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Sean Matgamna, The Left in Disarray, Workers’ Liberty, London 2017

Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

12 August 2017

STALIN: There is no revolutionary movement in the West, nothing existing, only a potential and we cannot count on a potential.
LENIN:  Of course a mass movement does not exist in the West but the revolution has not yet started there. If we were to change our tactics on the strength of that, however, then we would be betraying international socialism.
Discussion on the Brest Litovsk negotiations (1918), quoted in Leon Trotsky, Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, Wellred Books, London, 2016.

The discussion quoted is relevant to any critique of the book reviewed although it does not figure in it. Any dialectical analysis of a situation has to take into consideration all potentialities as far as possible. A pragmatist will tend to draw on a narrower store of facts, often reacting only to the immediate one. It is easy to do so. In the Great War of which the centenary is being commemorated, the majority of socialists of the Entente looked solely at their rulers’ cats-paws, certain small countries; the majority in the Central Alliance looked at the threat from Tsarist Russia. Only a small minority analysed the situation properly to recognise the struggle as the murderous con job it was.

Of course, the World War ideological battle lines were affected by the national identities (and according nationalism) of those on each side. Nonetheless when the pressures influencing choices are less obvious the readiness to base one’s line on isolated cases remains too frequently a factor in developing perspectives and strategy. In the debate quoted above, though most pragmatists would have deplored Stalin, many would have considered him the victor. After all, there had been no revolution to the west and he had started to build a society that could be described as socialist, however much of a caricature of the real thing. This has not been so easy since the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, though no doubt a number are able to fantasise around the excuse presented by the Communist Parties that the failure was caused by treachery on the part of Stalin’s successors, either Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Gorbachev. Such apologetics avoid looking at the pressures from outside the Soviet Union, its position vis-vis international capitalism, or the nature of its society judged by the yardstick set by the original theoreticians of Communism.

The problems facing the workers’ struggle for power do not arise from such people, of whom there is one born every minute. They arise from the the fact that circumstance encourages pragmatic methods of analysis among leading members of  the workers’ own movement, and that these leaders and their movement tend too readily to succumb to these pressures. Matgamna would claim that this is the product of Stalinism, but it goes back farther to the contradictions in the First and Second International between aims and practice. Before 1914, the Social Democratic Parties preached internationalism but their work involved necessary concentration on aims within state borders. In the twenties, with revolution retreating in the imperial metropoles, Stalin succumbed to the same pressure. The Fourth International, being based on the denial of the possibility of  a socialist society in a single country, and without any mass support found itself dividing over the means to bridge the gap and, more seriously, found the ideologues of the different lines defending those lines as dogma. Partial analysis is covered all too often by  a mass of detail to justify conclusions reached before hand. Marx’ guiding directive, ‘question everything’, is ignored and those disagreeing with a position  take stances based on different  but equally partial analyses. Indeed. the left is in disarray.

Accordingly, the title of this book is welcome. So, too, is the fact that its author is Sean Matgamna. He has a long history of questioning everything, a useful fact in itself, even if his answers are often wrong. Certainly, it is necessary to agree with him when he states:

‘Where different languages have clearly defined meanings for words, translation and dialogue is possible. Where language has rotted and been corrupted by misuse or deliberate misrepresentation to such an extent that many or most of the key words have lost precise meaning, understanding is impeded and communication is often impossible. So too is useful polemic.’ (PP..8-9)

At the same time, it is necessary, too, to mentions that his his use of words does not avoid such corruption. For example he criticises correctly enough those heirs of Trotsky that he alleges identify socialism with nationalised industry alone, but he himself seems to believe that as where the workers’ control enterprises, a workers’ state (in one country!) is not just socialistic but might be a form of ‘actually achieved socialism’. Certainly, it would be closer to the ideal, but, as his ‘orthodox Trotskyist opponents know (as long as they remain Trotskyist), the capitalist state borders of any single country would prevent that country achieving it.

More significant is his analysis of imperialism. Following Lenin, Marxists recognise two varieties;. There is the millenia-old concept of tribal-national hegemony over other ethnic groups:

‘Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and praised imperialism.’ - Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 22, Moscow 1977,  P. 260.

Then there is Lenin’s own twentieth century version of what is essentially  financial capitalist dominance:

‘Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance;  in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the divide of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed .’ - ibid, PP.266-267.

Matgamna dismisses both phenomena as obsolete. For him, the transformation of the colonial world into the semi-colonial world has destroyed the reality of its oppression. It can be admitted that Lenin’s expectation of total direct colonisation has been reversed, but there was more to his concept than that. In any case, for Matgamna, the domination of metropolitan capital is not imperialism it is merely (a rather wordy euphemism) ‘subjugation to the rules of the market’ (P.216). He does not ask: who sets (or, more accurately, fixes) the rules and their applications? In any case, his understandable hostility to Stalinism leads him to a apply a double standard. He considers the former  soviet satellites, with their own politically independent camouflage, as imperialist colonies in the old style. Perhaps to maintain his illusion he says almost nothing about Latin America, apart from Mexico (the area’s only country in his index), Argentina and (one mention each) Cuba and Bolivia, and nothing at all about sub-Saharan Africa, all areas where imperialist super-exploitation is alive and well. On Vietnam, he contradicts himself. On page 156, he admits ‘the Orthodox Trotskyists were right to oppose the the Americans in Indo-China and to support self-determination for the peoples there.’ On page 157, he criticises ‘Orthodox Trotskyist’ support for the Vietnamese as ‘the same approach as in Korea’ in which his  ‘HeterodoxTrotskyist’ predecessors had refused to support the North. In fact, his attempt to bend the stick against what he sees as adaptation to semi-colonial backwardness cause him  to ignore imperialist collusion therein, but, rather, to accept its own claim to be keeping the world safe for economic development.  We are back with something like Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’.

But what is his overall analysis of world history, and, in particular, World Trotskyism in the period since the Second World War? He begins with the undeniable facts that the Soviet Union was not crushed in the struggle by Fascism, by democratic capitalism nor, as had been hoped, by a genuine  wave of working class revolutions. Basing themselves on a quotation by Trotsky at the beginning of the war, his Orthodox and Heterodox disciples agree that this showed that the USSR was  a stronger and  more stable society than he had  understood it to be. They disagreed on how they should act accordingly. The Orthodox accepted the strengths of soviet society, its nationalised industry and its readiness to support anti-colonial wars, albeit selectively, whilst ignoring its oppositions to and suppression of genuine working class  insurrections. The Heterodox recognised the continuing and, at times increasing brutality of the Stalinist states, their failure, indeed their opposition to advance socialism beyond the nationalised  economy and saw their regimes as a meaner form of capitalism, to be opposed equally to (for some more than) the openly capitalist countries.  The assumptions of the Orthodox have led the left to take uncritical stances in support of any regime that opposes the interests of capitalism, no matter how regressive and anti-socialist such a regime may be. In fact, socialism [which Matgamna seems to identify, Stalin-fashion, with the workers’ state} can be achieved only in the developed world, and revolutions in the semi-colonial world an only achieve capitalist states, often worse than those overthrown, as the workers’ movements are not strong enough. Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution is a chimera.

There are, naturally, alternative scenarios to this. Before examining them in detail, it is worth examining two assumptions in the above. Firstly,  there is Permanent Revolution. It has two aspects. Implicit in Lenin’s reply to Stalin, there is the process : the potential of the working class taking state power anywhere in the world, given a revolutionary situation. In most semi-colonies,  the largest groups are in the intermediate layers, most notably peasantry,  between workers and  employer capitalists. these can be mobilised by working class parties, the more effectively because the capitalists are usually reluctant revolutionaries, anyway. However, there is the second (and more important) aspect of Permanent Revolution. To get an healthy workers’ state, it is necessary for the workers themselves to rise. The proportion of their class in the population might be a problem, but is less of one than Matgamna seems to imply; that of the proletariat of Tsarist Russia was only about 12%. Even with relatively small working class participation,  a form of, albeit deformed workers’ state can be built based on its nationalised industries. Matgamna makes some penetrating criticisms of autarchy in Soviet Russia and Ireland; he ignores the fact that the different class nature of the states, represented in their different property forms enabled the soviet economy to last nearly three times longer than than that of protected capitalist Ireland. It is true, too, that if there has to be a political revolution to establish genuine working class state power, the existing nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange can only aid the workers’ management of them. What can be seen to be impossible is the attempt to impose any kind of workers state on the bayonets of a foreign country. That was tried after 1945 in eastern Europe, the result being the political mess there today.

The second point is a question of historical authority. Nearly fifty years ago, this writer attended a debate between two Marxists. One, a state capitalist, referred to Trotsky’s remark in 1939:

‘If contrary to all probabilities the October Revolution fails during the course of the present war, or immediately thereafter, to find its continuation in nay of the advanced countries; and if, on the contrary, the proletariat is thrown back everywhere and on all fronts - then we  should doubtless have to pose the question of revising our conception of the present epoch and its driving forces.’ - Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London 1966, PP. 17-18.

He used this to justify his movement’s alteration of Trotsky’s original analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union. However, his ‘Orthodox’ opponent accepted the quotation but drew precisely opposite conclusions from it. The state capitalist argued that the results of the war had shown the SU to be a new class society; the ’Orthodox Trotskyist’ declared that it showed that the said state was somewhat healthier than Trotsky had considered it. It was not for some decades that this writer realised that there was a third possibility, namely that Trotsky’s deduction was  not set in stone, but a judgement made at a certain time when it looked as if the USSR would be fighting  in isolation, as, in September 1939,  its nearest thing to an ally was its sworn enemy, Nazi Germany. Interestingly, in his last year of life he never raised the matter again. It is arguable that his September judgement should be regarded in the same manner as his 1932 prophecy that a Nazi Germany would be unable to oppose France. Certainly, in 1939, it was not clear that the USSR would save itself as an ally of the two strongest capitalist powers and as beneficiary of the idiocies of the Nazis principled racism. Perhaps, had he lived to see it, he would have changed his analysis to that of his  adversaries on the issue. It is at least equally probable that he would have considered that the circumstances did not necessitate any such change.

The writer does not know of anyone on any side of the class line who would have agreed. The well-earned prestige earned by the people of the Soviet Union was translated into general admiration for the power of that state under its  bureaucrats. The question was how to adapt to it, whether by Cold War as capital wanted, or by varying degrees of support veering on neutrality.. The Soviet Union itself seemed to go from strength to strength. There were setbacks (Berlin 1953, Hungary 1956, Poland, up to a point, 1956, Czechoslovakia, 1968) but these appeared as minor details compared to the fact that Stalinised Communism could, and did claim to have brought ‘actual socialism’ to eastern Europe, North Korea, north Vietnam and, above all China and that it was the first state to send a man into space.

Yet, as is now clear, it was a wooden  rail painted to look like steel. While the nationalised economic forces allowed an efficient and expanding production, those who had usurped control of these forces had their primary aim to maintain that control, even at the expense of their qualitative development.  By 1969, the USA  had overtaken the USSR in the race for the moon. The west kept ahead in the development of computerisation. The Soviet Union had to borrow increasingly to keep up its military commitments, as well as its plans for universal welfare, now its ideological justification. The collapse of the Berlin Wall could not be answered in the old, repressive way; it became the catalyst for the eastern bloc’s collapse. The only resistance from sections of the bureaucracy was centred on Great Russian opposition to the self-determination of nations within the Soviet Union. It hastened the inevitable.

Matgamna counterposes to the brutalities and inefficiencies of the  deformed and degenerated workers’ states the prosperity and democracy of the capitalist world. Certainly, America did not show to its more developed allies  the brutality shown by the rather tarnished Red Army in eastern Europe (what the US did to its satellites in Latin America was quite another matter.). North Atlantic capitalism could, and did sell itself as a benevolent force, well able to afford a modicum of civil liberty, welfare states and an high level of military preparedness.  The bases for this superiority were ignored. Firstly, the economies of these states had been developed long before those of the workers’ states. Their further advantages included varying degrees of super-exploitation of subject peoples, the fact that the great depression had allowed capitalism to increase the exploitation of the people of its own countries and the fact that these had not suffered anything like the degree of destruction of productive forces waged by the Axis on Russia. In addition, the illusions of the power of the USSR (seen as ’socialist’ by capitalists as well as by the Stalinite bureaucracy)  put a certain amount of manners on post-war capitalism; it had to show that it could match the social benefits claimed by the SU and its allies.  As for the political liberation of the colonies, the colonisers could take the risk as an economy move,  recognising that the politically independent units would tend to be as subservient to them as they proved.

Despite these advantages, the system had, and has its own problems. Matgamna suggests that anti-imperialists regard imperialism as absolutely unable to expand. Perhaps some do; certainly, others don’t.  What is true is that, as Lenin stated, imperialism has ‘a tendency to stagnation and decay.’ (Lenin, Ibid, P.276). Twentieth century economic growth  has not developed the world’s national economies  as extensively as that of the nineteenth. Today, the only heavyweight economic power added to those of a century ago is China, in which imperialist forces are relatively controlled. Even by the end of the seventies the fact that capitalism could not continue as it had since 1945 was becoming clear. The Thatcher-Reagan counter-offensive began, and, though meeting with resistance, it gained credibility with the soviet bureaucracy’s last gift to its western sparring partners, the implosion of the USSR. Even so, the continuing weakness of imperialism was shown in the aftermath of that implosion when George Bush senior refused to prepare a Marshal Plan to aid the capitalist rival in eastern Europe, although it would have cost less than the original Marshal Aid. For a quarter century capitalist triumphalism and its economic ideology, neoliberalism has dominated  the world. It has led to slump,  a proliferation of zero hour contracts, TTIP, crises in healthcare and housing and war. In some areas, its failures to improve living standards has  produced support for a neoconservatism blaming these failures on the ‘cultural’ (often = racial) laxity of the liberals. The left is slower in getting its act together, but it has to do so.

Matgamna’s  ideas of how the left should reform itself are expressed in most detail in two case histories.  One is the Middle East, with particular emphasis on Palestine, a collection of studies that takes up approximately one tenth of the book. The other is Ireland. Though both are examined in detail and contain some telling points, particularly the first,  neither  convince the writer.

On Israel, the argument is that the holocaust (or Shoa) has legitimised Zionism. The Jews have a right to their own state separate from the Arab world, in which, anyway, the main opponents of Israel are,  at best socially regressive nationalists and, at worst,  extreme sectarian Islamists. Accordingly, to call for Israel’s replacement by a single secular state of Palestine is utopian; for socialists, the democratic demand is for two Palestinian states, Israel and Arab Palestine.

The argument excludes some interesting points. The first is the question of whether Jewry is a nation. Admittedly, the idea that it is was supported by Trotsky; on his passport, he declared his nationality to be Jewish. Whether this was more than a gesture of solidarity with the oppressed religious community of his ancestors is unclear. Today, it is certainly true that two thirds of the world’s Jews live outside Israel.  Nonetheless, this does not mean that the exodus of the last century has not given squatters rights to a new Israeli nation. This needs further consideration.

A further factor is that it is not clear that Israel can survive except as the largest pensionary of the USA. This is more than the normal dependency of a semi-colony: it is, essentially, a middle east garrison for its metropolis.

Where the precise possibility of two states falters is in the nature of Israel itself. Matgamna attacks the Arabs’ law of return, that promises that the Palestinians will be restored to their homeland. He ignores the Jewish equivalent that guarantees Israeli citizenship to any Jew that wants it. This is not just hyperbole.  Recently, a prominent Irish Zionist published an article declaring that not all the west bank territories could be returned to Arab sovereignty, because more land would be needed to settle Jewish refugees from centres of unrest. Given the fact that Israel accommodates at most a third of the world’s Jews, there would seem to be a real  probability that, not only will it renounce its offer of ‘land for peace’ or two Palestinian nations (it is doing so already, in practice), but that it will seek increasingly to follow a policy of ‘war for land’. Even if  it does not, it is as unlikely as any Palestinian to support the two state solution.

Matgamna, is quite correctly scathing about the cases he describes (the writer does not know how accurately) where the left subordinated itself publicly to the sectarian claims of its islamic allies.  He implies illogically that this is a result of its anti-imperialism, which he links, too, to the demand for a single secular Palestinian state. Such a state he suggests can only be a form of soft genocide of Jews. Yet, if secularism means anything at all, it must mean a subordination of Sharia, as much as Talmudic law to the decrees of the secular state. Certainly, this won’t make such a demand any easier to implement, but, on balance, it would seem easier and, most essentially, more democratic to do so than the two state solution.

One further point, not directly connected to Israel. Matgamna denounces the  silencing of Subhi al Mashadani the Iraqi trade union leader  for his acceptance of the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Once again, he sees two choices; either support the workers’ freedom to organise  that was a collateral result of the occupation, or support the islamists and Baathists who oppose the imperialists. Surely, Mashadani should be urged to organise workers militias, with the aim, however longterm of taking state power for their class? That power was in the gutter.  The workers’ movement should have made a bid for it. However, Matgamna ignores this possibility; for him, Iraq is not developed enough.

While the writer is  handicapped somewhat by ignorance on the middle east, He is not so constrained when it comes to criticising Matgamna on Ireland.  To begin  there is the matter of a misstatement of fact.  Matgamna declares that, though he has denied the possibility of Permanent Revolution in Ireland, no one has tried to assert it (P.254). In fact, he must be well aware that  the writer has done so in several polemics with him and that his erstwhile Irish comrades of the League for a Workers’ Republic did so as well; indeed, this seemed to be one of the reasons they broke with him. Besides this, there is no surprise that these sections of the book contain a litter of inaccuracies such as cause the writer to doubt Matgamna’s accuracy on other matters. He exaggerates the effectiveness of the Irish land reforms before 1914 (P.264; admittedly, this may have been helped by a slightly skewed reading of Lenin). He declares Irish Trotskyism to be parasitic upon republicanism (PP.170-171), something that cannot be said remotely of the two biggest Irish pretenders to Trotsky’s inheritance, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party. He manages to misrepresent the Stalinites; they did not call for dissolving Northern Ireland to replace it with provincial status under Dublin or direct rule from Westminster (P.60); what the Communist Parties wanted was to  maintain the Stormont parliament, but  limit its inevitable unionist majority by a constitutional Bill of Rights passed by the superior assembly at Westminster, a proposal that might have had some limited merit had it not been delayed until after August 1969. Above all, he accepts the loyalist evaluation of the UWC strike as a genuine working class initiative, despite all the evidence that it was organised by non-working class bodies  outside the trade union movement, under the aegis of a scab industrial body and with the collusion of the capitalist state forces. This error was helped, no doubt by its perpetrator’s denial that any workers’ revolution could arise out of the Irish struggle for national self-determination. It resulted in Matgamna’s  acceptance of the idea of two Irish states.

A major problem with this nostrum is the same as with his Palestinian proposal. His analysis of the nature of the Northern Irish Protestant community is purely descriptive and,  (PP.184-185) in its account of its origins,  contradicts his assertion of its right to self-determination. He shows that its wish to run its territory arise not from a desire to run its own affairs but from a desire to manage the affairs of those it sees as its inferiors. That he cannot give it a name  suiting its nature is natural; the present writer considers that the nearest one would be ‘Cossacks’, a community of military planters. This is reflected in  the inability of the workers within it to evolve a class consciousness that is more than trade union. Instead, they seek salvation from some of the most regressive politicians in these islands. In consciousness, they are a stunted community.

Nor would they be likely to grow if their area of self-determination was reduced to a territory conforming more to their majority position, perhaps bounded by the River Ban and the Mourne Mountains. Necessarily, this would  include Belfast where the religious-political divide is almost equal. The new province would be as unstable as the old.

The answer remains what Matgamna denies. The fact that the struggle for Irish self-determination has to be seen, and waged accordingly, as an all-Ireland fight does not mean that it must be a ‘war of conquest’ by ‘the Catholics of all Ireland’ (P.191). The process of Permanent Revolution could be seen working at times when the struggle was at its most intense, in 1969, 1972 and during the 1981 hunger strike. On  those occasions, what was a bourgeois nationalist military struggle appealing to all  nationalists and limited to the six county province became a group of working class struggles in the work places of the republic. On the one hand, the Labour-union bureaucracy and on the other, the Republicans, whose identification of revolution with their armed struggle forced them to maintain its partitionist nature suppressed the possibility. Yet it had appeared and must be recorded and shown to be the way forward for the Irish revolution.

It must be said that not only does the objective potential exist for world socialist revolution, but so do many of the subjective conditions. What is lacking is the organised will to take advantage thereof. The Fourth International is jettisoning the programme of Marxism in a desperate chase for broad fronts. The other international bodies of the tradition follow different forms of philistinism and defend them dogmatically. Matgamna offers an alternative which is, if anything, worse. In his world perspective, the larger part of the planet is to avoid any revolutionary action as being premature before the working peoples of the imperialist states are ready to rise. He does not consider the possibility that revolution in the semi-colonial world could be a catalyst for that  in the imperial metropoles, both as an inspiration to the exploited and a weakening of the exploiters. He does not seem to consider  that though, by itself,  a nationally limited revolution in such a country cannot  achieve socialism and may only make a small dent in world capitalist hegemony, it can improve the lives of the working people in the states concerned. (With all Matgamna’s horror of what he perceives as Stalinism, does he really think the Cubans lived better under the Batista-Mafia regime than under its conqueror, Castro?) Nor does he consider the all too real possibility that the pressures leading to revolution in the semi-colonial world have to be harnessed to Marxist ends lest they be diverted into culturalist reaction; the last four decades in the middle east are witness to this.

A new international Bolshevik Leninist Party is needed. It will be built by activists, but by activists who are prepared to argue out their positions honestly. There will be opportunities in which the permanent revolutionary process will take material form and provide opportunities for its practitioners to recruit. Much of the time they will do so by individual contact.  How much time there is to do this is uncertain, but the clock is ticking.

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