Stalinists attempt to turn back ‘Spirit of ’68’

By Luke Fawley

One of the founders of European Fascism Charles Maurras, the leader of Action Francaise, said his entire political project was about reversing 1789. He meant reversing the ideas of universalism, republicanism, secularism, democracy and equality inherent in the French revolution. When the French fell to the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940 the collaborationist Vichy Government formed was deeply influenced by Maurras’s writings and thought. They replaced what had been the motto of republican France and the French revolution, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, with the motto Work, Family and Fatherland. They consciously said they were undoing the work of 1789.

What has this got to do with Stalinism in today’s Labour Party such as the memes of Red London or even the more traditional Stalinists in high-up positions in the Labour bureaucracy like Andrew Murray and Seamus Milne? None of these people are fascists. They are all on the left politically in the broadest sense. However the similarity is what 1789 was to Maurras, 1968 is to our present day ‘Marxist-Leninists’. 1968 is shorthand for the transformation that happened to the socialist and workers’ movement worldwide in the late 1960s and 1970s. This includes:

– The response to the invasion of Czechoslavakia by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968 crushing the Prague Spring, leading to further mass disillusion with the Soviet Stalinist model of socialism. Even the leaderships of the Stalinist parties in Britain, Italy and elsewhere felt pressured and expressed opposition to this.

– The events of May 1968 in France where student struggles exploded and ignited a vast rank and file led series of strikes, opposed by the trade union leadership and the French Communist Party that dismissed student struggles and sought to dampen the workers’ militancy.

– The birth of explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist liberation movements like the Gay Liberation Front, Socialist feminism, the Black power movement, American Indian Movement. Liberation movements that saw their struggles as part of a common project for human liberation in which working class struggle is a decisive force. Therefore they made demands on the workers’ movement to take their struggles seriously and transform themselves.

– The re-birth of ideas of workers’ control rather than state control being the form of the socialisation of the means of production, spilling over into more general opposition to bureaucratic socialism.

– a broadening out of political sphere of struggle to include environmental, cultural and quality of life issues.

All these ideas had been around before and you could argue that for the British left 1956 was a more decisive year and the Trotskists had been opposing Stalinism for 40 years. CND’s Aldermaston marches had been at their height 10 years earlier. Even so, there is no doubt that there period around 1968 led to a decisive change in left wing culture.
There were also contradictory cross-currents inherent in 1968 such as the rise of Maoism, Third Worldism and fetishisation of armed struggle. Che Guevara’s poster is as much an image of 68 as situationist posters and the black power salutes at the Olympics.

These ideas effected the entire left, including the Labour left, Trotskyists, Autonomists and even the official (Stalinist) Communist parties. As the 70s wore on as Stalinist parties stagnated further and young people looked more and more to Trotskyism or the new movements the Communist parties responded with Euro-communism which combined an apparent openness towards the new liberation movements and criticism of the Kremlin with a more explicit rejection of the centrality of class politics and an opportunist accommodation with the right wing of social democracy.

In Britain the reaction against Euro-communism centred around a faction in the CPGB (as it then was) called ‘Straight Left’ – the name chosen as a deliberate homophobic dog whistle. They combined slavish support for the Kremlin with ultra-conservative workerism, deference to trade union bureacrats and hostility to womens’ struggles, gay liberation, struggles against racism or, indeed, almost any struggles outside of traditional workplaces. This group dismissed the left that had embraced 1968 as middle class. They reflected and indeed celebrated social conservatism and nationalism in the working class as being a form of class consciousness. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the liquidation of this group and the parent party the CPGB these ideas seemed a historic footnote. However a number of Straight Left alumni like Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray ended up in prominent positions in the media (Milne), the union bureaucracy (Murray) and, now, the Labour Party. These ideas still have resonance in the officer class of some of the unions, especially the more traditionally male unions like the RMT and Unite.

Meanwhile outside the airless rooms of Stalinist apparachiks the defeats of the working class from the late 1970s onwards had an effect on the liberation movements: increasingly they dispared of the workers’ movement. There was a shift from liberation struggles towards focusing on advocacy and representation. Groups morphed into charities and NGO’s negotiating with capitalist politicians. Meanwhile on campuses the response was a shift away from Marxist ideas towards the politics of identity and discourse. Class was either rejected or reduced to just another identity.

Many on the left shifted to accomodate this new identity politics; alliances were made with bourgeois and/or reactionary so-called community groups. Rather then thinking for themselves groups like the SWP would outsource their thinking on issues to the dominant politics in these mileus even when it was in logical contradiction to their own politics, such as their relationship with radical feminism or Muslim self-declared ‘community leaders’.

Workers Liberty and its predecessor groups have always been very critical of identity politics but at the same time see that it is  essential that the workers movement takes up liberation issues.

The 2008 crisis and the attacks on working class living standards that followed, put issues of capitalism and class increasingly to the forefront once again on the left. Our and others’ criticism of identity politics was increasingly accepted by many who previously had been wrapped up in it to at least some degree.

Corbyn’s victory as Labour leader and the expansion/renewal of the Labour left that has followed, have necessarily made working class and to an extent socialist, politics central to this movement. Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party, a party linked structurally to the unions and his programme – limited though it is – is about reversing austerity policies and attacks on the working class and focusing on issues such as workers’ rights.

However the left does not exist in a vacuum. Ideas and even people are the products of the conditions around them and the past. The union movement remains weak, bureacraticsed and defensive. There has been a shift to the right in politics across the western world. Much of this is focused on opposition to migrants, especially Muslims, and a growth in antisemitism, so called anti-feminism in nationalist movements. This is manifested in Britain most obviously by Brexit.

This cannot but have an echo in our movement. But instead of these reactionary ideas being an isolated tendency limited to a few individuals, some young people who consider themselves on the left and are enthusiastically (even uncritically) pro-Corbyn, have found a ready- made ideological identity inherited from much older Stalinists in powerful positions in our movement: people who can give them jobs and extend patronage.

So the hostility ‘Red London’ expresses to what they call (variously) ‘Id-pol’,  ‘social justice warriors’ (SJW) and ‘Rad – Libs’ to all intents and purposes sounds like the alt-Right but  packaged as a pseudo-left ‘return to class’. In fact it is a rejection of the idea that the labour movement needs to take up liberation struggles and should try to sort out sexism and racism in our own ranks. When they dismiss (as ‘whinging’ and ‘middle class’) socialists who are opposing millions of migrant workers being effected by Brexit they dress this up in ‘prolier-than-thou’ cant, as though the working class is exclusively English born and white.

In their rejection of 1968 both the new meme-savvy ‘alt-Stalinists’ and the aging old-time Stalinists whose politics were formed by Straight Left and/or the Morning Star claim to be heirs of Lenin sloughing off bourgeois/petty bourgeois radical-liberal tendencies.

The irony is that one of the prime influences behind the movements we call ‘1968’ was a re-reading of Lenin without the Stalinist interpretation and filter.

Readers rediscovered in What Is To Be Done? the idea that the revolutionary party though rooted in working class struggle fights all oppressions. Lenin argued for the revolutionary party to be a tribune of all the oppressed. Its only through the working class fighting for these issues that it prepares itself for rule and wins other groups of oppressed to the banner of working class socialism.

In the same way, one of the influences behind focusing on public ownership under workers control as opposed to bureaucratic nationalisation as the means of socialisation was Lenin’s State and Revolution.

There are ideas hostile to the project of working class self emancipation in our movement. Some of those ideas do come through the routes of identity politics and bourgeois liberalism: we need to combat this. However even more toxic is reactionary conservatism, nationalism and authoritarianism that presents itself as authentic ‘socialism’.

The working class is the only universal class; a class that can bring about the emancipation of all and the end to all oppressions. Stalinists who want to turn the clock back are getting in the way of that historic task.

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