Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive, Part 1: The KGB in Europe and the West, Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, London, 1999, pp996, £25
THE prolific Professor Andrew provided the defector Gordievsky with extensive opportunities to relieve himself of his burden of secret knowledge and anti-Soviet speculation. In this much-reviewed work, he assists at the same holy office for another KGB defector who was smuggled out of Russia together with a huge volume of stolen KGB documents.
Andrew claims a leading position among historians of intelligence services, and asserts that the special viewpoint of the ‘intelligence historian’ provides unique panoramas over the twentieth century. The enormous scope of Mitrokhin’s theft (compared with Gordievsky’s operational material) presents Andrew with the challenge of meeting his claim.
What, then, do we learn of major consequence from the first volume of Mitrokhin/Andrew’s revelations and ponderings? Why, of course, that all the machinery of secret and overt oppression operated by Stalin and his successors was the direct and personal invention of Lenin, and that the Western secret services ought to have been supported by more determined capitalist governments. The Soviet state underwent no qualitative change between October 1917 and the Yeltsin coup. And regardless of its class nature, all the efforts of the Soviet state to defend itself against virulent monarchists, rabid restorationists, and the protracted subversive charivari from Savinkov to Solzhenitsyn appear reprehensible to the educated eye in the senior common room. The unique panorama is in fact no more than the battered picture postcard peddled over several decades by Pincher, West, Deacon, the Readers Digest and lesser spawn of the same brood.
For Socialists, the question raised by Mitrokhin’s revelations about the volume of technical espionage carried out by the Soviet Union and the other East European states is this: did the ability of the Stalinist regime to survive as long as it did depend more on espionage than upon the claimed benefits of a centralised, planned, nationalised economy (‘the gains of October’ as Trotskyists defined them)? Those who adhered to the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ theory (which by the 1980s at least should have been restated as ‘the workers’ state which has been degenerating for a very long time, but which is not yet totally degenerate’) often pointed to the Soviet Union’s growth in technical ability (Sputnik, Lunokhod, etc) as evidence that some residue of a higher form of production had survived the Stalin counter-revolution. Andrew is perhaps right to claim that he opens up a new perspective, but he resolutely turns his dinner-jacketed back upon it.
Fortunately, Andrew gets his conclusions out of the way by the end of Chapter Two, and devotes the bulk of his 750 pages to retelling stories of Soviet espionage and counter-espionage, illuminated by Mitrokhin’s stolen notes and extracts. This work has taken seven years (since Mitrokhin’s ‘exfiltration’) to compile, and no doubt much of the time was occupied in confirming that nothing was revealed that might be of use to today’s secret services if left concealed. (The effectiveness with which this cleansing was carried out can be judged from the response to the enormous volume of press quotations and reviews of the book. The world’s press, having expended hundreds of column inches to extracts and summaries of Mitrokhin/Andrew, has not uncovered a single additional spy.)
If Andrew’s conclusions are predictably disappointing, at least some of Mitrokhin’s materials are of interest. The published selections can, at this stage, only be regarded as the creation of a joint committee of Western intelligence services, but they indicate the scope and detail of the documents held in the KGB archive.
For readers of this journal, interest is likely to focus on three areas dealt with by Mitrokhin/Andrew: the Bolshevik period, Stalin’s campaign against Trotsky, and the Reiss affair. What does Mitrokhin’s material reveal here?
It is not surprising that Mitrokhin’s material on the Bolshevik period is thin. His access to files seems to have been when they were returned to the archive after use, and the earliest files were referenced far less often than operational cases. Most of the chapter ‘From Lenin’s Cheka to Stalin’s OGPU’ is based on sources that will already be quite well known — Pipes and Volkogonov are liberally mixed in amongst legitimate historians, and Andrew quotes his own previous work with Gordievsky effusively. New material is scarce. Mitrokhin had the opportunity to read the records of Kanegisser’s interrogation following his assassination of Uritsky, but only concludes that ‘the conflicts in the evidence have not been resolved’. The notes refer to the publication of the record of the interrogation of Kaplan (sourcing it not to the original, but to Pipes’ discussion of it), but it is not claimed that Mitrokhin ever verified the published account against the Cheka archive.
Sadly lacking here is any attempt to develop a portrait of Dzerzhinsky, and Ivanov’s 1994 work is not included in the bibliography. Similarly missing is Sergo Beria’s biography of his father. If an attempted history of the KGB can find space to refer to biographies of Henry Kissinger, Gary Kasparov, Tito, Hoover and numerous others peripheral to the matter in hand, in 23 pages of bibliography (58 pence worth out of the £25 price), then biographies of the KGB’s best-known bosses would merit at least a dismissive Cambridge accented acknowledgement. Andrew claims, without any supporting citation, that Dzerzhinsky ‘derived his intelligence tradecraft... from the Okhrana’. He puts forward the Malinovsky affair as a key example of the Bolsheviks learning from the Okhrana. Andrew neither cites nor includes in his bibliography Elwood’s study of Malinovsky. If he did, he might be forced to acknowledge that Dzerzhinsky had no part in the Bolsheviks’ response to Malinovsky’s provocation. It was Burtsev who led the Bolsheviks’ work against penetration and provocation, and more than once succeeded in running agents of his own inside the Okhrana. If Andrew wishes to build a case against the Bolsheviks that they sought to learn from their enemies, he might also refer to Serge’s What Everyone Should Know About State Repression, a simple practical guide to the enemy’s methods and how to resist them (and a glimpse of Serge at his most Bolshevik).
But exactly what are the Bolsheviks accused of here? Are the methods of gathering intelligence to be subjected to the same vacuous debate that Trotsky demolished in his ‘Is There a Proletarian Military Doctrine?’? Would Andrew and Mitrokhin regard the Bolsheviks as worthy and honourable enemies if they had never read Macchiavelli, or if they had declined to act against the enemies of the revolution who were attacking from every side until they had formulated a new and pure proletarian statecraft, blind to all questions of pressure and secret force, blackmail and bribery, whilst fighting against exactly those methods, presumably by waving red flags and manifestos?
And here again, Andrew and Mitrokhin don’t understand that they so nearly raised an important political question. Again they turn their backs on the panorama to which they have been selling tickets, like Mervyn Peake’s vendor of tickets to view the sunset. There are real questions to be asked about how an isolated workers’ state can conduct itself without undermining its own principles — just as there are about its diplomacy and its foreign policy, its economics (which is exactly why a study of Dzerzhinsky would be valuable). The resources and methods of a state are inevitably different from those of a party, even an international party. Hence the richness of Lenin’s thinking on the invasion of Poland and relations with Germany, and on the revolutionary potential of Asia. Hence also the poverty of Trotsky’s approach to foreign policy by the issuing of a few declarations. The question became clearer in relation to the Stalinist regime, but still merits study for the Bolshevik period; how are we to draw the right balance between politically unleashing the revolutionary potential of the workers in capitalist countries, and using the power of the workers’ state or states against those capitalist countries.
Andrew refers to Lenin’s instruction that certain confidential inner-party speeches be not recorded, and again cites Pipes, where mention is made of the speeches about the invasion of Poland. The correct credit here is to the editor of Revolutionary History, in whose work the first English translation of the speeches were contained.
Mitrokhin claims to have seen the Okhrana file on Djugashvili (Stalin), and that it was empty, presumably stripped on Stalin’s instructions. However, his material fails to add to the report documented by Radzinsky that the Baku Bolsheviks suspected Djugashvili of being both a provocateur and an embezzler of revolutionary funds.
Andrew gives two paragraphs to Riutin, again adding nothing to our knowledge of the man and his supporters. It is possible to accept that Andrew’s researchers failed to read Serebriakova’s article on Riutin in New Interventions, but not that they were unaware of the German original. Furthermore, it is not acceptable that no reference is made to Rogovin’s extensive research into the Riutin group and its platform. (Andrew is at least not going to fall into the pit that Pipes dug for himself in saying he had ‘never heard of’ Rogovin, in spite of citing him as a primary source.)
If there was a single advance in intelligence methods developed by the Cheka and its successors, it was the use of the grand deception to lure enemies in exile, and thus undermine their organisations. Mitrokhin and Andrew are at pains to avoid celebrating these achievements in the breaking of the Whites, but Mitrokhin’s stolen papers cannot avoid adding some details to our knowledge of them, particularly in the undermining and eventual destruction of Savinkov.
The sensitive reader will have detected a certain dissatisfaction on the part of the reviewer with Andrew and Mitrokhin’s account of the Bolshevik secret services. It is especially difficult to believe that Mitrokhin encountered nothing on the revolutionaries who detected problems with the direction taken by the state under Lenin’s leadership. Did the Cheka’s vigilance not extend to the Left Communists, the Workers Opposition, to Emma Goldman and Maximoff (again not cited), to the flocks of foreign supporters of the revolution who came to set up home in Red Russia, or to the Anarchists and Mensheviks? This is not only hardly credible, but is known not to be the case. How many Cambridge lacunae make a panorama?
Turning to the account of the persecution and assassination of Trotsky, the conclusion is similar — there are some snippets of new material, but little to change the big picture. The shape of Andrew’s account comes not from Mitrokhin’s stolen documents, but from published sources, mainly Levine and Sudoplatov. The assassination has been extensively researched for both historical and tendentious reasons, but Andrew does not show any familiarity with the material generated by the Healyite investigations (with the exception of a reference to Vereeken’s book in his bibliography). Moreover, he neglects to mention that the FBI file on the Trotsky case was recently opened to the public, and provides background to the concerns of that august agency about Stalinist agents in the USA. It should be stated here categorically that nothing revealed by the Mitrokhin material, at least as revealed in this volume, supports the accusations made by the Healyites against Hansen and Novack. Neither does it afford any clue as to the identity of the agent with whom Hansen was in contact.
There are occasional lapses from professional standards in this section. Sylvia Ageloff, for example, appears as ‘Angeloff’. This could be blamed on the publishers’ staff. But more seriously, in describing KGB surveillance of Trotsky at Alma-Ata, Andrew claims (citing Volkogonov) that Trotsky repeatedly described Stalin and his associates as ‘degenerates’ in correspondence. This reviewer took the trouble to check the third volume of The Challenge of the Left Opposition — the largest English language collection of documents by Trotsky of the Alma-Ata period. In that volume, Trotsky is careful not to use personal derogatory terms against Stalin, or even against Ustryalov.
It may be that Volkogonov, or more likely one of his research students, has seen and misunderstood some of Trotsky’s discussion of the degeneration of the state. It is just conceivable that the OGPU’s summaries of Trotsky’s correspondence were doctored for a receptive audience, and Volkogonov’s researchers accepted OGPU statements unchecked. Whatever the root of Andrew’s error, his failure to cite supporting evidence casts doubt on his scholarship, and reputation is everything for a scholar researching and exposing secret materials.
Whilst Andrew’s presentation may be unsatisfactory, Mitrokhin’s materials do present some new information. That Trotsky was subject to surveillance at Alma-Ata is not surprising (p78), but it helps to complete the picture to have it confirmed. And it may be that documents survive in the KGB archive as a result of that surveillance that are not available for study elsewhere. Mitrokhin saw documents relating to Blumkin’s arrest and killing, but these add very little to our knowledge in themselves. (Andrew’s familiarity with the recent official and semi-official histories of Russian intelligence does, however, point to a number of sources of which this reviewer had not been aware.)
There are also some reports on operations against the Left Opposition. Mitrokhin read an OGPU report on a demonstration by arrested Left Oppositionists in the Butyrka, which became a riot. He also describes how Opposition militants would be frequently summoned to police or security offices and kept waiting for hours before being sent back to work. Back in the workplace, these inexplicable absences would often lead to the suspicion that the militant was an informer, undermining his or her position more effectively than interrogation would have done.
There is a short account of the actions against Sedov, but no evidence to prove that his death was due to murder by the Stalinists. There is a bald statement to the effect that Rudolf Klement was abducted and murdered by the NKVD, but no references or further evidence are provided. Irwin Wolf is not mentioned, nor is Walter Held.
Most of the description of the preparation for the assassination of Trotsky comes not from new documents, but from Levine and Sudoplatov. Some background is filled in, for example, Eitingon’s murderous record in Spain against anti-Stalinists is referred to. Mitrokhin does not claim to have seen original operational case files on the assassination of Trotsky, but builds up a picture from the biographies of some of the participants.
The most interesting new information in connection with the assassination of Trotsky concerns the NKVD agent and adventurer Grigulevich, whose part in the plot has not previously been documented (although his code name Felipe was known to the Mexican police). In Spain, Grigulevich had been a leading Stalinist murderer of Trotskyists, as well as a trainer of stay-behind saboteurs. His major rôle in the plans for the assassination of Trotsky himself was to lead Siqueiros’ attack team, damping their enthusiasm and organising escape routes. He recruited and equipped the machine gunner in the team, Siqueiros having omitted to provide one.
Robert Sheldon Harte had apparently not been briefed on what would happen after he opened the doors to the Siqueiros/Grigulevich team. Andrew quotes Primakov to the effect that Harte responded angrily to the conduct of the assassins after he let them in, as a result of which he was taken away and shot, as a precautionary measure. Andrew gives a useful thumbnail biography of Academician Primakov, from which readers can decide for themselves if they take his account as good coin. Appointed head of the SVR (the foreign intelligence agency that succeeded to the KGB’s rôle in 1991), he had been a leading advisor to Gorbachev, and both Foreign Minister and Prime Minister under Yeltsin. Mitrokhin had seen his new boss’ file, and knew him to be the energetic KGB spy codenamed Maksim.
Following the failure of Siqueiros’ attack, Grigulevich made his way to Argentina, where from 1942 onwards he organised the sabotage of cargo ships bound for Germany. Possibly the most remarkable of his achievements was to be appointed adviser to the Costa Rican delegation to the UN, and subsequently as envoy to Rome. So deep was his cover that the speeches he drafted for the Costa Rican delegation were attacked by Vyshinsky himself for the Soviet delegation.
At the time of Stalin’s death, Grigulevich was planning an assassination attempt against Tito — a plan that was hurriedly shelved. He was suddenly and permanently recalled to Moscow in 1953, to avoid being exposed in the Orlov articles in Life magazine, but even this abrupt disappearance of a diplomat and his wife did not blow the gaffe. Grigulevich subsequently took up an academic career, and several of his books are listed in Andrew’s capacious bibliography.
The rest of Andrew’s account of Trotsky’s assassination does not add greatly to our knowledge. There is one moment of unintended humour (or perhaps it reveals the hand of an alienated researcher at Cambridge, or a sub-editor with Penguin. Having described Mercader’s seduction of ‘Angeloff’, Andrew goes on to inform us that ‘Mercader’s rôle at this stage was still that of a penetration agent’.
The assassination of Ignace Reiss is dealt with in less than a paragraph, and the references are all to previously known materials. It sheds no new light on the matter.
In conclusion, Andrew and Mitrokhin have a great deal of interesting material in their hands, and future works based on it will no doubt prove of value to readers of this journal. But such works are unlikely to be allowed to appear in the near future.
Paul Flewers, ‘I Know How, But I Don’t Know Why’: George Orwell’s Conception of Totalitarianism, New Interventions, Coventry, 1999, pp35, £2.00
IN only 35 pages, Paul Flewers nevertheless manages to provide an interesting, well-written discussion of George Orwell’s thinking with regard to Socialism and totalitarianism. His contribution to the debate regarding Orwell’s political development is most welcome, and deserves a wide readership. Did Orwell end up as an enemy of Socialism, as both right-wing commentators and the Communists and their fellow travellers have long argued? Had he moved to a left-reformist Tribune stance? How influential were revolutionary ideas on his thinking? This debate is likely to continue to be of interest to people on the left for as long as Orwell remains a popular writer. Flewers’ robust assessment of Orwell’s development, chronicling both his strengths and his weaknesses, is a valuable intervention, thoughtful and provocative, reclaiming the man for our side.
Rather than rehearse Flewers’ arguments, let me focus on one of the areas where, I suspect, he and I would be most likely to disagree.
Orwells’ trajectory from the revolutionary Socialism of the late 1930s to the left reformism of the late 1940s is not seriously in dispute, although there is considerable room for argument over the details. His increasing hostility to Stalinism has to be placed in this context, moving from his criticism of a cynical deal to divide up the world concluded between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers (Animal Farm) through to the more full-blooded assault on totalitarianism (Nineteen Eighty-Four). Instead of the postwar years being a period of working-class revolt, heralding the rise of an independent Socialist movement throughout Europe, the Communists were able to capture control of the most advanced sections of the working class. For Orwell, this involved not only the disappointment of his hopes for Socialism, but the danger of Stalinist rule extending throughout Eastern Europe and into Western Europe. He viewed such a development with horror. My own view is that whilst Animal Farm warned of a wartime rapprochement between the rulers of the Soviet Union and of the West, by Nineteen Eighty-Four he was engaged in a literary assault on Stalinism. This assault drew on the bureaucratic collectivist critique of the Soviet Union, on a Trotskyist heresy, and was intended as a contribution to the debate on the left. He hoped to break the left from ‘the Soviet myth’. Instead, the book was taken up by the right as a weapon in the Cold War, and Orwell’s premature death at the age of 46 prevented him from doing anything about it.
Flewers identifies ‘the structure’ of the novel, the fact that it looks like ‘an anti-Socialist work’, as making this confiscation possible. My own understanding is somewhat different. First of all, we have to recognise that as far as Orwell was concerned (quite correctly), the Soviet Union had nothing whatsoever to do with Socialism. Nineteen Eighty-Four gives expression to this belief. For much of the British left, however, this was anathema. Here we are not only talking about the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers. The orthodox Trotskyist view of the Soviet Union and its satellites as some kind of workers’ states (degenerate, deformed or whatever) was also an obstacle to understanding the real relation of Russian Communism to Socialism. It was the full-blooded and uncompromising nature of Orwell’s assault on Stalinism that led to the left handing the book over to the Cold Warriors. Isaac Deutscher’s attitude is a good example of this.
Having said this, Orwell’s embrace of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism also involved problems. If the Soviet Union was worse than Western capitalism, then there was a danger of ending up embracing Western capitalism as the lesser evil. Max Shachtman’s political trajectory demonstrates this danger. At the time of his death, Orwell was himself beginning to wrestle with the problems that this raised. The issue had by no means been decided despite sensationalist discussion of his relation with the Information Research Department. There were indications that his anti-Stalinism was clouding his political judgement, but there were also equally important indications to the contrary. This was the situation when he died. We just don’t know how his politics would have developed had he survived another decade. The view one takes seems to depend on how sympathetic one is to the man.
John Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics, MacMillan, Basingstoke, 1999, pp178, £42.50
LENIN once complained that revolutionaries often suffer the posthumous fate of being turned into harmless icons by their political foes, their names hallowed in order to fool the lower orders, and their ideas blunted and vulgarised. George Orwell has suffered particularly badly in this respect. In the half-century since his death, conservatives have purloined and distorted his legacy in order to put him in the front line of their anti-Communist crusade, whilst faculty-loads of academics have pored over his every word, producing a veritable deluge of books and weighty articles of varying quality, and all too often losing the real Orwell in the process. Moreover, how many people shared my experience of studying Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four at school without ever being told that the author was in fact a radical Socialist?
John Newsinger’s book is most welcome. It brings to the reader a sharp and concise portrayal of Orwell’s politics as they were, cutting through both the dishonesty of the conservatives and the opaqueness of much of the academic discourse on him, as well as aiming some timely blows at the Stalinists, who have hated Orwell ever since he dismissed them in The Road to Wigan Pier as ‘half-gangster, half-gramophone’, and condemned ‘the stupid cult of Russia’.
Orwell’s Politics brings out all the key facets of his political odyssey, including the essential features of his concept of Socialism, his opposition to colonialism, his attitude towards intellectuals, his revolutionary defencist stance during the Second World War, and, of course, his strong opposition to Stalinism. There is a useful section on the ‘Searchlight’ series of books of 1941-42 with which Orwell was involved, and to which he contributed The Lion and the Unicorn. Newsinger makes the important point that Orwell was a sort of barometer of radicalism, reflecting the trends on the left. Hence, he moved leftwards in the 1930s, started to backtrack during the Second World War, and slipped into a rather pessimistic retreat by the late 1940s.
A couple of minor points apart, there is only one topic, albeit a major one, where I would take issue with Orwell’s Politics. The biggest task facing anyone analysing Orwell is explaining how his last two novels were effectively commandeered by the forces of conservatism, and I feel that this book falters a little on this point.
The main problem with Animal Farm is that it does not explain how the pigs became a ruling élite. They just did, with the implication that this was an automatic process. I can’t agree with Newsinger when he says that Animal Farm ‘offered little comfort to the conservative right’ (p116), because the whole feel of the book is that a revolution will merely lead to the emergence of a new ruling élite, and a new form of exploiting society. Indeed, Newsinger cites Orwell’s reply to Dwight Macdonald that assured him that he did not think that revolutions were doomed to fail, but surely the very fact that Orwell had to say this shows that Animal Farm had not been clear on this issue.
As for Nineteen Eighty-Four, the frightful totalitarian system is already there, ruled by a ruling élite comprised of intellectuals, managerial and technical personnel and former upwardly-mobile working-class elements. There is nothing to explain why the British revolution became a super-Stalinist dystopia, why the revolutionary leadership became a ruling élite, and why the proles allowed them to do so. The implication is that this is the ineluctable course of revolutions. It is hard to see, as Newsinger does, the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four as embodying the possibility of an optimistic future, as they are clearly unable to do anything about their condition. Newsinger rightly shows that Orwell’s latter-day journalism was less pessimistic than Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that Orwell protested about the way his novel was being used by his political enemies, and no doubt would have complained all the more had he lived. But the damage had been done. For every reader of his journalism, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who have only read his last two novels. And if having one book misinterpreted is an accident, having a second treated likewise looks like carelessness...
With the half-century commemorations of Orwell’s death upon us and his centenary rapidly approaching, and with the urgent need to counter all the usual distortions and clichés about him, John Newsinger has done the man’s memory a splendid turn by presenting him as he really was. Let us hope that a sensibly-priced paperback edition will be published.
Susan Weissman (ed), The Ideas of Victor Serge: A Life as a Work of Art, Critique Books, Glasgow, 1997, pp258
AS several contributors to this volume point out, the relevance of Victor Serge has not ceased with the collapse of bureaucratic state Socialism and the prevailing free market orthodoxy of the Western world in the 1990s. His unique political itinerary and almost equally unique status as a survivor of Stalinist repression in the 1930s produce a voice which offers a way through the events from 1917 to 1947. Both committed to the Bolshevik tradition and profoundly questioning of it, Serge cannot be conveniently consigned to the dustbin of history by political orthodoxies of either left or right, because his clear-sightedness echoes down the years to reconnect us with the century’s formative struggles.
In this respect, the most valuable element of this volume is the translation of Serge’s final assessment of those events, ‘Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution’, written in 1947, a few months before his death in Mexico. In this piece, he steadfastly refuses to link Leninism and Stalinism via any kind of historical fatalism. Emphasising the physical elimination of the original Bolsheviks who might otherwise be there to contradict ‘a shabby logic’ which, ‘pointing to the grim spectacle of Stalinist Russia, proclaims the bankruptcy of Bolshevism, therefore of Marxism, therefore of Socialism’ (p239), he insists on the Bolsheviks’ credentials in 1917 as a responsive mass party rather than a conspiratorial clique, and as the only alternative to a right-wing military dictatorship. The decay of the new regime was a product of external events (in particular the Polish aggression of 1920 led by Pilsudski, and the failure of the revolution in Germany) and of internal errors (the excessive power of the Cheka, and the violent suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, disagreement over which marks the relationship between Serge and Trotsky in the 1930s). Nevertheless: ‘Neither the authoritarianism nor the intolerance of the Bolsheviks (and of most of their opponents) allow us to question their Socialist mentality, or the gains of the first 10 years of the Revolution.’ (p255) As for Stalinism as the successor of Leninism, Serge pithily remarks, ‘one does not carry on a movement by massacring it’ (p254).
In an excellent discussion of the nature of Serge’s commitment to the Bolsheviks, Philip Spencer points out, crucially, that Serge was drawn to Leninism in 1917 from a libertarian position, and took it at its word. Indeed, Spencer’s oxymoronic formulation, ‘libertarian Leninism’, is used to describe the specificity of Lenin’s thought in that year (for example, in State and Revolution), the internal democracy of the Bolshevik party, and the way in which Serge could admonish his former Anarchist comrades as he emphasised the combination of the maximisation of political debate and of effective unity in action. It was the party that later shifted, not Serge. The opposition to Stalinism would later be characterised either by a defence of doctrinal orthodoxy which retained authoritarian tendencies, or by the invocation of the democratic ideals expressed at the beginning of the revolution. Serge obviously chose the latter. As Alan Wald points out in his useful discussion of Serge’s writings published in the USA in the 1940s, Serge was absorbed by this need for ‘a Leninist explanation of the deterioration of Leninism into Stalinism’ (p116), even and especially as in the period immediately after 1945 he saw Stalinism as the principal enemy.
Spencer’s article is located in section three of this collection, on Serge’s ‘political ideas and praxis’. Some pieces in the volume are republications and restatements of previous pioneering work on Serge, such as that undertaken by Richard Greeman on the novels, and by the late Peter Sedgwick on Socialism. One section is devoted to testimonials: John Eden’s piece traces the detective work that has gone on in recent years to unearth Serge’s writings confiscated at the Soviet border in 1936; Wilebaldo Solano, formerly of the POUM, reminds us of Serge’s commitment to Spanish workers’ struggles. The most extraordinary piece here is quite unpolitical, the memoir by Serge’s daughter Jeannine (born 1935) of her life with her father in Mexican exile.
Another section, on Serge’s literary works, includes valuable rapprochements with Russian and Soviet literature by Neal Cornwell, and an extended discussion by Ian Birchall of Serge’s attitudes towards the Proletkult. The relevance to contemporary challenges to the literary canon by women and ethnic groups is noted; moreover, Birchall points out that this was a mass movement, one which again raises interesting distinctions between Serge and Trotsky, this time on culture. Like Trotsky, Serge was eloquent about the tradition of bourgeois culture: ‘The proletariat must grasp that the endless process of becoming is made of past, present and future.’ (p96) However, Serge had more time for the Proletkult than Trotsky, who awaited a future, truly human culture. Birchall here develops an interesting distinction between ‘culture’ (corresponding to an era of class society, or to the future Communist society), and ‘cultural practice’ (corresponding to the Proletkult’s activities before it was appropriated by Stalinism).
This volume joins a series of publications and activities in the 1990s (including, of course, the Autumn 1994 issue of Revolutionary History) which, following the centenary events of 1990-91, have helped to ensure and encourage the presence of Serge in current debates. It is to be greatly welcomed. It is a pity, therefore, that the quality of the contributions is marred by bad and inconsistent proof-reading (including misspellings of ‘Sedgwick’), and by uneven referencing. Philip Spencer’s piece, for example, contains numerous interesting quotations from Serge, but no footnotes are provided.
Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, Edited by the International Bolshevik Tendency with a new introduction and a selection of materials, London and Toronto, 1998, pp218, £5
THE latest edition of this by no means rare text appears to have the same motive as most of the others, of appropriating the legacy of Trotsky’s Fourth International for the benefit of the tendency putting it out. And whilst it does indeed contain some very interesting material on the history of American Trotskyism, it cannot be said to have established its claim, any more than the others have.
We have all by now become accustomed to groups created from splits from previous ones claiming that somehow, by some mysterious osmosis, the parent group had been thoroughly healthy until just before the split, and had embodied the purity of revolutionary traditions in order to hand them on unsullied to its offspring. In this version we have a peculiarly American theory of revolutionary continuity that is almost as hollow as the messianic claims of American imperialism itself. Right at the start we are told that ‘the SWP was the most substantial section of the fledgling Fourth International in terms of size, political capacity, and mass influence’ (p1), a statement patently untrue in every one of its clauses. Its size, a thousand in a nation of 200 million, was infinitesimal; its influence in its own country was nothing like that previously wielded by the Belgian section, by the Ceylonese and Vietnamese sections during the same period, or by the Bolivian section in the near future. As for its political capacity, the less said about that the better, for it seems to have been limited to the period of Trotsky’s lifetime. It denied that the Second World War had ended in 1945, confidently predicted The Coming American Revolution a year later, and was going on about Fascism only four years after that, apart from the rôle it played in foisting both Healy and Pablo onto the world movement. Its influence within the Fourth International after 1940, for obvious reasons, was due more to its substantial material means (cf the disgraceful situation described in the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no 56, July 1995, pp49-51) than to any understanding of Marxism it may ever have possessed. The further claims made for its Spartacist offshoot in the 1970s as ‘then-revolutionary’ and ‘principled’, representing ‘the living continuity of Trotsky’s Fourth International’ (p vi) must be taken with even more of a pinch of salt, unless you are ready to believe that revolutionary politics means doing as little in the labour movement as possible, whilst touring round the meetings of others in order to make slanderous or poisonous accusations.
This said, the supplementary material in sections two, three and four (pp75-199) does represent a very useful collection of information on the varying fortunes of the American groups in the trade unions over the last 60 years, even if it is influenced by the Spartacists’ morbid fear that adding your forces to anybody else’s runs the risk of actually accomplishing something. Much of the detail here well repays consideration, and in particular the interview with the Bolshevik Tendency’s own supporter, Howard Keylor, who emerges as a militant of some stature (pp190-8).
But far from demonstrating the continuity of transitional politics, by dealing exclusively with trade union and unemployed work to the utter neglect of all wider programmatic considerations, this supplementary material shows just how poverty stricken the American legacy really is. The introductory essays by the Spartacist League culminate in the assumption that since ‘an exclusive policy of blocs’ with others in the labour movement tends to undermine party-building, it is necessary instead to call for ‘the building of caucuses based on the revolutionary transitional program’ (p125). In a nutshell, it means that revolutionaries can only work with others in the labour movement if these others accept our full programme. A more stupid one-sided counterposition, which converts the programme from a bridge to the masses into a barrier against them, can hardly be imagined. It is, of course, flatly contradicted by the Transitional Programme, which both calls for ‘advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries’ (not, notice, revolutionaries alone) as well as creating ‘independent militant organisations’.
In any case, the united front itself is only ever understood here in terms of temporary alliances. We look in vain for any discussion of that ‘extremely important weapon’, the strategic political slogan of the Fourth International, ‘the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: “Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!”’, by which Trotsky summarises the whole of the experience of the Bolshevik revolution for revolutionaries today. Even the central demand for an American labour party advanced by him (and by Marx before him) became perverted by the Spartacists into the slogan of ‘For a Labor Party — Dump the Bureaucrats!’, showing just how alien to them is the entire transitional methodology of placing demands upon the reformist leaders of the labour movement. They even try to justify the opposition of the American Trotskyists in the early 1930s to this call for a labour party on the grounds that ‘the utterly reactionary character of the Gompersite labor bureaucracy could allow the organizing of mass industrial unions directly under the leadership of the revolutionary party’, which ‘would have effectively bypassed the need for the transitional demand of a labor party’ (pp108-9).
Let us not forget that Trotsky’s programme, which ranges over the nature of the epoch, the character of revolutionary leadership, transitional methodology, the expropriation of the expropriators, the workers’ government, the proletarian military policy, the worker-peasant alliance, and the application of the programme in the various sectors of the world of the time, is a full programme in the true Marxist tradition. For good or ill, it can only be validly discussed in its full range in the light of the experience of the world working class since 1938 and of the Trotskyist movement internationally, and not at all by means of the menu served up here, so restricted in its geographical scope and so meagre in its subject matter.
Morgan Philips Price, Dispatches from the Weimar Republic, Edited by Tania Rose, Pluto Press, London, 1998, pp240, £20.00
John Reed, Shaking the World: John Reed’s Revolutionary Journalism, Edited and Introduced by John Newsinger, with a Preface by Paul Foot, Bookmarks, London, 1999, pp287, £11.95
THE fact that journalists appear to have as little integrity as the politicians they fawn upon does not necessarily mean that journalism is a contemptible occupation, as these two compilations make clear. And revolutionary journalism is an impressive literary form in its own right, and is not at all the same as historical writing or theoretical analysis.
However, readers who enjoyed the previous collection of Philips Price’s reports from the Russian Revolution (cf Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no 1, 1998, pp232-3) are in for a disappointment with this one. For a start, it should really be called Tania Rose’s history of the Weimar Republic, for out of 240 pages, only 81 of them are by her father. Even the selection made is extraordinary, for amongst Price’s extremely rare reports of Hitler’s early rise, she entirely omits the most valuable of them, that published in The Daily Herald in August 1923 and quoted at length in Price’s My Three Revolutions (p200). And her account of the Beer Hall Putsch (pp171-4) is not even by Price at all, but by Sir William Seeds, a career diplomat who was then British Consul General in Bavaria. And whilst some of us might not see much difference in veracity or function between Palme Dutt’s Labour Monthly and Foreign Office archives, you would have thought that someone who worked in the Ministry of Information in the Second World War might well think otherwise.
Nor does it appear that an apprenticeship in wartime propaganda has equipped the editor with the necessary historical rigour, as George Orwell might have put it. The fate of Germany was not determined by the Versailles Treaty ‘in 1918’ (p1). Lenin’s Left Wing Communism does not consist of ‘theses’, nor is it normally subtitled in English An Infantile Sickness, nor was it published in May 1920 (p80). The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain was certainly not ‘Fascist’ (p209, n13). The criminal responsibility of German Stalinism for sabotaging the struggle against Hitler, in the ‘Red Referendum’, the Berlin Tramway Strike and other atrocious actions, boils down to a bit more than an innocuous remark about Nazis and Communists being ‘unlikely parties in operating a blocking majority in the Reichstag’ (p184). And if Price himself was unaware of the sinister secret Russo-German arms deal that formed part of the Treaty of Rapallo (pp122-3), as were so many others at the time, it was surely the responsibility of any modern editor to point this out.
Moreover, the excerpts, such as they are, are curiously terse and episodic. Price’s verdict on Radek’s dubious behaviour in prison is noted (p199), but his disgust with the Schlageter propaganda, and his conclusion that Radek was ‘quite unreliable and an arch-intriguer’ are nowhere to be seen. This is because the development of Price’s analysis of the period is completely neglected. It began by being the same as that of Radek and the German Communists, but then diverged quite markedly as he witnessed the events. To begin with, as he notes in his My Three Revolutions, ‘I thought that Germany was in a “Kerensky” period of the revolution, that is, a transition stage to something more radical, that just as in Russia, so now in Germany the transition stage would pass and a second social and economic revolution would take place, as the October Revolution had come in Russia.’ (p163) But by 1921 he had come to the same conclusions as Paul Levi, and believed that ‘the attempt of the Moscow Communists to stimulate revolution in Germany by their tactics of sporadic revolts was a complete fiasco’ (p193). Not surprisingly, Price distanced himself from the Communists shortly afterwards, and then came out in public in defence of Trotsky against Stalin.
So what we have here is a disjointed and curiously incoherent book, which it would be quite unjust to blame upon the honest and talented writer whose name appears on the title page. Pluto Press would have done far better to have reissued his Germany in Transition published at the time, hopefully edited by someone else.
By stark contrast, our second book is a wholly praiseworthy production. Reed’s immediate and vivid forms of expression were bound to grip the imagination more than Price’s writing, and his Ten Days that Shook the World will have already prejudiced many of us in his favour. Some of his pen portraits, of ordinary workers as well as of such luminaries as Big Bill Haywood (pp5-6), Karl Liebknecht (pp105-6) and Trotsky (pp118-20) are real gems. But Price more than compensates for this by his graceful prose, his cool appraisal and his sense of balance. The real reason this is a better book is simply because Reed is allowed to speak for himself in complete pieces, however short, and is not chopped up into small gobbets to be fitted into someone else’s analysis.
At the same time, where the Price book is compactly organised around one theme, this compilation is more diffuse, taking in American labour disputes, the Mexican Revolution, the First World War and the Russian Revolution. This makes it less easy to digest, even if the longer period covered allows us to chart the impact of Russian Marxism on previously existing Socialist thought. The early essays show that, as opposed to the situation in some of the non-English-speaking emigrant communities, Marxism had barely made an impact on native American radicalism at all before 1917. Reed’s sympathies lie definitely with the Industrial Workers of the World at home and populist revolt abroad, and not at all with Marxist political action, which he invariably identifies with reformism, even to the extent of opposing the call for an American labour party (p184). For all his sympathy for working people, Reed’s support for Woodrow Wilson as late as 1916 shows that the differentiation between liberalism and Socialism was proceeding slower on the American continent than elsewhere. At the same time, whilst the earlier reports are full of vigorous and direct popular expressions, much more jargon (‘proletarian republic’, ‘bourgeois counter-revolution’, etc) begins to creep in after 1917, along with more rhetorical exaggeration.
But the book crackles with interest from start to finish, and nothing but congratulation is in order for John Newsinger’s selection and editorial work. And it is no less fitting that it should be introduced by one of the few journalists not to disgrace the profession today.
John H Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 1997, pp446
Susan Pollock, Ancient Mesopotamia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp271, £10.95
A FAMILIAR name stares out at us from the title page of our first book, and he is indeed the grandson of Karl Kautsky, to whose memory the book is dedicated. He also aims to follow his grandfather’s thinking ‘quite closely’ on ‘the origins and early development of what he refers to as the state and classes and of “oriental despotism”’ (p xxvii). He even claims that Marx’s theory of the Asiatic mode ‘in some ways, comes close to my aristocratic empires’ (p27; cf p8). However, a closer look shows that this is far from the case.
For whereas Kautsky the elder had no doubt that oriental despotism had existed as an identifiable state type, that it differed markedly from slave society or feudalism, or that it was the earliest state form to develop, originally in a river valley setting (The Materialist Conception of History, pp278, 331, 451, etc), our author, considering that Perry Anderson ‘argues cogently... against a ubiquitous “Asiatism”’, goes on to collapse the Asiatic mode, feudalism and even some slave societies into the same general category of ‘traditional aristocratic empires’ (p18, n18). These, apparently, include Egypt only up to the New Kingdom, China only as far as the Qin Dynasty, the Goths, Achaemenid Persia (misspelled throughout), the Ptolemies, the Caliphate, the Moguls and the Tutsi (pp15, 31, 42, 63), but not, apparently, ancient, Hellenistic and Byzantine Greece, the Roman empire, and the Islamic empire, which are excluded on account of ‘commercialization, an early form of modernization’ (p xiii). ‘My definitions serve to identify the empires I am concerned with and thus, indeed, to decide which pieces of historical evidence are relevant to my analysis’ (p xvi), he points out, and proceeds ‘to develop generalisations about aristocratic empires that will help us understand their politics’ (p14).
Our confidence in his definition does not increase when we notice that some state forms appear in both his lists, when he liberally helps himself to many examples taken from the states he has defined as ‘commercialized’, or when he describes such city state civilisations as ancient Sumeria or Phoenicia as ‘empires’ (pp36, 64). And his attempt to use Margaret Wason’s long outmoded book against Anderson’s correct assertion that land is the basis of wealth in classical Greece and Rome (pp38-9 and n21) can only be regarded as a curiosity. As an attempt at a purely academic approach to an overall view of ancient society, then, the book cuts a sorry picture at the side of Bruce Trigger’s Early Civilisations.
It is no more imposing from the standpoint of Marxism. The argument that peasant revolts do not take place in these states, and can only occur due to ‘commercialization’ or outside influences is obviously a circular one (pp278-92), leading the author to the conclusion that class conflict as such does not exist there (pp73-5), while taking a hefty swipe at The Communist Manifesto on his way past (p74). Not surprisingly, he has grave doubts about the applicability of Marxism at all:
‘I do not believe there is an easy answer to what constitutes Marxism in the second half of the twentieth century. I do not know, therefore, whether a book that explicitly fails to distinguish between Marx’s ancient slave and feudal historical phases... that denies that there was class conflict between aristocrats and peasants; and that deliberately avoids using the concept of the state could qualify as Marxist. I do not know, and really I do not care.’ (p xviii)
On the other hand, the writer of our second book, an Associate Professor of Anthropology in New York with fieldwork experience in the region’s archaeology, makes a very stimulating investigation of the fascinating problem of the link between economic exploitation and the origins of city state civilisation in the ancient Near East. Her references to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy and Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (pp23-4), along with a claim to ‘perspectives based upon political economy and feminism’ (p22), raise hopes that a real interdisciplinary breakthrough has been achieved. Indeed, she adds that ‘many anthropologists who express an interest in political economy are following the tradition established by Marx’ (p23), and even refers to The German Ideology, claiming to use the word ideology itself ‘in a Marxist sense’ (p170).
And a great deal of interest to Marxists does indeed emerge from this combination of field investigation and iconographic study. There are excellent discussions on the shift from the tributary system (pp112-3, etc) to oikos production (pp117ff), the consequent rise in urban population in the early third millennium BC (p117), the increasing specialisation of labour (pp102, 123) and the use of ideology in integrating the social hierarchy into the hierarchy of nature (p191). Her contention that textile production, the second largest economic sector (after agriculture) rested upon the exploitation of female labour is very solidly grounded (pp103, 104, 109, 110, 116, 123), and seems to confirm the Marxist teaching that the first form of exploitation creating a disposable surplus was that of one sex by the other.
At the same time, this promise is not sustained by the rest of the discussion. Her ‘feminist anthropology’, whilst claiming to rely on Engels, is larded with academic gobbledegook (pp24-5), and other than the aforementioned books, she seems blissfully unaware of any other Marxist classics bearing on the subject, whether the Grundrisse, the Ethnographical Notebooks, the Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, or the work of Morgan, upon which Engels relied so heavily. She appears to be acquainted with Weber (p118) and Wittfogel (p31), and refers to Gramsci, if only at second hand (p170), but that is about all. However dated, Gordon Childe’s pioneering work is reduced to a reference to one minor article, and What Happened in History and New Light on the Most Ancient East do not even figure in the bibliography. This is all the more surprising, since on the other hand she is well acquainted with the work of Bruce Trigger (pp246-7), the writer of Childe’s biography.
It is even more surprising that on several occasions her analysis approaches that of Engels quite closely, but she seems to be unaware of it. You would not have believed it possible to avoid a reference to his discussion of clan landholding when noting that ‘early dynastic texts record several sellers for each transaction, many of whom seem to have been kin, suggesting that landholdings belonged to families and could be sold only with the authorization of the corporate kin group’ (p122), and yet our author somehow manages it. Commenting on early statuary from Erech, she notes that ‘repeated depiction of a bearded individual with long hair, distinctive style of head-dress, and skirt engaging in a variety of activities suggestive of authority is among the indications that the public exercise of power may have been — or was at least represented as — male-dominated’ (pp5-6). Surely at this point anyone who had at all read Engels would also have given some space to the theory of Thorkild Jacobsen and others that representative institutions preceded the rise of Sumerian city state kingship, particularly in Erech.
So whilst there can be no doubt of this book’s value, the reader is left with the feeling that a deeper acquaintance with the Marxist classics could have taken the analysis further, as opposed to a relying on the New Left brand of Marxism so often encountered in academe. This comes out in such remarks as ‘a feminist approach considers gender and other socioculturally constructed categories of difference — including class, race and ethnicity — to be central elements in social life’ (p218), as well as such theoretical constructs as ‘a third gender category with which we are unfamiliar’ (p102; cf p213). With the absence of any concept of class (which the writer studiously avoids by referring throughout to ‘the common people’), none of this would have made any sense to Marx at all, and it is even more anachronistic when applied to five millennia before him. And of course we have to make an invocation of Saint Gramsci, even if her knowledge of him seems to be limited to an article entitled ‘Race and Ethnicity’ contributed by Stuart Hall to the Journal of Communication Inquiry (pp170, 235).
So whilst our first author is offloading his Marxist baggage, our second is busily taking it on board, and neither is aware that the cargo is contraband — the New Left. So we are again led to the sad conclusion that those who would combine Marx and the bourgeois university generally end up with the worst of both worlds.
Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice, Pluto Press, London, 1999, pp150
Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class, Bookmarks, London, 1999, pp287, £9.95
BEFORE addressing myself more specifically to Renton’s and Gluckstein’s books, it is absolutely essential to stress why any serious Marxist work on the historiography of Nazism and Fascism, whatever its particular emphases or deficiencies, has to be warmly welcomed in the current climate. Whilst some activist comrades may believe that developments within the universities are not a major concern, and that my interest in them merely reflects my own employment in such an institution, I would argue that more general shifts in the intellectual and cultural climate of society as a whole are eventually triggered by what may seem to be parochial arguments amongst professional historians.
The last decade has seen a virtual abandonment of Marxist approaches to the historiography of Fascism and Nazism amongst Anglophone academics. What was a widespread and influential, if not necessarily dominant, school in the late 1960s, the 1970s and, albeit to a lesser in extent, the 1980s, is now generally regarded as beyond the pale, or a relic of a bygone age. This staggering intellectual shift is clearly part of a more general trend within Anglophone historiography bearing on the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, Chartism and other matters, which began in the mid-1980s and thus preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe (even if they accelerated it), and was first described and dissected by Ellen Meiksins Wood in The Reterat From Class (London, 1986), an eloquent, razor-sharp and in retrospect strikingly prophetic polemic against Gareth Steadman Jones and the whole crew of renegades who were just beginning to turn their backs on the Marxist or semi-Marxist positions that they held in their radical youth.
The academic historian who made the largest single contribution to developing and popularising Marxist analyses of Nazism and Fascism in the Anglophone world was Tim Mason, to whom both Gluckstein and Renton make some reference, even if they criticise him for watering down Marxism by insisting on the primacy of politics in Germany after 1936. Indeed, I am probably not wide of the mark in thinking that Gluckstein’s title deliberately echoes that of the posthumous collection of Mason’s essays, Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class (Cambridge, 1995). Whilst Mason’s suicide in 1990 was in all probability a response to personal rather than political despair, it nonetheless coincided with German reunification and the end of the Cold War, and many bourgeois historians who had once to some degree or another been under his influence seized the chance to proclaim their apostasy, or in tortuous intellectual self-justifications proclaimed the outmoded nature of his approach. Richard Bessel, one of his former research students, deftly exploited the stage offered to him by a conference in memory of Mason’s work (‘Fascism in Comparative Perspective’, held in March 1993 at St Peter’s College, Oxford, where Mason had taught during 1971-84) in order to commit a sort of symbolic patricide, and in effect pour withering scorn on Mason’s lifework, through the time-worn academic strategy of damning Mason with faint praise as a worthy pioneer who had made a significant contribution in his time, but had subsequently been overtaken by more sophisticated and nuanced researchers. As the most unreconstructed Marxist at the conference and the most unrepentant contributor to the book that eventually emerged out of it (Richard Bessel (ed), Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: Comparisons and Contrasts, Cambridge, 1996), I found it a somewhat bizarre experience to be effectively placed in the position of defending the legacy of a man whom I had only met on a couple of occasions against many of his erstwhile friends, pupils or collaborators, and resisting editorial pressure for conformity with a post-Marxist/postmodernist line of an intensity more usually associated with dogmatic sects than allegedly liberal academics.
Without wanting to labour what may be a self-evident point for many well-informed readers of Revolutionary History, it seems to be reasonable to draw attention for the benefit of the uninitiated to the fact that Gluckstein and Renton have more in common than a shared Marxism and a shared interest in the study of Fascism. Both are members of the Socialist Workers Party, with Gluckstein being the son of its founder (reverting to his original family name). Can we therefore unearth a distinctive SWP position on the historiography of Fascism and Nazism that goes beyond the universal Marxist emphasis on the rôle of class in history, or the traditional Trotskyist emphasis on the necessity for a united front between revolutionaries and reformists in the workers’ movement against the Fascist threat? Both books make some rather obvious propagandist points linking the present and the past, stressing the continuing Fascist threat at moments of capitalist crisis, and emphasising the continued relevance of the united front in a way that either explicitly (in the case of Renton), or implicitly (in the case of Gluckstein), privileges the experience of the Anti-Nazi League. Whilst one could get embroiled in a discussion of whether the ANL was (or is) really a classic united front, as the SWP would maintain, or something which oscillated between one and a Popular Front, this is really tangential in terms of the primary concerns of both writers (Renton has researched the history of the ANL in another context), so here one might conclude, firstly, that such explicit tactical recommendations about the present would be unlikely to be made by non-party Marxist academics of the Mason type, and secondly, that such references, especially in the opening or concluding pages of a long text, are de rigeur for any loyal SWP member, and therefore should not be accorded any particular weight when assessing either Gluckstein or Renton as historians.
However, it is arguable that on two historical points — the post-1936 Nazi economy and the Holocaust — Gluckstein and Renton take up broadly similar positions to which not all Marxists would subscribe, and might in some sense be said to be rooted in the politics of the SWP. Whilst their common criticism of Mason for his arguments about ‘the primacy of politics’ in post-1936 Germany would be shared by many non-SWP Marxists, it is rather significant that instead of arguing that the economies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy formed a particular variant of capitalism, one that was more autarchic and regulated than, say, Britain or France at that time, but was unquestionably capitalist, and one that suited the German and Italian capitalist classes (or their dominant heavy industrial sectors), their argument is based on a universal tendency towards state capitalism. Gluckstein argues: ‘It is interesting to note that even after 1936 the features that marked Nazism out were overshadowed by those it shared with other capitalist regimes between the wars. All showed a trend towards state capitalism, even if Stalin’s Russia is left out of the picture.’ (p159) Renton, hardly coincidentally, makes a very similar case: ‘Clearly, there was some connection, for example, between the nature of the Fascist economy and the fact that in every country in Europe the 1930s was a period which saw growing intervention by the state in the economy. This insight was the starting point of Ignazio Silone’s idea that the growth of Fascism was but part of a broader process by which capitalism was transforming itself into state capitalism.’ (p89)
When it comes to the Holocaust, it becomes a little harder to nail down precisely how an excessively rationalist and economistic explanation of the genocide fits into the SWP’s politics, and here Renton’s account is more nuanced than Gluckstein’s, but I nonetheless think that there is a connection.
Cliff’s position, which, in recent decades at any rate, has been that of a militantly anti-Zionist — as distinct from merely non-Zionist — Jew, has got his party into various knots on a whole series of issues relating to the Jews and anti-Semitism, and not just on the politics of the Middle East. (I’m not making a sectarian anti-SWP tirade, Ernest Mandel’s position was similar to the SWP’s, and Gerry Healy degenerated into anti-Semitism, whilst Ted Grant and Sean Matgamna consider that Zionism is not necessarily worse than other forms of bourgeois nationalism. It is difficult to construct an orthodox standpoint from Trotsky’s writings, as his later anti-Zionism was not accompanied by any dogmatic demand for assimilation.)
Whilst the SWP has been entirely correct to polemicise against the absurd and totally ahistorical contention of Daniel Goldhagen that the Holocaust was the product of a universal and timeless ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’ amongst the Germans, it has often been too ready to adopt Norman Finkelstein’s critique in its entirety. To do Renton justice, however, he says that ‘there are parts of this explanation which seem questionable’, and suggests that Finkelstein ‘pays too little attention to acts of anti-Nazi opposition’, and he cites Bernard Herzberg’s criticism of Finkelstein’s insistence ‘that there was nothing new about the Holocaust’ (pp98-9). The fundamental problem with Finkelstein is that whilst he is a well-informed and intelligent writer with a wide historical knowledge, and is capable of demolishing a crass populist propagandist like Goldhagen, as a Jew primarily concerned with the recent history of the Middle East rather than the history of Nazism, his anti-Zionism can become obsessive and slightly unbalanced, and tends to bring out what I would see as the worst side of the Jewish figures amongst the SWP leadership, whose fierce anti-Zionism is normally kept in check by their attention to a much wider range of political and historical questions, precisely because they have submerged their original Jewish identity in a self-consciously universalist Marxist project, rather than in the professional anti-Zionism of a pro-Palestinian campaigner like Finkelstein.
Although both Renton and Gluckstein are ultimately constrained by an economistic interpretation of the Holocaust rooted in the politics of Cliff himself, there are differences between them. Renton is more willing to engage with the whole range of recent Marxist positions on this issue, as he would on any other in which he had an intellectual interest, for he has much less at stake in a personal sense. It is interesting that Renton is willing to discuss Norman Geras’ recent article ‘Marxists Before the Holocaust’ (New Left Review, no 224, 1997), and to try to reach a synthesis that he believes transcends Geras’ alternatives, ‘the Holocaust was both comparable to other crimes and singular or unique, both rationally explicable and beyond comprehension, both the product of capitalism and imperialism and due to some other combination of factors’ (p94). Moreover, he also offers us a sympathetic exposition of Arno Mayer’s argument that ‘the radicalisation of the war against the Jews was correlated with the radicalisation of the war against the Soviet Union’, even if the reference to ‘Mayer’s materialistic arguments’ (p93) seems a strange way of describing a thesis centred on the notion of an ideological crusade. In short, whilst very rightly situating the Holocaust within history and a history within which the German economic as well as political ruling class played an appalling rôle, Renton is only just about able to remain within the intellectual straitjacket of the SWP’s line, with its penchant for exclusively ‘materialistic’ explanations.
Whilst Gluckstein’s chapter ‘War and the Holocaust’ is a lot longer than Renton’s ‘Marxists and the Holocaust’ and deploys a wide range of sources, it significantly omits any reference to either Mayer or Geras — no accident for someone who is remarkable for his broad range of reading in many European languages. Unlike the non-Jewish Renton, Gluckstein instantaneously grasps when he might be skating on very thin ice. Gluckstein probably realises that it is relatively easy to present the Nazis’ use of foreign slave labour as functional to the needs of German capital, in terms of keeping down labour costs and creating divisions within the working class in Germany itself, even if counter-arguments do exist and some non-Marxists might be sceptical. Where Gluckstein undoubtedly knows he has a harder job on his hands is in presenting the Holocaust as a part of capitalist economic rationality. Nonetheless, he tries, albeit intermittently, to argue this: ‘A second factor pushed in the opposition direction — towards mass extermination. Here racism teamed up with imperialist economic planning in a long-term strategy of the Nazis and big business to construct a Grossraumwirtschaft (or macro-economic space).’ (p183) He rightly points out that ‘alongside mass extermination there were profits to be had’ (p185), but he knows that the bulk of the Jews in the death camps were not actually employed by Siemens, AEG Telefunken or IG Farben, however complicit these companies were in the Holocaust. Again, the fact that a ‘drug and chemical conglomerate... would profit enormously from any discoveries made on human guinea pigs’ (p186) does not really explain the primary motivation for Dr Mengele’s ‘monstrous medical experiments’ in Auschwitz. Ultimately, there is a certain over-determined desperation about Gluckstein’s economism: ‘Does the wastage of a valuable human resource sever the links between the Holocaust and the operation of capitalism? The system often wastes labour through unemployment and ill-health. It also wastes resources through, for example, weapons or land left untilled whilst millions starve. It is not “rational” in that general sense.’ (p186) The complicity of the major German capitalist firms in the Holocaust is beyond question, and the Nazi regime as a whole was clearly very profitable to them — in the short term at any rate — but none of this proves that the motivation for the Holocaust was primarily economic.
A final point on SWP historians and the Holocaust is unavoidable, given that Gluckstein believes that ‘the deliberate decision to conduct genocide was not made until 1941 at about the time of the invasion of Russia’ (p178). Neither Gluckstein nor Renton appears to be aware of Trotsky’s own forecast of the Holocaust: ‘It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war, the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’
In other respects, Gluckstein’s and Renton’s books are not so directly comparable. The former is very clearly centred on the German case, and suffers from the lack of a comparative approach. This is an unexpected deficiency in an author who has previously written on British, Russian or general Western European topics, who would not generally be considered as a German specialist, and who has shown a particular interest in the Italian bienno rosso, which might have led him to compare the two classic Fascist regimes. Renton’s book, whilst being historical rather than sociological or philosophical in approach, is primarily about theories of Fascism, rather than its history. Of its eight chapters, five discuss Marxist theories of Fascism, and one is a critique of current non-Marxist academic theories of Fascism. Only one chapter, ‘Classical Fascism’, is devoted to the historical experience of Fascism as such, with roughly five pages on Italian Fascism, and the remainder on Nazism.
Renton believes that there have only been two Fascist regimes, the Italian and the German. Franco’s regime ‘came close’ (p107), but was not actually Fascist because of its military character and its lack of an authentic mass party, at least after its victory in the civil war. He makes some reference in a footnote to Paul Preston’s contrary opinion, but given this degree of brevity it cannot be said seriously to engage with the historical and theoretical debate here. The various wartime satellite regimes — the Romanian Iron Guard, Hungarian Arrow Cross, Croatian Ustashe — are not discussed. There is some mention of what is popularly called ‘neo-Fascism’, a term which Renton rejects as he believes that ‘there is no real break in 1945 and that postwar Fascist parties represent a continuity with the past’ (p118), but the only detailed references to a non-British movement of this type are to Le Pen’s Front National, whose Fascist essence is exposed with concise but detailed examples from speeches by Le Pen and others.
The principle merits of Renton’s book lie in its clear and concise exposition of the various Marxist theories of Fascism from 1920 to the present, particularly those previous to 1945, for it has to be said that his discussion of Poulantzas’ Fascism and Dictatorship would probably leave most readers baffled who had not read the original, although I am prepared to acknowledge the difficulties faced by anybody trying to summarise that vastly overrated but at one stage very influential text (especially in Southern Europe) with its amalgam of gross historical inaccuracies and theoretical pretentiousness.
Renton’s division of Marxist theories of Fascism into ‘right’, ‘left’ and ‘dialectical’ is helpful and convincing. At the risk of oversimplification, ‘right’ theories are those that lay too much stress on Fascism’s mass base in the petit-bourgeoisie, ‘left’ theories are those that lay too much stress on its close relationship with big capital, and ‘dialectical’ ones are those that hold the two factors in some sort of balance, most notably Trotsky’s theory. Although Renton predictably believes that Trotsky’s theory, whilst requiring further development, is the best one, he provides readers with a fair and balanced assessment of the merits and weaknesses of the theories put forward by Thalheimer, Gramsci, Silone and others, as well as engaging in the perennially necessary polemics against the Stalinised Comintern’s theoretical monstrosities, both in the generally acknowledged lunacy of the Third Period, and in the more frequently defended idiocies of the Popular Front (revived by Preston and his school in their work on Spain). Renton’s spirited attack on Roger Griffin, Stanley Payne, Roger Eatwell and Zeev Sternhell in the second chapter, ‘The Prison of Ideas’, is probably the first Marxist onslaught on the whole school of ‘Fascist Studies’, as distinct from individual practitioners of the genre, and could be regarded as required reading both for older Marxists unaware of the recent developments in bourgeois historiography and social science, and for any left-wing university students seeking an initial avenue for critical engagement with prescribed course texts.
Gluckstein’s book, whilst well worth reading because of its informed critique of much recent bourgeois historiography about the late Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, is sadly flawed, and not just for the reasons already outlined. My criticisms are not intended in a sectarian spirit, but are based on the assumption that Gluckstein seriously attempted to engage with Anglo-American and German bourgeois historiography on the subject, in order to win over, or at least influence, readers who are not already convinced Marxists, rather than merely producing a set text for his party members. However, I fear that he has fallen between two stools, producing a book that is too historically sophisticated for most of the SWP’s base, and yet too propagandist not only for non-Marxist historians, but also for some non-SWP Marxist historians.
Proceeding from my initial assumption about Gluckstein’s intentions, the first chapter, ‘Backward or Modern? The Course of German History’, is not remotely adequate as a critique of the notion of the Sonderweg, or distinctive German, path of development. Whilst Gluckstein cites enough statistics on German industrial development to win over any branch meeting, a rather more nuanced argument is required to refute or undermine the notion that German politics and society in the Wilhelmine era were dominated by a feudal, agrarian or pre-industrial élite. Hans-Ulrich Wehler, the leading German neo-Weberian proponent of this position from a much more sophisticated level than that current in mainstream Anglo-American textbooks on German history (such as those by William Carr and Gordon Craig, both of whom seem to have escaped Gluckstein’s attention), makes no appearance in either the text or the footnotes. Even the references to Geoff Eley, an historian who in a broad sense is on Gluckstein’s side in believing that Wilhelmine Germany was thoroughly bourgeois rather than semi-feudal, are to shorter pieces, not to his major works, which suggests an abandonment of serious research in favour of short-cuts.
The second chapter, ‘The Origins of Nazism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 1918 to 1923’, is also rather weak, making the implicit assumption that readers will be familiar with Chris Harman’s study of the period, The Lost Revolution. In the case of non-SWP readers, this cannot be presumed, and the very crude broad-brush portrait of the origins of Nazism itself, following on from an inadequate survey of pre-1918 German history, might well be enough to make an uncommitted reader lose patience.
The remaining seven chapters are of a much higher quality, and it is deeply regrettable that Gluckstein did not put the same effort into the opening chapters. However, Gluckstein’s decision to discuss Hitler’s accession to power before looking at either the social composition of the Nazi electorate or the fatal divisions between the Communist and Socialist Parties exacerbates the problem caused by the schematic character of the first two chapters. Whilst Gluckstein’s treatment of the final years of Weimar and the way that the ruling class resorted to Hitler after the failure of all its successive Bonapartist options (Brüning, Papen, Schleicher) is intelligent, detailed and convincing, placing it after a crude and unconvincing attempt to characterise early Nazi ideology as ‘ruling-class counter-revolutionary thinking’, rather than ‘ideas developing in the middle class at that time’ (p29), on the mechanistic grounds that in the peculiar conjuncture of 1918-19 the petit-bourgeoisie was moving leftwards (a presumption that Gluckstein bases upon electoral behaviour alone), and thus ignoring the ultra-nationalist, populist and anti-Semitic current in the pre-1914 German petit-bourgeoisie, could easily lead the unwary reader to assume that he is developing a ‘left’ theory of Nazism, rather than the ‘dialectical’ one rooted in Trotsky’s writings that he puts forward most, if not all, of the time.
The third chapter provides us with the first example of Gluckstein’s engaging in a sustained and detailed debate with bourgeois historians, in this instance HA Turner, with his thesis that the army rather than big business played the crucial rôle in putting Hitler in power. Gluckstein is sufficiently shrewd to avoid placing undue weight on the work of the American Marxist David Abraham — whose cavalier use of source material has come under attack from moderate leftists like Richard Evans, and not just from ideological foes like Turner — and instead bases his own case upon a wide variety of sources. In the fourth chapter, Gluckstein mounts a similar attack on Falter on the social composition of the Nazi electorate, and on Muhlberger on the social composition of the Nazi party. In each case, his detailed refutations are based upon a detailed examination of the evidence, and Gluckstein shows far more conceptual rigour in defining the working class than his bourgeois adversaries. In the fifth chapter, Gluckstein takes issue with the assertions of Weitz, Geary and others that the German left, even if it had been united, could not have stopped the Nazis, and that the Communist Party’s line was the result of the ‘social fragmentation of the working class’.
Whilst it is arguable that Gluckstein’s refutation of the revisionists on these matters — especially the first, as he makes a stronger case about the clearly Muscovite origins of the Communist Party’s zigzags in interpreting the general Third Period line — is not as decisive as those in the third and fourth chapters, it does represent the very first time that a proponent of the traditional Trotskyist position has taken on the new wave of historians whose position, unlike those of Turner and Muhlberger, is not consciously anti-Marxist, but a pessimistic one based on a rather structuralist and determinist class analysis — employed versus unemployed, skilled versus unskilled, old versus young, etc — that is rooted in the Marxist tradition itself.
One suspects that Gluckstein’s Scottish location may well have acted as a spur to turn his attention to the relationship between Nazism and the working class, for the Edinburgh-based SWPer once again breaks new ground in terms of the Trotskyist tradition by taking on Glasgow-based Conan Fischer and his school on this issue. Whilst the debate on the SA’s social composition, which revolves around unanswerable questions about whether the unemployed sons of petit-bourgeois fathers are working-class or not, is a much trickier one in terms of a defence of the traditional Marxist orthodoxy than those relating to the social composition of the Nazi electorate or the Nazi party itself, Gluckstein’s courage in mounting such a challenge should be saluted by us all.
The sixth chapter, ‘1933-34: A Brown Revolution?’, attacks the notion of the Nazi takeover being described as a revolution, and stresses the counter-revolutionary onslaught and the relative immunity of the old élites. Whilst Gluckstein scores some bulls-eyes against Schoenbaum’s Hitler’s Social Revolution (1966) and the new younger group of historians who have revived his ideas about Nazism and modernisation, those of us who are not convinced that pre-1933 Germany was as pure an example of modern industrial capitalism as presented by Gluckstein are bound to have a few reservations. On this general point, it is noteworthy that when Gluckstein is eager to show that Nazi voters or members did not come from the core industrial working class, peasants and agricultural workers suddenly make an appearance, only to vanish again when he is propounding the notion of Germany as a shining example of an exceptionally advanced and modern capitalism.
Since I have already touched on the issues raised by the seventh and eighth chapters (‘The Third Reich; A Fusion of State and Capital’ and ‘War and the Holocaust’), I will conclude with a few observations about the final chapter, ‘Resistance and Opposition’. Gluckstein rightly stresses that the bulk of the resistance and opposition that occurred in Nazi Germany came from the working class, and emphasises that the more frequently mentioned conservative resistance ‘had little to do with democracy or social justice, and it waxed and waned according to foreign developments’ (p200). Gluckstein draws Anglophone readers’ attention to examples of working-class youth resistance in Cologne in 1944 and to the working-class anti-Fascist committees set up in the weeks immediately after liberation that were discussed in German works of the early 1980s, but are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the Anglo-American literature.
Nonetheless, Gluckstein’s unwillingness to compare Germany with Italy to some extent disguises the significance of his acknowledgement that ‘the regime was not brought down by internal revolt’ (p221). Whilst the Nazi regime was far more effective and repressive than its Italian counterpart in a whole variety of ways that Gluckstein discusses, the fact remains that the German working class (and the Socialist and Communist Parties representing it) were much more permeated by nationalist ideology, from at least August 1914 if not before, than its Italian counterpart, and a genuine Marxist understanding of Nazism in particular and Fascism in general will not be served if we do not come to terms with this reality. To demand a more honest recognition of the hold of both nationalism and anti-Semitism on the German workers is not to endorse Goldhagen’s crazy thesis, but to suggest that although an analysis of Nazism that ignores or minimises class factors, as presented in recent bourgeois historiography, is mere mystification, economistic class analysis alone is not quite enough when drawing up the balance sheet of this terrible twentieth century.
Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism After Auschwitz, Pluto/International Institute of Research and Education, London, 1999, pp152
ENZO Traverso is an Italian Jew who has been teaching for some years in French universities, and has written several books on Jewish history and the Holocaust from a Marxist perspective, including The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate (Atlantic Highlands, 1994; reviewed in Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no 2/3, pp269-73). Politically, he is aligned with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and one assumes that the appearance of this new work under the imprimatur of the USFI’s International Institute of Research and Education means that his views on these matters meet with the broad agreement of the USFI.
This latest work is not a monograph, but a selection of essays on related themes, all six of which have already been published in a variety of journals or collections between 1993 and 1998, but only one of which, ‘The Blindness of the Intellectuals’, a discussion of Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, has previously been translated into English. Despite the varied provenance of the chapters, the newly-written ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’ manage to pull most of the threads together in a fairly convincing way, although I am not persuaded that the chapter on what is now one of Sartre’s more neglected works (published in 1946) will have anything like the same appeal to political activists (or indeed readers with a general interest in the twentieth century) as the two general essays on the significance of the Holocaust, or the more specific essays on Ernest Mandel’s changing views of the Holocaust, on the Warsaw Ghetto and on the Goldhagen affair.
Traverso argues that Marxists have tended to neglect detailed discussion and analysis of the Holocaust, or, as he prefers to label it, ‘Auschwitz’, using the largest and most infamous of the death camps as a symbol of the genocide as a whole. Although Traverso’s objection to the use of the term ‘Holocaust’ because of its theological implication, of a human sacrifice bringing purification through fire, seems in principle to be well-founded, in practice its everyday use is so widespread and so devoid of religious subtexts that it strikes me as preferable to ‘Shoah’, which Traverso uses more frequently, since the latter word’s Hebrew meaning — ‘destruction’ — is more straightforward and materialist, its regular employment by Zionist polemicists has unfortunately given it a political implication that transcends its literal meaning.
Whilst in no way denying the links between capitalism and Fascism, and between European Fascism (and not just European Fascism) and the Holocaust, Traverso argues that ‘the Jewish genocide cannot be understood in depth as a function of the class interest of big German capital’ (p60). Traverso believes that whilst Mandel’s later works, written in 1985-95, dealing with the Second World War, the Holocaust and the Historikerstreit were much more nuanced than his youthful ‘Postface’ on 1946 to Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question, even he remained imprisoned within too economistic a conception of the Final Solution. Traverso’s discussion of the Goldhagen controversy, whilst showing no mercy towards Goldhagen’s ‘extensive intentionalism’ or his minimisation of gas chambers as distinct from the mobile killing squads, shows an awareness of the weaknesses of Finkelstein’s position that some Marxist commentators with a less detailed knowledge of Holocaust scholarship have lacked. Traverso adopts a very balanced approach to the debate about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, suggesting that in certain respects it is unique, but that this does not give it some sort of sacred or mystical character that rules out any comparison with other genocides or massacres.
More generally, Traverso argues that a Marxism that takes full account of Auschwitz cannot maintain a linear positivist conception of progress of the type he ascribes to both the Second and the Third Internationals. He maintains that the barbarism that characterised the twentieth century cannot be adequately explained in terms of regressions or archaic survivals, but must be linked to the essential nature of industrial society under late capitalism. Therefore, he suggests that the Trotskyist tradition must adopt some of the insights of Water Benjamin, and that, despite its detachment from the workers’ movement, the work of the Frankfurt School has enhanced our understanding of the current epoch. Whilst this strikes me as a perfectly legitimate, albeit controversial, position reminiscent of some Red-Green thinkers, I am sure that I will not be alone in finding the constant and largely uncritical references to the work of Hannah Arendt, who appears in the index more frequently than Marx, Trotsky, Mandel or Benjamin, to be somewhat offensive. Those who lay some claim to the legacy of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising need to keep some distance from a thinker who, whatever insights she might have had on particular issues, will go down in history as the long-time lover of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger and the originator of a theory of totalitarianism that served the purposes of American imperialism during the Cold War.
Bill Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary, Porcupine Press, London, 1998, pp440, £20.00
BILL Hunter grew up in County Durham in a mining town. As it happens, I visited Durham recently and had pointed out to me the former mines and steel-works, grassed over, returned to a pre-industrial age. In a museum village named Beamish, miners’ cottages and a school are preserved in a time warp as a tourist attraction, an unfitting end to a book which tells of working-class struggle.
Hunter came into contact with Trotskyism in 1939, when, sent to London under a Ministry of Labour transfer scheme, he met Harry Wicks and other members of the Balham Group. Joining the Independent Labour Party, Hunter became part of its Industrial Committee. Later, he returned to County Durham, and having become dissatisfied with the ILP’s pacifist position, Wicks’ inability to raise adequate support for opposition to the Moscow Trials, and the group’s inactivity, he joined the Workers International League, two of whose members in the North-East were T Dan Smith and Roy Tearse. Hunter was to become critical of the WIL in retrospect.
Hunter had some experience as a shop steward, and with the Second World War giving him the opportunity to be an active militant, he became a convenor in an aircraft factory. Militant industrial activity in wartime was very different to that in peacetime because the workforce had been largely directed into the factory, with many people never having previously worked in such an environment. Labour direction also removed the fear of unemployment. However, as made clear by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson in Two Steps Back, militants and Trotskyists fighting for improved wages and conditions not only faced the bosses and the trade union bureaucrats, but the Stalinists, who acted as agents of the bourgeoisie once Russia had entered the war. Hunter presents his personal experiences of this period, together with those of his comrades.
In 1944, the two Trotskyist organisations in Great Britain, the WIL and the Revolutionary Socialist League, combined to form the Revolutionary Communist Party. The WIL had previously objected to the RSL on the grounds that it was moribund and buried in the Labour Party at a time of political truce. Hunter played an active rôle in the RCP, but a faction fight developed at the end of the war in 1945. The minority, led by Gerry Healy, called for entry work in the Labour Party, whilst the majority, which at this point included Hunter, opted for an open party.
In 1947, the International Secretariat of the Fourth International split the RCP into two sections, the minority around Healy working within the Labour Party, and the majority working as an open party. Hunter writes that ‘following this split the two sections lost sight of one another’. This surprises me, for I joined the RCP in 1947, and the minority comrades continued to attend the North London branch which met at the Co-op Hall in Seven Sisters Road, Islington, with a virulent faction fight dominating the business. The minority comrades also attended aggregates, and were seen at the party centre in the Harrow Road. I am also bemused by Hunter’s statement on page 168 that the minority documents may have been wrong in forecasting an immediate slump. Now, apart from the fact that an economic prognosis is extremely important as a guide to action, my memory is that in 1947 and onwards, the minority were not only predicting a slump, but declared that it had arrived, and that mass unemployment was not only imminent, but was here! This was at a time when local councils of all complexions were vying to outdo each other in the building of houses, new towns were under construction, and secondary education was being provided for all, as was the NHS and a range of welfare benefits! Moreover, demobilisation took place slowly (unlike after the First World War) to avoid flooding the labour market, and munitions factories were changing over to peacetime production. Bomb damage was being repaired. Certainly, factory and other crèches were shutting down in an attempt to encourage women to return to the home, but the prewar marriage bar for women was not reimposed. Nobody, apart from the Healy minority, could possibly compare this period to the 1930s slump.
With regard to faction fighting, Hunter refers on pages 230-1 to a document by the Healy minority which called Haston and the majority an ‘unprincipled clique’ which monopolised and misused the party apparatus. Following a fusion in 1949, Hunter asked Healy why he issued a document that could only harden the attitudes of the majority comrades, and was told that it had been sharpened up by the comrades in the US Socialist Workers Party. Hunter concludes that this indicated an impatience on the part of the SWP leaders, ‘and a desire for quick organisational results’, even though some pages back he praises them for their ability to build a Trotskyist organisation (pp168-9). Hunter also refers to the campaign that Healy subsequently ran against Joseph Hansen and other SWP leaders, during which he had written an article denouncing them as FBI and GPU agents, and attacked Harry Wicks for defending them. Ever wise after the event, he now unreservedly withdraws these allegations.
Hunter refers to the ‘crumbling away’ of the RCP, which he attributes to lack of contact with the working class. He ignores the vicious faction fighting inaugurated by the Healy minority, which led to Millie Lee typing and duplicating yards and yards of internal bulletins, for everyone was free to submit a bulletin for publication and distribution. This faction fighting stultified branch life, aggregates and general decision-making. The faction fight was so intense with the Healyites attempting to convince the majority, and especially new comrades, of the efficiency of the entry ‘tactic’ and the onset of the economic slump, that open work was very seriously hampered. Hunter is critical of Haston and others of the majority leadership, but who would not crack under such pressure, not only from the Healy minority, but from the International Secretariat of the Fourth International?
On page 232, Hunter boasts that several of the Healyites who went down the mines — Harry Finch having been conscripted as a Bevin boy — made some progress by winning Bob Condon, an ex-Stalinist checkweighman, to Trotskyism. He conveniently forgets that Condon wrote an internal bulletin, The Frog in the Pond, in which Condon attacked his so-called comrades, and revealed himself as anti-Semitic and his views as Managerialist.
In 1948, the RCP minority launched Socialist Outlook, followed by an organisation, the Socialist Fellowship, which both latched onto Aneurin Bevan’s differences with the Labour Party leadership. Again wise after the event, having become disappointed that Bevan had not proved to be a ‘revolutionary’ — he had, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, at the Labour Party Conference in 1956 opposed a resolution calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament — Hunter cites the Healyites’ next paper, The Newsletter, comparing him to Ramsay Macdonald, and accusing him of having ‘betrayed the hopes of those who idolised him’ (p376).
Returning to Socialist Outlook, Hunter writes on page 309 that ‘it was owned by the Labour Party Publishing Society with 1200 £1 shares in the hands of 500 or 600 shareholders, members of the Labour Party. A good number of these were not Trotskyists, but were sympathetic to the paper’s general fighting policies and its struggle against the right wing.’ Some time earlier, we in the RCP had criticised the Stalinist Daily Worker for becoming a cooperative, as we saw it as an abdication of the responsibility of the party. Hunter continues by stating that whilst the Labour MPs and union leaders associated with Socialist Outlook were far from being Trotskyists, and many of them had a history of flirting with the Stalinists in their ‘front organisations’, ‘this was the level of the development of the labour movement at the time’! He claims that ‘these people did reflect the thinking and outlook of thousands of ordinary members of the Labour Party and trade unions’. A block vote, I presume. For the Healyites, Labour Party and trade union politics were the whole world, and this is borne out by the jettisoning of Socialist Outlook in 1954 after the Labour Party conference had voted to ban it, ‘because carrying on would have brought the expulsion of those who were selling it inside the Labour Party’ (p326). As it happens, Hunter and his wife Rae, amongst others, could not avoid themselves being expelled.
At that time, the Hunters were members of the East Islington Labour Party. George Leslie and I were also members for some two years of this Constituency Labour Party, and its largely middle-class membership consisted of civil servants, teachers, small traders and white-collar workers — the type of Labour Party which assembled a committee to decide on whether to serve tea and biscuits, and then formed a sub-committee to decide on the brand of biscuits! Bill Jones, the agent, made no pretence that the party’s rôle was anything other than to fight and win elections in what was a parliamentary marginal seat. It is interesting to reflect that South-West Islington, at the time a much more working-class constituency, won elections for Labour with tremendous majorities, but was unable to maintain any ward organisation, and in this aspect was moribund. In 1952, Hunter was elected as a councillor to Islington Council, on which the representation was 100 per cent Labour. At that time, he and Rae were living in a flat above the Labour Party rooms in St Paul’s Road — above the shop, as it were! I am sure there were many issues on which Hunter could have campaigned in Islington and faced expulsion — such as on rent levels, on which he and other Healyites campaigned once they were expelled. However, he and Rae chose to await expulsion over the Socialist Outlook issue.
Happily, in 1956, Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ listing Stalin’s crimes provided the Healyites with an opportunity to recruit from the Communist Party. Hunter writes that the ferment resulting from Khrushchev’s speech ‘was found primarily among the British CP intellectuals’ (p333). Leaflets were issued, and members of the party were approached in person in order to win them to Trotskyism. With regard to the Soviet Union, Hunter cites Labour Review to the effect that the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union ‘must protect the nationalised property relations... since these are the soil that gives it life’, which must mean that the bureaucracy depended upon the nationalised property for its position, or that the nationalised property and the Soviet bureaucracy were interdependent — which could lead to a reassessment of the Soviet Union and the nationalised property forms. Hunter does not latch on to this, and on page 329 he says that, whilst engaged in a fight against the H-bomb, ‘we were against unilateral disarmament by the Soviet Union... The Stalinist degeneration had still not been able to eradicate the basic conquest of the Russian Revolution in the property forms.’ So we had the workers’ — or bureaucrats’ — bomb!
Hunter tells a wry story concerning the Stalinist leadership of the Electrical Trades Union. During the 1950s, Healy ‘built up a group of electricians campaigning for a democratic and fighting union’, with Hunter and Healy having held discussions with Frank Chapple and Les Cannon. Eventually, Chapple and Cannon charged the Stalinist leadership with ballot-rigging in the elections of union officials. They won the court case against the ETU leadership, but far from forming a fighting, democratic union, as Hunter laments, they imposed a bureaucratic pro-employer regime in the union far more rigid than that of the Stalinists.
The first chapters in this book are the most interesting, and a few questions are raised in other chapters which could well be discussed, such as Trotsky’s proletarian military policy, and the uprisings in Europe at the end of the Second World War which were put down by the imperialists and the Stalinists. Hunter also covers the arrests of Haston, Tearse, Ann Keen and Heaton Lee under the new wartime Regulation 1A(a) in 1944, although this latter is more fully dealt with by Bornstein and Richardson in War and the International. Chapter 18 tells of the founding congress of the Fourth International in 1938.
However, what I miss most in this book is any sign of a Marxist analysis, which would bring the book together, instead of its coming across as a number of separate chapters. Additionally, without any attempt at such an analysis, the book is peppered with texts from Healy’s journals, many of them written by Hunter himself, which for the most part I found both stodgy and turgid, or ‘sturgid’, as Lewis Carroll might have put it.
We are promised a second book covering the years from 1959 onwards. Let us hope that it at least makes an attempt to analyse the development of capitalism and the response of the various Healyite organisations and their tactics. For, as it is said: ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’
Leon Trotsky, Escritos Latinoamericanos, Compiled by Gabriela Liszt and Marcelo Scoppa, Leon Trotsky Centre for Study, Research and Publication (CEIP), Buenos Aires, 1999, pp335
THIS book makes Trotsky’s writings on Latin America easily available to those who read Spanish. It is in two parts, the first consisting of articles, letters and interviews, the second of items from Clave, the Mexican Trotskyist journal. From his arrival in Mexico in January 1937 until his murder in August 1940, Trotsky was preoccupied with the Moscow Trials and with his efforts to refute the Stalinist allegations that he was an agent of British, German and French intelligence. As he was unable to visit any other Latin American country, and was forbidden to take part in Mexican politics, the range of this compilation is surprising.
Trotsky paid close attention to the Mexican section of the Fourth International, most of whose members were either teachers or building workers. One of the most interesting articles here is an account of a lively discussion on Latin America between Trotsky and some of his secretaries, which is far from being merely an encounter of master and disciples. Charles Curtiss, a member of the US Socialist Workers Party, is particularly sharp on the mechanical and abstract approach of the Latin American comrades, and their difficulty in grasping the concept of Permanent Revolution.
In ‘Problems of the Mexican Section’, written in December 1938, Trotsky discussed the break with Luciano Galicia, a leader of the section, who combined an abstentionist line on the trade unions with a suggestion that sabotage could be a weapon in the struggle against price rises. It is curious that Latin American Trotskyists, whose patriotism and fondness for Popular Fronts have puzzled observers in other continents, once criticised Trotsky for accommodation to bourgeois forces. Trotsky defended the painter Diego Rivera against Galicia’s attacks, arguing that the Fourth International should be glad that such an outstanding artist was a member, just as Lenin had valued Gorky’s participation in the revolutionary movement. However, by early 1939, Rivera had broken with Trotskyism, and was backing Mujica, a right-wing general, as candidate for President.
Three interviews with the Argentinian trade unionist, Mateo Fossa, will be familiar to many readers, as they have been extensively mined for quotations on what the revolutionary position should be in a hypothetical war between Britain and Brazil. It is a pity that the rest of the interviews, giving Trotsky’s views on Latin America, have received less attention. Whilst stressing that he had no detailed knowledge of the region, Trotsky emphasised the need to work in the trade unions and their importance in educating the workers in democratic methods.
The selection from Clave includes contributions by Trotsky and his supporters, and others written by Trotsky, but signed by Diego Rivera. Some unsigned articles were probably written by Trotsky in collaboration with others. The Latin American tendency to abstraction shows up strongly. ‘Problemas Nacionales’ by Octavio Fernández, and ‘The Lima Conference’ by Adolfo Zamora, describing a meeting devoted to gaining support for US ‘democratic imperialism’, are honourable exceptions.
The world has changed in the six decades since most of these articles were written, so some are now more relevant than others. Given his isolation, his other commitments and his brief stay, Trotsky could not have produced a strategy for the Latin American working class. He devoted considerable attention to the Mexican Communist Party and its agents. That was hardly surprising, given its strength, its campaign to have him deported, and its complicity in attempts to kill him. Stalinism has declined of late, but even in the 1940s it was destined to play a minor part in most Latin American countries, often being marginalised by populist movements such as Peronism. The lessons which Marxists have drawn from experience in Europe were inadequate in situations where Stalinism was weak, and Social Democracy even more so, except in Chile. Many Trotskyists, who realised that Stalinism was a menace to the workers’ movement, swapped their early ultra-leftism for addiction to populist alliances. Trotsky’s comments on movements such as the Peruvian APRA, which he saw as a Popular Front in the form of a party, remain relevant, but seem to have had little influence on his supporters.
Until now, Latin American Trotskyists have concentrated on publishing the works of their local gurus, so this scholarly volume is a pleasant surprise. The compilers give generous acknowledgement to other publications, including the Cahiers León Trotsky, published in France, and Revolutionary History. The CEIP is backed by the Argentinian Partido de Trabajadores Socialistas, but as material such as this is invaluable to the entire workers’ movement, it deserves the support of all Marxists, both in Argentina and elsewhere.
Anton Dannat, Auf dem Floss der Medusa?, Marxismus (Vienna), no 11, August 1997, ÖS180/DM26.
THE experiences of French Trotskyism in the 1930s were some of the most important that the movement confronted anywhere; yet there is no full history of the period with the exception of Craipeau’s Le Mouvement trotskyste en France which, whilst useful, stands halfway between a participant’s memoir and a documented account. Readers of German will therefore welcome the appearance of Anton Dannat’s Auf dem Floss der Medusa?. (The title is a reference to Géricault’s famous painting of a tiny group of shipwreck survivors huddled on a raft in a stormy sea.)
Dannat traces the story through every split and turn. He has studied the primary sources in great detail, and most of his 1200 footnotes refer to the Trotskyist press and internal bulletins. He had patiently built up a picture of the various Trotskyist organisations, shows that their total membership never exceeded 750, and that they were always based preponderantly in Paris; his maps make it clear that there was never a fully national organisation, and that in particular the South-West of France remained largely untouched. A concluding section gives brief biographies of the main actors, though this is mainly derived from Maitron’s Dictionnaire biographique, which remains the key source for any serious researcher.
However, Dannat does not fall into the trap of seeing his subject matter as the centre of the universe. He carefully integrates the account into the development of the mainstream French left in the period, and places it in the context of the international Trotskyist movement. He also provides parallel accounts of various non-Trotskyist splits from the Communist Party (PCF), such as Doriot’s Parti populaire français and Ferrat’s Que Faire?. He uses an extensive bibliography of secondary material, in which there are only one or two surprising gaps. Whilst drawing on Deutscher’s and Broué’s lives of Trotsky, he makes no use of Tony Cliff’s work; and though giving considerable attention to the Gauche révolutionnaire in the SFIO, he makes no reference to Jacques Kergoat’s valuable biography of Marceau Pivert (Paris, 1994).
Dannat writes dispassionately, realising that at this distance there is little point in taking sides in factional disputes; what is required is a careful examination of the evidence and a willingness to learn from the mistakes of those who lived through much harder circumstances than our own. Only in his brief conclusion does he permit himself some judgements, based on his earlier narrative.
Dannat gives a full account of the dispute in 1930 which led to the departure of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer and the rapid rise of Raymond Molinier, and explains the importance of this dispute for the Ligue communiste’s trade union strategy. Trotsky later recognised Molinier’s failings, comparing him to a cow that produces much milk, but then kicks over the bucket. But though Trotsky later accused him of ‘revolutionary impatience’, Dannat is quite right to say that if Trotsky had blocked Molinier’s career at the outset, a lot of trouble would have been saved. Not only did Molinier run a debt-collecting business (we all compromise to earn a living under capitalism, but that is going a bit far), but he used the fact that he was a major source of the organisation’s finances to influence its policy. The phenomenon of the bright-eyed youngster offering get-rich-quick solutions has a history in the movement, and it is time that Molinier was firmly labelled as a product of Trotsky’s own impatience.
The problem of Molinier persisted throughout the decade, and led to some of the ugly sectarianism that harmed the movement so much. In 1937, there was an election in the working-class suburb of Saint-Denis, where Jacques Doriot had been mayor. Workers were disillusioned by their experience of the Popular Front; Doriot had shifted towards the far right. Yet the two Trotskyist candidates devoted their time to abusing each other for financial corruption and Stalinist methods. Small wonder workers did not see them as a viable alternative.
Dannat also judges the ‘French turn’, entry into the SFIO in 1934, to have been a failure. Doubtless this will remain a point of controversy. The number who entered the SFIO was 113 out of a membership of 140 in the Ligue communiste; a year later the membership of the Groupe bolchevik-léniniste was 300, but since this was a period of rising struggle culminating in the mass strike of 1936, it would probably have grown in any case. As Dannat shows, entry into the SFIO meant a change of milieu for the Trotskyists; instead of remaining within a tiny propaganda circle, they had a potential audience of many thousands — though also the danger of believing conference resolutions represented a real influence on the masses. But as Dannat shows, there was great confusion amongst members as to why they were entering. Some saw it as a short-term raid, and some as a long-term strategy, whilst others actually believed the SFIO could be converted into a revolutionary party. Not surprisingly, there was equal confusion about their withdrawal, and again about their entry into Pivert’s PSOP at the end of the decade.
Tactics and personalities do matter, and the French Trotskyists made some grave mistakes. But were they enough to make the difference between their 750 and the mass movement needed to turn the Popular Front into a workers’ victory? On the evidence provided by Dannat it seems unlikely.
Philippe Gottraux, Socialisme ou Barbarie, Editions Payot, Lausanne, 1997, pp427, 169 FF (25.75 euros)
SOCIALISME ou Barbarie (SouB) came into existence as a split from the French section of the Fourth International (PCI) in 1949; it continued until its decision to dissolve in 1967. Its highest membership figure was 87, and at times it had only around a dozen members. The circulation of the journal of the same name was at best around one thousand. Yet such a tiny grouping deserves such a substantial history, since it was one of the few revolutionary groupings of the period which made a genuine attempt to confront the changed realities of the post-1945 world.
Gottraux’s study, based on an detailed examination of the documentation, including minutes of meetings, and on interviews with over 40 former members, seems to be definitive. Its origin is in a doctoral thesis in sociology, and it bears some of the marks of this; at times fairly obvious points are made at inordinate length in tortuous jargon. The first half of the book — which gives a historical narrative of the group’s evolution — is the more interesting. But the whole book is rich in information, and will repay study.
The starting point of the SouB analysis was the identification of tendencies towards bureaucracy in both Western and Stalinist society. This led the ‘social barbarians’ (as they called themselves) to reject any notion that Russia was a ‘workers’ state’, and to be highly critical of the bureaucratic structures of the workers’ parties and unions in France. This liberated SouB from the sterile obsession of mainstream Trotskyism with workers’ states and parties, and allowed it to focus on the realities of working-class experience.
It was on this basis that SouB achieved its greatest successes, firstly, in the production of detailed accounts of day-to-day life in the workplace. This was above all the contribution of Daniel Mothé, a milling machine operator at Renault, who wrote copiously — two books and numerous articles for SouB and the left bourgeois press — on factory life. Secondly, this focus led SouB to reconsider the very definition of Socialism. In dropping the notion that the USSR was a workers’ state, it insisted on the importance of workers’ democracy and workers’ management — rather than planning or state ownership — as the fundamental criteria for a Socialist society.
Thirdly, SouB stood almost alone during the grim years of the Algerian war in giving maximum support to the movement for national independence whilst at the same time vigorously criticising the Third Worldist illusions that affected most sections of the left. Thus Jean-François Lyotard was actively involved with Henri Curiel’s network in providing practical support for the FLN, whilst at the same time writing a series of articles which clearly identified the class nature and limitations of the FLN as a movement. Lyotard’s later career as a post-modernist cannot in any way detract from the exceptional courage and lucidity he showed in this period.
Yet the recognition of SouB’s strengths leaves us with a major paradox. In its anti-Stalinism and its advocacy of workers’ democracy, SouB anticipated many of the ideas that were to blossom in 1968. Indeed, some of the leading activists of 1968 — notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Debord — were influenced by SouB. Yet by 1968 SouB had disappeared, and it was unable to make any intervention amongst a new generation who might have been receptive to ‘social barbarian’ ideas. (Pouvoir Ouvrier, which split from SouB in 1963, still existed in 1968, but liquidated itself in 1969.)
By the early 1960s, SouB had abandoned Marxism, and its three leading intellectuals — Castoriadis (alias Cardan, Chaulieu, etc), Claude Lefort and Lyotard were all to find fame and fortune as anti-Marxists. Yet, as Gottraux points out, it is quite inadequate to explain SouB’s failure simply by individual careerism. Ultimately, the weaknesses of SouB lay in both its political analysis and its concept of organisation.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that Castoriadis was a professional economist, SouB’s analysis was always sociological, and not economic. During the long boom of the 1950s, SouB accepted at face value the claim of capitalism’s apologists that it had resolved its economic problems, and that slumps and unemployment were a thing of the past. Hence the fundamental relation between classes was defined not in terms of exploitation, but of authority. Not only did SouB thus revert from Marxism to classical Anarchism, but it was quite unprepared for the more stormy economic circumstances that began to appear in the mid-1960s.
Moreover, although SouB was increasingly critical of Leninism, it actually inherited some of the worst elements of sectarianism and vanguardism from mainstream Trotskyism. Despite its small size, SouB made grandiose claims for the originality and uniqueness of its theoretical contribution, whilst, for example, showing little interest in the parallel development of the Socialist Review Group in Britain. (In 1949, SouB published a letter from Cuban Trotskyists recommending the work of Tony Cliff, but it never made any attempt to assess or criticise Cliff’s theory of state capitalism.)
This sectarianism was combined with considerable confusion as to the nature of the organisation. A very high level of activity was demanded of members — an early statement said every member should devote four evenings a week to the group, and at one point it was proposed to expel anyone who missed two consecutive meetings. As late as 1961, Mothé recorded that in six days, in addition to 12 hours a day spent at work or travelling, he had put in 27.5 hours of political work. Such frenetic activity is to be expected in a period with a high level of class struggle. When nothing is at stake but the production of a small-circulation magazine, such pressures must create unbearable tensions for members, as well as creating unnecessary barriers between the dedicated membership élite and those sympathetic to the group’s ideas, but unwilling to accept a monastic discipline.
Yet this intense commitment was combined with an organisational laxity, whereby members’ political practice was largely left to their own discretion. Intellectuals in the group pursued parallel careers, publishing academic texts in their own name and articles in SouB under a pseudonym. Even more seriously, trade union work was not under any control. There was undoubtedly a degree of truth in SouB’s view that the unions had become alien to the workers and out of their control. But in practice SouB’s anti-union stance meant that potential members were lost because they refused to abandon union work; meanwhile some SouB members were active in unions, but in a personal activity without guidance from or accountability to the group.
SouB was a failure, but it was a brave failure by a group of revolutionaries who wanted to confront the realities of their own age rather than to repeat the slogans of a past period. A critical study of its history can be an inspiration to a new generation.
Eric Cavaterra, La Banque de France et la Commune de Paris, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1998, pp334
PROFESSOR Margairaz writes in his preface that Eric Cavaterra has succeeded in ‘writing something new about the Paris Commune in 1998’. It is easy to agree with him. The Bank of France and the Paris Commune (1871) — and not the reverse, as the author makes clear (p23) — is the subject and the title of this new study.
Why? ‘It has been assumed that the facts were known’ (p17), and as always, it was wrong to make such assumptions. The subversive, destructive work which is the ultimate basis of the historian’s craft has been carried out in a remarkable fashion. Alfred Jarry explained that even ruins must be destroyed. Accepted ideas, counter-revolutionary lies, ‘errors and falsehoods’ (p22), and the miserable banalities of the Stalinists are pervasive in the scenery of a history which is battered and impoverished, and peopled by caricatures of soulless characters. It is this ‘demythologisation’ which was necessary.
In reconstructing the Bank of France in 1871, the author draws on evidence, which turns out to be complementary rather than contradictory, from Marx, Proudhon and Zola (pp28-9). He reminds us of the central rôle played by the Governor General Rouland, the former procureur général (Attorney General), who made known that he was obsessed with ‘hunting down Socialists everywhere’ (p36). We must make clear that these are the Socialists of 1871, not of today.
After the insurrection of 18 March 1871, the Paris Commune, the first workers’ government, needed money. But as a collectivity it balked at attacking the Bank of France. What was the reason? The collective ideological weakness of the leaders of the Commune. The reactionaries were aware of the risk: ‘The real danger lies in the Bank being occupied by the Central Committee.’ (p59) The Commune hesitated: ‘the delays of the Commune came up against the determination and certainties of the board of directors of the Bank’ (p69). The central characters are the deputy governor, de Plouec, and the Commune delegate, Beslay, a Proudhonist, who has been made by unfavourable legend into the person solely responsible for the failings of the Commune. Cavaterra gives a long (and necessary) account of the political biography of Beslay and his ideas. No other leader of the Commune proposed any alternative to Beslay’s policy of conciliation and ‘respect’ (to use Engels’ term) for the institution. This is proved by the fact that his terms of reference were vague (which, by definition, is the very opposite of what terms of reference should be), and the Commune spent very little time discussing the Bank of France, whereas the Bank pursued a policy of systematic obstruction. Only the Blanquist Raoul Rigault tried to stand up to it.
Cavaterra sets out both precisely and clearly (terms which don’t always go together) the conflicts between the Bank and the Commune, as well as the hesitations of the latter at a time when it could have ‘grabbed Versailles by the testicles’ to use Lissagaray’s colourful words (p253).
The author gives an extensive bibliographical account of the witnesses, actors and historians, and recalls what Marx and Engels wrote about it. For example, he quotes a collective work by historians from the French Communist Party which refers to the ‘extreme timidity’ of the Paris Commune, and gives as an example of this alleged timidity its ‘refusal’ to nationalise (p301). But the Bolsheviks only nationalised the factories in June 1918, more than six months after taking power... So their timidity must have been three times as great as that of the Communards. We can see here how Stalinist historians (if we may use such a contradiction in terms) are willing to slander both the Commune and October 1917.
Jean Marc Schiappa
Nicole Bossut, Chaumette, porte-parole des sans-culottes, Éditions du CTHS Paris, 1998, pp535
NICOLE Bossut has just published the main parts of her thesis under the title ‘Chaumette: spokesman of the sans-culottes’, with a preface by M Vovelle. Chaumette was the procureur général of the Paris Commune in 1793-94, one of the main figures of the revolutionary democracy, and a correspondent of Babeuf in Year II. There has been no other recent biography.
After arguing against a deterministic approach to an individual’s origins, the author develops the account of the youth of this shoemaker’s son, his fascination with the American continent, and his extensive medical studies. We should note this long apprenticeship of a young man who lacked the ‘revolutionary instinct’ that was so strong in a Babeuf or a Robespierre.
Chaumette entered into political activity with the defence of the right to petition against the Loi Le Chapelier in 1791, a law which, as is well known, greatly limited political democracy by banning strikes and collective action; this came at the same time as the narrowly bourgeois constitution of the same year. The study dwells on the provocation of the Champ de Mars in July 1791, where the National Guard proclaimed martial law and fired on the crowd. At this point, Chaumette became one of the main figures of the democratic Club des Cordeliers. He also opposed the ratification of the constitution of 1791, which was monarchist and imposed property qualifications on voting: ‘Freedom is very limited if it is only a choice between yes and no.’ (p84) Indeed, it requires Biblical ultimatism to command: ‘But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ (Matthew, 5:37) It is from this point in 1791 that we must date his unity of action with Robespierre, a unity which was to end tragically, impelled by ‘his passion for republican unity’ (p155). This was never renounced. Thus ‘Chaumette, Hébert, Réal... put their authority at the service of Robespierre’s clearly defined policy’ (p297) in June 1793. After the Champ de Mars, there was a full year of incubation, one might almost say occultation. Chaumette was one of the few to act against the war, like Robespierre and Marat.
The spring and summer of 1792 saw the advance of the insurrection. Then, on 10 August, ‘once more the people attacked in order to defend itself’ (p123). It was the unity of the people in the insurrection, formalised by the union between the fédérés and the insurrectional Commune, just as it was formalised in 1917 by the Second Congress of Soviets supporting the October insurrection. Chaumette was a member of the insurrectional Commune of August 1792, when for the first time the red flag was used subversively to indicate the people’s martial law against the Court. Bossut stresses the rôle of the insurrectional Commune aiming at having ‘a unified leadership capable not only of commanding the attack but also of dictating the political conditions for it’ (p125). Chaumette had his place, admitedly a ‘modest’ one (p129), but, like the other leaders, it was an indispensable one.
So the Convention was elected, a product of insurrection and universal suffrage, and enjoying an unassailable moral authority. There was ‘no other rallying point but the Convention’ (p165). In a revolution, there must be a centre: the Commune of 1791, the soviets in 1917. The Convention was indeed ‘solely responsible for legislating for the whole nation’ (p434), which does not mean that it could not be given a stimulus, or that it did not wish such a stimulus. Chaumette was not elected to the Convention, but became procureur of the Commune, since he was a member of the Jacobin Club.
The struggle against the Girondins was paralleled by the popular food riots. The process was tumultuous and even contradictory: there was the upsurge of April 1793 and the hesitations of May. The question is crucial: can Paris substitute itself for the elected nation in the Convention? But if Paris does not rise up, the Convention will disappear. This culminated in the ‘curious day of 31 May’ (p286), before the successful insurrection of the sans-culottes on 2 June, and the elimination of the Girondins. Once more, Chaumette was active in support of alliance with the Montagne, and the ‘battle for unity behind the Convention’ (p310): he was simultaneously ‘loyal to the Montagne and loyal to the common people’ (p334). Should we see this as the reason for his fall, an attempt, which was in the long run impossible, to reconcile divergent social interests? He seemed to have been ‘in search of a compromise between the Commune and Comité de salut public’ (p367). Chaumette was to go on seeking such a reconciliation throughout the agitation of the sections over food supplies in the summer of 1793, when Babeuf played a major rôle, which paved the way for the upsurge of 4-5 September and the measures in favour of the sans-culottes which definitively linked the success of the revolution to them. As the author correctly notes, it was a movement ‘which Chaumette, Pache and Hébert had tried to avoid’ (p326). On 5 September, Chaumette made his famous cry to the crowd: ‘I too have been poor’, and he was indeed the only one of the leaders of the Commune to be able to issue ‘such a war-cry against wealth’: ‘For the first time the municipality, through Chaumette’s voice, offered to take the lead in a mass demonstration, and allowed the hope that if this massive pressure continued, coming from the people joined together with the Commune, then the Convention would at last take all the measures expected of it.’ (p330)
For reasons of space, we shall say little about de-Christianisation, which takes up the whole of chapter 11. Chaumette also defended the fixing of prices (at last, after having refused for so long), which was in fact a partial expropriation, and not a prefiguration of Socialism.
The continuation — or rather the end — is well-known. The revolutionary front broke during the summer (the ‘great summer’ as Bossut writes), leading to the trial and execution of Chaumette.
Throughout this study the question of democracy is examined at length. In particular, we can point to the distinction made by Albert Soboul ‘between “bourgeois” representative democracy and the direct, popular democracy of the sections’ (p18), which doesn’t seem valid to the author. We should recall the ‘principle of recall constantly demanded by the sections’ (p146). But perhaps we should quote pages 81-82 at greater length:
‘The debates of 12 July seem to us to illustrate the enormous effort made at this time by the democrats to define the means for an authentic democracy and to go beyond Rousseau’s hopeless paradox: “The English people believes it is free; it is very wrong. It is free only during the election of Parliament; once this is elected, it is a slave, it is nothing.” If sovereignty “cannot be delegated” as Rousseau insisted, then democracy is impossible, and the nation simply has the choice between the despotism of an individual and the despotism of its representatives, against whom it has only one recourse: insurrection, convulsive and by definition limited to short periods of time.’
The author objects that ‘if there are contradictions and obscurities in the thought of those who claimed to speak in the name of the people, they must be precisely dated, in relation to the nature of the difficulties which they had to face, and for which the considerations of Rousseau, highly illuminating on the nature of the problems to be solved but historically dated, provided answers which were obviously inadequate’.
Thus in this dialectical tension between democracy with a binding mandate and democracy by delegation, new models appear: the Red Cross section ended up by ‘establishing a clear distinction between what was appropriate for the communal level — direct democracy — and what was appropriate for the national level — representative democracy, by delegation’, or again, other sections in 1791 for which ‘their explicit adherence to representative rule did not for all that mean that they were agreeing to sign a blank cheque for the deputies’. It was a huge debate, for the Convention itself, later on, did not want such a blank cheque, and the permanent link between electors and elected was concretely recalled every day in the form of messages and delegations...
Jean Marc Schiappa
Zheng Chaolin, An Oppositionist for Life, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1997, pp330
Gregor Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries: Explorations in the History of Chinese Trotskyism 1921-1952, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1997, pp269
ZHENG Chaolin was amongst nearly 1000 Chinese Trotskyists rounded up and imprisoned by Mao’s regime in China in 1952. With him were seized the manuscript of his memoirs, completed in 1945, and the only extra handwritten copy. As Zheng began a 27-year sentence as a political prisoner, his book disappeared into the vaults of Mao’s security forces; one copy was kept in Shanghai, and one was in a sack of documents sent to the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing.
During the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ of 1966-69, the sacks were sent to a paper factory for reprocessing, but, as Zheng explains in a postscript to the English edition of the memoirs, ‘someone with a conscience’ took away two sacks and hid them. That someone who was against pulping literary production took the sacks at random, and did not know what manuscripts they contained. In 1978, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to dismantle the Mao cult partially, some official historians were instructed to research the life of Chen Duxiu, the leader of the party from its foundation in 1920 and a leader of the Chinese Trotskyists from 1930. The ‘someone with a conscience’ then came forward with Zheng’s manuscript. Meanwhile, Zheng was freed from prison in 1979, the historians found him, and his memoirs from 1945 were published in 1986 with additional notes by the author.
Any book with a publishing history like that would probably be worth reading; this one certainly is. It starts with Zheng’s first political awakening in 1919 and his recruitment to the Communist organisation amongst the Chinese students in France in 1922. It covers his spell at the Communist University in Moscow, his return to China in 1924, the revolution of 1925-27 and its defeat, and there is a chapter on the Communists’ relations with the left Guomindang regime at Wuhan, where Zheng worked in 1927-28. The Communists’ discussion of the defeat, the beginnings of Chinese Trotskyism, and the unification of four groups to form the Chinese Left Opposition in 1930 are also covered.
Readers of Revolutionary History will need no convincing of the value of a first-hand account of these events. They may also be delighted by Zheng’s style. He not only observes great events and revolutionaries’ reactions to them with candour and a minimum of adjectives, and brings to life the way that the Chinese Communists developed an internationalist outlook with reference to their own culture and history; he also notices personalities, practicalities and everyday realities that are too often pushed out of revolutionaries’ memoirs by political minutiae.
Chen Duxiu appears as a wise intellectual and farsighted strategist, but with a short temper; and the well-known Chinese Trotskyist Peng Shuzhi as an unpopular apparatus-man and a manoeuverer. Zheng’s characterisations are wonderful — take this one of Ziong Ziong in 1920:
‘To tell the truth, he never learned what Marxism was about. He was childishly naïve: sincere, innocent, pure, ardent and immature. He pursued everything that was new and revolutionary and made friends with everyone who was fervent, brave and rebellious, but he lacked judgement and was unable to distinguish between Marx and Kropotkin. He always wore hunter’s clothes and long boots. A whip hung in his room... He rose early, and if it was snowing, he would go far out into the countryside before dawn to walk across the snow. He was terrible at languages and even spoke Chinese with a strong Jiangxi accent. Later in Moscow, if you ever asked him a question during classes or discussions, he would stand up wide-eyed and wide-mouthed and finally say: “I’ve forgotten.”’
Other minor characters ‘had guts’ (Luo Yinong), despised each other (Xiang Ying and Li Lisan), or stole each other’s partners in love. A whole chapter — which was excised from the 1986 Chinese edition of the book — details the young Communists’ love affairs in the 1920s, and shows how this inevitably affected their relationships as comrades.
As for himself, Zheng leaves the impression of an unassuming and disarmingly honest man. He possesses another quality rare among memoirists: if he can’t remember, he just says so.
No one could have worked harder to fill the gaps in Zheng’s memory, and in the history of Chinese Trotskyism generally, than Gregor Benton, who as well as translating and editing Zheng’s book, has written a meticulously researched companion volume, China’s Urban Revolutionaries. Benton surveys all the sources so far available, and presents an account of Chinese Trotskyism’s development in just over 100 pages. It includes a fascinating chapter on the Trotskyists’ relationship with Chinese literature, and is accompanied by valuable appendices by Zheng Chaolin on Chen Duxiu and the Trotskyists, and Wang Fanxi answering a Stalinist historians’ distortions.
It is to be hoped that Benton’s conclusions will stir debate. Having devoted such great effort to recounting the Chinese Trotskyists’ history, he concludes that they were ‘prophets before their time, for which they paid the price’ (p115); but that they were ‘completely unable to influence the course of Chinese politics between 1931 and 1949’ (p113), mainly because of the overwhelming odds they faced: the Guomindang’s repression on one side, and the Stalinists’ lie machine on the other.
From here, Benton develops a more questionable argument: that the Trotskyists, weighed down by an ‘excess of orthodoxy’, were mistaken after 1927 not to take to the countryside — because ‘for the revolution to succeed, it was essential to start organising the peasants even before the movement in the towns revived’ (p79). Against this it may be argued that a working-class organisation that goes to the countryside and ‘tears itself away from its class’ (to use Trotsky’s phrase about the CCP) will confound the revolution it claims to be carrying out. The discussion of this issue is, of course, bound up with that of the record of the CCP and of whether, and how, it confounded the revolution.
What is not in dispute is that the most important achievements of Chinese Trotskyism — in taking forward the struggle for Marxist ideas against the corruption of them by Stalinism and Maoism — will pave the way for a new development of those ideas today, when the CCP’s dictatorship is dragging China and its much more numerous and potentially powerful working class into a world capitalist system trapped in even deeper contradictions than those of the 1930s.
Robert Louzon, China: Three Thousand Years of History, Fifty Years of Revolution, Socialist Platform, London, 1998, pp149, £5.00
ROBERT Louzon was one of the leading lights of twentieth century French revolutionary Syndicalism. A founder member of the French Communist Party, he left in 1924 when his comrades Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte were expelled for their opposition to Stalinism, and he remained an anti-Stalinist revolutionary for the rest of his life. In his 50s, he fought with the CNT militia in the Spanish revolution, and after the Second World War he resumed publication of the Syndicalist paper La revolution proletarienne at the age of 65. He died in 1976.
This book, which first appeared in French in 1950, was one of his last works. It is an ambitious and impressive work: nothing less than an attempt to provide a Marxist summary of 3000 years of Chinese history in 130 pages. To summarise so much so briefly runs the risk of being dull, but Louzon avoids this pitfall completely. He is thought-provoking, incisive, idiosyncratic and at times infuriatingly wrong-headed. He also tears down blind alleys at top speed, and writes in a convoluted style that takes some getting used to — but he is never dull. If most of what I have to say below is critical, it is because I believe that this project should be judged against the standards that Louzon clearly set himself.
The book falls into two roughly equal halves: the first from the earliest recorded history to the Opium Wars, and the second up to Mao’s victory in 1949. The first half is much the better of the two. Louzon begins by drawing attention to ‘the two principal factors in the history of China: the constant presence of nomadic barbarians at the gates of the country... and the presence of a people who... are always ready for revolt once the situation becomes intolerable’ (p12). It is the link between these two factors that is important here.
Mass class struggles were a constant feature of ancient Chinese society in a way that was not true (as far as we know) of other societies at similar stages of development. Sometimes they could overthrow a dynasty; more often they simply threw society into a state of collapse. It was typically that collapse prompted the nomadic invasions, rather than the other way round. Following the pioneering work of Owen Lattimore, we now know that the nomadic societies based to the north and north-west of China were more complex and advanced than Chinese historians would admit. It is now generally accepted that many of these societies evolved sophisticated systems of extracting tribute from successive Chinese dynasties, and that their invasions were often attempts to shore up a system that would otherwise collapse, and not just simple smash-and-grab raids.
Louzon is similarly good on geography and how it has shaped Chinese history. The nomadic peoples were a permanent threat because there is no natural boundary on the north China plain between arable land and the grasslands that could only support nomadic societies. Hence the critical importance of the walls that early city-states built, later linked up to form the Great Wall. Hence, too, the permanent tendency for the centre of gravity of Chinese society to move south to the more fertile (and more defensible) lands around the Yangzi river. (Incidentally, Louzon persistently refers to the Yangzi as the ‘Blue River’, a term I have never seen before, and a rather confusing one.)
Finally, Louzon is sharp on the seeming contradiction between the essentially unchanging basis of the Chinese economy — small-scale peasant agriculture — and the immense dynamism of China’s social and political history. He argues:
‘Commerce continually transforms everything that it touches, it is the supreme factor in the progress of communities. Periodic repetition is the law of cultivation, but constant renovation is the essence of commerce. It follows that if the history of China shows a permanent substratum, from the fact of cultivation predominating in it, overlaying it is a history of frequent revolutions and experimentations due to the importance of commerce.’ (p33)
So far, so good, and there is much here from which anyone can learn. But a Marxist history of imperial China needs to engage with two fundamental questions posed by that history. Why did Chinese society reach the highest levels of technology and urban development anywhere in the world, and then stagnate? What was the underlying mode of production in imperial China? It is not that Louzon fails to come up with definitive answers to these questions (we still lack those); it is that he does not pose the questions.
Actually, Louzon does see a variety of the first question, but he poses it wrongly, arguing that Chinese society reached its highest point of progress under the Tang dynasty (618-907). Now it is true that the Tang era was one of the most dynamic, innovative and outward-looking periods of Chinese history, and it saw fundamental advances in technology, trade and urbanisation (the Tang capital of Changan was the first city in the world to have a population of a million people). It is also true that in cultural terms, the Tang had a frontier vigour and dynamism which produced an explosion of creativity. In poetry, painting and architecture, the Tang was a golden age. But it was also a deeply unstable society, marked by continual wars with nomads and military rebellions. By the 850s, the dynasty had effectively ceased to have any control over China.
By any useful yardstick — industrial production, urbanisation, trade, population growth — the highest point of imperial China’s development was reached under the later Song dynasty, particularly the Southern Song (1126-1279). The Song capitals of first Kaifeng and then Hangzhou grew to become even bigger than Changan. Under the Song, the technological advances of the Tang became the basis of industrial factory production: iron and steel making, shipbuilding, paper-making (the Song was the first society ever to use paper money in daily transactions), glassware, porcelain and munitions, to name only a few. Curiously, Louzon notes the immense prosperity of the Song era, saying that ‘the Song does not appear to have been troubled by great popular risings’ (p60), but he does not ask why this was so.
Chris Harman, in his recent book A People’s History of the World, argues that the nascent Song capitalist class was both too weak and too dependent on the imperial bureaucracy to fight for its distinct class interests. This seems to me to be an essential starting point, above all for understanding why it was that Chinese industry and technology stagnated, rather than regressing or collapsing. It is certainly preferable to Louzon’s argument that technological advance peaked under the Tang and thereafter declined, which is demonstrably wrong.
On the question of modes of production, Louzon merely writes: ‘Socially, China was to experience all the property forms: feudal, capitalist and peasant. A complete system of individual property was to be found there, as well as that of simple right of use, with all the forms of ownership in between.’ (p60) The editor praises this formulation, but it reminded me of the old joke about the perfect parliamentary answer: it’s short, it’s true, and it contains no useful information. The question is surely which forms predominated, and at which times?
Something very like feudalism certainly evolved in China during the Warring States era (fifth to third century BC). That system, and the economic and political power of the nobility, were comprehensively smashed by the Qin dynasty (221-208BC). Nothing like a feudal nobility ever held political power in China after that, except in periods of social collapse between dynasties. On the other hand, capitalism did not become the dominant mode of production until the end of the last century. So what was (or what were) the dominant mode (or modes) of production in the intervening 2000 years? Where did the dynamic of Chinese economic development come from? For all the weaknesses of Marx’s historical description, his notion of the Asiatic mode of production still seems to me to be the best way to answer these questions.
In focusing on these central questions, I have missed out many of the strong points of Louzon’s analysis: the central importance of irrigation, the power and resilience of the imperial bureaucracy, and the importance of China as an empire. I have equally missed out some of the worst absurdities, such as his argument that ‘the Chinese are the only people who are atheist as a whole’ (p8), or that neo-Confucian reforms in the Song dynasty were ‘none other than the key concept propounded by Lenin when he wrote State and Revolution’ (p60).
When he gets into the twentieth century, however, Louzon loses his way even more. His account of the revolution of 1925-27 is muddy, neither straight chronology nor thematic analysis. Astonishingly for a Syndicalist, he says nothing of the flowering of workers’ organisations during this period, and gives less than half a page to the Guomindang’s massacres of 1927. There is in his account no understanding of the scale of the working class’ defeat, let alone any analysis.
His account of Mao’s rise to power is no better, though here at least the fault lies mainly in Louzon’s sources, or rather source. Mao’s interview with Edgar Snow in Snow’s Red Star over China was practically the only available account of Mao’s actions in the 1920s and 1930s. Louzon repeats all the standard lies from this account: that Mao was opposed to the alliance with the Guomindang in the 1920s, that Mao had a clear strategy of guerrilla warfare when he first took to the mountains, and that Mao led an authentic peasant rebellion. Louzon likewise repeats what most revolutionaries then believed about the anti-Japanese alliance with the Guomindang: that Stalin forced it on Mao. In fact, whilst Mao took care to dress up his decision in the Comintern’s language, the decision about an alliance was made for perfectly sound nationalist reasons.
The tentative closing pages have at least the merit of recognising Mao’s new regime as a form of state capitalism, in which he was in advance of most revolutionaries at the time. They also carry an odd prophecy of the future Sino-Soviet split, though his reasoning for it is curious, to say the least.
It is difficult to sum up such a contradictory and inconsistent book. For all my criticisms, anyone with an interest in Chinese history will find much of value in it. Even where Louzon is clearly wrong, he is often thought-provokingly so. It is a valiant and committed attempt to write Marxist history on a grand scale — even if ultimately an unsuccessful one. It would be a pity if this were to be the only legacy in English of such an important revolutionary figure.