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.