Fawkes pas, or the joy of ideology

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One of the most bizarre things I have seen in my time in politics is the ability of people to hold two obviously contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time. Sometimes the contradiction is palpable, sometimes not so, but it is real.

The "post-left" discussion on the anarchy list prompted a funny little example of this kind of contradiction. Before the last election, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) had 6 MSPs (Member of the Scottish Parliament) but thanks to various things (such as the infighting which became public during the Tommy Sheridan libel case fiasco) it lost them all. Needless to say, after the result the new leader proclaimed that this was really a victory as the SSP was back where it should be, on the streets. Which makes you wonder why they stood in the first place and why having six MSPs was considered, at the time, a great victory for socialism...

I have reviewed the SSP's unofficial manifesto if people want to see where the SSP were coming from (after the split Sheridan formed Solidarity, which has pretty much the same left-wing social democratic nationalist politics, with a dash of Proudhon with its call for cheap loans to fund co-operatives!). What is of interest is how the SSP tried to appropriate the term "libertarian" to describe their ideas, while pursuing traditional Marxist politics of pursuing "political action" to introduce socialism via parliament. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sheridan and McCombes used the Spanish Revolution as their main example of socialism rather than the Bolshevik revolution. For those interested in genuine non-anarchist libertarian socialists, may I suggest Maurice Brinton? His account of the Bolshevik counter-revolution against workers' self-management cannot be bettered, even today (although it needs to be supplemented by other works -- see section H.6 for a good starting place).

Fawkes pas...

As is well known, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has been trying to appropriate libertarian rhetoric for a while now. It regularly describes itself as "libertarian" and has (unsurprisingly) been distancing itself from Bolshevik tradition (while, unfortunately but equally unsurprisingly, embracing the failed politics of social democracy).

It has gone one further. The SSP has been accused by the Tories of celebrating terrorism after hanging a poster about Guy Fawkes in its parliamentary office. The poster proclaims "Vote Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions." Which is, of course, an old anarchist anti-election poster.

Bill Aitken, a Conservative MSP, said it was plumbing the depths even for the SSP. Quite rightly, the SSP said the Tories should get a sense of humour. Hopefully this will be as well developed as the SSP's sense of irony. After all, the SSP has six members in the Scottish Parliament.

Given this, it clearly it has two options: reread Orwell's definition of "doublethink" or come clean to the electorate...

I should point out the obvious, I suppose, namely that the title of the piece was a play on words with faux pas, a violation of accepted social rules and is usually used in social and diplomatic contexts (the term comes originally from French, and literally means "false step").

This kind of obvious self-contradiction afflicts most ideologues, across the whole political spectrum. For example, as pointed out in section F.1 of AFAQ, "anarcho"-capitalist Murray Rothbard explicitly pointed to the similarities between the state and private property without sensing the obvious contradiction (he even thanked someone for pointing the similarity out to him!):

Ironically, this limited definition of "anarchism" ensures that "anarcho"-capitalism is inherently self-refuting. This can be seen from leading "anarcho"-capitalist Murray Rothbard. He thundered against the evil of the state, arguing that it "arrogates to itself a monopoly of force, of ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area." In and of itself, this definition is unremarkable. That a few people (an elite of rulers) claim the right to rule others must be part of any sensible definition of the state or government. However, the problems begin for Rothbard when he notes that "[o]bviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc." [The Ethics of Liberty, p. 170 and p. 173] The logical contradiction in this position should be obvious, but not to Rothbard. It shows the power of ideology, the ability of mere words (the expression "private property") to turn the bad ("ultimate decision-making power over a given area") into the good ("ultimate decision-making power over a given area").

It always staggers me to see propertarians like Rothbard thunder against the state when it restricts freedom of, say, association and speech but then turn round, without batting an eye-lid, and defend the property owner when they do exactly the same thing! But when your ideology is premised on reducing everything (including liberty) to private property, then such contradictions are inevitable.

To paraphrase Upton Sinclair's comment that "it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it", I would suggest that it is difficult to get a person to understand something when their whole ideology depends upon them not understanding the blatantly obvious.

It can be forgiven, I think, if the contradiction is only apparent if you know something about, say, history. Thus the rank-and-file Leninist probably will be totally unaware of it when they come out with massive contradictory statements related to the Russian revolution or Leninist idealogy. The same cannot be said of the leaders of the party, who really should know better. For example, from section H.1.2:

 

Ultimately, though, the leading lights of Bolshevism concluded from their experiences that the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be achieved by the dictatorship of the party and they generalised this position for all revolutions. Even in the prison camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s, "almost all the Trotskyists continued to consider that 'freedom of party' would be 'the end of the revolution.' 'Freedom to choose one's party - that is Menshevism,' was the Trotskyists' final verdict." [Ante Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, p. 280] While few Leninists today would subscribe to this position, the fact is when faced with the test of revolution the founders of their ideology not only practised the dictatorship of the party, they raised it to an ideological truism. Sadly, most modern day Trotskyists ignore this awkward fact in favour of inaccurate claims that Trotsky's Left Opposition "framed a policy along [the] lines" of "returning to genuine workers' democracy". [Chris Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, p. 19] In reality, as "Left Oppositionist" Victor Serge pointed out, "the greatest reach of boldness of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party was to demand the restoration of inner-Party democracy, and it never dared dispute the theory of single-party government - by this time, it was too late." [The Serge-Trotsky Papers, p. 181]

 

The notion that Trotsky advocated democratic reforms seems a common one in SWP-ISO circles ( McNally makes that assertion too, talking of which I need to add some more Trotsky on the necessity of party dictatorship quotes from the 1920s and 1930s to that!). Other obvious contradictions are presented in section H.3.4 and I should note my two letters to the Weekly Worker (which are in previous blog postings) comparing their critique of Stalinism with the reality under Lenin. Both were unanswered. And I should note that the British SWP's whole theory (if it can be called that) of "Stalinism is state capitalism" rests on numerous contradictions as discussed in section H.3.13:

 

There are other problems with Cliff's argument, namely that it implies that Lenin's regime was also state capitalist (as anarchists stress, but Leninists deny). If, as Cliff suggests, a "workers' state" is one in which "the proletariat has direct or indirect control, no matter how restricted, over the state power" then Lenin's regime was not one within six months. Similarly, workers' self-management was replaced by one-man management under Lenin, meaning that Stalin inherited the (capitalistic) relations of production rather than created them. Moreover, if it were military competition which made Stalinism "state capitalist" then, surely, so was Bolshevik Russia when it was fighting the White and Imperialist armies during the Civil War. Nor does Cliff prove that a proletariat actually existed under Stalinism, raising the clear contradiction that "[i]f there is only one employer, a 'change of masters' is impossible . . . a mere formality" while also attacking those who argued that Stalinism was "bureaucratic collectivism" because Russian workers were not proletarians but rather slaves. So this "mere formality" is used to explain that the Russian worker is a proletarian, not a slave, and so Russia was state capitalist in nature! 

 

Yes, Stalinism was state capitalism (as was Lenin's regime) but not for the reasons Cliff asserts. Apparently a regime is to be considered socialist or not based on who is in charge, not in the social relationships it is based on!

Does this mean that anarchism is without contradictions? Well, I've pointed to a few in individualist anarchism (which are a few of the many reasons I'm a communist-anarchist). In terms of social anarchism, I hope there are none. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that it is coherent and avoids the most obvious contradictions associated with ideology.

Finally, I should note that I've finished revising my essay on Kropotkin's Mutual Aid and have sent it to AK Press. I've made a few changes, such as improving the section on Tit-for-Tat as it downplayed how good that is as an evolutionary strategy! Hopefully it will be published in time for this year's London anarchist bookfair (where I should, hopefully, be having a meeting on An Anarchist FAQ). I'll keep yous informed of progress. I'll replace the current version with the new, revised one later this year.

So, until I blog again! Be seeing you!

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