A Reply to Neil H.
by Andrew R.
The recent public defection of Neil H. from our organization must be considered with regret, the loss of even a single comrade, whatever the reason, leaves us weaker in the face of the tasks we have set for ourselves.
On his resignation Neil distributed copies of an Open Letter stating his differences with Socialist Challenge/Gauche Socialiste [SC/GS]. Since the substance of these differences is not superficial, but represents a serious case of disorientation which Neil is suffering with regard to the theory and practice of revolutionary Marxism, it is our immediate responsibility to make clear to him the real significance of his words in concrete political terms.
What Are the Implications of the Open Letter?
Neil begins with a restatement of his rejection of the revolutionary workers state in Nicaragua. According to Neil’s analysis, the FSLN are “radical petty-bourgeois nationalists” whom SC/GS has misrepresented as “unconscious Marxists, or practical revolutionaries.”
It is tempting to answer these charges with ridicule, and perhaps to do otherwise would be to undeservedly dignify Neil’s argument….A fully “conscious” Marxism has been at the center of the Sandinistas’ revolutionary project since the movement’s inception in 1967. To view either the victory over Somoza, or the emergence of the Nicaraguan workers state as an “accident” on the basis of the fact that it was not led by Trotskyists, demonstrates an unenviable mastery of sectarian dogmatism, but no basis for serious discussion. If anything is, in Neil’s words, “alien to the tradition of Trotskyism,” it is the sterile reasoning which Neil employs in statements like this. It is worth noting here, that in the past many of the splinters which have dropped away from the International [United Secretariat] on the way to political oblivion have done so out of exactly this kind of failure; i.e., the failure to recognize the actuality of a proletarian revolution as it is occurring. In the past, such splinters have flown off, in various political directions over the revolutions in Yugoslavia, Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and other struggles. It should not be surprising that the Central American revolution should provide another such test.
In orienting ourselves to the issues of the day, it is often valid to look to the past experiences and leadership of the revolutionary workers movement to the degree that these are applicable to the present. This in no way relieves us of the responsibility of learning to think for ourselves (in spite of the fact that quotations are often used in this way). On the issue of the Esquipulas II peace accords, and the efforts of the Sandinista leadership to negotiate agreements with class opponents both within and outside Nicaragua, Neil should consider Lenin’s arguments against the German “Left” communists in 1920:
“It is surprising that, with such views, these Lefts do not emphatically condemn Bolshevism! After all…the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!
“To carry on a war for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, a war which is a hundred times more difficult, protracted and complex than the most stubborn of ordinary wars between states, and to renounce in advance any change of tack, or any utilisation of conflict of interests (even if temporary) among one’s enemies, or any conciliation or compromise with possible allies (even if they are temporary, unstable, vacillating or conditional allies) – is that not ridiculous in the extreme?”
“…The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, [careful] attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest rift, between the enemies, any conflict of interest[s] [among] the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries.[..]”
—V.I. Lenin, ‘Left Wing’ Communism, An Infantile Disorder, pp. 29-30 (emphasis in original)
On the Esquipulas II peace accords, I believe it is possible for real differences to arise among serious activists; as revolutionaries we have an obligation to raise our differences in an appropriate manner, where these arise. Nonetheless, the spurious arguments which Neil raises to prove that the Sandinista government is playing a “bonapartist” role in Nicaragua fall down precisely within the terms of Leninism which Neil claims to be applying. Among Neil’s simplistic formulae for denouncing the Nicaraguan revolution not a single one withstands the test of applying Lenin’s criteria for making such judgements.
But there are other important reasons for dismissing this allegation. (1) The FSLN has never stood above or outside the internal class struggle in Nicaragua, but have a mobilized, conscious, and politically experienced popular base among landless peasants, the urban poor, the workers, and women’s organizations. (2) FSLN actions have consistently fostered greater self-activity and self-organization of the Nicaraguan masses in their own interests. (3) The self-activity of the masses of workers is facilitated by genuine political pluralism and wide democratic rights, reinforced by the fact that the broad masses are armed to defend the revolution. The term “bonapartists” might describe the present regimes in Libya, Algeria, or possibly Ethiopia where pseudo-radical phraseology is used to disguise more or less dictatorial rule by a military caste or clique. But these have little in common with the history or the reality of Nicaragua today.
SC/GS does regard the Nicaraguan revolution as a healthy workers state—without for a moment underestimating the difficulties and threats it faces, both internally and externally. This means in practice that, while the ongoing development of the revolutionary process is an important issue for us, it is clearly secondary in importance to the task of communists in North America: the priority of building the broadest possible movement of forces to fight U.S. intervention and Canadian complicity in Central America. The purpose of such a movement is to exploit whatever divisions we can among our own bourgeoisie to influence the balance of forces in favor of our sisters and brothers in Central America. Whatever the tactical measures chosen by the revolutionary movements in the region, our discussion on these matters must not become an impediment to the fulfillment of the elementary requirements of internationalism in imperialist countries.
But Neil’s blindness on this point is merely symptomatic of a deeper problem: the failure to comprehend the dynamic of international class struggle, and the balance of forces on a world scale precisely as they enter into a decisive and open contradiction. For a revolutionist to lose sight of these elements is to liquidate all distinction between tactics, strategy, and principles in the fight against capitalism. Without tactics and strategy there is no fight. History itself becomes opaque, as, one after another, events fail to correspond as expected to the “correct” program, and must be somehow done away with or denied. Whether the proponent of this view is motivated by well meaning voluntarism, deeply rooted radical pessimism, the disease will be marked by abstention from the living day-to-day struggles of our class. And this is just where Neil’s argument explicitly leads.
Historically the working class is nowhere a simple homogeneous mass, but is divided according to gender, ethnicity, race, language, political consciousness, experience, and levels of skill, organization and income. These divisions are not only horizontal but vertical. The oppression of capitalism is felt with differing intensity and in widely different ways, depending on one’s location according to these factors. This means that, especially in the absence of a truly representative mass communist organization, specific movements of resistance must coalesce autonomously in order to take up particular fights in different sectors. The reasoning which says that building autonomous mass movements is somehow counterposed to the task of winning these movements to revolutionary ideas is transparently false, and again shows no comprehension that such movements themselves have a role to play in the class struggle. To say that our aim is simply to split such movements in order to build mass communist movements (and abstain from participating in all those which are not communist) leads straight to a political cul-de-sac. The individual who adopts these views has no choice but to stand at the sidelines hurling impotent and sterile denunciations, if not isolating him/herself further by actively disrupting these movements wherever the opportunity arises. In those cases where the movements actually are being misled by reformists and liberals, to abandon them under the pretense of building non-existent “communist mass-movements,” is to hand the actual movements over to exactly the kind of bourgeois leaderships he claims to oppose. And this would indeed be the result if all revolutionaries suffered from the same confusion as Neil.
Such a conception fails to grasp the obvious: that communist mass movements will not materialize out of thin air, but will be won to our ideas through our common experiences and leadership in real struggles. And it is in the same harsh light that reformist leaderships will be judged and tossed aside.
The relationship of a communist organization to mass movements must be to take part in the autonomous life of these movements, building them conscientiously in a democratic and exemplary fashion, putting forward proletarian methods of struggle for the achievement of real gains and political education, and being prepared to assume a constructive leadership role when our positions are held by the majority. In this process we seek not only to teach, but to learn, never losing an opportunity to enrich our analysis, tactics, and program with new experiences.
The danger of Neil’s confusion over even something as basic as the distinction between tactics and principles becomes crystal clear when we apply it to the real world of political struggle, not only in the women’s movement, and anti-intervention work, but also in carrying out a united-front approach to the NDP [New Democratic Party].
The charges in Neil’s letter are strangely vague on this important point. SC is simply accused of “capitulation” to the NDP’s reformism. What does he mean by this?
Presumably he does not disagree with our criticism of the party’s [NDP’s] pro-capitalist program and leadership, or its opposition to Quebec’s right to self-determination. His attack must be aimed against our call for an NDP government, even as we fight for Marxist ideas among the party’s working-class base. If this is what Neil calls “capitulation,” then what does it mean to abandon the struggle altogether, leaving the politically conscious and organized part of the workers movement under the unchallenged influence of the reformists and liberals? Particularly in this period, when the approach of elections make discussion of the NDP and its program more urgent, workers facing intense pressure from the advocates of parliamentary cretinism need to hear more effective socialist interventions in the NDP, not fewer. If Neil’s new line on the NDP, like his position on the mass movements, means withdrawing from yet another arena of struggle, it is difficult to take very seriously the accusations of “capitulation” with which he attacks others.
On the question of Quebec, if Neil accuses us of “capitulation to Quebec nationalism” based on the fact that we uphold Quebec’s right to self-determination up to, and including the right to independence, and that we defend French language Bill 101, then we emphatically plead “guilty!” But how does this square with our supposed capitulation to English-Canadian chauvinism?
In the pages of the “Open Letter” Neil also pronounced his opposition to the Fourth International [United Secretariat], the world-wide party of socialist revolution founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938. His departure from this organization is not only in terms of formal membership, but is also represented by the character of his political attack on its positions. Unfortunately Neil sees fit to distort the historical record when the facts do not conform to the picture he is painting. This is not a promising political development in any militant, but it is completely unacceptable for those claiming to uphold the banner of revolutionary Marxism.
Neil makes the assertion that the Fourth International [USec] “criminally tailed Khomeini.” This implies some type of political support or endorsement of the barbarous Iranian government. The charge would be very serious, if it were not an outright fantasy. In fact, the Fourth International has never politically endorsed the Khomeini regime in Iran, but stood by the right of the Iranians to self-determination, their right to overthrow the Shah, or any other government imposed by imperialism. Defending this principle in the face of U.S. military aggression, whether against the current government in Iran, Panama, or Libya has nothing to do with political endorsement. For Neil to state otherwise is a self-serving fabrication.
In 1980 the FI [USec] condemned the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan correctly seeing this as a terrible blow to the development of indigenous revolutionary movements in Central Asia, and called for immediate Soviet withdrawal. With each day of the continuing occupation, with its record of brutal atrocities and cosmetic reforms, (not to mention a long list of anti-popular concessions made to the most conservative landlords and clergy), the forces of reaction and the hands of imperialism were vastly strengthened, while the development of class struggle throughout the entire region was set back many decades. The Soviet invasion is now bearing its fruit: the likely slaughter of those Afghanis, innocents and opportunists alike, who now find their destinies hitched to the back of Brezhnev’s disappearing tank columns. The fate of progressive Afghani workers is obviously a matter of little importance to the Soviet bureaucracy. If the invasion had been inspired by any kind of internationalist motives whatsoever, its departure would have left the Afghan workers stronger, with social equality, the capacity for popular self-defense, but most of all, with a revolution of their own to defend. The withdrawal of Soviet forces is now nothing more than another cynical action that uses Afghanistan like a bargaining chip for Soviet deals with imperialism.
In Poland, Neil returns to the method of willful distortion in attacking the FI’s [USec’s] position. Our organization has never “hailed clerical nationalism” in Poland or anywhere else. But the important point here is that Neil himself completely ignores the militant self-activity of the Polish workers in their struggle to smash the Stalinist bureaucracy. Instead of supporting the struggles of Solidarnosc, Neil calls “for a military block with the Stalinists to stop Solidarnosc and to defend working class property forms.” Arguing on this basis, Neil should also include the hierarchy of the Polish Catholic church in his “military bloc,” since this institution continues to protect its privileges by helping the regime to demobilize mass actions on the part of the workers organizations. The reactionary illusions of some layers of the Polish workers movement are, incidentally, deliberately fostered and deepened by the very political regime which Neil supports. Revolutionary Marxism, buried beneath over 40 years of Stalinist cant throughout Central and Eastern Europe, will be recovered precisely through the struggles which develop the self-activity of the working classes, and with unwavering international workers solidarity, not under the political tutelage of James Robertson or General Jaruzelski. The illusions of some Solidarnosc leaders in Reagan, or John Paul II are not surprising, but these illusions, and leaders who promote them, will be shed by the test of political experience, as are all illusions – except perhaps those of the sectarian.
The last question I would like to raise with regard to Neil’s open letter is the statement about his own future in the Trotskyist movement. If commitment to Trotskyism is measured by the number of times one invokes the name of Trotsky (11 times in 4 pages) to justify one’s every political thought and action, then perhaps Neil is right. But this is a criterion that only an insignificant number of “true believers” would accept—and for good reason.
So far Neil’s political break with us has only taken place in words. True, these words imply that he will concretize these words with action by withdrawing from participation in the social movements, and the NDP, just as he has withdrawn from the Fourth International [USec] and from our organization. If his hesitation to make this break with mass work betrays confusion on this point, Neil should resolve it soon, or be content in the incongruity of being a revolutionary without a party. Ours is the only organization which is committed to the ongoing application and development of revolutionary Marxism in the context of these struggles.
On the other hand, Neil may follow through on his thoughts to join one of the other groups which claim allegiance to the “idea” of the Fourth International, if not its present reality. These include James Robertson’s international Spartacist tendency and its split-off, the Bolshevik Tendency. Both of these groups share the same sectarian program, and focus their public activity primarily on attacking each other, and every other organization of the left. For some people this represents a “purer” kind of revolutionary politics. It’s just as well that such people have a place to go that isn’t SC/GS. There are also the local franchise operation of Ted Grant’s Militant tendency, or the other British-based groups, the International Socialists, and the Workers League. If inward-looking “purity,” and the exclusion of a mass orientation are what Neil desires, each of these currents will have something to offer. Most of the above also have the advantages of a high level of Leninist centralization (i.e., no members west of Bathurst Street), and a firm stand against “petty-bourgeois Quebec chauvinism” (no francophone connections in Quebec).
Building a genuine revolutionary organization is not for everyone. It is possibly the most difficult single task which activists can set for themselves at any time. There are also some of us who are convinced that it is the most vitally important one. Perhaps the only thing we can justly claim as a major asset is the immensity of the need which we are attempting to fulfill, or begin to fulfill. There is nothing easy about building social movements, being involved in real struggles which effect peoples’ lives and futures. As revolutionaries we are certain that we will make errors, and equally certain of our duty to learn from these mistakes. In this struggle, revolutionary Marxism must be learned, used, understood, and learned again—as a method and an arsenal, not as an archive of holy texts.
If Neil recovers his commitment to this struggle at some point in the future, we will not hold this lapse against him. But we are now obliged to take our own steps to correct the weaknesses in our internal education program, and in the formation of our cadres. We must ask ourselves what allowed Neil to remain so long in our ranks without developing a basic grasp of our ideas.