Reflections on the Russian Revolution 5

In 1921 Lenin wrote the following on ‘Concessions and the Development of Capitalism’:

“The Soviet government is inviting foreign capitalists to obtain concessions in Russia.”

“What is a concession? It is a contract between the government and a capitalist who undertakes to organise or improve production (for example, felling and floating timber, extracting coal, oil, ore, etc.) and to pay the government a share of the product obtained, keeping the rest as his profit.”

“Is it right for the Soviet government to invite foreign capitalists after expelling the Russian landowners and capitalists? Yes, it is, because, seeing that the workers’ revolution in other countries is delayed, we have to make some sacrifices in order to achieve a rapid and even immediate improvement in the condition of the workers and peasants. The sacrifice is that over a number of years we shall be giving away to the capitalists tens of millions of poods of valuable products. The improvement in the condition of the workers and peasants is that we shall immediately obtain additional quantities of petroleum, paraffin oil, salt, coal, farming implements, and so forth. We have no right to forego the opportunity of immediately improving the condition of the workers and peasants, for our impoverishment makes it essential, and our sacrifices will not be fatal.”

“But is it not dangerous to invite the capitalists? Does it not imply a development of capitalism? Yes, it does imply a development of capitalism, but this is not dangerous, because power will still be in the hands of the workers and peasants, and the landowners and capitalists will not be getting back their property. A concession is something in the nature of a contract of lease. The capitalist becomes, for a specified period, the lessee of a certain part of state property under a contract, but he does not become the owner. The state remains the owner.”

In this view, the proletarian nature of the state guaranteed the socialist character of an economic construction carried out upon the foundations of state capitalism.  The undeveloped and crisis conditions in Russia meant that the state capitalist foundations had themselves to be built under the workers’ own state in alliance with forms of state capitalism that involved individual capitalists, and including foreign capital.  In these circumstances “the worker will never be afraid of such
 a [capitalist] leader, because he knows that Soviet power is his power, that it will stand firm in his defense, and because he knows that he wants to learn the practicalities of organization.”  This was considered a requirement all the more pressing because of the low cultural level of the Russian working class we noted in our earlier posts.

One such collaboration shows what this might involve but also the differences within the Bolsheviks and the new state over the policy and its practical implementation.  In January 1918 the head of the Mining-Metallurgy Department of the Supreme Council of the National Economy (Vesenkha), reported discussions with Alexis P. Meshchersky, a self-made industrialist, 
on the formation of a metallurgical trust.

This would involve creation of a milliard-and-a-half ruble trust combining some 20 industrial enterprises to control approximately 60% of railway wagon and 85% of locomotive production, or 50-60% of Russia’s machine construction and metallurgical industries. Initially, Meshchersky offered the government one-third of the trust’s shares (corresponding to the number of enterprises to be included which were already nationalised) and the same representation on the central administrative board of the trust. Each factory would be run by a board consisting of the existing ‘specialists’ and a commissar representing Vesenkha.

The idea for the trust met with a positive response on the part of leaders in Vesenkha but opposition from some local metallurgical trade unions, who called for complete nationalisation of the factories involved.  Meshchersky then began to back off from his original proposal, in particular with regard to the relative proportions of private/state control.

Meshchersky was forced to reveal that almost 20% of the stocks in the proposed trust were in the hands of German banks and opposition to possible foreign control resulted in readjustment of the shares in the proposed trust from 60% private and 40% government to 50-50, 20-80, and finally to a 100% government share and complete control. However, included in this final proposal was a ‘loophole’ from which Meshchersky never retreated: that 20% of the shares be held in reserve to be returned to the original owners with accumulated dividends should the government ever offer the trust’s shares for sale. When Meshchersky refused further concessions, Vesenkha voted to break off the talks but to proceed with the formation of a unified metallurgical trust.

Vesenkha continued to circulate the Meshchersky proposal to unions and representatives of workers but while they supported creation of trusts or national syndicates they rejected Meshchersky’s proposal because he had refused from the beginning to cooperate with the trade unions and because of the potential influence of foreign capital in the trust.  Eventually Vesenkha nationalised the Sormovo-Kolomna industrial complex in June and other factories in November

Similar negotiations took place in the spring of 1918 between owners and managers of the sugar, textile, and leather industries and trade union representatives, which resulted in formation of a joint or state controlled trust.  The typical pattern for creating joint trust organisations in these cases involved the addition of trade union representatives to pre-revolutionary regulatory boards (usually privately initiated, state sanctioned organisations) which were authorized by Vesenkha to take control of the whole industrial branch.

Lenin cited these organisations as exemplary of state capitalism’s role in the transition period: “The situation is best among those workers who are carrying out this state capitalism: among the tanners and the textile and sugar industries, because they have a sober, proletarian knowledge of their industry and they want to preserve it and make it more powerful-because in that lies the greatest socialism.”

The pursuit of this state capitalist road reflected not only the relative backwardness of Russian capitalism exacerbated by war and economic collapse, but an analysis that socialism could only be built on the grounds of capitalism and not from simply ‘smashing’ the capitalist state and creating socialism ex nihilo.

In neither of these could Lenin be criticised for being wrong.  What was wrong was (1) that the weak development of Russian capitalism could not be overcome within Russia itself and socialism could neither be created through state capitalism (with a workers’ state place on top of it) nor could this stage be leapt over by going ‘straight’ to socialism and (2) the socialisation created under capitalism upon which socialism could be built was not limited to the centralisation and concentration of production by state capitalist trusts.

Back to part 4

What the Brexit deal says about Ireland

When I first heard that the British Government had agreed that there would be “regulatory alignment” in trade across the Irish border I immediately though ‘perfidious Albion’ again – appearing to say one thing when meaning something else entirely; in fact almost its opposite.  When I then heard that this formulation replaced the Irish Government one of “no regulatory divergence”, I believed my suspicions were confirmed.

While appearing to accept harmonisation of regulatory regimes, “regulatory alignment” is perfecting consistent with parallel regimes, as in parallel lines that never meet and that never involve harmonisation.   Such an arrangement might even mean a UK line of “bargain basement” regulation far below that of the higher EU line of more stringent regulation.

So, my immediate question was whether the EU were going to buy it?  I thought that the Irish Government could hardly do so, even if it had most to gain from getting progress to an overall trade deal it could not let it be based on separate regimes that would require a ‘hard’ border to police the different goods and services that were the products of two regulatory regimes.  But it had always been wondered in Ireland how much and how far the EU would back the little Irish State that had been so easily bossed about during the collapse of its banking system, to the benefit of the larger member states.

But then the Irish border is not simply an Irish border, something the thickest of Brexiteers have had difficulty in understanding, but is an EU border, and the EU could not compromise its internal market by allowing the free circulation of any old “bargain basement” crap within that market.

My suspicions about British intent seemed confirmed the next day when the British Minister for cocking up the negotiations David Davis said that Teresa May had “made a very plain case for the sorts of divergence that we would see after we left . . . that there are areas in which we want to achieve the same outcomes, but by different regulatory methods”.

“Alignment is not harmonisation. It is not having exactly the same rules; it is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection and all that sort of thing. That is what we are aiming at”.  “I have explained to the House that regulatory alignment is not harmonisation. It is a question of ensuring similar outcomes in areas where we want to have trade relationships and free and frictionless trade. Anything we agree for Northern Ireland in that respect, if we get our free trade area, will apply to the whole country”.

In other words, the British had been continuing their policy of cherry-picking the EU Single Market, which the EU had rejected, and an approach accurately described as ‘having your cake and eat it’.

The DUP then came along and torpedoed the deal, making the British Prime Minister look like the disaster she patently is.

But now we have a real deal (?) agreed by all sides, where once again we see that “In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union . . “ (para. 48) That word again.

But this deal has been signed off and Leo Varadkar has called it “bulletproof” with only “stylistic changes” from the earlier draft while newspapers have run with headlines proclaiming a “soft’ Brexit.  On the right, Nigel Farage has been declaring the deal a “capitulation”, although he’s been declaring a sell-out for a while now and, true to his little Englander outlook, he’s much more exercised about the so-called ‘divorce bill’ that the Irish question.  And when I say the Irish question, I mean the problem the Irish have when they vote one way and the British state decides you’re having something else.

Crucially, May has retained the support, for now, of the leading Brexiteers in the Tory Party, although it’s an open question how long that will last.  She has got it past the DUP, who are nevertheless unhappy with it.

So, what’s in the new deal?

Well, if you read it, the first thing that might strike you is that it’s not really a deal, at least not in the sense that it’s a locked down agreement.  The deal is a “joint report”; it “records the progress” made and that both parties have only “reached agreement in principle.”

In paragraph 5 it says:

“Under the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, the joint commitments set out below in this joint report shall be reflected in the Withdrawal Agreement in full detail. This does not prejudge any adaptations that might be appropriate in case transitional arrangements were to be agreed in the second phase of the negotiations, and is without prejudice to discussions on the framework of the future relationship.”

So there is no final agreement.

In the section on Ireland and Northern Ireland paragraph 43 restates the British promise of no ‘hard border’ (presumably in Ireland), which, without the necessary deal or detail, means not very much; while it also promises to preserve the integrity of the UK market (para.45) – so no border on the island and no border at the Irish sea either, it would appear.  But unless the EU decides that its Single Market and Customs Union will not be protected, this cannot be the case – there has to be a border somewhere, if the UK is to leave the EU.

The next paragraph states that:

“The commitments and principles outlined in this joint report will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom and are, as necessary, specific to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. They are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom.”

This appears to say that the deal, in so far as it actually is a deal, is for Ireland only, except a UK commitment made in the previous paragraph states that it applies to the UK market as a whole in the sense that the integrity of this internal market will be preserved.  There is evidently a problem here so how will this be addressed?

Paragraph 49 appears to provide some guidance:

“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all- island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

Here we have the problem of avoiding he hard border restated and a promise that the British will propose a solution, one they have promised since the start and on which they have delivered nothing.

Except this time, the report states what happens if this failure continues and it is on this that the supporters of a ‘soft’ Brexit might seem to be right – that a soft Brexit is the result of the joint report.  Without a solution to avoid a hard border, agreed with the British, the single market and customs union will apply.  Of course, this application is qualified, limited by the terms after the word “which”, including the 1998 Belfast Agreement and implicitly the specific areas of economic cooperation mentioned in it, and it still only talks about alignment.

But the next paragraph appears to address this limitation:

In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.”

But this doesn’t remove the problem of continuing barriers on the Irish border but restates that there will be no barriers at the Irish sea – so we are back to where we were in terms of mutually incompatible promises of no real borders anywhere.  This paragraph simply adds that there will be no new barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain unless the NI Assembly decides there should be, except the next sentence rule out the North deciding the trade position of the rest of the UK.

More contradictions are thus included in this paragraph on top of those already existing.  Except this paragraph has effect only if there are no agreed solutions to the Irish border arrangements, and that gets us back to the text of the previous paragraph, and that the UK will “maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all- island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

Paragraph 49 restates the UK commitment to avoiding a hard border and describes that “any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching arrangements.”  But it then says that the UK’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. In other words, the way to avoid a border within Ireland and one between the island and Britain is to have no real border between the EU and the UK – a really ‘soft’ Brexit!

The short paragraph 51 is certainly compatible with such an approach – “Both Parties will establish mechanisms to ensure the implementation and oversight of any specific arrangement to safeguard the integrity of the EU Internal Market and the Customs Union.”  Of course, this could also mean that the British would have to police the Irish border if Northern Ireland was to leave the Customs Union and Single Market ,and not simply leave it to the Irish as some have declared it would.

So, what we have is an agreement that is only a “joint report” which is not finally agreed, with contradictory drafting.   In other words, it’s a political agreement and it is only politically that it can be judged, although of course the words on the page are not unimportant, if only because they set out the terrain of differences and Jean-Claude Junker has made it clear that it is the starting point for the withdrawal agreement.

On this count the only way to make what’s in it intelligible and remotely consistent is to see the UK remaining within the Customs Union and Single Market.  But we also know that cannot be the case, at least not yet, because the Tory Party has obviously not agreed it.

From Theresa May’s point of view the can has been kicked down the road on Ireland, while agreeing to the ‘divorce’ bill.  Despite the nonsense mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal” she appears to have woken up to the fact that no deal is the worst deal, but she can’t sell it to the Brexit fundamentalists.

She could not let the talks collapse at this stage because she would then have failed.  There would be no need for her and her Tory rebels could plan to get rid of her. The pace of withdrawal of business from the UK would accelerate and she would be to blame.  The accumulating contradictions of Brexit as a project would crystallise and her Government would collapse.

The EU has no reason to see the talks collapse now either.  They do not want ‘no deal’ and also want an agreement, if not as desperately as the British should, and more time allows, well, more time for the British to come to their senses, through whatever set of circumstances brings this about. – defeat for the Tory Brexiteers in parliament or a Corbyn Government.

From a political point of view therefore the fight against Brexit and this Tory Government goes on.  Its Brexit policy has been demonstrated to be indefensible and the contradictions that sit on the page of the ‘joint report’ will play themselves out in the living world.  The working class must fight its corner because it has a real stake in the outcome.









Reflections on the Russian Revolution 4

The Bolsheviks faced the same problems as their Tsarist predecessors, caused by war and economic collapse.  It was their ideology that determined their particular responses.

This element of choice has nearly always been considered true in the case of the alternative policies advocated by Stalin and Trotsky in the dispute over the future course of the revolution.  This choice ultimately entailed the former’s forced collectivisation and the Great Terror.  The various policies pursued by the Bolsheviks during Lenin’s life showed that alternatives were possible before as well.  It is not the case that the conditions of crisis determined Bolshevik policies, rather than severely constraining them.

I’m reminded of the exhibition on art and the Russian Revolution held in the Royal Academy in London earlier this year, which felt more like a museum exhibition than an art gallery and which had an audio guide that, in its increasingly reactionary commentary, managed to both present the series of policies pursued after the revolution while implicitly condemning revolutionary single-mindedness.

Policies of War Communism, New Economic Policy (NEP) and forced industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture were presented in such a terse and dismissive way that it would have been impossible for the untutored to make any great sense out of it; other than perhaps that the Bolsheviks capitulated to capitalism under the NEP and then turned 180° to ‘socialism’ (why did they not bother to do it in the first place?)

No appreciation was in evidence that socialism can only be built on the achievements of capitalism. Socialism is not an alternative route to ‘modernisation’, which has proved over the twentieth century to be a route not to socialism but to Stalinist dictatorships; or to ‘national liberation’ and an end to colonial rule, that has simply been a route to capitalist development through greater or lesser intervention by the state.

Some misconceptions derive from the mistaken views of the Bolsheviks themselves, which were understandable when they arose but indefensible now.

Less often noted, is that the Bolsheviks were not united or always very clear themselves on how socialism could be constructed in Russia, even allowing for a shared recognition that they could not ultimately be successful without successful socialist revolution in the more advanced countries in Europe.

In his speech at the First Congress Of Economic Councils in May 26, 1918 Lenin stated that “in such a gigantic task, we could never claim, and no sensible socialist who has ever written on the prospects of the future ever even thought, that we could immediately establish and compose the forms of organisation of the new society, according to some predetermined instruction and at one stroke.”

“The task which we set ourselves is a task of world-historic difficulty and significance.”

“Of all the socialists who have written about this, I cannot recall the work of a single socialist or the opinion of a single prominent socialist on future socialist society, which pointed to this concrete, practical difficulty that would confront the working class when it took power, when it set itself the task of turning the sum total of the very rich, historically inevitable and necessary for us store of culture and knowledge and technique accumulated by capitalism from an instrument of capitalism into an instrument of socialism.”

“All that we knew . . . was that transformation was historically inevitable and must proceed along a certain main line, that private ownership of the means of production was doomed by history, that it would burst, that the exploiters would inevitably be expropriated. This was established with scientific precision, and we knew this when we grasped the banner of socialism, when we declared ourselves socialists, when we founded socialist parties, when we transformed society. We knew this when we took power for the purpose of proceeding with socialist reorganisation; but we could not know the forms of transformation, or the rate of development of the concrete reorganization.”

“With the transition of all power . . . to a new class, and, moreover, to a class which for the first time in the history of humanity is the leader of the overwhelming majority of the population, of the whole mass of the working and exploited people—our tasks become more complicated.”

“We must build our economic edifice as we go along, trying out various institutions, watching their work, testing them by the collective common experience of the working people, and, above all, by the results of their work. We must do this as we go along, and, moreover, in a situation of desperate struggle and frenzied resistance by the exploiters.”

“We know . . . that organisation, which is the main and fundamental task of the Soviets, will inevitably entail a vast number of experiments, a vast number of steps, a vast number of alterations, a vast number of difficulties, particularly in regard to the question of how to fit every person into his proper place, because we have no experience of this . . .“

What preconceptions Lenin did have, which were reinforced by the social and political circumstances under which the revolution took place, were of the central role of the new state in construction of the new socialist economy, something taken for granted by many socialists since, but not at all obvious from a careful reading of Marx.

So Lenin could, at the beginning of his speech, say that:

“There is not the slightest doubt that the further the gains of the October Revolution go, the more profound the upheaval it started becomes, the more firmly the socialist revolution’s gains become established and the socialist system becomes consolidated, the greater and higher will become the role of the Economic Councils, which alone of all the state institutions are to endure. And their position will become all the more durable the closer we approach the establishment of the socialist system . . . After the resistance of the exploiters has been finally broken, after the working people have learned to organise socialist production, this apparatus of administration in the proper, strict, narrow sense of the word, this apparatus of the old state, is doomed to die; while the apparatus of the type of the Supreme Economic Council is destined to grow, to develop and become strong, performing all the main activities of organised society.”

This statist conception of economic construction viewed the increasing socialisation of the socialist economy as almost a linear continuation of the socialisation present and theorised in the existing capitalist economies.

Development of the capitalist system had involved monopoly, increasing domination by finance, and the increasing role of the state.  This form of capitalism was categorised as imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.  According to Lenin, this had brought capitalism to the ‘threshold of the most complete socialisation of production. In spite of themselves, the capitalists are dragged, as it were, into a new social order, a transitional order from free competition to complete socialization’.

The ‘war has accelerated the development of capitalism, which advanced from capitalism to imperialism, from monopoly to state control. All this has brought the socialist revolution nearer and has created the objective conditions for it.”

However, the Russian Revolution took place in particularly unfortunate conditions and

“The capitalism described in 1903 remains in existence in 1919 in the Soviet proletarian republic just because of the disintegration of imperialism, because of its collapse.”

“If we had had an integral imperialism before us, which had entirely altered capitalism, our task would have been a hundred thousand times easier. It would have resulted in a system in which everything would be subordinated to finance capital alone. It would only have remained to remove the top and to transfer what remained to the proletariat.”

The transition from socialised capitalism to the socialisation of production under the rule of the working class was explained in this way: ‘as for the organizational form of work, we shall not invent it, but shall take it ready-made from capitalism: the banks, syndicates, the best factories, experimental stations, etc. …. Our problem here is only to lop away that which capitalistically disfigures this otherwise excellent apparatus and to make it still bigger, still more democratic, still more comprehensive.’

This view was contested by other leading Bolsheviks such as Bukharin and Osinsky.  For the latter, a Bolshevik policy of state capitalism as proposed by Lenin is ‘basically an unchanged continuation of the economic policies of capitalism’, and, therefore, ‘every attempt to establish a truly human society upon the old capitalist foundations is foredoomed.”

Lenin responded to critics in March, April and in May I918, elaborating the transition from capitalism to socialism as an extension of the ‘socialisation process’ begun under capitalism but now under proletarian authority and with new aims. He pronounced Bukharin’s and Osinsky’s reliance on his earlier work ‘State and Revolution’ and the slogan ‘smash the bourgeois state and economic apparatus’ as out of date: ‘this we have already done, it is a task which belongs to a previous day “

For Lenin “the possibility of building socialism will be determined precisely by our success in combining the Soviet government and the Soviet administrative organisation with the modern achievements of capital.”’

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 3

All political forces in the revolution made their own political choices, which conditioned the choice of others.  As the revolution developed the liberal Cadet party moved increasingly into an alliance with the remnants of the old Tsarist regime and the forces that had supported it, including the nobility, generals and landowners.  Such an alliance demanded continued support for the war, opposition to peasant expropriation of landed estates and defence of the prerogatives of capitalist owners of factories, which were more and more subject to workers’ control.

The ‘moderate’ socialists could have seized power early in the revolution with their leadership of the Petrograd Soviet, but the revolution for them could only be a bourgeois revolution and it was therefore inconceivable it could go beyond the boundaries of capitalism.  This tied them to seeking agreement with the liberals, but these liberals moved more and more to the side of the most reactionary forces opposed to any sort of revolution.

Unlike more recent revolutions and mass worker mobilisations, which had potential to develop in more radical directions, such as the Portuguese revolution in 1974 – 1975 or workers action in May 1968 in France, the power of the moderate socialists was based on the Soviets and not on the institutions of bourgeois democracy, and such institutions could not be made the mechanism of an alliance with the bourgeois liberals.

Acquiescence to counter revolution in Russia could therefore only mean acceptance of destruction of the Soviets and the basis of the power of the moderate socialists over much of the working class, while reaction later in Portugal and France had no such barriers and could be successful through widespread acceptance of the institutions of bourgeois democracy, which could neuter the active power of the working class.

The crisis in Russia was of a scale and scope dwarfing that of these later experiences, raising the question – how do we advance the institutional power of the working class without such catastrophic collapse of capitalist society as occurred in 1917, which entails not just a crisis for capitalism but one for any putative socialist alternative?

Refusal to break from the liberal bourgeoisie condemned the ‘moderate’ socialists to refusal to end the war, and refusal to break definitively with bourgeois democratic institutions, which were too weak to be decisive but ever since have been the imagined vehicles for an early twentieth century bourgeois democracy that was simply impossible in Russia in 1917.

The Bolsheviks led by Lenin, on the other hand, were prepared to break with the remnants of the old regime, the liberal bourgeoisie, and the landlords, with their political representatives, and therefore with the moderate socialists who were not prepared to break with these forces.

The ideal, of a united socialist and working class movement, could not exist, except by following the road of disaster pursued by those socialists who believed that because Russia was not ripe for socialism, the revolution must be a bourgeois revolution only.  One that therefore created the best grounds for the development of capitalism in Russia while limiting in advance the political power of the working class.  In this purely theoretical perspective, the task was simply defending and protecting as much as possible the separate class interests of the working class, while letting the bourgeoisie take the lead.  Where it was leading was the problem.

The Bolsheviks however believed, correctly, that the liberal bourgeoisie would not lead a revolution against the Tsarist regime, would not carry out thorough-going land reform and would not end the war, as both the working class and the peasantry demanded.  They were therefore prepared to lead the working class in alliance with the peasantry in a socialist revolution that would overthrow the institutions of capitalist rule and assert the sole supremacy of the Soviets, which by their nature excluded the capitalist forces and old regime from participation.

Far from the October Revolution being a ‘coup’ or ‘putsch’, it represented the wishes of the vast majority of the Russian people – an end to war, land reform, consolidation of workers’ control of industry and definitive rejection of the old regime, including its domination of other nationalities.  The bitter civil war that followed did not demonstrate the unpopular nature of the revolution but the irreconcilable conflict between the forces of the old regime, supported by imperialism, and the working class led by the Bolsheviks.  That it lasted as long as it did and took so many lives was a result of the small size of the working class on which Bolshevik power rested and the nature of the peasantry – which supported the revolution in so far as it impacted on their demand for land and an end to the war, and was either indifferent or hostile when it came to the building of the new state and the requirements of the civil war and of the urban working class.

Thus, it would rally to defeat the White armies when they looked like winning, and go home to their land when this appeared to have been achieved.  They had no immediate interest in consolidating a new workers’ state, revealing the limits of their dispersed and narrow social existence.  It exhibited starkly the Marxist view that the peasantry could not be the leadership of a socialist revolution.

But the Bolsheviks could not simply abolish the immaturity of Russian conditions for socialist revolution that had led other socialists to reject the idea that such a revolution was possible or desirable.  Not only was capitalism undeveloped, and therefore the working class a small minority of society, but what existed was collapsing due to dislocation caused by war and general social and political crisis.

Not only was the working class relatively small, although also relatively concentrated and politically advanced, it was culturally, and in some ways socially, backward, providing a weak foundation for a new ruling class, both in terms of economic management and control, and fashioning the new state apparatus as an effective mechanism of its own rule.  Lenin time and time again complained of its backwardness and of the need for more advanced workers to take it forward.

In his book, Stephen Smith notes that by 1917 there were 18.5 million workers of all kinds in the Russian empire, about 10 per cent of the population. “Something like two-thirds of workers were recent recruits to industry, either peasant migrants or women who had taken up jobs in the war industries (women comprised well over a third of the workforce in 1917) and most of these unskilled, low-paid, minimally literate workers did not have a sophisticated level of political understanding.  Nevertheless, in the course of 1917 they would be drawn into a mass strike movement, would join trade unions, and their disaffection would be given political articulation by socialist activists on the shop floor.”

However, Smith also notes that in some of Lenin’s last writings he argued the need for a ‘cultural revolution’ as a prerequisite for a transition to socialism and the view that Russia was steeped in ‘Asiatic’ backwardness, needing “the propagation of literacy, solid work habits, and the application of science and technology . . vital to socialist construction. Smith notes that ‘culturedness’ could embrace anything from “punctuality, clean fingernails, and having a basic knowledge of biology, to carrying out one’s trade union duties efficiently.”

All these reflect the conditions that led socialists other than the Bolsheviks to reject the view that what was on hand in 1917 was socialism – a workers’ society.  While Marxists since have held fast to the lesson that capitalism could break at its weakest link; that the capitalist/feudal state could be smashed and another one created in its place; many have not appreciated, despite the mountain of evidence, that because socialism could not be built in Russia in 1917, gross distortions in society were inevitable from the start.  These general conditions have not provided the grounds for a model for succeeding generations.  Not for those in developed capitalist countries and not for those developing countries that are now well in advance of the conditions of Russia one hundred years ago.

A weak working class was substituted by the state in the conscious project of creating a new socialist society, and being conscious, this involved misconceptions by the Bolsheviks, not only of the correct policies to be pursued by the state, but of the basic role of the state itself, one very different from that elucidated by Lenin in 1917, before October, in his ‘State and `Revolution’.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 2

If we consider the conditions that gave rise to the Russian Revolution, these were massive economic dislocation caused by war on an unprecedented scale and an equally unprecedented social and political crisis that rocked the existing state to its foundations, creating a revolution outside the control of any political force.

Stephen Smith[i] quotes the preface to a ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, which is currently the subject of my series of posts on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  Many of the points made in that series apply to the circumstances of the Russian Revolution, although also in a contingent way, the way real history develops, as opposed to the perspectives of theory.

So, for example, capitalism was underdeveloped in Russia and the working class was a tiny minority, neither of which are the grounds on which Marx set out as necessary preconditions for replacement of capitalism by socialism.  The revolution did not prove Marx wrong however, rather its failure proved him right, at least in the negative sense, a sense that is as yet inadequate to ultimately confirm his alternative of socialism in a positive fashion.

The international isolation of the revolution ultimately condemned it, as the leaders of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky knew well it would – if they did not anticipate the particular way in which this would be confirmed through internal counter-revolution.

As Smith also notes, the Bolsheviks faced the same problems as their Tsarist predecessors – crisis, modernisation, war and foreign state competition – and it was their ideology that determined their particular responses and solutions.  Their ideas are not therefore rendered immaterial to either what happened then or how we might judge the revolution now.  In fact, we are obliged to see how, even if it was under the most unfavourable circumstances, their ideas about socialism contributed to advancing the cause of socialism or failed to do so.

The different programmes put forward by the different Bolshevik leaders, while Lenin was alive and afterwards, are usually and correctly deemed to have had the potential to lead to significantly variant outcomes to that which eventuated.  So, for example, a different outcome to the contest between Stalin and Trotsky would have made a significant difference to the policies of forced collectivisation and the Great Terror, not to mention the policy of communist parties world-wide and their perspectives for revolution. It is hard, even today, to read Trotsky’s writings on Germany and the rise of fascism without thinking of how much suffering might have been avoided if the criminal policy of Stalinism had not been employed in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power.

The experience of revolution in Russia led to ideas that capitalism would break ‘at its weakest link’, sometimes forgetting that socialism could not be built at these weakest links; that how it broke in the first place determined the dynamic and potential for some sort of healthy workers’ society to emerge from the rupture, especially if in a surrounding sea of capitalism.  That not all ‘ruptures’ are anti-capitalist, never mind socialist.

The idea that socialism could emerge through a process of permanent revolution out of initial democratic revolution, sometimes simply forgot the preconditions upon which socialism could be built, and the limits of any such process given undeveloped initial conditions.

Attempting to define the problem as one of the ripeness of socialism, considered not by individual country but at the international level in no way removes the practical problems of an isolated revolutionary regime and did not, as it should have, lead to honest assessments of just how undeveloped the revolutionary socialist forces of the working class were internationally that were supposed to support otherwise isolated struggles.  Only these international working class forces could balance the superior development of capitalism outside of, and in opposition to, the isolated revolutionary breeches of capitalism.

The theory of breaking capitalism at the weakest link might not only downgrade in importance consideration of what could possibly replace it, but also reinforce a fixation with the purely negative – destroying capitalism by smashing its state – but then having to debate just what exactly had replaced it because it wasn’t socialism (a degenerated workers’ state? deformed workers’ state? bureaucratic collectivism? state capitalism? etc.).

This negativity also led to searches outside the working class for forces that could attack and destroy the state, regardless of whether this destruction had anything to do with creating socialism.  So, revolutionary nationalism – ‘national liberation’, Stalinist-type parties, or guerrilla movements all became agents of socialism because state destruction was seen as decisive, forgetting that it could only be decisive if the working class had already begun to wield its social and economic power so that the new state had something to defend, as opposed to it being the mechanism to create this social power, forgetting that no state, no matter how ‘progressive’ can replace the role of the working class itself in creating socialism.

In this sense, the Russian Revolution is not a model to replicate.  The new Russian State struggled to create the rule of the working class when its fundamental problem was that this is not the task of a state, even of the workers, which is to defend the already existing economic and social power of the working class.  The working class cannot achieve self-emancipation by the power of a state, which by definition is a separate body from the rest of society, including the working class.

The working class can wield state power to defend its position as the new ruling class but it is very unlikely to become the ruling class through state power putting it there; that is a separate body placing the working class into power.  The Revolution rather saw the state eventually subsume society under its direction, in the process defining both as ‘socialist’, where socialism would have involved the working class directing society itself, with a much reduced state machinery, playing a subsidiary role in society’s development.

Such anyway would have been a healthy development of the revolution, one unfortunately that the real circumstance pertaining could not allow.  In so far as this happened due to the mass participation in the revolutionary overthrow of the old regime, it became dominated by the state itself becoming the embodiment of socialism, of the rule of the working class, because the state was the dominant force in society that alone could determine the future of the country in the midst of war, civil war and economic crisis.  As a body of men and women separate from the working class, even if in the majority drawn from its ranks, the state formed its own material interests and became a bureaucracy in its own right, even if resting on the foundation of a disenfranchised working class with an expropriated capitalist class.

The specific conditions within which the Russian Revolution occurred were particularly unconducive to healthy socialist revolution and Smith quotes prominent Second International leaders who noted this.  So, he records French socialist Jean Jaurès, stating that “If the social revolution emerges from this chaos instead of coming about as the supreme expression of progress, as a higher act of reason, justice, and wisdom, it will be part of this universal mental crisis, an excess of the contagious fury brought about by the suffering and violence of war.”

He also quotes Kautsky, with perhaps lesser acuteness, that “revolution which arises from war is a sign of the weakness of the revolutionary class, and often the cause of further weakness because the sacrifices it brings with it, as well as by the moral and intellectual degradation to which war gives rise.”

Unfortunately, we are reminded of Marx’s aphorism that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”  The Bolsheviks could not posit socialist revolution in better circumstances, with better prospects, but could only decide whether they would make it with what was at hand.

They subsequently had choices over how this revolution would be spread, be consolidated and built upon, but again not simply or only upon circumstances they had created but under those over which they had no control, “under circumstances existing already.”  To what extent were their failures due to unavoidable circumstance and to what extent wrong political choices?

[i] Russia in Revolution, an Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928, S A Smith Oxford University Press 2017.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 1

We have just celebrated the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the key reference point for Marxists and their politics during these one hundred years.

In his recent book on the revolution[i], Stephen Smith notes correctly that –

“Through the twentieth century, capitalism displayed immense dynamism and innovation, permitting the raising of the standard of living of millions of people even as it concentrated immense wealth in a few hands and created new forms of alienation.”

He goes on to say that –

“Everything conspires to make us acquiesce in the world as it is, to discourage belief that it can be organised in a more just and rational fashion.  Yet that is what the Bolsheviks tried to do.”

and –

“Nor will we understand the year 1917 if we do not make an imaginative effort to recapture the hope, idealism, heroism, anger, fear, and despair that motivated it; the burning desire for peace, the deep resentment of a social order riven between the haves and the have-nots, anger at the injustices that ran through Russian society.  That is why millions across the world, who could not anticipate the horrors to come, embraced the 1917 Revolution as a chance to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom.”

The Russian Revolution has been the key reference point for Marxists over the last one hundred years because we want to repeat it – repeat its attempt “to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom” – through revolution, which is the mass of ordinary working people becoming politically active to overthrow the existing exploiting system and create a new society, free of oppression and exploitation.

Of course, when we say repeat it, we don’t actually mean repeat all of it.  We mean a revolution that seeks a society that gives every individual the freedom to develop themselves to their full potential, and, of course, does not repeat its mistakes, and the descent into Stalinist monstrosity that the society created by the Revolution became.

One very important additional reason for what appears to non-Marxists to be a fixation on Russia and its Revolution is the contribution to Marxist thought by the leaders of the revolution, particularly Lenin and Trotsky.  Hence our continual reference to what ‘dead Russians’ have said about this, that, and the other.

But even the neophyte will want to know – what do you mean by the mistakes and what caused them?  And if you celebrate the Revolution, are you sure you have learnt its lessons, which will prevent these mistakes re-occurring or equally awful new ones emerging?

The debates within Marxism are certainly labyrinthine to those new to its politics.  That much debate still revolves around the lessons of the Revolution demonstrates that while success can teach us much, failure is much harder to learn from.  But if failure was the Revolution’s ultimate result then this is perhaps the more important terrain from which lessons must be learnt.  Except of course, that we cannot assume that what worked 100 years ago will work, mutatis mutandis, again today.  Not only failures but previous successes may have to be revised, with all due respect to the heresy hunters for whom the word revise immediately conjures up the spectre of ‘revisionism.’

To talk about the Revolution and to attempt to analyse its lessons is an enormous undertaking and I’m not going to do it here in any even semi-comprehensive fashion.  As the key attempt to overthrow capitalism and usher in a new socialist society everything written on this blog, and every other piece of socialist analysis, implies a view of the Revolution, whether explicitly stated or not.  However, rather basic questions can be posed initially, some of which are rather obvious.

Why is the Revolution still, after 100 years, the key reference point for Marxists and their programme for socialist revolution?  Why, if we are living in a period that is the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, or even more boldly, of the decline of the system, is there no other example of such momentous and significant revolution, which is the only way that capitalism can be overthrown?  If we live in an era of ‘wars and revolutions’, why do we have such little experience that compares in importance to 1917?  Is the experience of the Russian Revolution therefore so central to understanding the future of capitalism and socialism as the space it has so far occupied in our thought might seem to suggest?

Stephen Smith notes the massive changes wrought by capitalism in the last 100 years. What has this to say about the ability of the bourgeoisie to revolutionise “the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation. . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations . . .  are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air . . .” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto).  And all this without having brought down its own system through this constant overturning of its own conditions for existence?

What have the changes wrought by capitalism to say about how different the conditions facing socialists are today and what this implies for our programme?  If the Russian Revolution is in any sense the model to be copied or emulated, what does this imply for the conditions upon which it will be repeated?  Must they too be similar?

I can’t answer all these questions satisfactorily and am not going  attempt to do so.  What I will attempt do is to approach the problem, considered broadly, from two aspects, and in doing so make my own contribution to reconsideration of the Revolution and its lessons.

These two aspects are consideration of the material conditions giving rise to the revolution and the particular approach taken by the victorious Bolshevik Party.

[i] Russia in Revolution, an Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928, S A Smith Oxford University Press 2017.

Forward to part 2

Visiting Sachsenhausen

When I visited Dachau concentration camp, I was shown round by a young Irishman.  When I visited Sachsenhausen I was given the tour by a German man in his sixties, who said he was among the first to have the story of the camps and the Nazis taught at school.  It should be remembered that Sachsenhausen was in the old German Democratic Republic.

The visitors to the camp on a dreary and damp day were made up of groups of tourists like myself and school parties of German teenagers; some of whom were having chats with their friends, but most of whom were in various states of interest, dismay and shock, while their teachers explained the exhibits and left them to wander round the various displays.

The camp had a small bookshop at the entrance, featuring ‘Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 1936 – 1945 Events and Developments’, which notes correctly that the buildings that survive in the camp do not divulge its history.

The short book quotes a Dutch camp survivor – Ab Nikolaas – that the camp was primarily screaming, stench, cramped conditions and the violence that existed in and around the prisoners.  Everyday life resembled a perpetual succession of exceptional circumstances, despite, or rather because of, the daily routine imposed by the SS guards, dictated by them to the smallest detail.  Total control and order was accompanied by arbitrary terror, torture and murder in a hierarchy within what was the “most extremely class-ridden society.” (Primo Levi)

It is therefore impossible to appreciate the horrors of the concentration camps by visiting them.  Even visitors at the time of their operation were met with blooming flowers and well-tended lawns, with one newly arrived prisoner admitting in 1939 that “I thought I was going to go mad over it.”

Inside the overcrowded barracks lay the reality of foul and diseased bodies, eating rotting food and throwing up in the process while still starving, leaving prisoners to steal food from each other.  In 1941, when a young French prisoner took two carrots from a sheep pen he was battered to death by the SS.  The alternative of starvation however, could lead to exhaustion, illness, disease, punishment and then death.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp was built less than 25 miles north of Berlin in Oranienburg in 1936 following visits to the site by Heinrich Himmler, the first of many such camps that also included Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück.  It came to rival that of Dachau as the new model for such camps, specifically built to function as sites of terror, and was originally planned to hold six thousand prisoners at a time when the entire existing system held less than five.

The camp also contained the infamous wrought-iron slogan “Work makes Free” on its gates, as in Dachau, Flossenbürg and Auschwitz, while the guards would taunt prisoners by pointing to the crematorium – “there is a path to freedom, but only through the chimney!”

While some Sachsenhausen camp prisoners would be released, some would never, especially including those infected with the “poison of Bolshevism.”  Some were former SS guards, fallen from grace, who were housed in relatively lenient conditions and who were often employed to attack other prisoners.

The camp was infamous for its death squad, made up of SS NCOs – block leaders who supervised prisoners in their barracks and in labour details.  Death came to one prisoner because he was too slow to greet a guard and to another because he stumbled, while others were killed because of who they were.  The Austrian state prosecutor Karl Tuppy, who had tried the Nazi killers of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss in 1934, was beaten for twenty minutes until another prisoner was called in to drag him away – “His face was gone.  Just a piece of completely undefined meat, full of blood, cuts, the eyes completely swollen up.”

Another prisoner in 1939, a former union official, told his guards that he was previously a Prussian officer in the First World War who now had two sons fighting at the front.  He was battered for days, dying after only two weeks in the camp.

Along with Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen became a centre of violence following the invasion of Poland, an invasion the Nazis blamed on Poland itself, accusing the Poles of horrific war crimes – Hitler for example claimed that the Poles had butchered ethnic Germans “like animals”.

One Polish-born Jew from Berlin became incarcerated in Sachsenhausen after first managing to board a plane to London without a visa, arriving in the city only to be sent back by the British immigration authorities, and finding himself a prisoner in the camp only two weeks later.  He later became one of the last Jewish prisoners to be released by the Nazis, following the order from Himmler in March 1940 that no more could be released except those with valid visas who could emigrate by the end of April.

Many other Jews died in the camp within days or weeks of arrival.  Extermination of European Jews thus became a reality within the concentration camps before it became Nazi policy outside, although the camps at this time held only selected Jews and did not yet become the centre of anti-Jewish policy.

Mass murder became common just later, with the first coordinated killing across several of the camps in November 1940, when more than 200 Poles were murdered in Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and Auschwitz.

In July 1941 the Nazi occupiers of France repressed a mass strike of one hundred thousand in the Pas-de-Calais coalfield, as workers protested against poor working conditions, unpaid wages and starvation.  Of the 430 miners arrested, 244 were sent to Sachsenhausen with more than 100 of them failing to survive their incarceration.

The first Soviet prisoners of war arrived in early autumn 1941 following the German invasion, many dying in the trains that brought them to the camps from the East.  Their treatment, some of which came to public attention, was so bad that one SS boss thought it might sully the reputation of the SS among local public opinion.  For him the transports were unnecessary, since they were “going to die anyway”, as many of them did upon arrival.  So quickly that the SS did not even bother to register them.

The mass murder of the prisoners in Sachsenhausen, as usual justified by claims that German prisoners had been killed by the Soviets, was planned in August and required construction of a special killing chamber.  The first of these prisoners arrived on 31 August, disoriented, dishevelled and dirty, young and worn out.  The photographs taken for an SS publication ‘The Subhuman’ were published to show that their appalling condition was proof of their subhuman nature.

In the separated section of the camp the Soviet prisoners were told that they were to be medically examined, and therefore had to undress before being led individually to what looked like a doctor’s surgery, within which was an SS man dressed in a white coat.  After appearing to carry out some medical checks that were designed to discover any gold fillings, the prisoner was led to a smaller room with an upright length of wood fixed to the wall, which appeared to be used to measure height and to which the prisoner would stand with his back to the wall.

A small slit in the wall at the wooden pole was used to shoot the unsuspecting prisoner in the back of the neck, sometimes with a dum dum bullet, while a gramophone playing in the first room helped cover the noise of the shot in the execution room, which was itself sound-proofed. Within ten weeks in the autumn of 1941 over 10,000 had been shot.  The newly arrived prisoners rarely lived longer than a couple of days.

After two weeks, some SS bigwigs were shown the set-up in action; the new operation recommending itself to Himmler because the murderers did not have to look their victims in the eye.  However, the enthusiasm of the killers varied, with those less enthused branded as a ‘limp dick.’

Faced with growing labour shortages, Nazi policy moved away from these mass killings to using the prisoners as slave labour, although by this stage the capture of Soviet prisoners on the scale witnessed during the first months of the war was not to be repeated.

At this time, while death among the Polish and Jewish prisoners was common, there were no plans to kill all of them, while the opposite was the case for the Soviet POWs who arrived between September and November 1941. When gas chambers were introduced in 1943 the first victims were again Soviet prisoners.  The camp had come a long way since 1937 when in one month only one prisoner had died.

On May 2 1942 Sachsenhausen again became the site of mass execution, this time of 71 Dutch resistance fighters.  Two hundred and fifty Jews were also murdered between May 28 and 29, most having been taken from Berlin, while some were selected randomly from the prisoners inside the neck-shooting barracks built for the Soviet POWs.  A month later, during a visit to the camp, Himmler ordered that the remaining Jewish prisoners be deported from German soil.

Some however were retained because of their skills and were also freed from the worst treatment they could normally have expected being Jewish. A small group, employed to forge foreign banknotes and stamps, grew from 29 to more than 140, most of whom had arrived from Auschwitz.  The better treatment made them feel “as if I had come from hell onto heaven”, as one prisoner put it.   Since the project had to be kept secret, the SS considered Jews perfect for it since they could be killed as necessary.  The prisoners did however survive, as did their banknotes, which continued to circulate for years afterwards.

By this time Sachsenhausen had already provided prisoners for the construction in 1938 of what was planned to be the largest and most advanced brick factory in the world.  But this most advanced factory was built in the most primitive circumstances imaginable and in working conditions brutal even by concentration camp standards.  It was built and operated on the basis that the dead could easily be replaced.

In the end this massive SS project was a disaster and not a single usable brick was manufactured.  The SS covered up its incompetence by demolishing and rebuilding the factory and killing yet more prisoners in the process, even eventually producing usable bricks from clay pits described as “hell inside hell” by the prisoners forced to work in them, though never making near the original targeted quantity.

Those too ill to work or simply not employed were sometimes crammed into barracks where they had to stand all day, with just a brief break at lunch time; pressed like sardines, forbidden to move, talk, sit or lean against a wall, with no motion at all permitted and quickly punished if it was attempted.

From 1942 collaboration between the SS and capitalist industry accelerated as prisoners increasingly worked in factories outside the camps, in Dachau with BMW, and in Sachsenhausen with Heinkel.  The camp became a model of such cooperation, with capitalist enterprises such as AEG and Siemens involved. Prisoners were also increasingly employed in clearing bomb damage, building shelters and burying the dead outside the camp.  By summer 1943 however no more than perhaps thirty thousand, of two hundred thousand prisoners, were working in satellite camps engaged in war production or clearing war damage.

As Soviet forces drew near in 1945 the SS began to prepare evacuation of the camp with large groups of prisoners being brought to Sachsenhausen from the subsidiary camps, many dying on the way or being killed when they got there.  On 21 April, the first of over 33,000 were marched 20 to 40 kilometres a day from the main camp towards the Baltic sea on a ‘death march’ that many thousand did not survive.  Eventually the SS guards ran off and the remaining prisoners were found by units of the Soviet and US armies.  In the main camp 3,400 were found by Soviet and Polish troops, although even with medical care at least 300 did not survive.

Upon liberation the camp stayed open, as did others that were used by the Americans, British and French, although the new Stalinist regime kept Sachsenhausen open until 1950, to house those seen as posing a threat to the new regime, including not only Nazis but also some of their former opponents.  Neglect, indifference and ineptitude led to twenty-two thousand deaths among the one hundred thousand prisoners kept in three of the former concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen.

In 1961, the Stalinist regime erected its own memorial, built on the grounds of ‘Station Z’, the site of the crematorium ovens, gas chamber and firing squad area that had been built in 1942, and previously blown up by the East German authorities in 1952/53.  In erecting its memorial the authorities consolidated the foundations and remains of the ovens and erected a large monumental roof, which was demolished and replaced in 2004/05 due to its deterioration.  ‘Station Z’ was the cynical SS term for the site of a prisoner’s last moments of life.

Further photographs of my visit are on the Facebook page.