What would my 18 year old self say to me now?

Submitted by Matthew on 17 December, 2009 - 12:36 Author: Sean Matgamna

[This is a copy-edited and slightly expanded version of the text in WL.]

What would my 18 year old self say to me if, somehow, we could meet?

Possibly: “I know thee not, old man!” More likely: “Where’s my hair?”

Seriously, he’d be disappointed at how little I’ve managed to do, and maybe impatient with the plea, “I did my best”. I might tell him Orwell’s comment: “Everyone’s life seen from within is a failure”. He’d say: “Maybe, but that doesn’t change anything”.

Indeed. I might cite Trotsky’s explanation to C L R James that the revolutionary socialist movement, if it is that and not an onanistic sect, cannot rise when the working class goes down to defeat. He’d say: “Don’t use ‘epochal’ excuses for your own inadequacies”. I’d say: “No, indeed. But nonetheless it is true”.

I think he’d be pleased to find that I’ve stuck to it, that I’m still in the fight. He wouldn’t be surprised. He’d say: “That’s the least you could have done”. On that, at least, he would see eye to eye with me. The fight to replace capitalist society with working-class socialism is not something to pick up and then drop as you get older, tireder, and more self-knowing.

Would he say: “Politically you are now on ‘the far right of the far left’?” Perhaps. He was a moralistic little git, so maybe he wouldn’t listen when I explained to him that there is nothing left-wing about a militant “anti-imperialism” that lines you up with Islamist clerical fascists who repress the working class, smash first-budding early labour movements, inflict a savage sexual and social oppression on women, gays and young people.

As a fervent “anti-imperialist”, he might find that argument emotionally unsatisfying, but I think he’d grasp the point that the “anti-imperialist” and “socialist” champions of clerical fascism are not left wing in any working-class - or any other - sense. He’d certainly understand that the working class and the labour movement, their defence and development, are the highest values of socialist politics — that “the emancipation of the proletariat is the task of the proletariat itself”.

He might jeer at me that I am only a repressed sectarian, but I think he’d be induced to think about things a little when I told him that Lenin and Trotsky proclaimed themselves the right wing of those who participated in the Communist International’s Third Congress (mid 1921).

“All are not hunters who blow the hunting horn” — and those who let a populist-nationalist “anti-imperialism” line them up with reactionaries, and against the working class, in Iraq, are not working-class anti-imperialists.

I wouldn’t have any difficult in convincing him that I am not less angry at the capitalist world around me, not less loathing of it, and not less committed than he was to fight it until the working-class overthrows it and begins to construct socialism.

When I would argue, as I do, that in reality the long political purgatory of Stalinism created a “left” in which many attitudes, values, and positions of the old Right, even the fascist Right, are now inextricably entwined in the politics of the would-be left, he’d probably say: “I need more experience, and must read more, first, before I make my mind up”.

For sure, we’d be able to join in reciting Pearse’s lines, which he had memorised in a Manchester library:

Did ye think to conquer the people,

Or that Law is stronger than life and than men’s desire to be free?

We will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held,

Ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!

Revolutionary socialists have to make not one but a number of "dedications" to the fight for socialism. In revolutionary politics — in any politics, I guess — you start with given ideas, most likely incomplete and inadequate pictures of the world, of yourself, of what you can and can’t do in it. You are more or less nalve and ignorant, more or less full of illusions,including illusions about yourself. You don't properly know what you have let yourself in for. You become less naive, less ignorant, disabused of your illusions about reality and about yourself. You acquire a clearer idea of what you are in for. Experience, study, personal changes from age and self-knowledge, these are continuous. Experience forces you to engage in a ceaseless learning process. If you don't learn, reflect, develop, then you will wither politically.

If you stick to it, you come to a crisis. Then you either renew yourself on a new basis , make a new dedication to the goal, or die politically. This happens more than once. Instead of elaborating a new “dedication”, many drop out, in different directions. This has been the fate of vast numbers in the era when "socialism" was Stalinist state tyranny of an awful intensity, and generation after successive generation of would-be socialists became aware of what lay behind the smiling-scowling mask of Stalinist "socialism".

The history of the labour movement is on one level the history of such transformations, at every level, of the labour and revolutionary socialist movements all through their history. Between my 17 or 18 year old self and me there are quite a few such transitions, new dedications.

The recent very high attrition rate in revolutionary socialist politics is a function, an effect, of bourgeois society being prosperous and seemingly the only possible system. And of course of the debacle of Stalinism. It is also a function of the blind-alley, sectist nature of what has passed for revolutionary politics for many decades.

Fervent young people may at one point cheer Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, for loathing of their advanced-capitalist or imperialist enemies. But the nonsensicality of it registers on most of them sooner or later. The same disillusion came to those who supported Stalinism, and the Stalinist “workers’ states”, for the sake of their hostility to advanced capitalism, with the Stalinist victories in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Myself, I was privileged to grow up in a world where the revolutionaries, failed or successful (almost all of them failed and many of them martyred) were presented to Irish children, at home as well as at school, as the heroes, the virtuous ones.

I had to change much in that, but I’ve never lost the conviction that standing against iniquity, fighting it irreconcilably, is necessary and right. And that ceasing to do that, for any reason at all, is shameful.

In addition to that, I found my way to the culture of the internationalist-socialist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Luxemburgist revolutionary movement, which embodies and sums up the experience of the working class and revolutionary socialist movements over many decades.

You could not plausibly say that I have been a copybook, paint-by-numbers, politician, but certainly I have always given immense weight to that tradition. You have to think about your world for yourself, and if you don’t you are a parrot, not a Marxist — but you do it within a framework of ideas, positions, postures, traditions. You alter any of that, if you do, not before you have thought about it twenty times and then twenty times.

I’ve survived because I am solidly anchored in those two traditions, Irish Republican and Trotskyist, and in a clear class identity.

Would I do anything different? A million and five things, at least, and I would not do again some of the things I did do. Of the fundamental loyalties, commitments, aspirations, goals, values — no, I wouldn’t change anything.

We live in a vicious class-predatory capitalist world that is all the more intolerable because it is no longer necessary. A better, socialist, society governed by working-class and human solidarity and not by fear and the variegated drives to exploit, dominate, and despoil others, is possible.

What have I achieved? I have helped build a political tendency rooted in the authentic Lenin-Trotsky tradition: we try to reason about the world.

Marx famously told certain German revolutionaries in 1850: “We say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power’, you say on the contrary: ‘Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds’.”

The truth is that the revolutionary left needed its decades of defeat to remake itself and slough off the effects of Stalinism. If the Stalinist "left" had taken power in western Europe, it would have been a disaster for the working class and the labour movement. We still have a long way to go to renew the left. I think AWL and its preceding organisations has achieved something worthwhile in that work of rebuilding and reconceptualising the left. It is far from being enough, but better than the rest of the extant left.

We are unpopular? Indeed! But any Marxist politician who lets considerations of popularity and unpopularity influence him is in the wrong trade!

When I became a Trotskyist, things were a lot easier for us than they had been three or so years earlier, before Khrushchev in 1956 denounced Stalin and thus blew up the old mountain of Stalinist lies under which Trotskyists had been submerged.

But there was still a lot of Stalinist debris cluttering the landscape. You still met with a lot of hostility for being a Trotskyist, and occasionally physical attack. I became a Trotskyist while a member of an organisation — the Young Communist League — where lots of people still talked of Trotskyists as fascists or “agents” of fascism. To proclaim yourself a Trotskyist you had to be convinced. And tough. Serious Marxist politicians, those in whose tradition we place ourselves, have always had to be tough. It goes with the territory.

The hostility AWL comrades face today is, though unpleasant, a great deal less than it was when I became a Trotskyist. All we can do is try, in the old formula, to appeal to the reason of the people around us against their prejudices. What’s important is to be right, not to be popular with people whose own politics tells you that their judgement of ours is worthless.

My own attitude is there in the quote from Dante which Marx put at the beginning of Capital volume 1: “Go your way and let the people talk”.

Sean Matgamna