Issue 226 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review


The torch of revolution

Trotskyism after Trotsky

Trotskyism after Trotsky
Tony Cliff
Bookmarks £4.50

In this little gem of a book, Tony Cliff tracks the paths taken by the set of ideas which eventually Ied to the formation of the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) at the beginning of the 1950s. In the process he provides an explanation of developments in world capitalism since the war and of the way key strands of the Marxist tradition had been obliterated after Stalin's rise to power in Russia.
Immediately after the war, Stalin's dominance of Communist parties round the world was so rampant that only tiny handfuls of socialists remained loyal to the revolutionary tradition. Most of these socialists were also Trotskyists, but they had split into a number of competing tendencies after Trotsky's murder in 1940.
One of the reasons for this general disarray was that, although Trotsky had carried the torch for as long and as courageously as he could against the horrors of Stalinism, he had made a number of forecasts about the impact of the war which were not borne out by events. Trotsky had thought, first, that Stalin would not outlast the conflict; second, that capitalism in the West would hurtle into renewed crisis at the end of the war; and third, that the working classes of the newly industrialising nations would take the place of the bourgeoisie in leading socialist revolutions, as in Russia in 1917.
Unfortunately, Stalin did outlast the conflict. If anything, he emerged more in command than ever. Capitalism in the West did not lurch headlong into a new crisis; instead, it entered into the longest period of stability in its history. And the working classes in the less industrialised nations did not take the lead in anti-imperialist uprisings. Instead, these revolts tended to be led by relatively small groups of revolutionary intellectuals, many taken in by Stalin's apparent success in transforming Russia's peasant economy into the major world superpower outside the US.
Socialists opposed to Stalinism were faced with one of two options: either face up to reality or carry on reciting Trotsky's every word like a mantra. Cliff chose the first option. His first departure from the prevailing orthodoxy was triggered by the emergence of regimes in Eastern Europe and China established on the Stalinist model.
In a series of landmark articles Cliff argued that, since the working class had clearly played no active role in its own 'emancipation' in these instances, this not only flew in the face of Marxist tradition but cast serious doubt on Trotsky's perception of Russia under Stalin as a 'degenerated workers' state'. In the Eastern Bloc, the transformation had been carried through by the Russian Army, in China by mainly peasant forces. By what criteria could these new regimes really be described as socialist?
In effect, the regime led by Stalin and those which tried to emulate him had become different in form, but no different in content, from those in the West. In the definition used by Marx, capitalism's two defining features were anarchy in the marketplace combined with tyranny in the workplace. Moreover, in a country like China, where the working class had suffered a massive defeat in the late 1920s and levels of industrial production were low, levels of exploitation would be even worse than in the West.
Cliff argued that, although the forces of world capitalism had failed to crush the Soviet Republic in its early years, a transformation of the economic, social and political order had taken place under Stalin-- to state capitalism. Stalin tried to compete militarily with the West and, although neither side ultimately triumphed, the struggle imposed a form of symmetry on the antagonists. Russia was forced to build a massive military-industrial machine to answer the might of world imperialism. Stalin was able to reach parity on military terms but only at the expense of massive distortions within the Russian economy and a nightmare existence for the Russian people.
In turn, the threat posed to the West by Russian state capitalism's military might helped to promote the development of a permanent arms economy in the West, a major contributory factor in the long postwar boom. The most obvious manifestations of the permanent arms economy were the rivalry between the USSR and US over nuclear warheads during the Cold War years. But this conflict had major political implications too, when it came to local wars and conflicts. On the one hand, it tended to inhibit direct interventions by each side in emergent nations; on the other, the two poles of attraction were so strong that the local ruling classes and their opponents would tend to side with either Yankee capitalism or Soviet state capitalism.
Either way, both free market and state capitalism faced the same internal contradictions, as we have seen only too spectacularly in the last few years. Ultimately, the Russian economy simply could not compete on the same terms as the West. There could be no such thing as 'socialism in one country'.
The critique developed by Tony Cliff in these articles rejected the notion of blind faith in favour of a scientific approach to Marxist theory. At the same time, in his theories on state capitalism, the permanent arms economy and the 'deflected' permanent revolutions of the developing countries, he was able to repair links in the intellectual chain broken during the Stalin era. Taken together these three contributions provided a new framework for the re-establishment of a genuine revolutionary tradition over the next half century and represent a really staggering achievement.
Jack Robertson

The writing on the wall

Dreaming with his eyes open

Dreaming with his eyes open
Patrick Marnham
Bloomsbury £20

The Mexican muralists have produced some of the most influential and impressive wall paintings of the 20th century. The name of Diego Rivera is synonymous with this form of public art which inspired whole generations of artists to make art relevant, political and for the masses. Diego Rivera is well known for both his art and his political activity. He welcomed and sheltered Leon Trotsky in his home in 1937 to protect him from Stalin's assassins. He was a member of the Mexican Communist Party for much of his political life and helped set up the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors.
This new biography is most welcome for relating the life of a very complex and talented man. The most colourful aspects of Rivera's life are well catalogued: friendship with the Trotskys; marriage to Frida Kahlo; his constant womanising and the abandonment of his children.
Rivera's art was affected by many factors. He was sent to Europe on a state scholarship where he was influenced by the Impressionists, Cubists and the avant-garde schools of Barcelona and Paris. When Rivera began painting he could imitate every and any artistic form but struggled to find his own style. It was on his return to Mexico in 1921 that he was commissioned by the ministry of education to recreate a cultural, nationalist image for a new Mexican identity. But Rivera's work went far beyond this. One of his most famous frescos is the 1929 Allegory of Mexican History, consisting of three panels: the Aztec world, destruction of this by the Spanish conquest, and finally the hope of the future struggle.
Another powerful painting is Man at the Crossroads which portrays capitalism as the evil confronting humanity and its opposite, socialism, with Marx, Trotsky and Lenin representing hope. This was originally commissioned for the Rockefeller Centre in New York, but so offended the US establishment that they had it destroyed before completion! Fortunately, Rivera repainted it in Mexico City.
Marnham's book has a constant theme of myth making and half truths running through it. He states that Rivera is responsible for these. These include myths about his birth to the more serious myth of recreating his involvement in the Mexican Revolution, which he completely missed since he was in Europe.
Marnham explores how Rivera was open to charges of opportunism. He was the only muralist to survive bitter arguments with the government. His fellow artists were attacked and discredited in 1924 and in 1929 when the Communist Party was banned, but Rivera survived by distancing himself and taking a government post at the academy. His expulsion from the CP and its continual denial of his reapplication may explain why he sided with Trotsky, suggests Marnham. In addition he states that Rivera's lack of regret at Trotsky's murder and his re-entry to the CP on Frida Kahlo's death are cause for suspicion. Whether there is any truth to these assertions is open to debate. What remains undeniable is the enormous influence that Rivera's works continue to exert. Marnham has done a great service in writing this biography of a much revered artist.
Talat Ahmed

McCarthy's martyrs

I Married a Communist
Philip Roth
Cape £16.99

Nathan Zuckerman is a middle aged man when, by chance, he bumps into Murray Ringold, his old English teacher. For the next few evenings Nathan and Murray, now in his 90s, revisit their past, when Nathan was an idealistic student and Murray his inspiring English teacher, in the days before the McCarthy witchhunts of the early 1950s. The pivot around which their past revolved was Ira Ringold, Murray's brother, Nathan's hero. Ira was a man of giant stature and equally giant convictions. Recruited to the Communist Party while serving in the army, he never ceased to rage against the horrors of the capitalist system, its racism, hypocrisy and inequality.
Ira remakes himself, from an illiterate ditch digger in run down Newark, to a famous radio actor married to beautiful actress Eve Frame and living in star studded Manhattan. He becomes Iron Rinn, and wins popular acclaim for playing Abe Lincoln. But this is not a society which welcomes outsiders, particularly if they are Jewish and Communist. When Ira's marriage turns sour, his political beliefs and his personal weaknesses combine to bring him down. His ultimate destruction is engineered by Eve. In revenge for Ira's infidelity, Eve allows a right wing gossip columnist, Bayden Grant, to ghost write her memoir, I Married A Communist, and expose Ira to the virulent anti-Communist forces of the time. In the eyes of the McCarthyites, Ira becomes the archetypal Communist, using the family to undermine democracy and all things wholesome and American. His life is ruined.
In Roth's novels the poor Jewish immigrants who 'make it' and achieve some success are destroyed by forces beyond their control, usually their own children. Roth's America reeks of injustice.
Ira is destroyed by McCarthyism, but Eve Frame is also brought down. Eve also comes from a poor Jewish background but she has learnt to mimic the anti-Semitism of the Hollywood 'aristocracy'. For all her success, she lives in fear of her manipulative, selfish daughter.
I Married a Communist is a dark and powerful novel, at times poetic, at times savagely ironic-- a novel which confronts one of the most repellent episodes in recent US history. The book satirises the US political establishment from the McCarthy era to today. In the memorable picture he draws of Richard Nixon's funeral, Murray Ringold rages against the self adoration disguised as patriotism displayed by the US's top politicians.
However, the framework within which Roth writes imposes limitations on the novel. The impulse for Ira's passionate commitment to Communism is revealed in purely individual terms, as a personal flaw, rather than in any wider association with US society. I Married a Communist paints a broad picture of US society then retreats to the narrow focus of personal misery and defeat; all politics is cynicism, all attempts to change the world are thwarted, the only response is political quietude. Yet despite this conclusion, the novel gives a brilliant sense of the McCarthy era.
Judy Cox

Union made in Wales

Capitalism, Community and Conflict
Chris Williams
University of Wales Press £7.95

'When there was a strike at Powell's Levell in Llancaiach many years ago the manager was made to swear on the frying pan that we would never again employ strikebreakers. No Bible was available at the time so the frying pan was considered to be the next best thing.' This is part of Walter H Davies's recollections of the South Wales Miners' Federation's campaign for '100 percent unionism' which is just one of the many fascinating illustrative documents Williams uses to tell the history of the South Wales coalfield and its union, the SWMF-- the 'Fed'.
The SWMF came into existence after an unsuccessful coalfield-wide strike in 1898. This was the era of Lib-Labism, when union leaders believed that workers and bosses had common interests. The personification of Lib-Labism was the SWMF's leader, William Abraham (known by his bardic name Mabon), who pledged the union to the 'sliding scale', which linked miners' wages to the market price of coal.
Williams says of the sliding scale that it 'ensured that any control of their own standard of living was out of the hands of the miners'. It also capped any wage increase. Opposition to the sliding scale and the union leadership grew slowly.
Many young miners were drawn to the ideas of syndicalism. They published their views in 'The Miners' Next Step', the manifesto of the unofficial reform committee. However, it was the events of the Great Unrest which led to the scrapping of the sliding scale and the resignation of Mabon in 1912.
The highpoint of the class struggle came in the 1920s with the miners' dispute that led to the 1926 General Strike. Its defeat led to the miners also being defeated.
This was followed by a recession in the coal industry and there was high unemployment across South Wales. The employers further tried to weaken the SWMF by supporting a sweetheart union.
The Fed fought back in the mid-1930s during a period of rising class tensions. The campaign for 100 percent unionism was won through a combination of a huge level of community support and the 'stay down strike', where miners occupied their pits. In 1947 the industry was nationalised and the Fed become part of the NUM.
The book does have serious omissions. For example in the chapter on 'Politics' there is not one word about the Trotskyist movement in South Wales.
For a brief time Trotskyists gained a political influence far greater then their small numbers. After 1941 and the attack on the USSR, the Communist Party become fully committed to supporting the war effort. Arthur Horner, the Communist President of the SWMF, strove to ensure the highest levels of output in the pits and any suggestion of unofficial action was condemned. Thus a political vacuum opened on the left which the Trotskyists could only partly fill because of their limited numbers.
However, revolutionary Marxists did play an important part in building the unofficial strike of March 1944 which involved 100,000 men in South Wales alone and the respect gained by the Trotskyists was shown in the May 1945 Neath by-election when Trotskyist Jock Haston received 1,781 votes.
Phil Knight

The power of romance

Love and the Novel

Love and the Novel
George Paizis
Macmillan £42.50

Romantic fiction is extremely popular. As this book shows, the romance sector comprises nearly 50 percent of all sales of mass market paperbacks in the US, while in Britain it makes up 21 percent of retail paperback fiction sales. The romantic fiction readership in Britain is over 10 million, of which Harlequin Mills and Boon books constitute around a third.
The readers of this fiction are overwhelmingly women. Harlequin Mills and Boon estimate that 80 percent of their sales are to women white collar workers. The subject matter of the books has often made them the subject of dismissal or scorn from many who believe in women's equality. Surely these stories present an image of women to their readers which only reinforces women's oppression?
This new book by George Paizis tries to put a more rounded point of view. It is impossible to simply dismiss women who read romantic fiction as colluding in their own oppression or as ciphers for dominant males. Paizis points out that the genre began to boom in the US and Britain in the late 1960s-- precisely the time that women's liberation also came on the agenda.
Its readers are often young women who work, and will share many of the modern attitudes about women's equality which most working women hold. This is disputed by a number of the academics quoted in the book, who describe the readers of such books as conservative, or because in the words of Frederic Jameson, mass culture's main function is the 'legitimation of the existing order'.
Now it is probably true that the more politically conscious women are, the less likely they are to read Mills and Boon novels. But women are not simply caught in a patriarchal trap; their reading does not necessarily reinforce their oppression or mean that they will always be oppressed. If this were the case, the outlook for women's liberation would be particularly grim. Instead we need to take into account what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called 'contradictory consciousness' in the heads of working people. Women who imagine themselves in the arms of the hero of one of these books are not necessarily submissive to the men in their own lives.
Many women will read romances where nurses marry doctors or the secretary marries her boss, but in real life this rarely happens-- and most women know it. They read romances as an escape from the alienation and boredom of their lives, not as a blueprint for their own existence. Even if they do believe every romantic myth that comes their way, and this is surely only a minority of working women, the reality of life brings them into constant conflict with the myth. So the same women join unions, get divorced, bring their kids up alone or decide to go to college-- even though this is not what the romances' heroines do.
That is why even though the romances appear to be formulaic and timeless, this book reveals that they have changed in a number of ways to be more appealing to modern working women who are relatively sexually liberated and independent. Real change in women's lives and in the struggles of workers would surely lead to many women rejecting the feminine stereotypes for a more realistic portrayal of their situation.
This book's language is too academic which serves sometimes to obscure rather than clarify points, and I would have liked much more than the brief description of Gramsci's ideas on consciousness, along with some integration of the views of the Marxists Georg Lukács and Leon Trotsky, both of whom had very interesting and important things to say on the novel. However, it is a useful and detailed study of the structure, characters and role of the romantic novel from a left wing and sympathetic point of view.
Lindsey German

Pretty pictures?

Modern Times, Modern Places

Modern Times, Modern Places
Peter Conrad
Thames & Hudson £24.95

Montage, the technique of presenting a collection of contrasting images in order to reflect the atomised and fragmented experience of life in the modern world, was one of the defining techniques of the modernist movement in the arts. Modernists saw themselves as breaking from the restrictive and closed world of the 19th century. This was being transformed at breakneck speed by the process of industrialisation, urbanisation and technological innovation reflecting both the excitement and the alienation of city life.
Painters such as Picasso, Paul Klee, the de Stijl school of Mondrian and the Russian Constructivists such as Rodchenko and Tatlin developed new techniques and pushed out the boundaries of art. Modernist composers like Stravinsky and ShostakovItch explored the use of atonality and borrowed widely from jazz and other forms of popular music. Poetry and literature were revolutionised.
Cinema, the new art form of the 20th century, afforded huge opportunities for innovation.
Peter Conrad's Modern Times, Modern Places flags up his intention of using montage by presenting KazImir Podsadecki's well known photomontage 'City-- Mill of Life' on the title page. The 30 thematic chapters cover a huge range of material. Conrad's encyclopaedic knowledge of modernist culture and fluent and easy writing style creates a series of highly readable essays.
However, there remains a central flaw with the whole conception of modernism which is encapsulated in the Modern Times of the title. While modernism is a very useful term to describe an artistic and cultural movement and sensibility, it is fundamentally misleading to describe the historical, economic and social development of the period as modernism. Modernism as a cultural movement has to be seen rather as a response to the mature development of capitalist society, and of the nationalism and imperialism which accompanied its rise. The alienation and atomisation of modern life which modernist writers and painters address is symptomatic of capitalism, not of modernism in itself.
Conrad's sense of history and politics is extremely sloppy. He reproduces all of the clichés of the 20th century. He covers Russian modernism in the context of the revolution in some depth. However, for him 1917 is portrayed as a purely utopian escapade and Stalinism is seen simply as a continuation of Leninism. Although quite clearly horrified at the rise of fascism and its implications, Conrad is unprepared to put forward any attempt at an analysis, and therefore is left writing meaningless banalities.
Conrad's inability to grasp the dynamics of modern capitalism results in a cynical 'just so story' account of the 20th century: 'The story of the 20th century is that of any individual life. We begin rebelliously then as we recognise the limits which have been set for us...growing up we become our parents and then our grandparents.'
If you are looking for a comprehensive and accessible introduction to modernist art, then Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New remains the best starting point. Modern Times, Modern Places flatters to deceive, providing us with much flashy postmodern surface and very little depth.
James Eaden

The real enemies

Britain, Italy, Germany and the Spanish Civil War
Will Podmore
Edwin Mellen Press £39.95

Arms for Spain

Arms for Spain
Gerald Howson
John Murray £25

The rise of Germany as a major industrial and military competitor posed a problem for the British ruling class by the end of the 1930s. But the establishment was divided about what strategy would best defend the interests of British imperialism.
There were those, embodied in the figure of Churchill, who came to see Germany and the Nazis as a major threat to the British Empire. Others, led by Chamberlain, sought to appease both Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. In particular Mussolini was regarded as both an ally in the struggle against Bolshevism and as an instrument of collaboration with Hitler.
When Chamberlain became Tory leader his goal was to encourage Hitler to attack Russia to his east, not the countries to his west. Neville Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, told the German government that he 'entirely agreed with the Führer that the first and greatest danger to the existence of Europe was Bolshevism.'
The policy of appeasement affected the British government's attitude to the Spanish Civil War. In private, many members of the establishment supported Franco. Tory MP Henry Channon, a fervent Chamberlain supporter, wrote, 'It will be a disaster for Conservatism if he [Franco] is defeated by the forces of Communism and anarchy which dominate the Madrid government.'
In public, however, the British government proposed the establishment of a Non-Intervention Committee of major powers. While the German and Italian governments poured soldiers and arms to Franco's aid, it became a criminal offence in Britain to sell arms or ammunition to the Spanish Republican government. The policy effectively blockaded the Spanish government.
Will Podmore's book is based on cabinet and foreign office papers, and documents the British government's policy towards Mussolini. It is utterly damning about the behaviour of the British establishment. The book is weakened, however, by its approach to the Soviet Union's role.
The motives and role of Stalin's government are cast in a far more damning light by Gerald Howson's book. The Soviet Union, according to Howson, supplied far less aid to Republican Spain than is generally thought. What is more, the Soviet government systematically defrauded the Republicans with exchange rate scams so as to annexe cheaply the Spanish gold reserve that had been sent to Moscow for safekeeping.
Howson lucidly documents how the Republicans were swindled by arms traffickers, go betweens and government ministers seeking bribes at every turn.
By 1938 Stalin had cut off arms to Spain, while Soviet agents were sent to assassinate the genuine socialists who opposed the Spanish Communist Party. The lack of arms contributed to the Republic's defeat, and helped Franco establish his dicatorship over Spain that was to last nearly 40 years.
Sam Ashman

The sound of resistance

Development Arrested

Development Arrested
Clyde Woods
Verso £25

There's no doubting the power of the blues. When you hear Captain Beefheart sing at the start of the film Blue Collar-- a song called 'Hard Workin' Man' riven by Ry Cooder's sledgehammer riff-- it's clear the blues is uniquely suited to conveying the tough realities of the shopfloor. Its reverberant intensity protests at both economic exploitation and bureaucratic sterility.
That quality makes the blues popular all over the world, but also dilutes its politics. Commodification transforms the Mississippi conditions that gave it birth into quaint historical trappings. Clyde Woods, an active socialist and anti-racist, wants to reclaim the blues for the left. He tells the history of the Delta's downtrodden working class, uplifted by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s, now threatened by a tide of reaction.
Quoting Marx from Capital, Woods argues against the notion of the South as a feudal backwater, to be dragged into modernity by the capitalist North. Supplying cotton to Manchester's textile mills was a new opportunity for entrepreneurs. It was competition and the pressure to accumulate that led to slavery and death for millions of Africans. This is why the blues-- uniquely among ' folk' musics-- speaks to us so urgently. It's the voice of our class.
If you don't start from Marx's analysis, you fall for the argument that has served the plantation bosses time after time: what the South needs is more investment, more modernisation, more capitalism. In fact, economic 'development' supervised by the Delta's governing interests downgrade conditions, causing black unemployment, welfare cuts and persecution.
Woods argues that working class self organisation is the only hope. He describes how successive promises of improvement from above have all been predicated on profit, and so shore up power and privilege for the slaveowners' inheritors. His quotes from blues lyrics are bracing glimpses of a culture that has no such illusions in the American Dream.
Woods avoids the mistake of pundits who merely celebrate working class culture. He understands that the measure of its authenticity has to be the degree to which it opposes capitalism. The political and cultural tradition he champions only makes sense if it informs struggle today.
Commercialism notwithstanding, music from below can oppose the worldview of the bourgeoisie. By showing how the meaning of the blues is bound up with the fate of the Delta working class, Woods reintegrates realms of experience many socialists still think of as separate. When you respond to that twanging guitar or visceral bass, you're hearing the sound of resistance.
Ben Watson

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page