Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Letters

 

Why ideas or organisation make a difference

Having read Josh Noiseux's letter (December SR), I had to wonder if he had ever read the Marxism he cheerfully dismisses as 'boring' and 'stagnant authoritarian ideology'. Of course he is entitled to find Marxist theory boring if he wishes, but he is not entitled to brand it authoritarian without reference to the facts.

Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, makes it perfectly clear what kind of society he strives for. It is one in which 'the free development of each is the free development of all'. The aim of Marxism is not to become an official ideology of a new ruling class, as happened in Russia, China and elsewhere, but to do itself out of existence by abolishing the society of classes, which forms the basis for Marx's explanation of history. 'Spontaneous human joy' facilitated by a 'society of equals' is precisely the goal of Marxism.

It would be fatal if the working class were indeed 'dead', as Noiseux suggests. But what does this mean? Does Mr Noiseux say that workers simply do not exist any longer? Or does he claim that they are inert as a force in history, incapable of turning the tide of events in their favour? If the former, he is plainly wrong. The global working class is larger today than ever before. If the latter, then he must present evidence of this alarming fact. It seems to me that this is a question of decision and not fact. The working class might 'die' if they allow themselves to be killed. On the other hand, there will always be plenty of new workers to take the place of the dead, so it seems the working class will have to be killed and killed again.

It does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that the proletariat in one of their 'live' phases might take control of history and end class society.
RW Seymour
London

  • I am writing to take issue with Josh Noiseux's letter (December SR) where he said that Marxism is boring workers' dogma.

    Using myself as an example, I can get stuck in workerism if I don't discuss broad political issues with my co-workers, instead just focusing on economic issues. However, I believe that on the eve of the 21st century Marxism is very relevant to things, as today grinding poverty still exists. I am from Seattle, Washington. The US continues in this post Cold War era to spend more money than ever building weapons of mass destruction. The continuing UN/US sanctions against the Iraqi people mean the blood of millions of innocent people is on their hands, and not only in Iraq but countless other countries as well like Chile, Colombia and Nicaragua.

    But the real subject here is anarchism. The problem with it is that it has no organisational structure. If we are going to build for a revolution we need to be organised and have a revolutionary socialist party in place, so that when the revolution begins to take shape the revolutionary party has already been formed that can lead it. As I see it, revolutionary socialism based on Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and building the party is what will free us from the brutality of the capitalist system.

    Of course we need to intervene at rallies and marches for various things, such as opposition to the death penalty, neo-Nazi bigots, as well as to win workers in unions and those who aren't who strike against their employers. But we also have to politicise these events where we intervene, so that we point the way forward for all people to fight back against a brutal, oppressive system, and build a society based on human need not profit, poverty or wars. We want a society where there is no oppression of minorities.

    This is why I believe a society based on international socialism, on workers' power from below, must be built so we can save ourselves from the brutality of our rulers around the world.

    I saw what the cops did during the protests against the WTO in Seattle last year, and, we need to make this change. Granted it will take time, but with what I have seen in the last couple of years with people starting to realise that the system must change, I know it can happen. But I also know that revolutionary socialists must lead the way.
    Patrick Switzer
    Seattle

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    IN DEFENCE OF ANARCHISM

    It is difficult to know where to start in Pat Stack's Anarchy in the UK? article (November SR). It contains so many inaccuracies that I can only assume that Stack either knows nothing about anarchism or is deliberately lying. Anyone with even a small understanding of anarchist theory and history will instantly know that Stack's 'analysis' of anarchism is so flawed as to be laughable.
    Needless to say, I cannot reply to every mistake in the article. I will, however, concentrate on one in order to give your readers a taste of the level of inaccuracy it contains.
    The most amazing assertion is that anarchists like Kropotkin and Bakunin did not see 'class conflict' as 'the motor of change, the working class is not the agent, and collective struggle not the means'. Obviously the author has never read any of Bakunin's and Kropotkin's work. Indeed, Kropotkin's The Great French Revolution was written explicitly to show 'the part played by the people of the country and town in the revolution'. He did not deny the importance of collective class struggle--rather he stressed it. As he wrote, 'to make the revolution, the mass of workers will have to organise themselves. Resistance and the strike are excellent means of organisation for doing this'. Kropotkin could not be clearer on this subject. He stressed that 'the anarchists have always advised taking an active part in those workers' organisations which carry on the direct struggle of labour against capital and its protector, the state'.
    Similarly, Bakunin argued that 'the natural organisation of the masses...is organisation based on the various ways that their various types of work define their day to day life; it is organisation by trade association'. He thought that, the International Workers' Association should become 'an earnest organisation of workers associations from all countries, capable of replacing this departing world of states and bourgeoisie'. The 'future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom upwards, by the free association of workers, first in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal'.
    He stresses this vision in his last work, Statism and Anarchy: '...the Slavic proletariat...must enter the International [Workers' Association] en masse, form factory, artisan and agrarian sections, and unite them into local federations' as 'a social revolution...is by nature an international revolution', which, I must note, makes a mockery of Stack's claim that Bakunin did not see 'skilled artisans and organised factory workers' as 'the source of the destruction of capitalism' and 'agents for change'.
    Bakunin, like Kropotkin, saw a socialist society as being based on 'the collective ownership of producers' associations, freely organised and federated in the communes, and by the equally spontaneous federation of these communes'. Thus 'the land, the instruments of work and all other capital [will] become the collective property of the whole of society and be utilised only by the workers, in other words by the agricultural and industrial associations.'
    As can be seen, unions (workers' associations) played the key role in Bakunin's politics both as the means to abolish capitalism and the state, and as the framework of a socialist society (this support for workers' councils predates Marxist support by five decades, I must note). Kropotkin followed him in this.
    Bakunin, like Kropotkin, thought the strike was 'the beginnings of the social war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie'. Strikes, he argued, 'electrify the masses' and 'awaken in them the feeling of the deep antagonism which exists between their interests and those of the bourgeoisie'. They also 'establish between the workers...the consciousness and very fact of solidarity'. These 'constitute directly the new world of the proletariat, opposing it almost in an absolute way to the bourgeois world'. The revolution would involve 'a general strike' and 'an insurrection of all the people and the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upward'.
    Indeed, you do not have to read Bakunin to find this out--you can read Marx and Engels. As Marx noted, Bakunin thought that the 'working class...must only organise themselves by trades unions'. Engels acknowledged that the anarchists aimed to 'dispose of all the authorities, abolish the state and replace it with the organisation of the International'.
    Therefore Stack's claim that 'the huge advantage' anarcho-syndicalists have 'over other anarchists was their understanding of the power of the working class, the centrality of the point of production (the workplace) and the need for collective action' is simply nonsense. Bakunin and Kropotkin, as can be seen, also understood all of this.
    The claim that anarchists deny the central role of the working class in transforming society, ignore the class struggle or collective working class struggle is either a lie or indicates ignorance.
    I have indicated just a few of the errors above. Be assured the rest of the article is as bad. As it is, I have had to edit out much of my original letter, including my discussion of Kronstadt in which I indicate the real differences between anarchism and Leninism (this should be available soon at www.infoshop.org/texts/iso.html and a longer version can be found at www.egroups.com/ files/anarchy_history/).
    The question arises as to why such an obviously inaccurate article was printed in the first place. I can only assume that either the editor is as incompetent as Stack or shares a desire to lie. I hope that the ordinary membership of the SWP raise this issue in their branches and demand an answer. If they do not, if they accept the murder of the truth, then it is only a matter of time until they, like Stack, accept the murder of the revolution and the workers fighting for it.
    If the reader is interested in finding out what anarchism really stands for I would suggest they visit this webpage: www.anarchistfaq.org
    Iain McKay
    Glasgow


    A QUESTION OF CHARISMA?

    Ian Kershaw's meeting at Bookmarks(Thinking it through, December SR) about his second volume of Hitler, excellent though it was, left one vital issue very much unresolved. Though impressed by some Marxist arguments, Ian said he preferred Weber's concept of charisma as the most successful way of explaining Hitler's grip on the German population. Unfortunately the discussion failed to pursue this argument, losing an opportunity to get at one of the great puzzles of the Nazi regime--its apparent popularity.
    Though it didn't mention charisma, Alex Callinicos's review (November SR), whilst quite rightly full of praise for a book which may well come to be regarded as a masterpiece, detected a weakness in the second volume which flows from the application of this peculiar concept. This is the claim that the regime is best understood through the demonic intentions of Hitler, his single-minded pursuit of national glory, and his powers for mesmerising the masses.
    In his first volume Ian Kershaw applies Weber's concept with a subtle redefinition. He describes it as a 'notion which looks to explanations of this extraordinary form of political domination primarily in the perceivers of charisma, that is, in the society rather than, in the first instance, in the personality of the object of their adulation'. Now this definition might actually enhance a Marxist view applied to the crisis of German society after Hitler had taken power. The immediate destruction of the left and the trade unions resulted in an acute sense of atomisation, alienation and powerlessness amongst ordinary people. This left a vacuum for the Nazis to fill with their demands for the restoration of 'national greatness'. 'Greatness' was projected onto the 'leader'. Indeed, Ian Kershaw uses exactly this latter formulation in his first volume.
    The problem is that this is not Weber's definition of 'charisma'. Weber saw it as the eruption of the irrational and the exceptional in everyday life, stimulated by the charismatic personality himself. His authority is based on 'supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers'. It seems that in his second volume Ian Kershaw may have sometimes reverted to this classical concept of 'charisma'.
    This is a discussion that will not go away. The Nazis, the Holocaust, the threat of barbarism and not socialism replacing global capitalism's inability to protect and advance civilisation, are set to haunt us in the 21st century. Socialists have to explain how it was that Hitler consolidated power with the seemingly enthusiastic endorsement of millions of people. 'Hitler...with the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, enjoyed the support of the overwhelming mass of the German people-even most of those who had not voted for him.' (Page xv, vol II.)
    Professor Kershaw and Bookmarks have opened an important debate. How about a major forum this year (Marxism 2001?) which pursues this and the related themes in greater detail?
    John Rose
    London


    MORE ON HITLER

    In response to Raymond Challinor's letter (December SR), readers might be interested in two further books: Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power, 1919-1933 and Hitler and His Secret Partners, Contributions, Loot and Rewards, 1933-1945, both by James Pool, both published by Pocket Books of Simon & Schuster. Amongst other things, he provides what I thought was a plausible economic analysis of the German campaigns on the Eastern Front.
    Michael Rosen
    London


    PRIMARY COLOURS

    One of the things that needs to be expanded on in the article on the US elections (December SR) is how the whole process is set up right at the start, during the primaries, to reduce the impact of the cities (and hence the working class and the poor), and to reduce the impact of activists (and hence increase the power of advertising).
    The primaries start in New Hampshire, and move on to Iowa and then to the South. By the time they hit New York, Chicago, Detroit or any of the big metropolitan centres the candidates have already been decided. It's as if the candidates' selection process started in Kent, moved on to Cornwall, and London was near the end.
    The second point is the integration of the state in the political process that is hard to grasp for someone in England. It's not just the state funding of the political process. It starts when you register to vote Republican, Democrat or independent. At this point you are not simply asked if you want to register to vote but which party you want to support. Parties that do not have enough registered voters are not allowed to stand unless they overcome major hurdles.
    This information is then used in the primary process so registered Democrats vote for the Democratic candidate and the registered Republicans for the Republican candidate. In some cases this is taken a step further, where anyone can vote for a candidate in a primary irrespective of party affiliation.
    If you want to win a primary, what matters is the ability of the candidate to look good on television rather than be accountable to the party for which he is standing.
    The sum process of all this means selection campaigns that activists would normally take part in in the British process are non-existent in the US. Why canvass when the state does it for you?
    Seth Harman
    London


    REVOLUTION WITHOUT A PARTY

    Ian Birchall's excellent article 'Revolution? You must be crazy!' (December SR) does not deal with the important question of the relationship of the revolutionaries and their political party to the unpolitical people who, as Ian says, actually make the revolution.
    The crucial issue is the scepticism that such people have for political parties, as seen in some recent revolutions such as Portugal. This is not unknown to many activists in their everyday work either. It is possibly based on the persistent failure of revolutionary parties in the last century, usually the result of revolutionaries putting their own agenda over that of the workers.
    Everyone agrees that workers plus revolutionaries equals the socialist revolution. But the extent to which socialists lead, coordinate, guide or direct seems to be unclear. Part two of the article possibly?
    Alan Woodward
    North London


    A VIBRANT NEW MOVEMENT

    I found the recent meeting in central London on the Serbian Revolution truly exhilarating. The Otpor! speaker brought a real flavour of the overthrow of Milosevic to the meeting. However, I feel it is necessary to put the record straight regarding some of the questions and contributions raised from the floor.
    It was alleged by one speaker that Otpor! supports a position of opening up fully to the market, normalisation of relations with western institutions such as the UN, IMF and WTO, and privatisation of huge chunks of the Serbian economy, and that this information came from the Otpor! website. In fact the information mentioned is the position of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), published on the Otpor! site. Otpor! is not a political party, but a broad coalition of people opposed to the activities of the Milosevic regime and its supporters, who still remain in many key positions in Serbian society. Otpor! has no political platform of its own.
    Not surprisingly, given that Milosevic's old supporters are continuing to attempt to regroup, Otpor! supporters are prepared to support a coalition of opposition parties. Anyone listening to the accounts given to the meeting would realise just how strong that pressure for unity must be in Serbia today, as the old regime survived previous attempts to overthrow it because of the disunity of the opposition.
    What was even more refreshing about the contribution from the Otpor! speaker was the stress on the critical nature of the support Otpor! is giving to the DOS coalition. Under the slogan 'We are watching!', there is little doubt about the scepticism felt by ordinary Serbs towards their new 'leaders'.
    There is a great deal of confusion about where to go next amongst the activists who led the revolution. But to fail to engage with a vibrant new movement like Otpor!, which has overthrown one of the world's most repressive regimes, because it lacks the necessary 'clarity' sounds like the worst sort of sectarianism. In fact it would guarantee that those forces opposed to a socialist transformation of Serbian society would be successful. Socialists who expect to see ready made revolutionary socialist parties drop fully formed from the heavens are doomed to grow old without seeing a revolution. I look forward to joining those who expressed interest in activities to support the revolution in engaging with the most exciting movement to emerge in Europe since Solidarnosc shook the Polish regime in 1980.
    Jon Tennison
    London


    A BETTER COMPARISON

    It is quite right to look forward to the prospects for over 50 Socialist Alliance candidates (plus 72 from the Scottish Socialist Party) in the coming general election (December SR). The excellent results from Preston and Glasgow confirm that there is a real audience for a programme to the left of the Labour Party.
    However, I was puzzled by the claim that this will be 'the most serious challenge to a Labour government for 50 years'. The reference is presumably to the 1950 general election, when 100 Communist candidates stood.
    In fact the CP did not represent much of a 'challenge'. Its pro-Russian Cold War stance was a mirror image of the Labour leaders' pro-Americanism. As a defender of East European state capitalism, it had no basis for a criticism of Labour's bureaucratic nationalisation. Though CP members were respected as industrial militants, they had no alternative vision of socialism to counterpose to Labour's.
    And the results reflected the CP's political bankruptcy. With 100 candidates the CP got less votes in total (91,736) than it had gained with only 21 in 1945; the average vote for the CP in constituencies where it stood was only 1 percent. It will not be difficult for the Socialist Alliance to do substantially better than that.
    A more appropriate comparison would be with the first Labour candidates in the early years of the 20th century. In 1900 Labour candidates got a total of just 66,000 votes. Within a quarter of a century Labour had smashed the old Tory-Liberal monopoly and changed the line-up of British politics forever. Again we can do better.
    Ian Birchall
    London


    A BOOK PUT TO WORK

    The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has been published at least 60 times since 1914, in three different versions and at least 11 languages. It has sold upwards of half a million copies and must have had many millions of readers worldwide. It still does--readers of the Guardian 'Review' (2 December) will have seen how Maze prisoners rated it highly.
    There is now a website for Tressell enthusiasts (www.1066.net/tressell) and a Robert Tressell Centre at Hastings. But while there is plenty of stuff in print on how the book affects people's lives as individuals, there is very little on how trade unionists and socialists used all or part of it as propaganda or agitation.
    So this is an appeal to readers to let me have any stories about how the book was (or is being) put to work: at dave_harker@btclick.com
    Dave Harker
    Manchester


    HOARDING ANYTHING?

    I am researching a dissertation on Rock Against Racism and would like to hear from anyone who was involved in the movement or who has recollections they would like to share. I would also like to contact people holding copies of Temporary Hoarding or other documents relating to RAR. I can be contacted at sait.goodyer@virgin.net.
    Ian Goodyer
    Knaresborough


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