Gerry Downing continues to bring discredit to the cause of socialism (Letters, July 13). When not explaining the foreign policy of the United States with reference to the “overrepresentation” of Jews within its ruling circles, he is, stupidly, determined to defend a thoroughly discredited version of the history of the Russian Revolution, crucially when it comes to post-February 1917 events.
His latest offering characteristically begins with accusations of dishonesty. Lars T Lih is guilty of peddling falsehoods because he dares to question the verities of standard history (not only liberal and cold war academia, but Stalinite, Trotskyite and Cliffite too). Eg, Lenin held the mass of so-called ordinary workers in contempt, wanted to found a narrow, confessional sect, had no time for democracy, was a semi-Menshevik till, in April 1917, he became a Trotskyite and junked the entire programme of old Bolshevism.
If Lars T Lih had presented no well-researched evidence, no reasoned argument, if he had a long and sustained record of traducing Lenin and the Bolsheviks, then it would be right to distrust what he writes. But he does present well-researched evidence, does present reasoned argument, has a long and sustained record of giving us a corrected, richer, far more worthwhile picture of Lenin and the Bolsheviks (eg, his splendid book Lenin rediscovered).
Comrade Downing brushes aside Lars T Lih’s six-page Weekly Worker supplement (June 20). The idea that the various editors of Pravda - Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, Alexander Shliapnikov, Petr Zalutski, Matvei Muranov, Alexandra Kollontai, Vyacheslav Molotov, Mikhail Olminsky and Maria Ulyanova - could have trimmed, revised, retrofitted Lenin’s first ‘Letter from afar’ in good faith is dismissed out of hand. They had to be dishonest.
But, as Lars T Lih painstakingly demonstrates, Lenin, still trapped in his Swiss exile, suffered from a profound lack of information about what was really going on in Russia. Lenin himself, readily admits that he was “obliged to rely on meagre foreign press dispatches” (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, Moscow 1974, p300). Then there is time. It took two very long weeks before his first ‘Letter from afar’ reached Petrograd and appeared in the eagerly-read pages of Pravda. And, of course, events moved rapidly. Exceedingly rapidly.
Lack of information explains why, for example, Lenin wrongly attributed a leading role in tsar Nicholas II’s abdication to the machinations of Anglo-French imperialism, why he wrongly believed that people such as Alexander Guchkov, and reformo-tsarist parties - ie, the Octobrists and the Peaceful Renovation party - were in control of the “really important” posts in the Provisional Government, that the Cadets and their leader, Pavel Milyukov, were mere “decorations”, and that the Trudovik, Alexander Kerensky, the future prime minister, was nothing but a “balalaika” played to “deceive the workers and peasants”.
Pravda’s editors removed such blatantly misconceived statements. Yes, that is right - they did not want their much esteemed leader - their vozhd, Vladimir Lenin - to appear to be a “complete idiot” before public opinion (comrade Downing’s phrase).
But all comrade Downing can see is Bolshevik dishonesty, Bolshevik appeasing of the provisional government and Bolshevik support for the imperialist war. We are touchingly told that under Shliapnikov and Molotov Pravda was “absolutely anti-war”, but under Kamenev and Stalin the Bolshevik’s daily paper “took a conciliatory tone towards the provisional government” and “supported the war effort”.
As evidence, comrade Downing cites Kamenev saying: “When army faces army, it would be the most insane policy to suggest to one of those armies to lay down its arms and go home. This would not be a policy of peace, but a policy of slavery, which would be rejected by a free people.” Stalin is also quoted: “The slogan, ‘Down with the war’, is useless”.
True, Kamenev argued for an approach nowadays commonly described as ‘critical support’. If the Provisional government conceded to our demands and distributed land to the tillers, armed the people, passed power to the soviets, renounced the imperialist war aims of tsarism, etc, then the Bolsheviks would defend it. However, everyone, but everyone, knew that the Provisional government would do no such thing. In other words, Kamenev sought to expose, not support, the Provisional government.
Clearly, Lenin initially disagreed with this tactic. Nevertheless, shortly after his return to Russia, we find Lenin writing that the slogan, ‘Down with the Provisional Government’, is “an incorrect one at the present moment”. Why? Because the “majority of the people are not yet on the side of the revolutionary proletariat”. Hence the slogan is denounced as either “empty” or “adventurist” (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p210-11).
Lenin also says his differences with Kamenev “are not very great”. Both leader and leading lieutenant advocate explaining, explaining and explaining again Bolshevik policy to the worker and peasant masses.
What about the war? While Lenin remained in neutral Switzerland, it is doubtless right to say that he did not fully appreciate the extent of the “honest defencism” that had taken hold amongst the minds of Russia’s workers and peasants (especially amongst rank-and-file soldiers - peasants in uniform). And, of course, what Kamenev and Stalin were attempting to do in Pravda was to win those very masses to Bolshevism, while, at the same time, maintaining Bolshevik opposition to the warmongering socialists. A task that could not be shirked, though it involved tactical difficulties.
Gregory Zinoviev’s engaging, often moving account, translated by our Ben Lewis, of the journey on the famous sealed train - from Switzerland to Petrograd’s Finland station - testifies to the speed with which Lenin grasped the salient political fact of popular revolutionary defencism:
“Then [once they had entered Russian territory - JC] we came across Russian revolutionary soldiers, who Vladimir Ilych deemed ‘conscientious defenders of the fatherland’, whom in particular we had to ‘patiently educate’ .... Vladimir Ilych ‘bit’ into these soldiers; they talked about the nation, war and the new Russia. Vladimir Ilych’s particular, well-known manner of approaching everyday workers and peasants ensured that in a short time he established an excellent, comradely relationship with the soldiers. The discussions continued throughout the night without interruption. The soldiers, the ‘defenders of the fatherland’, insisted that they were right. The first thing that Vladimir Ilych took from this exchange was that the ideology of ‘defending the fatherland’ remained a powerful force. In order to struggle against it we needed a stubborn rigidity, but patience and a shrewd manner of approaching the masses were equally necessary” (‘Lenin’s arrival in Russia’, April 6).
Till then, Lenin’s focus had been on uncompromising polemics against factional opponents: pro-war socialists, social pacifists, centrists and waverers of every kind. Now the Bolsheviks had to learn how to speak to the masses once again. Did Lenin call upon soldiers to fraternise? Yes. Did he call upon soldiers to defy pro-war officers and join pro-Bolshevik demonstrations? Yes. Did he urge them to head off back to their village homes? No. Did he urge the Bolshevik Party to send out agitators to undermine the fighting capacity of the army? Again no.
Perhaps Lenin’s most impassioned rendition of the new line adopted by Bolshevism can be found in retrospect - ie, after the October Revolution. The March 14-16 1918, 4th (extraordinary) Congress of Soviets, saw a bitter, stormy - and frank - debate between the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (the main bone of contention being signing the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany). Answering the Left SR’s Boris Kamkov, and his claim that, in 1917, the Bolsheviks had been responsible for “disrupting the army”, Lenin delivered this, off the cuff, nonetheless highly informative, put-down:
“But how did we demoralise the army? We were defeatists at the time of the tsar, but at the time of Tsereteli and Chernov [top Menshevik and SR ministers in the Provisional government] we were not defeatists. We published in Pravda a proclamation which Krylenko, [a leading member of the Bolshevik’s military organisation in 1917], who was then still being persecuted, addressed to the army: ‘Why I am going to Petrograd’. He said: ‘We are not calling on you for mutinies.’ That was not demoralisation of the army. Those who declared this war to be a great war were the ones who demoralised the army …. And I assert that we - beginning from this appeal of Krylenko’s, which was not the first, and which I am recalling because it stuck in my mind - we did not demoralise the army, but said: hold the front - the sooner you take power, the easier will it be to retain it” (VI Lenin CW Vol 27, Moscow 1977, pp193-94).
There is, finally, the issue of Kamenev proposing a Bolshevik-Internationalist Menshevik merger … on the political basis of the 1915 “vacillating”, “Kautskyite”, “centrist” Zimmerwald manifesto (main author: Leon Trotsky).
Lenin quite rightly, in my opinion, given the circumstances of 1917, opposed all such attempts. Instead, he wanted to “seek closer relations” and “support unity” with true internationalists, resolute opponents of their own imperialist bourgeoisie and in favour of a “definite break” with pacifistic phrase-mongering.
We modern-day Bolsheviks have nothing to fear from the truth.
Rubbed my eyes
Jack Conrad (Letters, July 13) takes exception to my description of his argument as a “non-sequitur”(‘The Corbyn phenomenon’, July 6). Apparently Jack believes that his statements that “the purpose of making such predictions [that Labour would be badly defeated in the election] was actually to promote a particular strategic line”. This then is an exercise in the principles of clear logical thinking!
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a non-sequitur consists of a conclusion that does not follow logically from the previous argument or statement. Is Jack really saying that his purpose in making a false prediction was in order to develop a particular strategy? What happens when he gets it right?
My purpose in pointing out that I, lacking such a sophisticated strategic argument, had got it right, was not in order to ‘boast’ of my powers of prediction. That is to reduce political argument to the level of a personal squabble. My purpose was to show that Jack Conrad and the CPGB had failed to understand the Corbyn phenomenon and that without re-examining the political basis of his rise to the leadership of the Labour Party everything else is empirical and subjective.
I do not have a crystal ball. I do not possess magical powers, nor do I have any contact with the paranormal. However, it has been clear to me for some time that what began with mass disillusionment, with the failure of Miliband, has grown into a movement of considerable mass behind Corbyn. Those who joined Labour around the time of Corbyn’s election and subsequently represent the tip of a very large iceberg. For example, here in Brighton there are over 8,000 Labour Party members. That is phenomenal. It means that nearly one in 15 adults is a member. Is it any wonder that a Tory marginal held by 690 votes was transformed into a Labour majority of nearly 10,000?
It is the job of Marxists not to simply wave slogans at people and to engage in ritualistic chanting. Our first task is to understand the age we live in and those around us. There is mass disillusion with neoliberalism, permanent war, the transfer of wealth from poor to rich, the sense of powerlessness people feel in society that manifests itself in catastrophes like Grenfell Tower and the fact that students will leave college with £50K debts.
If we don’t understand the movement that has grown up around Corbyn, then we will not understand its strengths and its weaknesses. We are faced with people who rail at the effects of a market economy without ever understanding that the problems they face, such as poor, overpriced housing, are a consequence of capitalism. Such people can go to the right with Ukip, Brexit and worse, or to the left. Our role is to see that it is the latter.
The title of my first article on April 20 was ‘Labour can win if Corbyn is bold’. The second article on June 3 was headed ‘Is Labour on the threshold of victory?’ It is quite clear that I was suggesting Labour could indeed turn the tables on the pundits, but, yes, I did include caveats and warnings.
Of course, it is easy to be wise with hindsight, but if Jack turns his mind back to the beginning of the election campaign, then there was a wall-to-wall consensus that Corbyn was going to be humiliated. It was therefore with some trepidation that I tried to suggest an alternative, something that the Weekly Worker did not even entertain.
Jack says that my criticism really amounts to saying that the opinion polls should not be taken seriously and that “if he has another, better, more accurate, method of judging the public mood outside a general election then he should let us into the secret”. It would moreover be “stupid” to ignore the fact that the polls gave May a 21% lead at the beginning of the election campaign.
I must confess that I rubbed my eyes in amazement. Is this really what a Marxist analysis and understanding comes down to? The uncritical acceptance of opinion polls? Perhaps we need a debate on how such polls, at best, reflect the volume of propaganda that is directed at the populace. These polls were skin-deep. Even worse, they were adjusted for differential turnout - in other words, there was a built-in assumption that young people who were overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn would not vote. Of course, one doesn’t ignore them, but nor should one live by them either.
The massive meetings that Corbyn addressed should have warned Jack and the CPGB that something was afoot. To get a meeting of 8,000 in Leamington Spa, in the heart of Tory Warwickshire, surely said something?
This is not an abstract argument because it goes to the heart of the isolation of the revolutionary left. We are not simply left versions of bourgeois pundits. Our role is to try and change society, not simply to comment on it.
The problem we face now is one of an entirely different order altogether. The mass movement behind Corbyn is politically very weak. It wants a non-exploitative capitalism. It does not have an anti-capitalist understanding. The majority of those around Momentum seriously believe that a well-meaning, radical Labour government can deliver on its anti-austerity pledges, whilst the capitalist class and their supporters sit idly by. It is the political weakness of Corbyn’s supporters, coupled with the conscious and determined efforts of Jon Lansman and the Momentum leadership to depoliticise the membership of Momentum, which should be our first target.
But we cannot do that if we do not understand why Corbyn defied all the bourgeois pundits and their echo chambers.
On July 20, the conservative majority in the Polish parliament voted to disband the country’s supreme court. All judges will now be appointed from governmental candidates. The new law also provides further means for the ministry of justice to control all sections of the courts.
The liberal opposition has called for street protests and asked for help from EU institutions. The presidential palace was surrounded by 20,000-30,000 people on July 21. There were demonstrations in around 100 cities in Poland and the same happened on July 22. The pro-liberal media and liberal opposition calls for permanent protest, but there is no left voice at all despite attendance on the protests of members of the ‘Together’ party. The opposition has nothing more to offer to the protestors than - protest again. The opposition is obviously hoping that protests will force the government to change their policy - as happened in 2016, when plans to change the abortion law ended in numerous street protests, which stopped the planned changes. But it is a very unlikely.
The government also pushed through new anti-communist legislation that will remove all Soviet-period monuments and symbols. The ministry of justice is announcing a campaign to delegalise the Communist Party of Poland, of which three members had already been convicted and fined for “promoting totalitarian ideology”.
The left is small and confused. The Labour Party of Poland was disbanded around February 2017. The CP is small and conflicted, as well as being repressed. The post-‘communist’ Alliance of the Democratic Left is no longer in parliament for the first time in its history and enjoys only around 5% national support, according to polls. The Polish ‘Podemos-style’ new left and anti-communist Razem (Together) party has around 3% support. Trotskyists are represented by two tiny fractions of the Committee for a Workers’ International and International Socialist Tendency sections.
There is the small ‘Progressive Youth’, which tries to organise people in Poland and the UK, plus the Movement for Social Justice, formed by a former Polish Socialist Party MP, Piotr Ikonowicz. This has some solid support from (mainly Warsaw) tenants, who were defended by the movement against eviction. The left-backed Social Justice Chamber is giving legal and political support.
Together is actively involved in the current protests, but it fails to distinguish its message from the liberals’, despite the fact that it organised one of the first protests against the ‘reforms’. The IST section, Workers’ Democracy, claims to be against the changes, but doesn’t offer solidarity to those using ‘the legal system’, while the CWI’s Socialist Alternative proposes a ‘left united front’ rather than joining the protests organised and dominated by liberals. Due to their activity, the Movement for Social Justice is very sceptical toward the protests and doesn’t support the official view.
The newly established left party, Zmiana (‘Change’), is also under repression - the courts have stopped their legal registration process. Their chairman, Mateusz Piskorski, has been imprisoned for more than a year. He has been charged with ‘espionage’ on behalf of the People’s Republic of China.
As you can see, the left’s situation in Poland is not an easy one, even by European standards.
In reply to Jack Conrad, the peak oil debate has always been divided into two competing camps: the peakists and the cornucopians (Letters, July 20). The former believe that international, conventional, cheap oil production is close to peak, while the latter believe that the peak is a long way off, and any problems which we encounter when it finally arrives will be solved by market forces.
To understand the peakist position it is necessary to know that peak oil is about the maximum production of oil. Peak oil is not about the exact date when the peak will occur: it is more about the economic and social consequences of the peak. In 2014 global oil production reached about 78 million barrels per day. That is a lot of oil, and I wondered whether global oil production would peak at around 80 million barrels per day based on what I had been researching, but in 2016 global production reached the dizzy heights of around 97 million barrels per day. It is no easy task to predict the actual year of the peak. Will oil production peak at 100 or 120 million barrels per day? Who can say? The debate is really about how close we are to the peak and its consequences.
This is important because the global economy literally runs on cheap oil, the significance of which comrade Conrad seems to have difficulty grasping. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t drive a car, for people who do are more aware of what rising energy costs can mean. He thinks my concern with the issue is obsessive, but again this doesn’t surprise me, because he and most of the left base themselves on a 19th century Marxist narrative, which ignores the primary role of energy in society. The bottom line is that, if a theory of society ignores the primary role of energy in society, it is flawed. Period. In relation to modern industrial society I am, of course, referring to non-renewable energy. There is no reason for anyone to confuse peak oil with Malthusian theory, because Malthus argued that improved food production or abundance would lead to unsustainable population growth, whereas the consequences of peak oil leads to the reversal of population growth.
The comrade also argues, incorrectly, that the turn to non-conventional sources of oil was spurred on by the “scientific and technological revolution”. But people go for the low-hanging fruits first before they reach for the harder-to-get fruits. Depletion of oil wells was what caused the turn to unconventional oil. Surely anyone can grasp this point. The discovery of new oil reserves has been falling since the middle of the 1960s. All the giant conventional oilfields have been found. They are the easiest to find. Unconventional oil has been known about for a long time and the turn to them now is a sign of conventional oil depletion. The biggest oilfield in the world, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, is now facing depletion. Water injection is used to push the remaining oil out. And insiders say that the water cut is getting larger.
The big difference between modern capitalism and previous societies we know about is that modern - ie, industrial - society is based on non-renewable energy. Even nuclear energy is non-renewable. The only 19th century economist who understood the primary role of energy was Jevons. This is why he stands out, not because he got the date of Britain’s coal depletion wrong. But Jevons is not counted among the classical economists who Marx critiqued - I doubt if anyone will find any mention of Jevons in any of Marx’s writings. Why? The answer is that Marx did not start from the primary role of energy in society. I am sure the difference here with Jevons has something to do with the German tendency for theorisation, contrasted with the English tendency towards the more practical empiricism. Marx’s whole theory of capitalism is about the movement of money - that is why there are few academic Marxists in the past who realised that an energy crisis can cause the downfall of capitalism. One barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of one man working non-stop for eight years. That is the importance of oil for the economy.
Comrade Conrad refuses to accept the simple idea that capitalism is a product of cheap energy and based on cheap energy. Of course, if you don’t accept this simple point, how can you understand the consequences of rising energy costs? He says Marx didn’t treat energy as just another commodity, but the point is he never treated energy at all in its non-human form - something he shares with the classical economists. When I say that capitalism is a product of cheap energy, naturally I am referring to modern, industrial society. In 2008 the global economy responded to oil prices at $147 per barrel by going into recession. The same thing happened in the 1970s, when Opec engineered a politically-induced oil shortage in collusion with the oil companies. Believe it or not, rising oil prices can bring the accumulation process to a halt. If the comrade can’t see this, I would suggest it is due to a dogmatic approach to his 19th century Marxist narrative. I don’t claim that all Marxists would make this mistake. Obviously, if you are spending more of your profits on energy costs, you will have less to accumulate.
As for the question of feudalism which Marx refers to in the Grundrisse and other writings, the point is that all the interrelated reasons for the decline of feudalism were related to the energy crisis caused by wood depletion - the most important contributory factor was the period known as the little ice age, which followed the medieval warm period; this colder period lasted from 1400 to 1800 and covers the period of wood depletion, as people struggled to keep warm, which in turn triggered the industrial revolution. Not many people know that a change in climate contributed to the demise of feudalism and the rise of modern capitalism, based on non-renewable energy. Most people on the left are unfamiliar with this due to only being exposed to mostly Marxist narratives. The problem is that this narrative conceals the primary role of energy in the transition to modern society.
Comrade Conrad thinks I am displaying profound ignorance of Marx by claiming that Marx believed that money makes the world go round. He brings out the Communist manifesto and throws it at me with a quote from the master himself: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” This opening statement by Marx is one of the most notorious falsehoods ever pronounced by anyone, because it ignores thousands of years of primitive communist societies, when there was no class struggle. I haven’t met many Marxists who know that Marx’s most famous statement is untrue.
While I no longer use Marxism to rationalise my support for social ownership of the means of production, and while I would not argue in a dogmatic fashion that non-conventional oil cannot stave off an energy crisis (I think that its promising appearance is due to the fact that conventional depletion is still in its early stages), and while I am not totally convinced that global warming is the biggest danger we face - when the temperature started to cool, they quickly changed the name from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ - I would totally agree with comrade Conrad’s view that production for need is the way forward. This is why we need to fight for a democratic socialist society.
I was shocked at hearing about the terrible treatment meted out to Doug Lowe (Letters, July 20). Every week he is being made to read letters from myself and Gerry Downing. It’s sheer hell on earth. I have heard of prisoners being made to listen to very loud music, but never thought we’d have something similar happening here with the Weekly Worker.
It’s no laughing matter. Doug is worried what will happen if “I have to read any more of this crap”. He fears he’ll be pushing up daisies soon, so could we wait until he is dead? This only goes to show how bad things have got under Theresa May’s strong and stable dictatorship. People are not only being forced to read the Weekly Worker against their will, but, even worse, forced to read “long-winded guff”.
Now, of course, I admit to being a bit long-winded and should write shorter letters. But, as Doug knows, I have been going on about ‘democratic revolution’ and republicanism and the proletariat as the vanguard fighter for democracy and not forgetting the absolute necessity for every internationalist in England to be a militant anti-unionist. There is much more.
I am well aware that all Labourites, Corbynistas and left reformists, along with Trotskyists and ultra-left sectarians, think this is “crap” and “guff” and “total and utter nonsense”. I am not surprised to see where Doug is coming from. He is not alone in hating these ideas.
I may not like Doug’s hostility to democratic revolution and working class republicanism, but I will fight tooth and nail to defend his right not to have to read this sort of stuff - at least until he is dead.
Left Unity and Rise
Bruno Kretzschmar’s letter is typical of people who come from a segregated background (July 20). They have been brainwashed into thinking that all they have to do is open their mouths and truth and logic comes out. The self-importance of such people is astounding.
The question of European Union membership was put to the people last year and the majority voted to leave. It’s a final decision and there is a team at government level meeting up with EU Brexit officials regularly each week to get the divorce finalised. They are not arguing the toss about EU membership. Their focus is on separating the UK and the EU from each other. It’s a done deal. They’re just sorting out the technicalities - a purely administrative process. It no longer matters whether we support the EU or oppose it: we’re coming out.