In Defence of Dictatorship-introductory notes

25 Jun

The tendency amongst communists to revise Marx’s state theory has been somewhat noticeable, to the point where many of these distortions have their own distortions, like a never-ending pile of antique kaleidoscopes. This can be seen in the idealistic analyses of historical formations such as the USSR, which reduce the formation of the Soviet state, for instance, to an idea, imputed by misguided revolutionaries into the natural course of the revolution, and hence are able to elucidate away the issues of the Russian Revolution as a result of the ‘use of the state’. These tendencies that locate the source of counter-revolutionary manifestations (in particular, Stalinism) in the ‘mistakes’ of the past struggle, whether conscious of it or not, tend towards either a moral objection to the dictatorship of the proletariat or its flagrant misrepresentation. This introduction is not aimed at the bourgeois advocates of state socialism, who we have no interest in engaging with, but at those who we consider to be in our same tradition and camp, despite being wrong on this issue. The purpose here is to begin an elaboration as to our understanding of the position of Marx and Engels and those who disagree with them.

The foundation of the state is its separation from real life; it rests upon antagonistic conditions, on the contradiction between mystified generality, the ‘general interest,’ and organically antithetical forms of life, with their conflicting private interests. As Marx says, the state always exists to reflect alienated general interest, a false universality,

‘’The contradiction between the vocation and the good intentions of the administration on the one hand and the means and powers at its disposal on the other cannot be eliminated by the state, except by abolishing itself; for the state is based on this contradiction. It is based on the contradiction between public and private life, between universal and particular interests.’’ (1)

This is the necessary form of illusion that the dominance of a particular class takes for societies in which the individual remains isolated from the community, societies that remain subordinated to the contradiction of interests, of classes. As far as class exists, the supremacy of the dominant class is represented through the abstract totality that is the state. The state exists as long as human emancipation is still an incomplete program.  Indeed, due to the fact that the state conceives of itself as the emblem of social unity, in practice, it is based on the illusion of itself representing the social interest, of its actions being governed by the same, and hence cannot look past this to recognize its own basis in the particular, economic interests of a society, or to recognize that, whatever its actions may be, its very existence is a manifestation of the same cause as the aforementioned social problems. It does not acknowledge that it is built on contradictions and that these contradictions form its very conditions of existence, thus portraying itself as a complete community whilst locating the causes of problems as external to itself, Marx put it, in his 1844 text, Critical Notes on the Article: ‘’The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’’,

 ‘’In so far as the state acknowledges the existence of social grievances, it locates their origins either in the laws of nature over which no human agency has control, or in private life, which is independent of the state, or else in malfunctions of the administration which is dependent on it. Thus England finds poverty to be based on the law of nature according to which the population must always outgrow the available means of subsistence. From another point of view, it explains pauperism as the consequence of the bad will of the poor, just as the King of Prussia explains it in terms of the unchristian feelings of the rich and the Convention explains it in terms of the counter-revolutionary and suspect attitudes of the proprietors. Hence England punishes the poor, the Kings of Prussia exhorts the rich and the Convention beheads the proprietors.’’ (2)

‘Civil society’ (in Marx’s terms, referring to the bourgeois analytical perspective of society, ‘in which in which every individual is a totality of needs and only exists for the other person, as the other exists for him, insofar as each becomes a means for the other’) represents itself externally and relatively as the nation, as the division of capital,

‘’Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality, and inwardly must organise itself as State.’’ (3)

The nation reflects the same illusory interest, sovereignty and universality as the democratic state. The interests of the state, nation, democracy and the ‘people’ are opposed to the interests of the proletariat. The abolition of capital and its resulting national divisions will be affected by the proletarian state and the gradual disillusion of all national boundaries and political distinctions of nationality. In reflecting the interests of the proletariat as an international class, the proletarian state will neglect the interests of nationality as a form entirely reflective of the class interest of the bourgeoisie. To equate the interests of the proletariat with general interest is ultimately fallacious. In capitalist society, with its division into particular classes and class interests, there can be no true general interest, while, as far the state is concerned, the ‘general interest’ will always be that of the bourgeoisie.

The highest and most ideal state form in bourgeois society is the democratic republic, also the highest level of contradictory mystification,

‘’And yet the democratic republic always remains the last form of bourgeois domination, that in which it is broken to pieces.” (4)

The capitalist sense of political freedom is predicated on the existence of humans as abstract individuals, participating at will in the political community. It is based on man’s lack of social determination, rather than on his participation within society. One cannot confuse the real human community or the gemeinwesen, i.e. communist society, with democracy. The individual freedom ensured by the bourgeois democratic state is nothing other than the complete subjugation of the individual’s freedom, of their humanity to capital. Democracy only lives to mask the despotic expropriation of labour-power and life from those suffering the proletarian condition.

All forms of democratism seek to change the form of illusion without challenging the content, to which the form is representative of,

‘’Wherever there are political parties each party will attribute every defect of society to the fact that its rival is at the helm of the state instead of itself. Even the radical and revolutionary politicians look for the causes of evil not in the nature of the state but in a specific form of the state which they would like to replace with another form of the state.’’ (5)

Even sworn enemies within the bourgeois political paradigm can find common ground in their unrelenting espousal of democracy and in their united opposition to those tendencies of capital that have historically found the need to shed any form of democratic illusion for the sake of survival. The rejection of the current state of affairs as non or anti-democratic, arguing to replace this with whatever form of ‘true’ democracy, be it ‘direct’, ‘popular’, ‘peoples democracy’ or even under the confused notion of ‘proletarian democracy’ are points of analysis completely separated from ours, they all serve as apologia for the bourgeois state. Democracy in its state form ceases to exist with the abolition of the basis of political and economic atomization, the abolition of state and capital.

The analysis of the state inevitably leads into the historical debate over the democratic principle and its place in proletarian revolution. Democracy certainly cannot be upheld as a principle within the existence of proletarian power either, as the program must be maintained regardless of what proportion of the class supports it. If it is only a minority of the class that is actually acting as a class for itself then it is only this minority that can be supported by the communists.

‘’Just as the disastrous isolation from this nature is disproportionately more far-reaching, unbearable, terrible and contradictory than the isolation from the political community, so too the transcending of this isolation and even a partial reaction, a rebellion against it, is so much greater, just as the man is greater than the citizen and human life than political life. Hence, however limited an industrial revolt may be, it contains within itself a universal soul: and however universal a political revolt may be, its colossal form conceals a narrow split.’’ (6)

The democratic mechanism may well present itself as a form to which the organisation of communism may adapt, for form is never a matter of principle but one of practicality. As noted by Bordiga, ‘’Our critique of such a method must be much more severe when it is applied to the whole of society as it is today, or to given nations, than when it is introduced into much more restricted organisations, such as trade unions and parties’’ (7). The democratic form of organisation in the most simple sense, can carry either revolutionary or counter-revolutionary contents: ‘’Further, it must not be forgotten that the logical form of bourgeois domination is precisely the democratic republic, which has only become too dangerous owing to the development already attained by the proletariat, but which, as France and America show, is still possible as purely bourgeois rule’’ (8). The proletarian dictatorship may encompass the democratic forms purely within the organisational constraints of the proletarians if the conditions demand that this be so. ‘Proletarian Democracy’ however, cannot be upheld to any universal applicability, as the principle of democracy cannot be upheld against the principles of  communism. Our principles can either be proletarian or democratic, they cannot be both. The proletarian state and dictatorship are matters fundamentally regarding content rather than form. Whilst the form of course must be necessarily derived from the content, these ephemeral forms of appearance and modes of organisation will not be universal and will embrace different mechanisms as dictated by the conditions that they must be applied to.

In contrast, bourgeois democracy is the more explicit class interest of the proletarian state, the importance of which is lost in the vast array of dismal theories proclaiming this or that competing national regime to be of ‘proletarian’ content. Against all reformist and democratic falsifications of Marxism, the fundamental principles of communism maintain that capital necessary leads to the insurrection of the working class and their establishment of political power in the state under the dictatorship of the proletariat:

‘’We have seen: a social revolution possesses a total point of view because – even if it is confined to only one factory district – it represents a protest by man against a dehumanized life, because it proceeds from the point of view of the particular, real individual, because the community against whose separation from himself the individual is reacting, is the true community of man, human nature. In contrast, the political soul of revolution consists in the tendency of the classes with no political power to put an end to their isolation from the state and from power. Its point of view is that of the state, of an abstract totality which exists only through its separation from real life and which is unthinkable in the absence of an organized antithesis between the universal idea and the individual existence of man. In accordance with the limited and contradictory nature of the political soul a revolution inspired by it organizes a dominant group within society at the cost of society.’’ (9)

From the bourgeois perspective, the class movement is fundamentally anti-democratic in the sense that it is a struggle against political freedom and equality, eradicating the democracy of the bourgeois state and implementing their own dictatorship which will deny the bourgeoisie any political power,

‘’Democracy is a contradiction in terms, a lie and indeed sheer hypocrisy […] In my opinion, this applies to all forms of government. Political freedom is a farce and the worst possible slavery; such a fictitious freedom is the worst enslavement. So is political equality: this is why democracy must be torn to pieces as well as any other form of government.’’ (10)

The proletarian state cannot be abolished in the sense of a definitive act, as this would mean the immediate replacement of illusory general interest with a general interest that is genuinely reflective of materiality, the interest of the human community. The state ‘’is inconceivable without the organized contradiction between the universal – idea of man and the individual existence of man’’ (11), thus it is also inconceivable for the state to cease existing whilst society is still divided by economic interests. In a sense, the disappearance of the state is akin to a flower withering when, say, water is taken away from it, but the difference is that while the flower always undergoes periods without water, and only with their prolongation and over a gradual period of time withers away, the state has an existence contingent upon that of social alienation.

The process of the death of the state is marked by the movement from the indirect affirmation of social labour through the social relation of value to the production of and for the sake of use-value, the transition from an enforced and illusory general interest to the collective interest of the social individual. As far as the remnants of the social relations of capital still exist, even in withered forms with an ensured demise, so too does the proletariat, even if the interest of the class (and thus the existence of the state) becomes less visible, less clear by the day.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is a highest stage of class struggle, and thus can only exist within capitalist society. It does not constitute a ‘socialist state’, or a third mode of production separate from capitalism and communism:

‘’Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other.’’ (12)

This is because:

‘’The existence of classes is only bound up with the particular, historical phases in the development of production, that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.’’ (13)

The process of the abolition of value and thus all social forms corresponding to this economic base is a task that defines the transition from capital to community, the class existing as far as this task is incomplete, even in its late stages. The class character of the proletariat is not diminished via the seizure of political power through the medium of the state exhibiting the class’s dictatorship. The equation of class with specific formal relationships to the means of production is incomprehension of the real nature of the class historically. The class defines itself through its antagonistic relations to opposing classes and thus their role and existence as a class is not negated by their gains made through the war of social classes. The proletarian class is no more abolished by its establishment of state power than it is by the expropriation of a factory by its workers. The understanding of the abolition of capitalism as an instantaneous act reflects a definition of the state as a merely formal organ or mechanism to be used at will in society, or as a moral abstraction. The state represents the alienation of man from the community, and thus exists as so long as the community does not. The act of this abolition, the phase of the onslaught of capitalist social relations and the repression of all facets of society seeking to re-establish the dying order can only be guided through the agent of the state, for the nonexistence of the state can mean nothing other than the victory of the community of social individuals, which, needless to say, has not yet been achieved while it is still being implemented.

The existence of the proletarian state is not a matter of arbitrary wills, it is not an option for communism to choose from. The dictatorship of the proletariat’s state is not an ideological construct; it is not simply a matter of communist consciousness. The proletarian state of the future will almost definitely not be consciously reflected as a (class) dictatorship at first or even necessarily as a state by its enactors. The movement that is a naturally immanent part of the current mode of production is the struggle for political power for the destruction of political power, seizure of the state for the destruction of the state, class dictatorship for the abolition of class. The proletariat will only achieve its final victory when its existence ceases, along with any remnants of the state.

(1) … /08/07.htm Critical Notes on the Article: ‘’The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’’, Karl Marx, Vorwarts!, No. 63, August 7 1844.

(2) Ibid.

(3) … /ch01b.htm The German Ideology.

(4) (Engels, letter to Bernstein, March 14, 1884)

(5) Ibid. 2

(6) Ibid. 2

(7) … nciple.htm The Democratic Principle by Amadeo Bordiga 1922.

(8) Ibid. 4

(9) Ibid. 2

(10) Engels, “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent,” The New Moral World, 4-11-1843

(11) Ibid. 2

(12) … a/ch04.htm Critique of the Gotha Programme.

(13) … _05-ab.htm Marx to J. Weydemeyer in New York.


Antifa, nationalism and democracy

12 May

We are re-posting the subsequent interview recently published in the Weekly Worker due to our interest in the subject matter and sympathies with Freerk Huisken, who we believe expresses the correct communist rejection of the democratic principle and anti-fascism, in opposition to the position of the interviewer.


In last week’s issue of the Weekly Worker, we looked at the institutional anti-fascism of the German state.[1] But what about the anti-fascism of the German left? Surely, in a country that has seen an exponential rise of far-right activity following reunification, the left has developed a thorough political analysis of neo-fascism, coupled with a scathing anti-capitalist critique?

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. On the left, the “German neurosis” that we described last week finds its expression in abstruse phenomena such as the pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist ‘anti-German’ movement. Peddling slogans which, at their most extreme, wish death and destruction upon the German masses, the ‘anti-German’ movement is based on a simple political error: it conflated the imperialist project of ‘reunification’ with the confused, resentful and often murderous far-right reaction to its material effects in the former German Democratic Republic. It must have somehow escaped the ‘anti-Germans’, who attribute neo-Nazism to some defect in the German national DNA, that the entire former Soviet bloc, including Russia and Poland, has seen very much the same sort of developments since 1989.

Elsewhere on the German left, things do not look a lot better. Though taking its name from the Communist Party of Germany’s street fighting squad of the 1930s, the present day Antifaschistische Aktion (Antifa) is a somewhat ramshackle alliance of anarchists, leftists and – let us be honest – left liberals who regard fascism as the central threat facing humanity today. Divided into mutually hostile ‘anti-German’ and more traditionally anti-fascist camps, Antifa’s programmatic propensity to treat mere symptoms at the expense of proposing a cure is reflected in the broader anti-fascist discourse that dominates the Left Party (‘Die Linke’) and the publications close to it.[2]

The German writer and academic, Freerk Huisken is that rare thing on the German left: a Marxist voice critical of left anti-fascism. In his new book, Der demokratische Schoss ist fruchtbar (‘The democratic womb is fertile’), he argues that the left’s anti-fascist critique is in a poor state and, furthermore, that “democrats of all stripes” are incapable of criticising fascism.[3]

Much as comrade Huisken’s book is refreshingly provocative, I would argue with some of his views. In the course of this email interview, I felt Huisken had a tendency to blur the distinction between democracy under capitalism and fascism, misinterpreting any objective evaluation of the different conditions of class struggle under these two forms of bourgeois rule as apologia for the latter. Then there is his idiosyncratic understanding of ‘democracy’, which, in my view, has more to do with Bordigist and various other left communist interpretations than it does with the actual, radically democratic programme espoused by Marx and Engels. However, I decided to leave further discussion around the dictatorship of the proletariat for another time.

Leftwing papers and websites in Germany are full of reports about neo-Nazis. Some even have permanent Antifa sections in their pages. Does the preoccupation with neo-Nazis constitute a kind of vicarious satisfaction for the German left?

That has nothing to do with psychology, with “vicarious satisfaction”. It is indeed the case that considerable layers of the German left do not focus their critique on the political and economic forces that administrate and enforce capitalism – that is, forces which make people’s lives difficult in the present. Instead, they construct the neo-Nazis as a particularly severe looming threat.

Then again, let us not downplay the problem. There really exists a relatively strong and well organised neo-Nazi movement in Germany. What is wrong with the way the left deals with it?

It declares the neo-Nazis to be its main enemy. That is a political error – not least because really existing bourgeois rule does everything it can of its own accord to eliminate the neo-Nazis as political competition. Therefore, German Antifa act as auxiliaries of the government.

In your new book, you provide eight examples of “how to criticise (neo) fascist statements and slogans, and how not to criticise them”. Could you illustrate one of the false arguments?

When nationalists claim that immigrants are stealing ‘our’ jobs, for instance, there is a tendency to argue that immigrants create jobs, that there is unemployment even though migrants have left Germany over the past few years, and so on. These arguments treat the slogan as if it were a serious labour market political statement. That is not what it is about, though. It is merely a variation of the ‘Foreigners out!’ slogan, and the material employed to illustrate it is relatively arbitrary. Today the immigrants are drug-dealers, tomorrow parasites, and the day after tomorrow they steal our jobs. That is why such nationalists would not be satisfied even if all Germans had jobs and all immigrants too. To them, every foreigner in Germany is one foreigner too many.

Since the early 90s, countless books about neo-Nazism in Germany have been published. Why was yours so necessary?

Firstly, I do not know of any book that explains how democracy – or, more precisely, democratically administrated capitalism – necessarily breeds frustrated nationalists again and again. These frustrated nationalists are the fundament of every far-right or fascist movement. Secondly, it is precisely Antifa that lacks an accurate critique of fascism. This is particularly visible in their helplessness when confronted with the anti-capitalism of the fascists. And, finally, it seemed necessary to me to counter the insipid, purely moralistic gibberish about nationalism and racism that you hear among parts of the left with a more precise analysis. It is particularly important to me to provide evidence for the fact that nationalism and racism are part and parcel of democratic societies.

Some try to ‘confront’ neo-fascists with placards and educational articles, while others argue for anti-fascist violence at all times and in all situations. Do the former neglect a fundamental pillar of fascist movements, the ‘power of the street’? Do the latter fetishise violence? Or do both sides lack tactical flexibility?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with education, and sometimes you cannot avoid confrontation with neo-Nazis. How useful these methods are always depends on the concrete circumstances. If such education exhausts itself through preoccupation with the German slogan ‘Fight the beginnings’ instead of critiquing democratic nationalism, then it is useless. And if Antifa cobbles together an entire political programme based on the defence of shops and offices that are attacked by neo-Nazis, then that is useless too.

‘Physical force’ anti-fascists all seem to agree that you must not talk to Nazis – at best, you prevent them from talking. But is the battle of ideas not something that Marxists should engage in as a matter of course, no matter who is to be debated?

Of course. My book is a plea for precisely that and a manual explaining how to do it. The question of whether one should debate with confident neo-Nazis is irrelevant, as they cannot usually be won for debate anyway. Rather, the ‘battle of ideas’ must be fought against those nationalists on whom German bourgeois rule rests. It must be fought against those who, intellectually and practically, enable that rule to convert one capitalist crisis after another and one capitalist boom after another into German successes on the world market – at their expense. The moment you understand that you are harming yourself when you side with bourgeois rule, whether critically or uncritically, you are immunised to fascism.

Some German activists who claim to be on the left want a so-called Querfront: ie, an alliance between far-left and far-right forces. The former Kommunistischer Bund and ex-‘anti-German’ activist Jürgen Elsässer, whose magazine Compact features contributions from ‘new right’ authors, springs to mind. What do you think of such people – can we work with them or should we exclude them from the left?

It is true that the Querfront phenomenon exists not only in the bourgeois camp, but that there are ex-leftists who have curious affinities to the extreme right. When they discover their love for Germany, I begin to wonder whether that is a sudden change of direction or whether they have not always been somehow driven by that kind of sentiment. I do not care for either of the two alternatives you are offering: cooperation or exclusion. Wherever these ex-lefts stick their noses, they and their followers must be criticised.

What I find to be far more upsetting than these blatant Querfront alliances is that, since the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground,[4] some groups within the leftwing Antifa regard the state authorities’ measures against neo-fascism as useful. They are coming round to support a National Democratic Party ban and, when it comes to uncovering fascist groups, they are offering their services as superior Nazi hunters. They seem to be indifferent to the fact that the ruling democrats regard the leftwing Antifa as ‘extremists’ who must be fought. Nor do they seem bothered by the fact that banning political parties was an instrument of National Socialist rule.

The classic social base of fascism was the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. Does this also apply to the new Nazis in Germany?

I do not share this view. In my opinion, you are already pointing in the wrong direction when you speak of a “social base”. There is no connection between one’s social position and fascism. Fascism has always won supporters from all classes and camps, including from the working class, and it is no different today. It does so by addressing the nationalism of frustrated citizens: ie, their patriotically tinged dissatisfaction with the state of the nation, which continues to be present in all classes.

It seems that you do not care too much for the term ‘democracy’, whether you are referring to bourgeois democracy or the “true democracy” that Antifa advocates. But didn’t Marx regard the battle of democracy as an essential element of the class struggle? What is wrong with “true democracy” – ie, the democratic dictatorship of the majority?

Antifa’s talk of “true democracy” has nothing to do with the dictatorship of the proletariat. In general, Antifa does not want to abolish existing power relations. They merely want rule over the people to involve greater participation within the framework of existing class relations. It does not even occur to them that they effectively want to give antagonistic interests more power in equal measure.

The “democratic dictatorship of the majority” that you are talking about seems to be neither here nor there. As with your replacing of ‘proletariat’ with ‘majority’, I read your paradoxical “democratic dictatorship” as an audience-friendly compromise term. Since “dictatorship” sounds nasty, you prefix it with “democratic”. And because the “proletariat” has allegedly been overcome, you speak of abstract “majorities”, whoever may be part of it and whatever ideas and interests they may have.

Marx and Engels did not have such views even when they still thought they could gain something from democracy. What they had in mind was a class-conscious proletariat that might abolish capitalism through the vote. Such revolutionary consciousness does not automatically arise with one’s class position – unfortunately!

There is a certain ultra-leftist tone to your writings: you acknowledge little difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy. But has the working class not fought hard for every democratic right, and should it not defend these concessions against those who would crush the working class altogether? If nothing else, we can organise and circulate our propaganda with relatively little interference.

I am a little surprised at how you are defending democracy. What good is a system in which you have to fight state power to extract the most elementary, natural requirements in relation to health, holidays, breaks and wages above bare subsistence level? What good is it if such concessions are regularly under attack? What good is it if they are conceded only as ‘rights’: ie, within a legal framework in which the state and its powers have permanently preserved their sovereignty?

What is more, I would not dream of commending a political system on the grounds that it allows you to do political work “with relatively little interference”. It is obvious that this system does not invite its opponents to participate in a “battle of ideas”, but reserves the right to either ban those ideas or, according to its own calculations, allow them to circulate “with relatively little interference”, but under close observation and control. Democracy manages quite well to render the ideas of its opponents ineffective through the very freedoms that it grants them. To disable unwelcome criticism, one does not necessarily need to disable the critic, as the fascists used to do.

Which of the classic analyses of fascism do you find to be the most useful? That of Trotsky, Dimitrov, Thalheimer, Bordiga, Poulantzas …?

I don’t care much for any of them. I have learned the most from Konrad Hecker’s 1996 book, Der Faschismus und seine demokratische Bewältigung [‘Fascism: overcoming it democratically’].

You argue that neo-Nazis are simply nationalists frustrated by the official nationalism of the bourgeois parties. Does nationalism still sit easily alongside capitalism in a globalised world? Or has it, as some would argue in relation to the crisis-shaken European Union, become more of a hindrance to capitalism?

Well, who enforces measures to cope with the financial crisis? Who fights wars in the Middle East? Who is in the UN security council? Who constitutes the G8 and G20? Nation-states – and leading nation-states and their leaders in particular. And in each and every one of their domestic and foreign policies it is apparent that they want to improve the economic and political position of their respective countries at the expense of other states – whether by cooperation or competition.

Globalisation is nothing but the current imperialist competition for political hegemony and the wealth of the world; it is the competition between the most successful capitalist states. From this point of view, their regents are professional nationalists. To them, it is of the greatest importance that their populace backs them through political parties when, for instance, they introduce a low-paid employment sector at home in order to outcompete European rivals.

In Germany, they have been very successful at both: Greece is completely devastated, and good German patriots who have endured increased exploitation in order to achieve this now rant about the “lazy Greeks who live off our tax money”. Capitalism only exists in the shape of mutually competing nation-states, and the nationalism of the people remains its political ‘lubricant’.


1. ‘Günter Grass and the German neurosis’, April 19.

2. There exists also a flipside of the ‘anti-Germans’: the Maoist and post-Maoist Anti-Imps (anti-imperialists), some of whom harbour a bizarre fondness of the fatherland and, presumably deriving their theoretical foundation from the Georgi Dimitrov line, regard the forces of international finance capital as the ‘real’ fascism.

3. F Huisken Der demokratische Schoss ist fruchtbar Hamburg 2012:

4. The NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund) is a German neo-Nazi terrorist group that committed at least eight racist murders between 2000 and 2006. To much popular outrage, it emerged earlier this year that state security agents had been planted in the organisation all along, while the German government had downplayed the assassinations as ‘vendetta’ killings between Turkish families.

China’s call for austerity: an analysis

16 Apr

The following is a satirical piece written several months ago in relation to statements made by the Chinese government and the response of their apologists from the left.


Recently, it has been brought to our attention that the Chinese government has requested that the US ramp up austerity programs. This announcement displays an important aspect of the modern Chinese state, and hence must be investigated further. Through this analysis, we shall come to understand the modern Chinese situation both on the domestic and international stage, and hence clarify our position on the matter.

Now, in the first place, it is clear that the Chinese state has implemented some measures aimed towards providing social welfare, and this in fact constitutes its progressive character. It must also be taken into account that China is an anti-imperialist nation, as opposed to the blatantly imperialist condition of the US. These two empirically evident axioms shall form the basis for our further analysis. Given these facts by themselves, however, it may be asserted by some that China is simply exploiting the red colours towards promoting a particular, interventionist form of capitalism, or ‘progressivism’, and hence neither promoting socialism nor Caesarian rule; in other words, that the Chinese state is resting satisfied with what it has rather than engaging in proletarian internationalism and social-proletocratic revolutionism.

However, this statement reveals this to clearly not be the case. In actual fact, the Chinese state has clearly identified that its aim is not the liberal dream of a universalized welfare state adopted by countries of their own good will, and hence shows that it does not conceive of its own progressive tendencies as the alpha and omega of social evolution. For, after all, if one were to support socialism, while also identifying it with a welfare state and class collaboration, one would necessarily be forced to support this in the United States of America, and indeed especially there, whereas China have given the death knell to any claims of their left-reformism with this announcement. Such claims from the ultra-left are no longer tenable, and must be abandoned.

Nonetheless, if it is established that China is not in fact caught up in dead-end ‘progressivism’ and ‘tred-iunionizm’, this still leaves the question of what the Chinese state in fact advocates. Now, while on the part of Republicans the support of austerity measures is broadly compatible with a support for highly deregulated capitalism in the express interests of the rich and with low state intervention, this cannot be the case with China, as its own practice would not ultimately be compatible with such a conclusion. Their statements cannot be taken, as ultra-lefts tend to do, out of context, but rather must be seen within the remarkable context of the progressive tendencies of the Chinese state, which indeed makes this declaration seem more surprising to those caught up in a one-sided view of socialist progression, infused with the tinges of liberal progressivism. In actual fact, these two reactions, namely seeing the statement out of context on the one hand, and being surprised due to seeing the context as incongruous with the action on the other, form the two main prongs of the leftist opposition to this declaration, and nonetheless may be swept away by a simple analysis of the situation at hand.

While the first view may disregard or fabricate the context, and hence treat the Chinese government as if it were Sarah Palin, the second nonetheless, in its quick outrage and tendency towards shock before rational comprehension, forgets to note that what is actual is rational, and what is rational is actual. It is clear that the Chinese government is not against state intervention in the economy, and the employment of a welfare state, both of which have formed pillars of the progressive Chinese government since its inception. This would clearly be incompatible with a Republican conservatism, and rather place the Chinese government in the camp of progressivism. This progressive nature of the Chinese state is one side of the equation, and forms an important part of why they must form a vanguard for other anti-imperialist nations in the struggle against Western dominance. However, on the other side of things, it is clear that their call is also for the dismantling and down-scaling of the welfare state of the USA, which in fact contradicts progressivism, and hence establishes the ostensibly ‘objectionable’ features of the announcement, while at the same time freeing the Chinese state from the fetters of unfettered ‘progressivism’, as we have already explained. As this demand constitutes a demand for the scaling back of progressive aspects of the state, it is clear that it has a regressive aspect. As such, this regressive aspect of the demand must form the second aspect of the debate.

Hence, we are met with on the one side progressivism, and on the other side regressivism (we do not say conservatism, which would be the call to maintain the US as it is, and is clearly what would be preferred by most leftists attacking the Chinese government for their position). This conflict seems indissoluble. However, we have already seen one aspect of its resolution, namely that the regressivism removes the fetters that bound progressivism within its capitalist boundaries; no matter how much one may reform a capitalist economy in a progressive direction, it nonetheless remains a capitalist economy. To see the other, we must return to the analysis of imperialism and anti-imperialism. In the first place, it is clear that the USA is quite blatantly an imperialist state, while, as we have said, the Chinese state is an anti-imperialist state (we shall not argue this case in full in the present article, but will rather refer you to the PSL’s numerous conclusive arguments as to the anti-imperialist nature of the Chinese state.) This gives the USA an inherently reactionary character, while China has a progressive character due to the proletarian nature of its state. Of course, it has made the occasional mistake, just like the US government when invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea and so on, but this does not dent its manifest proletarian destiny.

Now, how is it that the United States is able to maintain its imperialist domination, hence holding back the anti-imperialist forces of the downtrodden and revolutionary Third-World poor? It is clear that this ability is deeply tied in with its status as an advanced capitalist nation, established by the progressive characters of the American Revolution, the American Civil War and the American dub of Dragon Ball Z. This limited progressive character has been maintained throughout its existence, and hence helped it survive to be the strongest imperialist power of the modern day, although it must be noted that the far more progressive Soviet Union was able to challenge this status in a matter of decades, despite its establishment in the USA taking centuries; likewise, it has often been speculated that the rise of the Asian economies, and especially China, would be a threat to US hegemony. However, that aside, let us settle with the proposition that the US was able to maintain its status as an imperialist power through its status as an advanced capitalist nation. Let us further purport that China, with the alliance of several South and Latin American states, forms at once the strongest force of the anti-imperialist nations, one which the rest must follow if they are to ever successfully throw off their imperialist yokes, and at the same time the most progressive.

In this light, the whole equation comes to make sense, and harmony is restored where conflict seemed to reign. It has already been admitted that the demands of the Chinese government to the US government have a regressive character. However, on the other side of the coin, the US is able to maintain its power only through its progressive character. By performing these austerity cuts, the US regresses further towards the creation of on the one side an unaccountable nobility, on the other poor, undereducated peasants able only to work the land, and on the third side a leader with absolute power, surrounded by their advisers in the Super Congress and reams of courtiers in the Congress and Senate. Now, we have already seen and admitted that the power of the USA originates from the advanced level of its capitalism, which allows it not only military might but also economic power. However, it is just as clear, therefore, that the task facing any anti-imperialist nation if success is to be assured is to remove this advanced status of the US over the rest of the world, without which war against it will ultimately be futile and have to end in compromise if not defeat, and an absolute demoralization of the world’s anti-imperialist working class.

Now, one way of doing this would be, theoretically, to outstrip the pace of the US’s development, which may seem quite possible given the current progress of the Chinese economy. However, in actual fact this overlooks the fact that the US’s strength is self-perpetuating, and that if other nations, especially those with an anti-imperialist character, begin to even threaten its power, it will wield both its military and economic might to eliminate this potential threat before its threat becomes an entelechy. Further, the US’s current state of development in fact widens the range of facilities which it possesses in order to facilitate and accelerate growth, and hence gives it a head-start which takes on an exponential character, confirming the self-perpetuating nature of its power.

However, this leaves only one way forward for the anti-imperialist struggle, namely the regression of the United States itself to the point where, if it wages war, its own strength will sap from it nevertheless and leave it helpless to the powers of anti-imperialist invasion. This is where the progressive character of the Chinese demand is clearly illustrated, and at the same time shows that in fact the path forward for socialism and liberation is not through liberal progressivism, but rather, just as Paul Tillich saw salvation only in the God above God, so may we only through the ‘progressivism above progressivism’, elevated thus through regressivism itself. In actual fact, as we have seen, the Chinese demand is a demand for regression, and regression ultimately to the point of a feudal system, where ultimately the USA’s power will necessarily collapse due to the collapse of its developed capitalist infrastructure and economy. This will open up a window which the anti-imperialist nations of the world will inevitably take, not content to allow themselves ruled over by a clown, and hence lead to the strengthening of anti-imperialist forces. Further, as against the regressivism of the United States on one pole, on the other will stand the relentless progressivism of China, along with its smaller allies such as the Latin American nations and North Korea. China will therefore form the beacon to the Third-World proletariat in its invasion of the US and negation of imperialism with its own power. In its feudal state, the US will be helpless to resist the relentless onslaught of the Third-World, lead by the Red Ant Liberation Army, and shall ultimately be subjected to its own medicine. This shall allow for the widespread deportation of US citizens for re-education, which we may discuss at a later date.

Now, through this we see that in actual fact the Chinese government’s position hides a position neither limited to empty progressivism, nor without subversive intent, but rather one which is deeply subversive to the ruling capitalist order. If it should succeed in this agenda, we shall end up with the polarity of on the one hand progressive forces of anti-imperialism, grouped around China, and on the other hand the regressive and weak forces of imperialism, represented primarily by the now-weakened USA. This identity of progressivism and anti-imperialism shall supercede the common objection made that anti-imperialist regimes such as Iran have a reactionary character, which, while possessing a limited truth, fails to see the forest for the trees; it is only in progressive anti-imperialist struggle that this gap is bridged, and the Third World comes to possess consciousness of its inherently progressive nature. On the other side of things, however, it also constitutes another possible objection, namely that the progressivism of anti-imperialistic nations such as China and North Korea is of an essentially liberal and reformist character, precisely because it in fact constitutes the declaration that progressivism is not enough, but rather what must be obtained is freedom from exploitation through the undermining of capitalism and imperialism; indeed, this rejection of all chains and fetters is the principle of the coming revolution. Given this, we fully support the Chinese government in its attempts to implement socialism in the 21st Century situation, and condemn those who complain that it is taking too long for ignoring both the realities of the imperialist system of the 21st Century, and the clear self-superceding progressivism of the Chinese state.

Christopher Caudwell – Illusion and Reality

9 Apr

Caudwell’s best-known and most developed book, written before he fought and died in Spain. The subject of the book is poetry, more specifically developing a Marxist analysis of poetry’s place in society, but the book’s real value probably lies more in the general region of Marxist historical and philosophical theory. Caudwell is one of the most advanced Marxist writers in theoretical terms, with some great passages on materialism, seen here in terms of thought and language arising from social practice, and communism as a necessary historical development. His understanding of language and its place in human society is quite similar to that of the later Wittgenstein, seeing it as necessarily arising from practice, and this founds the overall basis for the book. In general terms, I would definitely recommend this book to people for the Marxist theory therein, which, as said, is probably better than in most 20th Century works specifically dedicated to the subject.

However, the book does have a couple of flaws, mainly in the realm of its chosen subject-matter. While Caudwell writes about poetry, his analyses of actual poems and poets are often very lacking when they do appear, and there are a fair few major misinterpretations and eyebrow-raising moments, such as in the discussion of Milton, which just takes over from the Romantic ‘Satanist’ misreadings of Paradise Lost and take them to sum up the essence of the work, or the portrayal of Shelley as a bourgeois radical who was lucky to die when he did so as to avoid becoming a reactionary. All in all, there doesn’t seem to be much focus on actual analysis of poems as poems, or of the paradigms expressed within them, which means that a lot of complexity is suppressed in favour of fairly lazy generalisations about poets. One of the main problems which ‘Marxist literary criticism’ has had with lyric poetry is that it generally isn’t directly political in form, but rather deals with more personal subjects, and while I think that Caudwell manages to overcome this somewhat in his discussions of poetry as such, his discussions of actual poems don’t actually seem to tackle the issue head-on, but rather simply restrict themselves to explicitly political poetry, and the political views of poets, or interpret non-political poetry to be directly political in subject-matter.

That said, however, when he discusses poetry in general terms he still has quite a lot of worth to say, and can certainly not be neglected if one is interested in the relation of Marxist theory to poetry. His strong theoretical grounding already puts him quite far in front of most ‘Marxist literary critics,’ who are generally quite light on the Marxism, and, as David Margolies points out, allows him to say much about the social function of poetry which you generally won’t find in other authors. Unlike other socialist writers on poetry, such as even Galvano della Volpe, Caudwell avoids the trap of simply advocating ‘socialist poetry,’ or judging poetry by its explicitly political content only, due to seeing the fact that poetry is generally not explicitly political and taking this into account in his theory. His theory of poetry’s social role, of the function which it plays in the lives of individuals, draws on the old Socratic idea that reason can only find application through the emotions and how we see the world, and due to this focus is prevented from simply reducing a poem to a paraphrase, as is done by the many commentators who took poetry’s worth to be merely its political message.

Caudwell, in discussing poetry’s function, ceases to regard this in merely political-Marxist terms (‘poetry should bring about the revolution!’), and rather looks at function in terms of effect upon the reader, hence in terms of how poetry actually functions when read. In this, he has more in common with reader-response theory than with theories which seek to find poetry’s meaning simply by paraphrasing poems or through merely applying external criteria. While I don’t think that Caudwell necessarily says all that needs to be said about poetry, he certainly forms a good foundation for further analysis, and points the way forward for the rest of us. In addition, the book contains an interesting criticism of Freudian theory, along with psychological content, and while its psychological analysis may not be flawless, it’s certainly interesting.

All in all, then, Caudwell’s book is worth a read for all Marxists, especially those with an interest in poetry. Despite its flaws, which, to be fair, don’t occupy the major part of the book, Caudwell’s ‘Illusion and Reality’ is an important book of 20th Century Marxist theory, and worth having a look through if you can find it.

John Crump’s Critique of the SPGB

1 Apr

We are publishing the following text by John Crump, written in 1973 in event of his leaving Britain and by consequence the Socialist Party of Great Britain, is a critique of the SPGB in the form of a resignation letter. It interesting in that outlines the internal political dynamics of the group at the time, being riven between the twin poles of utopianism and idealism, and its practical inertia to be able to respond to events in society.  Whilst written nearly four decades ago we think its merit resides in the clear balance sheet drawn of the political bases of the SPGB.


What is it that prevents the SPGB functioning as a revolutionary organisation?

John Crump (1973)


Very soon I shall be resigning from the SPGB. I should say right at the start that this is a move which is forced on me anyway by the silly rule that lays down that “A member taking up residence abroad shall automatically cease to be a member of the Party” (rule 3). The fact is that if I were not going abroad I would have remained a member in order to support the efforts of those other comrades like myself who are seeking to convert the SPGB into a revolutionary organisation. Since I am forced to leave the Party, however, I have decided to issue a circular explaining my criticisms of the SPGB. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, although rule 3 would give me a good excuse for just drifting out of the Party without any fuss, I believe this would be a politically dishonest thing to do. If I must leave, then I want to explain my disagreements. But there is a second much more important reason than this purely personal consideration. For a considerable period now, a number of revolutionaries within the SPGB have been resisting the sectarian policies of the majority. It is therefore high time that some of their basic criticisms of the SPGB as it functions at present were plainly stated in a single document and if my circular can serve this additional purpose I shall be very pleased.

Now let me make quite clear what I have said here. I – and I alone – am responsible for this circular. It was written solely by me and distributed by me. But no one is pretending either that these are simply the ideas of one isolated and disgruntled member. All of the views expressed in this circular have been developed by means of discussion with other comrades and, whatever the differences which may exist between us in details and points of emphasis, no one should have any doubt that the basic criticism of the SPGB outlined in this statement commands a fair body of support within the Party itself. It is this, which gives it whatever significance, it has and it is for this reason that I would urge all those comrades who are genuinely interested in seeing the SPGB operate as a revolutionary organisation to think hard about the issues raised here.

Part 1: How the SPGB Fails

When one first joins the Party one is unaware of the fact that the long history of the SPGB is very largely an uninterrupted series of missed opportunities. What one is aware of are the considerable achievements of the SPGB and, even as I am about to leave the Party, I am far from denigrating these. The greatest of these achievements is simply that in the long period of the Labour Party and the Communist Party ascendancy it was for all practical purposes the SPGB alone in Britain, which maintained an uncompromising socialist position. Even if today there are others who have come to argue that socialism is a wageless, moneyless, stateless society based in the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, this in no way detracts from the tremendous service which the SPGB performed for the working class movement in Britain throughout those bleak years in keeping alive the idea of what socialism is.

Nor is this the only major contribution of the SPGB. The Party has never deviated from the principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. It has consistently denounced leadership and insisted that a socialist society can never be achieved until the majority have clearly understood what socialism is and have taken a conscious decision to establish the new society. The SPGB also pioneered the state capitalist analysis of Russia in the English-speaking world and every member of the Party is rightly proud of the fact that for almost seventy years now the SPGB has unfailingly opposed all of the capitalism’s wars. To repeat, these are considerable achievements – yet any revolutionary can see that by themselves they are nowhere near enough. Much more than this is needed for the SPGB to start operating as a revolutionary organisation and against these achievements we have to set the SPGB’s equally consistent record of constantly failing even to recognise favourable opportunities as they present themselves, let alone to take serious action in them.

Now even among the revolutionaries within the SPGB there might well be less than total unanimity as to just which developments within capitalism over recent years have produced situations which socialists could have turned to their advantage. But any list of those opportunities which have occurred would have to include:
• the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and its repercussions in Britain when the Communist Party lost half of its total membership and thousands of others first had their illusions about state capitalism shattered.

• the period from 1958 into the early sixties when CND was at its peak, when tens of thousands marched against nuclear weapons and when “the campaign made a terrific impact on the British political scene” (Socialist Standard, April 1966, p52.)

• again the period from mid-1966 onwards when the Labour government’s anti-working class actions were becoming increasingly obvious to many workers, when the “Labour governments betrayal of its policies (was causing) increasing disillusionment amongst its supporters” (Socialist Standard, May 1968, p72) and when the SPGB itself was asking “Is Labour Cracking Up?”.

It would be a useful exercise at some time to examine how the SPGB responded (or, rather, failed to respond in any serious way) to each of these events in turn. A common pattern would then be seen to emerge of how in each case the Party acted with unbelievable slowness and lethargy, of how there was next to no serious discussion among the members of what sort of intervention the Party could reasonably hope to mount and how – as a result – there was a total absence of the clear-thinking foresight which socialists should be expected to show at such times. In this section of my circular I shall mainly confine my attention to the period when a Labour government was in power from

mid-1966 onwards but at least I want to explode here the myth which has grown up within the SPGB that its handling of CND was one of its success stories! Just what solid evidence does this fairy tale rest on? On nothing more than the fact that in the 1960s the SPGB managed to gain a few new members by its limited propaganda efforts directed at CND, when any objective appraisal of the Party’s role would have to show that – even if we make due allowances for the SPGB’s admittedly meagre resources – its approach to CND was a case if far too little coming far too late.

This sort of complacent assessment of its own activities, which we can see in relation to CND, is, in fact, all too typical of the SPGB. I well remember how one comrade, who had been out of the Party for several years, wrote to me in 1971 that on rejoining he had found that “a remarkable new growth” had taken place, “a phase of growth, since it involved development where the Party had never looked like developing, outside London…” At the time I replied as follows:

“I can well imagine that rejoining in 1970, when – as you say – the Party had been going through a phase of growth over the previous four years or so, was an encouraging experience. But, all the same, I am afraid that I cannot draw the same conclusions as you – probably for the very reason that I was active as a member right through that period of growth. When you rejoined you saw the end result of 4-5 years growth, the handfuls of new members we had recruited, but what you didn’t see were the hundreds the Party failed to attract because of the opportunities it missed.

As you probably know, the five years 1966-71 have been ones of growth for nearly all radical groups in Britain (with a few notable exceptions like the CP – but then, it’s hardly a radical organisation, is it?) and it seems to me that the SPGB too could hardly have failed to attract new blood during such a period. Even by making no great effort, we couldn’t fail to have a modest influx of new members. Looked at in the abstract, I suppose all growth appears like a “healthy sign”, but, once it is placed in a context of fairly wide-spread radicalisation, the degree of growth we achieved in the 1966-71 period starts to look more like a miserable failure.”

Reading these lines again two years later, I am more than ever convinced that they are right. The years of the Wilson government presented the SPGB with a real opportunity to advance, as numerous Labour supporters recoiled in dismay and disgust from their party’s policies – and yet it was an opportunity, which was almost totally squandered. Let me explain in some detail, then, why I say it was squandered.

When the first Wilson government came to power in October 1964 its supporters had a ready excuse for what they saw as its failure. How could it take on big business, look after the ordinary working men and women or “take steps towards socialism”, they asked, when it had been elected on such a slim majority? Socialists knew that this Labour government, like any other, would “administer British capitalism in the only way open to them – in the interests of the British capitalist class” (Socialist Standard, November 1964, p175) – but it was common knowledge too that, equipped with the alibi of his small majority in the House of Commons and being the shrewd politician he was, Wilson was temporarily in a strong position and that he would soon call another general election where Labour would be likely to be returned with an increased vote. This, of course, was just what did happen in March 1966 and it should have been no surprise to any socialist that in the new situation, which emerged, then the radicalisation of a section of Labour supporters occurred as they saw their illusions about Wilson wrecked once his alibi had gone. After all, this train of events bore at least certain similarities to what had happened twenty years earlier at the time of the Attlee government, when all sorts of radical groups in Britain had benefited from the growing disillusionment of many of those who supported Labour and when – as part of this process – the membership of the SPGB climbed to around 1000.

Now surely it is reasonable to expect that a socialist party, faced with this developing situation between October 1964 and March 1966, should have been preparing itself to take maximum advantage of the opportunity which was likely to present when the illusions harboured by Labour’s supporters started to wear thin. The fact is, however, that when disillusionment did start to set in among them in the summer of 1966 (“Many who voted the Labour Government into power in 1964 and with a much increased majority earlier this year are wondering if they did the right thing” Socialist Standard, July 1966, p107) the SPGB was caught totally unprepared. The Party had not even taken what should have been the elementary step of producing an up-to-date pamphlet analysing the Labour Party from a socialist standpoint, so that it was left to inexperienced members like myself (I had joined the SPGB in December 1964) to urge belatedly that we do so. What I could not begin to understand at the time – although it is clear enough today – was how it was possible that the bulk of the membership, composed largely of comrades with many years experience behind them, should have been so completely unaware of what the situation demanded.

When I moved the floor resolution “That this Conference calls on the Executive Committee to urgently look into the question of producing a short, moderately priced pamphlet on the Labour Government” at the Party Conference in April 1966 I made what I fondly imagined were obvious points. The SPGB needed such a pamphlet and, above all, it needed it fast. It needed a pamphlet exposing the capitalist orientation of the Labour government, which it could put into the hands of Labour supporters as they started to question Wilson’s policies. Since a purpose-written analysis of the Labour government would take time to publish, and since a pamphlet was needed by the closing stages of 1966 at the very latest, probably the best booklet that could be produced under the circumstances was a collection of some of the articles dealing with the Labour government which had appeared in recent issues of the Socialist Standard.

The resolution was indeed passed by the Conference and went to the Executive Committee and its Pamphlets Sub-Committee – but what happened then? A specially produced pamphlet on Labour Government or Socialism? Was laboriously written and was finally issued… two years later, in February 1968! Surely there was something a trifle pathetic about a publication which in 1968 took 28 out of its total 30 pages “to expose the uselessness of Labour Government” (Labour Government or Socialism? p29) at a time when it had already become painfully obvious to those workers likely to read it just how useless that government was. By then any thoughtful worker could see that the Wilson government was pursuing anti-working class policies and the last thing he needed was for the SPGB to point out to him that his wages had been frozen in the second half of 1967 (Labour Government or Socialism? pp 19-20). If he bothered even to read such a pamphlet his most likely conclusion must have been that the SPGB was simply out of touch.

One important effect of the relatively widespread radicalisation which, as we have already mentioned, accompanied the decline in fortunes of the Wilson government was that many who had previously supported the Labour party became receptive to new ideas. An important tendency developed (especially among young numbers of young workers) to think their ideas about socialism and in order to do this many of them wanted to read the classic works of marxism and leninism, including books which had often been out of print for years. Thus it was no accident that book companies suddenly republished several major works, which had been unavailable for decades, in the second half of the 1960s as commercial propositions with an eye on the market.

It was against this background that in 1968 some of us suggested that the SPGB should take steps to have Julius Martov’s The State and Socialist Revolution republished, on principal grounds that it does a brilliant job on Lenin’s State and Revolution and that the amount of work which this would have entailed for the Party would have been small since an acceptable translation already existed. There is no point now in resurrecting all the arguments and counter-arguments which were make for and against this proposal in the interminable wrangling it gave rise to at to Delegate Meetings and two Annual Conferences. All that I wish to do here is to mention a couple of the more ridiculous arguments, which were used by the sectarians within the SPGB in order to defeat this suggestion. By restating them again we can illustrate once more just how out of touch the majority of SPGB members were with the opportunities, which existed.

The Executive Committee – via its Pamphlets Sub-Committee – claimed that The State and the Socialist Revolution was “not a work that would attract a wide general sale; it is of most use to a more limited range of reader” (Report of the 46th Meeting of the 65th Executive Committee of the SPGB, 1968) and their spokesman repeated this at the 1969 Delegate Meeting (“it would have a limited appeal – this is what you are asking the Party to take on.) Quite apart from the fact that the dubious comment that it was “not a work that would attract a wide general sale” was meaningless from the SPGB point of view anyway (which pamphlet produced by the SPGB ever has attracted “a wide general sale”?), these remarks showed an amazing degree of unfamiliarity with developments which were taking place in the late 1960s. One just has to run one’s eyes along one’s bookshelves to see the books which companies like Penguin were bringing out at this time (the first ever paperback editions of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World in 1966, or Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in 1967, of Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s ABC of Communism in 1969 etc, etc) in order to realise how hollow such conclusions were.

But this was not all. Anyone with even a modicum of sense should have been able to see that, since Martov is relatively well known, a booklet carrying his name was likely to be an infinitely more effective vehicle for socialist ideas that a pamphlet written by an anonymous SPGBer. Who else but a member of the SPGB’s Executive Committee, then, could have declared: “It is not good enough that we should push pamphlets written by other people. ‘Principles and Policy’ [the title of an SPGB pamphlet] is far more important and we should get our priorities right”? (Report of the Proceedings of the 66th SPGB Delegate Meeting, 1969, p12).

In case anyone objects that the real barrier to the SPGB’s taking steps to make Martov’s The State and the Socialist Revolution available was the work it would have required or the expense it would have involved, I want to emphasise here that there is a recognised method which revolutionaries should adopt for meeting such a challenge. The sort of approach which is needed on such occasions is the issuing of a report by those comrades responsible (and ultimately this means the Executive Committee) which clearly states the amount of work and costs which the project under consideration is likely to involve and which gives a realistic estimate of the benefits likely to accrue from seeing it through. The facts can then me laid before the membership in this way and it is then up to them to decide whether or not they have the necessary commitment to tackle this additional task. This was never done at the time when The State and the Socialist Revolution was being discussed – and neither was it done when a resolution was passed at the 1969 Party Conference that “This Conference calls on the Executive Committee to set up a Committee to report to the 1969 Delegate Meeting with details of costs and probable advantage of employing a member full-time at Head Office”.

Again it should have been obvious to anyone who had given any thought at all to the opportunities which existed during this period that the first necessity for the SPGB was an efficient organisation. Efficiency was clearly impossible, however, so long as the Party did not have even a single full-time worker acting as co-ordinator from Head Office. It was with this in mind that some of us moved the above resolution and saw it passed at the 1969 Party Conference – only to find that the SPGB Executive Committee “allowed the matter to lapse” (Report of the Proceedings of the 66th SPGB Delegate Meeting, 1969, p8). It was announced at that Delegate Meeting that the “Executive Committee’s attitude is that because of the Party’s financial difficulties they will not set up a Committee at the moment.” Nor was a committee ever subsequently appointed, a majority of the SPGB membership being prepared to accept this decision of their Executive Committee.

But what was the state of the SPGB’s finances at this time? I am not disputing that in 1969 the Party’s bank account stood at a low figure but what I do want to spotlight is the fact that the membership dues stood then at 1/- per week. In other words, translated into hard cash, the average member of the SPGB’s commitment to the revolution stood at 5p per week. This was what lay behind the shameful argument that a Party of more than 600 members could not support a single full-time worker. By way of comparison (and this was pointed out in a related discussion at the SPGB Conference the same year) at the relevant time groups like IS and the SLL were levying themselves at the rates of 2/6 (12.5p) per week and 10/- (50p) per week respectively – and as a result were far outstripping the SPGB both in organisational efficiency and in their impact on the working class. I said it then and I say it again now that if the majority of the members of the SPGB are not prepared to more than match the dedication shown by these rival organisations they can never hope to turn the sort of opportunity which presented during the period of the second Wilson government to the advantage of the socialist movement. What is more, in the absence of such revolutionary commitment, neither does the SPGB deserve to be taken seriously by the working class.

Part 2: The Theoretical Roots of This Failure

So far this circular has broken very little new ground. Although stated in perhaps more extreme terms that usual, the type of criticism outlined in Part 1 – or at least that part of it, which concerns itself with the level of activity, achieved by the Party – is quite common even among the sectarians within the SPGB. Where such criticism normally stops, however, is at a point far short of any serious examination of the body of theory from which the SPGB’s practice is derived. This in itself is highly significant, of course, because it shows a widespread reluctance (or inability) among a majority of the members of the SPGB to apply the Marxian method of analysis to the Party itself. How else can one explain this failure to trace back the deficiencies in the SPGB’s practice to deficiencies in its theory?

Many examples of this could be given but here I will mention only one. A statement drawn up by one of the members of the present Executive Committee of the SPGB in May 1968 (Some Reflections on the Present Political Situation and the Condition of the Socialist Party) contained forthright criticism of the Party. It pointed out that “the Socialist Party and its members are living in a political vacuum”, and that there was “no apparent point of contact with life and Politics”, merely “apathy and indifference” and so on. Yet – incredibly – having said all this, it refrained from any analysis of the

SPGB’s theory and even when it mentioned the possibility that faulty practice might just conceivably stem from theoretical inadequacy this was clearly for rhetorical purposes only and was instantly dismissed (“all experience shows this is NOT the case”). Since on the contrary – as we have shown in Part 1 – the experience of the SPGB shows nothing of the sort it is now time to consider the theoretical roots of the Party’s failure.

The ‘Marxism’ of the SPGB

“Behind the inflexibility of theoretical formulas with which your excellent Comrade Kautsky will supply you until the end of his days, you conceal… your inability to act.” (Jaures speaking to Bebel at the Amsterdam Congress of the Iind International,
August 1904)

Even an SPGBer can see that there was something slightly bizarre about a tiny group with little more than a hundred members at its formation in June 1904 assuming the grandiose title of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Part of the explanation for this readiness of the founder members of the SPGB to dub their group ‘The Socialist Party’ lies in the fact that they saw themselves as but one section of an international socialist movement (“Those who really desire … economic emancipation must enrol in the Army of International Socialism, the British section of which is The Socialist Party of Great Britain.” Socialist Standard, November 1904). But the original membership of the SPGB believed that there was far more than simply the solidarity they expected to forge with “those abroad who occupy our position” (Report of the 3rd Annual Conference of the SPGB, 1907 – see the Socialist Standard, June 1968, p97). Besides this there was ‘history’ too. It was ‘history’ which would force the working class to become revolutionary (one could still hear echoes of this within the SPGB even during recent years – “sooner or later the mass of the population, those who are compelled to work for a living, will be driven by their material interests to set about abolishing the private ownership of the means of production and replacing it by the common ownership of the means of production… And this will be in accordance with the Materialist Conception of History’s own decree” (!) Socialist Comment, 1956, p40) and history too which would make the SPGB ‘The Socialist Party’ in more than name alone.

On this view, history was a mechanical process remorselessly grinding on towards its inevitable destination – socialism. And when I use the term ‘inevitable’, this is no caricature either. For the early members of the SPGB (and even for a few of the current ones: “South West London Branch consider that socialism is inevitable – that is the Party’s case”. Report of the Proceedings of the 65th SPGB Annual Conference 1969, p9) socialism really was preordained. According to their understanding of Marx, “Society … moved … under the pressure of growing economic forces making a change in social forms inevitable” (Socialist Standard, March 1913, pp49-50, my emphasis). This was a doctrine of economic determinism and, even though the founder members of the SPGB might have avoided the crudest of the conclusions, which many of the social democrats of the Second International drew from the same brand of ‘marxism’, their own conclusions were only marginally less crude. To give the Party its due, the SPGB never subscribed to the belief which was popular among so many social democrats before the 1st World War that ‘history’ would bring capitalism to the point where it would be forced to collapse, but it did insist that ‘history’ would bring the working class to the point where it would be forced to become socialist. In other words, the SPGB maintained a commitment to the need for consciousness, but only by reducing consciousness to a level where it was conceived as something which emerged more or less mechanically.

There is nothing surprising about this fact that the ‘marxism’ of the early SPGB was basically the ‘marxism’ of the Second International. Indeed it is hard to imagine how it could have been anything else when one remembers that the SPGB originated as a breakaway from the old Social Democratic Federation. If anything ever was ‘inevitable’, it was that the SPGB’s ‘marxism’ was bound to be “the mongrel child of Engels, Kautsky, Hyndman and De Leon” (as one comrade recently put it) and of these four it was Engels and Kautsky who without any doubt were the major influence.

Engels, of course, had been the leading populariser and most authoritative interpreter of Marx’s ideas in the years after Marx’s physical decline and then death – that is during the very period when ‘marxism’ was emerging as a major political and intellectual force in Europe – and it was under his guidance that the ‘marxists’ of Kautsky’s generation grew up. Even a well-informed biographer of Marx and Engels such as David Riazanov never fully grasped the extent of Engels’ influence on these younger men. Writing about Anti-Duhring, he says: “It was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation, which began its activity during the second, half of the seventies learned that was scientific socialism, what were its philosophic premises, what was its method…. For the dissemination of Marxism as a special method and a special system, no book except Capital itself has done as much as Anti-Duhring. All the young Marxists who entered the public arena in the early eighties – Bernstein, Karl Kautsky … George Plekhavov. – were brought up on this book” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, D. Riazanov, 1927, p210.) Yet even this appraisal of Engels’ major work underestimates its real impact. Instead of “no book EXCEPT Capital” Riazanov ought to have written no book INCLUDING Capital”. As Kautsky himself made clear: “…. Judging by the influence that Anti-Duhring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Duhring that we learnt to understand Capital and read it properly” (F. Engels’ Briefwechsel mit K. Kautsky quoted in Engels and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Gareth Stedman Jone. New Left Review 79, p. 19, my emphasis).

Now what was the essential feature of this interpretation of Marx’s ideas which social democrats like Kautsky obtained from Anti-Duhring and Engels’ other writings and which enabled them to “understand Capital and read it properly”? It was a rendering of Marx where ‘marxism’, instead of being a critical theory serving as a means to revolutionary practice, tended to be narrowed down until it was reduced to a system of schematically applied ‘laws’. It was not that Engels’ took his friend’s ideas and twisted them into a different doctrine altogether, nor even that he superimposed certain notions of his own which were fundamentally at odds with the original and authentic ‘marxism’ of Marx. The answer to the riddle was simply that, as Engels himself often said, “Marx was a genius. We others were at best talented”. The result of Engels being a less gifted thinker than Marx was that, as he applied himself to the job of popularising his dead comrade’s theories, so he was simplifying them and unconsciously debasing them. It would be decidedly unfair to say that Engels in his later writings abandoned his own and Marx’s concept that it was the revolutionary act of the working class which would introduce socialism but what he did do was to emphasise one-sidedly the determinist element in Marx’s thinking. Many examples of this could be given but Engels’ letter to Bloch (21-22 September 1890) will be sufficient to illustrate the point here. Although Engels assures Bloch that “We make our history ourselves”, even if “under very definite assumptions and conditions”, this becomes so heavily qualified (“This (the historical event) may again be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion.”) That it is for all practical purposes drained of its revolutionary implications and turned into an abstract formula. What we are left with is a causally determined historical process, which calls to mind the Darwinian scheme of evolution.

This, in fact, was just what made ‘marxism’ so acceptable to the followers of Darwin such as Kautsky in Germany (in the appendix on Kautsky to Luise Kautsky’s Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (1925) she mentions how Darwin “exercised a great influence upon him” and that Kautsky was “a disciple of Darwin in his student days in Vienna”) and Hyndman in Britain (“Marx is the Darwin of modern sociology….” Historical basis of socialism in England. H.M. Hyndman, 1883, p435). After Engels’ death in 1895 the prestige which went with editing Marx’s unpublished manuscripts was transferred from Engels to Kautsky and to this was added the aura of orthodoxy as he defended ‘marxism’ from its revisionist critics such as Bernstein. Kautsky’s influence on the SPD and the whole of the Second International was enormous – and he was much admired by the members of the early SPGB too. In fact, his reputation within the SPGB was so high that of the first five pamphlets it produced no fewer than three were translations of Kautsky’s works. Thus we can see that although the SPGB was hostile right from the start to the reformist policies pursued by the social democratic parties, its ‘marxist’ theory had much more in common with that of the Second International than later generations of Party member have ever cared to admit.

Strangely enough in the first few years of the Party’s existence this doctrine of economic determinism which went under the name of ‘marxism’ – and which provided the justification for the quietist policies for which the SPD became notorious – did not prevent the SPGB from maintaining a high level of activity. This appears as less of a paradox than it seems at first if we ask ourselves exactly what the founder members of the SPGB were trying to achieve in the decade before the 1st World War. There is plenty of evidence (even the name chosen for the Party’s journal is significant here) that they saw their role as one of raising aloft the standard of socialism so that the working class would have a focus which it could group itself around as it became socialist. The early members of the SPGB threw themselves into their activity because, as they saw it, there was only a limited amount of time to construct the nucleus of an organisation into which the workers were expected to flock as soon as ‘history’ endowed them with socialist consciousness. There was a great deal of enthusiasm within the SPGB during those first year because ‘history’ really did seem to be moving in their direction. Real wages, which may have risen by as much as 50 per cent between 1880 and 1900, had stagnated ever since 1900 and there was a wave of radicalisation affecting considerable numbers of workers (the emergence of groups such as the SLP in 1903 and the SPGB itself in 1904 being just some of the sign of this). Even the growth of the SPGB, less than spectacular thought it was, seemed to confirm that ‘history’ was steadily doing its work of making the working class socialist because it was after all no mean achievement for the Party to quadruple its membership during its fist ten years.

The 1st World War and the Russian Revolution between them proved to be a traumatic experience for the economic determinists with the SPGB, however. Well over half the membership fell away – presumably disillusioned because ‘history’ seemed to have let them down — and although the other stuck to their determinist faith, the time scale to which they were operation that to be drastically revised. Socialism receded into the distant future and there was no longer seen to be any need for a high level of activity. The basic work of setting up the organisation skeleton of a socialist party and of establishing a viable journal, which the members had busied themselves with prior to 1914, had already been accomplished and it now became a case of simply maintaining these in existence and waiting.

From this time on the main characteristic of the economic determinists was to be an attitude of exaggerated caution towards taking any initiative and there were very definite reasons why this was so. The familiar claim was still heard that (in the end) ‘history’ would create the conditions which would bring about the development of socialist consciousness among the working class and that when that time came the SPGB would be recognised by the workers as the core around which they could construct a suitable organisation for liberating themselves. But, in addition to this, the assertion was also made that in order that the workers should be able to recognise the SPGB in this way, it had to guard its reputation above all else. A number of valid arguments were then used to back up this line of reasoning – there must be no compromises, principles were more important than a mass membership and so on – but to these was added an entirely spurious one. This was that the SPGB had also to be able to demonstrate that it had never made any mistakes! The more intelligent economic determinists at least qualified this and said no important mistakes but there were plenty of others (and still are among the decreasing number of economic determinists within the Party today) who insisted that the SPGB had never made any mistakes at all! The really crippling effect of this ‘argument’ was that it became yet another excellent reason for abstaining from activity. After all, if you don’t do anything you are unlikely to commit many mistakes. This was why we can say with Jaures that behind the inflexibility of their theoretical formulae the economic determinists concealed their inability to act.

The Utopianism of the SPGB

However sharply the revolutionaries within the SPGB might criticise the economic determinists, the fact is that they stand a great deal closer to them than they do to the utopians who today comprise an increasingly large percentage of the SPGB’s membership. This is not merely because the economic determinists are at least ‘marxists’ of a sort, in the sense that they have been greatly influenced by Marx even though their understanding of his theories remains the inadequate interpretation provided by Engels and Kautsky. It is also due to the fact that, however mechanically they saw it as happening in practice, the economic determinists still realised that socialist consciousness would arise out of the experiences of the working class in its day-to-day struggles. The utopians, on the other hand, are not ‘marxists’ in any meaningful sense of the word at all. Even though they might still from sheer force of habit decorate their arguments with quotations from Marx’s writings, their basic ideas and methods represent a return to the utopian socialism of the early nineteenth century.

Although the subject matter of the previous section made a semi-historical approach necessary, this circular makes no pretence of being a history of the SPGB. This is why I do not intend to trace here the process by which the economic determinists (who at one time formed the overwhelming bulk of the SPGB’s membership) started to lose control of the Party to the utopians. Suffice it to say that – starting in the 1930s, and at an increasing pace in the 40s and 50s – a new type of member began to join the SPGB. If the economic determinists could be criticised on the grounds that they were more interested in interpreting the world than in changing it, the utopians who now came into the SPGB were barely interested in what was happening in the real world at all. For them, capitalism was just “the passing show” (the title of a column which was featured in the Socialist Standard for many years) and if it warranted any comment whatsoever it was simply to show what a stupid and unpleasant social system it was compared with the sane and orderly society of socialism. The actual struggles which workers were engaged in were dismissed out of hand (“these utterly useless activities” says an article in the July 1973 Socialist Standard) because there was not seen to be any connection between these struggles and the attainment of socialist consciousness by the working class. Instead the implicit assumption of the utopians was that socialism was to be established only when a majority of people had been made convinced of its desirability… by the propaganda efforts of the SPGB and its associated parties! In other words, they conceived of the development of socialist consciousness as being essentially a matter of education, of the workers being taught socialist ideas by the Party.

It was natural enough that when this utopian doctrine was stated in a particularly frank and unambiguous style by a member called Turner and his supporters within the SPGB in the early 1950s, it should have provoked a fierce reaction not only from the economic determinists but from other utopians too. The Party’s discussion journal was full of charges of “Revisionism and Renegades in the SPGB” (Forum, February 1954) and so on because in a tradition-bound organisation such as the SPGB any frontal attack not so much on its principles as on the verbal formulae it employs to express those principles was bound to evoke a hostile response. The irony of that particular episode which led to Turner – who had by this time gone over to gradualism – resigning from the SPGB in 1955 was, however, that (as one comrade wrote in a letter to me recently) the utopians “lost the battle but are winning the war” with the economic determinists. A direct frontal attack was never mounted by the utopians again but gradually – by sheer weight of numbers – their approach is becoming the dominant one within the SPGB, although in many cases this partially obscured by the compromises which have been struck with the economic determinists. An obvious example of this sort of compromise is the fact that even today the SPGB maintains a purely verbal commitment to support the trade unions in their efforts to improve workers’ conditions – even though this so-called “support” never takes any concrete form and even though all other types of working class struggle (“protests against the Government’s pricing policy, squatting, and demands for higher pensions, lower rents, higher Social Security payments, etc” as the July 1973 Socialist Standard details them) are rejected as a waste of time. Anyone who has any doubts about the real nature of this supposed “support” for trade unions would do well to remember the remark blurted out by one member of the Executive Committee of the SPGB at the 1972 Delegate Meeting (a remark which, by the way, was not recorded in the official Report of the Proceeding of the 1972 Delegate Meeting): “We don’t support trade unions; we just say they are necessary”!

We can say that the ideas and methods of the utopians within the SPGB represent a return to the pre-Marxian socialism of the early nineteenth century for a number of reasons. Firstly because – just like the classical utopian socialists such as Robert Owen, St. Simon and Fourier – their tendency is to present socialism as a universal panacea to which they hope to convert people by sheer force of argument. As one comrade put it in a document published last year (Critical Theory and Revolutionary Practice October 1972, pp. 2-3): “When you get right down to it they’re trying to convince the workers of the need for Socialism via moral persuasion. ‘Socialism’ (like syrup of figs) is good for you.” Since for them socialist consciousness does not develop out of the struggles in which workers are involved, they have nothing to fall back on except the hope that sooner or later the “unthinking majority” (Report of the Proceedings of the 1972 SPGB Delegate Meeting, p8) will wake up – that the “revolution of the human mind” (Robert Owen) which the classical utopians longer for will take place.

The result of this is that socialism is projected as an ideal (and usually) remote system of society. Only a half-hearted effort is made to connect it with the actual problems which confront the working class and what is more important is that scarcely any attempt at all is made to relate the concept of socialism to the idea circulating among workers which have been thrown up as they grapple with these problems and search for answers to them. No one doubts the good intentions of the utopians when they declare that “Socialists put forward the case for a new world of common ownership and democratic control, trying to get workers to see their problems from this stand point (Socialist Standard, June 1966 p83). Any objective examination of their methods, however, can only reveal their total inability to form bridges between what workers are thinking now and what the utopians hope they start thinking in the future. Even when a virtually tailor-made issue such as “free transport” presents itself the utopians are incapable of recognising the opportunities it offers. For them it is just another aspect of the “the passing show” so that the suggestion that it could be used in order to encourage some workers to think beyond the ideas of abolishing certain prices, which has already aroused their interest, in the direction of a society of completely free access to all products is met with blank incomprehension. (“If we are going to publish anything during the course of an election let it be the terms of our condemnation of the whole system, not of some detail of it” – from the discussion on the proposed pamphlet on free transport in the Report of the Proceedings of the 1972 Delegate Meting, p5).

When the utopians within the SPGB reject many of the efforts of the working class to improve their conditions they are following in the long tradition which extends all the way back to the classical utopian socialists. As Marx pointed out, the Owenites opposed the Chartists and Fourier’s supporters were against the Reformistes because they too could not understand the crucial importance of the workers’ attempts at democratic self-organisation (today this means in a whole range of organisations – tenants’ associations, claimants unions, parent-teacher associations and student unions to name but a few). The SPGB’s Declaration of Principles announces bravely that the emancipation of the working class “must be the work of the working class itself” but the utopians can not begin to see that it is only by engaging in a wide range of day to day struggles that the working class can possibly obtain the confidence in its own ability and the degree of understanding necessary for it to overthrow capitalism. Recognising this, a revolutionary socialist party would be duty bound to intervene in the workers’ struggles by means of sympathetic propaganda material, which aimed at speeding the growth of socialist consciousness and the democratic self-activity of the working class. But instead of this the utopians in the SPGB actually call for abstention from these struggles! They are utopians because, as Marx caustically remarked about their nineteenth century predecessors, they “want the workers to leave the old society alone, the better to be able to enter the new society which they have prepared for them with so much foresight” (The Poverty of Philosophy).

The economic determinists have made a fetish out of inaction but not so the utopians. Their calls for a higher level of activity within the Party have often been among the most strident but, leaving aside for the moment the fact that their words have rarely been matched by their deeds, what they fail to realise is that their activity is totally irrelevant to the workers anyway. This is why there can be no solution to the SPGB’s inadequacy as long as they exert such an influence on the Party. The brutal truth is that if their practice does not relate to the workers’ struggles it cannot solve the major problem confronting the working class, which is capitalism. If their activity is irrelevant to the workers, then more activity simply means more irrelevance.

A Way Forward?

If a way forward exists for the SPGB it lies with the revolutionary minority. In this circular I have identified the three tendencies, which at present uneasily co-exist within the Party. The economic determinists at one time formed the bulk of the membership but are now shrinking into a minority, even though their influence is still considerable. Then there are the utopians, who are well on the way to establishing themselves as the majority and are thus able to compensate for their theoretical poverty by their numbers.

Finally there is a minority of revolutionaries. The revolutionary minority started to crystallise in the late 1960s, a development which was not unconnected with the revival of interest in revolutionary politics which occurred at about this time and which made itself felt in much wider circles than the narrow confines of the SPGB. There are, of course, important differences in both their theory and practice between each of the three tendencies, even between the economic determinists and the utopians, although such differences have tended to be obscured both by the verbal compromises which have been struck between these two currents and by the fact that quite a few of the more eclectic members of the SPGB have a foot in both these camps. But, whatever the differences which exist between the utopians and the economic determinists, they are firmly united by one thing – their sectarianism. Both deserve to be called sectarians since both stand aside from the workers’ struggles, the utopians because they dismiss them as irrelevant, the economic determinists because they are resigned to waiting for ‘history’ to breathe life into the skeleton of their Party. Only the revolutionaries reject this sectarianism and this is why, whatever the distinctions they can draw between the utopians and the economic determinists, they regard themselves as being opposed by a unified sectarian majority.

Whether or not we revolutionaries can eventually convert the SPGB into a revolutionary organisation is naturally open to question and I am just stating a personal opinion when I express my doubts about this. My own view is that the sectarian rot has gone too far for us to be able to do this in any reasonable period of time but I am not opposed to those comrades who are determined to try. As I explained at the beginning of this document, circumstances over which I have no control are forcing me to resign from the Party and what I am doing now it to use the opportunity this offers to issue this statement outlining the basic criticism which the revolutionaries within the SPGB direct at the sectarian majority. Naturally, even after I have ceased to be a member of the Party I shall continue to co-operate with those comrades who will remain in the SPGB to continue the struggle there and I am hopeful that they themselves will go no to form strong links with revolutionary socialists active outside the SPGB. In this way, the revolutionary organisation which we are all working to establish will be built, possibly as a revitalized SPGB but more likely independently of it.


Note on quotations: In this circular I have scrupulously avoided referring by name to any present members of the SPGB. I have, however, frequently quoted from articles, which have appeared in the Socialist Standard and elsewhere, and from statement made during discussions at SPGB conferences and delegate meetings. Where a member of the SPGB is quoted in connection with the ideas of the economic determinist, utopian or revolutionary tendencies within the Party this should not be taken to imply that I personally regard that member as an economic determinist, a utopian or a revolutionary. This analysis of the SPGB was more interested in identifying the major currents, which exists within the SPGB than in personal attacks on individuals. It is also necessary to point out that, given the wide-ranging compromises, which have been struck between the economic determinists and the utopians, it is often possible to use quotations from one to illustrate the views of the other.

Sectarianism and Intransigence: a critique of the leftist conception of ‘unity’

25 Mar

‘Unity’ is generally considered to be of paramount importance to leftists, to the point where this concept is upheld as a principle in its own right to which the left must adhere to in order for the workers’ revolution to materialize. Alongside this principle comes the leftist conception of sectarianism, the rejection of unity to avoid political dilution. We believe that a criticism of this conception, in the light of Marx’s own understanding of sectarianism, could serve to shed light upon the role of communists in relation to workers’ revolution, and contend that Marx’s views on this matter have unsurprisingly been distorted by the great majority of his supposed theoretical heirs, a symptom of their greater misunderstandings.

The basis of pan-leftism lies in the supposed significance and duty of the conscious sect in relation to the revolution of the working class. Rather than struggle being immanent to capitalism, conditioned by the inherent antagonisms of bourgeois society, revolution is something which must be ignited ‘’deliberately and arbitrarily’’ by the erudite revolutionaries without whom the class is incapable of challenging the political power of the bourgeoisie. Based on this understanding of class struggle as interchangeable with the struggle of the cadre, it follows that there is a profoundly important historical task to be completed by the conscious minorities. Given that these voluntarists see the current locomotive for historical progress to be self-proclaimed educators of the class rather than the class itself, we can see how the unity of the conscious socialists becomes so vital, so that the movement of the proletariat is not divided by the conflicting ideals of the separated left, the sectarians so they say. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’ and as the ‘house’, the revolutionary movement, is here built on foundations of consciousness, the division of consciousness represents its destruction. It becomes clear then that the opposition to the pan-left, this monolithic force of revolutionary leaders, is the epitome of sectarianism, also becoming synonymous with a dogmatic adherence to political doctrine. Those who would not depart from the stringency of program for the greater unity are condemned by the left for their heretical shunning of the principle of unity. The failure of the left to unite is therefore placed as the ultimate reason for the defeat of the class up to his point in history on the battlegrounds of bourgeois society. The content of class struggle is therefore entirely reliant on the strength of the teachers of the proletariat and the revolutionary education that they grant to them.

The opposition to leftist unity is widely considered to be one of the largest problems faced by the workers’ movement amongst the ‘revolutionary’ milieu, but it was in fact not considered so by Marx, just as he did not share the modern leftist conception of sectarianism. Marx’s notion of sectarianism was inseparable from his critique of utopian socialism as a form of idealism, which he differentiated from scientific socialism: the support for the working class based on their historically determined material interest rather than due to any ideals or eternal moral principles. Sectarianism for Marx and Engels was then, the support for principles external to and thus in conflict with the real workers’ movement of communism, which did not aim to realise any ideals through struggle nor create a society based upon them:

‘’They [the communists] have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.’’(1)

The sectarians are such because they hold eternal principles above this struggle (which, of course, one must do as soon as one holds eternal principles), which they oppose as soon as it breaches them. The sectarian leftist groups come into conflict with the workers when they attempt to subjugate their program to an ethical doctrine, in which case communism ignores or if need be destroys such barriers to its movement,

‘’The first phase in the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is marked by sectarianism. This is because the proletariat has not yet reached the stage of being sufficiently developed to act as a class. Individual thinkers provide a critique of social antagonisms, and put forward fantastic solutions which the mass of workers can only accept, pass on, and put into practice. By their very nature, the sects established by these initiators are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions, in brief, to any unified movement. The mass of the proletariat always remains unmoved by, if not hostile to, their propaganda.”(2)

A common example of leftist sectarianism is the espousal of what is known as the democratic principle, which subjugates the analysis of class society to the analysis of the formless ‘masses’. The democratic view of society is essentially of the same nature as that of the capitalist state and the nation: it views things from the perspective of an illusory ‘general interest’ placed above the existence of class antagonisms.  The will of ‘the people’ as abstract individuals devoid of class distinction is to be upheld through statistical majorities, and this is elevated to a principle. In recognising that no such general interest exists, communists support the interest of the proletariat alone, regardless of whether the struggle of the proletariat maintains the support of the majority of the abstract population, or even within the statistical limitations of the working class. Communists must always support the movement of the class, regardless of whether a strike is carried out by the minority of the workers or even if expropriation itself is the act of less than the majority of the proletariat. Of course a severe lack of support may be an obstacle to the success of the movement but this is a matter of practicality rather than principle, just as the democratic mechanism should not be rejected when it presents itself historically. To require on principle that communism maintains such a majority is fundamentally sectarian with reactionary implications. Another significant ailment of the left is the principle of national self-determination, which is ultimately the right of national capitals to exploit their own working classes without international disturbance, implying that the proletariat should fight and die for ‘their’ national bourgeoisie. National interest can never be supported as a matter of principle; as Engels says:

“We must co-operate in the work of setting the West European proletariat free and subordinate everything else to that goal. No matter how interesting the Balkan Slavs, etc., might be, the moment their desire for liberation clashes with the interests of the proletariat they can go hang for all I care.”(3)

The nation, as the international expression of the bourgeois state shared the immediate interests of the proletariat only as long as the bourgeoisie was historically revolutionary. National interest today is an unrelenting enemy of the working class just like the sectarians who uphold such interests as universal principles.

It now becomes apparent that raising ‘unity’ to the level of eternal applicability is also sectarian in the Marxist theoretical framework, as Engels noted in a correspondence to August Bebel,

‘’One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for “unity.” Those who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the most dissension, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, scream for nothing so much as for unity. Those unity fanatics are either the people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are now all together in one pot (you have a fine example of this in Germany with the people who preach the reconciliation of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie)–or else they are people who consciously or unconsciously (like Mühlberger, for instance) want to adulterate the movement. For this reason the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous than the unity shouters.’’(4)

Ironically, the very principle of leftist ‘anti-sectarianism’ itself is shown to be sectarian. Its implications to the class movement consist of ultimate detriment, the collaboration with the bourgeoisie and the adulteration of the revolutionary movement. After all, proletarian revolution is the abolition of the proclaimed unity of bourgeois society; it is the ultimate realisation of the contradictions, antagonisms and social grotesqueries of capital which leads to its own downfall. The cry for ‘unity’ is never far from the rhetoric of the bourgeois populists and democrats, who do not see in terms of class but in terms of ‘the people’ or ‘the majority’, concepts which are entirely separated from the communist perspective. In elevating unity to a fundamental principle of the class movement, it neglects the real issue and principle of this movement itself; as Engels said in regards to the split of Malon and Brousse from their union with Guesde and Lafargue,

‘’The issue is purely one of principle: is the struggle to be conducted as a class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, or is it to be permitted that in good opportunist (or as it is called in the Socialist translation: possibilist) style the class character of the movement, together with the programme, are everywhere to be dropped where there is a chance of winning more votes, more adherents, by this means. Malon and Brousse, by declaring themselves in favour of the latter alternative, have sacrificed the proletarian class character of the movement and made separation inevitable. All the better.’’(5)

Marx was  hardly alien to accusation of authoritarianism and sectarianism in the rejection of hollow unity in favour of obedience to the doctrine of the class,

‘’In the second place, who is to establish whether or not the particular rules conform to the General Rules? Evidently, if there were no “authority” charged with this function, the resolution would be null and void. Not only could police and hostile sections be formed, but also the intrusion of declassed sectarians and bourgeois philanthropists into the Association could warp its character and, by force of numbers at Congresses, crush the workers.’’(6)

The ‘authoritarian’ tendencies of the communists are merely a reflection of the immanent principle of the workers’ movement itself, its existence as a struggle for class interests, which therefore cannot take any other principles for granted, but must rather hold them up against the ruling stick of practicality towards this real end. This attitude was expressed by Marx and Engels repeatedly with his policy towards the admission of groups into the international, for example, in regards to the positivists,

‘’On February 8, 1870, the Paris “Society of Positivist Proletarians” applied to the General Council for admission. The Council replied that the principles of the Positivists, the part of the society’s special rules concerning capital, were in flagrant contradiction with the preamble of the General Rules; that the society had, therefore, to drop them and join the International not as “Positivists” but as “proletarians”, while remaining free to reconcile their theoretical ideas with the Association’s general principles. Realizing the justness of this decision, the section joined the International.’’(7)

By dismissing the need for political rigidity and allowing a broader coalition of those proclaiming themselves as advocates of social revolution, one submits themselves to the role of any other bourgeois party in the parliamentary playground of ideals.  If the schools of leftism today are to have any consistency in their theories they should put Marx and Engels at the top of the list of history’s greatest sectarians,

‘’Now the sectarian quarrel-mongers are preaching conciliation and decrying us as the intolerant and the dictators. And if we had come out in a conciliatory way at the Hague, if we had hushed up the breaking out of the split–what would have been the result? The sectarians, especially the Bakuninists, would have got another year in which to perpetrate, in the name of the International, much greater stupidities and infamies even; the workers of the most developed countries would have turned away in disgust; the bubble would not have burst but, pierced by pinpricks, would have slowly collapsed, and the next Congress, which would have been bound to bring the crisis anyhow, would have turned into the lowest kind of personal row, because principles had already been sacrificed at the Hague. Then the International would indeed have gone to pieces—gone to pieces through “unity”!’’(8)

Subjection to the accusations of leftist moralism on such grounds is generally a good sign that one has aptly understood their Marxist theory. It is fairly hard for one to argue with any cogency that Marx and Engels were reluctant to reject the credentials of the so called revolutionaries that came into conflict with the fundamental positions of the communist project. In fact, the internal struggles of the movement were regarded as neither negative nor avoidable,

‘’The development of the proletariat proceeds everywhere amidst internal struggles and France, which is now forming a workers’ party for the first time, is no exception. We in Germany have got beyond the first phase of the internal struggle, other phases still lie before us. Unity is quite a good thing so long as it is possible, but there are things which stand higher than unity. And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one’s life long against the alleged Socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out.’’(9)

Further stating,

‘’For the rest, old Hegel has already said: A party proves itself a victorious party by the fact that it splits and can stand the split. The movement of the proletariat necessarily passes through different stages of development; at every stage one section of people lags behind and does not join in the further advance; and this alone explains why it is that actually the “solidarity of the proletariat” is everywhere realised in different party groupings which carry on life and death feuds with one another, as the Christian sects in the Roman Empire did amidst the worst persecutions.’’(10)

The pan-leftists are today’s greatest sectarians. Of course, the unity shouters would consider themselves partisans of workers unity. But the unity of the left is not only entirely separated from but is in fact opposed to the movement of the united class. It is the height of naivety to believe that the ‘left’ in general or even in any great number are advocates of proletarian interest, the program which ends with the abolition of their very condition as a class along with any propagation of a false general interest represented by state and democracy.  Enforcing the unity of the left on principle can lead to nothing other than the collaboration with the bourgeois socialists, the labour fakirs, all of those who represent the interests of capital’s left political apparatus who despite their rhetoric, are nothing other than capital disguised in red clothing,

‘’Communists must unremittingly struggle against these bourgeois socialists because they work for the enemies of communists and protect the society which communists aim to overthrow.’’(11)

The concepts of sectarianism advocated by the pan-left and by Marx present themselves antithetical, the former idealist and the latter materialist. This is fairly evident when looking at the opposing theories on the history of class struggle. For the leftist the united and popular fronts pose themselves as indispensable platforms for the revolutionary struggle whereas the communists see these forms as blatant organs of class collaboration, just as the leftists attribute the rise of fascism to the victory of the right over the disunited left in the battle of ideals rather than treating the determination of historical social formations as entirely detached from the will of their participants. Of course the leftist historian does not hesitate to label Bordiga as sectarian for his advocacy of invariance, whilst the faces of Marx and Engels are followed by a sequence of bourgeois political figures on the flags of every hopeless nationalist party of capital’s left.

The task of igniting the revolution is not allocated to any political group, no matter how well they maintain adherence to the communist program. The proletariat is its own and only agent for revolution, it is the material force which abolishes the remnants of class society and the disastrous separation of the individual from the community. It is this very separation from one another, from humanity and from human society which does not only inspire the working class to violently escape their condition but in fact gives them no other option, as capital is entirely incapable of maintaining its existence without destroying itself. The separation of the left from the working class, as well as the fragmentation of the left in itself is not a problem for class struggle. Consciousness is not the prerequisite to revolution; it is only achievable through, after and as a part of successful struggle. As Paul Mattick said, ‘’the proletarian revolution, while it changes the world, will not neglect to educate the astonished educators‘’(12). Those already conscious of the struggle have no historical role separate from the rest of the class, they must simply maintain their militancy against capital and push the struggle as hard as possible in every situation. The importance of communist organisations will be determined by the factors of insurrection to which they have no control over.

In gaining momentum, the revolution will sweep away the various sectarians who would aim to push for left capitalist compromises and utopias and the subordination of revolutionary interest to the bourgeoisie. Amidst the struggle, it is only the genuine supporters of the material class interests that are aside from and opposed to the conquest for ideals that will maintain their being with the class and the party movement. These bodies will not strive for unity at any cost but instead will rigidly maintain their historical task and oppose those factions who would seek to distort it.

(1) Manifesto of the Communist Party

(2) Fictitious Splits in the International by Marx and Engels

(3) Engels to Eduard Bernstein 1882 [letter]

(4) Engels to August Bebel in Hubertsberg 1873 [letter]

(5) Engels to August Bebel in Leipzig 1882 [letter]

(6) Ibid. 2

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid. 5

(10) Ibid. 4

(11) The Principles of Communism by Engels

(12) The Inevitability of Communism by Paul Mattick 1936

On ‘economic freedom’

19 Mar

In discussions of politics and economics, you’ll often hear the term ‘economic freedom’ thrown around. What, then, does this mean? Well, it doesn’t necessarily have a coherent meaning, as is applicable to just about every term ubiquitous in political debate, and to some extent its popularity can be explained by the fact that it allows various ideologues to associate their chosen form of capitalism with the positive connotations of the word ‘freedom’; this buzzword apologia, however, does not exhaust the entire significance of the phrase. Of course, the decidedly disgusting consequences of the positive associations of ‘freedom’ and its associate words upon human language use are rather evident to any who look at the decaying corpse that is political discourse – if I were less mechanistic in my Marxism, I might suggest that a public for whom ‘rule’, ‘authority’ and ‘power’ played the same linguistic-rockstar role as ‘freedom’ does now would have attained successful proletarian revolution decades ago – but nonetheless it must not be forgotten that political ideology, with its myriad chimeras, is a reflection of economic reality, and that the buzzwords of an age are the buzzwords of its ruling class. Hence, let us seek to uncover just what this delightful mirage of freedom is, by dissecting the rotting brain-cells of capital to find these mischievous neuron perpetrators.

In the first place, we must try to find out the subject of this ‘economic freedom’. So, whose freedom is this? The freedom of individual property owners. Economic man, in capitalist society, is property-owning man; economic freedom must pertain to the property owner. This individual is at first taken as something abstract; their actual property, which may be quite different from that of others, is disregarded, and what is important is merely that they have the potential of private property ownership. Of what does the freedom of property owners consist? Of the ability to freely dispose of their property, without obstructions from without. This ability contains within itself the right to purchase and sale, the ability to alienate one’s commodity, one’s private property, and by this to gain another commodity which is itself now one’s private property; in a sense, one never gives up one’s private property over the first commodity, but rather this private property is proclaimed equal to private property in another commodity, it is equated to private property in another commodity, as soon as exchange is established and hence ownership of one commodity becomes equivalent to ownership of another. What this freedom consists of here is, then, the freedom to freely dispose of value.

However, this freedom hardly appears without its customary fetters for the individual commodity-seller. For in order to sell their commodity at a certain price, or even at all, there must be demand of a certain level; likewise the level of ‘supply’ is conditioned not simply by them, but by many independent producers. To exercise their freedom, they must set their commodity free; it must be allowed to roam the market and exchange in accordance with its own conditions. It is not the individual’s arbitrary will that determines the price, but rather it is contingent upon multiple market factors, upon the effective demand, as expressed in other commodities, upon the supply provided by other producers, and so on. The commodity acts according to its own nature. We hence have the initial formulation of the freedom of property; upon the market, it is not individuals alienating their commodities, but alienated commodities which are free. The individuals must unleash their product to society, to the market and its demands, and hence have no absolute autonomy here.

What, then, about money, the physical form taken by value itself? If people may freely dispose of value, then they may freely dispose of money. Money may realize itself in any commodity’s use value; it is either non-discriminatory or a whore, depending on which side of the language-war subcultures one resides within. All that remains is for labour capcity, labour-power, to become a commodity which can itself be freely disposed of, hence freely bought with money. This implies the suspension of any immediate unity of the individual with their means and conditions of production, their freedom from the productive forces. Of course, if the individual is to live up to the abstract, equal individual of bourgeois society, they cannot be considered as having any inherent relationship or ownership of the means of production due to their specificities, and rather all must be treated alike, as ‘economically free’ private property owners. If they are to be free, of the means of production must they be freed. One could hardly deny them self-ownership; the freedom to alienate their labour-power, their body, as they wish. This implies already that, rather than being tied up to any particular means of production or land, they must become purely private individuals, with either money or labour-power.

Yet the free economic subject is still free, and hence free to invest their money as they want. As private property owners, they are free, because they are free to alienate their private property, to set their private property free. In that case, they are also free to invest their money in labour-power, to make this labour-power their own property, and hence to use it within the bounds of the freely agreed contract. Hence, their freedom to dispense of their own private property turns into personal power over others, although of course only in terms of the freely signed contract (we can’t forget the freely signed contract!). However, of what does their power here ultimately consist? In the fact that they are able to buy labour-power, that they therefore gain private property over it and can use it towards their own profit. It is because, and only because, they have money that they have power. If anyone else had the same money, they could use it in the same ways, as follows from the principle from which we started, that of the equal, abstract property-owner; they could invest it in labour-power and still come out the same. It is money that rules, not people. So, what of the right to freely dispose of property, the freedom of the property-owner? Well, it is maintained, but not quite as it was envisioned.

As we saw, the relationship of capitalist and proletarian is quite consistent with this kind of freedom; both freely exchange their goods, their property, and on this level appear as essentially equal. This freedom can only be disturbed by the infringements of others. However, this exchange cannot be left at this, observed in isolation, but must rather be understood as simply a moment in the capitalist production process. Now, in the first place, the freedom of the property-owner establishes that the capitalist is free to dispose of their money in labour-power. However, as we have seen, the capitalist as capitalist does not count as the specific individual that they are, but rather as simply the human embodiment of a certain quantity of money, as a functionary of objective capital. It is, in fact, the money which initiates the process, and the capitalist is simply a functionary by which this money realizes its inner nature in exchange – exchange, of course, subject to social forces over which the individual capitalist has no control – and if the property-owner is here declared free, the real meaning of this is that capital is free. It is through money that the whole process takes place, and hence freedom for the capitalist can only be the undiminished power of money – not its infinite ability to buy, but rather a lack of restrictions on its functioning which fall outside its essential nature – the freedom of money. The freedom of the capitalist to freely dispose of their property, to hence buy and use labour-power, is the freedom of money capital, of value, to freely expand itself through its realization in means of production and labour-power, a process in which the individual personality of the property-owner falls out of consideration.

If one merely looks at the initial act of exchange between labour-power and capital, of course it will appear characterized by the same sort of ‘freedom’ as simple commodity circulation (they are not wholly segregated, of course, and the form of freedom being the freedom of value is implicit in simple commodity circulation itself.) This exchange by itself does not leave the realm of simple commodity circulation. However, we can hardly neglect that that is by no means the end of the story. The use-value of labour-power is the production of a surplus-value; the only purpose it posseses, which allows it to represent a use-value here, is that of expanding value. This first exchange is by its own nature just a moment in a larger process, a process whose end, unlike simple commodity purchase, is not a use-value, but value itself. In ‘normal’ consumption, the product’s value is annihilated by consumption, where it ceases to be; in capital’s consumption, the value must be not only maintained, but expanded, and therefore appears as continuous throughout the process rather than ending at its beginning. In that case, we may not regard the initial exchange as autonomous, either from the perspective of the use-value of labour-power or the value represented by capital; it is merely a prelude to a larger procession. In the production process itself, it is indeed capital’s freedom which is asserted, the freedom of value to expand itself; of course, this was therefore implicit in the initial freedom of the capital-labour-power exchange, therefore in the very form of ‘economic freedom’ itself, inasmuch as it was consistent with the initial exchange. Conversely, what of the freedom of labour-power apparent in the earlier exchange? Now, labour-power is incorporated into capital: it counts as a part of capital’s investment and hence of capital, and its functioning therefore counts primarily as the execution of abstract labour, primarily abstract surplus labour, which immediately falls into the hands of capital. It enacts the aims of another, and hence appears as simply a part of capital precisely because it has no aims of its own, but only those of capital.

We hence arrive at the conclusion: economic freedom is the freedom of capital. Economic freedom simply involves the stripping away of external fetters to the progress of capitalist production, the setting free of capital to thrust forward without delay; as such, economic freedom must be specified with regards to the state of capital at a given time, and the forces external to its nature which fetter it and prevent it from developing as much as it would if set free. The rhetoric on economic freedom both reflects the essentially atomized nature of individuals in capitalism, in the form of abstract property-owners and commodity-sellers, and generally ignores the fact that this very abstractness means that people’s property comes to rule over the human beings themselves, and hence that what was supposed to be individual freedom becomes freedom of capital in a capitalist context.