The AWL’s new book, In Defence of Bolshevism, will upset many people on the left – and is warmly welcomed for doing so.
The bulk of the book consists of texts by the foremost Heterodox Trotskyist, Max Shachtman. In 1949, Shachtman published Under the Banner of Marxism, originally written as an answer to Ernest Erber, a former Third Camp comrade who had just deserted.
In this review, however, I want to pay attention to the book’s introduction by Sean Matgamna, tying in the texts with today.
The introduction spares no left tendency from withering criticism. The book is an indictment of Corbynism and the detritus on the revolutionary left.
The introduction describes the Corbynite left as “politically inchoate preliminary ingathering”. The Morning Star epitomises the politics behind Corbynism. The paper of the Communist Party of Britain, the remnants of loyal British Stalinism – the Morning Star is a left “that does not know, positively, what it is for”. A viable new left “will never be raised on the mildewed crumbs of old Stalinist politics”.
Despite the political shift to the left, none of the Blairite structural changes to the Labour Party have so far been reversed, even by the current “democracy review”.
Blame for the Stalinist influence on Corbynism is laid with the dire state of official “Trotskyism”. Leon Trotsky’s politics were the continuation of Bolshevism after the Russian revolution degenerated. But Trotskyism itself underwent its own putrefaction. After the USSR expanded and consolidated in Eastern Europe, Orthodox Trotskyists were drawn into supporting further advances of Stalinism in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, etc.
Much of Orthodox Trotskyism collapsed into Zinovievism – the illusion, derived from Stalinism – that the Bolshevik party gained power because it was a large, tightly-organised “machine” in the hands of a designated “Great Man”. It could be replicated by mimicking and parroting “Bolshevik” forms.
In the mid-1970s Gerry Healy sold the WRP, the largest British Trotskyist group, to the Libyan government. Over subsequent years the WRP received millions of pounds in return for spy reports on Arab political dissidents and propaganda for the Libyan and Iraqi regimes. In the early 1980s the WRP provided the Labour left with a weekly paper, Labour Herald. Nominally headed by Ken Livingstone and Ted Knight, it was edited by the WRP’s Steven Miller. Labour Herald published rancid antisemitic cartoons and comments on the Middle East. Livingstone and Knight held hands with the WRP, who were in the grip of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
By the 1980s the biggest Trotskisant group was Militant, led by Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe. Militant came to dominate the Liverpool labour movement and had a block of Labour councillors to control events. In July 1984, when the miners’ strike was at its height, Militant chose to do a short-term deal with the Tories. Derek Hatton and his friends bought themselves safety from prosecution for a year. Once the miners were beaten, the Tories came back for them, and Labour leader Neil Kinnock completed the rout.
The SWP stood aside from the Benn surge and the Labour Party, smirking behind Tony Cliff’s silly analogy: “If you want to push a wheelbarrow, you don’t sit in it”. In 1979, as the Labour left erupted, the SWP turned away from the labour movement and towards exclusive focus on building themselves as a toy-town pseudo-Bolshevik “party”. Their shibboleth, the “theory of the downturn” meant when the miners went on strike, the SWP denounced support groups as “left-wing Oxfam”. The SWP appealed to Labour activists to “join the socialists” – to abandon the fight in the mass political labour movement and join those who preached that general fightback was hopeless.
The Orthodox “Fourth International” led by Ernest Mandel spawned the IMG in Britain. It was a wildly unstable organisation, kept together by a common adherence to “the International”. The IMG zig-zagged in and out of the Labour Party. More recently its remnants sojourned in George Galloway’s Respect, then the Green Left faction of the Green Party, followed by Left Unity. It breeds and bequeaths political confusion. In France, the Mandelite organisation (NPA) drifts towards social democratic norms: a party of “adherents” rather than activists, where members in official union positions are outside party supervision, where the party’s publications are desultorily produced and little circulated.
A lot of people who think of themselves as Marxists have grown indifferent or hostile to any project of building a Marxist organisation. They march under the idea that they should “develop the influence of Marxism” by promoting left-wing ideas in the existing broad labour movement. They claim no socialist organisation beyond the Labour Party and its coteries is needed. But it is impossible to meaningfully develop the “influence of Marxism” as a revolutionary force without building a revolutionary organisation. The experience of Russia, Germany, Spain, France, Chile and countless other class struggles demonstrates this beyond doubt.
In Shachtman’s texts, he brilliantly deconstructs the arguments Erber had used to rationalise giving up on revolutionary Marxist politics. He shows how Erber slipped from a critique of the 1917 Russian revolution into the prettification of New Deal USA. Shachtman expertly laid out the Marxist theory of the bourgeois state to expose Erber’s descent into social democratic reformism. He exposed how Erber’s anti-Stalinism drove him away from the socialist project of working class self-emancipation. Objections to Marxism invariably become an admonishment against workers daring to take power and rule in their own class interests.
Shachtman also explained the kind of revolutionary party necessary for the working class to free itself. Recalling the best days of the Bolsheviks, he showed that such a party must analyse reality and take its own theory seriously. Only through democratic debate and the fight for clarity can a Marxist tendency thrive to transform the existing labour movement.
Shachtman recognised the tremendous pressures exerted on working class socialists by the mechanisms of capitalism and the terror of Stalinism. The only answer is to build up and develop our intellectual resources and weld an activist force that fights for those ideas.
Socialist consciousness is the irreplaceable condition of working class self-liberation: this book shows why we fight for it.