4 Supporting the democratic content of nationalism

In ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin stated that 

‘The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support, At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.’

We have already explained in the previous posts the limits to such support but there are others that we have not addressed and that have further relevance when considering the situation in Ukraine today.  We should obviously be wary of claims of a democratic content to a nationalism that has already shown its reactionary character.

The recent history of Ukraine has demonstrated that the growth of nationalism in that country has been the product of the cynical strategy and policies of certain oligarchic factions in struggle with rivals.  It has been advanced not as the flag under which democratisation of Ukrainian society has advanced but as a cover for austerity and repression, and as a substitute for the failure of a number of bourgeois leaderships to carry out promises to rid Ukraine of corruption and systematic abuses of democracy.

As this nationalism has advanced it has not broadened the scope of democracy through inclusion of different ethic, linguistic and cultural groups but acted as a weapon to restrict the rights of minorities and impose a single ethno-nationalism.  This has included restrictions on freedom of speech through crack-downs on rival media organisations; the banning of political parties and silencing of particular political views; promotion of an ideology of anti-communism, and attacks on workers’ rights.

This nationalism has celebrated and legitimised fascist figures from its history (see above picture) and current political slogans from far-right organisations, going so far as to integrate their armed organisations into the state, and at times place significant figures in positions of power within the Government.  The significance of the far right has advanced under the banner of, and in lock-step with, wider Ukrainian nationalism.  It is not that mainstream Ukrainian nationalism and the state that promotes it have become fascist but that the mainstream has seen no need or want to separate itself from the far-right movement, which it has celebrated as its ‘best fighters’.

The Ukrainian state has faced a number of secessionist movements but the policy advocated by Lenin in dealing with such movements by offering the right of secession in order to forge democratic unity, as the best grounds for uniting its working class, has been rejected. When Ukrainian nationalism has demanded self-determination it has ignored its own responsibility to defend consistent democracy within the territory it claims.  Instead, it has moved further and further into alliance with the world’s greatest enemy of equality between nations – US imperialism and its NATO alliance.

In sum, there is no democratic content to Ukrainian nationalism and it cannot be defended.  If it currently wields hegemony, this is not only the responsibility of the far-right in the country, or the oligarchic and political factions who solidify their position with its support, but also due to the reactionary policy of the Russian state. This state can offer no democratic alternative because it too is headed by a corrupt and reactionary nationalist regime.  Between two such regimes the ‘instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one side’, as explained in a previous post, is a betrayal of the working class of both nations.

The liberation of the Ukrainian working class will not be achieved in alliance with US imperialism, which is forging the strongest chains for this class through its superior economic and military power.  The utter dependency of Ukraine and its nationalists on US policy has now been firmly entrenched by the massive armed and associated financial support of the US.  Through this war Ukrainian nationalism has definitively made its country a client of the United States; so much for the promise of nationalism. 

Only by a struggle against this can the freedom of the Ukrainian working class be achieved, including in the East and South of the country, and only in conjunction with neighbouring countries including Russia.  This cannot be achieved by the US and NATO which seeks the permanent submission of Ukraine through radical diminution and debasement of Russia.

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Unfortunately, some on the Ukrainian left acknowledge the reactionary character of US imperialism – ‘In this conflict, Russia can in no way be considered a different project than the US and the rest of the capitalist powers’ – but go on to frame the war as a purely anti-colonial struggle, with Russia as the imperial power.  ‘Ukraine needs to decolonize and de-Russify’, which neglects to explain how unity of the Ukrainian working class, including ethnic Russian workers with divided political loyalties, can be advanced.

Lip service is paid to ‘the centrality of Ukraine’s fight for independence from both Russian and Western Imperial domination’, and the war is presented as an ‘existential’ one for Ukrainians’ ‘very existence’, with war aims including the incorporation of Crimea and the Russian controlled Donbas republics under Kyiv rule.  Lenin’s policy of seeking unity through the right to secession isn’t on the table and the Ukrainian right to self-determination has simply become an example of the ‘refined nationalism’ that he warned against.

The article is therefore full of references to historic Russian oppression while defending Ukrainian ‘agency’ and ‘subjectivity’, all the while forgetting that it is now an independent state with its own capitalist structure and dynamics.  The war is framed as a national struggle, just as it is presented in the West; the war aims supported are those of the most rabid US neocon, and the current means of struggle by its capitalist state are endorsed.  How the war is understood, the appropriate war aims and means of struggle supported by Yuliya Yurchenko are the same as that of Western imperialism. 

What we have then is not a policy that will combat the most rabid forms of Ukrainian nationalism, which Yurchenko accepts is a real problem, even admitting the ‘risk [of] confirming Putin’s obscene lie that we are a nation of bigots and fascists.’  What it proposes is an idea that Ukrainian nationalism can be made progressive.  The problem with this is threefold.

First, Ukrainian nationalism is already presented as progressive in a very objective sense, although by no means only that, through the ‘spirit of collective solidarity’ that the war has inspired.  This is despite her acknowledgement that previous democratic protests and mobilisations have only led to the strengthening of different oligarchic factions and the far-right. She claims that ‘Russia’s invasion has stirred up a healthy degree of Ukrainian nationalism.’

Second, the view that a healthy nationalism can arise from the war understood in existential national terms is simply beyond any credible belief.  This is especially the case since Yurchenko’s war policy, being the same as the most reactionary nationalist, promises a ‘long fight’, one that can therefore be guaranteed to build up massive bitterness and resentment. The policy of reliance on imperialism and domestic austerity necessary to finance it, coupled with opposition to the right of minorities to secede, means that nothing progressive could emerge from such a war, unless it provoked a revolt against it and the policy behind it.  But Yurchenko is not proposing that.

Lastly, the idea that any sort of nationalism, however ‘healthy’, could be the cause that would carry the Ukrainian working class forward is simply absurd for the reasons enumerated in the previous paragraph.  Nothing in the answers given in Yurchenko’s interview indicates any strategy to expose the role of US imperialism or that of domestic capitalist and bourgeois political forces in bringing this war to the Ukrainian working class.  The war, she says, was ‘a completely unprovoked attack.’ Nothing about the moves towards joining NATO or the repeated attacks on the break-away regions in the Donbas. Nothing to indicate that the Ukrainian working class has separate interests in the war from its rulers.

‘Compromise’ is rejected and the Minsk peace process merely ‘so-called’ and also rejected.  There is no acknowledgement of any Ukrainian state responsibility for the failure.  Instead ‘we will not settle for anything less than the reunification and independence of Ukraine.’  How this can happen through subordination to the US and NATO is something she is no more able to explain that the rest of the Ukrainian nationalist spectrum.

Capitulation to nationalism means avoiding assignment of any responsibility, and hence any opposition, to domestic capitalism and its rotten state.

Ukrainian nationalism does not find any democratic content that justifies any defence of it just because some on the left support it, portray it as democratic, or think they can make it so.

Yurchenko declares that ‘the international left must put its decolonial hat on in thinking about Ukraine’; in other words, put on its blinkers and accept the progressiveness of a war backed by US imperialism, the corrupt Ukrainian capitalist state, and the ‘best fighters’ of the ‘Ukrainian resistance’–the fascists of the Azov regiment.

Whoever thinks there is any democratic content in this nationalist melange is irretrievably lost to the struggle for socialism.

Back to part 3

3 Lenin Against Nationalism

In the previous post we noted that capitalism extends itself across the globe, leading to both bigger capitals and bigger states and then to international economic and political organisation.  Inevitably small capitals and small nations suffer.  This does not mean that socialists seek to halt or reverse such processes.

Within the Great Russian Empire, with its prison house of peoples, Lenin advocated the closest relations between its nations and the united organisation of the working class movement.  In his article ‘Corrupting the Workers with Refined Nationalism’ he states that:

‘Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.’

How far this is from some of today’s ‘Marxists’ can be seen in their championing of the likes of Scottish nationalism or Catalan nationalism.  Where Lenin argued that socialists should demonstrate their proletarian internationalism through membership of united organisations, these left nationalists have demonstrated their nationalism by leading the way in splitting their own organisations along nationalist lines.

Lenin emphasises the need for unity in ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’:

“No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,” said Marx and Engels, the greatest representatives of consistent nineteenth century democracy, who became the teachers of the revolutionary proletariat. And, full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want, come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and proud Great Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours on the human principle of equality, and not on the feudalist principle of privilege, which is so degrading to a great nation.’

‘Just because we want that, we say: it is impossible, in the twentieth century and in Europe (even in the far east of Europe), to “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by using every revolutionary means to combat the monarchy, the landowners and the capitalists of one’s own fatherland, i.e., the worst enemies of our country.’ 

‘We say that the Great Russians cannot “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by desiring the defeat of tsarism in any war, this as the lesser evil to nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Great Russia. For tsarism not only oppresses those nine-tenths economically and politically, but also demoralises, degrades, dishonours and prostitutes them by teaching them to oppress other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and quasi-patriotic phrases.’

It is not necessary to endorse Lenin’s remarks about ‘desiring defeat’ or ‘lesser evil’ to appreciate the motivation of absolute opposition to the nationalism of Great Russia; the nationalism that lives on today in the pronouncements of Vladimir Putin but which is ideological garb draped over the body of the Russian state and oligarchic capitals that it is designed to protect.

Just as Marx supported the development of united nation states such as Germany and Italy, because this involved the internal overthrow of reactionary feudal privileges and restrictions, so he opposed national oppression within nations and looked to the progressive social forces within the oppressed and oppressor nations to achieve this free unity and benefit from it.  Lenin in this article mentions the ‘freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers.’

The idea that in Ukraine any positive nationalist programme could issue from a corrupt capitalist state, one more and more the supplicant of US imperialism, and this spearheaded by its ‘best fighters’ who are fascists, shows the drastic illusions consuming many on the left. 

In relation to his opposition to Great Russian chauvinism, Lenin said that:

‘The objection may be advanced that, besides tsarism and under its wing, another historical force has arisen and become strong, viz., Great-Russian capitalism, which is carrying on progressive work by economically centralising and welding together vast regions. This objection, however, does not excuse, but on the contrary still more condemns our socialist-chauvinists . . .’

‘Let us even assume that history will decide in favour of Great-Russian dominant-nation capitalism, and against the hundred and one small nations. That is not impossible, for the entire history of capital is one of violence and plunder, blood and corruption. We do not advocate preserving small nations at all costs; other conditions being equal, we are decidedly for centralisation and are opposed to the petty-bourgeois ideal of federal relationships.’

He goes on to say that this does not mean supporting the capitalist political forces that promote this economic development.  However, it also means we do not seek to reverse it either.

In ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin states that:

‘The Russian proletariat cannot march at the head of the people towards a victorious democratic revolution (which is its immediate task), or fight alongside its brothers, the proletarians of Europe, for a socialist revolution, without immediately demanding, fully and unreservedly, for all nations oppressed by tsarism, the freedom to secede from Russia. This we demand, not independently of our revolutionary struggle for socialism, but because this struggle will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question.’

‘We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.’

Many of today’s ‘Marxists’ see in self-determination only separation and not the objective of unity.  They see the creation of new states where Lenin saw the unification of nationalities.  They think the right to secede mean support for secession when it is the means to provide guarantees to unification.  They think self-determination is only expressed by separation and creation of a new capitalist state when for Lenin it was the means for ensuring voluntary unity and the avoidance of such an outcome. Lenin advocated this policy even in the case of colonies.

In A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism Lenin writes that:

‘We demand from our governments that they quit the colonies, or, to put it in precise political terms rather than in agitational outcries—that they grant the colonies full freedom of secession, the genuine right to self-determination, and we ourselves are sure to implement this right, and grant this freedom, as soon as we capture power.’

‘We demand this from existing governments, and will do this when we are the government, not in order to “recommend” secession, but, on the contrary, in order to facilitate and accelerate the democratic association and merging of nations. We shall exert every effort to foster association and merger with the Mongolians, Persians, Indians, Egyptians. We believe it is our duty and in our interest to do this, for otherwise socialism in Europe will not be secure.’ 

‘We shall endeavour to render these nations, more backward and oppressed than we are, “disinterested cultural assistance”, to borrow the happy expression of the Polish Social-Democrats. In other words, we will help them pass to the use of machinery, to the lightening of labour, to democracy, to socialism.’

‘If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. That is the only reason!’

The failure of Russia to offer a powerful and attractive example to Ukraine lies behind its turn towards invasion to substitute for this failure.  Undoubtedly this has divided the Ukrainian people themselves whose attempts to clean their own stables have been frustrated time and time again by oligarchic factions.

Through some of these factions the country has been turned towards the EU and NATO, membership of which its oligarchs and bourgeois political parties have attempted to impose even when the majority of the people have opposed it.  So, an unconstitutional Government signed an EU Association agreement and IMF loans, with their consequent massive implications for austerity, without any elections following the Maidan overthrow of the previous Yanukovych Government. The prime minister responsible, Yatsenyuk, admitted that “I will be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country . . .’

Three weeks before the ouster of Yanukovych the most popular opposition figure was Klitschko with a poll rating of 28.7% while Yatsenyuk didn’t even reach 3%.  Yatsenyuk however had the support of the United States, whose plans to put him in place were famously discussed in the leaked phone-call between US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt days before formation of the post-Maidan regime. 

The current divisions within Ukraine are not simply externally imposed but prove the failure and hypocrisy of nationalist claims to further national unity and oppose foreign interference.  In February 2017 a Gallop opinion poll recorded that more Ukrainians considered NATO a threat than a protection.  Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Government changed the constitution in 2019 to add a stipulation on “the strategic course” of Ukraine toward NATO membership.

This course has played no small part in causing the current massive escalation of war and making Ukraine utterly dependent on US imperialism, exposing all calls for defence of this state and its regime on the grounds of self-determination to be deceitful lies.

It is ironic that this subordination to the United States has been accompanied by, and is the product of, the growth of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, proving that Lenin was right to warn that bourgeois nationalism will happily ally with external imperialism while demanding sacrifice from its own people.  This nationalism disguised as ‘self-determination’ has inevitably infected its left supporters in exactly the same way; we noted at the end of the previous post the absurdity of some on the left declaring that self-determination requires the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances, including subordination within NATO.

The result of such subordination makes all talk of self-determination by the left while welcoming weapons from ‘anywhere’ – read NATO – not so much utter delusion, or even mistaken, but treacherous betrayal.  Having invited the US to determine the outcome of the war does this left really pretend the US will not determine the outcome of the peace? 

Back to part 2

2 What Lenin did not mean by self-determination of nations

In Ireland it has been common to hear left-wing nationalists claim that Marxists support the nationalism of oppressed nations.

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, quoted in the previous post Lenin writes:

‘The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.’

‘The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the “positive” activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.’

‘To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.’

‘Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general? — Of course not. The economic development of capitalist society presents us with examples of immature national movements all over the world, examples of the formation of big nations out of a number of small ones, or to the detriment of some of the small ones, and also examples of the assimilation of nations.’

‘The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.’

So we see the progressiveness of nationalism, as the political framework for the development of capitalism against feudal restrictions, but not as support for capitalist states or their various nationalisms that develop thereafter.  Thereafter, the development of capitalism creates a working class with the interests of this class the same across national borders and therefore opposed to the division of the class that nationalism entails.

Support for nationalism beyond the negative sense of opposition to national oppression is to capitulate to bourgeois nationalism.  Support against national oppression is limited to what is progressive in any nationalist movement and although there may be a border-line between this and betraying the working class to bourgeois nationalism, what we have in the approach of much of the left today is an instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one state in any particular conflict.

Lenin’s ‘formula’ of self-determination of nations has been carried forward as the key to unlocking any national issue without regard to its historical limitation and by ignoring Lenin’s explicit subordination of this justification to the determining interests of the working class.  

Instead of the unity of the working class coming first, the demand for self-determination for a particular nation is placed beforehand, with the assumption that this leads to the former.  Since the demand for self-determination is a bourgeois democratic demand it cannot even on its own terms be seen to lead to the unity of the working class.  We have countless historical examples of self-determination being enacted through creation of new nation states with capitalist social relations and no progressive working class unity established.

Supporters of ‘Ukraine’ have, for example, said that ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure’.  This has been accompanied with calls to cancel Ukraine’s foreign debt – ‘it is important in ensuring that, when they have reconquered their independence, Ukrainians won’t be even more dependent on creditors or domestic oligarchs over whom they have no control.’

But we have demonstrated that the demand for self-determination is not only not applicable to an independent country like Ukraine in this war, but is a capitulation to bourgeois nationalism, with the long quote above demonstrating why.

As Lenin says – self-determination is not support for anything other than the right to secede and form an independent state, and in doing so to reject feudal or dynastic chains such as were forged by the Tsarist, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.  This will allow for the free development of capitalism by that particular state.  It is no job of socialists to uphold that state’s capitalist economic development that is built on the exploitation of workers, except in so far as we welcome this development by its creation of a working class that will overthrow it, and which more and more removes national differences.  It is therefore, not our job to seek to constrain such development through reactionary political projects such as Brexit or splitting already established states, such as Britain.

When left nationalists welcome that ‘Ukrainians’ have ‘reconquered their independence’ but complain that foreign debt must be also be cancelled, so that they won’t be dependent on foreign creditors or domestic oligarchs, they fall exactly into the camp of bourgeois nationalism.

Firstly, the cancellation of past debt will without doubt be followed by incurring new debts, debts that will be paid from the surplus produced by Ukrainian workers who will not be free and independent of either this debt or the domestic oligarchs, who can only be disposed of through socialist revolution and not mitigation of foreign loans.  It is no job of socialists to defend the capitalist development of smaller or weaker capitalist states as if they are somehow oppressed and exploited when the real exploitation involved is class exploitation.

While, on its own, socialists will not object to the cancellation of foreign debt (but why just foreign? what would these socialists demand if the debt was gifted to domestic creditors? ) this cannot be as part of support for a programme of capitalist economic development.  To repeat, for us the development of capitalism is of benefit because it creates the working class, and its greater development objectively prepares this class for its historic task of becoming the new ruling class and undertaking the task of abolishing class altogether. 

The capitalist development of new nations inevitably involves insertion into a world system that will rob the innocent of any illusion that their nation is really independent of the forces that determine its future.  Overwhelmingly these forces are based on the interests of the most powerful states and the largest capitals.  Just as big capitals destroy small ones within the framework of their own state, these capitals get too big for the nation state and seek existence across states, creating multinational capitals and multinational para-state bodies, which determine the fortune of smaller states and smaller capitals. 

In attempting to counter such forces Lenin goes on to say that ‘Consolidating nationalism within a certain “justly” delimited sphere, “constitutionalising” nationalism, and securing the separation of all nations from one another by means of a special state institution—such is the ideological foundation and content of cultural-national autonomy. This idea is thoroughly bourgeois and thoroughly false.’

‘The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.’  This is the ground on which socialists oppose all varieties of nationalism and oppose reactionary national movements.  

In one Facebook discussion a supporter of the Ukrainian state argued that self-determination required the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances.  When someone tries to argue that socialists should fight for the right of a capitalist state to join an imperialist alliance such as NATO you know you aren’t dealing with any sort of socialist, and certainly not arguing with support from Lenin’s formulation of self-determination of nations.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

1 What did Lenin mean by self-determination of nations?

A recurring theme of those backing the Ukrainian state in the current war is reliance on  Lenin’s support for the right of nations to self-determination.  It is the purpose of this and the following posts set out what this policy was.

In 1903 Lenin wrote ‘The National Question in Our Programme’ in which he set out its meaning to those who ‘did not find this demand sufficiently clear’, something that needs to be attempted again over a century later.

He wrote that the demand to be clarified was the “recognition of the right to self-determination for all nations forming part of the state.”  He explained it in this way:

‘The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.’

‘As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.’

The main points of this clarification of the responsibilities of the socialist party bear repeating:

  1. ‘its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations.’
  2. ‘We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities.’ and
  3. ‘it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity.’

In relation to Ukraine, it is an independent state, it is not part of a separate state so the question of whether socialists ‘can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state’ does not arise.

So if this passage does not support application to it of the “recognition of the right to self-determination . . . ” in respect of Ukraine, this does not at all mean that the passage has no relevance.  For it advances the view that the ‘principal task [is] to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations’ and that this is to be done through seeking ‘the very closest unity of the proletariat’.

The role of this policy at the time Lenin wrote is explained in reference to the situation in Poland; that 

‘Class antagonism has now undoubtedly relegated national questions far into the background, but, without the risk of lapsing into doctrinairism, it cannot be categorically asserted that some particular national question cannot appear temporarily in the foreground of the political drama.’  

He goes on:

‘In including in its programme recognition of the right of nations to self- determination, it takes into account all possible, and even all conceivable, combinations. That programme in no way precludes the adoption by the Polish proletariat of the slogan of a free and independent Polish republic, even though the probability of its becoming a reality before socialism is introduced is infinitesimal.’

‘The programme merely demands that a genuinely socialist party shall not corrupt proletarian class-consciousness, or slur over the class struggle, or lure working class with bourgeois-democratic phrases, or break the unity of the proletariat’s present-day political struggle. This reservation is the crux of the matter, for only with this reservation do we recognise self-determination.’

Lenin may be criticised (in retrospect) for unjustified optimism on the prospects for socialism, and it is clear that the context of the class struggle affects the application of the policy, but neither of these considerations justify the widespread application of this policy today, which is used to advance the argument that Ukraine should be considered to avail of it like every other country.  Rather, the numbered priorities above renders its widespread application untenable and the particular circumstances of Ukraine, and its alliance with imperialism, render it least applicable to that country.

In general the increased economic development of previously economically backward countries; the consequent enormous development of the working class and therefore potential for class struggle, and the disappearance of nearly all colonial possessions, means that the above numbered priorities have even greater salience today.

In 1913 Lenin noted in ‘The Working Class and the National Question’ that ‘In our times the proletariat alone upholds the real freedom of nations and the unity of workers of all nations.  For different nations to live together in peace and freedom or to separate and form different states (if that is more convenient for them), a full democracy, upheld by the working class, is essential.’

This was written while Lenin believed that the coming revolution in the Tsarist Empire would create a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants and not a socialist revolution. 

In ‘Theses on the National Question’ written in 1913 Lenin explained specifically what the programme of the Party meant: ‘The article of our programme (on the self-determination of nations) cannot be interpreted to mean anything but political self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form a separate state.’ (emphasis added -SM)

He then went on to state its application, including considering ‘the fact that throughout Eastern Europe (Austria and the Balkans) and in Asia—i.e., in countries bordering on Russia—the bourgeois-democratic reform of the state that has everywhere else in the world led, in varying degree, to the creation of independent national states or states with the closest, interrelated national composition, has either not been consummated or has only just begun.’

This meant that socialists should ‘be unconditionally hostile to the use of force in any form whatsoever by the dominant nation (or the nation which constitutes the majority of the population) in respect of a nation that wishes to secede politically.’  Again, we can see that we are not speaking of socialists defending the prerogatives of an already independent capitalist state.

Instead Lenin warns ‘Social-Democracy, therefore, must give most emphatic warning to the proletariat and other working people of all nationalities against direct deception by the nationalistic slogans of “their own” bourgeoisie, who with their saccharine or fiery speeches about “our native land” try to divide the proletariat and divert its attention from their bourgeois intrigues while they enter into an economic and political alliance with the bourgeoisie of other nations and with the tsarist monarchy.’

In the case of Ukraine, this quote reminds one of the ‘saccharine’ and ‘fiery’ speeches of Volodymyr Zelensky and that the working people of that country are paying for the intrigues of its current ruling class and its alliance with NATO and western imperialism.  This policy has historically been against the opposition of the majority of the Ukrainian people; but it is testament to the thoroughly reactionary character of the Russian invasion and previous Russian policy that these have driven many to now support NATO membership who previously did not.  However, as Lenin notes, it is not socialist policy to absolve the Ukrainian people’s bourgeois leadership of its criminal policy never mind rally behind it.

That Lenin supported self-determination, the right to secede and form a separate state, did not mean that he favoured it, quite the contrary.  In a letter in 1913, in relation to the right to federation and autonomy, he wrote:

“Right to autonomy?” Wrong again. We are in favour of autonomy for all parts; we are in favour of the right to secession (and not in favour of everyone’s seceding!). Autonomy is our plan for organising a democratic state. Secession is not what we plan at all. We do not advocate secession. In general, we are opposed to secession.’

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, also written in 1913 Lenin writes:

‘If a Ukrainian Marxist allows himself to be swayed by his quite legitimate and natural hatred of the Great-Russian oppressors to such a degree that he transfers even a particle of this hatred, even if it be only estrangement, to the proletarian culture and proletarian cause of the Great-Russian workers, then such a Marxist will get bogged down in bourgeois nationalism. Similarly, the Great-Russian Marxist will be bogged down, not only in bourgeois, but also in Black-Hundred nationalism, if he loses sight, even for a moment, of the demand for complete equality for the Ukrainians, or of their right to forum an independent state.’

Ukraine is already an independent state, but it is not in the interests of Russian workers that the Russian state invade Ukraine in the interests of its great power pretensions, however relatively strong or weak either state may be.  Neither can the invasion be justified by reference to claims to ensure geopolitical security.  For socialists, however much they can be referenced to explain the actions of the Russian state, they in no way justify it. Socialists are not beholden to the security claims of capitalist states.  Many ordinary Russians have courageously publically opposed the war and this has been welcomed by many Ukrainians.

But this is not enough, as Lenin implies.  It is not enough for Ukrainian workers to oppose Russian aggression as some brave Russians have done. Just as these Russians have opposed their own ruling class and its state so must Ukrainians do the same and oppose their own rulers.  These rulers have quite easily whipped up the most extreme nationalist poison against everything Russian so that in the West even Russian artists and athletes have been assigned responsibility for the invasion and sanctioned.  In Ukraine itself this nationalism has gone as far as mobilising the most reactionary armed forces, including outright fascists whose hatred of all things Russian can guarantee nothing but death.

to be continued

Forward to part 2

Brexit Socialism

The left argument for Brexit starts and ends with the observation that the EU is a capitalist construct devoted to neoliberalism.  The British State must free itself from it so British workers can use it to their benefit.

That this is a nationalist project is obvious, since it prioritises national sovereignty and the freedom of the British state over the sovereignty and freedom of the working class. In this view the sovereignty of the British capitalist state is the mechanism to advance and achieve the interests of British workers.

‘We’ must reclaim our nation in the form of the freedom of ‘our’ state even when, as socialists, we are not supposed to let nationality define our politics, or regard as ‘ours’ a state that is the instrument of capitalist rule.  But unfortunately the Brexit illusion is not uncommon within organisations that describe themselves as Marxist, an illusion applying equally to support for Scottish nationalism and ‘our’ prospective free Scottish state.

In this approach only the interests of British workers are considered (or Scottish, when it comes to creating a new Scottish capitalist state), which is why exiting the EU is advanced rather than any reform to it, or even any international campaign to achieve referendums across the EU seeking similar leave votes in France, Slovenia, Finland etc.

The organisations in Britain supporting Brexit have been careful not to trumpet and advance this agenda in Ireland because of its unpopularity.  Of course, in demanding a deep Brexit and no hard border within Ireland, they are effectively demanding that the Irish State significantly remove itself from the EU, without acknowledging it and without having to openly and honestly argue for it amongst the Irish people.

The problem for any such pan-European campaign isn’t that it would fail, and would garner support mainly from the extreme nationalist right – so exposing even further the primary source of support for Brexit in the UK. The more embarrassing problem would arise from success.  Because if such a campaign of mobilisation of a united working class across Europe were successful there would be no excuse for Brexit, or any other exit.  The task would so obviously be to reform and transform the EU by strengthening the political and organisational unity of Europe’s working class.  Returning to local nationalist designs would be seen for what they are and narrow projects for national sovereignty would be toast.

Lenin took up similar arguments in ‘The National Question in Our Programme’ when he argued against the Polish Socialist Party position on the separation of Polish socialists from others in the empire ruled by Tsarism, and on the question of separation generally. The Polish Party, he says, believes that the Party “can only weaken tsarism by wresting Poland from it; it is the task of the Russian comrades to overthrow it.”  In doing so Lenin unfavourably compared the increasing unity of the capitalist class internationally with the weakening of the unity of the working class through separation of its national components

British left supporters of Brexit in effect take the same approach, and in their opposition to the EU seek not to overthrow it or reform it or transform it, but simply to walk away from it, with the vacuous claim that they are offering an example to the rest of Europe.  In fact, as we have seen, Europe’s workers have looked on in bemusement at the mess that Brexit has created and viewed the threats of a dumbed down society it promises as a warning not to do it themselves. Far from encouraging the break-up of the EU the experience of Brexit has confirmed the necessity to counter the unity of Europe’s capitalist class with increasing the unity of Europe’s working class.

Lenin makes a similar point in relation to the Jewish socialist organisation – the Bund – and does not accept the existing weakness of working class unity as an alibi to weaken it further:

“What we have said on the Polish question is wholly applicable to every other national question. The accursed history of autocracy has left us a legacy of tremendous estrangement between the working classes of the various nationalities oppressed by that autocracy. This estrangement is a very great evil, a very great obstacle in the struggle against the autocracy, and we must not legitimise this evil or sanctify this outrageous state of affairs by establishing any such “principles” as separate parties or a “federation” of parties. It is, of course, simpler and easier to follow the line of least resistance, and for everyone to make himself comfortable in his own corner following the rule, “it’s none of my business,” as the Bund now wants to do. The more we realise the need for unity and the more firmly we are convinced that a concerted offensive against the autocracy is impossible without complete unity, the more obvious becomes the necessity for a centralised organisation of the struggle in the conditions of our political system—the less inclined are we to be satisfied with a “simple,” but specious and, at bottom, profoundly false solution of the problem.”

The primacy of the international unity of the working class is made very clear:

“As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.”

In a separate article – “Corrupting the Workers with refined Nationalism” – the requirement for the unity of the working class and its organisations is stated clearly:

“The class-conscious workers fight hard against every kind of nationalism, both the crude, violent, Black-Hundred nationalism, and that most refined nationalism which preaches the equality of nations together with … the splitting up of the workers’ cause, the workers’ organisations and the working-class movement according to nationality. Unlike all the varieties of the nationalist bourgeoisie, the class conscious workers, carrying out the decisions of the recent (summer 1913) conference of the Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.”

Brexit provides no rationale for the unity Lenin sought, and as we noted, is not even considered by its left supporters as a means of trying to unite across countries to reverse the internationalisation of capital that is the purpose of the EU, which anyway would also be wrong.  The complete escapism of Brexit explains the failure of both its right and left supporters to have the least realistic or practical plan how to implement their chosen vision, and especially how to deal with increased national isolation Brexit must inevitably bring. Slogans are all that are provided, with a blind faith in the power of the British State to fashion a new society.  The vision is so backward it is reactionary not only from the standpoint of the working class but also from the point of view of the development of capitalism.

It is understandable that some sincere socialists might follow the political line of the Brexit supporting organisations that they are either members or supporters of; or that there are those who can’t otherwise explain the fact that the small left organisations are mostly in support of it.  But there is nothing very new about such reactionary socialism and it has been contested right from the start of our movement.  As Marx said in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, such reactionary ideas arise again and again on the basis of the petty bourgeois class from which they emanate.

He identified three forms of such reactionary socialism which exhibited properties that are today expressed in left support for Brexit.  These included petty-bourgeois socialism:

“In its positive aims, however, this form of Socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.” (Emphasis added – SM)

Of ‘True Socialism’ it is noted that “It proclaimed the German nation to be the model nation, and the German petty Philistine to be the typical man. To every villainous meanness of this model man, it gave a hidden, higher, Socialistic interpretation, the exact contrary of its real character.”

So, for both right and left supporters of Brexit, Britain will bring a new internationalism to the world in the shape of either globalised free markets or a socialist British State. Replace German with British and one has replicated Marx’s caustic remarks in relation to this latest manifestation in Brexit socialism.  As before, a “Socialistic interpretation” of this Brexit and its supporters are ”the exact contrary of its real character.”

‘The Communist Manifesto’ sets out the principles that still inform socialists today, even if some of his disciples seem determined to prove Lenin right when he declared that no one can discredit revolutionary socialism as long as it does not discredit itself. For Marx and Engels the first of the distinguishing hallmarks of such socialism is that “In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.”

We have seen that Brexit starts and ends with opposition to an expression of international capitalism and starts and ends with a form of national socialism, which because it is national is nothing to do with socialism.

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 7

Red Guards from an electrical factory Petrograd 1917

Two common charges levied against the Russian Revolution is that it was violent and undemocratic.

The allegation of violence rests largely on the experience of the civil war that followed the October revolution, as the October events themselves were remarkably bloodless.  During the civil war violence was ubiquitous – no one involved eschewed violence – not least the partisans of European liberalism and social democracy, at that time up to their knees in the blood and carnage of the First World War, and which the Bolsheviks strived to end.

But nor is it even true that the October Revolution sparked this bloody civil war.  In fact, a good argument could be made that the Kornilov revolt of that reactionary general commenced the civil war in August.  It was therefore not a result of Bolshevik violence, nor even simply the reactionary violence of the old Tsarist regime and imperialism, but of the incompatibility of the interests of the two contending forces in the revolutionary process that were inevitably to clash violently.  The civil war was simply a question of who would win and what would be left to rule over.

Stephen Smith in his book already quoted in these posts argues that –

“In fact, purely in relation to the 1920s (Stalinism in the 1930s was a different matter), it is not obvious that Soviet society was more violent than its tsarist predecessor.  Historians often fail to convey how ingrained violence was in late-imperial Russia, evinced in colonial conquest, police repression, counter-insurgency, terrorism by left and right, and anti-Jewish pogroms, extending, too, into more everyday forms of violence, such as practices of samosud (‘self-judgement’), meted out by peasant communities on those who transgressed their norms, to the flogging of prisoners, to beatings in the workplace, child abuse, and wife-beating.”

As for the charge that the revolution was undemocratic – we have already noted that the vast majority of the Russian people wanted an end to the war and land distribution and that this was incompatible with the old regime, incompatible with ‘moderate’ socialists who refused to break with the ‘liberal’ capitalist bourgeoisie, who in turn refused to break with all the old reactionary forces of tsarism.

Where the charge may have some force is that in a country with only a small working class, it was not possible to have a ‘pure’ working class revolution, one that could fully satisfy its class interests.  This explains the compromises, changes of direction and Lenin’s “radical modification” of what socialism was that we looked at in previous posts.

In the latest issue of the journal Science and Society, the author August H. Nimtz goes to some length to explain just how important it was for the Bolsheviks that they had the majority support of the working class before organising the October revolution.  He analyses the approach of Lenin in 1917 and how it consciously rested on the views of the founders of Marxism – Marx and Engels.

He quotes Engels in the conclusion to his 1884 book, Origin of the Family, Private Property and State, that “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state; but that,” he continued, “is sufficient. On the day the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers, both they and the capitalists will know where they stand.”

He quotes Engels again:

“Do you realize now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in your hands for forty years in universal suffrage; if only people know how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the call to revolution, but it’s ten times more sure, and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made; it’s even ten to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favorable position to make the revolution. (MECW, 50, 29.)”

This last sentence might seem to anticipate the Kornilov revolt and the spur to Bolshevik support and ultimately revolution that this reactionary conspiracy helped create. Engels words also set out the problem that the Bolsheviks grappled with and which we have reviewed in the previous posts –

“a “revolution in Russia” could save what was left of the peasant communes. And such a revolution would “give the labor movement of the West fresh impetus and create new, better conditions in which to carry on the struggle, thus hastening the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, without which present-day Russia can never achieve a socialist transformation, whether proceeding from the commune or from capitalism” (MECW, 27, 433). Contrary, therefore, to all future Stalinist distortions of M&E’s [Marx and Engels] views, Russia could “never achieve a socialist transformation” without the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe by its own proletariat. Engels could not have been more prophetic.” (Nimtz)

Nimtz, then records the approach of Lenin in seeking to know whether the revolutionary forces were winning the hearts and minds of the working class, and the careful study he undertook to understand whether, and to what extent, they had done so –

“By the time of the Fourth Duma elections in 1912, the Bolsheviks, now devoid of the boycotters, were in near-unanimous accord for participation. Lenin’s assessment of the results reveals once again how seriously he took elections. “It is beyond question,” he wrote after analyzing them, “that elections supply objective data. Testing subjective wishes, sentiments and views by taking into account the vote of the mass of the population representing different classes should always be of value to a politician who is at all worthy of the name. The struggle of parties — in practice, before the electorate, and with the returns summed up — invariably furnishes data serving to test our conception of the balance of social forces in the country and of the significance of particular ‘slogans’” (LCW, 18, 505). That’s exactly, I argue, why Lenin would pay such close attention to elections in Russia five years later. The entire record makes clear that these weren’t aberrant pronouncements on his part about elections. They registered how thoroughly he had absorbed the lessons drawn by M&E, specifically, the need for the workers’ parties to “count their forces.”” (Nimtz)

Nimtz explains that during 1917, Lenin used elections to determine the support of the working class for revolution and the necessity of this support in order to resort to an armed uprising.

This is not presented here as an argument, as I have previously stated, that we should hold on to the revolution in Russia in 1917 as some sort of model for revolution today, but only to argue that in this precise aspect – the absolute necessity for the working class to support revolution – we should absolutely seek to guide our thinking, programme and activity to just such a commitment to working class democracy.  Such democracy must be the conscious activity of the working class itself and not ‘support’ in any passive sense of this word for leaders or movements that substitute themselves for this self-activity.  Or even for leaders or vanguards that do the same, in the name of the working class but separate from it.

Just as bourgeois productive relations entail private ownership of productive forces and working class productive relations require collective and cooperative ownership, that by definition entails conscious self-direction and activity, and not indirect delegation or support to an exterior body such as a state – however benign; so the nature of socialism reduces the role of all separate elements of society apart from the activity of the working class itself.

In the approach to October Lenin explained that the Bolsheviks now had the support required for revolution, or a mandate, as it might be expressed today –

“The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands. . . . The majority gained in the Soviets of the metropolitan cities resulted from the people coming over to our side. . . . Compare the elections to the city councils of Petrograd and Moscow with the elections to the Soviets. Compare the elections in Moscow with the Moscow strike of August 12. Those are objective facts regarding that majority of revolutionary elements that are leading the people.” (Quoted by Nimtz)

Lenin explained the approach later when looking at the possible repetition of revolution in Germany –

“As matters stood in October, we had made a precise calculation of the mass forces. We not only thought, we knew . . . with certainty, from the experience of the mass elections to the Soviets, that the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers had already come over to our side in September and in early October. We knew . . . that the coalition [provisional government] had also lost the support of the peasantry — and that meant that our cause had already won.” (Quoted by Nimtz)

The alternative route of bourgeois democracy, which as I have noted excludes working class participation, was closed in Russia in 1917, in a way I have also noted, that has not been the case in other more recent mass working class struggles such as France in 1968 or Portugal in 1974-75.  As Nimtz explains –

“The Socialist Revolutionary–Menshevik leadership of the executive of the soviet convened in mid-September the “Democratic Conference,” basically an attempt to divert the energy boiling from below, and increasingly led by the Bolsheviks, into the parliamentary arena. Lenin urged the party’s leadership not to be enticed. “It would be a big mistake, sheer parliamentary cretinism on our part, if we were to regard the Democratic Conference as a parliament; for even if it were to proclaim itself a permanent and sovereign parliament of the revolution, it would nevertheless decide nothing. The power of decision lies outside it in the working-class quarters of Petrograd and Moscow”

This did not mean either capitulation to the false democratic norms of bourgeois democracy or a rejection of what these norms often tell us –

“A comparison of the data on the “parliamentary” [local duma] elections and the data on the . . . mass movements [since April 20] fully corroborates, in respect of Russia, an observation often made in the West, namely, that the revolutionary proletariat is incomparably stronger in the extra-parliamentary than in the parliamentary struggle, as far as influencing the masses and drawing them into the struggle is concerned.” (Lenin Collected Works, 26, 33.)

Nimtz quotes as a summary of Lenin’s views his brochure Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in which he says, with reference to the various fake tsarist parliaments, that –

“We Bolsheviks participated in the most counterrevolutionary parliaments, and experience has shown that this participation was not only useful but indispensable to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, after the first bourgeois revolution in Russia (1905), so as to pave the way for the second bourgeois revolution (February 1917), and then for the socialist revolution (October 1917).”

Those thinking that 1917 can simply be repeated today in very different and more advanced conditions might want to reflect that 1917 required 1905 and that both entailed defeat in war.  Hopefully some other sort of preparation is required by the working class today in order that it make itself capable of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system.

It is necessary to learn and re-learn these lessons.  For example, the issue of the correct socialist approach to reactionary bourgeois institutions was recently debated in relation to the Northern Ireland Stormont parliament on this blog here.

It is natural to assume that the relevance of events that have celebrated their one-hundred-year anniversary will then inevitably recede.  It is not to condemn the 1917 revolution to say that it must be hoped that this is the case, because it will only retain its significance for socialists if it remains the only (very imperfectly) successful example of what we seek to achieve.

Concluded

Back to part 6

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 6

While the dominant view among the Bolsheviks was a statist one: that socialism would be the further development of the tendencies towards socialisation of production within capitalism – through centralisation and concentration of production by the state, including large private trusts supported by it, this was not the view of Marx.

For him it was not a task of replacing capitalist state ownership of the productive forces with ownership by a workers’ state, although some formulations of his would have led to this conclusion.  Even for Lenin, the question could be asked – how on earth could the state wither away, as set out by Lenin in his 1917 work ‘State and Revolution’, if the economy was to be directed and developed as part of the state?  As a body separate from, and on top of, society, the state could not be the representative of the community as a whole, a point Marx had argued from his earliest years.  Neither could it play such a role by becoming totally predominant: it could not become one with society and erase its separate character.

The transitional road from capitalism to socialism was not to come through a new socialist state simply replacing and increasing the growing economic role of the capitalist state.  As Marx explained:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”

“They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” Marx Capital Vol III)

At the end of 1917 Lenin had declared that “The first step towards the emancipation of the people from this penal servitude is the confiscation of the landed estates, the introduction of workers’ control and the nationalisation of the banks. The next steps will be the nationalisation of the factories, the compulsory organisation of the whole population in consumers’ societies, which are at the same time societies for the sale of products, and the state monopoly of the trade in grain and other necessities.”

He announced that “accounting and control–this is the main economic task of every Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasant’ Deputies, of every consumers’ society, of every union or committee of supplies, of every factory committee or organ of workers’ control in general”.

He went on to say that “one of the most important tasks today, if not the most important, is to develop this independent initiative of the workers, and of all the working and exploited people generally, develop it as widely as possible in creative organisational work. At all costs we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called “upper classes”, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society . . . The workers and peasants are still “timid”, they have not yet become accustomed to the idea that they are now the ruling class; they are not yet resolute enough. The revolution could not at one stroke instill these qualities into millions and millions of people who all their lives had been compelled by want and hunger to work under the threat of the stick.”

The only way this can be read is that state control did not necessarily entail control and management by the working class itself.

But then, at the beginning of 1923, Lenin wrote that – “we have to admit that there has been a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism”; which, on the face of it, is a pretty radical admission to have made.

Giving the phrase its fuller context explains how much of a change was involved –

“Now we are entitled to say that for us the mere growth of cooperation (with the “slight” exception mentioned above) is identical with the growth of socialism, and at the same time we have to admit that there has been a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism.”

“The radical modification is this; formerly we placed, and had to place, the main emphasis on the political struggle, on revolution, on winning political power, etc. Now the emphasis is changing and shifting to peaceful, organisational, “cultural” work. I should say that emphasis is shifting to educational work, were it not for our international relations, were it not for the fact that we have to fight for our position on a worldscale. If we leave that aside, however, and confine ourselves to internal economic relations, the emphasis in our work is certainly shifting to education.”

“Two main tasks confront us, which constitute the epoch—to reorganise our machinery of state, which is utterly useless, in which we took over in its entirety from the preceding epoch; during the past five years of struggle we did not, and could not, drastically reorganise it.”

“Our second task is educational work among the peasants. And the economic object of this educational work among the peasants is to organise the latter in cooperative societies. If the whole of the peasantry had been organised in cooperatives, we would by now have been standing with both feet on the soil of socialism. But the organisation of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture, and the peasants (precisely among the peasants as the overwhelming mass) that cannot, in fact, be achieved without a cultural revolution.”

Lenin thus reevaluated the role of cooperatives:

“Why were the plans of the old cooperators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remodeling contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working-class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class.”

“In the capitalist state, cooperatives are no doubt collective capitalist institutions. Nor is there any doubt that under our present economic conditions, when we combine private capitalist enterprises—but in no other way than nationalised land and in no other way than under the control of the working-class state—with enterprises of the consistently socialist type (the means of production, the land on which the enterprises are situated, and the enterprises as a whole belonging to the state), the question arises about a third type of enterprise, the cooperatives . . . Under our present system, cooperative enterprises differ from private capitalist enterprises because they are collective enterprises, but do not differ from socialist enterprises if the land on which they are situated and means of production belong to the state, i.e., the working-class.”

“It is forgotten that owing to the special features of our political system, our cooperatives acquire an altogether exceptional significance. If we exclude concessions, which, incidentally, have not developed on any considerable scale, cooperation under our conditions nearly always coincides fully with socialism.”

Lenin now put forward a different overall perspective arising within the New Economic Policy (NEP), which had been introduced as an admitted retreat on behalf of the Bolsheviks:

“All we actually need under NEP is to organise the population of Russia in cooperative societies on a sufficiently large-scale, for we have now found the degree of combination of private interest, of private commercial interest, with state supervision and control of this interest, that degree of its subordination to the common interests which was formerly the stumbling block for very many socialists. Indeed, the power of the state over all large-scale means of production, political power in the hands of the proletariat, the alliance of this proletariat with the many millions of small and very small peasants, the assured proletarian leadership of the peasantry, etc. — is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society out of cooperatives, out of cooperatives alone, which we formerly ridiculed as huckstering and which from a certain aspect we have the right to treat as such now, under NEP? Is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society? It is still not the building of socialist society, but it is all that is necessary and sufficient for it.”

“We went too far when we reintroduced NEP, but not because we attached too much importance to the principal of free enterprise and trade — we want too far because we lost sight of the cooperatives, because we now underrate cooperatives, because we are already beginning to forget the vast importance of the cooperatives from the above two points of view.”

However, cooperatives were not in themselves the answer to the backwardness of Russian economic development – “There are now no other devices needed to advance to socialism. But to achieve this “only”, there must be a veritable revolution—the entire people must go through a period of cultural development. . . . But it will take a whole historical epoch to get the entire population into the work of the cooperatives through NEP. At best we can achieve this in one or two decades. Nevertheless, it will be a distinct historical epoch, and without this historical epoch, without universal literacy, without a proper degree of efficiency, without training the population sufficiently to acquire the habit of book reading, and without the material basis for this, without a certain sufficiency to safeguard against, say, bad harvests, famine, etc.—without this we shall not achieve our object.”

The new importance given by Lenin to cooperatives was clear – “given social ownership of the means of production, given the class victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, the system of civilised cooperators is the system of socialism.’

Today, unlike Russia in 1923, there has been no socialist revolution, in the sense that the capitalist state has been smashed and replaced, even if only by an unreconstructed one that Lenin admitted to in 1923.  On the other hand, for many countries, the peasantry is small or insignificant, while for others it is larger but not so preponderant as it was in Russia one hundred years ago.

The mass of the population is also more advanced and cultured than one hundred years ago, so that any successful revolution will not suffer from the same debilitating backwardness that Lenin believed would require another revolution taking “a distinct historical epoch.”

But before that, the question of a socialist revolution does not even arise among  today’s more advanced population, unless it becomes fully and completely committed to such a project.  It is not therefore the objective conditions for socialism that today are absent, in the sense of the broad cultural development of the working class, although this is far from fully developed, but the subjective perspective of the working class, recognising that this too has its own objective basis.

Rather than cooperatives being the sequel to socialist revolution, it may be better now to think of cooperatives as vital preliminary grounds upon which can be developed the political consciousness necessary to make socialist revolution a practical proposition.  The subjective ignorance of the working class of its interests in creating a new self-managed society might have its own objective roots in capitalist domination and in the lack of the prior development of cooperative production within existing class society.

In the final reflection on the Russian Revolution I will look at the key inspiration of that revolution – that it was a revolution desired and fought for by the majority of the working class.

Back to part 5

Forward to part 7

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

Forward to part 6

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

Remembering the Rising part 4 – revolution and counter-revolution?

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NGI 1236

In the last post I stated the view of the Irish establishment that the 1916 Rising was the foundational act of the formation of the current Irish State.  This is not the view of many on the Left:

“The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923. . .  . The current Irish state, therefore, has little in common with those who staged an uprising in 1916. . .  and has absolutely no intention of cherishing ‘all of the children equally’.  A new massive popular uprising will be required to establish even this limited ideal.  That should be the real lesson of the centenary.” (Kieran Allen)

There is a historical question whether the revolution that followed the 1916 rising would have occurred without it but that isn’t the real point here.  There is a claim that both the Rising and the War of Independence were not responsible (in any way?) for the current Irish state and those involved in 1916 have little in common with the personification of Irish independence today.

Unfortunately for such a claim the personalities who forged the counter-revolution, as it is called, in 1923 and later leaders of the state were prominently involved in the 1916 Rising and in the first post in this series we named some of them – William Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and his successor as Taoiseach Sean Lemass.  These are among the foremost founders and architects of the current Irish state and they all fought in 1916.

The claim that there was a counter-revolution in 1923 refers to the acceptance of the Treaty that established the Free State with its oath of allegiance to the King, membership of the Commonwealth, the post of Governor General, retention of the Treaty ports by the British and a deal on partition that quickly preserved it.  The Treaty was signed under a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ and was followed by a civil war when the Irish Republican movement split over acceptance of British terms.  For anti-Treaty republicans the new state was illegitimate, as therefore were its police, armed forces and political institutions, including the new Dáil.

As we saw in the first post the new Free State Government was a reactionary one dedicated to policies of low taxation, balanced budgets, free trade and an illiberal social policy that included heavy censorship of films and literature and legislation to outlaw divorce.  It brutally repressed its anti-Treaty opponents with imprisonment, torture and murder.

Its most prominent architect was William Cosgrave, a supporter of the monarchist Sinn Fein from its foundation.  As one historian has put it (John M Regan) “his concept of government prior to independence was essentially theocratic.   In suggesting an upper house for the Dáil in 1921, he advocated a ‘theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not’.”

By some contrast the inspiration for the new Free State and pro-Treaty icon was Michael Collins, who another historian (Peter Hart) has described as having “a deep dislike of exploitation and poverty.”    “What set Collins apart was his secularism. . . . He was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.”

When the pro-Treaty regime fell to the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail, policies of free trade, acceptance of the post of Governor General and oath of allegiance were rejected; the British left the Treaty ports; an ‘economic war’ with Britain was embarked upon and then resolved; and the new Government introduced a new constitution in 1937, which proclaimed the special position of the Catholic Church, the subordinate role of women in society and a constitutional protection of the prerogatives of private property that stands as a barrier to action by the state to this day. It also brutally repressed its republican opponents.   In 1948, under the leadership of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael the Irish State declared itself a Republic.  In effect the anti-Treaty side accepted the legitimacy of the new state and of the Michael Collins’ view that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to freedom.

In the aftermath of the civil war between pro and anti-Treaty republicans the latter had dedicated themselves to a ‘second round’ against the traitorous Free State and its illegitimate institutions.  Today no one in the spectrum of republicanism holds to such a position: I know of no one, and have never heard anyone, say that a renewed armed struggle should make the existing Irish State its primary target.  This is now uncontroversial, reflecting the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the overwhelming number of its citizens.

The Irish state today is a Republic and the anti-Treaty side in its subsequent development, from Fianna Fail in the 1920s to Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s to Provisional Sinn Fein today, has accepted this and sought to become its governing party.

In other words the vast majority of the revolutionary movement of 1919 to 1921 accepted the Treaty, or the counter-revolution as it has been described above, leaving the question – what exactly was the revolution that was reversed or prevented?

An argument exists that the British proxy-war fought by the pro-Treaty forces succeeded in imposing the British terms demanded for the ending of hostilities.  What the vastly superior forces of the British could have unleashed in a renewed war was instead leveraged in the Treaty negotiations.  This might therefore be characterised as the counter-revolution; except of course that, as we have seen, the new state gradually dispensed with the trappings of Empire and colonial status.  It even eventually got a degree of economic separation from the British when it got itself a new currency – the Euro.  But perhaps this too can be seen as the continuation under a new guise of the counter-revolution, but if it was it was not part of any counter-revolution in 1923 and linking the Troika to the civil war is a bit of a stretch.

In opposition to such a view the historian Diarmaid Ferriter quotes a ‘veteran Irish political correspondent’ James Downey (very recently deceased) in 2012:

“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.

But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has “unfettered” control of its destinies.

Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.

To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.

Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years — although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering — as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call ‘gombeenism’.

We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.

It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.

It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.

We don’t have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?

We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”

In the last two posts we have seen that the revolutionary generation set out to create a separate Irish state, free from British rule, a nationalist objective that they succeeded in achieving – where then is the counter-revolution?  It was from among the survivors of the 1916 Rising that the leadership of the succeeding Irish State arose – so from whom did the counter-revolution arise?

Perhaps it may be claimed that these leaders betrayed their earlier beliefs or at least their earlier declarations of the objectives of the Rising?  But in the second post we explained that the 1916 Proclamation made no grander claims to social and economic revolution upon which it might be possible to condemn the current Irish state as a betrayal of. So again, where is the counter-revolution?

Let us take the politics of the revolutionary nationalist movement during its revolutionary period.

In his recent book ‘A Nation and not a Rabble, the Irish Revolution 1916-1923’ the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, hardly one of the pro-imperialist revisionist historians, records the lack of ideology guiding the political struggle during the revolution.

He states “those looking for evidence of broad, sophisticated ideological debates during the decade may be disappointed”- contrast this with the experience of the Russian revolution!  “Those who propelled the republican revolution were more focussed on the idea of separation from Britain ‘rather than implementing any concrete political programme.’  He quotes one fellow historian that ‘the new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the “self” that was to exercise self-determination’”, and a second historian noting that “the republican leaders ‘do not appear to have debated what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions’.”

Discussing the many statements given by participants to the Bureau of Military History on their motivation and experience of the struggle, Fearghal McGarry states that “there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularise republicanism.”  Ferriter quotes from a prominent republican and chronicler of his experience in the revolution: “as Ernie O’Malley saw it ‘fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice’, his tortured description of politics.”

This does not mean that politics did not exist within the revolutionary movement.  The nationalism of Irish republicanism, as to most nationalists everywhere, seemed uncomplicated and simple, self-evident and pure, nevertheless had a definite political content, even if it was unconscious and sublimated other real societal divisions such as class.  As de Valera and others insisted – patriotism was to rise above all class interests.

The republican paper Irish Freedom put it succinctly in 1911: “The interests of Ireland as a whole are greater than the interests of any class in Ireland, and so long as labour accepts the nation, Labour must subordinate its class interests to the interests of the nation.”

The republican movement was prepared to eject strikers from their place of work while de Valera would say that he felt “confident that the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests.”   Even the radical Constance Markievicz, who became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary government, complained that “the trade unions’ appeal always seems to me to be so very sordid and selfish.  Till something suddenly makes them realise the value of self-sacrifice they will never be much use to humanity.”  And they were not the only ones to suffer disapproval: Cosgrave complained that those unfortunate enough to end up in the workhouse “are no great acquisition to the community . . .  As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers.  Consequently it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.”

Leading republican Austin Stack “warned of the dangers of agrarian agitation subverting patriotic opinion and pointed to the importance of the republican courts in undermining such revolutionary sentiment.”  In 1921 the republican Irish Bulletin warned that “the mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom into a class war and there was even a possibility that the IRA, itself largely composed of farmers’ sons, might be affected.”  However it went on to state that this “proved wholly groundless” as “agrarian lawlessness was steadily suppressed, cattle-driving and boundary-breaking punished and ruffianly elements brought to book.”  (Ferriter)

And all this happened before 1923 when the counter-revolution is supposed to have occurred.

But, it might still be claimed, the Irish State is corrupt and its venality exposed by its loss of sovereignty while under the diktats of the Troika of European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.  But when did the Irish revolution ever set itself the tasks of creating conditions that would prevent this?  And if it did not, where was the need for any counter-revolution to reverse or prevent a socially revolutionary regime that would have done so?

At the level of the personalities involved – when and how did the leaders who survived the Rising radically change their political views, that made their participation in the Rising revolutionary but later actions counter-revolutionary?

Perhaps it is claimed that the Irish working class took independent action that threatened not only the contemporary political arrangements that involved direct British rule but also the capitalist economic and social structure of society.  What about the strikes, occupations and events such as the Limerick Soviet?

But when did such actions have an independent dynamic separate from the national struggle, with its own objective, own separate movement and separate leadership?  Not only separate but necessarily counter-posed to the revolutionary nationalist movement (if it were to prevent counter-revolution).

The fear of such a task and appreciation of weakness in even contemplating it has been noted by Ferriter during the Limerick Soviet episode –“ The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress feared that any escalation in support for Limerick ‘would be entirely on their own heads and lack the enthusiastic national support of Sinn Fein” (even though the Limerick action was against the proclamation of the area as a special military area by the British).

With an agricultural population in the last spasms of land agitation; an industrial sector cut off by partition and its working class divided by sectarianism, the larger part of which was politically reactionary and the remainder industrially weak and politically dominated by nationalism and a soft labourism – how could it be otherwise?

As for the revolutionary nationalists, with their difficulty with politics compared to fighting and their opposition to debating “what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions”, how ironic that this lack of politics led them not only to a debate over abstractions when the Treaty was signed – the oath of allegiance and the existence of an established Republic that was being betrayed  –  but also led them to a vicious civil war over these abstractions.

On only one count is it possible to argue that there was a counter-revolution that betrayed the goals of 1916, even if it was carried out by those who fought in it. And this is the imposition of partition, although this is often the least mentioned and most ignored.

Even a purely nationalist revolution seeks the unity of the country.  Indeed intrinsic to nationalism is the indivisibility of the nation.  So 1916 opposed partition and promised religious equality in the Republic as the alternative to it.  But 1916 could not deliver on its objective and admitted as much.  The Rising that might deliver national freedom was circumscribed by its leaders through their recognition that the Rising could not even carry out a strike against partition.

The organisers of the Rising explicitly prohibited fighting in Ulster, instead planning that Volunteers in the province assemble together in Tyrone and march to Connaught to join the rebellion there.  Even the foolishness of this ill-considered plan revealed the lack of adequacy to addressing the real task of defeating an imperialist-backed mass unionist opposition to the project of a national democracy.

Objectively the 1916 Rising was unable to strike against the coming of partition, which was imposed not during the retreat of the national revolution but at its height of military struggle.  In other words neither 1916 nor the following national revolution could hold out the promise of a defeat of partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that would follow it, which was foretold so acutely by Connolly.

So in what respect was there a counter-revolution when that revolution never actually set itself the task of preventing partition in any objective sense?  The revolution could not seriously make the promise of a united nation; that it did not result in one can hardly be put down to the actions of a counter-revolution.

Postscript:

I spoke at a small meeting of socialists in Glasgow just over a week ago and I was asked whether my analysis did not contradict the traditional socialist view that the 1916 Rising was to be defended as a blow against imperialism?

I answered that the Rising was indeed to be defended as a blow against imperialism but that what was important now was to understand its limits, the limits of any politics defined simply  as ‘anti-imperialist’ and any nationalism no matter how ‘left-wing’.

So yes, I agreed with Lenin, 1916 was not a putsch and we should not expect to see a “pure” social revolution, but we should understand that 1916 wasn’t a social revolution of any kind.  In any case if any socialist could be described as seeking the maximum clarity in the struggle for socialism, the maximum ‘purity’ so to speak, it is Lenin, so not expecting to see a pure revolution and doing absolutely everything you can to get one are not in contradiction.

I was also asked the question whether Connolly was correct to take part in the Rising.  I have deliberately avoided this question in my series of posts because I’m not very interested in it.  What I did say was that if Connolly was going to take part he should have had his own Proclamation, his and the Citizen Army’s own declaration of what they were fighting for – a ‘Socialist 1916 Proclamation’.

We might then at the very least have avoided reading into the existing one progressive content that isn’t there and we would have had greater grounds for stating that today’s Irish establishment would be put in a position of some embarrassment in the centenary commemoration.  I would have liked to have seen an Irish Army officer read a declaration of socialist revolution outside the GPO!

Then also we would have had stronger grounds to say that the promise of the 1916 Rising has been betrayed.

Of course the other signatories would not have signed it.  It would have divided the Rising at least politically but then, as we have seen, the republicans divided the revolution to the benefit of certain social classes anyway.

And would Connolly have made the Workers’ Proclamation one of socialist revolution in any case?

What this alternative Proclamation should have said is for socialists the real historical (and contemporary) question not the non-existent promises of a nationalist revolution that socialists are supposed to make good now.

Back to Part 3