I was very much looking forward - and with some trepidation - to reading Jack Conrad’s opus, ‘The place of the Soviet Union in history’ (August 17). I assumed this was going to be Jack setting out for the Weekly Worker group (WWG) and the paper a new line on the nature of the USSR. Jack starts with enormous eloquence, with the very commencement of the universe and the grand history of life on Earth, but even he, with the initials JC, is unable to explain why either came about.
After six interesting pages, however, even Jack is unable to come to a conclusion about the nature of the Soviet Union, saying: “The cot death of working class domination in Soviet Russia saw the rise of something new, something entirely unexpected, something that has to be studied in its own right.” But still not yet by Jack or the WWG?
A good psychotherapist would have fun with Jack. He loves to use gynaecological terms to attempt to describe the Soviet Union, including “abortion”, “ectopic” and “freak”.
I actually thought Jack’s book From October to August was very good and has stood the test of time. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything asserted in it, but it is a very useful contribution to modern Marxism. I vividly recall one of the central conclusions that first and second waves of socialist revolution (the Paris Commune and the Russian October revolution) represented major leaps forward in both practical working class revolutionary advance and revolutionary theory. But we need to look forward to modern, 21st-century, technologically advanced socialism, being won over entire continents as a precursor to a genuinely world socialist and communist society.
I have a somewhat simple hypothesis. The WWG emerged out of what is termed ‘official communism’, including the old Communist Party of Great Britain and the New Communist Party. It therefore has ‘official communism’ as part of its DNA. Jack and the WWG have been on something of a voyage since 1991, trying to discover the authentic roots of revolutionary Marxism and the science of working class liberation. This included a major veer and flirtation with the whole Trotskyist tradition and antagonism to the ‘official communist’. The 1,000th edition of the Weekly Worker (March 6 2014) infamously carried an image of Trotsky and a banner calling on workers to join the Fourth (Trotskyist) International.
However, over recent years, I sense the WWG has found the Trotskyism origin and tradition to be barren and indeed poisonous. Its search for the authentic roots of revolutionary Marxism and the need to adopt a rational, scientific, materialist analysis to this endeavour has led to something of a positive re-engagement with what I would call the mainstream communist tradition.
The Weekly Worker has rightly provided a major platform for the pioneering work of Lars T Lih, which has been significant in re-establishing the genuine mass, democratic, Bolshevik approach to the Communist Party and the socialist revolution, and in reconnecting the WWG to mainstream communism. The Trotskyism distortions and downright falsification of Bolshevik history have been comprehensively demolished and Trotsky’s credentials as a revolutionary leader and man of substance destroyed.
Lih has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the April theses (1917) and the then Stalin-Kamenev leadership of the Moscow Bolshevik Party were completely in line with Lenin and Bolshevik revolutionary theory to date. In ‘A failure of definition’ (August 9), Conrad confirmed that the Soviet republic of workers, peasants and soldiers, which became a reality after the February 1917 revolution, was not a break with revolutionary democratic dictatorship set out in Lenin’s Two tactics of social democracy, but its concrete realisation. Absolutely correct and really obvious if you read the April theses.
The re-engagement and reorientation of the WWG back towards traditional communism has caused squeals of anguish from inveterate Trotskyists, such as Rex Dunn, who declared he was a supporter of the Weekly Worker, but must now be wondering what he has committed to.
The essential problem that Trotskyism has faced is that every twist, turn, split, mutation and variation of its 557 varieties has attempted to define its differences (from the others!) through its attitude to the Soviet Union. They all, of course, claim to be in favour of ‘socialism’. They are also all against whatever the Soviet Union was. So they are caught on these two opposing hooks - in favour of socialism but opposed to it. Twisting, contorting and coming up with complex, fantastical and nonsensical definitions.
Jack engages in a morass of confusion and contradictions in attempting to classify the USSR. He confirms that “A mode of production also requires a consolidated ruling class”, but is unable to answer who that was. He approvingly quotes Hilferding that “he too discounted ideas that the Soviet apparatus had consolidated itself into a ruling class”, but that “the state had therefore become autonomous of the workers, the economy ... and even the apparatus itself”. “However, inside the Soviet Union, the apparatus stood alone. There was no ruling class to obey, ape or join.”
Jack persists with the absurd claim that the massive state-owned and directed socialist industrialisation of the USSR and mass socialist collectivisation of agriculture - and the triumph of these forms of socialism by the early 1930s - represented a “social counterrevolution within the revolution”.
He might have - more credibly - argued that the Great Purge 1937-38 when it ‘backlashed’ against the middle ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union - represented a potential coup against the working class power. But he didn’t and it wasn’t. The death of Stalin resulted in the reassertion of the leading role of the Communist Party and ultimately to the democratic communist vision and strategy set out in the 1961 CPSU programme.
I am irresistibly reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous characterisation of the USSR as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. What tautological and sociological nonsense. It could almost be a ‘statesman’ squirming and attempting to exude profundity, but deliberately offering no clue as to the social, class nature of the Soviet Union.
Isn’t Occam’s Razor the problem-solving principle that the simplest solution tends to be the correct one? Churchill knew perfectly well the social class nature of the Soviet Union. As secretary of state for air and war (1919-21), he organised a coalition of 14 countries to invade the Soviet Union and “crush the Bolshevik baby in its cradle” (nice).
Churchill, of course, had a mortal hatred of the working class, all revolutionary movements and all struggles for national liberation from British imperialism. He shot striking miners in south Wales, burned to death anarchists in London and conducted the dirtiest terrorist war of oppression in Ireland. Churchill’s hostility to the Soviet Union was simply his vitriolic class hatred and hostility to a country where the working masses had through revolution overthrown the rule of his class and established a social and economic system to be run by and for working people.
Jack - applying his rational, objective, scientific approach - is forced to admit that, despite all the nonsense about counterrevolution and regression, “Economically, however, there was progress. By the time of the CPSU’s 22nd Congress in 1961 the country had been radically transformed compared with 1917. Not only was the Soviet Union the second superpower militarily. In terms of steel, coal, hydro-electricity, gas, oil, machine tools, etc, it led the world. Housing, food consumption and general living standards were noticeably better too. So was healthcare. Life expectancy for newborns rose significantly, from 44.4 years in 1926-27 to 68.6 years in 1958-59. What had been a largely illiterate population now completed secondary education as a matter of routine and increasingly went onto higher education.
“Moreover, in the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics Soviet citizens were counted in the front rank. Nobel prizes were won in chemistry and physics. In space the Soviet Union notched up many spectacular triumphs. First artificial satellite, first manned flight, first space walk, first woman, first lunar orbiter, etc. Such a transformation would have been impossible without taking a non-capitalist course of development.”
Think carefully about the above. Is this an “ectopic”, “freak”, “abortion” of a society? Is this a society where there has been a “counterrevolution within a revolution”? Who were the new “rulers”? How could they act so benevolently in putting the basic and indeed the advanced interests of its people so far as the priority?
If the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was in effect the “ruling class” over whatever society the Soviet Union was, it must have been the most democratic and meritocratic in world history, recruiting literally the best and most ambitious to do good from all sorts of backgrounds.
Jack’s article, ‘Not social democracy’ (September 27) on the South African Communist Party and its intentions relating to the national democratic revolution against apartheid was spot on. He set out an extremely positive schema and alternative history, where the SACP and African National Congress have violently overthrown the apartheid regime and have implemented massive social reform - indeed transformation of economic, social and cultural conditions - for the great majority.
He describes this as “bureaucratic socialism”, as opposed to “proletarian socialism”. It’s not a term I would use, but the socialism is key. He states “bureaucratic socialism cannot be democratic, cannot make the transition to communism”.
Why on earth not? As above, the 1961 CPSU programme provided precisely such a direction of travel, but was stifled and suffocated by bureaucratic and short-term factional struggles for power and changes in leadership. That was not inevitable. Some argue the Action Programme of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party in 1968 offered a similar transformative route forward, but was, of course, crushed by Warsaw Treaty tanks. Also, not inevitable.
Our old friend, Andrew Northall, makes an elementary mistake in a previous letter. Taking to task Paul B Smith, he says this: “Central to Marxism is the fact that labour is the source of all value and wealth” (Letters, October 4).
This is clearly untrue. As Marx himself pointed out, if we “take away the useful labour”, there remains “a material substratum”, which is “furnished by nature without the help of man” (K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p43). Nature changes matter, and when humanity puts its hand in to changing matter through labour, it is “constantly helped by natural forces.” Therefore Marx stresses that labour is not the only source of material wealth: labour is akin to the father, nature the mother.
So labour cannot be “the source” of “all value and wealth”. A notion that long passed for orthodoxy in the Socialist Workers Party. Proposition one of its ‘What the SWP fights for’ used read as follows: “The workers create all the wealth under capitalism. A new society can only be constructed when they collectively seize control of that wealth and plan its production and distribution.”
For Marxism nature is the ultimate provider, regardless of how much time, energy and talent is expended by human beings. Their labour - and, of course, not just under capitalism - merely serves to manipulate, alter, shape what is already given, according to some human aim, in order to meet some human need. And this work is “constantly helped by natural forces”too (K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p43). Eg, producing grain not only requires those able to drive tractors and combine harvesters: it requires seed, fertile soil and sufficient rain and sunshine.
In this context it is worth adding that, far from ignoring ecology, demanding the human conquest of nature and worshipping unlimited industrial growth, Marx actually had a sophisticated understanding of so-called green issues. His materialism recognised the dependence of humanity upon nature, the necessity of conservation and sympathetically mastering the laws of nature (see J Bellamy Foster Marx’s ecology New York 2000). Nor should the despoliation of nature in the Soviet Union be forgotten. According to an officially sponsored source, Mikhail Lemeshev, the drive for extensive development of production “makes the effect of the socialist mode of production upon nature tantamount to the effect that capitalist production has on it” (M Lemeshev Bureaucrats in power - ecological collapse Moscow 1990, p37).
When I was a lad in the 1950s on the “11th day of the 11th month” everything would stop - in the street, in shops and at work. But at two minutes past 11 people would move again, factory hooters would blast and I remember well the sound of the (steam) train whistles. On Remembrance Sunday there would be a parade through the town to the church; there would be men and women from the branches of the military, civil defence people, nurses, police, firefighters in uniform and so on.
I was in the local church choir at the time and the church would be packed - even more so than for the Christmas carol service. This was not surprising; most adults, including my parents, were remembering friends and relatives who had died in the war not many years previously. There was genuine, heartfelt grief and a sombre atmosphere among the almost universal red poppy wearers.
For at least 20 years after World War II it still dominated all sorts of things. There were books like The wooden horse (escape from a prison camp) and The dam busters and it was the same at the cinema and newly arrived TV. But things started to change. The most significant early development in the UK was probably the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1957 and the growing popularity of, and publicity given to, the marches from Aldermaston to London, which started in 1959. At the same time we had the gradual loss of empire and the support on the left for those demanding freedom.
There was the revolution in Cuba and the growing fight for civil rights in the US - the latter marked by atrocities, such as the murder of Emmett Till and the bombing of the church in Birmingham Alabama in 1963, which caused the death of four girls. Such events further undermined the image of the ‘leader of the free world’ and hence of its foreign policies. All of these struggles and historic events came together with the biggest of the lot - the international movement against the war in Vietnam.
The opposition to oppression and war was reflected in culture too. One of the earliest expressions seen was in the comedy sketch show Beyond the fringe, which, while ridiculing politicians such as Churchill and MacMillan, also hit out at the enduring myths of the war. On stage and screen we had Oh! What a lovely war, which, among other things, parodied popular songs on World War I.
Nationalism is needed to bind the working class and the capitalist class together, as if they had common interests. We can look on in wonder, as the queen, the prime minister, the archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of them bow their heads in prayer and remembrance - preferably of a war. We must celebrate ‘god, queen and country’ because nationalism is also needed for wars.
Margaret Thatcher had a bit of luck with the Falkland Islands war, stirring enough enthusiasm to win the 1983 election. Then there was 9/11, when the long planned, and totally irrelevant (and illegal), invasion of Iraq could join that of Afghanistan and our current world of apparently permanent war. We have with these wars ever more desperate attempts to get public backing - if not for the war, then at least for ‘our lads’ (and maybe ‘lasses’). The press plays a big role in this, of course.
But none of these ‘patriots’ have as much enthusiasm for supporting ‘our lads’, when it comes to housing for their families, health, including mental health, on their return. But they are ‘heroes’ and must be celebrated as such. Hurrah for the heroes who lost legs, etc in pointless wars called by the US and backed by British governments. It’s such a shame that so many of the soldiers end up homeless, on the streets, in prison or committing suicide - for some the war is never over.
However, today there are fewer and fewer people wearing poppies - things have changed a lot in the last 50 years or so. But unfortunately they haven’t changed enough. Wars go on indefinitely - and with them thousands of refugees, who are also used to help along the nationalist project. And we have not just nationalism, with the post-imperial delusions of a Jacob Rees-Mogg or a Boris Johnson, but the re-emergence of fascism. This is clear in Europe - in Hungary, Poland, Italy and even Germany. It is clear too around the world - in India, in the Philippines and in Brazil. This is obviously just a taster of what’s around. We have the resurgence of the neoliberal elites and their hangers-on. Dreamers of “blood and soil” with their racism, misogyny, and carefully selective religious beliefs and, in many countries, the hankering of police forces for ‘law and order’.
But we also have working class communities, who feel let down by their political leaders, mostly because they have been let down - by Democrats in the US and by social democrats all over the world. In France large numbers of voters for the Front National were from areas previously strongly communist. Many workers feel betrayed by their traditional leaderships and have no real idea of where to turn.
Never has the need for an international communist movement been so urgent. Even in the 1930s there were communist parties, for all their faults, there was a Soviet Union, for all its faults; there were, in fact, actual material forces to oppose fascism. But now? Moralising liberals - whether social democrats, greens or leftwing sectarians - are not up to the job. We need a party to unite working class forces - even to recognise that such forces exist would be a step on the way.
Meanwhile, there’s going to be an awful lot of nonsense for the centenary of the 11th hour of the 11th day … I wonder if Jeremy will bend far enough this time?
In his ‘corrective’ letter, Moshé Machover claims Marx’s authority for the transhistorical manner in which he employs the term ‘value’ (Letters, September 13). He recommends that we read what Marx had to say to his friend and comrade, Ludwig Kugelmann, on the question.
According to Moshé, Marx is of the view that value - ie, exchange value, as opposed to use-value - exists “under any form of social organisation”. Well, looking through the text of Marx’s 1868 letter, that contention is simply unsupportable. Marx does not argue that value exists “under any form of social organisation”.
Value and exchange value are, for Marx, a specific “manifestation” of the general law of labour time: “as every child knows, … the amounts of society’s aggregate labour” has to be distributed in “specific proportions” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 43, Moscow 1998, p68). Capitalism does exactly that indirectly, through the market and the law of value, through prices and money, as a tendency, behind the backs of the social actors, etc. Pre-capitalist and post-capitalist societies likewise distribute their labour time … but not through the law of value. Eg, in socialist society the law of the plan will replace the law of value.
At the risk of quote-mongering, it is worth looking at Fredrick Engels’ Anti-Dühring - in particular chapter four (reportedly part-written by Marx). Here we find this telling comment on the historically transient nature of ‘value’:
“From the moment when society enters into possession of the means of production and uses them in direct association for production, the labour of each individual, however varied its specifically useful character may be, becomes at the start and directly social labour. The quantity of social labour contained in a product need not then be established in a roundabout way; daily experience shows in a direct way how much of it is required on the average. Society can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality. It could therefore never occur to it still to express the quantities of labour put into the products, quantities which it will then know directly and in their absolute amounts, in a third product, in a measure which, besides, is only relative, fluctuating, inadequate, though formerly unavoidable for lack of a better one, rather than express them in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time ….
“Hence, on the assumptions we made above, society will not assign values to products. It will not express the simple fact that the hundred square yards of cloth have required for their production, say, a thousand hours of labour in the oblique and meaningless way, stating that they have the value of a thousand hours of labour. It is true that even then it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour-powers. The useful effects of the various articles of consumption, compared with one another and with the quantities of labour required for their production, will in the end determine the plan. People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted ‘value’” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p294).
Comrade Machover is, of course, free to use the term ‘value’ in any way he so wishes. But giving the term a transhistorical status, especially when talking amongst consenting Marxists, is surely a recipe for confusion - the original complaint of Danny Hammill in his report of this year’s Communist University.
It might well be said that we stand atop a beautiful hill - one formed from any residue of decency still to be found amongst capitalism’s debris and detritus, one rising above its sewage. That hilltop we share is even further sun-splashed by unquestionable honorability - everything is bonded to a fundamental, unwavering humanitarianism.
But in stark contrast to that description (not to say in utterly grotesque paradox), simultaneously we choose to hunker down within our individual trenches. We burrow around in our separately engineered ideological furrows, doing so within what I would argue to be ‘suicidal comfort zones’ - in other words, within a tragically self-inflicted, but also downright self-serving, fabrication.
In an attempt to break through this mutual isolationism of ours - (ie, of those on the serious/Marxist left in conjunction with other radically progressive elements), I urge you to read through the letter from David William Pear published in the Weekly Worker (October 18).
This cuts through all such rickety perimeter fences either of ideological or organisational difference, as exist between us - all such largely arbitrary boundaries; all such suicidal comfort zones. It smashes down all such demarcations as are kept in place by those who profess to be virulently anti-capitalist; by anyone wishing to portray themselves - and therein sincerely believing themselves to be - efficiently opposed to current elites alongside an innately concomitant barbarism.
In the absence of finding a pathway to setting aside the differences of attitude that prevail amongst us, we play into the hands of our enemy. In essence, we will continue to amount to nothing more than a disparate gang of Bubble Bomb commentators. In effect, we’ll remain nothing more than yet another echo of our notionally conscience-struck bourgeois media or their obscenely hand-wringing intelligentsia. In that absence of any profound solidarity, merely we’ll remain as additional splish-splashes of dissent in an overflowing bathtub of commentary.
Needless to add, this farrago of wastefulness only remains true whilst no Communist Party of any real substance exists - one which is both truly representative of and genuinely acting for the interests of all working citizens; consequently, one around which each and every thinking, enlightened person could pro-actively and enthusiastically coalesce. It will be a Communist Party that is both an amalgamation and magnificent exemplar of vibrant eco-salvation, harnessed to our mutual futurescape liberation; by way of its devotion to universal democracy, a communism that’s categorically non-Stalinist … and, so it could be said, one that’s faithful to its own opalescent gracefulness!
Lexit was aimed at globalisation and not at national autarky - as you so reduce reality to a simplistic and non-dialectic binary choice (‘More humiliation looms’, October 18).
If memory serves me, the miners (organised labour) needed to be defeated before the big bang of financial deregulation could proceed and financial globalisation could be released on an unsuspecting world. This neo-lib strategy (market fundamentalism - abolish national impediments to the free flow of capital) was adopted due to the declining rate of profit, when the post-war boom came to an end in the early 70s, associated with Nixon’s floating of the dollar due to printing too much money over the Vietnam war (symptom, not cause).
In short Lexit is a tactic to make it much harder to make a ‘profit’ soon ... not least the inexhaustible supply of competitive labour (a commodity, an input - not people) from the east. A side benefit is the public destruction of the Conservative and Unionist Party (titter). Some might call this opportunism; others the conjunctural, whatever. But incontrovertibly we are facing real political choices and not the choice between neoliberalism and neoliberalism - which is what we had from 1979 to 2016.
Anders Breivik was responsible for the greatest individual terrorist atrocity on European soil - it’s scale of 77 fatalities alongside multiple wounded/traumatised survivors is astonishing (‘Going beyond acts of terror?’, October 18). Breivik’s online posting of his 1,500-page (!) manifesto/justification prior to his action suggests that he didn’t expect to survive the cataclysm of violence he was going to unleash.
I see his killing spree as an act in line with the ‘propaganda by deed’ atrocities of the anarchist bomb-throwers of the late 19th/early 20th century. It’s aim was to encourage like-minded people to engage and organise in struggle in the same vein, whilst provoking the state to show its true colours through a draconian police and judicial response - thus inciting further revolutionary action and a ‘virtuous circle’ of ever-increasing violence, resulting in the overthrow of the state.
The Norwegians did not rise to Breivik’s bait. Despite their trauma they dealt with his crimes through full and normal judicial process. They have given no grist to the mill of the fascists in the way he hoped. A deluded lone wolf like Breivik can cause tragedy and agony, but furthers our enemies not one whit. We know who they are and we will continue to fight them.