Friday, October 9, 2009

The Effortless Revolution


“Facing Reality – The New Society: How to look for it and how to bring it closer.” – CLR James & Grace Lee, with Cornelius Castoriadis, Intro by John H Bracey – Originally Published 1958, new Kerr Edition, 2006.


C.L.R. James (Cyril Lionel Robert), the Trinidadian writer best known for the masterful “The Black Jacobins,” co-authored this book, which was written right after the worker-led revolts in Hungary and Poland. It is best described as a cross between Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism. James was part of the Johnson-Forrest tendency in the SWP, which left the party in the 50s. Starting out as a Trotskyist, James broke with the Socialist Workers’ Party and Trotsky’s analysis of the ‘degenerated workers state’ and agreed instead with Max Schactman that the USSR was a form of state capitalism. James denies that getting rid of capitalist ownership of the means of production, and having that owned by a state of ANY kind, is historical progress.


This book is remarkable for its optimism. Marxists are by nature optimistic, as they believe that the working class actually can take power. James took this one step further and said that socialism was already existing in the advanced capitalist countries, as well as the bureaucratic ‘state capitalist’ ones. What he meant by ‘socialism’ was that the working class was already organized, educated and conscious enough to take power, and could, given the right conditions. He pointed to the 1956 workers councils in Hungary, the 1956 rebellion in Poznan, the 1953 rebellion in East Germany, and the shop stewards movement in England as current proofs the workers were able to take power, as their social strength was such they only needed the right impetus. The Hungarian workers councils he considered the height of workers power, and draws from that the slogan “All power to the Workers Councils.” I do not think many Marxists would have a problem with this slogan, of course.


When he rejected Trotsky’s theory of the ‘degenerated’ or ‘deformed’ workers states, he also rejected the Leninist concept of the ‘vanguard’ party. He considered it to be a product of workers organization in one time and place, Czarist Russia, and not appropriate for other conditions. James believed that workers did not need a self-appointed vanguard to take power. He saw the role of the Marxist organization to be one voice of many working class voices, which would describe conditions and provide information to the working class. His revolutionary organizations would essentially be ‘committees of correspondence’ which would not be dominated by through-going Marxists, but could have other working class oriented individuals in them. The role of these committees in the factories and in society was to provide information to counter bourgeois propaganda. Essentially, the Marxists would hasten the event which would weaken or topple bourgeois rule, and organize around their paper (and presumably now, their website…) James pointed out that the events in Hungary and Poland happened without a ‘vanguard party.’ And the shop stewards movement in England allowed Communists and Trotskyists to participate, but did not allow these organizations to dominate it. And this is partly because the workers see the factionalism built into the ‘party’ system.


Of particular interest is James’ point on factory committees in the USSR, which James and Lee said formed in various plants after the revolution, had a national organization, and wanted to take over economic management in the USSR. He said the Bolsheviks preferred unions to handle that function, and broke up the factory committees. James said very little has ever been written about these committees. I find it persuasive to allow a national factory committee structure to handle the economy, as unions are organized as defensive organizations of the working class, and are not normally suited to run production. And they frequently fail even as defensive organizations.


Trotsky’s main disagreement with Lenin before the 1917 revolution was on the issue of the vanguard party, which he saw as carrying the seeds of despotism. After 1917, Trotsky adopted Lenin’s idea, and held it to his dying day. James theory is similar to early Trotsky – that the vanguard party can become a bureaucracy quite easily. This of course was proved in the USSR and China, though in the former it was not an easy process, occurring over the dead bodies of most of the Bolshevik leadership and cadre. Trotsky maintained that real democratic-centralism, not bureaucratic-centralism, would prevent a re-occurrence. James insists that the nature of the vanguard party, while enabling revolution in some conditions, also guarantees their degeneration.


James & Lee were not able to comment in this book on the vast police powers accrued to the modern imperialist state after the 50s, as part of the degeneration of bourgeois rule. It is hard to see how revolutionary organizations could survive without a structure able to handle the various forms of repression that emerge, even in our present 'bourgeois-democratic' structure. Assassination, firings, heavily armed police, constant surveillance and jailings are by now normal police methods, and would be used extensively. Surveillance itself is certainly more broad now than at any other time in American history. When James & Lee wrote this book, re-privatization and the growth of white-collar service-sector employment in the imperialist heartlands were not on the radar either.


The most amusing parts of this book are James shots at various Communist and Trotskyist organizations and their failures, and might well be familiar to some readers. Tiny organizations coming out with massive slogans of the day. Organizations that pursue their factional interests over the interests of the working class or the movement. Leaders who spend all their time trying to curtail the deterioration of their own small organizations, whose permanent survival is their only goal. Organizations fighting each other instead of the enemy. In essence, the small-group mentality instead of the broader view of the needs of the class.


However, we must draw a short balance sheet of the Johnson-Forrest Tendency, and James himself, based on this 1958 book. The small committees created by James have all disappeared. The heady enthusiasm for Hungary, East Germany and Poland has been replaced by the restoration of direct capitalist bank rule in those countries. James never seemed to notice that it was in Hungary, a country whose bourgeoisie had been dispossessed and its property nationalized, that the working class, by his own analysis, held direct state and economic power through the workers councils. This did NOT happen in bourgeois France in May-June 1968, for instance, which might point to a major difference in these two countries – not to their similarity. The shop stewards movement in England has disappeared; defeated after the smashing of the coal miners by Thatcher in 1984-1985. The American working class, repeatedly celebrated in this book for its tough, independent behavior, was de-unionized and many of their jobs exported during this same period. World-wide capitalist reaction, glorying in the 1989 destruction of the USSR and the central European workers states, has run almost untrammeled until recently. The ‘socialism’ that already existed everywhere in James’ eye has somehow not come to fruition.


I wish James & Lee were right, as it would make things a lot eaiser! However, perhaps revolution is not so effortless. Or perhaps the working class was not prepared to rule. Whatever the answer, James and his friends main contribution is their view that it is the actions of the working class that are key, not any substitute. They point to the ‘small’ actions of workers on the job, or in a community, resisting bourgeois ideas and actions, as proof of the socialist existence of the working class. They believe that if workers do it, it is correct.


Indeed, workers do many things without a party; sometimes spontaneously, and sometimes completely – as in Hungary, where the workers councils held both economic and political power – really a dual power against the Russian Army. Whatever your opinion of the insurrection there, it cannot be denied that the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian working class was not on the side of the Russian Army and the bureaucracy. Marxists can organize, but it is the action of the working class itself that will make any movement – and any revolution.


I read the books so you don’t have to…And I bought it at MayDay Books!

Red Frog – 10/8, 2009

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