a response to jackie lucas

21 07 2012

Stuart King of the Permanent Revolution group and a member of the new Anti-Capitalist Initiative has written a reply to a previous article.

The ACI and wary libertarians

Jackie Lucas’ article on the Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI) in the June issue of the Commune appears to take a positive, if wary, attitude towards the ACI. Perhaps I can tackle some of these suspicions.

Jackie quotes from an article in Permanent Revolution 22 on the launch of the ACI where we talk about why young anticapitalist activists are not joining the Trotskyists or organised far left but rather are attracted to a vague libertarian and even anarchist politics. Jackie quickly declares “This in itself should alert libertarian leftists to what they are letting themselves in for if they decide to join this project which has not renounced its political origins or traditions.”

Firstly the ACI is not demanding that anyone who joins has to renounce their “political origins or traditions” or to leave their existing organisations. To do so would be mistaken. The point is we want to set up a political framework where we can work and campaign together and discuss openly our different traditions. If we are confident in our ideas there is nothing threatening about this.

Jackie only gives part of the paragraph in her quote from PR which could  lead to misunderstanding. Let me give the whole paragraph “We recognise that the old left – with its top down decision making, its tendency to bureaucratism, its narrow interpretation of democratic centralism that restricts debate and imagination, its constant splits and expulsions – is not an attractive model for a new left. It is why many young activists will have nothing to do with the old far left and its organisations – why they are attracted to libertarianism, anarchist forms of organisation.”

This is in fact a self-criticism of the way we (Trotskyists) have organised in the past. Why should this “alert” libertarians to what they might be “letting themselves in for” if they join the ACI? We are quite open about our politics – we are not anarchists or “libertarians”, if by that term we mean being against organisation, against taking decisions by democratic votes, against accountable elected decision-making bodies. We think all these things are necessary in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, we don’t believe we can rely on spontaneity, on unplanned and disorganised protests, to smash the capitalist state.
We are quite happy to “alert” the Commune that such debates on libertarianism versus Marxism will take place in the ACI. Is it something anyone should be afraid or wary of?

The ACI’s political parameters
The article goes at some length through what ex-members of Workers Power said, often some years ago, to try and work out what the ACI will be like. I am not sure how useful this is – people’s ideas change, and no doubt in the discussion process in the ACI, if they are not dogmatists, will change again.

But I think far more than a “cigarette paper” separates the various fragments of Workers Power involved, let alone the IBT, ex-CPGB or groups of individual anticapitalists. We all have different positions on whether we want to be involved in electoral work in the ACI (we don’t) or on our estimations of the Galloway victory (we don’t think it is a great breakthrough for the left) or on whether we want to push the ACI quickly into some fixed party type organisation with ready made programme (unlike WP we think that would be counter-productive).

A section of the article goes on to deal with PR’s reassessment of the early years of the Russian revolution and the lessons of 1921 – a debate that took place in our magazine in 2010. While Jackie makes some positive remarks about our analysis, she gets our conclusions completely about face. She says “for PR the Bolsheviks were right in taking control of the soviets, crushing Krondstadt in 1921 and the left opposition including anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists. A rather chilling thought as they are making overtures to The Commune.”

For the life of me I cannot see how Jackie could have drawn such a conclusion from the articles. The article on Kronstadt (PR18) was a critique of the Bolsheviks attitude to the revolt and an explanation as to why the Kronstadters were not the “counter-revolutionaries” they were labelled as by Lenin and Trotsky.

Neither Mark’s nor my articles on the significance of 1921 (PR17, 18 and 20), despite our differences on dating the counter-revolution, suggested the Bolsheviks were “right” to suppress opposition in the Soviets and Russian Communist Party (RCP). These articles said the exact opposite. I argued that the repression of other left parties, of democracy in the soviets, the banning of the Workers Opposition etc, reinforced the degeneration of the RCP and opened the road for counter-revolution. Mark considered the year 1921 as the actual start of Thermidor (the counter-revolution).

This matters because any rapprochement between Trotskyists/Leninists and anarcho-syndicalists and libertarian communists has to be based on an honest assessment of what went wrong in the Russian revolution. Unless we examine and criticise the mistakes made, whatever the difficult circumstances of the time, the danger is we will just repeat them in the future. That is why it is not just a matter of history but of how we organise today and about the type of communist society we are fighting for in the future.

Working in the ACI
In her conclusion Jackie worries that while the ACI has the “potential to unify us against the common enemies of austerity and capital … it is not sympathetic to libertarian left traditions”. Well that depends on how it develops.

The ACI is only just starting, if it only attracts a few Trotskyist and Leninist fragments this unsympathetic attitude might be the case. But if the ACI does not appeal beyond the “usual suspects” by managing to convince a new generation of anticapitalist activists that we can work together as socialists and discuss our differences in a comradely manner, then it will have failed. And if it does reach beyond the existing organised groups, who is to say whether it will be unsympathetic to the libertarian left?

More important, can we show in the ACI that it is possible for the far left to throw off some of its hopeless sectarianism – its concentration on building its own sect or party which is prioritised over building workers struggles and the general anticapitalist movement. Are we willing to say we don’t have all the revolutionary answers to every problem facing the movement – that we can learn from the experience of struggle? Can we abandon the idea that we are the perfectly formed “revolutionary embryo” just waiting to lead the workers movement when it finally recognises our leadership?

If we can do this via the ACI we might just be able to offer something new and useful to the socialist movement.

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12 responses

21 07 2012
Roy Ratcliffe

Whilst I too have welcomed the move away from sectarianism by the ACI comrades, I agree with Jackie’s caution. The comrades,of the Trotskyist and Leninist traditions have not just to rhetorically accept some criticisms of their tradition, but to seriously analyse it. I have for the last year attempting to do this on my blog http://www.critical-mass.net . A couple of recent posts ‘The riddle of History Solved’, ‘The revolutionary party; Help or Hindrance’ and ‘Marxists versus Marx’ plus a few on the greater Manchester anti-capitalist blog, seem to have largely been ignored by the comrades of ACI, which makes me wonder how serious they are in being rigorously self-critical and open to having their cherished beliefs challenged.
Regards,
Roy

22 07 2012
duvinrouge

What I have always liked about the commune is the theoretical foundation of Marxism with a deep distrust of hierarchy. The commune really does try to put equality of decision-making at its heart; feeling like an equal rather than a paper-seller obeying orders issued by a central committee. This is why many of us are wary of Trotskyists/Leninists. As much as both of these Russians have to offer us, we need to move out of the Bolshevik shadow & show to the world that communism is about liberation & equality. This may mean not using out of date language such as comrade, proletariat & Bourgeoisie so regularly. I think it means less focus of minority politics & concentrating on why capitalism is bad for all workers & why all workers benefit from its replacement with a system that is based upon meeting needs, not profit for a few. We have much in common with the ACI & I’m happy to work with them so long as there is genuine equality in decision-making.

22 07 2012
Barry

Stuart is not sure how useful an examination of what ex members of workers power have written in recent years can be. Simon Hardy takes a more positive approach. As an ex member of workers power, he was glad Jackie actually took the time and trouble to read over various documents. He thought her detailed arguments were thorough. Out of the ensuing debate Simon specified the changes in his own thinking. So outside the abstract possibility of change, it is a useful to look at where comrades are “coming from” if there is to be joint anti Capitalist work.

But despite the forensic approach of Jackie,there was a lapse in concentration at one point; permanent Revolution have broken with Trotskyist orthodoxy to the extent that they(well the majority) do not regard the crushing of Kronstadt as Justified. Stuart seizes on this error. But Mark Hoskisson, in his article, the Red Jacobin’s,still clings to the Trotskyist orthodoxy that the Bolshevik party were the custodians of workers Power, despite substituting itself for the working class in a counter Revolutionary process, shortly following 1917, when a vast bureacratic structure of the party /state was established outside workers democracy. Instead, Mark saw the historic turning point as the ban on factions in the Bolshevik party in 1921, which he described as a descent into counter revolution, which marked a distinct break with,not continuation of, its fundamental character and politics in the period 1912/20.

But putting the lid on Lenins critics was nothing new to Bolshevik Leninism which predates 1912. Organisational methods to gag his critics or break up factions and platforms had taken place prior to 1921,following the 1917 October revolution. Criticism was not a matter of debate, but denunciation, as petty bourgeois deviations, from the correct line. Substitutionism or top down centralism with a handful of leaders or a leader monopolising decision making at the expense of workers organisations and party members at the grass roots, was an enduring value for Lenin, who did not regard workers democracy as essential to the construction of socialism/communism. I think Jackie is right to be critical of those who talk about Bolshevism’s heroic period.

23 07 2012
Stephen Hall

A good article and some good comments. I generally look upon the ACI as very much a positive development as it stands, and am happy to be associated with it as long as remains faithful to the general principles outlined by Stuart in his article above.

I think the Greater Manchester group especially has tremendous potential, and could play an important role in helping to transform the balance of forces on the ground in the area in favour of the overthrow of the ‘hopeless sectarianism’ and concentration on ‘building its own sect or party as a priority over building workers struggles and the general anticapitalist movement.’ that has dogged the ‘far Left’ here in the past, and which although already on the wane in my view comparatively speaking, needs a further push and then firmly nailing in its coffin. This would be a great boon to the anti-Capitalist Left everywhere

I think the anti-Capitalist group is perhaps in a much more fortunate position in Manchester right now than others may be elsewhere for a whole raft of reasons. and I can’t comment on the situation with ACI nationally as I am not involved in it. I would certainly hope it soon becomes, if it is not already, a model of what a future broad, democratic, pluralist and grassroots driven anti-Capitalist organisation might look like as without it becoming so it is doomed to failure I think.

I think Socialist Resistance should be more involved in the ACI, both locally and nationally (we are involved in only the Leeds and Manchester groups currently I believe) and will push for such at the next NC meeting of SR.

23 07 2012
nothingiseverlost

“against taking decisions by democratic votes, against accountable elected decision-making bodies” – You can’t lump those things together as simply as that. If you have an “accountable elected decision-making body”, then no matter how internally democratic their processes are, then the decisions that they make are not being made by democratic votes involving the whole organisation. As a libertarian, I am all in favour of taking decisions by democratic votes, that’s why I’m against setting up elected bodies, whether they’re called Parliaments or Central Committees, to make decisions on our behalf.
Oh, and while we’re at it, is there any chance that the ACI’s much-hyped re-examination of its tradition will include an openness to internationalist positions, or will the new body be sticking to the hard-line nationalism that was such a selling point for both WP and PR?

23 07 2012
Mark

The Commune does not have a leadership and I think that is correct. We meet nationally every two months for our aggregates, the highest decision making body of the organisation. However, if I was in a much larger organisation (a hundred plus) that would also be a much more active organisation, I would expect to have some sort of leadership to make decisions in between national meetings. They would be elected and instantly recall-able. They would probably make decisions that went against the membership, but the majority would be able to bring it up in our public press and if it wished then they could recall the leadership instantly and replace individual members or re-elect the entire lot.

24 07 2012
graham

Stuart King: “We are quite open about our politics – we are not anarchists or “libertarians”, if by that term we mean being against organisation, against taking decisions by democratic votes, against accountable elected decision-making bodies. We think all these things are necessary in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, we don’t believe we can rely on spontaneity, on unplanned and disorganised protests, to smash the capitalist state.”

Oh dear, oh dear. Where’s your source for this, then?

Anarchist communists are:

*very much for organisation and lots of it
*for taking decisions by democratic votes – it differs according to the group or setting itself what form that takes. I’m happy with majority voting and critical of always going for consensus, but might want to aim for consensus in particular decisions.

We’re also in favour of ‘accountable elected decision-making bodies’ but by that we would mean having delegates (basically spokespersons) make up those bodies rather than representatives (who aren’t fully accountable). They’d have to be recallable and rotated etc.

No communist I’m aware of believes in ‘spontaneity, on unplanned and disorganised protests’, but quite the opposite. We want a directly democratic mass movement.

Might as well tell you this before we have to put up with another strawman version of libertarian communism versus your own particular version of Marxism. (Many of us would have no problems to say we’re marxists too, you know).

25 07 2012
nothingiseverlost

Mark – clearly as groups get bigger, more delegation is going to be necessary, but I don’t think that a group of a few hundred people needs a separate leadership. Of course, it’s always going to be necessary to hand over some duties to specific individuals – editing the paper and so on – but for the most part they should be making technical/administrative decisions, not serious political ones. If something needs to be resolved during national meetings, it shouldn’t take much more than a week or so for designated individuals to check with the rest of their local group and then report back to the rest of the organisation, so you can get a feeling as to whether the majority of the group supports a particular course of action, or whether opinions are too hopelessly divided to reach any decision quickly.
The other side of the coin is group autonomy – when you need to react quickly, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be possible to get consensus among the whole organisation, it should be possible for local groups to react *as local groups*, rather than in the name of the whole organisation, as with the North London SolFed statement on the riots last year.

26 07 2012
billjefferies

I basically agree with nothingeverlost about the leadership issue, there is no need for a “leadership” of the ACI and the present coordination is not a leadership, even if some of the people on it want it to be.
My personal preference is for all “leaders” to be delegated and recallable by an actual local body not elected at a conference. When that happens there is in practice no mechanism for recalling people who are not acting according to the wishes of a base unit.
But that’s all music of the future, we need to establish real functioning local groups first who are able to work together.
I don’t agree with Barry’s version of Mark’s article, that was basically very critical of the Bolsheviks around 1921 and Krondstadt. But it does demonstrate an important point – there is no reason to agree on every point of history. The condition that we unite over our historical analysis of the last two centuries basically rules out any progress whatsoever.

27 07 2012
Barry

Bill – I did not dispute Marks criticism of the Bolsheviks around 1921 and Kronstadt. That was another comrades error. What I did criticise was Mark’s view that the banning of Factions within the Bolshevik party was an historic turning point or the root of counter Revolution following 1917. Although Mark’s criticism about the Bolshevik Party leadership in 1921 was an historic turning point for a Trotskyist.

The notion that a left opposition with Factional rights within a Bolshevik vanguard party, which had lost or severed its organic links with the working class and was part of a counter revolutionary process formed around the leadership apparatus and the state, could somehow represent the historical interests of the working class is utopian and historically naive.

Given the historical circumstances;the dictatorship of the party leadership/apparatus instead of the dictatorship or domination of the working class. Plus the rules and culture of “Democratic centralism”, there was no possibility of a minority with factional rights becoming the majority or transforming the “Party”. The party leadership /apparatus, with the cult of the leader and top down instructions, were able to command and control any discussion which percolated up from members. Leading critics of the leadership were moved from their base to remote posts and regions. Congresses were packed with leadership supporters. The various left critics were slandered as representatives of alien class interests. And so on.

The History of Bolshevik Leninism is not hot on factional rights. The only successful factionalism was the Leadership faction and Lenin’s splitting tactics. Bolshevik factions 1907/12 were deemed to be non factions,or deviations from the leaders correct line. Following 1917, many critics of the leadership were trapped in party loyalty, on the misunderstanding that the party represented the long term interests of the working class. So Bolshevik oppositionists crossed the ice to kill comrades in Kronstadt who shared some of their criticism of the leadership. Bolshevik factionalism or the conviction that minority rights could preserve the revolutionary integrity of the party led to the front line of counter Revolution.

Do we have to agree on historical interpretations? Well in general, not for anti capitalist activity in the ACI or trade unions or other campaigns. But in terms of a longer run regroupment or the formation of a revolutionary organisation, there are some interpretations we would probably disagree with and oppose. Socialism in one country and the parliamentary road to Socialism and two that spring to mind. And, of course, going back to Mark, a Jacobin or elitist vanguard concept of working class organisation with or without factional rights.

27 07 2012
billjefferies

My view is that none of the contending parties/fractions/groups got it entirely right at the time. If I had to choose I would say that the Workers Opposition were more right than most, probably the Krondstadt rebels were too. Having said that I don’t think its possible to have a definitive statement about who was “right”, I don’t think anyone was at the time.
In terms of the historical interpretation we do not have to agree about nuances or even fundamentals necessarily, I know that I’ve changed my mind on this issue (among others) a fair few times. What’s important is what we do now, that is influenced by history but not strictly dependent on it.

28 07 2012
KS

“there was no possibility of a minority with factional rights becoming the majority or transforming the “Party”.”

interesting debate.

obviously this is all ‘what if’ stuff because we’ll never know, but you could argue that if the revolution had suceeded in germany or elsewhere then the situation could have been transformed. the civil war could have been ended very quickly, and the armies of imperialist intervention could have been defeated or withdrawn from russia under the pressure from the revolution spreading across europe, then, in these very changed circumstances, the revolutionary working class could have been re-enenergised and inspired, and obviously, no longer fighting against the white army and imperialist forces, could have moved against bureaucratism, and transformed the bolshevik party and the whole of soviet russia.

a dessimated working class, with most of the revolutionaries fighting a civil war, and many dying in doing so, in an isolated state invaded by over 20 foreign powers, in a country with economic collapse and people leaving the towns for the countryside, was obviously unable to halt bureaucratism and the resulting stalinist nightmare.

anyway…. comradely greetings to all,

ks




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