The Unfolding of Spartacism’s Cracked Logic: Reply to Bolshevik Tendency’s Alan Gibson: Part 2

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03/02/2019 by Ian


By Ian Donovan

So let us examine another example of Alan’s logic. He cites Trotsky in Problems of the Spanish Revolution thus:

“The enormous role of the Bolshevik slogan “Down with the ten capitalist ministers” is well known, in 1917, at the time of the coalition between the conciliators and the bourgeois liberals. The masses still trusted the socialist conciliators but the most trustful masses always have an instinctive distrust for the bourgeoisie, for the exploiters and for the capitalists. On this was built the Bolshevik tactic during that specific period. We didn’t say “Down with the socialist ministers,” we didn’t even advance the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government” as a fighting slogan of the moment, but instead we hammered on one and the same point: “Down with the ten capitalist ministers.” This slogan played an enormous role, because it gave the masses the opportunity to learn from their own experience that the capitalist ministers were closer and dearer to the conciliators than the working masses.

“Slogans of that type are the best fitted for the present stage of the Spanish revolution. The proletarian vanguard is fully interested in pushing the Spanish socialists to take over the whole power. For that purpose, it is necessary to split the coalition. The next task is the fight for the expulsion of the bourgeois ministers from the coalition. The achievement of this task in full or in part is conceivable only in connection with important political events, under pressure of new mass movements, and so on. Thus, in Russia, under the constant pressure of the masses, first Guchkov, Miliukov, then Prince Lvov, were ousted from the coalition government, which was then headed by Kerensky; the number of ‘socialists’ in the government rose, and so on. After the arrival of Lenin, the Bolshevik party did not solidarize itself for one moment with Kerensky and the conciliators, but it helped the masses to push the bourgeoisie out of power and to test the government of the conciliators in practice. That was an indispensable stage on the road of the Bolshevik movement to power.”

Alan with his flawed logic seems to be under the impression that this snippet provides support for the idea that it is unprincipled to give any support to working class parties that are part of such a coalition.

Spartoids: ‘Down with the socialist ministers’

 But if that is true, how is it possible to “push the Spanish socialists to take over the whole power” if you are not prepared to even advocate support for them in an election? It is notable that in using the example of 1917, Trotsky says:

“We didn’t say “Down with the socialist ministers,” we didn’t even advance the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government” as a fighting slogan of the moment, but instead we hammered on one and the same point: ‘Down with the ten capitalist ministers.’”

That is not the position of the Spartacists and the BT/IBT. Refusal in principle to give any support, even electoral support, to the ‘socialists’ involved in such a coalition until they split from the capitalist ministers precisely amounts to saying “down with the socialist ministers” and “down with the Provisional Government” if words mean anything at all. In fact no election was even in the offing at the point these points were made, but if there had been the position of the Bolsheviks, if guided by our Spartacist sages, should (according to them) have been no support for the ‘socialists’ if they had not first broken from the ten capitalist ministers, any more that to the ten capitalist ministers themselves. That means no support to the ‘socialists’ even against the Black Hundred extreme reaction.

That policy precisely means “down with the socialist ministers” and is completely at odds with the observation above that “The masses still trusted the socialist conciliators but the most trustful masses always have an instinctive distrust for the bourgeoisie, for the exploiters and for the capitalists.” The whole point of making such a distinction in an election is to take account of such differences, which again are a form of partial class-consciousness and class differentiation in the minds of the masses.

There is no contradiction between that and saying that “the Bolshevik party did not solidarize itself for one moment with Kerensky and the conciliators” because critical support by Marxists for a reformist party in an election is never an act of political solidarity with reformism, it always amounts to supporting the reformists “as a rope supports a hanged man” as Lenin explained in 1920. This equation amounts to a fear and supposition that critical electoral support does amount to solidarity with reformism.

That is a clear non-sequitur in Alan’s argument, where the material he quotes completely contradicts the conclusions he draws from it. But even more so when you consider that the above quotation is not really about elections. Both in Russia in the late summer of 1917, and in Spain in 1936-7, the coalition government of various social democrats and Stalinists with the bourgeoisie existed in the context of fully-fledged dual power (in Russia) and half-formed dual power (in Spain). Therefore indeed these questions were not posed purely within the parliamentary framework. The demand for the reformists to take power and break with their bourgeois coalition partners amounted to in fact a demand that these parties take power on the basis of the dual power organs that existed, or which were visibly forming up.

The question that was posed was not therefore using the critical support tactic in a situation where the class struggle had not gone beyond the parliamentary framework, which is the question in dispute in this debate, but something higher. In demanding that these parties break with the bourgeoisie the Bolsheviks and Bolshevik-Leninists were demanding the formation of a genuine workers government, based on the organs of dual power, and were therefore putting the reformists to a much higher test than that of electing a parliamentary government.

 Such a workers government, if it were to have been formed, could not have been said to have been an actual dictatorship of the proletariat, because the reformist bureaucrats who lead these parties are pro-capitalist and are not capable of crushing the resistance of the bourgeoisie, expropriating them economically and instituting a struggle for international proletarian revolution. But it would have been an unstable precursor of the dictatorship of the proletariat, an episode where the class struggle reaches the highest point possible under reformist leadership, which poses point blank the need for the workers under revolutionary leadership to take power and institute a real proletarian dictatorship. The demand for a workers government in these circumstances is the highest expression of the transitional method and the crowing demand of the transitional programme.

Spartoid Centrism as Crystallised Confusion

Then we get to one of the main themes of Alan’s reply. A systematic attempt to confuse the questions involved in the 1917 revolution in Russia, where the class struggle had clearly already broken out of the parliamentary framework and fully fledged organs of proletarian dual power – the Soviets of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, had sprung up across Russia, with situations such as France in the 1930s where, despite considerable working class struggles and upheavals, politics had not broken out of the parliamentary framework and no dual power organs yet existed. There was also the situation in Spain during the civil war where elemental dual power organs had come into existence but were actively being suppressed by mass working class parties such as the Spanish Socialists and Communists, with the active support of the Kremlin and the Stalinist GPU secret police operating abroad to suppress the proletarian revolution and maintain the parliamentary framework.

One of the defining features of centrism according to Trotsky is ‘crystallised confusion’. Above I have dealt with the underlying subjectivist logic of the Spart dictum that ‘programme generates theory’. Another way of explaining this is that for them programmatic concepts and the key tenets of theoretical analysis that explain them are not derived from theory at all, but from ‘programme’, which basically derives from the subjective gut impulses of individuals who are convinced because of their membership of a supposedly superior ‘revolutionary tradition’ that their gut impulses are superior to everyone else’s. This method is deeply ingrained in all the groupings in the Spart tradition. It is the underlying reason why James Robertson is able to get away with the most outrageous positions, some flagrantly sectarian, others cringingly social chauvinist, and some which combine elements of both.

The absurdity of Norden’s thesis that Trotsky was unaware of the electoral policy of his French co-thinkers (Bolshevik-Leninist Group or GBL) on the 1936 Popular Front – which Norden himself read about in material found in Trotsky’s own archive – is one example of such nonsense. It is pure mendacious invention, pulled out of someone’s posterior and completely at odds with reality, of the same order as Roberston’s drunken ‘goatfuckers’ speech in its capriciousness and belief that the ‘chosen’ ones can get away with any irrationality because their followers have absorbed the same subjectivist method. This is why thoughtful cadre like Alan can justify and apologise for such rubbish just as no doubt equally thoughtful Spartacist cadre in 1977 – likely including future BTers – cheered, clapped and stamped their feet when JR made his remarks about goats in his discreditable New York speech.

This is the underlying method that drives the ‘crystallised confusion’ of this particular fragmented centrist trend, which makes up the ‘Spartacist family’. They agree on the method, but fall out over details of its implementation, usually when particular individuals driven by this belief in their superiority in the sphere of ‘programme’ (by which they mean subjective superiority, not Marxist theoretical clarity) go too far. But we can see this method at work in Alan’s document itself, and in the document by Christoph Lichtenberg from 1998 that was the only, half-strangled attempt at a reply that the IBT made to my criticisms when I was a member all those years ago (half-strangled because the IBT leadership instructed its members not to debate my critique as it was ‘disruptive’ to the work of the organisation). But what really derives this mystification as well as the bureaucratism that accompanies it is a particular form of centrist confusionism that takes the form of inverted opportunism, or opportunism in fear of itself.

Spartoid logic: Another Case Study…

One wonderful example of this is where Alan says that he has:

“… to challenge Ian’s assertion that Trotsky perceived the voting patterns of the French working class in 1936 to be inherently rebellious against the Popular Front government. In fact, Trotsky was responding to what reformist workers tried to do within the context of parliamentary politics and the absence of a revolutionary alternative…”

And then he goes on to quote Trotsky thus:

 “The voter, therefore, has expressed his will – so far as he generally can in the straitjacket of parliamentarianism – not in favour of the People’s Front policy but against it.”


“The Decisive Stage” from Whither France [AG emphasis]

Firstly, there was no ‘Popular Front government’ to rebel against in June 1936. The action of the masses in forcing the ‘ministry of Blum’ instead of those of Herriot and Daladier put in power a Popular Front government with a much greater SFIO and PCF component than the Popular Front architects planned. Before that there was no Popular Front government. According to Trotsky, this was a “direct vote against the policy of the People’s Front”, or as he says above, a vote “not in favour of the People’s Front policy but against it.”

Presumably a rebellion against the Popular Front within the framework of parliamentarism is then no rebellion at all. The only rebellion that counts for the BT is against parliamentarism itself. So there is no way that any kind of partial class consciousness can possibly exist within the framework of parliamentarism, and no tactics that Marxists can employ within the parliamentary framework to try to create the conditions where the working class and the oppressed masses can break out of it.

Logically, if this is what the BT believes, then the critical support tactic in general for reformist parties should be ruled out, except perhaps in a revolutionary situation. It is fine if this is what they want to argue, but they should not use arguments that point to such absurd conclusions and claim to associate themselves with Trotsky.

It is very clear that while Trotsky was fully aware that at that point the situation had not escaped the “straightjacket of parliamentarism”, he was not disdainful of the struggles and class polarisations that took place within that framework, and sought to push those struggles forward in order to enable them to break out of the “straightjacket”. That means formulating tactics such as the GBL’s tactic of critical support for the SFIO and PCF only – and standing against the Radicals – which corresponded exactly with actions of the working that that Trotsky said represented a vote “not in favour of the People’s Front policy but against it”. This is very clear when we look at his attention to the details of politics within this ‘straightjacket’ in this passage quoted in context:

“The Socialist Party is not a working-class party either with regard to its policies or its social composition. It is the party of the new middle estate (the functionaries, civil servants, etc.) and, in part, of the petty bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy. A serious analysis of the electoral statistics would undoubtedly show that the Socialists lost to the Communists a considerable section of workers and poor peasants, while gaining from the Radicals, in turn, considerable groups of the middle classes. This means that the petty bourgeoisie is moving to the left away from the Radicals, towards the Socialists and Communists, while groups of the middle and the big bourgeoisie are moving away from the Radicals to the right. The regroupment is taking place along the class axes and not along the artificial line of the “People’s Front”. The revolutionary nature of the crisis is characterized by the rapid polarization of political relations. Such is the third, fundamental lesson.

The voter, therefore, has expressed his will – so far as he generally can in the straitjacket of parliamentarianism – not in favour of the People’s Front policy but against it. To be sure, on the second ballot the Socialists and the Communists further distorted the political will of the toilers by removing their candidates in favour of the bourgeois Radicals. Despite this, the Radicals emerged from the test with their ribs crushed, losing one-third of their seats. Says the Temps: “This is due to their entering into a bloc with revolutionists.” Daladier retorts: “Without the People’s Front we would have lost more.” Daladier is absolutely right. Had the Socialists and the Communists conducted a class policy, i.e., fought for the alliance between the workers and the semi-proletarian elements in the city and country against the entire bourgeoisie, including its rotten Radical wing, they would have received many more votes, while the Radicals would have returned to the Chamber an insignificant group.”


(https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/whitherfrance/ch03b.htm, section originally quoted by AG emphasised by ID)

Alan’s quote mangling and abstruse, obscurantist theorising show he does not agree with Trotsky that these workers voted “not in favour of the People’s Front policy but against it”. He believes these were votes for the Popular Front. Otherwise his whole polemic makes no sense at all. The bizarre implication that a vote against the Popular Front within the parliamentary framework is not a vote against the Popular Front at all, while at the same time not criticising Trotsky for saying it is a vote against the Popular Front, is self-contradictory, capricious and stems from a belief in one’s own ‘programmatic’ superiority irrespective of theoretical coherence or understanding. Or as Jim Robertson puts it: “program generates theory”.

… And Another

We see exactly the same pattern in his citation of Christoph Lichtenberg’s 1998 Document “The Popular Front: a Well-Covered Trap” and his point about the entryism advocated by Trotsky into the Spanish Socialist Party when it was a mainstay of the Spanish Popular Front government in 1936-7. It is obvious that this is completely at odds with the Spartacist attitude to bourgeois workers parties that enter into Popular Fronts with bourgeois parties. Entryism is actually a higher form of the United Front tactic than mere critical support for such a party in an election, as I pointed out at the time. Christoph responded as shown below (in the following mixture of paraphrasing and quotes by Alan):

“To bolster his argument Ian refers back to his original 1998 document where he quotes Trotsky’s call for revolutionaries to join the Spanish Socialist Party while it was in the Popular Front – something I had not dealt with in my initial short piece. However, he has never seen the need to deal with the response to this point that was made at the time by a comrade in the Marxist Bulletin group. So I will remind him:

‘The other classic example of a popular front government is Spain. Ian quotes from the Down with Zamora-Maura text but seems to fail to understand the significance of the following passage:

<<The proletarian vanguard is fully interested in pushing the Spanish Socialists to take power into their own hands. For that to happen, it is necessary to split the coalition (my emphasis [CL]). The achievement of this task is conceivable only in connection with important political events, under pressure of new mass movements, and so on.>>’

“The task is to split the coalition, i.e. the popular front. A similar passage can be found in his letter to the Dutch section dealing with the POUM. It is worth noting that Trotsky does not discuss the question of the popular front in terms of electoral tactics very much. On both France and Spain he stresses the need for the independent activity of the masses against the bourgeoisie and its lackeys in the popular front government. He was obviously convinced that you cannot get rid of the popular front at the ballot box.”

Here we see two elements – the attribution to Trotsky of a position of disdain for, and abstention from, the political class struggle insofar as it takes place within the parliamentary straightjacket that if it were accurate, would amount to calling Trotsky a syndicalist-inclined ultraleft. He certainly was not: his whole transitional method involved dealing in detail with the class struggle both as it expressed itself within the parliamentary framework and outside it: the whole point of the transitional method is to facilitate the transition from the parliamentary framework to the struggle for power through working-class revolutionary action.

More on that presently. But first it is worth noting that however Alan and Christoph wriggle, they cannot square the circle as to how entryism into a bourgeois workers party that is part of a Popular Front can be reconciled with the proposition that when such a party enters a Popular Front, the class contradictions within it are “suppressed”, that is, they fail to be an operative factor. Christoph demonstrates his fealty to Robertson’s subjectivist anti-Marxist dictum that ‘program generates theory” when he places his emphasis on the words “it is necessary to split the coalitionin the fragment Alan quotes, reproduced above. As well as in another passage Alan quotes later where Christoph says the following about Trotsky’s advocacy of entryism into the Spanish Socialists:

“However, it is important to see how Trotsky continued ‘in order to work there as a faction in the spirit of Bolshevism’. Working in the spirit of Bolshevism means absolute opposition to the government and a perspective of splitting the working class base away from its misleaders.


(http://www.bolshevik.org/mb/8popfront.htm)

The problem is that neither Christoph nor Alan can explain is what contradiction within the Spanish Socialist Party it was possible to exploit in order to “split the coalition” and work “in the spirit of Bolshevism” given that in their view the class contradictions within that party were “suppressed” the moment it signed up to the Popular Front. If such contradictions do not operate, then entryism, no matter what “spirit” is employed in the enterprise, is futile, a complete waste of time, and cannot by definition lead to such a result.

Furthermore, if such contradictions do not operate and cease to be relevant, then entryism into such a party is no different to entryism into an outright bourgeois party, such as the Lib Dems or the Tories. No matter how you dress up this nonsense, it certainly has nothing to do with the “spirit of Bolshevism”. It involves crossing the class line, or would do if these premises were accurate. This is the same kind of nonsense logic, derived from a belief in one’s own ‘programmatic’ superiority without a solid, rational Marxist theoretical foundation, as JR’s “program generates theory” fantasy.

An almost comical example of this divorce of theory and programme is shown when Alan tries to reconcile this contradiction. He writes:

“So not only is Ian incorrectly generalising and extending this historical instance of entry to include electoral support (not something that Trotsky ever advocated), but he takes it out of context and misses the essential ‘spirit of Bolshevism’ behind Trotsky’s motivation to advocate temporarily joining the Socialist Party whilst it was technically  part of the popular front. The SP was in revolutionary flux, with its left wing and layers of militant workers inside and outside the party, pushing for independent action from the popular front government itself. Entry was in the context of the need for an imminent and urgent split away from the bourgeois and reformist forces.” [ID emphasis]

Note how Alan tries to evade the consequences of the theory he is trying to defend by saying that the SP was only ‘technically’ part of the Popular Front, implying that that this was just a technicality and really it wasn’t part of it. It certainly was, and in the specific circumstances of the Popular Front and Spanish Civil War, the reason it was in ‘revolutionary flux’ was that participation in the popular front had driven its class contradictions close to breaking point.

The solution to this conundrum, one that is entirely due to the Spartacist family’s distortion of the whole basis of Marxist theory and crystallised confusion, a classic hallmark of centrism, is as I explained earlier, to recognise that entry into a Popular Front during a period of sharp class struggle does not ‘suppress’ the contradictions within a bourgeois workers party. It exacerbates those contradictions as the petit-bourgeois, labour aristocratic leaders combine with part of the ruling class to attack their own working class mass base.

Third Campism and Mystifying the Class Struggle

Alan attempts to defend this formulation about the class contradictions in a bourgeois workers party being ‘suppressed’ from the moment its leaders sign up to a Popular Front in a manner that is almost third-campist in its implications, and which does give a glimpse of the elements of an ultra-left variant of Shachtmanite theorising that underpin the Spartacist family’s conceptions regarding the workers movement at times. 

The Shachtmanite third-campist theoretical element in Robertson’s pedigree is the root of this; it is demonstrable that the Spartacists never broke even formally with Shachtman/Draper’s views on Zionism and related aspects of the national question until the mid-1970s, which is quite remarkable for a current that claims to represent the ‘continuity’ of Trotskyism as it was under Trotsky. This element of Shachtmanite ideological pollution contaminates their view of imperialism, and leads to some wildly inconsistent swings between firm anti-imperialism and pro-imperialist apologetics. Classic centrism. It results in a similar inconsistency in their attitude to the workers movement itself particularly over this question. They swing between a genuine attempt at times at militant, revolutionary trade unionism, and a dismissal of the proletarian mass base of such parties. This contrast gives the impression of real instability.

Later in addressing questions related to the Respect Coalition/Party in the UK in the context of the Iraq War, I will address this vis-à-vis imperialism and anti-imperialism. But I will deal with some of the issues relating to bourgeois workers parties first.

Alan polemicises against me on this:

“Ian makes a great deal of what he believes must be meant by the term “suppressed” – a term the Spartacists used to describe what happens to the ‘profound contradiction between their proletarian base and formal ideology and the class-collaborationist aims and personal appetites of their leaderships’ within reformist workers parties when they participate in a Popular Front. He recognises that the contradiction outlined by the Spartacists does exist but it is just not all that is involved..”

In this vein he quotes me that:

“The problem with this is it is one-sided. The counterposition of the reformist parties to the parties of the bourgeoisie is not just one of ideas. It is also a material counterposition. The working class party is seen as not simply an ideological force, but a material one, the embodiment of the social power of the working class in capitalist society as a force whose mass membership and support acts as a counterweight to untrammelled bourgeois force trampling the working class into the ground. This is the problem that the above does not really deal with.” (Critical Support, Popular Fronts and Bourgeois Workers Parties)

And he replies:

“The key here is Ian’s use of the phrase ‘Is seen as…’. This is the core of the political problem revolutionaries face: how to change what reformist workers parties are ‘seen as’ by the militant vanguard of our class.”

The problem with this response is obvious. He is denying that the counterposition of the workers movement as it is, even when led by reformist parties, is a material counterposition to the political parties, the political institutions and the state machine of the bourgeoisie. Obviously Alan has not thought through the consequences of this argument. The reason that the working class parties are “seen as” a material force by the masses, as an “embodiment of the social power of the working class in capitalist society as a force whose mass membership and support acts as a counterweight to untrammelled bourgeois force trampling the working class into the ground”, is because this is precisely what they are.

The ruling class is fully aware of this, that no matter how tamely reformist its leadership is, the existence of an independent class-based party or parties leading the workers movement is a material obstacle to untrammelled capitalist domination and a standing threat that a political shift among the masses could overthrow the bourgeoisie itself. The fascists are employed by the bourgeoisie in times of acute crisis precisely to smash this material obstacle to untrammelled capitalist domination and destroy the potential threat.

Alan digs himself deeper:

“Revolutionaries aim to break reliance on seeing parliament as the motor engine for social change and replace that with an understanding of the centrality of class struggle based on our own proletarian organisations separate from, and in conflict with, the organs of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The question is HOW to engage with that false consciousness and change it. Ian’s position amounts to adapting to that consciousness and necessarily downplaying the centrality of working class independence by voting for the most virulent advocates of class collaboration in the workers movement.”

This equates the reformist misleadership of the mass parties of the working class with the party, and therefore the mass base, itself.  For the point of this is that the bourgeois workers party, insofar as it is an expression of working class independence from the parties of the bourgeoisie, is an ‘independent proletarian organisation” and is, no matter how reformist its leadership, implicitly in conflict with “the organs of bourgeois parliamentary democracy”.  And this polemic against “voting for the most virulent advocates of class collaboration in the workers movement” is at odds with Lenin among others who certainly advocated critical voting for such people while noting that:

“… the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns.” (Collected Works, Vol. 31, pp. 213–63.)

This is probably the closest to the literal formulation of a ‘bourgeois workers party’, recognising the contradictory class nature of such parties, that you will find in Lenin.  The independent working class movement, particularly when led by its own political parties, is itself implicitly at odds with the bourgeoisie and therefore bourgeois democracy just as a deformed workers state under the most treacherous leadership is at odds with capitalism, implicitly, because of its social nature, insofar as the working class base of both remains in place. In saying that the class contradictions within a bourgeois workers party are suppressed when it signs up to a Popular Front, the Spartoids effectively theorise that mass base away as a factor.

And then digging deeper still we get:

“It is true that calling for ‘no vote’ to the workers component of a Popular Front will likely be seen in the way Ian describes, unless of course the organisation making such a call holds a widely acknowledged leadership role in the extra-parliamentary struggle and there is something approaching a situation of dual power. The number of workers who will be directly convinced by a small revolutionary organisation making this call when those revolutionaries don’t represent any significant extra-parliamentary social strength will indeed likely be small. But is this a reason to stop telling the working class the truth?”

The point is not merely about the numbers of workers that can be influenced by such an organisation. The problem is that the Spartoids are not telling the working class the truth. They are acting according to the definition of sectarianism in Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, setting up sectarian ‘principles’ of their own to avoid merging with the partially class conscious masses and giving them revolutionary leadership though defending the interests of the working class movement as a whole.

 When the likes of Blum, who Alan quotes saying that “There is no proletarian majority, there is a majority of the Popular Front. It follows that we act within the current social system” lie to the masses in this way because of their fear of the masses’ social weight, the likes of Alan and the BT help them to get away with this by refusing to merge with these same masses and direct their social weight against the likes of Blum and his alliance ‘within the current social system’.

The Spartoids would tell the masses that the mass parties that they support are not in any way theirs while they are part of a Popular Front. They are telling them not to deepen their involvement in the political life of these parties to force the leaders to break from the bourgeoisie and form governments purely of petty-bourgeois led working class parties, forcing the misleaders to take responsibility for their own actions and betrayals. In effect, they are telling them not to fight back within their parties.

 Instead they are telling the most advanced elements who might listen to them that until the leaders break with the bourgeoisie of their own free will, they should boycott their own parties and turn their back on struggling alongside the masses who still support these parties on the grounds that the class contradictions within them have ceased to be operative, and there is nothing that can be done within them therefore. When reality gets in the way of this, as over Spain, we find Alan Gibson saying that the Spanish Socialist Party was only ‘technically’ part of the Popular Front, and thus running afoul of Trotsky, who himself warned of those who present the Popular Front as a mere ‘technical’ manoeuvre. Irony of ironies!

A good deal of the remainder of Alan’s document, insofar as it concerns historical examples of actual Popular Fronts, consists of sleight of hand, quotations from Trotsky that are about propagandising for the creation of organs of dual power, particularly in France in 1936, where he was trying to guide his followers to agitate among the masses for such organs of dual power.  This was because, while the masses had not actually gone beyond the parliamentary framework in terms of creating their own organs capable of contending for state power with the capitalists, nevertheless the same wave of struggle that was propelling the Socialists and Communists to power, and which the SP and CP leaders were trying to stymie by means of the Popular Front bloc with the Radicals, exploded in a massive General Strike when Blum was elected Premier on the Popular Front ticket and the need for, and palpable possibility of, the creation of such organs of dual power was posed point blank.

Sleight of Hand: Irrelevant Quotations

Alan’s sleight of hand consists of quoting large tracts of Trotsky on France and also Spain where he is pointing out the need for organs of dual power in order for the class struggle to go beyond the parliamentary framework. Thus as an example he cites this passage:

“Committees of Action will be built only by those who understand, to the end, the necessity of freeing the masses from the treacherous leadership of the social-patriots. Yet Pivert clutches at Zyromsky, who clutches at Blum, who in turn, together with Thorez, clutches at Herriot, who clutches at Laval. Pivert enters into the system of the People’s Front (not for nothing did he vote for the shameful resolution of Blum at the last National Council meeting!) and the People’s Front enters as a wing into the Bonapartist régime of Laval. The downfall of the Bonapartist régime is inevitable. Should the leadership of the People’s Front (Herriot-Blum-Cachin-Thorez-Zyromsky-Pivert) succeed in remaining on its feet in the course of the entire approaching and decisive period, then the Bonapartist régime will inevitably give way to Fascism. The condition for the victory of the proletariat is the liquidation of the present leadership. The slogan of “unity” becomes under these conditions not only a stupidity but a crime. No unity with the agents of French imperialism and of the League of Nations. To their perfidious leadership it is necessary to counterpose revolutionary Committees of Action. It is possible to build these committees only by mercilessly exposing the anti-revolutionary policies of the so-called “revolutionary left” with Marceau Pivert at the head. There is of course no room in our ranks for illusions and doubts on this score.”


(https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/whitherfrance/ch03.htm)

And then he concludes his article with another great long slab of Trotsky quotes, totally irrelevant to the question in dispute, beginning with the following:

“But, we are told, not without indignation, the People’s Front is not a cartel at all, but a mass movement. There is, of course, no lack of pompous definitions, but they do not change the nature of things. The job of the cartel always consisted in putting a brake upon the mass movement, directing it into the channels of class collaboration. This is precisely the job of the People’s Front as well. The difference between them – and not an unimportant one – is that the traditional cartel was applied during the comparatively peaceful and stable epochs of the parliamentary régime. Now, however, when the masses are impatient and explosive, a more imposing brake is needed, with the participation of the “Communists”. Joint meetings, parade processions, oaths, mixing the banners of the Commune and of Versailles, noise, bedlam, demagogy – all these serve a single aim: to curb and demoralize the mass movement.

“While justifying himself in the Chamber before the rights, Sarraut declared that his innocent concessions to the People’s Front were nothing else than the safety valve of the régime. Such frankness may have seemed imprudent. But it was rewarded by violent applause from the benches of the extreme left. There was no reason, therefore, for Sarraut to be bashful. In any case, he succeeded, perhaps not quite consciously, in providing a classic definition of the People’s Front: a safety valve for the mass movement. M. Sarraut is in every way fortunate with his aphorisms!”

We will not reproduce the whole slab of quotes here, as it would be repetitious and add nothing to the discussion. We just encourage readers to look carefully at the entire long passage Alan quotes to ascertain that nowhere in these quotes does Trotsky even mention electoral policy. The reason for this is quite simple; this is not what they are about, and they are an irrelevant diversion from the actual issues in dispute.

Alan dances around all over the place trying to utilise these quotes, and to misrepresent Trotsky’s actual behaviour, to justify Robertson and Norden’s anti-Trotskyist positions. He effectively, and erroneously, accuses Trotsky of syndicalism and political dereliction when he writes that Trotsky was preoccupied with other international matters during this period and:

“Perhaps this resulted in Trotsky taking his eye off the French ball during the period of the 1936 elections which he considered to be an irrelevant diversion from the real class struggle.”

This is why Trotsky did not denounce his French co-thinkers for calling for votes for the SFIO and PCF in 1936 against the Radicals, according to Alan.  It is an accusation of syndicalism, because the position a Marxist organisation takes in elections is a crucial element of its activity in the class struggle. Trotsky never held such a syndicalist position; however Alan himself appears to argue just that when he writes that:

“. Trotsky was also trying to push the French comrades towards emphasising the building of revolutionary Committees of Action – which he viewed as much more important than elections which are at best a subsidiary issue. Indeed, for Trotsky the whole parliamentary arena was something of a diversion away from the growing class struggle in the factories and on the streets.”

The subhead he uses in his article “Militant class struggle vs. voting in parliamentary elections” also ties in with this pseudo-syndicalist theorising, whose real purpose is not to justify syndicalism, of course, but to justify Robertson and Norden’s position on the Popular Front. It is an example of ‘Program generates theory’, that is, generating a theory to justify an anti-Marxist programmatic position. The ad-hoc theory that Norden, now echoed by Alan, came up with to justify this smacked of syndicalism, not Marxism, simply because you cannot justify an anti-Marxist position with orthodox Marxism in theory. In Alan’s hands, Norden’s original non-sequitur just becomes a rather long winded non-sequitur with the aid of a whole slab of dubiously relevant Trotsky quotes.

No, elections are not a ‘subsidiary issue’ or a ‘diversion’ from the class struggle at all. The election of the French Popular Front, in which the working class acted against the aims of the Popular Front in forcing the ministry of Blum on the parties involved when their plan was for an openly bourgeois premier supported by the workers parties, also detonated a general strike and a pre-revolutionary situation. Questions of elections were never irrelevant to that and to pretend that this was Trotsky’s position is just dishonest.

 The point is that the political situation around the elections created an opportunity for dual power organs to be created, and by agitating for “Committees of Action, not the Peoples’ Front” Trotsky was guiding his followers to fight actively for their creation. This would not mean the end of politics and elections, but their transfer from the plane of bourgeois parliamentary democracy to the qualitatively higher plane of workers, i.e. soviet, democracy. As is obvious also from his criticisms of their sluggishness in implementing their own policy in the election itself, it does seem that Trotsky had to push hard for them to implement fully the correct policies that he was advocating.

End of Part 2

2 thoughts on “The Unfolding of Spartacism’s Cracked Logic: Reply to Bolshevik Tendency’s Alan Gibson: Part 2

  1. […] has now written a 19,662 word follow-up three part response (part 1, part 2, part 3) which I believe makes the substantive difference between our political approaches very […]

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