1. Summing Up: I suppose one function of these closing statements is to establish whether we seem closer or further away at the end of these exchanges than we were at the beginning. In some respects, I feel vindicated in my prior impression that we aren’t too far apart on many of the most important questions. This is true, for example, at the level of values. Perhaps our biggest difference here is that I think that it is possible (in principle at least – I’m not saying I’ve done it) to formulate a comprehensive egalitarian conception of justice with quite specific distributive and institutional consequences. You seem sceptical about this, but I’m not sure how much practical difference this makes.
There are also other important points of agreement. We are both revolutionaries who seek a systemic alternative to capitalism. Moreover, we share a similar view of the content of this alternative as a self-governing, decentralized network of producers’ and consumers’ councils. I have questions about the precise form that participatory planning should take, and I feel that you have been a bit vague or evasive in your responses to these questions, but I don’t think that this is a big deal. Economic coordination in a non-market, democratic, modern society involves complex issues that need to be discussed in an open-minded way whose aim is mutual clarification. Maybe your caution in responding to my questions reflected the fear that I was out to trash parecon in the name of some version of a centralized command economy (with which you mistakenly equate socialism), but this really hasn’t been my aim at all.
Of course, there’s more to life after capitalism than how we would plan the economy. We haven’t really discussed revolution as a political process. Maybe if we had more disagreements would have emerged. At the very least, we need to take into account that capitalism involves a system of states whose specific dynamics – central to which is geopolitical competition – creates great costs and dangers to humankind. I’m an orthodox Marxist in seeking a world without states but believing that we can’t ignore the state while it exists. This means being prepared to put demands on the nation-state (or inter-state institutions such as the European Union), and to build movements whose immediate aim is to secure specific reforms but the logic of whose struggle can develop into a challenge to the system. And – when we do confront the system – we need to have a strategy for confronting the centralized coercive power of the state and for protecting the infant alternative society once we have begun to break down that power in parts of the world. I believe that, when approached in a critical but open-minded way, the revolutionary Marxist tradition has much to offer on all these subjects.
2. A Cheap Shot: In broaching these questions, I’ve begun to touch on what, not surprisingly, turned out to be our biggest disagreement, namely Leninism. (Incidentally, I equated democratic centralism, and not, as you suggest, Leninism, with ‘rigorous application of the majority principle’. I’m quite happy with your definition of Leninism as ‘acceptance of Marxist analysis, plus democratic centralism, plus advocacy of one or another socialist economic vision’.)
I know we’re not supposed to be replying to each other in these closing statements, but I can’t ignore in this context the following passage in your last reply to me:
When I was speaking in England I kept wondering how the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] people I encountered trying to sell me the newspaper could be in the same organization as you. I meant that seriously, and I think it is something to think hard apart. It isn’t genes, or long standing personality traits – it is something about the rank and file practice of Leninist and Trotskyist parties that drags members at the base into this robotic style and content. Meanwhile, other members, nearer the top of the apparatus, don’t have the robotic problem, but as power nears instead develop an authority problem.
I think this is a pretty cheap shot. Underlying it is a contrast that has been used to trash collectivist alternatives to capitalism at least since Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – between ‘robotic’ uniform masses and intellectuals who may be more subtle but are driven by an urge to dominate. One of the things that is distinctive to Marx’s conception of communism is that he insists that a society based on solidarity doesn’t have to – indeed must not – suppress individuality. A revolutionary socialist party can’t just mirror the future society to which it aspires, since it is shaped by the struggle against the present society. All the same, those whom you call ‘rank and file’ SWP members aren’t robots. They are activists spread out across the workplaces, the neighbourhoods, the universities and schools of Britain, who organize together to help build effective resistance to capitalism.
One of the places you spoke at earlier this year was, I remember, Bristol. A few days ago I stayed after a meeting in Bristol with a long-standing SWP member. He works nearby in Gloucester, where some weeks ago there was a huge police ‘anti-terrorist’ operation directed at the Asian community that forced people living in several streets to leave their homes and let to one young Muslim being charged. The SWP member is well known and respected in the neighbourhood because of his work against racism and against the war. He helped at short notice to organize a large, angry protest meeting attended by 600 Asians – a tenth of the local community – that the local Labour MP was forced to attend and that attracted national media coverage.
This particular SWP member isn’t exceptional – there are thousands more like him around Britain. The great anti-war demonstrations in London this year – immortalized in all those photos of huge clumps of people filing along holding placards and banners – didn’t just happen. They had to be organized by local activists all over the country. The SWP are only a minority among these activists, but most people involved in the anti-war movement in Britain would concede that we have played an important role. This reflects the concentrated impact that precisely the features you list – Marxist analysis, democratic centralist organization, and socialist vision – can have. Selling Socialist Worker weekly is part of the same process. It organises us to engage in a regular political dialogue with the people we encounter in our activities. Sure it can be done badly, even robotically (I’m notoriously bad at it), but the contempt that you show for socialist paper-sellers reflects more on you than on them.
Of course, revolutionary socialist organization has its pathologies – sectarian hostilities, petty authoritarianism, heresy hunting – and I don’t claim the SWP has always escaped these. But are they unique to Leninists? From my – admittedly long-distance – observation of the anarchist movement, I’ve seen enough to suspect that these and other qualities are to be found there as well. I don’t think this is surprising. If you read Christopher Hill on what happened to the Puritan revolutionaries of the 17th century, particularly after the Stuarts had been restored, you will find very similar patterns of behaviour. I think they are particularly a feature of revolutionary movements that aspire to change the world when they are marginalized and reduced to political irrelevance.
Since Seattle we have found ourselves in conditions where radical ideas begin to connect with real movements. It is a challenge to all revolutionaries – not just the Leninists – to unlearn the bad habits we developed when times were harder and to engage with a new generation that is being drawn into resisting capitalism. But the presence of survivals of these patterns inherited from the past can’t be used as knock down proof that one particular kind of revolutionaries can’t engage – especially when we manifestly are engaging.
3. Avoiding Disaster
Implicit in all the arguments about Leninism is, of course, the question of Stalinism. You don’t like putting it in these terms. Let’s not quibble about words: the problem is how to prevent a revolution driven initially by a self-emancipatory thrust from below turning into a tyrannical monstrosity. As I understand it, your argument is that capitalism has a trichotomous class structure – capitalists, workers, and coordinators – and that consequently ‘there are two types of post-capitalist economy’; instead of the workers taking control, the coordinators can instead, typically by putting themselves at the head of a mass movement most of whose members are seeking a more authentic liberation.
Here our debate has taught me something. I now understand better why you place such an emphasis on balanced job complexes. I had thought of them as an interesting idea for reconciling the need of any modern economy for complex specialization with individual self-fulfilment and for addressing at the same time the hardy perennial of who would do the lousy work in an emancipated society. Now I see more clearly than I did before, that balanced job complexes are intended, through performing all these functions, to prevent a class of privileged coordinators from constituting itself within, and usurping the self-governing councils.
I see the attraction of such a device, but I think it’s important to stress that (as I’m sure you would agree) on its own it would not prevent the triumph of a new ruling class. Essential to the stabilization and expansion of a self-managing society (what I call ‘socialism’) would be two other factors; (i) to what extent the material context – which ultimately could only be global – facilitated the consolidation of council democracy; and (ii) how far the councils themselves developed from instruments of struggle into institutions of self-government. Economics, politics, geopolitics – all of these would be decisive in determining whether or not the new society took root, as they were in settling the fate of earlier revolutions.
I suppose I just think that the more we are able to extend council democracy on a global scale, the easier it will be to make the new society work. No doubt we will need institutional devices like balanced job complexes but I can’t see them as playing the decisive role in preventing a regression to class domination. No doubt this does reflect our theoretical differences – I don’t see the coordinators as a coherent class with a place in production relations comparable to those of capital and labour: moreover, should some group of coordinators manage to take power, then the historical record suggests that what they would preside over is not a new form of class society but a version of capitalism. But I don’t say any of this in a spirit of complacency. The 20th century has shown what monstrosities even the most idealistic struggles can harbour. Who knows had new horrors produced by mixtures of unfavourable circumstances and subjective error the future may hold? That’s why debates such as this one matter – not just to understand each other better, but to produce better theory and strategy that we can use to avoid repeating the disasters of the past.
4 Marching and Talking Together: A few months ago I was involved in a debate with a member of the dissobedienti from southern Italy. He had a very nice way of describing such debates. He said that while marching in the same direction we should talk in order to learn from one another. I think this is exactly what we have been doing. We share the same enemies, and we seek the same goals. We have quite big disagreements about history, theory, and strategy. These matter because they play an important role in shaping how we practically address the political problems that confront us. But there is enough agreement at the level of vision and even of strategy to continue marching together – for it to be productive for us to carry on cooperating, not avoiding our disagreements but not making them a barrier to cooperation either, and remaining open to the surprises that history no doubt has in store for us all.
With best wishes for the New Year,