Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The toothless comb of orthodoxy

At the risk of being boring, I think I should probably say something about this depressingly formulaic 'rebuttal' of my comments on reformism.  For those who are not far left geeks, what follows will undoubtedly look like the proverbial bald men fighting over a toothless comb.  But, to stretch the metaphor unacceptably, I am only fighting for the comb in order to prove that I neither need nor want the stupid comb, and that it's worthless.  I hope that's clear.

i.) Molyneux complains that I imply that we can only "really" be revolutionaries when there is a revolutionary agency available, which is only the case in revolutionary situations.  He worries that I'm trying to obscure the need to "build the revolutionary party in advance of the revolution".  Setting aside the questionable use of the definite article here, this isn't quite what I said, or what I think.  It is surely obvious that I was describing the huge gap between what revolutionaries are 'subjectively' committed to, and their 'objective' day to day actions.  This was the point of the Macintyre quote.  It doesn't mean that one cannot be 'subjectively' committed to revolutionary socialism, and that one cannot organise with that in mind, outside of a revolutionary situation.  Indeed, I think it's important that people do so, to connect their day to day actions with a longer-term perspective and strategy.  That's why, in the same interview, I stressed the need for a revolutionary pole within a reconstituted left.  I'm for revolutionary parties.  I'm just not for authoritarian, bureaucratic, hierarchical sects which cover up rape allegations.  Molyneux's remarks on Marx and Trotsky, and subsequently on Cliff and Harman, are therefore beside the point and a complete waste of time.

ii.)  Molyneux suggests that, by saying that revolutionaries fight for reforms that will strengthen workers in advance of any revolutionary situation, I am sliding toward "the notion of a 'left government' opening the way to socialism, which is a classic left reformist idea".  There's something incredibly clumsy in Molyneux's formulation, but I restrict my counterpoint to this: any government, left or right, could potentially be compelled to deliver reforms which strengthen the working class.  It depends on the context.  And obviously, we fight for such reforms irrespective of the government in power.  In that sense, Molyneux might as well accuse me of sliding toward the notion of a Tory government opening the way to socialism.  This isn't to say I am not in favour of left governments.  I think  that, where they can be achieved, it would be a step forward in most instances.  A left government in Greece, for example, would have been better for the working class than an NDP-led coalition government.  And since Molyneux and I both come from a tradition which has long argued that a Labour government is generally more advantageous for workers than a Tory government, I don't suppose this point is particularly controversial.  However, it is to say that it is wrong to conflate the question of beneficial reforms with the question of governmental power, and doubly wrong to conflate either with the question of a transition to socialism - which, in the interview, I explicitly link to the development of a revolutionary situation.

iii.) Molyneux says that the key difference between reformists and revolutionaries is not in whether they advocate and fight for reforms, but "HOW we fight for reforms (by emphasizing the self-activity and combativity of the working class) and with what perspective (with the perspective of preparing for revolution)".  This is all very well as a couple of abstract and rather vague principles.  However, I'm sceptical that for most of the time this results in revolutionaries doing anything that is fundamentally different in their daily practice to what any decent left reformists would be doing.  There are, as far as I'm aware, no axioms for how revolutionaries conduct political struggles, which necessarily depends on the context, the means to hand, the available alliances, and so on.  For example, in its various engagements in Stop the War, Defend Council Housing, United Against Fascism, etc., has the SWP fought for 'reforms' in a way that is fundamentally different from that of left reformists with whom they were allied?  I don't think so.  (In fact, from what I've heard some of the SWP's recent positions in UAF are tactically to the right of its left reformist allies in terms of the accent placed on self-activity and combativity.)  Perhaps they should have done, but that can only be determined by a careful reading of the concrete situation.

iv.) Molyneux complains that, by suggesting that the revolutionary-reformist dichotomy is often used in a moralising, guilt-tripping manner, I am simply evading the need for political clarity on this distinction.  I would reverse this charge.  I think Molyneux knows very well that the term 'reformist' is used as a polemical epithet, and that in such situations the one thing it helps avoid is political clarity.  It is not always that the term is incorrect, but rather that it is used to explain away substantive political disagreements or claim a cost-free moral advantage over someone who has fallen out of favour.  This was certainly the case when certain people suddenly, clawing at their breasts and fainting with shock, discovered that George Galloway or Owen Jones was a reformist.  It can also be used in a way that helps obscure difficult and precarious political judgments.  I think of the Syriza debate, when the issue of reformism was raised in a formally correct manner, but in such a way as to obscure the fact that concretely all the proposals were in fact reformist.  The question was which reformist option would most likely advance the aims of the working class, and the oppressed.

v) Molyneux, currently a leader of the Irish SWP, experienced a sad decline in the context of the British SWP crisis. This is not a point I want to labour.  I simply invite readers to look up his article defending the Central Committee against the opposition, which was then used in the run up to a National Committee meeting to rouse the hardcore defenders and frighten the moderate opposition.  It represented, as I said at the time, a stunning capitulation to bureaucratic irrationality.  In the context of that same crisis, one of the ways of attacking the opposition was to say that, yes, they may claim to be opposed to the way the leadership handled rape and sexual harassment allegations, but that is merely a cipher for their break with 'Leninism'. What better proof of this than that it involves the infamous reformist Seymour, who is secretly planning to go off and form a British Syriza?  
And this brings me to that toothless comb I mentioned earlier.  It's been a few months since I and others left the party.  We have our own organization now, and are pursuing our own objectives.  In the context of the SWP crisis, we had to have a big fight over the real legacy of Lenin, Trotsky, Cliff and Harman.  Because that's how the leadership chose to handle a rape scandal - with shop-soiled accusations of apostasy.  The guiltier they were, the louder the accusations.  That fight was useful in some ways, because it meant many of us read widely enough to understand the difference between the lived experience and ideas of such figures, and the sterile dogmas of the party in its present state.   But we no longer have to have that fight.  We'll discuss Lenin, Trotsky, the IS Tradition, and all the rest of it, in our own way and on our own time: not with an eye to orthodoxy, or fighting pointless battles with other organizations.  Because the prize offered as an inducement to engage in this fight, the claim to absolute revolutionary rectitude, was always a toothless comb.  And that's how it stands with me in this discussion: if John Molyneux wants this useless implement, he can have it.