Monthly Archives: November 2013

An organisation with integrity

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manifesto

[The following piece was published today by Exchange magazine]

The main motion for discussion at the SWP conference in December will say, “Conference recognises … That all the comrades involved in the DC hearings sought to apply our politics in a principled way at all times and tried honestly to do the best they could in the circumstances. All DC hearings have been conducted with integrity”. That last word, integrity, is the important one.

I don’t want to make familiar points going back over what happened at that DC hearing; or whether it is possible to transform an investigation from scandalous to principled merely through a conference vote. Here, I want to ask: what does the left need to do, if we are ever going to have again a reputation for integrity?

The word “integrity” means at least two different things. In a first sense, it just means being principled and living by what you believe.

For a very long time, in so far as the SWP has thought about “principles”, we have assumed that they could be subordinated to the interests of the party, which stood in our understanding as a proxy for the class, which stood for all of humanity. “Anarchists”, we have explained, may see a revolutionary group as the harbringer of a new society, but “Marxists” don’t agree with them: it is not possible to wash off what Marx once called “the muck of ages” (i.e. oppression and its effects on both oppressor and oppressor) merely by wanting to be better, without a social revolution. But in the last year we have found that we are being judged, not for the formal content of our ideas but the mismatch between our ideas and what we have done.

A socialist party cannot pretend to be the growing embryo of a potential future society. But behaving repeatedly in an unprincipled manner is enough to kill any organisation and especially one which aspires to carry the dreams of millions.

One way to reorient the left is through adopting detailed codes which formulate basic rules as to what behaviour so obviously “crosses the line” that it is incompatible with membership of a socialist group. This winter, for example, the International Socialist Organisation (which was for many years until 2003 the SWP’s American affiliate) is preparing for its own annual conference. One of the documents being circulated by its leadership is a Code of Conduct for the ISO’s members.

The Code commits them to conducting debate rigorously, but with civility and respect. Members are made accountable for actions that bring serious harm to other members or to the organization. Discrimination and harassment are prohibited. All sexual encounters must be consensual, whether with another ISO member or not.

Elsewhere, in the main body of the ISO’s rules, the group prohibits members from making false statements to obtain membership or engaging in financial improprieties, or acting as a strike-breaker, a provocateur, or an informer

I like the document and I support the ideas behind it but I won’t pretend that it, alone, could cure the problem. For one thing, the behaviours prohibited by it seem to have been selected quite arbitrary. I accept I wouldn’t want to be in a party with a police informer or an agent provocateur, or indeed a former informer. How about a police officer? (I assume not) Or a prison officer? Or a serving soldier? Someone who owns their own business? What if the business has a left-wing content? In the SWP, we tried to prohibit for a time our members having jobs in the union bureaucracy or even on 100% facility time. Unfortunately our former National Secretary had a number of friends in these positions, so we maintained the rule, but applied it arbitrarily. In some cases, through the party’s ignorance of what its members were up to; we didn’t apply it at all. Should we have kept the comrade who serves in the bureaucracy, as a very senior manager (i.e. with a power to hire and fire), and who has an OBE for his services to trade unionism? Does it make a difference that he is one of the kindest and most genuine people you will ever meet, as well as a committed revolutionary?

It is quite obvious, after the Delta rape scandal, that any left-wing organisation with any survival instinct will respond better than the SWP has done to complaints of rape. But any Code isn’t made useful by its ability to recognise last year’s errors, you want it to guide you through next year’s crises, whatever they may be.

The definitions of discrimination in ISO’s document mirror American law, but US law is relatively underdeveloped compared to various international counterparts. European law (and therefore even UK law) prohibits a much wider set of behaviours directed against wider sets of disadvantaged groups. This isn’t to praise UK law, by the way, which is itself the product of certain kind of social compromises and has all sorts of limitations, but only to say that any list will always be incomplete. The trick is to work out what the principles are behind our prohibition of certain behaviours, and to hope that those principles will guide you right even in unfamiliar situations.

Integrity has a second meaning; consistency. We in the SWP often say that women’s liberation is “integral” to our politics, if this is going to be more than hot air, it would have to mean that every aspect of our socialism was shaped by our commitment to ending women’s oppression: that we could not think about trade unions, universities, anti-fascism or anything else without thinking about women’s oppression.

One story about the old SWP illustrates nicely what integrity can mean. The revolutionary journalist Paul Foot had been educated at Shrewsbury public school, and his friends there, including Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker later worked with him on the magazine Private Eye. Unlike them, Foot was a socialist, joining the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists, in 1961 after leaving Oxford and remaining with IS/SWP until his death in 2004. A few years before he died he suffered a heart attack and was recovering in hospital, mute and seriously unwell. Friends from Private Eye visited him, and, as lay in bed, said that they had raised enough money for him to swap his NHS bed for one in a private hospital. Unable to speak, Foot lifted his fingers at them in a V-sign. Ill as he may have been, he was the same Paul Foot he had always been.

How do parties show integrity? Socialist Alternative, the largest IS group in Australia, published five years ago an Anti-Sexism Manifesto, setting out how to enable women to take part in a group as equals with men.

The pamphlet describes, in ways which any socialist should recognise, how men can dominate in social relationships, how women still tend to do the majority of housework and certainly childcare (even in socialist relationships). It notes the persistence of old, stereotypical ideas about how men will be the ones who work and women the ones who do most of the caring. It accepts that there is a limit to how far sexism can be overcome under capitalism, but makes a comparison with workers’ subordination: “Socialists do not passively accept that workers will always submit to their bosses’ authority, or that they will automatically adopt racist or other divisive ideas … We fight these ideas vigorously when we can. And so it is with sexism.”

Much of the pamphlet is about consent, and why socialist men should never chivvy a woman for sex, get her drunk in order to sleep with her, pretend that a “No”was playful rather than serious, etc. “No means no at any time”, its author writes. It talks in practical ways about what is wrong with men controlling women. Socialist Alternative encourage their members to practice safe sex, and to see this as something which is the man’s primary responsibility. Last of all, the authors of the pamphlet insist that no-one should use the group as a pick-up joint.

Some of the ideas in their pamphlet are things which people on the left have done intuitively for years. Even in the SWP, we don’t normally ask men to speak at Marxism on women’s oppression. Generally, we do try to have a number of women either speaking, or at least chairing, our national events. And any comrade who has been in the SWP more than a few years will remember a time when we tried much harder to challenge sexism than we do now. In the past, for example, we did try to provide childcare to enable parents to attend our meetings. The problem is that all these things we do, or did, feel partial. We never explain properly why we do them. They are not followed through in our campaigns or our publications.

A theme of the SWP opposition has been that if we want people to believe that we actually have a theory which makes women’s liberation “essential” to our project, then we need to demonstrate that our internal practice matches up to the way we like to present ourselves to the world. You can’t say one thing and do another …

[the piece continues here, at page 18]

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CLR James on how to rewrite the Black Jacobins

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CLR JAMES jacket

My thanks to Ravi Malhotra for sending me a copy the journal Small Axe (no. 8, 2000), containing three talks James gave on The Black Jacobins. Delivered in 1971 to the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, the first was a biographical retrospective on the book, and the second a comparison with WEB Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, which had covered some of the same themes, and was published just a couple of years earlier, albeit of course DuBois’ immediate subject was the rise and defeat of a post-revolutionary order 80 years later within the Southern States of the US after the Civil War.

The talk which interested me the most was the third, “How I Would Re-Write The Black Jacobins”. Now, every writer, the further they get from publishing a book, will have changes to make to it. If you are, like James, writing history, then others will inevitably approach the same documents and find new sources to better contextualise them. If you are writing politics, as you age and mellow, or find new reasons to be angry, inevitably you will want to reconsider earlier formulations.

Retrospective correction need not be an improvement. Engels’ 1895 introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France before partially disavowed their generation’s focus on street-fighting in favour of reform through the ballot box, comparing the inevitable rise of the SPD to that of Christianity centuries before. Generations of Marxists since 1917 have disagreed with him.

But James in his seventies, unusually for an older writer looking back, was thinking through ways in which he could rewrite The Black Jacobins to the left. He had described slavery through the eyes of sympathetic, affluent observers. “Not any long, no, I would want to say what we had to say about how we were treated, and I know that information exists.” In France, he found a black aristocrat and colonist Carteau warning that the mood had turned decisively against the aristocracy of the skin, “I would not write that today”, “I would find – and I know they are there if you look hard enough – the actual statements where the rank and file in France and the ordinary people are saying what they think about slavery.”

The “we” in these passages (“how we were treated”) are the black slaves of St Dominique, and the “we” is equally the black audience of CLR James speaking in Atlanta in 1971.

Immediately afterwards, he qualified these thoughts, saying that he would also say more about the revolutionary process in France. James distanced himself from a section of The Black Jacobins, during which he had described how during the Days of 31 May and 2 June 1793, the Girondins had been driven out of the Convention. With some care, he explained, this was quite inadequate. He showed, from a perspective of fascination with the involvement of the masses in the making of a democratic revolution, that the impetus for the change came not from the top but from hundreds of thousands of Parisians had compelled the leaders of the revolution to take action, and reconstitute the Convention, enabling the abolition of slavery which was to follow the year after.

The rank-and-file was never constituted in James’ mind only out of those oppressed on grounds of race, but comprised equally the poor and the workers of all colours. In thinking of the working class as a unified force comprising of every race; he never forgot to think of the particular oppression of those who suffered racism.

James described the intense debates which took place within the French revolution, and he insisted that at their centre was not a debate between two types of revolutionary leader, but the debate “in the stores and the little workshops and the dark streets of old Paris”. Next he showed how the revolutionary leaders of San Domingo had not been the first to come to the fore in demanding abolition, but the initiative had been taken (in the words of one French soldier Pamphile de Lacroix) by “obscure creatures for the greater part personal enemies of the black generals”.

“They were obscure in Watts, they were obscure in Detroit”, James interjected. If he had to write the book now, he continued, most of his research from the very beginning would have been directed to finding who these “creatures”, the local advocates of the San Domingo uprising, its cadre, had been.

In 1971 James was setting out a writer’s project for a world in which the number of revolutions was increasing, as was their social content, whereas our own times are more equivocal. And yet there is something heartening – and contemporary – about a way of writing in which the focus is constantly, urgently, and ever more deeply, on the process of revolution itself.

For those who are interested in more about James, my book CLR James; Cricket’s Philosopher King, has was re-published this month as an e-book by HopeRoad

Zimbabwe: a class still in need of solidarity (2004)

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bob

Another piece originally published in What Next.

Last June, the news filled with reports from the frontline in Zimbabwe. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change had called mass demonstrations designed to topple the government of Robert Mugabe. The movement was exhausted, however, and the police took back control of the streets. I can recall the images, which were vivid. The cameras showed lone demonstrators, being attacked by thugs with batons. One long-distance shot showed police dragging students from a moving lorry. Another scene portrayed an elderly woman journalist, who was sat in her car screaming, while a single figure tried to break through the glass in her car windows. The implied racial dynamics were hardly subtle. As the story broke, I was already packing for a trip to the same country. What a stupid place to visit.

On arriving in Harare, the first building I saw was a giant new aircraft terminal opened only the year before. I was in the city for more than 48 hours, before I saw my first uniform. Driving through the business district in Harare, all I could see were skyscrapers, holding banks and international agencies, built in the very period that the Western governments had been arguing for sanctions. Where had this money come from? The papers in Britain reported daily that the entire population of Zimbabwe was poor and destitute, even starving. It made no sense.

Robert Mugabe has held the Presidency for twenty years, ever since the defeat of the previous, white Rhodesian state. For the first five years or so, the new Zanu-PF regime did attempt to grant certain reforms, if only to establish its own popular legitimacy. Yet even in this period, there were purges of dissidents, many of them linked to the rival pan-African party, Zapu. In one particular notorious incident, Mugabe’s troops killed 30,000 people loyal to his enemies.

The colonial power with responsibility for Zimbabwe was Britain. Our government has traditionally seen its responsibility as being to safeguard the interests of the white minority. The Lancaster House Accords that accompanied the transfer of power accepted that there should be a transfer of white-held land towards black farmers. The UK promised tens of million of pounds to facilitate this process, and enable black farmers to purchase land at market rates. Such aid never arrived.

Despite occasional diplomatic rows, the international community accepted Mugabe’s government long into the 1990s, ignoring the murders and the regime’s increasingly autocratic aspect. The argument was that Mugabe could ‘do business’. He respected the limits of neo-liberalism. It has been Mugabe’s recent populist turns against white interests that have so angered the British press in particular.

Robert Mugabe is evidently a tyrant. Yet over time I concluded that he could not be quite the stupid one, portrayed in the papers here. By squeezing the vast estates of the white farmers for every penny, he had endeared himself to a significant number of poor black farmers. They remember how the land had been stolen from their parents, during the white wars of reconquest in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Mugabe’s government seemed to have negotiated a certain compromise with significant sections of foreign capitalist interests. The white farmers had seen their lands expropriated, but white businesses remained untouched. In June, George Bush travelled to South Africa. He publicly refused to call for Mugabe’s overthrow, or even to criticise the South African government for its ‘softly-softly’ approach towards him. Meanwhile UN agencies sent corn in vast quantities. Boiled corn (sadzo) is a miserable diet, but it kept at least some of the people fed.

The greatest victims of Mugabe’s rule had not been white. Instead, the last ten years had witnessed the practical destruction of the black urban economy. The numbers of workers in trade unions had fallen by half. Unemployment has been the majority experience. The markets were empty all summer. Queues formed for bread, sugar and even for bank notes. One of the two teachers’ unions was on indefinite strike, calling for wage rises above their current salary of just thirty dollars per month. I stayed at the offices of the International Socialist Organisation, whose comrades are sacrificing everything to build up the unions and the democracy movement. But still Mugabe survived. Still he enjoyed the passive support of a rural majority.

At the start of June, the MDC launched a series of mass protests. In the run-up to this so-called ‘final push’, the situation was confused in the extreme. The MDC enjoys a mixed history. It had originally been formed by the trade unions, but had then sought to bring white workers behind a programme amenable to foreign capitalism. By spring 2003, the MDC had failed to call mass actions for twelve months, before relaunch itself through protests. Its leaders remained fearful of working-class action. They advertised their protests ‘by remote’, placing ads in the press rather than rebuilding the structures that had previously linked them to the townships. Meanwhile, Mugabe had been more willing than his opponents to swing left. Articles in the government’s Daily Herald condemned US foreign policy. The MDC allowed itself to be presented as having a more moderate programme than the state’s. Yet despite everything, the MDC had shown that it enjoyed a decisive majority among voters in the towns. Every urban election had gone their way. More than once, it had called mass strikes, which had threatened to overturn the state. The Zanu-PF government had survived by means of peasant support. Neither the government nor the opposition were strong enough to land a decisive blow.

In the last week, I travelled for a week with a friend Leo to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. The stone structures date back to the eleventh century, and are among the tallest stone structures in Africa. Some are twenty foot high and five foot thick. They are a symbol of an extraordinary society, a confederation of peoples united by the trade in cattle. The goods found on the site have included presents to the rulers of Great Zimbabwe, donated by states in Central and West Africa. The country itself took its name from the Shona words for such stone forts, dzimba dza mabwe.

Leo and I decided to travel south by way of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth city. The train was an overnight sleeper, cheap and busy. Friends in Mutare showed us a local paper mill thriving on South African money and the nearby game park, replete with a family of elephants, one giraffe and two white rhino.

The mill was supposedly maintained by money from a nearby forestry college, which sent its students there for training. In reality, all cash flowed from the private business into education coffers. The plant had benefited from a series of special grants. At the time of the handover, it had enjoyed generous state backing. Later, the regional institutions of Southern African economic co-operation had provided additional funds. More recently still, a number of North American businesses had bought into South African timber, hoping to export wood across the Atlantic. The whole sector was awash with dollar grants. The Zimbabwean plant was able to afford the latest tools imported from Italy. Its machines had been purchased in the last ten years, and were far newer than ones I have seen used in England.

The bus from Mutare to Masvingo was clean and efficient. Congolese music burst from the speakers. The bus collected workers in blue overalls, mothers with quiet babies strapped to their backs, youngsters in green and white bobble hats. This was no ‘chicken bus’. Instead there were signs of certain prosperity, in the thick wool sweaters and new black backpacks worn by the commuters around us.

From Masvingo, a local bus took us to the site itself. Great Zimbabwe’s ruins surrounded a hill to the southeast of the city. To access the ruins, we walked through a field of traders, selling giant wooden carvings, masks, ornate chess sets. The African women left their huts to view us tourists, with our strange grey blankets and our foreign ways. The path leads through a glamorous-looking hotel, all SUVs and then there was a gate, a hefty fee to pay and the museum.

The most impressive buildings were those in the plains surrounding the hill. Their walls were curved, in grooves and buttresses. They were covered in the past with plaster and painted. At one time, there were probably fifty such houses in the valley, holding officials of the court and their families. The shock I felt at the first sight of the city was real. The bird-tower was a huge structure composed of almost 15,000 tons of individual bricks, built without foundation and sections of the wall still reached more than ten metres high. It was truly ‘bird tower’. The centrepiece of it all was an imposing giant stone that obscured all others and was shaped, distinctly as a bird, with a large protruding beak. It was easy to imagine another generation of arrivals, seeing this giant rock for the first time and planning the whole city around it.

We took a bull-trap and then a bus back to Masvingo. Our fellow travellers were farmers, taking three large sacks of corn to sell in town. They shivered in the cold and we encourage them to sing to keep up as all warm. Their songs are in Shona, English. ‘Jesus number one, Jesus number one.’ We joined in shaking two plastic maracas bought from a street-kid in Mutare. Leo tried to sing along. ‘Jesus number two, Jesus number three’. He then lost the farmers in a horribly convoluted explanation. ‘I am the devil, I am pretending, you have to shout me down.’

The farmers were certainly poor, but they seemed no worse off to me than their equivalents in South Africa. They had corn enough to sell, and no great worries for the year ahead. What kept them going? No one mentioned the land distribution schemes. By all accounts, anyway, they have mostly benefited the regime.

The best explanation I could find was that international agencies (NGOs and the UN) were supplying such large quantities of emergency food aid, and distributing it so well, that disaster had been averted. To put it another way, the very international statesman who have been so busily denouncing Mugabe have financed the measures that keep his people alive. You could call it hypocrisy, perhaps even a necessary display of double standards. Indeed in the short-term, there is no other alternative to foreign aid, other than mass starvation. This situation should remind us, though, that many of Africa’s problems can still be found outside her borders.

Three documents by Victor Serge, 1921-6 (trans 2003)

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Victor Serge

Again, first published in What Next?

These documents, a poem, a short piece of fiction, and an article, were written by Victor Serge between 1921 and 1926 for the left-literary magazine Clarté.  The paper itself was founded in Paris in 1919.  It was established to express the views of a circle of left-wing intellectuals disillusioned by war and anxious for radical change.  The progress of Clarté was shaped by the changing tastes of the left intelligentsia.  The unity of the early 1920s gave way to division, as reformist socialists split away from revolutionaries.  Meanwhile, the insurgents were divided between those supporting Trotsky and Stalin.  The British historian David Caute indicates some of the personalities involved in the magazine:

Clarté was given substance and vitality by Henry Barbusse … but when Barbusse, an ardent convert to Communism, hailed the foundation of the Third International (Comintern), and the French section of Clarté converted itself into a pressure-group agitating for a Communist take-over of the Socialist Party, the foreign affiliates withdrew … [Maxim] Gorky briefly lent his distant support and Anatole France showed a transitory interest, but [Romain] Rolland refused to have anything to do with it.’[1]

Victor Serge’s first contribution to Clarté was a 1921 poem, ‘Mitrailleuse’ (‘Machine-Gun’).  Subsequently, Serge was commissioned by the editors to write a series of articles on the condition of Russian art and culture after 1917.  This series was titled ‘Intellectual Life in Russia’.  Serge published articles on Pilniak, Chaliapine, Mayakovsky, Lebedinsky and Ivanov.  In 1923, Serge also published a short story, ‘La flamme sur la neige’ (‘Flame on the snow’).  The following year, Serge published a four-part series, on the role played by Lenin in 1917.  From 1926, Clarté came out much more openly in support of Trotsky.  The nature of Serge’s articles also changed.  Now he wrote about Russia after the revolution, new tactics in war, marriage in Russia, Bolshevism in Asia, the Finnish Commune, and class struggle in the Chinese Revolution.  There are several themes which recur throughout Serge’s essays.  They include Victor Serge’s support for the initial goals of 1917, which he believed had been a truly democratic and socialist transformation; his sceptical interest in the relationship between art and revolution; Serge’s identification with Trotsky’s fight against Stalinism; his interest in problems of morality in the process of violent, social revolution.

The first two pieces are examples of Victor Serge’s creative writing.  The poem ‘Machine Gun’ was written in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution.  The Bolsheviks were isolated and besieged by hostile military forces.  Therefore they responded with the appropriate military tactics.  Would this process undermine the revolution itself?  Serge’s poem acknowledges the violence, and is ambivalent as to the future.  The second, prose piece, ‘Flame on the Snow’, is again concerned with the dilemmas of the early heroic period that followed 1917.  Impressionistic as its, we can observe again the combination of some doubt and growing enthusiasm, with which Serge experienced these Red years.

The third piece, ‘New aspects of the problem of the war’ addresses the politics of left-wing resistance to war.  By 1926, when Serge wrote it, the socialism Clarté had developed in a more practical and less literary direction.  Its author was living in the Soviet Union, having worked for a period in central Europe as an employee of the Comintern.  Serge’s piece condemns the state war preparations, which he had seen taking place all over Europe.  It points out that future wars will depend ever more closely on industrial control.  It warns the workers’ movement of a wave of reaction, in which Italian fascism has been just one model.  Victor Serge argues that the resistance to reaction must include work among the European armies.  While anticipating elements of the great Marxist theories of fascism, there are other insights in the piece, which may seem more desperate, even shrill.  Anyone who looks to Serge for direct guidance in our own anti-war moment will be disappointed.  Since his time, the balance between propaganda and direct compulsion has shifted.  We should remember, though, the brutal war that Hitler unleashed against the German working class, within days of seizing power in 1933.  When set against the desperate conditions of the European crisis, Serge’s argument is more interesting and also more true.

All three documents are published here in translation for the first time.

Machine Gun

At the gates of the homes, at the gates of the palaces – that we have conquered –

everywhere in the city[2]

where the riot drags on cold, dull and strong,

everywhere at the doors of our homes

the machine-guns in the dark corners.

Dull, to bring death;

blind, low, at the base of the earth,

blind, cold, of steel, of iron,

with the metal of their hate

elemental,

with their steel teeth ready to bite,

their clockwork,

wheels, nuts, springs,

their short black mouths on the mounts

squat …

Oh, the tragic machine, the thing of steel, of iron, inert, which mutilates seconds, at the fatal moment of battle,

which digests seconds – tac-tac-tac – the seconds drop to the infinite – and lives

tumble to the great cold of the tombs,

The machine

which eats, tears, bursts, pierces, excavates the flesh, becomes twisted in blood and nerves,

breaks the bones, makes the rails sing with the hollow of perforated chests,

makes the brain ooze with the breaking of great faces:

grey among blackened blood.

Low machine to kill, everywhere, in the town of dull riot,

lurking at the doors of our homes, watching for what wants to be born,

watching

for what lifts from human hearts and from the depths of the live earth,

for what rises from burning faith, from mad hope and from anger – from want and from light –

from enthusiasm and from prayer,

which goes up to flower – acts, cries – flames: the revolt …

Low to cut down flight, the machine-gun in ambush: victory to the man of iron laws,

victory to metal on flesh – and in the dream – the law of death.

And this machine,

our hands and our brains built.  O Father!  Did we know what we made?

Petrograd, 22 July 1919

Flame on the Snow

Snow and night.[3]  Burdens weigh.  You stumbles in the deep and deceitful whiteness of the snow.  Around, men walk heavily, carrying rifles.  The White Finns show hostility in their faces, closed, hard, heavy.  They keep silent.  The barrels of their guns seem attracted to the ground.  A small bridge, sentry box, in the dark another man presses his two hands on his rifle.  A bonnet of astrakhan tops a grey, pale coat and the thin face of a peasant.  We greeted him without emphasis, tightened hearts, low voices, in spite of the exaltation: ‘Hello brother!’  I do not see the eyes in the great shadows of the face turned towards me.  The man asks gently: ‘Do you have white bread?’  He takes the tendered round loaf.  ‘Golodno?‘  You are hungry? – ‘Yes.  It is nothing’, he answers only to the gate of immense Russia, our brother, the Red soldier, upright in the cold, the night, the hunger – and alone.

One is hungry, but it is nothing …

The white night with distant bursts of shell, abrupt passages by the empty streets, the roughcast trucks of bayonets.  Hands grow numb on the rifle.  But this midnight with its infinite pallor, this silence, this waiting become a singular peace.  You feel almost liberated.  Free, simple, calm, although it arrives.

Crosses of rifles stand in front of closed doors.  Our steps sound in the mildness of unknown homes.  Faces of anxiety, lamps suddenly lit among the grey half-light.  Papers which you decipher badly in front of the window, the frightened eyes that you explore in an acute and sad glance, ‘Are you lying?’

Return.  Tire.  The rifle weighs.  It is necessary.  It is necessary.  It is necessary.  We will make the new life. 

The crowd – this resolute crowd gathered in the vast quadrangular room, with white columns, the Tauride Palace, this drawn-up crowd, tender, vehement, willingly applauding the orator:

The man with his back arched, a high thick mane of greying hair.  The energetic face of an intellectual, stressed voice, categorical gesture which proclaims the determination of the crowd to overcome.  It proclaims terror.

The song of the crowd.

Young women – no preoccupation with elegance or prettiness, but what valour! – in short hair, their busts clasped by leather clothing or a military blouse; workers, soldiers, peasants, sailors, the crowd singing the Internationale after the Farewell to the Dead.

This crowd wants to live, to make life.  But how many of those who are there have already been killed?

This immense white city, all in silence.  Because the sledges do not make noise on snow.  The steps do not resonate.  A great pale light on all things.  Broad, between its pink granite quays, the Neva solid under snow.  Far away, the gold arrow of Peter-and-Paul.

The poor tattered people, many teenagers, some children all bearing rifles, with the straps often replaced by string.  The hands numb with cold of these poor people.  Their grey wretched crossing of the Liteyni prospect, in a determined step.  At the end of a bayonet a red flag: Workers’ battalion from Narva district.

In a noisy barrack room – the walls showing Marx and Lenin framed with red ribbons – this avid group around us, the firm and defying face of the agitator, the pince-nez with gold mounting, these child-like and serious eyes, the comically round nose of the small comrade in leather jacket, the neat moustache of the Cossack – their hurried questions – ‘Demobilisation? … the working-class of France? … is the revolution growing? …’ Anger, distress, revolt against having to answer these men, this woman: No, you are alone.

This face without apparent beauty, the vast face, these unpleasant white metal glasses behind which there was always the same serious glance, inattentive, a little distant, very attractive, something understanding and soft … Our labour until dawn.  At dawn, seated on the edge of a window, above the deserted place (the formidable granite mass of St.  Isaac’s, the enormous gold dome: cold rectangular palaces, and worked on its base this thin bronze rider from another time … ) our search, our thought, our cold reasoning.

(‘ … It is impossible that we would hold out for more than six months, unless … ‘) which made us smile us all the same, full of an unlimited confidence …

This crowd in snow, under the midday sun, following coffins covered with branches of fir trees.  Red ribbons, flags.  A gold ray is posed on the arrow of the Admiralty.  Songs – the song which soars.  There are prayers and sobs in this farewell from a living crowd to a crowd of the dead.  Here they sleep, behind a granite rampart, those hung, shot, whose throats were cut, those that died of typhus, who all, gave freely and with their souls.  Died for the revolution.  So often these funerals on the Field of Mars …

Four thousand soldiers, peasants from Viazma, Ryazan, Tver, Orel, Viatka, Perm – Russians, Tartars, Kirghises, Tcherkesses – four thousand soldiers nourished on dry herrings – hard like stone, that made the gums bleed – fed on four hundred grams of black bread per day, dressed in this icy winter with the old coats of the great war, beating their hands like children and laughing and shouting and humming.  The room, made from the velvet blue-gold of the imperial theatre vibrates suddenly with this clear human joy,

because a sovereign artist sang. 

Six hours of voyage by a frozen north wind, along Neva.  Stiff, we heat ourselves in turns in the boiler room.  And here in the Scandinavian cold landscape the dead carcass of an old castle: the Schüsselburg.  – And here, in its cottage, the coffin holding the large lengthened body of the anarchist Justin Jouk, the great face of Justin Jouk.

How they have great faces, those of us that are dead!

The Silver Wood, one June morning; the river caressing and murmuring between the meadows and the wood.  A dome of a church – in blue or silver, I no longer know – emerging with the sun.  Light in all things, fair light of Russia; and the houses of children, peaceful in the tepid warmth of June, in the greenery, in the murmur of water, in waiting for the future.  Thin, long camp beds.  Along the walls running with tar, the coloured drawings of the young girls; all this clear country of children so close to our town caught up in civil war …

A young girl – seven years old – with very large black eyes, encased in a fine, small Kalmuk face, a small refined spirit, precocious, sensitive, encased in a thin body, slowly debilitated by the hunger: Tatiane, the daughter of an aristocrat, whom you fondly call Tania, Tanioucha, Taniouchetchka.  She says:

Since you are a Bolshevik, answer me!  Why was Lavr Andreievitch shot?

I am a Bolshevik, little Tania, and I do not know why Lavr Andreievitch was shot.

A street corner, the blackening mud of the thaw, a child who sells matches: stolen matches, the prize of speculation.  A well-dressed passer-by, in military clothing, booted.  The child follows with anger in its eyes:

Bourgeois!

And the immense dead factory, scrap in the walkways, rusted benches, formidable squatted machines, oiled, inactive, the halls with windows whose panes have been broken.  There will remain soon only the metal casings drawn up on the ruins of a city … The immense dead factory, thirty thousand workers in 1914, four and a half thousand present today.  Others: dead, returned to the ground, they died the best, or soldiers.

But near the home of the porter, this negligible small garden cultivated with such an amount of care; and in the immense dead factory, a buzzing hall where seventy men tortured by hunger get on with rebuilding an engine.

The city.  The streets narrow, dark.  The streets in a state of siege which ended at eight, before nightfall.  Far and wide, men with rifles, standing.

City, night, snow.  In the homes, twinkling gleams of light.  At the bottom of the cold rooms, an old man shrivelled in his fur-lined coat, his hands frozen, reads by the gleam of a candle:

The Mysticism of Vladimir Soloviev,

and in the dark of the room, a teenager rolled in a soldier’s coat who shivers and thinks of great things, the electrification of the Urals. 

The countryside.  You can walk there for hours through fields or woods without hearing a voice of man, without seeing a cottage; but you cannot be there for a long time on the road without seeing, surrounded by birches a green chapel with a small triangular pediment, and a pinnacle of blue Byzantine – or of another colour, always bright, clear, radiant colour.

Space – the fields where the train goes during the so-long hours, the fields with their sparse villages: some grey thatched roofs, the fields with their remote churches whose gold cross always light up as the sun sets, and the woods of birch, white slenderness, the silver plated slenderness of the birch trees,

(that our ancient storytellers compared to virgins … )

Again the city, the old Fabergé store, goods from Paris, objets d’art (the sign is faded).  Three balls divide the large window, scraps of paper (leaves torn from an accounts book, numbered 124), ‘3rd Office of Supply.  This 24 February, one dry herring pound at cart B.’ – From the windows of the old hotel Regina, poor, sickly soldiers look out.  – Here: Aline Fashions, in large scripted gold letters.  Below: Headquarters of the special battalion of Kazan sector Cafe Empire.  No, ‘Club of the 14th State Print works’.  In the entrance, KarI Marx, framed with red ribbons.  The ribbons are bleached; the portrait loses its colour.

By the street bordered with churches, palaces – where our clubs stand – ransacked stores, theatres, libraries, public buildings, the book centre, the military academy (a bank previously) by the street which goes from the Admiralty, built by Peter the Great, to the statue of Tsar Alexander, so heavy on his heavy bronze horse that he must be contemplating already with his overwhelming weight the fall of his empire.

by this street, the Mongolian riders pass singing.  Red ribbons on the handle of their sabres, at the front the red star with five branches.

(You spoke, o poet, so much love for the things of Europe:

‘Yes, we are Scythians!  Yes, Asians … ‘)

On the handle of their sabres, red ribbons.

Morning, spring, the desire to smile.  People, in the square, read the paper which has just been posted.  Why this word The Truth, this word of few syllable, is it so hard, sharp, curt, in all languages: Pravda, Wahrheit, Truth, Verdad? – a scrap of paper flapping in the wind.

’33: Nikitor Arkadievitch Ijine, 33 years old, speculator.  34: Denskaya Elena Dmitrievna, 24 years old, dressmaker, spy.  35: Vassili Vassilievitch Onéguine, 42 years old, officer, aristocrat, proven counter-revolutionary … 58: Abram Abramovitch, 30 years old, civil servant, member of the Communist Party, convicted of corruption …’ shot.

Sixty! says a young voice.  They read abstractly, without ceasing to smile.  He is twenty years old, an aspiring Red; she, nineteen, militant in charge with of Dynamo factory.  Which one will be killed beneath Kronstadt?

‘Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX.  Suppression of rent … ‘

‘Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX.  Suppression of private property in furniture … ‘

‘Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX.  Suppression of illiteracy …’

‘Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars No XXX.  Creation of the autonomous Tartar Republic.’

‘Decree…’

One reads standing, in the street, in the snow.  The cold grips, you hear gun-fire.

She came often about midnight, after a telephone call (‘do you have tea?’).  She shook her fair ashy hair.  Her eyes had a good serious smile.  She said:

‘You understand, the regional devolution of the metal industry … Because the Higher Council of the Economy and the Trade Union … ‘, or:

‘Bogdanov’s theses, from a rigorously Marxist a point of view …’, or

‘The sub-section of the organisation of the Committee of the 2nd Sector decided … ‘

She lit a cigarette.  Her lips had the pink colour of a ripe fruit.

Contempt for words – for the old words.  Contempt for the ideas which mislead.  Contempt for the hypocritical and cruel West which invented Parliaments, the public press, the asphyxiating gases, the prison system, after-dinner literature.  Contempt for all that vegetates in satisfaction with these things.

Hatred for the formidable machine used to crush the weak – all disarmed humanity – for the vice of Law, Police, Clergy, Schools, Armies, Factories, Penal Colonies.  Hatred for those who need that system, the rich, class hatred.

The will to undergo everything, to suffer everything, achieve everything in order to finish.  Inexorable will.  The will to live finally according to the new law, equal work, or to die showing the way.  The willingness to plough up the ground and its souls so well that the earth shall be new tomorrow.

Consciousness that the present hardly exists; and that it is necessary to give everything, at this hour, to the future so that there may be a present.  Consciousness that all of us are nothing if we are not with our class, its humanity rising.  Consciousness that work ahead does not have limits, that it requires a million arm and brains, that it is the only justification of our lives.  Consciousness that a world collapses and that you can live only while giving yourself to the world which waits to be born.

Petrograd-Moscow, 1920-21.

New aspects of the problem of the war

‘The only possible method of combating war is the formation and maintenance of underground organisations, carrying on prolonged anti-war activities, and made up of revolutionaries serving in the war.’  Lenin.

Twelfth anniversary of 2 August 1914[4]

All politics is prediction.  The working class must use the periods of calm to prepare for the fights of the future.  We are between two wars.  The ‘Great’ imperialist war dominates our past.  The armaments, the rivalries between the powers, the lying games of diplomacy, the formidable interests of the imperialist groupings who divide a world as the sun sets beneath their feet, all these facts prepare methodically before our eyes the coming war.

At different times, in these last years, the problem of war has been posed in agitation.  Not once, has it been properly scanned to its depths.  The working-class organisations seem dominated by an inertia encouraging us ‘to let events mature’ (we will see what happens!).  We have most often limited ourselves to the repetition of old anti-war formulas from the socialist international and a few well-struck phrases of Lenin.  The error seems great to me.  Repetition alone, even the skilful development of the best formulas of the pre-war period, is not enough any more to outline a solution to the problem of war.  All facts of the case have profoundly changed.  Nothing is less compatible with the intellectual discipline taught to us by Marx and Lenin than the pure and simple repetition of formulas that have since been exceeded.  Even a brief examination of the new conditions in which the difficulty arises will be enough, I hope, to make militants reflect – and all those who think of our future.

Before 1914, the revolutionary doctrines possessed a beautiful verbal radicalism.  The declaration of war would be answered by general strike and insurrection.  The first days of August 1914, days of great fear and great disavowal, showed the limits of this illusion.

During these last years, Communist doctrine has held almost in entirety to a remarkable document compiled by Lenin on 4 December 1922 for the Russian delegation at the Hague Congress of the Peace, organised by the Amsterdam Trade Union Federation.  This document, published for the first French time two years later, has often been reproduced since.[5]  It is a tough document of proletarian realism.  The ‘hopelessly stupid and futile resolutions of the working Congresses’ are treated there with the contempt which any fake-revolutionary verbiage deserves.  Lenin underlines the constant danger of war, commits us to study it and to envisage it under all its aspects, invites us to solve with the eyes of the masses the problems of national defense and of defeatism, reminding us of the need for underground organisation.  This document is, remember, neither an article intended for publication, nor a thesis.  It is an aide de memoir.  It is obvious that Lenin expresses not his whole opinion there on the war – he assumes the familiarity of comrades with his thoughts – but the ideas which recent events brought to his attention.  Several sentences are there, several right sentences, whose mechanical repetition, i.e. their application to changed circumstances, could be extremely dangerous.  They produce a deep impression.  Here:

It is impossible to ‘retaliate’ to war by a strike, just as it is impossible to ‘retaliate’ to war by revolution in the simple and literal sense of these terms.

‘Boycott war’ – that is a silly catch-phrase.  Communists must take part in every war, even the most reactionary.

Lenin says that ‘The question of the defence of the fatherland will inevitably arise, and the majority of the working people will inevitably decide it in favour of their bourgeoisie.’

‘In all probability, the communist press in most countries will also disgrace itself.’

The essential part of his positive thought is held in these words:

The only possible method of combating war is the formation and maintenance of underground organisations, carrying on prolonged anti-war activities, and made up of revolutionaries serving in the war.

Even though it is necessary to keep away from mechanical repetition of the first formulas, the last phrase quoted above, contains all practical truth for a long time to come.  The developments which follow will lead us to restate this conclusion, with new force.

Immense changes have been produced in the world, since 1914.  The most decisive include the victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia, the aggravation of class struggle in all the civilised countries, the awakening of the oppressed people of the colonies and the semi-colonies, the new distribution of wealth (the financial hegemony of the United States), the new development of military technique (aviation, chemistry, the industrialisation of war).

To pose under these conditions the problem of the war, in the terms where it was posed formerly, before Verdun, Red October, the Republic of Canton, before the new plans for industrial mobilisation, would be a really unforgivable naivete.  All things are changed, many to our advantage.  With the proviso that we should understand the change.

The enemy knows it.

The very technique of war makes it increasingly difficult to sustain the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.  In the last war there was – I believe – behind each gunner in the trench, five soldiers or workers absorbed by industrial work and the organisation of massacre.  The number of workers behind the combatants will undoubtedly grow with the further mechanisation of slaughter.  War is waged now in the factory, more than on the battle field.  One is the prolongation of the other.  It is the factory which determines the value of the soldiers and the talent of the officers that are at its service.  From this fact, it follows that the industrial centers are more than fortresses, the vulnerable points of a country, they are the very places where each side will seek to land its mortal blow.  A good industrial mobilisation is the underlying condition of military operation.  Corollary: the war will start with the mobilisation of the whole nation.  Indeed the life of the entire proletariat will be threatened because the development of aviation and of chemical weapons makes it possible for the enemy to achieve its goal, the destruction of the industrial centers.

From the start of the great power duel, the stake will be the future of the proletariat.

France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Belgium, England, Italy, Germany, Poland, Japan and the United States have developed organisations which are designed to proceed with speed for the mobilisation of the whole nation, in war.  The whole nation, it is said, but this is primarily about labour, i.e. proletarians and technicians.  In modern warfare, the capitalist State is nothing more than one vast factory for the manufacture of death.

In future wars, the mobilisation of the rear will have as much importance as that of the troops themselves.  All is fixed.  With each factory, each workshop has its task; each man his function.  Not a machine is omitted from the inventories.  In the preparation of the machine, it goes without saying, the apparatus of coercion will strike the first blow.

The ‘plans of national organisation for times of war’ start with repression.  Vast and delicate, the industrial mobilisation requires that the proletariat be reduced to passive obedience.  It must begin with a decisive aggression against the organisations of the working avant-garde, the party, revolutionary unions, cooperatives, etc.  In a word, the mobilisation must be, and will mean, the throttling of the proletariat.

Such is the logic of the preparation of war.  The bosses know it.  The logic is theirs.

Other factors drawn from the same reserve of experience confirm these forecasts.

In 1914, the war was preceded and followed by an extremely powerful action exerted by the governments on public opinion.  This was the mobilisation of consciences.  It was necessary to provide ideologies of war, sufficiently convincing, impressive enough so that millions of men could be led to the slaughter.  The mobilisation of consciences was made possible by the role of the intellectuals who appeared at the decisive hours as good servants of bourgeois order.  It was made possible by the monopoly of the press, the treason of international socialism and especially by the play of the psychological factors of the time.  The ideas of Democracy, of the Rights of Nationalities, of Civilisation, provided to the imperialist Allies an effective justification.  Civilisation, Law, the Mission of the German people rendered the same service to the Central Empires.  The duties of Latins, Slavs, the Anglo-Saxons, the Americans and the Germans served as two sides of one coin.  You cannot lead the masses to commit murder without justifying it by great ideas.  The impossibility of mobilizing the consciences of the workers against the Russian revolution ruined the Allied intervention against the Soviets.  Ever since the Third International was established in the name of the class-conscious workers, including the colonial peoples, there has been a difficulty in mobilizing consciences for colonial war.  This obstacle prevented England from subjecting modern Turkey and from ‘re-establishing order’ in Canton.

Here a new fact appears, of great importance.  It seems that the bourgeoisie has exhausted its ideological resources.  Neither ‘Democracy’ nor the ‘Right of Nationalities’, neither the ‘Defense of Civilisation’, nor the theory of the ‘last war’, nor even, supreme illusion, the assertion that ‘the Defeated will pay’, can be used again.[6]  It is probable that Japan and the United States, the likely belligerents of tomorrow, will be able to improvise vigorous ideologies of war.  The European bourgeoisie cannot do it any more.

The only watchword able to galvanize the bourgeoisie and a notable part of the middle class is that of anti-bolshevism, of the counter-revolution.  The defence of property, the defence of the Rich, these are slogans civil war and not of wars between States.  The needs for repression, the first act of any mobilisation, will undoubtedly oblige our rulers to exploit anti-bolshevism to the depths, in order to realize against the avant-garde of the proletariat, a coalition of all forces of social conservatism.  We repeat our forecast.  The war will have to start with a period of civil war.  The bourgeoisie will be placed from the beginning, because of its intellectual deficiency, in need of striking quick and hard, with its chances of success appreciably reduced.

If there is not, in effect, an ideology of war that can motivate the popular masses, there is on the other hand a revolutionary ideology which can lead them from resistance to revolt, the class-conscious proletariat being, in its own eyes, the object of an unprovoked attack.

The moment of mobilisation is no longer the pinnacle of power for the State bourgeoisie.  Nor will it be madness doe the workers to confront it.  It is on the contrary just another difficult and dangerous phase of the class struggle.  The advantage gained at this time can be decisive.  The offensive must be abrupt, because the enemy will certainly not waste time in order to help those who need to be surprised.  If the offensive succeeds as a preventive counter-revolution, then the bourgeoisie will endeavour to draw from its victory the greatest advantages, and the proletariat will not be a political factor, for a long period to come.  If, on the other hand, the proletarian resistance inflicts a failure, even partial, on the intentions of the rulers, then the future of the revolutionary movement will be safeguarded.  Significant positions will be acquired.  A state of mind will exist in which the class feels confident to overcome.  The possibility of resistance by the attacked proletariat, transformed by success into insurrection, cannot be excluded a priori.

One sees vast and complex prospects which need to be considered.  The armed peace is an ambush.  Even more than in the past, the states will endeavour to control events.  The war must be sudden, the charge decisive.  The most elementary theory of war states the following, you must surprise the enemy.  The enemy at home, first of all.

We arrive at these conclusions.  Events will astonish the masses by their suddenness.  The proletariat will be taken by surprise.  Such is the first act of mobilisation.  It will be the attack of the police force, of the executives of the army, safe troops, of some colonial troops if need be, of fascistic bands, against the organisations of the working class.  Could it be a question of ‘retaliating’ against war by strikes or insurrection?  Admittedly, not.  The old theory, dismissed by Lenin, of the offensive of the proletariat against the war, does not work.  But the proletariat must be defended.  No-one can envisage where its defense will lead.  It could lead very far.  The class will be obliged to save its underground organisations, its cadres, its most invaluable leaders.  We cannot dare to hope that the bourgeoisie will neglect to shoot at the beginning of a war the potential Lenins and Trotskys of the future.

The development of the class struggle is such, in spite of the relative stabilisation of European capitalism, that Lenin’s formula going back to 1922 seems to have been exceeded: ‘Communists must serve in every war, even the most reactionary’.

Let us retain the warning against revolutionary phrase-mongering, against having illusions in our own strength.  But will they let the Communists take part?  It would be bold to assume it.  The class consciousness of the bourgeoisie has progressed since the revolution of October, in ways we must not ignore.  Admittedly, one does not remove mass parties, but they are already decimated.  The defeat of the Italian proletariat is in this respect edifying.  Admittedly, the course of the history is not stopped; but it has been delayed.  The European bourgeoisie which seemed doomed to us in 1919 has obtained a postponement of its sentence.  There is no revolutionary predetermination.

I do nothing but outline these problems.  I posed them in July 1925 in a series of articles for International Correspondence,[7] to which there was no reply (as if this subject were negligible!).  I restrict myself to indicating in these last pages the questions which deserve, especially, to be posed.  All the arguments here are doubly true on the assumption of a direct or indirect war against the Soviet Union.

I reproduce here my conclusions from last year:

The coming war will start with a class battle.  Whatever its objectives are at the beginning, by the end it will be civil war.  In this sense, it will be the second suicide attempt of the capitalist world.  By brutally inflicted misery, by forced labour in its factories of death, by white terror, by the horror of its massacres, it will release early or late the revolutionary energies of the whole proletariat, the poor peasantry, the middle class crushed in the mill … The revolutionaries who hold fast until that point will triumph.  It is just a question of holding up to that point.  At the first day of the war, if not before, the legal Communist parties will be crushed.  We need to fight the war and to defend in spite of the war, serious centralised organisation, but it must be flexible and independent, informed, active, resolute, an organisation concealed from the vigilance of the state and its auxiliary press.  Underground organisation.  We need rabbit warrens of class struggle.  At certain points the leaders who leave the shelter of secrecy will receive their ration of lead as surely as if they stood in the front line …

Propaganda against the war must be renewed, must be started again, it must be conceived with much more practical precision than in the past, disengaged from the commonplaces inherited from the pre-war period.  The study and the disclosure of the bourgeoisie’s preparations for war would open rich person possibilities.  And we need in the final analysis that for which Lenin called in 1922.

‘What do we know of the plans for civil mobilisation? … What do we know of the technique of repression planned against us?’

If by some new cataclysm, bourgeois society succeeds in committing mass suicide, it will be up to the proletariat to begin anew, on those bloody ruins, the succession … In the next war, it will be much more difficult – but not impossible – than it was in the recent one, to limit the destruction … Whole countries have been transformed into factories of death, which will devour whole nations …

The true interests of the nations, of culture, of the future are defended only by the revolutionary proletariat.  From this great truth could be born a great danger.  Nothing is certain in the history of the present.  Neither the suicide of the capitalist state, nor the saving victory of labour.  Organisation, conscience, will, the intelligence of classes in their struggle, these are also determining factors in history.  The bourgeoisie will some day dig its own pit.  For it to fall in, it must be pushed.  This will require the action of the proletariat, helmeted and masked for war.  The drama will not resolve itself.  We would be foolish to trust fate and nothing is more contrary to the Communist spirit.  The war will carry for the possessing classes, guilty of all modern wars, its punishment.  But this will be true only if the proletariat achieves its mission consciously.  If it sees clearly.  If it prepares in advance.  If it is not surprised.  If it poses in time all the problems of preparation for war.

Victor Serge

Leningrad, August 1926


Translator’s notes are given in square brackets.  Other notes belong to Serge or his editors.

[1] [D. Caute, The Fellow Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (London: Quartet Books, 1977), p. 55].

[2] [The original of this piece is V. Serge, ‘Mitrailleuse’, Clarté 6 (1921), p. 123].

[3] [The original of this piece is V. Serge, ‘La Flamme sur la Neige’, Clarté 33 (1924), pp. 208-10].

[4] [This article appeared as V. Serge, ‘Les nouveaux aspects du problème de la guerre’, Clarté 3 (1926), pp. 67-70].

[5] ‘To our knowledge, this document is unknown among French Communists.’  Clarté editors.  [It has however been published in English, as ‘Notes on the tasks of our delegation at the Hague’, V. I. Lenin, Collected Works: Volume 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), pp. 447-51].

[6] The major causes of this ideological decline are to be found in the general level of social development, which is in its turn governed by economic factors and the class struggle.  It is not the place to explore these processes deeply here.  V. S.

[7] ‘The coming war’, International Correspondence 72-81, July-August 1925.  V. S.

Christopher in Khaki (2001)

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hitchens

On the sad disappearance of the What Next website, I thought I should repost here a few of my favourites among the half dozen or so articles I published there, and which are no longer online anywhere else.

By all reckoning, Christopher Hitchens enjoyed a good war. In addition to his columns for the Nation, Vanity Fair and the Evening Standard, Hitchens recorded his Englishman-in-New-York perspectives for both the Guardian and the Mirror. Those of us who worked for a living could only wonder, where did he find the hours to write so widely? Hitchens told one audience that Bin Laden advocated ‘Islamic fascism’, another that Americans have stood up bravely to all inconvenience. ‘Americans are finding it quite easy to go about their business, and to stay committed to whatever it takes.’ I don’t know about Wall Street, but I am sure Hampstead was reassured.

A third article informed us that the September 11 massacre was chosen to meet Islamic deadlines. ‘It was on September 11 1683 that the conquering armies of Islam were met, held, and thrown back at the gates of Vienna … The Ottoman empire never recovered from the defeat; from then on it was more likely that Christian or western powers would dominate the Muslim world than the other way around.’ Even in the depths of September, the argument seemed bizarre. What Muslim fundamentalist would base their entire strategy around dates chosen from a Western calendar? Nor indeed does the failure to capture Vienna rank in the pantheon of contemporary Muslim anguish. Just compare Hitch’s date to the humiliation caused by the occupation of Palestine, and ask yourself which process most Islamists think of today?

They say that war bring out the best in people. Prime Minister Tony Blair, silent through years of cuts and privatisation, only woke up once that thousands of human lives are on the line. He did the same for Diana. Geri Halliwell, once a UN goodwill ambassador, reappeared as the new forces sweatheart. Christopher Hitchens was the thinking man’s Ginger Spice, blonder than his model, and rather portly these days. But he too was an ageing rock star with an agent in town.

The new Hitchens-incarnation informed us that Tony Blair was the greatest leader that Great Britain had ever possessed. But the last Hitchens was more sceptical – of Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger among other icons. There was even an earlier Christopher Hitchens who fulminated against Bill Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. But our hero had put all such youthful indulgence behind him now.

The last Hitchens I met in 1999 was still in his idealist phase. We spoke for no more than a minute. I was there to listen, not respond. ‘I hear you’re an anti-fascist. We need more of them.’ I nodded – how could I know then that his latest Hitchens would join in placing the Taliban, Bin Laden and Milosevic in the same magic box? His articles explain the spell – ‘In one form or another, the people who levelled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques.’

Of course the Taliban advocated religious theocracy – who has ever claimed otherwise? – but the passage remained incomplete. Hitchens’ practice was ‘only’ one of intellectual omission, but our back-seat bomber was telling lies, and he knew it. Unlike the Reagan-revivalists that surround George Bush Junior, Christopher Hitchens understands the basic laws of political analysis. There are always two sides, and the actions of one can make no real sense without some description of the other. This principle was most certainly needed this autumn, when our governments found themselves at war with a force they armed and prepared.

Those who followed Hitchens’ choice – and argued for the state to bomb the Afghan people – were morally complicit in a generation of further state murders, accomplished by the Bush twins George and Tony this time, our proxies the next, and then ourselves again, when our rulers wage just war against whichever force they appoint to take the Northern Alliance’s place.
One deliberate falsehood galled. ‘Islamic fascism’. Who could miss the lazy logic in placing all our enemies in the same camp, whether in power or out, secular or religious? The first post-war Moslem to get tarred with this label was Colonel Nasser. Would Hitchens have joined Eden in labelling Nasser the ‘new Hitler on the Nile’?

I have already mentioned Hitchens’ suggestion that the September 11 bombers were primarily motivated to seek revenge for historic Muslim defeats. When pressed to defend this claim, what evidence did he cite to defend the point? Christopher Hitchens appealed to the authority of an earlier generation. Describing the Islamic defeat of 1683, he wrote, ‘In our culture, the episode is often forgotten or downplayed, except by Catholic propagandists like Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton.’ Hitchens’ last reference was puzzling. Why were these two alone praised? Was it Hilaire Belloc arguments against the (‘servile’) welfare state that appeal to Hitchens, or Belloc’s 1922 book calling (in the words of one, friendly reviewer) for ‘the elimination of the Jews’? There is something truly nauseating about an ‘anti-Nazi’ argument that could justify itself only with reference to the work of real, self-acknowledged fascists.

In this recent war, Hitchens shed even such left sensibilities as had persisted two years previously. He complained of tiresome anti-racists – we would do better, Christopher Hitchens told us, to acknowledge the generosity of those people who have applied with minimum vigour the lynch laws of the deep South. ‘The shameful attacks on random Sikhs and other ethnic-minority citizens were very few, and took place (as such things normally do) far from the scene of the crimes.’ You can read the passage many times, but it still make no sense. Why should a murder become forgivable, when it occurs ‘far’ from the acts used to excuse it?

In the Spectator, Peter Hitchens accused his brother of composing ‘a prose version of the Battle Hymn of the American Republic.’ When even that salon Tory was to the left of Christopher – you know something has gone badly wrong.
Hitchens was at his most servile in November, following the fall of Kabul. Most people I know responded to this event with a jumble of feelings, including in different measures, surprise, hope, anxiety and concern. After all, we knew that the new rulers of Afghanistan would be the men who had accomplished genocide in the mid-1990s. Hitchens was more direct, insisting once again that American was the best of states and therefore had deserved to win the war. It was a formula expressed in Christopher’s exemplary genre, the facile paradox. “Afghanistan, where the world’s most open society confronts the world’s most closed one”. (The most open society would be the one which has the greatest number of people in jail?) “Where the world’s most indiscriminate bombers are bombed by the world’s most accurate ones.” (These would be the same bombers who hit the UN’s warehouse, twice).

Christopher Hitchens was not only the most elegant advocate of bombing. More than this, he was the media’s pet leftist, a role he hawked with glee. ‘If the silly policy of a Ramadan pause had been adopted’, he wrote, ‘the citizens of Kabul would have still been under a regime of medieval cruelty … I don’t stop insulting the Christian coalition at Eastertime.’ (An impressive sounding-claim, until you recall that since Thatcher and Reagan came to power, Hitchens has never failed to back our Christian rulers in war). ‘As a charter supporter of CND I can remember a time when the peace movement was not an auxiliary to dictators’. (What is a charter member? The phrase ‘a founder member’ is more common. And if this was Hitchens’ claim, then fortunate indeed were the Aldermarston marchers to enjoy the leadership of an eight-year old boy.)

Even now, I have my memories of a different, more ambivalent writer – but a man still decidedly of the left. And if I am depressed by the contrast, what must his peers think? Those who knew him in 1972, during the miners’ strike and the dockers protests that killed Heath’s anti-union laws, who judged him then the liveliest of the best generation, the living embodiment of the potential smychka between a university and a trade union left?

The great chip on Peter Hitchens’ shoulder – or so they say – has been his failure to live up to the charm of his extraordinary older brother. The unkindest of former friends suggest that the great chip on Christopher’s shoulder was his inability to become a second Paul Foot, as if one could be produced as a clone of the living first. One strength which Foot possessed, and which Hitchens lacked, was the necessary humility of a talented man with more genius than the majority of his co-workers. For forty years, the older man has remained a part of the movement. In contrast, Hitchens lasted maybe four.

And so the dreary cycle continues from youthful activist to middle-aged advocate of what exists. A young man wanted to be a revolutionary leader, and then forgot his lines. In place of earnest optimism, the new tone Christopher adopted in the 1980s was more condescending … as if people could be argued into radicalism through being convinced of their own stupidity first. But hope remained, smudged by a certain condescension. And then even hope was lost. Elvis reappeared in his white jump suit to swat the A-rabs. Blonde Geri wiggled her hips – not for our side this time, but for the troops.

I miss the old Christopher Hitchens, lost to excess, alcohol, and the seductive embrace of the system. The man who used to warn us of trusting those prophets who could lead us into the promised land, because they would surely lead us promptly back out again … has proved the wisdom of his own rule.

Cliffism: reopening the age of interpretation

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Cliff

The historian of the future, when tracing the origins of the SWP crisis of 2013, might do worse than begin, far from the scene of the final battle, with the reception accorded to Neil Davidson’s book on Bourgeois Revolutions. When Neil spoke at a one-day conference of the International Socialism Journal in September 2012, he was followed by Alex Callinicos, who responded to Neil’s gentle remarks by saying in the fashion which has become so familiar, “I don’t really agree with what Neil said”. Callinicos then went on to recapitulate first Trotsky and then Cliff’s theories of permanent and deflected permanent revolution, as if by merely stating them and their differences from Neil’s, he was proving Neil’s error. He concluded with the words, “What Neil said was so provocative that it couldn’t simply be ignored”.

The discussion was operating at a certain level of code but long-term members of the SWP could hardly have been unaware that Callinicos was accusing Davidson of apostasy and inviting his listeners to treat Davidson thereafter as a Marxist in error, a category for which the appropriate treatment, as it would be a child at school with a disease, is isolation from the rest of the group who must be kept safe from infection.

Yet anyone who had actually read Neil’s book would have known how generous he is in placing at the heart of his theory of bourgeois revolution the early postwar theories of Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron about state capitalism and about the defeat of the colonial revolutions. By re-interpreting the Algerian, Kenyan, Egyptian and Cuban revolutions as the last bourgeois revolutions, Neil made Cliff’s short observations at to the failure of Nasser etc to introduce full Communism central to his own project of rethinking historical materialis,.

Neil’s project was about affirming Cliff’s truths through understanding and applying them; in contrast to Callinicos, who was seeking to make them timeless, fixed, incapable of analysis, “true” only in the way that that a believer must treat decades-old Papal decrees as Infallible.

That was a year ago, there have been many other intellectual police-actions since.

At the end of the SWP’s December conference, it is tolerably clear, delegates will be offered two conceptions of how the SWP might be in the future.

In one conception, the age of ideas is over, having ended in approximately 1979. New members, on joining the party should be expected to acquire, i.e. learn by rote, the important elements of the IS intellectual tradition; state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, permanent arms economy, the downturn, organisational “Leninism”. The ideas, they will be told, are fixed and correct and can equip any new activist for any practical difficulties they face. The party is a transmission belt for the ideas of a dead generation; the job of new members is to justify their adoption of Leninism to their parents and family, who (it can safely be assumed) will be opposed towards their decision to join. The member protects the group, and the group the member – in both cases from a world which is hostile to them.

A sceptical observer might object that some of the ideas I’ve listed (the first three of them) were intended to explain an age which has now definitively ended – the 1984-universe of big-power blocks and centralised state planning. The fourth was only ever an attempt to explain why, after the demise of the first three processes, the workers were not (yet) winning. And the party consensus is that the downturn is over. If Orwell’s novel seems dated now, why should we defer to Cliff, whose ideas were intended to explain the same epoch?

The young sceptic’s more sceptical teacher (Comrade Loyalist) will explain that it does not matter how long ago the Soviet Union ended. The gap between theory and practice can be cured, on the Loyalist’s urging, by intense periods of frantic activity, by giving away newspapers to people who sign petitions (but please do not ask them to go to any of our meetings), by distributing leaflets which someone else has designed, by recruiting students at one of our two SWSS groups (small numbers are apparently now our “strategy”), and persuading recruits of the truth of ideas that reached their fixed form many years ago.

Yet while Callinicos might today seem the counterpart in politics of George Eliot’s Casaubon, even now he can say to his credit – “well, in my philosophy, the world stopped in 1979. Compared to many others on the left, I am the very model of the modern Marxist theorist.”

On the existing British Left there are of course many examples of Marxist groups which prosper on the basis of a similar idea that the age of interpretation is over. One of the most effective of the Marxist websites (and the least effective of our parties) turns out on close inspection to be a project for the recreation of 1895-era Social Democracy, i.e. the moment when Engels died, before Marxism suffered its first crises (imperialism, syndicalism, the first world war) and had for the first time to be rethought in order to make itself relevant again.

Within Left Unity there are other groups who also desire to return Marxism to its pre-1914 fall. But the SPD and the other original Marxist parties went over to social democracy under the pressure of great historical processes (the bureaucratisation of the unions, the availability of political democracy, the failure of revolutionaries at key moments to win majorities), and merely wishing that defeat away will not make it un-happen.

You might prefer to begin with those who saw 1917 or 1936 as breakthroughs. Even now, some British Trotskyists want history to end in 1938 with the Transitional Programme, with capitalism incapable of further expansion, and with a mass workers’ movement whose spare young activists can be enrolled in the tens-of-thousands strong legions of anti-fascist workers’ battalions. Wishing the ranks were full won’t make it happen.

The ideas of one dead political economist may of course preferable to another; Marx is a better place to begin than Smith or even Keynes, and Marx is not diminished if you add to him Luxemburg and Bukharin, Lenin and Trotsky. But even if your list goes on and on and reaches beyond Mandel even to Cliff, the difficulty remains. The difficulties of the present are our own, and we have to find new strategies to overcome them.

There is therefore a second conception of the relationship between theory and practice which is struggling to break through. This is of a party which would be Cliffite but in subtler ways. It would learn from the first generation of International Socialists modest perspectives and their good humour, from their willingness to turn quickly in the direction of struggle once it is seen to be happening, and from their ability to admit the obvious when struggle was low.

It would share with Kidron, Cliff, Hallas, and many others of their generation a belief in the revolutionary potential of workers, through their struggles and the mutual solidarity without which any authentically working-class protest is doomed, to change the world.

It would see in the story of Cliff himself, the original anti-Zionist Palestinian Jew, an opposition worth repeating to racism and oppression in all its forms.

It would learn from a more recent case of grotesque, institutional injustice the need to be deeply, rather than casually, supportive of women’s liberation.

It would be a party of the young and the engaged, and it would be youthful and questioning in its approach to theory

Such a party would wear its Cliffism in Regular not in Extra Large; in just the same way that the first generation of International Socialists refused to call themselves “Trotskyists”, not because he had been wrong about Stalin or Hitler, but because the mere repetition of formulas is an obstacle to the sort of activist re-thinking we need.

The immediate omission of course is a serviceable theory of Neo-Liberalism; one which connects as the Manifesto once did the emergence of the working class to capitalism’s defeat (even if Marx’s notion of an “immediately following” workers revolution as soon as the capitalists had defeated the feudal lords now seems a little optimistic). Or as Kidron’s Arms Economy once did, in locating the independent-minded shop stewards of the 1960s and the unofficial strikes on the shop-floor as the best antidote to the world of Doctor Strangelove.

Getting to a better place will involve some reading (just as Kidron had to borrow from the exotic corners of American Trotskyism), and a genuine sharing of ideas. As is only possible between members of collective, who share their time and their ideas fruitfully.

In light of our recent history, we will also need to reimmerse ourselves in revolutionary feminism – not just in theory, but in activity, without which all theory is grey.

It was Tony Cliff who used to say that, of course, and before him Rosa Luxemburg.

Maybe if we learned to depend a little less on Cliff himself and did better at using him, we would get closer to the politics that he tried to teach us.

The Trial of Paris Thompson

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Imagine the scene: two weeks before SWP conference, the Central Committee is due to meet. The leadership is not yet divided between two blocks: one which sees the conduct of Martin Smith as unacceptable, and a second which rests bureaucratically on the findings of a Disputes Committee to pretend that he has been “exonerated”. The former have until now remained coded in their criticisms. They have hesitated for two months before stating openly that they think Smith should be removed from all positions, and have only just decided to bring their case to the CC. Before they can speak, Alex Callinicos has in his hand a file of papers. He throws them on the table. They are a Facebook conversation between half a dozen members of the SWP mostly in their late 20s. “Look”, Callinicos shouts, “you are allying with people who want to smash the party!” In this way, he disorients the CC minority, and buys for Smith another few weeks on the payroll.

The leadership of our party has done so many stupid and destructive things over the course of this past year that it is easy to forget that only 12 months ago they used the fact of a closed Facebook conversation as an excuse to expel four people from the SWP. Re-reading that conversation, what is extraordinary is how timid the “Facebook Four” were. For example, asked to explain what the group stood for, Paris Thompson wrote, “1) Martin Smith’s position within the party, or at the very least within the leadership, to be completely untenable”. Didn’t even the “loyalist” faction in our leadership accept that his conduct was so bad that he could not remain on our CC? Hasn’t Martin himself, by resigning not just from the leadership but from the party, gone rather further even than the Facebook Four were demanding?

Paris’ next demand was hardly more threatening to our organisation: “2) The whole [dispute] process is reviewed; [X – the second complainant] is reinstated within her position within the industrial office.” Since conference in January 2013, the leadership has accepted the necessity of a complete review of our dispute procedures. With Martin having been finally removed from the industrial office in March 2013, the explanation for having demoted a woman who had complained about him (i.e. it would be bad for morale at the centre to have the two of them working together), which was always thin, no longer has no longer has any basis at all. This is something we could have conceded at any time after March; only the stubbornness of Martin’s supporters in the leadership held us back from a necessary step.

This was Paris’ third proposal: “3) The party comes out with a re-affirmation of its commitment to fighting sexism and condemns the appalling way this case has been dealt with”. Again, you do not need to be a member of any faction to grasp that these would be good and necessary steps, going any barely further that the general and unspecific concession of “mistakes” which Callinicos has been making for months.

Of course, while our CC finds itself increasingly taking the very same public positions that once it fought, when they were suggested by the Facebook Four, the official justification for taking action against those comrades was not “political” but bureaucratic. The main crime they were accused of was “secret” factionalism.

Now this accusation of secrecy has a certain sort of sense in that the Four did discuss forming themselves into a faction, but decided against it. If you assume that by making this decision they were lying to themselves, and that they had “secretly” decided to be a faction in reality, then secrecy is just about right. They were doing something so secret that even they did not realise they were doing it. In the paranoid mindset of Stalin’s Prosecutors this could just about make sense. To anyone else who had been allowed to read their conversation, it would be ridiculous.

The real charge against the Facebook Four was that they had flouted the party’s rules by meeting (if only, at that stage, online) and by being “factional” (i.e. disaffected) and by saying so privately during the conference period.

Everyone reading this will know the damage that was done by Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber’s crackdown on the Four (and by the other measures which accompanied it). Hundreds of people left the organisation – on the leadership’s figures around 40% of the people who had attended a pre-conference aggregate between January and March 2013 had gone by June; on the opposition’s figures “only” 33%, but by either figure, a significant proportion of our active membership was lost without any corresponding benefit.

A leadership spooked by the results of its own aggression has since attempted to be more cautious. In July, the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century blog was set up, to which dozens of comrades have contributed by name, and a group of comrades were organising “factionally” (i.e. in a disaffected way) and doing far more than the Facebook 4, meeting, planning, and intervening together in the talks at Marxism. The CC has limited itself to calling, passively, for the blog to come down.

In the unintended way in which things so often just happen, the effect of the repression of the Facebook Four has been to legitimise dissent: not in private but in public, not during the conference period but long outside it. The permanent factionalism of which the Facebook Four were wrongly accused has become an everyday reality of life in the SWP. A reform faction has organised openly, inviting those outside to its meetings. A secret faction continues to control the apparatus, relying for its survival on the willingness of  passive members who turn out once a year at aggregates, and are nostalgic for the bolder SWP of 30 years ago, to tolerate the lie that the leadership “is” the party.

The CC have had to concede, but have fought against every concession. They have learned nothing except an ever-lengthening list of names against whom they would “take action” if only they were strong enough to carry them through.

A modest proposal. If you are serious when you say that you want to bring the crisis to an end; why not begin by reinstating the comrades who should never have been expelled