Has the Left Lost Its Way?
Sean Matgamna and Nick Cohen debated at the Workers' Liberty Summer School, Ideas for Freedom, June 30th 2007
Would the stewards remove the bodies of those who have fainted, please? Perhaps Nick Cohen pulled his punches. I'm not sure I will. I spent most of yesterday reading Nick Cohen's book What's Left. Much of what Nick Cohen said is plainly true. Not only is it true, but about the existing left we have been saying a lot of it, most of it, for twenty, no, thirty, years. That the "left" is in a terrible state is certainly true. If you want the symptoms of it, look at the alliance of the "left" with Islamic clerical-fascism. Look at the fact that the "left" are poisoning the political world around them, as far as they are able to. But this not new.
You get used to looking at terrible things. It first hit me back in 1999 that something new had emerged on the “left” with its reaction to the Balkans war, around Kosova. In Kosova the Serbian state was organising genocide, in what had been for a long time an internal colony of Serbia, and then of Yugoslavia. For their own reasons, in their own interests, with their own methods, the big powers, organised in NATO, decided to intervene. They intervened by way of crude, brutal bombings. The reality, however, was that the bombing was the only thing that stood between Kosova Albanians and being driven out or massacred. In that situation we, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, stumbled a little bit. At the beginning we said, reflexively: "stop the bombings", focusing against NATO. But then we faced the realities. If the NATO attacks stopped, that would, in fact, be liberating the Milosevic regime to continue its genocidal war. We were very cautious thereafter, and we didn't focus on or support an "anti-war" campaign.
The SWP organised the first of its "mass anti-war activities" around the Kosova war. Was it called "Stop The War"? It might have been. In the middle of the attempted genocide in Kosova, they sided actively with those who were conducting a genocidal campaign. They put forward a “demand” that translated in reality into — give Milosevic a free hand to go on doing what he was doing in Kosova. They were against "the war", but not against Milosevic's war in Kosova. Now, that struck me as something new on the left — actively siding with genocidal small-scale ethnic imperialists, ethno-imperialists if you like, against their own internal colony. And backing them with all sorts of false, indeed nonsensical, slogans about the "real" enemy being NATO, and stories about how horrible the world is under the economic hegemony of capitalism and the Americans - which is true but was beside the immediate point.
The left has been like this for a very long time. Nick Cohen's book gets the history of the left seriously wrong. It's all very vague. There are contradictory statements. But he seems to say that there was once a sensible left that was characterised by such things as anti-fascism, a left that could at least be relied upon to be against such things as right-wing dictatorships, and now that left has given way to this left. The reality is that the left went into a tremendous crisis long, long ago. In fact the real left was destroyed about 75 years ago. You might argue about the precise dating of it. The old left, mine if not Nick Cohen's "good left", died with the rise of Stalinism. Thereafter you had marginalised groups of people - a lot more marginalised in the 30s and 40s in fact than we are today - standing up for working-class politics against Stalinism.
I too think that the poem Spain is a pretty good piece of work. If my memory serves me right, it finishes with something like: "The time is short/ And history to the defeated/ May say alas but cannot help or pardon". Today we still suffer from the tremendous defeat of the left in the first third of the twentieth century. It was a manifold defeat. The fascists carried the day in Italy and Germany — they massacred our people., crushed labour movements. But the most decisive defeat was the rise of Stalinism in the USSR: the fact that the Stalinists, the new ruling class which took control, presented themselves still as communists. They took control of the Communist International. They organised a counter-revolution in the USSR against the working class. And they organised a counter-revolution within Marxism itself.
What did they do with Marxism? Again, as Nick Cohen has said himself, the left today is a negative thing. It does not know what it is for. But that is not new, either. It has been true for a very long time, now. The variant of it that was true, say from 1930, is as follows. The Marxist programme has a negative and a positive aspect to it. The negative part is its critique of capitalism, its anti-capitalism. The positive aspect is the project of organising the working class — as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto — to win the battle of democracy, to become the ruling class and organise social life on a new basis. In their counter-revolution within the revolutionary anti-capitalist movement, the Stalinists separated the negative and the positive parts of our programme. They attached to the negative anti-capitalism their own programme for the creation of a totalitarian state, allegedly a communist, working class-ruled state. Today, what we have is that the positive socialist, working class, alternative that used to be advanced against the capitalism criticised and denounced, is no longer put forward. There is a great gap. Into that gap you get all sorts of things rushing in, as into a vacuum. Not only can a Stalinist alternative to capitalism be attached to the Marxist critique of capitalism, other “alternatives” can too. You get the alliance with the Islamists, because they are seen as the main force in the field against American capitalism, or rather, in the favoured terminology, because they are "anti-imperialist". That's "the left" of today.
The real left was defeated many decades ago. We are suffering the consequence of the tremendous defeat still. I think the situation now is not worse than it was 10, 15, or 20 years ago. It is a lot better! There's a phrase, ‘pneumonia is the old man's friend’ — it takes out people who are ready to go. Likewise, what we are seeing in the present convulsion of the “left” is the pseudo-left, the sick and weak kitsch-left of the later 20th century, with its mad coupling with Islamic clerical fascism, going down with a virulent political infection. What you have here is a “left” that has been dying, as a serious left, for a very long time. What, after all, was that ”left’s” old programme? In Britain the Labour Party left had what they called an "Alternative Economic Strategy". It was based on the notion of creating the sort of economy in Britain that we had during the Second World War - a state capitalist economy with certain welfare state features. The Stalinists all over the world – and, of course, they were a very powerful movement which for decades held the allegiance of the majority of the workers in France and Italy, and in other countries - what did they advocate? The creation of Stalinist totalitarian states!
When Nick Cohen says — and plainly he thinks it was central — that in the past socialists could argue for socialism as a means of developing the economy, it signals that he has taken on board an idea that is actually Stalinist — the core idea of Stalinism, indeed. The Marxist theory of the working class revolution is that it comes about as the child of advanced capitalism. That is because you can't get socialism, the elimination of class exploitations and contradictions, without a high level of productivity, without relative abundance, without the basics of life being guaranteed to everyone. That is the foundation of the Marxist idea of socialism, of the relationship of socialism to capitalism. All that was stood on its head by the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks took power. But they didn't think they could take power and then build socialism in Russia. They said the opposite. They said they would be doomed unless the revolution spread to the advanced , rich countries of Europe, where socialism could be built. And then it didn't spread. They were doomed, as they had known they would be. But not in the way they expected. They were unexpectedly doomed by the rise within the state created by the Bolshevik Revolution of a parasitic, exploitative bureaucratic class, that organised a counter-revolution against the working class. The Stalinists in power put forward as the programme of socialism a programme of developmentalism - not socialism, “developmentalism” - the notion that the socialists take power in order to develop the economy, to catch up with and outstrip capitalism. They developed the economy in Russia by means a lot more savage, and savagery a lot more concentrated, than those by which capitalism generated itself four hundred years ago in England and other countries. “Developmentalism” came to be the positive programme of what passed for socialism and communism. The idea that there can be no improvement, or no fundamental improvement, which I suppose is what Nick Cohen means, that there is nothing to be gained by replacing capitalism with an economy organised on the basis of production for need in which the advanced countries help the more backward countries - that idea is self-evidently nonsensical in the light of capitalism’s history. The idea that the capitalists can maximise the rational possibilities, the rational potential of the means of production which they themselves, the bourgeoisie in history, have created - that idea does not stand up to reason, or to the lessons of history. Capitalism right now — though there is mass unemployment in Western Europe, outside Britain — is going through a tremendous expansion. It cannot continue indefinitely. For decades capitalism was engaged in a competition with the Stalinist system, which it finally won. The Stalinist system was not socialism or a workers state. Nevertheless it was anti-capitalist - something that, I think, is best called “bureaucratic collectivist”. It was anti-capitalist. It did engage in world-wide competition with capitalism - a competition in development. It was competition in which the USSR, China, and others started from extreme backwardness. Stalinism couldn't win that competition. Back in the 1920s, Trotsky pointed this out - that a ‘developmentalist’” economy, starting from backwardness in one country, could not out-compete world capitalism. The Stalinists were, inevitably, defeated in the competition. There has been a tremendous explosion of capitalist development. It coincides with the protracted crisis of a “socialism” that reflected, or was influenced and infected by, Stalinism. The strange infatuation with clerical fascism is the latest manifestation of that protracted crisis.
Nick Cohen in his book - and I'm sure he won't object if I bring it in here - asks the rhetorical question: what is the socialist programme now? The socialist programme now is what it always was. The creation of that clear-cut democracy in all spheres of life, including the economic spheres, which we do not have now! The rational organisation of the world economy. We, the socialists, from the beginning talked about a world economy - not "national socialism" but world socialism. That is where socialists began – with the leitmotif of the Communist Manifesto, in 1848: "workers of the world unite You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win". The idea that you could have a socialist economy in any proper sense within nation states, or in limited areas of the world, still less in the most backward areas of the world, was never Marxism, never socialism — never our Marxism, or our socialism. It was never viable either! It never seemed viable to Marxists who understood the fundamental prerequisites of socialism. Our programme now is the creation of an international socialist order.
That is a tall order. It is a hell of a tall order for a group our size to be saying it. One of the things that leads to irrationalism on the left is the gap between that tall order and the size of the left. Is there nevertheless a rational basis for believing in socialism, Marxist socialism? Yes, of course there is! It is the same rational basis that has always existed, since Marxism began. It is the same rational basis that led Marxists like us - Trotskyists - to reject the whole Stalinists project of developing socialism out of backwardness. The rational basis for Marxist socialism, for working-class socialism, is very simple. The capitalist system is an exploitative system. Various things like sexism, homophobia, racism - all these things are part of it in history. But they are not necessarily, logically, part of it. For example, in reality, what women have experienced (to an as yet inadequate degree) in the last few decades has been, so to speak, women catching up with the bourgeois revolution. Only in the 20th century have women achieved, or begun to achieve, legal equality with men, the sort of equality Man The Citizen won in, for example, the French Revolution. Special oppressions were, historically, built into the foundations of capitalism. But there is nothing logically necessary in them being part of it. Capitalism is the exploitation of wage labour. Nick Cohen has a pretty good and clear-cut definition of this in his book, though he doesn't explore the implications of what he writes. He says that there are people who have “nothing to sell but their labour power”. That is the fundamental, bedrock, reality of capitalism. Far from the working class being able to reconcile itself indefinitely, in all conditions, with capitalism, the working class is forced to defend itself against capitalism. In the beginning is the class struggle! On that root everything socialistic is erected. Far from the world now being one of black pessimism from our point of view, in the last decades there has been a tremendous expansion of the proletariat throughout the world. Capitalist development implies the creation of a proletariat - the creation of its own gravedigger. The paths of capitalist glory lead but to the grave ! Because, inescapably, it is forced to develop the proletariat as it itself develops. There is no inevitability that this proletariat is going to develop politically as we want it to, and develop a socialist alternative to capitalism. And there is no inevitability that it will develop into a proponent of the best sort of socialism. But there is, and so long as capitalism exists always will be, the great fact, the fundamental reality, that capitalism exploits. It forces the people it exploits - in the first place the proletariat, but not only the proletariat - to organise themselves. The workers combine in trade unions; they combine for political action. They develop a critical conception of the world they live in. And they can then develop a proletarian programme. They are faced with the fact that the only logical proletarian alternative to capitalism is collectivism, democratic collectivism, where the working class comes to power to eliminate exploitation at all levels - and, what concerns me here, on the fundamental level: to eliminate wage labour and capitalism. That is possible. That is objectively possible. With the growth of the world proletariat it is becoming more, not less, possible. With the elimination of all but the debris of Stalinism, it is more possible now than it has been for more than three quarters of a century.
The class struggle is a reality. Right now in Britain, there isn't much evidence of open class struggle. Why? Because we were crushed and defeated in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The present extreme bourgeois hegemony was created on the basis of the Thatcherite victory. But the class struggle revives. It cannot be finally suppressed so long as class society exists.
I did a debate with Roger Scruton, the well-known right-wing philosopher, when Stalinism collapsed. He was very patronising, very "there, there, there", but he made a point that is worth repeating. I said that socialism was going to revive. I hoped it would revive more rapidly than in fact it has. Scruton said - sorry, I can't do his accent - "Well, I think you may very well be right". He meant humankind is full of irrepressible folly, humankind goes in for, needs, delusions. I say it in a different sense: socialism will revive! But it is not inevitable. It depends to a major extent on what the Marxists do. The class struggle takes place not just on the economic, trade-union level, or even on the political level. It takes place also on the level of ideas, in a battle of ideas. One of the terrible consequences of Stalinism and all its implications and ramifications through the decades was that it completely destroyed the possibility of the working class winning the battle of ideas against the capitalists. In the name of “socialism”, of the most powerful ostensibly socialist forces in the world, the Stalinists counterposed to the bourgeois system often backward things — more reactionary than capitalism; the Stalinists took society and that big part of humankind over which the Stalinists ruled, backwards, almost to before the bourgeois revolution, and even back to before the Renaissance. In many key respects they wiped out the conquests of hundreds of years of civilisation. They made it very difficult for us to win the battle of ideas with a bourgeoisie that said - like the Stalinists themselves - that Stalinism was socialism. They destroyed in the Stalinist states the possibility of the working class organising independently and developing politically. If you look at the history of the Stalinist states, they were particularly vicious against working-class movements. In Poland after 1956 you got relative freedom for the intellectuals and for the church; you didn't get any freedom for the working class until the workers took "freedom" for a brief time in 1980-1. Stalinism made it impossible for itself to be replaced by working-class power - as many of us hoped and believed it would be replaced - because it crushed the working class and destroyed all possibility of free labour movements.
So: the revival of socialism depends on the victory of our ideas, and that means on how well we fight for those ideas, on how well we educate and organise ourselves to fight for them. One of the most striking things about Nick Cohen's book is how limited its ambitions are. Even from the point of view of a consistent bourgeois radical of 100 or 150 years ago, the democracy we have now stinks to high heaven. I'm not saying it would be better or have authoritarianism. I'm not saying that at all! But this is not real democracy. It is only what Marxists call "bourgeois democracy", or "plutocratic democracy". It wouldn't have been recognised as democracy, for example, by the Chartists who fought for democracy in Britain in the 1830s and 40s. Both the Chartists and their opponents - the bourgeoisie who would have had civil war rather than concede their demands - understood by democracy at least some real dimension of real self-rule in all spheres, including the economic. What we have is in fact a very sclerosed, ossified, bureaucratised, half-dead form of bourgeois democracy. One of the things we have to do - those of us who are Marxists, who are revolutionary socialists - is to fight for an extension of democracy, even within this system. That is something we have been doing for a long time, since at least the beginning of the 1980s, when it was posed in terms of resisting the Thatcher-Tory offensive against the labour movement. It has no part in what Nick Cohen and his friends concern themselves with.
I think that the collapse of what Nick Cohen says was socialism is good! This was counterfeit socialism, socialism that didn't deserve to exist. Socialism that in many of its aspects was worse than the capitalism against which it presented itself as a champion. Our socialism was defeated and marginalised by that counterfeit socialism more than 70 years ago; but socialism can not die, because it corresponds to the realities of the underlying mechanisms of capitalist society and to the objective needs of the working class. There is no mechanical guarantee that we will be able to revive socialism. That depends on what we do. The title of this debate is: Does socialism have a future - the main question here is, what future does capitalism have? The more capitalism expands the more it generates its own opposite, the proletariat - its own grave digger. Socialism has a future. Socialism is one side in the struggle for the future of humankind, and on socialists winning that struggle may depend whether we are going to survive at all.