A discussion among Marxists

Submitted by Matthew on 12 September, 2012 - 10:27

Workers’ Liberty has recently begun discussions with a Marxist group active in Turkey, Marksist Tutum [Marxist Attitude]. We made contact with Marksist Tutum thanks to the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists’ Tendency.

Martin Thomas reviews their political literature.


The Marksist Tutum website was started in 2002; the journal has been published since 2005. Since 2006 its supporters have been active in developing a wider workers’ association in Turkey called UID-DER (the Association of International Workers’ Solidarity).

The “pre-history” of Marksist Tutum is longer. It goes back to the studies and activities of a small group of comrades who had first become politically active in the Turkish Workers’ Party, a legal front organisation promoted by the Turkish Communist Party, and who gradually developed their own Marxist ideas in critique of Stalinist ideologies.

Some of the basic documents of Marksist Tutum date back to the early 1990s. Many of them are available in English on the Marksist Tutum website, http://en.marksist.net/. A longer version of this discussion of those documents is at bit.ly/m-tutum.

Marksist Tutum define the basic traditions they draw on as we do:

“Marx and Engels’ efforts to organise the Communist League, and those links that form the revolutionary chain ever since the First International; the Bolshevik Party in Lenin’s time, the Third International in the period of first four congresses, the Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) led by Trotsky who waged a struggle against Stalinism after Lenin’s death, and subsequently the International Left Opposition (International Communist League) and the general ideological-political legacy of the Fourth International...”

They reaffirm the centrality of building a revolutionary Marxist organisation which strives unequivocally for political clarity. Discussions with them indicate that they orient to workplaces, to working-class milieus, and to working-class organisations.

For most of the twentieth century, the framework for left-wing politics was set by a world confrontation between the big capitalist powers and despotic states calling themselves socialist or communist. As Marksist Tutum put it: “Almost all left-wing activists aligned themselves with the Stalinist states, though sometimes adding harsh criticism. While putting an end to the power of the working class, Stalinism entirely distorted the worldview of the working class, i.e. Marxism. And the order of the bureaucracy has been theorised as ‘socialism’ for long years”.

Their conclusion on states like the old USSR or Mao’s China is the same as ours.

“Such regimes are not a new mode of production surpassing capitalism in the process of historical evolution of human societies [...] they cannot be characterised as ‘post-capitalist societies’ in this sense.

“The despotic-bureaucratic regime is a genuine monstrosity if it is considered from the standpoint of the historical epoch and conditions in which it exists. A despotic-bureaucratic regime surrounded by the world capitalism in the age of modern industry is a socio-economic phenomenon which has no future with its peculiar (sui generis) characteristic” .

“There is an exploitation of surplus-labour and these regimes belong to the set of exploitative societies”.

“There is no rational point in appraising such a labour regime [relative job security in some Stalinist states] as a ‘historical gain’, in which the working class is deprived of all rights of union, strike etc. in the face of an alienated state”.

Like us, Marksist Tutum argue that the trajectory of Trotsky’s repeatedly-reworked analyses of the Stalinist USSR was towards recognising that the bureaucracy had become much more than a bureaucracy — in fact, an exploitative ruling class — and that the most logical continuation of Trotsky’s approach in the light of the facts in the years after his death was to recognise that.

From the earliest years of our own tendency, when we concerned ourselves with trying to define a working-class politics for Ireland emancipated from the nationalist conventional wisdoms, but more and more in recent decades, we have found it important to understand that a division of the world into “imperialist states” and “colonies” (or “semi-colonies”, or “neo-colonies”) no longer has even the relative validity it had in the era of the great colonial empires.

Marksist Tutum registers the same shift. “Relations of inequality in the capitalist world are still being presented as a kind of ‘neo-colonialism’”, i.e. as a product of political overlordship, whereas in fact the inequalities stem from capitalist market relations. “Countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Turkey [are described] as semi-colonies or neo-colonies” when in fact they are “sub-imperialist”, “conduct[ing] directly expansionist relations in [their] own regions” (spheres of influence, investments, unequal trade relations, etc.).

“It is... a caricature of Marxism not to take the demand of the right of nations to self-determination in a clearest way as [the right to] ‘political independence, the right to establish a separate state’ and think that economic independence can also be achieved by a national liberation struggle”.

“Today the wars provoked by the countries which strive to become imperialist (for example, Turkey, Greece, Iran or Iraq) with the aim of creating their sphere of influence are also unjust wars. The correct attitude towards such wars cannot be to support one’s ‘own’ bourgeoisie against the other’s and to wage a ‘national’ war in the same front with it”.

Another result of the ideological operation of translating the democratic right of nations to self-determination into a struggle for “economic independence” is that the democratic demand itself is blurred over. Marksist Tutum entitle one of their documents: “Underestimation of Democratic Demands: An erroneous political tendency within Marxist movement still encountered”. Indeed! But, as Lenin declared: “A proletariat not schooled in the struggle for democracy is incapable of performing an economic revolution...”

Marksist Tutum’s position on the debate about Turkey joining or not joining the EU is the same as the position which our tendency took on the debate about Britain joining the EU.

Marksist Tutum declares that Marxists cannot be like “the nationalist bourgeois or petty-bourgeois left-wingers, working to turn back the wheel of history”. But we do not say “yes” to endorse the projects of the bourgeoisie. “The debate on EU accession [is] essentially a domestic issue of the bourgeoisie. In this discussion, in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ format, we do not have to take sides”. Our answer is to fight for working-class unity across the borders whatever the details of the negotiations between the bourgeoisies.

We note with interest Marksist Tutum’s analysis of the development of Turkish capitalism, on which we are not qualified to offer an independent opinion.

“The fundamental weakness of the great majority of the left in Turkey is a conception of anti-imperialism without an anti-capitalist content. That is why the left in Turkey considered Kemal’s movement as really anti-imperialist for years, and even today there is sympathy for Kemalism among the left...

“Problems such as the liquidation of the military tutelage regime and democratisation of Turkish political landscape have become items on the agenda of big capital in connection with its drive for going international and economic exigencies... The first and second terms of AKP governments seem to constitute a new period in which these problems have started to be solved...

“AKP is not the representative or protector of the working masses but a bourgeois party proper. And a genuine party of big capital voicing the interests of nascent groups of capital thrived on the basis of a wild exploitation of the working class...

“AKP and its milieu are now proud of the process of Turkey’s transformation into a sub-imperialist power ceasing to be a peripheral country. As a matter of fact this process has actually begun in the Özal period...”

Marksist Tutum describes the Islamic regime in Iran as “fascist”, and writes of the “sometimes even fascist reactionary character” of Islamist movements; but reckons the AKP, by contrast, to be “a bourgeois party proper”. It argues that much “bourgeois secularist” agitation in Turkey about the supposed danger of Turkey becoming “another Iran” is manufactured to serve the interests tied to the old Kemalist-military structures.

The Marksist Tutum document, “The Marxist Approach to the Issue of Palestine”, has not been translated into English, and an approximate translation using web services does not make its conclusions clear.

From discussions with Marksist Tutum, however, it seems we have broad agreement in demanding the right to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel: democratic self-determination for both nations in conflict.

From the documents, and from conversations, it seems that two issues to which we come from different angles, and where more discussion is needed, are tradition and organisation.

What Marksist Tutum writes seems to us to underestimate the degree to which one generation learns from another.

For example, Marksist Tutum writes that the Second International had “no continuity” with the first. We think that untrue. Whole organisations, like the German socialist movement, and leading individuals (Engels, Bebel, Liebknecht, Lafargue, Guesde...) created continuity.

Most of the parties of the Second International collapsed politically by voting for war credits in 1914. But not all did. And in all the major parties that did vote for war credits, there were oppositions which did not fall from the sky but had been shaped and formed by the best elements of the work of the Second International.

“The Third International is not a continuation of the Second International”? Again, hardly true. It is true that “the Third International rested upon the critique of the Second International’s experience”, but it was a critique carried out by activists trained and educated by the Second International.

We agree with Marksist Tutum that the “orthodox” successors of Trotsky started to make grievous and systematic errors within a very short time of his death. But we believe we have significant things to learn even from them; and certainly from the “heterodox” Trotskyists, Shachtman, Draper, and others, who regarded themselves as part of the Fourth International movement until 1948 at least.

Marksist Tutum declares:

“Compared to Lenin, there are many weak points of Trotsky in the field of organisation. As a matter of fact, Trotsky could not completely free himself from the Menshevik conception of organisation...”

Specifically, Marksist Tutum raise doubts about Trotsky’s advocacy of a labour party based on the unions in the United States in the later 1930s.

They refer to projects for a “mass workers’ party” in Turkey, argue that these “blur the conception of the working class party and inherently contain a tendency towards building a bourgeois workers’ party” and advocate “a principled and distanced attitude”.

We are not qualified to judge on the specific case in Turkey. It is certainly true that Trotsky’s argument on the call for a labour party based on the unions in the USA in the later 1930s can be used, harmfully, as a “frozen template”.

But, for example, we believe that the Greek Trotskyists who in Syriza today combine their polemics with striving to build Syriza into a mass party are on the right lines.

Many would-be Trotskyist groups today have, in our view, wrong ideas of what a revolutionary organisation should be, and how to build it. Trotsky is not to blame for that.

The International Marxist Tendency, centred around Socialist Appeal, proclaims it as a universal iron law that “when [workers] move into action they inevitably express themselves through the traditional mass organizations. Ted Grant developed and always stressed this law which has been confirmed by historical experience”.

It deduces, for example, in Britain, that all Marxist activity is mere preparation for an inevitable left-wing mass surge into the Labour Party. Almost everywhere in the world it positions its activists as “entrist” groups in whatever approximation it can find to the “traditional mass organisation of the working class” (even if the approximation is hardly an approximation at all, as with the PPP in Pakistan).

The main ideologues of the network centred on the NPA in France (Fourth International) propose, almost as a law, that the next step everywhere is to build “broad left parties to the left of social democracy”. This scheme has led them into a role in parties like the Workers’ Party in Brazil, and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, more like advisers than revolutionary polemicists.

Trotsky himself, after coming over to Bolshevism in 1917, produced the best and richest explanations of what Bolshevism in party-building really is.

Isaac Deutscher, in The Prophet Armed, expounds the difference between the newspaper Pravda which Trotsky edited from Vienna from 1908 to 1913 and the Bolshevik press in a way which sums up Trotsky’s pre-Bolshevik errors on party-building.

“On the whole, Pravda was not one of Trotsky’s great journalistic ventures. He intended to address himself to ‘plain workers’ rather than to politically-minded party men, and to ‘serve not to lead’ his readers. Pravda’s plain language and the fact that it preached the unity of the party secured to it a certain popularity but no lasting political influence.

“Those who state the case for a faction or group usually involve themselves in more or less complicated argument and address the upper and medium layers of their movement rather than the rank and file. Those who say, on the other hand, that, regardless of any differences, the party ought to close its ranks have, as Trotsky had, a simple case, easy to explain and sure of appeal.

“But more often than not this appeal is superficial. Their opponents who win the cadres of a party for their more involved arguments are likely eventually to obtain the hearing of the rank and file as well; the cadres carry their argument, in simplified form, deeper down.

“Trotsky’s calls for the solidarity of all socialists were for the moment applauded by many — even the Bolsheviks in Petersburg reprinted his Pravda. But the same people who now applauded the call were eventually to disregard it, to follow the one or the other faction, and to leave the preacher of unity isolated.

“Apart from this, there was in Trotsky’s popular posture, in his emphasis on plain talk and his promise to ‘serve not to lead’, more than a touch of demagogy, for the politician, especially the revolutionary, best serves those who listen to him by leading them”.

Deutscher puts it well. His source for those ideas which he puts so well will have been articles by Trotsky from the 1930s, notably What Is A Mass Paper?

Trotsky’s documents and speeches collected in The First Five Years of the Communist International; The New Course; Lessons of October; Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch; and in many writings of the 1930s about building revolutionary organisations from small nuclei, in hostile conditions and amid political tumult, are the richest resource for us to learn about party-building.

Trotsky’s argument in the late 1930s for agitating for a mass workers’ party based on the trade unions in the USA seems to us sound.

Where the mass unions (the CIO) were growing and radicalising, Trotsky explained:

“We cannot yet advocate in the unions support for the SWP [the Trotskyist organisation]. Why? Because we are too weak. And we can’t say to the workers: Wait till we become more authoritative, more powerful. We must intervene in the movement as it is…

“I will not say that the labor party is a revolutionary party, but that we will do everything to make it possible. At every meeting I will say: I am a representative of the SWP. I consider it the only revolutionary party. But I am not a sectarian. You are trying now to create a big workers’ party. I will help you but I propose that you consider a program for this party. I make such and such propositions. I begin with this...”

We believe, with Plekhanov, that “the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists is the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat”, and therefore political clarity is paramount. We aim, in Trotsky’s words, “to base our program on the logic of the class struggle”.

Since the logic of the class struggle can be investigated only by activity and discussion, democracy is a political necessity for a revolutionary organisation.

It is democracy regulated by a practical purpose: deciding on and carrying through clear-cut politics, and learning from experience. Unlike with discussion circles, debates are organised to reach a clear decision and mobilise the organisation to carry it through collectively and in a disciplined way. The time for debate before a decision is made should vary according to the issue. Some issues are and should be dealt with by an immediate decision by an elected leading committee; others may require long and wide discussion before a decision.

After the decision, a minority which disagrees should go slow for a while on the debate. It should wait for experience to provide new data on which to re-raise the debate. But it should not be obliged to disband, or to cease organising. It can and should continue to discuss its distinctive ideas so long as it does that in a way which does not damage the collective mobilisation to carry through the majority decision.

Democracy includes the right of opposition groups inside the revolutionary organisation to organise at all times, and not just in prescribed pre-conference periods. It includes the right and in fact the duty of individual activists always to be honest about their ideas. They should cooperate with the majority line in public activity, but they should not pretend to agree with it where they don’t. They should not hide their true views. As a general rule debates should be carried in our public press as well as internally

We believe our ideas are in line with the arguments and the practice of Lenin and Trotsky.

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