In a recent debate between, Lars T Lih, Paul Le Blanc, and Pham Binh(1) there is agreement that, it was not the formal aim of Lenin to proclaim the birth of the Bolshevik Party in 1912 in Prague at the conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Nor was it the formal aim of Lenin to create a separate Bolshevik Party. Again the debate clarified, that in 1912 there was not the birth of a party of a new type, free of opportunism, but the birth of a myth of such a party. Yet for all practical purposes, the RSDLP that emerged from Prague, in 1912, was a Bolshevik Party, in all but name.
Mark Hoskisson departs from the conventional Trotskyist interpretation of the Russian Revolution, in his analysis of Thermidor and the Russian Revolution. (Permanent Revolution issue 17). His conclusion is that the political counter-revolution took place inside the Bolshevik party in 1921 and was led by Lenin and supported by Trotsky.
Yet Mark still dismisses the possibility of Bolshevik values, and methods of organisation, prior to 1921, contributing to the betrayal of the political aspirations of 1917. He still clings to the orthodox view that the Bolshevik Party could somehow be a custodian of workers’ power, despite substituting itself for the working class following 1917, as long as the right to form factions were preserved. Hence, the banning of party factions in 1921 is seen as the historic turning point. Mark asserts that Bolshevism’s descent into counter-revolution marked a distinct break with, not a continuation of its fundamental character and politics in the period 1912 to 1920. Continue reading “The red jacobins : no substitute for workers’ freedom”
Adam Ford reviews The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24. Soviet workers and the new communist elite, by Simon Pirani, Routledge, 2008.
“I cannot be that sort of idealist communist who believes in the new God That They Call The State, bows before the bureaucracy that is so far from the working people, and waits for communism from the hands of pen-pushers and officials as though it was the kingdom of heaven.” – excerpt from the resignation letter of a Bolshevik Party member
Within what is usually labelled ‘the left’, your answer to the question ‘When did the Russian revolution go wrong?’ is a kind of touchstone. Each organisation seems to have its own One True Answer, and giving the wrong response at the wrong meeting can earn you the kind of scorn that the very religious reserve for those whose beliefs differ ever so slightly from theirs. Cue many weary Life of Brian jokes. Continue reading “a revolution in retreat”
The following text was published in 1982, over the name “Cormack”. It is an attempt to draw lessons from the Bolshevik experience, not only for the abstract “theory of the party”, but also for the concrete problems of communist organisation we face in the here and now, when any emergence of anything you might call a revolutionary party is far, far over the horizon.
The article was written by a member of the Communist Bulletin Group, a group which had split with the British section of the International Communist Current. The article is therefore framed in part as a critique of the ICC and, tangentially, the Communist Workers Organisation, another group in the “left communist” milieu. We are not republishing this article, however, for what it says about intra-left debate (the criticisms may or may not have been valid for all we know). However, the criticisms raised will be familiar to many who have adopted dissident positions within any of the major revolutionary left organisations. Continue reading “another look at the organisation question – communist bulletin group”
Much has been written on the revolution in Ukrainian, on the nationalists, the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks. Yet there were others with a massive following whose role has faded from history. One such party was the Borotbisty, the majority of the million strong Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, they formed an independent communist party seeking an independent Soviet Ukraine.
Though widely known amongst revolutionary Europe in their day, the Borotbisty were decimated during the Stalinist holocaust. Out of print for over half a century Borotbism by Ivan Maistrenko has now been republished. Maistrenko (1899-1984) was a veteran of the revolutionary movement. A red partisan in 1918-20 he was a journalist and opponent of Stalin in the 1920’s becoming deputy director of the All-Ukrainian Communist Institute of Journalism in 1931. A survivor of the gulag he lived as a post-war refugee in Germany becoming editor of the anti-Stalinist workers paper Vpered. His Borotbism is a thought provoking study which challenges previous approaches to the fate of the Russian Revolution and European revolutions. With the permission of the author we publish below part of the introduction to Borotbism, by Chris Ford. Continue reading “the unknown revolution: ukraine 1917-21”
As many on the far left plan to call for a Labour vote in the general election, Barry Biddulph looks at the historic roots of this slogan and the dogmas on which it is based.
New Labour is the self-proclaimed party of business, neoliberalism, the free market, privatisation, public sector cuts, and partnerships with employers. A party that has kept the legal shackles on trade unions as a matter of conviction. New Labour is also the party of aggressive imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brown, and before him, Tony Blair, were the ideological sons of Thatcher. Peter Mandelson, like Blair, is a close friend of the rich while the party presides over increasing inequality. An indication of the pro-business activities of New Labour is the recent complaint by ASLEF that the Labour government and the Secretary of State have compensated, through the rail franchise, the financial losses of train companies who have provoked industrial action by treating their workers badly.
However, there is nothing new about New Labour. All the early leaders of the Labour Party had a similar approach. Arthur Henderson was a Liberal agent for seven years, Phillip Snowden, was a man of respectable conformist views. Ramsey MacDonald liked to dine with the wealthy and created a secret electoral pact with the Liberals. Keir Hardie began his political career as an admirer of the Liberal leader Gladstone. The popular image of Hardie as the cloth cap member for the unemployed is an Old Labour myth. He wore a decent sporty deerstalker, and as a Labour parliamentarian advocated a liberal solution to unemployment: regimented work colonies in the countryside to set them to work. New Labour is very much a return to Old Labour’s Liberal roots. Labour stood for class co-operation, not class war.
At the second congress of the Communist International in 1920, Lenin compromised his earlier analysis of Labour as bourgeois by recommending tactics which have remained a dogma for much of the left ever since, despite profound historical change. These tactics of critical support for Labour at elections were partly influenced by the delegate from the British Socialist Party. The BSP later became a key component of the Communist Party. The BSP were Labour Party members and had a left-reformist perspective of capturing the party for socialism, as the Sheffield rank and file leader, Jack Murphy, and Sylvia Pankhurst pointed out. Even Willie Gallagher who later became a leading Stalinist, described them as reformists. However, Lenin claimed this was an exaggeration, although he did disagree with the BSP view that the Labour Party was the political expression of the working class.
According to Lenin the only way to get a hearing for communist ideas from Labour supporters was to vote with them for their reactionary leaders. Lenin did not advocate voting Labour on the basis of political demands such as “Labour to power with a socialist programme” or “make the Labour Party fight for the workers.” The communists would be able to obtain a hearing for soviets and workers’ power by showing respect for the loyalty of Labour voters to their leaders and go through the disillusioning experience of parliamentary socialism with them. Jack Tanner, speaking from his own rank and file experience argued that workers are always accessible in the workshops, the unions, and the streets. Communist agitation would find the workers. Lenin’s tactic implied that the reactionary leaders would take the movement forward, albeit in a roundabout way.
In the Soviet Union Lenin had already turned his back on the self-activity of the masses and focused on loyalty to leaders, hence the stress on Labour’s leaders. Pankhurst raised the obvious objection that Labour voters would not trust such convoluted tactics. It was better to be open, direct and honest as an independent communist organisation. Besides, any disappointment with Labour leaders could simply end in political disillusionment with communism and socialism or lead to a swing to the right, or more to the point, trap communists in a project of transforming Labour.
Lenin did advocate affiliation to the Labour Party. But he discussed Labour in terms of it not being a fully fledged centralised national party, as if it was still a federation of affiliated socialist societies and trade unions without an individual membership. This optimistic impression seems to have been given by the BSP Delegate to the Congress, Although the mistake was Lenin’s. But Arthur Henderson’s reorganisation of the Labour Party – with a centralised national structure, individual membership, the block vote of trade union bureaucrats to out-vote the real members, and the independence of Labour MPs from the sovereignty of the party conference – would not allow communist affiliation or allow communists to freely agitate within the Labour Party.
Lenin also overestimated the revolutionary potential of the situation in 1920, as John McLean wrote in his open letter to Lenin. Parliamentary politics were not as unstable as Lenin assumed. Lenin also assumed the advanced workers had been or could easily be won over to communism with the help of the Russian leadership so the task was now winning over the less advanced workers who voted Labour. His label of ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ for Labour also muddied the water. A considerable number of workers are members and supporters of the Tory and Liberal parties. Because sociologically a party is working class does not make it fundamentally different from other bourgeois parties. The label implies Labour is not a bourgeois party and some kind of support is possible. The trade union link is not an organic link with the masses, but a bureaucratic indirect link, the ‘dead souls of socialism’, as one historian described it. Contact with the working class has never been dependent on contact with the Labour Party.
Some of Lenin’s disciples have followed his emphasis on loyalty to leaders and assumed mass struggle would pass through the Labour Party or be led by Labour leaders. History has shown otherwise. The great workers’ unrest 1910-14, the general strike of 1926, the unemployed marches of the 1930s, the do-it-yourself reformism from below in the 1960s-70s, the anti-Vietnam war protests, the mass picketing of the great miners’ strike in 1984-85, the poll tax riots, the modern anti-war movement, and dockers and firefighters’ strikes have all taken place without the approval or support of the top parliamentary Labour leaders.
We should remember that the Labour Party was not a product of mass struggle, but a party which emerged from radical constitutionalism and a strong focus on parliament, rather than mass agitation. The trade union link is not organic, but indirect and bureaucratic. There is no living connection with the mass of trade unionists in the workplace, much like the relationship between 19th century British trade union leaders and the Liberals, or union leaders and the Democrats in the USA. So why settle for a lesser evil capitalist alternative?
The next of The Commune’s London reading groups takes place from 7pm on Monday 16th November at the Artillery Arms, 102 Bunhill Row, near Old Street.
The meeting is on the question of trade union democracy. The questions around which the discussion is based, and recommended reading material, are posted below. All welcome. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details. Continue reading “reading for 16th november london trade union discussion group”
by Chris Kane
At The Commune’s successful day-school on the Russian Revolution some debate arose on the national question during the discussion on Ukraine and Hungary. A key point of reference on the national question for communists to this day is the debates which took place amongst Marxists within the Second International and the period of the First World War (1914-1918).
The national question took on a new importance after the outbreak of the war and the collapse of the Second International. Currents which had taken shape prior to 1914 were forced to reconsider their views and re-articulate positions in light of the crisis of international socialism.
A diverse trend of Social-Democrats, (as Marxists called themselves in this period) argued against the concept of the right of nations to self-determination, including the Polish Marxists Luxemburg and Radek. Today Lenin is seen as the principle defender of the right of national-self determination, and he was supported by the majority of the RSDRP(Bolsheviks) Central Committee. However he was challenged by a strong body of opinion in his own party, its foremost representative being Yuri Pyatakov, and Yevgenia Bosh, both leading Bolsheviks in Ukraine, who in exile in 1915 joined with Nikolai Bukharin to publish the Stockholm-based journal Kommunist. Continue reading “two rare texts on the national question”
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. Continue reading “saturday’s russian revolution day school in london”
The phrase, bending the stick, is often used to describe Lenin‘s organisational method. Lenin bent the stick or used exaggeration in order to grab attention. The single-minded focus on what really mattered. For many Leninist’s, he might have bent the stick too far in some circumstances, but he always bent it back or corrected his mistake in the long run. This was the infallible Lenin who embodied the actuality of the revolution. Even so, a twisted stick can distort reality. Also, the bent stick analogy is also used to suggest continuity where inconsistency exists. Continue reading “Stick bending and the infallible Lenin”
by Ernie Haberkern
In the early 1960s when I joined the socialist movement I was attracted to the “Third Camp” anti-Stalinist tendency in the American movement. One of the first books I read was Memoirs of a Revolutionary which had recently been translated into English by Peter Sedgwick. The author was Victor Serge a widely respected victim of Stalin’s purges, one of the few who survived to tell the tale. He also had a reputation as a “libertarian” among those on the American left who saw in the American IWW and the French Syndicalists the representatives of the “anti-authoritarian” tendency in the movement.
In describing the political situation in the early twenties in Russia Serge in Memoirs makes the following remarkable statement.
“… as long as the economic system remained intolerable for nine-tenths or so of the population, there could be no question of recognizing freedom of speech for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, whether in the Soviets or elsewhere. … we knew that the Party had been invaded by careerist, adventurist and mercenary elements who came over in swarms to the side that had the power. Within the Party the sole remedy to this evil had to be, and in fact was, the discreet dictatorship of the old, honest, and incorruptible members, in other words the Old Guard.” (Serge, Memoirs 188-119) Continue reading “le rétif: the secret life of victor serge”
intro by Chris Kane
One of the most common forms of sectarian socialism today is the myriad of Trotskyist organisations based on the model of undemocratic centralism. They claim the origin of their ideas not so much in Marx but Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky came to be identified as one of the foremost opponents of Stalinism, but as opposed to bringing about a recomposition of the communist movement, Trotskyism compounded the crisis of Marxism. The legacy of Trotsky today is one of constant fragmentation and sectarian vanguardism, whose adherents often cut themselves off from practical service to the labour movement by their antics. How did this come about? The following critical analysis of Trotsky is by Raya Dunayevskaya, the American Marxist who originated in Ukraine. In 1937 she moved to Mexico to work with Trotsky, serving as his Russian language secretary. Her closeness to Trotsky did not prevent her questioning his ideas – she later wrote: “Out of the Spanish Civil War there emerged a new kind of revolutionary who posed questions, not against Stalinism, but against Trotskyism, indeed against all established Marxists”. After the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact she broke from Trotsky over his continued belief Stalin’s USSR was a ‘workers state’ and developed a theory of state-capitalism. Later she developed a Marxist Humanist current in the USA, supported by Harry McShane in Scotland. One of her most important books was Philosophy and Revolution, published in 1973 which contains a powerful critique of Leon Trotsky as a theoretician – this is republished below. Continue reading “philosophy and revolution”
The next of our reading groups on ‘communism from below’ takes place from 6:30pm on Monday 2nd March. The subject of the discussion is ‘the roots of left fragmentation and the sectarianisation of history’ and we will be focussing on the questions:
– How can we overcome some groups’ ideas that they represent the “authentic” historical continuity of the communist movement?
– Why is the left so divided by the legacy of the Russian revolution?
– To what extent should we drop the ‘baggage of history’ in deciding our politics today? Is it true that old differences and old disputes don’t matter any more?
The recommended reading is
– False historical paradigms: a short piece by Chris Ford looking at how many left groups perceive themselves as part of an ‘order of succession’ going back to the 1916-21 revolutionary wave and failing to see contradictions in their heroes’ thought.
– Michael S Fox’s Ante Ciliga, Trotsky and State Capitalism, looking at the Croatian communist Ciliga’s critique of the Trotskyist movement in terms of its unwillingness to tackle the question of bureaucratisation head on and sectarianism towards other anti-Stalinist forces.
– Maurice Brinton’s The Malaise on the Left looks at the culture of leftist circles and their narrow focus on only certain areas of human experience and repression in society.
All are welcome to come and take part in the discussion – we aim to have open and undogmatic debates rather than training anyone in some ‘party line’. For details of the central London venue, printed copies of the texts or more information, don’t hesitate to email email@example.com
We have added some new articles to the ‘ideas‘ section of the website. Foreword by Chris Kane
The national question remains of particular concern to communists and socialists in the 21st century. One of the principle sources on the national question remains the writings of the Russian communist Lenin. Here is a critical examination of Lenin’s theory of the national question by the Ukrainian Marxist Andrij Karpenko, from the Ukrainian socialist journal META. We have also reproduced a pamphlet by the theorist of the then newly formed and at that time genuine Communist Party of Great Britain, William Paul, on the Irish question and its relationship to the world revolution.
Indeed, since the launching of The Commune many on the traditional left have been searching for ways to categorise us: we have been branded ‘anti-Bolsheviks’ by the Trotskyists and ‘Leninists’ by the anarchists. We recognise Lenin, with other communists of his generation, as an vitally important revolutionary of the 20th century. As critical Marxists, we neither demonise Lenin nor raise him to the figure of a Pope. On The Commune we have published a number of writers who have critically engaged with Lenin’s ideas such as Paul Cardan (Castoriadis). Here we reproduce a defence of Lenin against Cardan by Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism in the USA. Dunayevskaya was critical of Lenin, in particular his views on the leading role of the vanguard Party, but she was equally critical of anti-Leninists. The Scottish Marxist-Humanist edited by Harry McShane first published this article.