Review of The Left in Disarray by Sean Matgamna
Why is the revolutionary left in such a mess today, despite the economic problems of the last decade, the crises of many neoliberal states, the enormous size of the global waged working class, the potential power of the trade union movement and the signs of revival in left politics? The answers to why the Marxist left is in such a state are comprehensively hammered home in this collection of essays. The book is a tour de force history of the revolutionary left over the past one hundred years. The short answer is: Stalinism.
But the syphilis of Stalinism is not only about the states that were or still are ruled by Stalinists. It is also about how the ideology of Stalinism has taken root even among the anti-Stalinist and social democratic left. Sloughing off this Stalinism is an essential prerequisite for reviving the authentic Marxist left.
Why disarray? Matgamna tells the story of the degeneration of the revolutionary left with great verve. The revolutionary left that emerged from the 1917 Russian revolution was essentially healthy. It had opposed the First World War and arose triumphant to lead the Russian workers to power. These revolutionaries formed the Communist International, a school of revolutionary strategy that by the early 1920s had built mass communist parties made up of the finest working class militants internationally.
The principal blow came with the isolation of the Russian workers’ state, already depleted by three years of bitter civil war and compounded by the backwardness of the inherited Russian social formation. Concomitantly, no communist party was able to lead the workers to power outside Russia.
The result was the bureaucratisation of the Russian workers’ state. The bureaucratic tentacles strangled the organs of soviet democracy, the trade unions and finally the Bolshevik party — the last living mechanism through which the Russian workers could exercise their rule. The Stalinists “revolution from above” defeated the Left Opposition, imposed forced industrialisation and collectivisation, and destroyed democratic, national and civil rights. After 1928 the new bureaucratic ruling class held the levers of control over the surplus product and inaugurated a totalitarian semi-slave state. After that, the Communist Parties acted as the overseas agents of Russian foreign policy, as well as incipient bureaucratic ruling classes in places where they got a foothold.
The monstrous form of the Stalinist counter-revolution threw most of the revolutionary left back to a state of reactionary anti-capitalism, shorn of working class agency and of the consistently democratic programme they had once espoused. The tiny forces that coalesced around Trotsky put up a spirited rearguard action, keeping alive the flame of authentic Marxism during the 1920s and 1930s. But the Trotskyist movement itself was wrecked on the cusp of the Second World War, its main forces unable to explain the expansion of Stalinism outside of the USSR and later to understand the revival of capitalism in the post-war epoch. Most of the post-Trotsky Trotskyists embraced the Stalinist advance into Eastern Europe, China and beyond as somehow creating “workers’ states” (without the active intervention of workers), or painted despotic post-colonial regimes as somehow the embodiment of permanent revolution.
Matgamna itemises the bitter array of failures in the years after the Second World War. Among the litany of terrible errors were: • Support for North Korea’s war in 1950 • Failure to support the East German workers uprising in 1953 • Uncritical support for the Vietnamese Stalinists • Uncritical support for the Castro Stalinists in Cuba after 1960 • Soft backing for Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution • Opposition to Israel’s right to exist after the 1967 war • Backing Catholic chauvinism in Northern Ireland • Opposition to the UK joining the European Union from 1971 • Fantasies about the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia • Support for clerical-fascist theocracy in Iran from 1979 • Support for Russia’s murderous war in Afghanistan in 1980 • Support for Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982 • Backing Iran against Iraq in their sub-imperial conflict during the 1980s • Siding with Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait 1990-91 • Support for Serbia’s assault on the Kosovars in 1999 • Softness and refusing to condemn Al Qaeda in 2001 • Support for Saddam in the 2003 war • Uncritical backing of Islamist Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq, even as they slaughtered workers.
Matgamna eviscerates the justifications used by sections of the left for these stances. He is scathing about the “anti-imperialism of fools”, a species of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” that leads to support for despotism under the cover of anti-Americanism. He also denounces “left antisemitism”, defined as the exceptional denial of fundamental national rights to Jewish people (including the right to their own state) and demonisation of all Jewish people for the crimes of the Israeli state.
Sloughing off these rationalisations for reactionary politics is essential for renewing the revolutionary left. Matgamna’s descriptions of the practices and ideologies of the post-Stalinist left are often thought-provoking. The left Stalinist embalming of Lenin is described as the work of a “Leninolator” and of “Lenin-olatry”. The Stalinist picture of the world is “totalitarian utopianism” and the former Trotskyists who capitulated to Stalin “self-depoliticised ex-Bolshevik social engineers”. Liberal interventionist are dubbed “mañana third campists”, their “socialism” always for the distant tomorrow.
The text also has engaging cultural references — tales of Prester John, Kim Philby, slaves crucified on the Appian Way, Marlon Brando and others. Avid followers of the left will enjoy Matgamna’s pen portraits of the principal leaders of the post-war Trotskyist groups in Britain.
Gerry Healy led the SLL and WRP until it exploded after his sexual abuse of members was made public in 1985. By then Healy had sold the organisation to the Libyan, Iraqi, and other Arab states, as an agency to spy on the left and refugees. The Healyites were characterised by their millenarian catastrophism, their frozen words of Trotsky used to justify political lurches, and by gangster politics.
Ernest Mandel was the principal theoretician of the post-Trotsky Fourth International, responsible for rationalising its adaptation to the Stalinist “workers’ states” in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. Mandel died in 1995, a few years after the collapse of Stalinism had destroyed his theoretical edifice, leaving a movement clinging to a venerable name while desperately wondering where the “revolutionary process” had gone.
Ted Grant spawned the current Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal. He redefined socialism as “nationalise the top 200 monopolies” and an enabling act. He peddled the fantasies of “proletarian Bonapartism”, the military substitutes for working-class agency under Stalinism, but also in Syria, Portugal and latterly Venezuela. Grant’s supporters eulogise the capitulation of Liverpool city council while evading concrete political questions with fantasy sloganeering. Grant did not teach his followers to think, but to do political parrot work.
Tony Cliff was a purveyor of toy-town Bolshevism, a man who bent the stick so far on the revolutionary party that the SWP came to represent a parody of third period Stalinist mono-factions. Cliff joked about trying to find your way around the London Underground with a map of the Paris metro, but the legacy he left was more akin to a map of the Moscow sewers. For the SWP, nothing is forbidden in pursuit of organisational advantage. This makes for an increasingly incoherent group that is now a galaxy away from the Marxism of its origins.
If the history of the left is so miserable, what examples of hope are there? There is much to learn from the small third camp Trotskyist tradition around Max Shachtman and Hal Draper which survived during the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the left have sobered up over Syria, where few socialists could support the Daesh terror even by implication, and where most recoiled from any support for the barbarous Assad regime. Similarly, the Brexit vote saw sections of the left abandon their previous nationalist positions. There is something of a revival in social democratic reformist projects.
The bigger picture includes some disarray among our main enemies, the ruling classes, as illustrated by Trump and May. Most of all, the politics of the AWL provides the most important embodiment of hope.
The AWL has forged a living tradition of rational Marxist politics, with realistic assessments of the great global events of the last half century and a series of interventionist political conclusions aimed at mobilising the working class and transforming the labour movement.
The AWL has renewed the great Marxist tradition from a century ago. We do not start from scratch. All is not lost. Much of the left may be in disarray, but the forces of independent, third camp Marxism are alive. With our help, the new generation of socialists will make this politics their watchword.
At the top of this post: the front page of the British "Mandelite" magazine International in May 1969 exemplifies how many Orthodox Trotskyists came to think of "Revolution" as a "process" sweeping across the world, and of Marxism as the doctrine which enabled the cognoscenti to see "Revolution" at work in the most apparently unpromising developments.
Click on the bigger picture below for a pdf of the whole May 1969 issue of International.