Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What do Leninists mean by being tribunes of the people?

[I have been looking through some old Socialist Reviews (or as they were called then, Socialist Worker Reviews) from the 1980s recently, and came across the following great little piece by Andy Zebrowski entitled 'What do we mean by the tribune of the people?' from Socialist Worker Review, no. 83, January 1986, which hopefully both the editors of Socialist Review and Andy Zebrowski himself will be happy with me reproducing on Histomat below].

What do we mean by the tribune of the people?

 The phrase 'tribune of the people' seems ot be an odd one for socialists to use.  Yet it is a term which they may hear bandied about in meetings, using when the speaker is calling for socialists to take up the causes of oppressed groups, or to raise general revolutionary politics to widen a particular struggle.

We take the modern idea of the tribune from the Russian revolutionary, Lenin.  In What is to be Done?, written in 1903, he says that the ideal of the revolutionary should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people.


Lenin used the phrase to attack the Economists - people who wanted to concentrate narrowly and exclusively on the industrial struggle.  He argued that under the Tsarist autocracy at the time, people from all classes would come into conflict with the state.  Revolutionaries had to show the links between these struggles and the fight to overthrow the regime.  They also had to involve themselves in those struggles.

What point was Lenin trying to make when he argued for revolutionaries to be 'tribunes' in this way?

Firstly, he wanted to make clear that revolutionary socialists are opposed to all oppression, and that they should try to take a lead in fighting against it.

Secondly, he wanted to stress that a revolutionary has to rise above the particular interests of a section of the working class or oppressed in order to raise general political answers to the problems of the exploited and oppressed.

Here Lenin was touching on issues which have often causes much difficulty to revolutionaries in the present day.  Often it is hard enough to convince people around us that the working class is the revolutionary class in society.  All too often this central premise of Marx's thought can turn into a belief that the fight against oppression is not relevant to workers' struggles, or to a belief that any struggle by workers must be a good thing.

Yet both arguments are mistaken and can lead on the one hand to abstaining from struggle, on the other to a passive tailing of workers by revolutionaries, even when the actions of those workers are far from revolutionary.

The working class is the only class which has the power and organisation to achieve socialism.  Yet it is also obvious that the working class is not a united class most of the time.

There are many quite major divisions inside the working class - on grounds of race, of sex, divisions between workers of different religions, divisions on the ground of skill.  We shouldn't be surprised that these divisions give rise to oppressed groups - women, racial minorities, people from certain nations - who suffer real grievances, and who sometimes organise against those grievances.

The existence of different sorts of oppression stems from the existence of class society itself.  In capitalist society the necessities of life and a surplus are produced under oppressive conditions.  People do not choose to produce, they are forced of necessity to do so.  They are alienated from the products of their labour.  This engenders a whole system of oppressions which stem from the class contradiction of society.

The final ending of that oppression will come with the ending of class society.  But that doesn't mean that all the exploited or oppressed move towards a recognition of this at the same time.  Nor is it sufficient to rely on a far-off revolutionary process to solve the problems of the oppressed.  To do so only leads to a crude mechanical Marxism which bypasses the need to fight oppression.

What Lenin was arguing was that the revolutionary party has to recognise that struggles may arise among groups who are very far from the working class.  It is the duty of socialists to support those struggles against the capitalist system and to try and lead them towards the party itself, and towards understanding the central revolutionary role of the working class.

'The urban and industrial proletariat will inevitably be the nucleus of our Social-Democratic Labour Party, but we must attract to it, enlighten, and organise all who labour and are exploited, as stated in our programme—all without exception: handicraftsmen, paupers, beggars, servants, tramps, prostitutes—of course, subject to the necessary and obligatory condition that they join the Social-Democratic movement and not that the Social-Democratic movement join them, that they adopt the standpoint of the proletariat, and not that the proletariat adopt theirs.'

This last phrase is the key.  A revolutionary party welcomes and wants to win all those fighting their oppression - whether national, racial or sexual.  But the party has to build on the understanding that organisation of the oppressed is not the central road to revolution.

There is a limit to the struggle against oppression unless it is tied to the struggles of the working class.  Oppressed groups can rail against the system - they cannot destroy it or build a new socialist society.  The working class is the only class in society which both has the power to end capitalism and the interests as a class in ending all oppression. 

The point of Lenin praising the tribune of the people was not only to locate all forms of oppression within the capitalist system.  It also guarded against two dangers.  One was to dismiss all struggles that are not rooted in the workplace as irrelevant.  The other was to believe that all struggles by groups of workers should win the automatic support of socialists. 

This is not necessarily the case.  There are strikes of a reactionary nature - against blacks or against women having the right to work - of which socialists are very critical.

They have to rise above what a particular group of workers hold to be in their interests.  For in the long term such struggles not only weaken the position of those under attack but also the position of those under attack but also the position of those workers making the attacks.  Every time workers make a scapegoat out of another section of the working class, every time the colour of skin or religious beliefs or gender are held up as the fundamental dividing line in society, the bosses gain strength to control the working class as a whole.

The idea of the revolutionary party as a tribune of the people should not, however, be confused with the notion of a coalition of oppressed groups.  Jesse Jackson's 'rainbow coalition' in the United States sought to enlist the support of organisations who proclaimed themselves as the representatives of oppressed blacks, women or hispanics.  The Communist Party in this country argues that what is needed is unity between the different autonomous movements - women, blacks and gays.

Our idea is different.  It is not to unite different organisations but to intervene directly in any clash by groups against the authorities or their oppressors.

The idea of the revolutionary minority being tribunes of the people is rooted in the fact that workers' power is the only way to end oppression.

Our job today is to be the best, clearest-headed fighters against oppression and at the same time to explain the revolutionary road to ending it.

Andy Zebrowski

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Memo to Princes Charles, William and George

And English history speaks loudly to kings as follows:
If you march at the head of the ideas of your century, these ideas will follow and sustain you.
If you march behind them, they will drag you with them.
If you march against them, they will overthrow you!
Prince Napoleon Louis Bonaparte (later Napoleon III), Fragments Historiques, 1688 et 1830 (Paris, 1841), p. 125, quoted in Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (London, 1991), p. 88.

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Debunking fascist myths # 94: Leon Trotsky and 'the invention of racism' myth

[I am grateful to Scott McLemee and his recent article on 'link rot' for alterting me to something called the Internet Archive Wayback machine, which can recover old internet links that have since rotted away once the original site becomes defunct.  Anyway, there used to be a decent enough blog - I am not sure who was behind it - called 'One Million United Against the [Nazi] BNP' - which carried a generally good mix of anti-fascist material, but in particular carried a useful section on the site debunking 'fascist myths'.  One such myth - that remains popular with racists and fascists internationally - see the recent post by Andrew Brons, the fascist MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, here for example - is that 'Racism' was 'a word invented by Trotsky, in his 1930 work, The History of the Russian Revolution'.

The One Million United Blog once had a nice little short article on its site debunking this myth, but sadly this website is no more (presumably as the Nazi BNP itself became more or less a shadow of its former self thanks to relentless and tireless anti-fascist campaigning by groups such as Unite Against Fascism) and I - and everyone else on the anti-fascist left  it seems - failed to make a copy of this article at the time.  Anyway, the good news is that thanks to this 'Internet Archive' I can now reproduce the original article easily now on Histomat - with thanks to the anonymous original author, whoever he or she is - in the hope it will be useful / of interest to the wider anti-racist movement.  Trotsky himself of course was a pioneering analyst of the resistable rise of fascism in the interwar period, while for more on Trotsky's take on 'race' and racism, see here, and for more on Marxists and the fight against racism today - including discussion of how the roots of racism lie in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery, see the new book Say it loud ]

The 'Trotsky invented the concept of racism' myth [originally posted on the One Million United website]

The Myth

Nick Griffin [BNP leader]: No it’s because people like the BBC have demonised the word racist and have set about demonising us.
Gavin Esler: Demonised the word racist? There is somehow a good side to racism is there?
Nick Griffin: Ah, it’s a canned term. There’s no good side to racism. If you mean hating people, you’re doing it now. You’re not letting me explain for a start. Racism was a concept invented by Leon Trotsky, a Communist mass-murderer to demonise his opponents and stop people talking about certain issues.

Nick Griffin on BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ 25th May 2007.
on this video from 02:26 >

The Truth

The concept of scientific racial supremacy was invented by Gobineau before Trotsky was born. Trotsky used the term racism to describe it, but racism only became an epithet to describe racial prejudice after he died.

This is a very popular myth with neo-Nazis and other White Nationalists, who especially enjoy pointing out that Trotsky was born into a Jewish family. According to them a Judeo-Communist conspiracy is trying to destroy Western civilization and the white race, etc, etc, etc and invented that word to silence people… yawn. Funny that Nick Griffin should use a staple argument used by anti-Semites isn’t it? It can be found all over the Internet and Griffin was obviously defending his right to be racist by the looks of things. His argument, which is the general one, is that the concept of racism was invented by a Communist to stifle opposition and freedom of speech. But where did Trotsky use the word? There are two alleged sources, the first one is ‘What Is National Socialism?’, published on June 10th 1933.

“The theory of race, specially created, it seems, for some pretentious self-educated individual seeking a universal key to all the secrets of life, appears particularly melancholy in the light of the history of ideas. In order to create the religion of pure German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of racism from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau, a diplomat and a literary dilettante. Hitler found the political methodology ready-made in Italy, where Mussolini had borrowed largely from the Marxist theory of the class struggle. Marxism itself is the fruit of union among German philosophy, French history, and British economics. To investigate retrospectively the genealogy of ideas, even those most reactionary and muddleheaded, is to leave not a trace of racism standing.”

“On the plane of politics, racism is a vapid and bombastic variety of chauvinism in alliance with phrenology. As the ruined nobility sought solace in the gentility of its blood, so the pauperized petty bourgeoisie befuddles itself with fairy tales concerning the special superiorities of its race. Worthy of attention is the fact that the leaders of National Socialism are not native Germans but interlopers from Austria, like Hitler himself, from the former Baltic provinces of the Czar’s empire, like Rosenberg; and from colonial countries, like Hess, who is Hitler’s present alternate for the party leadership. A barbarous din of nationalisms on the frontiers of civilization was required in order to instill into its ‘leaders’ those ideas which later found response in the hearts of the most barbarous classes in Germany.”

“In the sphere of modern economy, international in its ties and anonymous in its methods, the principle of race seems unearthed from a medieval graveyard. The Nazis set out with concessions beforehand; the purity of race, which must be certified in the kingdom of the spirit by a passport must be demonstrated in the sphere of economy chiefly by efficiency. Under contemporary conditions this means competitive capacity. Through the back door, racism returns to economic liberalism, freed from political liberties.”

The second reference is from The History of the Russian Revolution, written in 1930 and translated and published in 1932. In here the word ‘racism’ does not appear, but ‘racist’ does.

“Slavophilism, the messianism of backwardness, has based its philosophy upon the assumption that the Russian people and their church are democratic through and through, whereas official Russia is a German bureaucracy imposed upon them by Peter the Great. Mark remarked upon this theme: ‘In the same way the Teutonic jackasses blamed the despotism of Frederick the Second upon the French, as though backward slaves were not always in need of civilised slaves to train them.’ This brief comment completely finishes off not only the old philosophy of the Slavophiles, but also the latest revelations of the ‘Racists’.”

So what did Trotsky mean by racism and racist? In the first quotation Trotsky says, “In order to create the religion of pure German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau”. Who was Gobineau and what were his ideas? Arthur de Gobineau (1816 – 1882) wrote a book entitled An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races in which he proposes that the ‘white race’ is superior and that the Aryan branch of it in Northern Europe was the ‘Master Race’. He also believed race-mixing led to chaos. I bet you thought the Nazis invented all that didn’t you? Anyway, so Trotsky said Hitler created a ideology based on a pure German race and nicked ideas from Gobineau… err, well he did! Trotsky said the Nazis were practising an ideology based on race, which goes without saying is true. He was not trying to stop the Nazis talking about certain issues, he was criticising the concept of their race-based ideology. So if Griffin disagrees with Trotsky presumably he believes the Nazis didn’t have a racial ideology, or Trotsky was wrong to even mention it.

In the second quotation Trotsky says the Slavophiles believe Russians to be inherently democratic, an idea that he rubbishes. He says that also finishes off the claims of the racists. But again he is attacking the idea of racial differences not accusing the Slavophiles of saying racist things.
In both cases Trotsky is commenting on an existing ideology of racial superiority/difference, so he therefore did not invent the concept of racism. No more than the person who invented the word ‘cat’ was the inventor of cats!

Therefore what was the context was Trotsky using those words in, if he only is attacking the idea of inherent racial differences? In the 1930’s the word ‘racism’ meant according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “[t]he theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race”. Which sounds exactly like the way Trotsky was using it. No doubt that applies to his earlier usage of ‘racist’ too.

In fact in the 1930’s, also according to the OED, the word ‘racialism’ (dating from 1907) meant “belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudice based on this”.

The current meaning of racism, that of prejudice, has only been attached to it since World War II. Prior to World War II it meant the difference between races. Conversely, ‘racialism’ no longer means racial superiority or prejudice. By the 1960’s it had been made redundant as ‘racism’ had replaced it, but William Du Bois redefined it to mean the belief that differences exist between human races. In other words what ‘racism’ meant before World War II when Trotsky was using the word in his writing. A complete reversal.

Therefore the current accusations of racism directed at the Far Right do not mean the same thing as racism did in Trotsky’s writings. The concept of racial superiority itself goes back before Trotsky was even born and he didn’t coin ‘racialism’, which meant in the 1930’s what ‘racism’ does today. Just as if Trotsky mentioned ‘gay’ in his writings he’d have meant happy or colourful, not a homosexual.
The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism was founded as the The League Against Pogroms in 1927, later became the International League against Anti-Semitism and in 1932 it acquired its present name. Magnus Hirschfeld wrote his book Racism in 1933 (trans. into English in 1938) and is generally credited with inventing the word itself. As he was a gay Jew he isn’t too popular with the Far Right either. So there is doubt as to whether Trotsky did originate the word, but even if he did he was using it to describe something that no-one would dispute: that Nazi Germany had an ideology based on the racial differences between Germans and others.

Trotsky did not invent the concept of racism, it was Gobineau the grandfather of Nazi racial politics!

One last little thought: why would people like the BNP, who aren’t apparently racist, object to the very existence of the word? If they weren’t racist and neo-Nazis, why would they say the word has no legitimacy because a Communist invented it? If you did away with the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ that would significantly reduce the stigma of such behaviour. So why would the BNP want that if they aren’t racist? Presumably for the same reasons they want to abolish the Race Discrimination Act: they want to be able to be as racist as they like, with no legal or moral impediments.

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Monday, July 08, 2013

International Socialism # 139

Cover of issue 139

Sorry again this blog has been so neglected of late - but I thought I would just return briefly to mention that the latest issue of International Socialism journal is now out and for those who are not yet subscribers its contents are also now online - with theoretical articles analysing exciting recent developments in Egypt (though obviously written before the second wave of revolutionary tumult erupted), and Turkey as well as discussions on a whole host of other issues relating to left reformism and the state, the Human Genome Project, the privisation of the NHS, neoliberalism, gender and sexuality as well as Alex Callinicos on contemporary debates on the British left today.  So even if there is not much to read on this blog - this should help keep you going for a while... 

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Thursday, July 04, 2013

Sameh Naguib on Egypt's second revolution

We have just removed the second president in only 30 months. It is a second revolution, a mass movement of millions. The scale of the mobilisations is unprecedented.  On the ground people have gained huge confidence in their ability to change history.

This is a contradictory situation. It is formally a military coup. The army has effectively arrested the president and 77 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.  They intervened to save themselves from a new revolution.

But at the same time it is a mass popular revolt. The people forced the army to act, and the army only did so because they were worried about their own future. 

This is the second time they have done so. They are running out of choices. If Morsi was a failure then the bourgeois alternatives, such as Mohamed El Baradei, are weak.

This is not the end of democracy, nor a simple military coup. Revolution is actually an extremely democratic process. Simply voting every few years is a joke compared to this. The army is trying to cut this process off.

Major strikes were planned for tomorrow, Thursday. Bus and train workers, cement workers and Suez canal workers were all due to walk out. The protests could have developed into a general strike—the vast majority of the protesters are working class.

It’s not over...
 Read the full article by Naguib - a member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt - here.  Naguib is meant to be speaking at Marxism 2013, and while this would be an amazing privilege for those of us in the UK, I guess the way things are going in Egypt who can say whether this will actually happen now.  To paraphrase Lenin in The State and Revolution (a highly relevant book today given the military coup),  ''it is more pleasant and useful to go through the "experience of revolution" than to go and give speeches about it elsewhere'', and am sure Naguib is feeling the same way...

Edited to add: Four Days that Shook the World - another piece by Naguib

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Monday, July 01, 2013

Victory to the Egyptian Revolution

 A Statement of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt:
Today, Sunday 30 June, comes as the third thunderous wave of the great January Revolution. Then millions of Egyptians came out demanding bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity in order to overthrow the regime of tyranny and exploitation.
Thousands of martyrs and wounded paid a price in blood for the victory of the revolution which threw down the head of the regime and his cronies.
After a year of rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, we find they have chosen to walk the same path: they are against the people and with the bosses.
They have substituted Muslim Brotherhood billionaire Khairat al-Shater for the old regime's business leader Ahmed Ezz and are seeking reconciliation with those who have pillaged Egypt for 30 years.
We have seen them go begging to the International Monetary Fund and the countries of the world. We have heard the lies of the Brotherhood's “Renaissance Project” electoral programme and seen them fall into the arms of the US and “our friend” Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Dozens of martyrs and injured have fallen at the hands of the Brotherhood. This is a failed regime, headed by a lying president who even breaks promises to his Salafist allies.
The people have decreed the downfall of this failed regime. They have withdrawn their confidence because it has betrayed the goals of the revolution, working instead for the benefit of the Brotherhood itself.
But we must learn the lessons of January.
The biggest mistake we made was to leave the streets with nothing more than promises from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which made a deal under American auspices to deliver the country to the Brotherhood in return for a safe exit for its leaders who would not be held to account.
Today we will not leave the streets until we have achieved our demands:
  • The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed regime and the withdrawal of confidence from its president Mohamed Mursi
  • The formation of a revolutionary government to manage the transitional period, the first of whose priorities will be the issue of social justice and security
  • The head of the revolutionary government shall be barred from candidacy in early presidential elections
After our great revolution, Egypt deserves revolutionary democracy, in order to achieve freedom, social justice and national dignity. Egyptians cannot remain forever trapped between two failed alternatives, the Brotherhood or the military whether of Mubarak or Field Marshall Tantawi.
The Revolutionary Socialists will come out with the masses and the revolutionaries in the third wave of the revolution, after the first two waves overthrew Mubarak and the Military Council, in order to get rid of this third version of the regime of tyranny and exploitation.
We call on all revolutionaries in Egypt to unite behind the goals of the January Revolution.
We call on all Egyptians who work for a wage to join a general strike in order to win the battle against the regime of tyranny and exploitation, just as strikes won our battle against Mubarak on 9 and 10 February 2011.
Glory to the martyrs – Victory to the Revolution – Shame on the murderers
All power and wealth to the people!

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