'Remember Comrade, If Red Action Are Right, Then We Are Wrong'

Almost from the very beginning Red Action has had two principle claims to fame, or as many would see it infamy, which set it apart from the rest of the left. There was on the one hand, a commitment to anti- fascist resistance that pound for pound is arguably without parallel in present day Europe. And on the other, the contradictory (for some) intimate identification with the cause of Irish Republicanism that when put together by the media, invariably led to the adjunct 'shadowy' being attached to Red Action as a form of soubriquet.

But what was, and remains the connecting thread between the anti-fascist and republican spheres is easily explained. This is the easy accommodation within Red Action of a membership drawn mainly from a manual working class cultural background.

Without any recourse to controversial policies this social make up would alone have been enough to register Red Action as an item of curiosity on the British Left in any period from the 1950's. And being a thoroughly egalitarian organization, a principle, which from the beginning Red Action placed great store in, this 'uniqueness' was always going to be reflected politically. As has been mentioned, in the early days it emerged in two distinct ways. On the one hand a no-holds barred approach to combating the Far Right, which along with active support for armed resistance in response to British occupation in Ireland, once the modalities are sorted, can be seen to be consistent with the uncompromising approach adopted in the other sphere of operations.

In exactly the same way it was the working class appetite for straight talking that attracted Red Action into another very different arena, which though un-hyped, may in the final analysis prove to have the more lasting impact on progressive thinking.

What set this particular ball rolling was a conclusion reached after two days of heated debate at the Red Action annual national Conference back in 1988. It was in effect decided that as constructed, the British Left, was without exception "neither revolutionary, nor working class".

Now, you may well be thinking such claims for sectarian exclusivity are hardly uncommon. However it needs to be made clear that in making the declaration, Red Action was merely making an observation - not posing itself as the answer. Indeed it was more than happy to admit it didn't have answers, but felt sure-footed enough to acknowledge there were questions aplenty needing to be asked.

The overarching one among them being: 'when had it all gone wrong'? The understanding was that if the 'when' could be sorted out, then the 'why' and the wherefores would be more easily uncovered.

For what by the late 1980's, was self evident to Red Action at least, was that at some critical juncture the international Left had taken a fatal wrong turn. Thus it was concluded a 'fracture' had occurred in progressive thinking, which as a result. had influenced, or bent everything that followed out of shape.

Therefore before any remedy could be attempted it was necessary to discover, what happened, where it happened, why it happened and of course who was responsible. More than a little unusually for the time, the debate began on this basis, within the pages of 'Red Action' itself.

Fatefully in January 1991, a magazine called Open Polemic (OP), also devoted to addressing the Left's loss of direction, presented a political critique of Red Action, at a time when for the majority of orthodox revolutionaries, the idea of Red Action ever seriously being the subject of theoretical discussion, much less engaging in it, would likely have attracted little more than sniggers. Even among Red Action admirers, 'Good lads, lack leadership' remained the more or less universal verdict.

For the more committed RA detractors, the one-dimensional, 'apolitical' and almost paramilitary profile was held to be possibly just a shade more progressive than the fascists RA was publicly committed to opposing.

On more than one occasion the SWP denounced the close-quarters type of anti-fascism that had become an RA trademark as "anti-socialist", "anti-working class", "elitist" and "specialist". Interestingly, the accusation of being rather too robust was a criticism shared with the Far Right who just as regularly denounced RA as "terrorists".

So in taking into account the no frills reputation, the O.P. editorial board could hardly be faulted if their initial response to the Open Polemic critique from an individual member of Red Action, was to greet the submission with wry amusement.

Their attitude, while accepting Red Action was different, nonetheless regarded RA as an aberration, which while in some ways welcome, or even admirable, was at one and the same time hopelessly flawed, and thus doomed. Oddly, such fatalism might not have been out of place within the ranks of Red Action itself at the time.

So even for the members most actively engaged in debate, the notion that it was they who would set the theoretical pace within a magazine like Open Polemic, for the best part of five years would have raised eyebrows. But between 1991 and 1996 it was indeed a think tank within RA who set the agenda for the magazine, putting everything, from the critical importance of class composition within contemporary revolutionary groups, to the true meaning of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' visibly on the table. In one edition of OP there was more than half-a-dozen contributions, many lengthy, either from, or in response to the RA theoretical offensive.

Nor was this the customary dry, academic and passionless debate widely lampooned, for as in the other areas of activity in which RA was engaged, once an issue was seized upon, it was taken and shaken like a rat.

Initially, Open Polemic welcomed the RA involvement, for as the name suggests they also saw the need for serious appraisal prior to some form of realignment. Unlike RA however, they felt they already had all the answers worked out. Not unnaturally, their instinct was always to attempt to ring-fence the debate. But either RA did not recognize, or simply ignored the diplomatic niceties. Before too long, it led to a situation where the Editorial Board was in public congratulating RA for "sharpening the debate" and "pursuing the polemic" in a "disciplined and even Leninist" fashion, while behind the scenes they were at their wits end, searching for a way out of a conundrum, entirely as they bitterly admitted, of their own creation.

For them, the main problem was, that from the start it was never just a case of some individual contributor being made to eat crow. Instead as the OP board belatedly realized, the real target of this sustained attack, which with each edition was growing in authority, was aimed directly at the heart of the collection of Marxist-Leninist principles to which the magazine publicly proclaimed allegiance.

Funnily enough the RA think tank responsible for the theoritical chaos, while gleeful, were nonetheless discomfited at how effortlessly a theoretical bridgehead had been established by them, in what was remember, up until then, an entirely alien environment. Evidently things were far more rotten than even they had imagined.

Because of that degeneracy once the defenses were actually breached no mercy was shown toward the vanquished. Cherished opinions hitherto held by many OP members and subscribers to be 'communist principles' were put to the sword by a method so devastating it left these communists without any protection. It mainly consisted of confronting their world-view, with the diametrically opposed conclusions, reached by Marx and Engel's more than a century earlier.

Unsurprisingly this heretical juxtaposition caused consternation, which in turn allowed RA to focus an equally cold eye on the lazy, and much of the time, self-serving research that was the basis for values which were on a regular basis they were exposing as erroneous.

One particular victim awed by the audacity and reach of the RA offensive, was reduced to clumsily stitching together the beginning and end of two entirely unrelated sentences from the Communist Manifesto, in a reckless and despairing attempt to 'prove' Marx and Red Action as opposites. How she imagined such a pathetic forgery might help stall further revelations as to the depth of the division between Lenin and Marx is anyone's guess.

Almost simultaneously in a parallel discussion within the pages of Red Action's own paper, there was cause for more red faces when the pro-Bolshevik Workers Power sought to defend the one party state, by citing the Paris Commune, as it's anti-democratic antecedent, and thus prototype.

A stance adopted, seemingly in complete ignorance of Marx, the principle authority on the Commune, having repeatedly stressed the importance of the commune representing an exactly opposite paradigm. What's more the 'expansive' nature of the political - and - military structures created instinctively by the working class of Paris excited him for this precise reason. For, in what was a short-lived experiment, Marx knew he had seen the course of action likely to be followed by any future working class state. And he said so.

Thus Workers Power, who had begun by accusing Red Action of being anti-Marxist, watched in horror, as the debate was brought to an abrupt conclusion by the production of a quite uncannily word for word rebuttal of their own 'top-down' diagnosis - directly from Marx himself!

Meanwhile, as the campaign within OP proceeded, it became all too obvious, that while many of the contributors, had studiously, if not obsessively trawled through the writings of Lenin, Trotsky - and even Stalin - for answers to contemporary problems, they had, if they had bothered at all, mostly read Marx and Engel's through the same Bolshevik eyes. Which is to say, like Workers Power, while they might well have read about the Paris Commune, they understood and really only indentified with the conclusions Trotsky had drawn from it. They would of course have had no real reason to suspect Trotsky had not reached similar conclusions to Marx, when he had in truth, possibly with an eye to a post revolutionary Russia, consciously gutted the experience of the Paris Commune of all democratic, and thus working class content.

Predictably when confronted with this ever growing showcase of critical differences between 'Marxism' and 'Leninism', the response was emotional and intellectual malfunction. Now had Red Action been deemed politically respectable this would have been bad enough, but being lectured on the finer points of Marxist theory by what were regarded as nothing more than - building laborers - was for many just too much. But snobbism alone did not adequately explain the extent of the disquiet. Nor was the discomfiture restricted to the readership only.

With the Stalinist political background of the OP sponsors, it was only to be expected that the censorship and then proscription of RA contributors would play a large part in any endgame. To their credit some were not fooled by the weasel words that accompanied the ban. A little nonplussed, a member of the editorial board, tried to bring one otherwise staunch fellow traveler to heel by putting the crisis in a proper context. "Remember comrade" he admonished "if Red Action are right then we are wrong." 'Red Action being right', was to paraphrase Lord Denning, for him so 'appalling a vista', that like the innocence of the Birmingham Six it simply could not be countenanced.

If, in this protracted debate, Red Action had restricted itself to proclaiming contemporary Red Action strategies that would be one thing, but instructively the 'right/wrong' all or nothing injunction OP itself invoked, was as a direct result of RA members in a 'disciplined fashion' applying the politics of Engel's and Marx to the all the contradictions faced by the left in the present day. It followed therefore, if Marx was right, then it was probable, if their logic could not be faulted RA was right, which rather pointed to the fact, that if as his loyal disciples, OP were consistently finding themselves on the wrong end of the argument, it was not them but Lenin who had blundered.

As this couldn't possibly be countenanced, the only palatable conclusion was to concede that if in crucial areas Marx and Lenin had indeed differed, then sad as it was, Marx was the one who messed up.

It was of course a delightful irony that in adopting this line of defense, the 'fault-line' in progressive thinking, which from the very beginning RA had insisted existed and had set out to find, was thus established.

To say there was a deep unease within the more conformist circles at this turn of events is a vast understatment. Apart from anything else, the Red Action reading of events implied the international working class movement had actually peaked with the seizure of power in October 1917. Thereafter it had been all down hill. And with the theoretical retreat from working class rule, deemed to have been responsible for the demise, being triggered almost at once, it automatically followed the degeneration of the workers state had begun on - Lenin's - and not Stalin's watch.

Even today in 2003, the impact of this revisionist view being finally accepted would be profound.

For one thing, the habit of looking at every development purely through a party optic, which more than anyone, Lenin pioneered, would be recognized as dated and flawed. Other early casualties would be the notion that a political programme is of greater importance than a working class orientation, and that the palpable lack of resonance of the orthodox Left can still somehow be sorted 'in-house'.

Along with the acceptance of serious limitations applying to the elites of any hue, the jettisoning of the belief, that it is within only those referred to euphemistically as 'advanced workers' that the dynamic for radical, social and political change is to be found, would follow almost automatically.

Moreover when considering the current controversy surrounding the definition of working class (a court case has recently been brought by property speculators on the basis that such a class no longer exists) it is only by accepting the deep malaise of the left is the result of a basic design flaw that it can begin to re-invent itself, and by so doing, start to reshape a future political landscape from that very moment.

But even where the extreme right is regularly displacing the conservative left as the radical alternative across Europe, many remain wedded to the old ways and beliefs that have rendered them impotent for the best part of a hundred years.

It is wise therefore not to expect, or be too impatient for something akin to a Damascene conversion, particularly as the opinion formers are mainly academics seemingly incapable of original thought.

But again if the Red Action odyssey proves anything it is that the graver problem of the two lies not with the present day messenger but with the 'original' message.

In summary what was shown through the involvement of RA in some genuine 'open polemic' was not that the disciples had deviated from the true path of Lenin and Trotsky, but, that if Marx is considered the more reliable guide, then it is Lenin, and Trotsky who strayed. The conclusion is thus straightforward. After a century of wasted effort, and with America looking to establish a new empire on the Roman model, for those who accept a politically independent working class as the anteroom to serious social and economic change there can only be once course of action. If working class rule remains the unchanging goal then any allegiance to ideologies, theories, strategies and tactics that have not delivered on the objective are all in serious need of a fresh, critical, and needless to say urgent reappraisal.

February 2003