- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Wednesday, 19 November 2014
- Written by Martin Pravda
In a moment of turmoil the poet WH Auden begged, “O tell me the truth about love,” but it is impossible to know where to start. We are told that it is a variety of often contradictory things. On the one hand we are sold the idea of a glossy romance package: Sam Faiers takes Joey Essex ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) on an early date and immediately the two fall in love in a sleeping bag under the stars. The same old romantic tale repeats itself over generations: Sam and Joey are the reincarnated Dante and Beatrice with glamping as a modern substitute for courtly love. On the other hand we are told by the Conservative and church establishments that these flashy romances are damaging to our health, counter to “real” long-lasting love, and incentives are put in place to encourage marriages and the traditional family. Love is something that a couple must work towards over time, and it is the responsibility of the two lovers to maintain this bond throughout a lifetime together. Society dictates that we should love and make love in either one of these ways. It is also normal to love our family and close friends, but in a slightly lesser way.
The Christian teaching of “love thy neighbour” is taken merely as a vague metaphor by religious conservatives and the church state. It shouldn’t be read quite as literally as the obscure passages indirectly condemning same-sex marriages or abortion. Neoliberalism teaches us to look out for number one, and a close circle of people around us who it is socially acceptable to love. Extending the concept of love to anything beyond these circles makes us potentially dangerous hippies, stuck in 1968.
As it happens, there are many who associate with the left who are in some way inspired by a conception of “love”. Not all of us are drawn to egalitarian struggles through experiences of extracting coal down a mine or shaping steel in a factory. Sometimes our conversion can simply be formed out of a deep feeling that things must be better, and it can be hard to place what it is that makes us feel this way. For others it can emerge from deep spiritual thought; across Latin America thousands associate with liberation theology, a belief that God’s universal love for all of humankind should inspire Christians to fight for socialism.
These hippie love-infested views are not too far removed from our own radical roots either. Inspired by Greek philosophers it was Robert Owen, the early 19th century utopian, who introduced one of the earliest visions of a world where humans could live together communally, caring for one another as a collective. Owen’s humanistic ideas have been the subject of regular left critique over time (significantly in Marx and Engels’ writings on historical materialism, and more recently in anti-humanist theories), but these visions nonetheless set into motion a living tradition of radical ideas about human nature and our potential to live together in harmony. This accompanied Hegel’s concept of the “phenomenology of spirit”, which saw love as the overwhelming power at the heart of the earth’s core, connecting us all together. The belief that humans are not born as greedy capitalists is a stark contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s notorious assertion that “there is no such thing as society”. It is a fundamental for anyone who dares to dream of a world beyond capitalism, as well as those who believe that love can exist as something greater than a short-lived romance or a royal wedding.
Love and hate
If we are to assess the validity of “love”, firstly we need to consider exactly what it might mean. It is not something Marxists can easily write off as simply “a product of alienation” that can be explained within a dialectical framework. Love is a subjective phenomenon that has engaged human thought for thousands of years, and it can mean so many different things. Notably in Plato’s Symposium we see such a discussion and in Socrates’ ideas there is a significant distinction between romantic and what became known as ‘Platonic love’ (a concept of love as a non-sexual spiritual force which can bring individuals closer together, as well developing a greater awareness of our own existence). Plato saw the two forms of love evolving from each other, but the distinction between love as merely a sexual pleasure and something potentially far deeper was significant.
During the Enlightenment, “love” became associated with revolutionary ideas and some of the most powerful discourses can be found in the poetry of this time. A famous example is Keats’s ‘Bright Star’, which shows love to be an eternal entity between two people, but also something that is entirely universal. Love, we are told, is as an existence like the “moving waters”, fundamental and ever-lasting on our earth, to be accessed by one and all. The perfect moment of romance between the sickly poet and his overseas fiancée offers the reader a faith in humanity, a buoyancy that tells us that all anyone really needs is the experience of true love to become immortalised in love itself. It dares us to believe that we are all capable of good.
Love has irregularly come and gone in the years since the Romantics, occasionally rising in an optimistic spring before being quickly crushed again. There are, after all, many barriers that stand in the way of believing in an all-encompassing love. One only needs to turn on the news any day this week and watch the appalling crimes reported in Syria and Iraq to quickly give up hope. Love becomes blurred in a mesh of human suffering, and its strength is insufficient in overcoming atrocities. Of course the sectarian murderer who tortures and dehumanises his captors probably loves somebody dearly at home, and is himself dearly loved. Somewhere a tyrant this very minute is probably exchanging intimate love with a partner, and both may think the world of each other. In a brief few minutes of ecstasy the world is a different place, and all feelings of hatred vanish. In popular dramas about Ancient Rome we see King Herod passionately make love with Mariamme, hours after brutally suppressing a Jewish uprising. We are left to wonder how two people could really experience love, knowing that their actions that day had brought about so much suffering. I am reminded of Chinua Achebe’s ‘The Vultures’, and the image of a guard at Belsen death camp, stopping at the sweet shop on his way home to pick up chocolate for his children. We are made to believe that humans are capable of expressing both genuine affection one minute and immense cruelty the next.
It is difficult to understand how someone can switch so drastically between love and hate. It would be far more comfortable to imagine the Belsen guard as both an abusive husband and father, a monster at all times incapable of any human attachment. When you watch footage of convicted Nazis in Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah, there is an eeriness in how human the appalling criminals appear. Their elderly smiles are friendly and they apologise profusely. They act ashamed yet have learnt to live relatively normal lives. As with the apartheid South African officials who burst into tears as they are reminded of their relatively recent crimes, we are faced with the question of what is genuine and what is a necessary performance. It is often the case at the trials of “monsters”, that there will be a faithful partner, parent or friend holding the perpetrator’s hand before and after any conviction. Outside the court the two will exchange an affectionate look, as if to say, “I’ll be waiting on the other side.” Of course power will often be used to manipulate; a psychopath is adept at pulling the wool over people’s eyes, hiding their true feelings. It is hard, though, to believe that even the most callous murderer becomes entirely incapable of attachment (unless we are to believe in Calvinistic monsters born into divine evil). Does this understanding of love give us something to grasp onto? It certainly does not lesser the crimes. The Manic Street Preachers and Nina Persson were perhaps right when they sang “Your love alone is not enough”, but the very ability for all of us to feel close to another surely would signify that we are capable of so much more than our current society permits.
In our society where humans are encouraged to exist as atomised beings, the most intense bonds of love are likely to occur between the romantic couple. With the pressures that mount in everyday life, we are encouraged to find refuge in a spouse. Many end up searching for “the perfect partner”: the everlasting love story like Carrie and Mr Big, who overcome every imaginable obstacle over six seasons of Sex and the City to eventually find true happiness within their lavish Manhattan lifestyles. So often though in the real world we see these relationships tear themselves apart, sometimes in the most hurtful ways. The Elizabethan romantic tragedies seem as real as ever (the recent RSC contemporary production of John Webster’s The White Devil highlights this well). What is it that makes people want to inflict pain on the very person they are closest to? In his poetic assessment of the romantic break-up, the Marxist-humanist David Widgery suggests that it is the commodification of this loving relationship into an ointment for the alienated lover that wears love down into something sinister:
A once equal love capsizes and itself becomes the subject of the division of labour. The man is the human being who has to be kept fuelled and sustained, fit to do his stuff in the outside world. As time passes, it is mysteriously the man who comes to determine the terms of the emotional bargain. It’s the woman who fits it, placates, anticipates, mollifies, sacrifices and then becomes bitter and made lonely by what love has become. The labour of love becomes just another labour.
For Widgery love is a natural condition, but under the clashes of social power this can easily be turned “bitter”. Once-loving relationships are ground down over time by the dull compulsion of everyday capitalism and the towering shadow of patriarchy (and it is not only the working class who are abusive; we see plenty of examples from the wealthy sociopath Mr Big). Love is no longer a refuge for all the horrible things that can drive someone down, and over time a relationship can transcend into something entirely hurtful:
Love becomes involuntary, a system of emotional Green Stamps, promised, stored and exchanged. The platitude that love is close to pain becomes cruelly true, the intensity of violence replaces the gentleness of love. Not just broken alcoholic men but the smarty young executives find violence sexy when the fun has gone out of love.
It is such a situation that can make one question whether love ever existed at all. As in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Recollections of Love’, we are never quite sure if romance was a fantasy or a reality. Could love be nothing more than a social construct created to ease the horrors of a class-based society? One could easily reach these conclusions after reading Engels’ work on the ‘Dialectics of Nature’. We are said to be entirely shaped by material conditions, and there is no such thing as human nature. More powerfully still in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, when the speaker relives her first feelings of love and her resulting heartbreak (“I should have loved a thunderbird instead; At least when spring comes they roar back again”) she ends all but one verse with the conceding line “I think I made you up inside my head”. The speaker (the “Mad Girl”) in this poem perfectly epitomises the traumatised soul who has lost all hope in ever attaining love again. The emotional damage that can come with a broken heart can be utterly devastating, and for some the conclusion will be that love is merely a form of cruelty.
Our world continues to throw up the unexpected. While so much cruelty is happening in one corner of the world, in another there is a moment of solidarity which can ignite the greatest faith in humanity again. History has shown time and again that humans are capable of breaking through the restrains of their own alienation to take extraordinary lengths to protect another. In the last century we have seen huge leaps of material progress, the American civil rights movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa, universal suffrage in many countries, the removal of dictatorships and the creation of liberal reforms. Collectively millions have suffered, been persecuted and lost their lives to bring about these fundamental improvements. When brutal regimes are toppled it is in everyone’s interest, but when the Tunisian protesters took to the streets after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight, very few predicted that Ben Ali’s regime would fall. The likely repercussion was a wave of heavy state repression, but in the face of this fear the Tunisian protests stuck together. It is these brilliant instincts that fundamentally change lives forever, be it the overthrow of a brutal regime, the introduction of a living wage, or merely the protection of somebody’s job.
As Keats showed us with ‘Bright Star’, these warm raptures can ignite in all of us. It is the exchanging of these moments of rhapsody – that dialectics can never fully explain – either as a collective or a couple, that some people call love. While for many it is unsustainable and can rupture into heartbreak or simply burn out, for a few love is able to seem lasting and timeless. Like the couple drinking coffee in Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point’, time becomes “somewhere else”. For the young item who realise at that very moment that they are in love, their rapture becomes immortalised as they become “two people with one pulse”. While time remains a spectre in the background, reminding us of the couple’s mortality, we are given the chance to imagine that their love could be everlasting.
Against all the heartbreak, I would like to cling on to MacNeice’s idea of love, a hopeful beacon shining in the tradition of the romantics. While hardened materialists may not choose to use the “L” term, I expect many believe in what it might stand for: the idea that we all have the ability to attach to another and to reject selfishness and greed (things we are told are part of “human nature” by right wing popular scientists) is revolutionary in our context. The pain many associate with love is born out of social forces which grind people down and which encourage tyranny and abuse. Auden tells us that time cuts love down like “fields of harvest wheat”, in a poem written during fascism’s rapid rise across Europe. Love can burn away and leave its mark as it does in ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, but perhaps we could extend love to mean something broader than just an intimate relationship with tragic heartbreaks. What if like Hegel, we see it as something as natural for humans as our instincts to eat, sleep and breathe? Are the impulses to attach ourselves to an individual really so different to what also draws us to join thousands of strangers protesting against a great injustice? Despite all the pain it can bring love is a power which holds great potential. As Widgery puts it, “love offers a glimpse of the most intimate communication that we have experienced. Everything that’s said about love is true, except the happy ending.” Perhaps one day we might change the ending too.
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- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Thursday, 23 October 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
The Class Truce
Despite its small size, and many political problems, the Trotskyist movement carried out important activity during the Second World War. The conditions for activity were extremely inhospitable. In mainland Europe, for the majority of the period, fascism dominated either through dictatorships or military occupation. In the West, the conditions of wartime society and the dominance of social democracy, Stalinism and the trade union bureaucracy over the working class movement made revolutionary activity extremely difficult. To begin with, the Trotskyists expected the start of the Second World War to be marked by the same kind of wave of patriotic enthusiasm which greeted the war in 1914. However, Raymond Challinor argues that this was far from the case. As many in the working class had experienced the horrors of the First World War, very few wished to see another one. Furthermore, most Trotskyists in Britain and elsewhere were taken by surprise when the expected crackdown on anti-war organisations did not occur, and they were allowed to continue to operate after war was declared. In fact, anti-war parties in Britain, most notably the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a left wing reformist organisation, but also Trotskyist organisations such as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) and the Workers International League (WIL); actually grew in membership in the first phase of the war. However, public opinion tended to fluctuate depending upon the ups and downs of the war, and the small size of the anti-war parties and groups meant that there was largely no organised expression to any anti-war feeling. The Labour Party leadership, true to form, was whole-heartedly in favour of the war. There was some internal dissention: Clement Atlee and other Labour leaders were heckled and argued down at regional Labour conferences, and by March 1940 ninety constituency parties had passed anti-war motions. By this point in time, however, the Labour Party was firmly tied into the British state. It had presided over governments in the 1930s which had administered the Empire with the same brutality as the Conservatives or Liberals did. While the party in 1931 had split under Ramsey MacDonald over whether to pursue an openly capitalist solution to the economic crisis, the party had since then largely accepted the Conservative economic policies. By the late 1930s, the Labour leadership was arguing for greater arms spending, and many Labour MPs were calling for war with Germany while Chamberlain was still arguing for appeasement. In 1940, after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force, the Labour Party entered a coalition government with the Tories and Liberals. No more general elections would be called for the duration of the war, and all three parties signed a “no contest” agreement, where they would not contest seats in by-elections- the incumbent party would run unopposed.
In both the United States and Great Britain the trade union bureaucracy (in the case of the USA, this meant the AFL and the supposedly more militant CIO), signed “no strike” agreements. Pay for workers tended to stagnate, while prices went up and working conditions deteriorated. In Britain, “Production Committees” were set up, where trade union convenors and shop stewards sat down with managers and owners to ensure speed ups of production and discipline workers who failed to comply. In the United States, similar functions were carried out by “Labour Management Committees”. In both countries, the wartime economy meant a far greater role for the state. While the British Labour Party would refer to this as “wartime socialism”, in reality it led neither to better pay and conditions for workers or to greater control for them over their workplace. It instead meant an even more rigid management structure and greater powers for employers; all backed, and usually enforced, by the trade unions, and advocated by purportedly workers’ parties. An example of the increased authoritarianism of the wartime economy in Britain was the Emergency Powers Act, which bound workers to their jobs, and compelled them when required to move from one job to another. Workers in both countries were fined or imprisoned for striking or refusing direction at work. Anti-war activity was increasingly cracked down upon. In 1940, even before the United States joined the war, Congress passed the Smith Act, which prohibited the advocating of refusal of armed duty or the overthrow of the government by force. In Minneapolis in 1943, eighteen members of the Socialist Workers Party were imprisoned under this act. The combination of vastly increased powers for the state, the enforcement of its economic policies on the shop floor by trade unions, and the collaboration of supposedly workers’ parties, meant the chances of growth for a radical working class movement in this period were greatly decreased.
The Stalinist Communist parties played a thoroughly cynical role in these countries during the war. Their behaviour appeared to prove Max Shachtman’s argument that they were little more than an extension of the Soviet bureaucracy and were only concerned with advancing and defending its interests. Given that the Soviet Union’s policies changed drastically during the war, to the point that it changed sides in the conflict, this led to wild vacillations on the part of Western Communist parties. When the war in Europe first broke out in 1939, the Communist Party of Great Britain was still pursuing its policy of the Popular Front, where it was seeking alliances with “progressive” capitalist parties. This was a result of the Stalinist bureaucracy seeking to form an alliance with the democratic bourgeois states against Nazi Germany. With the Nazi-Soviet pact, this strategy was swiftly dropped. This led to even the General Secretary of the Communist Party at this time, Harry Pollitt, being caught off guard, and dropped in disgrace for pursuing the “patriotic” line. The war was now an imperialist war, and the Allied states should be opposed. The Communist parties essentially called for an end to the war on Hitler’s terms.
This line, of course, changed dramatically once again, after Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. Raymond Challinor describes the effects of this on Communist Party members:
In 1941: On June 21 at 5:29am, as they slept in their beds, the Second World War was reactionary- it needed to be opposed- but at 6:30am, when the Wehrmacht launched its invasion of the Soviet Union, all suddenly changed: Policies of the British government which had previously been attacked now had to be defended, strikes that had been supported now had to be broken.
The Stalinists now pursued a policy of outright class collaboration. They supported the coalition government, and backed the no contest agreement, to the point that they supported Conservative candidates in election, in some cases active campaigning for them over anti-war candidates put forward by the ILP. Their role on the industrial front, however, was much more important to Western capitalism. In both the United States and Britain, the Stalinists had built a strong cadre of militants within the trade union movement during the 1920s and 1930s. While much smaller than their sister parties in much of Europe, they had through trading on the legacy of the Russian Revolution and at times putting themselves at the head of much of the militant activity which occurred in between the two world wars, attracted to them many of the most class conscious industrial militants and implanted themselves in the trade union movement. They now used this influence to back the war effort. They were central to setting up and supporting the Production Committees and Labour Management Committees, and were the greatest advocates of the speed up campaign. When strikes did occur, the Communist Party would break them- organising back to work campaigns and scabbing operations. This was combined with a vicious campaign of witch-hunting and victimisation of militants, particularly against Trotskyists and other revolutionaries. A leaflet widely distributed by the Communist Party of Great Britain encouraged people to: “Treat a Trotskyist as you would a Nazi”. Strikers and anti-war campaigners were vilified as Hitler’s agents.
The Proletarian Military Policy
One of the most serious problems confronting Trotskyists in countries which were at war with the fascist states was the question of how to relate to workers who, quite rightly, wanted to see fascism defeated. While the Cannonites argued that the actions of the Soviet Union were not imperialist, whether it was allied to German or Anglo-American imperialism they always maintained that for the US and Great Britain this was an imperialist war, and therefore refused to support it. This therefore separated them from the Stalinist parties whose analysis of the imperialist nature of their native bourgeoisie changed with Stalin’s allegiances. However, while Trotskyists recognised that the war was an imperialist war, they were not indifferent to its outcome. Trotsky, well ahead of the rest of the left, especially the Stalinists, recognised early on that a victory for fascism would be catastrophic for the working class. In states such as Germany and Italy and countries which they occupied, the basic rights which workers had wrested from the bourgeoisie were completely stripped away- their unions and parties were banned, the rights to demonstrate and assemble were taken away, socialists and militants were killed and imprisoned. Socialists were of course not indifferent to this, nor should they have been. Therefore, opposition to the imperialism of their own governments was tempered by a desire to see fascism defeated. An extension of this problem was that such desires to see fascism defeated could easily be manipulated by the governments of democratic imperialisms into support for the state. The real benefits for the working class under bourgeois democracy, as opposed to the totalitarian oppression of fascism, coupled with the fact that the democratic capitalist states were confronting the fascists militarily, meant many working class people could become enthusiastic supporters for the war. Even those who were very critical of their own bourgeoisie could understandably believe that the only realistic possibility of defeating fascism was through the armed might provided by British and American imperialism. Many, however, could also be convinced of nationalist arguments in the inherent superiority of Britain and America. The main vehicles for the political expression of attitudes which combined nationalism and the desire to defend democracy and defeat democracy within the working class were the social democratic and Communist parties. While many workers remained loyal to them due to their programmatic commitment to social change and the working class, they also made all of the arguments given above, and argued that workers’ desire to defeat fascism meant they had to support the war effort and the state. The question for Trotskyists therefore was how were they to oppose the imperialism of their own bourgeoisie, and the increased exploitation and oppression of workers as a result of the war, while at the same time work for the defeat of fascism?
In response to these problems Cannon, the SWP and the Fourth International were to develop what was to become known as the “Proletarian Military Policy”. This was ostensibly based on some unfinished articles and letters by Trotsky written just before he was assassinated. In these, Trotsky had argued that revolutionaries should maintain that the defeat of fascism could only be guaranteed if the war was carried out under the leadership of the working class itself. It was Trotsky’s view that the Second World War would bring about the collapse of bourgeois democracy, and the only possible results of this war would either be workers’ revolution or the establishment of authoritarian dictatorships. The victory of the Allies in the war against fascism therefore would not lead to a victory for the working class but only to a different version of authoritarianism unless the workers revolted. The Trotskyists therefore needed to advance policies which recognised the need, and the working class’s desire, to combat fascism, while insisting that this would not be achieved by supporting the bourgeoisie, who had no interest in combating fascism and were only interested in defending and expanding their imperial interests and further exploiting their own working class.
One of the key issues during the war was that of conscription. In both Britain and the United States the state was resorting to mass conscription for the armed forces. It was a major debate among socialists about whether this should be opposed, and if so, how it should be opposed. A similar issue had faced revolutionaries in Europe during the First World War. While expressing sympathy with those who resisted, or avoiding conscription, revolutionary Marxists then had argued against socialists using the tactic of “conscientious objection”, i.e. refusing to be conscripted. Conscientious objectors often faced serious repression, and while Marxists expressed solidarity with them, and certainly refused to join in with the condemnations, they argued that this form of action was ineffective. It relied on individual acts of resistance- one person would have to consciously make a decision to carry out the action and face the repercussions alone- and was unlikely to inspire a mass campaign. When militants carried out this activity they separated themselves from the thousands of conscripted workers. Many who carried out those individual acts of resistance tended to be of a pacifist persuasion, who refused to engage in violence as a matter of personal principle. Anti-imperialist revolutionaries such as Lenin argued that Marxists should join the army with the class and conduct agitation there. If the war began to expose class antagonisms, this would also occur within the military, and it was the role of revolutionaries to be within the army to agitate for and deepen these antagonisms. Lenin went further and argued that the training of thousands of workers in arms could in fact play a crucial role at the time of the revolution. This analysis was proven entirely correct at the end of the First World War, when not only were class antagonisms exposed within the army , but mutinies and resistance by members of the armed forces were central to the ending of the war and the initiation of revolution. Sailors in Kronstadt and Kiel were fundamental to the development of revolutionary situations in Russia and Germany respectively, as were the effective disintegrations of their front lines as troops rebelled and deserted. Soldiers and sailors in Russia provided the shock troops for the revolutionary movement in 1917.
Trotsky and Cannon both expected a revolutionary situation at least on the scale of that in 1917-23 to emerge out of the Second World War, they therefore argued that Lenin and others’ approach to conscription was largely the correct one to apply. There were, however, some key differences. The first was that the attitude towards “pacifism”, by which was generally meant conscientious objection and the dodging of conscription, was very different. Cannon in particular seemed to cross the line between airing strategic differences with pacifists and individual resistance to conscription, and outright denunciation. This seems to have emerged out of a rather confused analogy where Cannon compared revolutionaries’ participation in the army to participation in wage-labour. He argued that a revolutionary would not refuse to work in a factory or elsewhere out of opposition to capitalism, and would instead join the workforce and agitate for struggle- this same approach should be applied to the army. So far this was correct, but he went on to argue that those who individually resisted conscription were essentially betraying the working class by avoiding the violence and allowing others to face it. While this may have been the viewpoint of some conscripted workers, this was hardly the position that revolutionaries should hold. Of course some people, out of suspicion of the system or hatred of violence would refuse to fight for the state. While revolutionaries may have tactical differences with this approach, they would understand the position, and support their right to refuse. One Cannonite, in the SWP organ Socialist Appeal went as far as to compare conscientious objectors to scabs, in that they rejected collective resistance in favour of individualism. Part of this shift in rhetoric could be put down to the Trotskyist movement’s descent into sectarianism. What was previously argued with on the basis of strategic or tactical difference was denounced as betrayal of the working class. However, there were further pressures which led to this- the genuine wish to see the defeat of fascism among workers and socialists meant that time and again Trotskyists, when stating their opposition to the war, were faced with the question of how they would defeat fascism instead. Their reply was that they would do so through a working class revolution which would remove the imperialist bourgeoisie from the leadership in the war against fascism and replace them with the working class. This required them to come up with an alternative programme for the war, rather than simply calling for its end outright, or for the defeat of their own bourgeoisie, as revolutionaries had done during the First World War. This meant that rather than taking unequivocal position against all manifestations of militarism, the SWP instead advanced a policy which not only fudged the issue of conscription, but was also completely impractical, even utopian, for the purposes of agitation among workers and the armed forces.
Cannon argued for what he referred to as the “telescoping” of two tasks. Trotskyists had been arguing that first the workers should overthrow the bourgeois state, and then combat fascism. This, however, did not occur in time, and therefore the two tasks- the workers’ revolution and the fight against fascism- needed to be “telescoped” and carried out simultaneously. Therefore, workers should fight in the war against fascism while simultaneously attempting to bring about the workers’ revolution. The demands of the Trotskyists should reflect that dual approach. Therefore, what was argued for was “trade union control of conscription”. This meant that Trotskyists should support the idea of compulsory military training, but demand that this should be administered by the unions. They should also agitate within the army for the election of officers. The idea was that this would raise the idea that workers should be in the leadership of the war against fascism, as the bourgeoisie could not be trusted- only being concerned with its own imperial interests. Shachtman believed that this policy was confused. He recognised that the Marxist analysis was that in order to wage war against fascism in its own interests, the working class would in fact need to overthrow the bourgeois state. Shachtman had not at this point broken with the Cannonites over the question of whether a revolution would emerge out of the Second World War- he still believed it likely. However, he argued that the Proletarian Military Policy was not the mechanism to achieve this. He pointed out that in previous revolutionary situations such as Russia in 1917, the working class had organised its own military forces entirely independent of the bourgeois state- it had not seized control of the already existing imperialist army. However, the policy advocated by the Cannonites, which was to demand the state hand over compulsory military training to the control of the unions, and call for the bourgeois state to fund this, was something entirely different. It suggested that reforms to the already existing bourgeois army was possible and that the granting of these demands by the state would alter the nature of the war. Furthermore, this led the Cannonites to cease their opposition to conscription and other manifestations of militarism, as their policy was instead to argue for some form of “proletarianisation” of them rather than opposition.
Shachtman recognised a crucial difference when it came to war policy. He pointed out that Cannon and his followers were advancing the Proletarian Military Policy primarily as an agitational slogan, as opposed to one of propaganda. He made the comparison with the policies and slogans of the Bolsheviks during the First World War. The Bolsheviks raised the slogan “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. This according to Shachtman, and in fact to Trotsky before he died, was not a slogan which attracted mass support. Its intention was to attract anti-war militants to the Bolsheviks, and raise the level of their own members’ politics. In this sense it was a propagandist slogan, as its primary role was educational to already existing militants rather than a slogan aimed at generating mass activity, which would have made it agitational. The slogans “Peace, Land and Bread” and “All Power to the Soviets” performed this latter role. For Shachtman, the problem with the Proletarian Military Policy was that it was being advanced by the Cannonites as an agitational slogan. The working class was not yet convinced of the need for a workers’ army or a revolutionary government, and therefore advancing slogans such as trade union-controlled military training camps would just seem fantastic. Agitational slogans should have been aimed at exposing imperialism, opposing militarism, combating fascism and confronting exploitation on the home front. Propaganda slogans should be aimed at posing alternative strategies for fighting fascism under a workers’ government. By treating the revolution as a short-term prospect Cannon and others were advancing slogans which were simply not possible in the immediate future, and compromises aimed at making these policies “more practical” simply led them down the route of advocating measures, such as the transformation of the already existing bourgeois army into a workers’ army, which would have been impossible even in an advanced revolutionary situation.
The British Trotskyists
The Trotskyist movement in Britain was even smaller and more divided than that in the United States. By 1938 there were four small Trotskyist organisations: The Revolutionary Socialist League ; the Militant, which conducted entryist work inside the Labour Party; the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a Scottish group; and the Workers International League, a recent split from the Militant. The latter included in its leadership Jock Haston, Ted Grant and Gerry Healy. When Cannon visited Britain in 1938 to encourage unity in advance of the Fourth International’s founding conference the former three merged, adopting the name of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL). The Workers International League (WIL) remained separate, and as a result was denounced for sectarianism and cliquishness at the Fourth International’s conference. The RSL entered the war with roughly one hundred and fifty members, the WIL around thirty. While both were obviously small, the RSL at the beginning of the war seemed to be in a much stronger position with its greater size, the support of Cannon and its affiliation to the Fourth International. There were, however, some problems which made this position rather unstable. Firstly, although now united in one organisation, the RSL remained faction-ridden as a rule, with a lack of shared perspective. It also pursued a strategy of entryism into the Labour Party. This was from being an inherently mistaken strategy. Many revolutionary groups have benefited from working within mass social democratic and other reformist parties. Particularly in the case of Britain, where the Labour Party’s dominance over the working class movement meant it was often the organisation where many of the most class conscious workers could be found. Trotsky advocated such a tactic in his writings on the “French Turn” that smaller groups could benefit from entry into reformist organisations. While it could be argued that those workers who joined the Stalinist Communist parties may in fact be more advanced in terms of class, and in some cases revolutionary, consciousness; the monolithic and authoritarian nature of those parties’ internal regimes, coupled with their implacable hostility to Trotskyism, made entry into them pointless. It was based on an extension of the analysis that the radicalisation of workers would occur very quickly, and given the mass working class parties were bureaucratised and reformist, they would not be able to provide the necessary leadership. The role of revolutionaries was to position themselves in anticipation of the inevitable radicalisation in order to be ready to provide that leadership. This theory was flawed, but it was in fact often the case that the best place in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s to find radicalised workers was the Labour Party, and a small organisation such as the RSL could potentially sustain itself as a result of entry work. However, there would be a change in the internal dynamics of the Labour Party during the Second World War which would wrong foot the RSL. Due to the “no contest” agreement, where Labour, the Liberals and the Conservatives agreed not to stand against each other in elections, Constituency Labour parties and other grassroots Labour organisations in which entryist groups would tend to direct their activity lay relatively dormant. Official Labour involvement in anti-war and industrial militancy was certainly not permitted, and this meant the RSL became increasingly isolated.
More importantly, however, the RSL made a number of political errors which meant that it was less able to take advantage of what militant activity there was during the war. Interestingly, this was in part down to their less enthusiastic attitude towards the Proletarian Military Policy. The majority of the RSL disagreed with the policy, and wanted to take a more outright anti-militarist line. The WIL, despite its lack of affiliation to the Fourth International, supported the policy. While there were definite problems with it, the WIL’s acceptance of it meant they took a much more pro-active stance when it came to a key issue facing the British working class in the early stages of the war- that of air raid shelters during the Blitz. The RSL position was to oppose the building of air raid shelters as “imperialist war preparations”, while the WIL position was to demand better shelters with greater facilities for working class people. At the beginning of the German bombing campaign, the British state was grossly underprepared when it came to air raid shelters for the working class. There were not enough shelters for everyone, and those that were available were poorly built and dangerous, with a lack of proper facilities. In London to begin with underground stations were closed off. An illegal campaign began where working class people would break into the stations in order to gain shelter, in which the WIL were heavily involved. This campaign began to take the form of mass self-activity as people began to spontaneously organise themselves to run these shelters independently of the state. Some shelters began to print their own bulletins and magazines, and a London-wide network, the London Underground Station and Shelterer’s Committee was founded in November 1940, with Trotskyists and Communists (the Stalinists, due to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, were still anti-war at this time) in the leadership. This network helped form local self-governing committees for shelterers. Throughout the country in areas affected by the bombing campaign, a movement developed demanding better shelters developed. . These movements largely grew without the involvement of the official Labour Party or the trade union bureaucracy, which was mainly interested in supporting the government. Leadership was largely formed spontaneously out of those most active in the struggle, although it often included Independent Labour Party members, Communistsm anarchists and in some cases members of the WIL. Such a movement, involving self-organised activity of the working class was of vital importance for a revolutionary organisation to be involved in. The RSL’s initial sectarian position towards it and the WIL’s early enthusiastic involvement left the former weaker and the latter stronger. Although with the increased authoritarian nature of the state, the class collaborationist activities of the Labour and Communist parties and the official trade union movement, and the small size of revolutionary organisations, the chances for revolutionary activity were low during the war; there were opportunities for Trotskyists within the movement. When there was working class activity in this time it tended to be more radical, with self-organisation and independence from the official labour movement being a necessity, and the consequences of provoking employers and the state being much greater. The ILP, the WIL and anarchists all organised within the armed forces. The ILP Forces Group produced a bulletin and held meetings, while a group of anarchists produced a publication called the War Commentary. A number of soldiers were disciplined for involvement in these groups, and anti-war feeling among the ranks became increasingly common. The most important working class activity at this time however, was the growth of an unofficial strike movement. These strikes, which increased in size and militancy towards the end of the war, were a response to frozen pay and worsened conditions in the vast majority of workplaces. From 1941 to the end of the war there were miners’ strikes, shipyard workers on the Clyde and in Barrow struck in 1942, in 1943 there was a 100,000 strong apprentices strike in Yorkshire, Tyneside and the Clyde. In response to this the WIL, alongside the ILP and anarchist groups formed the Militant Workers Federation, which provided a network of support and solidarity for striking workers, and was by necessity completely independent of the official labour movement.
Due to their more active involvement in the working class movement during the war the WIL grew, while the RSL shrunk. By 1943 the WIL had around three hundred members, the RSL roughly twenty. Despite this the RSL remained the official British section of the Fourth International. To rectify this, and to recognise that the WIL had more faithfully followed the International’s line during the war, a unity conference was called with delegates from the WIL, the RSL and some splits from the latter. The vast majority of delegates were WIL members, and the new organisation which was formed, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) adopted the WIL’s positions almost entirely, and also its leadership. While due to its refusal to join the RSL originally the WIL had been denied affiliation to the Fourth International, they still considered themselves members of it in spirit. While the RSL had opposed the Proletarian Military Policy and had even expelled a faction, the Trotskyist Opposition around Hilda Lane and John Lawrence, which had supported the policy; the WIL supported it. The newly formed RCP included the Trotskyist Opposition, and with theirs and the WIL’s support adopted the Proletarian Military Policy. Despite the seeming unity brought about by the formation of the RCP, the party remained deeply factionalised. The unity had largely been imposed from the outside by the secretariat of the Fourth International, and therefore had the makings of a stitch-up from above which papered over political differences rather than resolved them. The man sent by the secretariat to encourage unity was James P Cannon’s supporter, Sam Gordon. There were at that time three factions either within the RSL or recently split from it. In the WIL, the leadership around Jock Haston was largely working class in background and practical in its political outlook. There was, however, a minority tendency around Gerry Healy, which had few consistent positions except that Healy should be in charge. Sam Gordon brought together John Lawrence and Gerry Healy and backed them in his favourites in the RCP leadership. After the war, Jock Haston and others in the leadership began to challenge the majority position in the Fourth International that a workers’ revolution was imminent. Healy wholly supported the idea and argued that since newly radicalised workers would inevitably flock to the Labour Party, the RCP should conduct entry work. Aside from the rights and wrongs of both sides of the debate, the Fourth International secretariat ruled that the group around Healy- a minority, but a minority that agreed with Cannon- should be free to conduct entry work independent of party discipline. This highhanded ruling and the general poisonous internal atmosphere generated by Healy in the party, eventually led Haston and many others to simply walk away. Healy was to emerge from this period as the pre-eminent leader of British Trotskyism, as a direct result of the Cannonites’ meddling. This was never going to be a good thing. Haston’s resignation letter raised serious questions as to the political direction of the RCP and the Fourth International:
e have no right to claim political and organisational authority as the international leadership of the world proletariat. On the basis of our experiences over the past 10 or 15 years I consider we must adopt a more modest title, perspective and role. Instead of continuing with the pretence that we are a healthy and virile ideological leadership wielding authority over 35 sections. I believe it is time to squarely face up to the fact that the International has not provided the leadership and has no reasonable authority to wield an organisational discipline over its few members.
It was not simply the Cannonites’ disastrous intervention in the factional squabbles in Britain which meant that many of the gains made by the WIL during the war were squandered. The fact remained that, despite excellent activity which was rewarded with modest growth, the Trotskyist movement in Britain remained tidy. Despite playing a cretinous role in the class struggle during the war, the CPGB gained a peak sixty thousand members. This growth was referred to as the “Stalingrad levy” and was based almost entirely on people being impressed by the Soviet Union’s victories over Nazi-Germany, and the Communist Party’s support for the war effort. The main beneficiary from the war was the Labour Party however, which won the 1945 election by landslide. The Labour Party was promising the working class a continuation of full employment and nationalisation in peace time. Coming out of the war the British working class seemed more organised, with a united sense of purpose, than possibly it had ever been before. The state’s reliance on the official labour movement during the war meant that it was firmly established and secure within society. The gains made- nationalisation, full employment, the welfare state- were real benefits for the class, and the defence and extension of these gains would be central issues for decades to come. The growth of independent working class militancy during the war would continue after it. While much of this new atmosphere would be expressed through the traditional workers’ parties and official trade union movement, there was clearly real potential for mass, radical working class activity. How the Trotskyist movement responded to this would have serious consequences for if for years to come.
The European Resistance Movements
While the conditions for revolutionary activity during the Second World War in Britain and America were very bad, in countries occupied by the fascist states they were dire. The fascist occupation ensured that all possibilities for open political activity which were granted by bourgeois democracy- independent trade unions, workers’ parties, free elections, freedom of press- were closed down. The fascists installed repressive regimes under which the working class in particular was subjected to brutal repression. The most severe repression was of course reserved for ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQ people and disabled people; millions of whom were murdered in concentration camps or forced into slave labour. Political dissidents ranging all the way from anti-Nazi patriots and liberals to Communists, socialists and revolutionaries were also persecuted. With their basic political freedoms taken away workers were subjected to pay freezes, inflation, unemployment and increased hours, and many workers were deported to Germany to operate industry there. As a result of all this, resistance movements developed in opposition to fascist occupation, often taking the form of armed struggle against the invaders. This may have taken the form of acts of terrorism and sabotage, and in some cases partisan warfare. Italy, which had an indigenous fascist state rather than one imposed by invasion, also had an anti-fascist partisan movement. Despite the bans on strikes and trade union activity, there were some examples of industrial struggle against fascism, most notably in Italy and Greece, where mass strike movements virtually toppled or drove out the fascists in those countries, but also in France and elsewhere.
How Trotskyists should relate to these movements was a central question for those in mainland Europe. The nature of fascist repression in occupied countries meant that it was not only the working class who had an interest in its defeat- many members of the nationalist bourgeoisie, such as the Gaulists in France or the monarchists in Greece and Yugoslavia were also involved in the struggle. The Stalinist Communist parties were almost universally one of the more dominant components in the resistance movements. Given that Trotskyists considered the war an imperialist war, to what extent they should take part in the resistance was a key question, as was how they should relate to the dominant forces- primarily nationalism and Stalinism- within it. In the resistance movements the Stalinist parties pursued the policy of a national front against fascism, where they attempted to form alliances with bourgeois parties and nationalists. They also attempted to ensure that wherever possible these movements would gain the support of Anglo-American imperialism. In this, they were following the line from Moscow, where Stalin wished to ensure his allies’ interests were supported and maintained by the Communist parties. This meant that movements should be curtailed from heading in any kind of radical direction, private property should be defended and demands for social change should be held back. It also meant that in many cases Communist propaganda and rhetoric in occupied countries at this time was violently nationalistic and anti-German, making no distinction between working class Germans in the military, many of whom were conscripts, and Nazi officers. Many of the nationalists involved in anti-fascist resistance movements were linked to supporters of the old regime who had been displaced by the fascist invasions and aimed primarily at a restoration of the status quo. The Metaxites in Greece were aiming at a restoration of the monarchy and the dictatorship which had supported it. The Greek Communist Party, the KKE, sought to hold back any radicalisation of the mass movement in Greece, and maintain an alliance with the Metaxites, who were backed by British imperialism. In France, the Gaullists supported the Free French Army headed by General De Gaulle, whose primary interest was the defence of the French Empire and the defence of capitalism after the Nazis were defeated. For them, the support of Anglo-American imperialism was central.
The Trotskyist movement in Europe was extremely small and isolated even before fascism dominated Europe. Its cadre was decimated as a result of the repression of by the fascists, and the authoritarian conditions under which they worked isolated them even further. The Fourth International’s position was that although it was true that the leadership of the resistance movement was dominated by bourgeois nationalists and Stalinists, and through them was heavily influenced by Anglo-American imperialism; the role of revolutionaries was to expose their weaknesses, and this could not be achieved simply by abstaining from the mass movements. The majority of people who took part in or supported the movement were not doing so out of love of the old regimes or as a result of orders from the Kremlin, or even out of petty nationalism; but rather because of the awful conditions and brutal oppression imposed by fascism. This was as true in imperial countries under occupation such as France, as it was for weaker nations. The war for the resistance fighters was not an imperialist war but a movement for liberation from fascism, and therefore had to be completely supported. Given that Trotskyists believed that the Second World War was likely to end in revolution, the role of revolutionaries was to support these movements while maintaining independent positions from those of the Stalinists and the nationalists, and try to agitate for mass working class activity to push them in a revolutionary direction. The Trotskyists across Europe uniformly failed to do this, or in fact to have any real impact on the resistance movement at all. This was not necessarily because of any failure of line, but rather was a result of their tiny size and lack of implantation in the working class.
The best example of how this analysis worked in practice was that of France. Before the German invasion the Workers International Party (POI) was the Fourth International’s largest national section in Europe. It was, however, experiencing problems even before the invasion. It had entered the centrist Workers and Peasants Party (PSOP), which had undergone a split and thrown them into crisis. After the invasion, under illegal conditions, four small Trotskyist groups emerged. The largest was the POI, however it was smaller than it had been, only three or four hundred, and had lost almost all of its experienced cadre- virtually all of them were under twenty five years of age. The smaller groups were the Internationalist Communist Committee for the Construction of the Fourth International (CCI), a propaganda group; Class Struggle, which had split from the rest in 1940; and the October group. Like most Trotskyists at this time, the French groups put the idea of a revolution resulting from the war at the centre of their analysis, and expected revolution in Germany. They therefore placed fraternisation with German working class soldiers, as opposed to targeting them with violence, at the forefront of their activity. The idea of fraternisation was undoubtedly correct in that it aimed at workers’ solidarity, and stands in contrast to the French Stalinists’ slogan “let everyone kill a Hun”. However, this strategy had a limited impact, in part due to the vast overestimation of the prospects for a German revolution and mutiny in the army, but more generally because of the limited size of the Trotskyist groups. The POI and others supported the partisan movement as an essentially spontaneous uprising against the fascist occupation, mostly based on rural areas. However, they rejected the tactic, employed throughout much of the resistance, of individual acts of terrorism against the occupying forces. This was in part due to their refusal to accept the nationalist arguments which portrayed the German working class soldiers as the real enemy, but also due to the Marxist perspective that individual acts of terrorism do nothing to mobilise the mass of the population, and instead put the task of liberation into the hands of a minority. The French Stalinist Communist Party, the PCF, on the other hand, put terrorist activity against the occupying army at the centre of their activity, as did the Gaullists. Perhaps some of the most important activity the French Trotskyists carried out was in the workplace struggle. Conditions for workers in the occupied north and in Vichy France were dire and some of the first struggles, such as a miners’ strike in 1941, were based on economic demands. Despite the ban on strikes, and the state’s support for the employers, there were a number of strike actions during the occupation. Trotskyists submerged themselves into the industrial struggle, seeing it as key to developing the resistance along class, as opposed to national lines. However, even here the PCF was overwhelmingly more effective. Due to the ban on independent unions the Trotskyists largely neglected union organisation, while the PCF built the CGT union federation under conditions of illegality.
As referred to above, the Stalinist policy from 1941 onwards was one of class collaboration and support for Anglo-American imperialism in Western Europe. In most countries it pursued the policy of the national front, and unity with the nationalists and the old regime. The one exception here was the partisan struggle in Yugoslavia where the Communist-led forces under Tito fought a three way war against the fascist occupation and the British backed monarchists. The reasons for this exception are complex. Yugoslavia was on a fault line where Soviet and British interests clashed, and until a 1944 meeting between Churchill and Stalin in Moscow, both were competing for control there. The Titoist movement also exercised a degree of independence from Moscow and was willing to reject the Kremlin’s instructions. However, in the vast majority of countries with resistance movements, the Stalinists followed the national front policy and rejected class-based resistance.They also, therefore, made concessions to petty nationalism and racism in much of their propaganda and agitation, declaring the war an anti-German rather than an anti-fascist struggle. This suited the class-collaborationist approach of the Stalinists, and mirrored the rhetoric of Russia itself- Stalin had announced the war against German a “Great Patriotic War” and appealed to Greater Russian Chauvinism. Despite, and it must be said partly because of this approach, the Stalinist Communist parties in the occupied countries gained a great amount of support during and after the war. The members’ activity during the resistance was heroic in many ways, both the armed struggle and general political activity in clandestinely held huge risks for those who participated. The Stalinists’ role in leading these struggles put them in prime position to make serious gains when the war was over, as did the Soviet Union’s victories over Nazi Germany.
The Trotskyist method in the resistance movement- agitation in factories, critical but unconditional support for the armed resistance, fraternisation with occupying soldiers, refusal to unite with the bourgeoisie or capitulate to nationalism- were absolutely correct in the circumstances. However, manu of the policies were carried out in anticipation of a European revolution which did not happen. Much like in Britain, although under dramatically different circumstances, the European Trotskyist movement, rather than concentrating on making limited gains and consolidating them within the framework of a movement and events they could not hope to control; instead based its manoeuvres on the idea that there would be a dramatic upturn in struggle that would sweep away the “traditional workers’ parties” and place a revolutionary organisation in the leadership. The successes during the war, often based on principled activity, only served to mask the deeper problems with their analysis. However, whatever political problems or mistakes in practice there were within the Trotskyist movement at this time, the main problem it faced was that it was simply too small to shape or even influence events. Despite having a position of supporting the resistance in many cases this meant little more than circulating propaganda in its support. The Trotskyists certainly weren’t in a position to challenge the nationalists or Stalinists for leadership in these struggles. This small size and relative powerlessness conflicted sharply with the analysis which suggested an inevitable radicalisation of the working class and the growth of revolutionary politics.
The Trotskyist movement carried out some heroic activity during the Second World War, in some of the worst conditions imaginable. However, overall it was to emerge from the war weaker, not stronger. Its cadres in Europe had been extinguished in many cases, and those that remained were small and isolated. The “traditional” workers’ parties, the social democrats and Stalinist Communists, on the other hand, grew massively. The Communist parties were, due to their larger size and level of organisation, in a much better position to organise the resistance movements in occupied countries. It is also not unusual that in periods of radicalisation and newly gained liberty that workers return to their traditional parties. In Britain and the United States, while the Trotskyists had been able to involve themselves in some important working class activity, their growth had been at best modest. The Trotskyist movement in both these countries remained comprised of sects. The SWP and the WIL had based their activity on the Proletarian Military Policy, which was based on the expectation that a workers’ revolution would emerge out of the war. The spontaneous and radical nature of the activity during the war meant that this wrong-headed perspective actually placed the Trotskyists in a good position. How this perspective would help them in the changed circumstances towards the end of the war remained to be seen.Add a comment
- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Saturday, 4 October 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
This article concerns a series of debates between members of the Trotskyist movement during the Second World War. At this point in time, the movement itself was very small. The Fourth International, launched in 1938 had at most a few thousand members, most of whom were members of small, isolated sects without much roots in the working class movement. The outstanding member of the international was, naturally, Leon Trotsky. Leader of the 1917 Revolution, former President of the Petrograd Soviet and founder of the Red Army; Trotsky was driven out of the Russian Communist Party leadership, the Communist Party itself, and eventually the Soviet Union altogether by a counterrevolutionary coup led by Joseph Stalin, who Trotsky labelled the “gravedigger of the revolution”. The debate continues as to the exact date and, more importantly the causes, of the revolution’s degeneration; but emerging from the Civil War of 1918-21, the working class in Russia was largely a spent force. In order to defeat the White armies and invaders from capitalist states, the Bolsheviks adopted increasingly autocratic measures to maintain their control. The cities became weakened by famine and war, and many workers were forced to return to the countryside to avoid starvation. The organs of workers’ democracy- the Soviets, trade unions, factory committees- became hollow shells, incorporated into the state bureaucracy, or disappeared completely. In these conditions, the structures of the Communist Party played an increasingly dominant role, and the democratic rule of the working class was substituted for by party officials. The Communist Party which emerged from the civil war in 1921 was not the one that led the revolution in October 1917. Where previously it had been a mass revolutionary party rooted in the industrial working class and its factory committees, it increasingly became an organ of state management and control. Just as in the Red Army Trotsky recruited “specialists”- former Tsarist officers- to lead the army, so the Communist Party increasingly recruited its own kinds of specialists to administer the state. Being the ruling party, the Communist Party attracted all kinds of opportunists- social climbers, former Tsarist bureaucrats, charlatans and cynics from the middle classes- who due to their increasingly powerful position in society became a social layer over and above the working class. At the head of this bureaucracy was Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin, who led this new social layer in driving out of power all the old Bolsheviks and establishing a bureaucratic dictatorship. Once exiled, Trotsky and his small group of followers were often focussed on how to explain this course of events, and a key question in that debate was how best to describe the bureaucracy which had seized political power.
Stalinism, of course, was not restricted to being a Russian phenomenon. The Comintern, or Third International, established by the Russian Communist Party and affiliated to by Communist parties across the world; often reflected the degeneration the Russian party, which was naturally not the partner. In 1924, the President of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev, began a process of “Bolshevisation” where the Communist parties were induced to establish top-down, monolithic party structures similar to those of the Russian party in power. In many cases, such as in Germany, this involved uprooting the party’s native democratic structures. This process of bureaucratisation continued apace once Stalin was brought into power. By the time Trotsky was exiled in 1929, therefore, the international Communist movement was bureaucratised, authoritarian, and slavishly following orders from Moscow. Trotsky’s supporters, and those of other Bolshevik leaders removed by Stalin, were driven out of the parties. Despite this, the Communist parties in many countries still enjoyed a large base of membership and support in the working class, and attracted some of the best militants. The Trotskyists, therefore, were largely consigned to isolation- any space there was to the left of social democracy was largely taken up by a political tendency irreconcilably hostile to them.
This is the context in which debates within the Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s and early 1940s should be viewed. These were not debates inside mass working class parties on the verge of leading a revolution, but rather between small groups of isolated Marxists, increasingly sidelined in the movement, largely unnoticed by the class. Much of their debates focussed upon analyses of events over which they had very little influence. However, this is not to say that the discussions amongst Trotskyists in this period were irrelevant, or that they are not informative for us today. The magnitude of the topics being discussed was enormous- the class nature of the Soviet Union, the position socialists should take on the question of the Second World War, the nature of imperialism. The events of the 1930s and 1940s in many ways shaped the world we live in today, and it is unsurprising therefore that political discussions among revolutionaries at that point in time in many ways laid the groundwork for the direction the Trotskyist movement has taken since. Many mistakes, which have since been repeated many times over, have their roots in the course Trotskyism embarked upon in the early 1940s. The largest organisation affiliated to the Fourth International was the US Socialist Workers Party, which Trotsky gave a large part of his attention. Despite being small, given the size and militancy of the American working class movement at the time; the SWP had played a critical role in some areas during the heightened class struggle of the 1930s, most notably in the Minneapolis Teamster rebellion of 1934. It also numbered in its leadership some talented revolutionaries. This party, only ten months old and numbering at most two thousand members, was split almost down the middle over questions raised by the Second World War concerning the nature of the Soviet Union. At the head of this party the leadership was similarly divided.
The SWP was led by three major figures- James P. Cannon, James Burnham, and Max Shachtman. Cannon, the leader of the party, was born in 1890 in Kansas. He began as an organiser for the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World and a member of the Socialist Party of America, before he broke, along with the rest of that party’s left wing, to form the Communist Party of the USA. He was a leading proponent of the Bolshevisation driven by Zinoviev. He, along with Shachtman, was expelled from the party in 1928 for supporting Trotsky, and together they formed the Communist League, forerunner of the SWP. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Cannon was the foremost member of the SWP. He had a reputation for being a talented organiser, public speaker and agitator, with a keen understanding of the trade union movement. He had been active in the Minneapolis Teamster rebellion, where he had built up a significant base. He also, however, had a reputation for an authoritarian style and factional mentality, which would often drive out or slander opponents rather than win them politically. He ran the SWP’s central office in New York. He had also adopted Trotsky’s unfortunate habit of denouncing people who disagreed with him as Stalinist agents. Max Shachtman was a Polish Jew who immigrated to New York with his family as a small child in 1905. He became youth organiser for the Communist Party in Chicago, and part of a grouping associated with Cannon in the mid-1920s. After their expulsion, Shachtman became American Trotskyism’s most talented journalist and orator. Fluent in several languages, Shachtman was often regarded as the SWP’s expert on international questions and was a translator of Trotsky’s writings. While Cannon’s base in the party was among its trade unionists, particularly in Minneapolis; Shachtman, with his sharp wit and skills as a writer and speaker, built a base among the party’s youth, particularly in his native Bronx. Although the divisions between Cannon and Shachtman were quickly going to dominate the factional struggles in the SWP, the first open challenge to the “official” party line came, not from Shachtman, but another leading member, James Burnham. While Cannon and Shachtman were both professional revolutionaries from working class backgrounds, Burnham was an academic at New York University, educated at Princeton, and born to a privileged family in Chicago. It was Burnham’s revision of Trotsky’s theory of Russian being a degenerated workers’ state which initiated the faction fight. His views have often been discredited retrospectively due to his dramatic shift to the right shortly after this period- he eventually became an intellectual for the conservative movement, renouncing Marxism altogether. In 1937, Burnham began to argue that the Soviet bureaucracy had become a new exploiting class, as opposed to being a “parasitic caste” within the degenerated workers’ state, as Trotsky and his supporters in the United States led by Cannon maintained. This system was not a degenerated workers’ state, but “bureaucratic collectivism”. These ideas began to resonate with many in the Socialist Workers Party, and gained support from Max Shachtman.
The Degenerated Workers’ State
- 1) 1) There would be a counterrevolution, most likely imposed by capitalist imperialism from the outside, given that the native Russian bourgeoisie had been completely expropriated. This counterrevolution would reverse all the victories of the Russian workers’ revolution and reintroduce private property.
- 2) 2) The working class would regain control of the state, most likely as a result of workers’ revolutions seizing power in more developed capitalist countries in Europe.
- 3) 3) The bureaucracy would develop into a new ruling class.
The Outbreak of the Second World War
The Faction Fight
The war broke out and we did nothing. The Old Man did nothing. One of the most important events in our epoch took place, and we were asleep. And we stayed asleep.
The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism
They have a common mode of life that distinguishes them from the working classes; they constitute a basic element of the Stalinist mode of production, that is, they organise and maintain the process of production; they determine, as Marx would put it, the conditions of production; they are, as a distinctive social grouping, the first and the principle beneficiaries of the process of production since their social position enables them to determine the distribution of the surplus product with far fewer restraints than the ruling class suffers under capitalism; they are the exclusive owners of the full machinery of the state, which exists solely for the purpose of preserving their monopolistic social power; and since the state, under Stalinism, owns all the means of production and distribution, the Stalinist ruling class, by virtue of its exclusive possession of this state power, enjoys a general and super-concentrated social power over the population such as no ruling class has ever had in the last thousand years.
The Nature of Stalinism
Differences over the nature of the Soviet Union used to be one of the main dividing lines between socialists. There was, of course, the main division between those who considered the USSR to be a socialist society and those, like the Trotskyists, who believed that it was not. During the factional struggle which followed Lenin’s death, the Stalinists, supported by leading party theoretician, and eventual leader of the Right Opposition Nikolai Bukharin; developed the theory of “socialism in one country”. The Russian Revolution had failed to initiate workers’ revolutions in other countries and it looked unlikely that it would do so in the near future. This left the Soviet Union isolated as the world’s only workers’ state. Up until this point all revolutionary Marxists, from Marx through to Lenin, had believed that socialism was only possible on an international level. Capitalism was an international system and as a result the working class was also international. Capitalism is an aggressive economic system which constantly, and inevitably, attempts to expand into new markets and reorganise society along capitalist lines. Any non-capitalist society is likely to be a target for capitalism’s expansionism. Added to this, the logic of reaction means that any revolutionary state which is the product of the overthrow of the old system and aims to build a new one must be crushed, and the old regime reinstated, for fear that it will spread. Any national working class which attempts to build socialism in one country, therefore, will be isolated, and eventually defeated by international capitalism. Furthermore, any workers’ state which successfully manages to ward off reaction would have to survive in a capitalist world economy. The state would inevitably have to compete on an economic, diplomatic, and military level with capitalist states, stunting the conditions for the workers’ state to “wither away” as Engels had argued that it would, in the progression to communism. Bukharin argued that this theory no longer applied to the Soviet Union and they could proceed to establish communism in Russia alone, without the need for revolutions in other countries. Stalin and Bukharin were opposed in this by Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev. It was the theory of socialism in one country as much as anything else which divided the Soviet Union’s supporters from other Marxists. The Stalinists maintained that the Soviet Union and, after the victory of the Red Army in 1945, its satellite states in Eastern Europe, were “actually existing socialism”. During the Second World War, and the Cold War which followed, this division between Stalinists and those who did not believe that the USSR was socialist was obviously necessary. It raised questions of the role of revolutionaries in “non-socialist” countries, if international revolution was no longer necessary, or even feasible. The Stalinist parties’ replication in miniature the Russian party in structure and mode of operation- being top-down, bureaucratic, authoritarian and intolerant of opposition, making them incompatible with those who looked for a democratic movement. Furthermore, Stalinism raised fundamental questions of what socialism actually was, and who it was really for. Was socialism the “socialism” of purges, forced collectivisation, one-party states and Stakhanovite managers? If it was not, the obvious question was posed- if the Soviet Union was not socialist, what exactly was it?
Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not revolutionary leaders but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aim of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule.
Catastrophism and Dogmatism
The Monolithic Party
There are, of course, many things wrong with Shachtman’s theories. His eventual position, that the Soviet Union was objectively more reactionary than Western capitalism led him to take a number of poor positions on questions facing the labour movement. While it could be debated as to what degree a totalitarian society, whatever the economic basis, is less beneficial to the working class than formal bourgeois democracy, it led him to push for the reformist Socialist Party, which he and his supporters had dissolved into, to support the Democratic Party. He later refused to condemn the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and opposed the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. While his, and later Hal Draper’s, concept of “socialism from below” was absolutely correct, a broad brush application of this formula could too easily lead down the road of sectarianism, with the denunciation of everyone else as being “top-down”, “bureaucratic”, “just like the Stalinists”, etc.
- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Wednesday, 17 September 2014
- Written by Kat Burdon-Manley
This article first appeared on the We Want a Women's Mag blog which is currently looking for contributors. Are you interested in taking part in the project? have something you want to say on feminism, women's rights, men's privilege, race & gender or maybe even something else? drop an email with your idea/word length and if possible an example or two of your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
To comprehend trends of causality in migration flow it is essential that international power dynamics and geopolitical relations also be considered. No more is this tendency exemplified than in recent political developments in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria. This essay does not seek to address the complexities of sectarian divisions, resulting from intervention, oppression and disenfranchisement of minorities in areas of conflict or offer solutions, but merely to comment on the current trends of migration flow and open a dialogue on the causes of migration, the injustice of borders, and establish concrete proposals to tackle anti-immigration rhetoric. This piece will make up part of a study into the causes of migration. The introductory piece will concentrate on the current trends of migration, detention and borders, the second will look at the correlation between the rise of neoliberalism, inequality and migration, while the third will look in more detail at the history of immigration and the movement.
Borders are designed to control workers in the interest of capitalist accumulation. The most successful way to defeat low pay and conditions is to unite and organise against exploitative employers. Refugees are protected by international laws, designed to ensure that those who are at risk of persecution are able to request that their status is recognised in safe countries. However, what we see instead is 1300 migrants sleeping rough in Calais, physical borders and surveillance thrown up when refugees try to access countries to claim asylum, arbitrary deals made between countries for the purpose of obstructing migration flows, and the prison-like detention facilities designed to marginalise the most vulnerable people.
In 2013 the International Organisation for Migration recorded 2360 deaths of people trying to cross borders worldwide. Hundreds of people have died trying to cross in to Europe this year alone and over two decades it is estimated that 20 thousand people died trying to enter the European Union, at the southern border.
Displacement of people on a global scale and the human cost
Hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza have been displaced by the recent unilateral military offensive by Israel, with over two thousand civilians murdered, including over 500 children, and 100 thousand people have lost their homes. While bodies were piling up in Gaza, vessels containing military arms from the United States continued to pour in to Israel, facilitating, aiding and abetting the continuation of violence and oppression.
Iraq is in crisis, with the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) and the displacement of tens of thousands Yazidis, who were left stranded on a mountain in Sinjar. Sectarian divisions can be explained by US imperialist intervention and occupation, the oppressive and repressive regime of Nouri al-Maliki, and the disenfranchisement and marginalisation of the Sunni population. The failure to bring about freedom, democracy and lasting peace in the region has become all too clear. Extremism, factional fighting, huge mobilisations and demonstrations have all made up the landscape of Iraq throughout and after occupation. Over a million people lost their lives in Iraq, including children, as a result of US and UK intervention and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.
The revolution in Syria, which was part of a wave of uprisings in the Middle East, is in its fourth year. There is much to say about the ongoing uprising against Bashar Al- Assad’s regime, a brutal dictator who is responsible for the deaths of over 190 thousand civilians. Millions of refugees have fled Syria, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and 90% of those who remain in rebel held areas are unemployed and have highly restricted access to basic human amenities (see Without Borders, Doctors Without Borders newsletter).
Syrian refugees are the main migration group in to Greece, and Eritrean refugees the main group into Italy. The UN have been put under pressure to establish external processing facilities to determine whether a person claiming asylum is doing so ‘legitimately’ before accessing safe passage to Europe. Processing would take place in Egypt, Libya and Sudan, all of which have unacceptable human rights records. In 2012 it was reported that Eritrean detainees in Egyptian prisons and detentions centres were deported back to Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Greek government have called for tougher border controls, managed by an international task force, with external access routes to asylum.
International Borders and areas of containment
The campaign group Human Rights Watch is opposed to external refugee processing facilities because of the human rights records of the countries where refugees would be processed, namely, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. Libya is unstable, with warring militia groups controlling large parts of the country, and a weak military and police force. If the UN were to administer refugee processing facilities in Libya, refugees would be put at increased risk to their safety. It is suspected that 4000-6000 refugees are being held in detention centres across Libya at any one time. The Ministry of Interior runs a number of detention facilities, concentrated in the south around Kufra and Sabha, but many more are run by militia groups and these are known as katibas. The conditions in the detention centres are inhumane; there is overcrowding and insufficient access to drinking water while there is evidence to suggest that detainees in migrant centres in Sabha have been systematically tortured. Egyptian officials have been complicit in the trafficking of Eritrean refugees on the Sinai, notably the military and the police force turning a blind eye to trafficking. Many people die in the Sinai, by falling off trucks and of dehydration.
The main port in Europe for migration from North Africa is Lampedusa which is located 205km from Sicily and 167km from Tunisia. The number of migrants arriving in to Lampedusa by boat was 190,425 between 2001 and 2011 and it is estimated that 60% of these boats come from Libya. The journey between Libya and Italy should take approximately 27 hours, but many migrants spend days at sea, because the boats are steered and navigated by a refugee who is given a free place on the boat in return for taking responsibility for the vessel. Inexperienced refugees, desperate to avoid the extortionate trafficking fees, volunteer to steer the overcrowded boats, so it’s no wonder many vessels either fail to complete the journey to Italy, end up in Tunisia, capsize, or end up being picked up by the Libyan or Tunisian authorities. If refugees are picked up by the Libyan authorities they are taken to the detention centres.
The Italian government has been notorious for making deals with the Libyan authorities, including with Muammar Gaddafi’s government and the Transitional National Council after the fall of Gaddafi, to control migration flows. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has condemned the Italian government’s policy of pushing back migrants at sea by intercepting boats in international waters and diverting them back to Libya. The pact between the Italian government and the Gaddafi regime included financial and technical support to the regime, including offering Italian scholarships to Libyan students, army pensions to soldiers serving in Libya and the construction of a radar system on the Libyan borders.
The agreement entered into by Italy and Libya during Gaddafi’s period in office was the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation, which was signed by the two states in 2008. As a result of the agreement irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were subjected to prolonged detention, human rights abuses and torture by the Libyan authorities and Libya suspended the limited operations of the UNHCR. The European Union is a signatory to the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, mandating the Union to observe the principle of non-refoulement, therefore refugees should not be sent back to a country where there is a risk of persecution or harm.
This is the first time the UN has agreed to consider external processing facilities. Although the UN has been critical of such practices, it is not the first time they have administered containment areas within the borders of unsafe countries, the UN agency UNHCR administered areas of containment within the borders of Bosnia in the mid 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of people needed protection when internal conflict was rife and ethnically based militias and other forces threatened their safety. The policy of containing people within the borders of unsafe and volatile countries threatens the principle of asylum, yet the west intervened in Bosnia to control population movements. The containment areas were set up ostensibly to protect local people from the threat of ethnic cleansing, but they quickly became known as ‘death camps’ in colloquial Bosnian parlance (Refugees in a Global Era, Philip Marfleet, p.202). When the security of containment areas breaks down, the people are left at the mercy of attacking forces.
Israeli border policy is to detain ‘infiltrators’ for up to a year, as it does not distinguish between refugees, undocumented migrants and those intending to harm Israel’s security. Over 40 thousand Eritrean migrants entered Israel between 2006 and 2012, which has since been reduced to zero. Israel constructed a 240km fence along the Sinai and built a 10 thousand person detention centre in Negev. African migrants in Tel Aviv took part in demonstrations over several days to protest against these unjust laws and the UNHCR made a statement that the incarceration of migrants caused ‘harm and suffering’ and was not in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory. Israel also operates ‘push-back’ tactics such as the use of teargas, stun grenades and warning shots to discourage migrants from crossing the border, and has reached agreements with unspecified African countries to deport irregular migrants including offering grants to migrants to voluntarily leave Israel. Human Rights Watch are due to make a report on 16th Sept 2014 about Israel’s policy of indefinite detention of migrants, which acts as a deterrent for people seeking asylum.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are concentrated in to refugee camps under the control of the police and intelligence services and are prohibited from acquiring Lebanese citizenship. The Palestinian refugees are stateless and are unable to take part in the political decision-making of Lebanon, even though policy affects their lives. The majority of the Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon since 1948 or were born in the refugee camps. Palestinian refugees do not have the same rights to employment as Lebanese citizens, and are unable to access over 70 professions in the labour market. Children born in to the camps are born stateless.
Syrian refugees are migrating in vast quantities. Since the uprising in 2011 approximately 2.8 million refugees have fled Syria. It is thought that about 760 thousand Syrian refugees are now living in Turkey, in the overcrowded but well stocked camps in Kilis and Reyhanli. Syrian refugees in Turkey are not allowed to work.
The number of Syrian refugees is low in the UK, only 460 asylum claims were made in the first quarter of 2014 and only 50 refugees have been permitted entry under the UN initiative, the Syrian Vulnerable Person Relocation Scheme. Many Syrian refugees rely on people traffickers, but this option is expensive, so only those who have the means to pay thousands of pounds access this service. The majority of people live in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
The UNHCR published a document, appealing to states to provide more than ‘financial, economic and technical support’ to the displaced people of Syria and calling for their admission and humanitarian protection. Approximately 6.5 million displaced people remain in Syria, in a pre-revolution population of 20 million people. The UN programme of resettlement aims to re-home 30 thousand refugees by the end of 2014 (1.3% of the Syrian Refugees and 0.5% of the internally displaced people). The UK government offered a meagre 500 places, and only 50 refugees have been resettled in to the UK so far. The deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said ‘the UK will be providing refuge to some of the most vulnerable refugees’, such as women particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. The intake of refugees in Egypt is 132,849, Iraq 217,144, Jordan, 593,186, Lebanon, 844,021 and Turkey, 580,542 (although this has since increased, see: The Guardian, Wednesday 29 January, 2014).
There is a particular type of vulnerability that women face compared to men during times of war and forced migration. The Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) was borne out of the failure of the Kosovo government to recognise sexual violence committed against women during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo when, according to Human Rights Watch, 20 thousand women were raped. KWN conducted a Kosovo-wide survey which revealed that 43% of participant’s had experienced sexual violence and more than 46% of women suffer from sexual violence. The Network has served as a vital tool to change government policy and public attitudes, and to ensure women who have been traumatised by their experiences are materially and psychologically supported by the state.
The argument to support all refugees and displaced people during the vulnerable stages of upheaval and migration must never be to deny the different experiences of women, children and men, but instead, should seek to facilitate and implement structures of support to meet the material and psychological needs of all migrants fleeing war and persecution.
Routes of Migration
The journey into Europe for those seeking protection is dangerous. On the 11th October 2013 dozens of Syrian and Palestinian refugees died when a boat capsized en route from Libya to Italy and 206 Palestinians and Syrians were rescued. Those who died were buried in unnamed graves, because their families were not in Italy to claim the dead. Many refugees die crossing the Aegean and the Mediterranean; on the 2nd October 2013, 366 Eritrean, Somali and Palestinian refugees died off the coast of Lampedusa and dozens of Syrian refugees have died trying to reach Greece. A boat capsized off the coast of Libya on the 23rd August 2014, at the time of writing, those who died were thought to be from sub Saharan Africa. Only 17 refugees have been rescued, out of a total of 170, among the bodies of those who drowned. On the 29th August 2014, Tunisian rescuers recovered the bodies of 41 migrants, after a boat capsized off the Libyan coast.
While EU countries adopt ‘push back’ strategies, such as the 10.5 kilometre fence across Greece’s border with Turkey, or the 240km fence across the Israel/Egypt border in the Sinai, migrants are being forced to take more dangerous routes in order to seek safety. When the planned border fence between Turkey and Bulgaria goes up, more people will be forced to take perilous routes to ‘safety’ by sea.
The Red Cross recently advocated for the safe passage of refugees through humanitarian channels on the Aegean and Mediterranean to ensure the safety of those fleeing famine and poverty. Up to 800,000 displaced people currently await their fate on the African borders, seeking passage to the European Union. These are people who are fleeing repressive countries, and have already made perilous and life threatening journeys before even getting to the Mediterranean. An Eritrean refugee, Soloman from Newport, described the dangers and obstacles he faced and witnessed en route to the UK. A prisoner of conscience in Eritrea, he managed to escape detention and fled the country, witnessing women being kidnapped by armed gangs to be used as sex slaves, people dying in trucks heading across the Sahara to Libya, and armed gangs and traffickers scrutinising UN run refugee camps, such as Shagarab in Sudan, for people to kidnap and exploit. In 2012 it was reported that 551 refugees disappeared from Shagarab while the UN has recorded that up to 4000 Eritreans flee the Isaias Afewerki repressive rule every month.
After the deaths of 366 migrants off the coast of Lampedusa in Italy, the European Commission set up Eurosur, a surveillance operation to react more quickly to boats in distress. The route between Libya and Italy is a regular migratory route, and this year the UN have estimated that 13,000 Eritreans have made it across the Mediterranean, which is already more than the total in 2013. It is also very costly and traffickers extract thousands of pounds from refugees and pack them on to small fishing boats in their hundreds.
Those with access to money are able to negotiate borders more successfully than those without. Historically, those with money have fled persecution more easily. In 1938, when the Anschluss brought Austria under Nazi control the wealthiest of the Jewish population were able to secure places on flights leaving Vienna. This option was not available to the vast majority of the Jewish population and 180 thousand were left to their fate. The wealthier a person fleeing persecution is, the more likely they are going to have more choice, in terms of destination and mode of transportation. The Syrian refugees, travelling to Europe, pay extortionate amounts of money to people traffickers. The Roma communities of Syria fled to Turkey and many children are forced to beg on the streets of Istanbul. As many as 30 thousand Syrian refugees have adjusted to life in towns close in proximity and culture to Syria, such as Antakya in Turkey. Many millions more, particularly women, children and the vulnerable, stay in the overcrowded camps, in the countries surrounding Syria.
The European Fortress
The European Union is a fortress secured by police, soldiers, border guards, naval patrols, physical barriers and surveillance and detection technologies. The number of migrants who have died trying to cross into the European Union, over land or sea, amounts to approximately 20 thousand people. These are the most dangerous routes, facilitated by people traffickers and smugglers and many of the world’s poorest people have died in the Aegean and Mediterranean, been blown up in minefields between the Turkish and Greek border, fallen from trucks, and frozen to death in the Slovakian and Polish mountains. We are treating undocumented migrants as criminals through internal and external border control regimes, which include detention centres inside and outside fortress Europe.
The European government blames the death toll on ruthless people traffickers and smugglers, but the fact is this service is in demand because millions people’s lives have been destroyed. Within the EU there is a demand for cheap labour, while there is this demand, a desperate migrant escaping poverty or the refugee fleeing persecution and war, will risk the dangerous obstacles put in their way. It is a requirement of international law that frontline states keep their borders open to refugees, though, as we have seen, these rules are flagrantly circumvented by the EU frontline states such as Greece and Italy.
The demand for undocumented migrant workers is greater as long as employers can get a higher return on investment through the exploitation of a cheap labour force. If migrant workers are allowed to flow freely between borders, with the same rights as indigenous workers, they would be entitled to the same pay and conditions. As a result, we could strengthen our organisations and unions, united in our struggle for just and fair conditions in employment and education. It is easier for employers to undercut wages if they have access to a cheap labour force, but equipped with the same rights as the indigenous workforce, a migrant worker would no longer be susceptible to exploitation because of their status. In Istanbul, employers are already taking advantage of an educated Syrian working class, to provide high standards of service in hospitality during the tourist season, whilst paying them less than indigenous workers.
When workers unite for fair pay and conditions, it strengthens the position of all workers. Employers have resorted to accusations that unions are xenophobic, such as when Latvian workers were brought in to Sweden to refurbish a school by a subcontractor of Alfa Laval. The pay and conditions of the migrant workers were less than the nationally agreed pay, so the unions picketed the workplace of the migrant workers. After accusations of xenophobia were directed at the unions by Latvia and the employers, the union responded by putting a statement in a Latvian newspaper inviting Latvian workers working in Sweden to join the union.
The argument to win support for open borders still needs to be won and the unions and political organisations like Left Unity are the place to do it. There is a rightward shift of public opinion across large parts of Europe, evidenced at the recent European elections. With the rise of the Front National in France to the unprecedented support for UKIP, we are seeing people’s anger being directed at the poorest and most vulnerable people in society and not at the wealthiest financiers who are ultimately responsible for the crisis of capital. Migrants and refugees are the scapegoats for people’s anxieties and fears about their livelihoods. These fears can be quashed with facts. Migrant and low paid cleaners working at the Royal Opera House in London secured union recognition with their union Unite. The workers were employed by the sub-contractor Mitie and were only earning £7 per hour, so they went on to campaign for the London living wage and secured a 26% increase in their wages. Left Unity has a membership of 2000 keen activists, trade unionists and workers, currently supporting a no borders policy. Activists should intervene in the movement, dispelling myths about migration and highlighting how capitalists use migration to the benefit of the ruling class and how laws are implemented by government in the interest of the ruling class.
In times of recession the government reorganises labour based on economic factors, for example, highly skilled workers are often introduced into the NHS as a costs effective way of circumventing the reproduction of labour. It is expensive for employers to invest in the infrastructure to train workers, so the exploitation of an already highly skilled labour market is utilised. When there is contraction in the market, the pushing back of migration occurs and vice versa. During these times the scapegoating of migrants and refugees is prevalent. Worker's fears are stoked by an austerity driven government, successfully deflecting people’s attention away from a lack of job prospects and cuts to services by pointing the finger at migrant workers. Migrants are not only being blamed for unemployment, but they are also being blamed for taking advantage of free healthcare and other welfare benefits. After the European election results were delivered, Iain Duncan Smith immediately stated that he will look in to reducing the number of months a tax-paying migrant worker can claim unemployment benefits.
Borders within Borders
The internal detention of migrants within Europe is an extension of border controls. The UK adopts a fast-track approach to processing refugees, meaning that some refugees are detained from the moment they seek asylum and may not leave detention until they are deported to the country from which they fled. Others are detained after losing asylum cases and prior to deportation. There are currently 1300 migrants sleeping rough in Calais during the day and trying to board trucks and ships into the UK during the night. Far right groups led by Sauvons Calais were due to descend on the small shipping port, demanding that the French authorities arrest and return refugees to their countries of origin.
The French government has agreed to open a non-residential refugee day centre, so that refugees can eat, shower and access medical help. Pressure from the Labour government forced the Red Cross to close a residential camp in Sangatte, close to Calais, in 2002. The nationalities of the migrants at the border are from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Darfur, and the rest of Sudan. Tensions already run high between the Middle Eastern and African migrants, each hoping to exploit the best sections of the slip roads leading to the Ferry ports. Welfare groups are trying to curtail such frictions, by organising football games, with the Middle Eastern players on one side and the African players on the other.
It has now been reported that the NATO Summit fences, erected in Cardiff, are to be sent to Calais to make it increasingly difficult for migrants to enter the UK. This is an attempt to push back migration from the UK borders, with the immigration minister, James Brokenshire, warning that the UK is ‘no soft touch.’ The minister warned that migrants won’t be entitled to benefits and driving licenses, obviously for the British audience and Telegraph readers, where the interview was reported.
Detentions centres across the UK are currently run by a number of private contractors such as G4S, Serco, GEO and Mitie who are raking in millions in profits by managing prisons containing the most vulnerable, exploited and oppressed people. Corporate Watch recently conducted research into the detention centres managed by the above G4S, Serco, GEO and Mitie, and found that refugees were further being exploited by the management companies by providing cheap labour. Refugees in detention are paid as little as £1 per hour for cooking and cleaning at the facilities, saving the companies thousands of pounds in costs which would otherwise be used to employ staff at legal rates. As refugees have to pay for their own toiletries at the facilities, it is unlikely they have much choice other than to take up whatever paid employment is on offer.
A women’s detention centre, Yarl’s Wood in the UK, is currently under investigation for the widespread sexual abuse of women on the premises and the way in which the cases have been handled by the company managing the facility; Serco. The United Nations violence against women expert Rashida Manjoo was prevented from accessing Serco’s Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office when she visited the UK, even after a number of requests were made so she could carry out a thorough investigation in to violence against women in the UK. Manjoo is still very concerned about the government’s refusal to allow her to visit the facility.
The abuse of women within the facility has increasingly come to light since Sana, an ex-detainee, reported her abuse. A long-term survivor of abuse, and estranged from her family, Sana was an extremely vulnerable woman when she arrived at the detention centre. A healthcare worker abused his position and trust on a number of occasions and sexually assaulted her whilst in his care. The woman officer who believed Sana was heavily criticised by her superiors for not being more objective. The prisons and probations Ombudsman criticised the police investigation for reaching definitive conclusions after such a brief investigation. On top of that, Serco has fought to keep the internal report carried out on Sana’s case out of the public domain. Women are now starting to come forward about their experience of abuse by male guards and other employees in the facility.
A recent study in to housing provision for asylum seekers in Scotland has found that people are being forced to live in inadequate accommodation whilst awaiting their asylum decisions. The government contractor responsible for providing housing to asylum seekers in Scotland is Serco, and they are subcontracting to a private letting company, Orchard and Shipman. A pregnant woman with a small child was forced to live in a room with an ongoing leak, while another woman with a child was given 10 minutes notice that another family were moving in to her small flat with her. The private managing companies, driven by profit, do not understand the complex needs, or as the study indicates, the basic needs of the most vulnerable people, many of whom have experienced sexual violence and torture. The wholesale withdrawal of housing provision from local authorities has meant that housing providers with experience dealing with the needs of vulnerable groups, such as Glasgow City Council and YPeople, no longer have any influence over the conditions of service.
Funding for women’s refuges is not ring fenced, which means specialist support services for women fleeing violence is being cut. Refugees very often utilise women’s refuges specialising in violence against BME women, because of the specialist knowledge and experience in understanding the complexities of a woman’s status, language barriers and culture, among other things. Local authorities across the UK are pulling money out of services similar to Ashiana in Sheffield, and putting it in to larger housing associations. This could potentially act as a deterrent to vulnerable women accessing services in the first place.
The coming into force of the Immigration Act 2014 will mean that only migrants who have Indefinite Leave to Remain will be able to access free healthcare on the NHS, regardless of whether they’re working and therefore paying tax, accessing education or coming to the UK to be with family. Although refugees and asylum seekers are exempt from NHS charges, it is uncertain whether other vulnerable groups of people such as refused asylum seekers and irregular migrants will have to pay. The new rules could deter the most vulnerable from accessing services. Healthcare professionals are thus expected to take on the role of immigration officers, and the Home Office could potentially utilise the flow of data from the Department of Health to determine the immigration status of those accessing NHS services.
What we can do
- Support campaigns fighting for the rights of migrants, such as Calais Migrant Solidarity. The campaign group collects data on police harassment of migrants and mobilises against fascists, such as the local fascist group, Sauvons Calais. We should support and promote the activities of antifascist mobilisations. Calais Migrant Solidarity called on antifascists across France and Europe to support this counter demo, because thousands of fascists will be heading to Calais from across France.
- Support grassroots organisations led by refugees and asylum seekers such as Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group (WSSAG). These groups allow refugees to take control of their own circumstances, offer support to one another and campaign on issues affecting their lives, building shared experience and knowledge of the asylum system and rights in the UK.
- Support No Borders groups. These are brilliant groups right across the country dispelling myths about borders, and campaigning alongside some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people.
- Support all manner of campaigns against war and injustice, including the Syria Solidarity Movement, Docs not Cops, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War coalition.
- Publish a migration myth buster pamphlet. We can use this as a guide to intervene in the movement and union branches.
- Speak to comrades in Left Unity branches and unions about putting on meetings on immigration and borders.
Philip Marfleet, Refugees in a Global Era, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
Going West: contemporary mixed migration trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya and Europe, The Regional Mixed Migration Sectretariat, June 2014
Truth, Lies and Migrants: A Guide to Popular Migration, SERTUC, May 2014
Fortress Europe: The Fight for Migrant Rights, Red Pepper, December/January 2013
http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/06/eritrea-dangerous-trek-to-britain-slavery-traffickingAdd a comment
- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Saturday, 23 August 2014
- Written by JR & LS
Towards a South Downs commune
“For us, as revolutionaries, meaningful action is whatever increases the confidence, autonomy, initiative, participation, solidarity, egalitarian tendencies and self-activity of the masses, and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, cynicism, differentiation through hierarchy, alienation, reliance on others to do things for them, and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others, even those acting on their behalf.” (About Ourselves)
The above quote, written by the late Maurice Brinton is placed at the head of this short piece not because I wish to establish political affiliation or a line of march but merely because it is true, or at least it should be. It’s now painfully obvious that the turn to orthodoxy after the failure of the 1968-73 upturn – by orthodoxy I mean Leninist-Trotskyism, the fetishism of its dictates: the first four congresses of the third international, a dismissive attitude to the left of orthodox communist currents of the first years of that international and Trotskyist sect-building generally (with all the bad faith that has entailed) – have been an utter failure. The top-down, burn it if we cannot control it, methods of these groups suggest that the roots of Stalinism is much deeper than many of us previously thought. They have repulsed many and with the crisis of capitalism in 2008 these organisations if anything became more marginal. That last fact is really the one which buries them, when Marxists suggest the test of ideas lies in practical application then they must judge themselves by their own criterion. The mini-bureaucratic fiefdoms that groups have become discredited the revolutionary left. Some thousands passed through these organisations and out the other side, sometimes still sympathetic but critical, others angered and cynical. To quote Brinton again, this time writing about Wilhelm Reich describing even the greater catastrophes of much larger organisations:
Reich writes “that in the course of the last ten years adolescents, adults, men and women, people from every walk of life have passed through the revolutionary organizations without becoming attached or committed to the revolutionary cause”. What drove them in, in the first place? “Not uniforms, not material advantage, merely vague socialist conviction, revolutionary feeling”. Why did they not stay in? “Because the organizations failed to develop this revolutionary feeling”. Why did people lapse into indifference, or go over to the Right? “Because there were bourgeois structures in them that were not destroyed”. Why were they not destroyed? “Because nobody knew what to promote and what to destroy”. The desired objective could not be achieved by appeals to discipline not even “by music and marching, for the others the Right could do that a lot better”. Nor could it be done with slogans … “The only thing which the revolutionary organizations could, without competition, have offered the masses and which in reality they did not offer … would have been the knowledge of what the uneducated, oppressed children of capitalism, hankering both after freedom and after authoritarian protection really wanted, without themselves being clearly aware of it”.
“Reich also repeatedly stressed that revolutionary propaganda should be positive. It should not be frightened of discussing the future, as concretely as possible. Fear of revolution was partly the product of ignorance. The broad “apolitical” masses would have a decisive effect upon the fate of the revolution. Revolutionaries should therefore find them where they were. They should “politicize private life, fairs, dance halls, cinemas, markets, bedrooms, hostels and betting shops”. Long before the Situationists (or Solidarity) came on the scene Reich had proclaimed that “revolutionary energy lies in everyday life” (Review: What is Class Consciousness?, 1972).
It seems to me that the ideas of Reich on repression and the deep roots of authoritarianism can be immensely useful to us again now in a society where consumerism and conformism is deeply linked to out of control commodity fetishism. I won’t be the comrade to make any great steps forward on this subject though comrades nationally and internationally hopefully will.
However, I do think the idea of a new type of society needs to be put concretely at the heart of our politics. For too long this has been just a rhetorical add-on, handled with the old line about how we could not create blueprints for the future awoken masses. One slogan, an old ’68 one, ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible’ actually is instructive here – when did we ever talk about what our lives, our localities and our environment might be like after capitalism?
A while ago I read a comrade on social media write that in their own lifetimes William Morris probably inspired more people to be socialists than Karl Marx, this struck me as immensely true and relevant. We need to write more about a post-class society might look like and also raise demands in are local areas for community projects, socially useful well paid work and services that, while they will be disregarded by local politicians and council bureaucrats, actually inspire people in our communities. We need to be more utopian, less inclined to compromise and totally dispense with the petit-Machiavellian nonsense that gives sect leaders their MO’s. We need political organisation that is also communities of solidarity, not exclusive communities for the initiated but open to everybody. Combating oppression clearly needs to be at the heart of everything.
The starting point for this is local groups whose politics are a totally egalitarian and internationalist socialism based on revolutionary humanist principles and hatred for the chains that prevent our free development. In Portsmouth we need campaigning priorities in the working class communities that we live in and also propaganda/events that start to sketch that horizon of freedom. JR
This piece first appeared on the Portsmouth Socialist Network blog and does not necessarily reflect the views of PSN which is a network which aims to bring together democratic socialists and anti-capitalists across the city and its surrounding areas.
A brief placeholder for a future discussion of class consciousness
A short while ago a great deal was being said within a certain political group about class consciousness and the need to “raise class consciousness on a mass scale”. The listener was forced to ask himself, perhaps for the first time: What exactly are they talking about? What do they mean by what they call class consciousness? One of the people present, who had kept very quiet the whole time, asked a leading party official who had insisted with particular fervour on the need for developing class consciousness among the German proletariat whether he could name five concrete features of class consciousness and perhaps also five factors which impede its development. If one wanted to develop class consciousness it was surely necessary to know what it was that one wanted to develop and why it did not develop of its own accord under the pressures of material poverty. The question seemed logical. The party official was at first a little surprised, hesitated for an instant, and then declared confidently, “Why, hunger, of course!” “Is a hungry storm trooper class-conscious?” was the prompt counter-question. Is a hungry thief class-conscious when he steals a sausage? Or an unemployed worker who accepts two marks for joining a reactionary demonstration? Or an adolescent who throws stones at the police? But if hunger, on which the CP had based its whole mass psychology, is not in itself an element of class consciousness, then what is? What is freedom? What are its concrete features?
In 1934, expelled from the German Communist Party and in exile in Denmark, the psychoanalyst (and then still Marxist) Wilhelm Reich wrote an essay entitled What is Class Consciousness? under the pseudonym of Ernst Parnell. The essay, while still formulated in the ‘Leninist’ terms of his former party, is a scathing attack against its mechanical certitude and of the failure of the German Left of the 1930s in being able to articulate and relate to the needs and desires of the masses.
The narrative of Stalinist betrayals was not a sufficient answer for Reich who believed “one of the reasons for the failure of the revolutionary movement is that the real life of individuals is played out on a different level than the instigators of social revolution believe”, rather mass consciousness far from contemplating inter-imperialist rivalries or ‘politics’ in the narrow sense, is “made up of concern about food, clothing family relationships, the possibilities of sexual satisfaction in the narrowest sense, sexual pleasure and amusements in a broader sense, such as the cinema, theatre, fairground entertainments and dancing”. It is concerned “with the difficulties of bringing up children, with furnishing the house, with the length and utilization of free time, etc. If politics are to bring about international socialism, they “must find the connection with the petty, banal, primitive, simple everyday life and wishes of the broadest mass of the people, in all the specificity of their situation in society”.
If socialists refer to the need to ‘raise class consciousness’ or ‘educate’ people then aside from identifying elements of this consciousness we should also know what inhibits and stymies it. For Reich this conformism is rooted primarily in sexual repression* and the imposition of sexual morality through the traditional allegiances of Family, the Church, and Nation which encourage “renunciation of earthly happiness, obedience, propriety, abjuration and self-sacrifice” and base themselves “on the guilt feelings of every member of the proletariat, upon their usual unassuming moderation, upon their tendency to undergo privation with dumb willingness and sometimes even with joy”.
But why reappraise Reich today? The above picture can seem anachronistic to us in the wake of the sexual and gender liberation movements, whatever their limitations and subsequent co-option. And while it is clear the family in its changed form still plays a large role in inhibiting the development of consciousness (and is likely to play a larger role as social reproduction is privatised and welfare provision removed) many may feel the failure of the sexual revolution has seen capital appropriate much of its outward form while neutralising its liberatory content.
Where Reich can be revisited is in grasping the subjective element of the present. Neoliberalism has politicised areas of daily experience and given them exaggerated importance as potential sites of struggle, people have to become ‘walking CVs’ and their psyches and subjectivities potential markets (data mining, the Cloud etc.). Alongside this is the privatization of social reproduction of which claimants and the disabled are experiencing a concentrated form of an attempt to refashion labour relations, increase the rate of exploitation and exert social control through dependence on the state and the shifting locus of the ‘wage’. We should also take into account the stratification of the class, and ask do people imagine themselves as ‘workers’ jostling over the frontier of control with the boss, or does this stratification and ways of undermining collectivity, be they zero-hours contracts or boosterish attempts to convince people their work isn’t work (‘do what you love’), give rise to a petty narcissism of minor difference and competition, especially when ‘manager’ does not have the same meaning or features that would distinguish someone from their workmates?
If Reich is correct about the nature of mass consciousness then it follows that the best way for the left to organise, and the impetus for people to organise themselves, is around issues that are understandable and relate to their lives, the people around them and the areas in which they live. In short we must reduce as much as possible the gap between ‘politics’ and ‘everyday life’. On Merseyside claimants and tenants have set-up a group which runs surgeries, stalls, political actions, and functions as a space to talk about problems and have a bit to eat or drink. Why has this succeeded where the left has largely failed? The group may experience the usual problems of such attempts: specialisation, difficulty in sustaining activity, the pressure to find funding and resources, the development of the same internecine spats that afflict the left... and yet it represents a small but modest step in creating a low-level infrastructure.
While there are significant political differences there are a growing number on the left, hastened by the implosion of the SWP and the aftershocks through the Trotskyist/Leninist groups in Britain, who are attempting to grapple with organising methods and coming to similar conclusions. This brief piece was originally written in a similar spirit to A proposal to take to Left Unity: an organising party , although I am critical of the Left Unity project it is interesting how many of the (problematic) practices of the Dutch Socialist Party resemble a perhaps more managerial version of what anarchists would term a Solidarity Network. I believe this strategy is a viable one for us in the present: it brings together both workplace and social struggles, it has potential to be broad, horizontal and reliant on self-activity, and taps into the prevailing current of people organising around specific issues with the potential to leave a lasting infrastructure rooted in local areas. LS
*This is a crude characterisation, for an introduction see Social and Sexual Revolution: from Marx to Reich and Back by Bertell Ollman, and the obligatory The Irrational in Politics. Most sympathetic accounts treat Reich's 'Marxist' period as distinct from his later project, for an idiosyncratic take on the continuity between the two see Wilhelm Reich: Beyond the Mad Scientist Paradigm.
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- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Saturday, 16 August 2014
- Written by Alan Sears
This insightful piece by Alan Sears, first published by briarpatch magazine struck a chord with some IS Network members. Through an exploration of the term 'comrade', he highlights many of the issues we are struggling with as we attempt to organise in a new and inclusive way. We would like to extend our thanks Alan Sears and briarpatch for permission to republish here and we welcome comments and discussion of the article.
Seeking comrades for long-term relationship. I want us to be there for each other over time, sharing sadness and joy. I love the active life, with time for reflection and good laughs along the way. But I insist on non-monogamy. Honey, I will love you, but we need to mix it up! We must learn to thrive through our shared commitments and our differences. Together, we can raise hell and make beautiful changes.
Maybe comrade is the wrong word for it, perhaps too retro. It recalls a Soviet agent in some ’50s spy movie. It sends us back to a particular kind of political left, a product of specific times. A left that has been dying over the past 30 years.
There is a male edge to comradeship. The word comrade actually has a militarist slant, originally describing the intimacy of shared barracks. It names the closeness that comes from sharing intense experiences of risk, sacrifice, and proximity to death. Comradeship may also reflect male patterns of relationship: women make friends while men have comrades because guys are too emotionally blocked for real intimacy.
Let me make clear, then, that when I seek comrades, I am not looking for guys to be my buds. Yet, despite these problems with the word, there is something to comradeship or whatever we choose to call it. In my experience of radicalism over time, I have learned to recognize a kind of relationship forged in struggle that has its own character. We develop a unique trust, with particular feelings and assumptions of mutuality.
I am connected both to my comrades and to my friends, but these relationships are not the same. I have friends who disagree with my politics. And I have comrades I don’t really like very much as people. Of course, I have genuine friendships with some of my comrades, but that is above and beyond our political ties.
Against the Stream
I don’t think we talk enough about comradeship. I believe it sustains us in our radicalism, bolstering us to swim continually against the stream. There are times I wonder whether my vision of a better world is a sign that I have lost touch with reality rather than a measure of my political insight. Connecting with comrades helps me feel grounded despite the apparent marginality of my views.
The French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd coined the perfect term to describe what we need to sustain radicalism against the current: “slow impatience.” To me, this nicely captures the difficult balance radicals need to seek between a sense of urgency fuelled by a burning rage against the system and a longer term perspective based on relationship-building and strategic groundwork. It is awfully hard to do slow impatience on your own; you might choose either the fast burn or the long-term flicker instead. It takes a particular kind of teamwork to find the balance point where slowness and impatience meet.
So far, this is all sounding quite cozy and romantic, as we sustain each other with bread and roses. Well, that is part of it, but I am not looking for monogamy. I think we radicals spend way too much time hanging out with our own type these days. We cling to those we most agree with to keep going in the face of horrible defeats. Yet if we are to build mass movements with the social weight to change the world, we are going to need to work with a wide range of people, including radicals we disagree with and newer activists who haven’t learned our insular ways of speaking and acting.
Each of us brings different strengths and weaknesses to the struggle. We need to learn from each other: to piece together a more complete view of the world; to make strategic decisions informed by what people in different situations are actually thinking; and to honestly evaluate the impact of our actions. This means developing better ways of engaging our disagreements, actually listening to each other, for example, instead of mounting personal attacks and trying to destroy every perspective with which we disagree.
The only way we can hope to forge a class-based politics that is genuinely queer, feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, ecological, and that takes disability rights seriously is to work together with a shared commitment to liberation, while constantly learning from each other what that actually means in practice. It will be a messy and frustrating process, but if we make sure to prioritize voices that are too often silenced, there is so much to learn and to gain.
Not Tying the Knot
If we do become comrades, let’s not rush to formalize this relationship. The left has a long history of joining together (’til death do us part) in organizations built around a particular political position and lineage. I don’t believe we should be organizing today around political positions and lineages that developed in quite different times in which people worked and lived very differently. I think we need to be more open to the political and social impact of neoliberal restructuring; to admit that we don’t know precisely what forms of organization will fit the struggles of the future.
I am not rejecting formal organization on principle. On the contrary, I believe we need democratic anti-capitalist organizations: to develop specific decision-making capacities; to construct protocols around equity and abuse; to establish strategic priorities while respecting dissenting views; and to welcome new people without feeling like closed cliques. Unelected leadership often reproduces the worst inequalities of the dominant society without any form of redress or accountability.
But I think we need a basis of shared experience to build such organizations, if we want to move beyond the model of the last left. That is why I am seeking long-term, non-monogamous relations where we can learn from each other as we work together in a variety of ways. Let’s talk about the kind of relationship we want and need, without rushing down the aisle together.
We learn so much while organizing with people who are different from us. My politics have been enriched through conversations with long-time worker activists about what mass insurgency looked like in the 1940s and also with folks in the Quebec student movement who seem to have learned more in three years than I learned in thirty. It has not always been comfortable, as I have been pushed by women, people of colour, and Indigenous people to recognize time and again how incomplete my own politics are. I used to think I would someday get it right: a genuinely integrative liberation politics. Now I think that is a collective project, involving continuous learning from those who experience oppression and engage in resistance on their own terms.
Not Just Pretty Love Songs
I don’t want to simply romanticize comradeship. Without very deliberate efforts to counter inequality and oppression, our own relationships can easily reproduce exactly the inequities we are trying to resist in the world. I am convinced, for example, that many anti-racist and feminist activists have been driven from left organizations not so much by the official line but by the everyday practices of comradeship that elevate some to authority and silence others.
It is not surprising that comradeship has proved to be an all too fertile field for sexual assault and gendered abuse. There is an informality and ambiguity in these relationships where the political and the personal necessarily connect. The power relations of the dominant society can form a toxic stew when they leach into the official or unofficial forms of authority that exist in radical movements and organizations.
We have a lot to learn about creating a comradeship in which equity is promoted, while assault and abuse are actively countered. Ultimately, this is part of the reason we need formal, democratic, and pluralistic organizations. But building these organizations is going to take time and work, with the right mixture of open-ended creativity and shared commitment. We will get there, in part, by consciously building better relations of comradeship.
Be My Comrade
So when we meet up at the Peoples’ Social Forum or any other venue, let’s not just hook up. Nothing wrong with hook-ups, of course; this is not a moral thing. But comradeship is not a quickie, and I think we all need to be working more on consciously building these relations. If you like the sound of this, please be my comrade.Alan Sears is a writer and activist who teaches sociology at Ryerson. He is an editorial associate of New Socialist webzine and the co-author (with James Cairms) of The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century (University of Toronto Press). His new book is The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood Publishing). Add a comment
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