Transcending our fragmented tradition

Submitted by AWL on 25 April, 2007 - 5:37

By Chris Ford
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The latest Workers Liberty reproduces a number of articles by the American Marxists Max Shachtman and Hal Draper as evidence of the continued value of this material from this pivotal conjuncture in world history and international socialism, and poses some interesting questions.

Yet it is the introductory essay What is Trotskyism? - Our fragmented tradition by John O’Mahony which was the most thought provoking. In particular his consideration:

Today, we live in conditions where the tradition of revolutionary Marxism that “flowed” through Trotsky and the Trotskyism of his time is highly fragmented, its elements disassembled and sometimes, needlessly counterposed to each other as fetish objections, that is, dogmatically overemphasised aspects of what should be one integrated movement.

Nevertheless in addressing the question of this fragmentation, its causes and consequences, I couldn’t help but consider that we may well be compounding this fragmentation as opposed to transcending it. O’Mahony rightly emphasizes the revolutionary movement, the memory of the working class, is facing the vast resources of those who see history as a source of legitimacy for capital. Our recognition of the importance of reclaiming history as integral to forging a new society was articulated well in the fraternal greetings of the Alliance for Workers Liberty to the recent conference of the Ukrainian Labour History Society, the first such society in Eastern Europe since the collapse of Stalinism:

The working class in Ukraine, and in other countries of the ex-USSR and Eastern Europe, will rise again. Sooner or later, it will once again make a decisive mark on events. It is of great importance that when the working class does rise again, it has access to honest and accurate information about its own history, its own past struggles, and the lessons to be learned from those struggles.

In an age where capitalism continues to claim ‘there is no alternative’, drawing strength from the experience of Stalinism, the assertion of the ‘third camp’ in history and practice remains of vital importance. Yet the trend of Workers Liberty in addressing this task has only partially recovered the lost texts of critical Marxism. This is most evident in the work of outlining of the tradition of third camp socialism.

In the latest Workers Liberty it is explained that in opposition to those Trotskyists who defended the USSR as a ‘workers state’ there developed another Trotskyist current and for “a whole epoch of world history, they produced a powerful literature that has for that period no equal, nor any near relative or rival.” This current is narrowed to what is alleged to be its “most able representatives, Max Shachtman and his close friends.” Over and again it has been predominantly articles by Shachtman and Draper, from a specific period of their life, that are re-published. Not only is this sweeping assertion simply not the case; it contributes to the fragmenting of our tradition, particularly when considering the 1940’s which is given such prominence.

Contrary to the history as presented, there were other able representatives of critical Marxism within international socialism and the Workers Party in this epoch. In particular amongst these absent friends are the adherents of the state-capitalist analysis of the USSR. Notable by her absence is Raya Dunayevskaya, Trotsky's Russian-language secretary, who broke with him in 1939 at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. She also went with the new Workers Party developing an extensively researched original analysis of the USSR as a state-capitalist society which she first outlined in 1941. Separately CLR James had reached similar conclusions and they formed a state-capitalist tendency more commonly known under the Johnson-Forest Tendency label. They constituted a large section of the Workers Party and Dunayevskaya’s work was known internationally.

Yet amidst the array of articles re-published from Labor Action and New International there has been next to nothing of this tendency headed by two of the leading theorists of post-war Marxism. The nearest explanation I can find for this is buried in a footnote way back in an issue of Workers Liberty in July 1996 by Sean Matgamna. Whilst Sean considers CLR James and Dunayevsakya as “the most talented” of adherents of the state-capitalist school he indulges in little more than abuse, presenting a false micro-history of this tendency concluding:

“The nearest thing to the unreason, mysticism, cultism, pontifical pronouncements and duff philosophis-ing you find in the Johnson-Forest documents and articles of the forties, is the British SLL-WRP in the late 60s and early 70’s.”

On reading this hyperbole I consider it rather embarrassing for our organisation. Do we really consider as “unreason”, never mind “megalomania”, such things as Dunayevskaya’s divergence of views with the likes of Tony Cliff and others due to their refusal “to see anything revolutionary in the action of the Jewish masses to rid themselves of British Imperialism”? Or that their perspective was that American Marxists should devote their energy to the building of a revolutionary party by winning workers into its ranks, as opposed to the pre-occupation with internal discussion and winning over of groups of Trotskyists from one point of view to another within the party or rival parties. This type of politics, not uncommon today, which they considered a barrier to the development of a revolutionary party, was linked the lack of revolutionary perspectives. However this penetration into the workers movement, they argued, did not mean a lowering but a heightening of the theoretical level of the cadres.

The other area pointed to is that James and Dunayevskaya “shared all the mystifications of the Cannonites about imminent revolution, despite the state of the labour movement and the working class”. Strangely, in the latest Workers Liberty such over optimism in the potentialities for socialist transformation are excused in the Shachtmanites. Many critical Marxists suffered from this problem in the post-war period, but this should not detract us from far more positive contributions, and this itself was not the core of the disagreement in the Workers Party at the time.

A key feature of Dunayevskaya’s theory of state-capitalism was that they it never separated the analysis of capital from its dialectical opposite, the struggle of the working class. She considered that “from the start of the state-capitalist debate in 1941, my immediate point of departure was not the crimes of Stalin, but the role of labour in a workers state”. The question of revolutionary potential of the working class itself was a key feature of the debates within the Workers Party, in which CLR James and Dunayevskaya criticised those influenced and “governed by the theory of ‘historical retrogression’, as elaborated by the “International Communists” of Germany. Their criticism lay in the problem of a theory which “said that the degeneration of bourgeois society meant also the degeneration of the proletariat. Our conception was the exact opposite. We said that the degradation of bourgeois society was due to the maturity and power of the proletariat”. This debate is not without its relevance today considering the similarities to the influence of post-modernism. (An interesting critique was Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution, by CLR James in New International Feb, 1946.)

It appears to me that permeating the criticism of CLR James and Dunayevkaya is a certain disdain for the intergrality of philosophy to socialism, in particular what has been broadly called Hegelian-Marxism. This unfortunately reflects a rather philistine approach by some comrades, usually voiced as criticism of ‘mysticism’. This echoes James Burnham who, like the Stalinists, considered dialectical philosophy a ‘mystical left over’ from Marx’s youth. It has been the worst elements in our movements’ history, that turned their backs on the dialectical core of Marxism and the Marx-Hegel relationship: from the vulgar materialist and Russian chauvinist, Plekhanov, to the mad Stalinist pseudo-philosopher of Stalinism, Althusser. These People hated Marx’s humanism and raged against the so-called young or immature Marx.

We should recall that Lenin had no such qualms about the importance of engaging with Hegel to come to terms with the collapse of the Second International in 1914. He renewed authentic Marxism by recourse to the Hegelian dialectic. His studies prompted him to conclude: "It is impossible fully to grasp Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx!!" In advice we may take for future issues of Worker Liberty Lenin advised a leading communist journal in 1922: “In my opinion, the editors and contribu-tors of Pod Znamenem Marksizma should be a kind of "Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics".

In calling for more recognition of the other Marxists it is important to recognise that in the case of CLR James and Dunayevskaya, despite all his criticism of bureaucracy Shachtman hypocritically engaged in a variety of machinations to stop Dunayevskaya and CLR James being published. For example only part of her original and painstakingly researched analysis of the USSR was ever published, the first part appearing in 1942, no further writings were allowed publication in New International until December 1946. The record of these shenanigans is well documented. This reached ridiculous proportions with the refusal to publish the first English translations of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and Lenin’s 1914-15 Philosophic Notebooks by Dunayevskaya!

In a contrast to the treatment of the Johnson-Forest tendency there was a grouping who adhered to state-capitalist theory who received a great deal of coverage in the New International and Labor Action. That is the Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party which published the paper Vpered from 1949 until late 1959, and included in its ranks some of the most talented Ukrainian thinkers of the 20th century. The Vpered group was a unique development being the last such organisation since the Left Opposition comprising actual citizens of the USSR to be established. It included militants who had been active in the revolution and the opposition to Stalin. As such they were unique within the socialist movement then struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the Russian Revolution. Furthermore they crystallized around the actual anti-Stalinist revolutionary developments in Ukraine at the time.

It is therefore unfortunate in reading the recent Workers Liberty which has articles on Stalinist Imperialism and The new Russian imperialism to find that the writings of the URDP-Vpered which were highly respected by Draper and his comrades have unfortunately not been given such recognition by our own organisation. They were not only important for their first hand experience of Stalinism, or analysis of ‘Stalinism - the modern form of Russian imperialism.’ Also important was their understanding of the nature of Stalinism, in which they developed a prognosis of future developments which was remarkably accurate.

In The Fate of the Russian Revolution despite bearing the name of CLR James on the cover there are only two very minor texts, and nothing of Dunayevskaya the main theorist of state-capitalism in the Workers Party. With regard to the URDP-Vpered despite extensive coverage in the WP/ISL there not one mention of this organization. I am sure no comrades would disagree that theory is a continuous process and does not halt when put in the covers of a book, no matter how good a book. As such it seems to me that future issues of Workers Liberty and volume two of The Fate of the Russian Revolution should seek to transcend our fragmented situation by considering all of the other critical Marxists.

The argument for a greater recognition of the wider components of Third camp socialism should be made is from the standpoint that each generation of Marxists must redefine Marxism to meet the challenge of its own age. From our vantage point we have a certain advantage from previous generations in that we have available to us the totality of Marx’s work, such as works previously buried by the Second International and Stalinism. As such the last thing we should be engaged in is any kind of self-imposed restriction. As a corollary question I would pose that there is such a danger in the restricted linear approach outlined in What is Trotskyism? - Our fragmented tradition, in which it appears all roads lead from October 1917 to a specific period of Shachtman, neglecting the decades of work conducted afterwards.

This approach tends to a prism which lacks due consideration of the extensive theoretical developments after the post-war decade, not only by those cited above such as Draper and Dunayevskaya but the Marxist humanists, the Praxis school, István Mészáros and others. Similarly looking backwards, pre-war theoreticians of Western Marxism seem to receive scant attention. Such a theoretical-historiographical agenda for those of us within the third camp/socialism from below tradition is surely that which will assist in transcending our fragmented tradition as part of the task of socialist renewal for the 21st century.

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