Swimming against the stream

Submitted by AWL on 9 December, 2016 - 1:34 Author: Todd Hamer

“One of the most outstanding features of Bolshevism has been its severe, exacting, even quarrelsome attitude towards the question of doctrine.” — Leon Trotsky

According to the common sense, the far left is a place where rows over obscure points of dogma lead to endless arguments, fractures and splits. How else to explain the dozens of tiny grouplets claiming to hold the holy grail of revolutionary wisdom? But seen from close quarters, the opposite is the case.

Generally the different organisations on the left keep to themselves. When they do meet they rarely argue about politics. They might argue about organisational matters: shall we elect a steering committee or have a loose network? Shall we hold our demonstration on a Monday or a Tuesday? When politics are mentioned it is usually in the form of political slander.

Workers Liberty is sometimes accused of supporting the Iraq war, Zionism and Islamophobia — all absurd lies designed for sectarian advantage rather than political enlightenment. Workers’ Liberty stands almost alone on the far left as an organisation that revels in political debate to the point of being quarrelsome. Unlike most of the organisations on the left, Workers Liberty insists that its supporters argue publicly for their views, even (and especially) when, they are at odds with the majority line. The organisation energetically seeks out debate not only with the rest of the left but also with the serious right (as evidenced by the debates reprinted in this book). The most ferocious arguments take place within the organisation itself.

The quarrelsome culture of the organisation is no accident. It is something we have learnt from the history of the workers’ movement. The quarrelsome attitude of the Bolsheviks was probably the single most important factor in preventing them from degenerating, like the rest of the socialist movement at that time, into support for imperialist war in 1914. It is also this attitude that allowed Trotsky and his comrades to identify and fight the Stalinist counter-revolution. It is apt therefore that Workers’ Liberty’s new book, Can Socialism Mark Sense? starts with a quarrel between Sean Matgamna and an imaginary bourgeois democrat.

The lines of argument will be familiar to anyone who ever argued for socialist politics. The text not only gives a good introduction to socialist thought but is also a training manual for how to carry out socialist education. All of Matgamna’s polemic rests on a detailed understanding of history that cuts through and exposes the myths that compromise mainstream “common sense”. Capitalism is a conflict between two great classes — the workers (proletariat) and the capitalists (bourgeoisie).

Under capitalism, workers organise for their own collective interests in trade unions and political parties. “Within these organisations a struggle takes place between the ideas that represent the historic interests of the proletariat — Marxism — and the ideas of the bourgeoisie” (p.337).

The level of organisation and political culture in the workers’ movement ebbs and flows as our movement wins partial victories and suffers defeats. The past three decades have been a time of decline and defeat for the working-class in Britain and across the world. Matgamna and his comrades in the AWL have kept the Marxist tradition alive during this long period of defeat through the routines of educating, agitating and organising and through maintaining their quarrelsome culture. As the early Trotskyists before them, the AWL has learnt “not to fall into despair over the fact the laws of history do not depend on their individual tastes and are not subordinated to their own moral criteria... They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore” (p.229).

With the Corbyn surge and similar movements elsewhere, there are signs of a shifting tide if not a full flood. The success or failure of these movements to win socialism will depend on the degree to which these revolutionary ideas gain mass appeal. There is much work to be done.

Paraphrasing Marx, Matgamna argues “Human beings make their own history, but in conditions they do not choose and usually do not understand... Socialism is about overcoming that limit and introducing conscious control by humanity of itself and its societies. A Marxist party that knows history, knows the experience of the working-class, and knows the options in a given situation, can make the difference between a mass movement blundering into an outcome it would not choose and the same movement achieving the goals it sets itself.” (p.357-8)

The AWL has spent many years studying, debating and interrogating the history of the movement and this book is a condensation of that painstaking work. It is an attempt, albeit a humble attempt, to do what Engels’ Socialism Utopian and Scientific (included in this volume) did for the early Marxist movement. Engels’ short pamphlet outsold everything else that Marx and Engels wrote during their lifetime. It was translated into 10 different languages within the first few years of publication. It was the pamphlet that helped transform the small circles of socialist workers into mass parties across Europe. Within its pages it describes a vast vision of world history and places the reader, the socialist activist, at the fulcrum of that history with a mission to spread this knowledge and hasten the socialist revolution. This knowledge of human history (itself something that has only become available due to the scientific and material advances of capitalism) is for Marxists the weapon that will allow the working-class to prosecute the class struggle and bring about the socialist future. As Matgamna explains: “[The natural condition of the working class] is to be dominated by the ideas of the ruling class.” (p.337)

Part of the struggle that confronts socialists in the 21st century is a superficial, commodified understanding of history viewed through TV, internet and the heritage industry. As one commentator put it, history nowadays is more “costume dramas and reenactment than critical discourse”. The importance of this book is that it presents a deeply serious and critical history as both an accessible argument that cuts through the dominant ideas of the ruling class and as a method of “how we can map the way from capitalist neo-barbarism to human liberation”. Matgamna explains that it is only by understanding this history and rooting ourselves in this tradition that we can hope to have the critical understanding to bring about revolutionary change. During the argument with the bourgeois democrat he argues: “we can give a precise account of the evolution of our ideas. You can’t give a true account of the evolution of your bourgeois ideas on democracy.”

Equally this charge can be levelled at much of the left today who are blissfully unaware of the fact that their ideas owe much to Stalin’s printing presses. “Today socialists must live and do their political work amidst the ideological ruins, the discouragement, the revulsion, and the poisonous ideological vapours that constituted the legacy of Stalinism”. (p.16) Only by understanding the history of ideas and developing an exacting, interrogating attitude to our own tradition (and the world about us) can we hope to slough off the poison of Stalinism that has dominated the labour movement in the 20th century.

The book includes a number of articles by Trotsky and his followers that tackle the key myth that Stalinism and Marxism are the same thing and that any future attempt at replacing capitalism with socialism will result in totalitarianism. As Matgamna points out, “the defenders of capitalism take over, turn around, and use for their own purposes the great lie of the Stalinists. Stalinism, they say, was socialism; Stalinism was Bolshevism; the Stalinist states were Marxism come to life — and therefore socialism, Bolshevism and Marxism are now deservedly dead and rotting. This is the United Front of the Liars against Socialism.” (p.17) The book outlines the history in great detail showing how Stalinism grew as an unexpected counter-revolutionary force from an isolated workers’ revolution in a poor, besieged and war-torn country.

To use the scarecrow of Stalinism to claim that capitalism is the “best of all worlds possible” is cripplingly self-limiting and potentially catastrophic. The world’s immense productive forces are the private property of individuals, used and manipulated for private self-enrichment. “We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labour — not by force, but on the whole by faithful compliance with legally established rules” (p.308, Einstein). Matgamna (p. 108) compares this system to a form of cannibalism “What else is it to take someone’s active life, qualities and potential, and to use them to make money for yourself?” The result is an epidemic of mental illness, loneliness, death from overwork and grotesque health inequalities (p. 163-7).

Human misery aside, the economic dictatorship of capital is destroying the ecological foundations of our civilisation. An extraordinary potential now exists to create the classless society. But this potential is dependent on us acting quickly before ecological ruination leads to social regression. “There is a serious possibility that capitalism, which first opened up the socialist “option” in history, shifted it from wishful aspiration to practical possibility, will close it again by way of doing irreparable damage to the ecological system on which humankind depends.” (p.126)

Socialism can only be built on a material foundation of relative abundance. Martin Thomas suggests that capitalist technological advances mean that all the necessities of life — food, clothing, housing — can be produced with just 20% of the total labour time of society (p.163). However the floods, droughts, pestilence and species extinction promised by climate change mean that today’s relative abundance is under threat. There is an urgent need to take the world’s productive forces — the factories, mines, power stations — under democratic control, rather than allow them to be the private playthings of the world’s super-rich.

The seizure of the means of production, under democratic social control is well within the capacity of the international working class. Without workers stoking the power stations, digging the mines, superintending machines, nothing moves and capitalists are powerless. But how do workers come to an understanding of their situation and take power? The quarrelsome structure of the book suggests an answer.

Matgamna, at root, is a radical democrat, in favour not just of the shallow parliamentary democracy but of thoroughgoing economic democracy. All the writers in this collection exude the belief that working-class people have the capacity for self-liberation. In the final analysis, this is a belief that our movement can come to an adequate political understanding, cleansed on bourgeois and Stalinist ideology, through a process of unending criticism, debate and discussion.

Some people will not have the stamina or commitment for such debate. But those who do should join the AWL, and “make a merciless criticism of the economic, political historical, philosophical, moral and religious ideas of the capitalist class in order to prepare in all spheres of thought the triumph of the new ideology which the proletariat introduces into the world” (p.304).

The alternative is to allow capitalist society to make us obedient wage slaves at work and passive consumers in our free time. Socialism offers a more purposeful existence, one in which we can challenge the powerful and set our shoulders to the wheel of history for the greatest cause in history — the creation of a classless society. In Matgamna’s (p.371) words: “We will cease to exist very quickly, all too quickly, and we become conscious of the reality that our lives are fundamentally tragic. But what do you conclude from that? Do you conclude that nothing of importance?... What you do say if you’re a reasonable being is that you make this life better, not just better in the sense of better for yourself, but better for human beings in general. You transform this life.”

• Read more reviews of Can Socialism Make Sense? and order the book online here