I attended the Communist Party of Great Britain’s 2017 ‘Communist University’ event - the first time I have done so in many years.
One item that kept coming up throughout the week was how to assess the significance of Lenin’s April theses. CPGB comrades argued that, while the theses did mark a change in direction for the Bolsheviks in 1917, it was just a minor adjustment among comrades all pretty much on the same page and which was more or less consistent with all that had gone before, especially in regard to continuity of the slogan for a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’.
To back this up, the CPGB make much of the recent work done by academic historian Lars T Lih on the degree of difference within the Bolsheviks concerning Lenin’s April theses. I have now read the five pieces on this question that Lih has published so far (available on John Riddell’s blog - https://johnriddell.wordpress.com - as part of a projected seven-piece series) and write this letter to highlight what seems to be a significant problem with the narrative being presented.
The problem is that Lih and the CPGB find themselves in opposition to the central political figure involved in this 1917 dispute, as outlined in Lenin’s Letters on tactics (www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/x01.htm), written in the days immediately following his presentation of the April theses.
Lenin provides the following context for writing Letters on tactics: “Both the theses and my report gave rise to differences of opinion among the Bolsheviks themselves and the editors of Pravda. After a number of consultations, we unanimously concluded that it would be advisable openly to discuss our differences.”
As an aside, CPGB members and supporters might do well to note Lenin’s emphasis on “openly” in reference to this case, with the clear implication that doing so was the result of a democratic decision which presumably had gone the other way on other issues.
So how did Lenin describe the opposition that met his presentation of the April theses? “… we hear a clamour of protest from people who readily call themselves ‘old Bolsheviks’ …” How did Lenin characterise the “old Bolsheviks” who were making this “clamour of protest”? He wrote: “The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times; consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘old Bolsheviks’).”
And yet, throughout Communist University, it was exactly the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” slogan which the CPGB claimed was a central expression of the unbroken continuity of Bolshevik politics. We can only imagine what Lenin would have made of the idea that a political organisation in 2017 would still be holding firm to this slogan, taken from what must now be a very old and mouldy archive.
In his April theses, Lenin proposed an orientation towards agricultural labourers and the poor peasantry, as against the peasantry as a whole. Alongside this he rejected any political support to the provisional government, critical or otherwise, and put forward the perspective of “a patient, systematic and persistent explanation” that soviets are “the only possible form of revolutionary government”. Within about a month (according to Lih’s research) this was to manifest in the Bolsheviks’ public use of ‘All power to the soviets!’ that replaced ‘For a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ as the main slogan regarding the nature of state power.
Perhaps the reader will at this point be wondering whether this discussion about political struggles in the Bolshevik Party in 1917 has any relevance for politics today. I believe it does and present the following related discussion at Communist University as evidence.
In a CU session on the rise of what is being called ‘populism’, I recounted my experience in Ireland with Sinn Féin’s role in the anti-household/anti-water charges movement and more specifically my criticism of the Socialist Party’s refusal to take a principled position of ruling out participation in a government with the openly pro-capitalist Sinn Féin, as they do with what they understand to be the three main capitalist parties (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party). As I have detailed on my blog (https://revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com), the Socialist Party consider this to be a question of clever tactics.
Jack Conrad described my understanding of working class independence as a matter of principle, which provided a framework for making concrete political positions and actions, as being a “shibboleth” and instead, exactly like the Socialist Party in Ireland, presented such decisions as merely tactical.
In what he somehow seemed to think was a killer blow against my insistence on the principle of working class independence being a guide to political programme, Conrad presented his understanding of the “cross-class alliance” that he believes both made the Russian Revolution and constituted the initial revolutionary government. This being the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry as a codification of the slogan, ‘For the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ - which, as we see above, Lenin in 1917 described as belonging in the “archive of old Bolsheviks”.
The CPGB link their narrative about the supposed “cross-class” nature of the forces that made the Russian Revolution to the supposed continuity of Bolshevism around the slogan of the ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. This is then used to justify their “extreme tactical flexibility” approach to the question of applying the principle of working class independence in the here and now.
So, for the CPGB, the mass uprising of the proletariat supported by the peasantry against bourgeois rule in Russia in 1917 is supposedly directly politically equivalent to popular frontist alliances between proletarian and bourgeois parties in 2017!
All this political mumbo-jumbo is just an attempt to justify a rejection in concrete political practice of working class independence as a core principle of revolutionary Marxism. A clearer example of opportunism masking itself in an ahistorical reading of Marxism is harder to imagine.
Co Cork, Ireland
During your period ‘offline’ at the Communist University 2017, the world continued along its merry little way, dumping various manure heaps of deception and duplicity - in harness with simple hypocrisy - as it did so. Here’s a selection.
Via appearances at the head of memorial services and marches for those who died in Barcelona’s car-ramming attacks, the so-called ‘king’ of Spain - alongside other members of his ‘royal’ family - tried to commandeer the raw emotions of local Catalan as well as national citizens; all of that on behalf of wider state machinery. With somewhat similar intent, back here in the UK our mass media gave blanket coverage to two ‘princes’, telling us how much they miss their late mother, Diana, a so-called Princess of Wales.
Also here in the UK, Labour continued in its attempts to straddle the canyon that lies between our parliamentary ‘democracy’ and anything even remotely close to true socialism - in this particular instance, by mildly modifying its posture and policies on the 100% fraudulently contrived matter of Brexit.
In pursuit of perpetuating their myths about ‘great days of empire’ and all the rest, clearly the mass/corporate media of Great Britain still find value in deploying sickly sentimentality. Also quite clearly, the capitalist state machine in Spain has recognised a golden opportunity within Islamism’s murderous and nihilistic jihadist attacks to further its own sordid, toxic agendas (most notably, by deflecting attention away from far more substantial matters - such as top-level banking and political corruption, the current king’s sister and brother-in-law recently being investigated for fraud, etc).
And the situation in respect of Corbyn and McDonnell’s Labour Party? Well, if you try to straddle the fence between Britain’s notionally democratic parliamentary system and any true representation of the interests of working people, inevitably your genitals will receive serious damage - even terminally so!
Nothing either surprising or unexpected in any of that, some might think. But what does remain both surprising and unacceptable is the continued plodding, trundling or otherwise head-banging and bludgeoning performance of 21st century communism. I use the term ‘communism’, but, to be more accurate, surely we should call ourselves the multi-fragmented and thereby blurry image of its ghost.
No doubt these comments or observations of mine are destined to be seen by many comrades as stemming from petty bourgeois negativity, allied to non-Leninist impatience. In any event, genuine apologies if all this comes over as super-critical and harsh - not to mention as ‘detached’ and pompousness-imbued arrogance.
However, comrades, at least in my personal experience of life, hard-nosed and thus unavoidably cruel truth, in conjunction with rock-solid honesty, offer the only viable method of escape for those trapped inside the suicidal vortex of a phony paradigm. Together they provide the only pathway out of any weed-entangled garden - any dark jungle or lonely wilderness. Only with those factors in full operation is it possible for people to break free from confines of their own making; from prisons built at least partially to their own design.
Comrades: given that it’s difficult to know which of those is the most pertinent or simply a most fair-minded description of our current circumstances, I’ll let those more experienced decide. What’s absolutely undeniable, however, is that in effect we communists are betraying most needs of both our domestic and the international working class. Indeed, doing so in arguably comparable manner to Corbynist Labour - even if not as outright poisonously as any ‘royal’ families.
Of course, we must dispatch all of them to that proverbial dustbin of history - both monarchists and reformist ‘social democrats’ alike. But simultaneously we must acknowledge partial responsibility for - and indeed feel all due shame about - the part we’ve played in permitting the continuation of both this utterly farcical farrago of our own organisational fragmentation and that ultra-criminal crap of their capitalist system.
In general terms, everything presented here relates to how things currently stand, rather than with an eye to any future, sensibly ‘evolved’ or freshly reformulated communist potential. In precisely that same context, no communist should forget where ignoring truth, honesty and objective facts ended up for the Stalinist USSR. If only those comrades from history had paid proper attention to the warnings from Leon Trotsky and others, how very differently things might have turned out in relation to ‘globalisation’ for our socialist values; in connection with securing permanence for our Marxist-Leninist ideas and ideals.
By way of a final note on developments whilst you met at your Communist University, not until statues of Karl Marx, VI Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara are standing in public spaces within Charlottesville and other US cities will there have been any meaningful change in that nation’s level of egalitarianism or real democracy. That is to say, either statues of those specific members of humankind or directly equivalent others who have come along in a meantime of class-conscious struggle and fully enlightened engagement.
John Beattie concludes his Morning Star article, ‘Don’t believe the hype, the SNP are not on the political left’, with: “This is why Labour’s journey back to the political left must stay on course. This strategy will help us expose the SNP’s conservatism and win back our Scottish working class heartlands” (August 19). This is in sharp contrast to the opinion piece by South West Surrey Compass leader Steve Williams (‘Sectarianism never results …’, August 21), where he advocates popular frontism.
Of his five examples, Podemos has yet to face its moment of truth. Leon Blum in 1936 only led to the French capitalist class capitulating to the Nazis - ‘Better Hitler than Blum’ was their slogan. Franco benefited from the refusal of both Socialist Party leaders, Largo Caballero and Juan Negrín (1936-39), to make a socialist revolution on Stalin’s instructions, lest they frighten away the ‘democratic imperialists’. Just before he allied with the not-so-democratic Adolph Hitler. And, the least said about the abject political cowardice and capitulation of Syriza, the better.
We should have all listened to South West Surrey Compass and backed Dr Louise Irvine and we might have unseated Jeremy Hunt, not to mention Zac Goldsmith. Compass called for a progressive alliance with the Liberal Democrats and others. Local officers Steve Williams, Kate Townsend and Robert Park were expelled. Steve, like many ‘moderate’ members, has no perspective other than winning local parliamentary elections.
Speakers at Compass events include Ed Balls, Derek Simpson, Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Ed Miliband, Dave Prentis, Frances O’Grady, Jon Cruddas, Jon Trickett and Chuka Umunna. How to lose elections, anyone?
A July 6 YouGov poll gave Labour 46% and the Tories 38%. Labour is ahead of the SNP in Scotland (36%/31%). And that is surely down to outright rejection of Compass progressive alliances.
Tony Clark makes a curious comment in the course of this running debate on the subject of energy policy (Letters, August 10). It’s a bit off-topic, but still worth a mention.
According to him, Marxism is flawed in its assumption that social being determines consciousness (rather than the other way around). It’s a bit like saying, says Tony, that “when a person crosses the road the decision was made by his legs rather than his consciousness”. But I think he has got the wrong end of the stick and has misunderstood what is meant by “social being” in this context. I would refer him to Peter Stillman’s useful article on ‘The myth of Marx’s economic determinism’, in which Stillman observes: “Marx’s aphorism - ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’ - presents its assertion asymmetrically. Having denied the leftwing Hegelian stance that consciousness determines being, Marx reverses the terms, but adds ‘social’ - and ‘social being’ is not defined, but seems to be more extensive than merely forces (or forces and relations) of production and indeed as ‘social’ likely includes consciousness” (www.marxists.org/subject/marxmyths/peter-stillman/article.htm).
To advance his argument, Tony Clark gives us the example of the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, which, “under Marxist leadership [sic], failed to transform the consciousness of the masses in the direction of a democratic socialist society, making it easier for the capitalist roaders to take over”. In other words, according to him, the lack of socialist consciousness contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union, because social ownership of the means of production - ie, being - does not automatically lead to socialist consciousness.
But this is nonsense for the simple reason that there was no social ownership of the means of production in the Soviet Union. What there was, was (primarily) state ownership of those means and state ownership has no connection whatsoever with social ownership. Tony refers to Engels, but Engels was very clear about the distinction.
Thus, in Socialism: utopian and scientific, we find Engels dismissing “as a purely self-serving falsification by the Manchesterite [laissez-faire] bourgeoisie” the idea that state intervention in a system of free competition could be labelled ‘socialism’. The trend towards joint-stock companies, trusts and, ultimately, state property, he wrote, “does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces”.
On the contrary: “The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine - the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers - proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.”
That solution, contended Engels, “can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonising with the socialised character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control, except that of society as a whole.”
So, state ownership is here very clearly being contrasted with social ownership. State property is actually a form of private property - namely the collective property of the capitalist class as a whole, which is distinguishable from the individualised form of private property, such as normally obtains in the west. For Marx and Engels, the essence of private property, irrespective of what form it takes, consists in the separation of the direct producers from the products of their labour, which, under capitalism, gives rise to a system of wage-labour, such as existed in the Soviet Union, as it does everywhere else in a global capitalist world.
Of course, there was very little support or even awareness of an alternative to this system of generalised wage-labour called capitalism within the Soviet Union - or indeed unfortunately anywhere else in the world - and so it was hardly surprising that neither could there be found there anything resembling social or common ownership of the means of production, which is what the classical Marxian definition of socialism is based upon in the first instance.
The news of migrants found locally in a container is awful, very sad and avoidable. It shows how desperate people have become to jump onto an overcrowded vehicle, knowing it is illegal and dangerous.
Every day we see people trying to flee persecution and/or poverty by cramming into boats in dangerous conditions. Increasing numbers drown, which is appalling. As the fifth wealthiest nation in the world, we have to do much, much more to join with other relatively wealthy nations in Europe, and elsewhere. We must provide the resources to enable safe migration to replace these dangerous and often illegal forms of transport. That would undermine the wicked ‘people smugglers’, who want to make quick profits out of other people’s misery, with no regard for their safety or well-being.
People should be able to move freely and enjoy each other’s cultures; or simply to move for work, or to be with family. Of course, it goes without saying that so-called developed countries like Britain should automatically provide sanctuary to those fleeing from terror, persecution or poverty.
Immigration has net benefits to host communities and countries, including economic ones. Migrants put in more than they take out - a fact some people simply won’t accept. Therefore, state resources can, and must, follow migrants to ensure local services are expanded and no-one locally suffers. At the end of the day, we are one global people, divided by wealth, not race, and it is our political and moral duty to welcome all migrants, whilst ensuring funding travels with them to sustain services. We must stop demonising migrants and give them safe passage.
Fast and furious
It has come to the attention of the undersigned that one of the most crucial questions of today’s workers’ movement is criminally absent from the pages of the supposed radical press. That is the question of which of the Fast and furious films is the most revolutionary.
The lives and struggles of an unlikely group of misfit DVD thieves, portrayed in the eight-part epic, poses more clearly the question of proletarian dictatorship than a million mealy-mouthed words about tweaking the capitalist system of production that passes for Marxism in much of the left today.
Enver Hoxha, when talking of the art of Socialist Albania, proclaimed: “When you read them, hear them or see them, you are seeing and feeling the pulse of the life and struggle of our people.” This is the sensation that the most oppressed layers of society will feel when they are temporarily transcended to voyeurs of the most acute acts of class struggle ever portrayed on screen. It’s not just the sheer number of imperialist nations, Amerkkka, UKKK, etc that are struggled against in the series, but also the resolve and proletarian discipline of the actors on the stage of the ‘revolution portrayed’.
Take Furious 7. The gang disrupt a Emirati Prince’s decadent birthday party; in a light comedy scene Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson) demonstrates his ability to ruthlessly lampoon bourgeois culture. The excitement doesn’t stop there, as our heroes of labour destroy not only one of the world’s most wanton symbols of excess and inequality, a $3.4 million dollar sports car, but strike a blow against two of Abu Dhabi’s skyscrapers, in what is not just one of world cinema’s greatest scenes, but also a guide to action for the world proletariat.
Later in the film James Wan combines tasks of the vanguard Leninist movement when he has ‘Hobbs’ (played by Dwayne ‘the People’s Champion’ Johnson) take down a Predator drone (an obvious and ingenious attack on imperialism’s role in Pakistan, that will be celebrated throughout the neocolonial world), and uses the downed drone’s mini-gun against a stealth helicopter, sent as an attempt to drown in blood the intrepid Marxists at the centre of the story.
However, the series never confines itself to just taking on the imperialist states of the world, but also attacking financial institutions. In Fast 5 the gang, while pursued by Reyes, a Brazilian cartel boss, and the Diplomatic Security Service, expropriate a bank vault by ripping it from a building. They then proceed to smash the police vehicles in pursuit with said vault. Where is Alex Callinicos’s praise for such revolutionary fortitude!?
A list of victories against capitalism (matched by no Trotskyite organisation in the world ...) could be printed in the pages of your journal, but that would miss the overall themes of the films: the complete rejection and breaking down of bourgeois family relations, the Stakhanovite determination of the heroes and the adherence at all times to ‘Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points for Attention of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’.
Nevertheless, for all their revolutionary potential, the Fast and furious films have never received the proper Marxist analysis which they deserve. It is one of the goals of this letter to bring to notice the important lessons such films offer, especially to many sections of workers who have not been introduced to Marxism-Leninism, but to also start the debate and analyse their merit. We hope this is not the last we will hear of our favourite gang’s anti-capitalist actions.
Acting sectarian for the Fast and Furious Communist Party (One More Trilogy faction)