The Communist International had as one of the basic requirements for any national organisation seeking membership that it should oppose its own bourgeoisie’s imperialist activities. Trotsky made the well known quote about those that don’t support national liberation struggles being branded with infamy if not with a bullet, and so on. With such unequivocal opposition to the role of imperialism in the modern epoch, as the main enemy of the working class, the revolutionary Marxists of the early twentieth century seemed, for those reading these comments, to have said all that needed to be said about the conduct of Marxists in the field of internationalism. It was on this basis that many Marxists in the post-war period set their compass. If there is a national liberation struggle, the Marxists support those waging it. If there is a conflict between an imperialist power and a non-imperialist power, the Marxists support the latter against the former. It was facile, and represented a complete misunderstanding of the policies of the early revolutionaries.
To understand what Lenin, Trotsky and the other socialist internationalists were really about, it is necessary not just to read these isolated quotes, but to read the actual debates, of which they formed a part, debates that had been going on for at least a decade prior to the formulation of the Theses on the National and Colonial Question. It is necessary also to understand the context in which they were set, the existence of large Communist Parties, of a revolutionary workers state albeit a deformed one, and of revolutionary movements in the Colonies to which these Communist Parties could relate. In setting their compass blindly, by these isolated quotes, the Marxists of the post-war period have completely missed the plot, they have not followed the basic requirement of a Marxist to analyse the reality in which they exist, and to determine their politics accordingly, in such a way that they seek to pursue the interests of the working class.
It led to Marxists defending the actions of the IRA in blowing up innocent civilians. It led Marxists to side with the reactionary Argentinian Junta in the Falklands War. It has led others to throw in their lot with all sorts of clerical-fascists from Hezbollah to Hamas, to the Islamist militias in Iraq, each and every one of them horrible anti-working class forces with which socialists should have kept a mile distance.
When Lenin and the Communist International spoke of supporting national liberation struggles he did not say that socialists should support this or that organisation just because they were involved in such a struggle. Nothing could have been further from his mind. In fact, if you read the Theses on the National and Colonial Question it specifically says that the Communists should not act to give a cloak for reactionary nationalism. It goes on to define the kinds of movement that should be supported, that the Communists should seek to make alliances with, specifically as being revolutionary, and for Lenin revolutionary implies “progressive” in the proper Marxist sense, it precludes the idea that any reactionary social force such as clerical-fascism can be revolutionary.
And in an earlier writing Lenin is even clearer.
"It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchist intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement"
“The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up.”
In short, the position is quite clear, Marxists support struggles for national liberation, they seek to intervene in such struggles, but doing so does not at all mean giving support to any particular organisation simply because it is part of such a struggle. As Lenin says,
“The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement. In individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected.”
The struggle for democracy, for national liberation cannot supersede the duty to pursue the interests of the working class.
The inability to understand this fairly straightforward principle is what leads to the description of those to whom it applies as “idiot anti-imperialists”.
But for every plus there is a minus, and, it appears, that there has to be, to go along with the idiot anti-imperialists, another group that could equally well be termed the idiot imperialists. The idiot anti-imperialists have a set of objectives, worthy goals, but without the working class forces to achieve those goals they make the goal everything, and the movement nothing. Provided they achieve their aim of opposing imperialism, the means for doing so become reduced to an irrelevance. The idea set out above by Lenin and the Internationalists that the purpose of engaging in such struggles is a subordinate part of the struggle for socialism is completely out of the window, and these Marxists, instead, are prepared to cosy up to any old reactionary simply in order to pursue a “struggle against imperialism”. But the idiot imperialists operate in exactly the same way. They too have a set of worthy goals that they seek to achieve – building a Labour Movement in Iraq in the face of opposition from the clerical-fascists, opposing the genocidal acts of the Milosevic regime in Kosova, opposing the attempts of the Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons to further its strategic ambitions and so on. But again faced with the lack of a working-class movement to pursue these objectives they find themselves also making the goal everything and the movement nothing. So we find them, in the case of those former revolutionaries that have signed up with the Euston Manifesto, openly supporting the actions of imperialism in intervening in these situations. In the case of organisations, such as the AWL, we find them refusing to oppose the presence of the troops in Iraq on the basis that they provide a breathing space for the Labour Movement (a rather ridiculous claim), refusing to oppose the murderous attacks of imperialism against Serbians (and keeping quiet about the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Kosova, at the hands of the Albanians, given the upper hand by imperialism), claiming to oppose any imperialist attack on Iran, whilst refusing to call for the removal of the huge garrison of US troops on the Iranian border in Iraq, and now saying openly that a successful surgical strike by imperialism against Iran i.e. that the US behemoth should be free to stride unhindered, on the world stage, as its policeman, would be “a good thing”. And, no doubt, despite their supposed opposition to any invasion of Iran, the AWL, were it to happen, would, as they did with Iraq, find some reason to oppose calls for the withdrawal of imperialist forces once they were there. (See:Bush Ally Threatens War on Iran
Just as the idiot anti-imperialists do not care to ask the question, “how does this further the cause of the working class, how does it encourage the development of the Labour Movement, how does it encourage its own independent self-activity”, so the idiot imperialists fall into exactly the same trap. “We don’t like the Iranian regime, or the Serbian regime, or the clercical-fascists, we can’t mobilise the working class to oppose them so if the bourgeoisie or imperialism will do the job instead then that will be “good””, they think. They do not stop to think what consequences this has for the Labour Movement, for the working class, or for truly progressive forces fighting that same imperialism. They do not consider what effect encouraging the working class to rely on the bourgeoisie to fight its battles has in demoralising and miseducating the class. They do not consider what precedents it sets in the psyche of the working class internationally for the right of that imperialism to intervene how and where it likes. Just as long as their moral goal is met, as long as victory is achieved for “good” over “evil” they are satisfied. And it can only be described in these moral terms, because no Marxist could legitimately describe any success of imperialism, and its subsequent strengthening, as “progressive” a more objective term for Marxists.
What is the basis of this idiocy of both types? It lies in the politics and political lineage. Both begin effectively from the same starting point. That starting point is Leninism, but more specifically its Trotskyist offspring. Leninism, for all its sectarianism, had the advantage that the mass Communists Parties, that erupted largely out of the old mass working class parties of the Second International, was based in the working class. When Leninism split into Stalinism and Trotskyism it was largely the Stalinists that retained the working class base, whilst the Trotskyists attracted the intelligentsia, the students and youth. Yet compared to the Trotskyist sects of today the Trotskyists of the 1930’s had far more claim to be workers organisations. Trotsky himself recognised the danger of petit-bourgeois deviationism given the sociologoical make-up of the Trotskyist organisations. He advocated effectively that students and intellectuals should be second-class citizens until they had undergone a period of probation during which time they would need to be gofers for the worker members, would have to demonstrate their ability to work in, and recruit from working class circles and so on. Such a policy would be difficult to apply today not just because the students and intellectuals would not tolerate such a regime, but all these organisations have far more students and intellectuals than workers.
These revolutionary organisations have a peculiarly petit-bouregois romantic idea of revolution, which is why they live in a world where the clocks are all stopped at 19:17. Their view of revolution is a repeat of that great event, even though the historical conditions which led to it are unlikely to be repeated, and, even if they were, the experience of the first event hardly had a happy ending. But it is much easier to appeal to young romantic hearts with that kind of stirring vision than with the idea that the social revolution is actually about the long laborious task of working day in day out with ordinary workers to educate them, to help them construct their own Workers Party, and in the process to rely on and build their strength through their own self-activity. During periods when the working class is militant and marching forward such organisations can feel confident, they make new recruits, even amongst some workers. The idea of independent, working class, self-activity through Economistic struggle, and through “Building the Party” – by which they mean not the Workers Party, but their own little sect, appears a viable route. But once the working class suffers a setback – as it has for the last 25 years – then this approach runs up against the buffers.
What are the options? There is the option of actually doing that slow grinding work in the Workers Party, building and educating the class, or there is the option of clinging to the heroic vision, of continuing the illusion of the big demonstration etc., the desire to continue to fight for the world view of what is “good” against what is “evil”. It is only then necessary to look at the lineage of these groups to understand the line of least resistance they have followed.
The division within the Trotskyist Movement itself is instructive here. In the 1930’s the Trotskyist Movment split – what’s new? The basis of the split itself was instructive. On the one hand was the group of Burnham, Shachtman and Abern. Within this faction Burnham was the theoretician, Shachtman the journalist and propagandist, and Abern the organiser. Burnham rejected the basis of Marxism, both the Historial Materialism and the Dialectics. In its place, he argued instead for “practical politics”, the idea that it was possible to decide what position should be adopted in any particular situation on the basis of the application of “common sense”, that it was possible to rely on the principles of ““equality”, “brotherhood” and “justice” to arrive at what was essentially a socialist morality, and moral guide to action. It was precisely the type of petit-bourgeois socialism that Marx had criticised in the Communist Manifesto, a form of socialism that Marxism long ago replaced.
Basing themselves on this moralistic approach to politics Burnham and Shachtman looked aghast at the USSR, and all the more so at the Stalin-Hitler pact. It was more than their petit-bourgeois morality could stand, and lacking any objective Marxist basis on which to ground their politics they concluded that socialists could not support the USSR. But, it is a fundamental tenet of Marxism that revolutionaries must support workers organisations, and the USSR was a workers state, so how could they square the circle? Simple, just redefine the USSR as not being a Workers State call it anything – state capitalist, bureaucratic-collectivist, anything – as long as it wasn’t a workers state. And if doing so meant mangling Marxism, theory and terms, well so what, in reality Marxism had been ditched for a return to petit-bourgeois socialism anyway. And like the Stalinists they could continue to call themselves Marxists whatever the reality. It is necessarily an approach which leads to typically centrist zig-zags. Opportunist here, ultra-left there. Take the AWL’s zig-zagging for instance. It supported Yeltsin’s capitalist political counter revolution, because of its moralistic opposition to Stalinism, preferring private capitalism to the inefficiency of the USSR, yet uncritically defends the Stalinesque NHS in Britain with not a single call for workers control or ownership, with a programme that is reminiscent of the “more militancy” Economism of the IS of the 1960’s and 1970’s – indeed the AWL seem to be trying to imitate the IS of that period, perhaps in the hope that they might be able to recruit in the same way. In contrast to this Economism and Opportunism, in Venezuela they swing to an Ultra Left position calling on socialists to stand aloof from the actual workers movement that is developing because of their dislike of Chavez. In fact, their attitude in relation to Venezuela is reminiscent of the attitude expressed elsewhere in these blogs by the SPGB in relation to the creation of the LP.
For the AWL it appears that independent working class action is fine provided that the working class undertaking the action confirms to its idea of what the working class should be. As rarely no such working class exists they are left in the one case arguing instead for support for the bourgeoisie, or in the other abstaining from the activities of the actual working class in favour of some non-existent working class.
At the time of the split, Trotsky warned that the trajectory of this so called “Third Camp” was into the camp of the imperialists, and he was soon proved right. Without exception the organisations that adopted this “Third Camp” position moved to the Right, even whilst maintaining the fiction that they were for “independent working class action”, they increasingly removed the working class from being central to their activity, and programme, replacing it with a focus on students, or some other social group amongst which they might find support for their ideas, or else looking to this or that “movement” such as environmentalism or whatever. In the case of some of the leading lights like Burnham and Shachtman the collapse into the bourgeoisie was dramatic. What Trotsky perhaps could not have envisioned was the trajectory of the largest British adherent of this “Third Camp”, the International Socialists, now SWP. The SWP went not into the camp of the bourgeoisie, though in the past they have been happy to form all kinds of alliances with bourgeois forces e.g. in the Anti Nazi League, but into the camp of outright reactionaries, the clerical-fascists and Islamists. But the logic is the same “the goal is everything the movement nothing” as a reversal of Bernstein’s dictum that “the movement is everything the goal nothing”. Both are equally and obviously wrong. If the goal is nothing then the movement is pointless. But if the movement is nothing, if all that matters is achieving your goal, no matter by what means, then the whole principle of Marxism that the working class is central, and only it is capable of resolving the problems of history is abandoned. The goal might be achieved, for example defeating imperialism, but without taking the working class and the struggle for socialism forward one jot, and in fact probably with the consequence of setting it back.
But for some of those that were on the other side of the 1940’s split a similar trajectory can be determined. In so far as the orthodox Trotskyists kept their eye on the goal being the development of the working class movement, on being the socialist revolution, the question arose what to do when largely isolated from the real working class, which stubbornly refused, as Mountain’s are prone to do, to move to Mohammed, and with a similar reluctance of Mohammed to move to the Mountain, which would have been a far more successful course of action, the working class found itself on the defensive, when the presumed incessant forward motion of the revolution appeared to be rolling backwards downhill? The answer was to take what had been correct in Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR in terms of its historical progressiveness, and to then incorrectly assign those characteristics to the actions of the Stalinist rulers, to see every conflict between the Stalinists and imperialism as progressive on the side of the Stalinists. But this was to wholly distort Trotsky. Trotsky said in relation to Poland, for instance, that although the transformation of property relations, the liquidation of the exploiting classes was historically progressive, so socialists would defend the new property relations, the means by which that transformation was accomplished was not progressive, because it meant a strengthening of Stalinism, a strengthening of the idea that the working class could leave such transformation to the bureaucratic machinations or military strength of the Stalinists, and would to the same extent reduce the inclination of workers to rely on its own self-activity. Witness that in none of this does Trotsky talk in the moralising tone of “if Stalinism does this it will be good”, as the idiot imperialists talk of this or that action of the imperialists, as though what were being discussed were some moral dilemma.
In short, the Trotskyists of both camps, because they had become a petit-bouregois deviation within the workers movement, because they were largely divorced from the real workers movement, lost faith in the working-class once it went into retreat. In the face of that, they were forced to look to other forces to achieve their goals, even if they maintained the fiction that they were for “independent working class action” in their propaganda. If anything the idiot imperialists are of course worse than the idiot anti-imperialists. The latter begin with an understandable desire to be with the oppressed, though one which leads them into misconceived support for reactionary forces. The former on the other hand suffer from a willingness to side with the main enemy of the working class, merely in order to assuage their moral conscience, merely in order to accomplish some “good” deed. But the method by which goals are achieved is far from unimportant.
If workers at a factory face redundancy, it is not “good” that there jobs are saved as a result of the bourgeois state nationalising the firm. On the contrary, it merely emphasises the powerlessness of the working class, and the great power of the capitalist state, the lack of control over their own lives that workers have. The effect that such a nationalisation has on workers on encouraging them to believe in the beneficence and omnipotence of that state is far more reactionary than any benefit gained. Nor as Marx explained in the Critique of the Gotha Programme is this situation made any better if the nationalisation is the result of a demand by the workers for such a nationalisation, for sops from the bourgeois state, and that is before the question is addressed of the replacement of a private capitalist employer by a more powerful state capitalist boss. Looked at historically and scientifically nationalised industry is progressive vis a vis private capitalist industry, it represents the more mature form of capitalist property. But that is no reason for workers to seek this more mature, more effective means of their own exploitation as opposed to seeking a socialist solution through the struggle to turn these means of production into their own property. The saving of workers jobs through state intervention might appear “good”, but as Marx correctly argues it is in reality reactionary because of its effect on the workers class consciousness. In the same way it is not at all inconsequential to Marxists what the method is of achieving some goal – say the prevention of a state from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Lenin pointed out that even with the existence of a Workers State in the USSR the working class was weak compared to the power of the bourgeoisie. Whatever else can be said about Lenin he was an incomparable revolutionary tactician. On the basis of this observation, Lenin argued, that it would be necessary for workers and the workers state to make all kinds of alliances in order to take advantage of divisions within the ranks of the bourgeoisie, both in terms of national struggles and internationally. Though, I would not seek to defend their position on this basis - and unlike Lenin, the SWP and the idiot anti-imperialists have simply ditched their own politics in order to become dupes of their allies rather than vice versaas Lenin proposed – it clearly makes more sense using Lenin’s tactical advice to seek alliances with forces fighting imperialism than to form alliances with imperialism against those it is fighting. If I’m in the street and see six enemies, and witness some dispute amongst them, I am far better advised to seek to undermine the position of the strongest enemy by setting at least some of the others against him, than I am to side with the strongest against the others, thereby strengthening his position to later deal with me.
The farcical aspect of this is demonstrated most starkly in relation to the issue of Israel-Palestine. Basing himself on this moralistic approach the Third Campist Albert Glotzer argued that something had to be done for the plight of the Jews after the experience of the Holocaust. It was no good he argued putting forward the position argued by Ernest Mandel and the Orthodox Trotskyists that the solution to the Jews problems could only be accomplished by and through the workers movement. The workers were too weak, were on the defensive, the Jews could not wait. Okay then, he argued to support the solution being offered by alien class forces, by the Zionists, of a Jewish State, even if the establishment of that state would mean a genocidal war against the Palestinians occupying the land on which that state was to be created, even if as a consequence, instead of furthering the cause of working class unity it would act to scatter asunder any potential for working class unity in the area, and would unleash the most reactionary nationalist sentiments. Glotzer ridiculed Mandel’s defence of the idea that the Palestinians should be able to defend their territory by opposing unlimited Jewish immigration, a course which would undoubtedly lead to the kind of communal conflicts which ensued.
The bitterest divide on the Left in Britain is probably that between the AWL and the SWP. Turn to any page of the AWL’s website and you are sure to find some vitriol against the SWP – not without cause given their vile support of reactionary regimes and organisations. One of the bitterest debates is over the question of Israel-Palestine. I say debate, but effectively its one sided as the SWP effectively ignore the criticism. The AWL, correctly, defend the existence of Israel against the desire of the SWP to see it smashed by the forces of the clerical-fascists of Hamas and Hezbollah. It might appear from this that the AWL are the inheritors of Glotzer’s position on Israel, and, indeed, the AWL do support the position outlined by Glotzer as against the position outlined by Mandel. But you would be wrong to conclude this. In fact, it is the SWP that are the inheritors of Glotzer’s argument not the AWL.
1. Glotzer argued that the suffering of the Jews justified the need for a homeland. The SWP argue that the suffering of the Palestinians justifies their demand for their own state, and one that is viable i.e. one that covers the historic territory of Palestine. The AWL agree that the Palestinians should have their own state, but by supporting the two-state solution they advocate a solution that is accomplishable, not by the joint action of the Jewish and Palestinian workers, but is solely in the gift of the Israeli state, in conjunction with US imperialism. Both argue a reactionary position, but it is the SWP, not the AWL, that is in the tradition of Glotzer.
2. Glotzer argued that the Jews could not be expected to wait for the workers movement to provide a solution, and so must look to the Zionist movement for a solution, a nationalist solution, to their problems. The SWP argues similarly that the workers movement is too weak, that there is no sign that the Jewish workers will join the Palestinian workers to create a Palestinian state, so the Palestinians must rely on other forces including the clerical-fascists to help create that state. The AWL argue that the Palestinians should not ally themselves with the clerical-fascists, but must build workers unity, and seek to establish a state alongside Israel even though that mini-state is likely to be unviable, and will depend on Israel and US imperialism or Arab nationalist regimes for its creation and survival. Both positions are reactionary, but again it is the SWP that is in the tradition of Glotzer.
3. Glotzer argues that immigration controls are reactionary, and that at least there should be an unrestricted right of immigration of Jews into Palestine even if they then outnumber the Palestinians. The SWP argue that the Immigration Controls employed by Israel that provide unrestricted immigration of Jews from anywhere in the world, yet refuse a right of return to Palestinians are racist and to be opposed. That as a minimum there should be a right of return for all Palestinian refugees even if this meant that they then outnumbered Jews in Israel. The AWL rightly state that although the Jewish Immigration rules are racist, an unrestricted right of return is not practical precisely because it would undermine the basis of the state of Israel as being a Jewish state. Calling for an unrestricted right of return effectively means calling on Israel to disband itself to dissolve itself as a nation state. Yet, although the AWL are right, it is the SWP that stand on the same ground as Glotzer yet again.
To be so connected and committed to a political strand, as the AWL are to Glotzer and the Third Camp, and yet to be faced with the fact that the ultimate conclusion of that method of analysis, that form of politics is to find yourself arguing the politics of the SWP, the organisation most hated by the AWL, must be exceedingly difficult to come to terms with. For a Marxist, it would mean having to question the whole foundation of your politics, but, as I have pointed out, for petit-bourgeois socialists, this problem does not arise, because their political positions are made up as they go along case by case according to what their moral code dictates to them. I suspect that it was for this reason that the AWL deleted my posts from their website pointing out this contradiction several times, before then deleting my account.
The basis of both idiot imperialism and idiot anti-imperialism is then the separation of would be Marxist forces from the real working-class movement, a petit-bourgeois degeneration of these forces as a consequence, and a relapse into petit-bourgeois socialism, whilst retaining the trappings and verbiage – as has Stalinism – of Marxism. Only by once more immersing itself in the cleansing waters of the working class can Marxism rid itself of this petit-bourgeois deviation. The Stalinist monolith has largely collapsed even if the material basis on which it grew is having a new lease of life in Russia and China. The sooner those other offspring of Leninism, the Trotskyist sects – whether they call themselves Third Campist, Fourth Internationalist or whatever – go the same way, the sooner can Marxism cleanse itself of the disease from which it has suffered for the last 100 years, the sooner can genuine Marxists begin the task of discussing and organising in a constructive and non-sectarian way how best to develop the Workers Party, how best to educate the working class movement for the tasks it has to perform.