The slow suicide of the left

Submitted by Anon on 18 August, 2006 - 4:35

BY THOMAS CAROLAN

This article will do no more than tabulate some of the symptoms and some of the causes of the political and moral chaos that has engulfed the erstwhile “revolutionary left”. In pursuit of “anti-imperialism” the most numerous force on the left — the SWP — is now in close alliance and makes solidarity with clerical-fascists such as Hamas and Hizbollah.

The twentieth century dealt shattering blows to what positively the left used to represent. Now history has turned much of the left into something defined/self-defined only by negativism towards the existing capitalist society. The result is a left akin to anarchism in its negativism and even nihilism.

Except that for the present pseudo-left, in contrast to anarchists, it is not all-embracing negativism: for forces challenging the advanced “capitalism-imperialism” which dominates the world, blind negativism turns into its opposite: fervent, credulous, uncritical support even for blatant reaction against “imperialism”: the result is a reactionary anti-imperialism. Regression to the sort of primitive socialist politics against which Marx and Engels polemicised in The Communist Manifesto.

Reactionary anti-imperialism

THIS is a direct product of the predominant “left” all-shaping negativism towards advanced capitalism. A fundamental distinction between Marxist socialism and all the many and varied critics of capitalism, or of aspects of capitalism, is our alternative to capitalism-imperialism and our conception of the necessary relationship of advanced capitalism to our working-class socialism. And of the relationship of the conquests of bourgeois civilisation to the socialist civilisation we would replace it by.

Advanced capitalism is the irreplaceable mother of a socialism that is made possible only because capitalism has created a mass proletariat and, created a means of production which, liberated of the drives, mainsprings and unreason of capitalism can create abundance for all in the basics of life.

Our alternative to capitalism is a socialism that retains, spreads and deepens the conquests of bourgeois civilisation from the Renaissance and earlier. These include rational, true, critical, realistic assessments of our world, of our alternative to capitalism, of ourselves.

When, in continuity with the anti-imperialism of early twentieth century Marxism and communism, we support even the most undeveloped victims of capitalism against their advanced capitalist-imperialist conquerors, would-be conquerors, maltreaters and exploiters – when for example the Italians invaded Ethopia in 1935 – we do not adapt, and still less do we idealise, such societies and the dominant view of the world there, and counterpose that to advanced capitalism. We do it from our own viewpoint on history, on advanced capitalism, and on what programmatically we fight for.

Here we are never cultural, economic or historical relativists.

Nor do we counterpose to the imperialism we fight, earlier, preceding stages of capitalism itself. In his 1916 book on imperialism Lenin dealt with the various sorts of anti-imperialism – petty-bourgeois etc. Lenin following the model of The Communist Manifesto, which listed and analysed other sorts of socialism, listed other sorts of anti-imperialism, including those who wanted to run the film of capitalism back to irrecoverable stages on its road to becoming capitalist imperialism, who were, reactionary petit bourgeois anti-imperialists.

Those who uphold reactionary anti-imperialism on the left conflate the old communist policy of backing even the most backward targets of colonial imperialism, with backing what they are, and idealising and glorifying it, and accepting it as a viable programmatic alternative to capitalism.

The relationship to political Islam, that is to clerical fascism, and the political self-merging with it, and to countries ruled by clerical fascists, is the clearest and most terrible example here.

The Communist International and the Fourth International of Trotsky, and for a very long time after Trotsky, despite its political decrepitude, never did that. Never abandoned our own viewpoint, including our critical attitude, and political war against, other than communist working-class criticism, of imperialism. The clearest example here is the example of Trotsky and his comrades to Stalinism.

This was seen as an alternative to capitalism and capitalist imperialism, but as neither an adequate, nor a viable alternative. Stalinist imperialism was not properly named as such by Trotsky and his comrades, but it was properly described, and to it was counterposed our own programmatic alternative to Stalinist imperialism. The Stalinist oppression of nations (see for example Trotsky’s writings on independence for the Ukrainian nation, oppressed by Great Russian Stalinist chauvinism) was defined and denounced and a programme for opposing Russian imperialism propounded.

Those “Trotskyists” who did identify with Stalinist anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism ceased to be revolutionary proletarian socialists, that is, Trotskyists.

For the political self-merging of the kitsch left with clerical fascism — with clerical fascism! — counterposing not our programme against capitalist imperialism and everything else, but various sorts of backwardness to the most advanced capitalism, the historical parallel with those “Trotskyists” who identified themselves with Stalinism because it was an alternative to capitalism is, of all the possible examples the most striking.

Bad peoples

An aspect of “regressive anti-imperialism” is the operational acceptance by the kitsch left that there are, politically speaking anyway, “bad peoples” — though that expression is never used — who are undeserving of rights as a people or nation as a result of the actions of their governments’, or their alliance with imperialism, or as a result of their origins. This is counterposed to the Marxist programme of uniting the working class of all countries, of imperialist countries and countries that are victims of imperialism alike, on a basis of mutual acceptance and a common struggle to remake the world.

Israel

The most terrible example of labelling bad peoples is the predominant attitude towards Israel (whether this grew out of reactionary anti-imperialism or out of the history of the Trotskyist movement is an important question which we will not pursue here). Sixty years after the proclamation of the state of Israel the kitsch revolutionary left in Britain proposes that it must be destroyed as a Jewish state, and those who would do that by war and conquest, the only way it could be done, must be supported, even the most reactionary of them.

This is wrapped up in seemingly benign formulae — such as a “secular democratic state of Jews and Arabs to replace Israel” – formulae which require either the Israeli majority to abolish their state peacefully, or forcefully be dissolved. This is a core aspect — and historically it may be the primary root — of “reactionary anti-imperialism” now — supporting and advocating the destruction of one nation by others; counterposing to the obnoxious aspects of Israel not working-class unity across the Jewish and Arab national divisions but the destruction of the “bad people” hypocritically dressed up as support for an impossible secular democratic state.

A notable characteristic of the post-Trotsky revolutionary left has been the de facto anti-semitism in which Israel is to imperialism what in the older anti-semitism, the “socialism of fools”, the Jews were seen as having to capitalism.

Loss of the historical perspective of Marxism

There were communists before Marx and Engels. In France in the first half of the nineteenth century (and up to the Commune of 1871 in fact). These were pre-Marxist communists such as Auguste Blanqui (for whom Marx and Engels had great and well-deserved respect).

Their idea of the road to communist revolution was that whenever the revolutionary communist secret society had enough guns, gunpowder and fighters to rise in rebellion, they would do that at the first politically favourable moment. They had no idea of the necessary evolution of capitalist society, and its means of production, as the irreplaceable ground-preparer for socialism; no idea of the necessity of the social, intellectual and political preparation of the proletariat that by both capitalist evolution and communist education and organisational work; to make it able to seize power in capitalist society.

These “evolutionary” aspects of modern communism, together with an analysis of capitalist society, of capitalism’s place in the sequence of historical class societies, and of the mechanism of the exploitation of the working-class within the seemingly equal and voluntary labour-capital transaction in capitalist society – these were the contributions of Marx and Engels and their school of politics. It has largely been lost by the kitsch left. And this loss is a precondition for the dominant reactionary anti-imperialism.

Here the would-be Marxist left are victims of our own failure to come to terms with our own history in the mid-twentieth century. Capitalism did break down into protracted crisis (1914-c.1950); the opportunity for the working-class to replace capitalist rule with their own rule did exist in “the epoch of wars and revolutions”. But the working-class was defeated for various reasons and on a variety of fronts, which we will not explore here. Capitalism revived; it eventually overwhelmed, in economic, military and political competition, the aberrant, historically marginal/freakish Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism which in the mid-twentieth century had seemed to many to be the alternative to capitalism.

The great and prolonged crisis of capitalism in the twentieth century properly roused revolutionary Marxists to the idea that the era of peaceful capitalist development and progress were over — “the point was to change it”, to overthrow it.

This idea persisted long after the crisis that generated it was over — kept in place by the dominant post-Trotsky Trotskyist idea that the Stalinist states were “post-capitalist” and the deformed embodiment of a distorted proletarian world revolution – and the proof that it was still “the age of wars and revolutions”, despite capitalist revival and prosperity in the most advanced countries.

It generated in the Trotskysant left many aberrations, of which the one which concerns us here is the one that bred something like a modern equivalent of the idea of the pre-Marx utopian socialists who saw socialism as a good idea, one that could equally have emerged in any period of history and one which, once discovered and propagated, needed only to conquer enough minds to be immediately realisable.

To an enormous extent, the twentieth century crisis of capitalism (and the failure of the left) knocked the “evolutionary flow” which Marx and Engels gave to communism out of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. This is one of the roots of reactionary anti-imperialism.

Irrationality

Marxism is rational. Dialectics is rational – the logic of reality which evolves, permutes, constantly changes. The programme of communism is rational: it gathers together into coherent programme and policy the underlying collectivist trends in the development of capitalism; it advocates the replacement of the half-blind and blind market processes of capitalism with conscious human control, subordinating everything, including market forces, to rational planning for conscious, democratically decided human purposes.

Marxism is rational, and is distinguished from millenarianism in its conception of ends and means – the means to the end defined above is the proletariat, educated, organised, self-prepared for self-liberation from capitalist slavery.

The Marxists proclaimed in 1914, with the opening of the First World War, and after, that the epoch of the replacement of capitalism with socialism was at hand if the working-class and its movement would prove adequate to its own means and possibilities. Opposition to imperialism was and is rational, socialist and working-class.

In the kitsch left all that is replaced by negativism no matter what, negativism disjunctured from rational assessment and from all concern with whether the negation will provide something better than capitalism and imperialism; by a prolonged cutting-loose from notions of social and political evolution, development, preparation of the working-class etc.; by contagion spread from the notion that Stalinism was a progressive alternative to capitalism into for example, Islamic clerical fascism.

Such views, such an approach, are made possible only by a series of mental self-manipulations and such characteristic notions that what exists is less important, less real, than what it can be construed as evolving into: the distorting and mirage-like mystifying obtrusion of an imagined future into a best-scenario view of the present, of what is real.

The structure and procedures of Marxist organisation was rational. It has been replaced by Stalinist bureaucratic centralism; in the revolutionary left it has been replaced by cults and sects whose ways are akin to those of the Catholic Church – Papal authority and the prohibition of all thinking outside a very narrow elite. It is this reality , the very condition of unreason which has dominated the kitsch left for a very long time, which makes possible the very diseases outlined above.

This is the unreason of politically self-mutilated militants who surrender their consciousness to “the Party” and its leaders; who substitute a fetish, “the Party”, for the rational goal of socialism, by which everything – for example “anti-imperialism” must properly be judged.

The case of the EU

One of the oldest and clearest examples of the traits analysed above is the kitsch left consensus against the European Union. The Socialist United States of Europe has been part of our programme since World War One showed the bloody bankruptcy of the European state system (and indeed before that). One consequence of the multifarious defeats of communism was that the working class did not unite Europe.

After the Second World War, the bourgeoisie, faced with the looming power of Stalinist Russia, looked to unite Europe in their own bourgeois-bureaucratic way, taking as their model the Zollverein, the customs union set up after the Napoleonic Wars, by the myriad small German states, which over decades prepared the way for the unification of most of Germany half a century later. The socialists and the labour movement could not be consonant with our own history and oppose the unification of Europe – the alternative to which was the old state system – even by the bourgeoisie.

Within the bourgeois-dominated unification moves we, of course, had our own programme – working-class unity across the fading frontiers; campaigning for democratic structures and procedures. The Stalinists, reflecting Russian alarm at moves towards European unification, opposed the Common Market/EC. So did the right-wing social-democrats like Hugh Gaitskell, reflecting the old British ties to the Empire-Commonwealth: the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour left, reflecting both of the former and adding their own chauvinism and little Englandism and national reformism, took the same line – over decades. All of them made valid criticisms of the EC. The Trotskyist groups, starting out by reflecting these attitudes, first accommodated to them, and then over time made opposition to a capitalist EC a central part, indeed a principle. Here there was utopian sectism as above – the idea of a Socialist United States of Europe existed, and that was that – therefore capitalism could not do anything progressive in this field. Progressive evolution was not a category they recognised in the contemporary world, because it was already “ripe” for socialism – in all but the political preparation of the protagonist in the Marxist-socialist scheme of things, the working-class! That was that. It is extremely irrational.

The attitude to the

working class

In the keystone Marxist idea that the emancipation of the working-class is the work of the working-class itself – which in the history of socialism was a proclamation against utopian sects and saviours, individual or collective – the kitsch left either substitutes indifference to the working-class (the old local government left around people like Ken Livingstone) or reduces the working-class to a cipher, a token, a fetish of the sect.

Apparatus Marxism

No political movement can function without calculating the efficacy of this or that policy in a given situation, without a level of “opportunist” manipulation of slogans and propaganda. Stalinism – and its own sphere fascism – made a system out of cynical, demagogic and irresponsible use of slogans, ideas, catch-cries which had no other purpose which had no other service other than to serve the interests of “the Party” and the Russian ruling class itself. The kitsch left follows in the wake of the old Stalinists, creating self-sufficient “parties” by way of manipulation of a corrupt “apparatus Marxism”. Political slogans, positions serve the party; the party serves itself by selecting policies which will allow itself to grow. The clearest long term case is that of the European Union.

Democracy

State property is either controlled democratically or it is not conceivably socialist. The left is either democratic, or it is not in favour of working-class self-rule, the cornerstone of Marxist socialism. Historically the left within capitalism has pushed for the widest extension of democracy.

Much of what is rightly called bourgeois democracy owes its democratic elements to the struggles and determination of the “common people”, and specifically the proletariat. Bourgeois democracy, even when it enshrines and defends a strong democratic element, is nevertheless a perversion of democracy, as expressed in Lincoln’s expression, government of the people, for the people, by the people.

In history the function of the bourgeoisie in relation to democracy, even to bourgeois democratic political systems, has been to tame, circumscribe, limit and frustrate a democracy that would really be democratic control of our own lives.

The separation of the idea of democracy, as mere politics, from the broader, older, idea of democracy held by its friends and foes up to around 1850, democratic control of society and its economy, has been one of the great achievements of the bourgeoisie.

When Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto summed up the task of the proletariat as “to win the battle of democracy” they were referring to the older idea of democracy, the notion of democracy which animated the Chartists and, on the other side, those who in 1848 would rather have had civil war than grant the Chartist demand for suffrage.

Even the one-dimensional bourgeois democracy enshrines great achievements on which the working-class can build.

Democracy and liberty under bourgeois law are frequently conflated and confused. They are not the same thing, either in logic or in history.

The fight to expand democracy, even within the rule of the bourgeoisie, is a necessary part of the work of any socialist tendency. In our time in Britain we can see a democracy shrunk to its present nadir, in which the Prime Minister controls the Cabinet, the Government controls Parliament (not vice-versa as in bourgeois-democratic theory) and in which the rich and the billionaire press set the agenda for the Prime Minister and his Government.

In Trotsky’s time, the movement which he personified fought for the expansion of democracy, even under bourgeois rule, as part of the preparation for the working-class to overthrow the bourgeoisie (see for example The Action Programme for France, which Trotsky wrote in 1934).

But the Trotskyist movement also carried a powerful inheritance from the early Communist International, of excessive disparagement of bourgeois democracy.

This had two roots. The fact the counter-revolutionaries in the working-class movement, for example in Germany in 1918-19, raised the banner of a classless democracy against Communism, and under that banner the bourgeois counter-revolution triumphed there. The second root was the tendency of the early Communist Parties to glorify and erect as a norm the practical compromises forced on the Bolsheviks in the course of the Civil War, in which democracy – Soviet democracy shrank and almost disappeared.

At its Third and Fourth World Congresses, the Communist International began to rectify this. As early as the Second Congress Lenin, in his pamphlet Left Wing Communism began to explore how the Communist Parties would relate to the bourgeois democracies in the West.

The Stalinist counter-revolution built on the early one-sidedness against bourgeois democracy. They made the bureaucratic system in the USSR — which they fervently proclaimed to be real democracy — into a new norm for judging democracy.

A document such as Trotsky’s 1934 Action Programme can be seen as an attempt to rectify the early one-sidedness – in which he advocated both the immediate defence of French bourgeois democracy against fascism and a working-class struggle to expand bourgeois democracy in its interests.

The kitsch left is the heir of Stalinism on this question, disparaging parliamentary democracy, drawing from valid criticisms of it the nonsensical conclusion that it is worth nothing to the working-class. In part this is a projection outwards of the typically undemocratic regime, and the rejection of democracy, in the pseudo-Leninist sects.

Once again it is an example of one-sided negativism divorced from the positive communist programme. Communists criticise bourgeois democracy in the name of something better: of a more flexible and truly representative political system, the “Paris Commune state” as Lenin called it, Soviets – and a democracy that is not one-dimensional, mere political democracy, but pervades the whole of society, including the economy.

If that is your clearly defined and understood goal, your alternative to the bourgeois democracy that you criticise, then you cannot be indifferent to the erosion of bourgeois democracy, cannot but see efforts to improve it as part of educating the working-class in the struggle for socialism and for the better-than-parliamentary democratic system.

The lack of this approach shapes many aspects of the kitsch revolutionary left. For example people with a proper understanding of democracy and its relationship to socialism could not tolerate the typical internal regime of the kitsch-Leninist groups.

The “Euston” ex-left

and democracy

In a different way, an inadequate approach to democracy also pervades the Labour left. One of the most striking aspects of the recent liberal manifesto against kitsch socialism, the Euston Manifesto, was its smug complacency about the stability of the bourgeois democracy to which it pins its proclamation – the utter lack of any criticism of what exists, and of any notion of improving it (or indeed that it needs improving).

When we hear talk about the “failure of the left”, we need to remember that the first and all-conditioning failure of the left was on the democratic front, the victory of the bourgeoisie and their version of democracy. The struggle for democracy, as outlined here, is vital for any sort of self-renewed left. Instead, the kitsch left allies in the name of anti-imperialism with clerical fascists rooted in societies for which even the meanest bourgeois democracy would be a great advance.

Resurgent anarchism

One of the most marked symptoms of the decline of the Marxist left is the widespread recrudance of anarchists, and in less developed countries, of populist movements. Lenin once remarked that had the revolutionary Marxists, after the collapse of the Second International, not regrouped, not made the October Revolution, not made a new Communist International then the consequence of the collapse of 1914 would have been an outbreak of mass anarchism, that is of inchoate rebellion without an adequate theory of society or of socialism, without a rational view of ends (socialism) or of means (the labour movement in politics; creation of working-class state power). That is where we are now.

In addition, the kitsch revolutionary left itself now has many characteristics of anarchism, as above.

Globalization

International capitalism is now experiencing a boom and expansion under the banners of free trade, neo-liberalism and globalization, unprecedented since the nineteenth century. The working-class all over the world is expanding – that is, capitalism is rearing up armies of its own gravediggers. The faults and failures listed above – the revival of utopianism etc. – hinder the would-be revolutionary left in coming to terms with this reality, which in fact offers us great opportunities to create mass socialist working-class movements. To adapt an old joke, the kitsch revolutionary left is tearing around the London Underground with for guide a map of the Paris Metro!

Conclusion

All these I submit as symptoms of the slow suicide of the would-be revolutionary left. Suicide because these poisons are self-prepared and self-administered. Of course, many of these features are not recent or new. Many of them are traits picked up from Stalinism, and it is by no means an exhaustive list of symptoms or causes.

Two events in recent and present history illustrate the consequence of this condition, this slow self-killing by the left. In 1999 the kitsch left raised the banner of anti-imperialism – meaning anti-NATO – in the Balkans crisis, and devoted itself during the Balkans War to making propaganda – usually lying propaganda – for the Milosevic regime while it was trying to kill and drive out the Albanian population of Kosova, Serbia’s long-time internal colony.

The kitsch left, the remnants of the Stalinist left around the Morning Star and the Parliamentary Labour left such as Benn turned themselves during that war into out-and-out apologists ethno-imperialism of Serbia. It was then that the present “Stop the War” Movement began. It was kept continuously in being by the SWP.

Today the same people not only opposed the 2003 war – as we did – but have since created a popular front with clerical fascists, in Britain and in the Middle East, to support the Sunni-supremacist guerrillas in Iraq and political Islam everywhere.

They greeted the election of Hamas in the Palestinian Territories with half-demented cries of triumph for anti-imperialism.

What is to be done? First of all we need to recognise where we are.

We need to come to terms with the history and with the political and methodological roots of the degeneration of the “left”.

We need to break politically with its typical ideas, its politics, its “theory” and its ways of organising.

We need to create a dialogue and a network of those who understand the state things are in and are determined to do something about it, to rebuild a healthy left.

In immediate politics we need to go on opposing the kitsch-left allies of clerical fascism, the reactionary anti-imperialists whose politics are a full-scale negation of the politics the working-class needs and a betrayal of the ideas of authentic communism.