An important phrase in the NFB lexicon is the term we coined circa 2000, that of 'Last Century Left'. It has a precise meaning, though often wilfully misinterpreted. While we ourselves come from, and remain on, the Left, we do not think the penny has dropped with the multiplicity of Leftist groups, drawing inspiration from Lenin Trotsky or the various strands of reformism (including the Labour Left) about just how disastrous the 20th Century turned out to be for those advocating Left politics. Exactly where on the Left we have come from can be illustrated by our attitude to various historic events and trends
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION 1917
Yes, we would have supported it at the time, but not as Bolsheviks. Rather, our sympathies lie far more with the Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs), who in any event provided far more personnel to execute the seizing of power in October 1917 than the Communists. Regarding the vexed figures of Lenin & Trotsky, we believe the early Trotsky in his reply to Lenin's 'What is To Be Done' (in 'Our Political Tasks' 1904) correctly predicted the dangerous Jacobinism that Leninism fundamentally was. We would have been with the workers and sailors of Kronstadt rebelling against the Soviet government in 1921, resisting Trotsky's attempt to 'shoot them like partridges' or indeed to militarise unions as outlined in his 'Terrorism & Communism' (1920). Equally, we would have been with the Workers Opposition of Alexandra Kollontai, which secured 43% of the votes at the 1921 Party Congress.
If we support the 1917 Russian Revolution against Tsarism, does that make us ideologically complicit in the crimes of Lenin and later Stalin? Not really: the path we would have liked the Russian Revolution to take was using the mir (village commune) as the basis of the new regime--not just Left SR policy, but a possibility strongly entertained by Karl Marx himself in his letters to Vera Zasulich of 1883 (on which see Shanin's excellent book 'Late Marx & The Russian Road'). We certainly have some sympathy with Trotsky in his later struggles with Stalin--but the damage had been done by the fact that fundamentally Lenin never gave 'All Power To the Soviets' but abrogated it to the party and hence himself--and his successors. From the 1920s onwards, the Russian Revolution (and the Comintern) were examples of how not to do revolutionary politics as opposed to beacons of good practice. The reactionary posturing of the Communists in Spain's Civil War, the disaster of 'Popular Frontism' and the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact were not just aberrations.
While Trotsky's writings in the 1930s remain of interest, he was far better at raising problems than solving them. Thus, he early on saw the danger fascism/Nazism presented to humanity (while the Comintern was practising 'Third Period' lunacy), but his all-too-rationalist approach made Trotsky incapable of understanding, never mind effectively defeating (with his small band of followers) the Nazi menace. The subtlety and far-ranging analysis of Paul Tillich in 'The Socialist Decision (1932) moves into areas way beyond Trotsky--and especially his epigones. To raise problems is no bad thing--Trotsky's Transitional Programme (1938) addressed an issue still bedevilling revolutionary socialists/Greens to this day--how to move from a defensive (or economistic) struggle for reforms in present society to the future and better post-capitalist one. Not calling for reforms allows capitalist forces to dictate the agenda--as the Con-Dem government in the UK is currently seeking to do. Calling enthusiastically for detailed achievable reforms (demands) risks incorporating those arguing for them within the current system. Yet calling for demands unrealisable within capitalism risks burnout disillusion and irrelevance. Trotsky's attempt (anachronistic in detail but the principle is what counts) in his 'Transitional Programme' was a stab at solving this dilemma. A dilemma that must of necessity face any genuinely radical force that garners electoral/popular support within existing society The late Trotsky even grappled with the class nature of post-revolutionary Soviet society--tantalisingly allowing for the possibility that should it survive World War 2 it might not be socialist in any meaningful sense. Sadly, Trotsky did not live to tell the tale--and his enduring legacy of brilliant phrase-mongering has too often been murdered by tedious epigones littering the political scene, albeit in far fewer numbers than hitherto. That Trotskyist sects, with their pseudo-scientific and alienating talk of 'vanguards' 'the periphery' 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and so on are still in (small) business 70 years after his death is, perhaps, a testimony to the brilliance of Trotsky's vision. But it is now time to move on, really!
FAST FORWARD TO 2018
While the organised far left is today largely in a parlous state (the terminal decline of the SWP, the abandonment of the Anarchist Bookfair in the UK for instance), there is certainly something different going on in the Labour Party. Whatever reservations we may (and do) have about both Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017 Labour Manifesto, the fact is his election as leader in 2015 (and subsequent rout of the Labour Right in a re-run election) opens up definite possibilities for those to the Left of Labour, like ourselves. Numerous questions hang in the air: was the improved Labour showing at the 2017 election as far as it can go (‘peak Corbyn’) or can it be improved upon to secure a parliamentary majority. Further, what might be the shape of a Corbyn ‘Left government’ Programme, and just how can such a Government hope to reconcile radical measures with remaining in the EU single market at the very least? What should be the tactical and strategic reaction of the extra-parliamentary Left to such a government? For we should be in no doubt: if such a government determinedly pursues a radical course the reaction of the capitalist class and state will be ferocious. How adequate in this case will be the ‘war-gaming’ ploys mentioned by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell? Indeed while one plausible scenario might be a renewed capitalism with a Leftist tinge, if matters are to progress in a socialist direction a strong extra-parliamentary Left with a sense of the state is essential. But where are such forces to come from? Currently, the tiny group Counterfire are asking some of the right questions. But will (or would) it be enough? We ourselves hope to contribute in our own small way: watch this space!