Alan Gibson accuses the CPGB and myself of opportunism (Letters, August 31). Why? Because we supposedly confuse Bolshevism in 1917 with “popular frontist alliances between proletarian and bourgeois parties in 2017”. Actually, it is comrade Gibson who is confused.
Let me go through comrade Gibson’s argument point by point - beginning, predictably, with the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.
It is self-evident that there was continuity between this Bolshevik strategic formula for the widely expected coming revolution - as, for example, mapped out, elaborated and defended by Lenin in his famous pamphlet Two tactics in 1905 - and the Bolshevik slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’. The revolutionary democratic (majority) dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry, in fact, correctly, accurately, brilliantly anticipated the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies of 1917.
Comrade Gibson denies this. Instead he insists upon a break, beginning with Lenin’s April theses (when, according to the Trotskyite myth, Lenin discards old Bolshevism along with his previous programmatic writings, such as Two tactics).
Comrade Gibson tells us that there were differences between the Bolsheviks over Lenin’s April theses. Undoubtedly true. As detailed in these pages, some Bolsheviks worried that Lenin was calling for a socialist revolution (Lenin reassuringly denied it). All he was proposing is “taking steps in the direction of socialism”. Others thought Lenin wanted to forget about the necessity of winning a majority for revolution: ie, the peasantry (again, Lenin reassuringly denied it). No Marxist would countenance carrying out a second revolution without majority support.
Such misunderstandings were surely inevitable. Not only had Lenin been in exile in Switzerland, where he had to rely on the unreliable bourgeois press, when it came to post-February 1917 developments in Russia. Understandably, he was also in a terrible rush. Therefore Lenin wrote his theses with “insufficient preparation” and “only the briefest explanatory notes” (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p21).
Nevertheless, there was the attitude towards the Provisional Government. Lenin insisted that there could be “not the slightest concession” to “revolutionary defencism”. The Provisional Government headed by prince Lvov was unquestionably capitalist. Cadets and Octobrists dominated. The presence of a “would-be socialist” - ie, Alexander Kerensky - had no function other than to “lull the vigilance and attention of the people with sonorous phrases” (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p58).
On the other hand, Kamenev, who had been editing Pravda, the Bolshevik daily, advocated critical support for the Provisional Government. A twin-track approach: defend what had been gained by mass action in the revolution; “expose” the “counterrevolutionary” essence of the Provisional Government, its alliance with Anglo-French imperialism, its predatory war aims, etc, by fielding what would appear to the masses as perfectly reasonable demands. Through employing this “agitational device”, Kamenev believed that the Bolsheviks could win over “honest revolutionary defencists”, not only amongst the working class, but the peasants - crucially those in the armed forces. Over a period of months, not years, this approach would prepare the ground for the “transfer” of power to the “dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. Needless to say, this was the operative line of the Bolshevik leadership, the bureau of the central committee, headed by himself and Stalin over March-April 1917.
So here, in the positions of Lenin and Kamenev, there was real disagreement, but, I would argue, one of shade, even temperament. Anyway, it was decided, in early April, to “openly” discuss “our differences, and thus provide material for the All-Russia conference of our party”, which was due to meet a few weeks later.
Comrade Gibson sees some considerable significance in Lenin emphasising that the Bolsheviks would openly debate their disagreements. For him - that is, comrade Gibson - there was a “clear implication that doing so was the result of a democratic decision, which presumably had gone the other way on other issues”. In point of fact, as comprehensively shown by Lars T Lih, what the Bolshevik cadre wanted was the chance to clarify, strengthen and amend Lenin’s April theses (see ‘Thirteen to two?’ Weekly Worker July 27 2017). And, of course, open debate was the norm amongst the Bolsheviks. Open debate appears strange, exceptional, the prelude to a split, only for those whose political expectations, their mental horizons, have been limited, narrowed, impoverished by membership of confessional sects such as the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Socialist Appeal, etc.
But what about Lenin’s supposed rejection of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry? Comrade Gibson fields what he clearly imagines to be a killer quote: “The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ is behind the times; consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘old Bolsheviks’).” Note, I have emphasised the world “only”.
Yet immediately after this little passage, the one just cited by comrade Gibson, we find Lenin saying this: “The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry has already been realised.” Yes, yes, as I have repeatedly argued, relying on nothing more than Lenin’s words, in the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, the formula has “already been accomplished in reality” (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p45).
That comrades such as Alan Gibson refuse to see what is in front of their eyes, refuse to take on board, right or wrong, what is absolutely explicit in the writings of Lenin they are so selectively, so disjointedly, so crudely quoting, testifies to a religious approach to politics that more than strays into what might well appear to be borderline madness. The attempt to deceive others is clearly inadequate in terms of an explanation. No, for their own reasons, the Alan Gibsons of this world want to, need to deceive themselves.
Anyway, what was dangerous about speaking “only of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’”? Why did Lenin field the aggressive charge of “in effect” going over to the petty bourgeoisie in the attempt to whip his leading comrades into line? Lenin went straight to the heart of what was a highly contradictory situation. The Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies had realised the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, but in a “highly original manner”. The Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary majority in the soviets supported the Provisional government, not with the intention of exposing it, readying the masses for its overthrow, but to ensure its continued popularity, its long-term survival.
More than that though, despite the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies possessing effective authority in Petrograd, the Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary majority were intent on transferring power to the Provisional government (ie, the bourgeoisie). Under such circumstances, to limit oneself to the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry formula (ie, the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies) was to downplay the unexpected dynamics of dual power, the intermeshing, the very real danger of not maximising the historic opportunity that presented itself.
Presumably, Lenin had Kamenev in mind as his main target. Nonetheless, through their open debate, over the course of a few, albeit highly concentrated, weeks, there was an unmistakable convergence of views. However, even before that rapprochement, even before Lenin had arrived in Petrograd’s Finland Station, Kamenev had already adjusted his approach. At the March 31 session of the Bolshevik conference of party workers, he forthrightly attacked the proposal to include support for the Provisional government in the final resolution: “It is impermissible to have any expression of support, even a hint of it” (quoted in L Trotsky The Stalin school of falsification London 1974, p213). By the time of the 7th Conference of the RSDLP (April 24-29), Lenin was saying his differences with Kamenev “are not very great”. Eg, both opposed the immediate slogan, ‘Down with the Provisional government’ - raised by the “adventurist” Petrograd committee. Instead the correct slogan was “Long live the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”.
Lenin goes on to grant that: “The Provisional government must be overthrown, but not now, and not in the usual way. We agree with comrade Kamenev. But we must explain. It is this word that comrade Kamenev has been harping on. Nevertheless, this is the only thing we can do” (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p246). Hence the 7th Conference perspective of undertaking the hard slog of peaceful persuasion and winning a Bolshevik majority in the soviets. Once this was achieved, the Provisional government could be overthrown, and a “pure” revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry installed (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p61).
Comrade Gibson adopts a mocking tone. Throughout the CPGB’s Communist University he was faced with the claim that the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was “a central expression of the unbroken continuity of Bolshevik politics”. What, he asks, would Lenin have made of “the idea that a political organisation in 2017 would still be holding firm to this slogan, taken from what must now be a very old and mouldy archive”? A question which neatly sums up comrade Gibson’s confusion.
The continuity of Bolshevism is surely an established fact. It should, especially nowadays, rank alongside the Greek discovery that world is round, the Norman invasion of 1066, Isaac Newton’s physics and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the species. Just to reinforce the point, albeit in negative form, take a look at Lenin’s Leftwing communism (1920). Here, in a pamphlet designed to educate the newly formed Communist International, Lenin stresses that the success of Bolshevism in Russia relied on “a very firm foundation of Marxist theory”. Nowhere does he write about a break, an abandonment of their standing programme.
I argue that there was continuity because it is surely impossible to build a genuine Communist Party in the 21st century unless the lessons and historical significance of Bolshevism are understood and fully grasped. The Bolsheviks openly debated differences; they allowed factions; they dug deep roots in the working class in 1905 and maintained that support from then onwards; they equipped themselves with a correct programme; they saw themselves as loyal to the orthodox Marxism of the Second International; they understood the necessity of winning the peasants as allies; they learnt tactical flexibility, etc. In other words, they did not emerge from nothing, from a mere confessional sect, in April 1917.
As for the CPGB, we hardly “hold firm” to the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry … we have our Draft programme, which envisages working class rule, with Europe as the decisive point of departure, neutralising, prising sections of the middle classes away from the big bourgeoisie, and defeating all counterrevolutionary attempts by the national and international bourgeoisie. When it comes to the so-called third world, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the rural poor will doubtless have to be won as allies. But everywhere there has to be working class leadership, hegemony, rule.
Comrade Gibson seems to imagine that, by recognising the continuity of the Bolshevik programme, not least its strategic alliance with the peasantry, this opens us up to the temptation of calling for, defending and even joining a popular front government of the kind seen in France and Spain during the 1930s. There the communist parties held back the struggle of the working class, radically cut back their programmes, preserved the existing state machine and all in all sought to placate the capitalist class … for the sake of defeating fascism. A disastrous strategy.
In terms of logic comrade Gibson is mistaken. His first proposition does not lead to the second. The Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary coalition government was transparently a concrete expression of the Bolsheviks’ worker-peasant alliance formula. The Left SRs were the main peasant party - they constituted the majority in the All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies - and their comrades headed the commissariats of agriculture, justice, posts and telegraphs.
Maybe comrade Gibson thinks that Lenin’s government violates the “core principle” of Marxism: namely “working class independence”. If that is the case, he does not understand Marxism. Marxism does not eschew alliances, even governmental alliances. Working class independence is about the working class being formed into a party that is politically and organisationally independent from the parties of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. When it comes to government, it is programme that provides the litmus test. It is programme that decides what is principled (ie, in the long-term interests of realising communism) and what is unprincipled (ie, what hold back, derails the struggle for communism). Lenin’s government was based on Bolshevik leadership and carrying out their full minimum programme. Neither in spirit nor in practice did this Bolshevik-Left SR government have anything to do with the popular fronts advocated by the ‘official communists’ (and a few years ago by the SWP in its Respect phase).
The CPGB takes the same approach as the Bolsheviks. We will only form a government, or enter a coalition government, on the basis of carrying out to the full our minimum programme. This is, of course, no tinkering reform programme, a programme of running capitalism better than the capitalists. No, we shall get rid of the monarchy, the secret state and the House of Lords; a single chamber will exercise “supreme power in the state” and its recallable delegates will be elected annually; we shall disband the existing police and armed forces, establish a people’s militia, extend democracy to every sphere of society, abolish unemployment and reorientate production towards need.
Robin Cox’s argument that there was no socialism in the Soviet Union is dogmatic and one-sided (Letters, August 31).
Cox uses the ‘no socialism’ theory to refute my argument that lack of socialist consciousness contributed to the collapse of the former Soviet Union (FSU), which illustrated that social ownership of the means of production does not automatically lead to socialist consciousness, thus exposing the flaw in Marx’s position that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”. Cox presents this quote as only an aphorism of Marx, while directing me to Peter Stillman to get an understanding of what Marx meant.
Apart from the fact that anyone can have their own interpretation of Marx, the above passage needs no interpretation. In plain English, Marx is saying that being determines consciousness. Cox attempts to tar me with the myth of Marx’s economic determinism, but I never claimed Marx was an economic determinist. What the above passage tells us is that for Marx, philosophically speaking, when a person crosses the road, the decision was made by the legs, not the mind. Cox says that social being is undefined in the Marx quote and likely includes consciousness. But in the passage social being is clearly contrasted with consciousness. Cox is, of course, free to include consciousness in social being. The truth is that all human relationships are determined by consciousness. This includes a relationship between two people and a relationship between classes. Also, if you are born in France and live there, you are likely to speak French, but this is determined by a relationship between people beginning with consciousness.
Cox quotes Engels to support the argument that there was no socialism in the FSU because socialism means society taking possession of the means of production, and for classical Marxism socialism refers to common ownership. Terms like common, social or public ownership are partly judicial concepts. The question is, what do they mean in practice? The debate about the different type of social ownership is a long-standing one in socialism. In the transitional period, state ownership can be one of the forms of social ownership, its socialist character determined by whether society remains on the socialist road. Social ownership reinforces socialist consciousness, but does not create or determine it. That is why it’s possible for people to believe in socialism in capitalist countries.
Marxism is not a dogma, it is not flawless. It has to be viewed dialectically - ie, containing truth and errors. And one of its errors is that social being ‘determines’ consciousness. I am not saying that social being doesn’t influence consciousness, but this is quite different from determining it.
Having exposed the fatal contradictions within capitalism that mark it as historically contingent and doomed to extinction quite early on in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the task of the chapters and volumes that follow is to explain how it exists at all and why it doesn’t simply immediately collapse under the weight of those contradictions; and then to explain how ultimately those things that keep it going ultimately cannot save it and become part of what kills it.
The unintended consequence of capitalist competition is that the rate of profit tends to decline. As the socially necessary labour time contained in each commodity lessens, so does their value and so, therefore, does the rate of profit. The capitalist tries to compensate for the declining rate of profit by increasing its mass, which leads to overproduction, monopolisation and crisis. These crises occur roughly every 10 years, with capitalism re-establishing itself once again on a higher level with profitability temporarily restored, so that the cycle can begin again. But there are bigger cycles lasting several decades, when capitalism cannot re-establish itself without major political and violent upheavals that change practically everything and take the system to a whole new level.
What we are experiencing now is not a crisis, a recession or a depression, but a dissolution. The great dissolution of capitalism in fact. No mode of production leaves the stage until it has completely exhausted all of its potential and capacity, as Marx explained, and in the end it would be a case of socialism or barbarism. That is no longer a prophesy. It is the situation we are now confronted with.