More on Blogspot debate

Submitted by martin on 21 December, 2003 - 12:09

The people at Socialism in an Age of Waiting have (I think) now concluded their polemic against, mainly, me. It's an interesting discussion, though they avoid the real issues, in my view.
For comrades who are interested to know what I actually said in the email they refer to, here it is. You will note that they say pretty much nothing at all about my point 2, below - about the possibility of socialist democracy in the world today. A thing I have learned from web discussions, incidentally: don't bother being friendly, relatively unpolemical, or polite; it won't stop your interlocutors being demagogic little phrasemongers. ;-=)

Hi there again

This is a very interesting and stimulating discussion - too much so, because I have a lot of other work I should be getting on with. Grrr. But here are a few points. (After this I will definitely shut up for the conceivable future).

Our disagreement is about the relationship between socialism and bourgeois democracy.
Yes, socialists should support bourgeois democracy as against any undemocratic, or less democratic alternative. I don't quite know how to put this so it doesn't sound perfunctory or incidental. I think democracy is central to the socialist project, including now; I think one way of describing the socialist project is that it is about extending democracy into all spheres of life. (I don't entirely agree with her, but I think Ellen Meiksins Wood has written interesting stuff on this).

The issue is (1) whether this means we should give 'positive support' for bourgeois governments, or bourgeois parties in or out of power, or 'neoimperialism' as the dog which the tail can't wag; and (2) whether anything beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy, that is socialist democracy, is possible in the world today, or off the agenda until, as you put it, the bourgeois revolution has been completed.

Of course I 'positively support' all the freedoms which exist now - albeit, I think, with some fragility - in Iraq, and I support struggles for more of them. This doesn't mean I have to 'positively support' either the US occupation or the Interim Governing Council. If you really don't grasp this distinction, I am not sure how you function in politics at all. (For instance, one could support all democratic rights which exist in the USA without supporting either Democratic or Republican governments - surely.)
Somewhere you mention approvingly that Trotsky was well aware of the distinction between bourgeois democracy and fascism, and advocated the active defence of the former against the latter.
This is true, but it is an incomplete description of Trotsky's thinking. He proposed forceful resistance to the Nazis because he recognised the importance of defending the rights the labour movement had under Weimar, which the Nazis would murderously trample on. But he proposed a united front of working class organisations; he quite explicitly did not propose unity with the forces of 'bourgeois democracy'; indeed, when - after their miserable failure in Germany - the Comintern launched the 'popular front', precisely as unity of all 'anti-fascists', Trotsky denounced them. And the historical record, from Spain through to the British CP opposing strikes in the name of anti-fascist unity, is that he was right to do so: the popular front was ineffective in fighting fascism, and the attempt to contain all struggles within bourgeois limits meant that workers got shot (eg, Spain).
The point here seems to me exactly the distinction I am making with regard to Iraq. I think Trotsky would have found the idea of 'unity against fascism' with SCIRI, Ayad Alawi (!) and Ahmed Chalabi (not to mention Bush) deeply perplexing if not risible.
(There's more to be said, especially on World War Two. That is a very big discussion, and all I will say for now is that I think World War Two is an inadequate parallel with the recent Iraq war.)

I mention Trotsky because he's a good illustration of the approach of an important classical Marxist to the broad question you raise, not because I think Trotsky's views on a subject settles it.
On the other issue - of whether questions of socialist democracy are utopian, or off the agenda, or whatever exactly is implied by the perspective you advocate - I'll mention South Africa in the last days of apartheid.
Here was a country in which the central, defining political question was the right to vote. Here also there was a large and powerful working class, which from the early 1970s began to develop an assertive movement, principally through the formation of industrial unions.
Within that movement, ideas began to form about democracy with a far wider scope: ideas of workers' democracy. This meant many things, including: grass-roots, 'self-managing' democracy (this is a phrase from Poland in 1980-81, but it is more generally useful) in matters of community self-defence, justice, and so on; questions to do with the running of industry and itself - democracy in the economic sphere, which bourgeois democracy, by definition, does not touch; and issues to do with the workers' movement's relationship with political forces which represent other class interests (in particular, the ANC).
The ANC was deeply concerned to control this workers' movement, to make sure that anything to do with questions of fundamental class rule was removed from the agenda. They were, of course, successful. I think real possibilities of socialist democracy were thus lost.
Of course, any workers' movement in the first place fights within capitalism, on economic and political fronts; but in South Africa, for example, the workers' struggle also posed questions to do with the general organisation of society. A socialist strategy, here, it seems to me, is to try to provide answers at this level, the general organisation of society - to try to develop and give direction to this emergent socialist democracy - rather than insist that no struggle against and beyond capitalism itself is possible.
There are very many examples of where the class rule of the capitalists (or of whatever you want to call the class which ruled in Eastern Europe under Stalinism) has been called into question by working class struggle since 1945: Hungary, Poland, France in '68, Portugal, parts of South America (all differently, and to different degrees). I'm not saying these examples prove that the overthrow of capitalism has only been narrowly missed; but that there is evidence, still, of the revolutionary possibilities of working class struggle, which suggest socialist democracy is a real possibility, objectively, in the contemporary world, and it is therefore wrong to define, in advance, the limits to all struggles as bourgeois democracy - that is, to capitalism.

These are the general issues as I see them. A few quick final rejoinders:
I accept that 'permanent war' is a bad phrase and an exaggeration. But I am much less sanguine than you that the aims of US policy are to use wars in Afghanistan and Iraq only as leverage on North Korea, etc. They are certainly not likely to launch war any time soon. But I don't share your confidence that, if they consider it necessary, they won't launch more wars. I suppose we will see.
And obviously I don't think socialism is possible in one country. By socialist democracy I mean forms of self-managing democracy, in politics, communities, workplaces and so on, which are based on the challenge to, and ultimately the defeat of, capitalist rule. Of course, to be permanent such forms need to be internationalised.

The Indonesian workers' movement, and many others I could mention, are not merely 'third camp' in some Platonic sense: they are an actual social force which is against capitalism (some of them avowedly) and against Islamism. In Pakistan, after September 11, for example, there were demonstrations under the slogans 'No to war, no to fundamentalism'; across the world you will find people who took this broad approach, and there are plainly people in Iraq who take it. (The attitude of very many Iraqis seems to be simultaneous hostility to the occupation and to the 'resistance'. Not quite a third camp yet, but on the way there). They are not merely the tail to some military dog; and if it counts for anything at all to be a socialist in the world today, our job is to help, nurture, and build these actual social forces.
The 'third camp' therefore is not - for me, I have no intention of speaking for Hal Draper - a question of neutrality, but of building an actual movement which opposes both capitalism and reactionary anti-capitalism.

By the way, we have an annual conference, at which a National Committee is elected, which then elects an Executive. Sean was elected by both, along with some other people. Some people were not elected. We have constitutional guarantees that political minorities have automatic places on these committees; and as you will see from our paper, as a matter of course anyone who disagrees with a majority view has an automatic right to air their disagreement publicly.

Oh, and we have republished a fair bit of Kautsky. I did think you seemed like neo-Kautskyites, but was prepared not to read too much into it. That one of you used to be a Lambertiste is far more instructive. ;-)

And by another way: You confidently predict that in five years Iraq will be a bourgeois democracy. Again, this seems to express our disagreement. If I was a gambler, I reckon I might win enough for a very good holiday if I challenged you to lay bets.
In any case, for me the question is how to promote those forces which can ensure a democratic outcome. Simply supporting the US is actually, enjoyably insulting though you sometimes are in your defence of this attitude, completely passive. Your insistence that somehow you are defending a socialist objective, or socialist practice, is actually rather more abstract than the 'third camp' you so radically misunderstand. How will anything specifically socialist emerge in Iraq, for instance? If we lived in a world where it was simply inconceivable that anything socialist might emerge - anywhere - and all we could do was polemically defend the Enlightenment until the current darkness had passed us over, all right, you would have a point. For Victor Serge when it was midnight in the last century, I can see why he might be depressed. The world today is dismal, but not, I put it to you, a cause for such boundless despair.




Submitted by Clive on Mon, 22/12/2003 - 13:10

Just to say that it was unfair to call my opponents here 'demagogic little phrasemongers'. There are things they have written which have annoyed me - and I was feeling annoyed at the time I wrote that phrase - but on the whole they are seriously attempting to address some important issues, and I hope debate can continue.

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