A Perspective for Socialists

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

Alex Callinicos

REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALISTS throughout the Western capitalist bloc are faced with the paradox well stated in Against the Current (New Series, Number 1). On the one hand, there is absolutely no sign of any alleviation in the global economic crisis which has precipitated two great recessions since 1973. On the other hand, the situation of the working-class movement, and of the revolutionary left, is considerably less favorable than it was a decade ago.

Bourgeois politics has shifted sharply to the right, conservative administrations committed to free-market remedies now hold office in every major Western capitalist state, and the official parties of the reformist left are in considerable disarray. Anyone who thought that there was some mechanical relationship between economic slump and mass radicalization has been proved very badly wrong indeed.

The situation is one which requires extremely sober and realistic appraisal by Marxists. The objective of such analysis should not be, however, merely to document the obvious, namely the difficulties facing socialists today. Its aim should rather be to identify the opportunities which exist, even in present conditions, for building revolutionary socialist organization. Such, at any rate, is my intention in this article, which draws mainly on the experience of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, but also on that of our sister organizations in other countries, for example, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S.(1)

The Class Struggle Today

While there are obviously major differences between the situations of the various Western capitalist countries, it is nevertheless possible to isolate a number of common features shared by the class struggle throughout the advanced capitalist world today. The following are among the most important.

1. There has been a significant shift in the balance of class forces in capital’s favor over the past ten years. The early 1970s saw the Western working class, drawing on the confidence and organization accumulated during the long boom, respond to the first signs of slump by moving onto the offensive in the most militant and generalized fashion seen since the interwar years. The climax of this upturn in the class struggle was reached in 1975, when the Portuguese revolution and the crises facing the Francoist dictatorship in Spain and the Christian Democratic regime in Italy seemed to place the question of workers’ power on the agenda.

Since those heady days, the Western workers’ movement has been experiencing a slow, and bitter, retreat. This has gone furthest in the United States, where the upturn of the early 1970s was far weaker than in parts of Europe, and in Britain where a succession of stunning victories over the Tory government of 1970-74 has given way to very serious defeats at the hands of the Thatcher administration, culminating, of course, in the agony of the great miners’ strike of 1984-85.

2. The influence upon the mass of workers of the reformist parties, either directly or through the intermediary of the trade-union bureaucracy, is the most important factor in explaining the current downturn in the European class struggle. Social democracy, and to a lesser extent certain of the Communist parties were the main political beneficiaries of the radicalization of the early 1970s. They used this political credit to stabilize European capitalism.

The openly counter-revolutionary role played by the Portuguese Socialist Party in 1974-75 is well known, as is the part performed by Eurocommunism in the establishment of bourgeois democracy in Spain and the pacification of Italian society in the late 1970s. The 1974-79 Labor government in Britain won the support of the trade-union bureaucracy for the sharpest cuts in living standards in a century, and pioneered the monetarist economic measures pursued by Thatcher over the last seven years.

The record of “Eurosocialism” in office has been equally disastrous, whether it be Francois Mitterrand’s capitulation to monetarism in France, Felipe Gonzalez’s espousal of NATO in Spain, or Andreas Papandreou’s enthusiastic adoption of anti-union legislation and austerity measures in Greece.

3. Bankrupt though the reformist left has shown itself to be, the revolutionary left is itself in crisis.(2) Too weak to present a mass alternative during the struggles of the early 1970s, revolutionary organizations were nevertheless able to grow considerably, and to win a small but real base within the working-class movement of most Western countries.

The past decade, however, has been one of disarray and often of disintegration. The process reached its most extreme point in Italy, where the three main organizations of the far left, with a total membership of 30,000, each producing a daily paper, collapsed, leaving virtually nothing behind them. But the crisis is a universal one. It cannot be put down purely to objective factors, although the decline in workers’ combativity has obviously made the environment far less favorable to revolutionary socialist ideas.

Much of the far left in Western Europe, North America and Australia was influenced chiefly by the Stalinist tradition, usually in one of its Maoist variants, politics to which the concept of working-class self-emancipation was quite alien. Lacking a firm orientation on the working class, these groups tended, once the level of class struggle declined, to tail behind official reformism or the “movements,” or both. Those that didn’t disintegrate hardened into Stalinist sects.

Orthodox Trotskyism has not been free of the same tendencies: thus the Ligue Communist Revolutionnaire, French section of the Fourth International, responded to the left’s victory in the 1981 elections by seeking to push the reformist parties leftwards rather than present a socialist alternative to the Mitterrand government’s policies.(3)

Beyond these errors of theory and strategy, virtually every organization expected the upturn of the early 1970s to continue indefinitely, and was disoriented by the reversal of the situation in the second half of that decade. Even those which survived, and have, like the British SWP, been able to grow in recent years, experienced a crisis of adjustment to changed circumstances.

4. The current situation is one in which workers’ struggles are passive, fragmented and defensive, and often end in defeat. Not only is the number of working days “lost” sharply down by comparison with the 1970s, but the character of strikes has changed. The generalized class militancy which was a feature of many struggles in the early 1970s has given way to what is often a highly sectional consciousness, so that workers often see themselves in conflict with each other rather than with the bosses. (The connection between sectionalism and nationalism is made obvious by the labor bureaucracy’s campaigns for various forms of protectionism.)

Equally important is a dramatic increase in the power of the bureaucracy relative to the rank and file. The upturn of the early 1970s was characterized by a high degree of self-confidence and independence on the part of rank-and-file workers, qualities evident in the militant shop-floor organizations developed for example by Italian and British workers, but also present in the 1970 wildcat strikes by teamsters and postal workers in the U.S. Struggles today tend to be characterized by a considerable degree of passivity on the part of the rank and file, and a corresponding growth in their dependence on the bureaucracy.

Where major struggles occur they tend to be bureaucratic mass strikes, initiated and controlled by the officials in response to pressure from below and as a means of increasing their bargaining strength with capital. But bureaucratic leadership almost invariably leads to defeat. This was true of the most important recent struggle, the British miners’ strike, but also of other episodes conforming to this pattern: Operation Solidarity in British Columbia 1982, the 1983 Dutch and Belgian anti-austerity strikes, the 1985 Danish Easter strike, and the current struggles in Greece against the Papandreou government’s economic policies.

5. This downturn in the class struggle is concentrated chiefly in the Western capitalist bloc. Elsewhere in the world there have been much more violent social and political convulsions. Conditions in the centers of capital accumulation outside the imperialist metropolis-not simply the newly-industrializing countries of the Third World but also state capitalist countries sucl1 as Poland-are liable to produce the explosive growth of militant new working-class movements, from Solidarnosc in 1980-81 to the Congress of South AfricanTrade Unions today.

A succession of popular revolutions in the Third World, the most recent of which brought down the Marcos regime in the Philippines, have inflicted severe defeats on Western imperialism. One such future episode may bring the working-class to power: that certainly is the issue posed by the current struggle in South Africa.(4)

6. The current Western downturn isn’t just restricted in space; it is limited in time. The experience of past periods of defeat shows above all that they do not last. The crushing of U.S. workers’ militancy at the end of the First World War and the triumph of the American Plan in the 1920s gave way to the great unionization strikes from which the CIO emerged in the 1930s. The year 1934, when mass strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Fran­ cisco marked the beginning of an upturn in the American class struggle, also saw an upsurge by French workers against the growth of fascism which laid the basis of the great struggles of 1936.

It is impossible to predict the form which a revival in workers’ struggles will take today. Possibly a bureaucratic mass strike will escape the officials’ control: the factory occupations of May-June 1968 in France developed out of an official general strike. That a future upturn will develop we can be absolutely confident. The depth of the global crisis alone guarantees this. The crucial question is how revolutionary socialists prepare for that upturn.

Preparing for the Upturn

Many of those active on the far left in the 1970s have now become disillusioned with “party-building.” The very idea of developing revolutionary socialist organization seems to them irrelevant and sectarian. In part, this represents a reaction against the vastly exaggerated expectations and Stalinist models of organization which prevailed in the heyday of Maoism after 1968 (although not only Maoists succumbed to such errors).

But there has also developed an argument against attempting to build Leninist organizations which base themselves on the experiences of the Bolsheviks and the early Comintern rather than later Stalinist perversions. The thought seems to be that it is mistaken, at least when the level of class struggle is low, and revolutionary socialists are isolated, to pursue such a party-building strategy. The result can only be to create a self-enclosed sect. The best that Marxists can aspire to is a much looser form of organization, in which quite divergent political tendencies can flourish, allowing a basis on which socialist ideas can be propagated until the revival of the class struggle provides them with a potential mass audience.(5)

The weakness in this argument lies in its failure to address the lessons of past upturns. The struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s were among the most radical in the history of the European labor movement. All were defeated, not because of any lack of power on the workers’ part, but because they were ideologically dominated by traditions which prevented workers from using their collective strength to overturn the rule of capital.

The case of Solidarnosc, among the finest movements in the entire history of the world proletariat, illustrates the point admirably. Inviting comparison with the soviets of Russia 1905 and 1917 in the density of its organization and the democratic character of its structures, Solidarnosc was nonetheless permeated by ideologies which, in forms ranging from Catholic nationalism to left social democracy, preached class collaboration, the pursuit of a “self-limiting revolution” based on a compromise between the workers’ movement and the regime.

These ideas disarmed Solidarnosc in the face of a state which proved in December 1981 that it understood far more clearly than its opponents the irreconcilability of its interests with those of the working class.(6)

Poland 1980-81 confirmed an old lesson: even when workers act in the most revolutionary fashion, they do so under the influence of prevailing traditions which, unless challenged, hold them back in the inevitable test of strength with capital. But to challenge these traditions requires an organized network of revolutionary socialists sharing their own Marxist analysis of the world and the experience of working together in a democratic but disciplined fashion.

Such organization is extremely difficult to build once workers move into action on a large scale: the infantile disorders of the German Communist Party, formed only after the November 1918 revolution had occurred, illustrate this point very clearly, since they led to the disastrous Spartacist uprising of January 1919 and the slaughter of many fine revolutionaries, above all, Rosa Luxemburg.(7)

The decisive contribution of Lenin and the Bolsheviks lay, in many respects, in their holding together a core of organized revolutionaries in the wake of the defeated 1905 revolution, a core which survived the terrible years of reaction, and developed into a mass party when the workers’ movement revived in 1912, and then again on a much grander scale in 1917.(8)

We in the West today are a long way from Russia 1917 and Germany 1918. But if we accept that capitalism is in global crisis, and that the Western working class is far from finished-and there is little point in calling oneself a Marxist if one does not accept these two premises-then future confrontations between labor and capital, confrontations which pose the question of state power, are absolutely inevitable.

How such a future confrontation turns out, whether labor or capital comes out on top, depends crucially on whether or not there exists a revolutionary organization capable of offering the mass of workers an alternative to the traditions of class collaboration which pervade the Western labor movement, of challenging the dominance of reformist bureaucrats and politicians. And that depends on what revolutionary socialists do now, in the often very difficult and discouraging conditions of downturn, to bring together an organized core of politically committed activists prepared to work together to win more to their ideas.

It is here that the experience of the British SWP may be of some relevance, since we have been able to preserve and strengthen, in the hard times which the British labor movement has experienced since 1979, an organization of some four thousand members. The SWP is part of an international tendency, the International Socialists, which embraces organizations in the United States, West Germany, France, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, and Australia, and which has links with groups in Greece and India.

All these groups are considerably smaller than the British SWP, but the modest and real successes which they have enjoyed seem of particular relevance to a project such as that involved in the formation of Solidarity in the U.S.

The Politics of Clarity

Political clarity based on a revolutionary Marxist understanding of the world is absolutely indispensable to building socialist organization today. The downturn in the class struggle, combined with the crisis of the far left, has meant that social democracy has come to exercise a growing attractive power on ex-revolutionaries as well as on a broader layer of working-class militants.

In Britain this has involved two main phases. The first was the hegemony of left social democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the period in which Tony Benn drew behind him something approaching a mass movement pledged to dragging the Labor Party leftwards, and in which the far-left Militant Tendency was able to establish a significant base in many local parties. Labor’s catastrophic performance in the June 1983 general election brought this phase decisively to a close.

The defeat of the miners’ strike inaugurated a new phase in which right-wing social democracy is increasingly dominant. Many ex-Bennites now support Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock’s project of dumping left-reformist policies adopted in the 1970s, and expelling Militant supporters in the hope of presenting Labor as a “safe” capitalist party of government to a ruling class increasingly jaundiced with Thatcherism.

The surrender of the Labor left to Kinnockism reflects the mood also of many union militants who, having seen the miners defeated, believe that only the ballot box can beat the Tories. It has received ideological legitimation from the theorists of what Ralph Miliband aptly called the ‘new revisionism,’ grouped around the Eurocommunist journal Marxism Today, which cheerfully proclaims the death of class politics.(9)

To resist the gravitational pull of first left and then right social democracy has required the firmest possible grounding in Marxist theory. This has involved more than the ability to repeat by rote the Bible according to Marx or Lenin. Crucially it has depended on having the capacity to apply the findings of classical Marxism in order to develop a comprehensive political understanding of the contemporary class struggle.

Much of the British left has oscillated between euphoria and despair in recent years. The Bennite movement encouraged, in defiance of a long history of previous such failed attempts, the illusory belief that Labor could be transformed into a genuine socialist party. As that hope was shattered, the left then fell in uncritically behind the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, refusing to recognize the weaknesses in the way in which the 1984-85 strike was led.

Then, once the miners had been defeated, the left swung to the opposite extreme. Miners’ union president Arthur Scargill, once a hero, has become a pariah, almost universally criticized for his prudent and principled refusal to hold a strike ballot, while most socialists have, in despair, swung behind Kinnock, the man who consistently refused to support the miners in the year-long struggle with the state.

Revolutionaries have been forced in these circumstances to swim against the stream. While supporting Benn and Scargill, the SWP has not been afraid to be accused of pessimism and defeatism for pointing out the weaknesses of the left, and above all, the underlying shift in the balance of class forces in capital’s favor. Equally we have-since the miners’ defeat-become virtually the only force on the left willing consistently to challenge Kinnockisrn. (Even Robin Blackburn, I notice from ATC Number 1, has fallen in with the criticisms of Scargill for not holding a ballot, even though the increasing use of strike ballots has played a major role in undermining workers’ struggles since the miners went back to work in March 1985.)

The reason why we have been able to resist the pull to the right is simple. At the heart of our tradition is the notion of working-class self-emancipation: only workers themselves can liberate themselves, no other force can achieve socialism on their behalf. We have therefore been under no illusion that a party such as Labor, rooted in the trade-union bureaucracy, can be transformed into an instrument of revolutionary change.

But this orientation toward the working class has also forced us to analyze, as carefully and realistically as possible, the current state of the class struggle. This has allowed us to develop an understanding of the situation which is sensitive to the limitations of strikes in present circumstances, but equally aware of the potential inherent in even a bureaucratic mass strike to develop into a major confrontation between labor and capital.

The concept of working-class self-emancipation is no mere moral postulate, but rather part of the entire theoretical system forming classical, revolutionary Marxism, the tradition developed by Marx and Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg, the Bolsheviks and the early Comintern, Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and reflecting the experience of one hundred and fifty years of workers’ struggles.

In large part, we are simply inheritors of this tradition. But such a body of ideas lives only if it is developed through its application in analyzing and resolving problems thrown up by the class struggle. We have made some small attempts so to develop the Marxist tradition, particularly in our analysis of the eastern bloc as bureaucratic state capitalist societies, but also through our attempts to understand the economic crisis, and the long boom which preceded it.(10)

Our experience is, I believe, relevant to revolutionaries in other countries. The collapse of much of the American left into the Democratic Party based on the illusion that it is, or can become a social-democratic organization indicates that the pressure on revolutionaries to capitulate to reformism is at least as strong in the U.S. as in Britain.(11)

Standing up to this pressure will require considerable theoretical clarity and political firmness.

It is this problem which lies at the root of what I can only describe as my friendly skepticism about the political project represented by Solidarity,* which regroups in one organization three different tendencies, and which aspires to embrace others, for example, the ISO. The source of this skepticism is quite simply the theoretical divergences between the different elements of this regroupment.

I do not highlight these differences out of a taste for sectarian hairsplitting, nor because I believe that revolutionary organizations should be monolithic sects. It is rather that a lack of theoretical coherence and clarity is likely to prevent a group such as Solidarity from responding effectively to the challenges posed by the politics of the day. Perhaps the point can be made clearer by considering three issues central to any socialist strategy.

The nature of the “socialist” countries. Few issues have caused more destructive arguments within the Trotskyist tradition than the “Russian question,” as American revolutionaries have good cause to know. Unfortunately, it is an unavoidable issue.

The Reagan administration’s offensive against the Sandinista regime places on socialists, especially in the U.S., the absolute obligation of defending the Nicaraguan revolution against American imperialism. But to what ex­ tent, if at all, should we go beyond this position of unconditional support, to a political endorsement of the Sandinista regime and its policies, including those involving enforced reductions in working-class living standards and repression of strike activity?(12)

Again, Western revolutionaries must stand in unequivocal opposition to the war drive mounted by Reagan and his NATO allies. But what stance should we adopt towards the USSR and its allies? Should we, as James Petras argues, abandon “the concept of ‘equal superpower responsibility’ for the arms race” as an outdated “dogma” (ATC, Number 2)?

Answering these and similar questions depends on having a coherent analysis of the eastern bloc. Unfortunately, Solidarity embraces adherents of two mutually inconsistent analyses, of Russia and its like as degenerated or deformed workers’ states, and as bureaucratic collectivist. Without considering the particularities of the two theories, they have quite different political conclusions. The rather indeterminate character of the concept of bureaucratic collectivism has allowed it to be used, for example, to justify support for, opposition to, and neutrality towards national liberation struggles.(13)

Again, the orthodox Trotskyist theory of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state, in the version defended by the late Isaac Deutscher, is implicit in attempts, particularly by the New Left Review, to portray the USSR as the representative of the revolutionary forces on a world scale.(14)

The orthodox Trotskyist belief that societies such as Russia and Nicaragua are engaged in the transition from capitalism to socialism also, of course, underlies the spectacular political degeneration of the American Socialist Workers Party into a Stalinist organization. This process realized a potential inherent in orthodox Trotskyism’s identification of “post-capitalism” with state ownership of the means of production. Once this step is made, then there is no reason why socialism should be the self-emancipation of the working class, since state ownership can be introduced by forces other than the working class, and in particular in the Third World by petty-bourgeois led guerilla movements.

And so, for example, the SWP (U.S.) looks to the African National Congress to inaugurate a “workers and peasants’ government” in South Africa. Almost as deplorable has been the response of the rest of the Fourth International to the abandonment by the American SWP of such key items of the Trotskyist tradition as the theory of permanent revolution–amely, to paper over the cracks, in the process making substantial concessions to their American sympathizers’ neo-Stalinism.(15)

The only way to avoid the weaknesses of both bureaucratic collectivism and orthodox Trotskyism is, in my view, to recognize that societies such as Russia and Nicaragua are variants of the capitalist mode of production, subject to the global logic of competitive accumulation. However, even those who resist this conclusion can at least see that an organization which embraces such very different views of the eastern bloc as Solidarity is likely to be pulled in very different directions by concrete political issues that arise. Agreement to differ–effectively the Fourth International’s response to the debate provoked by the American SWP–is a recipe for political paralysis.

The role of the trade-union bureaucracy. One of Trotsky’s less acknowledged contributions to Marxist theory was, for example, in his writings on the British general strike of 1926, to identify the trade-union bureaucracy as a distinct, conservative social layer in the workers’ movement, with interests in conflict with those of the rank and file.(16)

The antagonism between the labor bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers is more fundamental than, for example, that between left and right officials, important though the latter conflict sometimes is. Recognizing these points is essential to any serious revolutionary strategy within the trade unions.

This is especially so in a period such as the present when as I have already noted, the balance of power has shifted in the bureaucracy’s favor. One consequence, in the U.S. at any rate, seems to be that when union opposition movements develop, they do so not through rank-and-file initiative but under the leadership of local officials in conflict with the international union. Such certainly appears to be the case with National Rank and File Against Concessions (NRFAC). The influence of local bureaucrats seems to explain the limitations of NRFAC noted by Kirn Moody in ATC Number 1.

Divisions within the bureaucracy between left and right are only to be expected, and indeed help perpetuate its control over the rank and file. The mass of workers is likely to be subject at least to the political influence of sections of the bureaucracy in all situations short of the formation of soviets under revolutionary leadership. But it does not follow that there is an identity of interest between any wing of the bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers, as the experiences of the British miners’ strike shows.

The National Union of Miners (NUM) leadership represented the extreme left wing of the trade-union bureaucracy. Scargill in particular was invested with the hopes of the best activists, and indeed sought to pursue a strategy based on mass picketing which could have brought victory.

However, the initiatives promoted by Scargill and backed by rank-and-file militants were sabotaged by the left-wing Area leaderships of the union, above all, in the key Yorkshire coalfield. The weight of the Area bureaucracies was too great for any rank-and-file challenge to develop, while Scargill refused to break with his fellow left officials and help to organize the activists independently of them.(17)

The contradiction between bureaucracy and rank and file was thus fundamental to the miners’ defeat. This does not imply that revolutionaries should never cooperate with sections of the bureaucracy: indeed, during certain phases of the strike there was a tacit united front between Scargill and his supporters and the SWP.

However, the experience of the miners’ strike also underlines the importance of revolutionaries maintaining their political and organizational independence of even the left bureaucracy, and of fighting under their own flag. Lack of clarity on this issue can lead to a sort of vacillating attitude toward workers’ struggles which was displayed by much of the British left towards the miners.

Revolutionaries and social democracy. A clear and realistic analysis of social democracy is essential to the successful construction of revolutionary organization. Exaggerated hopes in Bennism led many British socialists to abandon independent activity and enter the Labor Party in the early 1980s. As I have indicated above, most have now succumbed to Kinnockism.

Some supporters of Solidarity seem to have similarly unrealistic expectations about American social democracy. Mike Davis, while stringently critical of the DSA’s craven subservience to the Democratic establishment, seems to believe that the kind of Rainbow Coalition pulled together by Jesse Jackson in 1984 has a political dynamic which could lead it to break away and form a social-democratic alternative to the two main capitalist parties capable of winning mass support especially from Black and Hispanic workers.

This would seem to imply an orientation on the left wing of the Democratic Party rather than the stress laid by others, such as Robert Brenner, on building independent socialist organization. Whether Davis’ very optimistic appraisal of the prospects for social democracy is correct or not is an issue with enormous practical implications.

Building for the Future

These questions, concerning the nature of the “socialist bloc,” the trade-union bureaucracy, and social democracy, are ones whose resolution is central to any revolutionary strategy in the advanced capitalist countries. I do not focus on them out of any desire to engage in nitpicking. I fully accept that a new organization is likely not to have formulated positions on a wide range of issues, and that openness and a willingness to rethink old orthodoxies are virtues.

Nevertheless the kind of “protracted discussion and debate” from which Against the Current expects “viable socialist organization” to emerge is likely only to be fruitful if it takes place within a theoretical framework involving a set of shared, and mutually consistent, assumptions capable of grounding effective “common work in the mass movements.” My doubts center on whether Solidarity has such a framework.

Theoretical clarity on the central questions of socialist politics, some of which were mentioned above, is essential not simply because it provides firm anchorage for revolutionaries in difficult and testing circumstances.

Our experience, and that of our sister organizations, is that growth is possible in this period primarily through the recruitment of individuals on the basis of general socialist propaganda. It is on this basis, for example, that the ISO has proved successful in attracting young people new to revolutionary politics, a significant achievement, as I know some members of Solidarity recognize.

The centrality of propaganda reflects the character of the class struggle today. It is a general truth of Marxism that workers become in large numbers open to revolutionary ideas only through their experience of practical struggles. But in a period when strikes are typically passive and defensive workers can learn the wrong lessons from them.

Thus the length and bitterness of the confrontation be­ tween the British state and the mining communities did have a radicalizing effect. The strike’s defeat, however, and the subsequent management offensive in the coalfields have created a mood of widespread demoralization, in which most miners hope at best for some reforms from the election to office of the Labor leadership which refused to back their struggle. Only a tiny minority has remained active in left organizations such as the SWP and Militant.

In these circumstances revolutionaries are unlikely to be able to win new support through the agitational lead they give in struggle. They are more likely to gain recruits thanks to their ability to provide a comprehensive Marxist explanation of the issues of the day-of the causes of the crisis, and of the increasingly aggressive policies pursued by the world’s rulers, of the failures of labor bureaucrats and reformist politicians, of the kind of alternative, based on workers’ self-activity, which offers the only way out.

There may be those who say that such an approach reeks of abstentionism, but they would be mistaken. Of course socialists should relate, to the best of their ability, to struggles such as that of P-9 at Hormel. But they should also recognize that in present circumstances the workers who join them will do so on the basis of the general political understanding they offer, and not the practical lead they give.

One implication of this analysis is that revolutionaries will make the greatest gains where they work openly as socialists, rather than passing themselves off as labor activists.

Revolutionaries should always intervene, always relate to the world beyond our own meetings and activities. But the kind of intervention which will be effective depends not on our own wishes, but on the character of the class struggle.

General propaganda work is imposed upon us by the nature of the period. But it will not last forever. At some stage in the future workers will move onto the offensive. The critical issue is whether socialists are in a position, when this happens, to influence and even to lead workers’ struggles, as we generally were not in the early 1970s.

That depends on what we do now. I have tried to make a case for developing a clear and coherent theoretical understanding, both as the indispensable basis for practical activity, and as that which revolutionaries have chiefly to offer in these hard and perplexing times.

My worry about Solidarity is that it lacks any such understanding. That, I imagine, was the ISO’s chief reason for not participating in the regroupment out of which Solidarity emerged. Of course, to say that the new grouping lacks political coherence does not mean that it cannot develop it. That depends, in part, on open and comradely debate. This article is offered in the hope that it may contribute to such a debate.

* Solidarity is a revolutionary socialist organization formed through the regroupment of the International Socialists, Socialist Unity, Workers Power and independent Marxists earlier in 1987. It sponsors Against the Current.


    1. Unless otherwise specified, references in this article to the SWP are to the British rather than to the American organization of that name.

    2. C. Harman, “The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left,” International Socialism (hereafter IS) 2, 4 (1979). Also published in Changes, July-August 1979.

    3. J. Fournier, “The Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and the Mitterrand Government,” IS 2:20 (1983).

    4. A. Callinicos, “Marxism and Revolution in South Africa,” IS 2, 31 (1986).

    5. Such a view seems to be held by, for example, supporters of the Socialist Society in Britain, and is to be found in different forms among socialists elsewhere in the West.

    6. C. Barker, Festival of the Oppressed (London and Chicago, 1986).

    7. C. Harman, The Lost Revolution (London, 1982).

    8. T. Cliff, Lenin 1. Building the Party (new edition, London and Chicago, 1986).

    9. R. Miliband, “The New Revisionism in Britain,” New Left Review, 150 (1985).

    10. T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London, 1975).

    11. R. Brenner, “The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case,” in M. Davis et al, The Year Left 1. (London, 1985), and Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London, 1986), chapter 7, and Epilogue.

    12. See M. Gonzalez, Nicaragua: Revolution Under Siege (London, 1985).

    13. T. Cliff, “The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism a Critique,” in Neither Washington nor Moscow (London, 1982).

    14. M. Davis, “Nuclear Imperialism and Extended Deterrence,” in E.P. Thompson et al, Exterminism and Cold War (London, 1982), and F. Halliday, The Making of the Second Cold War (London, 1983).

    15. A. Callinicos, “Their Trotskyism and Ours,” IS 2,22 (1984).

    16. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle the General Strike of 1926 (London, 1986).

    17. A. Callinicos and M. Simons, The Great Strike: the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and Its Lessons (London, 1985).

January-February 1987, ATC 6

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