The Bolshevik faction and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

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.

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Continue reading “The Bolshevik faction and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.”

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The red jacobins : no substitute for workers’ freedom

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”

a revolution in retreat

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”

another look at the organisation question – communist bulletin group

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”

the unknown revolution: ukraine 1917-21

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”

Thou shalt vote Labour : an eleventh commandment?

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?

reading for 16th november london trade union discussion group

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.

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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 uncaptiveminds@gmail.com for more details. Continue reading “reading for 16th november london trade union discussion group”