War, and class war

Photo from my current favourite blog, Bertram Online.


An individual, a group, a party, or a class that “objectively” picks its nose while it watches men drunk with blood massacring defenceless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive. – Leon Trotsky The Balkan Wars 1912-1913 (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1980), pp.292-293.

So starts Sean Matgamna, in his recent intervention on intervention.

David Osler is also very interesting on Libya and the ortho-left, responding to Eamonn McCann  in Socialist Worker.

More surprisingly, Gilbert Achcar agrees with Matgamna. Jim writes:

Gilbert Achcar, a member of the mainstream (“Pabloite“) Fourth International, refuses to scab on the Libyan revolutionaries… other “revolutionaries” aren’t happy

Here’s what Gilbert says […] writing in International Viewpoint

Barry Finger comments on Achcar and “anti-imperialism”, here.

The Orwell Prize

I have no doubt George Orwell would have taken the same line as Matgamna and Achcar. I have little doubt he would not have been pleased with many of the recent Orwell Prize for blogging long listees. I suspect he would agree with HarpyMarx‘s assessment that “Orwell Prize blogger longlist, with 1 or 2 exceptions, is just full of media privileged luvvies or journos who should b in journo section!”

I think Orwell would not have been upset about Sunder Katwaler‘s or Cath Elliot’s longlistings (he would have liked Katwala on cricket I think, and taken up cudgels for Cath against the Morning Star). He would have been pleased about David Osler’s (second?) longlisting.

And he would have been OK with Paul Mason’s (second?) longlisting. Mason writes:

Getting myself longlisted yet again for the Orwell Prize (and good luck to all the real bloggers who don’t have a mainstream media pension, salary and self-censorship training to fall back on)… made me ask: what single bit of Orwell’s writing I would recommend to somebody starting a blog, or studying journalism?

Actually it’s Inside The Whale, where Orwell takes apart the literary industry of the late 1930s, concluding that of 5,000 novels published, 4,999 were “tripe”. He does this sandwiched between two lengthy eulogies to a book that, at the time of writing, was banned – and banned in the 1930s meant impounded at Dover and burned, to be found only in the secret cupboards of anarchists and wierdos.

The book in question is Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller – a strange choice of book to praise for a man who’d just come back from the Spanish Civil War and who, with the Dunkirk fiasco, believed Britain was entering a “revolutionary period”.

Musing on this very point, Orwell concluded that Miller had probably founded a new school of writing with this one book, and its successor Black Spring:

“In Miller’s case it is not so much a question of exploring the mechanisms of the mind as of owning up to everyday facts and everyday emotions. For the truth is that many ordinary people, perhaps an actual majority, do speak and behave in just the way that is recorded here. […]

Orwell sensed that at some point people would start writing about ordinary life in ordinary language, dramatising the ordinary, peeling back layer upon layer of literary finesse, pretension, writing-school prose, irony etc.

The blog is the logical outcome.

And like the novels of 1940, the vast majority of blogs are mediocre, “tripe” as Orwell might have said. But they are mostly attempts at honesty – whether literary or non-fictional.

I give you two excerpts, both from fellow longlisters, writing about the same recent event:

“I find myself in front of the riot line, taking a blow to the head and a kick to the shin; I am dragged to my feet by a girl with blue hair who squeezes my arm and then raises a union flag defiantly at the cops. “We are peaceful, what are you?” chant the protestors. I’m chanting it too, my head ringing with pain and rage and adrenaline; a boy with dreadlocks puts an arm around me. “Don’t scream at them,” he says. “We’re peaceful, so let’s not provoke.”

And this:

“I’ve just watched the soi-disant “March for the Alternative” snaking its way across London. It is clear enough, from the banners and slogans, what the protesters are against: spending restraint, open markets, private enterprise, property rights, free contract, Tories, bankers and Nick Clegg. Fair enough. But what are they for? Their website suggests that they think the answer to our debt crisis is more spending. In fact, they don’t think we have much of a debt crisis. They want higher taxes, particularly for the rich, whom they expect to wait around meekly to be fleeced. And they insist that higher state expenditure (“investment”) will create more jobs. Why so half-hearted, comrades? Why not go all the way, nationalise every business, place every adult on the state payroll and confiscate all income? By your logic, it would surely make Britain the most prosperous country on Earth.”

The first is from New Statesman blogger Laurie Penny, the second from Dan Hannan MEP, who blogs in the Telegraph. Two ends of the political spectrum, two kinds of language, but both part of a combative, Anglo-Saxon-word infested, plebeian writing tradition that in the space of ten years has begun to swamp the polite, official media with its deference to experts, to everything “middle”, its restraint and euphemism.

George, you would have loved blogging: 99% of English literary novels are still tripe but here – in the world of the hyperlink – we are well and truly “inside the whale”; and English is definitely spoken without fear.

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good to see others interested in these questions. I received something of a bludgeoning merely by asking them!

  2. Some scans for you: the print version of McCann’s interview with Ghaddaffi (as it is this time) from the 19 Feb 1987 issue of In Dublin magazine, page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5, page 6, and the cover.

  3. You have quoted Sean Matgamna’s article in which he provides the quote from Trotsky about massacres. But, as with nearly all of the AWL’s quoting of Trotsky it is snatched out of context and distorted to provide a justification of their latest bureaucratic-centralist zig-zag, which is typical of their Stalinist politics and method.

    In fact, what Trotsky was criticising at the time was precisely the kind of Stalinist/Reformist/Social Chauvinist politics that the AWL today represents with its Popular Front with “Democratic Imperialism”. Trotsky was criticising those such as Miliukov who chose sides in such disputes based upon lesser-evilism, and moralism. They highlighted the atrocities committed by one side, whilst hushing up or apologising for the atrocities committed by the other. That is a perfect description of the attitude of the AWL.

    So, in Iraq, the AWL made much of the atrocities committed by the clerical-fascists (quite right), but spoke of Imperialism acting to provide a breathing space for workers. They minimised the reactionary nature of Sistani who was in alliance with Imperialism, describing him as some kind of “constitutionalist”, even as he was calling for gays to be killed on the streets.

    They opposed calls for Imperialism to be kicked out on the basis that it would elad to Civil War and so on. Yet, in Afghanistan they DID call for Soviet Troops to be withdrawn, even though it was bound to lead to the Civil War that did ensue, and to the coming to power of the Taliban.

    In Kosovo, they said little about the attacks against Serbs, or the actions of the KLA which was in alliance with the US. It was those actions which gave Milosevic the excuse to launch his own murderous assault. The AWL then said that if Imperialism defeated Milosevic that would be good, so refused to oppose its intervention. They use the same argument today to refuse to oppose Imperialism in Libya. Yet, in identical circumstances in South Ossetia, they DID demand that the Russian troops that had gone in to prevent a massacre committed by Georgian forces, be withdrawn!

    This zigging and zagging of position is typical of Stalinism, and of the position Trotsky was critising in the quote. The same attitude and approach adopted by the WRP was criticised in an article by the ICFI, which puts Trotsky’s quote into the proper context. Balkans War.

    In fact, as the artile sets out, the argument put up by the WRP and now used by the AWL about the provision of arms to the Republicans in Spain by Imperialism, was NEVER used by Trotsky, but was the argument used by the Stalinists, to distract from criticism of its own role in the defeat stemming from the adoption of the Popular Front, the same kind of Popular Frontist politics now adopted by the AWL, in their undeclared alliance with “Democratic Imperialism”. Trotsky’s argumnet in relation to Spain, and in the quote about the Balkans was the complete opposite of the position of the AWL, it was arguing the need for an independent working-class solution in opposition to Imperialism, not for workers to acquiesce in their weakness, and to then rely on Imperialism to provide it with a solution.

  4. I am not a member or even supporter of the AWL, so will not defend them or the positions they took on previous conflicts. The only way I will defend them is against this: “This zigging and zagging of position is typical of Stalinism, and of the position Trotsky was critising in the quote.” I think zigging and zagging are pretty common to all tendencies, and to slur the AWL as Stalinist in some sense for it is very unfair.

    I should also confess that one of my two main political mentors when I became politically active (gosh, a quarter of a century ago) was in the Slaughterite WRP. I was inspired by Workers Aid, and the ICFI attack from 1995 I see as largely malevolent rubbish.

    I agree about Trotsky not using the arming the Republicans argument, and have been meaning to write about that for a while with so many making that analogy. Probably arming the Republicans, as in arming the Republican army, the army of the Popular Front government, was not necessarily a good thing. In my view, the Republican government was the class enemy, and arming it could well have meant arming what became a totalitarian satellite of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it is hard, in light of the totalitarian horror of Franco’s regime, to not see the “breathing space” Republicanism might have represented as a vastly lesser evil than fascism.

    Arming the Spanish militias (certainly the CNT and POUM militias) would have been a 100% correct position in my view. It is impossible for me, and I think for the Euro-American left in general, to know enough about the rebels in Libya to make a judgement about whether they are more like the Popular Front or whether there are elements analogous to the POUM militias.

  5. A print version of Eamonn McCann’s 1987 interview is here.

  6. Trotsky himself used the fact of the zigging and zagging of the Stalinists from Popular Frontism to Third Periodism and back to Popular Frontism to describe the nature of Stalinism, or Bureaucratic Centralism as he described it. The AWL have many times in the past used the same description of the zigs and zags of the SWP to describe its politics as Centrist. Does zigging and zagging on its own imply Stalinism? Not necessarily, but it does define an important aspect of Stalinism that is Opportunism, which flows from the adoption of a non-Marxist, subjectivist methodology.

    What defines the AWL as Stalinist is precisely this methodology, which leads it into adopting both Opportunism, and Ultra-Leftism, sometimes at the same time. For example it adopts an Ultra-Leftist stance towards workers in Venezuela who joined the PSUV, describing them as “careerists” – tens of thousands of them! – it attempted to organise a picket of the Unite HQ during the Lyndsey Oil dispute, and opposed support for the strike, because it opposed the demands for “British Jobs For British Workers”. Yet it forms an undeclared Popular Front with Imperialism in its interventions around the globe, and with British State capitalism, failing to raise even any demands for Workers Control in the NHS etc.

    The fact, that other Left sects are little better is not really an argument. In fact, a look at the extent that these sects, including the AWL are and have been run by the same gerontacry for the last 40 years shows how similar they are to the rule of the Glorious Leaders. Even the LP, so oft decried for its lack of democracy rarely sees its leaders last more than a decade! Moreover, in the same vein, and for the same reasons that Trotsky described the nature of the Stalinist regimes, and the need to restrict internal opposition, the AWL portrays all the same traits both in its relations with others on the left, and in its internal relations, as witnessed by the way it responded to the Minority within it over Iraq, its frequent resort to censorship on its website and so on. Again the fact that others on the left such as the SWP are guilty of the same thing is hardly a defence!

    On the question of Libya, I think we DO know something of the nature of the so called “rebel” forces, and they certainly have nothing in common with the POUM. Even the information provided by the TV and newspapers shows us that the leaders of the TNC are former murderers of the regime itself, people who have been long time associates of Imperialism, together with disgruntled Tribal Chiefs in a country where tribal conflicts have been commonplace, and finally Islamists, in fact in large part the same clerical-fascist elements who went to fight in Iraq, and who the AWL themselves argued could not be classed as fighting for self-determination! Within the actual fighting forces on the ground, these elements seem to predominate even more. The question of arming these elemetns is already being answered, as the US is already training them along with the Egyptian Army in Egypt, and is according to Aljazeera equipping them with weapons including heat-seeking Katusha rockets. I doubt the US would be doing that even for POUMists, or anything more revolutionary.

    As for republicanism in Spain, the whole point about the idea that this was possible is that this is what the Stalinists WERE arguing, as part of their “stages theory”, a position the AWL and others have now adopted, and it was precisely the impossibility of that which set Trotsky against their position.

  7. I forgot to add that whatever you might think about the ICFI (for whom I also have no brief) article the fact is that they are right that what Trotsky’s quote referred to was the exact opposite of what the AWL were claiming it to mean! And that is common practice for the way the AWL grotesquely distort Trotsky’s writings in the same way that the Stalinist Epigones did with Lenin’s writings.

    The fact is that Trotsky WAS attacking the same kind of Opportuhnism of Miliukov in cherry picking which atrocities to oppose in the same way that the AWL do, and was using this method in order to justify support for one particular side, rather than standing objectively on the side of the workers, and attempting to build an independent workers response.

  8. Kellie, thank you for the scans. Sorry they got stuck in the queue.

    Boffy, I completely agree with you about the gerontocracy and the AWL’s bureaucratic centralism. I agree too about their zigging from ultra-leftism to Popular Frontism (I was angry at the time, for example, at their stance towards Lyndsey). However, I am not at all convinced that that zigging is the essence of Stalinism, or even of bureaucratic centralism. I think that the autocratic/Dear Leaderist mode of leadership is part of the essence of Stalinism, but not that zigging, opportunism, bandwagoning, sectarianism, lapses into ultra-leftism etc are simply the pathology of the entire left, including Trotsky and for that matter the POUM.

  9. I agree, and in part it also stems from the same criticisms I would now have of Leninism. However, I think its necessary to try to understand the material basis of that. Trotsky was in part right to point to the sociological base of Stalinism within the petit-bourgeoisie. However, I read an intersting article many years ago in Critique by David Law – not to be confused with the other bloke – which actually showed that the support for Stalin during the 1920’s in Russia was far greater amongst the workers than it was for Trotsky, and it was Trotsky whose main support came from students, the intelligentsia and so on. In fact, Trotsky himnself pointed out that the bureaucracy had looked to him first before Stalin. The workers didn’t support Trotsky because he’s shown little concern for them prior to the faction fight, had introduced militarisation of labour, and wanted to get rid of independent unions.

    In fact, I think its the fact that the Russian workers were physically worn out, and not wanting to engage in yet more revolutionary activity internationally – and who could blame them after what they had gone through – which was the initial real basis of “Socialism In One Country”. It is also the lack of development of the Russian workers, and their lack of interest in actually taking over the running of the factories – that they did not have the skills to do anyway – that facilitated the development of the bureaucracy in the factories then linked to the Party and State, which then consolidates the bureacracy as a powerful elite, and leads to the establishment of a Workers Bonapartism.

    But, it is the idea that flows from that – and in a way it is also understandable on their experience why the Stalinists should reach this conclusion – which leads them to the belief that although the workers are needed as foot soldiers, they are not capable of establishing Socialism themselves, it requires them to organise the revolution, or transition by other means.

    The reality is that the Left is both made up of petit-bourgeois elements removed from the working-class, and has arrived at the same conclusion as Stalinism in relation to the workers not being capable of achieving Socialism – or at least not in the foreseeable future. That is the sociological basis of this trend, and that conclusion whatever they say in their “What We Stand For Columns”, that the workers are not the agent of revolutionary change in the current situation is what they share with Stalinism. Their politics like that of Stalinism flows from that. On the one hand they look to other social forces to be that agent of change – Libya is a perfect example – which is why they adopt Opportunist policies based on a popular front – in the case of the AWL a Popular Front with Imperialism, in the case of the SWP and others a Popular Front with various bourgeois “anti-imperialists”, or as in Britain “anti-fascists” (indeed I’ve argued elsewhere that part of the problem of the Left is that it defines itsel by what it is “anti”, rather than being “pro” Socialism. At the same time, it reproduces itself from the same social base. It seeks to recruit from students, the intelligentsia and other petit-bourgeois elements by its focus on campaigns that draw in those elements. It is totally incapable of attracting workers, and partly for that reason, but mainly because it has nothing to say to them that offers a pratical immediate solution to their problems. That is why these organisations are then led into the kind of Ultra-Left positions they adopt such as over LOR. Its interesting that one of the few organisations that did not adopt such posiitons during that period was the SP, which has always had a closer relation with workers, but which is equally sectarian in other ways.

    Its why the only way forward is to go back to scratch to start to rebuild in the way tht marx and engels did in the 1860’s. But, we should start with the actual workers party that does it exist – the LP – warts and all.

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