Lars Lih’s article, ‘The Bolsheviks were fully armed’(February 26), seems to me to suffer from the absence of at least two crucial distinctions.
The first - and more important - concerns Lih’s view, which he shares with the CPGB, that there was no operational difference between, on the one hand, the Bolshevik slogan of ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ and, on the other, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and Lenin’s April theses. On the contrary, the differences were of great practical significance.
The pre-April Bolsheviks were still invested in the notion of a two-stage revolution. They differed from the Mensheviks, who proposed to “make the bourgeoisie fight”, in their belief that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak and vacillating to carry such a revolution to its conclusion. The work of clearing the way for a preliminary stage of capitalist development would therefore devolve upon the proletariat and peasantry. Their revolutionary dictatorship was, however, seen as a temporary affair, and one that could not transgress the bounds of bourgeois property due to Russia’s overwhelming peasant majority. Once political democracy had been achieved, according to this perspective, the dictatorship would end and the Social Democrats would assume the role of a working class opposition in a bourgeois parliament.
Trotsky’s prognosis differed from that of the Bolsheviks in two important respects. First, he considered it utopian to imagine that the working class, once having conquered power in a revolution waged not only against tsarism, but against the bourgeoisie as well, could turn around and cede power to the bourgeois class antagonist it had just vanquished. Second, he predicted that the working class would, by the very logic of the revolutionary situation, be compelled to take measures that encroached upon bourgeois property (ie, socialist measures) and that, once taken, such measures would be irreversible. A socialist regime in backward Russia could not sustain itself, however, without the aid of the international and, particularly, the European working class. Lenin’s post-April views coincided in practice with Trotsky’s. Hence the rapprochement between the two after years of sometimes bitter factional rivalry, although it is true that Lenin arrived at his views via his own analysis of the dynamics of the February revolution, not by reading Trotsky.
Kamenev’s Pravda editorial, written before Lenin’s return, is obviously guided by the ‘democratic dictatorship’ formula that Lenin was in the process of discarding. Lih is right to point out that this conception did envisage an eventual clash between the bourgeois Provisional government (PG) and the masses. But Lih seems oblivious to the fact that the PG, whatever measures it was taking to dismantle tsarism, was thoroughly committed to the war aims of the Entente - a fact that Kamenev’s editorial also fails to mention. And it was precisely against the war that the masses were revolting. The clash with the PG was not a future inevitability. It was already taking place on the eastern front, from which soldiers were deserting in droves. Lenin was correctly convinced that the road to peace could only lie through the overthrow of the PG, which he therefore demanded that the Bolsheviks adopt as their strategic goal.
This brings me to Lih’s second confusion. He seems not to appreciate the distinction between overthrowing the PG as the major Bolshevik political goal and calling for an immediate insurrection. The first is a matter of strategy, the second of tactics. Proclaiming ‘Down with Kerensky!’ no more implies an immediate insurrection than the slogan, ‘Down with the tsar!’, means that the people should take to the streets the following day. Without setting a precise date for insurrection, Lenin insisted upon his return that the Bolshevik leadership adopt the overthrow of the PG and power to the soviets as the main strategic task of the entire revolutionary process, towards which they must strive to reorient the party, the soviets and the masses. This would have to involve propaganda, agitation and military preparation.
Kamenev’s editorial may, as Lih argues, anticipate a clash with the PG in the near term. Yet he sees such a clash, whose outcome he does not specify, as the result of an automatically unfolding revolutionary dynamic rather than posing the overthrow as a concrete task. He substitutes process for agency. This is undoubtedly the reason why Lenin greeted Kamenev upon returning to Petrograd with the words, “What’s that garbage you’ve been writing in Pravda?”
Syriza was right
I think there are several serious theoretical errors contained in your article, ‘Austerity in the colours of Syriza’ (February 26).
Firstly, since when did Marxists confuse the fact of particularly a social democratic party, like Syriza, taking “governmental office”, having won an election, with a revolutionary party taking “power”? Marxists have historically been at pains to make a clear distinction between the two, because the distinction has very serious consequences. Anyone who confuses simply assuming governmental office, so as to carry forward a series of reforms compatible with a continuation of bourgeois rule, with taking power, which implies overthrowing the existing class state, and erecting in its place a workers’ state, is indeed doomed to lead workers into the kind of catastrophe that occurred with the Allende government in Chile.
But, bearing that distinction in mind, and recognising Syriza for what it is - a traditional bourgeois social democratic party, no different from the Labour Party or the US Democrats - I find the fetishising of the refusal to take governmental office strange. Would you similarly argue for any of your comrades, for example, to refuse to take up a position as a shop steward, or other official position, on the basis that they frequently could not even prevent wage and job cuts, etc?
Can we assume that if Labour wins the upcoming election, then, having called for a vote for them, you will demand that they refuse to take office, because there is little chance that a Miliband Labour government will fulfil even a minimum programme? If, having won such an election, Labour did refuse to take office on the basis you propose, indeed had the Labour government in 1945, 1964, 1966, 1974 and so on refused to take office, having gone to the trouble of getting millions of workers to vote for it, what chance do you think there is that those workers would bother voting for such a party in any future election? Indeed, as an ordinary worker, if the CPGB’s or indeed the Labour Party’s message to me was ‘Vote for us: we will refuse to take office’, I would look for some other party to support, where my vote was not going to be wasted!
In your article, you write: “Germany and its close allies were never going to consent to any form of debt relief or repudiation, as that would set a dangerous precedent - sparking rebellion across Europe.” But there is no reason to believe that is the case. After all, there have already been numerous haircuts of Greek debt, and all economists recognise that the Greek debt will have to be written off one way or another anyway, because there is no way Greece can repay it.
You are right to point out that the reason why governments in Germany, Spain, Portugal and Italy are opposed to any rational resolution with Syriza is that it will lead to similar calls from the workers in their own countries. But it’s precisely for that reason that it was right for Syriza under the actual conditions to have taken office, and put that possibility on the table! Syriza’s approach of calling its defeat a victory is a serious mistake, but not a fatal one at present, if it uses the interim to stress that it was forced into this compromise, and needs to build an opposition to austerity across Europe. Then those governments in Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal would have reason to worry. Already, even the German trade unions have come out with a statement opposing the harsh measures being taken against Greece.
You state: “In other words, what Germany is really worried about - quite understandably from its own point of view - is that the austerity regimes imposed on Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy could unravel. The latter country, it goes without saying, is too big to fail - if it did, that would be the end of the euro zone.” This is completely wrong. From a Marxist standpoint, what all of this debt represents is not capital, but fictitious capital, as Marx sets out in Capital Vol 3. As fictitious capital it has absolutely nothing to do with economic capacity.
In fact, as Marx points out, quite the opposite is the case. The build up of this fictitious capital often stands in the way of the accumulation of real productive capital. The destruction of vast swathes of this fictitious capital is in fact usually a precondition for such accumulation. A writing-off of all EU debt, in similar vein, is a starting point for commencing a programme of building real capital across the EU, and thereby dealing with the problems of low growth and unemployment.
In 1939, in relation to Mexico, Trotsky wrote: “Considerable international capital is seeking areas of investment at the present time, even where only a modest (but sure) return is possible. Turning one’s back on foreign capital and speaking of collectivisation and industrialisation is mere intoxication with words.”
He points out that despite the nationalisation of the oil companies by the Cardenas regime, it would be possible to attract foreign capital into joint ventures, as Lenin had tried to do in the Soviet Union. He goes on: “Despite all these advantages [enjoyed by the USSR] the industrial reconstruction of the country was begun with the granting of concessions. Lenin accorded great importance to these concessions for the economic development of the country and for the technical and administrative education of Soviet personnel. There has been no socialist revolution in Mexico. The international situation does not even allow for the cancellation of the public debt. The country, we repeat, is poor. Under such conditions it would be almost suicidal to close the doors to foreign capital. To construct state capitalism, capital is necessary.”
It’s clear here that the potential for implementing even a minimum programme was limited. What was being proposed in Mexico was nothing more than state-capitalist modernisation and industrialisation, in conditions not as favourable as those that exist in Greece. Yet Trotsky quite rightly does not suggest that Marxists could simply walk away from intervening in the situation, let alone arguing that the government should be left to the tender mercies of conservatives! In a similar vein, later Trotsky addressed the situation whereby the Cardenas regime was encouraging the workers to exercise a degree of workers’ control. Trotsky wrote that Marxists cannot delude workers with the belief that socialism can be constructed by the capitalist state undertaking nationalisations, and handing the property to the workers; nor, he argues, is it possible to have real workers’ control without actual workers’ ownership of the means of production, and workers’ power in society.
However, “The bourgeois government has itself carried through the nationalisation and has been compelled to ask participation of the workers in the management of the nationalised industry. One can, of course, evade the question by citing the fact that unless the proletariat takes possession of the power, participation by the trade unions in the management of the enterprises of state capitalism cannot give socialist results. However, such a negative policy from the revolutionary wing would not be understood by the masses and would strengthen the opportunist positions. For Marxists it is not a question of building socialism with the hands of the bourgeoisie, but of utilising the situations that present themselves within state capitalism and advancing the revolutionary movement of the workers.”
This is not a question of a Marxist party making a bid for state power. In fact Marxists have an important role to play in making this clear. But it is a serious mistake to believe that it makes no difference whether a Labour government is in power that carries through a bourgeois social democratic programme rather than a Conservative government carrying through a reactionary programme. If Marxists would not argue that Labour should not take office having won an election in Britain, they should not adopt a different position in relation to Syriza in Greece.
A funny thing happened on the way to the bourse last week. That Wednesday morning, with lips pursed, a sign of the times was duly written and issued: the risk assessors showed their lack of confidence in big banking capital. Counterintuitively, lenders were paying a borrower to take their money.
Well, it was the Börse, in fact. The German state wanted some money, so sold some debt, five-year bills, auctioning them off. And the interest rate? Well, the bidding didn’t go up, it went down. And €3.3 billion was racked in (enough to pay for the year one spending of Syriza’s budget-neutral programme advertised in last month’s election). The deal was struck at not just 0.08% - for five years, remember - but an average of negative 0.08%: for the first time lenders were being charged to park their money capital with the German state.
Too often these days, capitalists get a bad press. But people forget it’s not all plain sailing when you have to navigate the world, laden with money capital, trying to find a business opportunity. Even when the search is successful, it’s often not easy to meet partners you can trust, people you can invest with your confidence. It’s a risky, nasty, cut-throat world. So you need to build relationships, and that takes time - and time is money. Wouldn’t it be much easier if there was something bigger and safer than a bank that could help?
Having money capital carries intrinsic risks, especially when it’s not easy to find suitable investment opportunities and you have to hang on to it. Where to put it, who to trust? That’s the crux. And it’s especially vexing when highly experienced risk assessors remind you that even the biggest bank can implode, consuming your money. Cue for an institution of the state to step forward - or at least of a reliable state. Time for trustworthy treasuries to open their chests, offering themselves as hosts, a haven from stormy and turbulent seas. They present themselves as capital’s protector of last resort. This is public service at its best.
I’m not sure about this, but I conjecture that something peculiar happens when money capital is subjected to negative nominal interest rates. (In this German example, if there were deflation of more than 0.08% then the interest rate would be positive in real terms, albeit nominally negative.) It’s business as usual for the state because it uses the money it gets sometimes as capital, sometimes not, but for the lenders, treasury bill in hand, their post-shopping experience is somewhat different. For them, unlike the state, the nominal interest rate reduces the sum of money: this is monetary destruction, of its magnitude. (In comparison, there’s only a destruction of its purchasing power if the real interest rate is negative - as it is for the owners of these German bills in almost every country.) Their money, advanced to the state, is not accumulating: it is depleting, disaccumulating, wasting away. In this condition, does the lender’s money retain its quality as a value (necessarily in the form of abstract value)? Is it still capital? If so, is the value magnitude affected by monetary destruction? Or, perhaps, is this magnitude only a consequence of a change in the average value magnitude of capital on the world scale?
I conjecture that, the moment the money capital is passed to the borrower, part of it is stripped of its social qualities of both value and capital, and this coincides with the enactment of monetary destruction of the same magnitude. For the lender, the money has stamped upon it a new social character - a token, a promise to pay a smaller sum at a future date. So from the lender’s side - their self-understanding is another matter - we have an event (with two faces, just like a coin) and a process:
- an instant refusal to socially recognise that all the lent money bears socially necessary labour time, thereby enacting devaluation, the destruction of part of the value born in and through the money’s social relations;
- just as instantly there’s a social recognition that, as some of the money lacks value (necessarily in the abstract form), that portion is pseudo-capital, fictive capital, not capital at all but simply money, and it enacts a decapitalisation, a destruction, of money capital; and
- this event initiates a period of monetary destruction (lasting five years, say), that necessarily proceeds at a constant nominal rate.
The idea of negative nominal interest rates doesn’t just leave Joe and Joanna Blogs scratching their heads. A world gone mad? Given the riches of developed capitalism, in terms of human flourishing rather than suffering, as a necessary possibility, it is mad, yes; but historically, as a contingent necessity, in capitalist terms, no. Insanity is sane. Sane capitalist practice requires humanity to practise insanity.
The main thing to appreciate is that this is the state we’ve come to: capitalist life has become so risky, even for capitalists, that paying to lend makes sense - but not money - for the lender. The money capitalist becoming the money lender has come up against a limit of capital and is paying the price. But, necessarily, so do we, as either variable capital or as citizen, and our destruction is much more monstrous.
Finally, two errors were made in editing my letter in last week’s paper. Firstly, Syriza polled 23% of the electorate, not 36% as published. That was a figure often in the press, but it was their share of the valid votes cast. Secondly, uncollected tax plus penalties is €770 billion - not €700 billion, as published. Apologies to all.
In his latest diatribe against those who refuse to join in his vendetta against Gilad Atzmon, Tony Greenstein baldly equates those of Jewish origin who express doubts about aspects of the Nazi genocide with neo-Nazis like the British National Party (Letters, February 26).
If Greenstein were consistent in this, he would also apply this logic to the Arab world. Revulsion against the justification of the oppression of Palestinians by reference to the genocide (an everyday retort to criticism in Israel since 1947) has led to a scepticism about the truth of the genocide among many Palestinians and other Arabs. This has been true for many decades. Prominent Arab leaders, past and present, secular and not, such as Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Assads, the leadership of Hamas, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, even the current president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmood Abbas, have all publicly either denied or expressed doubts about the historicity of the Nazi genocide. Not to mention prominent non-Arab Muslim figures like the Iranian leadership, particularly former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is little doubt that the views of these leaders reflect widespread public opinion in that region.
The Zionists use the genocide as a propaganda ‘trump card’ against any and all criticism of their mass ethnic-cleansing and terrorisation of the Palestinians - an all-encompassing argument that says, ‘No matter what has been endured by the Arabs, what happened to us is far worse. And the fact that we Jews were victims of this much worse crime and did not have a country entitles us to the land we have taken. Our allies in the west, who either were responsible for, or did nothing to help us in, our worst sufferings, owe us, and must and will help us to maintain the country we have taken from the Arabs.’
The obvious response of those on the receiving end of barbarism and brutality justified by this argument is to deny its validity. And it is not an enormous step from denying its validity to questioning the truth of the historical event that is used to underpin it. This syllogism may horrify western liberals and leftists who have been brought up on a diet of guilt about what European anti-Semites did to Jews, and a fair amount of culturally conditioned contempt for Arabs and Muslims as being ‘uncivilised’, ‘savage’ and generally inferior. But in fact any people faced with ongoing atrocities justified by a similar propaganda narrative would be 100% certain to challenge such a narrative, and would also not care much if there was an element of irrelevant truth in it.
That is the real social and political context in which views such as those expressed by Atzmon were formed. In fact, compared to many, Atzmon’s remarks on the genocide may be considered quite mild. The peculiarity of Greenstein’s vendetta is that he does not extend this Nazi-baiting to the list of Arab and other Middle Eastern leaders listed above. But, if he did, he would sound just like a crazed hasbarist, pushing the theses that Arab and/or Muslim hostility to Israel is fundamentally the same as Nazi Jew-hatred.
Greenstein reserves his venom for those Jews, such as Atzmon, who have gone over to that essentially Arab standpoint on the genocide. Which really underlines the fact that Greenstein’s politics are communalist. He expresses, quite sincerely as far as I can see, support for Arab rights and opposition to Zionism. But he cannot abide ‘traitorous’ Jews who cross over outright to the Arab standpoint - as far as he is concerned the question of the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians and Israel’s reactionary role is something that has to be resolved by progressive Jews. Arabs are supposed to play only an auxiliary role. And woe betide anyone of Jewish origin who transgresses against this.
I reject this nonsense, whether it is applied to Arabs or people of Jewish origin with similar views. This does not flow from imperialist racism, as it did with neo-Nazi supporters of Hitler, but from a confused opposition to an imperialist propaganda narrative. To equate the two is a reactionary and pro-imperialist position, in its real logic. I am in favour, as a revolutionary socialist, of fraternal debate, as well as joint struggle, with those resisting Zionist imperialism who hold this view, as with those who hold any other mistaken anti-imperialist view.
It is absurd that Greenstein can in one phrase admit that he characterised someone who wanted to attend a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, an organisation clearly within the workers’ movement, as a ‘scab’ for intending to cross a ‘picket line’ he intended to erect against an SWP meeting that hosted Atzmon, and then in the next breath deny that this implied a threat of force or violence.
Greenstein, and everyone else on the left, knows full well that workers are fully entitled to enforce respect for genuine picket lines in an industrial dispute by physical force, if they must. Any socialists who did not defend the right of workers to do this would be a miserable, pacifist trend. Equating such a protest outside a left political meeting with an industrial picket carried an implied threat of physical force against the (SWP) organisers of the meeting. That is why Greenstein was compelled to apologise in short order after he uttered it.
But the fact that he still defends and justifies this usage even today shows that his real position is to no-platform Atzmon and to encourage strong-arm methods against anyone who opposes his anathema. Since that now includes George Galloway, one hopes he might realise how irrational and untenable his campaign has become.
There is a lot in Mike Macnair’s ‘Wrong kind of radicalisation’ (February 26) with which I agree, not least the suggestion that the attraction of Islamic State is a consequence of the failure of the left, including its failure to advance class politics in the Stop the War movement.
However, some of Mike’s arguments I cannot accept. The concept of umma (the Muslim community) is no different from the idea of the le’om (the Jewish people) - see Shlomo Sands’ The invention of the Jewish people, p24. In practice, this idea falls down at the first whiff of heresy or class struggle. IS’s concept of umma involves the wholesale butchering of Shi’ite Muslims and an attack on the very idea of Arab unity against imperialism and Zionism.
The attraction of IS and political Islam/Salafism is a political choice for the girls who have gone to become Jihadi brides. IS may appeal to a limited Muslim solidarity, but that is no less true with respect to Zionism, British fascism or German volkish politics. The question is what type of politics do they represent? Is it one which embraces humanity or one which trumpets the superiority of a particular segment? It may be, like Zionism, a reflection of Arab oppression, but that does not make it any the less dangerous.
Traditional fascism, with its belief in Kinder, Küche, Kirche, was also attractive to women who wished for a positive affirmation of their role within the family. A number of leading suffragettes/Women’s Social and Political Union later joined Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, as their ‘feminism’ was outweighed by their class solidarity, just as the ‘anti-imperialism’ of IS is overtaken by their reactionary religious attachment.
We should not shy away from fierce political criticism of IS. They were (are?) funded by the Saudi and Gulf rulers and armed by the United States. There are a number of reports of Israeli support for IS, including hospital treatment for its wounded, and the missile attack on Hezbollah fighters recently can only be seen in the context of the war between Hezbollah and Iran, on the one side, and IS and the al-Nusra Front, on the other.
On another topic - the recent exchanges with Ian Donovan - I have informed the editor of the Weekly Worker that I have no intention of responding to any further letters which indulge in ad hominem attacks, as I don’t wish to feed what is clearly a personal obsession.
Pete McLaren’s offer of taking an average worker’s wage in the unlikely event of becoming a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition MP is frankly naive.
He claims that £25,000 is more than enough for anyone to live on. Really? Here in the south-east, it is nowhere near enough. If a worker is lucky enough to earn said 25 grand - more likely 13 grand (= minimum wage) - after deductions, this becomes around £17,500, based on 40 hours per week, As rent for a two-bed flat is about £1,200 per month in the private sector, this leaves around fuck all to pay for food and utilities.
The working class is falling behind the rich at a rapid pace and what we don’t need are childish gestures. It doesn’t matter what you earn, it’s what action you take as an MP and, if you are a socialist one on £65,000 per annum, then you should be in the house fighting for the same amount as a minimum for the rest of us.
Thanks, Tusc, but no thanks. I think I will vote Labour this time. At least there’s a chance of getting the minimum wage up to £8 per hour.
Readers of the Weekly Worker may be saddened to learn of the deaths of comrade Dick Donnelly of the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s Glasgow branch and Paul Breeze, both in February. Dick Donnelly had been a member of the SPGB since the 1950s and key figure of Glasgow branch. He wrote, debated and spoke extensively for the party.
In 1960, Donnelly jumped onto the stage after a CPGB celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Daily Worker (led by editor George Matthews), for Donnelly to denounce and ridicule the Communist Party. Despite all the hostility of the CPers, Donnelly routed and exposed the record of their party and their Stalin-worship, reducing them to a sullen silence.
Paul Breeze wrote for the SPGB in the 1970s, but left over the use of the traditional language of ‘socialism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘working class’, etc. After he left, he wrote and published a pamphlet in the 1980s called A world of free access, which set out the case for socialism without using the word. He wrote two novels and became a twice-elected independent councillor and deputy mayor in Stoke-on-Trent.
Jon D White