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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Appendix 2

Ha, Ha! what a fool Honesty is!
and Trust his sworn brother,
a very simple gentleman!

Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale

In 1959, some time after the promised publication date, Cliff’s pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg, was produced. Not only is it the best written of his publications, it is in a way also his most original. This was long before Marxism and Marxists enjoyed a literary vogue and some years before Nettl’s two volume biography was published. It was a serious attempt to revalidate the spirit of libertarian Marxism in line with the SR Group’s awareness of the growing importance of the rank and file. At the same time it distinguished the group from the exclusive brethren of orthodox Trotskyism. Inevitably, and necessarily, it set Luxemburg’s work against that of her greatest contemporary, Lenin. It was refreshing to discover that Cliff had decided that Luxemburg was not invariably wrong in these exchanges and that, in any case, much of the differences reflected different experiences and conditions. Lenin’s centralism was a reaction to the chaos and inexperience of the Russian movement and, whisper it softly lest the children be upset, as Lenin’s homage to “the Pope of Marxism,” Kautsky; and Luxemburg’s spontaneity was a response to the regimented character of German social democracy and Kautsky’s formalism. This, interestingly enough, is the line rather more elegantly and entertainingly expressed by Max Shachtman, in the May 1938 issue of New International.

Here is Shachtman: “The ‘professional revolutionists’ whom Luxemburg encountered in Germany were not, as in Russia, the radical instruments for gathering together loose and scattered local organisations, uniting them into one national party imbued with a firm Marxian ideology and freed from the opportunistic conceptions of pure-and-simple trade unionism. Quite the contrary. In Germany, the ‘professionals’ were the careerists, the conservative trade union bureaucrats, the lords of the ossifying party machine, the whole crew who finally succeeded in disembowelling the movement...” And here is Cliff: “Where Rosa Luxemburg’s position regarding the relation between spontaneity and organisation was a reflection of the immediate needs facing revolutionaries in a Labour Movement controlled by a conservative bureaucracy, Lenin’s original position – that of 1902-4 – was a reflection of the amorphousness of a vital fighting revolutionary movement at the first stage of its development under a backward, semi-feudal and autocratic regime.

For marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity.” (My emphasis – JH.) Don’t you just love the pompous circumlocution of that, “notwithstanding her overstatements etc., etc.”?

From this, at least, it is clear that in 1959 Cliff saw no reason to construct a party on “Leninist” lines. Indeed, at the time, he considered that the party organisation called for in 1902-4, “was copied and given an added bureaucratic twist by the Stalinists the world over”. This view was entirely consonant with his opinion then, that the SR Group was not a pre-Bolshevik, but a post-Bolshevik formation. By this he was clearly understood to mean that world had moved on quite bit since 1902, or 1917 for that matter. The maturity of the class and the form and content of its struggle would be the decisive factor in setting the forms of organisation.

So matters stood for some time, when Cliff, almost single-handed, reinvented the “Leninist” concept of stick bending. It derives from a speech by Lenin at the Second Congress of the RSDLP: “The Economists bent the staff towards one side. In order to straighten it out again, it had to be bent towards the other side and that is what I did”. You will notice here that Lenin is talking about a correction to the Economists, not a 180 degree turn from what he himself was saying a little earlier. On the one hand we have exaggeration in the course of a political struggle and on the other a capricious or opportunist reversal of policy.

In line with his rediscovery of democratic centralism, it was felt necessary to rewrite the past, specifically Cliff’s past. In the 1969 reprint of Rosa Luxemburg, of the two paragraphs quoted above the second, emphasised, paragraph disappeared completely to be replaced by: “However, whatever the historical circumstances moulding Rosa’s thoughts regarding organisation, these thoughts showed a great weakness in the German revolution of 1918-19.” The sea change is even clearer on page 53 of the first edition, thus: “Rosa Luxemburg’s reluctance to form an independent revolutionary party is quite often cited by Stalinists as a grave and an important cause for the defeat of the German revolution in 1918. They argue that Lenin was opposed to the revolutionary Left’s adherence to the SPD and continuing association with Kautsky”. In the second edition this particular quote had somehow been transformed into: “Rosa Luxemburg’s reluctance to form an independent revolutionary party followed her slowness to react to changed circumstances. It was a central factor in the belatedness of building a revolutionary party in Germany. In this, however, she was not alone. Lenin was no quicker to break with Kautsky than Rosa. There is no ground in the Stalinist story according to which Lenin was opposed to the revolutionary Left’s adherence to the SPD and continuing association with Kautsky.”

That is less stick bending than full frontal attack with a tomahawk. From being a better guide than Lenin she is transformed into a cause of the weakness of 1918-19. In 1959 the Stalinists were calumniating her and, by 1968, the Stalinists were apparently right. The last quotation is also interesting because it suggests that Rosa had not sussed out Kautsky before Lenin. This is rubbish, Luxemburg had effectively broken with Kautsky in 1910, long before Lenin, as the great man acknowledged in a 1914 letter to Shliapnikov, “I now despise and loath Kautsky more than all the rest ... Rosa Luxemburg was right. She long ago understood that Kautsky had the highly developed ‘servility of a theoretician’ ...”. Everyone, of course, is entitled to change their mind but there is such a thing as honest accounting. In particular, Marxist groups have a responsibility to acknowledge when and why they have changed their minds. This is especially so when their comrades have to defend them.

I recall a meeting in Merlin’s Cave at which Nigel Coward, a pleasant young comrade who had earlier acted as full timer but somehow fallen foul of Cliff, said that Cliff had made unacknowledged changes between editions one and two of the Luxemburg book. As someone who already had the first edition and had not, because it was supposed to be the same as the first, read the second, although I had bought one, it was quite beyond my wildest imagining that Cliff would have done this. I assumed, quite unjustly, that Nigel was suffering in his fall from grace with a fit of pique. “Quote chapter and verse,” I challenged him. Fortunately for me, Nigel did not have a copy of the offending texts with him, nor did he recall the detail too clearly, otherwise I would have been extremely embarrassed in front of a fairly large audience. So too would my companion at the meeting, who sat next to me and noisily supported my contribution. It was none other than T Cliff. I do not think I have seen Nigel since then to apologise, an apology he richly deserved. The business was subsequently taken up by Sean Matgamna of the Trotskyist Tendency and the issue was then submerged in the faction fight. When I raised the question with Cliff he merely shrugged. It was not an impressive or an edifying performance.

In July 1983, the fourth edition of Rosa Luxemburg was published. It retained all of Cliff’s revisions, with the added top dressing of an introduction by one Lindsey German. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, she writes in a style very reminiscent of Cliff’s, cleaving closely to the leaden prose, but without the political sophistication. I assume she actually believes it when she writes: “When first written it [Rosa Luxemburg] was an attempt to make the basic ideas accessible to a new audience ... to present Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas in order to reassert the revolutionary socialist tradition.” I fear she is a little naive in this. Cliff never wrote anything that was not intended to have some immediate relevance to building his group. The Luxemburg book was intended to present the Group as a Marxist haven for those repelled by Stalinism and hearing echoes of it in the Trotskyist groups around, especially Healy’s. The main audience was envisaged as in and around the Labour Party, but it was not intended as a general validation of revolutionary socialism. It was part of developing a complete politics that went beyond the verities of the first four congresses of the CI and the transitional programme. If he had not seen Luxemburg as the logical development of the movement from which he and his group sprang, he would not have cast it in the terms of a dialogue between Luxemburg and Lenin. You take the spontaneity of the workers and the mass strike from Rosa and the revolutionary will from Vladimir Ilyich. If this sounds to you like the “mix-n-match” from Woolworth’s sweety counter, you have just hit on Cliff’s stratagem for keeping up his political calory count.

One of the more risible items in Lindsey’s introduction is the following: “... in 1918-19 millions of German workers did look for revolutionary ideas. But they didn’t look to Rosa Luxemburg and the new KPD, they looked to the old party and its leaders – people who were prepared to talk left wing ideas at such a time, but whose past words and deeds told a very different story. Rosa Luxemburg had been consistently principled in her revolutionary politics – but this fact wasn’t known to the mass of the workers for she had remained largely hidden in the SPD.” ... Where does Lindsey get this old cobblers from? Does she believe that the pre-1914 SPD was rather like the Harrogate constituency party in Tony Blair’s New Labour? The workers were in the SPD in their millions, they virtually lived in the party. It was, as they said, “a nation within the nation”. Rosa Luxemburg, wrote for its magazines and newspapers, she spoke at its congresses and she spoke at countless meetings, public and party, all around Germany. She would almost certainly be better known to the German workers than Lenin was to the Russian working class. She lost in 1918 because the workers stayed loyal to social democracy and because the SPD betrayed, as they had already done in 1914. Ebert, Scheideman and Noske did not play the fool with left phrases; they played the counter-revolutionary game and they killed Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Jogiches just as surely as they killed the German revolution.

One assumes that Lindsey German’s introduction was intended to iron out the wrinkles in a book originally tailored for a different client at a different time. I fear that it merely serves to call attention to some rather clumsy restyling to the fabric. The false antithesis between Lenin and Luxemburg that Cliff’s antics have set up in the various editions has found an appropriately inept commentator in Lindsey German.

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Last updated on 31.1.2003