Letters

Bolshevism

Frankly, I don’t know whether or not there was a leadership vote over the holding of an open debate on Lenin’s April theses amongst the Bolsheviks. Alan Gibson, on the contrary, thinks it is obvious (Letters September 14). There had to have been a vote.

I presume his certainty on this matter is born not from his study of original documents. No, I think what we have is conviction based on his long membership of the International ‘Bolshevik’ Tendency - a confessional sect, which many years ago broke away from the Spartacist confessional sect.

Either way, we know that Lenin says he and his comrades unanimously agreed to debate things out. The all-Russia conference of the party was just a few weeks off and the elaboration of different positions would undoubtedly “provide material” for motions, etc.

I still don’t think comrade Gibson appreciates that open debate was the norm in the Russian Socialist Democratic Party (Bolsheviks). Its members and leaders needed no special permission to write, speak or think. Eg, having been asked, Lenin unproblematically read his April theses to a joint meeting of Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates to the all-Russia Congress of Soviets.

Undaunted, comrade Gibson calls the CPGB’s practice of combining unity in action with open debate a “shibboleth”. No, comrade, it is genuine democratic centralism.

That there was a dispute between Lenin, on the one hand, and Kamenev on the other, in April 1917, is, of course, an established historical fact. In my opinion, though, what separated the two comrades was not fundamental. No, it was, to some degree, familiarity with the realities of post-February 1917 conditions. But, crucially, it was political shade, and, yes, temperament. Comrade Gibson sees “much more”. He fails, however, to enlighten us with his wisdom.

Well, let us briefly look at Lev Kamenev’s record. A member of the Bolshevik faction from the start (though, I believe he was in prison during the historic 1903 2nd Congress of the RSDLP), Kamenev was first elected to the central committee in 1907. By 1908, though, he counted as one of Lenin’s main lieutenants (along with Gregory Zinoviev).

However, as a personality, he was inclined towards caution, sought agreement and often urged what amounted to conciliation. Hence, Kamenev, albeit sceptically, went along with moves to “restore party unity” in 1910: ie, orthodox Bolsheviks + Alexander Bogdanov’s liquidationist Bolsheviks + Leon Trotsky and his collaborators + various Mensheviks. Lenin openly castigated the whole exercise, yet he found himself temporarily outvoted on the central committee. Kamenev represented the Bolsheviks on the editorial board of Trotsky’s paper. Needless to say, this unity ended in acrimonious disunity.

In November 1914, Kamenev - who had been put in charge of the work of the Bolsheviks duma faction, distanced himself from Lenin’s line of revolutionary defeatism … from the dock of a tsarist court. Presumably, it was such instances that caused Lenin to write about “those ‘old Bolsheviks’ who more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our party”.

Anyway, liberated from exile in Siberia, Kamenev took over as the revived Pravda’schief editor in March 1917. He favoured, as we all know, attacking the Provisional government by giving it critical support … thereby undermining its base among the population and creating the conditions necessary for sovereign power to pass to the soviets. He also favoured discussing unity with the Menshevik Internationalists … on the basis of the Zimmerwald manifesto (author: Trotsky).

Lenin, of course, vigorously objected to both approaches. Lenin advocated no support to the Provisional government and counterposed the centrism of the Zimmerwald manifesto with his vision of a Third International. These issues were openly debated … but within a few weeks Lenin was saying his disagreements with Kamenev were “not very great”.

Other disagreements followed: eg, Kamenev’s (also Zinoviev’s) continued commitment to a Bolshevik-Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary peaceful revolution and, therefore, objections to plans for a Bolshevik uprising. Not long after the successful overthrow of the Provisional government, Kamenev (again plus Zinoviev) urged negotiations with the railworkers’ union - it was demanding a socialist coalition government minus Lenin and Trotsky (once again Lenin found himself in a temporary minority on the central committee). Nevertheless, Kamenev occupied responsible party and government positions. Eg, he was in charge of the Moscow organisation and served as Lenin’s deputy as head of government.

Given all this, how else would comrade Gibson describe Kamenev’s differences with Lenin other than those of shade and temperament?

My main bone of contention, however, is, of course, that there was Bolshevik continuity. This does not rely, it should be emphasised, on the work of Lars T Lih. Many years ago I simply read Lenin … systematically. What Lars has done so well is to considerably enrich our understanding of the continuity. There was no break. There is not, in other words, a pre-April 1917 Lenin and a post-April 1917 Lenin.

This matters, firstly, because we are interested in the truth; secondly, because those of us in the 21st century who want to emulate the Bolsheviks need to appreciate that their success was due to having deep social roots, a healthy internal culture and a sound theory and programme.

Comrade Gibson now says he does not deny that Lenin saw a continuity between the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies of 1917 and the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants, as outlined, for example, by Lenin in Two tactics (1905). I suppose this must count as progress of a kind. After all, his first letter amounted to a stonewalling polemic against any such suggestion (August 31).

But comrade Gibson can’t quite make up his mind. He goes on, contradicting himself, to claim that Lenin junked the revolutionary democratic (= majority) dictatorship (= rule) of the proletariat and peasants. Incidentally, this was more than a mere “slogan” (as described by comrade Gibson). It was a strategic formulation that summed up the core programmatic aim of Bolshevism in Russia up to and even beyond 1917. Eg, Lenin, following the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, writes, in a resolution, of a “workers’ and peasants revolution” and a “new workers’ and peasants’ government” (VI Lenin CW Vol 26, Moscow 1977, p241).

Comrade Gibson is determined, for his own strange reasons, to paint the CPGB in the colours of the popular front, not least as advocated by the ‘official communists’ from the mid-1930s onwards. Bizarre. We have our Draft programme. As repeatedly explained, only if we can realistically envisage carrying out the entire minimum programme - eg, abolition of the monarchy, standing army, the police, an armed population, election of judges, going towards production based on need, etc - would we enter or form a government.

Comrade Gibson is determined to set up and strike down straw men. What would, he asks, Lenin make of the idea that the problem with the Provisional government was not “one of programme”, but its class composition? This, in fact, shows, once again, that comrade Gibson fails to grasp the principles of Marxism.

The “problem” with the Provisional government was, yes, exactly its programme. True, at first, it was headed by prince Lvov, a Romano-reformist, but then, with the second and third coalitions, came the ‘socialist’, Alexander Kerensky. The fundamental problem with all his cabinets was not simply the presence of Cadet ministers (though ‘Down with the 10 capitalist ministers’ served as an excellent Bolshevik agitational slogan in terms of exposure - as advocated by Kamenev).

No, comrade Gibson, the problem with the Provisional government, which under Kerensky, contained Mensheviks and SR ministers, was exactly its (bourgeois) programme of continuing with the war and the alliance with Anglo-French imperialism, defence of capitalist interests, landlordism, etc.

And, of course, the Provisional government was not just the Provisional government. It relied, from the beginning, on the support of the soviets (crucially the Petrograd Soviet and its Menshevik and SR majority). Both acted, according to the logic of their programmes, on behalf of Anglo-French imperialism and the Russian bourgeoisie and landlords.

But, whereas the Provisional government was self-appointed, the soviets were a democratic form of government. The Bolsheviks, if they were patient, if they were determined, could win a majority. In August-September-October, they did just that (including in the peasants’ soviets with their alliance with the Left SRs).

Comrade Gibson’s claim that the CPGB would have advocated a policy to “convince” the 10 capitalist ministers about the virtues of our Draft programme is just plain silly. No, our perspective is to win, to convince, the working class.

Finally, I should add that Lars T Lih tells me he will be replying to his critics ... when he completes his series of articles. To do so before that would be premature.

Jack Conrad
London

Airbrushed

Jason Schulman (‘Letters’, September 14) finds my less-than-laudatory appraisal of Michael Harrington’s politics (‘The left wing of the permissible’, September 7) unsurprising, because I was a member of the Spartacist League in the 1980s.

In point of fact, my antipathy goes back even further - to the 1960s. Then, as a member of Students for a Democratic Society, I joined with many others of my generation in doing what I could modestly do to support the people of Vietnam, as they hurled defiance in the face of the world’s mightiest imperial colossus, and wrote the most heroic chapter of mass struggle in the history of the later 20th century. It could hardly escape our notice at the time that a couple of Michael Harrington’s prominent Socialist Party comrades - Max Shachtman and Norman Thomas - supported in various ways the government’s sanguinary effort to crush the Vietnamese.

The fact that Harrington cheered a little less heartily for the war than Shachtman, or eventually turned against it, does not alter the fact that his belated opposition was voiced from the standpoint of a loyal critic of US imperialism, attempting to correct what he saw as no more than a policy mistake. In contrast, those of us in SDS who were anti-Stalinist did not allow that belief to stand in the way of proclaiming ourselves to be unambiguously on the other side.

Schulman cites a passage from Harrington’s writings consisting of generalities about the need to walk a “perilous tightrope” between “socialist vision” and “actual movements”. The problem with applying this prescription to the Vietnam era is that the “actual movement” - or at least the most vital part of it, formed by the new left to which I belonged - was moving in the direction of anti-imperialist and revolutionary socialist politics of one kind or another. This was an “actual movement” that Harrington wanted no part of, and spared no effort to stigmatise. Only in less radical times can social democrats plausibly invoke the immobility of the masses as an excuse for their own role as the established order’s faithful left gatekeepers.

Schulman disputes only one of my factual assertions. He writes that Harrington came out for complete withdrawal from Vietnam in 1968 - not in 1970, as I wrote. I admit that I did no deep archival research for my article. For this particular claim I relied on The other American,Maurice Isserman’s biography of Harrington. It states that he was “becoming bolder in his criticisms of the war. In the fall of 1969, for the first time, he actually gave a speech at an anti-war rally. By the following January [1970 - JC] he decided that the anti-war movement had been right to emphasise the demand for US withdrawal from Vietnam, rather than simply negotiations” (p288). If Schulman can provide an earlier citation in which Harrington “openly and unequivocally demanded” complete American withdrawal, I will be happy to acknowledge my - and Isserman’s - mistake. But whether enunciated in 1968 or 1970, Harrington’s anti-war stand was, in the words of an old American expression, ‘a day late and a dollar short’.

For the rest, Schulman argues that, in the 1970s and 80s, when the dividing line between radicals and liberals became far less distinct, the Democratic Socialists of America veered once or twice to the radical side. They backed a campaign for rank-and-file democracy and against concession bargaining among steelworkers; they adopted a non-hostile attitude to the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Schulman adds that Harrington himself had certain critical afterthoughts about his previous red baiting of the 1960s anti-war movement. I have no doubt these things are true. And, while I suppose the DSA deserves credit for not being completely consistent in its overall orientation toward Democrats and bureaucrats, it is the main trajectory, not occasional departures and regrets, that define the politics of an organisation.

Will today’s enlarged DSA start to define itself differently? The most important question now facing this group is where it intends to go with the thousands of new members it has acquired as a result of the Sanders campaign. Unlike the current-day Spartacist League and its offshoots, I do not take toward the growing ferment in the left wing of the Democratic Party the attitude that Marx enjoined against: “Cease your struggles! They are foolish! Here is the truth! Go down on your knees before it!” I believe socialists must seek a way to engage left-moving Democrats.

But the question remains: if, as Schulman agrees, the project of ‘realigning’ the party to the left is a proven cul-de-sac,what is the DSA’s strategy for leading rebellious voters toward the exits and into a third party of the left (which I assume to be the alternative to realignment)? As far as I can tell, DSA has no strategy. It continues to include unreconstructed Democratic loyalists in its leading bodies; it speaks vaguely of an “inside/outside” approach - ie, supporting ‘progressive’ candidates who run either as Democrats or independents. But, on the question of what to do when ‘progressive’ Democrats throw their support behind mainstream ones after losing in the primaries (as most do), the DSA remains silent. Although leftish DSAers like Schulman may have given up on Democratic realignment, their inside/outside approach, in the absence of any plan for moving from the inside to the outside, effectively remains one of continuing to work within the party.

Finally, Schulman assures us that, although Harrington wasn’t nearly as bad as I make him out to be, today’s DSA is not dogmatically committed to his legacy anyway, and arguing about it therefore has a “musty air”. But, if this is so, perhaps Schulman can explain why he didn’t see fit to reply to an article of mine in this paper (‘Different plot twists, same ending’, August 25 2016) that was partly devoted to taking issue with his far more timely assertions about the Democrats and electoral politics, and was only moved to pound the keyboard in reply to my recent treatment of the musty political history of the DSA’s long-deceased and not-dogmatically-followed founder. Or why he continues to employ Harrington’s “left of the possible” slogan, thinking that substituting ‘far left’ for simply ‘left’ somehow changes things. Or why, for that matter, we are compelled to conduct this exchange exclusively in a British publication.

One reason is that the flagship periodical of the DSA left, the ‘radical slick’ Jacobin magazine, while acknowledging that my Harrington piece was “very well done”, rejected it as not being the “right fit” for its website. Could it be that the facts I cited about the collaboration of Harrington and Norman Thomas in the cold war (which I sometimes think Jacobin would also like to expunge from history) are what didn’t fit the airbrushed, founding-father portraits of these figures that Jacobin and DSA wish to mount on their walls?

The presence on the Facebook page of the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Bhaskar Sunkara, of a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) Mount Rushmore-like collage of himself, together with Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, together with a video of Harrington’s 1989 memorial service, lead me to suspect that the answer is yes.

Jim Creegan
New York

Legalise them

I would like to comment on an article headlined ‘Heartbroken partner calls for legalisation of drugs’, which recently featured in my local paper.

Sharon Carter - the partner of Neil Waters, who died after unknowingly injecting himself with heroin cut with a deadly elephant tranquiliser - is calling for drugs to be made legal. I support Sharon’s call for the legalisation and regulation of all drugs by the state.

Legalisation and regulation does not mean a free-for-all, where drugs are available on supermarket shelves. Cannabis would be made available through licensed shops, as happens in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska, California, and next year in Canada. Cannabis would also be available in licensed ‘coffee shops’, as happens in the Netherlands, and in licensed cannabis social clubs, as in Spain.

Legalisation and regulation of all drugs by the state would put most drug dealers and organised criminal drug networks out of business. At least £500 million a year would be saved from the current costs of the police, the prison service, the probation service and the criminal justice system. Taxes on the £5-billion-a-year UK cannabis market would bring in at least £1 billion a year, some of which could be used in a public education campaign aimed at minors.

Heroin would only be made available to registered heroin addicts on prescription by their GPs, as happens very successfully in Switzerland. Heroin on prescription in Switzerland has led to a dramatic fall in the number of new heroin addicts in that country, as the illegal supply of heroin has dried up. If heroin was legalised and regulated by the state, the death of Neil Waters could have been avoided.

It is time to legalise and regulate all drugs.

John Smithee
Cambridgeshire

Insightful

Last week’s article from comrade Yassamine Mather was really unusual in two ways (‘Nationalism and imperial power’, September 14). Firstly, in its references to her past life at a quite intimate level. Secondly, even if only by ‘extension’ of her lines of thought, it shone light upon an element of capitalist duplicity that’s under-examined. I’m referring to the profuse amount of time, cascades of energy and intensity of bullshit that capitalism deploys towards such matters as feminism, so-called equal rights, versions or choices of sexuality, etc.

Just to take one aspect of things, has anyone noticed that its mantra about ‘equal’ rights and thereby equal ‘opportunities’ for women has provided capitalism with a scenario whereby females - rather than just males - are now fronting up its farrago and circus? Females such as Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, with Hillary Clinton trying her damnedest, to provide that same ‘liberated’ service.

Self-evidently, it is not someone’s gender but their core politics and social attitudes that are of any significance or consequence whatsoever. Of course, precisely the same applies to ethnicity or colour of skin. Put in the baldest of terms, who gives a shit whether it’s a gay black man or a hetero white woman - or, indeed, a possessor of some other blend of human characteristics - that is busily snatching back gains achieved by the working class since World War II? It’s the calculated snatching, their premeditated and carefully targeted theft, deliberately and ruthlessly revamped oppression that counts.

Similarly with the slimy little worm known as patriotism, or even the venomous snake of nationalism. It’s of absolutely no importance which particular ‘sovereign’ country purports to provide its citizens with their so-called precious or special ‘way of life’: it’s whether that state is systemically socialist or intrinsically exploitative that counts.

Comrade Mather expressed all of this far more impressively, to a certain extent via her harsh personal experiences in life. “Yet the incident demonstrated to me how narrow-minded nationalism can be, how easily it can turn to regionalism. And, once you go down that route, there is no end to the divisions that can be exploited by the enemies of the working class. After all, the civil wars of the Middle East have not harmed US or Israeli interests in the region and no doubt the destruction of the current state of Iran would also serve them well. Anything that can pave the way for such a scenario is a bonus for them.”

What a perfect example of insightful, communistic thinking for us all to absorb. What invaluable class weaponry provided by comrade Mather - not to mention the fact that it is beautifully holistic. What a crying shame our current era and circumstances here in ‘confused and duped’ Limboland don’t provide us with equivalent opportunities for equally courageous, fast-tempo revolutionary activity. Activity such as that described by the comrade - or, indeed, as experienced by my own father in the years following World War I in Germany and Austria, and then during his involvement in the Spanish civil war.

Bruno Kretzschmar
email

They earned it

I hope that Yassamine Mather is wrong - no people so greatly deserves to have an independent nation of their own as the Kurds.

As an American who appreciates the Kurdish people’s accomplishments, I feel a closer kinship to the Kurds than any other nation in the Middle East. They are not perfect and the probability of their attaining their goal looks slim, but my heart and head are with them. As Sir Winston Churchill said long ago, Iraq is three nations and will not survive as a single nation.

Who in their right mind could imagine that a completely separate culture, living on what effectively is their nation, could have much of anything in common with a Shi’ite Iraq? The Kurds have long since earned their freedom and independence in my opinion. I think that Americans and Brits should support Kurdish independence, just as we would want if we were in their shoes.

Ed Scott
New Mexico, USA

Iran injustice

Three prominent activists are on hunger strike in an Iranian prison. They are protesting against unjust sentences handed down to them by the Islamic courts. The comrades are in urgent need of solidarity, especially from trade unionists and democrats internationally.

The three are: Reza Shahbi - a member of the coordinating committee of the syndicate of the Vahed Bus Company (Tehran); Abbas Abdi - a member of the executive committee of teachers’ guild; Mahmoud Beheshti Langaroudi - former spokesperson of the teachers’ guild.

Shahabi, Abdi and Langaroudi have had these sentences imposed as a result of their activities in defence of their fellow workers. Worryingly, the hunger strike is starting to have a serious effect on their health and is now endangering their lives. Reza Shahabi, for example, has refused food for more than six weeks.

We call on labour activists and defenders of the working class worldwide to do everything they can to save the lives of these leading activists and to build solidarity with them. We also express our grave concern for the lives of these labour activists and urge them to consider ending their hunger strike. The essential work they undertake in defence of thousands of workers in Iran is vital.

To add your name to the signatories of this letter, please email Hands Off the People of Iran at office@hopoi.info.

Yassamine Mather
Hopi

AKP persecution

Turkish journalist and photographer Kemal Özer Evrensel has been arrested and is being held in custody. The detention warrant was reportedly issued by the Tunceli public prosecutor’s office. Özer was detained by police in Dersim as part of an anti-terrorism probe on September 4. After his detention, police and gendarmerie personnel searched Özer’s home and seized his cameras and digital material.

In the past, Kemal Özer was threatened for his investigative journalism, especially because he revealed the illegal hunting that took place in the region.

Once again we are calling on for the release of Kemal Özer and all 180 imprisoned journalists who have been arrested and persecuted by the AKP government in Turkey. In the meantime, we would be grateful if your readers could send us messages of support and solidarity in the next few days, which we can share with Kemal Özer and use in the Evrensel daily newspaper.

Freedom for all. Journalism is not a crime.

Solidarity with the People of Turkey (SPOT)
spot@daymer.org

Orwellian

Forty-one people packed into the meeting room at the Red Shed in Wakefield on September 16 to discuss ‘George Orwell and socialism’, an event organised by Wakefield Socialist History Group.

The first speaker, Brian Bamford, secretary of Tameside TUC, made a spirited defence of Orwell against the criticism of Paul Preston. Brian insisted that Homage to Catalonia showed the “true nature of war as a participant”.

Robin Stocks, author of Hidden heroes of Easter week, focused in particular on the Barcelona May Days. He noted that Orwell had been barricaded in the Hotel Falcon with the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) leadership. He added that POUM was an anti-Stalinist party that wanted the revolution to be “continued, not watered down”. It had links with the Independent Labour Party in Britain and Orwell had joined the POUM militia after being given a letter of introduction by Fenner Brockway.

Granville Williams, former editor of Free Press, argued that Orwell had been committed to a classless, egalitarian society to the very end. His attachment to socialism was undiminished. But he was appropriated by the right during the cold war. They used Orwell to bolster their argument that socialism inevitably led to totalitarianism.

Les Hurst from the Orwell Society noted that, despite attacks from the Communist Party, even in the 1930s many people wanted to read Orwell. There was “so much reality in what he wrote”.

The final speaker, Quentin Kopp, spoke movingly about his father, Georges Kopp, who was Orwell’s POUM commander in Spain. Georges Kopp went to Spain to fight fascism and did so bravely. However, he was then imprisoned for 18 months by the NKVD in appalling conditions.

The next Wakefield Socialist History Group event, on ‘The Yorkshire miners’, will be held on Saturday October 14 at 1pm in the Red Shed, 18 Vicarage Street, Wakefield WF1.

Alan Stewart
Wakefield Socialist History Group