Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

“There are no infallible party leaderships, or individual party leaders, party majorities, “Leninist” central committees” – and so on!

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We can learn from history, we cannot change it.

Russia in the 1920’s was a one-Party State. The ruling Bolshevik Party banned internal oppositional currents. Different groups emerged opposing the party leadership centred around the dictator, Joseph Stalin.

On a smaller level today in Ireland, one-Faction “broader parties” – for example People Before Profit (ultimately controlled by the Socialist Workers’ Network) or Solidarity (ultimately controlled by the Socialist Party) – are a living contradiction. They are, because internal democracy is curtailed, bureaucratically deformed radical-left parties. RISE, originating from internal differences within Solidarity/Socialist Party, represents a serious effort to break free from the bureaucratically deformed model.

“Build a new mass left-wing party

“There is a desperate need for a mass political party of the left. Because of Sinn Féin’s acceptance of the capitalist market and its hesitancy to engage with people-power movements, it will not be that party.

“None of the existing radical left parties are likely to grow directly into that mass left party either. Instead, we need a left party that is anti-capitalist, anti-coalition and anti-oppression, while being open for different groups to organise within it.

RISE and our TD, Paul Murphy, wants to work with others to build such a party. While fighting for every reform in the here and now, we are a revolutionary socialist group that sees the need to end the rule of the bosses and big corporations.”

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, most of the opposition currents were reluctant to put their differences in perspective, and unite against the common ruling enemy. Tragic consequences followed – the Stalin machine murdered and framed all its opponents in infamous 1930’s Moscow Show-Trials.

Victor Osprey highlights important efforts to do things differently

‘The most courageous section of the oppositionists did not lose heart in expectation of better times. They set the same goals for themselves as in the years of the pre-revolutionary underground: an analysis of developing events; preserving their strength for acting at a propitious moment against Stalinism; the establishment and maintenance of connections between all anti-Stalinist forces in the party.

Their isolation, that had been a consequence of their earlier political disagreements, was gradually overcome.

On the eve of the 1930s, these disagreements had objectively softened, insofar as the evaluation of Stalin’s socioeconomic policy and inner-party regime among the “leftists” and the “rightists” coincided.

In the consciousness of the Bukharinists, the “theory of original sin” – of “Trotskyism” – had gradually been effaced. They had invented it in the 1920s and initially they had been guided by it in their criticism of Stalin’s ultra-left course. In 1936, the Bulletin of the Left Opposition published a letter from an exiled oppositionist which described how, when he met in 1932 with former “Bukharinists” (Slepkov, Maretsky and others), he concluded that they “had absolutely changed, and that they did not conceal – of course, in intimate circles – their new attitude toward Trotsky and to Trotskyists.”

For their part, the Trotskyists came to the conclusion that, in the name of common tasks in fighting against Stalinism, they must cast aside recollections of their unprincipled persecution by the Bukharinists.

In 1932, a bloc began to form between the participants of all the old opposition tendencies and new anti-Stalinist inner-party groupings. The tragedy of this bloc is that it arose too late, in conditions when the entire repressive Stalinist apparatus had been mobilised to search for underground opposition groups in the party and to ruthlessly victimise them.’

Reflecting on these tragic events, the Fourth International explicitly changed its programme in 1985, stating without any weasel words :

However there are no infallible parties. There are no infallible party leaderships, or individual party leaders, party majorities, “Leninist central committees,” etc. The Marxist programme is never a definitely achieved one. No new situation can be comprehensively analysed in reference to historical precedents. Social reality is constantly undergoing changes. New and unforeseen developments regularly occur at historical turning points. The phenomenon of imperialism after Engels’s death was not analysed by Marx and Engels. The delay of the proletarian revolution in the advanced imperialist countries was not foreseen by the Bolsheviks. The bureaucratic degeneration of the first workers’ state was not incorporated in Lenin’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The emergence after World War II of many workers’ states (albeit with bureaucratic deformations from the start) following revolutionary mass struggles not led by revolutionary Marxist leaderships (Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam) was not foreseen by Trotsky, etc. No complete, ready-made answer for new phenomena can be found in the works of the classics or in the existing programme.

Furthermore, new problems will arise in the course of the building of socialism, problems for which the revolutionary Marxist programme provides only a general framework of reference but no automatic source of correct answers. The struggle for correct answers to such new problems implies a constant interaction between theoretical-political analysis and discussions and revolutionary class practice, the final word being spoken by practical experience. Under such circumstances, any restriction of free political and theoretical debate spilling over to a restriction of free political mass activity of the proletariat, i.e., any restriction of socialist democracy, will constitute an obstacle to the revolutionary party itself arriving at correct policies. It is therefore not only theoretically wrong but practically ineffective and harmful from the point of view of successfully advancing on the road of building socialism.

One of the gravest consequences of a monolithic one-party system, of the absence of a plurality of political groups, tendencies, and parties, and of administrative restrictions being imposed on free political and ideological debate, is the impediments such a system erects on the road to rapidly correcting mistakes which can be committed by the government of a workers’ state. Mistakes committed by such a government, like mistakes committed by the majority of the working class, its various layers, and different political groupings, are by and large unavoidable in the process of building a classless, socialist society. A rapid correction of these mistakes, however, is possible in a climate of free political debate, free access of opposition groupings to mass media, large-scale political awareness and involvement in political life by the masses, and control by the masses over government and state activity at all levels.

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  1. Thanks for the shout out John.

    Indeed, I hope we can learn the lessons. I’m not familiar enough with RISE to comment (though I am somewhat familiar with Paul Murphy and his political history) but I sincerely hope RISE does represent what you say it does.

    Besides sterile theoretical differences whose practical significance (mostly ‘the Russian question’) is long since dead, the putatively Trotskyist, post-Trotskyist or organisations with some relationship to the Trotskyist lineage share far more in common than they do separately.

    While organisational separation may be better in some cases than an organisational merger, the raising of high barriers and the excessive emphasis on what distinguishes one organisation from the other are largely pointless – at the least, there is no good reason they cannot have a positive working relationship with each other, and indeed the wider non-Stalinist radical left.

    While SWN-PBP and SP-Solidarity have been able to conclude an electoral agreement and enjoy some electoral success, which represents a positive step forward – (the Australian radical left has been a lot less successful electorally, especially at the national level – barring a few local councillors elected here and there) –

    as you say, those ‘broader parties’ are a living contradiction, and are largely empty vessels and electoral vehicles directed by the organisations behind them that control them, which everyone is aware of.

    We should take what is positive from Trotskyism (or what I prefer to call revolutionary Marxism, a term also perfectly applicable to other anti-Stalinist Marxist currents) while leaving its negatives and recurring issues in the dust.

    Even when Trotskyists are politically on point, they are often laid low by organisational questions or reliance on ‘Leninist’ organisational norms that correspond less to the historic practice of Russian social democracy (both Bolshevik and Menshevik currents) and more related to Zinovievist Cominternism (and by referring to it as ‘Zinovievist’ I by no means intend to let Lenin off the hook – and as much valuable things there are to learn from the Comintern, particularly in its early phase, adopting an overly tight, ideologically and organisationally, party-form which, rightly or wrongly, was intended for a period of mass strikes, uprisings and armed insurrections is obviously not appropriate today, and was seriously questionable even at the time)

    Victor Osprey

    Mar 25, 2020 at 12:10 pm

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