07
Nov
18

A rely to “Trotskyism, the United Front and the Popular Front: Against Class Collaboration and Sterile Sectarianism”

Stephen Diamond commented on my blog post announcing the end of my recent Facebook discussion with Gerry Downing asking me to respond to Ian Donovan’s 1998 document “Trotskyism, the United Front and the Popular Front: Against Class Collaboration and Sterile Sectarianism” .

Ian claims this document “refutes the positions of the Spartacists [on Popular Fronts] at length and no one from their tradition has ever properly replied to it politically.”

Firstly a couple of secondary issues.

Ian argues:

“…the IBT leadership, which locates the cause for the Spartacists’ degeneration purely in the personal foibles and (largely organisational) mistakes within an allegedly broadly revolutionary framework made by the Spartacists’ historic leader, James Robertson, in the late 70s.”

Even the most cursory examination of the IBT’s analysis of the degeneration of the Spartacist League exposes the idea they take such a simplistic approach to the cause of the Spartacists degeneration. See for instance:

http://www.bolshevik.org/TB/TB1_ALL.html

http://www.bolshevik.org/TB/tb2contents.html

http://www.bolshevik.org/TB/TB5html.html

http://www.bolshevik.org/Pamphlets/Whatever/WhateverToC.html

http://www.bolshevik.org/Leaflets/ibt_2010_sclerotic_spartacists_unravel.html

Ian also says:

“There is no need to write a work of the size of Capital to illustrate how the Spartacists’ major theoretical/ programmatic error on the nature of workers’ parties in popular fronts, applied in a consistent manner, can easily lead to … a deranged sect like the contemporary ICL. All one needs is a little elementary logic and sense of development of phenomena, and simple observation of the habits of contemporary Spartacists.”

But if so then how to explain the IBT who held this position for all of the nearly 30 years of their existence?

Whatever differences Ian may have with the IBT they are clearly nothing like his fairly accurate description of the Spartacists today as being “widely known and loathed as one of the most bizarre, unsavoury and cultist organisations on the international left.”

I raise these two issues because they seem to be further examples of a guilt by association than a real attempt at a political argument that led me to end my discussion with Gerry (and indirectly with Ian). To paraphrase Ian’s argument:

The Sparts today are fucked up, as anyone can see. The IBT defend the programme of the early Sparts. This includes what Ian believes is the position that directly led to the Sparts becoming fucked up therefore…

So on to the substance of Ian’s piece – whether it is an acceptable tactic to vote for a workers’ party when it is participating in a Popular Front.

Most of Ian’s piece seems to be a “what did Trotsky really mean when he said this” analysis of Trotsky writing on some concrete instances of Popular Fronts. As I understand it Ian’s piece was originally produced as an internal document within the IBT and responses to it as part of that internal debate, which dealt with the issue of the meaning of the quotes, were subsequently published by the IBT after Ian resigned – The Popular Front: A well-covered trap

It is unfortunate that Trotsky is not clearer on this issue. From my reading both sides are necessarily having to stretch his words rather than being able to point to clear advice on the question. The IBT accepts this and therefore relies less on quotes and more on applying general Marxist principles to this particular type of situation. Ian appears to rely more on his interpretation of the quotes.

But even if I was convinced that Ian was correct in his interpretation of the quotes then all that means is I would say I disagreed with Trotsky.

As far as I can tell the key part of Ian’s justification for being prepared to vote for workers’ parties in a Popular Front (other than his interpretation of the historical quotes) is contained in the following paragraph:

“What does it mean to say that the contradictions of a bourgeois workers party are ‘suppressed’ for the duration of the coalition? It can only mean that they fail to operate, if words mean anything. That is, that for practical purposes, until the coalition is actually broken, these parties cease to have an operative proletarian component and themselves become effectively bourgeois formations. But if the bourgeois workers parties within the coalition cease ‘for the duration’ to embody any class contradictions, if those class contradictions are ‘suppressed’, then how can one say that there is any class contradiction within the coalition itself, between its constituent parties? The proletarian component(s) of the bourgeois workers part(ies) are ‘suppressed’ by the coalition. So what contradiction are revolutionaries seeking to hammer on in demanding that the working class component “break with the bourgeoisie”? Surely if the proletarian component in the workers parties is suppressed, there is no contradiction in the coalition to exploit in order to blow it apart? So the demand to ‘break with the bourgeoisie’ becomes meaningless, a demand addressed at a formation whose class contradictions do not operate until the demand is realised, which means the demand has no leverage and is reduced to a barren abstraction. This is all completely logical within this odd theoretical framework.”

But what is the contradiction that can lead revolutionary Marxists to consider giving critical political support to a bourgeois workers party that runs on a programme which only offers a reform of capitalism rather than its revolutionary removal?

Clearly we do not endorse such a programme.

There are however times when that pro-capitalist programme comes into contradiction with the reformist mis-leaders expressing the idea that the working class has its own separate interests that are in conflict with the interests of capital (this is usually in response to this idea being expressed by a militant working class vanguard actively prosecuting the class struggle and the reformists wanting to channel that proletarian rage into the safety valve of parliamentary politics).

It is that idea which we are supporting while it is the reformist programme that we are critical of in our “critical support”.

I would argue that this contradiction is very certainly “suppressed” by standing on a joint programme with capitalist parties. How could it not be?

I suspect that what is really going on here is that Ian understands the contradiction involved in a bourgeois workers party quite differently. For him it is primarily a sociological/objective matter rather than a political/programmatic one.

In a Facebook comment directed at me on this issue of bwp’s in a PF Ian argued:

”It’s a partial negation and there is a contradiction between the bourgeois component of the PF and the bourgeois workers party as well as between the bourgeois top and the proletarian base of the bourgeois workers party itself.”
https://www.facebook.com/groups/199341173500669/permalink/1686277921473646/?comment_id=1686484654786306&reply_comment_id=1688102531291185

I responded (further down that discussion thread after Ian had argued with Cameron Woodford on the same issue) to this idea as follows:

“This misunderstands the contradiction at the heart of a bwp. It is not that the leadership are bourgeois and the base are proletarian in an individual sociological sense. They are all part of the working class. To the extent the leadership are separate from the membership in a sociological sense it is that the leadership predominantly come from the labour aristocracy while the membership do not.

“The real contradiction in a bwp that revolutionaries seek to exploit is between the programme of the leadership which does not project the overthrow of capitalism but rather just the reform of it and the aspirations of the membership for more than that – for changing capitalism into some version of socialism.

“And this links to the question of the PF. The main problem with the PF is one of politics. It is a device used by the leadership of a bwp to keep anti-capitalist sentiment in the membership at bay – “we can’t break the unity of the Popular Front” they cry.

“Calling for a vote to those leaders while they are expressing that ‘unity with the capitalists’ line does not help in exposing the real contradiction involved in a bwp.”

To the extent I have captured something real about the way Ian (and Gerry who expresses the same idea) understand the contradiction involved in a bourgeois workers party then perhaps it also helps explain their willingness to give political support to outright bourgeois forces in other situations.

If they understand the leadership of a bourgeois workers party to be bourgeois in nature then it is not so much of an issue for them to also find circumstances where they could give political support to bourgeois forces where their organisational attachment to a working class base was within another context – say like an “Anti-Imperialist United Front”.

I realise this last point is something of a stretch so I cannot be definitive about it – but it does have the advantage of being internally consistent.

Advertisements

6 Responses to “A rely to “Trotskyism, the United Front and the Popular Front: Against Class Collaboration and Sterile Sectarianism””


  1. 1 stephenrdiamond
    November 7, 2018 at 23:05

    I presume we all agree that the British Labor Party is a bourgeois workers party by virtue of its structure. It is built on basic working class organs, the trade unions. Would not, then, class conscious British workers routinely vote labor, more or less as they routinely support their unions? What would a class conscious worker say about an absence of programmatic differences?

    Does the absence of programmatic difference imply that there is no rational basis for supporting one party over another? That seems to be the question. I don’t see why program is all-determining. Workers could vote Labor despite the absence of programmatic differences based on the likelihood that Labor, unlike the Tories, might be induced by pressure to go beyond its program. This is correct to some small degree, but basically it’s an illusion in Labor and, accordingly, is subject to exposure by taking the masses through the experience. If the movement to the right following an unsuccessful Labor government seems to prove the unviability of taking the masses through the experience, it is because, the more right-wing the Labor government, the more dominant should be the “critical” component of critical support. A Labor government provides an opportunity to expose the Labor Party, but the opportunity must be actually utilized, and whether it is or not isn’t simply the choice of the revolutionary party.

    This implies that critical support should only be extended to a mass bourgeois workers party when there is a likelihood that the campaign of exposure can, under the circumstances, prove sufficient. One way of measuring the likelihood of a successful exposure is by the existence of an express difference in program. But it is not the only way. During a period of heightened tensions such as brings about a popular front government, a vote for the mass bourgeois workers parties brings about a favorable environment for exposure.

    On Trotsky, I think this is not something Trotsky would be wrong about. Whether workers’ voting for a Social Democrat who is in a pop front while refusing to vote for their bourgeois allies is thereby opposing or supporting the popular front is, after all, a question of the location of the class line.

    • November 8, 2018 at 10:23

      You argue that “Workers could vote Labor despite the absence of programmatic differences based on the likelihood that Labor, unlike the Tories, might be induced by pressure to go beyond its program. This is correct to some small degree, but basically it’s an illusion in Labor and, accordingly, is subject to exposure by taking the masses through the experience.”

      In my experience there is very little traction to be gained in trying to expose a Labour Party that doesn’t act in the separate interests of working class when in power if it never indicated it would so prior to its election. Where is the opportunity to have a conversation based around “well you thought they would follow through on their claims to act in our class interests but…”? All you can actually discuss is how radical they were able to be as reformists of capitalism. Or you are left relying on some unknown objective process by which the “we are governing for all the people as we said we would” Labour government will lead workers to not only break from voting for that party but somehow encourage them to break from reformism as an approach.

      I also don’t know how you could write critical support propaganda prior to the election, and make verbal interventions based on the same, which was internally coherent for the same reason. And I see this in the left-centrists who have this perspective in times where the Labour Party is not projecting any concept of separate class interests. What tends to disappear from their propaganda is any idea of working class political independence that will be betrayed – because how can you project that idea when the first part is absent. All that they are left with as the thing they support is spreading the lie that there is something intrinsic about the Labour Party that means when it is in power as a capitalist government it will not attack the working class as much as its outright bourgeois opponents. An explicit appeal to lesser evilism. If you have examples where groups with this perspective have become more critical in their critical support in inverse correlation to the degree to which the Labour Party is less expressing the idea of representing the independent interests of the working class I would like to see them as my experience is the opposite.

      For instance in the 2007 election the CPGB called for only giving critical support to “working class anti-war candidates” (meaning in this case the SWP and fellow-travelers) of the RESPECT popular frontist coalition. I asked how could they say they were fighting for the idea of working class political independence while calling for a vote for the very people who were the biggest advocates of popular frontism which is an explicit denial of working class political independence? And of course it was no accident that the idea of working class political independence was completely absent from the CPGB’s critical support material.

      You say “During a period of heightened tensions such as brings about a popular front government, a vote for the mass bourgeois workers parties brings about a favorable environment for exposure.” No doubt there are heightened tensions in such a situation but related to that is the question of what represents “exposure”. History has shown us that the “exposing” of the reformist misleaders can come at a significant cost to the workers’ movement in a way that a betrayal by a left-reformist Labour Government within “normal” times does not entail.

      Like you I also don’t really see how Trotsky could be wrong about this – I merely made the concession to try to get Ian to respond, if he does, with less quote dissection and more explanation. The position Ian ascribes to Trotsky (which you seem to support?) goes against all of what I understand he argued the Popular Front represented in terms of being a framework for reformist misleaders to betray the working class.

      • 3 stephenrdiamond
        November 13, 2018 at 01:06

        I see the principled issue as being constant clarity on the basis of supporting a mass bourgeois workers party: forthrightness in exposure and reiteration that exposure is the only reason for support. I disagree with Ian because he critically supports Corbyn, where there is no question of the primacy of exposure. I think Ian is frank about seeing support of left-reformists as part of building a movement, rather than removing an obstacle. Hypothetically, I wouldn’t support Corbyn, but I might vote Labor.

        You ask for an example where supporting workers parties in a popular front was successful. Wasn’t this just the stance of the Bolsheviks against the Provisional Government? There was no question (to my knowledge–and I’m not much of an historian) of refusing to vote for a Menshevik candidate to a Duma on principle because the Mensheviks projected a coalition with the Cadets. At one point, the Bolsheviks called for the resignation of the bourgeois ministers and formation of a government of the parties of working people. This project would be advanced by refusing to vote Cadet, but voting Menshevik or SR in districts where the Bolsheviks didn’t run their own candidate. So, that’s my tentative answer to your claim that proletarian interests are never advanced by electoral support of working class parties in a popular front.

      • November 13, 2018 at 11:56

        Stephen,

        In regard to your historical example I don’t see how it provides much, or indeed any, light on our discussion.
        The “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers” slogan was first used in a demonstration on June 18 1917 in relation to the popular front Provisional Government which had assumed power after the fall of the Czarist regime in the February Revolution.

        Trotsky describes this in an appendix to his History of the Russian Revolution as follows:

        “On the placards which had been prepared by the Bolsheviks for the cancelled demonstration of June 10, and which were afterwards carried by the demonstrators of June 18, a central place was occupied by the slogan “Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists.” Sukhanov, in the quality of aesthete, admires the simple expressiveness of this slogan, but in his quality of statesman he reveals an incomprehension of its meaning. In the government besides the “ten Minister-Capitalists” there were also six Minister-Compromisers. The Bolshevik placards had nothing to say of them. On the contrary, according to the sense of the slogan, the Minister-Capitalists were to be replaced by Minister-Socialists, representatives of the Soviet majority. It was exactly this sense of the Bolshevik placards that I expressed before the Soviet Congress: Break your bloc with the liberals, remove the bourgeois ministers and replace them with your Peshekhonovs. In proposing to the Soviet majority to take the power, the Bolsheviks did not, of course, bind themselves in the least as to their attitude to these Peshekhonovs; on the contrary, they made no secret of the fact that within the frame of the Soviet democracy they would wage an implacable struggle – for a majority in the soviets and for the power.”
        https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/apdx3.htm

        The Provisional Government was based on an agreement between the members of a short-lived sub-set of the deputies elected to the fourth Duma called the Provisional Committee and the Petrograd Soviet. This gave the majority parties in the Soviet (Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries) a much greater weight in the Provisional Government than they had in either the Fourth Duma or the Provisional Committee. From this point on there was an effective state of dual power between the Provisional Government and Soviet.

        At the time of the elections to the Fourth Duma no-one could possibly have conceived that this would relate to a post-Czarist government.

        Therefore your suggestion that “the Mensheviks projected a coalition with the Cadets” in the elections to the Fourth Duma does not seem to reflect any reality as the nature of the Duma electoral process meant this was never even a remote possibility. Certainly there doesn’t seem to be any mention of such a potential coalition in either Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution or Badayev’s The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma – my two go-to works for this kind of thing.

        The actual debate between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over tactics in the lead-up to the Fourth Duma elections are laid out in Badayev’s book – https://www.marxists.org/archive/badayev/1929/duma/ch01.html (this chapter also outlines the details of the undemocratic Duma electoral framework)

        The debate was not about any potential Duma coalition between the Mensheviks and Cadets. As Badayev reports “The Fourth Duma was to follow in the footsteps of the Third. The electoral law remained the same, and therefore the majority in the new Duma was bound to be as Black Hundred as before. There was no doubt that the activities of the Fourth Duma would also be directed against the workers and that its legislation would be of no use either to the workers or the peasantry.”

        This was accepted by both sides of Russian “Social Democracy”.

        And anyway the Bolsheviks stood their own candidates against those of the Mensheviks in not only the 6 specifically worker curia but also in all the wider city and village curia. So the issue of calling for votes to Menshevik candidates where the Bolsheviks were not standing does not come up.

        There is a claim by some on the left (such as the CPGB Weekly Worker group in Britain) that the Bolsheviks supported popular frontism in the election to the Duma for a separate reason. This is because they had a position that tactical agreements in the second round of the byzantine Duma electoral process in the city curia could be made with the democratic and liberal bourgeois candidates against the reactionary Black Hundreds and other pro-Czarist Duma parties.

        However Badayev describes this as follows:

        “The Bolsheviks thought it necessary to put up candidates in all workers’ curiæ and would not tolerate any agreements with other parties and groups, including the Menshevik-Liquidators. They also considered it necessary to put up candidates in the so-called “second curiæ of city electors” (the first curiæ consisted of large property owners and democratic candidates had no chance there at all) and in the elections in the villages, because of the great agitational value of the campaign. But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curiæ. The five big towns (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, Odessa and Kiev) had a direct system of elections with second ballot. In these towns the Social-Democrats put up independent lists of candidates, and as there was no danger of Black Hundred candidates being elected no agreements were entered into with the Liberal bourgeoisie. The resolutions of the Prague Party Conference, which established these tactics, emphasised that ‘election agreements must not involve the adoption of a platform, nor must the agreements bind the Social-Democratic candidates by any political obligations whatsoever, or prevent the Social-Democracy from resolutely criticising the counter-revolutionary nature of the Liberals and the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats.’ Hence, the agreements entered into by the Bolsheviks in the second ballots were not in the nature of a bloc of political parties.”

        Whatever you may think of the tactic of these second round “agreements” they have nothing to do with Popular Fronts which involve standing for election on a joint political platform or participating in a government coalition.

  2. 5 stephenrdiamond
    November 19, 2018 at 04:06

    Thank you for the excellent summary of the historical facts, which were, unfortunately, neither at my fingertips nor in my brain. For the moment, I would like to focus on just one strand, the demand that the capitalist ministers resign. I think it leads to a simple (but not necessarily obvious) refutation of your position (or at least its premise).

    Your argument is that while bound in a popular front, the differences between the workers parties and the capitalist parties are completely suppressed. But if there were no difference between the parties in the coalition, it could never be justified to make resignation demands on some of those parties and not others: they are qualitatively the same. Calling for resignation of the capitalist ministers is really a form of critical support to the betraying representatives of the “working people.” (By way of analogy, if someone calls for a vote against the Republicans in the U.S., is that not clearly a call for a vote for the Democrats?)

    Regardless of the actual role of the 4th Duma, the demand that capitalist ministers resign from a pop front government shows how it is possible to undermine the capitalist parties by critical support for workers parties even in the absence of programmatic differences. In a parliamentary election, the revolutionary party might call for votes to the workers parties to create better conditions to force the resignation of the capitalist ministers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Categories

Archive

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: