By Fergal Twomey.
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language” – Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
If I were a Trotskyist, alarm bells would be ringing in my head. Globally the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) is coming apart at the hinges in one of Trotskyism’s perennial cycles of splits, as the dialectic seems to be unfolding backwards towards further fragmentation rather than unity of opposites.
In Ireland, the foremost outpost of the international Trotskyist movement, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP) cadres are finding themselves in uncertain waters. By financing core parties through state funding, they have rendered the majority of their small membership into full-time organisers and in turn managed to craft a delicate eco-system of fronts to carry the burden of the very same electoral machine that enables their existence.
Such a stable system has, in fact, initiated a unique convergence of factors in Ireland that have enabled the existence of unprecedented “Internationalism in One Country”, as Irish cadres distance themselves from their counterparts abroad, who are, of course, back to their usual habit of depraved theoretical disputations in the case of the CWI, and are, well, just embarrassing to be associated with in the case of the International Socialist Tendency (IST).
In such a context, we can only feel sympathy for our Militant comrades who are discovering for the first time the frustration of having pragmatic responsibilities to their class run into direct contradiction with Trotskyist gospel. To paint the dispute in broad strokes, their electoral focus on popular social struggles in Ireland has invoked the dreaded appellation of ‘identity politics’ from their more ‘class-oriented’ contemporaries abroad.
However, to waffle on about this dirty laundry would be a waste of paper (or electricity). It would be far too tempting, for instance, to end up “using Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov” by implying that there is a global crisis in Trotskyism based on the poll doubts and international hostility facing the Irish Trotskyist movement. Moreover, it has already been covered accurately and in excruciatingly fine detail by Paul Demarty for the Weekly Worker in articles with catchy titles such as What will be left? and Drop the Dead Donkey, which I recommend be enjoyed ironically.
‘Stalinist’ as a political slur
For the purposes of this article, I want to draw attention to one of the most amusing idiosyncrasies of this clash of personalities (apart from the existence of the non-faction faction) which has been the use of ‘Stalinist’ as a political slur between competing Trotskyist factions. When I turn back through the pages of my memory, I can find countless occasions on which I’ve been called a Stalinist by errant supporters of the goateed prophet for doing such relatively innocuous things as walking my cat, holding a divergent opinion on the 1938 transitional programme, or being in the wrong Facebook group at the wrong time.
The term ‘Stalinist’ can’t be said to have lost any appreciable meaning, for it never held much meaning in the first place, but it has reached the point of sheer parody in the life-course of any decently debased word where it has come to mean everything and anything, approaching the final terminus of “nothing”.
It is thus with some enthusiasm that I welcome a new article authored by John Molyneux for the SWP’s theoretical journal Irish Marxist Review, entitled The Return of Stalinism? The first thing that springs to mind is an old adage in journalism, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, which states “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘No’ ”.
Revival of ‘Stalinism’ among Irish youth
This article, at a glance, is a brief overview of the history of ‘Stalinism’ written with the aim of responding to a “certain revival of various forms of Stalinism among a layer of young people on the left, including in Ireland”. I hope I can be absolved of flattering myself in the assumption that this bold claim refers to the recent consolidation of the Connolly Youth Movement (CYM) as a fixture of radical politics on an all-Ireland basis, given its explicit reference to the CYM’s comrades abroad in the UK and Greece.
Comrade Molyneux, hoping by this venture to dissuade a new generation of youth activists from veering too far from the truth of his brand of Cliffism, has divided Stalinism into a series of historical categories, each with an inevitably sordid history reflecting the folly of Marxism-Leninism.
His characterisation of the Soviet Union inevitably drudges through the hoary old clichés about Lenin’s will, degenerated (or is it deformed?) workers’ states and intra-party feuds, and it is not my wish to contest the documentary evidence surrounding these century-old grievances. It condenses, as always, a complex story of human aspiration and mass socioeconomic development into a neat bundle of betrayal, even going to the extraordinary lengths of comparing Stalin to the blueshirts, a charge I am relatively confident he would have denied.
Material reality of life in the Soviet Union
This whole operation is carried out under the ostensible premise of lip service to material analysis, but even the fundamental trends it cites as the basis for its speculations do not hold up to scrutiny. The standard of living in the USSR, for example, did not fall under Soviet socialism. In fact, it increased year on year until in the 1960s life expectancy in the USSR briefly surpassed that of the USA.
Of course, socialised medicine is not socialism, and institutional ossification eventually slowed the growth of the economy, but central planning, rational development, and workers’ democracy existed in the USSR and were salvageable from its flaws. For those who are interested in a more balanced approach to Soviet history that does not revolve around mental gymnastics in service of failed factionalists, I emphatically recommend the works of the scholar Geoffrey Roberts, as well as other writers such as Eric Hobsbawm, Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, and Moshe Lewin.
Just to show you how totally baseless and steeped in Cold War paranoia the work of John Molyneux is, consider the fact that he cites as a source Roy Medvedev – whose massive death counts hung at the door of Stalin were a grotesque fabrication based on the surely unbiased material evidences of White émigré testimony and on gross distortion of population trends. To use such outdated Cold War historians with axes to grind rather than the most recent and comprehensive reviews of the history is a major lapse of diligence and endorses ideological partisanship over fidelity to good scholarship.
A mature analysis of the USSR’s successes and failures
Comrades, I want to believe at this point that we can engage in a mature and honest discussion of the failings and successes of Soviet socialism within the Communist movement without frothing at the gob or adhering to the comforting simplifications that Trotskyism has to offer.
The function Trotskyism played for Western leftists was as a disinfectant to wash their hands of the legacy of the Soviet Union, allowing them to act with an autonomy of theory and action that ultimately amounted to adventurism and left them briefly mistaken in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise that they really were finally the true inheritors of the mantle of revolution that they so coveted.
For us the revolution is not an old knick-knack or a gaudy coat-of-arms to be fought over; it is the lived experience of millions, and the greatest trove of that experience is in the lives of the liberational struggles of the Socialist world. To cast aside the memories of millions for the bitter recollection of a handful of exiles is an injustice against history.
The fundamental and only real material argument put forward by Molyneux is that the Soviet Union was state capitalist. Far from infested by capitalists, the Soviet Union was a state of workers, scholars and agitators, among whom laboured planners and economists who were more than mere bureaucratic boogeymen. They were dedicated workers shaping the economy in trust and consultation with the party, industrial workers and their trade unions.
Although between the 1960s and the 1980s, significant chasms of miscommunication opened between the different channels of Soviet administration and life, their relationship was fundamentally cooperative rather than competitive. Even a culture of corruption and black marketeering did not replace the Soviet system at once, but rather created an underbelly parallel to it.
The ‘state capitalism’ that wasn’t
A capitalist class, as we are aware of it as Marxists, consists of individual actors. Trotskyists would argue that the collective became one gigantic capitalist, devouring the fruits of its own labour. In reality, inflation was virtually non-existent in the Soviet Union as prices were fixed and the exchange rate was static with foreign currencies.
Money in this closed publicly owned economy did not operate according to the principles of money in a capitalist economy and came close to Marx’s conception of the lower phase of Communism described in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. To say that in such an economy, where the majority of re-investment was not through valourised profit, free to be spent on luxuries, but rather through the rational redistribution of materials to new projects, that the state acted as a capitalist and that moreover its planners were capitalists is nonsense.
The main suggestions of the proposed Kosygin reforms in the Soviet Union was the introduction of ‘autonomous enterprises’ and re-alignment (i.e. inflation) of prices to more accurately reflect the cost of production (i.e. to allow the new autonomous enterprises to be able to profit). We can see here that the opportunist ‘reformers’ in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union knew exactly what the socialist elements of the Soviet economy were and how to dismantle them.
Democratic central planning
When we speak about capitalist economies, especially those of scale, we often forget that the capitalist is a planner. The chaos of production in capitalist society is that of thousands of disproportionate planners each deciding where the investments of owners will go and trying to absorb the profits of the others.
Central planning removes that chaos and replaces its incoherent competition with growth in the interest of all rather than the individual. Regardless of the good or ill health of Soviet democracy at different points in enabling the workers to communicate their desires to planners, fundamentally the goal of the economy was not the enrichment of individuals but the decency of all.
We can’t wear blinders about the inconsistencies in Soviet society that charted it on a course to dismantlement and the mass poverty and death wrought by neoliberalism. Neither should we have fantasies about ‘state capitalism’ to justify counter-revolution over self-criticism.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, we turn next to the second and third faces of Stalinism in Molyneux’s categorisation. These are the Stalinism of the Comintern/World War 2 and the Stalinism of the later USSR’s intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as the Stalinism of Ho Chi Minh and others.
As you can see by now, we’re beginning to rack up a lot of Stalinisms. Given that the term is applied to countries and outlooks that are completely removed from Stalin as an individual as well as from orthodox Marxism-Leninism, ranging from other Trotskyists, to Gorbachev, to Ceaușescu, to Kevin O’Higgins and Eamon Gilmore (perhaps Bertie Ahern is the final torchbearer for true Stalinism in Ireland), we ‘Stalinists’ should take care not to become Dizzy with Success or overcome with a sense of vanity at how far our tendrils reach.
The highlight of these sections is the description of the counter-revolution in Hungary in 1956 as being a ‘workers’ revolution’ crushed by Soviet tanks. This point of view is so far removed from reality as to need no real response, but in service of my insidious plot to lure the working class to Fully Automated Luxury Stalinism, I’ll point out the most glaring flaws.
Molyneux asks the rhetorical question “How was it to be explained that after 10 years of ‘glorious’ socialism, fascism suddenly gained mass support in Hungary?” I will showcase my typical Stalinist arrogance here by answering a rhetorical question. One decade before the Great Hungarian Workers’ and Peasants’ Revolution of 1956, ended a World War where Hungary was in the grip of a fascist movement that had emerged in reaction to the legitimate Hungarian revolution. A reactionary past doesn’t disintegrate in 16 years but is a painful and lengthy process of disempowerment and re-education.
Imre Nagy was little more than a figurehead, a leader on paper, incapable of controlling a section of society that had years earlier supported Miklós Horthy. He wanted to adopt a position of neutrality between the USSR and Western powers – hardly a workers’ revolutionary position. We have seen with the course countries like Austria, Italy and France took in the 20th century, that in bourgeois democracies ‘neutrality’ quickly became repression of the Communist Party, vote-rigging, and armed opposition to the socialist states.
To call it a ‘workers’ revolution’ is a solecism and abuse of phrasemaking at the expense of meaning much the same way that calling Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (brownshirts) a ‘workers’ revolutionary organisation’ might be correct in that it was an organisation; it called for a reactionary insurrection; and it had workers in it.
I will advance this as one of my primary criticisms of Trotskyism – it embodies the very ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ mentality that Molyneux says he is writing against. As soon as any group acts against ‘Stalinism’, which, as we have seen, means whatever Trotskyists don’t like, then suddenly that group gets the words ‘revolutionary’ and ‘worker’ tacked onto the front of its name with no material basis for such absurd claims.
Trotskyists are fond of trotting out Stalinist disruptions and Stalinist diversions of communist parties and movements across the globe, but in reality Trotskyists have failed to ever achieve the mass mandate or democratic legitimacy of Marxist-Leninist parties in leading the working class into power. The book Quite Right, Mr. Trotsky by Denver Walker elucidates this pathetic history of backstabbing and collaboration, with a unique focus on the history of the SWP. It responds with much panache to many of the critiques of the international role of the Comintern which Molyneux makes.
Irish Communist formations
On Irish Stalinism, the final Stalinism (I hope in the sense of being the Hegelian absolute), Molyneux weaves a colourful tapestry of the Communist Party of Ireland’s purported intrigues to corrupt the Irish republican left from within with ‘two-stagism’. He levies the charge at the CPI that it is guilty of a sort of ‘Labour Must Wait’ misinterpretation of James Connolly that originated with Menshevism (!) and passed to C. Desmond Greaves through the Comintern’s policy of promoting temporary power-sharing with the national bourgeoisie.
It claims that the two-stage corruption then passed from Desmond Greaves, who is now allegedly responsible for the Stickie-Provo split, to the Workers’ Party. Finally, this wild rollercoaster arrives at Eamon Gilmore. We can answer an intellectual question that no one has ever asked – how do you trace the ideological genealogy of Eamon Gilmore back to his Menshevik and CPI handlers?
In the Leninist/Comintern sense, the idea of revolutionary power being approached in stages is not an “inheritance from the mensheviks” as Molyneux describes it and is how the Bolshevik revolution proceeded. The Mensheviks saw the industrialisation connected to capitalism and market forces as something that could only be performed by the bourgeoisie. Lenin states, as published in Letters on Tactics:
What, then, is the first stage?
It is the passing of state power to the bourgeoisie.
Before the February-March revolution of 1917, state power in Russia was in the hands of one old class, namely, the feudal landed nobility, headed by Nicholas Romanov.
After the revolution, the power is in the hands of a different class, a new class, namely, the bourgeoisie.
The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical political meaning of that term.
This is the sense in which Lenin speak of stages of revolutionary transition – as a brief step in removing a more entrenched obstacles before quickly (in the same year in the case of the Bolsheviks) finishing off the state power that the working class had to share. Not the Menshevik concept of the development of the economy according to the impetus of the bourgeoisie, but rather, the transfer of state power from a feudalistic regime to a broad alliance, followed by a workers’ and peasants’ state.
Colonialism and emancipation
However, this is neither what the Communist Party of Ireland or Connolly advocated for Ireland. For a colonial state like Ireland, which shared many similarities to the level of class development of Tsarist Russia, British colonialism occupied the same position as the local aristocracy in Russia.
Patriotic internationalists, including Connolly, have understood the necessity of allying with the peasantry, which was highly present in the rank-and-file, although not the leadership, of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and Irish Republican Army (IRA). A nationalist revolution for the overthrow of colonial domination was deeply intertwined with the alienation of the landless farmers and workers.
Many falsely believed that a bourgeois revolution would also involve social emancipation, and many others falsely believed that socialist emancipation was possible under colonialism. The workers’ soviets and industrial upheavals that coincided with the War of Independence were crushed by the neo-colonial Free State.
Connolly knew what he was doing. He was temporarily allying with the national bourgeoisie to gain Irish sovereignty, which was a natural predecessor for the working class to wrest power from the national bourgeoisie, which depended on colonial support to maintain its privileged position. His writings show that he was under no illusions as to the nature of who he was working with. The consciousness of the workers and peasants could have developed to the point of making the national bourgeois element redundant.
Moreover, this trend was already taking place more slowly, for example, Liam Cahill writes in Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet, 1919 that IRB and Volunteers were restructuring in 1916, and that working class agitators were taking a more prominent role. This is what happened in the Soviet Union, as first the hold of the Tsar was broken, only to be overthrown by the Bolsheviks as the political situation changed.
Moreover, the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (RWG), the CPI’s forerunner, did not attempt to join Fianna Fáil because of some tactical madness in believing that Fianna Fáil could usher in socialism, but rather saw Fianna Fáil as a fertile potential recruiting ground. The Fianna Fáil of that day was releasing regular articles in support of the Soviet Union through The Nation and many radical IRA members had joined.
RWG members also had to join Fianna Fáil because their members were being attacked or killed, and their offices and presses were regularly moved, withdrawn or assaulted. They were presented with total illegality and disintegration or joining Fianna Fáil to try to influence the left-most members safely. That this was a mistake is a testament to the terrible conditions these early communists operated in and the trying decisions and stigmatisation they were faced with.
It is not some secret conservative kernel at the heart of the CPI, which has been at the forefront of workers’ and tenants’ struggles in Ireland; it is the reality of doing the best with the hand you’re dealt. The RWG struggled from attack and dissolution to attack and dissolution in the 1930s, whilst in the 1960s the CPI were out and open as communists in one of the most repressive environments in Western Europe, whilst the SWP was attempting abortive entryism into the Labour Party. It is a shame for Molyneux that he cannot recognise the bravery of these visionaries who struggled without credit in the dark.
It’s clear from this article that the SWP knows which way the wind is blowing. It hasn’t recovered and is unlikely to ever recover from the serious crisis of identity it suffered in the early 2010s. Based on my previous observations of interactions between members of the CYM and the SWP, they are starting to build up a repertoire of talking points that seem to, now, have finally developed into something that purports itself to be a substantial critique.
Poverty of thought
It is telling, then, that all Molyneux can do is inveigh against the CPI for imagined past sins. This escape into the past is very telling of the priorities of the SWP, given that its present is not an enviable position to occupy. It is a reflection of the poverty of thought in the Trotskyist movement that it engages in the vulgar practice of calling for materialist analysis, of claiming to be adept in performing material analysis, but carefully avoiding lifting the hood to discuss the phenomena on which its justifications are based.
This search for moral high ground that it has lost today has led the SWP to bizarre accusations that the CPI is responsible for the defection of the leadership of the Workers’ Party to the Labour Party in 1989.
The most glaring evidence of this poverty of thought can be found in Molyneux’s self-plagiarism of his past publications in this latest article. The subsection shown below is recycled straight out of his 1983 book What is the real Marxist tradition? without any self-citation:
The Bolshevik party found itself suspended in a vacuum. To administer the country it had to take over and use a vast army of Tsarist officials and against all its intentions it itself became bureaucratised. Bureaucracy is essentially a hierarchy of officials not subject to popular control from below. In Russia the social force that Marxists (above all Lenin) counted on to prevent the development of bureaucracy, an active revolutionary working class, had been cut from under the feet of the party. In this situation it was impossible to implement the Marxist programme in pure form. For a period it was possible to mount a holding operation, relying on the hardened socialist commitment of the Bolshevik old guard, to cling to the basic revolutionary aspirations while making the necessary practical compromises (for example the New Economic Policy or NEP) and waiting for help from the international revolution. This in essence was the course taken by Lenin. But failing the international revolution (and it did fail) a stark choice had eventually to be made. Either remain loyal to the theory and goal of international proletarian revolution, with the possibility of losing state power in Russia, or cling to power and abandon the theory and goal. The situation was extremely complex and the participants did not see it in these clear terms, but, essentially, Trotskyism was the product of the first choice and Stalinism of the second.
You might be wondering what exactly is wrong with this – self-plagiarism is considered a form of fraud in academia, because it repackages an old work as a new one, thus avoiding originality while tricking audiences into believing that they’re consuming novel work.
This brings me to my fundamental criticism of Molyneux’s outlook that I hint at in my opening quote. Trotskyism is a repackaging of various personalities, figures, and feuds of a different age and an attempt to build a cargo cult. By attempting to go through the rituals that Leon Trotsky, Ernest Mandel, Tony Cliff and their contemporaries went through in the great factional hullabaloos of their day, Trotskyists are constantly enjoying a form of live-action roleplay where they are invariably persecuted geniuses and academic revolutionaries chased by conspiracies of conformist Stalinoid bureaucrats.
This re-enactment of the Comintern struggles of the 1930s satisfies egos while providing a safe merry-go-round to dissipate revolutionary fervour of young people in alignment with Western soft power foreign policy and domestic interests. The Trotskyist electoral machine, meanwhile, continues to burn out young activists with potential and enthusiasm in futile and hollow electoralism. Red Youth are building a new revolutionary form of popular struggle from the ashes of the old, and sectarian partisans will have to recognise that their methods are spent and that a new chapter is beginning for socialism in the 21st century. They must decide whether to become obstacles to that progress or actively aid it.
I would invite the youth activists of today to not go glassy-eyed gazing at the past, nursing old grudges, but to critically and coldly scrutinise it for fundamental principles of theory and action to apply to the present. By working in one mass communist party, along the lines of democratic centralism and a serious commitment to class work and dialectical materialism, we can win back the future.
Decaying capitalism will not inevitably deliver socialism
We shouldn’t wait around for any Trotskyite delusion that the ‘class balance’ or ‘decaying features’ of capitalism are going to bring us socialism on a silver platter. Nor should we, in the name of most revolutionary slogans, lend our voices to any revolution in any country regardless of its class character and its ideology. Let us not forget that it is Molyneux’s erstwhile comrades in the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who referred to Aleppo as the “Paris Commune of the 21st century”.
Considering that the ISO, like the IST and CWI, are teetering on the brink, we will soon gladly consign useful-idiot gullibility and left-wing anti-Communism to the dustbin of history. No to re-constructed “socialism”, no to counter-revolution, no to euro-communism. Forward to victory and a new unity.
To quote Che Guevara: “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You must make it fall”.
To quote Lenin: “To wait until the toiling classes bring about a revolution on an international scale means that everybody should stand stock-still in expectation. That is nonsense”.
To quote Regina George: “Why are you so obsessed with me?”
Fergal Twomey is the former National Chairperson of the Connolly Youth Movement. Follow CYM on Twitter @ConnollyYM .
This article is part of a general debate and, like all articles we publish, does not reflect the views of the Irish Broad Left editorial team. We welcome responses to this article from those with opposing views.