Book Review: Cliff Slaughter’s “Against Capital”


The book is subtitled: “Experiences of Class Struggle and Rethinking Revolutionary Agency,” and is a compilation of essays by a number of left activists, edited by former British Trotskyist leader Cliff Slaughter.

An interesting section is Terry Brotherstone’s report on discussions of the class significance of the votes, both “Yes” and “No,” in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Labour voters defied the Labour party in the deindustrialized working-class centers of Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Dundee and North Lanarkshire to vote “Yes” for independence, and the referendum energized and politicized Scottish youth to an unprecedented extent. The discussion gives a sense of left thinkers and trade unionists coming to grips with the implications of a mass, broad-based movement adopting a vote for national independence as a way of resisting social injustice.

The accompanying essay on British politics and culture, apparently written before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader in September 2015, now appears somewhat dated; it calls for an analysis that will give the “hope of a new world,” something that Corbyn’s election seems to have channeled. It may be too soon to write off the Labour party as a vehicle for resistance to neoliberalism, since a large grassroots movement voted against the neoliberal Blairites.

Gabriel Levy writes a thoughtful piece on Ukraine that analyzes the use of war and military conflict as a new means of social control following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the role of state actors in reinforcing separatism, and how this has a disastrous impact on social and labour movements. He gives evidence of a continuing struggle for the independence of the workers’ movement despite war-driven divisions between sections of the movement, when workers in Ukraine’s largest industrial centers now live in what amounts to a military occupation.

The other essays are uneven in character, as the editor admits. A long essay on the Middle East prefaces an account of the Iranian revolution with a comprehensive political-diplomatic history of the region. The revolution itself is analyzed from the standpoint of relations between the pro-Soviet Tudeh party and Fedayeen groups. But little is said about agency, in terms of the social movements leading to the revolution, or social changes in the Middle East.

Contributions from Robert Myers give eyewitness accounts of the internal political conflicts within the ANC that derailed an earlier victory over apartheid in South Africa, and of workers’ struggles in Bosnia; there are also short essays on protest struggles in Spain and strikes in Mexico.

The most disappointing part of the book is Slaughter’s introductory and concluding essays. While maintaining that the left cannot prescribe the form that resistance may take, he writes off the “turmoil” in the British Labour party just at the moment that a surge of support for Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance was building. His celebration of the Greek referendum against EC-imposed austerity also seems off-base in light of the capitulation of Syriza to the EC – the fact the government acted as though they had a strong hand when the game was always rigged in favor of the bankers can only have disillusioned and weakened the Greek public.

Although calling for engaging with all forms of resistance from below, Slaughter’s use of the term “revolutionary agency” introduces a certain ambiguity: while it could mean the way in which masses of people break from social constraints and act in history, it could also refer to the ideas or groups that played a part in attempting a revolutionary insurrection. In a number of essays, the latter interpretation prevails, primarily through criticism of the role of Stalinized Communist parties in heading off possible revolutions. But are all the setbacks of attempted revolutions in all parts of the world due to a failure of leadership rather than objective circumstances?

Unfortunately, Slaughter’s call for a “definitive break” from the idea of a vanguard leadership is not carried through to a critical re-examination of the Second International concepts on which it is based. The concept of the working class as a “structural antagonist” to capital, for example, objectifies it as an abstract global entity whose social composition and historical experience in each country is homogenized, calling into question its agency independent of a leadership party. Likewise, he makes no attempt to deal with the extensive recent literature on the nature of the state, remaining content with repeating the formula that it is “an organization for the oppression of one class by another.”

Slaughter devotes a section to discussing Lenin’s famous endorsement of Kautsky’s phrase about bringing revolutionary consciousness into the working class “from the outside” as part of his rationale for rejecting vanguardist parties. However, he treats it as a part of a purely theoretical debate without going deeper by addressing its social and political context or referring to other historical sources. There was a real social division between workers and intellectuals in the opposition to Tsarism that problematizes Lenin’s characterization of “economism.”  One of these “economist” groups, the “Workers’ Organization” of St. Petersburg, which published Rabochaya mysl, gave organizational expression to workers’ resentment of intellectuals’ social paternalism and elitism by barring intelligenty participation in leadership roles and confining them to the delivery of propaganda and literature. While Lenin’s theses in his pamphlet What is to be Done?, on the other hand, retained a privileged role for intellectuals within the underground movement, they also had an appeal to the more “advanced elements” of worker-intellectuals, especially among the engineers of St. Petersburg, who looked down on the less developed, “gray” workers of the textile mills and tobacco factories.

What distinguished Rabochaya mysl was the thrust of its organizing towards all sections of the working class – beyond the skilled and literate layers. This contrasted with Lenin’s Iskra group which emphasized organizing the “most advanced” elements. Lenin extrapolated from these political disagreements to characterize the economic consciousness of workers as “bourgeois,” since they were fighting for partial reforms, and the consciousness of the radical intelligentsia, who were focused on the overthrow of Tsarism, as “socialist.” But this legalistic definition bore little relation to the actual disposition of class forces: while Iskra adhered to a two-stage program, which gave the proletariat the role of first achieving a constitutional state and only then organizing for a socialist overturn, the economists were moving towards a conception that the political struggle would consist of the effort to overthrow simultaneously both autocracy and capitalism. (Trotsky was thus not original in formulating such a view.)

The question is, not how right or wrong Lenin was in 1902, but why did the autocratic form of leadership that What is to be Done? was used to justify find a social resonance in Britain in the 1960-80s? What was the social and political context of the rise and fall of the Workers Revolutionary Party? When Slaughter recounts the sectarian refusal of the party’s leader, G. Healy, “against all advice,” to let party members sell the rank-and-file newspaper The Miner, he doesn’t raise the question of how Healy was able to exert such arbitrary authority. It can’t be explained by referring to personalities or intimidation alone: he was bolstered by an ideology that rested on the ”Great Man” outlook of Trotskyism, which in turn had social roots in the relation between intellectuals and workers in the left movement. Even if party members had continued to sell The Miner, how would that have changed the balance of class forces in 1985 when the full might of the state was brought to bear on the miners, abandoned by most of the unions in the TUC?

It’s difficult to see how WRP members in the miners’ union could have become a force of “great value” to the strike struggle since their political perspective would have misled them: the significance of the international capitalist turn to financialization and neoliberalism in the 1970s was missed by the Trotskyist movement and the left in general. A new analysis of the historical period when the WRP disintegrated is sorely needed, together with tackling the question of why the WRP’s ideological grip was so powerful up until 1985. Its vanguard ideology had material roots independent of Slaughter’s own intellectual journey; it’s a shame he didn’t write more seriously about them.

Against Capital: Experiences of Class Struggle and Rethinking Revolutionary Agency, Zero Books, Winchester UK, 2015

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2 Comments

Filed under Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, marxism, Neoliberalism, political analysis, Trotskyism, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Book Review: Cliff Slaughter’s “Against Capital”

  1. “What was the social and political context of the rise and fall of the Workers Revolutionary Party? When Slaughter recounts the sectarian refusal of the party’s leader, G. Healy, “against all advice,” to let party members sell the rank-and-file newspaper The Miner, he doesn’t raise the question of how Healy was able to exert such arbitrary authority. It can’t be explained by referring to personalities or intimidation alone: he was bolstered by an ideology that rested on the ”Great Man” outlook of Trotskyism, which in turn had social roots in the relation between intellectuals and workers in the left movement. Even if party members had continued to sell The Miner, how would that have changed the balance of class forces in 1985 when the full might of the state was brought to bear on the miners, abandoned by most of the unions in the TUC?”

    Istvan Meszaros, in ‘Beyond Capital’ writes..”The objective potentialities of the socialist offensive are inherent in the structural crisis of capital itself, as we shall see in a moment. Now the point is to stress a major contradiction : the absence of adequate political instruments that could turn this potentiality into reality. Furthermore, what makes things worse in this respect is that the self-awareness of the organisations concerned is still dominated by past mythologies, depicting the Leninist party, for instance, as the institution of strategic offensive par excellence”. What is required, surely, is a materialist conception of the history of so-called “revolutionary” sectarianism in order that it can be actually located historically and that we can move on as a class towards new forms of revolutionary agency for the age of capital’s structural crisis. It is within the development of the post-war (1945) conditions – inclusive of the period of the Stalinist political domination of the international workers’ movement and its influence on the ‘national liberation struggle’ based on the Soviet system – that the grounds for the existence of the left-wing sectarian vanguardist (‘Trotskyist’, ‘Leninist’, ‘Maoist’, etc) groups must be located. The emergence of the global crisis of capital inevitable shifts the ground from underneath the existence of these groups. Rather than facilitating their growth, the unfolding of this crisis will actually serve to break them up and is already doing so.
    In order to understand both the origins and character of these groups, there is a need to investigate the actual historical conditions which gave rise to and nourished left-wing sectarianism in the last century. It rested on these conditions which developed after the second imperialist world war but also pre-dated them in the wake of the rise of the conservatism of the Soviet system. The sectarianism of the left rested on very determinate ontological grounds which are now passing through the hour glass of history.

  2. tompainesghost

    Shaun, thank you for your comment. I heartily concur that there is a great need to investigate the historical conditions which nourished left-wing sectarianism in the period you mention. However, I think that the best way to approach a determination about the general ontological grounds for left sectarianism is through studying its specific history – the SLL/WRP would be a good example, but not the only case. Such a history would need to be more than a history of ideas: in my opinion it should be grounded on the social history of Britain in the period.
    That’s my argument with Slaughter’s account of Lenin’s ideas: he omits any consideration of the shifts in Russian society in that period. In his concluding essay he mentions the SLL-led Young Socialists mobilizing four thousand youth for a YS conference. That was possible because YS branches organized popular socials for working class youth, who were instinctively hostile to the Labour Party bureaucracy which was the SLL’s main opponent.
    At the same time that the YS broke from the LP in 1965, its social context was changing: emerging from the austerity of the late 1950s/early 1960s, the development of a youth culture based on full employment and higher wages overtook the YS’s efforts to attract them. So Slaughter’s suggestion that the YS was the victim of the drive to build party branches is misplaced. In general, youth were not as responsive to general socialist ideas and a social programme as they had been previously; most of them had better things to do and more money to do them with. The YS in fact became no more than a front organization for the WRP.
    This was not acknowledged by the WRP leadership (or, they refused to recognize reality) because their perception was directed by a particular ideology, and that is what we need to get to grips with. In John Callaghan’s book, British Trotskyism (Oxford, 1984), he suggests that the simplified version of Leninism promoted by the WRP could remain credible because it re-created “the basic thrust and spirit of the Bolshevism which dominated the early Comintern, and which Trotsky sought to preserve.” Not only did it reproduce the Bolshevik mythology about the Leninist party, but also the driving idea that capitalism was about to enter a catastrophic crisis that would drive the masses into its arms, so justifying frenetic activity on the part of the membership based around sales of the daily paper.
    The ideological work of the WRP’s leadership, I believe, was to prevent any empirical challenge to the party’s perspective by turning debate inwards through a focus on a mechanical version of Marxist “philosophy,” something that Healy picked up and further intensified for his own purposes. That’s why I’m disappointed that Slaughter has never confronted this truth about his own role and attempt an honest assessment of how it was possible for him to miss entirely what was going on around him.

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