Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Dead Russians Society (1992)

Illustration by George Meddemmen.
From the July 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone want to buy a dozen statues of Lenin? The recent recession in the Lenin-statue works is terminal. Now that Sir Nikolai Ceauceascu and his mates have bitten the dust or headed off to their holiday homes in North Korea, only a few fossilised Chinese and Cuban academics are still paid to sing the praises of dead Russians.

In the 1920s Lenin-worship was all the rage. Naive leftists from Tottenham to Turin would dutifully repeat the Bolshevik liturgy to whoever could be persuaded to listen. Russia, it was said, had had the first ever socialist revolution. It was led by Lenin who had translated Marx's theories into practice. If you wanted to see socialism in all its living glory, look no further than the centralised hell-holes of the Kremlin-ruled state dictatorships. That was "the line"". Here was the leading Labour politician, George Lansbury, returning from Moscow as a born-again Bolshevik:
" In my judgement, no set of men and women responsible for a revolution ever made fewer mistakes or carried their revolution through with less interference with the rights of individuals, or with less terrorism and destruction, than the men in control in Russia."(What I Saw In Russia, p. xii, 1920).

Lenin, wrote Lansbury, exhibited "devotion to the cause of humanity" and Trotsky, whom he never even met, was said to be "one of the greatest leaders of men ever." This elevation of demagogic Russian history-makers was one of the most sickening characteristics of the ecstasies with which the deluded praised their gods. Of course, you had to be up with the fashions. One year Trotsky was your main man and Bukharin on historical materialism was second to none; a little later Trotsky was a viper and Stalin repaid Bukharin's servility by liquidating him.

In the 1970s the present writer went to a "Marxist Conterence" where sects prepared to become vanguards while the world outside listened to Gary Glitter and wore flowery ties. It was a day-long event and a conveyor belt of gesticulating gurus were taking turns explaining how the storming of the Winter Palace by the war-weary Russian peasants (known in leftist circles as the brave proletarian masses) could be reproduced in Manchester if only the Trots could fiddle enough votes at the forthcoming regional NALGO conference. One speaker accused another of being a Stalinist. A woman selling papers at the door told a rival paper-seller that he was clearly unfamiliar with Preobrazhensky, at which he retaliated devilishly with the wounding observation that she had clearly more in common with Zinoviev and Kamenev than Lenin. I pointed out that she had a voice not unlike Cilla Black's and was instantly dismissed as a Menshevik stooge. Half a century after the Bolshevik coup and even the vocabularly of abuse was stale Russian.

Sterile dogma
As long as the Leninist Empire remained, the blood-flow into this queer movement of dead-Russian worshippers did not cease. Cheap editions of Lenin’s anti-socialist speeches and writings rolled off Moscow printing presses like Bibles from the Catholic Truth Society. Now that it has become apparent that the victims of state capitalism were the first to want to cast off religious Leninism, only the most entrenched believers can carry on the faith. The present writer paid his annual visit to the Hampstead Morning Star bazaar at the end of last summer. It is always a good place to pick up some cheap editions of long-wanted volumes. But last year, with the Berlin Wall gone, the August coup failed and "Communist" economists busy planning the free market, there was something unusually bizarre about the bazaar.

Old women sitting behind stalls muttered about how Gorbachev would see them through and a man of eighty boasted that he was a hundred years before his time and looked forward to the when starving East Germans would turn to Lenin and repent for their disaffection. An old Stalinist addressed a young Morning Star reader (perhaps the young Morning Star reader) about how he had visited collective farms in Bulgaria and never seen such happiness in his life. Looking around the bazaar, the cemetery of lost dreams, it was easy to see that even ignorance is not always bliss. Their god had died. A bust of Lenin was on sale for fifty pence; I bought it to put next to the burglar alarm and the flick-knife that are being carefully preserved for the Museum of Capitalist Madness that needs to be set up once we have a socialist world.

The bizarre, fetishised attachments of geriatric Bolshevik dogmatists need not detain us. They will die. and with them their illusions. Nobody will be selling Soviet Weekly in the year 2000: in fact, the paper no longer exists and never will again. But what of young Leninists? Why young Leninists? What can it be that makes any one with genuine hatred for capitalism and a desire for social transformation still adhere to these sterile dogmas?

Part of the answer lies in the development of a mythology about the Russian revolution: wishful belief has replaced verifiable history and the end result is a statement like this one, in a leaflet handed out by the International Communist Current: "October was a revolution in the real sense of the term: the overthrow of one class by another". Of which class by which? In the Russia of 1917 the vast majority of the population were illiterate peasants who wanted peace, land and bread. They wanted property society, not socialism. The Bolsheviks pandered to these non-socialist millions, and they won acquiescence from the politically unconscious workers. Especially after the Kornilov coup of August 1917. But when the Constituent Assembly elections came in 1918 a majority of Russian workers and peasants did not vote for the Bolsheviks who, regardless of the majority will, took dictatorial state power.

Undemocratic arrogance
In a remarkably absurd eighty-page article in the SWP's International Socialism (Autumn 1991), John Rees attempts to defend the tactics of the Leninist dictators over the proletariat. Rees and the SWP realise that everything they stand for depends upon the validity of the strategy adopted by the Dead Russians of 1917. Rees, following Lenin, argues that the problem facing the Bolshevik revolution was the failure of the workers in the rest of Europe to follow the Bolshevik lead. This failure is explained thus:
" What was lacking in these revolutionary upheavals was not the objective European-wide crisis. Neither was it the willingness of workers to struggle for power. What was lacking was a leadership of sufficient clarity and an organisation with a core of sufficiently experienced members to successfully lead these movements to power."(p. 9. Our emphasis).
So, all across Europe in 1917 the workers were ready for socialist revolution, but what they needed, says this SWP leader, were a gang of good leaders - like Lenin and Trotsky, like Rees and the SWP. If only they were there at the time. In the course of this defence Rees justifies the Red Terror of the Cheka and the GPU, supports the massacre of the sailors at Kronstadt who wanted an end to Bolshevik totalitarianism within the soviets ("Had the Kronstadters demands for soviets without parties been realised théy would have expressed the ferocious, elemental hostility of the peasants to the Bolsheviks" (p. 63)) and argues the case for the 1921 ban on parties dissenting from the leadership on the grounds that "the Workers Opposition's plans could only have led to a disintegration of the regime" (p. 67). Such explicit support for such disgustingly undemocratic politics should he enough to dismiss the SWP from the minds of anyone whose conception of socialism is not perverted by deeply authoritarian beliefs.

Rees defends most of the Bolshevik actions against the workers (his article is entitled "In Defence of October", after all - even though the revolution was in November), but even he will not openly defend the Bolshevik closure of the Constituent Assembly because they lost the election. Instead, historical myth is invoked and we are told that the Bolsheviks really won the 1918 election, but the results did not reflect this. Other Leninists are rather less coy about the crushing of the elected Assembly by the Bolsheviks: the ICC's World Revolution (November 1991) argues that the soviets, not the Bolsheviks, closed down the Assembly and were right to do so because the parties elected to sit in it would not represent the working class. Apart from the historical fact that the Bolsheviks were the ones who smashed the Assembly by order of their own Central Committee, the ICC must be congratulated for their honesty: if you don’t trust the views of the workers at the ballot box you tell the workers to take a running jump. This is classical Leninist undemocratic arrogance.

What future can there be for this sub-world of 1917-set Russian fantasies?
For how much longer will gurus like Tony Cliff draw in bewildered young workers, attracted to the notion of socialist politics by real experiences under real capitalism, to listen to obsolete orations about the ten days which shook the world and put world socialism back for a century? How much longer can Lenin and Trotsky exercise a sort of mystical influence upon people searching for a way into the creation of a new social system and not a tour of the ruins of failed ideologies?

The most unsuccessful merchant in the modern world must surely be the jerk standing in Red Square selling copies of What Is to Be Done?, the handbook for professional authoritarian revolution-wreckers. The most foolish political thinkers around now must be those who imagine for one moment that they can build a revolution upon the rotting corpses and stale rhetoric of long-dead Russian leaders. The Socialist Party is hostile to all defenders of capitalism, but none more than those who preserve capitalism in the name of fighting for socialism. They are not only crazy, they are dangerous.
Steve Coleman

That was then

From the November 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Cooking the Books

In the mid-1980s unemployment was at its highest level since the 1930s. It was then that a newly elected young Scottish Labour MP decided to turn his university thesis into a book called, simply, Maxton, about James Maxton, a leftwing firebrand who was the leader of the now defunct Independent Labour Party in the 1920s and 30s.

The author showed a wide knowledge of the history of the working class movement in Scotland, discussing syndicalism, De Leonism, Leninism, Trotskyism and the like, as well as indicating that he had read some Marx. He showed a particular interest in the programme for dealing with unemployment that Maxton and his fellow Red Clydesider John Wheatley had worked out in the 1920s, and which they presented as a "middle way" between "MacDonaldism" (the inevitability of gradualism) and "Communism".

"Even before MacDonald became Prime Minister, the Clydesiders had come to two conclusions. The first was that the main reason for unemployment was the lack of demand within the British economy and that only increased working-class purchasing power could remedy this. The second was that . . . [the] Government must plan and control imports and exports in the national interest."

The author described this programme as "credible" and a "socialist way of spending out of a slump". The clear indication was that something similar was the way to end the unemployment and poverty of 1980s Britain. The author was one Gordon Brown, who later moved on to higher things.

Of course it wouldn't have worked. Slumps are not caused by "underconsumption" by workers. Marx had already dismissed Maxton's – and Brown's 1980s – solution:

"It is pure tautology to say that crises are provoked by a lack of effective demand or effective consumption . . . The fact that commodities are unsaleable means no more than that no effective buyers have been found for them, i.e. no consumers (no matter whether the commodities are ultimately sold to meet the needs of productive or individual consumption). If the attempt is made to give this tautology the semblance of greater profundity, by the statement that the working class receives too small a portion of its own product, and that the evil would be remedied if it received a bigger share, i.e. if its wages rose, we need only note that crises are always prepared by a period in which wages generally rise, and the working class does receive a greater share in the part of the annual product destined for consumption. From the standpoint of these advocates of sound and 'simple' (!) common sense, such periods should rather avert the crisis"(Capital, Vol 2, chap. 20, section 4).

Governments cannot spend their way out of slump. Slumps end when wages and capital values fall enough to increase the rate of profit again. All that governments can do is to help this process. The Labour leaders who Maxton – and Brown – criticised, Ramsay MacDonald and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, accepted this. Their argument was that, without a mandate for socialism (even in the confused and mistaken Labour Party sense), all a Labour government could do was to manage capitalism - on its terms. Which was true and what they tried to do.

When Brown himself became Chancellor in 1997 - less than ten years after the publication of the paperback edition of his book - he behaved in the same way as Snowden (who went over to the Tories with MacDonald in 1931), not Maxton, would have done. Facing with the task of managing capitalism, he too was a pillar of financial orthodoxy, prudent and an economic liberal, giving priority to profit-making. Perhaps when he retires he’ll write a book called Snowden.

Adam Buick