First Published: Canadian Revolution, No. 1, May 1975
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm, and Paul Saba
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Looking Backward, Looking Forward
Revolutionary Socialist Politics against Trade Union and Parliamentary Politics. By E. F. Hill
This little book from Australia is an excellent polemic against revisionism. Written by E. F. Hill, a former member of the Communist Party of Australia and now the leading spokesperson for the Communist Party of Australia, Marxist-Leninist, the book combines a clear grasp of revolutionary theory and principles with concrete, detailed analysis of right deviations in the practical work of the Australian communist movement.
The main theme of the book is clear from the title – the defense of revolutionary socialist politics against the reformist illusions of trade unionist and parliamentary strategies. Hill sees the former Communist Party as a party which was never thoroughly revolutionary and which is now thoroughly revisionist. His analysis therefore is concerned not just with polemics against their modern revisionist line but also with understanding their right deviations historically. These deviations are seen both as the basis of their revisionism and as errors that must be avoided by a new communist movement.
Hill begins with extensive quotes from What is to be Done, where Lenin attacks the economist line that socialist politics can be generated spontaneously out of militant economic (trade union) struggles. Hill sums up the relevance of Lenin’s teachings this way:
The crux of this thought is of critical importance to Australian workers today. What is the way forward: is the way forward to confine the workers to trade unionism, to trade union struggles, or is it to work to lift the consciousness of the workers to the level of Communist (scientific socialist) consciousness, and build a revolutionary socialist party of the working class capable of leading the whole struggle against capitalism? To do the former is to perpetuate capitalism; to do the latter is to prepare for the overthrow of capitalism.
Hill is very clear that the struggle here is not against the trade unions, which are historically progressive and necessary defence organizations in the workers’ economic struggle, or against communist participation in trade unions, which is an important form of mass work. Rather the battle must be against the ideology of trade unionism:
The conflict is not at all between the trade unions and Communism. It is between the system of political ideas known as trade unionism or trade union politics and Communism. The system of political ideas known as trade unionism must be defeated, because trade union politics are bourgeois politics, (p. 31)
But in defending the trade unions and communist involvement in the unions, Hill takes great pains to point out that the pressures of trade unionist ideology remain very strong. They can easily overwhelm the communist militant. This can occur for several reasons. First, the practical union work means that the communist is surrounded by a sea of trade unionist politics and swamped by economic reform struggles and union-oriented organizational tasks. Second, the militant who rises to leadership positions has privileges (money, status, etc.) and the possibility of a union ’career’ which can isolate that person from the rank-and-file workers and from the discipline of a proletarian party. Finally, the very pre-occupation with the union struggles narrows the scope of practical revolutionary work, from a concern with the problems and relations of all classes to an exclusive concern with the reform struggles of the organized workers.
Hill sees the former Communist Party as having been greatly pressured and, indeed, finally overwhelmed by trade unionist politics:
It has been commonly said of the former Communist Party of Australia that one of its great strengths has been its close connections with the trade unions. Yes, that is a source of strength, but it is also a source of weakness . . .(p. 47) It is our contention that the emergence of the Communist influence in the trade unions, important as it was, was really the emergence of people who were far more efficient at trade union politics than their predecessors. They were far more effective trade union secretaries and trade union officials, far more effective in winning the workers demands. That was their great strength and also the source of great weakness, because the only way they could ever become consolidated in their position was if the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary party became politically, ideologically and organizationally consolidated. The former Communist Party of Australia did not do that. (p. 66)
The solution to the pressures of trade union politics, Hill makes very clear, are not in avoidance of trade union activity, but in the commitment of the individual militant to revolutionary politics, in the iron discipline of the party over its cadre, and in the clear grasp of the two-line struggle between trade-unionism and revolutionary politics.
The question of parliamentary politics is seen by Hill in relation to, and in comparison with, trade union politics. Like the trade unions, the development of parliamentary struggles are a step forward for the working class, a striving for a form of struggle against the capitalist. The development of the Australian Labour Party was an attempt by the workers to win free of the hegemony of the capitalist parties, but it was still a bourgeois party itself. It originated in an attempt to win trade-union demands through worker’s representation in parliament – it was not even formally a ’socialist’ party. And just as the trade unions accepted the permanence of capitalist wage-slavery, the ALP accepted the capitalist myth of parliament as the forum in which workers would gain a greater voice in Australian ’democracy’. Of course, capitalism in Australia was a class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and parliament was a fraud to deceive the people with the myth of democracy. So even when the ALP began to call itself’socialist’ and the rightist Communist Party began to cooperate with it in parliamentary campaigns, the objective effect was not to increase socialist consciousness in the working class, but to reinforce the capitalist illusions of democracy. According to Hill the communists did not understand that:
.. .the primary job of Communists is to tear the mask from this parliamentary deception, to explain to the workers by concrete examination of their own experience of parliament right here in Australia that it is nothing but deception.. .Part of it lies in working within parliament itself..Participation in an election by a communist is primarily to expose parliament as an institution of the ruling class that deceives the people and thereby maintains the rule of capital...(p. 121)
These theses of Hill’s on trade unionism and parliamentarism are simply a defence of basic Marxism-Leninism in relation to Australian conditions. But Hill’s book also makes important contributions to Marxist-Leninist theory.
Hill’s first contribution is his interpretation of Lenin’s classic work, Left-Wing Communism, a text often misued by revisionists to attack the revolutionary left. Hill’s analysis of Left-Wing Communism rests on the distinction between Lenin’s formal proposals – the necessity for communists to work in reactionary trade unions and bourgeois parliamentary campaigns – and the essence of Lenin’s teachings: that communists must always be among the masses, wherever they are to be found, in order to win them to revolution. Hill sees in the history of the former Communist Party a one-sided attention to Lenin’s formal proposals, leading to a violation of the essence of his teachings. In other words, Hill is saying that certain ways of doing trade union and parliamentary work in certain cases can divorce the communists from the masses. For instance, the obsession of the former Communist Party with winning control of the trade union movement led to what Hill calls an ’exclusive left-wing bloc’ in the unions, devoted to trade union power struggles and cut-off from the rank-and-file. Hill concludes that:
The futility of leading proclaimed Communists as trade union officials was demonstrated in innumerable ways. Mass struggle was paralysed. By the very fact that such people were suggesting their ’leadership’ as the ideal form of trade union activity they denied the masses any real role. . . .(p. 99) Official positions are only important for facilitating deep going work among the masses. . . .(p. 107) The primary task of Communists in this sphere in Australia is to work as ordinary workers, ordinary trade unionists.(p. 148)
A concentration on parliamentary campaigns can also divorce communists from the masses, according to Hill, in that the working people are reluctant to openly identify with the communists by voting or campaigning if they seel little practical purpose in doing so. If they see little chance of the Communist candidate being elected or effecting parliament if elected, they may stay away from the Communist campaign. Hill sums up the parliamentary activity of the revisionist party as follows:
the wrong work of the revisionists results in real sectarianism, that is, the reduction of the former Communist party into a sect in the true sense of the term, isolated from the masses and revolving in an ever-narrower circle...if you are raising the slogan of’Elect Communists’....where it has no earthly hope of realisation, you are frustrating your members and deceiving the workers. Most workers realize rapidly that it is a fantasy and therefore regard its exponents as fantastic people, (p. 136)
Hill’s second contribution to Marxist-Leninist theory in this book is his stress on the absolute necessity to apply materialist dialectics and specifically Mao’s philosophy in developing a genuinely revolutionary mass line. He sees the most important weakness of the former Communist Party as:
....our failure sufficiently to study and apply materialist dialectics and to make materialist dialectics a mass question, (p. viii)
He gives as an example a strike by the Seaman’s Union, where large wage gains and better conditions were won through agreement and submission to the principle of compulsory arbitration. The former Communist party hailed this situation as a ’victory’. Yet it was also a defeat, because the workers had agreed to allow the state – the organ of the capitalist class – to determine their conditions, rather than continuing to fight for improvements in a .direct struggle with the boss. In fact, the aspect of defeat was the dominant aspect – as was revealed to the seamen by their dwindling wages and worsening conditions over the next years. The failure in the Communist Party’s line here was clearly a failure to correctly apply materialist dialectics; a failure to analyse a concrete contradiction and to determine the principal aspect of the contradiction. This led to a one-sided, rightist mass line.
With this example (and others in the book) of the failure to make dialectics a mass question, Hill is using a particular situations to make an important general point. Communists can only raise the revolutionary consciousness of the working class by revealing the contradictions produced by capitalist exploitation as they are experienced, and only the application of materialist dialectics to concrete situations can do this. The mass line then becomes not a series of reform struggles to be promoted – which is the rightist view – but an exposure of the class contradictions in reform struggles and an explanation of the contradiction between reformism and revolution. This method of development of the mass line also avoids leftist phrasemongering of merely standing on the sidelines of mass struggles, calling for proletarian revolution – an error which is left in form but right in content, since it liquidates communist involvement with the masses. Just as Hill sees the failure of the former Communist Party to study and apply materialist dialectics as its most important weakness, Hill’s stress on this question is his most important contribution in the book.
There are some serious weaknesses in Looking Backward, Looking Forward. There are no positive examples of correct mass work, which is perhaps understandable from the leader of a very young party, but which nevertheless makes Hill’s polemics less concrete. And for all his stress on the necessity or revolution, Hill never even raises the questions associated with the transition from preparing public opinion for revolution to making a revolution. What would characterize a revolutionary situation in Australia? How should the working class and the party prepare for insurrection? These kinds of questions are not even raised, much less discussed.
Nevertheless, Hill’s book on the whole is a valuable and educational polemic. There are sufficient parallels between Australian and Canadian history to make a critical examination of Hill’s historical conclusions extremely valuable for Canadian Marxist-Leninists: a Communist party which was never thoroughly revolutionary and is now thoroughly revisionist; a mass social-democratic party with a base in the trade unions; extensive collaboration between the revisionist and social democratic parties; and a history of involvement by communist militants in the top levels of the trade unions.
Looking Backward, Looking Forward is good evidence that a Marxist-Leninist line is being developed in the capitalist countries, and that the revolutionary line is being forged in the fires of the anti-revisionist struggle.
Looking Backward, Looking Forward (and other publications of the Communist Party of Australia, Marxist-Leninist) can be obtained from: East Wind Bookshop, Shop no. 1, Hub Arcade, 397 Pitt Street, Sydney, Australia.
Looking Backward, Looking Foward can also be obtained from: China Books and Periodicals, 125 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., U.S.A. 10003. $1.50, 20% off for 5 or more.