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A Leninist who doesn’t recognise retreat?

John McAnulty

24 November 2008

The article below is one of a series of exchanges between John and Mary Scully.
Response to “Applying Leninism in a Time of Retreat” - 16/08/08
Applying Leninism in a time of retreat - 31/07/08

I must say that the analysis presented by Mary does not correspond to Leninism as I understand it.

From my viewpoint much of the value of Leninism lies not in timeless formulations that stand for eternity, but in his constant attempts to interpret the class struggle and map a path towards revolution.

This constant re-evalution of the imminence of revolution was constantly presented through military metaphor – through advance and retreat, battles, positions won and lost. For Mary to see the word retreat as ambiguous, open to all sorts of interpretation is to cut herself off from large swathes of Lenin’s writings, assigning to them an ambiguity strange in someone who was so precise and crystal-clear about so many issues of Marxist theory.

In my opinion it is not Lenin’s methodology and use of metaphor which is at fault, but Mary’s formulation, which leads to a number of major faults. 

The most evident is the lack of any way to assess the balance of forces between labour and capital.  Mary notes some negative aspects, the collapse of the USSR, the global offensive by capital, the drive to war, the defeat of significant struggles in the US – but immediately shrugs her shoulders and points to the latest mobilisation a some section of the class.  This reminds me a lot of the Irish republicans of the ‘70s and 80’s.  They would regularly proclaim victory on the grounds that they hadn’t been defeated.

As long as there is a class struggle, as long as the class isn’t overwhelmed and the world enters into a period of barbarism, there will be workers in struggle.  Constantly pointing to the latest struggle induces a sort of voluntarist dogmatism.  We have no instruments through which we can access the balance of class forces.  One last push and we will make the significant breakthrough.   We can’t tell if we are moving forward or back and there is a constant pressure towards directionless activism. We are unable to offer useful advice to the workers if we do not know if they are advancing or retreating! 

Another major failing arising from a failure to distinguish between advance and retreat is a failure to assign a structure to the working class. Mary is right to argue that the vanguard is a political term rather than a sociological one, but that does not mean that the working class is some undifferentiated porridge, or that the divisions in the class are a matter of indifference to the Marxists.  A vanguard can be at the very centre of the working class, advancing because of the confidence that its relative privilege gives it, but in danger of being isolated from the broad mass of the class. Alternatively it can be the most oppressed layer, full of the fight of desperation but handicapped by its relative weakness.  At times of revolutionary upsurge the whole class will unite, but at all other times arguing for and organising around the demands and needs of the class as a whole is the central task of Marxism.

A useful idea advanced by Lenin was the idea of offensive and defensive struggle.  On the occasions that the workers are advancing the capitalists are unable to press forward their own programme.  They are confused and divided and, when they try to appease the workers, they frequently feed greater revolt.  At the same time state repression is ineffective and carries the danger of provoking greater and more determined resistance. In contrast the workers are united around a common programme. They advance across a broad front, with many new and spontaneous forms of struggle, constantly surprising their enemies. There are broad democratic structures and a constant tendency for actions and debate to move from local issues to a more general critique of capitalism and a global demand for a socialist alternative.

When the capitalist are on the attack we have a section of the class separated from a broader movement that is fragmented, demoralised and confused.  The most advanced layers must bend every sinew to avoid their struggle being crushed.  They call for immediate solidarity to avoid the localism of the divided sectors of the class and aim to draw in those layers who have not yet been beaten back. A limited victory can fill the workers with confidence and broaden the layer of solidarity. A defeat can lead to rout and regroupment in even more difficult conditions. 

The structure of the class means everything here. The task of the vanguard is to draw into the fight the industrial proletariat and use their social weight to unite all the other sections. The whole battle of position with the capitalists is to win that fight.  If the Marxists fail to win the central layers of the class then they will eventually be driven back and reaction will triumph. By lumping together steel and armament workers and counterpoising them to education workers and migrant workers Mary dismisses the whole issue of the social structure of the class.  It is of course the case that Leninists want to represent all workers and that it is very frequently the case that the most oppressed strike first, but that does for a moment take away from the fact that different layers of the class have different strengths and roles.

It seems to me that Mary takes a moralistic attitude.  Many US industrial workers may have taken reactionary positions on women’s issues and civil rights.  That doesn’t for a moment take away from the fact that socialists must struggle to win them to the cause.  It doesn’t take away from the fact that in the US their wage rates and job numbers have been in decline for decades and that weakening of the industrial workers has also meant a weakening of the class as a whole. 

Capitalist strategy is also seen in moralistic terms, in that treatment of migrant workers and outsourcing of jobs are seen as conspiratorial attempts to divide workers.  Of course capitalists want to divide workers, but the main motive is economic.  Migrant workers are cheaper. Outsourced work is cheaper.  Socialists shouldn’t be telling workers that this isn’t the case and that this issue is a moral one requiring them to embrace their brothers and sisters.  What they have to say is that the only defence for workers is unity.  It is only by all workers standing together that wage rates can be defended.  It is only through international solidarity that we can turn the weapon of outsourcing against the capitalists. 

Mary extends this moralism to the vanguard.  Vanguard workers may be the most determined and heroic, but what makes them a vanguard is their understanding of the need to mobilise the class as a whole. The history of our own struggle in Ireland is a good example.  The Provo supporters all saw that the national question and the British occupation as central issues.  On this issue they were well in advance of the majority of Irish workers.  However they never saw the mobilisation of the whole of the working class as their task – in fact, many did not see the issue in class terms at all, seeing themselves as members of an oppressed nation or an oppressed religious minority.  This lack of understanding fuelled their collapse and the transformation of the movement into a current that supports capitalist and imperialist rule.  While we never made the mistake of seeing the republicans as anything more than a revolutionary nationalist movement, we focused far too much on the idea that there would be any spontaneous transformation from militancy to Marxism.

The lesson of the ’68 movements seems to be that they failed – failed to such an extent that most of the organisations that grew out of those struggles have decayed and abandoned revolutionary politics.  Only in certain areas of the world and only briefly did they contend for leadership of the organised working class.  Social democracy and Stalinism held on, and their final collapse has a lot to do with the current fragmentation of the class.  The situation was much worse in the US, with the capitalists retaining leadership of the working class.

There is a strong dose of moralism in relation to Mary’s view of the rest of the left. Capitalism is ready to collapse.  The workers are ready to overthrow it. The only fly in the ointment is the betrayal of the socialist movement.  Our view is that capitalism is clearly in crisis but is far from willing to rollover and die. It has struck hammer blows at the workers and plans to strike many more.  The workers are in retreat and the left, a minority not deeply implanted in the class, are swept along in the retreat also.

The current credit crunch illustrates much of this.  The global system of capitalist production teeters on the edge of absolute collapse. The capitalist states step in to save it, guaranteeing that the workers will pay for a generation for the faults of the system.  There is little in the way of a working-class response. Workers anger is mainly expressed by transferring support from one capitalist politician to another. The existing political and trade union structures support the government and the socialists in the main launch unity offensives aimed at the trade union bureaucracy who are selling out the workers, while at the same time seeking to win positions as electoral  representatives - tribunes of discontent rather than tribunes of socialism.. 

In the background of the dispute between myself and Mary there appears to be some disagreement about the definition of the vanguard party.  Once we look at Lenin’s understanding of the vanguard as a layer of the most advanced workers then we can understand the Leninist view of the vanguard party – simply the party that the vanguard joins and supports and an indication that the Marxists have taken a giant stride forward in the battle for position. This doesn’t give the party any magical powers, and is sharply in contradiction of the Stalinist and sectarian view of the vanguard party as a party with unique knowledge and access to the working class programme. 

It follows automatically that in the absence of a clearly defined working class vanguard what we have today are tiny groups trying to preserve elements of the Leninist program and method.  In our view this makes sectarian the idea that every programmatic disagreement requires its own party.  One of the massive failures of US socialism, and specifically of the Socialist Workers Party, was its failure to have a real democratic centralist structures, its tendency to force out minorities and the fragmentation of the left that ensued and is still with us.

I believe that events today can best be explained from Trotsky’s perspective of the era of the death agony of capitalism. Unfortunately Marxism indicates that the crises of capital are internal to itself. The working class does not have to be on the ascendant in order for capitalism to tear itself apart. Unfortunately the converse of this is that there is no requirement that the decay of capitalism should lead to socialism. That does require the self-activity of the workers.

 There is an overwhelming need today to build new working class movements.  These can arise spontaneously from new struggles or by workers breaking from existing movements. Socialists cannot will those new movements into existence or sink into despair if the do not appear when we expect them.  Our task above all should be to analyse and explain the current structures of global capitalism and to refine, broadcast and popularise the socialist alternative.  Any form of socialist unity would be a big step forward for our forces.  Any form of democratic dialogue that involved sizable elements of the socialist movement would be progress. 

We find ourselves small and isolated, not because we see ourselves as purist keepers of the flame but because the main socialist currents are moving sharply to the right. When they propose unity they do not seek to unite around socialism but around a blurred left populism.  The last thing they want is to discuss their right turn, so democracy and debate is the last thing these movements want. 

Conversely any open exchange between Marxists must be welcome, but it must be based on a common reality.  It may be our assessment of the class struggle is overly pessimistic – it is certainly incomplete.  If Mary is to challenge that view with visions of a new vanguard and a new forward movement of the class we need lots of evidence, firmly grounded on what we see around us. 


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