RETURN TO MATERIALISM
As we reach halfway through the 1990s certain errors that characterized much of the left in the radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s are now somewhat clearer. In this article I want to focus on the sectarianism and dogmatism that dominated much of the left for a period. Specifically I want to try to make an evaluation of the strength and weakness of the movement that based itself on Leon Trotsky's interpretation of the rise of Stalinism (and therefore decline of Marxism.)
The reason I am returning to this topic is because I believe it is still an issue today in various organizations. Some, which are hopelessly sectarian, I do not wish to deal with concretely because there is no immediate hope to see them become part of the living struggles for social progress in the world.
In most cases those sectarian organizations are a negative factor in the development of an effective and viable movement. But, specifically, I see the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia as an organization with important potential but which is still holding on to many sectarian and leftist misconceptions from the past. It has one foot in Marxism and one foot in its own dogmatic past. The following discussion is presented with the hope that it will be considered over time by those who disagree with it.
Ideologically I believe the sectarian errors referred to above stem from the adoption of idealist rather than materialist views. Therefore I have titled this article "Return to materialism".
Roots of our movement
In the beginning there arose a mass social movement calling for working people to fight for their rights as capitalism developed in the 19th century. This movement had an ongoing debate over what its ultimate goals should be. Its immediate objectives were somewhat obvious. It fought for better pay, less hours of work, better working conditions and in many cases against various forms of ethnic, racial or social discrimination. But also, fundamental to the immediate struggles was the struggle for political rights for working people, the right to vote being one obvious and important issue.
The conception of a future society in which there would be no rich or poor, where society would be run democratically both politically and economically, where the economy would be rationally planned and production would be based on human needs not profits for individuals, gradually became accepted by millions throughout the world. That future society was generally referred to as socialism.
Marx tried to put the ideological footing of this movement on a scientific basis. He sought a materialist explanation for the existing class conflicts and tried to make an analysis of the nature of the existing society which he labeled capitalism. He also raised the concept that to change the nature of capitalism to a society responsive to the needs of the majority the working people a change of who rules would be needed, something that the present ruling circles would resist by any and all means.
Thus Marx made a differentiation between struggles for reforms within a capitalist society and a struggle to fundamentally change society, that is to revolutionize society.
Up until 1917 there had only been one clear case where working people favoring such a social order had actually been in power, the Paris Commune. The social explosion that brought socialists to power in 1917 completely changed the course of the history of the world's workers movement and its political corollary, known as the socialist movement.
Prior to 1917 there no question in anyone's mind that the socialist movement fought for an extension of democracy. The idea that a government calling itself socialist could shoot workers for trying to organize a union or imprison workers for attempting to organize politically wasn't debatable. It was simply considered impossible.
When the socialists lost control in the USSR and the Stalinist mafia came to power in the mid-1920s it did so in the name of socialism and with the support of most people in the world who considered themselves socialists.
Rise of Stalinism
It is my opinion that the distortion that the rise of Stalinism brought about for the world's socialist movement is not yet, and will not be, fully appreciated for years. For the world ruling capitalist class it brought about a temporary respite, a golden opportunity to fight what had been a movement that seemed to grow and spread at an ever-increasing rate.
With the rise of Stalinism the bourgeoisie could posture before the world as more democratic and more supportive of civil liberties than what was being passed off as "socialist". The bourgeois press gave its full support to the equation of socialism and Stalinism.
Opportunists within the labor movement in capitalist countries who wanted nothing better then to sell out the interests of working people for personal benefits found this situation extremely favorable, since they could confuse the revolutionary movements with Stalinism. These right opportunists, who also called themselves "socialist", now found it easier to openly support capitalism, including imperialist wars against Third World people, by arguing against "communism".
The politics of the world became rapidly completely dominated by the East-West conflict, as it was called. People calling themselves socialist could openly support the mass genocide against the Vietnamese people by the United States carpet bombing because they opposed "communism", while in the USSR unspeakable crimes were being committed in the name of "socialism", reinforcing the state of utter confusion in the world.
The truth regarding socialism and Marxism on a world scale went into freefall. Any kind of serious historical honesty was eliminated. Bourgeois education on the issues of the 19th century, the rise of the workers movement and socialism was reduced to crude propaganda made plausible by Stalinism. For the followers of Stalin, the majority of the movement claiming to advocate socialism, the scientific philosophy of Marx was turned into a religion in which anything, regardless of how obviously it contradicted everything Marx had written, was passed off as Marxism.
From the 1930s up to today, in the mid-1990s, the confusion in the minds of working people on a world scale is immense regarding the word "socialism". For most it is an economic project that inevitably will end up in a totalitarian government and/or economic paralysis. For some it may mean "Sweden" or simply lots of safety nets, but there is doubt this really "works".
Prior to 1917 the terms used by the socialist movement were generally understood by people. They knew that terms like social progress meant progress for the poor, for the majority of working people including small farmers. They knew that socialism meant reorganizing the government and economy so workers would have the decisive say and society would be run for the benefit of the majority. It meant more rational planning and equality. It meant more democracy not only politically but socially. That translated into the concepts of free education for all, free medical care, full employment, unemployment insurance, retirement insurance, etc.
Only right-wing demagogues could argue that socialism would lead to less democratic rights, inequality and fascist-like repressive regimes. Pre-1917 most workers would have dismissed such accusation as ridiculous and exaggerated propaganda. Not so today. The examples of Russia, China, North Korea and many others is clearly in the consciousness of people.
Leon Trotsky's efforts to argue that the Russian revolution of 1917 was betrayed and that one should not associate Stalinism with socialism was supported by only a small number of those considering themselves socialist.
Among those calling themselves socialist, some who agreed with Trotsky that something terrible was happening in Russia came to the conclusion that what happened in 1917, the very revolution Trotsky and Lenin had led, was in the end responsible for the rise of Stalinism. While such a position had some principled advocates, social democratic currents, which were busy selling out the working people they influenced, also could not stand Trotsky precisely because he remained loyal to the original ideas of the socialist movement.
Millions influenced by Stalinism lived in denial, believing the USSR was a democratic workers paradise. They hated Trotsky and cheered when he was assassinated, just as they cheered when the whole leadership of the revolution of 1917 was murdered. Looking back it seems so bizarre that people in every country of the world could on one hand claim to be for socialism and at the same time be so easily fooled.
The fact that millions believing in a more just society and in democracy could be fooled into supporting the opposite of their beliefs is something that we should give a lot of consideration to. We should give this some thought for a couple of reasons. An important one is that t