The AWL and the Trotskyists: Socialist Action

Questions from a friend: "How stupid are these people? How wrong can they be?"

These notes are an analysis of the magazine of the Socialist Action group over the period 1989-93 and deal with the collapse of Eastern European "Communism", the Stalinist coup attempt in Russia of August 1991 and the 1990-91 Gulf war.

The period begins with the final withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan at the beginning of 1989 ("Defeat in Afghanistan" - SA no.2, March-April 1989) and end with SA justifying Russian nationalism.

Along the way SA make a great number of predictions about the future development of world politics. They get almost everything wrong. The SA articles are mainly written by their former central figure, John Ross, under a series of pseudonyms (Ross seems to have since left SA). The origins of the Ross group are dealt with in an appendix.

Socialist Organiser was the paper of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

1989: the biggest defeat for the workers since 1945?

Socialist Organiser (16 November 1989): headline: For a workers' Europe East and West! "People were dancing on the Berlin wall, smashing it with hammers, pouring through in thousands with looks of sheer joy and disbelief... No-one who saw the faces of the four million who crossed the border last weekend can doubt that the end of the wall was a real act of liberation."

Socialist Action (no. 7, Summer 1990): "The destruction of at least some of the workers' states in Eastern Europe, and the imperialist reunification of Germany are both the greatest defeats suffered by the working class since World War 2 and overturn the post-war world order."

So, the ending of Stalinist rule in the GDR and Czechoslovakia (SA still have hopes that the Stalinists will hang on in Romania), is the biggest defeat suffered by the international workers' movement since 1945. And these revolutions are not only defeats but worse defeats than the imposition of Apartheid in South Africa, the Chilean coup, the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the coming to power of Khomeini in Iran, the slaughter of half a million suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965...

SA was opposed to German unification, at least on a capitalist basis. They regarded Stalinist East Germany and the other states of Eastern Europe as workers' states because their economies were nationalised, and capitalism had been abolished. These states were workers' states - states in which the working class is the ruling class - despite the fact that the working class had less power than the British workers under Margaret Thatcher.

The argument between SA and Workers' Liberty is in part: what is most important - workers' self-activity and independent organisation, or nationalised property relations?

Why did Stalinist Eastern Europe collapse?

Socialist Action (no 6, Feb-March 1990): "The creation by Gorbachev of conditions for Germany's reunification into a single united imperialist state sets the seal on the catastrophic course on which he has led the international working class movement." Talking of Gorbachev in this way, as if he is a leader of the international working class, is as sensible as describing Margaret Thatcher as a leader of the international workers' movement. SA take Gorbachev at his word: that he is a socialist leader. SA's problem with Gorbachev is: "from the beginning [Gorbachev worked for a] turn to a closer collaboration with imperialism." However, "any accommodation to [imperialism], or weakness, leads not to peace, stability and advance for the left but to greater aggression by imperialism". This is a simple prescription to turn the socialists into advocates for the most aggressive, hawkish Stalinists.

After all, "Victories by imperialism lead to it becoming more violent and aggressive. The crushing of the German working class by fascism inaugurated World War 2." Yes, and the crushing of the Soviet workers by Stalinism led to the emergence of Stalinist imperialism and the over-running of Eastern Europe - but imperialism for SA is something only capitalist states are capable of.

SA make their support for democratic change in the USSR conditional and they judge Gorbachev's policy by a ridiculous yardstick: "Any shift in the Soviet Union in a leftwards direction would involve a rapid expansion of democracy. But it is absurd to believe such democratisation is itself a left wing shift because it can occur for quite different reasons. If, say, Gorbachev had accompanied democratisation in the USSR with stepped up aid to Cuba and Nicaragua, or the launching of a deeper international campaign against apartheid we would have been dealing with a left wing development."

What a mess. Gorbachev was a reforming Stalinist leader - but a reformer whose 'reforms' aimed to aid the ruling class he was the leading representative of. He was not capable of a 'left' policy of any type - because, fundamentally, 'left' and 'right' are judged by an attitude towards the working class (for SA 'left' and 'right' are mainly functions of more or less aggressive policy towards the US and 'imperialism'). Gorbachev's relationship to the Russian workers was that of a reforming Tsar trying to sort out the mess the ruling elite found itself in. His aim was to make the workers pay for the crisis through speed-ups, unemployment, factory closures; 'democratisation' was limited and was intended as a mechanism which could help Gorbachev's system work better - for Gorbachev and the Russian bureaucrats and against the workers. If 'left' and 'right' have any meaning here Gorbachev's policy is another variant of a right-wing policy.

Workers' Liberty on Gorbachev

WL no. 8, Oct-Nov 1987: Headline: 'Workers against Gorbachev' "Many socialists exaggerate ridiculously what Gorbachev has done and what he aims for. They do not seem to know what Gorbachev stands for, whom he represents, or for that matter, where the interests of the workers in the USSR lie...

"A prolonged crisis in the USSR's economy is at the root of Gorbachev's 'liberalisation'...

"Gorbachev started with a drive for economic discipline and against corruption... The inert resistance of the system threatened to stifle even limited renovation... [So] Gorbachev switched to talk of 'democratisation'.

Political shake-up would be necessary before there could be an economic shake-up... [But] the party [retained] overall control... there is no question at all of allowing explicit political opposition to the ruling elite. Gorbachev warned: 'Of course it must remain a sacrosanct principle within the party that decisions of superior organs are binding on all subordinate party committees, including decisions on jobs and postings.'...

"The bureaucracy's natural enemy is the working class. The bureaucracy can allow some autonomy to priests and intellectuals and even to some capitalists. They can not tolerate independent working-class activity without risking their own bureaucratic rule."

The bureaucracy, despite itself and in order to solve its own problems is allowing the workers some space to organise. But "immediately the working class stands to suffer economically from Gorbachev's revitalisation programme as their jobs become less secure, pressure is put on to speed-up work in the factories, and pay differentials increase...

"What Gorbachev's stirring-up may unleash has already been indicated by the official USSR media reporting a strike for the first time in decades... Even if Gorbachev's measurers produce no explosion in the USSR, they may stir up rebellions elsewhere... What will the effects of Gorbachev's talk of liberalisation have in Poland? In Czechoslovakia? In East Germany? In Hungary?...

"The [British left has] a duty as elementary as not crossing a picket line, to side with, champion, and defend the workers in the Stalinist states. And rather than hope for reform from the bureaucrats, we need to have a clear programme for workers' liberty:

  1. Disbandment of the police and armed forces, replacement by a workers' militia;

  2. Breaking up of the bureaucratic hierarchy of administration, and replacement by a democratic regime of councils of elected and recallable workers' delegates, with freedom to form many workers' political parties;

  3. Workers' control in industry; free trade unions;

  4. Abolition of bureaucratic privileges; reorganisation of the economy according to a democratically-decided plan;

  5. Abolition of the bureaucracy's monopoly over information; freedom for working class newspapers, meetings, radio and TV stations;

  6. Self-determination for the nations oppressed by the Kremlin."

1990: Romania - oppose the repression?

Socialist Action (no. 6, Feb-March 90): "Within weeks of the overthrow of Ceausescu's monstrous regime in Romania the international capitalist press have launched a vitriolic campaign against the National Salvation Front government which emerged from the revolution. This started with claims... that the NSF was in fact dominated by former communists and therefore had no legitimacy...

"What lies behind imperialism's campaign against the NSF is precisely that to date it has shown no sign of moving in the direction of the restoration of capitalism. The Front clearly rests on sections of the Romanian state apparatus, principally the army, opposed to Ceausescu, but not for capitalism...

"Romania illustrates a point made by Trotsky, that the state apparatus of a bureaucratised workers' state, if it is independent, will defend itself against capitalist restoration...

"What is now unfolding in Romania is the polarisation between reform communists and the army, controlling the NSF, who are at present defending the non-capitalist character of the workers' state, and an alliance of ultra-reactionary capitalist parties, supported by imperialism, which wish to overthrow the workers' state and restore capitalism. Socialists are clearly on the side of the NSF."

Socialist Organiser (17 May 1990), headline: Support the demonstrators in Bucharest!

"Romania's Stalinist bureaucracy, substantially independent from Moscow since the 1960s has shown more resilience than the satrap regimes of other Eastern European countries.

"It took bloodshed on the streets to get rid of the dictator Ceausescu. But the overthrow of Ceausescu was not the overthrow of the bureaucracy: Ceausescu fell because the entire officer corps of the army and a substantial number of leaders or recent ex-leaders of the Stalinist party turned against him.

"The new leadership, the National Salvation Front, say the old Stalinist party has been disbanded and that they are taking Romania towards a market economy. But they maintain a mighty political machine and a near-monopoly over Romania's press and TV.

"Partly by the resources at their disposal, and, partly it seems, by genuine support won by judicious reforms, the NSF are set to sweep the board in this week's elections. The main opposition parties are not only harassed but unattractive, revivals of pre-WW2 reactionary parties."

"Romania's [NSF] president Iliescu has threatened to clear anti-government demonstrators - "hooligans", he calls them - from the streets of Bucharest by force.

"The demonstrators in Bucharest don't have a clear alternative, either. Their demand is for Communist Party people or ex-CP people to be banned from the elections, in effect, they are asking the Stalinist government to outlaw Stalinism. Yet the gist of what they want is clear: a country thoroughly cleansed from Stalinism and bureaucratic dictatorship, a country genuinely ruled by the people.

"They deserve our solidarity."

Socialist Action (no. 7 Summer 1990), headline: Victory in Romania. (Accompanied by a picture of miners demonstrating in support of the NSF in Bucharest). "After a period of very bad defeats in Eastern Europe at last a victory - Romania...

"The NSF succeeded [in winning the presidential/parliamentary election] because it made big economic concessions to the working class, who by all accounts voted for it massively.

"The Front is by no means a proletarian internationalist force - it is the reform wing of the old Communist party. But its victory against extreme right parties backed by international capitalism, is a notable victory for the Romanian, and international working class. It safeguards, for the moment the Romanian workers' state.

"That workers' state, and the Front, need support against the campaign of slander that will be continued against it by imperialism which is deeply annoyed ['imperialism' assumes the persona of an individual capable of being 'deeply annoyed'!] by being thwarted in one Eastern European country. Internally the Front needs to continue to make concessions to the working class - as in every workers' state that must be the guiding light of policy."

This last sentence is particularly revealing: SA assume the role of advisor to the 'liberal' wing of the ruling elite - helpfully suggesting a policy for the Front; SA tell their readers that the "guiding light" of a workers' state's policy is to make "concessions" to the workers! Isn't the "guiding light" of a workers' state to be a state of the workers? And how much sense does it make to talk of a workers' state making concessions to the workers?!

Socialist Organiser (editorial, no. 452, 21 June 1990), headline: Romania: oppose the repression!

"Repression of student demonstrators in Bucharest, Romania, by the NSF government has been extremely severe. Several people have been killed; all opposition activity has been suppressed.

"Demonstrations continue however. The chief demands of the demonstrators are for democracy and against 'communism'.

"Most dramatic has been the mobilisation of miners to crush the demonstrations... That [the NSF] can mobilise the miners to crush the opposition suggests it has real popular support... according to some press reports the miners' wages - already above the workers' average - have been doubled since Ceausescu's overthrow... probably most workers have had real improvements from the NSF government.

"Nevertheless it is clearly the inheritor of the old Ceausescu regime. It is the party of the same bureaucratic ruling class which ruled Romania before last December's revolution, with its ugliest excrescences removed. The repression launched in Bucharest was to defend the interests of that class.

"The fact that miners attacked the student demonstrators makes the repression no more progressive than the occasional violent attacks on student anti-Vietnam protests by 'hard hat' workers in the US twenty years ago.

"Socialists would not have much sympathy with the students' right-wing ideology... We would have every sympathy with the students' fundamental demand: more democracy.

"And we should condemn the repression meted out to them. The regime in Romania has simply reverted to type. Not only students who might be right wing were attacked, but also every type of possible dissent and the gypsy minority in Bucharest."

The Gulf: 1990-91: SA back Iraq

At the beginning of August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. SA state the general cause of the Gulf war to be (SA no. 8, Autumn 90): "With less and less resources for stable capital accumulation, there is no possibility of stable independent reformist regimes...

"For most this means more and more supine capitulation to the demands of imperialism, as with Collor and Menem in Latin America... There is today no Peronist 'middle way', just abject capitulation." Peron's Argentinian regime was something close to fascism. SA consider Peron better than Menem, because of his ultra-nationalist, economic-protectionist policy. And what sense does it make to talk of Menem and Collar "capitulating" to imperialism? - as if the Argentinian ruling class should really be vigorously opposing "imperialism", and should be on another side, but haven't found the courage to fight the good fight (elsewhere they talk of Europe's ruling classes "capitulating" to America (SA no. 3)).

"Semi colonial regimes have turned to desperate adventures... [like] Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait."

"Saddam Hussein is a murdering butcher of the Kurds and Iranians [and Iraqis!]. But Iraq's lack of power compared to the US and Britain means this pales into insignificance in historical terms compared to those now sending their fleets to the Gulf. More to the point the regime the US and Britain will install in Iraq if they can... will reduce the Arab people to a far greater enslavement than anything Saddam Hussein could ever undertake."

This is disgusting stuff - SA fade out the question of Saddam, the "murdering butcher", as 'historically insignificant' and back Iraq simply because it is a smaller power than the US. Moreover, the US and Britain have installed regimes in Arab countries before - e.g. the Jordanian monarchy - and it is difficult to imagine that such a regime, or any other government they might replace Saddam's rule with, could possibly be as bad as the current regime - for "the Arab people" or anyone else.

SA's conclusion is to back Iraq: "In a struggle between a 'democratic' imperialism and a 'dictatorial' semi-colonial country socialists are therefore on the side of the semi-colonial country." In such a conflict "what causes the war, is not the type of political regime... but the exploitative economic relations that exist."

They justify their support for Iraq by quoting Trotsky who backed China's struggle in the 1930s against Japanese imperialism (Marxism and imperialist wars, SA no. 7, Summer 1990). However these are different wars. Japan had invaded China with the intention of occupying large parts; the Chinese nationalists' war aimed to kick Japan out of Chinese territory. Iraq, on the other hand had not been invaded and was not seeking to expel a powerful neighbour. SA get it wrong because their parallel is not a parallel.

SA see the Gulf war as "the first of a new wave of North-South wars, wars conducted by imperialism against the consequences of its economic destruction of the semi-colonial world...[the] period could be dubbed a new era of direct colonialism." (SA no. 8, pg. 4). This prediction, like virtually every prediction made by SA, has been proved wrong. There has been no return to "direct colonialism".

The role of Israel

"The creation of the Zionist state of Israel, involving the turning the entire population of Palestine into refugees [eh?] was a key aspect of US-strategy in the Middle East."

"Armed to the teeth and economically aided by imperialism, the Zionist state is a fundamental bulwark against any threat from Arab nationalism."

Israel, SA write, is ''imperialism's puppet.'' (SA no. 7, Summer 1990). The Soviet Union's policy in the Middle East, according to SA, was flawed "because at each stage it subordinated support for Arab nationalist regimes in their conflict with Israel, to détente and seeking a role for itself by agreement with the US...

"Although the USSR armed Egypt it refused to do so to a degree where it could defeat Israel. The USSR pressed for recognition of Israel, and a 'peaceful solution' to the Arab-Israeli conflict guaranteed jointly by the US and the USSR." SA are again critical of the Soviet leadership, and again for the wrong reasons: SA believe the correct Soviet policy would have been for the USSR to sufficiently arm Egypt to be able to destroy Israel (and, presumably, start WW3). The Israeli Jews, unlike other peoples, have no right to self-determination.

And SA pick on Israel as a regime singled out for particular hatred: "[As a consequence of Gorbachev's policy] representatives of the most reactionary states in the world are today circulating around East European capitals - Pik Botha [of South Africa] in Budapest and Simon Peres [of Israel] in Prague" - Apartheid and Zionism are, for SA, twins. In the Gulf, 1990: "In this war the Arab states will be lined up with Israel and the US against Iraq. This evidently severely weakens the Palestinians, and will tremendously strengthen Israel." (SA no. 8). Although, in fact, the Gulf War did not strengthen Israel's position, as the US needed new allies in the Middle East beyond Israel, and promised pressure for a solution to the 'Palestinian question' as part of the price for Arab government support. The US pressured Israel to stay out of the conflict.

And like every other left anti-semitic grouping SA pick on the Jews quite directly. When discussing the student movement they denounce the Union of Jewish Students as "pro-imperialist" (SA no. 2, March-April 89). Every other grouping is right wing, wrong etc. etc. Only UJS is "pro-imperialist".

Post-Gulf perspectives: SA gets it wrong

For SA the destruction of Stalinist Eastern Europe has opened up a period of "ever more violent onslaught by imperialism." Imperialism has assaulted a "semi-colonial country", Iraq, and "has many more massacres on the road to Basra in store." Of course the idea that Iraq was a semi-colony is false: in 1990 Iraq was a powerful regional power. Traditionally Marxists have described countries such as turn-of-the-century China, having been forced by the major colonial powers to cede Treaty Ports, as "semi-colonial". Now Iraq has become semi-colonial. Whose semi-colony? Which power is the colonial power? SA do not say.

"Imperialism", a disembodied, imprecisely specified force, imposes semi-colonial status (a political category) on smaller states merely by the fact that the "imperialist countries" have bigger economies.

SA's post-Gulf war perspectives include the following:

  1. "The regime of capital accumulation in the third world is thoroughly disrupted. Under these conditions local ruling classes cannot be counted upon to be stable enough to guarantee imperialist interests for a prolonged period. With no stable regime of accumulation in the third world the imperialist economies [economies?] are forced once more in the direction of substituting their own direct military intervention...

    "The result is a massive reinforcement of direct imperialist military force in the third world. A process of 'recolonisation' of the third world has begun."

  2. The next state to receive the same treatment as Iraq is likely to be Cuba, "the Pentagon must be reconsidering the possibilities of a successful military strike against Cuba."

  3. No Israeli-Palestinian deal is possible, "of even the most token kind."

    "Israel has no intention of making such a deal and the US will not compel it… Confronted with this situation the Israeli regime is likely to start gearing itself up for another war to try to weaken its enemies - this time almost certainly with Syria." And, (SA no. 9, Winter 1990), "Syria's present course of allying with imperialism is strategically suicidal."

  4. "There will be a political crisis in the US" due to America's inability to fund the war, and "a US heading into recession has been struck a further blow." (Can the imperialist economies take the strain?, SA no. 7, Summer 1990).

All four of these predictions have been proved utterly wrong. There has been no process of recolonisation of the third world. Regimes in the third world have been, on the whole, more stable than in previous decades. Cuba has not been invaded. Israel has struck a deal, and there has been no Israeli-Syrian war. The US has not gone into political crisis and its economy has not slumped, it has boomed in the 90s. All rubbish.

Fundamentalists, Galtieri and Iraq

Ross sees "throughout the third world three currents... emerging from the disintegration of the previous era." (SA no. 10, The New Age of Imperialism).

  1. Firstly those regimes which "supinely clung to imperialism". "Nasserism became Sadat and Mubarak", and the Egyptian government proved how pro-imperialist it is: they "made peace with Israel and betrayed the Palestinians". Despite being a sub-imperialist power in the Middle East, Israel is considered a great enemy and making peace with Israel is considered, by SA, as the measure of the degeneracy of Arab regimes.

  2. "A second, minority bourgeois development was that of maverick regimes or maverick actions, based chiefly on marginal sections of the bourgeoisie which attempted to maintain capital's base by not merely rhetorical but actual anti-imperialist actions... The classic examples were Galtieri's attempt to seize back ["seize back"?] the Malvinas/Falklands from Britain, Noriega's evolution in Panama - which combined drug running with aid to the FSLN government in Nicaragua - and Iraq's attempt to seize Kuwait."

    SA supported the Argentinean military's escapade in the South Atlantic (I remember being on an anti-war demo at the start of the Falklands war in 1982 when the Socialist Action sellers' slogan was 'Sink the Fleet'!) and backed Iraq (quietly) during the Gulf war.

    This type of 'anti-imperialism' is the anti-imperialism of idiots. It amounts to backing the enemies of the larger capitalist powers, and doing so no matter what is being fought for, and no matter who is fighting. It is the opposite of independent politics: it simply involves opposing, blindly, the policy of the big powers.

    Of course a colonial people, even led by reactionaries, should be supported in a struggle for self-determination and freedom. That is a basic duty of socialists. However Argentina and Iraq were - far from being colonies - powerful independent capitalist states, with their own developed capitalists classes (the Argentinian capitalist class is hardly "marginal"!) who had invaded - respectively - the Falklands and Kuwait for their own reactionary reasons. The invasions did not liberate any oppressed peoples. Quite the opposite.

  3. "The third current to emerge from the collapse of the current era... were forces trying to limit or break the destruction wreaked by imperialism on their countries. These range from proletarian revolutionary forces, such as the FMLN in El Salvador, through the liberation movements in Eritrea and Tigre, and national liberation movements such as the PLO and ANC, to self styled Stalinist forces such as Sendero Luminoso in Peru."

    The Islamic fundamentalists, write SA, have a dual character: "Their political leaderships and a series of their demands... are ultra reactionary but in some cases they find themselves in conflict with imperialism." SA employ a type of scholasticism which deals with the fundamentalists as reactionary (some of their political programme) and progressive (they sometimes oppose 'imperialism' and mobilised against America during the Gulf war). No doubt exactly the same stupid division could be made about Hitler's fascists (with whom the fundamentalists have much in common): reactionary programme combined with radical, anti-capitalist ranting, coming into conflict with American and British imperialism...

When fundamentalist movements struggle against America, corrupt Arab regimes or whoever, they do so in order to impose their reactionary programme. And these movements are not only murderous against particular groups - the socialists, feminists, the Jews - they are in conflict with the modern world as such.

No matter who the fundamentalists are fighting we - the real socialists - continue to have nothing in common with them. In fact we have far less in common with fundamentalists than we do with the bourgeois-democratic regimes in London and Washington. The fundamentalists are reactionary - politically, creatures of the past - in a way Clinton and Blair are not.

The USSR, 1991: the Stalinist coup attempt

SA no. 12/13, Autumn 1991, cover headline: "1917, 1941, 1991 - the Russian Revolution fights for its life": "The Soviet putsch of 19 August [1991] was an attempt to put the clock back towards the Brezhnevist past. Its failure made transparent the greatest class struggle in the world since 1917."

So, despite the destruction of the Bolshevik Party as a workers' party in the 1920s, the creation of state-run labour fronts to replace the Russian trade unions, the abolition of workers' control in the factories, the great series of purges in which the Stalinists killed many hundreds of thousands of oppositionists and others, the ten million strong slave labour gangs of the 30s and 40s, the rebuilding of Russia under Stalin as a 'prison house of nations', state sponsored anti-semitic campaigns, the brutal forced collectivisation of the late 20s, the artificial Stalin-directed famine in the Ukraine of the early 30s in which millions died, the Gulags and gigantic secret police apparatus, the overrunning of Eastern Europe and the enslavement of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany, the colonial war in Afghanistan - despite all this, the Russian Revolution still 'lived' in 1991?

Yes, according to SA: "The Russian Revolution" would fall "if capitalism were to be restored to Russia". I.e. Russia is a workers' state for the simple and sole reason that capitalism has been abolished there.

Presumably, although SA do not explicitly say so in this article, they should have backed the rump "Brezhnevist" conspirators' coup attempt. The whole logic of the article is in this direction, but they only end lamely concluding: "everything that can be done must be done to prevent the destruction of the Russian Revolution... every position and strategy that fights to defend that non-capitalist state in the USSR must be objectively discussed".

1991: Workers' Liberty's comment

WL no. 15, Feb 1992: "The Russian socialist revolution is dead? It died long ago! It died not in December 1991, when the USSR formally ceased to exist, nor in August 1991, when the failure of the attempted coup finally broke the back of what power the 'Communist Party' had left. It died more than six decades earlier, when Stalin led the state bureaucracy he personified to the final defeat of the working class and the destruction of the working-class communists led by Trotsky.

"It died in a bloody, one-sided civil war in which the new bureaucratic ruling class, having defeated the workers, established itself as the 'sole master of the surplus product', that is, over the peoples of the USSR, eliminating its bourgeois and petty-bourgeois rivals."

Of course the political history of the early 1990s was dominated by bourgeois triumphalism, crowing about the death of socialism. Nevertheless, WL argued that the collapse of Eastern European "communism" was a liberation: "For six decades the effects on socialists of the existence of the USSR was malign, corrupting, confusing and demoralising." The ground had been cleared for the re-birth of real socialism as a mass force.

Post-coup-attempt perspectives: SA wrong again

The stakes, say SA, are high. Capitalist restoration in Russia would:

  1. "Open a period of the most extreme international reaction, pose a new, qualitative, threat to a large part of the historical gains of the world working class, and that of the peoples oppressed by imperialism."

  2. "Unleash a wave of racism that would engulf Europe and probably shatter the framework of liberal politics."

  3. "[The imperialists] would attempt to eliminate the welfare state."

  4. "In Eastern Europe a new wave of capitalist dictatorship would set in... which would pose a long-term threat to democracy in Western Europe."

  5. And if the "Russian Revolution" is "defeated" the consequence would be imperialism re-spreading like a cancer through the world. Moreover, say SA, imperialism would have a new weapon, nuclear weapons, to impose its rule.

    The "destruction of the Russian Revolution would re-ignite the open contest of the imperialist powers for the division of the world... [and] a nuclear arms race between the US, Europe and Japan."

Now, in 1999, we can easily draw up a balance sheet of SA's 'perspectives'. And we can conclude that SA's comment was hysterical, babbling nonsense.

It is not true that bourgeois democracy has been abolished in Eastern Europe, or that the European 'liberal political framework' has been shattered, or that we are living through a period of "the most extreme international reaction", or that the collapse of Stalinism has led to a new threat to democracy in Western Europe, or that there is a new "open contest" for the redivision of the world, or that there is a nuclear arms race between Japan, Europe and the US.

Although racism continues in Europe, the form it takes - currently focused on asylum seekers - is internal to Europe: the ruling classes do not want to pay for immigrant labour that they do not need. The welfare state has been attacked, but for the simple reason that the British bosses, for example, do not wish to foot the bill and see an opportunity, following the defeats of the British working class in the 1980s, to attack welfare provision. These attacks would have been made anyway, no matter what happened in Russia in 1991; they began long before 1991.

1993: the Russian Revolution, still hanging on

SA was unwilling to allow the Russian Revolution to quietly slip away. According to SA, and despite the failed coup of 1991, the October revolution was still alive and kicking in 1993. The front cover of the spring '93 edition of their new SA Review, no 3, headlined: "the battle for Russia: Yeltsin verses the October revolution." The contents make the case for the progressive role of Russian nationalism and lay the basis for SA's support for an alliance between the nationalist-Stalinist rump of the old Russian CP and the forces of right wing Russian nationalism.

SA's case is this: "The fact that overturning the Russian Revolution would reduce Russia to a semi colony was always understood", as there was "no space for an independent capitalism. Neither could it become a new Russian imperialism, as this is foreclosed by the existence of more powerful imperialisms." No doubt the Chechens would disagree, however SA continues:

Russia faces "literally the destruction of the country, and this goes at every single level."

"The question of the Russian nation, Russian self-survival, has been closely tied to the military self-defence of the country... The biggest national question in the Soviet Union [sic - they don't seem to notice that the USSR had been abolished at the end of 1991!] is the Russian national question. And there is no doubt that the Russian working class is going to hit back against all the processes threatening the national existence of Russia.

"Moreover this will partly take a military form to prevent its further weakening, parcellisation and breaking up.

"Such a battle will not always take forms which are very pretty"! SA are a little coy, but they are justifying the maintenance of "Russia", if necessary in opposition to the non-Russian peoples who lived inside the multinational state of "Russia", presumably by state violence, which they equate with the "Russian workers". They have codified their support for Russian nationalism.

They justify themselves by saying "it is very, very important to have a sense of the scale of what the alternative is, what it would represent if the Russian Revolution were overturned."

They still, clearly, believe that the Russian revolution continues to exist, despite even the existence, in 1993, of the pro-capitalist Yeltsin government. SA say "the most powerful social forces possible are unleashed when the defence or creation of a progressive social system coincides with the question of national survival of a country." In other words they believe that the Russian nationalist movement is fighting a progressive struggle, against the break-up of "Russia" and the suppression of the Russian people.

This is, of course, gibberish. The Russian nationalist movements, obscurantist and anti-semitic, are thoroughly reactionary. Their goals are various variants on the continuation-restoration of Russian domination of surrounding areas and peoples. And there is no Russian national question in the sense that Russia was and is in no danger of being overrun by a foreign power; Russia has not become a semi-colony; the Russians are not an oppressed people.

The Chinese alternative?

And what policy should the Russian left advocate? "The starting point for any alternative economic perspective", for SA, it seems, is China: "the economic, though not the political, policy pursued in China shows that there are alternatives that could be developed." The socialist left, argue SA, should look to the economic policy of the Chinese Stalinists - though not their political strategy! As if the economic and political policies of the Chinese bureaucrats could be unpicked and cleanly separated out; as if the Chinese Stalinists did not have control of the basic levers in the economy precisely because of their political dominance and state power; as if they did not dictate economic policy as a direct result of their political priorities; and as if the Chinese market reforms had not led to great misery for millions of Chinese people and are not bound up with a great increase in unemployment, the creation of gigantic special economic zones where even the minimal workers' rights which exist elsewhere in China are scrapped, the closure of factories, the creation of a new very rich capitalist elite.

SA advocate a policy for Russia which has been tried in China, by the Chinese bureaucrats, in the interests of the Chinese bureaucrats, which has been a disaster for many millions of Chinese workers.

Of course a real workers' government in a former Stalinist state might well introduce some market relations - as part of the process of clearing up the mess left by the bureaucrats. But this would be under the direction of the working class as a whole, in the interests of the workers, with the rights and living standards of the workers protected.

Moreover SA flesh out their "positive economic programme for developing the [Russian] economy": "The managers of the state industry and the workers have one very substantial interest in common, and that is to defend Russian industry." Their programme is one of explicit, nationalist class collaboration - between managers and workers - in defence of "Russian" industry. The managers, no doubt, will "defend Russian industry" in their own way - with sackings and speed-ups. How can there be a common front with such people? SA do not say.

Rather than arguing for international workers' unity across national frontiers, in opposition to the managers, remnants of the old Soviet ruling class and international capitalists, SA propose popular front class collaboration in defence of "Russia" and "Russian industry".

This is exactly the sort of nonsense that we often have to combat in the British labour movement - that British workers have an interest in uniting with their managers and bosses in defence of British industry against foreign competition.

The roots of SA's mistakes

The Trotskyist movement entered World War 2 as a very small force. During the war its European organisations were driven underground, their networks were broken up and some of their members were killed. The Trotskyists expected Stalin to fall - either the Russian workers would take power, or capitalism would be restored in Russia by invading western armies. In fact, during the war, Stalinism expanded massively across Eastern Europe. In 1949 Mao came to power in China.

In western Europe the Stalinist parties helped capitalism re-stabilise. Capitalism, far from being in terminal crisis, boomed. The Trotskyists became disorientated.

A measure of what mainstream, 'orthodox' Trotskyism had degenerated into by the early 1950s is this passage by Ernest Mandel (1951, Ten Theses): "The worldwide revolutionary upsurge continues to expand and deepen... today it pulls all Asia in its wake, tomorrow it will cross the Atlantic and attack Capital in its last bastion. The development of this upsurge is the almost automatic product of the extreme decomposition of capitalism. In the absence of a sufficiently powerful revolutionary leadership that this revolutionary upsurge temporarily takes new and transitional forms, like those we have seen in Yugoslavia and we see now blooming in Asia."

In other words Mandel mistakes the massive post-war capitalist boom (admittedly not yet clear in 1951) for its opposite, the "extreme decomposition" of capitalism, and believes Tito's victory and the Maoist revolution in China are part of the socialist revolution.

These Trotskyists lost faith in their own ability to lead socialist revolutions and developed illusions in other political forces - Stalinists and the leaderships of Third World national liberation movements - who, they believed, were doing the job for them. 'The Revolution' became a force which marched onwards, a self-propelling process. The job of revolutionaries was to spot the 'evolving process' and jump on for the ride.

Ross and Socialist Action's roots are in this political trend.

The socialist revolution had become a disembodied spectre - separate from what real workers think and do, and what real workers' parties fight for - which wanders the earth, following capital's (non-existent) path of crisis, and making use of political formations which are implacably hostile to independent working class action.

SA state: "It is impossible to exaggerate the importance in world politics of the Chinese [Maoist] revolution. After the Russian Revolution it is the greatest blow struck against world capitalism." (SA no. 3, May/June 89). SA believe the Maoists' revolution, if not quite on a par with 1917, was at least an important step in the direction of socialism.

In October 1917 the workers of Russia took power through their own soviet organisations led by a democratic workers' party, the Bolsheviks. In 1949 the Maoist party, led by intellectuals and bureaucrats who had been ruling large areas of China for 15 years, came to power leading peasant armies, in a revolution simultaneously directed against the Chinese capitalists and the workers. The real socialists, the Chinese Trotskyists, were rounded up by the Maoists, and Chen Tu-hsiu's gravestone was kicked over (Chen was a founder and a leader of the Chinese Communist Party, later a founder of Chinese Trotskyism). The Maoist revolution was carried out without the workers and against them. Mao's armies surrounded the cities, ordering the workers to keep working while they marched through like a victorious foreign occupying force. Independent workers' organisations were smashed and replaced by state-run labour fronts which policed the workers rather than represented them. Later, in the 1950s, the Chinese capitalist class was destroyed.

China's Stalinist ruling class was fantastically brutal - and not only to the Chinese people, but to minorities in China and, particularly after 1959, in Tibet. They also mismanaged China's economic development: (The Road to Tienanmen Square, WL 12-13, August 89): "Over three decades [from 1949] the ruling Maoist elite tried to develop China's economy... [But] the attempt to plan and control that development from above, by an elite giving orders with no democratic over economic goals or economic measures made [development harder].

"The group around Mao went in for irrational economic experiments aimed at achieving miracles of economic development. They drove the people, who had no say in the matter, into economic adventures like the 'Great Leap Forward' in 1958. It led not forward but to widespread destruction and waste. As a result over 20 million people starved to death in the late 50s and early 60s.

"The failure of that adventure led to serious faction fighting inside the ruling party... in 1966 and after Mao backed by the army came back and organised the 'Cultural Revolution'.

"Students and others made a god of Mao, around whom there had always been a Stalin-like cult. They went on a rampage through China, destroying the culture of the past and of the world outside China, denouncing intellectuals... to this day Chinese higher education is warped and stunted because it came close to being destroyed in that 'Cultural Revolution'.

"When Mao Zedong died, those who eventually succeeded him decided on a radical change of course: 'market socialism'...

"Their changes worked for a while. Industrial production advanced. So did food production. "It led to chaos: bounding inflation... many factories are idle... massive unemployment."

The idea that these events - Russia 1917 and China 1949 - are similar, or represent different types or forms of the same phenomenon, is absurd. From a working class point of view: 1917 was a workers' revolution; 1949 was a blow against the workers.

China: a step forward?

For SA, China's role in the Korean war and in Vietnam "together with the Cuban revolution were the most important events in world politics between 1949 and 1975." SA define socialist struggle negatively as "the political defeat [the Stalinists] imposed on the United States". Anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism have become identified with socialist struggle, no matter what the forces involved, no matter what positive policies they are fighting for, no matter what the consequences for the workers and their organisations.

And SA consider the victories of the Vietnamese and Cuban Stalinists - in revolutions which are simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-working class - are more important for us, for socialists, than the high-points of post-war working-class struggle: the Hungarian workers' uprising of 1956, the French General strike of '68, the struggle in Chile in the early '70s and the Portuguese revolution of 1974-5. SA have forgotten what is important.

Moreover, in sweeping statements such as, "the period 1945-79 [why this period?] was a clash between the working class and peasants of Asia and the USA", they identify, without any qualification at all, the workers and peasants of China and Vietnam (and presumably North Korea and Cambodia too), with their Stalinist governments.

"There should be no misunderstanding on this point. The Chinese [Stalinist!] revolution was a tremendous blow against imperialism. The revolutionary strategy of Mao Tse-Tung in China itself... the specific form of class alliances with the peasantry which characterised it, make Mao Tse-Tung one of the greatest revolutionary leaders of all time." The problem SA see is that, "from the beginning the Chinese leadership was committed to the construction of socialism in one country not international extension of the revolution... the extreme right-wing Chinese foreign policy of the late 1970s and 1980s had its political origins in socialism in one country." They take the brutal, anti-working class Stalinist dictatorship at their words: they were building socialism, but only in one country. (Quotes from SA, July/August 89).

Mao and Castro - on our side?

As Hitler rose to power "the international working class movement had been given... an indelible lesson in the bankruptcy of Stalinism". But SA go on: during the decade after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 "the international working class movement recomposed itself - most advanced programmatically in the shape of the [Trotskyist] Fourth International but also in terms of mass currents in the emergence of Mao Tse-Tung's leadership of the Chinese Communist Party against Stalin's representatives, the emergence of what were to become the Tito leadership of the Yugoslav CP and the Ho Chi Minh leadership of the Vietnamese CP and, it should not be forgotten, the mass Trotskyist LSSP in Sri Lanka and the major influence exercised by Trotskyists in Vietnam in the 1930s." If the inclusion of these murderously anti-working class Stalinist currents in a list of "programatically advanced currents" did not make this sentence stupid enough, SA include both the Vietnamese Stalinists and the Vietnamese Trotskyists: in other words both the Vietnamese Trotskyists and the very people who murdered the Vietnamese Trotskyist movement! SA believe that both forces were "programatically advanced" - but one destroyed the other!

How stupid are these people?

"Progressively a new understanding of the world working class vanguard, in some cases coherent and systematised [the Trotskyists], in other cases (China, Yugoslavia and Vietnam) reacting primarily to specific national situations". Indeed, the Chinese Maoists were reacting to "specific national situations", but with a political programme which included the destruction of all forms of independent working class organisation, in that "specific national situation".

"The new process of reorganisation of the international working class movement after 1989 [and the collapse of the Berlin wall, includes] the FSLN, FMLN, and... part of a non-Stalinist current, is also the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party."

Included in the "recomposition" of working class leadership are radical nationalist organisations, the FMLN and FSLN - every type of "leadership" - except leaders from the working class itself. And also included in SA's list are the "non-Stalinist" leaders of the Cuban CP - precisely the elite which transformed Cuba into a state in every respect similar to every other Stalinist state.

"The Soviet leadership was shown to be not merely incapable of extending the socialist revolution - the Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions had all taken place against the line of the Soviet bureaucracy - but incapable of even defending the existing workers states." SA's comment is straightforwardly Stalinist: Tito, Mao and Ho have led socialist revolutions; the Eastern Bloc is made up of workers' states. (Quotes from pg 7, SA no. 10, Spring 91)

Cuba: the reality

WL no. 54, March 99: "Stalinism in Cuba mirrored Stalinism elsewhere: expropriation of the bourgeoisie, nationalisation of Cuban and foreign businesses by November 1960, nationalisation of 80% of the land and bureaucratic planning together with the shattering of the working class freedoms. The trade union movement declined... to a state, as one bureaucrat put it, of 'harmonious counterpart to management'... The Cuban legal code allows for no freedom of speech, assembly or organisation... the lowest estimate of the number of political prisoners during the 1970s and 80s is 5,000.

"Stalinism meant above all the development of a ruling bureaucracy. The bureaucrats might have looked somewhat Spartan in their battle fatigues, but they were still privileged in areas such as housing, foreign trips, imported cars, dollar shops and above all in power."

SA on Stalinism

For SA the Stalinist counter-revolution of the 1920s and early '30s took the following form: "Stalinism was bonapartism... Stalinism appeared as the 'centre' between the two more fundamental class forces of [Trotsky's] Left Opposition... and the Right Opposition of Bukharin which represented the pressure of capitalism on the USSR."

But "Stalin's bonapartism did not rest primarily on forces inside the USSR..." It rested, in the final analysis, on the forces of "international capitalism."

"Stalinism was not a social formation in its own right, or even an essential social force." (SA no. 3, May/June 89).

SA invite us to believe that the Stalinist elite, which destroyed Trotsky's Left Opposition and workers' democracy inside the Bolshevik Party, which remade the USSR by pursuing a decades-long one-sided war against the workers and peasants of the USSR, which fought and beat the Nazi armies, overran Eastern Europe at the end of World War Two and made the states of Eastern Europe into vassal states, and which then forced a stand-off with the US, the most powerful power in history, for decades - this elite is not a "social formation in its own right". Moreover, write SA, Stalinism ultimately draws its support from international capitalism, the very same force which dominates the states which were pitted against the USSR, and, in the case of the Nazis after 1941 and the US during the Cold War years, which were actively trying to destroy it.

Stalinism, write SA, is not an "essential social force". For many decades - from the final destruction of the Russian workers' revolution at the end of the 1920s, until the collapse and rout of Eastern European "communism" in 1989-91 - the Stalinist ruling classes decided what was produced in Eastern Europe, who produced it, what 'price' goods were sold at and what goods were available. The Stalinist rulers had their own special holiday resorts, housing, shops and schools. The sons and daughters of bureaucrats became bureaucrats themselves as the ruling class reproduced itself. The bureaucracy had their own worldview - their academics, political organisations and media spelt out that view and held a monopoly. They had their own state-party - managers, police, army, prisons, judges, secret police and pen pushers - an apparatus used ruthlessly against the workers in the class struggle.

If the Russian bureaucrats were not an "essential social force" then the words have become meaningless. How did Soviet society run and reproduce itself? Who organised production, organised, administered and ran society if not the bureaucrats? The workers? - the workers had no power under Stalinism. The Russian capitalists? - they were either in the graveyard, amalgamated as individuals into the new bureaucracy or in exile. The foreign capitalists? - they were kept out at the point of a gun. Stalinist Russia, say SA, continued to be a "workers' state" - in other words a state where the working class was the ruling class. SA have dropped Trotsky's term, "degenerated workers' state", and replaced it with a plain "workers' state" label. SA define the Stalinist states as workers' states negatively - by what they are not, by the fact that they are not capitalist. Russia under Stalin is a workers' state simply and only because land, transport, finance and major industry is nationalised. This is a fundamental break with Marxism, something that older generations of socialists had ridiculed: "if state ownership is socialism, then the jailer and hangman are socialist functionaries." (James Connolly).

Of course state ownership simply begs the question: who 'owns' the state?

For a Marxist, the concept "workers' state" can only be meaningful if the working class holds state power, consciously, through its own organisations.

SA have come to believe that workers' states can be created by militarised Stalinist parties, which are simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-working class - totalitarian workers' states where the workers have far fewer rights and less control over the state than do the workers in capitalist Britain.

SA are part of the 'orthodox' kitsch Trotskyist trend which developed after Trotsky's murder in 1940. And they sit at the far end of that political strand, having pushed the theory to one extreme, inside a framework of false ideas, and become - essentially - very crude Stalinists. Many of the qualifications and criticisms of Stalinism made by even most 'orthodox' Trotskyists are missing in SA's comment. SA are now more Stalinist (uncritical, belligerent in their 'defence' of the 'workers' states') than the Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star - i.e. more Stalinist than the Stalinists.

Appendix 1: Their polemic and ours: the case of the Soviet coup, August 1991.

Section 1. Crackdown in the USSR

Comment from the special edition of Socialist Organiser, no. 496, 20 August 1991. Headline: Down with the military coup!

Strap lines: Support the resistance strikes! Support the new trade unions! Support the oppressed nationalities! Support the fight for socialist democracy!

"As we go to press, at noon on Tuesday 20 August, the centre of Moscow is split between armed camps, and miners in Siberia and the Ukraine are on strike in what may be the beginnings of a general strike to stop the Stalinist military-police takeover in the USSR.

The elected leader of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin, has called for a general strike to smash the coup... Boris Yeltsin may be decisive here. Unlike Gorbachev [seized by the coup leaders] Yeltsin, who so far has been pro-capitalist populist demagogue - has great popularity... [will] the armed forces remain united or split... a cluster of 20 tanks has gathered to defend Boris Yeltsin's Russian Federation parliament. Crowds are gathering there and have built barricades... The new bureaucratic Tsar, Mikhail Gorbachev who came to power in 1985, faced the desperate need to revitalise the economy... [he] decided to take a cudgel to the bureaucracy. He opened it up to the light of day and to public criticism... The bureaucracy began to fall apart. Some bureaucrats - in the first place Yeltsin the former Moscow Party boss - openly advocated the restoration of capitalism...

The choice in the USSR now is either what the putschists want, Chinese-style authoritarianism and a growing sphere for market economics, or radical popular revolution which destroys the power of the old state... If the neo-Stalinist, quasi-fascist backlash now triggers a deep popular revolution, it may not end quite as Yeltsin and the Russian neo-bourgeoisie want.

Section 2. Why we should support the banning of the CPSU. Sean Matgamna, Socialist Organiser, no. 501, 3 October 1991.

Immediately after the August coup in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin and his friends turned the Russian parliament into a veritable revolutionary committee which, backed by the people, took measures it had no legal power to take, to break up the old order.

They struck heavy blows at the so-called "Communist Party", which had backed the coup. This 17 million-strong cartel of the old bureaucratic ruling class was banned. It was forbidden to organise in the factories and in the army, and all its property was confiscated. In short, the Yeltsinites used the coup to make a political revolution which has cleared the way for capitalism.

What attitude should socialists take to these moves to root out and destroy the so-called Communist Party of the Soviet Union? One of two things: either we support the essential work of this bourgeois democratic revolution - and that is what it is - in destroying Stalinism, or we oppose it.

In the name of what might we oppose it? Of socialism? The workers themselves must want socialism first: right now they seem to want what Yeltsin wants. In the name of the Stalinist old order? But under that system the workers did not even have the right to organise trade unions.

One of the first decrees issued by the organisers of the abortive coup banned trade unions. Socialists least of all have reason to support the old order. To preserve liberty -fighting side by side even with Yeltsin - against the partisans of the old order is to preserve freedom for the working class to develop towards socialist consciousness.

There is no reason, no reason at all, to have confidence that the present bourgeois democrats will remain committed to democracy. But in the coup Yeltsin-who has often been justly described as a Mussolini in the making, and probably still is a Mussolini in the making-stood for the continued development of freedoms from state tyranny against those who tried with guns and tanks to re-impose it.

Yeltsin, along with the army and the police, may threaten democracy in the future. But that remains a danger because the destruction of the old order, of which the so-called Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the head and heart for so long, has been limited to the CPSU. The measures against the CP are freeing the army and police from its grip, leaving the old state purged but intact for future use. It needs to be broken up. Even so, breaking the power of the CP is a necessary part of any democratic revolution in the USSR. This was not a party, but the political machine of a vastly privileged and highly organised multi-tentacled ruling class. The revolution that dares not strike at the power and wealth of the old ruling class is no revolution.

Socialists in the USSR should be the most vigorous advocates of revolutionary measures against the old order, competing with the Yeltsinites for the leadership of the democratic revolution, while countering their pro-capitalist ideas and trying to organise the working class as an independent force. Their model should be the Bolsheviks, who before 1917 competed with the "Cadet" bourgeoisie for the leadership of the masses in the fight against Tsarism. To oppose revolutionary measures against the old cartel of the tyrants is to be a political satellite of the old rulers: or to show a caricatured "feeble liberal" attitude to the harsh reality of revolution.

The editorial in Socialist Outlook after the coup displayed all these characteristics. Militant took the same position. Trotsky, who said in the 1930s that a workers' revolution should deprive the bureaucrats even of civil rights, had a more serious idea of what the anti-Stalinist revolution involved. Yet Militant and Socialist Outlook say they are for a "political revolution". How can there be a "political" revolution without the destruction of the CPSU, the state within a state of the Stalinist bureaucracy?

Socialists can have no confidence in the Yeltsinites, especially on the question of democracy. They represent not our class but the nascent bourgeoisie in the USSR. Yeltsin's ban on the CPSU in the factories in Russia takes the form of a general ban on all political party activity (and on trade union activity unless the factory boss agrees). The general ban should be opposed-not the blows at the CP. For decades that bureaucratic cartel has run a regime of political tyranny and political spying in the factories through its police state trade unions. If the drive against the CP is used to beat down working class interests-used, for example, against a splinter of the old Stalinist "trade unions" which is defending working class interests in a factory-then socialists will of course oppose such measures. Such splinters have done this in Eastern Europe. Opposing the blows against the CP is a different matter altogether. The question of general impartial democratic rights, free from the threat of a bureaucratic coup like that of August, can only arise after the power of the old order is broken. For these reasons, while expressing no confidence in the Yeltsinites and, indeed, while urging USSR workers not to trust them an inch, but instead to rely only on themselves, we must, it seems to me, support and cheer on the destruction of the CPSU, even by the Yeltsinites. With the latter we have-or had in August-a common opposition to the would-be autocrats. With the Stalinist "party" we have nothing in common.

Section 3. Alliance for Workers' Liberty supports the banning of the CPSU. By "Alex McLeod" [John Ross], Socialist Action no. 12/13, Autumn 1991.

Socialist Organiser (SO) has for many years played the same role in regard to 'Trotskyism' as Marxism Today does in regard to the 'Communist' Parties. It continually talks about 'new thinking' and going 'against the grain' while the actual content is always that the left should abandon some previously held position in favour of an idea of the bourgeoisie. Indeed Sean Matgamna's column in it, 'Against the Stream', should be called 'With Imperialism, Against the Left'.

As a logical part of the process of bourgeois rethinking in 1988 Socialist Organiser abandoned Trotsky's position that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers' state and decided that it was a new form of class society. This path was previously trod by Burnham and Shachtman. But the question is then posed whether this new form of class society is more progressive or more reactionary than capitalism, which determines whether it should be defended against capitalism, or not. Shachtman decided that the new 'bureaucratic collectivist' mode of production was more reactionary. Trapped in the logic of this view, Shachtman therefore supported the US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the US war against Vietnam.

SO have adopted the same theoretical position, but have not yet fully worked it through. The events in the USSR have, however, led them to take a further great lurch down this road.

SO explain that what is taking place in the USSR is 'a bourgeois revolution having much in common with revolutions against absolutism in France after 1789 and in various parts of Central Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.' (SO 497)

SO at least has the merit, unlike some others, of understanding clearly that what is dominant today in the USSR and Eastern Europe is an attempt to install capitalism, or in their words a move 'from Stalinist collectivism to a bourgeois society', and not to pretend it is something else.

What makes SO unique (except for the bourgeoisie's direct hangers on) is that it welcomes this reintroduction of capitalism. For SO, alongside Shachtman, has arrived at the view that capitalism is more progressive than what exists in the USSR and is to be supported against it. Thus the Stalinist system in the USSR is allegedly comparable with 'the decayed oriental despotism of China at the beginning of the century'. Furthermore capitalism is clearly superior to this system 'in terms of human liberty, freedom of utterance, organisation, sexuality, habeas corpus, the rule of law-the Stalinist world until recently had fallen backwards in history hundreds of years, further back even than some of the notoriously brutal third world authoritarian regimes.' And that 'It was as if the advances since the middle ages associated with the rise and spread of bourgeois civilisation had never happened: except that they existed and flourished in Europe and the US and other places, side by side with, but beyond the borders of the Russian Empire.' (SO 497)

Indeed, to give this pro-imperialist position a left face SO claim that the capitalist countries of Western Europe are closer to socialism than the USSR. 'Such "Socialist societies" [in Eastern Europe] were in fact a great deal further from the socialism of Marx-and of Lenin-than is the bourgeois system in countries like Britain, France and Germany.' (SO 498)

As a result SO support the rising bourgeoisie even in dictatorial actions taken against the Stalinists. In the 3 October issue Sean Matgamna supports the banning of the CPSU by bourgeois forces in the USSR. According to the article, 'Why we should support the ban on the CPSU', 'the Yeltsinites... represent not our class but the nascent bourgeoisie in the USSR'. Therefore 'we must, it seems to me, support and cheer on the destruction of the CPSU, even by the Yeltsinites.' Hence the 'Alliance for Workers' Liberty' is really not very democratic at all!

All that remains is to complete the transition to reaction on the international front as well. After all according to SO Cuba, Vietnam, China are all societies qualitatively the same as the USSR, so, while the workers' movement may not grasp it, the ex-Batista, Mafia linked bourgeois thugs in Miami must also be more progressive than Castro.

Or, in China, as Mao-Tse Tung was the bearer of relations of production which were more reactionary than capitalism, evidently socialists should have supported Chiang Kai-Shek against the Chinese Communist Party. The only reason SO don't spell out these implications is that they would be laughed out of court.

And SO completely fails to grasp the real meaning of the reintroduction of capitalism in the USSR. Trotsky accurately described what capitalist restoration would involve for the USSR in 1932: 'what would Russian Capitalism look like in its second edition? During the last fifteen years the map of the world has changed profoundly. The strong have grown immeasurably stronger, the weak incomparably weaker. The struggle for world domination has assumed titanic proportions. The phases of this struggle are played out upon the bones of the weak and backward nations - capitalist Russia could not now occupy even the third rate position to which Tsarist Russia was predestined by the course of the world war. Russian capitalism today would be a dependent, semi-colonial capitalism without any prospects. Russia number 2 would occupy a position somewhere between Russia number 1 and India.' (Writings 1929, p55).

If this is what capitalist restoration meant in 1929 then today it would be equally economically catastrophic. SO claim that a transition to capitalism in the USSR will mean the possibility for 'political and civil liberty-including the right to organise the free trade unions and working class political parties now outlawed by the putchists' (SO 497).

Quite aside from their obvious illusions in modern capitalism, which is responsible for such human values and civilisation as the absolute impoverishment of one quarter of humanity, dictatorships, and the slaughter on the Basra road, their own version of 'democracy' is cast in imperialist colours. For 'democracy' in the SO version has now come to include, as we have seen, supporting banning the CPSU.

In fact, given the economic devastation that would ensue from restoration of capitalism, there is no possibility of a transition in the Soviet Union to a bourgeois democracy at all. What is possible in the USSR is not a bourgeois democratic revolution but the attempt to restore capitalism in the form of an authoritarian pro-capitalist dictatorship - as the most clear-sighted elements of the left in the USSR, such as Boris Kagarlitsky, are already explaining - as represented by Yeltsin.

Indeed Trotsky had already noted the trajectory rightly that: 'what is absolutely excluded is a transition from the Soviets to parliamentary democracy... The very same causes that prevented our weak and historically belated [bourgeois] democracy from carrying out its elementary historical task will also prevent it in the future from placing itself at the head of the country. There is a handful of impotent doctrinaires would like to have a democracy without capitalism. But the serious social forces that are hostile to the Soviet regime want capitalism without democracy.' (Trotsky, 'Is Parliamentary Democracy Likely').

All that SO are doing in supporting the methods of Yeltsin is aiding the attempt to create a bourgeois dictatorship.

It has always been the case that 'ultra-leftism' reflects imperialist pressure. The positions of SO on such issues as Zionism, the Malvinas, Ireland, women, child abuse and pornography were a manifestation of this.

But their position on the USSR, to consider capitalism more progressive than Stalinism, is the almost final step. The only one that remains is to complete the transition from supporting capitalism on the national to the international field. Then 'Against The Stream' can carry articles on 'Why, despite itself, NATO was a progressive organisation compared to the Warsaw Pact', 'New thinking on Chiang Kai-Shek', and 'The Bay of Pigs reconsidered'. Its too late to hope they'll reconsider.

Section 4. Some remarks about dishonesty

  1. There are straightforward lies in SA's comments. These are:

    1. The historical lie

      It is true that Shachtman supported - at the end of his life, from the mid-60s to his death in 1972 - America's Vietnam war. It is true that Shachtman, by that time, flatly supported capitalism against the USSR and Soviet-style systems. We can see his point - but he was wrong. However, as SA know very well, for 20 years after the early 1940s Shachtman had a different view. He believed, from 1940 until about 1946-7, that Stalinism was post-capitalist, and from 1946-7 to the late 1950s he responded to it as a system roughly parallel to capitalism. This is the Shachtman we identify with: the revolutionary socialist Shachtman who developed independent working class politics in the 1940s and '50s with clear-sightedness and rigour.

      As we put it in 1988, in a document titled "Reassessing the Eastern Bloc", (SO 371, 15 October 88): Shachtman "is said to have supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and [the] bombing of North Vietnam. Clearly we do not want to follow Shachtman in those respects." Nor do we have to; we operate with a different theory from the Shachtman of the 1960s.

      SA know all this - Ross has read this article and refers to it in his piece. But they are shameless liars and are uninhibited by facts.


    2. The stupid lie

      We do not believe - as SA know - that relations of production in the Stalinist states are more reactionary than capitalism. We do not support the ex-Batista Miami Mafia against Castro. Nor would we have backed Chiang Kai-Shek against the Chinese "Communist" Party as Ross alleges.

      Equally, we do not - as SA do - politically support Castro or the Chinese CP. That is not our job. Our role is to advocate and fight for working-class politics independent of both Castro and the Mafia, of both Mao and the right-wing Chinese nationalists. SA believe there are "two class camps" - and their place is with the 'anti-imperialists' and 'workers' states'. The AWL is for the 'third camp' - working class action independent of the Stalinist and capitalist rulers.

    3. The lie at the heart of the matter

      SA write that we "welcome" the "reintroduction of capitalism" into Russia. This is another lie and is not - and cannot be - supported by even a mangled quote from our paper. Our alternative to Stalinism is workers' liberty, the democratic rule of the workers through their own organisations, not capitalism. What we do support is the struggle for bourgeois democratic rights - freedom of association, a free press, the rule of law. We supported the struggle for free trade unions and workers' rights in Stalinist Russia - as we do, consistently, the world over.

      SA conflate our support for bourgeois democratic rights with a support for the system of capitalism.

  2. How to construct a lie

    1. First: do not print your opponents' article so the only people who can check your argument those who subscribe to Socialist Organiser and have the copy in front of them.

      Take two quotes "the Yeltsinites [represent] the nascent bourgeoisie in the USSR" and "We must, it seems to me, support and cheer on the destruction of the CPSU, even by the Yeltsinites." Then simply insert the word therefore between the two sentences.

      In the original article the two statements were made. But they were not logically connected in the way SA present them. SA want to present the AWL as backing the destruction of the CPSU by the Yeltsinites because we support the introduction of capitalism into the USSR and the Yeltsinites are out to do this.

    2. A lie repeated: "SO claim that a transition to capitalism in the USSR will mean the possibility of 'political and civil liberty-including the right to organise the free trade unions and working class political parties now outlawed by the putchists."'

      The method here is essentially the same: take a quote from something the AWL has published; add your own words - "SO claim that a transition to capitalism in the USSR will mean..." and so change the meaning of what we wrote. We did not, of course, support the introduction of capitalism into the USSR and Eastern Europe. Our alternative to Stalinism was, and is, workers' liberty. We are in favour the working class fighting for democratic rights, and in defence of democratic rights, for 'political and civil liberties...'

      The struggle for political and civil liberties, in Russia, in August 1991, meant taking action against the Russian CP. In such a situation the workers could either watch passively as the Stalinists attempted to role back the gains they had made, or they could join the resistance to the coup. Effective resistance could only mean suppression of the CP.

Appendix 2: Ross - stupidity plus shameless lying

In SA no. 3, May-June 1989, in an article by "Alan Williams" [i.e. Ross, presumably] called "Eastern and Western Europe today", Ross makes the following claim: "We are not about to witness the re-establishment of capitalism in either Poland, Hungary or Yugoslavia." Given what happened in Eastern Europe less than six months later the effect on the reader is simply to ask: does this man ever get anything right? Is he just an idiot?

Nevertheless this quote becomes more significant. In 1990 Ross and Ernest Mandel debate the question of Eastern European Stalinism (see SA no. 9, Winter 1990). What does Ross use against Mandel?: that SA has "constantly" predicted "Stalinism has so demoralised the working class that it has created the conditions for capitalist restoration." Moreover Ross takes Mandel to task for predicting "the European bourgeoisie... has no hope of recovering Eastern Europe for capitalism." (International Viewpoint April 1989) - without mentioning he had made an almost identical claim at almost exactly the same point as Mandel!

Appendix 3: The origins of the Ross group

Edited from "Bob Pennington and the Trotskyist archipelago", WL no. 39

The IMG: let's get high, man

In the late '60s everything was changing on the left. Mass demonstrations against the Vietnam war, mass student radicalisation, the great French general strike of May-June 1968, and, in Britain, against a background of disappointment with Labour in office, sustained rank-and-file workers' industrial militancy-all combined to generate euphoria and semi-anarchist ultra-leftism among wide layers of mainly middle-class youth.

At the beginning of this radicalisation, the IMG was small and lacked anything like an educated cadre. Some of its members - Pat Jordan, Tariq Ali - became central to the big anti-Vietnam war movement. Reflecting every middle-class ultra-left fashion and behaving like a tendency with no political baggage to guide or inhibit what it said or did, the group began to recruit newly radicalised youth. Soon it split, shedding a large and disparate "right-wing" element of its older membership, people who wanted the old primary orientation to the labour movement.

It is difficult today to conjure up the world of the IMG at the turn of the most momentous decade in British labour history since the 1920s. It has vanished like an animal species subjected to catastrophic climatic change.

Most of the tendency's surviving members, chastened and largely doing routine labour movement work, are probably supporters of Socialist Outlook; its leadership after 1972 and some of the members are now in Socialist Action.

Feeling itself exuberantly in the flood-tide of a world revolution which included Mao Zedong, the Stalinist Vietnamese, the Black Panthers, the IRA, Che Guevara, Korea's dynastic Stalinist dictator Kim Il Sung, and comrade Tom Cobbley and all, the group was wildly ultra-left.

The IMG had the backing and the emotional appeal of "The International" - the USFI - and the reflected intellectual and academic prestige of Ernest Mandel.

It grew very quickly. The speculations and fantasies were heady, the chanting on demos exhilarating and the 'highs' were just great, man. With any luck you could even do an academic thesis on some aspect of revolutionary politics. Noisy and pretentious and very revolutionary it was, and good fun for a while before you "settled down"; but serious politics it was not, still less working-class politics.

They were for the working class, but their first concerns were often narrowly and foolishly studentist. The IMG was "in" with the world revolution', they were the "Fourth International", and so they did not have to bother too much about the lesser teams in the world league, like the working class in Britain, where they happened to live and could hope to influence events!

The IMG used the idea of the "Fourth International" to fortify their current, and frequently changing, politics and as a stabilising baseline outside of politics - a fetish. Essentially it was a substitute for politics.

Never mind the politics, we are the International! "Internationalism" is the central question, comrade! The same approach in the 1930s would have made a principle of being in the Stalinist Communist International, because - never mind the politics! - it was the "real international". This was sub-political, but it did give the IMG some organisational stability. The idea that this weak international tendency (the USFI), which specialised in mimicry of and chameleon adaptation to alien political currents, was in any real sense "The Fourth International" expressed wishes rather than the reality.

Pennington and Ross

Because the IMG lacked an educated cadre, it soon sagged into a discussion group for self-consciously intellectual but, unfortunately, clueless, middle-class youth. The sensible part of that generation of revolutionary minded youth went to the IS-SWP, which had a serious working-class (though economistic) orientation and some sense of reality. Soon an IMG opposition group emerged, led by the former CPer and long-standing Trotskyist, Bob Pennington, and his protégé, John Ross. Initially the Ross-Pennington grouping argued for necessary things, like a working-class orientation. Here Pennington's persona as an experienced militant of the working class and of the older revolutionary movement was an irreplaceable part of the faction's political capital.

But this faction - temporally deprived of Pennington's collaboration as we shall see - developed absurd ideas. They argued that a Marxist organisation should never make "calls to action" on the working class. Instead socialists should just explain "a rounded conception" of the overall struggle-that is, confine themselves to outside-the-struggle general propaganda. Graphically expressing the psychology of a small middle-class group with no presence in the labour movement, they thus theorised, magnified and helped perpetuate their own impotence.

In a grown-up organisation, people cutting their teeth with such notions would be given a booklist and maybe a tutor, and told to go learn the ABCs.

Here they soon rallied a majority of the organisation against the lacklustre old leadership-never more than a USFI "branch manager" leadership-around Pat Jordan and Bob Purdie. Just as Britain went towards the biggest political crisis in decades, the IMG went seriously daffy.

The Tory government admitted British passport-holding Asians expelled from Uganda, and there was a vicious racist backlash. Militant workers struck and marched in protest, alongside fascists. Stark tragedy? No problem, said the IMG: this was a "big chance for the left" to put the argument against racism on a fully socialist rather than merely liberal basis. When a general strike against anti-union laws became a real possibility, the IMG said that calling for a general stake was merely "administrative", not political, not worthy of Marxists... And so on. This was "the Fourth International" in Britain at the highest point of class struggle since the 1926 General Strike!

We applied the same "IMG method" to other situations: Nuclear war? Big chance for CND! Black Death reappears? Big chance for the NHS!

Pennington goes to jail

When the IMG was at its most bizarre, someone wrote on the lavatory wall of the pub in Pentonville Road most used by the group: "Come back Pennington, they've all gone mad!" Where was Pennington? He was in jail, for embezzlement. He had what he called a working-class attitude to things that "fell off the backs of lorries"-fiddles, extras, baksheesh. How far back in his life that went, I don't know. But such attitudes were endemic in the docks, up to and including serious gangsterism.

Timeless Ten-Commandments moralism is, I think, not in place here. It is natural for robbed and exploited workers to take back what they can. Why not? The issue is a political, not mainly a moral one: socialists propose collective action for general working class betterment, not private guerrilla war on the exploiters; and pilfering renders militants liable - as Pennington discovered at the most awkward political moment-to repression by the bourgeois state.

In July 1972, a quarter of a million workers struck spontaneously against the jailing of five dock workers' pickets, and the TUC felt obliged to set a date for a One Day general strike. After five days of vast crowds besieging Pentonville jail, where the five were held, the Tories capitulated and let the dockers out. During this great working-class revolt the "no-calls-to-action" IMG was all at sea. They wound up suggesting a bewildering menu of slogans and demands. Afterwards, the old no-calls-to-action nonsense was badly discredited and soon abandoned, and they went into sharp crisis. The group dissolved into unprincipled gang warfare that would-the subgroups held together by the Fourth International-last a dozen years, until the organisation finally splintered.

Ross changes course

The Rossites, the enemies of all "calls to action", now made "calls to action" with the gabbled speed of a pattering race course bookie. They unceremoniously took over the central slogan of the old leading group - Jordan-Purdie, now in opposition - "General Strike to Kick the Tories Out", and went characteristically mad with it. General Strike was the answer to everything. When the Tories called a General Election in February 1974, the IMG called on workers not to vote separately but to strike and march to the polls as a class. When the Tories lost the February 1974 election and Prime Minister Heath spent a few hours trying to form a coalition with the Liberals, the IMG rushed out a special issue of their paper with the headline "General Strike to finish them off!" And so on, and so on: noisy, silly, childish...

Pennington, out of jail, was again part of the leadership of the Ross group. They would keep control of the organisation through a long and bewildering series of political quick-changes, contortions and volte-faces.

I like to think he was a voice for balance and sanity in their councils.

The IMG's zigzags included one of the most bizarre episodes in their history - "Socialist Unity", a conglomerate of the IMG, smaller groups like Big Flame, and unaffiliated individuals. Socialist Unity put up ten candidates, standing against Labour, in the 1979 election. In principle there was nothing wrong in that, but in the circumstances - the Thatcherite Tories were on the offensive that led to a radical reshaping of British politics and society and of the British labour movement too-it was as sectarian as it was short-sighted.

They did ignominiously at the polls. The IMG had to radically correct and reorient themselves when the Labour Left went on the offensive after June 1979. Big things like that were, in any case, always only little things to the IMG.

The IMG's ultra-left euphoria was now long gone. In its place, in the 80s, was depression and organisational haemorrhaging. The ever-warring factions had stayed in one organisation only because they could jointly make a common religion of "the International": the family that prays together stays together, so to speak. When "The International" split, the IMG began to scatter into a number of organisations. Pennington's erstwhile faction became Socialist Action, which today is a small group whose members work at burrowing into positions of borrowed "power" and influence as factotums for MPs and the like. Its politics are now more kitsch Stalinist than kitsch-Trotskyist.

Not long after that, the collapse of the Stalinist USSR brought to a brutal end the illusions of those who had mistaken Stalinism for a "deformed" but viable and improbable first elaboration of socialism.

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