Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Ian Birchall and Daniel Guerin

It is really worthwhile having a look at Ian Birchall's paper for the conference on Daniel Guerin that I noted in my discussion of Ben Watson's review of Sartre Against Stalinism. Ian's contribution is called 'Daniel Guerin's dialogue with Leninism'. His stating point is that Guerin attempted to work with just about any group who shared his perspective of 'socialism from below' and was thus a mediator between Marxist and anarchist emphases. Ian makes the familiar point that the classic debates between anarchism and Leninism have resurfaced in the 'anti-capitalist movement' and says that:
'For those of who would wish these arguments to lead to constructive dialogue, rather than the sterile futility of mutual denunciation, Guerin should be a model.... in terms of style.'
Hmmm, with the kerfuffle at the London ESF and the subsequent and on-going political battle over its legacy it's hard to see that 'constructive dialogue' at the moment.

Ian takes us through Guerin's changing evaluations of Jacobinism and Leninism in much solid academic detail, utilising a standard defence of Lenin in terms of context, i.e. what Lenin said in What is to be Done? not the same as what he was arguing in 1905. All very accurate and familiar to anyone who's read Cliff or Marcel Liebman, but opening up (again) the problem for anyone seeking to defend or extend the Leninist tradition; which is that if Lenin is to be taken in context and not treated as if his formulations are definitive and timeless, how to explain the validity of a political tradition in such a different context.

Birchall makes a good case for seeing Guerin as reacting badly to a 'Leninism' simultaneously created and deformed by Stalinism, and given a distorted mirror form by the small number of (brave)Trotskyites that Guerin came across - and shows how he responded positively to more libertarian Marxist developments through the 1950s and 1960s.

Ian also has a standard (familiar to any reader of Chris Harman's still excellent The Lost Revolution) defence of the need for a Leninist party in the light of the trajectory of the failed German Revolution of 1918-1923. Guerin sought to show that the failure of the KPD was rooted in its internal organisation and its 'satellisation' by the Comintern. Ian responds that the problem wasn't so much interference from Moscow but the parties lurches from right to left and back in the period, a flaw rooted in the lack of a coherent or experienced leadership and thus implicitly in Rosa Luxemburg's failure to build a cadre. I used to think and say this, as I said Harman's book is very persuasive, but I'm much less convinced now and will return to the issue - hopefully when I get the new issue of Revolutionary History.

Ian also talks about Guerin attempting to develop an alternative to Lenin in the figure of Rosa Luxemburg, but in his view juxtaposing Luxemburg to a 'rather one-sided Lenin' led Guerin to an overstatement of the contrast between these two great revolutionary figures. Birchall presents a (politically very attractive) Lenin who although focused on problems of organisation was actually very flexible about the form of organisation, open to dialogue with anarchists and thus, without minimizing the real differences between these two figures, finds points of important convergence between them.

This is good stuff and Birchall has a typically excellent conclusion:
'The real Lenin, cleansed of the distortions and excrescences of Stalinism, still has much to offer us. The quasi-religious use of Leninist texts has been a positive obstacle to the appreciation of Lenin's true merits. If Guerin's criticisms have made it easier to grasp the real Lenin, then we are in his debt.'
We need more Daniel Guerin - Ian quotes a lot that doesn't seem to have been translated and this is a crying shame.


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