Frontenac Chateau

Recently I’ve been having a lot of fun reading Alain Badiou, who really is a sharp polemicist and particularly entertaining in his deconstruction of Sarkozy. But let’s be under no illusions here – if you tried to extract a practical political programme from Badiou, you’d be hard pressed for people not to think you were insane. Actually, Badiou, who had the benefit of hands-on experience in the French Maoist movement of the 1970s, and is still very much involved with the sans-papiers issue, is more practical than most philosophers. Imagine for a moment trying to turn the works of Foucault, or Žižek, or Baudrillard, or even Nietzsche or Heidegger into a political programme. I suppose the nearest we’ve had to an unmediated intellectualist political current, at least that I can remember, is the RCP, and, while Uncle Frank isn’t on a level with the aforementioned thinkers, the trajectory of the Füredites probably tells you something about the dangers of a surfeit of intellectualism.

You get this with Marx. There is quite a lot of Marx that is embarrassing to latter-day Marxists, or would be if they knew about it. I’m not just talking here about sexist or racist attitudes, or other deviations from 21st-century political correctness, which you can hardly hold Marx responsible for. But what I mean is that, while there’s lots of good stuff in Marx – the economic analyses, the political journalism, the philosophical speculations – well, if Badiou sometimes appears to be an extremist maniac unconcerned with sordid political realities, then he’s got nothing on Marx. It took the mass parties of the Second International, and years of hard work by people like Kautsky and Bernstein and Luxemburg and Lenin and Bebel and Jaurès and Plekhanov and many others, to turn “Marxism” into something that looked like a programme for political action – and this without even considering the split between revisionists and revolutionaries. This process, however, has meant a lot of the more hair-raising material in the Collected Works being quietly swept under the carpet.

Let’s start with a favourite of the Irish left, the idea that Marxism opposes terrorism. This is a bit tricky, because Marx’s enthusiasm for the bomb-throwing exploits of the Fenians and the Russian Narodniks is quite well known. What is actually relied on here, you will find, are the polemics of Russian Social Democracy against the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the lineal descendants of the Narodniks. These polemics are given a particular edge by the Narodnik roots of the founding Russian Marxists and by there being less of a clear dividing line between Marxism and Narodnichestvo than they would have liked. To revive these arguments is perfectly respectable in and of itself, but your problem arises when you claim your position as representing “Marxism”. If we’re going to go by what Marx himself had to say on the matter, then Sendero Luminoso or the LTTE have as much claim to be Marxist as anybody else.

Or there’s the issue of the right of nations to self-determination. A lot of effort has gone into extrapolating from Marx and Engels on Poland and Ireland, but the fact remains that if you’re looking for a general strategic orientation on the issue then you’re forced to rely on the debates between Luxemburg and Lenin a century ago. I vividly remember a talk by the late Duncan Hallas, wherein Duncan sought not only to defend Engels against Rosdolsky (a tough enough task in my view) but then went on to claim, a little disingenuously, that Engels’ position was consistent with Lenin’s. (My own intervention was to support Rosdolsky against Engels and Luxemburg against Lenin, which went down like a lead balloon.) This defence of Engels is easy enough to do in Britain – or at least England, where people imagine the national question is for far-off countries of which we know little. It’s just a teensy bit harder, if you’re a Czech Marxist, to get past Engels’ idea that the Czechs were an unhistoric people doomed to be assimilated into the superior German race. You can deploy dialectics and jump through all sorts of theoretical hoops, but it’s more straightforward to just ignore Engels on this point.

On a lighter note, let’s take conspiracy theories. I recall a conversation I had maybe fifteen years ago with a leading SWP member. At the time – this was before Lindsey German had discovered New Laddism and pronounced Men Behaving Badly to be The Most Evil Show On Telly – the comrades seemed to have a particular bee in their collective bonnet about The X-Files, and a burning desire to debunk its anti-establishment credentials. Usually this consisted of references to it being made by Fox, although that never stopped The Simpsons being wildly popular in party ranks. But this comrade was strident on the content of the show. “Conspiracy theories,” he confidently declared, “are anti-Marxist.” It’s just as well the party wasn’t holding reading groups on Marx’s Palmerston pamphlet.

The fact is that we take from Marx what we want, and ignore or explain away the rest. Every Marxist current creates a Marx in its own image. Indeed, I’m convinced that the popularity of Wheen’s Marx biography – which portrayed old Karl as a great Victorian eccentric, a sort of Charles Dickens meets Paul Foot – is that it’s a portrait of Marx that’s sympathetic in today’s atmosphere, and just a little flattering to Marxists.

But yes, no Marxist tendency – at least no sensible one – takes every word of those great volumes as gospel. Most tendencies have their basic standby bits of Marxism, primarily the economic writings and the class theory of exploitation, often dialectical materialism although nobody’s ever managed to convince me of the political relevance of dialectics. And from the post-Marx thinkers, we have Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? and State and Revolution, Trotsky’s writings on Stalinism and fascism (and possibly permanent revolution, if your tastes run that way), Luxemburg on reformism and whatever you’re having yourself from the guru of your particular group. Of course, this leaves an awful lot of empty ground, especially when you deviate from issues directly connected to economics and class and go into, say, the cultural realm. Your grab-bag of writings won’t help you very much if you’re trying to formulate a position on gay rights, so your best bet is to make up a position from whole cloth and call it “Marxist”. And where do you fill the gaps from? If the French left draws on Jacobinism, the English left draws very heavily on liberalism. (The historic exception was the old Militant Tendency, which preferred to draw on 1940s Labourism and, in Liverpool, the conspiratorial traditions of Irish nationalism.) So you get on the London left a milieu whose Marxism is really just a bit of exploitation theory supplemented by Amnesty-style good causes politics. I don’t say this is necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s worth pointing out.

And then you end up with the problem of how, to paraphrase Mr Tony Blair, to put forward old ideals in a modern setting. It’s important in a sense, because 1970s Trotskyism will not necessarily fly with young folks now. In fact, if my observations are at all correct, young people today are mostly interested in ecology and human rights. All very good, but you’re then faced with the issue of how to sell them on Lenin and Trotsky, when it can be quite easily shown that Lenin and Trotsky were human rights abusers. (Anarchists are especially vociferous on this point, and on the elements in Lenin and Trotsky’s records that Trots don’t like to talk about. Anarchists also get extremely irate when you talk about their heroes’ failings and the dodgier bits of their own history, but that just proves the point.) And Lord help you if you want to say that Mao has some relevance today. As I see it, you have two options. You can be unreconstructed, and attract a (probably smallish) audience that quite likes you for being unreconstructed, or you can try to reinvent yourself and your tradition to get down with the kids.

There’s plenty of reinvention that goes on, as you’ll notice if you’ve been around for a while, although the groups involved don’t like to admit it. This is why I quite liked Sean Matgamna’s little essay on Shachtman, openly stating that he chose which bits of Shachtman to appropriate and which bits to ignore. At least Sean’s honest about it. More usually, we get unstated, often unconscious, shifts in which bits and pieces of the tradition and programme to emphasise in the current period. And these often go together with molecular changes in the groups themselves, not obvious at first glance but certainly detectable over a period of time. That’s why neither of the two successors of the old Militant Tendency looks all that much like classic Militant any more. The Socialist Party actually looks rather similar to a 1994-vintage SWP, though with a few idiosyncrasies that can be atributed to its history. Socialist Appeal, which ten years ago certainly looked like Continuity Militant and which continues to pay fulsome tribute to Ted Grant Thought, is getting to be more and more like an early 1970s USec section, thanks not least to the young people it’s attracted around its Venezuela work.

And so here we are. It’s often said about Cliff’s multi-volume biographies of Lenin and Trotsky that they’re really books about the men Lenin and Trotsky could have been had they had Cliff around to tell them what to do. A more charitable view would be that Cliff was reinventing Lenin and Trotsky for a new audience. From time to time I get the impression that the SWP brains trust (Christopher and Alexander) are thinking about how their next generation will need a reinvented Cliff. As well they might, bearing in mind that, like the other Cliff, a lot of his material may have been great forty or fifty years ago, but it hasn’t always aged very well.

Personally, I don’t know about this reinvention malarkey. One thing I’ve always liked about the SPGB (and you should really read The Monument if you haven’t already) is that they’ve been saying exactly the same thing since 1903. I’m glad they’re still around – I don’t know if their local affiliate, the wonderfully titled World Socialist Party of Ireland, is still functional but I certainly hope it is. This continuity, as with the De Leonite SLP in the States who have been at it even longer, has over time got to be their unique selling point. The niche market really is the best place for long-term survival. On the other hand, I can respect those who take a punt on trying to break through to the big time – it’s just that there’s the constant danger of losing your identity in the process. You can’t avoid the danger, you can only be aware of it and try to decide if it’s worthwhile.


  1. skidmarx said,

    April 25, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Interesting and amusing.

    “This process, however, has meant a lot of the more hair-raising material in the Collected Works being quietly swept under the carpet.”

    Your next couple of examples are of things Marx didn’t say, I don’t see any van de Graaf effect in operation. Perhaps you should also bear in mind Hal Draper’s admonition not to treat every offhand comment in a letter as equal in probative value to Marx’s published writings under his own control. From a quick look at the Palmerston pamphlet, it appears to have been written to order as journalism, so let’s sweep that one under the carpet if it’s problematic (though some statement as to why might be useful if you’re gonna mention it).

    “Conspiracy theories,” he confidently declared, “are anti-Marxist.”

    Noam Chomsky on Resonance FM in London last night attacked conspiracy theories over 9/11 as a diversion from actually thinking ’bout the government, and mentioned that under the last Bush administration it had been proposed to periodically release information on the Kennedy assassination, Chomsky suggests as a diversion. Maybe while attacking cospiracy theories he’s suggesting a conspiracy. I want to believe.

    “The fact is that we take from Marx what we want, and ignore or explain away the rest.”
    “Nobody’s ever managed to convince me of the political relevance of dialectics.”
    Then it’s understandable that you want to pick out the bits you like in an eclectic fashion, rather than taking Marx’s (dialectical) method and then junking things he says that don’t fit into it. The fundamental conception is that the essence of the political struggle under capitalism is between the working class and bourgeoisie, though it is in the interests of the latter to give politics the appearance of being about anything but.

  2. Dr Paul said,

    April 25, 2009 at 11:36 am

    SS wrote: ‘I suppose the nearest we’ve had to an unmediated intellectualist political current, at least that I can remember, is the RCP, and, while Uncle Frank isn’t on a level with the aforementioned thinkers, the trajectory of the Füredites probably tells you something about the dangers of a surfeit of intellectualism.’

    Looking back at my experience of the RCP, what strikes me now is that it existed upon a diet of stunt politics (trying to be noticed by being outrageous) and the elaboration of theory by magpie-ing off the Marxist classics and worthwhile bourgeois scholarship. Now the remains of the organisation have left all that behind, so much of what Spiked projects these days seems like regurgitated second-rate (if that) sociology.

    There’s a moral to be learned there: perhaps we need the Marxist classics to keep our head above water.

  3. Sad Sectarian Dave O said,

    April 25, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Nice post, SS.

    So you too doubt dialectics? Yeah, I’m starting to think that way myself. But such a stance is a tad heretical, no? I mean, at this rate you’ll soon be accused of bourgeois empiricism, and then you’ll be sorry.

  4. Mark P said,

    April 25, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Young people in Socialist Appeal? I think you’ve been misinformed.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 25, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Hey, I’ve seen some young people at one of their events. But then, they were of Latin American extraction.

  6. Mark P said,

    April 25, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I’m sure that they can get a few Latin American young people to show up to public meetings about Venezuela, but any young people you see who are actually members are almost uniformly imports from their Spanish section (which is itself a good bit smaller than it used to be, but is still much bigger than the UK operation). The local membership consists almost entirely of middle aged and elderly men.

    Which is one of the two main reasons why they don’t actually carry out any work in the Labour Party – most of their remaining members were expelled twenty plus years ago. The other reason is, of course, that working in the Labour Party is completely pointless and even the Woods group know better than to actually waste their time doing it.

  7. anglonoel said,

    April 25, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    V.good piece…will refer to it elsewhere (aka Facebook!).

    I was reminded of a comment once made of Tony Cliff’s 2 volume biography of Lenin- that it came across as the life of John the Baptist as written by Jesus Christ.

  8. Doloras said,

    April 26, 2009 at 3:26 am

    “The niche market really is the best place for long-term survival. On the other hand, I can respect those who take a punt on trying to break through to the big time – it’s just that there’s the constant danger of losing your identity in the process. You can’t avoid the danger, you can only be aware of it and try to decide if it’s worthwhile.”

    I concur, wholeheartedly – except to say that a Marxist sect which decides to prioritise long-term survival over practical action should be cursed as traitors to the planet, let alone the class, when the gathering ecological and economic crises do not guarantee a long-term survival for the planet.

    The second approach is, I think, the only acceptable one for those of us who want to use Marxism as politics, rather as the dogmas and rituals of a rather fuddy-duddy religion. The SPGB will never, ever be of any use to anyone as long as they keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. The millennium will never come.

    Identities are things that only hold us back. Lenin junked the respectable and noble term “social democrat” when it became a hassle. May those who want to follow in his footsteps have similar courage, to junk all labels and identities in the service of using the Marxist method as a guide to real, practical action.

  9. Neil said,

    April 26, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Don’t think I agree with the comparison of the Militant to 1940’s Labourism. For a start that’s a pretty broad church ranging from Marxists, through to Bevanites and out the way to open support of NATO and British Imperialism.

    The longer I have been in the SP here in England the more I’m struck by the similarites beetween ourselves and the American SWP of the 1930’s particularly in how we operate in the trade unions. A frequent phrase used in SP trade union caucuses is the need to ‘take the members with you’ i.e. a sustained period of political and organisational preperation before embarking on industrial action. This is often derided as ‘conservative’ by the ultra left (esp in the PCS) who like to couterpose some form of spontanaiety to actually preparing the ground for deliverable industrial action.
    I however see many similarites with the way the American SWP ran the Teamster strikes in the 1930’s in terms of their use of frequent mass meeting of the membership to discuss tactics with for example the city wide strikes conducted by Militant in Liverpool in the 1980’s.

    There’s also the strong emphasis on a proletarian composition of the party and a general scepticism towards the latest intellectual fads coming from academia and the intelligencia.

    Hell, even our split in the early 90’s was similar in some ways to the break with Shachtman and Burnham, with Grant and Woods insistence on having their own publication after losing the vote at the National Conference by 90% being the final breaking point.

  10. Neil said,

    April 26, 2009 at 11:11 am

    “in Liverpool, the conspiratorial traditions of Irish nationalism.”

    Um, what?!?!

  11. April 26, 2009 at 11:40 am

    the SPGB is deeply rooted in the cultural tradition of both the english dissent (soap box preaching) and of englightment philosophy (trying to convince you with the correct argument … you can only agree or disagree) … another reason for the survival of SPGB & SLP is, that their habitat was quite friendly to them and tolerated them mostly

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 26, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Well, Liverpool Labour in general has always had that Irish tinge. Makes it a bit different from Labour in, say, Manchester or Sheffield where it took over the cultural milieu of pre-WW1 Liberalism. And it really is the style as much as the formal programme I mean when I link Classic Militant to 1940s Labourism. That, and Ted having completed his thinking by about 1950 and sticking with it thereafter.

    Coming back on skidmarx and the dialectical method, it’s a useful critical tool in certain circumstances. In other circumstances, I’ve found the Simulacrum (in the Baudrillardian sense) and the Spectacle (in the Debordian sense) to be just as useful. But then, I have the disadvantage of having got my academic grounding in chemistry, which is all about empiricism – add liquid A to liquid B and see if they go boom. High-end theory is only a rough guide in those circumstances.

    But having established that I’m an empiricist, does the Marxist left gain much practically from a dialectical theology? And, something nobody’s ever been able to explain to my satisfaction, how does Trotsky’s exposition of dialectics in IDOM differ from what Mitin and the other Red Professors had been writing? One can argue that Mao’s version is more of a break from Soviet orthodoxy than Trotsky’s.

  13. Ken MacLeod said,

    April 26, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Good thought-provoking post.

    One offshoot of Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism was Novack’s Introduction to the Logic of Marxism, originally a lecture course to bring the party up to speed on dialectics. It has a very different emphasis from that other venerable textbook, Maurice Cornforth’s trilogy. Novack really does seem to be saying that logical self-contradictions are allowed in dialectics, which really does seem to me to be a dreadful muddle.

  14. james said,

    April 27, 2009 at 12:35 am

    “agine for a moment trying to turn the works of Foucault, or Žižek, or Baudrillard, or even Nietzsche or Heidegger into a political programme.”

    I remember watching a video of Foucault debating with Chomsky once, and it was clear that the former was struggling deeply with the whole “constructive” thing, perhaps understandably. Astounding critic, but no creator. An observer not a visionary, clearly.

    At that time Chomsky was in his practical phase, which was typified by his appearance on Bill Buckley’s programme where he argued that political theory was only any use if it led to anything and was complete with examples (now replaced by a vague desire for something like the Paris Communes, without any explanation of how a bunch of pinko collectivists short an army could fend of tyrant generals, so I am informed) so obviously things were getting a bit awkward. None of them wanting to go for each other, but quite obviously Chomsky was grasping towards something which might actually happen and Foucault was deeply wary.

    Presumably there was some sort of metamorphosis within Foucault between this stage and his ultimate ending as a supporter of the Iranian Islamic Revolution?

  15. james said,

    April 27, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Vid is here, btw:

    Annoyingly I can’t find the question section from the Firing Line appearance where Chomsky discusses theory, but this is the first part:

  16. andyinswindon said,

    April 27, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    On the issue of Engels and Rosdolsky, the Rosdolky book is sadly out of print in English now, but I gave some lengthy discussion of the debate at SU blog last year,

    Which includes a summary of Otto Bauer’s position on emerging Czech national consciousness.

    Given that neither Lenin not Luxemburg ever developed a coherent theory of nations and nationalism, the debate between them can only ever be of limited usefulness.

    So whether we end up agreeing with him or not, bauer is a more useful starting point, as the most spohisticated Marxist theorist of nations.

  17. Dr Paul said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    The ghost of Engels and the national question lives on. Only last year, a friend of mine asked a deranged Polish nationalist: ‘What’s it like being a member of a non-historic people?’

  18. prianikoff said,

    April 27, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    My recollection is that Engels and Marx regarded Polish Nationalism as inherently revolutionary from the 1848 revolution onwards.
    Didn’t they reserve the term “non-historic people” for the South Slavs and others in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, like the Czechs?

    As history unfolded, the term “non-historic people” proved to be completely wrong. To perpetuate it would have meant opposing the Yugoslav resistance and justifying the Russian annexation of Eastern Poland on the social chauvinist grounds employed by Moltov in 1941.
    Whereas as events in Poland and Afghanistan showed, sensitivity on the national question should be “overdone, not underdone”.

    Another good example of why the ahistorical, rote adoption of “Marxist” phrases by opportunists and bureaucrats is so bloody useless.

  19. james said,

    April 27, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    @17 – He healed up yet?

  20. michaelo said,

    April 28, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Who might be today’s non-historic people: the protestants in the north of Ireland, the Israeli Zionists. Anybody got anymore?

    Non-historic peoples are those that are brought into being and encouraged by colonialists and imperialists, in pursuit of their divisive policies, to forment trouble.

  21. Dr Paul said,

    April 28, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    My pal, who, incidentally, is from a Czech-Jewish background, survived unharmed.

    I think that Engels considered that what had happened in Germany, where 30 or so independent states were merged into one nation-state, would occur in the Balkans and/or Eastern Europe; that the various nations there, which were either just becoming nation-states in their own right, or were still part of empires, would eventually merge into a much bigger conglomerate as capitalism developed.

    I also think that this showed that Engels had a rather optimistic view of the development of capitalism, as it is clear that the growth of capitalism in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe led to quite a different situation, one which was exacerbated by the collapse of the empires in 1917-18, and continues today in an even more marked form after the crash of Stalinism with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the split of Czechoslovakia, and so on.

  22. johng said,

    April 28, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    I don’t know who wrote this review of a bad book, but i think it pretty well sums up why andy is wrong about bauer:

  23. andyinswindon said,

    April 29, 2009 at 12:32 am


    I suspect that Nimni has not read bauer’s book. Most people who comment on it are repporting only second hand based upon commentary. Indeed Benedict Andersin apologises in the introduction of the secnd edition f “Imagined Communities” for underestimating bauer in the first edition due to not having read the original and relying on misleading and factional misrepresenttaions.

    Certainly nothing in the review you have quoted here gives me the impression that either the author of the review, or the author of the book has actually read bauer.

  24. andyinswindon said,

    April 29, 2009 at 12:35 am

    Inceidently, to argue that Bauer does not address the theoretical problem of what is a nation is somewhat odd, given that he spends some 400 pages doing nothing else.

    JOhnG, have you read bauer? You seem very quick to dismiss his views, based upon what knoeledge exactly?

  25. Darren said,

    April 30, 2009 at 11:42 am

    “Personally, I don’t know about this reinvention malarkey. One thing I’ve always liked about the SPGB (and you should really read The Monument if you haven’t already) is that they’ve been saying exactly the same thing since 1903. I’m glad they’re still around – I don’t know if their local affiliate, the wonderfully titled World Socialist Party of Ireland, is still functional but I certainly hope it is.”

    I’ve just read that the author of the Monument, Robert Barltrop, died a few days back. He also wrote a fine biography of Jack London.

    The WSP of Ireland? It still exists on paper but it consists of little more than a scattering of old timers in Belfast, Dublin and Limerick. I remember that they produced an excellent journal, the Socialist View, out of Belfast in the late 80s.

  26. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 2, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I do remember, and this must have been about the same time, a lecture series on economics, one of which involved a comrade having baked a cake which was then sliced up to show what value went to the capitalist and what to the worker. I was charmed.

  27. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Delightful as The Monument is, I would very strongly recommend the more thorough and exact account in The Socialist Party of Great Britain: Politics, Economics, and Britain’s Oldest Socialist Party by David A. Perrin (Bridge Books, 2000). This book demonstrates how the SPGB’s thinking has evolved, and that while in a sense they have been ‘saying exactly the same thing since 1903’, they have also been at the very least keen and sharp observers of everything that has happened since. The Party’s retrospective collection of articles Socialism or Your Money Back is also a fascinating read, and I don’t mean in the sense that old internal bulletins are, at least to sad bastards like me.

  28. May 6, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    […] Modernity followed up by noting some rather poor practice in a subsequent Carnival of Socialism: positive press for the anti-socialist butcher of Tehran, racist dictator Ahmadinejad. (However, the carnival in question, the 34th, did have one or two highlights: Mick’s obit for Jack Jones, Charlie Pottins’ Toldpuddle history lesson, Splintered Sunrise’s Marxist revisionism. […]

  29. Jim Denham said,

    May 7, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    John G thinks Israel has no right to exist: that trlls you all you need to know about why he is not a a leninist and has not the slightest grasp of the Bolshevik approach to nationalism.

  30. James said,

    May 8, 2009 at 3:14 am

    Am I right in thinking that Lenin was an internationalist?

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