Mike Jones and Alistair Mitchell

Isaac Deutscher

Author: Chris Gray
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

Chris Gray

The Heritage We Find Indefensible and the Myth of ‘Pabloism’

Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

* * *

The Socialist Equality Party publication entitled The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Mehring Books, 2008) has merit in that it lifts a corner of the veil covering the factional struggles attendant upon the explosive break-up of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985-86. That is to say, it lifts it if you have not read the previously published analysis by David North entitled The Heritage We Defend (Labor Publications, 1988).

The political stance of the SEP has, in comparison with much of the left, quite a lot to commend it. But it is impossible to follow the comrades in their diehard defence of the ‘anti-Pabloites’ in the Fourth International from 1953 to the present, because to do so would be to father the deleterious practices and misconceptions originating therein upon the evil genius of one Mikhailis Raptis, also known as Pablo — a procedure that would be quite unwarranted, since the mistakes of ‘Trotskyism’ became evident earlier than the famous (or notorious) 1953 split.

Natalia’s Letter

In opposition to the SEP comrades, I would not start where they start. I would start with the letter written by Natalia Sedova, Leon Trotsky’s widow, to the Fourth International and the American Socialist Workers Party. (For the full text, see The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists: Some Documents (Pluto Press, 1971), pp 101-04.)

In the best traditions of our movement, Natalia pulls no punches. She writes:

Obsessed by old and outlived formulas, you continue to regard the Stalinist state as a workers’ state. I cannot and will not follow you in this.

There is hardly a country in the world where the authentic ideas and bearers of socialism are so barbarously hounded. It should be clear to everyone that the revolution has been completely destroyed by Stalinism. Yet you continue to say that, under this unspeakable regime, Russia is still a workers’ state. I consider this is a blow at socialism. Stalinism and the Stalinist state have nothing whatever in common with a workers’ state or with socialism. They are the worst and most dangerous enemies of socialism and the working class. (p 102)

Natalia goes on to flay the FI over their uncritical attitude to Tito’s Yugoslav regime:

Your entire press is now devoted to an inexcusable idealisation of the Titoist bureaucracy, for which no ground exists in the traditions and principles of our movement. (p 103)

Over the page Natalia continues her attack with an assault on the Fourth International’s position on the Korean War:

You are even now supporting the armies of Stalinism in the war which is being endured by the anguished Korean people. I cannot and will not follow you in this…

I know very well how often you repeat that you are criticising Stalinism and fighting it. But the fact is that your criticism and your fight lose their value and can yield no results because they are determined by and subordinated to your position of defence of the Stalinist state. Whoever defends this regime of barbarous oppression, regardless of motives, abandons the principles of socialism and internationalism. (p 104)

Unfortunately, Natalia goes on to make an unwarranted judgement based on her husband’s approach to the underlying trajectory of the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR. She writes that:

Time and again, he pointed out how the consolidation of Stalinism in Russia led to the worsening of the economic, political and social conditions of the working class, and the triumph of a tyrannical and privileged aristocracy. If this trend continues, he said, the revolution will be at an end and the restoration of capitalism will be achieved.

That, unfortunately, is what has happened even if in new and unexpected forms. (p 102)

In my opinion Natalia was about 40 years ahead of history in this characterisation. Capitalism has indeed been restored in the territories of the former USSR, but only with the emergence of Boris Yeltsin as supreme and the suppression of erstwhile supporters of the state bureaucracy. This state bureaucracy never constituted a capitalist class as such, despite its inability to progress beyond capitalism; it never created a viable mode of production led by its own forces, and it never succeeded in handing on its own privileges to its children. Furthermore, its own economic rule is not explicable via an analysis derived from the modus operandi of capitalism as we know it. (See Hillel Ticktin, Origins of Crisis in the USSR (ME Sharpe, Armonk NY, 2002).)

Simon Pirani on the Critical Years 1920-24

In order to appreciate the true legacy of the 1917 revolution and the political current known as Trotskyism — a current which, I repeat, has much to commend it — it is necessary to engage with the history of the USSR from 1921 to 1929, the period which saw the bureaucracy’s rise to power. We are fortunate in having Simon Pirani’s study of the earlier part of the period, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1921-1924 (Routledge, 2008). In Pirani’s own words:

This book argues that one of the most important choices the Bolsheviks made at this point was to turn their backs on forms of collective, participatory democracy that workers briefly attempted to revive. It challenges the notion, persistent among left-wing historians, that political power was forced on the Bolsheviks because the working class was so weakened by the civil war that it was incapable of wielding it. In reality, non-party workers were willing and able to participate in political processes, but, in the Moscow soviet and elsewhere, were pushed out of them by the Bolsheviks. The party’s vanguardism, that is, its conviction that it had the right, and the duty, to make political decisions on the workers’ behalf, was now reinforced by its control of the state apparatus. (p 4)

It could be argued that Pirani fails to go into the crucial civil war years from 1918 to 1921 in sufficient detail — years when, as he puts it, the ‘terrible weight of adverse conditions forced the hands of the Bolsheviks’ (p 3); however, he does go some way to indicate the Bolsheviks’ dilemma here, as they struggled to deal with the chaos created by the First World War and the collapse of industrial production — conditions which had provided them with the opportunity to seize power in the first place. Pirani notes that:

As the Bolsheviks contended with the economic breakdown, they campaigned, and turned the trade unions and factory committees to campaign, for labour discipline; and they combined labour mobilisation techniques with labour compulsion measures, including militarisation. Often, workplace organisations — and presumably workers themselves — supported these measures, and in some cases proposed still harsher ones. Most of the time, most anti-Bolshevik workers’ parties supported such measures too, although the Mensheviks and others bridled at labour compulsion. Organised independent workers’ action had peaked in the spring of 1918 in Petrograd, with a strike wave and the convening of an independent factory representatives’ assembly, and was soon suppressed. In the two years that followed, workers’ reactions to the labour regime and the supply crisis were as often individual as collective. There were scattered strikes and protests, mostly over rations, but more often there was absenteeism, skilled workers quitting the job and moving elsewhere, and the use of factory machinery to make objects for sale or home use. (p 6)

The Leading Role of the Party

The habit of command, bolstered by the exigencies and deprivations of the Civil War, received Lenin’s explicit endorsement — and, in view of the situation that the Bolsheviks found themselves in, trying to hang on until the European workers’ revolution could come to their aid, this is hardly surprising. At the Second Comintern Congress, held in July 1920, Lenin referred to some remarks by Comrade Tanner of the British Socialist Party (one of the forerunners of the Communist Party in the UK):

Tanner says that he stands for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but he does not see the dictatorship of the proletariat quite in the way we do. He says that by the dictatorship of the proletariat we actually mean the dictatorship of the organised and class-conscious minority of the proletariat.

True enough, in the era of capitalism, when the masses of the workers are subjected to constant exploitation and cannot develop their human capacities, the most characteristic feature of working-class political parties is that they can involve only a minority of their class. A political party can comprise only a minority of a class, in the same way as the really class-conscious workers in any capitalist society constitute only a minority of all workers. We are therefore obliged to recognise that it is only this class-conscious minority that can direct and lead the broad masses of the workers. (‘Speech on the Role of the Communist Party’, 23 July 1920, Collected Works, Volume 31, p 235)

For Lenin in 1920, therefore, the dictatorship of the proletariat became synonymous (in practice) with the exclusive rule of the Communist Party, because that institution was the embodiment of the ‘really class-conscious’ workers. Aside from the questions of who decides whether a worker is or is not ‘class-conscious’ and just what this ‘class-consciousness’ ostensibly consists of, it must be obvious that such a form of government can endure only temporarily. The revolutionary regimes that emerged in the English Civil War following the execution of King Charles I represented the ‘class-conscious minority’ of the anti-monarchist population, but the English Republic lasted barely a decade before the monarchy’s restoration in 1660. The French Revolution of 1789-94 shows a similar pattern with a considerably shorter radical regime — the Jacobin dictatorship. Likewise the Bolshevik regime, expressive of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, lasted just over a decade before giving way to the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The whole Bolshevik project depended on the extension of the revolution (above all in Germany), which, if it had taken place, might have led to a situation in which the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the broader sense of the rule of the working class as a whole, was realisable on a continental scale. However, for several reasons such an eventuality did not materialise.

It can be said that Lenin and Trotsky made a virtue of necessity: they wished to retain power at all costs — which explains the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, the adoption of the ‘New Economic Policy’ allowing a limited return to capitalist market conditions, and the suppression of independent working-class initiatives which Pirani documents. We should also recognise that, having arrived at this position, Lenin and Trotsky did not rigidly adhere to it thereafter. Lenin became acutely aware of the danger threatening from within the state itself in his last years, and attempted to wage a campaign against this. (See Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (Pluto Press, 1975).) Trotsky later wrote The Revolution Betrayed, in which he stated that:

It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to soviet democracy. (The Revolution Betrayed (Labor Publications, Detroit, 1991), p 246)

Kunal Chattopadhyay, in The Marxism of Leon Trotsky, has drawn our attention to the importance of this section of the book:

The actual state was, Trotsky said, being changed by the judicial liquidation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He affirmed the anti-democratic nature of the state. In a long discussion he showed that without a multiplicity of parties the promise of socialist democracy was a vulgar joke at the expense of the downtrodden. This remains the sole classical Marxist statement since the Russian revolution’s decline that is unambiguous on this point. (The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (Progressive Publishers, Kolkata, 2006), p 538)

I believe Chattopadhyay’s assessment is essentially correct. In connexion with Stalin’s 1936 Constitution, Trotsky wrote:

The promise to give the Soviet people freedom to vote ‘for those whom they want to elect’ is rather a poetic image than a political formula. The Soviet people will have the right to choose their ‘representatives’ only from among candidates whom the central and local leaders present to them under the flag of the party. To be sure, during the first period of the Soviet era, the Bolshevik Party also exercised a monopoly. But to identify these two phenomena would be to take appearance for essence. The prohibition of opposition parties was a temporary measure dictated by conditions of civil war, blockade and famine. The ruling party, representing in that period a genuine organisation of the proletarian vanguard, was living a full-blooded inner life [at least until the ban on factions in 1921 — CG]: the struggle of groups and factions to a certain degree replaced the struggle of parties. At present, when socialism [this word surely requires inverted commas in this context — CG] has conquered ‘finally and irrevocably’, the formation of factions is punished with concentration camp or firing squad. The prohibition of other parties, from being a temporary evil, has been elevated into a principle. (The Revolution Betrayed, p 226)

The Fighting Value of the ‘Vanguard’

The question of what constitutes ‘class-consciousness’ in a given situation is both a theoretical and a practical one, involving as it does a consideration of the immediate and long-term political interests of the working class. The ‘revolutionary vanguard’ tends to think that because, in its eyes, it is this very vanguard, it knows better than the average worker, or those currently leading the average worker, what should be done in a given context. But this is not necessarily the case. Eric Morse satirised such élitist attitudes many years ago in a song to the tune of ‘Maryland’ (or ‘The Red Flag’) featuring the lines:

The cause is surely won this year
Because the leadership is here,
For Khrushchev’s boys, and Trotsky’s too,
Now guide us in the work we do.

The Left and the Great Miners’ Strike

Dave Douglass, who played a prominent part in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, has a piece on the same subject entitled ‘The Charge of the Left Brigade’. This examines the response of the left groups to the strike. (See Class War Federation’s magazine, Heavy Stuff, no 5, July 1992, pp 17-22.) The theme is also present in Douglass’ autobiography Stardust to Coaldust, in three volumes, published by Read and Noir, 2008, 2009, 2010, and in Pit Sense Versus the State (Phoenix Press, c 1994).

Douglass’ critique of (primarily) the British Socialist Workers Party (and Arthur Scargill) is devastating:

The SWP, despite a venomously anti-union verbiage [this is news to me, but then I didn’t read Socialist Worker during the miners’ strike — CG] strangely shares the same bureaucratic vision and faith in the workers as do NUM bureaucrats. To this day they don’t really understand the tactics employed in the ‘84/85 strike and never really grasped the pickets’ perspective of the struggle. Instead they basked in the reflected glow of Arthur Scargill’s General Custer impersonation — Never mind the tactics, Charge! …

If the different perspectives can be summed up in military terms, Arthur and the SWP saw themselves as the vanguard of the class army lined up against the ruling class enemy in a do-or-die battle at Orgreave — we saw ourselves as a guerrilla group of rarely more than 20 000 pickets nationally, fighting a massive deployment of police with the full range of computer and surveillance equipment. Standing toe to toe we would always be battered, so we used guerrilla tactics; blocking the M1, hit-squad raids on scab pits or police bases, blocking the Humber Bridge, ruse tactics to draw the mass of police off somewhere else while our main force deployed to some least expected power station, wharf or scab pit. Because of the absolute need for secrecy only the elected picket coordinators knew the plan; village pubs had posters on the walls: ‘Keep Picket Targets Secret: The Walls Have Ears!’

These targets drove the SWP to distraction, because they didn’t know where the action was until after we’d been and gone and done it. This is very troubling if you’re a vanguard! Arthur was similarly distressed but he also had no control or say over the direction of our targets or the manner in which we conducted these attacks. We also differed on perceptions of the struggle. Arthur saw Orgreave as a Saltley Gate, a rallying point for the whole trade union movement and the left; mass enough of our class together and we could swamp them. This strategy was fatally flawed, not least because we’d tried it at Grunwick and, despite more support than the miners got, had still lost it. For things had changed since Saltley [1972], not simply the responses or lack of them from union members, but also the degree to which the police had been given their head and told not to back off. (‘The Charge of the Left Brigade’, Heavy Stuff, no 5, 1992, p 18)

Douglass argues that once Scargill decided that he would make his stand at Orgreave and called for support, the miners were obliged to stand with him:

Ditch warfare, the replay of the First World War, had started at Orgreave, the fight was happening and we had no choice but to join it. Fierce we were and unrestrained, publicly uncritical, but we knew it to be foolish in the extreme. The left viewed it like the Charge of the Light Brigade — bloody but magnificent. (p 19)

Dave is equally merciless when dealing with the approach of the WRP:

The WRP operated in the revolutionary Hall of Mirrors which decrees that all workers’ struggles are doomed without them being led by the Revolutionary Party, namely themselves. So then it follows that anything the working class do is doomed, a blind alley, because it hasn’t been led by them. For people like myself, field officers of the struggle, it was automatic that we would betray the struggle, because we weren’t part of the revolutionary party. Mass picketing, hit squads, anti-scab, anti-police assaults were all a dead end, they said. Instead they offered us a real solution: The miners should call on the TUC General Council to lead a General Strike!

We replied: Woah, woah, we’re the MINERS. Don’t you know TUC will never organise a general strike and if they did they’d only betray it as they did in 1926 — so why call it?

Because us dumb chucks, the rank-and-file pitmen and our families and the workers at large need to be shown that the existing trade union structure is no good for this sort of battle and it should be left to the Revolutionary Party. [A classic case of substitutionism if so, of the type condemned by Leon Trotsky in 1904 — CG.]

Get it? Urge us into a defeat, we get smashed, then pick up the pieces to build your own outfit… nice. Trouble with this theory is, we’d already been there in 1926. Miners’ children are weaned on the story of that betrayal of the miners by the TUC. We grew up knowing the limitations of the TUC General Council and that’s why we would never accept that stupid slogan of the WRP. If this was a sample of their organisational worth over the NUM, is it any wonder the NUM continued the struggle with fire and pride whilst the WRP stood under umbrellas for fear of the rain and tried pathetically to sell papers so wet you couldn’t light a fire with them. (p 20)

Douglass concludes that under the circumstances all that trade union activists can do is make the best of a bad job, using the official union structure where possible and circumventing it where necessary:

We have need for the formal structure of the NUM for welfare benefits, for countless legal, injury and death cases. So we maintain it, at the same time going round it, over it and underneath it to do what we want to do. The SWP thinks we have it wrong, because frankly they don’t understand our relationship with official and unofficial aspects of our organisations. But as a matter of fact, why should they? (p 21)

Douglass finishes his article by speaking to revolutionary leftists directly — and the article as a whole is obligatory reading for all revolutionary socialist organisations worldwide. His final sentence runs:

We will be of relevance so long as we intervene, without preconditions, without delusions of vanguardism, into actual struggles of the working class, not standing outside the class mocking the crude attempts at combat organisations the workers have built, but alongside them, as part of them. (p 22)

Once Again, Pablo

To return to the nefarious activities of one Raptis/Pablo. Yes, of course, the Socialist Labour League were both formally and practically correct against the perspective he put forward in the 1950s. The Socialist Equality Party’s book is quite right to attack Pablo and Ernest Mandel for their attitude to Stalinist and social-democratic parties as an abandonment of any independent perspective for the Fourth International, in the process ‘transforming the Fourth International into a pressure group on the existing leadership of the working class and national movements’ (p 70).

Likewise the picture of the advance to socialism occurring via ‘centuries of deformed workers’ states’ was a mirage, bringing dire results everywhere, involving an endorsement of ‘false claims made on behalf of the Stalinist bureaucracy’ and also of ‘bourgeois nationalist movements in the semi-colonial and under-developed countries’ (p 72).

But the SLL/WRP went on to replicate much of this approach, as the book’s author or authors indicate (see pp 110-20) and the America SWP ended up embracing Castro and ditching the political heritage of Leon Trotsky (pp 80-81, 88-90). Was this simply the result of false moves on the part of leaders such as Gerry Healy, James Cannon, Joe Hansen, Jack Barnes & Co? The pressure of capitalism and imperialism is intense: it can affect not only leaders but an organisation’s tradition as handed down. And mere formal correctness is not enough — concrete thoroughgoing analysis of the situation facing the working class internationally is mandatory.



Created or last updated on 8 January 2018