Book Review: ‘World Crisis – Essays in Revolutionary Socialism’

Trapped in a Blind Alley

‘World Crisis – Essays in Revolutionary Socialism’ by John Palmer and Nigel Harris. Hutchinson. £2.25

This book is a collection of essays by prominent members of the group known as International Socialism. The basic argument of the book is summed up by Duncan Hallas in the final essay, “The Way Forward.”

    “Basically the case rests on the analysis of the world crisis . . . and particularly on the thesis that, in the changing conditions of capitalism, reformist policies will be less and less able to provide these partial solutions to the problems confronting the working-class that they have been able to provide in the decades since the Second World War.”

In other words, the road to reform is closed; the capitalist class can no longer afford to grant the improvement in working-class conditions which it had done in the past. Does this mean, then, that IS do not include reforms in their programme, and base their support on the sole issue of establishing Socialism? Of course that would be expecting too much. Duncan Hallas, in the same essay, states clearly that “the development of a programme (includes) a detailed statement of partial and transitional aims.” And the book is scattered with phrases like “connecting the concrete issues that workers face with a generalised perspective.” (Higgins and Palmer, Introduction).

Why, therefore, does IS put forward demands for reforms when they believe rightly or wrongly, that these demands cannot be met, instead of putting forward  a demand for Socialism? The answer is, of course, that they believe that it is only by being led up the garden path of reforms and smashed against the brick wall of capitalism that the workers will learn “through their own experience” that capitalism cannot give them what they want. Of course we would accept that socialist ideas arise from the struggles engaged in under capitalism by the working class, but the idea of making “impossible demands” shows a definite contempt for the working-class and their ability to understand socialism.

Predictably enough, another false idea expressed was that of violent insurrection. Paul Foot devoted his energies to an analysis of “Parliamentary Socialism,” concluding that democracy is all a sham and that the French workers had shown the way in May, 1968. One of his main mistakes was in assuming Parliament and the vote are inherently reformist, and that revolution must mean a bloodbath on the streets. He states, for example, that the Independent Labour Party “lost its socialist impetus through the insistence on Parliamentary priorities,” and that the Communist Party had degenerated since the 1930’s when it had “sustained itself . . . by a revolutionary attitude towards Parliament.”

This line of argument shows a great deal of confusion. The vote can be used to maintain capitalism, to achieve certain reforms, to destroy democracy (as in the case of Nazi Germany) or to achieve Socialism, depending on the consciousness of the working-class. There is therefore no such thing as a “revolutionary attitude towards Parliament.” The ILP, of course, never had a “socialist impetus.”

Given the rejection of Parliament, the only alternative IS seem able to offer is syndicalism. Paul Foot writes of the need of the workers “to seize the factories and offices”. Tony Cliff says the shop stewards are “the pillars on which any real revolutionary socialist policy must be” (T. Cliff, “The Class Struggle in Britain”). Such beliefs are extremely dangerous—any attempt by IS or any other group to institute “seizure” of the means of production would be suppressed by the State, no doubt at the expense of a good deal of working-class blood; IS would discover, through their own experience, where the real power lies in society.

It would be mistaken to believe that there is nothing of value in this book. Though most of the contributors seem to be trapped in a blind alley, Nigel Harris in part of his essay “Imperialism Today,” comes very close to the correct socialist position. In his analysis of armed struggle in backward countries he states:

    “Marxism is irrelevant to success in guerrilla warfare . . . Marxism dissolves into pre-Marxist populist socialism, the closest analogies to which occur in Narodnik  thought in Tsarist Russia.”

He concedes that revolutions in such circumstances are made by small minorities relying on élan and slogans, and that Fidel Castro, for example, was a radical liberal rather than a socialist. Harris therefore comes very close to our position, that groups such as the Vietcong are the equivalent of nineteenth-century bourgeois revolutionaries, seeking only to establish capitalism. We give them no support, but for Nigel Harris the dilemma remains—why does his organization give them “unconditional support”? In his fifty-page essay, he gives no answer at all, except for the pious remark that “socialists instinctively feel a warm sympathy for those struggling for national independence.”

Inevitably, there are constant references throughout the book to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. Nowhere is it explained, however, why a revolution which took place fifty-five years ago in a backward, pre-industrial country in which a decaying feudal regime collapsed under the strain of war has any relevance to conditions in Britain or any advanced capitalist country to-day. All the other standard IS ideas crop up regularly—the false Lenin theory of imperialism, the equally false crypto-Keynesian theory of the “permanent economy,” the peculiar obsession with productivity deals. When all is said and done, however, the IS gap still looks to the Labour Party for its philosophy. It was fitting, therefore, that Duncan Hallas, on the last page of the book, should state that “there are still genuine socialists active in the Labour Party”. Needless to say, he did not name any.

B. McNeeney

Leave a Reply