Like the Bible and the Koran

Submitted by Anon on 18 May, 2007 - 6:06

By Barry Finger

“That is the mentality which sees socialism in the far distance and is really chained to the idea that what workers want is a higher standard of living, ‘a full dinner pail’, ‘peace’, ‘full employment’. All he has done is to hold fast to the existent, making it tolerable by patching up the holes. That is the next stage of socialism. Shachtman is that type complete.

The opposition, the socialism that lies in the struggle and overcoming of Stalinism is beyond him. But that does not exhaust the type.

At the other end of its scale is Trotsky. He holds fast to another type of existent, the world of 1917. After twenty-one years of the Russian revolution all he could say was: revive the soviets; revise the plan in the interests of the toilers; free the unions. If Shachtman is Imagination, which thinks only with what is familiar, Trotsky is Understanding, which thinks only with what is familiar to it.

To both, the next stage is excluded. Yes, to both of them. And precisely because of that, the present eludes them.

Thus early, at the beginning, in Quality, in Doctrine of Being, Hegel was saying, in general, on a very abstract level, what he will be saying on a more developed level in Essence, and on a still higher level in the Doctrine of the Notion.”

CLR James, Notes on Dialectics: Part II, The Hegelian Logic

“The point is: it doesn’t make any difference whether there was an in-person relationship. If you know the exact relationship between OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE, between PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION, and don’t consider any of that as abstract, you then realize it is abstract only if you haven’t made the connection of objective and subjective, and seen how the actual subjective genuine human new beginnings which then unite with the movement from theory can make up into this Absolute Idea AS NEW BEGINNING…”

Raya Dunayevskaya, Dialectics: The Algebra of Revolution

Perhaps I’m missing something in Chris Ford’s appeal (Solidarity 3/111) to round out the fragmented tradition of critical Marxism by extending our appreciation of the contributions of the Johnson-Forest tendency (of CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya). And I’m not entirely closed minded on the subject either.

There is, in fact, at least one area which most left Shachtmanites in the US generally now agree that Johnson was correct and the majority in the Workers Party lagging. On the issue of independent self-organisation and struggle of the black masses for equality the WP minority correctly militated against the dead weight of the Debsian tradition that stubbornly insisted that there was no separate black question outside the struggle between capital and labour. In this matter, James and Dunayevskaya’s appeal presaged the later social struggles of women and gays, who quite aptly refused to trim their demands to accommodate the existing consciousness of the working classes.

Their unflagging championship of libertarian and humanistic Marxism, firmly opposed to Stalinism and all authoritarian tendencies within the labour movement and the left has stood them in good stead in many contemporary struggles. The Marxist-Humanist strain in particular has done excellent work in exposing the Islamist-friendly proclivities of Foucault. And they have honorably resisted the blandishments of reactionary anti-imperialist strains in the anti-war movement.

But Chris never brings these issues up. Instead, he dwells on precisely the very issue that seems, at least to my ears, to be the most loopy and cult-like in the Johnson-Forest tradition, namely the weird insistence that the Marx-Hegel relationship is an essential dimension, indeed, the missing solvent in all questions political.

Chris puffs up and dramatises the patently trivial and unexceptional observation in solemn philosophical tones — “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.” Did Trotsky‘s theory of the degenerated workers’ state fail to do this? Did the WP’s theory of bureaucratic collectivism somehow overlook this? Or did they all develop and refine their analyses to widely varying conclusions that launched and perpetuated what was to become their distinct political orientations?

The distinct orientation of the Johnson-Forest tendency was their assertion that the Stalinist parties were an evolutionary adaptation of social democracy commensurate with the statification of capitalism that in their view characterised Stalinism (see The Invading Socialist Society).

The Shachtmanites — and I use that term broadly and imprecisely — argued, not unreasonably, in my opinion, that the traditional social democratic parties were authentic working-class institutions, flawed and compromised to be sure, and reflecting the conservative policies of the labour leaderships, but parties which nevertheless remained tools of working-class struggle. The Communist parties were seen, in striking contrast, as the ideological agents not for a conservative section of the trade union movement, but of a totalitarian ruling class whose interests were diametrically opposed to the emancipatory struggles of the working class.

If, in contrast, the Stalinist parties of Western Europe were of a more advanced social democratic type, then the Forest Johnson minority was correct in calling the Communist Parties to power. “The contradiction contained in the very term critical support becomes altered by the objective conditions. The support becomes merely a basis for the criticism, the merciless exposure of Stalinism and the revolutionary release of the masses which alone can overcome it.”

The more hidebound majority briefly toyed with a similar slogan, but quickly returned to its ideological senses insisting that there were probably more fruitful means of combating the influence of Stalinism than in summoning them to state power.

Then of course, there is another mode of presentation unique to this Hegelianised Marxism, one that substitutes a series of lofty non sequiturs plucked out of mid air for an argument.

“Their [presumably the WP majority] 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.”

The maturity and power of the proletariat —really! Now CLR James may have believed in 1946 that “No revolutionary [could] deny the possibility that [within] two years… the American proletariat could cover the nation with soviets (or their equivalents)…”, but the Shachtmanites who, after all, had no little experience with the wave of wartime wildcat strikes and were not needlessly predisposed to underestimate the militant spirit of the American worker, found this — and I’m being polite — a tad other-worldly.

Johnson could argue, while still a member of the minority faction, that “awareness of the contradictions of American capitalism have been to a large degree the property of Marxists alone. Today, they are increasingly the property of the masses of the people.” He could insist in uniquely identifying the “revolutionary pressure of the American proletariat” and further assure his camp followers that “the American proletariat… will welcome the most drastic revolutionary changes in American society, carried out at the expense of private property.”

Try as they might, the minority was mysteriously unable to convince the stiff-necked Shachtmanites that in the only advanced capitalist country in which the working class did not function in the political arena as a separate class, and where the overwhelming bulk of the workers still retained their essential faith in the capitalist party duopoly, there also existed a working class seething to seize political power.

And why not? This irrepressible “revolutionism” was not a temporary aberration, but a permanent characteristic of the whole tendency in whatever direction it later morphed. As Johnson was to say against the IKD thesis of “historical retrogression” that Chris alludes to — and to repeat many times in every conceivable context, “All the great Marxists understood that for the scientific analysis of capitalist society, you must postulate the positive in the negative, the affirmation in the negation, i.e., the inevitability of socialism.”

I. e., indeed! Of the nuclear sword of Damocles that hovered over the head of humanity at the outset of the cold war, of the unprecedented barbarism that awaited a society thrust back to the Dark Ages in the event of a nuclear holocaust, Johnson calmly postulated… well, affirmation in the negation. An interesting consolation to his followers, less so to the philosophical philistines he would shortly break with.

The WP majority asked themselves, what slogans and perspectives can be raised to move the American working class, at once so militant and aggressive in the economic arena and so backward and dependent on their rulers politically, into action that would bridge that chasm? What actions could be taken to avert the next war? It was for that reason that the slogan of a “labour party” was raised as a transitional demand specific to the American scene, a demand, which if realised in the heart of world capitalism could derail the political dynamic that threatened society.

But the irrepressible revolutionism of the Johnson-Forest minority was searching instead for an immediate path to an American Bolshevik Party, no less. Soon even that would not suffice. Why confine the creative juices of an American proletariat in a mere revolutionary party when it was ever ready to leap directly into revolutionary action, to general strikes, factory committees and workers councils? By 1958 Johnson was “Facing Reality”, and what an attractive face his reality had.

“American workers,” he assured his readers, “are not certain of their ultimate aims, nor of the end towards which they are heading. They are indifferent to Socialist Parties or Communist Parties, in the traditional sense, but under the pressure of a crisis the idea of Workers Councils or a government of Workers Councils will not be in the slightest degree alien to them.” And of the revival of Bolshevism it just yesterday proclaimed? “Today the working class has no need of these proletarian Jesuits. It has arrived at a stage where the absolute freedom of organization, complete democracy, is not an aspiration, but the very context, the warp and woof of its daily existence.”

One could go on indefinitely. The rediscovery and celebration of the Johnson-Forest tendency has become a cottage industry in the interstices of the American left. It is not an unknown product, but, like the bible and the koran, the historical output of its founders is best appreciated at a comfortable distance.

• There are more materials and debate on this at

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