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Book Review: 'The Coming British Revolution'

Trotskyism Rehashed

'The Coming British Revolution', by Tariq Ali, (Jonathan Cape Ltd)

Tariq Ali, a leading member of the so-called International Marxist Group writes in his book The Coming British Revolution that the socialist revolution will be produced by the long dreamt-of big slump and not working-class understanding. Indeed he categorically states that the working class is incapable of ever developing a socialist consciousness on its own and must have “leaders” (guess who) to do their thinking for them. Apparently the need for workers to recognise the leaders now is crucial since British capitalism is already on the brink of collapse and only needs one more good push. And not only will the Trots provide the workers with political direction during the revolution but will also throw in the direction of military operations for good measure!

Obviously that’s a piece of romantic nonsense as Trotskyists know little or nothing of such matters, but such extravagant flights of fancy enable us to see the appeal Trotskyism can have for some youngsters by conjuring up a vision of themselves as latter-day Lenins dramatically leading the masses into world-shattering action. However, if past behaviour is anything to go by such a revolution is doomed to be an awful flop as Ali, Robin Blackburn and co. would be unable to resist the urge to get themselves arrested after five minutes.

Ali wants to see the Labour Party back in office on the grounds that it will finally (again!) disgrace itself in the eyes of the workers and so drive many of the disillusioned into the ranks of the Trots. This is what they always hope for from a period of Labour government and it should be obvious to them by now that they are on a loser. What is much more likely to happen is that disillusioned, politically ignorant workers will be driven into supporting, say, the Liberals or even Enoch Powell. So here is a blatant disregard of what has gone before, and a knowledge of Marxism must include the recognition of history’s lessons in order to avoid repeating mistakes.

And while we’re on the subject of Marxism, Ali correctly attacks anti-dialectical methods of thinking and points out that it is wrong for Trotskyists to parrot what Lenin said in 1919 or 1920 since the circumstances will be very different today. But this is exactly what they always do, especially in connection with Marx. IMG'ers are forever backing up their claim that socialists should support Irish nationalism and the various nationalist movements in the Third World by quoting what Marx said on the subject back in the middle of the 19th century (see Socialist Standard December 1972).

The point is that Marx and Engels found themselves in a very different historical situation from the one we live in today. They supported the emergent bourgeoisie of Europe in its struggle with feudal reaction because at that time the two forces were pretty evenly balanced and it was just possible that reaction could crush or at least hold back the progressive force which the bourgeoisie then represented. By the turn of the century the victory of the bourgeoisie was all but complete. All over Europe they had vanquished feudal remnants and unified dozens of tiny states into large capitalist nations.

To the founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904 it was clear that the victorious bourgeoisie needed no help from them and had in any case, having fulfilled their historic task in increasing the productive forces, now become in turn the reaction. The task of Marxists from then on was to point this out at all times and to concentrate on propagating the case for the next stage in social development, the establishment of a worldwide production-for-use society. In dealing with the basic principles of the Marxist case (the materialist conception of history and the class struggle) Marx and Engels correctly stated in the preface to the 1872 German edition of The Communist Manifesto that

    "The practical application of the principles will depend, as the manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing . . ."

It is we who apply these principles within the context of the present day and not the followers of Lenin and Trotsky.

Like Trotskyists everywhere Ali sees revolution round every corner. He even thinks that the 1945 Labour government introduced the National Health Service only to stave off revolution and goes on to argue that the capitalists can no longer afford to buy-off the workers with more such reforms. Of course as even Ali should know the NHS was introduced in order to save the capitalists money by ensuring that workers didn’t spend the part of wages required to pay for medical attention on other things by having it deducted from their wages and paid into a central fund. And the most likely reason why the capitalists don’t produce other such reforms is that they can’t think of any worth their while. Perhaps Ali and other leftists could help them out by suggesting a few? Anyway, the capitalists are not under any great pressure from the workers to require buying them off.

So Ali in 1973 is as wrong about Britain in 1945 as Trotsky was in 1935. Then the man Ali describes as “a perceptive observer of the British political scene” was writing that the revolution was about to break out in Britain only a few months before the Tories were returned to power with a massive majority. Some “perceptive observer”.

Ali thinks that “large areas of the world have liberated themselves from the tyranny of the world capitalist market”. Where is this true? Russia? China? Cuba? Actually the first two are entering the world markets just as fast as they can and are busy negotiating with Nixon and other western political and business leaders to accelerate the process. And Cuba is only kept going at all by the “aid” given by Russia and China for reasons of strategy and propaganda alone.

Predictably the usual lip-service is paid to the idea that socialism means “To each according to his needs. From each according to his ability”. But is this concept any nearer realisation in Russia where Ali claims a “new set of property relations” have been established? Does the working class still not have to work for wages there? Of course Trotskyists always identify capitalism and exploitation with western-style ownership of bonds, stocks, shares, etc.; in fact capitalism as it had developed in Marx’s own lifetime under peculiarly western conditions. That the Russian form of state capitalism developed out of a different historical background with capital accumulation carried out by a dictatorial political party — the Bolsheviks — instead of private entrepreneurs has escaped them. They imagine that the capital-wage labour relationship must develop in the same way everywhere despite vastly different historical circumstances and so provide us with one more example of their ignorance of the Marxist method.

Vic Vanni