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International Socialism, Autumn 1971


Steve Marks

Looking at Us


From International Socialism, No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


World Crisis: Essays in Revolutionary Socialism
Ed. Nigel Harris and John Palmer
Hutchinsons, £2.25

This is a collection of essays by members of IS, summarising the theoretical positions developed over a period of years in the pages of this journal. The task of socialist theory is to clarify and guide the development of socialist practice, that is the practice of an organised political movement of the working class.

Over the previous generation, this activity has had to be carried on under conditions which differ immensely from those under which previous generations of socialists had to work. The First and Second Internationals were built in a period when the working class itself was emerging as a political and social force for the first time. The sellout of the second international in 1914 was the product of a whole period in which, behind the Marxist phrases, the mass organisations of the working class were being absorbed into the structure of the capitalist state. The Third International, formed in struggle against this, was the product of the first successful workers’ revolution in history. It was formed with the prestige of a successful revolution behind it, and through massive splits in the existing mass workers organisations. Its degeneration was a product of the degeneration of the revolution which inspired it.

Social-democracy and Stalinism between them have since managed to exclude revolutionary politics from any effective influence within the working-class movement. Now that the stranglehold of each of them is ending, a correct understanding of how they could have things their own way for so long is essential if their influence is to be removed.

The answers to this question are the theme of this book. The essays expose the reality behind the myths of Labourism and Stalinism, and explain how for a whole period they could appear plausible to militants. This comes across most clearly in the first essay, a typical piece of inspired impressionism by Peter Sedgwick.

Through a description of a demonstration organised by the CP against German rearmament in 1955, he shows how natural it was to assume that the bosses press which lied about, for example, police conduct on socialist demonstrations, to say nothing of every strike, was also being less than truthful about the USSR. And when the class struggle was transmuted into the struggle between ‘socialist’ and capitalist states, and into the struggle between ‘left’ and right within the official structures of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party, it was easy for socialists to lose contact with the reality of the struggle on the shop floor. This loss of contact was only a reflection, however, of the fact that the shopfloor struggle could be carried on for a whole period without any perspective broader than that of the factory or shop. How was this possible, and why is it not any longer?

This is the theme of Michael Kidron’s essay on Capitalism – the latest stage. He outlines the argument for the role of the arms economy in staving off the inherent contradictions of the system, and also shows how that very stabiliser contains the roots of a new instability. He does it in a dialect of his own which is refreshingly different to the established technical jargon of Marxism, but which may well be no less baffling to the uninitiated.

Paul Foot and Jim Kincaid deal with the consequences for Labourism of the divorce between the official politics of reformism and the unofficial non-political reformism of the factory floor. Foot maps Labour’s gradual retreat from the pretence of reforming capitalism into socialism, through the claim to run capitalism more humanely than the Tories, into the naked Wilsonian programme of running it more efficiently. Kincaid describes in detail the consequences for welfare, where Labour has abandoned any pretence of using the ‘Welfare State’ as a means of redistribution, and is therefore reduced to paving the way for the attacks on social services of its Tory successors.

Chris Harman’s article on Eastern Europe is one of the clearest short accounts available of the view that the central dynamic of Russian society is the same as that of western capitalism. Though he claims in a footnote that the essay is based on the pamphlet How the revolution was lost it in fact goes much further in analysing the present laws of motion of the Stalinist states, as opposed to describing the process of the Russian revolution’s degeneration. It brings out clearly how the first five-year plans marked a change in the relations between the working class and the nationalised property, that is, in the property relations. He also states clearly the fundamental insight of the theory of State Capitalism, that other mechanisms than those of the market can transmit the same social relations that the market transmits in ‘classical’ capitalism. No opponents of the theory have shown any signs of even understanding that this is what it is about. That is why they have been unable to produce an analysis, as opposed to a description, of the processes by which the Russian economy works. The present economic crisis in Eastern Europe means that we hear less than we used to about the great merits of the ‘planned economy’ in the ‘workers states’. Harman shows how even in the period of Stalinist forced accumulation, the Russian economy was based not so much on ‘planning’ as on centralised anarchy. Rational planning, for need and not for profit, is only possible from below.

The great merit of Nigel Harris’s piece on the ‘third world’ is that it clearly establishes the social roots of this fetishism of the plan in those layers of the petty bourgeoisie which have a vested interest in economic development and in the growth of the state sector, but which have nothing to do with the self-emancipation of the working class.

‘If the extension of the public sector is socialism, then the urban lower-middle class is the class of socialism par excellence. But it is state socialism, the socialism of order and not of freedom. And it is national socialism, not the international socialism argued by Marxists to be intrinsic to the material conditions of the industrial working class.’

How could this layer lead the independence movement, when Marxists such as Trotsky had argued that only the working class could? Part of the answer lies in the decreasing dependence of the ‘advanced’ economies on the exploitation of the third world both as a source of raw materials and as an outlet for overseas investment. However Harris’ treatment of these aspects is less than satisfactory. He spends a lot of time refuting an interpretation of Lenin’s Imperialism which Lenin never seems to have held: namely that capitalism was only able to survive through exporting capital to non- or pre-capitalist areas of the world, and that the system is faced with crisis when the supply of such countries runs out. This was of course Luxemburg’s view not Lenin’s. For Lenin the search for raw materials and for outlets for investment are each facets of a total competition for the division and redivision of the world between the great powers.

Harris also concentrates on the interesting similarities between the Chinese CP and the Indian Congress to the exclusion (except in a footnote) of any consideration of the not unimportant differences. Because in China the petty bourgeois leadership of the CP came to power on the backs of a popular peasant guerilla movement (for reasons which Harris describes) a clearer sweep was made than in India of the various pre-capitalist survivals, and the country was more effectively integrated. This does not alter the dead-end nature of the nationalist politics of the Chinese bureaucracy, as recent events have shown. But it does mean that in Shanghai, unlike Calcutta, the pavements are no longer covered each morning with the corpses of those who have died of starvation overnight.

The article does show, correctly, that the independence movements deprived of working-class leadership could create nothing but new class regimes, whether directly or indirectly dependent on imperialism; though more could be said on the options open to a workers’ regime coming to power in an ex-colonial country, and how the chances of such a development are increased by the ideological enfeeblement of Stalinism and Social Democracy in the metropolitan working-class movements.

The final two essays, grouped into a section headed What is to be done? are good in themselves, but disappointing in relation to the rest of the book. Cliff, in his essay on The class struggle in Britain, begins at the beginning:

‘The central problem always facing Marxist revolutionaries is how the struggle of workers inside capitalism is related to the struggle against capitalism.’

We have seen throughout the book how the props which kept the two apart are one by one falling away. For a summing-up, Cliff’s piece is too bitty, it does not indicate as precisely as it could exactly how the intervention of revolutionaries can link the one to the other; it only points out the opportunities for doing so which now exist. The first part of the essay reproduces the guts of the argument in Cliff’s Employers’ Offensive. The employers can less and less afford the autonomy of shop-floor bargaining whose effectiveness was the basis of the growing irrelevance of ‘reformist’ politics in the postwar years. The Prod Deal aims at strengthening management at the expense of shopfloor organisation, and the unions and the state are part of the process. This forces politics back on to the factory floor, and leads to a widening of the struggle.

So far so good. Unfortunately, the next section, on the transitional period that results, is a great deal less concrete. In particular, there could be more on the effects of the partial return of generalised politics, on the trade unions and the Labour Party, the significance and limits of the split between left and right bureaucrats, and the significance of the Tory offensive. However it should be borne in mind that the article was written nearly a year ago, and much of the material in it is considerably older.

Many of these defects are remedied in Duncan Hallas’ essay The way forward. The need for a revolutionary party is patiently explained against ‘libertarian’ and reformist objectives. But the case is argued concretely; the goal – a party of the most advanced layers of the working class – is related to the present organisational options open to socialists. This involves pointing out that socialists have to build a workers party in a working-class movement dominated by existing organisations.

The last section could have benefited from an essay on perspectives for building revolutionary organisations in other metropolitan countries. The standard IS theories of post-war stabilisation and its breakdown apply to the West as a whole; but their strategic conclusions have only been worked out for this country, where the unique nature of the British shop-stewards movement means that the problem takes peculiar forms. But these forms have usually been presented as a result of postwar stabilisation in general. Only Kim Moody’s article on The American Working Class in transition (reprinted in IS 4) has applied the same overall perspective to different circumstances.

These criticisms are however, criticisms of the way the collection presents a certain theoretical position, rather than a basic criticism of the position itself. Imperfections are inevitable in a collection of this sort; but on the whole the book is a useful introduction to the politics of IS.

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