If you tell a man that he’s going to be hanged in the morning, then, as someone once said, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. The British National Party is expected to make serious electoral gains in a number of different elections over the coming period. It will most likely win more council seats.
It may win a seat in the European Parliament. It may gain representation in Parliament in the next General Election, a year or so from now. It already has a seat in the London Assembly. The serious left needs to sound the political alarm bells.
One of the main reasons why this is happening is the failure of the left. Not just of the Labour Party hijacked by Blair and Brown, but of the left. The left lags way behind the political imperatives of the crisis of capitalism that is now upon us. It lags behind in every respect: on the levels of political clarity, of organisation, of connections with the working class.
For two decades capitalism has been riding very high. It has been universally accepted. It seemed to have won the battle against socialism. It defeated the Stalinist ruling class of the Russia. It went through a fantastic phase of expansion.
A species of neo-liberalism, reminiscent of the late 19th century, grew up. The unregulated market has been generally accepted as the norm, the ideal economic mechanism. Socialism has been marginalised.
That is now changing. Capitalism has had a tremendous crash, the most profound crisis of capitalism for three quarters of a century, whose full social and political reverberations we can’t know yet. Capitalism is massively discredited.
For the first time in decades, socialists have an open field to argue for a rational world, a working-class-run socialist society. To argue for a workers’ government. To point out that blind worship of the market is demonstrably crazy.
Unregulated marketism, where you produce as much as you can, with built-in obsolescence so that things soon wear out, where you have to continue producing and selling frantically, locked into the treadmills of capitalist production by the economic mainspring of the profit motive — in a world of finite resources, that is a crazy system. It is a system that, as well as being exploitative, threatens human civilisation with ruin.
The crisis opens tremendous possibilities for us, but the left is not ready for the great crisis of capitalism that is now upon us.
We would be better placed if we had maintained and built the Socialist Alliance. But the SWP (the biggest left group) took it over and soon liquidated it, turning instead to years of Muslim communalist politics in Respect.
A large part of the left is self-intoxicated on pseudo-anti-imperialism. For nearly a decade it has devoted itself to being would-be Muslim communalists instead of fighting for working-class unity around the only slogan that can create it: “Workers, black and white, unite and fight”.
What happened during the last great breakdown of capitalism, in the mid 20th century, is a very dire warning to us.
We don’t know whether or not this crisis will lead to things like those which the earlier crisis produced. No-one knows. That it will create social and political convulsions is certain.
The crisis then undermined and destroyed bourgeois democracy — in Germany at the beginning of 1933, in Spain in the middle 30s. There were mass fascist movements in many other places.
The Marxists then suffered defeat, but not because we were wrong. In general we were right. We were defeated not on the level of ideas, but physically.
Everywhere, the fascists and the Stalinists annihilated the honest socialists, those who stood on the real tradition of Marx and Lenin. We were massacred, isolated and marginalised.
Look at Germany in the period before Hitler came to power (January 1933). From the point at which fascism began to take off (September 1930, when the fascists made a big leap forward in votes) Trotsky wrote a series of pamphlets. He warned the German labour movement that fascism would destroy it. He told the German workers that if fascism came to power, it would ride over their spines like a gigantic tank. It did.
Trotsky urged the two big worker-based parties, the Communist Party and the Social Democrats, to form a united front to fight the fascists. In response, Trotsky was pilloried, by the Stalinists as himself a fascist, and by the Social Democrats as a communist, which is what he was.
The German workers ‘ movement was very powerful. They had their own militias. But they let the fascists come to power peacefully.
The German Trotskyists armed with Trotsky’s analyses, numbered about a hundred people in the whole of Germany. It was like a nightmare in which you see terrible things about to happen but you are paralysed. Authentic communism was paralysed because of a succession of defeats, the most terrible of which was the rise of Stalinism. Stalin massacred far more communists than the fascists did.
Today the working class and the left are not politically in a fit state to face the assaults on us that are going to take place — the crisis, the possible breakdown of bourgeois democracy, the possible rise of fascism. Nor are we in a position to take advantage of the great favourable opportunities that are opening up to those who have clear class-struggle policies against capitalism.
When Stalinism collapsed, our then paper Socialist Organiser said the collapse was the best thing for socialism for decades. We weren’t wrong then. But for most people, Stalinist Russia defined socialism. Its collapse, combined with the expansion of capitalism, seemed to amount to a complete repudiation by history of socialism.
Instead of bounding forward as we might have done, the real socialist movement continued to shrink.
The pattern here is very important to grasp. Back in the late 1930s, the West Indian Trotskyist CLR James said to Trotsky: “Comrade Trotsky, you were right on a whole range of questions. You were right to warn against the catastrophe that faced communism in China in the nineteen-twenties, you were right about Germany, you’ve been right about France, you are right about Spain now. How is it that you can be right on all these things, and yet the influence of the ‘Trotskyist’ movement hasn’t grown?” (It had actually shrunk, by the late thirties.)
Trotsky said to James in reply: “We are the party of the working class. As the Communist Manifesto proclaimed, we have no interest apart from the working class. When that class is defeated, that has a tremendous effect on our prospects. Having been “proved right” does not matter so much as the fact and the consequences of defeat. Workers in the mass don’t respond on the level of general ideas. They respond to facts.
“The great fact is the crushing of the workers in China, in Germany, in Spain, and in Italy, early on. We warned against those defeats. We understood the dangers in advance. If our policies had been followed we would have been able to avert the catastrophe. We weren’t able to do that, so we suffered with the class because of the catastrophe,”
That’s true in general. A Trotskyist movement that isn’t a sect, that doesn’t seal itself off behind closed doors, that doesn’t march to its own rhythm irrespective of the working class — that rational Trotskyist movement suffers with the class, rising or falling with it.
The AWL and the crisis
In politics, Marxists start, not by looking at our own small numbers, but at what is objectively necessary. We pose as “tasks” to ourselves and to the working class the things that are objectively necessary. Instead of being paralysed by our own small size and disarray of the left around us, we have to find the will and determination and the historical perspective to rise to the challenges we face.
We are not ready? We must make ourselves ready!
We have to rise above paralysis to promote clear revolutionary socialist politics, vigorously and ardently, in the working class.
Throughout the world, the working class has been much augmented in the long period of capitalist expansion, greatly increased in numbers. There are in our world far more workers than there were in the world of the great mid-20th century crisis. There is good reason to believe that that working class will be able to fight back, hold its own, and advance.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has in many ways become reduced to a propaganda role, whereas in the past, for example, we were able to organise the broad left in the Labour Party (in the 1980s).
Like the broad labour movement, AWL is not ready. In our ase for organisational rather than political reasons. AWL is now a loose grouping, too loose.
We think we have virtues. We try to be honest and rational in politics. We work at avoiding demagogy and kitsch-left sloganising. We don’t organise ourselves as a closed sect. Our people have the right to think for themselves and to express their thoughts publicly. That is in sharp contrast to most of the “Leninist” left.
As rational Marxists, we try to root ourselves in the actuality of history. We draw conclusions from the catastrophic failures of the left in the past. We stand in, and propagate, a great tradition.
A renegade socialist, a former comrade, said recently to one of the editors of Solidarity: “Why are you going on about Trotsky, why do you look to find out what Trotsky had to say about things? Why bother with tradition? Now is now and that was then.”
Why? In the crucible of the great crisis of the 20th century, 1914 to 1945, the Bolshevik movement of Lenin and Trotsky did great deeds, the greatest of which was the working-class conquest of power in Russia in 1917, and created a literature about all the issues raised in the great crucible of concentrated political and social events, that is a great encyclopedia of revolutionary experience and a model of analysis, of Marxist clarity.
Of course Trotsky or Lenin can't think for us. They can teach us to do our own analysis. The literature of that great tradition deals with crises such as those we are likely to have in the period ahead. We can learn.
And if you learn from books, from experience, you foreshorten the period of your learning, you foreshorten the cost in defeats that are avoidable.
That is a great asset. Yet it needs to be said clearly and starkly: as things stand, AWL is not yet “fit for purpose”. We need to raise ourselves to meet the demands of the new situation — raise ourselves higher than we can do easily without straining or stress.
Vountarism? Yes. Voluntarism, the will to do things, plays a very important part in politics. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci put it: “Reality is the result of the application of wills to the society of things... to put aside every voluntary effort and calculate only the intervention of other wills as an objective element in the general game is to mutilate reality itself. Only those who strongly want to realise it identify the necessary elements for the realisation of their will."
We need to generate the collective will to to perform our tasks, to argue the case for a workers' government, to convince people who are sceptical (and there are many such). We need to carry and spread the conviction that the working class can take power.
In the new period AWL has to increase the things we do and try to do, to improve our press and make it more of a tool in our intervention.
AWL consists of people who have faced up to the degeneracy of the Trotskyist movement and of the demagogic “kitsch-left” , We have had to dig into the past to try to understand that. We are a propaganda group. We explain things, pose a long overall perspective.
But AWL is also a fighting propaganda group. That's what's we've always been, except that the “fighting” element has decreased as the class struggle has decreased. Now the tempo is changing, and we have to change tempo too.
Long, long ago, in 1967, one of Solidarity’s editors wrote a a statement of our general approach. It ended as follows, in words AWL now repeats: “We call on you to join us. We want not the spare evenings of dilettantes, but the dedicated, active lives of revolutionaries, people who make the struggle for socialism the core content and organising principes of their lives”.
If you are a member or sympathiser of AWL, face your responsibilities in the great capitalist crisis. If you are neither, but want what we want — join us!