Party, Programme and Practice

Reply to the RCIT – 1

Correcting Errors Trotskyism inherited from the Third International

The following is the first of two replies to comrades from the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, a international grouping of Trotskyists from various traditions, which is a split from the international tendency around the British Workers Power Group, the League for the Fifth International. This tendency has also the adherence of an Israeli grouping, the International Socialist League, whose main leader, Yossi, has a long and complex history of associations, including with the Spartacists, the Grant/Woods tendency, and the US League for the Revolutionary Party.

This first item tries to address, among other things, the flaws in contemporary communism that have led to such a dazzling array of splits, which itself is deeply damaging to the left. The second item takes up some of their positions on Israel and its relationship with US imperialism and its other imperialist allies, and has particular relevance to the views of their Israeli group.

For space reasons, in the hard copy version of Communist Explorations, the original letters from the RCIT were not included. They are included as addendums to the articles here.

Regarding the Anti-Imperialist United Front, I think that what your analysis misses is the development of the Communist position on imperialism and Permanent Revolution. When Trotsky formulated the perspective of Permanent Revolution in his essay Results and Prospects, he conceived it as something specific to Russia, not as a generalised strategy for revolution in backward countries. Only the experience of the Chinese Revolution of 1926-7 led Trotsky to generalise the perspective of Permanent Revolution to the entire colonial and semi-colonial world, saying that only the proletariat in power could really achieve democracy and national independence.

But that leaves the early Comintern perspectives on the national and colonial question in a kind of programmatic limbo. For they were clearly not based on the programme of Permanent Revolution. Neither the words nor the substance are present in these theses and documents. Indeed it would be ahistorical and strange to expect them to be so, as the historical tests that led to the generalisation of Permanent Revolution had not yet occurred. But it also follows that the perspectives that were put forward in those days would be most unlikely to coincide with Permanent Revolution, and must therefore be regarded very critically. The AIUF in my view is ambiguous about whether it is merely a practical bloc for struggle, or a political bloc, and about the ends and limits of such blocs. That is the import of Lenin’s algebraic formulations, they leave open the character of such blocs, whereas Permanent Revolution closes it.

I agree that labour bureaucracies even in semi-colonies are petit-bourgeois and nationalist, and that is also true of migrant organisations in Western countries – such as Austria and indeed the UK. At the same time they are both part of, and reflect more widely, the radicalism and the illusions of the masses who comprise their social base. They are not always differentiated. I am not in favour of sectarian abstention from such struggles, I have been involved, for quite a period for instance, in the Respect organisation in the UK which is a bloc of part of the ex-Labour and far left, with radicalised elements of the Pakistani and Bengali immigrant communities, a mixture of workers and radicalised petty-bourgeois types.

My disagreement is not with unity with such people in struggle, but with ambiguity over the historical perspective put forward to them. I don’t rule out winning over wide layers of those involved in these battles to communism, but it is important that what you seek to win them to is sufficiently clear in class terms, i.e. that the working class, and only the working class, can really solve the democratic questions by taking power as a class.

I am indeed critical of the mostly white character of much of the left today. I don’t think it is possible by voluntarist means to recruit minorities; rather, the problem is the failure of the left to put forward perspectives that can actually draw in such minorities to become active participants in the left. Respect for me was a key episode in this failure, with the hostility of much of the left to possibly the most significant political blow against a major war, struck by an oppressed minority, in British history, being an index of its arrogance.

I am not sure we entirely agree on Ukraine. I cannot be defeatist on all sides in this conflict, as the defeat of the Russophone side would mean that they would be subject to oppression.  That does not imply support for Russia-based forces who are simply in favour of annexation and have Great- Russian nationalist politics, I do not support their project, but that does not mean that the Russophone struggle for whatever degree of self-determination they want is itself reactionary.

Russia is a less powerful imperialist power, but Ukraine is now a proxy for the United States and in this conflict it is the inhabitants of the Russian-speaking areas that face oppression, not the Ukrainians. I do not think it is impossible for the inhabitants or expats of imperialist countries to be subjected to national oppression; that is one of the complexities of our time that the Communist movement has not fully dealt with, and which I also tried to address in my article on Early 20th Century Communism.

On China, I tend to agree that it is tending to become a new imperialist power; its investment activities in Africa and its conflicts with its neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines point to that. It my view that is a logical extension of the strategy of the Stalinist regent class in laying the basis for a viable capitalism in China, though the different phases of capitalist development instituted under Mao and Deng.

Regarding the Daum book, I do see this as having some importance, though it should not be a barrier to close political collaboration. I am familiar with the Workers Power book on the Degenerated Revolution and I do not have a favourable opinion of it. I will return to some of the reasons why in the context of discussing the Party Question. I need to read more of your material particular on China, Cuba, North Korea before saying much more, as I have not had time to evaluate this yet.

I consider that building a party today involves sufficient agreement to allow for acceptance of a common programme based on the key strategic question of the epoch. Acceptance should not mean obligatory agreement; if it did so, the organisation would contain a contradiction that would gradually undermine both its coherence and its internal democracy, as no programmatic documents can perfectly reflect reality and not need regular revision.

I think the desire for a politically homogenous organisation is perfectly compatible with the right to publicly disagree with a wrong political line, if it is held by the majority of a particular organisation at a particular time. For real homogeneity can only result from overcoming rival, ultimately non-Marxist (in their implication) trends politically, not merely by formal separation.

The key reason why the right of public criticism is essential is because of the issue of so-called ‘double recruitment’. If the majority of an organisation is stubbornly wrong, the mere possession of a numerical majority gives it the right to gag a minority that is actually correct, so that the minority cannot win new forces for its ideas without splitting away to form a separate organisation. Better to be able to stay, fight, and not split, and hopefully a new and stronger synthesis will result. This does not preclude real principled splits, by the way, just unnecessary splits caused by a flawed organisational method.

I do agree that the CPGB have become a sect. Increasingly they are being forced to abandon this ethos, and refuse to engage in proper debate, etc. as that degeneration progresses. But that derives from non-Marxist eclectic elements in their politics, not the norm of the right to criticism, which as I understand it was the practice of the Bolsheviks prior to 1917. Some example, the extensive exchanges between Lenin, Bukharin, Pyatakov, etc on ‘imperialist economism’, which were between members of the Bolshevik faction and were fought out in published articles and pamphlets prior to October. Or there is Lenin’s dispute with Bogdanov and his co-thinker ‘god-builders’ – also part of the Bolsheviks, not merely the RSDLP – which resulted in Lenin’s pamphlet Materialism and Emprio-Criticism. These are but two examples, there are many more than can be gleaned from Lenin’s Collected Works.

I think the post-1917 Comintern mechanically introduced a model of ‘democratic centralism’ which was not actually practiced by the Bolsheviks, and which was evidently unsuitable to the world of the rise of Stalinism and other more complex and problematic developments that would inevitably and naturally give rise to many major disagreements in struggling to analyse them, which the Comintern model could not cope with. The Trotskyist movement, which honestly tried to apply these norms, suffered the most from them with perpetual fragmentation, expulsions, splits, and no real clarity.

You write the following:

“Of course we are in favor of open discussions INSIDE the organization. But we don’t view the individual as equally or even more important than the collective. To be more precise we don’t see the individual party member as a pure individual but rather as a part of the collective. We don’t see the advantage of a minority in appealing to a politically confused, non-revolutionary public after it failed to convince the majority of the organization. Why do you see it as more important for a minority to appeal against the majority to a non-revolutionary public opinion instead of subordinating to the majority and helping the collective to implement its decision in the most effective possible way?

“Does this mean that we are opposed to public debates of internal differences in all circumstances? No, we are not. This depends on the issue. As a general rule I would say that issues which have a more abstract character, which are not related to burning issues of the present class struggle, can be debated in public IF the organization agrees on this and IF its thinks that this could have a positive, educational effect. This has to be concretely discussed and decided by the organization in each case.”

The problem with this, in my view, is the conception that those outside the collective are simply a ‘confused, non-revolutionary public’. This has to be concretely demonstrated. Nor can it be taken as read that the majority of a given organization is revolutionary. In practice, what often happens is that formal rules of Comintern style ‘democratic centralism’ are used to exclude from discussions people outside who are on a similar political level to those inside the party, but may have serious criticisms of the majority, which may actually be correct criticisms. That is the result of this kind of political setup In my experience.

The idea that only ‘abstract’ questions should be debated publicly is also problematic. What is the point of debating abstract questions that are not related to struggles that are important today? And how would participation in such ‘abstract’ debates have a more educational effect on the party’s periphery, or perhaps revolutionary minded factional opponents, than a concrete debate on very non-abstract, burning questions of the movement? Such as are included in many of Lenin’s published pamphlets in such debates, which were not hidden in internal bulletins and the like?

I do not find your criticism of me in this sense to be challenging, as it is based on a misconception of what I was doing in my bloc with the CPGB in the Communist Platform. My aim in this bloc was not a non-aggression pact, but rather to test out whether they were really serious about their party project. That is, to test them, by using the methods they publicly advocated as models of how to function, but with my revolutionary political views, not their centrist ones, criticizing their weaknesses. Using those channels to prove in practice whether they would adhere to their claimed principles and allow a serious debate and rectification of their organization, or whether they would break their own rules and thereby sully their project.

I was indeed a member, and briefly part of their leadership, in the early 2000s. I left after rather a bad experience. But having clarified the political nature of that experience, I was in a much better position to take the fight to them in the later bloc. This time, far from me walking away from them not understanding the nature of the witch-hunt against me, they had to get rid of me in a manner that made them virtually naked in political terms.

The other point I make about the problematic nature of bans on public debates of non-abstract differences in would-be Marxist organization is that there is another possible problem that can result, apart from the rigid gagging of minorities that may be right, and thereby inevitable splits.

The other, opposite problem that can occur is a kind of cliquism based on compromise, and producing a public line that is composited between different trends. That is my view of Workers Power’s book The Degenerated Revolution, which was first published in 1982. It contains a very tortured set of theories that contained different elements that came from different internal trends. It is well known that WP was originally state-capitalist, and that in 1980 it changed its position to an ‘orthodox’ degenerated workers state position on the USSR and its clones and satellites.

Dave Hughes, the leader of the dominant ‘orthodox’ trend in WP, died in 1991. But even between those years, there was a trend led by Keith Hassell, as I understand, that though they too no longer formally advocated state-capitalism, nevertheless were politically quite distant from Hughes and tended to be much softer on third-camp trends outside the organization, even including the Matgamnaites. A lot of the theoretical material on Stalinsm in the Degenerated Revolution is, as I recollect, very hard to follow and abstract, precisely because it was written to accommodate both trends and does not fully reflect the views of either.

I have little doubt that such fudges in theory played a role in the eventual decline and splintering of Workers Power and the retreat of many of them from their initial revolutionary aims. I also suspect that if the different trends had been able to debate each other openly and in public, drawing in insights from elsewhere among those who seek to apply Marxism, there could have been a different dynamic and outcome, some clarity and political development, instead of fuzziness, fudges and eventual decline.

I’m all in favour of developing a high level of programmatic agreement, and driving effective intervention in the class struggle through that, but I would argue that the best way to do it is the way Lenin and the Bolsheviks did it before 1917, not the way the Comintern tried and failed to do so in the early 1920s (I am making no analogies with Stalinism here, by the way, that was something else entirely). The successors of the Comintern in this regard were the post war Trotskyist movement, for whom the model by which Lenin failed to build a durable international were even less help in solving the complex problems of Stalinism, imperialism, guerillaism, Zionism, etc etc.

Addendum: Letter from the RCIT

17/03/2015

Thanks for your detailed and interesting letter in which you elaborated a number of your ideas. We discussed your letter in our International Secretariat and I want to express our views in the following paragraphs. We also forwarded your letter to the leading comrades of our Palestine/Israeli section and asked them in particular on their views on your conception of the Jewish question. I will therefore leave this issue out of this letter. We will reply on the Jewish question in a separate letter in the next 1-2 days.

We see broad agreement between us on a number of your positions. First we seem to share an anti-imperialist position in that sense that we support the practical resistance struggle of oppressed nations – even if they are led by Islamists or other petty-bourgeois or bourgeois forces – against imperialism or their lackeys. Since we consider this issue as a crucial issue for revolutionary strategy in the present period – as you can see from various RCIT documents – and since we are aware that most who consider themselves as Marxists fail in this regard, we think that this is a highly important agreement. The imperialist war offensive in the Middle East is one of the most important issues of the present world situation.

I do not want to hide that I think that some of your theoretical consideration about this issue as elaborated in your document “Early 20th Century Communism v Imperialism: Some strengths and weaknesses” are either wrong or misleading. I think you wrongly criticize the Comintern’s and Lenin’s conception of the Anti-Imperialist United Front. Yes, the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois leaderships will always try to hinder the communists work. But the same is true for the labor bureaucrats! By the way: the labor bureaucracy also has a petty-bourgeois – not a proletarian – class character. We consider this not only as an important theoretical issue but one which has relevant consequences for our practical work. Our section in Pakistan is confronted with the issue of united front work with petty-bourgeois nationalist organizations amongst the oppressed nations of its country; our comrades in Palestine/Israeli are faced with such issues when they collaborate with Palestinian parties like Balad or the newly formed United List; and the Austrian section is confronted with this issue since more than one and a half decades in their anti-imperialist work with migrant organizations. I also think that you wrongly accuse Lenin of misleading formulations when they are rather clear and straightforward. However, we see first the agreement on the need to actively support the resistance forces (without giving political support) against the imperialists and this is something which most of the social-imperialist left is failing. May be we can continue the discussion about the potential disagreements when we meet in London or at an earlier opportunity.

Equally we seem to agree on the important Charlie Hebdo issue.

We also seem to agree on the important issue of the oppression and super-exploitation of migrants and the importance for a revolutionary organization to build amongst the oppressed layers. Is it also correct to say that we agree on criticizing the centrist left for being dominated by white people (often with a disproportionately high share of middle class people)?

We also seem to agree on the imperialist character of Russia and the need to take a defeatist position in the Ukrainian civil war (albeit we think that the uprising in the East had at the beginning a just, popular and spontaneous character and was later, in the summer of 2014, hijacked by Russian imperialism). What is your position on China? As you can see from our study on this issue we consider it as an emerging imperialist power.

We also seem to agree on critical support for SYRIZA at the elections while warning against the treacherous nature of the Tsipras leadership.

Similar we seem to agree on opposing the petty-bourgeois capitulation of many leftists on the Assange issue.

Where do we see major disagreements? First we are opposed to the theory of state capitalism as an explanation for the Stalinist states – be it the Walter Daum or the Tony Cliff version. Capitalism can not exist without capital. Capital can not exist without capitalist value. Capitalist value can only be produced and realized in a generalized social mode of production. This includes the (relative) free movement of capital in order to create an average rate of profit. It also includes the possibility for capital to (relative) “freely” move labor forces, i.e. to sack them etc. All this did not exist in the Stalinist states. (As you might know we have elaborated this in our old Workers Power book “The Degenerated Revolution” and have also written a critique of Walter Daum’s book.)

However we think that building a revolutionary organization today necessitates agreement on the program for the current historic period. We don’t think that it is obligatory to agree on all issues which arose in the history of the workers movement. Since the Stalinist states nearly everywhere have become history, we consider this not as a crucial issue for the class struggle today.

What I see as the most important difference is your attitude on the party question. You seem to favor building a pluralist “Marxist” organization in opposite to a programmatically homogenous organization (which you characterize as a “sect”). I understand, correct me if I am wrong, that while you were not a member of the CPGB in the recent period, you were a member even of its leadership in the early 2000s (see Debate: Not a matter of style, http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1001/debate-not-a-matter-of-style/). And in your letter you praised them for “their claimed project of building a Marxist party that is not a sect, where programmatic disagreements can be openly aired and debated”.

In fact, I would say that the CPGB was and is a particularly pathetic form of a sect. Leaving aside its appetite for discussing all possible gossip of the left, it’s main activity is publishing a paper. But the CPGB undertakes, from what I know, hardly any intervention in the class struggle nor any exemplary mass work. If one has such a conception of a party (I use here “party” also for “pre-party organization” which is the stage we are currently in), one can of course enjoy all forms of programmatic pluralism in one and the same organization. At least you have with such a conception something to report about in your paper! Given that you don’t do more than selling the paper and going to left-wing meetings in order to discuss your ideas, your “pluralism” has no consequences for this kind of work.

But for Bolshevik pre-party organizations like ours the main purpose of internal discussions is to inform the collective decision and then to go out and implement them. For this you need the highest possible unity in agitation, propaganda and action. (You can inform yourselves about our exemplary mass work via te numerous reports, photos and videos on our website.)

Your experience with the CPGB is a living example for this position! What is the purpose of being in the same organization with semi-Zionists and people who fail to take a consistent position on the issue of anti-imperialist resistance?! What is the purpose to be in an organization which you yourselves characterize as centrist and white dominated? What can you achieve with such people?! One can only afford this if one’s politics is restricted to discuss about issues and write about them (and your inner-party differences) in the paper. But if you participate in the class struggle and in real movements of workers and migrants, you are paralyzed or strongly hindered if you have differences on issues of principle. Where is the advantage of this conception? For people like us who view exemplary mass work as a key component of the revolutionary work and who view agitation and propaganda as a form of ideological class struggle, there is clearly a disadvantage of such a conception.

Of course we are in favor of open discussions INSIDE the organization. But we don’t view the individual as equally or even more important than the collective. To be more precise we don’t see the individual party member as a pure individual but rather as a part of the collective. We don’t see the advantage of a minority in appealing to a politically confused, non-revolutionary public after it failed to convince the majority of the organization. Why do you see it as more important for a minority to appeal against the majority to a non-revolutionary public opinion instead of subordinating to the majority and helping the collective to implement its decision in the most effective possible way?

Does this mean that we are opposed to public debates of internal differences in all circumstances? No, we are not. This depends on the issue. As a general rule I would say that issues which have a more abstract character, which are not related to burning issues of the present class struggle, can be debated in public IF the organization agrees on this and IF its thinks that this could have a positive, educational effect. This has to be concretely discussed and decided by the organization in each case.

This brings me to the issue of what do you want? You are obviously a smart and experienced comrade who can think, argue and write. But allow me to openly express my fear that you might look for a pluralistic “Marxist” organization in which – and in which’s paper – you can air all your ideas and that’s it. I fear that this could be more attractive to you instead of an organization with which you have a high level of programmatic agreement and where you help with all your skills to make the organization as effective as possible to agitate, propagate and organize amongst the workers and oppressed? May be my criticism is unfair and in such a case I would happily retract it. In such a case I would love to withdraw such a criticism because it could be the beginning of a discussion how concretely you and us could build a revolutionary organization in Britain and internationally.

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