- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Monday, 15 December 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
Bill Crane’s response Max Shachtman and the Origins of ‘Socialism from Below' was a very useful response to my own article on Shachtman. He rightly points out the often ignored link between Shachtman’s theory and practice and the International Socialist tradition which both Bill and I identify with. Bill suggests that I concentrated on “Shachtman as a Trotskyist” and his aim was to focus upon “Shachtman as an International Socialist”. It was not my intention to omit Shachtman’s contribution to the IS tradition, and the article was in fact intended to help reintroduce him to it. I therefore agree with many of the points Bill raises in his article, however I also believe he omits or underplays some important aspects of Shachtman’s politics that also contributed to our shared tradition, which narrows his analysis in some ways.
Bill is absolutely correct to point out that much of the International Socialist analysis of state capitalism is rooted in Shachtman’s critique of Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers’ state. It was fundamental in concentrating the IS on the working class as the agent for revolutionary change by challenging the orthodox Trotskyist concept that the Soviet bureaucracy could introduce revolution from above. He also highlights the role of T. N. Vance in developing the theory of the permanent arms economy (another key pillar of the IS tradition), something I was completely unaware of until I read Bill’s response. The importance of the idea of socialism from below in Shachtman’s theory was something I did attempt to highlight in my article:
There were many important aspects of Shachtman’s theory which should not be ignored. His insistence that socialism could not be brought about by any other means than through the self-activity of the working class was absolutely essential in a period when any number of socialists were arguing that socialism, or workers’ states, were being introduced on the back of Soviet tanks. From the occupations of Eastern Europe in 1945, to the seizures of power by armed minorities in countries such as China and Cuba, through to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; many socialists have time and again argued that socialism was being introduced “from above”. This has led many on the revolutionary left to seek all kinds of short cuts to socialism, which by-pass the rather boring necessity of convincing working class people that it’s a good idea. It can lead to any number of voluntaristic methods within the labour movement which view the working class as a passive mass in need of liberating by an enlightened minority. Shachtman in the 1940s, for all his faults, stood by the principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.
However, while Bill is absolutely correct to highlight Shachtman’s contribution to both the concept of socialism from below and the International Socialist tradition, he omits an important aspect of this which I attempted to raise in my article, which is how this concept impacted upon his ideas concerning revolutionary organisation and practice. This was a running theme which originated in his rejection of Cannon’s model of the revolutionary party, and was also a central pillar of the early International Socialist’s critique of the methods of orthodox Trotskyists. In fact, I would go further and argue that the abandonment of this aspect of the IS tradition has played a crucial role in the degeneration of organisations which adhere to it, and has in many ways contributed to their recent crises.
The early International Socialists argued the orthodox Trotskyist movement’s abandonment of the concept of socialism from below was not just displayed in its theory of the degenerated workers state and the idea that socialist or workers’ economies could be introduced by a bureaucratic movement “from above”. It was also displayed in the methods they employed within the working class movement. This was directly related to Trotsky’s catastrophist theory, which believed that the next proletarian revolution was imminent, and therefore the primary role of the revolutionary organisation, however small or lacking in roots in the working class, was to challenge the existing leadership of the working class – the trade union bureaucracy, the social democrats, and the Stalinist parties – for leadership of the movement. The idea that the revolutionary situation was imminent led many Trotskyists to believe that the working class were “objectively” revolutionary, and therefore the only thing holding them back was the duplicitous role of its leaders. This is often referred to as the idea of the “crisis of leadership”, and the early International Socialists argued it led the orthodox Trotskyists to top-down methods of organisation and a tendency to focus on leadership struggles within the movement. The focus, they argued, should be on the rank and file of the working class, most of whom were reformist, not revolutionary, and on winning them to revolutionary arguments. The small Trotskyist sects as they existed were not the revolutionary vanguard party in embryo; it would be formed out of the working class through struggle. This vanguard did not yet exist. The British International Socialist Peter Sedgwick referred to these problems in his article The Pretenders:
Socialists who think and act in these terms may be justly called The Pretenders. The throne of working-class leadership is, on this view, held by a usurper of some kind, of doubtful authenticity and probably bastard petty-bourgeois stock. If the true heir, equipped with the right royal birthmarks of “clarity,” “scientific Socialism,” “Socialist humanism” or whatever, were to occupy his lawful place, all would be well with the movement. The typical behaviour of a Pretender is to try to discredit the credentials of the usurping King (by means, e.g., of close scrutinies of Comintern history, or of plausible scandal-mongering) and to establish his own authority, particularly by tracing a connection of lineage between himself and, e.g., Keir Hardie, William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean or Leon Trotsky.
Pretenders are so pre-occupied with the problem of Kingship (or leadership as they insist on calling it) that they seldom bother to find out the attitudes of their prospective subjects, the working class of this country. Or rather, if they do draw upon the opinions of workers, they do so in such a way as to add to the lustre of their own particular claim to royalty.
This top down approach to the movement was reflected in the party model adopted by most Trotskyist organisations. The “Bolshevisation model” was adopted by the Communist parties in a period of time when the international revolutionary movement was receding, and the Soviet state had become increasingly more isolated, and as a result, more authoritarian and bureaucratised. In the course of the civil war the Russian Communist Party had itself adopted top-down and bureaucratic methods. Factions in the Russian Communist Party were banned from 1921, and democratic discussion was increasingly curtailed. The native democratic structures of many international Communist parties were uprooted during Bolshevisation, advocated by Zinoviev, which many referred to as the “Russian model”. While Bill may be correct in arguing that many US Communists supported these measures due to the existence of constant factional battles within their party, it does not change the fact that this was a major break with the democratic principles by which the Communist movement had conducted itself historically. It began the process, which the Stalinists ultimately completed, of transforming it from a democratic working class movement to a bureaucratised authoritarian one. Democratic expression was curtailed, and the central organs of the party became increasingly dominant. Emphasis was placed on centralisation and discipline. Cannon’s uncritical acceptance of this model was a serious problem in the Trotskyist movement, which led to split after split in many of its sections.
The roots of both the top-down method of party democracy and the “crisis of leadership” approach to the working class movement are found in what Trotsky in his early criticism of Lenin referred to as “substitutionism”. This concept was picked up by Cliff in his early work, Trotsky on Substitutionism, in which he quoted Trotsky’s famous line:
…the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.
The argument here was that a top-down method of relating to the class is intrinsically linked to a top-down structure of party organisation. Both these features of the Trotskyist movement could trace themselves to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and both therefore needed to be combated by revolutionaries.
It was this major difference over democracy which ultimately led to the split in the US Socialist Workers Party. All manner of differences on questions of the nature of the Soviet state could probably have existed in a united organisation, but the increasing differences on the question of democracy in the party and the working class movement, which became both exposed and accentuated by the faction fight, meant cohabitation was virtually impossible. The discussion of who was at fault for the split in the party is ultimately of minor importance (although I would argue that Bill is far too kind to Trotsky and Cannon on this question), compared to the key issue for revolutionaries is not the individual behaviour of the leaders of each faction, but what they were arguing for. In Shachtman’s case, he was advocating an open and public debate on the questions the SWP was wrestling with, while Cannon maintained that debates should remain internal. Bill refers to this demand of Shachtman’s as “unprecedented”, which may be the case but is of secondary importance to whether it was correct or not. Shachtman continued to argue for the right of the membership to open and a public debate on all questions, and this was implemented in the Workers Party, which he and his followers founded following the split.
Therefore, when we discuss the roots of our tradition in Shachtman, and the conflict between his faction and that of Cannon, it is important we do not lose sight of the link between the concept of socialism from below and the rejection of the organisational model that Cannon advocated. This important question was also central to the early IS rejection of orthodox Trotskyism. While Tony Cliff and a handful of others originally split with the orthodox Trotskyist organisation The Club over the question of state capitalism in Russia, it began to revise and to question much of the practice of that movement. The organisation they later founded, the International Socialists, put a premium on open and democratic debate, and rejected the ultra-centralism and bureaucratism of many other revolutionary organisations. This, along with its rejection of Stalinism and all other theories of socialism from above, led it to be one of the major far left beneficiaries of the movement in 1968 and the period of working class rank and file militancy in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s, however, as the working class movement receded and economic stagnation set in, the IS (which was soon to become the Socialist Workers Party), began to undertake a revision of its ideas concerning its organisational method. This was a long process that lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s, where there was an increasing inclination to adopt orthodox model of “Leninism” which it had previously rejected.
In the 1970s it began to shut down many self-organised groups and factions, and increasingly began to look like the “monolithic” organisation that the IS had previously rejected. Factional disagreements began to take on the “winner takes all” aspect which characterised the US SWP under Cannon. When the “downturn”, which we now recognise as the first stage of the introduction of neoliberalism, set in in the 1980s the working class was under severe attack, and the SWP resolved to insulate itself from this by separating itself off from the wider left and emphasising the need for centralisation and discipline within the party in order to do so. The serious defeats of the 1980s led to the collapse of much of the left, and the severe weakening of working class organisations. In the early 1970s, the British IS had seen itself as one radical part of a wider movement, rooted in some small ways in the rank and file of the working class. By the 1990s, increasingly isolated and with these ties largely broken, the tendency was for the SWP to substitute itself for the left and the wider working class movement. It began to argue that an “upturn” was just around the corner, and there was a need to manoeuvre in preparation for this upturn. The necessity for a “tightly knit” “Leninist” organisation was emphasised to do so. The SWP began to take on some of the worst aspects of the orthodox Trotskyist tradition which it had originally rejected – substitutionism, dogmatism, catastrophism, and the monolithic party model. Ironically, those important features of the IS tradition- state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, deflected permanent revolution- which were key to their concept of socialism from below, and originated as drastic revisions of orthodox Trotskyist shibboleths, became shibboleths themselves. The revolutionary party became seen in part as a tool to preserve the tradition as a finished product, and a vehicle to deliver it to the masses; much like the orthodox Trotskyist “parties” which the IS used to criticise.
We should not ignore the importance of Shachtmanism to the IS tradition, but nor should we be selective about which parallels to use and which to ignore. Shachtman and his followers, just like Cliff and the IS, emerged out of the orthodox Trotskyist movement as they attempted to make sense of a world which no longer fitted into the outline of Trotsky, and they attempted to revise the shibboleths and dogmas which had become articles of faith for many. In order to do this both required the maximum amount of openness and democracy, and they therefore insisted upon it. I agree with Bill’s criticisms of the trajectory of Shachtman in his later years, but what should concern both of us more is the trajectory of our own tradition away from the democratic, iconoclastic, revolutionary principles on which it was founded, towards the dogmatism and conservatism that we see today.
- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Tuesday, 9 December 2014
- Written by RABL
This is a response to an article on the International Socialist Network blog which I’ve found pretty concerning. Mistress Magpie writes about the government’s decision not to allow escort ads on Universal Jobmatch, the jobcentre’s website. She seems mainly concerned with what this implies in ideological terms, less so with the real material consequences for claimants and sex workers of having or not having escort ads on the website. I understand that Mistress Magpie is no longer in the ISN, and has moved on to a gig writing for the Guardian. She’s since noted the effect that her position of relative privilege might be having on her writing and welcomes constructive criticism. So it’s in the spirit of comradely debate that I’d like to pick apart some of the problems in this blog post and outline an alternative perspective.
Mistress starts by stating that sex is a basic human need. Though I would agree that the moralising around sex work has dangerous consequences for sex workers, I don’t think arguing for the necessity of sex work from the perspective of clients is a productive place to start in countering this. As a sex worker, I have no interest in trying to justify the industry that profits from my labour, nor in defending the sense of entitlement my clients demonstrate towards my body. My interests as a worker are in improving my conditions and my pay. Very often this conflicts with the interests of my clients who would like to demand I take whatever risks with my health they desire, for as long as possible and for as little pay as possible. As workers our demands to be able to work free from criminalisation, stigma, and violence need to start with our own material needs. Were our work actually necessary (and I’m not convinced it is) that might translate to a certain amount of bargaining power in real terms. However when workers in vital industries and caring professions strike for better conditions, their supposed responsibility to continue working for the good of society is used as an argument to undermine solidarity towards the strikers from other workers. It shouldn’t be necessary to refer to the notion of the sad sex-starved clients to explain what is wrong with, for example, police violence against sex workers. We don’t need to justify our work to legitimise our struggle.
Mistress continues to argue for the legitimacy of our work by making the case for working in the sex industry. She says “Sex work has its pitfalls and drawbacks, but it’s one way to avoid the degradation and harsh conditions of today’s zero-hours contracts wasteland.” For many sex workers it is both, the pitfalls and drawbacks of sex work, but also degradation in their job as a sex worker, and being self-employed, sometimes for a boss who doesn’t need to guarantee a wage but still gets all the benefits of an employer. She says “To my friends, food and fuel insecurity are far more frightening prospects than the stigma of sex work.” Once again there are many people experiencing both. The sex industry doesn’t deserve to exist because it is pleasant to work in, it needs to be pleasanter to work in because, for better or for worse, it exists. Whether it represents a choice between a cush office job and a fulfilling job in the sex industry, or a choice between not being able to feed oneself (or ones kids) and doing a job in the sex industry that they detest, workers will continue to opt to be a sex worker when it seems to be the best of the options available to them. Rather than singing the virtues of work in a particular industry, we need to demand more options for everyone, childcare for working mothers, a decent income for sick and unemployed people, better wages, and better conditions in all work, so that we aren’t constantly choosing between a bad option and a worse one.
In reality putting escorting positions on the job centres website provides the opportunity for further coercion in the form of sanctions. Mistress is aware of this, “Of course nobody should be forced to apply for an escorting position, but nobody should be coerced into applying for any job that does not suit their abilities”. As it is though, they would be forced into applying for an escorting position as claimants are forced into applying for other jobs. The level of control that jobcentre staff have over claimants is already shocking. They can print out any job and demand the claimant applies for it under the threat of sanctions. I imagine some job centre advisers also frequent brothels, and would have an interest in harassing their choice of claimant into a job there. Poverty is one reason why some people are forced into the sex industry against their will, and the jobcentre website including those jobs just provides another route by which people can end up coerced into it. Whatever our feelings as sex workers about sex work in comparison to other work, we can’t ignore the fact that being forced into sex work is likely to be a lot more distressing for people who have no experience of it than being forced into most other industries. At this point also, a lot of sex work jobs have appalling conditions, partly due to many businesses in the sex industry operating semi-legally. Much as we can say it shouldn’t be like this, it is.
The concern about whether the jobcentre includes escorting ads is a concern over their implied position that they don’t view it as proper work. I don’t particularly care what the government or the job centre think sex work is, I care about the ways in which they make it more dangerous. I’m not trying to win them over ideologically, they’re already a lost cause. I just want them to give us what we need. In this case, there are no practical benefits to a demand that they allow escorting ads on their website, and would make things worse. Supposing Mistress were to convince the government to put escorting positions on their website, she’d be putting people in a less privileged position at risk for the sake of making an ideological point about how she wants her own work to be viewed.
Making the point that sex work is work is one that we need other workers to understand. We need our unions, political organisations, communities, to include us as workers. We need to build a class consciousness that recognises that we all need to fight against harassment, bullying and intimidation from bosses, the risks of precarity, fees demanded to be able to work, wage theft, unsafe working conditions and all the other perils of work that we have in common. We need to support other workers in their struggles for better conditions and appeal to them to in turn support ours.
- Category: Meetings
- Published on Thursday, 4 December 2014
- Written by James N
Last Wednesday over 50 people* attended a joint-meeting organised by the IS Network and rs21 entitled, 'Are we all becoming more anxious? - The politics of mental health under austerity.' The meeting was made up of a diverse audience and was attended predominately by people who are neither in the IS Network or rs21 and several who had not been involved with the left before. The meeting was introduced by brief contributions from Rachel Eboral (rs21), Claire English (Plan C) and Ben Watson (Mad Pride).
The meeting then opened up for discussion, whereby there was a combination between people making political points about mental health and class, about medicalisation, forced treatments, etc which was combined with people telling aspects of their own mental health experiences often in illuminating and moving ways. Other subjects discussed included problems with provision, challenges for service users and workers trying to organise in mental health, to the social construction of illness, the marketisation of remedies, right through to the question of collective agency and left organisations in general. One person spoke on how for many of those attending it was the first time they had open, honest discussion among themselves as socialists about mental health issues, which are still often surrounded by stigma and shame.
A subject that was also discussed was how left wing groups are frequently not acknowledging or being supportive of those in their midst who are suffering from mental health crises or problems. This would appear to suggest more serious consideration for all of those on the left in how they should be relating to each other politically, how they are talking to each other, the tone of what they say to each other and the impact it might have on others.
Thankfully the meeting also provides some evidence that despite the catastrophic failures of the left in the last few years there remains an audience to hear and participate with socialists in discussing ideas.
Thanks go out to all of our speakers and all of those who helped with or attended the meeting.
*Attendance would likely have been higher but shortly before the meeting there was a well-attended demonstration outside the US embassy at the same time in solidarity with the protests in Ferguson. Before the meeting ended a few people who had been on the demonstration earlier gave a brief report back to a positive reception.
We Are All Very Anxious: Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It, Plan C http://www.weareplanc.org/we-are-all-very-anxious#.VICrLtKsV8E
Not ‘crazy’ as in wacky, but ‘mad’ as in ‘fuck this’, Søren G, rs21 http://rs21.org.uk/2014/11/19/not-crazy-as-in-wacky-but-mad-as-in-fuck-this/
Freud and the October Revolution, Jules Alford, IS Network http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/analysis/431-freud-and-the-october-revolution
'Splitting in Two: Mad Pride and Punk Rock Oblivion' by Robert Dellar, Unkant Publications http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/?location_id=2192&item=2219
Peter Sedgwick: the dissidents’ dissident, Dave Renton https://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/peter-sedgwick-the-dissidents-dissident/