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Archive for the ‘Marxian Theory’ Category

Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On October - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene

 

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Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, 1910
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice with author’s permission — At the height of the Second International, Karl Kautsky was recognized by socialists and anti-socialists alike as “The Pope of Marxism” for his popularization and systematization of Marxist ideas. The great figures of the day looked to him for guidance, whether Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, V. I. Lenin, or Eugene Debs. Since Kautsky was such an authoritative voice on Marxism, his subsequent betrayal was so deep that later communists could be forgiven for mistaking his first name as “Renegade” (as Lenin bitterly called him). Although Kautsky fell into obscurity following the Russian Revolution, in the last few years there has been a revival of interest in his politics in both academia (notably by the scholar Lars Lih) and on the political left. This raises questions about the meaning of Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism and about what, if anything, a renewed revolutionary left should adopt from it as our own?

Kautsky’s Orthodoxy
Karl Kautsky was originally born in Prague in 1854 and joined the socialist movement while a student there in the mid-1870s. However, it was only after moving to Germany and joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that he began his rise to prominence. In 1883, Kautsky was made editor of Die Neue Zeit, the SPD’s main theoretical journal, for which he wrote on many theoretical, historical, and political topics. By 1891, Kautsky’s reputation had grown so much among socialists that he was chosen to co-write the SPD’s Erfurt Programme and a popular commentary on it known as The Class Struggle.

The Erfurt Programme and subsequent works by Kautsky systematized the SPD’s understanding of Marxist orthodoxy. According to Kautsky, the contradictions of capitalism would eventually cause the system to break down. Capitalism brought with it the accumulation, centralization, and concentration of capital, the growth of the working class, and sharper divisions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Ultimately, the relations of production would cease to foster the development of the productive forces, and this would signal the onset of the socialist revolution.

For Kautsky, it was the mission of social democracy to educate the workers that their salvation could not be found in capitalism, but only in socialism. To accomplish this task, social democracy had to be the leadership not only of the workers, “but of all laboring and exploited classes, or, in other words, of the great majority of the population. We have already seen that the industrial proletariat tends to become the only working-class.”[1] It was the great mission of social democracy to merge Marxist theory with the working class movement in order to lead it to final victory: “Socialism as a doctrine certainly has its roots in modern economic relationships just like the class struggle of the proletariat, and just like the latter, it emerges out of the struggle against the poverty and misery of the masses that capitalism creates. But they arise simultaneously, not one out of the other, and on different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.” [2] Without the merger of the working class movement and revolutionary social democracy, Kautsky thought, the proletariat would merely struggle for day-to-day reforms, and socialism would remain a futile discussion among intellectuals.

It was Kautsky’s Marxist orthodoxy with its belief that socialism was inevitable that shaped a generation of socialists from the United States to the Russian Empire.

The Revisionist Heresy
Kautsky’s Marxism did not go unchallenged within the SPD. In 1896-1898, Eduard Bernstein wrote a series of articles that argued the time had come to revise Marxist theory, which amounted to renouncing socialist revolution as a goal and a call for the SPD to focus all their efforts on seeking social reform, and abandon the prospects of a social revolution.

Bernstein’s revisionist challenge threatened the entire edifice of Kautsky’s orthodoxy and the SPD’s raison d’être. Kautsky’s response restated his basic positions on class polarization, the difference between reforms and revolution, and the need for the conquest of power. This largely satisfied the SPD party leadership, who twice voted against Bernstein’s revisionism in 1899 and 1901.

However, strains were beginning to show at the seams of Kautsky’s Marxism. His orthodoxy could explain the past and predict a glorious socialist future, but it was of little use in present struggles. Kautsky tended toward fatalism and passivity in the here and now. He simply advocated that the SPD slowly accumulate its forces through a “strategy of attrition” by strengthening its apparatus and winning votes until they achieved a parliamentary majority. In practice, this was little different than what the revisionists argued. Despite what Kautsky may have believed, socialism as a goal receded into the horizon. At one point, he even stated: “[the SPD is] a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”[3]

The practical triumph of revisionism in the SPD was something that Kautsky was unwilling to confront since he perceived it largely as a theoretical issue and not an organizational one. For Kautsky and other orthodox Marxists, the unity of the SPD was something that needed to be maintained at all costs. The SPD’s powerful apparatus, millions of votes, and the support of the trade unions was a sign of the coming socialist future. In fact, he believed that the unity of the SPD was identical to the unity of the working class. It did not even matter to Kautsky that all members of the party did not share a common Marxist worldview: “One can be a good comrade without believing in the materialist conception of history, but one is in no sense a good comrade if one does not submit to the congresses of the party.”[4] All theoretical differences could be solved within the party, no matter how serious they were.

However, this dream of party unity and Kautsky’s historical schema would not survive a practical challenge of war and revolution.

The Bolshevik Challenge
In 1905, revolution erupted in Russia, and Kautsky offered strategic advice on the way forward. Kautsky angered the more moderate Mensheviks (who shared his orthodoxy) by advocating that the workers lead the revolution as opposed to subordinating themselves to the bourgeoisie. Kautsky declared: “The age of bourgeois revolutions, i.e. of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over in Russia… As soon as the proletariat appears as an independent class with independent revolutionary aims, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class…”[5] It is no wonder that both Lenin and Trotsky saw Kautsky’s positions as endorsements of their own.

That Kautsky could be claimed by Trotsky and Lenin showcased the ambiguity of his own position. For one, Kautsky did not advocate permanent revolution as Trotsky did (the democratic revolution growing over to a socialist one). As Kautsky said, “It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already leading to the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring social democracy to power temporarily.”[6] While Lenin and Trotsky believed that Czarism would not be toppled without an armed struggle (leading them to hail the December insurrection in Moscow), Kautsky argued instead: “the revolution must take place through methods of peace, not of war.”[7]

Still, Kautsky had placed himself on the left in those debates and hoped that the Russian Revolution would revitalize the SPD. The party bureaucracy remained immobile and continued on its conservative course. Kautsky buried whatever misgivings he had and accepted this state of affairs. After all, the SPD was playing the role that Kautsky had assigned to it. Once again as a champion of party unity, he refused to advocate any other course. To that end, when Rosa Luxemburg argued for the SPD to employ mass strikes to win meaningful reforms, Kautsky condemned her “rebel’s impatience” of trying to reach socialism by forcing the march of history and ignoring objective limitations..[8] Rather, Kautsky felt confident in waiting for socialism since he believed that history was on the party’s side.

The Test of War
Kautsky’s entire system was shattered with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The SPD ignored its solemn internationalist and anti-war commitments in order to support the Kaiser’s war effort. As he said in retrospect: “It is amazing that none of us who were there had the idea of raising the question: What to do if war breaks out? What attitude should the Socialist parties take in this war?”[9] Kautsky could offer no revolutionary path for the SPD to follow in the bloody maelstrom. Instead, Kautsky offered “left” rationalizations for the SPD’s pro-war position, which led them to publicly oppose strikes against the war and even collaborate to arrest revolutionary union leaders who organized them. Thus, Kautsky was politically impotent at a critical hour. By contrast, internationalists such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg called for revolutionary action against the war.

While Lenin had denounced Kautsky’s opportunism in the face of war, it was only following the Bolshevik Revolution that Kautsky became a “renegade.” In Terrorism and Communism, Kautsky condemned the Bolshevik Revolution on no uncertain terms for creating a minority Jacobin-style dictatorship that violated bourgeois democratic norms. Even though the Soviet Republic was fighting for its life against counter-revolutionaries, both Lenin and Trotsky took the time to respond to the slanders of their former mentor. Lenin denounced Kautsky for emptying Marxism of its revolutionary content and transforming it into something acceptable for liberals.

Trotsky said that by “abandoning the idea of a revolutionary dictatorship, Kautsky transforms the question of the conquest of power by the proletariat into a question of the conquest of a majority of votes by the Social Democratic Party in one of the electoral campaigns of the future…. This fetishism of the parliamentary majority represents a brutal repudiation, not only of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but of Marxism and of the revolution altogether.”[10] The Marxist Pope had at last become the Renegade who betrayed everything he claimed to believe in.

The Verdict
While Kautsky proclaimed his Marxist orthodoxy until his death in 1938, he remained a marginal figure in political life, ignored by both social democrats and communists. His orthodoxy had at last ripped apart at the seams. Kautsky could offer no viable response to the rise of fascism, beyond viewing it as an aberration from the inevitable march of history. This would be cold comfort to the SPD members languishing in Nazi jails. His last years were spent writing theoretically impoverished works on Marxism and vitriolic anti-communist tracts.

In his obituary for Karl Kautsky, Trotsky generously noted: “We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.”[11] The younger Kautsky made invaluable and necessary contributions by spreading Marxist ideas, but ultimately his theoretical and organizational weaknesses proved to be his undoing. At decisive moments, when the situation called upon Kautsky to act, he failed the test. In the final instance, Kautsky’s Marxism could offer no practical revolutionary path forward to great convulsions, just assurances in the steady march of progress. Kautsky’s final legacy was in providing a “left” cover for imperialist war and an anti-communist “socialism” made safe for bourgeois liberalism.

Notes

[1] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1910), 210.

[2] Quoted in Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony (Boston: Brill, 2014), 342.

[3] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41.

[4] Quoted in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (New York: Verso Books, 1979), 127.

[5] Quoted in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Boston: Brill, 2009), 605.

[6] Ibid. 607.

[7] Ibid. 179.

[8] Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983), 185.

[9] Quoted in Enzo Traverso, Fire And Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945 (New York: Verso, 2016), 38.

[10] Leon Trotsky, “Terrorism and Communism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch02.htm

[11] Leon Trotsky, “Karl Kautsky,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/11/kautsky.htm
–http://links.org.au/karl-kautsky-from-pope-to-renegade
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The dawn of our liberation: The early days of the International Communist Women’s Movement-Daria Dyakonova

Posted by admin On October - 14 - 2018 Comments Off on The dawn of our liberation: The early days of the International Communist Women’s Movement-Daria Dyakonova

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Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist Essays and Commentaries — On July 30, [1920] in the evening, slender columns of women workers wearing red kerchiefs and holding banners make their way to the Bolshoi Theater from remote districts and outskirts of Moscow. The slogans on the banners run: ‘Through the dictatorship of the proletariat in all countries to the full emancipation of women.’

“A chorus of women’s voices singing the International is heard in the streets of Moscow. Moscow proletarian women are joyfully marching to the opening of the First International Conference of Communist Women at the Bolshoi Theater. Foreign visitors are also joining in.

“By eight o’clock in the evening the theater is packed. Parterre and tiers are occupied by women workers. The stage is occupied by delegates from Germany, France, England, America, Mexico, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Latvia, Bulgaria, India, Georgia, Caucasus and Turkestan.”[2]

This is how revolutionary women described the opening of their first conference held in Moscow in July 1920. Twenty-one women representing 19 countries gathered that month to discuss women’s issues in the framework of the Second Congress of the Communist International (or the Comintern). The Comintern had been founded a year earlier, on Vladimir Lenin’s initiative, to replace a (Second) Socialist International which had discredited itself by militarist and nationalist policies during the World War I.

Women’s emancipation had long been an important point of socialist agenda. The Comintern’s program included total equality of rights of men and women in law and practice, integration of women into political life, free education and medical care for women, social measures to ease the burden of housework and childcare, and measures to do away with the sexual double standard for men and women.

Communism and feminism: partners, rivals or a unity?
Although the studies of the Comintern’s gender policies remain rare, many authoritative voices in western academia have tended to dismiss communist and especially Soviet policies toward women, as “largely inconsequential lip-service.”[3] The same dismissive attitude towards the gains of international communist women’s movement is largely present in scholarly contributions on socialist/communist women’s movements. Liberal feminists of the Cold War era as well as some more recent commentators highlighted that after the World War 2 women’s movements in socialist countries as well as allied international women’s organizations (such as Women’s International Democratic Federation and its American affiliate, the Congress of American Women) mobilized their memberships primarily to serve Party goals rather than mobilize the Party to serve women. The same scholars, by contrast, stressed the autonomous agency and political neutrality supposedly found in Western non-socialist feminist organizations.[4]

Socialist feminists in turn have insisted on important shortcomings of classic Marxist theory’s gender agenda: chiefly its inability to incorporate the centrality of the gender division of labour in all spheres and the lack of concern with sexuality and reproduction questions. It has also been argued that attempts so far to interweave socialist feminist critiques of classic Marxist theory and the history of the movements and political entities that tried to bring it into life remain inadequate.[5]

New and growing scholarship has recently nuanced and modified these interpretations, criticizing the reinforcement (after 1989) of the triumphalist Cold War paradigm. These new contributions posited that “liberal feminists underestimated the extent to which the program of women’s emancipation was a fundamental component of the overall communist program for rapid modernization,” which communist/socialist women believed was the best path to women’s autonomy.[6] It was argued that communist women working in state women’s and international socialist organizations strategically aligned their programs with larger Communist Party goals, seeing such policy as more efficient than using the so-called bourgeois feminist methods. This alignment resulted in significant achievements for women in terms of legal equality and family law, education, and formal labour participation, especially if one compares culturally similar socialist and non-socialist countries at similar stages of economic development. Finally, this scholarship stimulated the re-thinking of the origins of the so-called ”Second Wave Feminism,” suggesting that they were more diverse and complex than the received narrative allowed.[7]

This paper adopts this latter perspective to study the early days of the international Communist Women’s Movement (CWM). [8] It will focus on three points in particular: the CWM’s ideas on women’s emancipation (including the issue of housework and gender division of labour, reproduction, and childcare); relationship with non-communist women’s movements; and the problematic relationship with male comrades.

The First Conference of Communist women: A program for women’s emancipation
Unlike the Communist Youth International, which was organisationally independent of the Comintern, structures for Communist women were integrated into Communist parties. At the First Conference of Communist Women it was decided, however, to establish within parties special agitation institutions for women (to which men could belong as well), which were to coordinate work by local women’s committees on a branch level. By 1922 almost all European countries did indeed set up party structures for work among women.

Within the Comintern, an International Women’s Secretariat (IWS) associated with its Executive Committee was established, with headquarters first in Berlin and later in Moscow. A member of the IWS was also a member of the Comintern’s Executive. From the start the Women’s Secretariat underlined its transnational character and urged the exchange of experience and information among different countries. This was to be achieved through annual meetings of Communist women and through the publication of an international monthly magazine Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (Communist Women’s International), published until 1926.

In practice, however, international ties and exchange of information and experience developed slowly. In 1921 at the Second Conference of Communist Women, the outstanding German Communist women’s leader Clara Zetkin pointed to the Secretariat’s loose international ties due to the disorganisation of the railways in Europe, the difficulty of maintaining personal connections and the hostile political climate.[9]

The First Conference of Communist Women set up a commission to write the “Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement,” which Clara Zetkin drafted. The “Theses” highlighted that the “full social equality with men in reality and actual fact and not just on the passive pages of dead law books was to be achieved through the abolishment of private property and the integration of the activity of women into the “social production of a new order free of exploitation and subjugation.”[10]

The “Theses” also defined the more specific tasks of the CWM, depending on where the work was to be done: in socialist, capitalist, or pre-capitalist countries. One of the important points was the transformation of housekeeping – “the most backward, deformed, and stultifying of the old guild handicrafts” – into a social industry. Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent Russian women’s rights fighter, wrote in this connection in 1920: “The individual household is dying. It is giving way in our society to collective housekeeping. Instead of the working woman cleaning her flat, the communist society can arrange for men and women whose job it is to go round in the morning cleaning rooms.”[11] The idea was not very new. It was, however, the first time that the issue of housekeeping and labour division appeared as a crucial point of a socialist program for women’s liberation. In the nascent Soviet state housework was recognized as major means of women’s subordination, and the idea of creation of public amenities offering different kinds of services (children’s day care, public kitchens, canteens, communal laundries and cleaning facilities, clothes-mending centres, etc.) seemed to be taken seriously. For women in capitalist and pre-capitalist countries the “Theses” suggested striving for establishment of such institutions. In this way the Communist program put the women’s question in the very centre of the socialist project, underlining that women’s emancipation was not only the consequence but the very goal of socialist transformation. [12]

Communist women and bourgeois feminists
Communist women underlined their class identity in quite firm terms: the 1920s conference’s “Theses” stated that “the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement have proved incapable of securing full rights and humanity for the whole of womenkind as these aimed merely at reforming the capitalist order for the benefit of wives and daughters of the possessing classes.”[13] This, however, did not mean that the Communist women were against all cooperation with non-proletarian women’s movements.

One of the bourgeois feminists’ demands that Communists saw as controversial, at least for a certain period of time, was that of universal suffrage. Initially some were suspicious of bourgeois feminists’ demands for universal right to vote.  Revolutionary Marxists in the Second International, although they unconditionally supported universal suffrage since 1889, opposed the reforms that would extend voting rights only to privileged women – given the property requirements associated with the right to vote that denied vote to both men and women of lower social classes. They also did not view suffrage as a heal-all that would complete women’s emancipation. Thus in 1908 Alexandra Kollontai pointed out that “for the feminists the achievement of equal rights with men within the framework of the contemporary capitalist world [was] a concrete ‘end in itself’; for proletarian women equal rights [was] merely a means to be used in the continuing struggle against the economic enslavement of the working class.” [14] By 1917 support for suffrage proved ultimately unifying, in particular in the Russian context. Kollontai then advocated granting women equal voting rights in more unequivocal terms stressing that this would complete the revolution.[15]

Communist women were ready to cooperate with bourgeois feminists in other fields as well. They openly recognized the importance of many of feminists’ demands and achievements. The “Theses” admitted that “carrying through these [bourgeois] demands, of course, entails a fundamental change – and one not to be underestimated – namely, that bourgeois society and its state officially abandon the old prejudice about inferiority of the female sex and recognize women’s social equality with equal right.” [16] Non-Communist feminists themselves in the early 1920s interest expressed in communist ideas on “women’s question” and were ready to promote them. This was the case of the revolutionary Women’s Union of Holland and a number of feminist newspapers in France. [17] In Canada the idea materialized in the foundation in 1924 of the Canadian Federation of Women’ Labour Leagues (CFWLL) where Communist Women actively collaborated with non-Communist activists. Communist Women in Canada were also active in a number of women’s sections of organizations based on ethnic and linguistic communities, such as the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA). Memberships of such organizations had diverse left viewpoints and raised women’s agendas that were not always considered important by the CP leadership. Moreover, throughout the 1920s they followed the united front policy of cooperation with certain labour, women’s and farmers’ organizations that were “reformist” in nature.[18] In Germany the Red Women and Girls’ League (Roter Frauen und Mädchen Bund) was set up in late 1925 to broaden the female working-class constituency. The League succeeded in recruiting women who were reluctant to join the KPD by politicizing issues that working-class women faced in their daily lives, such as the prices of everyday women’s wages, welfare, and reproductive rights.[19] This latter issue was an important point of CWM’s agenda.

Motherhood as a shared responsibility
The First Conference’s “Theses” stressed that it was only the “old petty-bourgeois, reactionary ideology” that saw giving birth and taking care of children as the “only true natural calling” of women, thus attributing an inferior role to them.[20] Although Communist women obviously wanted to dissociate themselves from this traditional vision of women’s role in procreation and upbringing of children, the “Theses” did not elaborate the question of reproductive rights and the issue of abortion. This does not mean, however, that communist women did not pay attention to this question. In 1920 the Soviet government legalized abortions. The IWS followed up by circulating Soviet literature on abortion among Communist women’s sections outside Russia.[21]

A theoretical framework for Communists’ ideas on reproduction and motherhood was first defined by August Bebel. It was later developed by Alexandra Kollontai who published in 1916 her 600-page Society and Motherhood. Kollontai saw childbearing as a social responsibility, shared between the family and society.[22] Her idea was that not only the mother (or the family) but also the socialized institutions should take care of the children’s physical and psychological well-being, from infancy. Communist women, following the Soviet example where 1918 decrees legally protected motherhood and established socialized child care,[23] integrated this idea into the First Conference’s “Theses”: the state was to facilitate a harmonious combination of motherhood with employment through setting up welfare institutions to protect maternity, children, and youth.[24]

Given the demographic context of the post-World War I era and the fact that birth control was then advocated by many as a means for population control and eugenics, Communist women resisted attempts to stigmatize women for having either too few or too many children. They saw abortion as necessary so long as society was unable to guarantee the material means for a prosperous and happy childhood for all.[25] This did not prevent them from protesting against anti-abortion laws, which they did in France and (even) in Italy of the early 1920s. In Germany Communist women led a campaign against anti-abortion legislation under the quite ahead-of-its-time slogan “Your body belongs to you.” In Denmark they set up the Working Women’s Information Bureau, which made the information on birth control available to women. In Canada, where abortion was then illegal, Communists joined with non-Communist women to demand the de-criminalization of fertility control and establishment of “Mothers Clinics,” which would provide information on contraception and free contraceptives. These initiatives often had a grassroots character, springing up independently of the IWS.[26]

Women and men in the Comintern and Communist parties
Research on the Comintern’s women – scarce as it is – has noted the de-radicalisation of the CWM from mid to late 1920s. It has been argued that by the end of the decade the movement’s aim was no longer the advancement of women but their mobilization for the advancement of the Comintern.[27] The movement indeed became weaker as the IWS was downgraded from an autonomous body to a department of the Comintern’s Executive Committee. The weakening and subsequent de-radicalization has been attributed to the rise of the Stalinist system in the USSR, the domination of the Soviet CP within the international communist movement, and also the increasing centralisation of the Comintern’s apparatus.[28]

These interpretations, certainly, reveal important truths as regards the history of the CWM. By mid-1930s the CPSU indeed would become a major (although not omnipotent) decision-maker within the Comintern. Simultaneously in the Soviet Union the old conservatism would revive and bring about significant retreats as far as women’s rights are concerned – the most important of which was the decision – even though not irreversible – to re-criminalize abortion (1936). Even though the Soviet retreat was not omnipresent and, arguably, did not prevent “the emergence of novel and unconventional gender configurations during the 1930s,”[29] it did affect Communist movement worldwide – although to varying degrees in different countries. These interpretations, however, appear to overlook another important factor of the CWM’s decline – the male chauvinism and resistance of Communist men – both leaders and rank and file – to female activism within the CPs.

Such attitude on the part of male comrades was one of the questions that communist women discussed at their first conference in Moscow. According to the French delegate, within the pre-war socialist movements male workers were seen to “manifest not only indifference but even hostility towards the matter of women workers’ organization.” The Danish delegate then posited that “male workers were not eager to involve their female comrades into social and political life, but preferred to see their wives as keepers of hearth and home.”[30] Similar attitudes – chauvinism in private life – were not infrequent within the Communist movement.

Clara Zetkin was then well aware of such tendencies. In 1921 she pointed out that “leaders all too often underrated the importance” of the CWM, because “they [saw] it as only ‘women’s business’.”[31] Zetkin stressed that “in most countries, the gains of the movement [CWM] have been achieved without support from the Communist Party, indeed in some instances against its open or hidden opposition.” At the same time Zetkin inferred that chauvinistic attitudes were more characteristic of national parties’ male memberships rather then of the Comintern’s Executive, which by contrast, “provided moral, political, and financial resources to sustain the efforts in each country to gather the Communist women in the parties.”[32]

The situation was not of course the same everywhere. The achievements of Communist women in different countries were uneven. During the 1920s, Communist Parties of northern and eastern Europe appeared to significantly increase their female memberships, while in France, Spain, and Italy women continued to represent less than 10 % of members.[33] However, even this proportion was high compared to women’s penetration of bourgeois politics at that time, or compared to women’s presence in the Comintern’s pre-1919 parties, some of which had no women at all.

Conclusion
Despite the Comintern’s equality discourse, the project was unable to escape the impact of a retreat on women’s emancipation in the Soviet Union and to fully overcome chauvinist pressures tending to exclude women from the revolutionary movement

To sum up, the CWM, despite some shortcomings, marked a historical advance, particularly regarding the interaction of women’s liberation and revolution.

Although the CWM firmly linked the struggle for the liberation of women with the emancipation of the working class, it recognized that radicalization among women was present in all social layers. The revolutionary women thus favoured cooperation with non-Communist currents among women on such issues as universal suffrage and reproductive rights.

Communist women leaders became prominent political actors and, in this capacity, together with men, contributed significantly to revolutionary struggle. In addition, the international network of Communist women also fought for a number of specific measures that concerned only women. Such gains were seen as steps towards, not merely as the result of, the socialist transformation of society.

This text is based on a talk given by Daria Dyakonova in a French-language panel, “L’aurore de notre libération” at “The Great Transition: Preparing a World Beyond Capitalism” in Montreal May 20, 2018. Other panel participants were Aziz Fall, Ameth Lô, and John Riddell.

For the other presentations given in this panel, see “The Long March to Post-Capitalist Transition: Pan-Africanist Perspectives” (Ameth Lô) and “The League against Imperialism: An Early Attempt at Global Anti-Colonial Unity”

Notes

[1] Inessa Armand quoted in Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979), 155.

[2] Alexandra Kollontai and Polina Vinogradskaia (eds.), Otchet o pervoi mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii kommunistok [Report on the First International Conference of Communist Women]. Moscow: Gosizdatelstvo, 1921, 19-20.

[3] Anna Krylova, “Bolshevik Feminism and Gender Agendas of Communism” in Silvio Pons, Stephen A. Smith (eds.), The Cambridge History of Communism, Vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, 1917-1941, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 425.

[4] See for example Barbara Wolfe Jancar, Women under Communism, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978; Funk, Nanette and Magda Mueller (1993), Gender Politics and Post-Communism: Reflections from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, New York: Routledge; Brunnbauer, Ulf (2009); “‘The Most Natural Function of Women.’ Ambiguous Party Policies and Female Experiences in Socialist Bulgaria,” in Gender Politics and Everyday Life in State Socialist Eastern and Central Europe, New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Einhorn, Barbara (2010), “Mass Dictatorship and Gender Politics: Is the Outcome Predictable?” in J. Lim et al. (eds.) Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship, Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 34-62; Partridge, Damani (2012), Hypersexuality and Headscarves: Race, Sex and Citizenship in the New Germany, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[5] Sonia Kruks, Rayna Rapp, and Marilyn Young (eds). Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989, Introduction, 8. For Marxist feminist critiques see also Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: toward a Unitary Theory, Leiden: Brill, 2013; Sharon Smith, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation, Chicago: Haymarket, 2012.

[6] Kristen Ghodsee, “State-Socialist Women’s Organization in Cold War Perspective. Revisiting the work of Maxine Molyneux.” Aspasia, (10, 2016): 111-121, 115.

[7] Haan Francisca de (2010), “Continuing Cold War Paradigms in the Western Historiography of Transnational Women’s Organisations: The Case of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF),” Women’s History Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 547-573, 564-565.

[8] The name (Communist Women’s Movement) was not an official term and is rarely used in Comintern’s documents. But this was how women comrades commonly spoke of it, see for example John Riddell. ed. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Leiden: Brill, 2012, 838.

[9] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921.

[10] John Riddell. ed. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, New York: Pathfinder, 1991, vol 2, 977-978.

[11] Kollontai, Alexandra. “Communism and the Family” (1920) in Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, edited by Alix Holt. London: Allison & Busy, 1977.

[12] Elizabeth Waters, “In the Shadow of the Comintern: the Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1943” in Sonia Kruks; Rayna R Reiter; Marilyn Blatt Young, eds. Promissory Notes : Women in the Transition to Socialism, New York, Monthly Review Press: 1989, 32-33.

[13] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 978.

[14] See Kollontai, Introduction to The Social Basis of the Women’s Question. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1908/social-basis.htm

[15]Goldberg Ruthchild, Rochelle. “Misbehaving women and the Russian Revolutions of 1917”, ASEEES blog: International Women’s day, March 17, 2017.

[16] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 978.

[17] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921; Waters, 36.

[18] See Margarett Hobbs and Joanne Sangster (eds.), The Woman Worker, 1926-1929, St. John’s, Nfld.: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1999.

[19] See “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” Report of Session of June 12, Published in Moscow, June 15, 1921, Sewell, 268-269.

[20] Riddell, Workers of the World, 983.

[21] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,”June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921.

[22] A. Kollontai, “Vvedenie” in Obshchestvo i materinstvo, in Marksistskii Feminizm. Kollektsiia tekstov A.M. Kollontai (Tver: Feminist Press-Rossia, 2003), 130-32, quoted in Anna Krylova, “Bolshevik Feminism and Gender Agendas of Communism,” in The Cambridge History of Communism, vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, 1917-1941, edited by Silvio Pons, Stephen A. Smith, 424-448, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 431.

[23] The 1918 Labour Code provided at least one paid 30-minute break every three hours to feed a baby. The maternity insurance program decreed a fully paid maternity leave of eight weeks, nursing brakes and factory rest facilities for working mothers, free pre- and post-natal care and allowances. At the same time the 1918 Family Code forbade adoption in the belief that the state would provide better care for an orphan than an individual family. See И.Я.Киселев, Трудовое право России, Москва, 2001 (http://www.hist.msu.ru/Labour/Law/kodex_18.htm#f1 – retrieved April 18, 2018); Сажина Н. С. “Социальная политика в отношении материнства и детства в первые годы советской власти” // Вестник БГУ. 2013. №2. URL: https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/sotsialnaya-politika-v-otnoshenii-materinstva-i-detstva-v-pervye-gody-sovetskoy-vlasti (retrieved April 18, 2018); Wendy Z. Goldman. Women, the State and Revolution. Cambridge, GBR : Cambridge University Press, 1993, 52.

[24] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 989.

[25] Waters, 41; John Riddell. “The Communist Women’s Movement (1921-1926),” June 12, 2011.

[26] Margarett Hobbs and Joanne Sangster, eds. The Woman Worker, 217-222 ; Waters, 41-42.

[27] Waters, 51.

[28] See for example Waters, Studer and Bernhard H. Bayerlein.

[29] Krylova, Soviet women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 23

[30] Kollontai and Vinogradskaia (eds.). Otchet, 61.

[31] Kommunistische Fraueninternationale, vol. 1, no. 2–3 (1921), p. 55 quoted in Riddell, John. “The Communist Women’s Movement (1921-1926).”

[32] See Sewell, Sara Ann. “Bolshevizing Communist Women: the Red Women and Girls’ League in Weimar Germany,” Central European History, 45:2 (2012).

[33] In the USSR the CPSU had 14% of women; Germany – 16,5 % ; Czechoslovakia – 24 % in 1929; France – 3%-4% in 1924; Italy – 1%-2% between 1921 and 1925. See Sewell, 280 ; Brigitte Studer. The Transnational World of the Cominternians. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 48; Christine Bard, and Jean-Louis Robert. “The French Communist Party and Women, 1920-1939,” 323 and Mary Gibson. “Women and the Left in the Shadow of Fascism in Interwar Italy,” 398 in Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, Women and Socialism/ Socialism and Women. New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998; Gibson, 398.

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Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism-Rjurik Davidson

Posted by admin On October - 7 - 2018 Comments Off on Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism-Rjurik Davidson

 

 

 

 

 

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Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism

Written by Rjurik Davidson
Part One: Active or Passive Marxism?

A decisive confrontation

 

 

In May 1924, near the small town of Como, close to the border of Italy and Switzerland, the two great figures of early Italian communism faced each other at a meeting of the Parti Communista d’Italia (PCI) leadership.

On the one side stood Amadeo Bordiga, the dominant personality in the early years of the PCI. Bordiga was a charismatic man of uncommon drive and confidence, traits that made him a natural leader. For three years, since the party’s foundation in 1921, Bordiga had been its unofficial head. His policies had been outlined in the “Rome Theses”, provisionally adopted at the previous party conference, which emphasised separation of the communist party from all other currents.

For Bordiga, the Socialist Party (PSI) was as execrable as Mussolini’s fascists. The task, as he saw it, was to tear away the PSI’s support by strictly counterposing the communist current to them. In particular, he was against any fusion with the Third International (Terzini) socialists, the left wing of the PSI who claimed adherence to the policies of the Comintern. Indeed, the Third International had been promoting a merger between the groups for some time, but Bordiga was against it. As his Rome Theses argued, “the aggregation to the party of other parties or parts detached from parties…does not bring with it an ensemble of elements that can be effectively assimilated en bloc; on the contrary, it impairs the solidity of the old party’s political position…”[1]

Bordiga’s opponent at the Como conference, Antonio Gramsci, had been the pre-eminent leader of a group from Turin (which included other celebrated figures, Palmiro Togliatti, Umberto Terracini and Angelo Tasca), who had been centrally involved in the factory council movement of 1919-20. A small, hunchbacked man with an immense capacity for work despite his constant struggles with ill health, Gramsci had made his name as a gifted writer of iconoclastic articles that theorised the councils, especially for the newspaper he had edited during the “red years”, Ordine Nuovo. Even at this early stage, his polemical style had a kind of involution to it and often offered strikingly fresh formulations, indicative of his highly original way of seeing the world.[2]

Never entirely content with Bordiga’s leadership, Gramsci had for a year been reconstituting the leadership of the PCI around new policies. He had constructed a new “Centre” against Bordiga’s “Left” and the party’s “Right” led by Angelo Tasca. When the fascists had arrested Bordiga and up to 5,000 mid-level party activists in 1923,[3] Gramsci had assumed de facto leadership of the party and a new executive had been appointed under the direction of the Third International. Under Gramsci’s leadership, the PCI ran a joint list called Unità proletaria with the Terzini in April 1924, a month before the Como conference.[4] The PCI acquired thirteen seats in parliament and the Terzini five – a vindication of Gramsci’s new line.[5]

Now in an alberghetto (inn) in a secluded mountain valley near Como, Gramsci faced his first important party gathering, a consultative conference where the new leadership would explain its position and defend the resolution proposed for the conference (and opposed by resolutions from both the Left and Right groupings). Gramsci had the floor and tension must have crackled through the audience as he spoke, for he was facing the mid-level leaders, most of whom supported Bordiga. Sixty-seven officials attended, including 46 secretaries of the regional federations.[6] Bordiga himself was present, having been acquitted of the government’s charges against him. After his release, he had refused to rejoin the party’s leading bodies: the changes in political line and the composition of the new leadership were anathema to him.

In his quiet, reedy voice, Gramsci calmly assessed the state of the party and outlined the development of the Centre of which he was the leader. The Ordine Nuovo group had always allied with the party’s Left against the Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. But the situation in Italy had changed in recent years, he explained:

In 1919 and 1920, the whole working population – from the white collar workers to the North and the capital to the peasants of the South – was following, albeit unconsciously, the general movement of the industrial proletariat. Today the situation has changed, and only through a long, slow process of political reorganization will the proletariat be able to return to being the dominant factor in the situation. We consider that this work cannot be carried out, if we continue to follow the orientation which comrade Bordiga would like the party to continue to follow… [I]t is undeniable that our movement lacks the support of the majority of the proletariat.[7]

At this point, Bordiga called out: “We would have it, if we had not changed our tactics towards the Socialist Party! In any case, we are in no hurry”.

Gramsci replied: “Well we are in a hurry. There are situations in which ‘not being in a hurry’ leads to defeat”.[8]

For Bordiga, the essential thing was the clear separation of the communist party from all competing forces. The revolutionary movement would inevitably bring the working class into action, at which point the party would be ready. Bordiga’s position on this had always been consistent.[9]

In Gramsci’s eyes, this was an apocalyptic approach with theoretical roots in a mechanical Marxism, a kind of inversion of the Second International’s theoretical outlook, in which socialism was an inevitability.[10] But nothing would happen automatically, Gramsci believed. “Predestination does not exist for individuals, and even less does it do so for parties”, he wrote during this period.[11] During the “red years”, the Socialist Party had adopted a purely verbal “revolutionism” but didn’t carry out any action, and was thus chiefly responsible for the defeat of the factory occupations in 1919 and 1920. What difference, Gramsci asked in another article, “would there be between us and the Socialist Party if we too…abandoned ourselves to fatalism? If we cherished the sweet illusion that events cannot fail to unfold according to a fixed line of development (the one foreseen by us), in which they will inevitably find the system of dykes and canals which we have prepared for them, be channelled by this system and take historical form and power in it?”[12]

For Gramsci, people had always made their own history, and Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, which emphasised the active side of Marxism, remained touchstones for him. Gramsci thus emerged from a different tradition from that of the Second International, laced as it was with positivism and evolutionism. Indeed, his intellectual horizons were formed not by Kautsky or Plekhanov, but rather by the giants of Italian Hegelianism, Croce and Gentile, the original philosopher of “praxis” Antonio Labriola, and the French anarchist Georges Sorel.[13] Like his philosophical sibling, Georg Lukács, Gramsci adopted a critique of bourgeois science and a humanism fundamentally at odds with the scientism of the Second International. “The tenacious will of man has replaced natural law, the preordained order of things of the pseudo-scientists”, he wrote in his early Crocean phase.[14] The theoretical consequences of this philosophical lineage are clear. In Gramsci, we rarely read of the laws of history that we might find in the work of Leon Trotsky, for example (indeed, it was for the “mechanical” elements in his Marxism that Gramsci would later criticise the Russian leader).[15]

The danger of such a position is, of course, subjectivism (evident in Gramsci’s early analyses of the Russian Revolution, his famous article on the revolution “against Capital” and a second on “The Russian Utopia”).[16] Yet if Gramsci’s early Crocean writings flirted with subjectivism, by the time the factory council movement of 1919-1920 had been defeated, he had altered his focus. He cleverly inverted the terms of his position – maintaining the active element as the primary theoretical component – and began to ask, if they are capable of it, why don’t people make their own history? This in turn led him to questions about the forms and institutions through which bourgeois hegemony is constructed, one of his lasting concerns. From then on, he reintegrated the subjective into a new notion of the objective, and it became a central part of a study of a complex totality.[17]

However one conceives of this emphasis on the active element, all those committed to a practical politics must accept an emphasis on it – even if it is mediated by structural elements – because it is the precondition of political strategy: all strategy depends on the belief that groups and collectives can intervene with definite effects. Indeed, Gramsci believed this outlook was essential for the PCI if it were to make the transition between an organisation of propaganda and agitation to a mass party of action. As Togliatti was to say later, Gramsci’s group was able to make “real qualitative progress in their ability both to understand objective situations, national and international, and to apply to these situations not only propaganda and agitation, but genuine political action” [my emphasis].[18]

Part Two: The Complexities of Strategy

The Third International and the geo-politics of strategy

Gramsci’s decision to work with the Terzini was a part of his acceptance of the policies of the Third International, as elaborated by their early congresses and which was later codified as Leninism. In this sense, Leninism is the strategy of building an organisation of militants, which would act as a vanguard of a differentiated and stratified working class. This party would struggle against all cases of oppression, no matter who was suffering, and in so doing win the hegemony of the class and its allies. Yet because working class consciousness was uneven and often found itself caught in the cul-de-sacs of capitalist ideology, a complex political strategy composed of variegated tactics was required. At some point during this process, a revolutionary upsurge would produce a situation of dual power, in which the masses would forge their own state, likely in the form of workers’ councils, break apart the old state and construct their own in its place.[19]

Endorsing these policies, Gramsci applied it in his own specific mode of reasoning, with his own particular inflections and emphases. Within certain limits, he extended the theory and developed a “Gramscian Leninism”, which would form the basis of many of the themes he later developed and which appear in the Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci had been won to Leninism when he had been the Italian representative in Russia from 1922-1923. There he had participated in the day-to-day running of the Third International, attended meetings of the Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI), and come to know personally the leaders of the Russian revolution. In November 1922, Gramsci met with Lenin in a private discussion, where they discussed the “south” of Italy, the Italian Socialist Party and the possibility of its fusion with the PCI.[20] During this important meeting, which until recently has remained relatively unknown, Gramsci outlined his “profound” differences with Bordiga, but pointed out that Bordiga claimed the allegiance of the majority of the party and hence it had been necessary to follow his direction. Around the same time, in November and December 1922, Gramsci attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, which was to have a powerful impact on him: echoes of it would be found in his subsequent thought and writing.

The first key strategic question on which he and Bordiga differed – a question that has wound its way through subsequent socialist history, resulting in political caesuras everywhere – was whether the Leninist strategy was applicable to the West or whether it applied only to Russia. This problem had arisen in the debates of the Third International as it had struggled to comprehend the defeat of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe between 1917 and 1921. Indeed, when Gramsci arrived in Moscow, the Third International was undergoing something of an unacknowledged theoretical crisis. While the revolutions of the other European countries had shared certain key features with the Russian revolution, the proletariat of the former had also shown an allegiance to reformist forces that was not seen in Russia. Whatever the errors of Marxist organisations or groupings during the revolutions in Italy, Germany, Finland, Hungary and elsewhere, it was clear that sociological and cultural factors had also played a part.[21]

In his reflections on this question, Trotsky’s report on the NEP and the world revolution emphasised the differences between the Russian revolution and challenges facing the European working classes. In Europe, he argued, the “bourgeoisie is more intelligent, more farsighted; it is not wasting time. Everything that can be set foot against us is being mobilised by it right now. The revolutionary proletariat will thus encounter on its road to power not only the combat vanguards of the counter-revolution but also its heaviest reserves… By way of compensation, after the proletarian overturn, the vanquished bourgeoisie will no longer dispose of powerful reserves from which it could draw forces for prolonging the civil war”.[22]

As he coalesced his new grouping three months before the Como Conference, Gramsci referred to this idea. In a letter dated 9 February 1924, which became one the PCI’s most important historical documents, he argued that:

[Bordiga] thinks that for the more developed countries of central and western Europe, this [the Russian] tactic is inadequate and even useless. In these countries, the historical mechanism functions according to all the approved schemes of Marxism. There exists the historical determinism which was lacking in Russia, and therefore the over-riding task must be the organisation of the party as an end in itself… I think that the situation is quite different. Firstly, because the political conception of the Russians was formed on an international and not on a national terrain. Secondly, because in central and western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of the broad proletarian strata, but also – and as a consequence – has created the higher stratum, the labour aristocracy, with its appendages in the trade union bureaucracy and the social-democratic groups. The determination, which in Russia was direct and drove the masses onto the streets for a revolutionary uprising, in central and western Europe is complicated by all these political super-structures, created by the greater development of capitalism. This makes the action of the masses slower and more prudent, and therefore requires of the revolutionary party a strategy and tactics altogether more complex and long-term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917.[23]

This formulation is of particular interest, because here Gramsci defends the “Russian” strategic outlook against Bordiga’s mechanical view that focused on the purity of the party and the inevitability of revolutionary “development” of the situation. At the same time, it asserts the essential difference between the “east” and “west” in terms that prefigure his famous distinction in the Prison Notebooks. The difference here, Gramsci asserts, is to be found in the existence of the political superstructures and the labour aristocracy, which, interestingly, he equates with each other. The labour aristocracy and bureaucracy, we must remember, were in Zinoviev’s (and Lenin’s) memorable phrase, “agents of the bourgeoisie, destined to demoralize systematically the labor movement and to inculcate it with the virus of opportunism”. In other words, they were “the most reliable advance guards of the imperialist bourgeoisie in the camp of the working class”.[24] As a result, as Lenin was to reaffirm, they must be “driven out of the trade unions” and the workers’ movement.[25]

Gramsci pointed out that, while in Russia the party led both trade union and political struggle against tsarism, in western Europe “an increasing division of labour grew up between the trade-union organisation and the political organization of the working class. In the trade-union field, the reformist and pacifist tendency developed at an increasing pace; in other words, the influence of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat grew steadily stronger”.[26]

For this reason, both at the Como conference and later in 1926, Gramsci insisted that “social democracy, although it still to a great extent conserves its social base in the proletariat, must so far as its ideology and the political function it fulfils are concerned be considered, not as a right wing of the working class movement, but as a left wing of the bourgeoisie”.[27] Though the PSI may have initially emerged from the workers’ movement, it had failed the challenges before it, developed in a particular direction, and during the red years of 1919-1920 “was to a great extent the vehicle for [the] bourgeois ideology within the Northern proletariat”, in particular their prejudices toward the “southerners”.[28] Indeed, this helped explain why both the PSI and the more right wing PSU disdainfully refused joint actions with the communist party.[29] That is, for Gramsci, the reformist socialist party was in the first instance an instrument of bourgeois hegemony and the task was to break its working class supporters away from the party. Here he was echoing Lenin’s argument that the British Labour Party was “a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns”.[30]

It was not Bordiga’s Left who objected to the claim that social democracy was the “left wing” of the bourgeoisie – since they themselves tended to simply conflate social democracy with the right wing parties – but Tasca’s Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. Tasca argued that “It is true that social-democratic ideology is a reflection of the bourgeoisie’s influence on the working-class movement… But this does not take away the class character or social structure of the workers’ movement, even when it follows social democracy. I therefore ask that this point be reworked…”.[31] Gramsci rejected Tasca’s argument and the Comintern’s delegate Humbert-Droz, who was present at the meeting, agreed with him: “It is true that social-democracy sometimes has a social base in the proletariat, but it is a left wing of the bourgeoisie because of the political function which it fulfils”.[32] The task was thus to ultimately “disintegrate” it, that is to tear away the support of those sections of the working class that still loyally followed it.

Whatever one’s typology of social democracy, for Gramsci – again prefiguring a famous formulation in the Prison Notebooks – argued that “in the advanced capitalist countries, the ruling class possesses political and organizational reserves which it did not possess, for instance, in Russia. This means that even the most serious economic crises do not have immediate repercussions in the political sphere”.[33] If in the 9 February letter Gramsci makes a distinction between Russia and western and central Europe, elsewhere he divides Europe into advanced western Europe and the “peripheral states”, which include Italy, Poland, Spain and Portugal (and even France), where “a broad stratum of intermediate classes stretches between the proletariat and capitalism: classes which seek to carry on, and to a certain sense succeed in carrying on, policies of their own, which often influence broad strata of the proletariat, but which particularly affect the peasant masses”.[34] In Gramsci’s view, Italy still stands on the periphery and yet, as we have seen in his debate with Bordiga, as part of “western and central Europe” it maintains some characteristics of the advanced capitalist societies too.[35]

Thus for Gramsci it behoved Marxists to distinguish between the more developed capitalisms and the less developed – these were variations of manifest importance. Yet such geopolitical differences did not mean that the Russian perspectives were obsolete in Italy – or in the “advanced capitalist” societies – but rather that they were more important. Striking a different tone from Lenin, who tended to emphasise the similarity of the strategy needed for West and East, Gramsci argued that Leninist strategy must be developed in greater detail precisely because institutionalised the reformism and complex capitalist development (of “civil society”, as he would later develop the idea) made the terrain even more variegated and intricate. It was to this task that he had set himself since his return from Russia.

The temporalities of political strategy

Central to Gramsci’s strategic ideas, the tactic that would need to be “developed in greater detail”, was the policy of the united front, adopted after the Third Congress of the Third International and elaborated at the Fourth. According to this tactic, in a situation where the communist party was in a minority, and on the defensive (as they were in Italy since the triumph of Mussolini’s fascists in 1922), it should carry out joint actions with larger parties that commanded the allegiance of significant sections of the working class.

Gramsci’s differences here were not only about the nature of strategy towards the PSI but also in their assessments of fascism, a phenomenon still relatively untheorised in the Comintern. For Gramsci had always taken this new movement more seriously than Bordiga, for whom fascism was not fundamentally different from other versions of reactionary bourgeois rule. By contrast, Gramsci had argued as early as 1920 that if the proletariat did not take power Italy would face “a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and governing caste. No violence will be spared in subjecting the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labour: there will be a bid to smash once and for all the working class’s organ of political struggle…”.[36] Over the next few years, Gramsci would develop an original analysis of fascism, as a movement of a decaying petty bourgeoisie, a savage recrudescence of base and barbaric outlooks, and ultimately a “servant of capitalism and landed property” and “agent of capitalism”.[37] If his time in Russia had influenced Gramsci theoretically, fascism had shocked him into seeing these strategic developments’ decisive relevance. In this new context, he saw, the unity of the working class became a pressing exigency.

Like other classical Marxists, Gramsci believed that working class consciousness was brought about by activity rather than pure education. The point of the united front policy was to unify the working class around concrete struggles and in doing so to win the bulk of the class to the side of the communist party. Once he had accepted this line of reasoning, Gramsci’s entire orientation during this period was to build working class unity in action. He suggested the name of the party paper be L’Unità to reflect the policy.[38]

By contrast, Bordiga’s Rome Theses had polemicised against the united front tactic.[39] When Gramsci and Bordiga clashed a second time at the Como conference, it was over a particular form of the united front, expressed in the slogan for a “workers’ and peasants’ bloc” or “workers’ and peasants’ government”, which flowed (in the words of the Comintern’s Theses on Tactics) “unavoidably from the entire united-front tactic”..[40] Again, the Rome Theses and the Left’s Como Conference Resolution had rejected this notion but the Unità proletaria election campaign with the Terzini had been a practical application of it.

At the Como conference Gramsci outlined the party’s new orientation towards the slogan of a “workers’ and peasants’ government”. In his eyes, bourgeois policy was to align itself with the labour aristocracy and bureaucracy of the north against the south, which became a kind of colonial outpost, denigrated by northern “common sense”. It was essential, Gramsci argued, that the working class work win the support of the peasantry, a position he had held since his Ordine Nuovo days.

“Why call it a ‘bloc’ and not simply Communist Party?” called out Bordiga, re-emphasising his isolationist view. “Does the Communist Party not have the alliance between workers and peasants in its programme?” Gramsci replied:

It is necessary to present things in the way one considers most effective to move even the most backward sections of the masses. Not all the workers can understand the whole development of the revolution… We must take account of such states of mind, and seek means to overcome them… If one of us went to my village to talk about “struggle against capitalists”, he would be told that “capitalists” do not exist in Sardinia. Yet even these masses must be won over. We have the possibility, given precisely the conditions created by fascism, to initiate a mass anti-reactionary movement in the South. But it is necessary to win over these masses, and this can be done only by participating in the struggles which they launch for partial victories and partial demands. The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan must serve to bring together and synthesize the content of these partial struggles, in a programme which can be understood by even the most backward masses.[41]

For Gramsci, the slogan was a popular way of posing the problem of a proletarian and peasant dictatorship. As one Comintern formulation explained, the slogan was not to be considered “a phase of democratic transition but simply like a method of agitation and of revolutionary mobilisation”.[42] Gramsci didn’t believe, as Tasca’s Right did, that a “worker’s and peasant’s government can be constituted on the basis of the bourgeois parliament”.[43] In Gramsci’s eyes this would lead to serious “deviations”. But the conflict with Bordiga had a different inflection. For Gramsci, it was essential to maintain contact with the popular classes and to express the Marxist perspective in terms they could understand. Later, Togliatti summarised the debate in this way: Bordiga believed the party would base itself on “foreseeing a future moment when it will be called upon to lead the working class in the final assault for the conquest of power” whereas in Gramsci’s view it should accompany the class in “all the intermediate positions it goes through”.[44]

For Gramsci, revolution had always been a process. Some years earlier, he had written that “the revolution is not a thaumaturgical act, but a dialectical process of historical development”.[45] Now he combined this notion with the strategy and tactics of a supple Leninism, which implied a policy of multiple allies and quickly changing orientations. In 1925 he wrote that “Comrade Lenin has taught us that in order to defeat our class-enemy, who is strong, who has many means and reserves at his disposal, we must exploit every crack in his front and must use every possible ally, even if he is uncertain, vacillating or provisional”.[46] As Gramsci himself notes, this is a direct development of Lenin’s argument in “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder (one of whose targets was Bordiga) where he states that “the more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisies within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional”. Indeed, Lenin had affirmed in this important pamphlet that “the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!”[47]

In the 9 February letter, Gramsci had explained: “I do not doubt that the situation is actively revolutionary and that therefore, in a given period of time, our Party will have the majority on its side; but if this period will perhaps not be long in terms of time, it will undoubtedly be dense in secondary stages [my emphasis], which we shall have to foresee with a certain precision in order to be able to manoeuvre and not fall into errors that would prolong the experiences of the proletariat”.[48]

Alliances, corporatism and the councils

This conception of political temporality as composed of phases is key to understanding Gramsci’s version of Leninism.[49] The idea of stages allows for the understanding that through the political process the party might enter into a series of alliances with separate political forces. Though for Gramsci the alliance between the workers and peasants was a strategic one, the forms that the alliance takes might differ markedly during different phases, as various parties and institutions emerge, develop and disappear – just as the working class might not have one single party or mass institutions, but be split between competing ones (this conception he later formulated as a “war of position”).[50]

Thus in his famous essay “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” Gramsci wrote: “The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances [my emphasis] which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state”. For example, it would do this by making the demands of the peasants “its own from the social point of view; understanding the class demands which they represent; incorporating these demands into its revolutionary transitional program; placing these demands among the objectives for which it struggles”.[51] In order to do this, the proletariat needs “to strip itself of every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice and incrustation”.[52]

Such a development required a close and concrete analysis of the terrain. Indeed, Gramsci’s writings from 1924-1926 are full of such concrete analyses of the dynamics of various class fractions and the significance of various grouping and parties. In a letter to young communists – importantly called “What is to be Done?” – Gramsci outlined the significance of such concrete reconnaissances. He began by asking the question, “How was the Italian workers’ movement defeated?” The response that the defeat occurred because of the lack of a revolutionary party was inadequate because it presupposed another question: why was there no revolutionary party? The formulaic answer that the cause was the “lack of a revolutionary party” – always true by definition – underestimates the difficulties of actually building such an organisation, which starts on a much more concrete level, one which takes into account the ensemble of social relations. “Why have the Italian proletarian parties always been weak from a revolutionary point of view?… They did not know the situation in which they had to operate, they did not know the terrain on which they should have given battle.”

To pursue the argument further: the problem of leadership was also composed of the problems of the class; one could not be understood without the other. Specifically, the revolutionary parties had not succeeded in disseminating their ideology to the class, and hence the class had no ideology of its own, but rather was caught in the cul-de-sacs not only of reformist but also fascist ideology.[53] This attitude contrasts strikingly with Trotsky’s, as expressed in his later Transitional Program, in which he goes so far as to reduce the problem of workers’ revolution to the problem of leadership.[54]

The influence of Lenin is not hard to detect in Gramsci’s emphasis on a concrete analysis of the terrain in order to construct working class hegemony through a system of alliances. This was a development of the argument the Russian leader mounted against economism in his famous pamphlet, What is to be Done? “To bring political knowledge to the workers,” Lenin had argued two decades earlier, “the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions”.[55] Indeed, working class “consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected… Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats [i.e. are not Marxists – RD]”.[56]

Here, Lenin is asserting the primacy of the political and its independence from directly economic demands posed in unmediated class terms. We need only remember that in 1917 the Bolshevik slogans were “Bread, Peace and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets” – that is, political demands, posed in non-class form (though with a class content, including, in the case of land, “peasant content”). It is this method that allows the party to win over its allies, and for this reason Gramsci was later to describe Lenin’s “greatest contribution” as the concept of hegemony.[57]

For Gramsci, this system of alliances would not be what was later known as a “popular front”, in which the party “chased after” an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie or the labour aristocracy – it was the party’s Right, led by Tasca, who posed this threat, which might desire if not “a bourgeois-proletarian bloc, for the constitutional elimination of fascism, at least to a tactic of real passivity, with no active intervention by our party, thus allowing the bourgeoisie to use the proletariat as electoral cannon-fodder against fascism”.[58] Rather, these alliances would be based on common activity and struggle for immediate demands and eventually lead the “proletariat back to an autonomous position as a revolutionary class; free from all influence of counter-revolutionary classes, groups and parties; capable of collecting around itself and leading all the forces that can be mobilized for the struggle against capitalism”.[59]

Particularly important here were those groups that broke to the left of social democracy, not just the Terzini but also groups like the left of the mostly peasant Popular Party. Again Gramsci and Bordiga clashed on this question. For Bordiga these alliances represented an unnecessary dilution of revolutionary homogeneity but for Gramsci, even if these groups might still represent a minority of the working class and peasantry, they were crucial because they were breaks from the system of bourgeois hegemony and integration as represented by the PSI. To abandon these ruptures was to risk that these groups – the more politically advanced sections of the movement, even if they weren’t necessarily the strategically most important section of the working class – would be channelled back into that bourgeois network.

These alliances might take many forms: demonstrations, election campaigns, joint meetings. Yet one of the most important forms that the worker and peasant bloc would take was the development of workers’ and peasants’ councils.[60] For Gramsci, the revolution was still a mass process carried out by the class and he still believed in the limitless “capacity for initiative and creation of the working masses”.[61] As a result, Leninism “says that the party leads the class through mass organisations, and hence says that one of the key tasks of the party is to develop mass organization; for the far left, by contrast, this problem does not exist”.[62]

In the 9 February letter to his “Centre” grouping, Gramsci explained that the party had been entirely passive and had not tried to “stimulate the masses”:

The party’s error has been to put the emphasis, and abstractly at that, on the question of Party organisation, which then has meant just the creation of an apparatus of functionaries who were orthodox as regards the official conception. It was, and is still, believed that the revolution depends solely on the existence of just such an apparatus, arriving at the point of believing that this existence can bring about the revolution. The party has lacked an organic activity of agitation and propaganda, which is what should have received the whole of our attention and have given rise to the formation of real specialists in this field. We have not attempted, at every single opportunity, to create among the masses the possibility of expressing themselves in the same sense as the Communist Party [all emphases mine – RD].[63]

This argument integrates his earlier work on the factory councils, which would “transform the masses” from workers into producers: “If I did not have a certain fear of hearing cries of Ordine Nuovo-ism, I would say that today one of the most important problems we face, especially in the major capitalist countries [France, Germany, England], is the problem of factory councils and workers’ control – as the basis for a new regroupment of the proletarian class”[64] So these non-party institutions were not to be the result of proletarian regroupment but the terrain on which that redeployment would happen. He incorporated the kind of argument he had made during the “red years” that “the Council is a class, a social institution… Hence the Council realizes in practice the unity of the working class; it gives the masses the same form and cohesion they adopt in the general organization of society… All the problems inherent in the organization of the proletarian State are inherent in the organization of the Council. In the one and the other, the concept of citizen gives way to the concept of comrade”.[65]

Gramsci is interested here in the creation of an intermediate layer of activists, some of whom may be non-party militants. Within the councils, the worker becomes a “producer”:

He has acquired an awareness of his role in the process of production, at all its levels, from the workshop to the nation and the world. At this point he is aware of his class; he becomes a communist, because productivity does not require private property; he becomes a revolutionary, because he sees the capitalist, the private property owner, as a dead hand, an encumbrance on the productive process which must be done away with. At this point he arrives at a conception of the “State”, i.e. he conceives a complex organisation of society, a concrete form of society, because this is nothing but the form of the gigantic apparatus of production which reflects – through all the novel, superior links and relations and functions inherent in its very enormity – the life of the workshop.[66]

In his later work, Gramsci believed an analogous process would happen in all the councils and committees that he was proposing, not only those located in factories, but ones which included the “participation of all the population not grouped in the factories, and with the inclusion of women”.[67] Indeed, here he specifically ruled out the notion – held by some scholars of his later work – that the organisers of the class would be intellectuals. Rather, he insisted that they would workers themselves.[68] He later developed this in his work on “organic intellectuals”, first examined in his essay on the southern question, where the party’s task, as he saw it, was to create a new group of “intellectuals” (again understood as technical specialists or on-the-ground leaders rather than “traditional” intellectuals) who would replace the traditional petty bourgeois leadership of the southern peasants and rural workers. In the Prison Notebooks, he would claim that “the weekly Ordine Nuovo worked to develop forms of new intellectualism and to determine its new concepts”.[69] In other words, the factory council activists were exemplars of just such a new group of “organic intellectuals”.[70]

Part Three: Strategy and Organisation

Party, concept and organisation

Gramsci’s strategic perspectives could only have their effects on the very organisational form and internal norms of the party. This aspect of Gramsci’s Leninism is often overlooked, in part because scholars are rarely involved in the quotidian aspects of organisational activity. In these years Gramsci was, we must remember, primarily a party man, involved in the gritty, day-to-day struggle to forge a functional organisation.

Contrasting himself to Bordiga, Gramsci stated bluntly, “I have another concept of the party, its function, and the relations which should be established between it and the masses outside the party”.[71] Under Bordiga, the party had not been seen as “the result of a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converge. It has been seen merely as something suspended in the air; something with its own autonomous and self-generated development; something which the masses will join when the situation is right and the crest of the revolutionary wave is at its highest point”.[72]

For a party to be living and breathing suggests that “historically a party is never definitive and never will be…it will pass through a whole series of transitory phases, and will from time to time absorb new elements in the two forms which are historically possible: through individual recruitment, or through the recruitment of smaller or larger groups”.[73] So if the political situation passes through a series of phases, in which the party itself must “manoeuvre” to build a system of alliances and to integrate and absorb other groupings, then the party itself must pass through a series of phases. Thus for Gramsci, a party could not be judged separately from the class. “Organisational work, the tenacious and difficult struggle to maintain the Party apparatus, are certainly important, but it is not on these things that we can draw up a balance sheet of the Party. It is not enough just to live: we must have a history…”.[74] This different conception was reflected in the debate over whether the party should be considered an “organ” of the class (Bordiga) or a “part” of the class (Gramsci).

Gramsci would later point out that that Bordiga’s line resulted in deep organisational problems in the “intermediate bodies, federations and city branches” and in “a widespread passive mentality of ‘waiting for orders’, namely the ultra-leftist conception that the P[arty] serves only for direct action and, while waiting for the great day, as a mass it has nothing to do but wait”.[75] Elsewhere he pointed out that “passivity has the outward appearance of brisk activity [my emphasis – RD]; because there appears to be a line of development, a seam which workers are meritoriously sweating and toiling away to excavate”.[76]

The truth of these claims could only be ascertained by detailed research into the PCI of the early 1920s, but the theoretical conclusions are clearer. In Gramsci’s view, the explanation for a party’s evolution – both politically and organisationally – must be found in an examination of the complex totality of relations and events.[77]

There were two tasks as Gramsci saw it. The first was to plunge into practical work to build unity and working class activity, to “stimulate the masses” as he had said – because only this could guarantee the health and growth of the party. He later wrote in prison that the way to avoid “bureaucratic centralism” was to ensure a democratic centralism of “movement – i.e. a continual adaption of the organisation to the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above”.[78] The blame for bureaucratic centralism lay with “a lack of initiative and responsibility at the bottom, in other words, because of the political immaturity of the peripheral forces”.[79] We can see then that the task of stimulating the masses becomes an essential component of Gramsci’s theory of party organisation: without it, the party cannot guarantee itself against bureaucratic centralism.

But this needed to be combined with a thoroughgoing education campaign in the fundamentals of Marxism, in which Gramsci took particular interest, to be carried out by a party school, a correspondence course, and the printing of new periodicals and pamphlets (he would later connect this task to the idea of “Boshevisation” proposed by the Comintern at its Fifth Congress in 1924).[80]

So where other organisations might accept the second task – to circle the wagons in conditions of reaction – Gramsci felt that the two tasks were complementary. How could “specialists in the field” be created without both processes? Gramsci, even in a period of fascism, insisted that the party must develop in interaction with the class, not stand aside from it. How else would one avoid creating a party of Bordiga-style disembodied functionaries?

The national and the international

Gramsci thus saw himself as elaborating the international political line of the Third International in the concrete situation of Italy, a process that was complex and multifaceted. His problem here was the “reconciliation of national traditions with an international framework” as Cammett puts it.[81] Gramsci became acutely aware of this during his tenure as leader of the PCI. “For all the capitalist countries,” he wrote, “a fundamental problem is posed – the problem of the transition from the united front tactic, understood in a general sense, to a specific tactic which confronts the concrete problems of national life and operates on the basis of the popular forces as they are historically determined”.[82] Indeed, his devastating assessment was that the united front had “in no country found the party or the men capable of concretizing it”.[83]

How much tension lay between these two levels of operation and what forms did that tension take? There can be little doubt that the presence of the Comintern helped both to illuminate and to confuse the strategic debates in Italy. While the Third International did much to generalise the lessons of postwar revolutionary strategy, Comintern meddling in foreign parties – which increasingly occurred throughout the twenties – also resulted in serious deleterious effects. In the case of Italy, Third International representatives had approached Gramsci to “take over” the leadership of the party, something Gramsci refused as an internecine intrigue.[84] Only when he had been convinced that the political line had to change did he step forward to challenge Bordiga.

In the period leading up to Como, Gramsci switched allegiances without making much critique of the International’s processes, so that at the conference he was able to pose the debate in terms of loyalty to the “international party”. Was the national party greater than the international one? He was correct in asserting that if they continued with Bordiga’s policy, they risked expulsion from the International. As he had written to Terracini a few months before Como, “The Comintern cannot sit back peacefully and allow there to be formed in the international field a Party majority which is both in opposition and demanding a rediscussion of all the decisions taken after the Third Congress”.[85]

The limitations of this approach should be clear: no call to institutional authority can ever be a good argument for a position; it amounts to an organisational approach to a political question. On this, Bordiga was formally correct. For his part, Bordiga was prepared to face expulsion rather than abandon his principles.

The notion of loyalty to the Comintern was later used to silence opposition to the growing Stalinisation, a process in which Gramsci played a contradictory role. He certainly showed an “independence of mind in his judgement of all the post-Lenin Bolshevik leaders, bar none”, as Derek Boothman writes,[86] and wrote perhaps the most critical letter to the Russian majority, imploring them to stop destroying their own work. The letter was too radical for Togliatti, who objected, but Gramsci had little time for the protestations and replied to Togliatti that “Your whole argument is tainted by ‘bureaucratism’”.[87] Still, Gramsci was also prepared to lay the blame for the situation in the Russian party primarily on the Left Opposition and later the Joint Opposition (complicating things was Bordiga’s support for Trotsky, and in some cases Gramsci seems to conflate the two).[88] These passages are the most discomforting to read in retrospect, even if Gramsci was one of the earliest International figures to begin to make criticisms of the bureaucratised Comintern leadership (James P. Cannon, for example, did not mount a criticism of Stalinism until 1928). [89]

After his ascension to leadership of the PCI, Gramsci himself came to see the centrality of an independent, self-directed national organisation. He had already recognised a problem with “the way in which the so-called centralism of the Comintern has been understood: up to now, no one has succeeded in developing autonomous, creative parties that are automatically centralized by means of their response to the general plans of action arrived at in the [Comintern Congresses]”.[90] This was a profound perception, contrary to the main lines of thought in the Comintern. The responsibility would have to fall on the Italians themselves, if they were to build such a party. “At any rate, I am more and more convinced that it is we ourselves who have to work, in our country, to build a Party that is strong, politically and organisationally well-equipped and resistant, with such a stock of clear general ideas, well-lodged in the consciousness of each individual, that there will be no possibility of these questions disintegrating with every blow aimed at them …”.[91] Emphasis now had to be placed on the construction of powerful indigenous national parties, each with its own self-developed leaderships.

In this, Gramsci recalled a second speech at Fourth Congress of the International that influenced him greatly – Lenin’s “Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution”. In this speech, Lenin notes that at the Third Congress, “we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their work. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. … [E]ven if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit”. Lenin’s conclusion was that “the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike is to sit down and study”.[92] This came as part of a more general rethinking on Lenin’s part in response to the theoretical “crisis” in the Third International, when he was prompted to rethink the organisational consequences of the political rethinking that had emerged from the defeats of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21.[93]

As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “After the failure of the revolution in Germany [in 1923], Gramsci had been thinking about how to translate the internationalist tactic of the united front ‘into Italian historical language’. For him, such a translation would mean displacing the process of the formation of communist parties from the international terrain to the national, and, as such, it would then imply a significant change in the understanding of internationalism”.[94] In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would reaffirm this notion in an important passage, where he argues that “the international situation should be considered in its national aspect… To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is ‘national’”.[95]

During his time as leader of the PCI, Gramsci increasingly pursued an independent policy, maintaining his emphasis on the united front even after the Comintern jagged sharply to the left in 1925, and once more became formally closer to Bordiga. Later, in prison, he criticised the Third Period of the Comintern, which echoed Bordiga’s theories almost word for word. This caused him considerable trouble and isolated him from the more “loyal” comrades. He was shaken by the expulsion of three leading PCI comrades for similar opposition. Around the same time, Gramsci seemed to be developing a critique of Stalinism (bureaucratic centralism, “Cadornism” as he termed it) in his prison notes. In this period he tried to get access to Trotsky’s writings, but the prison authorities only allowed him to read My Life, which seems to have reaffirmed him in his critique of Trotsky’s Marxism as overly mechanical. Still, after a conversation in which Gramsci expressed his doubts about the political line and actions of the PCI and the Comintern, his brother decided not to pass on his criticisms to Togliatti for fear that “not even Nino [Antonio] would have been saved from expulsion”.[96]

After the Como conference: Gramsci’s early Leninism crystallised

The Como conference of 1924 was an ambiguous victory for Gramsci. Though he had won over the majority of the central committee, he failed to convince the mid-level leaders. In the consultative vote, his position was defeated by a vote of 39 to four. In Gramsci’s mind, this probably reflected the fact that the secretaries present were exactly the orthodox “functionaries” he had criticised as having been created by Bordiga’s position. Gramsci thus found himself in a complicated position: he was in a majority in the Comintern and on the PCI’s highest leadership bodies, but in a minority among the mid-level leadership. What of the membership proper? Gramsci likely believed that the membership would, once they were made aware of the issues at stake, come over to his side. Tasca certainly believed before the conference that the majority would soon side with Gramsci, while Scoccimarro told Gramsci that he simply had to make open the “latent” support for his line.[97] This is easy enough to believe, for under the conditions of fascism, the bulk of the party membership would likely be sympathetic to a policy of working class unity (and thus the united front). Indeed, some years before they had spontaneously joined the militant anti-fascist groups called the Arditi del Popolo, an activity that Gramsci had encouraged, before Bordiga banned such engagement, a tragic error.

In the following period, Gramsci led the party through the dangerous shoals created by Italian fascism, including the crisis of the regime created by the fascist assassination of the Socialist Deputy Giacomo Matteotti, the walkout of the anti-fascist opposition from the parliament to the “Aventine” that the PCI participated in and Gramsci hoped would become an “anti-parliament”, and the maintenance of the party underground structures and activity. Meanwhile, Gramsci campaigned tirelessly across the country to consolidate his new line and one year later, in a letter to Zinoviev, he declared the battle won.[98] To another comrade in Moscow, he wrote that “there has never been an Exec[utive] that has worked, and that is making comrades work, as much as the present one, one that studies everything, right down to the small problems of the various local organisations, trying to advise comrades, to spur them on with letters and circulars, with visits and inspections, sending capable cadres to the spot… I just observe that the P[arty] in its entirety is more respected and appreciated by everyone, even by its most strenuous opponents; it comes over as a serious force that is developing relentlessly”.[99]

Gramsci’s attitude to leadership was noteworthy for its inclusiveness. In his eyes, the leadership should be composed of all tendencies within the organisation and a collective line would emerge through the discussions between them. In one of his famous letters to Togliatti on the “Russian Question”, Gramsci wrote that the “Leninist line consists in the fight for P[arty] unity, not only for external unity but for that somewhat more intrinsic unity that consists in there not being within the P[arty] two completely divergent lines on all questions”.[100] Indeed, for this reason he believed that Leninism was opposed to factions – hardened groups who began to have greater loyalty to their faction than the party as a whole – and instead operated via “the organic collaboration of all tendencies through participation in the leading bodies”.[101]

There would be no driving of minorities out of the organisation under his leadership, and indeed he castigated Bordiga for refusing to take a leadership position. Yet Gramsci was also was prepared to censor Bordiga’s views within the party, which may have been justified considering the external threat of fascism and the fact that communist parties of that time often went through specific periods when discussion was closed off.[102]

The proof of any political organisation is in its practice rather than in its schemata. Under Bordiga, the party had suffered from a precipitous decline. By the end of 1921 its membership had halved to 24,638 and by the march on Rome in October 1922 it had fallen to 8,709 members (in a country of around 40 million). Some of this was likely due to the difficulties in establishing a new party under conditions of fascism, but the turnaround under Gramsci was dramatic. Quickly, L’Unità more than doubled its circulation to over 50,000 copies. In late 1924, the Terzini finally joined the PCI en masse, bringing with them a significant membership, especially in the rural areas. By December 1924 the party had roughly doubled in size to 17,373 and grew again to 24,837 in 1925. By this time, the party was accumulating the remaining assorted leftists in the remaining bastion of resistance to Mussolini.[103] Gramsci was thus able to point out that “Our party is one of the few, if not the only, party in the International which can claim such a success in a situation as difficult as that which has been being created in all countries”.[104] In these terms, Gramsci’s leadership of the party can only be considered a definitive success.

The PCI’s Lyons conference in 1926 finally crystallised the victory of the Gramsci’s early Leninism. The brilliant “Lyons Theses”, written by Gramsci and Togliatti and adopted by a vast majority of the delegates, codified Gramsci’s position (90.8 percent of the vote in support of the theses, with 9.2 percent for Bordiga).[105] They represented the moment at which Gramsci’s Leninism was finally triumphant. In the words of Paolo Spriano, the Lyons Theses “represent the greatest effort led by the Italian party to apply the beginnings of Leninist tactics and strategy to the situation of a country like [Italy]”.[106] Gramsci believed that the party had resolved the crisis in its development and could call itself a “mass party, not simply because of the influence it exercises on broad strata of the working class and the peasant masses, but because it has acquired…a capacity for analysing situations, for political initiative and for strong leadership which in the past it lacked”.[107] Togliatti agreed: as he looked back on the years of the Como conference, he wrote that the “progress and fate of this movement, if the new leading group had not been formed, and formed at precisely that moment and in that way, through the initiative of Antonio Gramsci and under his immediate direction, would without a shadow of a doubt, have been different, even profoundly different”.[108]

Part Four: A suspended tradition

How might we assess Gramsci’s early Leninism? An emphasis on the subjective as essential to the development of the ensemble of social relations, a complex political strategy based on sensitivity to geopolitical differences and concrete national analysis, an insistence on the primacy of the political in building essential alliances – including through a policy of the united front and the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government – through a series of “secondary phases”, the measurement of the party in relation to the class, the building of a national party as more important than abstract internationalism, a focus on unity both in the working class and the party itself – Gramsci’s particular accents diverge from a current such as Trotskyism, the last surviving Anglophone Leninist tradition, which tended to emphasise international programs at the expense of the concrete and national.[109] Indeed, on first reading, Gramsci’s pre-prison Leninism seem unfamiliar to those brought up outside Italy, for his intellectual touchstones include not only the various Bolshevik leaders, but also his own indigenous tradition of idealism, most obviously that of Croce and Gentile, Labriola and the Frenchman Sorel.

This in turn reminds us that Leninism is not some unitary theory, but rather a complex of interrelated propositions – a practical research program – that individual theorists might emphasise differently. As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “Amid the controversy of [the post-Lenin] years, Gramsci’s position cannot be assimilated to that of any other communist political leader of the time, either in the Russian party or in the International. Properly speaking, he was neither a Stalinist, nor a Trotskyist, nor a Bukharinite. He was too secular, too ‘Protestant’ to be any of those things”.[110]

As a research program, Gramsci’s Leninism continued. Indeed, his Prison Notebooks were in many ways a development of the themes outlined in this essay. Gramsci’s carceral project can be understood as an investigation into the failure of the revolutionary movements of the early 1920s.[111] One aspect of this project, then, is a critical assessment of his own early political activity, first of all in the factory council movement in Turin of 1919-1920, and in the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party, and as a development of his early Leninism, influenced in particular by the Fourth Congress of the Third International. As a result, however one sees Gramsci’s later work – as continuity, rupture, aufheben – his earlier work provides one essential key to understanding it.[112]

As a political current, though, Gramsci’s Leninism was suspended by his imprisonment. The rise to power of Togliatti bound the PCI to the fate of the wider communist movement. From then on it struggled in the clutches of Stalinism through notable and yet tempered successes. In any case, Gramsci himself might not have survived this process. Thus an alternative version of Leninism was closed off, leaving that propagated by Trotsky as the sole remaining tradition which maintained fidelity to the first four congresses of the Communist International – those which had such an effect on Gramsci’s thought. The end of Stalinism however allows for a new rediscovery of this fertile form of Leninism, both in its early, pre-prison phase and in the rich and cryptic Notebooks.

 

References

Adamson, W.L. 1980, Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory, Echo Point.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2013, “Lenin Versus Leninism”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer.

Buey, Francisco Fernandez 2015, Reading Gramsci, Brill.

Budgen, Sebastian, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek (eds) 2007, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Duke University Press.

Cammett, John, 1967, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, Stanford University Press.

Claudin, Fernando 1975, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, Penguin.

Coutinho, Carlos Nelson 2012, Gramsci’s Political Thought, Haymarket.

Davidson, Alastair 1977, Antonio Gramsci: Toward and Intellectual Biography, Merlin Press.

Davidson, Alastair 1982, The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism, Merlin Press.

Del Roio, Marcos 2015, Prisms of Gramsci, Brill.

Fiori, Giuseppe 1990, Antonio Gramsci, Verso.

Gramsci, Antonio 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 1977, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 1978, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 2014a, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, edited and translated by Derek Boothman, Haymarket.

Gramsci, Antonio 2014b, Quaderni del Carcere, Eineudi.

Gramsci Jr., Antonio 2014, La Storia di una Famiglia Rivoluzionaria: Antonio Gramsci e gli Schucht tra la Russia e l’Italia, Editori Riuniti.

Harman, Chris 1977, “Gramsci Versus Eurocommunism”, Part 1, International Socialism (1st series), 98, May.

Lenin, V.I. 1964 (1916), “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm.

Lenin, V.I. 1967, “Speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”, 1922, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Vol. 1, Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1976b, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1977, Speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, in The Second Congress of the Communist International: Minutes of the Proceedings, New Park.

Lih, Lars 2008, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context, Haymarket.

Lih, Lars 2011, Lenin, Reaktion Books.

Riddell, John (ed.), 2011, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Fourth International, Haymarket Books, Chicago.

Santucci, Antonio A. 2010, Antonio Gramsci, Monthly Review Press.

Serge, Victor 2002, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, University of Iowa Press.

Shandro, Alan 2014, Lenin and the Concept of Hegemony, Brill.

Spriano, Paolo 1976, Storia del Partito Communista Italiano, Vol. 1, Einaudi.

Spriano, Paolo 1979, Antonio Gramsci: The Prison Years, Lawrence and Wishart.

Swartzmantel, John 2015, Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Routledge.

Togliatti, Palmiro 1979, On Gramsci, and Other Writings, Lawrence and Wishart.

Trotsky, Leon 1953, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, Pioneer Publishers.

Trotsky, Leon 1971, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon, Leon Trotsky On France, Monad.

Zinoviev, Gregory 1942 (1916), “The Social Roots of Opportunism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/zinoviev/works/1916/war/opp3.html.

 

Notes

[1] Amadeo Bordiga and Umberto Terracini, “Theses on the Tactics of the PCI”, in Gramsci 1978, pp95-6.

[2] Paolo Spriano’s two-volume Storia del Partito Communista Italiano (Einaudi, 1976) remains one of essential histories of this period, though it is hampered by its concentration on the central core of the PCI. Spriano was also a “party historian” for the PCI and this means his judgment is at times questionable.

[3] This number according to Terracini’s letter of 13 February, quoted in Spriano 1976, p260. According to Spriano, the objective of the arrests was to hamper any fusion attempt between the PCI and the PSI (p260).

[4] The PSI had been a party divided between revolutionaries and reformists, though unlike many of the other parties of the Second International it had not supported its government in World War One. During the 1920s it passed through a number of splits and realignments. The Terzini had been marginalised after the expulsion of the reformists (who formed the Unitary Socialist Party, PSU) by a faction in the party opposed to fusion and any united front or electoral alliance with the PCI. This new group quickly reinstituted the party’s dominant reformism and later reunited with the PSU.

[5] The Comintern later summarised the election campaign as “a consecration of the efficaciousness of the tactics of the united front”; quoted in Spriano 1976, p341. Around the same time the Central Committee first discussed Gramsci’s line. Spriano calls it one of the most important Central Committee meetings in the PCI’s early years. See Spriano 1976, p247.

[6] See Davidson 1982, p213.

[7] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp250-251.

[8] ibid, p251.

[9] See, for example, Davidson 1982, Note 81, p280 (see also p95).

[10] See for example Lars Lih’s discussion of inevitability in Kautsky in Lih 2008, p78.

[11] Gramsci 1978, “Problems of Today and Tomorrow”, p232.

[12] Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.

[13] Mario Del Roio emphasises the influence of Luxemburg on Gramsci too. His book, Prisms of Gramsci, was published in English as this essay was being finished and to some extent runs parallel to it. See Del Roio 2015, pp12-50.

[14] Quoted in Santucci 2010, p62.

[15] Lenin, for his part, underwent a reassessment of his philosophical lineage after the outbreak of World War One, when he re-read Hegel. See Savas Michael-Matsas, “Lenin and the Path of Dialectics” and Stathis Kouvelakis, “Lenin as a Reader of Hegel: Hypotheses for a Reading of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic”, both in Budgen et al. (eds) 2007.

[16] On this, see the analysis of “The Russian Utopia” in Buey, p73.

[17] Davidson 1977, pp158-9. See also “Gramsci’s Theory and Practice”, in Togliatti 1979, pp151-153.

[18] Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-1924”, p261. Spriano makes the same point, see Spriano 1976, p503.

[19] While I’m sympathetic to those like Sandra Bloodworth who find the term “Leninism” unhelpful (Bloodworth 2013), I think this is a useful enough definition, and in any case essentially the one used by Gramsci himself. This definition also runs counter to Lars Lih’s valuable and erudite Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context (Lih 2008). For all Lih’s usefulness, it seems to me that Lenin already had a conception and practice distinct from the Erfurt program before World War One, a conception further developed in his reflections on imperialism and the split in socialism (the development of “bourgeois labour parties”), and finally codified in the resolutions of the Third International. Alan Shandro argues a similar case in Shandro 2014.

[20] See Gramsci Jr. 2014. This information had come from key PCI organiser Camila Ravera. In his book, which contains the letter (p52), Gramsci’s grandson, Antonio Jr., asks, “But why had not [Camila] Ravera described this episode in her memoir published a few years beforehand? Why did it elude all of the Gramsci biographers, including as eminent an author as Giuseppi Fiori? And why doesn’t Gramsci himself ever mention it in any letter and in any article, in spite of all the admiration for Lenin and the strong connections of friendship of the family of Giulia Schucht with that of Ulijanov? [Lenin]? It can’t be excluded that the cause of this strange silence is due to the modesty and correctness of my grandfather towards Amadeo Bordiga. In fact Antonio Gramsci, in spite of the political divergence, always had a great estimation of the true founder of the Communist Party not to talk about their personal friendship.” [My translation – RD].

[21] Fernando Claudin, in his thoughtful book The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (Claudin, 1975, pp46-102) outlines this theoretical crisis, even if he tends to over-exaggerate it.

[22] Trotsky 1953, pp221-22. Lenin had also made this argument in contracted form in “Left-Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Lenin 1976b, p320.

[23] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp199-200. There are two translations in English of this important letter [the other is by Derek Boothman in Gramsci 2014a]. I’ve used both for the purposes of this article.

[24] Zinoviev 1942.

[25] Lenin 1976b, pp320-21.

[26] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation of our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p294.

[27] Gramsci 1978, Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)”, p359.

[28] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p444.

[29] See, for example, Spriano 1976, pp347-48.

[30] Lenin 1967, speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, pp183-4. This is a different emphasis to the more dualistic notion of a “bourgeois workers’ party” (or “bourgeois labour party” as found in Lenin’s 1916 piece “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (Lenin 1964), which leaves open the question of whether these organisations are workers’ parties with bourgeois leaderships, or bourgeois parties with working class memberships. Chris Harman’s conflation of Gramsci’s position with the bourgeois-labour party position overlooks the important differences between them. See Harman 1977.

[31] Tasca in Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission Nominated by the Central Committee To Finalize the Lyons Congress Documents”, p326.

[32] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission…”, p338.

[33] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p408.

[34] ibid., p409.

[35] Walter Adamson divides Gramsci’s typology into a geographic division between East and West and three socio-political categories of Advanced Capitalist, Transitional and Peripheral societies. The result is thus six “types” of society. See Adamson 1980, p89.

[36] Gramsci 1977, “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party”, p191.

[37] Gramsci 1977, “The Monkey People”, p374.

[38] Spriano dates this plan and proposal in September 1923 as the first concrete example of a turn in the PCI’s work. See Spriano 1976, pp298-299.

[39] Cammett 1967, p161.

[40] Riddell (ed.) 2011, p1159. For a short summary of the debate, see Riddell’s “Editorial Introduction”, pp20-27.

[41] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp253-254.

[42] Quoted in Spriano 1976, p355. (My translation – RD.)

[43] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p391.

[44] Quoted in Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p30.

[45] Gramsci 1977, “Development of the Revolution”, p92.

[46] Quoted in Coutinho 2012, p37.

[47] Lenin 1976b, pp335-336.

[48] Gramsci, “Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p230. See also Gramsci’s discussion of phases in Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, pp409-410.

[49] Spriano notes its central importance in his history; Spriano 1976, p33-334.

[50] Spriano points out that at least in the time around the Como conference Gramsci, believing the situation was still revolutionary, tended to overestimate the autonomous role the party might play. See Spriano 1976, p345.

[51] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p443.

[52] ibid., p448.

[53] Gramsci 1978, “What is to be Done?”, pp169-171.

[54] See Fernando Claudin’s compelling and rather Gramscian critique of Trotsky in Claudin 1975, pp79-80.

[55] Lenin 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Progress, Moscow, p154.

[56] ibid., p145. As Lars Lih has shown, the basis for this attitude actually can be found in the Erfurt program’s “hegemony” scenario. See Lih 2008, pp96-101.

[57] Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 2, p187; Notebook 4, §38, pp464-65. Gramsci directly echoes this argument in “Elements of the Situation”, in Gramsci 1978, p308.

[58] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p303.

[59] Gramsci 1978, “Elements of the Situation”, p308. See also Gramsci’s critique of the German communists Brandler and Thalheimer in the 9 February letter, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others” in Gramsci 2014a, p193.

[60] Some see Gramsci’s emphasis on this as a reflection of his continued Left–Communist approach to the united front, i.e. emphasising the united front “from below”. See Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, “General Introduction” in Gramsci 1971, plxxiii. However, Trotsky was to make a similar argument in his writings on Germany. See Trotsky 1971, pp193-199.

[61] Gramsci 1978, “Once Again on the Organic Capacities of the Working Class”, p419.

[62] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p395.

[63] “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p225.

[64] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410. A decade later, Trotsky would compose a similar argument in his writings on France. See “For Committees of Action! Not the People’s Front!” in Trotsky 1979, pp129-134.

[65] Gramsci 1977, “Unions and Councils”, p100.

[66] Gramsci 1977, “Syndicalism and the Councils”, p111. Here Marcel Del Roio sees the influence of Sorel, especially in Gramsci’s “spirit of separation from the state and reformism”. See Del Roio 2015, p143. However, Del Roio underestimates the way Lenin too understood the party as a representative of the creative forces of its class, preferring to see Gramsci’s position as closer to “Sorel and also to Luxemburg”, p187. Lars Lih does a good job of dispelling this erroneous dichotomy in Lih 2011.

[67] Gramsci 1978, “Report to the Central Committee: 6 February 1925, p280.

[68] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission”, p315.

[69] Gramsci 1971, pp9-10 and Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 12, p1550. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would still associate the development of these organic intellectuals as intimately connected with the development of the party. See for example, Swartzmantel 2015, pp81-89.

[70] Indeed, Gramsci’s interest in the intermediate layers is revealed in his claim that “in every party, and especially in the democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational apparatus is very loose, there exist three strata” – of leaders, masses and an intermediate activist layer. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p401. This prefigures once more a formulation in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci 1971, p152; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, §70, p1733.

[71] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci to Scoccimaro”, p174.

[72] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp197-198.

[73] ibid., pp198-199.

[74] “To Negri and Palmi”, in Gramsci 2014a, p236.

[75] “To Vincenzo Bianci”, in Gramsci 2014a, p332.

[76] Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.

[77] Davidson 1977, p159.

[78] Gramsci 1971, p188; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.

[79] Gramsci 1971, p189; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.

[80] See “To the Executive Committee of the Italian Communist Party”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp208-215.

[81] Cammett 1967, p168.

[82] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410.

[83] Gramsci 1978, “What the Relations should be between the PCI and the Comintern”, p155.

[84] “To Scoccimarro and Togliatti”, in Gramsci 2014a, p244.

[85] “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, p203.

[86] Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p41.

[87] Gramsci 1978, “Letter to Togliatti”, pp439-440.

[88] For Gramsci’s direct comparison between Trotsky and Bordiga and their attitude to the party see Spriano 1976, p361 and then the chapter “L’equazione bordighismo-trotskismo”, pp429-456.

[89] Victor Serge suggests that Gramsci was more aware of the situation than he could publicly admit and this partly explains his decision to leave Russia. See Serge 2002, pp186-7.

[90] “Quoted in Cammett 1967, p168.

[91] “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp263-264.

[92] Lenin 1967, “Speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”, p676.

[93] See Claudin 1975, pp63-71 and Lih 2011, Chapter 5.

[94] Buey 2015, p88.

[95] Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, p187; Notebook 14, §68, p1729 and Gramsci 1971, pp240-1.

[96] See Fiori 1990, pp252-3. Paolo Spriano throws doubt on Gennaro Gramsci’s story, though there seems to be no reason for him to have invented the narrative. As a “party historian”, Spriano tended to minimise Gramsci’s differences with the official line. See Spriano 1979, pp56-60.

[97] Davidson 1982, p142.

[98] “To Zinov’iev”, in Gramsci 2014a, p346.

[99] “To Vincenzo Bianco”, ibid., p332.

[100] “To Togliatti”, ibid., p438.

[101] Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)” in Gramsci 1978, p365.

[102] As Adamson suggests, Gramsci later in his prison notes seems to have conducted a self-critique of the internal functioning of the PCI during his time as leader. Adamson 1980, pp96-97.

[103] Davidson 1982, p150.

[104] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p293.

[105] Davidson 1982, p173.

[106] Spriano 1976, p496.

[107] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p385.

[108] Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-24”, p261.

[109] For example, the Fourth International and other Trotskyist currents took a disastrous “turn to industry” en bloc in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

[110] Buey 2015, p87.

[111] Coutinho 2012, p51.

[112] Marcos del Roio also makes a compelling argument for the continuity of Gramsci’s interests between his pre-prison and prison writings. See Del Roio 2015.

http://marxistleftreview.org/index.php/no-14-winter-2017/148-between-como-and-confinement-gramsci-s-early-leninism

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The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure-Sandra Bloodworth

Posted by admin On October - 7 - 2018 Comments Off on The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure-Sandra Bloodworth

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“One of the most absurd notions taken over from eighteenth century enlightenment is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man.”

– Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.[1][2]

“A fundamental principle of Marxist analysis is that…there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution. It also sees change as produced by forces internal to the social system itself. In other words, causes are not external to and independent of social organization. Inevitable population growth, ecological conditions, or God’s will are not explanations of war, poverty, sexism, or any other social question.”

– Karen Sacks, Sisters and Wives. The past and future of sexual equality.[3]

 

Frederick Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (hereafter The Origin) was published in 1884. In it he argued that early humans had lived in non-hierarchical societies in which women were not oppressed. The idea that classes might not exist and that men have not always dominated women was widely and systematically denounced as preposterous in the social sciences academy. And the book has remained the subject of debate, especially among feminists, to this day.

There are weaknesses in Engels’ argumentation, not least because he had to rely on the now superseded knowledge of his generation. But also because, in spite of being one of the then most progressive supporters of women’s rights, he accepts many of the stereotypes about women’s sexuality of his time. Nevertheless, there is wide recognition of the importance of this book. Gerda Lerner, a feminist theorist not known for her support of Marxism, says that in spite of self-evident weaknesses,

Engels made a major contribution to our understanding of women’s position in society and history… By locating “the world historic defeat of the female sex” in the period of the formation of archaic states, based on the dominance of propertied elites, he gave the event historicity. Although he was unable to prove any of his propositions, he defined the major theoretical questions for the next hundred years.[4]

Engels basically summarised notes made by Marx and himself on the research of the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. He also incorporated research on the history of the family in ancient societies by Johann Bachofen, a Swiss historian and archaeologist, and relied on his own research about Germanic and Celtic societies. This book was not some isolated, discrete work. It can only fully be understood if taken together with the ideas developed by both Engels and Marx in The German Ideology, the Theses on Feuerbach, The Communist Manifesto and Capital, to name just the best known. Their joint efforts to understand capitalist society and all its degradation and oppression involved, from their earliest writings, grappling with the question of women’s oppression. In On the Jewish Question, written when Marx was 25, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The Holy Family later that year, Marx frequently comments on the enslavement of women and the need for their emancipation.[5] Engels, in his first major work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written from 1844 to early 1845, repeatedly returns to the dangerous and debilitating conditions of women workers. He discusses the effects on women and men of having women working while men are left at home unemployed and makes a point against the moralising of liberal commentators. If this seems unnatural, he says, it must look so because there is “some radical error in the original relationship between men and women. If the rule of the wife over her husband…is unnatural, then the former rule of the husband over the wife must also have been unnatural”.[6]

Also, Engels’ article The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, mostly neglected by the critics of The Origin, laid a solid foundation for understanding human development. Predicated on Darwin’s theory of evolution, but theoretically grounded in his and Marx’s materialist conclusions, he argued that it was the use of hands freed by standing upright which drove human development down the path of tool-making. This then led to a growing intelligence and the development of speech. After a series of controversies and even fraudulent evidence over the next century, the discovery in Africa in 1974 of a three and a half million year-old skeleton with an ape-sized brain but erect posture meant Engels’ proposition was widely accepted, if not always explicitly attributed to him.

The point of this article is to consider whether Engels’ basic proposition – that women’s oppression coincided with the division of society into classes and the rise of the state – stands up. I will not deal with every error or weakness, as many of them are peripheral to this question. And I will not answer every argument made by his critics, as most of them are also not relevant to this point, and I have answered some of them elsewhere.[7]

First, drawing on anthropological and archaeological knowledge assembled over the last half century, I reply to some of the most common arguments which assert that women’ oppression is universal. Then I outline Engels’ basic argument. Thirdly, I outline my argument, which relies heavily on the British Marxist Chris Harman, who interpreted more recent research using Engels’ theoretical method.[8] Finally I will show that the most recent archaeological evidence, while it radically challenges Engels’ historical detail, actually strengthens his central thesis that women’s oppression was established as society divided into classes. However I go beyond both Engels and Harman to explain the origins of women’s oppression in a way that I consider more consistent with Marxism.

Is women’s oppression universal?

Until the 1960s anthropologists almost unanimously agreed that women have always been oppressed. Anthropology, because of its claim to scientific research, was difficult to challenge. And so feminists who took this position were influential. Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed in her famous book The Second Sex, “this has always been a man’s world” and that “the female…is the prey of the species”.[9] Susan Brownmiller’s argument that men have always been violent towards women was very influential among feminists in the 1970s.[10] In opposition to Marxism, she attributed other social divisions such as class and race to men’s domination of women:

Concepts of hierarchy, slavery and private property flowed from, and could only be predicated upon the initial subjugation of woman.

She struck a nerve among feminists happy to accept pop-psychology conjecture in place of historical evidence so long as it painted men as the key enemy:

[O]ne of the earliest forms of male bonding must have been the gang rape of one woman by a band of marauding men. This accomplished, rape became not only a male prerogative, but man’s basic weapon of force against women, the principal agent of his will and her fear… By anatomical fiat – the inescapable construction of their genital organs – the human male was a natural predator.

It was women’s “fear of an open season of rape” which led them to strike the “risky bargain” of “conjugal relationship” and was the “single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man”.[11]

The anthropologist Margaret Mead found “the Arapesh [do not] have any conception of male nature that might make rape understandable to them”. This clearly indicates that rape is a product of particular social systems, not simply men’s physiological attributes. But Brownmiller makes no attempt to explain how this can be understood in view of her own sweeping assertions.[12]

Since then, there has been a wealth of anthropological and archaeological studies which provide overwhelming evidence that women have not always been oppressed and therefore have not always suffered male violence. And yet most non-Marxist writers, and even some who profess to agree with Marx (though not Engels), such as Heather Brown – author of the most recent serious study of Engels’ book and Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks – are still reluctant to accept this basic proposition.[13]

Some feminists studied non-human primates, extrapolating from what they observed to build a picture of human evolution and what the earliest societies might have been like. They concluded there was no evidence that the first hominids, evolving from the apes, would have been male-dominated with females subjected to violence. Brownmiller herself quotes Jane Goodall, who studied wild chimpanzees and found the female did not accept every male who approached her. Even persistent males were not known to rape. Brownmiller even quotes Leonard Williams’ Man and Monkey which concluded that “in monkey society there is no such thing as rape, prostitution, or even passive consent”.[14] However, she claims that because human females are sexually active at any time, unlike other primates, men are capable of rape. The implication is that monkeys and chimps are physically incapable of rape. But the feminist scholar Sally Slocum found that non-human primates “appear not to attempt coitus (when the female is unreceptive), regardless of physiological ability”.[15] A later study, based on similar observations plus archaeological and anthropological studies, concluded “the picture then is one of bipedal, tool-using, food-sharing, and sociable mothers choosing to copulate with males also possessing these traits” at the dawn of humanity.[16]

There are many gaps in our knowledge between these first steps in the evolution of hominids from the apes, probably over two million years ago, and the rise of class societies. Homo sapiens are thought to have emerged from homo erectus about 200,000 years ago and for almost 190,000 years they lived in egalitarian communities with increasingly sophisticated and complex cultures in which there was no oppression.

The starting point from which to assess anthropological evidence about these gatherer-hunter societies is to recognise the bias embedded within the data. Academics and anthropologists who collected this information accompanied colonial invaders and Christian zealots. They were invariably culturally blind and prejudiced against other societies, so their conclusions cannot be read at anything like face value. Overwhelmingly male, they took with them the cultural and social values of capitalist society which distorted their interpretation of what they saw, especially when it came to gender relations. Anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock, Karen Sacks and others have convincingly demonstrated the male-oriented and prejudiced nature of arguments by influential anthropologists such as Malinowsky and Lévi-Strauss.[17] As I concluded in a study of the diaries of early “explorers” in the west of Australia:

[T]he gender relations in traditional Aboriginal society were understood very much in the terms set by European prejudice and expectations of the time. The ideal of idle women and the juxtaposition of “damned whores and god’s police” were embroidered by and entwined with the brutal racism and sexism which characterised the white settlement.[18]

Western anthropologists and other observers, imposing their view of the world on the societies they studied, assumed the nuclear family of modern capitalism to be a universal feature of human organisation of reproduction and sexuality. Society was thought to be divided into the “public”, male sphere and the “private”, female sphere, a concept clearly associated historically with the rise of capitalism and completely useless in understanding the egalitarian, co-operative and integrated nature of gatherer-hunters’ lives. Because women’s responsibility for childcare in our society contributes to their inferior status and oppression, it was erroneously assumed this could be read into the meaning of their work in all societies.[19] Even many feminist anthropologists “assume low status for maternity, which they see as constraining activities, hindering personality development, and reducing women’s symbolic value. They project the values of our culture onto other cultures”.[20] Judith Brown, writing about the assumed division of labour by sex in gatherer-hunters, writes that women’s “tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions (by children)”. This, she assumes, means that women were of low status.[21] I will show below that this view, which was already being challenged, is even less tenable in light of the most recent knowledge.

Secondly, the Eurocentrism of most anthropology obscures the effects of colonial expansion on pre-capitalist societies. As the feminist anthropologist Rayna Reiter noted:

We cannot literally interpret the lives of existing foraging peoples – such as the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari, the Eskimos, the Australian Aborigine – as exhibits and replications of processes we speculate to have occurred in the Palaeolithic. Neither can we assume the decimated, marginalised existences of peoples pushed to the edges of their environment by thousands of years penetration will exhibit original characteristics.[22]

Colonial expansion brought profound changes. These changes could be rapid, affecting research done even at a very early period of invasion. For one thing, members of the society being colonised soon learnt strategies for survival and for minimising attacks on themselves.[23] It is widely believed that Indigenous women in Australia were treated as inferior chattels before white invasion. The arguments rest on reports which reflect the prejudices of early settlers and ignore the catastrophic effects of the white invasion. Most accounts of early contact refer to “the natives” as though the men were the only ones of any consequence; for example, “we saw the natives and their women”. Explorers would have expected to deal with men and viewed women as sex objects, if noticed at all. The Aborigines very early on experienced abduction and rape of women. Henry Reynolds recounts that Torres Strait Islanders told a government official in 1881 that when whites were seen, the women were buried in the sand to avoid ill-treatment.[24] Where this was the case, the male bias of explorers and other observers would have been exaggerated even further. Their impression of gender relations in Aboriginal society would have been of men as the dominant, outgoing sex and women as retiring, submissive and afraid. This then had a dynamic which reinforced the exaggeration of the importance of men. The male explorers gave gifts to men. These gifts of tomahawks, knives, flour, sugar and tobacco may seem trivial taken individually. However, as contact increased and the products of the invaders became more coveted and widespread among Aborigines, these gifts could be expected to change the balance of relationships between women and men. For instance, when land was rendered less accessible or productive because of invasion, Aborigines depended more on food from whites. This undercut the women’s ability to provide for themselves and their children independently of the men.[25]

Leacock documented the pressures exerted on egalitarian social relations by the Jesuits and others committed to hierarchical social relations and women’s oppression, as they colonised the lands of the Montagnais-Naskapi of Canada and the Iroquois Indians of North America.[26] She summarised:

[T]he structure of egalitarian society has been misunderstood as a result of the failure to recognize women’s participation in such society as public and autonomous. To conceptualize hunting/gathering bands as loose collections of nuclear families, in which women are bound by dyadic relations of dependency to individual men, projects onto hunter/gatherers the dimensions of our own social structure. Such a concept implies a teleological and unilinear view of social evolution, whereby our society is seen as the full expression of relations that have been present in all society… Reinterpretations of women’s roles in hunting/gathering societies reveal that qualitatively different relationships obtained.[27]

Some of the most recent and compelling evidence that women have not been universally oppressed exists at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, which was continuously occupied for 1,400 years until 6000 BC. New interpretations of archaeological evidence and advances in science in DNA testing have challenged original conclusions about this fascinating site. The team working with Ian Hodder, the chief archaeologist at the site since 1994, “searched hard” for differences in the diets of women and men as an indicator of social differences. They found “little evidence of radically different lifestyles”. And the fact that all skeletons had carbon residue on their ribs from spending time in smoke-filled houses shows that women were not tied to the home any more than men. He concluded: “[O]verall, there is little evidence that gender was very significant in the allocation of roles… There must have been differences of lifestyle in relation to childbirth, but these differences do not seem to be related to major social distinctions”. Nor did differences in dress or lives mean that “one gender was privileged above the other in terms of the transmission of rules and resources or in terms of social status and lifestyle”.[28]

A considerable body of anthropology shows that in societies such as the !Kung and Mbuti of Africa, women until quite recently participated in decision-making as equals with men, controlled their own sexuality and contributed as equals to productive activity.[29]

In light of this widespread evidence, to which I will add more below, let’s now turn to Engels’ explanation of the origins of women’s oppression.

Engels’ argument

Engels argued that the earliest humans lived in small egalitarian bands, what he called “primitive communism”, or sometimes “savagery” and later “barbarism”, which are offensive to a modern reader, but were in line with archaeological terminology employed at the time. Over thousands of years humans found new, innovative ways to provide the needs of the group until the labour of an individual could produce more than was necessary for their survival. This, he argues, leads to

differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labor power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval.

In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property…[30]

Women’s subordination to men was rooted in this process. He outlines changes in the family from group marriage in which groups of women and men are permitted to have sexual relationships with everyone in the group. In this communistic household, he argues, women are highly valued because they are self-evidently parents of their children whereas paternity is indeterminate.

Engels argues that the domestication of large animals produced the first surplus above what society needed. Given men were thought to be responsible for this as a continuation of their role as the hunters, they were assumed to have control over this surplus product. He outlines a complicated argument about mother right and inheritance through not the family but her gens.[31] By various means, the rules of inheritance were changed so that their newly acquired wealth could be passed down through the men’s gens. He actually quotes Marx’s research into some American Indians who appeared to be in transition, and who were changing the way they named their children: “[T]he custom has grown up of giving the children a gentile name of their father’s gens in order to transfer them into it [instead of their mother’s gens to which they previously belonged], thus enabling them to inherit from him”. Marx said of this: “Man’s innate casuistry! To change things by changing their names! And to find loopholes for violating tradition while maintaining tradition, when direct interest supplied sufficient impulse”. This indicates that inheritance could be changed to account for new social relationships.

Engels says “[t]his revolution [was] one of the most decisive steps ever experienced by humanity”, this “overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex”. And so, if women’s oppression was grounded in the rise of class divisions, then women would only throw off that oppression once they were ended. Engels knew he couldn’t prove how or when these changes occurred, but was confident that there is plenty of evidence that it did happen.[32]

He has been proven absolutely right. Increasingly archaeological evidence and revised assessments of the anthropology of pre-class societies reinforce Engels’ major propositions. The latest evidence shows that for most of the 200,000 years of the history of homo sapiens, they lived in egalitarian societies. It is legitimate to assume there was no oppression. By what means would anyone impose systematic discrimination on any group, and what purpose would it serve in a society which depended on everyone’s contribution? Without a surplus there can be no layer in society not required to contribute to production. And without exploitation, there is no material basis for the oppression of any section of the community. When I was doing research in the late 1980s, the contributors to anthropology journals who argued that women’s oppression is universal instinctively recognised that they would have to defeat the more basic argument that humanity began its social life in non-hierarchical, cooperative societies. As Karen Sacks says, a consistent Marxist, materialist analysis rests on the understanding that “there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution… [C]auses are not external to and independent of social organization”.[33]

The question is, why did the rise of classes lead to the oppression of women? Engels had to work with evidence which existed in his time. So he accepted the dominant but mistaken idea that only men hunted. He also worked with the dominant but wrong thesis among archaeologists that the herding of animals produced the first surplus. So he not unreasonably concluded that men were responsible for and therefore in control of it. In his view, this was the material basis for the changes to the rules of family rights and responsibilities so that previously matrilineal lines of descent and responsibility were replaced by inheritance passed through the male line. For this to be possible, women’s sexuality had to be controlled, so that the paternity of children was clear, unlike in the past when women could have numerous sexual partners.

Engels’ argument in the modern context

So let’s turn to what the latest research indicates and how it affects Engels’ argument. Evidence assembled since the 1960s and now widely accepted as valid debunks virtually every detail of Engels’ argument. However, his central proposition is more soundly confirmed, that is, women’s oppression is not universal but is grounded in the rise of class society. Summing up the widespread consensus which has emerged, Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, two of the editors of the 2014 edition of The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers (hereafter The Oxford Handbook) write:

[S]mall-scale hunter-gatherer communities…in all likelihood, remained egalitarian societies lacking pronounced differences in social status, and with little in the way of archaeological evidence for the presence of private wealth or accumulation of prestige objects.[34]

It took tens of thousands of years even after some communities could produce a surplus before a minority, exploiting class backed up by a state emerged. And the process by which these developments took place was very different from how Engels, and even many still today, explain it. Some archaeologists now argue that technological and social features formerly associated with fully settled agricultural societies, such as large sedentary populations, socio-economic inequalities, slavery, craft specialisation, etc., are evident among many communities much earlier than previously thought. These developments took off as early as 40,000 years ago in Europe and spread to many parts of the world over the next 20,000 years. Brian Hayden, a contributor to The Oxford Handbook, argues that “the major watershed in cultural development was not the domestication of plants or animals, but the emergence of the more complex societies that first occurred among hunters and gatherers”.[35]

The evidence is scattered, depending on where archaeological sites are established. However, we see qualitative developments when the last of the ice sheets of the Palaeolithic era melted. As rivers swelled and coastlines rose from melting ice, animal life proliferated along the banks and shorelines. It created new ecosystems with abundant resources such as fish, fertile soil, good rainfall and the like, which encouraged nomadic communities to settle more permanently or at least seasonally. These developments happened first, as far as we know, on the north-east coast of Japan and in the Ukraine, later on the north-west coast of the US, Anatolia, Australia, and along rivers in South-East Asia.

Increasingly across the globe humans who, as far as we know at this time, had travelled vast distances from Africa, were experimenting with burning, tilling the soil, weeding, planting, sowing, irrigating and draining the land. All were gradually contributing to the increased productivity of human labour.[36] These societies maintained their habits of foraging and hunting, but could begin to produce a surplus, if only for difficult times such as drought. But they remained egalitarian and collective communities.

Many of the first “explorers” leading the invasion of Australia or those who established properties on Aboriginal land before their culture was completely destroyed reported that the Indigenous people produced large stores of grain clearly not needed for immediate use. A typical account was described as a “native granary” on the Finke River in the Northern Territory. On a platform built in a tree over three metres from the ground were bags stuffed with grain. Another in the Northern Territory recorded about a ton of grain stored in wooden dishes covered with bark. In central New South Wales another recorded kangaroo skin bags full of grain. The Europeans were unable to explain this behaviour; why would anyone leave stores of nutritious and delicious grain unguarded? To them, only civilised, settled people “farmed”. But Aboriginal communities were semi-sedentary, building houses sometimes where they lived while harvesting or managing a particular area of land. They could leave their stores knowing they would be untouched when they returned from walking across their land, something those from class society simply could not grasp.[37]

Hayden’s conclusions are commensurate with Marx and Engels’ explanation of social change: “[I]t appears that there is an important relationship between resource productivity and surplus production on the one hand and socio-political complexity on the other”.[38]

And so, after at least 150,000 years, this creature which had evolved from early hominids reaching back millions of years – now known to have interbred with Neanderthals who, contrary to early assumptions, had complex social and cultural practices – began to divide between those who produced the needs of society and a minority who lived off the labour of the majority. “The world historical defeat of the female sex”, as Engels put it, was not a single event. Engels would easily embrace the latest conclusions drawn by archaeologists, as they are so clearly comparable with his and Marx’s approach. They understood that society was always in a constant process of change. Small developments in the way production is carried out accumulate and gradually change the way people relate to each other. Engels actually comments that the changes took place over thousands of years, so the long term consequences of changes would not have been evident to any individual. It would take thousands of years before ruling classes and states were established only about 8-10,000 years ago, emphasising that there is nothing natural about exploitation and oppression among humans.

I have been uncomfortable with aspects of Engels’ explanation since I began looking at the evidence in the 1980s. It raises a crucial question which has not been addressed by either his detractors or defenders. If whole families or lineages became a ruling class, what was the role of women in that? The society which was undergoing this development was egalitarian, in which all members, both women and men, participated in important decision-making. So why would women in that social layer just let the men get control? It is not credible that they played no role either in implementing some of the changes or resisting them, possibly both at different times. So I want to outline a different account, not original in all its points, but including one I don’t think anyone has argued before, which acknowledges that women were active participants in the development of the class divisions which led to the systematic oppression of women themselves.

Evolving debates and evidence

First it’s worth summarising some relevant arguments and debates over the last four decades among feminists and Marxists. In the 1970s some feminists began to challenge the accounts which assumed men’s dominance in gatherer-hunter societies. The best of them, some mentioned above, found that women played a constructive, productive role as gatherers which gave them equal standing with men. Karen Sacks was typical. She showed that in some gatherer-hunter societies women adapt the number of pregnancies to the needs of production. She showed that !Kung women in Africa do not take a break from gathering while nursing their infants which, she wrote, “attests to the cultural centrality of women’s productive roles, as well as countering a simple minded reproductive determinism”.[39]

These were very useful studies, as they established that the origins of women’s oppression must be sought in historical, social developments. However, they reinforced the image of man the hunter and woman the gatherer, just reworking it to show that women played a key role in early societies which gave them equal standing with men. More recently the assumption that there was a strict division of labour between women and men has been challenged. Feminist archaeologist Rosemary Joyce comments that some archaeologists began to realise that the assumptions of researchers too often “locked them into viewing the past as a version of the present”, and that it is wrong to assume that gender is “timeless, and more important than any other social distinction”. She also showed that advances in DNA analysis of skeletons revealed that allocations of gender by association with clothing or occupation, as was the usual practice, were erroneous.[40] Two ethno-archaeologists, writing in The Oxford Handbook, also strongly challenge all the old assumptions about a gender division of labour:

Actualistic, field-based studies reveal that the division of labour was highly variable and more flexible than commonly assumed, both within and across populations…[the] division of labour occasionally followed lines of age, ability and experience, among other factors, rather than gender alone.

They comment that “[a] growing ethnographic literature documents the simple but undeniable reality that women also hunt”; and for a wide range of animals of all sizes. “While work areas do sometimes appear to be divided along gender lines, there is also ample evidence for widespread comingling of men’s and women’s activities and work areas, or organisation of work and space along lines other than gender.” They argue that the assignment of tools and implements to women and men in archaeological finds is unreliable because it can just as easily reflect the bias of the researchers (examples of which Joyce documents). But importantly, they argue that an emphasis on the moment of capture and killing is misleading. For one thing, traps, snares and various constructions moderated the dangers and difficulty inherent in hunting: “The full repertoire of procurement technologies and strategies, no doubt, required the complementary labour of women, men, and children”. They argue that insufficient attention is given to what follows the capture: preparing food, clothes, implements, thread, much of which women could do when pregnant or breast-feeding, and conclude:

Carrying the point further, one might note the predominance of women in manufacturing hides and sophisticated tailored skin, gut and fur wardrobes, which allowed hunter-gatherer populations to live and work in cold environments. Facile arguments about women’s “marginalization” and/or men’s “high prestige” tend to wither in the face of such behavioural realities…

A critical issue here is that even though men can have negligible or limited roles in some activities of vital economic concern, these limitations are rarely recognized or used to revise entrenched ideas about the sexual division of labour. On the contrary…the profession has a history of interpreting hunter-gatherer society in terms of women’s marginalization and exclusion.[41]

So to repeat: the evidence does not indicate that men would automatically have got control of any surplus created by domesticating animals; the first surpluses were probably the result of better production of vegetables, fruit, grains and/or fishing, activities which no one disputes women played an active role in. Neither can men’s dominance be explained by the use of the heavy plough as many argue, because class societies and women’s oppression arose in the Americas before its introduction.

Beyond Engels

To explain how women’s oppression became integral to class societies we need to uncover the relationship between objective developments in production and changes this brought about in social relations, including how reproduction was restructured.

Gatherer-hunters and fishers began to settle at least seasonally where they could produce something of a surplus while still largely egalitarian. Control of any surplus was allocated to trusted individuals or groups, perhaps religious figures – any of whom could have been women. They played a necessary social role involving reciprocal responsibilities, coordinating increasingly complex production methods, storing and distributing resources as needed. For thousands of years this did not give those with responsibility for the surplus undue power backed up by coercive powers of a state, even though they may have a high status and access to extra wealth. So how do we explain what changed and why that resulted in men dominating women?

Among nomadic gatherer-hunters it was important that no woman was responsible for more than one infant at a time and so women spaced childbirth around the needs of production. By contrast, in more settled societies, children are potentially extra producers. There is also the need to compensate for a higher death rate, the result of a greater vulnerability to infectious diseases, and the possibility of wars over the resources which are stored. So the higher the birth rate the more successful that society is likely to be.

It is in the interests of the whole society for women not to take part in activities (such as warfare, long distance travel or later heavy agricultural tasks) which expose them to the greatest risks of death, infertility or abortion – or which expose to danger infants dependent on their mother’s milk. So gradually, women’s role changes from being central to production, as well as reproduction, in gatherer-hunter and early horticultural societies. Over time they are excluded from some aspects of production. The anthropologist Ernestine Friedl found evidence that in horticultural societies where men travel long distances for trade and are involved in war, their status increases relative to women. And I want to stress that women were decision-makers in this process. Every step down this path was small and incremental. As Engels emphasised, individuals did not know what the long term, cumulative effects would be.

At Çatalhöyük in Anatolia – a settled, though classless community lasting 1,400 years between 7400 and 6000 BC – as the incentive (or possibly simply the possibility) for women to bear more children than in nomadic society, Ian Hodder notes: “gender roles may have become more demarcated as part of wider changes in society… Men and women may increasingly have become associated with specialist tasks and spheres”.[42]

So with women bearing more children and not as involved in some areas of productive activity, there would be a new emphasis on relations between successive generations of males tied to the land and other means of production. As Harman concludes: “Patrilineality and patrilocality began to fit in with the logic of production much more than matrilineality and matrilocality”. We can now say that those trans-egalitarian gatherer-hunters Hayden writes about, settling in areas of abundance, would experience the beginnings of this process. Importantly, as Harman, but not Engels, notes, not all men got control of any surplus, only those in an emerging ruling group.

For this group to develop the mentality of exploiters, they would have had to come to identify the interests of society as a whole with their control of production. They did not necessarily think of themselves as introducing oppressive relationships. And here I want to diverge from both Engels and Harman, whose accounts are generally accepted by Marxists.

Women in that group could well have agreed that their family lineage, no matter how it was organised, should keep control of the wealth they were in charge of. So just as men in the ruling group could well want to ensure the paternity of their children was clear in order to pass on responsibility for producing and managing the wealth they controlled, so too could women associated with them. It is not convincing to talk of a ruling group emerging in which only men have any say, given that in the society which is being transformed it is generally thought that women and men all contributed to important decisions. Women as well as men had an interest in changing the lines of inheritance. Women’s roles shifted, not because the surplus was created by herding which put men in control, but because with increased numbers of child births, it made sense for lines of inheritance and responsibility for production and management of surpluses to pass through the male line.

Engels’ argument that the imposition of onerous rules could well have provoked resistance is rarely given any serious consideration, and so evidence of this possibility is not taken into account. Indeed the notorious Hammurabi Code of around 1717 BC – drawn up by the Babylonian king of that name and based on even earlier laws in the new class societies of Mesopotamia – prescribed monogamy for women on pain of death, and the rule that women who resisted their subordination “must have her teeth crushed with burnt bricks”. It “tended to exact severer penalties for certain offences, especially for offences against the sacredness of the family”.

The existence of this Code indicates that attempts to oppress women at least sometimes met with resistance which was in turn crushed with ruthless force.[43] Some more class-conscious women could well have participated in imposing such controls over the sexual activity of rebellious members of their circles.

Even though the most dramatic result of this social reorganisation was the oppression of women, it would not have been evident to either the fledgling rulers or those ruled over. As Engels argued, these developments happened over hundreds if not thousands of years, causing a raft of changes, many of which would have unforeseen consequences. There was an upheaval of social, cultural and political life, just as any major change to the productive capacity of society has generated in the thousands of years since. As women hadn’t been oppressed, no one would have anticipated such a devastating outcome.

The argument about the long term evolution of class and state structures can appear to be a seamless, teleological process; too seamless. There is evidence that emerging ruling groups could well have met with resistance. So to maintain their authority to manage the surplus, they would most likely have begun to codify the obligations and rights of members of the community. And as they became more controlling, their position increasingly entrenched by rules and laws, so society’s expectations changed. Gradually any challenge to them would have become a crime against not just them as individuals, but against society.

A number of Neolithic towns in Anatolia which remained egalitarian and dependent on gathering and hunting were occupied by thousands between 10,000 and 7000 BC. However gradually they exhibit signs of hierarchies. Göbekli Tepe, 9600-8000 BC, is thought to be a ceremonial centre, with no houses for living. This suggests the existence of a religious elite whose prestige extended over a wide area.

And there is evidence that developing hierarchies were resisted. The Turkish archaeologist Mehmet Ozdogan, involved in these sites, believes there was a social revolution about 7200 BC which overthrew an elite in Çayönü followed by similar revolutionary upheavals around the surrounding region. In a private email to me in 2011 he wrote:

I am almost sure that there must have been some sort of social turbulence [in that period], not only at Çayönü but in most of the core area of Neolithic Anatolia.

Bernhard Brosius, who studied Anatolia and Balkan Neolithic societies agrees.

On a certain day 9,200 years ago the manorial houses were burnt down… The temple was torn down and burnt, and converted into a municipal waste dump. The slums in the west disappeared for good… The new Çayönü was erected. There were no more houses or shacks built to an inferior standard… All hints to social differences were erased.[44]

He argues that this resulted in a classless society at Çatalhöyük with traditions which lasted for at least 1,000 years.

James C. Scott, in his book Against the Grain, summarises evidence about the history of the early states of Mesopotamia. The most popular explanations by archaeologists of the collapse of many early states are invariably climate change, environmental degradation, population pressures. Scott hints at if not outright rebellions, then escape to surrounding communities not subject to taxation and control by the state, as a factor contributing to that decline. It is usually thought city walls were to keep marauding “barbarians” out, but there are archaeologists who think they were to keep people in.[45]

As ruling groups made efforts to stamp their authority and control over societies in the face of recurring resistance, control over women’s sexuality had to be imposed. This was critical if they were to entrench their position and that of their descendants as the owners of society’s surplus. Women as well as men resisted all these steps in the overthrow of egalitarianism. And so an increasingly repressive cycle ends with woman as “a mere instrument for the production of children”, as Engels thought.[46]

If it is difficult to imagine women participating in the establishment of a ruling group which insisted on control of women’s sexuality, and the accompanying compulsory constraints it entailed such as monogamy and heterosexuality, look no further than known history. Women in ruling groups throughout history have benefited from and enforced the exploitation and oppression of women. Modern day figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Gina Rinehart emphasise the point. To say nothing of Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, whose wealth of $US43.9 billion is made from an industry which encourages women to obsess about our appearance and then feeds off our anxiety. Alice Walton, heir to the fortune of the retail giant Walmart in the US, accumulated her $US46.6 billion by paying a mostly female workforce miserable wages.

They promote the stereotypes which justify systematic discrimination, even against themselves within their circles, in order to maintain their class’s power and prestige. So women could well have participated in imposing this new regime. While they experience oppression, they also have access to power and wealth by virtue of their class position, which depends on maintaining both the class and gender oppression of those their class exploits.

Also most women today – from all social classes – play a part in imposing, reinforcing or perpetuating women’s oppression to some degree today. It is by and large mothers, for example, who inculcate girls into the norms of a sexist society, and who uphold often most strongly the social values of family, respectability, etc. There is nothing automatic about the oppressed opposing, resisting or even being conscious of the way their oppression manifests.

As Marx and Engels argued, the ideas of society are necessarily the ideas of those who rule. So once ruling circles accepted new attitudes to women, they would quite naturally impose those ideas on the exploited, underpinned by the fact that exploited men could well be producing an increasing percentage of the surplus, while women were being encouraged to bear more children as future labourers to be exploited.

Conclusion

Marx argued in the Theses on Feuerbach that as humans act – producing their necessary food, clothes and shelter – they change themselves. Gradual cumulative changes give rise to new relationships which surround this means of producing, challenging old ideas and social relationships.

Engels’ details were completely askew. He knew next to nothing of gatherer-hunters in earlier societies other than slim reports from Australia. American Indians, studies of whom he read, were already impacted by colonial occupation. He discusses the changes which took place when the German tribes invaded the Roman empire. But it is not directly relevant if we want to know about the earliest societies which made the transition to exploitation, the state and women’s oppression. All it provides us with are hints, from which Engels made deductions, and which did provide some evidence of how family structures could change over time when wider changes occurred.

The fact is when we turn to the latest research, Engels’ arguments, just as his argument about the very development of humanity, are more clearly substantiated today than when he wrote the book. He was right to surmise that the changes involved increasing control over women’s sexuality so that the paternity of children was known. These changes arose from the interaction of the biological needs of reproduction of society and changing social relations of production – but not in the way Engels, and for that matter, how Marxists and feminists still explain it. For control of the surplus by a new ruling class living off the labour of the majority to become the norm, oppression of the majority of both women and men was necessary. The sexuality of women in the ruling elite was subject to new controls in order to ensure the inheritance of property by their class. Over time women’s inequality became entrenched in all classes, giving rise to new oppressive ideas about women’s “nature” and sexuality in particular, but in ways which imposed stereotypes on men as well. The ways in which this oppression has been maintained has varied in different class societies; but maintained it has been, whatever the cultural veneer that surrounds it. The rise of classes, the establishment of a state and women’s oppression was not some smooth, inevitable process; it was fraught with the possibility of resistance and turmoil, as Engels’ broad description of the process makes clear, contrary to those such as Heather Brown who dismiss his account as linear and undialectical:

[W]ithin this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up.

In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations.[47]

It is incumbent on Marxists and feminists to either defend or debunk Engels on the basis of the latest reliable scientific conclusions.

The clear gender division of labour everyone assumed is no longer a viable assessment of early human communities. So men did not just seize a surplus created by domesticating animals. For one thing, the process by which the earliest surplus was produced predates herding in many places and was the result of a more multi-faceted and complex process than just domesticating large animals. In Çatalhöyük there is no evidence of herding even in a settled township, while there was storage of plant foods, indicating that at least some surplus was produced by other means. And I have referred to other evidence of a surplus even among semi-nomadic communities with no domesticated animals for consumption.

Secondly, it was not just men who got control over the wealth which could be stored for difficult times. Trusted families or lineages, or perhaps religious leaders, any of whom could have been women, were voluntarily given responsibility to manage and distribute the surplus. At first this involved no undue power. However it did lay the basis for the eventual dominance of a minority with wealth and power which they increasingly defended with some kind of state apparatus.

Thirdly, women in that emerging ruling group would have gained power and prestige as well as men. Women were accustomed to participating in collective decision-making. So it’s not credible to ignore the part women would have played in changing rules which governed the community, including the imposition of new controls on the sexuality of women in the increasingly entrenched minority in control of the surplus. Once a ruling class was established, then their ideology of monogamy had to be imposed on the majority, just as the capitalists’ ideology of individualistic competition dominates not just their elite circles but is propagated as the norm for all of society.

The final victory of ruling classes was, as Engels said, the world historic defeat of women, but it was also a drastic defeat for the vast majority of humanity. As Engels comments, from then on, once states were established to defend those ruling groups, every step forward by humanity – such as improved production, the development of science, writing and culture – occurred, and still does, at the expense of the vast majority, the exploited and oppressed.[48] For them, both women and men, liberation will only be possible when the whole class structure has been destroyed.

 

References

de Beauvoir, Simone 1987 [1949], The Second Sex, Penguin.

Bloodworth, Sandra n.d., “Gender Relations in Aboriginal Society”, http://sa.org.au/interventions/gender.htm.

Bloodworth, Sandra 1992, “Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism”, Socialist Review, 5, Autumn.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2010, “Marx and Engel on women’s oppression and sexuality and their legacy”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring.

Brown, Heather 2012, Marx on Gender and the Family. A Critical Study, Brill.

Brown, Judith K. 1970, “A Note on the Division of Labour by Sex”, American Anthropologist, 72.

Brownmiller, Susan 1986, Against Our Will. Men, Women and Rape, Penguin.

Choonara, Joseph and Chris Harman 2009, “Pick of the Quarter”, International Socialism, 123, Summer.

Cummings, Vicki, Peter Jordan and Marek Zvelebil (eds) 2014, The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers, Oxford University Press.

Dahlberg, Frances (ed.) 1981, Woman the Gatherer, Yale University Press.

Engels, Frederick 1972, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers.

Engels, Frederick 1977, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Progress Publishers.

Etienne, Mona and Eleanor Burke Leacock 1980, Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives, Praeger.

Gammage, Bill 2012, The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia, Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, David F. 1988, The Construction of Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press.

Harman, Chris 1994, “Engels and the Origins of Human Society”, International Socialism, 65, Winter.

Hodder, Ian 2006, The Leopard’s Tale. Revealing the mysteries of Çatalhöyük, Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2008, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. Sex, Gender, and Archaeology, Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1978, “Women’s Status in Egalitarian Societies”, Current Anthropology, 10 (2), June.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1981, Myths of Male Dominance, Monthly Review Press.

Lerner, Gerda 1987, The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press.

McGregor, Sheila 2015, “Marx Rediscovered”, International Socialism, 146, Spring.

Moore, Henrietta L. 1991, Feminism and Anthropology, Polity Press.

Reiter, Rayna R. (ed.) 1975, Toward an anthropology of women, Monthly Review Press.

Reiter, Rayna Rapp 1977, “The Search for Origins”, Critique of Anthropology, 3 (9/10).

Reynolds, Henry 1981, The Other Side of the Frontier, James Cook University.

Rohrlich, R. 1980, “The State Formation in Sumer and the Subjugation of Women”, Feminist Studies, Spring.

Sacks, Karen 1982, Sisters and Wives. The past and future of sexual equality, University of Illinois Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves and Ruth Gallagher Goodenough (eds) 1990, Beyond the Second Sex. New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender, University of Pennsylvania.

Sayers, Janet, Mary Evans and Nanneke Redclift (eds) 1987, Engels Revisited: new feminist essays, Tavistok Publications.

Scott, James C. 2017, Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press.

Tanner, Nancy and Adrienne Zihlman 1976, “Women in Evolution. Part 1: Innovation and Selection in Human Origins”, Signs, 1 (3), Spring.

 

 
Sandra Bloodworth, editor of Marxist Left Review, has written about Lenin and the 1917 Russian revolution, Marxist economics, women’s and sexual oppression and pre-class societies.

[1] This article has been largely shaped by over a decade of discussions about women’s oppression in Socialist Alternative by many comrades, both women and men. Mick Armstrong and Louise O’Shea in particular helped shape the arguments summed up here.

[2] Engels 1972, p113.

[3] Sacks 1982, p104.

[4] Lerner 1987, p23.

[5] All from the Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org.

[6] Engels 1977, p163.

[7] Sayers et al (eds) 1987 for a range of critics who presented papers at a symposium to mark the centenary of the book’s publication and Bloodworth 2010, pp76-79 for my reply to some of them.

[8] Harman 1994.

[9] de Beauvoir 1987 [1949], pp93 and 97.

[10] Brownmiller 1986. For my critique of her book see Bloodworth 1992.

[11] Brownmiller 1986, pp11-18.

[12] Brownmiller 1986, p284.

[13] Brown 2012, pp170-173. See McGregor 2015 for an excellent review of Brown. McGregor disproves virtually all of Brown’s arguments against Engels. She also outlines the weaknesses and errors in Raya Dunayevskaya, on which Brown heavily relies for her argument that Engels did not present Marx’s ideas correctly.

[14] Brownmiller 1986, p13.

[15] Sally Slocum, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology”, in Reiter 1975, p44.

[16] Tanner and Zihlman 1976.

[17] Leacock 1981, Chapters 11 and 12 for a critique of Lévi-Strauss; Sacks 1982, pp. 1-67; Dahlberg 1981.

[18] Bloodworth n.d.

[19] Moore 1991, pp38-41.

[20] Dahlberg 1981, p21.

[21] Brown 1970, p1074.

[22] Reiter 1977.

[23] Etienne and Leacock 1980 documents the effects of colonial domination in 12 societies, drawing on reports of missionaries, explorers and traders and other historical material.

[24] Reynolds 1981, p145.

[25] Bloodworth n.d.

[26] Leacock 1978; Leacock 1981.

[27] Leacock 1978, p255.

[28] Hodder 2006, p211.

[29] See Sanday and Goodenough (eds) 1984.

[30] Engels 1972, p72.

[31] The used of “gens” changed over time. Engels uses it to mean a group much wider than an immediate “family”, claiming descent from a common ancestor and united by a common name traced through the mothers. Later it was used to refer to the patriarchal groupings of families in ancient Rome.

[32] Engels 1972, pp112-120.

[33] Sacks 1982, p104.

[34] Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, “Introduction to Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Innovations”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p590.

[35] Brian Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p643.

[36] Jennie Robinson, “The First Hunter-Gatherers”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p600.

[37] Gammage 2012, Chapter 10, “Farms without fences”, pp281-304.

[38] Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p646.

[39] Sacks 1982, pp70-71.

[40] Joyce 2008, pp24 and 51; Greenberg 1988 for a discussion of gender/s in early societies, especially Part 1.

[41] Robert Jarvenpa and Hetty Jo Brumbach, “Hunter-Gatherer Gender and Identity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, pp1244-1248.

[42] Hodder 2006, pp210-211 and 218.

[43] Rohrlich 1980.

[44] Bernhard Brosius 2004, “From Çayönü to Çatalhöyük. Emergence and development of an egalitarian society”, cited in Choonara and Harman 2009, p223.

[45] Scott 2017, pp232-234.

[46] Engels 1972, p120.

[47] Engels 1972, pp71-2, emphasis added.

[48] Engels 1972, p226.
http://marxistleftreview.org/index.php/no-16-summer-2018/158-the-origins-of-women-s-oppression-a-defence-of-engels-and-a-new-departure

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This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
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Gramsci on Tahrir: EGYPT AND THE DIALECTIC OF PASSIVE AND PERMANENT REVOLUTION-Brecht De Smet

Posted by admin On September - 6 - 2018 Comments Off on Gramsci on Tahrir: EGYPT AND THE DIALECTIC OF PASSIVE AND PERMANENT REVOLUTION-Brecht De Smet

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EGYPT AND THE DIALECTIC OF PASSIVE AND PERMANENT REVOLUTION
by Brecht De Smet on March 21, 2016

Although it is always difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern the emergence of a new epoch when you find yourself right in the middle of the process, there are strong indications that we are experiencing a watershed moment in the development of capitalism. Conjunctural crises such as the 2008 financial meltdown reveal the structural instabilities of the neoliberal system of deregulated capital flows, while the tendency toward increased authoritarianism and securitisation in both core and peripheral capitalist countries show the limits of bourgeois democracy to absorb mass discontent. At the same time, episodes such as the ‘Arab Spring’ sharply posit the relevance of ‘old’ categories such as revolution and counter-revolution for the 21st century. As moments of political hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, succeed one another rapidly, activists’ consciousness and understanding of unfolding events often tail-end the almost bipolar ebb and flow of popular initiative. In order to intervene successfully, activists have to make sense of the direction of the process as a whole and of the various instances of agency at work – their own included. Therefore, radical theory has to extend beyond the sphere of mere philosophical, political or economic critique – the unveiling of relations of power – and into the ‘interventionist’ domain of concrete emancipatory strategies and imaginaries.

Arguably Antonio Gramsci is one of the key figures within this revolutionary tradition. His notion of a ‘philosophy of praxis’ challenged the rigid and mechanical framework of the dominant stream of Marxism in the late 1920s, advocating the development of an intellectually sophisticated, but also practice-oriented theory of social change. The last decade has witnessed a renewal of Gramscian theory in the Anglophone world. Key works such as Adam Morton’s Unravelling Gramsci (2007) and Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (2009) are moving away from leading postwar interpretations that cast the Sardinian Marxist in the restricted role of a ‘reformist’ and of a ‘cultural’ or ‘postcolonial’ thinker, re-appropriating his thought within the context of a new era of global capitalist crisis and struggle. My book Gramsci on Tahrir is a humble contribution to this ongoing debate. I investigate the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt and its relation to the broad historical development of capitalism through the combined lens of permanent and passive revolution. Conversely, the Egyptian experience is deployed as a means to think about general changes in state and class power.

Passive revolution is a concept that basically “captures various concrete historical instances in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of social relations”. In spite of the adjective ‘passive’ this process of ‘revolution-restoration’ does not exclude sudden outbursts of street politics ‘from below’ and even mass uprisings. The concept draws our attention to the political initiative of dominant groups and their capacity to maintain power, through a ‘revolution from above’, in the sense of a gradual, elite-driven transformation of society, and/or by the deflection, fragmentation, and appropriation of popular movements. Faced with the stubborn survival of capitalism in the face of mass revolution and its rebirth in Fordism and Fascism, Gramsci formulated his theory of passive revolution as a “critical corollary” to Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). Put simply: what if, indeed, the relations of production began to “fetter” the productive forces and “an era of social revolution” ensued, but the revolutionary proletariat was unable to conquer and transform the bourgeois state? Could this period of non-transition lead to anything else than the apocalyptic choice between “socialism or barbarism”?

Gramsci turned to the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, as a historical case study to ‘work out’ the concept of passive revolution, which, in turn, allowed him to understand the emergence of Fascism. Hence the concept of passive revolution does not function as a discrete political ‘form’, situated somewhere between ‘active’ revolution and counter-revolution, but, as a heuristic that “reveals specific class strategies and spatial practices that characterise capitalist society and how these have changed with the further development of capitalism.” It is, in Gramsci’s own words, a “criterion of interpretation”: a methodological searchlight that reveals the agency, agility, and adaptability of dominant groups that are able to survive their own hegemonic crises. Thus a nation’s history can be comprehended as a series of discrete revolutionary and passive-revolutionary episodes that are incorporated within long-term transformations of global capitalism.

In this regard “Gramsci on Tahrir” functions as a reading of Egypt’s modern history through the lens of its revolutionary upheavals and their displacements: the 1882 Urabi uprising; the 1919 revolution; the 1952 Free Officer coup; the 1977 ‘bread riots’; and the recent mass movements. Here the concept of passive revolution is complemented with Trotsky’s notion of ‘uneven and combined development’, for in the colonial and postcolonial world moments of capitalist constitution and reconstitution become a contemporaneous and protracted process – with important implications for emancipatory struggles. Even after formal independence was declared in 1922 Egypt remained a society in crisis, unable to free itself from its political and economic bondage to imperialism. The interventions of British capital and its alliance with the Egyptian crown and landlords blocked the formation of a capitalist ‘historical bloc’ and a transformation ‘from above’. Conversely, enduring conflicts and cleavages between subaltern groups prevented an alliance that could effectively overthrow state power. The process of permanent-passive revolution became itself deflected through the 1952 Free Officer coup. The military appeared as a neutral, third party that forcefully solved the Egyptian stalemate. However, despite its autonomy, the military did not act in a class vacuum. State power remained rooted in class power, which slowly shifted from the industrial bourgeoisie in the 1950s to the ‘popular classes’ in the 1960s – only to root itself back into parasitic rentier classes from the 1970s onward.

The Egyptian case indicates that the concept of passive revolution offers much more than a heuristic device, for it also probes into the very nature of capitalist class and state power. In his prison notebooks, Gramsci often returns to the case of the French Revolution, which poses the riddle of bourgeois hegemony (and its subsequent demise) – a riddle that Gramsci, in my opinion, never completely solves. In his “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844) Marx mentions how the political revolution of the French bourgeoisie in 1789 created:

…a moment in which this class fraternises and fuses with society in general, becomes identified with it and is experienced and acknowledged as its universal representative; a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the rights and claims of society itself and in which it is in reality the heart and head of society.

Gramsci elaborated upon this idea, adding that:

The previous ruling classes were essentially conservative in the sense that they did not tend to construct an organic passage from the other classes into their own, i.e. to enlarge their class sphere ‘technically’ and ideologically: their conception was that of a closed class. The bourgeois class poses itself as an organism in continuous movement, capable of absorbing the entire society, assimilating it to its own cultural and economic level. The entire function of the State has been transformed; the State has become an ‘educator’.

The French Revolution destroyed the ‘mechanical’ ensemble of feudal society, which consisted of self-contained corporate estates. Whereas feudal dominant classes ruled society almost ‘from the outside’, the bourgeoisie ruled by becoming society and, conversely, by offering the other classes a pathway to become bourgeois.

Although much has been written about ‘the state as educator’ in the above excerpt, the interesting concept of ‘organic passage’ (passaggio organico) itself has not been discussed at length. The importance of the concept cannot be underestimated, because the promise of an ‘organic passage’ of the broad population to the bourgeois class has been capitalism’s mobilising myth, functioning as the origin of the bourgeoisie’s hegemony – and of its systemic crisis. As Marx explains, the universality of the bourgeois project remains abstract, realised by separating a ‘political society’ from ‘civil society’ in which all citizens are equal before the law. Marx distinguishes between this restricted, abstract form of political emancipation and human or social emancipation, which liberates humanity from class society and alienation. At its core, the permanency of revolution in the modern, bourgeois age is the always-present, immanent possibility of social revolution to spring from the conditions of political revolution. Marx quipped in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that: ‘The parliamentary regime leaves everything to the decision of majorities; how shall the great majorities outside parliament not want to decide?’ and, later in the Economic Manuscripts that, ‘[t]he political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery’.

The 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune of 1871 confirmed the thesis of permanent revolution in Marx’s eyes. Even if they ended up merely reconfiguring political relations, revolutions – in the sense of mass mobilisations from below contesting existing state power – always contained a ‘social soul’: concrete emancipatory practices that prefigured new social forms in the womb of capitalism. Functioning as passive revolution’s mirror heuristic, the concept of permanent revolution teases out the immanent social soul in a nation’s historical trajectory. In the case of Egypt, Tahrir is revealed as much more than a ‘democratic’ struggle against dictatorship. A desire for social justice and human dignity coincided with practices of popular self-organisation, which embodied the seeds of an alternative society based on equality, diversity, cooperation, and joyful labour. My book shows that these practices have lineages in earlier struggles, reaching back to the early twentieth century.

In its most radical, Jacobin, moment, the French Revolution already showed the fundamental contradiction at the heart of bourgeois hegemony: the promise of an organic passage of the whole of society into the state can never be fulfilled. As Peter Thomas argues, the key term ‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s writings is not a concept of a neutral political science that describes bourgeois and proletarian leadership in the same terms. The content of bourgeois and proletarian hegemony and its concrete methods of coercion and consent differ fundamentally. Nevertheless, despite this crucial distinction, Gramsci himself is ambiguous about the organic quality of bourgeois leadership at its earliest historical phase, positing a political homology between ‘bourgeois’ Jacobin and ‘proletarian’ Leninist class leadership. Echoing Marx, Gramsci is keen to point out that the progressive role of the bourgeoisie is already exhausted in the revolutions of 1848, as it began to forge alliances with Ancien Régime elites against the emerging proletariat and the spectre of social revolution. However, one could argue that the French Revolution’s  radical Jacobin moment, which created the myth of a bourgeois organic passage was already transgressing the bourgeoisie’s traditional strategy of class rule. Compromise, co-optation, fragmentation of the opposition, and molecular, gradual change engineered ‘from above’  – i.e., passive revolution – appear as the true hallmarks of capitalist state formation. In fact, the English Revolution or German unification are better archetypes of bourgeois state formation than the French Revolution as they show how dominant Ancien Régime groups were gradually transformed into fractions of capital.

Hence the premise of Gramsci’s investigation into the concepts of passive revolution and the ‘integral state’ is that, even though the bourgeois state is not a mechanical state, it is not genuinely organic either. Making a slight detour to Hegel I underline that the bourgeois state in fact supervises a “chemical” ensemble of classes, meaning that there is an apparently neutral relation between the bourgeois class and other social groups on the basis of their shared property as citizens or belonging to ‘the people’. As the late Ellen Meiksins Wood underlined, the history of class society is the history of the differentiation of class and state power, which reaches its pinnacle in bourgeois society. Here state power functions as a ‘middle term’ that mediates class relations, but this representative function is merely a means to the end of achieving bourgeois class power. In other words, it is due to the separation and autonomy of the state that the bourgeoisie is able to rule. Similarly, the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the bourgeoisie emerge mostly in separation of the class itself, within the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie or ‘middle classes’.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from the ‘chemical’ make-up of bourgeois state power. First, the rather common sense and self-evident deduction that bourgeois hegemony is inherently unstable and limited. Second, that political forms that appear historically as aberrations of bourgeois class rule – Bonapartist or Caesarist régimes –are in fact the purest expressions of bourgeois state power. Marx did not conceive of the Bonapartism and empire-crafting of Napoleon III as a regression to a pre-bourgeois phase, but as a development of modern capitalist class power. For the bourgeoisie it was much easier to be a ruling class that appeared to suffer the shared fate of all classes in society – to be subjugated in equal measure by imperial power – than to face the reality of being a class that cowardly refrained from completing its own democratic project. Thus the political dispossession of the bourgeoisie from state power guaranteed its class power. Likewise, Gramsci considered Fascism and parliamentary forms of ‘civil Caesarism’ as modern expressions of bourgeois domination. With this in mind, capitalism’s historical anomaly is not the authoritarianism of the interwar years, but the postwar democratisation of Western Europe’s institutions and the rise of the welfare state. This ‘counter-revolution in democratic form’, a defensive passive revolution sui generis, was rendered possible and necessary in unique circumstances of a powerful labour movement, discredited capitalist parties, a bipolar world order, and an economic boom sustained by a Fordist accumulation strategy.

Similarly, the rise of Nasserism in Egypt and of the ‘developmental state’ in much of the Global South was the unique and contingent result of national and global geopolitical and economic conditions. Decolonisation struggles in the 1950s and 1960s often deflected processes of both permanent and passive revolution, dethroning traditional elites and pushing back the forces of imperialism, but also preventing farmers, workers, and other subaltern groups from taking power. The use of a ‘blocked dialectic’ to describe this process – drawing from Christine Buci-Glucksmann – would be incorrect, as the crisis of imperialist capitalism in core and peripheral countries produced new (capitalist) social forms that did not represent either “socialism or barbarism” and which actually developed the means of production.

The emergence of neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s is a reiteration of prewar imperialism, complete with novel forms of Caesarist state power, which undermine the democratic institutions of bourgeois democracy, for example by relocating political and economic decision-making to supranational entities such as the IMF and the elusive ‘financial markets’. In Europe the recent Greek debt crisis illustrates how capital is able to subdue recalcitrant bourgeois parliaments and a national, sovereign, popular will by international and transnational coercive forces such as the ECB. In Egypt, popular initiative was displaced twice, in 2011 and 2013, by the military apparatus that, in a classical Caesarist way, had to affirm the independence of the state in order to assure the rule of rentier capital. The ‘deep state’ has been coated with a thin layer of democratic legitimacy, which cannot contain the lingering contradictions of the Mubarak era: how can economic development, social justice, and political democracy ever be achieved by a dependent, rentier capitalist class that still operates as a client state for US-imperialism in the region? President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s charismatic leadership of the counter-revolution is already waning in the face of subsidy cuts and increasing police violence. From the perspective of the ruling elites, in order to deflect the dialectic of permanent revolution in a structural manner, Egypt’s political and economic system has to be reformed and important concessions have to be made to the farmers, workers, unemployed youth, street vendors, et cetera, who risked their lives during the uprising. However, the enduring crisis of global capitalism and the arrogance and unwillingness of the dominant groups to engage in a ‘revolution from above’ that offers different goals and recipes than an iteration of the Washington consensus means that in the middle-long term the country is heading to a new bifurcation: either a reassertion of open dictatorship that violently represses the existing political and social movements; or the revival and triumph of the struggle from below.

This analysis has immediate repercussions for an emancipatory politics today. Firstly, it concedes that authoritarian state power is not an expression of an ‘incomplete’ or ‘developing’ capitalism, but the very essence of a mature bourgeois society. Secondly, it understands the specific and local process of counter-revolution in Egypt as part of a general and global process of capitalist crisis and resistance. From these two conclusions we can deduce that any ‘stage theory’ and transitology that demands the construction of a (bourgeois) democratic framework before the implementation of radical social reforms is inherently reactionary. The brief ‘democratic’ episode of the presidency of Muhammad Morsi illustrates the impossibility of ‘democratisation’ without the revolutionary overthrow of the ‘deep state’ and a fundamental change of power relations – not only within Egypt, but also between national and regional and international forces (e.g., USA, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia). At this point Gramscian theory reveals its interventionist character. Permanent revolution and subaltern hegemony offer not only a methodological tool for political science, but also a conscious strategy for social change.

—–Brecht De Smet
Brecht De Smet (MA, PhD) is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, where he teaches ‘politics of globalisation’ and ‘politics of the contemporary Middle East’. Since 2008 De Smet has conducted fieldwork in Egypt, investigating the relation between political activism and independent trade unionism from a broad Gramscian perspective. De Smet has written on the workers’ movement, the concepts of hegemony and passive revolution, political pedagogy, and social and political protest in Egypt. His recent books are “A Dialectical Pedagogy of Revolt. Gramsci, Vygotsky, and the Egyptian Revolution” (Brill, 2015) and “Gramsci on Tahrir. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt” (Pluto http://ppesydney.net/egypt-and-the-dialectic-of-passive-and-permanent-revolution/

http://ppesydney.net/egypt-and-the-dialectic-of-passive-and-permanent-revolution/
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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
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-Brecht De Smet

Posted by admin On September - 6 - 2018 Comments Off on -Brecht De Smet

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EGYPT AND THE DIALECTIC OF PASSIVE AND PERMANENT REVOLUTION
by Brecht De Smet on March 21, 2016

Although it is always difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern the emergence of a new epoch when you find yourself right in the middle of the process, there are strong indications that we are experiencing a watershed moment in the development of capitalism. Conjunctural crises such as the 2008 financial meltdown reveal the structural instabilities of the neoliberal system of deregulated capital flows, while the tendency toward increased authoritarianism and securitisation in both core and peripheral capitalist countries show the limits of bourgeois democracy to absorb mass discontent. At the same time, episodes such as the ‘Arab Spring’ sharply posit the relevance of ‘old’ categories such as revolution and counter-revolution for the 21st century. As moments of political hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, succeed one another rapidly, activists’ consciousness and understanding of unfolding events often tail-end the almost bipolar ebb and flow of popular initiative. In order to intervene successfully, activists have to make sense of the direction of the process as a whole and of the various instances of agency at work – their own included. Therefore, radical theory has to extend beyond the sphere of mere philosophical, political or economic critique – the unveiling of relations of power – and into the ‘interventionist’ domain of concrete emancipatory strategies and imaginaries.

Arguably Antonio Gramsci is one of the key figures within this revolutionary tradition. His notion of a ‘philosophy of praxis’ challenged the rigid and mechanical framework of the dominant stream of Marxism in the late 1920s, advocating the development of an intellectually sophisticated, but also practice-oriented theory of social change. The last decade has witnessed a renewal of Gramscian theory in the Anglophone world. Key works such as Adam Morton’s Unravelling Gramsci (2007) and Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (2009) are moving away from leading postwar interpretations that cast the Sardinian Marxist in the restricted role of a ‘reformist’ and of a ‘cultural’ or ‘postcolonial’ thinker, re-appropriating his thought within the context of a new era of global capitalist crisis and struggle. My book Gramsci on Tahrir is a humble contribution to this ongoing debate. I investigate the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt and its relation to the broad historical development of capitalism through the combined lens of permanent and passive revolution. Conversely, the Egyptian experience is deployed as a means to think about general changes in state and class power.

Passive revolution is a concept that basically “captures various concrete historical instances in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of social relations”. In spite of the adjective ‘passive’ this process of ‘revolution-restoration’ does not exclude sudden outbursts of street politics ‘from below’ and even mass uprisings. The concept draws our attention to the political initiative of dominant groups and their capacity to maintain power, through a ‘revolution from above’, in the sense of a gradual, elite-driven transformation of society, and/or by the deflection, fragmentation, and appropriation of popular movements. Faced with the stubborn survival of capitalism in the face of mass revolution and its rebirth in Fordism and Fascism, Gramsci formulated his theory of passive revolution as a “critical corollary” to Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). Put simply: what if, indeed, the relations of production began to “fetter” the productive forces and “an era of social revolution” ensued, but the revolutionary proletariat was unable to conquer and transform the bourgeois state? Could this period of non-transition lead to anything else than the apocalyptic choice between “socialism or barbarism”?

Gramsci turned to the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, as a historical case study to ‘work out’ the concept of passive revolution, which, in turn, allowed him to understand the emergence of Fascism. Hence the concept of passive revolution does not function as a discrete political ‘form’, situated somewhere between ‘active’ revolution and counter-revolution, but, as a heuristic that “reveals specific class strategies and spatial practices that characterise capitalist society and how these have changed with the further development of capitalism.” It is, in Gramsci’s own words, a “criterion of interpretation”: a methodological searchlight that reveals the agency, agility, and adaptability of dominant groups that are able to survive their own hegemonic crises. Thus a nation’s history can be comprehended as a series of discrete revolutionary and passive-revolutionary episodes that are incorporated within long-term transformations of global capitalism.

In this regard “Gramsci on Tahrir” functions as a reading of Egypt’s modern history through the lens of its revolutionary upheavals and their displacements: the 1882 Urabi uprising; the 1919 revolution; the 1952 Free Officer coup; the 1977 ‘bread riots’; and the recent mass movements. Here the concept of passive revolution is complemented with Trotsky’s notion of ‘uneven and combined development’, for in the colonial and postcolonial world moments of capitalist constitution and reconstitution become a contemporaneous and protracted process – with important implications for emancipatory struggles. Even after formal independence was declared in 1922 Egypt remained a society in crisis, unable to free itself from its political and economic bondage to imperialism. The interventions of British capital and its alliance with the Egyptian crown and landlords blocked the formation of a capitalist ‘historical bloc’ and a transformation ‘from above’. Conversely, enduring conflicts and cleavages between subaltern groups prevented an alliance that could effectively overthrow state power. The process of permanent-passive revolution became itself deflected through the 1952 Free Officer coup. The military appeared as a neutral, third party that forcefully solved the Egyptian stalemate. However, despite its autonomy, the military did not act in a class vacuum. State power remained rooted in class power, which slowly shifted from the industrial bourgeoisie in the 1950s to the ‘popular classes’ in the 1960s – only to root itself back into parasitic rentier classes from the 1970s onward.

The Egyptian case indicates that the concept of passive revolution offers much more than a heuristic device, for it also probes into the very nature of capitalist class and state power. In his prison notebooks, Gramsci often returns to the case of the French Revolution, which poses the riddle of bourgeois hegemony (and its subsequent demise) – a riddle that Gramsci, in my opinion, never completely solves. In his “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844) Marx mentions how the political revolution of the French bourgeoisie in 1789 created:

…a moment in which this class fraternises and fuses with society in general, becomes identified with it and is experienced and acknowledged as its universal representative; a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the rights and claims of society itself and in which it is in reality the heart and head of society.

Gramsci elaborated upon this idea, adding that:

The previous ruling classes were essentially conservative in the sense that they did not tend to construct an organic passage from the other classes into their own, i.e. to enlarge their class sphere ‘technically’ and ideologically: their conception was that of a closed class. The bourgeois class poses itself as an organism in continuous movement, capable of absorbing the entire society, assimilating it to its own cultural and economic level. The entire function of the State has been transformed; the State has become an ‘educator’.

The French Revolution destroyed the ‘mechanical’ ensemble of feudal society, which consisted of self-contained corporate estates. Whereas feudal dominant classes ruled society almost ‘from the outside’, the bourgeoisie ruled by becoming society and, conversely, by offering the other classes a pathway to become bourgeois.

Although much has been written about ‘the state as educator’ in the above excerpt, the interesting concept of ‘organic passage’ (passaggio organico) itself has not been discussed at length. The importance of the concept cannot be underestimated, because the promise of an ‘organic passage’ of the broad population to the bourgeois class has been capitalism’s mobilising myth, functioning as the origin of the bourgeoisie’s hegemony – and of its systemic crisis. As Marx explains, the universality of the bourgeois project remains abstract, realised by separating a ‘political society’ from ‘civil society’ in which all citizens are equal before the law. Marx distinguishes between this restricted, abstract form of political emancipation and human or social emancipation, which liberates humanity from class society and alienation. At its core, the permanency of revolution in the modern, bourgeois age is the always-present, immanent possibility of social revolution to spring from the conditions of political revolution. Marx quipped in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that: ‘The parliamentary regime leaves everything to the decision of majorities; how shall the great majorities outside parliament not want to decide?’ and, later in the Economic Manuscripts that, ‘[t]he political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery’.

The 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune of 1871 confirmed the thesis of permanent revolution in Marx’s eyes. Even if they ended up merely reconfiguring political relations, revolutions – in the sense of mass mobilisations from below contesting existing state power – always contained a ‘social soul’: concrete emancipatory practices that prefigured new social forms in the womb of capitalism. Functioning as passive revolution’s mirror heuristic, the concept of permanent revolution teases out the immanent social soul in a nation’s historical trajectory. In the case of Egypt, Tahrir is revealed as much more than a ‘democratic’ struggle against dictatorship. A desire for social justice and human dignity coincided with practices of popular self-organisation, which embodied the seeds of an alternative society based on equality, diversity, cooperation, and joyful labour. My book shows that these practices have lineages in earlier struggles, reaching back to the early twentieth century.

In its most radical, Jacobin, moment, the French Revolution already showed the fundamental contradiction at the heart of bourgeois hegemony: the promise of an organic passage of the whole of society into the state can never be fulfilled. As Peter Thomas argues, the key term ‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s writings is not a concept of a neutral political science that describes bourgeois and proletarian leadership in the same terms. The content of bourgeois and proletarian hegemony and its concrete methods of coercion and consent differ fundamentally. Nevertheless, despite this crucial distinction, Gramsci himself is ambiguous about the organic quality of bourgeois leadership at its earliest historical phase, positing a political homology between ‘bourgeois’ Jacobin and ‘proletarian’ Leninist class leadership. Echoing Marx, Gramsci is keen to point out that the progressive role of the bourgeoisie is already exhausted in the revolutions of 1848, as it began to forge alliances with Ancien Régime elites against the emerging proletariat and the spectre of social revolution. However, one could argue that the French Revolution’s  radical Jacobin moment, which created the myth of a bourgeois organic passage was already transgressing the bourgeoisie’s traditional strategy of class rule. Compromise, co-optation, fragmentation of the opposition, and molecular, gradual change engineered ‘from above’  – i.e., passive revolution – appear as the true hallmarks of capitalist state formation. In fact, the English Revolution or German unification are better archetypes of bourgeois state formation than the French Revolution as they show how dominant Ancien Régime groups were gradually transformed into fractions of capital.

Hence the premise of Gramsci’s investigation into the concepts of passive revolution and the ‘integral state’ is that, even though the bourgeois state is not a mechanical state, it is not genuinely organic either. Making a slight detour to Hegel I underline that the bourgeois state in fact supervises a “chemical” ensemble of classes, meaning that there is an apparently neutral relation between the bourgeois class and other social groups on the basis of their shared property as citizens or belonging to ‘the people’. As the late Ellen Meiksins Wood underlined, the history of class society is the history of the differentiation of class and state power, which reaches its pinnacle in bourgeois society. Here state power functions as a ‘middle term’ that mediates class relations, but this representative function is merely a means to the end of achieving bourgeois class power. In other words, it is due to the separation and autonomy of the state that the bourgeoisie is able to rule. Similarly, the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the bourgeoisie emerge mostly in separation of the class itself, within the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie or ‘middle classes’.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from the ‘chemical’ make-up of bourgeois state power. First, the rather common sense and self-evident deduction that bourgeois hegemony is inherently unstable and limited. Second, that political forms that appear historically as aberrations of bourgeois class rule – Bonapartist or Caesarist régimes –are in fact the purest expressions of bourgeois state power. Marx did not conceive of the Bonapartism and empire-crafting of Napoleon III as a regression to a pre-bourgeois phase, but as a development of modern capitalist class power. For the bourgeoisie it was much easier to be a ruling class that appeared to suffer the shared fate of all classes in society – to be subjugated in equal measure by imperial power – than to face the reality of being a class that cowardly refrained from completing its own democratic project. Thus the political dispossession of the bourgeoisie from state power guaranteed its class power. Likewise, Gramsci considered Fascism and parliamentary forms of ‘civil Caesarism’ as modern expressions of bourgeois domination. With this in mind, capitalism’s historical anomaly is not the authoritarianism of the interwar years, but the postwar democratisation of Western Europe’s institutions and the rise of the welfare state. This ‘counter-revolution in democratic form’, a defensive passive revolution sui generis, was rendered possible and necessary in unique circumstances of a powerful labour movement, discredited capitalist parties, a bipolar world order, and an economic boom sustained by a Fordist accumulation strategy.

Similarly, the rise of Nasserism in Egypt and of the ‘developmental state’ in much of the Global South was the unique and contingent result of national and global geopolitical and economic conditions. Decolonisation struggles in the 1950s and 1960s often deflected processes of both permanent and passive revolution, dethroning traditional elites and pushing back the forces of imperialism, but also preventing farmers, workers, and other subaltern groups from taking power. The use of a ‘blocked dialectic’ to describe this process – drawing from Christine Buci-Glucksmann – would be incorrect, as the crisis of imperialist capitalism in core and peripheral countries produced new (capitalist) social forms that did not represent either “socialism or barbarism” and which actually developed the means of production.

The emergence of neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s is a reiteration of prewar imperialism, complete with novel forms of Caesarist state power, which undermine the democratic institutions of bourgeois democracy, for example by relocating political and economic decision-making to supranational entities such as the IMF and the elusive ‘financial markets’. In Europe the recent Greek debt crisis illustrates how capital is able to subdue recalcitrant bourgeois parliaments and a national, sovereign, popular will by international and transnational coercive forces such as the ECB. In Egypt, popular initiative was displaced twice, in 2011 and 2013, by the military apparatus that, in a classical Caesarist way, had to affirm the independence of the state in order to assure the rule of rentier capital. The ‘deep state’ has been coated with a thin layer of democratic legitimacy, which cannot contain the lingering contradictions of the Mubarak era: how can economic development, social justice, and political democracy ever be achieved by a dependent, rentier capitalist class that still operates as a client state for US-imperialism in the region? President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s charismatic leadership of the counter-revolution is already waning in the face of subsidy cuts and increasing police violence. From the perspective of the ruling elites, in order to deflect the dialectic of permanent revolution in a structural manner, Egypt’s political and economic system has to be reformed and important concessions have to be made to the farmers, workers, unemployed youth, street vendors, et cetera, who risked their lives during the uprising. However, the enduring crisis of global capitalism and the arrogance and unwillingness of the dominant groups to engage in a ‘revolution from above’ that offers different goals and recipes than an iteration of the Washington consensus means that in the middle-long term the country is heading to a new bifurcation: either a reassertion of open dictatorship that violently represses the existing political and social movements; or the revival and triumph of the struggle from below.

This analysis has immediate repercussions for an emancipatory politics today. Firstly, it concedes that authoritarian state power is not an expression of an ‘incomplete’ or ‘developing’ capitalism, but the very essence of a mature bourgeois society. Secondly, it understands the specific and local process of counter-revolution in Egypt as part of a general and global process of capitalist crisis and resistance. From these two conclusions we can deduce that any ‘stage theory’ and transitology that demands the construction of a (bourgeois) democratic framework before the implementation of radical social reforms is inherently reactionary. The brief ‘democratic’ episode of the presidency of Muhammad Morsi illustrates the impossibility of ‘democratisation’ without the revolutionary overthrow of the ‘deep state’ and a fundamental change of power relations – not only within Egypt, but also between national and regional and international forces (e.g., USA, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia). At this point Gramscian theory reveals its interventionist character. Permanent revolution and subaltern hegemony offer not only a methodological tool for political science, but also a conscious strategy for social change.

—–Brecht De Smet
Brecht De Smet (MA, PhD) is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, where he teaches ‘politics of globalisation’ and ‘politics of the contemporary Middle East’. Since 2008 De Smet has conducted fieldwork in Egypt, investigating the relation between political activism and independent trade unionism from a broad Gramscian perspective. De Smet has written on the workers’ movement, the concepts of hegemony and passive revolution, political pedagogy, and social and political protest in Egypt. His recent books are “A Dialectical Pedagogy of Revolt. Gramsci, Vygotsky, and the Egyptian Revolution” (Brill, 2015) and “Gramsci on Tahrir. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt” (Pluto http://ppesydney.net/egypt-and-the-dialectic-of-passive-and-permanent-revolution/

http://ppesydney.net/egypt-and-the-dialectic-of-passive-and-permanent-revolution/
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From deflected permanent revolution to the law of uneven and combined development-

Posted by admin On September - 6 - 2018 Comments Off on From deflected permanent revolution to the law of uneven and combined development-

hit-muss
From deflected permanent revolution to the law of uneven and combined development
Neil Davidson

“Trotsky is the one for whom there is no room either in pre-1990 Really Existing Socialism or in post-1990 Really Existing Capitalism, in which even those who are nostalgic for Communism do not know what to do with Trotsky’s permanent revolution”.1 Slavoj Zizek wrote these words at the beginning of the millennium and, in this case, he expresses a sentiment with which readers of International Socialism are likely to agree. The question of “what to do” with the concept of permanent revolution is one which this journal first addressed in a systematic way with the publication of Tony Cliff’s major reappraisal of 1963, in which he augmented Trotsky’s original concept with that of “deflected permanent revolution”.2 Cliff’s article was part of a wider revisionist project. In the two years before his assassination in 1940, Trotsky made a number of claims about the world system and committed himself to a series of predictions about its future development. These included: that global capitalism had entered a period of permanent and irreversible decline, that the Russian Stalinist regime was an inherently unstable and historically unique formation which was doomed to collapse, and that the coming revolutions in the colonial and semi-colonial world would be led by the working class, as the Russian Revolution had been in 1917.

In fact, following the Second World War capitalism entered the greatest period of growth in its history; Stalinist Russia not only expanded territorially through conquest, but its basic structures were independently replicated by Stalinist parties in the Third World; and—as this outcome suggests—the revolutions which occurred there were led not by the working class, but by elements of the middle class who then became the managers of a new bureaucratic state. Given these outcomes, some revision of Trotsky’s final perspectives was inescapable but, short of abandoning them altogether, this could be done in one of two ways.

One way, ultimately adopted by adherents of what Isaac Deutscher called orthodox Trotskyism, was effectively to revise reality so that it corresponded with the theory—a necessary consequence of treating particular judgements by Trotsky as beyond falsification. In Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, “It transformed into abstract dogma what Trotsky thought in concrete terms at one moment in his life and canonised this”.3 Canonisation involved two strategies of reality-avoidance. The first was the recategorisation of social classes: a party led by petty-bourgeois intellectuals and consisting of militarised ex-peasants could, for example, be described as representing “the Chinese working class” and its victory in 1949 hailed as a socialist revolution. But even those Trotskyists who treated Marxist class theory with greater seriousness than this could still avert their gaze from the truth with a second strategy, namely the adoption of an arbitrary formal definition of a “workers’ state”, where state ownership of the means of production became the only deciding factor, although the working class had neither led nor even participated in the revolution, did not in any sense control the new state and was subjected to a ruthless police dictatorship.

The second way, taken by Cliff and his initially small band of followers, was to revise the theory in the light of reality. Cliff held fast, not to specific judgements by Trotsky, but to the central tenets and methods of historical materialism that underpinned the latter’s greatest achievements. Above all, Cliff cleaved to the self-activity of the working class, not as an optional if desirable extra, but as the indispensable core of Marxism as a theory of socialist revolution. In his autobiography Cliff recounted how, starting from this perspective, he “devoted a lot of time and effort to developing three interlinked theories to deal with the three areas of the world” where Trotsky’s predictions had proved false, “Russia and Eastern Europe, advanced capitalist countries, and the Third World”: “The three theories were: state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution.” This “troika”, Cliff writes, “makes a unity, a totality, grasping the changes in the situation of humanity after the Second World War”.4

Cliff was therefore responding to changes in the world capitalist system that orthodox Trotskyism refused to recognise; but there have been similarly dramatic shifts since Cliff concluded his reconsideration of the Trotskyist legacy. State capitalism still exists as a policy option for governments, as the quasi-nationalisation of banks during the financial crisis of 2007-8 has shown, but the era of state capitalism as a general tendency within the system ended between the emergence of neoliberalism in the mid-1970s and the fall of the Stalinist regimes in 1989-91. Vast sums are still wasted (in economic as well as moral terms) on arms, but military expenditure no longer acts to stabilise the system.5 What then of the third component of the “troika”? Has deflected permanent revolution also become an essentially historical category?

In International Socialism 126, Leo Zeilig argued that deflected permanent revolution remains relevant today, despite the declining significance of the other component of the troika most closely related to it: “While the central role of the intelligentsia in the absence of a self-conscious working class subject is an absolute law in Cliff’s theory, the importance of state capitalism for the deflected permanent revolution is neither absolute nor a requirement”.6 Zeilig applies the concept to Africa, a continent which, with the partial exception of Egypt, Cliff himself did not discuss, but the individual countries which Zeilig considers do fall into one of Cliff’s categories, that of “deviations from the norm” of deflected permanent revolution.7 The “norm” was established by those revolutions which had resulted in the most complete state capitalist outcomes under Stalinist leadership independently of Russia, particularly those in China and Cuba, although at the time when Cliff was writing in the early 1960s he could also have referred to North Vietnam, Albania or Yugoslavia. The “deviations” were those, actually the majority of cases, where the outcome was a mixture of state and private capitalism under radical nationalist leadership that may have been influenced by Stalinist ideas and organisational methods, but which often—as in the cases of Egypt or Iraq—oscillated between trying to incorporate the local Communist Party and trying to suppress it. With the very important exception of India, the most typical examples of the “deviations” were to be found in North Africa and the Middle East. Zeilig’s use of the concept is illuminating in relation to those African states in which liberation movements were either completed (Ghana) or at least begun (Zimbabwe) within the post-war period of decolonisation which formed the context of Cliff’s argument, but is it also the case that the theory can be applied to contemporary Africa and, by extension, the rest of the Global South?

I remain unconvinced. Not because I disagree with, for example, Zeilig’s analysis of the recent events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—quite the contrary; but rather because these seem to me to have little to do with permanent revolution, deflected or otherwise. Trotsky saw permanent revolution as a strategy which would enable the less developed countries to decisively break with feudal, tributary or colonial rule under working class leadership and move directly to socialism as components of an international revolutionary movement. Cliff saw deflected permanent revolution as the process which ensues when the working class does not carry through that strategy and another social force takes on the role of leadership, enabling the break with pre-capitalist modes of production or foreign domination to take place, but only in order for the countries in question to become parts of the capitalist world system. Although Cliff did not use the term, he effectively treated deflected permanent revolution as the modern version or functional equivalent of the bourgeois revolution.8 Both the original and the revised concept therefore involved fundamental social transformations leading to either socialism (permanent revolution) or state capitalism (deflected permanent revolution).

Yet the term now tends to be used, as in Zeilig’s article, to mean political events of far less significance. That this can be done without undue conceptual stretching suggests, at the very least, that there was always an ambiguity in Cliff’s revision of Trotsky, which I think has two sources. One, which Cliff directly inherited from Trotsky, is the presence of an outstanding set of bourgeois revolutionary “tasks” which can be carried out by either the working class (permanent revolution) or the middle class “intelligentsia” (deflected permanent revolution). Much of the continued validity of both concepts therefore depends on how these tasks are defined and whether they are still outstanding. The other is the absence of any discussion of the
relationship between permanent revolution and the prior process of uneven and combined development, which was central to Trotsky’s original conception. Nor did Cliff deal with the subject in later writings. Despite describing uneven and combined development as “the essence of the permanent revolution” in the first volume of his biography of Trotsky, the discussion is confined to a mere five pages across that work as a whole, all relating solely to Russia.9 Yet, as we shall see, reintegrating the law of uneven and combined development with the strategy of permanent revolution will help answer many of the unresolved questions raised by its “deflection”.

From bourgeois to permanent revolution

Trotsky was not alone in arguing that, by the beginning of the 20th century, the bourgeoisie was no longer capable of carrying out the revolution which bore its name.10 Where he went far beyond his fellow-revolutionaries was in claiming that the Russian Revolution could lead, not only to the overthrow of absolutism, the establishment of representative government and the capitalist development of the productive forces, but to socialism itself. This was conditional, however, on the Russian Revolution being assisted by the revolutionary movement in the advanced West, whose own success could provide the material resources for socialist development that Russia lacked as an individual state. Trotsky was later to generalise this conception of permanent revolution, describing it as “the general trend of revolutionary development in all backward countries”.11 He also made what seemed at the time to be minor qualifications in relation to the two main social classes, but these contained possibilities, the realisation of which formed the background to Cliff’s article.

On the one hand, Trotsky thought that even where foreign dominance was “concealed by the fiction of state independence” the ruling bourgeoisie was capable of resisting imperialism, at least up to a certain point.12 This tended to be the case in countries which had never been formal colonies, or which ceased to be during the era of classic bourgeois revolutions. The most obvious examples of this were in the first and last destinations of his final exile: Turkey and Mexico. In this context he described the period of the 1930s as generally being one “in which the national bourgeoisie searches for a bit more independence from the foreign imperialists” and that revolutionaries were “in permanent competition with the national bourgeoisie as the one leadership which is capable of assuring the victory of the masses in fight against the foreign imperialists”. As the notion of “competition” suggests, although the organisations of the national bourgeoisie were in some senses “the Popular Front in the form of a party”, they played a different role from the entirely reactionary popular fronts in Europe and North America: “It can have a reactionary character insofar as it is directed against the worker; it can have an aggressive attitude insofar as it is directed against imperialism”.13 Trotsky had written off the possibility of decolonisation without permanent revolution, seeing the relative freedom of states like Turkey or Mexico as exceptional; but what were the implications of states with a similar relationship to the world system (ie backward capitalism) multiplying, as they did from 1947 onwards with the creation of India and Pakistan?

On the other hand, Trotsky was also aware that the level of capitalist economic development, “the hierarchy of backwardness”, varied enormously across what we now call the Global South.14 As a result, the size of the working class and its ability to influence events was also subject to massive differentiation. Trotsky was the opposite of a utopian voluntarist and he accepted that a certain degree of social weight was necessary on the part of a working class before it could aspire to taking power; what was possible in India and China would not necessarily be possible in Equatorial Africa or Afghanistan. It was always necessary to establish working class organisational and political independence, but: “The relative weight of the individual and transitional demands in the proletariat’s struggle, their mutual ties and their order of presentation, is determined by the peculiarities and specific conditions of each backward country and—to a considerable extent—by the degree of its backwardness”.15 However, even in those countries where the working class was much smaller than the Russian in relative terms, the global nature of the socialist project would enable them to overcome this obstacle. But what could the role of the working class be if the objective changed from international socialist revolution to national capitalist development?

Social or political revolution?

What were the “tasks” which Trotsky thought had to be accomplished in the process of passing from the bourgeois to the proletarian revolution? In Cliff’s summary, the bourgeoisie is “incapable of carrying out the thoroughgoing destruction of feudalism, the achievement of real national independence and political democracy”, which he treats as the main tasks of the bourgeois revolution: “A consistent solution to the agrarian question, of the national question, a break-up of the social and imperial fetters preventing speedy economic advance, will necessitate moving beyond the bounds of bourgeois private property”.16 A more orthodox Trotskyist, Michael Löwy, similarly concluded from a study of Trotsky’s works that what he calls the “democratic tasks” of the bourgeois revolution are “the agrarian democratic revolution”, “national liberation” and “democracy”.17 These are potentially very demanding criteria indeed, many of which remain unmet throughout the entire Global South and indeed beyond today. In some places Trotsky seemed to realise that this was a problem. He was reluctant to describe the Japanese Meiji Restoration 1868, for example, as a bourgeois revolution, referring to it instead as “a bureaucratic attempt to buy off such a revolution”, while at the same time acknowledging that the Meiji regime had accomplished in a matter of decades what it had taken Russia 300 years to achieve.18 But if the notion of “tasks” were taken seriously in the case of the Japan, then this would mean that the bourgeois revolution was only consummated when agrarian reform and representative democracy were imposed by the US occupiers between 1945 and 1955. Unfortunately this introduces further problems since the American Revolution itself was presumably unfinished until the black population achieved full formal civil rights with the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Amendment Act, the 1967 judgment in the case of Loving versus Virginia allowing “mixed” marriages, and so on.

The question of democracy is particularly important here, since with the partial exception of France, even the classic bourgeois revolutions did not lead to the installation of representative democracy. In fact, if we take bourgeois democracy to involve, at a minimum, a representative government elected by the adult population, where votes have equal weight and can be exercised without intimidation by the state, it is a relatively recent development in the history of capitalism. Far from being intrinsic to bourgeois society, representative democracy has largely been introduced by pressure from the working class, often involving the threat of revolution, and extended by pressure from the oppressed.19 To insist that countries in the Global South are only completely capitalist when they have achieved stable representative democracy, apart from committing a category mistake (capitalism=economy; democracy=polity), is to expect a more complete outcome there than was achieved in the countries of the developed world. There are still important unresolved democratic issues in many countries, but they have nothing to do with the accomplishment or consolidation of capitalism.

This is what Cliff seems to have been implying in an important article from 1950 where he wrote of German unification “from above” during the 1860s: “The ‘Bismarckian’ path was not the exception for the bourgeoisie, but the rule, the exception was the French revolution”.20 The general conclusion was drawn by Alex Callinicos in this journal in 1982, when he noted the problem of making “an identification of bourgeois-democratic revolution with merely one of its cases”, which is of course the French, “and making its specific features…necessary components of any ‘genuine’ bourgeois revolution”: “Surely it is more sensible, rather than invoke the metaphysical concept of a ‘complete and genuine solution’ [to the tasks of the bourgeois revolution], to judge a bourgeois revolution by the degree to which it succeeds in establishing an autonomous centre of capital accumulation, even if it fails to democratise the political order, or to eliminate feudal social relations”.21 I agree with these conclusions, but they have certain implications for the theory of deflected permanent revolution that we have not considered. “Deflection” originally involved shifting from proletarian to bourgeois revolutionary objectives, but what can it mean if the real task of the bourgeois revolution has largely been accomplished on a global scale? In any case, “establishing an autonomous centre of capital accumulation” is scarcely an outcome which the working class can be expected to accomplish in the absence of the bourgeoisie!

The root of the problem is illustrated by the two main cases that Cliff discusses: China and Cuba. From the evidence of Cliff’s autobiography, China seems to have been the main model for deflected permanent revolution; indeed he describes the 1963 article as being a “distillation” of his earlier book Mao’s China (1957), with additional material on Cuba which, at that time, was the most recent addition to the roster of state capitalist regimes.22 Before 1949 China stood historically before the completion of the bourgeois revolution: there was effectively no central state, the agrarian sector still contained tributary and feudal relations and it was subject to oppression by several competing imperialist powers. Cuba by 1959, on the other hand, was a bourgeois state—a very weak one, of course, overawed by the US and penetrated by organised crime, but it seems to be an abuse of language to say that it was in any sense pre-capitalist, nor was the working class striving for power in the 1950s in the way that the Chinese working class had in the 1920s. In order to understand the difference between these two revolutions, we need to establish an important distinction first made by Marx in the 1840s and later adopted by Trotsky: that between social and political revolutions.23

Political revolutions sometimes have social aspects and social revolutions always have political implications, but the terms nevertheless indicate an essential difference. Political revolutions are struggles within society for control of the existing state, but which leave the social and economic structure intact. These revolutions have been relatively frequent in history, from the Roman Civil Wars, which led to the abandonment of Republican rule for the Principate in 27 BC, to the Eastern European revolutions of 1989-91, which swept away the Stalinist regimes and began what Chris Harman called the “sideways” movement from Eastern state capitalism to an approximation of the Western trans-state model.24 They may involve more or less popular participation, may result in more or less improvement in the condition of the majority, but ultimately the class that was in control of the means of production at the beginning will remain so at the end (although individuals and political organisations may have been replaced on the way), and the class that was exploited within the productive process at the beginning will also remain so at the end (although concessions may have been made to secure its acquiescence or participation). Social revolutions, however, are not merely struggles within existing society, but result in the transformation of one type of society into another and, as such, are extremely rare—so rare that we only know of two and one of these has not yet succeeded: the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution.

The relation between these two types of revolution is complex. Some revolutions which, taken by themselves, appear to be merely political revolutions, are in fact part of a more extended social revolution. In relation to the bourgeois revolution, the English revolution of 1688 has this relationship to the revolution of 1640; similar cases could be made for the French revolution of 1830 in relation to that of 1789 or, reversing the chronological order of importance, the American Revolution of 1776 in relation to the Civil War of 1861-5. More importantly in the context of this discussion, some revolutions end up as political revolutions because they are failed social revolutions. In relation to the socialist revolution, this is clearly the case with the German Revolution of 1918. As Trotsky commented, “It was no democratic completion of the bourgeois revolution, it was proletarian revolution decapitated by the Social Democrats; more correctly, it was a bourgeois counter-revolution, which was compelled to preserve pseudo-democratic forms after its victory over the proletariat”.25 A similar case could also be made for the Portuguese Revolution of 1974—and indeed most of the so-called “democratic” revolutions to have taken place since, above all that of Iran in 1978-9.

China experienced a social revolution in 1949: it could have been the socialist revolution, if the movements of the mid-1920s had succeeded, but ended up instead as the functional equivalent of the bourgeois revolution instead—a lesser but still decisive systemic shift. Cuba only experienced a political revolution, which did not fundamentally change the nature of the economic system, and represented—using Harman’s term, but reversing the direction of movement—a sideways shift from a highly corrupt market capitalist economy to one on the state capitalist model. This would have been more obvious if US paranoia about encroaching “communism” had not effectively forced the new Cuban regime to ally with Russia and adopt state capitalist forms of organisation—which was certainly not Castro’s original intention. There were, in other words, two different types of revolution encompassed by the term “deflected permanent revolution” from the very beginning. As capital increasingly sweeps away even the remnants of previous modes of production and the social formations which include them, the pattern of revolutions has increasingly tended towards the “political” rather than the “social” type—the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe; the subsequent displays of “people power” in the Philippines, Thailand and Serbia; and the “colour revolutions” in the former republics of the USSR. Capitalism endlessly reproduces differences in power and autonomy—the
“unevenness” which I discuss below. Except in a handful of cases (Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet) the unstable but structured inequality which results is not an unresolved issue from an earlier period, not a remnant of feudalism or colonialism, but a result of the normal operation of competitive accumulation expressed at the level of nation-states.

At least one leading thinker in the International Socialist tradition did argue that none of the cases of deflected permanent revolution involved social revolutions, although without using the latter term. Discussing the same examples as Cliff in an article for this journal written during the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, Harman noted:

In none of these cases was there a shift from one mode of production to another. In each case those who had control of the existing state apparatus used it to reorganise industry, reducing internal competition to a minimum to accumulate in the face of external pressures. That does not mean that there was never any opposition to such a move—”police” actions of various sorts were often taken against old, “private” capitalist interests who resisted the changes. But these were possible without any mobilisation of the mass of the population for full blooded social revolution, indeed in some cases without any mobilisation of the mass of the population at all.26

This perhaps goes too far, not only in respect of the Chinese Revolution of 1949, but a minority of the revolutions which followed it. Before the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, for example, feudal social relations were still dominant and the state was the nearest to the European absolutist model of any remaining in the world.27 Nevertheless, Harman’s central point about the non-social nature of the revolution, like the majority of its predecessors, is correct, but does raise the question of whether retaining the term “deflected permanent revolution” has any benefits other than providing the consolations of familiarity. It is possible, of course, to explicitly detach it from the “tasks” of the bourgeois revolution, real or imagined, and instead relate it to the possibility of working class leadership in accomplishing democratic tasks (as in Thailand) or anti-imperialist struggle (as in Iraq) on the road to socialism—and this is more or less how the term tends to be used, but this has the danger of obscuring what is at stake.

Political revolutions, changes of regime by non-constitutional methods, are a fact of life in the Global South and likely to remain so, but these can take place without involving any independent working class intervention. If one Russian-backed gang of scoundrels replaces another US-supported collection of villains (or vice versa) in, say, Kyrgyzstan, and some working class people take part in accompanying demonstrations, this is not an example of deflected permanent revolution. There are of course very important recent examples where the working class has irrupted into what would otherwise been an inter ruling class dispute, thus opening up the possibility of social(ist) revolution, and again Iran in 1978-9 is the key example, but their failure to seize power meant that the revolutions remained at the political level. Again this is not an example of deflected permanent revolution: Iran was a capitalist state, the working class was defeated and one wing of the bourgeoisie emerged triumphant over another on the basis of a different strategy for accumulation. The alternatives, of social revolution based on the working class or political revolution involving the ascendancy of a different section of the bourgeoisie organised by political Islamists, still pertain in Iran and also in Egypt, the two areas of the Middle East where new upheavals are most clearly being prepared—although as we shall see in due course, they are not alone. Before turning to the question of what is generating these potentially revolutionary situations, however, we need to address the nature of the class, or class fraction, which Cliff argued had replaced the working class, allowing the process of “deflection” to take place.

The incapacities of the bourgeoisie

Cliff identified the “revolutionary intelligentsia” as a substitute for the revolutionary bourgeoisie in the Global South. No summary can substitute for actually reading his exemplary analysis of this group, but the main characteristics that he ascribed to it are important to note here. As non-specialists, members of the intelligentsia can offer to represent the “nation” against other merely sectoral groups. The backwardness of their nation offends them, not simply as a matter of civic pride, but because in material terms it means they are unable to find work—or at least work in the state apparatus at a level appropriate to their education. As the traditional aspects of their society are increasingly destabilised by the irruption of capitalist development, they find it hard to maintain its values, but look instead to those of efficiency, modernisation, industrialisation, all of which are apparently embodied in the USSR. They claim to love “the people”, but simultaneously feel guilty at their relative privilege and distrustful of those less educated or intelligent than themselves. Above all, they are hostile to democracy and strive to exclude the masses from their strategies of transformation, except in a subordinate or supportive role, which is why their preferred method is one of military struggle on a guerrilla or even conventional basis.28

Harman subsequently extended the argument in an important article on political Islam. Although Cliff’s category was originally used with reference to “Stalinism, Maoism and Castroism”, Harman now claimed that it was equally applicable to “the Islamist intelligentsia around Khomeini in Iran”, who “undertook a revolutionary reorganisation of ownership and control of capital within Iran while leaving capitalist relations of production intact”.29

The brilliance of this collective portrait is not in doubt, but was the class fraction it describes a new development in the history of capitalism? The classical Marxist tradition was more sceptical than is generally thought about the extent to which the bourgeoisie had been at the forefront of revolutionary struggle, even in 1640 or 1789.30 Trotsky tended to regard the petty bourgeoisie as the driving force behind successful bourgeois revolutions up to and including the French.31 He also recognised, however, that other social groups had played this role, including feudal landlords in Prussia during the 1860s and—potentially at least—the working class in the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s. He did not, of course, claim that the bourgeoisie had never played a revolutionary role: simply that this was not a necessary condition for a revolution to qualify as bourgeois.32 But in the cases where the bourgeoisie did lead, it is important to understand which sections were involved.

The bourgeoisie does not only consist of capitalists, in the literal sense of those who own or control capital. Hal Draper describes the class in this larger sense as involving “a social penumbra around the hard core of capitalists proper, shading out into the diverse social elements that function as servitors or hangers-on of capital without themselves owning capital”.33 The components of this “penumbra” are not, in fact, members of the petty bourgeoisie, who stand outside the capital-labour relationship and “earn their living by dint of their own labour and their own property”, although they have often provided the foot soldiers for the struggle with feudal absolutism.34 On the contrary: according to Perry Anderson, the peripheral membership of the outer bourgeoisie “is typically composed…of the gamut of professional, administrative and technical groups that enjoy life-conditions similar to capitalists proper—everything customarily included in the broader term ‘bourgeoisie’ as opposed to ‘capital’.”35 Michael Mann has suggested that a variation of the schema erroneously ascribed to Lenin, whereby ideological leadership can only be brought to the working class “from outside”, might in fact be relevant in relation to the bourgeoisie: “Left to itself the bourgeoisie was only capable of economism—in the 18th century of segmental manipulative deference”.36 It is in any case historically demonstrable that, down to 1848 at least, the most decisive leaderships tended to emerge from those sections of the bourgeoisie without direct material interests in the process of production, who were simultaneously less concerned with the destructive effects of revolutionary violence, but more able to overcome the competitive economic divisions within their class.

Are the leaders of the “deflected” revolutions so very different from those who led them between 1789 and 1848? Guevara trained as a doctor, but Robespierre was a lawyer, Danton a journalist, Roux a priest; only a very few, of whom Roederer was the most important, could seriously be described as capitalists. In some respects the parallels are nearly exact. As Eric Hobsbawm notes of the radicalism of students and intellectuals in 1848, “it was largely based on the (as it turned out temporary) inability of the new bourgeois society before 1848 to provide enough posts of adequate status for the educated whom it produced in unprecedented numbers, and whose rewards were so much more modest than their ambitions”.37 John Rees once observed that the intelligentsia “had, in an earlier incarnation, often been a crucial element of the practical leadership of the classical bourgeois revolutions”, without however drawing any conclusions.38 But if the above argument is correct, then the bourgeoisie’s supposed abdication of its revolutionary role after 1848 was in fact simply an expression of the hostility which the core membership of this class had always displayed towards plebeian intervention, now heightened by the even greater threat posed by the working class.

The two real changes after 1848 lay elsewhere. One was that the non-capitalist sections of the bourgeoisie, which had previously given revolutionary leadership and which might have been less paralysed by fear of the working class, were increasingly integrated into a society in which their former frustrations and humiliations were rapidly becoming things of the past. The other was that sections of the existing ruling classes of Europe and Japan, such as the Prussian landlords to whom Trotsky refers, which had previously resisted revolution, now embraced a top-down version in order to make their states capable of military competition with their rivals—or in the case of Japan, to avoid the fate of colonisation and dismemberment that had befallen China. In the case of the colonial world after 1945, the core bourgeoisie had inherited the traditional fear of revolution from their predecessors, but the “revolutionary intelligentsia” were not in the position of their European equivalents after 1848 and far more closely resembled them before 1789: they could not look forward to wealth, power and recognition without a revolution. In some cases they did not need to take action for themselves because the process of transformation was initiated by an army coup.

This type of event, distantly related to the “revolutions from above” in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1860s, had of course begun before the advent of Stalinism with the Turkish Revolution of 1919, and were led by groups which Ellen Kay Trimberger calls “autonomous military bureaucrats”.39 This is one area in which Cliff’s account needs to be qualified as it is not entirely clear that “intelligentsia” is sufficiently broad a category to include the leading social forces involved in these revolutions, at least two of which, those led by Nasser in Egypt and Mengitsu in Ethiopia, were among the most important of the “deviations from the norm” of deflected permanent revolution. Military leaders, who are quite often junior officers, do of course have one important characteristic in common with members of the intelligentsia, in that they can also claim to represent “the nation” beyond mere factional interests. In the majority of cases where the military solution was not available, however, the intelligentsia needed to mobilise themselves. What is new in these situations was not therefore the existence or activity of a “revolutionary intelligentsia” hitherto unknown: both were already familiar from the history of the 19th century. It was rather that this class fraction felt able to take action in the knowledge that they did not need to fear the working class. Why not?

Cliff offers a number of reasons why the working class in the Global South did not play the role envisaged by Trotsky. Of these, the general influence of ruling class ideas and the illiteracy and inexperience of the workers are clearly relevant, but this was also true of Russia in 1917 and China in the 1920s; they are not in themselves an explanation. Other reasons have genuine explanatory power and remain extremely pertinent even today. Many workers in urban industry retain links to smallholdings in the countryside, to which they return in times of unemployment, making the permanent formation of class consciousness and organisation difficult. Conversely, those workers who are in stable employment can have relatively higher living standards than the rural masses, making the possibility of alliances with them less likely. Those trade unions or community groups which do exist are often led by non working class elements, “outsiders”, with different interests and political goals, and are heavily reliant on support from the developmental state, which tends to impose an apolitical agenda acceptable to the regime. Both these leaderships and the personnel who run the state apparatus are influenced by Stalinist politics, the key subjective element in controlling and lowering the aspirations of the working class.40 But many of these characteristics were also present in pre-revolutionary Russia: workers with links to the countryside; trade unions established by agents of the state; and industries where trade unions did not exist even before the ban which followed the Revolution of 1905.41 Some deeper level of explanation is required.

The absence of the revolutionary party is clearly part of the explanation, but parties themselves can only have a meaningful existence where certain determinate conditions allow them to form and grow. Lack of revolutionary leadership can explain the outcome in China during the 1920s or in Iran in 1978-9, where major upheavals took place and Cliff’s other inhibiting conditions were overcome, but not where such situations did not arise. At the end of his discussion of workers in the Global South, Cliff writes, “An automatic correlation between economic backwardness and revolutionary political militancy does not exist”.42 But Trotsky never argued that such an automatic correlation did exist; for him it was conditional and Cliff does not refer to, let alone discuss, the enabling condition which Trotsky saw as fundamental to its establishment: uneven and combined development.

From uneven to combined development

The radical novelty of what Trotsky meant by uneven and combined development is often underestimated. The most common mistake is to reduce it to, or confuse it with, the longstanding theory of uneven development.43 The most famous (and certainly the most often quoted) passage in Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution is an expression of this position: “The privilege of historic backwardness—and such a privilege exists—permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages”.44 But if all that Trotsky had proposed was a schema in which the “advantages of backwardness” allowed less developed nation-states to adopt the most modern available technologies he would have remained within the established limits of unevenness and, indeed, would not have distinguished himself from Stalinist usage of the same concept. As Ernest Mandel once wrote, part of the “magnificent theoretical achievement” represented by the law of uneven and combined development is precisely that it is “quite distinct from the law of uneven development familiar to all Marxists”.45 Why was the distinction necessary? What was missing from Trotsky’s account of permanent revolution was any explanation for the origin of the revolutionary process, for the revolutionary militancy of the Russian working class and, by extension, at least some of the other working classes in the underdeveloped world.

Until the First World War uneven development had been a largely descriptive concept, without specific political implications. As Neil Smith notes, it “was first examined in any depth by Lenin, who tried to sketch some of the economic and geographical outlines of the process”.46 In Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) Lenin wrote, “The uneven and spasmodic development of individual enterprises, individual branches of industry and individual countries is inevitable under the capitalist system”.47 Essentially, he argued that by the beginning of the 20th century uneven development had acquired three main aspects. One was the process by which the advanced states had reached their leading positions within the structured inequality of the world system. During the late 19th century the “skipping of stages” had been the experience of several states, notably Germany, Italy and Japan. The pressure of military and commercial competition between the actual or aspirant Great Powers forced those which were still absolutist states based on the feudal mode of production—or at least those which were capable of doing so—to adopt the current stage of development achieved by their capitalist rivals, if they were to have any chance, not only of successfully competing, but of surviving at the summit of the world order. In very compressed timescales they had been able to adopt the socio-economic achievements of Britain to the extent that they became recognisably the same kind of societies, without necessarily reproducing every characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon pioneer: where backwardness remained it tended to be in the nature of the political regimes led by monarchs or emperors supported by a landowning aristocracy.

By the outbreak of the First World War membership of the dominant states was essentially fixed. What remained was the second aspect of uneven development: the ongoing rivalry between the great powers which involved them constantly trying to “catch up and overtake” each other in a contest for supremacy that would continue as long as capitalism itself. This rivalry led in turn to a third aspect: the developed imperialist states collectively, but competitively asserting their dominance over two other types, described by Lenin as “the colonies themselves” and “the diverse forms of dependent countries which, politically, are formally independent but, in fact, are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence”, like Argentina and Portugal.48 Colonial expansion prevented some of the societies subject to it from developing at all, and in the case of the most undeveloped, the peoples involved suffered near or complete extermination and their lands were taken by settlers. More often the peoples survived, but their social systems were immobilised by imperial powers interested in strategic advantage or plunder, or both.

Trotsky certainly took uneven development in these three senses as his starting point—as is suggested by the word order in the title of his own theory: “I would put uneven before combined, because the second grows out of the first and completes it”.49 How then does the concept of uneven and combined development differ from uneven development as such? The main difference is that it takes account of the internal effects of uneven development.50 To explain the link between the advanced nature of Russian industry on the one hand, and the militancy of Russian workers on the other, Trotsky had to transcend the theory of uneven development, a process he did not complete until the early 1930s. The inability of uneven development to fully encapsulate these phenomena is what appears to have made Trotsky search for a new concept with which to supplement it. It took a political crisis to provoke this conceptualisation.

During the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 the emergent Stalinist regime in Russia ordered the local Communist Party to subordinate its own organisation and demands to those of the bourgeois nationalists in the Guomindang. The ultimately disastrous outcome for the Chinese working class movement was the catalyst for Trotsky to generalise the strategy of permanent
revolution from Russia to sections of the colonial and semi-colonial world, not indiscriminately—since some were still untouched by capitalist development and had no working class of any size—but where conditions similar to those in Russia prevailed. Due to a common set of circumstances, the working classes in these countries had far greater levels of both consciousness and organisation than the proletariat in the more developed countries where Marxists had traditionally expected the socialist revolution to begin. Trotsky claimed that “the prediction that historically backward Russia could arrive at the proletarian revolution sooner than advanced Britain rests almost entirely upon the law of uneven development”.51 But uneven development was not the sole basis for this prediction, as we can see by contrasting actual Russian development with two possible alternatives.

One was the path of the advanced capitalist states. The pace of development was relatively faster in most of the countries that followed Holland and England, partly because of the urgency of acquiring the attributes of capitalist modernity, partly because the long period of experiment and evolution, characteristic of the two pioneers, could be dispensed with. In the case of Scotland in the 18th century or Prussia in the 19th century, this led to enormous tensions which resolved themselves in moments of class struggle foreshadowing the process of permanent revolution, above all in the 1820 general strike in the former and the 1848 revolution in the latter. But because these societies did make the transition to the ranks of the advanced societies, either as the centre (Prussia/Germany) or a component part of another national formation (Scotland/Britain) these moments passed with the tensions that caused them.

The other was the path of the colonies or semi-colonies. What Peter Curtin calls “defensive modernisation” was not enough to protect these societies from Western incursions. In the case of the Merinian monarchs of Madagascar, for example, “They not only failed to modernise beyond adopting Christianity and superficial European fashions, they failed to build a kind of society and government administration that would perpetuate their own power”.52 Colonial rule could even throw societies backwards, as in the case of British-occupied Iraq. Ruling through the Hashemite monarchy after 1920, the regime deliberately rejected any attempts at modernisation, except in the oil industry. Instead it reinforced disintegrating tribal loyalties and semi-feudal tenurial relationships over the peasantry. Peter Gowan describes the British initiatives as “the creation of new foundational institutions of landownership in order to revive dying traditional authority relations, resulting in economically and socially regressive consequences, undertaken for thoroughly modern imperialist political purposes—namely, to create a ruling class dependent upon British military power and therefore committed to imperial interests in the region”.53

A further group of states embodied “combination”. These were unable to reproduce the level of development attained by the advanced capitalist states, but were nevertheless able to “unblock” themselves to the extent of making partial advances in specific areas. There were essentially three sub sets in this group. The first were feudal-absolutist or tributary states, like Russia or Turkey, which, under pressure from the Western powers, were forced for reasons of military competition to introduce limited industrialisation and partial agrarian reform. The second were still more backward states like China or regions like the post-Ottoman Arab Middle East, which had been broken by imperialist pressure, but which, instead of being colonised, were allowed to disintegrate while the agents of foreign capital established areas of industrialisation under the protection of either their own governments or local warlords. The third were colonial states like British India, and to a lesser extent French Algeria, where the metropolitan power was unwilling to allow full-scale industrialisation in case it produced competition for its own commodities, but was prepared to sanction it in specific circumstances for reasons of military supply or where goods were not intended for home markets. Tsarist Russia neither emulated the process of “catch up and overtake” among the advanced countries nor suffered that of “blocked development” within the backward ones, but instead experienced a collision between the two.

It was in relation to developments in China that Trotsky finally moved beyond uneven development. He continued to employ the term between 1928 and 1930, most importantly in the articles collected in The Third International after Lenin, and in Permanent Revolution and its various prefaces. In these texts his main emphasis is still distinguishing his use of uneven development from that of Stalin, for whom countries developed at different tempos and must therefore advance through a series of stages—including that of socialism—at their own individual pace. Trotsky highlighted instead the “unity” of the world economy and the “interdependence” of the imperial powers and the colonial and semi-colonial world. Unevenness in this sense means simultaneously that individual countries could leap over the capitalist stage of development, as Russia had done and as China might have done, but would still be unable to complete the transition to socialism while the world economy as a whole remained dominated by the capitalist mode of production: the international system was both a spur at one moment and a block at another.54 Yet these important insights still did not address the question of how the first part of this process, the revolutionary moment, was possible. Trotsky needed a new concept, incorporating uneven development, but deepening its content.

It was in the first volume of The History of the Russian Revolution (1932) that he first outlines this new concept: “From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for want of a better name, we may call the law of combined development—by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms”.55 The precise forms which combination took obviously varied depending on whether the country involved was a formal colony controlled by a single imperial power, like India, or one nominally independent, but actually subdivided between several warlords and imperial powers, like China. Clearly there were differences. Unlike Tsarist Russia, neither Imperial nor Republican China was in a position to stimulate capitalist industrial growth. Where similarities did exist was in the role of foreign capital and imported technology and in the limited geographical implantation of capitalist industry. Nevertheless it was possible to generalise in relation to the effects:

Historical backwardness does not imply a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries, England or France, with a delay of one, two, or three centuries. It engenders an entirely new “combined” social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into relations of feudal or pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating peculiar relations of classes.56

Uneven and combined development affects the totality of a national society, not merely the economy. Trotsky was not saying that forms characteristic of different stages of development simply coexist alongside each other in striking or dramatic contrasts, although that could be true. Nor was he just emphasising the existence of transitional modes of production, although he recognised that these could exist. Uneven and combined development usually involves what Michael Burawoy calls “the combination of the capitalist mode of production with pre-existing modes”.57 Jamie Allinson and Alex Anievas too have written of how the “logics of different modes of production interact with one another in consequential ways in backward countries”.58 But a process that permeates every aspect of society, ideology as much as economy, must involve more than this. The “articulation” of capitalist and pre-capitalist modes had, after all, been progressing slowly in the Russian countryside since the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and had led to many complex transitional forms, as Lenin documented.59 None by themselves led to the type of situation Trotsky was seeking to explain: “At the same time that peasant land-cultivation as a whole remained, right up to the revolution, at the level of the 17th century, Russian industry in its technique and capitalist structure stood at the level of the advanced countries, and in certain respects even outstripped them”.60

The detonation of the process requires sudden, intensive industrialisation and urbanisation, regardless of whether the pre-existing agrarian economy was based on feudal or capitalist relations. Burawoy is therefore right to describe uneven and combined development as a product of “the timing of industrialisation in relation to the history of world capitalism”.61 Here too the Chinese experience was important. Trotsky was quite insistent—perhaps over-insistent—on which mode dominated the Chinese social formation. He rejected Communist International claims that feudalism predominated in the Chinese economic base and political superstructure: “Of course, matters would be quite hopeless if feudal survivals did really dominate in Chinese economic life,” he wrote in 1929. “But fortunately, survivals in general cannot dominate.” Instead he emphasised the extent of market relations and influence of different forms of mercantile and banking capital. Rural social relations “stem in part from the days of feudalism; and in part they constitute a new formation”, but within this formation:

it is capitalist relations that dominate and not “feudal” (more correctly, serf and, generally, pre-capitalist) relations. Only thanks to this dominant role of capitalist relations can we speak seriously of the prospects of proletarian hegemony in a national revolution.62

Whatever the extent of Trotsky’s exaggerations, it is important—not least in relation to modern China—that uneven and combined development can take place where the capitalist mode was already dominant. The archaic and the modern, the settled and disruptive, overlap, fuse and merge in all aspects of the social formations concerned, from the organisation of arms production to the structure of religious observance, in entirely new and unstable ways, generating socially explosive situations in which revolution became what Georg Lukács termed “actual”.63 It is tempting to describe these as mutations, except that the inadequacy of the language led Trotsky to reject the biological metaphors in which stages of development had been described from the Enlightenment to the Third International in its Stalinist phase: “The absorptive and flexible psyche, as a necessary condition for historical progress, confers on the so-called social ‘organisms’, as distinguished from the real, that is, biological organisms, an exceptional variability of internal structure”.64

These new combined formations gave rise to conflicts unknown in earlier historical periods. On the one hand: “The [backward] nation…not infrequently debases the achievements borrowed from outside in the process of adapting them to its own more primitive culture”.65 From 1861 Tsarism established factories using manufacturing technology characteristic of monopoly capitalism in order to produce arms with which to defend a feudal absolutist state.66 On the other hand, by doing so they bring into being a class more skilled, more politically conscious than that faced by any previous absolutist or early capitalist states.67 All subsequent non-Marxist theories of “the advantages of backwardness” assumed that technological transfers had a limited, or at least delayed, impact on other aspects of social life.68 Against this Trotsky argued that these transfers could in fact quicken the pace of change more generally, so that they attained higher levels of development than in their established rivals. As an example of this he drew attention to the greater implantation of Marxist theory among the working classes of Russia and, later, China than in that of Britain. Thus, for Trotsky, the most important consequence of uneven and combined development was the enhanced capacity it gave the working classes for political and industrial organisation, theoretical understanding and revolutionary activity:

When the productive forces of the metropolis, of a country of classical capitalism…find ingress into more backward countries, like Germany in the first half of the 19th century, and Russia at the merging of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in the present day in Asia; when the economic factors burst in a revolutionary manner, breaking up the old order; when development is no longer gradual and “organic” but assumes the form of terrible convulsions and drastic changes of former conceptions, then it becomes easier for critical thought to find revolutionary expression, provided that the necessary theoretical prerequisites exist in the given country.69

But uneven and combined development can also work, as it were, in reverse: “debased adaptation” is not only a feature of backward societies. Here too the opening of the age of imperialism is decisive. Between 1870 and 1914, for example, imperial Britain, Germany and Japan all consciously emphasised the role of their monarch-emperors; in each case, the pre-existing symbolism of the crown being used to represent national unity against two main challenges: external imperial rivalry and internal class divisions.70 But Trotsky saw this as a much more general phenomenon, necessarily caused by the need to maintain bourgeois hegemony over the exploited and oppressed in an era of revolution and which reached its apogee in the US:

It is considered unquestionable that technology and science undermine superstition. But the class character of society sets substantial limits here too. Take America. There, church sermons are broadcast by radio, which means that the radio is serving as a means of spreading prejudices.71

Trotsky’s argument suggests two questions about the character of uneven and combined development. One is whether it applies to all periods in human history. Trotsky himself tended to think that it did. His claim that “the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development” can certainly be defended.72 He later extended this, writing in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), “The law of uneven development is supplemented throughout the whole course of history by the law of combined development”.73 Whether this is equally defensible is, however, another matter.74 Trotsky did not attempt to demonstrate his claims for the transhistoricity of uneven and combined development, but Justin Rosenberg has attempted to do so with examples from the Russian state after 800 AD, which he claims show three aspects of combination.

First, “the course of Russian development was ‘combined’ in the sense that at every point it was causally integrated with a wider social field of interacting patterns of development”.75 By this he means that Russia was subject to “inter-societal causality”, an environment in which the endless interplay of other states or social forces shaped its internal structure in a way that could never be completed. Second, combination also involved “structures” which “extended beyond Russia itself”. Among such structures Rosenberg includes “regional political orders, cultural systems and material divisions of labour”. The third, “yet deeper” dimension is the consequence of the first two, the creation of a “hybrid” social formation, “a changing amalgam of pre-existent ‘internal’ structures of social life with external socio-political and cultural influences”. Consequently, there “never existed a ‘pre-combination’ Russia”; at every point its existence was traversed by these influences: “combined development identifies the inter-societal, relational texture of the historical processes within which the shifting meanings of the term ‘Russia’ crystallised and accumulated”. In general terms, Rosenberg invites us to “abandon at the deepest theoretical level any notion of the constitution of society as analytically prior to its interaction with other societies”.76

The inseparability of the international from the social is, however, inscribed in historical materialism from the moment of its formation, notably The German Ideology. But in this moment, Marx and Engels were also clear that “history becomes world history” only as a result of capitalism.77 Why? Before capitalism all class societies, with the exception of those based on slavery, were based on variations of the same mode of production, involving surplus extraction from a class of peasants and taking either a “feudal” or “tributary” form depending on whether the main agent of exploitation was a class of local landlords or the state bureaucracy.78 There were important differences between them, particularly in terms of how the ruling classes organised, but most pre-capitalist societies seem to have involved elements of both, with one or the other achieving dominance at different times. Those cases which were the purest examples of one variant or the other (for example, feudal England or tributary China) had quite different possibilities for capitalist development. Until that development took place, however, societies could borrow from each other, influence one another—particularly in the field of culture and philosophy—but were not sufficiently differentiated from each other for elements to “combine” to any effect. The very terms that Trotsky uses in describing
combination—”archaic and more contemporary forms”—were unthinkable until capitalism defined what it meant to be “archaic”.79

We therefore need to draw a distinction between Trotsky’s general account of Russian development, which, as Rosenberg correctly says, was always subject to external influence, and the specific moment at which these influences were not merely successfully absorbed into an endlessly mutating social form, but set up a series of tensions which threatened to, and eventually did, tear the fabric of Russian society apart in 1917. The moment of uneven and combined development, in other words, only arrives with capitalist industrialisation and the historically unique society to which it gave rise. The immense difference between industrial capitalism and previous modes of production meant that, from the moment the former was introduced, combination became possible in a way that it had not been hitherto; but the structural dynamism of industrial capitalism compared with previous modes of production also meant that combination became inescapable, as all aspects of existing society registered the impact on them, to differing degrees, of this radically new means of exploitation. “In contrast to the economic systems that preceded it,” wrote Trotsky, “capitalism inherently and constantly aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships”.80 Rosenberg himself notes that, “for Trotsky, capitalism did not just change the world: it actually changed the overall nature of historical change itself”.81 I think he has insufficiently incorporated this insight into his own work.

The second question is whether uneven and combined development is a process necessarily confined to individual states. Rosenberg argues that, for Trotsky, “’combined development’ was a phenomenon not of individual societies alone, but of the evolving international social formation as a whole”.82 In a discussion of Marx’s original plan for the structure of Capital, he further claims that if we “neglect the significance of uneven and combined development” at the level of those determinants which apply to all societies, then the result will ultimately be either economic reductionism or a version of Realist International Relations theory in which states appear as sovereign actors seeking—insofar as they are able—advantage and security within the global system.83 Colin Barker has reached similar conclusions to Rosenberg, suggesting that an “extended” concept of uneven and combined development is implicit in Trotsky’s own work, “Only from the angle of world economy, of the combined development of the different countries within it, do words like ‘advanced’ and ‘archaic’ have any meaning, as measures of coercive comparison within a larger system of competitive transactions”.84

I have more sympathy with these arguments since, as I have argued above, uneven and combined development is produced by the impact of different aspects of the international capitalist system (economic competition, military rivalry and colonial rule) on the societies constitutive of it. It is important, however, not to confuse the sources of a particular historical process with the process itself. Trotsky famously wrote, “Marxism takes its point of departure from world economy, not as a sum of national parts, but as a mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labour and the world market, and which in our epoch imperiously dominates the national markets”.85 Uneven and combined development is a consequence of the world economy, but it is played out within the component parts of the states system: the territorial confines of these states are where the specific combinations take place. Indeed, it is difficult to see how any analysis of a “concrete situation” can be undertaken while remaining at the level of “the international”. If the writers quoted in the previous paragraph are right, and what happened in Russia was merely an example of a universal process, then what remains of the “peculiarities” of Russian development which Trotsky took as the basis of his theory, and which he later extended to other areas of the colonial and semi-colonial world? If everywhere is subject to uneven and combined development then it clearly explains nothing in particular about Russia, or anywhere else for that matter, and we must search for another theory to achieve what Trotsky sought to do.

Uneven and combined development is a feature of certain societies: unlike the world economy of which Trotsky spoke or the states system, whose interaction gave it birth; it does not constitute “an independent reality” greater than its component parts. Uneven development occurs at the international level, but it is meaningless to talk about combined development in this respect. The significance of the process is precisely the tensions and conflicts to which it gives rise within the territorial boundaries of particular states, not least because the state itself is a combined formation. In Russia after 1861, for example, the state apparatus remained staffed by members of the landed aristocracy, but these were not, as in England after 1688 and Germany after 1871, essentially agrarian capitalists, but feudal landlords presiding over a complex set of class relationships in various early stages to the transition to capitalism. The absolutist state nevertheless needed to industrialise in order to remain on a position of military parity with its rivals, but the reliance that it placed on the landlord class meant that industrialisation could not be financed through taxation or by using the appropriation of agricultural surpluses. This in turn compelled the state to borrow foreign capital, above all from France, with contradictory effect. Industrialisation took place rapidly and intensively, but without leading to the creation of a powerful native bourgeoisie. In order to sustain it the state needed to export grain in order to service its foreign debt repayments, leading, as grain prices fell, to greater pressure on the peasantry to deliver more grain without providing them with the means to increase productivity, thus leading to growing peasant unrest. And since industrialisation effectively coincided with the transition to capitalism, the proletariat was formed without intermediary stages, making it more volatile from the start, in a situation where the state could afford less in terms of making concessions over wages, conditions or political rights.86

Trotsky, who emphasised more than any of his contemporaries the reality of the world economy, was also the thinker who refocused attention from “the international” in general to its impact on individual nation-states. He never faltered in his belief that the socialist revolution could only ever be accomplished on a global basis, but was equally forceful in arguing that the strategies adopted by revolutionaries outside the developed West had to be based on an assessment of the extent of combined development and the specific forms which it took.

We can now return to the central absence in Cliff’s revision of Trotsky. The theory of uneven and combined development explained what occurs when the process of “overleaping” takes place in the colonial or neo-colonial world, where it is impossible to fully “catch up” with, let alone “overtake” the developed West, but to do so instead in a fragmentary or partial way. But the resulting combined forms, because of their inbuilt social instability, paradoxically made revolutionary outbreaks more likely than in the developed world, with its greater levels of stability and reformist traditions. In other words, the presence of uneven and combined development made it possible for a strategy of permanent revolution to be pursued with greater likelihood of success; its absence made it, not inevitable, but less likely that such a strategy would be pursued in the first place, thus leading to the process of “deflection” highlighted by Cliff.

Conclusion

Permanent revolution, and consequently deflected permanent revolution may now be historical concepts, but uneven and combined development is not, with important implications for the possibility of socialist revolution beginning in the Global South. Following Trotsky, Tim McDaniel argues that there were four reasons why what he calls the “autocratic capitalism” of Tsarist Russia tended to produce a revolutionary labour movement. First, it eliminated or reduced the distinction between economic and political issues. Second, it generated opposition for both traditional and modern reasons. Third, it reduced the fragmentation of the working class, but also prevented the formation of a stable conservative bureaucracy, thus leading to more radical attitudes. Fourth, it forced a degree of interdependence between the mass of the working class, class-conscious workers and revolutionary intellectuals.87 McDaniel claims that a comparable situation has arisen since only in Iran, but this seems to unnecessarily restrict the applicability of the model to situations which resemble pre-Revolutionary Russia closely in formal terms.88 In fact, the relentless expansion of neoliberal globalisation, and the consequent irruption of industrialisation and urbanisation into areas they had previously bypassed, often under conditions of intense state repression, means that the responses identified by McDaniel are being reproduced places as distinct as China and Dubai.89 But these are only the most extreme examples of a general trend that is the most characteristic of the current phase of capitalist development. Two points need to be made in relation to the process.

One is that it is not limited to the Global South, but to the relatively undeveloped parts of the First and former Second Worlds. As Beverley Silver writes:

Strong new working class movements had been created as a combined result of the spatial fixes pursued by multinational capital and the import substitution industrialisation efforts of modernising states. In some cases, like Brazil’s automobile workers; labour militancy was rooted in the newly expanding mass production consumer durable industries. In other cases, like the rise of Solidarno´s´c in Poland’s shipyards, militancy was centred in gigantic establishments providing capital goods. In still others, like Iran’s oil workers, labour militancy was centred on critical natural resource export industries.90

Take, for example, the Italian Mezzogiorno, where Italian unification was followed by a pronounced process of deindustrialisation, which led to a steady drain of capital to the North, with a long-term reservoir of cheap labour-power, cheap agricultural products and a docile clientele in the South; here the process of uneven and combined development led to similarly high levels of militancy to that seen in countries characterised by more general backwardness, the key episode being the revolt of the Italian in-migrants against their living conditions and low pay during the “industrial miracle” of the late 50s and early 60s. What is interesting about the Italian example, however, is that the process has continued, in different forms until the present day.91

The second point to be made is that, in the Global South proper at least, the process is still unable completely to transform those societies. The state “containers” within which the process of uneven and combined development unfolds, including China, will never achieve the type of total transformation characteristic of the states that formed the original core of the capitalist world system, at least in any foreseeable timescale. One intelligent conservative commentator, Edward Luttwak, has referred to “the perils of incomplete imitation” whereby developing world ruling classes “have been importing a dangerously unstable version of American turbo-capitalism, because the formula is incomplete”. What is missing? On the one hand, the legal regulation to control what he calls “the overpowering strength of big business”, and on the other, the internal humility of the winners and acceptance of the essential justice of their personal situation by the losers from the system.92 Uneven and combined development is therefore likely to be an ongoing process, which will only be resolved by either revolution or disintegration. But in the meantime, China and other states like India and Brazil where growth has been less dramatic remain both inherently unstable in their internal social relations and expansive in their external search for markets, raw materials and investment opportunities. It is in this inherent instability that the possibilities for permanent revolution lie. This does not mean that wherever uneven and combined development exists today the working class movement will automatically adopt what Trotsky called the “boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought”. In circumstances where Marxist ideas (and those of secular radicalism more generally) are either unavailable or discredited after the experience of Stalinism, movements will reach for whatever ideas seem to assist them in their struggle, regardless of their antiquity—but they will transform them in the process, contrary to what is asserted to the contrary by reactionaries in the West.

The late Fred Halliday once expressed his own disillusionment after the fall of the Soviet Empire, rejecting the revolutionary possibilities of uneven and combined development:

The insight of Trotsky was that of locating the history, and revolution of any one country in a broader, contradictory context, in seeing how ideas, and forms of conflict, like forms of technology or economic activity, could be transposed to contexts very different from that in which they originated. The mistake of the Marxist approach was to conclude that, in the end, the combination would prevail over the unevenness. The unevenness, evident above all in the widening income gaps between rich and poor on a world scale, has continued to grow, and is replicated dramatically in an era of capitalist globalisation. But because of the fragmentary character of states, the spatial and political distributor of that unevenness, the combination, the world revolutionary cataclysm, did not occur.93

To this we reply: combination is not “the world revolutionary cataclysm”, it is the objective enabling condition for it to take place. And if the cataclysm has not yet occurred, this is largely because of the absence of the missing subjective condition, which Trotsky recognised in 1917, and which Cliff highlighted back in the 1960s: the revolutionary organisation capable of giving focus to the social explosions which the process of uneven and combined development brings in its wake. In that respect, whatever else may have changed since both men wrote, the necessity for the party remains, if the incredible energies unleashed by uneven and combined development are not to be wasted yet again, with terrible consequences for the world and those who live in it.

Notes

1: i-ek, 2002, pp305-306. Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Gareth Dale and Gonzalo Pozo for comments on the first draft.

2: Cliff, 2003.

3: MacIntyre, 2008, p275.

4: Cliff, 2000, pp42, 48.

5: Pozo, 2010.

6: Zeilig, 2010, p182.

7: Zeilig, 2010, p163. The article is part of a growing and impressive body of work by the same author on the rich and complex history of African politics. See also Zeilig, 2007, Zeilig 2008, and Zeilig, 2009.

8: Other writers in the International Socialist tradition have subsequently made this more explicit. See, for example, Callinicos, 1989, pp159-160, and Harris, 1978, pp261-282.

9: Cliff, 1989, p128. For his entire discussion see Cliff, 1989, pp126-128 and Cliff, 1993, pp164-165.

10: See Day and Guido, 2009; Geras, 1976; Larsson, 1970, pp252-304; Löwy, 1981, chapter 2.

11: Trotsky, 1977b, p138.

12: Trotsky, 1976c, pp581, 582-583.

13: Trotsky, 1979a, pp784-785.

14: Trotsky, 1976c, p582.

15: Trotsky, 1977b, p138.

16: Cliff, 2003a, p188.

17: Löwy, 1981, p89.

18: Trotsky, 1972c, p291.

19: Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000, pp1182-1186; Therborn, 1977, pp4, 17.

20: Cliff, 1984, pp65-66.

21: Callinicos, 1982, p110.

22: Cliff, 2000, p227.

23: Marx, 1975, pp419-420; Trotsky, 1937, p288. Much the clearest discussion of the subject is in Draper, 1978, pp17-21.

24: Harman, 1990, pp64-71.

25: Trotsky, 1969b, p131.

26: Harman, 1990, p38.

27: Halliday and Molyneux, 1981, pp62-74.

28: Cliff, 2003, pp196-198.

29: Harman, 2010, p344.

30: Davidson, 2005, pp21-27. I discuss this issue in more detail in Davidson, 2011a, chapter 2.

31: Trotsky, 1976c, pp581, 583-584.

32: For discussions of this “consequentialist” position, see Callinicos, 1989, pp124-127 and Davidson, 2005, pp27-32.

33: Draper, 1978, p169.

34: Draper, 1978, p289.

35: Anderson, 1992, p112.

36: Mann, 1993, p229.

37: Hobsbawm, 1975, p21.

38: Rees, 1999, p28; Rees, 2006, p155.

39: Trimberger, 1978, pp4-5, 41-45. Trimberger identifies the Meiji Restoration as the first revolution of this type.

40: Cliff, 2003, pp194-195.

41: Gatrell, 1994, p93; Koenker and Rosenberg, 1989, pp103-110; Schneiderman, 1976, pp69-140.

42: Cliff, 2003, p196.

43: For examples of these mistakes and a sketch of the history of the theory of uneven development, see Davidson, 2006a, pp10-20, and Davidson, 2009, pp10-11. For a more detailed discussion, see Davidson, forthcoming in 2011b, chapter 1.

44: Trotsky, 1977a, p27.

45: Mandel, 1995, p1.

46: Smith, 1990, pxiv.

47: Lenin, 1964, p241.

48: Lenin, 1964, pp263-264.

49: Trotsky, 1979b, p858.

50: The only real forerunner here is Rosa Luxemburg in a brilliant article from 1896 on the Ottoman Empire-see Luxemburg, 2003, pp38-40.

51: Trotsky, 1969b, p241.

52: Curtin, 2000, p150.

53: Gowan, 1999, p167.

54: Trotsky, 1969b, pp148-150, 252-260; Trotsky, 1974b, pp14-19.

55: Trotsky, 1977a, pp27-28.

56: Trotsky, 1976c, p583.

57: Burawoy, 1985, p99.

58: Allinson and Anievas, 2009, p52.

59: Lenin, 1960, pp191-210.

60: Trotsky, 1977a, p30. And see, for example, Reiber, 1982, p224.

61: Burawoy, 1985, p99.

62: Trotsky, 1974b, pp159-160.

63: Lukács, 1970, chapter 1.

64: Trotsky, 1972b, p251.

65: Trotsky, 1977a, p27.

66: Treblicock, 1981, p208.

67: Trotsky, 1977a, p55. And see, for example, Gatrell, 1994, p15.

68: See, for example, Gerschenkron, 1962, pp127-128.

69: Trotsky, 1972a, p199. See also Trotsky, 1977a, p33.

70: Cannadine, 1983, pp120-150; Bayly, 2004, pp426-430.

71: Trotsky, 1994, p257.

72: Trotsky, 1974b, p115.

73: Trotsky, 1937, p300.

74: James Allinson and Alex Anievas also have concerns with claims for the transhistorical nature of uneven and combined development, although for different reasons from those expressed here. See Allinson and Anievas, 2009, pp62-63.

75: Rosenberg, 2006, p321.

76: Rosenberg, 2006, pp321-325.

77: Marx and Engels, 1976, pp50-51.

78: Haldon, 1993, pp63-69; Wickham, 2005, pp57-61.

79: Trotsky, 1977a, p28.

80: Trotsky, 1974b, p15.

81: Rosenberg, 2007, p456.

82: Rosenberg, 2005, p41.

83: Callinicos and Rosenberg, 2008, p99.

84: Barker, 2006, p78. See also Allinson and Anievas, 2009, p54.

85: Trotsky, 1969b, p146.

86: Looker and Coates, 1986, pp112-113; Schwartz, 2000, pp95-96.

87: McDaniel, 1988, pp41-47.

88: McDaniel, 1988, p407.

89: Davis, 2007, pp53-54. Indeed, in the case of China, it might be said that the neoliberal turn after 1978 actually resumed the process of uneven and combined development originally detected by Trotsky in the 1920s, which had been consciously halted by a Maoist leadership only too conscious of the explosive effects of uncontrolled urban expansion. See Davidson, 2006, pp214-222.

90: Silver, 2003, p164.

91: Ginsborg, 1990, pp223-9, 47-53; Hardt and Negri, 2000, pp287-289.

92: Luttwak, 1998, pp25-26.

93: Halliday, 1999, pp320-321.

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Mann, Michael, 1993, The Sources of Social Power, volume 2, the Rise of Classes and NationStates, 17601914 (Cambridge University Press).

Marx, Karl, 1975 [1844], “Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’”, in Early Writings (Penguin/New Left Review), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/08/07.htm

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels, 1976 [1845—1846], The German Ideology, in Collected Works, volume 5 (Lawrence and Wishart), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm#p27

McDaniel, Tim, 1988, Autocracy, Capitalism and Revolution in Russia (University of California).

Pozo, Gonzalo, 2010, “Reassessing the Permanent Arms Economy”, International Socialism, 127 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=660

Rees, John, 1999, “The Democratic Revolution and the Socialist Revolution”, International Socialism 83 (summer), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj83/rees.htm

Rees, John, 2006, Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge).

Reiber, Alfred, 1982, Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia (University of North Carolina).

Rosenberg, Justin, 2005, “Globalisation Theory: a Post-Mortem”, International Politics, volume 42, number 1.

Rosenberg, Justin, 2006, “Why is there No International Historical Sociology?” European Journal of International Relations, volume 12, number 3.

Rosenberg, Justin, 2007, “International Relations—the ‘Higher Bullshit’: a reply to the Globalisation Theory Debate”, International Politics, volume 44, number 4.

Schneiderman, Jeremiah, 1976, Sergei Zubatov and Revolutionary Marxism: the Struggle for the Working Class in Tsarist Russia (Cornell University Press).

Schwartz, Herman, 2000, States Versus Markets: the Emergence of a Global Economy, second edition (Macmillan).

Silver, Beverley, 2003, Forces of Labour: Workers’ Movements and Globalisation since 1870 (Cambridge University).

Smith, Neil, 1990 [1984], Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (Blackwell).

Therborn, Goran, 1977, “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy”, New Left Review I/103.

Treblicock, Clive, 1981, The Industrialisation of the Continental Powers, 1780–1914 (Longmans).

Trimberger, Ellen Kay, 1978, Revolution from Above: Military Bureaucrats and Development in Japan, Turkey, Egypt and Peru (Transaction Books).

Trotsky, Leon, 1937, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and where is it going? (Monad), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/index.htm

Trotsky, Leon 1969a [1906], Results and Prospects, in The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (Pathfinder), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp04.htm and www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp08.htm

Trotsky, Leon 1969b [1929/30], Permanent Revolution, in The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (Pathfinder), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/index.htm

Trotsky, Leon, 1970 [1937], “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto”, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1937–38], edited by Naomi Allen and George Breitman (Pathfinder).

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Workers’ organizations 
in the Russian Revolution-Amy Muldoon

Posted by admin On August - 31 - 2018 Comments Off on Workers’ organizations 
in the Russian Revolution-Amy Muldoon

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Factory committees, trade unions,
and the struggle for power
Workers’ organizations 
in the Russian Revolution
Factory committees, trade unions,
and the struggle for power
By Amy Muldoon

“By becoming accustomed to self-management, the workers are preparing for that time when private ownership of factories and works will be abolished, and the means of production, together with the buildings erected by the workers’ hands, will pass into the hands of the working class as a whole. Thus, whilst doing the small things, we must constantly bear in mind the great overriding objective towards which the working people is striving.” —Putilov works committee statement
 to shop committees, April 24 19171
The centennial of the Russian Revolution is a fitting time for Marxists and other radicals to reflect on the what still stands as the historical high point of revolutionary workers’ struggles. The Revolution was a multifaceted process. It was fueled not only by the resistance of workers to their crushing economic oppression under tsarism, but also by the mutinous movement of soldiers and sailors against World War I;

the aspirations of all classes for full democratic rights as citizens; developing national liberation struggles encompassing over half the Russian population; massive peasant revolts in the countryside; and even nascent struggles for women’s rights.

Yet among these multiple forces the working class played the pivotal role. The Revolution posed the possibility of remaking society, free from classes, through the vehicle of a national network of directly elected Soviets of Workers, Soldiers, and Peasant Deputies. The radical democratic character of the Soviets was based on a foundation of workers’ self-organization at the system’s heart: the point of production. As the Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken,” and Russian workers built multiple tools to break the chains of their oppression.2

Foremost among the organizations workers created were the factory committees and trade unions. The development of these bodies follows the general trajectory of all of Russian society in 1917—from the spring of hope, through the hot summer of conflict, to the hardened polarization of the fall.

While many strains of left-wing thought today embrace the profound self-activity of the working class in the Russian Revolution, some see the Bolshevik Party as an outside influence in the revolution, manipulating the situation for its own political agenda. Modern authors like radical scholar Noam Chomsky, and his forebear Maurice Brinton articulate this anarchist version of events.3 While the Bolsheviks “adopted much of the rhetoric” of the masses, “their true commitments were quite different,” writes Chomsky. “In revolutionary Russia, Soviets and factory committees developed as instruments of struggle and liberation, with many flaws, but with a rich potential. Lenin and Trotsky, upon assuming power, immediately devoted themselves to destroying the liberatory potential of these instruments.”4

The narrative that the Bolsheviks acted as an outside force to hijack the Russian workers’ movement doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. In fact, the Bolsheviks weren’t an external body separate from the working class: the party was both the producer and the product of the workers’ struggles. Between February and October of 1917, the Bolshevik Party ballooned from 25,000 to 350,000 members. This was only possible because party activists were themselves an important part of the working class in Russia’s industrial centers, especially Petrograd. Their program matched the program of their fellow workers and soldiers, and their tactical leadership in daily struggles provided real gains. As one Menshevik eyewitness recounted of the Bolsheviks, “For the masses, they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks. . . . The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks.”5

The Bolsheviks were not alone in contending for a working class audi­ence: there were many parties and trends, all vying for leadership of the movement. Against the Bolsheviks were ranged a wide array of rivals and opponents: fellow Social Democrats like the moderate Mensheviks and the more left-wing Menshevik Internationalists, Socialist Revolutionaries (both the Left and Right variety),6 the Petersburg Interdistrict Committee7 and other socialist parties. Then there were the liberals in the Kadet Party in addition to the anarchists and syndicalists in smaller formations. Debates in a vibrant workers’ press as well as in the streets and workplaces meant a constant exposure to the different strategies, tactics, and analyses of contending parties.

The argument that the Bolsheviks manipulated Russian workers underestimates both the astuteness of the workers who joined the Bolsheviks and the heightened political atmosphere of 1917. Within the working class a battle of ideas raged through 1917. Bolshevik N. Krupskaya describes in her memoirs regularly witnessing all-night street debates in Petrograd soon after her return to the capitol. John Reed’s famous account noted that, “For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune.”8

In his booklet Factory Committees and Workers’ Control in Petrograd in 1917, David Mandel argues that the factory committees were not formed on the initiative of any party. They were created from below as a “practical response by workers to the looming economic crisis” and “the inactivity and active sabotage on the part of the factory owners and the coalition government of liberals and moderate socialists.” And yet, as he also notes, “The movement for workers’ control exemplifies the role of the Bolshevik Party, as an organic, democratically organized part of the working class, in giving rank-and-file initiatives organizational form and practical goals, and in linking them to the overall struggle for working-class political power.9

Workers in Russia built many kinds of organizations through 1917. This article will focus on factory committees and unions to reassert the centrality of the shop floor as the landscape for the revolutionary process.10 It will also highlight the indissoluble link between the maturation of the movement and the presence of the Bolshevik Party. Moving in roughly chronological order, the article will look at how the early period of hope and unity across Russian classes foundered on the limits of coalition with the capitalists. The cracking up of the unity of forces that ousted the tsar in February is often depicted through the debates over policy that dominated the Soviet and the Provisional Government (World War I loomed as the central issue); this article highlights the economic friction that led millions of workers to embrace a second insurrection against the February order. Last, the article aims to highlight the dialectical relationship between organization and consciousness and to reassert the material roots of political radicalization.

Roots of the rebellion

Russia at the opening of World War I was a society in the midst of a massive transformation. The Russian Empire encompassed over 150 million people, with 70 percent living in the countryside. Within this aging empire, modern capitalist enterprises had taken root, funded by foreign capital and nurtured by state ownership and intervention. The introduction of imported technology and capital allowed the development of concentrated centers of production within a society still characterized by medieval relations. Leon Trotsky called this process “combined and uneven development,” as Russia skipped many of the intermediary steps between feudalism and advanced capitalism, and fused the most backward and most forward elements of society together in one uneasy whole.11

The working class as social force was born in the 1890s. Though a small minority—just over 3 million in 1917—it was heavily concentrated in large cities and mining enterprises. In Petrograd, the heart of the workers’ movement, the number of factory workers grew from 73,200 in 1890 to 242,600 by 1914. The coming of World War I compounded this growth: Petrograd crammed another 150,000 workers into the city center by 1917. Metal works were the largest employer, accounting for 60 percent of factory workers. The Putilov Works in Petrograd employed 30,000, making it the world’s largest factory.12

Russian society lacked basic democratic rights; the franchise was severely restricted, and the Duma, or Russian parliament, was powerless. Basic freedoms, including the right to form unions, were also practically nonexistent. Corporal punishment, the age-old custom used by lords against peasants, was carried into factories. The first years following the turn of the twentieth century were marked by increasingly bitter strikes and workplace organizing, which culminated with workers and other disgruntled sections of Russian society rising against the autocracy in 1905. In January of that year, a peaceful procession of thousands of workers under the leadership of a mild reformist priest working with the police marched on the Winter Palace to deliver a petition for social and economic improvements. Troops opened fire, killing hundreds—producing a year of mass strikes, mutinies, and peasant rebellions.

The partial and decentralized organizing of the movement shifted qualitatively with the creation of citywide organizing centers to help develop the unprecedented strike movement. (For the whole period of 1895–1904, 431,000 workers went on strike, whereas in the year 1905, 2,863,000 workers struck).13 Called “soviets” (Russian for councils), these centers quickly spread to Moscow and St. Petersburg. They combined existing organizations’ representatives—from factory committees and unions—with directly elected representatives from every workplace.14 Not limited to a single shop or even a single industry, soviets represented the unified collective power of the class. But the Petersburg Soviet only lasted a few months, and, in December, after the defeat of an uprising in Moscow, the tsar was able to regroup and repress all forms of workers’ organizations and left political parties.

In this same period the system of electing factory elders (starosy) also spread. Through the course of the revolutionary upsurge in 1905, factory committees of elders participated in direct action to impose control over the production process. Despite the very radical name of “workers control,” factory committees were not viewed as inherently anticapitalist but as part of the bourgeois revolution that would replace the tsar. Workers considered the democratization of the workplace to be part of the process of democratizing Russian society as a whole.

The February Revolution and the emergence of the factory committees

On International Working Women’s Day, February 23, 1917, women workers in the capital launched a strike wave that would spell the end of tsarism in Russia. The strike movement escalated in the following days, driving the police from the streets and winning whole units of the army over to mutiny in support. Soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies were created across Petrograd and then Russia, embracing factories, army, and navy units; and eventually electing peasant, student, and neighborhood delegates.

At the same time, the bourgeois segments of the Duma moved to establish a new political ruling body, the Provisional Government. While donning the mantle of the revolution, the Provisional Government sought to lay the basis for a bourgeois government, committed to the pursuit of Russia’s war aims and prepared to perpetually postpone land reform.

The conflict between one political organ based on bourgeois power and a second based in working-class self-organization was obvious. The precarious alliance between these two bodies—the Duma and the Soviet—was held together by the dominance of the moderate socialists in the Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviet, which subordinated itself to the Provisional Government.

The February revolution was the product of a mounting strike wave. The years of reaction gave way to a resurgence of class struggle in 1912. The outbreak of World War I two years later brought this revival to a temporary halt—only to give it renewed vigour as the result of poverty and extreme exploitation produced by the war. Between August and December 1914, there were twenty-five strikes involving fewer than 20,000 workers in Petrograd; rising to 170 strikes involving 173,833 workers in 1915; and then up to 401 strikes and 513,737 workers in 1916.15 Then, with the exploision of the revolution in 1917, the number of strikes skyrocketed. By the time of the collapse of tsarism, factory inspectors had recorded strikes, the majority of them political, in “1,330 enterprises involving 676,000 workers . . . a larger number than for all of 1916.”16

It was during this surge of working-class struggle in February that factory committees sprang up across Russia. As historian Gennady Shkliarevsky notes, “The organization of factory committees began when the February strikes that led to the overthrow of the monarchy were still in progress. In many instances factory committees were organized even before local soviets came into existence.”17 The movement spread dramatically; by June 1917 three-quarters of Russian workers, according to one estimate, were involved in the movement.18

Company-wide assemblies of workers were also a common sight at the outbreak of the revolution and reflective of the deeply democratic nature of the movement. These meetings were a direct means by which workers debated and decided questions raised in the course of the struggle. “What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory),” writes John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World, “pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk!”19 The assemblies typically involved reports from factory delegates to district soviets, or invited speakers. Then representatives from different political fractions would speak, followed by debate and then voting on resolutions.20

These assemblies did not limit their discussions to economic questions; larger political questions were debated. A typical resolution passed June 15 by the Old Parviainen Machine-Construction Factory in Petrograd, for example, called on workers and peasants to make “a decisive break with the policy of imperialism and conciliation with imperialism—a policy aimed at reducing the Russian Revolution to the role of executor of the desires of international capital.”21

Assemblies also elected the factory-wide committees known as “works committees” which were tasked with wide-ranging responsibilities derived from the immediate needs of their workmates, but also those of the factory itself. Works committees assumed responsibility for keeping factories running. They set about securing raw materials like coal and pig iron from other factory committees, and sent representatives into the countryside to procure food through direct negotiation with peasants.

The character of the factory committees in the first months of the revolution was defensive, pushing back against the bosses’ undermining of the already weak economy. In the private sector, the imposition of worker supervision through the committees fought the economic dislocation that bosses were using to break up the working class movement. Workers (often correctly) suspected management sabotage of machinery or intentional idling of shops as a means of disciplining workers by creating de facto lockouts. Actual lockouts were similarly used to head off rising rank-and-file resistance.

The task of running some of the largest factories in the world was too great for a single committee, however. Within days of the overthrow of the tsar, works committees initiated the creation of “shop committees” to handle the vast details of workers’ control. Putilov workers established nearly forty shop committees, which were created to “defend the workers of the shop; to observe and organize internal order; to see that regulations were being followed; to control hiring and firing of workers; to resolve conflicts over wage-rates; to keep a close eye on working conditions; to check whether the military conscription of individual workers had been deferred, etc.”22

In addition, commissions were created to address the social and adminstrative needs of factory life. The Nevskii shipyard committee created six commissions, including: “a militia commission responsible for security of the factory, a food commission, a commission on culture and enlightenment, a technical-economic commission responsible for wages, safety, first aid and internal order, a reception commission responsible for the hiring and firing of workers, and finally a special commission which dealt with the clerical business of the committee.”23

Within a month of the February Revolution, 80 percent of Petrograd’s almost 400,000 factory workers were represented by a shop committee. The depiction above should make clear that far from being “spontaneous,” the factory committees were highly organized through durable and accountable leadership structures.

The experience of the factory committees illustrates the contradictory nature of what the revolution unleashed. While the factory committees were venues for profound cooperation and self-activity, supplanting management also meant that they assumed responsibility for labor discipline. The factory committees became disciplinary bodies, fining, suspending, and firing workers, particularly those who showed up drunk to work, or were chronically absent. In some workplaces where productivity slumped after the tsar’s fall, piece-rates were implemented to keep production up.

One of the most famous aspects of the workers’ revolt of February/March was the “carting out” of hated foremen. Historically in Russia, lacking stable unions, workers turned to direct action against abusive managers. They were thrown in wheelbarrows and given a rough ride to the factory gate, or in the case of enterprises located near the canals and rivers, into the water below. Naturally, in the strikes of the February Revolution, this practice returned with gusto. In a few isolated cases, managers were killed by their employes on the spot. These were often the immediate response to the sheer brutality of individuals, but they also represented an effort to clear away managers who were ineffective or sabotaging the factory, signaling the workers’ interest not just in improving conditions but in production itself.

The removal of factory administrators followed this pattern of removal in order to improve the efficiency and running of the factory (not just for abuse) and was implemented through the will of the committees in a deliberate manner. Historian David Mandel writes in Factory Committees and Workers’ Control in Petrograd in 1917: “At the First Power Station, the workers decided to remove the board of directors as ‘henchmen of the old regime, and recognizing their harmfulness from the economic point of view and their uselessness from the technical.’”24

Despite this incredible array of encroachments into the power of the state and bourgeoisie over production, the common understanding of the goal of the movement at this time was “workers’ control,” not “workers’ management”, supervision of production, not expropriation of the bosses. The factory committees monitored daily operations but accepted capitalist management of the economic and technical side of the enterprise. When worker management did appear in the early phase of the revolution, it did so because bosses abandoned their posts, not because workers drove them out.

As Mandel writes in Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Régime, even in 1917, workers control didn’t mean an immediate transition to socialism:

The social content of the workers’ conception of the revolution included three basic elements: the eight-hour day, a significant improvement in wages and conditions, and the “democratisation of factory life.” In their minds, these were part and parcel of the democratic revolution; they were not seen as a challenge to the capitalist system or to the fundamental rights of private property.25

This reality is well illustrated by the course of the factory committees in the state sector, which was almost entirely war production. The dynamic in these industries were distinctly different from the private sector. With the fall of the tsar, many state enterprises were abandoned by their managers, tied as they were to the old regime. The tsar’s abdication in February left the factories in the hands of “the people.” In this vacuum, workers interpreted this to mean that the factory committees should control all of factory operations. However, as the political situation stabilized, the state reasserted its control, and workers voluntarily returned the reins. One factor that weighed on the consideration of taking full control of production was, as Mandel points out, that “given conditions of economic crisis, the factory committees understood that their chances of failing and being discredited were very great.”26

The fight for the eight-hour day

In many locations following the fall of the tsar, the eight-hour day was simply declared by the committees and immediately implemented. A historian of the factory committees, S. A. Smith, writes that this demand expressed more than the economic needs of the class: “The workers argued that the eight-hour day was necessary not merely to diminish their exploitation, but also to create time for trade union organization, education and involvement in public affairs.”27 Particularly adamant over the introduction of the eight-hour day were women workers. With the double burden of house work and paid work, women workers not only demanded the eight-hour day, but refused to work any overtime, even for time-and-a-half pay.

On March 19, the workers of the Moscow Military-Industry Factory declared, “We consider the establishment of the eight-hour day not only an economic victory but we see it as a fact of enormous political significance in the struggle for the liberation of the working class.”28

In the early weeks of the revolution, with workers on the offensive, the bosses sought to stabilize the situation. Following the de facto implementation of the eight-hour day, the Society of Factory and Works Owners (SFWO) approached the soviet to begin formalizing the relations between employers and employees. On March 10 both sides agreed to three points: recognition of the factory committees, the eight-hour day, and “conciliation chambers” where disputes that could not be worked out on the shop floor could be referred. It would take another month for this agreement to be shaped into a law. On April 23, the Provisional Government issued a law governing factory committees: recognizing them, but in a narrow fashion, reflecting the moderate socialists’ aversion to any talk of “worker’s control.”

“The aim of the government” writes Smith, “as in the legislation on conciliation committees, was not to stifle the factory committees, but to institutionalize them and quell their potential extremism by legitimizing them as representative organs designed to mediate between employers and workers on the shop floor.”29

The law ignored the committees’ incursions into management power: control of the workday and power to hire and fire workers. In this way, the bourgeoisie of Russia in 1917 proved themselves to be the peers of the Western capitalists: attempting to replace direct action with negotiation in order to bring the movement to heel. Despite this, the law spurred the spread of the factory committee movement, and committees appeared in areas of Russia previously unorganized.

Parties and workers’ power

Unlike the soviets, which after 1905 were the subject of intense focus and theorization, the factory committees were not the subject of any serious analysis by any party before 1917. Because of this, members of the various parties followed the general line of their traditions, leading to clashes that would develop into theoretical positions and more explicitly conflicting strategies.

The over-riding fear of the Mensheviks was of fracturing their alliance with the liberal members of the Provisional Government; they counseled their members to seek conciliation rather than conflict. The Menshevik-dominated newspaper of the Soviet, Izvestia, argued, for example, “The wartime situation and the revolution force both sides to exercise extreme caution in utilizing the sharper weapons of class struggle such as strikes and lockouts. These circumstances make it necessary to settle all disputes by means of negotiation and agreement, rather than by open conflict.”30

In late March, the Mensheviks along with the SR’s organized joint factory committee conferences to promote their cautious approach. They convinced participants to forgo intervention in management, and to accept a more limited, union-like role. This success was short-lived, however, and their ability to constrain the impulse to workers’ control declined over the coming weeks. Their returns in committee elections as well as their membership rolls shrank consistently.

The Bolsheviks took more confrontational stances over issues, and openly called for workers’ control. The Bolshevik Party included factory committees and workers’ control in its platform starting in May, and party leaders, including Lenin, wrote articles and theoretical works on the role of the committee movement as it contributed to the struggle for socialism.

In fact, in the first weeks of the revolution some of the factory committees were to the left of even the Bolsheviks’ formal position.31 Calls for the removal of the Provisional Government emerged quite early from shop and factory committees. A resolution from the general assembly of the Nobel Machine-Construction Factory on April 4 illustrates this well:

(1) that the liberation of the working class is the affair of the workers themselves, (2) that the way of the proletariat to its final goal—socialism—lies not on the path of compromises, agreements and reforms, but only through merciless struggle—revolution. . . . (4) that the working class cannot trust any government comprised of bourgeois elements and supported by the bourgeoisie, (5) that our PG, composed almost totally of bourgeois elements cannot be a popular government to which we can entrust our fate and our great victories.32

However, the Bolsheviks quickly caught up following the return of Lenin in April, with a short but sharp debate that aligned the party’s position closely with that of the Nobel workers.

Politics of the factory committee movement

The first phase of the Revolution came to a close in April as class tensions reasserted themselves. The economy, which had initially stabilized, began to falter again and employers began to push back. Small and medium-sized businesses closed their doors, raising fear of retribution and mass unemployment. Factory commitees were finding they could not address the resulting economic chaos from within their factory walls, and began calling for society-wide economic regulation from the Soviet.

Later in April, communications between members of the Kadet Party and their allies exposed their commitment to continuing the war—not just in defense of the revolution until a peace negotiation, but to victory, including annexing new Asian and European territories. An eruption of strikes and protests in response cost the Kadets their posts in the Provisional Government, and moderate socialists joined the government cabinet.

The First Conference of Petrograd Factory Committees, held May 30–June 5, expressed the confidence of the committees, and sharpened the debate on the role of factory committees and the future of economic regulation. Initiated by the Putilov Works committee, 499 delegates attended, representing 337,000 workers from the city and its suburbs. Already, the majority of delegates were Bolsheviks, and over half the total were from the engineering sector. Both Matvey Skobelov, Menshevik minister of labor for the Provisional Government, and Vladimir Lenin of the Bolshevik Party addressed the conference.

The moderate socialists argued that the factory committees were one of a number of grassroots organizations of “toilers” that should work together to regulate the economy, under the leadership of the Provisional Government. They also argued for the absorption of the committees into the unions (where the Mensheviks were still the dominant political force). In essence, the moderate position was to integrate factory committees into the emerging capitalist economy on terms acceptable to the bosses.

In contrast, the Bolsheviks argued that the factory committees should remain independent, and play the majority role (constituting two-thirds of the members) of any regulatory agency. They further argued that economic stability and real regulation could not be achieved without transferring power to the soviets. Under these conditions, workers’ control could become worker management under the auspices of a workers’ state.

Lenin wrote of this question: “In point of fact, the whole question of control boils down to who controls whom, i.e., which class is in control and which is being controlled . . . We must resolutely and irrevocably, not fearing to break with the old, not fearing boldly to build the new, pass to control over the landowners and capitalists by the workers and peasants. And this is what our Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks fear worse than the plague.”33

The Bolshevik resolution won by a landslide, expressing the profound desire of the factory committees to remain independent, and a growing recognition that workplace democracy and the Provisional Government were incompatible.

The Bolsheviks’ resolution on the tasks of the committees were expansive to the extreme: “participation in converting industry to peacetime production; raising productivity; providing fuel, machinery, and raw materials for enterprises; obtaining production orders; supervising the maintenance of adequate sanitary conditions; disciplining workers’ and improving workers’ welfare.”34 They positioned committees to move from holding together workplaces against the chaos of the economy and sabotage of bosses to more consciously and consistently engaging with management and the social issues of production. The conference set up a Central Council of Factory Committees that “was a bulwark of Bolshevism, consisting of nineteen Bolsheviks, two Mensheviks, two SR’s, one Mezhraionets…and one syndicalist.”35

Writing on the wide popularity of the Bolsheviks in the committees, S. A. Smith asserts:

When one examines the debates on workers’ control at these conferences an immediate problem arises, for it emerges that there is no authentic, spontaneous “factory committee” discourse whch can be counterposed to official Bolshevik discourse . . . [M]ost delegates recognized the need for some degree of centralized coordination of control, as the Bolsheviks argued, whereas anarcho-syndicalists decidedly did not. At every conference they voted overwhelmingly for the formula of “state workers’ control.”36

The majority of factory committee delegates were drawn in this quite early stage to the Bolshevik position that linked the demand for workers’ control with centralized planning under a soviet government, and that the factory committees must be linked nationally in a state-wide system. The growth of the membership in the Bolshevik Party was not despite their understanding of the need for a revolutionary reorganization of the economy under Soviet rule—but because of it.

The unions

In February of 1917 only a handful of unions existed in Russia. After a brief period of growth during the 1905 Revolution, they were driven underground and almost entirely eliminated. Police surveillance and persecution kept their formal existence at bay. After 1912 unions began to reemerge under significant Bolshevik influence: of the eighteen unions in Petrograd the Bolsheviks controlled fourteen and the Mensheviks only three (the last was jointly controlled).37 With the outbreak of the revolution in February, the unions expanded dramatically. In the wake of the tsar’s abdication, the Bolsheviks lost their solid majority in the unions, and it would take them until late summer to reclaim their dominant position.

Within two weeks of the tsar’s fall, thirty unions sprang up in Petrograd, initiated by former union members and militants from all political parties in the working class. By the end of April, they numbered seventy-four, and nationally 2,000. By October, two million workers were represented by unions, or about 60 percent of industrial wage-earners. The unions saw their primary tasks as protecting wages and working conditions, as opposed to the factory committees, which intervened directly in production (though clearly their functions overlapped).38

Their creation would have been even more rapid, but unions were not seen as necessary initially given the breadth of factory committee activity. At various times and in many locations, the relationship between the two bodies was contentious. Factory committees, as seen above, had enacted a critical workplace reform—the eight-hour day—which could be either an aspect of production or working conditions. Further complicating the situation were the myriad of different—and sometimes conflicting—methods for organizing unions: single shop, industry type, trade, or even geographic location were all parameters for forming unions. Conflicts over jurisdiction created obstacles to negotiating better conditions.

Efforts to unify the two movements (essentially absorbing the factory committees into the union structures) stalled on the obvious friction between the moderates, who were propping up the Provisional Government, and the Bolsheviks, who sought to overthrow it. The unions, while enormously popular, did not have the day-to-day contact or the active participation of members that factory committee members did; the factory committees (with their subcommittes on security, meals, and theater clubs) permeated workplace life, drawing in a larger number of active participants in their multilayered structures.

Labor organizations in tsarist Russia had always sought to coordinate and form national links. On March 3—eight days into the revolution—union representatives in Moscow reestablished their citywide union bureau. Shortly after, Petrograd union organizers formed the Petrograd Trade Union Council, which by May represented 50 percent of the city’s workers.39

On March 15 the Petrograd Trade Union Council announced its views on the best means to organize unions: “Unions should be organized by industries, [any] divisions by trades are harmful.”40 Mergers were facilitated that eased the organization of large-scale negotiations. The Third All-Russian Trade Union Conference, held June 20–28, similarly adopted a position on merging smaller craft units. Consolidation across the labor movement moved rapidly: by the fall of 1917, as membership hit two million, the number of individual unions fell by half.

While moderate socialists initially dominated the union movement, unions in Russia were far more radical than the older, more established movements in the US or Europe. Reformism was weaker

for the simple reason that even the most “bread and butter” trade union struggles foundered on the rock of the tsarist state; all efforts to separate trade unionism from politics were rendered nugatory by the action of police and troops. In this particular climate trade unions grew up fully conscious of the fact that the overthrow of the autocracy was a basic precondition for the improvement of the workers’ lot.41

Accepting the need to overthrow the tsar made the union movement fertile ground for socialists of all stripes. Conflicting visions for the workers’ movement after the overthrow of the tsar played out inside the unions. The moderates’ and the Bolsheviks’ differing perspectives dominated discussion at the Third All-Russian Trade Union Conference around two key issues: the war and the use of strikes.

Moderates within the union movement sought to keep bread and butter issues separate from the simmering political crisis. The moderate socialists unionists were called “neutralist” for their resistance to taking a position on the war. They hoped that workers’ struggles would be constrained by the economic pressures and chaos created by war. The Bolsheviks led the “internationalist” camp. Their resolution on union work declared:

The working class is entering a terrain with vast social horizons, which culminate in world socialist revolution. The trade unions are faced with the completely practical task of leading the proletariat in this mighty battle. Together with the political organization of the working class, the trade unions must repudiate a neutral stance toward the issues on which the world labor movement now hangs. In the historic quarrel between “internationalism” and “defensism” the trade-union movement must stand decisively and unwaveringly on the side of revolutionary internationalism.42

The “internationalist” resolution failed to win the majority of trade union delegates at the First Conference—including many who were not aligned with any of the major parties. Their overriding concern was for unions to focus on practical activity. This did not indicate the dominance of prowar sentiment; instead it reflected the hope that the soviet, rather than the unions would win the Provisional Government off its pro-war course.

The second divisive issue within the union movement was around the question of strikes. Here again the Menshevik perspective—that workers should constrain their militancy so as not to drive the bourgeoisie into the arms of reaction—undermined their ties to workers. The moderates argued for cooperation with the Soviet Executive Committee to mediate class conflict. Negotiation, not confrontation, was their watchword.

But ironically, here again practical questions were in the forefront of delegates’ minds, this time pulling them behind the Bolshevik platform. The Bolsheviks argued that in a revolutionary epoch, strikes were the most important weapon for workers. Having just overthrown a centuries-old monarchy through strike action, and harboring a deep distrust of managers, union members were unwilling to stop striking in the interest of political coalition with the bosses’ representatives.43 The April legislation had included conciliation chambers, but these had turned out to be toothless in addressing workers’ demands. The spring had proven that the Provisional Government would not intervene on behalf of workers to enforce its own laws, leaving workers to draw the conclusion that direct action was the only means to achieve their aims.

Shkliarevsky comments on the conflicting results of the Third All-Russian Trade Union Conference:

While rejecting the antagonistic attitude toward the Provisional Government, it advocated a confrontational approach vis-à-vis employers. Implicit in this course was the notion that political issues and labor issues per se could be effectively dissociated. The fact of the matter was that they were intimately interrelated: strikes certainly destabilized the political and economic order and thus undermined the position of the government. Reliance on strikes as their chief weapon was certainly a confrontational approach that could bring the unions into conflict with the government.44

Polarization between the classes paralyzed the political process; coalition was less and less practicable. Legislation crawled into existence lagging behind events, and enforcement was all but impossible. The inability of the Provisional Government and the Soviet Central Executive Council to ensure improvements for working people eroded confidence in the government and discouraged support for the moderate socialists who preached support for coalition.

By June, the Bolsheviks held majorities in most major union boards and, together with the Menshevik Internationalists, dominated the Petrograd Central Trade Union Council board. However, one must not oversimplify the meaning of the rise of Bolshevik influence in the unions in June. The Bolshevik cadre in the unions held very narrow majorities and worked very closely with Menshevik-Internationalists to craft compromise resolutions and strategy within the Petrograd Central Trade Union Council, which had a conservatizing effect. Furthermore, most of the day-to-day work of the unions was in fact directed around immediate workplace issues, so the conflicting positions on larger social questions between Menshevik and Bolshevik were often sidelined. Within the Bolsheviks themselves, debate lingered over the course of the revolution, and the worker-cadre within the union movement tended to be less critical of the moderates and their course than their comrades in the factory committees.

The wage struggle

The gargantuan inflation that gripped Russia during the war drove the ongoing battles over wage rates. By one estimate, the cost of living in Petrograd by October 1917 had risen by 14.3 times its prewar level.45 Striking was the most common response, and workers who had struck to bring down the tsar were confident in the strike weapon to bring redress. Diane P. Koenker and William G. Rosenberg calculate that between March and late October there were 1,019 strikes, involving more than 2.4 millions workers.46

However, as the spring wore on, partial and local strikes were losing their effectiveness. Wage gains were eaten up by inflation as soon as contracts were settled, and bosses were more likely to resist than in the earlier stage of the revolution. Union activists had been studying the wage issue since the fall of the tsar, and by summer the need for stronger redress was obvious. Only through industry-wide, or legislative change, could starvation conditions be addressed adequately.

This trajectory was urged on by two factors. First, frustration that things were not changing fast enough, or were even getting worse after February, gripped the class. Petrograd’s woodworkers’ union sent out a survey about what the Revolution had achieved; answers that came back included: “nothing,” “nothing special,” “nothing, but management is better,” and “nothing has changed.” Only half bothered to return their forms. All of the positive achievements listed were the results of factory committees. These questionaires expressed the anger of the slow pace of change paired with a recognition that only self-activity had brought measurable results.47

Secondly, new layers of workers—largely unskilled and previously unorganized—moved into struggle. Most of the leadership of unions and committees arose from the skilled workers, who were on par with their European counterparts in terms of literacy and education. These “cadre” workers were surrounded by droves of “black workers” (chernorabotsie), the more recent transplants from the country who toiled in slave-like conditions of physical labor. The gap between the wages of the skilled and the unskilled was large: skilled workers making sometimes double what the unskilled earned.

Both of the factors above contributed to the central struggle of the summer in Petrograd: the Metal Workers’ Union (MWU) wage negotiations. The three key demands put forth were: an end to piece-rates, sizeable raises, and a closing of the gap between skilled and unskilled workers. It is a noteable testimony to the state of class consciousness that the more organized, more experienced cadre workers who formed the backbone of the unions put the closing of the wage gap at the center of the struggle. In effect they were arguing for greater improvements for the less organized sections than they asked for themselves.

Meanwhile, the unskilled at Putilov initiated their own organizing, including an abortive strike in early June. They reached out to other unskilled workers, creating new networks of the unskilled across the metal working sector. Tension simmered between the unskilled workers, desparate for more immediate change, and the leadership of the union who were seeking a larger scale solution.

The board of the largest and most pivotal union, the metal workers union, issued the following statement expressing their frustration at the lack coordination dogging the movement in early June:

Instead of organization, we, unfortunately now see chaos . . . instead of discipline and solidarity—fragmented actions. Today one factory acts, tomorrow another and the day after that the first factory strikes again—in order to catch up with the second . . . The raising of demands is often done without any prior preparation, sometimes by-passing the elected factory committee. The metalworkers’ union is informed about factory conflicts only after demands have been put to management, and when both sides are already in a state of war. The demands themselves are distinguished by lack of consistencey and uniformity.48

The MWU undertook to negotiate new industry-wide wage scales with the Society of Factory and Works Owners (SFWO) in late June. Works committees representing seventy-three factories, union delegates, and representatives from the socialist parties met and agreed to a general strike if the union negotiations failed.

In the midst of the negotiations, Petrograd exploded in armed demonstrations. The Soviet had attempted to mobilize the Second Machine Gun Regiment to the front to join the doomed military offensive launched in June, but was openly disobeyed. Bolsheviks in the garrison supported their disobedience, and the gunners heightened the crisis by marching factory to factory, calling out workers to strike and demonstrate. Wave after wave of workers angry over the government’s foot-dragging on wage increases flooded the streets in a general strike.

While targeting the Provisional Government, the July Days—as this revolt came to be known—expressed the ambivalence workers had toward the moderate socialists who still dominated the Soviet Executive Committee and many local soviets. Reacting to the Soviet’s refusal to take power and its branding of demonstrators as “counter-revolutionary,” a worker-representative chosen to address the Executive Committee laid out the sentiment of many revolutionary workers: “Our demand—the general demand of the workers—is all power to the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies . . . We trust the Soviet, but not those whom the Soviet trusts.”49

The July Days exhausted itself, venting the frustration and impatience felt by Petrograd’s workers and soldiers, led in many cases on the ground by Bolshevik activists in the party’s military organization. The Bolshevik leadership, despite preaching calm and restraining the movement, was viciously targeted by the Provisional Government; the party’s headquarters were raided, its presses smashed, and its leaders arrested or forced into hiding. But after a few weeks it became clear that the danger of a preemptive attempt at seizing power in July had passed with minimal damage to the workers’ movement.

The MWU contract was settled in mid-July. When the SFWO refused to accept the full wage increases for the unskilled workers, the union delegates quickly moved to prepare a strike. Cautious that a renewed struggle only weeks after the July Days would bring down the full weight of government repression, union leaders, including Bolsheviks, accepted a controversial compromise.

The overall gains of the contract were considerable, but raises for the unskilled workers fell 10 to 15 percent short of the union’s demands. These workers vented their bitter disappointment at the union leaders, but the greater part of their anger was directed at the government for failing to intervene on their side. For the previously apolitical layer of workers the compromise had the unintended consequence of driving home the impossibility of deeper change under the Provisional Government. A Putilov worker  quoted in Prava said, “We have seen with our own eyes . . . how the present Provisional Government refuses to take resolute measures against the capitalists, without which our demands cannot be satisfied. The interests of the capitalists are dearer to it than the interests of the working class.”50

As the summer drew to a close, the inevitable conclusion hundreds of thousands of workers were drawing was that without establishing a new political system, even the most basic economic demands could not be met. The optimism of March had given way to a hardened resolve to make good on the promises of the February Revolution by the only apparent means available: overthrowing the Provisional Government and placing all power in the hands of the soviets. The material gains of the wage struggle—substantial as they were—are overshadowed by their political implications.

Shkliarevsky writes:

Strikes were a politicizing experience for those who took part in them: they saw with their own eyes how employers were going on investment strike, engaging in lockouts, refusing to accept new contracts or to repair plants; how the government was colluding with the employers, curbing the factory committees and sending troops to quell disorder . . . The strikes were important therefore, in making hundreds and thousands of workers aware of political matters and in making the policies of the Bolshevik party attractive to them.51

Polarization and reaction

As the summer came to an end, the workers’ movement consolidated organizationally, and incursions on ruling-class power were becoming more political and more generalized. The Provisional Government understood its grasp on power was slipping. In this precarious situation, the capitalist politicians sought to reestablish control by undermining the movement at its foundations. As Shkliarevsky writes, “It had to discipline the factory committees and make them obey the law.”52

Managers had been attempting to undermine the factory committees without directly confronting them: refusing to pay workers for time in committee meetings, and threatening members with firing or the draft. In August the government took more open action. The Menshevik Labor Minister M. I. Skobelev issued two circulars: the first on August 22 affirmed management’s power to hire and fire workers, a key role played by factory committees. The second, published on August 28, decreed that factory committee meetings could not be held during work hours or on work premises, without the express permission of the bosses. At the same time, the bosses and Provisional Government attempted to disarm Red Guards, although neither had the means to effectively challenge armed workers.

The Skobelev circulars were to be a dead letter, washed away in a new demonstration of working-class strength. The President of the Soviet Central Executive Committee, Alexander Kerensky, provoked a massive outpouring of worker activity by attempting to allow a military occupation of Petrograd. Kerensky had negotiated the occupation with Lavr Kornilov, stalwart reactionary supreme commander of the Russian Army. In Kerensky’s fantastical interpretation of this agreement, Kornilov would install him as the head of the coming dictatorship.

But upon the commencement of the plan, it became evident that Kerensky himself would be pushed aside by Kornilov. Making a 180-degree turn, Kerensky called for defense of the government against the approaching military. Unfortunately for him, the only forces able to disperse the coming occupation were the mutinous army and armed workers, under the leadership of the factory committees, the unions, the Red Guards, and the Bolsheviks.

The anti-Kornilov mobilization drew out hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers. The leadership role of the factory committees, Red Guards, and Bolsheviks is well documented; but unlike the July Days, which largely passed the unions by, the latter played a much more active role. The attempts to segregate the “purely economic” struggle from the political struggle were falling apart as the classes squared off against one another. Kornilov’s offensive melted away in the face of mass mobilization, made possible by the criss-crossing networks of workers’ and solders’ organizations.

Understanding the necessity of clearing away the obstacle of the Provisional Government to allow the Soviet to assume power, workers joined the one party that put this at the center of its strategy: the Bolsheviks. Leon Trotsky’s Petrograd-based Interdistrict Organization (Mezhraiontsy) fused with the Bolsheviks as well, bringing in 4,000 active members. By September 1st, 126 local soviets demanded a transfer of power to the Soviet. In the same period city-wide soviets in Petrograd, Moscow, Ivanovo- Voznesensk, Kronstadt, and Krasnoyarsk passed resolutions in support of the Bolshevik Party, delivering embarrassing defeats to Mensheviks attempting to block them.53

Debates between comrades

Tensions between the factory committees and the unions were rife within the movement throughout 1917. At times their competing efforts to resolve the same issue in the same workplace caused clashes. In the abstract it may have made sense for the unions and factory committees to fuse to avoid redundancies and squabbling. The incorporation of the committees into the unions as subordinate bodies would have brought the better organized, more radical workers in the factory committee movement under the wing of the moderates, and by extension, the Provisional Government. But as more workers demanded “All Power to the Soviet”, unions moved left and drew closer to the factory committees.

As the Bolshevik Party grew numerically, it recruited unaffiliated activists as well as the cadre of rival parties, introducing more diverse perspectives. In addition, even its long-term cadre, rooted in workplaces and neighborhoods, took differing positions on strategic questions depending on their locations.

One such debate in the summer of 1917 was over the role of the factory committees in the revolutionary process, especially regulation. As shown above, this mirrored the debate within the larger movement—although both sides within the Bolsheviks accepted the necessity of revolution. The radical position within the Bolshevik Party, articulated by Pavel Amosov, identified ruling-class treachery as the key source of chaos in the economy. To stabilize the economy, the factory committees therefore needed to expand their centralization and coordination to overcome bourgeois resistance. The routing of the Kornilov Coup was in part because the committees had stretched themselves, investing further into the Red Guards and asserting themselves beyond the factory gates. In addition, workers’ control had, in some instances, been able to halt factory closures through the initiave of subcommittees locating raw materials, or even securing loans from other factory committees.

The moderate Bolsheviks, like Central Committee member Vladimir Miliutin and railway union founder David Riazonov, placed heavier emphasis on the objective conditions of the economy: its low level of productivity (which predated the Revolution), lack of resources and fuel, and the  impending collapse of sectors like transport. Better committee coordination alone, they argued, could not solve the problems facing the economy.

The radicals also argued that the factory committee was the key vehicle for the coming revolution. In contrast, the “moderate” comrades saw the soviets and the unions as the more effective vehicles to challenge bourgeois rule. Needless to say, many of the moderates were themselves union members or union leaders, or were delegates in a soviet. These positions correlated with projections of when full centralization could happen—the radical Bolsheviks argued that factory committees could overcome ruling-class resistance even before the transfer of power to the Soviet.

The moderates within the Bolsheviks ultimately won the argument that Soviet regulation must be established to overcome the crisis in the economy. The bourgeoisie could not be economically dethroned while still holding political power. The radicals’ downplaying of the role of the Soviet was an expression of frustration over the continued dominance of the Mensheviks and SR’s. The Soviet was seen as compromised and unable to enact a socialist agenda. Lenin himself briefly—during the crackdown following the July Days—entertained the idea that the soviets had become so conservative that the factory committees were a more suitable vehicle to organize the seizure of power.

This debate over economic regulation dovetails with another critical question arising in October over the nature of the insurrection and who would rule in its aftermath. While the factory committees were purely workers’ bodies, the soviets had grown to be inclusive of soldiers, sailors, peasants, and workers. The unique position of the workers as direct producers makes it the critical actor in rebuilding an economy based on human need; however the process of making a revolution in Russia relied on the fusion of different exploited classes and the Soviet was where that fusion existed. In this way, the working class was able to leverage its power, despite its small size, relative to the peasantry.

Revolution and workers’ power

The closing of summer and onset of fall saw a significant growth and consolidation of revolutionary sentiment. The repulsion of Kornilov left the Soviet exposed and the Provisional Government deflated. With a last gasp, the Provisional Government organized a Democratic Conference in September as an attempt to revitalize a coalition government in the eyes of the public. Their effort collapsed leaving the Provisional Government dead in the water.

As October unfolded, the Provisional Government’s control over the military forces in Petrograd eroded further. The government’s attacks on workers and soldiers won the Bolshevik leaders of the Petrograd Soviet support to form the Revolutionary Military Committee. The Provisional Government moved to crush this new body of revolutionary soldiers and workers. It ordered the Petrograd garrison to disarm the Revolutionary Military Committee and attack the Bolsheviks’ headquarters. But the garrison itself had already been largely won to the revolutionaries’ side. The Bolsheviks’ momentum in the ensuing conflict led to the arrest of the Provisional Government. The All-Russian Soviet solidified the overthrow of the government by voting to transfer all power to the soviets: after months of working class calls to take power, the revolution had triumphed.

Although the dissolution of the Provisional Government led to the consolidation of a worker and peasant government (with an alliance of Bolsheviks and Left SR’s at its helm), it simultaneously unleashed a new wave of heightened class struggle and chaos. Eyewitness and anarchist-turned-Bolshevik Victor Serge described the immediate aftermath of the revolution:

This rational form of progress toward socialism was not at all to the taste of the employers, who were still confident in their own strength and convinced that it was impossible for the proletariat to keep its power. The innumerable conflicts that had gone on before October now multiplied, and indeed became more serious as the combativity of the contestants was everywhere greater.54

The spike in employer resistance became the impetus for a more thorough seizure of control in the workplace. The initial draft for a Decree of Workers Control, written by the All-Russian Council of Factory Committees, only dealt with creating a state-sponsored apparatus to regulate the economy, and did not speak to the issue of worker control. Lenin himself criticized the document, and insisted on the inclusion of the right of workers to control production, have access to all financial records and accounts, and oversee the committee system from the bottom up. “This awkward fact makes nonsense the claim in Western historiography,” argues Smith, “that, once power was in his grasp, Lenin, the stop-at-nothing centralizer, proceeded to crush the ‘syndicalist’ factory committees. In fact, the reverse is true.”55

After the October Revolution, Lenin wrote:

Vital creativity of the masses—that is the fundamental factor in the new society. Let the workers take on the creation of workers’ control in their works and factories, let them supply the countryside with manufactured goods in exchange for bread . . . Socialism is not created by orders from on high. Its spirit is alien to state-bureaucratic automatism. Socialism is vital and creative, it is the creation of the popular masses themselves.56

In the months immediately following the insurrection, Bolshevik policy optimistically oriented on self-activity. There were debates about the degree of incursions into the control bosses exercised, but the pressures of the moment soon eclipsed these debates. The economy the soviet system inherited was wrecked and further declined in the heat of bourgeois resistance and armed counterrevolution. The articulated policy of the new state was bottom-up regulation of industry under the auspices of the newly formed Supreme Council of the National Economy, combined with nationalization of first the banks, and eventually other industries. Contrary to hysterical accounts of Bolshevik terror, the party did not intend for immediate displacement of owners and managers—even in the more radical interpretation of “workers control.”

Understanding the weak industrial base and isolated position of the working class in a sea of over 100 million peasants, the Bolsheviks aimed for economic stability as much as possible, by allowing a continued mixed economy of state ownership, state regulation, and private ownership. But in the conditions of sabotage and lockout the ex-rulers unleashed, factory committees seized workplaces, seeking greater and greater intervention on the part of the state. Nationalization accelerated and the balance shifted more toward the apparatus and away from local control. Ironically it was the factory committee’s themselves who pressed most adamantly for the policy of nationalization; on June 28, 1918 they got their wish when the wholesale nationalization of all industries was announced.

During the same period factory committees and unions underwent a radical change in their relationship. While pre-revolution there had been some chafing over what role each would play,57 by summer 1917 it had become clear that the unions acted primarily to protect wages amd conditions, while the factory committees oversaw production. Their relationship to their membership was different—factory committees were the most grassroots organs. But they were limited by their focus on a single workplace, no matter how large. Unions, though not as directly in touch with the rank and file, spanned whole industries.

Moderate Bolsheviks, along with allies from other socialist parties, argued that the factory committees should be subordinated to the unions, and act as their basic cells. Before October, the factory committees were hostile to this proposal, but over time the two organizations drew nearer, and many leaders softened to the idea. With the transfer of power to the Soviet, the Bolsheviks reassessed the role of the unions. Since the state was now the most powerful body protecting the working conditions and wages of the working class, the unions were now needed to raise economic regulation from the level of the individual shop to entire industries. After some clumsy negotiations, during which the moderate Bolshevik Riazonov asked the factory committees to “choose that form of suicide which would be most useful to the labor movement as a whole,”58 the factory committees agreed to be subordinated to the unions. The First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, where this relationship was formally adopted in January 1918, included the presence of Menshevik delegates who supported the Bolshevik resolution for unity.

In reality, the fusion of the factory committees and unions would not prove to be effective. The unions did not facilitate the inclusion of the vast networks of factory committees into their own apparatus, and the factory committees were far more skilled at the kind of intervention the unions were seeking to undertake. In practice, the factory committees continued to dominate life in the factories, and exercised a great deal of independence.

As civil war consumed Russian society, pressures mounted to consolidate power as quickly as possible. The preservation of the fledgling workers’ state was the top priority; all other concerns were downgraded. The Bolsheviks were painfully aware of the retreats they were making on some of the revolution’s social goals; they were given little room to maneuver, however, in the face of the dual threats of counterrevolutionary White armies and direct imperialist intervention. Alongside the rise of international solidarity and attempted revolutions that the Russian example inspired, the Bolsheviks faced military intervention from Germany as well as more than a dozen Allied Powers. A stranded island of workers’ power, the revolutionary government sought first and foremost to survive until the next workers’ revolution broke out.

This never materialized, despite several short-lived uprisings in Bavaria, Italy, Finland, Poland, and Hungary in the following three years (and others within the next ten). The Bolshevik understanding of the Russian Revolution was that it could initiate, but not complete, an international transformation from capitalism to socialism. Before 1925, the idea of stand-alone socialism in Russia was unknown among Russian Marxists. While the Bolsheviks had the audacity to initiate the process, they lacked the material basis to complete it.

The economy, already in shambles, went into utter free fall during the civil war. As the material basis of capitalist production collapsed, so did the class itself. Food production declined dramatically, producing widespread famine. The working class, reduced to 43 percent of its former size, produced an industrial output of 18 percent of its prewar amount. With this disintegration of the class that made the revolution came a increasing centralization from above to win the civil war as democratic control atrophied from below.59

Smith’s description of the decline in material conditions and democracy captures this history:

After October the Bolshevik leaders of the factory committees, sincerely committed to workers’ democracy, but losing their working class base, began to concentrate power in their hands, excluding the masses from information and decision-making and set up a hierarchy of functions. The trade unions too, became less accountable to their members, since they were now accountable to the government, and soon turned primarily into economic apparatuses of the state. This may all suggest that bureaucratization was inscribed in the revolutionary process in 1917, but if so, it was inscribed as a possibility only . . . Democratic and bureaucratic elements existed in a determinate relationship in all popular organizations—a relationship which was basically determined by the goals of the organizations and the degree to which those goals were facilitated by political and economic circumstances. These circumstances were to change dramatically in the autumn of 1917, and it was this change which shifted the balance between forces of democracy and bureaucracy in favor of the latter.60

Conclusion

There is no more brilliant example of the capacity of workers to politically conceive and organize a different kind of world than the Russian Revolution. The Russian factory committees’ breadth and ingenuity, their ability to draw wide numbers of unaffiliated workers into the practical work of maintaining production, and their flexibility in growing with the revolution into organs of self-management are a high standard for struggling workers to look to for inspiration. Similarly the industrial unions that drew members with the most basic understanding of organization into titanic battles against Russian capital and the state provided the ground for the mass shift in revolutionary consciousness among all layers of the working class.

It was through the lived experience and hard trials of struggle that workers internalized the political ideas of the Bolshevik Party.  In turn, the initiative of the working class pushed the Party to absorb, distill, and debate the ever-changing conditions within the workplaces. The infrastructure for struggle that was built through the committees and the unions had the potential, along with the system of soviets, to present an existential challenge to Russian capitalism. But their victory was in no way inevitable. The inspiring efforts of the working class could have been dispersed, disorganized, or crushed in 1917 if not for the presence of the Bolsheviks.

Trying to read backwards from the bureaucratic nightmare of Stalinism into the efforts of the Bolsheviks in 1917 means a willful denial of the well-chronicled, productive, and democratizing impact of Bolshevik activists. Their collective discipline and centralized approach to strategy provided them the insight of when to fight for industrial, rather than sectional, gains; their flexibility allowed them to integrate the committees into the very heart of their understanding of the economy of a new workers’ state.

Given the profound diversity of organizations workers utilized in 1917, as well as the other centers of radicalism (the soldiers and sailors most obviously), and the variant moods and experiences they encompassed, it is surprising the Bolsheviks held together at all. Instead of fracturing, the Party provided a grounding center for all of these threads to wind together.

Understanding this in no way demands of the modern socialist an uncritical acceptance of every action or policy of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks never demanded this of their own membership (until the Stalinist counter­revolution), and hopefully the debates described above show some of the vibrancy of the internal life of the Party. It is difficult to comprehend how this flowering of democracy quickly transformed into the horrors that were unleashed during the civil war: famine, state terror, and grain requisitioning. The erosion of workplace democracy and even the suppression of strikes were unforeseen developments forced on the new Soviet administration by conditions of desperation and the failure of revolution to spread.  It is hard to understand, but it is not impossible to see how this contradiction unfolded, against every intention of the party that led a revolution introducing the widest democracy the world has known.

In conditions of isolation the Bolsheviks were unable to preserve the reality of workers’ control and management. Its legacy has been buried for decades under the filth of Stalinism. But thanks to the efforts of academics unearthing the troves of documentation from unions, soviets, and committees, today’s generation of Marxists can study the lessons and achievements of the Russian revolutionary workers’ movement.  This rich history is our inheritance, to be studied, but more importantly to be used in our own future struggles.

Quoted in S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd (London: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 81.
Rosa Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation,” (December 1918). https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxembu….
Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control (Detroit: Black & Red, 1975). http://spunk.org/texts/places/russia/sp0…. While Brinton’s conclusions are starkly opposed to the views of this author, his work is a veritable treasure trove of research.
Noam Chomsky, “Socialism Versus the Soviet Union”, Our Generation, Spring/Summer 1986. https://chomsky.info/1986____/.
Nikolai Suhkanov, The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 529.
The Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia inherited the political legacy of peasant radicalism embodied in the Narodnik movement of the late nineteenth century. The party was made up of a combination of urban and rural petit bourgeois leadership and a mass membership of industrial and rural laborers. The peasant tradition of radical anti-authoritarian acts, including terrorism, persisted (and would blossom again in dramatic form against the Bolsheviks after October), and the party shared the Menshevik belief that the next stage of Russian society must be capitalist.
This small grouping based in Petrograd had formed around a nucleus of former Bolsheviks and stood politically between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It was most notable for the leadership of Leon Trotsky, but other formidable Marxists were members: Adolf Joffe, Anatoly Luncharsky, Moisei Uritsky, David Riazanov, and one of the greatest worker-orators of the revolution: V. Volodarsky.
John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 14–15. https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1919/10days/10days/.
David Mandel, Factory Committees and Workers’ Control in Petrograd, International Insitute for Research and Education, Number 21, 1993, 2.
A word on what this article won’t take up. It may seem strange in an article about workers’ organization to not describe the soviets themselves. This is in part because the soviets are already given the place of pride in the history of the Revolution of 1917 and are well documented. The soviets also grew to encompass almost every disgruntled segment of society, whereas the unions and factory committees were centered on the workplace and largely on workplace issues (although they took an expansive view of what that meant). Further, in some smaller localities, factory committees and soviets were one and the same body for much, if not all, of the Revolution. The other significant missing piece is the Red Guards. The Guards constituted armed units from the major factories and provided security against counter-revolutionary threats. While they expressed the same impulse to self-organization and direct democracy as shop-floor groups, and their presence could at times allow the shop-floor movement to advance, they were not one of the means that workers engaged with economic issues of control and production.
An elaboration of this can be found in the first chapter of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).
Smith, Red Petrograd, 9–10.
Figures are taken from V. I. Lenin, “Strike Statistics in Russia,” (1910) Collected Works Vol. 16 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 395.
Victoria E. Bonnell, The Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow 1900–1914 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), 171–80.
Robert B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions: Workers and Revolutionaries, June 1907–February 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 406.
Diane Koenker and William Rosenberg, Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 1917 (Princeton, 1989), 66.
Gennady Schkliarevsky, Labor in the Russian Revolution: Factory Committees and Trade Unions, 1917–1918 (New York: St. Martins Press, 1993), 3.
Ibid., 4.
John Reed, Ten Days That Shook The World (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 14–15. https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1919/10days/10days/.
David Mandel, Factory Committees and Workers’ Power in Petrograd in 1917 (International Institute for Research and Education, Notebooks for Study and Research Number 21, 1993), 15–16.
Ibid., 160–61.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 82.
Ibid., 85.
David Mandel, Factory Committees and Workers’ Power in Petrograd in 1917.
David Mandel, Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime, Volume 1: From the February Revolution to the July Days (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1983), 105. http://classiques.uqac.ca/contemporains/….
Mandel, Petrograd Workers Vol. 1, 129.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 65–6.
Mandel, Petrograd Workers Vol. 1, 106.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 79.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 77.
Within the party multiple positions existed on the development of the revolution, some calling for the elimination of the Provisional Government and establishment of a radical democracy of the exploited, and others adhering to the older formulation of a western-style democracy. See Paul D’Amato: “How Lenin Rearmed,” International Socialist Review, Number 106 (Summer 2017).
Mandel, Petrograd Workers, Vol. 1, 88–89.
Lenin, “the Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It,” Collected Works, Vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980), 346.
Shkliarevsky, Labor in the Russian Revolution, 28–29.
Ibid., 82.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 156–57.
Tony Cliff, Building the Party (London: Bookmarks, 1982), 331-32. https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/w….
Shkliarevsky, Labor in the Russian Revolution, 66–67.
Ibid., 67.
Ibid., 70.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 109–10.
Quoted in Ibid., 110.
While SFWO and their political allies among the liberals sought stability, their version rested on emiseration and disciplining the working class, not sharing the wealth.
Shkliarevsky, Labor in the Russian Revolution, 79.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 116.
Koenker and Rosenberg, Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 1917 (Princeton, 1989).
Ibid., 116.
Quoted in Smith, Red Petrograd, 120.
S.A. Smith, The Workers’ Revolution in Russia, 1917, ed. Daniel H. Kaiser (Cambridge University Press, 1987) 69.
Quoted in Smith, Red Petrograd, 125.
Ibid., 118.
Shkliarevsky, Labor in the Russian Revolution, 51.
The polarization of Russian society included a massive wave of peasant revolts, wherein lords’ lands were seized and manors burned to the ground. Within the main peasant party, the Socialist Revolutionaries, a left-wing current crystalized and began operating independently. The Left SR’s blocked with the Bolsheviks in calling for an end to the Provisional Government and immediate end to the war. The Bolsheviks in turn adopted the Left SR’s platform of immediate land reform in the countryside. They would be coalition partners following the October Revolution until March 1918 when peace with Germany was concluded at Brest-Litovsk.
Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, 136.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 210.
Quoted in Ibid., 156.
In the early months of the revolution, there was much fluidity between the soviets, unions and factory committees (FC’s). In some locations where a single enterprise dominated an area, the FC and soviet might be synonymous, or where there were no unions, an FC may negotiate wages or organize a strike.
Quoted in Smith, Red Petrograd, 220.
See Chris Harman, How the Russian Revolution was Lost, in Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002), 16–17, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/wr….
Smith, Red Petr

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Lenin’s April Theses and the Russian Revolution-Kevin Corr

Posted by admin On August - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on Lenin’s April Theses and the Russian Revolution-Kevin Corr

hit-muss
I shall never forget that thunder-like speech, which startled and amazed not only me, a heretic who had accidently dropped in, but all the true believers. I am certain that no one had expected anything of the sort. It seemed as though all the elements had risen from their abodes, and the spirit of universal destruction, knowing neither barriers nor doubts, neither human difficulties nor human ­calculations, was hovering above the heads of the bewitched disciples.

Nikolai Sukhanov, 1984.1

On the night of 3 April 1917 Lenin arrived from exile at the Finland Station in Petrograd.2 His arrival occurred in the wake of the February Revolution some six weeks earlier when the working class had mobilised and overthrown Tsar Nicholas but which in the meantime had seen the power vacuum being filled by the setting up of a provisional government. The government was dominated by the right wing Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) party. At the same time the soviets, last glimpsed in 1905, were also starting to reappear.3 It was at this point that Lenin first gave an outline of what were to be called the April Theses.4 Broadly, the theses can be summarised as follows: Only the overthrow of the provisional government and the fight for soviet power could secure a state of affairs that would bring bread to the workers, land to the peasants and peace to end the imperialist war. Once achieved, soviet power would be used to abolish the existing police, army and bureaucracy, nationalise the banks and land and cement workers’ power at the point of production.

The role of the soviets and the matter of the provisional government were to be the two key features of the April Theses. The demand for power to the soviets crystallised the issue of state power and was to be the bedrock upon which all other demands depended. Certainly until Lenin’s arrival no Bolshevik leaders called for “all power to the soviets”, and in doing so he discarded his own previously held “old Bolshevik” ideas on the state. These can be traced back to at least 12 years earlier.

During the 1905 Revolution the Bolshevik leaders in Russia, Alexander Bogdanov and Pyotr Krasikov, were somewhat sceptical about how to respond to the appearance of the St Petersburg soviet. If anything they viewed the soviet with a degree of condescension seeing its spontaneity as a sign that it was politically threadbare and ultimately doomed to come under the influence of bourgeois parties. To avoid this outcome they argued that the soviet should accept the programme and leadership of the Bolsheviks and dissolve itself into the party.

The exiled Lenin voiced criticisms of this approach. But he acknowledged that his criticisms would come as a surprise to the St Petersburg Bolsheviks;5 he appeared to be going back on what he had himself written in his seminal 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? where he had warned against kow-towing to spontaneity.6 With the actual living unfolding of the 1905 Revolution Lenin put much greater emphasis on the soviet as the embryo of a provisional government. It was assumed that the soviet would take political responsibility for setting up such a government. It would centralise and coordinate the workers’ movement as a whole in a revolutionary setting and act as a contributory channel towards the future insurrection that would undoubtedly be required in the struggle to overthrow Tsarism. No social democrat (as revolutionary Marxists then called themselves) at that time, Lenin included, endowed the soviet in 1905 with a separate independent historical capability. Rather they viewed it as a transient phenomenon, rising and falling as a consequence of the changing balance of forces within the course of the wider struggle against Tsarism. At one point Lenin made reference to the contrast between the events of 1905 and “the now outdated conditions in What is To Be Done?”7

Whatever the differences in 1905 between Lenin and the St Petersburg Bolshevik leadership over the precise nature of the soviets, all agreed that the main goal was the establishment of a revolutionary provisional government which would act as the main force to dethrone the Tsar and usher in a society more akin to those in Western Europe and North America.

The original Bolshevik stance on the issue of the provisional government had been thrashed out at their London conference in 1905. Here delegates agreed to participate in any prospective provisional government. At that time the expectation of victory over the autocracy was approaching its zenith and the Bolsheviks sought to imprint a proletarian stamp on the ongoing bourgeois democratic revolution. In leading a popular uprising from below they would receive enormous political prestige and would then be able to use the strength and influence of their social base to push the revolution to the left as far as possible within the confines of capitalist property relations. By operating within the provisional government Bolsheviks would effectively be able to play a leadership role from above in addition to that which they were playing from below. Unfortunately, as always, reality bites. This perspective was never put to the test—no provisional government ever came into being during the 1905 Revolution. The brief 50-day St Petersburg soviet was forcibly dispersed by the Tsar in November 1905 although the legacy of its achievements was not to be completely buried. In 1905 the re-emergence of soviets in the context of dual power (soviets vs provisional government) 12 years later could not have been foreseen.

Much of the impetus for Lenin’s April Theses was provided by the combination of the historical memory of the 1905 Revolution plus the new understanding that can be seen in his Blue Notebook written in January-February 1917. In these notes, sometimes referred to as Marxism on the State, Lenin shows that prior to the February Revolution he was not waiting for a second version of the soviets to arise before correctly evaluating their significance.8 It was with these ideas already fermenting in his mind that Lenin stepped off the train at the Finland Station to deliver the April Theses.

The traditional view of the Marxist “activist” left, especially those in the Trotskyist tradition, has been that the Theses marked a sharp break with prevailing Bolshevik orthodoxy—what was to become known as “old Bolshevism”—and amounted to a political rearming of the Bolshevik Party that would make the October Revolution possible. The general historical narrative has been one where the Bolsheviks were at first somewhat shocked and taken aback by what they regarded as Lenin’s starry-eyed proposals and put it down to him being out of touch with the prevailing reality on the ground. Nevertheless, over the next two months or so, he was able to overcome their initial opposition and pull the bulk of the party membership behind his new vision. Basically, no April Theses, no October. Indeed, most mainstream historians, studying memoir literature or contemporary records, have concurred, viewing the April Theses and the April debates in Bolshevik Party circles that followed them, for good or ill, as Lenin’s triumph.

However, the renowned Canadian Marxist scholar Lars Lih has argued the opposite view. Lih insists that it was Lenin’s opponents within the Bolshevik Party—the “old Bolsheviks”—who ultimately triumphed. Lih sets out his case in his 2011 piece “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism”9 in which he argues that the Bolsheviks eventually took power in October by ignoring, or at most paying lip-service to, the April Theses while in practice just carrying on with their traditional agitation and political activities. Moreover Lih contends that Lenin himself actually back-pedalled from his original April position. He identifies, quite rightly, that the central issue in the April debates was the political status of “old Bolshevism”; the set of ideas at the core of a political organisation that had survived years of struggle dating back to the start of the century. Lih writes: “According to Lenin, old Bolshevism was outmoded whereas other Bolsheviks such as Lev Kamenev and Mikhail Kalinin defended its relevance. The central tenet of pre-war old Bolshevism was ‘democratic revolution to the end’.” Lih’s contention is that: “Far from being rendered irrelevant by the overthrow of the Tsar; old Bolshevism mandated a political course aimed at the overthrow of the ‘bourgeois’ provisional government” with the intention of carrying out a thoroughgoing democratic revolution.10 As will be shown, the use of the term “democratic” in this historical context camouflages more than it reveals. According to Lih, Lenin’s intervention was at best unnecessary and at worst misguided. For all practical purposes it did not have much impact on the subsequent developments that led to October. Indeed the April Theses were not, as has been generally understood, a radical departure from pre-1917 Bolshevik policy but simply a further expression of it. Lih states: “The actual Bolshevik message of 1917 (as documented by pamphlets issued by the Moscow Bolsheviks) was closer in most respects to the outlook of Lenin’s opponents”.11

It is important to engage with Lih’s arguments, not least because he is the historian whose landmark contribution, Lenin Rediscovered: “What is To Be Done?” in Context, so comprehensively took apart the Cold War textbook interpretation of Lenin’s famous 1902 polemic. Lih confirmed what Leon Trotsky had already attested, namely that What Is To Be Done? was not, as the Stalinists and the Cold War right postulated, the founding document of a uniquely Leninist party but was instead a restatement of Russian Social Democratic orthodoxy, a position that was widely accepted as commonplace in the Second International before the First World War.12 However, as documented elsewhere, Lih has subsequently extended his specific study of What Is To Be Done? to contend that no epistemological break ever occurred between Karl Kautsky’s Second International worldview and that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.13 Lih paints a picture of unchanging political progression in Bolshevik history right up to and including the October Revolution. It is in this context that he dismisses the April Theses as a mere transient dispute largely based on mutual misunderstandings. His continuity narrative insists that the Bolsheviks were already amply equipped both theoretically and strategically to take full advantage of the opportunities that opened up to them after the February Revolution.

Lih sees the objective of overthrowing of the provisional government as already “the dominant mandate of old Bolshevism”14 in 1917 and therefore not an issue that Lenin particularly needed to give such prominence to in the April Theses. However, Kamenev and Stalin, the two major Bolshevik leaders still in Russia prior to Lenin’s arrival (in point of fact Lih refers to them as “the two pillars of old Bolshevism”), had made no meaningful move whatsoever to put this supposed old Bolshevik policy into practice by the end of March 1917. The matter that took up most of their attention was how to relate to the provisional government, not how to destroy it. Lih seems simply not to acknowledge this historical fact. John Marot strongly criticises Lih here for in effect lumping together the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and suggesting that they are interchangeable. He writes: “Lih falsely projects the Bolsheviks’ 1917 question onto the 1905 Revolution and in the years running up to 1917, where it makes no sense, because no provisional government ever emerged in that period”.15

In 1905 there was no situation of dual power between the soviets and provisional government; the only alternative form of government to the fledgling soviets was the Tsarist autocracy. As already noted, it is true that the Bolsheviks at this time came to believe that the soviet had the potential to become the provisional government but they anticipated that the circumstances in which this would occur would be by a revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism led either by the liberals (as forecast by the Mensheviks) or by workers (as projected by the Bolsheviks). In either case what old Bolshevism advocated, should any provisional government arise, was to join it and decisively use their bedrock of support among the revolutionary working class to prevent any attempt by the liberals to halt, slow down or side-track the carrying out of the bourgeois revolution “to the end”. It is precisely because old Bolshevism expected that in a revolutionary upheaval they, as a faction within the RSDLP,16 would be participating in and even running a provisional government that Lih’s statement about old Bolshevism in 1917 having a mandate to overthrow the provisional government lacks credibility. Indeed, Barbara Allen has very recently translated several leaflets endorsed by the Bolshevik Petrograd committee in the weeks before the final collapse of Tsarism, all of which include the slogan “Long Live the Provisional Revolutionary Government!” A separate proclamation put out by the Petrograd Bolsheviks alone in February 1917 carried the headline: “For a Provisional Revolutionary Government of Workers and Poor Peasants”.17

Ignoring the key differences between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions undermines Lih’s argument concerning the rationale of old Bolshevism as it operated in the early months of 1917. In 1905 Tsarism remained in control to the very end; in 1917 its overthrow was the opening act of the revolution. In 1905 the soviets appeared as the last act of the revolution; in 1917 they appeared as the first act and never left. In 1905 the monarchy was the only locus of power; in 1917 the monarchy had been swept out of the picture. Dual power embodied in the soviet and the provisional government arose.

Before 1917 all Russian Social Democrats including the Bolsheviks had hypothesised a provisional government born of popular struggle, but the actual government that emerged in February 1917 had emanated from a Tammany Hall-style backroom deal by a cabal of bourgeois politicians in the Duma (the Tsarist parliament). They opportunistically stepped into the power vacuum following the working class uprising and disintegration of the army in St Petersburg on 27 February, the day that saw the destruction of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. Because of the stark reality of a provisional government now led by the janus-faced imperialist-minded Kadets, it was Lenin’s and increasingly the Bolsheviks’ view that the provisional government of 1917 was ultimately going to be hostile to advancing the well-being of the Russian workers and peasants. To deal with the unalloyed facts of this situation, Lenin discarded the old Bolshevik recipe of joining the provisional government, putting the liberals in their place from the inside and then carrying out the bourgeois democratic revolution “to the end”. However, neither did he advocate simply being an opposition pressure group pushing the provisional government to the left to achieve this long-standing goal. This was the de facto position of Kamenev and Stalin.

The fight for soviet power

Lenin proposed a complete rupture with all this; the new Bolshevik aim was to be “All power to the soviets”—all future discussion was to be centred around socialist revolution as the practical living alternative to the bourgeois revolution and the provisional government. The previous, more loosely defined, “above and below” perspective of struggle no longer fitted with reality. Now only struggle from below mattered, the culmination of which would be soviet power. Without the appearance of the soviet, without the fact of dual power, there would have been no other viable option but to accept the provisional government and the self-imposed limitations of the bourgeois democratic revolution that had bought it into existence. Certainly the very idea of going beyond the bourgeois democratic revolution and destroying the provisional government would have been inconceivable.

Lih goes on to profess that in the April Theses Lenin “now argued for the soviets as a specific political form, as a higher type of government, one that was fated to replace parliamentary democracy as the only adequate form of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’”.18 But this is not correct. Lenin did not argue that the soviet was a higher type of government merely because it was superior to parliamentary democracy. What he was arguing was something much more profound, namely that it was a completely different type of state, one fated by means of working class self-agency to replace the capitalist state in all its administrative forms, not just its parliamentary democratic form.

On 24 April 1917 at the seventh All-Russia Conference of the Bolsheviks, Lenin was to spell out this point more forcefully:

The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which cover the whole of Russia with their network, now stand at the centre of the revolution… Should they take over the power, it will no longer be a state in the ordinary sense of the word. The world has seen no state power such as this functioning for any considerable length of time, but the whole world’s organised working classes have been approaching it. This would be a state of the Paris Commune type.19

The fact of decisive importance that Lenin is making here is that no capitalist country could tolerate the existence of such a state institution as the soviets and no socialist revolution could operate with any other state institution than this. Lenin is now clearly exhibiting a strong difference of emphasis with Lih’s assertion, noted earlier, that the central tenet of pre-war old Bolshevism was “Democratic revolution to the end”, a slogan, as he puts it, “that implied a vast social transformation of Russia under the aegis of a revolutionary government based on the narod [proletariat and peasantry]”.20 Marot is correct to home in on this rather evasive phraseology. He writes of Lih’s “vast social transformation” that it “has a name. Social Democrats called it the ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’. The vast political transformation accompanying the social revolution also has a name: it is the establishment of a bourgeois-democratic state, based on universal suffrage”.21 Prior to the April Theses this was something all Russian Social Democrats, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, agreed upon; the only disagreement was over which social class was going to achieve it. The Mensheviks held to the view that the Russian Revolution would be a bourgeois revolution led by the bourgeoisie while the Bolsheviks believed that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak and supine to lead a revolution against the Tsar and therefore that the workers would be forced to take the leadership role and bring about the bourgeois revolution. Only the outlier Trotsky pointed out the Achilles heel in this old Bolshevik perspective, namely, that once the working class had achieved political domination they would no longer meekly put up with their continued economic enslavement. His theory of permanent revolution, first stated in 1906, starkly posed the question: Why should the proletariat, once in power and controlling the means of coercion, continue to tolerate capitalist exploitation? In other words the very logic of its position would oblige it to take collectivist and socialist measures: “It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie”.22

Marot meticulously shows how Lih gives a flawed interpretation of the old Bolshevik scenario. The latter was predicated not on two stages but only one, namely the overthrow of Tsarism and its replacement by a provisional government heavily dominated by the RSDLP. In 1905 this perspective was never put to the test because no provisional government ever materialised. However, for those holding to the continuity of the old Bolshevik scenario, Lenin does, somewhat inconveniently, present the concept of two stages of revolution. On 7 March 1917 in his “First Letter From Afar” he writes: “The proletariat, utilising the peculiarities of the present situation, can and will proceed, first, to the achievement of a democratic republic…and then to socialism, which alone can give the war-weary people peace, bread and freedom”.23 A month later in the April Theses Lenin reiterated this perspective: “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which…placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants”.24 Nevertheless, for Lih, although it may appear that Lenin is calling for a second socialist stage to the Russian Revolution he doesn’t really mean it. With a certain level of chutzpah Lih contends that by taking these statements at face value we might be tempted to read them as follows: first stage = democratic revolution, second stage = socialist revolution. How does Lih get around the very possibility of reading Lenin’s words precisely in this fashion? He simply rewrites them by framing them, as he puts it, in “a firm grounding in the old Bolshevik scenario”. Lenin’s words should now be read as follows:

First stage = the immediate post-tsarist government of revolutionary chauvinists who will try to limit revolutionary transformation as much as possible.

Second stage = a narodnaia vlast [people’s uprising] that will put the party of the proletariat in power and carry out the democratic revolution to the end.25

The first thing to notice is that in Lih’s new interpretation the word socialism, with which Lenin specifically concludes his “First Letter from Afar” and which he identifies as the political vision underpinning the whole necessity for a second stage of the revolution, now disappears. But more immediately, by insisting on two stages Lenin is decisively breaking with the old Bolshevik scenario. It is because Lih does not accept this that Lenin’s actual words have to be rewritten and then represented as two halves of the same old Bolshevik bourgeois democratic whole. To repeat once more, under the old Bolshevik scenario there was never any mandate to overthrow the provisional government, nor could there have been. The goal of old Bolshevism (and indeed Menshevism) was to overthrow Tsarism, not a provisional government, “whether it was soviet-based or not or whether it was revolutionary or not”.26 Until Lenin’s arrival the question of a second stage, of consciously focusing on preparing for a socialist revolution, was never seriously engaged with. The April Theses helped to break this log-jam because it recognised very quickly that the actual provisional government of February 1917 was made up of reactionary chauvinists, not even the lesser evil of “revolutionary chauvinists”, and therefore was utterly different to the one anticipated by old Bolshevism.

It is important to make clear that when Lenin was advocating moving as speedily as possible to the second stage of the revolution this should not be confused with the Menshevik and subsequent Stalinist two stages theory. The latter held to a rigid and predetermined view which continued, throughout the 20th century, to see the bourgeois democratic revolution as a distinctly separate historical epoch. According to the two stages theory, therefore, the working class and consequently socialism must always wait. This vulgar evolutionism was to have devastating repercussions ranging from the Chinese Revolution 1925-1927, Spain 1936 even later on to Indonesia 1965 or Chile 1973. In all likelihood, had the Bolsheviks not led a successful socialist revolution in October 1917 a similar right wing military dictatorship and bloodbath would have ensued.

Of course it is true that after the February 1917 Revolution society had progressed compared to the Tsarist state. Indeed Lenin referred to Russia as “now the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world” in terms of formally recognised legal rights and the absence of violence towards the masses.27 But, prior to Lenin’s arrival back in Russia, one thing both old Bolshevism and Menshevism agreed upon was that “carrying out the democratic revolution to the end” was understood to mean bourgeois-democratic rather than socialist revolution. Notwithstanding the April Theses Lih primarily endorses the view that the October Revolution was not a socialist revolution at all—but the completion of the project of pushing the bourgeois democratic revolution to its furthermost limit. Once this point is conceded the rest of the old Bolshevik scenario must also logically follow. Thus a constituent assembly would be set up which would in turn found a republic. The provisional government, having done its job, would dissolve itself and the RSDLP, following the example of Kautsky’s Social Democratic Party in Germany, would take its place as a social-democratic “revolutionary” opposition to capitalism in what would be a capitalist state. At this point Lenin might as well have thrown his copy of The State and Revolution out of the window of an unsealed train going back to Switzerland. Alongside it, he could at the same time have discarded the following passage from his “Third Letter from Afar” written just immediately prior to his arrival in Russia:

We need a state. But not the kind of state the bourgeoisie has created everywhere, from constitutional monarchies to the most democratic republics. And in this we differ from the opportunists and Kautskyites of the old, and decaying, socialist parties, who have distorted, or have forgotten, the lessons of the Paris Commune and the analysis of these lessons made by Marx and Engels.

We need a state but not the kind the bourgeoisie needs, with organs of government in the shape of a police force, an army and a bureaucracy (officialdom) separate from and opposed to the people. All bourgeois revolutions merely perfected this state machine, merely transferred it from the hands of one party to those of another.28

Apart from the fact that Lih does not give any consideration to this passage, what he does say is that “a soviet republic was the most advanced form of democratic republic”.29 But as we can see this is not Lenin’s position. He plainly says even “the most democratic republic” is still a bourgeois state and thus systematically a state based on class exploitation and capitalist relations of production.

Just using the term “democratic revolution” as Lih does can to a large extent be equivocal and leave the political regime empty of social content. As early as 1884 Engels had seen through this delusion when he wrote about the role of “pure democracy”:

When the moment of revolution comes, of its acquiring a temporary importance as the most radical bourgeois party…and as the final sheet-anchor of the whole bourgeois and even feudal regime…the whole reactionary mass falls in behind it and strengthens it; everything which used to be reactionary behaves as democratic.

In any case, our sole adversary on the day of the crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole collective reaction which will group itself around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of.30

Lenin echoed Engels’s warning when he said that “to be revolutionaries, even democrats, with Nicholas [the Tsar] removed, is no great merit. Revolutionary democracy is no good at all; it is a mere phrase. It covers up rather than lays bare the antagonisms of class interests”.31 Clearly, the new editors of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, were unaware of this. Kamenev’s co-editor Stalin wrote on 29 March: “Insofar as the provisional government fortifies the steps of the revolution to that extent we must support it; but insofar as it is counter-revolutionary, support to the provisional government is not permissible”.32

This completely ignores the fact that the most powerful agent of counter-revolution at that point in time was this very same provisional government. This was the reason Lenin called for its overthrow, not just militant opposition to it. This level of political confusion, simply speaking of a division of labour between the provisional government and the soviets, not only overlooked class antagonisms but had already had a disorientating effect on the Bolsheviks. At a session of the whole of the Petrograd Soviet on 2 March only 15 out of the 40 Bolshevik delegates present voted against the transfer of power to the provisional government.33 Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Lih’s claim that old Bolshevism was politically geared to the overthrow of the provisional government.

In December 1915 Lenin had already noted the hypocrisy of hiding behind the phrase “democratic revolution”. Julius Martov had made a statement proclaiming: “It is self-evident that if the present crisis should lead to the victory of a democratic revolution, to a republic, then the character of the war would radically change.” Lenin pulled no punches in his withering attack on what amounted to a precursor of revolutionary defencism:

All this is a shameless lie. Martov could not but have known that a democratic revolution and a republic means a bourgeois-democratic republic. The character of this war between the bourgeois and imperialist great powers would not change a jot were the military-autocratic and feudal imperialism to be swept away in one of these countries. That is because in such conditions, a purely bourgeois imperialism would not vanish, but would only gain strength.34

Lenin returned to reinforce the same point after the February Revolution when he wrote: “The slightest concession to revolutionary defencism is a betrayal of socialism, a complete renunciation of internationalism, no matter by what fine phrases and ‘practical’ considerations it may be justified”.35 By this time, as will be shown below, he could just as well have had Kamenev in his sights as much as Martov. What Lenin was attacking here was the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary Party assertion that, with the Tsarist autocracy toppled, it was now justifiable to argue to carry on fighting the war under the banner of defending the gains of the revolution—hence revolutionary defencism. All of this, of course, was subterfuge. The new provisional government was perfectly happy to endorse the concept of revolutionary defencism because it helped to provide it cover while it continued to espouse the predatory war goals of the previous Tsarist regime. By contrast, revolutionary defeatism held to the view that the main enemy for every working class was its own imperialist-minded ruling class, be it a Tsarist ruling class or a bourgeois one. For Lenin the proletariat could never gain anything discernible out of a capitalist war. The choice was always between class struggle and its own immiseration and exploitation.

The real inheritors of old Bolshevism were the Mensheviks. This became apparent when they adopted the Bolshevik position of 1905 by entering the provisional government in May 1917, thus giving a proletarian stamp of approval to the bourgeois democratic revolution. Lenin’s intervention with the April Theses helped to drag the Bolsheviks back from passively going along the same route.

Lih writes that at their March 1917 conference, prior to Lenin’s arrival, the Bolsheviks had mulled over various formulas in regard to dealing with the provisional government. These included: “offering support ‘insofar as’ the provisional government carried out revolutionary measures, or imposing strict kontrol over the actions of the government, or supporting any revolutionary measures that the government undertook but not the government itself”.36 But surely Marot is correct when he says that in April 1917: “Lenin will oppose these formulas not on the grounds of their lack of effectiveness, but because the formulas all effectively assume that the boundaries of the bourgeois-democratic revolution are sacrosanct, along with the bourgeois state”.37 In reference to imposing “kontrol” over the actions of the provisional government (by the soviets), what he refers to as the “kontrol” tactic, Lih does concede that this was an issue of dispute among the Bolsheviks but in his view not a very profound one. It was really the striving to find “the best method for achieving the old Bolshevik goal of overthrowing the provisional government in favour of a soviet-based provisional revolutionary government”.38

However, Marot, like Lih a fluent Russian linguist, maintains that this was not what was at stake. He argues that “kontrol” means exactly that: “control”, not overthrow. If the heart of the dispute was about choosing the best tactic in order to control the provisional government then indeed it was not a very profound one. If it was about whether or not to overthrow it then it is a strategic issue of an entirely different order. Lenin recognised this in his report to the Seventh Congress on 24 April: “To control you must have power…control without power is an empty petty-bourgeois phrase that hampers the progress of the Russian revolution”.39

Up to 1917 the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, believed a very long and protracted struggle would be required eventually to get rid of Tsarism even when a revolutionary situation was underway. But when it actually came about the collapse of Tsarism happened astonishingly quickly. This dramatic development required a rapid re-assessment of the changing situation, involving a considerable amount of improvisation, as well as a completely fresh perspective involving a reorientation of the party that would inevitably necessitate a break from the old Bolshevik scenario. Even as late as October 1915 Lenin was still talking about consummation of the bourgeois democratic revolution as being the main task facing the Russian working class and arguing the “old Bolshevik” line that it was still “admissible for Social Democrats to join a provisional revolutionary government together with the democratic petty bourgeoisie”.40 But after February 1917 there was no point in doggedly maintaining a strategy suited to a scenario that no longer applied. Unlike 1905 or 1915, Tsarism was now defunct. The old world had collapsed; the “reactionary chauvinist” provisional government had taken over as the official government. What mattered to Lenin now was how the Bolsheviks could best take advantage of this dramatic outcome. Lih appears to miss the key point when he writes of the Bolsheviks’ various options and formulas: “the spirit in which Bolshevik speakers proposed these formulas was diametrically opposed to the spirit of similar formulas coming from the moderate socialists”.41 In other words, although the Bolsheviks may have been more forthright and strident in their propaganda vis-à-vis the provisional government, they were still nevertheless, as Lih concedes, advocating “similar formulas”. As Marot writes: “If this is so—and it is so—how can Lih say that the old Bolsheviks are for overthrowing the provisional government even before Lenin’s arrival? How can he tell the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks apart at this juncture? Not by examining the documentary evidence, where these formulae appear”.42
The fallout from the April Theses
Given the general level of theoretical and strategic malaise among the Bolsheviks, Lenin’s April Theses went down like the proverbial lead balloon. The party’s Petrograd committee voted by 13 to two to reject it and the Bolshevik committees in Moscow and Kiev soon followed suit. In a piece signed by Kamenev, the editorial of Pravda commented: “As for the general scheme of comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution”.43 Kamenev, who Lih quite rightly identifies as the embodiment of “old Bolshevism”, argued forcefully that “Lenin is wrong when he says that the bourgeois democratic revolution is finished… The classical relics of feudalism, the landed estates are not yet liquidated. The state is not transformed into a democratic society… It is early to say that the bourgeois democracy has exhausted all its possibilities”.44

Was Kamenev’s position really so different from that of the Mensheviks? This is what their newspaper Rabochaya Gazeta said on 6 April 1917, two days after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station:

The revolution can successfully struggle against reaction and force it out of its position only so long as it is able to remain within the limits which are determined by the objective necessity (the state of the productive forces, the level of mentality of the masses of people corresponding to it etc.). One cannot render a better service to reaction than by disregarding those limits and by making attempts at breaking them.45

The Menshevik leader Georgi Plekhanov repeatedly quoted Karl Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy and used it to mock the Bolsheviks for trying to leapfrog into socialism: “No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society”.46

Indeed, before changing his mind, Lenin himself had stuck pretty much to this script. In his massive and meticulous study The Development of Capitalism in Russia in 1899 it was his considered view that, as Russia was still in the early stages of capitalist development, this provided an objective basis for a bourgeois-democratic limitation to the revolutionary process.

But Lenin in April 1917 was not Lenin in 1899, far less Marx in 1859. The big picture was by now markedly different and therefore strategy had to adapt as well. The problem with both the “old Bolsheviks” and the Mensheviks was that their positions had nothing whatsoever to say about Lenin’s justifications for presenting his April Theses. These proceeded from his analysis of imperialism, not from his specific investigation into Russia written 20 years previously. Those material conditions through which the transition to socialism could be accomplished had by now assuredly “matured in the womb of the old society itself”. To quote Marx’s preface more fully than Plekhanov’s and the Mensheviks’ selective usage: “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation”.47 By 1917 the material conditions for revolution were palpably in the course of formation in Russia; as Neil Harding has put it, “imperialism or finance capitalism, had itself at last produced precisely those mechanisms which for the first time enabled the administration of things to be accomplished by the mass of people in and through their own self-activity”.48 For example, cartels and trusts had concentrated and socialised production. Railways, postal and telegraph communications had contributed to establishing the infrastructure necessary to accomplish the task of socialising the basic structure of the economy. In addition large banks had rationalised and concentrated the productive base of society and provided the means for an accurate universal form of book-keeping and accountancy. Against the background of these developments it is hard to disagree with Harding’s assessment that: “within this society, Lenin argued, the material conditions had long previously matured not only for the overthrow of capitalism as an economic structure but, in certain senses, for the transcendence of the state which socialism entailed”.49

Alexei Rykov, a longstanding and respected Bolshevik underground organiser, profoundly disagreed with Lenin and maintained that the actual socialist transformation still had to come from Europe or the United States. Lenin’s rejoinder clearly shows his new thinking: “Comrade Rykov says that socialism has to come from other countries with more developed industry. But that’s not right. No one can say who will begin and who will end. That’s not Marxism but a parody of Marxism”.50 Rykov also asserted what was patently the prevailing view of the Bolsheviks, that: “gigantic revolutionary tasks stand before us, but the fulfilment of these tasks does not carry us beyond the framework of the bourgeois regime”.51

Mikhail Kalinin, another stalwart of old Bolshevism who had joined the RSDLP in 1898, propounded: “I belong to the old Bolshevik Leninists, and I consider that the old Leninism has not by any means proved good-for-nothing in the present peculiar moment, and I am astonished at the declaration of Comrade Lenin that the old Bolsheviks have become an obstacle at the present moment”.52 The Bolshevik trade union leader Mikhail Tomsky, another political heavyweight, was also not prepared to shift from the view which he believed, with some justification, that Lenin himself had held since 1905: “The democratic dictatorship is our foundation stone. We ought to organise the power of the proletariat and the peasants, and we ought to distinguish this from the Commune, since that means the power of the proletariat alone”.53 Lenin, however, remained unmoved by these bonds to the past. Even before his arrival back in Russia in April 1917 he took it as self-evident that the European revolution against imperialism was on the immediate agenda. The objective economic base was ripe for socialism and three years of bloodletting had made millions conscious of the need to overthrow the entire system that had wrought so much death and ruination. Central to the April Theses was the contention that the first socialist revolution would have immense repercussions throughout Europe. Indeed, Lenin based his whole political strategy on the expectation that revolution in Russia would act as the detonator of a general European explosion. Against the background of this analysis he forcefully asserted that: “One must know how to adapt schemes to facts rather than repeat words regarding a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ in general, words which have become meaningless… No, that formula is antiquated. It is worthless. It is dead. And all attempts to revive it will be in vain”.54 Moreover, he added:

Whoever speaks now only of a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” is behind the times, consequently he has in effect gone over to the side of the petty bourgeoisie and is against the proletarian class struggle. He deserves to be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (which might be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”).55

For Lenin the old Bolshevik perspective of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry had already been completed. Indeed, it had become a living reality but not in the way it was originally envisaged: “According to the old way of thinking the rule of the bourgeoisie could and should be followed by the rule of the proletariat and the peasantry by their dictatorship. In real life things have already turned out differently; there has been an extremely original, novel and unprecedented interlacing of the one with the other”.56

What Lenin meant by this was that the supposedly “official” provisional government representing the rule of the bourgeoisie existed side by side with the soviets. The latter represented the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and poor peasants (the batraki) represented in their millions in the uniform of the Russian army. Indeed in St Petersburg the power was very much in the hands of the workers and soldiers: “the new government is not using and cannot use violence against them, because there is no police, no army standing apart from the people, no officialdom standing all powerful above the people. This is a fact—the kind of fact that is characteristic of a state of the Paris Commune type”.57

Lenin’s main contention was that prior to February 1917 the original old Bolshevik formula envisaged, in the forthcoming Russian Revolution, “only a relation of classes and not a concrete political institution implementing this relation”.58 But from the earliest days such an institution did actually exist, namely the connected system of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies which lay at the heart of the revolution. The problem was that the majority in the soviets, far from wielding the power they possessed, were in the process of “surrendering helplessly to petty-bourgeois revolution…voluntarily ceding power to the bourgeoisie” and making themselves “an appendage of the bourgeoisie”.59 Continued commitment to the now obsolete old Bolshevik formula would ensure that this process carried on. The Bolsheviks would be neither theoretically nor organisationally equipped to stand against it, let alone counteract it. Lenin believed this corrosive development was already in train.

All of this is not to say that Lenin was in favour of an immediate seizure of power and initiation of the socialist revolution, at least not before winning a Bolshevik majority in the soviets—a fact he explicitly stated in point eight of the April Theses: “It is not our immediate task to introduce socialism”.60 Lenin was forced to re-emphasise this point because Kamenev, in his first intervention in the April debates, argued that the call for the overthrow of the provisional government and transference of power to the soviets would “disorganise the revolution”.61

Lih considers that the old Bolshevik position was to overthrow the provisional government at the earliest opportunity. But this is not the stance that Kamenev, the epitome of old Bolshevism, took. Instead, when the Petrograd Committee actually did raise the slogan “Down with the provisional government” on 21 April, far from supporting this campaign and overthrowing the provisional government at the earliest opportunity, Kamenev was quick to focus on it as an example of adventurism and vacillation by the party. In his winding up speech at the April Conference Lenin agreed with Kamenev that the party had vacillated but the vacillation had been: “away from the revolutionary policy… In what did our adventurism consist? It was the attempt to resort to forcible measures”.62 The problem with this particular situation, Lenin argued, was that the balance of forces was still an unknown quantity: “We did not know to what extent the masses had swung to our side during that anxious moment. If it had been a strong swing things would have been different”.63 In such a case, we can presume, the slogan might well have been legitimate. In Lenin’s view the reason for vacillation had been organisational weakness, a failure of democratic centralism and of revolutionary discipline: “Our decisions are not being carried out by everyone”.64 What was meant to be a peaceful reconnoitring of the enemy’s forces was undermined by the Petersburg Committee moving too quickly to the left and giving battle prematurely: “We advanced the slogan for peaceful demonstrations but several comrades from the Petrograd Committee issued a different slogan. We annulled it but could not stop it in time to prevent the masses following the slogan of the Petrograd Committee”.65 Nevertheless Lenin insisted that the line marked out was correct and that: “in future we shall make every effort to achieve an organisation in which there will be no Petrograd ‘Committee-men’ to disobey the Central Committee”.66 Clearly a bit more centralisation in the party was required—not in opposition to democracy but as an essential condition for it to exist.

At this point what was of equal importance to Lenin, as much as the question of organisation or—for that matter—any alleged “bourgeois democratic stage”, was gauging the prevailing level of consciousness of the Russian working class. At the end of the April debates Lenin placed the emphasis on “patient explanation”: “there is not the slightest doubt that, as a class, the proletariat and semi-proletariat are not interested in the war. They are influenced by tradition and deception. They still lack political experience. Therefore our task is one of patient explanation”.67 The task now was two-fold. While the Bolsheviks remained in a minority they had both to criticise and expose errors but at the same time advocate the strategic and political importance of: transferring state power to the soviets “so that people may overcome their mistakes by experience”.68 Lenin in effect had put a reasoned wager on the majority of workers rapidly becoming disillusioned with the moderate orientation of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. The circumstances of the April Theses have to be set firmly in the context of the pull of rapprochement with the Mensheviks and the wider gravitational drag of left reformism. They cannot be dismissed as much ado about nothing. Lenin’s reaction is perhaps the most important example of him “bending the stick”—purposely over-emphasising his position.

Kamenev was still wedded to carrying on fighting the imperialist war under the guise of “revolutionary defencism”. Indeed he had already displayed his disavowal of Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism during a trial in a Tsarist court in 1914. In an editorial in Pravda on 15 March 1917 he went so far as to insist that: “Soldiers and sailors remain steadfast at their posts and answer the enemy bullet for bullet and shell with shell”.69 All of this was couched in terms of displaying practical unity with the provisional government insofar as it struggled against Tsarist reaction and counter-revolution. Nevertheless it is clear that, while Lenin was correctly convinced that the only road to peace lay in the overthrow of the provisional government, Kamenev and other leading old Bolsheviks were prepared to give succour to a government that was still thoroughly committed to the war aims of the Entente alliance that had bound Tsarist Russia to British and French imperialism.

At the April debates Lenin explained how any unity with the Mensheviks on their terms would have meant not only the continuation of the war but also retreat on the question of land reform as well as the re-establishment of managerial control in the workplace. This would have not only led to demoralisation among the revolution’s most enthusiastic supporters but would have also raised the confidence of counter-revolutionary forces.

We must return briefly to the issue of the “kontrol tactic”. Lih acknowledges that there were what he calls disagreements in the April debates but he puts much of this down to misunderstandings, deliberate or otherwise, rather than any deep cleavage in strategy. He argues correctly that the only Bolsheviks who openly advocated unity with the Mensheviks (on the basis that the February Revolution had made past differences redundant) were a small group around Wladimir Woytinsky who had left the party just prior to Lenin’s arrival. He assesses that for this group and other “moderate socialists” kontrol in practice meant demonstrating that soviet power was not necessary.

However, for Kamenev, Stalin and other “old Bolsheviks” the opposite was the case. Their strategy, according to Lih, was to show by what today might be called transitional demands: “that the provisional government was not going to carry out what it claimed it was going to do, and to show the workers and peasants that they are not going to get anywhere unless they replace the government with their own”.70 Lih cites as an example the demand by Kamenev for the provisional government to publish secret treaties knowing that they would not be prepared to do this. Their refusal to do so would thus expose them to the masses as being against a policy of peace. All of this is set in contrast to Lenin’s “patient explanation” which can be viewed as rather passive. In other words, Lih proposes that it is Lenin, not the old Bolsheviks, who needed shaking up. He writes:

Those Bolsheviks who, like Kamenev, were opposed to Lenin were arguing that his opposition to the provisional government was too empty, too formal—too much like just sitting there saying that it is an imperialist government. They asked: how do we get across the message that an imperialist government is bad? Let’s put across some specific demands to expose this government.71

But, as noted above, Marot argues that kontrol meant control. And for Lenin: “There can be no control without power. To control by means of resolutions etc is sheer nonsense”.72 However, for Lih the interpretation is more nuanced; along the lines of keeping a watching-brief or as he puts it: “checking up on” the provisional government.73 But, if correct, this can hardly be said to be any more vigorous than Lenin’s supposed “passive” patient explanation.

Did “patient explanation” really mean, as Lih suggests, “just sitting there saying it is an imperialist government”.74 Manifestly in practice it really meant party members going to the masses, concentrating on the need for taking the vlast (power) from below and directly confronting the fact that despite its democratic trappings the provisional government was still a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie determined to keep power in the hands of the capitalist class. Hammering this point home systematically and persistently at the grassroots in the workplace, the streets, the barracks, as well as in the soviets was far more subversive than “clever” tactical manoeuvres to catch the opposition out. For Lenin the provisional government was already debased as things stood. Any support or denunciation of it was not contingent on any further actions on its part. Moreover Kamenev’s half-baked attempts at posing transitional demands were never going to be a substitute for the real thing: “peace, bread and land”. Instead Lenin was banking on the perspective of a deteriorating state of affairs both at the front and at home and on the continued resistance of the stratum of workers who had risen to their feet in the upwards years of 1912-14 following the massacre of 500 miners in the Lena goldfields. Even prior to the April debates Lenin had argued that:

All countries are on the brink of ruin; people must realise this; there is no way out except through a socialist revolution. The government must be overthrown, but not everybody understands this correctly. So long as the provisional government has the backing of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, you cannot “simply” overthrow it. The only way it can and must be overthrown is by winning over the majority in the Soviets.75

On this point it is worth noting that even as late as mid-June at the first All-Russia Congress of Soviets there were still only 105 Bolshevik delegates out of 882.76 The pressure to accommodate to the majority must have been enormous. Patient explanation, or as Trotsky put it, “bringing the consciousness of the masses into correspondence with that situation into which the historic process had driven them”,77 was one of the elements of practical agitation by which the social base of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries operating in the soviets could be undermined.

All of this soon came to pass. By mid-summer the provisional government’s demand for increased conscription into the army coupled with mass desertions following its orders, under pressure from its fellow imperialist allies, to resume offensive military operations began to erode its support base. Within the Bolshevik Party Kamenev’s de facto “revolutionary defencism” position was also being undercut. Kamenev, if he truly was the embodiment of old Bolshevism, never really seemed to learn from this. In regard to the so-called Democratic Conference in September, an event actually called by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and dismissed by Lenin as “idiotic babbling”,78 he severely criticised Kamenev for his “constitutional” approach: “Comrade Kamenev was wrong in delivering the first speech at the conference in a purely ‘constitutional’ spirit when he raised the foolish question of confidence or non-confidence in the government.” What he should have been concentrating on was exposing the widely known truth of provisional government leader Alexander Kerensky’s “secret pacts with the Kornilov gang”.79 His wrath was also aimed at the 136 Bolshevik delegates. “The Bolsheviks should have walked out…and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions…the Bolshevik delegation ought to have gone to the factories and the barracks; that was the proper place for delegates”.80

A few weeks later, on the very eve of the October Revolution, Kamenev alongside Grigori Zinoviev publicly denounced the plans for insurrection in the Menshevik press. There is too long a trail here to suggest that his and the old Bolsheviks’ dispute with Lenin over the April Theses was merely one of mutual misunderstanding. There was a right-leaning wing and a left-leaning wing among the Bolshevik leaders. Kamenev rep.resented one, Lenin the other.

Socialism and Bolshevik propaganda

Finally, Lih sets great store in the claim that Lenin in reality played down the vision of socialism as being central in the build-up to the October Revolution. We need to be aware that at this time, during the summer months of 1917 and encompassing the dramatic events of the July Days, when sections of the Bolsheviks were drawn towards a premature insurrection, Lenin was very wary of being tactically deflected into an abstract cul de sac of arguments about the nature of socialism. He was especially concerned not to overlook exposing what he termed the plunder of the state such as the 500 percent profits being made from war supplies: “The bourgeoisie want nothing better than to answer the people’s queries about the scandalous profits of the war supplies deliverers, and about economic dislocation, with ‘learned’ arguments about the ‘utopian’ character of socialism”.81

Nevertheless Lih is content to ignore this context. He approvingly quotes the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who stated in his memoir of 1917: “Was there any socialism in this [the Bolsheviks’] platform? No, I maintain that in a direct form the Bolsheviks never harped to the masses on socialism as the object and task of a soviet government; nor did the masses in supporting the Bolsheviks, even think about socialism”.82 In endorsing Sukhanov’s view, Lih produces evidence in the form of a study of a sample of 50 leaflets issued by the Moscow organisation of the Bolsheviks between April and October 1917. Lih contends that, in the three months preceding the October Revolution, “socialism in general only gets a passing mention…in the ten or so leaflets…issued during and immediately after the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. Neither socialism nor any kind of socialist measure are mentioned anywhere”.83 Setting aside Lih’s reference to “the Bolshevik coup”, surely to a large extent all this misses the point. What was of much greater significance was that of all the political organisations the Bolsheviks alone called for “all power to the soviets” recognising them as the social force that could bring about socialism. This was a slogan that the political logic of pre-April 1917 Bolshevism, with the residue of its Kautskyan legacy still hanging over it, could never have advanced. Marot rightly contends that:

Whether they often or seldom called for it is not critical. No other political formation called for it. No other party called for workers’ power. At this point, in the summer and autumn of 1917, long after the conclusion of the April debates, the Bolsheviks were confident that if the workers came to power it would mean the overthrow of the provisional government since there could be no stable soviet workers’ state even under the most democratic bourgeois rule.84

Lih cites the 50 Moscow Bolshevik leaflets in support of his view that an orientation towards “socialism” or a socialist revolution was not a necessary pre-condition for a revolutionary overthrow of the provisional government, a view that was certainly held by Kamenev. But is this the only factor in play here? In trying to avoid the pitfalls of either being rigidly dogmatic on the one hand or prosaic on the other concerning the overall conceptual rigour of their political message, the Bolsheviks knew what every revolutionary socialist activist, before or since, knows, that if they were to reach beyond their primary circle of supporters and connect with the workers and peasants they were trying to win over, they would need to adopt a more everyday style of language in their pamphlets. After all, the largest party in Russia was also the party whose vast majority held the greatest ideological fear of seeing the revolution develop towards socialism—the (misleadingly named) petty-bourgeois populist Socialist Revolutionary Party. In his concluding speech to the April Conference of the Bolsheviks on 29 April Lenin went some way to distinguish between party “political” resolutions and party agitational and propaganda pamphlets. He summed it up as follows:

Our resolutions are not written with a view to the broad masses, but they will serve to unify the activities of our agitators and propagandists, and the reader will find in them guidance in his work. We have to speak to the millions; we must draw fresh forces from amongst the masses, we must call for more developed class-conscious workers who would popularise our theses in a way the masses would understand. We shall endeavour in our pamphlets to present our resolutions in a more popular form, and hope that our comrades will do the same thing locally. The proletariat will find in our resolutions material to guide it in its movement towards the second stage of our revolution.85

It is, of course, also perfectly possible that within this context of “patient explanation” the Moscow comrades didn’t always get it quite right.

When Lenin addressed the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets on 26 October 1917, the day after the provisional government was dispatched into the dustbin of history, he finished his report by announcing: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”.86 He did not say “we shall now proceed to complete the democratic revolution to the end”. Lih’s continual discounting of Lenin’s interventionist role in the Bolshevik Party leads him to emphasise the “inner continuity” of the party while depriving the April Theses of any lasting significance in actively sharpening the party’s revolutionary edge. Lenin was focused on active agency and the ability to exploit a chaotic situation, not simply waiting passively for the “Marxian” laws of economic determinism to clarify the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. Trotsky seems to have a far greater grasp than Lih of the relationship between the two when he writes:

The Party could fulfil its mission only after understanding it. For that Lenin was needed. Until his arrival, not one of the Bolshevik leaders dared to make a diagnosis of the revolution… His divergence from the ruling circles of the Bolsheviks meant the struggle of the future of the party against its past. If Lenin had not been artificially separated from the party by the conditions of emigration and war, the external mechanics of the crisis would not have been so dramatic, and would not have overshadowed to such a degree the inner continuity of the party development.87

Lenin was never the type of leader to allow himself to be held back by what he viewed as shibboleths or dogmatic orthodoxy even if such ideas were held by large swathes of old Bolsheviks; the thoughtful, loyal, resilient but also conservative backbone of the party. He would have been well aware that without the courage and sacrifices of these comrades there would have been no Bolshevik Party and without a party no realistic prospect of achieving a socialist revolution. But, just as importantly, he also knew that a “Leninist” party could only be successful when it substantially grasped strategically as well as theoretically the context within which it was working and changed accordingly. The key question here was did an advanced revolutionary class exist or did it not? In delivering the April Theses Lenin did not cease to be a “Leninist” or in many ways, for that matter, an old Bolshevik. What he did in Trotsky’s words: “was to throw off the worn-out shell of Bolshevism in order to summon its nucleus to a new life”.88 When Lenin delivered the April Theses we see him in practice arriving at the same conclusion as that which Trotsky had theorised ten years earlier. The theory of permanent revolution and the April Theses now dovetailed together. Lih’s assessment of old Bolshevism makes it virtually indistinguishable from Menshevism. Without the political and strategic renewal, the break in gradualness, spurred on by the April Theses—“Leaps, Leaps, Leaps” as Lenin noted in the margins of Hegel’s Science of Logic—the revolution would have been halted at its bourgeois democratic stage and then been rapidly beaten back.89

It is not the purpose of this article to delve into the debates concerning the precise meaning of Leninist or Leninism. There are already immense amounts of literature and articles covering this topic ranging from the proverbial number of angels on the head of a pin to much more thoughtful and contextual appraisals. A good example of the latter is Paul Le Blanc’s Unfinished Leninism, where the Stalinist usurpation and subsequent destruction of Lenin’s worldview are largely taken as read. For my part I am content at present to locate my use of these terms within the commentary of the Russian literary critic D S Mirsky: “Leninism is not identical with the sum of Lenin’s outlook. The Marxist precedes in him the creator of Leninism, and the vindication and re-establishment of genuine Marxism was one of his principal tasks in life”.90 As we enter the sociopathic age of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the persistent failure of neoliberalism as well as that of social-democratic reformism to confront and deal with the historic levels of inequality that global capitalism is creating has produced an intense stirring of discontent and protest. The spectre of a re-run of the 1930s or even a return to the inter-imperialist rivalry reminiscent of the years prior to 1914, but this time with nuclear weapons, is a chilling prospect. With the recent revelation that eight individuals have a combined wealth greater than that of the bottom three and a half billion of the planet’s population91 the ideals of the April Theses and the October Revolution remain unfinished business.

Notes

1 Sukhanov, 1984, p280. Nikolai Sukhanov was a Menshevik who witnessed Lenin’s return to Russia.

2 Dates in this article refer to the old style or Julian calendar which was 13 days behind the western Gregorian calendar. Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1918.

3 The soviets or workers’ councils comprised delegates elected directly from workplaces, army regiments and local communities.

4 Also known as “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”—Lenin, 1917c.

5 Lenin, 1905, pp17-28.

6 Lenin, 1902.

7 Lenin, 1905, p20.

8 Marxism on the State provided the draft for Lenin’s most insightful contribution to Marxism: The State and Revolution, written in August-September 1917.

9 Lih, 2011.

10 Lih, 2011, p199.

11 Lih, 2011, p199.

12 Trotsky, 1932.

13 Corr and Jenkins, 2014.

14 Lih, 2011, p217.

15 Marot, 2014, p151. Marot argues that for Lih “to talk about one is to talk about the other and vice-versa”—Marot, 2014, p144.

16 The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, within which the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were both factions. It was not until the 1912 Prague All-Russia Congress of the RSDLP that Bolshevism effectively crystallised as a distinct party.

17 Riddell, 2017.

18 Lih, 2011, p222.

19 Lenin, 1917a, p241.

20 Lih, 2011, p199.

21 Marot, 2014, p158.

22 Trotsky, 1931.

23 Lenin, 1917b, p308.

24 Lenin, 1917c, p21.

25 Lih, 2011, p218.

26 Marot, 2014, p163.

27 Lenin, 1917c, p21.

28 Lenin, 1917d, pp325-326.

29 Lih, 2011, p222.

30 Engels, 1884.

31 Lenin, 1917e, p149.

32 Quoted in Trotsky, 1937.

33 A G Shlyapnikov, referred to in Cliff, 1976, p98.

34 Lenin, 1915a, p435.

35 Lenin, 1917f, p65.

36 Lih, 2011, p216.

37 Marot, 2014, p162.

38 Lih, 2011, p230.

39 Lenin, 1917a, p232.

40 Lenin, 1915b, pp401-406.

41 Lih, 2011, p216.

42 Marot, 2014, p163.

43 Pravda, 8 April 1917.

44 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p319.

45 Quoted in Harding, 1978, p147.

46 Marx, 1859.

47 Marx, 1859, my emphasis.

48 Harding, 1978, p147.

49 Harding, 1978, p148.

50 Lenin, 1917a, p246.

51 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p325.

52 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p325.

53 Trotsky, 1980, p319.

54 Lenin, 1917g, pp45-51.

55 Lenin, 1917g, p46.

56 Lenin, 1917g, p46.

57 Lenin, 1917g, p47.

58 Lenin, 1917g, p45.

59 Lenin, 1917g, p47.

60 Lenin, 1917c, p23.

61 Marot, 2014, p165.

62 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

63 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

64 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

65 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

66 Lenin, 1917a, p247.

67 Lenin, 1917a, p237.

68 Lenin, 1917c, p22.

69 Rabinowitch, 1991, p36.

70 Lih, 2015, p5.

71 Lih, 2015, p5.

72 Lenin, 1917e, p153.

73 Lih, 2015, p5.

74 Lih, 2015, p5.

75 In a speech delivered at the Petrograd City Conference of the Bolsheviks on 14 April—Lenin, 1917e, p147.

76 Bunyan and Fisher, 1934, p11.

77 Trotsky, 1980, p326.

78 Lenin, 1917h, p43.

79 Lenin, 1917h, p45. By this time the “socialist” Kerensky had become prime minister and General Kornilov had become the extreme right wing commander-in-chief of the army.

80 Lenin, 1917h, p43.

81 Lenin, 1917j, p45.

82 Lih, 2011, pp234-235.

83 Lih, 2011, p238.

84 Marot, 2014, pp165-166.

85 Lenin, 1917a, p313.

86 Lenin, 1917i, introduction.

87 Trotsky, 1980, pp330-331.

88 Trotsky, 1980, p235.

89 Lenin, 1914, p123.

90 Mirsky, 1931, p192

91 Socialist Worker, 2017.

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Cliff, Tony, 1976, Lenin, volume 2, All Power to the Soviets (Pluto Press).

Corr, Kevin, and Gareth Jenkins, 2014, “The Case of the Disappearing Lenin”, International Socialism 144 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/the-case-of-the-disappearing-lenin

Engels, Friedrich, 1884, “Letter to August Bebel in Berlin” (December), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/letters/84_12_11.htm

Harding, Neil, 1978, Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions, volume 2 (St Martin’s Press).

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Lenin, V I, 1914, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic”, in Collected Works, volume 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/cons-logic/ch01.htm

Lenin, V I, 1915a, “Social Chauvinist Policy Behind the Cover of International Phrases”, in Collected Works, volume 21 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/dec/21.htm

Lenin, V I, 1915b, “Several Theses”, in Collected Works, volume 21 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/oct/13.htm

Lenin, V I, 1917a, “The Seventh (April) All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP(B)”, in Collected Works, volume 41 (Progress), www.marxistsfr.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/7thconf2/index.htm

Lenin, V I, 1917b, “Letters from Afar: First Letter”, in Collected Works, volume 23 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/lfafar/first.htm

Lenin, V I, 1917c, “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution (April Theses)”, in Collected Works, volume 24 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/04.htm

Lenin, V I, 1917d, “Letters from Afar: Third Letter”, in Collected Works, volume 23 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/lfafar/third.htm

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Marot, John, 2014, “Lenin, Bolshevism, and Social-Democratic Political Theory: The 1905 and 1917 Soviets”, Historical Materialism, volume 22, issue 3-4.

Marx, Karl, 1859, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

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Rabinowitch, Alexander, 1991 [1968], Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (Indiana University Press).

Riddell, John, 2017, “1917: The View from the Streets—Leaflets of the Russian Revolution”, https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/for-a-provisional-revolutionary-government-of-workers-and-poor-peasants/

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How did socialists respond to the advent of fascism?-By John Riddell

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2018 Comments Off on How did socialists respond to the advent of fascism?-By John Riddell

hit-muss

The following talk was given on 21 July 2018 to a two-day seminar at York University
entitled “Historical perspectives on united fronts against fascism and the far right.”

The following talk was given on 21 July 2018 to a two-day seminar at York University

entitled “Historical perspectives on united fronts against fascism and the far right.”

 

By John Riddell

 

August 26, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist essays and commentary — The framework for our panel this morning is “Unity against the Right: A historical approach.”

 

There are in fact many histories of such united resistance, each with its own lineage. We could talk of how Louis Riel united Métis, First Nations, and many colonial settlers to battle for democracy and aboriginal rights. Or of how women debated how to find allies in their liberation struggle and the trade-off with partnerships with the sectors of the elite or of the subaltern masses. But I will not speak of this. I will also set aside the struggle of colonized peoples for unity against imperialism, so central to the socialist movement of the last century.

 

My topic relates to the origin of Fascism. It was born in Europe as an expression of the ideology of European supremacy, and my focus will thus necessarily be European as well. I’m going to speak of events of Italy a century ago, not simply because of their objective importance but because they carry great weight in our political memory and imagination.

 

Italy then ranked as an imperialist power, although a weak and unstable one, the product of an incomplete bourgeois revolution in which owners of large estates and the Catholic Church held great power, while the majority of Italy’s immense peasantry were landless. A sizable industrial working class was largely socialist in conviction, and the Italian Socialist Party governed more than 2,000 municipalities.

 

Formally a winner in the first World War, the Italian ruling class had been weakened by the impact of great human and material destruction in this conflict.  The war’s end brought economic crisis, the ruin of middle layers, a mass of discharged soldiers with no visible future, and a militant workers’ upsurge that for a moment seemed about to sweep all before it.

 

In September 1920 a great wave of factory occupations brought the country to the brink of revolution. However, the Socialists gave no leadership and the movement foundered, opening the gates to counterrevolution.

 

A wave of reaction was then sweeping across much of Europe. It brought many rightist dictatorial regimes to power, as in Hungary, where the regime executed 5,000 supposed Reds. The Hungarian regime was aristocratic in nature, a military dictatorship based on upper-class cadres. Italy was different: the reactionary movement seemed to emerge from among the masses themselves.

 

Commandos right and left

 

 

In Italy, after the war ended, the spearhead of reaction emerged: the Arditi, or “commandos,” a network of anti-labour mercenaries led mainly by former army officers. But the most successful such force, the Fascists, was plebeian. Its leader, Mussolini, had been a left-wing Socialist; the group, founded in 1919, posed as supporters of strikes and workers’ management and of land to the peasants. Yet their ideology was pro-capitalist, rooted in worship of the state and the nation. They acted as murderous anti-labour militia, financed by elements of the ruling class and tolerated or supported by the police and army. The Fascists backed up violence with a forceful ideology rejecting reason and fact while appealing to mysticism and religious-like idolatry of the state and the “man from destiny.”

 

By mid-1921 Fascism was a menacing mass movement. How did its opponents respond?

The Socialist party relied on the state to rein in the Fascists. Rejecting organized self-defense, it pressed the regime to take action against lawless Fascist gangs, while rejecting entry into government. At one point it signed a “truce” with the Fascists, which the latter quickly cast aside.(The Socialist refusal to join a bourgeois-dominated government, while consistent with Marxist principle, was out of step with the conduct of most Social Democratic parties in that period, which did often enter such governments.)

The democratic parliamentary parties did in fact pass laws and regulations aimed against the fascists. For example, guns were to be reregistered and seized if due cause for ownership was not produced. Barricades were to be erected on highways to block Fascist flying squads. However, implementation depended on police and judges mostly sympathetic to the far right. As a result, little of was done to enforce such measures.

The Italian Communist Party, which separated from the Socialists early in 1921, did not perceive the distinction between fascism and the democratic forms of capitalist rule. The Communists were for self-defense against fascists, to be sure, but without alliances and only when attacked. In practice, the Communist Party as an organization largely stood aside from the struggle.

Meanwhile, a spontaneous rank-and-file self-defense organization the Arditi del populo (People’s commandos), sprang up and won wide support. Both the communists and socialists were hostile to the new organization, ordering their members to leave its ranks. Alone, the Arditi del populo could not win against a fascist host financed and supported by the ruling class and aided by the regular army. Even so, the Arditi led and won pitched battles against the Fascists on several occasions, indicating the road by which a united working class could have got the upper hand.

At the end of 1922, the Fascists consummated their one-sided civil war with a parliamentary deal, in which they were appointed to government by the king and mainstream capitalist parties. During the half-decade that followed, the Fascist regime hardened into a totalitarian dictatorship that lasted until 1943.

 

Two conclusions jump out from this depressing story:

First, the Socialists were wrong to believe the bourgeois democratic state could provide effective protection from fascism.

Second, the Communists were wrong to believe that they could deal with fascism on their own.

During the years of Mussolini’s rise, however, the policy of the Communist International on alliances evolved greatly in a direction that, if applied in Italy, might well have changed the outcome. Five stages in this process should be noted:

First, in 1920, far-right generals in Germany carried out a coup against the republican government. Social-democratic trade union leaders called a general strike that swept the country, while workers in many areas took up arms and gained effective control. The coup lasted only four days. This outcome proved the power of united workers’ resistance to the far right.

After the coup collapsed, workers refused to end their strike and demanded effective protection against the far-right conspirators. The social-democratic trade-union leaders then came up with a novel proposal: a workers’ government including all workers’ parties and based on the unions. Although that government did not come to be, the idea behind it gained support and the Communist movement took note.

The next year, the Communist International (Comintern) adopted the policy that had found expression in resistance to the German putsch, calling on workers’ parties to unite in struggle against the far right and for basic demands they had in common. This policy was known as the “united front.” It was not applied in Italy. Internationally, it met with resistance from Social Democratic leaderships. Why was this policy not applied by the Italian Communists? Their failure to conform indicates that descriptions of the Comintern’s supposedly excessive “centralism” in that period are often exaggerated.

Another year passed, and the Comintern adopted the workers’ government approach broached during the great German general strike of 1920. Such a government would be sustained by the workers movement, not the state, and could serve as a transitional stage to revolution. A workers’ and peasants’ government of this general type was actually established by the October 1917 Russian revolution.

Finally, in 1923, the Comintern adopted a strategy for resisting fascism. It was elaborated and presented by Clara Zetkin, drawing on the experience above all of the German workers’ movement. Her plan consisted of four major propositions:

Workers self-defence against fascist violence: not through individual terror, but through “the power of the revolutionary organized proletarian class struggle.”

United front action against fascism “involving all working-class organizations and currents regardless of political differences.”By endorsing the Arditi del Populo, the Comintern indicated willingness to join in anti-fascist struggle with non-working-class forces. They rejected, however, the perspective of a bloc with capitalist parties for government.

An ideological campaign to reach the best of the young people influenced by fascism who, in Zetkin’s words, “are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul. We must show them a solution that does not lead backward but rather forward to communism.”

Demonstration of “absolute determination to fight to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie in order to resolve capitalism’s social crisis,” including by “cementing the alliances necessary to do so.” Zetkin insisted that the perspective of a workers’ and peasants’ government “is virtually a requirement for the struggle to defeat fascism.”

There’s something missing here: an analysis of the racist and xenophobic essence of fascist doctrine. It was the reverse side of the fascists’ worship of an aggressive nationalism, which rested on plans for conquest of south Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Africans – all viewed as inferior peoples. In German fascism, such racial stereotyping became more explicit, maturing into a project of genocide against Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma, and other peoples.

 

Despite this weakness, Zetkin’s report and resolution, adopted by the Comintern in June 1923, stand as the outstanding exposition of a Marxist response to fascism during its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. It theorized the lesson of the Italian Arditi del Populo experience while fusing it with a perspective for workers’ power. Alternatively, the Comintern position can be seen, as Leon Trotsky later insisted, as an application of the Bolsheviks’ united front policies in the run-up to the Russian October revolution of 1917.

 

Given the strategic force of this position, it may seem surprising it was applied during only two brief periods of Comintern history. Comintern anti-fascist policy proved to be unstable, going through no less than six reversals up to the International’s dissolution in 1943. Two of these turnabouts were particularly significant:

In 1928 the Comintern reverted to the sectarian stance of Italian Communists during Mussolini’s rise, refusing to seek alliances with non-Communist workers’ organizations. The Social Democrats, for their part, refused of united action with the Communists. The absence of workers’ unity in action, opened the door to Hitler’s victory.

In 1935 the Comintern switched to a policy of unity with Social Democrats while adding two significant innovations: first, unity was now to embrace progressive forces in the imperialist ruling class and, second, the project was now basically parliamentary in nature: to form a progressive coalition encompassing bourgeois forces.

In my opinion, the 1935 policy, known as “popular frontism,” brought the Comintern into broad alignment with Social Democracy as regards the strategic alternative to fascism. The goal of socialist revolution was set aside in favour of a project for defense of democratic capitalism and alliance with forces within the imperialist ruling class.

 

This occurred at the height of Stalin’s murderous repression of Bolshevik cadres, and this witch-hunt also infected the Comintern and its “people’s front.”

 

To conclude, the responses of socialists to the first 15 years of fascism fall into three categories: sectarian isolation, an alliance for progressive reform, or a united front to bring working people to power. Despite the immense transformation in social structure and global geopolitics, these divergent impulses continue to find expression today, as we feel our way toward an effective defense against fascist dangers today.

 

A Note on Sources

Some of the material in this text is also discussed in Fumble and late recovery: The Comintern response to Italian fascism on this website.

Clara Zetkin’s contribution to developing the Marxist position on Fascism is documented in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, Mike Taber and John Riddell, ed., Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017. For the introduction to this book, see Clara Zetkin and the struggle against fascism

Sources for this text include:

Tom Behan, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, Bookmarks: London, 2003.

Jonathan Dunnage, The Italian Police and the Rise of Fascism: A Case Study of the Province of Bologna, 1897-1925, Westport Conn: Praeger, 1997.

Georgio Galli, Storia del socialism italiano, Milan: Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2008.

Daniel Guérin, Fascism and Big Business, New York: Monad, 1973 (1939).

Rossi (Angelo Tasca), The Rise of Italian Fascism 1918-1922, New York: Howard Fertig, 1966 (1938).

Paolo Spriano, Storia del Partito comunista italiano, Turin: Einaudi, 1967.

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