Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2014

Alex Callinicos: take a look in the mirror

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’s nearly 12,500-word article in the latest International Socialism (Thunder on the Left) reminds me quite a bit of the kind of explanation I heard from former members of the SWP in the USA over the years about the group’s collapse. It was not the fault of the leaders but of objective conditions that the SWP went from nearly 2000 members in 1978 to just over a hundred today. It was almost inevitable given the decline of the trade union movement that supposedly would have nourished the sect’s growth. That decline was in turn an inevitable outcome of a hollowing out of the industrial sector and the loss of blue-collar jobs. It should be noted that the SWP leadership itself never bothered to provide much of an explanation for the loss of 95 percent of its members. In their eyes the party was always poised to take advantage of great opportunities looming on the horizon. Indeed, if you do a search on “opportunities” on the Militant newspaper website, you will find links to 982 articles. This was typical:

In the months ahead, the party will reach out to get an expanded hearing among working people on the roots of the world economic crisis and a fighting road forward for our class; take advantage of possibilities to advance the campaign to free the Cuban Five and defend the Cuban Revolution; and opportunities to join strikes and social struggles of workers against attacks by the rulers and their government.

To Callinicos’s credit, he avoids this kind of cockeyed optimism even though, like Jack Barnes, he refuses to acknowledge his own role in a torrential loss of members. Like the sympathizers of the American SWP, he relates his sect’s trouble to objective conditions:

This decline is a consequence of two processes, one long term, the other more short term. In the first place, the general tendency in advanced capitalist societies towards the greater fragmentation and individualisation of social life erodes the bases of many mass organisations—not just political parties, but mainstream churches and many of the other institutions that helped to impose a degree of order and security during the early chaotic phases of capitalist development. This phenomenon was already visible during the post-war boom, when it was diagnosed as “apathy”, a disease of “affluence”.

Secondly, neoliberalism—a result of the ruling class response to this insurgency—has accelerated the tendency to fragmentation and individualism and weakened working class organisation. But it has also reshaped bourgeois politics as the mainstream parties have converged on acceptance of neoliberalism. What in France is called la pensée unique (the “sole thought”) ideologically integrates the political elite with media bosses, big capital more generally, and much of the academy in acceptance of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy as defining the horizons of rational social life.

My explanation differs from ex-members of the SWP in the USA and Callinicos’s. It paraphrases what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are hemorrhaging members.”

What they fail to grasp is the primary obstacle such groups face in becoming massive. Tens of thousands of socialist-minded workers, students and even middle-class professionals are not willing to join a group that imposes an ideological straitjacket on its membership. The “program” of both SWP’s was always understood to be virtual encyclopedia of positions on historical and international questions that it was almost impossible to support unless you had gone through an apprenticeship in the organization that included indoctrination in new members classes, etc. It was the kind of training a Jesuit would receive.

Despite such self-imposed constraints, groups such as the American and British SWP’s can enjoy relative success. At its high point, my sect was the largest group on the left just as was the case with the British SWP. Taking into account the revolving door tendencies of both groups to lose burned out members, they could have stayed close to the top of their game.

But both crashed on the reefs as a result of an inability to change course. If it was a single-mindedness of purpose and ideological homogeneity that allowed such groups to enjoy rapid growth, it was exactly the same tendencies that made it impossible to avoid a disaster. Although such “Leninist” groups have formal guarantees for the democratic rights of the membership, the leadership will always dig in its heels when it has a big stake in the outcome of a debate. In the American SWP, the top leader had become fanatically committed to the “turn toward industry”, to the point of likening party members who disagreed as “Marielitos”, the counter-revolutionary Cubans who arrived in Florida on boats. In the British SWP, the dividing line was not over policy but over the refusal of the leadership to take action against one of its own who had raped a younger female member. As I said, the American SWP lost 95 percent of its membership but so far the British SWP’s losses have been somewhat smaller—only 700 according to Callinicos. Of course, there is no doubt that as long as the current stonewalling tendencies of the leadership group remain intact, those numbers will grow.

While there is not much point in covering all of the points made in Callinicos’s gargantuan article, there are a few worth honing in on.

In reviewing the tendencies of broad parties like Syriza to suffer “organizational implosion”, Callinicos puts the blame on the aforementioned economic tendencies. Leaving aside the question of whether Syriza has imploded, I was struck by his reference to a broad-based party that included the SWP as a constituent:

Disarray set in among the radical left before the onset of the economic crisis: thus George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within Respect in August 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to develop.

What a strange analysis. As if the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have been a green light for Galloway to launch his attack. Leaving aside Galloway’s mercurial personality and Labour Party bad habits, the real cause of the crisis in Respect was the SWP’s unaccountability. Whenever you have a “democratic centralist” entity operating in a larger mass movement or a broad party, there will be friction since decisions will be made at caucus meetings beforehand. I should know. That’s how the American SWP operated. We called ourselves “The Big Red Machine” and that’s why people outside our ranks hated us.

For those who bothered to read Callinicos’s attacks on the party members who fought against the rape cover-up, you will remember that he said that the real disagreement was over “reform versus revolution”. SWP members like Richard Seymour were renegades from Marxism, pinning their hopes on Syriza type formations rather than tried and true Leninist formations like the SWP. Feeling vindicated now that Greece is still a capitalist country, Callinicos says “I told you so.”

The proof of Syriza’s failure was its support for “the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission.” It turns out that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s support for Juncker was highly qualified. Le Monde reported:

“If Europe doesn’t democratize soon, it will suffer a major cohesion” he said and when asked whether or not he supports the candidacy of Juncker for the president of the European Commission he explained that “although he’s a tough opponent of his policy”, he recognizes the right to preside, as long as his party won the largest number of seats.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Apparently this is not good enough for Callinicos. The leftists who are now in Syriza would be better advised to join Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Antarsya that got 20,389 votes in the 2012 elections as opposed to Syriza’s 1,655,022. You have to remember that the Bolsheviks started off small. As long as you have a correct program, victory is assured. That is why it was so necessary to hound Richard Seymour and friends out of the SWP. They were a scratch that could have turned into gangrene, don’t you know?

As might be expected, Callinicos returns once again to a defense of “Leninism”, the last refuge of a scoundrel. As might be expected, Callinicos feels the need repudiate Lars Lih’s argument that Lenin sought nothing more than to build a party in Russia modeled after Kautsky’s party in Germany since that comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of the “left reformism” of Syriza. For Callinicos, Paul Le Blanc and Mick Armstrong of the Socialist Alternative in Australia, there is this thing called “Leninism” that was implicit as far back as 1903 but became fully manifested at the Prague Conference of 1912.

I will probably have more to say on this since Paul Blackledge, a case-hardened Callinicos lieutenant, attempts to refute Lars Lih in the same issue of International Socialism but will offer some thoughts on what Callinicos says here:

While a welcome corrective to the standard bourgeois caricature of Lenin as a demonic totalitarian, this interpretation has subsequently been used by Lih and others to argue that Lenin had no distinctive or original approach to revolutionary politics in general or party organisation in particular. This would have come as a surprise to Lenin himself, who after all wrote “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920 in order to introduce Western revolutionaries to the specific political experiences of the Bolsheviks, but also to contemporaries such as Georg Lukács, who, through the debates in the early Communist International, developed a hard-won understanding of Lenin’s originality.

Callinicos is right but that’s the problem unfortunately. There’s a lack of clarity in the above quote but basically it makes an amalgam of two separate questions. Lih’s contribution was less about “revolutionary politics” than it was about organizational questions. Keep in mind that Lih’s key work was an 888-page examination of “What is to be Done”, a work focused on questions such as the role of a newspaper, democratic centralism, etc. That being said, by 1920 Lenin had certainly come to the conclusion that an “original approach” to party organization distinguished the Comintern parties from the Second International. The 21 Conditions was the most obvious sign of that but even more obviously was the application of “democratic centralism” to the German Communist Party when Paul Levi was expelled with Lenin’s endorsement over his public attack on the ultraleftism that was jeopardizing the German revolution. It was the sort of narrow understanding of democratic centralism that would become enshrined at the Bolshevization Comintern conference three years later under Zinoviev’s command.

Displaying a shamelessness on the order of a Washington bourgeois politician, Callinicos spends a thousands words or so defending his party’s understanding of the “woman question” against Sharon Smith of the ISO who views Tony Cliff’s analysis as lacking to say the least. If Callinicos can’t make the connection between a certain theoretical deficiency in the SWP and the commission of inquiry that asked the female rape victim about her drinking habits, then he is beyond help.

In his conclusion, Callinicos writes:

The present crisis is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible.

Now I have no idea what is going on in the French NPA since the comrades are not particularly engaged with the English-speaking left (who can blame them?) but I doubt it has anything to do with a rape investigation that had more in common with those conducted in the American military than what we would expect from a Marxist party. In terms of attempts to destroy an organization, my suggestion to Alex Callinicos is that he takes a look in the mirror at his earliest convenience. There he will find the miscreant most responsible.

 

June 15, 2014

Left Forum panel discussion on Lenin and democracy

Filed under: democracy,Left Forum,Lenin — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

This is the first in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Even though I was reconciled to making some points about Lenin and democracy within the sixty seconds allotted me during the Q&A after the presentations above, I was not ready to limit myself to a question. After 30 seconds (I timed myself) of making some points about the Bolsheviks opposing democracy in the Ukraine after 1917, someone in the audience interrupted me, telling me that I could only ask a question. I gave up at that point and walked out in disgust. If I knew who the nitwit was, I would have written an open letter warning him that if he ever did it again, he’d regret it–dagnabit.

Now that I am back in my ‘hood—the Internet—I don’t have to show anybody my stinking badge as the Mexican bandit told Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. I will have my say on these questions now and that’s that.

As might be expected from a panel organized by Paul Le Blanc, there was effusive praise for Lenin as a democrat. Nimtz just wrote a book titled “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets – or Both” that can be yours for a mere $85. An educated consumer can listen to him and decide whether to pony up the cash. Ty Law focused most of his talk on the election campaigns being run by Socialist Alternative, including his own in Minneapolis.

If you go strictly by what Lenin wrote, there’s not much to disagree with. Of course, we know from experience that Marxists reading the same Lenin texts can draw violently opposed conclusions, as is the case with the works of Marx and Engels as well.

With Lenin, this becomes even more of a problem when considering the actions of the Soviet state in the period following the October 1917 revolution when the survival of the state required sacrificing socialist principles in the interests of national security. What becomes even more confusing is that the sacrifice was often defended as serving socialist principles when they were in fact violating them. In a way, it was analogous to the character in “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, the very powerful Iranian film, who insisted that he was serving God by killing agents of the “Cultural NATO”.

We are used to cynical defenses of indefensible actions after Stalin took power but there is ample evidence that the Soviet Union was ready to apply realpolitik in the same fashion. The tragedy was that the application of realpolitik backfired as the Soviet victims came to the conclusion that when it came to their own interests and that of the Soviet state, they came in a distant second.

Let me review a few examples:

1. Turkey:

The USSR welcomed the new Kemalist government in Turkey as an anti-imperialist partner, which it was. Just as the Red Army drove back the Whites, Mustafa Kemal defeated the imperialist-backed Greek army. But in addition to being anti-imperialist, the Kemalists were also anti-Communist. In volume 3 of his history of the infant Soviet republic, E.H. Carr describes the willingness of the USSR to look the other way when it came to the democratic rights of the Turkish Communists:

The suppression of Edhem [a Makhno type figure] was immediately followed by drastic steps against the Turkish communists. Suphi was seized by unknown agents at Erzerum, and on January 28, 1921, together with sixteen other leading Turkish communists, thrown into the sea off Trebizond — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution. It was some time before their fate was discovered. Chicherin is said to have addressed enquiries about them to the Kemalist government and to have received the reply that they might have succumbed to an accident at sea. But this unfortunate affair was not allowed to affect the broader considerations on which the growing amity between Kemal and Moscow was founded. For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.

2. Poland:

Thanks to Paul Kellogg, we are now privy to the USSR’s violation of Polish democratic rights when Lenin was alive and kicking. To put it in a nutshell, there was a tendency in the early 20s to consider the use of the Red Army as being roughly equivalent to Napoleon Bonaparte’s peasant army. Where Napoleon used the army to extend bourgeois-democratic social relations, the Red Army would serve to extend socialism where it did not exist beforehand as well as defend the USSR.

In giving the green light to an invasion of Poland in 1920, Lenin overruled Trotsky’s objections. Here is Kellogg’s explanation of the differences between Russia and Poland:

But Poland was not Russia. True, the Polish peasants were oppressed by a rich and corrupt landlord class, just as were the Russian peasants,. But they were also oppressed by Russia, through a long history of invasions and occupations. The relation of Poland to Russia was analogous to that of Ireland to Great Britain, Quebec to English Canada, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to the United States. The Polish people were an oppressed nation within the prison‐house of nations that had been Tsarist Russia. An army of Russian peasants was not going to be greeted as a liberation army any more than would be a British army in Ireland, an English Canadian army in Quebec, or an 18th‐century U.S. army in Haudenosaunee territory in what is today New York state.

The Russian invasion was a disaster, not just for the Red Army that was routed but for Polish Jews who fell victim to the Red Army’s demoralized deserters as Lenin noted:

A new wave of pogroms has swept over the district. The exact number of those killed cannot be established, and the details cannot be established (because of the lack of communication), but certain facts can be established definitively. Retreating units of the First Cavalry Army (Fourth and Sixth Divisions) have been destroying the Jewish population in their path, looting and murdering … Emergency aid is vital. A large sum of money and food must be sent.

3. Ukraine

This was the most glaring example. I find it singularly depressing that much of the left is either unaware of the painful realities of early Soviet history are—even worse—prefers to sweep it under the rug. I can only recommend once again the article titled “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” (written when the Ukraine had not gained its independence) by Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski.

It will not only show how little interest the Bolsheviks had in the democratic rights of the Ukraine but the degree to which today’s problems have their origins in the Soviet state arrogating to itself the right of sovereignty over a “lesser nationality”:

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralising Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in the Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev, the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about an Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into the Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

What all these violations of democracy have in common is their belief in the special role of the USSR. As a cradle of socialism, it had the right to run roughshod over the democratic rights of other nationalities as part of a larger effort to defend socialism and by extension the worldwide revolution.

As should be obvious from the tendency of people like John Rees and Tariq Ali to line up with Putin against Obama, the same disregard for “lesser nationalities” never went away. What is bizarre, however, is the application of this Red Realpolitik to states that have nothing to do with socialism. A simple algebraic formula is applied. You take the position that any struggle that emerges against client states of Russia is ipso facto pro-imperialist. Since the world is divided between the “imperialist” bloc and the “non-imperialist” bloc, all you need to do is locate a struggle within the two camps. Any effort to understand or even sympathize with a Syrian or a Ukrainian sick and tired of oligarchic rule is excluded.

Of even greater concern is how this methodology feeds reactionary tendencies even as it is deployed on “anti-imperialist” grounds. As has been pretty well established, the European ultraright, including Golden Dawn that now sings Nazi anthems at its rallies, has thrown in its lot with Russia, which they see as a brake on European Union ambitions. The emerging alliance between ultraright parties and Russia also rests on social questions, such as the need to support “traditional values” such as Christianity and the nuclear family, as well as nativist opposition to immigrants. I sometimes wonder how in the world such people can fail to see the handwriting on the wall but then again I remember how blind the CP was in another period of a protracted economic downturn. If Marxism is to have any value in this period, it will be on the basis of drawing clear class lines. The time for building multiclass alliances in the name of questionable “anti-imperialism” is long gone.

April 20, 2014

Lenin’s party, Great Russian chauvinism, and the betrayal of Ukrainian national aspirations

Filed under: Lenin,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm


Nestor Makhno, anarchist leader of Ukrainian peasants
Lenin more than once considered the possibility of allotting to the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-1937, Pathfinder, pp. 426-427)

Thanks to Andrew Pollack, we were able to scan in and reproduce an article that appeared in the Autumn 1989 International Marxist Review by Zbigniew Kowalewski titled “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” that details the tragic failure of the Bolsheviks to understand the need for Ukrainian self-determination. To give you an idea of how Great Russian chauvinism persists in the Kremlin and among those self-proclaimed Marxists who repeat Putin’s talking points, the article states:

The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

That’s from 1919. Nothing has changed evidently. What is all the more difficult to understand is the tendency to view Ukrainian national aspirations as reactionary given the openly Romanovist inclinations of the Russian government today. At least when Christian Rakovsky, the Bolshevik colonial administrator of Ukraine, pushed for russification, he did so in the name of the socialist revolution. Those who now back Russian domination of an historically oppressed nation do so in the name of Gazprom and the pro-Russian oligarchy.

The article refers to the same kinds of stupidities committed in the name of Marxism against Poland, another country that had suffered from Czarist bullying. I strongly recommend a look at Paul Kellogg’s article titled Substitutionism versus Self-emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo-Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921 that covers the Kremlin’s bungling to the north of the Ukraine. It is an important contribution to the necessary critical re-examination of the early Comintern’s history.

For the independence of Soviet Ukraine

By Zbigniew Kowalewski

DESPITE the giant step forward taken by the October Revolution in the domain of national relations, the isolated proletarian revolution in a backward country proved incapable of solving the national question, especially the Ukrainian question which is, in its very essence, international in character. The Thermidorean reaction, crowned by Bonapartist bureaucracy, has thrown the toiling masses far back in the national sphere as well. The great masses of the Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and with to change it drastically. It is this fact that the revolutionary politician must, in contrast to the bureaucrat and the sectarian, take as his point of departure.

If our critic were capable of thinking politically, he would have surmised without much difficulty the arguments of the Stalinists against the slogan of an independent Ukraine: ‘it negates the position of the defence of the Soviet Union’, ‘disrupts the unity of the revolutionary masses.; ‘serves not the interests of revolution but those of imperialism’. In other words, the Stalinists would repeat all the three arguments of our author. They will unfailingly, do so on the morrow.

The sectarian as so often happens, finds himself siding with the police, covering up the status quo, that is, police violence, by sterile speculation on the superiority of the socialist unification of nations as against their remaining divided. Assuredly, the separation of the Ukraine is a liability as compared with a voluntary and equalitarian socialist federation: tan it will be an unquestionable asset as compared with the bureaucratic strangulation of the Ukrainian people. In order to draw together more closely and honestly, it is sometimes necessary first to separate.’

The quoted article by Trotsky “The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads” (July 1939), is, in a number of ways, much more important than the article of April the same year, “The Ukrainian Question”. First of all, it unmasks and disarms the pseudo-Marxist sectarians who, in the name of defending proletarian internationalism transform it into a sterile abstraction, and reject the slogan of national independence of a people oppressed by the Kremlin bureaucracy. In this article Trotsky places himself in the continuity of the ideological struggle waged by Lenin against the “tendency to imperialist economism”, a tendency which was active in the ranks of Bolshevik Party as well as in the faux left of international social democracy. It should be clear that the adjective “imperialist” that Lenin attributes to this form of economism in the revolutionary movement in relation to the national question is justified by the theoretical reasons evoked by the author of the term. A sociological examination would show that this tendency is mainly based among revolutionary socialists belonging to the dominant and imperialist nations. The sectarians denounced by Trotsky, are only a new version of the same tendency that Lenin fought against at the time of the discussion on the right of nations to self-determination in the context of an anti-capitalist revolution.

Second, Trotsky’s article contains theoretical and political considerations which are indispensable for understanding the correctness and the need for a slogan such as that of independence for the Soviet Ukraine as well as for a national revolution of an oppressed people as a factor and component of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. To fully appreciate the richness of this contribution, readers are invited to study the article themselves.

Third, Trotsky explains that in a case like that of the Ukraine, real internationalism and a real search for the international unity of the working class are impossible without clear and resolute support for national “separatism”.

To make possible a genuine brotherhood of the peoples in the future, the advanced workers of Great Russia must even now understand the causes of Ukrainian separatism as well as the latent power and historical lawfulness behind it, and they must without any reservation declare to the Ukrainian people that they are ready to support with all their might the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine in a joint straggle against the autocratic bureaucracy and against imperialism.

It goes without saying that this task is the responsibility of the vanguard of the international workers’ movement even before being that of the Russian proletariat. The defence of the slogan of Ukrainian independence adopted by the World Congresses of the Fourth International in 1957 and 1979 is a task of enormous political importance today. The rise of national mass movements of the oppressed peoples of the USSR demands that the slogan of national independence should be a part of our general propaganda and agitation. if this is not done, the socialist opposition in the USSR will leave the field open to the bureaucracy, which hopes to isolate the anti-bureaucratic struggles waged in the non-Russian republics from the fight of the workers in Great Russia. They thus omit one of the basic transitional tasks of the anti-bureaucratic struggle.

Fourthly, Trotsky contributes an essential clarification to the historical dis-cussion on the right of nations to self-determination while eliminating from this Leninist slogan its abstract and politically redundant features. Trotsky explains that, if the oppression of a people is an objective fact, we do not need this people to be in struggle and to demand independence in order to advance the slogan of independence. At the time when Trotsky raised this slogan, nobody in the Soviet Ukraine could demand such a thing without having to face execution or becoming a prisoner in the Gulag. A wait-and-see policy would only lead to the political and programmatic disarming of revolutionaries. An oppressed people needs independence because it is oppressed. Independence, states Trotsky, is the indispensable democratic framework in which an oppressed people becomes free to determine itself. in other words, there is no self-determination outside the context of national independence.

In order to freely determine her relations with other Soviet republics, in order to possess the right to say yes or no, the Ukraine must return to herself complete freedom of action, at least for the duration of this constituent period. There is no other name for this than state independence.

In order to exercise self-determination — and every oppressed people needs and must have the greatest freedom of action in this field — there has to be a constituent congress of the nation.

But a “constituent” congress signifies nothing else but the congress of an independent state which prepares anew to determine its own domestic regime as well as its international position.

Faced with the implacable rigour of this explanation any other discourse on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination can only be sustained by sleight-of-hand. This right cannot be defended without fighting for the oppressed people to have the means of exercising it that is to say without demanding the state independence necessary for the convocation of a free constituent assembly or congress.

Finally, and this is a question of signal importance, Trotsky recognized that the October revolution did not resolve the national question inherited from the Russian empire. Isolated in a backward country, it could only bring it to resolution with great difficulty. But was it equipped for that? In the perspective of a new, anti-bureaucratic, revolution we have to decide whether the same means can be reused or if a totally new approach is necessary. I think that Trotsky was convinced that the second option was correct. This is a question of the first importance that seems never to have been taken up by the Trotskyist movement, although it is a necessary starting point for any discussion on the relevance of Trotsky’s slogan of 1939.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — formally (and fictively like Byelorussia) a member of the United Nations — is the most important of the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union. It is also the biggest country in Europe after Russia in surface (603,700 square kilometres), and one of the biggest in population (more than 50 million, 74% of whom are Ukrainian). The Ukrainian people form the largest oppressed nation in the USSR and Europe. The urban working class constitutes more than 50% of the total population and more than 75% of the Ukrainian population of the republic. The liberation of the enormous potential that this class represents from the dual burden of bureaucratic dictatorship and national oppression is a fundamental task and a condition for the development of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe, as well as for the social revolution on the entire continent it is impossible to imagine any advance in building socialism in the USSR and in Europe without the victory of the Ukrainian national revolution which has, as Trotsky explained, an international strategic dimension. What the sectarians ignore in taking up this question is the fact that the national revolution, one of the most important and most complex forms of the class struggle, cannot be avoided by simple references to the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR as a whole or the future European and world revolution.

Bolshevism faced with an unexpected national revolution.

Considered by many people — including Marx and Engels at one time — as a “people without history”, the Ukrainian people constituted itself as a nation in a “historical” manner par excellence, that is heroically. In 1648, the community of freemen and of military democracy, known as the Cossacks, formed a people’s liberation army, and launched a huge peasant uprising against the Polish state, its ruling class and its church. The nation state established during this rising did not manage to stabilize but the Cossack and peasant revolution crystallized a historical nation even before the shaping of the modern nations through the expansion of capitalism. Since the end of the 18th century, the bulk of Ukrainian territory had been transformed into a province of the Tsarist empire, known as “Little Russia”. On the eve of the Russian revolution, it was a “European”-type colony? Compared to the general level of socio-economic development in this empire this region was one of the most industrialized and characterized by a strong penetration of capitalism in agriculture. Ukrainian was synonymous with peasant because around 90% of the population lived in the countryside. Among the 3.6 million proletarians (12% of the population), 0.9 million worked in industry and 1.2 million in agriculture. As a product of a very uneven development of capitalism, half of the industrial proletariat was concentrated in the mining and steel enclave of the Donbas, Because of the colonial development and the Tsarist “solution” to the Jewish question, only 43% of the proletariat was of Ukrainian nationality, the rest being Russian, Russified and Jewish. The Ukrainians constituted less than a third of the urban population. The western part of Ukraine, Galicia, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The two central demands of the renascent national movement were the independence and unity (‘samostiinist’ i sobornist’) of the Ukraine.

The 1917 revolution opened the road to the Ukrainian national revolution. It was the most powerful, the most massive and the most violent of the all the revolutions of the oppressed nations of the empire. The masses demanded a radical agrarian reform, independence, the constitution of a Ukrainian government and independence. The opportunist petty bourgeois and workers’ parties of the Central Rada (council) which led the national movement opposed the demand for independence. They only proclaimed it after the October revolution to which they were hostile. By authorizing the passage of counter-revolutionary military units, the Central Rada provoked a declaration of war by Soviet Russia against the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Bolsheviks were very badly prepared to deal with the Ukrainian national revolution.

The right to national self-determination put forward by Lenin was a slogan that had not been very well assimilated by the party, It was even challenged by a sizeable current, characterized by Lenin as “imperialist economism”. This challenge was particularly dangerous as it appeared within a proletarian party of a nation that was traditionally an oppressor and had become imperialist, in an empire characterized by Lenin as an enormous prison of peoples. Apart from Lenin’s writings, the only overall work on the national question at the disposal of the Bolshevik Party was the confused, indeed largely wrong study by Stalin. Written in 1913, it did not even take up the national question in the framework of imperialism. Lenin himself expressed confused and ill-thought out positions such as the excessive inspiration that he drew from the example of the American melting-pot and a categorical rejection of a federalist solution. He condemned this as contradicting his idea of a centralized state and demanded that each nationality choose between complete separation and national-territorial autonomy within a centralized multi-national state, He educated the party in this spirit for more than ten years. After the revolution, and without giving any explanation for his turnaround, he proclaimed the federation of nations as the correct solution and compatible with state centralism — a shift that many Bolshevik leaders did not take seriously. Over and above the democratic slogan of the right to self-determination, Bolshevism had neither a programme nor a strategy of national and social permanent revolution for the oppressed peoples of the empire.

In Ukraine, apart from a few exceptions, the Bolshevik Party (like the Menshevik Party) was only active within the most concentrated and modern section of the proletariat, which was not of Ukrainian nationality. The spread of communism within the proletariat followed the dynamic of the development of a colonial industrial capitalism. Political action within the national proletariat was the domain of Ukrainian social-democracy which placed itself outside the Bolshevik/Menshevik split and was accused by the former of capitulating to Ukrainian “bourgeois nationalism”. The “national” bourgeoisie hardly existed. At this period, the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors and that of the oppressed was already present in Lenin’s writings but both were considered bourgeois. The notion of revolutionary nationalism had not yet appeared. Social Revolutionary populism, which was becoming national and autonomous from its Russian equivalent, represented another active political force within the Ukrainian masses. The Bolshevik Party in the Ukraine used only Russian in its press and propaganda. It ignored the national question and did not even have a leadership centre in the territory. It is not surprising that when the national revolution broke out it was caught unarmed.

In the Ukraine, the Bolshevik Party only tried to organize as a separate entity after the Brest-Litovsk treaty, that is during the first Bolshevik retreat and at the beginning of the occupation of the country by the imperialist German army. At the ad hoc conference in Tahanrih in April 1918, there were several tendencies present. On the right, the “Katerynoslavians” with Emmanuil Kviring. On the left, the “Kievans” with lurii Piatakov, but also the “Poltavans” or “nationals” with Mykola Skrypnyk and Vasyl Shakhrai, strengthened by the support of a group from the extreme left of Ukrainian social-democracy. The right, basing itself on the Russian industrial proletariat pro-posed to form the Russian CP(B) in Ukraine. The “Poltavans” and the “Kievans” wanted an entirely independent Bolshevik party. A section of the “Poltavans” wanted to settle the national question in a radical way through the foundation of an independent Soviet Ukraine. Shakhrai, the most radical, even wanted the party to be called the Ukrainian CP(B). The “Kievans” were for an independent party (and perhaps a state) while denying the existence of the national question and considering the right to national self-determination an opportunist slogan. With Piatakov they represented the most extreme proponents of “imperialist economism”. However, at the same time, they identified with Bukharinist “left communism” and were hostile to the Brest-Litovsk peace and to Leninist centralism. In order to assert themselves in opposition to Lenin they needed an independent Bolshevik party in the Ukraine. Moreover, they considered that a particular strategy was necessary in Ukraine directed towards the peasant masses and based in their insurrectional potential. It was for this reason that the “Kievans” allied with the “Poltavans”. And it was Skrypnyk’s position that won out. Rejecting Kviring’s approach on the one hand and Shakhrai’s on the other, the conference proclaimed the Communist Party(B) in Ukraine as the Ukrainian section, independent of the Russian CP(B), of the Communist International.

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralising Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in the Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev, the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about an Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into the Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

The first congress of the CP(B) of the Ukraine took place in Moscow. For Lenin and the leadership of the Russian CP(B) the decision of Tahanrih had the flavour of a nationalist deviation. They were not ready to accept an independent Bolshevik party in the Ukraine or a Ukrainian section of the Komintern. The CP(B) of the Ukraine could only be a regional organization of the pan-Russian CP(B), according to the thesis “one country, one party”. Is the Ukraine not a country?

Skrypnyk, considered responsible for the deviation, was eliminated from the party leadership. In this situation, Shakhrai, the most intransigent of the “Poltavans” went over to open dissidence. In two books of inflammatory content, written with his Ukrainian Jewish comrade Serhii Mazlakh, they laid the foundations of a pro-independence Ukrainian communism. For them, the Ukrainian national revolution was an act of enormous importance for the world revolution. The natural and legitimate tendency of this revolution and its growing over into a social revolution could only lead to the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine as an independent state. The slogan of independence was thus crucial to ensure this growing over, for forming the workers-peasants alliance, to make it possible for the revolutionary proletariat to take power and to establish a real and sincere unity with the Russian proletariat. It was only in this way that the Ukraine could become a stronghold of the international proletarian revolution. The contrary policy would lead to disaster. This was the message of the Shakhrai current.” And it was indeed a disaster.

The reasons for the failure of the second Bolshevik government

In November 1918, under the impact of the collapse of the central powers in the imperialist war and the outbreak of revolution in Germany, a generalized national insurrection overthrew the Hetmanate, a fake state established in the Ukraine by German imperialism. The opportunist leaders of the former Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic who, a short while before, had made a compromise with German imperialism, took the head of the insurrection to restore the Republic and its government, this time called the Directory. Symon Petliura, a former social-democrat who had become a rightwinger swearing ferocious hatred of Bolshevism, became the de facto military dictator. But this unprecedented rise of a national revolution of the masses was also the rise of a social revolution. Just as they had previously done faced with the Central Rada, the masses rapidly lost their illusions in Petliura’s Directory, and turned again to the social programme of the Bolsheviks. The far left of the Ukrainian Social Revolutionary Party, called the Borotbists, which was increasingly pro-Communist, affirmed its ideological influence among the masses.

In a situation favourable to the possibility of a convergence between the Russian revolution and the Ukrainian revolution, the Red Army again entered the country, chased out the Directory, and established the second Bolshevik government. Piatakov was at the head of this government before being rapidly recalled to Moscow.

Although continuing to ignore the national question — for him the Ukrainian revolution was not a national but a peasant revolution — the Piatokov government, sensitive to the social reality of the Ukraine, wanted to be an independent state power. It considered such power indispensable in order to ensure the growing over of the peasant revolution into the proletarian revolution and to give proletarian leadership to the people’s revolutionary war. Moscow appointed Christian Rakovsky to take Piatakov’s place. Recently arrived from the Balkans, where the national question was particularly complicated and acute, he declared himself a specialist on the Ukrainian question and was recognized as such in Moscow, including by Lenin. In reality, although he was a very talented militant and completely devoted to the cause of the world revolution, he was completely ignorant and dangerous in his so-called speciality. In lzvestia, the Soviet government newspaper, he announced the following theses: the ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Russians are insignificant, the Ukrainian peasants do not have a national consciousness, they even send petitions to the Bolsheviks to demand to be Russian subjects; they refuse to read revolutionary proclamations in Ukrainian while devouring the same thing in Russian. The national consciousness of the masses has been submerged by their social class consciousness. The word “Ukrainian” is practically an insult for them. The working class is purely of Russian origin. The industrial bourgeoisie and the majority of the big land-owners are Russian, Polish or Jewish. In conclusion Rakovsky did not even recognize a national entity in the Ukraine and for him the Ukrainian national movement was simply the invention of the intelligentsia that supported Petliura, who were using it in order to hoist themselves into power.

Rakovsky understood perfectly that the Bolshevik revolution in the Ukraine was the “strategic knot” and the “decisive factor” in the extension of the socialist revolution in Europe. However, unable to place his vision within the context of the Ukrainian national revolution or recognize that this latter was an unavoidable and indispensable active force, Rakovsky condemned his own strategy to shipwreck on the rocks of the Ukrainian question. A tragic but relative error if compared with that of Lenin eighteen months later, which plunged the European revolution into the quagmire of the Polish national question by giving orders to invade Poland.

In opposition to the demands of Piatakov, Rakovsky’s government — which was on paper that of an “independent republic” — considered itself a simple regional delegation of power from the Russian workers’ state. But objective reality is implacable. Faced with Rakovsky’s attempt to impose a Greater Russian communist centralism, the national reality, already explained by Bolsheviks like Shakhrai, and also in their own way by Bolsheviks like Piatakov, made itself felt. This centralism unleashed powerful centrifugal forces. The proletarian revolution did not lead the national revolution; nor did a proletarian military leadership impose itself at the head of the armed national and social insurrection of the masses. In order to achieve class consciousness, the masses of an oppressed people have first to pass through the stage of achieving a national consciousness. Having alienated and even repressed the bearers of this consciousness, recruitment to the administration was restricted to the often reactionary Russian petty bourgeoisie, who were accustomed to serving under whoever was in power in Moscow. Things were the same for the army; recruitment took place amongst people with a very low level of consciousness, not to say lumpen elements. The result was a conglomerate of disparate armed forces, with commanders ranging from Nestor Makhno (presented by the central press in glowing terms as a natural revolutionary leader of the poor peasants in revolt, over-looking entirely his anarcho-communist beliefs, totally at odds with Bolshevism) and straightforward adventurers such as Matvii Hryhoryiv. This latter was promoted to the rank of plenipotentiary Red commander of a vast region by Antonov-Ovseyenko.

The leftist agrarian policy, that of the commune, transplanted into the Ukraine from Russia on the principle of a single country and a single agrarian policy, inevitably alienated the middle peasants. It drove them into the arms of the rich peasants and ensured their hostility to the Rakovsky government while isolating and dividing the poor peasants. Power was exercised by the Bolshevik Party, the revolutionary committees and the poor peasants’ committees, imposed from above by the party. Soviets were only permitted in some of the large towns and even then had only an advisory role. The most widely-supported popular demand was that of all power to democratically-elected Soviets — a demand of Bolshevik origin that now struck at the present Bolshevik policy. On the national issue, the policy was one of linguistic russification, the “dictatorship of Russian culture” proclaimed by Rakov-sky and the repression of the militants of the national renaissance. The Great Russian philistine was able to wrap himself in the red flag in order to repress everything that smacked of Ukrainian nationalism and defend the historical “one and indivisible” Russia. Afterwards, Skrypnyk drew up a list of some 200 decrees “forbidding the use of the Ukrainian language” drawn up under Rakovsky’s rule by “a variety of pseudo-specialists, Soviet bureaucrats and pseudo-communists.” In a letter to Lenin, the Borotbists were to describe the policy of this government as that of “the expansion of a ‘red’ imperialism (Russian nationalism)”, giving the impression that “Soviet power in the Ukraine had fallen into the hands of hardened Black Hundreds preparing a counter-revolution”.

In the course of a military escapade, the rebel army of Hryhoryiv captured Odessa and proclaimed that they had thrown the Entente expeditionary corps (in fact in the process of evacuating the town) into the sea. This fictional exploit was backed up by Bolshevik propaganda. Sensing a shift in the wind, the “victor over the Entente”, Hryhoryiv, rebelled against the power of “the commune, the Cheka and the commissars” sent from Moscow and from the land “where they have crucified Jesus Christ”. He gave the signal for a wave of insurrections to throw out the Rakovsky government. Aware of the mood of the masses, he called on them to establish Soviets from below everywhere, and for their delegates to come together to elect a new government. Some months later, Hryhoryiv was shot by Makhno in the presence of their respective armies, accused of responsibility for anti-semitic pogroms. Even the pro-communist extreme left of the social democracy took up arms against the “Russian government of occupation”. Whole chunks of the Red Army deserted and joined the insurrection. The elite troops of “Red Cossacks” disintegrated politically, tempted by banditry, plunder and pogroms.

These uprisings opened the way for Denikin and isolated the Hungarian Revolution. From Budapest, a desperate Bela Kun demanded a radical change in Bolshevik policy in the Ukraine. The commander of the Red Army’s Ukrainian front, Antonov-Ovseyenko, did the same. Among the Ukrainian Bolsheviks, the “federalist” current, in effective agreement with the ideas of Shaldirai and Borotbism, started factional activity. The Borotbists, protective of their autonomy, although still in alliance with the Bolsheviks, formed the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbist) and demanded recognition as a national section of the Comintern. With large influence amongst the poor peasantry and the Ukrainian working-class in the countryside and the towns, this party looked towards an independent Soviet Ukraine. They even envisaged armed confrontation with the fraternal Bolshevik Party on this question, but only after victory over Denikin, on the other fronts of the civil war and imperialist intervention.

Both the Hungarian and Bavarian revolutions, deprived of Bolshevik military support were crushed. The Russian revolution itself was in mortal danger from Denikin’s offensive.

“One and indivisible” Russia or independence of the Ukraine?

It was under these conditions that Trotsky, in the course of a new and decisive turn in the civil war — as the Red Army went over to the offensive against Denikin — took a political initiative of fundamental importance. On November 30 1919, in his order to the Red troops as they entered the Ukraine, he stated:

The Ukraine is the land of the Ukrainian workers and working peasants. They alone have the right to rule in the Ukraine, to govern it and to build a new life in it.— Keep this firmly in mind: your task is not to conquer the Ukraine but to liberate it. When Denikin’s bands have finally been smashed, the working people of the liberated Ukraine will themselves decide on what terms they are to live with Soviet Russia. We are all sure, and we know, that the working people of the Ukraine will declare for the closest fraternal union with us…. Long live the free and independent Soviet Ukraine.

After two years of civil war in the Ukraine, this was the first initiative by the. Bolshevik regime aimed at drawing the social and political forces of the Ukrainian national revolution – that is the Ukrainian workers and peasants – into the ranks of the proletarian revolution. Trotsky was also concerned to counteract the increasingly centrifugal dynamic of Ukrainian communism whether inside or outside the Bolshevik party.

Trotsky’s search for a political solution to the Ukrainian national question was supported. by Rakovsky, who had become aware of his errors, and closely coordinated with Lenin, who was also now conscious of the disastrous consequences of policies that he had himself often supported, or even promoted. At the Bolshevik Central Committee Lenin called for a vote for a resolution that made it:

incumbent on all party members to use every means to help remove all harriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture…, suppressed for centuries by Russian Tsarism and the exploiting classes.

The resolution announced that in the future all employees of Soviet institutions in the Ukraine would have to be able to express themselves in the national language. But Lenin went much further. In a letter-manifesto addressed to the workers and peasants of Ukraine, he recognized for the first time some basic facts.

We Great Russian Communists (have) differences with the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists and Borotbists and these differences concern the state independence of the Ukraine, the forms of her alliance with Russia and the national question in general,… There must be no differences over these questions. They will be decided by the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets.

In the same open letter, Lenin stated for the first time that it was possible to be both a militant of the Bolshevik Party and a partisan of complete independence for the Ukraine. This was a reply to one of the key questions posed a year earlier by Shakhrai, who was expelled from the party before his assassination by the Whites. Lenin furthermore affirmed:

One of the things distinguishing the Borotbists from the Bolsheviks is that they insist upon the unconditional independence of the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks will not…. regard this as an obstacle to concerted proletarian effort.

The effect was spectacular and had a strategic significance. The insurrections of the Ukrainian masses contributed to the defeat of Denikin. In March 1920 the Borotbist congress decided on the dissolution of the organization and the entry of its militants into the Bolshevik Party. The Borotbist leadership took the following position: they would unite with the Bolsheviks to contribute to the international extension of the proletarian revolution. The prospects for an independent Soviet Ukraine would be a lot more promising in the framework of the world revolution that on a pan-Russian level. With great relief Lenin declared:

Instead of a revolt of the Borotbists, which seemed inevitable, we find that, thanks to the correct policy of the Central Committee, which was carried out so splendidly by comrade Rakovsky, all the best elements among the Borotbists have joined our party under our control…This victory was worth a couple of good tussles.

In 1923 a communist historian remarked: it was largely under the influence of the Borotbists that Bolshevism underwent the evolution from being “the Russian Communist Party in the Ukraine” to becoming the “Communist Party of the Ukraine”. Even so, it remained a regional organization of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and did not have the right to be a section of the Comintern.

The fusion of the Borotbists with the Bolsheviks took place just before a new political crisis – the invasion of the Ukraine by the Polish bourgeois army accompanied by Ukrainian troops under the command of Petluira, and the resulting Soviet-Polish war. This time the Great Russian chauvinism of the masses was unleashed on a scale and with an aggression that escaped all restraint by the Bolsheviks.

To the conservative elements in Russia this was a war against a hereditary enemy, with whose re-emergence as an independent nation they could not reconcile themselves — a truly Russian war, although waged by Bolshevik internationalists. To the Greek Orthodox this was a fight against the people incorrigible in its loyalty to Roman Catholicism, a Christian crusade even though led by godless communists. (Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pp 459-460)

The masses were moved by the defence of the “one and indivisible” Russia, a mood fanned by propaganda. Izvestia published an almost unbelievably reactionary poem glorifying the Russian state. Its message was that

just as long ago, the Tsar Ivan Kalita gathered in all the lands of Russia, one by one— now all the dialects, and all the lands, all the multinational world will be reunited in a now faith” in order to “bring their power and their riches to the palaces of the Kremlin.” (M. Kozyrev, Izvestia, 1920)

The Ukraine was the first victim of the chauvinist explosion. A Ukrainian left social democrat, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who had been the leader of the Central Rada and who had broken with Petluira’s Directory to negotiate alongside Bela Kun a change in Bolshevik policy in the Ukraine, found himself in Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government at the time when many white officers were responding to the appeal of the former commander in chief of the Tsarist army to “defend the Russian motherland” and were joining the Red Army, Georgii Chicherin, at that time Commissar of Foreign Affairs, explained to Vynnychenko that his government could not go to Canossa over the Ukrainian question. In his journal, Vynnychenko writes: “The orientation towards Russian patriotism of the ‘one and indivisible’ variety excludes any concession to the Ukrainians. When one is going to Canossa in front of the white guards…. it is clearly impossible to have an orientation towards federation, self-determination or anything else that might upset ‘one and indivisible’ Russia.” Furthermore, under the influence of the Great Russian chauvinist tide that was flowing through the corridors of Soviet power, Chicherin resuscitated the idea that Russia could directly annex the Donbas region of the Ukraine. In the Ukrainian countryside, Soviet officials asked the peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?”

In the face of this Great Russian chauvinist regression, those Borotbists who had become Bolsheviks, continued the fight. One of their main leaders, Vasyl Ellan Blakytny, wrote at the time:

Basing themselves on the ethnic links of the majority of the Ukrainian proletariat with the proletariat, semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie of Russia and using the argument of the weakness of the industrial proletariat of the Ukraine, a tendency that we describe as colonialist is calling for the construction of an economic system in the framework of the Russian Republic, which is that of the old Empire to which the Ukraine belonged. This tendency wants the total subordination of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of the Ukraine to the Russian party and in general envisages the dissolution of all the young proletarian forces of the “nations without history” into the Russian section of the Comintern…. In Ukraine, the natural leading force of such a tendency is a section of the urban and industrial proletariat that has not come to terms with Ukrainian reality. But beyond that, and above all, it is the Russified urban petty bourgeoisie that was always the principle support for the domination of the Russian bourgeoisie in the Ukraine.

And the Bolsheviks of Borotbist origin concluded:

The great power colonialist project that is prevailing today in the Ukraine is profoundly harmful to the communist revolution. In ignoring the natural and legitimate national aspirations of the previously oppressed Ukrainian toiling masses, it is wholly reactionary and counter-revolutionary and is the expression of an old, but still living Great Russian imperialist chauvinism.

Meanwhile the far left of the social democrats formed a new party, called the Ukapist Party, in order to continue to demand national independence and to take in those elements of the Borotbists who had not joined the Bolsheviks. Coming out of the theoretical tradition of German social democracy, this new party was far stronger at the theoretical level than Borotbism, which had populist origins and where the art of poetry was better understood than the science of political economy. But its links with the masses were weaker. The masses were, in any case, growing increasingly weary of this revolution that was permanent in both a mundane and theoretical sense. Trotsky’s theoretical conception of permanent revolution was not, however, matched in reality by a growing over, but by a permanent split between a national revolution and a social revolution. One of the worst results of this was the inability to achieve a united Ukraine (the demand for sobornist’). Lenin’s fatal error in invading Poland exacerbated the Polish national question in an anti-Bolshevik direction and blocked the extension of the revolution. It resulted in a defeat for the Red Army and the cession to the Polish state of more than a fifth of national Ukrainian territory on top of the areas absorbed by Romania and Czechoslovakia.

Every honest historian, and all the more every revolutionary Marxist, must recognize that the promise made by the Bolsheviks during the offensive against Denikin — to convoke a constituent congress of soviets in the Ukraine able to take a position on the three options (complete independence, more or less close federal ties with Russia or complete fusion with the latter) put forward by Lenin in his letter of December 1919, was not kept. According to Trotsky, during the civil war, the Bolshevik leadership considered putting forward a bold project for workers’ democracy to resolve the anarchist question in the region under the control of Makhno’s insurrectional army. Trotsky himself:

discussed with Lenin more than once the possibility of allotting to the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-1937, Pathfinder, pp. 426-427)

But there is no record of any similar discussions on the vastly more important question of Ukrainian independence.

It was only after bitter struggles led at the end of his life by Lenin himself as well as by Bolsheviks like Skrypnyk and Rakovsky, by former Borotbists such as Blakytny and Oleksandr Shumsky, and by many of the leading communists from the various oppressed nationalities of the old Russian empire, that the 12th congress of the Bolshevik Party in 1923 formally recognized the existence in the party and in the Soviet regime of a very dangerous “tendency towards Great Russian imperialist chauvinism”. Although this victory was very partial and fragile, it offered the Ukrainian masses the possibility of accomplishing certain tasks of the national revolution and experiencing an unprecedented national renaissance in the 1920s. But this victory did not prevent the degeneration of the Russian revolution and a chauvinist and bureaucratic counter-revolution that, in the 1930s, was marked by a national holocaust in the Ukraine. Millions of peasants died during a famine provoked by the Stalinist policy of pillaging the country, the national intelligentsia was almost completely physically wiped put, while the party and state apparatuses of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic were destroyed by police terror. The suicide of Mykola Skrypnyk in 1933, an old Bolshevik who tried to reconcile the national revolution with allegiance to Stalinism, sounded the death knell for that revolution for a whole historical period.

Tragic errors that should not be repeated

The Russian revolution had two contradictory effects on the Ukrainian national revolution. On the one side the Russian revolution was an essential factor for the overthrow of bourgeois power in the Ukraine. On the other, it held back the process of class differentiation amongst the social and political forces of the national revolution. The reason for this was the lack of understanding of the national question. The experience of the 1917-1920 revolution posed in a dramatic fashion the question of the relations between the social revolution of the proletariat of a dominant nation and a national revolution of the toiling masses of the oppressed nation. As Skrypnyk wrote in July 1920:

Our tragedy in the Ukraine is that in order to win the peasantry and the rural proletariat, a population of Ukrainian nationality, we have to rely on the support and on the forces of a Russian or Russified working class that was antagonistic towards even the smallest expression of Ukrainian language and culture.

In the same period, the Ukrainian Communist Party (Ukapist) tried to explain to the leadership of the Comintern:

The fact that the leaders of the proletarian revolution in the Ukraine draw their support from the Russian and Russified upper layers of the proletariat and know nothing of the dynamic of the Ukrainian revolution, means that they are not obliged to rid themselves of the prejudice of the “one and indivisible” Russia that pervades the whole of Soviet Russia. This attitude has led to the crisis of the Ukrainian revolution, cuts Soviet power off from the masses, aggravates the national struggle, pushes a large section of the workers into the arms of the Ukrainian petty bourgeois nationalists and holds back the differentiation of the proletariat from the petty-bourgeoisie.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The answer is yes if the Bolsheviks had had at their disposal an adequate strategy before the outbreak of the revolution. In the first place, if instead of being a Russian party in the Ukraine, they had resolved the question of the construction of a revolutionary party of the proletariat of the oppressed nation. Secondly, if they had integrated the struggle for national liberation of the Ukraine into their programme. Thirdly, if they had recognized the political necessity and historical legitimacy of the national revolution in the Ukraine and of the slogan of Ukrainian independence. Fourthly, if they had educated the Russian proletariat (in Russia and in the Ukraine) and the ranks of their own party in the spirit of total support for this slogan, and thereby fought against the chauvinism of the dominant nation and the reactionary ideal of the “gathering together of the Russian lands”. Nothing here would have stood in the way of the Bolsheviks conducting propaganda amongst the Ukraine workers in favour of the closest unity with the Russian proletariat and, during the revolution, between the Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia. On the contrary, only under these conditions could such propaganda be politically coherent and effective.

There had been an occasion when Lenin tried to develop such a strategy. This is revealed by his “separatist speech” delivered in October 1914 in Zurich. Then he said:

What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state independence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs. Unfortunately some of our comrades have become imperial Russian patriots. We Muscovites, are enslaved not only because we allow ourselves to be oppressed, but because out passivity allows others to be oppressed, which is not in our interests.

Later however, Lenin did not stick to these radical theses. They re-appear, however, in the political thinking of pro-independence Ukrainian communism, in Shakhrai, the Bolshevik “federalists”, the Borotbists and the Ukapists.

We should not, however, be surprised that the Bolsheviks had no strategy for the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire. The strategic questions of the revolution were in general the Achilles heel of Lenin himself, as is shown by his theory of revolution by stages. As for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, implicitly adopted by Lenin after the February revolution, it was only worked out in relation to Russia, an underdeveloped capitalist country and not for the proletariat of the peoples oppressed by Russia, which was also an imperialist state and a prison house of nations. The theoretical bases of the strategy of permanent revolution for the proletariat of an oppressed nation appeared during the revolutionary years amongst the pro-independence currents of Ukrainian communism. The Ukapists were probably the only communist party — even if they were never recognized as a section by the Comintern — that openly made reference to the theory of permanent revolution.

The basic idea, first outlined by Shakhrai and Mazlakh, then taken up by the Borotbists before being elaborated by the Ukapists, was simple. In the imperialist epoch, capitalism is, of course, marked by the process of the internationalization of the productive forces, but this is only one side of the coin. Torn by its contradictions, the imperialist epoch does not produce one tendency without also producing a counter-tendency. The opposite tendency in this case is that of the nationalization of the productive forces manifested in particular by the formation of new economic organisms, those of the colonial and dependent countries, a tendency which leads to movements of national liberation.

The world proletarian revolution is the effect of only one of the contradictory tendencies of modern capitalism, imperialism, even if it is the dominant effect. The other, inseparable from the first, are the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples. This is why the international revolution is inseparable from a wave of national revolutions and must base itself on these revolutions if it is to spread. The task of the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples is to liberate the development of the productive forces constricted and deformed by imperialism. Such liberation is impossible without the establishment of independent national states ruled by the proletariat. The national workers’ states of the oppressed peoples are an essential resource for the international working class if it is to resolve the contradictions of capitalism and establish workers’ management of the world economy. If the proletariat attempts to build its power on the basis of only one of these two contradictory tendencies in the development of the productive forces, it will be divided against itself.

In a memorandum to the 2nd congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1920, the Ukapists summed up their approach in the following terms:

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 backward peoples of the colonies, taking advantage of their national revolutions. To fulfill 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. h is necessary to continue the straggle through to the seizure of power and the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and to lead the bourgeois democratic revolution to the end through the establishment of national states destined to join the international network of the emerging union of Soviet republics.

These states must rest on:

the forces of the national proletariat and toiling masses as well as on the mutual aid of all the detachments of the world revolution.

In the light of the experience of the first proletarian revolution, it is precisely this strategy of permanent revolution that needs to be adopted, to resolve the question of the oppressed nations in the framework of the anti-bureaucratic political revolution in the USSR. As Mykola Khvylovy, Ukrainian communist militant and great writer, put it in 1926, the Ukraine must be independent

because the iron and irresistible will of the laws of history demands it, because only in this way shall we hasten class differentiation in Ukraine. If any nation (as has already been stated a long time ago and repeated on more than one occasion) over the centuries demonstrates the will to manifest itself, its organism, as a state entity, then all attempts in one way or another to hold back such a natural process block the formation of class forces on the one hand and, on the other, introduce an element of chaos into the general historical process at work in the world.

March 28, 2014

The ISO’s secrecy fetish

Filed under: Counterpunch,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm
It’s Time for an Open and Transparent Left

The ISO’s Secrecy Fetish

by LOUIS PROYECT

The International Socialist Organization published an article on March 6th by Tim Koch titled “Openness” and the left that opposed making their internal documents public either voluntarily or involuntarily as was the case recently when digital versions of the bulletins from their most recent convention were circulated on the Internet. I can understand why this aspiring Leninist group was aggravated over this violation of their confidentiality because there were some rather embarrassing revelations about the ISO’s stagnation, as well as what some regarded as a damningly inadequate response to a party member’s sexual attack on a non-party member.

I dealt with the stagnation question in an earlier article for CounterPunch and will now turn to the questions raised by Tim Koch since they go to the heart of what kind of left needs to be built in 2014. As a general rule, I do not think that modeling yourself on the Russian Social Democracy is a very good idea, but that being the case maybe the ISO should reflect on how “internal” the discussions were in the party they are supposedly emulating.

In 1905 Lenin wrote an article blasting the Russian liberals for making their party documents secret:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Tim Koch and his comrades are used to thinking that Lenin’s faction—the Bolsheviks—was the real party in Czarist Russia as opposed to the fake socialists. However, its own members did not regard the Russian social democracy in such purist fashion, particularly Lenin who viewed the right-leaning Mensheviks and the centrists grouped around Leon Trotsky as part of the same plucky but unhappy family. From 1903, the time when factional divisions began to emerge, to 1917 when a definitive (and harmful, in my view) break occurred between the left and the right internationally, debates took place in the party newspapers on an ongoing basis, resembling a Marxist version of the food fight in “Animal House”. To get a flavor of the acrimony, just consider the title of Lenin’s 1911 article Judas Trotsky’s Blush of Shame. It was an ongoing flame war in full view of all Russian social democratic members, just the sort of thing that would give our present-day “Leninist” leaders nightmares.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/28/the-isos-secrecy-fetish/

March 1, 2014

Lenin’s advice to the ISO

Filed under: Lenin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

full: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/jun/21.htm

March 14, 2013

Lenin was not a Leninist

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 11:40 pm

by Joaquín Bustelo on March 13, 2013

in analysis

A comment on Paul LeBlanc’s Leninism is Unfinished — The crisis in the British SWP over the handling of rape allegations against a leading member has led to a new and wide-ranging debate on the issue of “Leninist” parties. This happened because the party’s response to critics was that it had only upheld Leninist organizational norms. I don’t think I have much to say about the rape allegations except that the comrades who have complained seem to have a very strong case, and I believe them. But I’m thousands of miles away.

I do very much have an opinion on the idea that the SWP leadership was just defending Leninism. And that opinion can be summarized in one word: Bullshit! 

At least if by “Leninism” what is meant is what Lenin believed, advocated and practiced. Quite simply, I don’t think Lenin was a “Leninist.” And I think it is baby-simple to demonstrate.

read full article: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=7727

March 12, 2013

A Tale of Two Parties: The British and American SWPs

Filed under: Lenin,sectarianism,separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

Jack Barnes, American SWP leader

Charlie Kimber, British SWP leader

by Pham Binh on March 12, 2013

in analysis

The SWP Spring is over, and it has gone the way of Prague instead of Tahrir. The SWP’s opposition demanded the downfall of the regime; they fought vainly and valiantly, and now over 70 members, including the party’s future brain trust, Richard Seymour and China Miéville, have issued a collective resignation statement after the opposition’s defeat at a rigged special conference.

The house that Tony Cliff built (on faulty foundations) has cracked irreparably. The husk that remains is destined to endure in a state of permanent decay only because no one cares enough to front the money for the bulldozing it deserves for systematically covering up rapes and sexual assaults by its higher-ups for many years.

The American SWP’s present is the British SWP’s future.

And what of the opposition? Freed from “Leninist” party discipline, the International Socialist Network (ISN) will use their blog, a new email list, and other 21st century methods to publicly debate, discuss, theorize, and organize supporters of the Cliff tradition in a recapitulation of the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists (IS).

btp
It seems that the apple never falls far from the tree.

Read full article

August 23, 2012

Lenin on Pussy Riot

Filed under: Lenin,repression,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

(From “What is to be Done”)

May 8, 2012

Liquidating lies

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:11 pm

Liquidating Lies

May 7, 2012

by Pham Binh

I have to unbend the stick yet again  since comrades in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) mischaracterize where I stand on parties and party-building efforts. First Mike MacNair claimed  I advocated a “process by which dissent is recuperated into the bourgeois political game” and now Ben Lewis accuses  me of drawing “movementist” and “liquidationist” conclusions. Unfortunately, Lewis cannot be right about my position against MacNair since Macnair acknowledged that I favor multi-tendency socialist parties over single-tendency “Leninist” organizations. If that is liquidationism, then I am as guilty of it as Lenin was in 1912 because he advocated  just such a model for the Russian Social-Democratic Party (RSDLP) at that time.

Lars Lih is absolutely correct  to point out that liquidationism – that is, dropping the goal of a democratic revolution in autocratic Russia and confining socialist organizing to what the Tsar deemed legal – was viewed by many of the RSDLP’s Menshevik and Bolshevik activists as an existential threat, a danger to all factions and tendencies because it threatened the RSDLP itself. I think Lenin and his comrades were right politically and organizationally in how they handled the problem of liquidationism, and I am certainly not a liquidationist (if I was, I would have written historical articles attacking Lenin and the 1912 Prague Conference as the liquidators did). What Lenin and the Bolsheviks meant by liquidationism is completely at odds with Lewis’s (ab)use of the term.

James Cannon, a founding member of the American Communist Party (CP), was also accused of being a liquidationist since he favored scrapping the CP’s underground, illegal organizing in conditions where legal organizing was both possible and necessary.

In Cannon’s case and in mine the charge is bogus, without any merit whatsoever.

I suspect that Lewis sincerely believes I am a liquidationist because six months ago I called for regroupment on the American socialist left in “Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists,” a position I reiterated in greater detail in “Another Socialist Left Is Possible.” Calling for the liquidation of the existing Marxist groups does not make one a liquidationist in the way Lenin understood it because we in America do not have a mass worker-socialist party to liquidate! Perhaps this is news to Lewis, but for us here in the United States it has been our central stumbling block for the better part of half a century. If we did have such a party, I (and tens of thousands of others) would be part of it and would fight against any attempt to liquidate it under any pretext.

Today, the existing groups on the American socialist left stand in the way of and block the development of such a party. Does Lewis (or CPGB) stand in favor of this status quo, or should the existing divides be liquidated in favor of a qualitatively better organization, more democratic, fluid, and open than the unchanging socialist sects and their proprietary front groups that currently clutter the left landscape? This is the real question that needs to be answered, not by Lewis and CPGB alone but by all socialists, Marxists, and anti-capitalist revolutionaries, and not by words alone but through deeds, through action.

This is precisely what the Anti-Capitalist Initiative  (ACI) seems to be attempting to do and why I believe the project has merit, whatever its flaws. A living, breathing, provisional experiment like ACI has a much better chance at succeeding than a group or publication that focuses on getting the demands, program, formal politics, history, and theory “right” (or criticizing everyone else’s demands, program, formal politics, history, and theory for being wrong) because the former has the possibility of real qualitative transformation and development while the latter can only repeat its criticisms ad nauseum and will in practice go nowhere no matter how right those criticisms are.

The key for ACI (or any new initiative) is whether it develops meaningful democratic mechanisms to create a culture of accountability and comradely, critical, and honest self-reflection, the essential preconditions for straightening out the inevitable political and organizational errors.

The central disagreement I have with CPGB is the following statement by Lewis:

What we say is that unless we openly commit to building a party committed to the programmatic fundamentals of Marxism, with space and room to debate tactical and indeed strategic disagreements, then we will not get anywhere at all. What do we learn from 1912? That at all times, whatever the level of the class struggle, the task of Marxists is to unite all those committed to a Marxist political party.

Our task is not “at all times, whatever the level of the class struggle … to unite all those committed to a Marxist political party.” This is ahistorical. It is also wrong in a situation where the Marxist wing of a crippled workers’ movement is made up of fragmented, competing splinters and slivers. Getting these marginal elements to all agree on the definition of Marxist fundamentals would not help to recreate the powerful worker-socialist movement that Europe’s ruling classes feared and hated at the turn of the twentieth century.

More importantly, making the “fundamentals of Marxism” the precondition for any party-building project guarantees that our efforts never get beyond the conceptual stage of abstraction for a simple reason: there is no consensus about what constitutes “the programmatic fundamentals” of Marxism among Marxists (Marx probably foresaw this absurd situation when he declared, “I myself am not a Marxist”). It would be impossible to obtain even an Occupy-style “modified consensus” margin of 90% on the content of Marxist fundamentals if a national meeting with representatives of all the existing Marxist groups as well as independent socialists were held either in the United States or in the United Kingdom.

Discussions of theory and program should not be a precondition for working together in the same party, network, or whatever word it is we use to label our political associations these days. These discussions can only be fruitful on the basis of common activity, common experience, common struggle, against common enemies and for common goals. A little common sense  couldn’t hurt either.

If the CPGB’s “anti-liquidationist” approach of “uniting all those committed to a Marxist political party” had prevailed in 1875, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) would have never gotten off the ground because it was a merger of Marxist and non-Marxist elements (followers of Lasalle) on a thoroughly non-Marxist basis: the Gotha Program. If this merger had not occurred on the basis that it did, there would have been no German SPD, no international social democracy, no Erfurt Program of 1891, no Bolshevism, no Russian revolution, no Lenin. In that case, we would be in really big trouble, building new models from scratch and having to learn all of the painful lessons these experiences gave rise to all over again in a period where the very existence of unions and social safety nets is on the line.

If the permanent marginality of the Trotskyist movement has anything to teach us, it is that the “theory/program/ideology first” approach must be liquidated if we want to make real-world progress. The longer we wait, the less likely there will be a world left for us to win.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Indypendent.  Check out http://thenorthstar.info, the first national collaborative blog by and for occupiers.

March 27, 2012

Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin

Filed under: Lenin,Occupy Wall Street,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin

by Pham Binh

Pink Scare’s (PS) response  to the debate ignited by my review  of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party affords me the opportunity to clarify issues of secondary importance like timing, judgments, method, and implications that did not fit with the content of my responses to the Cliff book’s two defenders, Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato. In addition, I will discuss the role of Lars Lih in this little firestorm.

PS is appreciative but ultimately dissatisfied with Lih’s contribution because he does not spell out the practical implications of his research for revolutionary Marxists today and instead adopts a “non-political posture” of “scholarly neutrality.” Le Blanc and D’Amato also tried to fault my book review for similar reasons, namely, that it did not situate Cliff’s book in today’s context, although my views on party building today were made abundantly clear in two different articles prior to the Cliff debate and one article after it.

It seems no one is allowed to examine the historical record surrounding Lenin or challenge anyone else’s presentation of Lenin’s work without including a detailed how-to manual for today’s revolutionary.

This line of criticism fails to address a very basic point: why should a book review of Cliff’s Lenin (written in 1975) include a discussion of how what Lenin did is applicable today when Cliff’s book contains no such discussion of how its content should be applied by Cliff’s group, the International Socialists (successor to the British Socialist Workers Party) in their political context of the mid-to-late 1970s? Surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

I mirrored Cliff’s narrow focus on Lenin and the history of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). If my book review or Lih’s contribution suffered because neither of us drew up a balance sheet of applicable lessons for today, the same is equally true of Cliff’s book, although our contributions have not been shown to contain the kind of errors that marred Cliff’s Lenin.

Timing

So the question remains: why did I review Cliff’s book in early 2012?

Why re-litigate battles from a century ago as battles today rage in the streets of New York City, Athens, and Homs?

In fact, I began my review of Cliff’s Lenin began around the time I wrote The Bolshevik Experience and the ‘Leninist’ Model  in summer of 2011, before Occupy Wall Street (OWS) broke out almost literally on my doorstep. The lull in OWS activity following the November 15 eviction allowed me to complete this project, since I had far more important things to do during the encampment than re-read Cliff.

This explains the “odd” timing of the book review. What prompted me in the first place to look at Cliff’s book carefully, chapter by chapter, in summer of 2011 was Lars Lih’s response to Chris Harman and Paul Le Blanc in Historical Materialism 18. Here, Lih mentioned some of Building the Party’s factual errors. I was curious to see if there were any errors that Lih had not brought to light. The rest, as they say, is history.

Judgments

Does it follow then, as PS claims, that, “Pham thinks Cliff’s book is of zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history. He makes it sound as if the most important debate right now is, in some sweeping sense: ‘Tony Cliff: Yay or Nay?’”

My book review never claimed that Cliff’s Lenin has “zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history.” I was much more careful and specific, arguing that the book was “useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts.” Believe it or not, plenty of books have value even if they are not historical studies of Lenin’s thoughts and actions. Cliff’s Lenin is no exception.

The value of Cliff’s Lenin is a separate issue from any sort of sweeping judgment of Tony Cliff as a man, writer, or revolutionary. He wrote about a huge range of subjects during the almost 90 years of his life. One book, no matter how awful or problematic, is an insufficient basis for making a “yay or nay” judgment on someone’s life and work. Anyone who read my book review and thought that my goal was to “get Tony Cliff” or make such a judgment has probably spent too much time in the marginal and unhealthy environment known as the socialist movement where strawmen, sweeping personalistic condemnations, and sweeping yays and nays have become the rule rather than the exception.

Method

PS says that the body of my review consisted of “quibbling complaints about this or that error made by Tony Cliff.” Getting the meaning of democratic centralism wrong, distorting Lenin’s attitude towards party rules, failing to represent Lenin’s view of the famous 1903 Menshevik-Bolshevik dispute as expressed in painstaking detail in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and ignoring the fact that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks did not become separate, independent parties until 1917 hardly constitutes quibbling for any serious student of Bolshevism.

If all of the above is quibbling, it begs the question of what exactly for PS would constitute significant distortions, inaccuracies, flaws, or factual errors? Should we rest content that the moral of the story – we must build a revolutionary party! – is the correct one? If so, why bother being accurate at all?

The Value of Accuracy

Historical accuracy is paramount if we are trying to use history as a guide to action.

We cannot learn from what happened unless we actually know (and acknowledge) what happened. History, like the present, will always be contested to some degree, but intelligent debate over what happened, when, and why is not possible when those involved in such disputes maintain their views despite a growing body of evidence that contradicts the factual basis for their particular interpretation. Paul Le Blanc’s insistence that the Bolsheviks became a separate party from the Mensheviks in 1912 at the Prague Conference falls into this category because, to adhere to this interpretation, one must ignore or downplay the testimonies of conference participants such as Lenin and Zinoviev as well as a slew of documentary evidence from the period since all of it points in the opposite direction. Why the 1912 issue is important I will examine later in this piece.

Cliff’s Lenin has value – as a cautionary tale of how not to approach the work of others (Lenin’s primarily, but also that of scholars) and how not to handle historical documents and complex issues. (Building the Party’s Russian-language citations are copied from secondary sources without proper attribution, making it almost impossible for anyone else to look at the material he used to write his book.)

The single most important lesson we can learn from Cliff’s Lenin is the necessity of putting the work of Lenin and the Bolsheviks back into its proper historical context, which is the international social democratic movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This Cliff did not do in his zeal to “prove” this or that point about the nature of the revolutionary party (a loaded concept that deserves to be unpacked), the nature of said party’s internal regime, and its alleged leadership style. By contrast, Lih’s work will withstand the test of time and the harshest of critical examinations because he seeks to understand Lenin historically, as he was, as he evolved over time, regardless of the implications for revolutionary organizers today.

Lih has no dog in our fight, nor should he. Claiming that he “position[s] himself as a mere scholar—rather than activist—[who] repeatedly invokes his expertise and specific role as a ‘historian’” and, as a result of such so-called positioning, “offers little insight into the questions that really matter here” as PS does is ridiculous for the following reason: no matter how wonderful Lih’s scholarship on Lenin is, he is not going to do our thinking for us. Drawing out the implications of his work is our job, not his.

Any student of that era, those issues, or the man (Lenin) would do well to imitate Lih’s method in approaching the history of Bolshevism if they really want to mine that experience for the valuable lessons it undoubtedly contains.

When studying history we should focus on precisely that – history. Engaging in historical study focused on “advancing our understanding of the contemporary conjuncture and struggles within it” as PS suggests will inevitably distort what we get out of looking at events that occurred yesterday, yesteryear, and a century ago, especially when they happened in foreign countries whose cultures, languages, and traditions are not readily comparable to our own. Approaching the past with a “what do I get out of it in the here and now?” or a “what in this is immediately applicable to my situation?” mentality is to blind ourselves to history’s rich contradictions and nuances in favor of something simplistic and readily digestible.

Clarifications

The dedication of my book review “to anyone and everyone [who] has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party,’” has nothing to do with declaring that project to be a “bankrupt political goal,” despite what PS seems to think. If that is what I thought I would just come out and say it.

I don’t mince words.

The dedication is a reference to the fact that generations of socialists all over the world have made personal sacrifices of one sort or another in the name of the title of Cliff’s book, Building the Party under the assumption that their efforts would contribute in some way to the creation of a Bolshevik-type party. I have no problem with people choosing to make such sacrifices, but choosing to do so based on severe distortions or a nonexistent historical precedent is a different story.

PS’s concluding words compel me to clarify where I don’t stand on some questions as well:

If there is one relatively clear political implication of Pham’s intervention, it seems to be that Lenin was “an orthodox Kautsykist” and that the distinction between Second International reformism (associated with Kautsky and the SPD) and early Third International revolutionary politics (associated with Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin) is historically inaccurate.

I am mystified how anyone could read my book review of Cliff’s Lenin and my replies to Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato and write that Cliff getting Lenin wrong has “one relatively clear political implication” on issues such as Lenin’s relationship to Karl Kautsky or the Third International’s relationship to the Second. Cliff’s book did not delve into those topics at all and neither did I. Perhaps I am somehow being confused or conflated with Lih since he has actually done work on Lenin’s take on Kautsky?

Whatever the case, I would never be so stupid to think that the distinction between the Second and Third Internationals “is historically inaccurate.” I do believe that the character of those distinctions has been profoundly misunderstood by “Leninists.” That topic, along with “Leninism” and whether the Bolsheviks really constituted a “party of a new type,” will be addressed in a future piece that I began before OWS.

Stay tuned.

The Importance of 1912

To be candid, these debates have zero importance beyond the ranks of historians like Lih and those who continue to find inspiration in or lessons to be learned from the Bolsheviks. But the issue of 1912 looms large for those of us in the latter milieu because of statements like this from D’Amato:

The outcome of the period 1912-1917 was that two independent political parties entered the arena of struggle in 1917. The irreconcilable differences between these two parties, which led one to support soviet power and the other to oppose it, led to a Bolshevik victory over the opposition of the Mensheviks, and later to the founding of a new international that was based upon soviet power and the need for revolutionary Marxists to organisationally separate themselves from social-democratic reformism. Can a debate over the exact date when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split shed any more light in these critical developments in the history of the socialist movement?

My answer to his closing question is unequivocally “yes!”, although the evidence indicates that there is no single “exact date” in 1917 when this separation took place. It was a process, more like balding than a divorce.

The reason I say yes is because the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were part of the same broad multi-tendency party from 1903 until 1917 that “Leninists” today strenuously reject as a bankrupt model doomed to fail.

The 1917 Russian revolution proves that this model is anything but bankrupt or doomed in advance. The differences between the two factions were not always irreconcilable. To insist otherwise would be ahistorical (or undialectical, if you prefer). Lenin’s writings up until 1917 are filled with rejections of the notion that there could or should be two “organisationally separate” RSDLPs, one Menshevik, the other Bolshevik.

(Interesting fact: the phrase “Bolshevik Party” never occurs in Lenin’s Collected Works during the 1912-1916 period except as explanatory editorial notes written by people other than Lenin. Only in 1917 does Lenin himself speak and write of the Bolsheviks as a party.)

Conflating the liquidationists, the Mensheviks, and social-democratic reformists (Bernsteinists) with one another as D’Amato does makes all of this impossible to understand or even acknowledge. Neither Lenin nor the Bolsheviks were what we call “Leninists,” nor did they who build a “party of a new type” totally unlike and superior to their international social democratic brethren. The historical evidence indicates that they were revolutionary social democrats who defended what they considered to be orthodoxy from the likes of Eduard Bernstein and later, the man who did more than anyone else to create that orthodoxy, Kautsky.

All of this goes to show how history’s rich complexities and ironies clash with the simplistic and distorted accounts of the Bolsheviks and Lenin put forward by detractors and would-be imitators alike. What (if anything) this means for us today is a matter of debate, but historical falsehoods and fictions (when we know better!) should not be part of that debate.

Lenin and Occupy

Many socialists have cheered Lih’s demolition of the textbook interpretation of Lenin’s work without examining how many of our own preconceptions on the subject are now part of the same pile of rubble.

The fact that Occupy has functioned in practice like the much-sought-after but never replicated vanguard party that Lenin helped create in early 20th century Russia has also escaped much of the Marxist left. These two developments are not coincidental.

Leon Trotsky’s description of the party as “a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced workingmen” captures exactly how Occupy has functioned. In the space of four weeks, OWS mobilized more workers and oppressed people than the entire U.S. socialist left combined has in four decades. OWS did not begin with a program or a series of demands but with an action that inspired tens of thousands of others to act, speak, march, occupy, and rise up in an elemental awakening (or stikhiinyi in Russian).

Inspirational leadership is the core theme of Lih’s Lenin biography and underpins Lenin’s writings as well. Consider his words from Left-Wing Communism explaining why and how the Bolsheviks triumphed against all odds during the 1917  revolution and the brutal civil war that followed:

[T]he Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline in our Party, or without the fullest and unreserved support from the entire mass of the working class, that is, from all thinking, honest, devoted and influential elements in it, capable of leading the backward strata or carrying the latter along with them. … I repeat: the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie. … This is often dwelt on. However, not nearly enough thought is given to what it means, and under what conditions it is possible.

It should go without saying that Occupy at six months does not resemble a disciplined, centralized organization steeled over two decades of battles. That is not the important part of the comparison. It’s what lies underneath the discipline that Lenin described as “an essential condition of the Bolsheviks’ success” that is the key:

The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.

If there any words to describe the thousands of occupiers who continually defy cops in riot gear, risking beatings, arrests, and wanton brutality simply to maintain a presence in an ostensibly public space, they are tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism.

That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led four college students to sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the South, sparking a new phase of the civil rights movement as thousands launched similar sit-ins. That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led a small band of Black activists to don leather jackets and berets and carry shotguns in one hand and law books in the other in 1966. Calling themselves the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, they succeeded at winning mass support in the Black community in short order. The tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism of the Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies) is the stuff of legend.

It was OWS’s tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism in the face of New York Police Department (NYPD) Inspector Anthony Bologna’s pepper spray  rampage on September 24, 2011 that ended the isolation that marked week one  of the occupation and allowed it to link up, maintain close contact, and merge with the masses in weeks two  and three. NYPD repression did for OWS what Bloody Sunday did for the Russian revolution in 1905 (although thankfully no one was killed).

The correctness of Occupy’s tactics and political strategy is deeply felt by huge numbers of people because both have proven to be unmatched in effectiveness. This mass feeling explains why the ideas, values, and methods that animated OWS such as General Assemblies, modified consensus, autonomy, horizontalism, direct action, and direct democracy dominate all corners of Occupy. All of this has become the uprising’s common sense, its animus.

Huge numbers of people look to Occupy for “how to live and how to die.”

The excitement over Occupy’s calls for a May 1 general strike and the anticipation felt by almost everyone about the prospect of an American Spring are a symptom of Occupy’s vanguard role. Occupy has also assumed another aspect of what is typically associated with Lenin and the vanguard party:

[T]he Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.

OWS played this role from its inception, marching against the execution of Troy Davis. Solidarity was automatic. Shortly after Davis was murdered by the state of Georgia on September 21, 2011, signs appeared at OWS that read: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one!” A “single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation” indeed.

By standing up to tyranny, oppression, and police brutality directed against people of color, Occupy has won enduring respect and created alliances  with a variety of racial and religious minority communities. It has gone from being for the 99% to being by the 99%, which brings us to the next compelling overlap between Occupy and Lenin’s ideas.

Derided by the Marxist left for being vague, populist, blurry, or class collaborationist, the 99% is in fact synonymous with Lenin’s vision of a revolution accomplished by the narod, which Lih rightly notes has an emotional punch in Russian that the English version (the people) lacks. Add the peasantry, students, and all of Russia’s oppressed peoples together with the working class and it would probably be numerically close to the 99% espoused by Occupy.

Lenin’s vision of revolution was fundamentally inclusive, not exclusive, and the same is true of Occupy’s vision. So where does all of this leave the socialist movement in the United States? Does that mean (try not to cringe) that Lenin is no longer relevant? The answer to these questions depends on what you take from the Bolshevik experience.

At one point in his career, Lenin set out to unify scattered local informal groups of intellectuals and workers known as circles into something resembling the German Social Democratic Party. Six months into the greatest explosion of mass struggle in almost half a century, today’s socialist left is much smaller numerically than the Socialist Labor Party was at its low point (6,000 in 1898) and growing at a snail’s pace, if that. Today, socialist groups generally do not have contact with, much less productive, ongoing, working relationships with one another nationally, or even locally.

Imagine the Russian circles that Lenin sought to unite all declaring that political differences with their counterparts across town or in other parts of Russia were too great  to be in the same organization. Instead of uniting, they formed separate membership organizations, published rival newspapers, and competed with one another for individual adherents. Do this and you get some idea of how the problems Lenin faced stack up to the problems we face.

Since we don’t have Tsarist repression to deal with, since we have the “air and light” Kautsky said  we needed for a successful political workers’ movement, the only people to blame for this sorry state of affairs is ourselves (and our predecessors). Any observer who looks at our movement will not feel inspired to join up and make sacrifices for a great cause; they are more likely to feel despair, frustration, and bewilderment at the foolish, needless, endless, and counterproductive divisions that are keeping us weak despite the greatest opening in a generation (or three).

Unless we start doing something different, we are not going to end up with anything different than what we have now, no matter how badly we want it or how hard we work. When you’re stuck in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.

If there’s anything we can learn from Lenin and apply now, it’s that if we rise to the tasks before us and get our act together, we can turn our movement around and make it a factor of the first order in American politics again.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Indypendent. Check out thenorthstar.info, the first national collaborative blog by and for occupiers.

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