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Ken Tarbuck

A Letter to a Comrade

(Spring 1970)

From Marxist Studies, Vol. 2 No. 2, Spring 1970.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Minor spelling errors have been corrected without indication.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Comrade

Your letter was of great interest because it raised quite a number of points that need to be clarified.

You say that you are ‘not sure’ that cadre building is the ‘vital thing’ and suggest that it is more important to get young workers and students involved in activity. I can well understand your impatience on this question, because it seems there is a dichotomy between these two functions. However, I would suggest that this dichotomy is not – or should not be – a real one. Our point of departure must be ‘how can we advance the fight against capitalism and bring it to a successful conclusion’. The point I was trying to make in my article The Making of Revolutionaries: Cadre or Sect was that many people start from this generalised and abstract proposition only to arrive at a dead-end, even though for a time they seem to have made some progress. Some knowledge of the British labour movement will tell us that it is littered with many attempts to find a way out of the impasse. In the event – up to now – they have all failed, and to say this is not to disparage the devotion and sincerity of those involved. The proposition that I advanced was that – leaving aside the objective conditions, which have played a large part in this failure – they all fell down either because they were unable to create a revolutionary cadre or did not understand the nature of such a cadre. This is why I devoted so much space to examining this question.

However – and this must be clearly understood – cadres cannot be created in an ivory tower, separate and apart from the actual struggles that are taking place at any given time. On the other hand, participation in such struggles does not automatically create cadres. What is involved here is: what does one mean by cadres? I repeat what I said in my original article, one must not confuse activists and cadres, to do so means to have an administrative and manipulative concept of cadres. Cadres in the Leninist or Gramscian sense of the term are revolutionary intellectuals, or intellectuals of a new type. That is not to say, therefore, that one must hand out labels to those who participate in a movement and accord them some differing and exalted status, in the last analysis people will decide for themselves what their role is by their contribution.

I agree that the activist approach should be given as much importance as cadre building – if one sees them as being separate, but I do not. In my article I attempted to point out that for genuine revolutionary activity to take place, and by this I mean that the situation has materially affected the relative position of the various classes within society, then there must be a fusion of theory and practice, that is, praxis. What I wanted to drive home was that only rarely has this been the case up to now, rather we have been faced by sects that have produced activists, and sometimes unthinking ones. The essence of this point is that we must get away from seeing some sort of dichotomy between activity and intellectual effort. I made the point by asking was Marx merely (!) theorising when he was writing Capital, and was Castro merely (!) being an activist when he landed from the Granma? It is only by understanding the fundamental unity of such apparently diverse ‘activities’ that one grasps the concept of praxis.

If I understand the drift of your next point, you are saying that in the last [1] two years or so the most important thing is to create activities and demonstrations around student and Vietnam issues because you ‘think that with involvement in activities and raising revolutionary consciousness ideology would follow, more easily and quickly’. First let me deal with the question of Vietnam. There can be no denying that until recently this issue was one that aroused a great deal of feeling and enthusiasm among wide layers of students and young workers. Moreover, from a revolutionary Marxist standpoint it is one’s duty to defend the Vietnamese struggle and if possible expand the movement once more. This is doubly important because (a) it is an elementary duty to defend those who are under attack by imperialism, and (b) because the Vietnamese have shown in practice that it is possible to stop imperialist aggression and defeat it. However, to predicate the whole of one’s strategy on this (or any other single) issue – in practice, if not in theory – is to fall into a trap. Whilst it may be true that many people were drawn into activity by the issue of Vietnam, many were not. To have concentrated on this one issue (or today upon student struggles) almost to the exclusion of others is to ignore the very real law of combined and uneven development, one that operates not only internationally, but also nationally. For the proper development of cadres there has to be a number of areas of work and issues in which one operates. Of course it is necessary that there should be priorities, but these have to be worked out on the basis of a full and rounded-out analysis, not by empirical reaction to events. Secondly, on the question of involvement. I would not deny that it is possible to raise the consciousness of many by bringing them into such activities as the anti-Vietnam War campaign. But for this to be utilised properly it is necessary to have a cadre that is conscious of its own role, one cannot rely upon spontaneity. This was the most dangerous aspect of VSC [2] and the present round of student militancy. There seems to have developed the idea that demonstrations and clashes with the police and/or university authorities is all that is necessary to develop revolutionary consciousness. But, to avoid any misunderstanding, let me say that such demonstrations are necessary, and I would be the last to disparage the tremendous work that has been done by such demonstrations.

I find your remarks about the New Left Review and ‘intellectual chatter’ most interesting and revealing. I think it indicates the general anti-intellectual character of British society, and also of the British labour movement. You obviously equate ‘intellectual chatter’ with idle chatter. Such attitudes are of great service to the bourgeoisie in helping to maintain their ideological grip upon the working class. The greatest asset that the bourgeoisie have in keeping their society afloat is the ‘common sense’ of the working class who don’t listen to ‘them… long-haired intellectuals’. As for NLR not being ‘exactly proletarian’, neither was Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, etc. It is a mistake to try to type people by their class origins. There is nothing particularly sanctifying about the proletarian condition, as Marxists we want to abolish it. What we have to separate out is how certain classes act and not to confuse this with how individuals, or even relatively small groups of people, act. If we were to seize upon the activities of individuals or those of small groups and use this to characterise a whole class or stratum of society, how would we characterise the working class after those dockers had marched to Parliament to support Enoch Powell? Again, please do not misunderstand me, I do not think the sun shines out of all intellectuals’ big toe. But I think to dismiss people one must have some knowledge upon which to base this. All too often in the Marxist movement one hears of ideas being dismissed because they are ‘bourgeois’ or ‘petty-bourgeois’ (apparently a most horrible thing to be), nothing is more indicative of a closed mind than the use of clichés to answer problems.

Are there so many cadres around? I would think that this is a slightly more complex question than appears at first sight and also how you pose it. On the one hand there is certainly not a revolutionary cadre formed as yet, taking Gramsci’s definition as one’s criterion. On the other hand there are certainly many people around who would and could form the basis for such a cadre. But it is not a question of lumping together a certain number of people and when one reaches a certain arithmetic number saying that a revolutionary cadre has been formed. The formation of a cadre is a dialectical process. The collective impact of such a cadre is much greater than the mere summation of individual efforts. Therefore the problem is not merely grouping together the largest number of people possible, perhaps by using a low common denominator, but of grouping together talents as will have a revolutionary impact upon society. Initially such a grouping can be relatively quite small, but their impact and success will generate further growth.

I do not think you are being ‘naive’ when you say ‘some sensible person talked about the immediate necessity of making revolution not talking about it’, you were merely misquoting him. The sensible person I presume you refer to is Fidel Castro, now as far as I know he has talked about the duty of revolutionaries to make revolution. I do not recall his saying anything about immediately. Now of course Castro was not saying this is something we can put off into the distant future. I take him to mean that no matter what the present conditions revolutionaries must clearly have a perspective of revolution, one on which we base all our activities. But it would be absolute nonsense to say that all revolutionaries must rush out now and start the revolution. There is a small item called the objective circumstances which have to be taken into account. If I correctly interpret Castro’s slogan (and we should remember it is a slogan) I take him to mean that revolutionaries by their activities help to change these objective circumstances, because they are not god-given and immutable. Looked at in this way this slogan begins to take on a deeper significance than a mere tautology, which it may appear to be at first sight.

And now to your last point. The French events of May–June 1968 were unexpected in the precise way in which they developed, and the rapidity with which they became a pre-revolutionary situation. I would not suggest that Marxists are able to forecast the precise timetable of mass movements, we are not crystal-ball gazers. Yet at the same time such mass upsurges should not have taken Marxists by surprise to the extent of being disoriented by them. Marxists should not only respond to circumstances, they must also help to shape them. If our theory does not allow us to do this then it is ‘intellectual chatter’. Revolutions are only unpredictable if one stands passively watching, if one enters into the mass movement and attempts to help shape them, then the unpredictability becomes much less. The scale and effectiveness of such interventions depend largely upon the preparations that precede such situations. This is why a revolutionary party is both a subjective and an objective factor within any such situations. Men make their own history, but they do so with all the weight of the past and present bearing down on them.


Yours fraternally
Ken Tarbuck


1. The word ‘next’ seems to be more apt here – MIA.

2. VSC – Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – MIA.

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Last updated: 14 October 2014