Bolshevik errors

In late September we gave three pages to comrade Levi Rafael’s ‘Building models for the future’ (September 24). This was an attempt to rebut the arguments of my latest rejoinder (‘Property and the propertyless’, September 4) to his earlier articles, ‘An ideal state’ (July 30) and ‘Bourgeois or proletarian democracy’ (August 13). In spite of its length, comrade Rafael’s September 24 piece was unproductive, because it substantially just returned to his original position, without actually answering my criticisms.

I have been busy for the last few weeks with the Faulkner-Thomas debate on the party question, to which Gerry Downing has now responded (specifically to the third and fourth articles - Letters, October 29). In this intervention comrade Downing is, in essence, doing the same thing as comrade Rafael. That is, he charges me with being committed to ‘bourgeois democracy’ and rejecting the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state, on the basis of my criticisms of the policies adopted by the Bolsheviks during the post-revolution civil war, which were made into a model for the Comintern. This is the same line of argument made by comrade Rafael at much greater length, when he accuses me of succumbing to Francis Fukuyama’s (abandoned) ‘end of history’ line.

The fundamental point is not new. In fact, I made it at some length against an earlier iteration of comrade Downing’s arguments in my article, ‘Defeat was fault of enemy machine guns’ (May 24 2007). It is that all arguments about the Russian Revolution and so on have to reflect the fact that at the end of the day, first, the bureaucracy restored capitalism, of its own free choice; and, second, the level of disorientation and demoralisation of the working class from the bureaucratic regime was such that there was nothing like resistance - if anything, the workers became a political tail for the restorationists. The overall result is worse demoralisation and disorientation than resulted from the defeats of the revolutions of 1848 or from the massacres and repression after the Paris Commune of 1871.

I wrote in my 2008 book Revolutionary strategy that this is the basic problem with the far left using the Russian Revolution as a model for the future: “The use of hindsight is justifiable and necessary, because the point of the whole exercise is to study history for what it can tell us about where we are now, how we got here and where we should (try to) go next. In this sense it is loosely analogous to the sort of exercise that has to be undertaken if a bridge falls down. Why did the bridge fall down? If it was hit by a meteorite, we may well rebuild it in exactly the same form. But if the collapse was caused by problems which will predictably recur in future (like severe storms or an increased weight of traffic) we should redesign the bridge, in the light of hindsight, to meet these problems. The fact that the problems which caused the collapse may not have been originally predictable affects the moral responsibility of the original designers, but it does not in the least alter our present tasks.”

Comrade Rafael proposes merely to rebuild the bridge in the form in which it collapsed. He plays up the very limited abilities of workers to manipulate their relations with local management under the Soviet-style regimes - abilities which were, in fact, just as much available to villein peasants under feudalism in relation to their manorial lords. His argument is open to the exact same objections as those I made to the arguments of Tony Clark (at the time of the Stalin Society) in 2008: ‘Taking Stalinism seriously’ (Weekly Worker September 3 2008); ‘Bureaucracy and terror’ (September 10 2008); and ‘Stalinist illusions exposed’ (September 17 2008).

The issue has present political significance because comrade Rafael refuses to respond to my argument both about 1918-21, and about the present: that capital survived in 1918-21, and rules today, through the support of the labour bureaucracy, which serves as an outwork - hornguard or ravelin - of the capitalist state’s fortifications. Hence, overthrowing the political dictatorship of the labour bureaucracy - including in the small and disoriented left - is the unavoidable first step towards overthrowing the rule of capital. Overthrowing the political dictatorship of the bureaucracy does not mean immediately abolishing the division of labour, but getting rid of the institutions of bureaucratic rule - essentially apparatus controls on information and communication, bans and proscriptions, and so on - and putting the officials and elected representatives in fear of those they represent.

For comrade Downing everything was fine and justified down to the final illness and death of Lenin: his ideas are built on a cult of the personalities of Lenin and Trotsky, which cannot recognise any responsibility on their part for choices which led to Stalinism.

I suggested that perhaps the Bolshevik leadership should not have overridden the soviet majority which opposed the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Comrade Downing says that this would have been surrender to the counterrevolution. If anything, the boot is on the other foot: by surrendering to the demands of the Hindenburg-Ludendorff regime in spring 1918, the Bolsheviks chose not to go down fighting, in the hope that they could gain time to build an army, and that later revolution in Germany would come to their aid. But because they were overriding the majority in the soviets, they were destroying the basis of their own political authority. They won power in October 1917 in coalition with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, on the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’. They could not possibly have won power on the slogan, ‘All power to the Bolshevik central committee’. This point - and the need to rig and manipulate soviet elections - is elaborately documented in Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in power (2007).

In my view willingness to fight a civil war in the tsarist empire was entirely justified, and the unwillingness of the ‘centrists’ to fight a civil war in Germany, Austria, Italy and so on was to condemn themselves to a civil war they had much less chance of winning, at a later date. Comrade Downing thinks this is inconsistent with my condemning the Bolsheviks for militarising the party - and hence the Comintern - in response to the perceived needs of the civil war. Fighting a civil war requires an army, and hence military discipline. It does not require - other things apart - turning your political party into an army. Turning it into an army destroyed its ability to function effectively as a workers’ political weapon. I said, and I repeat, that if the Bolsheviks had adopted the organisational norms of 1919-21 in 1903, 1905, 1912 or 1917, the result would have been a marginalised sect, which could not have been a vehicle for the working class reaching for power in October 1917.

In 1917-19 the Bolsheviks were faced with a set of impossible choices. If they didn’t fight, it was clear that they - and much broader layers of the workers’ movement - would be massacred. If they did fight, they had to make themselves into a state ultimately based on extracting surplus from the peasantry, functioning as a collective ‘man on horseback’. It is not that the choices they made were immoral; and it is plain that the choices their opponents made led only to White terror. The problem is the theorisation of these choices - not as expedients of the workers’ movement as a minority class in a mainly-peasant revolution, but as general guidance for the workers’ movement. That theorisation is to deny all real hope of a serious alternative to capitalism.

Finally, comrade Downing begins by repeating the mantra of the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ that they only failed in 1939-45: “the Stalinists and western imperialism collaborated to massacre the Trotskyists and defeat the revolutionary situations that arose in the latter half and at the end of World War II …” This argument is also hopeless. As I wrote against comrade Downing in 2007, assessment of possibilities has to be based on the weight of the enemy as well as your own weight. And the labour bureaucracy (Stalinist included) has to be counted for this purpose as an element of the enemy camp. If repression and the bureaucracy’s support for restabilising capitalism is enough to defeat revolutionary politics, there is no possibility of socialism.

The other side of this coin is that, if ideas have real purchase, even very severe repression cannot prevent their finding expression and gaining weight. The position of the Fourth Internationalists in 1941-45 was that their ideas did not have this sort of purchase. The Fourth Internationalists themselves were split - first from 1939 on Soviet-defencism, and then from 1940 on, in a series of countries, on dual-defeatism versus ‘proletarian military policy’ (in China, Vietnam, etc, ‘revolutionary victoryism’). These splits arose because the Transitional programme was adapted to the experience of 1914-18. On the other side of the coin, from Hitler’s invasion of Russia onwards, the war was fought under the banner of the popular front against fascism on a world scale; and in 1945-48 a series of new Soviet-style regimes was created under the form of popular-front governments. These apparent victories gave political plausibility to the core ideas of ‘official communism’. It is only since the fall of the Soviet bloc that it should have begun to become obvious that the popular front is not a road to socialism, or even to resisting the drift of politics rightward.

But the left - still dominated by guys who grew up in the cold war - clings to the popular front: even the large bulk of the Trotskyists have internalised Georgi Dimitrov. The failure (like comrade Downing’s failure) to recognise that the Fourth Internationalists were politically defeated in 1940-45, not marginalised by repression or their small initial size, is a part of the reason for the endless sub-Trotskyist attempts at ‘get rich quick’ schemes, which put the fundamental political issues to one side.

Mike Macnair

STV opportunity

James Harvey’s article, ‘Cowardly fake left peddles lies’ (October 22), references the elections now underway for the nine constituency representatives on the Labour Party national executive. He declares that the Labour Left Alliance can “send a clear message to those who make up Grassroots Voice that the LLA is serious about wanting to negotiate some kind of joint list” and that Labour Party Marxists “are not against horse-trading behind closed doors”.

Both of these concepts betray the fact that LPM is failing to grasp the reality of the ‘single transferrable vote’ system being used for the first time in this election. This new voting system requires new tactics to win the supporters of the groups behind GV to the politics of Marxism.

Comrade Harvey correctly documents the political weaknesses of the GV candidates: their refusal to speak out against the expulsion of socialists on trumped-up charges; their playing down of leftwing politics in order to court the votes of the ‘centre’; their support for the election of any Labour government, which imprisons them in a symbiotic dependency on the Labour right.

All good stuff, and he follows up with a recommendation to prioritise the candidates supported by the LLA. They pledge to challenge the witch-hunt and promote party democracy. They will support open selection for party candidates and throw out the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism.

Comrade Harvey also stresses the point that I made in my recent letter (August 12) that some GV supporters are deliberately spreading the lie that any left candidates other than the GV six will split the left vote and let in the right.

This is the key advantage that STV offers. Standing as a distinct, principled working class candidate will not let the right in. There is no need for horse-trading with organisations that back unprincipled careerist politicians. Joint lists will no longer have a purpose.

Under the previous ‘first past the post’ system it was possible to split the left vote. We saw that in the NEC by-election earlier this year, when a divided left allowed the right to win both seats. But in the previous NEC election in 2018, also using FPTP, the united left #JC9 slate won all nine seats.

STV will change all that. It ensures a level of proportional representation. By extrapolating support from previous elections, I predict that this year’s vote will deliver five seats to the left, two to the hard right and one to the centre (right). Who wins the ninth seat will reflect the current left/right balance.

When the various stages of this year’s count are analysed, the penny will drop. Sooner or later the groups that make up that masonic cabal known as the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance will realise that it is no longer required. Additional leftwing candidates do not waste votes - upon elimination they just transfer and add to the tally of the voter’s next preference. So why should the groups spend nine hours thrashing out a compromise list when they can just stand their favoured candidates anyway?

Labour Party Marxists must embrace the new opportunities to advance the struggle to form a politically principled alternative leadership within the Labour Party. We should not be seeking a seat at the table with the sub-reformist, pro-capitalist Labourite left, to trade away policies in the cause of a fake united left lash-up. Instead we should use these elections to promote a radical Marxist platform to challenge the bourgeois consensus that prevails on the NEC, whichever side has a nominal majority.

Andrew Kirkland

Whose fault?

It seems that Arthur Bough wants to defend the government from any charges of responsibility for the current pandemic situation (Letters, October 29). “It wasn’t the government who released patients into care homes: it was the NHS itself,” he tells us. But it was the health minister who said that the government would keep working to “strengthen the protective ring we have cast around all our care homes”. If Hancock wants to take responsibility then why shouldn’t we let him?

Allyson Pollock - a long-time commentator on the national health service and critic of the government’s treatment of it - pointed out in 2012 that Andrew Lansley’s reorganisation, that created NHS England, had taken the NHS out of government responsibility. That would pass to the head of NHS England - presumably now a quango. As she said, it was the end of the NHS.

However, much as the government likes to duck blame when things go wrong and take credit if things go right, I think that most people in the UK believe that it is responsible for the NHS. This is despite the massive debts imposed on hospital trusts, the privatisation of so many services and treatments, the debts incurred by staff - from home and abroad. All these are the responsibility of governments - Labour, Conservative and coalition.

Blaming the NHS for shortcomings in our health treatment is a bit like blaming local authorities for homelessness and the state of our roads. The government likes to try and offload blame here too, but that’s no reason for honest folk to believe them. Some Tory MPs want to blame parents for their children going hungry, but then Bevan’s phrase, “lower than vermin”, does spring to mind.

Arthur blames the NHS for wasting money on Nightingale hospitals. Does he think that the NHS took all the decisions? Who called the army in to help? The Nightingales were hardly used: I read somewhere that hospitals could send their patients there, but they had to supply staff too. Not surprisingly, hospitals decided to keep patients and staff and to carry on as best they could.

Behind the government stands the capitalist ruling class. They want taxes to go continuously down, along with any spending that isn’t for their benefit. The British government, of whatever hue, is only too keen to assist them: tax cuts, anti-union laws, privatisation of anything left to privatise … So when things go wrong I think it’s entirely appropriate to blame the government - if only as a start.

With a mixture of capitalist, neoliberal, ideological dogma and a great deal of wishful thinking, the government has taken us where we are and they will continue to crash around, trying to save the economy - for their masters, not for us - while at the same time trying to look ‘not too bad’. Mass deaths are not a good look. They have a few problems. Despite the new lockdown the government just seems to be hoping that something will turn up.

I will reiterate that professionals in the NHS and local authorities do know what they’re doing. Or perhaps it’s the case that they used to? With labs closed, inspectors and other professionals made redundant, they are hard pressed to do what’s needed. But, from what I’ve seen in the press, they’ve still done a better job than the companies that the government has thrown money at.

Arthur wants us to advance demands - he suggests that the government could look after the vulnerable, while I have suggested that they have no intention of doing so. The Draft programme of the CPGB says: “Communists demand a comprehensive, free and democratic health service to meets the needs of everyone”, which looks okay to me. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Jim Nelson

Cause of disease

Bruno Kretschmar’s recent letter to the Weekly Worker raises interesting questions about the causes of chronic disease. He writes: “Given how sickness or ill-health may well ensue (including Crohn’s disease, arthritis, asthma and allergies, or similar disruption of the immune system, as well as some cancers), clearly it’s the case that most, if not all, things to do with human beings are more ‘holistic’ than simple and/or mechanical” (October 29).

Throughout the discussion with James Linney, I have emphasised that metabolic syndrome, and its sequelae like obesity and diabetes, are not reflective of a simple imbalance between energy consumed and energy expended (that is the biblical ‘sloth and gluttony’ explanation of obesity), but a problem of hormonal dysfunction: namely insulin resistance. Gerard Reaven has shown that the primary cause of insulin resistance is the modern industrial diet, which supplies most of its calories in the form of highly insulinogenic substances - particularly sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors - or modern indigenous people like the Australian Aborigines, the Plains Indians and the Inuit, who traditionally live on non-insulinogenic diets based on animal fats and protein - had chronically low levels of circulating insulin. By contrast, modern humans who subsist on diets based on refined carbohydrates have chronically elevated levels of circulating insulin. The modern epidemic of hyperinsulinemia, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome is an unrecognised public health disaster. A study published in 2018 found that only one in eight Americans are metabolically healthy enough to show no signs of metabolic syndrome. Apparently marketing modern industrial foods, and patenting and selling drugs that treat symptoms of chronic diseases associated with metabolic syndrome, offers far more lucrative opportunities for capital than would addressing the underlying cause of metabolic syndrome on a population level.

What, if anything, does this carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis tell us about the other chronic diseases mentioned by Bruno Kretschmar in his letter? Gary Taubes (The diet delusion, 2007) notes that British colonial-era doctors observed the incidence of cancer among Australian Aborigines, Pacific Islanders and so on, to have been exceedingly low to non-existent. These populations historically did not exhibit the symptoms of insulin resistance that are nearly ubiquitous in populations that consume the modern diets. It may therefore not come as much of a surprise that “in patients with metabolic diseases characterised by hyperinsulinemia (obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome), the incidence of several types of cancer is increased, as is cancer-related mortality” (doi.org/10.1016/j.tem.2020.05.004).

It should also be of little surprise that, as the colonised populations of Africa, Australia and North America were increasingly forced to adopt the displacing foods of modern commerce, and as they began to exhibit symptoms of hyperinsulinemia and metabolic syndrome, their rates of cancer have caught up with or exceeded the rates in, say, capitalist England.

Thomas N Seyfried and his research group at Boston College argue that cancer is not a nuclear-genetic disease, as the current scientific consensus would have it, but a metabolic disease that originates in the cellular mitochondria. That controversy aside, there are abundant data demonstrating the association of metabolic syndrome or its components with cancer development and cancer-related mortality. Unsurprisingly, there is currently much interest in the biochemical mechanisms that account for the observed links between metabolic syndrome, insulin, insulin-like growth factors (IGFs), and cancers.

The other diseases that Bruno Kretschmar discusses in his letter - Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and arthritis - are autoimmune diseases which common sense might suggest have little or nothing to do with metabolic syndrome or dysfunction in the body’s insulin-glucagon axis. While correlation does not necessarily imply causation, it is found that “patients with autoinflammatory disease such as gout and those with autoimmune rheumatic diseases have increased prevalence of metabolic syndrome” (doi.org/10.1016/j.phrs.2018.01.009). Increased rates of metabolic syndrome have also been observed among patients with inflammatory bowel disease.

An important diagnostic criterion for metabolic syndrome is central obesity, indicating high levels of visceral adiposity (accumulation of fat tissue around the internal organs). By comparison with subcutaneous fat (that lies beneath the skin), visceral fat around the organs is highly active immunologically. Visceral fat contains abnormally large numbers of immune cells, such as macrophages, and releases inflammatory cytokines that place the body’s immune system on a heightened state of alert, even in the absence of any microbial threat. This chronic low-grade inflammation is damaging to health, and is likely only one of the ways in which metabolic syndrome is related to immune dysregulation and increases in the risk of autoimmunity.

The other mechanism through which the displacing foods of modern commerce have led to a rise in autoimmune disease is through the disruption of the tight junctions (TJs) between cells in the intestinal epithelial layer. The TJs have a ‘gate and fence’ function, which controls transport of solutes and molecules between the gut and the bloodstream. It is hypothesised that disruption of the TJs leads to a ‘leaky gut’ that allows permeation of antigens, endotoxins and bacteria into the bloodstream, which flare up uncontrollable inflammatory processes. Many modern food additives lead to increased intestinal permeability, including emulsifiers, nanoparticles, organic solvents like hexane, used in the extraction of ‘heart-healthy’ industrial vegetable oils, and gluten, which is generally found in wheat products. Maternal gluten intake has been linked in a dose dependent manner to the risk of offspring developing autoimmune (type 1) diabetes. Admittedly this last correlation was only obtained using data from food frequency questionnaires.

It has long been known that child immigrants to the capitalist core countries have higher rates of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) than their immigrant parents, and that the likelihood of such children acquiring such disease increases, the earlier in life that immigration occurred. Referring to this phenomenon among immigrants to Canada, and emphasising the importance of environmental factors in these diseases, Eric Benchimol - paediatric gastroenterologist at the Canadian Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences - notes: “IBD is a disease of westernised nations, with high rates in North America and Europe, and low rates in Asia, Africa and South America. Rates increased dramatically in eastern Europe in recent decades and are increasing in other nations, as western lifestyle becomes more prevalent.”

I am not aware of any data on the incidence of the autoimmune diseases among, say, Australian Aborigines, the Inuit or the Plains Indians before they were exposed to modern industrial foods, but would suppose that these diseases were as unfamiliar to these populations as were other modern diseases of civilisation.

Gary Simons

Follow Orbán

In Eddie Ford’s article on immigration, which merely repeats the tired old arguments for ‘open borders’, there is no mention of the terror attacks in France on teacher Samuel Paty and more recently on the three Catholics in Nice (‘Smugglers and snakeheads’, October 29). Not for the first time the Weekly Worker refuses to criticise Islam by omission.

It is interesting that these attacks - although much less serious than on the Bataclan or Charlie Hebdo in terms of deaths - have made an impact on French people which the others did not. Possibly it is the fact that they have not been carried out by AK47-armed jihadists, who could be dismissed as ‘extremists’ wholly unrepresentative of the general Muslim population, but were knife attacks by everyday Muslims, who can buy their weapon in any supermarket.

In a remarkably stupid and supine statement the French ambassador to Sweden, Etienne de Gonneville, firmly rejected the idea that there was a risk of a conflict between France and the Muslim world. In an interview with Swedish national broadcaster SVT, de Gonneville went so far as to call France “a Muslim country”. For those of us who comprehend that Islam and especially sharia is completely incompatible with western society - and in fact any rational society - we only have to look at the actually existing examples of Islamic paradises.

The question for Ford and his epigones follows. What is more likely to prevent terrorist attacks - lighting candles at vigils for the dead at the Notre Dame basilica (described as beautiful and moving by participants), superimposing a laser display of the Tricolore onto a prestigious public building, or stopping the constant inflow of terrorists entering Europe? Places like Poland and Hungary do not have terrorist attacks by Muslims, because they are simply not allowed into the country in the first place. People like Ford are very big on the rights of immigrants, but these cannot be at the expense of the residential population.

Ted Hankin

One candidate

There appears to be potential for change in the CPGB position on the Scottish question. Good, as the existing one is no longer tenable and that’s why I’ve shifted mine. Comrade Paul Demarty rightly states that the question shouldn’t be left to Johnson granting a referendum (‘Eyes on exits’, October 22). That’s why the coming Scottish election is key.

The people of Scotland, as the comrade said, have long rejected the Tories and decisively didn’t want Brexit, so this election is the first real opportunity for self-determination since then. Labour and Tories were again wiped out in Scotland in the general election last year, so there’s no denying the majority for self-determination.

People can clearly see now just how useless referenda are for such momentous decisions, as the CPGB has pointed out so clearly in the past. Take credit where it’s due, comrades, but don’t fall back on the sterility of boycott.

There’s a need for a struggle in the Labour Party to support the right of self-determination for Scotland and recognition that independence is the first necessary step towards a coming together of a federal republic of the British Isles and a United States of Europe. Posing the federal republic now is mere tokenism and, given how little work has been done on it, comrades know it. But, given what we see happening in England right now, it can become a demand with real democratic potential.

Time is of the essence, comrades. The sooner we answer the Scottish question, the better. If the Labour Party proves no longer to be a vehicle for radical change, the CPGB should consider standing in the Scottish election on this platform of extreme democracy and I would certainly consider putting myself forward as a candidate again, as I did in 1992!

Tam Dean Burn

And another

Another former Labour leader is a notorious war criminal, but Jeremy Corbyn will no longer be receiving a weekly instruction to abstain on torture and on the state murder of trade unionists.

Corbyn has his faults. He expelled several of his own strongest supporters. He signed Labour up to the racist IHRA definition. His capitulation to Keir Starmer over Brexit took Labour from 40% of the vote in 2017 to near oblivion in 2019, costing it the Red Wall. But any Labour candidate is now a member of the same party as Tony Blair, yet not of the same party as Corbyn.

Any Labour parliamentary candidate now at least pretends to believe that Starmer ought to become prime minister.

David Lindsay
Independent parliamentary candidate for North West Durham, 2019 and 2024