Slaughtering sacred cows

In this guest post, ANTHONY McINTYRE, former IRA volunteer and prisoner who now blogs at The Pensive Quill, reviews Bonfire of the Certainties: the second human revolution by Cliff Slaughter.

Cliff Slaughter is a Marxist from the Trotsky school. He was a long time member of the Workers Revolutionary Party, and I recall his input into Marxist discussions


There go the certainties

within the party which I tried to follow from my prison cell, in an era when I regarded myself a Marxist. Now in his 80s, it would seem challenging for an old dog to be taught new tricks. The interesting thing here is that, rather than being taught new tricks, Slaughter has opted to learn them.

In his aptly named book Bonfire of the Certainties, Slaughter puts it starkly: humanity faces a crisis which he stresses the necessity of averting, and repeats the time honoured Rosa Luxemburg pearl of the future being either socialism or barbarism, both mutually exclusive.

Marxists, unfortunately, have been making this call for as long as anyone can remember, only for Pollyanna to trump Jeremiah. On one occasion with biblical-style imprecision, the date of the collapse of capitalism was predicted. Consequently there is a tendency not to hear them when they continue to sound alarms, even in the conditions of today – when there is compelling evidence to indicate that the rich and the powerful have opted for a date with destruction, and are prepared, in the words of István Mészáros, to subject all potential dissent to “extreme authoritarian constraints” in their drive to get there.

The influence of Mészáros, a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, is noticeable throughout this book, perhaps more than intellectual autonomy would licence. It helps foster a view that Slaughter is driven by his concern for the future to search for an intellectual Messiah to deliver the world from the sin of capitalism. There is essentially nothing wrong with the perspective of Mészáros, more a hint of overdependence on the part of Slaughter.

The reader is told that social democratic reformism has collapsed and we are faced with the “withering away of the Welfare state”. Unemployment is a globally structural phenomenon rather than a conjunctural one: meaning it is not a temporary but self-correcting blip, given a bit of time, austerity and a few adjustments here and there.  Echoing the seeming nostalgia of Eric Hobsbawm, a very non-Trotskyist Marxist, Slaughter bemoans the absence of a global state to apply the brake.

The role of agency features as a central problematic for the author. The working class as an agent of change has been such a central part of Marxism that it becomes unthinkable to drop it, while at the same time maintaining authentic Marxist credentials. Slaughter tackles the problem by assuming, when he should be demonstrating.

Another given is that Marxism still provides the answers, that Marxists will be central to any struggle, and that Marxism is not, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault once suggested in The Order of Things, a time-specific phenomenon that “exists in nineteenth century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else”. Despite the sheer awesomeness of Marx’s thoughts, he has been poorly served by his followers, something he realised with his comment “I am not a Marxist”. The sects have raised doubts in many minds about the potential of Marxists to be central players in any radical societal transformation.

I have read a bit of Marxist literature lately, well, more than I am normally inclined to read. I find the use of some language a turn off, a means to conceal rather than convey. Recently I completed For Marx by Louis Althusser, written 50 years ago. The language seemed archaic, and at times Slaughter repeats the problem. Danny Morrison [a leading Sinn Fein politician] once coined the term “Marxist Esperanto” to describe some of the writing that was appearing in a Sinn Fein internal discussion periodical, Iris Bheag, mostly through contributions from the prisoners. I thought then he had a point, and I think he still has. So when Slaughter refers to a crisis of overdevelopment in the capitalist countries and then goes on to characterise that as a “unity of opposites” accompanied by much Marxist prolix, it induces the same weary shrug that often greeted ill-informed attempts to regurgitate the works of [the leading Communist Party ideologist] Maurice Cornforth in prison.

Slaughter, in seeking a revolutionary way forward, and overlooking the phenomenon of revolution all too often appearing as nihilism, attacks the notion of democratic control, arguing that the state must be swept away.  He does not address how this opens up the space for the type of party he is at pains to avoid: the vanguard party which, as sure as night follows day, will move to strengthen the repressive apparatuses of the state and deliver society and socialism into yet another gulag of barbarism.

Time and again throughout this book the author strikes out at the notion of some vanguard party ever leading the people and bringing to them consciousness from without, which usually means from above. He sets out his stall clearly in the first page with his observation that “some of us Marxists did not hold sufficiently fast to the need always to put the truth first”. He is critical of the notion that the Leninist concept of a vanguard party can be reproduced in all conditions, hitting out at suggestions that some self appointed leadership can ever come equipped with all the answers.  He demands a thorough settlement with past conceptions of “revolutionary leadership”, and rejects the consequentialist perspective of the ends justifying the means, while approvingly quoting a French Trotskyist who in the 1980s spoke of “the end of the age of the commissar”.

This can be no easy nettle for the author to grasp, hailing as he does from the Trotskyist tradition. Trotskyist groups are world renowned for their factionalism and incessant sectarian squabbling. This is enervating for any radical movement. How many activists have given up in despair after attending “left unity” meetings, only to see the participants gleefully tear lumps out of each other and determinedly failing to make any point other than the necessity of stripping the flesh from each other’s back?  The Cedar Lounge Revolution website, a seemingly conscientious left endeavour, explained one answer it got when delving into the schisms of the Irish left: “the left hate each other more than they hate capitalism!” Many observers of the scene would find that hard to dispute. Slaughter expects to be attacked by some of his comrades on the left for such heresy but dismisses it with a shrug of his experienced shoulders.

For all his protestations to the contrary, Slaughter’s attempt to set out a blueprint for the future waxes utopian – and reinforces what he said on his opening page, that the book will seem “over-ambitious”.

The defence of communism – that it has never been defeated, it just merely has never existed – will hardly fly.  Given the public consciousness it might as well be proffered that Nazism would have been OK, had it been implemented properly. People simply don’t draw that type of distinction, seeing it as academic in its failure to address the massive crimes against humanity inflicted by vanguard parties hoisting the banner of communism.

It seems that by applying the free time concept of Marx from the Grundrisse, the freeing up of time caused by increasing technological advances leaves a potential strategic space for revolutionaries – which they might just realise through involvement in an ill defined symbiosis of the 2009 Guadaloupe manifesto and an International Plan for Development. But this seems proffered more in hope than expectation. It is not only the devotee of the sect who will find problems here. While Slaughter acknowledges that the Plan cannot be squandered by allowing a vanguard to seize control of it, preferring the internet to be at its core, that in itself is insufficient to enhance its prospects for success. Relying on something like the Copenhagen Accord to guarantee funding seems an even more dubious proposition.

In spite of finding fewer plausible answers in the book than I had hoped for, it was nevertheless refreshing to read a veteran activist trying throw out the bathwater but keep the baby, to innovate in a way that avoids abandonment, to avoid being trapped in dungeon of sterility while ensuring the breakout does not lead to the poacher becoming gamekeeper.  Cliff Slaughter has shown through his unremitting hostility to authoritarian vanguard parties and self perpetuating leaderships that it is never too late to learn or try a new approach. At this juncture, describing what is wrong rather than prescribing what is right, a crucial part of the philosopher Oskar Negt’s “oppositional public space”, is perhaps the true zenith of Marxist expectations.

Book details: Cliff Slaughter, Bonfire of the Certainties: the second human revolution (, 2013). ISBN 9781291213218. The book can be ordered here

Photo: Holi Bonfire at Jagdish Temple, Udaipur, 2010. Ingo Mehling / Creative Commons

3 Responses to Slaughtering sacred cows

  1. Shaun May says:

    I’ve come across AM’s contribution whilst looking for reviews of ‘Bonfire’ online. It seems that this is the only review (the only one which I can find). For the purposes of political clarity, I have felt the need to write this in reply.

    Firstly the question of ‘socialism or barbarism’. By ‘barbarism’, we do not mean an ontological state destined to be reached in the future but rather an emerging and deepening state affairs actually taking place now as a result of the unfolding of capital’s structural crisis. In this sense, Luxemburg’s (?) dictum only truly comes into its own with capital’s structural crisis which Marx quite clearly suggests must emerge [Volume 3 of Capital, see Chapters 13-15, Part III] The anti-capital struggle for socialism can be the only historically adequate response to this intensifying crisis. Marx’s identification – with which Meszaros agrees – of labour as the only possible agency for this transformation remains valid. Can we identify any other possible or actual agency? By labour is meant the ‘proletarian class’ as a whole (apologies in advance if this transgresses any terminological code. It is the most concrete expression, in my opinion). The crisis cannot be averted because that crisis is now. Hence the ‘mutual exclusivity’ ascribed is a non sequitur because the struggle to end the age of capital can only take place in relation to this deepening crisis. “Marxists have been making this call” because they have studied Marx and not because they are purveyors of Jeremiads in opposition to the Pollyanna-like ideologists of capital. We are not “crying wolf” here. The wolf is already amongst the sheep.

    Meszaros has become more influential since the publication of Beyond Capital in 1995. And rightly so since his overall conception is an important development of Marx for the age of the crisis of the reproduction of the structure of capital. Of course, we must not ‘guruise’ anybody. However, being influenced is not necessarily identical to becoming a disciple. We study Meszaros – as with Marx, Lenin, etc – from the perspective of a ‘revolutionary criticism’. And not from the perspective of an novice in a seminary worshipping his master. To do otherwise would be a dereliction indeed.

    Slaughter himself would not today describe himself as a “Trotskyist”. In fact, in his work over the past 30 years or so since the dissolution of Healy’s sect, CS has progressively developed a socialist critique of “Trotskyism” and for that he must be applauded. But the “working class as an agent of change” remains historically valid and legitimate because it is the only historically adequate and viable “structural antagonist” within and to the capital system. In the 60s and 70s, the ‘lefts’ espoused all manner of groups as legitimate substitutes for the proletariat as the agency of revolution : guerilla groups, students, women’s movements, “ethnic” movements, etc, etc and, of course, the oft and sect-adulated “national liberation struggle” which, as we all now know, turned out to be a “chalice” poisoned with the tincture of capital. Millions died in the struggle for “national liberation” only to find the leaderships who led it now collectively in the service of the ship of global capital. Including the ANC, PLO, the Sandinistas and Sinn Fein itself amongst them. The promise of so-called ‘national liberation’ has turned into a sick joke where ’emancipation’ now confronts millions in the shape of the superexploitation of global money capital and the transnationals which would put the tax farmers of the Roman colonate of late empire to shame.

    Foucault temporalises Marx in his tediously abstract The Order of Things without recognising the obvious. Namely, that Marx’s overall conception revolved around his centrally significant conception of capital as the dominant relation of a whole epoch of development. And that only when that epoch has been transcended, will we be able to dispense with that central conception. Foucault – like the plethora of ‘postmoderns’ today – subjects Marx to a truncating and crude relativism and, in so doing, fails to grasp that the form of Marx must change with the actual historical evolution of the capital epoch itself. McIntyre misrepresents Marx in his quote about “I am not a Marxist” in relation to the programme of the French Workers Party. This can be investigated online and we won’t go any further. And, of course, needless to say, Marx had things to say about “socialist sectarianism” which the left-wing sectarian groups long gone and still clinging on today have never heeded. Marx beyond sect politics is both possible and necessary. In truth, ‘Marx’ within the prison of sect politics is not Marx at all.

    AM raises the question of the communicability of concepts. The communicability of conceptions is not separable from the forms of terminology employed. If I am seated a room full of Hegelians, discussing his philosophy, then a grasp of Hegel’s terminology is assumed. In the same way as a grasp of ritual and terms is assumed in the proceedings of an esoteric cult by all its members. But if we are in a meeting of people in struggle – a community of people, striking workers, etc – how do we articulate the concept of ‘capital’s structural crisis’, for example, or the concept of profit being a ‘social realisation of surplus value’, etc?

    There is a real problematic here because to adequately communicate a conception presupposes a grasp of it. And, in order to grasp it, we have to appropriate it on its own terms. To give a talk, for example, on Volume 1 of ‘Capital’ presupposes that the talker has actually studied Volume 1. But to study Volume 1 we have to go into all sorts of areas. I think we have to be careful with ‘popularisations’ of Marx because we have to be careful not to denude and empty out (void) the content of a concept in the course of ‘popularising’ it. This does no favours to anybody. Marx stressed that the most difficult section of ‘Capital’ was the first part on commodities and money. Perhaps, but I found some difficulty in plenty of other areas as well! When I first picked up a copy of Hegel’s ‘Logic’ (Part 1, ‘Encyclopaedia’) in my teens, it might as well have been computer code or Mandarin. But after doing lots of reading around, primers, secondary sources, philosophical backgrounding in previous thinkers, etc, I gradually and tentatively worked my way into it and started to become familiar and conversant with the terms, categories, nuances of meaning, etc, and the whole elaboration and exposition of his thinking.

    Only after getting into the water was I able to learn to swim. Today, it remains a difficult read for me but one which, in my opinion, is well worth the effort on the ground of the fruits and rewards which come with a study of it. I can lift it off the bookshelf now, read a section, and still discover or re-discover a nuance or aspect which I had overlooked or pushed to the back of the mind. One of the indwelling problems with ‘popularisation’ is that it can be only one step away from ‘vulgarisation’.
    We always seem to find a way of communicating our conception according to the character of the audience by modulating or ‘revising’ it accordingly. This, it seems to me, is absolutely necessary. I have witnessed children asking questions at political meetings and the “Marxist” speaker composing his answer to explain the concept of ownership and exploitation to children. At one meeting, in the 1970s, I remember the son of a comrade asking the platform “why don’t all the rich people in the world share their money with the poor?” This gave the speaker on the platform the opportunity to articulate this concept of ownership and exploitation in more concrete terms, but modified so the child’s mind could grasp it.

    Some have said and written that Meszaros is difficult to read. Well, he is a lot easier to listen to than to read! And if you read the sections taken from Hegel’s Lecture Notes (Zusatze) in the ‘Encyclopaedia’, this was evidently the case with Hegel as well. I think Meszaros is generally understandable and clear in his exposition. But at times it can be a bit of an effort. Why? Well, in all honesty and sincerity, I think his style – whilst being understated – is nevertheless rather turgid and congested. In ‘Beyond Capital’, we have two sentence and even one sentence paragraphs, filling a third or even half a page. By the time you have reached the end of the sentence, you have forgotten what was written at the beginning as a result of all the commas and parentheses. You end up re-tracing your course and doubling back on the whole sentence in order to fully assimilate its content and implications.
    This can become rather wearisome and the general impression and ‘feel’ is that of an overstuffed content and imbroglio of detail in single sentences which could be broken down into simpler yet interconnected sentences. This would make it easier to read and more understandable as a whole. A comrade said to me – at the time ‘Beyond Capital’ first appeared in 1995 – that he found it to be a “labour” and “barely penetrable”. I don’t subscribe to this but alterations in style could have made it more accessible than it is. And certain styles do facilitate accessibility. ‘The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time’ and ‘The Structural Crisis of Capital’ are better, in my opinion, than ‘Beyond Capital’ in this regard.

    Further down in the review, AM seems to ignore that “democratic control” can only be truly established and developed in the struggle against the state power of capital and to transcend that power. He further and mysteriously assumes that such a struggle can only “open up the space” for the victory of a vanguard party. The “gulag of barbarism” is simplistically identified as the product of “vanguardism” rather than the outcome – like “vanguardism” itself – of very specific historical conditions. The Bolshevik forms of organisation were temporally determined by the specific conditions under which they were active. The left-wing sects have ahistorically ‘absolutised’ these forms of organisations to be necessary for all times and places in the epoch of capital. They have “ideologised” these “democratic centralist” forms of organisation which were necessary for work under the jackboot and prison regime Ochrana. But not today.

    Eventually, at the end of the review, we find McIntyre throwing his arms up in despair and in a tissue of confusions when he writes that…

    “The defence of communism – that it has never been defeated, it just merely has never existed – will hardly fly. Given the public consciousness it might as well be proffered that Nazism would have been OK, had it been implemented properly. People simply don’t draw that type of distinction, seeing it as academic in its failure to address the massive crimes against humanity inflicted by vanguard parties hoisting the banner of communism”

    We don’t deny the crimes of Stalin but seek to understand why they took place and use this to inform us in the struggles which are in process of emerging. Communism does not need to be defended. Its absolute historic legitimacy arises ontologically out of the crisis of capital itself as an outmoded system of production and distribution. It needs to be fought for. That is the real “defence” of communism. “Public consciousness” itself is only altered in the living struggle of people to change their conditions of life and, in so doing, altering and transforming themselves as people (Marx – German Ideology). It is not simply a question of people “drawing types of distinctions”. AM’ s review – if it has revealed anything – has demonstrated that it is more productive for those conversant with Marx (generically speaking) to review Marx. In order to contribute to the development of Marx. Of course, there is much in ‘Bonfire’ which is open and liable to revolutionary critique but McIntyre’s review does not remotely approach the addressing of such questions.

    Shaun May

  2. Gabriel Levy says:

    Shaun, thanks for those comments. Please note for the future that I usually don’t approve such gigantic responses for publication. A good guideline would be to keep the comment shorter than what you’re commenting on: yours is substantially longer. Also, I don’t know who “we” is. If you’re speaking on behalf of a particular party or group of like-minded people, tell us who! Please have a look at the “my front room comments policy” on the About page here:

  3. Gabriel Levy says:

    Hello, anyone who’s still reading. Shaun has commented again, saying: ““We” is anybody who would fundamentally subscribe to the content of my post. Certainly not a party or sect. ‘We’ is simply being deployed as a literary device and not explicitly literally.”

    I’m grateful for the clarification.

    I have not approved the rest of his comment, which is a criticism of the way I run the blog. I don’t have the time/interest to argue about it on line.

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