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Tag Archives: CPGB
Posted on October 19, 2009
Oxford Communists are hosting our first public meeting on Tuesday October 27, in the Judges room at Oxford Town Hall. The meeting will start at 7.30pm and will be addressed by Mike Macnair – a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and author of the recent book Revolutionary strategy: Marxism and the challenge of left unity. Mike will be speaking on the important topic of the capitalist crisis – how it happened, why, what it means for the world – and the communist alternative to this system.
Come and join the discussion. There will be time for contributions, questions and debate from the floor. All welcome.
Topic: Capitalism’s crisis and the communist alternative
Speaker: Mike Macnair
Time: 7.30pm – 9.30pm
Date: Tuesday October 27th
Venue: Judges room, Oxford Town Hall, Aldate Street, Oxford.
There is a Facebook event page for this meeting which you can join here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/event.php?eid=317894845159&index=1
Posted on October 19, 2009
Mark Fischer, the CPGB’s national organiser, questions the worth of SWP calls for unity
Comrades, serious working class partisans felt obliged to respond to your open letter to the left calling for a united “socialist alternative” in the 2010 general election (Socialist Worker June 13) – despite the unfortunate history of the various left unity initiatives over the last decade and the Socialist Workers Party’s chequered role in them. Our own organisation responded critically but positively to your proposals and indicated a willingness to “participate in the conference you suggest” to discuss unity.
Not surprisingly, this latest unity call has been greeted by a degree of cynicism. Nevertheless, we certainly welcomed your belated recognition of the need for debate. The only way towards meaningful unity is by “publicly” accounting for the “disastrous mistakes of the past” (Weekly Worker June 11).
This was our public response. We also wrote to you privately proposing direct organisation-to-organisation talks. We followed this up with a series of phone calls to your national office and Martin Smith – your national secretary – to arrange such discussions. Unfortunately, however, we have met with a blank wall. Not SWP bungling. Our approaches have been deliberately ignored.
The CPGB has participated in all the serious unity projects of the left from the mid-90s. In particular, we were the most committed of the six principal organisations involved in the Socialist Alliance – including your own – and devoted significant financial and logistical resources to the initiative.
Our proposals for the Socialist Alliance were the most ambitious and we constantly urged the other groups to recognise its huge potential. For example, the CPGB championed a serious intervention in the 2001 general election, against the initial timidity of others (98 SA candidates eventually stood). We proposed a weekly newspaper for the alliance, even offering to cease publication of the Weekly Worker and the pooling of resources into a common project, providing, of course, that there was space for debate and controversy in its pages. We supported all moves to centralise the SA and overcome amateurism, petty-mindedness and parochialism, not least among the confessional sects.
The CPGB fought for and smoothed the entry of the SWP into the Socialist Alliance – many expressed strong reservations, such was the level of mistrust of the SWP amongst wider sections of the left. We also did our best to encourage and ensure SWP membership of the Scottish Socialist Party. During the initial phase of SWP participation of the SA it has to be said comrades from both organisations cooperated well and despite important political differences managed to establish good relations.
Your irresponsible refusal to even acknowledge our approaches sadly exposes the real worth of your unity call. This has everything to do with the narrow interests of the SWP, nothing to do with genuine unity.
We understand that you have invited two representatives each from the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Party, Respect and the Barrow People’s Party to a meeting on October 31 to discuss the general election. Realistically, you must be aware that this represents the abject failure of your “open letter to the left”.
On Sunday September 28 the CPB’s executive committee voted to have no part in any successor to the ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ electoral flop – at least partially because of the discomfort felt by sections of its Stalinoid membership over collaboration with the SP. The chances that the CPB will cement any kind of alliance with the SWP – which was explicitly excluded from the No2EU initiative in the first place – are nil.
The SP is left high and dry by the CPB’s withdrawal. The central involvement of Bob Crow and his railworkers’ union, the RMT, provided the essential trade union credibility that allowed the SP’s leadership to sell the campaign to a wary membership as an important political development despite the undisguised British nationalism of No2EU’s platform. But the exit of the CPB will inevitably cool Crow’s enthusiasm for the whole project given his political closeness to this soft Stalinoid group.
The SP will now retreat to limited electoral work under its own banner and to touting its services – in the guise of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party – as uncritical foot soldiers for the next electoral foray from dissident sections of the trade union bureaucracy, when and if it should come.
Which leaves you with Respect (perhaps) and the Barrow People’s Party.
This latest debacle is not surprising. Without a fundamental change in the culture of the left, no progress will be made towards worthwhile, principled and lasting left unity.
The SWP’s latest call was widely perceived as just an expression of rivalry with the SP and CPB and the result of severe internal tensions caused by the miserable failure of Respect and the short-lived Left Alternative. Squalid jockeying for position and overcoming internal divisions, in other words, not a genuine attempt to address the urgent need in our workers’ movement for unity around Marxism.
We remain open to discussions about joint candidates in the 2010 general election. Meanwhile we urge our SWP comrades to break from the short-termist, dishonest and manipulative political practices that have spread so much confusion, disorganisation and despair on the left.
CPGB national organiser
Posted on September 22, 2009
The Bolshevik decision to make revolution was based on four key predictions, or ‘wagers’, says Lars T Lih: international revolution, soviet democracy, peasant followership and progress towards socialism. This is an edited version of the third speech he gave to the CPGB’s Communist University
I am going to talk about the fate of the ‘four wagers’ made by Lenin in 1917. They are: the wagers on international revolution, on soviet democracy, on steps toward socialism, and on what I call ‘peasant followership’.
First I will look at them in 1917, and then assess how Lenin thought they were turning out. By late 1918-early 1919 he is still very confident that most of them are paying off, but then he begins to realise in several ways that they are not. Then I will move ahead to 1922-23 and Lenin’s final writings, where I think he achieves a shaky synthesis of sorts.
I should say that the term ‘wager’ which I use is not meant to imply in any way something adventurous or risky. It comes from Pyotr Stolypin’s peasant policy, known as a wager, or betting, on the strong. In other words, it refers to a policy intended to produce certain results, based on the prediction that events will turn out in a certain way.
I will not speak much about Kautsky in this talk, but I will begin with a Kautsky quote from 1904: “The practical politician, if he wishes to be successful, must attempt to see into the future much like the theoretical socialist. Whether this foresight takes the form of a prophecy will depend on his temperament. But he must at the same time always be prepared for the appearance of unexpected factors which will frustrate his plans and impart a new direction to developments, and he must always be ready to change his tactic accordingly.”
And that is how I am approaching this subject: Lenin is making predictions and when he sees they are not working he tries to deal with the new situation.
My source for all this – since Lenin wrote little in terms of lengthy texts during this period – is his speeches. That was a big element of Lenin’s role in power: he made speeches to mainly party or sympathising audiences, where he would pound home the big message about what was happening. I think he was sincere in what he was saying, so when he started to recognise things were changing this was reflected in his speeches. There is a human drama in this: you can see his painful disappointment coming right to the surface.
A lot of this will be somewhat familiar – I am not going to be revisionist in this talk – and there is one familiar framework I am polemicising against. A lot of people believe that in 1917 and especially 1918 the regime starts off in a moderate, realistic way, but then during the civil war the Bolsheviks become more and more radical. They are forced to be by the civil war, but they do not realise this is happening, so by 1920 they see themselves in the position of taking a leap or short cut to communism – a kind of insanity. Then Kronstadt gives them a slap in the face, for which they are grateful, and they are able to turn back to the sober moderation of the New Economic Policy.
I see it in a different way. In 1917 there was a lack of reality and even demagogy on the part of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but afterwards a steady sobering up, so that in 1920 they are glum and pessimistic – far from ‘euphoric’, as, unbelievably, many writers claim. Arthur Ransome, the English writer, was in Russia and knew the Bolshevik leaders and talked to them a lot. He wrote two very good books describing the atmosphere at the time: Russia in 1919 and The crisis in Russia. Both were pre-NEP and so very valuable in this way.
He used this expression: “The Bolsheviks had illusion after illusion scraped from them by the pumice stone of experience.”1 I think that is what happened. I partially agree with the theory that the Bolsheviks overtheorised their problems, but I have a somewhat different picture of what that theory was.
Let me now go back to October 1915, to a crucial comment made by Lenin. Most of his writings at this time were about the European situation, but on this occasion he sets out a policy for Russia. How does he combine this left Zimmerwald message – international revolution, socialism in Europe – with his desire for democratic revolution in Russia? In October1915 he said: “The task of the proletariat in Russia is to carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia to the end.”2 He meant the most thoroughgoing democratic revolution possible – not one that went on to socialism, but simply won as many democratic gains as possible from the beginning, in order to ignite the socialist revolution in Europe.
Lenin then sketches out a scenario which connects the two. He was against an anti-tsarist revolution that would bring to power revolutionary chauvinists: ie, those who wish to remove the tsar only because he is bungling the war effort. He is against the chauvinists even if they are revolutionaries and republicans. The Bolsheviks were to strive for a second stage to the revolution led by the proletariat and supported by the petty bourgeois peasantry, which has been pushed to the left under the strain of the war. This second stage would resurrect the soviets of 1905, acting now as the heart of a new power (vlast) and this revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry would carry out the full minimum programme and propose a just peace.
The Bolsheviks did not expect the imperialists would accept the proposal, but this would now put the Bolsheviks in the position to wage a just, revolutionary war aimed at socialist revolution in Europe and anti-colonial revolutions across the world. In Lenin’s words, “There is no doubt the victory of the proletariat in Russia would create extraordinarily favourable conditions for the development of revolution in Asia and Europe – even 1905 proved that.”3
So what we see here in 1915 is pretty much his 1917 platform – perhaps, instead of talking about the April thesis, we should talk of the ‘October (1915) thesis’. Lenin himself wrote to friends in 1917, saying the Bolsheviks had predicted the 1917 events in 1915 – “We were absolutely right”.
However, there was one change, a change he made without great fanfare right before he left for Russia, and that what I call the inclusion of “steps toward socialism”. That was the careful way in which Lenin described the programme for Russia – he used that metaphor of moving toward socialism, and that occurred on the eve of his return to Russia in April 1917. This is the first time we have the notion of not just the democratic revolution until the socialist revolution in Europe: now Russia is moving toward socialism regardless. In 1917 he continued to express the three wagers of 1915, plus this new wager.
I will now look at some of the arguments Lenin made in support of this in 1917. State and revolution, whilst written in 1917, was not published until 1918, and is often over-emphasised in assessing Lenin’s platform of 1917. In State and revolution he aimed to address the European audience, although he could not help at times reverting to Russian examples.
The two books upon which I am basing my summary are written in September 1917: The impending catastrophe and how to deal with it and Can the Bolsheviks retain state power? This is where Lenin talks about Russia and explains his logic. He is not calling on workers and peasants to make a socialist revolution, but to take the power. This is based on the assumption that the nature of the class that holds the vlast – Russian for ‘power’ or ‘governmental authority’ – decides everything. The Bolsheviks explained that, as long as the vlast was held by their enemies – the landowners, the capitalists, the bourgeoisie in any form – the imperialist war would continue, the economic collapse would continue, radical land reform would continue to be postponed. This would cease only when the workers as a class took power and fulfilled their historic mission of leading the whole of the narod (people) to revolutionary victory.
So let us see how these four wagers turned out.
I am not going to say much about the wager on international revolution – not because it is not important, but because I do not have a lot new to say. Soviet democracy is also fundamental, but I do not think I am going to change your mind on that one. I do, however, want to say something about the other two, the steps toward socialism and ‘peasant followership’.
Lenin’s rhetoric at this time was a new version of ‘aggressive unoriginality’,4 in that he said that everybody knew what measures must be taken: the Mensheviks, the liberals and even the monarchists are aware that we need a degree of economic regulation, land reform and strong governmental power, but are afraid to do these things because of their class position. This is summed up by a section title in The impending catastrophe: ‘Control measures are easy to take and known to all’ (‘control’ meaning ‘regulation’). So there is no ambiguity or difficulty in solving the crisis, if you have the will. The only way, of course, is to take power. The logic here is partly what I call a ‘Wumba of the people’. ‘Wumba’ is a German acronym for Waffen und Munitionsbeschaffungsamt. That was the weapons and supply bureaucracy in Germany – everybody was amazed at just how organised it was.
So, talking about Europe in 1916, Lenin said: “If, for instance, Germany can direct the economic life of 66 million people from a single centre and strain the energies of the narod in order to wage a predatory war in the interests of 100 or 200 financial magnates or aristocrats, the monarchy, etc, then the same can be done in the interests of nine-tenths of the people – ie, the non-propertied masses – if their struggle is directed by the conscious or purposive workers liberated from social-imperialist and social-pacifist influence.”5
So his programme for Europe was: expropriate the banks, and, relying on the masses, carry out in their interests what occurred in Germany. That is why I call it ‘Wumba for the people’. Can this be applied to Russia? Lenin thought so – there is enough of an economic regulatory apparatus, there is enough of a banking system, there are enough governmental trusts and so forth. He says it is possible to solve the crisis if we apply determined, revolutionary-democratic measures.
Steps toward socialism
I would like to make three points about the wager on steps towards socialism. First, there has been quite a debate about smashing (in Marx zerbrechen) the state, as opposed to using it ready-made. On this Lenin says explicitly: ‘We will smash the state’ – ie, what he meant by that in the Marxist framework was the bureaucracy, the army and the police: that is to say, the repressive and undemocratic apparatus – but we will preserve the economic apparatus. However, much of that apparatus is part of the state. So he is still saying at this point that we are going to preserve what I would call the ‘economic state apparatus’.
Secondly, when you read the rhetoric of Lenin and other Bolsheviks, they are promising an easy way out. They are saying, ‘If you let us, comrades, we will get you out of this crisis pretty quickly and painlessly.’ So I think that there is a certain unrealism bordering on demagogy here.
And finally, Lenin is somewhat ambiguous about whether the result will be socialism and what exactly that is. For example, there is another section entitled: ‘Can we go forward if we fear to go towards socialism?’ So they are moving forward and are not afraid of socialism, but he is not quite saying that it is going to be socialism. As I said earlier, the heart of the message in 1917 was not ‘Create a socialist revolution’, but rather ‘Take over the vlast’.
Looking ahead, what actually happened is that the economic apparatus was smashed by events and therefore, precisely because it was smashed, the repressive apparatus was not smashed and had to be strengthened.
What do I mean by ‘peasant followership’? Basically the old Bolshevik idea that you are going to rely on the peasants to follow you and try to be their leader. I use the word ‘followership’, as opposed to ‘leadership’, not as an insult, but much more of a compliment – the Bolsheviks are optimistic about the ability of the peasants and are prepared to make this wager on their followership. It is a question of understanding their interests: if we give them their demands around land then they will support us against the counterrevolution. When you look at the record of the peasants in western Europe you see that this was a gamble, a wager.
It is one half of this wager – the old Bolshevik view that we are going to complete the democratic revolution. We have only had a half-assed revolution because we are yet to destroy class power and the rule of the gentry. We are going to remove this class from history and get the peasants on board – they will support us against a counterrevolution. This is a somewhat readjusted old Bolshevism, but definitely taken from it.
But there was a new stage which was not so emphasised – this is something I saw only when I looked at the speeches and offhand comments. Lenin hoped that the peasants would move to socialism on their own – now. Of course, if the peasants started moving towards collectivised forms of production, then you could solve the problems.
This also brings a new twist to the idea of whether socialism was possible in Russia alone. This is an approach to the idea of socialism in Russia from a non-Trotskyist, non-permanent revolution logic. Trotsky never said – and in fact his whole argument is premised on it – that the peasants would be moving towards socialism on their own, whereas Lenin is banking on this as a possibility: if they are obliged by the emergency of the war and the prospect of ruin, they might see that it is good to get together and cooperate with each other.
So let us jump ahead one year to the end of 1918 and look at the book The renegade Kautsky. I am not going to talk about anything Lenin says about Kautsky here (one half abuse and the other half praise of ‘the old Kautsky’). I want to look at what Lenin wrote in response to Kautsky’s criticisms of the revolution. Lenin looks at the accomplishments of the revolution on its first anniversary, taking account of everything against Kautsky’s criticisms. He says, soviet democracy is fine – everybody says that we are coming along nicely.
He writes: “In Russia, however, the bureaucratic machine has been completely smashed, razed to the ground; the old judges have all been sent packing, the bourgeois parliament has been dispersed – and far more accessible representation has been given to the workers and peasants; their soviets have replaced the bureaucrats, their soviets have been put in control of the bureaucrats, and their soviets have been authorised to elect the judges. This fact alone is enough for all the oppressed classes to recognise that soviet power – ie, the present form of the dictatorship of the proletariat – is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic”.6
So at this point Lenin is still saying defiantly that Russia is unambiguously democratic. On the peasant question he says, rather strikingly: “Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning.”7
First of all, says Lenin, the Bolsheviks gained the loyalty of the whole peasantry by fulfilling their desire for land. We carried the bourgeois revolution to its end. Then he made an argument which we tend to forget about, because it did not pan out this way – the next ‘steps towards socialism’ phase: “The peasants themselves will see the inadequacy of bourgeois democratic solutions and the necessity of proceeding beyond their limits and passing on to socialism.”8
Lenin argues that Kautsky himself had said much the same in his 1899 Agrarian question about the means at the disposal of the proletarian state for bringing about the transition of the small peasants to socialism. Lenin hoped to see the peasantry moving towards socialism and is encouraged by a policy called ‘class war in the villages’ – although even as he was writing The renegade Kautsky, the policy was being pulled back.
The economy is the one area over which Lenin is a little defensive. The reason obviously being that the crisis had not been solved by the Bolshevik revolution, but had spiralled further out of control. He writes: “All the flunkeys of the bourgeoisie in Russia argue in this way: ‘Show us after nine months your general well-being!’ And this after four years of devastating civil war and foreign capital giving all-round to the sabotage and rebellions of the bourgeoisie in Russia.”9 And he is absolutely right – that is one of the basic reasons why there was such a crisis.
The fourth wager is international revolution, and here Lenin is absolutely confident because the German revolution has just broken out. Alexander Rabinovitch’s new book ends with celebration of the revolution which is on the march in Germany.
This is something Zinoviev said in September 1918 as a tribute to Lenin: “Scheidemann [a rightwing German social democrat] knows that if he ends up hanging from a lamp post (and I bet that he does!) to a large degree comrade Lenin would be to blame. We comrades will live to see the moment when our proletariat through its vozhd, Lenin, will dictate its will to all of old Europe – and comrade Lenin will agree treaties with the government of Karl Liebknecht, and the same Lenin will help the German workers compose their first socialist decrees.”10
In the final part of The renegade Kautsky, Lenin writes: “Kautsky’s above lines were written on November 9 1918. The very same night, news was received from Germany announcing the beginning of the victorious revolution – first in Kiel and other towns and ports, where power passed into the hands of the soviets – and then in Berlin. The conclusion which still remained to be written for my pamphlet on Kautsky is now superfluous.”11
Now I am going to deal with the phase where Lenin is having to start to acknowledge that things are not going right, although I must stress that I do not see any fundamental change – there are some very disappointing empirical realities that he has to handle. The euphoria around the international revolution continues up until the summer of 1919 – and I think ‘euphoria’ is the best way to describe this. In Krupskaya’s memoirs she writes how Lenin was happier than she had ever seen him around November 1918.
I also get this impression from his speeches – he thought the wagers were paying off and things were going OK. So when addressing an audience facing many economic difficulties he says: “This is the last difficult half year, because the international situation has never been so good.”12
Lenin is confident that within six months the situation will be much better because Russia will no longer be blockaded and the international revolution will bail them out. Then in March 1919 the Hungarian revolution broke out and this is a very indicative reaction from Lenin, who is particularly pleased: “As a more cultured country than Russia, Hungary will show the socialist revolution in a better light – without the violence, without the bloodshed, that was forced upon us by the Kerenskys and the imperialists”.13
So you see that this is really from the heart, showing the wariness he held about some of the things he had to do. He also talks on numerous occasions about how previous generations of Russian revolutionaries lived and died, but we are the generation which is going to see it happen: “No matter the great misfortunes that may be brought upon us by that dying beast, imperialism, it will perish and socialism will triumph throughout the world.”14
This is the most amazing quote from July 1919: “We say with confidence – taking all our experience, all that has happened this past year, into account – that we shall surmount all difficulties and that this July will be the last difficult July and that next July we will welcome the victory of the world soviet republic – and that this victory will be full and complete.”15 Again, this comes from a public speech – Lenin is really putting himself out on a limb.
But this kind of rhetoric comes to a sudden halt around August with the defeat of the Hungarian revolution. It never really comes back. I read through Lenin’s speeches in 1919 and, although the content does not really change much throughout, you do notice that on the question of the international revolution he is very confident in the first half of the year, but much less so in the second half.
In an interview with Arthur Ransome, Lenin confidently predicts the revolution in England. When Ransome questions this, Lenin tells him of how he once had typhoid in the 1890s, but he had been carrying this a long time before he actually knew about it. Then suddenly he was struck down. This is how he saw England – it has got the disease, is still walking around, but is going to collapse. However, a year later he is interviewed by Bertrand Russell and by then has already given up on a revolution in England. By this point the Bolsheviks were saying that they were no longer in a revolutionary situation.
This is confirmed at the Second Congress of the Communist International – as opposed to the first one. Zinoviev says: “Soviets only make sense in a revolutionary situation, since soviets without such a situation will only turn into a parody of soviets”.16 So he is pointing out that in the next historical period we will have soviets, but now it was propaganda for them which was the only appropriate thing.
But this is the dilemma. You have developed a new party model over the years based on the premise of there being a revolutionary situation – so all sorts of things are pertinent to that: the purging of opportunists, the underground and certain other things were argued for on the basis of the existence of this situation. What party model should be put forward now? I think that is a major dilemma and has implications for the ‘over-theorisation’ problem we have discussed elsewhere – with the Bolsheviks making virtues out of the necessities imposed on them. They never really did solve this problem.
The Polish war of 1920 represented a brief re-ignition of the hopes for international revolution but they were pushed back very quickly and soon forgotten. Starting from about mid-1919, foreign policy is increasingly orientated to trade treaties and economic concessions.
The big point I want to make about the wager on Soviet democracy is that the Bolsheviks were aware and openly acknowledged that things were not turning out so well. And at the end of 1920 there was a debate in the party about elitism, which was called ‘The highers vs the lowers’. What is interesting is the attitude of some of the ‘highers’ in admitting just how bad things were. I am going to quote what Zinoviev said.
The soviets of 1917 are described as “organs in which the creativity of the masses finds for itself the most free and most organised path. Soviets are organs that guarantee a constant stream of forces from below. The soviets are organs in which the masses learn to legislate and, at the same time, carry out their own laws. This is not paying off at present. The most elementary demands of democracy are being ignored.”17
He gives some excuses for why this is so, however: “The pressures of the modern administrative state, the necessity to put extreme pressure on the population during the civil war, the exceptional discipline imposed by wartime necessities, the need to often side with bourgeois specialists against the workers, and the overload of work and responsibility based on a thin party elite”.18
Regarding the wager on steps towards socialism I would like to quote Leon Trotsky. Here is what he said in 1920 at the third anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution to a popular audience:
“We went into this struggle with magnificent ideals, with magnificent enthusiasm, and it seemed to many people that the promised land of communist fraternity – the flowering of not only material but spiritual life – was much closer than it actually turned out to be. That promised land – the new kingdom of justice, freedom, contentment and cultural uplift was so near, it could be touched.
“If three years ago we were given the opportunity of looking ahead we would not have believed our eyes – we would not have believed that three years after the proletarian revolution it would be so hard for us to live on this earth. Our task has not been accomplished – each one of us knows this. The new order for which we have fought and are fighting still does not exist.”
So this very eloquent statement underlines how the Bolsheviks are certainly not claiming that they have achieved socialism.
At this point in 1920, Nikolai Bukharin comes up with a theory to explain this – it is a sort of ‘crisis’ theory: “A revolution requires a deep, long and abiding crisis”, which is the precondition for workers’ power. And when workers’ power gets underway, the first thing to do is to deal with this crisis, which will accelerate, even though the workers have taken power, meaning that it is necessary to go through a period of what he calls “expanded negative reproduction” – ie, a collapse. And then only later can we really start to progress.19
This is Bukharin’s understanding of smashing the state – you have to smash not only the political, but the economic and the military aspects of the state and you have to accept that it is going to break apart – a tragic breakdown in society, which can only be put back together again slowly. So socialism is only possible when this has happened – which certainly was not the case by 1920. But all the coercion and the militarisation that the Bolsheviks had organised was justified because in the long run it was necessary for workers’ power, which in turn was necessary for socialism.
By following these speeches I think I have discovered something on peasant followership which, as far as I know, has not been pointed out by anybody.
A lot of people say that there are two different Lenins when it comes to the peasants: the hard-line Lenin of 1919 and the ‘good’ Lenin of the NEP period; and that Stalin reverted to the ‘bad’ Lenin of 1919. The plausibility behind this comes from the fact that they were putting extreme pressure on the peasants both for their grain and for recruits for the army, so that there were a lot of rebellions and so forth.
But we are not dealing with this. We are dealing with the change in a whole mode of production, and therefore a whole way of life. For starters, as I say, Lenin hoped that the peasants would move forward by themselves.
There were two forms of local collective production. The first was state farms, where an estate previously held by a landowner would be taken over and there was already a framework for production. The other one was communes – again this was on a very small scale, but it was very intense. Poor peasants would get together in the communes and really share everything – not only production. As one Russian, non-Marxist émigré quite accurately observed, “The Bolsheviks made attempts at new agrarian forms, but they did not expect any great success from them and did not achieve any either.”
That is how it was. But for reasons I have mentioned, Lenin put great hopes on this – especially when the international revolution was not being fulfilled. He was absolutely devastated by this, and you can mark his reaction in speeches from late 1918 to 1921, when he gets increasingly exasperated about the worthlessness of the communes.
This is him in late 1919: “The peasants say ‘Long live Soviet power!’, ‘Long live the Bolsheviks!’ but ‘Down with the communes!’ They curse the communes when they are organised in a stupid way and when it is forced upon them. They are suspicious of everything that is imposed on them, and quite rightly so. We must help the peasants and teach them – but only in the fields of science and socialism – farm management we must learn from them!”
So he is sort of taking the side of the peasants who do not like the communes and the state farms – there are many quotes showing that Lenin thought the communes were an embarrassment and that the peasants were right to laugh at them.
So voluntary collectivisation is not working. What is his reaction? To get them to work by force – more or less Stalin’s reaction in 1931? Lenin is quite explicit that violence is absolutely ruled out when it comes to changing the mode of production.
He says in 1919: “The communists would never resort to violence. The absurdity of this was so obvious that the Soviet government long ago forbade it, so that the last trace of this outrage towards the peasants would be swept from the face of the republic.” In other words, no Marxist would ever condone violence or force in getting the peasants to change the mode of production. This was a point remembered by dissident Bolsheviks when forced collectivisation occurred.
On the question of whether Lenin’s policies towards the peasants were a forerunner of Stalin’s, I think we can say ‘no’ unambiguously. He denounced it ahead of its time. And, by the way, this is why Lenin was so excited about electrification – he thought that by bringing electricity to the countryside it would help bring the peasants nearer to socialism.
Now I would like to quickly discuss Lenin’s writings in 1922-23. On international revolution he has what I call a ‘hold-out perspective’. In Better fewer but better he talks of the revolution ‘holding out’ on numerous occasions. On soviet power there is a kind of sad irony where the word ‘soviet’ – which initially meant ‘council’ – comes to mean the government as opposed to the party or the people. So it now referred to the bureaucracy – but this mainly consisted of bourgeois spetsy and officials from the old tsarist order and so on which the population was suspicious of.
So gradually, at least amongst many of the leading Bolsheviks, the word ‘soviet’ started to acquire quite negative connotations. I saw this in Stalin’s letters from the mid-1920s and it took me quite a while to figure out. Why was ‘soviet’ such a negative word? It was because it began to mean ‘government’. This was the ironic twist to all of this.
What Lenin did in 1922-23 was attempt to come up with a scheme to remake the soviets from above by using the party, but also to bring in the workers and peasants – not from below but siphoned to the top. That was his special idea for the workers and peasants which he took a lot of thought and time to develop in his last articles.
‘Peasant followership’ now became the link – we have to lead the peasants to socialism, so that the kulaks and the bourgeoisie do not lead them in their direction. The famous phrase ‘Who, whom?’, which is supposed to be Lenin’s favourite, is only mentioned two or three times towards the end of his life. Zinoviev and others picked up on it, which is why we know Lenin used it. What he meant by it was that the peasants will follow either us or the bourgeoisie – it is old Bolshevism transformed into the new situation. So we are going to remake the peasantry via electrification and keep them on our side in the meantime.
In terms of steps towards socialism, things again were not that great, because they were just clambering out of the crisis and there was a huge famine in 1921-22. Here is what Lenin says about it – he is so angry that the attractiveness of socialism was not able to reveal itself: “They failed to overthrow the new system created by the revolution, but they did prevent it from at once taking the steps forward that would have justified the forecasts of the socialists, that would have enabled the latter to develop the productive forces with enormous speed, to develop all the potentialities which, taken together, would have produced socialism; socialists would thus have proved to all and sundry that socialism contains within itself gigantic forces and that mankind had now entered into a new stage of development of extraordinarily brilliant prospects”.20
You can see from this that Lenin still believed in socialism but that the international situation in particular had caused severe problems. In one of his very last articles called ‘Our revolution’, he admits that those who criticised the Bolsheviks for saying that the situation was ripe for socialism were right. But, he says, we had to do what we did – it was a life-or-death situation. He questions why it was not possible for them to create the kind of culture necessary for socialism once in power. I think this is quite a change in Marxism.
Now I am going to just read out what I think his final synthesis was on the wagers:
“Hopes have faded for the socialist revolution in Europe at any time in the foreseeable future: then take courage in the inevitable awakening of the east, whilst praying that inter-capitalist squabbles will allow socialist Russia to hold out. Hopes have faded that soviet-style democracy from below will transform the state: then use the party to remake the inherited state apparatus from above. Hopes have faded that the peasants would move towards socialist transformation on their own initiative: then take the old Bolshevik scenario of class leadership, which had vindicated itself during the civil war, and apply it to the task of overcoming the market by using the market [ie, NEP]. Hopes have faded that the measures needed to solve Russia’s economic crisis will also be at the same time steps towards socialism; then build up industry to the point where Russia can move ahead into socialism – not at the slow pace of a peasant nag but at the high speed of advanced industrial technology.
“Do all these faded hopes mean that our socialist critics were right in that Russia was not ready for socialism? Yes, but who is to say that a proletarian vlast cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps by itself creating the cultural prerequisites for socialism?”
- A Ransome The crisis in Russia: www.scribd.com/doc/16189800/The-Crisis-in-Russia
- VI Lenin CW Vol 21, Moscow 1977, pp401-04
- See ‘Lenin, Kautsky and 1914’ Weekly Worker September 10.
- Quoted in L Trotsky Permanent revolution: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/pr05.htm#n2
- See K Tarbuck Bukharin’s theory of equilibrium London 1989.
Posted on June 17, 2009
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