John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Some notes on the British working class

[Download as a PDF here]

Introduction

This article considers the shape of working class and the challenges facing trade unionism stemming from the impact of neoliberalism in the last forty years.

What neoliberalism is and the degree it marked a break with the post-war settlement is regarded as decisive but honesty compels me to acknowledge that no narrative or account of neoliberalism is offered here. But it is assumed there was a ‘neoliberal turn’ that proceeded on the national stage in a complex dialectic of the economic, political and ideological levels mediated by a global crisis of profitability in turn amplified by the growing internationalization of the world economy. Indeed Britain’s relative economic decline was already visible in the mid 1960s vis-à-vis its immediate international competitors and placed increasing strain upon the ‘corporatist’ post-war settlement. To this author it seems Neil Davidson’s peerless overview of neoliberalism offers the essential outlines of just such an account (Davidson 2010).

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Roobin and Richard Seymour: A very British tea party

Surge

UKIPThe UK Independence Party (UKIP) received 26% of the popular vote in last night’s county council elections. This remarkable surge follows a decade of gradual, if syncopated, growth. It is getting to the point where, in a general election, it could potentially supplant the Liberal Democrats as Britain’s third parliamentary party. There remain obstacles to this. The political system, and the public arena more generally, is what it is in Britain because it is generally able to shrug off momentary challenges to the status quo. The result in the latest elections is not representative of UKIP’s support in the country as a whole. Nonetheless, they regularly poll in the double digits, nationwide.

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Read more: Roobin and Richard Seymour: A very British tea party

Richard Seymour: May Day is not about maypoles: the history of international workers' day

A version of this article originally appeared in The Guardian.

If you see a history of May Day in the newspapers this year, it is most likely to recount the mystical, medieval origins of a pagan fertility festival. And though you will most likely never have seen a maypole in your life, you will be assured that a ribboned piece of birch wood is the sign and sanction of May Day.

Yet this has little to do with the reason that 1 May is celebrated in Britain, or with why it is an international holiday, or why the Occupy movement is planning ‘global disruption’ this May Day. May Day is international workers day. As such, it is – in the words of Eric Hobsbawm – “the only unquestionable dent made by a secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar”. And its past is more rowdy than is suggested by the imagery of Morris dancers serenely waving hankies and bells around.

1889-90: The origin of our present holiday lies in the fight for an eight-hour working day, in which cause the leaders of the socialist Second International called for an international day of protest to be held at the beginning of May 1890. They did so just as the American Federation of Labor was planning its own demonstration on the same date. The UK protest actually took place on a Sunday, and in London alone attracted 300,000 protesters to Hyde Park.

1890-1900: Initially, May Day was intended to be a one-off protest, and in some ways quite a solemn affair. But it persisted amid a flourishing of trade unionism. The symbolism of the workers’ Easter, of rebirth and renewal, dramatised this experience of revival. And it developed a carnivalesque aspect. May Day did not merely enact internationalism and working class solidarity; it celebrated these things with the familiar paraphernalia of badges, flags, art, sporting events and heavy drinking.

1900-18: The leaderships of Europe’s growing socialist parties were often worried by the threat of repression coming from governments and businesses, and attempted to avoid excessively confrontational demonstrations. But such domesticating tendencies were counteracted by the severity of the social crisis sweeping Europe and the upheavals it produced. Even during the Great War, when protest was punishable by imprisonment and hard labour, May Day demonstrations were often flashpoints of antiwar struggle. It was at such a rally that the Karl Liebknecht denounced the war before 10,000 striking workers at the Potsdamer Platz on 1 May 1916. In Britain, following the arrest of the Scottish socialist John Maclean for sedition in 1918, Glasgow workers embarked on mass May Day strike and protest.

1918-45: European governments alternately preferred repression or co-optation of May Day after WWI. The traditional parties of the right tended to prefer repression, or the threat of repression. For them, regarding the jubilant May Days in revolutionary Russia with unease, the whole thing stank of treason. Fascist parties had a more ambivalent attitude, largely because unlike the traditional right they needed the support of a layer of workers. The Third Reich declared 1 May ‘National Workers Day’ in 1933. But the original meaning of May Day reappeared at the darkest moments of the Nazi era, as when it was celebrated in the Warsaw ghetto which launched an uprising against the regime. Fascist Italy abolished May Day, expunging the radical working class traditions it embodied, but it also introduced a labour holiday on 21 April. Franco, who arguably waged the most vicious military struggle against the left, and who wiped out 200,000 in executions and concentration camps in the five years after his victory, simply outlawed May Day. It was not celebrated again until his downfall in 1975.

1945-2000: In the post-war period, May Day was generally tolerated and in some cases even recognised as a public holiday. In the UK, 1 May was made a bank holiday by the Labour government in 1978. In some cases, this was part of a process in which organised labour was co-opted, resulting in the holiday becoming an observed ritual and little more. But it continued to conduct astonishing upheavals – May Day protests played a significant role in the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, as well as in the uprisings against apartheid in the 1980s. And even in less dramatic circumstances, it assumed enlarged importance during periods of turbulence, such as during the Great Miners’ Strike.

2000-2012: May Day returned as a militant, if convivial, protest in the UK in 2000, due to the convergence of a broad coalition of activists under the rubric of anti-capitalism. The combination of seriousness with playful exuberance was arguably in the best traditions of May Day, even if some statues were briefly defiled. The response of police, which was to develop and refine the technique of ‘kettling’ over a number of years, was traditional in a less august sense.

The Tories were reported two years ago to be considering scrapping May Day. The associations with a moribund labourism - or worse with anti-capitalist tumult - are hardly obliging in the effort to cultivate a business-and-shopping façade for Brit-town. Yet it would be a futile gesture on their part. This impression on the international calendar was made by workers without the blessing of governments, and the evidence of history suggests that it can survive far worse interdictions. The fact that Occupy has now selected 1 May as the moment for another offensive attests to the enduring relevance of May Day as international workers’ day.

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Trotskyism at the end of the war and the democratic struggle


The latest in a series on Trotskyism by Tim Nelson. The previous essay 'Trotskyism during the Second World War' can be read here.


 

Despite the many heroic activities engaged in by Trotskyists throughout the Second World War, it can be reasonably said that this period was, in many ways, a disaster for the Trotskyist movement and the Fourth International. Whether one agrees with Shachtman and his supporters’ conclusions about the Soviet Union, its role in the Second World War, and its analysis of imperialism; his arguments were at least an attempt to push the movement to come to grips with the monumental events at the beginning of the war, and re-orientate it in light of these events. The refusal to do so by the majority, and the eventual split as a result of this, left the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International ill-equipped to deal with the new problems which would face them. Furthermore, the political practices which emerged, or rather became exposed, as a result of these disputes were problematic in many ways.

The internal culture of petty bureaucratic manoeuvring, the isolation and stigmatisation of political opponents, the dogmatism and heresy hunting, all were major features of the faction fight with the “Shachtmanites”. The politics of denunciation, where any perceived deviation from the orthodoxy was met with hostility, meant that a culture of intellectual stagnation was fostered. This could only store up more trouble for the future, as more events arose which would challenge the orthodoxy and would not fit with the Cannonites’ preconceived notions and world view.

Faction fights take on a life of their own. Shachtman and his supporters, by challenging the concept of the Soviet Union being a degenerated workers’ state and the idea that it must be defended, broke with a major feature of Trotsky’s theory. It was inevitable that those who disagreed relied heavily on Trotsky’s writings in order to challenge them. Firstly, because the works that Trotsky produced were far and away more persuasive and intelligent than anything that even the most talented of the Majority leaders may have put together, and secondly because the stature of Leon Trotsky- leader of the October Revolution and opponent of Stalin- was too great not to utilise, especially when he spent his last days opposing the Shachtmanite faction up to the point of the split. Unfortunately, there was a danger to this approach, which was that it hardly encouraged the critical faculties of its supporters. “Because Trotsky said...” might have been a knockout blow in many a faction row, but was not the most rigorous debating technique. It encouraged a dogmatic approach to discussion. Whatever one feels about Shachtman’s theories, in a healthy revolutionary movement his willingness to challenge orthodoxy would have been applauded and then critically engaged with- in the Trotskyist movement he was slandered and ostracised. Those attracted to the “Trotsky said” method of argument and who were impressed by the alienation and denunciation of political minorities were those least likely to challenge the line, or the leadership, in the future. Thus, the faction fight with Shachtman brought to the fore some of the worst tendencies in the Trotskyist movement, and some of the worst instincts in the individuals which constituted it.

It must be said that the preeminence of Cannon in the SWP, and therefore in the Fourth International, was the manifestation at the top of the organisation of this process. Some of the best elements of the Trotskyist movement at this time could be found in Cannon- he was intransigent, tireless, and an excellent agitator with a real talent for political trade unionism. However, all of its worst features could also be found in him as well- his aggressive approach to dealing with political opponents, intolerance of “deviations” from the line, dogmatism. All these would come to the fore when dealing with the next major dispute in international Trotskyism, which regarded questions as to what kind of societies would emerge in Europe out of the Second World War. The already small and isolated Trotskyist movement in Europe was unsurprisingly devastated by the rise of fascism and its dominance of the continent. What few cadres there were faced conditions of terrible repression, and those who survived were forced underground. Therefore, by 1943, when an Allied victory seemed to be the most likely outcome, a disproportionate role in analysing events and preparing the Fourth International fell to the US Socialist Workers Party, which had already been the foremost section of the International even before war had devastated its European sister organisations.

The debate primarily focused upon what form of capitalist state would emerge in Western Europe once the Allies defeated the fascist government, as this would naturally have a direct impact on the nature of the workers’ movement in those countries, and therefore the strategy and tactics of the Trotskyists within it. The majority viewpoint in the Trotskyist movement at that time was that the Second World War would end in much the same way that the First World War did- with a wave of workers’ revolutions and uprisings. This was based on Trotsky’s predictions at the beginning of the war. It was argued that the threat of these revolutions would mean that capitalism could no longer allow bourgeois democracies, under which workers would be able to organise their own political parties and organisations and mobilise against the state. It was likely, therefore, that what would emerge from the Second World War in Western Europe, imposed by Anglo-American imperialism, would be “naked military dictatorships” similar to that of Franco in Spain. An alternative point of view emerged, centred around two leading members of the SWP, Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman. They argued that it was to perfectly possible that rather than installing authoritarian dictatorships, Anglo-American imperialism could set up bourgeois democracies; and these, far from leading immediately to revolutionary situations, could instead lead to a period of relative stability. This had many long term and short term implications for the Trotskyist movement.

Trotsky’s Catastrophism

In the 1930s Trotsky developed what could be described as a “catastrophist” theory. He argued that the Second World War was the result of capitalism’s final crisis, which began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed it. This crisis was so deep that there were only two possible outcomes: workers’ revolution, or capitalism establishing outright authoritarian dictatorships in order to keep the bourgeoisie in control and the working class in check. He invoked the old quote from Rosa Luxemburg: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”. For Trotsky, and for many of his followers after his death, there was no middle of the road outcome. In the debates with Shachtman shortly before his death, Trotsky maintained that the truth of this analysis was becoming proven by events. He pointed out that the bourgeois democracies opposed to Nazi Germany, most notably Great Britain, were resorting to increasingly authoritarian domestic policies in order to keep control of their populations and ensure the effective running of the war economy.

The crisis which engulfed the world economy after the 1929 crash was the most serious in capitalist history, and the proof of this was the drastic methods the bourgeoisie were forced to employ to maintain their power. The seizure of power by fascist movements in Italy, Germany, Spain and elsewhere was a direct result of the wave of reaction released by the bourgeoisie in order to crush the workers’ movements which had developed out of this crisis. The Second World War was an imperialist war which emerged from this crisis, and was the most destructive war the world had ever seen. The collapse of liberal democratic forms of government, such as the Weimar Republic in Germany, and their replacement with fascism, were clearly proof that with capitalism in such severe crisis the bourgeoisie was incapable of maintaining its rule through bourgeois democratic methods- it could only do so through extreme reaction and authoritarianism.

Therefore, whoever the victors of the Second World War would be, Europe could expect to be dominated by authoritarian regimes, which were the only form of rule capable of keeping down the working class. The era of bourgeois democracy was over. This form of political rule was best suited to the period of competitive capitalism, its earlier stage of development, while the world economy had entered a period of monopoly capitalism, for which bourgeois democracy was ill-suited, and authoritarianism was the natural form of rule. The other issue which arose out of the victory of fascism and the economic crisis was the complete political bankruptcy of the “traditional” workers’ parties. The working class, Trotsky argued, was in such a period radicalised, or easily capable of being radicalised, by the objective circumstances of capitalist crisis and state repression. However, the problem for revolutionaries was that the organisations which had the support of the vast majority of the working class were reformist organisations which served only to prop up the bourgeois state, and in the final analysis were more likely to aid the ruling class in crushing any revolutionary workers’ movement rather than lead it.

The mass workers’ parties in the 1930s were either social democratic organisations such as the SPD in Germany and the Labour Party in Britain, or the Stalinist Communist parties. All these organisations, both in the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 after the First World War and during the economic crisis which preceded the Second, played their part in holding back the workers’ movement and, in the case of Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, failing to halt the rise of fascism. In Germany, the Stalinist KPD applied the disastrously ultra-left Third Period strategy, where they denounced the SPD as “social fascists” and refused to work with them to combat the rise of fascism. In Spain, in an effort to facilitate an alliance between the Kremlin and the bourgeois democracies, the Communist Party applied the Popular Front strategy, where it made an alliance with anti-fascist elements of the bourgeoisie, and therefore opposed any continuation or deepening of the workers’ revolution there. This line eventually led to them leading the crushing of the workers’ councils and militias in Spain and paved the way for Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War.

After these events in Europe, Trotsky resolved that the parties of the Third International were too “Stalinised”- their internal regimes were deeply authoritarian and bureaucratic, and their ability to lead the workers’ movement was proven to be non-existent- and therefore a new revolutionary International needed to be formed. He argued that with capitalism in its greatest crisis and the huge wave of militancy unleashed within the working class in response to this, the situation was objectively revolutionary. The missing ingredient was the subjective factor- the revolutionary party. The current bureaucratic, reformist leadership of the working class needed replacing with the revolutionary leadership of a Bolshevik Party. The primary task, therefore, was to build such a party. This was also an urgent task, as with capitalism in its final crisis, and the revolutionary leadership being the one missing ingredient; building the party was what would make the difference in whether humanity achieved socialism or descended into barbarism.

This theory is what has come to be described as the idea of the “crisis of leadership”, where Trotskyists argue that the key factor in a movement which needs addressing is the lack of revolutionary leadership of the working class. It did not, however, start with Trotsky’s analysis of the 1930s, but in fact existed in various forms throughout the history of the Third International. Many argued that the key to the success of the workers’ insurrection in October 1917 was the role played by the Bolshevik Party in providing revolutionary leadership. One of the reasons why revolutions failed in Germany and elsewhere between 1917 and 1923 was either the absence of such a party, or its failure to apply the lessons learned by the Bolsheviks in 1917 correctly. It was this thinking which was behind the forming of the Comintern in 1919. The Bolsheviks were hoping to set up Communist parties based upon the Bolshevik model across the world, and particularly in Europe which, under the guidance of the Russian party, could provide the necessary revolutionary leadership.

It was also the logic behind Zinoviev’s “Bolshevisation” drive. After Trotsky’s death, Cannon and his supporters continued to maintain the basic validity of this theory, and resisted any attempts to revise it. They argued that the traditional workers’ parties, the social democrats and the Stalinist Communists, were discredited in the eyes of the working class due to their failure to either lead the working class struggle or stop the rise of fascism. Similarly, bourgeois democracy was also discredited to working class people, who had seen it usher in reaction and world war. They predicted, after the Second World War, revolutions on an even greater scale than those that followed the First. Trotsky’s catastrophist theory also applied to Stalinist Russia. Trotsky believed that the Stalinist bureaucracy- being a parasitic caste rather than a ruling class- was in an inherently unstable position. He argued that the bureaucracy would inevitably be swept away if there was a new revolutionary wave in Europe. While the bureaucracy may play a counterrevolutionary role, as it did in Spain, in the European revolution, it could also play an objectively revolutionary role in establishing nationalised property forms in territories it occupied, leaving the working class the need only to seize political power. Stalinism, in allowing the fascists to seize power, was devalued in the eyes of the working class, and its regime inherently unstable.

The Theory Tested: Italy

This theory remained dominant in the Trotskyist movement throughout the Second World War. The increasingly authoritarian measures utilised by the Allies at home and in the territories they controlled appeared to support the idea that the post-war society, rather than being dominated by bourgeois democracies, would in fact be a system of authoritarian dictatorships. As mentioned above, some members of the SWP, led by Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, began to question the validity of the theory when it was tested against real events. As the tide of the war turned against the fascist governments, and the Allies began to take over territory in Europe previously dominated by Germany and its allies, the question of what sort of regimes would replace them and what sort of societies would emerge ceased to be a matter of hypothesis as theories began to be tested against reality.

In Morrow and Goldman’s view, the majority position within the Fourth International was found wanting in a number of ways. Neither Morrow nor Goldman were minor figures in the Trotskyist movement. Both had split from the Communist Party in 1933 and became involved in the Communist League of America, which was the predecessor of the SWP founded by Cannon and Shachtman. Goldman had been the defence advocate in a number of high profile cases within the labour movement, and worked on behalf of Trotsky as his defence attorney, defending him against the accusations which emerged from Stalin’s show trials at the Dewey Commission. Felix Morrow had edited both the SWP’s agitational paper Militant, and the Fourth International journal after Shachtman split with the party. He had been a respected journalist in the movement for many years. Both were imprisoned in 1941, along with Cannon and fifteen other leading SWP members, for a year under the Smith Act (a law which made advocating the overthrow of the US government during the Second World War) after a high profile trial in which Goldman was the defence lawyer. It was in prison that they developed their criticisms of the party line.

The main event which first raised questions as to the validity of the Fourth International’s position was the Allied invasion of Italy. In July 1943 British, Canadian and American forces invaded Sicily from territory in North Africa. They attacked the Italian mainland in September 3 that year, the day the Italian government signed an armistice. Mussolini had already been toppled by an internal fascist coup in July, largely as a result of his failure to contain growing discontent among the Italian people. To begin with, the SWP’s predictions regarding post-war Europe seemed to be proven by events. Mussolini was replaced in Southern Italy, which was occupied by the Allies, by Marshal Badoglio, a fascist whose first government was for all intents and purposes a military dictatorship. His government was backed by Anglo-American imperialism, and fascists were largely kept in place within the state machine. Morrow pointed out how the Allies refused to arm Italian resistance fighters or émigrés, and ceased the bombing of Italy for two weeks in July in order to allow the Italian state time to crush the growing opposition movement. During the bombing raids themselves, mostly carried out by the British military, Milan- the centre of working class anti-fascist movement- was subjected to saturation bombings of its factories and working class housing districts. Rome- the centre of the fascist state- was subjected only to precision bombing against certain military targets, leaving most arms of state oppression untouched. The Allies clearly aimed to prop up the authoritarian Italian state, and facilitate the crushing of any Italian revolution.

That there was a genuine mass uprising in Italy from 1943 there is no question. In March 1943, a wave of strike action in the industrial north of the country, centred in Milan and Turin- the first since 1925- shook the state. Morrow described the movement that grew in 1943 as an “elemental movement from below”. Although both the Communist Party and the Action Party (a party which focussed on armed resistance to the fascists, including individual acts of terrorism) claimed to have extensive underground organisations in place, the strike movement which broke out was largely based upon the spontaneous organisation of workers and was not led by any particular party.

However, it was as this movement developed that Morrow first started to question the validity of the orthodox Trotskyist analysis. While outwardly the predictions of Trotsky seemed to be being proven correct- an authoritarian government backed by Anglo-American imperialism against the threat of workers’ uprisings- there were some developments which went against the orthodox perspective. Morrow pointed out that after the initial spontaneity of the uprising, the spaces it created through mass activity allowed the underground organisations to come to the surface, which meant political parties could take more of a leading role in the movement. The parties which made the biggest gains in this period were not revolutionary organisations, but instead the traditional workers’ parties- the reformist social democratic, or Socialist Party, the Partito Socialista Italiano; and the Stalinist Communist Party, the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI). In the first days after Mussolini was forced out, for example, thousands joined the Socialist Party daily. Under the guidance of these organisations the movement did not progress in a revolutionary direction, and instead focused primarily on winning the rights afforded in a bourgeois democracy. Both the Communist Party and the Socialist Party restricted themselves to very limited democratic demands on the state. The Stalinists called for a cross-class coalition of all major democratic parties, including bourgeois liberal and Christian Democrat (conservative) parties. After Mussolini’s overthrow, they refused to call for the abolition of the monarchy, and instead limited the demand to the abdication of King Victor Emmanuel II, and his replacement with another monarch. The coalition’s main task, for the Communist Party, would be unconditional surrender to the Allied armies. These aims were clearly based upon the requirements of Moscow’s foreign policy. Despite this conservative approach, which in many ways was to the right of even the Socialist Party, the Communist Party emerged from this period as one of the largest parties in Italy. It had gained enormous prestige, not just from the victories of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany; but also because of its leading role in the underground resistance movement. Furthermore, Morrow pointed out that since fascism gained power in Italy in 1922, before the Stalinisation of the Comintern and its affiliated parties, for many Italians the party had not lost its revolutionary reputation. The Socialist Party had, in many respects, policies to the left of the Communist Party at this time. It called for a democratic republic and the abolition of the monarchy, and rejected the Stalinists’ call for a “national front” and collaboration with the Christian Democrats. However, despite slight differences in line, both the traditional workers’ parties limited themselves to demands which amounted to a return to bourgeois democracy.

Although initially the Italian state appeared to be moving in the authoritarian direction that Trotsky and others expected, post-fascist Italy soon began to regain the model of bourgeois democracy, even if the first government formed, with Mussolini’s general Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minister, could be described as nothing more than a military dictatorship. However, Morrow argued that his second government, with the support of mass petty bourgeois and workers’ parties, was clearly a bourgeois democracy. In 1944 he was replaced by Ivanoe Bonomi, leader of the liberal Labour Democratic Party, whose government included Socialists and Communists. The Italian state, by the end of the war in 1945, had to a large extent all the trappings of a bourgeois democracy, including crucially, the support and participation of mass workers and petty bourgeois parties. Furthermore, far from being resisted by the insurgent masses, Anglo-American imperial armies were largely welcomed as liberators from fascism. Therefore, for Morrow and Goldman, the Italian events raised serious questions as to the validity of the orthodox Trotskyist predictions of what form of society would emerge out of the Second World War. Given that these predictions were crucial to the Trotskyist movement’s strategy during this period, once it was recognised that they were inaccurate, this had ramifications for whole swathes of the movement’s theory and practice.

The Greek Events

Events in Greece during the war were a prime example of both the importance of the democratic movement for European workers, and the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism. Before the invasion by Italy in October 1940 Greece was under the control of a right-wing authoritarian regime, led by Ioannis Metaxas, who had seized power through a coup in 1936. His regime was supported by the Greek monarch, King George II, and backed by British imperialism. Greece had, from the nineteenth century onwards, been firmly within the British Empire’s sphere of influence, mostly through the mechanism of national debt. The British aimed, following the war, to re-establish the old regime in Greece. In a now infamous meeting with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944 Churchill had agreed to carve up the Balkans. During the discussions, Churchill had passed a scrap of paper to Stalin, with the following notes jotted down:

Rumania
- Russia- 90%
- The others- 10%

Greece
- Great Britain- 90%
- Russia- 10%

Yugoslavia- 50-50%

Hungary- 50-50%

Bulgaria
- Russia- 75%
- The others- 25%

According to Churchill’s own account of the meeting Churchill “pushed this across to Stalin, [...] he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it.” Thus, the fate of the Balkans was decided by the Great Powers, and it was agreed that Greece would return to Britain’s sphere of influence. The Greek people however were far from receptive to this idea. The Greek National Liberation Front (EAM) was a mass movement which had opposed Italian and German occupation for years, both through armed struggle and industrial activity. By the end of the war it controlled up to four-fifths of the country and had 1.5 million members- perhaps a fifth of Greece’s population. This resistance had not developed as a result of the initiation of any organisation, but was a spontaneous movement, formed originally out of defeated military units and largely based on the peasantry. This had swiftly spread to the cities and throughout the country. The strategy advocated by the Greek Communist Party, the KKE, was one of a “national front” against the occupation, which meant uniting all opposition to the fascist armies, including with remnants of the old regime which remained loyal to the monarchy and were backed by British imperialism. Despite the resistance movement largely being based upon the working class and the peasantry, the EAM refused to raise issues of social change in the hope of maintaining the support of the ruling class and of the Allies. Still, between 1942 and 1944 there was a series of mass strikes against the occupation, including a general strike in Athens in June 1943. While the KKE and many of its Allies in the leadership of the EAM insisted that the struggle was a “national struggle”, including all classes of society, class divisions began to show in the resistance. These class divisions were to highlight the importance of the democratic struggle.

Unrest was first to appear within the military units formed by the Greek Government in Exile stationed in Egypt. In October 1941 Greek soldiers who opposed those that remained loyal to the Metaxas regime and the monarchy formed the Military Organisation for Liberation (ASO) and there were two mutinies, the latter of which was much more serious and culminated in brutal repression by the Greek Government in Exile and the British High Command. Twenty thousand Greek soldiers were sent to prison camps. At the beginning of the second mutiny in March 1944, the soldiers sent a delegation to the Soviet Embassy in Egypt and were refused entry. The mutineers were opposed to the reinstallation of the old regime and the leadership of the Metaxites in the movement. The slogan of opposition to the monarchy was central, as for many it became the symbol of the old regime’s authoritarianism and of the dominance of British imperialism but the Soviet Union was committed to a deal with the British Empire where the latter would have a free hand in Greece, and therefore insisted that the KKE should not come into conflict with the monarchists. In May 1944 the KKE unconditionally joined the Government in Exile, which was now led by right wing General Papandreou who formed the first government when the Germans withdrew from Athens in October of that year. As the KKE called on people to “maintain order”, Papandreou and Churchill took control of the Security Battalions, repressive units formed of Greek collaborators, and ordered the disbandment of the ELAS, the People’s Liberation Army resistance movement. A demonstration against the disarmament of resistance fighters was fired upon, and thirty three days of fighting followed. The resistance movement, for the time being, was defeated and the old regime secured.

The suppression of the Greek resistance by British imperialism in conjunction with the old regime showed the importance of democratic struggle in the post-fascist states. It had been demands for greater democracy and opposition to monarchy which had mobilised almost open class warfare in Greece in 1944. It was an example of democratic issues which ran directly counter to the interests of the Greek ruling class and Anglo-American imperialism being raised by the working class. It also exposed the counterrevolutionary role Stalinism would play in post-war Europe, as the Stalinist KKE held back, then actively betrayed, the workers’ struggle for greater democracy in order to preserve the status quo and the Soviet bureaucracy’s alliance with British imperialism. The KKE continued to defend the Stalinist bureaucracy’s interests over that of the working class.

The Revision

Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman developed their alternative to the orthodox Trotskyist theory while imprisoned under the Smith Act in 1941. They argued that it needed to be revised in a number of ways. Firstly, and most importantly, they argued that it was perfectly plausible that rather than establishing authoritarian regimes Anglo-American imperialism would in fact support the European bourgeoisie in establishing bourgeois democracies. This, in part, was due to people in Europe, who had spent decades under fascist rule or occupation, had little experience of bourgeois democracy; and their experience of living under fascism would have fostered renewed illusions in it. Similarly, far from resisting the “democratic” imperialists, the masses in Europe were likely to welcome them as liberators, and believe that they could provide an alternative to fascism. Illusions in bourgeois democracy could contribute to a revival of reformist social democratic and Stalinist parties, which may not be as discredited in the eyes of the working class as many Trotskyists expected. Given their suppression by the fascists, many workers saw them as leaders of the resistance, and had not experienced their betrayals for two generations. Finally, Morrow and Goldman warned of the danger of Stalinism, which they felt was underplayed by the Cannonites who restricted themselves to talking of how the implementation of state ownership in Soviet occupied territories would be progressive. They warned of the counterrevolutionary role that Stalinism could play in Europe, both through its parties in Western Europe and its armies in the East. They also argued that the renewed prestige of Stalinism due to the Soviet Union’s victories over Nazi Germany and the role of Communists in the resistance, could mean this role could be even more significant due to its increased influence.

The revisions, if followed to their logical conclusions, had serious implications for Trotskyists’ theory and practice. Generally, Morrow and Goldman argued that the incorrect positions had led the Fourth International to misjudge what they referred to as the “tempo of the revolution”. For most of the debate they conceded that they had not given up on the idea of revolution in Europe; but argued that due to the factors referred to above revolution would not arrive at the pace most in the Trotskyist movement expected. This over-optimism could lead, in many ways, to a dangerous strain of ultra-leftism in the Fourth International. They argued that Trotskyists in Europe should be focussing on democratic demands, pushing for the most radical democratic reforms, which many working class people were expecting and demanding.

The Possibility of Bourgeois Democracy

The orthodox Trotskyists believed that the European working class could only be kept in place by military dictatorships, while Morrow and Goldman believed the methods of bourgeois democracy could in fact be more effective. The majority argued that Anglo-American imperialism was “equally predatory” to that of Nazi Germany. Morrow countered that while both Nazi Germany and the Allies were equally imperialist, this did not necessarily mean they were equally predatory. When the Nazis invaded a country it tended to plunder it for resources, shutting down factories and transferring their machinery to Germany. They also set up fascist military and police dictatorships with the collaboration of indigenous fascist parties and, of course, set up the most brutal genocidal system of oppression in human history. When Allied armies invaded a territory however, they attempted, with much success, to appear as liberators. They invested in development of industry and infrastructure, and brought food and other necessities. It was important to the Allies that they were seen as solving the occupied countries’ economic problems. Where the fascists relied upon direct oppression, the Allies largely used methods which won the majority of the population to support the new regimes they installed. In this regard bourgeois democracy was much more useful than authoritarianism. The belief that the Allies would install military dictatorships was based on two premises. The first was that these were the only forms of government capable of preventing a revolutionary upsurge, and in the era of monopoly capitalism bourgeois democracy was no longer effective and was giving way to authoritarianism. The second was that bourgeois democracy relied upon the consent and participation of the working classes, and after the failure of bourgeois democracy and the onset of fascism working class people would no longer have illusions in it.

The idea that the working class was bereft of bourgeois democratic illusions was challenged by Morrow and Goldman. They also questioned the idea which followed from this, that the working masses were on the cusp of a revolutionary upsurge. The orthodox perspective was largely based upon the idea that the situation after the Second World War would be similar to that in Europe after the First World War. A wave of working class revolutions would take place, and the key to all of it- as it had been then- was a successful revolution in Germany. Morrow pointed out that the situation in Germany, and throughout Europe, would be very different to that in 1918. The working class in Germany and Italy would be emerging out of generations of fascist rule and elsewhere, such as France and Belgium, years of Nazi occupation. They would be coming straight from fascist domination into military occupation by the Allies. They would have no recent experiences, in some cases for decades, of bourgeois democracy or working class organisation. Furthermore, nowhere in Europe was there a revolutionary party beyond the small, isolated sects of the Fourth International. In such circumstances, a revolutionary situation, let alone a successful revolution, was extremely unlikely.

It was clear from 1943, as Anglo-American imperialist armies began to capture territories previously occupied by the Nazis and fascists, that a key part of their strategy was the establishment of democracies in conjunction with the native bourgeoisie. This was a deliberate attempt to contrast their own military presence with that of the fascists, and give themselves the appearance of a liberating rather than occupying force. While the populations of those countries were unlikely to rise up and fight for socialism at this point, they could and did fight for democracy- which is what many of them had been doing as part of the resistance movements. Attempts to establish military dictatorships were likely to be met with hostility, or even outright mass resistance. Throughout Western Europe, therefore, bourgeois democracies were established. The nature of the regimes established by the Western European bourgeoisie and Anglo-American imperialism became a key battleground for the Fourth International’s faction fight. E. R. Frank, the sword of the Cannonite faction in the SWP who replaced Morrow as editor of the Fourth International journal, argued that in fact the regimes being established in Italy and France were Bonapartist dictatorships and pointed out that they had been established by Anglo-American imperialism without elections or parliaments. Furthermore, given power rested solely in the hands of the Allied military, a key aspect which defines a regime as bourgeois democratic- sovereignty- was lacking. Morrow argued that this showed a complete lack of understanding on Frank’s part, both of the actual situation in Europe, and of what bourgeois democracy actually was. There had been many governments which Marxists had considered bourgeois democracies which had neither been elected nor based upon parliaments. The two most obvious examples being Prince Lvov’s government formed in Russia after the 1917 February Revolution and Prince Maximilian’s government following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany in 1918. Neither had been elected, but had been formed out of remnants of the old regime and backed by the bourgeoisie. What both had was the active support and participation of mass petty bourgeois and workers’ parties.

It was this, not the abstract concept of “sovereignty”, which defined a regime as bourgeois democratic. The argument that bourgeois democracies are defined by “sovereignty” is even less convincing, as many bourgeois democracies, particularly after losing wars, are subject to domination by imperialist countries. The regimes which were established in France and Italy both included this essential ingredient- the support of mass petit-bourgeois and workers’ parties. Also, Frank’s classification of these governments as Bonapartist military dictatorships did not take into account their changes in nature and composition over time. In Italy, Morrow argued, the first Badoglio was a military dictatorship reliant on Anglo-American imperialism. However, the second government he formed, and later ones formed by Bonomi, were supported by mass democratic parties, and were therefore bourgeois democracies in character. The same could be said of the Gaullist government which Anglo-American imperialism installed in France. While Morrow acknowledged that this government had many Bonapartist tendencies, he maintained that most governments in bourgeois democracies shared such tendencies. It could not be doubted, however, that this government enjoyed the support of mass democratic parties. It was clear as the Allies established new regimes in Western Europe that the orthodox analysis was inadequate, and Morrow and Goldman’s arguments were correct- “Franco-like” regimes were not being established, bourgeois democratic governments were. Revolutionary situations were not developing, and instead the masses were accepting the parameters of bourgeois democracy, while the most politically conscious elements were flocking towards the “traditional” workers’ parties and demanding greater levels of democracy.

The Re-emergence of the Traditional Workers’ Parties

One of the most important aspects of Morrow and Goldman’s revision was that they highlighted the manner in which working class people flocked to their traditional organisations during periods of renewed political freedom. They recognised a trend whereby soon after liberation by Allied armies, the first organisations to benefit from the new political freedoms of the working class were the social democratic and Stalinist Communist parties. The Trotskyists were expecting that these parties would be discredited as a result of their monumental and demonstrable failure to halt the rise of fascism. Morrow pointed out that these failures were barely remembered by the working class. Fascism had come to power in Italy in 1922, in Germany in 1933, and proceeded to occupy swathes of Europe from 1938 onwards. Between then and the political freedoms introduced by Anglo-American imperialism no working class or democratic organisations were tolerated by the fascist states. The relative political freedoms allowed by bourgeois democracy could only be dreamt of under the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. As Trotsky had warned when fascism was on the rise, all democratic and working class organisations were under threat from fascism. When fascism took power, it suppressed social democrats, Communists and democratic liberals and all these political tendencies went underground and became part of the resistance. These groups, most notably the Stalinists, gained enormous credibility as a result of their anti-fascist resistance activity. Finally, in a situation where there is a direct transition from fascist oppression to military occupation by imperialism, and where there is not only no revolutionary party but no workers’ organisation of any sort, the idea that a workers’ revolution could occur is at best optimistic. It was far more likely that workers would welcome the new political freedoms they gained as a result of the Allied victories, and possibly organise for more gains within the framework of bourgeois democracy. The best vehicles for achieving these goals seemed to be the social democratic and Communist parties.

The orthodox Trotskyist theory as to why resolutions failed to develop in the rest Europe after the First World War along the same lines as Russian Revolution was that distinct, mass revolutionary parties of the Bolshevik model were not formed, or were formed too late. Even if, as was the case in Germany, a mass revolutionary party was formed, it did not follow Bolshevik theory and practice in the correct way. Trotskyists argued that the situation in 1943-45 was “objectively revolutionary”, just like, if not more than, the situation was in 1917-23. However, Morrow pointed out that in Europe after the defeat of fascism, not only was there little chance of a mass revolutionary party being formed, any mass workers’ organisations that were constructed- parties, or trade unions- would almost inevitably concentrate on democratic demands. The theoretical background to the orthodox Trotskyist assertion that the working class was objectively revolutionary, and the missing ingredient was the mass revolutionary party, came from their interpretation of Lenin and his theory of monopoly capitalism and imperialism which impacted upon his analysis of reformism and social democracy. He argued that one outcome of imperialism in the twentieth century was that “scraps of booty” would be distributed among the petty bourgeoisie, the trade union bureaucracy, and a privileged layer of the working class referred to as the “aristocracy of labour”. These elements therefore had a perceived material interest in defending capitalism against the working class, and as such provided the material basis for reformism.

This suggests that the majority of the working class is objectively revolutionary but is held back by organisations- trade union bureaucracies and social democratic parties- which are dominated by a privileged stratum of the working class and the middle class. This was interpreted by many Trotskyists to mean that the main task for revolutionaries in the epoch of monopoly capitalism was to replace the “traditional workers’ parties” with a revolutionary leadership. During the faction fight Morrow and Goldman did not move away from this analysis, and in actual fact argued that it was the lack of mass revolutionary parties- the failure of any section of the Fourth International to grow beyond a small revolutionary group- which was the main factor that meant a revolutionary situation could not develop. The question as to why, in an objectively revolutionary situation, where neither mass revolutionary or reformist parties had been allowed to grow due to the conditions of authoritarianism; the traditional workers parties were able to build a mass base in the class virtually from nothing after the collapse of fascism, is central to understanding the failures of the orthodox Trotskyist analysis. Later, in the 1950s, Tony Cliff argued that there was no proof that improved conditions as a result of imperialism only benefited a privileged stratum of the working class:

An inevitable conclusion following upon Lenin’s analysis of reformism is that a small thin crust of conservatism hides the revolutionary urges of the mass of the workers. Any break through this crust would reveal a surging revolutionary lava. The role of the revolutionary party is to simply show the mass of the workers that their interests are betrayed by the “infinitesimal minority” of the “aristocracy of labour”.

This conclusion, however, is not confirmed by the history of reformism in Britain, the United States and elsewhere over the past half century: Its solidarity, its spread throughout the working class, frustrating and largely isolating all revolutionary minorities, makes it abundantly clear that the economic, social roots of reformism are not in “an infinitesimal minority of the working masses” as Lenin argued.

Cliff pointed out that capitalism and imperialism did not just raise the living standards of certain strata of workers. As living standards improve, all tend to be raised at the same time, and in fact differences between layers of workers narrow. This means that reformist organisations, such as social democratic and Communist parties, could maintain the loyalty of the vast majority of the working class as their role was to wrest concessions from capitalist prosperity and growth. Reformist consciousness among workers is therefore linked to the perceived ability of workers to make gains within capitalism. At the time of the fall of the fascist states, Morrow pointed out that the Anglo-American imperialist armies brought both the promise of economic prosperity and of democratic states. Making these gains was perfectly plausible within the boundaries of capitalism, and was also seen as vital by the European working class- here lies the root of the sudden growth of reformist organisations in Western Europe.

One of the weaknesses of Goldman and Morrow’s analysis is that it fails to explain adequately the reasons why reformist organisations grew so quickly. Furthermore, they insisted that the “tempo” of the revolution was going to be slower than originally thought primarily because of the lack of a mass revolutionary party. The “crisis of leadership” narrative runs through much of their writing in this period, with them mostly concentrating on changing the programmes of the Fourth International’s sections in order to best rectify them to the period- they did less to challenge the fundamental roots of the problems with the orthodox Trotskyist perspective. The idea which led the Trotskyists to argue that their primary concern should be to build a mass revolutionary party and advance the correct revolutionary slogans was not simply based upon the catastrophist perspective of the upcoming collapse of capitalism, but also on the false understanding of the nature of reformist consciousness within the working class, and how reformist organisations gain their allegiance. This leads to viewing the working class as being “duped” by reformist leaders who simply need to be displaced by the revolutionary party.

The Counterrevolutionary Role of Stalinism

The orthodox Trotskyists emphasised the progressive nature of the Soviet economy, and while they still maintained that the Stalinist bureaucracy, and by extension the Stalinist parties, were counterrevolutionary; they argued that the Soviet Union should still be supported in the war as its victory would ensure the establishment of state owned property in territories it captured, while its defeat would lead to the introduction of capitalism. This theory was fundamentally important with the Soviet Union’s armies occupying states throughout Eastern Europe. Morrow and Goldman argued that the orthodox perspective underestimated the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism, which given the weakness of revolutionary groups in Europe may be decisive. The Soviet victories over Nazi Germany, and the Stalinists’ involvement in European resistance movements had strengthened the prestige of the Communist parties and they emerged as major political forces in most liberated territories, and were naturally playing a reactionary role. In Italy for example, their programme was to the right of the Socialist Party in many respects. The danger of Stalinism to the “European revolution” should not, therefore, be underestimated.

The Cannonites argued that this was a pessimistic perspective. The strength of the Red Army and Soviet industry displayed to the working class the gains made as a result of the October Revolution, and that such economies were being established all over Eastern Europe could only make further gains for the working class. Morrow did not challenge the orthodox Trotskyist theory of the Soviet economy and the idea of the degenerated workers’ state however, he did point out that while the superiority of the Red Army and Soviet industry may be true, these remained in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy which was counterrevolutionary and would use them for counterrevolutionary means. Felix Morrow had been the author of Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain- a key book which developed a lot of the Fourth International’s perspectives on the Spanish Civil War. He reminded the orthodox faction of the violent counterrevolutionary role played by the Stalinist Communist Party there, which in pursuing its Popular Front perspective defended private property and the bourgeois republican state against the workers’ revolution, and ultimately led the crushing of the revolutionary workers’ movement. He argued that exactly the same role could be carried out by the Stalinist parties and armies in the European revolution.

The Stalinists did in fact play an extremely reactionary role in Western Europe, though conditions never reached anywhere near the heights of the revolutionary situation in Spain during the civil war. They continued to pursue the Popular Front strategy even after the defeat of fascism, calling for coalition governments including bourgeois liberal and conservative parties. At points in countries such as Italy and Britain, this placed them to the right of the social democratic parties, who either sought coalitions which excluded the conservatives, or sought to govern alone. In all countries in Western Europe the Communist parties sought to hold back any workers’ movements which developed after the defeat of fascism and limit their demands. The role of Stalinism in Eastern Europe was also in no way progressive. Unfortunately, in the course of the debate, Morrow and Goldman did not raise this in any detailed way, this may be in part due to lack of information, though they probably also maintained orthodox Trotskyist illusions in the progressive nature of the Soviet economic system. While Anglo-American imperialism attempted to assume the guise of liberators in Western Europe, in Eastern and Central Europe and particularly in the case of Germany, the Red Army entered territories as conquerors. Stalin had announced a “Great Patriotic War” against Germany, and unleashed a wave of Greater Russian chauvinism. “Trotsky’s Red Army” as it was still referred to by the Cannonites in order to point to who they considered to be the true engineer of the machine which crushed Nazism, and associate the victories of the Red Army with the gains made by the October Revolution; raped and pillaged across Eastern Europe. The Kremlin then imposed authoritarian dictatorships based upon the model of the Soviet Union. Whatever can be said about the role of Stalinism in the East, it certainly did not demonstrate its progressive nature in comparison to Western capitalism.

Morrow and Goldman argued that, whatever one felt about the Trotskyist position of defending the Soviet Union, the issue had lost the central importance that they had given it up until then. The USSR was no longer under direct threat from imperialism, and now the key issue was warning workers of Stalinism’s reactionary nature. Cannon and others argued that the threat of imperialism to the Soviet Union had not receded with the defeat of fascism, and now it faced war with the Western Allies. He actually went as far as to say that the war was in fact not over:

Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganisation for the second. The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe is not taken off the agenda.

Cannon said this in November 1946.

Morrow argued that in the debate over the role of Stalinism Cannon displayed the worst aspects of factionalism and dogmatism:

Cannon is driven by his blind factionalism but also by something which is even more important for us to struggle against: He represents today the crassest example in the Fourth International of those who cling to outworn formulas at any cost. Trotsky said the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided by the war; Cannon is determined to save that formula and in that mad venture is ready to make still greater errors, errors indeed which approach the outer limits of sanity.

The Tempo of the Revolution

Morrow and Goldman insisted during the faction fight that they were not arguing that the European revolution was not going to occur, but rather that it was not an immediate prospect. They argued that events had proven predictions of a workers’ revolution in Europe immediately following the Second World War to be demonstrably wrong. The use by the Western European bourgeoisie and Anglo-American imperialism of bourgeois democratic regimes and their encouragement of economic growth, rather than the establishment of military dictatorships and the plundering of resources meant that they were likely to achieve stability through relative consensus and the passive support of the majority of the population. This was bolstered by the support of the traditional workers’ parties and the reactionary role of Stalinism. All this combined with the lack of mass revolutionary parties in Europe meant that the revolution was not around the corner. They feared that the Trotskyist movement continuing to expect, and plan for, revolution would ultimately lead it in an ultra-left direction. They argued for a concentration on democratic demands which would orientate the Trotskyist movement towards the pace the workers’ struggle was actually moving at. They pointed out that Trotsky himself had suggested it was possible that in the lead up to the European revolution there would be a protracted period where workers would follow reformist parties. There had been a revival of “democratic illusions” among the workers due to the many having grown up without having experienced bourgeois democracy before, and an intensification of nationalism due to fascist occupation. The majority, however, maintained that these illusions would be dispelled by the inevitable reversion to authoritarianism on the part of Anglo-American imperialism.

The importance of democratic demands was central to Morrow and Goldman’s theory. Given the Fourth International’s majority was focused upon what they saw as the upcoming revolution, they believed that the emphasis should be on demands which separated revolutionaries clearly from the social democratic and Stalinist parties, exposing their weaknesses as opposed to the strengths of a truly revolutionary programme. It argued that explicitly proletarian demands, such as nationalisation and the sliding scale of wages, would be more effective in achieving this. Morrow and Goldman argued that democratic demands were central to the struggle in Europe, and this was proven by the mass movements developing against the monarchy in countries such as Italy and Belgium. In Italy, the king was complicit in the fascists gaining power- he appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister- and had actively supported the dictatorship. In Belgium, King Leopold collaborated with the Nazi invaders. In France, they argued for a concentration on a battle for greater democratic freedoms for the left, and for an end to colonialism in South East Asia. After generations of fascist rule and occupation the ability to mobilise mass movements for greater democracy and freedom was clear; and the promises of Anglo-American imperialism, the European bourgeoisie and the reformist leaders had the effect of making people expect such gains, and demanding that they materialise.

They argued that by developing slogans for radical democracy Trotskyists could both enter the mass movements and steer them in a more radical direction, and expose the compromises and equivocations of the traditional workers’ parties. Cannon, Frank, and others accused them of “opportunism”, and of tailing the liberals and reformists. Goldman and Morrow countered that the real danger was not opportunism, but ultra-leftism in the Fourth International. In concentrating on demands for a revolution they expected any minute, the orthodox faction was dismissing mass movements which were actually occurring. Morrow argued that in order to prove to workers that their illusions in bourgeois democracy were incorrect, they needed first to fight for democracy and win one as complete as possible. Firstly, it is only by experiencing bourgeois democracy first hand that workers’ illusions in it can be dispelled. Secondly, resistance by the bourgeoisie to workers’ demands for democracy, and the traditional workers’ parties’ attempts to resist them, would reveal the true nature of both. The Cannonites argued that since the reformists were also advancing democratic demands if revolutionaries did the same it would be impossible for workers to distinguish between the two- only by advancing revolutionary demands could revolutionaries expose the reformists.

At the root of this exchange was the Trotskyist concept of “transitional demands”, which was an approach that both sides of the debate remained convinced by. Transitional demands were first argued for by Trotsky, Lenin and the Comintern. Previous to this, the social democrats of the Second International argued for a division between minimum and maximum demands. Minimum demands could be achievable under capitalism, and would be the slogans of the socialist movement in non-revolutionary periods. Maximum demands were the demands that could only be achieved under socialism. In non-revolutionary periods, maximum demands took on a purely propagandist function, as in they would only be used to educate socialists as to the full nature of Marxist ideas, while minimum demands were at the fore. The problem with this was that social democratic organisations would increasingly treat maximum demands as ideas to be advanced at some unspecified future date, and concentrate solely on the minimum. Transitional demands were suggested as a way to transcend this division. The idea was for revolutionaries to make demands which seemed both reasonable and achievable to workers, but were in fact a direct challenge to capitalism as a whole- these would serve the purpose of engaging with where the class struggle and working class consciousness were at the time, while motivating them to direct confrontation with the system. In this way, Marxists could avoid both pessimistic reformism on the one hand and abstract utopianism on the other.

The Trotskyists argued that it was a sign of the Comintern’s degeneration into reformism that by its Fifth World Congress it had discarded the transitional approach and once again separated demands into minimum and maximum programmes. When the Fourth International was launched in 1938 it formulated a transitional programme written by Trotsky, with the help of Cannon and others, entitled The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. The programme was, in many ways, an excellent document. It called for, among other things: a sliding scale of wages, where wages rise automatically in relation to any increase in the price of consumer goods; a sliding scale of working hours, where all work is divided equally among the workforce, while wages remain the same irrespective of whether hours go down; expropriation of key branches of industry, such as war industries, railways, and important sources of raw materials; expropriation of the banks; and the placing of military training under the control of workers’ organisations. As well as these demands, it also called for certain forms of workers’ self-organisation, such as factory committees and workers’ self-defence groups. There were also demands which would play a largely educational role until a revolutionary situation, such as the call for the formation of Soviets and for a workers’ government. At the time it was written it would have been a brilliant programme for a mass revolutionary party. However, when it was drawn up the Transitional Programme, as it was generally known, was adhered to by only a handful of small groups and individuals. Furthermore, much of it was based upon the flawed predictions and assumptions of Trotsky and his followers- it was written in a period of intense capitalist crisis, and written in the expectation that this crisis would only intensify. The Transitional Programme, whatever its qualities, seemed fanciful when one looked at the limited forces gathered around it, and it had little to no impact on the working class movement. However, for many Trotskyists, including their leadership, it became almost an article of faith.

Morrow and Goldman argued that the failure of the leadership of the Fourth International was that it continued to apply formulas from the Transitional Programme, written in 1938, to the situation of 1945. Not only did this show a failure to adapt and generate new ideas, many of the predictions upon which it was based were simply proven wrong. Furthermore, they argued that the failure to raise new demands around questions of democracy was against the very spirit, if not the word of the programme. In the last few years of the Second World War, and for several after, movements for greater levels of democracy spread throughout Europe. Social democratic and Stalinist organisations attempted to limit the scope of these movements and hold back any radicalism- they concentrated upon minimum demands. Rather than approach these movements with either calls for revolution, of with more “proletarian” economic slogans, Trotskyists should instead put forward democratic demands of the movement- such as abolition of the monarchy- with more rigorous democratic demands which would directly challenge capitalism. In this manner, they argued that the primacy of democratic demands was not a break with the Trotskyist method of transitional demands, but rather its correct application in new circumstances. Copying the 1938 programme by rote was not remaining loyal to the idea of transitional demands, it was the negation of it.

In the early years of liberation from fascism there were campaigns in Italy and Belgium against the monarchy, and in Italy, France, Holland and Belgium for the formation of constituent assemblies. One of the most instructive examples for Morrow was the movement in Belgium. Between 1944 and 1950 there was a political crisis in the country as King Leopold III attempted to return to the country. In 1940, after the invasion of the German army and the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force, Leopold had surrendered to the Nazis. The decision had unsurprisingly been extremely unpopular in Belgium, and even his own ministers disassociated themselves from him. After he was freed from German imprisonment by American soldiers in 1945, he remained in exile in Switzerland while his brother Charles was appointed as regent. Mass demonstrations and strikes grew in opposition to Leopold’s return, culminating in a general strike in 1950. The social democratic Belgian Socialist Party opposed Leopold’s return, but was a part of a coalition government which included Catholic democrats who supported the monarchy. Due to the general strike, and the wave of unrest which swept the country in 1950, Leopold was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Baudouin in August 1950.

In June 21 1945 Morrow introduced the following motion to the Political Committee of the Socialist Workers Party:

That in our analysis of the Belgian working class struggle against the return of King Leopold, we condemn the Socialist and Communist parties for having failed to take the following steps:

1. Expulsion from the government of the bourgeois ministers, who are favourable to Leopold’s return. Thereby the government would be transformed into a Socialist-Communist government.
2. Arrest of the royal family, including the Regent, and other reactionaries and industrialists who are plotting with Leopold for his return.
3. Immediate proclamation of the democratic republic.
4. Authorisation of election of soldiers’ committees by the Belgian regiments.
5. Arming of the workers. Control of production by elected factory committees to assure continued production for the needs of the workers.

This is an example of what Morrow and Goldman meant by democratic demands as transitional demands. They use popular pro-democracy movements to raise demands which challenge the bourgeois state and expose the traditional workers’ parties’ leaders, and also to raise demands which directly challenge capitalism. The task of revolutionaries was to raise these slogans in order to contrast what the social democratic and Stalinist parties should do, and more importantly, what the workers were expecting them to do, with what they actually did. The Leopold crisis in Belgium was an opportunity to do this- the Socialist and Communist parties opposed his return, but supported the retention of the monarchy as an institution. This was in direct contradiction to the programmes of both parties, which were ostensibly republican. By raising democratic demands, far from being indistinguishable from the reformists, revolutionaries could expose them.

The Organisation Question

Although the political differences between the minority led by Shachtman and that led by Morrow and Goldman were many, what they both held in common was a rejection of the organisational model propounded by Cannon and his followers. It could be argued in fact that it was their attempts to win their positions within the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International, and the experience of being a minority tendency within those organisations, which raised these issues and brought them to the fore. A view based simply upon an analysis of their formal positions would conclude that the two minorities were very different. Morrow and Goldman’s faction remained convinced of the theory of Trotsky’s characterisation of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state, and therefore agreed with the argument that during the Second World War revolutionaries should argue in its defence. However, as the war drew to a close and other weaknesses of the Fourth International’s theory became clear, they questioned the centrality of the slogan. They argued that the main role of revolutionaries with regards to the Soviet Union was not to argue in its defence, but rather to warn the working class of the dangers that Stalinism posed to the revolutionary movement. This, they argued, was not a break from Trotskyist theory, as both the Shachtmanites and the orthodox Trotskyists recognised the counterrevolutionary nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy and by extension the Stalinist parties. They did believe however, that continued emphasis of the need to defend the Soviet Union and of the proletarian nature of the state would downplay its counterrevolutionary role.

To begin with, partly as a result of the pressure of the faction fight, the SWP and the Fourth International’s leaderships were not entirely in disagreement. They began to push the slogan “unconditional defence of the Soviet Union” to the background and bring the new slogan, “defend the European Revolution from Stalinism” to the fore. This seemed to better fit the new conditions towards the end of the war when the threat of Stalinism to the revolutionary and democratic movements in Europe was more real than the threat of imperialism to the Soviet Union. On this basis, the SWP Minority began to argue that the continued division of the Trotskyist movement in the United States between Shachtman’s Workers Party, formed by members who had split in 1940, and the SWP, was no longer justified. The main difference between the two parties was on the question of the nature of the Soviet Union, which in practical terms was translated into a division over the question of the Soviet Union. During the Second World War, when the slogan “unconditional defence of the Soviet Union" was central to the SWP’s political activity, a division between the two parties was understandable. However, as the war drew to a close this slogan lost its importance, and opposition to Stalinism- an issue both had agreement on- became more important; there was a strong argument in favour of unity. Furthermore, they pointed out that at the time of the original split in 1940, the Majority, Cannon, and in fact Trotsky himself, had argued that the political differences between the two factions were not in themselves grounds for a split. These arguments, particularly from Cannon, may in fact have simply been an attempt to lay the blame for the split at the feet of Shachtman and his comrades after having purposefully made life inside the SWP so intolerable for them they were forced to leave; however the argument that the split was unnecessary and resolvable had been common among the Majority at the time.

The arguments for merger, made primarily by Albert Goldman, were quite straight forward. At the time when unity was discussed in 1946, there were two weekly Trotskyist agitational newspapers, two monthly theoretical magazines, and any number of activities carried out by the two parties which were virtually indistinguishable from one another. Merger of the two organisations would drastically reduce duplication of effort. On the more general political level, there were no differences with regards to the general anti-capitalist programme between the two parties, and their list of transitional demands differed very little. Both refused support for US imperialism during the Second World War, fought against the unions’ no-strike pledge, and supported all strikes during the war. They also both agreed on the necessity of building a US party of labour, and called for the withdrawal of US troops from occupied territories. The existence of two separate parties in these conditions would only lead to confusion and demoralisation. A revolutionary worker, rejecting reformism, and then Stalinism, would then have to choose between two virtually indistinguishable Trotskyist parties. When merger was proposed by the SWP Minority, the Workers Party indicated that they were in favour of the idea. This positivity was not reciprocated by the Cannonites. Goldman argued that it was the rejection of unity and, more importantly how it was rejected by the Cannonites, which exposed serious problems with their model of revolutionary organisation. To begin with, Goldman described Cannon himself as reacting “violently” to the idea of a merger. The Minority proposed, as they had done even before the idea of unity arose, joint action on key areas of agreement- a bloc in trade unions, joint anti-fascist work, and cooperation in elections. The Cannonites refused this cooperation, and Cannon argued “we must deepen the split”. When unity was proposed, he accused the Minority of attempting to split the party. In Cannon’s view, the Minority was attempting to form an unprincipled bloc with the Shachtmanites- by merging with the Workers Party hundreds of oppositional members would be brought into the SWP, and challenge the lines of the party and the position of the leadership. Goldman, for his part, argued that the main reason Cannon and his supporters were so opposed to unity was that it would allow a thousand independent minded revolutionaries into the organisation, who would challenge the analysis of the leadership and refuse to follow them blindly.

However, Cannon’s outright rejection of unity shifted somewhat due to there being enthusiasm for such a fusion within the International. The leadership shifted from being set against it, to a “neither for nor against” position, and an opening up of discussion on the subject. For Goldman, this appeared to be nothing more than a manoeuvre rather than a genuine openness to unity. For example, when the Workers Party raised the possibility of maintaining their own internal publication after a merger, this was seized on by the leadership of an example of the Shachtmanites not wishing to dissolve themselves but instead aiming to continue with factional activity. When they waived this right, Cannon and others declared that it had never been a major issue, and the main blocks to unity were issues of political programme. They sent a list of fifteen questions to the Workers Party, stating that the answers would inform the party’s decision. Goldman believed that these were designed to highlight differences and justify the inevitable rejection.

From the point that unity was proposed, the Cannonites began to push the slogan of defence of the Soviet Union back to the forefront of SWP politics. Shachtman argued that this was done to exaggerate the differences between the two parties in order to prevent a merger. He pointed out that it proved the factional, and therefore largely illogical, nature of their approach that the slogan of “unconditional defence of the Soviet Union” was pushed to the background while the war was still ongoing, and brought it back to the fore after the war had ended. It was at this point, in 1946, that Cannon made his ludicrous argument that the Second World War was not yet over. Shachtman argued that the reason the position on Russia was being “fortified” despite its decreased importance, was because it was the clear dividing line between the Workers Party and the SWP, and it was the nature of the bureaucratic method of Cannon and others like him to deepen divisions and create shibboleths:

Bureaucratism is not always merely a system or means of imposing a false policy upon a movement. Bureuacratism has roots of its own, too. Often it is precisely a bureaucratised movement with a bureaucratic leadership that makes it difficult or impossible to have a correct policy adopted when it is proposed by critics of the leadership, or to alter a policy which requires alteration. A bureaucracy always seeks “peace” and “order” in its organisation. It is always sufficiently content with its policy, programme, and theories that prevail, unless and until it and it alone decides that they require modification. It is concerned beyond measure with its prestige and authority, while maintaining and saving face. It is resentful of initiative taken by others which reflects upon its own failure to take initiative. Rather than credit opponents and critics by accepting their policies, it will seek to discredit these critics by persisting in outlived or false policies about which it itself no longer has firm convictions. If not at every given moment, then certainly in the long run, bureaucratism and false policy go hand in hand, they rise - or sink - to each other’s level, they are the necessary compliment of each other. Then, what began or seemed to begin as a dispute over “organisational” questions clearly becomes a dispute over political questions which puts the organisational difference into the shade. In this sense, one of the criminal evils inherent in an ossified bureaucracy, concerned first and foremost with perpetuating itself and maintaining its prestige and authority, with justifying itself under all circumstances, is its inexorable tendency to convert every normal and small difference of opinion into a violent factional clash, to exaggerate differences, to stimulate, maintain and deepen differences artificially, to prevent normal, simple and easy correction of the course of a party when it needs correction, to drive young and unskilled critics to desperation, to exaggeration of their own, and sometimes even to irresponsible actions which hurt and discredit the opposition, hurt the party and only make the consolidation and self-justification of the bureaucracy easier.

Shachtman wrote this as part of an introduction to Goldman’s pamphlet which outlined the debate in the SWP concerning the question of unity with the Workers Party. However, it also describes the logic behind some of the seemingly incomprehensible actions of the SWP leadership throughout the faction fight with Morrow and Goldman, and the one with Shachtman as well.

The issue of the defence of the Soviet Union was important to the SWP leadership, not because of any fundamental principle being attached to it, but rather because by challenging it, the Shachtmanites had taken it upon themselves to act independently of the party bureaucracy. In putting a stop to this the Cannonites had made a shibboleth of the idea. This was also the case with Morrow and Goldman’s positions on the European Revolution. Shachtman argued that a similar process took place during Tortsky’s faction fight with the Stalinists in Russia. The theory of socialism in one country, Shachtman argued, originated as a factional weapon in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy to isolate Trotsky and the Opposition by appealing on a populist basis to the bureaucracy’s, and much of the rest of the Russian population’s, wish for peace and stability. However, what began as a cynical factional tool became a real theory which was taken to heart by the bureaucracy and became central to its actual political practice. The same process, on a smaller scale, happened inside the SWP. The theories- defence of the Soviet Union, the immanency of the European Revolution- at first served to combat the existence of independent factions which were challenging the monopoly of ideas and initiative which were reserved for the leadership. In the course of the faction fights, as divisions deepened and ideas hardened, these theories, for the SWP leadership and their supporters, took the form of political principle and became the justification for the very existence of the leadership- they became fetishised.

In this manner faction fights take on lives of their own, cease to be expressions of political difference and become engines for difference themselves. Bureaucratism ensures that every dispute, however minor, becomes a virtual fight to the death. The bureaucracy cannot be seen to lose. Therefore, for Shachtman and Goldman what began as discussions over the nature of the Soviet Union or the tempo of the European Revolution swiftly escalated into arguments about the nature of revolutionary organisation. Furthermore, the faction fights of the 1940s encouraged and solidified some of the worst aspects of the SWP, hardening the tendencies towards monolithism, conformity and bureaucratism. It is therefore unsurprising that as a result over the dispute over the question of unity many of the SWP Minority ended up splitting and joining the Workers Party. After doing so, Goldman wrote his pamphlet on the unity question, introduced by Shachtman, which laid out the differences he and others in the Workers Party had with the Cannonites on the organisation question. They argued that Cannon’s model of the party had more in common with Stalinism than it did with Bolshevism. While they supported the idea of democratic centralism- that as well as there being open discussion there must be unity in action, they rejected the Zinovievist idea of a monolithic party. Goldman pointed out that, in private, Cannon used to say that he was not a Trotskyist, but a “Leninist on the organisational question”. . Trotskyists, at least in theory, rejected the idea that there was a difference between Trotsky’s idea of a democratic organisation and Lenin’s model of the party. It was Zinoviev and his followers who attempted to draw a distinction between the two. By this, Cannon could only mean that when it came to party organisation he bought into the Zinovievist myth of a Leninist monolithic party. It was this model which, through Cannon, imposed itself on the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s.

Conclusions

This faction fight was instructive, not simply because of the political arguments which were advanced, but also because it exposed the serious problems in the Trotskyist movement. Over the course of the Second World War the Trotskyist movement’s isolation became even more acute than it had been in the 1930s. While Trotsky exaggerated the extent to which the Western imperialist countries had become authoritarian during the war, it had led to a drastic extension of the state and a suppression of anti-war and trade union militancy. The social democrats had in these countries carried out their usual chauvinist role of supporting their respective states during an imperialist war and after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 the Stalinist parties joined them. As Shachtman had argued, the Communist parties primarily acted as agents of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s interests. When the Soviet Union was in a military alliance with Nazi Germany, in opposition to Anglo-American imperialism, they agitated against their governments- when the Soviet bureaucracy’s interests lay in its alliance with the Allies, the Communist parties became enthusiastic supporters of the “war effort”. They agitated for an escalation of Anglo-American involvement in the war, demanding the opening of a second front; and became the worst speed-up artists in the factories. In order to further the war effort, the Western governments required industrial peace, and the Communist parties were happy to oblige- dampening down militancy and opposing strike action. However, the increased credibility of the Soviet Union due to its fight against Nazi Germany, particularly as it achieved victories, helped Stalinism gain influence in the Western working class throughout the period. Social democracy, particularly the British Labour Party, also grew in influence. In order to manage the war economy the British government adopted drastic forms of state control, ownership and planning. The Labour Party was to make enormous gains coming out of the war by advocating the adaption of this approach (nationalisation, full employment, state planning) to a peace time economy.

Trotskyists were left isolated. In many cases, they carried out some important revolutionary activity, particularly in the field of industrial militancy; but they were swimming against the tide. In those countries either ruled by fascist dictatorships or occupied by fascist armies, much of the Trotskyist cadre was effectively wiped out. Even those who survived had minimal influence within the resistance movements, as opposed to the Communist parties who were a major component of the resistance in most countries dominated by fascism. The conditions of the most authoritarian forms of illegality did not allow Trotskyism any room to grow. Far from leading to the collapse of reformist organisations and the growth of mass revolutionary parties, the Second World War led to the growth of reformism- both, in the form of illusions in bourgeois democracy and the traditional workers’ organisations- emerged stronger than ever. It was the inability of the Trotskyist movement to come to terms with its own isolation, and the failures of its expectations to come to pass, which was at the root of the debates throughout the Second World War. The key question is why were the Trotskyists and their organisations unable to change course, and break free of their isolation.

Today, it is common sense that the revolutionary left is dogmatic, sectarian and deluded; however this has not always been the case. There had always been these features in some parts of the far left, but the roots of them coming to dominate can be traced to the isolation of the revolutionary movement in the 1930s and 1940s. The political degeneration can be traced earlier, to the degeneration of the Comintern in the 1920s. At that time, the Communist parties in many countries were mass parties, with deep influence over the working class. It was the uprooting of their native democratic structures and the imposition of bureaucratic centralism which sucked the life out of the movement. The application of top-down bureaucratised party structures to organisations of tiny numbers of activists, as opposed to the mass parties of the Comintern, translated the tragedies of the 1920s to the farces of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Second World War was in many ways the end of the old period, which began with the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, and the beginning of a new one. The Trotskyists were ill-equipped for this transition as they attempted to apply the old political and organisational formulae, which had already been somewhat ineffective, to these new circumstances, and demonstrably failed as a result. While the faction fight with Shachtman at the beginning of the Second World War signified the beginning of the end for orthodox Trotskyism, the faction fight with Morrow and Goldman confirmed it. Shachtman’s followers’ grievance was that the Fourth International was unable to revise its analysis of the class nature of the Soviet Union and therefore adapt to the beginning of the war. Morrow and Goldman’s concern was that its inability to understand the nature of either Stalinism or Western imperialism led them to fail to grasp the reality of the situation at the end of it. These failures, and the isolation which resulted, lay the groundwork for the nature of the Trotskyist movement for decades to come.

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Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme

Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme

 

Sections

  1. They are not trying (very hard) to reduce welfare expenditure
  2. They do not want, at all, to reduce benefit dependency
  3. They are not interested in getting people into work ... 
  4. … because they don’t know what to do with people when they are working
  5. They are not, exactly, aiming to abolish the welfare state…
  6. … not least because the present welfare state is their own, neoliberal, creation
  7. They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state
  8. They are looking to create a low waged, unskilled, precarious workforce
  9. They are enforcing a patriarchal discipline on women and families by means testing
  10. They are winning ...
  11. ...and Universal Credit will seal their victory for a generation
  12. They have a problem with pensioners, which they have yet to sort out
  13. Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
  14. Why it’s ‘Welfare’, not Social Security
  15. Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
  16. No-one asked for welfare
  17. Against welfare: for class independence

Addendum- on proposals for an unconditional basic income Why unconditional basic income is not the same as negative income tax. Universal basic income is neither a panacea nor a neoliberal plot. Getting an unconditional basic income is not going to be easy. 

Sources

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Read more: Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme

Morris dancers, black face paint, and why traditions evolve

 


This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.

Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris's inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.

My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron's Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.

While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe's declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It's not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.

The origins of Morris dancing

The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare's time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.

Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.

How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community

From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only 'ring sides' and younger mixed groups often based around universities.

Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.

When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group 'Folk Against Fascism' which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.

Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?

Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.

There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don't want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, 'She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.'

Further Reading

Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>

Folk Against Fascism >>

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