De Omnibus Dubitandum: Why business as usual is no longer an option for the revolutionary socialist left

I am convinced that there is little force left in the original Marxist stimulus to revolution. Its impetus is petering out as the practical failure of the doctrine becomes daily more obvious. It has failed to take root in the advanced democracies. In those countries where it has taken root – countries backward or, by tradition, authoritarian – it has failed to provide sustained economic or social development. What is left is a technique of subversion and a collection of catch-phrases. The former, the technique of subversion, is still dangerous. […] As for the catch-phrases of Marxism, they still have a certain drawing power.

Margaret Thatcher, Foreign Policy of Great Britain Speech, December 18, 1979


At the level of general society, socialist ideas – ‘socialist’ here understood in the specific sense as the proposition of socialism as a form of organising society distinct from and opposed to that of present, capitalist, society – not only enjoy less currency than they did, say, twenty or thirty years ago, they are probably as marginal as they have been ever since the idea of socialism itself first manifested itself alongside the appearance of a working-class political movement in its modern form.

Within this general context, what I would call ‘serious’ socialism – a socialism that would present itself as the product of a concerted and conscious struggle against capitalist society; a socialism as the objective dynamic of partial oppositional struggles within existing society; a socialism which justifies its actuality through a dispassionate investigation of the nature of existing society and its historical genesis – is today granted the kind of respect previously normally accorded the more exotic fauna of religious discourse. This kind of socialism – in its most refined and developed form Marxism – once perceived as an ideologically legitimate but politically dangerous ideology to be, under normal conditions, subsumed – and therefore tolerated – as a minority opinion within the political organisations and academic institutions that have afforded stability to the existing capitalist order, and, under the whip of crisis, to be crushed by the police, the prisons, and the concentration camps, not only today enjoys a level of mainstream credibility of the same order as that accorded the partisans of the idea of the Flat Earth, but is considered equally innocuous for the existing social and political order.

This ideological marginalisation of socialism in its various stripes sees itself accompanied by an institutional decline within mainstream bourgeois politics. Those social-democratic parties that still maintain an electoral position in the classical bourgeois democracies do so increasingly less on the basis of, or even despite, their opposition to the existing order – be that opposition real or perceived – than on their being seen as more credible administrators of that order: even the traditional high day and holy day acknowledgement paid to socialist ideas by these parties has largely been jettisoned as either no longer necessary if not actively counterproductive to their present-day concerns. And where smaller oppositional parties, be these of Communist origin, or emanating from the non-Communist revolutionary left, or the products of splits from mainstream social democracy (or some combination of such developments), have previously enjoyed a mainstream political legitimacy, a diminishing electoral base, an increasingly marginal institutional role and an ever greater tendency to be stricken by recriminatory infighting and political splits all combine in a vicious circle of decline and irrelevance. Political currents previously susceptible to socialist ideas – nationalism, ecologism – find themselves increasingly drawn to a perspective of seeking better concessions within the system rather than one of mounting an opposition to it. In good part, the vacuous psycho-babble that passes for mainstream political discourse in the advanced capitalist democracies nowadays stems from the fact that there is no longer any meaningful antisystemic project worthy of being polemicised against.

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Through What Stage Are We Passing?

[The] assertion that ‘everything is possible in human affairs’ is either meaningless or false.

—E. H. Carr

What Happened to the Socialist Revolution?
Anyone who has pretensions to being a revolutionary socialist nowadays, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, is surely obliged to answer one simple, if salient, question: what on earth has happened to the socialist revolution? For those of us who believe that the socialist transformation of society must through necessity pass through the gate of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order the fact is that moves to do just that have, since the mid point of the last century, been almost entirely absent from our planet; and absolutely absent from that part of our planet where the locus of capitalist power is lies––the advanced metropolis of western Europe, north America and Australasia. While the first half of the last century, as we shall see, was indeed a period rich in revolutionary experience in just this part of the world capitalist system, since the restabilisation of social and political order following the Second World War the metropolitan capitalist citadel has remained pristine in its resistance to revolutionary challenge.

For sure, the quarter of a century following the Second World War witnessed a period of economic growth and social stability arguably without parallel in human history: that openly anti-capitalist struggles were marked only by their absence in the bourgeois democracies of the ‘west’ in this period was only to be expected. But what of the period which opened up at the cusp of the sixties and seventies of post-Second World War boom? Those who believed that the ‘long detour’ of the previous two decades would end in a renewal of the conditions favourable to placing the socialist revolution back on the historical agenda will have been sorely disappointed.

While some will surely use this state of affairs as further ammunition for the argument that the revolutionary struggle for socialism was always a chimera, it is incumbent for anyone maintaining a commitment to socialist transformation with a modicum of intellectual honesty to point out that other roads to socialism––the so-called parliamentary one, for example, or the once modish strategies of ‘counter-hegemony’ and the like––have been found even more wanting in their efficacy in shifting the power of the bourgeoisie and its political institutions than the socialist revolution. The hard truth is that capitalist power has only ever been directly and successfully challenged by a revolutionary socialism. So, if the conclusion that the struggle for socialist emancipation was only ever a naïve and utopian dream is to be avoided, the question poses itself in all its force: what is it that is absent from the current world set up that was present in the first half of the twentieth century; and what might be the circumstances that will announce its return?

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A Farewell to the Vanguard Party or a Return to Leninism?

At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. I have read it again before saying this. In the first place, it is too long, containing fifty or more points. Foreigners are not usually able to read such things. Secondly, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And thirdly, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out. This is its third defect. I have talked with a few of the foreign delegates and hope to discuss matters in detail with a large number of delegates from different countries during the Congress, although I shall not take part in its proceedings, for unfortunately it is impossible for me to do that. I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success. As I have said already, the resolution is excellently drafted; I am prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points. But we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners. All that was said in the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not realise this, we shall be unable to move ahead.


In the last issue of Workers Action Nick Davies dealt with the question of ‘what kind of organisation should Marxists be building’, and argued that Marxists ‘have to break from the traditional Leninist model and find a new and more relevant way of working.’

To begin, it certainly is the case that the left needs a ‘fresh start’: given the record of the European and north American revolutionary left over the last thirty years, any revolutionary socialist who really did not believe that it was necessary to question the accepted orthodoxies of building revolutionary socialist organisations would appear to be signally out of touch with the real world. Nick must therefore be congratulated on raising the questions that he does, for it is increasingly clear that ‘business as usual’ is no longer a tenable option for us. Yet, as we all know, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, and the well-meant spirit of a ‘ruthless criticism of everything existing’ runs the danger of the baby going off with the bathwater.

The standard critique of what is normally taken to be Leninist orthodoxy, which Nick goes some way in accepting on my reading of his article, is this. Lenin’s strictures as to the type and functioning of revolutionary organisation were if not exclusively then at least principally a product of the conditions of Russian absolutism in which the RSDLP had to operate. A tight organisation of conspiratorial revolutionaries, however, while appropriate to these conditions, can only result highly over-centralised and undemocratic organisations run by self-appointed leadership cliques unable to relate to the real class struggle and real processes of radicalisation when applied to conditions of bourgeois-democratic openness. We thus need to find new ways to organise as revolutionaries, and, in our search for new methods in the enlightened bourgeois democracies of the twenty-first century, Lenin’s approach, developed in opposition to an absolutism that firmly belonged in nineteenth, can have little to say to us.

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On ‘Stalinism’

The problem with coming up with a simple definition of Stalinism is that – since the term has been used to talk about such diverse elements as ideology, political practice, political parties and movements, forms of state governance and so on – to avoid a definition that is hopelessly unwieldy and ridiculously over-inclusive an a priori decision as to what exactly the term is to be applied has to be made, a decision which methodologically logically requires in turn some sort of definition. This elemental tautology lies at the heart of the great bulk of discussions on the nature of Stalinism. This lack of methodological clarity is only compounded by the fact that the very term itself has passed into the vernacular of politics as a term of abuse, applicable to anyone one doesn’t like, especially anyone with an ‘authoritarian’ bent: thus not only was Gerry Healy a ‘Stalinist’ in his pomp, but so was Tony Blair and in turn Margaret Thatcher too. Does the term have any value then? I am going to argue that it does, but what I intend to do here is try to return an analytical content to it, and to strip it of its pejorative force. A subsidiary objective of mine will necessarily be to argue strongly against the increasingly common view that the question of ‘Stalinism’ – or, more accurately, the matters to which the label ‘Stalinism’ is, not always fortuitously, applied – is now an historical rather than a contemporary one – a view which has been very much current within USFI circles over the last ten years or so. I shall suggest that an account of how the concept of Stalinism has been dealt with by ostensible non-Stalinists over the years raises questions acutely relevant to the kind of political clarification that revolutionaries need in the here and now and will need in the at least foreseeable future.

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The best place to begin all this is not to try to come up with a ‘new’ definition of Stalinism, since that would be merely to repeat the methodological tautology just referred to, but look at how the term itself has been used in the past, to see what can be rescued from its usage, and what has to be abandoned. For logical reasons, not the worst place to start would be with the writings of Trotsky: and although I say ‘logically’ so, another subsidiary target of mine is going to be the straightforwardly silly idea that there are two fundamental currents within Marxism, Stalinism and Trotskyism, the one definable by what the other is not. I hope to make it clear by the end that conceptions of this type are very much a part of our problem and not of a possible resolution.

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The Bolsheviks, the National Question and the Civil War

The policy of Bolshevism on the national question, having ensured the victory of the October revolution, also helped the Soviet Union to hold out afterward notwithstanding inner centrifugal forces and a hostile environment.

–– Leon Trotsky

During a debate on the national question in an internet forum, I was challenged on a comment I had made to the effect that ‘the Russian Revolution would not have taken place if it had not been for the positions of the Bolsheviks on the national question.’ The objections that were raised were these:

  • ‘Between the February and October revolutions national governments were formed in many of the nations within the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks did nothing to either encourage or dissuade this process as they could do nothing about it.’
  • ‘With the exception of the Ukraine and Byelorussia all the nations peripheral to the Empire were lost to counter-revolutionary forces regardless of the position the Bolsheviks held on self-determination.’
  • ‘In the Ukraine the argument that self-determination won the masses to the revolution simply will not wash given that more than once Lenin had to intervene their to rebuke the local representatives of the party for Great Russian chauvinism. When a stable regime was finally established in the Ukraine it was to be headed not by a Ukrainian or a Great Russian but by a man whose very nationality was more than a little in flux. I refer to Christian Rakovsky.’

And finally, that the national question ‘was a very secondary ideological weapon in this struggle.’

Given that my interlocutor saw fit to cast doubt on my capacity to engage with the ‘historical process’ and suggested that I really knew nothing about the events under consideration, the historical ignorance he displayed was staggering. To keep this discussion at least some way manageable I am going to concentrate my comments on the Ukraine, since it was here not only that the most important phase of the civil war was played out but where the national question was posed most sharply. But it is not true that the national question only emerged in the Ukraine: in the east, in Turkestan, the Bolshevik’s position was also a vital factor in winning over the most militant fighters for national liberation, a point admitted by the region’s bourgeois nationalist leaders themselves.

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‘The Socialist Revolution East and West’ — A Critical Assessment

This text is the introductory (and critical) presentation written for the republication of an anonymous text that circulated among certain circles of the British state left in the late 1970s and 1980s. The status of the text, and the motivation for its republication, are explained at the outset below. In due course the original document which the following text deals with will be uploaded to this site in its entirety.

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The following text is a document written by a member of the International Marxist Group (the then British Section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International) over 1978-79 and previously unpublished elsewhere. The principal objective of the author was a refutation of the argument—found in its most developed form in the contemporary Eurocommunist tradition, but also visible in the work of Perry Anderson and, to a certain degree, in that of Ernest Mandel—that in the west of Europe, a strategy for socialist revolution based on a Leninist conception of ‘insurrectionism’ was inadequate to resolve the complexities of a bourgeois class rule founded upon the predominance of parliamentary institutions and structures. In order to refute this idea, the author presents a detailed survey of the twentieth-century European revolutionary experience, east and west, from the revolutionary wave following the First World War, through the Spanish revolution of the 1930s and the Communist Party-led uprisings during the later part of the Second World War, up to the French May 68 and the Portuguese revolution of 1974-75.

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The Debate on the Bourgeois Revolution Revisited

Recently, some French historians have called for an end to the discussion of the causes and meaning of the French Revolution, declaring it to be ‘terminated’. But an occurrence that raises such fundamental philosophical and moral questions can never end. For the dispute is not only over what has happened in the past but also over what may happen in the future.

The object of the notes below is to argue the following:

  • That the traditional Marxist conception of bourgeois revolution is­ – with serious consequences for both Marxists and Marxism – fundamentally flawed.
  • That, this notwithstanding, Marxism retains its validity as a tool of historical enquiry. The problem is not that Marxism itself is ‘wrong’ but that it has been consistently misunderstood and misapplied by generations of Marxists, not least in the field of historiography.
  • That the debate on the origin and nature of the bourgeois revolutions is no mere scholastic obscurantism but rather has, on a number of different levels, a practical and increasingly urgent relevance.

The classical Marxist model, developed with regard to the eighteenth-century French Revolution, painted a picture of bourgeois revolution as a result of a clash between, on the one hand, an ascendant capitalist bourgeoisie (drawing behind it the plebeian masses) attempting to free itself from the strictures of an over-arching feudal order, and, on the other, a reactionary feudal aristocracy intent on maintaining a controlling position in political and economic life.The ensuing struggle, political in form, focusing on control of the apparatus of the state, was rooted in an antagonism between two different forms of socio-economic structure, represented by antagonistic social classes:he revolution was social in content, bilateral in terms of protagonists, and ‘national’ in geographical extent. Its result was the inauguration of a new social order based on the predominance of the capitalist mode of production and the social and political ascendancy of the bourgeoisie.

This model of bourgeois revolution, articulated over the course of the middle third of the twentieth century by historians with strong ideological and/or organisational links with the Communist Parties, enjoyed a great deal of acceptance within mainstream historiography. But the onslaught of the so-called ‘revisionist’ interpretations of the French Revolution over the course of the 1960s and 70s which the Marxist model inevitably produced left the latter in a state of disrepute. And in this respect it is necessary to say that on practically every point the revisionists have been proved right over the Marxists.

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