12-5pm, Saturday 29th August, at the Artillery Arms, 102 Bunhill Row, near Old Street, London
In 1917 the Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, soviets, took power proclaiming a workers’ and peasants’ republic in Russia. In the aftermath of the First World War revolutions established Soviet republics in Ukraine, Hungary, Bavaria and Slovakia in 1919. A new Communist International was founded to unite the international struggle to overthrow capitalism and establish a communist society. By 1921 the revolution was in retreat, a process which culminated in the triumph of counter-revolution and Stalinist totalitarianism.
The legacy of the revolutions remain with us to this day, but what does it mean for communists seeking to create a new society in the 21st century? Is it our tradition; were these revolutions a dead end never to be repeated; or does it assist us with a perspective for today? The Commune is holding a summer school to discuss these questions and others.
Introduction – Are the revolutions still relevant?
The Revolution Advances: The Ukrainian Revolution and Soviet Hungary, 1919-20. Guest speaker is Chris Ford, a historian of the Ukrainian Revolution and author of Outline history of the Ukrainian Communist Party.
The Revolution in Retreat: Guest Speaker is Simon Pirani author of the Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924 The Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite and a forthcoming study of Putin’s Russia.
The Counter-revolution triumphs: The Soviet workers and Stalinism. Guest Speaker is Don Filtzer, an historian of the USSR whose books include Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization: The Formation of Modern Soviet Production Relations, 1928-1941.
17 thoughts on “saturday’s russian revolution day school in london”
Well, we discovered that Piranha had a book to be be published and has campaigns to run, Chris puts the struggle of the national bourgeoisie before the interests of the working class, and Don thinks that the working class doesn’t exist unless it is conscious. On more than one occasion the idea was put forward that if certain ideas had been followed it would have been a disaster. this, of course, was from the defenders of the disasters that did happen.
‘Trench’: funny how people with so much to say, so many criticisms and so much bile for others are always so unkeen to use their real names…
well, never mind that – I don’t like using my real name online either. But Trench’s comment is typical of the useless sectarian sniping which we need to rise above. There is no content there, no argument, no politics, no attempt to grasp anything that was said. Just an insult or two. I don’t even understand what the last two sentences are supposed to mean.
Those not present at the meeting may be surprised to learn that, despite the post above, none of the accusations made by Trench were raised in the debate – a general reference to ‘democratic demands’ was made, but the accusation that Chris “puts the struggle of the national bourgeoisie before the interests of the working class” was not heard yesterday. And twisting someone’s name? That’s a little pathetic isn’t it?
You claim that: “Chris puts the struggle of the national bourgeoisie before the interests of the working class”.
I would greatly appreciate an explanation how I did this either in my presentation, answers or contributions to the debate? I stated I favoured an independent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and endorsed its advocates from the time ranging from Ukrainian communists to Soviet Hungary. It is a view I have expressed consistently for many years in numerous articles, in papers, journals and books. I also explained that: 1. there was no Ukrainian national bourgeoisie to speak of as it was overwhelmingly Russian and as such opposed even the existence of Ukraine, 2. Western imperialism opposed the independence of Ukraine. As such the national question could only be resolved through by the workers and peasants in a soviet republic. The only people who argue consistently there was a Ukrainian national bourgeoisie were the Stalinist historians. I am not saying a comprador capitalist class could not take shape, it did in 1918 under the Germans, and as logic prevailed headed towards the restoration of re-unification with the Russian nationalist project.
An explanation please?
Apologies for pathetic tone of previous remarks, written in irritation after what turned out to be a long and tiring day – clearly not productive and not introducing anything that helpful into the proceedings.
The main problem I had with the day was that there were lots of different points of view put forward, but not a lot of engagement/relation between the differences. Obviously the corollary of that was that people felt able to put those different ideas forward in the first place. So the latter is a step forward, and the former is I suppose, on reflection, just not another step forward.
For instance, we heard the words ‘permanent revolution’ on a number of occasions. It seemed to mean different things to different people, and there were other people who seemed to be using the idea without using the phrase. All sorts of questions came to mind: What did Trotsky really mean when he talked about permanent revolution? To what extent was the idea actually understood or taken up by others? Is it in any way relevant in the 21st century? When there are obviously a number of very different points of view in the room you really do have to clarify what you’re actually saying.
So, coming back to the question of the Ukraine, there were obviously different levels of appreciation of a complex situation, but many more general ideas that people felt confident enough to introduce. The trouble was for all the early 20th century figures mentioned (from memory these included Lenin, Pyatakov, Bukharin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and probably others..) it wasn’t really possible to get an idea of where these far-off figures stood. So, for it to be suggested that things would have been even worse (‘disastrous’) had the ideas of Luxemburg been followed, without saying what those ideas were, really didn’t help. Her approach to the national question is not popular, but it is distinctive in showing the implications of national struggles in the epoch of imperialism. So favouring an ‘independent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and ‘its advocates from the time ranging from Ukrainian communists to Soviet Hungary’ while dismissing Luxemburg’s ideas without explanation didn’t sit comfortably. It’s a bit like the SWP’s advocacy of ‘revolution, not reform.’ They say they’re in favour of the former, but in practice rather focus on the latter.
Anyway, I don’t intervene much on the internet as (not uniquely) I end up saying something stupid or just rambling on to little effect.
Trench you did not answer my question at all, you made rather sweeping statement on my views and could at least have the courtesy to explain how you consider I hold this view – which I verhmently deny.
I’m glad that Trench apologised for the tone of his initial post. It was a real aberration because immediately after the Commune dayschool he had taken part in a discussion with a comrade (a close sympathiser of the ICC) who is writing a response to Pirani’s review of our book on the Russian left, and the concern we had with his initial draft was that it didn’t make it clear enough that we were in favour of mantaining a dialogue with Pirani on these issues. Trench was clearly in favour of that approach.
Regarding Chris’s position on the Ukraine, I also have to say that I came away not feeling very clear what his position was – he has since made things somewhat clearer. He also tended to leave his criticisms of Piatakov and Luxemburg’s views on the national question on a very general level, saying how disasrous they were or would have been without really explaining in what way. Also left unclear to me was whether – in general and not just in the specific case of the Ukraine – he agrees with Lenin’s version of self-determination, which does not restrict itself to the notion of ‘independent soviet republics’ but is ready to accept the formation of a separate bourgeois republic.
I repeat when did I say this: “Chris puts the struggle of the national bourgeoisie before the interests of the working class”.
“an independent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic”. Why independent? Independent of/from what? What is the role of the working class in this republic? What is the role of other classes?
That is not an answer. You seek to impose views on me which I do not hold and refuse to present any evidence for such an allegation. It reveals a lot about your methodology.
That is not an internationalist critique of the position of Luxemburg on the national question. Just saying that following her point of view would be ‘disastrous’ does not amount to a defence of working class interests. A critique of her views on organisation or economics is conceivable from the standpoint of the working class. I don’t know of any internationalist critique of her views on the national question – even from those who most vehemently reject her approach to the economic crisis.
As for ‘methodology’ the ‘commune’ seems to have left the AWL without a word of criticism of the ideology of Trotskyism/Shactmanism (although not to deny the criticisms of the AWL, but who doesn’t). So it’s reasonable to assume that the defence of national struggles is still in opposition to the struggle of the working class in defence of its own interests. At the ‘commune’s’ meeting there were those who defended explicitly the concept of ‘permanent revolution’ and seemed to have the idea that the working class could struggle for the interests of exploiting classes. To hide behind the idea of a struggle for a republic – rather than the interests of the working class or for a future classless society – seems to be the same approach, just without the same labels.
it’s reasonable to assume that the defence of national struggles is still in opposition to the struggle of the working class in defence of its own interests.
I don’t think that’s a reasonable assumption at all. I think you should look for evidence, rather than just assuming things.
At the ‘commune’s’ meeting there were those who defended explicitly the concept of ‘permanent revolution’ and seemed to have the idea that the working class could struggle for the interests of exploiting classes. To hide behind the idea of a struggle for a republic – rather than the interests of the working class or for a future classless society – seems to be the same approach, just without the same labels.
The people who were arguing that aren’t members of The Commune, any more than were the members of the ICC who were at the meeting (and fwiw, in my opinion their views probably put them outside our platform).
However, on your earlier comment, I think it’s probably true that there wasn’t enough time for differences in debate to be drawn out and developed. This is something we can think about next time: but this was the first day school we’ve done, and it covered alot of ground in quite a short space of time.
This is not an honest manner of conducting a discussion, to attribute a view to someone they do not hold and refuse to back it up with any evidence.
I never discussed Rosa Luxemburg on the national question on Saturday I discussed Rakovsky and Yury Pyatakov who were heads of the governments in Ukraine in 1919 and of the Bolsheviks in Ukraine. The views of Pyatakov and Luxemburg are not the same. I have provided an outline of Pyatakov’s views elsewhere on this site with my own analysis. On the whole I agree with Yurkevych except his views of the nature of the revolution.
What you need to do is examine how Pyatakov’s views were concretely applied in Ukraine during a revolution. Which were disasterous. As for Luxemburg there are internationalist critiques of her views by Lukacs and Rosdolsky.
You constantly refer to “working class interests” but who defines them? The working class in the Ukrainian revolution clearly outlined its views on the national question in repeated conferences, such as the Ukrainian Workers Conference, and the two congresses of soviets in 1917. Time and again they adopted policies of national autonomy or independence of Ukraine. It was not in the interests of the working class to refuse to tackle national oppression when russification such as in administration and education excluded Ukrainian workers from participation in the running their own republic.
As regards permanent revolution I cited a Memorandum of the Ukrainian Communist Party to the Comintern in 1920, who were the only explicit advocates of a concept of permanent revolution. I wholly endorse this concept of revolution which they outlined:
“The task of the international proletariat is to draw towards the communist revolution and the construction of a new society not only the advanced capitalist countries but also the less developed peoples of the colonies — taking advantage of their national revolutions. To fulfil this task, it must take part in these revolutions and play the leading role in the perspective of the permanent revolution. It is necessary to prevent the national bourgeoisie from limiting the national revolutions at the level of national liberation.”
You can read the rest of the documents here:
I do recall you referring to Rosa Luxemburg, but anyway from the above approving quote your position seems clear; the working class should take the lead in so-called ‘national revolutions’ to steer them in the direction of socialism. First of all, of course, this is still abstract; the positions you quote are almost 100 years old. Assuming this isn’t just academic now, exactly which ‘national revolutions’ would you support in the world today? The crux of the whole debate on national self determination a the time was about the closing of the whole epoch in which democratic/national demands were still progressive. At the time of the revolutionary wave in 1917-21 this was still not definitively clear, but there is no excuse for ignoring the lethal effects of any support for nationalism by the working class today.
The crux of the whole debate on the national question was not about the closing of the whole epoch in which democratic demands were still progressive, that might your intepretation from a 21st century vantage points superimposed on history to affirm your position. It was absolutely not the general view at the time or is it the case today. Marxism is a philosophy of liberation or it is nothing, the communist revolution is emancipation from all forms of oppression including national opression. Achieveing national liberation from opression and inequality is not the same thing as the working class supporting nationalism. A Kurdish communist advocate of independence is no more a chauvinist and nationalist than Marx’s support for Irish and Polish independence. Modern imperialist economism tries to escape dialectics by drawing an ahistorical line in the 20th century – it is the method of fundamentalists, crude, absurd, plain wrong.
So was the Communist International also being ‘ahistorical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ when it announced in 1919 that we had entered “…the epoch of the disintegration and collapse of the entire capitalist world system”? Marxism is an historical materialist method or it is nothing. Of course Marxists today must and do draw conclusions from the experience their class, and what was progressive for Marx and Engels in the period of capitalism’s progressive expansion, for example, was no longer progressive by the eve of its ‘epoch of disintegration’, as Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg recognised. Marxism also recognizes that it is not what people say that counts but what they do; abstract statements about ‘achieving national liberation from oppression and inequality’ say nothing about exactly which political forces the working class should support today, in a decaying capitalist system even more riven with insoluble national ‘questions’ than it was in 1919. ‘Dialectics’ did not prevent Lenin and his supporters from defending what was at the time a centrist position on this and other questions, which tried to ‘square the circle’ of genuine internationalism with support for bourgeois nationalist forces in the name of breaking the isolation of the Russian bastion. Communists must have no hesitation today in drawing a negative balance sheet of the CI’s support for national liberation. The real issue is not whether we can or should interpret events from our 21st century vantage point, but the fact that we both draw very different political conclusions.
All you draw from the first world revolution is the conclusions of individuals whose theory in practice contributed to its defeat both in Russia internationally. Noticeably you have nothing to say about the achievement of freedom bieng integral to the communist project, it was that which was central to Marx’s support for certain national liberation struggles. Luexemburg’s was proven completely wrong in his historical prognosis, an independent Poland did emerge, as did an independent Lithuania which she said was impossible. Here entire perspective was to abandon them to the bourgeoisie. As is yours for the 21st century in terms of opposition to national oppression. It is a position very common to the leftists in the comfortable position of imperialist heartlands.
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