Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, January 24, 2013

John Molyneux on Marxism and the Party

[I was recently heartened to see that Marxism and the Party by John Molyneux has been put online at the Marxist Internet Archive. This book is - as is characteristic for Molyneux - an incredibly clearly written and thought-provoking discussion of the whole question of revolutionary organisation - ranging from Marx through to Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci - and helps clarify what is meant by terms one sometimes hears a lot about, such as 'democratic centralism'. As one recent reviewer noted, despite perhaps some limitations, 'this is a short book which has much to offer those of us looking to the new mass movements around the world, in the hope that they can finally bury capitalism'. I was also pleased to note it has now been republished in Korea, and so have decided to republish John Molyneux's new 2013 preface below]

Preface to Marxism and the Party (Korea 2013) by John Molyneux

It is an honour for any author to have a book reprinted thirty five years after it was first published, so I am very grateful to Chaekgalpi and it is always a privilege to be able to contribute, in even a small way, to the struggle in Korea.  

Marxism and the Party, my first book, was written out of a particular historical experience – working to build a revolutionary party in Britain during the major upsurge in working class struggle in the years 1968-74 – a period excellently analysed in Chris Harman The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After.

Since then a huge amount of historical water has flowed under the bridge, too much for me to offer any detailed account of it here. However, in the broadest possible terms, it can be said that if 1968-74 was an international upturn in the struggle, the period that followed, certainly the 80s (the years of Reagan and Thatcher) and much of the 90s, saw a deep international down. The major exception to this, the mobilizations that brought about the fall of ‘Communism’ in Eastern Europe and Russia in 1989-91 and which were an important democratic advance, were nevertheless not perceived as a step forward by most the public and most of the left, who thought that, in some sense or other, they were witnessing the downfall of socialism not the downfall of state capitalism. Only with the famous Seattle Demonstration in 1999 and the birth of the global ‘anti-capitalist’ movement, developing into the global anti-war movement, did the international tide begin to turn, and we are now a decade on from that with many further important developments.

So, two obvious questions arise: 1) to what extent do I still stand by what I wrote more than thirty five years ago? 2) how relevant is the book and its main arguments to contemporary circumstances?

The answer to the first question is almost entirely. Clearly one hopes to learn over the years and therefore if I were rewriting this book today I would aim to improve it but I still hold to the same essential politics and I believe I rendered the ideas of the great Marxists on the nature and role of the revolutionary party pretty accurately. The only important exceptions to this are the sections on Gramsci and Trotsky. As I wrote in the preface to the 2003 Korean edition:

The chapter on Gramsci was written before I was aware of the massive appropriation of his ideas by Eurocommunism and its intellectual fellow travellers for the purposes of reformism and class collaboration. Gramsci’s formulations in the Prison Notebooks contain a number of ambiguities on which I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt, but which were exploited by his epigones to seriously distort his legacy. Writing today I would take account of this and, while defending Gramsci as a genuine revolutionary, would offer a more critical treatment.

Regarding Trotsky I can quote from my introduction to the 1986 English edition.

In addition I would also devote more space to the conception of party and class embodied in Trotsky’s strategic writings of 1928-37, in other words his critique of the Stalinist ‘third period’ ultra-leftism which divided the working class in the face of Hitler and of the subsequent opportunism of the Popular Front period.

The reason I made that comment then is that those writings had proved extremely useful in the (successful) fight we in Britain waged against the rise of the Nazi National Front in the second half of the 1970s. The reason I repeat it here is that fight against fascism, especially in Greece, but also across Europe and beyond remains of crucial importance today.

On the question of relevance it is necessary to say something about the general political situation today.

The first point, of course, is that we are living through the most severe and extended economic crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This has been extensively analysed by Marxists of all persuasions and, particularly, by Marxists in the international socialist tradition (Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara etc) so it is only necessary to reiterate the most essential things here. These are that we are dealing with a fundamental crisis of the system, not just a banking or financial crisis, rooted in the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, that even after four years the crisis is continuing, with no real end in sight, and that this makes the question of who will pay for this crisis, their class or ours, the central issue of this period internationally.

The second point is the rising tide of resistance. Since, roughly, the end of 2010 we have seen a massive wave of revolt across the world. The Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions of early 2011, the initial uprisings in Libya and Bahrain, the Syrian Revolution the Indignados movement in Spain, the extended resistance of the Greek working class, the Occupy movement in the USA and elsewhere, mass student movements in Canada and Chile, the widespread struggles of workers in China and India, and various revolts and strikes in Africa (especially the Marikana miners) are all different moments of this immense development. Taken as a whole it is the largest wave of rebellion since the late sixties/early seventies. Because our rulers will fight back with all the multitude of means at their disposal, it is unavoidable that this general movement, as well scoring striking victories – such as the removal of Mubarak in Egypt - will also suffer setbacks and defeats, as in Libya and Bahrain. Nevertheless, the overall trajectory continues and this is creating a new and wider audience for Marxist ideas as evidenced by – among other things - the huge increase in the publication of Marxist literature.

Third, there is climate change. There is no avoiding the fact that the issue of climate change has been at the back rather than front of the consciousness of most of the left over the last few years and that, so far, it has not – in most countries – generated a serious scale of mobilization. I hope I am wrong about this but I would expect this state of affairs to continue for a period, partly because the issue remains an abstract, not a concrete one, for most working people, and partly because it is not possible to make credible demands to most national governments to fix the problem.

However it is also a fact that climate change is proceeding at an even faster rate than most scientists predicted and that 2012 and early 2013 saw a proliferation of the extreme weather events that climate change produces. The United States, which experienced its hottest summer on record with drought in about 40 states and extensive forest fires combined with the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in the New York area and freak tornados in the south, was an example of this. As I write Australia is locked in an intense, and again record breaking heatwave, while the arctic ice is melting at such a rate that at an artic free of ice in the summer is less than a decade away. This in turn brings the world closer to the tipping point at which massive ongoing climate change becomes close to unstoppable.

Moreover climate change interacts with the economic crisis. Capitalism in crisis, obsessed with restoring profit rates and economic growth, is proving completely incapable of addressing this problem. But, of course, it will be capable of responding to increasing natural disasters and the victims and refugees they inevitably produce with callousness, racism, war and fascist barbarity.

The combination of these facts makes the international socialist revolution and the building of revolutionary parties to secure its victory more important than ever. But here we face something of a paradox, namely that despite the intense crisis the general mood on the left is in many ways hostile to the party building project.

Recalling the period in which Marxism and the Party was first written, emphasises this. Although at that time, anarchism and spontanism had some influence, the main debate on the far left was between various political tendencies who claimed at least verbal allegiance to Leninism: traditional Communism (ie Stalinism), Maoism, Castroism, varieties of Trotskyism and so on. Behind Marxism and the Party, therefore, stood the aim of vindicating the International Socialist tradition’s interpretation of Leninism in opposition, particularly, to Stalinist and so-called ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist interpretations. This meant emphasing, above all, the dynamic and interactive (dialectical) relationship between the party and the real, living working class.

Today the picture is very different. Today there is almost an ‘anti-party’ consensus, especially among newly radicalising youth. In Spain the starting point of the great Indignados movement, with its mass occupation of city squares and its demand for ‘real democracy now’, was opposition to all political parties and trade unions. Revolutionary militants in Madrid and Barcelona were allowed into the squares only as individuals, not as members of organisations with banners and papers. Similar tendencies existed in Occupy in the US, London , Ireland and elsewhere, and even – if to a lesser extent- Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo.

I would not label this ‘anti-party’ consensus anarchist or autonomist, though anarchists and autonomists can certainly make use of it, because I think its roots lie not in the influence of Bakunin or Kropotkin or Hardt and Negri, but in a radicalised version of neo-liberal individualism which developed a very strong hold on youth consciousness over the past couple of decades. But whatever its origins this mood is a widespread fact. Does this mean, as is often claimed, that the idea of a revolutionary party has had its day? Not in my opinion, but it does mean that the argument may need to begin ‘further back’, as it were, than it does in this book with a defence of the need for political parties as such. As I have written recently:

As for the idea that there is something wrong with political parties as such we have, of course, to recognize how understandable such a reaction is in the face of the manifest behaviour of virtually all the parties most people have experience of, and we also need to understand there really is something wrong with the existence of political parties in that they are symptoms and expressions of a class divided society and thus exhibit many of the horrible characteristics of class society[1]. However given the actual existence of class society and the fact that the working class cannot walk away from this society and establish utopia elsewhere but has to fight for its liberation from within, and on the ground of, this society it has to be said that the existence of political parties is a gain and a necessary condition of even limited democracy. 
First it should be noted that, historically, political parties developed hand in hand with the development of (bourgeois) democracy and the extension of the franchise to working people in the nineteenth century. Prior to that there existed not parties but only loose associations among ‘notables’ ie aristocrats and leading bourgeois. It was only the winning of the right to vote by the masses that obliged the upper and middle classes and the workers themselves to form parties to fight for those votes. Second, the only modern societies where multiple parties do not exist are those where they are forcibly suppressed by military, fascist or Stalinist dictatorships, ie where there is no democracy at all. 
Moreover, imagine it were possible (of course, it is not), in a capitalist society, to secure without repression the voluntary dissolution of all political parties so that all deputies, MPs, councillors etc were unaffiliated individuals. Would this benefit the working class and the majority of people? No, it would not. On the contrary in such circumstances it would the rich, the bourgeoisie, who would benefit enormously because they would be able to use their personal wealth and all their other advantages (connections, cultural capital etc) to dominate politics even more than they do at present. Only through collective organization – be it in unions or in parties – are working people able to resist the power of capital and the domination of the bourgeois.
(John Molyneux, ‘In Defence of Leninism’, Irish Marxist Review 3, p.43)

However, even among left-wing socialists who accept the need for a party of some sort there is a widely expressed preference for a ‘broad’ left party, rather than a specifically revolutionary or Leninist organization. The main example of this is the international surge of more or less uncritical enthusiasm for Syriza in Greece, from the moment it became clear that it had a chance of winning a parliamentary majority. Other examples include the relative success of the Front de Gauche in France (compared to the avowedly revolutionary NPA), the Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany, the high poll results for the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark and the yearning often expressed for such a party in Britain (unformed because the people who could form it refuse to break with the Labour Party).

Of course the emergence and progress of such broad parties of the radical left is welcome in that it is a symptom and expression of the working class moving to the left, but those who counterpose such parties to the building of revolutionary parties and hail them as the main way forward are ignoring the tragic history of left reformist governments, most notably Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity in Chile in 1970-73, which ended in Pinochet’s brutal military coup, and the Popular Front government of Spain in 1936 which succumbed to Franco and fascism, as well as the historical experience of left reformism as a whole (Menshevism in Russia, Kautskyism in Germany, the Socialist Party in Italy in 1918-21 and many other examples. The fundamental weakness of left reformism, as Lenin emphasized in The State and Revolution, is its fudging of the need to smash the capitalist state as opposed to taking it over. As a consequence left reformist governments are either captured by the capitalist state or destroyed by it.

The necessity of an independent organization of revolutionaries – the hallmark of Bolshevism and much discussed in this book – to secure the victory of the revolution was hard won. Great revolutionaries such as Luxemburg and Trotsky fully grasped it only on the basis of the experience of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In the case of Luxemburg it is arguable that she paid with her life for not realizing it earlier; for Trotsky it was the main lesson of the success in October 1917 and the failure of the revolution in Germany in 1923. He wrote in The Lessons of October in 1924:  

Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade…We have paid far too dearly for this conclusion -- with regard to the role and importance of a party in a proletarian revolution -- to renounce it so lightly or even to minimize its significance.

Clearly I subscribed to this view when I wrote this book. The question is have any of the numerous changes and developments of the intervening years served to invalidate this conclusion today. In my view absolutely not and, regardless of the prevailing ‘mood’ or sentiment, I believe that it will be confirmed in the struggles that lie ahead. Therefore, given the immense crisis facing humanity, it is essential that the difficult task of building mass revolutionary workers parties be persisted with.  

John Molyneux, 22 January, 2013

[1] See the discussion of some of these problems in John Molyneux, ‘On Party Democracy,’ International Socialism 124, (2009).

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