The Permanent Revolution debate is a useless, phony debate ? What can a poor boy do ?

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Tue Jul 8 01:39:01 MDT 2003

My impression is rather that this particular debate, if conducted outside
the practical context of involvement in a real revolutionary crisis
somewhere, is more an academic activity. Ernest Mandel pointed out to me in
conversation in 1984, that although Barnes had a heavy focus on "learning
from the experiences of the Sandinistas" and so on, in terms of effective
solidarity work with the Sandinista government, the European sections of the
FI did far more, contributed far more. My own impression at the time was,
that Barnes was really saying that we should orient towards real, living
revolutionary experiences such as Cuba, Nicaragua, etc. since the Trotskyist
agenda for world revolution had only existed on paper since 1938, it was in
Barnes's retrospective opinion just Froebel stuff, whereas in Nicaragua and
Cuba you had the real McCoys, real communism put into practice.

My own thinking was however that it is a mighty strange thing, that if you
live in New York, that you think that you must learn how to be a true
revolutionary in Cuba or Nicaragua, in order then to build a "mass workers
party" in New York capable of inauguring a socialist revolution in the USA,
armed with a Caraibbean "how to" model, never mind the spooks you would
attract in so doing. My own thinking was that if you live in New York, you
have to personally come to grips with New Yorkers, their experiences, their
consciousness, their culture, and you have to learn how to revolutionise
that. The Barnes procedure is logically a bit analogous to me travelling
from my home in the Indian quarter of Amsterdam by train to Utrecht in order
to buy a bottle of rum there, to take to a friend located in Amsterdam West,
who wants to feed her baby and has run out of milk. Conceivably there are
circumstances which might occasion such a procedure, but normally speaking,
people would say I was nuts.

I think that Ernest did not engage in polemics with Barnes and Jenness about
permanent revolution because he was impressed with their intellectual
prowess, or because he thought he could make a serious political difference
in the SWP. He wrote it more for the benefit of friends who had already been
purged out of the SWP, and for his own people in Europe, to set an
intellectual and political standard and maintain programmatic continuity.
His generation was trained in the concept of programmatic continuity. The
idea was to conserve and maintain the intellectual and political heritage of
revolutionary Marxism, in a very difficult situation, since, it was argued,
the aims and practice of the Bolsheviks had been betrayed and falsified by
the Stalinists. It was a bit like carrying the Talmud on your back, until
such time as "the word would be able to become flesh again" and the
revolutionary heritage would find a new political reincarnation. Thus, one
had to be on the look-out for new radicalisations into which one could
"inject" the revolutionary programme which was already worked out by the
vanguard of the vanguard.

But things got a bit mixed up and a peculiar method resulted, because the
new generation got the impression that activism was about articulating the
revolutionary programme coherently and then attracting people to that
programme, or trying to insinuate an already worked out revolutionary
programme "from the outside" into an already existing social movement. And
this created a lot of possibilities for sectarianism, opportunism and
manipulative behaviour, because a peculiar, one-sided theory-practice
relationship was involved. A comment by Mandel himself is quite revealing in
this regard: he said philosophically, you always have the twin evils of
sectarianism and opportunism, but it is better to err on the side of
opportunism, because then at least you are still with with masses, whereas
sectarians end up isolated, and just debating among themselves about
subtleties, it has no effect on real political struggles. This did not sound
correct to me, because, logically, if you have the dillemma "sectarianism or
opportunism", then you need to investigate the conditions which create this
dillemma and break out of it, reframe the situation so that you no longer
have that problem. Subsequently my mate Geoff discussed the whole thing
through with people like Claude Gabriel, must have been around 1988, who
agreed, that the epoch of conserving the revolutionary programme was now
over, and that it was time to build real workers parties, and that this
required a different sort of political method than conserving the
revolutionary programme.

I asked Ernest, following his logic, why the FI did not expell the SWP from
the FI, since they had in practice adopted a different programme to what the
FI claimed to stand for. He said, we don't do that, because we think that if
we abandoned our contact, their (i.e. the SWP's) positions would become
worse than they are now. He said, we don't throw people out of the movement
unless they actually cross the class line, i.e. adopt political practices
which are clearly contrary to the interests of the working classes, i.e. if
they engage in class collaboration. It was, from his point of view, a kind
of "benefit of the doubt" situation. I went back home to New Zealand and I
experimented with the concept of political reincarnation for a bit, but it
just did not really work, and thinking it through more, I could not
reconcile it with Marx's view of the relationship between ideas and
practical-material reality either. Geoff and me just got on with the
analysis of the New Zealand situation, and our political groups, and we
ended up archiving a lot of that old literature or stuck it in the garage,
thinking that maybe one day there might be a context in which some of those
ideas could be useful again. We found it difficult enough to build a group
of 30-60 people or so, or create a new trade union, never mind inauguring a
permanent revolution process in New Zealand society.

Max Eastman wrote a brilliant little sketch once of "The Young Trotsky",
which I read with great interest. At the end of that book, he tries to
pinpoint the essential difference between the bolsheviks and the mensheviks.
Characteristic of the mensheviks, he said (I do not have the text handy
here), was that they had a sentimental attachment to ideas, to an
intellectual heritage, they would be preoccupied with it and treasure it
like a woman proud of her jewel box, but without much rhyme or reason,
except within their own predilections, a bit like a university professor.
And Lenin was not interested in that at all, he was only interested in the
production of ideas insofar as it was conducive to advancing the real
struggles of the working classes towards the revolutionary goal. And so,
whereas some Marxist might be perfectly correct and erudite about some
difficult theoretical issue, Lenin would stamp on this person, explain why
he did so, and villify that person with the most awful insults, because that
particular production of ideas was not conducive to the political goal he
had in mind. In other words, Lenin had a different framework within which he
evaluated the production of ideas. Marxism was both a science and a
political ideology. Conversely, somebody might come up with a pretty lousy
Stalinist or Kautskyist idea, but nevertheless Lenin would take it on board
and support it, he would provide cover for it, because he spotted an
opportunity for advancing towards his revolutionary goal, he spotted a link
to new supporters of his movement.

Mandel had a much more "liberal", "open" attitude and did not curse so much,
if at all, but then he saw himself as operating in a very different epoch, a
very different political situation, he would talk about a very long-run
project, a long uphill battle, an attempt to reunite the Marxist movement
through a complicated, protracted process of splits and fusions, at least up
to about the 1980s (his Cambridge lecture on the long wave theory). Looked
at from the Eastman perspective, what Mandel actually wanted to do really
was combine Menshevism and Bolshevism in one formula (with a few extra
themes included, such as Luxemburgism etc.). In that case, if somebody had a
very lousy idea, you try to provide a mediating link to a better idea, and
if somebody had a good idea, you made an intervention to generate an even
better idea, just to show who really had the best idea here. It did not
really matter often what precisely the political consequences were, that
could not be known in advance anyway, the overall aim was the increase the
number of Marxist ideas in the total population, to increase the total
number of real Marxists. You just keep generating more and more different
ways of saying the same thing in more and more texts.  And everybody agreed
that Mandel was a very generous person, always willing to share his
knowledge, able to draft an article with his pen and carry on a political
conversation with somebody else at the same time. Jakob Moneta remarked to
Ernest, "you can type faster than I can read." It wasn't blog, it was
superblog, blog raised to a new level altogether, whereby you do not talk
about yourself directly but about what you think is happening in objective
reality, very systematically, based on matching a set of axioms with the
current themes (according to Prof. Eric Corijn, Mandel just didn't have a
developed interest in socio-linguistics, although he spoke and wrote
numerous languages fluently).

A Belgian journalist once interviewed this Belgian professional of the
revolution, I think it might have been about the topic of religion, and the
journalist asked Ernest about his life. Says Ernest (paraphrase), "my
personal life does not tell you anything about Marxism, about Marxist
theory, about historical materialism". He wanted to talk about ideas, about
Marxism, and considered the journalist's interest in details of his personal
life harmful if not petty-bourgeois philistinism, sniggering trivia.

In his obituary of Mandel (it is somewhere on the net), Andre Gunder Frank
recounts how Ernest asked him (paraphrase), "don't you think that the FI has
the best, most advanced Marxist ideas, relatively speaking ?" and Frank
agreed, and Ernest said "then you must also agree that we have the best
political practice". And Frank disagreed.


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