The Left in Disarray: study guide

Submitted by martin on 28 July, 2017 - 2:48

1. Stalinist roots
Read: Introduction and first part of "Stalinism has not been buried yet", pages 8 to 73.
Background or further reading: Russian Revolution book, chapter 10. Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed.

Quotes to discuss:

"Philby stuttered... 'Whatever Stalin does - that is the left!'... It is a statement that sums up an entire epoch in the history of the world and of the left" - p.20

"In the summaries of the proper revolutionary communist approach which Trotsky wrote in the 1930s, the demand to be truthful... is always central. The fact that such a 'demand' had to be made and that it was made only by a tiny pariah minority... was one measure of how far the 'Marxist' movement had fallen..." - p.38

The Stalinist program was "reactionary anti-capitalism: an 'alternative' development to capitalism that was in a thousand ways, and not least in terms of liberty and democracy, a regression to pre-capitalist society" - p.41

"The term, 'party of a new type', was attributed to Lenin... or to Gramsci... In fact it was a Stalinist term for a new protagonist, a bureaucratic machine which replaced the working class" - p.46

"'Socialism' developed a political split personality, a comprehensive dualism in which what was condemned, resisted, and fought in one part of world, could be simply ignored, or proclaimed good and praiseworthy, in the other" - p.73

2. The Bolshevik rearguard
Read: Second part of "Stalinism has not been buried yet", pages 76 to 109.
Background or further reading: The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 1, especially the Introduction.

Quotes to discuss:

"When things began to go wrong [in isolated revolutionary Russia after 1917] the Bolsheviks stood their ground. The workers' risings were defeated in the West. Invasions, civil war, and economic destruction wrecked the soviets. The Bolshevik party itself divided. One section took a path on which it ended up leading the bureaucratic counter-revolution. The surviving central leaders, in the first place Trotsky, fought the counter-revolution..." - p.84

"From 1937... Trotsky became increasingly hostile and negative about the 'USSR', which at the end of his life he defined as only potentially progressive... Trotsky did not properly name Stalinist imperialism 'imperialism', but he described it in fact, and counterposed to it a working-class programmatic alternative" - p.85

"Even at their most inadequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists were for a revolution against Stalinism... [but] Their assessment of the USSR, inherited from Trotsky but erected by themselves into a self-blinding dogma, trapped the Orthodox Trotskyists into letting themselves be reduced, too often, to the role of mere satellites of the Stalinist bloc" - p.96-7

"For two decades and more, [the Heterodox Trotskyists] produced a powerful literature that has for that period no equal, nor any near relative or rival. Ultimately, from the end of the 1950s, their tendency too fell apart"- p.100

"Scientific understand of capitalism... and... politics... does not arise 'spontaneously'. It has to be brought into the struggle by those who have laboured for years or decades in advance to educate themselves and absorb the lessons of past struggles" - p.102

"We do not repudiate the tradition of Lenin and those who made the great working-class revolution in Russia in 1917. On the contrary, we believe we defend that tradition as it really was" - p.109

3. Imperialism and anti-imperialism
Read: pages 112 to 148
Background or further reading: Lenin, Imperialism the highest stage of capitalism. "Marxism and imperialism", at

Quotes to discuss:

"'Imperialism' in the generic... sense... is the drive by stronger states to enlarge their rulers' power and revenues at the expense of weaker states and peoples by threatening or deploying... coercion... Opposition to imperialism is the sine qua non for consistent democrats and socialists" - p.112

"The imperialism analysed by Vladimir Lenin in 1916 was different from other imperialisms in history... In its economic structures and the typical behaviour of its subdivisions, international capitalism is no longer what it was in Lenin's day" - p.113

In the left today "the governing idea has come to be that... 'imperialism' is advanced capitalism; advanced capitalism is imperialism, whatever it does, or does no longer... this [attitude] is best called 'reactionary anti-imperialism'" - p.114

"The Marxist analysts of Lenin's time were agreed in dating the start of modern-capitalist, monopoly-capitalists and finance-capitalist, imperialism at roughly 1900" - p.116

After 1945 "the independence of the West European states was quickly restored... In 1948 the USA created the Marshall Plan... It was called a variant of imperialism by the anti-Stalinist left. In overall terms... it was - all qualifications granted - benign... The Russians looted and raped, slave-hunted, and held its European satellites in an iron grip... The Orthodox Trotskyists... managed the tremendous feat of not seeing Russia as imperialist" - p.134, 131

"Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the Orthodox Trotskyists saw the revolts in the colonies and semi-colonies as a segment of an unfolding 'world revolution'... Thus anti-imperialism, meaning conflict with the capitalist big powers, was per se also anti-capitalist, or sure to become so as the struggle 'developed and deepened'" - p.144

"Some of the attitudes, methods, mindsets [of that era] have survived into the post-Stalinist era in the idea that advanced capitalism, defined as 'imperialism', is unconditionally reactionary, so reactionary that almost any force that opposes it... thereby becomes 'good'..." - p.140

4. From the Korean War to the Iraq war, 1950 to 2011
Read: pages 149 to 193
Background or further reading: Workers' Liberty 2/3, The new world disorder

Quotes to discuss:

"For a month after the outbreak of the [Korean] war on 25 June [1953]... the most important of the Orthodox Trotskyist organisations hovered on the brink of a 'third camp' position, refusing to back either side... After a month... they came down solidly on the side of North Korea... redefined and rechristened Korean Stalinism... as 'the colonial revolution'..." - p.149-50

In the 1948 Israeli-Arab war "with the possible exception of a handful of people in South Africa, no Orthodox Trotskyist... backed the Arabs... [They] denounced the May 1948 invasion and demanded 'full national rights for the Jewish community'." - p.152

"For the Orthodox Trotskyists, Algeria established the absolute supremacy of the idea that the most militant and combative anti-colonial force was the one that deserved backing" - p.155

"The Orthodox Trotskyist were right to oppose the Americans in Indochina and to support self-determination for the people there... the American alternative was worse than victory for Stalinism... but... there was much of political indifferentism about Stalinism: 'don't confuse my anti-imperialism with your complexities'..." - p.156-8

"In 1967 and after the Trotskyists did not declare for the destruction of Israel... [But many] easily evolved to favouring the conquest of an unreasonable Israel in order to win the 'secular democratic state'... After the Israeli victory in 1967, Israel formed close ties to the USA (for the first time), and the whole question became part of the general opposition to world 'imperialism'..." - p.160-1

Iran 1979 "was a revolution - it rose against an unpopular regime and replaced it - but a profoundly reactionary and socially regressive revolution" - p.165

"One consequence of the [Russian] invasion [of Afghanistan] and the second Cold War which it triggered was that many leftists were driven by the logic of their position on Russia and other Stalinist states to rally to Russia. Since the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Russia had been in bad odour on the left... but now that changed for many Trotskyists and others" - p.168

Many leftists backed Argentina in the 1982 Falklands war, "with the self-aggrandising Argentine regional imperialism cast in the role of the anti-imperialist which it was nowhere near being, in the Falklands or anywhere else. It was pure unalloyed fantasy" - p.170

Support for Serbia in the 1999 Kosova war "was not comic-opera nonsense, as supporting 'anti-imperialist' Argentina had been, but full all-out partisanship for a regional imperialism attempting genocide in Serbia's colony, Kosova" - p.171

"Opposition to the EU is an aspect of the addled left's 'anti-imperialism'. The initial 'left-wing' opposition came from the Communist Party, concerned to stop 'imperialism' strengthening itself against the non-imperialist Russia... The Orthodox Trotskyists eventually fell into mimicry of them" - p.173

In Northern Ireland "the Protestant Unionists were classified not as a national minority but tagged politically, as just a politically reactionary grouping" - p.192

5. Consistent democracy and absolute anti-Zionism
Read: pages 231-244 and 306-317
Background or further reading: Two Nations, Two States.

Quotes to discuss:

"There is Israeli colonial imperialism in the Palestinian-majority territories. To go from that to [the idea that] Israel becomes the super-imperialism. Imperialism must be wiped out, and Israel is the epitome of imperialism... This attitude is possible only to people who no longer see imperialism as primarily a system of state actions, but rather as an 'essence' which they track to its worldly lair..." - p.243

"Confronting the old antisemitism which identified capitalism with Jews and Jews with capitalism, the German Marxist August Bebel famously said that it was 'the socialism of fools'. Wipe-out-Israel 'anti-imperialism' is the anti-imperialism of the fools..." - p.244

"We defend the Palestinians and champion an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel. The difference here between left-wing antisemites and honest critics of Israel... is... [that] the left-wing antisemites do not only criticise Israel. They condemn it outright and deny its right to exist..." - p.307

"Socialists should of course be in favour of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians for compensation and for letting individual Palestinians into Israel. Support for a collective right of return is only another form of the demand to conquer and destroy Israel, if it will not surrender" - p.313

6. Third Camp politics today (i.e. the polemics on various issues)
Read: pages 246 to 334 (excluding 306-317, already read)
Background or further reading: Workers' Liberty 5, Provos, Protestants, and permanent revolution,

Quotes to discuss:

"Despite the intentions of most of the demonstrators, [protests against Israel's attacks on Gaza] have not been peace demonstrations, but pro-war, war-mongering, demonstrations - for Hamas's war, and for a general Arab and Islamic war on Israel" - p.247

"For the duration of the Provo war, 'permanent revolution' served to rationalise socialist accommodation to the Provisional IRA: up to the Good Friday Agreement, there were always 'Trotskyists'... to argue that, any day now, the Provo war would start to 'develop' into the Irish workers' revolution" - p.254

"While fighting racism and discrimination against Muslims and Muslim communities, we [must] find a way to combine that defence of vulnerable people with opposition to them where they are champions of intolerance, bigotry, and petrified, age-old sanctified ignorance, in short, of political, cultural, and civic reaction" - p.273

"There is... in this business... gross chauvinist stereotyping, and not on the part of those who side with the secular 'Muslims' and against Islam. 'Asian Muslims' are... backward, bigoted, unteachable Muslims, who can only be approached on their own terms and by way of cynical would-be manipulative patronisation. That is the implication of the SWP approach. And it is not remotely true. Large numbers of people from Islamic backgrounds have in serious part emancipated themselves from Islam..." - p.289

"Those who howled down al Mashadani [an Iraqi trade-union leader, at the European Social Forum in 2004]... say they are anti-imperialists, and their objection to al Mashadani is that the trade union movement which he represented.... does not call for the immediate withdrawal of US and British troops from Iraq... they believe that the supreme revolutionary virtue is not, as Solidarity maintains, commitment to the working class and to the creation, growth, and education of a labour movement, but 'anti-imperialism'..." - p.279-80

"AWL was against the USA's war in Iraq... solidarised with the new Iraqi labour movement wherever it clashed with the occupiers... maintained a stance of hostility to the troops... But we refused, between 2003 and the 2008 US agreement to withdraw (completed in 2011) to raise a 'demand', Troops Out Now, whose likely, calculable, practical consequences... victory of the reactionary Iraqi 'resistance'... we did not want" - p.294-5

"The main enemy is the enemy now, not the enemy of yesterday; the evil to focus on is the evil around you, not the evil of the past or the far away... But it isn't possible to fight the evils of today by indiscriminately equating them all kinds of horrors of the past, by blurring the distinction between the effects of market capitalism... and totalitarian mass murder" - p.327-8

7. Who shaped the British left?
Read: pages 336 to 392
Background or further reading: The formation of the SWP,

Quotes to discuss:

"Cliff worked according to his belief that for practical politics 'tactics contradict principle'. His genius was for political manoeuvring and 'positioning'... His last three decades were spent in the elaboration of techniques for building a 'revolutionary party' by way of pushing politics into the background so as to maximise the stability and possibilities of growth..." - p.345

"Kautsky devised ideological schemes to depict the time-serving activities of a bureaucratised labour movement as an effective drive for working-class liberation; Mandel produced similar rationalisations for totalitarian Stalinist machines, convinced that they embodied the spirit of history, and that it was his job to interpret and rationalise it" - p.360

"Playing the demagogue to the existing left and its causes and assumption, Benn won tremendous popularity among people eager for a prominent and capable tribune who, moreover, knew how to play the media's game" - p.366

"Gerry Healy came to dominate British Trotskyism from the late 40s... 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... came to the fore because they cared about the ideas 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 calculations, without any political or intellectual qualms" - p.344

"For Grant, the rulers of what he chose to call 'Bonapartist workers' states' had a positive economic and social role to play in the underdeveloped world for an entire historical period... Grant, Taaffe, Woods and their comrades also had a full quiver of rationalisations for accommodating to the bureaucratic leadership of the existing labour movement" - p.389

8. How not to fight the kitsch left ("liberal interventionists", Euston Manifesto)
Read: pages 194-213 and 393-405

Quotes to discuss:

"Grant, for the sake of argument, that the US neo-conservatives had with the invasion of Iraq launched a drive to install bourgeois-democratic regimes in the Middle East, intending to do there something like what the invaders of June 1944 did in Europe - and that we could estimate that they would probably succeed... [then] nothing in the socialist criticism of capitalism would thereby be cancelled out... Indeed... the more plain... would become the crying need for the socialist alternative" - p.198-9

"The forces of the Third Camp of socialism and liberty are here, and it is our sworn duty to help organise them into an independent movement. The only way we know how to do this: tell the truth about capitalism and Stalinism; help make those we can reach conscious of the problem of society today and how to solve it, and increase the clarity of those who are already partly conscious of it..." - p.212

The Euston Manifesto "are the 'Pabloites' of post-Stalinist bourgeois arrogance and expansion" - p.403.