- Category: International
- Published on Wednesday, 17 December 2014
- Written by Sam Charles Hamad
A recent article by the Revolutionary Left Current (RLC), a Trotskyite microsect with some members in Syria and abroad, entitled ‘The revolutionary left processes caught in the grip of reactionary forces’, strongly articulates some of the problems with the general take of traditional leftist forces to the ‘Arab revolutions’. Moreover, it starkly displays why the theory of ‘permanent revolution’, which was a genuine attempt by Trotsky in particular historic circumstances to establish a sociology of revolution, is now wielded as a dogmatic filter through which reality is squeezed – a mode of mere self-justification rooted in the mentality and posturing of the sect.
The actualities and material realities of the ‘Arab revolutions’ therefore play second fiddle to what is now, by any standard, an anachronistic dogma. If the left is to keep itself relevant as any kind of meaningfully ‘internationalist’ force, which is a big if, it has to engage with reality and the world as it is, as opposed to how it wants it to be. The dominant trends of the left when it comes to relating to the so-called ‘Arab spring’ have been either reactionary campism, wherein revolutionary forces and movements are subordinated to invariably vacuous ‘geopolitical’ stratagems rooted in the simplistic, binary worldview of Stalinism, or in the aforementioned sectish obsessions with ‘permanent revolution’, wherein revolutionary forces and movements are discarded, ignored and ultimately subordinated to dogmatic self-vindication.
For the purposes of brevity, I will only deal with the part of the article that deals with Egypt, but the authors’ erroneous take on the situation in Egypt, and the underlying ‘theoretical’ mechanics behind such error, applies to their take on all of the Arab revolutions. Moreover, I’ll also use this article to make general observations about the way these leftist forces have reacted to and interacted with the Arab revolutions. It should also be noted that this isn’t some mere theoretical quarrel – the authors of this article, the RLC, following their Revolutionary Socialist (RS) comrades in Egypt, were one of the loudest supporters of the counterrevolutionary Tamarod movement and the June 30 protests that led to the overthrow of the Egyptian democracy and the murderously brutal mass repression that is now being inflicted mostly on supporters of the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, but also on any dissenting forces, regardless of ideology.
This is important because it’s precisely these errors that led both RLC and their comrades, for all their pontificating about ‘reactionaries’ and their mass denunciations of ‘counterrevolutionaries’, to uncritically and enthusiastically support the counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt – right up to and indeed after the bodies started dropping. Indeed, as late as July 17, 2013, the RLC, once again mirroring their comrades in the RS, were calling the events of July 3 ‘a people’s revolution’. Moreover, while they briefly acknowledging and condemning the, erm, ‘murders committed against [the Muslim Brotherhood] by the army’, they were still massively optimistic about the overthrowing of democracy by a movement supported by every counterrevolutionary force in the country, from the former members and political remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) to high level members of the security forces. They even signed the piece off with ‘Viva the permanent revolution’. Oddly enough, they don’t mention any of this in the current article.
To put it as starkly as possible: in the eyes of the authors of this article, the democratic election of Morsi and his transitional government equated to a counterrevolution, while the overthrow of democracy by the most reactionary force in the country equated to a ‘revolution’. This isn’t merely topsy-turvy; it’s political insanity. So, while they have the barefaced audacity to say that the Muslim Brotherhood have not ‘made a deep self-criticism of its period in power’, which they classify as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’, which I can only assume is how they characterise winning democratic elections and attempting to balance transitional democratic governance against a fundamentally anti-democratic ‘deep state’, they themselves have clearly not reflected at all on the folly that led to them supporting the actual counterrevolution.
As I mentioned before, the folly in question is mainly shaped by an adherence to the dogma of ‘permanent revolution’, but this is itself absorbed by the wider cliquishness, itself shaped by elitism, which afflicts the liberal and left forces that have been active in and around the Arab revolutions. The fundamental contradiction for these forces in Egypt was that while they were the ones who were media savvy, who had blogs and maintained websites, and who had a good relationship with certain sections of the regional and western media networks, this is pretty much all they had. Their participation in the January 25 revolution was mostly defined by all of this, but they had absolutely no social base whatsoever.
So, when this context is combined with their adherence to ‘permanent revolution’, which states that no revolution can be ‘complete’ or even a genuine revolution unless it is ‘socialist’, the reasons why these forces supported the counterrevolution should become a bit clearer. Nowhere in any of their output is the corresponding notion of democracy, and the notion of the Arab revolutions as national democratic revolutions against ‘secular’ tyrannies, taken as anything other than a mechanism of counterrevolution.
In Tunisia, the successful creation of a multi-party democratic system and the subsequent elections in which the Tunisian people participated freely, is treated as some sort of counterrevolutionary side show to these great movements of reaction, whether it’s the Islamists of Ennadha or the former regime forces of Nidaa Tounis, the two largest democratic forces in the country. It’s perfectly true that from a socialist perspective neither of these forces is particularly progressive, but then these are the forces that the Tunisian people, the people who overthrew Ben Ali, have chosen, namely because the revolution against Ben Ali was a national democratic ‘bourgeois’ one and not a socialist one. It’s one thing to make arguments against these forces from the left, but to term them as ‘counterrevolutionary’ somewhat misses the point.
The dimensions of this error in Tunisia are such that they can merely be dismissed as an inanity, but in Egypt, the error of selectively dismissing non-socialist forces, in particular, the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP - the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) as ‘counterrevolutionary’, led these forces to enthusiastically support counterrevolution as ‘revolution’, while, to be crude about it, providing a small amount of ‘left cover’ to these mass counterrevolutionary forces. Indeed, one might go as far to say that these forces, overlapping with reactionary liberals and nationalists, as they did with the organisation known as Tamarod, came to see the post-January 25 democracy itself as ‘counterrevolutionary’; hence these later accusations that the parliamentary elections of 2011-2012, of which the FJP won by a landslide, and the subsequent victory of Morsi against the counterrevolutionary candidacy of Ahmed Shafik in the presidential election of 2012, were ‘fake’ and ‘unrepresentative’, which was the raison d’etre of the entire Tamarod campaign.
It’s here that the aforementioned elitism and cliquishness comes into play more decisively. The fact that the forces that the authors of this article see as being genuinely ‘revolutionary’ were extremely marginal was made flesh by the institution of a democratic system in the post-January 25 period. When for the first time millions of Egyptians cast their votes in these elections, these left forces gained absolutely no electoral representation, mainly because they themselves represent no one on the national level. The millions of Egyptians who voted and participated in the democratic elections did not appear out of nowhere – they were the ones who also participated in and supported the revolution against Mubarak. Indeed, they were the solid base of the revolution. The problem was that while the focus was on ‘The Square’, these media savvy and connected Cairene activists, with all their rhetoric, could hold forth, but when it came to the actualities of what was a national democratic revolution, they literally melted away into irrelevance. Given the chance, the Egyptian people overwhelmingly voted for what was the leading force, in terms of numbers, of the democratic revolution, which was the FJP.
These leftist forces gained absolutely no electoral representation in the parliamentary elections – the main opposition to the FJP was the Salafist Hizb al-Nour, the pro-military national liberals of Al-Wafd and the various different political parties that had been formed out of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. After this, the ‘deep state’, having now to balance the maintenance of its own interests with a genuinely revolutionary democratic awakening, plunged it support into the counterrevolutionary candidacy of Ahmed Shafik in the presidential elections. Despite this, Mohamed Morsi of the FJP won a narrow but massively significant victory over Shafik in yet another victory for the democratic revolution over those forces that wanted to curtail and counter it.
It’s in the year that followed Morsi’s victory that the authors of this article have to portray the alleged rule of the Muslim Brotherhood as being ‘counterrevolutionary’ and ‘authoritarian’; indeed, the slogan was at the time that Morsi was no different than Mubarak or was merely a stooge of or collaborator with the military (others went further, of course, saying that Morsi was worse than Mubarak). Holding these positions necessarily entails a rather striking piece of cognitive dissonance – one must believe that Morsi was simultaneously the same as or no different to Mubarak, basically no threat to the ruling order, yet also worthy of the entire ‘deep state’, including every pro-Mubarak force in the country, from the security forces to the judiciary, mobilising against to overthrow. Of course, the easiest way to observe the difference between Morsi and a truly authoritarian and counterrevolutionary era is to just compare the one year of Morsi’s democratic rule, with the freedoms that this allowed, with the gravity and the brutality of the situation now after July 3 and under Al-Sisi, with even the most basic rights won during January 25 completely annihilated.
I’m not making the case that Morsi, in terms of his overall policy, represented a radical break from the politics of Mubarak, but the fact that he was a democratically elected leader who could have been removed democratically, was a genuine radical break from Mubarak, one that was, by its very existence, antagonistic to all the forces that Mubarak represented. However, in order for the authors and their comrades to fully justify their support for the counterrevolution, they had to make the case that Morsi and the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ were somehow counterrevolutionary. On a brief side note, I put quotation marks around the name Muslim Brotherhood only because the Muslim Brotherhood were never in power. The government formed by Morsi headed by the non-politically aligned Prime Minister Hesham Qandil was, as a transitional government, mostly comprised of centrist technocrats who were neither members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the FJP. Moreover, Morsi never had majority control over any of the state apparatuses. Saying ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’, in all its sinister glory, was ‘in power’ is at the very worst a lazy overstatement and, as we have seen, at the very worst, an attempt at fearmongering.
But does the claim that Mohamed Morsi was counterrevolutionary really stand up? This once again depends on what you mean by ‘revolutionary’ in the first place, but given that the only observable dynamic of the revolution and counterrevolution in Egypt was between democratic and anti-democratic forces and not socialists and capitalists, then Morsi certainly wasn’t a counterrevolutionary of any conceivable kind. If we also remember that not one serious force in the country was calling for or capable of overthrowing the Armed Forces, then we also can’t blame Mohamed Morsi for the crime of being a civil democratic president working within the confines of the Egyptian state with the Armed Forces as a veritably praetorian ruling class, one that as an institution enjoys wide popularity among the public. Any elected force, socialist or not, would have had to reckon with the military upon what was within the limits of possibility. The different forms of antagonism that existed between Morsi and the Armed Forces are there for all to see, most notably his constant battles with the Supreme Constitutional Court, which worked on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
In reality, Morsi became a bête noire for all different kinds of forces in Egypt, while the anti-democratic opposition became a blank screen upon which the authors of this article and their comrades projected their own ideological obsessions and their own delusional and cliquish demands. So, June 30 and Tamarod became an uprising ‘of the working and popular classes’ against Morsi’s alleged ‘neoliberalism’, despite the fact that the main forces behind and supporting Tamarod were more neoliberal than the FJP, with the added dimension of being anti-democratic. For liberal feminists, the June 30 movement became about women’s rights (or what Trotksyites call a ‘social revolution’), despite the fact that the same forces that unleashed the rapists and sexual terrorists of the government-sponsored baltagiya (literally: hatchet men) on protesters were among the crowds that overthrew Morsi. For street vendors in Cairo, the movement became about how Morsi was responsible for the drying up of tourists, despite the fact that Morsi couldn’t control the security situation due to the dissent of the ‘deep state’. In truth, the major political forces behind Tamarod and June 30 comprised a constellation of anti-democratic actors, from within and without the state, with different motivations, but all united behind the overthrow of Morsi. The fact is that despite Morsi being socially conservative and basically supporting economic liberalism, it was the left that collapsed into the anti-democratic counterrevolutionary movement against him.
The forces that mobilised behind the Shafik campaign at first wanted to use democracy to stamp out democracy, but due to democratic awakening could not do so, so they then sought to plunge their resources into ensuring that all opposition to Morsi was contained within an anti-democratic vehicle that could be used to mobilise popular opposition to subvert democracy. Instead of the opposition to Morsi organising on a democratic basis, they began to, in conjunction with the mobilisation of the ‘deep state’, chip away at the already fragile foundations of the post-January 25 Egyptian democracy, but this time it would take the form of the revolution itself, i.e. it would use civil disobedience and it would occupy Tahrir Square, in order to institute what amounted to a counterrevolution.
This is the point that the authors of this article and their Egyptian comrades in the RS began to converge with the counterrevolutionary forces through the Tamarod movement, which despite being directly aided by the security forces, was at least on the surface of things a ‘grassroots’ organisation that united ‘youth activists’ behind a campaign to gather signatures to force Mohamed Morsi to step down as president. It’s in this context that the authors of the RLC blog and their comrades can with a straight face indicate that Morsi’s election didn’t count and wasn’t actually real democracy, scalding those who called the military coup a coup at the time as having a ‘lack of understanding’ of the ‘deep uprising to pursue the objectives of the revolution’ behind the security forces-aided Tamarod campaign to gather signatures to overthrow a democratically elected president. So, while the authors of the blog and their comrades discarded the Egyptian democracy, in which tens of millions of Egyptians participated, they then uncritically supported the Tamarod campaign, which subverted formal democracy by declaring, without any plausible verification, to have gained 22 million signatures calling for the military to remove Morsi or for Morsi to stand down.
At the risk of repetition, let's just take a moment here to understand the mechanics of this according to the authors of the RLC blog: formal democracy, which yields victories for the FJP and reveals the left-liberal Cairene elites to have zero national support, is considered by the latter forces and their comrades, such as the authors of the blog, to be wholly 'meaningless'. However, the Tamarod campaign, supported openly by counterrevolutionaries from Ahmed Shafik to the security forces, which claims without any credible evidence to have gained 22 million signatures calling for the democratic process to be subverted, and which holds joint press conferences in Cairo with the authors of the blog's friends in the 'Revolutionary Socialists' and 'April 6 Youth Movement' etc., is somehow to be taken as legitimate?
There was nothing analytical or even principled about this - the combination of this dogmatic and stupefying adherence to ‘’permanent revolution’ and the wider dynamic of elitism and cliquishness meant that groups were being swayed and pulled by all different kinds of reactionary and counterrevolutionary forces. This is why even days and months after the coup (which they refused to call a coup), they were still so enthusiastic about the counterrevolution, disseminating the bizarre idea that the July 3 coup was ‘anti-imperialist’ and that the major forces involved in the June 30 movement, which included Neo-Nasserists and opportunistic anti-MB liberals, to political forces formerly aligned with Mubarak’s NDP and members of the security forces, were somehow ambivalent or wary of the military.
Indeed, RS even issued a statement incoherently declaring those who correctly called the events of July 3 a military coup as being part of a ‘conspiracy’ between ‘the Brotherhood’ and ‘America’. Such was the extent to which they had been caught up in the hysterical ultranationalist conspiratorial surge of the June 30 movement, a group like the RS clearly failed to notice, or more likely simply didn’t care about because it didn’t fit the narrative, that the US itself had supported the overthrow of Morsi and, like the RS, had refused to call what occurred a coup. Due to their dismissal of the formal democratic system that had been won by the January 25 uprising and their selective designation of pro-democratic non-socialist forces, such as the FJP, as ‘counter-revolutionary’, plus the subsequent necessary pretence that the non-socialist Tamarod movement was connected to the working classes and progressive, the authors of this blog and their comrades ended up as one small but influential (especially in the west among socialists) component of what was a wholly counterrevolutionary movement. Even if some of the forces contained within the movement had genuine grievances against the Morsi government, the fact that they sought to join with the most reactionary anti-democratic forces in the country to overthrow a democratically elected leader renders their action as counterrevolutionary by definition.
The fact that these groups, including the authors, have sought to write their support for the counterrevolution in Egypt out of their own history is evident of the fact that they clearly have no will to self-reflect or engage with reality as it occurs. Instead of an engagement with any of the forces that comprise the democratic national revolutions across the Arab world, the authors of this blog continue on with sloganeering, denunciations and analysis based less on material reality and more on attempting to fit reality around a preconceived, ossified and anachronistic dogma. It’s in this dismal spirit that these forces continue to ignore those pro-democracy forces in Egypt, instead casually and ignorantly dismissing them all as the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, dismissing them without any justification as being ‘sectarian’, just because, as with the post-January 25 democracy, the forces that they support are marginal and irrelevant. Indeed, it seems to have never dawned on the authors of this blog that the it’s precisely because the forces that march under the banner of R4BIA, formed out of supporters of Mohamed Morsi, are bearing the brunt of the brutal, murderous repression of the Al-Sisi regime precisely because they were and are the main proponents and practitioners of democracy in Egypt.
While the authors of the RLC blog condemn the repression of what they term as the Muslim Brotherhood by the Al-Sisi regime, in the final paragraph they declare, without a hint of irony, that ‘given the clashes and collaboration with the forces of reaction’, which is how they now term the Al-Sisi regime’s blood-soaked abolishment of democracy and its smashing of the main forces in support of democracy, the popular basis of which they uncritically supported and cheered on, that they have to ‘build and organise a popular alternative for the original objectives of the revolutions’. The fact that just over a year ago this group used the exact same language to describe the character and trajectory of the reactionary Tamarod movement should tell you that they are not even capable of discerning counterrevolution from revolution, let alone anything else. Those who support internationalism will be supporting not Islamism, but rather those forces that are struggling to establish democracy against those forces that have every interest in snuffing it out.
- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Monday, 15 December 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
Neil Faulkner’s recent article, The Age of Neoliberal Austerity (Part 4), is a welcome addition to the debate taking place almost everywhere on the far left at the moment about revolutionary organisation. Neil has recently left a small revolutionary group known as Counterfire, and his article acknowledges that his recent experiences in that organisation have shaped his ideas on this issue. Neil, like many of us who have emerged out of the fractured and diminishing far left in Britain, has begun to seriously question the model of organisation which many sects and groups adopt, namely, what they generally refer to as “Leninism” or “democratic centralism”:
For 35 years now, I have subscribed to something called “democratic-centralism”. I now consider “democratic-centralism” (I will retain the inverted commas to indicate that I consider this term/concept to be a shibboleth of the post-war Far Left) little more than a justification for undemocratic, exclusionary, and sometimes abusive top-down practice by largely self-perpetuating and self-selecting leaderships. The effect has been to turn Far Left groups into revolving doors, their alienating internal regime repelling people as quickly as new ones are recruited.
Neil correctly points out that the model of “democratic centralism” adopted by Trotskyist organisations after the Second World War was not the same model of organisation used by Lenin and the Bolshevik party. He argues that it is instead a poor parody of it, born out of the far left’s marginalisation due to the dominance of reformist ideas in the post-war boom. While I might argue he underestimates the impact of the degeneration of the international communist movement before the Second World War, and the influence of this on the Trotskyist movement afterwards, his general point still stands – the model of “democratic centralism” rigidly applied by far-left sects is not the organisational model which produced the mass revolutionary parties of 1917-23, and has in fact never produced such a party.
It is heartening to see how a number of different people, emerging out of different organisations and therefore coming from different directions, are arriving at very similar conclusions on the question of democracy in the revolutionary movement. However, I would argue that while Neil is correct on a number of important points, there are some problems with the analysis he outlines in this article, and it is worthwhile exploring these differences.
There is arguably a strain of “catastrophism” which runs through Neil’s article, and I believe this skews his analysis. Catastrophism has been a feature of various revolutionary organisations and theorists for some time. Broadly speaking, it is the idea, or attitude, that a revolutionary upheaval is just around the corner. This is often coupled with the idea that if such an upheaval does not occur, the crisis in capitalism is so profound that the alternative will be some form of cataclysm. The problem with this analysis is that it can often lead to a desperate search for short-cuts, as the “objective” situation requires an immediate and profound solution to all our problems. An example of this strain can be found in Neil’s opening remarks:
We face the greatest crisis in human history and a stark choice between barbarism (war, poverty, and ecological catastrophe) and revolution (by which I mean the overthrow of the rich, the banks, and the corporations, and the transfer of power to participatory democracy representing the 99%). To be able to exercise this choice, we have to create mass revolutionary organisation; if we do not, the 1% will continue to rule, and they will drive humanity and the planet into the abyss.
The catastrophist approach goes hand in hand with what I consider to be a wildly over-optimistic outlook when it comes to the potential for the movement at this moment in time. Neil argues that “record numbers of people appear to think that revolution is needed”. This is, in my opinion, completely incorrect. The overall weakness of the working class movement has led to revolutionary and socialist ideas being less prevalent in society than they have been for a very long time. It is this marginalisation, as a result of over three decades of attacks on the working class movement, and record low levels of struggle, which has been the primary contributor to the crisis of the revolutionary left. Neil may be right to argue that it is not impossible for revolutionary organisations to grow in a period of low levels of struggle, but none can deny that it is harder for them to do so. When there are few examples of mass workers’ organisation, and very little self-activity, it is very difficult indeed.
Neil argues that while industrial struggle is still low, there has been an emergence of other forms of activity, primarily in the form of mass street protests, which have taken its place and become the expression of widespread discontent. This is true up to a point, but I would say that while these forms of protest are much more commonplace, this has come about as a result of the weaknesses of working class organisation as a whole. In some senses, this is an expression of powerlessness rather than an assertion of power. Neil makes a similar point towards the end of his article:
The result has been, on the one hand, high levels of alienation, disaffection, and resistance, but, on the other, an erosion of the political and industrial organisation necessary to structure and sustain resistance. One consequence of this is that street protest predominates over industrial action. Another is that protest tends to be spontaneous, explosive, and short-lived.
However, while Neil identifies the shortfalls of these movements, his analysis seems to suggest that they are ultimately a sign of the potential for mass revolutionary organisation.
The problem is that, if the revolutionary mass is already there, any failure of the far left to grow is purely subjective, a failure of the left to “get its act together”. Neil in many ways falls into the same traps that orthodox “Trotskyists” have done previously, despite his intention to move away from them. In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, Trotsky and his followers argued that capitalism was facing its final crisis. This crisis was so profound that there were only two possibilities: socialist revolution, or the collapse of capitalism into barbarism. In such a period, the working class was “objectively revolutionary”, and therefore the primary role of revolutionaries was to build the revolutionary leadership. This in many ways led to the abstract party building and ultra-centralising tendencies we have witnessed in the Trotskyist movement since.
The main problem with catastrophism when it comes to the question of revolutionary organisation is that it can lead to what has been described as an analysis of the “crisis of leadership”. The orthodox Trotskyist organisations, in believing that the working class was “objectively revolutionary”, needed to have an explanation as to why a mass revolutionary movement did not occur. They argued that this was down to the opportunism and duplicity of the existing leadership of the working class – the social democrats, the Stalinist Communist parties and the trade union bureaucracy. The main task of revolutionaries was to build a revolutionary vanguard party to challenge these for the leadership of the class. While Neil is absolutely correct in his criticisms of the form of “Leninism” which orthodox Trotskyist groups adopted, he stops short of explaining how these organisational forms came about as a result of how these groups related to the class as a whole. The top-down structures adopted internally by sects are the natural result of their top-down approach to the movement as a whole.
Traditionally, when Marxists such as VI Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg referred to the “vanguard” of the class, they meant the leading, most advanced elements of a much larger, mass working class movement. A working class movement which has already achieved a high level of organisation, and where socialist ideas are much more common, may produce a layer which is the most combative in terms of challenging capitalism, and imbued with revolutionary ideas. In this sense, the vanguard of the class is that layer which is both consciously against capitalism as a whole (rather than certain aspects of it), and makes up the leadership of the class when it is engaged in confrontation with capitalism. The “revolutionary vanguard party” would be an organisation which unites this layer of workers. If we use this definition, then there is no such thing in the British working class at this time. In fact, even in the 1970s, at a high point of working class organisation and socialist ideas in Britain, Duncan Hallas (a leading member of the International Socialists), argued that to talk of a vanguard was premature:
Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence. In Britain that tradition was never so extensive and influential as in Germany or France but it was real enough in the early years of the Communist Party.
The crux of the matter is how to develop the process, now begun, of recreating it. It may be true, as Gramsci said, that it is harder to create generals than to create an army. It is certainly true that generals without an army are entirely useless, even if it is supposed that they can be created in a vacuum. In fact, “vanguardism”, in its extreme forms, is an idealist perversion of Marxism, which leads to a moralistic view of the class struggle. Workers are seen as straining at the leash, always ready and eager to fight but always betrayed by corrupt and reactionary leaders. Especially pernicious are the “left” leaders whose radical phraseology conceals a fixed determination to sell the pass at the first opportunity.
The insistence on the importance of the “vanguard” in a period where none exists can lead to two serious mistakes. One is that the small revolutionary organisation, isolated from the working class as a whole, can come to consider itself the vanguard by virtue of its correct revolutionary politics. The second is that revolutionaries can, in desperation to find a vanguard where one does not yet exist, mistakenly project the qualities of the vanguard onto sections of the movement or the working class. It is the latter mistake, I believe, that Neil makes. He argues towards the end of his article:
The revolutionary vanguard has been reconfigured by these economic, social, political, and cultural changes. It still includes (in Britain) some tens of thousands of ‘traditional’ left activists rooted in unions, parties, and campaigns. But it also includes a more amorphous, shifting group of ‘new’ activists, mainly young, typically students and/or precarious workers, usually ‘non-aligned’, often suspicious of formal organisation. Indeed, in terms of numbers, this group is potentially much larger than the first. The revolutionary vanguard today is largely formed of radicalised urban youth prepared to come onto the streets.
It is a serious mistake, in my opinion, to argue that the combination of the current activist left (and I would dispute the figure of “tens of thousands”), and the activists who make up the core of the protest movements could be reasonably described as a “revolutionary vanguard”. The former is largely isolated, and increasingly cut off from the day-to-day concerns and interests of the working class; the latter is largely amorphous, and by no means is it explicitly revolutionary. While people influenced by autonomist, anarchist and socialist ideas are active in these movements, there are many, probably the majority, who are largely reformist in outlook. That aside, while these movements have been in many respects large and radical, they have not necessarily been directly connected to the working class as a whole, and therefore to describe them as somehow constituting the “leadership” of the class is misleading. This is not to denigrate the importance of these campaigns, but it is important to recognise the danger of projecting onto them a “vanguard” status incorrectly.
Similar mistakes in this regard have been made by the left before. As Neil refers to in his article, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was an upsurge in radical activity, first on the university campuses, and later in the working class. There were a number of revolutionaries, most notably Maoist groups, and the International Marxist Group (a Trotskyist organisation), that believed that the student movement, by virtue of being more radical than the working class and having been the first to engage in struggle in 1968, now constituted the new “revolutionary vanguard”. The dominance of reformist ideas among the working class, and the relative conservatism of the trade union movement, was held up in stark contrast to the revolutionary ideas of many involved in the student movement, and the volatile nature of much of their activity. The International Socialists, in whose tradition both Neil and I consider ourselves to stand, rejected this analysis. While they acknowledged the importance of working within the student movement, and in fact grew massively as a result of doing so, they continued to argue that the growth of a truly mass revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing capitalism was dependent on the growth of revolutionary ideas and militancy within the working class. It was only from here that a truly “revolutionary vanguard” could emerge, as a result of the increasing militancy and self-activity of the working class as a whole. The groups that projected vanguard status onto the student movement were engaging in a form of voluntarism, looking for short-cuts whereby a revolutionary movement could be built off the back of the hard work of a small minority of revolutionaries. There are some parallels between this and Neil’s belief that the activists involved protest movements constitute the revolutionary vanguard today. While many of these campaigns are influenced by radical and revolutionary ideas, they have come about as a result of the relative passivity and conservatism of the working class as a whole. They are largely disconnected from the vast majority of working class people rather than representative of them.
While Neil accurately identifies the problems of lack of democracy in existing revolutionary socialist organisations, he fails to link this to the weaknesses in the way that the far left relates to the class as a whole. He starts from the position that the crisis in capitalism we are experiencing has led to widespread radicalisation, and that this in turn has expressed itself in new forms of protest which the far left has failed to relate to. There is an element of truth in this, in that there are a minority of people who have been radicalised as a result of the crisis, and they have formed the core of protest movements such as Occupy, UK Uncut, the student movement, and various other street protests which we have witnessed since 2008. There have also been much wider layers of people who have begun to question the system, and millions who have been directly affected by the economic crisis. However, the trend in recent years has not been an “upturn” in the numbers of people confronting capitalism. The capitalists’ austerity agenda has, so far, largely faced only sporadic and relatively weak opposition. This is not down to any subjective failure on the part of the left, but rather it is a result of these attacks occurring after over three decades of defeats for the working class in Britain. The onset of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s led to the destruction of many of the working class organisations on which much of the class’s previous militancy had depended. This, unsurprisingly, went hand in hand with the collapse of much of the traditional left, both inside and outside of the Labour Party. While these attacks slowed (but did not cease) in the 1990s following the stabilisation of capitalism, the far left remained isolated and failed to grow. In these conditions there has been a tendency towards substitutionism on the revolutionary left. In the absence of a radical mass working class movement, the far left has tended to substitute its own activity for that of the working class as a whole, and this has often been sustained by a false belief that the “upturn” was just around the corner, and that it was the role of revolutionaries to position themselves for when this occurred.
In order to properly solve the problems of the far left, including those of democracy, or lack thereof, we first need to acknowledge that we as revolutionaries are more isolated now than we have been for some time. The crisis in capitalism, while deep, does not necessarily mean that a radicalisation of the working class is inevitable. The movements we have seen emerge in opposition to austerity have largely been mobilisations of a radical, and in many ways disconnected, minority of people, who at this point cannot be described as a “revolutionary vanguard” in any meaningful sense. Such a vanguard does not yet exist, and if it does in the future, it will most likely emerge out of the self-activity and militancy of a mass working class movement, rather than from the heroic activity of a minority.
- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Monday, 15 December 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
Bill Crane’s response Max Shachtman and the Origins of ‘Socialism from Below' was a very useful response to my own article on Shachtman. He rightly points out the often ignored link between Shachtman’s theory and practice and the International Socialist tradition which both Bill and I identify with. Bill suggests that I concentrated on “Shachtman as a Trotskyist” and his aim was to focus upon “Shachtman as an International Socialist”. It was not my intention to omit Shachtman’s contribution to the IS tradition, and the article was in fact intended to help reintroduce him to it. I therefore agree with many of the points Bill raises in his article, however I also believe he omits or underplays some important aspects of Shachtman’s politics that also contributed to our shared tradition, which narrows his analysis in some ways.
Bill is absolutely correct to point out that much of the International Socialist analysis of state capitalism is rooted in Shachtman’s critique of Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers’ state. It was fundamental in concentrating the IS on the working class as the agent for revolutionary change by challenging the orthodox Trotskyist concept that the Soviet bureaucracy could introduce revolution from above. He also highlights the role of T. N. Vance in developing the theory of the permanent arms economy (another key pillar of the IS tradition), something I was completely unaware of until I read Bill’s response. The importance of the idea of socialism from below in Shachtman’s theory was something I did attempt to highlight in my article:
There were many important aspects of Shachtman’s theory which should not be ignored. His insistence that socialism could not be brought about by any other means than through the self-activity of the working class was absolutely essential in a period when any number of socialists were arguing that socialism, or workers’ states, were being introduced on the back of Soviet tanks. From the occupations of Eastern Europe in 1945, to the seizures of power by armed minorities in countries such as China and Cuba, through to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; many socialists have time and again argued that socialism was being introduced “from above”. This has led many on the revolutionary left to seek all kinds of short cuts to socialism, which by-pass the rather boring necessity of convincing working class people that it’s a good idea. It can lead to any number of voluntaristic methods within the labour movement which view the working class as a passive mass in need of liberating by an enlightened minority. Shachtman in the 1940s, for all his faults, stood by the principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.
However, while Bill is absolutely correct to highlight Shachtman’s contribution to both the concept of socialism from below and the International Socialist tradition, he omits an important aspect of this which I attempted to raise in my article, which is how this concept impacted upon his ideas concerning revolutionary organisation and practice. This was a running theme which originated in his rejection of Cannon’s model of the revolutionary party, and was also a central pillar of the early International Socialist’s critique of the methods of orthodox Trotskyists. In fact, I would go further and argue that the abandonment of this aspect of the IS tradition has played a crucial role in the degeneration of organisations which adhere to it, and has in many ways contributed to their recent crises.
The early International Socialists argued the orthodox Trotskyist movement’s abandonment of the concept of socialism from below was not just displayed in its theory of the degenerated workers state and the idea that socialist or workers’ economies could be introduced by a bureaucratic movement “from above”. It was also displayed in the methods they employed within the working class movement. This was directly related to Trotsky’s catastrophist theory, which believed that the next proletarian revolution was imminent, and therefore the primary role of the revolutionary organisation, however small or lacking in roots in the working class, was to challenge the existing leadership of the working class – the trade union bureaucracy, the social democrats, and the Stalinist parties – for leadership of the movement. The idea that the revolutionary situation was imminent led many Trotskyists to believe that the working class were “objectively” revolutionary, and therefore the only thing holding them back was the duplicitous role of its leaders. This is often referred to as the idea of the “crisis of leadership”, and the early International Socialists argued it led the orthodox Trotskyists to top-down methods of organisation and a tendency to focus on leadership struggles within the movement. The focus, they argued, should be on the rank and file of the working class, most of whom were reformist, not revolutionary, and on winning them to revolutionary arguments. The small Trotskyist sects as they existed were not the revolutionary vanguard party in embryo; it would be formed out of the working class through struggle. This vanguard did not yet exist. The British International Socialist Peter Sedgwick referred to these problems in his article The Pretenders:
Socialists who think and act in these terms may be justly called The Pretenders. The throne of working-class leadership is, on this view, held by a usurper of some kind, of doubtful authenticity and probably bastard petty-bourgeois stock. If the true heir, equipped with the right royal birthmarks of “clarity,” “scientific Socialism,” “Socialist humanism” or whatever, were to occupy his lawful place, all would be well with the movement. The typical behaviour of a Pretender is to try to discredit the credentials of the usurping King (by means, e.g., of close scrutinies of Comintern history, or of plausible scandal-mongering) and to establish his own authority, particularly by tracing a connection of lineage between himself and, e.g., Keir Hardie, William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean or Leon Trotsky.
Pretenders are so pre-occupied with the problem of Kingship (or leadership as they insist on calling it) that they seldom bother to find out the attitudes of their prospective subjects, the working class of this country. Or rather, if they do draw upon the opinions of workers, they do so in such a way as to add to the lustre of their own particular claim to royalty.
This top down approach to the movement was reflected in the party model adopted by most Trotskyist organisations. The “Bolshevisation model” was adopted by the Communist parties in a period of time when the international revolutionary movement was receding, and the Soviet state had become increasingly more isolated, and as a result, more authoritarian and bureaucratised. In the course of the civil war the Russian Communist Party had itself adopted top-down and bureaucratic methods. Factions in the Russian Communist Party were banned from 1921, and democratic discussion was increasingly curtailed. The native democratic structures of many international Communist parties were uprooted during Bolshevisation, advocated by Zinoviev, which many referred to as the “Russian model”. While Bill may be correct in arguing that many US Communists supported these measures due to the existence of constant factional battles within their party, it does not change the fact that this was a major break with the democratic principles by which the Communist movement had conducted itself historically. It began the process, which the Stalinists ultimately completed, of transforming it from a democratic working class movement to a bureaucratised authoritarian one. Democratic expression was curtailed, and the central organs of the party became increasingly dominant. Emphasis was placed on centralisation and discipline. Cannon’s uncritical acceptance of this model was a serious problem in the Trotskyist movement, which led to split after split in many of its sections.
The roots of both the top-down method of party democracy and the “crisis of leadership” approach to the working class movement are found in what Trotsky in his early criticism of Lenin referred to as “substitutionism”. This concept was picked up by Cliff in his early work, Trotsky on Substitutionism, in which he quoted Trotsky’s famous line:
…the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.
The argument here was that a top-down method of relating to the class is intrinsically linked to a top-down structure of party organisation. Both these features of the Trotskyist movement could trace themselves to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and both therefore needed to be combated by revolutionaries.
It was this major difference over democracy which ultimately led to the split in the US Socialist Workers Party. All manner of differences on questions of the nature of the Soviet state could probably have existed in a united organisation, but the increasing differences on the question of democracy in the party and the working class movement, which became both exposed and accentuated by the faction fight, meant cohabitation was virtually impossible. The discussion of who was at fault for the split in the party is ultimately of minor importance (although I would argue that Bill is far too kind to Trotsky and Cannon on this question), compared to the key issue for revolutionaries is not the individual behaviour of the leaders of each faction, but what they were arguing for. In Shachtman’s case, he was advocating an open and public debate on the questions the SWP was wrestling with, while Cannon maintained that debates should remain internal. Bill refers to this demand of Shachtman’s as “unprecedented”, which may be the case but is of secondary importance to whether it was correct or not. Shachtman continued to argue for the right of the membership to open and a public debate on all questions, and this was implemented in the Workers Party, which he and his followers founded following the split.
Therefore, when we discuss the roots of our tradition in Shachtman, and the conflict between his faction and that of Cannon, it is important we do not lose sight of the link between the concept of socialism from below and the rejection of the organisational model that Cannon advocated. This important question was also central to the early IS rejection of orthodox Trotskyism. While Tony Cliff and a handful of others originally split with the orthodox Trotskyist organisation The Club over the question of state capitalism in Russia, it began to revise and to question much of the practice of that movement. The organisation they later founded, the International Socialists, put a premium on open and democratic debate, and rejected the ultra-centralism and bureaucratism of many other revolutionary organisations. This, along with its rejection of Stalinism and all other theories of socialism from above, led it to be one of the major far left beneficiaries of the movement in 1968 and the period of working class rank and file militancy in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s, however, as the working class movement receded and economic stagnation set in, the IS (which was soon to become the Socialist Workers Party), began to undertake a revision of its ideas concerning its organisational method. This was a long process that lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s, where there was an increasing inclination to adopt orthodox model of “Leninism” which it had previously rejected.
In the 1970s it began to shut down many self-organised groups and factions, and increasingly began to look like the “monolithic” organisation that the IS had previously rejected. Factional disagreements began to take on the “winner takes all” aspect which characterised the US SWP under Cannon. When the “downturn”, which we now recognise as the first stage of the introduction of neoliberalism, set in in the 1980s the working class was under severe attack, and the SWP resolved to insulate itself from this by separating itself off from the wider left and emphasising the need for centralisation and discipline within the party in order to do so. The serious defeats of the 1980s led to the collapse of much of the left, and the severe weakening of working class organisations. In the early 1970s, the British IS had seen itself as one radical part of a wider movement, rooted in some small ways in the rank and file of the working class. By the 1990s, increasingly isolated and with these ties largely broken, the tendency was for the SWP to substitute itself for the left and the wider working class movement. It began to argue that an “upturn” was just around the corner, and there was a need to manoeuvre in preparation for this upturn. The necessity for a “tightly knit” “Leninist” organisation was emphasised to do so. The SWP began to take on some of the worst aspects of the orthodox Trotskyist tradition which it had originally rejected – substitutionism, dogmatism, catastrophism, and the monolithic party model. Ironically, those important features of the IS tradition- state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, deflected permanent revolution- which were key to their concept of socialism from below, and originated as drastic revisions of orthodox Trotskyist shibboleths, became shibboleths themselves. The revolutionary party became seen in part as a tool to preserve the tradition as a finished product, and a vehicle to deliver it to the masses; much like the orthodox Trotskyist “parties” which the IS used to criticise.
We should not ignore the importance of Shachtmanism to the IS tradition, but nor should we be selective about which parallels to use and which to ignore. Shachtman and his followers, just like Cliff and the IS, emerged out of the orthodox Trotskyist movement as they attempted to make sense of a world which no longer fitted into the outline of Trotsky, and they attempted to revise the shibboleths and dogmas which had become articles of faith for many. In order to do this both required the maximum amount of openness and democracy, and they therefore insisted upon it. I agree with Bill’s criticisms of the trajectory of Shachtman in his later years, but what should concern both of us more is the trajectory of our own tradition away from the democratic, iconoclastic, revolutionary principles on which it was founded, towards the dogmatism and conservatism that we see today.