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 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”

manchester class struggle forum, wednesday 24th

The first Manchester Class Struggle Forum will host a discussion on the Labour Party and the upcoming General Election.

We will discuss the 2010 general election and the position that communists should take towards bourgeois elections. Continue reading “manchester class struggle forum, wednesday 24th”

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”

two rare texts on the national question

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).

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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”

Stick bending and the infallible Lenin

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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”