Jim Creegan rounds on both myself and Lars T Lih for writing sloppy history. Our articles on Bolshevism in 1917 - especially the much disputed February-April - “contain too many assertions to take issue with in a single reply”, he says (‘Re-examining the record’ November 1 2018).
Unfortunately, in his 6,000-word article, comrade Creegan does not mention, let alone take issue with, even one of those (unfounded?) assertions. Still, it is only his first article! Instead, he finds a suitable quote from my supplement, published last year - a rejoinder to those, Jim Creegan included, who “still insist on claiming that there was some kind of programmatic break” in Bolshevism in April 1917. Here is the quote:
“Trotsky had thrown down a political gauntlet [with the publication of Lessons of October in 1924] and other prominent members of the Communist Party - not least those on the politburo and the central committee - piled in against him: Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Bukharin, Nadezhda Krupskaya, etc.
“Though Trotsky fulsomely praised the dead Lenin and spoke about ‘we Bolsheviks’, his aim was to attack, to demean Lenin’s closest lieutenants. They were hardly going to take that lying down. And, besides defending their own revolutionary records and sense of honour, they feared that Trotsky might be contemplating staging a Bonapartist military coup. He had certainly set his sights on replacing, or at the very least augmenting, Leninism with Trotskyism” (‘Putting the record straight’, November 9 2017).
Comrade Creegan seethes: “the above passage is breathtaking in its lack of historical context.” I could say the exact same thing with the whole of his 6,000-word article. Eg, it is breathtaking that it fails to put the internal situation in the Soviet Union during the mid-1920s into its proper international context. But that would be a cheap shot.
Comrade Creegan is looking for an excuse to provide the background to the publication of Lessons of October himself. That might have had some real worth … if comrade Creegan had done some serious thinking, done some serious reading. But he has done nothing of the kind.
He merely presents us with the standard version of events, as recounted by Leon Trotsky.
Comrade Creegan’s historical sources are somewhat limited: two quotes taken from Trotsky’s The new course (December 1923) and five taken from Trotsky’s sympathetic biographer, Isaac Deutscher, and his The prophet unarmed (1959). And that’s it. So what comrade Creegan has provided Weekly Worker readers with is an account that is so familiar, so well known that one wonders what the point of it is … well, except that it provides comrade Creegan with the opportunity to paint Trotsky in saintly colours.
It is something of an irony then that he charges Jack Conrad and Lars T Lih with “augmenting” the myth of the Bolsheviks of 1917 being “unified” and led by an “all-knowing” Lenin. This is a “historical fiction a little too close for comfort to Stalinist hagiography”
Actually, whereas real “Stalinist hagiography” does indeed peddle the myth of an “all-knowing” Lenin, it goes to great lengths to demonise Lenin’s closest lieutenants - in particular Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Eg, in 1917 Kamenev held a “semi-Menshevik position of conditionally supporting the Provisional government and the policy of the partisans of the war” (History of the CPSU Moscow 1939, p183).
Lars can, of course, speak for himself. However, for my part all I have done is show the programmatic continuity of Bolshevism over the years 1905-1917. Those who cannot, will not, see the connection between the 1905 perspective of establishing the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” and the 1917 call for a government of “workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets” show, to say the least, a stuborn lack of imagination.
I have learnt a good deal from Lars T Lih and his meticulous historical research on Lenin and Bolshevism. I have certainly been won round to the view that the April 1917 differences between Lenin and Kamenev were “not very great”. In that context I have expressed the view that, when it came to their dispute over the peasantry, Kamenev was “clearly right and Lenin wrong”.
Saying that this amounts to “augmenting” Stalinist hagiography would be laughable, if it were not meant seriously. Comrade Creegan really needs to learn that questioning Trotsky’s highly polemical account of 1917 does not automatically mark one out as a Stalinist monster.
Far from demonstrating a grasp of “objective reality”, Gerry Downing displays a wilful ignorance of the real-world history and development of the Russian revolutions and the USSR (Letters, November 8). His sectarian narrow-mindedness is also on view, as he is only capable of seeing two positions - Trotskyism or Stalinism; and cannot comprehend arguments in favour of an independent Leninist line against Stalinism’s revisionist failings and Trotskyism’s hostility towards the Soviet Union.
For all his claims that “the differences between Lenin and Trotsky fell away” after Lenin’s April theses, he does not appear to have read a single word Lenin had written about the nature of the February revolution and the tasks of the proletariat. See this flight of fancy, for example: “the nasty dual power emerged because class-consciousness is internationalist and Russian workers could not understand why they could not have a socialist revolution, as the German, French and British aspired to.”
Trotsky may or may not have said something like this, but it is nonsense to claim that this has anything to do with Lenin. Leninism understands that historical events emerge from material developments, not the ideas people hold in their heads. The unexpected emergence of a dual power in February 1917 Russia (which consisted of the provisional bourgeois government existing alongside the realisation of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship in the form of the soviets) was due to the inter-imperialist war, the rapid economic growth since 1905, and the fact that, despite increasing industrialisation, Russian society was still predominantly petty bourgeois. Had Downing read Lenin’s Tasks of the proletariat in our revolution and other works, he would have known that proletarian class-consciousness and organisation were insufficient, and its numerical strength was inadequate, and so any socialist aspirations they may have had were not as uniform and consciously revolutionary as he asserts.
Downing high-handedly dismisses my summary of Lenin’s description of the class nature of the dual power as a “splurge”, but he does not show that it is wrong, which would be the case if Lenin had been “won over” to Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” shallowness. It is crystal-clear in Lenin’s ‘Letters on tactics’, for example, that that he was not advocating Trotsky’s ‘No tsar, but a workers’ government’ subjectivism. He explained that the socialist revolution could not be arrived at by skipping over the peasant movement (which Downing implies in the above quote), and that a “prolonged period” of patient explanation was required to win the majority (the rural proletariat and poor peasantry) over to socialism. Any attempt to seize power whilst in the minority (Blancism) would have resulted in an unnecessary and self-defeating conflict with both the bourgeois capitalist and landlord class and the petty bourgeois peasant majority (whose class interests are opposed to the big bourgeoisie).
Downing continues to display his ignorance when he asserts that Lenin had “consigned the supporters of old Bolshevism to history”. Lenin’s raised his polemical struggle against the old Bolsheviks’ failure to appreciate that the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship they anticipated in theory had already been realised in the form of the soviets, and the tactical mistakes that stemmed from this misunderstanding, in order to win them over to a correct appreciation of reality. He never wrote them off. The debate lasted two weeks, by which time they had all gone over to Lenin’s side and continued to play a leadership role in the Bolshevik Party.
According to Downing. “Trotsky says he alone could not have convinced the Bolshevik leadership of the need for … the actual insurrection in October”. But Trotsky did not even try. It was Lenin who argued that the time was right for an insurrection in October; and, after agreement was reached on October 16 (29), continued to write ferocious letters to the central committee, warning against delays. Trotsky did not openly disagree with Lenin, and later claimed that his views were identical. However, he was amongst those arguing for it to be delayed until the Second Congress of Soviets had taken place.
Downing is also wrong to say that Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had voted against the insurrection, “tried so hard to stop [it] by going to the Menshevik press to reveal the details to the police”. Yes, they revealed the unpublished decision in the Menshevik press, and Lenin condemned them as “blacklegs” for doing so and advocated their expulsion from the party; and, yes, this had the effect of warning the police that the Bolsheviks were planning an insurrection. However, this does not mean they revealed the plans in order to notify the police. They were not police informers. They had wobbled. Despite this, they took part in the insurrection and were later re-elected to leadership positions.
Trotsky did not “lead the actual revolution”. It was led by the Bolshevik Party, under the guidance of Lenin, who was able to maintain contact with the central committee whilst he was in hiding, through vital communication lines set up by Stalin. Chapter 40 of Trotsky’s self-serving History of the Russian Revolution shows that the military organisations of the Bolsheviks “appointed the commissars to the combat units of the Petrograd garrisons ‘for observation and leadership’”, “drew up the tactical plans for the conquest of Petrograd” and “carried out the more conspiritative undertakings”. They also “worked out the plans for the nocturnal assault” with the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee (plans which were then ratified by the central committee). Whilst Trotsky helped to “secure the backing of the Petrograd and Moscow soviets for the insurrection”, this was not “vital”, as Downing claims. Victory was achieved by the armed masses on the streets. The soviets were presented with a fait accompli. The working class would have taken power even if the class-collaborating petty bourgeois elements had carried the day in the congress.
Downing tacks on some poisonous anti-Soviet slander at the end of his letter against the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by claiming that Molotov “defended fascism”. The Soviet leadership entered into the pact with Nazi Germany to buy itself enough time to shore up its own defences against a threatened Nazi invasion. It followed negotiations with Britain and France over military assistance to Poland in the event of German aggression. They failed because the imperialists refused to pledge mutual assistance to the Soviet Union.
In the October 1939 speech slyly quoted out of context by Downing, Molotov was referring to the defeated Pilsudskiite-fascist ruling class of Poland, which he said had oppressed non-national minorities, when he spoke of “this ugly offspring of the Versailles treaty”. He did not criticise the German invasion of Poland in this speech, but any analysis of speeches made by Soviet leaders at that time would have to take account of the diplomatic language used to avoid breaking agreements. Molotov did, however, point correctly to the hypocrisy of British and French imperialist claims to be “fighting for ‘democracy’” and the restoration of “old Poland”, whilst suppressing communists at home and oppressing the colonised nations overseas. He rightly argued that this was a war for the defence of empire against the competing claims of a resurgent German imperialism.
Trotsky got the entire epoch wrong. He endlessly attempted to undermine confidence in the Soviet Union by predicting bureaucratic disaster, from the New course in 1923 right up to The twin star: Hitler-Stalin (1940), where he predicted that the Soviet masses would turn against “the Kremlin bureaucracy” if it entered the war, a war it could not win, and argued that there was nothing to choose between Hitler and “Stalinism”.
History proved him wrong. Fascism was crushed by the Soviet workers’ state, led by its party and state leadership, and its defeat inspired socialist revolution worldwide. This does not lessen the wretched crimes, mistakes and distortions of Stalinism. A better understanding based on a higher level of Leninist struggle could have provided the leadership needed and avoided the damaging weaknesses of Stalinist leadership. However, there was no counterrevolution in 1929. If it already was a counterrevolutionary disaster, how does Downing explain the titanic Red Army victory in 1945, and the events of 1989, when capitalism really was restored?
EPSR supporter, Leeds
Labour Against the Witchhunt calls on Labour’s NEC to reject the allegations of anti-Semitism against Peter Gregson, condemns his suspension by the GMB trade union and calls for the immediate restoration of his full membership rights.
The principle ‘Guilty until proved innocent’ threatens the rights of all members, chills discussion, damages democracy and invites malicious complaints against political opponents. We prefer the principle of working class solidarity: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’
Except in the most extreme circumstances, disciplinary sanctions should not be applied until due process has been concluded. Where low-level sectionalist, nationalistic, xenophobic or racist ideas, including anti-Semitic ideas, are found in the workers’ movement, they are best countered by open discussion, patient education, inculcation of elementary class-consciousness and by encouraging participation in joint struggles. The slogan ‘zero tolerance’ is ill-conceived and counterproductive.
We reject the International Holocaust Memorial Alliance’s unnecessarily complex, imprecise and self-contradictory definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates it with anti-Zionism. The IHRA definition, which has been adopted by both the Labour Party and the GMB, will no doubt be the basis of investigations into the allegations made against Peter. We prefer the Oxford English Dictionary definition, that anti-Semitism is “hostility to or prejudice against Jews”.
Peter is clearly not anti-Semitic: he does not harbour hostility, prejudice, hatred or ill-intent towards Jewish people as Jews. He is a campaigner for Palestinian rights, against the racist ideology of Zionism and the apartheid system and practices of Israel.
The investigation into Peter arose because he organised a petition, with now over 700 signatories, declaring - using the clumsy and obscure IHRA wording - that “the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour”. But even Jon Lansman, the Zionist self-appointed chair of Momentum, conceded, in an October 14 email to Peter, that “declaring Israel to be a racist endeavour and challenging the NEC to expel him alongside others who signed a petition he launched may not be anti-Semitic …” But Lansman continued: “… it is a deliberately provocative act which is most certainly prejudicial to the interests of the party and I therefore urge the general secretary to take the appropriate action against you.”
These are weasel words. “Provocative” acts are the stuff of political debate. Lansman is effectively calling for the silencing of support for the Palestinian struggle against Zionism and Israel’s apartheid.
We understand from Peter’s November 8 statement that his suspension by the GMB is motivated by former Labour NEC member and GMB official Rhea Wolfson - an open Zionist, a member of the Jewish Labour Movement and a supporter of Israel as a Jewish state.
The Israeli state is inherently racist. Under its July 2018 Nation-State Law, Israel is defined as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” and Palestinian citizens are explicitly declared not to have any national rights. In the West Bank and Gaza - territories occupied since 1967 - while Jewish settlers enjoy full democratic rights as Israeli citizens, Palestinians live under military rule with no democratic rights, because they are not Jewish.
Although Peter’s petition is a good idea, challenging Labour’s NEC to revoke its adoption of the IHRA definition, we cannot support it. Firstly, we disagree with some of its wording - eg, before it adopted the full IHRA definition on September 4, Labour did not allow “full freedom of speech on Israel”. On the contrary, the witch-hunt was in full flow long before that. Secondly, some of the formulations in Peter’s supporting documents internalise the racism of Zionist ideology, failing to distinguish clearly between the Zionist movement and the Jewish population, and attributing a non-existent collective political identity to “the Jews”: eg, “the Jews have so much leverage here [in the UK]”.
The witch-hunt against Corbyn and the Labour left is part of the huge, unprecedented campaign over recent years to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism - hatched, crafted and skilfully promoted by the US right, the Israeli government and the UK establishment, designed to delegitimise criticism of Israel and to prepare public opinion for another imperialist war in the Middle East, after the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Labour Against the Witchhunt
I read with interest David Douglass’ response to David Harvey on climate change (Letters, November 8). It’s a change to read a sceptical (?) account from someone who is not a blithering idiot (Donald Trump, Sarah Palin), a fully paid-up agent of the energy companies (virtually all elected Republicans) or Nigel Lawson.
However, although comrade David has ranged far and wide over the science, I can’t help being more convinced by the massed ranks of climate scientists, along with the ‘hockey stick’ correlation outlined in Michael Mann’s excellent book The hockey stick and the climate wars. David warns of a likely Ice Age in a thousand years’ time, but by then we might hope for a human society able to deal with it; after all, Cuba, for all its faults, is better able to prepare for, survive and recover from hurricanes than all of its neighbours - including the United States.
Meanwhile, we already have harsher hurricanes, longer and drier droughts, more and more widespread forest fires and - for instance, in the UK - more flooding. David and I may well be gone before the worst effects are felt, but I’m sure that we share a natural human empathy for the youngsters and children of today, as well as for their offspring in the future.
When I first started to notice environmental issues, about 30-odd years ago, I thought that the worst dangers facing us were soil erosion and species extinction. While I may have joined the herd in prioritising global warming, the situation of these two has clearly worsened and they are all intertwined. As David cites, we have “the ongoing mass destruction of the world’s forests” - perhaps the biggest contributor to all of the environmental problems we face.
David suggests carbon capture, but I’m afraid that this, like power from nuclear fission, is but a distant dream. There are, I believe, some more obvious remedies - there are too many cars and lorries, which a rational transport system could resolve; solar energy could provide power in many countries and where it doesn’t then insulation (non-flammable in a socialist society) would reduce demand significantly. I think we can agree that no sensible solutions to the major, myriad and growing environmental problems - warming, plastic, insect extinction, maritime extinction - will be found, while capitalism stalks the planet.
Marx and art
Rex Dunn points out, correctly, the paucity of material left by Karl Marx on the subject of aesthetics (‘Marxism and aestheticism’, November 8). However, when the comrade writes about contemporary art and aesthetics, his observations omit important considerations. Rex writes that “the old community of interests ... is replaced by a depersonalising process”. That is true of the art world, as it is true of all cultural production under capitalism, but it needs qualifying.
Artists practising under that “old community of interests”, from feudalism and to the Renaissance (ie, before the dominance of the capitalist mode of production), were beholden to their patrons, the church, monarchs or a powerful landed aristocracy. Artists were not free - in the communist sense - to create their art unshackled from the necessity of earning a living. Nevertheless, even in these conditions artists managed to produce works of art which are considered and admired for their aesthetic merit, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his statue of David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Comrade Dunn’s depiction of the contemporary art scene inverts reality. When he writes that the art object doubles up as exchange value, which “supersedes its intrinsic value” (what is “intrinsic value”?), he states a banality. The art object under capitalism usually circulates as a commodity, but this situation holds for the product of all cultural activity, be it a novel, a film, a play, a musical composition or an artwork. Rex cites some spikes in prices on the art market, as though these were the defining factors in art creation. They are not. The vast majority of practising, professional artists continue in their vocation without their work hitting media headlines over auction prices.
It’s curious that the comrade fails to mention the myriad movements and strategies that artists have undertaken in the last century to subvert commodification of their work. The Dada movement from the teens of the 20th century deliberately set out to destroy the fetishisation of the art market and to a large extent succeeded, insofar as few of their original artworks (or ‘Readymades’) survive today. Other radical movements include minimalism and conceptualism, of which Carl André’s rows of bricks’ at the Tate Gallery is a good example. In Italy, Arte Povera choose to use materials that would never have passed muster in any art academy.
Despite a disparagement of Andy Warhol and irrespective of Warhol’s persona or his place in the art market, he was a radical artist. Some of his images are iconic in their critical commentary on the US, such as his Electric Chair or Disaster series. Warhol’s films eschewed the standard narrative structures of theatrical film - both Hollywood and so-called leftwing cinema. Warhol’s approach is far more materialist, insofar as it challenges the viewer to think through the process of making and consuming a cinematic experience. Then there is Picasso, notably his Guernica - emblematic artwork of the Spanish Civil War. When Guernica travelled to the UK in 1937 to raise funds for the struggling Spanish Republic, the price of entry at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was either a sum of money or a pair of workmen’s boots - the latter decision taken both to encourage working class visitors and to provide their used footwear for Republican armies. After the Whitechapel, Guernica travelled to Manchester, where it was nailed up on the wall of a car showroom and the exercise was repeated.
Comrade Dunn is right to point out that Marx and Engels were unreceptive to those worthy, but poorly executed, artworks or theatrical productions ostensibly dealing with political issues of class conflict. As he says, the missing element is the aesthetic dimension.
This remark might help elucidate Marx’ own reference to his first volume of Capital as an artistic production. It is a fine work of literature, as fine as one might find at the time for a publication dealing with political economy. Marx was more interested in the visual arts than in literature, if we go by his writings and remember that as a very young man he contemplated becoming an art critic. His choice of words appear to reflect this. Marx felt satisfaction that the careful gestation, crafted writing and hard work he had put into his publication (Rex highlights this with his quote from Jenny Marx) resulted in as fine a piece of cultural production as any art work. We could allow him that.