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Archive for the ‘Marxian Theory’ Category

-Brecht De Smet

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


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/

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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-

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.


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.


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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Lukács, Georg, 1970, Lenin: a Study in the Unity of his Thought (New Left Books), www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/1924/lenin/index.htm

Luttwak, Edward, 1998, Turbo–capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Luxemburg, Rosa, 2003 [1896], “Social Democracy and the National Struggles in Turkey”, Revolutionary History, volume 8, number 3, The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation, 1871–1915, www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1896/10/10.htm

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Mandel, Ernest, 1995, Trotsky as Alternative (Verso).

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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

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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).

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Trotsky, Leon, 1974a, “Can a Counter-Revolution or a Revolution Be Made on Schedule?” In The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume 2 (New Park),

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Trotsky, Leon, 1976c [1938], “Revolution and War in China”, in Trotsky, Leon Trotsky on China (Monad), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/xx/china.htm

Trotsky, Leon 1977a [1932-3], The History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch01.htm

Trotsky, Leon, 1977b [1938], “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”, in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm

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Zeilig, Leo, 2010, “Tony Cliff: Deflected Permanent Revolution in Africa”, International Socialism 126 (spring 2010), www.isj.org.uk/?id=641

Wickham, Chris, 2005, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford University Press).

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Analysis Tony Cliff, Trotskyism

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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


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


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

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.


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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Engels, Friedrich, 1884, “Letter to August Bebel in Berlin” (December), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/letters/84_12_11.htm

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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

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Lenin, V I, 1917f, “Revolutionary Defencism and its Class Significance”, in Collected Works, volume 24 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/tasks/ch05.htm

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Lenin, V I, 1917h, “Heroes of Fraud and the Mistakes of the Bolsheviks”, in Collected Works, volume 26 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/sep/22.htm

Lenin, V I, 1917i, “Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”, in Collected Works, volume 26 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/25-26/index.htm

Lenin, V I, 1917j, “Economic Dislocation and the Proletariat’s Struggle Against It”, in Collected Works, volume 25 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jun/17.htm

Lih, Lars, 2011, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context”, Russian History, volume 38.

Lih, Lars, 2015, “The Ironic Triumph of ‘Old Bolshevism’: The ‘April Debates’ and their Impact on Bolshevik Strategy in 1917”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal (1 June), http://links.org.au/node/4451

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

Mirsky, D S, 1931, Lenin (Holme Press).

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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Trotsky, Leon, 1931, Results and Prospects, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp08.htm

Trotsky, Leon, 1932, “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg: Reply to the Slandering of a Revolutionist”, Militant, volume 5, number 32 and 33, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/06/luxemburg.htm

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Article 1917, Bolshevik Party, Lenin, Russian Revolution


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


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.


Join Links’ Facebook group Follow Links on Twitter Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box Home Lenin and the Bolshevik Party: A revolutionary collective-Paul Le Blanc  

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The Russian Revolution of 1917 clearly reveals the complexities of Bolshevism – Lenin’s party – as a revolutionary collective. In fact, there is a convergence of complexities related to several different factors I would like to touch on in these remarks. These include party structures, personalities, and outlooks.

One set of complexities involves the organizational conceptions that animated Bolshevism, involving democratic centralism, an interplay of democracy and cohesion, as well as an interplay of centralized leadership and relative local, on-the-ground autonomy. Another involves the pulls and tugs of the diverse and vibrant personalities among the Bolsheviks – particularly at the leadership level. Experienced and articulate individuals powerfully influencing the thinking and actions of a layer involving hundreds and thousands of Bolshevik activists, who in turn influenced the thinking and actions of thousands and millions of workers, sailors, soldiers, peasants, intellectuals, and others. Yet another sub-set of complexities involves the employment of a relatively complex ideology (Marxism), which in itself is open to divergent interpretations, and which can be applied in different and sometimes contradictory ways to political, social and economic realities that are themselves complex and ever-changing. There is also a complexity in the ongoing tension between those leaders engaged in developing and adapting Marxist theory on the one hand, and the practical on-the-ground organizers on the other – and among these practical organizers we can perceive tensions between those whose primary focus is to maintain the organizational structures and cohesion of Bolshevism, and others whose primary focus is to influence and lead mass struggles and mass movements. We could go on and on with this – defining further complexities within each of the complexities.

The point is that we cannot really understand the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 with conventional but simplistic conceptualizations which focus on a Heroic Lenin (or an Evil Genius Lenin) leading an abstract entity – The Party, or Party-and-Soviets – to take political power. There is no doubt that Lenin’s role in history merits a focused study of who he was, and what he thought and wrote and said and did. But Lenin cannot be understood as the personification of the Bolshevik party. What he thought and wrote and said and did cannot be comprehended if we abstract these things, and the man himself, from those who were his comrades. If we fail to understand Bolshevism as a revolutionary collective that was an integral part of a broader working-class movement, and as a vibrant and complex living entity, we will not be able to comprehend the actualities either of Lenin or of the Russian Revolution.

This comes into better focus if we engage with some of the historical specifics. Let us start with “the Word” – Marxist theory and analysis as developed by the Bolsheviks – before we move on to the Flesh and the Bone (the personalities and the structure) of the Bolshevik party.

The theoretical orientation of Marxism was grounded in a dialectical, materialist and humanistic methodology, one that viewed history as being shaped by economic development and class struggle. It saw an increasingly dominant capitalism as immensely productive and dynamically creative, but also as compulsively expansive and exploitative, and as a violently destructive global system. Yet capitalism was proletarianizing more and more people in society and throughout the world, creating an ever-growing working class of people dependent on the sale of their labor-power. Such laboring people potentially would have the need, the will, the consciousness and the power necessary for effectively challenging the oppressiveness of capitalism and replacing it with the humanistic economic democracy of socialism.[1]

Of course, Marxism is far more complex than this, with more than one interpretation being possible, and more than one way of applying this complex and sophisticated approach to the specifics of late 19th and early 20th century Russia. Marxists in Russia generally agreed that the country’s small but growing working-class was the hope for the future in both challenging the Tsarist autocracy, and helping to overthrow it in what they termed a “bourgeois-democratic revolution.” The development of capitalism after this democratic revolution would, most agreed, create the preconditions for a socialist revolution. But there were disagreements over how this working-class scenario would relate to the peasant majority. Marxists in the Menshevik faction argued that the peasants were too backward-looking to be a reliable ally, and that the obvious partner in overthrowing Tsarism would be pro-capitalist liberals. The Bolsheviks led by Lenin insisted that the principle of working-class hegemony would be most consistent with a worker-peasant alliance for a democratic revolution. Menshevik spokesman Raphael Abramovitch was not the only one to scoff that this added up to “a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie, against the bourgeoisie, by means of a dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie” – but Lenin and his comrades called for a revolution that would culminate in what they termed “a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”[2]

We should linger over an ambiguity in Lenin’s position, as articulated in 1905. On the one hand, he was inclined to agree that the democratic revolution must usher in capitalist economic development, in order to establish wealth and productivity, and a working-class majority that would make socialism possible. In his polemic Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, he argued that because the democratic revolution was, in fact, a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” it would “for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid … development of capitalism,” and would “for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.”[3]

On the other hand, Lenin seemed to leave open the possibility that some variant of Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” scenario might be possible – that (as Lenin put it in his article “Social Democracy’s Attitude Toward the Peasant Movement”) “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organized proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.”[4]

This openness to the possibility of the democratic revolution flowing into the socialist revolution expanded with the explosion of the First World War. As Lenin emphasized time and again, this was a war “waged ‘for the sake of the profits of the capitalists’ and ‘the ambitions of dynasties’ on the basis of the imperialist, predatory policy of the great powers,” and that it must be opposed with “the tactics of revolutionary struggle by the workers on an international scale against their governments, the tactics of proletarian revolution. … Socialists must … take advantage of the governments’ embarrassments and the anger of the masses, caused by the war, for the socialist revolution.”[5]

According to his companion Nadezhda Krupskaya, during the war Lenin “spoke a lot about the questions that occupied his mind, about the role of democracy,” arriving at “a very clear and definite view of the relationship between economics and politics in the epoch of struggle for socialism.” Krupskaya elaborated:

The role of democracy in the struggle for socialism could not be ignored. “Socialism is impossible without democracy in two respects,” Vladimir Ilyich wrote … “1. The proletariat cannot carry out a socialist revolution unless it has prepared for it by a struggle for democracy; 2. Victorious socialism cannot maintain its victory and bring humanity to the time when the state will wither away unless democracy is fully achieved.”

These words of Lenin’s were soon fully borne out by events in Russia. The February Revolution [of 1917] and the subsequent struggle for democracy prepared the way for the October Revolution. The constant broadening and strengthening of the Soviets, of the Soviet system, tends to reorganize democracy itself and to steadily give greater depth of meaning to this concept.[6]

Krupskaya went on to quote at length from one of Lenin’s war-time polemics:

We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics in respect of all democratic demands, including a republic, a militia, election of government officials by the people, equal rights for women, self-determination of nations, etc. So long as capitalism exists all these demands are capable of realization only as an exception, and in incomplete, distorted form. Basing ourselves on democracy as already achieved, and showing up its deficiency under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism and expropriation of the bourgeoisie as an essential basis both for abolishing the poverty of the masses and for fully and thoroughly implementing all democratic transformations. Some of those transformations will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of this overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle but an epoch of a series of battles on all and every problem of economic and democratic transformations, whose completion will be effected only with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this ultimate goal that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary manner.[7]

To sum up Lenin’s orientation, he believed that the revolutionary party must interweave socialism with working-class consciousness and struggles, that it must emphasize struggle for full democracy as pathway to socialism, and that it should press for working-class hegemony, predominance, in the struggle for a democratic revolution – with no confidence in pro-capitalist liberals. Related to this was the distinctive Bolshevik perspective of a worker-peasant alliance in the struggle against Tsarism. The anti-bourgeois orientation was further intensified with the eruption of World War I, as opposition to the imperialist war was accompanied by an intensified revolutionary internationalism and class struggle thrust. The heightened concern to interweave struggles for democracy and socialism, and the conviction that the conflict would facilitate the spread of socialist revolution in various countries, strengthened the inclination to consider the possibilities of “uninterrupted revolution” in Russia.

Much of this orientation was the collective product and property of the Bolsheviks as they evolved from 1905 to 1917, shared (sometimes with significant nuances of difference) among various comrades. Its contours and specifics are particularly well explained by Krupskaya, in her Reminiscences of Lenin.

The crystallization of the Bolshevik political perspective of a worker-peasant alliance to push forward the democratic revolution was collective, as was the translation of that perspective into social and political action. This brings us to the organizational structures that made this so. Krupskaya emphasized that Lenin “always, as long as he lived, attached tremendous importance to Party congresses. He held the Party congress to be the highest authority, where all things personal had to be cast aside, where nothing was to be concealed, and everything was to be open and above board.”

The “Draft Rules of the RSDLP,” which Lenin wrote in 1903, establishes the party congress, or convention, as the “supreme organ of the Party.” Composed of representatives of all units of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the congress was to meet “not less than once in two years” and was to be responsible for determining party policies and perspectives and for appointing a central committee and an editorial board for the party’s central organ (its newspaper). The central committee “coordinates and directs all the practical activities of the Party,” while the editorial board “gives ideological guidance.”

The draft rules suggest a balance between democracy and centralization. For example: “Each committee … organization or group recognized by the Party has charge of affairs relating specifically and exclusively to its particular locality, district or national movement, or to the special function assigned to it, being bound, however, to obey the decisions of the Central Committee . . .” Most important, however: “All Party organizations and collegiate bodies decide their affairs by a simple majority vote …”[8]

Lenin’s organizational perspective could be summarized in this way:

• Members are activists, who agree with the basic Marxist program of the party and are committed to collectively developing and implementing the program, and who collectively control the organization as a whole.

• The party functions openly and democratically, with the elective principle operating from top to bottom. All questions are decided on the basis of democratic vote, and the decisions are carried out.

• The highest decision-making body is the party congress, made up of democratically elected delegates.

• Between congresses, a central committee (elected by and answerable to the congress) ensures cohesion and coordinates work on the basis of the party program and the decisions of the congress.

• Local units of the party operate within the party program and decisions of the party as a whole, but within that framework they operate under the democratic control of the local membership.

It is interesting to consider the conception of the Bolshevik party which John Reed’s old friend, Max Eastman, had absorbed through his studies in Soviet Russia. In his 1926 book Marx, Lenin, and the Science of Revolution, Eastman wrote:

It is an organization of a kind which never existed before. It combines certain essential features of a political party, a professional association, a consecrated order, an army, a scientific society—and yet it is in no sense a sect. Instead of cherishing in its membership a sectarian psychology, it cherishes a certain relation to the predominant class forces of society as Marx defined them. And this relation was determined by Lenin, and progressively readjusted by him, with a subtlety of which Marx never dreamed.[9]

In fact, there were different personalities and personality types giving life to the Bolshevik organization. Of course central from beginning to end was Lenin, who by most accounts combined in his person considerable warmth, humor, selflessness, zest for life, and tactical flexibility interwoven with revolutionary intransigence.[10]

Women were a minority among the Bolsheviks in patriarchal Russia. Among those who played central roles were Krupskaya and Alexandra Kollontai. Krupskaya, an educated Marxist and devoted revolutionary activist, deployed her considerable talents and energies in the practical work of building up and maintaining Bolshevik communications and organizational functioning. This enabled her to write her authoritative Reminiscences of Lenin, which surveys Lenin’s development very much within the revolutionary collective that was Bolshevism. Playing a more public role, Kollontai channeled her keen intellect and passion into theorizing and organizing around the so-called “woman question” – pushing hard against male chauvinist attitudes and patterns within the revolutionary movement. Her contributions bore fruit as increasing numbers of women workers flowed into the revolutionary movement. This was an essential development. International Women’s Day in 1917 helped spark the upsurge that overthrew the Tsar.[11]

The two brothers-in-law, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev, were incredibly different in multiple ways. While Kamenev was a capable speaker, writer, organizer, and political analyst, in each of these realms Trotsky could be incandescent. Kamenev was extremely sociable in ways that Trotsky could not be, yet he was also prone to be influenced by others – including political opponents – in ways that, also, Trotsky could not be. Yet Trotsky (a relative newcomer to Bolshevik ranks) had a reputation for arrogance, and his immense popularity and demonstrated ability to work with people was offset by an often prickly personality. Kamenev’s charm could often be a valuable asset – and it matched epicurean tastes that Trotsky found repellent. Trotsky’s combination of energy, brilliance and Spartan inclinations served him well as he organized the October 1917 insurrection, and also when he assumed the role of organizer and commander of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.[12]

Gregory Zinoviev, often associated with the far steadier and more consistent Kamenev, sometimes could match Trotsky in oratory and arrogance, but like Kamenev he was one of Lenin’s closest collaborators over many years. All three (Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev) – at various moments, and on different issues – were also in open conflict with Lenin amid the hurly-burly of internal democracy within Bolshevism. Zinoviev’s intellectual breadth and feel for revolutionary politics come through clearly in his valuable popularization History of the Bolshevik Party. His organizational abilities were certainly greater than those of another popular figure, the youthful and impetuous Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin was an innovative theorist who proved more than once quite willing to challenge Lenin from the left. Both Zinoviev and Bukharin were to play important and influential roles in the Communist International that would be formed after the Russian Revolution. But in 1917 as well, although in quite different ways and from different standpoints, the influence of these two prominent Bolsheviks had significant impact.[13]

Two eminently practical organizers – not inclined to be distracted by theoretical fireworks – were Alexander Shlyapnikov and Joseph Stalin. A worker-Bolshevik par excellence, with a reputation for courageous and principled action, Shlyapnikov’s strength was organizing among factory workers and in trade unions. A former divinity student, inclined to be blunt and sometimes brutal, Stalin’s specialty was as an organization man devoted to building and maintaining Bolshevik structures. Shlyapnikov’s qualities brought him close to Lenin’s intensified revolutionary-democratic drive predominant from 1914 to 1917. With Lenin’s turn to more authoritarian expedients (temporary as they were supposed to be) amid the horrific difficulties of civil war and social collapse in 1918-1921, Shlyapnikov’s qualities put the two at loggerheads. With assistance from Kollontai, he formed the Workers’ Opposition. Other Bolsheviks also formed oppositional groups to defend the revolutionary-democratic goals of the October Revolution. Stalin’s inclinations, of course, went very much in the opposite direction – to the point of developing a bureaucratic-authoritarian apparatus that would eventually destroy the revolutionary collective that had been Bolshevism. This process unfolded with increasing velocity from the mid-1920s to mid-1930s.[14]

The cause was the isolation of the revolution, turned in on itself in an economically backward Russia. As Lenin explained more than once, “we are banking on the inevitability of the world revolution,” and “we are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief. These detachments exist, they are more numerous than ours, they are maturing, growing, gaining more strength the longer the brutalities of imperialism continue. … Slowly but surely the workers are adopting communist, Bolshevik tactics and are marching towards the proletarian revolution, which alone is capable of saving dying culture and dying mankind.”[15]

In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, then, we can see the attempt to internationalize Bolshevism, with the creation of a global revolutionary collective, or a centralized network of such collectives – the Communist International. By the time of the Second World Congress in 1920, the assembled delegates from revolutionary organizations proclaimed: “The Communist International has made the cause of Soviet Russia its own. The international proletariat will not lay down its sword until Soviet Russia is but a link in the world federation of soviet republics.” Comintern President Zinoviev, optimistically suggested that “probably two or three years will be needed for the whole of Europe to become a Soviet republic.” According to a retrospective account by two participant-observers (Julian Gumperz and Karl Volk), “hundreds of delegates came from all countries of the world: real labor representatives elected and re-elected a hundred times [to mass workers’ organizations], revolutionaries and opportunists, workers from the factories and shrewd attorneys, terrorists and elegant Socialists from the salons of Europe.”[16]

Another eyewitness, Alfred Rosmer, would recount: “There was something intoxicating about the atmosphere of Moscow in that month of June 1920; the quiver of the armed revolution could still be felt. Among the delegates who had come from every country and every political tendency, some already knew each other, but the majority were meeting for the first time. The discussions were heated, for there was no shortage of points of disagreement, but what overrode everything was an unshakable attachment to the Revolution and to the new-born communist movement.” The history of this movement contains much that has the quality of comic opera, also much that constitutes deep and sometimes horrific tragedy, but also – despite its ultimate failure – a remarkable heroism, with lessons to be learned.[17]

Those who not only wish to understand what happened in history – but also how a world (badly in need of change for the better) might actually be changed – will need to wrestle with and learn from the convergence of complexities that add up to Bolshevism as a revolutionary collective.

[This was one of the keynote presentations opening the International Conference on Russian and Soviet History – “The Centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution(s): its Significance in World History” – at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, May 15-16, 2017. It was also presented in a panel on the Russian Revolution at the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam, November 4, 2017, and at the fourteenth annual Historical Materialism conference in London, November 9-12, 2017.]


[1] For an extensive introductory survey of Marxism, with a sampling of writings from prominent figures associated with it, see Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).

[2] Raphael Abramovitch, The Soviet Revolution 1917-1939 (New York: International Universities Press, 1962), p. 214.

[3] Lenin, “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,” Collected Works, Volume 9 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1962), p. 48.

[4] Lenin, “Social Democracy’s Attitude Toward the Peasant Movement,” Collected Works, Volume 9 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1962), pp. 236-237. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is summarized in Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, pp. 46-47, 94-96.

[5] Lenin, “Socialism and War,” in Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 227.

[6] N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970), p. 328.

[7] Ibid., pp. 328-329.

[8] Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), p. 48

[9] Max Eastman, Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1926), pp. 159-160.

[10] Outstanding sources presenting an array of prominent Bolsheviks can be found in Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968) and Georges Haupt and Jean-Jacques Marie, Makers of the Russian Revolution: Biographies of Bolshevik Leaders (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974). Efforts which focus on presenting Lenin in his actual context can be found in Lars Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), especially pp. 25-75, and Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution (London: Verso, 2017).

[11] On Krupskaya and Kollontai, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 156-158 and 353-360, see Robert H. McNeil, Bride of the Revolution: Krupskaya and Lenin (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973) and Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai, A Biography, Updated Edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014). Also see Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik Women (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,1997) and Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and women workers in 1917 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1999).

[12] On Kamenev, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 41-47 and 100-106, see Leon Trotsky, Portraits Personal and Political (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), pp. 164-173, 179, 180; on Trotsky, see Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (London: Reaktion Books, 2015).

[13] Gregory Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party from the Beginnings to February 1917, A Popular Outline (London: New Park, 1973) remains a valuable source on the history and nature of Bolshevism. On Zinoviev, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 95-106, and Lunacharsky, pp. 75-82, see Lars T. Lih, “Zinoviev: Populist Leninist,” in Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih, eds., Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (London: November Publications, 2011), pp. 39-60. On Bukharin, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 31-40, see Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1988-1938 (New York: Vintage Books, 1975).

[14] On Shlyapnikov, in addition Haupt and Marie, Makers of the Russian Revolution pp. 212-221, see Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). On Stalin, in to addition Haupt and Marie, pp. 65-75, see Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974).

[15] Lenin, “Letter to American Workers,” in Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, pp. 299-300.

[16] Ypsilon, Pattern for World Revolution, (Chicago: Ziff-Davis, 1947), p. 19.

[17] Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2016), p. 46.


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The League Against Imperialism (1927-37): An early attempt at global anti-colonial unity-John Riddell

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July 13, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist essays and commentary —


The League Against Imperialism was launched in Brussels in 1927 with the goal of forging unity between colonized peoples and workers in the colonizing countries. Initiated by a wing of the Communist International, it was the first attempt to structure international anti-colonial unity. This brief presentation will focus on its origins and the causes of its decline.

An initial wave of anti-imperialist uprisings took place in the first years of the twentieth century (China, Iran, Mexico), but these events did not evoke significant expressions of solidarity in Europe. The situation was changed, however, by the impact of World War 1 and the Russian revolution of 1917. In particular, the new Russian Soviet government stood for liberation of peoples subjected to direct or indirect colonial oppression, which then afflicted almost all of Asia and Africa. Indeed, the Russian uprising was itself in part a revolt of Asiatic peoples oppressed by tsarism.

The Soviet government’s proclamation in 1917 of the right of peoples to self-determination had immense global impact. Self-determination was also a guiding principle of the Communist International (Comintern) from its founding in 1919. The following year the Comintern convened the first transnational gathering of colonized peoples: the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Baku Congress in 1920, attended by almost two thousand delegates from Central Asia and the Middle East, adopted resolutions to orient the anti-colonial struggle. In 1922, a similar conference was held for delegates from the Far East.

In 1925, a revolutionary upsurge in China found expression both in mass strikes and in a broad student mobilization. When these two forces came together in joint action in Shanghai, they suffered a lethal attack by the British army, which claimed 52 Chinese fatalities. The International Red Aid, established by the Comintern in 1922, launched a vigorous protest. The campaign was headed by a gifted German Communist, Willi Münzenberg, who insisted on the need for effective educational work among masses of working people who were not yet Communist and not politically aware.

But could working people in Germany, who had suffered so much at the hands of the Treaty of Versailles, be persuaded to take an interest in the fate of the impoverished and despised masses of China?

‘Hands off China!’
Aiming to turn that hope into reality, International Red Aid founded the League against Colonialism, based in Berlin, to collect material aid for the working people of China. The League collected donations, explaining that an amount equal to the price of six cigarettes could cover the needs of a striking Chinese worker for a day. A conference in Berlin brought together more than 1,000 participants to demand, “Hands Off China!”

“We want to form a holy alliance, we, the white, yellow, black, and different-coloured underdogs… for the liberation of all those who suffer,” Münzenberg declared.[1]

Chinese socialists addressed workers meetings in Germany, while in Beijing a rally of 100,000 Chinese workers greeted a European socialist speaker with passionate enthusiasm. Thanks to the work of International Red Aid, working people of Europe and the Third World joined hands for the first time in opposition to colonialism.

Red Aid also campaigned at this time to aid Arab rebels in Syria and Morocco who were at war with the colonial powers, France and Spain. Red Aid mounted a broad campaign to denounce French massacres in Syria, where 10,000 Arabs were killed during French bombardment of Damascus. A broad, independent committee was formed to organize solidarity with Syria.

Material aid
Solidarity found expression not only through words but in practical terms. The Communist parties in France and Spain campaigned for independence for these countries’ colonies. The Communists encouraged soldiers in their countries’ colonial armies to fraternize with the rebels, and such incidents did occur. One deserter from the French Foreign Legion, for example, became an officer and strategist of the Moroccan rebel army. There were mutinies in the French navy, and 1,500 sailors faced courts martial. Meanwhile, 165 French Communists were imprisoned for anti-war activity. During this time, the Second International, made up of reformist socialists, still mostly abstained from anticolonial solidarity. The initiatives of Red Aid, by contrast, had become a genuine force in the political life of the colonial powers.

But these campaigns were still separate and temporary. How could they be brought together in a unified, ongoing effort? Achieving that goal was the purpose of the Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism that gathered in Brussels, after extended delays by both the Belgian government and Comintern Executive, on 10 February 1927. The 174 delegates represented 134 organizations in 34 countries. The celebrated physicist Albert Einstein, honorary chairman, expressed the hope that “through your congress the efforts of the oppressed to win independence will take tangible form.”[2]

Among the delegates, in addition to revolutionary socialist leaders from many continents, were an array of prominent trade unionists from Europe, well-known leaders of the Second International’s left wing and representatives of influential bourgeois parties in the colonies, such as the Guomindang in China, the Sarekat Islam in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress; and Raul Haya de la Torre’s APRA in Peru.

During six days of debate 16 reports were heard on tasks in different geographic regions and strategic aspects of anti-imperialist struggle. The second session proposed the foundation of the League Against Imperialism and National Oppression, which was to be an independent alliance with autonomous branches in countries around the world.

The German historian Kasper Braskén has summarized the message of the Congress in these terms: “Wherever on the planet there were proletarians living in misery, this would be a matter for the workers’ international solidarity, forging the belief in transnational workers’ community on a global scale.”[3]

The League’s creation inspired enthusiasm beyond its founder’s wildest expectations. Historian Frederick Petersson tells us the Congress conveyed “the feeling of a spiritual bond and the expressions of collective joy” – a mood of “self-sacrifice and euphoria” that later, however, degenerated into “resignation and dejection.”[4]

Causes of decline
Despite the League’s initial momentum, the hopes of its founders did not become reality. Three years later, the League had lost its dynamic vigor and included only groups of Communists and their sympathizers. Rather than narrate this unfortunate decline, I will focus on its causes, and here I see three basic factors.

1. The League was not a united front of the type proposed by the Comintern since 1921. True, it claimed to be autonomous and independent. The Comintern Executive Committee’s confidential instructions spoke of creating “a neutral intermediary between the anti-colonial movements and the Comintern.”[5] But in reality the League was administered by the Comintern apparatus concealed backstage. This contradiction was perceived by leaders of the Second International, who utilized it to force all their adherents in the League to resign.

2. The united front that the Comintern proposed in Lenin’s time provided for an alliance with national revolutionary forces. Let me take a more recent example: the insurrectionary movement in Cuba led by Fidel Castro in the 1950s, which grew over time into a fusion of both national-revolutionary and socialist forces. By contrast, however, the movements linked with the League that I mentioned previously: the Guomindang, the Indian Congress, and Sarekat Islam, they were what Communists of the day termed reformist bourgeois movements.[6] Their representatives quickly withdrew from the League, and the Guomindang launched a murderous counter-revolution against Chinese workers. By Comintern principle, forming a temporary alliance with such bourgeois nationalist forces was certainly permissible, but structuring them into an organization of struggle such as the League was questionable, to say the least.

3. A year after the foundation of the League, Comintern policies suffered a reversal linked to the onset of what Communists termed the Third Period. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928 proclaimed that the world had entered a period of global revolutionary uprisings and overturns where it was wrong to form united fronts with non-revolutionary organizations. The Comintern went so far as to brand Social Democrats as representing a new form of fascism.The French historian Pierre Broué has commented that this policy was “an absolute guarantee of defeat,” referring to the triumph of Hitler in Germany in 1933. Willi Münzenberg opposed this ultra-leftist turn but was unable to block it. Given this new policy, Broué says, the League’s policies were “condemned to defeat” and, moreover, that “all its achievements were shattered by the abruptness of the turnabout and the abusive use of ultimatums.” All the non-Communist groups of any significance within the League resigned or were expelled.[7]

After gaining power in 1933, the Nazis shut down the League’s Berlin-based headquarters and disrupted its operations. Munzenberg withdrew from the League that same year. The Comintern carried out another sharp policy reversal in 1935, and the League was formally disbanded two years later. Subsequently, the International worked for an alliance with supposedly progressive bourgeois forces in the imperialist countries – a goal that became known as the “popular front.” This orientation conflicted with Comintern efforts for colonial liberation. The Comintern itself was dissolved in 1943.

The League’s legacy
In balance, the League’s legacy is thus mixed. At its inception, it represented an influential expression of the Russian revolution’s anti-imperialist and anti-colonial spirit. The difficulties it encountered, in turn, reflected distortions of Soviet Communist policy as it entered the Stalinist era, when Comintern policy came to reflect the shifting exigencies of the bureaucratized and Stalinized Soviet state.

But that is not the end of our story. During and after World War 2, a number of countries in Asia shook themselves free of colonial domination. This overturn took place along two different paths. In a number of countries, such as India and Indonesia, the independence movement was led by bourgeois forces, and the independent state was capitalist in character. In China, Vietnam, and Korea, by contrast, the independence struggle was led by Communist parties formerly part of the Comintern, and the revolution ended in the abolition of capitalist rule.

The gains of this anti-colonial struggle found expression in 1955 in a historic conference in Bandung, Indonesia, attended by delegations of 29 decolonized countries of Asia and Africa, whose peoples made up an absolute majority of humanity. The resolutions adopted at Bandung proposed neutrality in the Cold War and the rapid elimination of all still-existing colonies. In his closing remarks at the conference, President Sukarno of Indonesia referred to the 1926 Brussels congress. It was the inspiration and sacrifices of the alliance formed at that time, he stated, that have made it possible “that we are now free, sovereign, and independent…. We do not need to go to other continents to confer.”[8]

The Bandung conference gave birth to a grouping of countries of the Global South, the Non-Aligned Movement, which played a modest but positive role in several contexts and which still exists. But to see an authentic reflection of the League Against Imperialism, we must turn, as my co-panelist Ameth Lô has suggested, to the initiatives of revolutionary Cuba, such as its participation in the anti-apartheid struggle in Africa or its more recent participation in ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.

Almost a hundred years after the foundation of the League Against Imperialism, its liberatory spirit continues to find expression in new contexts and new forms.

This talk, given on 20 May 2018, was one of a hundred panels at the Montreal conference “The Great Transition: Preparing a World Beyond Capitalism.” The conference attracted more than 1,500 participants. The talk was given in French; what follows is a translation. It formed part of a panel, “The Dawn of Our Liberation,” which also included talks by Aziz Fall, Ameth Lô, and Daria Dyakonova.

A note on sources

Major sources for this talk include:

Adi, Hakim, Pan-Africanism and Commuism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939, Trenton: Africa World Press, 2013.

Braskén, Kasper, The International Workers’ Relief, Communism, and Transnational Solidarity: Willi Münzenberg in Weimar Germany, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Broué, Pierre, Histoire de l’Internationale communiste 1919-1943.

Gross, Babette, Willi Münzenberg: A Political Biography, Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1974.

Communist International, The First Congress of the Peoples of the Far East 1922, London: Hammersmith, 1970 (1922).

Petersson, Frederick, We Are Neither Visionaries Nor Utopian Dreamers: Willi Münzenberg, the League against Imperialism, and the Comintern 1925-33, unpublished dissertation.

John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, New York: Pathfinder, 1991.

John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East, New York: Pathfinder, 1993.


[1]. Braskén, p. 160.

[2]. Gross, p. 189.

[3]. Braskén, p. 161.

[4]. Petersson, p. 540.

[5]. Petersson, p. 246

[6]. The distinction between “national-revolutionary” and “bourgeois reformist” movements in the colonial world was explained by Lenin to the Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 and shaped Communists thinking in the following years. There was disagreement among Communists, however, on whether the Guomindang was a “national-revolutionary” movement in the sense intended by Lenin.

The Guomindang’s counterrevolutionary attack on Chinese workers a few months after the Brussels conference proved that it was not “national-revolutionary” in this sense. For more on the evolution of Comintern China policy on this website, see “Should Communists Ally with Revolutionary Nationalism” and “Fruits and Perils of the ‘Bloc Within’.” For the Second Congress debate, see Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite, vol. 1, pp. 211-90.

[7]. Broué, pp. 493-514.

[8]. Petersson, p. 546, fn. 1272.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

On Marx and Epicurus

Posted by admin On July - 3 - 2018 Comments Off on On Marx and Epicurus


Originally published: International Communist Current by ICConline (February 17, 2018)
Under the heading ‘Readers’ Contributions’ we aim to encourage our readers and sympathisers to write texts and articles which can go into greater depth than is possible in our discussion forum, and so stimulate a longer term reflection. These articles, while being broadly based on proletarian politics, need not fully represent the positions of the ICC, or may deal with issues on which the ICC does not have a collective view.

Some notes on elements of Marx’s 1841 doctoral thesis on The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature and the profundity of the Epicurean “swerve”

Given the fragments, literally, of the works of Epicurus available to Marx at the time, the materialist analysis that he manages to develop from them is pretty amazing. After Marx’s demise much more evidence of Epicurus’ philosophy has been found: on charcoal remains of papyri in Philodemus’ library in Herculeum, on the wall of Diogenes of Oenoanda and writings kept in the Vatican for whom Epicurus was strictly taboo. The mere mention of Epicurus (or Lucretius) led to torture or imprisonment by the Inquisition in Naples and all of their followers were consigned to the Sixth Circle of Hell. Marx was also assisted in this work on Epicurus by the poem On the Nature of Things and works of the aforementioned Roman poet Lucretius.

Titus Lucretius Carus was a great influence on the Enlightenment Italian materialist Giambattista Vico, and an even bigger influence on the workers’ movement. He developed the idea of descent with modification, and understood that energy could neither be created nor destroyed. His poem was the basis for Lewis Henry Morgan’s great work, Ancient Society… and thus Engel’s work The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State.  He laid out the tenets and philosophy of Epicurus in his poem. The renowned Epicurean scholar, Cyril Bailey who translated his work into English, said in 1928: “Looking back on his (Marx’s) work now it is almost astonishing to see how far he got considering the materials then available and he was probably the first person to see the true distinction between the Democritean and Epicurean systems“. And to a large part he did this by focusing on the meaning of the Epicurean swerve.

Epicurus’ study of the atom allowed him to delve into “the nature of human sensation and existence”. Benjamin Farrington, noted scholar of Greek philosophy, wrote: “Oddly enough it was Karl Marx in his doctoral thesis… who first took the measure of the problem and provided the solution… making Epicurus the deeper of the two (in comparison to Democritus) inasmuch as he laboured to find room in his system both for animate and inanimate being, both for nature and society, both for the phenomena of the external world and the demands of moral consciousness” (From Marx’s Ecology, materialism and nature by John Bellamy Foster).

Epicurus’ work removes the gods (almost entirely) and the fear and terror that they inspire in mortal man, opening the way for chance, possibilities and freedom: “That which is abstractly possible, which can be conceived constitutes no obstacle to the thinking subject, no limit, no stumbling-block”.  Continuing from this, only Marx could say from the fragments that he knew of: (that) “Epicurus therefore proceeds with boundless nonchalance in the explanation of separate physical phenomena” and this from the possibilities that brought them about. In contrast to Democritus, who also contributed to a materialist analysis, Epicurus posed the question of a tiny “swerve” in the atom against the straight, deterministic lines of the former. Cicero ridiculed this idea calling it “disgraceful” and said it was “entirely impossible” that the universe came about by “complexities, combinations and adhesions of the atoms one with another”. Hegel suggested that he had nothing useful to say; similar criticisms were levelled against Epicurus by the 17th century French philosopher Pierre Bayle, but the strange reality of the quantum nature of the atom is now beyond doubt. Lucretius understood this: “… if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate” nothing would change, but this process does take place “in time unfixt, imperceptible to the senses and in the smallest possible space“. The further relevance to quantum mechanics is evident. For Marx the swerve represents “the soul of the atom, the concept of abstract individuality”.

Epicurus suggests qualities to the atom, size, shape and weight whose declination (swerve) opposes any determinism: (the atoms) “are therefore opposed to one another as immediate realities”. Marx agrees with Lucretius, saying that “the declination breaks the fati doedra (bonds of fate)”, and applied to consciousness “the declination is that something in its breast that can fight back and resist”. The declination lifts the atom out of the domain of determinism. If atoms didn’t swerve they could neither repel nor attract, and it’s from this repulsion and attraction that, according to Epicurus with Marx: “the world of appearance emerges“, appearance that is transformed by consciousness from essence. Repulsion and attraction go beyond Democritus’ determinism, just as the swerve of the atom goes beyond the relative existence of atoms falling in fixed lines. Democritus assumes an infinite number of shapes of the atom up to infinite size. But according to Lucretius, “it is rather by a definite and finite number of shapes that the atoms are differentiated from one another”, which is also another way of expressing the modern theory of the conservation of energy.

As for weight, in the view of Epicurus it exists only as a different weight and the atoms themselves are substantial “centres of gravity” with weight existing in respect of repulsion and attraction. In this way Epicurus anticipates the fact that all bodies, whatever their weight and mass, have the same velocity when they fall through space. Time is discussed by these Greeks in some ways similar to that of modern-day physicist Carlo Rovelli, and both Democritus and Epicurus agree that time is excluded from the atom. For the latter, infinite time exists within infinite space comprising infinite worlds, giving rise to free-will against superstition and fear of the gods. Following Epicurus, Lucretius writes: “… time by itself does not exist… It must not be claimed that anyone can sense time by itself apart from the movement of things or their restful immobility… accidents of matter, or of the place in which things happen”. Marx calls this “the ‘accidens’ of accidens”. Time is in opposition to space, time is change as change, and further for Marx, it is the “fire of essence” which can only be seen through reason: “… this reflection of appearance in itself which constitutes the concept of time, has its separate existence in the conscious sensuous. Human sensuousness is therefore embodied time, the existing reflection of the sensuous world itself”.

There’s a chapter called “The Meteors”, by which Epicurus means all celestial bodies; and this is doubly important for the Greeks because their “philosophers worshipped their own minds in the celestial bodies” (like a “cult” according to Marx) and this was another factor in the elevation of the gods that Epicurus flatly rejected. Once the myth is removed from the heavens everything is possible, every explanation is sufficient. For example, there’s not one explanation to a lightning strike but a number of interacting properties and reactions, and the task for Epicurus is to “trace their cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread”. He takes comfort in the fact that everything is impermanent and unstable, not eternal and immortal. Marx says that Epicurus “in wrath and passionate violence” rejects those that propose one method of explanation of the Unique, Eternal and Divine in the heavenly bodies. The irregularity of orbits, the number of multiple possibilities involved in heavenly phenomena, the multitude of explanations is for Epicurus the road to calm, understanding and freedom. For Marx the contingency and freedom espoused by Epicurus, which before him was mechanical determinism, brought out the “active side”.

Marx’s materialism has strong roots in the swerve of Epicurus, showing that it could be an element in human emancipation from the material conditions of a world characterised by the development of human relations to its basic needs, from which consciousness develops. Chance and contingency play a part in this along with human ethical considerations. Marx wasn’t uncritical of Epicurus since he was only interpreting the world, but his interpretation gave the world a direction and in the thesis Marx builds on some of his contradictions. He criticised his ideas of too many possibilities and his individualism but, again, these were part and parcel of the outcome. Engels, up to his death, was, enthusiastically with Marx all the way on the materialism of Epicurus. Engel’s himself rejected much of bourgeois materialism in favour of the Greek “enlightenment”, particularly Epicurus and Lucretius. He continued Marx’s work on Epicurus and praised what he called the latter’s “immanent dialectics”. Epicurus recognised the estrangement of human beings from the human world in the shape of religion, now reinforced by the alienation of the labour-capital relationship, and had profound concerns about the well-being of the earth and the relationship of nature to man, points which Engels picked up and expanded on along with Marx.

A final quote from Marx in the thesis on Epicurus: “When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the deadweight of religion whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and growling menace of the sky…. Therefore religion in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies.

The difference between Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature which we established at the end of the general section has been elaborated and confirmed in all domains of nature. In Epicurus therefore, atomistics with all its contradictions has been carried through and completed as the natural science of self-consciousness. This self-consciousness under the form of abstract individuality is an absolute principle.

Epicurus has thus carried atomistics to its final conclusion, which is its dissolution and conscious opposition to the universal. For

Democritus, on the other hand, the atom is only the general objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole.

Hence the atom remains for him a pure and abstract category, a hypothesis, the result of experience, not its active [energisches] principle. This hypothesis remains therefore without realisation, just as it plays no further part in determining the real investigation.”

We are conscious now that far from being crushed, religion, particularly its fundamentalist versions in both east and west, has been fed and invigorated by decomposing capitalism. The task is to overcome this along with all the divisions that emanate from the breakdown of ruling class ideology and to this effect we have to salute the groundbreaking work of Marx on Epicurus.

Marx’s appendix on Plutarch

At the end of Marx’s dissertation is an appendix called: Critique of Plutarch’s Polemic against the Theology of Epicurus, of which, like much of the latter’s work, only fragments survive. Nevertheless, even here, Marx makes some significant points and looks at some new areas in these fragments that we can return to in the context of the whole. It’s also worth remembering that this work of Marx developing on Epicurus showed his gradual independence from Hegel and demonstrated to him in the process the importance of religion and the unfolding necessity to try to develop a profound understanding of what religion meant for humanity and its emancipation, while contending that “No good for man lies outside himself”.

For Plutarch, God was on the side of good against the wicked – the powerful nature of this aspect of religious ideology shouldn’t be underestimated even to this day. Against Epicurus, Plutarch argued that if there was no God there was no joy or happiness. According to him, belief in God, as well as bringing relief from pain, fear and worry “indulges in a playful and merry inebriation, even in amatory matters!” Marx responds on the proof of God that gods are like imagined money – in the end there will be a price to pay. And anyway, proof of ‘your’ God is a disavowal of others and vice-versa. Plutarch divides society into the good, decent, intelligent and the bad and uncivilised whereas, according to Marx, Epicurus deals with the “essential relationship of the human soul in general“. For Marx, Plutarch’s objection to Epicurus’ ungodly atomism poses the question of the eternal, unchangeable characteristics of man against those of change, free-will and self-consciousness. Plutarch’s view of religion is based on the reform of the wicked by, first of all an animal-like fear and secondly, sentimentality: “There is no qualitative difference between this and the previous category. What in the first place appeared in the shape of an animal fear appears here in the shape of human fear, the form of sentiment. The content is the same” (Marx). After talking about sentiment Marx goes on to briefly talk about the “… naked, empirical ego, the love of self, the oldest love…”.

Marx certainly has plenty of criticisms of Epicurus on the questions of mechanistics and “accidents” but wholly supports his view that events of human history are neither mere accidents nor merely arise out of necessity. Epicurus recognises and never denies necessity or subsistence but always insists that the bounds of both must be broken and this by the means of human reason and human consciousness.

In the dissertation Marx argues that Epicurus goes beyond the sceptical world of the Democratean atom and its “subjective semblance” by positing its “objective appearance”. “Implicit in Epicurus’ philosophy was the notion that knowledge both of the world of the atom (imperceptible to the senses) and of sensuous reality arose from the inner necessity of human reason embodied in abstract individuality and freedom (self-determination).” Marx’s Ecology materialism and nature, John Bellamy Foster.

In his appendix on Plutarch Marx also takes aim at the German idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling, whose positions degenerated into a defence of religion and from this a cock-eyed vision of nature. Schelling’s appointment as Rector at the University of Berlin indicated the closing off of universities to the Young Hegelians and a definite turn by Marx into further profound applications of his work.

Marx took what was best about the enlightenment of Ancient Greece and defended and refined the analyses of Epicurus against the determinism of Democritus; and then he defended the materialism of the modern Enlightenment against the reactionary views of Schelling. Marx went beyond Epicurus while underlining his importance for a materialist analysis. He reined in some of his “exaggerations” and sharpened up his innate dialectics.
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New Eugene Debs Film Does the Socialist Proud-Michael Hirsch

Posted by admin On May - 10 - 2018 Comments Off on New Eugene Debs Film Does the Socialist Proud-Michael Hirsch


A charismatic and militant labor leader, five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, class-war prisoner jailed by the ostensibly liberal Woodrow Wilson administration for opposing U.S entry into World War I and a fiery, moral force in a corrupted era — Eugene Victor Debs was among the greatest orators this nation ever produced, yet no recording of his voice survives. And what a speaker he was! John Swinton, the late 19th century New York labor writer who as a young man heard Lincoln speak, likened Debs to Lincoln not just in intellect but in character. And unlike Lincoln, Debs could speak cogently to crowds for hours without notes.

Even foreign-language speakers were won over, with many testifying that Debs’ mannerisms alone were magnetic, his fist smacking his palm as he offered such injunctions as “Progress is born out of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”

To know Debs and his impact on American working-class politics as it emerged to confront the mammon of industrial and finance capital, we are ably served by his voluminous writings and by a series of fine, highly readable biographies by such writers as Ray Ginger, Nick Salvatore and Ernest Freeberg, the latter author focusing on Debs’ later years as “democracy’s prisoner.” Add to those a plethora of histories of the old Socialist Party. Ira Kipnis’s The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912 is likely the best, though it ends prematurely with a massive vote for Debs in the presidential race and party membership peaking at 118,000 — all before the government’s full-bore assault on the left and Debs’ jailing.

Fortunately two strong movies are also available that help underscore  Debs’ impact, including a 1979 documentary by Bernie Sanders and a new feature: American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, by filmmaker Yale Strom, currently artist-in-residence and professor in the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University, and narrated by actor Amy Madigan. Debs’ legacy is especially well served by the new production, which takes advantage not only of scholarly accounts of Debs’ life and American socialist movement he rose out of but judiciously utilized the extensive Debs archives at Michigan State University-Lansing, the Debs Foundation collection in Terra Haute, Indiana and others.

So Who was Debs?

Born in 1855 and named by his immigrant parents after the French novelists Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo, Debs was slow to embrace radical politics in his hometown of Terra Haute, where the capitalists were still of the small, local variety and social mobility was not impossible for working people. The metastasizing of monopoly capital in the area through the intrusion and consolidation of finance and industry would come soon enough. The future socialist even married a rich man’s daughter and was a Democratic state office holder, if briefly.

The film makes clear that Debs, a strong railroad worker-unionist, didn’t start out as a socialist; that transposition came after the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland broke the American Railway Union strike under the mendacious claim that strikers were sabotaging mail delivery. Debs, it’s president, went into prison a militant trade unionist and, courtesy of the federal evisceration of his union and a prison reading of Marx’s Capital, came out six months later a committed revolutionary, though of a discernible American type. He would, for example, define socialism as “Christianity in action.” For Debs’ religiously inclined listeners, greed and the pursuit of personal wealth were presented as sin, the riches of capitalists balefully gained.

That appeal to traditional religion as a bulwark of cooperation — the essence of socialism — sparked interest in Debs’ “Red Special” whistle-stop electoral campaign in areas such as Oklahoma, where, the film argues, small-farmer militancy combined with ingrained Evangelical Christianity. The strategy was less successful in the South, where we can intuit that racial division was a prime factor mitigating unified class action.

But whether addressing farmers, workers or urban intellectuals at such venues as New York’s Cooper Union, Debs was in his element.

It was the Socialist Party’s opposition to World War I that led to its undoing and to a five-year prison sentence for Debs. His crime: violating a Sedition Act provision against urging young men to dodge the draft.

On July 16, 1918, a year after the act’s passage, Debs was in Canton, Ohio to address the Ohio Socialist Party’s state convention and visit comrades jailed for speaking out against the war. He knew he was at risk of arrest himself. “I must be exceedingly careful,” he told the convention delegates, “prudent as to what I say. I may not be able to say all I think, but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in prison than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. They may put those boys in jail — and some of the rest of us in jail — but they cannot put the Socialist movement in jail.”

True to form, government stenographers in the crowd noted his comments selectively. Prison followed, based on the alleged danger that his remarks, those of a known “agitator,” posed to troop recruitment — this just months before the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

A red scare followed the war. Foreign radicals were rounded up and deported. Native-born leftists of any stripe were imprisoned.

Running for president on the Socialist ticket in 1920 while incarcerated, Debs garnered just under 1 million votes. Even as late as 1921, on the eve of his leaving office, Wilson still refused to pardon Debs. It was the GOP’s Harding who granted Debs and 23 others a Christmas commutation.

The Irony of a Humble Man Lionized

It seems odd that a movement valorizing collective action and the social context of everyday life over invidious egotism and careerist grasping would also need to anoint leaders and elevate heroes. As Debs himself put it 1906 to an audience of workers in Detroit: “I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”

Even allowing for the early glint of its religious trappings, his was an American variant of Marx’s insistence on working-class self-activity, that the emancipation of working people was not the provenance of elites no matter how well-intentioned but a task largely of the workers alone. Debs’ often quoted statement to his trial judge at his conviction for violating the Sedition Act makes much the same point.

“Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal class I am of it; while there is a soul in prison I am not free.”

Debs’ heroes were not great men and women but ordinary people who showed uncommon bravery and solidarity with one another.

A story Debs told, though not included in the film, concerns a black-balled former railroad worker in desperate straits who proudly tells Debs that he never scabbed, knowing the principled stance meant exorcism from a decent-paying job. “If I’d have been like some of them, I’d had a passenger train years ago and been saved lots of grief,” he tells Debs. “But I’d rather be a broken-down old umbrella fixer without a friend than to be a scab and worth a million…. And when I cross the big divide, I can walk up to the bar of judgment and look God in the face without a flicker.”

Debs’ cited the man as the epitome of working-class solidarity.

“There was something peculiarly grand about the scarred old veteran of the industrial battlefield,” Debs wrote in 1913. “His shabbiness was all on the outside, and he seemed transfigured to me and clad in garments of glory. He loomed before me like a forest monarch the tempests had riven and denuded of its foliage but could not lay low. He had kept the faith and had never scabbed.”

Neither did Debs. See the film.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs is scheduled to be shown in Hudson, NY (April 26-May 13); Los Angeles and Pasadena, (May 4-10); San Diego (May 11-16), Washington, D.C., (May 22), and the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 12-15.)

Originally posted at The Indypendent.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Marx’s essential contribution to ecosocialism-

Posted by admin On April - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Marx’s essential contribution to ecosocialism-


(Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism:
Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
By Kohei Saito
Monthly Review Press, 2017 · 268 pages · $29.00)

“Ecosocialism needs Marx,” Kohei Saito once wrote. In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, Saito shows why. Saito is associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University in Japan. In 2015, he earned a PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin and spent time as a guest researcher at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities where he contributes to the editing of Marx’s natural science notebooks. This work and Saito’s familiarity with a range of international debates regarding Marxist theory and practice make possible his beautiful analysis of Marx’s ecosocialism, an analysis that should inform our struggle for revolutionary socioecological change.

In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito traces the development (through published works, draft manuscripts, correspondence, and natural science notebooks) of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism and of his vision of a new society emancipated from capital and therefore capable of establishing a wholly different

relationship to the rest of nature. Building on the work of Marxist scholars such as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Paul Burkett among others, Saito re-embeds Marx’s ecological critique within a broader political and intellectual project that deepened over decades.

Against readings that downplay or deny Marx’s contributions to ecological thinking, Saito shows that powerful ecological insight and analysis gained through intensive study of the natural sciences became central not only to Marx’s political economy and sociology, but also to his political project—what we now call ecosocialism.

One of the many exciting aspects of Saito’s book is that he takes what we learn from previous work on Marx’s ecology and adds a completely new chapter, literally and figuratively. In the chapter “Marx’s Ecology after 1868,” Saito reveals the extensive nature of Marx’s natural science studies after the publication of the first volume of Capital. Saito constructs his analysis based on previously unpublished notebooks made available by the important and ongoing work to compile a completed version of Marx and Engels’s collected works, called the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). The 1868 notebooks reveal Marx’s extensive engagement with scientific debates and developments in his time, especially the critical reception of Justus von Liebig’s provocative thesis that “the law of replenishment” was violated by modern transformation of how people lived and farmed. Liebig predicted that the consequent soil exhaustion would “threaten all of European civilization.” Marx integrated Liebig’s insight into his own analysis of capitalist agriculture as a system of robbery and spoliation.

This chapter is useful for many reasons. It provides new material on Marx’s broad engagement with intellectual and scientific developments across continents and demonstrates his extraordinary ability to put these in conversation with one another in order to arrive at his own critical understanding of what exists, as well as what is possible. In this we see Marx’s methodology for studying the world in order to change it. As Saito writes, rather than develop a philosophical program based on abstract conceptions of what is and what ought to be, Marx “emphasizes the significance of a social and historical investigation with regard to how and why the objectively inverted world beyond human control emerges out of social practice, so that the material conditions for its transcendence can be understood.”

Saito documents Marx’s systematic study of scientists such as James F. W. Johnston, Liebig, and Carl Fraas, historians such as Georg Ludwig von Maurer, and political economists such as Henry Carey and Julius Au. He also draws on Marx’s correspondence with his contemporaries to show how his thinking changed over time with respect to Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion and expanded to include a sophisticated historical understanding of an array of ecological issues—from desertification to climate change—that now dot the syllabi of environmental studies courses around the world.

Marx linked these issues to a broader social analysis in a fashion far more advanced than anyone in his time. He produced one of the first explorations of ecological imperialism, ecological injustice, and what we now call “sustainability,” or how society may, as Saito summarizes, “consciously regulate the metabolic interaction between humans and [the rest of] nature.”

In other chapters, Saito brilliantly presents several key themes and innovations at the heart of Marx’s ecology. He begins the book with a discussion of Marx’s earlier understanding of the alienation of nature as marking the emergence of the modern, and how his thinking came to diverge from more romantic notions as well as from other popular philosophical and political currents of his day. He moves on to explain and contextualize Marx’s theory of the metabolism of political economy, as well as his own perspective on Marx’s Capital as a theory of metabolism.

Other chapters fill out our understanding of Marx’s study of Liebig and his broader concern with the ahistorical conceptions of soil fertility and ground rent in nineteenth-century bourgeois political economy. All of this is important reading, even for those familiar with earlier work on the same subjects. The way the book is written, from beginning to end, helps lay out the lines of analysis from seed to fruit, offering a way to think about how we might structure our own study and engage with current scientific and political developments in a deeper way in the service of advancing our social change efforts.

Altogether, Saito offers something fresh for readers for whom these topics are familiar, as well as a clear, accessible analysis for readers unfamiliar with Marx or Marx’s ecological insights, but serious about socioecological change. The book also explains and intervenes in central debates in Marxian theory. All of this is truly wonderful to read.

But the reason I decided to write this review is not only for the book’s intellectual and scholarly merit. This work also helps address urgent questions confronting our movements at a time when we have no time to waste. In 2016 an international group of scientists published a paper in Nature Climate Change entitled “Consequences of Twenty-First Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.” The article’s most breathtaking statement was that “policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”

New reports emerge every day documenting the advance of climate change, the mass extinction of species, the death of millions of human beings each year due to ecological degradation—234 times more deaths than those occurring in all violent conflicts around the world annually. In spite of international environmental agreements, the unprecedented sophistication of science and technology, the emergence of the so-called green economy, and the miserable, well-documented consequences for life on the planet, the rate of degradation is not slowing, it is increasing. Every earth system is in decline and many of us can agree that capitalism is the problem—so why can’t we agree to get rid of it?

The critique of capitalism from the standpoint of ecology and social justice is mainstream enough. Influential scientists long ago, even before Marx, warned of the dangers posed to life on earth by this economic system geared toward infinite accumulation. Contemporary scholars and scientists continue to build on the vast body of research documenting the social and ecological harms of prioritizing profit over people and the planet.

More recently, large environmental NGOs and environmental movement organizations published statements recognizing capitalism as the source of our ecological crises. Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was an international bestseller translated into about twenty-five languages. The New York Times even ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” in which the author calls for a democratic socialist alternative.

Internalizing the widespread critique of capitalism, activists are offered many ways to think about change. First and foremost, elite reformers propose changing capitalism. From the World Bank to the UN, “inclusive green growth” and the “green economy” now supplement the “sustainable development” lexicon. While many activists and political groups condemn projects under these banners as maintaining the status quo, they adopt their own version of “green capitalism” as a result of their ideological commitments or calculations about political pragmatism.

As sociologist and activist Herbert Docena writes, many organizations (like 350.org, for example) have “gone on to amplify the reformist discourse by echoing their lines that the climate crisis is primarily caused by the lack of global regulation of capitalism; that it can be solved by enhancing such regulation; and that the ‘enemies’ are primarily, if not only, the fossil fuel companies or the ‘bad capitalists’ and the ‘bad elites opposing global regulation.”1

Law professor and social scientist Paddy Ireland notes, “It used to be the left who emphasized the limits to capitalism and the right who told us of its adaptability. Now, however, it is the right, believing themselves liberated from the credible threat of class struggle worldwide, who candidly stress the incompatibility of workers’ rights, [environmental regulations,] and welfare states with the elementary laws of capital (presented, of course, as “natural”), while the (erstwhile) left is reduced to insisting on the malleability and improvability of both capitalism and its corporations.”2

What becomes so clear in Saito’s rendition of nineteenth century debates and Marx’s own writing is that we have had all of these debates before. We have known about these problems for a very long time. Movements have tried making deals with the “good capitalists.” And where are we now?

Separating issues like climate change from the broader system that creates them, that immiserates lives and cannot stand still to take stock of the depletion of the earth’s life support systems, leads to a naive and Pollyannaish politics that can never confront the drivers of ecological harm or lead to a world that is more socially and ecologically sustainable and just. All of our historical experience affirms the truth of this statement.

Even if we were not confronting such an emergency with respect to life on earth, there are so many reasons to fight for a radically democratic, ecologically sane alternative to a racist, patriarchal, imperialist, winner-take-all system that concentrates wealth at the top, at the expense of the vast majority of the global population’s basic humanity. Saito provides a way of seeing the broader picture Marx offers, which will help activists in this critical moment make the case that “there must be a radical change, with reified social relations replaced by conscious production realized through the association of free producers. Only this emancipation from the reified power of capital will allow humans to construct a different relationship to nature.”

Herbert Docena, “The Politics of Climate Change,” Global Dialogue 6, no. 1 (February  2016), http://isa-global-dialogue.net/the-politics-of-climate-change/.
Paddy Ireland, “Corporations and Citizenship,” Monthly Review 49, no.1 (May1997), https://archive.monthlyreview.org/index.php/mr/article/view/MR-049-01-1997-05_2/0.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

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