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Facing reality – after the crisis in the SWP

John Palmer looks at some of the roots of the party's problems, and asks where the left can go from here
January 2013

John Palmer was a long standing member of Socialist Review (SR) and the International Socialists (IS), the forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party. He left after a major split in the IS in mid 1970s which led to the creation of the SWP.

An explosive row over allegations of rape made against a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party has triggered bitter divisions in the largest of the far left parties in Britain and speculation about a potential split. Whatever criticisms others on the left have about the SWP, its interventions and its organisational methods, no one can take pleasure in the prospect of further fragmentation of the radical left when so many yearn for a coherent and effective socialist alternative to a discredited economic and political establishment.

The issue of sexual violence and how the matter has been handled by the SWP leadership – serious as it is – has in turn ignited far wider discontent among party members. What started as a purely internal dispute has now gone public and viral. It has exposed serious questions about the internal life of the party; its system of 'democratic centralism', the unrealistic hype which infuses much of the SWP’s propaganda, its sectarianism and resentment among many members about being treated as voiceless and ultimately dispensable foot soldiers.

The problems which beset the SWP are by no means unique on the far left. The recent story of the 'Leninist' far left, not only in Britain but internationally, has become too often a sad litany of millenarian expectations, followed by disillusionment, the exhaustion of activists, internal splits and political impotence. The largest left political grouping in Britain is today made up of former members of the SWP and similar organisations.

That said, some of the finest socialists and militants are still to be found among members of parties like the SWP and the Socialist Party (SP). Without them, opposition to the vicious onslaught on the living standards and rights of working people unleashed as a result of the present economic crisis would have been even weaker and less effective than it has been.

The real issue is whether political organisations of the kind which emerged from the revolutionary currents generated by the Russian revolution, a century ago, have any future in their present form. We live in a period when the left has to fight back against the rampant right wing offensive and at the same time seek to understand the profound changes which have taken place in society and come to terms with what they mean for the theory and the practice of the left.

One obvious question is whether the era of proletarian socialism which began about 150 years ago, generated by the industrial revolution, is passing. Not only has the organised labour movement shrunk in size and influence, the Labour Party seems to have become utterly disconnected from its original base. But the era of the revolutionary socialist currents, inspired by the Bolshevik tradition, has also passed.

Democratic centralism

A key issue for those in the SWP opposed to the leadership and seeking a wholesale reform of the party is the leadership’s insistence on an ultra-centralist form of 'democratic centralism'. This, critics believe, has reinforced a self-perpetuating clique in control of the SWP apparatus and increasingly out of touch with the outside world.

Although Lenin’s name is regularly invoked in support of democratic centralism, it meant many very different things at stages in the history of the Bolsheviks. Arguably essential to the Bolsheviks very survival in the run up to the Russian revolution, under Stalin it became the rubric for dictatorship and the destruction of the party’s revolutionary base.

Democratic centralism has most often been justified as being necessary to lead the working class to the conquest of state power and/or to survive in conditions of illegality and repression. Neither of these conditions remotely applies in this country today and has not done so for a very long time. Little wonder so many rank and file party SWP members feel stifled by the curbs on dissent imposed by a self serving ‘leadership’.

The late Tony Cliff – the charismatic leader of SR, the IS and the SWP – adopted one of Lenin’s different views on democratic centralism, having originally advocated the libertarian model favoured by the great German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. He stressed the danger of 'substitutionism' described by Luxemburg: the tendency for the party to substitute itself for the class, the leadership for the party and finally an individual for the leadership.

The IS was better able to relate to the social upheavals in the late 1960s and early 1970s precisely because it had earlier dumped a great deal of the catechism of the so-called ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists and had a better understanding both of the seeming stability of western capitalism and the class realities of the ‘actually existing socialism’ of the Stalinist dictatorships.

The limited but important base that the IS established among militant workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s also acted as a brake on the more frenetic ‘stick bending’ (political exaggeration) by over ambitious IS leaders seeking to short cut the long hard road to mass influence.

This may be why Cliff eventually instigated a purge in the mid-1970s which saw and expulsion and departure of so many IS shop stewards and other militants. His task was facilitated by an already centralising tendency of the system of democratic centralism which had been introduced into IS during the heightened political atmosphere triggered by the revolutionary development in France in 1968.

Class consciousness

Of course class still exists. Indeed class inequality, exploitation and injustice have become more not less grotesque in recent years. But class consciousness – what Marx described as ‘a class FOR itself not just a class IN itself’ – has declined dramatically. This has led to the virtual disappearance of much of the popular collectivist and co-operative self help culture expressed in a myriad of working class educational, cultural and other organisations built over 100 years of struggle.

The industrial working class is still growing in parts of Asia and Latin America but it is now a marginal force in the older capitalist economies in Europe and North America. Of course our trade unions still exist – mainly in an increasingly besieged public sector – and play a vital role in resisting the ever more aggressive demands of a deeply reactionary Tory government. But nonetheless the world has changed dramatically in the past 40 years and in ways that require new responses from the left.

Perhaps the least significant of these changes has been to render some of the distinguishing ideas of the original Socialist Review and International Socialists as no longer relevant. The concept of the ‘Permanent Arms Economy’ (PAE) was not originated in IS but was much developed by Cliff and Michael Kidron, the Marxist economist and first editor of International Socialism magazine.

Kidron later said that while the theory contained important ‘insights’ it did not succeed fully in explaining development in post war capitalism. The theory of State Capitalism – which analysed the dynamic driving the economies of the Stalinist states – was eventually rendered obsolete by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite economies.

These ideas initially helped give socialists confidence to resist the pressure from the Communist Party and some ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ to see defensible features of a ‘workers’ state’ in the Soviet system – including, for some, even the Russian H-bomb! The PAE was also an antidote to the tendency by some on the far left to see capitalist collapse constantly around the corner.

Doctrinal mummification

The IS had some impressive intellectual resources which could have been harnessed to develop the organisation’s understanding of the developments in global capitalism which exploded. But the original analyses got doctrinally mummified by the SWP as timelessly valid and this attitude became a break on the development of new ‘revisionist’ ideas of the kind which had initially inspired SR and the early IS.

I have always regretted the collective reluctance of the far left (not just the SWP) to explore the potential of what in the 1970s were described as ‘workers’ plans for alternative production’ which were developed by some rank and file workplace-based militants. They would not by themselves have defeated the Thatcherite onslaught on the organised trade union movement and the wholesale destruction of jobs and communities but they would have helped the labour movement build more powerful alliances with civil society and community organisations.

These were also years when feminism began to exercise a growing influence on socialists and the left’s lack of awareness of the specific problems of patriarchy and gender discrimination. This added to the internal ferment inside IS and led to the departure of a large number of the socialist feminist cadres.

It has to be faced that the left has more questions to ask at present than it has ready made answers to give. But the picture is by no means uniformly bleak. The economic crisis has undermined the political self-confidence of the ruling class. The right is fissured by a growing challenge from the populist far right. Some of the traditional social distinctions which divided working people (such as between white collar and blue collar workers) are disappearing. With the dramatic fall in the living standards of even skilled and professional workers, new forms of collective class awareness may now be emerging.

New forms of civil society activism are emerging. Many are marked by a strong, innate, internationalism. New forms of cooperative, not-for-profit associations and enterprises are emerging. Important gains for human rights have been codified in law although still widely ignored by state powers with ambitions for global hegemony. The green movement has injected the essential concept of sustainability into the debate about the economy which gives important leverage for those advocating a change in the capitalist system itself.

There is a remarkable awareness among young people that democracy needs to take more accountable and tangible forms than mere parliamentarism, as instanced by the Occupy movement. Interestingly a new YouGov poll shows a 64 per cent to 35 per cent majority among 18 to 34 year olds for remaining in the EU and fighting for a trans-national democracy to help shape global solutions for global problems.

Above all we can also learn from the struggle taking place now in the teeth of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s about how new, pluralist forms of democratic organisation are emerging on the radical left. One obvious example is Syriza in Greece. Whatever the outcome of the internal struggle in the SWP, there is every reason for trying to build such a pluralist radical socialist left here.


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John 22 January 2013, 15.41

Great article – but I don’t think the current problems with the SWP have anything to do with Lenin. The problems with SWP as with other far-left groups in Europe and North America, have more to do with the old addage: “you can’t argue with success” or failure. Had the far-left responded to the 2008 capitalist crisis with a coherent set of alternatives and the building of broad-based coalitions for social change, perhaps they might have made real in-roads into the political landscape but failing that they have turned inward. Sad for those of us who believe in “socialism” broadly-speaking but no surprise.

Prior to 2008 collapse the far-left and other radical groups had become very good at criticising neo-liberlaism but very lazy about looking for viable alternatives. On top it, groups like the SWP spent almost as much time criticising successful parties like the PT in Brazil, the “Stalinism” of the Cuban Revolution or the “populism” of Hugo CHavez as they did attacking capitalism. Many activists like myself saw groups like the SWP as “bunkered down” with the mentality that “everyone else is wrong and only we are right”. Certainly a receipe for feeling “hollier than thou” but not a receipe for success. And you can’t argue with success, or failure. As much as I admire some of the individuals in the SWP, SWP campaigns, and SWP publications like International SOcialism, the SWP appears to be a failure by any measure.

Roger Westmoreland 22 January 2013, 16.44

A good article that picks up on the point that the SWP was too centralised and saw every meeting as an excuse to hammer the opinions of the select few into the membership without real thought, questioning or debate.
The idea that Marx or Lenin can teach us anything (after absorbing their basic analysis)about the necessary direction of the fightback in the 21st century always seemed bizzarre to me.

Phil Thompson 22 January 2013, 18.43

Interesting that John still accepts the basic class divide but argues that the “class for itself” has gone (or, in my view, much deminished) in older industrialised societies. Well let’s say it has but, as John points our, the objective fact of class remains and is expanding throughout the “developing” world. The SWP does not attack popular existing left regimes but, as far as I can see, puts up a consistent defence, but critical, based on their idelogical class based view point (what’s wrong with that?). You don’t agree with the SWP but at least they have maintained an ideological position which is still valid in the sense that the objective conditions are still there – wage labour. Whether this will result in a class for itself is a matter of argument.

james? 23 January 2013, 10.37

A good article, i dont think we should be taking political practice from dead russians any longer. i still think marx is worth studying but think lenisism is for the past.
where for the left now? to me its got to be based around social movements? co-ops and a new kind of trades unionism that steals practice from the social movements in order to renew its self.
electorally i think that a far-left party is a non-starter, a non-electoral one hmm maybe.
those from a socialist or marxist tradition who want to get involved in elections should i think join the electoral arm of the social movements ie the green party and the pirate party. they should go in prepared both to learn from them as well as offer experience.

Jonathan Davies 23 January 2013, 10.50

Amidst the clamour for more pluralistic and decentralized forms of socialist (often post-socialist) organisation, it is too easily forgotten that the Leninist problematic was, and remains, the concentration and centralisation of capitalist power – its simultaneous tendencies to totalize and sunder in the face of ferocious competition and crises. That hasn’t gone away whatever the globalisation theorists say. The question, then, is whether this system can be overcome without the kind of concentrated and centralized resistance advocated by Leninists. I see no reason to think so, and nor do I believe changes in the class structure of Western capitalism precludes it – unlikely as a class counter-offensive may seem in the UK today. As to the possible effectiveness of networked resistance, it maybe no coincidence that the more de-centralized the approach, the more taboo it becomes to talk about ‘capitalism’ at all. Instead we get system denial and the ‘just do it differently’ voluntarism of John Holloway et al. John Palmer raises important questions here, but a fresh round of obituaries to Leninism isn’t part of the solution.

Steve 23 January 2013, 18.09

Will someone please come up with an open democratic left organisation that isnt riven with splits.

DW 24 January 2013, 14.05

Steve, the Socialist Party of Great Britain is an open (as in transparent) democratic socialist organisation that isn’t riven with splits.

Alison 24 January 2013, 14.07

Yes, Steve, or one that is riddled with men oblivious/hostile to anything relating to feminism. All contributors – from John Palmer down the list of replies – are discussing, in Palmer’s opening words, ‘an explosive row over allegations of rape made against a leading member of the SWP’.

Not one of you has mentioned sexual violence in your comments.

Same old, same old.

Michael 24 January 2013, 17.18

OK but while the rape investigation (and in the absence of a criminal investigation we should still really be referring to alleged sexual violence) was flawed in principle and practice, I’m not really sure that the present divisions are the fundamental cause of the SWPs inadequacy as much as a symptom of the same. A bureaucratic caricature of Leninst organisation doesn’t suddenly become fit for purpose by correcting the line on women. It’s about the nature of illegitimate leadership, authority and power in social and political structures.

Andrew Coates 25 January 2013, 14.01

I’m glad that John Palmer goes into the way the SWP was created in the 1970s, and the adoption of Democratic centralism. I think this is extremely important, though the SWP’s apparent misogyny is now becoming an issue.

I was thinking of John’s comrade’s criticisms of the Bolshevik’ turn when I wrote this:

John Pennery 26 January 2013, 11.41

I joined the International Socialists in 1971, as a young student. I , like many other people coming to revolutionery politics for the first time inspired by the wave of post May 68 student and anti war radicalism that was sweeping the West at that time, found the IS to be remarkably attractive in its organisational and theoretical openness compared to the likes of the CP and SLL. Many posters comment negatively on the considerable “democratic centralist” organisational tightening up that occurred during the early to mid 1970’s, in the IS,as if this was an entirely unnecessary thing. I. however, well remember how innumerable tiny “entrist” sects made it their business to enter the only slightly larger IS, to cause extraordinary internal mayhem with their endless entirely negative internal wrangling – simply abusing the free intellectual environment in the IS. My branch, in Stockport, was reduced to chaos by two years, 72-73 of crazy factional infighting with one such entrist grouping when we should have been out fighting the Tories.

“Democratic Centralism” ,(with a real emphasis on “democratic”) regardless of its very negative past history, is unfortunately simply an essential requirement for a serious revolutionery socialist organisation – up against the organised might of the capitalist state. That the SWP fell eventually into beeing yet another claque-run political cult, has more to do with the failure of the radical political/industrial wave of the 1970’s, culminating in the historic class defeat of the miners in 1984, and the following 30 years of neo-liberalist dominance, than a fundamental problem with democratic centralism. No revolutionery socialist party could become other than a cult in this environment. Today, capitalism is once more on the rocks, the Radical Far Right are on the march everywhere. Only democratic socialist structured socialist political parties have any chance of organising on a mass basis within the working class (in its very broadest sense)to combat this crisis effectively. As the rise of the initially ramshackle Syriza Left coalition in Greece shows, the loose coalition is OK as a first step to a new radical Left political realignment, but as Syriza has found, eventually some form of democratic centralism has to be embraced, or the organisation simply isn’t coherent enough to take on the very highly organisded forces of the Right, and reformism too.

John 28 January 2013, 19.24

Follow up to my first post: I like all the comments people have added. Clearly there is not much enthusiasim in countries like Canada (where I live) or the UK for the SWP or the SWP model. I think a broad left movement like, for example, Quebec Solidaire (of which I am a big fan but not a member as I do not live in Quebec) makes room for fans of Marx and Lenin (like me) but operates along the lines of inclusivity and participatory democracy. That is the direction we should be going in. We (Marxists and Leninists) need to be very respectful of other left points of view and likewise other lefties need to involve us.

Also – if one is, in 2013, still a fan of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and other dead Russians, Poles and Germans (Engels, Rosa Luxemburg), one needs to take responsibility for the mistakes and consequences of these thinkers/ideas along the limitations of their philosophy in the 21st century.

One last thought: we should remember that Marx and Lenin are still popular in Latin America and parties like the PSUV along with many social movemetns remain growing and viberant political forces. Europe and North America are only one part of the world.

Robboh 31 January 2013, 20.41

“That said, some of the finest socialists and militants are still to be found among members of parties like the SWP and the Socialist Party (SP). Without them, opposition to the vicious onslaught on the living standards and rights of working people unleashed as a result of the present economic crisis would have been even weaker and less effective than it has been.”

What planet are you living on??? what exactly have these people managed to stop so far? nothing. Ask the ordinary man on the street whether the SP or SWP has helped his condition in anyway. Nobody has ever heard of them. They are a complete irrelevancy to ordinary working class people. Come on please, lets watch our standards of journalism.

John Palmer 3 February 2013, 21.31

You miss my point Robboh. I think the strategies of the SWP, SP etc no longer have any real purchase with significant (even minority) class forces. But individual members of these organisation can and do very often play a very positive role in mobilising opposition to government cuts, in defence of trade unionism and in solidarity with those struggling for social justice and freedom across the world.

Anonymous 9 February 2013, 18.05

Used to go to SWP conferences in early seventies in London, then went to live in Spain in 1975. Hoped for more from the budding Eurocommunism of the early years of the transition & then just got on with my life. I now live in France & am a militant in the Front de Gauche, whose leader J.L. Mélenchon got 11% in the last presidential elections. The FdG is a broad coalition of 7 parties with two main ones. We are now trying to link up with the Ecologists on an informal basis & have adopted ecosocialism. Italy now has its own FdG & Izquierda Unida is making great strides in Spain. In the Basque Country EH Bildu (another coalition) might get in the next time. The focus within the Parti de Gauche which I belong to is that of Fronts or struggles. The idea of citizenship (working together on issues policies at a local level) holds sway here. It is not an exclusively French term, it was once a battle cry of the well-meaning British liberals in the 50s.

Phil Thompson 10 February 2013, 16.17

Agreeing with John Palmer – the SWP is very much part of the left, trades union activists and so on. The average worker will not have heard of them but many will certainly identify with struggles against cuts and general left causes. The left would be a lot weaker without the SWP. Something they have done and which is more or less historically aknowledged is successful opposition to the far right on the streets. And also, perhaps, the Stop the War movement may not have got so quickly up and running without the usual SWP crew agitating in the peace movement.

Will Podmore 26 February 2013, 17.02

John Palmer writes, “no one can take pleasure in the prospect of further fragmentation of the radical left.” Au contraire, I’m delighted that the destructive anti-trade union SWP is destroying itself and gladly assist it to do so.
John writes, “some of the finest socialists and militants are still to be found among members of parties like the SWP and the Socialist Party.” Not in my union, where the SWP only splits and diverts the union and uses members’ money, behind their backs, to support ‘solidarity’ stunts and ‘unity of the left’ circuses.
John calls for – oh how original – ‘a pluralist radical socialist left’. But he reveals his deeply reactionary politics when he praises a YouGov poll that “shows a 64 per cent to 35 per cent majority among 18 to 34 year olds for remaining in the EU and fighting for a trans-national democracy to help shape global solutions for global problems.”
The EU – the Employers’ Union – is run by the CEOs of the European Roundtable of Industrialists – and John thinks that’s progressive.
Ooh and let’s all fight for ‘transnational democracy’ – whatever that is – to shape ‘globaal solutions for global problems’. John sounds just like the CEOs at the annual Davos meeting, just like Gordon Brown – which is no coincidence.

John Palmer 27 February 2013, 09.12

Will Podmore – You must have a major news scoop on your hands! You say the fight for European trans-national democracy is supported by Big Business chiefs at Davos.
What is your evidence for this amazing claim? What I know is that big business is fiercely opposed to giving more powers to the elected European Parliament. They cite the MEPs support for an EU wide Tobin Tax as evidence of it being “out of control.” You may think there is a British Road to radical social change. There is not. There is a British Road, however, to an ever more reactionary Tory/UKIP Britain. Perhaps I should modify that: perhaps we are talking about an isolationist England where the other nations of the UK see their future in a wider democratic, sovereignty sharing Europe. Previous generations of British socialists fought for a Socialist United States of Europe. It is more necessary now than ever.

Will Podmore 28 February 2013, 11.23

The CEOs talk of democracy of course. So do you. Their European Roundtable of Industrialists runs the European Commission, which runs the EU. The European Parliament is just a front, a talking shop. It has little popular support, no democratic legitimacy.
You dogmatise ‘there is not’ a British road to social change. No argument, just assertion.
A United States of Europe was always a reactionary Trotskyist slogan and is still so now. You have never grown out of your adolescent Trotskyist dogmas.
I am not talking about ‘an isolationist England’ but proposing an independent, self-reliant Britain, running its own affairs, a united country outside the capitalist EU.

John Palmer 1 March 2013, 08.32

Just look at Eastleigh – talk of quitting the European Union fuels the rise of UKIP and the far right. There is no serious section of the left in Europe which wants to leave the EU. They do want to change it and democratise it. You have turned your back on them.

Will Podmore 5 March 2013, 11.10

Some of us were advocating leaving the EU before UKIP was even thought of.
Do you think the Greek people are better off inside the EU and its euro? Greece’s decline is accelerating – 4.5 per cent fall in GDP in 2010, 5 per cent in 2011 and 6 per cent in 2012.
Three billion euros in bank deposits are fleeing Greece every month.

Greece desperately needs to default, devalue and leave the euro. It should follow the examples of Argentina and Iceland.
In 2002 Argentina devalued 70 per cent against the dollar and defaulted on its debts: creditors lost 65 per cent. From 2003 to 2008, its economy grew by 8.5 per cent a year and exports by 15-20 per cent a year. Its surplus on current account is at 3 per cent a year, and its public debt is down to 40 per cent.

Iceland imposed rigid capital controls, recapitalised its own banks, but let foreign banking operations go bust. It let the krona down by 40 per cent in 2009. Exports rose by 10 per cent in 2009-10.

You side with Cameron et al with your talk of changing and democratising the EU.

John Palmer 5 March 2013, 14.31

Will Podmore – No, Will, YOU are the one siding with Cameron in opposing the euro and seeking to undermine the social reforms which EU membership has brought to British workers by advocating withdrawal. You refer to Greece. The fact is that the largest far left party in the EU – Syriza demands a radical alternative to right wing austerity BUT also insists that Greece should remain part of the EU and the euro. Your stance reminds me of those CPers and Labour lefts who marched in 1975 along side the League of Empire Loyalists to oppose EU membership.

Will Podmore 7 March 2013, 11.45

Cameron does not oppose the EU; he said he will campaign for EU membership, if we ever get the referendum he promised.
So you are lining up on his side.
What exactly are these social reforms which the ever-bountiful EU has brought us?
Syriza says it wants to end ‘austerity’, that is, poverty, but wants to stay in the euro. That is like wanting to end the pain of crucifixion, while staying on the cross.
There is no hope for Greece inside the euro.
You want to keep Greece in the euro = you want to keep the euro destroying it.

John Palmer 8 March 2013, 09.38

A simple question Will Podmore: Cameron says he wants to scrap many of the UK’s commitments under EU social policy – including the working hours directive and the Part Time Workers directive. Do you support him in this?

Will Podmore 8 March 2013, 15.13

Simple and obvious answer – no of course I don’t support him in that.
But if there is a piece of legislation that is good for the working class, if workers haven’t fought for it, if it has been given from above, it can all too easily be taken away.
If workers rely on any outside body, they weaken themselves.
Reliance on the EU is both a sign of weakness and an addition to that weakness.

John Palmer 9 March 2013, 09.08

That is obviously true Will Podmore. But if a reactionary Tory government is in power – as it is now – you do not call for withdrawal from Parliament. Neither should we support withdrawal from the elected European Parliament. To the contrary we should campaign for more greater democraticisation of the EU and support those in the European Parliament fighting for progressive economic, social and other policies. That is what the growing movement of resistance to doctrinaire austerity throughout Europe demand. There is virtual NIL support for nationalist withdrawal policies. This is particularly true of the southern euro-area countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece) most in the firing line.

Will Podmore 11 March 2013, 11.06

I agree that we need to oppose the ‘austerity’ (=poverty) policies being imposed across the EU.
But even if it were true that there is virtually no support for withdrawal from the euro, we should not ignore the fact that the euro’s role of preventing devaluations is strangling the economies of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece.
Johan Van Overtveldt’s new book shows that the euro is not irrelevant to the crisis, but that the euro is an agent of these policies. If Britain were in the euro, which thankfully we are not, we would be in an even worse plight than we are now.

John Palmer 11 March 2013, 19.01

Well if you think devaluation is a way out of a massive debt crisis of capitalism, Will Podmore, you will be able to judge for yourself here in Britain. The government has engineered a substantial devaluation of sterling against the euro and other global currencies in the past two years. Far from helping it is making everything worse. Higher important prices are forcing up the cost of living (food, fuel etc). Indeed many of the remaining UK export industries depend on imported materials and components so they are ending up less “competitive.” It is a complete myth that devaluation is a way out of this crisis – one that should be left to UKIP and others on the far right.

Will Podmore 12 March 2013, 09.36

Greece could and should exit the euro ASAP and default on its debt, as Argentina and Iceland did. In 2002 Argentina devalued 70 per cent against the dollar and defaulted on its debts: creditors lost 65 per cent. Its economy then grew by 8.5 per cent a year and exports by 15-20 per cent a year. Its surplus on current account is at 3 per cent a year, and its public debt is down to 40 per cent.
In 2009 Iceland devalued its krona by 50 per cent, imposed rigid capital controls and recapitalised its own banks, but let foreign banking operations go bust. Exports rose by 10 per cent in 2009-10 and its economy grew by 2.7 per cent in 2011.

John Palmer 12 March 2013, 14.38

You are way out of date, Will Podmore, Argentina’s economy is spiraling into an ever worsening inflation. It has multiple exchange rates – something which is open to massive abuse by the rich (including the regime’s “business friends.” If – contrary to what Marx suggested – devaluation is such a great idea – why is the British economy spiraling into inflation AND probably now into a triple dip recession IN SPITE OF the substantial sterling devaluation of the past two years?

Will Podmore 12 March 2013, 16.46

Devaluation is not enough – see Ha-Joon Chang’s latest articles. We also need to invest to rebuild our industries.
When the Coalition effectively devalues, it combines this with policies that reduce our capacity, so it’s not surprising that the current lower level of the pound is not producing results.
In 2002 Argentina was right to devalue, but 11 years later, in the middle of the worsening international crisis, of course it’s not enough.
Its currency was overvalued, so it had to devalue. The pound has been overvalued for decades, because that suited the City. Devluation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for recovery.

John Palmer 12 March 2013, 20.11

I fear you miss the point. Devaluation as a serious option rests on the assumption that there are “national” industries competing with firms in other countries for world markets. Actually in most sector export industries are themselves very large importers (technology, components etc). Just look at the “British??” car industry. In such an internationally inter-dependent economy, devaluation just does not produce the results sought. The current devaluation of sterling is going to cut real living standards in this country even more in the months ahead. You can’t have “Keynesianism in one country” today. IF the euro-area acted like the single economy that it is (it has no overall payments deficit and relatively modest debt levels) it would easily afford a massive programme of investment in green, sustainable jobs and social justice. That is why the euro-area (and the EU) need MORE integration together with sweeping new democratic accountability.

Will Podmore 13 March 2013, 09.56

John, you ignore the evidence from countries – Argentina, Iceland – where devaluation did, for a time, produce the results sought.
If you can’t have Keynesianism in one country today (not even in the USA?), then how could one have Keynesianism in the EU?
You ignore the fact that the European Roundtable of Industrialists, not the European Parliament, runs the EU. The ERT has embraced austerity policies, and will forever oppose the programme you propose.
A more integrated eurozone would mean yet more loss of national sovereignty and therefore more loss of democratic accountability.
You are still adhering to the Trotskyist dogma of your youth, that socialism (Keynesianism) in one country is impossible and that only a United States of Europe can be the answer.
Lenin – and more important, real life – refuted that dogma a hundred years ago

John Palmer 13 March 2013, 10.53

Are you seriously saying that the European Round Table of Industrialists was responsible for the EU Working Times Directive, the rights for part time workers, the gender equality rights and a swathe of other social reform measures? My memory is that the ERT OPPOSED most if not all of these laws. You remind me of those radicals in some of the small German principalities after 1948 who opposed German unification. Marx supported Germany unification and told the radical democrats that they would become irrelevant if they did not begin to organise on an all-German basis. As for Lenin: he certainly saw the outcome of the German revolution as decisive for the fate of the Soviet Union. All the concessions he made during the New Economic Policy which introduced private ownership and markets was designed to buy time for the Russian working class until a socialist Germany and (eventually) a socialist Europe would help the Soviet Union find a progressive way forward. That failed alas, and Stalin’s bloody dictatorship was the price the Soviet Union paid.

Will Podmore 14 March 2013, 08.58

John, you illegitimately transfer an argument Marx used in 1848 for national unification into an argument for the anti-national unification of all Europe.
You write, “As for Lenin: he certainly saw the outcome of the German revolution as decisive for the fate of the Soviet Union.”

In March 1921 Lenin wrote, “Is such a thing thinkable at all as that a socialist republic could exist in a capitalist environment? This seemed impossible either in a political or in a military sense. That it is possible in a political and in a military sense has been proved; it is already a fact.”
Lenin launched and defended the idea that workers might have to, and could, build socialism in one country. The Russian working class had to build socialism in a backward country, isolated by the failure of the working classes of more advanced countries to make their own revolutions. As Carr wrote, “Socialism in one country was a declaration of independence of the west. … Socialism in one country was no mere piece of economic analysis and no mere announcement of policy. It was a declaration of faith in the capacities and in the destiny of the Russian people.”

John Palmer 14 March 2013, 09.15

Will – You are quite wrong. Thus
“In the early phases of Bolshevik rule, Lenin’s incessant emphasis, over and over again, was on how socialism in Russia could only be consolidated on two bases—the initiative of the Russian masses themselves, and the spread of the revolution. The violent encirclement and isolation of the revolution prompted Lenin to shift his approach of necessity, with the aim of holding out until Russia could be aided by revolution in Germany. But the German revolution failed, and with it came the bureaucratic degeneration of Russia’s revolution. To his last breath, Lenin challenged the party’s degeneration. But because the working class disintegrated as a class during the civil war, and because economically backward Russia remained unaided from abroad, he was fighting against impossible odds.” Neil Harding
Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Movement.

You cite E.H. Carr but Carr was of course an apologist for Stalin and his crimes. Mind you, I am not sure where YOU stand on this, Will.
What is certain

Will Podmore 15 March 2013, 15.09

John, you reject the evidence of what Lenin actually thought and wrote, in favour of a general account. And you reject Carr’s conclusion with what? With evidence? No – with an ad hominem attack on Carr’s integrity, rather like Norman Stone’s attack on Carr.

John Palmer 15 March 2013, 16.19

No, Will, the evidence of what Stalin’s Socialism in One Country led to can be seen in the graves of the tens of thousands of Bolsheviks and other socialists he murdered – to say nothing of the millions whose lives were sacrificed to his economic strategies. His paid killers used to stand in the execution cellars of the NKVD, with their boots thigh deep in blood. The evidence from the Soviet NKVD/KGB records now available is overwhelming. Lenin only ever justified the New Economic Policy as a temporary means to buy time for the hoped for European revolution to bring relief to a Soviet Union whose working class had been nearly atomised by civil war and economic exhaustion. If you want to see where that strategy leads to today, I sure you could get a regime invitation to visit North Korea.

Will Podmore 18 March 2013, 13.42

Well, I did say that you had never outgrown your adolescent Trotskyism, and you prove that by your hatred of the USSR.
I also note that you fail to cite Cuba as an example of socialism on one island, presumably because it proves your dogma wrong.
You write that we need more democratic accountability. But the European election turnout in 2009 was just 43%, and only 34.7% in the UK.
Do you then support the democratic call for referendums across Europe in those countries whose governments have declared for the euro and in those countries where people have questioned the value of staying in the EU?

John Palmer 18 March 2013, 14.11

Interesting that you cite the case of Cuba. You may have noticed that the regime in Havana is opening up Cuba to foreign investment in a big way (US capital is already taking advantage). Of course there are still political prisoners in gaol and gays are still persecuted so I am not sure I would describe Cuba as a socialist society.

Referendums: I must say I agree with Marx and Engels who described such plebiscites as”a device of Bonapartist scoundrels.” But if you insist on a referendum on the
future of Europe why not make it a Europe wide referendum?

Will Podmore 19 March 2013, 10.06

Amnesty International pointed out, accurately enough, “The Cuban government has repeatedly used the embargo as a justification for maintaining restrictions on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.” It went on, less accurately, “the embargo and political antagonism with the USA continue to be used as a pretext for curbing dissent and criticism of the Cuban government.” ‘Political antagonism with the USA’ was a strange way to describe the US state’s 50-year assault on Cuba which has included invasions, terrorist bombings and sabotage, assassinations (attempted and achieved), biological warfare, the economic blockade, lying propaganda, disinformation and media sabotage. Amnesty International went on to write of ‘independent journalists and political and human rights activists’, who were not in fact independent, certainly never independent of the USA.
Any evidence of persecution of gays?
Finally, your gruesome picture of NKVD cellars is fortunately fictional, derived possibly from Nazi propaganda? A moment’s thought would reveal that if a room is that full of blood, it could not also fit in the number of bodies needed, and of course opening the door to allow in the next lot of victims would let the blood out of the room. Still, if you prefer macabre fantasy to reality …

John Palmer 19 March 2013, 14.27

If you doubt the Cuban state’s attitude to Gays why don’t you read this report in Havana Times:

I am amazed that you really question the evidence of Stalin’s mass executions of actual, imaginary, suspected and other political opponents during the purges.
This is just one academic assessment – stalin's execution squads

But perhaps it would be better if you started with Nikita Krushchev’s speech to the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist Party. You may recall that when he gave this speech in 1956 Krushchev was the current Soviet prime minister –

John Palmer 19 March 2013, 14.33

I meant to include this reference to Stalim’s crimes – go to “Victims” –

Will Podmore 20 March 2013, 10.16

You should read Khrushchev lied, by Grover Furr, which rebuts all Khrushchev’s anti-communist lies.
Professor Richard Overy, Professor of History at King’s College London, wrote, “For years the figures circulating in the West for Soviet repression were greatly inflated. … The archive shows a very different picture.” Data from these archives prove that Robert Conquest hugely inflated figures for deaths and detentions in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
Too many writers had relied on what Davies called, ‘Conquest’s very high figures for deaths from political causes under Stalin’. They had all claimed that the archives would prove their figures true, but they went very quiet when they were actually opened.
Even before the archives had been opened, Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, had questioned Conquest’s figures: “Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine (New York, 1986) argues that the ‘dekulakization’ of the early 1930s led to the deaths of 6,500,000 people. But this estimate is arrived at by extremely dubious methods, ranging from reliance on hearsay evidence through double counting to the consistent employment of the highest possible figures in estimates made by other historians.” Later, in 2002, Ellman explained why Conquest’s figures were wrong and concluded, “The higher estimates given by Conquest use a flawed method, can only be reconciled with the demographic data by making implausible assumptions, and rely on unimpressive sources.”
But you prefer to rely on the estimates produced by MI6 man Conquest.
In HE, we tell our students never to rely on Wikipedia.

John Palmer 20 March 2013, 12.12

You will have noticed that I put no figure on the vast number of deaths due to the famine which Stalin’s policies were responsible for. But how many old Bolsheviks, socialists, trade unionists and democrats did Stalin have murdered, Will? Are we talking about half dozen, 100, 1000 or tens of thousands as the evidence overwhelmingly shows. The fact that you dismiss Krushchev’s speech as “lies” shows just what an unreconstructed Stalinist you are.

Will Podmore 21 March 2013, 14.11

You haven’t read Grover Furr’s book, have you?
Imagine that you are a judge – you have heard the prosecution case put by Khrushchev, a case 57 years old now, but never mind.
And you have already dismissed the defence lawyer EH Carr as an apologist and now you abuse a mere lawyer’s clerk like myself – in such hackneyed terms!So you have closed your ears to the case for the defence.
Not a very equitable proceeding.

John Palmer 22 March 2013, 09.16

Will – I will leave the honour of being “the defence” of Stalin and his crimes to you. But I counsel you to study first the records left behind by the NKVD/KGB which are now available to scholars. This evidence would make it impossible for an EH Carr of today to simply ignore what was happening in the thousands of Lubyanka style interrogation and execution centers across the Soviet Union. Maybe that is why the first thing Stalin’s colleagues did after the monster died was to murder his NKVD killer-in-chief Lavrenti Beria.

Will Podmore 22 March 2013, 14.49

OK, you’ve made your mind up, and you have rejected the evidence presented by recent scholars based on extensive archival studies.
You write of ‘execution centers’. Stephen Wheatcroft, another recent scholar, wrote, “the Gulags were not death camps and should not be confused with Auschwitz.”
Nobody can know what a hypothetical EH Carr of today would or would not ignore. It is odd that you prefer to have recourse to an unprovable fictional character rather than to study what recent scholarship has to say on these matters.
Or perhaps not so odd after all. It wouldn’t do to disturb the prejudices of a lifetime, would it?

John Palmer 22 March 2013, 17.23

As this dialogue continues the more ridiculous your interventions have become. You know perfectly well that if I meant to mention the Gulags I would have done do. I referred to the NKVD/KGB execution centers. Some were in prisons and some were in private houses. Tens of thousands of socialists and other opponents of Stalin were summarily executed – on occasions a hundred or more were shot in the back of the neck each day (or more often night.) Untold thousands died in the Gulags too but they were not normally executed – they died of starvation, disease and ill treatment. By the way among the those slaughtered were the cream of the Red Army in the 1930s which left the Soviet Union desperately militarily vulnerable to Nazi invasion in 1941. But Stalin ignored warnings about this and about the danger of Nazi aggression because he said he was confident that Hitler would not break the terms of the Stalin-Hitler Pact!

Will Podmore 25 March 2013, 11.53

You repeat all the old canards. Especially egregious is the claim that Stalin ignored warnings about the danger of Nazi aggression.
As Geoffrey Roberts explained: “Stalin also feared that premature mobilisation could accelerate the outbreak of hostilities with Hitler. ‘Mobilization means war’, he told Zhukov, mindful of the precedent of the July Crisis of 1914 that led to the First World War” when Germany declared war on Russia in reply to Russia’s mobilisation.
The Soviet government did all it could not to provoke Hitler, not to provide him with any excuse for accusing the Soviet Union of aggression, an excuse that the pro-Hitler groups in the British and French governments would have seized on to justify joining Hitler’s attack.
Right up to the invasion, the British government thought that Hitler was just using military pressure to intimidate the Soviet Union, and expected more Nazi demands, or an ultimatum, not an invasion. Nor did the Soviet Union know the date of the invasion. Only on 30 April did Hitler decide the date. The Nazis over and over again provided disinformation on the date.

Will Podmore 26 March 2013, 09.34

John claimed on 18 March that “gays are still persecuted so I am not sure I would describe Cuba as a socialist society.” The article he cited – and thank you for drawing it to my attention, John – is illuminating.
Here are quotes from it, but the whole piece is well worth reading.
“The daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro has for years campaigned for the rights of homosexuals and even made calls to allow same-sex marriage. Much has already changed in Cuba. Several years ago, hardly anyone contemplated openly coming out on the island. Until the 1990s, homosexuals were socially excluded: they got disapproving looks around the neighbourhood and even lost their jobs.
“In the first few years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro went as far as to brand homosexuals as “counterrevolutionary” and had them sent to labour camps. He made it clear that such dissent was not tolerated in Cuban society.
It was not until 2010 that the Fidel – the Maximum Leader – expressed regret for his attitude and policies, and he described the decades-long persecution of homosexuals as a “great injustice.”
“If anyone is responsible, it’s me,” he said in a groundbreaking interview with the US magazine The Atlantic.
“Now, the Cuban government officially rejects discrimination against homosexuals. The Communist Party has even stated that it is in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, but the necessary legislation has yet to be drafted.”
Does this really amount to persecution of gays? Does this really disqualify Cuba from being called socialist?

John Palmer 28 March 2013, 08.31

Will – I leave to you the task of defending as socialists mass murderers like Stalin and to you to defend Cuba’s record in imprisoning political prisoners
and in treatment of gays which – as you acknowledge even Castro has admitted was “a great injustice.” Isn’t it strange that you cannot find the elementary humanity to make a similar apology for your apologia to a creature like Stalin whose crimes rank only second to those of Hitler.

Will Podmore 2 April 2013, 14.44

Castro admitted his mistakes and has progressed to today’s position in Cuba, where the article that you cited as backing for your claim that Cuba persecuted gays did not give us a single current instance of persecution of gays.
As for the political prisoners, again, you confuse the past with the present: the US Interests Section has recntly admitted that Cuba’s ‘human rights groups’ “lack demonstrable evidence of persecution … Almost none show proof of house searches, interrogations, detention, or arrest.”
Cuba has admitted its mistakes and does not live in the past, unlike ex-SWPers, who cannot move beyond their ancient prejudices.

John Palmer 4 April 2013, 09.10

Will – Those who do not understand the tragedies of history are at risk of repeating them. This protracted exchange started with a difference of opinion over EU social and trade union reforms. However it quickly turned into a denial by you of the terrible crimes of Stalinism which have done so much to alienate people from the socialist cause. Without a historical settling of accounts with Stalinist totalitarianism it will be difficult to rebuild a vibrant left capable of influencing the future. As far as I am concerned (since it appears no one else is listening to us any longer) that is that.

Will Podmore 8 April 2013, 10.58

Ever since 1956, if not earlier, some have tried to achieve a “historical settling of accounts with Stalinist totalitarianism” in order “to rebuild a vibrant left capable of influencing the future.”
Results so far?
You have not responded to my remarks about Cuba.
Is Cuba, in your view, an example of ‘Stalinist totalitarianism’? If so, yours is a remarkably flexible definition.
You questioned Cuba’s socialist credentials, using an article which cited not one single instance of the persecution of gays.
You still cannot find a word in praise of Cuba.
So it seems that you have not settled your accounts with Trotskyist totalitarianism.

Tom Dunbar 27 April 2013, 14.09

Believe it or not John I stuck to the end of you guy’s commentsboard ‘discussion’. In my opinion it proved extremely unhelpful in seeking some political light at the end of the interminably long tunnel for a generation of ‘lost’ lefties in answering ‘where the left can go from here’. Memories of Trotskyist infighting and split came firmly to mind.

Having recently discovered ‘Red Pepper’ online I was interested to read the new co-editor Michelle Zeller’s blog piece ‘Meet Red Pepper’s new co-editor, Michelle Zellers’ and take the liberty of quoting from it as follows:

“In 1971, discussing how patriarchy had influenced Western literature, poet Adrienne Rich said, ‘We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.’ ”

Could that quote have relevance to the ongoing use of Marxist/Leninist/Trotskyist/Luxemburgist thought in the Left’s dogfight for theoretical supremacy? Can the Left learn to ‘know its past differently’ together and ‘break its hold over us’?

I don’t subscribe to the irrelevance of ‘Dead Russians’ but would welcome a more coherent left view of ‘where the left can go from here’ into the future.

Thanks John for your thoughtful article. My Trot days are sadly clouded by pints of Watneys Red Barrel in the Prince of Wales pub in Wimbledon! Did Roger Protz (ex-editor Socialist Worker) see the light in transferring his energies and vision to become the leading-light in CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). I salute his endevours nightly.

Just spent 2 weeks in Cuba. Amazing people – intelligent, friendly, open minded, with an enormous generosity of spirit and sense of humour. This depite average wage approx £17 a month and regular shortages despite the Government’s best efforts and intentions. Death of Chavez a blow to the political outlook. Recent ‘liberalisation’ a very astute move in my view which does not open the country to foreign capital and exploitation. The Revolutionary Government has made regular well-measured policy initiatives in the past e.g. allowing the ‘Enemy Within’ i.e.bourgeois Cubans, depart to their spiritual home Miami. Did Maggie consider sending Arthur there in 1984? Wouldn’t have cost more than the flowers for her funeral!

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