1980s >> 1981 >> no-921-may-1981

Beyond the Fragments

Last March, at the Central Hall, Westminster, four left wing leaders took part in what they modestly describe as the Debate of the Decade (the debate of the decayed would have been more accurate). The purpose of the event was to try once again to unite the Left into big movement rather than its present factions, each ultimately loyal to the Labour Party, but each maintaining their own petty and obscure positions (one says that Russia is a 'deformed' workers' state, another insists that is is a 'degenerate' one and a third affirms that it has been a socialist state all the time).

Leftist followers paid up to £6 a ticket to listen to the nostalgic rhetoric of the platform poseurs. Tony Benn (Labour Party) urged the assembled to elect a future leader of the Labour Party who would be honest, principled, radical . . . had he said that the best man for the job must be a lapsed aristocrat and Minister of Industry in a government under which unemployment doubled the hint might have been a little too obvious. Then there was John Cleese of the Socialist Workers' Party who did a passable impersonation of Paul Foot, and Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group who did an embarrassing impersonation of Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov. The Leninist followers loved it all. The fourth and final fragment to address the microphone was Hilary Wainwright, co-author of a book called Beyond the Fragments (Merlin Press).

The book presents a criticism of certain aspects of the Left which socialists would not wish to argue with. Wainwright, Segal and Rowbotham have discovered (through experience) that Leninist parties are repressive, authoritarian bodies. They pointed out that their arrogant leaderships see themselves as the personification of socialist wisdom and how this tends to reduce internal party freedom of thought or action. Rowbotham seems to understand that experience is the greatest leader and perhaps we are not being over-optimistic in suggesting that she implies Lenin was wrong when he wrote that "The working class, exclusively, by its own effort is able to develop only trade union consciousness". (What Is To Be Done?)

She may well have quoted from Marx and Engels' circular letter of 1879 to the leaders of the German Socialist Workers' Party:

When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle-cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic leaders.

The fragment critics are right to reject the anti-democratic assumptions of Leninism, but we would be more convinced of their integrity had they stated at any point in their two hundred and fifty-three-page book that Lenin distorted Marx and that the place for socialists is outside the Leninist Left. Instead we get references to such enemies of the working class as the Socialist Workers' Party and the Communist Party as fellow socialists, comrades and good militants.

Secondly, the age-old Leftist of what they call 'utopianism', but which is in fact theoretical clarity, is rejected by Rowbotham:

In order to explore, we need good maps . . . We need to be able to take stock of the situation and communicate any general principles to other wanderers. We have to establish certain staging points to refuel and assess the journey. This means we have to sit back momentarily from our immediate response to the route and try to sum up the relationship of what we have travelled to the whole journey. Some of this will be from our experience, with information from other travellers' tales and from any existing maps. Some will be speculation about the way things will be likely to go. Our summation of the whole may be incomplete and imperfect, but we still need it in order to get our bearings. Even if we abandon this assessment subsequently, the attempt can still be decisive and the effort to be as accurate as we can is still vital if we are not to trundle down every dead end or take enormous detours. (pp. 54-5)

In short, you cannot embark upon the path to socialism unless you know what socialism means. Rowbotham's discovery of this point makes it all the more disappointing that nowhere in the book is there a single definition of socialism.

Thirdly, it is argued in the book that the fragments of the Left-political factions, trade councils, tenants associations, the women's and gay movement, radical publishers – should unite. Certainly, they unite, for working class strength lies in unity. But what is to be the purpose? Once the fragments have become a patchwork what will they say, do or achieve? Beyond the fragments to where . . . and why . . . and how . . . and when? Many questions, but our authors provide no answers which go beyond the sterile claim that we must unite to get rid of the Tory government. In December 1904 a Socialist Standard editorial applied itself to the question of 'Socialist Unity':

We are all for unity. We believe that unity of party organisation based upon unity of purpose, unity of principle and unity of method is the one thing desirable. But today we are only sure that such unity of party organisation, so far as the various groups of socialists in any country are concerned, would be at the expense of unity of purpose, principle and method . . . Unity is an important factor in the growth of a party but it is not the most important. Better far to have a party, however small, with common principles and a common end, than a party, however large, which is bound by no tie save party interest. We, therefore, who differ from those other parties in essential principle – inasmuch as we accept the principle of class struggle while they do not – cannot consent to unite our forces with theirs. It would weaken both parties – and the weakening would be more disastrous to the uncompromising section than to the revisionist.

This is why the Socialist Party of Great Britain has preserved its independence since 1904 from all the fragments which working class discontent has thrown up. We are not hostile to them because we like being on our own or are temperamentally aggressive, but because we have a programme of uncompromising revolution which stands in total opposition to the piecemeal reform policies of the fragments. We have gone beyond the fragments. Wainwright, Segal and Rowbotham are to be applauded for having recognised the political rut which the Left is in, but the lesson which they and their fellow fragments must now learn is that until they climb out of the ditch of reformism they will never go beyond the muddy theory which obscures their political vision.