Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History



Dear Comrades,

I was somewhat surprised to read Gemma Forest’s reply to my comments on her review of Mandel’s book The Meaning of the Second World War, since it singularly failed to address the substance of my note. Instead of grappling with the issues I raised, we are treated to yet another display of ‘polemic’. Far from polemics being out of fashion, I suggested that they be used with caution, particularly in such a journal as Revolutionary History. Insofar as there is a ‘fashion’ in such things, I am indifferent to them. What I am not indifferent to is the quality and intellectual integrity of contributions to the journal and the arguments therein.

We are told by Forest that my recourse to the Oxford English Dictionary was ‘quaint’ and not in the ‘Bolshevik tradition’. I wonder if she consulted the OED before using the word ‘quaint’. I suggest she does, since the definition begins by saying: “Attractive or piquant in virtue of unfamiliar, esp. old-fashioned ...” I am quite happy to live with that, particularly the old-fashioned bit, if by old-fashioned we take it to mean an adherence to truth and honesty. As for it not being in the ‘Bolshevik tradition’, I am not aware of any resolutions of the Comintern denouncing the use of the OED, or any other dictionary. I am aware of several writings of Trotsky urging the elimination of vulgarity from speech and writings. In particular I would refer readers to Problems of Everyday Life. Of course no dictionary is sacrosanct, since language is a living, developing thing, but such books are a useful guide to the normal accepted usage of words, not merely in English, but as far back as the Sumerian culture. I shall be very interested to know just where ‘Bolshevik tradition’ is directed against the retention and development of the cultural heritage of all humanity. Does Forest suggest that we become complete pragmatists and can dispense with all literary and cultural forms inherited from bourgeois society? And if she does not recognise such material acquisitions as dictionaries as being useful, she has a very peculiar view of culture.

We are also told that “the war marked the climax of the defeat of the Soviet working class”. On the contrary, the war marked the climax of the defeat of the international working class, even those sections of it which had not been singly defeated, such as in Germany or Italy, where the defeats had taken place some years before. Most certainly in the Soviet Union the working class had been decisively defeated by the late 1930s. The Moscow trials were the climax of that particular process. But Forest continues: “For Ken, it seems, the facts and statistics of the defeat of the Soviet workers are but ‘a matter for legitimate debate’ no more.” She has amalgamated two parts of my comments in this reply: my reference to the known iniquities of Stalinism is separated by nearly a column of print from my point about the depth of the defeat of the working class by the Second World War being a matter of legitimate debate. I do not have a cavalier attitude towards the crimes of Stalinism that Forest imputes to me. I have protested, and fought against them, for over 40 years. My reference to what was a matter of legimate debate related to the question of the depth of the defeat inflicted upon the whole working class by the Second World War and the consequences for the long wave of capitalist development that followed.

Let us now look at the following: “As it happens, the review did not call Mandel a ‘criminal’, as Ken makes out. It argued that Mandel’s half-paragraph coquetting with the problems of Russian nationalism was criminal ...” So, Mandel is not a criminal, he only writes criminal half-paragraphs!! The act is now totally separated from the initiator, as though the author has no responsibility for what he wrote. This is an even more dangerous doctrine than the original review. It only needs some Vyshinsky-style prosecutor to come along and we can all be convicted by anything we write because there is found lurking within it some ‘criminality’ which the clever prosecutor wheedles out of it, like a medieval inquisitor.

And “Ken, ever the liberal apologist for Mandel, admits that nationalism is something that has ‘probably been played down’ ...” If by ‘liberal’ Forest means that I am prepared to give a proper and fair hearing to people with a different point of view, then I agree I am a ‘liberal’. But I do not accept this as a term of abuse. Rather it falls upon me as an accolade. However, I would have thought that the Stalinists have used such methods of abuse sufficiently to have warned off our latter-day Bolsheviks. Not content with calling me a ‘liberal’, Forest has to compound this by declaring that I am an ‘apologist’, and, let it be noted, an apologist for an apologist of Stalinism! This, again, is very reminiscent of the tactics used by Stalin when he accused people of being soft on deviationists, not actually being ‘deviationists’ themselves, but being soft to the point where they became accomplices. And, of course, such attitudes – if not the people themselves – became ‘criminal’. I can well imagine myself being hauled up before some ‘People’s Court’ and a ‘Comrade McCarthy’ thundering at me: “Are you now, or have you ever been, an apologist for Ernest Mandel?” I shall, of course, plead the Fifth Amendment.

This is capped by: “Does Ken agree with the review that Mandel’s paeans to the heroism of Soviet workers in the War are a dishonest attempt to dignify Soviet property relations with a progressive character?” No. It may be a misguided attempt by Mandel to attribute to Soviet property relations a progressive character, but not ‘dishonest’. In fact, I have never noticed that Mandel has ever been particularly coy on this topic. He has consistently maintained that Soviet property relations arising from the October 1917 revolution were historically progressive. It is not necessary to dig this opinion out of some rather obscure quotation. Practically everything that Mandel has written in the last 40 years has had some reference to this. Forest seems unable to disentangle two quite different aspects of people’s conduct; they may say one thing but believe another; that is dishonest: or, they may make a connection between two aspects of circumstances which leads them to certain conclusions which are wrong or incorrect. In the latter case we are faced with a lack of historical imagination, or a failure of analysis, but not deliberate dishonesty. Of course, if certain people continually make poor judgements they should not be accepted as being reliable guides. It may be that their intentions are of the very best, but if the results of their actions are bad then they should be avoided and their errors exposed. It is not necessary, however, to insult comrades to expose their errors.

Forest suggests that I am offended by the tone of her review. Like some quaint old buffer whose delicate susceptibilities are hurt by harsh words, she said: “Really what offends Ken is the tone of the review. Yet anyone familiar with the tone of Lenin’s polemics against even left wing centrists, let alone against apologists for Menshevism, will know how vitriolic the man’s language could be.” Form and content are rarely so disparate as to have no connection, and if I do object to the tone, it is because of what lurks beneath it. As far as Lenin’s vitriolic polemics are concerned, they should be studied as a warning of how not to ‘win friends and influence people’, but they should not be emulated. Forest may find it commendable to use abuse in place of reasoned argument. I do not. In this respect I prefer to follow the Trotsky tradition. George Bernard Shaw, in 1921, wrote of Trotsky as follows: “Like Lessing, when he cuts off his opponent’s head, he holds it up to show that there are no brains in it; but he spares his victim’s private character.” And: “He leaves Kautsky without a rag of political credit; but he leaves him with his honour intact” (printed in The Athenaeum, 7 January 1922). This, I suggest, is a better tradition to follow than the bowdlerised Bolshevism that Forest would have us believe in.

It is unfortunate that this question should have become a matter of dispute within the pages of Revolutionary History, but the subject matter has a considerable bearing upon how the journal develops. Most certainly we need to attract a wide audience, young and not so young; this we shall do, I suggest, by maintaining as high a standard of discussion as possible. However, as the publication of Forest’s contributions demonstrate, the editorial board has shown no tendency to censor authors. As far as allowing polemics in the pages of the journal, I would be the last person to wish to suppress differing points of view, but they do not necessarily have to be cast in the polemical form. But, once people appear in print, they must expect some reactions, and not always approving. The legend at the bottom front cover of the journal reads: “Those Who Do Not Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat It.” One of the lessons we can learn is that the history of our movement is too replete with ill-considered polemics against people who are comrades in the struggle. The real enemy is the capitalist order of society, and it is against this that our main ‘slings and arrows’ should be directed.

Ken Tarbuck

Updated by ETOL: 15.7.2003