound influence on countless people.

She was a democratic Marxist, a feminist, a perceptive writer and a force for good.

Homage to her memory.

Remembering Ellen Meiksins Wood

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The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism

December 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, literature, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, Uncategorized)


Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.


The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.

______________________________________________________________________

A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ecljgu22im9yfjh/dec-all.pdf?dl=0

Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).

 

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An initial attempt at a socialist and humanitarian response to the Paris massacres

November 15, 2015 at 6:29 pm (capitalism, democracy, Europe, fascism, France, Human rights, humanism, internationalism, iraq, islamism, Jim D, Marxism, Middle East, modernism, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", solidarity, terror, turkey, war, workers)

What follows is a statement drawn up by myself. It is based in part upon the AWL’s statement in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I have not discussed it or “cleared” it with anyone. Critical comments are welcome -JD:

To massacre ordinary workers enjoying a drink, a meal, a concert or a sporting event after work, is a crime against humanity, full stop.

What cause could the Islamist killers have been serving when they massacred 130 or more people in Paris? Not “anti-imperialism” in any rational sense — whatever some people on sections of the left have argued in the past — but only rage against the modem, secular world and the (limited but real) freedom and equality it represents. Only on the basis of an utterly dehumanised, backward looking world-view could they have planned and carried out such a massacre. Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement at least as much as the capitalist ruling class – In fact, more so.

Modern capitalism includes profiteering, exploitation, and imperialism, but it also includes the elements of civilisation, sexual and racial equality, technology and culture that make it possible for us to build socialism out of it.

Lenin, the great Marxist advocate of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, long ago drew a dividing line between that socialist struggle and reactionary movements such as (in his day) “pan-Islamism” [in our day, Islamism]: “Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism.”

We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or even (unless we’re present) comfort the bereaved. What we can do is analyse the conditions that gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed; and keep clear critical understanding of the way that governments will respond. This must not be mistaken for any kind of attempt to excuse or minimise this barbarity or to use simplistic “blowback” arguments to suggest that it is simply a reaction to the crimes of “the west” or “imperialism.”

Immediately, the Paris massacre is not only a human disaster for the victims, their friends and families, but also a political disaster for all Muslims, refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe. The backlash against this Islamic-fundamentalist atrocity will inevitably provoke anti-refugee feeling and legislation, attacks on civil liberties and hostility towards all people perceived as “Muslims” in Europe: that, quite likely, was at least one of the intentions of the killers. The neo-fascists of Marine LePen’s Front National seem likely to make electoral gains as a result of this outrage.

The present chaos in the Middle East has given rise to the Islamic fascists of ISIS, and their inhuman, nihilist-cum-religious fundamentalist ideology.

Throughout the Middle East, the rational use of the region’s huge oil wealth, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and taunt others, is the socialist precondition for undercutting the Islamic reactionaries.

In Afghanistan, an economically-underdeveloped, mostly rural society was thrust into turmoil in the late 1970s. The PDP, a military-based party linked to the USSR, tried to modernise, with measures such as land reform and some equality for women, but from above, bureaucratically. Islamists became the ideologues of a landlord-led mass revolt.

In December 1979, seeing the PDP regime about to collapse, the USSR invaded. It spent eight years trying to subdue the peoples of Afghanistan with napalm and helicopter gunships. It was the USSR’s Vietnam.

The USSR’s war had the same sort of regressive effect on society in Afghanistan as the USA’s attempt to bomb Cambodia “back into the Stone Age”, as part of its war against the Vietnamese Stalinists, had on that country. In Cambodia the result was the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, which tried to empty the cities and abolish money; in Afghanistan, it has been the Islamic-fundamentalist regime of the Taliban. In Iraq the West’s bungled attempts to clear out first Saddam’s fascistic regime and then various Islamist reactionaries, and introduce bourgeois democracy from above, have been instrumental in creating ISIS.

Western governments will now make a show of retaliation and retribution. They will not and cannot mend the conditions that gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which they themselves (together with their Arab ruling class allies) helped to shape. Ordinary working people who live in war-torn states and regions will, as ever, be the victims.

Civil rights will come under attack and the efforts of the European Union to establish a relatively humane response to the refugee crisis will be set back and, quite possibly, destroyed.

These blows at civil rights will do far more to hamper the labour movement, the only force which can remake the world so as to end such atrocities, than to stop the killers.

Public opinion will lurch towards xenophobia. Basic democratic truths must be recalled: not all Middle Eastern people are Muslims, most Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists, most of those who are Islamic-fundamentalist in their religious views do not support Islamic fundamentalist militarism. To seek collective punishment against Muslims or Arabs, or anyone else, is wrong and inhuman.

The first, and still the most-suffering, victims of Islamic fundamentalist militarism are the people, mostly Muslim, of the countries and regions where the lslamists are powerful.

The only way to defeat the Islamists is by the action of the working class and the labour movement in such countries, aided by our solidarity.

Refugees seeking asylum in Europe do not in any way share blame for this massacre. In fact, many of them are refugees because they are fleeing Islamic-fundamentalist governments and forces like ISIS. To increase the squeeze on already-wretched refugees would be macabre and perverse “revenge”.

We must remake the world. We must remake it on the basis of the solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality which are as much part of human nature as the rage, hatred and despair which must have motivated the Paris mass-murderers.

We must create social structures which nurture solidarity, democracy and equality, in place of those which drive towards exploitation, cut-throat competition and acquisitiveness and a spirit of everything-for-profit.

The organised working class, the labour movement, embodies the core and the active force of the drive for solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality within present-day society. It embodies it more or less consistently, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far we have been able to mobilise ourselves, assert ourselves, broaden our ranks, and emancipate ourselves from the capitalist society around us.

Our job, as socialists, is to maximise the self-mobilisation, self-assertion, broadening and self-emancipation of the organised working class.

We must support the heroic Kurdish forces who are fighting and defeating ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq, opposed by the Turkish government. We must demand that our government – and all western governments – support the Kurds with weapons and, if requested, military backup: but we will oppose all moves by the governments of the big powers to make spectacular retaliation or to restrict civil rights or target minorities or refugees.

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Osborne discovers the North … 150 years late

November 2, 2015 at 8:57 pm (economics, engineering, Marxism, populism, posted by JD, Tory scum)

By John Cunningham (also published by Workers Liberty and Solidarity newspaper):

The sham of Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’

It is alarming and deeply disturbing to see that some people, many of whom should know better, have swallowed George “high-vis” Osborne’s fantasy-speak about building a “Northern Powerhouse”.

This is more amazing when you consider that ever since the Industrial Revolution there has always been a “Northern Powerhouse”, and it was the Conservative Party and Thatcher that destroyed it.

Without the coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, engineering and textiles of northern cities like Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Newcastle (to which Scotland and South Wales must also be added), Britain would have remained, as in early Tudor times and before, a rather unimportant European offshore island. Take away the north, and the industrial revolution would have happened somewhere else, with British capitalism ending up a mere shell, reduced to making cuckoo clocks or stuck in an agrarian-based economy.

Instead Britain for a time was the most powerful nation on earth, with a huge empire backed up by the largest navy the world had yet seen. It was no idle boast that Britain was the workshop of the world. Manchester, for a time, became its second wealthiest city. Britain produced over half the world’s cotton, coal and iron and totally dominated manufacturing. Most of this came from the north.

According to an 1835 survey Britain had 1113 cotton mills. Of those 943 were in Manchester and the surrounding region. If today it has become a cliché to say that you can’t buy anything that isn’t made in China, think what the situation must have been like in 1870 when Britain produced 46% of the world’s manufactured goods. In 2007 Chinese products accounted for 17% of the world’s exports. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels penned the Communist Manifesto they wrote eloquently and with admiration for the dynamic thrust of capitalism and the way it had transformed the world (as right wing historians are always telling us, as if they are the only ones to have ever read the Manifesto!).

Yet, it is the north of England, probably more than any other part of the world, that inspired and informed the famous lines “All that is solid melts in the air, all that is holy is profaned”. While Marx wrote Das Kapital in the scholarly seclusion of the British Library Reading Room in London, its analysis, observations and rich detail are rooted in the Manchester of Friedrich Engels.

Clearly Osborne has latched on to the north at least 150 years too late. In a sense Osborne is talking about a phenomenon that has been around for a long time — regional disparities in development.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Stalin’s Englishmen: the lessons for today’s left

October 23, 2015 at 12:31 pm (academe, anti-fascism, history, intellectuals, left, Marxism, posted by JD, stalinism, USSR)

“Why the interest? It’s a psychological detective story. Why should clever men at the very heart of the Establishment, who enjoyed its trappings, seek to betray it? Why did they devote their lives to a known totalitarian regime, abandoning friends and family, ending their lives in lonely exile in Moscow? How did they get away with it given their drunkenness, drug-taking and sexual promiscuity? Are there other spies still to be uncovered?  (Andrew Lownie, International Business Times)

The release of over 400 previously unrevealed MI5 and Foreign Office files provides some fascinating insights into the psychological and personal motivations of Burgess, Philby, Maclean and the rest of the Cambridge spy ring and their associates, as well as the sometimes hilarious incompetence of the British security services. However, the underlying political motivation of these upper class Stalinists who’d started out as genuine anti-fascist idealists in the 1930s, has been evident to astute observers for many years, and carries important lessons for serious socialists to this day. Sean Matgamna describes the political background in this 2004 article:

From left: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby.

In The Climate of Treason Andrew Boyle recounts a conversation which took place amongst a group of young communists in the summer of 1933, in Cambridge. Some of them would become the famous traitors who would be exposed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, after having served the USSR as double agents within the British secret services for decades.

Kim Philby had just come back from Germany, and he reported to his friends on what he had seen. There, at the beginning of the year, Hitler had been allowed to come to power peacefully. The powerful German Communist Party (KPD) could rely on four million votes; it had hundreds of thousands of militants; it had its own armed militia, and the strength to physically crush the fascist groups in most of the working-class districts of Berlin — and yet it had put up no resistance at all to the Hitlerites. It had allowed itself to be smashed, without a struggle.

In the years when the Nazi party was burgeoning, the KPD had refused to unite with the Socialists (who had eight million votes) to stop them; and now that the capitalists had brought the Nazis to power, the KPD slunk into its grave, without even token resistance.

It is one of the great pivotal events in the history of the labour movement, and in the history of the 20th century. The Second World War, Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe the decline and decay of the revolutionary working class movement — all of these things grew out of Hitler’s victory over the German working class movement. Unexpected, and enormous in its consequences, the collapse of the KPD was almost inexplicable.

In fact, the KPD acted as it did on Stalin’s direct orders. Stalin had decided that it was in the USSR’s interests to let Hitler come to power because Hitler would try to revise the Treaty of Versailles and “keep them busy in the West while we get on with building up socialism here”, as he put it to the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann (who he would later have shot).

In Cambridge in that summer of 1933 the young men who listened to Philby’s report tried to make sense of the German events. The Communist International was still denying that any catastrophe had occurred at all, denying that the KPD had been destroyed. It was still playing with idiotic slogans like: “After Hitler, our turn next.” Those who wanted to stay in the Comintern had to accept this way of looking at it. But was the International correct?

More daring than the others, one of the Cambridge group suggested that, maybe mistakes had been made. Maybe they should have fought. Maybe Stalin’s critics — Trotsky, for example — had been right. Maybe, after all, Stalin did not quite know what he was doing.

“No!”, said Philby, very heated. He denied that the KPD had made mistakes, or that Stalin had got things wrong: further, he denied that, where the affairs of the labour movement were concerned, Stalin could be wrong. As the infallible Pope cannot err where “matters of faith and morals” are concerned, so Stalin could not err where the affairs of the left were concerned. He denied that there was any left other than Stalin. “W…why,” the future KGB general stuttered, “W…what-ever Stalin does — that is the left.”

It is a statement which sums up an entire epoch in the history of the left. What Stalin did, that is, what the Stalinists in power did — that was the left! The official accounts of what they did; the rationalisations and fantasies which disguised what they did; the learned “Marxist” commentaries on the “reasons” for what they did; the deep “theoretical” arguments which were concocted to explain why “socialism” in the USSR was so very far from the traditional hopes and goals of the revolutionary left; the codification of Stalinist practice, written over and into the basic texts of socialist learning, turning them into incoherent Stalinist palimpsests — that was now “the left” and “Marxism”. The left was restyled out of all recognition.

A movement rooted historically in the French Revolution, whose drive for democracy and equality it carried forward against the shallow, empty, and false bourgeois versions of these ideas, now championed a tyrannical state ruled by a narrow intolerant elite.

A movement dedicated to collective ownership and therefore needing democracy because collective ownership is, by definition, not possible unless ownership is exercised collectively, and thus — there is no alternative — democratically, nevertheless championed the idea of ownership by an undemocratic state, itself “owned” by a narrow elite, and confused it with collective ownership. Read the rest of this entry »

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Grace Lee Boggs RIP

October 6, 2015 at 8:23 am (Anti-Racism, civil rights, good people, Jim D, liberation, Marxism, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States)

Rest in Power, Grace Lee Boggs

GLB

Grace Lee Boggs passed away peacefully on Monday morning aged 100. We are so grateful for the vision of justice and human connection that she gave us and feel incredibly privileged to have been able to share her story with others [writes her namesake, film-maker Grace Lee]

POV is streaming the film [‘American Revolutionary’] for free until Nov 4: www.pbs.org/pov

JD adds: In her youth, Grace Lee Boggs was a member of the ‘Shachtmanite’ Workers’ Party and a key figure in the CLR James/Raya Dunayevskaya “Johnson-Forest Tendency”, playing a pioneering role in the development of ‘Third Camp’ revolutionary politics. She remained firmly and actively on the left for the rest of her life, though she moved away from Trotskyism, towards (as I understand it) a more “Third-Worldist’ political philosophy and community activism in Detriot, where she and her auto-worker husband lived from the 1950’s. Anyone who knows more about her is welcome to comment below.

New York Times obit, here

A more detailed appreciation from Comrade Coatesy, here

H/t Daniel R

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Matgamna on the two Trotskyisms

September 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, USSR, war)

August was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police (remembered by his grandson, here). Workers’ Liberty is publishing a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna, puts the record of the two sides into perspective:

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Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.

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You can order a copy of the book here

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Stalinism is the absolute negation of Marxism

August 11, 2015 at 7:42 am (democracy, Guardian, history, Human rights, labour party, Marxism, posted by JD, stalinism, trotskyism)

My old comrade John Cunningham makes an important point (one that needs to be hammered home more often) in a letter published in today’s Guardian:


Above: Serge, anti-Stalinist Marxist

Jonathan Jones (Labour centrists like me aren’t cynics: we’re the left’s only true ethical wing, 8 August) regurgitates, yet again, the tired old myth that Marxism and Stalinism are somehow basically the same. That the one emerged from the other. This is nonsense (as nonsensical as the idea that there is such as creature as a “Corbynite”). The democratic left, the far left, the anti-Stalinist left (call it what you will) in the UK and elsewhere has a solid and honourable record of anti-Stalinism, actually much better and more consistent than either Labour centrists or the right (Labour or Tory). The left’s analysis and critique of Stalinism, through the writings of Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky, Victor Serge, the Critique group in Glasgow, the now defunct journal Labour Focus on Eastern Europe and numerous contributors to the New Left Review (to name just a few of the many voices involved) has been thorough, detailed, nuanced and totally damning.

The centre left and right, by contrast, have had little to offer other than moral outrage, which they were all too ready to drop when circumstances suited them. The left in western Europe has nothing to apologise for in its attitude to Stalinism. As for “the chains of a brutal history”, the left was the first to expose the crimes of Stalin and has fought long and hard to destroy those chains. Stalinism is not a continuation of Marxism, on the contrary it is the absolute negation of it.
John Cunningham
Adlington, Lancashire

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Interview with Kirill Medvedev, Russian socialist, poet and musician

August 2, 2015 at 11:26 am (democracy, Feminism, Human rights, liberation, Marxism, music, Paul Canning, poetry, protest, Russia, stalinism)

From LeftEast:

Yevgeniy Zhuravel interviews Kirill Medvedev (above), a Moscow-based poet, translator, and activist. He is the founder of the Arkady Kots band.

YZ: Can you tell a bit about yourself and how did you became a leftist? It seems that in Russia till recently it was not a common political choice.

KM: I became a self-conscious leftist at the beginning of the 2000s. There is a rather typical scenario for that generation of the Russian left, which emerged mostly from the Soviet intelligentsia of different levels of prosperity. Many of us were still able to spend our childhood under still rather comfortable conditions, so we were able to absorb the humanistic code of the Soviet intelligentsia, and then suddenly found ourselves in the historical hole of the 90s, when this code turned out to be not only redundant, but simply made survival difficult. Some of our parents had believed that shock therapy and total privatisation are the necessary stages on the way to democracy, others voted for the failed Communist Party, and some became quickly disappointed and depoliticised. The new left emerged  from this trauma, but not out of a desire for revanche, but with the feeling that both nostalgia for Soviet times and jolly anti-Sovietism, which brought most of the intelligentsia to support Putin, are dead ends; that if one wants to be a citizen and a political subject, some hard work is required in order to build a new political culture and environment. Sometime during 2003-2004, I started getting an idea that maybe this thankless job—being part of the left—is not the worst way to spend the next decade or two.

YZ: The band that you are a part of is called Arkadiy Kots, after the Russian translator of “The Internationale”. Who are the people in the band, why this particular name was chosen and what musical and political traditions do you follow?

10462453_966785860005098_2077991549690448503_nKM: The name seemed to be appropriate because Kots was simultaneously a poet, a translator, an activist and a sociologist; he wrote a study on the Belgian unions from the beginning of the 20th century. Such synthesis is interesting to us. Oleg Zhuravlev, with whom we founded the group, is a well-known young sociologist, member of the “Public Sociology Lab” collective, which does research on the recent protests in Russia and Ukraine. They just published a book in Russia, which will be released in Holland soon. Nikolay Oleynikov is a member of the renowned art-group “What has to be done?”(Chto Delat?). His work is related to antifascism and gender problems. In fact, in the Free Marxist Press, we published his collection “Sex of the Oppressed”, the discussions of sex and politics. If Oleg brings to the group the spirit of research, Nikolaj the spirit of militant queer carnival. Anya Petrovich and Misha Griboedov are more professionally connected to music: they are practically the musical directors of the group, fighting, for example, with my horrible unprofessionalism. Gosha Komarov, an activist of the Worker’s Platforms, which unites the most workerist (proletarian) part of the left radicals, is a multi-instrumentalist. This is the backbone of the group, we are all convinced communists, but, as it happens, we occasionally end up playing with people who do not share our views, which gives us some openness and a chance not to turn into a sect.

We translate a lot to Russian – from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to old Italian anarchist songs. We write songs based on poems of Russian poets and write our own: “Be Involved in Political Struggle”, “It is not shameful to be a worker” etc., which hide uneasy reflections about our own political subjectivity.

Overall we try to juxtapose maximised aesthetic openness with a clear political message, to get out of the boundaries of the radical left, subcultural milieu. Right now we are working on an album devoted to the history of the worker’s movements, from Luddites to Zhanaozen, with a support of Confederation of Labour of Russia, whose congress we recently opened with our Russian versions of songs “Bread and Roses” and “Power in a Union”, and gave a concert after the end of it.

YZ:You started the Free Marxist Press publishing house back in 2008. How did it evolve? What did you print recently and what are the plans?

KM: It all had started with samizdat (DIY?) books – “Why I am a Marxist?” by Ernest Mandel, Pasolini’s “Communist Party – to the Youth”, “Marxism and Feminism” by Marcuse etc. Later on we started making small press runs at print shops. Producing a book from A to Z—translation, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, distribution – for me personally was an important experience, though a little bit exotic, mixing the spirit of completely unalienated creative work a la William Morris, on the one hand, and the productionism of the 20s, on the other. Being engaged in the material production of a book one gets into a very special relationships with a text which it contains. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bill Hunter 1920-2015

July 30, 2015 at 6:22 pm (class, history, Marxism, posted by JD, RIP, socialism, trotskyism)

Bill Hunter (self-portrait above) died on 9 July. He was a leading member of the early British Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, later a member of the organisations led by the thug and (it turned out) sexual predator Gerry Healy, but in the 1980s joined an opposition faction that eventually broke with Healy


By Sean Matgamna (this obituary also appears in the AWL’s paper Solidarity)

Insofar as it is possible to separate personal qualities from politics, Bill Hunter was a model revolutionary: selfless, dedicated, always striving to be “objective” — that is, not to let personal feelings intrude on political attitudes and decisions — willing to  pay whatever personal price his politics demanded of him.

When I first encountered him, early in 1960, I thought he looked the part, with a long ascetic face (after a near-fatal car crash in 1962, his face had to be reconstructed), spare frame and his general air of driving political seriousness. Without these qualities no revolutionary movement is possible. They are not enough, of course. Bill’s political life was a tragic proof of that.

I have a fond memory of Bill from the early 60s. I came upon him in Manchester waiting in the little van he drove — he was Lancashire-Cheshire organiser for the Socialist Labour League — deeply engrossed in The ABC of Communism, the early 1920s book by  Bukharin and Preobrazhensky.  It was perhaps the sixth time he’d read it, he told me; he reread “the books” of the movement frequently.

He’d been a Trotskyist then for at least 20 years.  The title he put on his autobiography, Lifelong Apprentice summed up his attitude. It was the right attitude.

• The next issue of Solidarity will carry a longer obituary.

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