I accept Jack Conrad’s correction (Letters, September 21) to my letter (September 14) about whether it is possible to say with any certainty that there was a specific vote taken to come to the decision that there would be open public discussion about the differences arising over Lenin’s April theses. There may well have been a consensus on taking this course of action with no formal vote necessary. However, I am unsure how his ‘victory’ on this secondary point helps Conrad in his defence of the CPGB’s shibboleth about their unique version of democratic centralism.
I am using the term ‘shibboleth’ in the following senses, given by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning”; “a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group”; “a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others”.
The CPGB present their version of democratic centralism as a unique selling point for their little group - as against the “confessional sect” nature of every other left group, who apply a different understanding (which is not to defend all those other versions of democratic centralism, many of which are, to varying degrees, effectively what I would personally understand as bureaucratic centralism).
However, what is absolutely clear from Lenin’s foreword to ‘Letters on tactics’ is that a decision (whether by formal vote or consensus) was made by the Bolsheviks to make discussion among the Bolshevik’s about Lenin’s April theses open to the public. Conrad makes no attempt to explain why, if the CPGB shibboleth stands so clearly and uniquely in the Bolshevik tradition, Lenin felt it necessary to explicitly explain that “we unanimously concluded that it would be advisable openly to discuss our differences” (Lenin’s emphasis) and that “complying with this decision concerning a discussion, I am publishing …” (my emphasis).
This was an example of the real Bolshevik norm regarding openness of discussions. Decisions on whether or not to debate issues openly (in the public press) were the result of internal discussion and votes or consensus decisions - just as with any other political activity.
Conrad then gives a potted history of Kamenev’s disputes with Lenin, trying to show that Lenin’s description of “a clamour of protest” by the “old Bolsheviks”, led by Kamenev (who stated: “As for comrade Lenin’s general scheme, it appears to us unacceptable …”), in response to Lenin’s April theses was in fact just a matter of “shade and temperament”. Conrad makes a great deal of a reference by Lenin at the end of April that his differences with Kamenev “are not very great”. What to make of this apparent discrepancy?
In his letter of September 7 Conrad actually provides an insight into what is probably the answer. He refers to the period between Lenin’s presentation of his April theses (resulting in a “clamour of protest”) and the later “not very great” quote as being “a few, albeit highly concentrated, weeks” which saw “an unmistakable convergence of views”. As Lenin did not recant the views put forward in the April theses and the Bolsheviks’ pronouncements and actions took on this new perspective from May onwards perhaps it is simply a matter of Kamenev having been won over. So Lenin would be being accurate in both describing a “clamour of protest” (led by Kamenev) as the immediate response to the April theses and then later after a period of concentrated debate saying the differences with Kamenev were now “not very great”.
But let’s not just take my supposition as the definitive word on this question. Here is the full quote from Lenin’s own speech at the end of the debate on the ‘Report on the current situation’, given on April 24 at the Seventh All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP(B), that Conrad takes the “not very great” reference from: “I think that our differences with comrade Kamenev are not very great, because by agreeing with us he has changed his position.” (https://www.bolshevik.info/the-seventh-april-all-russia-conference-of-the-r-s-d-l-p-b/3-speech-winding-up-the-debate-on-the-report-on-the-current-situation-april-24-may-7.htm).
One might almost see Conrad’s out-of-context use of the “not very great” quote as being an example of someone who will refuse “to see what is in front of their eyes, refuse to take on board, right or wrong, what is absolutely explicit in the writings of Lenin they are so selectively, so disjointedly, so crudely quoting [that it] testifies to a religious approach to politics that more than strays into what might well appear to be borderline madness. The attempt to deceive others is clearly inadequate in terms of an explanation” (taken from Conrad’s letter of September 7).
But, as I pointed out in my last letter, of far more importance than this historical dispute over the exact severity of the differences among the Bolsheviks over the new perspective put forward in Lenin’s April theses (though I do think there is a much higher degree of internal consistency in my account than there is in Conrad’s) is the CPGB’s use of their interpretation of these events to justify their current-day capitulation to popular frontism.
Conrad describes this claim as “bizarre”. However, I did more than just make this claim in the absence of any evidence. I looked concretely at the CPGB’s actual practice in relation to the most recent historical example of popular frontism in Britain (which Conrad himself had referred to) - Respect.
And this is just one example from what is a consistent history of the CPGB giving political support to popular frontist projects. For more examples see the section, ‘Working class independence vs class collaboration’ in the International Bolshevik Tendency pamphlet, Bolshevism vs CPGB-ism. It is almost as if the CPGB’s “extreme tactical flexibility” in applying the “principle” of working class independence that results in consistently giving political support to popular frontist projects is as much an unchallengeable shibboleth for the CPGB as is their unique version of ‘democratic centralism’.
As a final point I note that in his latest letter Conrad repeats his assertion that in my first letter (August 31) I denied the reality that Lenin described the soviets that existed in April 1917 as being the concretisation of the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ slogan. So I will repeat my challenge for him to provide any quote from that letter which proves his assertion. If in fact my first letter was “a stonewalling polemic against any such suggestion”, as Conrad claims, then I imagine that would be a relatively easy task ...
Co Cork, Ireland
“If you have nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.” Those were the words of president Trump’s director of national intelligence, about the lessons taught from the US destruction of Libya and the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. That is why North Korea is a nuclear power.
If there is any comfort in living with a nuclear-armed North Korea, then be thankful that it is not even close to the dangers of the cold war. The propaganda mill and the mainstream media greatly exaggerate the risk: it is for their own greedy self-interest to spread panic and paranoia among the American people.
If Kim Jong-un wanted to kill Americans out of insane hatred, he has that capability now with conventional weapons. There are over a quarter of a million American citizens living in Seoul, 100 miles from Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un has not attacked Seoul to kill Americans because he is not insane or suicidal, and that is according to experts on North Korea such as Dan Coats and Donald Gregg, and others.
It is the US that is the most dangerous country and threat to the world, not North Korea. The US has beaten its own world record as a serial mass murderer of the 21st century. That does not go unnoticed by small, vulnerable countries. For North Korea to fear the US is reality. To want a nuclear deterrent is sanity.
This week’s performance at the United Nations by Trump raises more questions of his sanity. Without knowing it, Trump gave the same message that his national intelligence director. His raving has sent any vulnerable country back to the nuclear weapons-planning drawing board, if they know what is good for them. Trump’s speech has done more for nuclear proliferation than Iran and North Korea combined could ever do.
For North Korea it is not a game, like it is to the US planners. North Korea rightly fears for its life and its existence. We may not like the way they live, but that is not for us to decide. It is for the North Koreans to determine.
Trump says he is going to succeed where Obama and Bush failed. He should take a page from president Bill Clinton, who successfully negotiated with North Korea, until Bush destroyed the agreement. Trump talks big and the mainstream media and Trump backers love it.
Trump says he is going to kick down Kim Jong-un’s door, take away his rockets and free his people. That is cowboy insanity. But it is nothing new for America. US history is a history of wars of aggression, sold to the public as “making the world safe for democracy“, but really for the profits of tycoons.
If Trump is so concerned about “Rocket Man’s” human rights record, then Trump would make a good start by correcting the behaviour of the dozens of US-backed rightwing dictators. He could learn from history about the military dictatorships and human rights violations of US-backed military dictatorships of South Korea. After military rule from 1945 to 1948, the US installed the military dictatorship of Syngman Rhee, and later Park Chung-hee.
Better relations between South Korea and North Korea is not what the US wants. Bush killed it, Obama embalmed it, and Trump is trying to bury it. The US neocons could not be happier. Better relations, normalisation, a peace treaty and eventual reunification are against the US empire’s interest. That is why South Korea’s wishes are never mentioned, except in rare staged events. Strange, since Koreans are said to be our thankful beneficiaries.
Kim Jong-un does not need teaching on fire and fury. In the past 30 years the US has taught North Korea and anybody else about that, committing military aggression against approximately 20 countries in the past 30 years (not including covert operations and support of proxies) - and none of those countries had a nuclear deterrent.
North Korea is willing to negotiate. They have negotiated in the past. They have made offers to negotiate. They have no preconditions. They want a peace treaty. The US knows it. The mainstream media knows it. They are lying.
Kim Jong-un is not the insane one, Trump may be, but it is too soon to say. We will know for sure that he is if he uses the military option. If the US tries to wipe North Korea off the face of the earth with “fire and fury”, not only will it kill tens of millions of North Koreans, but before they go they will take millions of South Koreans, hundreds of thousands of US expats living in Seoul and 25,000 US troops with them. It could also lead to war with China, Russia and a nuclear holocaust, which will take us all.
Whether the US agrees to negotiations or not, North Korea is keeping its nukes. The old cold war policy of mutually assured destruction is now ‘mutually assured madness’.
Alan Stewart reported that the Wakefield Socialist History Group held a meeting on September 16, which attracted 41 people to discuss “George Orwell and socialism” (Letters, September 21). Apparently some interesting stories were told, but the event appears to have remained at a superficial level - concerned mostly with the left’s attitude to Orwell, and whether he was a committed socialist. The point about Orwell is that he raised, if only indirectly, important issues for the left, which after all these years remain unresolved.
These issues relate to the two ideological tendencies in the socialist camp, when it comes to leadership, which interpenetrate each other and can exist in the same party; they represent different social tendencies, which are: those who believe in a democratic socialist society; and the opposite tendency - those who represent the totalitarian tendency. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Orwell consciously theorised the existence of these two opposed tendencies on the left.
At the Wakefield meeting we are told that Granville Williams, former editor of Free Press, argued that during the cold war the right used Orwell to bolster their argument that socialism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. I would argue that socialism only inevitably leads to totalitarianism when it takes an anti-democratic form. The reason I bang on about the need for a democratic socialist society is because I am aware that there are two trends in socialism: one leading to a democratic socialist society and the other leading to totalitarianism. Put another way, these two historical trends finds their expression within socialism.
The latter, the totalitarian trend, tries to conceal itself before the revolution and thus is able to garner support from the politically naive. But when in power it begins to reveal itself openly. By the way, when I speak of these two trends, I am not referring to the split between reformists and Marxists: both these two trends contain anti-democratic, totalitarian tendencies. Nor am I only referring to the Bolsheviks. The totalitarian or anti-democratic tendency existed within Menshevism as well. Note how they walked out of the soviets after the Bolsheviks won a majority. It’s best to regard totalitarianism as a cross-party tendency.
In my view, Marxism is not the cause of the totalitarian tendency on the left, but it opens the door to this tendency and facilitates its development, thus becoming an ally of totalitarianism. One of the reasons for this is that Marxism struggles to survive the democratic process and has to resort to totalitarian methods to keep in power. A good example was the Soviet Union. As soon as an element of democratic debate was allowed, the Marxist regime collapsed like a house of cards.
So what I am saying is that on the left Marxism facilitates the totalitarian tendency without being the cause of it. This is one of the contradictions within Marxism. Marx was right to support the struggle for socialism, but wrong about how to bring it about. Marx’s called for a dictatorship to set the ball rolling and Lenin picked it up and ran with it, calling for dictatorship untrammelled by any law which would have warmed the heart of Al Capone himself, because what we are talking about here is gangsterism unintentionally introduced into the socialist movement by Marxism. History has shown how Marxism leads to the suppression of democracy in the interest of a bureaucratic caste. This caste and its potential coming to power after a socialist revolution is not the result of backwardness, as the Trotskyists maintain. Bureaucracy is the product of complex societies, ready to take power after a socialist revolution, in the absence of a democratic socialist society.
The only socialism we should be interested in is one which can survive the democratic process and a socialist regime which does not implode when exposed to democratic debate. This is why a democratic socialist society is the way forward, and why Orwell is so relevant to the left - and also why our attitude towards Orwell tells us which side of the democracy/totalitarian divide within socialism we belong to.
I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest English book, A Jewish communist in Weimar Germany: the life of Werner Scholem (1895-1940), which recently appeared in the Historical Materialism book series. The hardcover edition, published by Brill, will be followed in 12 months by an affordable paperback edition from Haymarket Books.
The book is a biography of nearly-forgotten communist leader Werner Scholem, chronicling his rise and fall, subsequent expulsion from the party and ultimate death in a concentration camp - hounded by the Nazis both for his convictions as a communist and his identity as a German Jew. Originally published in German in 2014, it represents the culmination of years of research, and received a broadly positive response upon its release.
The hardcover edition’s price tag puts it out of reach for most casual readers. For this reason, I would greatly appreciate it if you would consider ordering it for your local academic libraries.
If you know colleagues who might be interested in writing a review or are interested in writing yourself - the publisher will be happy to provide copies. Simply contact me or Loren Balhorn (firstname.lastname@example.org).