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.
Joseph 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.
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 of 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.
Often when I’m doing a Socialist Worker paper sale or a stall for some cause, we will have a petition as well as all our material. Some of these are great and will probably prove to be effective: the petitions against NHS privatisation or the bedroom tax and evictions, for example. The reason these are useful is it because they are unambiguous what their aims and where the petition is going.
But the anti-racist petitions we use, usually provided by Unite Against Fascism, seem to have no purpose. We have collected signatures opposing UKIP, the EDL, and today, “Don’t let the racists divide us.” They are typically very wordy – not ideal for someone who is interested but in a hurry, and do not have an end goal. They are better than nothing as the number of signatures can be used as a statistic, so they are perhaps on the same level as names at the end of a letter of solidarity. But the petitions do not go anywhere and merely bounce around inside the UAF, without a plan or end result. This isn’t much more than a rant, but please try to make your petition as clear and goal-driven as possible.
Based on a talk that I gave to the Kent Socialist Workers Party group. To many people these ideas will be obvious, but sometimes it helps to be reminded of the obvious. References are at the bottom.
There are three main tasks that face a revolutionary socialist party. The first is the SWP’s role, or any socialist party’s role, as an antifascist opposition; second is the importance of education on socialism: this topic is the majority of this article; third is the importance of internationalism and of relating individual struggles, as explained by Duncan Hallas.
At the recent Party Council of the SWP (June 2nd), Weyman Bennett (UAF) made a point about the role of socialists in fighting the far right. Recent experience has shown that social-democracy (that is, introducing socialist politics through reformist methods) in Europe, for example in Sweden, Denmark, and arguably the area controlled by our own Green Party, has shown no opposition to austerity. Many problems and kinds of unrest caused by capitalism make the rise of fascism all the easier. Trotsky in his last article (August 1940), Bonapartism, Fascism, and War gives many examples of these problems but there are three that are most relatable to our current situation: “the gravest crisis of capitalist society; growing confusion and indifference; the growth of hostility to the proletariat”.
I could give specific examples, but they are fairly self-explanatory. The polling strength of the racist Swedish Democrats is the result of scapegoating inequality and other social ills on immigrants. It is quite clear that if the periodical and inevitable crises of capitalism can lead to the popularity of fascist and right-wing populist ideas, a dedicated anti-capitalist party will also be the most effective antifascist party. Left-reformists themselves have a lot to answer for in the rise of the far right. The Labour party has taken a typically conservative stance on immigration, while Ed Milliband expresses his respect for UKIP. All this serves to normalise anti-immigrant hatred.
Last Saturday (June 1st) a small group of British National Party supporters, apparently 150 of them (it looked about 40), had a pen to protest in outside parliament. Across the country on this day there were a total of 55 protests held by the BNP, English Defence League, National Front, and other racists hoping to pass off the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby by an extremist Muslim as representative of Islam, and as the fault of immigration. All but two of these protests were outnumbered by counter-demos, mostly organised by Unite Against Fascism. It was great to see many SWP and ex-SWP members around, as well as our old sign The BNP is a Nazi Party – Smash the BNP. Many members of the Socialist Party were present, as well as Unison and PCS activists.
We managed, by refusing to be moved, to prevent the BNP from marching for five hours (midday to 5pm). When the police managed to get them marching, only 15 of them remained. Some activists against the badger cull managed to finally break them up! Human rights activist Peter Tatchell later recommended on twitter later that UAF use a “sitting protest” rather than the usual “macho methods”. Some of the ‘Anonymous’ protesters tried this, for about five minutes. It is a liberal tactic that achieves nothing more than a chalk drawing of a peace symbol. By allowing the fash to march freely, we would be guilty of giving them a platform. Most of the 58 antifascists who were arrested and dealt with so violently were protesting peacefully and defending democracy. [Relevant reading from ’77: In Defence of Violence]