What can you say about the three key figures of British post-war Trotskyism? Gerry Healy was a hyperactive pseud with a penchant for thuggery, rape and doing dodgy deals with unsavoury Arab regimes. Tony Cliff was flighty, excitable and an inveterate bandwagon chaser – qualities he imparted to the Socialist Workers Party. And there is Ted Grant. Founder of the Militant Tendency and with a reputation for super seriousness, of all of Trotsky’s British progeny it was he who came closest to disturbing the sleep of the great and the good. But for all that, it’s the repulsive Healy and the Mercurial Cliff who are most often recalled and discussed among the tiny circles of people who care about such things. Poor old Ted, the longest lived and most successful of them all merits nary a mention. Perhaps not recruiting enough celebrities or future Guardian journalists has something to do with it.
It’s months now since I’ve looked through the Marxist Internet Archive. Since I’ve last been there, loads of really good stuff is up. The below is just from November and December last year, and it covers a period from ca.1930 to ca.1940 which was pivotal in the development of the anti-Stalinist left.
The material here focuses on three overlapping currents in this anti-Stalinist left. The first is the POUM, the Spanish party whose name this blog’s is taken from, who fused the “left” and “right” opposition in Spain to the official Stalinist Communist party, to form a democratic mass movement of radical socialism, before being liquidated by the Stalinists in during the Spanish Civil War.
The second is the Trotskyist movement, Communism’s “left” opposition. While Trotsky supplied much of the intellectual justification for Stalin’s brutal misrule in the Soviet Union, his sharp critique of the degeneration of the Stalinist state made him a criminal in the dictatorship. His followers have formed one of the main planks of anti-Stalinist socialism globally. The material below focuses mainly on American Trotskyists, but particularly those who developed beyond the rigid and damaging orthodoxies of “official” Trotskyism.
Parallel to Trotsky’s Left Opposition, the Right Opposition called for a more democratic path to socialism, and was bitterly excluded from the Communist movement. Unlike Trotksyism, it leaves little organisational trace today, and so its history remains more deeply buried.
In the period from 1930 to 1940, these currents moved from composing a dissatisfied internal dissident streak within Stalinism, to a fully developed critical analysis of Stalinism. From 1940 to 1950, they several different interesting directions forward, some positively, others less so. Between them (along with anarchist, democratic socialist and left communist currents not represented here), they constitute a significant part of the heritage of anti-Stalinism that continues to be relevant to thinking about the task of reforging a radical movement today.
The Catalan Andreu (or Andres in Spanish) Nin i Pérez was a left dissident in the Communist Party, forming a left opposition group Communist Left of Spain (ICE), which merged with the Right Opposition party Bloque Obrero y Campesino, to form the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in 1935.
Stefan Collini on Adam Kirsch on Lionel Trilling. HarpyMarx on Mandy Mudd. Dave Osler on Ian Birchall on Tony Cliff. Chris Strafford on “21st century Marxism” the Morning Star-sponsored meeting of nationalists, anti-Semites, and homophobes. Ben Lewis on historical materialism. German material on Rudolf Rocker here and here.
Principia Dialectica: Juan Miro:
Still Life with Old Shoe by Juan Miro, 1937
The big show of Spanish Surrealist Juan Miro’s life’s work at London’s Tate Modern art gallery is such an exciting exhibition anyone visiting might need a stiff glass of fizzy wine in the ninth floor bar before they descend to soak up the energy on display. The exhibition is hugely popular – which leaves you with a sense of both frustration and exhileration as you walk around – too many people! But, at the same time – so many people! How exciting it is to be alive at a time when so many people are receptive to the ideas that Juan and his fellow Surrealists were engaged in helping to create and spread in the 1920s and 1930s. [READ THE REST]
Music: from Super Sonido:
It’s kind of a sad thing that the Gypsy Kings had to put crossover gypsy rock on the global map. It’s not that their music is all that bad – but every time I go to a mediocre Italian restaurant, much to my chagrin, I’m subjected to their music playing in the background. I’ve even heard Bandolero blaring out of a lime green convertible Mustang once. Oh lord.
Before all that, there was a true king of this genre: Peret – the Spanish Romaní singer, guitarist and composer, who was pretty much the embassador of the Catalan Rumbasound. If you are interested in this music please do check out the articles Soul-Sides has about Peret and Los Amaya (O-dub always has the finger on the pulse). What I wanted to add was that I found this in the KRMX lot of 45′s I have. So even though Peretis Spanish, his music was still heard in Latin America, although I am not quite sure what impact it had, if any. Either way, two really solid tunes from El Rey de La Rumba Catalana. Enjoy!
Egypt and Tunisia, what is to be done?
From the archive: Tony Cliff on the Middle East at the crossroads (1945), John Rees on the democratic revolution and the socialist revolution (1989).
Dorothy Thompson, z”l:
Michael Weiss: on Julian Assange as Bakunin with a MacBook.
Owen Jones, in the spirit of Keir Hardie: the left needs to watch its language.
Andrew Coates, in the spirit of Robert Tressel and Oscar Wilde: Big Society goes bang.
Ron Radosh: commie Camp Kinderland still exists.
Jim Denham: on Norman Geras’ Marxism.
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The social revolution of the 21st century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.
Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer [cat’s wail] takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the 21st century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
[Here is the rose, here dance!]
–Karl Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Hosni Mubarak [with two or three words changed]
Egypt was the home of the first recorded labour strike in history, a wildcat stoppage of craftsmen in the tombs of the pharoahs. Like the current unrest, it was partly a struggle over hunger.
A contemporary document recounting the first ever recorded labour strike, which occured in Deir el Medina, Ancient Egypt during the reign of Ramses III when workers did not receive their rations.
The stoppage occurred in the 12th century BC, on the 21st day of the second month in the 29th year of the reign of the pharaoh Ramses III, while Ramses was fighting a series of wars and engaging in an extensive building campaign.
The strikers were hereditary craftsmen who worked on the tombs of the pharaohs, the vast complexes that to this day draw visitors from all over the world to the Valley of the Kings.
This papyrus was written by the scribe Amennakhte at Deir el Medina. It describes the workers’ struggle, and the corruption which had spread throughout the administration.
Year 29, second month of winter, day 10
On this day the crew passed the five guard-posts of the tomb saying: “We are hungry, for 18 days have already elapsed in this month;” and they sat down at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre.
In the twentieth century, there was considerable class struggle, both rural and urban, in Egypt. This, from 1935, is from the first published article by the young Tony Cliff (Yigael Gluckstein as he was then), a teenage Trotskyist in Hashomer Hatzair in Palestine, writing in (I think) a Kibbutz Artzi journal, Ha-Mesheq Ha-Shittufi [The Cooperative Economy]:
The appalling pauperization of the masses of workers and peasants in Egypt and the exacerbation of class tensions are manifested very clearly in the spontaneous eruptions of the masses. The bitterness pent up in them erupts fruitlessly, as all these eruptions and insurrections are unplanned and are not guided by a proletarian leadership able to convert the destructive force of rebellion into the creative power of socialist construction. The recurrent eruptions of the agricultural masses are evidence of the point that Egypt’s social tension have reached, as well as of how far the objective conditions for liberation of the masses have ripened, and of the absence so far of a force that would undertake the realization of this endeavour. The outbursts of rebellion that pent up within the masses are of various degrees and kinds: from setting fire to the feudal landlord’s granary, murdering the “umara” (the local village sheikhs who are agents of the banks, the trading companies, the estate owners and the government), murdering policemen and soldiers, to attempts at an agrarian reform. For the time being, the class struggle of the masses is in its lower stages. The number of granary arson cases in 1928–29 was 5,760, in 1929–30 – 6,700, and in 1931 – 7,820. The incidence of “umara” murders in 1931 was 744, in 1932 – 711, and in 1933 – 752.
Clearly, the struggle will be long and much blood will be spilt until the toiling masses recognize the way by which alone will come the full abolition of the conditions that oppress them.
The centrality of bread and hunger to Egypt’s history of militancy continued through the 20th century. 1977 saw the “bread intifada”, uprisings against Sadat’s government. The prequel to that moment was told in 1976 by Phil Marfleet in the SWP’s International Socialism and again in IS (by Phil again?) in March 1977. The article is written in the vein of the IS’s Third Campism, its utter rejection of Stalinism and authoritarian Third Worldism – rather sad, given their courting of those things in more recent years.
Egypt has also been a centre of the libertarian socialist movement for as long as many parts of Europe, with Errico Malatesta being based in Alexandria for some time, and a thriving Greek and Italian anarchist workers movement, as described in this article.
A very little known chapter in the history of struggle in North Africa is the number of veterans of the Spanish Civil War who found their way to the Maghreb, including to Tunis. This article by Nick Heath is a thumbnail sketch of one such, anarchist Giuseppe Pasotti who died in Tunis in 1951.
One of the great dangers of the current uprisings is that bourgeois nationalism, as we used to call it, and, even worse, political Islam, will emerge as the most significant forces in the revolution, and turn on the emancipatory forces. This is an old dialectic in the class struggle in the Middle East. An article from the ortho-Trotskyist Fourth International from 1946 by J Damien (possibly the pen-name of Spanish ex-POUM militant Sebastian Garcia?) captures this very well:
What is the Moslem Brotherhood? It is the most backward organization in Egypt. It is supposed to group together about 300,000 disillusioned, very fanatical petty-bourgeois. It has no program except to overthrow the Constitution and replace it with the Koran. It has no political experience so that, for the time being, it can be maneuvered by the Court’s agents. The American and the Russian propagandists in the Middle East have shown great interest in the Moslem Brotherhood and seem to consider it as a possible winning horse. The Russians have made a fuss of their Islamic policy in their Moslem Republics. But there are no indications for the moment that the youth and the proletariat are ready to follow the MB, which is definitely too backward even for the British. Apparently the MB will be used as a sort of pending menace and instrument of blackmail in the hands of the Court’s politicians. Whether it will free itself from such hands or not is a question that cannot be answered now.
The forces of the left are in the making. Since 1940 the Socialist idea has been successfully infused into the proletariat. One advantage of the situation is that there is no such thing as a social-democratic party in Egypt. Trotskyism and Stalinism face each other without intermediate parties. Numerically the Stalinists are stronger, but extraordinary as it may seem, they are not united. There are three Stalinist movements, one of them on the verge of an open split with Stalinism (the Trotskyists have repeatedly offered the Stalinists to form a “Left Front” against the Moslem Brotherhood and the imperialists). A regrouping of the forces of the Left – one of the Stalinist groups detaching itself and collaborating with the Trotskyists – is not excluded for the near future.
The task of the Left in Egypt is immense. Its cadres are still tiny. Even if the Left is too weak to guide the Egyptian workers to victory within the next few years, it is already strong enough to shake the actual instruments of the people’s servitude; religious prejudice and political ignorance.
It is tragic that this clarity of vision from the left has failed so profoundly in the intervening years, with the cult of “national self-determination” and “anti-imperialism”, and more recently “anti-Zionism” taking its place.
Of interest in relation to some of the above: the SWP’s Duncan Hallas on his experiences in Egypt after WWII.
Via BfB: Egypt: Centre for Trade Union & Workers Services: The labour movement is in the heart and soul of the Egyptian revolution. Mohammed Ezzeldin on the roots of the revolutionary movement. Atef Said on Egypt’s long labour history. Juan Cole: Egypt’s class conflict. Stroppy: women of Egypt 1 & 2. Tom Streithorst: Hobbes vs Kropotkin on the streets of Cairo. Tunisia: Andrew Coates: why was Ben Ali’s party in the Socialist International?
His original songs evoke a Brechtian level of discomfort by problematizing heroes and making the grotesque sympathetic. For example, “Six Million Germans/Nakam” recounts the story of the hero of the Vilnius (known in Yiddish as Vilna) partisans, Abba Kovner, who was among the brave men and women who fought, with few weapons and terrible odds, against the Nazis and their collaborators. Less discussed is Kovner’s decision, with a group of friends, to take revenge on the Germans after the war. Calling themselves Nakam (revenge), they concocted a plan to poison German water supplies and take millions of German victims in retribution. The song, performed as an upbeat klezmer polka, jarringly juxtaposes subject and tone to bring up two of Kahn’s favorite themes, violence and revenge, and forces the listener to question the nature of heroism and justice.
From the archive of struggle. no.16: At the risk of descending into some kind of ever-decreasing spiral of circularity, big thanks to entdinglichung, who thanks me in the latest in the excellent series of archival material from the history of the left. Included in this installment is more Karl Korsch from Class Against Class, Pierre Monatte in English from LBS, Sean Matgamna on Tony Cliff and the IS/SWP from back in 1969, a still anarchist Victor Serge in 1912 on banditry, and a homage to Marc Bloch, French anti-Nazi Resistance hero, by Georges Altman, founder of the “third force” socialist Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire.
Snippets: Dave O and Entdinglichung on the passing of Guillermo Lora, leader of Bolivia’s Partido Obrero Revolucionaria, one of the few Trotskyist organisations in history ever to gain a mass following. And Dave on why now is not the 1930s. Lefty parent in the basement of the library with Bakunin. More snippets from Roland and Bob. Soundtrack from Martin.