A talk I gave to the Canterbury branch of the SWP on 15/8

A while ago I wrote a response to an anti-Trotskyist leaflet1. It claimed that, by rejecting the possibility of ‘socialism in one country’, we try to put down “those who have the temerity to go on and build socialism”. It was a Stalinist group that put out this leaflet, but an orthodox Trotskyist could easily have written it.  One of the groups I spoke to at the Marxism festival was the International Bolshevik Tendency2, who are supporters of the theory that the Soviet Union (along with many other countries) was a “deformed” or “degenerated workers’ state”. Their spokesperson wagged a finger at me and told me about how awful it is that the SWP looks at the Hungarian uprising of ‘56 positively, rather than as an act of counterrevolution, and how we think a socialist revolution still needs to take place in North Korea.

So although as part of this talk I won’t be going over the arguments of the most uncritical Stalinists, I will be going part of the way to addressing that position, since the so-called Orthodox Trotskyists are themselves so often counterrevolutionary and apologists for Stalinism. It sounds like nonsense to say that a Trotskyist could be guilty of this, but Cliff explained well how it happens, and how it comes from following Trotsky dogmatically but losing his essence, and abandoning classical Marxism3.

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The campaign group Republic, with its mission of “Campaigning for a democraticImage alternative to the monarchy”, is fighting to be heard over the pomp and nationalism greeting the Royal baby (#RoyalBaby) into a life of more pomp and nationalism. They had two minor victories on the BBC News Channel today, with Republic’s Graham Smith and Independent journalist Owen Jones both getting a three minutes head-to-head with a monarchist opponent. In Spain, activists opposing Royal rule are mostly socialists, but Republic seems much more balanced. Eleven Labour MPs, the one Green MP and two Liberal Democrat MPs support the group, while ‘Conservatives for a Republic’ started off in September 2012. The single-issue cause across the political spectrum of replacing the monarchy is difficult to get excited about, though. France and the USA have successfully freed themselves from this feudal leftover, and are they something we want to imitate? Our head of state may be decided by blood, but the American presidency, relying so much on corporations to fund campaigns, is decided by capital. It’s hard to decide which is preferable to live in because political corruption and contradictions between classes function the same. This makes Republic’s “Born Equal” campaign seem very poorly thought through: do republics around the world not have an unequal distribution of wealth and therefore political power as well? In addition to being envious of the States, I’ve also found some republicans trying to relate to the Cromwellian Republic, which is not a good model and provides no useful lessons today.

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ImageJoseph Choonara, author of Unravelling Capitalism, started off my first Marxism festival, with his talk “The rate of profit and capitalism today”. He follows the Financial Times and other financial press very closely, and finds that mainstream debates are usually between austerians and Keynesians. Those in favour of austerity believe that cutting public sector spending is necessary, while Keynesians believe that austerity has gone too far and that public sector spending is needed. This is sometimes called “making capitalism work for socialism”. Joseph argues that, while Keynesian policies are preferable for the working class, neither positions deal with a fundamental global problem: low level of investment. Using statistics on US and European economies, he shows how the long-term tendency is for the return of investment to fall, and how stimulus (like that of 2008) or any other state involvement fails to restore profitability.

These problems are then related to the increase of ‘dead labour’ in ratio to ‘living labour’. That is, technology replacing the need for so many workers. A familiar example is one checkout assistant supervising six self-service checkouts, rather than six workers, each with their own checkout. This is an inevitability, not something that bosses really have a choice in. Given these problems, along with overproduction, isn’t it a surprise that the capitalist mode of production didn’t meet its maker 150 years ago? Choonara explains that crises themselves find ways of restoring capitalism.

Though the terminology was hard to follow at times, the talk contained well-known examples to illustrate points, from the selling off of Woolworths for £10 to the high profitability after the destruction of World War Two. For a beginner in economics, this talk made it clear how concepts that often seem abstract and inconsequential in fact affect our lives and create struggle. An open discussion followed, in which many members of the packed lecture room asked questions on fictional capital, the Labour Party, and one speaker pointed out that 25 families in Greece own 75% of the country’s wealth. On the question of how optimistic socialists should be, Choonara ended the talk by borrowing a phrase from Antonio Gramsci: “Optimism of activity, pessimism of intellect”.

Michael Roberts’ blog was suggested for someone an economist who stands outside of mainstream debate.

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When describing our political positions, Socialist Workers Party members and other international socialists often use the term ‘revolutionary socialist’. It is a useful term as it distinguishes us from left-reformists. By why is ‘communism’ so avoided? Why are we not a more openly ‘communist party’? We agree with Lenin’s understanding of the state, and so socialism is not an end goal for us, but a transitional period: “So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.”

Richard Seymour, in a TV interview on his book Unhitched, said that he calls himself a revolutionary socialist only to disassociate himself from the negative aspects and failures of the Soviet Union. I am a bit more optimistic: eventually, as more people accept that there is alternative to capitalism’s inevitable exploitation and crises, it will become more and more necessary to talk about communism and reclaim the word. So why wait?

One of the many groups that set up a stall outside Marxism 2013 was the Communist Party Imageof Great Britain, from whom I got some great badges. I explained to them this problem and told them that I admired them for using the word openly. On the argument that it is so strongly tied to Stalinism, one member said, “So is socialism. So is Marxism. But we can’t explain what we’re about without them.”

Another group I talked to and took some material from was the International Bolshevik Tendency, often known as ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ for their theory of the USSR as a workers degenerated state, as opposed to the theory of State Capitalism. They describe themselves as Marxists and I asked an IBT activist whether or not his organisation is Marxist-Leninist. He said no, as this term is used mainly by Stalinists. Later in the conversation we talked positively about the application of Lenin’s theories. Like the majority of the SWP, here was a Marxist and a Leninist who couldn’t call himself a Marxist-Leninist! If the experience of Stalinism has proven one thing, and maybe it has only proven one thing, it’s how easy it is to change the meaning or connotation of a word, so I suggest comrades start saying ‘communist’ in more of their political arguments.

A leaflet distributed by the CPGB(M-L) (the M-L stands for More-Letters) first in June 2012 attempts to  briefly explain their position on Trotskyism: why it is anti-Leninist and counterrevolutionary, and why we ought to be Stalinists. [Read here] I don’t know what kind of leafleting session this must have been – in which communities can they go where people have a basic understanding of the concepts involved? More to the point, are there really enough people concerned about these questions to justify a leaflet? This confusion aside, there are some serious flaws with the old arguments presented, and with the assumption that Trotskyism and Leninism are directly opposed.

The writer begins by criticising Leon Trotsky’s most important theoretical contribution: the theory of Permanent Revolution – the theory that socialist revolution must occur in all capitalist countries, not just in one country alone. It is not a proper criticism, as the writer does not start by explaining the argument in favour of the theory. It is worth understanding that Marx and Engels had the same basic idea. One of the earliest expressions of it was in Friedrich Engels’s Principles of Communism, written in 1847. He answers the question of revolution in one country alone by saying:

“By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth… into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others. … It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.”

Marx looked at the Paris Commune of 1871 and said that it could have only lasted if the same revolutionary activity was mirrored in Germany and Prussia. V.I. Lenin also seemed to adopt the theory, and in December 1917 wrote a short article, For Bread and Peace, that ended: “The socialist revolution that has begun in Russia is… only the beginning of the world socialist revolution.” The alternative proposed by Josef Stalin was a theory of Socialism in One Country. (In Isaac Deutscher’s essay on the emergence of the theory, he argues

An almost perfect leaflet from May 2012

An almost perfect leaflet from May 2012

that Stalin formulated it primarily to propose the opposite to Trotsky.) Even in a country that stretched as far as the Soviet Union, it still found itself isolated, surrounded by capitalist hostility. Weak working class leadership around the world and British and American interference combined made this dream impossible, but it is not enough to blame Churchill: the theory itself can’t deal with capitalist hostility. It isn’t a case of “having the temerity to go on and try to build socialism”. This doesn’t mean I cannot oppose imperialism in North Korea or Cuba, just because I don’t share the same optimism about socialism in those countries. In general I have found Trotskyists broadly agree with the aims of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, even if they apply Tony Cliff’s “state capitalist” model to the country. Stalinists today often set up a false dichotomy, that you must support a country absolutely or not at all. You are either with the Free Syrian Army, or you are with Assad, for example.

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Thousands of these posters were stuck on walls and phoneboxes around Paris. Via: http://www.demotix.com/news/2186349/anti-fascist-protest-paris-triggered-death-activist

At the SWP party council on June 2nd, a few of the speakers talked about the weakness of antifascism in France, evidenced by the relative freedom that the Front Nationale have to march around and by the huge right-wing protests against the recent same-sex marriage victory. This serves as an answer to the argument against the stupid idea that if we don’t counter-protest, the EDL etc. will expose themselves as ridiculous. I was in Paris the past weekend and on Sunday, a huge antifascist and anti-capitalist rally marched against the FN and Revolutionary Nationalist Youth, and in memory of the murder of left-wing activist Clement Meric. This should leave anti-racists around the world feeling more optimistic about the role of France while bearing in mind the work they have ahead. The anti-immigrant FN typically achieves 10% or higher in elections and polling. They are not considered extreme by most: after being treated respectfully but moderate parties, their views are merely viewed as a part of valuable discourse. Anti-fascism in France is further complicated by the excessive presence of armed police and military at peaceful protests, and use of police brutality. Among the protesters was the Front de Gauche with their various groups, the Communist Student Union, Venezuela supporters, LGBT campaigners, and some anarchists and syndicalists with their ambiguous flags. It was great to hear L’Internationale sung in full in its original language, but the lack of trade union banners seemed odd.

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32 anti-fascists, mostly local to Thanet, gathered in the Red Hall tonight to discuss the current threat of the far-right and the tasks for UAF. Around fifteen anti-anti-fascists from around Kent disrupted the meeting from outside, but that’s a generous estimate. From what I could see on Facebook, they were a combination of the English Defence League and the more honest Nazis of what remains of the National Front. The speakers were the Labour Councillor Will Scobie for Margate and Cliftonville, Bunny LaRoche (UAF, SWP, Love Music Hate Racism), and Christine Shawcroft from the Labour NEC. After their talks it was an open discussion and many contributed from the floor.

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