Party and Class

Tom Walker: Say no to revolutionary jargon

Intervene. Build. Cadre. Recruit. Centralism. Discipline. Indiscipline. Smash. Oppositionist. Comrade. Purge. Bourgeois. Layer. Expel. Vanguard. Front. Turn. Propaganda.

All these words and more are part of the very particular jargon we have been used to, both in the Socialist Workers Party and on the wider revolutionary left. Taken together, they are certainly evocative – and not in a good way.

In our day-to-day conversations in the IS Network, many of us are still using these words. In part, that’s an admirable effort to make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. In part, it’s a nervous attempt to affirm our revolutionary credentials, a defence against the inevitable accusation that we have “broken with Leninism” – as if revolutionary politics were encapsulated in jargon, rather than expressed (or sometimes not expressed) through it. The words are waved around like a Leninist talisman.

The trouble is, while I believe we are all committed to building a better, more democratic culture on the left, using this old language makes us sound as though we haven’t changed at all – especially when we use it publicly, to people who don’t know us and are taking our words at face value – with all the connotations they attach to them because of their own experiences on the left. This vocabulary can still sound cynical, manipulative, and to many, frightening. It doesn’t make us sound like the kind of people you’d welcome into your campaign group.

“Comrades will launch a disciplined intervention into the campaign with our propaganda in order to recruit” – on one level that’s a not unreasonable statement of something we might want to do. But say it to someone not versed in the language of Leninism and they’d run 100 miles in the opposite direction. To most people, “discipline” is something you suffer in school, “propaganda” is what is produced by totalitarian regimes and “recruiting” is what armies do. Yet the sentence has a quite benign meaning: “We will get involved in the campaign and argue for our agreed policy using our leaflets, and see if anyone wants to join our group.”

Is this a deep political disagreement dressed up as one about language? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the use of language made me overestimate at first how far apart people are within IS Network – instead of “covering up” differences, the words we use are creating the appearance of bigger differences than actually exist. Of course there is much we will need to debate over the coming months and years, and that’s to be actively encouraged – but if we are unclear with our words, we will talk past one another.

For example, some in the Network are for the continued use of the term “democratic centralism” to describe our organisational practice, arguing that what we are currently constructing is “real” democratic centralism. I believe that this term has been systematically misused for too long to be rehabilitated in this way – we’ll know what we mean, but people who don’t know us will be scared off, thinking we intend to do the same old, same old.

In truth, it seems to me that both sides of that debate are committed to the same actual practices: the most thorough democracy, elected committees, recallability, voluntary as opposed to bureaucratic “discipline” (if we must use that word – “voluntary discipline” feels like a contradiction), autonomy of local branches.

This is a very different model to that of the SWP, and a much healthier one, one much more in line with the real, historical Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the run-up to 1917. In that sense, it is “real democratic centralism”, although Lenin scarcely used the term. To continue to use such a loaded phrase, the battle cry of the left’s drop-of-a-hat expellers over all these decades, is to make a fetish of language over meaning – and to risk being misunderstood. The left is full of groups claiming to employ “democratic centralism” (and, of course, claiming that theirs alone is of a “real” or “authentic” variety) – how do we make it clear that we are not just another one?

We need to break with these linguistic holdovers from the “old party” and its internal culture. In hindsight, we were almost talking to each other in code, repeating certain phrases as a demonstration of orthodoxy. If you use this jargon long enough, you forget how it sounds to the ears of “outsiders”.

The way to create a better culture on the left is not to take those orthodox phrases and attempt to change their content. That is a recipe for talking past one another, never knowing how far someone’s definition of a particular word has or hasn’t shifted. The answer is to be clear about what we actually mean, and to try to speak in a vocabulary that brings us closer to those we want to work with instead of pushing them away.


Letter from Brazil: call for solidarity from CSP-Conlutas independent union federation

On the Eve of the World Cup A Wave of Strikes Shake Brazil

It is time for strikes. After the huge mobilizations last June, primarily the youth, now it is the working class and they are shaking Brazilian cities.

In Sao Paulo, on May 15th, the city came to a halt. In the morning metalworker (engineering workers) strikes together with homeless movements (MTST and Ocupação Esperança) blocked avenues in the urban areas. In the city centre, metro (tube) workers demonstrated in the morning and municipal teachers demonstrated in the afternoon. Strikes and demos were the headlines in all media.

But the mobilizations are not limited to May 15th. Municipal teachers are holding demonstrations with thousands every week during the last 40 days. Bus drivers went on strike for two days against the mayor, the bus companies and their union, eventually bringing Sao Paulo to a halt. In Cubatão, a highly industrialized area in in Sao Paulo state, thousands of outsourced workers are on strike stopping sectors of the local Petrobras refinery. In Sao Jose dos Campos, engineering workers (General Motors) are holding stoppages. University employees, teachers and students of the University of São Paulo(USP), together with their counterparts in UNICAMP and UNESP universities, are on strike demanding more funding. On top of that, engineering workers are scheduled to go on strike next Thursday, June 5th.

In other capitals across Brazil, the situation is no different. In Rio de Janeiro teachers’ demonstrations and bus drivers stoppages combine and show the workers’ mood and strength. In others capitals, key sectors of the working class are on the offensive. Different sectors of federal public workers are going on strike. Even the police, both military and civil, are holding protests across the country.

The economic slowdown and high indebtness is changing the mood among working class families. There is a general feeling that things are not getting better. On top of that Brazilian government spent huge sums in the football world cup which is gathering general disapproval for the lack of funding for public education, healthcare and transport. The polls show that 55% of the Brazilian population believes that the world cup will be more of a burden than a benefit for working class people.


Besides the current struggles – teachers, university employees, metalworkers, public workers, the police and homeless movements – the metroworkers of Sao Paulo might take action on June 5th and there will be a national day of mobilizations next June 12th when the World Cup starts.

We ask labor and youth movements across the world to express solidarity to Brazilian workers. Motions and demos will be warmly welcome. Advancing the workers struggles in Brazil will be an advancement for the working class worldwide.

Long live the workers struggles in Brazil!
Long live the International Solidarity among the working class!

Dirceu Travesso

on behalf of CSP-Conlutas – São Paulo, June 2nd 2014

Model Motion

This union branch/meeting/Trades council/social organisation wants to send its solidarity to the Brazilian working class.

Having read your letter “On the Eve of the World Cup: A Wave of Strikes Shake Brazil” we want to express our support to all the strikes and social struggle activities that are taking place in May and June.

We support all your struggles for a better life for housing, decent employment with decent contracts and wages.

In particular we support the feeling of millions of people against the big business of the World Cup and that is making millions for Fifa and the multinationals and used money that should be spent on health, education and transport.

FIFA’s World Cup contributes to the violation of human rights, the right to adequate housing, the right to free movement, the right to work and the right to protest. Forced evictions have occurred all over Brazil in the wake of the Cup and have left many homeless and destitute.

We therefore wish you every success in your struggles against Fifa, the national, state and local governments of Brazil and the multinationals.

End the criminalisation of the Brazilian and British struggles

Long live the workers struggles in Brazil and Britain!

Long live the International Solidarity of the working class!


Which way for Left Unity? The case for the Left Party Platform

A debate has begun inside Left Unity – the project to set up a new party of the left in Britain – about what kind of party it should become.

In only a few months, more than 9,000 people have signed up to an appeal by film director Ken Loach to set up a new party, and 90 local groups have been established in towns and cities across the country. But Loach – wanting, rightly, to be more a figurehead than a “leader” – did not put forward an elaborate political statement for people to sign up to, simply an appeal to discuss a new party and what it could look like. And that’s where we are today.

Left Unity, through its nascent democratic structures, has agreed to hold a founding conference of this new party in November. It will be open to all who sign up as founding members of the party. And it will vote on statements of the fundamental principles the party should stand for.

In the past weeks, two “platforms” – that is, cross-branch collectives of Left Unity members – have formed to put forward different founding statements: the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform. I have signed up to the Left Party Platform and the more elaborate background document that supports it. In this article I intend to explain why.

Two approaches to Left Unity

The debate between the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform is, for me, a welcome one. I understand there is some nervousness out there about the idea of having platforms at all, or that it will cause the debate to become “polarised”. But I believe there are two fundamentally different visions of a new party of the left in play, and it is better to pick one now than to fudge the issue.

The Left Party Platform stands, I believe, for the kind of project that thousands signed up to when they signed up to Left Unity: a party that can include everyone to the left of Labour. It is a clear left statement, but without being overly dogmatic or prescriptive.

I do not claim to agree with every dot and comma, but it is a platform that I am happy with as a basis. (There is still a chance to move minor amendments in November in any case.) I believe it would give Left Unity tremendous potential to grow and start to make inroads towards becoming a mass party. Already Left Unity’s meetings in many towns are bigger than any other left group’s, and it’s only just getting going. The space to the left of Labour is enormous – and as Labour moves further to the right, it gets bigger every day. In this moment of crisis and the rise of Ukip, even a moderately successful left party could pull the whole debate in society back towards the left, and win real defensive victories over the welfare state.

The Socialist Platform, by contrast, takes the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism as its starting point. It is a far narrower statement – just about acceptable to a few different kinds of socialist, but distinctly unappealing to most people on the wider left. It is a recipe, I think, for narrowing the party to those who are already convinced socialists, plus a few more who we might be able to persuade as we went along. Ultimately it would limit Left Unity’s horizons to uniting the existing organised left, becoming perhaps a slightly better version of TUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition).

Shouldn’t we argue for the “most radical” platform?

As a consequence of the way the argument has been set up, some people I wouldn’t have expected are signing up to the Socialist Platform, essentially on the basis of “We’re socialists, so we should sign up to the socialist one”. It sounds obvious – but I think it’s a fundamental mistake.

Remember, we’re not discussing platforms to organise within Left Unity in the longer term, to attempt to win people round to their way of thinking inside an established party. We’re not yet talking about cohering the revolutionary minority inside a broader organisation. The platforms are there to argue for different founding statements, that is, different kinds of party to begin with. The debate is about the fundamental principles and aims that the party should stand for – and, most significantly, about who should and shouldn’t be a member.

So the question to ask when reading different platforms isn’t “Do I, personally, agree with this?” (If you’re reading this, you’re probably some kind of socialist, so of course you’re likely to have a higher level of agreement with a “more socialist” platform.) The question to ask yourself, instead, is “Should agreement with this statement be a condition of membership of Left Unity?”

The Left Party Platform tries to set out only the fundamentals – and this is part of the reason why it has been criticised in some quarters as “bland” or “anodyne”. We’re told that, horror of horrors, it doesn’t set out a clear road map for the transition from capitalism to socialism. We’re told that it’s a statement that almost anyone to the left of Labour could agree with. Yes – exactly! That’s the point! It is explicitly inclusive of socialism and explicitly opposed to capitalism, but it is not a blunt instrument. It says:

Many agree that we need a new left party which will present an alternative set of values of equality and justice: socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination. Its politics and policies will stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism and fascism. Its immediate tasks will be to oppose austerity and the scapegoating which accompanies it, defend the welfare state and those worst affected by the onslaught, fight to restore workers’ rights and advance alternative social and economic policies, redistributing wealth to the working class.

(Note the helpful distinction there between ideology and the “immediate tasks” of defending the welfare state, which we’ll return to in a moment.)

If we want a “broad party” – that is, a party that is inclusive of people who hold the wide array of different ideologies and traditions that make up the left – we need a statement that doesn’t demand agreement with a long list of specifics, but sets out the basics of the political situation and a few fundamental political principles that we believe are essential. If it’s not essential, it doesn’t belong there. Otherwise we are simply excluding people from the party before we’ve even had the debate with them.

We aren’t going to win anyone to socialism by demanding they sign up to it as a condition of Left Unity membership. Better, surely, to pass a broad founding statement and then, after November, be a strong socialist current within a party much wider than ourselves.

Problems with the Socialist Platform

First and foremost, the problem with the Socialist Platform is that it reads like a “where we stand” statement for a revolutionary organisation. The formulations scream “Trotskyist” – yet at the same time, if we want to be purist about it, fall short of actually calling for revolution, leaving a collection of statements that we want to get rid of capitalism and replace it with socialism but ignoring the question of agency. Presumably socialism comes about when the party gets big enough? It’s the programme of a quite inadequate revolutionary socialist organisation, in the Socialist Party/Militant mould. (I don’t think Left Unity should aim to be the new revolutionary party – I’m just noting that if I were one of those who thought it should, the Socialist Platform doesn’t achieve that either.)

Let’s use the key test: should agreement with all these phrases be a condition of membership of Left Unity? Should you have to sign up not only to end capitalism but to replace it with this simultaneously overly specific (in ends) and very vague (in means) vision of “socialism”, just in order to be a member? Should you have to be absolutely sure that no socialist country has ever existed – you can’t even be a bit soft on Cuba or Venezuela – just to join? Should you have to sign up to replace the European Union with “a voluntary European federation of socialist societies”, which is anyway really just a get-out clause from an argument about our attitude to the EU?

Meanwhile more important issues are left unaddressed. Feminism goes unmentioned.

The Left Party Platform stands explicitly in the “European Left Party” tradition, encompassing parties like Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke, Portugal’s Left Bloc, France’s Front de Gauche. The Socialist Platform does not – and the accompanying document prefers to point to their problems (and of course they have problems) than to (critically) outline the inspiration they provide that successful parties to the left of traditional social democracy are possible.

At the time of writing, the supporting document for the Socialist Platform has been signed by seven of the people who have signed the statement itself, so it does not necessarily represent the views of all. However, I think it is worth engaging with briefly, as it makes more explicit the approach that lies behind the platform.

Firstly, loath as I am to use the term “ultra-left”, I think that is an accurate summation of this attitude to the welfare state: “No return to 1945… That alternative is not a return to the welfare state of the 1945 Labour government but an advance to a completely new form of society.” For a party in large part inspired by Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45, about the construction of the welfare state and what it meant to ordinary people, these formulations would be odd to say the least. Forget the NHS, forget council housing, forget decent benefits, forget free education – that is, apparently, “managing capitalism, not getting rid of it”. Calling for renationalisations is slammed as a call for a “mixed economy”! After all, “[t]he profit system will remain, the nationalised industries will service big business” and it isn’t a call for “abolition of private ownership of the means of production more generally”. Don’t renationalise the railways comrades – abolish the private ownership of the means of production more generally!

There is no acknowledgement that fighting for reforms in the short term is entirely compatible with aiming for socialism in the longer term. Absent is any idea that a fight for reforms can raise people’s self-activity and point towards escalating demands; instead we are offered something approaching impossibilism. Current struggles are played down in favour of visions of a utopian future.

But let’s leave that for now to look at the wider issues. This passage is intended to answer arguments such as mine when it comes to “socialism”:

We do not believe that those who want to fight against austerity will be put off from joining a socialist party that openly and patiently argues its case. Who are the people who it is feared will walk away? Those who we campaign alongside in the anti-cuts campaigns, the anti-bedroom tax protests, opposition to imperialist wars and against racism are unlikely to be repelled by our arguments. We will say, ‘We want to fight here and now to [stop the privatisation of the NHS] [oppose the bedroom tax][oppose police brutality] but we also want to fight for a society in which we no longer have to get up each morning to fight these fights. We want a society in which hospitals don’t get closed and in which there is no police racism. It’s called socialism. But to get it we have to build a party that will campaign for it. You should join it.’ How will this put people off?

I submit that this is exactly the kind of patronising of working class people that I have argued elsewhere the left needs to get away from. “It’s called socialism.” Oh, is it really? Tell me more, I’ve never heard of that. Perhaps you have a newspaper I could purchase?

The reality of the left – and the working class as a whole – is that it isn’t full of naive activists just waiting to be brought the “good news” about socialism. People are not blank canvasses for our ideology. They have their own traditions and their own outlooks, arrived at through a lifetime of picking up a little here, a little there, and coming to a label they feel comfortable with (or, sometimes, rejecting labels altogether).

The whole spectrum of the left

A broad left party needs to encompass not only socialists, but feminists, greens/environmentalists, anarchists (and people who aren’t particularly anarchist in their practice but say they are anarchists), communists, syndicalists, autonomists, alongside people who might call themselves “mutualists”, or “co-operators”, or supporters of “parecon”, or just “radical”, or “libertarian left”, or any number of other more unusual self-descriptions – situationism, anyone? Not to mention combinations, like “eco-feminist” or “anarcho-communist”, and people who say things like “Well, I don’t label myself” or “I just want to defend the welfare state”. And yes, the dreaded “left reformists” should also be included (though, of course, almost no one uses that term to refer to themselves). I’m sure I’ve missed plenty. These are the people who I “fear will walk away”. We need to try to weave together the many, many threads of left tradition into a common party.

The Socialist Platform supporting document answers this argument in this way:

Another argument is that the supporters of this platform want a ‘narrow’ party, whereas they want a ‘broad’ party. We want a mass working-class party, which will include all who want to support the party’s aims. There is nothing to be gained from being in a narrow or small party. We set our sights on transforming society. We believe that can only be achieved by the majority of the working class acting in their own interests to get rid of capitalism and begin afresh. To reach that stage will require a mass party of millions of activist persuaders, millions of people who will argue for socialism.

In other words they are for a “broad” party … of people who already agree with them. A “mass party” of millions who are going to appear from nowhere and embrace socialism, because socialism is just that great. The “activist persuaders” line is essentially a propagandist view, of the sort that has done the socialist left no favours for the last century or more.

My argument here annoys those who believe that parties are built through top-down “clarity” – first you come up with a clear programme (or set of politics), then you go out and build the party. But every attempt to build a mass party in this way has failed. Real parties are far messier creatures, containing a whole world of ideas that people bring with them into the party.

Of course plenty will arrive with no set ideology, or with ideas that are not very strongly held. A strong socialist presence will draw people closer to socialist ideas. Common struggle, open debate, genuine participation – all these things will draw people closer to us. But what will surely “put people off” is if we just insist from day one that socialism is the only “correct” left politics – it’s been proven by history, you know! – and insist that if they’re “put off” by it then they must be some kind of right winger.

One final point: Is this about “hiding” our socialism and voting for bad positions, in the style of the Socialist Workers Party in Respect? No – and I find this the most tedious accusation of all. The Left Party Platform is full of left principles, and certainly does not advocate the abandonment of any of them.

Supporting it is, simply, about being openly socialist, but not demanding that everyone else should be. It is about being the kind of socialist who can coexist in a party with a wide spectrum of the left. If we’re going to demand that people agree with us before they can even join, then what is the point of having a new party at all? This is a crucial moment for Left Unity – and I believe the Left Party Platform offers the best way forward.

A note on accountability 

As a footnote, a few people have criticised me for signing up to the Left Party Platform without first waiting for us to come to a collective position by debating and voting within IS Network. But as a network, we are not an affiliated part of Left Unity, and nor is any other left group – it is an individual membership, “one member, one vote” organisation. We cannot, and I believe should not, act as a bloc within it – that certainly isn’t what I signed up for when I joined the IS Network. There are clearly differences within the network over what approach we should take, and it’s not even as neat as having supporters of different platforms, as some are not satisfied with either. Of course we should discuss and debate our approach, but we should have no fear of being on different sides of an argument instead of having a unified “intervention”. We already have members’ names on both platforms – in my view, if people agree with a platform, they should sign up to it.

If you agree with my argument in this article, or at least the fundamentals of it, you can sign the Left Party Platform by emailing


Is today a victory for revolution or counterrevolution

In a way, both. I’m currently sitting just off Tahrir Square with the woman who started ‘no to military trials’, a musician, one of Cairo’s most active street artists, and a novelist of the revolution. That is precisely the question we’re discussing now – and we are split down the middle. Half of us see this as a victory for the revolution and the other half as a victory for the counterrevolution – half as a step forward, half as a step backwards.

We’re in this café, not the square, for a reason. We all feel and know that this is not the square we owned – as if we have no tangible place in it, despite knowing that we hold a ‘place’ in the revolution.

Which half of the discussion are you in?

I’m in the optimistic half. Despite the fact that I’ve been most vocal about this unease for a few weeks now. Here’s why.

Two years ago there were untold millions who either knew nothing of the revolution or had no time for it because they couldn’t afford a minute off. Some resented it for stripping them of their privileges. Others even saw it as a return to the nice, ‘civilised’ Egypt that they knew under British occupation and the monarchy!

What we have today is a mixture of the following. Several million Egyptians who previous took to the streets and remember the Muslim Brotherhood’s lies, the blood they abandoned and the blood they themselves spilled. And many more, particularly outside the cities (where Morsi still managed to fare well in the presidential elections after a six month majority in parliament) have taken to the streets to protest their despair and disappointment in those they placed their faith in – not just now, but for a good 20 years.

However overarching this is a set of objections to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule that transcend class, religion, social occupation or revolutionary reference-points.

What are the politics of the protests, and which tendencies dominate?

There is still a very strong discourse that Mubarak, and Sadat’s regime before him, built over many years and for specific historical reasons. This discourse is built on both a rejection of ‘political Islam’ without a rejection of Islam itself – indeed they entrenched Islamic discourse. At the same time they built a fairytale scenario where the Muslim Brotherhood and its members contain some transgenerational, transpolitical trait that causes them to rule ruthlessly and dictatorially, in a manner that is somehow worse than Sadat or Mubarak’s dictatorships.

This is what motivates the majority of Egyptians on the streets today, though to varying levels. It is most extremely entrenched within the middle classes, and among Coptic Egyptians and older generations. Another motivating feature of the protests is a bourgeois notion of safety or “law and order” having disintegrated over the past few years, particularly under Morsi’s rule.

However, the revolution itself is yet to explicitly take up an ideology or “leadership”, and there are so many who have taken to the streets against Morsi simply to protest against their social and economic living conditions without any clear alternative in mind.

I feel the majority of those I encounter are there to remove the Muslim Brotherhood and their beards before they are out to remove the government. Here, I am in a minority. Beyond that though it seems as if most people are out to remove the government rather than wanting to install the military in power. Here, I am with the majority.

So the victory for the revolution today, in my opinion, shows the ruling class’s weakness. Our prime fear should not be the military, as there are many who do not find the answer to their prayers there. The victory for the counterrevolution is quite frankly the threat of popular sectarian violence against a particular group of citizens that also happens to be the military’s greatest political foe.

Can the rank and file of the army be split from the generals, or is this over-optimistic?

The rank and file of the army will only consider such a situation if the majority or a large number of lay soldiers are forced to rule and govern, and deal with civilians. However, if the army can achieve what it had managed to not only in the shape of Morsi but also Sadat, Mubarak and Nasser – that is, rule under the auspices of revolutionary or liberal parliamentary governance – then there is no need for such direct rule, and as a consequence the circumstances will not necessarily be ripe for the institution’s disintegration.

We’ve heard over the years about efforts to form a new, mass workers’ party. How far have these efforts got?

Notions of class have nowhere in Egypt’s history (save for short spells in the 1890s and 1920s-30s) asserted themselves over political, cultural or socio-religious considerations. It is difficult to speak of a workers’ party when we cannot speak of any more than 700,000 to a million Egyptians who identify with this notion at the most basic level.

Working class self-organisation has not ebbed one bit over the past five years, and under current circumstances there is nowhere for working class consciousness to go but to develop further. However I say this to emphasise that while revolutionaries in Egypt use the slogan “general strike until the regime falls”, and many agree, on the ground for all of us the main contradiction that needs explaining – or the main discourse we feel we lack – is a revolutionary narrative against the current government that stands on clear principle with respect to the military’s role, while also rejecting the reactionary discourse against the Muslim Brotherhood specifically and supporters of political Islam more generally.

Right now I can hear the calls to prayer, and a march chanting ‘Egypt (clap clap clap) Egypt’. And this is what I was referring to earlier in terms of the reactionary discourse of the revolt, making nationalist, militaristic sentiment the focus.

What is the left doing, and what does it have the capacity to do?

The left has the capacity to nurture and give confidence to those sections of the square who have no vested interest in military rule. We are working hard to keep chants and art against “el 3askar” (military rule) on the walls and on our tongues. The left will no doubt work hard to defend human rights and reject any calls for indiscriminate violence against any group. It will continue to build campaigns against sexual assault, and against the electricity shortages across Egypt’s governorates. However uncomfortable we might sometimes feel, communists’ place is on the streets, where the masses are.

What do you think of ElBaradei’s manoeuvring?

This is also a topic we have been discussing for a few days. At one end there are those like myself who thought the army’s game was to keep supporting the revolutionary movement on the street – and popular violence against the Muslim Brotherhood – while leaving the Brotherhood in power until its organisation had disintegrated enough to no longer pose a threat to the military. This would also have meant waiting until at least a good chunk of the population were at the point where they were begging for the army to rule. The other half predicted that the street would outstrip the military’s expectations, and want the government out ASAP.

ElBaradei or any similar liberals might be an unnecessary phase for the military if popular demand for straight-up military rule is high enough, and the Brotherhood is weak enough. For those with the latter view, ElBaradei is part of a larger play than just encouraging popular revolt against the Brotherhood, and will quite frankly be the next suit the military will rule through.

It is important to remember that the US government plays a not insignificant role in these outcomes. If the US has given up on the project of a client political Islam state in Egypt, at least for the time being, them some setup with ElBaradei at the helm is not unlikely.

I can hear celebrations – gunshots in the air. I’m half deaf! Wish you were here


Ken MacLeod on Iain Banks

Use of Calculators

When Iain Banks and I were students back in the early 1970s, I was one of the first readers of Use of Weapons. I seem to recall reading the first draft in weekly instalments as the pages flew from the typewriter, and discussing the unfolding content almost as often. Iain explained that the Culture was his idea of utopia, in which advanced technology, inexhaustible resources and friendly artificial intelligence made possible a society in which nobody had to work and there was no need for money or a separate state apparatus. At the time I was reading with some excitement a slim paperback edited by David McLellan and titled Marx’s Grundrisse, a collection of extracts from Marx’s notebooks, in which he allowed himself some bolder speculations than he ever saw into print. I explained to Iain that the Culture was very similar to Marx’s conception of communism: a stateless and classless society based on automation and abundance.

Iain was interested and I think persuaded. But, I went on, the Culture on his telling didn’t seem to have come about through class struggle, revolution, and the rest. How, then, could it have come about, given that Iain was as sceptical as I was about the likelihood of such a society being handed down by benevolent rulers from above? By way of answer, Iain pointed to his pocket calculator. He said that on his last vacation job, on a construction site, one of the full-time workers had borrowed it and worked his way through a stack of wage slips, to discover that he and his mates weren’t getting all the pay they were due. The site workers had taken the result to the management, who duly if perhaps reluctantly shelled out the back pay that was owed. That, Iain said, was how he’d envisaged the Culture coming about. Conflicts of interest between classes and other groups there would be, but the sheer availability of information and computing power would arm the majority with facts and arguments that would enable them to prove, as well as enforce, their claims. The consequent advance in consciousness would allow the opportunities offered by automation and abundance to be grasped, first in imagination then in reality, and make opposition to their realisation irrational, futile, and weak.

This projection of a democratic, deliberative, and peaceful transition to a co-operative commonwealth wasn’t as far removed from Marx’s own later views as I thought at the time. I saw Marx through Lenin, Lenin through Trotsky, and — for that matter –Trotsky through the Trotskyists, and each successive prism lost something of the one before, let alone the original image. Iain respected them all as thinkers, but remained sceptical of any attempt to emulate their practice. He was quite willing to stick his neck out when necessary: he came down to London in 1977 to join the mobilization against the fascist National Front’s attempt to march through Lewisham, took his place in a small squad of comrades none of whom he knew but me, and thoroughly enjoyed the fight that ensued. On a later visit he joined me when it was my turn to guard our group’s bookshop and offices, which had recently been targeted in an amateurish arson attempt by the fascists. As Iain and I checked the locks on the building’s back door, two policemen loomed behind us and tapped our shoulders. It took us some minutes to convince the coppers that we really were there to protect rather than attack the shop. Iain ribbed me about it afterwards:

‘I bet that’s the first time you’ve ever had to say, “Honestly, officer, I really am a left-wing extremist…”‘

However friendly he was to the radical left, Iain had little interest in relating the long-range possibility of utopia to radical politics in the here and now. As he saw it, what mattered was to keep the utopian possibility open by continuing technological progress, especially space development, and in the meantime to support whatever policies and politics in the real world were rational and humane. For Iain that meant voting Labour. After the party mutated into New Labour he switched his practical vote to the Scottish National Party and his protest vote to the Scottish Socialists and (I think) the Greens. Even before then, in the early to mid 1990s, he’d come around to the view that Scotland would never be safe from the ravages of Tory governments it hadn’t voted for unless it separated from England. This support for independence didn’t come from nationalism but from reformism, and from a life-long, heart-felt hatred for the Conservative and Unionist Party.

In Iain’s view, popular access to information was decisive to any hope of progress, and control of information was central to the power of the ruling class. One of his few intellectual heroes was Noam Chomsky, who has for decades argued and documented this over and over. Iain made a point of being well-informed himself, and seemed to have read the Guardian from cover to cover every day. The most radical writings  Chomsky’s apart  that he ever enthused about to me were those of John Kenneth Galbraith, George Monbiot and Will Hutton. Iain valued the far left mainly as a source of information that even the Guardian was likely to gloss over. He followed my own adventures and misadventures in Marxism with a sort of sympathetic scepticism, always keen to read whatever rag I was flogging at any given time, and to listen to my explanations of why which paper I was selling sometimes changed over the years. It was my later explorations of libertarian thought that most sorely tried his patience. I could never persuade him that libertarianism was anything but a shill for corporate interests: a common misconception, and one that many libertarians have worked hard to confirm.

In his view, the left’s most stupid and repeated mistake was to accept that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, which he saw as at the bottom of most of the left’s disasters. He had no illusions in existing socialism, and no hopes for the better in its collapse. He opposed every war the British state waged in his lifetime, with the one exception of NATO’s war over Kosovo, which he argued for before it happened and never repudiated. Fortunately, this wasn’t the first step on a slippery slope. He was even more vehemently opposed than I was to the attack on Iraq  I tried to at least see a certain logic to it from the imperialist point of view, whereas he saw it as utter folly and madness from the moment it was mooted, an adventure that would sow destruction, multiply terrorism, and do incalculable harm to the interests and security of the UK and US.

He blamed Blair absolutely for the Iraq war, and never forgave or forgot the crime. Anger over what was going on in the Middle East impelled him to his two best-known political gestures: cutting up his passport and sending it to 10 Downing Street, and refusing to have his own books published in Israel. The former action was mocked, the latter attacked. Iain took not a blind bit of notice.

In summary, Iain’s political views were, by and large, what you’d expect from an Old Labour supporter and Guardian reader with an informed interest in the analyses of the radical left. What was perhaps more unusual than his views was the consistency and tenacity with which he held them, and his confidence that they must in the long run prevail if civilization was to survive. He saw quite clearly that events weren’t going the way he would have liked them to, but never saw any reason to revise his reckoning that neoliberalism just didn’t add up.


Tim Nelson: Trotsky and Serge

Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge are two of the most outstanding Marxist figures of the twentieth century. Trotsky was the leader of the St Petersburg Soviet in 1905 and 1917, the organiser of the 1917 October Revolution, and the founder of the Red Army. Serge, originally an anarchist, joined the Communist Party during the siege of Petrograd in 1919, and worked for the Comintern in Russia and abroad.

Both opposed the Stalinist counter-revolution, and, as a result, both died in exile. Trotsky was assassinated by one of Stalin’s agents, Serge died penniless and isolated. Both, in their different ways, have contributed as much as anybody to our understanding of the nature of the working class movement, and of revolution in particular.

They spent several years in collaboration, in resisting the bureaucracy as members of the Left Opposition in Russia, and then subsequently when both were exiled. However, during their period in exile from the Soviet Union, Trotsky and Serge found themselves in increasing disagreement, both on the tasks of the present, and the analysis of the past. These disagreements reflected a deeper division between those on the anti-Stalinist left, and would become of profound significance for the future development of the revolutionary socialist movement.

Victor Serge has always been a problematic figure for the left. Too Bolshevik for the anarchists, too anarchist for the Bolsheviks, he never attempted either to take a leading political position in the movement, or to develop an all-encompassing political doctrine. A writer first, his best works were those that sought to observe, understand and explain the movement, and the individuals who comprised it. He described his approach as his “double duty” – he would defend the movement unconditionally from its outside enemies, while being unrelentingly critical of those within, who, consciously or unconsciously, might wreck it.

It has been, for many years, commonplace for Trotskyists to dismiss Serge’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks and his arguments with Trotsky, and to put them down to a shift to the right on Serge’s part, or a step back to his anarchist, libertarian idealism. This view has been aided by misinterpretations of his arguments by Trotsky and his followers, and has meant that the valuable contribution Serge’s arguments could have played in avoiding a repeat of the mistakes of the past has never been fully appreciated.

It would be entirely incorrect to dismiss or play down the role Trotsky has played in the development of Marxist theory and practice, a role Serge always recognised. However, there were profound mistakes in approach and analysis in his later works which, when adopted uncritically by socialists, have led to some deep-rooted problems that still remain today.


The main debate within the opposition after the success of the bureaucratic coup centred on the question of at one point the revolution began to degenerate. This was not simply an abstract discussion about dates, as it led to fundamental questions as to the nature of revolutionary organisation, the role of the state, and democracy in the socialist movement.

Trotsky was exiled from the USSR in 1929, and spent the rest of his life abroad. Serge, on the other hand, remained in Russia until 1936, as part of the marginalised and oppressed Russian opposition, among whom this debate was the fiercest. Some argued that while some of the kernels of the problems may have been present earlier, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution could be traced to around 1923, when the bureaucracy began to strangle democracy in the party and seize control of the state. Others, Serge included, traced the degeneration of the revolution back to the early stages of the civil war in 1919, when the Bolsheviks used increasingly autocratic methods to defeat the reaction and remain in power. For these comrades, serious mistakes had been made from the beginning of the revolution. After the initial libertarian period of 1917, the Bolsheviks, Trotsky included, set about establishing an increasingly authoritarian state. While many of these actions could be excused as necessities in the context of the civil war, they laid the groundwork for the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.

For the opposition inside Russia this was an important debate. If the degeneration of the revolution was traced only to the actual event of the Stalinist coup, then not only could previous events which had caused many on the left to view the Communists as authoritarian – the establishment of a one-party state, the creation of a secret police force, the suppression of the Kronstadt Uprising – be excused or explained away, but also the politics and strategy of the opposition would be fundamentally different.

For those who did not acknowledge the earlier degeneration of the revolution, the problem was one of leadership. A bureaucratic caste had taken over the Communist Party and the workers’ state. All that was needed was a removal of this caste and the re-establishment of democracy within the Communist Party, and the revolution would be saved. For Serge and others, the bureaucratic state needed to be overthrown, and within the Russian opposition they argued for mass working class activity such as strikes to achieve this. This faction was probably a majority in the opposition within Russia, while remaining a minority within the Trotskyist movement abroad, of whom of course Trotsky himself was the most outstanding member.

Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union and its degeneration was dominant among oppositionists abroad. He argued that the USSR was a deformed workers’ state. Due to the isolation brought about as a result of the failure of the revolution to spread internationally, most notably in Germany in 1923, a bureaucratic caste led by Stalin was able to seize power, first over the Communist Party, then over the Russian state. Trotsky and his followers adamantly refused to countenance the idea that the authoritarianism of the bureaucracy had its roots in the earlier measures taken by the Bolsheviks, measures in which Trotsky had often taken a leading role.

While not denying that many of the actions of the Communist Party had been regrettable, even authoritarian in many respects, Trotsky argued that they were largely necessary in the waging of the civil war, and that in revolutions such measures were needed. They were fundamentally different to the essentially counter-revolutionary actions of the Stalinists. Furthermore, in condemning the actions of the Bolsheviks before 1923, Serge and others were lining up alongside the bourgeois critics of the revolution, who argued that the seeds of Stalinism had been sown by the Bolsheviks in order to discredit revolutionary politics. While the workers’ state may have been deformed by bureaucratism, it retained its proletarian character. In this respect, revolutionary activity was not necessarily needed to overthrow the bureaucracy – the state could be reformed.

It would be these fundamental differences that would inform all the debates between Serge and Trotsky in the 1930s, and lead to an eventual break between the two.


It is worth looking at some specific issues which Victor Serge highlighted from before 1923, which for him illustrated the degeneration of the revolution. It should be noted that, throughout this period and long after, Serge remained an avid defender, and member, of the Communist Party. For him, the defeat of the Russian Revolution by the forces of reaction and imperialism would have been an unmitigated disaster for the working class. There was no doubt in his mind that the revolution must be defended at all costs, and that the Communist Party was the only force capable of achieving this. This did not mean, however, that Serge was blind to the problems within the party. In this respect Serge was continuing in his “dual role” – defending the revolution from threats both on the outside and within.

Serge, a child of Russian migrants to France, arrived in Russia in 1919. One of the first newspapers he read had a lead article by Zinoviev entitled ‘The Monopoly of Power’, which announced that the Communist Party would be the sole power in the Soviet state. This was at the height of the civil war. The White armies, along with troops from several foreign countries including Germany, Britain, Japan, the US and Czechoslovakia, had waged an assault on the Soviet government with the aim of overturning the revolution.

The working class, such as it was in a semi-feudal country such as Russia, was on its knees, and whereas in the early days of the revolution in 1917 workers’ committees and soviets had governed, these roles were increasingly carried out by Communist Party officials. The Red Army, formed and led by Trotsky, was forced to resort to increasingly repressive measures to win the war, including the forced requisition of grain from the peasantry in order to feed the army in the cities. War Communism was instituted – a strict command economy backed by force, with the banning of internal trade and the nationalisation of all resources necessary to keep the state alive.

The state, dominated by the Communist Party and backed by the Red Army, and increasingly populated by bureaucrats, had become far and away the dominant force in Russia. This was not the workers’ state of 1917, or the state envisaged by Lenin in The State and Revolution, but an authoritarian state, dominated by one party, desperate to hold on to power in order to defeat the reaction and defend the revolution.

Serge’s background in revolutionary politics had been libertarian. He had been actively involved in anarchist groups in France and Spain. It may therefore seem surprising that he joined the Communist Party at this time. However, as has been noted above, he recognised that the Communist Party was the only force capable of defending the revolution, and therefore must be supported. He would, despite this, continue to see his role as one of alleviating any excesses within the revolution, and to criticise, though often privately, authoritarian aspects emerging within the Communist Party.

Between 1918 and 1921, the Bolsheviks resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures, culminating in 1921 in the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt. Throughout this period Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army, and was party to many of the decisions which Serge would later criticise. For Serge, one of the biggest mistakes of the Soviet government was the establishment of the secret police force, the Cheka. The Cheka was aimed to ensure the suppression of counter-revolution behind the Red Army’s lines, and was empowered with the right to hold secret trials and executions. For Serge, this was a gross error, as he believed that in the minority of cases in which there was actual counter-revolutionary activity, trial and punishment could and should be open to public scrutiny. Also, in the vast majority of cases, the Cheka were not suppressing counter-revolutionaries, but those who opposed the Communist Party. Opposition to the Communists became synonymous with counter-revolution.

Furthermore, Serge believed that the Cheka in many areas was simply out of control, with no scrutiny from either what remained of Soviet democratic bodies, or from the Bolshevik leadership, and was committing excesses way beyond the most brutal forms of revolutionary justice. When it came to the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, these problems with the secret police took on terrible proportions. Serge used his role in the Soviet state to work as an interlocutor between dissidents in the revolutionary movement and the state leadership, gaining the release of many who had been wrongly arrested by the Cheka.

The debate between Serge and Trotsky during their period of exile can, in some respects, be explained by the different positions they were in during the civil war. Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army and a leading member of the Soviet state. Serge was a rank and file member of the Communist Party and supporter of the state, but critical of both, who never lost his links with dissident and libertarian revolutionaries. Unsurprisingly, their differences came to a head over the issue of the 1921 Kronstadt revolt – what its nature was, and what its suppression indicated about the nature of the Bolshevik regime.

By 1921, the civil war was largely over, with the Reds victorious, but the revolution was critically weakened. The working class had been decimated – many killed, with many more returning to the land to avoid starvation. Despite the war being over, War Communism continued – forced requisitions of grain, the execution of speculators and black marketeers – and the Cheka remained unrestrained. The stifling measures of War Communism, instituted to combat the dangers of famine, were now contributing to it. Peasant revolts against Bolshevik rule were growing, and in February 1921 strikes broke out in Petrograd.

Serge was an eyewitness to these events. He argued that while many of the strikes adopted anti-Bolshevik slogans, and were being organised by Menshevik sympathisers among others, they were directly the result of the lack of food; this was proven by how they were easily resolved by the delivery of food to discontented workers.

The issue escalated when sailors at the Kronstadt naval base, which had been at the heart of the revolution in 1917, mutinied in support of the strikes. The Kronstadt mutineers adopted a programme of demands which, among other things, called for an end to War Communism, and a restoration of democracy in the revolution. Serge wrote vividly about the state’s reaction to this revolt. Originally, party publications claimed that Kronstadt had been seized by the Whites. For Serge, the use of the party’s press to lie both to the class and to the party in this manner was unforgivable. The revolt was suppressed violently, and the Cheka continued to execute prisoners weeks after its suppression.

The Kronstadt rebellion, for Serge, was a dark event in Bolshevism’s history. While he acknowledged the dangers of rebellion at the time, and did not dismiss the possibility that it could open the way for reaction, he still maintained that the manner in which the uprising was suppressed revealed fundamental problems with the Bolsheviks’ rule at this time. Trotsky, on the other hand, insisted that the revolt was fundamentally reactionary in character, and those who criticised its suppression were lining up with bourgeois critics of the revolution. Trotsky argued that the class make-up of the Kronstadt sailors had changed since the 1917 revolution, and was increasingly peasant and petty bourgeois. The revolt, with its demands for an end to War Communism, represented the interests of the peasantry and the middle classes, not the proletariat. Also, whether intentionally or not, a revolt at this time against the Bolsheviks could only benefit reaction. The mutiny’s stated politics may have seemed democratic, or even revolutionary, but it was essentially reactionary.

Serge riposted that the mutiny had begun in solidarity with the strike wave in Petrograd, so to claim that it did not represent the interests of workers was plainly incorrect. He also pointed out that much of the rebels’ demands were met very quickly after the event, with the abolition of War Communism and the establishment of the New Economic Policy, so to dismiss their demands as being in the interests of the petty bourgeoisie to justify their suppression was disingenuous. Instead, Serge viewed the suppression of the revolt as a desperate act of the Bolsheviks with the aim of holding on to power.

Here is not the place to review in detail the arguments and counter-arguments regarding Kronstadt. The aim is to investigate what this debate represents in the differences between Trotsky and Serge. To Serge, the methods used against the Kronstadt rebels paved the road to authoritarianism. He agreed that the rebellion, whatever its intentions, could have opened the door to reaction, but this did not justify the nature of the repression. In this, Serge differed from other critics, including anarchists and reformist socialists, who pointed to Kronstadt and other examples of Bolshevik repression in order to discredit the role of the Bolsheviks in the revolution. He, and many other rank and file members of the Communist Party, recognised that in 1921 for the revolution to succeed the Bolsheviks had to retain power, at least until the revolution spread internationally. However, this did not excuse the Bolsheviks from criticism, nor did it justify every one of their actions.

Trotsky did not distinguish between those such as Serge who remained loyal to the revolution, and for whom any criticism of the Bolsheviks stemmed from an attempt to understand and explain how the revolution of 1917 degenerated into dictatorship, and those who sought to discredit the revolution as a whole. In ‘Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt’ Trotsky advanced the argument, cited above, that the rebellion was reactionary. He suggested that all those who disagreed with this were part of the same camp – their aim was to discredit Bolshevism, their outlook was essentially bourgeois.

It is here that we reach the significance of the debate. For Trotsky, no distinction could be made between liberals, anarchists, reformists, or even communists who questioned the Bolshevik acts of oppression before the Stalinist coup. No distinction can be made between workers and sailors who rose against the Bolsheviks to oppose starvation and the White reactionaries. This outlook was the road to sectarianism. All those who questioned the Bolsheviks’ record were essentially in the camp of the liberal bourgeoisie.

Serge responded that while people from very different political positions may criticise the Bolsheviks, they were coming from fundamentally different standpoints. He recognised that there were many anti-authoritarians who were still essentially revolutionary. To lump them in with the liberals based purely on their unwillingness to accept the more extreme aspects of the Red Terror was absurd. Furthermore, Serge worried that, despite Trotsky having led a heroic struggle against authoritarianism and dogmatism in the USSR, his rigid stance and refusal to recognise the mistakes of the Communist Party was translating into a deeply sectarian attitude among his followers.


The question of when the revolution in Russia degenerated is inextricably linked to the question of democracy inside the Communist Party. Many on both right and left argue that the Bolsheviks had always been authoritarian in character. They point to Lenin’s insistence on “centralism” in the Bolshevik Party, and his argument that the working class needed a “vanguard”. However, despite the Bolsheviks at times needing a command structure and an authoritative Central Committee due to the intensity of Tsarist oppression, the Bolsheviks were in essence a democratic organisation.

In the revolutionary period of 1905, Lenin and others argued for an opening up of the party’s structures. A similar process occurred in 1917. The ultra-democratic and libertarian nature of the soviets and workers’ committees had an organic relationship with the Bolshevik Party – the party called for “all power to the Soviets”, because its membership was very much of the class. The Bolsheviks elected their leadership, debated every line and policy, and had the freedom to form oppositional factions. Similarly, within the soviets, there was a spirit of cooperation between the Bolsheviks and others outside their party.

However, after the soviets seized power in October 1917, this changed drastically. In 1918, the remnants of the Tsarist regime launched a counter-revolution. Every major capitalist country either backed the reaction, or actually invaded Russia. The revolution was under siege. A brutal civil war began, during which the working class, which was the Bolsheviks’ base and was already suffering after three years of world war, was decimated. The libertarian spirit in the class brought about by the 1917 revolution came to an end, as in order to win the war, the Bolsheviks employed increasingly authoritarian methods. Added to this, as the democratic structures of the working class collapsed, Communist officials took their place. The bureaucracy began to take control.

Mirroring this, the previously open, democratic internal culture of the Bolshevik party gave way to an increasingly bureaucratic, top-down structure. Debate was curtailed, factions were banned. This process did not begin as Trotsky was being sidelined, but much earlier, when he was arguably the most influential party leader after Lenin. There were many factions, before they were banned, which challenged the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Communist Party: the Workers’ Opposition, the Decembrists, and others. Trotsky opposed all of these. Serge’s relationship with the democratic opposition, inside and outside the party, was far from consistent either. He supported many of the measures which later he would recognise as authoritarian. However, Serge argued that such measures, even if they could be justified in the context of the civil war, were still ultimately undemocratic.

The purpose of outlining this shift away from party democracy, and Trotsky’s support for it, is that it had a distinct impact on Trotsky’s view of party organisation. Previous to the revolution, Trotsky had argued against Lenin’s model of the party, fearing that the centralised party structure, with its powerful Central Committee and emphasis on professional revolutionaries, would lead to substitutionism and a lack of democracy. However, by 1917, after the February Revolution, the Bolsheviks had become a mass party, with grassroots democratic structures based upon the revolutionary working class. Furthermore, it was the only major party which was openly calling for the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a workers’ state. Trotsky threw his lot in with the Bolsheviks and his Mezhrayonka organisation merged with them.

As outlined above, the Bolshevik Party followed an increasingly undemocratic trajectory after 1917. Many Communists, including Trotsky, began to conflate the temporary measures that Lenin supported to keep the Bolsheviks in power with the essence of “Leninism” itself. The emphasis on centralisation and professional revolutionaries in Lenin’s earlier works was interpreted, particularly by Trotsky’s opponents Zinoviev and Stalin, as justification for a top-down party structure and increasing bureaucratisation.

Although by 1923 Trotsky began to rethink his attitude to many of these issues, and began to argue for the opening up of party democracy and an end to the ban on factions, he retained an often top-down version of Bolshevism. The organisations he and his followers founded outside of Russia in the 1930s often differed little from the Stalinist parties when it came to structure, with the exception that they usually allowed factions, and tended to be very small.


After Serge was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1936 he joined Trotsky’s new organisation, the Fourth International. After the catastrophic failure of the Stalinist Communist Party to halt the victory of fascism in Germany, Trotsky resolved that the Communist parties could not be reformed, and set about forming new parties. These tended to be small, isolated organisations, with few roots in the working class. Serge became active in France, and was aghast at what he viewed as the French section of the Fourth International’s sectarianism. He wrote about how pages of articles were written debating minor points of theory with other revolutionaries, while little was produced for the consumption of the working class.

Much of this was a result of the argument about the nature of the Soviet Union and at what point it degenerated. This was an important question, and the very nature of the question meant that it was not surprising that the debate was strained. However, for Serge, this was a grave error. He thought it essential that Trotsky’s followers unite with all those revolutionaries who rejected Stalinism. It was not enough only to work with those who they believed had the “correct” (Trotsky’s) opinion on the nature of the Soviet Union. They had to work with anarchists, libertarian socialists and anti-Stalinist Marxists of all kinds, if possible in one organisation, in order to build an alternative revolutionary party to the Stalinised Communist parties which dominated most of the far left in Europe.

This, for Trotsky, was incorrect. He argued that the Fourth International was the true inheritor of the Bolshevik tradition. The important thing was the continuation of the theory and practice of the only revolutionary party which had successfully seized power. To unite with those who disagreed on fundamental questions would be to dilute and compromise on revolutionary politics.

Much of Trotsky’s analysis came from his incorrect analysis of the social and economic situation at the time. Trotsky believed that capitalism had entered its final crisis; he believed that the Stalinist bureaucracy, being just a ruling clique over existing working class institutions, was inherently unstable and would collapse. He argued that the working class would very quickly move towards a revolutionary movement. In such a period there was no time, or need, for the careful building of united organisations which occurred before the First World War. While the majority of the politicised working class looked either to the Stalinist Communist parties or the social democratic parties, they would move rapidly away from them towards a new revolutionary leadership, and it was the role of the Fourth International to provide that leadership. A pluralistic organisation uniting all anti-Stalinist revolutionaries such as Serge envisaged would be a recipe for indecisiveness and vacillation, in a period when the working class needed clear revolutionary leadership. The most important example of these differences was over the question of the Spanish Revolution and the POUM.


The Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) was a mass socialist party in Catalonia. Built by the Trotskyist Communist Left, which joined with the Workers Peasants Bloc, it had 70,000 members at its height during the civil war in Spain in 1936. It was capable of forming its own militia to fight the fascists, and was rooted in the workers’ councils and revolutionary unions. The POUM supported the Popular Front, a tactic argued for by the Stalinists, where the social democratic and Communist organisations worked alongside anti-fascist bourgeois parties.

Trotsky correctly classified the POUM as a centrist organisation, in that it had stated revolutionary politics, and included many Marxists in its membership and leadership, but it also included reformists, and fudged the issue of revolution and reform. Ultimately, due to the vacillations produced by this unstable formulation, it fell on the side of reformism.

Trotsky’s followers in Spain, rather than participating in this mass anti-Stalinist socialist organisation (a rare occurrence in Spain at this time), instead formed the Bolshevik-Leninists, a tiny Fourth Internationalist organisation with virtually no influence over events or roots in the working class. Furthermore, Trotsky argued that in fact the POUM was the main block to successful revolution in Spain. Centrist organisations, he argued, while they contain many revolutionaries and may employ radical revolutionary rhetoric, remain essentially reformist. They hold back the struggle and tail the bourgeoisie.

Serge recognised many of Trotsky’s criticisms of the POUM, but for him the Fourth International’s stance was a disastrous example of the sectarianism which had taken over the organisation. His argument was that to abstain from a mass organisation like the POUM was to absent yourself from the struggle as a whole, which was essentially what the Bolshevik-Leninists had done. Much better to work within the POUM, and pull it in a radical direction. The Fourth International was not only absenting itself from a genuinely mass workers’ party; it was attempting to dictate strategy to that party from the outside. The International’s analysis might be absolutely correct, but that mattered little if it was completely isolated.

In relation to the POUM, Serge was once again exercising his “double duty”, pledging solidarity and support to it, and defending it against attacks from the right, while at the same time criticising it when he disagreed. However, to Trotsky this was yet another sign of Serge’s centrism. He accused Serge of wanting to “manufacture a sort of synthesis of anarchism, POUMism, and Marxism”. This was far from the case. However, Serge did aim to ensure the greatest level of unity in action between revolutionaries and always fought against divisions within the movement. He saw the increasing sectarianism of the Trotskyists as a block to building a genuinely democratic and united revolutionary party. Serge argued for a broad party uniting all the anti-Stalinist left, which was democratic and open with a collective, elected leadership. So long as the Fourth International continued to see itself as the new “World Party of Bolshevism”, and all other revolutionaries as renegades and reactionaries, it would be doomed to the sectarian wilderness.


Despite any criticisms of Trotsky expressed here, he was still far and away one of the most outstanding contributors to Marxist theory and practice. Even during the 1930s when, in my opinion, he was making serious mistakes with regard to revolutionary organisation, he was also developing a theory of what fascism was, and how to combat it – arguably his most valuable contribution to Marxist theory.

However, one of the problems with such towering figures is that their ideas cease to be just that – ideas – and become dogma. Trotsky was president of the St Petersburg Soviet, planned the October insurrection, founded the Red Army and led it to victory against the Whites, he opposed the Stalinist counter-revolution, theorised fascism and left us an invaluable guide on how to fight it – but one thing he never achieved was the building of a revolutionary party. Previous to joining the Bolshevik party in 1917, he was largely isolated with a few followers; he was capable of intervening in the movement to some degree, particularly through his writing, but limited by the lack of a proper organisation. By 1917, at the height of the revolutionary movement, his organisation, Mezhrayonka, had around 4,000 members. When it was founded, the Fourth International boasted only 7,000 members worldwide.

The sectarianism which became common in the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s has been a recurring theme throughout our history. Trotskyism to many has become synonymous with splits, isolation and hostile factions. Trotskyists have not only continued to be hostile to other strains of revolutionary thought, but are arguably even worse-behaved towards each other.

Serge developed an antidote to this. That is not to say he provided all the solutions to the problems, but his ideas can give us an insight into what has gone wrong, and provide us with some clues about how to put it right.

The Trotskyist left in Britain is currently in a state of crisis. It is failing to relate to the wider movement in any effective or meaningful way. The splits, the inability for different factions to work together, the isolation and the dogmatism have all driven us to breaking point. There is a real thirst among those of us who consider ourselves Trotskyists, among other revolutionaries and within the left as a whole for unity and new perspectives and methods of organising which will take us beyond the mistakes of the past. We need to seize on this mood and build a real revolutionary movement.

Ideas and Arguments

Charlie Hebdo: the responsibilities of the left

The mood in Paris seems very reminiscent of the mood shortly after 9/11 following initial reports from New York. This began by drawing in many who were genuinely shocked by what had happened- but over a period hardened into a hugely reactionary current of opinion whose consequences we are all familiar with. Its very clear that it will take very little to transform the defence of ‘our values’ into attacks on minorities. The difference seems paper thin. Already, it is all about ‘our’ values and ‘theirs’, Bernard Kouchner holding forth on the need to bring democracy to the Middle East, others speaking of the need for Muslims who have ‘chosen to live among us’ to reform their religion etc, and much worse to follow it is suspected. Charlie Hebdo magazine was at the sharp end of promoting these kinds of resentments about Muslims in France for a very long period of time (and yes it was indeed a magazine with a background in the left in ’68, but this doesn’t change much: if anything it makes it worse).

What is rapidly becoming an almost compulsory ideological gesture of solidarity is one which means that, like after 9/11, many will be too frightened to tell the other side of this story: the racism, the disenfranchisement, the discrimination, the utter lack of solidarity every day and in every way. This is not anti-racism, this is not solidarity, this is not opposition to fundamentalism, this is not freedom of speech. This is a kind of compulsory loyalty oath and is really about intimidating anyone who wants to speak otherwise and not according to the script. Its considerably more difficult to speak out against this script than it is to talk about how ‘its time to have an open discussion about Islam’ (a conversation that has been going on non-stop now for a decade).

The left need to break this silence: not help impose it. The left should be speaking about the urban uprisings against police oppression, about the near segregation in employment and in housing, about the disenfranchisement, about the discrimination, about the wars ravaging large parts of the world. None of which is happening because of a failure of Muslims who live here to ‘reform their religion’. This idealist rubbish about evil ideologies masquerading as the values of Enlightenment and Secularism is in fact the dominant ideology of a world where these horrors actually occur. Those who are being left isolated are not those who think that it is a priority to establish the right to mock the religious beliefs of minorities, but those minorities worried and frightened by what the future holds living in a society caught up in a triumphalist chauvinism where every basic liberal and leftist value appears twisted and upside down. And those are the people the left has a duty of solidarity towards, whether or not we agree with this or that religious belief. That actually is the real meaning of Voltaire: the defence of minorities against majorities, not the other way about.


Statement of Resignation – IS Canada

Statement of Resignation

  1. Opposing violence against the oppressed, including violence against women, is a question of principle for socialists.
  2. There has been an allegation of very serious sexual violence involving a leading member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party UK (SWP).
  3. The SWP Central Committee has failed to deal with this with the seriousness it deserves. It has persistently rejected efforts by a substantial number of its members and supporters to address this adequately. In fact, members of the SWP have faced disciplinary action for attempting to remedy this situation.
  4. The International Socialists (I.S.) in Canada has been for many years, and remains, a member of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), of which the SWP is the largest and leading organization.
  5. In January 2013, delegates to the annual convention of the I.S. in Canada voted (14 to 2, with one abstention) to reject a resolution calling on the leadership to write a public a letter of concern over these matters.
  6. It is now March. The SWP has held a special conference on this issue. The SWP leadership remains intransigent. The leadership of the I.S. in Canada still remains silent, and therefore continues to be undifferentiated from the SWP in the IST.
  7. Silence is not an option. On principle, therefore, we the undersigned can no longer remain as members of the International Socialists. Regretfully, please accept this as our letter of resignation.
Ideas and Arguments

Gove’s Trojan Horse: or how a neocon has infiltrated our schools

Stuart King from London IS Network examines the media storm around supposed Islamic extremism in Birmingham schools.

When the so-called Trojan Horse document surfaced in March revealing a “jihadist plot” to take over schools in Birmingham, the media went into overdrive. Apparently Islamic extremists were taking over governing bodies, driving out head teachers and turning our schools into hotbeds of terrorism and worse.

Despite the fact that most people in the know believed this document to be a fake, no fewer than five different inquiries were launched. The education secretary Michael Gove led the charge by appointing an “anti-terrorism expert” to lead one, just in case anyone was in any doubt about the seriousness of the threat to our way of life.

Ofsted, pliant tool of the state that it is, was told to revisit the schools that 11 months previously it had rated as “outstanding” and find evidence of extremism (and apparently, if leaks to the Guardian are to be believed, sent back when their first drafts weren’t damning enough).

Sure enough last week Ofsted came up with the required reports having inspected 21 Birmingham schools. Five schools that were rated “good” or “outstanding” were now rated as “inadequate”; they and one other were put into “special measures”. Four of these run by Academy Trusts had their funding withdrawn within 24 hours by Gove’s department and will be transferred to other trusts.


Ofsted’s findings

What were the charges levelled against these Birmingham schools? Did Ofsted find jihadist training camps, madrassa-style education, girls consigned to burqas and niqabs in separate buildings? Not quite. They found governors seeking “inappropriate influence on policy and the day-to-day running of schools”, they found the curriculum was “too narrow” and pupils were “not prepared well enough for life in modern Britain”. Also schools had not done enough to “safeguard” pupils against extremism – on the internet for example, and teaching about relationships and sex education “was poor”.

Anecdotes were seized on by the media, an “Islamic extremist” was allowed into one school to speak on … time management, tombola was objected to at a school fete as gambling, music was objected to in one class during Ramadan (although singing went ahead), girls sat separately during a picnic, an expensive trip was organised to Saudi Arabia – not one to sell arms that no doubt would have been the subject of congratulation!

Whether any or all these things should or should not have happened in state schools, what is clear is that in terms of a “jihadi plot to take over Birmingham schools” they actually amount to a hill of beans.


Gove the neocon

What we in fact have here is a sustained anti-Islamic witch-hunt launched by a neoconservative education secretary supported by his friends in the right wing media. Gove’s extremist neocon views even led to a clash with Theresa May. He demanded that the Home Office combat conservative Islamic views even if they posed no threat of lawbreaking or jihadi violence. It was a case of “draining the swamp”, as he typically put it, of making clear that Islamic views in general were dangerous and needed to be dealt with.

It is instructive to compare Gove’s open Islamophobia with his attitude to the Christian sects within the faith school sector. In 2011 he declared that “by becoming an academy, a Catholic school can place itself permanently out of range of any unsympathetic meddling and so ensure that it can remain true to its Catholic traditions”. On being challenged by the TUC in 2012 that literature being used in Catholic schools was homophobic, he ruled that the Equality Act “did not apply to the curriculum” and that therefore these schools could go on discriminating in their sex and relationship lessons.

This Islamophobia is familiar to anyone who has read that US bible of neoconservatism, The Clash of Civilisations, which sees the next great struggle after the defeat of the Soviet Union as the struggle between Christian enlightened democracy and a fanatical Islam. It is therefore no surprise that Gove has turned the whole Trojan Horse affair into a campaign for “British values” in schools, a new version, for those with long memories, of Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test” for Asians, who could only prove they were really worthy of being British by supporting “our cricket team”.


Religion and schools

Clearly there were problems in some schools in Birmingham in relation to religion, and some governors and teachers desired to impart their particular religious views and practices into the daily life of their schools. Tory politicians and Ofsted have said that the problem is that they overstepped the line because these were not “faith schools”, suggesting that had they been, this sort of pressure would have been “acceptable”.

Indeed what they are recognising is that this is exactly what happens in faith schools where for example the Catholic Church exercises these practices on a daily basis without anyone ever raising an eyebrow. The position of religion in schools is at the heart of these problems yet no party in parliament dare deal with it.

Labour’s response has been to avoid the issue, choosing to highlight Cabinet infighting, delays in taking action and Gove’s expansion of Academies and Free Schools resulting in atomisation and lack of local control of schools. Labour’s alternative is not to abolish Academies and Free Schools and bring back these schools under democratic local council control but to construct yet another layer of bureaucracy via “Local School Commissioners”.

They also fail to tackle the issue that is at the heart of what is going on in Birmingham and across the country, which is the place of religion in state-funded education. A British education system that allowed the Christian sects – C of E, Catholic, Non-Conformist – a large degree of control over our schools is now being extended to many other religions and communities. One unintended consequence of New Labour’s and now the Tory/Lib Dem drive to dismantle municipal control of education as a precursor to privatisation of the school system has been growing religious/community control of schools.

The disastrous segregated and sectarian religious education system that exists in Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, one that has resulted in so much division and sectarian violence, is in danger of being extended across multiple communities across Britain, as Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, demand “equality” with the Christians.

For socialists who seek to unite and integrate all religious and cultural communities within the working class, secular education that removes religious faith teaching from our schools is an absolute must. Religion is and must remain a private matter for individuals.

This does not mean that we ban religion from schools but that we ensure that where religion is taught it is done in a historical and comparative context. Of course religious belief and practices must be respected, with prayer rooms provided in schools, dietary provision made available, and religious dress allowed, but religion as faith must be removed from the curriculum and from normal school hours. Instead all religions should be allowed to use school premises outside school hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to teach and pursue voluntary religious education at their own expense, not at the expense of the taxpayer.

This way schools can be used for what they are supposed to be for, to educate pupils in the broadest possible sense without becoming a battleground for religious sectarianism or for those politicians like Michael Gove to use to stoke up prejudice against minority religions and communities.


Marxism, Feminism and Privilege

The latest wave of feminism has set about generating new ideas and reinterpreting old ones. The response of much of the Marxist left to these developments has been ambivalent if not outright hostile, that is if feminism’s innovative capacities are registered at all. The concept of ‘Privilege’, increasingly common currency within activist circles, has suffered this same fate. This article will attempt to rescue it as a necessary supplement to Marxist understandings of oppression and answer some of the main lines of criticism directed against it.

Contemporary usage of the terms ‘Privilege’ and ‘Privilege Theory’ often leaves them undefined and vague. In the absence of any real fixity critics have been able to claim that weaker manifestations of the concept are representative of its essential and definitive components. Consequently, I believe that it is necessary to jettison the term ‘Privilege Theory’ at the outset. Elevating the idea of Privilege to a fully-fledged theoretical approach to understanding oppression has tended to lead to some rather grandiose assumptions about what is being undertaken. For the most part there is no pretension to providing a general explanation of the origins, operations and solutions to oppression in the same breath. Criticisms of Privilege as failing to explain this or that aspect of oppression, or not providing a solution to oppression, are beside the point. The tasks required of a general theory of oppression are just not within its scope.

Instead, Privilege is better made use of as an addition to a pre-existing conceptual toolbox. That adherents of liberal and poststructuralist approaches to oppression are doing as much should come as no surprise. There is no reason to believe that Marxists cannot do the same without slipping in to the failures attributed to these rival theories. Of course, if Marxists choose to cede the ground then it will be a given that Privilege is only deployed in such contexts. My contention is that it is mistaken to reject the entire idea based solely on some of its more problematic iterations. Marxism is not left unaffected by the idea of Privilege, but it is not true that it poses a fundamental problem for Marxists. The question has been falsely posed as Marxism or Privilege.

Instead of a type of ‘general theory’ the purview of Privilege is considerably narrower. Privileges should be understood as unearned advantages which are unevenly distributed along certain axes, which then work to reproduce hierarchical relations of domination and marginalisation. I see its importance as lying in two areas. First, in supplementing how we understand oppressions with an investigation of the corresponding advantages that occur at the other end of the equation. It is an attempt to expose the mechanisms of unjustified power and the bonds of subjugation through which oppression occurs. Second, in reinvigorating an understanding of oppression as saturating our everyday practices and interactions rather than being confined to intentional, institutional and explicit displays alone.

My focus is primarily on gender (male) Privilege as that is the current locus of the debate. However, the argument here should be largely applicable to any structure of oppression. The origins of Privilege lie in discussions of race. It is with some irony then, given the current hesitancy of Marxists, that the origin of the concept, but not the term, is usually attributed to socialist W.E.B Du Bois and the “psychological wage.”1 Du Bois thought that white workers were granted enhanced social recognition as a supplement their low wages, something not extended to black workers. The purpose was to divide-and-rule the working class. The idea resurfaces more prominently in the 1980s with Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Backpack,” a package of, often mundane, social, cultural and economic advantages that were said to be possessed by white people and men.2 More recently Privilege has become an important feature of fourth-wave feminism, spawning a vast online activist literature. As a result it has been the recipient of a considerable number of critical assessments from the left.3 Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad, in their recent critique ‘What’s Wrong With Privilege Theory?,’ unfairly assume a direct and unmediated link between the historical and academic uses of Privilege and this contemporary activist use, a relationship which remains ambiguous.4 In doing so they fail to consider how we may make use of Privilege in our present.