Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Voices from Spain

My grandmother died in 1936, one week after giving birth to her fourth child, she had lost a son who had died as an infant a year earlier. She was twenty seven years old. Poverty and malnourishment were certainly factors in these tragedies. My granddad had been out of work for four years. He was a fitter in the steelworks in Scunthorpe, and had been sacked for refusing to shake the hand of an aristocrat being shown round the works.

It was an act of immature ultra-leftism, but the left had been driven a bit crazy after the defeat in the general strike in 1926. My granddad used to tell me how the strike in Scunthorpe had been completely solid, but when they were sent back to work by the TUC and their own union’s leaderships (The AEU in his case) the bosses were standing at the gates, and known militants and CP members were not let back into the plant. They were tapped on the shoulder, and told: “Not you, lad”.

Unemployment in the 1930s meant appalling poverty, and means test inspectors. The family subsisted largely on vegetables grown on my granddad’s allotment. (My mother has recently been widowed, and was means tested for her pension credit, which she found deeply shocking – it shows how few roots New Labour have in the history and traditions of our movement that they don’t understand the disgust her generation have for means testing). My grandparents stayed politically active, and my mum tells me that one of her earliest memories was the family sitting round the table making a detailed budget of their meagre pennies so that they could send as much money as possible to the Weekly Worker’s (now the Morning Star) fighting fund.

For class conscious workers the nineteen thirties brought tragedy after tragedy. In 1931 the Labour Party imploded, with prime minister Ramsey Macdonald and chancellor Phillip Snowden leading the parliamentary party into a national government with the Tories to cut unemployment benefit. In the ensuing election the unions effectively refounded the Labour Party by backing those candidates who refused to support the national government, but these real Labour candidates were decimated at the polls.

In 1933 the biggest and most organised working class movement in the world was utterly defeated by the Nazis coming to power in Germany. In 1934 fascists came to power in Austria, but there was a chink of light as workers in Vienna rose up and fought. Of course the full horror of Nazi rule was still in the future, but everyone still knew that these were parties that would crush dissent with an iron heel, and were prepared to return to the full scale carnage of war, still a recent memory.

So in 1936, when there was an attempted fascist coup in Spain, my granddad decided enough was enough and he would go to Spain to fight. The rise of fascism would have to be halted. He was not a well educated man, or a party cadre who followed the twists and turns of Palme Dutt's theories, but he knew in his heart that fascism had to be stopped, and that it would not be stopped by the “democracies” of Britain and France, it would only be stopped by working men and women like him taking up arms.

From the hindsight of the twenty first century it seems bizarre that he would consider leaving his pregnant wife and two children, but he had made arrangements that they would be supported by his family. Attitudes were different, and he was a man of his time.

But then, a few weeks before his intended departure, his wife died. Not only was he distraught with grief, but he had a new baby to look after: so he never went to Spain.

It is not a very remarkable story perhaps. But it is a story that illustrates the type of men who gave up everything and went to Spain, principled working men. The International brigaders were typically not George Orwells or Ernest Hemingways, they were trade unionists, engineers, clerks, shop workers, posties and railwaymen.

A lot of divisive commentary is written about the Spanish civil war on the left. The divisions and debates on the left at the time about how the war should have been fought belong to an earlier age, and we will never swim in that river again. Despite the self-assurance of those who follow Trotsky’s writings on Spain, we don’t know that there would have been a victory had his advice been followed (and certainly virtually no one was listening to him in Spain at the time). But we can be pretty sure that without Russian tanks and aircraft, and the heroism of the Russian volunteers who flew them, that Madrid would have fallen to the fascists in November 1936 and the war would have been over.

The important thing is to commemorate and celebrate the whole memory of those who fought, those who died and those who survived, which ever tradition they came from. These are the heroes of our class, who put their lives on the line to stop fascism.

It is therefore really valuable to listen to their own voices, which we can do through the book “poems of Spain” published by Lawrence and Wishart, and available from Philosophy Football for £10.99

What happened to my granddad? Well, rearmament meant he got his job back, and during the second world war he worked 12 hour shifts, six days per week helping to keep the steel mills working. The steel used to build the tanks, planes and bombs that won the war against fascism. He was a lifelong communist, and a member of the Labour Party (which seems a bizarre anachronism these days, but was not at all unusual in the past, which just underlines the transformation that Kinnock and Blair have achieved)


Louisefeminista said...

I thought that was a poignant and moving tribute to your grandfather. I believe more should be written about personal experiences about the fight against oppression and class inequality when it is stacked against you esp. during brutal economic times and other adverse conditions.

And I agree with what you say about means testing. New Labour, I am sure, wants to change all benefits so they are means tested. Very old fashion!

My grandfather was a apolitical and quiet bloke (so I was told) before he signed-up for the trenches of 1914-1918 war. The war changed him (he never said how or why) and he became an active trade unionist and staunch socialist much to chagrin of my tory voting grandmother. Unfortunately his politics never rubbed off onto his children!

Snowball said...

Interesting post Andy, which gives the lie to those who say that the British working class movement has no internationalist traditions in its history to be proud of.

However, I do disagree with your whitewashing of the disastrous role of Stalinism in Spain. You can't on the one hand say that 'The divisions and debates on the left at the time about how the war should have been fought belong to an earlier age' and then in the very next sentence attack 'the self-assurance of those who follow Trotsky’s writings on Spain'.

The question is surely not whether Trotsky's writings were widely read or not - what mattered was that all the main forces of the Spanish left ultimately embraced the Popular Front strategy at the behest of the Stalinist regime in Russia - and this brought ruin to the revolutionary movement. To simply pretend that because 'we will never swim in that river again' there are no lessons to be learnt from what went wrong in Spain is to sacrifice theoretical clarity on the sacred throne of 'unity' - one of the mistakes the Spanish Left made in the 1930s.

AN said...

hi Snowball

Surely the popular front was not adopted by the POUM at "the behest of the Stalinist regime in Russia", rather the POUM heard the arguments on both sides, including Trotsky's, and decided in favour of the popular front based upon their own analysis?

I remain utterly unconvinced of the trotskyist counterposing of united fronts with popular fronts as if this is an ahistorical iron law.

We lost in Spain. But when the popular front tactic was replayed in the war against Germany and Italy, we won.

Snowball said...

'But when the popular front tactic was replayed in the war against Germany and Italy, we won.'

Er, so it didn't matter that 'we' lost in Spain - because ultimately fascism was defeated militarily through an alliance with existing capitalist states? But who really 'won' out of that 'victory'? It certainly wasn't the working class - Stalinism once again smothered any chance of a socialist revolution in Italy or Germany as a result of the end of Fascism.

AN said...

Of course it matters that we lost in Spain, my point is that there is simply no way of knowing whether a diffrent strategy would have been successful. Once a question is being decided by force of arms then both defeat and victory are possible options, even if you do everything right.

It also matters that we lost in the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920, had we won then the German revolution would probably have succeeded.

What chance was there of revolution in germany in 1945?

And given the actuually existing circumstances, surely it was correct for the KPD to assume power in berlin?

Mark P said...

Good fucking God. Now we have the rehabilitation of Spanish Stalinism presented as opposition to "divisive" sectarianism and wrapped up as a tribute to a dead grandfather. It's enough to make you vomit.

I have every sympathy with the honest working class militants of the 1930s who became Stalinists because it seemed like the best option available. People who just didn't know any better. They deserve to be remembered, and their bravery and struggles honoured. But not at the cost of pretending that they were right or that Stalinism was anything other than a cancer in the workers movement.

They were fooled. They went along with a poisonous creed which has brought nothing but disaster to the workers movement. Remembering their sacrifices does not mean whitewashing Stalinism in the name of some false "unity". There can never be unity with Stalinism. Nor can there be forgiveness. All we can do is learn from their mistakes and move on.

The last thing we should be doing is treating current Stalinists, people who have no excuse for not knowing better, as "comrades". They are not our comrades. To borrow an old phrase, rivers of blood separate their politics from ours.

AN said...


And your politics are so different from theirs becasue?

If you read "Terrorism and Communism" you will see that trotsky was just as committed to state repression.

It seems to me that trotskist groups today mimic the forms and organsational methods of Stalinism, but absolve themslves of any connectin with the crimes and mistakes of the USSR and the CPSU by saying: "A big boy did it and ran away"

Mark P said...

That you even have to ask what the difference between Trotskyist politics and Stalinist politics is is an indictment of the education you received in two decades of SWP membership.

Here are a few quick shorthand reminders:

Stalinists think it is possible to have socialism in one country. Trotskyists are aware that socialism has to be international.

Stalinists think that various brutal dictatorship are in fact socialism. Trotskyists put forward a programme for revolution in those societies, to bring about working class democracy.

Stalinists look for an alliance with the "progressive bourgeoisie" in the neo-colonial world, in the process often getting their supporters massacred by their allies. Trotskyists are aware that there is no such thing as a progressive wing of the capitalist class and instead put forward the ideas of permanent revolution.

Stalinists also look for an alliance with the "progressive bourgeoisie" against fascism, subordinating the workers movement to "allies" who ultimately prefer the fascists to workers power.

In organisational terms Trotskyists almost universally favour the right of minorities to form factions or caucuses within a revolutionary organisation and on a wider scale the right of all political organisations to operate and win support for their ideas after a working class seizure of power. Few Stalinists support either.

I could go on, but the above may be enough to jog your memory. Once more: Stalinism is a cancer in the workers movement. There can be no forgiveness, no reconciliation and certainly no fudging of fundamental political disagreements for the sake of a false unity with a political movement which has led the workers movement into disaster after disaster.

AN said...

I think Mark that a casual observer might have noticed that my politics are not those of the SWP. the fact that I stayed a member for so long is a story for another day.

But what does come over very strongly here is your intolerance of socialst who don't agree with you. Almost Stalinst?

Mark P said...

I'm not at all worried if you think I'm intolerant, Andy. I do however object to Stalinists being described as socialists and for that matter to "tolerance" being conflated with the rehabilitation of that blood soaked creed.

The working class militants who turned to Stalinism in the 1930s had the excuse of ignorance of its horrors. Those who seek to whitewash Stalinism now have no such excuse.

AN said...


Firtsly I would point out that I am widely read in the Trotskyist tradition. I have read Trotsky’s own works, including Results and Prospects, Terrorism and Communism, Lessons of October, the History of the Russian revolution, his collected writings on Spain, China, Britain and Germany, his selected military writings, the documents of the Left Opposition in the CPSU, Where is Britain Going, The Revolution Betrayed, The Crisis in the French Section, Problems of Everyday Life, In Defence of Marxism, and probably some others I have forgotten, as well as various miscellaneous articles from the Collected Works.

I have read the works of other leading members of the left opposition: Christian Rakovsky and Evgeny Preobrazhinsky. And of course read almost everything written by James P Cannon.

I have also read books about Trotsky by Duncan Hallas, Issac Deutscher, Tony Cliff, John Molyneux et al. I even kept awake through Ted Grant’s “Unbroken Thread”.

I have also studied the history of Trotskism, both through my own lived experience ( and obviously reading stuff from the IS/SWP tradiations) and conversations (for example I learned a lot over the years talking to the late and missed John Sullivan, when I lived in Bristol), and through reading for example David Widgery’s collection “The left in Britain”, and various books and articles from the SLL/WRP, and Militant traditions, as well of course as Ernest Mandel. And the histories of British Trotskyism by Al Richardson: “Against the Stream” and “War and the International”. I would also commend Jim Higgin’s “Years of the Locust” about the RCP, and Alan Thornett’s two books about Cowley, which are very interesting concerning the SLL/WRP.

I only preface my remarks thus to point out I am not some ingénue, who has not thought about the question.

With regard to your points, have you established that “Stalinism” represents a coherent and distinct theortetical tradition, and that there is another more virtuous and equally distinct tradition, which we can call Trotskism.

For starters, the examples you give are ad hoc characteristics, and do not flow from one another. To take one example - there is no connection between intolerance of democracy and the popular front.

With regard to your claim that alliances with the progressive bourgeoisie is a characteristic of “Stalinism”. Well it was also the position of the POUM in Spain, were they Stalinists?.

With regard to the Permanent Revolution, this is an elegant hypothesis, but a hypothesis that after 100 years has not once matched the actual course of events. The Russian revolution did not in fact follow the model of the Permanent Revolution, and much more closely followed the Lenin’s analysis of a bourgeois revolution “growing over” into a socialist revolution. The DSP in Australia reject the theory of permanent Revolution, are they Stalinists?

With regard to being “brutal dictatorships” (no one is defending the cult of personality, the murders and slave labour), but were the Trots any different? Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism” (originally published in English as the catchy “In defence of terrorism”) is a sustained and polemical defence of the police state, and single party without internal democracy. Leading members of the left opposition – for example Evgeny Preobrazhinsky, later joined Stalin’s camp. Not through capitulation to terror, but because when Stalin adopted the left opposition’s economic programme, much of the left in the CPSU saw no difference between his position and theirs.

You bizarrely calim that “Trotskyists almost universally favour the right of minorities to form factions or caucuses within a revolutionary organisation”. This was not characteristic of either the SLL/WRP, or for the last 30+ years the IS/SWP. You bizarrely calim that “Trotskyists almost universally favour the right of minorities to form factions or caucuses within a revolutionary organisation”. Indeed within the Militant/ SP people have often been expelled for political disagreement, I am thinking here, for example, of Nick Wrack’s expulsion for opposing the name change of the paper.

You say: “Trotskyists almost universally favour … the right of all political organisations to operate and win support for their ideas after a working class seizure of power.”. This certainly was not the position of one Leon Trotsky, I refer you again to “Terrorism and Communism”, and Trotsky’s support for the repression of the SR, and banning of internal factions in the party, including the Workers opposition.

In terms of practice we also have to look at the way Trotskist groups (and the Militant were the worst at this) of seeking to organisationally dominate campaigns. Anyone who was involved in the poll tax would testify to the undemocratic culture of how the Militant behaved in that campaign.

My starting point here is not to absove or defend the crimes and mistakes of Stalin and the official communist parties. Lenin did lead to Stalin – get over it. We must acknowledge that those crimes and mistakes are part of our shared heritage on the left. Only in that way can we move on.

Your approach is, as I said before, is to claim that the minor nuances of difference the trots have with official communism somehow mean you are immune from the problems, where to any casual observer the trot groups behave like “Stalinists” themselves with regard to the rest of the movement. A big boy did it, and ran away.

Snowball said...

Andy - I don't want to get into a long argument with you about Trotskyism, but it should be possible to see that there is a slight difference between Trotsky writing a book 'Terrorism and Communism' in 1920 which defends the use of repressive measures by a workers state against those fighting for counter-revolution during a period of civil war backed by foreign invasion - and Stalin's murderous state terror against political rivals and political enemies during the 1930s at a time when there was no civil war or invading foreign armies. Trotsky was defending a revolution - Stalin was presiding over a counter-revolution. For someone to try and seriously conflate the two - let alone someone who had 20 years of membership of the SWP - reveals not only a lack of any sense of Marxism and a lack of any sense of history - but also reveals a profound political liberalism. Still a lot of liberals rallied around Stalin at the time of his terror in the 1930s - it is a little odd however for a self-proclaimed socialist to do so 70 odd years on.

AN said...


Your argument assumes that I accept the starting point that Stalin was presiding over a counter revolution.

BTW - have you read "terrorism and Communism"? In no way does Trotsky delimit his arguments to be historically contingent, rather he raises war communism to be a univeral model. Ok - he may have changed his mind later, but it is only speculation what would have happened had trootsky and not Stalin triumphed in the party.

There is both continuity and change between the civil war and the consolidation of Stalin's terror. Both periods were characterised by a profound sense of insecurity on behalf of the state, and both Stalin and Trotsky believed that rapid industrialisation was necessary. Both agreed that any slackening of state control was wrong (as Trotsky said; "With Stalin sometimes, with Bukharin never").

It is not a detail of history that the forced collectivisation was the adopting by Stalin of Trotsky's policy to solve the sissors crisis (increasing agricultural prices linked with falling production)

My thesis here is not to defend stalin, but to point out that the evidence that trotsky would have been any better is thin.

AN said...

In any event Snowball, defining Russia in 1920 as a Workers state, is not quite so simple.

Both Trotsky and lenin at the time were quite clear that the party had effectively substituted itself for the rule of the workers and peasants.

Bukharin's book "the politics of the transitioon period" poses a useful starting point of defining Russia as a society transitional between capitalism and socialism, with tendencies in both directions.

add to which the bureacratic tendencies of the party's rule.

the consolidation of Stalin's power led to an intensification of the bureaucratisation, ombined with a cult of personality and terror, but I am unconvinced that there was a fundamental change in the nature of the state.

Mark P said...

Andy, I'm not remotely interested in you listing a series of books you have read. I'd be more impressed if you showed any sign of having actually learnt something from those books.

Your rambling response mixes non-sequiter with slander and ultimately arrives at the conclusions that there was no difference between Stalinism and those who fought it, no political lessons to be learnt from that opposition and that ultimately we should all just "get over it". A more reprehensible political statement I have rarely read.

I'm not going to bother with many of your points, because frankly I have neither the time nor the energy to seriously deal with half-arsed attempts to smear socialists with Stalin's crimes. I will however answer the questions you directly pose:

Have I established that Stalinism is a distinct political tradition and that Trotskyism is also a distinct and "more virtuous" political tradition? Yes. That they are two distinct traditions is quite plain to almost any observer and that they differ politically on almost every issue facing the workers movement was rather easy to demonstrate.

there is no connection between intolerance of democracy and the popular front. Given that this point contradicts nothing which I stated, I am a little baffled as to why you think it deserves such emphasis. A total opposition to internal democracy is a feature of Stalinism. Support for the fictional "progressive bourgeoisie" has also been a feature of Stalinism at least since the end of the third period. That doesn't mean that it is impossible to be undemocratic but opposed to the popular front. Neither does it mean that an organisation can't be democratic but still act to subordinate the working class to the supposedly "progressive" wing of capitalism. The POUM and the CNT both managed the latter - capitulating to Stalinism and reformism without actually being Stalinists themselves. This is not some significant discovery.

With regard to the Permanent Revolution, this is an elegant hypothesis, but a hypothesis that after 100 years has not once matched the actual course of events. The Russian revolution was itself the most stunning confirmation of the theory one could wish for. More significantly the entire course of history in the neo-colonial world has tended only to reinforce the conclusions of the theory. On the one hand we have the failure of the national bourgeoisies in the neo-colonial world to complete their national revolutions. On the other we have the blood soaked failures of the mass Stalinist parties which attempted to implement the stages theory by allying with forces they fondly imagined to be the "progressive bourgeoisie". Permanent Revolution remains a theory and one which can only finally be proven in the course of a world socialist revolution, but so far it's record has been excellent both in the case of the one socialist revolution the world has actually seen and in explaining the failures of other revolutionary movements.

The DSP in Australia reject the theory of permanent Revolution, are they Stalinists?

The DSP is a bizarre little organisation which has capitulated to Stalinism on a number of issues, most notably Cuba, its attempts to resurrect the Stalinist stages theory and its increasing friendliness with the Vietnamese dictatorship.

ith regard to being “brutal dictatorships” (no one is defending the cult of personality, the murders and slave labour), but were the Trots any different? Yes. Trotsky, at a desperate stage for the revolutionary state, certainly tried to justify many things which were not, in my view justifiable. I understand the reasons why, even where I disagree with him. However Trotsky also led the struggle against the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution, against the Stalinist dictatorship and against the poisonous politics of Stalinism (the very politics, incidentally which you seem to be trying to rehabilitate), a struggle which cost him his life. It's a peculiar kind of historical revisionism which seeks to equate Stalinism with its opponents and victims. He put forward an eloquent analysis of what had gone wrong, and a programme for the redemocratisation of Soviet society to rectify that. Or did you somehow overlook all of that when you were browsing through all those books?

You bizarrely calim that “Trotskyists almost universally favour the right of minorities to form factions or caucuses within a revolutionary organisation”. This was not characteristic of either the SLL/WRP, or for the last 30+ years the IS/SWP. As you are no doubt aware, the WRP was a bizarre institution which was avoided as much as possible by the rest of the left. As for today's SWP, it is as far as I know actually unique on the Trotskyist left, not just in Britain but worldwide, in not allowing factional rights.

This certainly was not the position of one Leon Trotsky, I refer you again to “Terrorism and Communism”, and Trotsky’s support for the repression of the SR, and banning of internal factions in the party, including the Workers opposition. The banning of the SR's was a direct response to their violent opposition to the revolutionary government, as you are well aware they had at an earlier stage been a part of that government and were legal for a long time after the revolution. As far as internal factions go, Trotsky viewed that as a temporary measure forced on the Bolsheviks in extreme circumstances. Here however you will find that most present day Trotskyists go much further than old Leon and argue that the banning of factions at all was a mistake and that no political organisations at all should be banned, short of an attempt at a counterrevolutionary uprising.

As for your whining about Trotskyist groups in Britain in the 1990s or 2000s "dominating" campaigns, I have rarely seen such a spectacular non-sequiter in a political argument. When you go on to talk about taking responsibility for "our" crimes, I can only respond by letting you take responsibility for as much of Stalinism's blood soaked record as you like, but leave those of us who oppose Stalinism out of your self-flagellation

AN said...


It seems a conceit of yours that if someone disagrees with trotsky then that is because they don't understand his theories. It is possible to both undertasnd something and disagree with it.

Let me concentrate on the point that apparently baffles you.

Why do I think it relevent that your definition of "stalinism" is an ad hoc collection of historically contingent behaviours and unrelated theoretical positions.

This is becasue you are creating a straw man, and then demonstrating your own virtue by opposing this fiction.

the language you use, of poison and blood etc is demonising of a political movement that organised tens of thousands of working class militants, and which achieved great successes as well as great failures.

You seek to polarise into two irreconcilable camps. But the Trotskist left share a tremendous amount of common heritage with the official communist parties. Pablo as international secretary of the FI advocated joining the CPs for example, and some British Trots, like John Lawrence actually did so.