When Socialists Kiss and Make Up

(Again.)

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty

Workers’ Liberty – a small Trotskyist group, whose website can be found here – today sent out a letter to fellow far lefties. Out with the zealotry of working-class comradeship and treachery, they cry, and in with some good old-fashioned unity:

There are real differences between the different groupings on the left, about real and important issues. For the labour movement to be able to win socialism, we will need to thrash out those issues and develop a coherent strategy.

We need a framework which allows unity in action where we agree, and honest and serious debate where we disagree. The best way would be to establish a transitional organisation.

This would be a coalition of organisations and individuals, organised both nationally and in each locality, which worked together on advocating the main ideas of socialism, working-class struggle, democracy, and welfare provision; in support of working-class struggles; and in such campaigns as it could agree on (against bedroom tax? against cuts?), while also giving space to debate differences.

It would have a newspaper, a website, and leaflets, based on the ideas its components agreed on, but would allow for debates in the newspaper and website, and for groupings within it to publish their own journals and websites.

It would deliberately allow its components to continue their own special activities — some in the Labour Party, and some not; some in this campaign, some in that — but also provide for debate on those choices.

I like the AWL. One of my best friends is a member, and it’s always struck me as sincere, pragmatic and ultimately collective in its approach to socialism – a far distance from the organisational Stalinism of the SWP or the high-minded delusions of Richard Seymour’s splitter party.

Take Iraq. When Blair threw in his lot with Bush, the AWL said at the time what many people only feel justified in arguing with hindsight. They were critical of American motivations – with apparent correctness. But they were fully conscious of the dangers of immediate withdrawal. Had that myopic paranoia triumphed, it is perfectly possible that what now is engulfing Syria would then have spread through Iraq like cannabis plants in wildfire. The organisation frequently expressed support for Iraqi trade unionists – whose principle enemies first were Baathists and second were Islamists – while holding anti-American sentiment firmly in perspective.

Bring on the Socialist Workers Party, whose central platform is built upon advocating policies so ludicrous that no right-thinking government official would ever seek to enact them. This they then use to masquerade as truthers struggling by dusk against authoritarian imperialists. Rather than writing tirades against those who veto Iraqi peace with bombs they excuse them as symbols for desperation struggling against that apparent non-oxymoron of an occupying democracy. Their rationale appears to be that an enemy of America is an ally, no matter how flippant they are towards human life. All this as their Central Committee protects potential rapists from the terrors of bourgeois law.

But it requires a faithless pessimism to believe that this is in anyway reflective of the SWP’s membership base. The biggest far left organisation in Britain, it’s inevitable that young people sincere in their conviction in the failures of capitalism will be drawn to it. There is, after all, no logical reason why significant numbers of people would translate disgust with poverty into the dogma of anti-Americanism. Add to that Richard Seymour’s new party – International Socialism, whose name it shares with a party from a better age – that cries renewal while clinging desperately to its former insanity.

If all these parties came together in an open space, then I don’t think it would be an entirely removed dream that grassroots of, say, the SWP would see the awkwardness of their more irrational doctrines. Perhaps they’d see that it isn’t at all necessary to conflate left-wing with anti-establishment; that some socialists do not feel everything that is wrong with the world is due to Israel or Tony Blair.

It’s the sectarian’s faithful battle for hearts that in the end alienates so many. I couldn’t label myself a Marxist – but I’d have no trouble backing the sort of left unity organisation for which the AWL is hopeful. Socialist humanism was the general ideology of the New Left in the 1960s; but it was this very rejection of orthodox, dogmatic Marxism that prevented any party emerging from it. The intellectual sincerity of many of its proponents emasculated any popular potential they might have dared to win. What the AWL proposes is the best for which they might have hoped.

If it comes to anything, of course. It probably won’t.

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Eighty years later, could the Nazis have been stopped?

Very interesting talk hosted by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) found here.

A rough summary of this particular Trotskyist analysis might be the following:

Since the central target of the Nazi brownshirts was the post-Versailles labour movement (in the SDP and the trade unions), the rise of German fascism was clearly a response to capitalist crisis. This was nurtured in the late 1920s by the Great Depression (mass employment etc), but also by lingering anti-Semitism (emphasised once again by defeat in 1918) which was the attempt to rationalise the economic crisis by the Right and its corporate interests.

Throughout the period, even as late as 1932, the combined weight of the SDP and the Communist Party vastly outweighed the Nazi vote. But they were too divided; the Communist Party, influenced by Stalinist attacks on moderate socialism, frequently allied itself with the Nazis. So when Hitler came to power in 1933 there was no resistance. The labour militias were not called to arms, like they had against Kapp’s coup of 1920. If the Nazis could have been stopped then it would have required speedy unity among the socialists.

It’s in posts like this where I see just how inferior my knowledge of Nazi Germany is. What do people think of this? Could the Nazis have been stopped? Marxist analyses are notorious for their crude juxtapositions between classes, but here it’s worryingly blatant: the vast majority of those who voted National Socialist were working-class themselves. Had they been deluded into thinking capitalism was the way forward by big business? Possibly, but that’s a little condescending.

In Britain it took the Labour Party half a century to win a general election outright; and, despite the labour groups being by far the greatest part of British society, it never won a majority of the popular vote. Likewise, the assumption that German workers only voted by economic strategy is to miss their cultural motivations. The Nazis weren’t just the representatives of business; to a large degree they reflected considerable cultural antagonisms to those like Jews, and the old nationalism that the Great War had so badly hurt.

It’s interesting. I need to read more. Your own views would be greatly appreciated.


Morality and the Past

Can we pass judgement on history? It’s one of the many interesting questions to which my answer is “why the fuck not?”

If either of my tutors read this, I have no doubt that they would be thoroughly appalled. But it’s part of my personal – and silent, and very cautious – criticism with ivory tower mentality. The idea that it’s a perfectly legitimate way of life to withdraw into a tower and spend your life researching intricate facts about which no one else gives a shit. I do feel like I’m betraying the Oxford legacy, but I hate it. Such a waste of intelligence.

Complaints against moralising with those unable to defend their name are usually threefold:

  1. It’s “unhistorical”; our values were not present at the time.
  2. Moral prejudices will inevitably skew the facts.
  3. What’s the point? It’ll just be us attacking past cultures.

The first is true, but irrelevant. Why don’t we approach alternative cultures with a view to compare, to contrast? It’s fascinating to analyse, say, modern Islamic and more liberal-minded values. Unsurprisingly I’m generally reaffirmed in my view that stoning gays or rape victims is wrong, but I’m at least open to persuasion. The trouble with this is that we’re limited, rather obviously, by contemporary or near-contemporary anecdotes and cultures for our evidence. Opening the scope to the whole of history multiplies this to new level.

The second is a cause for a concern, but ultimately insults the historian. I, for one, would advocate a sort of parallel approach here: keep your specialists. They provide the facts and the gritty detail – the boring language, the dry and witless abstracts and tedious conclusions. (It is, I think, rather difficult to popularise intimate historiography of the early Counter-Reformation subversion of the Eucharist by priestly pretensions to the divinity of hierarchy. Trust me . I’ve tried.) But add to them historical polemicists. They take the facts and add the colour, thus rehabilitating history with a role for popular culture. And then the specialists can read the polemics and point out what does and does not reek of bullshit. The democratisation of accurate history, in other words.

And finally: other than comparing the values of other societies, we can draw some rather important “lessons”. I can’t think of a better word, sorry. What we need first to accept is that morality can be objective, and universal (equality of the sexes, the races etc are I think guaranteed). And if they are objective then there can be empirical substance behind them. We can provide facts that support or contradict those moral arguments. Was William the Conqueror a bastard (in term of conscience, that is)? Well, let’s see what he did!

Think of it as the new humanist historiography. Machiavelli, for one, would draw political instruction for his contemporaries. If we can agree with some universal standards for philosophical humanism then we can apply them to history, and we can draw more objectively moral lessons.

So Elizabeth I was a bitch and her father was the early modern predecessor to Stalin – who was indeed evil. Who’s with me?