Sunday, September 28, 2014

The death of Mike Banda

Mike Banda, 1930-2014

I just found out that Mike Banda (Michael van der Poorten) died on August 29. A few words are in order. Although I have not seen or spoken to the man in 35 years and found his political orientation after 1985 repugnant, I was nevertheless saddened to hear of his passing. Banda, along with Gerry Healy, Cliff Slaughter and several other veterans of British Trotskyism, was responsible for the most serious attempt to build a mass revolutionary party of the working class in Britain in the postwar period. That this attempt imploded in the end is now well-known and that its leadership degenerated and discredited the good name of Trotskyism is also well known. But it would be a huge mistake to draw the cynical conclusion that the spectacular demise of the Worker Revolutionary Party proved that the attempt to break out of tiny sectarian groups and find a road to the masses that can actually lead a revolutionary movement against capitalism is a hopeless and futile effort.

Banda, who was the National Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party from 1978 to 1985, and prior to that was in charge of the print operations of the movement, was a talented organizer and magnetic speaker. His deep knowledge of the history of Marxism, of the struggle of colonial people for liberation from imperialism and in particular of the history of Trotskyism, made him a formidable polemicist and debater. He was also someone I got to know and respect during my years in the Workers League.

This isn't the place for a lengthy examination of Banda's political trajectory. Obituaries for old or ex-revolutionaries are often occasions to vent for people with axes to grind against the deceased, and the few I've seen of Banda are no exception. Banda's career as a Trotskyist was hardly unblemished: his support for the Chinese cultural revolution in 1967 or his uncritical praise for the leadership of the North Vietnamese in 1975 come to mind. But those mistakes are hardly adequate to account for Banda's evolution after the breakup of the WRP, as he eventually became a supporter of imperialism and Zionism and a strident opponent of Marxism and of the movement he had spent most of his adult life building. An analysis of the contradictions and class pressures within British Trotskyism would be a big part of the story, and that would also take in the degeneration of the Labour Party and the trade unions. Still, the vitriol with which Banda came to attack Trotskyism is noteworthy, and suggests that a layer of individual psychological motivation was also at work.

Alex Steiner

I'd like to add something to what Alex has said about Banda. I did not know him very well, but I agree that he was at times a powerful speaker. For someone new to the movement, as I was in the 1970s, Banda and Healy seemed to give voice in their oratory to the immense power of the working class and the inspiring possibilities for its liberation. I think that represented more than just talented rhetoric: it expressed what was best in the traditions of Trotskyism and of the British working class. Healy said, I think on more than one occasion, that the working class had never really had its chance, and when I listened to him or Banda hold forth at public meetings, I felt that here at last the working class was finding its voice. Alas, it didn't turn out that way.

I also want to say that one of the big tragedies of the Healy-Banda generation of revolutionaries is how little they have left behind as a legacy of revolutionary theory. Of course it would be unfair to compare them to titans like Lenin and Trotsky, but a comparison to someone like James Cannon is appropriate, and his legacy is more substantial. Ernest Mandel, for all his rotten politics, left behind a substantial body of work on Marxist economic theory. George Novack did some useful work on philosophy. What do we have from Banda and Healy, or even from the WRP's leading theoretician, Cliff Slaughter? Not much. Why this was so is a complicated story, but it means that the task or revitalizing a revolutionary movement in the future will be that much the harder.

Frank Brenner

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A comment on the resolution of the SEP on the fight against war

The word "war" appears 97 times.
The word "imperialist" appears 23 times.
The word "imperialism" appears 36 times.
The word "pseudo", as in "pseudo-left", appears 6 times.
The word "fight" appears 13 times, usually coupled with the word "against".
The word "ruthless" appears 3 times, the latter 2 instances not as a disparaging adjective describing the enemy but as a positive characterization of oneself.
The resolution, titled, "The Fight Against War and the Political Tasks of the Socialist Equality Party",
was, as usual, passed unanimously.

We have previously commented on the SEP's practice of passing resolutions "unanimously" and we note that their "Third Congress" did not represent a departure from this practice. ( Likewise, we have also commented on the idiosyncratic accounting system by which the SEP keeps track of which Congress they are convening. (

Of course one expects lots of references to war and imperialism in a resolution on the fight against war,  but in this case there is very little content behind those words.  The SEP sees imperialism in 2014 as a return to 1914 and are convinced that history is repeating itself complete with a tense summer of international incidents reprising the tension of the summer of 1914.  But imperialism while it continues to plague the planet is very different today than it was 100 years ago. For one thing, the use of military power to back up economic interests, while certainly still in play,  is embarked upon with much greater reluctance today, as witnessed by the obvious paralysis of the Obama Administration toward the events in Syria, Iraq and now Ukraine.  What the SEP sees as the increasingly bellicose foreign policy of the Obama administration is seen by virtually every other analyst as the largely incoherent policy of a weak administration unsure of what to do and reluctant to get involved in any long term military escapades aside from some easy pickings through the employment of drones with its minimal commitment of U.S. military resources.  Even the Republican hawks opposing Obama have not yet dared to advocate the use of American ground forces in Syria or the Ukraine.  This could change of course, especially if the Republicans regain the White House,  or for that matter a Democratic hawk like Hillary Clinton, but for now the SEP's outcry over the preparations of the U.S. for a new World War strikes one as manufactured hysteria rather than rational analysis.

This is perhaps most obvious in the SEP's analysis of the Obama Administration's "pivot to Asia".  The numerous references to this policy in the pages of the SEP's online publication, the World Socialist Web Site,  depicts it not as an exercise of American policy toward Asia aimed at increasing its economic and political influence against its rivals, but as an outright preparation for war with China.  Of course economic and political rivalries can under certain conditions lead to war but it is one thing to warn about the dangers of such policies and quite another to proclaim their inevitable consequence being all out nuclear conflagration. The latter interpretation, which has been hinted at more and more openly, especially by the Australian SEP, represents a form of politics that can be characterized as "crisis mongering". To cite one recent example, the following article from the WSWS repeatedly makes references to the "U.S. war preparations against China" as if this was already an accomplished fact and mobilization was just around the corner. ( Rather than educating the working class about the nature of imperialism and the dangers of war, crisis mongering is meant to frighten the masses into making a choice on the spot between "absolute evil" and "absolute good". Such methods of recruitment are more characteristic of a cult than a serious revolutionary movement. Contrast this with the patient approach taken by Trotsky in 1934 in the document, War and the Fourth International:

"77. To conquer revolutionary positions in the trade unions and other working-class mass organizations, it is necessary to break pitilessly with bureaucratic ultimatism, to take the workers where they are and as they are, and to lead them forward from partial tasks to general ones, from defence to attack, from patriotic prejudices to the overthrow of the bourgeois state."

"Bureaucratic Ultimatism" is a good description of the stance of the SEP toward the working class.  They have long ago abandoned the Transitional Program and any conception of taking workers in their day to day practice from where they are to the tasks required for a social revolution. Rather workers are berated to either join their movement or live with the guilt of enabling the counter-revolution. Word War and counterrevolution are depicted as inevitable - unless millions of workers suddenly join the SEP. The SEP document contains no programmatic demand to be implemented by the working class other than the demand to join the SEP!  This means that in order to do anything at all you must already be convinced of the truth and validity of the entirety of the SEP's analysis.  It is an all or nothing proposition, one that is characteristic of ultra-left sectarians.

As for the actual "analysis" of the SEP, once one get past the boiler-plate rhetoric the meager substance in places degenerates into incoherence. This is particularly true of their statements about Russia and China. The resolution here states,

41. One mechanism through which pseudo-left forces are seeking to legitimize US and European aggression is through the false characterization of Russia and China as “imperialist” countries. This characterization, which tears both Russia and China out of all historical context, is aimed at conditioning public opinion to accept ever more dangerous provocations by the imperialist powers in both Asia and Eastern Europe. It is bound up with the theory that the Soviet Union and China after the 1949 revolution were “state capitalist,” and that the immense transformations that took place with the restoration of capitalism did not represent a change in the social foundations of the regimes. The destruction of nationalized property relations in both countries was connected to the efforts by finance capital to reduce them to colonial status, not with their rise as new centers of imperialist power.

42. Leon Trotsky, writing in 1929, anticipated with great prescience the socio-economic consequences of the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. Far from becoming “imperialist,” he noted, “A capitalist Russia could not now occupy even the third-rate position to which czarist Russia was predestined by the course of the World War. Russian capitalism today would be a dependent, semi-colonial capitalism without any prospects.” [10] The Socialist Equality Party is implacably opposed to the bourgeois regimes in both China and Russia. Representing the interests of a tiny layer of capitalists and oligarchs, they have no genuine independence from imperialism and are incapable of principled opposition to the machinations of the US and Europe. Our opposition to these regimes, however, is rooted in the fight to mobilize the working class as an independent political force, on the basis of a socialist program.

Now it is true that the restoration of capitalism in Russia and China "was connected to the efforts to reduce them to colonial status" but did that effort succeed? While capitalist restoration has undoubtedly brought about increasing misery for the working class, neither Russia or China have in fact been reduced to colonial status and their native bourgeoisie have ideas of their own independent of the wishes of finance capital in Europe and North America.

There is also no logical connection between the designation of these countries as "state capitalist" by groups that broke from Trotskyism decades ago and their designation as imperialist countries today.  If Russia and China are not imperialist powers then what exactly are they? To be sure both Russia and China are minor imperialist powers when compared to the U.S. or Germany.  They play approximately the same role vis a vis the major imperialist powers today as Czarist Russia did in relation to Great Britain 100 years ago. Furthermore, Russia's interests are primarily of a regional character rather than a global one, seeking to secure its hegemony over a swath of territory that marked the boundaries of the old Czarist empire. One cannot say the same thing about China, which has taken aggressive actions internationally to ensure a continuous flow of raw materials to feed its economy. Amazingly,  though the SEP resolution is ready to condemn those who consider Russia and China imperialist nations, the SEP never tells us what they think Russia and China are.  Neither the SEP resolution, nor any of the numerous articles in the WSWS ever provide a theory of the nature of Russia or China.   All we are ever told is what they are not. They strongly infer, without saying so, that Russia and China have the same status as oppressed colonies. But this is obviously absurd which is apparently why the SEP falls short of actually saying so. To be sure China has become the main supplier of cheap labor to all the major international corporations who have outsourced their manufacturing facilities to that country.  But China also exercises enormous leverage on the entire world economy as a result of its huge investments abroad and its key role in propping up the dollar. And China's military power marks it as indeed a powerful rival to U.S. interests in Asia.

Similarly, the SEP hints that Russia is in some way still a workers state without actually coming out and saying as much.  They don't say that because it is obviously an absurd position to suggest that the Russia of Putin and the oligarchs still represents, even in a distorted manner, the heritage of the October Revolution. ( The absurdity of this position did not stop groups like Spartacist from advocating it for many years after capitalism was restored in the former Soviet Union. )  But although the SEP admits that capitalism has been restored in Russia it still treats Russia in many ways AS IF it were still a workers state and worthy of being defended against imperialist aggression. One could call this the politics of AS IF!  All their rhetoric about their "implacable" opposition to the bourgeois regimes in Russia and China cannot hide the fact that the SEP has consistently adapted itself to the maneuvers of Russia in relation to the Ukraine and have no independent perspective for either the Ukrainian or the Russian working class.

And of course there is nothing in this document about how the SEP intends to raise the consciousness of the working class.  Here is what they write about this subject:

46. The SEP must strive through persistent political work to educate and raise the consciousness of the most advanced sections of the working class. In doing so, it must combat the endless stream of falsifications and propaganda emanating from the media and the mouthpieces of the ruling class. It must seek to inoculate the workers against all forms of nationalism and chauvinism, encouraging solidarity with the struggles of all workers in every country. The defeat of imperialism is possible only through an international movement, but the building of an international party means the fight in every country to win the working class to an international program and perspective.

We are waiting for a representative from the SEP to articulate their protocols for "inoculating" the working class.

Contrast this empty rhetoric with the concrete proposals put forward by Trotsky in the document War and the Fourth International:

70. The first prerequisite for success is the training of party cadres in the correct understanding of all the conditions of imperialist war and of all the political processes that accompany it. Woe to that party that confines itself in this burning question to general phrases and abstract slogans! The bloody events will crash over its head and smash it.

It is necessary to set up special circles for the study of the political experiences of the war of 1914-18 (ideological preparations for war by the imperialists, misleading of public opinion by military headquarters through the patriotic press, the role of the antithesis defence-attack; groupings in the proletarian camp, the isolation of the Marxist elements, etc., etc.).

"General phrases" and "abstract slogans" is exactly what we get from the SEP resolution.

And at the end of the day we cannot help but notice that in this document that lays such emphasis on "inoculating" the working class against bourgeois ideology the word "dialectics" does not appear once.

Alex Steiner