Friday, February 29, 2008

Capitalism and War

Yesterday I attended a Socialist Worker Student Society meeting at King's College London, with Alex Callinicos speaking on 'Capitalism and War'.

Callincos's lead off, arguing that the logic of capitalism inevitably leads to wars, was extremely bland, and furthermore failed to explain why war is inherent to capitalism. Instead, he simply gave various examples of the argument that 'big capitalist powers have a record of launching wars, ergo capitalism means war'.

Unsurprisingly, the result of this argument-by-correlation was that many confused members of the audience asked questions along the lines of "surely it's not just capitalism that causes war, but also religion and national conflicts" while others said that war had always existed. Since Callinicos had neither said that war is the logical product of class societies, nor argued that other oppressive ideas such as nationalism and religious chauvinism are rooted in class exploitation, he was forced to backtrack by these in fact rather facile questions and start again from scratch. Bizarrely, he angrily tore into one student who had said that there had always been conflicts, telling him "you should think twice about coming to a meeting and saying that before you've studied it".

This was pathetic, as was his speech about how for the majority of human history people had lived in egalitarian "primitive communist" societies where there was no war and all lived happily, and then extrapolated from this that "class is in fact a marginal factor in human history". Of course, even though it is true that class societies have existed for only fifteen thousand years or so, the large majority of humans in history have lived in class society, and "primitive communism" is certainly not what we are fighting for. In any case, it was silly of Callinicos to get drawn into such sophistry rather than try and talk about how class impacts other factors as well as class's relationship with imperialism.

Indeed, I posed the question of how it was possible to fight against imperialism on the level of supporting the ruling class of Iran against the United States (and its own working class), given that it is far from anti-capitalist. Its relationship with imperialism is contradictory - much as Iran faces sanctions and threats, its regime is willing to implement IMF reforms and support the occupation of Iraq in the hope of grabbing its slice of the pie. Disingenuously I also asked if he could 'expand' on the issue workers', women's and student's struggles in Iran, which he had neglected to mention.

Callinicos in fact has no perspective whatsoever for working-class opposition to imperialism, as he demonstrated when he responded (at the second time of asking), telling me that while he supports "petitions for democracy" in Iran, the fact that the Iranian government is not consistently anti-imperialist is no reason for the USA to invade it (!) Interrupting, I repeated my question about whether Callinicos supports strikes in Iran and the imprisoned students, but he again ignored the question - clearly, for him "petitions for democracy" and supporting "reformists" within the elite is sufficient.

Therefore, we had a meeting on 'Capitalism and War' where the SWP speaker said that war was the result of capitalism - yet then told his audience that rather than opposing capitalism or supporting working class struggle, we should simply devote our efforts into Grand Old Duke of York demo-building in "solidarity" with the rulers of Iran.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

International day of action for trade unionists in Iran

Demonstrate for Mansour Osanloo, Mahmoud Salehi and union rights in Iran

On Thursday 6 March there will be a trade union demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy in London as part of a worldwide day of action against the repression and harassment of trade unionists in Iran.

The demonstration will be held from 12:30 to 1:30pm outside the Iranian Embassy at 16 Prince's Gate, London SW7 1PT.

The international day of action has been called by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). Here is a location map for the event.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fidel Castro on Czechoslovakia in 1968

Two speeches by Fidel Castro on August 23rd and 24th 1968, attacking the "counter-revolutionary" anti-Stalinist movement in Czechoslovakia and supporting the USSR's invasion. To the dismay of the "Mandelite" Fourth International, which to this day venerates Che Guevara (who died in 1967), the Cuban regime put itself firmly in the camp of Russian imperialism fighting to crush the organs of democratic working-class power that had emerged in Czechoslovakia.

August 23, 1968 - Excerpts from Cuban Premier Castro's speech in defense of Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia are given below. In his speech, Premier Castro criticized the Soviet leadership for not giving more aid to defeat the counter-revolution - in other countries as well as Czechoslovakia. But he did not, as some social democrats contend, give merely "critical support" to the action of the Red Armies.

Right here, I wish to make the first important affirmation: we considered that Czechoslovakia was moving toward a counter-revolutionary situation. Toward capitalism and into the arms of imperialism.

So this defines our first position in relation to the specific fact of the action taken by a group of socialist countries. That is, we consider that it was absolutely necessary, at all cost, in one way or another, to prevent this eventuality from taking place. ...

Discussion of the form is not, in the final analysis, the most fundamental factor. The essential point to be accepted, or not accepted, is whether or not the socialist camp could allow a political situation to develop which would lead to the breaking away of a socialist country, to its falling into the arms of imperialism. And our point of view is that it is not permissible and that the socialist camp has a right to prevent this in one way or another. I would like to begin by making it clear that we look upon this fact as an essential one. ...

A real liberal fury was unleashed; a whole series of political slogans in favor of the formation of opposition parties began to develop, in favor of open anti-Marxist and anti-Leninist theses, such as the thesis that the Party should cease to play the role which the Party plays within socialist society and begin to play the role there of a guide, supervising some things but, above all, exerting a sort of spiritual leadership. In short, that the reins of power should cease to be in the hands of the Communist Party.

The revision of certain fundamental postulates to the effect that a socialist regime is a transition regime from socialism to communism, a governmental form known as the dictatorship of the proletariat. This means a government where power is wielded in behalf of one class and against the former exploiting classes by virtue of which in a revolutionary process political rights, the right to carry on political activities -- whose objective is precisely to struggle against the essence and the raison d'etre of socialism - cannot be granted to the former exploiters.

A series of slogans began to be put forward and in fact certain measures were taken such as the establishment of the bourgeois "freedom" of the press. This means that the counter-revolution and the exploiters, the very enemies of socialism, were granted the right to speak and write freely against socialism.

As a matter of fact, a process of seizure of the principal information media by the reactionary elements began to develop. As regards foreign policy, a whole series of slogans of open rapprochement toward capitalist concepts and theses and of rapprochement towards the West appeared...

On many occasions the imperialists have publicly stated what their policy is in relation to the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. And in Congress, in the press, they always talk about encouraging the liberal tendencies and even about promoting, of making available, some selective economic aid and of using every means of contributing to creating an opposition to socialism there. The imperialists are carrying out a campaign, not only in Czechoslovakia, but in all the countries of Eastern Europe, even in the Soviet Union.

Opinion on Intervention
August 24, 1968

I wish to quickly make the first important statement that we considered
Czechoslovakia to be heading toward a counterrevolutionary situation,
toward capitalism and into the arms of imperialism. This is the operative
concept in our first position toward the specific fact of the action taken
by a group of socialist countries. That is, we consider that it was
unavoidable to prevent this from happening - at any cost, in one way or

Of course, let us not become impatient, because we propose to analyze this
in line with our ideas. Discussing the form is not really the most
fundamental thing. The essential thing, whether we accept it or not, is
whether the socialist bloc could permit the development of a political
situation which lead to the breakdown of a socialist country and its fall
into the arms of imperialism. From our viewpoint, it is not permissible and
the socialist bloc has the right to prevent it in one way or another.

We first wish to begin by establishing what our opinion is about this
essential matter. Now, it is not enough to explain simply that
Czechoslovakia was heading toward a counterevolutionary situation and that
it had to be stopped. It is not enough to conclude simply that the only
alternative was to prevent it and nothing more. We must analyze the causes
and determine the factors which made possible and necessary such a
dramatic, drastic, and painful remedy. What are the factors which required
a step unquestionably involving a violation of legal principles and of
international standards, which have often served as shields for peoples
against injustices and are so highly regarded in the world?

What is not appropriate here is to say that the sovereignty of the
Czechoslovak state was not violated. That would be fiction and a lie. The
violation was flagrant, and on this we are going to talk about the effect
on sovereignty, and on legal and political principles. From the legal
viewpoint, it cannot be justified. This is quite clear. In our judgment,
the decision on Czechoslovakia can be explained only from the political
viewpoint and not from a legal viewpoint. Frankly, it has absolutely no

What are the circumstances that have permitted a remedy of this nature, a
remedy which places in a difficult situation the entire world revolutionary
movement, a remedy which constitutes a really traumatic situation for an
entire people - as is the present case in Czechoslovakia - a remedy which
implies that an entire nation has to pass through the most unpleasant
circumstances of seeing the country occupied by armies of other countries,
although they are armies of the socialist countries. A situation in which
millions of beings of a country have to see themselves today in the tragic
circumstance of electing and choosing either to be passive toward these
circumstances and this event--which so much brings to mind previous
episodes - or to struggle in comradeship with pro-Yankee agents and spies,
the enemies of socialism, the agents of West Germany, and all that fascist
and reactionary rabble that in the heat of these circumstances will try to
present itself as champions of the sovereignty, patriotism, and freedom of

Logically, for the Czechoslovak people this experience and this fact
constitute a better and tragic situation. Therefore, it is not enough
simply to conclude that it has arisen as an inexorable necessity and even,
if you wish, as an unquestionable obligation of the socialist countries to
prevent such events from happening. [One must inquire] what are the cases,
the factors, and the circumstances that brought forth - after 20 years of
communism in Czechoslovakia - a group of persons whose names do not even
appear anywhere, and this petition directed to other countries of the
socialist camp, asking them to send their armies to prevent the triumph of
the counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia and the triumph of the intrigues
and conspiracies of the imperialist countries interested in breaking
Czechoslovakia from the community of socialist countries?

Could it be imagined, gentlemen, that at the end of 20 years of communism
in our country - of communist revolution, of socialist revolution--that
under any circumstances it could happen that a group of honest
revolutionaries in this country, terrified at the prospects of an advance
or, better said, of a retrogression toward counterrevolutionary positions
and imperialism, would see the need of asking the aid of friendly armies to
prevent such a situation from occurring?

What would have remained of the communist consciousness of this people?
What would have remained of the revolutionary consciousness of this people,
of the dignity of this people, of the revolutionary morale of this people?
What would have remained of all those things that mean for us essentially
the revolution if such circumstances should one day arise?

But no circumstances of that kind will ever occur in our country. First,
because we believe that it is a duty and fundamental responsibility of
those who direct a revolution to prevent deformations of such a nature that
might make possible such circumstances. Secondly, gentlemen, for an
unquestionably practical reason and not only a moral elemental reason,
because we could ask if it would be worth the trouble if, after 20 years,
to survive a revolution one had to resort to such procedures. And also, for
a very simple practical reason: who would false personalities of this
country ask to send armies? The only armies that we have in our vicinity
are the Yankee army and the armies of the puppets allied with the Yankee
imperialists, the because we are too alone in this part of the world for
there ever to exist the most remote possibility of saving this revolution
by asking aid of allied armies.

And it must be said that I do not know anyone capable of having enough
shame to do such a thing if they had the need and opportunity to do it,
because what kind of communists would we be and what kind of communist
revolution would this be if at the end of 20 years we found ourselves
having to do such a thing to save it?

Always, when we have thought about foreign aid, we have never had the idea
of foreign aid to fight against the imperialist soldiers and against the
imperialist armies. I simply analyze these facts because I know that,
legally, our people are concerned with an explanation of these concepts.
Such things are not in our idea of the revolution.

I do not think that a person can justify the appeal of high-ranking
persons, because the justification can only be the political fact in
itself - that Czechoslovakia was marching toward a counterrevolutionary
situation and this was seriously affecting the entire socialist community.
And besides, there is no lack of figleaves of any kind. It is the political
fact in itself, with all its consequences and all its importance. As we
were saying, recognizing that and nothing else is simply enough.

Or if it is obligatory, it is elementary to draw from this most bitter
experience all the political conclusions. And as it is possible, we repeat:
In these circumstances, an analysis must be made of all the factors. For
the communist movement, there is the unavoidable duty of investigating
deeply the causes leading to such a situation, a situation inconceivable
for us, the Cuban revolutionaries. If such action is impossible for us
Cuban revolutionaries - we who saw the necessity for carrying out this
revolution 90 miles from imperialism - we also know that we cannot fall into
these circumstances because it would mean the very end of the revolution
and falling into the worst situation, provoked by our enemies,
full of hatred. But this is not the reason for making or trying to make
this profound analysis.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Leon Trotsky's ideas today

A series of discussions from the North London branch of Workers’ Liberty, open to all.
All meetings held on Tuesdays from 7:30pm at the Red Rose Club, 129 Seven Sisters Road, N7. Nearest tube is Finsbury Park.

Week 3 (26th February): The Soviet Union after the Revolution: The New Course.

“The struggle against the bureaucratism of the state apparatus is an exceptionally important but prolonged task, one that runs more or less parallel to our other fundamental tasks: economic reconstruction and the elevation of the cultural level of the masses. The most important historical instrument for the accomplishment of all these tasks is the party. Naturally, not even the party can tear itself away from the social and cultural conditions of the country. But as the voluntary organization of the vanguard, of the best, the most active and the most conscious elements of the working class, it is able to preserve itself much better than can the state apparatus from the tendencies of bureaucratism. For that, it must see the danger clearly and combat it without let up.”
Reading: The New Course (1923) - Short Reading: Chapter 1: the question of party generations.

Week 4 (4th March): Trotsky on Art and Literature.

“Before the proletariat will have passed out of the stage of cultural apprenticeship, it will have ceased to be a proletariat. Let us also not forget that the upper layer of the bourgeoisie passed its cultural apprenticeship under the roof of feudal society; that while still within the womb of feudal society it surpassed the old ruling estates culturally and became the instigator of culture before it came into power. It is different with the proletariat in general and with the Russian proletariat in particular. The proletariat is forced to take power before it has appropriated the fundamental elements of bourgeois culture; it is forced to overthrow bourgeois society by revolutionary violence for the very reason that society does not allow it access to culture. The working-class strives to transform the state apparatus into a powerful pump for quenching the cultural thirst of the masses. This is a task of immeasurable historic importance. But, if one is not to use words lightly, it is not as yet a creation of a special proletarian culture.”
Reading: Literature and Revolution (1924) - Short reading: Chapter 6: Proletarian culture and proletarian art.

Week 5 (11th March): Stalinism and the defeat of the workers.

Trotsky argues that Stalinism was not the logical product of Bolshevism, but represented a bureaucratic counter-revolution against the Russian working class - separated from Bolshevism by "a river of blood"
Reading: The Revolution Betrayed (1936) - Short reading: chapter 11: Whither the Soviet Union?

Week 6 (18th March): The Struggle against Fascism

In the 1930s, as the Kremlin-backed German Communist Party ignored the Nazi threat, claiming that fascists were no worse than Social Democrats, Trotsky highlighted the danger fascism posed to all democratic and workers’ organisations and made the case for working-class forces to form a united front against the Nazis.
Reading: The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (or the Bookmarks collection: Racism, Stalinism and the United Front) (1930-1934). Alternatively all of Trotsky’s writings on Germany of this period are collected at
Short Reading: The United Front for Defense: A Letter to a Social Democratic Worker (1933)

Week 7 (25th March): The Fourth International and the Transitional Programme.

Leon Trotsky’s “transitional programme” was a method by which to relate immediate struggles in the here and now to the ultimate goal of revolution, by posing demands which implicitly raised questions about power in society and the rule of capitalism.
Reading: The Transitional Programme (the Pathfinder edition with associated articles and transcripts of discussions is particularly useful). Short reading: the programme itself, the first seven sections up to and including “‘Business secrets’ and workers’ control of industry”

All meetings will also include a section on organisation + political work. Ring David on 07828 844695 for further details or email

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Working class internationalism and the Middle East

The left devotes much of its efforts to campaigning against imperialism, which is no surprise given the present foreign policy of the American and British governments. However, in order to effectively combat imperialism and war, it is necessary that we understand what ‘anti-imperialism’ means, who is anti-imperialist, and what relationship that has with working-class politics.

Unfortunately, the dominant conception of ‘anti-imperialism’ on the British left today, as schooled to thousands of young new activists by organisations such as the Socialist Workers’ Party, is wholly inadequate. As I shall explain, rather than taking imperialism on at a structural level, i.e. by understanding it as the logic of modern capitalism, the SWP along with orthodox Trotskyist and Stalinist groups take an anti-war stance entirely abstract from any analysis of class relations or democratic rights such as self determination. For this reason, they take the position that any opponent or competitor of the largest imperialist power – the United States – is therefore ‘anti-imperialist’ and therefore worthy of support.

In order to sustain this illusion, they exaggerate or falsify the progressive characteristics of the forces they support. For example, they claim that that Iran is the most democratic country in the Middle East, and wax lyrical about the welfare programmes and "women's participation" in Hamas. At Stop the War conference these ‘anti-imperialists’ entertained Somaye Zadeh, who lied outrageously to play down the human rights abuses of the Tehran regime. In the NUS left unity discussions the SWP were unwilling to raise slogans to support workers in Iran but happy to make vague gestures of support for "democratic forces". Claiming that the existence of pro-reform elements within the elite is itself evidence that Iran is democratic, they look to sections of the Iranian bourgeoisie to effect change rather than encouraging the working class to overthrow it.

They seem to want to see this decade as the 1960s in slow motion, with Hamas substituting for the Vietcong and the Iranian government for Cuba. Indeed, so progressive do they deem these ‘anti-imperialist’ friends in the Middle East that they see fit to deny the existence of a working-class movement opposed to both imperialism and political Islam. But this attitude is not just a betrayal of our comrades in the Middle East, who so badly need solidarity from the international labour movement – it is also a completely wrong-headed understanding of what forces are able to challenge imperialism.

Of course, helped by the sabre-rattling of George Bush and Western sanctions, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is plenty able to speechify with anti-imperialist rhetoric - and yet not only did the Iranian regime ban demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, but it supported the invasion, and furthermore supports the occupation of Afghanistan. Ahmedinejad has willingly introduced all sorts of IMF plans to liberalise the Iranian economy and at the same time has clamped down on trade unions, with long periods in jail for activists in the militant bus workers’ union. Similarly, parties in Iraq like Dawa, SCIRI and even the forces led by Moqtada al-Sadr, which all call for the immediate withdrawal of troops, are not even sufficiently ‘anti-imperialist’ as to refuse to participate in the occupation government. Hezbollah are Shia sectarians and radical Islamists, but their row with Prime Minister Siniora in fact has the aim of grabbing a few posts in a coalition government. On the other side of the conflict, the Americans have their own Islamist allies and militias in Iraq, and, indeed, as in the past with Saddam Hussein, are perfectly willing to deal with any local despot.

While all the organisations I have mentioned have at times been in direct conflict with US imperialism, and their relations with the US bourgeoisie are complex, they are far from consistently anti-imperialist. They are little but sections of the ruling class looking to grab a slice of the action, yet the Socialist Workers’ Party characterises them as relatively progressive since they are not the ‘main’ enemy. A logical extension of the same idea, as employed by Socialist Action and the CPGB (Marxist-Leninist), is that the Chinese government is (or “remains”) ‘anti-imperialist’ since it is in competition with the USA, or liberal support for the European Union as some sort of counterweight to George Bush.

What is missing from all of these ideas is any notion of class, with barely even the suggestion that imperialism is premised on a set of class relations. The Middle Eastern labour movement, which is mostly relatively weak, obviously disappoints these people. We can see the same mistake being made by such people as Nick Cohen, the Euston Manifesto group and ex-Marxists like Norman Geras who, thinking that the working-class is dead after the fall of the Soviet bureaucracy, support “humanitarian” interventions or imperialist missions to spread democracy, with the US Army staging a Bonaparte-like fight to spread the French Revolution by the sword. They deprive words like ‘democracy’ (and they even speak of ‘workers’ rights’) of any meaningful content, substituting liberation-from-above by imperialist powers for the idea that people should take control over their own lives. Operationally, these people are not left-wing in any real sense, since they have no understanding of agency other than that US troops can be an effective force for ‘change’.

For those who have stuck by Marxism, the recent conflicts in the Middle East have just offered further bloody proof of the absolute impossibility of imperialism serving the cause of democracy. We stick unfailingly by the idea that it is the working class which fights for social liberation, and even if it is weak in the here and now we must seek to build its organisations, not rely on some two-bit democrat in a smart suit or a general’s epaulettes.

The stance of the majority group in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, whose ideas are explicitly based on the “third camp” of the working class, is not the same as Cohen and his ilk. Engaging in real solidarity work with comrades in the Middle East, the AWL’s refusal to call for the occupying troops to leave Iraq is predicated on the understanding that their withdrawal would destroy the Iraqi labour movement, since if Islamists came to power they would not tolerate trade unions, or indeed women’s or LGBT organisations. If you believe the AWL majority, the call for “troops out now” is counterposed to defence of the Iraqi workers’ movement.

However, this understanding of events, along with the AWL’s positions on Iran and Palestine, belies some of the same problems as both the SWP and their allies and the Eustonites. The question of class independence is not always in the forefront of their minds. In practice, pessimistic about the prospects for the working class to stand up for itself, the AWL acquiesces to imperialist involvement in the region in the here and now the belief that it will be able to hold Islamism at bay and so create breathing space for the workers’ movement to grow. Of course, we are always living in the “here and now”, while the question of how and why the Iraqi left and trade unions are meant to grow in the “meantime” before the troops leave is barely considered.

Yet it is apparent that the occupation is not a bulwark against Islamism – as I have said, there are numerous Islamist parties and associated militias in the seat of power under the occupation, while most trade union activity is illegal. The imperialist occupiers would far rather make backroom deals to put the Islamists in charge than devote their time to defending workers’ organisations from the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr and his forces.

Furthermore, it is quite clear that if the workers’ movement fails to call for the immediate withdrawal of troops, it will help Islamist groups foster illusions in their own ‘anti-imperialist’ character and abstain from having anything to say about the question of Iraqi self-determination, which should hardly be left for Shia or Sunni supremacists to carve up. If the labour movement did reach the position where it could force the realisation of the slogan “troops out now”, then clearly the balance of forces would shift in favour of working-class internationalism and against clerical fascist reaction.

But not only does the AWL refuse to call for “troops out of Iraq now” in the understanding that the workers’ movement will be crushed if they are withdrawn, but it supports the US-EU-backed Fatah to stave off Hamas and has even taken a soft stance on US aggression against Iran. In Solidarity Mark Osborn has played down the idea that Palestinian workers could act independently of Fatah, “under Fatah there is some freedom for a third camp to develop; under Hamas there is none. David doesn’t like the choice, Fatah or Hamas. I don’t like it much myself. But during the fighting in Gaza that’s what it came down to”, while Martin Thomas made the hypothesis “if it were possible to imagine some ‘surgical’ operation that would stop Iran’s hideous regime acquiring nuclear weapons, and take out the foul Ahmadinejad, it would be good”, as if it were even vaguely plausible that such an eventuality could a) not kill thousands of people b) not strengthen the hand of the regime to crush internal dissent and c) replace the Ahmedinejad government with anything better. This is not a consistent third camp position, but one which veers towards support for non-working class forces who happen to use the right catchphrases about “democracy”, “two states” and so on.

I refute the suggestion that we must prioritise opposing the occupation of Iraq or war and sanctions against Iran over direct solidarity with workers, women and students in those countries, or indeed vice-versa. This idea concedes an awful lot of ground to the Stalinist worldview which sees all Middle Eastern workers with democratic or secular goals as ‘objective’ allies of imperialism, and claiming that any talk of democracy is siding with George Bush, seeks to set a dividing line between anti-war and workers’ solidarity efforts. Equally, I do not accept that we should "prioritise" either opposition to imperialism or opposition to Islamists over the other - we shouldn't be allying with either.

Far from being counterposed, these two fronts of struggle are inextricably linked. Workers' action to undermine our armed forces and strikes against the war are vital in showing the power of the working class to stand on its own two feet as a force which can intervene in the "war on terror" conflict. "Troops out now" is not a magic wand to make the troops disappear, but a slogan for the working class to organise around, to try and force the realisation of that demand itself. I support the slogan not because it is unrealisable, so it doesn't matter what the consequences would be if it played out, but precisely because if it is workers in the US and UK or workers in Iraq whose efforts force the troops out, then the balance of forces will turn in favour of the workers' movement.

Even if they do not receive prominent coverage in the international pages of the bourgeois media, actions like those of the train crew in Scotland or dockers in the United States who refused to move weapons are inextricably linked to the strikes of oil workers in Basra, and must be both encouraged and advertised. Rather than writing articles about geopolitical developments which we cannot influence with analyses cropped from the comment pages of the Guardian, our primary task is to talk about what the workers' movement can achieve through its own struggles

This idea of working-class internationalism does not just mean trade union conferences passing resolutions about the war, or bureaucrats in suits speechifying about the need to give a bit of money to the Stop the War Coalition, but practical solidarity action with our comrades abroad, critical engagement with the ideas of the Middle Eastern left (including encouraging exile communities to assimilate into the local left) and propaganda which sharply poses the question of how workers in countries like Britain can fight in common with their counterparts abroad.

The defining characteristic of most of the far left’s stance on imperialism is a profound retreat from class, looking to any number of reactionaries and local bourgeoisies to resist the influence of the US hyperpower. Of course, it is true that despite large strikes in the Iraqi oil fields and Egyptian textile factories, the Middle Eastern working class is far from being in a position to defeat imperialism and Islamism. But that does not mean that we can loosen our grip on the Marxist understanding of class independence – the growth of our forces, which currently appear weak, is the only hope we have for democracy and peace in the Middle East, and – worldwide - we must strive unerringly to develop workers’ understanding of their independent agency. The AWL does have a much stronger class focus than other left groups, yet has still failed to develop a real understanding of working-class internationalism and what exactly constitutes an anti-imperialist workers’ movement.

Solidarity with Iraqi workers!
Troops out now!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The "General Strike" in Lebanon

An article for Solidarity

Seven people were killed last month as the Lebanese army clashed with rioters in southern Beirut in the wake of a Shia demonstration. The incident has drawn the army into Lebanon's political crisis, which has seen three months of impasse as parties close to PM Fouad Siniora squabble with Syrian-backed parties such as Amal and Hezbollah over the election of a new president.

The 27 January demonstration in Mar Makhaeil was called to protest about the chronic power cuts which take place in predominantly Shia districts of the Lebanese capital. The army attempted to break up the demonstration, shooting dead an Amal activist and provoking a riot which continued late into the night. As news of the shooting spread, more and more people joined in the protest, with some rioters torching cars and firing back at the troops. In nearby Ain Roummaneh, where civil war broke out in 1975, a hand grenade wounded seven people.

Troops had already taken to the streets that week in response to a general strike called by transport and agricultural unions, called in response to the rising cost of living and high fuel prices. Although the union leaderships claimed that the strike had little to do with the Amal-Hezbollah political opposition, it was clear that the pro-Western versus pro-Syrian divide had everything to do with the observance of the strike. Roads were closed and stacks of tyres were set ablaze in Shia areas where support for Hezbollah is strong, such as south Beirut, southern Lebanon and the northeastern parts of the Bekaa Valley, while there was little sign of the strike in cities such as Sidon and Tripoli where the government has stronger backing.

Communalist pro-Syrian parties such as the Islamist Hezbollah and Amal have nothing to do with a workers’ movement which organises the working class as a class to fight for democracy and liberation. Recognising the power of strike action to undermine the government, these parties seek to mislead workers, using them as a battering ram to achieve their own sectarian goals and give weight to their drive to take up posts in the government. Yet in the wake of the general strike Socialist Worker meaninglessly claimed that “among supporters of the opposition there is a frustration that the mass demonstrations that brought two million on to the streets before Christmas were not enough to topple the government, and that more radical action is necessary”, failing to pose the questions of precisely who the opposition is and what radical action might constitute.

However, it is clear that Hezbollah’s ability to mobilise workers behind their cause is related to the genuine economic and political grievances which much of the population experience, and even beside plainly bourgeois non-sectarian allies (such as the Free Patriotic Movement), we can see the Lebanese Communist Party lining up with Hezbollah. The Lebanese CP’s website (, in French) points out that the price index has risen by 37.4% in the eighteen months since the war with Israel, while one third of Lebanese families live on the minimum wage (frozen for the last ten years) of £100 a month. Many working class areas, in particular Shia districts, lie in darkness due to the constant power cuts.

The Lebanese Communist Party’s programme, however, is uncritical support for Hezbollah and participation in the opposition, despite the fact that this is almost entirely composed of plainly bourgeois parties, many of them Shia sectarians who opposed the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. It has absolutely no independent working-class perspectives, and thus facilitates Hezbollah’s moves to mislead the unions and workers.

It is precisely this failure – the lack of a secular left which unites workers across sectarian divides – which has led to a political situation where US allies battle with Islamists to dominate Lebanon. Strike action, although at this point badly misled and harnessed for the aims of the far-right Hezbollah movement, has however given a glimpse of what kind of power a workers’ movement could have in Lebanese society. In order to build such a force, the central challenge is the fight for a democratic and secular labour movement and independent political organisation for the working class.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Communist Students conference

On Saturday 16th I attended the conference of Communist Students, the autonomous student organisation connected to the CPGB/Weekly Worker group. Around 25 people attended, of whom only around a quarter were actual CPGB members (as far as I could tell). Most of those attending were members of CS, but there were also a few of their contacts who I hadn't met before, as well as Bill Jefferies of Permanent Revolution.

The first significant discussion was on how we should fight against the British National Party, a debate which has recently had significant coverage in the Weekly Worker. While Ben Lewis, who led off the session, believes that we should be flexible in our tactics as regards the BNP, and although not necessarily seeking to organise meetings with the far right we should sometimes be prepared to debate them, others such as the Permanent Revolution group think that any debate legitimises the ideas of 'fascists' (there was a subordinate debate as to whether the BNP are actually fascists).

Ben talked about the way in which the SWP and the Unite Against Fascism campaign subscribe to liberal anti-fascism, seeking to defend 'normal' establishment political discourse against fascists, whose ideas are 'beyond the pale'. While the BNP has filled a political space vacated by Labour - claiming to have all the answers to some very real concerns of (white!) working class voters such as jobs and housing - and indeed won 800,000 votes in the European election, UAF just go round telling people not to 'vote Nazi', reminding them that Nazis are 'really, really bad'. In doing this they ignore the reasons why people vote BNP rather than Labour, Lib Dem or Tory - one SWPer he quoted even referred to BNP voters as 'the scum on the estates'.

Bill Jefferies' response was correct insofar as it stressed the need for working-class and minority community self-defence against fascists, and furthermore said that, unlike the SWP, he would not call on the bourgeois state to ban fascists, since any anti-free speech laws would just as easily be used against the far left. It is important that anti-fascism is a working-class cause, not an exercise in liberal moral condemnation of BNP voters. However, I think his argument that we should always refuse to debate fascists was wrong-headed, based as it was on the idea that since fascists are 'really, really bad', we should not give them legitimacy by sharing a platform with them. A couple of others, including James Turley, added that if you debate fascists and sweep the floor with their absurd ideas, they will still have won even if they pick up a couple of contacts by doing the meeting.

This was disingenous - the debate was not really about "should we write to the BNP and ask if they'd do a joint public meeting", but whether it was appropriate to boycott election hustings etc. in which they would also participate. Bill Jefferies said that a couple of years ago a Workers' Power comrade at a student union hustings debated a BNP candidate, but now he thinks she should just have "mobilised the audience against him". Ben Lewis made the obvious retort that a revolutionary standing in an election should seek to mobilise the audience against all of the other bourgeois candidates.

For my part, I said that if you made a principle out of refusing to share a platform with the BNP, then why not boycott the Tories too? Or the Liberal Democrats? Of course, in reality, tearing someone's ideas to shreds at a hustings is not 'legitimising' their politics. I furthermore pointed out that not only do the UAF refuse to debate the BNP, but they also refuse to engage with any of their ideas at all, telling people "don't vote Nazi, vote for anyone else" rather than saying "yes, housing, jobs and public services really are concerns, but black workers are not the problem". Lining up with the bourgeois parties and telling alienated Labour voters who vote BNP that they are just Nazi morons is no good - we should seek to win over their voters. Many of those who turn to the BNP would not do so if the left and workers' movement had more coherence and could ourselves promote a real alternative.

After a debate over whether CS should support the IWW union and an interesting discussion on student politics, and whether it is possible to build mass student campaigns on issues like fees - or indeed on international politics - the focus of the conference turned to imperialism and the Middle East. This was staged as a debate between the chair of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign, the CPGB's Tina Becker and myself (i.e. an AWL member with a "troops out now" position).

I found the politics of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign somewhat bizarre - while the speaker was strongly opposed to the Iranian regime and its various satellite organisations (he mentioned in particular the homophobia of the Mehdi Army), he did not have any particular focus on the working class as an anti-imperialist force, and lauded the home-grown Iraqi resistance groups. While Islamist forces are undoubtedly even more vicious, I was surprised that to this he counterposed secular Arab nationalism, and indeed the Ba'ath Party, claiming that Saddam Hussein remained the "legitimate" president of Iraq under "international law".

This was an unusual position, invoking laws created by the imperialist powers themselves in order to guarantee self-determination.

Indeed, he appeared to think that whatever happens in Iraq is fine, as long as there's no interference from the USA, UK or Iran. But while I opposed the war which provoked Saddam Hussein's downfall, I cannot stomach the idea that Saddam Hussein is "legitimate" - why has he any more right to rule than the dictator he overthrew, or the guy before him, and so on? Tina Becker took the Iraq Solidarity Campaign speaker to task on all of these points.

In my lead off I stressed the idea that no force in the Middle East other than the working class can introduce democracy, and no force other than the working class is, or even could be, anti-imperialist. Imperialism is the logic of modern capitalism, not something which exists in the abstract, and local bourgeoisies cannot be trusted to oppose it. Look at the Tehran theocracy - it spouts anti-imperialist rhetoric and yet supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq, supports the occupation of Afghanistan and has willingly introduced all sorts of IMF plans to liberalise its economy. Similarly, parties in Iraq like Dawa, SCIRI and even the forces led by Moqtada al-Sadr are not even sufficiently anti-imperialist as to refuse to participate in the occupation government.

Yet the SWP instead exaggerate the "progressive" character of the forces which it sees as anti-imperialist - for example, claiming that Iran is the most democratic country in the Middle East, and endorsing the welfare programme and "women's participation" in Hamas. They would rather look to "reform" elements within the Iranian bourgeoisie to effect change than encourage the working class to overthrow it. They seem to want to see this decade as the 1960s in slow motion, with Hamas substituting for the Vietcong and the Iranian government for Cuba.

I did however address the complexities of the kind of solidarity we need with workers in the Middle East. I expressed my disagreement with the majority position of the AWL which, while explicitly focused on the "third camp" of the working class, can collapse into acquiescence to imperialism when the workers appear too weak to act on their own. The AWL's refusal to call for troops out now, and indeed its support for Fatah against Hamas, are both predicated on the idea that the workers will be crushed without their imperialist guardians - yet how is the "third camp" ever to grow as an independent force if in the "here and now" (i.e. all the time) it does not cut itself sharply against both imperialism and Islamist reaction?

Our support for the working class in the Middle East must be linked to our tactics at home. Workers' action to undermine our armed forces and strikes against the war are vital in showing the power of the working class to stand on its own two feet as a force which can intervene in the "war on terror" conflict. "Troops out now" is not a magic wand to make the troops disappear, but a slogan for the working class to organise around, to try and realise that demand itself. I support the slogan not because it is unrealisable so doesn't matter what the consequences would be if it played out, but precisely because if it is workers in the US and UK or workers in Iraq whose efforts force the troops out, then the balance of forces will turn in favour of the workers' movement.

Actions like those of the train crew in Scotland who refused to move weapons are inextricably linked to the strikes of oil workers in Basra, and must be both encouraged and advertised. Rather than writing articles about geopolitical developments which we cannot influence with analyses cropped from the comment pages of the Guardian, our primary task is to talk about what the workers' movement can do itself.

I then briefly turned to the question of engaging with left groups in the Middle East, and said that as well as teaching ourselves about workers', women's, LGBT and student struggles in the region (which the SWP deny the existence of), we should critically engage with the ideas of our comrades there. Giving money to organisations in the Middle Eastern left is useful - particularly given their pressing need for self-defence - but we must also learn from the comrades and argue with their positions.

In the discussion that followed I broadly agreed with much of what was said by CS comrades, although I feel that they are too willing to defend those who raise the slogan "troops out now" from an abstract perspective with no reference to class. My whole point was that we should take a strict class standpoint against imperialism and Islamism, and discussion about which of the two heads of reaction is worse than the other or whether "the main enemy is at home" does not give us much tactical direction.

Equally, I have no doubt that neither the "bring the troops home" line of Barack Obama nor the Stalinist-Islamist use of "troops out now" by Galloway and his ilk is better than the position of Sean Matgamna. Nevertheless, my criticisms here should be qualified by a positive attitude towards Communist Students' and the CPGB's Hands Off the People of Iran campaign, although I do think they should make more of an effort to foster these ideas in the labour movement rather than just in the anti-war and student milieux.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Friday, February 8, 2008

Campaign against Climate Change meeting

by Sacha Ismail

About 60 people of many different ages, backgrounds and politics attended a Campaign against Climate Change meeting in Bethnal Green in East London on 7 February. Although the main organisers appeared to be members of Respect Renewal (I recognised people including the ISG's Liam McUaid, SWP defector Kevin Ovenden and NUS presidential candidate Ruqayyah Collector), it was a good meeting with some lively and sharp debate.

The event had been called in the run up to the 9 February CCC Trade Union conference; the speakers were CCC organiser Phil Thornhill, CWU executive member Tony Kearns, Green councillor Romayne Phoenix, George Galloway – and AWL member Robin Sivapalan, speaking on behalf of the Climate Camp collective and the new Workers’ Climate Action network.

Robin spoke about the need for climate change activists to look to the labour movement and vice versa – but for environmental issues to be integrated with workers’ concerns on the basis of anti-capitalist class struggle, not tacked on to trade unionism as just one more in a list of worthy causes. He emphasised how, in addition to the obvious middle-class prejudices of some green activists (part of the reason why the Climate Camp has not been quicker in making links with eg workers at Heathrow, though this is now changing), the conservatism of the trade union movement is a vital factor in preventing the development of the kind of movement we need.

This is true not just in terms of unions like Unite supporting airport expansion, more nuclear power stations etc, but also the conservative syndicalism which prevents workers’ struggles attaining the political character necessary to hegemonise broader forces. The refusal of the RMT bureaucracy to allow Metronet workers to continue their recent dispute on the basis of demanding renationalisation – a demand with obvious environmental as well as safety benefits – is a case in point.

He stressed that workers are not a stage army to be wheeled on in support of scientists poised to change the world through their sheer knowledgableness, but self-liberating agents whose power at the heart of production gives them the ability to remake themselves in order to remake society. We are not "armed only with science", but with the power of class action and solidarity.

Such an approach, which is that taken by Workers’ Climate Action, implies ideas which are in essence environmental "transitional demands": things like cutting the working week without loss of pay, free public transport, public ownership of energy, and workers’ plans to reshape industry on a democratic and sustainable basis.

Tony Kearns did a decent turn, stressing the importance of environmental politics for effective trade unionism and indicting capitalism’s drive for profit as the basic cause of climate change, though he didn’t make any real proposals for moving forward. Phil Thornhill’s comments on the science of climate change were very interesting and most of his prescriptions unobjectionable, though the underlying politics were those of liberal lobbying. Romayne Phoenix described herself as a socialist, but some of her politics were far from what the AWL understands by the term: she called for "fair trade, not free trade", urged people to get themselves elected as councillors (a role she seems to see in primarily managerial terms) and put a lot of her emphasis on individual lifestyle changes - which as Tony Kearns pointed out, is exactly where government and big business want it to be.

George Galloway’s speech (which didn't seem to have involved much preparation) combined some cheap anti-capitalist demagogy with all kinds of weird nonsense, including what a wonderful world God has created for us and citing a Muslim magazine about the number of galaxies in the universe. He went on to reference war mobilisation, state planning and “people working together” during World War 2 as the kind of approach necessary to defeat the threat of environmental disaster. This was a theme picked up by many of the older speakers from the floor.

In his closing contribution, Robin took task with some of these ideas. Yes, we need to unite, but the question is what kind of unity, with whom and for what goals? To Galloway’s invocation of the spirit of the blitz, he counterposed workers’ unity in the class struggle, drawing in environmental campaigners, students, women’s rights activists etc, to build an alliance capable of halting climate change by defeating capitalism. He pointed out the divisive nature of religious identity as a political organiser, and added that opposition to school privatisation, which had been discussed during the meeting, had to include opposition to the control of schools by religious organisations. He defended the importance of sharp political debate in developing the ideas necessary to build an effective movement.

This last idea was not shared by everyone; in addition to a smug, smirking dismissal of Robin as a Trotskyist sectarian by Galloway, the general tone was exemplified by Phil Thornhill’s comment that we should worry less about discussing ideas, and get on with doing things. Of course the two are not counterposed; and in fact the most positive thing about this meeting was precisely that it featured such a healthy debate.

There are plans to create a local campaign in Tower Hamlets; hopefully, alongside united campaigning, the debate will continue.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Lambertists

Pierre Lambert was in his time one of those “orthodox Trotskyists” who kept a banner of anti-Stalinist revolutionary Marxism flying in the worst years of Cold War and declining class struggle.

They tried — incoherently, but they tried — to resist the move of most “orthodox Trotskyists”, in the early 1950s, to see the Stalinist parties as the “owners” of all short-term revolutionary possibilities; they tried to sustain the idea of building an independent revolutionary working-class party against both capitalism and Stalinism.

Today the “Lambertist” organisation, now known as the Parti des Travailleurs (“Workers’ Party”), is a shadow of its former self. It has lost the thousands-strong activist base which Lambert won in the 1970s; it retains only some cranky ideas and a bureaucratic internal regime to remind Lambert’s disciples of what once was. The death of the sect-leader Lambert is far less sad than the tale of those who followed him, committed revolutionaries who acquiesced to the rule of an petty tyrant and his coterie in the belief that they were contributing to the cause of socialism and the liberation of humanity, and were politically destroyed and demoralised by the experience.

Lambert’s early record was rather better. Having joined the Trotskyist movement in 1939, Lambert was arrested in the early months of the Second World War and sentenced to a year in prison for his “anti-militarist” attitude to the French government. Escaping en route to prison, Lambert joined Henri Molinier’s La Commune group, but was soon expelled due to his hostility to the organisation’s efforts to win supporters from the Nazi-collaborationist Rassemblement National Populaire.

In 1943 Lambert joined the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste, which the following year merged into the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), an ancestor not just of the Parti des Travailleurs but also of another current French Trotskyist group, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.

By the end of the Nazi occupation, there were maybe three hundred Trotskyists in the PCI in France. These activists attempted to organise unrest in industry as well as promote working-class internationalism, using the slogan “behind every Nazi soldier is a German worker!” to combat the French chauvinist ideas of the Kremlin-backed Parti Communiste Français, whose watchword was “everyone kill a German”. Facing tough circumstances, the PCI mounted a heroic effort to propagandise for socialism among the German troops, organising the clandestine production and distribution of a newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat (“Worker and Soldier”). No doubt, the PCI bent the stick too far with its June 1944 claim that the Normandy landings would see no improvement over the rule of the fascist Vichy government. It took a while before they could recognise that bourgeois democracy was in fact being restored in France. Their hopes that the end of the Second World War would end with a revolutionary wave akin to the struggles of 1917-1923 proved to be naive. Nonetheless the group had a firm orientation to working-class political independence.

That was more than could be said for the Parti Communiste Français which allied itself to Charles de Gaulle and served in a cross-class government after the end of the war. Among many Communist Party crimes in this period perhaps the most ignominious was its complicity in the bombing of Sétif in Algeria — overseen by its Minister of Aviation, Tillon — which left 45,000 dead. The Trotskyists supported national liberation movements in France’s colonies — for example organising Marseilles dockers not to load arms into boats headed for Indochina.

But the CP’s patriotic aura from the Resistance, and the great prestige of the Soviet Union, assured it a dominant role in the working-class movement, with over a million members and near-monopoly control of the apparatus of the largest union federation, the Confédération Générale du Travail.

Pierre Lambert became the central trade union organiser for the PCI, which grew to about 1000 members by 1947.

The PCI was divided. Yvan Craipeau, Paul Parisot, Albert Demaziere were influenced by the arguments of the American Trotskyist Felix Morrow, who called for less declamatory revolutionism, more attention to concrete political demands including simple democratic demands, and more recognition of the realities of relative bourgeois stabilisation. They hoped to build a broad party by merging with the left-moving youth of the social-democratic SFIO.

A minority, led by Pierre Frank, Marcel Bleibtreu, and others, denounced Craipeau’s group as “right wing”. Lambert was not a major figure in these political battles.

Since 1944 the CP had been able to prevent almost all strike action. In April-May 1947 the dam broke, in a big strike at the Renault Billancourt car factory. Trotskyists played a big role in this; Pierre Bois, a member of a forerunner group of today’s Lutte Ouvrière was a strike leader, and PCI members were also active at Renault.

The Communist Party left the government coalition. In November-December 1947 the CP launched a big strike wave, but pretty much as a political gambit to counter the harder attitude De Gaulle and the bourgeois parties were taking to the CP with the development of the Cold War.

The right wing in the CGT, with CIA backing — and a fair number of left-wingers, too, including anarcho-syndicalists — split from the CGT to form a new confederation, Force Ouvrière.

At first the rise in strikes encouraged the PCI. The “left wing” of Frank and Bleibtreu won a majority at the November 1947 congress of the PCI. Agitation to “build the revolutionary party” became more strident.

The strikes, however, were the start not of a real rise in working-class self-assertion, but of the dark years of the Cold War. The Communist Party waged war on all Trotskyists and independent minded revolutionaries in the labour movement, hounding its opponents out of the CGT, breaking up meetings and perpetrating physical assaults.

In early 1948 the PCI suffered a major collapse. Its weekly paper stopped appearing after 16 April 1948; it resumed regular publication, and then in diminished format, only from November, with just three issues published in the interim.

Most of the left wing Socialist Party youth went into to Jean-Paul Sartre’s short-lived Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire; so did many of the Craipeau wing of the PCI. Two smaller groups in the PCI who believed the Soviet Union to be state capitalist also left.

The rump PCI struggled to reorient itself in a world that was developing in a way completely different from what they had expected.

For a while, activity with the “Titoites” — supporters of the Tito regime in Yugoslavia, which had fallen out with Stalin in summer 1948 — appeared to offer the PCI a way out. Like many Trotskyists, Lambert had been expelled from the CGT in 1950. He started work in Force Ouvrière, and, helped by funds from the Yugoslav embassy, was able to start a newsletter advocating trade-union unity on a democratic basis. The PCI also organised some 3000 volunteers to go to Yugoslavia in work brigades.

But all that was based on gross illusions about the nature of the Tito regime; ended embarrassedly when Tito backed the USA in the Korean war; and anyway brought the PCI little profit.

Michel Pablo, the main international leader of “orthodox Trotskyism”, started to argue that a Third World War between the USA and the Stalinist bloc was imminent and certain; that in that war, the Communist Parties would be forced into a “roughly revolutionary orientation against capitalism”; and that Trotskyists should therefore join the Communist Parties.

Bleibtreu and others criticised Pablo (though, in hindsight, very insufficiently: their attitude to Tito and Mao was no more critical than Pablo’s). They rejected Pablo’s notion that world politics was defined by the two “blocs”, US imperialism and Stalinism; they contested Pablo’s ideas that there was no point in opposing World War Three and that in any case nothing of any significance could be done before World War Three.

Lambert still played little role in the theoretical debates. But he tended towards Bleibtreu, who had a majority in the PCI. And then in early 1952 Pablo instructed the PCI to send most of its activists into the French Communist Party.

The PCI readily agreed to send a limited number of peopple in to do “fraction work” within the CP. Pablo insisted that the PCI must send its leading activists in, even if they would have to make grovelling denunciations of their Trotskyist “past” in order to gain entry — and, of course, in those days of high Stalinism, they would have to.

The PCI split. A majority, maybe 150 as compared to the thousand members of 1947, defied Pablo. A couple of dozen, with Frank, complied. Lambert, with his trade union work relying on networks in Force Ouvriere, went with Bleibtreu.

Lambert was still not the “leader” of the group. Over the next three years or so, he became that. The “theoreticians”, Bleibtreu, Michel Lequenne, Jacques Danos, Marcel Gibelin, were forced out between 1953 and 1955.

From all accounts, this was not just a matter of Lambert being authoritarian. Bleibtreu and the others were demoralised and disoriented. They were flummoxed, and understandably so, by the way the world had turned out.

Lambert had no better theories. But he did have ideas about what to do, organisational talent and energy to make them happen, and a temperament that left him not too bothered about the theoretical issues.

Lambert developed contacts among left wingers in Force Ouvriere and in the Socialist Party, and in the wing of the Algerian independence movement led by Messali Hadj. Operationally, in the mid 50s, the Lambert group became almost a variety of anarcho-syndicalism.

Its paper La Vérité had headlines like: “The odious comedy of elections will change nothing. Let’s prepare the struggle for power!” (16 December 1955); “General strike for bread and peace” (28 September 1956 and against 19 September 1957); “War and poverty or socialist revolution” (27 December 1956); and “The general strike can win 10,000 francs increase for all and peace in Algeria” (17 October 1957). Week after week it hammed away on the call for troops out of Algeria, wage increases, and a general strike to win them.

1958 brought a sudden shock and a drastic shift in orientation. In May 1958, General De Gaulle was brought back to power by a military coup, executed by the army in Algeria. He abolished the old parliamentary constitution and set up a new presidential “Fifth Republic”. As it turned out, De Gaulle would retain an essentially bourgeois-democratic regime rather than going further, and concede independence to Algeria; but many leftists thought they faced a military dictatorship.

Meanwhile, Messali Hadj’s movement was eclipsed by the rival Algerian-nationalist FLN, and moved towards compromise with De Gaulle.

Dismayed, the Lambertists shut down their weekly paper, declaring that “It is not slogans for action, which is impossible for now, that the vanguard workers need today”. In the modest duplicated bulletin they started to replace it, they wrote: “The working class today is incapable of intervening as such in political struggles”.

A heavy stress on defensive demands, on the “workers’ united front”, and on deep burrowing within trade-union officialdom, came to be the hallmarks of the Lambert group.

They developed extensive contacts within the world of free-masonry and a habit of having “undercover” members in the most unlikely places. Lionel Jospin, who would eventually become Socialist Party prime minister, turns out to have been still been paying dues to the Lambertist group as late as 1987, when Jospin was already a well-integrated part of the inner circle round Socialist Party president Francois Mitterrand.

The 1952 split in the PCI merged into an international split in “orthodox Trotskyism” in 1953. Lambert joined a new international network with Gerry Healy in Britain and James P Cannon and the Socialist Workers’ Party in the USA. They were known as the International Committee of the Fourth International.

In 1963 Healy’s and Lambert’s groups separated from the Americans. In 1970 Lambert would split from Healy, rejecting the British group’s increasingly manic ultra-leftism; but by the 1960s Lambert’s group, in its internal organisation, had become much like Healy’s.

There was a culture of top-down control, rather than of democracy. More and more, everything was centred round Lambert’s efforts to build a strong organisational machine and to establish a network of contacts and influence around by bending the ears of people in prominent positions. At the end, all the general secretaries of Force Ouvriere for the last forty years felt obliged to honour Lambert by attending his funeral.

Lambert’s most famous ally was Alexandre Hébert. Hébert, a self-proclaimed anarcho-syndicalist, was operationally a careerist bureaucrat and the little Napoleon of the Force Ouvrière union in Loire-Atlantique from 1947 until 1992 (now succeeded by his own son, Patrick!). Moreover, as I discovered when I interviewed Hébert in researching a study of May 1968, his attitudes to immigrants are racist. In 1995, he contributed to Jean-Marie le Pen’s paper Français d’abord (“The French first”), outlining his hostility towards immigrants. Hébert and his periphery joined the Parti des Travailleurs.

From the early 1960s, the Lambert group grew again. It had won over a very slow trickle of discontented CPers and well-known intellectuals such as the historians Jean-Jacques Marie and Pierre Broué. It grew seriously among students, and began to copy the Healy view that its sect was the revolutionary party in embryo. The most startling example was the group’s attitude towards the student movements of the late 1960s and the general strike of May-June 1968.

Despite the low ebb of the workers’ movement, the years leading up to “May ‘68” saw a rise in student activism, with questions such as the Fouchet plan’s technocratic reorganisation of the education system, war in Vietnam, and sexual radicalism feeding a burgeoning movement.

The Lambertists’ CLER was the largest student organisation to the left of the Communist Party. It favoured basic bread-and-butter student unionism and stressed that building their own organisation was the best way of fighting the Fouchet reforms. The sexual revolution was very much off the agenda of this group! Eschewing meaningful engagement in anti-war activity with the youth group JCR (close to the mainstream Fourth International) or the Maoist youth, the UJCml, the CLER imitated the Lambertists in industry and arranged a panoply of “action committees”, “co-ordination committees” and “committees for struggle” which were in reality very shallow fronts for their own organisation. CLER was however (of course!) interested in taking positions in the bureaucracy of the students’ union UNEF!

Over the winter of 1967-1968, as Strasbourg and Nantes universities and the Nanterre Faculty of Paris University saw rising waves of student activism, including anti-war demonstrations, occupying halls of residence in protest against gender segregation, and large student strikes, the Lambertists focused their efforts on building a rally of their own members and periphery, looking to galvanise their “party” rather than agitate in broader movements.

The January/February 1968 issue of the CLER newspaper Révoltes carried a call for “a rally of 3,500 youth at the Mutualité on the 29-30 June”, and articles on both domestic and international politics ended with a call for activists to attend this event, as if it were some catch-all solution. The next month, the April issue of Révoltes, had the same theme. One might have assumed that the plans for a rally like this would have been shelved in early May, when protests leading to the occupation of the Sorbonne by police, street battles which pitched students and young workers against the riot cops and anger at the victimisation of student activists signified great unrest among the student population. Even if other groups had played a greater role in setting events in motion than the Lambertists, a revolutionary organisation worth its salt would have wanted to get involved in the struggle. Yet Lambert’s group abstained.

The most notable flashpoint came on the evening of 10 May 1968, when a demonstration of students, lycée pupils and young workers through Paris, protesting against the police occupation of the Sorbonne, met with lines of riot police and blockades in the Latin Quarter. After several days of skirmishes and small clashes, both sides were spoiling for a fight. The demonstrators levered up cobblestones, benches and street signs to construct some sixty barricades, with eight-foot paving slabs for foundations.

Twenty thousand people stood their ground against police aggression, piling up branches, petrol-soaked pieces of wood and even cars to fend off a police attack. The JCR occupied a flat as a command base and communicated to activists over the radio. But where were the Lambertists?

Having refused to cancel a planned “vanguard” meeting at the Mutualité to organise the demonstration for 13 May, the Lambertists’ five hundred-strong contingent did not reach the Latin Quarter until one in the morning, marching up to the barricades in close formation and holding red banners aloft. Upon their arrival on the front line the group’s leaders grandly announced to the protestors that they refused to “risk the necks of the revolutionary vanguard” in a supposedly pointless fight, and — calling upon the students to “disperse and organise strike committees” — promptly marched away again. Révoltes explained that “without the revolutionary party, there can be no victorious struggle. We know that we represent the only force able to organise the workers’ and students’ fight.”

Knowing that in fact they had already lost any opportunity to organise the workers’ and students’ fight from the outside themselves, the Lambertists had already gone home when the police launched their three-hour campaign to clear the streets of protestors by means of tear gas and truncheons.

The organisation was not all bad. The first factory occupation in 1968 was the direct result of the agitation of Yvon Rocton, an OCI member who was a Force Ouvrière militant at the Sud-Aviation aircraft plant near Nantes. Rocton had built up an activist base at the plant, whose workers were fighting a difficult campaign against cuts in working hours, and the strength of the student movement and the crisis of de Gaulle’s administration gave impulse to more radical workers to risk the occupation tactic rather than just occasional strikes. Rocton was able to win the argument for an occupation of the factory, but the workers also kept their boss as a prisoner in his office for over two weeks during the occupation.

The efforts of Alexandre Hébert were rather less admirable. With the Nantes police force in disarray following the sacking of their headquarters on 13 May, and the local council in considerable trouble as groups of workers in the suburbs of the city began to take over food and petrol distribution for themselves, Hébert arranged with the leader of the social-democrat local government and the head of the police (who, like Hébert, were freemasons) for the trade unions to take over the administration of the Town Hall. It was not “dual power”, as described in some accounts; at Hébert’s instigation the trade unions sought to prop up the authorities and face off spontaneous working-class action. The local authorities did not react at all to the union bureaucrats’ “taking power”, and were even invited to speak at public meetings staged by the unions for the sake of public information. As Noir et Rouge explained.

“Given the deficiency of the old authorities (police prefecture and municipal government) but also with their active support, the trade unions jointly used their respective organisations, and supporting bodies, to put in place a new power structure. Far from reopening the huge modern distribution centres — of which the workers were on strike — which would have meant taking “risks” and an attack on the rule of private property, instead they supported the small-scale farmers and shopkeepers. Stuck in the middle between this ‘social base’ of theirs and the old police and administrative apparatus, the inter-trade union committee would limit itself to pathetic vacillation until the ‘return to normality’.”

It was such bureaucratic manoeuvres that marked Pierre Lambert’s decline, rather than the grotesque physical assaults and sexual abuse of Gerry Healy committed against comrades of the OCI’s sister organisation in Britain.

The Lambert organisation constantly declared itself to be going from strength to strength, never reviewing its own problems; but in fact, after growing in the 1970s, it declined in the 1980s. Lambert expelled most of his close collaborators, one after another: Michel Varga, Charles Berg, Pierre Broué, Stéphane Just...

At the same time the Lambertists puffed up a ridiculous posture of openness. They declared a new “broad” party, the Parti des Travailleurs, supposedly comprising Socialist, Communist, Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist “currents”. In fact, the group is weak (except in Force Ouvriere officialdom!), and the diverse “currents” fictional.

The Parti des Travailleurs complains that the European Union is an affront to the “sovereignty” of France and calls for the “defence of the Republic”. The EU is blamed as primarily responsible for almost all social ills, and the Lambertists denounce “Brussels” is a vehicle for the agenda of the Vatican. In the 2007 Presidential elections the Parti des Travailleurs promoted Gérard Schivardi, who declared himself the “candidate of the mayors” and stressed that he would defend “mayors’ rights” against the Paris government.

It is hard to look at the career of Pierre Lambert and think of him as a defiant opponent of Stalinism or a fighter for the working class. In reality, he was neither, and the sectarian mores of his organisation were matched by its complete lack of internal democracy and debate and the ensuing stagnation of ideas.

Of course, his comrades’ intervention in the labour movement was not wholly fruitless. But essentially the activity of the Lambertist group came to be geared towards sect-building and winning influence among trade union bureaucrats rather than encouraging the working class to organise itself. Lambert’s story, in the end, is an object lesson in sectarianism, a sad chapter in the history of the Trotskyist left.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Respect GLA election bid

On Thursday I went to the SWP-Respect's pre-election rally and candidate selection meeting with my comrade Martin Thomas. Although the purpose of the event was supposedly to choose Respect's candidates for the Greater London Assembly list, there was no hustings, the scope of the meeting confined to a long series of speeches from SWP-Respect leaders to fill time as people filled out their ballots.

Just 15 minutes was allowed for "debate", during which time only one contribution from the floor, by leading SWP teacher Sean Purnell, was permitted to speak. No discussion or dissent was allowed to rock the boat.

The SWP-Respect have obviously been shaken by the split with Galloway and his allies, and seemed barely able to bring themselves to refer to their rival "Respect Renewal" by name. Oli Rahman (a leading Respect councillor - not a member of the SWP) said that the party is "psychologically and physically stronger than the other side" and alleged that, far from losing support since the split, SWP-Respect was going from strength to strength. Yet mayoral candidate Lindsey German and SWP leader John Rees' call for the assembled activists to work harder, campaign more and sign up members carried a tone of desperation rather than optimism.

Only around 150 people had attended the meeting, almost exclusively members of the Socialist Workers' Party. Attempting to save face after Galloway's departure, the SWP leadership seem happy to maintain the illusion that Lindsey German might be elected to the GLA, even though this is patently impossible as Respect's, and indeed the SWP's, activist base has narrowed and its support in East End mosques has collapsed.

Rees, German et al are throwing money, resources and their members' efforts into a futile campaign, and at the same time are too prim and sectarian to make a turn to the rest of the left or the broader labour movement. The SWP moved to stop the RMT railworkers' union from standing a slate. Calling for the organisation to give up this ridiculous charade, Martin Thomas and I handed out the following leaflet;

On Thursday 27 September the London Transport Regional Council of the rail union RMT voted to call on the union to "draw up lists of candidates to stand in the London mayoral elections and GLA elections in 2008.

"These lists should be drawn from RMT members, socialists, anti-capitalists, local campaign groups, etc...[and] speak to the many different issues facing workers, working-class communities and oppressed groups in London, such as education, the health service, housing, a living wage and trade union rights - while of course making the demand for a 100% publicly owned, democratically controlled, integrated and cheap public transport system central".

In the event, the RMT union executive decided not to go ahead with the plan. It concluded that there wasn't enough momentum of support from the labour movement and left.

Part of the reason is that there had been a vocal minority in the Regional Council arguing against the RMT initiating a list. That minority was led by the SWP, saying that the electoral arena was already "full up" because of Respect's plans to stand.

In the wake of the Galloway split, Respect should reconsider this stance.

It should approach the RMT, say that it was wrong back in September, and ask the RMT executive to reconsider the issue on the basis that Respect and the SWP will participate in a joint list energetically and enthusiastically.

It should put out an appeal to other trade-union and left organisations to join in this call on the RMT to reconsider.

Respect should do this:

* Because it is the right thing. Trade-unionists striving to regain a political voice after the disenfranchisement which New Labour has forced on them should be supported and encouraged, not opposed.
* Because it would open the possibility of a genuine broad working-class and left-wing challenge (within which, of course, Marxists could make clear their own ideas). Realistically, a Respect-only effort will amount to the SWP and a few allies "pretending" to be a broad front, and thus have as its main result only a blurring of socialist political profile.
* Because it would win more support against Livingstone and New Labour.
* Because it would turn Respect in the direction of a proper left-wing and working-class alliance - a fresh direction after the debacle of the alliance with Galloway to develop a "party for Muslims" (as Respect described itself in 2004 election leaflets).
* Because a Mayor/GLA challenge will cost about £30,000. To do it just as a publicity stunt is not a good use of resources.

Lindsay German was right to restate the need for a left challenge to Ken Livingstone. Contrast George Galloway's defence of "Red Ken" (as he still calls him) and his appeal for a "Progressive List" (the title the Liberals formerly used in local government) on the vaguest basis to contest GLA seats but back Livingstone.

But let's do the job seriously, on a genuine working-class and socialist basis.