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
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 (lulu.com, 2013). ISBN 9781291213218. The book can be ordered here
Photo: Holi Bonfire at Jagdish Temple, Udaipur, 2010. Ingo Mehling / Creative Commons