Marxism, Imperialism, ‘Debating Tricks’ and Political Substance: Once more in reply to the BT’s Alan Gibson2
17/02/2019 by Ian
By Ian Donovan
In response to my recent three-part series on Spartacism, its cracked logic regarding bourgeois workers’ parties and tactics and strategy towards them in various situations, including popular fronts, and some of the third-campist methodological assumptions that underlie these things, comrade Gibson has produced a brief reply that supposedly ‘summarises’ the debate so far. He writes:
“Ian 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 clear.
“Ian describes my critique as just a series of non-sequiturs. I guess from Ian’s methodological starting point my arguments could indeed be seen that way. In this short response I will attempt to outline what I understand to be the revolutionary Marxist alternative to Ian’s approach.
“I considered also taking a little time to point out some of the more egregious bald assertions and blatant misrepresentations that his three part piece is littered with. Trying to provide some context to help the reader evaluate the truth or otherwise of those assertions and misrepresentations. However I am confident that any attentive reader of the exchange so far will notice Ian’s debating tricks.”
This is something like the Emperor’s New Clothes. I am accused of ‘debating tricks’ but he does not elaborate on what these tricks are. However, those who read my reply can easily see what my debating techniques are: I try to quote my opponent’s arguments as fully as possible in order to properly analyse what is being said, I deal with theoretical questions in full and try to draw out their logic to a coherent and clear conclusion, and I do not use quotes out of context, neither those of my opponent nor those of others (such as Trotsky) who I am using to back up my case. I do not attribute to such people, either implicitly or explicitly, views that they clearly did not hold or were very unlikely to have even considered. Either these are terrible ‘debating tricks’, or my interlocutor Alan is ducking out of dealing with the political substance and in fact, using a somewhat unworthy debating trick by accusing me of engaging in ‘debating tricks’.
This is borne out by a comment Alan made on Facebook about this, after being congratulated by another estranged member of the extended Spartacist family on his ‘summary’:
“I thought of writing a point by point refutation but it would be pointless as Ian would just write another massive piece in response. Better to keep it short and highlight what I think is the real difference. Which of course is not just a political weakness of Ian alone.”
This somewhat contradicts his assertion above that my 3-part reply “makes the substantive difference between our political approaches very clear”. He is right about that, which is why it seems incongruous that he then claims that his brief piece ‘highlights the real difference” (my emphasis). If my piece had already made the difference very clear, then surely this highlighting would be unnecessary duplication of effort! He says that if he had replied to my points in detail, then I would have simply written another massive piece in response. But that depends on the theoretical and programmatic coherence of his reply.
He implies that there is something awry about the fact that if he writes a reply that contains more non-sequiturs to justify the previous ones then I am likely to refute them also. But that is the nature of controversy among Marxists. Trotsky called this, in polemicising against centrist confusionists in his day, “an active concern for purity of principles, clarity of position, political consistency, organisational completeness” (Centrism and the Fourth International, 1934).
If he suddenly and somehow, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, manages to come up with an explanation of the Spartacist family’s positions that is coherent in Marxist terms, does not do violence to logic and history, does not drag Trotsky in by the hair to justify positions that were completely at odds with those he clearly held, and which is evidently superior to my own theorisation and explanations, then I am completely open to that. If it had such Marxist coherence, I would willingly embrace it.
Alan and the BT have no confidence in their ability to write a reply to my demolition of the non-sequiturs that are characteristic of not just himself and the BT/IBT, but also Robertson and Norden before him. His complaint about this is why the IBT sought to stop this discussion while I was a member; the Spartacist family’s ‘boat’ is fragile and not very robust politically, and people who rock it find this is not popular as Norden himself discovered when he fought back against Robertson’s own purge of him in the early 1990s. He was accused of ‘squid’ tactics – spilling loads of ink, apparently. In other words writing extensive documents to politically refute the various illogical charges and calumnies directed against him.
Class Contradictions: Suppressed or Not?
Unfortunately Alan’s latest piece does not have much to say on the issues in dispute, except more on the lines of ‘programme generates theory’ to explain why he apparently believes that working class independence in elections is a ‘principle’ whereas we supposedly believe that it is only a ‘tactic’. He cannot justify this in any theorised sense, he instead just appears to pluck it out of thin air. It is just another non-sequitur, at bottom. He does, however, make a concession to us where he writes that:
“This is not to argue that all contradictions between those non-revolutionary candidates and the wider working class who vote for them are suppressed when they are standing on a joint programme with elements of the bourgeoisie – but the particular contradiction that allows for potentially giving critical support is certainly suppressed.”
But this is not the argument of the Spartacists. They argued since 1970 that the basic class contradiction within a bourgeois workers party; that between its mass working class base and its pro-capitalist leadership, is ‘suppressed’ when it stands in a popular front. That until the popular front ceases to exist, there is no contradiction between the base and the leadership to exploit. Now Alan says that some contradictions continue to operate along these class lines, but not the only one he thinks is important, which he tries to portray as somehow separate from other class-based contradictions within these parties. He justifies this by saying that:
“ For [myself – ID] a non-revolutionary workers’ party with mass support (like the British Labour Party) is, just by existing, a representation of this contradiction.”
The problem is with this is that the existence of an independent class party, even one with bourgeois leadership, is a break from outright subordination of politics to the bourgeoisie. James Robertson denies this in effect by saying that alliances the bourgeois leadership makes on the electoral plane, fundamentally negate the party’s working class nature by rendering this contradiction inoperative. If this were true, there would be no need for military coups, no need for fascism to suppress working class political organisations such as reformist Socialist and ‘Communist’ parties. They would be able to do away with the threat to the bourgeoisie from their own base without the ruling class needing to resort to this.
Is a Labour Party a Political Conquest of the Working Class, or Not?
If the political workers movement is not a real material gain, a gain in terms of class coherence and effective application of its social weight by the working class, then why would it need to be crushed? If it could be negated simply by a parliamentary/electoral device, then even in a crisis there would be no need for fascism and fascist-like methods to crush it. The assertion that the existence of a popular front bloc suppresses this contradiction is an element of third-campism mixed in with the Trotskyist ‘verbiage’ of the Spartacists, because it implies that for the duration of the popular front, the bloc of the leaders with the bourgeoisie negates the proletarian class character of the base itself.
For if that proletarian base still exists and is an active factor, how could the contradiction not be exacerbated, not suppressed, when the leadership allies with parties of the bourgeoisie, ostensibly as a ‘tactic’ (which is invariably how this is sold to the base) but in reality as an additional anchor and means of support for the petit-bourgeois pro-capitalist leadership to keep its base under control? Our tactics, including that of critical support and entryism, are aimed at reaching the masses who are the proletarian base of this class-contradictory unity of opposites, as Trotsky advocated in the Transitional Programme, “stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
There is an ultra-left variant of third-campism mixed in with the Spartacists family’s basic theory that particularly expressed itself in the proposition that the agreement of the leadership of a bourgeois workers party with the bourgeoisie suppresses, i.e. renders nil, the basic class contradiction within that party between its working class base and its pro-capitalist bureaucratic leadership.
This has been a trend that has grown out of third-camp variants of Trotskyism over the decades; currents have emerged sporadically that have denied the proletarian nature of mass workers organisations and refused to defend them against the bosses, at home as well as overseas regarding deformed workers states. The British RCP, which came from the Cliff group, and the LaRouche tendency, which partly had its origins in the Spartacists, are examples of this that took it all the way and crossed the class line entirely as a result of this error.
Obviously the Spartacist family have not done this; they have limited this intrusion of third-campism to the sphere of the popular front and if anything, have inverted Shachtman’s approach regarding the deformed workers states by projecting the idea that the proletarian nature of these states can be ‘defended’ from above by coercion of a proletarian base that has lost all consciousness that these states embody any gains for themselves as a class. The common denominator here is an incapacity to seriously try to address “today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class” for fear that instead of “unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat” their activities will result in capitulation to the existing illusions of the masses. That is sectarianism in a Marxist sense: opportunism in fear of itself.
Contradictions: Abstract and Concrete
Alan spectacularly misses the point when he writes:
“For Ian and Socialist Fight, the organisation he is currently a member of, there is therefore no difference between the electoral tactics to take towards the British Labour Party led by Corbyn in 2017 and the Labour Party led by Gordon Brown in 2010 (and by implication the Labour Party led by Tony Blair in the decade or so preceding that). They believe that the contradictions, and the critical support arguments made to engage with the wider working class about those contradictions, are fundamentally the same in each case.”
To which I can initially respond by citing Trotsky’s remarks on the dialectic in In Defence of Marxism:
“Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of baring-brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal. (‘A’ is equal to ‘A’). When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.
Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also exits “tolerance” which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’, but by the dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing. “Common sense” is characterised by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical ‘tolerance’.” (The ABC of Materialist Dialectics, 1939,
No-one reading part 3 of my reply could believe that we simply equate the Labour Party of today with the Labour Party overwhelmingly dominated by Tony Blair and New Labour in the 1990s and 2000s. George Galloway’s RESPECT was the most successful of a series of attempts by elements within the left-wing of the Labour movement, including those purged from the Labour Party, to reassert class politics and even to fight for militant anti-imperialism against Tony Blair’s Labour Party and government. It stood in elections and in the case of RESPECT, achieved one notable 2005 victory over the Blairites right in the middle of a major war, in which it was correct for Marxists to fully involve themselves even while maintaining their independent ability to criticise those involved. The Socialist Alliance earlier in the 2001 election stood in over 100 seats against Labour, putting basic working class demands against a Labour leadership that openly demonstrated its hostility to such demands.
A Marxist organisation should have actively participated in these projects while at the same time maintaining factional work in the Labour Party, engaging with those within Labour who were resisting Blairism. That would involve a mix of supporting challenges against Blairite Labour candidates while at the same time giving Labour critical support in elections where left Labour candidates were standing, or when an SA/RESPECT etc. challenge was not practical, in order to address those sections of its base that retain loyalty to it for class reasons, despite Blair. Critical support for Marxists does not involve approval of the programme of the leadership, but is a means to approach the working class masses who support the party for reasons of a partial class consciousness, in order to deepen that class-consciousness. All such support is ‘as a rope supports a hanged man’.
So A is not simply equal to A. Nor is it completely different. It is necessary both to note what the Labour Party under Blair had in common with what is there today, and what has changed. What was there and is still there today is that Labour had the allegiance of the mass of the working class, but the specific way in which those class contradictions were expressed was different.
Marxists should have been an active factor, political yeast, in all facets of resistance to Blairism, both within and without the Labour Party. What subsequently happened was a synthesis of both kinds of resistance. As a result of the atrophying of support for New Labour that became evident after Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010, the opening up of the Labour Party to new supporters from the outside by Ed Miliband, the half-hearted, soft- left critic of the ‘crisis of working class representation’ New Labour had created, who replaced Brown, created an opportunity for large numbers of disgusted ex-Labour members to rejoin Labour as supporters, both as individuals and through their trade unions. After Ed Miliband’s 2015 election defeat these returnees joined forces with the existing Labour Left to elect Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time ‘hard left’ opponent of Blairism and all its works, to the Labour leadership, in one of the most remarkable political overturns in Labour history.
Whereas in fact the BT/IBT, despite being in existence in Britain for the whole of this period, was active among none of these class-conscious sections of the resistance with the exception of the Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill between 1996 and 1998. This was the least viable of the projects resisting Blairism, because of the idiotic bureaucratic megalomania of Scargill and his inability to be a political leader.
Nor had it even the kudos of being a pioneer; those went to Lesley Mahmood, Tommy Sheridan and others from Militant Labour who stood in elections against Labour’s support for Tory attacks even under Neil Kinnock, arguably the pioneer of Blairism. But it was attractive to the Spartacist family because of their inverted Shachtmanism, and the belief that something could be done to defend the remaining workers states whose proletariat had ceased to identify with those states, from above, by allying with Stalinist hardliners. The IBT at least had the courage to enter the SLP and within limits, fight within it. The Spartacist League/Britain, on the other hand, did not even dare to do that, but hung around the fringes applauding Scargill’s bureaucratism and Stalinism, and adapting to his politics and even nationalism, so in common with the remnants of the Scargillities today, the SL/B’s fulminations against the EU means its propaganda resembles that of UKIP.
Bourgeois Political Forces: South Africa
Aware that his polemic is pretty thin gruel, Alan desperately casts around for some more substantial argument to cover his theoretical and political nakedness. All he can come up with is this:
“Ian disagrees. In part 3 of his opus he specifically references giving political support to Provisional IRA/Sinn Féin member Bobby Sands in the 1981 British election. It should also be noted just how far Socialist Fight will take this approach as when they called for political support to Jacob Zuma against Cyril Ramaphosa in the 2017 intra-bourgeois struggle over who should be President of the ANC.”
Alan seems to be under the impression that the African National Congress is a purely bourgeois political formation. In fact it is a Popular Front in the form of a party, and has historically been heavily interpenetrated right at the top with the South African Communist Party. Formally the fiction has been maintained that leaders of the ANC were separate from the SACP, but it was revealed after his death that Nelson Mandela was a leading SACP member. This is implicit about his successors Mbeki and Zuma as well, even though their official biographies maintain that they left the SACP many years earlier.
However what is also clear is that Cyril Ramophosa has a different history, was never in the SACP and has been consistently hostile to it. He was originally a lawyer, then a trade union leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, and latterly a businessman, one of the richest in South Africa, a major shareholder of Lonmin, formerly Lonrho, one of the key white capitalist monopolies in Southern Africa, and was personally the initiator of the Marikana massacre. Wikipedia writes that:
“During the Marikana Commission, it also emerged that Lonmin management solicited Ramaphosa, as Lonmin shareholder and ANC heavyweight, to coordinate ‘concomitant action’ against ‘criminal’ protesters and therefore is seen by many as being responsible for the massacre.”
Even though the enquiry exonerated him, few give that any credence. It’s clear that while the ANC is beset by corruption, bribery and capitulation to neo-liberalism, Ramophosa represents something qualitatively different to previous ANC leaders and is part of a direct offensive by white capital to drive the SACP out of any sniff of power and out of the ANC altogether. While criticising the subordination to the ANC of the SACP, as a bourgeois workers party in very different circumstances to the Western countries where class questions are intertwined with racial oppression, large numbers of workers are still loyal to the SACP for reasons that are to a real extent class-conscious. As part of addressing that base we do solidarise with resistance to Ramophosa on a similar basis to opposing the coup in Brazil, which has meant Lula Da Silva, leader of the main bourgeois workers party, the PT, in jail on phoney corruption charges and the engineered rise of far right president Bolsonaro to power.
Coups and ‘Lawfare’
One thing that ought to be gleaned from recent histories is that bourgeois strategies change and adapt to changing political conditions. The outright use of military coups to overthrow governments that the bourgeoisie does not like, as a result of previous sustained opposition, has become a risky thing to do. So the bourgeoisie have resorted to different tactics: the Zionist method of ‘lawfare’ is a relatively new refinement to previous means of overthrowing a disliked reformist or insufficiently pliable regime.
This has been pioneered by the Zionists in operation in the imperialist countries, particularly the US, and is now being used by far right forces around the world, including places like Brazil and South Africa, where results that might have been achieved by coups d’etat a generation ago are now being achieved by lawfare. We as Marxists do defend the mass base of parties such as the PT and the SACP against outright reaction. Our position can only be deemed as taking sides in an intra-bourgeois dispute by those who discount and ignore the proletarian mass base of these clearly class-based parties.
Irish Hunger Strike: A Direct Anti-Imperialist Struggle
Finally there is the question of Bobby Sands MP. Alan claims that giving support to the election of a imprisoned IRA hunger striker in the circumstances of 1981 means giving ‘political support’ to ‘bourgeois political forces’. He says this happened in the “British election of 1981” even though there was no British election in 1981. And he does not mention that Sands was in prison and on hunger strike against the attempt of British imperialism to abolish the status of political prisoner in its prisons, to portray Republican prisoners as ‘common criminals’.
Before the hunger strikes, since 1976 in fact, beginning under the Wilson/Callaghan Labour government, this attack had been initiated and maintained on the political prisoner status that Republican Prisoners previously were entitled to. The insistence that they had to wear prison uniforms led to a protest where in the H-Blocks at Long Kesh, the prisoners refused to wear any clothes at all, and then to the ‘dirty protest’ where they refused to ‘slop out’ the buckets they were given as toilets, and instead smeared excrement over the walls of their cells.
This issue came to a head in the hunger strikes, first at the end of 1980 under Thatcher, when the government appeared to concede, only to renege on the agreement, and then the second hunger strike, in the spring of 1981, when ten men died basically in a battle of wills with Margaret Thatcher. Bobby Sands was the first. Just as the second hunger strike was getting underway, a local MP, Frank McGuire, who was himself an independent Irish nationalist, died and left the Fermanagh and South Tyrone parliamentary seat vacant.
Standing in that by-election was part of the hunger strike, which was not ‘bourgeois politics’ but direct resistance to British imperialism by representatives of an oppressed people. Karl von Clausewitz is often quoted by Marxists as saying that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. But on some occasions that is reversed, and politics becomes ‘the continuation of war by other means’. Any decent Marxist tendency in Britain (or anywhere else, but particularly here) was obliged to support the hunger strikers and fight for their victory, as well as being for their freedom and British troops out of the six counties.
Sands’ decision to take advantage of the law as it was then, and stand for election, obviously assisted by Sinn Fein and others among the nationalist population, was an integral part of the hunger strike struggle. Support for the hunger strike struggle could not be separated from support for Sands’ election campaign in those conditions. It did not imply support for Sinn Fein as a political party; it could quite logically and in principled fashion be confined to the actual circumstance of the hunger strike.
Sands’ election victory was very effective in demonstrating that the hunger strikers were not despised ‘common criminals’ at all, but the representatives of an oppressed population that had mass support. Thatcher remained obdurate and could not be seen to capitulate to the hunger strikes, which caused the deaths of ten heroic men, but once the hunger strike was over most of the demands were quietly conceded. As was more recently commented:
“At its conclusion, in October 1981, the Daily Telegraph told us the deaths had been ‘senseless’ while the Times called them ‘10 wasted lives’ and the Sun said the prisoners’ demands had been ‘absurd’.
“And then? And then there was silence. ‘I shall never give them political status,’ Thatcher has said. ‘Never.’ But papers averted their gaze as the government gave in to every demand: prisoners wore their own clothes within two weeks, prison work was eventually dropped, the men were allowed to associate freely, and they were given educational facilities.”
(The IRA hunger strike and Fleet Street’s graveyard of truth, Roy Greenslade, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jun/17/ira-hunger-strike-fleet-street)
As Marxists we are tribunes of the oppressed, and are not neutral when oppressed peoples, and militant representatives thereof, fight imperialism, are imprisoned, oppressed and abused by imperialism, and they resist that imprisonment, oppression and abuse. I stated already that this did not mean general support for Sinn Fein in elections; this was support for militants in struggle, not for the politics of the nationalist party they support. Alan’s refusal to acknowledge this distinction is certainly a ‘debating trick’ as it clearly misrepresents the position I argued by omitting this point. In equating the two, Alan is saying that a key facet of the Hunger Strikers’ struggle, arguably the most effective and in the end, the one that won the hunger strikers’ demands even though ten of them died doing it, did not deserve the support of Marxists. A scandalous position!
Anyway, it is clear from the propaganda of the BT/IBT, and their political parents in the Spartacists, that despite all protestations, that they do take sides in intra-bourgeois disputes in Ireland. The slogan ‘No to forcible reunification’ and their ‘leaving open’ the question of where the six counties should fall within the ‘British Isles’ in a democratic solution of the Irish question amounts to conceding to the loyalist side in this ‘intra-bourgeois dispute’ which is in fact a dispute about the freedom of a colonial country from British rule. This is not to say that the forcible reunification of Ireland without consent of many Protestants, enough to comprise with the nationalist population a majority of the population of the six counties, is feasible or even possible. What it does say is that partition, and its continuation up to the present day, is the denial of self-determination to a colonised people, is anti-democratic and utterly reactionary, and there will not be an even minimally just and democratic outcome in Ireland until Ireland is unified.
What is good about Alan’s document is that he seems to have stopped unjustifiably trying to wrap the Spartacist family tradition in a spurious orthodoxy. The claims of Robertson, Norden etc. that their policy is basically that of the Trotskyist movement are not really present in Alan’s reply. That is progress, as is the concession noted earlier, that class contradictions of some sort do continue to operate when a bourgeois workers party enters a bloc with a bourgeois partner, which again has become an unsustainable assertion given the detailed exploration of these issues in my extended reply. Maybe at some point the BT/IBT will deal with these issues properly, in a manner that reflects the serious nature of the subject matter. We will see. In any case, it it’s the job of a genuinely Marxist tendency to bring forward such strategic, theoretical and programmatic questions for discussion and we will continue to do that.
At least you do not dispute the nub of the dispute over the difference in importance the idea of working class has to our concrete politics.
And of course this won’t be the last time I am described as an ultra-left by a centrist apologist for giving political support to class collaborationists and outright bourgeois figures.
I dont consider you to be a genuine ultraleft. The ‘ultraleft’ element of the Spartacist family comes from Max Shachtman, who even though his deviations sometimes took an ultraleft form (eg PMP, China) ultimately capitulated to imperialism. The Spartacists own ‘ultraleftism’ comes from the same source, which your comrades have willingly inherited.