Letters

Submitted by Matthew on 11 October, 2017 - 10:48

Colin Waugh’s review of The Russian Revolution: When Workers Took Power is right that Marxists must learn from the experience of workers’ struggles: revolutionary socialism certainly is dialogic. The Bolsheviks followed those principles and this helps explain their success in 1917. However I disagree with Colin’s critique of Kautsky and Lenin about the relationship between socialism and the working class.

Colin claims Kautsky asserted that “Marx and Engels created their conception of socialism in isolation from workers” and that Kautsky assumed “the essentials of modern socialism were defined once and for all at one point”. I don’t think Colin accurately represents Kautsky’s view, nor does he do justice to Lenin’s position. Kautsky argued that “socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously”.

Lenin quoted this passage in What is to be Done (1902) and also argued that socialist consciousness among the workers “would have to be brought to them from without”. In the book I’ve tried to explain what “from without” meant in its historical context. First, Lenin argued that systematic socialist ideas originated with bourgeois writers, (such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen etc). Similarly, Marx and Engels, who theorised socialism as working class self-emancipation, were bourgeois intellectuals in their social origins. This is a straightforward empirical claim about the origin of socialist ideas emerging outside the embryonic labour movements in early nineteenth century Europe.

Second, Lenin was fighting a battle in his time with “economistic” thinkers who seemed to elevate the economic front of the class struggle above other tasks such as party-building. Struggles at the point of production – as important as they are – do not provide the entire wisdom of socialist thought. Conflicts between wage labour and capital in the workplace do not resolve questions of the state, or of national, sexual, racism and other forms of oppression. A fully rounded socialist world view requires an assessment of every aspect of social reality. The expression “from without” also means that some socialist ideas developed outside and beyond the fundamental wage labour/capital antagonism.

Third, Lenin recognised that workers will organise unions and demand reforms to counter the exploitation, but will not automatically, spontaneously generalise this resistance into an overall coherent socialist world view.

Lenin posited the possibility of organised labour movements where pro-capitalist, reformist ideas dominate, not simply at leadership level but also widely among the rank and file. Such movements were evident at the time in the Catholic trade unions in Europe and within the AFL in the US. There are innumerable examples from the present. Labour movements can evolve separately from socialist ideas, unless Marxists intervene consistently. To put it more tersely: there is nothing inevitable about labour movements coming to socialist conclusions about taking power. By “from without” Lenin means that socialist ideas can come from outside of the regular, often bureaucratised channels of the labour movement. Lenin also took from Kautsky (and from Engels) the expressions about the “merger” or “fusion” of Marxist ideas with the organised labour movement. Lenin understood that without organised, active Marxist intervention, even militant workers’ movements will not organically lead to the overthrow of capitalism. The history of the last 100 years proves this proposition beyond doubt.

Rather Marxists have to fight other tendencies (bourgeois, reformist, anarchist etc) to win the labour movement for socialism. Lenin’s honest realism about the difficulties of developing socialist class consciousness was refreshing at the time and still prescient. He rightly believed the ideological front of the class struggle was decisive for workers to win on the economic and political fronts. Marxists had to (and still have to) combat the influence of bourgeois ideas in wider society and within the labour movement. Lenin was not saying socialist ideas should for now (or forever) develop apart from the existing labour movement or only be articulated by intellectuals. He assumed Marxists would be rooted in actual workers’ struggles, would learn from the workers and that the party was endeavouring to create a cadre of worker-intellectuals. He had spent a decade trying to do those things before he wrote What is to be Done? But he recognised that building a party around a coherent Marxist programme required tenacious ideological combat.

Working out a consistent, class-based world view (while actively intervening in today’s struggles) is an irreplaceable task for Marxists. The vehicle for this is a working class party that takes up all matters of politics. The essential tools are publications articulating these socialist ideas for propaganda and agitation. Lenin’s conceptions, derived from Kautsky were vital for making the RSDLP a party capable of leading the majority of Russian workers to power in 1917. And Lenin’s warnings still resonate for today’s working class struggles.

Paul Vernadsky

The dangers of Corbyn fandom

I agree wholeheartedly with Simon Nelson’s comments about “adulation and hero worship” that is developing around Jeremy Corbyn, and his calls for it to stop (Solidarity 449). It’s not yet a personality cult, but the signs are there.

One of the most important and damaging aspects of personality cults is the way they work against constructive, critical thinking. It’s not just the T-shirts, the mugs, the inane chanting of names; most of this is just silly and people ought to grow up. What is more insidious, when a personality cult has developed, is the way that once the great person has spoken — that’s it. No further discussion is needed. Black is white or white is black, it doesn’t matter and woe betide anyone who dares to stand up and disagree. You are, automatically, a traitor, an apostate, beyond the pale, fit only to be transported (preferably in irons) to some ideological Van Diemen’s Land.

In the early 1980s, a personality cult of sorts developed around Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers. As far as I could gather Scargill loved this and did nothing to dispel it. In 1981, Scargill spoke at a rally in Worksop (one of a number held around the coalfields at this time). The branch committee at the pit where I worked filled a coach to attend the rally. Scargill, then at the height of his popularity spoke brilliantly and roused his audience in no uncertain terms. Credit where it is due — it was a good night.

On the return journey I remember one miner standing up and stretching out his right arm intoning that he had “shaken hands with God” (i.e. Scargill). Again, this in itself is fairly innocuous. No harm was done. Why be a killjoy when the rally had achieved its aim and everyone was fired up for the strike we all knew was coming at some point in the near future? It was only later that the detrimental effect of this creeping personality cult would become apparent.

In the months prior to the strike Scargill would make frequent references to the “Triple Alliance” (borrowing the terminology of the 1920s) — a coming together of the miners, railway workers and steelworkers (the original Alliance consisted of dockworkers, railway workers and miners). Clearly, it was central to the success of any national miners’ strike that railway workers and steelworkers were “onboard” and co-operating to halt the distribution and industrial consumption of coal and coke. There was, however, a massive problem. The Triple Alliance did not exist. It was a figment of Arthur Scargill’s imagination. Yet, paradoxically it did exist, Scargill had said so, therefore all was well. The personality cult had blotted out a fundamental truth: solidarity isn’t a tap you just turn on when you need it. It has to be nurtured and developed; in short you have to work for it.

In 1983, myself and Rob Dawber (a prominent railway worker in South Yorkshire who sadly died of mesothelioma in 2000) tried to organise a meeting to discuss the idea of a Triple Alliance but no-one turned up. My guess is that the meeting was “nobbled” by Barnsley (but I have no concrete evidence of this) and the ultimate existence and effectiveness of the Triple Alliance was tested in the white heat of the 1984-85 strike.

Sections of railway workers performed miracles to try and stop the movement of coal, but the response of steelworkers can only be described as patchy, while the activity of the leader of the main steel union, Bill Sirs, was treacherous in the extreme. The Triple Alliance never materialised and is now, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, lost in the sands of time and forgotten — I can’t even find any reference to it in the literature devoted to the strike which sits on my bookshelves.

Herein lies the lesson for us all. At a certain point a personality cult ceases to be just amusing: T-shirts, mugs, key rings and chanting names and so on. There’s a serious and potentially damaging side to all this apparently harmless frivolity.

Look at history: Trotsky hated the idea of “Trotskyism”; Lenin was appalled that anyone would contemplate plastering his images all over the place. As for Stalin, and Pol Pot, Ceaucescu, Peron, Franco, Enver Hoxha, Mao Zedong, Mussolini, where did their personality cults lead? To the stifling of opposition, oppression, persecution, censorship and the imprisonment of dissidents.

I’m not at all saying that Jeremy Corbyn would go along with any of this. He certainly wouldn’t, but we, as a movement, need to be on our guard. Let’s have an end to this adulation and fandom before it starts to do some real damage.

John Cunningham

Misrepresenting Catalan nationalism

Tony Holmes (Solidarity 449) is correct to condemn the Spanish state’s violent response to the recent Catalan independence referendum, which involved calculated police brutality against people simply attempting to vote. However, he adopts a “plague on both their houses” approach to Catalan and Spanish states and nationalisms which obscures the reality on the ground.

It is right that socialists should be highly suspicious of nationalism and work towards a world without borders and nations; it is also right that socialists should be alert to the possibility that nationalism will promote class collaboration and substitute national for class questions. However, socialists have historically recognised that not all nationalist movements have the same political character and that unionist and imperial nationalisms may be just as, if not more, toxic than separatist ones.

Of course socialists should argue for “working-class unity that crosses borders and national divides” but that does not simply mean favouring the consolidation and territorial unity of bourgeois states as an end in itself. The mass, pro-independence mobilisations and strikes — supported by mainstream and more radical trade unions — represent one of the most powerful challenges to the post-dictatorship settlement in decades, a settlement which was based on “forgetting” the crimes of Francoism and failing to deal with the legacies of centralisation, Spanish nationalism, authoritarianism, and oppression of minority nationalities left behind by the Franco regime.

Holmes questions the democratic legitimacy of the referendum as a basis for declaring independence. The recent independence referendum, whatever its flaws (which are primarily the fault of the Spanish state’s campaign of repression and obstruction), represented a massive act of collective civil disobedience by millions of Catalans. Pro-independence Catalans have patiently worked through democratic and constitutional channels, they have mobilised en masse for huge street demonstrations, the 2014 consultation, and the election of pro-independence parties.

When the constitution, courts, King, and main political parties are all committed to the indivisible unity of the Spanish state — rejecting even moderate forms of devolution and backing massive repression — it is understandable that Catalan separatists feel they must act decisively. As some pro-independence campaigners have argued, given the authoritarian and unitary nature of the Spanish state it may be necessary to first of all be pro-independence, to challenge to the legitimacy of the Spanish state and its exclusionary construction of national identity, in order to make a federal, multinational, Republican Spain a possibility.

Further, Holmes gives an entirely one-sided account of the pro-independence movement — effectively reducing the movement to its right-wing and its most reactionary arguments. Significant sections of the Catalan left support independence, including the CUP — an anti-capitalist party which has maintained its autonomy from the pro-independence coalition government. The last 15 laws passed by the Catalan parliament have been overturned by Spanish courts; these include banning the police from using rubber bullets, preventing evictions, increasing the minimum wage, and other progressive measures.

The independence movement has gained traction due to the economic crisis and austerity due to repression by the Spanish state; to reduce the argument for Catalan independence to “Spain robs us” is inaccurate. The movement is broadly anti-austerity, Republican and — at its best — anti-capitalist and internationalist. To equate this nationalism with that of pro-unity Spanish nationalists wrapping themselves in the Spanish flag and singing Francoist hymns is myopic.

Jamie Sims