In their increasingly complex, esoteric and obscure debate attempting to define or even describe what the former Soviet Union was or was not, Mike Macnair (‘Nothing but bathwater’, May 8) and Ian Donovan (‘Throwing babies out with bathwater’, April 17) appear to have departed from any semblance of observation, common sense and the basic societal options posed by the Marxist theory of historical materialism.
The Soviet Union was no ‘freak’, no ‘ectopic formation’, no ‘chimerical society’, no ‘negation of the negation’.
Sometimes the most straightforward, common sense and obvious explanations happen to be true - ie, the Soviet Union represented a reasonably successful attempt to construct a socialist society following the overthrow of the rule of the landowners and the capitalists. Whatever its faults and mistakes, the Soviet Union embodied the essence of socialism, as defined by Marx - a society which had overthrown bourgeois property, the ‘free’ market and the capitalist state, and had replaced them with collective property, central planning and a workers’ state.
As a modern and economically advanced land without capitalists, the Soviet Union stood as a potent alternative form of society for all the exploited and aggrieved people in capitalist societies. As a social organisation in which private capital was non-existent, it showed that private capital is both a dispensable and a transient phenomenon.
The Soviet Union not only eliminated the former exploiting classes (‘people of the past’), but also ended inflation, unemployment, racial and national discrimination, grinding poverty and glaring inequalities of wealth, income, education and opportunity. Free education, free, high-quality healthcare for all, rents constituting 2%-3% of family budgets, water and utilities only 4%-5%, paid maternity leave, inexpensive and comprehensive childcare, generous pensions, subsidies for food and other basics - all make it blindingly obvious this was a society run in the interests of working people.
We have just celebrated Victory Day (May 9), for goodness sake, where against atrocious and appalling odds, the Soviet people and armed forces managed to turn back and ultimately destroy the German war machine. The strength, ferociousness and unity of the Soviet people’s resistance to the Wehrmacht hardly accords with Trotskyist and imperialist assertions of a broken, terrorised and exploited people.
The victories of the Red Army drew attention to the phenomenal powers of survival and resistance shown by Soviet society in general. The truly epic efforts to build socialist industry and agriculture and to defend the existence of the country and the people during World War II could not have occurred without active popular participation in the governing and running of society and economy, without massive popular support for the regime and its leadership. So powerful and inherent was this support, it remains very much on display during such events as Victory Day and, encouragingly, appears to be enthusing and inspiring the newer and rising generations.
The internationalist role of the Soviet Union in the relatively modern era hardly accords with nonsensical notions of this being an ‘ectopic formation’ or an ‘abortion of a society’, or other gruesome phrases put forward by one of the Weekly Worker’s waning and eccentric gurus. The use of such gynaecological language says more of their author than it does to describe the Soviet Union.
Communism is an ideology which expresses the aspirations of ordinary working people, whether they are wage-earners or peasants. The Weekly Worker claims to be the paper of a future Communist Party. Like it or not, the Soviet Union symbolised that ideology, and felt an identity with working class struggles, wherever they took place, across the globe. The Soviet Union was materially involved in all the major revolutionary movements since 1945, from China to Vietnam, to Palestine, to Nicaragua and to South Africa.
It would have been far easier in terms of 20th century geopolitics for the leadership of the Soviet Union to have coveted ‘respectability’ and ‘approval’ from the nuclear-armed and aggressive imperialist powers by desisting from any such international class and human solidarity. Indeed, it sought justifiable and deserved respect from the imperialists as an emerging superpower which had not only survived the war intended to exterminate it, but had played the major role in the destruction of Nazism, fascism and militarism. Its major foreign policy objective was to prevent it ever again being the subject of genocidal destruction and to defend the results of World War II through clear lines of demarcation between capitalist and communist spheres of interest.
Trotskyism, despite emerging from and representing the interests of classes, strata, sections and other detritus marginalised, defeated and crushed in the emerging Soviet Union of the 1920s and 30s (the ‘57 varieties’ stem from this shattered and dispersed gene pool), did make some valid and pertinent analyses of some of the defects, shortcomings and limitations of certain aspects of Soviet society and economy, which can and should be examined as part of an overall assessment of how and why the Soviet Union was ultimately weakened, undermined and collapsed.
These include how formal public ownership through the state of the means of production and formal democratic control through the soviets by the Soviet people needed to be constantly nurtured, deepened, enriched and extended. This in the context of a new society essentially transitional in nature and content, and in a world dominated by capitalism and imperialism. Societies have to keep moving forward if they are not to stagnate, atrophy and reverse.
In my view, the Soviet Union was caught in the contradiction of having to keep constantly moving forward towards communism in the development of both the forces and relations of production, but that forward progress was ultimately limited by the global realities and endurance of world capitalism and imperialism. Ultimately, progress to communism has to be on a global basis.
The Soviet Union represented a massive leap forward in the history of mankind, and provided a real glimpse of the potential and reality of a truly democratic, human and socialist society. It showed that working people can indeed ‘storm heaven’, overthrow the rule and power of the capitalists and landowners, and start to build an economy and a society run in the interests of working people.
Just as the 71 days of the Paris Commune in 1871 led inexorably to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and 74 years of a socialist superpower, the achievements and record of the Soviet Union will be followed just as surely by 21st century revolutionary transformations - this time inevitably regional, continental and global in scale and scope.
Eddie Ford is right about state anti-racism (‘Beyond the pale’, May 8): racism hasn’t changed, but its position within British society has.
The British political class of late has gone for a much more American ‘melting pot’ ideal of nationhood, but that doesn’t mean the consequences and mentalities of previous black-white relations have been eliminated. There is now a more prominent black middle class, while facetious racists like Jeremy Clarkson are chided and must apologise.
The UK though is nowhere near US levels of political participation (how many black mayors in Britain?) or media representation (12 years a slave, by a British director, concerns US slavery): state anti-racism is still rudimentary. Afro-Caribbeans as ever are more likely to be poor and their offspring harassed and imprisoned by the law. Generally, people of colour are officially accepted as part of the national family (like Mo - or is that Mohamed? - Farah), but they come under special suspicion, as Islamists, illegitimate immigrants, petty criminals, and are treated more harshly. Compare the handling of Constance Briscoe and Vicky Pryce, public servants who both perverted the course of justice in covering up for MP Chris Huhne. The white, middle class Pryce got half the prison time and may yet acquire her own chat show.
Of course, official anti-racism usually isolates the offence in individuals, like those concerned with football, rather than employers or public institutions, individuals who are, you know, uncouth (or Ukip).
Agreed then that what we lack is a strong working class movement that can present the alternative to the options of official anti-racism or racism, centre-right establishment or rightwing protest (from Ukip to Boko Haram), where, for example, the answer to the theme of immigrants undercutting local workers is not acceptance or rejection, but championing stronger unions against all low pay. Solidarity means countering pernicious ideologies both in the state and in the class.
Three former members of Take That, including Gary Barlow and their manager, were reported to have “invested £26 million in a scheme designed to avoid the payment of tax” (The Guardian June 20 2012). It was called the Icebreaker partnership and claimed to be helping new acts.
Although David Cameron had criticised anti-government Jimmy Carr (when on holiday) for investing in a similar scheme very shortly before, seeing Carr apologising and pulling out of the scheme, Cameron refused to criticise his pal, Barlow, who had campaigned for the Tories at the 2010 general election.
Nearly two years later, “a court ruling on May 9 2014 decided that the partnership was actually a tax avoidance scheme for the ‘ultra-rich’” (Huffington Post May 10) and ordered the repayment of tens of millions of pounds. Cameron still refused to criticise Barlow and his band mates until the pressure got to him and he did so in Monday’s edition of The Times.
However, Cameron is risking the lead the Tories have got over Labour in two recent opinion polls, for the first time for two years, by arguing that Barlow should be allowed to keep his OBE for “services to music and charity”. So it’s OK for multimillionaires to get an Order of the British Empire (sic) for charity work (ie, urging ordinary working and middle class people to donate to ‘good causes’, while boosting his own reputation) at the same time as avoiding paying the government millions of pounds that could be used to fund such causes directly (or prevent them from being cut as part of the government’s austerity agenda) or indeed making large donations to charity himself!
Of course, revolutionary socialists recognise that charity is not the solution to society’s problems. This was underlined by a Panorama investigation showing that “millions of pounds donated to Comic Relief have been invested in funds with shares in tobacco, alcohol and arms firms” (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25273024). Comic Relief was one of the charities Barlow raised money for.
Of course, the likes of Barlow are small fry compared to big business. Amazon has paid just £4.2 million to the UK treasury for UK sales of £4.3 billion, taking advantage of its headquarters being in Luxembourg. See The Guardian article, ‘Amazon UK boycott urged after retailer pays just £4.2 million in tax’ (May 9), which also reveals that they have only contributed just over £10 million in UK corporation tax over a whole decade.
The Labour MP, Margaret Hodge, is calling for a boycott of Amazon, but, whereas she can easily afford to shop elsewhere, in these times of austerity many cannot. She should instead focus on proposing legislation to ban them from selling their goods to UK consumers unless they pay their fair share of tax, and argue for democratic socialism in the UK and across the world. While there are tax havens and capitalist countries with differing rates of (income and corporation) tax competing in a race to the bottom, it is difficult to see how tax avoidance (and evasion) can seriously be defeated. Socialism in one country cannot work, with or without a dictator like Stalin, but a socialist revolution taking place in a single western country could trigger a worldwide revolutionary movement capable of truly freeing the masses from the rule of big business and the politicians like Cameron who represent their interests.
We need to take (particularly big) businesses, including multinationals, into public ownership - only feasible by capping compensation, so rich shareholders lose most of their money (and it wouldn’t really be socialism if the ‘ultra-rich’ are allowed to retain their ill-gotten gains). As it happens, I got an amendment for compensation to be “capped at a certain level, so that large shareholders lose most of their investments” when shares are converted to government bonds, accepted into the economics commission document presented at the March 29 Left Unity conference, so it is now LU policy.
So why did Cameron become so nervous about criticising the likes of Barlow? Perhaps because there is a skeleton in Cameron’s closet - almost literally in his father, Ian, who indulged in tax avoidance himself by taking advantage of “a new climate of investment after all capital controls were abolished in 1979, making it legal to take any sum of money out of the country without it being taxed or controlled by the UK government” (The Guardian April 20). David Cameron inherited £300,000 from his will (but the article implies he may own further investments courtesy of his father).
The astute will note that 1979 was the year Thatcher came to power and abolished capital controls with the shift towards ‘free market’ neoliberalism. How appropriate that Cameron is carrying on where Thatcher left off!
Militia and LU
You people are certifiably insane.
Gerry Downing’s letter (May 8) is pretty disorientated, but does contain some grains of truth. Disorientated indeed is the notion that the current nationalist conflict in the Ukraine is akin to the Spanish civil war, or that there is some kind of ‘revolution’ going on in eastern Ukraine. Painting up the Russian nationalist fight against being dominated by the foul, reactionary Ukrainian Maidan regime in Kyiv as a socialist revolution is just nonsense and completely ignores the issue of great Russian chauvinism that is among the chief driving forces of the popularity of Putin’s regime.
It is a complete break with the internationalist tradition of the Bolsheviks to draw such comparisons and give them a ‘communist’ coloration. In reality, we are currently the political equivalent of light years away from the kind of revolutionary mass struggle that was carried out by the Spanish working class in the mid-1930s. The whole dynamic in Ukraine is in the direction of a nationalist conflict that reflects the enormous lack of socialist consciousness on both the Russian/Russophone side and the side of Ukraine. The use of red flags, images (icons, in effect) of Lenin and the like on the Russian side does not make this a socialist mobilisation, unless the likes of the national Bolsheviks and similar formations in the camp of the Stalinist remnants, who systematically mix up the banners of ‘communism’ and fascistic pan-Slavism and the like, are to be considered a socialist force. It should be obvious that this is not true. To paint such forces in socialist colours is almost as absurd and reactionary as those in the United Secretariat and the like who paint up Maidan, with its Nazi-Banderists and all, as a progressive movement.
I say ‘almost’, because there is one element of truth, not in comrade Downing’s fanciful analysis, but in his factual narrative. The arson-massacre in Odessa on May 2 was indeed a brutal crime and part of a pattern of bloody actions by the Ukrainian government that are aimed at denying the democratic rights of the Russophone population in southern and eastern Ukraine, which must of necessity include the right to choose whether they are ruled by Russia, Ukraine or some kind of federal or confederal arrangement - the best solution being the latter.
This is a conflict in which we as communists and socialists should have a side - with those in the Russophone population who are resisting the attempt of the Ukrainian Maidan regime to forcibly retain them within a ‘one and indivisible’ Ukraine under US hegemony, irrespective of their own national aspirations. Socialists should support their right to resist, not in the name of forlorn ‘socialist’ illusions in Russian nationalism, but of democracy and national rights.
In the concrete world situation of today, Russia is a relatively minor imperialist power, and we would not be in favour of its expansion, were that to be happening. But it is not - rather, what is happening is a drive to expand Nato and US power further into the territory of the former Soviet bloc and the USSR itself. Thus we see US troops in Poland and the Baltic states, and reportedly US troops have been sent covertly to fight alongside the Maidan regime against the Russophone ‘terrorists’ in Ukraine. The Russophone population have the right to resist with force of arms these oppressors being sent to suppress them, and deserve the solidarity of class conscious workers in the west.
Putin recently mused, in a widely publicised speech, as to how he simply did not understand why the early Bolshevik regime had drawn borders so that significant Russian-speaking populations were incorporated as a national minority into the Ukraine. Putin, as a pretty pure great Russian nationalist, was unable to comprehend that the reason was to dilute the overwhelming preponderance of Russia and great Russianism in a multinational, socialist entity that aspired to real equality of nations.
But that is long gone, and can only be reborn in a long struggle in which consistent democracy, which includes defending the rights of all peoples to be free of national coercion and oppression, is reasserted as a task that only the working class under the banner of genuine communism can make its own.
From reading the western media and that of much of the ‘left’, you would think that Putin was about to occupy the core territories of Ukraine proper, including Kyiv and Lviv, and re-enact the horrors of Stalin’s Holodomor killer famine. If that were even remotely true, then communists should take a very different position - we are as much opposed to national oppression of Ukrainians as anyone else, and they would have the unconditional right to resist that in the same manner.
But this is very far from the truth: what is posed here is the oppression of the Russian-speaking population as part of a decades-long drive to further extend US/western power into the east. This must be resisted by all socialists, internationalists and class-conscious workers.
Right to arm
Jack Conrad reminds readers that in 1936 Trotsky called for democratic rights for rank-and-file soldiers and put forward a plan for workers’ parties and trade unions to form militias (‘Arms and our moderate speaker’, May 8). Trotsky was aware that the ruling class prefers civil war to the possibility of losing power to a class-conscious proletariat.
Civil war is a lesser evil than a seizure of power by a working class mobilised around a socialist programme. It is an option successful as a means of defeating the working class in the past - especially when cooption of leaders and state repression have failed. There is no ruling class that has given up power without a serious fight. Perhaps an exhausted capitalist class will be the first to hand over rule peacefully to a subordinate class, but this seems unlikely. We can therefore expect that, if desperate sections of this class feel threatened by the collective might of organised workers, trade unions and workers’ parties, they will resort to instructing the police, courts and the army to ignore or actively encourage physical attacks on workers. Moreover, the social base of chauvinist and fascist politics - small business people and the unemployed - will be mobilised for civil war.
Of course, the class struggle is itself a low-level civil war, as contemporary events in South Africa’s mines have shown. The ruling class fear of the growth of proletarian power and its socialist potential has operated consciously or unconsciously in causing the civil wars of Russia, Ireland, Spain, Greece and Yugoslavia in the last century. All of these led to defeats for our class. I would argue that this fear also informs directly or indirectly the more recent moves to civil wars in the Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand.
Comrade Conrad is therefore right to stress that the formation of democratic militias of class-conscious workers is a necessary condition to prevent civil war. These are justified on the principle of an injury to one is an injury to all, the rejection of illusions in state protection and an acceptance that there is a need for embryonic forms of proletarian state power in the present.
However, militias are far from sufficient. Readers will have noticed that in the Libyan and Syrian democratic revolutions sections of the state were prepared to kill civilians indiscriminately through the use of air strikes and other means. The question therefore arises of how to create conditions that will immobilise the armed forces the ruling class relies upon. Campaigning for the rights of rank-and-file members of the military and the police is crucial towards this end. These include the rights to withdraw labour, organise collectively and refuse orders to kill or harm civilians or target civilian areas.
I hope the Marxist parties of the future will do educational and political work with both veterans and their allies actively employed in the armed services. Marxists need to support actual and former rank-and-file members of the military and police on a class basis. They need to highlight their experience of the dehumanising and brutalising effects of being trained to kill on behalf of the interests of capitalists, imperialists, Stalinists and religious patriots. This preparatory work will be essential for creating the conditions for the mutinies and political destabilisation of the military and police that precede a proletarian seizure of power.
Towards this end, Marxists need to continue to explain the connections between capitalism, imperialism, Stalinism and war, and develop persuasive propaganda that promotes the establishment of a democratically planned, classless society worldwide. This is the only means of bringing civil and international wars to an end.
Paul B Smith
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev had his London concert disrupted on Sunday May 11 by 30 pro-Ukrainian demonstrators and human rights campaigners, protesting against Gergiev’s support for the Putin regime and for Russia’s interference in Ukraine.
Waving Ukrainian flags and holding a huge banner, “Gergiev supports war in Ukraine”, they booed Gergiev as he walked on stage in Trafalgar Square to conduct Prokofiev with the London Symphony Orchestra. They then pointed at Gergiev and chanted “Shame on you”. He looked surprised and slightly embarrassed.
Some of the protestors shouted, “Gergiev supports Putin. Freedom for Ukraine.” They were angry that the LSO is willing to work with and fund Gergiev, given that he supported Russia’s invasion of Crimea and backed Putin’s anti-gay legislation.
The peaceful, symbolic protest took place shortly before 7pm on Sunday night and lasted about four minutes, before the protestors were manhandled out of Trafalgar Square by security staff. The disruption was jointly organised by the pro-Ukrainian London EuroMaidan campaign group and the Peter Tatchell Foundation. We wanted to send a message to Gergiev and the Putin government that what Russia is doing in the Ukraine is unacceptable.
In March 2014, Valery Gergiev signed an open letter, declaring his support for president Putin’s stance on Ukraine; implicitly endorsing Russia’s aggression and its military annexation of Crimea. Gergiev endorsed Putin’s 2012 election campaign, releasing a video explaining why he was voting for Putin. He continues to support the Russian leader, despite the intervention in Ukraine and anti-gay legislation. Gergiev is a great conductor, but he allies himself with the expansionist, homophobic Moscow regime. He doesn’t respect Ukraine’s national sovereignty or the human rights of gay Russians. He is not fit to conduct the LSO.
As Chrystyna Chymera, a Ukrainian participant from London EuroMaidan and a co-organiser of the protest, put it: “We were taking a stand against Gergiev’s collusion with the Putin regime’s aggression in Ukraine. He chose to take an odious political stand. We were exercising our democratic right to criticise him. Gergiev’s pro-Putin position is an insult to the people of Ukraine.”
Peter Tatchell Foundation