Everything changes, and yet everything remains the same

After i wrote the first draft of my paper published in Gramsciana #2 (see previous post) about a Norwegian debate on Gramsci vs. Lenin in 1980, I also wrote this small piece on a debate I myself started in 2014. I however was lost into other projects and never got around to publishing it, even online like this. I will however do so now, but it references rather heavily to the Gramsciana paper, so this probably should be read first to get all the references. It also is just rushly updated, and reflects a situation in 2014/2015. I will however add a small postscript.

 

As an epilogue to this relatively well-known debate, however made colorful by the language of the representatives of the NKP, it could be suitable to mirror it with a more recent, although smaller debate, I myself was a part of.

It so happens that I in march 2014 published a small book, also titled “Sosialisme på Norsk”[1]. It was not an attempt to re-do or model myself after Slagstad’s project, although I was aware of it, and some elements (but far from all) had similarities. The background was that I was asked to head the committee for rewriting the program of the Red Party. This spurned the need for ideological debate, and an outline of the multitude of non-capitalist forms of production that actually exists.

In one of the introductory chapters, I used Gramsci in somewhat a similar manner to Slagstad, all though I contrasted him to Bukharin and the deterministic view of history of the Comintern, rather than Lenin (using Gramsci’s critique[2] of Bukharin’s popular 1921-textbook on Historical Materialism[3]), closing with the following paragraph:

But social science is not physics, and not even physics is , as we know, Newtonian anymore. Capitalism unfortunately does not necessarily lead to revolution and socialism, and any transition to socialism will hardly occur as the early “soviet marxists” envisioned. The unsuccessful revolutions in Europe, made Antonio Gramsci see this already in the 20’s. We, who also know very well how the Soviet Union and China with their respective fiefdoms evolved after their revolutions, have no excuse to hold on to such dogma. We must free ourselves from whatever is left of historic determinism and “economism”. And we must rid ourselves of the ideological cocksureness that has afflicted parts of Marxism.[4]

There was some public debate after the publication of the book, but most was more connected to the party program process, than the book per se, all though some of it was interconnected. I will not attempt to summarize that debate, only to point to the area in which it can be seen as a rather sad epilogue to Slagstad’s debate with NKP. One of several media appearances I made at the time, was an interview with the conservative(sic.) journal Minerva, in which I touch in on Gramsci on a couple of points. One example:

– In the book you describe how fundamental social changes can be brought by via reforms?

– In the book I describe what changes you can make today, that will point towards another society. Antonio Gramsci writes of a “passive revolution”. He believes that fundamental social change can come as a gradual metamorphosis and take many years. We live in a society today that is much more democratic than the one Karl Marx lived in. Here people can vote politicians they dislike out of their positions. In such a situation, the notion of gaining power by storming government offices, is an absurd idea.[5]

The book and the points of debate I made towards the program process, was met by criticism by some of the older members of the Red Party, particularly those with a background from AKP. I will however here quote a couple of comments from the pages of the still running newspaper of the NKP, Friheten. This first excerpt from a wider comment on the Red Party is by the editor, Harald Ø. Reppesgaard:

Kjelsberg […] engaged himself with Gramsci and “Eurocommunism.” The fact that the big “eurocommunist” parties PCF, CPI and PCE became marginalized in their opportunism and became good supporters for the EU, should make him reconsider.[6]

Disregarding the irony of a representative from a party dwindling to 500 votes in national elections by holding a firm “leninist” line, pointing to the “opportunism” of the eurocommunist parties, as the reason behind their decline during the nineties (however definitely less so for the PCE), the strategies of these parties in facing the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, is certainly worth a study. It is however outside the scope of this article.

Another comment, from a letter to the editor in the following issue by a Sylfest Haug, a self-proclaimed “marxist-leninist”, is held in the same “leninist” style Bingen coined as “40 volumes of abuse”, but goes a bit more in depth

Then let me say something about Ronny Kjelsberg. He is hopelessly lost in liberal attitudes – a sad example of a “socialist” who can be chased from post to post. He is even called a “libertarian socialist.”[7]

(I usually do not call myself a “libertarian socialist”, but I may on some occasion have described myself as “more libertarian” in contrast to someone with a more traditional marxist-leninist viewpoint.) Haug then continues in a similar line as Bingen, but somehow cruder, discussing how Gramsci loyally followed the majority Comintern line eg. in the conflict with Bordiga, before closing off with the following explanation of Gramsci’s popularity:

In my humble judgment Gramsci’s popularity is due to the fact […] that Gramsci’s theories […] are difficult to access (which is due to the fact that Gramsci’s theories were largely non marxist and confusing with no association between earlier and later “works”, and Gramsci’s practical politics) – and thus are interesting for vain “left-wing intellectuals”.[8]

The fundamental error in these last lines of reasoning, should be documented earlier in this article, and the style tempts me to a reply similar to the one Slagstad made to Bingen, but I will refrain from it. The similarities of the different stances in this last debate, and the first one, are obvious. The differences however, may be worth pointing out, as they say quite a bit about the state of both the political left in Norway, and the level of informed academic debate on the left.

35 years ago, leading figures in the Socialist Left Party would spur theoretical marxist debates, who could even engage leading figures from the Labor party like Einar Førde and Ingjald Ørbeck Sørheim. To believe something like this could happen in 2014, one would have to be a somewhat utopian socialist (figuratively speaking).

35 years ago one could also engage leading scholars in these debates, and the Norwegian Communist Party, although even at that time “a Stalinist sect” in Slagstad’s terms, did have some notable scholars able to make contributions to them. Today their contributions are restricted to mere instinctive defenses of old Stalinist stances coupled with a definite anti-intellectual attitude.

One is tempted to evoke Marx’ “First as a tragedy, then as a farce”. It it was tragic that many young and talented academics were channeled into Stalinist sects in the 70’s. On the other hand: those who take similar stands today are so few, with such a low theoretical level, that their contributions constitute little but a farce.

This current debate did, as I have explained, spur from a debate in the Red Party. The Red party at the time had no national parliamentary representation (but were represented in many municipalities and county councils), and has since its foundation normally had election results in the area of 1-2 %. The Socialist Left Party in contrast got 4,9 % in 1981, and has been represented in parliament from it’s foundation. The only real scholar engaged in the debate in 2014 was Audun Øfsti (the same Øfsti Slagstad praised in his 1979 essay in Marxist Perspectives), who agreed to write an afterword to my book.

This paints a bleak picture of the state of the radical left in Norway in 2014, and of the level of theoretical and academic debate. Perhaps too bleak. There are on occasion interesting scholarly debates in Norway from a leftist point of view, in large (by Norwegian standards) journals like Samtiden, Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift and Agora, along with a few smaller journals, but I believe the Norwegian left is suffering from a wider international problem: Academics do not engage themselves in party politics, and politicians rarely involve themselves in academic and theoretical debates. Two separate worlds have been allowed to develop over the last few decades. I believe this is some of the reason for the declining level of political debate on the Norwegian left, and I believe it is a big loss for the political parties. If academics truly are interested in “changing the world” and not just describing it, it is their loss to.

 

PS

After I originally wrote this addendum in 2014, but never got around to posting it at the time, things are looking up a bit.

There came a couple of more substantial contributions to the debate following my book after I originally wrote this text. Kari Celius and Oscar Dybedahl both came with constructive criticism in the journal Rødt! (owned by The Red Party). The area of serious political debate on the Norwegian left is not over.

The Red Party also now has parliamentary representation, and is as of april 2018 above the threshold for extra mandates in parliament in the average polls, which would have seen representation raise from one to 7-8 representatives. The membership is also tripeled since I wrote this original text. The Social Left party has also grown in the polls, as their self-destructive partnership with the Labour party is getting further behind. The NKP is however growing smaller and smaller still, and their paper referenced, has been reduced from weekly to bi-weekly publication. Whether there is some causal connection to a relatively closed approach to marxism and social science at large, is beyond the scope of this text, but it would not surprise me.

[1] Kjelsberg, Ronny (2014) Sosialisme på norsk, Rødt

[2]  Gramsci Antonio (1992) Kritiske merknader til et forsøk på «Populær innføring i sosiologi», i Torbjørn Kalberg (red.), Gramsci i utvalg. Tre artikler. Institutt for sosiologi, UiO, 1992

[3] Bukharin, Nikolai (1921) Historical Materialism A System of Sociology http://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1921/histmat/

[4] Kjelsberg, Ronny (2014) Sosialisme på norsk, Rødt! p. 18

[5] Kjelsberg, Ronny (2014) – Rødt er et sentrumsparti (interview), Minerva http://www.minervanett.no/rodt-er-et-sentrumsparti/

[6] Reppesgaard, Harald Ø (2014) Jorun Gulbrandsens «kommunisme», Friheten 20.5.2014

[7] Haug, Sylfest (2014) Jorun Gulbrandsen, rød-blå smørje og redaktør Reppesgaard, Friheten 3.6.2014

[8] ibid.

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