The introduction to the book The Left in Disarray, published June 2017.
“Tell the truth and shame the devil”
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules.” Leon Trotsky
The story in the Bible about the Tower of Babel is well known. Humankind starts to build a high tower so it can climb up to the heavens. Offended by this urge to independence in creatures he has created to be his supplicants and playthings, God punishes them. Where before there had been only one language, humankind wakes up one morning speaking many – all the languages of the earth. God has ensured that the divided humanity will not now be able to unite in such enterprises as building a tower up to heaven. Thus the old story-makers tried to account for the existence of many languages in the one human species.
The twentieth century and after has done something very like that to the anti-capitalist left. Clear-seeming and once more or less precise terms – “democracy”, “imperialism”, “anti-imperialism”, “socialism”, “revolution” – that corresponded, more or less, to real things and relationships in the world in which the socialists existed, now convey nothing that is clear without additional explanation.
All the key terms now have more than one, and sometimes many, meanings. Thus, most of the time they have no clear meaning; they express and convey emotion, not reason. They are tools of demagogy more than of reasoned discourse. Concepts and words have been stretched and reshaped, and then stretched, redefined, redesigned and reshaped again and again to cover many different and sometimes contradictory realities. They clog our minds and cloud our political eyes and judgement. Our language of politics is decayed, disablingly.
Where different languages have clearly defined meanings for words, translation and dialogue is possible. Where language has rotted and been corrupted by misuse or deliberate misrepresentation to such an extent that many or most of the key words have lost precise meaning, understanding is impeded and communication is often impossible. So too is useful polemic. Manipulative demagogy, the use of words to convey and evoke feelings, wishes, self-love, aggression, contempt, adoration, takes their place.
That is one of the reasons why the left is divided into an archipelago of mutually uncomprehending segments, why it lives in self-isolated atolls. Incomprehension, in turn, deepens the intra-left divisions. Our capacity to think coherently about politics, history, society, ourselves and our history, and our capacity to communicate with each other, are enfeebled and often in some ways destroyed.
How did the left rooted in the tradition of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Leo Jogiches, Keir Hardie, and all those whose lives made up the socialist movement of the past, get into the state it is in now? Why is the left in disarray?
Left-wing people are people who by political instinct and conviction side with the oppressed and the exploited, with the victims of exclusion, of malign power, of cruel indifference. We have fought against racism, for women’s equality with men, and against all the social aristocracies – aristocracies of birth and genealogy, of gender, of the purse, of the skin. Defined broadly, the left in history has been a tremendous force for progress, enlightenment, liberty, tolerance, freedom, democracy, and the right to free criticism of religion and of other official political and social ideologies. It has fought tyrannies and tyrants, and the rule of mind-stifling priests and prelates. It has fought for civil rights and civil liberties, for free speech and free thought, and against censorship. It has been the locomotive for cranking history forward. It has organised and shaped labour movements that have established and broadened working-class rights against employers and their states; it has lurched the whole of society upwards.
In the twentieth century, the authentic left fought fascism, the theocracies of different religions (Catholic, Islamic, Shinto), Stalinism, capitalism, and plutocracy. The left, in a word, has fought for consistent democracy – for all-pervasive political, social, and intellectual democracy. The real left, in any situation, are the consistent democrats. Not all of the left, all of the time, has embodied all of these virtues, of course. There is another side to the story. The left is produced, shaped, and reshaped, by different social environments, and, at any given moment, by its own prior history. It has had different strands, traditions, levels of awareness, degrees of consistency and coherence. It has had mutually antagonistic strands at war with each other.
People thinking of themselves as of the left have sometimes done indefensible things and taken up terrible attitudes and positions, sometimes suicidally. On antisemitism, for instance: in the Dreyfus affair, some socialists affected an above-the-battle incomprehension. Why, with their minds on the great structural elements in society, like the economy, should they bother with such a thing? Some socialists thought that agitation against “the Rothschilds” – wealthy Jews, portrayed as the epitome both of capitalism and of Jewishness – a permissible form of socialist agitation. Frederick Engels remonstrated: “antisemitism is merely the reaction of declining medieval social strata against a modern society consisting essentially of capitalists and wage-labourers, so that all it serves are reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak... In addition, the antisemite presents the facts in an entirely false light... there are here in England and in America thousands upon thousands of Jewish proletarians...” (19 April 1890).
Some strands in the German Communist Party, in a brief attempt to create a “national Bolshevism” in the early 1920s (1920s, not 1930s), played with antisemitic agitation. The heroic Russian populist movement, Narodnaya Volya, welcomed the epoch-defining anti-Jewish pogrom movement that broke out in 1881 as a positive expression of the people’s will to rebel against their conditions. In another vein, some socialist insurrectionists in early 1920s South Africa who had raised the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite for a White South Africa!” went the gallows singing The Red Flag. The very influential early twentieth century US socialist novel, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, has a chapter that is viciously racist against African-Americans.
In such cases, left-wingers acted contrary to their own values of consistent democracy, judicious breadth of view, egalitarianism, and rationality in politics as in everything else. Other left-wingers knew that, and talked, wrote, and acted differently, criticising the socialists who fell short. To a great extent, socialism developed, made and re-made itself, by criticism and self-criticism. Vladimir Lenin used, as the epigraph of his polemic What Is To Be Done?, Ferdinand Lassalle’s comment: “Party struggles lend a party strength and vitality; the greatest proof of a party’s weakness is its diffuseness and the blurring of clear demarcations”.
The South African socialists, shouting “Workers of the World Unite”, and nonsensically coupling it with “For a White South Africa”, might have been the paradigm for the catastrophe that overwhelmed the left in the mid and late 1920s, when much of the revolutionary left was conquered by Stalinism in varying dilutions.
The basic socialist critique of capitalism came to be fused with positive programmes of Stalinist totalitarianism. That introduced a system of having one attitude to oppression in capitalist society, and a radically different attitude to the same or worse oppression in Russia and later in the other Stalinist states (China, for instance) – a pervasive system of double standards, and thus of no standards, in measuring social affairs. It established an all-pervading “doubleness” of outlook, attitude, feeling, judgement, language, which rendered much of the left radically incoherent. It merged genuine left-wing standards and attitudes into hybrids, encompassing their opposites. On imperialism, for the great instance which affects the left still. It amalgamated the proper socialist attitudes to the crimes of capitalism with an opposite attitude to similar, and very often worse, crimes of Stalinism. In its perennial peace campaigning, it fused appeals against the horrors of war with sly manipulation in favour of Russian foreign policy, whatever it was at that point.
Those contradictions and tensions produced strong seams of hysteria in left-wing politics. We have still not purged the left of those catastrophic amalgams and hysterias This book tries to account for the state of the left by analysing the historical and political evolution of the old 19th and 20th century left and its ideas, its defeats by the forces of Stalinism, of fascism, and of plutocracy, and their impact on its ideas. This discussion of what Stalinism did to the left is intended to make it easier to understand the character, causes, and faults of the contemporary left, and to help those who want to fight for a more consistent and more authentic left.
From the collapse of the USSR, until the onset of the 2008 credit crisis, international capitalism went through a vast expansion under the banners of free trade, neo-liberalism, and globalisation. That produced social and ideological conditions that were very unfriendly to the idea that capitalism needs to be replaced with socialism, that the working class can and should make a socialist revolution, that historically capitalism has outlived itself. After the fall of Russian and East European Stalinism, we went through a riot of bourgeois triumphalism, and an accelerated, disarray and decline, political, moral, intellectual, of the “actually existing left”.
The left was faced with the need to redefine itself. In so far as it has redefined itself, it has since 2001 been in terms of an alliance with one of the most reactionary forces on the planet, “political Islam” – Islamic clerical fascism. And these conditions have helped many ex-Stalinists mutate into born-again advocates of bourgeois democracy and capitalism – something, all in all, better than their former Stalinist political mindset.
Working-class socialist democracy was never even potentially real for those jaded power-worshippers, and naturally they do not regard it as a possibility now. Since the collapse of the Stalinist Russian empire in 1991, world capitalist power has traded on the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. There never was; there never will be: there cannot be. We should, as someone at a debate told us once, “marvel at the market’s gifts to mankind”. Be grateful for the things God gives you! Don’t dream, don’t scheme, don’t rebel! For, warn the ideologues – the old Labour Party reform-socialists among them – if you rebel, then you will stumble into a nightmare of state terrorism, into the Gulag, into the Stalinist archipelago of slave labour camps and mass murder.
They build philosophies on the claim that Stalinism was Bolshevism; that Bolshevism was not overthrown in a Stalinist counter-revolution, as in fact it was, but continued and developed by the logic of its own inner nature into Stalinism. The Stalinist counter-revolution against the working class and against Bolshevism was really, they claim, Bolshevism itself in essentials. Bolshevism, which fought Stalinism to the death of the rearguard Bolsheviks – that was only immature, infant Stalinism.
The anti-Stalinist Bolsheviks were only fighting against their other self.
In all this, the triumphant bourgeoisie has merely appropriated the core lies of Stalinism and put them to work. The story is nonsense in terms of the facts – nonsense as ridiculous as Stalin’s indictment of the old Bolsheviks in the mid-thirties as having worked for British and other intelligence services when they were leading the 1917 Revolution. Yet aspects of the post-Stalinist left, for instance the accommodation of the ostensible left to Islamist terrorism, have been as if designed to prove the bourgeois ideologues’ point.
But the story doesn’t end there. The end of the story has not been written yet. In the socialist beginning is the class struggle. The world’s working class is expanding; it has, maybe, doubled in size over the last thirty years. Capitalism is still rearing up fresh armies of its own gravediggers. The movement that has gathered around Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to reclaim the Labour Party for the working class is a tremendous event, and for socialists and labour-movement activists and well-wishers, an inspiring and heartening one. It opens opportunities for socialists and socialism that had been blocked off for two decades since the Blair-Brown coup in the Labour Party in 1994-7.
The socialist left, however, is in no state to do the positive work for socialism that is now possible. It is organised in an archipelago of sects. Each group’s Marxism is in the main an in-house Marxism, some of it strange and bizarre, specific to the group. Like the overshadowing statues on Easter Island, grotesque personality cults loom in and above the left. Almost all the groupings are organised as factional tyrannies. They forbid or stifle internal discussion, and, for practical purposes, most of them, most of the time, outlaw dissent. Reason there is an abused and terror-stricken, half-starved, prisoner. Relations between the different groups are blindly hostile; inter-group discussion is usually shouts of abuse from the factional trenches. In some groups an aura of quasi-religious awe surrounds their special positions and doctrines and high priests. Demagogy reigns, and demagogy ruins.
Yet the economic crisis that began in 2007-8 has exposed to many people the fundamental nature of capitalism – its instability, its needless cruelties, its domination by billionaire predators who run the system for their own benefit. The need for a vigorous, intellectually receptive and productive, anti-capitalist left is urgent and pressing.
It can now be seen that the collapse and disarray in the left in the aftermath of 1991 was inevitable, after the way the left had been shaped and schooled in the preceding decades. Though the old European Stalinism, holding state power in many states, is dead, socialists, including the heirs of the old anti-Stalinists, live still, as is argued here, in the grip of the moral, political and intellectual chaos created by Stalinism. Cultural inertia is a gigantic and pervasive force in history.
Stalinism was for many decades a world-wide entity, affecting not its own full or partial devotees alone, but many others. Stalinist ideology combined states of minds, feelings, reasonings or refusals to reason, doctrines, and beliefs, hybridised with concerns valid and important in themselves. The peace campaigns after about 1950 are the best examples here. There are many others. Much of the old culture is still alive on the left. It is the contention of this book that the moral and political crisis of the present-day left is fundamentally a confusion of ideas, of identity and of historical perspective. Of an unexplored, and often startlingly unknown, history of the left itself, and of our language of politics.
The crisis of the would-be left today consists in the continued influence within it, in its ways of seeing the world, of organising and thinking, of un-purged or often half-purged, essentially unrecognised, Stalinist politics, patterns, attitudes, and residues.
Stalinism is dead as state power in Europe. But Stalinism wasn’t just state power. It was a vast interlocking political culture, containing a set of ideas, attitudes, states of mind, moralities, antagonisms, animosities. If that culture died with Stalinist state power in Europe, then this book is anachronistic, a case of refusal to move on, an unhealthy obsession with old, irrelevant events and issues.
The point is that as a political culture, Stalinism is not dead. It survives even in much of that left which defines its historical anti-Stalinism with Trotsky’s name. It survives in the ideological chaos that still engulfs the left. The concerns of this book are not, alas, only matters of history. One of its aims is to speed Stalinism on its way into the void of outlived, negated, and learned-from history.
This book offers an analysis and an indictment of the contemporary left, written from within the left and from a left-wing point of view. It is part of a drive to purge the debris of Stalinism which, it argues, pervades the contemporary left. It is a companion volume to Can Socialism Make Sense? An Unfriendly Dialogue (2016).
A note on terminology. It would be misleading to talk about “the left” without qualification, in part because this book is in many ways a self-criticism. We, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, are ourselves of the left; and it is argued here that on many issues, on free speech for instance, and on Zionophobia and Judeophobia, the ostensible left today has taken over positions that were for a very long time the preserve of the right. Thus various terms are used – addled left, ostensible left, kitsch left, confused left. Kitsch left is the more precise: much of the left is in the grip of inorganic, pastiche, imitative, incoherent politics.