Saturday, July 18, 2015

Talk in Athens: The Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics

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On July 9, 2015, Alex Steiner gave a talk at the  Locomotiva Cooperative Cafe in Athens, Greece. The event was a huge success attracting a packed audience of about 50 people. The talk was sponsored by the Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece (EEK) and was chaired by Savas Michael-Matsas.  A lively discussion followed the presentation.  Below is a lightly edited version of the talk.

Part of the audience attending the talk
The Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics

The topic of my talk is the Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics.  With Greece being in a pre-revolutionary situation now, the subject could not be more relevant. Now when I speak about the dialectics of revolutionary strategy and tactics I want to first of all consider dialectics.  I am not assuming that everyone knows what Marxists mean when they use the term ‘dialectics’.  So let me give a brief introduction as to what I mean. 

The term as you know derives from the ancient Greek word διαλεκτική.  It was first used in philosophy by Plato, who employed it to describe the Socratic method.  The Socratic method consisted of asking a question and then considering the possible responses.  The first response, which always represents the opinion of the average individual,  is then considered further.  And once one digs deeper into the proposition it is revealed that it is internally contradictory. Therefore it cannot be true. [1] Thus, a new and improved proposition replaces the original one as a candidate for the truth. Initially, the new proposition does not suffer the defects of the one it replaced. But after deeper consideration, we discover that it harbors a new contradiction. This process continues until a proposition is arrived at that cannot be refuted. Thus the ancient dialectic of Socrates and Plato was a dialectic of arguments that arrived at the truth through negation.  If we jump to modern dialectics, we arrive at Hegel.  And Hegel’s great insight was to see that dialectic is not only a method of argumentation but is also the very logic of the real world.  The ceaseless motion that we see in the arguments of the ancient dialectic is a reflection of the ceaseless motion of reality itself. 

The first philosopher to have explicitly defined reality as consisting of ceaseless motion and change was the pre-Socratic Heraclitus,   and this is how Hegel understood him.  He was the first to articulate what  we call today the Philosophy of Becoming.  In the history of philosophy the person who first articulated the opposite teaching, that reality consists of that which is Eternal and Unchanging, is Parmenides.  He said that only that which is Unchanging is real and our experience of motion and change is just an illusion.  This is the Philosophy of Being.  If Heraclitus is in some way the father of modern dialectics, then Parmenides must be considered the father of its opposite.  Let’s call the anti-thesis to dialectics formalism.   What I want to say is that that a dialectical understanding of reality requires not only Heraclitus but also his opposite, Parmenides.  Or to put it another way, any account of change and motion must incorporate that which remains the same over time. You need to incorporate Being into Becoming.  What happens if you have Becoming without Being? You get Chaos.  That is when you get irrationalism and postmodernism.  On the other hand Being without Becoming leads to a world of Eternal Unchanging reality.  This is the world of the Platonic Forms, Of Christianity and other doctrines that deny or belittle the ceaseless motion of the world.  It is also the world of the sectarian – a point I will discuss later.

Let us look a little more at how it is necessary to bring together Becoming and Being to see what I mean.

One of Heraclitus’s most famous epigrams is this: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice’.  If we break down that statement we see something very interesting: First, why can’t you step into the same river twice?  Clearly because every time you do so the current of water splashing around you is different.  Therefore it is not the same.  But in order to differentiate the water we step into today from the water we stepped into yesterday, we say that it was in the same river.  What does it mean when we say “The same river?” Here we begin to see that there is a necessary interconnection in our thinking between that which we see as changing and that which we see as remaining the same.  You cannot think of a river whose currents are always changing without first positing it as one river.  In dialectical theory as developed by Hegel this is called the Identity of Identity and Difference. Mostly, if we are not reflecting on things but just relying on common sense, we think that there are things that are changing and things that remain the same.  The current in the river changes, but the river remains the same. It does not occur to us that you have to bring the two thoughts together in the same thought. You cannot have the changing current without the river.  It means that the categories of common sense, those concepts with which we try to understand the world around us, while they serve us well for the most part, may not be adequate when we interrogate them at a deeper level.
There is of course a lot more to thinking dialectically than just understanding that Identity is the Identity of Identity and Difference.  For instance, there is the relationship of the parts to the whole. In ordinary common sense we think that we can understand a part irrespective of the whole and that the whole is just an accumulation of parts.  In Dialectical thinking we understand that there is a relationship to the whole inherent in every part.  For instance let us take the Nation as an example. It is a whole, though to be sure it is part of a larger whole, the world economy, since there is hardly such a thing today as a Nation that is not dependent on relations with other Nations.  Therefore you cannot understand the Nation without seeing it as a part of a larger whole.

Likewise you want to examine the parts within the Nation itself.  Within the nation are classes who are related to each other through their role in the process of production.   You have that class within the Nation that is exploited and you have another class that are the exploiters.  This relationship is characteristic of class society as such. Within the specific form of class society known as capitalism the mechanism of exploitation consists in the extraction of surplus value by the capitalist at the point when the worker sells his labor power for its value. It is in a formal, contractual sense an equal exchange, but at the same time it is a form of enslavement.  In today’s global economy the capitalists are tied by a thousand threads to other nations, in many cases the capitalists are in fact multinational corporations that have no allegiance to any nation.  Furthermore, while each national economy is dependent on other nations this dependency is as much a matter of cooperation as it is a rivalry. And rivalries can sometimes turn into conflicts and wars.  So this whole of the Nation conceals lots of internal contradictions, all of which are covered over in the myth of National Unity. And we cannot make sense of this myth without examining the concept of the Nation dialectically and working out the real underlying relationships of wholes to parts.

There is also the notion in dialectical thinking of leaps in development. Change does not consist simply of the accumulation of greater and greater quantities of something, but we understand that at a certain point quantity is transformed into quality.  For instance, in order to finance projects corporations and even nations borrow money.  They go into debt on the assumption that the projects they are financing will boost their income so that they can pay off their loans.  This is a normal way of doing business. But what if the debt does not boost their income but instead servicing the debt becomes a drain on the national economy? There many reasons why this can happen – an economic crisis that depresses earnings, corruption on the part of the lender or borrower, etc. Whatever the reason,  you are no longer able to pay the interest on the loan through normal means.  So you take out more loans, this time to service the debt itself that you have accumulated.  And this process can go on for a while, until the burden of paying interest on the debt reaches the point where it is no longer sustainable.  At that point the institutions get into the picture and they insist that the condition of further loans is to make structural changes so that less of the national budget is going to service the needs of the population and more is going to service the payment of interest on the debt.   That is called austerity.  And with the introduction of austerity debt is transformed from a means for financing new projects into a form of slavery.  In this way the gradual accumulation of debt transforms the very nature of the debt itself.  Quantity is transformed into quality.

There are of course many other examples. 

As I said, the modern understanding of dialectics as the way of thinking that corresponds with reality was first developed in a comprehensive form by Hegel, though as I pointed out, he had his precursors in Ancient Greek philosophy.  Now let me say something about the Marxist dialectic.  Without examining the nuances of the transition from Hegel to Marx, I will just say that even if you consider Hegel an idealist and Marx a materialist, the dialectic of Marx is the dialectic of Hegel though perhaps stripped of the mystical form in which Hegel sometimes presented it.  Many of the points I have been discussing are nicely summarized by Trotsky in the short handout I recommended, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics.[2]   And if I had to summarize all this in one sentence, I would say that dialectics is the thinking we need to employ if we are to understand the world of ceaseless motion and change.   Our ordinary common sense thinking is not sufficient when we are faced with any but the most simple of phenomenon in the real world.  That is the end of my brief introduction to dialectics.

Now if what I have said so far about dialectics has any validity, that it is necessary to understand complex phenomenon of motion and change, then it should be clear why dialectics should be important for revolutionaries.  For what characterizes revolutions and the events leading up to them are precisely the rapid changes that take place in the political sphere and in the psychology of the masses.  No one expressed this better than Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution where he writes,

“In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.”[my emphasis AS]

In the same passage Trotsky also points to the contradictory source of this “swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes”;

“The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of ‘demagogues.’” [3]

I think from these remarks we can see what a complex problem it is to find your way clearly in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation.  The tempo of events is accelerated and the weight of every decision enormously magnified. The responsibility for carrying out a correct strategic orientation and implementing it through a series of tactical steps grows enormously.  And there are of course no guarantees that you will not make mistakes, even for a dialectical thinker.  But what marks a revolutionary leader trained in dialectical thinking is his or her ability to quickly learn from a mistaken evaluation of events and reorient ones direction.

Let us examine this more concretely with some examples of how the greatest revolutionaries of the last century, Lenin and Trotsky were able to orient the practical work of the revolutionary movement because they had mastered the art of dialectical thinking, and, together with a careful study of the historical forces involved, made the right decisions at the right time.   Now it is well know that both Lenin and Trotsky devoted a considerable amount of time to the strictly theoretical part of the issue.  Lenin for instance, during the world shattering events of the start of World War I and the betrayal of Social Democracy, took time out from his practical activities to spend time at the library in Zurich, where he was then living in exile, to make a careful study of Hegel’s Science of Logic.  Many years later, the notes he wrote in his notebook while he was studying the Logic were published in what was later called his Philosophical Notebooks.

And although they are not as well known as Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, Trotsky also took time out during a critical period of his life, at the time when he was in exile and trying to build the Left Opposition against the murderous Stalinist bureaucracy, to also make a study of Hegel’s logic and other material so as to deepen his understanding of dialectics.  In Trotsky’s Philosophical Notebooks you can find a number of gems where he relates dialectics to revolutionary politics.    And later on during his last struggle before his death, when he was fighting against the challenge to the program of the Fourth International by a faction inside the American  Socialist Workers Party led by James  Burnham and Max Shachtman, Trotsky began his refutation of the perspectives of the opposition with a lesson in dialectics.  This is the section called the ABC of dialectics that I recommended as preparation for this talk. 

I would now like to turn to some examples of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s use of dialectics in a revolutionary situation. However finding examples is not so easy.  You can certainly pour through the collected works of Lenin and Trotsky and look for examples where they had an explicit discussion of dialectics in one context or another.  For instance, Lenin said, during the debate on trade union policy in the Soviet Union, that Bukharin had never really understood dialectics, that he substituted eclecticism for dialectics. It’s an intriguing passage and was used by the Stalinists to discredit Bukharin, but it is only the skeleton of an idea.

It is possible to pour through the collected works  and find a few quotes like this and that is what most of the authors have done who have written on the subject of Lenin and Trotsky’s use of dialectics.  But their explicit remarks on dialectics in their political writing are few and far between and often are too brief to tell us very much.  I think a better approach is to find examples in their writings of their use of dialectical thinking in analyzing a situation.  That can tell us a lot more about how they used dialectics to prepare for and lead the Russian Revolution.  However no one has, as far as I am aware, tried to compile a handbook of such examples, with an explanation of each one.  So we have to do it ourselves. I have tried to find a few that I want to discuss.

The first example is from Lenin. He was writing in 1908, in a period after the defeat of the 1905 revolution. One of the things that revolutionaries were trying to figure out then is if the working class was ready for a new offensive after the defeat or were we still in a period of retreat.  Lenin writes,

 “Some say that offensive economic struggles by the workers are as impossible as before, and consequently a revolutionary upswing is impossible in the near future. Others say that the impossibility of economic struggle impels a turn to a political struggle, and therefore a revolutionary upswing is inevitable in the near future.

We think that both arguments have at their foundation the same error, which consists in simplifying a complex issue. Undoubtedly the detailed study of the industrial crisis is of the greatest importance. But it is also beyond doubt that no data about the crisis, even if they were ideally accurate, can in reality decide the question of whether a rise of the revolutionary tide is at hand or not: because such a rise depends on a thousand additional factors which it is impossible to measure beforehand. It is indubitable that without the general groundwork of an agrarian crisis in the country, and depression in industry, profound political crises are impossible. But if the general groundwork exists, that does not permit us to conclude whether the depression will for a time retard the mass struggle of the workers in general, or whether at a certain stage of events the same depression will not push new masses and fresh forces into the political struggle. To answer such a question there is only one way: to keep a careful finger on the pulse of the country’s whole political life, and especially the state of the movement and of the mood of the mass of the proletariat.” [my emphasis AS] [4]

What Lenin is doing here is trying to determine the strategic orientation of the revolutionary movement. And to do that it is necessary to first determine if we are dealing with a rising tide of the class struggle or a period of retreat and defensive actions.  In other words we try to determine the direction of the class struggle. But we also need to determine the tempo.  Are developments likely to move very quickly or are we dealing with a period of gradual change or maybe even relative stagnation?  We also want as far as possible to anticipate the forms in which the next phase of the class struggle is likely to take.  And we need to keep an eye out for the moment when changes in degree can suddenly lead to a qualitative leap.  Are we going into a period where Soviets are on the agenda or are we preparing for a period in which the best we can do is fight against repressive legislation or prepare for strikes against the employers attempts to cut wages? 

To arrive at the correct conclusion to any of these questions it is necessary to think dialectically.  For instance, how do we determine if we see a workers action such as a strike, that it signifies a rising tide of the class struggle or a retreat from previous gains?  If you just look at this one event separate from anything else there is no way to tell. And for the non-dialectical thinker, for the empiricist, that is all there is. It’s just a strike and nothing more and has no other significance.  It is like looking at a half moon one evening and trying to determine if it is in its waxing or the waning cycle.   There is no way to tell just from looking at it at that moment. You have to have followed its development over time. In other words you cannot understand the significance of this part without seeing its relation to the whole. 

Now the question Lenin is dealing with is of course far more complicated than whether the half moon is heading to a new moon or a full moon.   To answer the latter question we only have to know what the moon looked like yesterday as compared to this evening.  But the direction of the class struggle is determined as Lenin says, by “a thousand additional factors which it is impossible to measure beforehand.”  We understand as historical materialists that economic relations provide us with the basic ground for the class struggle.  But we also know that arising on those foundations are political relations which within certain limits are relatively autonomous and have their laws of motion.  Finally, we know that arising out of the political relations in society are the consciousness of the masses – what Lenin called “the mood of the masses”.  Now when we speak of the relationship of wholes to parts it is important to keep in mind what the context is – that is which whole we are investigating.  For what we see in nature society and thought is not simply one whole, but a whole that may encompass another whole within it each of them having their own logic of motion and change.

Thus the largest whole in class society is always the economic foundation.  But the political relations that arise out of the economic foundation can be considered a whole in its own right with its own dynamic. This subordinate whole is not entirely disconnected of course from the larger whole of which it is itself a part, but neither is it directly determined by it, though as we Marxists say, it is determined by it “in the last analysis”.  And finally the mood of the masses that arises on the basis of the political relations can be considered yet another whole with its own dynamic, what has sometimes been called mass psychology.  Now in a normal situation, the economic foundations determine the political relations and these in turn determine mass psychology. But what distinguishes a revolutionary situation from the “normal” state of things is that the determination can go in the other direction.  That is to say the psychology of the masses can have a decisive impact on the political relations and these in turn can overturn the economic foundations of society.  Lenin meant something like this when he called politics “concentrated economics.”

I think all these thoughts are encompassed in what Lenin is saying in this passage.   I think it gives you a good idea of just how challenging it can be to approach problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics dialectically. And this a good place to contrast the dialectical approach with the approach used by sectarians and opportunists.  Let us examine the sectarian first.

And the first thing to note about the sectarian approach is that it has the advantage over our approach of being much simpler.  The entire network of complex relations between economics, politics and mass psychology are completely irrelevant to the sectarian.  He does not really have to determine either the direction or tempo of the class struggle because he already has his strategic orientation.  And it is always the same one.  Philosophically the sectarian is a Platonist and for him there is one unchanging Truth which he never tires of repeating.  And just like a stopped clock, the sectarian can sometimes be correct but only twice a day.  For the rest of time there is a huge gap between the expectations of the sectarian and the actual development of the class struggle. And when the sectarian sees that the masses are not moving along in the way he thinks they should, he becomes angry with them and denounces them, saying they have been tricked by “fake leftists”.   All questions as we said are enormously simplified for the sectarian. As Trotsky wrote, the sectarian recognizes only two colors, that of the revolutionary and that of the counter-revolutionary.  There is nothing in between and there are no contradictions in the way revolutionary consciousness can express itself.  The breeding ground for a sectarian is when the class struggle is in a quiet phase or the working class is in retreat.  The sectarian thrives in those conditions, when revolutionaries are isolated from the working class.

Conversely, when the working class is in a period of ascendant struggle and when conditions are created for revolutionaries to break out of their isolation, the sectarian goes into crisis.  The movement of the masses passes by him and he is brushed aside like a flea. Worse, sometimes not only is the sectarian made irrelevant, but he actually joins the camp of reaction.  I think you saw this very clearly recently with the role played by the sectarian politics of the Communist Party which urged its members to cast an invalid ballot in the referendum.  And if you have ever argued with a sectarian you will probably know that you can never convince them that they are wrong about anything.  That is because in general they are close minded and dogmatic and do not admit of anything in their world outlook that would contradict their schemas.  That is why the pronouncements of the sectarians are always predictable, because they rely on formulas and not on the living movement of classes in developing their approach. In general, allowing for individual exceptions, sectarianism is a disease for which there is no cure.  Here we can quote Trotsky,

Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class.[5] [my emphasis AS]

The dogmatic approach of sectarians highlights, by way of contrast, another aspect of dialectical thinking - it is always open and tentative in its approximations to the reality of the existing situation. There is nothing more anathema to dialectics than the bastardized caricature of dialectics that was developed by Stalin and Mao-Tse-Tung whereby dialectical sounding phrases were used to rationalize a dogma and discourage an open mind.  It is not by accident that the Stalinist caricature of dialectical philosophy has been labeled the philosophy of “Soviet scholasticism”, recalling the dogmatic approach of the scholastic philosophers of the middle ages.

Now let us take a look at the opportunist.  The opportunist, unlike the sectarian, comes into his own when the class struggle sharpens.  This is because the opportunist always wants to jump in and in get involved.  And whereas the sectarian is guided by a single unchanging Truth, the opportunist is not guided by any concept of Truth.  The opportunist is not really interested in determining the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, its tempo and its probable development because for him the strategic goal is of no importance.  This was summed up by the phrase used to described the first revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, about whom it was said that for him “The movement is everything, the final goal nothing”. So for the opportunist also, life is much easier than for the dialectician, though in a very different way than for the sectarian.  There is one thing however that the opportunist is interested in that distinguishes  him from the sectarian.  The opportunist also, like the dialectician wants to keep his finger on the pulse of the masses, but in his own way, without all the baggage of determining the relationship of the mood  of the masses to the entire complex of determinations of which it is part. The opportunist however approaches the masses not in order to bring them closer to the next stage of the class struggle, but solely to adapt to the present movement. 

Now when we speak of opportunists, it is important to distinguish between the different types of opportunists. First there is the careerist and professional politician and those groups on the left who lead a parasitical existence off the trade unions and their bureaucratic apparatus.  These are the opportunists by virtue of their class position and psychology.  But opportunism can also be expressed by layers of the working class coming into struggle as a result of their political immaturity and their theoretical confusion.

We must see opportunism therefore not as a fixed category but in motion.  The opportunism of the careerists and bureaucrats is an opportunism that always tries to hold back the movement of the masses when it attempts to break through the status quo.  The opportunism that we find in the masses coming into struggle, while perhaps looking like the same thing, is entirely different.  It is the opportunism of ideas that are struggling to break out of the straitjacket of bourgeois ideology which they have inherited.  It is possible to overcome this kind of opportunism.

And then there is also the opportunism that sometimes takes hold of revolutionaries who get caught up in the events of the moment  and forget to assess them dialectically.  If one becomes conscious of this form of opportunism and pays attention to its theoretical roots it is possible to overcome it.  But if one does not pay attention to the theoretical issues, then this kind of opportunism can become fixed and leave one however unconsciously, vulnerable to the pressures exerted by bourgeois ideology.
Now in a revolutionary situation, opportunism is a far greater danger than sectarianism because it can take hold very easily even for those whose intentions are anything but opportunist. This was nicely summed up by Trotsky, who writing in 1940 said,

“Anyone acquainted with the history of the struggles of tendencies within workers’ parties knows that desertions to the camp of opportunism and even to the camp of bourgeois reaction began not infrequently with rejection of the dialectic.”[6] [my emphasis AS]

There is no formula for avoiding the twin evils of opportunism and sectarianism. The only antidote is training to think dialectically.  And there is no formula for learning how to think dialectically.  It is as much an art as a science and can only be mastered through continuous practice.  And in this connection we have another wonderful quote from Trotsky,

Dialectical training of the mind is as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist.” [7] [my emphasis AS]

Let us take one more look at something else in Lenin’s quote – that  “it is impossible to measure beforehand”  the form that the class struggle will take.  What exactly did he mean by this and how then do we measure these things?

We can find a clue if we examine the course of the Russian Revolution when in a rapidly changing situation it was not at all clear what the appropriate course of action should be to advance the revolution.  There were many disagreements within the Bolshevik Party at every turn of the events in 1917 and Lenin was sometimes correct in his estimation and sometimes he was not.  But what distinguished him was his flexibility, his ability to learn from his mistakes and even sometimes to completely change his position on a critical question after gauging the reaction of the masses to an action supported by the Bolsheviks.  I don’t have the time to go into these events except to mention them.  It is discussed in Trotsky’s masterful History of the Russian Revolution and a good supplement to that classic work is the book by the non-Marxist historian Alexander Rabinowich, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, which I would recommend.

I do want to conclude by examining how this idea of ‘keeping a finger on the pulse of the masses’ works out in Trotsky’s thinking, especially in his discussions with leaders of the American Socialist Workers Party on the Transitional Program of the Fourth International.

 For in developing what are called transitional demands we have an excellent example of what Lenin meant by keeping a finger on the pulse of the masses.  There are many misconceptions about transitional demands and this is not the way the topic is usually presented.   For instance, there is a common misconception that transitional demands are a kind of trick whereby revolutionary socialists push for something that they know cannot be met but sound very reasonable.  In this way supposedly the revolutionaries hope to foment discontent among workers. But this is to completely misunderstand what transitional demands are about.  I want to examine transitional demands as an example, perhaps the most developed one, of how to think dialectically about strategy and tactics   Let’s start with a quote from Trotsky where he discusses the political backwardness of the American working class,

“The American workers have the advantage that in their great majority they were not politically organized, and are only beginning now to be organized into trade unions.  This gives to the revolutionary party the possibility of mobilizing them under the blows of the crisis.

What will the speed be? Nobody can foresee. We can see only the direction.  Nobody denies that the direction is a correct one. Then we have the question, how to present the program to the workers? It is naturally very important.  We must combine politics with mass psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge to their minds. Only experience can show us how to advance in this or that part of the country. For some time we must try to concentrate the attention of workers on one slogan: sliding scale of wages and hours.

The empiricism of the American workers has given political parties great success with one or two slogans – singe tax, bimetallism, they spread like wildfire in the masses.  When they see one panacea fail, then they wait for a new one. Now we can present one which is honest, part of our entire program, not demagogic, but which corresponds totally to the situation.  Officially we now have thirteen million, maybe fourteen million unemployed – in reality about sixteen to twenty million- and the youth are totally abandoned in misery. Mr. Roosevelt insists on public works. But we insist that this, together with mines, railroads, etc., absorb all the people. And that every person should have the possibility of living in a decent manner, not lower than now and we ask Mr. Roosevelt and his brain trust propose such a program of public works that everyone capable of working can work at decent wages. This is possible with a sliding scale of wages and hours…We must begin a concentrated campaign of agitation so that everybody knows that this is the program of the socialist workers party.”[8]

Let me emphasize in this long quote the words,

We must combine politics with mass psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge to their minds. Only experience can show us how to advance in this or that part of the country.”

Here you have stated succinctly the relationship of wholes to parts that I outlined earlier.  And note the emphasis on mass psychology.  Psychology is the final link in the chain that goes from the economic foundation to the political crisis.  And transitional demands are developed primarily to address this final link in the chain. That does not mean that we forget about the rest of our program. For instance, on the political front the fight to convene a farmers and workers government as a step toward the dictatorship of the proletariat, or on the economic front to take measures to transition from an economy based on the law of value to an economy based on social needs.   But the crux of the matter, where the revolutionary party can make its impact at a decisive moment, is precisely on the level of mass psychology, in affecting the consciousness of the masses.

Now transitional demands are a tactic and the series of tactics forms the chain through which we try to implement our strategic goals.  And in thinking about strategy and tactics we tend to think that a strategy is primary and tactics are secondary.  This is true as far as it goes. If your strategic direction is misconceived, no amount of clever tactics will advance you any closer to your goals.  But it is also true that for the most part the revolutionary movement can only affect the situation through tactical steps and these tactical steps can at times play a decisive role in either advancing or retarding the march toward a strategic goal.   This is why Trotsky emphasizes the importance of coming up with simple slogans that both fulfill the objective requirements of the situation and have a chance of ‘clicking’ in the consciousness of the masses. In our time it is something like uploading a video to Youtube that goes viral, only in our case the message spreads like wildfire not because of its sensationalist appeal, but because it touches a nerve in the historical consciousness of the working class and speaks to their objective requirements today.  The classic example of this was the slogan adopted by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution – “Land, Peace and Bread!” What could be simpler?

Let us look at one other example from Trotsky’s discussions on the Transitional Program.  During the time when Trotsky was discussing the Transitional Program with the American comrades, there was an initiative proposed in the U.S. called the Ludlow amendment. It was intended as a referendum opposing war.  And just like you saw in the run up to the referendum on July 5, there were various sectarian groups who opposed the Ludlow Amendment because it did not go far enough, it maintained certain illusions in pacifism, it was tied to a bourgeois government, etc, etc.  Trotsky’s attitude was of course that revolutionaries should support the measure while at the same time pointing out its limitations. Only by going through the experience with the masses would it be possible to have a dialogue with them   whereby they could become receptive to our critique and get beyond their illusions in pacifism. Here is how he put it,

We must advance with the masses, and not onIy repeat our formulas but speak in a manner that our slogans become understandable to the masses.” [my emphasis AS]

Trotsky continued,

The referendum is not our program, but it's a clear step forward; the masses show that they wish to control their Washington representatives. We say: It's a progressive step that you wish to control your representatives. But you have illusions and we will criticize them. At the same time we will help you realize your program. The sponsors of the program will betray you…[9]
[my emphasis AS]

Here we have a good example what Lenin meant in keeping a finger on the pulse of the masses.  Our program must be flexible if we are to speak to the masses in a language they understand while we go through their experiences with them.  The opportunist will also go through the experience with the masses, but in his case it is to gloss over the contradictions buried within that program.  The revolutionary leader will on the other hand go through that experience with the masses in order to reveal those contradictions.  For instance, last Sunday’s referendum did not address the question of what happens when you say NO.  The masses thought they were saying NO to austerity, but the Tsipras government took the referendum to mean that they were saying NO only to the most recent terms offered by the institutions.  They therefore took the NO vote to mean YES to further austerity which they hoped – in vain as it turns out – that the new austerity program would not be quite as onerous as the current one.  When you bury contradiction a NO becomes a YES.

But this is not something that the masses can learn just through propaganda. It is necessary to go through the experience with them. Without that dialectical link to the activity and thinking of the masses it is not possible to win them over to our program. 

Now let us think about how we can distill these lessons into developing transitional demands in Greece today. What kind of slogans should we raise in the context of post Referendum Greece today?  I cannot say as I do not have the experience and the knowledge of the Greek working class and its history.  Maybe you can put forward a simple slogan like “Austerity is Slavery”?  Or maybe something like the slogan “30 hours work for 40 hours pay”, which was a slogan that the Socialist Workers Party campaigned with in America in the 1930’s when the U.S. was going through the great Depression and we saw levels of unemployment and misery that are close to what we are seeing in Greece today. But you also have to take into account that the political understanding of the Greek working class today after the resounding victory of the NO vote in Sunday’s referendum, is much higher than that which existed in the U.S. in the 1930s.  And you need to take into account the relationship of the party to the working class. Is the immediate task of the party to mobilize large sections of the working class directly through an appeal of the party, or is it to win over masses of workers and youth who have not been convinced yet that the conciliatory road taken repeatedly by Syriza’s leadership is a disastrous policy? Or does the party stand somewhere in  between these extremes, that is, maybe it can mobilize workers to some degree on its own but still needs to win over the great bulk of workers and youth to its program?  

This is something that revolutionaries in Greece and their international allies need to work out. But the important  thing I want to emphasize is not this or that particular slogan, but the dialectical thinking that needs to go into developing the appropriate policies and programs insofar as we keep our finger on the pulse of the masses.

[1]  A good example is the discussion in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro.  There the question posed by Socrates is “What is piety?” Euthyphro answers that “Piety is that which is beloved by the gods.”  But there are many gods and some of them hate the same thing that others love.  Therefore the same thing can be both pious and impious. But this is self-contradictory. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the proposition that “Piety is that which is beloved by the gods.”
[2] L. Trotsky, The ABC of the Materialist Dialectic, In Defense of Marxism,
[3] History of the Russian Revolution, L. Trotsky, Preface,
[4] The Assessment of the Present Situation,
[5]  L. Trotsky, Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International,
[6]  L. Trotsky, An Open Letter to Comrade Burnham,
[7]   L. Trotsky, The ABC of the Materialist Dialectic”, In Defense of Marxism,
[8]  The Transitional Program of Socialist Revolution, L Trotsky, with Introductory Essays by Joseph Hansen and George Novack. Pathfinder Press, 1973. P. 192-193.
[9]  Ibid. p. 116-117.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sectarians and suppression of dissent

George Orwell

Our criticisms of the WSWS's sectarian politics in the Greek crisis have provoked some negative responses from what one might call the 'internet revolutionaries' whose political existence tends to consist of composing fawning posts on the WSWS comments section.

In some cases, where substantive issues have been raised, we responded in detail. (See my July 13 exchange with a WSWS supporter, Sectarianism and the Greek working class [].) Other letters have been full of empty rhetoric and personal invective, and so it served no purpose to respond. (Some of these firebrands of 'virtual revolution' hide behind an Anonymous label when posting, like other internet trolls.)

One letter we got I do want to say something about, not because of any substance - there isn't much - but rather because of what it reveals about the political mindset of WSWS supporters.

The writer, who this time does come with a name (Adam Cortright), seems upset about our criticism of the cult-like way the SEP operates as a party, specifically its long-established practice of passing EVERY resolution at EVERY party conference UNANIMOUSLY. I made the obvious point in my July 13 post that this kind of blanket unanimity was only possible through the SUPPRESSION OF DISSENT inside the party. Here is Cortright's response:
"In the face of the overwhelming correctness of the WSWS's analysis and political line, the two of you disgruntled former members of the WL try desperately to come up with something--anything--to discredit the only organization that is trying to build a revolutionary working class party composed of the working class itself and based on a revolutionary program consistent with Trotskyist principles. One of the conditions of membership is agreeing with the Statement of Principles and the Party's program. If people are going to go to meetings and advocate tacit support for a petty-bourgeois party like Syriza, as this pathetic blog does, then you deserve to be shouted down. The fate of the working class depends on it."

Most of this is the overheated rhetoric of a true - and uncritical - believer. But it's the last couple of sentences that bear attention. Notice the phrase, "you deserve to be shouted down." This is the mindset of a STALINIST SHOW TRIAL.

"Shouted down" - why? Are we backing capitalism? Engaging in strikebreaking? Collaborating with the CIA? No, our only sin is advocating "tacit support" for Syriza. This is of course Cortright's OPINION of our position. We would have a very different OPINION. In fact we would argue that Cortright's opinion is A TOTAL MISREPRESENTATION OF OUR POSITION. But we would never get a chance to make that argument because in Cortright's kind of a party we would be "shouted down" by true believers like himself.

Let me say this directly: this is an APPALLING TRAVESTY OF TROTSKYISM. And to the WSWS readers who don't like to dwell on negatives like this, you are being willfully blind. Support for an organization that breeds this kind of mindset DOES NOTHING TO ADVANCE THE CAUSE OF SOCIALISM.

I say breeds this kind of mindset because this is not a personality quirk of a particular individual. "Shouting down" dissenters is very much the MO of the internal regime of the SEP. Cortright's fervid avowal that the "fate of the working class" depends on "shouting down" dissent is nothing short of Orwellian.

Frank Brenner

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sectarianism and the Greek working class

EEK [Workers Revolutionary Party] banner at rally for a NO vote in the referendum. 

Part I: The WSWS proclaims the defeat of the Greek working class.

The sectarian journalists of the WSWS,  after closing down their reporting team in Athens, have proclaimed  that the Greek working class has been defeated as a result of the unprecedented betrayal of their aspirations by Prime Minister Tsipras and the majority of Syriza.  The WSWS artice, titled,
Syriza’s betrayal of the Greek working class, []  makes the following statement, 

"Syriza’s move to impose an unprecedented EU austerity package is a serious defeat for the working class." 

This is important because in the context of Marxist literature the word, 'defeat', implies the crushing of the working class by the counter-revolution, as for instance the defeat of the working class in Germany by Nazism.

Lest there be any question whether the author really meant  defeat,  he quotes a passage from Trotsky's writings to drive home the point. Here is the quote:

“This impotent philosophy, which seeks to reconcile defeats as a necessary link in the chain of cosmic developments, is completely incapable of posing and refuses to pose the question of such concrete factors as programs, parties, personalities that were the organizers of defeat. This philosophy of fatalism and prostration is diametrically opposed to Marxism as the theory of revolutionary action.”

Following the usual practice of the WSWS the author provides no citation for the quote from Trotsky's writings and fails to provide any context. The quote is in fact taken from Trotsky's 1940 essay, The Class, the Party and the Leadership.  [] The essay is a masterful analysis by Trotsky of the causes for the defeat of the Spanish working class in the Civil War that lasted from 1936-1940.  Now has anything like this happened to the  Greek working  class?  There is no question of course that the Greek working class has been terribly betrayed by Syriza. But have they lost their fighting capacity? Are they in the same position as the Spanish working class was in 1940 or the German working class in 1933.  To ask the question is to answer it.  The response of the Greek working class to the betrayal by Syriza has yet to be heard. 

At this moment in time millions of Greeks are in a state of shock, hardly believing the news they are hearing that they have essentially lost their independence and will be governed in the future by the institutions of the troika. We can predict that in short order the shock will wear off and there will be massive resistance to this historic betrayal, not only in Greece but throughout Europe.  But for the pundits of the WSWS, that is of no interest.  They are satisfied to proclaim that their perspective has been "confirmed", the working class has been defeated. Such premature burials are typical of sectarians because for them what is important is not the mobilization of the working  class but the confirmation that their predictions were correct. They see the end of the struggle where the revolutionary Marxist sees the beginning of a new phase of the struggle. 

In the same article we also find a good example of the crude reductionism that characterizes much of the WSWS "analysis" when the author ascribes Syriza's opposition to a Grexit [ie. of Greece leaving the Euro] to the size of the stock portfolio of various members of Syriza.  He writes,

"...former Syriza leader Alekos Alavanos (€350,000 in savings, a stock portfolio and 11 real estate properties), and former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (whose wife Danae Stratou is a millionaire) cannot imagine or tolerate a break with the EU because—like the rest of the Greek ruling elite—they would lose a great deal of wealth if Greece exited the euro and their assets were re-denominated in a heavily devalued national currency."
One of the comments this article received noted that Alekos Alavanos is no longer a member of Syriza but has formed his own party, "Plan B", which advocates a Grexit! Needless to say no correction was published by the WSWS.

We also note that in the same article the author states that, 

"The events in Greece are a major strategic experience of the international working class."

Now this is interesting because up till now the WSWS has been "rejecting with contempt" the idea that that in order to learn that revolutionary socialism is the only alternative to austerity, the working class must go through a number experiences and those who aspire to lead them must go through those experiences with them.[See our previous article on this issue, Experience in Scare Quotes,

How to account for this turnaround by the WSWS? Perhaps, having pronounced the defeat of the Greek working class, the WSWS is now willing to embrace experience because the lesson from that experience for them is that there is nothing left for them to do but to write obituaries of the Greek working class.

Alex Steiner

Part II: A comment on sectarianism and the Greek referendum.

In response to our essay, 
A postscript on sectarianism and the Greek referendum, [ ], we received the following comment:

"I am a long-time reader of the WSWS and have just come across your blog. I find your arguments in this post entirely unconvincing. I have re-read the WSWS articles on Greece and I can detect no "reversal" or "head-spinning turn".

1. The WSWS denounced Syriza's call for a referendum as a reactionary fraud aimed at creating the conditions to push through the diktats of the troika-- a position since confirmed in the most striking manner. (Incidentally, on July 7 the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard provided his own confirmation of the WSWS warnings, stating that Tsipras called the referendum "with expectation--and intention--of losing it: )

2. The WSWS called for a No vote. What else should they have called for in response to the specific referendum question put to the Greek people? A Yes vote? an abstention? 

In both cases the WSWS was fighting for the rights and interests of the Greek workers, in opposition to Syriza and all of the parties of the Greek ruling class. WSWS has advocated a revolutionary struggle by the working class against the diktats of the EU and capitalism. But for you this is "boilerplate rhetoric".

I see that your blog is called Permanent Revolution, but you don't seem to agree with socialism at all. Your vituperative post concludes by attacking the WSWS as a cult because... their members vote unanimously for conference resolutions. What a crime. Perhaps it's because the members agree with them!" 

This is our response: 

Your second point is disingenuous. You ask, what else could the WSWS have called for except a No vote. But if the referendum was a reactionary fraud, as the WSWS repeatedly insisted, then the obvious position would have been to abstain. To participate in a reactionary fraud is to lend that fraud legitimacy. This should be as clear as day to any politically literate person, let alone a Marxist.

By calling for a No vote the WSWS was BY IMPLICATION conceding that the referendum was NOT JUST a reactionary fraud. And that NOT JUST makes a big difference because it's a crack in the bourgeois power structure through which the masses can push their way on to the scene. Which is why the European elites were so dead set against the referendum. If it really were just a reactionary fraud, the elites wouldn't have given a damn.

But the WSWS never acknowledged this glaring contradiction in their position. That was the point of my comment. They never examined the implications of their position because to have done so would have undermined the sectarian political line they've taken since the election of Syriza in January. Specifically their blanket denial that the EXPERIENCE of the Syriza government could prove crucial to raising the political consciousness of the masses and open opportunities to win large numbers to revolutionary socialism.

When it came exactly to that kind of experience - the referendum - the WSWS  persisted with its sectarianism but simply stuck on a call for a No vote, assuming - cynically - that their followers were either too naive or uncritical to notice any problem. It would seem, from your letter at any rate, that such cynicism wasn't entirely misplaced.

If you believe the WSWS, they were the only organization to have seen through Syriza. What nonsense! Dozens of other groups in Greece and internationally understood the impossible contradictions that afflicted this party. Even the sclerotic Stalinists of the Greek Communist Party saw through Syriza; indeed this was true even of some people in Syriza itself.

But seeing through Syriza is only the barest beginning of a revolutionary policy. Far more important is to get the masses to see through Syriza. In revolutionary politics IT ISN'T ENOUGH TO KEEP PROCLAIMING THE TRUTH. If it were enough, the revolution would have happened decades, even centuries, ago.

YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE MASSES UNDERSTAND THAT TRUTH, and for that you have to engage with them and their struggles. You have to BUILD A BRIDGE between their 'Syriza consciousness' and socialist consciousness.  And for that you have to stand with them in their experiences - the election in January, the countless marches, the historic OXI to austerity.

The sectarians of the WSWS reject this. They have only contempt and hostility for the experiences of the real working class. Instead they promote visions of a fantasy working class, one that never voted for Syriza or ever had any illusions in it, a Sleeping Beauty working class that only awaits the magic kiss of the sectarian's propaganda to wake up to revolutionary consciousness.

This is why the revolutionary rhetoric at the end of every WSWS article is boilerplate: because they NEVER say a word about HOW the working class is going to be won to revolution. There is no word for how in sectarian vocabulary.

As for your remark about unanimity, give me a break. Do I really need to spell this out? Unanimous passing of EVERY resolution at EVERY conference?? This is democracy?? You're being willfully blind. This was NEVER the tradition of the revolutionary movement in Marx's day or Lenin's or Trotsky's. This is rather the tradition of Stalinism.

Nobody makes a virtue of factions, but equally there is nothing healthy about suppression of dissent. And suppression of dissent is THE ONLY WAY to get this kind of blanket unanimity. You browbeat dissenters or expel them, and thereby create a chilling effect so that anyone with a wayward thought keeps their mouths shut. To state the overwhelmingly obvious, a movement that operates this way will never liberate anybody.

Frank Brenner