Peter Boyle and the labour aristocracy

Steve Painter and Rose McCann spainter at
Mon Nov 4 20:24:02 MST 2002

Bob Gould responds to Peter Boyle

I've been puzzling over how to respond usefully to Peter Boyle's even more
confusionist November 1 post on the labour aristocracy.

I'm irritated, but not surprised, by Boyle's failure to respond to any of my
specific questions about how this concept bears on current political
strategy. In a lordly way, Boyle dismisses these specific questions and
asserts that what is significant is the abstraction, or high theory. After
my 10 years or so experience in the orbit of the British WRP and Gerry
Healy, in the 1970s and early 1980s, including three schools in successive
years at the WRP place in Derbyshire, and having sat in on a number of
sessions at which Comrade Healy systematically chopped any tendency to
empiricism - including empiricist tendencies in myself - into small pieces,
I'm familiar with Boyle's kind of argument.

On the basis of my own life experience in the movement, and my observation
of the shipwreck of the WRP current, which was largely the product of Gerry
Healy's hostility to empiricism, I've come round to a different view to
Peter Boyle - and to Gerry Healy - about the relationship between Marxist
theory and empirical evidence.

After my experience in the orbit of the WRP, I've become, in fact, a bit
deliberately empiricist in my approach, for instance, to the formulation of
political perspectives for socialists in any country, and the elaboration of
international perspectives. This kind of issue has come up, for instance,
with the IS international tendency laying down an overly global perspective,
and it certainly comes up in relation to Peter Boyle's instrumentalist
international schema.

My notion, for instance, of international perspectives would now run
something like this: one should start with a general attempt to understand
the main trends in world developments, the economy, social life, etc; one
should then move very quickly to a detailed and substantially empirical
analysis of perspectives in one's own country; and an ultimate international
perspective should come from the interplay between the local and the
international, with any bending of the stick in favour of an emphasis in
favour of empirical developments, to counteract the tendency of Marxist
messianists to extrapolate to the most extreme development of their general

So, Gerry Healy's ghost, and the still-breathing Boyle, can attack me for
empiricism if they like, but I'm forced by reality to refer to my rather
empirical questions, and I'll summarise them again: if Peter Boyle says the
nature of Labor Party in Australia - as the "second party of capitalism" in
his terms - and the nature of social democratic reformism in general, stems
currently from the super-profits of imperialism. Peter Boyle has to explain
the modern world in a more concrete way than he does in his sweeping
division of the world into oppressed Third World and imperialist countries.
Where does Saudi Arabia fit into this model, where does the Republic of
Ireland fit in, where does Greece fit in, where do Denmark and Sweden fit
in, where do South Korea and Taiwan fit in, where do Singapore and Malaysia
fit in? Where does the Stalino-capitalist regime in China fit in? I'm sorry
if these questions are too empirical for Peter Boyle, but I feel obliged to
ask them.

In his crudely DSP instrumentalist way, Boyle rushes in where angels fear to
tread, to a territory which, for obvious reasons, has caused much discussion
among Marxists and other progressive thinkers for the past 20 or 30 years.
There has been a variety of views, and a large number of serious - often
international - discussions. One needs only to refer to the question of
dependency theory associated with the name of Andre Gunder Frank in the
1970s and 1980s, and the associated fundamental questioning of the cruder
versions of Lenin's theory of imperialism, by the late Bill Warren.

Boyle belts out a schema of the crudest sort about the division of the
world, without any serious reference to the rich literature of these
debates, which might throw some light on the flaws in his sweeping
generalisations. This probably doesn't bother Boyle much, because the DSP's
approach to these questions is so instrumentalist.

At this point, it's worth noting the function of the "Break from Trotskyism"
by the DSP and the US SWP and their ferocious and abstract polemic against
the "theory of permanent revolution". I don't approach this question from
the point of view that the theory of Trotsky (and before him Parvus), which
was elaborated in concrete historical circumstances, is a perfect formula
for all places and all times.

The historical outlines of the issue, it seems to me, were very well put by
Richard Fidler in his repeat of an earlier post recently on Marxmail, and I
generally agree with Fidler's formulation of the historical aspect of the
permanent revolution question. It's obvious, however, that many of the
specifics have been superseded by events, as Bill Warren pointed out in the
1970s and 1980s a number of countries whose development was blocked by
imperialism, are now relatively modern capitalist countries, although ruled
primitively and brutally, such as South Korea.

The attempt of the DSP and the US SWP to erect some enormous, retrospective,
theoretical wall between the approaches of Lenin and Trotsky to the Russian
Revolution is obvious nonsense - the same nonsense that it was when J.V.
Stalin elaborated the same thesis in Problems of Leninism in the 1920s.

It always seemed to me that Jack Barnes' initial formulation of this
question was an almost direct plagiarisation of Stalin's book.

What is important about this polemic against the theory of permanent
revolution, is not so much its quoting-Lenin-and-Trotsky content, a game at
which people like Doug Lorimer and Jack Barnes are pretty good, but the
political gesture involved towards currents like the Cuban and Sandinista
leaderships, the Stalinist leadership in Vietnam, and most importantly, for
the DSPL, former Maoist and Stalinist socialist organisations in Asia.

These organisations - serious and heroic revolutionaries that they are -
carry, inevitably, substantial baggage from their Stalinist ideological
formation. In my view it would be pretty stupid for non-Stalinist Marxists
to rush in flatfooted, abusing them about these questions, or even worse
trying to split them on ideological questions of this sort. But,
nevertheless, the stagist Stalinist ideological tradition that they carry is
a substantial difficulty for these formations in the face of the political
tasks and problems that they face in the maturing and explosive conditions
in particular countries.

In my view, the DSP in general tends to reinforce some of the negative
features of the political tradition of these organisations by attempting a
common polemic with them against the "old Trotskyism", focusing on a
caricature of the Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution.

A much better way would be to maintain collaboration with these groups
while, however, arguing in a quiet, careful way on some of these questions.
But I doubt if the DSP places much emphasis on the second aspect.

In countries such as Australia, the DSP places enormous emphasis on the
importance of program, but in any country that it can, with any sort of
squeeze, classify as Third World, it treats matters of program, and even of
strategy, as of secondary importance.

All of this is of considerable significance in relation to the general
question of the origins of reformism. In the crudely instrumentalist
analysis of Boyle and the DSP it suits them to locate the origins of Labor
reformism simply in the labour aristocracy. Other currents, such as the
British SWP and the Australian ISO don't share this view. I don't share that
view either.

Reformism develops fairly rapidly in any situation in any country that has
serious and effective working class organisations, including Third World
countries. It's no insult, for instance, to the PDS in Indonesia, to note
that it has a reformist aspect. The most striking example of an explosive
and so far successful development of a mass reformist party is the PT in
Brazil. No socialist or Marxist with any trace of rational Marxist
internationalism can be anything but heartened and inspired by the landslide
victory of Lula in the Brazilian elections.

As has been pointed out on this list in detail, there are a large number of
Marxist organisations working effectively in the PT, and some outside. The
election of figure such as Lula at the head of a mass, contradictory,
complex Workers Party, with a big base in the trade unions in a modern,
industrialised, Third World country, like Brazil, which is about half of a
continent, is an enormous and progressive political development.

In the short term, for instance, it's a bit of a blow to Bush's war plans,

On the other hand, however, the shadow of the problems that faced Salvador
Allende and the grim fate of the Chilean revolution and Allende personally,
hangs over our necessary and justified enthusiasm for the electoral victory
in Brazil.

Our socialist comrades in Brazil, who are such a noticeable force in the
mass movement, inside and outside the PT, face enormous tactical decisions.
It would be stupid, ignorant and futile for either Bob Gould or Peter Boyle
to pontificate on those tasks from the comfortable distance of Australia.
Nevertheless, the Brazilian comrades undoubtedly, themselves, struggle over
a variety of tactical approaches to these unfolding problems and events.

It is necessary to say this: one of the factors that the socialist comrades
in Brazil is the rapid development of an indigenous Brazilian reformist, of
which Lula and his immediate leadership team are obvious representatives, as
Salvador Allende was in his time.

This reformism has not much to do with any "aristocracy of labour", which is
asserted to currently exist in imperialist countries. Boyle's simple-minded
association of the development of reformist mass parties in imperialist
countries with the current existence there of an "aristocracy of labour", in
Lenin's sense, is a crude reconstruction of reality to fit an
instrumentalist schema suitable to Boyle's tactical desires.

Returning to the specifics of Boyle's formulation in relation to Australia,
I repeat all my previous questions with greater force.

If you say the "aristocracy of labour" is a current, operative, useful
concept in interpreting Australian politics and sociology, it's not good
enough to just assert it as an abstraction. If you insist on just asserting
it as an abstraction, a la comrade Healy, that is just a form of
instrumentalist ideological mystification. It becomes a kind of metaphysical
formulation, a bit like the mystery aspect with which Catholics resolve the
problem of evil at the core of all theism - the god concept being a sort of
ideological entity not really subject to empirical investigation.

If you say the labour aristocracy exists in Australia as anything more than
a metaphysical assertion, you have to advance some broad outlines as to
where it is located, how it is organised and who is in it. Without such an
attempt, it's metaphysics.

I post this contribution a bit reluctantly. The problem is that I don't
entirely reject every aspect of a concrete exploration of the elements of an
"aristocracy of labour" that clearly does still exist, to some extent, in
modern capitalist societies. I don't, however, think the general concept has
the same dramatic and straightforward political implications that Boyle
gives it for his instrumentalist purposes. I'm also a bit hesitant about
opening up all the questions about imperialist relationships to the Third
World and social and economic developments in the labour movements and the
working class in the Third World because they are such enormous questions,
and they require such serious consideration, above and beyond the polemical
exaggerations to which we are all occasionally subject. I feel I may have
opened an enormous Pandora's Box, but maybe that's useful for Marxmail.

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list