Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 16, 2018

The excuses some Marxists make for voting Democratic (part one)

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,Lenin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Loved cats, hated liberals

On June 30th, Nick, a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, posed the question on the Marxism list whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “emphasizing a class position” as part of “hostile takeover” type campaigns by the DSA in the Democratic Party had more of a potential for promoting socialist politics than intervening in the Australian Labour Party, a party that makes Tony Blair’s “New Labour” look radical by comparison. Since I was somewhat surprised to see a member of a group that emerged out of the Trotskyist movement warming up to the DSA’s Democratic Party orientation, I defended what I considered to be a Marxist position: “The key difference between a reformist Labor Party and the Democratic Party is based on class. For example, socialists have had a tactical orientation to the NDP in Canada for decades now but none have oriented to the Liberal Party. Unless we can distinguish between a bourgeois party and a reformist social democratic or labor party, we are missing the all-important class criterion.”

This prompted a DSA member on Marxmail named Jason to edify silly me on Marxist theory. Referring to Lenin’s “Ultraleftism, an Infantile Disorder”, he stated: “There is a shibboleth in the Trotskyist movement that this is from Lenin, but it’s not actually what Lenin argued. He said ‘the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party’”.

Showing a familiarity with Lenin probably not typical of DSA members, he backed up his claim the next day by referring to Lenin’s support for the Cadets in Czarist Russia:

Of course I didn’t meant to imply he ignored or we should ignore the relationships of various parties to various class forces, but even there, Lenin did not use the “clear class line” to refuse any electoral support or relationship, as one can see from the 1912 conference resolution he worked on and supported, which called for “exposing the counter-revolutionary views of the bourgeois liberals (headed by the Cadet Party)” while still saying in specific circumstances an “agreement must be concluded to share the seats” with them.

Although Lenin urging ultraleft Communists to support British Labour even though it was a “bourgeois party” just like the Democratic Party was a new excuse to me for crossing class lines, the business about Lenin approving a bloc with the Cadets was not. In 2010, when I insisted on the now defunct Kasama Project that Lenin never supported the Cadets—Russia’s liberal opposition to the Czar, its leader Mike Ely referred me to a book by a Bolshevik Duma elector named A.E. Badaev that stated: “But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.”

In a way, the Maoist Mike Ely and the DSA’er trying to turn Lenin into a Menshevik relies on the sort of skills you see in the legal profession. When defending a criminal, you need to pour through the legal books to see if there is some precedent that will clear your client of a crime. Going through Lenin’s millions of words to find a couple of references to a bloc with the Cadets takes an enormous amount of patience and, even more so, the cynicism of a trial lawyer.

Marxist politics are not the same as courtroom proceedings. Furthermore, if precedence is what matters, all you need to do is search on Lenin and Cadets in the Marxist Internet Archives and you will find for every one cited by Mike and Jason another hundred  that distinguish Lenin from the Mensheviks who did have an orientation to the Cadets so much in common with the DSA’s toward the Democratic Party:

The Mensheviks’ main argument is the Black-Hundred danger. The first and fundamental flaw in this argument is that the Black-Hundred danger cannot be combated by Cadet tactics and a Cadet policy. The essence of this policy lies in reconciliation with tsarism, that is, with the Black-Hundred danger. The first Duma sufficiently demonstrated that the Cadets do not combat the Black-Hundred danger, but make incredibly despicable speeches about the innocence and blamelessness of the monarch, the known leader of the Black Hundreds. Therefore, by helping to elect Cadets to the Duma, the Mensheviks are not only failing to combat the Black-Hundred danger, but are hoodwinking the people, are obscuring the real significance of the Black-Hundred danger. Combating the Black-Hundred danger by helping to elect the Cadets to the Duma is like combating pogroms by means of the speech delivered by the lackey Rodichev: “It is presumption to hold the monarch responsible for the pogrom.”

Blocs With the Cadets, November 23, 1906

Substitute the word Republicans for “Black-Hundred” and Democrats for Cadets and you are basically getting Bernie Sanders urging his followers to hold their nose and to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Lenin was not for “lesser evil” politics. He was opposed to bourgeois parties on both the left and the right. He saw the Duma elections as a way of electing Bolshevik deputies so that workers could get representation in a society where repression was deep.

In fact, he was so committed to promoting working-class interests that he was not even averse to cutting deals with the Black Hundreds to get someone like A.E. Badaev elected. In 1911, he was ruthless in applying Bolshevik electoral tactics:

The democratic members of the gubernia electoral assemblies should form blocs with the liberals against the Rights. If it proves impossible to form such a bloc immediately (and most likely this is what is going to happen in the majority of cases, because the electors will not be acquainted with each other), the tactics of the democrats should be to unite first with the liberals to defeat the Rights, and then with the Rights to defeat the liberals, so that neither are able to secure the election of their candidates (provided that neither the Rights nor the liberals command an absolute majority by themselves, for if they do the democrats cannot hope to get into the Duma).

The democrats referred to above are the Bolsheviks and the peasant parties they were allied with such as the Trudoviks. In a 1906 article titled “Cadets, Trudoviks and the Workers’ Party”, Lenin characterized the Trudoviks as bourgeois democrats who “are compelled to become revolutionary, whereas the liberals, the Cadets and so forth, represent the bourgeoisie, whose conditions of existence compel it to seek a deal with the old authorities. It is natural also that the peasantry should clothe its aspirations in the mantle of utopias, i.e., unrealisable hopes, such as equalised land tenure under capitalism.”

With respect to A.E. Badaev and his reference to the Bolsheviks working out an agreement with the Cadets on the Second Ballot, Mike Ely (wherever he is nowadays), failed to mention upon what basis the agreement stood. Badaev’s “The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma” makes clear that it excluded any hint of political accord. He referred to the Prague Bolshevik Conference that set down guidelines for the Fourth Duma elections in 1912 as stipulating: “election agreements must not involve the adoption of a platform, nor must the agreements bind the Social-Democratic candidates by any political obligations whatsoever, or prevent the Social-Democracy from resolutely criticising the counter-revolutionary nature of the Liberals and the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats.”

I would only say that if the DSA concluded blocs with the Democratic Party that stood by the same exacting standards, I might ring doorbells alongside them myself. Fat chance of that happening. Oh, the fat chance is one of their candidates “resolutely criticising the counter-revolutionary nature of the Liberals and the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats”.

In my next post, I will take up the question of British Labour and the Social Democracy in general as “bourgeois parties”.

 

December 14, 2017

New Communists? A reply to Jacobin Magazine

Filed under: Jacobin,Lenin,Russian Revolution,two-party system — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Adaner Usmani

Connor Kilpatrick

In the latest issue of Jacobin devoted to commentary on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, there’s an article co-written by Adaner Usmani, a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute of Brown University, and Jacobin editor Conner Kilpatrick titled “The New Communists” that basically urges the left to put that revolution stuff behind us or, more exactly, the far left, which I most certainly belong to as an “unrepentant Marxist”. The two young political scientists advise: “And yet the far left today embraces the Soviet obsession like a vampire hunter wields garlic. The problem is that garlic repels far more than just monsters — it makes you stink.”

Although Jacobin prides itself on being stylistically polished, I am not sure whether the words “embraces the Soviet obsession” is in keeping with its lofty aspirations. What does it mean to embrace an obsession, which almost sounds like obsessing over an obsession? If I were editing the smart magazine with its even smarter graphics, I might have changed that to “embraces the memory of the Soviet Union” or better yet to drop all the circumlocutions about “new communism” and simply say “And yet the far left today embraces Marxism like a vampire hunter wields garlic” because buried beneath all the clever prose is an agenda that might have not sat well with Jacobin subscribers. In keeping with the vampire-hunting analogy, the true goal of Usmani and Kilpatrick is to plunge a wooden stake into the heart of Marxism.

Since the article is behind a paywall, I will quote more liberally from the article than I do ordinarily in posts to this blog. So please forgive me in advance. To understand the dodgy approach of the authors, you have to begin with the fact that the word Marxism appears only 3 times in the article and only as a referent to states that have little to do with Marxist politics. For example, they write:

At its peak, some variation of the USSR’s flag flew over 20 percent of the Earth’s habitable landmass. But while McDonald’s has now spread to over 120 countries, today only three of the four ruling Communist parties left fly the hammer and sickle. Of the five nations that claim Marxism-Leninism, the hammer and sickle appears on the state flags of none. Once the symbol of the struggle for a better world, today the hammer and sickle is a sign of little more than single-party sclerosis.

But what does it mean to claim “Marxism-Leninism”? Is the presence of a hammer and sickle supposed to be some kind of genealogical marker indicating that the carrier has something to do with Karl Marx’s ideas? Missing from the article is any engagement with Stalin’s legacy, a dictator who made the hammer and sickle a symptom of sclerosis at least 85 years ago. The only reference to Stalin in the article is this:

Counterfactuals have become the stuff of lifelong sectarian debates for the socialist left: “if only Germany had gone the right way, if only Lenin had lived, if only Stalin had been isolated, if only, if only . . .” In almost every instance of mass revolt they find the Bolshevik’s October — Germany in 1918–20, France in 1968, Egypt in 2011, and everything in between — revolutions made mere “revolutionary rehearsals” by conniving bureaucrats or naive cadre.

This is quite a mouthful. Although it would take far too many words to unpack the sophistry embedded in this paragraph, suffice it to say that the mass revolt in France nearly 50 years ago came to an end because the French Communist Party had the numbers and the influence in the working class to break the back of the resistance and help Charles De Gaulle restore order. It is not a question of being “naïve”. Rather, it is one of being too small. It is also one of being disunited. In 1968, France’s far left was divided into many Trotskyist and Maoist sects. If it had learned to overcome its differences and constitute a united revolutionary front, it would have been much more difficult for the CP and the Gaullists to seize control. If there is one thing that Jacobin can contribute to now, it is serving as a catalyst for left revolutionary unity. Unfortunately, it appears to be far more interested in functioning as the ideological mouthpiece of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Usmani and Kilpatrick want to cleanse the left of its self-righteous sectarians who insist on ideological purity:

At its worst, in this crowd, isolation is proof of revolutionary virtue, rather than political calamity. Particularly in a country like ours, the politics of “Yay revolution! Boo reform!” has led to a rhetorical arms race in which the most virtuous, maximalist positions are the most progressive.

I wonder if the two understand how Marxists have used the term “maximalist” in the past. Generally (and most certainly prevalent in Maoist circles), this is the outlook of groups like Avakian’s RCP or the Spartacist League that are in the habit of reminding their readers that socialism is the answer to whatever problem confronts the working class. Maximalism tended to appear in its purist form on May Day demonstrations years ago, when CP-led parades would carry banners calling for a Communist America.

If the authors were more forthright and less bent on fighting straw men, they would simply come out and say that they are sick and tired of people making work inside the Democratic Party a litmus test. The far left is not really opposed to reforms as might be indicated by Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant’s tireless advocacy of a $15 minimum wage. Speaking as a former member of another Trotskyist group, I have no memory of ever saying anything like “Yay, revolution”. I do confess to joining the rest of the comrades in singing “The Internationale” but that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.

The real divide is not over the need for reforms but how to fight for them. It has become clear that DSA’ers have begun to identify with the “sewer socialism” of elected Socialist Party members such as Victor Berger as illustrated by the election of DSA members in Somerville, Massachusetts. An article in CommonWealth made the comparison:

Somerville now has an opportunity to build a new kind of 21st century sewer socialism: getting the basics right while attending to the core distributional questions of municipal governance. The election showed that Somerville voters want to see their aldermen focus on issues of legislative policy. This is, of course, their primary task. The informal alliance of Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America in Somerville has coalesced around the politics of development: affordable housing and the rights of tenants, workers, and immigrants.

What’s missing from the CommonWealth article and 9 out 10 written about the Somerville election is the fact that the DSA’ers ran on the Democratic Party ticket. In Victor Berger’s day, this never happened. Upton Sinclair’s 1934 End Poverty In California (EPIC) gubernatorial run marked the first time an SP’er ever ran as a Democrat. So upsetting was this to SP members that his own son broke ties with him.

Perhaps I have a different idea of what kind of reforms are needed. While one understands completely why someone running for alderman in Somerville might want to make an issue out of garbage collection, my idea of a reform would be something much more like what I was involved with in 1970, when I lived not far from Somerville. We tragically unhip Trotskyists got behind the Shea Bill, sponsored by state legislator James Shea. Jr. that authorized Massachusetts residents to refuse combat duty in wars Congress has not declared. It also instructed Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn to defend and assist servicemen who refused to fight on such grounds.

Furthermore, whenever the Trotskyists got involved with any reform, whether for antiwar demands or abortion rights, it always stressed mass action such as rallies, petition drives, etc. If there is anything worth preserving from the long-lost Russian Revolution, it is the need for what we used to call “proletarian methods of struggle”. At the risk of sounding like a moldy fig, let me quote from Trotsky’s Transitional Program: “Self-reliance and proletarian methods of struggle. Only the workers themselves, organized to make full use of their massive numbers and social weight, can solve their problems. No wing of the ruling class is our ally. Strikes and other forms of mass action, which demonstrate the power of the workers’ movement in life, are the most effective.”

Usmani and Kilpatrick are anxious to remind us that even the Communists were “practical-minded” just like them:

The uncomfortable truth for both liberals and die-hard revolutionaries is that whenever and wherever Western Communist parties were strongest, it was because they were the most effective reformers, not revolutionaries. They won when they bested the social democrats at their own stated aims. It was not starry-eyed dreaming but everyday material victories that led 1.5 million people to attend Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer’s 1984 funeral. The flip side of this fact is that in the pre–World War II period, European Communism was feeble and ineffective — with the telling exception of the French Communist Party during the Popular Front and the Spanish one during the Civil War.

When I read this, I spit the coffee out of my mouth that I was drinking. This is most shocking statement in the entire article. So, if in the rest of Europe Communism was “feeble and ineffective”, we can at least look back at the Spanish Civil War as an exception to that rule? Are these two brilliant political scientists for real? The goddamned Communist Party was one of the main reasons Franco triumphed. Unlike France in 1968, this was not just a victory of the right facilitated by the CP’s hegemony. In Spain, it was a victory made possible by the CP’s willingness to murder revolutionaries, including Andres Nin. Nin and many others on the left were trying to overthrow capitalism, while the CP was dead-set on keeping the capitalist Spanish Republic intact even if that meant opposing worker control of the telephone building in Barcelona. When the largely anarchist workers refused to surrender, the CP-led security forces laid siege to the building, which provoked a general uprising. As might be obvious from what is going on in Spain today, Catalans were not only seeking national independence but also class independence. It was the CP’s “effective” control over the Popular Front that gave them the power to tame the unruly Catalan working class. Surely, Usmani and Kilpatrick are aware of this history. Why they would apply Stalinist varnish to it is a mystery.

Following the above citation, the authors get down to brass tacks:

The unprecedented success of Bernie Sanders’s run and his enduring popularity should have been a wake-up call to much of Leftworld: the country is ready for working-class politics, and even for the s-word, as long as we talk about it in everyday, tangible terms.

If you click the link in the paragraph above, you are directed to an interview with Adolph Reed from the August 8, 2016 Jacobin. If Usmani and Kilpatrick were half as open about their beliefs as Reed, the debate on the left that this article has provoked already on Facebook would have a lot more clarity. We have to assume that they agree with Reed who says:

Some who are eager to pronounce the campaign a failure are motivated by other ideological objectives. For example, Trotskyists and others who fetishize association with Democrats as the greatest sin in politics want to argue that Sanders would have been more successful if he’d run as an independent.

That’s a delusional position. In the first place, an independent candidacy outside the Democrat and Republican primaries would have received no attention at all to this point, which means we’d have wasted the last year, and almost none of the unions or other entities would have endorsed it.

Left out of these considerations is the big question about class independence. Until the CP’s Popular Front turn, Marxists never backed bourgeois parties. Maybe the irritation that Jacobin (at this point, we can probably assume that the article expresses the editorial board’s thinking) feels over the Russian Revolution is its connection to Lenin’s obdurate refusal to bloc with or vote for capitalist parties, which in Czarist Russia meant the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). This is not the Lenin they want to have anything to do with.

Today, the relevant Lenin is not Lenin the indefatigable revolutionary, but Lenin the disconsolate strategist — the man who in 1920 chastised Communists “to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.”

What astonishing disregard for Lenin’s views. They are quoting “’Ultraleftism’: an Infantile Disorder”, which most people remember as a qualified endorsement of voting for Labour Party candidates (even if the qualification is along the lines of supporting them like a rope supports a hanging man.) So, if you are enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn and view Bernie Sanders as the American Corbyn, why not? Maybe it fudges over important theoretical questions to liken the Democrats to Labour but let’s put that aside momentarily. It is far more important to take another look at what Lenin actually said.

He is mostly trying to wean young CP leaders off of the ultraleftism that sounds a lot like the “yay, revolution” straw man Usmani and Kilpatrick were tilting at, especially Sylvia Pankhurst who wrote “The Communist Party must not compromise. . . . The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate, its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution.”

Lenin’s advice to Pankhurst and other impatient young revolutionaries is not anything like that of Usmani and Kilpatrick’s despite their predictable exploitation of a stance that mimics his like a funhouse mirror. There is nothing about becoming the leftwing of the Labour Party or that would sanction what DSA is doing today running as Democrats and stumping for Bernie Sanders’s next bid for President.

In my opinion, the British Communists should unite their four parties and groups (all very weak, and some of them very, very weak) into a single Communist Party on the basis of the principles of the Third International and of obligatory participation in parliament. The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years—1903–17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.

I don’t mind particularly that Jacobin has decided to breathe new life into the Fabian Society, which evidently is more to their liking than Bolshevism. I suspect that most young people today are waiting with bated breath for the next big confrontation with capitalism as occurred during the Occupy movement and will have little interest in ringing doorbells for some Democrat, DSA member or not.

I only wish that if they are going to recruit V.I. Lenin to their sorry project, they’d at least respect what he actually wrote rather than jamming words into his mouth. He deserves better.

UPDATE:

In a comment below, Dave Grosser denied that Ben Ewen-Campen ran as a Democrat. I guess this was photoshopped or something.

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 6.45.43 PM

October 11, 2017

Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917? A reply to Eric Blanc

Filed under: Lenin,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Eric Blanc

As most of my readers are probably aware, Lars Lih and Eric Blanc have been writing articles for the past couple of years taking the side of the “old Bolsheviks” against Trotsky on the question of whether Lenin abandoned previously held positions on the character of the Russian Revolution and especially on whether the April Theses were symbolic of such a break.

The latest installment can be read on the Historical Materialism blog. Titled “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?”, Eric Blanc’s article makes an amalgam between Trotskyists, Sovietologists and—somewhat surprisingly—Stalinists over their supposed adherence to the “breach” version. Blanc cites a 1939 Soviet article making the case that “Lenin’s April Theses laid down for the Party a brilliant plan of struggle for the transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the Socialist revolution.” I am not sure how much relevance this has to the ongoing debate since Stalinist words come rather cheap. In fact, everything that the Kremlin had been doing as opposed to saying at least since 1927 indicates an adherence to the discredited “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.

This was most obvious in the struggle between Leon Trotsky and the Stalinists over the dynamics of the Chinese revolution as I pointed out in a commentary on Lars Lih on May 15th of this year. Virtually the entire “old Bolshevik” cast of characters made the same arguments against Trotsky that they did in the 1924 “Lessons of October” debate except that in this instance it was the Kuomintang rather than Kerensky’s Provisional Government it was adapting to. After Chiang Kai-Shek had become an honorary member of the Comintern upon Stalin’s urging, he turned his guns on the Communist workers whose interests were considered of less importance than the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” in China. In a Pravda article titled “Questions of the Chinese Revolution”, Stalin describes two phases of the Chinese revolution. In the first, “the national army was approaching the Yangtse and scoring victory after victory, but a powerful movement of the workers and peasants had not yet unfolded—the national bourgeoisie (not the compradors) sided with the revolution. It was the revolution of a united all-national front.”

It is easy to become frustrated with Lih and Blanc’s special pleading for Kamenev et al since it is so narrowly focused on March and April of 1917. Since Lih makes no pretense of being a Marxist, his micro-focus is understandable. That is what the scholarly journals he writes for expect. Unfortunately, Eric Blanc seems to be following in his footsteps as a search on Google based on either of their names and Kuomintang produces zero results. I doubt that Lih will ever move out of his March-April 1917 comfort zone. Let’s all root for Blanc breaking out of his time-space tunnel as his career as a historian evolves.

Blanc writes, “We will see that while the Bolsheviks throughout the year hinged their politics on the imminence of international socialist revolution, their orientation within Russia itself remained significantly less socially ambitious.” In denying that Lenin was fighting for a socialist revolution as of April 1917, Blanc parts ways with those who have argued that the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was just an “algebraic” formulation that might have a “socialist” outcome. Chief among them were the American SWP and the Australian Trotskyists led by the Percy brothers. In an article that makes many of the same points as Eric Blanc’s but stops short of denying that Lenin’s goal was a socialist revolution, Jack Barnes told his cult members in 1983:

Trotsky viewed this algebraic character of Lenin’s formula to be its weak point. Lenin, however, was completely aware of the social contradictions bound up in the revolutionary process he sought to capture in his formula. He was completely aware that the proletariat and peasantry were classes “whose interests only partially coincide.” The key to proletarian strategy in Russia was to forge a worker-peasant alliance around those interests that did coincide that is, around the fight to bring down absolutism and landlordism – and to establish a dictatorship based on that alliance to carry out those democratic tasks while opening the door to the socialist revolution. The Bolshevik formula was exactly the kind .of algebraic approach needed to orient the proletariat toward leading an alliance of exploited classes through the transition from a victorious democratic revolution to the establishment and consolidation of a workers’ state.

Ironically, I agree with Blanc that Lenin disparaged the idea that socialist revolution was on the agenda as long as the cut-off point is 1916. But unlike Trotsky, I don’t think that there was that much of an “algebraic” quality to Lenin’s concept. Indeed, in the 1905 revolution that was considered a dress rehearsal for 1917, Lenin was absolutely clear that socialist revolution was not on the agenda: “It is absurd to confuse the tasks and prerequisites of a democratic revolution with those of a socialist revolution, which, we repeat, differ both in their nature and in the composition of the social forces taking part in them.” In a nutshell, Kamenev and company were writing articles in Pravda before Lenin’s arrival that were in the spirit of 1905 even though history had moved forward irrevocably. Indeed, immediately after Lenin published the April Theses, Pravda wrote: “As for the general scheme of Comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.”

There is one sense in which I lean more in Blanc’s direction then you might expect from the criticisms leveled above. He makes a rather cogent argument that in 1917 Lenin saw the revolution in Russia as igniting revolutions in Europe that could culminate in the worldwide overthrow of the capitalist class. This view was consistent with the one put forward by Karl Marx in his letters to Zasulich. As opposed to Plekhanov, Marx believed that a revolution could be based on the rural communes but he did not specifically say that this meant a socialist revolution. If anything, the state might have looked something like Mexico had Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa triumphed.

Lenin obviously became convinced that socialism could be built in Russia but not in the manner dictated by Stalin. One of his last thoughts on the direction socialism might take in Russia was “On Cooperation”, a work that viewed peasant coops as the hub of future development. You might even say that this was a logical retreat to the conception found implicitly in Marx’s letters to Zasulich.

Since Blanc remains comfortably ensconced in 1917, he finds scant references to “socialist revolution” in Lenin’s writings. However, after 1917, his articles are replete with them, especially in “State and Revolution”, a key text of Lenin’s thinking on the conquest of power by the working class that Eric Blanc tried to reconcile with Karl Kautsky’s electoralism in “The roots of 1917: Kautsky, the state, and revolution in Imperial Russia”, an article written a year ago. It is consistent with Blanc and Lih’s attempt to rehabilitate Kamenev, since he tended toward Kautskyism in his Pravda articles in 1917, so much so that Lenin wrote a letter to J. S. Hanecki and Karl Radek on April 12, 1917, declaring that “We hope completely to straighten out the line of Pravda, which has wobbled towards ‘Kautskyism’”.

Unlike a lot of the contradictory and imprecise formulations of the Bolsheviks in 1917 in the months before October, out of which Blanc’s thesis seeks legitimacy, “State and Revolution” can be regarded as a systematic ex post facto defense of October 1917 as a model for socialist revolution in the 20th century. It rests not only on the experience of the Soviets but on the Paris Commune of 1871. Furthermore, it has a chapter that singles out Kautsky for betraying what Marx wrote about the Commune:

From 1852 to 1891, or for 40 years, Marx and Engels taught the proletariat that it must smash the state machine. Yet, in 1899, Kautsky, confronted with the complete betrayal of Marxism by the opportunists on this point, fraudulently substituted for the question whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question for the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed, and then sought refuge behind the “indisputable” (and barren) philistine truth that concrete forms cannot be known in advance!!

Lenin takes aim at Kautsky’s 1902 “The Social Revolution” as “a formula which makes a concession to the opportunists, inasmuch as it admits the possibility of seizing power without destroying the state machine.” However, Blanc regarded this article as being beyond reproach since it was “republished, and illegally distributed by the most radical of the Tsarist empire’s Marxist parties.” I can understand the logic of seeing Lenin’s party-building efforts as being modeled on Kautsky’s party in Germany but despite this, you need to recognize that there were structural problems in German social democracy that led to its eventual capitulation to German imperialism. Lenin might not have been clear on this in the early 1900s but by 1918, he describes Kautsky as a renegade.

Blanc calls attention to what perhaps has led to a lot of confusion on the left:

It has often been overlooked that in 1917 there was no clear Marxist definition of socialist revolution. Nor was there a general agreement on the exact political boundary between a democratic and socialist revolution, or for that matter between a capitalist and socialist society.

That, of course, is obvious just from the sharp differences over Cuba. Perhaps what leads to the confusion is a departure from the original concept found in Marx and Engels that socialism was a world system that would be born out of the triumphs of socialist revolutions in countries that had advanced capitalist systems.

Blanc’s latest article begins with a statement “A critical engagement with the past remains an indispensable instrument for critically confronting the present.” It is hard to argue with this but I only wonder when he will begin to critically confront the present.

You can search in vain for anything that he has written about Venezuela, Greece, Syria or any other country that has been poised on the edge of revolution, either socialist or democratic. What exact bearing does “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” have on the situation in Venezuela today, a rentier state that has been torn apart by the contradictions of declining oil prices?

There is much to be learned from Lenin but a lot of it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Lars Lih wrote an 880-page book on “What is to be Done”, a work that Lenin described as only bearing on the “concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party.” [Emphasis added]

If I look askance at the idea of holding the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in reverence, I also treat the theory of permanent revolution in the same way. What we need today is a vigorous and intelligent application of Marxism to the current world as I have tried to do with Syria over the past 6 years or with Indigenous societies for the past 25 years or so. If reading Lenin’s 1905 articles helps you carry out such a task, don’t let me stand in the way. The proof is in the pudding. But if Eric Blanc’s intention is to carve out a scholarly niche that will help his career in academia, that would be a sorry waste of a promising talent. I would just advise him that this is not what Lenin would be doing in 2017 if he were alive. Or Kamenev for that matter. What about Stalin? I am quite sure he would be writing for Alternet or The Nation.

July 22, 2017

Boris Souvarine: No, the Kaiser did not fund the Bolsheviks

Filed under: Lenin,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Boris Souvarine

On June 17th, I posted an article titled “Did the Kaiser Fund the Bolsheviks” that was prompted by several articles that made this case, including in the liberal Nation Magazine—perhaps unsurprisingly. This elicited an interesting comment on the article that showed up this morning:

For a discussion of Zeman’s documents see Souvarine’s Solzhenitsyn and Lenin, in Dissent 1977, online here

There’s also Souvarine’s response to Carmichael in Dissent January 1978 (Letters, pp.113ff), only available to those who have access (Louis perhaps you can put this online?)

Zeman was mentioned in my article as a scholar who dismissed the alleged ties between Lenin and Alexander Parvus, who was both an early theorist of Permanent Revolution and a successful businessman who was supposedly a funnel of German funds to the Bolsheviks.

Souvarine’s article was a critique of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Lenin in Zurich”, a hybrid novel/history that concurred with the German funding of the Bolsheviks hypothesis. Souvarine even went so far as to argue that there was no “sealed train” to the Finland Station, a staple of belief by all sides on this debate—until now, at least for me. I find Souvarine most convincing.

As per the commenter’s request, I am posting the exchange of letters between Joel Carmichael and Boris Souvarine from the Summer, 1978 Dissent. Carmichael is obviously a hardcore anti-Communist who was outraged by Dissent magazine’s temerity in publishing an article that cleared Lenin’s name of a charge going back to the early 1920s, namely that his party was subsidized by the Kaiser. His main distinction was translating Sukhanov’s essential memoir on the Russian Revolution.

Souvarine is a notable figure by any standard. At the time he wrote his article and the letter below, he was 83 and as he mentioned in the response to Carmichael half-blind. I hope I am half as sharp as Souvarine when I get to be that age.

My strong recommendation is to read the entry on Souvarine in Wikipedia, which would quickly establish his credentials:

Souvarine was born Boris Konstantinovich Lifschits in Kiev to a Jewish family. Souvarine’s family moved to Paris in 1897, where he became a socialist activist from a young age. He trained as a jewelry designer. And at the age of fourteen came into contact with the French Socialist movement while working as an apprentice in an aviation factory. During this time he began attending meetings held by Jean Jaurès.

Souvarine experienced his first trauma with the outbreak of the First World War. Mobilised as part of the French army in 1914, he quickly discovered the horrors of Trench warfare and in March 1915, lost his older brother who died fighting on the front-line.

War pushed Souvarine into politics and the antimilitarist movement. He joined the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO) in 1916 and begins contributing to publications of the anti-war socialist minority like Le Populaire, signing articles with the pseudonym he held onto for the rest of his life: Souvarine, patronym borrowed from a character in Émile Zola’s Germinal.

LETTERS

On Lenin and Solzenitsyn

Editors:

Boris Souvarine (Dissent, Summer 1977) twists Solzhenitsyn’s somewhat mythological Lenin in Zurich into a springboard for a peculiarly lopsided account of the evidence for the German subsidy to the Bolsheviks in 1917-18.

The tone of this lopsidedness is set by his throwaway reference (p. 327) to “every insinuation about German gold” as a “calumny pure and simple—until April 1917.” The effrontery of this is all the more astonishing since it is precisely Lenin’s penury until then that indicates the starting point of the subsidy.

Souvarine does not even mention the two articles written by Eduard Bernstein—never accused of corruption or stupidity—in January 1921 in the official organ of the German (Social Democratic) government. Bernstein sets down a specific figure—”more than 50 million gold marks.” It was this staggering sum—the equivalent in today’s currency of more than $800 million—that made me look into the question for both my Encounter articles and my Trotsky. Beforehand I had been mesmerized by the 50-year-old discussion in which Lenin’s revolutionary integrity played the principal role.

Nor does Souvarine refer to the 41 Bolshevik periodicals published by August 1917: these came out at the rate of more than 300,000 a day and were often distributed gratis. Avowed Party revenues could not have covered a fraction of this. (This is all detailed in Leonard Schapiro’s history of the Soviet Communist party.)

It was not I who “revealed” the German financing of the Bolshevik regime after the putsch: among other sources I mentioned Kurt Riezler, counselor of the Stockholm German Embassy, who in his memoir refers matter-of-factly to the allocation in July 1918 of 40 million gold marks between the Bolsheviks and some moderate monarchists. Souvarine attacks the plausibility of this like a rationalist ideologue: how could the Germans support “the confiscation of private property”? As though they were thinking of anything but the immobilization of the Eastern front!

Souvarine’s remark that I “deduced” the German subsidy from the “sealed train” is, I should think, deliberately fraudulent. He may belittle the evidential value of the numerous sources I mention—in fact he simply omits them all—but how can he say I “made a blinding deduction from a luminous premise”? His authority explodes here in a puff of duplicity.

Anyone who read my Encounter articles will see that I was linking the train and the subsidy only in order to highlight a possible Marxist defense of the latter: if Lenin accepted the train for the Cause, why not the subsidy? The notion that the Bolsheviks were given vast sums in actual banknotes is, of course, so silly that it is easy to sneer the fact itself out of existence. The transfer of funds highlights the key role played by Alexander Helphand (Parvus). It was precisely here that Helphand’s business network played a primordial role: he owned not merely a coal-mining company, but a freight company registered in Copenhagen: with German funds he bought countless items, shipped them to Scandinavia, and from there to Russia via Lenin’s agents Radek and Furstenberg (Hanecki).

Souvarine tucks all this away in his Postscript, detaches it from Helphand, and at the same time refers to bookkeeping records as though it were all a matter of conventional commercial transactions. But how could ordinary records have been kept in this very dangerous relationship?

To my mind the factual data add up to a lot. The gaps are accounted for by the obvious necessary secrecy: this applied to both Lenin and Helphand. There is surely an element of high comedy in Souvarine’s “dismissal” of von Kuhlmann as a plain “liar” when juxtaposed to his incredible acceptance of the institutionalized mendacity of the Bolsheviks, including Radek —Radek! This is surely of a piece with Souvarine’s pious priggishness in saying that as soon as Lenin “got a whiff of Parvus’s views he sent him packing” (p. 330). He could have got this only from a memoir by someone like Shlyapttikov, a cementheaded acolyte who may have believed everything Lenin told him. But Souvarine?

It is the psychological factors, however, that seem to me to complement the objective indications in a way that is even more convincing.

The most remarkable piece of evidence for the German subsidy is something intangible—the titanic fact of Lenin’s flight. This is the core of the Bolshevik putsch: it explains Trotsky’s cardinal function.

Trotsky devoted two chapters (one in My Life, one in his History of the Russian Revolution) to an overwrought denunciation of the story of the German subsidy as the “vilest slander in history.” He is forced into this extravagant language because he must explain Lenin’s flight from Petrograd in July 1917, in the aftermath of what seems to have been an abortive insurrection accompanied by the fragmentary disclosure of the German connection. This last involved high treason in wartime: all the Bolsheviks were in mortal peril.

Trotsky must disprove the commonsense reaction— especially among old-fashioned Marxists—that Lenin should really have stayed on in order to clear himself: to do this Trotsky must persuade his readers that the “Right wing” hated Lenin so much that they would have stopped at nothing, hence Lenin’s flight was natural. Yet on the face of it, his version is nonsense. Sukhanov—quoted approvingly by Trotsky and by Souvarine, when it suits them—shows most circumstantially that any possibility of lynch law was “absurd, in the summer of 1917”!

But there is a still weightier aspect to all this.

How could Lenin, aflame at the prospect of seizing power in a vast country as a preamble to the triumph of the World Revolution, abdicate his leadership at the crucial moment? Abdicate it, moreover, to someone whom he and other Bolsheviks had been denouncing for a decade, a man detested by one and all?

Trotsky did not merely stage-manage the putsch, he defined it as it were constitutionally. Since Lenin, throbbing with euphoria, thought the inevitable upheaval of the German proletariat would safeguard the Bolshevik sortie, he wanted the Bolsheviks to proclaim their seizure of power as Bolshevik. Trotsky wanted to camouflage the putsch by presenting it as a function of the Soviet. (Isaac Deutscher makes a particularly comic attempt to reconcile these two ideas.)

Trotsky was, of course, chairman of the Soviet, a priceless vantage point. Since the Bolsheviks were not to have any “enemies on the Left” for a decade or so, the parvenu dictators could claim and secure the support of the bulk of the population, e.g., of the peasants, too, until the Civil War was won and the swiftly consolidated apparatus could put the whole population through the mangling machine of the crash collectivization and industrialization programs that still constitute the fabric of life in the Soviet Union.

Lenin, remote from the scene of action, was forced to swallow Trotsky’s initiative, including his version of the putsch. Once in power, the Bolsheviks could exploit the camouflage of the Soviet very effectively. The very name of the Soviet Union keeps the fiction alive.

Thus Souvarine, in saying I “tried to involve” Trotsky in the German subsidy, not merely falsifies what I wrote in Encounter, he succumbs to an unaccountable flash of foolishness. My whole explanation of Trotsky’s brief eminence in the Bolshevik party is based on his not having been involved: that was just what made him indispensable.

I think Lenin’s refusal to accept a trial, together with his eliminating himself from the putsch, is an overwhelming argument for the factuality of the German subsidy.

Souvarine is particularly harsh on Solzhenitsyn’s blunders. He dismisses Radek’s remark to Lenin in April 1917: “In six months we’ll be either ministers or hanged.” But the point of the anecdote, after all, is to illustrate the ardor of all Marxists at the time: a great state had fallen to the forces of socialism, as it seemed—who knew what the future held! Radek’s quip is perfectly natural, indeed, banal—and Souvarine brings up passport formalities!

At the same time Souvarine seems incapable of grasping Solzhenitsyn’s true interest. Not only does he refer, rather comically, to Helphand as a “Russo-German,” but he is baffled by Solzhenitsyn’s obsession with Lenin’s ancestry.

Yet Solshenitsyn’s preoccupation is the very axis of his mythology. He is saying something basic: the Russian people—simpleminded, holy—has been duped by aliens, i.e., Jews and Germans. For this mythology the figure of Helphand is ideal, indeed, indispensable—he was a caricature of all the required factors. With a huge head, heavy torso, and spindly legs, Helphand lived in a sea of champagne, large-scale business deals, and luscious blondes. From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, and of course from his own, he had not a drop of “Russian” blood. He was simply a shtetl Jew who became the only Marxist multimillionaire. Solzhenitsyn is so intent on establishing the links between the Jew Helphand and the German General Staff that he disregards the true point— the dimensions of the German connection. No doubt his homework was geared to his fundamental views; Souvarine has found it easy to exploit these on behalf of a different polemic.

Souvarine admits Lenin was “no paragon of morality.” I suppose he means Lenin was a liar as well as, at the least, an architect of massacre, of course in the service of the Cause. He follows this low-key summation with a curious point: Lenin was nevertheless very careful “not to let himself fall into disrepute with the Russian people whom he aspired to … lead toward social revolution.”

The Russian “people”! This piece of—for a Marxist— silliness tells us a lot about Souvarine. If the evidence of the German subsidy is all worthless, why does he weasel about so much in bypassing it? What, after all, is he defending?

Surely, I imagine, his youthful ardor. In this respect Souvarine seems to typify a category—all those who, while appalled by the monstrosity brought about by the rosy dreams of their youth, nevertheless balk at abandoning those dreams.

This comes out in his final piece of chicanery: in his starry-eyed description of the atmosphere in Petrograd around October 1917 he shows that the Bolsheviks did, after all, represent genuine opinion while functioning within the democratic arena of the Soviet: one could call oneself a “Bolshevik” while meaning no more than disgust with the war. His quotation from Pierre Pascal makes much of the absence of Marxism “either among the people or the poets or the October decrees.”

But that’s the whole point! The Bolsheviks took advantage of just that state of mind—which of course they shared—and, because they could not remotely represent the real interests of the people, installed the most ferocious apparatus of repression in history.

There German subsidy invalidates the “legitimacy” of the Bolshevik putsch—but not by much. Whatever the meaning of legitimacy, it was lost once and for all by the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and by the conduct of the dictatorship ever since. Since the Bolsheviks collided with the interests of the whole population—except the handfuls of idealists and the crowds of careerists—they were in essence wholly illegitimate—unless, of course, one believes in their mission!

I was, I admit, very surprised by Souvarine’s disingenuous account of all this. Perhaps his deceitfulness, like Trotsky’s, should also be construed as evidence for the German subsidy.

JOEL CARMICHAEL New York City

Boris Souvarine Replies:

My article on Lenin in Zurich (originally in Est et Quest, Paris, April 1976) was somewhat abridged in Dissent (Summer 1977) with my consent. In consequence, some arguments and references were sacrificed. I am no longer in a physical condition that permits me to compare the two texts, for I am too old and half-blind. My reply to Mr. Carmichael’s diatribe may allude to some passages that were omitted in the shortened English-language version. I would ask Dissent to indicate such passages, if any, in footnotes.

The unnecessarily irascible letter that takes issue with me is scarcely persuasive when it taxes me with not having read everything or quoted everything. A magazine article is not a doctoral thesis, and mine dealt with Lenin in Zurich, which implies certain limits. However, I have read Bernstein and Sukhanov and Leonard Schapiro, who are deserving of comment. The difficulty is that my accuser shows little concern for the meaning of words, and that what he terms “source” is mere hypothesis or echo or deduction.

Eduard Bernstein’s articles were known initially in France only through unreliable press resumes. Because I had then—and have still—the highest opinion of their author, the articles perplexed me at the time in that they contradicted all the unquestionable, given facts. I was able to read the articles in full only later and, in English, in David Shub’s book on Lenin. Then everything became clear. Bernstein’s material is not a primary source or document but the echo of the gossip of unscrupulous bureaucrats. Two major statements he makes suffice to prove this: (1) the (pseudo-) sealed railway car becomes a “parlor car”; and (2) Lenin allegedly received more than 50 million gold marks. Such nonsense discredits even gossips.

(I) The railway car was a second-and third-class coach, and the travelers paid for their tickets. The car was coupled to an ordinary train in Zingen. Proofs of this exist.

(2) The German documents published by Hahlweg and by Zeman mention 1 million marks—only one—which Parvus claims he sent to Petrograd. (To whom? not to Lenin.) Parvus is obviously lying, for private letters of Lenin and statements of Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Molotov make it clear that at that time the Bolshevik committee in Petrograd was almost nonexistent. Only Shliapnikov managed sometimes to make fleeting contact from Stockholm. In any event, 1 million is not “more than 50 [million].” Parvus surely pocketed the money; there is no other plausible explanation. Lenin was in Zurich.

Solzhenitsyn has rightly noted that after January 22, 1916 the Wilhelmstrasse “paid Parvus not a pfennig” [p. 176]. In other words, the payment of I million in late 1915—the only such payment, and the fate of which no one knows—was unique. With all my regard for Bernstein, I concluded that he had reported idle talk. In 1921, he was much younger, yet he would no doubt have checked such hearsay. Now, however, reliable documents and testimony are available, and in my article I quoted them. It is permissible to disagree with a respectworthy person on a specific point. Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas. The same documents and testimony refute also the “sealed train” that, according to the article in Encounter, was offered by Ludendorff (sic) to Lenin alone. The German document signed by Captain Hillsen (No. 19 in Zeman) mentions 300 to 400 Russians who were to be transported. To deal with them by pretermission so as to take cognizance only of Lenin is “star-worshipping;’ not historical criticism. Martov, Axelrod, Riazanov, Lunacharsky, Bobrov, Angelica Balabanoff, and many others made the same trip as Lenin in a similar railway car (not sealed), for all that the fact thwarts a blind Leninophobia.

The role attributed to Ludendorff is quite simply comical. No more than any other non-Socialist at the time did he even know Lenin’s name. The German General Staff merely approved the Wilhelmstrasse’s proposal that a few hundred Russians (of all political colorations, not Bolsheviks only) be permitted to pass through Germany. The decision was natural enough: every government at war tries to encourage domestic difficulties within the enemy country. It is unnecessary to invent an imaginary connivance between Ludendorff and Lenin.

The initiative to cross Germany came not from Ludendorff, not from Parvus, not from Lenin, but from Martov—a man who was above reproach—and this has been proved to the hilt. The proposal dates from March 19, 1917. The available documentation shows that at first Lenin did not want to travel via Germany. He tried in vain to go via France and England. Only on March 30th, when he learned that Chernov had been refused permission by the British authorities, did he decide to carry out Martov’s idea. Surely it suffices to consult correspondence of the period; it was not written to serve the ends of controversialists 60 years later.

The other German documents that mention transfers of funds—never of 50 million marks—indicate they were for “revolutionary propaganda,” a term used in the vaguest sense. In those days, the Revolutionary Socialist party held center stage. The money seems to have been intended for separatist movements (one of Parvus’s fixed ideas, by the way). It benefited primarily intermediaries and parasites. In any case, there is no question of Lenin’s having been involved. The peak of the absurd is reached and overtopped in insisting that he was, for the German documents indicate that the most sizable remittances were sent after the October coup. So they were not intended for Lenin or for the Bolsheviks, who had seized public bank deposits, nationalized the banks, cleaned out the state coffers, nationalized the Mint, and taken possession of the plates for printing banknotes—in a word, they had at their disposal more money than one would know what to do with.

Furthermore, an appendix to the Treaty of Breast-Litovsk later stipulated that Russia pay Germany a war indemnity of up to 300 million gold rubles. Yet according to the article in Encounter. Berlin subventioned the Bolsheviks right up to the end of the war. I have said, and I repeat. here is the wherewithal “to make hens laugh” (a Russian saying). The Encounter article sought support not in the available evidence but in the cogitations of two eminent, trustworthy personages who merit our full consideration. First, Sukhanov: he could not explain to his own satisfaction why Lenin went into hiding after the July 1917 riot. To him it seemed suspect, for, he believed, Lenin was in no danger. Then what was he afraid of? Of having some accounts to render?

Sukhanov was my friend. His wife (Galina Constantinovna, if memory serves me after a half-century) gave me hospitality when I was expelled from the Party and driven from my lodgings in 1924. 1 helped Sukhanov when, together with Volski, he founded the Vie économique des Soviets, in Paris. My sister was his collaborator. And the memory of this martyr I preserve in all affection. This said, I contend that he is in error about Lenin’s flight in July on the following grounds: Sukhanov reasoned as a distinguished St. Petersburg intellectual, who was incapable of conceiving that one could inflict harm on a prisoner. He did not put himself inside Lenin’s skin when Lenin was obsessed by “implacable” civil war.

We know from several unchallengeable sources that when Lenin returned to Russia, he was convinced he would be arrested en route, then sure he would be imprisoned on arrival. Later, during the troubles, he expected he would be shot, and still later, that he would be assassinated. He invested his opponents with his own terrorist’s turn of mind. In a secret letter to Kamenev, in which he asked Kamenev to publish his manuscript on the state, he wrote: “Between us, if they kill me …’ (oukokochat). The idea haunted him. Sukhanov had no understanding of this terrorist mentality. Hence his mistaken line of reasoning. But that is not all.

Lenin’s flight did not follow from his own wishes. One has to know how that milieu functioned: the question was debated secretly by the Central Committee of the Party. Stalin was of the opinion. Roy Medvedev tells us, that Lenin should place himself in the hands of the courts in order to vindicate himself. The majority decided otherwise. This Sukhanov could not know. What’s more: the Sixth Party Congress, no more no less, had to confirm the Central Committee’s decision.

The reference to Leonard Schapiro deserves, of course, a comment. With all the respect owed this peerless historian, I think that his error on this particular point is of the same order as Sukhanov’s. It is the error of a British intellectual who transposes conditions obtaining in England to the Russia of 1917: he cannot conceive how the Bolsheviks were able to publish 41 periodicals without outside help. No doubt he believes that this calls for money to pay for offices, business staff, salaried editorial personnel, plus paper and printing costs. No such thing in the revolutionary storm of 1917. The devotion of the militants, in particular the typographers, made all kinds of improvisations possible. The success of the Bolshevik press is explained simply by its out-and-out pacifist propaganda in a country that could continue the war no longer.

Has Mr. Schapiro tallied the publications of the Mensheviks and the Revolutionary Socialists and analogous groups? The comparison would be interesting. There was a swarm of more or less short-lived news sheets, which had no German money. But there were financial contributions from well-to-do philo-Socialist, pacifist bourgeois who gave generously even if they were not Morozovs. Of interest in this connection is the response of Maxim Gorki to Pravda’s slanderous charges about the source of funds for Novaia Jizn (No. 127 of the paper): it appears in the collection Untimely Thoughts. Gorki also was accused of receiving German money. As were my comrades and I in France, in the same circumstances.

To illustrate the point, may I be permitted a personal recollection of Lenin’s making fun of French Socialists. He said to us, in the course of a rambling conversation,

In la Guerre Sociale and in I’ Humanite, I’ve often read the lists of contributors and come across such remarks as: “For the social revolution, 10 centimes.” Hah! These French! Ten centimes for the social revolution! Hah, hah, hah! At home, the workers contribute one day’s pay every week or every month to their newspaper! Just think of it: ten centimes for the social revolution! Hah, Hah, Hah!

(I am quoting from memory, of course, but the recollection is accurate.) It’s one of the answers to the sempiternal question: Where does the money come from?

In an article dealing with Solzhenitsyn’s book, and in particular with his sources, I did not have to discuss Mr. Schapiro’s reflections. I mentioned Encounter only briefly among several references to texts that attest to the steadfast survival of legends about the sealed railway car and German gold, the one factually correct passage in the London magazine having to do with Lydia Dan, Martov’s sister. My task was not to refute everything that touches indirectly on the same subject. Also, Riezler’s book is not found among Solzhenitsyn’s sources. There was enough to do in dealing with the German documents and the book of Zeman and Scharlau about Parvus —The Merchant of Revolution—which was Solzhenitsyn’s principal source.

Having devoted 15 pages in Contrat Social (Vol. VIII, No. 4, December 1968) to an analysis of the Parvus biography, I am not inclined to begin anew. My review did justice to the authors as the first biographers of Parvus, but it also pointed out manifold errors, contradictions, misleading statements, as well as inadmissable insinuations. In retrospect, I do regret not having been more critical, for this book led Solzhenitsyn into error on many scores. However that may be, in the Introduction [to the Merchant], there is an embarrassed passage that completely clears Lenin in connection with “German gold.” And on page 181, there is another passage that deserves to be quoted once more:

The Bolshevik groups in Russia took no part in Helphand’s [Parvus’s] activities. Their cooperation depended on Lenin’s consent, and their leader had never given this. Anyway, the Bolshevik underground organization was so weakened by the war that it was hardly in a position to take effective action… . Alexander Shlyapnikov, who supervised the Bolshevik organization on Lenin’s behalf, has emphatically denied the suspicions that the Bolsheviks cooperated with Helphand at this point of the war. It is impossible to doubt his statement… .

Is it going too far to say that these few lines cancel out all the implications, the equivocations, the malicious allusions in the work, which influenced Solzhenitsyn, some of them involving various minor characters who were mixed up in the money affairs but were no part of Lenin’s life?

Mr. Carmichael accuses me of having called von Kuhlmann a liar. Every fair-minded reader can verify that it is Sir Lewis Namier (Avenues of History, London, 1952) whom I quoted. It must be added that Kuhlmann does not altogether lie except when he credits himself with a role in the October coup. Certainly, he did dispose of funds for propaganda, as did all his counterparts in other countries. He never names Lenin. And as to such funds, generally they are money down the drain, for they have never brought one historic event to pass. I have said again and again that “money is not the measure of all things.”

I am replying here to a polemic that entirely disregards the facts, arguments, proofs, quotations, and references that abound in my article. So it is useless to add others, for they would meet the same fate. However, addressing the readers of Dissent, I wish to defend the memory of my friend Shlyapnikov, who has been gratuitously insulted with deliberate lack of scruple [“sans-scrupule conscient”]. Shliapnikov was an upright man, a self-reliant spirit; he was not “cementheaded,” but was endowed with critical intelligence, a person of intellectual and moral integrity. He was among those who resolutely opposed Lenin after the October coup. Later, he inspired the “workers’ opposition” with courage and got himself read out of the Party, as a result of which he fell into the clutches of the GPU. His life was devoted entirely to the cause of the workers, and it ended in unspeakable sufferings. In the words of the French adage: “Don’t insult him who tries.”

As to the verbiage about Trotsky, which is as obscure as it is wanting in substance, I will confine myself to a single categorical denial: in 1921, I had a conversation with Trotsky about the “German gold.” He expressed his opinion with persuasive, straightforward indignation and revulsion. When other Soviet citizens were questioned by French delegates who were disturbed by press campaigns at the time, they were astonished, especially that one could still pay any attention to such an old “calumny.” Let us not forget that when the travelers arrived in St. Petersburg in their “sealed railway car” (which was not sealed), they were exonerated by the Soviet, which was composed of a large majority of “patriotic” Socialists.

It is not I who “brings up passport formalities” in connection with Radek. Like Hanecki, Radek was an Austrian subject and could not enter Russia: under the Provisional Government, you did not enter Russia the way you walk into a cafe. The frontier was guarded by French and British officers, there in their capacity as allies, as well as by Russian police. This is an incontrovertible matter of fact. “Facts are stubborn things.” Radek was able to enter the country only after the October coup, which in March was unforeseeable. As for Lenin, in March he was still in agreement with Plekhanov and Martov in thinking that the imminent Russian revolution must be a “bourgeois revolution,” whereas Trotsky, the theoretician of the “permanent revolution,” thought otherwise. Lenin changed his mind when he came to consider the Provisional Government incapable of ending the war. In September he contemplated seizing power. The fictitious remark Radek made to Lenin in March (Solzhenitsyn, p. 266:”… six months from now we will either be ministers or we will be hanged”) therefore struck me as incongruous even in a novel, and there is nothing in it to feed a base quarrel.

Solzhenitsyn has understood perfectly well, on the other hand, that it would have been impossible for Lenin to accept German subsidies: it would have meant giving up his freedom to choose his own direction and to maneuver, subordinating that freedom to silent partners. Solzhenitsyn writes:

“Should he ask what price the Russian Revolution would have to pay for German help? He refrained from doing so, but kept the question in mind for the future. It would be naive to expect such help for nothing” (p. 160). And further on: “Let myself be tied to someone else’s policy? Not for anything in the world!” (p. 185).

Solzhenitsyn has read the German documents well and has well understood that they are not compromising for Lenin. At no point does he accept the doctored version of “German gold” paid out to Lenin up until the departure of the “sealed carriage” that was not sealed—i.e., up until April 1917. This date is not mine; it marks the conclusion of Lenin in Zurich. On this point, a fresh dispute from my disputant who disputes everything and nothing. There is nothing to quibble about.

What I have challenged about Solzhenitsyn’s book is the use he made in it of the Merchant, which is a work filled with equivocations, unfounded insinuations, and risky deductions. I questioned the inadequacy of his sources regarding Zimmerwald no less than on the Russian Revolution of 1905. And fearing from certain allusions that in the book to follow the author might venture so far as to permit himself to be influenced by the false “Creel-Sisson” documents and by the genuine Nikitin documents (supplied by the very incompetent French espionage service) when no doubt I would no longer be in a condition to comment on them, rightly or wrongly I spoke out in the hope of sparing the great writer’s being misled. (The Nikitin documents have to do with business affairs of Parvus, Hanecki & Co.; see Northern Underground, Michael Futtrel, London, 1963). The rumors aroused by their business dealings induced the Central Committee of the Party to deprive Hanecki of his position in Stockholm, to Lenin’s great displeasure. This decision alone explodes the legend of German gold accepted by the Bolsheviks.

Fair-minded readers who wish to know more will be interested to read the articles of Professor Alfred Senn on “The Myth of German Money During the First World War” and “New Documents on Lenin’s Departure” (references previously supplied). Also My Life as a Rebel, by Angelica Balabanoff, who also traveled to Russia in a “sealed” (unsealed) train. And my analysis of the Merchant, entitled “L’or et le wagon,” in Con! rat Social (Paris, Vol. 7. No. 4, December 1968). 1 would like to suggest also the serious, circumspect review of the Merchant by Leo van Rossum, in the publication of the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, which I happened upon only very recently.

Above all, it is important to be familiar with Lenin’s secret letter to his Stockholm office, written from his hiding place between August 27-30, 1917, when he was expecting the worst. A short passage touches on the matter of money: it is decisive. One can even go so far as to say that these few lines should dispense with having to read the kilos of material about “German gold.” The letter, which was recovered long after Lenin’s death, appeared only in 1930 in Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 8. Later, the outline of this letter—or rather, a laconic aide-memoire—was found and published, in 1933, also in the Collected Works (No. 21). The letter now appears in Lenin’s Complete Works, Vol. 49. It cannot interest a prejudiced fanatic, but readers in good faith will appreciate it.

It is for them to appreciate no less the unseemly letter that has called forth mine, and to decide to whom are to be applied such choice terms as “effrontery,” `fraudulent,” “duplicity,” “priggishness,” `falsifies,” `foolishness,” “chicanery,” “disingenuous,” “deceitfulness,” and other civilities of an uncommonly elevated mind, not to mention the letter’s tone—which, as the French say, makes the message. And may they not overlook the inexpressible “Marxism,” which is as out of place as hairs in the soup.

Translated by ADRIENNE FOULKE

 

June 26, 2017

Lars Lih defends Kamenev and Stalin’s blue-pencilled Lenin

Filed under: Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

On John Riddell’s blog, there’s a very interesting but wrongheaded series of posts by Lars Lih that reveals how the editors of Pravda—Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin—excised sentences from the first of Lenin’s Letters from Afar that was written on March 7th and signaled his decisive break with “old Bolshevism”, which had theorized a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This slogan can be reduced to a call not for socialism, but for a government that while excluding bourgeois parties would preside over bourgeois property relations. In Lenin’s view, Russia could not proceed toward socialism until the workers had built a powerful social democratic party that resembled Kautsky’s in Germany. As long as feudal vestiges remained in Russia, especially the lack of constitutional democratic rights, the workers could not build up their strength.

Ironically, even though Lenin was moving rapidly toward an abandonment of “old Bolshevik” beliefs, he still retained some of the language, although in a profoundly dialectical manner, in the first letter:

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore, the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the Potresovs, Gvozdyovs and Chkheidzes, as Plekhanov said yesterday.

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practised by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organisation, their own unity, and their own weapons.

A few paragraphs later in the letter, Lenin makes it clear that bourgeois property relations will not be respected by a newly conceived “revolutionary dictatorship”:

It [the Kerensky government] cannot give bread because it is a bourgeois government. At best, it can give the people “brilliantly organised famine”, as Germany has done. But the people will not accept famine. They will learn, and probably very soon, that there is bread and that it can be obtained, but only by methods that do not respect the sanctity of capital and landownership.

In the second post titled “Lenin’s ‘Letter from Afar,’ as printed in Pravda, March 21 and 22, 1917”, Lih provides an annotated version with references to the excised material in his post. So for example, you can read this in the second post, just as Lenin’s letter would have appeared to Pravda’s readers:

The conflict of these three forces determines the situation that has now arisen, a situation that is transitional from the first to the second stage of the revolution.

The above paragraph was a substitute for what was deleted by Kamenev and Stalin below:

The antagonism between the first and second force is not profound, it is temporary, the result solely of the present conjuncture of circumstances, of the abrupt turn of events in the imperialist war. The entire new government is monarchist, for Kerensky’s verbal republicanism simply cannot be taken seriously, is not worthy of a statesman and, objectively, is political chicanery. The new government has not succeeded in finishing off the tsarist monarchy, has already begun to make a deal with the landlord Romanov dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Kadet type needs a monarchy to serve as the head of the bureaucracy and the army in order to protect the privileges of capital against the working people.

This new government, in which Lvov and Guchkov of the Octobrists and Peaceful Renovation Party, yesterday’s abettors of Stolypin the Hangman, control the posts of real importance, the crucial posts, the decisive posts, the army and the bureaucracy—this government, in which Miliukov and the other Kadets serve mostly for decoration, for a signboard, for sugary professorial speeches, and the “Trudovik” Kerensky plays the role of a balalaika for gulling the workers and peasants.

It is important to note that the excised first of the Letters from Afar does not mention Kerensky once while Lenin’s unedited letter references him five times. Interestingly enough, the Russian edition of Lenin’s complete works, from which the Marxist Internet Archives derived its source material, provides a footnote that understands what the deletions were about even if Lars Lih does not. So even if the Communist publishers risked exposing the heavy hand of Stalin by providing such a footnote, they must have felt obliged to tell the truth—something Lih apparently can’t handle.

LETTERS FROM AFAR

Notes

[1] The Pravda editors deleted about one-fifth of the first letter. The cuts concern chiefly Lenin’s characterisation of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary lenders as conciliators and flunkeys of the bourgeoisie, their attempts to hide from the people the fact that representatives of the British and French governments helped the Cadets and Octobrists secure the abdication of Nicholas II, and also Lenin’s exposure of the monarchist and imperialist proclivities of the Provisional Government, which was determined to continue the predatory war.

The third of Lih’s posts tries to square the circle by portraying the deletions as necessary since Lenin essentially went overboard. Lenin was wrong in referring to Kerensky’s “verbal republicanism” and playing the role of a balalaika. Indeed, for Lih Kerensky embodied the spirit of the evolving proletarian dictatorship:

Lenin also misapprehended Kerensky’s role: his presence in the government was not due to right-wing forces who wanted a “balalaika.” On the contrary, Kerensky was deputed by the Petrograd Soviet as its representative in the government. Lenin’s mistake about Kerensky reflected a more fundamental misapprehension about the role of the Petrograd Soviet. In his tripartite map, Lenin placed Chkheidze and Kerensky directly in the camp of the liberal opposition while portraying the Soviet as already opposed to the new government. But in fact, Chkheidze and Kerensky were leaders of the Soviet, and their political influence came from solid majority support among the soviet constituency.

Keep in mind that on March 7th, when Lenin’s first letter was written, the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet did not have a single Bolshevik member. In contrast to the Petrograd Soviet that reflected the gradualist perspective of the Mensheviks and SR’s, the Vyborg District Bolsheviks were far to their left and even, according to Alexander Rabinowitch in “Prelude to Revolution”, Lenin himself. A week before Lenin wrote his letter, they introduced a motion to the Petrograd Soviet opposing the Provisional Government and its replacement by a revolutionary government led by socialists. The Petrograd Soviet rejected this proposal.

In fact, the Petrograd Bolshevik committee was much closer to Kerensky et al than it was to their Vyborg comrades. It adopted what Rabinowitch called a “semi-Menshevik” position that urged support for the Provisional Government as long as its policies were “consistent with the interests…of the people.”

In the first half of March, Pravda was both antiwar and hostile to the Provisional Government. However, all that changed after Kamenev and Stalin became the new editors. Alexander Rabinowitch describes how the paper changed. Everybody without a vested interest in elevating Kamenev and Stalin to a status they hardly deserve will immediately understand from this why they took a blue pencil to Lenin’s letter:

Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day. Kamenev explained the mild attitude of the new Pravda editorial hoard to a meeting of the Petersburg Committee on March 18, where it met with approval.” Obviously, this position contrasted sharply with the views expressed by Lenin in his “Letters from Afar,” and it is not surprising that Pravda published only the first of these and with numerous deletions at that. Among crucial phrases censored out was Lenin’s accusation that “those who advocate that the workers support the new government in the interests of the struggle against Tsarist reaction (as do the Potresovs, Gvozdevs, Chkhenkelis, and in spite of all his inclinations, even Chkheidze [all Mensheviks] ) are traitors to the workers, traitors to the cause of the proletariat, [and] the cause of freedom.” Lenin might have applied this accusation to Kamenev and Stalin as well.

May 15, 2017

Will someone please escort Lars Lih out of the history tunnel?

Filed under: Lenin,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

Chiang Kai-Shek, an honorary member of the Comintern upon Stalin’s urging

In 2011, Lars Lih wrote an article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” for Russian History whose thesis has been repeated ceaselessly, the latest iteration appearing on the Jacobin website. Essentially, they all argue in favor of the superiority of “Old Bolshevism” over Trotsky’s version of what took place between March and October 1917, even when Trotsky is not mentioned. Lih has a particular affinity for Lev Kamenev even though Stalin is a close runner-up for the title of Old Bolshevik supremo. Is the prodigious amount of prose advanced on behalf of Kamenev and Stalin meant to win people over? I myself get annoyed by repetition, especially those Trivago ads. Lately Lih has been joined by Eric Blanc, a young graduate student who pays lip-service to Trotsky but with little insights into the broader contours of a debate that did not end in October 1917. Like Lih, he seems stuck in a narrow historical framework that comes to an end in October 1917 or maybe as late as 1924.

Indeed, the basic problem with the Lih/Blanc methodology is that it operates in a historical tunnel. At least Blanc refers his readers to the 1924 conference that pitted Trotsky against his ideological opponents (see Frederick Corney, Trotsky’s Challenge: the “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution) but that discussion operated within the parameters of the tunnel. If Kamenev was correct that the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was “fully and completely realized in the Russian revolution”, wouldn’t it make sense that it would also apply to China, another country that had a Communist Party under the complete control of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev in the very year that the 1924 conference took place and whose fate in the next three years would be sealed by the Triumvirate’s politics? Was there any reason to think that the “old Bolsheviks” had lost the old magic when it came to China? What were the implications of applying what worked in 1917 to China where the Kuomintang (KMT) was hailed by Kamenev and company as a revolutionary party, so much so that it was accepted as a sister party of the Comintern and its Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek as an honorary member? Or that the Communist Party of China was directed to work within the KMT and forbidden to leave even after Chiang Kai-Shek began to slaughter its members?

Shanghai, 1927: Worker beheaded by a soldier under the command of an honorary Comintern member

The consequences of forcing Chinese Marxists to subordinate themselves to the KMT was disastrous. On March 21-22 1927, Communists acting independently of the Kremlin seized control of Shanghai. On April 9th, Chiang moved to purge the Communists from the KMT and retake control of Shanghai. More than 1,000 Communists were arrested, 300 were executed and another 5,000 went missing. Since the CP was not very large to begin within, this essentially dealt it a death-blow. In “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution”, a book I read 45 years ago or so, Harold Isaacs described what took place:

At noon on April 13 the workers gathered at a mass meeting on Chinyuen Road, Chapei. Resolutions were passed demanding the return of the seized arms, the punishment of the union wreckers and protection for the General Labour Union. A petition was drawn up embodying these points and a procession was formed to march down to Second Division headquarters to present it to General Chow Feng-chi. Women and children joined. Not a man marching bore arms. They swung into Paoshan Road under a pouring rain. As they came abreast of San Teh Terrace, a short distance from the military headquarters, machine-gunners waiting for them there opened fire. Lead spouted into the thick crowd from both sides of the street. Men, women, and children dropped screaming into the mud. The crowd broke up into mad flight. Guns continued streaming fire into the backs of the fleeing workers. The muddy rain water coursing down ruts in the streets ran red.

In 1927, the USSR was guided by the policies of Stalin and Bukharin who constituted a rightwing bloc that adapted to the NEP agrarian bourgeoisie at home and the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” abroad. A month after this disaster, Stalin showed no signs of understanding what went wrong. In a speech, he stated his opposition to the creation of Soviets in China, as advocated by Trotsky, and claimed that the Kuomintang was the “center of the bourgeois democratic revolutionary movement.”

By 1927, Trotsky had been joined by Kamenev and Zinoviev in the Joint Opposition. Two years earlier they had broken with Stalin and Bukharin over Socialism in One Country and formed the New Opposition that operated independently of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. One year later their faction united with Trotsky’s. While they agreed on the need for world revolution theoretically, Kamenev and Zinoviev supported the pro-KMT policy that objectively undermined exactly that goal. This was understandable since they remained wedded to the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In fact, Zinoviev was probably the main architect of the policy in China as Comintern chief. When Trotsky advocated making the China debacle the focus of the attack on Stalin, he was opposed not only by the two old Bolsheviks but many of his own supporters. Part of the problem was Trotsky’s collaboration with Zinoviev in building an alliance with the KMT as part of an attempt to break out of the USSR’s isolation just as was the case with its overtures to Mustafa Kemal. But from the very beginning Trotsky opposed the CP functioning as part of the KMT. He said you can have diplomatic relations with a country at the same time you are trying to overthrow its capitalist government. That in fact is exactly how capitalist states enter into diplomatic alliances with workers states, if you recall the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Stalin and Bukharin defended their policy as adhering to Leninist orthodoxy. China needed to carry out a bourgeois-democratic revolution in order to cleanse the nation’s Augean stables of feudal property relations. Once that was accomplished, they could go on to the socialist phase. Of course, Lenin abandoned such a schema in 1917 despite what Lars Lih thinks.

On April 12th, on the very day that working-class blood flowed in the streets of Shanghai, Pravda wrote an unctuous eulogy to the KMT. Can you guess who the author was? No, it was not Stalin or Bukharin although it might have been. It was Alexandr Martinov, who had been a rightwing Menshevik for 20 years before joining the Russian CP after the civil war, and who was now a leading light of the Comintern.

Martinov must have figured out that Stalin’s party was well on the way of adopting his shitty politics when he joined. Despite their constant baiting of Trotsky as a Menshevik, people like Kamenev and Stalin had a real affinity for stagist politics. Keep in mind what leading Menshevik Sukhanov wrote:

Where did the truth lie? Kamenev, in giving a ‘benevolent’ interpretation of the resolution, was doubtless trying dutifully to retain in it the official Bolshevik idea: that the conclusion of the imperialist war was only possible by way of a Socialist revolution. But I also had no doubt that Kamenev didn’t sympathize with this official Bolshevik idea considered it unrealistic, and was trying to follow a line of struggle for peace in the concrete circumstances of the moment. All the actions of the then leader of the Bolshevik party had just this kind of `possibilist’, sometimes too moderate, character. His position was ambiguous, and not easy. He had his own views, and was working on Russian revolutionary soil. But—he was casting a ‘sideways’ look abroad, where they had their own views, which were not quite the same as his.

Possibilism describes Kamenev in 1917. It also describes him throughout the 1920s. The old Bolsheviks were marked by possibilism, another word for opportunism. In my view, all of these people were flawed: Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin, Bukharin and even Trotsky. There is much you can learn from the last two I named but all the rest are not worth bothering with despite Lih’s foolish attempt to elevate them to a status they hardly deserve. As I have written elsewhere, Zinoviev’s interference in the German revolution of the early 20s helped to prevent it from succeeding. I also faulted Lenin and Trotsky in my account of their intervention, demonstrating that I have no use for empty idolatry

The debate that broke out over the Lessons of October in 1924 never really came to an end. Within three years they reemerged over how to assess the Chinese disaster. For a presentation in line with Lars Lih’s encomiums to old Bolshevism, I recommend Josef Stalin’s “Questions of the Chinese Revolution” that appeared in Pravda.

Stalin describes two phases of the Chinese revolution. In the first, “the national army was approaching the Yangtse and scoring victory after victory, but a powerful movement of the workers and peasants had not yet unfolded—the national bourgeoisie (not the compradors) sided with the revolution. It was the revolution of a united all-national front.”

Of course, this very army scored a most powerful victory in April 1927 when it massacred trade unionists in Shanghai. Obviously Stalin had to take account of this but not to the point of giving up on the KMT. In the second phase, after Chiang Kai-Shek had revealed himself as a counter-revolutionary, it devolved upon “the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan” to become the “organ of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” How nice of Stalin to stand up for Leninist orthodoxy even after the head of the KMT in Wuhan had broken with the Communists and realigned with the blood-stained Chiang. Isaacs reports on the Wuhan massacre that followed in the footsteps of Shanghai being carried out once again by someone to whom Stalin had given his blessings:

The military authorities proceeded with the systematic destruction of the trade unions. The Hankow Garrison Headquarters issued a ban on strikes. Between July 14 and 19 soldiers were “billeted” on the premises of twenty-five unions whose archives and effects were confiscated. Simultaneously throughout Honan province Feng Yu-hsiang was conducting a similar drive. “In the last few weeks the Chinese labour movement in the territory of the Wuhan Government has lived through a period of the most brazen reaction. . . . The military . . . have carried out such enormous work of destruction directed against the mass organizations . . . that it will require a very long period and gigantic energy to make good the losses and to enable the trade unions to resume their normal functions,” reported the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat.

It makes sense to conclude this article with an excerpt from Trotsky’s reply to Stalin that takes a close look at the aforementioned Martinov. It encapsulates the differences between Lars Lih and revolutionary socialism, even if he lacks the ability to understand them.

The School of Martynov in the Chinese Question

The official leadership of the Chinese revolution has been oriented all this time on a “general national united front” or on the “bloc of four classes” (cf. the report of Bukharin; the leader in the Communist International, no.11; the unpublished speech by Stalin to the Moscow functionaries on April 5, 1927; the article by Martynov in Pravda on April 10; the leader in Pravda of March 16; the speech by comrade Kalinin in Izvestia of March 6, 1927; the speech by comrade Rudzutak in Pravda of March 9, 1927; etc., etc.). Matters had gone so far on this track, that on the eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s coup d’état, Pravda, in order to expose the Opposition, proclaimed that revolutionary China was not being ruled by a bourgeois government but by a “government of the bloc of four classes”.

The philosophy of Martynov, which has the sorry courage to carry all the mistakes of Stalin and Bukharin in the questions of Chinese policy to their logical conclusion, does not meet a trace of objection. Yet it is tantamount to trampling under foot the fundamental principles of Marxism. It reproduces the crudest features of Russian and international Menshevism, applied to the conditions of the Chinese revolution. Not for nothing does the present leader of the Mensheviks, Dan, write in the last number of Sotsialisticheski Vestnik:

In principle the Bolsheviks were also for retaining the ‘united front’ in the Chinese revolution up to the completion of the task of national liberation. On April 10, Martynov, in Pravda, most effectively and despite the obligatory abuse of the Social Democrats, in a quite ‘Menshevik manner’ showed the ‘Left’ Oppositionist Radek the correctness of the official position which insists on the necessity of retaining the ‘bloc of four classes’, on not hastening to overthrow the coalition government in which the workers sit side by side with the big bourgeoisie, not to impose ‘socialist tasks’ upon it prematurely.

Everyone who knows the history of the struggle of Bolshevism against Menshevism, particularly in the question of relations to the liberal bourgeoisie, must acknowledge that Dan’s approval of the “rational principles” of the Martynov school is not accidental, but follows with perfect legitimacy. It is only unnatural that this school should raise its voice with impunity in the ranks of the Comintern.

The old Menshevik tactic of 1905 to 1917, which was crushed under foot by the march of events, is now transferred to China by the Martynov school, much the same as capitalist trade dumps its most inferior merchandise, which finds no market in the mother country, into the colonies. The merchandise has not even been renovated. The arguments are the same, letter for letter, as they were twenty years ago. Only, where formerly the word autocracy stood, the word imperialism has been substituted for it in the text. Naturally, British imperialism is different from autocracy. But the Menshevik reference to it does not differ in the slightest from its reference to autocracy. The struggle against foreign imperialism is as much a class struggle as the struggle against autocracy. That it cannot be exorcized by the idea of the national united front, is far too eloquently proved by the bloody April events, a direct consequence of the policy of the bloc of four classes.

May 7, 2017

Lars Lih versus Nikolai Sukhanov: who is more credible on “old Bolshevism”?

Filed under: Lenin,Russia — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Nikolai Sukhanov

It is difficult to tell whether Lars Lih had any ulterior motives in trying to establish Kamenev and Stalin as superior theoretically to Trotsky on the dynamics of the October 1917 revolution since he has so little to say beyond the boundaries of a relatively narrow chronological framework. He puts 1917 under a microscope in order to establish that “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was never rejected by Lenin no matter what he said in the April Theses and that Kamenev/Stalin’s differences with Lenin were minor in comparison to those that existed between Lenin and Trotsky.

Does Lih have any interest in writing about how “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was applied to the Chinese revolution? If Stalin had such a keen understanding of Marxism and the superiority of this strategic goal to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, how did China end up so disastrously for Chinese workers in 1927 following Stalin’s instructions a decade after his superiority was demonstrated? Inquiring minds are dying to know.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to go into such questions. Instead I will stay within the same narrow framework as him but hope to shed light on the role of Kamenev in “old Bolshevism” by referring to someone totally outside of the Trotskyist orthodoxy that Lih considers so unreliable. I have already referred to Alexander Rabinowitch, a historian with no links to Trotskyism, who wrote in “Prelude to Revolution”:

But all this changed in the middle of March with the return from Siberia of Kamenev, Stalin, and M. K. Muranov and their subsequent seizure of control of Pravda. Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day.

Well, who knows? Maybe Rabinowitch was briefly a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and took classes with George Novack. I don’t remember running into him at Oberlin. That certainly would rule him out as a reliable source. Did he fabricate the Stalin quote about the slogan “Down with the War” being useless? If he did, I must denounce him as a rascal.

Now you certainly can’t ever suspect Nikolai Sukhanov of being a Trotskyist. Between 1919 and 1921 Sukhanov wrote a seven-volume memoir of the Russian Revolution that obviously would have not been a transmission belt of Trotskyist ideology, especially since he was a leading member of the Mensheviks. Based on what I have seen in the 686 page abridged version of this tome published by Princeton University Press in 1984, I wish that someone would translate the entire work into English one of these days since it is an important scholarly resource and a very lively read. What follows are excerpts from “The Russian Revolution of 1917” with my introduction to each one that have a bearing on the dubious effort to elevate Kamenev and “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy. (Stalin is mostly ignored in Sukhanov’s book.)


[page 191. Molotov, who later became famous for his cocktail, speaks to a Congress of Soviet meeting in favor of power passing from the Provisional Government to the “hands of the democracy”, which probably meant the Soviets. Sukhanov points out that he was speaking only for himself.]

Throughout the course of the revolution, down to October the problem of the relations between the official Government and the Soviets kept obtruding itself. This problem, however, was always conceived of and treated as a political problem, which the question at issue was political relations. But in this case the question was concerned with the organizational and technical interrelationships (and extremely complicated ones at that.)

It is natural that in the midst of a still fiercely raging struggle for the new order, not all those present at the meeting [on March 1] grasp and clarify all this. And the debate was diffuse, incoherent and confused. A whole series of speakers started talking precisely about political relations, about ‘support’ for the provisional Government, ‘reciprocity’, ‘insofar as … ‘ a negative attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and so on. Consequently talk took us back to the Ex. Comm. session of March 1st, in which conditions and a programme for the future Cabinet were elaborated.

I remember especially well a speech by the Bolshevik Molotov. This official party representative only now collected his thoughts and for the first time began talking about the necessity of all political power to pass into the hands of the democracy. He didn’t suggest anything concrete, but he advanced precisely this principle—instead of ‘control’ over the bourgeois Government and ‘pressure’ on it.

But it turned out that not only was Molotov speaking as an irresponsible critic, who could find fault because he was doing nothing and not suggesting anything concrete; it seemed, besides, the opinion he expressed was not at all that of his party or at least of those of its leaders who were available. On the following day we learned from the papers that on March 3rd the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks had declared that ‘it would not oppose the authority of the Provisional Government insofar as its activities corresponded to the interests of the proletariat and the broad democratic masses of the people’, and announced ‘its decision to carry on the most implacable struggle against any attempts of the Provisional government to restore the monarchist regime in any form whatsoever’.


[pp. 289-292. Lenin’s April Theses were “lunatic ideas” according to the “old Bolsheviks”. Sukhanov’s words reek of hostility to the working class but attest to the clash with party leaders like Kamenev who would fall into the position of “outlaws” and “internal traitors.”]

About a week after his arrival the famous First Theses of Lenin were printed in Pravda, in the form of an article. They contained a résumé of the new doctrine expounded in his speeches; they lacked the same thing as his speeches: an economic programme and a Marxist analysis of the objective conditions of our revolution. The Theses were published in Lenin’s name alone: not one Bolshevik organization, or group, or even individual had joined him. And the editors of Pravda for their part thought it necessary to emphasize Lenin’s isolation and their independence of him. ‘As for Lenin’s general schema,’ wrote Pravda, ‘it seems us unacceptable, in so far as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is finished and counts the immediate conversion of that revolution into a Socialist revolution.’

It appeared that the Marxist foundations of the Bolshevik Party were firm, that the Bolshevik party mass had taken up arms to defend against Lenin the elementary foundations of scientific Socialism, Bolshevism itself, and the old traditional Lenin.

Alas! Many people, including myself, were vainly deluded: Lenin compelled his Bolsheviks to accept his ‘lunatic ideas’ in their entirety. How and why did this happen? I have no intention of investigating this interesting question au fond, nevertheless I don’t think it superfluous here to note a few undoubted factors in the capitulation of the old Social-Democratic Bolshevism to Lenin’s reckless anarcho-seditious system.

That is how matters stood in the Bolshevik general staff. As for the mass of party officers, they were far from distinguished. Amongst the Bolshevik officers there were many first-rate technicians in party and professional work, and not a few ‘romantics’, but extremely few political thinkers and conscious Socialists.

In consequence every form of radicalism and external Leftism had an invincible attraction for the Bolshevik mass, while the natural ‘line’ of work consisted of demagogy. This was very often all the political wisdom of the Bolshevik committee-men boiled down to.

Thus the ‘party public’ of course quite lacked the strength or internal resources to oppose anything whatever to Lenin’s onslaught.

Lenin’s radicalism, his heedless ‘Leftism’, and primitive demagogy, unrestrained either by science or common sense, later secured his success among the broadest proletarian-muzhik masses who had had no other teaching than that of the Tsarist whip. But the same characteristics of this Leninist propaganda also seduced the more backward, less literate elements of the party itself. Very soon after Lenin’s arrival they were faced by an alternative: either keep the old principles of Social-Democracy and Marxist science, but without Lenin, without the masses, and without the party; or stay with Lenin and the party and conquer the masses together in an easy way, having thrown overboard the obscure, unfamiliar Marxist principles. It’s understandable that the mass of party Bolsheviks, though after some vacillation, decided on the latter.

But the attitude of this mass could not help but have a decisive influence on the fully-conscious Bolshevik elements too, on the Bolshevik generals, for after Lenin’s conquest of the officers of the party, people like Kamenev, for instance, were completely isolated; they had fallen into the position of outlaws and internal traitors. And the implacable Thunderer soon subjected them, together with other infidels, to such abuse that not all of them could endure it. It goes without saying that the generals, even those who had read Marx and Engels, were incapable of sustaining such an ordeal. And Lenin won victory after another.


[pp. 225-227. For obvious reasons, Lars Lih devotes very few words to the question of Kamenev’s views on Russia continuing the war. As indicated by the Rabinowitch citation above, this was the source of the real tension with the “old Bolsheviks” and not over whether the democratic dictatorship had been consummated or not. Kamenev is basically recruiting this Menshevik leader to write for Pravda and not to worry about whether his views on the war clashed with Lenin’s. Unless Lih comes to terms with these issues, his historiography will have a huge hole stuck in its middle.]

As a political figure Kamenev was undoubtedly an exceptional, though not an independent, force. Lacking either sharp corners, great intellectual striking power, or original language, he was not fitted to be a leader; by himself he had nowhere to lead the masses. Left alone he would not fail to be assimilated by someone. It was always necessary to take him in tow, and if he sometimes balked it was never very violently. But as one member of a leading group Kamenev, with his political schooling and supreme oratorical gifts, was extremely distinguished and amongst the Bolsheviks he was in many respects irreplaceable.

Personally he was gentle and good-hearted. All this taken together added up to his role in the Bolshevik Party. He always stood on its Right, conciliationist, passive wing. And sometimes he would balk, defending evolutionary methods or a moderate political course. At the beginning of the revolution he jibbed against Lenin, jibbed at the October Revolution jibbed at the general havoc and terror after the revolt, jibbed on supply questions in the second year of the Bolshevik regime. But—he always surrendered on all points. Not having much faith in himself, he recently (in the autumn of 1918) said to me, in order to justify himself in his own eyes: ‘As for myself I am more and more convinced that Lenin never makes a mistake. In the last analysis he is always right. How often has it seemed that he was slipping up—either in his prognosis or in his political line! But in the last analysis his prognosis and his line were always justified.’

Here is what Kamenev wanted to talk to me about then:

‘About the article in Pravda: our people have told you must first declare yourself a Bolshevik. That’s all nonsense no attention to it; please write the article. Here is the point. D’you read Pravda? You know, it has a completely unseemly and unsuitable tone. It has a terrible reputation. When I got here I was in despair. What could be done? I even thought of shutting down this Pravda altogether and getting out a new central organ under a different name. But that’s impossible. In our party too much is bound up with the name Pravda. It must stay. It’ll be necessary to shift the paper into a new course. So now I’m to attract contributors or get hold of a few articles by writers with some reputation. Go ahead and write…’

All this was curious. I began asking Kamenev what was being done in general and in which direction a ‘line’ was being defined in his party circles. What was Lenin thinking and writing? We strolled about the Catherine Hall for a long with Kamenev trying at some length to persuade me that his party was taking up or ready to take up a most ‘reasonable’ (from my point of view) position. This position, as he put it, wall close to that taken by the Soviet Zimmerwald centre [ie., Kautskyism], if not identical with it. Lenin? Lenin thought that up to now the revolution was being accomplished quite properly and that a bourgeois Government was now historically indispensable.

`Does that mean you are not going to overthrow the bourgeois Government yet and don’t insist on an immediate democratic regime?’ I tried to get this out of Kamenev, who was showing me what I thought important perspectives.

‘We here don’t insist on that, nor does Lenin over there. He writes that our immediate task now is—to organize and mobilize our forces.’

‘But what do you think about current foreign policy? What about an immediate peace?’

‘You know that for us the question cannot be put that way. Bolshevism has always maintained that the World War can ended by a world proletarian revolution. And as long as not taken place, as long as Russia continues the war, we are against any disorganization and for maintaining the front.’


[p. 257. This repeats the points made above, namely that Kamenev veered toward the Menshevik position on continuing the war.]

The sections of the [Congress of Soviet] Conference began to work on the morning of the 30th. 1 was forced into the agrarian section, which was full of nothing but soldiers. I left without entering into the useless wrangling.

Kamenev showed me a Bolshevik resolution on the war, which was of course doomed to defeat. It appeared to me that the Zimmerwaldites ought to vote for this resolution, and to do it to make clear the relative voting strength of the two sides. But there was a suspicious point in the resolution, to the effect that the imperialist war could be ended only with transfer of political power to the working class. Did this mean that the struggle for peace was not necessary at that moment? Or did it mean that it was necessary, but that therefore political power had to be taken into one’s own hands at once? Kamenev assured me that it meant neither the one nor the other. But he responded extremely evasively to the suggestion that this point be altered, and tried to eliminate the misunderstanding by remarks alone. Meanwhile everyone who had read this resolution maintained that the Bolsheviks were demanding political power for the working class.

Where did the truth lie? Kamenev, in giving a ‘benevolent’ interpretation of the resolution, was doubtless trying dutifully to retain in it the official Bolshevik idea: that the conclusion of the imperialist war was only possible by way of a Socialist revolution. But I also had no doubt that Kamenev didn’t sympathize with this official Bolshevik idea considered it unrealistic, and was trying to follow a line of struggle for peace in the concrete circumstances of the moment. All the actions of the then leader of the Bolshevik party had just this kind of `possibilist’, sometimes too moderate, character. His position was ambiguous, and not easy. He had his own views, and was working on Russian revolutionary soil. But—he was casting a ‘sideways’ look abroad, where they had their own views, which were not quite the same as his.

March 4, 2017

The revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry? Say what?

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Lenin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

When I first heard the term “revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” not long after joining the SWP in 1967, I said to myself “What the fuck is that?” Democratic dictatorship, say what?

Soon, I learned that this was a term coined by V.I. Lenin to convey the goals of the Bolshevik Party in the coming Russian revolution. Basically, it meant that the workers would make a revolution against the feudal class in Russia that dominated the countryside and that was represented politically by the Czar. After that stage had been accomplished, Russia would go on to the next stage of capitalist development freed from feudal constraints. Under those conditions, the workers would take advantage of constitutional freedoms to build a socialist party modeled on the German social democracy that can overthrow the capitalist system. When Lenin used the term “dictatorship”, he used it like Marx in “Critique of the Gotha Program”:

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

It did not mean rule by a dictator, but rule by a class. Under bourgeois democracy, there is a dictatorship of the capital class. Under workers democracy, there is a dictatorship of the working class. In my view, it was probably a mistake for Marx or Lenin to use the word dictatorship, since it can be so easily misunderstood especially when Stalin exercised personal rule over Russia in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the early 70s, American Maoists defended Lenin’s strategy as a way of establishing “revolutionary continuity” with the Bolshevik Party in the same way that the SWP carried the banner of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. In 1973, Carl Davidson wrote a series of articles in the Guardian (a defunct radical newsweekly, not the British daily) titled “Left in Form, Right in Essence: A Critique of Contemporary Trotskyism” that many SDS’ers transitioning into “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” found useful. The second in the series was titled “Two lines on ‘permanent revolution’” that basically recapitulates arguments made by Stalin and his flunkies in the 1920s:

Trotsky’s views on the course of the Russian revolution, like those of the Mensheviks, were refuted by history. The revolution was both uninterrupted and developed in stages. The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants came into being during the first stage, during the period of the dual power and in the special form of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

In 1924, there was a heated debate in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between Trotsky and his detractors, including Josef Stalin and Lev Kamenev, over the two opposing lines. Kamenev’s article, which was titled “Leninism or Trotskyism?” and written in wooden prose, is virtually indistinguishable from Davidson’s as this excerpt would indicate:

Lenin stood for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry—Trotsky opposed it! Here, as Lenin pointed out, he caused great confusion with his left phrase on “permanent revolution.” In this last point Trotsky gave the impression of being more left than Lenin. He was not content with the mere dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, but demanded permanent revolution. Here we have merely a further example of what Lenin impressed upon us for so many years with regard to Trotsky: a right policy with regard to daily questions of actual practice, but skilfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left.

Davidson said, “Left in Form, Right in Essence” and Kamenev referred to a “right policy…skillfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left”. Pretty much the same thing.

By the time the Maoist sects began falling apart, two important Trotskyist groups had become convinced that Kamenev and Stalin were right. One was the SWP and the other was the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia, a group that tended to follow its lead. For the SWP, the turn against this theoretical foundation stone of the Fourth International was part and parcel of a turn to what they thought would be a new international based in Cuba and that included the FSLN in Nicaragua, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada and the ANC, et al. The SWP stopped theorizing about Permanent Revolution one way or another long ago, largely because of the loss of cadre who were up to such tasks while the Australians became much more engaged with less abstruse matters such as how to relate to the Kurdish struggle, etc. There are theoretical implications flowing from current struggles in the Middle East and Latin America but few activists or scholars invoke Lenin in Trotsky when trying to analyze them, with perhaps the exception of Steve Ellner who wrote an article in 2011 titled Does the process of change in Venezuela resemble a “Permanent Revolution”?

I hadn’t thought much about these matters for a few years until an article by Eric Blanc appeared in the new Historical Materialism blog titled “Before Lenin: Bolshevik Theory and Practice in February 1917 Revisited” that questions  those accounts of Lenin’s April Theses as a rejection of the “old Bolshevik” strategy of the democratic dictatorship and a virtual embrace of Permanent Revolution. Blanc writes:

Seeking to push back against the increasingly bureaucratised party apparatus, Trotsky initiated the polemic in his famous 1924 The Lessons of October. In this pamphlet he argued, among other things, that the Bolshevik party under the leadership of Stalin and Lev Kamenev was mired in de-facto Menshevism before Lenin arrived in April 1917 and re-armed the party with an entirely new political strategy.

But for Blanc, this version of history “obscures more than it clarifies”. After reading Lars Lih, he became convinced that the Bolsheviks did aim to seize power before Lenin’s return in April, 1917 and only differed with Lenin on the details. That does not seem to square with Lenin’s combative words with the old guard in “Letters on Tactics”, however:

The person who now speaks only of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”).

Keep in mind that the overthrow of the Czar took place in February. So, the period of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” lasted exactly two months according to Lenin’s timeline, not twenty years. This does not correspond to the schema in which workers would gather up their resources and move toward confronting the capitalist class as a powerful, well-organized party after the fashion of Kautsky’s social democracy that had millions of members. Some scholars believe that the Bolsheviks had 16,000 members in 1917. That’s not exactly a mass party although its influence was wide and deep enough to catapult it into the leadership of the 20th century’s most important proletarian revolution.

Blanc seems to straddle the fence between the “old Bolsheviks” like Stalin and Kamenev on one side and Trotsky on the other. In a footnote, he states:

Challenging Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917 neither requires rejecting the strategy of permanent revolution, nor accepting Stalinist accounts of 1917. In subsequent articles, I will show that despite the limitations in his interpretation of pre-Lenin Bolshevism, on the whole the politics of the party in 1917, and the course of the revolution, confirm the fundamental political tenets of permanent revolution.

I look forward to reading those articles but for now want to concentrate on Lars Lih’s 43-page article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” that appeared in Russian History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2011) and that Blanc credits as his framework for understanding this period.

Unlike most people who get involved in these controversies, including me, Lars Lih does not try to connect these debates to anything going on in the world today. In fact, outside of writing articles about Bolshevik history, his main interest seems to be music. He has performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and is a lecturer on music history and musicology at McGill University. He worked in the office of Democratic Party House of Representative Ron Dellums for six years but I wouldn’t make too much of that. It might have been just a job.

Before I discuss the article, I’d make a summary analysis of Lih’s approach, which is to create a revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky’s Social Democratic Party in Germany and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party—and more particularly the continuity between “old Bolshevism” and the party that took power in October 1917. According to this narrative, there was no basis for claiming that Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas about the Russian revolution converged with the April Theses. Everything that happened in 1917 was a vindication of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. You might even conclude that if Lenin had become convinced of Trotsky’s theory after 1905 and acted on that belief, the Russian Revolution would have not happened.

Lih spends nearly 10 pages recapitulating Stalin and Kamenev’s support for a bourgeois-democratic revolution to acquaint his readers with “old Bolshevik” thinking. In a nutshell, this meant that the Russian workers rather than the bourgeoisie would overthrow the feudal aristocracy after the fashion of France 1789. This is consistent with Trotsky’s analysis except that he argued that if the workers held political power, they would move rapidly toward socialism as he put it in the 1906 “Results and Prospects”:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. The political domination of the proletariat, even if it is only temporary, will weaken to an extreme degree the resistance of capital, which always stands in need of the support of the state, and will give the economic struggle of the proletariat tremendous scope.

After presenting the background to the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry strategy, Lih then turns his attention to how Stalin and Kamenev deployed it to great success in 1917 after some initial turmoil over Lenin’s new-found opposition to “old Bolshevik” strategy.

He dismisses the idea that Kamenev and Stalin were adapting to the provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky, using quotes such as this one from Stalin to establish their revolutionary credentials:

Many comrades, coming in from the provinces, ask whether we should pose the question of the seizure of the vlast right now. But to pose this question now is premature … We must wait until the Provisional Government exhausts itself, when, in the process of carrying out the revolutionary program, it discredits itself. The only organ that is able to take the vlast is the Soviet of Worker and Peasant Deputies on an all-Russian scale. [Lih has the disconcerting tendency to use Russian words when the English translation would suffice. Vlast means power.]

Far be it for me to cast doubt on Stalin’s revolutionary credentials, but the idea of waiting for the Provisional Government to exhaust itself sounds exactly the sort of thing that got Lenin’s dander up. Contrast Stalin’s cautiousness with Lenin’s characterization of the provisional government in “Letters from Afar” written within days of Stalin’s remarks:

The whole of the new government is monarchist, for Kerensky’s verbal republicanism simply   cannot be taken seriously, is not worthy of a statesman and, objectively, is political chicanery. The new government, which has not dealt the tsarist monarchy the final blow, has already begun to strike a bargain with the landlord Romanov Dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Cadet type needs a monarchy to serve as the head of the bureaucracy and the army in order to protect the privileges of capital against the working people.

For Lih, the “Letters from Afar” were not a breach with “old Bolshevism” but its continuation. He quotes Lenin’s first letter to prove that: “Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open of the eyes of the narod to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organization, their own unity, and their own weapons.”

However, this must be weighed against what Lenin wrote in the fourth letter:

The proletariat, on the other hand, if it wants to uphold the gains of the present revolution and proceed further, to win peace, bread and freedom, must “smash”, to use Marx’s expression, this “ready-made” state machine and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people. Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat, must organise and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power.

This, of course, is what Lenin would elaborate on in “State and Revolution”. The real breach between Lenin and Kamenev/Stalin was over whether proletarian revolution was on the agenda. Nobody could possibly mistake the Paris Commune as a “bourgeois revolution” even if Lenin referred to one in the first letter. For Marx, the Commune was a breach with the revolutions of the past, as surely would have been obvious to Lenin. If October 1917 was a “bourgeois revolution” based on old Bolshevik formulas, so then was the Paris Commune.

In March, Stalin and Kamenev were the editors of Pravda. When they received the first letter from afar, they published it but only after deleting healthy chunks of it. For Lih, there’s nothing political about the excisions that according to Russian historian by Eduard Burdzhalov were criticisms of the Provisional Government, the SRs and the Mensheviks with “particular sharpness”.

Now I ask you why Kamenev and Stalin would decide to delete any attacks on Kerensky and the Mensheviks. I hate to sound suspicious but it might have something to do with them considering the seizure of power to be “premature”, as Stalin put it.

What’s missing from Lars Lih’s narrative is the most compelling issue of all that divided Lenin from the “old Bolsheviks”, namely Kerensky’s continued support for the imperialist war that was arguably the straw that broke the back of the Russian workers and peasantry.

Before Stalin and Kamenev took over as Pravda editors in March 1917, the newspaper had adhered to the Bolshevik Party’s antiwar line. Historian Alexander Rabinowitch, who does not have a reputation as a defender of Trotsky’s reputation, describes the first issue under their control in his “Prelude to Revolution”:

But all this changed in the middle of March with the return from Siberia of Kamenev, Stalin, and M. K. Muranov and their subsequent seizure of control of Pravda. Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day. Kamenev explained the mild attitude of the new Pravda editorial hoard to a meeting of the Petersburg Committee on March 18, where it met with approval. Obviously, this position contrasted sharply with the views expressed by Lenin in his “Letters from Afar,” and it is not surprising that Pravda published only the first of these and with numerous deletions at that. Among crucial phrases censored out was Lenin’s accusation that “those who advocate that the workers support the new government in the interests of the struggle against Tsarist reaction (as do the Potresovs, Gvozdevs, Chkhenkelis, and in spite of all his inclinations, even Chkheidze [all Mensheviks]) are traitors to the workers, traitors to the cause of the proletariat, [and] the cause of freedom.” Lenin might have applied this accusation to Kamenev and Stalin as well.

None of this is mentioned in Lars Lih’s article, who would obviously have too big a job on his hands trying to treat it as a friendly disagreement over petty matters. He blithely assures us that “Even as a tactical debate, the clash at the April meetings seems based more on mutual misunderstandings than on substance.” Right. With Kamenev writing that “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell”, why would the author of the Zimmerwald Manifesto be troubled?

Furthermore, Lih’s article stops rather prematurely with the supposed Kumbaya convergence between Lenin and those who he took issue with after returning to Russia in April 1917. It is best to look at what happened when Lenin and the leftwing of the Bolshevik Party decided to seize power.

Kamenev and Zinoviev, two of the “old Bolsheviks” extolled by Lars Lih for their consistently revolutionary outlook, not only voted against the proposal but literally scabbed on the party. Their statement included this: “It is a profound historic error to pose the question of the transfer of power to the proletarian party – either now or at any time. No, the party of the proletariat will grow, its programme will become clear to broader and broader masses.” This, of course, is consistent with Stalin’s warning in March that the seizure of power was “premature”. They submitted an article to Maxim Gorky’s newspaper in a clear violation of party norms. When the question of insurrection is being posed inside the party, it is treacherous to reveal it to the reading public, including the cops.

Although Stalin did not join his “old Bolshevik” comrades in going public with their opposition to the seizure of power, he “supported Kamenev and Zinoviev at the most critical moment, four days before the beginning of the insurrection, with a sympathetic declaration”, according to minutes taken at a Pravda editorial board meeting.

Lenin was so incensed by the two “old Bolsheviks” that he demanded their expulsion in November, 1917:

You must recall, comrades, that two of the deserters, Kamenev and Zinoviev, acted as deserters and blacklegs even before the Petrograd uprising; for they not only voted against the uprising at the decisive meeting of the Central Committee on October 10, 1917, but, even after the decision had been taken by the Central Committee, agitated among the Party workers against the uprising. It is common knowledge that newspapers which fear to take the side of the workers and are more inclined to side with the bourgeoisie (e.g., Novaya Zhizn ), raised at that time, in common with the whole bourgeois press, a hue and cry about the “disintegration’ of our Party, about “the collapse of the uprising” and so on.

It should be noted that Lenin never followed through. The two men remained loyal party members afterwards and served the revolution until Stalin had them executed for opposing his bureaucratic rule.

In general, I am opposed to building cults around revolutionary figures including Lenin or Trotsky. Lenin’s democratic-dictatorship strategy was flawed as was Trotsky’s attempt to build a new international. Lih’s attempt to create a red ribbon pedigree from Marx to Kautsky to Lenin reminds me of what I used to get in the Trotskyist movement even though the line of succession was different. At least you can credit Lih for sticking to Lenin scholarship, even if he errs at times. Unlike some cult figures in the academy I ran into 40 years ago trying to build a Leninist vanguard like Frank Furedi or Alex Callinicos, Lih is content to publish in Historical Materialism and speak at their conferences, bless his heart.

I hope that someday Lars Lih will give Trotsky’s writings the attention they deserve. To reduce the theory of Permanent Revolution to its essentials, it boils down to the need for a proletarian revolution to achieve the historical goals of the bourgeois revolution such as the breakup of feudal estates, the elimination of clerical domination over society, constitutional rights such as a free press and the right of assembly, and the assumption of “Enlightenment values” in general. These are the obvious gains of the British and French bourgeois revolutions that were emulated to one degree or another in Western Europe in the 19th century.

If February 1917 was supposed to be the inauguration of such profound social and political changes, it was lost on Lenin who pushed immediately for a new revolution that could displace Kerensky’s capitalist-Czarist state with its feudal estates and imperial warmongering. The slogan “Peace, Bread and Land”, after all, was directed against Kerensky as an ultimatum, not as an obsequious request.

It was only after the capitalist state had been smashed and a new one based on the Paris Commune that such changes began to take place. In a speech given on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, Lenin made this clear:

What were the chief manifestations, survivals, remnants of serfdom in Russia up to 1917? The monarchy, the system of social estates, landed proprietorship and land tenure, the status of women, religion, and national oppression. Take any one of these Augean stables, which, incidentally, were left largely uncleansed by all the more advanced states when they accomplished their bourgeois-democratic revolutions one hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and fifty and more years ago (1649 in England); take any of these Augean stables, and you will see that we have cleansed them thoroughly. In a matter of ten weeks, from October 25 (November 7), 1917 to January 5, 1918, when the Constituent Assembly was dissolved, we accomplished a thousand times more in this respect than was accomplished by the bourgeois democrats and liberals (the Cadets) and by the petty-bourgeois democrats (the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries) during the eight months they were in power.

Those poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets brandished their wooden swords—but did not even destroy the monarchy! We cleansed out all that monarchist muck as nobody had ever done before. We left not a stone, not a brick of that ancient edifice, the social-estate system even the most advanced countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, have not completely eliminated the survivals of that system to this day!), standing. We tore out the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system, namely, the remnants of feudalism and serfdom in the system of landownership, to the last. “One may argue” (there are plenty of quill-drivers, Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries abroad to indulge in such arguments) as to what “in the long run” will be the outcome of the agrarian reform effected by the Great October Revolution.

So, the beginning of the new era was on October 25th, at the very moment the proletarian dictatorship had begun. There is no evidence that Lenin came to this conclusion after reading Leon Trotsky. He followed his own political instincts to break with the “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy that Lars Lih wants to reestablish.

I have no idea whether Lih is familiar with how the debate over the dynamics of the proletarian revolution would reemerge with events in China in the 1920s but given time I might turn to them to make the uselessness of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry more obvious.

 

June 5, 2016

Karl Kautsky, Eric Blanc and Lars Lih: my contribution to a discussion on “Leninism”

Filed under: Lenin — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

Exchanges between Eric Blanc and Lars Lih on John Riddell’s blog over Kautsky’s 1909 article ‘Sects or class parties’ leave me a bit perplexed since they seem to be somewhat removed from the problems we face today in building an effective revolutionary movement.

In recommending Kautsky’s article, Eric writes:

The question of broad parties has been heatedly debated by socialists in recent years. Many have argued that “Leninism” should be discarded in favor of wider formations such as Syriza, Podemos, the British Labour Party, the Greens, etc. Others have rejected participating in such structures, on the “Leninist” grounds that building independent revolutionary Marxist parties remains the strategic organizational task for socialists.

I imagine that Eric is not referring to the Labour Party per se but to the Corbyn campaign that has reawakened interest in a party that was widely despised by the left during the Tony Blair reign as New Labour.

In terms of “Leninist” opposition to Syriza, Podemos and the Greens—formations that the North Star website and I personally have endorsed—my view is that revolutionary parties based on Marxism are still necessary but attempts to construct them have failed because their “program” has been so narrowly defined. This was especially true of those that were affiliated with the various Fourth Internationals but Maoism of the 60s and 70s as well.

Despite the massive disaffection that the Marxist left experienced with Syriza over Alexis Tsipras’s capitulation to the German bankers, I doubt that a self-declared revolutionary party can be built in Greece that is based on the “lessons of Greece”. Trotsky’s movement had plenty of failures to “learn” from in the 1930s but that never translated into effective revolutionary parties. The negative critique can only go so far. At a certain point, Marxists have to develop an aptitude for uniting broad layers of both workers and the social movements to make a revolution. As such, I find the Cuban July 26th movement or the FSLN and FMLN in Central America more immediately applicable. For those who write off the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan experience because they too became Syriza type failures, I can only invite them to reach the point where they are capable of betrayal themselves. To reach such a level takes considerable mastery of strategy and tactics. Writing a communique in the style of Coyoacan does not require much mastery. The Spartacist League comes up with them like clockwork, after all.

When Eric tries to connect Kautsky’s article to our contemporary situation, I  have some problems understanding the relevance:

Unfortunately, the two orientations criticized by Kautsky – both of which counterposed the building of broad parties and Marxist parties – have become hegemonic. In fact, the positions against which Kautsky polemicized in 1909 in some ways were more advanced than their current articulations. Reformist advocates of the broad party model in the Second International at least pushed for a working-class organization, whereas it has become common today for socialists to promote cross-class populist formations (or even to participate in capitalist structures such as the U.S. Democratic Party).

There is a fundamental methodological problem with this statement. Socialists do not “promote” cross-class populist formations, as far as I know. Assuming that Eric is referring to the American Green Party, Syriza, or Podemos, I am simply not aware of any significant bourgeois constituency in any of them nor does the term populist do them justice. I would call them radical parties even if they are not organized around a specifically socialist program. A strict class analysis would certainly identify Jill Stein’s party as made up predominantly of wage earners such as Howie Hawkins, who works in a warehouse. Jill Stein is a physician, hardly what I’d call a member of the bourgeoisie.

I am not familiar enough with the class composition of Syriza or Podemos to resist arguments to the contrary, but I am fairly confident that at the upper levels of the party you will find university professors, lawyers and shopkeepers et al. Like I say, I am open to an alternative class analysis but facile descriptions of such parties as “cross-class” trouble me.

Some critics, of course, fault Syriza for being top-heavy with university professors and there is no doubt that its class composition would have corresponded more to Marxist guidelines if the KKE had at least formed a united electoral front with it. Given the KKE’s super-sectarian stance, however, that possibility was precluded at the outset. Furthermore, it is not clear if having a purer class composition would have made much difference given the alignment of class forces facing Tsipras. Sometimes the objective conditions trump the “subjective factor”.

Turning to Kautsky’s article itself, it draws a distinction between his own party and a small Marxist group in Britain called the Social Democratic Federation that sought to emulate his, just as Lenin aspired to in Russia. In 1909 the German social democracy was the gold standard even if in 5 years it would prove to be a victim of the reformism that swamped every other party in Europe. Kautsky believed the British Labour Party was the kernel of the future revolutionary party and considered the attempt to build a pure Marxist party to be a sectarian mistake.

If it was a sectarian mistake, it was a very honorable one. Its membership included Belfort Bax, William Morris, Edward Aveling and his partner Eleanor Marx. Not too shabby. Bax in particular was an exemplary anti-imperialist whose critique of Eduard Bernstein’s “Marxist” defense of colonialism was as important as Rosa Luxemburg’s in defending revolutionary politics.

Kautsky faulted the SDF for abstaining from the trade union movement and considered the Labour Party to be the future of the revolutionary movement even if its program did not specify socialist goals. He did give credit to the SDF for promoting socialist ideas that undoubtedly seeped into the ranks of the Labour Party:

The striving, therefore, for the organisation of an independent mass and class party is not sufficient. No less important is the socialist enlightenment. If the SDF failed in the former task, it achieved all the more in the domain of the latter. By its socialist agitation it prepared the soil upon which the Labour Party could arise, and the socialist criticism and propaganda which it still pursues is indispensable even now, when the Labour Party already exists, in order to imbue that party with a socialist spirit and to bring its actions for occasional and partial ends into accord with the lasting aims of the struggle of the proletariat for its complete emancipation.

Lih’s contribution to the discussion is a bit sketchy on the details, something that bothers me about much of his analysis especially when it falls outside his usual scholarly concentration on early Bolshevik history. The further he moves forward in history, the less focused it gets. For example, he writes:

Lenin’s solution, post-1914, was to kick out the opportunists, to create an opportunist-free party. His assumption was that in an era of war and revolution, there would be a mass impulse from below that would lead to the desired merger [between socialism and the mass workers movement]. But the era of war and revolution ebbed away, and Lenin was stuck with the same basic reality as everybody else: the merger wasn’t taking place in Europe and USA, and no one really knew how to make it take place – maybe, just maybe, because it couldn’t take place, and the original analysis was wrong.  Well, that is heresy, but I don’t think one can automatically assume, as Eric seems to here, that Lenin found the solution by demanding opportunist-free parties – the same problem just emerged in a different form.

Did the era of war and revolution ebb away? Certainly World War One came to an end but Germany was roiled by revolutionary struggles for much of the 1920s, with their termination not so much a function of class peace but the failure of the “subjective factor” across the board starting with Comintern meddling in the early 20s and crashing to earth with the CP’s “third period” madness.

When Hitler seized power in 1932, the revolutionary wave continued in France, Spain and elsewhere. Opportunities were squandered when the CP lurched 180 degrees away from the “third period” and toward the Popular Front that sought partnership with reformist capitalist parties. When revolutionary movements failed because of ineptitude, it opened the doors to WWII and a new round of barbarism.

Lih writes:

In my view, the end of the era of classical Marxism – an era that included Marx, Kautsky and Lenin – came when one side gave up on revolution and the other side gave up on “bourgeois democracy,” loudly claiming that political freedom under bourgeois conditions was a sham, but pointing out no other way to the desired merger.

This is an interesting formulation but one that unfortunately errs badly in the information-disclosing department. Classical Marxism means nothing but applying a class analysis to bourgeois society–at least to me. For example, Jacobin, Socialist Register, Monthly Review and Historical Materialism all dispense classical Marxism to one extent or another.

Perhaps Lars has a different definition—I only wish he could furnish it when convenient. I have no idea what side “gave up on revolution” unless Lih was referring to Eduard Bernstein and his disciples, especially in the Scandinavian countries. If so, that seems problematic since Bernstein would have been the first to admit that he had no use of classical Marxism to begin with.

As for “loudly claiming that political freedom under bourgeois conditions was a sham”, that would also exclude Karl Marx and Frederick Engels since they were partisans of the 1848 democratic revolutions—so much so that the Neue Rheinische Zeitung edited by Marx was one of its major voices. For more on their belief in the importance of political freedom under bourgeois conditions, I refer you to the scholarship of August Nimtz. Now there are self-described Marxists who sneer at the demands for political freedom under bourgeois conditions as a plot hatched by George Soros but I am not one of them. In fact, most of them would be willing to tell you that I am a secret operative for Soros even though my bank account would falsify that claim.

To conclude, I am not sure how much we can glean from Kautsky’s 1909 article about what is to be done today. I can tell you that a North Star editorial board member has been deeply involved in a debate in the Green Party for the need for an anti-capitalist program but I doubt that Kautsky’s article would be of much use to him.

August 15, 2015

Lars Lih and Lenin’s April Theses

Filed under: Lenin — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Lars Lih

In a Jacobin article titled “The Lies We Tell About Lenin”, Lars Lih characterizes Trotskyism in a way that I find unsatisfactory:

So far I have looked at errors that purport to explain the failures of the revolution, but latter-day partisans of the October Revolution are also engaged in heresy-hunting. For them, the success of the revolution is explained by the rejection of ideological errors. The mainstream Trotskyist interpretation is built around a story of this type.

Back in the 1905–6 (the story goes), Leon Trotsky came up with his theory of permanent revolution and pronounced socialist revolution to be possible in backward Russia. Since his theory attacked the unimaginative dogmas of “Second International Marxism,” Trotsky was greeted with universal incomprehension.

Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.

There are number of difficulties with this canonical story, but here I will just point to one odd feature of this pro-October story: it has a pronounced anti-Bolshevik tinge. According to many writers in the Trotskyist tradition, the doctrine of Old Bolshevism was pernicious error that had to be rejected before revolutionary victory was possible. We are constantly reminded by writers in this tradition that the Bolsheviks themselves, taken as a whole, were a dull lot who stubbornly remained loyal to what they had been told yesterday, even when their brilliant and visionary leaders had moved on.

A little later in the article Lih reduces the Bolshevik/Menshevik split prior to 1917 to one over the nature of the coming revolution:

One key debate about the Russian Revolution has always been: was Russia ready for socialist revolution, or for only a “bourgeois revolution”? The Bolsheviks maintained the former, the Mensheviks the latter position. Who was right, and who was wrong in the debate?

Of course there is a contradiction in what Lih writes. If as in the first citation, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was all about the socialist revolution being possible in Czarist Russia, what could explain the heated debates between Lenin and Trotsky around the time of the 1905 dress rehearsal if, as the second citation indicates, the Bolsheviks said Russia was ready for socialist revolution?

In fact, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks both believed that bourgeois revolution rather than socialism was on the agenda but differed over which class would be in the driver’s seat. Lenin insisted that it must be the proletariat while the Mensheviks oriented to the liberal bourgeoisie, especially in the Cadet Party. Lih tries to minimize the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks by reducing them into one over how to regard the role of specialists and professionals:

In either case, we start, not with doctrinal insight or error, but with a strongly felt and essentially correct empirical view of Russian society in 1917. The Mensheviks realized that, on the one hand, a modern society could not do without educated specialists and professionals, and, on the other hand, the Russian proletariat was not organized or “purposive” enough to exercise the vlast in isolation nor was the Russian peasantry a secure base for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

There is an unfortunate tendency in Lih’s scholarship (or journalism as in this instance) to neglect backing up his claims with citations but I doubt that Lenin was concerned about the role of “educated specialists” as much as he was about the class power of the Russian bourgeoisie. Specialists and professionals are typically members of the petty-bourgeoisie while the essential question for the Russian left was how to regard the bourgeoisie: the industrialists and landlords who had about as much professionalism as a fire hydrant.

But it is really the crude reductionism of this that bothers me most: “Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.” This attempt at satirizing the Trotskyist left is clumsy at best but it does point to an essential question: whether Lenin changed his mind about the character of the Russian revolution.

For some time now, Lars Lih has challenged the idea that Lenin adopted a new position on the class character of the Russian Revolution with the April Theses, denying that it differed from what Lenin had stated all along. In an article for the newspaper of the ultraleft, gossip-prone CPGB, Lih describes Bolshevik goals as “democratic” (he is reluctant to use the term most often used by Lenin: bourgeois-democratic”) but essentially overlapping with proletarian dictatorship—constrained only by the the reluctance of Lenin to frighten Russians with the “S” word:

There was an article, for example, by Lenin entitled ‘Paths to the revolution’, published in late September or October, and it does not mention socialism or socialist revolution, although it does include all sorts of things like bank reform and peace negotiations. But after October the rhetoric shifted very drastically, and ‘steps toward socialism’ was very prominent.

So why did they downplay socialism before? I am sure it was a conscious decision, made to try and convince people to carry out the revolution. Because they were close to the people, if they thought socialist revolution would appeal to them, then they would have called for it. They must have known that it would not appeal.

Ever since the Jack Barnes sect-cult dumped Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and made Lenin’s concept of a “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” words to live by, I have failed to understand why otherwise sensible people like the ex-Trotskyists led by the Percy brothers in Australia could make the same error. To start with, it is questionable whether permanent revolution was any kind of theory. I always regarded it as an analysis of the class dynamics of the Russian revolution and not something that could be applied universally. In fact, Trotskyism turned into a formula that was always invoked in order to establish its own purity just as it is doing now with respect to Greece. It says that unless nations follow through with socialist measures, the goals of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (land reform, democratic rights, national independence, etc.) will not be guaranteed. For me this has always been something of a tautology, amounting to a statement that unless there is a revolution there will be no revolution.

Taken on its own merits, a work such as the 1906 “Results and Prospects” was much more reliable as anticipating 1917 than anything Lenin ever wrote:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. The political domination of the proletariat, even if it is only temporary, will weaken to an extreme degree the resistance of capital, which always stands in need of the support of the state, and will give the economic struggle of the proletariat tremendous scope.

I have heard Lenin’s “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” described as “algebraic” from its supporters as if it could refer to either socialism or perhaps a very left-wing government resting on capitalist property relations. In fact, the latter is exactly what Lenin thought it meant despite those who would have you believe that like Fidel Castro he had secret plans to build socialism without ever using the word in advance (to reprise Lars Lih’s silly formulation above.)

All you need to do is look at Lenin’s “The Socialist Party and Non-Party Revolutionism”  where he examines the demands that arose in 1905 as a dress rehearsal for 1917 :

What I mean is that actually they are not specifically class demands, but demands for elementary rights, demands which will not destroy capitalism but, on the contrary, bring it within the framework of Europeanism, and free it of barbarism, savagery; corruption and other “Russian” survivals of serf dom. In essence, even the proletarian demands are limited, in most cases, to reforms of the sort that are fully realisable within the framework of capitalism. What the Russian proletariat is demanding now and immediately is not some thing that will undermine capitalism, but something that will cleanse it, something that will accelerate and intensify its development.

He adds:

Naturally, as a result of the special position which the proletariat occupies in capitalist society, the striving of the workers towards socialism, and their alliance with the Socialist Party assert themselves with elemental force at the very earliest stages of the movement. But purely socialist demands are still a matter of the future: the immediate demands of the day are the democratic demands of the workers in the political sphere, and economic demands within the framework of capitalism in the economic sphere. Even the proletariat is making the revolution, as it were, within the limits of the minimum programme and not of the maximum programme.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Lenin was not quite yet convinced of the inevitably of socialist measures in Russia on the cusp of taking power. Just two months after issuing the April Theses, he was still contemptuous of the idea of building socialism in an article titled “Economic Dislocation and the Proletariat’s Struggle Against It”:

The point is that people who have turned Marxism into a kind of stiffly bourgeois doctrine evade the specific issues posed by reality, which in Russia has in practice produced a combination of the syndicates in industry and the small- peasant farms in the countryside. They evade these specific issues by advancing pseudo-intellectual, and in fact utterly meaningless, arguments about a “permanent revolution”, about “introducing” socialism, and other nonsense.

Of course, almost immediately after October 1917, Lenin articulated the need for a proletarian dictatorship in “State and Revolution” and began introducing socialism at a breakneck pace. (The question of whether socialism could be built in a single country is a rather complex one left for another time.)

Finally, on Lars Lih’s fairly long-standing (five years or more at least, I believe) project of rehabilitating the reputation of people like Kamenev on the Bolshevik central committee who were taken aback by the April Theses, there has been an ongoing effort to obfuscate the struggle that took place between Lenin and the “Old Bolsheviks”. For example, in the CPGB article, he writes:

We should bear in mind the possibility that these people had something significant to say to Lenin. I shall give a straightforward example of this. Stalin, who was a fairly high-up Bolshevik at this time – one of the top ten leaders at least – is recorded as saying in a meeting with Lenin and others that the April theses were too schematic and that they overlooked the question of small nations. Often, that is used as evidence that Stalin did not know what was going on, but the fact is that the April theses did not mention the national question.

But the real struggle was over the question of the character of the Russian Revolution. If the Soviets took power, that would effectively render the Constituent Assembly null and void—and hence the future of the bourgeois-democratic project. Since it was commonly understood in the Bolshevik leadership that a 1789 type revolution was necessary in Russia, why would Lenin skip over the necessary stage of radical capitalist democracy under the stewardship of workers and peasants?

Although Lars Lih is dismissive of Leon Trotsky, I would hope that he finds the time at some point to read his “History of the Russian Revolution” (or if he has read it, I hope he makes an effort at understanding what he read.) In the chapter titled “Rearming the Party”, he deals at length with the reaction of the Old Bolsheviks to the April Theses. Trotsky quotes Tomsky: “The democratic dictatorship is our foundation stone. We ought to organise the power of the proletariat and the peasants, and we ought to distinguish this from the Commune, since that means the power of the proletariat alone.” He also quotes Rykov:  “Gigantic revolutionary tasks stand before us, but the fulfillment of these tasks does not carry us beyond the framework of the bourgeois régime.”

I would also urge him to look at what Lenin wrote about the “old Bolsheviks” just one week after he issued the April Theses:

Old Bolshevism should be discarded. The line of the petty bourgeoisie must be separated from that of the wage-earning proletariat. Fine phrases about the revolutionary people are suitable to a man like Kerensky, but not to the revolutionary proletariat. To be revolutionaries, even democrats, with Nicholas removed, is no great merit. Revolutionary democracy is no good at all; it is a mere phrase. It covers up rather than lays bare the antagonisms of class interests. A Bolshevik must open the eyes of the workers and peasants to the existence of these antagonisms, not gloss them over. If the imperialist war hits the proletariat and the peasants economically, these classes will have to rise against it.

To create a network of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies—that is our task today. The whole of Russia is already being covered with a network of organs of local self-government. A commune may exist also in the form of organs of self-government. The abolition of the police and the standing army, and the arming of the whole people—all this can be accomplished through the organs of local self-government. I have taken the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies simply because it already exists.

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