A few notes in reply

Submitted by martin on 15 May, 2016 - 6:26 Author: Steve Bloom

My review of “The Two Trotskyisms” has prompted thoughtful responses by Duncan Morrison (“Learning from both Shachtman and Cannon”) and Gemma Short, (“Workers’ democracy is the bottom line”). A few notes in reply:

* Duncan poses the following question: “It is true that the earlier Cannonites could and to some extent did correct their mistakes, where the 1980s leadership of the American SWP around Jack Barnes as Steve puts it ‘continued to stampede off the cliff’ to become Castroites (Stalinists). But Jack Barnes was the heir to Cannon’s regime, surely some reflection should be made on how the Party moved from one able to hold some sort of anti-Stalinist line to one where that was dropped altogether. Did the earlier SWPers bear any responsibility?”

I will leave aside my objection to calling Barnes a “Castroist” (it is a slander against Fidel) or putting an equals sign between “Castroism” and “Stalinism.” These are important issues, but not directly relevant to our present conversation. Abstracting from these points, the answer to Duncan’s question is that considering the link between Barnes and the Cannon tradition was an explicit political project undertaken by the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, one of three organizations formed in the 1980s by expelled SWP members—the one that I was part of. Much of the record of our self-reflection is available on-line at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit.htm.

My own personal thinking has evolved even more since the FIT dissolved in 1992, and that personal assessment of party history (more critical than I or the FIT was capable of formulating in 1992) is reflected in my review of “Two Trotskyisms.” The short answer is: Yes, by building a party that failed to train its membership adequately in Marxist theory, and that actively discouraged critical thinking about the actions of the leadership among the rank and file, the earlier cadre of the SWP paved the way for the Barnesite disaster. The specific political evolution of the Barnes faction, however, was of its own making. There was no particular continuity with the politics of the SWP under Jim Cannon or subsequent leaders of his generation. Barnes represented a sharp break from the former politics of the SWP. The majority of party members were, simply, unable to think critically about the relevant politics for themselves, and therefore failed to recognize this or react to it in time.

Duncan and I will, I guess, continue to disagree about whether the kind of stress on rhetorical flourishes that pervades Schactman’s polemical style is compatible with “arguing against what your opponent is really saying and the strongest not the weakest variant of their argument.” Polemical flourishes always take off from what is weakest in an opponent’s argument. And their effect is, inevitably, to focus our attention on something other than the substantive questions in dispute. We will also continue to disagree about whether it is a useful corrective, when one set of historians has engaged in a tendentious exposition of a certain set of events, to present an alternative which essentially reverses the plus and minus signs. Once again, it seems to me, we need to do better.

* Gemma asks why I say it is “obvious” that the nationalizations in Eastern Europe carried out by the invading Red Army, and not by revolutions from below, had some “socialist” content. The answer is that I look at the subsequent political experience in these countries. In East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in the 1980s, mass movements developed which had the potential to take hold of the nationalized property and put it under democratic control (“socialism with a human face” to cite the popular slogan in Czechoslovakia). In each case that potential was strangled by force of arms. But isn’t it clear (obvious) that the potential would never have arisen in the first place, certainly not in the form it did, except that something which called itself “socialism,” and which had in common with the kind of socialism that Gemma and I would both recognize the reality of nationalized property, had already been established in these countries? The anti-Stalinist/pro-socialist potential expressed in these uprisings was possible only because of the pre-existence of nationalized property.

Gemma identifies a different point as obvious: “that nationalized property is only progressive (and has any socialist content) in so far as the working class has control of the state.” I would like to contrast these two uses of the word “obvious,” however. They are not parallel. My “obvious” is derived from a consideration of events in the world. Gemma’s “obvious” is derived from consideration of the purely theoretical: a definition of “socialism.” The Marxist method must, above all else, place its priority on what the world itself makes “obvious,” not what we “obviously” derive from our own theories and definitions. That is, I believe, what we mean by a “materialist” method.

Correct: “nationalized property” does not define “socialism” for all of the reasons James Connolly cites and more. Whether any particular “nationalized property” has some element of socialist content, however, even if it also falls short of a genuine “socialism,” is best determined not by looking at our theory or definition of socialism, but by looking at the world, at the specific origins and results of that specific nationalized property.

Comments

Submitted by Jason Schulman on Tue, 24/05/2016 - 15:00

When Steve says "The anti-Stalinist/pro-socialist potential expressed in these uprisings was possible only because of the pre-existence of nationalized property" I think he's quite wrong.

In relation to Hungary the form taken by the Fourth International's misunderstanding was only to start paying attention *after* the second Soviet intervention, which was the first point at which the working class became at all prominent in the movement (fairly obviously, because it was ideologically harder for the regime to crack down on the workers than on students and intelligentsia), and also happened to be when Peter Fryer arrived in Hungary. Research published by Gus Fagan in *Labour Focus on Eastern Europe* back in the '80s indicates that the worker leadership at this period was provided by "survivors" - old social-democratic and syndicalist militants from before 1948, rather than a *new* leadership being thrown up.

Regarding Poland: frankly, we all got Solidarnosc wrong. The Gdansk strike movement, which was a spontaneous strike movement of the sort that episodically appeared in the USSR and its satellites (in Poland on several previous occasions) was turned into a national "trade union" by the action of the Polish Catholic church (which was able to do so because it was a semi-tolerated opposition) as a device to give it a "legal" cover by calling it a trade union. Solidarnosc never really functioned as a trade union beyond the initial strike movement, moving very rapidly into the character of a political "reform" movement dominated by the intelligentsia and dominated by the church, and certainly didn't represent a working class socialist opposition. The anti-Stalinist left -- all of us -- nurtured illusions in the character of this movement, which promoted Christian Democratic/ Catholic social teaching lines.

We should have defended Solidarnosc's right to exist and that should have been it. When Ernest Mandel called Solidarnosc "the greatest socialists in the world" this was wishful thinking.

As for Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring was largely a top-down affair initiated by Alexander Dubček. Whatever its merits it wasn't the result of a popular upsurge.

Submitted by Barry Finger on Thu, 26/05/2016 - 14:00

Had a few choice words about the SWP and the Russian suppression of Czeckoslovakia.

See here.

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