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Why the IS Network should include a line on mental/manual labour in their constitution – and read Raya Dunayevskaya, Daphne Lawless and Bishop Brown

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I miss something in the IS Network constitution, something which might solve problems shadow-boxed at the October conference in the dispute over full-timers (and in subsequent tussles about who makes the sandwiches). Its absence could explain how the party we once believed in degenerated into a clique of rape apologists shrieking, “How dare you?” I’d also contend my addendum is a fundamental principle of genuine Marxism – and of a genuine, creative Leninism too. It’s this:

The IS Network recognises that the split between mental and manual labour in capitalism, a split which leads to grotesque unfairness and inequality, cannot be challenged, much less solved, by reproducing this split inside our own organisation.

In other words, we should reject the 'Trotskyist”/SWP model of a few select theorists surrounded by an army of unthinking activists (i.e. hacks) who refer all 'theoretical” problems 'upwards”. Theory is the soul of Marxism, and by leaving it to experts we render ourselves soulless – automatons, robots, apparatchiks, mechanicals. And in order to encourage this process of collective mental/manual mash-up, I think we should all read Communism and Christianism by Bishop William Montgomery Brown, self-published from 1920 to 1932, from Galion, Ohio, and the missing link between William Blake, Karl Marx and Philip K Dick. Am I mad? I don’t think so. At least, if so, proud to be.

This suggestion partly comes because I’ve been reading Raya Dunayevskaya recently, Trotsky’s secretary in Mexico, who broke with orthodox Trotskyism about the same time as Tony Cliff (together, she and CLR James – the 'Forrest-Johnson Tendency' – worked out an alternative 'state capitalist' analysis of the USSR[1]). Dunayevskaya decided that genuine revolutionaries needed to go 'beyond Lenin' by revealing the philosophical breakthrough he made in 1914 (when he broke with Second International Marxism and became a revolutionary) and discussing it – rather than merely acting on Lenin’s post-1914 ideas and leaving philosophy to the 'brains' of the organisation. If comrades ask me about 'dialectics' today, I follow Dunayevskaya and say: go and read Lenin’s notes on Hegel’s Logic (Collected Works, Vol. 38) – ’cos they’re accessible, disrespectful, funny and mind-blowing.

I’ve also been influenced by Daphne Lawless’s Chaos Marxism blog (where she’s Doloras LaPicho). Lawless emerged from the Auckland gay/electro scene (she has a band called Vostok Lake), is a Frank Zappa fan (how I heard of her) and Pink Floyd fan (I forgive her). She’s been a practising witch and a member of the Church of the Sub-Genius, and writes interestingly about the Roman Catholic Church and Scientology. She is astute at explaining the psychodynamics of cults. She’s a pro-sex feminist, and understands how authoritarian creeps use their power in exploitative ways to gain sexual favours and force their way. When the recent SWP rape crisis hit, she came into her own, and wrote better about the crisis (I think) than anyone in Britain. Her knowledge and experience of magic, religion and business enabled her to fly by the 'Marxist-Leninist' jargon which makes us swap idiocies with SWP loyalists, but without falling into the personal smear tactics of the gutter-press: she could draw parallels between bullying at work or in cults and full-timer behaviour which explained tons. Only recently, with a post denouncing the role Alex Callinicos played in 'solving' a split in the New Zealand sister organisation Socialist Worker, did I understand her special interest in the SWP here in Britain: she’s a comrade who has suffered the same regime, been through the same mill. She’s not some sit-at-home liberal eager to show that all attempts to organise must be forever doomed. Unlike London, Auckland isn’t large enough to allow left and gay scenes to operate in disassociation; as a committed Marxist revolutionary, Lawless had to develop a sexual politics, and we can learn from her.

I don’t expect reception of Dunayevskaya and Lawless by comrades from the IS tradition will be smooth. To positivists, Raya Dunayevskaya’s (and her followers’) rhapsodies about Hegel ('spirit' etc) can look like mysticism. However, there’s a clarity and force to her writing that comes from being an orator as much as a scribe: what hacks condemn as religion might well be an urgency about ultimate issues which they’d rather defer to a higher authority. It is not so much that Dunayevskaya is 'religious' as that the hacks are ecclesiastical, defending a mysterious correctness they cannot themselves explain. Dunayevskaya is a product of the oral nature of politics and culture in the US (if you want to understand the politics of civil rights and soul, listen to the recorded sermons of Rev CL Franklin, Aretha’s father). Dunayevskaya writes out of the discussions she had with car workers in the Detroit News & Letters collective (and by post with Red Clydesider Harry McShane); it’s a completely different feel from Historical Materialism-type Marxism. If it resembles religion, it’s because it addresses our lives and what to do with them directly; it’s not about proving that you know certain texts 'better' than someone else.

For her part, Lawless understands religious impulses, but her sympathy is always cut with an urge to break with ecclesiastical promises and achieve heaven on earth via proletarian revolution. Dunayevskaya and Lawless both 'softened' my own antipathy to religion, leaving me highly intrigued when I stumbled on a small book written by Bishop William Montgomery Brown, self-published in Galion, Ohio, in 1920 under the title Communism and Christianism Analysed and Contrasted from the Marxian and Darwinian Points of View. It was in the library of the late George Leslie, active in the Revolutionary Communist Party, the post-war Trotskyist split from the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1940s (also my father-in-law). The words on the cover – 'Christianism' rather than Christianity, 'Marxian' rather than Marxist – promised something unusual.

The cover of my copy, red print on cream paper, shows a rising sun and a hammer and sickle, from before they became the logo of the USSR, i.e. here they’re drawn from life. Written around these symbols are the words “Banish Gods from Skies and Capitalists from Earth”. In a live talk to young workers in 1922, Trotsky talked about Bishop Brown,[2] noting the rising sun and the hammer and sickle on the cover of his pamphlet, and using Brown as evidence that revolution upsets 'heavenly affairs' as well as 'earthly'. Yet Marxism, especially in its post-war, academic version, has no place for Brown. Whyever not?

When George Leslie was still alive, I discovered the works of Joseph Dietzgen on the same bookshelf. Here was the man Marx saluted as 'our philosopher' and who, a tanner by trade, wrote about dialectics for the 'handyman'. I noticed volumes by Dietzgen in the library of the Working Men’s College on Crowndale Road; his books were popular reading-matter in the 1930s. I made a contribution to a meeting at Marxism on dialectics, suggesting that since Lukacs was so politically unsatisfying and compromised, why didn’t Bookmarks reprint Dietzgen for the comrades? Alex Callinicos was scornful: how could I prefer Dietzgen’s crudities to one of the finest Marxists of all time? So I hope the news that IS Network comrades are being asked to read Bishop Brown will confirm Callinicos’s worst nightmares.

William Montgomery Brown was the first Anglican bishop to be tried for heresy since the Reformation. He fought a celebrated battle against the American House of Bishops in an ecclesiastical court in 1924 and 1925. He used these witch trials to generate argument and texts, issuing a series of eight pamphlets with titles beginning The Bankruptcy of Christian Supernaturalism from the Viewpoint of… Starting with …from the Viewpoint of the Trial he went on to deal with the viewpoints of Other Heretics in the Episcopal Church; of the World and the Church; of Science; of Philosophy; of Sociology; of the Bible; and of History. This is someone organising all knowledge through a crisis in his own life, putting him on a level with Socrates drinking hemlock, Jesus on the cross and Philip K Dick in Valis (where Dick struggles to understand what happened to him during a nervous breakdown, when he felt as if he’d been zapped by a beam of intelligence from outer space). Which is where we should all be, gentle comrades: the crux of the biscuit is your own apostrophe, however small and insignificant it looks compared to the gaudy spectacle of money and war and celebrity provided by the anti-social media.

Paz Thompson has found Communism and Christianism Analysed and Contrasted from the Marxian and Darwinian Points of View online, so there you go. After reading this beautifully clear and impassioned tract, free of all the self-serving rubbish which makes revolutionary politics some kind of arcane algebra only comprehensible to full-time academics, a direct application of Capital to everyday life rather than using Marxism as a scholastic playpen, I think people might welcome my Dunayevskayaite addendum to the constitution. True, Stalin appears on the cover of a book about Marxism for kids, but Bishop Brown’s words about all nations in the modern world being 'inextricably linked' will bring joy to any international socialist. True, he uses the non-PC 'he' and 'man' throughout, but his explanation of the wage paid to workers shows he understand that reproduction of labour is a cost, so childcare and household chores are not irrelevant to understanding how we are exploited (it’s not just a quarrel about money). Bishop Brown also looks 'mad', in the mode of the late, great Bob Cobbing: mad enough to think you can live and learn by refusing any ideological compromise with capital.

Notes

[1] See CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Grace Lee, State Capitalism & World Revolution (1950); Facing Reality by CLR James and Grace Lee (1958) provided the name and wallpaper for a great blog by a Brighton trade unionist and ex-SWPer www.bloggingjbloggs1917.wordpress.com.

[2] Leon Trotsky, “The Position of the Republic and the Tasks of Young Workers: Report to the 5th All-Russian Congress of the Communist League of Youth”, Molodaya Gvardiya, Moscow, 1922.