Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Education, education, alienation

At Education Not for Sale's recent 'Education for Freedom' conference, I led off in a session on critiques of the organisation of education. I handed out this article, which appeared last year in Solidarity

The demand for free education is often linked to the assertion that “education is a right, not a privilege”. The right of access to education for all represents a great social conquest for the working-class, a gain perhaps even akin to healthcare. That right must be defended. But it would be short-sighted to think that the education system represented everything we want, or was not in its own way alienating, a weapon in the armoury of bourgeois ideology designed to serve the needs of capital.

Marxists oppose the division of intellectual and manual labour inherent in bourgeois society. This division is perpetuated by an educational system which divides young teenagers into those “better suited” to “academic” subjects and those deemed fit only for vocational courses. It could even be said that this government’s education agenda poses the division even more crudely than the imposition of “career paths” upon children under the old 11-plus system.

The UK now has 2,800 specialist schools, city academies and city technology colleges — 80% of all secondary schools — replacing what Alastair Campbell famously referred to as “bog standard comprehensives”. Examinations are used as enforcement for the targets and quotas of a technocratic régime. Education has become about competition, not intellectual enrichment.

Such schemes are nothing new - the not dissimilar technocratic Fouchet “reforms” of French education in the 1960s were a central cause of the student revolts culminating in the May 1968 general strike, which saw over 10,000,000 workers on strike, and occupations of factories, lycées (colleges) and universities.

One event key to the radicalisation of French students came in November 1966, when “Situationist” students elected to the leadership of the Strasbourg students’ union used university funds to produce 10,000 copies of a pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life: considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy.

The pamphlet too crudely condemns naive students as unaware of bourgeois ideological manipulation. It sees trade unions and workers’ parties as nothing more than part of the system. It lashes out at everything. Perhaps the charge that students are willing to be “treated like babies” seems less harsh when we consider that the university system at that time included curfews and single-sex halls of residence where, in some cases, no visitors were allowed after 10pm... and most students didn’t make a fuss. But such conditions are even nowadays in force under régimes such as the Iranian theocracy, where students have fought bravely against the repression of their political and social activities, as well as in defence of the labour movement.

What On the Poverty of Student Life... does offer is a scathing critique of the social role of the university. Students are allowed to live in poverty, while they are inundated with the information deemed necessary for them to play a productive role in capitalist society. They are not exploited as such, for they do not produce value. But their role is both transitory and firmly within the framework of the needs of business.

“Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity. The student is no exception to the rule. He has a provisional part to play, a rehearsal for his final role as an element in market society as conservative as the rest. Being a student is a form of initiation. An initiation which echoes the rites of more primitive societies with bizarre precision. It goes on outside of history, cut off from social reality. The student leads a double life, poised between his present status and his future role(...)

“Protected from history, the present is a mystic trance. At least in consciousness, the student can exist apart from the official truths of ‘economic life.’ But for very simple reasons: looked at economically, student life is a hard one. In our ‘society of abundance,’ he is still a pauper.”

The special freedom of youth is simply a myth, the manifesto goes on. Where is the freedom in escaping the authoritarian family only to come under the authority of the technocratic university? The role of the university system is not to inspire, to promote critical and independent thought, but to churn out specialists with a narrow, but utilitarian, world-view:

“A mechanically produced specialist is now the goal of the ‘educational system.’ A modern economic system demands mass production of students who are not educated and have been rendered incapable of thinking... In time, if critical thinking is repressed with enough conscientiousness, the student will come to partake of the wafer of knowledge, the professor will tell him the final truths of the world.”

These two extracts are not merely a throwback to a different age where students were respected less and could not say as they thought. The Blairite government has an identical attitude towards education “reform” as the French right did 40 years ago. “Education, education, education” comes with the condition that education serves profitability.

Upon coming to power in 1997, Tony Blair outlined his vision for education, “The focus upon education is not something that we plan for one term, one year, one Parliament. It is there for good. For there is no greater task as we face the challenges of a new global economy and a new Millennium. The countries that invest in their young people are the countries that will succeed. And if there is one issue on which I wish to be judged above all, it is this one... Business needs our schools and universities to be successful, which is why I have been keen to involve them more and more in developing our thinking — and in providing resources”

You bet he has. Aside from the marketisation of secondary education, New Labour has consistently made efforts to provide university courses which are economically useful.

Its ministers have hardly been equivocal about expressing how much better this is than so-called “education for its own sake”. In December 2004, facing criticism over course cuts, the then Education Minister Charles Clarke outlined his plan to protect just six key categories which qualified as “safeguarded courses”. This moniker implies that everything else is under threat — and the courses left behind aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Fancy “courses relevant to EU accession states”?. Or maybe you’d prefer “vocationally oriented courses, especially for technology and creative/cultural industries”? Courses suited to building economic ties with the Arab world (sorting out contracts in Iraq?) and the Far East were also touted.

Clarke comments that “it is the wider social and economic role of universities which justifies more significant state financial support”. Clearly the “social” impact of medical training programmes, which universities are having to cut back as strategic health authorities trim their budgets to reduce the NHS deficit (The Times, 28 October), is secondary to the “economic”.

The biggest joke in all this, of course, is that the government is keen to get more people into further and higher education — the aim is for 50% of young people to reach higher education by 2010, and Education Minister Alan Johnson has suggested that the school-leaving age be raised to 18 for anyone who doesn’t meet a certain “standard”.
Capital needs a well-educated workforce, particularly key for British governments as low-skilled manufacturing and service sector jobs move abroad. A vocational education is thus central to the Blairite-technocratic plans for working-class kids. The bourgeois-liberal classical education, which even now has not totally capitulated to post-modernism, is reserved for a lucky few bourgeois.

Given all this, the government’s attempt to portray subjects like history, literature and classics as élitist is more than slightly hypocritical. Charles Clarke doesn’t mess around with those woolly old-fashioned notions of study (an “adornment to society”) for its own sake. “One of the main purposes of university is to encourage people to think. But education for its own sake is a bit dodgy, too. The idea that you can learn about the world sitting in your study just reading books is not quite right.”

Strasbourg students commented on this change in the system’s imperatives: “There was once a vision — if an ideological one — of a liberal bourgeois university. But as its social base disappeared, the vision became banality. In the age of free-trade capitalism, when the ‘liberal’ state left it its marginal freedoms, the university could still think of itself as an independent power. Of course it was a pure and narrow product of that society's needs — particularly the need to give the privileged minority an adequate general culture before they rejoined the ruling class (not that going up to university was straying very far from class confines). But the bitterness of the nostalgic don... is understandable: better, after all, to be the bloodhound of the haute bourgeoisie than sheepdog to the world’s white-collars. Better to stand guard on privilege than harry the flock into their allotted factories and offices.”

In the face of technocratic “reforms” of education, it would be foolish, as much of the bourgeois media does, to hark back to the earlier pre-technocratic age of fewer students and governments happy for working-class kids not to get into higher education. The much-decried “media studies” type-courses are not the “fault” of today’s students — deemed stupider than ever by the Mail, Express etc. — but have been created to fit new types of job which workers must do.

There was never anything like universal “study for its own sake” in any case. But what would education be like in a communist world, where the economic reality is a society of abundance and the detritus of the class order, bourgeois ideologies — whether authoritarian or post-modern — and alienation had been cleared away?
That there would be equal opportunity for all and an open, critical, reflective culture goes without saying. Hard as it is to envisage that future, I think a tempting glimpse is offered by the way in which students ran occupied universities, above all the Sorbonne, during the general strike of May 1968.

Of course, it was a creation of largely middle-class students within the parameters of a deeply inequitable economy, and there can be no “student power” over education as an island in a sea of capitalist exploitation and alienation. The best elements of the student movement realised this at the time. The experiment collapsed quickly. But. for a few weeks, revolutionaries of all flavours attempted to make the Sorbonne something radically different from the seat of indoctrination and preparation for work (whether as exploited or exploiter) which it was run as by the ancien régime.

They got rid of the old ideologies, the boring “traditional” philosophy and social sciences. The university was opened up to everyone — young workers from Paris’s great industrial plants, above all Renault and Citroen, flocked to take part in the huge democratic discussions on revolution, culture and sexuality which took place in the occupied lecture theatres. Some accounts show that most of the “public interest” in the events was morbid curiosity in the latest activities of “the revolutionaries” rather than participation. But at least in May 1968 the students announced an end to the division between workers and students, between the university‚ and the rest of society. Anyone who wanted to be a “student” could be. Why, as the Stalinists in the French Communist Party would have it, stop workers from being able to engage in inspiring debate and ideas?

The Sorbonne Occupation Committee abolished all of the university’s petty regulations, decreed the end of exams and made progress from one year to the next of a course automatic.

Important too, if perhaps underemphasised by the students, was the idea of transforming the workplace. Why should it be a site of drudgery and boredom, rather than one where workers can express themselves?

The students and their “worker-student action committees” did all too little to attempt to bring this seed of revolutionary, independent thinking into the factories themselves. The university had become “social”, but they recognised the division of intellectual and manual labour by leaving the factories closed, under the stewardship of the union bureaucracy. Although virulent opponents of the Stalinists, they complacently they allowed them to smother the general strike, failing to put up a fight as the “Communist” CGT union’s heavies guarded occupied factories from the student activists who came in solidarity with the workers.

The union bureaucrats said they needed to keep the machines safe, but what they really needed to do was keep the workers’ consciousness firmly in their own hands, away from student influence (“provocations”).

In 1966 the bourgeois courts had been equally keen to suppress dissident students, and in response to On the Poverty of Student Life... took action to assuage the fears of “worried parents”. Upon shutting down the Strasbourg student union for “misusing funds” the judge neatly summarised the pamphlet’s points. “These publications express ideas and aspirations which, to put it mildly, have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One has only to read what the accused have written, for it is obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adolescents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant, and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgments, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow-students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world. Rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion, and a world-wide proletarian revolution with ‘unlicensed pleasure’ as its only goal.”

I do not claim that a communist education system would simply mean that students, or indeed “everyone” would debate anything and everything in a completely unstructured way without any guidance at all (perhaps that is Blair’s plan, given that lectures and tutorial hours are on the decline). Five-year-olds will still need direction. But what we will see will surely be a radically realigned common understanding of why we as human beings want to educate ourselves. Education will then be free, open and democratically controlled, not forced to “pay its way” either through fees or through the need to submit itself to profitability.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Economic liberation of man

Marx’s desire to transform society into a “free association of producers” has long been ignored by large swathes of the left. Not only Stalinists and social democrats, but also supposedly Trotskyist organisations such as the Militant Tendency have equated nationalisation with socialism, with the state bureaucracy substituted for the working class as the vanguard of social transformation. Sometimes gestures are made towards democracy through formulations such as “public ownership”, but the dominant trend of the left in recent decades has been to move further than ever from the perspective of workers’ management of the economy, with the Socialist Workers Party having abandoned their former commitment to “workers’ control and international socialism”.

To avoid perpetuating the culture of “top-down” socialist planning it is necessary to promote an alternative vision of workers’ power – that of grassroots control. A new contribution to this important task is Pete Burton’s Workers’ Control blog (www.workerscontrol.blogspot.com) which features discussion of worker-managed businesses in Argentina like FaSinPat/Zanon and the Hotel Bauen, a film about the Sanitarios Maracay in Venezuela, as well as articles from across the twentieth century featuring different conceptions of workers’ control.


The opportunity to compare the varied ideas of what workers’ control actually means is the strongest point of the new website. Over the years the lack of even the most basic consensus here has been remarkable. The Zanon workers operate their factory under their own steam, with decisions made by a democratic assembly of all its workers (who are all paid the same basic rate plus experience bonuses) - a method sharply counterposed to that exhibited in texts like Jaroslav Vanek’s 1975 collection Self Management, which does not distinguish between trade union supervision of the bosses, a market system based on undemocratic co-operatives, or the deeply hierarchical Yugoslav system where votes were staged for workers to give their assent to management plans. The problem in such conceptions is that all of them leave ownership rights and decision-making powers entirely in the hands of bosses and unaccountable state bureaucrats, with workers offered a limited ability to voice criticism but no right to take any initiative for themselves or subjugate specialists to their own authority.

Meanwhile, Trotsky’s 1931 article Workers’ Control of Production is careful to guard against class-collaborationist trade union participation in bourgeois management structures. This was later most sharply posed in West Germany’s “co-determination” system, where worker representatives were co-opted onto boards and served as a labour movement face for the employers, taking responsibility for keeping up profitability. Trotsky however sees workers’ control as a prelude to socialist revolution -

“What state regime corresponds to workers’ control of production? It is obvious that the power is not yet in the hands of the proletariat, otherwise we would have not workers’ control of production but the control of production by the workers’ state as an introduction to a regime of state production on the foundations of nationalization. What we are talking about is workers’ control under the capitalist regime, under the power of the bourgeoisie… the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.”

- a view echoed in an article written by the Melbourne Centre for Workers’ Control also featured on the blog. This adds another layer of argument – workers’ control is portrayed as a necessary reform in the sense of Lenin’s State and Revolution (workers being able to hold capitalist bosses to account), but then the task comes to extend workers’ own ownership of the economy through ‘workers’ management’

“Workers’ control implies a series of measures which increasingly challenge the power and authority of the bosses and the capitalist state, whereas workers’ management implies the rule of the workers after this power and authority have been overthrown”

The creation of organs of economic dual power such as factory committees and workers’ councils is proposed as the means by which workers’ management can ultimately be achieved. This is the key point for Marxists – rather than looking to build islands of socialism within a capitalist economy, extend trade union involvement in management boards or merely see workers’ control as veto power over the bosses, the task is to fight for industrial democracy and workers’ rights in the here and now in preparation for direct workers’ management of the economy – for participatory and democratic working-class rule – in a socialist society.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

SWP expulsions + "Party Notes"

As anyone who reads the leading left blogs will know, the Socialist Workers' Party has expelled three of its leading members as part of their fight with George Galloway over the future of Respect. It seems that the comrades were disloyal to the SWP and were willing to take part in Galloway's coup against John Rees (see their official explanation below).

The fact that they were chucked out by the SWP does not make them martyrs. I say that first and foremost because I do not accept the Cliffite "logic" that you determine what you are for according to what you are against - I am not on the side of the homophobic Stalinist George Galloway just because he is against the SWP. That would be ludicrous - one of my main objections to the SWP is its willingness to ally with such figures.

Frankly, I think the SWP had every right to expel members who undermined their organisation's position, even if I disagree with the "coalition" to which this whole fiasco relates. It would be wrong to empathise with ill-disciplined pro-Respect popular frontists out of pleasure in the Socialist Workers' Party's difficulties (though nor do I condone the SWP's allegedly undemocratic behaviour in Tower Hamlets Respect).

There is of course some possibility that the Galloway-Rees clash will make some people realise how bankrupt the whole project is - the very mild criticism of religious communalism which has started to emanate from the SWP will surely lead some members to ask themselves why they lined up with Stalinists, Islamists and Brick Lane businessmen to start with. Most of those who grow disaffected with the SWP will no doubt give up on the left, blaming that organisation's culture on "Leninism" or working class politics. I have met dozens of anarchists who used to be in the SWP cult.

What the collapse of Respect shows is the futility, even on the most dishonest and "tactical" level, of abandoning socialist politics in favour of a shot at the big time. The ego clashes are irresolvable, never mind the contending class forces. We need to unite the socialist left around working class politics - like the RMT's proposed candidature in the London Assembly elections - a step which may help save at least some activists from becoming mere débris of the Respect faction fight.

From the SWP's Party Notes
Party discipline


Last weekend 3 SWP members - Rob Hoveman, Kevin Ovenden and Nick Wrack were expelled from the SWP.

Kevin and Rob
Kevin and Rob are SWP members working for George Galloway. However, recently this situation has become increasingly difficult. The party leadership has come to believe that it was impossible to have two comrades working for someone who has openly attacked the SWP in recent months. This was a position several leading members of the SWP articulated at the recent Party Council. Also over the last year there have been a number of meetings between the CC and Rob and Kevin.

At these meetings the CC raised major concerns with the way both these comrades worked in Respect. We believe that they were more concerned with promoting George Galloway’s line in Respect than the SWP’s position.

More seriously, they have denounced the SWP to individuals and organisations outside the Party.

Two members of the CC met with Kevin and Rob last week, they were asked to resign their posts in George Galloway’s office. Kevin and Rob have subsequently written to the CC refusing to stop working for George Galloway despite the party’s concerns.

Nick

The recent Respect NC voted to create a new position of National Officer. The SWP believed that the post was created to undermine Respect National Secretary John Rees. However, after some changes to the way the post was defined, the SWP agreed to setting up of the post. George Galloway then suggested that Nick did the job. Nick said he would seek various people’s opinions.

The SWP made it clear that we didn’t think Nick should accept the job because he had publicly disagreed with the line being put by the party about Respect. This would have created confusion in the Respect national office. Nick met with two members of the CC and agreed to accept party discipline and not take the post. Several days later his name was put forward by a member of International Socialist Group for the post. When asked, Nick refused to withdraw his name saying he had changed his mind and now wanted his name to go forward.

Despite a further meeting with two members of the CC and several phone calls, Nick refused to withdraw from standing for the post. There are occasions when the CC may ask a comrade not to take a post, perhaps a full time trade union position, or promotion to a job that puts someone in an untenable position. Nick was therefore expelled because he refused to work under the direction of the SWP leadership and reneged on the agreement he made with the CC.

It is important to make one thing clear, the three comrades have not been expelled because they disagreed with the Central Committee. It is because they failed to accept Party discipline and worked against the nationally agreed SWP line.

Expelling comrades is not something the CC does lightly, but in all three cases we felt we had no choice.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Karl Radek - Through Germany in the sealed coach

When, after the February Revolution in 1917, Vladimir Ilyich became convinced that the Entente powers would never allow him and his comrades to make the journey through to Russia, there were still two possibilities available: either we could try to travel through Germany illegally, or we could travel with the knowledge of the authorities.

Crossing illegally entailed the greatest risk, firstly because we could very easily be detained for a long time, and also because we found it hard to distinguish between the traffickers whose services we should require and German government spies. If the Bolsheviks had to come to an agreement with the German government about their journey across the country, then this had to happen in a completely open fashion, in order to lessen the danger which this whole affair might conjure up against Lenin as leader of the proletarian revolution. Hence we were all in favour of an open agreement. On behalf of Vladimir Ilyich I turned, in association with Paul Levi, who at the time was a member of the Spartacus group, and who was temporarily staying in Switzerland, to the representative of the Frankfurter Zeitung, who was known to us. If I am not mistaken, it was a Dr Deinhard. Through him we asked the German Ambassador Romberg whether Germany would allow émigrés returning to Russia to pass through its territory. In turn, Romberg enquired of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin and received a reply that was in principle favourable.

Thereupon we elaborated the conditions on which we were willing to undertake the journey through Germany. The main conditions were as follows: the German government should allow all applicants to pass through, without asking for their names; those travelling through should enjoy the protection of extraterritoriality and nobody would be entitled to enter into negotiations of any sort with them during their journey. With these conditions we sent the Swiss Socialist deputy Robert Grimm, the secretary of the Zimmerwald Union, and our political ally and comrade Platten to see Romberg. After the meeting with the German Ambassador we met in the trade-union premises. Grimm related how surprised the Ambassador had been, when they had read out to him our conditions for the journey. “Forgive me,” said the German Ambassador, “but it seems to me that is not I who am requesting permission to travel through Russia, but Mr Ulyanov and the others who are asking me for permission to travel through Germany. Here it is we who are in the position to impose conditions.” Nonetheless he passed on our demands to Berlin. We continued to send comrade Platten to the following negotiations. Vladimir Ilyich had insisted on this for the following reasons: in conversation Robert Grimm had let slip the remark that he would prefer to carry on the negotiations alone, since Platten was certainly a good comrade but a very bad diplomat. “And nobody can tell what may yet result from these negotiations.” Vladimir Ilyich looked carefully at Grimm, squinted with one eye, and when he had gone away, said: “Whatever happens, we must keep Grimm away from these discussions. Out of personal ambition he is capable of starting any kind of negotiations about peace with Germany, and thus he could involve us in some embarrassing business.”

So we thanked Grimm for his services, and explained to him that he was overburdened with work and we didn’t want to harass him. Ilyich’s suspicion, as is well known, turned out to be completely correct. Grimm, who continued the negotiations in the name of Martov group, had undoubtedly already in Switzerland engaged in negotiations about conditions for peace, and later from Petrograd he sent communications about the prospects for peace from “his” government, which the Swiss government then probably passed on to the Germans. The attempts to represent him as a German spy or agent are absurd. He wanted to play an important role; Ilyich had already considered that such ambition was the principal motive of his activity. The Germans hoped that in Russia the Bolsheviks would act as opponents of the war and declared themselves in agreement with our conditions. I recommend those gentlemen who are still raising an outcry against the Bolsheviks on this account to read Ludendorff’s memoirs, for he is still tearing his hair out over the fact that he let the Bolsheviks through; he has finally grasped that in so doing he was not performing a service for German imperialism, but for the world revolution.

So we set off and travelled in a Swiss train as far as Schaffhausen, where we had to change into the German train. There was an anxious moment which has remained in my memory. German officers were waiting for us and directed us into the customs hall where the number of living items of ammunition which they were transporting to Russia had to be established. On the basis of our agreement they were not entitled to ask for our papers. In the customs hall they kept men and women separated, so that on the way it was impossible for one of us to vanish or to substitute a Russian Bolshevik for a German maiden, in order to plant the seeds of the revolution. (I very much wanted to do so, since I as an Austrian could have done so quite legitimately, but Ilyich was against it.) We waited in silence and in a very anxious mood. Lenin stood – surrounded by the comrades – peacefully against the wall. We didn’t want them to keep him under observation.

When we finally settled into the coach, we began to have trouble with Vladimir Ilyich. We put him and Nadezhda Konstantinovna in a separate compartment – at which he protested – so that he would be able to work in peace. But during the journey we didn’t let him get much work done! In the neighbouring compartment were comrade Safarov and his wife, comrade Olga Ravich, Inessa Armand and I. At this time to be sure we were not yet arguing with Safarov about opportunism, but all the same we made a lot of noise in the compartment. Late in the evening Ilyich rushed into our compartment, to remove comrade Olga Ravich, because he thought she and I were mainly responsible for the noise. In order to establish the truth before history and the Control Commission, I must here testify that comrade Olga has always been a serious party member, and that it was I alone who was telling anecdotes and was therefore guilty of making a noise. So comrade Olga left our compartment in splendid isolation.

Ilyich worked throughout the journey. He read, made entries in notebooks, but also concerned himself with organisational questions. Admittedly the matter is a very delicate one, but I shall nonetheless recount it. There was a constant conflict between the smokers and the non-smokers about a certain location in the carriage. We could not smoke in the compartment, because of the little four-year-old Robert and because of Ilyich, who would not tolerate it. Hence the smokers tried to convert a room which normally served other purposes into a smokers’ lounge. Hence outside this room there was a permanent crowd of bickering people. So Ilyich cut a piece of paper in two and distributed permits. For every three tickets of category A for the legitimate use of the premises there was one smoker’s ticket. This naturally evoked further discussions about the value of human needs, and we acutely regretted that comrade Bukharin was not with us, as a specialist in Böhm Bawerk’s theory about marginal utility.

I think it was in Karlsruhe that Platten informed us that a member of the German trade-union leadership, Janson, was on the train, and that he brought us greetings from Legien and the German trade-union leaders. Ilyich instructed us to tell him to go to “the devil’s grandmother” and refused to meet him. Since Janson knew me, and since I as an Austrian was travelling as a stowaway, the comrades were afraid that it might become known that I was travelling with them. Clearly it was my fate from the very beginning to cause difficulties for comrade Chicherin in his diplomatic relations with Germany. So I was hidden in the luggage compartment and left with a supply of about fifty newspapers, so that I would keep quiet and not cause a scandal. Poor Janson was sent by Platten into the carriage of the German officers who were accompanying us. Despite this snub he showed great concern for us, bought the German newspapers for us at every station, and was offended when Platten reimbursed him for them.

In Frankfurt the train stopped for a long time, and the platform was sealed off by the military. Suddenly the cordon was broken, as German soldiers came rushing up to us. They had heard that Russian revolutionaries, who were in favour of peace, were travelling through. Each of them held a jug of beer in both hands. Excitedly they asked us whether and when peace was coming. This mood told us more about the situation than was useful for the German government. The incident was all the more characteristic, since the soldiers were all Scheidemanns. After this we saw nobody else on the journey. In Berlin the platform was cordoned off by the police. So we continued as far as Sassnitz, where we boarded the Swedish steamer. Here we were required to comply with the usual formalities and were asked to fill in a questionnaire. Ilyich suspected a trap and advised us to use pseudonyms, which later led to a comic misunderstanding. The steamer’s radio got a query from our comrade Ganetsky at Trelleborg, as to whether there was an Ulyanov on board. The captain knew from the questionnaire that there was no Ulyanov in the party, but just in case he asked whether there might not perhaps be a Mr Ulyanov among us. Ilyich hesitated for a long time, then admitted that it was he; Ganetsky was now informed of our approach.

In Trelleborg we made a very “striking” impression. Ganetsky invited us all to supper which in the Swedish fashion involved “Smörgas”. We poor fellows, who in Switzerland had been accustomed to have no more than a herring for our dinner, looked at this enormous table with innumerable hors d’oeuvre: we rushed at it like a swarm of grasshoppers and completely emptied the table, to the astonishment of the waiters, who were used to seeing only civilised people at the Smörgas table. Vladimir Ilyich ate nothing. He tried to find out from Ganetsky everything he could about the Russian revolution – but Ganetsky knew nothing. The next morning we arrived in Stockholm. Swedish comrades, journalists and photographers were waiting for us. At the head of the Swedish comrades was Dr Karleson in a top-hat, an inflated chatterer who now, fortunately, has returned from the Communist Party to Branting’s camp. But at that time he greeted us as the most solid of the Swedish Left Socialists and took the chair together with the honourable and sentimental mayor of Stockholm, Lindhagen, at the breakfast which was given in our honour (Sweden is distinguished from all other countries by the fact that at every opportunity a breakfast is organised; when the social revolution comes in Sweden, the first thing they will do is give a breakfast in honour of the retiring bourgeoisie, and then a breakfast in honour of the new revolutionary regime). It was probably the sight of our solid Swedish comrades which aroused in us the powerful desire for Ilyich to look something like a human being. We persuaded him to at least buy some new boots. He had travelled in mountain boots with enormous nails. Even if he wanted to ruin the footpaths of the nauseating Swiss bourgeois cities with these boots, we told him, his conscience must forbid him to take these tools of destruction to Petrograd, where perhaps there were no pavements left at all. Together with the Jewish worker Chapin who knew the local customs and conditions, I went with Ilyich to a Stockholm department store. There we bought some shoes for Ilyich, and nagged him to equip himself with other items of clothing. He resisted as best he could, and asked us if we thought he wanted to open a ready-made clothing shop in Petrograd. But finally we prevailed and also provided him with a pair of trousers which I found he was still wearing when I came to Petrograd in October, admittedly in the deformed condition they had acquired under the influence of the Russian Revolution. In Stockholm Parvus tried to meet Lenin as a representative of the central committee of the German Social Democracy, but Ilyich not only refused to meet him, but charged me, Vorovsky and Ganetsky, together with the Swedish comrades to make a formal record of this attempt. The whole day passed in discussions; we went here and there; but before Lenin left another real deliberation took place.

The moment of departure was approaching. Together with the Swedish comrades and a part of the Russian colony in Stockholm we went from the Regina hotel to the station. When our comrades had already boarded the train, one of the Russians took his hat off and made a speech to Lenin. The emotion at the beginning of the speech, in which Lenin was extolled as “our dear leader” caused Lenin to rise angrily, but the speaker assumed the offensive. The purport of what he went on to say was more or less the following: Take care, dear leader, that in Petrograd you don’t arouse any unpleasant disorder. The bewilderment with which Lenin had listened to the first complimentary phrases of the speech mellowed into a sly smile. The train began to move, and for a moment we could still see this smile ...

Friday, October 12, 2007

A "Trotskyist" critique of Cuba


On October 10th the Socialist Party and its youth wing, Socialist Students, held a "joint meeting" on the life of Che Guevara at ULU. The SP's conduct at the meeting was very dishonest, presenting a demagogic case for appreciating Guevara's bravery, drive to action and "socialist" politics with little reference to what kind of society he envisaged and what Cuba is now.

The speaker from the platform, who delivered a near half-hour biography of Guevara's life, was clearly reluctant to "admit" in front of young contacts what the Trotskyist position on Cuba is. His only criticism of élitist petty-bourgeois guerrilla struggle was that it is militarily utopian and such tactics could not be adopted in Britain - he did however laud healthcare in Cuba and the "anti-capitalist" nature of its economy. The lack of working-class involvement in the revolution was unfortunate, but essentially a tactical question. They were not prepared to take power, "Che", as he was affectionately termed, was.

He furthermore implied that the Cuban régime was not Stalinist on the grounds that Guevara was an opponent of Popular Frontism (he did not deign to mention that this was only true in terms of Guevara's revolutionary Stalinist and Maoist Third Period politics) and that "according to rumour" the guerilla leader had a copy of Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed in his back pocket when captured in Bolivia in 1967.

When the chair called for questions from the floor, there was no response, despite the fact that 60-odd people were in the room. After around a minute a Socialist Party member got up, and launched into a speech about the postal strike, claiming that the CWU should "follow Che's example of not thinking and discussing, but taking action [sic!]". As if a strike is comparable to a guerrilla coup backed by the peasantry.

Given the apathy of the rest of the audience, I took the opportunity to intervene. The dishonesty and half-truths of the lead speaker were so transparent that I only made the most uncontroversial, basic Marxist points - that the question of agency of change affects the outcome and thus the society the revolution creates; the organised working class had no role in the Cuban revolution (which was not explicitly socialist) so did not consciously take power; workers had no control over the Cuban government or economy, which were organised along the lines of the Stalinist ruling class's structures in the USSR; nationalisation without workers' management simply hands power to the totalitarian bureaucracy; and that the continuing existence of Stalinism in Cuba is not as interesting as expressions of working-class power in society such as strikes in Bolivia or factory occupations in Argentina.

Although I had torn into everything the speaker said, the Socialist Party were a well-trained bunch and not to be drawn into an argument. While at an SWP meeting an intervention such as mine would have provoked them to angrily lay into my case, accusing me of having secret right-wing agendas and barking out their own line even more vehemently and unreasonably than before, the SP did not respond to my provocation at all. None of the others who intervened from the floor responded to what I had said, instead repeating the same mantra about the derring-do and bravery of Guevara and saying how we should learn from him. It was like everyone was talking past each other. (Curiously, many of these speeches doubled as announcements for upcoming Socialist Party events, one of them even including a call for comrades to draw up concrete contact lists).

The meeting lacked any real debate, unusual given that what I had said was clearly in contradiction to the other interventions. I sense that the Socialist Party were rather embarrassed - they wanted to jump on the Che Guevara t-shirt bandwagon, but the only way to do this is uncritical and impressionistic appreciation for a man who was, in truth, a Stalinist. His voluntarism and adventurism are criticised on tactical grounds - but that "ambition" of his was his only saving grace. His politics were much worse.

Summing up at the end of the meeting, the speaker reiterated what he had said before, but co-opted certain elements of my arguments into his, making vague references to the need to "enhance" workers' democracy in Cuba and more workers' control rather than bureaucracy - but he did not even say that a "political revolution" was necessary, which you might have thought central to the "degenerated workers' state" schema (which also went unmentioned). Indeed, some of the Socialist Party comrades had even referred to Cuba as a "socialist" alternative to imperialism.

That is not just unMarxist because of its accommodation to Stalinism and utopian petty-bourgeois politics, or its fetishisation of nationalisation. It is unMarxist because it is simply - and deliberately - dishonest.

La ville entière - Max Ernst

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hezbollah and "Al Quds day"

On Sunday some 300 people marched through London demonstrating for a free Palestine. George Galloway addressed the crowd. But, although supported by Respect, the Al-Quds demo wasn't much like a Stop the War demo-cum-SWP rally.

For a start, I only saw one SWPer on the march. There were many, many more Hezbollah flags than Palestinian ones, with dozens of "We are all Hizbullah" placards. Respect might nominally have backed the Al-Quds day protest, but were clearly embarrassed to turn out to an event supported by groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other far-right Islamist organisations.

The demonstration was a disgrace, with dozens of supporters of clerical fascist causes in the Middle East making their allegiances known. The AWL decided to protest against the event - but rather than just standing in the enclave the police had barricaded off for us, myself, two AWL comrades and Peter Tatchell leafleted the demonstrators themselves.

As soon as we arrived at the end of the column marching down Park Lane, we faced attack. The tannoy led the chants "Peter Tatchell, paedophile" and "Peter Tatchell, child killer". A man in a Hezbollah t-shirt ripped my leaflets (with the title "Support the workers, women and students of Iran - against US imperialism, against the Islamic Republic") out of my hands, and when I grabbed them back, a policeman struck me on the arm. The police then formed a cordon around the demonstration, while we leafletted passers-by and tried to engage the Al-Quds protestors in conversation.

Most of them offered wild abuse - "You are in the party of Satan"; "You are in the pay of the CIA"; "You are cheap, you sold out to the Zionists"; and so on. One of their number spat at a woman comrade.

Although disgusted by their behaviour, I was also strongly opposed to the chants of Blairite Zionists taking part in the counter-demonstration - to shout "terrorists" at people of Arabic descent on the streets of Britain is extremely provocative, whatever the politics of the Hezbollah supporters among them.

Should we have bothered? We knew that the Hezbollah flag-wavers would be aggravated and respond hysterically rather than talk. But we weren't looking to sell lots of copies of Solidarity. We wanted to plant our flag in the sand against the idea that supporting the Palestinians has anything to do with supporting the clerical fascists.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The death of Che Guevara

Once more I was able to convince myself how criminal the capitalistic octopuses are. On a picture of our old and lamented comrade Stalin, I swore not to rest before these capitalistic octopuses are destroyed.
Che Guevara, 1953

Forty years after the death of Che Guevara, I thought it would be pertinent to reproduce this article by Cuban-American Trotskyist Samuel Farber, which appeared in New Politics soon after the 30th anniversary of Guevara's demise.

THIRTY YEARS AFTER HIS SUMMARY EXECUTION BY THE BOLIVIAN ARMY in which the C.I.A. was complicitous, Che Guevara has once more captured public attention. His image has been reproduced over and over again by a strange combination of people and institutions ranging from Argentina's right-wing President, Carlos Menem, who issued a commemorative stamp through the Cuban government, to advertising agencies selling trendy goods to Yuppies which led a cartoonist for the left-wing Mexican daily La Jornada to draw the image of Che Guevara with a Nike logo on his beret. This resurrection has been accompanied and in part caused by the publication of a number of books widely reviewed in newspapers and political and intellectual journals.

Mystified and mythified since he was executed, Che has become a source of political inspiration for many who have only a vague notion of his political activities and ideas. With that in mind, this essay aims to reconstruct a political portrait of Che Guevara, drawing on the invaluable materials provided by these three works. I will rely primarily on Castañeda's book, the most politically astute and perhaps most widely reviewed of the three, with occasional references to Anderson's and Taibo's biographies.

Jorge G. Castañeda is a prominent Mexican writer with deep roots in his country's political Establishment (his recently deceased father was a one-time cabinet member). A former Communist of Althusserian persuasion, he has recently become well known for his advocacy of a social democratic political program for Latin America and a concomitant rejection of a revolutionary road for the region. This book, however, cannot be considered generally hostile to Che Guevara. As for the claim made by some reviewers that Castañeda accuses Fidel Castro of having abandoned Che Guevara to die in Bolivia, Castañeda is actually far more tentative. He suggests that as one hypothesis and, even while entertaining such a possibility, he explores in detail the powerful Soviet pressures curtailing Castro's freedom of action at the time.

Castañeda's critical tone is primarily directed to the revolutionary in Che. Thus, in the Prologue he comments on Che's "eternal refusal of ambivalence," and the tendency of the 60s generation to which he belonged to engage in "a wholesale rejection of life's contradictions," and to exclude in themselves the "very principles of contradictory feelings, of conflicting desires, of mutually incompatible political goals," in an era that was "writ in black and white." (pp. xv-xvi) Given these underlying assumptions and tone, it would be very difficult for the general reader to make a distinction between the generally justifiable criticisms that Castañeda makes of guerrilla warfare as a general revolutionary strategy, and such specific applications of it as in the Congo and Bolivia, on the one hand, and Marxist revolutionary politics and strategy in general terms, on the other. The reader is thus left with the implication, at least by default, that reform rather than revolution is the only viable, sensible alternative.


II
ERNESTO GUEVARA DE LA SERNA WAS BORN IN 1928 IN ARGENTINA, then not only the richest nation in Latin America but among the more affluent countries in the world. But his elite family was no stranger to financial difficulties due to Guevara senior's business failures. While no doubt assimilating the general political values of a left-wing household strongly affected by the Spanish Civil War, Guevara was not particularly political during his teenage years and early twenties. He was then more bohemian than leftist, a phenomenon most common at the time in the relatively affluent, European ambiance of Che's Argentina than in most other Latin American countries including Cuba. This early bohemianism was not entirely abandoned when Guevara became thoroughly politicized as he traveled through Latin America in the 50s. Significant traces of it remained that would color his subsequent political development.

By the time he left Guatemala in 1954 in the aftermath of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Jacobo Arbenz orchestrated by U.S. imperialism, Guevara was thoroughly politicized, accepting a Stalinist view of the world. This was true in both the generic sense that he had become a staunch supporter of the political model represented by the USSR of a repressive one-party state owning and controlling the economy without any democratic popular controls, independent unions, workers' or civil liberties, as well as in the narrow literal sense of his great admiration for Joseph Stalin. Thus even before his Guatemalan experience, when Guevara traveled through Costa Rica and witnessed first-hand the awesome and terrible power of the United Fruit company, he wrote to his aunt Beatriz telling her that he had sworn "before a picture of our, old much lamented comrade Stalin that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated." Another letter to the same aunt was signed with the words "Stalin II." (p.62 and Anderson, p.167) More important was the fact that when Guevara visited the USSR in his capacity as one of the most important leaders of the victorious Cuban revolution in November of 1960, he insisted on depositing a floral tribute at Stalin's tomb even against the advice of the Cuban ambassador to the USSR.(p. 181) It is important to remember that this was more than four years after Khrushchev's revelations of Stalin's crimes.

While much of the Left associates Stalinism with its Popular Front period, Guevara's Stalinism was of a different kind, much closer to the more aggressive, collectivizing variety of the late 20s and early 30s. It is very revealing that Guevara strongly criticized Lenin for having introduced some capitalist forms of competition into the USSR in the 20s (the New Economic Policy).(Anderson, p.697) In this spirit, Guevara's collectivism was pure, unadulterated Stalinism. In March of 1960, he declared that "one has to constantly think on behalf of masses and not on behalf of individuals...It's criminal to think of individuals because the needs of the individual become completely weakened in the face of the needs of the human conglomeration." In August of 1964, Che postulated that the individual, "becomes happy to feel himself a cog in the wheel, a cog that has its own characteristics and is necessary though not indispensable, to the production process, a conscious cog, a cog that has its own motor, and that consciously tries to push itself harder and harder to carry to a happy conclusion one of the premises of the construction of socialism -- creating a sufficient quantity of consumer goods for the entire population."(Anderson, pp.470, 605)

Guevara's standards for what constituted a "sufficient quantity of consumer goods for the entire population" were plainly ascetic, consistent with his own exacting standards for himself and his family. This in turn was related to his puritanism whose effects could be checked and even reversed before the establishment of Cuba's one party state. Thus during the armed struggle against Batista, Che tried to regulate sexual relations among the men and women within his column, until he was forced to reconsider. Similarly, when his troops occupied the town of Sancti Spiritus in central Cuba in late 1958, he tried to ban alcohol and the lottery, but gave up in the face of the townspeople's resistance.(p.132) His was a Spartan view of the desirable collectivity, an egalitarian society led by the one-party state's dedicated and selfless revolutionaries with no place for democracy, individuality or material abundance which helps explain why the notion of moral incentives played such a key role in Guevara's social and political vision. Collective selflessness, sacrifice and dedication were his alternative to politically conscious, independent-minded, rational individuals who hammer out collective goals and programs through democratic discussion and voting; that is, majority rule with minority rights.

Guevara's personal and political asceticism necessarily led him to indifference, even contempt for the material needs and preoccupations of ordinary people. When he sharply criticized what he saw as the bourgeoisification of the Soviet bloc in the post-Stalin period, he didn't consider the degree to which the political and economic changes implemented by Khrushchev and his East European equivalents improved the daily lives of people precisely because those regimes were compelled to pay significantly more attention to the production and distribution of consumer goods than did his hero Stalin. Paco Ignacio Taibo's biography reveals that Guevara was much influenced by Gandhi's ideas before he adopted the Stalinist version of Marxism. This is highly suggestive and calls our attention to the elective affinity between Guevara's early Gandhiism and bohemianism, contemptuous of the "bourgeois" comforts and advances of modern civilization, and the particular form of ascetic Stalinism that he would later endorse and contribute to in his own right.

GUEVARA'S STALINISM WAS ALSO MARKED BY A STRONG VOLUNTARISM so that his politics overlapped with the Maoist variety of Stalinism. Classical Marxism contains a virtual state of tension between the role of objective and subjective factors in historical development as in the well-known formulation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that "men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted by the past." This objective-subjective tension in Marx was abandoned by later tendencies claiming to be Marxist. For example, German Social Democracy elaborated a mechanical objectivism which minimized the subjective active element in history. At the other extreme, Maoism and Guevaraism have been notorious for their even more extreme voluntarism completely ignoring objective reality. Thus Guevara's economic program for Cuba involved highly centralized planning eliminating all market mechanisms and again principally relying on moral incentives, with no thought of workers' control (as distinct from participation controlled from above). None of this took any account of the specific characteristics of a Cuban economy which, although relatively advanced in comparison to the rest of Latin America, was still very far from a fully developed industrial economy. The existence of a considerable degree of petty trade was, in the last analysis, not a matter of a voluntaristic choice of governmental policy. Instead, a certain degree of mercantile activity was a reflection of material reality, i.e., a backward development of the still non-collective, petty commodity means of production, and similarly of the means of distribution. Marx and Engels had assumed that the abolition of the market as a principal regulator of economic activity would take place in the context of an extended factory system where production was already conducted on a social rather than an individual basis.

Guevara's strong voluntarism was also expressed in his emphasis on guerrilla warfare as the sole revolutionary strategy for Latin America. Interestingly, the early formulations of his guerrilla theory cautioned against attempting guerrilla warfare in Latin American countries with elected constitutional governments, no doubt in recognition of the Cuban experience where the guerrillas succeeded, in large measure, because they opposed an illegitimate government that had come to power through a military coup d'état carried out shortly before a general election that Batista was expected to lose. Che later dropped this qualification when he insisted that conditions were equally ripe for guerrilla warfare throughout Latin America. This was remarkably consistent with his inability to recognize specific political textures and historical conjunctures, evident early on in Cuba during the period of armed struggle against the Batista dictatorship. He could not understand, for example, and opposed Castro's very effective tactic of returning prisoners (minus their weapons) to the enemy,(p. 103) a tactic which made a great deal of sense when facing a mercenary and demoralized army with no social or political support in the population at large. Even more striking was Guevara's colossal political error proposing that the rebels rob banks to finance their operations. When that proposal was resisted by the urban leadership of the 26th of July Movement, Guevara took it as a sign of their social conservatism. (Castañeda, p. 129, Anderson, p.347) What he apparently did not realize (nor do any of his biographers) is that in the late 40s, not quite ten years earlier, Cuba had gone through a period of political gangsterism when many of the revolutionaries of another era had degenerated into plain gangsters, carrying out violent activities including bank robberies. Any involvement of the 50s revolutionaries in such activities would have brought back memories of that dark period and would have been extremely politically damaging, particularly since Fidel Castro himself had been associated with those groups in his student days thereby making it easy for the Batista-controlled press to argue that the revolutionaries were just bringing back the bad old days of political gangsterism.


III
DURING THE 50S GUEVARA SHARED THE GENERAL WORLDVIEW OF THE TRADITIONAL, pro-Moscow Latin American Communist parties but he never became a party member. Guevara was not partial to the Popular Front strategy and the devious political maneuvering it entailed and given his independent personality, he was not the type to be reduced to a cog in a bureaucratic party apparatus. However, as we shall see, Guevara did grow very close to the old Cuban Communists (Popular Socialist Party) once it changed its political line and decided to support the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra in 1957. This closeness to the old Cuban Communists (and indirectly to Moscow) lasted through the early fateful years of the Cuban Revolution.
No topic has been subject to greater obfuscation and distortion than Guevara's break with the USSR in the mid-60s. The first inkling of his dissatisfaction with the USSR appeared during his previously cited visit to that country in November 1960. While that visit did not affect his overall admiration for the Soviet system, he was disturbed by the inequalities he witnessed in Moscow between the living standards of the leadership of the country and the rest of the population. Despite that, he rejected the critical remarks of some Cuban leaders who had also visited the USSR and Eastern Europe at the time.(pp, 180-181) It was between 1963 and 1965 that Che distanced himself from the USSR. Even in late 1962, he shared the Cuban leadership's disapproval of the way Khrushchev settled the October 1962 missile crisis without consulting Fidel Castro and his associates. A year later, on October 12, 1963, Che spoke at a meeting at his Ministry of Industries that went unreported in the Cuban press, possibly because of the harsh nature of his remarks. There, he analyzed the agricultural crisis in the USSR and squarely blamed it on the existence of private plots, decentralization, material incentives, and financial self-management.(p. 255) It is not known whether Guevara was then aware of the fairly well known fact that private plots had much greater productivity than collective or state farms. (Why people working in collective and state farms in an authoritarian Party/State were at best apathetic, and how democracy and workers' control could have resolved the problem of low productivity was a question Che could not address given his Stalinist ideology.)

During the next 18 months, as Che was increasingly involved in assisting revolutionary movements throughout the world, he became more critical of the USSR's subordination of those movements to other foreign policy concerns, including is détente with the U.S. By 1964, it had also become clear that the USSR was, with some success, pressuring the Cuban government to reduce its support of revolutionary movements, particularly in Latin America, and to concentrate on the production of sugar, thereby fulfilling its contemplated role in the "socialist" bloc's division of labor. After prolonged negotiations, Cuba and the USSR signed a long-term economic agreement on February 17, 1965. The Cubans were particularly unhappy with the high prices the Russians charged them for Soviet machinery and equipment. A week later, Che made a speech in Algiers that marked a definitive break with the USSR. As he then put it:


The development of those countries now entering the path of liberation must be paid for by the Socialist countries....We must not talk any more of a mutually advantageous trade based on prices which the law of value...imposes on backward countries. What is the meaning of "mutual advantage" when [some countries] sell at world prices the raw materials that cost backward countries infinite sweat and suffering, while they buy at world market prices the machines produced in large, mechanized factories...? If we establish this sort of relations between the two groups of nations, we must agree that the Socialist countries are, to a certain extent, accomplices of imperial exploitation...and of the immoral nature of this exchange. The Socialist countries have a moral duty to cease their tacit complicity with the exploiting countries of the West.(p. 291)
With this speech, Guevara not only burned his bridges with the USSR, but also called into question his leadership role in Cuba. It was now inevitable that Che would resign from the Cuban government and would dedicate himself to fomenting guerrilla warfare abroad, albeit with Fidel's material support. His future political course would further distance him from the USSR and the pro-Moscow Communist parties in Latin America.

While Guevara's critique represented a sharp break with the USSR and its supporting parties, there is absolutely nothing here that suggests a break with his ideologically well-entrenched Stalinism. Nothing in Che's writings, actions or speeches suggests that he ever questioned or criticized the one-party state and the complete absence of democracy in any Communist country; nor can one find anything reflective of regret or self-doubt about his own role in stamping out even early residual forms of democracy within the Cuban revolutionary process. In light of this, it is perverse to argue that one should applaud Guevara's more vigorous and militant politics, when his efforts were directed to the establishment of a system completely opposed to democracy and consequently to popular rule.


IV
THE RECENT CHE GUEVARA HISTORIOGRAPHY HAS GREATLY ILLUMINATED HIS ROLE in the Cuban revolutionary process, including his record in power. As noted earlier, Che Guevara was a close ally of the old Cuban Communists (Popular Socialist Party) during the crucial years of the development and consolidation of Cuba's Communist system. As Castañeda aptly points out in describing Che's relations with the PSP, "he shared their views completely for almost four years."(p. 154) This relationship went back to the Sierra Maestra days. Soon after the PSP decided to support the guerrilla insurgency in 1957, it established a close relationship with Che so that when he founded his first school for the political instruction of cadres in the Sierra Maestra, Che asked the PSP to send him its first instructor. The PSP complied and sent him Pablo Ribalta, a young but experienced black Cuban party militant who would, years later, become Cuba's Ambassador to Tanzania and thus Che's principal conduit to Havana when Guevara was engaged in guerrilla warfare in the Congo.(pp. 116-117, Anderson, pp. 296-297)
Che's connection with Ribalta was an early instance of what would soon become a pro-PSP and pro-Soviet camp within the 26th of July Movement. This wing was led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul, a former member of the PSP's youth wing in the 50s. Beginning in 1957, this pro-Communist wing would repeatedly clash with other political tendencies within the 26th of July Movement and with other revolutionary groups. Paco Ignacio Taibo's book is the only one that faithfully and accurately conveys the nature of the contending forces within the revolutionary camp. Influenced by his own political past, Castañeda fails to take proper note of the role played by non-Communist revolutionaries. Anderson's treatment is nothing short of disgraceful. He depicts all revolutionaries unsympathetic to the Communists as right-wingers, leading to the absurdity of describing radio commentator Jose Pardo Llada as a rightist at the time he accompanied Che on a world tour in the summer of 1959.(Anderson, p.426) Pardo Llada was then an unconditional supporter of the Castro government and had been a left-wing, Peronista-type nationalist for a long time.

Taibo describes three tendencies within the camp of the Revolution a hundred days after the overthrow of Batista's government. A right wing reinforced by the moderate sectors of the government, in some cases connected with sectors of the agrarian oligarchy; a self-proclaimed socialist wing led by Raul Castro and Che Guevara sympathetic to the PSP; and a third left-wing sector represented by the mostly urban leading cadres such as Carlos Franqui, Faustino Perez, Marcelo Fernandez and Enrique Oltuski, who were relatively independent of Fidel Castro and combined their anti-imperialism with a strong critique of the Communists, who they considered conservative and sectarian.(Taibo, p.275) An earlier representative of this leftist, non-Communist revolutionary wing was René Ramos Latour ("Daniel"), the National Coordinator of the 26th of July Movement, who was killed in action and did not survive to witness the triumph of the revolution. In a letter to "Daniel" dated December 14, 1957, which Che himself would later describe as "rather idiotic," without explaining what was idiotic about it, Che proclaimed "that because of my ideological training I am one of those who believe that the solution to this world's problems is to be found behind the so-called Iron Curtain." In the same letter, Che revealingly notes that he "always viewed Fidel as a genuine leader of the bourgeois Left, though his character is enriched by personal qualities of extraordinary brilliance which raise him far above his class. It is in that spirit that I joined the struggle; honestly without any hope of going beyond the country's liberation, ready to leave when the conditions of the struggle would shift toward the right (toward what you represent)..."(p.109) Ramos Latour responded by refuting Che's accusation of rightism, adding that salvation was not to be found behind the Iron Curtain and criticized Guevara for believing that "the solution to our ills lies in liberating ourselves from a noxious Yankee domination, by means of a no less noxious Soviet domination."(p.111)

Fidel Castro himself played an ambiguous role in this struggle of tendencies until he ended these debates when he, along with Che and Raul, fatefully supported the old Communists at the critically important trade union congress in the fall of 1959. That Congress signified the beginning of the end of trade union freedom and independence in Cuba. The Castro brothers and Guevara gave the old Communists the power and influence they had failed to win at the ballot box earlier that year. The exact role played by Castro before the fall of 1959 remains unclear to this day. For example, it has recently been revealed that the first organizational steps to establish the Cuban state security organs were taken just two weeks after the revolutionary victory on January 1, 1959. These initial efforts were carried out during the early months of 1959 with the participation of Raul Castro, Che Guevara, the head of the PSP's Party Military Committee and a number of Spanish Communist agents of the Soviet KGB. Fidel Castro, however, does not appear to have been present at any of these early intelligence gatherings. Was this a deliberate tactical move to insure his plausible deniability while he fully supported what was going on? Or was Fidel refraining from direct participation in order to retain his freedom of action vis-à-vis both the Americans and the Russians? Is it conceivable that this early collaboration with the KGB was carried out behind his back?

Since, for several years, Che was a prominent member of a group holding state power, he shares responsibility for the repressive record of that regime, particularly when he was allied with those who energetically pressed the Cuban revolutionary government to adopt the Soviet model. Guevara was personally responsible for supervising many of these repressive activities. He was the head of La Cabaña military fortress where several hundred executions were carried out in the early months of 1959. While Castañeda is correct in pointing out that innocent people were not executed there in any large or significant numbers, (pp.143-144) it cannot be ruled out that there were innocent people whose execution could have been avoided had Che been a revolutionary with different politics. It is also possible that some Batistianos may have suffered punishments quite disproportionate to the offenses with which they were properly charged. This is an area which requires additional investigation, particularly in the light of recurring charges by those who claim to have witnessed Guevara's cruelty at La Cabaña.

Perhaps arguments could be made to justify, or at least to provide extenuating circumstances, for his behavior at La Cabaña. No legitimate arguments can be made to defend Che's principal role in setting up Cuba's first labor camp in the Guanahacabibes region in western Cuba in 1960-1961, to confine people who had committed no crime punishable by law, revolutionary or otherwise. Che defended that initiative with his usual frankness:


[We] only send to Guanahacabibes those doubtful cases where we are not sure people should go to jail. I believe that people who should go to jail should go to jail anyway. Whether long-standing militants or whatever, they should go to jail. We send to Guanahacabibes those people who should not go to jail, people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals, to a greater or lesser degree, along with simultaneous sanctions like being deprived of their posts, and in other cases not those sanctions, but rather to be reeducated through labor. It is hard labor, not brute labor, rather the working conditions are harsh but they are not brutal...(p.178)
Clearly, Che Guevara played a key role in inaugurating a tradition of arbitrary administrative, non-judicial detentions, later used in the UMAP camps for the confinement of dissidents and social "deviants": homosexuals, Jehovahs Witnesses, practitioners of secret Afro-Cuban religions such as Abakua, and non-political rebels. In the 80s and 90s this non-judicial, forced confinement was also applied to AIDS victims.


V
FOR MANY, CHE GUEVARA IS AN APPEALING FIGURE. Some know full well what Guevaraism implies and are attracted to it for that very reason, as has been the case with diverse groups and individuals historically attracted to various forms of Stalinist politics. I am, however, much more concerned with those, particularly among the young, who realize that capitalist society is manifestly exploitive and unjust and want to do something to change it. Very few of them know much about Che Guevara's ideology and less about his history. Their illusions are reinforced by U.S. foreign policy and its criminal blockade against Cuba.
There are attractive aspects of Che Guevara. He was a man who gave up the perquisites of political power to engage in guerrilla warfare campaigns whose success was far from assured or even likely. In those highly inhospitable surroundings, his behavior was indeed courageous if not heroic. His personal integrity was unquestionable, especially as compared to Fidel Castro. Moreover, Che was a principled egalitarian who would even take his wife to task for using his official car for personal errands. (Castañeda pp. 235-236) But he was also arrogant and frequently humiliated those who were his intellectual inferiors. (p.120, Anderson, p.567) As I suggested earlier, his "bohemian" disdain for ordinary material comforts made him insensitive to the material concerns of ordinary people.

In the last analysis, however, the political question remains: was Che Guevara a friend or foe of emancipatory, liberatory politics? The historical record is clear; Guevaraism is incompatible with the struggle to build an egalitarian and democratic society, a society in which working people decide their own fate without reliance on "well-intentioned saviors."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Bourgeois workers' parties"

On Saturday 30th the Alliance for Workers' Liberty held a day school in London on the topic of "Marxists and the Labour Party". This is indeed an apt topic for debate, coming at a time when Gordon Brown has shut down the last vestiges of democracy in the Labour Party - stripping the right of trade unions and CLPs to debate party policy at conference - with not a whimper of opposition from the trade union bureaucrats.

Much as Tony Woodley had promised that the Brown reforms would go down in flames at conference, as the GMB's Paul Kenny claimed that he would "never" vote to hand away his members' influence over Labour, when push came to shove they did nothing. They accepted all of Brown's attacks, in return for a flimsy "concession", that the changes would be reviewed in two years' time. As if the Blair-Brown coterie who fought for thirteen years to eliminate the labour movement voice within the Labour Party would welcome it back come 2009.

This is not just another example of the unions' cackhandedness, lethargy and capitulation in the face of the "partnership agenda". Marxists can (could) intervene in the Labour Party to show up the collaborationist union leaders, de facto allies of the bourgeois-modernising wing of the Labour Party, for what they were. They failed to make sure conference policy was put into practice, they sat idle as Brown announced the public pay freeze, and could be shown for the bureaucrats they are. Now even that is impossible - they have willingly given up their own right to be able to fight.

The CWU, engaged in a bitter struggle with the Royal Mail bosses and the Brown government, did, shamefully, participate in the capitulation; but with a militant rank-and-file who are largely unaware (like most members of affiliated unions) as to what has happened, this sell-out must be exposed and a campaign mounted to win back the union voice. There is some chance to fight the reforms, above all at the 2008 union conferences. Members will be asking: what is the political fund meant to be for?

Yes, of course, labour movement control over the party has been in steep decline for years, and Labour is now very openly business-friendly, outpacing the Tories on their own terrain. But these reforms nevertheless represent a profound change in the underlying character of the party. The hypothetical working-class centre of control in the "bourgeois workers' party" is now gone, and if what Brown - and the union leaders - have done is not soon reversed, it will be fair to say that the Labour Party is finished, a British imitation of the US Democrats. And consolidation of the reforms is by far the most likely possibility.

You might point to examples of "bourgeois workers' parties" where the unions do not have formal ties such as those between Labour and the British unions. True - the Parti Socialiste in France or the German Social Democrats do not have affiliated unions. So Marxists should remain working in the Labour Party, no matter what its structures, then? It will always be a bourgeois workers' party because of its traditions. That is the position of Labour Left Briefing and Socialist Appeal, the Labour lefts who did absolutely nothing to fight the Brown reforms on the grounds that there was no democracy in the party anyway, rather putting under question why exactly they have remained as deep entryists.

But "bourgeois workers' party" was not a title handed down to Labour from heaven. If the party's structures change, its character can too. Furthermore, it should be noted that "bourgeois workers' party" is a term used for any number of different set-ups; and useful not as a scientific schema to be fitted onto a given party, but for understanding the relation of a given organisation to the working class. Whether or not to relate to such formations is essentially a tactical question, depending on their situation and that of the far left. For example, as discussed at the AWL event, in 1970 when the far left was growing rapidly and the Labour left shrinking, electoral opposition to Labour could stick down a marker for independent working-class politics. In 1979, when Trotskyist forces were weak and great industrial militancy channelled (somewhat) through party structures, with major fights to be had in the CLPs, it would have appeared sectarian to stand aside and turn our backs to radicalised Labour members.

Unlike some of his latter-day epigones, Trotsky did not have rigid schemata for this question. The "French turn", when the French Trotskyists intervened in the SFIO, was only a short-term tactic, and upon changes in the political situation it became time to call it a day, having picked up some young activists. Similarly, he counselled that the (non-Trotskyist) POUM should intervene in the social democratic PSOE at a time when its left was in ferment in 1934, but later that the POUM should work with the anarchist CNT union. Sadly, it ignored him on both scores, handing over its union fraction (FOUS) to the Stalinists' UGT federation. But it is highly questionable that the emasculated "Labour Party" offers any opportunities which might render Marxist intervention worthwhile. The McDonnell campaign did not lead to a rebirth of the Labour left, and the Labour left youth - Socialist Youth Network - has a bureaucratic-parliamentary orientation to campaigning meaning that it has tiny forces and minimal grassroots activity. I cannot even see the possibility of a "raid" to win over disillusioned members.

The problem here is the lack of an alternative - the proposal that RMT-backed candidates stand in the London elections in May 2008 is one positive development however. With Respect in meltdown thanks to the Galloway-Rees ego clash, and the Labour left paralysed, the RMT London Regional Council's decision to stand a slate of independent working-class candidates on a broad platform of working-class issues represents the most meaningful opening to the left of Labour. It is by no means certain that the rail union will actually put this resolution into practice; but if a broad range of activists from other unions support the call for such a campaign, it will become all the more realisable. The risk, of course, is that if Marxists cannot stop the Bob Crows, Mark Serwotkas and Matt Wracks of this world from determining its programme, then we might just end up with a Labour Party Mk.II.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007