(fwd from Richard Harris) Re: Canon and Democratic Centralism

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Tue Nov 5 11:03:38 MST 2002

'The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the
formal principle of a workers' democracy. . .'

These words of Trotsky from the 10th Party Congress capture all that
was wrong (/was going wrong, if you prefer) with the Russian Party.
The same wrong afflicted the Stalinist and Trotskyist movements
throughout the 20th century.

Yet that century also saw the disclosure of key works of Karl Marx -
the Paris Manuscripts, Grundisse, his writings on Russia (in which he
considered the possibility of jumping from the mir directly to
communism; and his expressed preference for the revolutionary fervour
of the People's Will than for mechanical 'marxists' such as Kautsky).

The rediscovery of Marx's quintessential humanism and his commitment
to revolutionary democracy was once batted back as being a 'young
Marx', unlike the mature Marx of Capital.  In the '70's, I heard Alex
Callinicos of the UK SWP argue that position more than once.  So did
others.  But by now, we have all had time to absorb the Grundisse.  We
know Marx's project was to turn the ideas of the age on their heads,
not to write a economics textbook of the capitalist system that was a
notch better than Ricardo's.  Now, we can only but reject the Marx of
mechanical stages, of a 'complete world outlook', of the politics of
slow progress towards raising the socialist consciousness in the
working class, by stages (of course).

Instead, our commitment should be to the anti-capitalist fighting
current in the working class and to be its voice, to express
stridently the sense it makes of the world.  To look for the breaks
which will allow working people to surge forwards and win victories
against capital and the state.  Not to be afraid to follow the heroic
example of the Lenin of 1917 and to re-invent the politics, if that is
what the fight against capital and for the unity and confidence of the
class needs.  It is more than time that we disposed of the dread
legacy passed down from Kautsky and Plekhanov, the founders of the
'marxism' that has blighted our movement.  Their 'marxism' looked to
the Rolling out of History rather than human liberation, to seizing
the state power rather than the smashing of all powers above the mass
of producers: i.e. the state and the bourgeoisie.

The Canon conception of 'the' Party is the conception read out of
'What is to be done?'  I thought Hal Draper dealt with that some years
ago.  It is also the party concept of the later Comintern,
i.e. Stalinism.  After Stalinism, that concept is dead.  The
revolutionary movement in the UK and the US is much weaker that it was
in the 30's and the 50's, I suggest, because of the left's attachment
to the centralist party, centralist parties that in Stalinist and
Trotskyist forms have pushed a politics that has focused on building
the party rather that building the self-confidence and unity of the
class.  And in the wake of Stalinism, it is a type of party that is
just not trusted.

Stalinism is dead (or will be when the people who remain in the
decaying Stalinist parties die in their turn - does anyone believe
those parties will ever recruit again?)  But so is the point of the
Trotskyism that has been Stalinism's antagonistic twin.  The
Trotskyism that thinks socialism is about the nationalisation of
property relations rather that the ending of workers' domination by
the productive forces of society; that sees the party as the
historical instantiation of the class, separating the interests of the
class from workers' real demands.

I have not got the answer for what we should do now (by 'we' I mean
me, and I think others in my part of the world, in England.)  But Ad
Fontes - I suggest we must rediscover Marx's project.  Comrades, close
the book on the history of the Russian failure of 1918 (1921, 1923,
1927, 1929 take your pick - some even go for 1956 or 1990).

If we continue to act as if we could see the way forward by peering
over the tea leaves from the early years of the Russian revolution, we
are wrong.  None of us live in a world that is remotely like Russia in
the late years of the Great War.

Marx never built a party on the Russian model.  It was not for lack of
imagination.  When has the revolutionary left stopped to re-examine
that Marx whom we know existed - not the Marx of the 'marxism'
handbooks many of my age were recruited with.  Not the Marx of works
like David Riazanov's 'KARL MARX and FREDERICK ENGELS', works that we
know are just wrong as a vehicle for Marx's voice.  Has the world view
of many parties come from Marx or from Lassalle?  Isn't it time we
stopped digging, got out of our holes, and surveyed the landscape

Richard Harris
Canterbury, Kent UK

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