Pseudo Lefts

More Years for the Locust: the Origins of the SWP Paperback – June 16. 2012 by Jim Higgins (Author), John Game (Foreword), Phil Evans (Drawings)


"Style is the Man",

A proverbial saying, early 20th century, meaning that one's chosen style reflects one's essential characteristics; earlier in Latin, and the French naturalist Buffon (1707–88) in the form, 'Style is the man himself.'

"Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege".

Leon Trotsky

At the end of the film The Shawshank Redemption,[1] Andy Dufresne escapes from the prison in the night by crawling through the sewer pipe and escaping into a nearby river. Reviewing this book has a similar feel to it.

The author of this book Jim Higgins (1930-2002), began his political life as a member of the British Communist Party. He left in 1956 after reading Nikita Khrushchev's 'Secret Speech', which denounced the crimes of Stalin. Nothing is mentioned in this book about Higgin's life in the Stalinist Communist Party.

It is true that Higgins read "voraciously" the writings of Leon Trotsky but appears to have learnt nothing from then accept he did not agree with orthodox Marxism. Therefore it is a little strange that he joined Gerry Healy's The Club that became the Socialist Labour League and later the Workers Revolutionary Party. The Club played an important role in major industrial struggles and within the Labour Party, especially the movement in opposition to the development of the H-Bomb. In 1958, the youth paper Keep Left was relaunched monthly, and members were sent into the Labour Party's youth movement, the Young Socialists. Higgins almost immediately formed a faction against the leadership.

Although Higgin's book purports to be a history of the Socialist Workers Party(SWP), he spends an inordinate amount of time and space attacking the SLL and Healy, which makes me believe that Higgin's joined the wrong party by mistake. It seems pretty clear he was never a Trotskyist and retained much of his Stalinist baggage acquired during his membership of the Communist Party.

Higgins was thrown out of the SLL and joined Cliff's Socialist Review Group (founded in 1950). This group would later turn into the International Socialists, which later became the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff's Socialist Review came out of a factional struggle within the RCP. Before Cliff left the RCP, he had been a supporter of Max Shachtman's state-capitalist thesis. [2] Cliff was to build his tendency by recruiting from amongst disaffected RCP members based on their agreement with Cliff's revisionism of Marxism.

According to a Socialist Equality Party(SEP) perspective document, "Cliff was to argue that the Stalinist dictatorship was only the most finished expression of a new stage in the evolution of world capitalism, which was partially expressed by Labour's post-war nationalisations and those conducted by the newly independent colonial regimes. He placed the intelligentsia alongside the Stalinist bureaucracy as the midwife of yet another variety of state capitalism. The industrial working class had "played no role whatsoever" in the Chinese revolution, while in Cuba, "middle-class intellectuals filled the whole arena of struggle". From this, Cliff declared that Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was wrong because, "While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie (Trotsky's first point) is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working-class is neither absolute nor inevitable… Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky's theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces."[3]

Higgins completely agreed with Cliff's attack on Trotsky's work. In an article written in 1963, Higgin's, agreed with his mentor and leader Cliff, saying, " The demise of British Trotskyism (and it died sometime before the corpse was formally interred) cannot be blamed only on its tactical inadequacies. However, it is true that with a more realistic appraisal of the world, they could have continued for much longer. But like Trotsky, they founded their attitude on an erroneous analysis of reformism and imperialism with a fundamental misappraisal of Stalinism. The characterisation of Russia as a counter-revolutionary abortion hid the fact of the profoundly capitalist nature of the Russian economy, its dynamism and its ability to survive. Far from being a shallow-rooted caste, the bureaucracy was, and is, an integral part of the Russian body politic".[4]

"Style is the man."

When I say "Style is the man", I do not mean Higgins wore bad clothes, which he did, but this book is not a serious history of the origins of the SWP or the early days of British Trotskyism. What passes for analysis from Higgins would not look out of place in the Beano or Dandy children's magazines.

Given the seriousness of his subject matter, Higgin's writes more like a  comedian or raconteur than he does a serious historian or political activist. He is, after all, dealing with historical issues in which millions of people lost their lives due to the betrayals of Stalinism and Social Democracy. Books like these should have a certain amount of gravitas.

To conclude, this book was written 20 years after Higgins had left serious political activity and is written to settle a few old scores rather than contribute to understanding the history of British Trotskyism. You would have thought that his editor at Unkant publishers would have had a word with him. His so-called history is unserious, lacking in any academic rigour and is the work of a "mock historian". Although talking about another ex Stalinist E.P.Thompson, this quote from Healy is apt for Higgins "Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage. He was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism". His book is a product of that training.

 

Endnotes

1.   Higgin's papers are left with Senate House Library, University of London. They are well worth a look because they contain a goldmine of pamphlets etc., about the history of the Fourth International.

2.   The Heritage We Defend (30th Anniv. Edition): A Contribution to the history of the Fourth International-The work reviews the political and theoretical disputes inside the Fourth International, the international Marxist movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938. It is a devastating reply to former WRP General Secretary Michael Banda's document "27 Reasons why the International Committee Should be Buried Forthwith and the Fourth International Built." Contains a detailed and objective assessment of the political contribution and evolution of James P. Cannon, Trotsky's most important co-thinker in the US, as well as the evolution of the US Socialist Workers Party.The 2018 edition of the foundational 1988 work by David North, chairman of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, contains a new preface, photo section, and an extensive glossary.

3.   Higgin's writings for what they are worth can be accessed here. https://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/index.htm

4.   The SLL's Labour Review - https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/lr/

 

 



[2]https://www.marxists.org/archive/shachtma/1947/05/debate.html

[4] Ten Years for the Locust-British Trotskyism 1938–1948-https://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1963/xx/10years.htm




Review: Paul Flewers and John McIlroy (editors) 1956: John Saville, EP Thompson and The Reasoner Merlin Press, 2016, pp450, £20.

"Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage. He was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism". Gerry Healy

"I do not see class as a 'structure', nor even as a 'category', but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. The notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.  E. P. Thompson

 E.P. Thompson had been dead for two decades and John Saville for 12 years. It is perhaps a little strange that in 2016 a book came out that republished for the first time three copies of the obscure The Reasoner journal that Saville and Thompson established during their split from the British Communist Party in 1956.

The essays in this book by McIlroy and Flewers largely provide Thompson and Saville with a Psuedo left cover for their anti-Marxist positions. This review will show that while breaking organisationally from the Communist Party, Thompson and Saville never broke from many of the ideological positions held during their time in the Communist Party, one of which was their hostility to Trotskyism.

In 1956 sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy turned on its commander in chief and partner in crime, Joseph Stalin. Kruschev's "secret speech" was hardly secret and was not so much a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that gripped world Stalinism.

Khrushchev's speech was typical of a man implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One subject all the Stalinist bureaucrats agreed on was the correctness of the struggle against Leon Trotsky, the only leading Bolshevik not to have been rehabilitated by the Stalinists. Khrushchev said, "We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed all the enemies of Leninism ideologically. The ideological fight was carried on successfully ... Here, Stalin played a positive role.[1]"

Khrushchev had a very limited understanding of the social forces he was inadvertently unleashing with his speech. Far from preventing revolution, he opened the floodgates. His response was the same as Stalin before him: to unleash terror on the working class worldwide.

Trotskyists inside Gerry Heally's Socialist Labour League welcomed the crisis inside the Soviet Communist Party. Healy sought to clarify the issues involved in the crisis of world Stalinism. However, Pseudo Left groups such as the British Socialist Workers Party muddied the water and argued that despite Khrushchev's Speech, there was "a process of self-reform" going on under pressure from the working class Stalinism would move in a revolutionary direction.

Thompson got a warm reception from the British SWP, who broke from the Fourth International in the early 1940s. The SWP, from its inception until the present day, has given these emigrants from Stalinism a left cover and justified their reformist and nationalist adaptation and orientation. According to SWP member David Mcnally E P Thompson, "was the greatest Marxist historian of the English-speaking world and had a "political commitment to freeing Marxism from the terrible distortions of Stalinism, a commitment which originated in the battles of 1956 within the official Communist movement.[2] "

It is perhaps an understatement to say that the speech caused mayhem in the British Communist Party. It lost over 9000 members, most of its important intellectuals, and nearly all its historians inside the Communist Party Historians Group. The leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain attempted to deal with the crisis by suppressing any opposition occurring inside the party.

Historians John Saville and EP Thompson were among many who refused to bow down to the party line and issued the three magazines published in this book. Saville and Thompson resigned their party membership, saying, "We believe that the self-imposed restrictions upon controversy, the 'guiding' of discussions along approved lines, the actual suppression of sharp criticism - all these have led to a gradual blurring of theoretical clarity, and the encouragement among some communists of attitudes akin to intellectual cynicism when it has been easier to allow this or that false proposition to go by than to embark upon the tedious and frustrating business of engaging with bureaucratic editorial habits and general theoretical inertia" (p137).

While the Reasoner was critical of Stalin and some of his crimes, it said nothing about the persecution and murder of hundreds of thousands of left oppositions, including the state murder of most leading Bolsheviks, including Leon Trotsky. They stayed silent on the Show Trials and purges carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy.[3]

Perhaps the worst aspect of this book among many is that it continues the lie that Thompson or, for that matter, Saville were Marxists. After leaving the party, Thompson cherry-picked which bits of Marxism he would use while rejecting orthodox Marxism. His criticism of Stalinism was not from an orthodox Marxist position; instead, he advocated a form of "socialist humanism".

After closing down The Reasoner, Thompson founded the New Reasoner in 1957 along with historian John Saville. The group was made up of ex and current members of the CPGB. It also attracted a varied group of people who had left the Fourth International and members of the Labour Party who wrote articles for the magazine. Most ex Stalinists from the Communist Party dropped out of politics altogether or found an easy life within the Labour Party and trade union apparatus.

Thompson was avowedly hostile to an international revolutionary perspective and sought to imbue his new publication with an "English Marxist" tradition.  Thompson rejected orthodox Marxism, and in its place, he preached a form of utopian socialism entitled socialist humanism. To protect his so-called Marxist credentials, he launched "a series of reckless, stage-managed and convoluted polemics against a series of academics, intellectuals who in one form or another had been mistakenly labelled Marxists". Thompson held the belief that classical Marxism was sectarian. He believed that this "sectarianism" and "purism" dated way before the Russian Revolution.

While Thompson and Saville shared hatred of early classical Marxism, they reserved their most vitriolic hatred for the Trotskyist's inside the SLL. It must be said that the editors of this book share Thompson's attitude towards the Trotskyists inside the Socialist Labour League.                 

The orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International, which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), saw the crisis within the British Communist party as an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Healy went on an offensive to win the most important cadre from the breakup of the Communist Party. According to Stan Newens," When the April 1957 Communist Party Congress took place in Hammersmith Town Hall, many of them, including Gerry Healy himself, were outside selling journals and lobbying delegates."[4] Those figures who had not been entirely corrupted by the years of lies and calumny of the Stalinist regimes throughout the world were won to orthodox or classical Marxism. Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer.

Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to Thompson's politics but were open to debate. Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in and told Thompson that "The New left Must Look to the Working Class"[5].

While cordial in tone, Healy did not mince his words when he said, "What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson's article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently, there is no attempt to analyze the relationship between the left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working-class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new left is the warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas."[6]

During the early years of Thompson's magazine, the Reasoner and later the New Reasoner, and later still the New Left Review, it is clear that he had no intention of debating with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy trying to secure cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters, it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist's around Healy as a part of the working class. Healy's response was to say that "Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism." Thompson's response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement throughout its history.

This book is useful to future generations of revolutionaries only because it is an example of how not to build a revolutionary movement. It is important to study the history of the workers' movement both in Britain and internationally. Students and workers could do no worse than a systematic study of David North's The Heritage We Defend[7].

Postscript.

In 2014 several capitalist newspapers reported that MI5 had been spying on many members of the British Communist Party starting in the early 1930s. MI5 systematically followed, broke into their house and stole documents of a significant number of academic members of the Communist Party. MI5 even went so far as to plant large numbers of agents inside the Communist Party. One agent, Olga Gray, succeeded in becoming secretary to Harry Pollitt, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Great Britain.[8] How much disruption was caused by these agents is a moot point. Madeline Davis seems to think not much. In her article, Edward Thompson, MI5 and the Reasoner controversy: negotiating "Communist principle" in the crisis of 1956, she downplays MI5 involvement in the aftermath of Kruschev's speech. My point is why is none of this mentioned in Flewer's and McIlroy's book.

 

 

 

 [1] Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U. https://www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24-abs.htm

[2] E.P. Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism-https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1993/isj2-061/mcnally.htm

[3] See Vadim Rogovin’s 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror-https://mehring.com/product/1937-stalins-year-of-terror/

[4] http://isj.org.uk/memories-of-a-seminal-year/

[5] Labour Review October –November 1959 edition,

[6] "The New left Must Look to the Working Class"

[7] The Heritage We Defend (30th Anniv. Edition): A Contribution to the History of the Fourth International-The work reviews the political and theoretical disputes inside the Fourth International, the international Marxist movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938. It is a devastating reply to former WRP General Secretary Michael Banda’s document “27 Reasons why the International Committee Should be Buried Forthwith and the Fourth International Built.”Contains a detailed and objective assessment of the political contribution and evolution of James P. Cannon, Trotsky’s most important co-thinker in the US, as well as the evolution of the US Socialist Workers Party.The 2018 edition of the foundational 1988 work by David North, chairman of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, contains a new preface, photo section, and an extensive glossary.

[8] https://www.mi5.gov.uk/the-soviet-threat-between-the-wars 




Evan Smith and Matthew Worley (eds), Waiting for the Revolution: The British far left from 1956, Manchester University Press, 2017; 279 pp.; £75.00 hbk; ISBN 9781526113658

 

Evan Smith and Matthew Worley’s Waiting for the Revolution is the second volume of collected essays that examine British left-wing politics from 1956 to the present day. The first volume was called Against the Grain[1]

As in the first volume, these two radicals express their hostility to any orthodox Marxist analysis or critique of the left groups. Trotskyism is not mentioned, and there is no chapter examining the Socialist Labour League the then section of the Fourth International. Their choice of political groups and movements is a reflection of their parochial and nationalistic outlook. 

Smith and Worley’s book is not intended to deliver a perspective for the coming struggles of the working class but seeks “to uncover and explore the traditions and issues that have preoccupied leftist groups, activists and struggles”. The second volume explores anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid struggles, alongside introductions to Militant and the now-defunct and very right-wing Revolutionary Communist Party. 

In the Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left Smith and Worley maintains that despite its numerous betrayals that the Labour Party is still a vehicle for change and that left groups should move away from entryism and pressure the party to the left. As Smith and Worley write “many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn’s entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party’s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour. Corbyn’s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign”. 

Jeremy Corbyn was put forward by Britain’s pseudo-left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party and sections of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy as proof that the rightward swing of the Labour Party, beginning in the 1970s, including Neil Kinnock’s betrayal of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and culminating in the New Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown could be pegged back. 

As the Socialist Equality Party(SEP) stated “No one can seriously propose that this party—which, in its politics and organisation and the social composition of its apparatus, is Tory in all but name—can be transformed into an instrument of working-class struggle. The British Labour Party did not begin with Blair. It is a bourgeois party of more than a century’s standing, and a tried and tested instrument of British imperialism and its state machine. Whether led by Clement Attlee, James Callaghan or Jeremy Corbyn, its essence remains unaltered.”[2] 

Suffice to say Smith and Worley do not agree with this analysis saying only “an understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is therefore important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework. It is hoped that this book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding”. What they do not say is that this book offers no way out for the working class and contains rehashes of previously failed perspectives. 

In Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970-90 Jodi Burkett examines the Pseudo Left groups attitude towards the student movement. There is nothing remotely progressive or left-wing or even Marxist about the attitude of the radical groups towards the student movement and its leadership. The pseudo-left group’s promotion of identity and gender issues which are prevalent in student politics over class issues belong not to the Marxist tradition but the tradition of irrationalism and anti-Marxism. 

The adoption by the pseudo-left groups of identity politics is one confirmation of their extreme subjectivist and postmodernist nostrums. The philosophical outlook of these groups has enabled them as one writer puts it “to furnish a plethora of alternative justifications for lending “critical” support to imperialism. 

Burkett says nothing of the pseudo lefts groups uncritical attitude towards the student leadership of the NUS. The NUS in the past regularly banned individuals and organisations from hosting meetings and delivering speeches on campuses across the UK, in line with the student union’s long-standing policy of providing “no platform” for offensive speakers in the name of securing campuses as so-called safe spaces. 

The British pseudo-left pioneered this policy in the early 1970s as a means of lobbying the institutions of the capitalist state to proscribe speakers from the far right. The chapter ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968-75 by Jack Saunders provides an academic cover for the IS’s kowtowing to the labour and trade union bureaucracies. 

Towards the end of 1968, the International Socialists (IS) decided to adopt what central committee member Alex Callinicos termed “a Leninist model of the organisation”. It would not see the IS turn to the working class but would see it develop very cosy relations with the trade union bureaucracies across the United Kingdom and internationally.

The IS decided to adopt the term as Chris Marsden points out ” in 1968 revolutionary movements it had spent almost two decades saying would never emerge erupted across Europe and internationally. This pose of orthodoxy was considered vital in combating the danger of workers gravitating to the genuine Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League. But the essential line of the SWP, as the IS became known in 1977, remained its insistence that the reformist and Stalinist bureaucracies were the natural leaders of a reformist working class”.[3] 

Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956-85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley.. Buckley’s article is a very friendly piece of a whitewash of an organisation that has the blood of thousands of workers on its hands. The CPGB played a central role in the betrayal of the miner’s strike of 84-85. 

As Chris Marsden and Julie Hyland point out the Stalinist leader of the NYUM was Far from being the revolutionary of popular right-wing mythology, Scargill is a life-long supporter of the Stalinist Communist Party and an advocate of its national reformist programme. To the extent that he spoke of socialism, it was as a perspective for the distant future. In the meantime, what was required was the creation of a nationally regulated economy based on a mix of import controls and subsidies that would provide the basis for protecting Britain’s nationalised coal industry. This was the “Plan for Coal” that he sought to commit the Labour Party and the TUC to fight for in a struggle against the Conservatives. What was demonstrated in 1984, however, was not only that the ruling class was no longer prepared to tolerate such a policy, but that there was no longer any significant constituency for such a programme within the labour bureaucracy of which he was a part.[4] 

While Buckley mentions the SWP’s mild criticism of the CPGB she glosses over the fact that the SWP saw the miners strike as a fight between two giant forces, the Thatcherite state apparatus and “Scargill’s Army”. This conception of the struggle conveniently lets the Trades Union Congress (TUC), its affiliated unions and the Labour Party entirely off the hook. 

Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism, 1956-79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs. This is quite a shocking and blatant attempt to whitewash the role Stalinism played in the rise of “Left-Wing” Scottish nationalism. Scottish nationalism is neither left-wing wing nor progressive in any way shape or form. It is a reactionary development and goes against Vladimir Lenin’s advice “not to paint nationalism red”. 

Despite Scothorne and Gibbs attempt to gloss over the Scottish Nationalist Party’s (SNP)right-wing origins the bourgeois nationalist parties such as the SNP have no tradition in the workers’ movement. The SNP is now the ruling party in Scotland’s devolved Holyrood parliament.  Scothorne and Gibbs also downplay the role of the pseudo-lefts promotion of a Left Nationalism in both Scotland and Wales. These lefts do not constitute, in any sense an independent political force. They are propagandists for the Scottish bourgeoisie and its chosen party. 

“The SWP has shifted from being opponents of Scottish separatism to its most ardent proponents. It is a change of course driven by a realisation by the privileged, middle-class layers for which it speaks that independence could offer an excellent opportunity to gain access to political influence and financial resources—drawn from the speculative capital swilling around Edinburgh and then channelled via the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood into innumerable academic and governmental sinecures”.[5] 

The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn. Perhaps another title for this chapter should be the pseudo lefts in Ireland a disastrous and treacherous legacy. It was only the Socialist Labour League the then British Trotskyists who opposed the sending of troops to Northern Ireland. The work of the SLL was crucial in exposing the crimes carried out by the British bourgeoisie including Bloody Sunday. It outlined the only principled and revolutionary political tasks for the British and Irish working class. 

For further articles that illustrate this principled record, in contrast to the rank political opportunism of the Stalinist and fake left groups such as International Socialism, the forerunner of the British Socialist Workers Party, and the International Marxist Group, affiliated to the Pabloite United Secretariat see footnote.[6] 

The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party by Michael Fitzpatrick. The fact that that this tiny and insignificant organisation gets a full chapter is indicative of the attitude the editors of this collection have towards orthodox Marxism.

The RCP began life as the Revolutionary Communist Tendency in 1976. It changed its name in 1981 to the Revolutionary Communist Party. This party was vomited into existence through a series of unprincipled splits and expulsions from Tony Cliff’s state-capitalist International Socialist group, now the Socialist Workers Party. The RCT had been a faction inside the IS called the Revolutionary Opposition whose leader was Roy Tearse. This organisation did not have any distinct programme or theory. When Cliff expelled it, the organisation exploded into many different parts each one as reactionary as the other. 

Tearse formed a group called the Discussion Group which predictably ended up inside the Labour Party. Another splinter group under the leadership of David Yaffe, an academic at Sussex University was called the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), formed in 1974 it was made up predominantly of students. Its programme was a mix of Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism. It would go to denounce the working class as the beneficiaries of imperialism. 

Fitzpatrick is either incapable or does not wish to explain how an organisation that was purportedly Trotskyist was to become a vehicle for right-wing bordering on fascist nostrums. As Zach Reed points out “Through such self-serving and dishonest claims, Spiked provides both an apologia and a platform for corporations and right-wing individuals and groups. Indeed “free speech” for Spiked overwhelmingly centres on the democratic rights of such layers, often in alliance with Conservative Students societies. In the 1990s, in response to the dissolution of the Soviet Union by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the RCP developed many of the concepts that underwrite the politics of Spiked-Online.

In 1990, in its magazine Living Marxism, Furedi expounded the RCP’s new political line in an article, “Midnight in the Century.” The liquidation of the Soviet Union and the disavowal of national-reformist programmes by social democracy were cited as proof that socialism was dead. The article typified the pervasive atmosphere of renunciation among a layer of the middle-class worldwide that was lurching to the right, repudiating any past association with working-class and “left” politics as they sought to integrate themselves into the state apparatus, academia and the trade unions.[7] 

The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey. With the number of whitewashes in this book, you could paint a whole house. Massey’s article is no exception. The Militant Tendency must be the only organisation that began life as a tactical orientation to the Labour Party and turned it into a strategy. The origins of the party were in Britain and were called the Revolutionary Socialist League led by Ted Grant. Anyone joining the organisation was not trained as a Marxist but were trained in the reformist political outlook of the Labour Party. 

Grants claim that the organisation adhered to revolutionary socialism was always reserved for speeches and historical articles. The party’s outlook that socialism could come about by a Labour government passing an enabling act through Parliament to nationalise the top 200 or so monopolies. This perspective was very similar to the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain. 

As Ann Talbot correctly points out “It must be said at the outset that Grant was not a Trotskyist when he died and had not been for a long time, if by the term Trotskyist we are to understand a revolutionary Marxist who defends the principles of socialist internationalism expressed in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. It might seem churlish to deny an old man in death the epithet he so much craved in life, but Grant’s politics was not a personal matter. They were characteristic of an epoch in which bureaucratic apparatuses dominated the working class and in large part came to be identified as the legitimate leadership of the working class.[8]

 It is quite apt that The last chapter Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain Lawrence Parker is on the CPGB. This organisation is steeped in betrayals of the working class too many to list here. There is an intimate connection between the pseudo-left groups and the Stalinist CPGB. The SWP printed its newspaper The Morning Star for God’s sake. But you would not get this from Parker’s article. In truth as Chris Marsden points out “the ability of these bureaucracies to dominate the political life of the working class in the twentieth century was rooted in the murderous suppression of the Marxist and revolutionary opposition to Stalinism in the Soviet Union, as represented by the followers of Leon Trotsky”. 

To conclude, it is hard to understand why Manchester University Press(MUP) gave these two radicals access to the significant resources of the university to produce another volume of what amounts to radical pulp fiction. The majority of the essays amount to a hostile attack on any conception of the working class building a revolutionary alternative to the capitalist. This is the reason that in two volumes next to no mention is made of any orthodox Trotskyist group inside or outside of Britain. As was said before the Fourth International is not mentioned in nearly six hundred pages of text tells the reader about the orientation of the two editors. The MUP should allow a rebuttal of these two volumes.

  

[1] See review -http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2019/02/against-grain-british-far-left-from.html

[2] UK general election result confirms protracted death of the Labour Party

[3] Britain’s Socialist Workers Party descends into factional warfare- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/02/14/swps-f14.html

[4] Britain: 20 years since the year-long miners’ strike- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2004/03/mine-m05.html

[5] Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos backs Scottish nationalism-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/08/12/call-a12.html

[6] Trotskyism and the Bloody Sunday massacre: a record of principled opposition to British imperialism-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/06/irel-j18.html

[7]https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/05/31/spik-m31.html

[8] Ted Grant: A political appraisal of the former leader of the British Militant Tendency-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/09/gra1-s27.html

Obituary: Neil Davidson, October 9 1957 – May 3 2020

 O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.’

 Walter Scott 

“It might seem that the notion of tradition, unlike kilts and bagpipes, has been around for many centuries. Once more, appearances are deceptive. The term ‘tradition’ as it is used today is a product of the last 200 years in Europe. Just like the concept of risk, which I talked about in my last lecture, in mediaeval times, there was no generic notion of tradition. There was no call for such a word, precisely because tradition and custom were everywhere”.[1] 

Anthoney Giddens 

Neil Davidson died on May 3, 2020. His death removes from the historical scene a gifted historian and a working-class autodidact that is rarely seen today. Davidson wrote on many subjects, including the historical status of bourgeois revolutions, Scottish politics and history, the relationship between the nation-states and capital and seventeenth-century intellectual thought.  However, as this obituary will show, his historiography was always dominated by his pseudo-left political outlook. 

Davidson was born in 1957 in Aberdeen. He spent much of his childhood in a largely rural area of Scotland that Davidson would later write about as been the last part of the  British Isles to lose its peasantry. Life was hard for Davidson growing up in a flat with no indoor toilet. Davidson had a tremendous work ethic and dedication to historical study. Davidson regularly rose at 5 am to study Marxist classics without the early luxury of going to university. The majority of his writings were done in the evening and at weekends because he held a full-time civil service job. It was only very late in life did Davidson escape the clutches of his civil service job for a life in academia. He became a senior research fellow at Strathclyde University. In 2013 he became a lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University. 

He became radicalised during the early 1970s joining the International Socialists forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party in 1976. When Davidson joined the IS, it had already broken from orthodox Trotskyism, and from 1951 had sustained a systematic attack on the basic tenets of Trotskyism. Its then-leader Tony Cliff repudiated any chance of there being a social revolution in the post-war period. Cliff put forward his thesis that a form of “state capitalism “had taken place in the Soviet Union. 

The IS postulated that this was a new form of capitalist exploitation on a world scale. The result of this theory was that it in the words of Chris Marsden it “lent capitalism a new lease on life”. He continued “the IS’ declaration that the Soviet Union was equivalent to US imperialism and its insistence that the reformist parties and trade union apparatuses represented the interests of the working class enabled it to secure a niche in a layer of the petty bourgeoisie that relied upon the welfare state and the trade unions for their privileges. This layer combined radical rhetoric and pressure on the labour bureaucracies to safeguard wages and public-sector jobs and services with unswerving opposition to any attempt to construct a working-class party independent of the Labour Party”.[2]Davidson agreed with IS’s position on state capitalism because it made perfect sense. 

Davidson and the “Scottish Revolution” 

Davidson produced a significant amount of material on Scottish history and politics. The books Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000) and Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003) defined Davidson’s attitude to the “Scottish Question”. Davidson’s main position on Scotland was that it existed as a Scottish state before 1707. However, there was no mass national consciousness. Whether a mass national consciousness developed naturally or was manufactured is a debate that still rages amongst historians. One does not have to agree with Hugh Trevor Roper’s politics to see that he had a point when he wrote in his article on the ‘invented traditions’ of Scotland, that the ‘the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture’ was a ‘retrospective invention’.[3] 

It would seem that Davidson spent most of his academic career looking for a Scottish bourgeois revolution. Some would say that it would have been easier to find Lord Lucan. Davidson is correct to point out that some decisive moments point to a significant pathway towards the goal of a Scottish bourgeois revolution. One of these events is the defeat of the last Jacobite revolt in 1746. However, this defeat was attained with the direct intervention of the British state and with the help of the Scottish lowland bourgeoisie. This action finally suppressed the last remnants of Scottish feudalism. It was very much a bourgeois revolution from above with the help of the English bourgeoise. The Scottish bourgeois revolution if you can find one, was, in the end, a pretty tame affair and in no way comparable to that of the English bourgeois revolution of the 1640s. 

Despite the rise of the Scottish Nation-state being intimately connected to the development of the English bourgeoise numerous Pseudo left commentators and historians have sought to argue differently in that it was an oppressed nation that needed to throw off the yoke of English capitalism. 

Scotland, despite Davidson arguing to the contrary, was not an oppressed nation. On the contrary orthodox Marxists have argued it was, in fact, part of an imperialist state. The Psuedo Left revisionists downplay the Scottish ruling elites past crimes which have resulted in the Scottish bourgeoise making vasts amounts of money out of the brutal exploitation of millions the world over. 

It could be argued that ever since 1707, workers in Scotland have been oppressed not because of their nationality but because of their class position within capitalist society. As a Socialist Equality Party(SEP) statement points out “The Act of Union in 1707 provided the framework for the development of capitalism and the vast growth of the productive forces. This, in turn, formed the basis for the emergence of the first industrial working class in the world. Since then, working people in England, Scotland and Wales have fought side by side in epic struggles, including the great revolutionary Chartist movement for democracy and equality, the general strike of 1926, the mass strike movement that brought down a Tory government in 1974 and the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85. 

The advocacy of Scottish independence is a reactionary response to the bankruptcy of the nation-state system, which no longer corresponds to the global organisation of economic life. In the last century, this fundamental contradiction gave rise to two of the most devastating wars in human history as the leading capitalist powers fought for world hegemony. Today, with the advent of global production, in which every country’s economy is integrated into a greater whole dominated by huge transnational corporations and banks, inter-imperialist and national antagonisms have reached a new peak of intensity”.[4] 

In order to justify his position regarding Scottish independence, Davidson was forced to continue the “invention of Tradition” historiography. I do not believe he falsified his research to fit a political perspective, but it is clear that his positions on Scottish history led him down a reactionary and nationalist road. In the first volume of his collected essays entitled Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (2014) of which the title is taken from Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940) Davidson warned that revolutionaries could without their knowledge, become ‘tools of the ruling class. 

Despite warning against this trait, it would seem that Davidson did exactly what he warned others against. Davidson became a foot soldier for the 2014 “yes” campaign for Scottish independence. He downplayed the reactionary nature of the “Yes” Campaign and ignored completely the significant opposition that existed to the separatist project among Scottish workers. Davidson exposed his political bankruptcy saying at a RIC meeting, “People in this room, people on the left, people out there on picket lines … believe in the unity of the British working class, and they dismiss some of us who argue for independence as useful stooges of the ruling class”.[5] 

Much of Davidson’s work on Scotland was done while he was still a member of the SWP. Davidson held a diametrically opposite line to the SWP who in the early 1970s had a semi orthodox line on Scotland history.

In 1974 they wrote “Scottish nationalism had not played any such progressive role since the 17th century when the idea of Scotland, or at least of the Scottish lowlands, as a nation grew up in opposition to Scottish feudalism. The struggles of the Scottish bourgeoisie against the remnants of feudalism took place more or less simultaneously with similar struggles in England, in the 1640s and 1688, with the movements in one country being intimately bound up with movements in the other. 

The Act of Union between the two countries did not represent the suppression of the Scottish bourgeoisie by the English but rather an agreement between the two to exploit the British empire jointly. The Scottish bourgeoisie swung behind support for the Union after a colonial adventure of their own failures. Indeed, it can be argued that the final bourgeois unification of Scotland was only fully achieved with the aid of English arms when the pre-capitalist society of the highlands was destroyed in the aftermath of 1745. The Scottish bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie led no sort of struggle against British imperialism; instead, they mobilised the rest of the population in its support”. Suffice to say this is not the SWP’s position today. 

Davidson on the European Bourgois Revolutions 

Despite his differences with the SWP Davidson agreed with the SWP’s attack on basic Marxist theory. Davidson agreed with the SWP’s revision of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent revolution. The Deflected Permanent Revolution was put forward by Tony Cliff in 1963.[6] As the 2011 Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party document points out “Cliff was to argue that the Stalinist dictatorship was only the most finished expression of a new stage in the evolution of world capitalism, which was partially expressed by Labour’s post-war nationalisations and those conducted by the newly independent colonial regimes. He placed the intelligentsia alongside the Stalinist bureaucracy as the midwife of yet another variety of state capitalism. The industrial working class had “played no role whatsoever” in the Chinese revolution, while in Cuba, “middle-class intellectuals filled the whole arena of struggle”. From this, Cliff declared that Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution was wrong because, “While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie (Trotsky’s first point) is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working-class (point 2) is neither absolute nor inevitable… Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky’s theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces”. 

Davidson’s adoption of the deflected permanent revolution thesis would dominate his work on the European bourgeois revolutions. Davidson’s book How revolutionary was the Bourgeois Revolutions is a culmination of all his work on the bourgeois revolutions. The first thing that strikes you about the book despite the excellent cover is the title. Why ask a question that you know the answer to. Any GCE Ordinary Level history student would know that they were very revolutionary. 

The book is the product of decades of reading and research. Davidson put his archival expertise to good use. The subject matter is complex, but the book is written with simple clarity without lowering the academic standard.The concept of the bourgeois revolution is perhaps one of the most contentious subjects in modern-day historiography. As the American historian James Oakes points out, there is a tendency in historiography “to erase revolutions from all of human history.” The process, he noted, had been going on for decades. First… the English revisionists said there was no English Revolution, and then François Furet came along and said there was no French Revolution. We have historians telling us that the Spanish-American revolutions were really just fought among colonial elites that got out of hand and happened to result in the abolition of slavery”.[7] A recent history Today magazine’s article called Do not Mention the Civil War. Why is Britain Embarrassed by its Revolutionary Past? Highlights this trend.

 The academic researcher Chris Thompson is a prime example of this trend saying  “the prolific use of terms like ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘feudal’ and ‘modern’ aristocracy, ‘proletariat’ and ‘non-bourgeois strata of the middle class’ invites comparison with the debates of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s historians’ group in the late-1940s and early-1950s recently edited by David Parker. Antique concepts like the claim that a class of urban capitalists were developing in the sixteenth century with feudalism or that these people were held to be socially inferior and were excluded from power by the Absolute States are given vigorous exercise. ‘Bourgeois’ revolutions inevitably occurred and, in their outcomes, promoted capitalism. There is also an undertow of historiographical controversy: Callinicos’s protest against the revisionist historians of the 1970s is linked to an attack on ‘Political Marxists’ like Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood for their assistance in undermining a more authentically Socialist interpretation”.[8] 

It is perhaps a concession to these historians that Davidson’s book title tilts towards an accommodation with this prevalent view that these revolutions were not that revolutionary. Davidson is a political historian who incorporates his politics into his historiography. Davidson’s philosophical conception or world view is moulded to a significant degree by the Socialist Workers Party’s troika of theories that were a departure from classical Marxism. The Deflected Permanent Revolution, the Permanent Arms Economy and lastly the theory of State Capitalism. 

Both the first and the last of these theories are the most relevant to our subject and Davidson’s adoption of these two theories underpin his understanding of the bourgeois revolutions.  The fact that Davidson himself recognises in his preface when he says that how one defines the bourgeois revolution and capitalism in general defines, your view of the proletarian revolution. 

In this instance, a correct understanding of the early Soviet state is a prerequisite for an understanding of proceeding and contemporary revolutions. Unfortunately, Davidson’s position on the early Soviet state is not one of an orthodox Marxist or Trotskyist. 

Davidson’s and the SWP’s agreement with the theory of the USSR being State Capitalist had it is origins in the work of Bruno Rizzi’s who wrote in his book The Bureaucratization of the World: “In the USSR, in our view, it is the bureaucrats who are the owners, for it is they who hold power in their hands. It is they who manage the economy, just as was normal with the bourgeoisie. It is they who take the profits, just as do all exploiting classes, who fix wages and prices. I repeat—it is the bureaucrats. The workers count for nothing in the governing of society. What is more, they receive no share in the surplus value… The reality is that collective property is not in the hands of the proletariat; but in the hands of a new class: a class which, in the USSR, is already an accomplished fact, whereas in the totalitarian states this class is still in the process of formation”. 

The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky who was acutely aware of this belief that the USSR was “state capitalist,” or some other form of exploitative society rejected this theory and did not attach great significance to it.  According to the Marxist writer David North “the state-capitalist theory, the categories of Marxian political economy were abandoned and replaced with an unscientific descriptive terminology. It was a theory in which the element of economic necessity was replaced entirely with an extreme form of political subjectivism”.   Again according to North “at the heart of the Rizzi positions was the repudiation of the Marxist appraisal of the revolutionary role of the working class. 

As Leon Trotsky wrote  “All the various types of disillusioned and frightened representatives of pseudo-Marxism proceed… from the assumption that the bankruptcy of the leadership only “reflects” the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfil its revolutionary mission. Not all our opponents express this thought clearly, but all of them—ultra-lefts, centrists, anarchists, not to mention Stalinists and social-democrats—shift the responsibility for the defeats from themselves to the shoulders of the proletariat. None of them indicates under precisely what conditions the proletariat will be capable of accomplishing the socialist overturn.  If we grant as true that the cause of the defeats is rooted in the social qualities of the proletariat itself, then the position of modern society will have to be acknowledged as hopeless”. [9] 

How does Davidson’s agreement with the theory of State Capitalism colour his attitude towards the bourgeois revolutions? Well, a constant theme of his book is the underestimation of the role political and social consciousness plays in revolutions which runs through the entire book. The SWP’s rejection of the revolutionary nature of the working class which is implicit in the theory of State capitalism leads them into all sorts of alliances with forces hostile to socialism such as the Labour party, trade unions and even the Stalinists.

 So what Is Davidson’s conception of the bourgeois revolution? Despite the book being 0ver 800 pages long, it is a little difficult to get a coherent picture of Davidson’s theory of the bourgeois revolution. He does state on page 420:  “The theory of bourgeois revolution is not … about the origins and development of capitalism as a socio-economic system but the removal of backwards-looking threats to its continued existence and the overthrow of restrictions to its further development. The source of these threats and restrictions has, historically, been the pre-capitalist state, whether estates-monarchy, absolutist, or tributary in nature. In no bourgeois revolution did the revolutionaries ever seek to rally popular forces by proclaiming their intention to establish a new form of exploitative society but did so by variously raising demands for religious freedom, representative democracy, national independence, and, ultimately, socialist reconstruction”. 

Davidson’s point is that is not necessary for there to be a bourgeoisie that is active in the revolution for that revolution to be bourgeois. Davidson, like many in the SWP, tend to downplay the role of consciousness in history bourgeois or otherwise. The other tendency pronounced in the SWP is to see historical processes as fixed rather than fluid categories.

 As the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky noted: “Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state. The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality that consists of eternal motion. 

Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say “a succulence” which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph”.[10] 

As was said above a classical Marxist view is that social classes are not fixed concepts but are fluid. The bourgeois has existed in different forms as a class over time. It has changed according to how capitalism has developed and vice versa. Davidson’s downplaying the study of socio-economic forces diminishes one’s understanding of the development of capitalism and its bourgeois revolutions. While it is perfectly natural to concentrate on key players in the bourgeois revolutions, however, the downplaying of other social and political figures tend to lead Davidson in dismissing elements that made the bourgeois revolution more than just an objective occurrence. As Dominic Alexander writes “Davidson’s concentration on the analysis of key thinkers as such tends to downplay the extent to which revolution was a social and conceptual reality; that is to say, the analysis tends to emphasise the conservative aspects of leading thinkers’ ideas against the revolutionary context from which they emerged”.[11] 

Another aspect that colours Davidson’s understanding of the bourgeois revolution is his use of the SWP’s theory of The Deflected Permanent Revolution. The most important aspect in the development of Marx’s concept of revolution was the experience of the 1848 revolutions. 

Marx correctly stated that the bourgeoisie could not be trusted with the future development of humanity and that responsibility had passed to the revolutionary working class “hence the new era was one of permanent revolution”. For decades Socialists have approached the experiences and lessons of 1848 in order to understand their revolutions. The greatest being the theoreticians of the Russian Social Democratic Party. 

Davidson’s approach as regards the deflected permanent revolution is similar to his use of the State capitalist theory. As one writer puts it “The theory supplants non-revolutionary petty-bourgeois intellectuals and other bourgeois forces that presided over a “deflected permanent revolution”, consolidating state-capitalist formations in one country after another”. 

In his introduction, Davidson believes that the 1949 Chinese revolution was a bourgeois revolution which led to a state capitalist formation writing “it could have been the socialist revolution, if the movements of the mid-1920s had succeeded, but ended up instead as the functional equivalent of the bourgeois revolution instead—a lesser but still decisive systemic shift”.[12] 

Suffice to say this is not an orthodox Marxist position on the Chinese revolution. It is not possible to go into any great detail the complex nature of the Marxist position on the Chinese Revolution however 955 this point was made by the American Socialist Workers Party, which concluded, based on the discussion in the Fourth International on the buffer states of Eastern Europe, “that China had become a deformed workers’ state. It was a transitional regime. Nationalised property and economic planning had been established, but the new state was deformed at birth, with the working class lacking any political voice or democratic rights. Either China would proceed towards genuine socialism, which required the overthrow of the Maoist bureaucracy at the hands of the working class in a political revolution—as advocated by the Trotskyist movement—or it would relapse back to capitalism”.[13] 

To conclude my main problem with the book is that because Davidson is wrong in his analysis of modern-day revolutions, how do we trust his evaluation of the earlier Bourgeois revolutions. 

This point aside the book does provide us with a very useful reference point for a study of the bourgeois revolutions. Readers should acquaint themselves with a thorough study of Davidson’s and the SWP’s positions of defected permanent revolution and state capitalism and their critics within the classical Marxist movement. 

Despite Davidson leaving the SWP, he took with him all the ideological baggage he accumulated during his membership. The theoretical revisions of Trotskyism, the deflected permanent revolution, State Capitalism, were inculcated into Davidson’s work up till his untimely death. Are his books worth reading yes they are, but the reader should be aware that the buzzing bees in Davidson’s head are of a Psuedo left character?

 

[1] news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/events/reith_99/week3/week3.htm

 

[2] Britain’s Socialist Workers Party descends into factional warfare-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/02/14/swps-f14.html

 

[3] Whig Tartan: Material Culture and its Use in the Scottish Highlands, 1746–1815

 

Matthew P. Dziennik-Past & Present, Volume 217, Issue 1, November 2012, Pages 117–147,

 

[4] Vote “no” in the Scottish referendum—Fight for a socialist Britain-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/06/21/scot-j21.html

 

[5] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/08/26/scot-a26.html

 

[6] Deflected Permanent Revolution.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1963/xx/permrev.htm

 

[7] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/07/06/pers-j06.html

 

[8] http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2013/02/comments-on-alex-callinicoss-review-of.html

 

[9] The USSR in War-(September 1939)- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/09/ussr-war.htm

 

[10] The ABC of Materialist Dialectics-(December 1939) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/12/abc.htm

 

[11] www.counterfire.org/articles/book-reviews/16301-in-defence-of-permanent-revolution

 

[12] https://isj.org.uk/from-deflected-permanent-revolution-to-the-law-of-uneven-and-combined-development/

 

[13] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/10/01/pers-o01.html

 

The World Turned Upside Down: Britain’s Forgotten Revolutionary History [PDF] Socialist Appeal-2020  

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” 

Karl Marx -Frederick Engels-The Communist Manifesto. 

“The British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of the 17th-century revolution by dissolving its past in ‘gradualness’. The advanced British workers will have to re-discover the English Revolution and find within its ecclesiastical shell the mighty struggle of social forces.” 

Leon Trotsky 

“England is nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, and quite possibly it will prove to be the ward for particularly violent cases”. 

Leon Trotsky 

 

The world Turned Upside Down: Britain’s Forgotten Revolutionary History is a new pamphlet by the Socialist Appeal Group. The pamphlet is made up of a collection of historical events which it believes are part of “Britain’s Forgotten Revolutionary History”. 

The majority of these events it is true do not get enough historical recognition, and it is correct to bring them to the attention of the British working class. After all the revolutionary party is the memory of the working class, or as the writer, George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future”.[1] 

Given that the pamphlet is only forty pages long and covers hundreds of years of history, it is quite natural that some things are left out. In many cases, this must have been an editorial nightmare. However, what is not acceptable is several cases of political amnesia. It would take a book-length reply to go through all of them, but two cases spring immediately to mind. The first one being The General Strike of 1926. The role of the Stalinists in betraying the General Strike was crucial, yet not a word is written in this pamphlet. For a group purportedly to be Trotskyist, this would appear to be a little strange.

 It would not have taken much to expose the nature of Stalinism. The Communist Party rejected a revolutionary perspective. Instead, they boosted illusions in the TUC General Council and the left. It led to the political disarming of the working class and facilitated a historic betrayal. The Stalin faction of the Soviet Communist Party and the Comintern imposed this line on the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). 

What was Trotsky’s position on the political situation in Britain and the policy of the Stalin faction? In his autobiography My Life, he explains: “England’s fate after the war was a subject of absorbing interest. The radical change in her world position could not fail to bring about changes just as radical in the inner-correlation of her forces. It was clear that even if Europe, including England, were to restore a certain social equilibrium for a more or less extended period, England herself could reach such an equilibrium only by means of a series of serious conflicts and shake-ups. 

I thought it probable that in England, of all places, the fight in the coal industry would lead to a general strike. From this, I assumed that the essential contradiction between the old organisations of the working class and its new historic tasks would, of course, be revealed in the near future. During the winter and spring of 1925, while I was in the Caucuses, I wrote a book on this—Whither England? The book was aimed essentially at the official conception of the Politbureau, with its hopes of evolution to the left by the British General Council and of a gradual and painless penetration of communism into the ranks of the British Labour Party and trade unions.”[2] 

The second case of political amnesia is The Miner’s Strike of 1984-85. The Strike was undoubtedly the most important struggle undertaken by the working class in decades. While a semi exposure of the Trade Union and Labour leadership is mentioned again, there is no mention of the critical role of Stalinism. Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Miners, is not even mentioned. Scargill in his politically formative years was an ardent Stalinists as Mike Ingram, and Chris Marsden writes “Even after he broke officially with the CP, Scargill maintained close relations with it and relied on CP support within the NUM’s broad left for his continued rise to prominence. Whatever his disagreements, none of them amounted to a political break with Stalinism. Indeed as subsequent events have proved, the most important for Scargill was the attempt by the party to distance itself from Stalin’s crimes and his belief that party discipline could hamper his career”.[3] 

Although this pamphlet is not a major document, it was published by an organisation that nominally calls itself Trotskyist. While any organisation can occasionally put forward an incorrect line, the fact that that this pamphlet was allowed to go out is a clear indication of the non-revolutionary politics of the Socialist Appeal group. 

It is also a tradition in the Marxist movement that whenever it undertakes a review of historical events, it always tries to situate its history within the analysis of these events. It is striking that the Socialist appeal does not even attempt to do this. 

Maybe it knows that that to do so would expose the organisation for what it is. Even a brief examination of the history of the Socialist appeal group would show that it is not a revolutionary organisation but a group that hangs on the coattails of the Labour Party. 

The founder of the Group was Ted Grant who died in 2006 aged 93. As Ann Talbot brings out in excellent obituary of Grant: “it must be said at the outset that Grant was not a Trotskyist when he died and had not been for a long time, if by the term Trotskyist we are to understand a revolutionary Marxist who defends the principles of socialist internationalism expressed in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. It might seem churlish to deny an old man in death the epithet he so much craved in life, but Grant’s politics was not a personal matter. They were characteristic of an epoch in which bureaucratic apparatuses dominated the working class and in large part came to be identified as the legitimate leadership of the working class. 

In Britain, the organisation Grant led, which was known as the Revolutionary Socialist League in private and the Militant Tendency in public, trained young people in the reformist political outlook of the Labour Party. Militant’s claims to revolutionary socialism were always reserved for speeches and historical articles. This outlook insisted that socialism would come about as a result of a Labour government passing an enabling act through Parliament to nationalise the top 200 or so monopolies as the basis for a planned and publicly controlled economy”.[4] 

The one mention of the Militant in the pamphlet is the section entitled From Poplar To Liverpool. As the Pamphlet States Militant were in the Leadership position inside Liverpool City Council, it states: “Sixty years later it was the turn of the Liverpool working class to fight back. Local authority funding was under attack. As with Poplar, the areas with the greatest poverty were hit the hardest. Liverpool City Council, increasingly working under the guidance of the Marxists of Militant, began to take measures to alleviate the grinding poverty within the city. As with Poplar, excessive rents and rates increases would not be imposed on the people. This meant a deficit budget. By 1984, Tory PM Thatcher knew Liverpool – a beacon of resistance – had to be stopped”.[5] 

This whitewash of what happened in Liverpool confirms that Socialist appeal is still participating in what amounts to be “fantasy politics”. Despite making mild criticisms of the Labour Party’s treachery during the Liverpool city council struggle, the Militant Tendency pursued a centrist course during the struggle and did not stop working inside the Labour Party as a local pressure group. In the mid-1980s it became the target for a witch-hunt by the Labour bureaucracy—supported by the trade unions—as it sought to finally sever any connections between the party and its previous reformist policies. 

To conclude despite over one hundred years of betrayals Pseudo Left groups like the Socialist Appeal still maintain that the Labour Party can still be a vehicle for socialist or even revolutionary change. The last hurrah of this perspective was seen in the election to the leadership of the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Corbyn recently gave his last speech as a Labour Party leader. His craven performance was the final proof that not only of his personal political bankruptcy but it also refuted Pseudo Lefts groups insistence that Labour can be a vehicle for socialism. Corbyn’s demise was not the rebirth of Labour. It ended once and for all the possibility of workers being able to defend their interests through national reformism. 

There is a tendency amongst Pseudo Left groups such as Socialist Appeal for a glorification of English national radical traditions. It goes back to the 1930s popular fronts used by the Communist Parties. From a political sense, this adoption of an uncritical approach to radical history undermines the need for a revolutionary scientific perspective.

 

  

[1] George Orwell, 1984

[2] See- Stalin, Trotsky and the 1926 British general strike-By Chris Marsden-27 December 2008- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/12/bgnl-d27.html

[3] The Socialist Labour Party: Scargill seeks to resurrect Stalinism under a flag of convenience.

[4] Ted Grant: A political appraisal of the former leader of the British Militant Tendency-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/09/gra1-s27.html

[5] The World Turned Upside Down: Britain’s Forgotten Revolutionary History [PDF] Socialist Appeal-2020

 

A review of Raquel Varela, A People's History of the Portuguese Revolution (Pluto Press, 2019), £19.99

 

On April 25 1974, a coup by lower-ranked army officers overthrew Portugal’s fascist Estado Novo government. The coup opened the way for a massive mobilisation of the working class the likes of which had not been seen in Portugal before. Raquel Cardeira Varela’s book examines what would later be called the Carnation Revolution. It was one of the most important revolutions since the Second World War and one which caught the international bourgeoisie completely by surprise. 

It would take nearly two years to defeat the revolution. With relatively little violence or bloodshed, the Portuguese bourgeoisie was able to take back power at the expense of a few limited reforms. The popular front government established by the revolution which contained a significant Communist Party presence under the leadership of  Álvaro Cunhal handed over power without a murmur from the numerous Pseudo lefts groups. 

The coup was started by young military captains in the national armed forces. Varela goes out of her way to emphasise that these were only captains as if this made them unconscious socialists. Rank and file soldiers did indeed come over to the revolution as experienced by Bob Light who saw at first-hand soldiers’ giving the clenched fist salute and waving red carnations’ (p.48). Slogans such as ” the soldiers are sons of the workers”, “down with capitalist exploitation” were also heard on the streets.[1] But despite these sections of the rank and file soldiers won to the revolution the army would still be controlled by the Portuguese bourgeoisie. 

Varela’s position regarding this revolution is essentially Pabloite. Pabloism was a tendency that came out of the post-war period, as this document explains “The complexities of the postwar period found expression in the form of a revisionist tendency within the Trotskyist movement that adapted to the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois organisations. The revisionists came to see the Stalinist and Social-Democratic tendencies, as well as petty-bourgeois nationalist and radical movements, not as political obstacles to the independent mobilisation of the working class, but, rather, as alternative instruments for realising socialism. It was not, therefore, a matter of opposing to these organisations the independent perspective of the Fourth International, but rather of transforming the Fourth International into a pressure group on the existing leadership of the working class and national movements. The revisionists endowed the Stalinists and bourgeois nationalists with a historically progressive role, rejecting Trotsky’s insistence on their counter-revolutionary character. This revision of the perspective upon which the founding of the Fourth International had been based was advanced initially by two leading figures in the post-war Trotskyist movement in Europe, Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel.”[2] 

As Varela describes in the book, The Portuguese Revolution became a pole of attraction for Pabloite and Pseudo Left organisations throughout Europe. Ten thousand foreign pseudo lefts and Stalinists visited Portugal during and after the revolution. 

The Carnation Revolution was the latest of a line of revolutionary movements that were betrayed by Stalinism and Pabloism. Beginning in May 1968 in Paris,  the 1969 ‘hot autumn’ in Italy, strike waves in Germany and Britain in the early 1970s and the struggle in Greece against military rule in 1973-4. International Socialist leader Tony Cliff argued that ‘Portugal, the weakest link in the capitalist chain in Europe can become the launching pad for the socialist revolution in the whole of the continent’ (p.220). 

Cliff’s remarks were pure bravado as his International Socialist movement made sure this did not happen. Instead of being ‘the launching pad of the socialist revolution’, the defeat of the Portuguese revolution paved the way for various neoliberalism regimes. Varela’s book is a political amnesty for the betrayals of the Stalinist’s and radical groups such as the IS. Varela also a member of the IS is reticent, to say the least about pointing out important lessons from the defeat. 

Revolution’s Origin 

Although the revolution’s origin was in Africa the 1974 revolution was ultimately shaped by Portugal’s belated historical development.  As Paul Mitchell describes in his 2004 essay “By 1973, there were some 42,000 companies in Portugal—one-third of them employing fewer than ten workers—but about 150 companies dominated the entire economy. Most were related to foreign capital but were headed by a few very wealthy Portuguese families (Espirito Santo, de Melo, de Brito, Champalimaud). The de Melos’ monopoly company Companhia União Fabril (CUF), for example, owned large parts of Guinea-Bissau and produced 10 per cent of the gross national product.  

Despite this industrialisation, a third of the population still worked as agricultural labourers, many in large estates or latifundia. An estimated 150,000 people were living in shantytowns concentrated around the capital, Lisbon. Food shortages and economic hardship—wages were the lowest in Europe at US$10 a week in the 1960s—led to the mass emigration of nearly 1 million people to other European countries, Brazil and the colonies.  

The 1960s also saw the emergence of liberation movements in the Portuguese African colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. Fighting three guerrilla movements for more than a decade drained the Portuguese economy and labour force. Nearly half the budget was spent on maintaining more than 150,000 troops in Africa. He continues “Compulsory military service lasting for four years, combined with poor military pay and conditions, laid the basis for grievances and the development of oppositional movements amongst the troops. These conscripts became the basis for the emergence of an underground movement known as the “Movement of the Captains.” The continuing economic drain caused by the military campaigns in Africa was exacerbated by the world economic crisis that developed in the late 1960s.[3] 

In the 1970s, the Portuguese ruling elite confronted a massive strike wave at home and uprisings in the colonies. Nearly one half of the national budget was spent keeping 150,000 troops abroad fighting the national liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. Compulsory military service combined with low pay to intensify grievances in the army and stimulated an oppositional movement amongst the troops known as the “Movement of the Captains,” which later developed into the Armed Forces Movement (MFA). 

The Armed Forces Movement (MFA) or “movement of the Captains” so glorified by Varela became an important bulwark against revolution once it was in power alongside the PCP. To stop the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class, the MFA invited the Communist Party (PCP) into government. The Communist Party was invited to take part in the First Provisional Government in May 1974 and took part in all the six provisional governments. These governments were popular fronts containing trade unions, the Socialist Party, the Church, and the upper hierarchy of the armed forces. 

The Socialist Party and the Church initially did not want the Communists in the government, but sections of the military knew the PCP would be useful in controlling rank and file soldiers and the working class.  As Varela, herself points out “’ The Portuguese Communist Party was prepared to abandon its radical army supporters (and a great many others) in exchange for a continued stake in government. The military left had become a burden on the Communist Party because its performance undermined the balance of power with the Nine and peaceful coexistence agreements between the USA, Western Europe and the USSR. Some 200 soldiers and officers, plus a handful of building workers, were arrested’ (p.246). 

Cunhal and the Early Days of the PCP 

Varela has political amnesia regarding the early history of the PCP and its leader Alvaro Cunhal. Economic instability and an insurgent working class had produced a right-wing coup in 1926, and by 1933, influenced by Mussolini’s fascism in Italy, the formal declaration of an authoritarian “New State” by Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. The fascist National Union (UN) party was made the only legal party, and independent trade unions and strikes were outlawed. Salazar established strict censorship and created a vicious secret police force. 

The PCP was outlawed and its leadership imprisoned or driven into exile. The party had been purged in 1929, following the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, and Bento Gonçalves, who had only joined the organisation the previous year, was installed as General Secretary. 

Cunhal joined the PCP in 1931 whilst studying law at university and left for the Soviet Union to attend a congress of Communist youth in September 1935. It was at this time that the Stalinist bureaucracy began to advance its policy of building “popular fronts” with “democratic” bourgeois governments and liberal-reformist elements worldwide supposedly to combat fascism and defend the USSR. Cunhal, who came to epitomise the policy of popular frontism in Portugal, became the leader of the youth organisation and joined the Central Committee of the PCP in 1936 at the age of 22. 

MFA 

One of the most important questions of the revolution concerned the political nature of the MFA and its “armed intervention” unit, the Continental Operations Command (COPCON—Comando Operacional do Continente) 

COPCON 

was composed of 5,000 elite troops. Its leader was Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho. In order to cover over its real intentions, the MFA said it was in favour of an “alliance of the MFA and the people.”The PSP, PCP and Pseudo left groups never challenged this blatant lie. Instead, the PCP declared the MFA was a “guarantor of democracy” and developed close relations with Carvalho, General Vasco Goncalves and other members of the Junta.

 SWP and the Popular Front 

The fact that the various popular front governments could operate with impunity is down to the role played by Psuedo Lefts like the IS. Readers need to know the history of the IS as Mitchell points out “International Socialist (IS) organisation (today’s Socialist Workers Party in Britain) was represented by the Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat (PRP—Partido Revolucionário do Proletariado). The founders of the International Socialists had broken from the Fourth International in the 1940s, claiming that the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and its satellites was a new class in a new social system (state capitalism). This not only granted the Stalinist bureaucracy a certain legitimacy, not due to its parasitic character, but expressed a prostration before the post-war stabilisation of imperialism. The IS’ radical phraseology, its glorification of trade union syndicalism combined with a semi-anarchist stance, served only to conceal its refusal to challenge the political domination of the working class by the social democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies.[4]

 The promotion of the popular front by the IS had nothing in common with orthodox Marxism. The following is its analysis of the popular front  “Poder Popular (popular power), underpinned by the Aliança Povo-MFA (an alliance of the people and the MFA), emerged as the ideology for the MFA. It set out to unite the military with workers, land workers, tenants and slum-dwellers. The military made use of their prestige acquired through carrying out the coup against the regime. Popular power was perceived as the living alternative to the bourgeois focus on parliamentary democracy. This is not to say that army and workers were always united, but the impact of the people’s movement on the armed forces, and vice versa, came to be an integral part of the Portuguese story. But the slogan “Unity of the people and the MFA” was double-edged: not only did the people influence the army, but also the revolutionary movement’s reliance upon the radicals in the army was to be part of its undoing. [5]. 

The reader should compare the statement above with the way Leon Trotsky described and evaluated the Popular Front:: “The question of questions at the moment is the Popular Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical manoeuvre, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the Popular Front. In reality, the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. For it is often forgotten that the greatest historical example of the Popular Front is the February 1917 revolution. From February to October the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the ‘Communists’ [i.e., Stalinists] and the Social Democrats, were in the closest alliance and were in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this Popular Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the Popular Front. They demanded to break this Popular Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government.” 

To conclude, the fact that after 45 years of the revolution, its “memory” is still in dispute is down to the treacherous role by the various Pabloite and Pseudo Left groups. Varela’s book continues the collective amnesia regarding the role of these groups. This book airbrushes them from the historical record. 

Varela’s final analysis of the defeat of the Portuguese is as lame as her pollical amnesia over the radical groups apparently at her book launch Varela was heard to say that the Portuguese ruling class was forced to give up its rings risk losing its fingers. 

That the Portuguese bourgeoisie was able to keep its still vast collection of rings and fingers was down to the betrayal by the PCP and its radical hangers-on who tied the working class to the bourgeois parties, the state machine and the MFA. 

It is only fitting to leave the last word to the one organisation that fought for the success of the Portuguese Revolution which in the words of Paul Mitchell “would have been a mighty blow to international capital and inspired the movements developing throughout the world in the 1970s. Only the International Committee of the Fourth International and its Portuguese supporters, the League for the Construction of the Revolutionary Party (LCRP), called for the PCP and PSP to break from the bourgeois parties, the state machine and MFA. It demanded the dissolution of the army and the creation of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets in opposition to the MFA and its proposals for a Constituent Assembly.”

 

 

[1] https://isj.org.uk/so-much-freedom/

[2] The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party—Part 6- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/10/hist-o04.html

[3] Thirty years since the Portuguese Revolution Part 1

By Paul Mitchell 15 July 2004- wsws.org

[4] Thirty years since the Portuguese Revolution—Part 3

Paul Mitchell-17 July 2004

[5] https://isj.org.uk/so-much-freedom/

Review:For a Left Populism-by Chantal Mouffe-Verso-112 pages / August 2019 / 9781786637567 

 

“What is now in crisis is a whole conception of socialism which rests upon the ontological centrality of the working class, upon the role of Revolution, with a capital ‘r’, as the founding moment in the transition from one type of society to another…”

 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe-Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

The political alliance of the working class leaders with the bourgeoisie is disguised as the defence of the “republic.” The experiences of Spain show what this defence is in actuality. The word “republican,” like the word “democrat,” is a deliberate charlatanism that serves to cover up class contradictions. The bourgeoisie is republican so long as the republic defends private property.

Leon Trotsky-Lessons of Spain, 1936

 The first thing that must be said about Chantal Mouffe’s new book: For a Left Populism is that it has nothing to do with Marxism, let alone Socialism. It would be more precise to describe her left populism theory as a rehash of the popular front politics of the 1930s under a new guise. The Stalinist popular front theory of the 1930s was responsible for some of the worst defeats suffered by the working class worldwide. Mouffe is a leading theoretician of this “left populism”. While Left populism does bear some similarities of the Stalinist popular front theory, it is not merely a repetition of it.

One similarity is its subservience to the capitalist’s system. However, Mouffe’s theory has no historical or political link to the working class. According to her book “What is urgently needed is a left-populist strategy aimed at the construction of a ‘people,’ combining the variety of democratic resistances against post-democracy in order to establish a more democratic hegemonic formation,”.I contend that it does not require a ‘revolutionary’ break with the liberal democratic regime”.[1] 

Chantal Mouffe is a crucial thinker for a large number of Pseudo Left movements around Europe and beyond. She is a critical advisor to the Momentum group. Mouffe bears directly Momentum’s endorsement of Aufstehen (Stand Up), a right-wing group that came out of Die Linke. Aufstehen repeats much from the right-wing especially its denunciations of “unrestricted immigration”.Her writings influenced groups such as Die Linke in Germany and La France Insoumise.  A fervent admirer of Jeremy Corbyn because he “stands at the head of a great party and enjoys the support of the trade unions.”

Mouffe likes The Labour party because of its break with anything connected to the working class in favour of a defence of “political liberal institutions. She writes “the traditional left political frontier was established on the basis of class. There was the working class or the proletariat, versus the bourgeoisie. Today, given the evolution of society, that is not the way in which one should establish the political frontier anymore,” 

Mouffe believes that a change in society can come about without destroying the capitalist state, she writes that “it is possible to bring about a transformation of the existing hegemonic order without destroying liberal-democratic institutions.” 

Let us be clear Mouffe’s ideas have nothing to do with Marxism. As a real Marxist once said: “Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.”[2] 

Mouffe’s unnecessary use of technical terms in place of everyday language cannot mask the fact that this populist strategy is anti-socialist and has disastrous implications for the working class around the world. Many pseudo-left parties in Latin America and here in Europe such as Podemos and Syriza have implemented her theories which have seen the imposing of EU austerity diktats and blocking the emergence of an independent political alternative for the working class. Far from opposing the far-right, her ideas have been central in disorienting and demoralizing workers. 

Her form of petty-bourgeois politics is shared by postmodernist and “post-Marxist” intellectuals, such as Ernesto Laclau. It is no accident that Mouffe teamed up with Laclau, an Argentine professor, who was responsible for training half the leading members of Syriza at Essex University in Britain. 

The book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-written with Chantal Mouffe was a major attack on Marxism and the concept of the working class as a revolutionary force in society. Laclau and Mouffe called upon their readers “to discard the idea of a perfectly unified and homogenous agent, such as the ‘working class’ of classical discourse.” The search for the ‘true working class and its limits is a false problem and as such, lacks any theoretical or political relevance. Evidently, this implies. that fundamental interests in socialism cannot be logically deduced from determinate positions in the economic process.”[3] 

Mouffe’s Attack on Marxism 

Like many other specialists in her field, Mouffe uses a specific type of language to mask a deep-seated opposition to Marxism. Mouffe bemoans Marxist’s “who keep reducing politics to the contradiction of capital/labour and attribute an ontological privilege to the working class, presented as the vehicle for socialist revolution.” In plain language, she is trashing the entire basis of Marxist politics. 

While Mouffe is evident in what she rejects what she advocates is a little vaguer. Mouffe it would seem will collaborate with anyone to build an “amorphous, programmatically undefined, supra-class and nationalist movement.” 

Fascism 

As was made clear in the first paragraph, Mouffe does not class herself as a socialist and does not advocate a struggle against capitalism. In her many books, she does not rule out collaborating with right-wing forces.In a recent Guardian article, she writes “It is vital to realise that the moral condemnation and demonisation of rightwing populism is totally counterproductive – it merely reinforces anti-establishment feelings among those who lack a vocabulary to formulate what are, at core, genuine grievances. Classifying rightwing populist parties as “extreme right” or “fascist”, presenting them as a kind of moral disease and attributing their appeal to a lack of education is, of course, very convenient for the centre-left. It allows them to dismiss any populists’ demands and to avoid acknowledging responsibility for their rise ”.[4] 

It is hard to think of a more crass idea or a more shaper expression of her political bankruptcy. The genuine dangers of fascism cannot be opposed without mobilizing the working class on the basis of a revolutionary program. It will need to do more than “decorate reformism with a new vocabulary”. The logical outcome of pandering to the fascists is her fascination and rehabilitation of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. 

Schmitt was a leading Nazi jurist who opposed the doctrine “no punishment without a law” writing “Everyone understands that it is a requirement of justice to punish crimes. Those who, in the Van der Lubbe case constantly spoke of the Rechtsstaat did not place primary importance on the fact that an evil crime must find a just punishment. For them, the issue lay in a different principle which, according to the situation, can lead to the opposite of just punishment, namely the Rechtsstaat principle of no punishment without a law, nulla poena sine lege. By contrast, those who think justly in a case see to it that no crime remains without a just punishment. I pit the Rechtsstaat principle against the principle of justice: nulla crimen sine poena—no crime without a punishment. The discrepancy between the Rechtsstaat and the Just State then becomes immediately visible.[5] As the old adage says “by their friends shall ye know them” 

Carl Schmitt is not the only fascist that is having his work rehabilitated. A significant number of avowedly fascist theorists like Julius Evola and some still active today such as Alain de Benoist, Paul Gottfried and Alexander Dugin are increasingly been given a platform both in bourgeois and petty-bourgeois media. 

Mouffe’s attitude towards fascism bears a striking resemblance to the professors of the Frankfurt School who were advocates of the utilization of myths and other forms of irrationalist politics” in combating the fascists. 

The demoralized professors of the Frankfurt School were experts in denying the revolutionary capacity of the working class, objective truth and the  “grand narrative” of the revolutionary class struggle. 

As Mouffe’s writings owe a lot to the various professors of the “Frankfurt School” it is worth bearing in mind its origins as David North writes  “Associated with the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Karl Korsch, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich, the influence of the Frankfurt School reached its apogee during the heyday of radical student protests in the late 1960s. After that wave of middle-class radicalism receded, the influence of the Frankfurt School was consolidated in universities and colleges, where so many ex-radicals found tenured positions. From within the walls of the academy, the partisans of the Frankfurt School conducted unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism. In this struggle, they were remarkably successful. With rare exceptions, very little resembling Marxism—even if one means by that term only the rigorous application of philosophical materialism to the study of history, society and social consciousness—has been taught for several decades in the humanities departments of colleges and universities.[6] 

Mouffe’s new book is not an easy read and should only be attempted on a full stomach and with a glass of wine or two in hand. As was said earlier in the review her theories are nothing but rehashes of Stalin’s popular front theory and owe a lot to the professors of the Frankfurt school. That does not mean they are no less dangerous. Acceptance of her ideas are leading to significant betrayals of struggles throughout the world and should be opposed. 

[1] :For a Left Populism-by Chantal Mouffe-Verso-112 pages / August 2019 / 9781786637567[2] State and Revolution, V Lenin:[3] Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Radical Thinkers)-[4] Populists are on the rise but this can be a moment for progressives too- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/10/populists-rise-progressives-radical-rightChantal Mouffe- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/10/populists-rise-progressives-radical-right[5] [Carl Schmit, Nationalsozialismus und Rechtsstaat; Juristische Wochenschrift 63, 1934][6] The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner—Part 1By David North-22 October 2008- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/10/fran-o22.html

 

The Popular Front Novel in Britain, 1934-1940 (Historical Materialism Book) Hardcover – 16 Nov 2017 by Elinor Taylor.

 

The question of the Popular Front was a political issue that was fought about over eighty years ago. To the uninitiated Elinor Taylor’s new book published in 2018 on the subject might seem a pointless exercise in navel-gazing at a dead issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Popular Front issue is alive and kicking. 

One of the most recent examples of this is the former pseudo-left Paul Mason’s call for a popular front style collaboration between The Labour Party, Liberals and any Scottish nationalists that would be open to such a move. 

According to Chris Marsden “The role played by Mason and others within Britain’s pseudo-left, and the liberal commentariat is to dress up this strategic reorientation of imperialist policy in a progressive cloak, in an attempt to build a popular political base of support. This appeal is pitched above all to upper-middle-class layers who see both Brexit and Trump’s election as a threat to the comfortable and economically privileged position they enjoy. In return, they have serviced the economic needs of big business in a managerial role, or in various cultural and academic fields that have benefited from access to the Single Market and EU subventions. However, the appeal is also directed at students and other young people fearful for their future and that of the UK. Utilising the racism, xenophobia and nationalism espoused by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and by Trump in America, they urge the formation of an alliance with supposedly progressive sections of the British bourgeoisie”.[1]

 A second example is that of the Pseudo left book publishers Verso has just published Chantal Mouffe’s new book For a Left Populism. In this book, she argues for a new populist strategy. Her argument is both anti-socialist and has disastrous implications for the working class around the world. Mouffe glosses over betrayals by pseudo-left parties in Europe like Podemos and Syriza. The latter carried out a betrayal by imposing the EU austerity orders and blocking the emergence of an independent political alternative for the working class. 

Elinor Taylor’s new book is part of a campaign to resurrect the Popular Front strategy in Britain. The origins of the Popular Front came from Joseph Stalin but were carried out by the Comintern. In this particular book, Taylor looks at the relationship between the Popular Front and its interpretation by English left-wing authors at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Taylor examines several novels of the British Communists including Jack Lindsay, John Sommerfield, Lewis Jones, and James Barke. All these authors were in one shape or another proponent of the Socialist realist novel. All were far from political novices when it came to implementing Stalinist policies using this genre. 

When asked how she became interested in the British “literary Popular Front, Taylor replied “I became interested in literary relationships with communism and anti-fascism when I was an undergraduate student. I was curious about how modernist writing, often thought to have peaked by the mid-1920s, was transformed by the rise of fascism and the coming of the Second World War. I was interested too in working-class and socialist writers but found that these figures, and the larger socio-political developments of the later interwar years, were rarely discussed by major literary histories of the time. Part of the problem is that twentieth-century writing has come to be defined by the periodisation of modernism and post-modernism so that writing at mid-century is often thought of as either late modernist or early postmodernist. That excludes a lot, especially the persistence and transformations of realism. It was the question of the relationship between realism and political commitment during the 1930s that became the focus of my doctoral thesis, and that was the rationale for focusing on novels rather than other forms”.[2] 

While Stalin was the author of the Popular Front policy it is clear that the various Communist parties around the world, especially in Britain, were willing accomplices and as Jonathan Haslam points out “It has been a common assumption that the Popular Front strategy was designed by Stalin to complement the Franco-Soviet treaty of mutual assistance, signed in May 1935. Any explanation of Comintern policy that ignores the role of communist parties as instruments of Soviet foreign policy is bound to prove inadequate. However, there is another error rather more apparent in the literature on the subject. This takes the form of a tendency to see the world communist movement as a static entity open to complete manipulation by the Soviet government, without taking into account that membership of the movement was voluntary and that if it was to be retained or extended, the strategy had to answer to its needs as much as to the demands of Soviet state interests.[3] 

As Taylor points out in the book, Jack Lindsay was a crucial figure in implementing Comintern policy through his numerous novels and history books. Lindsay was born in Australia and like many at the time was radicalised by the growing capitalist crisis and the threat of war and fascism. He was to remain a convinced Stalinist throughout his life remaining in the Communist Party after the crises of 1956. 

During the 1930s Lindsay wrote a significant amount on  English history, especially on the English revolution. Lindsay would have been heavily influenced by the new generation of historians that formed the CPHG(Communist Party Historians group). It is not that Lindsay’s or any of the other writer’s work is rubbish it is that that they were the product of a political line that led to the betrayal of the struggles of the working class that is their most significant historical and political crime. 

It is quite striking that when one of these writers did step out of line the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party came down on them like a ton of bricks. One such incident is recounted by John T Connor in his essay Jack Lindsay, Socialist Humanism and the Communist Historical Novel. 

Lindsay had written a book in what he called a “pioneer spirit”. The book was attacked by Emile Burns in the Daily Worker. Lindsay capitulated and according to Connor “He stood chastened. In the self-report he submitted the following year, he acknowledged ‘the anarchic element’ in his personal development hitherto and confessed his failure ‘to come with all the force I can muster in the party-line.’ He now expressed his hope ‘every month to put my talents, such as they are, more effectively at the Party’s disposal.’29 This he did, becoming a public champion of socialist realism and explaining to all who would listen how the struggle for socialist realism is ‘bound up at every point with the function of leadership by the communist party,’ how “no writer is going to master socialist realism who does not understand what communist leadership is, who is not playing his part in the development of that leadership, helping to change our people politically as well as culturally, seeing no division between politics and culture, and daily embodying in his own experience the experience of the Party.” 

Lindsay’s mastery of Socialist Realism was expressed in his book After the Thirties. If ever there was a craven capitulation to Stalinism this was it. The fact that Taylor holds it up as some great piece of literature says more about her than it does about Lindsay. 

Aside from the spiteful, unprincipled attack on George Orwell who because of his exposure of the Stalinist’s murderous activities in Spain was public enemy number one of the Stalinist Lindsay defends the Stalinist perspective of Socialist Realism. As Ken Coates in his review of the book brings out “Mr Lindsay’s blindness to the betrayals of socialism by the rulers of the Soviet Union, immediately revealed by his treatment of Orwell makes spurious most of his case against the majority of ex-communist writers who lost sight of the ideal of socialism in the bloody haze created by Stalin’s men as they carved it up all over the world whilst they cynically flashed the label of socialism on their executioner's axes for the benefit of Mr Lindsay and the Dean of Canterbury.” 

Socialist Realism

 Not a single one of these writers protested against the Stalinist leadership of the USSR promotion of Socialist realism as a legitimate form of artistic expression. One of their many crimes was to promote through their novels this socialist realism. Long ridiculed in the West this art form was officially sanctioned by the state under Stalin. Long after the death of the dictator, it is being revived by books like Taylor. “socialist realism” has suddenly acquired new respectability around the world. 

As Leon Trotsky explained in 1938 “The style of present-day official Soviet painting is called ‘socialist realism.’… [T]he ‘socialist’ character apparently consists in representing, in the manner of pretentious photography, events which never took place. It is impossible to read Soviet verse and prose without physical disgust, mixed with horror, or to look at reproductions of paintings and sculpture in which functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers, glorify the ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’ leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.” [4] 

Lindsay promoted this rubbish during his lifetime. Every twist and turn of the British Communist party political line was reflected in his work. His novels were produced during the 1950s of which there were nine promoted the British Way. As Taylor explains “the ‘British Way’ series that began with Betrayed Spring (1953), in which he explored post-war social change through class, political and industrial struggles. Those novels might be understood, loosely, as thinking through the implications of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s post-war British Road to Socialismprogramme (1951), just as the English historical novels of the 1930s think through the implications of the Popular Front line.”[5] 

History From Below 

The Popular Front line led to the genre History from Below. A case could be made for the origins of the historical genre “History from Below coming from not the pen of A.L. Morton but the mouth of Georgi Dimitrov. In 1935 at the Comintern Dimitrov gave a speech that outlined many things, one of which was how to tackle in Dimitrov’s words the fascist’s use of the past to justify their actions. 

He writes “The fascists are rummaging through the entire history of every nation so as to be able to pose as the heirs and continuators of all that was exalted and heroic in its past, while all that was degrading or offensive to the national sentiments of the people they make use of as weapons against the enemies of fascism. Hundreds of books are being published in Germany with only one aim — to falsify the history of the German people and give it a fascist complexion. The new-baked National Socialist historians try to depict the history of Germany as if for the past two thousand years, by virtue of some historical law, a certain line of development had run through it like a red thread, leading to the appearance on the historical scene of a national ‘saviour’, a ‘Messiah’ of the German people, a certain ‘Corporal’ of Austrian extraction. In these books, the greatest figures of the German people of the past are represented as having been fascists, while the great peasant movements are set down as the direct precursors of the fascist movement”. 

Lindsay and his fellow Communist Party novelist and historians immediately took Dimitrov’s half baked theory on board and created the historical genre of “peoples history” or “history from below”. This type of history has seen a tremendous resurgence over the last few decades. However many of the historians promoting it do so from ignorance of its past or its class nature.Ann Talbot states The Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of former rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr.[6] 

Despite the two quotes from George Orwell and Georg Lukacs Taylor is uncritical of the Stalinist Popular Front policy and Dimitrov especially. Taylor freely quotes Dimitrov as if the Popular Front was a masterstroke that led to numerous victories of the working class. Taylor quotes the principal architect of the Popular Front Georgi Dimitrov without as much as a hint that this policy was opposed on a far higher political level than Lukacs and Orwell and that was by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky remains the great unmentionable in Taylor’s book. None of his vast writings on the Popular Fronts are used by Taylor. 

 The fact that that this policy was responsible for the Fascist victory in Spain, paved the way for the Second World War and led to the defeat of countless working-class struggles not to mention the deaths of millions passes Taylor by. In 1935 Dimitrov was well aware that Trotsky was still alive and was able to oppose the right-wing line of the Stalinists. His speech in 1935 sought to dress up his collaboration with anti-working-class forces as a product of Bolshevik orthodoxy.He writes “There are wiseacres who will sense in all this a digression from our basic positions, some sort of turn to the Right from the straight line of Bolshevism. Well, in my country, Bulgaria, they say that a hungry hen always dreams of millet. Let those political chickens think so. This interests us little. For it is important that our Parties and the broad masses throughout the world should correctly understand what we are striving for. We would not be revolutionary Marxists, Leninists, worthy pupils of Marx, Engels, and Lenin if we did not suitably reconstruct our policies and tactics in accordance with the changing situation and the changes occurring in the world labour movement. We would not be real revolutionaries if we did not learn from our own experience and the experience of the masses.

 We want to eradicate from our ranks all self-satisfied sectarianism, which above all blocks our road to the masses and impedes the carrying out of a truly Bolshevik mass policy. One of the weakest aspects of the anti-fascist struggle of our Parties is that they react inadequately and too slowly to the demagogy of fascism, and this day continue to neglect the problems of the struggle against fascist ideology. Many comrades did not believe that so reactionary a brand of bourgeois ideology as the ideology of fascism, which in its stupidity frequently reaches the point of lunacy, would be able to gain any mass influence. This was a serious mistake. The putrefaction of capitalism penetrates to the innermost core of its ideology and culture, while the desperate situation of wide masses of the people renders certain sections of them susceptible to infection from the ideological refuse of this putrefaction. Under no circumstances must we underrate fascism’s power of ideological infection. On the contrary, we for our part must develop along ideological struggle based on clear, popular arguments and a correct, well thought out approach to the peculiarities of the national psychology of the masses of the people”. 

Why does Taylor allow this ideological rubbish to be passed by without as much as a comment? It would be nice to think that during the peer review of her PhD thesis that the learned professors would have drawn her attention to leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky who opposed these political concepts and that some of them should appear in her thesis. However, this is the real world and that did not happen. 

As Leon Trotsky points out  “Fascism—is not feudal but bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletarian revolution. Menshevism, itself a branch of bourgeois thought, does not have and cannot have any inkling of these facts. The Bolshevik point of view, clearly expressed only by the young section of the Fourth International, takes the theory of permanent revolution as its starting point, namely, that even purely democratic problems, like the liquidation of semi-feudal land ownership, cannot be solved without the conquest of power by the proletariat; but this, in turn, places the socialist revolution on the agenda.”[7] 

Voronsky and Art as the Cognition of life 

As mentioned earlier Trotsky was one of the great unmentionables. Taylor has worked hard on this book and has deep mined numerous archives. However, she has a blind spot for anyone that contradicts the Stalinist line on the Popular Front or Socialist Realism for that matter. Her selective bibliography is not down to sloppiness but political bias.I am not criticising someone who has a political bias in their work but when you leave out leading Bolsheviks such as Trotsky and figures like Alexander Voronsky whose collection of writings was published by Mehring Books in 1998 then this goes too far. 

Voronsky is well worth reading if only for his work on the relationship between art and politics. As the Marxist critic David Walsh writes  “Voronsky writes about Tolstoy and Proust, the poets Mayakovsky and Esenin, the errors of Soviet “Proletcultists” and Freudians alike, with passion and urgency. His aim at all points: to encourage art that engages deeply and truthfully with life. The world must be present in the artist’s work, Voronsky wrote, “as it is in itself, so that the beautiful and ugly, the kind and repulsive, the joyful and sorrowful appear to be so, not because that’s the way the artist wants it, but because they are contained in real life.” 

Taylor has the right to express whatever opinion she wants, but a publisher that purports to have sympathies for the Trotskyist movement to publish a book that is an open defence of Stalinism says a lot.[8]

 

[1]Trump’s victory, Brexit and Paul Mason’s call for a new “progressive alliance”-By Chris Marsden

16 November 2016-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/11/16/maso-n16.html

[2] The Popular Front Novel-An interview with Elinor Taylor-https://mronline.org/2017/11/03/the-popular-front-novel

[3] The Comintern and the Origins of the Popular Front 1934-1935-) Jonathan Haslam- The Historical Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Sep. 1979), pp. 673-691

[4]  (Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch”)

[5] The Popular Front Novel: An Interview with Elinor Taylor-

 www.historicalmaterialism.org/interviews/popular-front-novel-interview-with-elinor-taylor

[6] “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot -25 March 2003- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

[7] The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning-(December 1937)- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/xx/spain01.htm

[8] See: An assembly of political bankrupts: Historical Materialism and Jacobin host “Socialism in Our Time” conference-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/04/16/pers-a16.html

 

Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 Edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. Manchester University Press, 2014.

The advertising literature for this book says Against the grain is the first general history of the British far left to be published in the twenty-first century, it also describes the extent to which the far Left has weaved its influence into the political fabric of Britain. While both these claims are true what the advertisement leaves out is how these left groups have betrayed the struggles of the working class over countless decades. 

Even a cursory read of the book will show this to be the case. If proof were needed, then it can be found in the opening of the book which carries a quote from the political scoundrel Tariq Ali who says “the only real alternative to capitalist policies is provided by the revolutionary left groups as a whole. Despite their smallness and their many failings, they represent the only way forward“.[1] 

Not only do the authors agree with Ali’s political opportunism, but they also excuse his betrayal and other left groups as well. Ali is an expert in political opportunism as demonstrated by his decades-long political record. The editors have produced a book that is nothing more than an apology for the political perspectives of the various pseudo-left organisations in Britain. A book by radicals for radicals. Alternatively, as Mark Perryman describes as “one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them.” 

If there is a theme running through this book, it is to boost the credentials of Tariq Ali and all the Pseudo Left, Stalinist and Anarchist groups. It is also a thinly veiled polemic against orthodox Trotskyism whether represented by Socialist Labour League under Gerry Healy or the Socialist Equality Party(SEP). 

Firstly a correction is needed. Evans and Worley state “The genesis of post-war British Trotskyism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which contained all of the subsequent leading figures of the Trotskyist movement and held the position of the official British representative of the Fourth International between 1944 and 1949. The RCP made some headway in the rank and file of the trade unions, particularly by supporting strikes when the CPGB was still promoting co-operation with the government, as well as in the anti-fascist activism against Mosley’s newly-formed Union Movement. However, the RCP soon split over questions concerning entrism within the Labour Party and how the Fourth International should view the ‘People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe”. [2] 

This quote is misleading because it leaves out the main reason for disagreement being whether national sections would subordinate their program to that of the Fourth International or as Trotsky put it “The construction of a revolutionary tendency is possible only on the basis of an internationalist perspective. As Leon Trotsky insisted in 1928: “In our epoch, which is the epoch of imperialism, i.e., of the world economy and world politics under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its programme by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies of developments in its own country. In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism”.[3] 

This intellectual sloppiness sets the tone for the rest of the book in that all the authors are either hostile or indifferent to orthodox Marxism. The fact that the Fourth International in its modern form the (ICFI) International Committee of the Fourth International and the parties belonging to it rarely get much of a mention is indicative of the political persuasion of the editors. Why, for instance, does Red Action get a whole chapter and the history of the International Committee of the Fourth International in Britain does not get a single mention. 

Chapter I Movements- Engaging with Trotsky: The influence of Trotskyism in Britain (pp. 25-44)John Callaghan. John Callaghan’s chapter discusses the attitude of some leading British intellectuals towards Leon Trotsky. One such intellectual Bertrand Russell while noting Trotsky’s  ‘lightning intelligence’, said he was “vane although had charisma”. He did not regard Trotsky as Lenin’s equal.It comes as no surprise that Trotsky was attacked by the already Stalinist dominated Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) who depicted Trotsky’s work “as disruptive factionalism”.Callaghan produces some interesting analyses of George Orwell’s response to the Russian Revolution and its co-leader Leon Trotsky. 

However, I do not agree with his assertion that Orwell did not think Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism was accurate. While Orwell it is true did not agree with everything Leon Trotsky wrote he was influenced enough to write Animal Farm and 1984. Without Trotsky, these books would not have been written or would have taken very different forms. As Andy Reiss writes “Orwell’s book is a skilful metaphor about the degeneration of the Soviet Union which accords in many respects to Trotsky’s analysis. Thus when Snowball (that is, Trotsky) after the great battle demands that pigeons are sent to neighbouring farms—to bring about revolutions there as well—Napoleon (Stalin) disagrees. This refers to Trotsky’s insistence on world revolution, to which Stalin opposed his concept of “Socialism in one country”.[4] 

Chapter 2 The New Left: Beyond Stalinism and social democracy? (pp. 45-61) Paul Blackledge According to Blackledge “The British New Left emerged in 1956 as a response to a global ideological crisis that opened with Khrushchev’s secret speech, but which came to fruition when the revolutionary workers’ movement in Hungary was suppressed by Russian tanks on the same weekend that Anglo-French troops invaded Egypt. Together these events created a space for a critique of the world system as a totality”.An alternative scenario is that the collapse of Stalinism and Khrushchev’s secret speech condemning Stalin caught the majority of the pseudo-left groups by surprise and unprepared. The majority of these groups had adapted their politics on the basis that the Stalinist regimes would last forever and that Stalinism would dominate world politics for a long time to come. 

The most open expression of this accommodation was the development of Pabloism. “Pabloism replaced the Trotskyist movement’s characterisation of Stalinism as counter-revolutionary with a theory that attributed to the Kremlin bureaucracy and its agencies a historically progressive and revolutionary role. Rather than working for the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes in a series of political revolutions, the Pabloites foresaw a process of bureaucratic self-reform, with Trotskyists acting as advisers to the Stalinist leaders, urging them toward a more left-wing course. The “deformed workers states” of Eastern Europe, ruled by the local Stalinist agents of the Kremlin regime, were destined, according to Pablo and Mandel, to last for centuries.[5]. 

It is no surprise that Blackledge in this chapter at no point discusses the analysis put forward by the orthodox Trotskyist group The Socialist Labour League (SLL). Blackledge spends much time Discussing Edward P Thompson’s response to the crisis of Stalinism. Thompson spent most of his academic career distancing himself from his life in the British Communist Party. His criticism of Stalinism was not from an orthodox Marxist position. Instead, he advocated a “socialist humanism” approach. Thompson at an early age rejected classical Marxism represented by Leon Trotsky despite later breaking with Stalinism it is clear that Thompsons’ subsequent historical and political writings to a lesser extent were still imbued with Stalinist influences. 

While the Communist Party of Britain did attract a large number of distinguished historians, this was still an appalling training school and E P Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learned there. For the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), the crisis within the British Communist party was an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Many of the best figures from the CP — Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer were won to orthodox or classical Marxism. 

Thompson was not one of them despite being portrayed as being at the centre of a “Marxist revival.” Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to the New Reasoner’s politics but were open to debate. In an article from Labour Review October –November 1959 Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in sought in his article called – The New left Must Look to the Working Class to open a debate with Thompson and his supporters. 

Healy did not mince his words when he said “What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson’s article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently there is no attempt to analyse the relationship between the Left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around some new ideas that they have developed independently. 

This new development on the Left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working-class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new Left is the advance warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis, which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas.” 

From the early years of Thompson’s magazine New Reasoner, it was clear that he did not intend to have a debate with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy trying to have cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist’s around Healy as being a part of the working class. Healy’s response was to say that “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.” Thompson’s response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement throughout its history. 

Chapter 4 Marching separately, seldom together: The political history of two principal trends in British Trotskyism, 1945–2009-Phil Burton-Cartledge. Burton-Cartledge writes “Their opponents in the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Labour League/Workers’ Revolutionary Party (SLL/WRP) each met limited success and influence in the labour movement and The broader social movements, but by the end of the 1980s both had splintered into very small competing groups”. 

Like many other academics who write on the Trotskyist movement, Burton-Cartledge believes that a group’s worth is measured not in defence of principles or what program or history they represent and defend but in numbers. At no point does he offer a serious examination of the political relationship between both the SWP and SP and their respective relationship to the Communist Party and the Labour Party. As Chris Marsden points out “The SWP has for many years calculated that the rightward course of the Labour government would lead to a split-off by a section of the Labour Party and the trade unions, for which it could serve as “left” adviser. 

However, the attempt to constitute a new party on such a perspective has ended in abject failure because, to date, no significant section of the bureaucracy has broken with Labour”. One example, which is not in the book of the duplicity of these organisations is their support for the demand that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be extradited to Sweden. Both the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party go along with the propaganda of the media that Assange should face rape charges. The purpose of frame-up is in order for the United States, Britain, Sweden and other governments to silence him and destroy WikiLeaks. 

Opposition in slow motion: The CPGB’s ‘anti-revisionists’ in the 1960s and 1970s (pp. 98-114) Lawrence Parker. One of the remits given by the editors of this book seems to find the most obscure political development and write about it. Why else would Parker be given a chapter in the book on this group of hard-line Stalinists? 

Chapter 7 British anarchism in the era of Thatcherism (pp. 133-152)-Rich Cross. As Cross brings out in this chapter, the rise of Thatcher also corresponded with the growth of anarchism. It would be a mistake which to his credit Cross does not make to say that it represented a movement of the working class. While there was a significant movement of the working class whose high and low point was the miner’s struggle in 1984-85 it should be noted that all the anarchist groups at the time and now reject an orientation to the working as this is rooted in their petty-bourgeois scepticism towards the revolutionary capacity of the working class. 

Stuart Hall 

As is mentioned in the book this period from a theoretical standpoint was dominated by two essays, Stuart Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ and Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ (published in Marxism Today in late 1978)Hall should be remembered as being credited with inventing the term Thatcherism”. A large amount of Hall’s work appeared in Marxism Today, the journal associated with the Euro-communist wing of the CPGB. In that journal, Hall had a fondness for attacking orthodox Trotskyism and usually used Antonio Gramsci to make his point. His essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ is no exception he writes “One also encounters in this discussion variants of “revolutionary optimism” and “revolutionary pessimism”. The pessimists argue that we must not rock the boat, or demoralise the already dispersed forces of the Left. To them, one can only reply with Gramsci’s injunction: to address ourselves “violently” towards the present as it is if we are serious about transforming it. The optimists cast doubt on the doubters: look for the points of resistance—the class struggle continues. Of course, in one sense, they are right. We must look behind the surface phenomena; we must find the points of intervention; we must not underestimate the capacity for resistance and struggle. However, if we are correct about the depth of the rightward turn, then our interventions need to be pertinent, decisive and effective. Whistling in the dark is an occupational hazard not altogether unknown to the British Left”.[6] 

Gramsci was attractive to Hall not only because of his cultural writings but as Paul Bond writes in his essay on Hall “for his attacks on economic determinism, his explicit rejection of the theory of Permanent Revolution and his justification of the nationalist orientation of Stalinism: As Gramsci declared, “To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is ‘national’—and it is from this point of departure that one must begin”. 

Hobsbawm 

While Hall was not a Stalinist Hobsbawm was. It would not be an overstatement to say that Marxism Today was fanatically hostile to orthodox Marxism. The journal played a huge role in bringing New Labour to power. The historian Eric Hobsbawm played no small part in that development. 

It did not come as a surprise that Hobsbawm’s writing on Labour history brought him closer to the Labour Party. He was made a Companion of Honour. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family”. His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives. However, he was not simply academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society.” 

In this respect, Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a primary theoretical architect of the right-wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the “Eurocommunist” wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging Labour to adopt a more right-wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. Which, in many ways, laid the basis for Labours future development? “If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party”. 

Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour is explored in an article by Chris Marsden, which reveals Stalinism’s role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the Communist Party of Great Britain “Euro-Communist” tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour.” Marsden continues with the observation that Marxism Today of which Hobsbawm was a frequent writer for laid the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. Moreover, it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union”. 

Something new under the sun: The revolutionary Left and gay politics (pp. 173-189) Graham Willett- Anti-racism and the socialist Left, 1968–79 (pp. 209-228)Satnam Virdee and ‘Vicarious pleasure’? The British far left and the third world, 1956–79 (pp. 190-208)-Ian Birchall- Anti-racism and the socialist Left, 1968–79. Narratives of radical lives: The roots of 1960s activism and the making of the British Left (pp. 62-79) Celia Hughes- Anti-fascism in Britain, 1997–2012 (pp. 247-263)-David Renton 

From an editorial viewpoint, these chapters of the book should have been dealt with separately, but from a theoretical sense, they should be discussed together because they all come under the field of Cultural studies. One of the leading proponents of this revisionist field was Stuart Hall. Many of the genres above are a branch of the Cultural studies tree. From the start, Cultural Studies was opposed to revolutionary Marxism primarily in the form of its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. As Paul Bond writes “The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards”. 

Conclusion 

It is hard to know where to begin with these concluding remarks. While this book and the sequel have undoubtedly been attacked from the right, this review is an attack from the Left. My question to the authors is how far did you go to get an orthodox Marxist to write a chapter in allowing the record to be set straight. It would appear from both books not very far. 

 

[1] The Coming British Revolution: Tariq Ali

[2] Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956. Edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. Manchester University Press, 2014. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-7190-9590-0

[3] Leon Trotsky (1972) The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder Press

[4]Animal Farm: a new version on US television by Andy Reiss 12 November 1999  – https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/11/anim-n12.html

[5] Preface to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of The Heritage We Defend

By David North -21 June 2018   https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/06/21/heri-j21.html

[6] ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/79_01_hall.pdf 

Empire and Revolution: a socialist history of the First World War, Dave Sherry, Bookmarks. £7.99) 

 

In a strike, I am for my class, right or wrong; in a war, I am for my country, right or wrong”. Ben Tillet, union leader

 “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”― Leon Trotsky

 Dave Sherry’s book is a reliable and well-written introduction to the complex history of the First World War. Written from the standpoint of the historical genre “history from below” its fourteen chapters cover all the most critical aspects of the war and subsequent revolutions. 

Like many similar historical subjects, there is little agreement among historians as to the origins of the war to end all wars. Some right-wing historians have attempted to rehabilitate the First World War, as a “necessary” war for democracy.  As Sherry states “That is one of the reasons I wrote the book. There is a truly myopic view of some British historians who see it as just a war on the Western Front”. 

As the Marxist writer, Nick Beams perceptively writes “the question of its origin remains controversial. The reason is that this issue is of direct relevance to the analysis of contemporary events. Roughly speaking, there are two contending positions—that of Marxism and various forms of bourgeois liberal scholarship. The Marxist analysis, to summarise it in the broadest terms, is that the war was the outcome of conflicts, rooted in an objective and irresolvable contradiction of the capitalist mode of production: that between the global character of the economy and the nation-state system in which the profit system is grounded. The opposing theories boil down to the conception that the war arose out of the political mistakes, miscalculations and misjudgements of various bourgeois politicians and it could somehow have been averted if only wiser heads had prevailed” [1] 

The book does demolish some myths that have surrounded the events of 1914. One myth propagated by numerous historians is that the war fell from the sky that nobody could have foreseen the war and the carnage that followed. Another myth is that the war was solely German imperialisms greed for new markets and intent of world domination. 

Sherry also draws the readers attention not only to the betrayals of the various parties such as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) but to the strikes, occupations and mutinies across each country are well detailed. He also documents how these struggles were betrayed by their leadership. 

Sherry correctly concentrates on the socialist movement’s opposition to the war. In his book, War and the International Leon Trotsky makes two interrelated points. The first point is that he relates the origins of the war to the historical development of capitalism. The second point is to outline the development of a strategy for the international working class in the face of the betrayals by the leaders of the Second International, especially that of German Social Democracy (SPD). The SPDs repudiated the decisions of its own Congress to provide support for their own ruling elite’s support of the war. 

For people such as the revisionist Edward Bernstein who propagated the fallacy that capitalism had somehow overcome its contradictions and would not plunge humanity into the abyss the war cruelly exposed this myopic judgement.To the orthodox Marxist the collapse of capitalism and its drive to war was entirely predictable as Marx wrote “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. 

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure”.[2] 

Leon Trotsky makes a similar point in his book, the War and the International “The forces of production which capitalism has evolved have outgrown the limits of nation and state. The national state, the present political form, is too narrow for the exploitation of these productive forces. The natural tendency of our economic system, therefore, is to seek to break through the state boundaries. The whole globe, the land and the sea, the surface as well as the interior have become one economic workshop, the different parts of which are inseparably connected.”[3] 

One of the strengths of Sherry’s book is that despite its short length he does explain that the war was a product of the growing inter-imperialist rivalries that had been simmering for the previous thirty years or so. The proceeding thirty years before the First World War saw the emergence of Imperialism. A handful of industrialised capitalist nations dominated the world. At the head of these countries stood substantial corporate and banking conglomerates who were exporting capital on a global scale. These rival powers battled for the control of markets and sought even cheaper labour in Africa and Asia. 

German capitalism sought to challenge Britain’s strategic and geopolitical interests. To a degree previous to the outbreak of war conflicts between the major imperialist powers had been regulated by a series of alliances between the major imperialist powers in the form of alliances which pitted the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance. As Leon Trotsky pointed out “The future development of world economy on the capitalistic basis means a ceaseless struggle for new and ever new fields of capitalist exploitation, which must be obtained from the same source, the earth. The economic rivalry under the banner of militarism is accompanied by robbery and destruction which violate the elementary principles of human economy. World production revolts not only against the confusion produced by national and state divisions but also against the capitalist economic organisation, which has now turned into barbarous disorganisation and chaos. The war of 1914 is the colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its inherent contradictions.” [3] 

Trotsky believed that war not only signalled the downfall of the nation-state, but it ended the historical role of capitalism. This analysis came under sustained attack from figures such as Woodrow Wilson who said this was not a breakdown of capitalism and hence no need for socialism. 

Trotsky’s viewpoint was supported by Elie Halevy (1870-1937)[4] in a series of lectures published in 1938 as The Era of Tyrannies), Halévy said that world war “had increased national control over individual activities and opened the way for de facto socialism. In opposition to those who saw socialism as the last step in the French Revolution, he saw it as a new organisation of constraint replacing those that the revolution had destroyed”.[4]

The Marxist viewpoint regarding the war has been vigorously challenged by a coterie of right-wing bourgeois historians. One such historian is Niall Fergusson. Fergusson it would appear has spent most of his working life seeking to overturn Marxist historiography. As Nick Beams writes “Ferguson adopts the crude method deployed by so many in the past. According to his view, for the analysis of Marxism to be valid, we must be able to show that political leaders made their decisions by a kind of profit-and-loss calculus of economic interests, or that there was a secret cabal of businessmen and financiers operating behind the scenes and pulling the strings of government. Failure to find either, he maintains, cuts the ground from under the feet of the Marxist argument”. 

Ferguson believes he was smart when he wrote his attack on the fundamental Marxist conception that the war arose as an inevitable product of the capitalist mode of production—the struggle for markets, profits and resources. As Beams points out the “The point upon which Marxism insists is not that war is simply subjectively decided upon by the capitalist class but that, in the final analysis, it is the outcome of the objective logic and contradictions of the capitalist profit system, which work themselves out behind the backs of both politicians and businessmen. At a certain point, these contradictions create the conditions where political leaders feel they have no choice but to resort to war if they are to defend the interests of their respective states. 

Beams also mentions another historian who takes issue with Marxism on the origins of the war, although from a slightly different perspective. The British historian Hew Strachan who according to Beam’s “points to the crucial role of the alliance system is not only failing to prevent war but helping to promote it. When the crisis of July 1914 erupted, each power, conscious in a self-absorbed way of its potential weakness, felt it was on its mettle, that its status as a great power would be forfeit if it failed to act.” 

Book two has two significant weaknesses one is the significant omission of far more complete opposition to bourgeois historians attacks on fundamental Marxist conceptions. Another thing I am not sure about is whether the genre of history from below is the best way to describe such complex questions or war, revolution and inter-imperialist rivalries. Whether we will see a flood of-of patriotic nonsense written about the 20018 anniversary of the ending of the first world war remains to be seen. As Sherry points out, the war was a clash of ruling classes that were hell-bent on protecting their interests at the cost of millions of dead. Sherry’s book is an excellent basic introduction to these events. 

 

[1] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/04/10/lect-a10.html

[2] ]  K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

[3] War and the International (Colombo: Young Socialist Publications, 1971),

[4] The Era of Tyrannies Hardcover – January 1, 1966 by Elie Halevy (Author), R. K. Webb (Translator)

 

Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain by John Kelly, Routledge, 295pp,

This new book on the history of contemporary Trotskyism is the first of its kind. It is commendable for a major publisher like Routledge to produce such a book. It is well researched to a point and a scholarly work. Having said this other reviews of this book have pointed out that it is a bit rich for an avowed Stalinist to write a book on the history of contemporary Trotskyism. A member of the British Communist Party during the 1980s Kelly still seems to have kept all the ideological baggage of his membership. 

His political friends in the Stalinist Morning Star agree with his task stating, “It is an almost impenetrably confusing picture, which the author does his best to unravel. It’s a laborious task given the characteristic sectarian feature of Trotskyite organisations, resulting in frequent splits and divisions at both a national and international level[1]. 

Pseudo Left 

One striking aspect of the few reviews that have appeared so far in the Pseudo Left press is their mild criticism of an author who is ideologically hostile to Trotskyism. Any serious Trotskyist organisation would have to defend its ideas from this type of hostile source. Ian Birchall, a member of the SWP, perhaps sums up the complacent and defensive attitude towards Kelly and his downplaying of the possibilities of any Trotskyist group leading a revolutionary struggle “Now it looks very unlikely that any of the small groups (what the French used to call groupuscules) described here will lead a revolution. But for all that, I don’t think it was just a waste of breath. For our generations, Trotskyism, at its best, was the form taken by what the American Marxist Hal Draper, in his magnificent pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, called ‘socialism from below’ – the belief that socialism, if it comes, will be the product of the self-emancipation of ordinary working people through mass action; it will not be the result of relying on elected representatives or liberation by ‘progressive’ armies. What form it will take in the future cannot be predicted, but history always works by continuities as well as ruptures, and somewhere amid the acres of print that Kelly has scrutinized, the spark of human liberation still lives”[2]. 

Birchall is supported by another SWP member Joseph Choonara who writes “It should also be said, it is hard for me to hate a book that portrays me as an instance of “younger members” reaching “leading positions” in the Trotskyist movement (even if I have “done little to disturb oligarchic rule”).[3] 

Kelly’s Main Problem 

Kelly’s main problem is that his conception of Trotskyism is heavily influenced by his Stalinism. His understanding of its history is limited and as we shall see later in this review coloured by his politics. According to Kelly, it is only when Trotskyist organisations ditch their program and history do they achieved some limited success. He writes: “The paradox of those success stories is that they were achieved precisely because Trotskyist groups set aside core elements of Trotskyist doctrine and focused on building broad-based, single-issue campaigns around non-revolutionary goals.” The whole focus of the book is given over to try and persuade the Trotskyists not to be Trotskyists. 

Kelly damns Trotskyism for not building “a mass Trotskyist party anywhere on the planet or led a socialist revolution, successful or otherwise”. It is according to Kelly a “rigid and unhelpful doctrine” and has a “millenarian, revolutionary vision”.This theme of not leading a socialist revolution runs through the entire book. Two things strike one when reading the above comments. Firstly as Kelly conveniently leaves out is that capitalism has survived in no small way thanks to the to the betrayals and treachery of the party that he belonged to. Secondly, it is just not true that Trotskyists have not led significant struggles throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. If Kelly had bothered to interview some orthodox Trotskyists of the SEP, he would have found this out. 

His ideologically driven flippancy also leads him to underplay the enormous internal struggles the Trotskyist movement has gone through which in many respects were, in fact, life and death conflicts that impacted the lives of millions of workers around the globe. Three significant struggles come directly to mind. The first being James P Cannon and Gerry Healy’s opposition to Pabloite revisionism leading to issuing of the Open Letter and the founding of the ICFI(International Committee of the Fourth International in 1953. Secondly Healy’s defence of Trotskyism against Cannon’s reunification with the Pabloites in 1963. Thirdly David North’s struggle against the Betrayal of Trotskyism by the WRP(Workers Revolutionary Party) 1984-85. These tremendous political conflicts have little interest for Kelly. A fact represented in the low coverage they received in this book. 

Another theme running through Kelly’s book is his obsession with the size of the Trotskyists parties and the fact that there are so many. If Kelly had bothered to do a little more research and drawn from history namely the Russian revolution he would have found out that the Bolsheviks were small, tiny in fact at the beginning and they led a successful revolution. 

SEP 

While it could be said that Kelly is hostile to all Trotskyist parties he has a particular distaste for the parties that make up the ICFI (International Committee of the Fourth International). In perhaps the most accurate statement of the whole book, he identifies the SEP (Socialist Equality Party) as orthodox Trotskyists. He sarcastically writes in a true Stalinist style that despite having only 50 members it is “the sole political tendency on the face of the planet that sets as its aim the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class against imperialism”.[4] 

Kelly as already has been mentioned is incapable of understanding the history of the different tendencies. Either Kelly has not done enough research or most probably due to his Stalinist politics he does not care. This forces him to come up with ridiculous names for the different parties, like “institutional Trotskyism”, “Third Camp Trotskyism”.Kelly’s idea behind these strange names which have no history in the Trotskyist movement is to belittle these groups to be shunned like religious sects. Kelly is backed up by the Alex Callinicos of the SWP who instead of challenging this slander writes “It is perhaps appropriate here to consider why it was that the Trotskyist movement should so often have displayed the characteristics of religious sectaries.”[5] 

Kelly believes that Trotskyism has been isolated from the mass workers movement because of its almost religious-like adherence to principles and perspective. However, this so-called isolation is coming to an end. With the collapse of the old organisations including his own, there has developed a changed relationship between Trotskyism and the working class. A point made by the ICFI when it correctly predicted: “the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the irrevocable discrediting of Stalinism, together with the political bankruptcy of the social-democratic and reformist parties and trade union organizations, would lead to a fundamental change in the relationship between the Trotskyist movement and militant sections of the working class and youth, radicalized by the deepening crisis of American and world capitalism”.[6]

Russian Revolution

It is quite striking that all Kelly draws from the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, in his introduction is that the Trotskyist movement has not led a revolutionary struggle anywhere in the world so why would they celebrate this revolution.If Kelly had bothered to leave his cloistered university in London, he would have found some struggles that involved the Trotskyists in a significant way. Another thing that needs to be challenged by Kelly’s introduction is that the “Stalinist terror” was a product of the October Revolution. This lie has been peddled by academics sympathetic to Stalinism for decades. 

Nationalism

 It must be said that Kelly has approached the subject of contemporary Trotskyist from an entirely nationalist viewpoint. Perhaps one of the most critical discussions to take place inside the worker’s movement was the struggle found in a section of the Fourth International in Britain on an international basis. The most critical disagreement during the early years of British Trotskyism was the struggle over the acceptance of the international perspective from a national perspective. As Trotsky wrote in 1938, “The present conference signifies a conclusive delimitation between those who are really IN the Fourth International and fighting every day under its revolutionary banner and those who are merely ‘FOR’ the Fourth International, i.e. the dubious elements who have sought to keep one foot in our camp and one foot in the camp of our enemies… Under the circumstances, it is necessary to warn the comrades associated with the Lee group [the WIL] that they are being led on a path of unprincipled clique politics which can only land them in the mire. It is possible to maintain and develop a revolutionary political grouping of serious importance only on the basis of great principles. The Fourth International alone embodies and represents these principles. It is possible for a national group to maintain a consistently revolutionary course only if it is firmly connected in one organisation with co-thinkers throughout the world and maintains a constant political and theoretical collaboration with them. The Fourth International alone is such an organisation. All purely national groupings, all those who reject international organisation, control and discipline, are in their essence reactionary.”[7]This struggle receives scant attention in Kelly’s book. 

Chapter 1 -Theoretical perspectives 

Kelly asks this question can “Trotskyists often describe their organisations as revolutionary vanguard parties built on the principles of ‘democratic centralism’ whose political aim is the destruction of the capitalist state and the capitalist mode of production “.Having not been in a revolutionary party it is beyond Kelly’s comprehension to understand that these parties are unlike any other party on the planet. Not only from an organisational point of view but more importantly from a perspective standpoint.While accepting to a certain extent that Trotskyist parties are different from mainstream bourgeois parties he goes on to slander these organisations believing they are akin to religious sects who insist on upholding a doctrinal purity. Given that Kelly belonged to a party that in the past took its daily perspective from Stalin who murdered more Bolsheviks than the Nazis and betrayed more workers struggle than any other organisation it is a little rich for Kelly to try to take the political high ground. 

It is also extraordinary that in this chapter Kelly has little to say on the history of his own Communist Party. He might want to note that the betrayals carried out by his organisation would have something to do with the isolation of the Trotskyists from the mass workers movements. These betrayals were done in the name of the October revolution and discredited 1917 in the eyes of many workers. 

Chapter 2 Trotsky and the origins of Trotskyism 

In this chapter Kelly questions whether the contemporary Trotskyists group can describe themselves as the continuation of Leninism or Bolshevism, primarily because Trotsky changed his position on many issues. In academia when someone makes such a statement like that it is standard practice to back up such a statement with proof. Kelly does not do this, Why, because to do this he would have to explain his hostility to Trotsky and his politics. Kelly repeats some slanders of Trotsky’s position that have been the stock and trade of academics who have perpetrated a “Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. As Wolfgang Weber explains “after the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians of this school—including Dmitri Volkogonov (Russia), Richard Pipes (US), Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher (both UK)—rehashed the old Stalinist lies and falsifications about Trotsky to cut off the younger generation from the ideas of the most consistent Marxist opponents of Stalinism”[8]. 

Chapter 3 Development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, part 1: 1950–1985 and Chapter 4 Development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, part 2: 1985–2017. While these two chapters cover a significant amount of history, it is nonetheless surprising that Kelly says next to nothing about the 1940s. The 1940s are instrumental in understanding the subsequent trajectory of all the groups in Britain and internationally. To discuss the years 1950-1985 in chapter three and then in chapter four 1985-2017 would be a big ask for anyone. To say that Kelly’s analysis is simplistic would be an understatement. Kelly does not devote enough care and attention to the complex issues that confronted the Trotskyist movement during this time. 

The treatment of the SLL/WRP again reveals his political bias and does not contain a shred of objectivity. His treatment of the complex expulsion from the WRP of Alan Thornett is a case in point. To Kelly, this was just a power struggle between Healy and Thornett. If Kelly had bothered to consult the documents of the Split in the WRP 1985 produced by the ICFI especially How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism he would have given his readers a far more balanced understanding.

As the above documents state “It was the height of political duplicity for Thornett to conspire against his own Party and then denounce the leadership for violating the constitution. Healy, who then had accumulated 45 years of experience within the communist movement, could recognise an anti-party clique when he saw one. However, it is another matter entirely whether the leadership was politically wise in acting to expel Thornett on organisational grounds before an exhaustive discussion of the political differences, regardless of their origins. This is not a question of being wise after the event. The Trotskyist movement had, before Thornett emerged on the scene, acquired a great deal of experience in dealing with unprincipled minorities — of which the most famous was the Shachtman-Burnham-Abern tendency. Experience has taught the Trotskyist movement that the political clarification of cadre must be the overriding priority in any factional struggle — even one involving a disloyal clique”.[9] 

Also in these chapters, Kelly wastes an inordinate amount of space on what it means to “assess trends in the membership of the Trotskyist movement over time”. The purpose of the constant fixation with the size is to belittle the importance of the Trotskyist movement and to discourage a severe examination of the program and history. Chapter 5 Doctrine, orthodoxy and sectarianism. It is debatable how much Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin Kelly has read. Clearly, from this chapter, it is not enough. The early Marxists understood very early that the program builds the Party. From Marx’s time, orthodox Marxists have attached the highest importance in defending the Marxist method and program from attack by revisionists of all sorts. Kelly calls this defence doctrinaire and sectarian. It must be said that the Trotskyist movement has survived greater insults than Kelly can produce. There is nothing new in Kelly’s stance. The Stalinists have been attacking Trotskyist conceptions since the late 1920s. Kelly is just rehashing their political positions and slanders. 

Chapter 6 Party recruitment. In this chapter Kelly’s again berates the Trotskyist movement for its low membership. At no point does Kelly offer his understanding of what happened to the Labour Party and Communist Party politically regardless of whether they have grown or declined. Both of these organisations are organically hostile to the building of a revolutionary party and have spent their entire existence trying to prevent the growth of such an organisation. 

Chapter 7 Party electoral performance 

Throughout his career, it would seem Kelly has been heavily critical of Trotskyist parties such as the SEP for not ditching their “ doctrinal” attitude towards elections. In his article Upbeat and the margins: the British Trotskyist Left and their exceptionally poor election results[10], he states “The extremely poor electoral performance, therefore, created a significant dilemma for these party leaders. On the one hand, an open acknowledgement of an extremely poor vote implies there is very little support for their programmes and potentially calls into question their main policies, and possibly their core ideology. Moreover, an open admission of unpopularity could threaten the positive attachment of activists to their respective parties. On the other hand, the denial of poor electoral performance or indeed claims that it constitutes some form of success, 1/3 potentially threaten the credibility and authority of the party leaders. The research was therefore undertaken to understand how Trotskyist party leaders constructed accounts of their electoral performance which identified positive achievements in the face of meagre vote shares”. 

Kelly’s article shows some things. Firstly Kelly has no faith that Trotskyism can win the working class to its banner with a revolutionary program. They should as Stalinists down the years have been advocating ditch building a revolutionary party and concentrate on electoral politics. Failing that Kelly encourages groups to liquidate their parties and work within front organisations which many Pseudo Lefts groups have all in but name done. 

Chapter 9 Working in the trade unions 

Kelly correctly states that “Trotskyists have always attached enormous importance to working inside the trade union movement because of the belief that it represents the most organised and class-conscious section of the working class “. As Kelly intimates, the trade union questioned has been a vexing issue for the Marxist movement. For Kelly, the issue is straightforward; he is uncritical of the trade union leadership. He cannot understand why orthodox Marxists are profoundly critical of the trade leaderships betrayal but have reservations about the very organisations themselves. 

As David North from the SEP states “In the history of the Marxist movement, there are two political issues, or “questions,” that have been the source of exceptionally persistent controversy, spanning more than a century. One is the “national question”, and the other is the “trade union” question”. One would think that there is something to be learned from so many unfortunate experiences. But like the old fools found in the tales of Boccaccio, the ageing and toothless radicals today are only too eager to play the cuckold again and again. Thus, the present-day “left” organisations still insist that the socialist movement is duty-bound to minister loyally to the needs and whims of the trade unions. Socialists, they insist, must acknowledge the trade unions as the worker’s organisation par excellence, the form most representative of the social interests of the working class. The trade unions, they argue, constitute the authentic and unchallengeable leadership of the working class — the principal and ultimate arbiters of its historical destiny. To challenge the authority of the trade unions over the working class, to question in any way the supposedly “natural” right of the trade unions to speak in the name of the working class is tantamount to political sacrilege. It is impossible, the radicals claim, to conceive of any genuine workers movement which is not dominated, if not formally led, by the trade unions. Only on the basis of the trade unions can the class struggle be effectively waged. And, finally, whatever hope there exists for the development of a mass socialist movement depends upon “winning” the trade unions, or at least a significant section of them, to a socialist perspective. 

To put the matter bluntly, the International Committee rejects every one of these assertions, which are refuted both by theoretical analysis and historical experience. In the eyes of our political opponents, our refusal to bow before the authority of the trade unions is the equivalent of lèse-majesté. This does not trouble us greatly, for not only have we become accustomed, over the decades, to being in opposition to “left-wing” — or to be more accurate — petty-bourgeois public opinion; we consider its embittered antipathy the surest sign that the International Committee is, politically speaking, on the correct path”[11]. 

Chapter 11 The proliferation of Trotskyist Internationals. 

The problem with this chapter like all the rest of the book Kelly presents large numbers of statistics but very little analysis of how the different Trotskyist groups started out and where they have finished. Like I said earlier there is a reason why Kelly does not in any detail discuss not only the international origins of the Fourth international but its origins in Britain.

Everything Kelly examines he does so from a nationalist standpoint point. How could it be any different? He is, after all, a Stalinist. Anyone reading this chapter would be better off closing the book and purchase a copy of the newly updated history of the Fourth international called The Heritage We Defend by David North. 

Conclusion 

It is a positive thing that a major publishing house publishes a book of this type. While recommending this book, I would draw readers attention to the above book by North which should be read first or at least side by side with this book. Despite its significance, in the end, it is sad, but Kelly’s book is but another from the Post Soviet School of Falsification.

 [1] https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/j570a3oncp

[2] http://review31.co.uk/article/view/553/was-it-all-futile

[3] Trotskyism under the Spotlight- June 2018-By Joseph Choonara- http://socialistreview.org.uk/436/trotskyism-under-spotlight

[4] Report to the Third National Congress of the Socialist Equality Party (UK)-

[5] Alex Callinicos-Trotskyism-

[6] Socialist Equality Party holds founding Congress-19 September 2008-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/09/cong-s19.html

[7] Founding Conference of the Fourth International 1938 On Unification of The British Section-

[8] A blow against the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2011/12/lett-d31.html

[9] How the Workers Revolutionary Party Betrayed Trotskyism

1973 – 1985-

[10] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/trotskyist-election-results/

[11]Why are Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism? -Two vexed questions

By David North

 

A Critical Review of A People’s History of Scotland- by Chris Bambery Verso, 320pp, £12.99

It is usual for new history books to fall into two broad categories. One is the history book that has no obvious connection to recent historical or political events. The second is a book that is very political and is released to coincide with ongoing historical or political events. It is the second category that Chris Bambery’s new book falls into in that it is deeply connected to nationalist politics in Scotland. As the title alludes, this is a history of the ‘ordinary people of Scotland. According to one writer it “looks beyond the kings and queens, the battles and bloody defeats of the past. It captures the history that matters today, stories of freedom fighters, suffragettes, the workers of Red Clydeside, and the hardship and protest of the treacherous Thatcher era”. 

I have several problems with this book. To begin with, Bambery never defines what he means by the people. Bambery’s unrefined thinking lends itself to him making empty generalisations. In the realm of philosophy, these are known as abstract identities. What is bad about this type of imprecise thinking is that it presents according to David North an “inadequate mental representations of reality: The material world simply does not consist of such internally undifferentiated phenomena”.[1]Bambery promises us “a corrective to the usual history of kings and queens, victorious battles and bloody defeats.” The first hundred pages or so the author struggles to find any of these ordinary people. The only ordinary people he finds were people who made the tactical difference at Bannockburn because they were mistaken for reinforcements by the English troops. 

Bambery’s choice of the genre of people’s history has become popular again. This form of historical study was made extremely popular by the Communist Party Historians Group. The problem is that pseudo-left groups like the Socialist Workers Party which Bambery used to belong to have unfortunately assimilated the worst aspects of this genre which is a nationalist outlook. It is especially important when reading this kind of history that the reader knows the politics of the historian or as Edward Hallett Carr was apt to say “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St. Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone-deaf, or your historian is a dull dog”.[2] 

I am not saying that Bambery is a dull dog, but there is a surprising absence of both his politics and of the organisation he once belonged to perspective on Scottish history. I find this a little strange despite his break with the SWP he does not say anything about their position regarding Scottish history. Bambery has belonged to several pseudo-left groups in the UK. He began as a member of the now-defunct International Marxist Group he then moved to the Socialist Workers Party. 

He resigned from the SWP in 2011 having served on their Central Committee and joined the International Socialist Group. The SWP lost a significant number of its members to the ISG who were politically active in Scotland. Bambery shares much of the SWP positions on the recent independence campaign in Scotland. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) lined up behind the SNP in the Yes campaign, proclaiming separatism as the only basis on which to oppose austerity and militarism. 

The ISG’s latest articles go so far as to call for alliances with the SNP, asserting that “the Left will look like a backward break on the movement if it does not initiate the support of the SNP where necessary”.[3]The IMG alongside the SNP believe Scotland is a classless nation. Bambery ignores the fact that Scottish nationalism and the SNP has always had a pronounced right-wing element. As a wsws.org article points out “Class antagonism is a thing quite foreign to the Scottish spirit. It was unknown here until it was imported from England. In Scotland, there is no such inherent feeling of separation between classes.”[4] 

While this is not an academic history of Scotland, some of Bambery’s comments are less than precise, and in many cases, his history contains an absence of class-based history. Bambery’s method has very little to do with historical materialism. Given the sweep of history, you could forgive the author for brevity when it comes to certain periods of Scottish history. But the price he pays is a lowering of a critical analysis of the movements and figures portrayed in the 330 or so pages. Perhaps not so forgivable is his repeated glorification of myths and the invention of traditions that permeate Scottish historiography. This flaw in Bambery’s approach is neatly captured by his statement, ‘Legends will appear throughout this book, and in a way, it does not matter if they are real, because a legend can take on a life of its own and so inspire a future generation.'[5] 

Bambery seems to have uncritically adopted Hegel’s advice when he said: “Every nation has its imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the nation’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination.” [6]Chris Cassells in his review put it succinctly when he said that Bambery fails “to explore the complex and contradictory relationship between the history and the myth, prevents the book from becoming anything more than the greatest hits of radical – a slippery political term at the best of times – Scottish movements “. His decision after twenty-three pages to recommend Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart because it gives “a good account of William Wallace’s life.” Confirms this observation. 

Bambery’s glorification of Scottish figures from history comes to the fore when dealing with the Scottish Enlightenment. It is undoubtedly true that Scotland produced some important figures during the enlightenment period, but even these figures were part of an international fraternity, and many of them never conceived their views as promoting nationalism. Bambery’s raising them above other European figures is both wrong and will increase nationalist sentiment. For certain subjects, the use of the people’s History Genre or narrative history is both useful and enjoyable. Bringing to the attention of a wide audience, people whom history or historians have forgotten is both legitimate and needed. However, it is not very useful when dealing with very complex historical processes. Bambery sees Scottish history through nationally tinted glasses. Its ruling elites were more democratic. Its enlightenment figures better and the Scottish working-class more militant and left-wing. This relentless populism flies in the face of history. 

Bambery’s reckless promotion of Scottish exceptionalism tends to whitewash actual historical events. After all, even a leading member of the Scottish bourgeoisie Thomas Johnston was forced to describe the Scottish nobility as “a selfish, ferocious, famishing, unprincipled set of hyenas, from whom at no time, and in no way, has the country derived any benefit whatsoever”. Bambery for some reason sought to cover up whom Johnston was first describing him as a “19th-century historian” and only later identifying him as “Scotland’s most charismatic Secretary of State”.Bambery’s nationalist outlook is reflected in the number of historical events that are not even attempted to be examined within their proper international context. Perhaps the most glaring one is Bambery’s attitude towards the English bourgeois revolution. Given the importance of this historical event, it gets very little space in the book. Bambery given his extensive knowledge of the Communist Party’s use of the history from the below genre would have known the tendency amongst Communist Party historians and other radical writers to portray radicals such as the Leveller as struggling against foreign invaders. 

Ann Talbot believes that a large number of the Communist Party historians maintained an essentially national approach to the English revolution, and not placing it in an international context. They had in her words a “tendency to romanticise the religious movements of the period and to be too dismissive of their rational, intellectual descendants such as Newton and Locke. In part, these characteristics arise from the national orientation of his social class and reflect even in Hill vestiges of the Whig outlook that imagined a peculiarly English political tradition rooted in millennial seventeenth-century visionaries like Bunyan that was entirely separate from Enlightenment thought. More significantly it reflects the influence of the popular front politics and national outlook of Stalinism”.[7] 

Unfortunately, Bambery shares the same outlook as the Communist party. Except his nationalism is not English, it is Scottish. In this book, Bambery rejects the theory of the English bourgeois revolution. He puts forward the premise that the revolution was, in fact, a “war of three kingdoms”.The central premise of this argument is succinctly described by Jane Ohlmeyer when she said: “the English Civil War was just one of an interlocking set of conflicts that encompassed the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century”.[8]I do not know Bambery that well to say that this has always been his take on the English revolution, but it certainly was not his former party. It is not in the realm of this article to discuss at any length the extent that the SWP has moved away from the central premise of the English bourgeois revolution, but the fact that Bambery held a revisionist and conservative position on this seminal event is an indicator of the type of dissent that has existed in the last decade inside the SWP. 

The main theme of this book from the first few pages to the last is to give the impression that Scotland from a very early period was a nation slowly making itself through its struggles against oppression. Bambery asserts that ‘freedom was finally won on the field of battle at Bannockburn,’ the concept that Scotland was a nation before 1707 permeates a growing body of work of both politicians, writers and historians alike. The different strands of Scottish nationalism believe that Scotland was a nation before the 1707 Act of Union. Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan brag that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe”,[9]this belief that Scottish people have been oppressed for centuries is historically inaccurate and leads to the tendency for workers on both sides to the border to be played against each other.

Bambery plays very fast and loose with this history. The Scottish bourgeoisie and aristocracy were in pretty bad shape before 1707. Before the union, the failure of the Darien Scheme in the 1690s had a massive economic impact. The plan, which was to build a predominantly Scottish trading colony in Panama ended in financial disaster for Scotland’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie. 

While it is true that large sections of the population opposed the union the bourgeoisie and aristocracy in Scotland saw that their sectional interests were best served by the union. Writer Neal Ascherson states that “It is a cliché that the Scots’ punched above their weight’ in the empire, and it is misleading. They seldom competed directly with the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the ‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company…. Scottish capital was thus a full partner in the expansion of British imperialism. This embraced deep involvement in the slave plantations of the Caribbean and American South.” 

To conclude, this has not been an easy book to review and given the wealth of history covered and in some cases, not covered further articles on this subject will appear in the future. I do not feel the need to repeat my many criticisms of this book. I do like the genre of people’s history when it is done well, but Bambery’s promotion of Scottish nationalism dressed up as Scottish history leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. 

 

[1] A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners By David North

[2] What Is history H Carr

[3] internationalsocialist.org.uk/index.php/2011/06/salmonds-majority-in-the-age-of-austerity/

[4] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/02/scot-f03.html

[5] A People’s History of Scotland by Chris Bambery

[6] Hegel 1795 (Berne) The Positivity of the Christian Religion

[7] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

[8] ://www.historytoday.com/jane-ohlmeyer/wars-three-kingdoms#sthash.vM6OYlyC.dpuf

[9] T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p180. 

The Birth of Capitalism- A 21st Century Perspective- Henry Heller -Pluto Press 2012

 

In the preface to this book, Henry Heller describes the aim of the book as to lay the foundations for a better understanding of the world we live in so that we can “shape the future.” I am not very sure he succeeds. The book’s subject matter has contemporary importance, given that 21st-century capitalism faces one of the biggest crises in its relatively short existence. It should be warned that the subject of the book is complicated and requires a lot of background reading. For someone new to the subject, this is advisable. In chapter one called the Decline of Feudalism, Heller discusses one of the most critical topics in the Marxist lexicon. The debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism has been raging since the early part of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous exchange over the decline of feudalism and the origins of capitalism was between the Stalinist Maurice Dobb and fellow traveller Paul Sweezy. 

The two differed amongst many things, including whether the development of commerce with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, caused the decline of feudalism. Both were confirmed Stalinists and both hostile to contemporary Marxism, Trotskyism. Sweezey’s debate with Dobbs coincided with the beginning of a systematic attack on the Marxist conception of a transition from feudalism to capitalism. As the radical writer, Dominic Alexander outlines” The origins of the capitalist system in a series of revolutionary transformations, political, industrial and even scientific was once broadly accepted, sometimes celebrated, by mainstream history. For over thirty years now, however, the relevance of the very concept of revolution to social change has been under systematic attack. One choice means of neutralising the idea of revolution is to posit the problem of continuity and change in history. Approached with suitably myopic terms of reference, it is always possible to eliminate the discontinuities across time and to find that revolutionary phases, in fact, changed little. It is now possible to reject the very notion of a capitalist mode of production and any transition from feudalism to capitalism, by claiming, for example, the long existence of a single world system of trade”.[2] 

Most of the chapter and for that matter, most of the book is spent attacking the political and historical conceptions of the pseudo-left writer and historian Robert Brenner. Heller incorrectly labels Brenner a Trotskyist and predictably but no less criminal he uses other pseudo-left writers namely the SWP(Socialist Workers Party) member Chris Harman to refute Brenner. While from an editorial point of view, there is nothing wrong in placing Brenner at the heart of this very contemporary debate over the emergence of capitalism. 

From a political or historical viewpoint, Brenner is not that important. Like many historians close to the pseudo-left groups, Heller has a tendency to throw the words Trotskyist and Marxist around with gay abandon. Regarding the feudalism/capitalism debate, Heller’s approach has been described as “separating the decline of feudalism from the emergence of capitalism” which is countered by Brenner who favours a “conceptual and chronological divide” between feudalism and capitalism. Heller believes Brenner has an Anglo-centrist viewpoint. In that Brenner ignores the fact that early capitalism did not occur solely in Britain for someone who has been labelled a Marxist historian Heller barely mentions one of the most critical Marxists produced by the 20th century Leon Trotsky. 

Even a cursory look at Trotsky’s work which Heller devoted only three mentions in the whole book would throw a tremendous amount of light on the positions of Heller and Brenner. As Trotsky explains “the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development. Capitalism finds various sections of humanity at different stages of development, each with its profound internal contradictions. The extreme diversity in the levels attained, and the extraordinary unevenness in the rate of development of the different sections of mankind during the various epochs serves as the starting point of capitalism. Capitalism gains mastery only gradually over the inherited unevenness, breaking and altering it, employing therein its own means and methods. In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and consistently aims at the economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships. 

He continues “thereby it brings about their rapprochement and equalizes the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this primary process, it would be impossible to conceive of the relative levelling out, first, of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialization of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain, and all the consequences arising from the enumerated processes upon which is based not only the program of the Communist International but also its very existence. By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development, capitalism, however, operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of the world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others.” 

As regards Brenner, there is a dialectical relationship between his politics and his historicism which the reader should be aware of. To paraphrase the great historian E. H.Carr one should know how many bees are buzzing around in a historians head. One of Brenner’s most important articles regarding the transition debate was the ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’ in Past and Present (1976). The article was described as a framework within which to interpret the English Revolution of 1640 to 1660. Brenner carried this framework into his most important book that centred on the English revolution, which mainly concentrated on the rise of the merchants and particularly the role of the London merchants in the English revolution.[4] 

Brenner is heavily criticised in Heller’s book for his heavy emphasis on this group of capitalists. Brenner was not the first historian to concentrate on this group. Although not a Marxist, the historian Valerie Pearl in her book[5] provides us with one the first and substantial look into the allegiances of London merchants in the civil war. Her research leads her to show that the majority of the biggest merchants who controlled the large chartered overseas trading companies and the government of the city were royalists, while the parliamentarians were ‘merchants of the middle rank’,. They were undoubtedly wealthy, but not the richest men in the city. They were important traders but not directors of the chartered companies.” 

Brian Manning also draws attention to the mix of the bourgeoisie on both sides saying that “a serious problem in analyzing the parties is that even among well-documented groups like gentry and merchants there are substantial numbers of whom no information can be found of their allegiances in the civil war. Brenner has examined 274 of the London merchant elite, but for about half of them, there is no evidence about which side they supported, and this must be borne in mind when drawing conclusions. Of 130 merchants who can be allocated to the parties, 78 were royalists, 43 were parliamentarians, and nine were side changers. Breaking these figures down, he finds that the leading merchants of the Levant and the East India companies, which controlled the city government before the revolution, were overwhelmingly royalists, while the Merchant Adventurers, who were now less dominant than they had been in the 16th century, were more evenly divided”. 

The fact that there was bourgeois on both sides has been used by revisionist historians to deny the premise of an English bourgeois revolution. This viewpoint was refuted by the Marxist writer Ann Talbot who said “there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. One could not expect a chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However. According to Talbot, the revolution pushed” people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing.

The problem with Heller’s critique of Robert Brenner’s so-called Political Marxist tradition is that aside from a few disagreements, he shares many of Brenner’s pseudo-left positions. The fact that Heller fails to point out that Brenner’s brand of Political Marxism is widely accepted in academia is deeply disturbing. 

Brenner is part of an informal collection of left-wing academics called the “No Bullshit Marxism Group.” This extremely disparate group, many of whom, do not even claim to be Marxists like Philippe Van Parijs, have one thing in common which is their opposition to classical Marxism and would like to replace it with “Analytic Marxism.”The main problem with Brenner’s work is its dangerous concentration on the nation over the international form when it comes to the English revolution. The fact that the English bourgeois was far more advanced than its European counterparts does not separate it from the development of capitalism in Europe which was also developing albeit at a slower pace as Leon Trotsky pointed out earlier in this essay. 

Marx saw the development of capitalism as global not national as he explained in Capital “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China. The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power”[6]. 

To conclude, to tackle all the theoretical problems coming out of Heller’s book would take another book to answer. Perhaps the most dangerous part of his philosophy is his solution to the crisis of capitalism today and the prospects for socialism. Despite capitalism’s crisis, Heller believes that socialism is off the agenda for hundreds of years. Heller believes that the working class will have to go through “experiments in socialism” before it can overthrow the system.

Heller regurgitates all the old discredited and failed theories that have led to countless betrayals of the working. Heller rejects the need to build a Bolshevik type party but insists that all sorts of socialists need to get together in a non-sectarian way to build a movement to overthrow capitalism. 

[1] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2004/04/ps2-a07.html

[2] https://www.counterfire.org/articles/book-reviews/15752-the-birth-of-capitalism-a-twenty-first-century-perspective

[3] Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, part 1, section 4

[4] Merchants and Revolution-Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653-by Robert Brenner-Verso

[5] London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution: City government and national politics, 1625–43. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1961.

[6] Karl Marx. Capital Volume One-Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist-https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm