Monday, October 20, 2008

The 'ultra left' and social democracy

CPUSA representatives such as Riggins and Webb, in PA refer to the political strategy in relation to social democrats. The position stresses the reasons that Communists should respect the social democrats and ‘grasp the positive’ in this; that we should not alienate social democrats from siding with us. I agree. But, I would like to criticize a few aspects of this position which illuminate some problems in theory, and expose another side to this: the danger of smothering analysis and critique of bourgeois democracy, and a consequent blurring of the communist position.

Lenin, as a Bolshevik, constantly struggled against social democracy, in the same vein that earlier, Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” was also against social democracy: specifically its idea of ‘equality’. The latter critique I think is an absolute necessity to digest for all political groups wishing to label themselves communist.

CPUSA representatives, I think, have tended to play down the significance of this critique (probably for strategic reasons); but we must note, Lenin’s book “Left-Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder”, is not mainly about countering ‘sweeping characterisations’ made against social democracy (as Webb has claimed), but against opportunism, social chauvinism, and petty-bourgeois revolutionism that, as Lenin said, ‘smacks of anarchism’, and to quote him: “…When it came into being in 1903, Bolshevism took over the tradition of a ruthless struggle against petty-bourgeois, semi-anarchist (or dilettante-anarchist) revolutionism, a tradition which had always existed in revolutionary Social-Democracy…” Lenin, in this text, takes great pains to distinguish between two types of strategic compromise, and he uses an analogy apt for today: compromises that must be made because of banditry, through necessity (because the bandits are armed), and those which are made to become accomplices of banditry. He says “…From beginning to end, their (the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik social democratic tendencies) compromise with the bandits of imperialism meant their becoming accomplices in imperialist banditry.”

It is, perhaps, silly to keep suggesting arguments are correct just because certain people made them, no matter how great they are. What is important is why they made these arguments, and with what reasoning. Webb, for instance, has said that today it is different from the Cold War years, today social democrats are ‘bitter opponents of the Bush administration’ and they display more ‘sensitivity’ to issues of equality and diversity, and have increasingly ‘serious doubts’ about capitalism’s ability to provide a decent life for working people. But in articles in PA he does not give much evidence or reasoning for this claim, and the fact of the Iraq war itself seems to me to suggest the opposite. While it is true that this war can be made to seem that it is only a right wing faction of ‘crazy but powerful individuals’ in the US and UK (etc) leadership that started and is conducting it for its own selfish reasons, this would be to accept an illusion of bourgeois ideology: that it is not based in the desires and interests of a ruling class, including those in that class who call themselves social democrats.

As comrade Webb has stated, Stalin called social democrats ‘social fascists’. For Webb this was the result of a sectarian outlook. Yet Stalin and Zinoviev called them this at the time not just to foment division for its own sake (which would be ridiculous, of course) but because of a theory that was meant for the time in which they lived, because then the Communists were fighting, or aiming to fight, fascism and Nazism, and many social democrats sided or were siding with fascism and Nazism. Later there was an ‘about turn’ in this policy and there was the call for a united popular front with social democratic workers against fascism. Such an ‘about turn’ seemed to show mistakes in the former policy and theory. But the change in strategy was also a tactical political decision given the nature of the contemporary circumstances. I mean to stress that it was not a fixed theoretical axiom of Marxism, not a principle. In fact both positions could be described (I would not) as practical failures. That is, in preventing the Nazi rise to power in Germany, in stopping Franco in Spain. But this would also be wrong. My point is that, because these theories were only valid for the time, if either of these positions become lauded into fixed, long term, axioms of Marxist theory (for whatever reason) a mistake is made, and one consequence of this mistake is to ‘blame’ either theory for the ‘failures’ that apparently resulted from them. For instance, should we blame Thalmann and his policy of attacking ‘social fascists’ for not doing enough to stop Nazism, for even exacerbating the problem? We should analyse and criticize his role and circumstances in the struggle, and draw lessons to improve future strategy, yes. But we should not ‘lay blame’ on such a figure personally, because the contradictions that led to the rise of Nazi power were the result of capitalist imperialism and its defence of its pillage against the resistance of the people, which as we know led to Thalmann being put in solitary confinement for eleven years by the Nazis.

But even with the critique of Stalinism, the uncomfortable truth remains that being a ‘liberal minded’ social democratic person did not and still does not render anyone immune from fascist ideologies, and in many cases it leads directly to them, like in the glaring example of ex UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. When some social democrats, today especially, shift their political position, in many instances the ‘logical’ route for them is, sadly, not to Communism; this is for the simple fact that these individuals have often spent many years ‘selling-out’ progressive principles. In fact, traditionally, in all the arguments between Communists groups, social democracy and its versions have been the political grouping that has sided with terrorist policies, and from this position it is not so distant from fascism. Of course here I am talking mainly about professional politicians. Working people who are social democrats are a different matter; they are swayed by these politicians. But historically, I think it is not so clear that social democrats have been more ‘sensitive’ to issues of equality and so on, and I suggest, with all due respect, that it requires a degree of wishful thinking to assert that today things are different.

Surely we need to recognize the role that social democracy has, in this way, of deflecting responsibility for the political actions of the class. Webb and Riggins obviously believe there is ‘no need to persuade’ Communists about the limited nature of democracy in capitalism; this is right of course, there is no need to persuade Communists who are Communists, but what about all those ‘communists’ and ‘communist parties’ today that seem to have forgotten the basics of Marxist theory? It would be nice if all of those who simply named themselves ‘Communists’ gained an instant immunity to bourgeois ideology and did not need to learn their Marxist theory and do all the hard thinking work that this, constantly, entails. Surely any Communist Party needs to define itself properly using its best weapon, Marxist theory, and it needs to clearly distinguish itself, using this theory and its reasoning, from social democracy, or it will simply be swallowed up by it. After all, social democracy is not short of champions or money and it does not need a Communist Party to support it.

The worst thing that could follow from this position would be assisting in imperialist fascist projects in a sort of apologetic way in the guise of helping ‘global equality’: quite a few on the social democratic Left (such as in the UK Labour Party) have succumbed to this on the Iraq war. Another of the worst effects (of this downplaying of the Marxist critique of social democracy) is that it has led to the tarring of the working class with the brush of racism. Given that it is only the working class that allows us to fight racism at its roots (in class) to suggest that this class is racist is grossly unjust, for who is making this assertion? From what position could this accusation come? From another class that has a ‘purer’, ‘better’ or ‘more sensitive’, more ‘politically correct’, understanding of the problem? No.

Such arguments might imply that it is the ‘sensitive’ social democrats that are in such a position, but if we conclude, as surely we must (being Communists), that only Marxist theory can teach us here, what does Marxist theory teach us about such issues as racism, gender, and equality? We come back, of course, to the Marxist critique of social democracy and the social democratic notions of equality and social justice, which tells us that we must always ask the question: ‘equality’, yes, but between whom, for what, and at what level? - Equality with a worm or with Bill Gates? We do need, even as Communists, to remember that Marx said ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’, and we might want to describe this as ‘equality’ but it is radically (which means it ‘goes to the roots’ of the problem) different from the social democratic notion of equality (in fact a more accurate term might be ‘parity’).

Struggles for democracy (more or better democracy) in the advanced capitalist nations today obviously do not have the exact same role as they did in the Russia of Lenin’s time, before 1905 and until 1917, when they did not at first have democracy at all. Today in the US, UK, and EU, democracy in the form of universal suffrage exists and has existed for some time. It could of course be improved and tinkered with, almost forever. So we could seem to be on a never-ending treadmill. Today the constantly mentioned ‘struggle for democracy’ is a slogan that can therefore be confusing to those not already Communist and whom we seek to persuade, because today these people know we actually have democracy and things in the world appear to be awful, and to be so chiefly because of the policies of the nations with the most apparent democracy (i.e. the US, the UK, and the EU), which makes calls for ‘more of it’ by a Communist Party seem a little strange. Strange, that is, unless they are qualified by the critique of social democracy.

This critique does not mean we should be against a ‘popular front’. But if the critique is downplayed or dismissed in theory, the risk is that the radical difference that Communists offer will be lost. And then there will be those social democrats that in any case abandon democracy because it does not seem ‘ever to achieve anything’ and instead of swinging to the Communists (because now they are the same) will fall into the hands of the religious fundamentalists, who replace democracy with the absolute moral codes of faith and terrorism. This, today, is what I see happening on many sides, it is something that we obviously do not wish to help along, and the critique of social democracy is important, I suggest, in showing there is an alternative and deeper form of struggle than sectarian crusades.