Open Polemic Letters


Letter from Paul Cockshott to Open Polemic

Open Polemic started out as a project with promise and potential, but recent events lead me to fear that it is in danger of losing its way. Three developments in recent months concern me:

1 The apparent termination of debate with Red Action in dubious circumstances.
2 The position put forward by the OP editorial board at the Critique conference.
3 The concentration of one OP conference after another on the same narrow range of issues, basically party leadership and democratic centralism.

All of these issues seem to be related in that they all relate to a particular sectarian conception of the party and focus OP on a course of development that is likely to be a dead end.

The fatwa

The title of the journal Open Polemic was intended to mark a break with the sectarian approach of the existing groups who rarely engaged in any sustained polemic with one another. It hardly augers well if OP now looks as if it is getting cold feet as soon as the polemic gets too intense. If the editorial board considers that the positions of Red Action are erroneous, the correct response is to publish arguments as to why they consider them wrong. It is neither convincing nor politically adroit to simply proclaim that it is utopian. You said in Issue 8:

'Gordon has adopted the path that both left 'revolutionaries' and right revisionists have recently trod, that of separating Marx from Lenin. In this way the body of scientific knowledge known as MarxismLeninism is attacked.'

Yes, it is quite clear that Gordon was arguing that there were differences in the positions of Marx and Lenin on the party. And he seemed to be making a pretty good case for it. If you disagree with him the correct response would have been either to attempt to demonstrate that there was no such contradiction, or, to admit the contradiction and say that Marx was wrong and Lenin was right.

Secondly it is a strange body of scientific knowledge that cannot stand attack. Science develops through being attacked. Ideas that can not be sustained in the face of new evidence are dropped or, if the new evidence proves insubstantial the old theory re-emerges stronger. A recent example of this was the apparent discovery of a 5th force, other than gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Re-examination of results obtained around the turn of the century by a Hungarian physicist seemed to indicate that Newtons postulate of the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass might be false. This produced a flurry of experimental results that at first appeared to confirm these old measurements. Physicists speculated that the cause might be a hitherto undiscovered repulsive short range force. Then other results came in that indicated that the short range force might be attractive. In the end the conclusion of the physics community was that the anomalous results were due to experimental errors, and the old theory of gravitation came out stronger than it went in. But the physicists do not call their theory Newton-Ensteinism, even though both men contributed to it. Nor do they rule out of order investigations into the differences between the positions of Newton and Einstein. Where the two theories lead to different results, they try to identify circumstances where the differing predictions of the two theories could be clearly observed. They are then put to the test of reality, the classical example being Eddingtons confirmation of Einstein's theory by observation of the curvature of light rays due to the sun's gravity during the 1919 solar eclipse.

If OP is to proceed in a scientific manner, it cannot just pronounce a fatwa against Red Action. It must seek out the crucial differences between its theory and Red Actions, crucial in the sense that observation allows one or the other to be confirmed. It must then produce observations that either confirm or reject its position.

The Critique leaflet

I have no wish to defend Critique, whose politics can with some justice be called utopian. What does seem extra-ordinary about the OP leaflet is your assertion that :

'we say without reservation that in the transition from capitalism to socialism this dictatorship of the proletariat is, in essence, the dictatorship of the vanguard party.' Here you have not only out-lenined Lenin, you have out-stalined Stalin. Stalin devoted chapter 5 of Problems of Leninism to a refutation of just this idea which he attributes to Zinoviev.

It is almost incredible that now, after the evidence of the degeneration of the vanguard parties in almost all the countries in which they held power, that someone could still hold to this old deviation. If the editorial board believe this, then they should publish their reasons for believing it.

The focus on the leading role of the party

I consider this emphasis to be entirely misconcieved, not because I think political parties to be unnecessary, they are at times necessary, but because it is a self negating activity. By concentrating on debating the leading role of the party in the abstract, OP prevents discussion of the concrete issues on which leadership would be possible. If Lenin had pursued the leading role of the party before all else, he would have been little more than another Bakunin type conspirator. But that was not what he did.

The Leninist idea of the party is derived from his book 'What is to be Done'. But this was not written until 1902 and appears in the 5th volume of his collected works. 10 years of political work, recorded in 4 volumes of economic and polemical writing preceeded this. And before him there was the polemical work of Plekanov going back to the early 1880s. It was this economic and polemical work that provided the background to 'What Is To Be Done,' which itself not so much concerned with the leading role of the party as with the leading role of revolutionary theory. He argued that without revolutionary theory there could be no revolutionary practice, and certainly no political leadership.

To go on talking about political leadership when you have no revolutionary theory is the worst sort of sectarian futility, and if the contributors to open polemic have any revolutionary theory they have been keeping very quiet about it. Where are the demolition jobs on today's reformist economists that can compare with 'A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism'? Where are the concrete analyses of contemporary European economic conditions that can compare with Lenin's 'The Development of Capitalism in Russia'? Where are the analyses of social conditions that can compare with 'The Condition of the Working Class in England' or 'An Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan'?

It was only after a long polemic on economic questions that it was possible to turn to the political tasks of the movement in publications like 'The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats (1897)'. It was only after these strategic tasks had been argued for that he could turn to the question of practical organisation.

Without a sufficiently concrete theory to guide political practice, a theory that addresses the burning economic and social questions of the day, all talk of the leading role of the party is futile. It would be the blind leading the blind in circles. The communist movement in most of the world has collapsed because it had no theory, no idea of what it stood for. It did not know how it was going to organise the economy. It had no clear idea of what sort of political constitution it favoured, and even if it had known what it was aiming for, it had no plausible strategy for getting there. Unless the OP editorial board can urgently redirect debate onto these questions it will end up in a blind alley.

How to do it

The first condition of science is to ask the right questions. We must decide what we need to know. I would suggest that the following are among questions that must be answered.

1. What is the economic character of the socialist mode of production, what are its contradictions and how could they be overcome. Without an answer to this, in the era when it is held that socialism has been tried and has failed, when it is generally believed that 'There Is No Alternative', no socialist movement is possible.

2. What are the economic characteristics of the modern capitalist system? Has the system reached the limits of its potential or is it on the threshold of further growth? What are the causes of growing unemployment in the developed countries? Do the workers in developed countries benefit or suffer from the low wages paid in the newly developing countries?

3. What would a progressive restructuring of the economic system (short of the complete overthrow of capitalism) amount to, and is it possible? If it is possible, then there exists an objective basis for reformist politics. What political changes in the constitution should we fight for?

4 What is the alliance of classes or social groups that can be won to the struggle for socialism, and what compromises are permissible in seeking allies.

5 What political means should be used in the struggle. Should it be parliamentary or extra parliamentary. Are alliances with other parties permitted. If extra parliamentary should it proceed by peaceful means or warlike means? If by warlike means, how can people be motivated to risk their lives for the cause and how could an army be formed?
Let us focus debate on these concrete issues of the present day then we may have some hope of breaking with sectarianism.

Paul Cockshott

Letter to Paul Cockshott from Open Polemic

Comrade Cockshott, you want to know where Open Polemic is headed. You cite three areas of concern with respect to the Open Polemic project; the termination of debate with Red Action, our position forwarded at the Critique conference, and our concentration on the question of the vanguard party. We have studied your criticisms carefully and we are convinced that all three points derive from one source - your own ambivalence to the fundamental principle of the leading role of the vanguard party.

Few comrades, least of all yourself, could be under any illusion as to the nature of the Open Polemic project. Our parameters were clearly defined at the very outset, and we have not deviated from our task. We would suggest that it is you who is unsure of your direction. Open Polemic set out to assess and elaborate on what we isolated as the fundamental principles of a body of thought known as Marxism-Leninism and those that currently seek to divorce the one from the other have a very different agenda to us.

We defined the fundamentals as the political and organisational principle of democratic centralism, the principle of the leading role of the party and (prior to and within) the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the principle of proletarian internationalism. You will notice that, from issue No. 1 in fact, we have always linked the leading role of the party with the dictatorship of the proletariat. We stressed repeatedly that these fundamentals should not be adopted as immutable - tablets of stone, they could only assume meaning by being submitted to a sharp and prolonged polemic between those purporting to be Marxist-Leninists. We are certainly prepared to jettison that which has proved redundant, incorrect and flawed. Dogmatist we are not. But, neither are we revisionists. Relinquish any one of the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism and you are on the slippery slope to something quite different - either left social democracy or anarcho-utopian communism.

The duration of open polemic we could not predict although we knew it would not be a weekend affair. Given the global retreat of the organised working class and the depth of the fragmentation among its advanced elements, we were perhaps looking at a generational perspective. In any event, we have come to regard the process of open polemic as something that might usefully continue after the establishment of a single communist party. An enrichment of democratic centralism if you like. It is our expectation that, during communist open polemic, demarcations would be made clear, some differences resolved, others enshrined. Historical questions might be posed in a fresh way with the benefit of hindsight. Some old friends would part company, new allegiances might be forged. The Editorial Board could not possibly predict the outcome of the project - our central task is to facilitate the polemic while drawing out the both lines of demarcation and the areas of consensus. At the same time, we would have to defend and promote the strategy of Open Polemic against the natural resistance of the ever proliferating vanguardist organisations. We would be, as one comrade succinctly put it, in a perpetual state of unity and conflict with the revolutionary 'vanguards'.

In addition to the above, we have felt a sharp contradiction between our stated role as facilitators and our enthusiasm to participate. Some accuse us of too much participation, others of not enough. Life is never dull. Rightly or wrongly, our polemic with the 'vanguards' is assuming as much time and space as that between the 'vanguards' themselves - issue number 10 of the journal, of which our current correspondence will be part, highlights this development.

But all this talk of open polemic is merely the subjective response to the objective reality of the world we live in. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its ripple on effect has served to magnify the ideological confusion between those who call themselves Marxist-Leninists. All but the most dogmatic among us have been forced to engage in some level of assessment of the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism. That has to be the starting point. Polemics concerning political economy are vital but, we disagree with your assessment that this should come before the polemic on what makes Marxism-Leninism distinctive from other revolutionary trends. If we cannot define Marxism-Leninism then we cannot talk of a distinct ideology.

The communists grouped around the Editorial Board of Open Polemic have never wavered in their conviction that such an ideology exists and exists in sharp contradiction to other 'revolutionary' ideologies. For you to talk of a revolutionary theory as somehow separate to the Leninist theory of a party of a new type is, for us, a nonsense. In fact, the party of a new type is at the very core of Lenin's theory. To be able to describe the world accurately is a never ending task for revolutionaries - to be able to change the world, you need a vanguard party - that is the project for Marxist-Leninists. To our mind, you are more preoccupied with the former task and take a most laisse-faire approach to the latter.

Our deliberate curtailing of the Red Action polemic derives from their own outright rejection of a democratic centralist vanguard party in favour of a utopian notion of the rule by some mythical, homogenous proletariat. The uneven development of consciousness simply does not produce such a proletariat and their conception is entirely useless to the class. The seriousness with which Red Action approached their polemic with Wachla, Stanley, Danes and Young should not obscure the fact that their thesis is wrong, and if it is not wrong then we are wrong. A clear line of demarcation is drawn and hence the parting of the ways. So you see Paul, Open Polemic has not lost its way - this is precisely the manner in which the polemic should proceed. If we had acted otherwise, we would have been guilty of that very criticism that was made of Open Polemic at its inception, that we were nothing but a talking shop. Yes, we used our discretion in publishing their material as a way of stimulating debate around the question of party and class. (They in their turn used Open Polemic to win adherents to their theme of 'substitutionism'.) Our discretion paid dividends - a clear line of demarcation has been re-established amongst the contributors and readers of Open Polemic. We stand for the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist vanguard party in the establishment and conduct of the national dictatorship of the proletariat - Red Action stands for the leading role of a non-existent homogenous proletariat. Where does Paul Cockshott stand?

In respect to the statement forwarded at the Critique conference, we stand resolutely behind it. We will, as you urge us to do, continue to defend and elaborate this position. We are dealing with the matter at some length in issue No. 10., but to reiterate - there can be no separation of party and class in a theoretical sense. The party is of the class, its most advanced element. Some non-proletarian elements may ally themselves to the party - that is fine. In the past, small sections of the bourgeois intelligentsia have acted as a catalyst to the formation of the proletarian vanguard party - Marx, Lenin, Mao, Che, Castro, Ho Chi Mihn, Guzman - they are all examples. This in no way should lead us to the conclusion that the vanguard party is somehow not of the working class. Any separation of the party from the class that may occur at a later date is, we have argued, to be found in the breakdown of democratic centralism within the party and its replacement with leader centralism. The result, that we have all witnessed, is a lessening of ideological development amongst cadre, an increase in political apathy by the rank and file and a breakdown of political communication between the party and the class as a whole. This is a very different process to what Red Action and others refer to as 'substitutionism', although the end results are no less serious.

Given that the party is of the working class, its most advanced elements grouped in democratic centralist discipline, who but the party is in a position to carry out the dictatorship of the proletariat? Notions of all proletarians, with their varying levels of consciousness, inherited from the imperialist epoch and riddled with philistine notions of national superiority, carrying out this dictatorship are fanciful. The philosophical flaw in such romanticism is to be found in a denial of the reality that consciousness, like all matter, develops unevenly. From the above we draw the conclusion once again that the dictatorship of the proletariat is, at its inception, essentially the dictatorship of the party. It is encumbent on Red Action, Critique and yourself to offer an alternative view and we suspect that your personal prediliction for delving into antiquity will not help you in this task. The ball is in your court Comrade Paul.
Open Polemic

Letter to Open Polemic from Ray Hickman

Please find attached copy of letter to Red Action re. their contributions to O.P. My intention in writing this letter and more importantly copying it to you - was to warn against a blanket ban on Red Action contributions on the basis of their stated rejection of the principle of the leading nature of the vanguard party.
I do not believe such a blanket ban is intended, but it would be all to easy to slip into. In the case of Red Action a lack of rigour when analysing their theory, their practice and the relationship between the two, might produce just such an exclusion. In this regard - the relationship of theory to practice - I would simply refer comrades back to Jan Wachla's observation in OP number 1:

'...anarchistic organisations of the ilk of Red Action, organisations that are so disdainful of Leninist theory are, by their direct confrontation with street fascism in Britain, most likely to come to know the neccessitiy for a highly centralised, highly disciplined party. Despite their avowed contempt for Leninism, organisations like Red Action have the potential to produce comrades that will be among the first in this country to come to a profound understanding of Lenin's revolutionary practice ...'
I hope this correspondence will go some way to resolving the current disagreement between Red Action and OP

Letter from Ray Hickman to Red Action

I have recently been rereading your series of contributions to Open Polernic and the various responses to those contributions. From this rereading I have two points to make. Firstly could you please send me subscription details for your publications. Secondly, as a subscriber to the journal OP, a participant in OP conferences and a member of the Association of Communists for Revolutionary Unity (ACRU), I will argue for the continued inclusion of Red Action contributions. I believe that past contributions, particularly those concerned with democratic centralism and the role of the vanguard party, have served to provide a sharp focus for debate on those subjects. I do not believe those debates have been resolved and therefore I support the continued publication by OP of your contributions to those debates.