Correspondence (Issue #6) - Root & Branch

Kent Worcester writes and Root & Branch responds.
Part of issue #6 of Root and Branch, a U.S. Libertarian Socialist Journal.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on February 13, 2022

Dear Friends,

I'm not sure where to start. Root & Branch 5 was very interesting, in addition to being readable and well produced. It covered well the subjects Root & Branch is strong on--the working class (as an actuality), Marxism as viable theory, etc. But you had no articles, or even mention, of a whole range of issues and politics that you just don’t seem interested in--national and sexual oppression being the obvious examples. So if you're serious about “discussions about the nature of capitalist society, the origins of the present crisis, and the future possibilities of creating a new socialist society," then this should be changed. In fact, it seems to me that all of the articles have the same focus, the sane types of conclusions. Now I know how hard a first issue is, but doesn’t this reflect a certain political narrowness?

Anyway, it also seems like this narrowness has produced the articles on the “Revolt Against Work” and “A New class Theory”--polemics really, and the latter reminded me of Trotsky! I think the important point, incidently, about the Ehrenreichs’ articles is their focus on the problem of the New Left, where it came from. Although their historical and class manipulations fell short of supporting their argument, there is something there of value for socialists in 1978. If I can quote from an introduction to Pannekoek’s Workers’ Councils that Root & Branch members wrote, “There is no discussion of problems raised for the movement by divisions between the sexes or races within the working class, nor the role of such growing sectors as students and white-collar administrative workers.” Is Comrade Roth writing to solve this problem, or to attack the Ehrenreichs as lousy Marxists?

But the bulk of the first issue is devoted to the growth of the CNT in particular, and the “New Workers’ Movement” in general. Interesting enough. You’re wrong, of course, to say that the leninists think that the socialist revolution will come in stages, but I'll get back to that later. I think it's interesting that you devote half the issue to Spain. What about similar articles on other countries and the U.S.A.? I feel, actually, that the one thing that is needed in America is a journal talking about the U.S. working class in a concrete way. You have yet to do that.

And of course this is a broader point: to quote from International Socialism 61, “People often talk about the need to ‘develop theory‘. In fact, Marxist theory is not developed on the basis of some general wish to theorize. It grows in response to actual problems facing Marxists.” Absolutely true. It's an easy out to rely on year-old material from Spain, when things like the coal miners’ strike are happening here in the U.S. But for you to criticize Leninists (a nice broad term) for not relating to the U.S. working class seems rather absurd.

You haven't presented, either in this journal or at your forums in Boston, an overall critique of Leninism. I gather you feel the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was a putsch. This is an old argument. It isn't helped by your insistence that only those who are “neither leaders nor bystanders but . . . part of the struggle” are of consequence when, of course, leadership will come precisely out of those struggles! As a Marxist I believe the Bolsheviks faced certain material conditions that made it impossible to create a workers’ state (ravaged economy, civil war, etc.) and helped the growth of Stalinism. Stalin, I'll grant you, believed that stages were necessary, but Lenin and Trotsky both rejected it. All I can do, since neither of us will be convinced, is refer you to Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky and Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin.

I can’t seem to pull together a critique of Root & Branch only because there isn't enough there. I will always find Mattick's writing valuable, and the politics of “council communism” need to be pursued. But I feel it’s a good likelihood that events, always the final determiner, will leave you behind as you anxiously read obscurer Pannekoek. As Stevie Wonder said, “Trying to tell us from right and wrong . . . but you haven't done nothing.”

Kent Worcester

ROOT & BRANCH RESPONDS

We wish you would “pull together a critique of Root & Branch” sometime; so far the charge of “political narrowness” seems to include: a lack of interest in nationalism and sexism, a lack of articles on the American working class, a polemical attitude towards the Ehrenreichs, and an unjustified dislike of Leninism. Our reactions to these points are, respectively:

1. It's true that some of us are less interested in the issues of national, sexual, and racial oppression than are most leftists. In part this is because we feel that emphasis on such sectional struggles has obscured the general problem of the working class. We have therefore put our energies into exploring issues generally ignored, although we are aware of course that these sectional issues exist. Hence the interview with Mujeres Libres in R&B 5; and, it is partially for its discussion of the national question that we are publishing Paul Mattick’s article on Rosa Luxemburg in this issue. In general, however, as we are not claiming to be a vanguard party, we don’t find it necessary to have a line on every question of the day, nor to say something about everything in every issue.

2. The other lacuna seems to us more serious. In fact it was easier for us to find out about the workers’ movement in Spain than the miners’ strike here. None of us here in Boston has access to information other than what anyone else could glean from the newspapers, and it seems pointless to present, in the venerable left tradition, the usual facts warmed over in an entirely predictable analysis. We used the space for Spain not as an “easy out,” but because this was material quie unavailable in the U.S.

3. One reason we did not stress the Ehrenreichs’ thoughts on the New Left is that their novelty did not impress us since we published similar ideas in R&B 1 (1969, reprinted in our book in 1974). Comrade Roth describes his motives as follows:

What I attempted in the review of the Ehrenreichs was to acknowledge the questions they raised while pulling apart the theoretical framework of their answers. It seems to me that Marx’s definition of class is more useful and more accurate than the one used by the Ehrenreichs; for, while his theory can be used to address the questions they ask, the Ehrenreichs’ framework cannot explain the overall functioning of the system unless one drops any pretense of logical consistency. Why use a three-class model to describe the division of labor and a two-class model for economics when Marx’s original theory can do both?

The Ehrenreichs’ articles have received a fair amount of attention because they tried to explain some of the more depressing aspects of New Left politics--its isolation and its attention to technocratic versions of socialism. But their answers also proposed a new way of analysing capitalist society. It is just on this point that I wanted to agree with them, “How does one go about analysing capitalist society?”. I don’t consider this to be a narrow or simply polemical issue. To me, this is what political debate in particular, and thinking and consciousness in general, are all about: “How do we go about making sense of the world we live in?”.

I also never suggested that we not bother with race, class, or job status issues, only that the Ehrenreichs’ discussion is not a very helpful contribution.

4. Regarding Leninism, many good critiques (e.g., by Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Otto Ruhle, Paul Mattick, and Claude Berger) have already been published, and old ideas can still hold true. (Those who impugn arguments on grounds of age should remember that Lenin’s arguments are of necessity even older than those of his critics!) On the minor issue of the “stages theory,” a glance at the fifth chapter of State and Revolution should end doubts that Lenin espoused it. Since we also are Marxists, K.W.’s sentence on the limits of the Russian revolution and so on Leninism in its original context sums up our position pretty well. We do agree, however, that Leninism will require thorough-going criticism as long as it is kept alive as a potential threat to workers taking social power themselves.

To conclude, we hope that in view of the tasks required, K.W. will help fill some of the gaps he has indicated by writing articles for us or further polemics like his welcome letter. And this goes for the rest of you too! Thanks for writing.