Duncan Hallas

to International Socialism 61

(June 1973)

From International Socialism (1st Series), No.61, September 1973, p.1-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

People often talk about the need to ‘develop theory’. In fact marxist theory is not developed on the basis of some general wish to tbedrise. It grows in response to actual problems facing marxists. The five articles reproduced here represent aspects of the attempt of the International Socialists to master the new and unforseen problems that arose after the second world war.

Cromwell is said to have told the portrait painter Lely, who was noted for his practice of idealising his subjects, ‘paint me as I am. If you leave out a wart or a wrinkle I will not pay you a penny’. In this spirit the articles are reproduced without alteration of any kind. One omission, however, merits comment. The Socialist Review group, from which the International Socialists developed, originated out of a split in the British section of the Trotskyist movement in 1950. One of the main issues in dispute (though by no means the only one) was the question of the nature of the USRR and the ‘Peoples’ Democracies’ of Eastern Europe. The group took the position that both represented forms of bureaucratic state capitalism. No material on Russia or Eastern Europe is included here because, for our organisation, the question had long been settled by the time International Socialism started to appear in the spring of 1960. Readers interested in the matter should consult Cliff’s Russia: A Marxist Analysis and the same author’s Class Nature of the People’s Democracies which is reproduced in The Origins of the International Socialists (Pluto Press).

In three major respects events in the post-war period developed in ways that were unexpected and unforeseen by revolutionaries, particularly those in the Trotskyist tradition. First, there was the survival and expansion of Stalinism, the creation of a dozen new Stalinist states, some by the intervention of the Russian army, some by indigenous movements under Stalinist leadership. Second, there was the prolonged and unprecedented expansion of Western capitalism. Third, there was the rapid and, on the whole, relatively peaceful transformation of the former colonies of the great powers, which had covered much of Asia and most of Africa, into the states of the present ‘third world’.

Imperialism: Highest Stage but One re-examines Lenin’s classic in the light of the last two developments and shows conclusively that though a ‘supremely good theory in its day’, its analysis is no longer tenable. The title, however, is unfortunate. It may suggest that imperialism no longer exists. Those whose stock in trade is the parroting of the marxist classics, rather than the application of the marxist method of analysis to a changing reality, have seized on this point and made much of Kidron’s alleged ‘revisionism’. Of course imperialism still exists, just as it existed in the ‘pre-imperialist’ stage (on Lenin’s definition) of capitalism and for that matter, as Lenin himself pointed out, in the days of ancient Rome. Imperialism in the general sense of the politically enforced transfer of wealth from a dependency to an ‘imperialist’ power goes back to the bronze age and the conquests of Lugalzaggisi, Sargon and their innumerable successors. The point is that it is no longer central to the survival of capitalism, nor is the export of capital from advanced to backward countries.

In International Capitalism Kidron develops the argument further, indeed too far, in arguing that while ‘imperialism is still very real’, at the same time ‘it is dying as reality and therefore as a useful concept’. There was, however, some reason for this emphasis. The nineteen-sixties was the period in which illusions in the reality and possibilities of third world ‘socialisms’ were at their height. Particularly amongst ‘new leftist’ circles, Kwame Nkrumah, ‘Bung’ Sukarno, Ben Bella, Fidel Castro and of course Chairman Mao represented ‘the new emerging forces’ of socialism. What they actually had in common was anti-imperialist rhetoric. Equating socialism with anti-imperialism and embracing this strange mixture of assorted autocrats - which at times was extended to include Nehru, Bandaranaike and Tito - was part of a tendency to reject the industrial working class as the force with the potential to achieve socialism. Many of the ‘new leftists’ had come from the Communist Party or its periphery following the wave of disillusionment in Russia after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and the Russia- China split. They easily adapted to a ‘third worldism’ which went hand in hand with a stress on the role of intellectuals, planners or ‘declassed’ elements rather than workers in the develbped capitalist countries. The ‘Trotskyists’ of the Mandel tendency had also decided that ‘the epicentre of world revolution’ had shifted to the third world’, they enthused over Castro and Ben Bella especially uncritically, as they had earlier enthused over Tito and were soon to enthuse over Ho Chi Minh. The refutation of the mythology of the ‘anti-imperialist camp’ was a necessary part of the defence of basic marxist ideas; indeed it still is.

In Permanent Revolution Cliff takes up a related problem, the status of ‘Trotsky’s greatest and most original contribution to Marxism’ in the light of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions which, on the face of the matter, appear to refute it. This is one of the best of all Cliffs contributions; it decisively demolishes the case for the ‘proletarian’ character of these revolutions on a factual level, and, against all the various revisionist trends, reasserts ‘that the very heart of Marxism is the fact that the socialist revolution is the act of the working class itself, the result of the proletariat becoming the subject and not the object of history’. The question remains; given that these revolutions were not proletarian revolutions and that the regimes that emerged from them are state-capitalist, are they not nevertheless relatively progressive? This is a complicated question. The Maoist regime achieved national unification and independence for China, unquestionably progressive steps in and of themselves, and has attempted to industrialise the country. It has, in marxist terms, carried through the equivalent of a European bourgeois revolution insofar as this is possible in the twentieth century. For Marx the bourgeois revolutions, even when partial or distorted, were progressive because they were necessary for the full development of capitalism, for a world-transforming growth of the forces of production. But such a development is hardly possible today in the ‘third world’ either on the basis of ‘private’ or of state capitalism. And in spite of its relatively progressive features, considered from the point of view of an isolated China, the international effect of Maoism, its effect on the working class movement, is reactionary.

The theory that Maoism is progressive can be defended, in fact, only by the same type of arguments that were used to defend Stalin’s dictatorship in Russia. But the Stalin regime did indeed industrialise Russia. Crisis in China explains the attempts of Mao to do likewise from the first five-year plan (1952-57), through the great leap forward’ and its collapse to the ‘cultural revolution’. Since it was written the ‘cultural revolution’ has collapsed in its turn and a new ‘Bukharinist’ phase has been in progress for several years (see China Since Lin Piao in IS55). It is, unfortunately, too much to hope that Cliff’s sober examination of the facts from a historical materialist standpoint will dispel the fog of Maoist myths on the soft left. The roots of the myths are emotional, not rational, and the craving for myths has more to do with events in Europe and distaste for class politics than anything that has happened in China. Nevertheless Crisis in China is essential reading and a most valuable contribution.

Finally, The British Labour Movement looks at the shifts in the forms of working class struggle produced by the long boom of the fifties and sixties. It summed up the theory of the pamphlet Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards. As always, a good (because operational) theory at one stage needs correction at the next. Barker underestimated the importance of the trade union machines even in 1967. Since 1969 the revival of national official stoppages, which was pioneered by the dustmen’s strike, has transformed the situation considerably. The union structures are important. Revolutionaries must work seriously in them. All the same Barker’s error was a fault on the right side and his analysis of the changed nature of reformism remains indispensable. It is useful to remember that during the nineteen-fifties and the first years of the nineteen-sixties, virtually all revolutionaries in Britain worked in or around the Labour Party. The decay of that party as a membership organisation and its increasingly middle class character at ward level gave the fights for particular resolutions in the party an increasingly unreal character. It became an activity that had less and less connection with any actual working class struggle. It was necessary to break sharply with what was becoming a tradition of ‘resolutionary socialism’. The same trend affected the trade union branches and Barker’s emphasis on the shop floor organisation was absolutely correct. The industrial situation he described gave rise to ruling class reactions; successively to the productivity deal, the Donovan Report, the Labour government’s In Place of Strife and the Tory Industrial Relations Act. The struggle against these attempts to tame the shop floor and strengthen the trade union bureaucracy in the interests of the employers helped to modify the situation as did the Labour and Tory statutory wage control policies. The relative importance of the union structure above shop floor level increased and so revolutionaries must guard against an exaggerated ‘rank-and-fileism’. Nevertheless it remains true that the shop floor is the starting point and the most important field of activity. Without a shop floor base all activity in the higher structures is a sham.


Duncan Hallas
June 1973


Last updated on 19.10.2006