Red & Black Notes

October 28, 2009 at 2:09 am (Uncategorized)

I used to publish a newsletter called Red & Black Notes. It ran for 22 issues. In November of 2005, I joined Internationalist Perspective. The final issue appeared a few months later.  I planned to put the final issue up on my web site , but never did. Now Geocites is gone, although the site is archived on libcom and at

Here’s the editorial from R&BN 22 which sort of explains my political history…

On Joining Internationalist Perspective: The Question of Organization 

The decision to join a revolutionary organization is not one which should be taken lightly. In this account of the process by which I came to join Internationalist Perspective, I do not wish to present a simplified straight line leading from Trotskyism through councilism to IP, but rather an examination of my political evolution on key communist questions.   

 The appearance of Red & Black Notes in May 1997 was the culmination of two-year long   process of political evolution away from the Trotskyism, which I had followed for almost a decade. It was also the beginning of a new political odyssey.

As a Trotskyist, I had upheld the key Leninist ideas of the importance of the vanguard party, the nature of the trade unions as workers’ organizations and the non-capitalist nature of the Soviet Union. When I left the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) in 1995, I only doubted the first of these; my organizational break with Trotskyism was not a political, nor a methodological break. I left the IBT convinced that the problem was not Trotskyist ideas, but the way in which they were ‘sold’ to the working class. In this sense, I still saw politics as an ideological commodity and the working class as passive consumers.

After leaving the IBT, I began to re-study and reflect upon many of the basic texts of both Marxism and also anarchism, as well as to try to understand more deeply actual working class struggle.  I came in contact with libertarian communist organizations, and what is sometimes referred to as councilism, which stressed both the spontaneous creativity of the working class, but also a strong distrust of self-appointed saviours of the working class. For those seeking a non-Leninist, but still Marxist revolutionary vision, the ideas of councilism are an attractive fit. In addition to these ideas, the original intention in publishing R&BN was to make contact with others who held similar perspectives, and to work through these questions for myself. 

Almost two years after I left the IBT, the first issue of R&BN appeared,  containing three articles: “May Day – A Traditional Workers’ Holiday”, “The Origins of May Day”, and excepts from the Solidarity (UK) document “As We Don’t See It.” By this time, I was in contact with Collective Action Notes, Echanges et Mouvement and Ken Weller of the Solidarity group. All three groups, although differing in analysis and emphasis would be identified by some as ‘councilist,’ stressing the self-activity of the working class and downplaying the political organization. It was through these groups that I was introduced to the ideas of the Dutch-German communist left.  

In the first issues of Red & Black Notes, the goal of the publication was not to lay down a line for the working class to follow (or more likely ignore), but rather to try to explain, and to let workers draw their own conclusions. In this sense, I sought not to create a pole of regroupment or a cadre, but rather to put forward a position which seemed all too absent in political discourse. In abandoning the vanguardist perspective, the Echanges document Presentation Pamphlet was a major influence in that it saw workers as being in control of their destiny and in making rational decisions. It also explained why the ‘vanguards’ had so little influence in the class, and why it did not matter. In line with this perspective was a concentration on puncturing the pretensions of the vanguardists. I once annoyed a supporter of the IBT by insisting I had as much influence in the working class as his organization did. Of course, this was untrue, but in a larger sense we had about the same impact of the struggle of the class. 

In publishing R&BN, I was able to fully understand the reasons for distancing myself from Trotskyism. In re-examining the question of the political form, it was inevitable that this would lead to questioning other Trotskyist beliefs. When I pulled on the string, the sweater began to unravel. In R&BN #5, I published two original articles by Cajo Brendel on council communism and on the Russian Revolution. Although I had begun to question the Trotskyist theory of the former Soviet Union as a workers’ state, I had not published material reflecting that skepticism (although a reading of Maurice Brinton’s book The Bolsheviks and Workers Control had gone some way in that direction.).

Several Trotskyist currents such as the International Socialist Tendency and the League for the Revolutionary Party had already identified the statism inherent in Trotskyism even if they were incapable of drawing the logical conclusions. By examining state capitalism as a global phenomena, I was able to see that Trotskyism in  supporting various   national liberation movements was choosing sides in these moments in the class war, and thus represented an objectively pro-capitalist albeit state capitalist current. 

While the pretensions of the vanguard organization were abandoned along with the workers’ state theory, I retained at least a semi-Trotskyist position on the unions. I no longer believed they could be conquered or transformed, but saw them as working class organizations that could, on occasion, be used by the working class. Following Echanges, I felt that workers would use them for their needs or not. I did not recognize however, that unions were primarily instruments of control. In retrospect, the events of Ontario’s Days of Action movement against the Progressive Conservative government were an instrument point. That struggle, whose full story has yet to be told, was a classic example of how a genuine anger from significant sections of the working population was successfully contained and derailed by the union movement. It should be noted that the Echanges group was much clearer than I was on this question, and their ancestors in the Dutch-German left were among the first to develop these positions.

If a reader were to look through the issues of R&BN, it is the question of organization which figures more prominently than any other. In addition to the published issues of R&BN, there were two versions of the pamphlet Spontaneity and Organization which contained several articles dealing with this question. Despite an earlier, disavowal of this point, I began to seek out collaborators. In the anti-globalization movement, I co-signed a leaflet with two other now-defunct magazines The Bad Days Will End and Collective Action Notes.   Although it came to nothing, we hoped to move toward the beginnings of some kind of structured council communist tendency. But what sort of tendency and what would its practice be?

In my travel from Leninism, I came across a quote by Paul Mattick which I thought captured the essence of the council communist perspective:

 “The ‘consciousness’ to rebel against and to change society is not developed by the ‘propaganda’ of conscious minorities, but by the real and direct propaganda of events…So long as minorities operate within the mass, the mass is not revolutionary but neither is the minority. Its ‘revolutionary conceptions’ can still only serve capitalistic functions. If the masses become revolutionary, the distinction between conscious minority and unconscious majority disappears, and also the capitalistic function of the apparently ‘revolutionary consciousness’ of the minority.”

 Here, I thought Mattick had perfectly explained why political minorities were isolated, and why the desire to become mass parties under capitalism was impossible. Of course, as I ignored the fatalism of the quote, I failed to note that it contradicted Mattick’s own work. The implication is that conscious revolutionary minorities can do nothing at all. Mattick was an activist, a polemicist and certainly aspired to spread his thoughts through the working class. It seemed to me that it some ways, as Gilles Dauvé and others have pointed out, the Leninist and the ultra-left traditions had become mirror images of each other. While the Leninist saw the working class movement outside of the party only as the thing which would allow them to rise to power, the councilist position, in its most extreme versions became a contemplative group.         In moving away from Mattick, I drew upon an idea by Dauvé, who wrote in his famous book, The Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, while we should not seek to build the party, we should not fear to build it. While this latter formulation is better, it too contains a contradiction. The error was not to see revolutionaries as a part of the class, but something outside. Revolutionaries do not bring that knowledge and experience as something outside of the class, but as something within it. While distrustful of anyone who wanted to be the leader of the working class, I came to realize the role a revolutionary group could play in developing that leadership, and how that leadership differed from my previous political conceptions.

So then, what was to be done? For a number of years R&BN had operated as a lone wolf, working with whomever I wished, but theory and organization requires more than an individual effort. Marx wrote Capital as part of the workers’ movement of his day, not as an isolated individual.  

 Red & Black Notes first met International Perspective in the late 1990s through a supporter living in Vancouver. A year or so later, the Internationalist Discussion List was set up. The list was an English language version of a similar list established in France to promote discussion and debate within the left communist milieu, and which included former supporters of the International Communist Current. While seldom as vigorous as the French list, the English list carried on important discussions on a number of important political issues such as class consciousness, terrorism, and the formal and real domination of capital. Through this forum, I became more familiar with the history and political views of IP. I met members of IP in the summer of 2003, and attended their conferences in 2004 and 2005.

            Internationalist Perspective left the ICC in 1985, as the External Fraction of the ICC, publishing a magazine of the same name in English and French. Initially the EFICC saw the ICC as revising its position on class consciousness, and sought to defend the platform of the ICC. However, by 1994, it had concluded that the ICC’s platform was inadequate, and that key sections of those ideas, and indeed the historical legacy of the Communist Left, needed to be re-examined. These conclusions were published in two documents “Balance-sheet for a new start: Internationalist Perspective,” and “The World as we see it: Reference Points.” Both of these appear in Internationalist Perspective #27 (the latter document is available on the IP web site). In the same year, the organization changed its name from the External Fraction to that of the magazine.

 As I became familiar with IP, through its publication, through correspondence, and through meetings, I was impressed by both the theoretical perspective in explaining the continued development of capitalism, and also their commitment to discussion and development of theory. I reprinted several documents for distribution.

The Communist Left, though pre-dating the Bolshevik Revolution, was shaped by the Bolshevik orthodoxy and the emergence of state-capitalism in the Soviet Union. The Left Communists, principally in Italy, Germany and Holland advanced new theories, but paid a high price in isolation. Where IP disagrees with the historic Communist Left is that it recognizes the dangers of viewing insights from the past uncritically, and the dangers of those insights freezing into dogma. The Communist Left clearly drew a class line that was absence in the Trotskyism I had once endorsed; however, many of its descendants have failed to grasp the development of capital in the latter part of the twentieth century.

            For me, and IP, one of the key recognitions in understanding the developing of society in the twenty first century is the importance of the theory of the formal and real domination of capital, a more nuanced theory of decadence, as well as the notion of the recomposition of the working class. Without adding to the breakthroughs of the Communist Left, that insight becomes dogma.  While not abandoning the Left Communist tradition, one of the goals IP has set for itself is “to go beyond the weaknesses and insufficiencies of the Communist left through an effort of incessant theoretical development.”  R&BN invites readers to be a part of this process of discussion as a way to contribute to the development of working class political theory and for a better tomorrow.



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