Jim Higgins

From Gangrene ... to the Danger of Amputation

(July 1993)

From New Interventions, Vol.4 No.3, 1993.
Downloaded with kind permission from the What Next? Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

On the Shoulders of a Giant

“If you stand on the shoulders of a giant, it is possible to see even further than the giant.” I first heard this piece of homely wisdom from the lips of Tony Cliff, none of which detracts from its truth or, indeed, its appositeness to the current discussion, in the pages of New Interventions, between Jim Dye, Mike Jones and Ken Tarbuck.

Cliff’s little aphorism is, of course, only true so long as two conditions are satisfied. First, that you do not use the advantage of the giants height to look steadfastly backwards (this seems to be Jim Dye’s stance). Second, that you do not abuse this privileged position by kicking the giant repeatedly in the ear (this seems to be Mike Jones’ standpoint).

If I could, without offensive compression, summarise the arguments of the contestants, I think it would go like this: Jim Dye, while accepting a number of errors and omissions by Lenin and Trotsky, still maintains the essential validity of the Bolshevik tradition of the vanguard party, with all the trappings of democratic centralism. This seems to me to be a viable, if mistaken, stand for Jim to take. Less convincing, is his insistence that the Fourth International was “one of Trotsky’s finest achievements” and that the priority today is for a “reforged FI”. Having said that, what I do find heartening is that a member of one of the fragments of the shattered Healy WRP can debate in a non-sectarian fashion without recourse to vituperation. I am not familiar with Workers News, the paper of the Workers International League (Leninist-Trotskyist), but I intend to be so in the future. Incidentally, why do revolutionary organisations have these awful portmanteau titles? If they want to locate themselves with total accuracy, perhaps they should include a PO Box number.

Mike Jones, it seems to me, with his impressive knowledge of German Communism, is attempting to resuscitate a different, Luxemburgist, tradition with which to beat the Trotskyist model. In some ways, this is an admirable effort; if only because Luxemburg has a great deal to teach us all, including the most unreformed orthodox Trotskyist. Nevertheless, it seems perverse for Mike to correctly emphasise that the revolution is the task of the majority of the working class while denying any credit to the only political current that attempted, however badly, to connect the movement of the workers with Marxist theory. With all due respect to Paul Levi and Brandler-Thalheimer, they were not quite in Trotsky’s league.

With Ken Tarbuck’s contribution, I confess I feel more at home. I think he is saying that Trotskyism had its rationale in the fight against Stalinism, from a revolutionary perspective. In that sense it was a positive contribution, for which all honour is due and to which most of us owe our presence in the revolutionary movement today. Trotsky’s written work does stand as his monument and, as Ken points out, without the movement he founded it would be gathering dust in some archive of socialist ephemera.


Making a Fetish of the International

If I have not done too much injustice to the three comrades’ views, I would appreciate the opportunity to develop my own arguments. On the question of the vanguard party and democratic centralism, I find the first term vainglorious and conducive to the view that we, not the class, are the key factor. The second term is either a meaningless contradiction or a recipe for self-perpetuating leaders to avoid accountability. “To mess about with the cadre”, in James P. Cannon’s immortal phrase. Discipline in the revolutionary movement comes about from shared conviction and common objectives, not at all from concern about some immaculately conceived party line, the breaching of which will land you in front of the control commission, twisting your cap nervously in your sweaty hands.

The party does have a number of functions, however, that only it can perform. It provides the forum for discussion, the exchange of experience and the decision about programme and policy. It provides the written material – papers, journals and propaganda – with which the members operate more effectively in the working class movement in so far as the material and the work of the comrades is accurate and effective, the experience of the workers themselves is fed back into further analysis and further action. The party grows and its work in the class becomes influential, in setting the broad movements agenda. The prospect of building a mass party then stands in the realm of practical politics. The very essence of all this is that the movement is subjected at all times to the critical gaze of the workers. If the party does not accord with workers everyday experience and assist them in their struggles it will be rejected and rightly so.

The tragedy of the Trotskyist movement has been that it was largely irrelevant to the workers as a class. That this was, in large measure, due to the overpowering presence of Stalinism and social democracy on the one hand and a series of working class defeats on the other, cannot gainsay the fact that some of the wounds were self-inflicted. For example, the American Trotskyists who tried bravely and so hard at Minneapolis-St Paul, then proceeded to engage in a faction fight about entry into the barely breathing corpse of American social democracy. Having shed members on the way, they then performed their “French turn”. In due course, they departed the American SP having recruited a large chunk of the Young Peoples Socialist League. The period of their self-immolation coincided with the explosive growth of the CIO, while the Trotskyists were giving Norman Thomas a seeing to. Even more pathetic, the newly augmented Socialist Workers Party then engaged in a near fatal faction fight between Cannon and Shachtman. The subsequent split took almost half the party into Shachtmans Workers Party, including practically all the recently won YPSLs. A nice little exercise in futility that is in no way mitigated by the spin off of In Defence of Marxism and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, two volumes that have seen service in the cause of many a subsequent and destructive faction fight.

Of similar proportions was the failure of the IS Group in the early 1970s when the group in this country possessed a thousand-plus industrial workers and a chain of rank and file papers. This happy conjunction, certainly the best of any group in Britain, with its prospect of building a genuine rank and file movement on the tide of working class militancy, was rejected by Cliff and his co-thinkers for that shop-soiled nostrum “the revolutionary youth”. (I hope to write in a future issue of New Interventions a more detailed account of this episode from the SWP’s past.)

Building a revolutionary workers organisation has to be based upon the class as it is, not how we would like it to be. If we cannot show how our socialism connects realistically with workers lives, it seems unlikely that they will help us to “reforge the FI”.

There is a sort of fetishism about the notion of the International that I find puzzling. It must surely be apparent to everyone that at no time has the FI (in any of its many guises) done anything that brought it to the attention of, let alone gave assistance to, the worlds workers. So far as the Trotskyist groups were concerned, such benefits as it conferred were more psychological than practical. The one-day get-together of 1938, in Rosmer’s barn, bears as much relationship to the founding congress of a world party of Bolshevism as Gerry Healy did to Leon Trotsky. Even that pipsqueak event required the Tammany Hall talents of Cannon to ensure a smooth outcome. Sadly that was the high point; from then on it was downhill all the way.

The manner in which Cannon passed on the mandate to “our young men in Europe” (Pablo and Mandel) was rather like Colonel Sanders granting a franchise for a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. The way in which Cannon and Pablo adopted and cherished Healy is responsible for more ex-Trotskyists than a small movement can readily bear. Every major pronouncement of the FI’s “theoreticians” turned out to be wrong. Mandel could tailor you a theory that was an un-seamed garment, that sometimes fitted where it touched. The next week, when hard reality gave the thing an unseemly bulge, he would – without a backward glance or word of regret – run you up a new one, guaranteed to last until at least next Tuesday. Pablo thought more deeply and gave us “Centuries of Deformed Workers States” (tell that one to Mikhail Gorbachev). The ISFI had a more polished brand of bullshit than the ICFI, but both of them and their splinters were frequently malevolent and always irrelevant. Internationalism to mean anything implies influence and activity outside the closed circle of the organisation, otherwise it is empty rhetoric and that is what we have had: the world party of rhetorical socialism.


The Heritage of Luxemburg

There are then a lot of things to complain about in the heritage that LDT left us and it seems to be Mike Jones’ argument that we should look to another tradition. The problem here is that there has been something of a 70-year gap in the alternative he espouses. The tragedy is that Luxemburg was murdered, because she was probably the only individual who enjoyed comparable prestige to Lenin and Trotsky. Indeed, in the international movement, she was the outstanding figure on the revolutionary left, much better known than Lenin, before the Russian Revolution. It is perhaps fruitless, although enjoyable, to speculate what would have happened if she had lived. One finds it difficult to believe that a KPD with Luxemburg in the leadership would have been a party to the March Action of 1921 or the 1923 fiasco. It is also possible that her unique prestige would have tipped the scales in the building of a mass party that was able to carry through the German revolution.

The subsequent course of world history would have been vastly different and all to the good. Even so, I have no doubt that there would have been a different Mike Jones anxious to point out that there wee one or two skeletons in the Luxemburgist closet. Such a comrade might say that Jogiches was quite a few cards short of the full democratic pack when it came to his leadership of the Polish party (SDKPiL) and that Rosa supported him almost unfailingly, whatever her private reservations. Her attitude to the trade unions was one of profound mistrust, preferring the underground Polish unions under the hegemony of the party to free and independent ones. She also supported Jogiches in his fruitless attempt to take over the Russian Social Democracy. But none of this is the general method of Luxemburg, and her mistakes were made, like Trotsky’s, in the heat of political controversy. The overwhelming weight of her politics, like Trotsky’s, is benevolent and positive.

Unfortunately, Luxemburg did not live to exert her benevolent influence on the infant KPD and the CI. After Jogiches’ murder by the Freikorps, the KPD leadership was taken by Paul Levi, one of Luxemburg’s most talented protégés. Levi, a lawyer by profession, was not a theoretician in the Luxemburg mould, nor an organiser in Jogiches’ style, but he was, nevertheless, a figure of authority in Germany and the International. Both Lenin and Trotsky thought very highly of him, which may explain, at least in part, why Zinoviev cordially detested him. Even so, Zinoviev had to take account of the fact that Levi led the most significant party in the International, one whose success would guarantee the Soviet power in Russia. Unless Levi managed some unforced errors he was a difficult man to dislodge. Unfortunately, that is just what he did make. At the Leghorn conference of the Italian Socialist Party, Levi supported Serrati, who opposed the expulsion of the PSI right wing. This was a nice excuse for Zinoviev to move against Levi. Through the CI delegates Rakosi and Kabakchiev, Thalheimer was persuaded to move a censure vote on Levi. When that was carried by 28 to 23, Clara Zetkin and three others resigned from the central committee. In their absence, once more under CI urging and under the leadership of Brandler-Thalheimer, the ill-fated and misconceived March Action was mounted. A few bombs were set off to stir up the Reichswehr, scattered strikes occurred, guerrilla raids were mounted. The Reichswehr, suitably stirred up, suppressed the action with some ease, artillery and much bloodshed. Levi immediately, before the dust had settled, published a pamphlet denouncing the action as a putsch, claiming that it was “war by the Communist Party on the working class”. In short order he was expelled from the KPD and the CI. Lenin, in discussion with Clara Zetkin, said: “You know how highly I value Paul Levi ... Ruthless criticism of the March Action was necessary, but what did Paul Levi give? He tore the party to pieces ... he gave nothing to which the party could usefully turn. He lacks the spirit of solidarity with the party and it was that which has made the rank and file ... deaf and blind to the great deal of truth in Levi’s criticism, particularly to his correct political principles ... The Leftists have to thank Paul Levi that up to the present they have come out so well, much too well.” (Degras, Communist International, Vol.1, p.218.)

In the wake of his expulsion Levi formed the Working Committee for Communism, a short-lived group that joined the USPD a few months later and stayed when it fused with the SPD. Brandler and Thalheimer stayed on in the KPD to participate in and serve as scapegoats for the failed revolution of 1923.


No Whited Sepulchres

The reason for banging on at this length is to show that in revolutionary politics, where the stakes are so high, there are no whited sepulchres and that correct politics are no guarantee of success, if the tactics both within and without the party are faulty. Luxemburg had no closer disciple than Levi among the younger comrades and no one better able to develop her heritage. He just might have done so in the KPD, but he signally failed outside.

In a very real sense the coining of the terms Leninism, Luxemburgism and Trotskyism confuse more than they clarify. In so far as they have meaning it is that they represent the ideas that revolutionary Marxists have developed to answer problems they face in the real world. It is not surprising that Lenin emphasised discipline in the chaos of Tsarist Russia and that Luxemburg emphasised spontaneity in the bureaucratically ordered world of German Social Democracy. This silly “ism” business was started by Stalin, with his pamphlet Foundations of Leninism, a shrewd attempt to recast Lenin in Stalin’s own image. Lenin himself certainly did not see the body of his work as a universal panacea worthy of an “ism”. Discussing the entire process of the revolution he said: “[It] had to be admitted to have some fundamental significance on an international scale. Of course it would be a great mistake to exaggerate this truth and apply it to more than a few of the fundamental features of our revolution. We must not make the error of forgetting that once the proletarian revolution has been victorious in at least one of the advanced countries, things will in all likelihood change very considerably, i.e. Russia will shortly cease to be the model country and become once more the backward country, in a Soviet and socialist sense.” (Collected Works, Vol.31, p.21.) Luxemburg, I have no doubt, would, with equal modesty, have rejected any claim to an “ism”.


How Many “isms” Do We Need?

The word Trotskyism, to describe a body of ideas, was coined by Stalin as the reactionary antithesis to Leninism. The label stuck, but to turn it back on the Stalinists we acquired the bracketed Bolshevik-Leninist suffix.

In discussing Trotskyism Ken Tarbuck makes the point (one also made by Al Richardson in New Interventions) that it had its raison d’être in the existence of Stalinism. With the demise of Stalinism it is irrelevant to the future of the movement. I think that is probably true. I also think that Luxemburgism as a separate strand, in the absence of anything like the orthodox social democracy she was fighting against, has also had its day.

In the process of moving on, however, we must not make the air hideous with the screams of babies being hammered down the plughole with all the dirty water. Transitional politics, as opposed to the Transitional Programme, are crucially important, the centrality of the working class and the workers self-activity to any socialist analysis are also vitally important.

There are, perhaps, 10,000 people organised in revolutionary groups in Britain today and there is a much larger number of people who once were in one or other of the groups. For many of these groups their principled reason to exist is not discernible to the naked eye. The question of the Fourth International is not, for example, a matter of principle. It may or may not be desirable but it cannot be said that the work of socialist agitation is attenuated by its absence. I take the view that the existence of the Potemkin FIs we have had were almost totally malign for the Trotskyist groups. The relinquishing of sectarian shibboleths may be as heart-wrenching and difficult as removing a child’s comfort blanket, but in both cases it must be done if maturity is to be achieved. The exclusive rectitude of groups, who could hold their aggregates in a telephone booth, is tragic and absurd. It is a sort of perverse hobby that cannot hold a candle to train spotting, where you see more of the country and might even meet some real workers.

It is long past the time when we should continue playing the fool with contending “isms”. Marxism is really the only one we need and we should be able to incorporate all that is valuable for class struggle from the different traditions under that one umbrella.

Revolutionary regroupment is necessary if Jim Dye is to see the realisation of his dream of the kids dancing on the rubble of Buckingham Palace. I wonder, though, if I might move a small amendment: could the kids have Centrepoint and Buckingham Palace turned into a museum after the style of the Imelda Marcos’ one in Manila. Just imagine all those thousands of sensible shoes and hats designed like chamber pots. Now that would be something to show your grandchildren.

July 1993


Last updated on 2.3.2004