Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Some comments

Dear Comrades,

Revolutionary History has a valuable role to play in helping to educate a new generation of revolutionaries about the history of the movement. In their various organisations comrades will be told either that the history of Trotskyism is not very important or, alternatively, that their own organisation is the one true inheritor of the great tradition. Hopefully they will turn to Revolutionary History for a more balanced view. However, Revolutionary History will only win and deserve such readership if it accepts certain principles. Firstly, that nobody is sacrosanct. The record and ideas of everyone, even Trotsky and Marx, must be subjected to rigorous criticism. Secondly, the journal must scrupulously avoid factionalism. Of course, there should be vigorous and partisan polemic in signed articles, but the journal itself should be free of any factional identification. On this basis may I make two small observations on the most recent issue (Volume 2, no.2).

Firstly, in the obituary note on Munis, the Editors write that his group “developed ultra-leftist positions on the trade unions”. Some readers, familiar with the way such terms have been thrown around in the movement in recent years, may imagine that they refused to back the Broad Left slate for Minuting Secretary of the Trades Council, or something of that order. Unfortunately there was rather more to it than that. In Les Syndicats contre la Rdvolution by Munis and Peret (Le Terrain Vague, Paris, 1968), Munis argues that the destruction of the trade unions is the immediate priority task for workers. Of course, we can understand how, in an age of defeat and isolation, and facing the very real thuggery of the Stalinist unions, an authentic revolutionary like Munis could come to such a position. Nonetheless, the position should be labelled as pernicious and dangerous. Norman Tebbit could happily live with ’ultra-leftism’ of that sort.

Secondly, in the Reader’s Notes your anonymous compiler lists a number of obituaries of C.L.R. James. Such a bibliography is extremely valuable, but am I the only one who feels that it is intrusive to include brief, sniping comments in such a bibliography? Your compiler singles out Robin Blackburn’s obituary in the Independent as “pretentious” and “grossly ignorant”. But the three brief quotations he gives fail to justify this condemnation.

Admittedly Blackburn did commit the heinous crime of getting James’ pseudonym wrong. But to call James an “Anarcho-Bolshevik” does not seem outrageous to me. After his break with orthodox Trotskyism James combined a profound admiration for Lenin and October with a total rejection of organisation in the present period (a paradox drawn out admirably by Paul Foot in Socialist Worker, 1 July 1989; an item that might well be added to the list of tributes to James).

And it is certainly a fact that James was interested in the “early works of Raymond Williams” – he wrote a long, critical and not unsympathetic review of Culture and Society and The Long Revolution called Marxism and the Intellectuals. This was originally written for Correspondence in 1961, but when that journal rejected it James persevered until it was published by Facing Reality in 1962. It is reproduced in Spheres of Existence (Allison and Busby, 1980).

It seems to me a matter of some interest that James should have thus confronted the most influential (around one million books sold) thinker of the emergent New Left, and certainly not something to be dismissed as self-evidently absurd. Of course, I may have quite misunderstood your compiler’s intentions – but that is the danger of cryptic interpolations in a bibliography. Better to give us the references and let us make our own minds up.

Yours fraternally

Ian Birchall

Updated by ETOL: 7.7.2003