The SWP's 'Apparatus Marxism', Impoverished Twin of 'Academic Marxism'

Sean Matgamna

“You who have really done something, must have noticed yourself how few of the young literary men who attach themselves to the Party take the trouble to study economics, the history of trade, of industry, of agriculture, of the social formations… The self-conceit of the journalist must therefore accomplish everything and the result looks like it…" — Friedrich Engels

Watching the accelerating political and moral degeneration of the Stalinised “Communist International" in the mid-1930s, Leon Trotsky entitled one of his commentaries “Is There No End To The Fall?" Had he been forced to observe the contemporary “revolutionary left" during the Balkans war of April-May 1999 he might have addressed the same incredulous and bitter question to a large proportion of those who name themselves “Trotskyists".

By way of campaigning “against the war", NATO’s war, and “against imperialism", that is against the NATO powers only, many “Trotskyists” actively sided with the primitive Serb imperialism of Slobodan Milosevic and tried to whip up an “anti-war movement" in support of those engaged in war to kill or drive out the 90% of the population of Serbia’s colony, Kosova that is Albanian.

Some did this because they had not quite got rid of the idea that the “socialist" Milosevic regime, the most Stalinist of all the successor regimes in the former Stalinist states, was somehow “still” progressive. These ranged from the surviving Stalinist churches and chapels to the New Left Review. Others — the SWP — simply thought that a big anti-war movement on any basis would rouse young people to action and thus help build up the forces of the left. Yet others were one-sided pacifists, or old style Neanderthal anti-Germans. They spent the war re-enacting a foolish parody of the sort of Stalinist antics that over decades destroyed independent working class politics.

The state of the British left at the start of the 21st century is most horribly depicted in its antics and in the arguments it used to build a pro-Milosevic “stop the war" movement in April-June 1999. That is the main subject of the following article: the techniques of political deception and self-decepion.

What Is 'Apparatus Marxism'?


“Now it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.”
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

“Borodin… is characterised in the novel as a ‘man of action’, as a living incarnation of Bolshevism on the soil of China. Nothing is further from the truth! [Borodin was no old Bolshevik]… Borodin, appeared as the consummate representative of that state and party bureaucracy which recognised the revolution only after its victory… People of this type assimilate without difficulty the gestures and intonations of professional revolutionists. Many of them by their protective colouring not only deceive others but also themselves. The audacious inflexibility of the Bolshevik is most usually metamorphosed with them into the cynicism of the functionary ready for anything. Ah! To have a mandate from the Central Committee! This sacrosanct safeguard Borodin always had in his pocket…"
Trotsky, discussing André Malraux’s novel about the 1925-7 Chinese Revolution, The Conquerors.

The Comintern functionary whom Trotsky discusses here, using Andre Malraux’s fictionalised Borodin as an example, was a “revolutionary” James Bond figure — a “superman” raised above the organic processes of the labour movement and the working class, and above mundane restraints and moralities. In the service of “the cause" he could say and do anything — so long as his superiors approved. As Stalinism progressed in the Comintern, there was literally nothing such people, and the working-class organisations they controlled and poisoned, would not for an advantage say and do. There was nothing that had been unthinkable to old socialists and communists that they did not in fact do.

They could ally with fascists to break socialist strikes, suppress the proletarian revolution in Spain, become rabid chauvinists for their own countries (so long as that might serve the USSR), turn into anti-semites… Nothing was forbidden to them. Nothing was sacred, and nothing taboo. Any means to an end.

Old agitational and propagandist techniques of manipulation were brought to new levels of perfection by the Stalinist rulers and their agents and allies across the world. Politics, history and, they thought, “History”, were freed from the primitive slavery to facts. Politics that were virtually fact-free and virtually truth-free became possible on a mass scale. Great political campaigns could now be lied into existence. To be sure, this was not something unknown before Stalinism; but the Stalinists, beginning with their lies about what the Soviet Union was, made it an all-embracing permanent way of political life.
Truth did not exist, only “class truth", which meant “party truth", which meant Russian bureaucratic truth… Consistency was a vice of lesser, unemancipated mortals. You could say and do anything. Logic? Anything was logical so long as you got the “context" right and understood the “historical process". It was all a matter of “perspectives”. Dialectics, comrade!

At different times Trotsky described this condition as “syphilis" and "leprosy". In the summaries of the proper revolutionary communist approach which he wrote in the 1930s, the demand to “be true, in little things as in big ones" is always central. The fact that such a “demand" had to be made and that it was made only by a tiny pariah minority, as incapable of imposing the necessary norms of behaviour as they were incapable of doing what they knew had to be done to defend the working class, was one measure of how far the “Marxist" movement had fallen, how deeply it had regressed, and how much had to be done to restore its health.

The “revolutionary superman” today is typically a “Trotskyist” builder of “the revolutionary party”. One of the things trade union supporters of Workers’ Liberty in Britain have to contend with — in the civil service union for example where the “revolutionary” left has had a presence for many years — is that many good trade unionists, honest, rational people, have come to hate the “revolutionary left" as liars, manipulators, people who place themselves outside the norms of reasonable political, moral and intellectual interaction. To a serious degree they do not have a common language with people who do not share their methods and habits of thought, or their special view of themselves and their “party".


Trotsky himself commented more than once that the small groups of Trotskyists had sometimes absorbed too much “Comintern venom" into themselves. After Trotsky’s death, not at once, but over many years, and not uniformly, organisation to organisation, but more in some “orthodox" Trotskyist organisations than others, a kitsch-Trotskyist political culture developed that replicated much that Trotsky had called leprosy and syphilis in the Comintern.

Its core was the development of the idea of a “revolutionary arty" into a fetish, into something prised loose from both the social and historical context and the political content which gives it its Marxist meaning. For
arxists, the party and the class, though there is an unbreakable link between them, are not the same thing. “The Communists… have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole," as the Communist Manifesto puts it. The programme Leon Trotsky wrote for his movement in 1938 insisted that it was a cardinal rule for Marxists to “be guided”, not by the interests of “the party”, but “by the logic of the class struggle”. And there is at any given moment an objective truth that cannot be dismissed if it is inconvenient to “the party”.

In post-Trotsky “kitsch Trotskyism", the tendency over decades is for “the party" and what is considered to be good for “the party” to become the all-defining supreme good — to become what the USSR was to the Comintern and its Borodins. There are more limits than the Comintern functionaries had, but not too many limits. There are very few things people calling themselves Trotskyists have not done for organisational advantage. Much of the time, for many of the “orthodox" Trotskyist groups, everything — perceptions of reality, “perspectives", truth, consistency, principle — is up for “construing" and reinterpretation in the light of perceived party interest. Their “Marxism" is “Apparatus Marxism": it exists to rationalise what the party apparatus thinks it best to do.

Central to this pattern, of course, was the radical falsity of many of the axial ideas of the “orthodox" Trotskyist groups — on the USSR, for example, or on the “world revolution", of which the USSR’s existence was both manifestation and pledge for its presently on-going “immanent” character; and on the linked idea that capitalism was perennially in a state of imminent 1930s level collapse. The survival and mutation of such ideas — the USSR is “in transition to socialism”, capitalism faces immediate catastrophe — were themselves often shaped by organisational considerations.

Their “Marxist” ideas had become dogmas glaringly at odds with reality; to hold those ideas you needed a special way of construing the world; and thinking about it became a work of special pleading for the fixed dogmas, of rationalising to arrive at conclusions already set and inviolable. If “Marxism” is reduced to such a role, then there is no logical or psychological barrier against “Marxism” being used to rationalise whatever seems to “make sense” for the party on a day to day basis.

The German pre-World War One Social-Democrat, Eduard Bernstein, who proposed to shed the socialist goal of the Marxist labour movement and substitute for it a series of reforms of capitalism, notoriously summed up his viewpoint thus: “The movement is everything, the goal nothing.” The kitsch-Trotskyists in their fetishistic commitment to creating an instrument, the “Revolutionary Party”, that could make the socialist revolution, stumbled into a grim parody of Bernstein’s notorious dictum: the party, short of the socialist revolution itself, is everything; all other things, including the actually existing working class, count for little and often for nothing. An obituary of Tony Cliff, one of the most seemingly successful proponents of the “Party First” approach in WL64-5 discussed this phenomenon.

[Cliff's] “was a refined, sophisticated variant of the approach developed by such orthodox Trotskyist tendencies as those of Healy and Lambert.

“These two, on the face of it, seem to be very different from Cliff. Not so. Gerry Healy came to dominate British Trotskyism from the late 40s, and Pierre Lambert much of French Trotskyism from about the same period, because in the 1940s and 50s the world posed big political and theoretical problems to the old-style Trotskyists, and most of the political leaders of the movement collapsed in demoralisation, confusion or perplexity. The Healys and Lamberts came to the fore because they cared about the ideas, and assessed them, only as crude working tools that did or did not help build the organisation. They could propose what to do on the basis of short term calculation without any political or intellectual qualms.

“The Trotskyists in Trotsky's time had drawn confidence, despite the gap between their tiny numbers and their very large perspectives, from the idea that ‘the programme creates the party’. What might be called the ‘organisation-first’ schools of neo-Trotskyism turned this upside down. For them the old formula came very much to mean: arrange a programme and lesser postures, that will assist the organisation to grow. After he asserted his political independence in the early 60s, Healy's politics were blatantly cut, and frequently ‘re-cut', to fit his organisational needs and calculations. So were and are those of the Lambert groupings…

“Not ‘the programme creates the party' but ‘the needs of the party create and recreate the programme'. Not the unity of theory and practice in the proper sense that theory, which is continually enriched by experience, guides practice, but in the sense — Tony Cliff’s sense — that ‘theory' is at the service of practice, catering to the organisation’s needs. “The very literary and ‘theoretical’ Cliff, on one side, and Healy and Lambert on the other, had a common conception of the relationship of theory, principle and politics to the revolutionary organisation…"


This approach led to the creation of a special sort of Marxism — “Apparatus Marxism" — the neo-Trotskyist version of which is really, all qualifications granted, a dialect of the old Stalinist Comintern “Marxism". It is the predominant revolutionary “Marxism”.

Today Marxism has retreated deeper into academia — though there is a lot less even of that than there used to be — or, in a ridiculous parody of what Marxism was to the Stalinist organisations, into the cloistered seclusion of one or other “revolutionary party”, where it exists to grind out rationalisation and apologia to justify the decisions of the “party” apparatus: “Marxism” with its eyes put out, chained to the millwheel — “Apparatus Marxism”.

Apparatus Marxism is a peculiarly rancid species of pseudo-academic “Marxism” from which everything “objective”, disinterested, spontaneous and creative is banished. Creativity is incompatible with the prime function of “Apparatus Marxism”: rationalising. Creativity and, so to speak, spontaneity is the prerogative of the all-shaping, suck-it-and-see empirical citizens who staff the “Party” apparatus. Everything is thereby turned on its head. The history of the “Orthodox Trotskyist”, or Cannonite, organisations is a story shaped by this conception of the relationship of Marxism to “the revolutionary party” — as a handmaiden of the apparatus. So, too, is the story of the the British SWP. “Party building” calculations determine the “line” and “Marxism” consists in “bending the stick” to justify it.

Lenin rightly argued that revolutionary theory without revolutionary practice is sterile and that revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory is blind. “Apparatus Marxism” is both blind and sterile because it is not and cannot be a guide to practice. It exists to rationalise a practice that is in fact guided by something else — usually, the perceived advantage of the organisation. For Marxists, the unity of theory and practice means that practice is guided by theory, a theory constantly replenished by experience. In “Apparatus Marxism”, the proper relationship of theory to practice and of practice to theory is inverted.

Our predominant Marxist culture is largely made up of the various “Apparatus Marxisms”, protected, as behind high tariff walls, by the “party” regimes they serve. Demurrers or questionings of cloistered certainties are inimical to that culture. This segmented “Marxism” stands in the way of Marxist self-renewal. The kitsch-Trotskyist conception of the “revolutionary party” — which in fact is a conception closer to that of the Stalinists than to either Lenin’s or Trotsky’s conception — makes revolutionary Marxism impossible. It makes the cornerstone of revolutionary Marxism — as distinct from Academic Marxism and its gelded first cousin, “Apparatus Marxism” — the unity of theory and practice, Marxism as a guide to action, an impossibility.

Apparatus Marxism is self-righteous: it serves “the Party”, which for now “is” “the Revolution”, or, so to speak, its “Vicar on Earth”; it has few scruples, and recognises only those aspects of reality that serve its needs. Its progenitor is neither Marx nor Engels nor Lenin, but, ultimately, Stalin.

One reason why it thrives, even among anti-Stalinists, in our conditions, which are unfavourable to serious Marxism, is precisely its simple, uncomplicated, easily graspable logic and rationale. It is the way to “build the party", “catch the mood". You don’t need background, study, work; and there aren’t any very difficult or unanswerable questions — just three or four basic ideas and a willingness to listen to the Central Committee, or whomever it is that can “come up with a line" that lets “the party" have something plausible to say. This approach is much simpler and far easier than “full Monty" Marxism, for which reality cannot always be construed to fit what is best for “party-building". The contemporary kitsch-Trotskyist superhero embodies “Apparatus Marxism”. From his collection of “Trotskyist'' formulas, “lines'' and rationalisation, he selects what will best advance the organisation — the “Revolutionary Party” which represents socialism — whatever it says or does. The kitsch-Trotskyist superhero has no time for Engels’ comment in a letter to the German socialist Conrad Schmidt:

“The materialist conception of history has a lot of dangerous friends nowadays who use it as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx commenting on the French ‘Marxists’ of the late [18]70s used to say: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist’...

“In general, the word ‘materialist’ serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labelled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the Hegelian manner. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations must be examined in detail before the attempt it made to deduce from them the political, civil-law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc. views corresponding to them...

“You who have really done something, must have noticed yourself how few of the young literary men who attach themselves to the Party take the trouble to study economics, the history of trade, of industry, of agriculture, of the social formations… The self-conceit of the journalist must therefore accomplish everything and the result looks like it…" — the self-conceit of the “party-building” “Apparatus Marxist”.

[From Workers'Liberty Vol 2/1]