Review –‘ Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context’
by Lars T Lih, Brill Publishers, Leiden & Boston
Part 6 Lessons for today?
15 December 2006
So what contemporary lessons can Irish socialists take from Lih’s exploration of the meaning of Lenin’s most controversial book? Is the merger narrative a fruitful way of looking at the tasks facing us now?
If there are lessons then the first must surely be that we at least need to pay heed to the title of Lih’s book, i.e. Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done ?’ in Context. So if the ‘secret’ of understanding WITBD is to understand the context in which it was written. We should not therefore expect it to provide ready answers for our own situation. No one will be surprised if a book written a century ago does not answer the problems facing the Marxist movement today. What Lih’s book does however is to give us a way of approaching our situation and prompt a number of questions.
Let us take a look at context. Lih’s book repeats again and again the optimism of Lenin in his estimation of the health of the workers’ movement in Russia. Today in Ireland no such optimism is justified. The level of strike activity has fallen more or less continuously for a quarter of a century. The influence of socialism in the trade unions can be gauged by that movements’ continuing commitment to social partnership with the capitalist class and its state. Many more workers vote for an explicitly capitalist party – Fianna Fail – than for any party even pretending to be socialist. The Irish Labour Party cannot be characterised as socialist. Its long history of collaboration with capitalist parties in government is only the most obvious of its departures from any genuine socialist practice.
Both this party and the trade union movement are very heavily bureaucratised. This is not a question of their leaders having wrong or deficient ideas that persuasion or simple replacement can change. The bureaucracy within the workers movement is not primarily an expression of individuals with insufficiently militant ideas. The union movement is a bureaucracy no matter who leads it. The bureaucracy is primarily an expression of alien class interests, represented by a petty bourgeois layer in society with real material foundations that increasingly rest on managing workers subordination to the State and capital. Partnership signals an increasing identity with the bosses and state in suppressing workers’ interests rather than balancing these interests in negotiations with the bosses and state.
The Irish workers movement is therefore an old and thoroughly sclerotic one which has rotted from the head.
And what of the other half of the merger narrative – socialism? For most workers this equates either to some minimal notion of fairness and equality, expressed by increased public spending, a more progressive system of taxation and/or increased state ownership of utilities etc. In other words it is associated with an increased role for the capitalist state. At its worst socialism is defined as what existed in the Soviet Union, China or perhaps Cuba. In general it is not seen by the vast majority as realistic or viable never mind necessary or inevitable. How then can the working class be won to socialism if it doesn’t understand what it is?
Socialism is not popularly seen as the working class assuming power over society and freely and consciously determining how it works. This obviously means that the confidence in the inevitability of socialism previously felt by many, and recorded in Lih’s book, has all but disappeared. In its place has come demoralisation, reflected not only in the size of the Marxist movement but in its politics.
This can be seen most clearly in the behaviour of many Marxists, the putative product of the merger of the worker movement and socialism. They confirm in unconscious and ironic fashion the Marxist idea that material conditions determine consciousness, reflecting the existing worker movement and the common erroneous ideas about socialism. Thus they thus seek to fight for the reformist understanding of socialism that many workers mistakenly hold to, despite history having proved that this is bankrupt. They seek to do this in electoralist projects that faithfully reflect the politics of the previous degeneration of the workers’ movement and they more or less openly attempt to do this in alliance with the bureaucracies that have strangled the movement. Evidence for this judgement can be found from perusal of any of the lefts’ electoral manifestos.
Their other practice has become a series of sectarian manoeuvres and single issue campaigns devoid of class perspective, justified with claims that what is required above all is ‘broad’ unity, a unity that surrenders working class politics to petty bourgeois partners.
Like Lenin and the Russian Social Democrats today’s Irish left seeks international examples to follow, but not unfortunately in either a very serious fashion or in a pursuit of genuine Marxism. Thus the various international left unity initiatives are all hailed as examples to follow no matter what their political content or national peculiarities. While the Erfurt programme inspired Russian Marxists, today’s Irish left doesn’t seem to be interested in programmes at all; many regard concern for them as ‘sectarian.’ The political content of the unity is thus either ignored or regarded as entirely secondary.
The fact that the Scottish Socialist Party, British RESPECT, German WASG or Italian Comunista Rifondazione etc. are all different animals does not prevent us from being asked to copy them. If these initiatives share anything it is an attempt to preserve and save reformist socialism under various guises. Their programmes point not to the future but to the past, to attempts to recreate a consensus capitalism that does not exist anymore and is no longer on offer. Such programmes thus reflect the defeats of the workers movement rather than signalling an alternative. They reflect the limits of the existing workers’ movement, not an attempt to bring a Marxist programme to it. They reflect the pessimistic and economistic notion that rehashed reformism is all that workers are ready for. When these attempts fail little attempt is made to learn the lessons and there is no confidence that the same mistakes do not wait to be made all over again.
Merger No more?
So does this mean the merger narrative is no longer a means of envisaging the tasks of Marxists? Surely this isn’t correct?
Despite the claims of some, there really can be no denying that the politics of Marxism is still separated from the vast majority of workers and no amount of spontaneous struggle by itself will overcome this. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the work that specifically belongs to Marxists in overcoming this and reveals blindness to the incontestable evidence of the last century.
What this shows is that the task of creating a working class party that is truly independent of other classes or of the capitalist state, i.e. that is Marxist, has been achieved only episodically in working class history. In some countries, including the most important and including our own, it has never been achieved. Indeed Marxists would find it increasingly difficult to argue that such a project was not utopian had it not been the case that at points in history it has been achieved, most notably in Russia in 1917, though some Marxists today want to deny even this example any historical validity.
The merger narrative is a valid way of looking at the tasks facing Marxists today only if we understand two things. The task isn’t to merge Marxism to the existing workers movement because that movement cannot even carry out the most elementary and immediate tasks of defence of working class interests. As we have said, this is not just a question of replacing bad leaders with good ones.
Secondly the merger must not be with what has in the past, and still is now, most often paraded as socialism. So the history of the twentieth century begs the question – what socialism are we talking about? Certainly not that of Stalin or Mao or even Castro. The liberatory core of Marxism needs restating, not debased into reformism.
The two tasks are tied together because the most important practical and theoretical tasks of Marxism are how the existing workers movement can be transformed into one that defends the working class. We already know some of the answer: it at least involves unremitting political opposition to the bureaucracy that currently leads it.
So if the merger narrative retains some explanatory power, albeit with much more complicated strategic tasks, how does this inform us in a situation in which capitalism seems to be working? Another way of putting the question – what relevance has a revolutionary programme when we don’t realistically face any short-term prospect of revolution?
In some respects this question already contains a misunderstanding. The contradictions of capitalism, reflected in the ever-present existence of class struggle and the economic, social and political conditions which give rise to it, do not at some points in time cease to exist. They can be expressed in varying ways but they always exist and always find expression, and they are not amenable to reformist solutions.
The Celtic Tiger, far from invalidating the revolutionary programme, confirms it. Even in the most extravagant boom capitalism cannot address the needs of the working class. Lets for the moment forget about whether these conditions are engendering a consciousness in the working class that socialism is required. This would anyway be a result not only of objective economic and social conditions but also, in fact even more so, of social and political conflict and the parties and organisations through which it is fought out. Today in the Celtic Tiger insecurity hovers over every gain, inequality scars every aspect of social life, debt funds the uneasy feeling of well being and fear exists whenever the thin threads of ‘prosperity,’ at least for some, are apprehended.
At the extremes capitalism offers the barbarism of the Iraq war and threats of the same to others. The Irish State is implicated up to its neck. In the North the shiny new peace process is discredited and survives only because the same parties that have failed in it are the same to promise a return to the sickening and cynical violence that is always held up as the only alternative. The roots of sectarianism are nourished while we are assured the same rotten fruit will not be harvested.
No reforms to the North can break sectarianism. No reforms to the South will ever make it a society no longer dependent on multinational capital with the inequality that inevitably results. This is what makes a revolutionary programme relevant – because at the objective level it provides the only solution to the contradictions of capitalism, and only resolution to the class struggle that always characterises its existence. The character of the revolutionary programme is therefore the same in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ times – irreconcilable opposition.
The left that thinks only reformist electoral manifestos are currently appropriate think that revolutionary politics are only appropriate to a revolutionary situation but the latter is not a purely objective event. It will never arise unless the working class becomes aware of its own revolutionary character. And how will this happen If socialists do not argue for it at every opportunity? As we quoted Marx in our review of Lih’s book : ‘It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with its being, it will historically be compelled to do.’
The left that believes it can pull the working class towards socialism through presenting reformism to them first is also the left that denounces the history of this practice and all the failures it produced during the last century. That they fail to see the contradiction reminds one of the accuracy of the aphorism that history repeats itself as farce.
As this is written we come across the purest example of the economism that Lenin so fought against in What is to be Done? The People Before Profit Alliance, an SWP creation, has announced its intention to stand four candidates in the general election. Does this represent the bringing of socialism to workers, particularly those in struggle? Does it present the creation of a national, indeed international, Marxist Party as the vehicle in which all the oppressed and all those fighting capitalism can find organisation and a voice?
No! Socialism is not being brought to workers, unfortunately quite the opposite, the weaknesses of ‘stikhiinyi’ struggle are instead substituted for socialism. Richard Boyd Barrett explicitly declares it a vehicle for a non-socialist left. The purely local character of struggle, on which terrain nothing of lasting significance can be won, is championed, indeed it’s the whole excuse for the initiative. The workers are misled and socialism is once more debased. No wonder workers think socialism is more intervention by the capitalist state, it’s what these so-called Marxists tell them every time they put a leaflet through their door.
To think that by declaring that you are against coalition you have avoided the problem is to kid only yourself. If you put forward reformism it doesn’t matter what revolutionary beliefs are locked up somewhere inside your head, to implement this programme entails the continued existence of capitalism. If you sincerely mean what you say in your manifesto why wouldn’t you be happy to see it implemented in coalition? In fact what difference would it make for a reformist programme to fail all on its own rather than as part of a coalition? Because fail it must. If you don’t mean what you say, if you don’t think the platform you stand on answers the big political questions then you are lying to the working class and you will get your just rewards sooner or later.
Some readers might still feel that while our criticisms may be more or less valid they fail to see the alternative. What is a revolutionary programme anyway?
We have already explained part of its nature – it is confirmed not just when capitalism enters a period of crisis, because crisis is also how capitalism ‘solves’ its contradictory tendencies. It is valid in periods of economic prosperity because the contradictions of capitalism are always there. The class struggle is always there and only a revolutionary solution, the overthrow of capitalism by the working class and creation of a non-market planned economy, ruled and controlled by the working class, provides a solution. The bridge between this and the immediate tasks facing workers is one of transition from the latter to the former and has been called a transitional programme. Its precise perspectives, demands and tactics all rest on the real concrete situation existing at any time. Our’s and others understanding of these can be found by reading our own and others web sites and other publications.
The revolutionary programme is also validated by the needs of the working class and by its instinctive struggles which spontaneously point beyond reformist solutions. If the working class was not itself capable of revolution all the rival and compelling arguments of Marxism would be worthless. It is because the working class is capable of revolution that the antics of the left feeding it reformist nonsense is so criminal. The examples of the nature of these spontaneous struggles and what socialists should do about them have been amply covered on this web site but we will mention just a few again so that readers can appreciate our arguments through real examples.
Twice in the last few years over 100,000 have demonstrated against the policies of the Irish State, policies it cannot discard and therefore opposition to which is potentially revolutionary, whatever illusions participants may have had. The first was opposition to the Iraq war. Support for this is not an option for the Irish State, its dependence on the US makes it a compulsion, yet over 100,000 came out against this imperialist war. This was spontaneous, as the anti-war movement has never included in its ranks more than a very tiny fraction of the number who demonstrated. The size of the demonstrations surprised everyone. The duty of socialists in the face of this spontaneous struggle was to seek to give it organisation and to give it awareness that its opposition was in fact opposition to imperialism, and to its Irish collaborators, to which there can only be a socialist alternative.
Unfortunately this was not the response of the left who, for example, held an organising meeting the day after the demos but failed to build it out of the demo, preferring small minded sectarian manoeuvring to the interests of the class. The message from the platforms never challenged prevailing pacifist illusions, including those in that other instrument of imperialism - the United Nations. Instead socialism remained a sectarian recruitment banner for the individual left organisations. The idea that this movement as a whole should be won to an anti-imperialist and socialist perspective was lost in the pursuit of recruits, ironically justified in the name of broad non-sectarian unity.
The second example in which the merger narrative could have had application was the mass demonstrations against exploitation at Irish Ferries, which again had some characteristics of a purely spontaneous upsurge but was met with a left swearing blind it wanted workers unity and unity on the left but which couldn’t unite itself nor warn workers that their interests were incompatible with leadership by the bureaucracy.
A third example can be seen in the North among those who have supported Sinn Fein yet have resisted the inevitable sectarianisation of society that the peace process Sinn Fein supports has involved. At both Holy Cross and Drumcree the logic of the peace process involved surrender to Orange bigotry, and Sinn Fein was moving to just this accommodation, while the mass of their supporters resisted. Again the task was and is to explain to republican supporters that their hopes for equality and democracy are incompatible with support for Sinn Fein or the peace process and Good Friday Agreement (or any successors).
The revolutionary programme thus represents the coming together of the contradictions of capitalism and the best spontaneous struggles of the working class. It combines them in a conscious manner so that the contradictions are overcome in the self-activity of working class struggle. Far from being a theoretical construct detached from the real class struggle the Marxist programme explains the real nature of reality and the revolutionary potential contained within it.
It can of course still be objected that the revolutionary alternative is weak and lacks credibility. This is true in the very obvious sense that those who espouse it are few, but its strength is based on the fact that it is true and that larger reformist projects are not, because they are built on an erroneous view of capitalism and the resistance to it. If the failure of the Soviet Union demonstrates one thing it is that no matter how powerful some political force (a superpower!) may seem to be the truth will prove much stronger. By truth we don’t mean some idealistic virtue but the actual contradictory nature of capitalism and the potential of the working class.
The working class will throw up struggles which will present opportunities to demonstrate its purchase on reality. These opportunities will become more fruitful if the existing left used them to demonstrate the relevance of revolutionary politics. As we have said, this is the politics of irreconcilable opposition.
Instead the left seeks relevance by appealing to existing consciousness without trying to develop or change it. It presents itself in elections as representing what their targeted electorate already wants instead of trying to teach them that overthrowing the existing political system and capitalism is necessary for what they want and need. The immediate task is not to create proper representation to an existing dissatisfied constituency, to reflect existing consciousness by being a ‘left’ representative of a ‘left’ electorate. It is to build an opposition on a firm and coherent basis. A Marxist programme is necessary for this.
None of this means rejecting united activity with anyone if it allows Marxists to advance working class struggle and put forward its programme, but these tactical questions are not what is at issue here. The tactical means by which socialism is brought to workers is open to multiple approaches. What has been argued is that real socialism is not being brought to workers at all and that the necessity to transform and rebuild the workers movement has not at all been appreciated.
All of this means that Marxists do have an alternative and one grounded in reality, in the objective processes of social development and reflecting the best spontaneous struggles of the working class. One that properly arms workers to engage in the struggles they have and will inevitably face in the future and which shows them the political cause they should embrace. It explains that this involves rejection of their existing leaders and the creation of a new leadership, not just from the socialist movement but from their own ranks as they engage in struggle.
The merger narrative is appealingly simple, even if its achievement is difficult. We have ample evidence of the contradictory nature of capitalism, are confident in the inevitability of workers struggle and of the two connecting to create the conditions for the combining of Marxism and the workers into a revolutionary movement. We can say no more than this. Socialism is not inevitable. What is inevitable is the possibility to realistically fight for it. The Marxist programme is our understanding of how to conduct this fight.