January , 2019

People Aur Politics

A liberation zone for democratic rights, multiculturalism, international brotherhood and peace.

Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?- Tom Bramble Trade unions in Australia are ...
The Russian-Indian time-tested partnership has experienced an upward trend in all areas of cooperation in ...
Long accused of assisting the Taliban, Pakistan's army is reportedly seeking to move the group ...
March 10, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — After decisively defeating the Second ...
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks at a news conference in Tunis, ...
The recession should be over by now. That’s what the politicians predicted when it began ...
In recent decades, postcolonial theory has largely displaced Marxism as the dominant perspective among intellectuals ...
There has been a lot of hot news recently, so the John Kerry’s Pakistan visit ...
The Russian Revolution, the only—if only briefly—successful workers’ revolution took place in the era of ...
John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary website — One hundred years ago today, on or ...

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How the Nicaraguan Revolution was lost-Review by Todd Chretien

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2018 Comments Off on How the Nicaraguan Revolution was lost-Review by Todd Chretien


The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis

By Dan La Botz

Haymarket Books, 2018 · 408 pages · $28.00

During the 2012 presidential elections, Daniel Ortega’s campaign billboards proclaimed, “Nicaragua: The Joy of Living in Peace: Christian, Socialist, and in Solidarity.” Dan La Botz opens his What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis remarking that “By the second decade of the 2000s, however, there was no socialism, little solidarity, and, for many Nicaraguans, not a lot of joy either.” Six years later, at least solidarity is making a comeback as mass protests spearheaded by students have rocked Ortega’s authoritarian state. Where these will lead is impossible to predict, but those looking to make sense of this latest rebellion can do no better than to begin with this book.


As he readily acknowledges, La Botz draws heavily on authors such as Henri Weber, Mike Gonzalez, and Carlos Vilas writing in the 1980s or ’90s, who have plowed some of this ground before. Yet the passage of time has given La Botz the opportunity not only to synthesize the best of the previous literature, but also to see how life has unfolded as we approach the fortieth anniversary of The Triumph, July 19, 1979. On that day, tens of thousands of ordinary Nicaraguans flooded into Managua to celebrate their defeat of the US-backed Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled through the terror of its National Guard for more than four decades.


La Botz effectively traces Nicaraguan history from colonial times up to the revolution, especially emphasizing the constant presence and pressure of US imperialism; for instance recalling the attempt by proslavery adventurer William Walker to bring Nicaragua into the Union as a slave state before the Civil War. Happily, Walker got the firing squad he deserved. Unhappily, President Woodrow Wilson invaded Nicaragua in 1912 and US Marines remained until 1933, only leaving after six years of armed resistance. Upon withdrawing its troops, the United States built up the Nicaraguan National Guard and incorporated some of the former resistance fighters within it. One radical leader stood out for his refusal to liquidate his opposition, Augusto Sandino. For his troubles, he was lured into a trap and assassinated in 1934. Now relying on the National Guard to maintain order, a string of Democratic and Republican presidents, from FDR to Eisenhower to Carter, looked to the Somoza family (whose patriarch got his start as a colonel in the Guard) to safeguard US commercial interests. Torture and bloodletting seemed like a small price to pay.


By the 1960s various radical organizations, taking inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, initiated protest actions including kidnapping an entire Somoza dinner party in 1974 in exchange for the release of leftist prisoners. Although many cheered on the rebels’ daring, the Somoza dictatorship exacted a terrible revenge on the population, torturing, maiming, and murdering thousands. By 1979, unrest was crystallizing and the revolutionary left (re)merged to form the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). La Botz details all this in a fast-paced and insightful style that doesn’t shy away from sharp critiques of the various leftist currents’ political and organizational outlooks.


By the summer of 1979, tens of thousands of Nicaraguan workers, peasants, and students were fighting a life or death struggle. The terms of the revolution were simple: obliterate the National Guard, or the National Guard will obliterate you. The Guard dropped barrel bombs and fought with US-supplied machine guns. Most of the rebels fought with Molotov cocktails and hunting rifles. An estimated fifty thousand died in the fighting, but the people had passed a point of no return. Jimmy Carter watched and waited, only pressuring Somoza to negotiate after National Guard troops were caught executing an ABC News reporter on camera. Having finally lost his US patron, Somoza and his family boarded a plane for exile, carrying as much loot as they could.


Although terrible in human costs, this story is one of the great revolutionary episodes of the twentieth century. The Nicaraguan insurrection ranks alongside the Paris Commune, the October Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the greatest events of 1968, and Tahrir Square in terms of mass participation and self-sacrifice. The people not only won the revolution, the revolution won the people. That is the single most important fact about 1979. As La Botz writes, “the Nicaraguan people were elated at the victory of the revolution and anxious to create a new Nicaragua.”


This “new Nicaragua” was made flesh immediately. The National Guard and the secret police were liquidated, either being killed or driven out of the country. The Somoza family’s property was confiscated and turned over to the popular Sandinista state. Tens of thousands of landless peasants received plots to farm. A student-led campaign reduced illiteracy from an incredible 50 percent to just 13 percent within five months. And twenty days after The Triumph, the Sandinista government created the Single National Health System under the principles that “Health is the right of all and is the responsibility of the state” and “the community should participate in all the health system’s activities.” And if there were real limits, the fact that women constituted a significant percentage of the insurrection’s fighters established feminism and women’s liberation as a real force. All these steps were wildly popular with workers, peasants, students, and the poor. So, what went wrong?


Most of the revolution’s defenders place the lion’s share of the blame for the Sandinista’s 1990 electoral defeat by a pro-US candidate on the brutality of the Contra War and the population’s exhaustion. La Botz outlines the war’s impact, explaining how Ronald Reagan’s “Freedom Fighters” took the lives of 30,865 Nicaraguans, maimed or injured another 30,000, and cost the country of 2.5 million inhabitants approximately $1.9 billion over the course of the ten-year conflict. In the wake of Vietnam, the US population remained wary of sending US troops, so Reagan ordered the CIA to direct the operation and fund it through Col. Oliver North’s secret dealings that eventually came to light in the Iran-Contra scandal. In the end, Reagan could not defeat the revolution militarily, but he did bleed the people dry.


La Botz agrees that the Contra War, as well as the defeat of revolutions in El Salvador and Guatemala, “ultimately doomed” the Nicaraguan Revolution; at the same time, he argues that the “FSLN’s lack of commitment to democracy contributed significantly to the revolution’s failure.” He makes this case convincingly by showing how the FSLN leadership—of whom Ortega was the most important but not only figure—never considered following the example of the Russian Revolution in relying on direct elections by workers, students, peasants, soldiers, and the poor in a system of councils or “soviets.” In fact, as he notes, the FSLN didn’t even call a party congress to elect its own leadership until after 1990. According to La Botz, this failure alienated the FSLN’s mass base and predisposed many high-ranking party leaders to conflate their own positions and power with the politics of liberation. As he puts it, “It was this problem—the lack of democracy—that led to the specific sort of betrayal of the revolution, and to the unique way in which the FSLN was transformed into an authoritarian party. . . . It was the authoritarian politics and ethos of the FLSN that created Daniel Ortega, not the other way around.”


La Botz is undoubtedly right to point to this dangerous tendency, and it has the great virtue of helping orient the international left with respect to the need for solidarity with the 2018 rebellion against Ortega’s regime. Further, What Went Wrong? articulates the necessity for a “new revolutionary movement that places at the center of its political ideas the understanding that socialism is only possible with democracy, and democracy is only possible with socialism.”


Yet, I do wonder if, in stressing this point, La Botz hasn’t succumbed to an overgeneralization. As he writes, “We can only [my emphasis] understand what happened in the Nicaraguan Revolution (and many other Third World countries in the postwar period) if we recognize that for about 70 years there was a three-cornered struggle for power between three social and political systems: capitalism, bureaucratic Communism, and working-class movements struggle to establish democratic socialism.”


Certainly, the pernicious influence of Stalinism in the socialist movement conditioned what took place in Nicaragua. But I think we must begin by assuming there was a tremendously open and liberatory revolution exploding in Nicaragua the few years after 1979. La Botz is right that the FSLN leadership used its tremendous moral and political authority to crack down on leftist opponents. However, should we foreclose the possibility that the Nicaraguan masses might not have chafed more under, and demanded more from, the Sandinista leadership (the right to strike, to widespread and frequent elections, to expropriate US and foreign companies, etc.) had not the Contra War (and US embargo) not sapped the vitality and confidence of the very same people who had just smashed the National Guard?


Of course, counterfactuals only get you so far. The point is that the ideology of the Sandinista leadership should not be seen as an original sin that precluded different potentials arising from elsewhere, or even from within the various tendencies of Sandinismo. Perhaps what Victor Serge remarked about the Russian experience might also apply to Nicaragua, “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.’ Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.”


This debate notwithstanding, I cannot recommend La Botz’s book highly enough. It is meticulously researched, but never succumbs to academic jargon. It provides readers with the facts and the drama but makes its theoretical framework clear. It is a gateway into the history of one of the last century’s most heroic revolutions, and it will serve anyone who reads it well in preparing for our century’s coming upheavals. Paraphrasing a popular slogan from 1979: ¡Nicaragua venció, el pueblo vencerá!



Revolutionaries and trade unions: a reply to Mark O’Brien-Tom Machell

Posted by admin On August - 26 - 2018 Comments Off on Revolutionaries and trade unions: a reply to Mark O’Brien-Tom Machell


“What has Happened to the British Labour Movement and What Does it Mean for the Left in the Unions?”, adds to the debates in this journal over the last number of years.1 His conclusions, however, are extremely dangerous. If put in practice they would actually decrease the influence of revolutionary Marxists in the workplace and lead to an “abdication” from key workplace activity. These discussions echo the debates of the British left in the run-up to the formation of the British Communist Party and in British syndicalism that sought to differentiate between the revolutionary trade union struggle and the revolutionary “political” struggle. Fundamentally, I believe Mark misunderstands the concept of the rank and file movement and the struggle for leadership in the workplace.

Mark correctly identifies two broad periods when trade unions operated under different legislation (a pre-1970 era of self-regulation of unions and a post-1970 era of “legalism”). It would be nonsense to argue that the post-1970s legislative framework has done anything other than seek to limit trade union activity. However, Mark’s conclusion, that “the trade union movement itself has fundamentally changed in nature”, is dangerous.2 For those of us active in trade union movements from the late-1970s the narrative of the union bureaucracy seeking to control activity is familiar. However, this is nothing new. It was the case during the preceding period as well—see for example the events described in Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain, 1972 by Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon.3

Mark paints a depressing picture of those “local reps…bogged down” in legalistic trade unionism and of reps being sucked into various levels of lay bureaucracy although he concedes “it is hard to see how we can avoid these consequences”.4 Similarly, Mark paints individual representation as being simply time consuming rather than understanding the organisational possibilities that can lie behind this. In my own recent experience, successfully representing a union member last summer in a partially unionised (but not formally recognised) workplace has resulted in not a single month going by without new members—predominantly young and BAME—joining the union. This is just one example. These are workmates recruiting each other on the back of a successful intervention.

Mark’s “picture”, however, looks designed to discourage revolutionaries from actually becoming involved in the lay bodies that, when there is a significant upturn, will lead that struggle. In the universities dispute in spring this year the initial rank and file rebellion within the UCU against the proposed compromise offered by the leadership on 12 March was led by those very activists within the lay structures that Mark would discourage us from being involved in.5

It is also true that this particular dispute reinvigorated those layers with new layers of activists, but leadership of the initial rebellion was in no way limited to them. While the full-time leadership of the union eventually won the day, this was not on the terms of the employers’ initial proposals. This, however, also highlights one of Mark’s other weaknesses; that is, he seems to make no distinction between lay activists, on different levels of facility time, and the full-time salaried bureaucracy that exists in all trade unions.

Mark’s characterisation of the “rank and file moment” as “opening up spaces for activist initiatives” within the context of a “bureaucratically controlled national strike” completely misses how revolutionaries can win leadership in any workplace.6 When I first became active within the union movement the then International Socialists (the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party) produced many a guide as to how one should operate in the workplace—this did not preclude the “humdrum” of the local branch, committee or whatever body. Indeed, I was taught that it was our responsibility to try to win leadership positions by becoming elected representatives and to carry these out diligently. You did this by being open about your politics but also by going beyond the political to take up day to day industrial relations issues. I’m not naive enough to believe my workmates elected me over the years to both local and national lay positions because I was a Marxist. They probably elected me despite that and because they would rather have me representing their interests than others. The alternative would appear to be standing on the sidelines making broad propaganda points but “refusing” the local leadership role that your workmates want you to carry out: “I’ll criticise the ‘bureaucracy’ but won’t actually do anything to change or influence it” does not in my opinion give you an automatic right to lead any subsequent struggle.

Mark appears to conclude that our primary (if not only) responsibility is to make “socialist propaganda” in the workplace and to build “horizontal networks” so we can take advantage of breaks when they come. He counterposes this to “vertical initiatives” within the trade union machine. These “networks” would then campaign around the political initiatives of the formal machine. This raises a number of key questions. Where does Mark expect the activists we seek to influence to be found? Yes, they will be involved in wider political discussions, but it is highly likely that they will also be found in those very “vertical structures.” Where does Mark think the “political initiatives” of the formal machine come from other than from socialists agitating within the machine? Moreover, suddenly turning up at points of struggle with the correct argument looks in this context akin to “shouting from the back of the room” and demanding the right to lead rather than proving you have such a right.

Does involvement in the formal machine inevitably lead to a drift to the right? I think not, as long as you are aware of the pressures, understand rank and file politics and operate under the wider political direction of socialist ideas and the advice and counsel of trusted comrades. Of course the lure of being a full-time lay representative can be attractive. It can remove individuals from day to day humdrum work. But the counter-arguments, that both your colleagues and your employer take you more seriously when you can show that you have to deal with the same work pressures and actually live like your colleagues and understand them, are compelling. The pressures to conform are there. But in all my years I only ever had a period of one year as a full-time representative (and that at an employer’s behest to deal with a particular issue).

Mark’s conclusions unfortunately put him historically on the side of the pre-1920s Marxist sects who saw their role as making pure propaganda without dirtying their hands with day to day trade union activity.

Tom Machell is a socialist and trade unionist based in Sheffield.


1 O’Brien, 2018.

2 O’Brien, 2018, p155.

3 Darlington and Lyddon, 2001.

4 O’Brien, 2018, p171.

5 See also the discussion of the UCU strikes elsewhere in this issue.

6 O’Brien, 2018, p169.


One hundred years on, the Great October Revolution is alive and calls for a revolutionary proletarian international!

Posted by admin On July - 14 - 2018 Comments Off on One hundred years on, the Great October Revolution is alive and calls for a revolutionary proletarian international!


by The 4th Euro-Mediterranean Conference
June 23, 2017
This year being the centenary of the Great October Revolution, the 4th Emergency Euro-Mediterranean Conference, held in Athens on 26-28 May 2017, adopted a declaration on this so far the most significant socialist revolution in world history, assessing its meaning for the 20th century and for the future and affirming its actuality.

The 4th Euro-Mediterranean Emergency Conference has conducted its deliberations on the Centenary of the Great October Revolution. The Conference wholeheartedly and unwaveringly declares its conviction that the October Revolution is the most important emancipatory event of the modern era and summons the forces of the working class and all progressive movements to follow in its footsteps and to bring to completion its unfinished mission.

The modern epoch, starting from the first Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, brought humanity an immense leap in the spheres of science, technology and the productive forces. Ironically, the very socio-economic system that made this leap possible, the capitalist mode of production, also made exploitation, unemployment, economic insecurity, poverty in the midst of plenty, and war of unprecedented dimensions and cruelty inescapable facts of life. By putting an end to capitalist private property and showing in practice that a different economic and social order based on common property in the means of production and distribution and conscious planning of production, the October Revolution showed, for the first time in a durable manner, that humanity would be able to put the advances in the productive forces to use without the attendant scourges characteristic of capitalism. Whatever criticism may be levelled at Soviet society and those that followed later in its footsteps, nothing can obliterate the fact that the combination of modern productive forces and common property in the means of production can provide the economic basis for a society that shares and cares for its members, without leaving any in fear for their future. This is a feat that no capitalist country, not even the most advanced and powerful, has been able to achieve on a durable basis.

The October Revolution is not solely a Russian revolution. It is the first revolution through which the only modern social force, the international proletariat, itself a specific product of capitalism, rose to power, albeit at first in a single country. It is from this first great leap forward that the other socialist revolutions of the 20th century, from the Chinese and Vietnamese to the Yugoslav and the Cuban, drew their inspiration and lessons. It is thanks to the support received from this revolution and the Soviet state, its most important product, that the colonial and semi-colonial peoples around the world rose and thus emancipated themselves from abject poverty and national oppression. It is under the whip of the threat of socialism, especially after the extension of the socialist revolution to other countries, that the bourgeoisie of imperialist countries and even of some dependent ones, gave in to the struggles and demands of their working masses, creating thus the highly ideological concept of the “welfare state”, which they hurried to dismantle as soon as the workers’ states started to collapse after 1989. In short, the October Revolution, which brought the proletariat into power for the first time, was in effect the trendsetter of the 20th century all around the world. In this sense and in the historic sense that it still shows us the future, the Great October Revolution and its sequel, the other socialist revolutions of the 20th century, as well as Marxism, the guide to these revolutions, are as much French and Italian and British as they are Russian, as much Balkan or Middle Eastern as they are Chinese or Vietnamese, as much African and surely Latin American as they are Cuban.

The Conference also expresses its conviction that the collapse of the workers’ states that were born in the 20th century is by no means a defeat and bankruptcy for the Marxist idea and programme of socialism, but the product of concrete circumstances that led, first, the Soviet state and, later, those that were born in its footsteps down paths that represented the abandonment of the genuine, revolutionary Marxist programme of proletarian democracy and internationalism. It was not the Marxist programme that failed but an aberration that pretended to be Marxist whereas it was only a caricature of it. The celebration with which the international bourgeoisie greeted the collapse of the workers’ states, producing intellectual stupidities of the type “the End of History” was consigned to the dustbin of history as rapidly as it was greeted. Capitalism has once again brought humanity to the threshold of barbarism in the form of an immense economic crisis, war, and an impending environmental catastrophe. Socialism is once again called to save humanity!

When Lenin arrived from his Swiss exile at the Finland Station in Petrograd, he finished his address to an excited crowd of workers gathered in front of the station by calling for the “World Socialist Revolution”. When approximately one month later Trotsky arrived in Russia from his exile in the United States, the day after his arrival he was invited to speak to the Petrograd Soviet in his former capacity of the President of the same soviet in 1905 and, unaware of what Lenin had said a month before, he closed his address by calling for the “World Socialist Revolution”! This is what the Bolshevik leadership was fighting for in the run up to the October revolution and after. It was for this reason that they formed the Communist International in the difficult days of the Civil War. This is what we should be striving for today: an international organisation that will bring together the revolutionary parties that are fighting for workers’ power in each and every country of the world.

The Communist International was not built overnight: it was the result of the groundwork that started during World War I in the form of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences. On this Centenary of the Great October Revolution, let us create our own Zimmerwald. Let us turn the Centenary Conference to be convened by our Russian comrades on the exact hundredth anniversary of the revolution, on 5-7 November 2017, in the very city where the Russian working class took power a century ago into our own special kind of Zimmerwald! Let us march together to stop an end to this drift into barbarism imposed by a capitalism in decline and build a world party that will unwaveringly strive for workers’ power all around the planet!

Voted unanimously, 28 May 2017

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.

What Happened to the Nicaraguan Revolution?-Dan La Botz

Posted by admin On April - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on What Happened to the Nicaraguan Revolution?-Dan La Botz


The upheaval in Nicaragua that lasted from April 18 to April 21 and the repression that reportedly left 63 dead, 15 missing and 160 injured by gunfire, have both subsided for the moment. The protests halted after President Daniel Ortega announced the cancellation of his proposed changes in the social security pension law. Photographers were among those beaten. Other human rights centers and the Jesuit University of Central America in Managua as well as Nicaraguan newspaper accounts and discussions with people in Managua confirm many of these deaths and injuries.

Since April 22 Nicaraguans have participated in numerous marches, some raising the call for “Peace and Justice,” and many of the participants carrying placards calling upon President Ortega and his vice-president and wife Rosario Murillo to resign. On April 26 an enormous pilgrimage of tens of thousands called for peace and negotiation organized by the Catholic Church.

The early protests and the subsequent peace marches—and those killed or injured in them—have involved virtually every sector of Nicaraguan society: students, workers, religious leaders and their lay associates, medical and veterinary students, employees of private companies, and business leaders. La Prensa, a conservative newspaper, produced a photo essay that puts faces on the protesters.

While the protests began with opposition to the increasing in social security payments and the accompany reduction in benefits, they soon became massive outpourings against the violent repression of peaceful protestors, and finally a call for the end to the Ortega dictatorship. The Catholic hierarchy in Nicaragua is attempting to mediate the conflict and to organize a dialog between Ortega and his opponents. The questions now are: Who will get a seat at the table? and Will Ortega be willing to negotiate his own resignation?

The Repression

Ortega and Murillo ultimately hold responsibility for the repression that was organized both through the police forces and by the Sandinista party (FSLN) through the Sandinista Youth (JS). For years, as I discuss in my book What Went Wrong?,  the party and its youth group have harassed and beaten opposition political candidates, feminists, workers, farmers and other dissidents.

Among the most serious incidents (which are documented in my book and also in the Revista Envío available in Spanish and English) were these:

In 2008 both the Catholic Church and the Rosario Murillo who was part of the Ortega administration attacked the Autonomous Women’s Movement which supported abortion rights including helping a nine-year old rape victim get an abortion. The Catholic Church filed a criminal proceeding against the Network of Women Against Violence while Ortega’s Attorney General raided the office of the Autonomous Women’s Movement. The government engaged in a persistent campaign aimed at intimidating feminists.
In May of 2008 the Ortega government sent police to break a strike by truck and taxi drivers, during which police beat the strikers and intentionally broke truck windows.
In August of 2008 Sandinista thugs attacked political opposition protesters in the city of León.
In February of 2009 Sandinista goons attacked protest demonstrations by political opponents in Jinotega, Chinandega, and León.
Throughout 2014 farmers’ and environmentalists’ protests against Ortega’s Chinese-financed inter-oceanic canal were violent repressed with scores of injured and five killed.
In many of these incidents, the police and Sandinista hooligans cooperate, or the police look the other way as the Sandinista heavies do their dirty work.

All of this makes us want to know, What went wrong? The following is a reprint of my October 17, 2016 New Politics article written on the eve of the Nicaraguan election in which Ortega was reelected.

An Authoritarian Government

In late July 2016 President Daniel Ortega, running for his third consecutive term as president—his fourth term altogether—succeeded in having sixteen members of the opposition expelled from the legislature. Also removed were their 12 alternates, 28 legislators altogether. Those who were removed belonged to both the conservative Independent Liberal Party (PLI) led by banker Eduardo Montealegre and to the Movement for Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), originally a leftist breakaway from Ortega’s own FSLN. The legislators’ removal ended any semblance of political pluralism and gave Ortega absolute control over the parliament, making Nicaragua effectively a one-party state on the eve of the November 2016 election.

Then at the beginning of August, Ortega announced that his running mate for vice-president would be his wife Rosario Murillo, now the Minister of Communications and in practice already the country’s co-president. The Nicaraguan Constitution once forbid anyone from holding the office of president for two consecutive terms or from holding more than two non-consecutive terms as president, as well as forbidding a spouse from being a candidate. Ortega’s control of the Supreme Court, the legislature and the Supreme Electoral Council made it possible for him to create a new constitution in 2014 that allowed him to run for president for a third term. To make sure that there is no questioning of the election procedure, Ortega has forbidden international election observers. Ortega and his wife, who have placed their children in positions in government, appear to have insured that, like the Somozas before them, they will hand power on to their children and establish another dynastic dictatorship.

Nicaragua’s National Coalition for Democracy called the coming elections to be carried out under these conditions “a farce,” while the Bishops of the Catholic Church condemned Ortega’s attempt to impose a one-party regime. Faced with the closing off of democratic options important figures on both the right and the left have suggested that a revolt may be the only option. On the right, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the son of former president Violeta Chamorro, told the Nicaraguans that the situation had “legitimized the right to rebel.” Vilma Núñez, a longtime FSLN activist who had challenged Ortega for the FSLN presidential nomination in 1996 and who today heads the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), went even further, calling upon the Nicaraguan people to exercise their “right to rebellion.”[1] Creating a new dictatorship, Ortega may also be creating the conditions for a future revolution, though at the moment neither the forces nor the leadership for a rebellion exist.

Daniel and Danielismo

Ortega has ruled Nicaragua intermittently since the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979. He headed the revolutionary government from 1979 to 1990, first as head of the revolutionary Junta that ruled the country from 1979-1985 and then as elected president from 1985-1990. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996 and 2001, but even out of office, he generally controlled the legislature, working as a partner with the conservative Liberal Party governments. Then in the 2006 elections he won the presidency with a plurality of 38 percent of the vote and won again in 2011 with 62 percent of vote. Polls show him likely to win this election by 60 percent or more, a testimony not so much to his leadership as to the ruling couple’s control of the government, of the social welfare programs, and of much of the media.

Ortega’s political domination of the country today is nearly absolute. Since he took office as president for the second time in 2007, Ortega, the former guerrilla fighter and leader of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), has succeeded in concentrating in his hands the control not only of the executive office—which he shares in an irregular and extra-constitutional manner with his wife Rosario Murillo—but also domination of the Supreme Court, of the legislature, and of the Supreme Electoral Council. His political power is reinforced by his personal control over Venezuela’s financial contributions to Nicaragua, and until recently by an alliance with the Catholic Church constructed around opposition to abortion and feminism, as well as by his association with the country’s largest corporations and wealthiest families, not to mention his shrewd buying up of radio and TV stations.

The FSLN, better known as the Sandinistas, once a revolutionary party, functions today as a typical political machine, winning votes through fear and favors. The party is constructed around “Daniel” and a system and ideology of social welfare that has come to be called Danielismo. The FSLN has created a cult of personality around Ortega that rivals any, with huge portraits of Ortega and Murillo appearing on billboards throughout Managua year in and year out, while crowds are brought out to public places to chant, “Daniel! Daniel!” To enhance his image, periodically Ortega stands beside foreign heads of state with left-wing credentials—Hugo Chávez before he died, Nicolás Maduro since then; Fidel and later Raúl Castro; and also Evo Morales of Bolivia—maintaining the illusion that his government has something to do with some sort of socialism. In fact what he shares with those leaders is not socialism but rather his stature as a populist caudillo, though now one with right-wing politics.

Regrettably and shamefully, much of the Latin American and U.S. left continues to support Ortega and the Sandinista government, largely because of its alliance with the Cuban Communist regime and Venezuelan Bolivarian government. The Foro de São Paulo, the conference of Latin America’s left parties, continues to treat the FSLN as if it were a genuine left party, while TeleSUR, the TV station and news service supported by Venezuela, Cuba, and several other Latin American governments, brushes off any criticism of Ortega as right-wing and imperialist. Some on the U.S. and European left suggest that any criticism of Ortega and the FSLN is either directed by or serves the interest of the U.S. State Department.[2] Yet for decades some of the strongest criticism of Ortega has come from Nicaraguans, many of them former Sandinista leaders who argue that Ortega long ago abandoned any socialist principles.

Some American and other foreign leftists, such as Roger Burbach or more recently Jennifer Goett and Courtney Desiree Morris have criticized Daniel Ortega, placing responsibility on U.S. imperialism and on Ortega personally for the betrayal of the revolution, but denying that the Sandinistas’ political values and particular leftist ideals had anything to do with the revolution’s degeneration. In fact, the core beliefs of the Sandinistas—the political vision and theory of Carlos Fonseca, Tomás Borge, and Daniel Ortega—not only contributed to the revolution’s deterioration but lie at its root.

The Nicaraguan situation must be appraised not only in terms of U.S. imperialism and of Ortega as a leader, but also by making analysis of the country’s history and of its political and economic regime. Analyzing Nicaragua’s supposedly “socialist” regime, we must ask the same questions we would if we were analyzing any other nation: What is the nature of the political system? Who rules? Whose voice is not heard? What is the nature of the economic system? Who profits? Who works for low wages? Who must emigrate to find work?

While Ortega and his party govern, a handful of extremely wealthy families dominate the economy, enriching themselves at the expense of the country’s people. Nicaragua remains the poorest nation in Latin America, excepting Haiti, with 12 percent of the population unemployed and over 30 percent of the population living in poverty and 8 percent in extreme poverty. Nicaragua ranked 125th out of 188 nations on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2015.[3]

In 1979 Nicaragua experienced a genuine revolution, one that utterly destroyed the Somoza dictatorship, swept away the state, and created a new political system. At the time there was talk of a mixed economy, political, pluralism, and democratic socialism. National literacy and health campaigns improved the lives of much of the country’s rural population. The U.S.-backed Contra War in Nicaragua kept the Sandinista government of the 1980s from carrying out much of its reform program, while the 1990 election and subsequent elections brought right-wing governments to power. When Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas returned to power in 2006, they were no longer the revolutionary party with the socialist program of the past. Rather Ortega and the Sandinistas allied with big business, the Catholic Church, and right-wing parties lead a government with neoliberal economic programs combined with social welfare programs, what has been called “social liberalism.” We examine here exactly how this transformation took place, as explained in much greater detail in my book What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis.

The Imperialist Background

Imperial powers—the Aztecs, the Spanish, the British, and the Americans—all took advantage of the fact that Nicaragua was a small territory, sparsely populated, and easily penetrated. While the Aztecs never fully controlled the country, Spain conquered and ruled Nicaragua for 300 years, establishing the domination of the conquerors’ descendants over the indigenous and over the African people who had been brought as slaves.

When thanks to revolutions in Mexico and South America between 1810 and 1821 all of Spanish America became independent, Nicaragua did as well, but while the Conservatives in the city of Granada and Liberals in León fought for control of the Pacific coast, the British entered into a treaty with indigenous Miskito people on the Caribbean coast, establishing a protectorate.

Later, with the discovery of gold in California, New York shipping magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt established a shipping line to Nicaragua, together with overland and overwater service across the isthmus to the Pacific coast and from there to California and the goldfields. The American businessman’s involvement in Nicaragua perturbed the British who dominated Latin American banking and ran the import-export houses, leading to rising tensions between the two Anglo-Saxon imperial powers.

Then suddenly William Walker, an American filibuster— a politically ambitious pirate, with a small army of a couple of hundred men—inserted himself into the Conservative-Liberal conflict and quickly took control of the country, making himself president. Walker made English an official language, instituted slavery, and made it clear that he had broader ambitions in Central America and the Caribbean. Seeing the threat to their own existence, the surrounding nations—Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador—raised an army, and, with the support of Vanderbilt and the British, defeated and expelled Walker, who during a later attempted invasion attempt was captured and executed.

Vanderbilt and Walker had brought Nicaragua to the attention of the United States, and the American eagle now had its eyes on the little country to the south, waiting for his chance.

Following the Central American war against Walker, a joint Conservative-Liberal government came to power in Nicaragua and established its authority in the Pacific region—the “Thirty-Year Regime” it was called. But the country languished until the late nineteenth century sugar boom when José Santos Zelaya, a Liberal leader from Managua, center of the new sugar industry, took power in a coup.

Zelaya was determined to make Nicaragua a modern state, to create a United States of Central America, and to establish a degree of independence from the United States of America, which had meanwhile invested heavily in lumber, mining, and agriculture. Zelaya’s national project, however, coincided with the rise of the United States to Great Power status through foreign wars, the taking of colonies, and the building of an empire.

Under President McKinley, the United States fought and won the Spanish American War of 1898 taking Cuba and Puerto Rico, while in 1903, with the subterfuge of support for independence movement, President Roosevelt took Panama from Colombia. With the United States becoming the dominant power in the region, Zelaya’s plans for a stronger Nicaragua and a united Central America were doomed.

With the pretext of supporting a supposed democracy movement in Nicaragua that opposed Zelaya’s tyranny, President Taft ordered the U.S. Marines to invade and occupy the country in 1909, an occupation that in several phases that would last until 1933. The U.S. took control of the political system through a puppet president, while also managing the national finances, and running much of the economy. Nicaragua became a colony in all but name.

The Nicaraguan Liberals, however, continued to fight against the Conservatives who under U.S. tutelage now ran the country, leading to a civil war from 1926 to 1927. But when the Liberals finally gave up the fight, one man, Augusto César Sandino, refused to lay down his arms.


Sandino, a mystic and a radical, organized what he called the Army in Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua, in reality a ragged band of a few hundred workers and peasants who fought a guerrilla war against the U.S. Marines 1927 until 1933 when the Marines finally left. But it was not Sandino who had driven them away.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearing a war in Europe, called for a “Good Neighbor Policy.” FDR withdrew the U.S. Marines from Nicaragua and other nations in the region, but in their stead the United States worked with friendly governments, often dictatorships, establish U.S. Marine-trained “National Guards,” armed forces that could be counted on to protect pro-American governments and American interests.

In Nicaragua, as the U.S. Marines left, Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza García became head of the new National Guard. When the new Nicaraguan Liberal president, Juan Bautista Sacasa, took power in January 1933, he called for peace negotiations between himself, Somoza, and Sandino. Somoza took advantage of one of the meetings to kidnap and assassinate Sandino; from that moment Somoza effectively became the ruler of Nicaragua, winning election to the presidency in 1937.

Somoza, his sons Luis and Antonio Somoza Debayle, backed by the United States, would rule the country from 1937 to 1979, maintaining their power through a series of pacts with the opposition political parties combined with whatever repression as needed. They modernized the country, building highways and improving the agricultural economy, while enriching property-owning class and themselves; the majority of Nicaraguans remained poor, often hungry, unhealthy, and illiterate.

Virtually a monarchy, the Somoza family was for two generations all-powerful in Nicaragua. The Somoza dictatorship led to opposition: various attempts at armed rebellion by the Conservatives, including the assassination of Tacho Somoza in 1956 (succeeded immediately by one of his sons), were followed by the rise in the 1960s of a revolutionary movement taking its name from Sandino and calling itself the Sandinista Front for National Liberation or FSLN.

The Origins of the Sandinistas

Earlier, in the 1930s, pro-Soviet Communists had organized the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN), which, following the Communist International’s line, supported a Popular Front against fascism. In practice this meant supporting Tacho Somoza while simultaneously attempting to expand democratic rights and organize labor unions. This was a virtually impossible task, but this remained the Communist PSN’s position until the 1970s.

It was in this pro-Soviet Communist Party that the founders of the Sandinistas—Carlos Fonseca, Tomás Borge, and others—received their early political education, an experience that made them life-long supporters of the “Communist camp” and believers in a Communist-style of party organization.

In 1957 the PSN chose the young Fonseca to visit the Soviet Union, a year after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and not long after the Soviet’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Yet Fonseca, future founder and leader of the Sandinistas until his death in 1976, remained a staunch supporter of Stalin and praised the Soviet Union for crushing the Hungarian uprising.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 changed everything for leftists throughout Latin American, including the Sandinistas. Fidel Castro’s “26 of July” guerrilla movement’s overthrow of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista established an alternative leftist strategy, one not based on peaceful, gradual, electoral politics, but predicated upon armed revolution led by a dedicated guerrilla band.

Latin American revolutionaries in many countries turned away from the Communist Popular Front and took up armed struggle, believing it was possible to struggle not simply for a bourgeois-democratic state but for socialism. Fonseca justified the strategic change of direction in Nicaragua arguing that Augusto César Sandino had used just such a guerrilla war strategy in his struggle against the U.S. Marines in the 1920s.

Convinced by Castro’s model and Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s theory of the guerrilla foco, Fonseca and his co-thinkers left the Communist PSN, breaking with its Popular Front politics, and took up the Cuban example, but they never paused to reflect uponand never  criticized Stalin, Communist Party organization, or the Soviet Union. While becoming guerrilla warriors in the Cuban model, they would remain lifelong supporters of the Soviet Union and the Communist camp.

Founded in 1962, the Sandinistas courageously pursued a guerrilla strategy for more than 15 years, fighting and dying in the mountains of Nicaragua, but their strategy proved unsuccessful and by 1977 they had been virtually wiped out by Somoza’s National Guard. The FSLN’s guerrilla foco established two things: their heroism and their absolute and uncompromised determination to overthrow Somoza, but it also proved that their strategy was an utter failure.

The failure of their approach led the FSLN to split into three rival tendencies. Tomás Borge headed the Prolonged Peoples’ War tendency, which modified the Cuban model by adopting Mao Tse-Tung’s Peoples’ War theory, based on the notion of building up a peasant army in the countryside. Jaime Wheelock led the Proletarian Tendency, with the more traditional Marxist notion of organizing agricultural laborers and other workers.

Daniel Ortega was the leader of the Third or Insurrectionary Tendency that called for an alliance with other political organizations and with all Nicaraguan social classes, while at the same time seeking support from foreign governments in Europe and Latin America, and building a real army to invade Nicaragua from Costa Rica. By 1978, partly under pressure from Cuba, the three tendencies had reconciled, all of them supporting the Third Tendency position.

Dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle had selfishly enriched himself until he dominated so many industries that by the mid-1970s he had alienated and angered many in the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie. Nicaragua’s capitalists and Liberal and Conservative politicians organized the Democratic Union of Liberation in 1974 to oppose Somoza and the FSLN began to work with this bourgeois opposition. In 1978 the Sandinistas and its coalition partners presented to the world a new face of the revolution: Los Doce, the Twelve, a group of intellectuals, businessmen, and religious leaders—not one Sandinista revolutionary among them, apparently—who called upon Somoza to resign.

The country seethed with protest and rebellion as the newly formed Sandinista Army began its offensive. The Somoza government appeared about to collapse, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, having concluded that it was impossible to save Somoza, worked through the Organization of American States to negotiate the dictator’s exit while preserving the government and the murderous National Guard, in order to prevent the FSLN from coming to power. The Broad Opposition Front (FAO), dominated by moderates, accepted the idea, but, when Somoza called for a plebiscite on his resignation, negotiations broke down. Carter then called for elections to create a “constitutional” successor government.

With that the FSLN left the FAO and with the United Peoples Movement created a new coalition the National Patriot Front. When National Guardsmen murdered ABC reporter Bill Stewart, a murder caught on camera and broadcast to the American public, Carter could no longer prevent the revolution from bringing down not only Somoza but the Guard and the government as well.

The FSLN had meanwhile built up its army under the shield of a friendly government in Costa Rica, strengthened by hundreds of Latin American volunteers. As the FSLN launched its attacks, supported by uprising in cities and towns throughout the country, Somoza’s National Guard tortured and murdered many young people while his air force bombed working class neighborhoods in the major cities.

The revolutionary movement cold not b suppressed. The FSLN, now supported by the entire country, pushed on to Managua in the midst of a popular national uprising, taking power on July 17, 1979. The revolution was greeted with jubilation by virtually the entire Nicaraguan population.


The FSLN in Power

The Sandinistas came to power with extremely widespread support and surprisingly with no competitors for power. The FSLN hurriedly a convened a three-day meeting of 400 members (virtually its entire membership in a nation of almost three million people) and adopted the “72-Hour Document.” The document stated that the FSLN planned to consolidate itself as a Marxist-Leninist Party; that its goal was the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; that it should become part of the Communist camp with the Soviet Union, Eastern European Bloc, Vietnam and Cuba; and that it would work through temporary alliances with other classes and political groups until it achieved those goals. As many of them said, their goal was to create another Cuba.

Publicly, however, the FSLN stated that it wanted to have a mixed economy, a pluralistic government, and a non-aligned foreign policy. That is, while planning to create a Cuban-style, one-party, Communist state that would become part of the Communist camp, the Sandinistas presented themselves as social democrats. Their duplicitous position confused and confounded both their enemies and their allies.

Always until then a clandestine “military-political organization,” now that the Revolution had been won, the FSLN was in a position to call a democratic convention of its members, to adopt a constitution, to ratify a program, and to elect a leadership—but the FSLN did none of those things. In fact, the FSLN would call no convention until after it lost power in 1990. The FSLN’s nine-man directorate would continue to lead the party through top-down commands to the country’s regions and zones as it had since its founding. Democracy in the party was not a core value of the Sandinistas; on the contrary, an authoritarian, quasi-military organization remained in place.

To rule the country, the FSLN created two bodies: la Junta de gobierno (the Governing Committee) and el Consejo del Estado (Council of State). The Consejo, was presented as a kind of popular parliament, though the member organizations were chosen by the Junta and were overwhelmingly FSLN controlled mass organizations: labor unions, women’s groups, and farmers. In reality, the Consejo took no initiatives on its own.

The real decisions were made by the Junta, made up of five members, two moderate business people and two Sandinistas, and a fifth supposedly neutral person. But the fifth person, author Sergio Ramírez, was actually a secret FSLN member, allowing the FSLN to dominate. When the two non-FSLN members realized that they were being lied to and manipulated, naturally they resigned. The FSLN National Directorate headed by Daniel Ortega thus became the country’s government. While other parties existed, they had no role in government.

Democracy wasn’t an important Sandinista value, but equality was. The FSLN launched a remarkable national literacy campaign involving tens of thousands of young people who went to every region of the country teaching people to read and write.

The new revolutionary government also made health care a priority, educating new doctors and nurses, creating a public health system with clinics and hospitals that brought health care to hundreds of thousands of people who had never in their lives seen a doctor.

Once in power, the FSLN leaders and party members took over virtually all of the government’s most important offices, making themselves the heads of ministries that had thousands of employees and managed important resources. In this way the FSLN began to fuse with the state, much like the Communist Party in Cuba or the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico.

The Sandinistas nationalized the country’s banks and the U.S.-owned mines and lumber industry, but avoided confrontation with the largest U.S. corporations such as Caterpillar, Exxon, IBM, and Texaco. Understandably and quite reasonably, the FSLN nationalized the properties of Somoza and of other capitalists who had left the country and supported the armed opposition.

The FSLN did not nationalize the properties of all Nicaraguan businesspeople, however. Those who stayed in the country and continued to produce could keep their property and produce their goods, though the only market for them was the Sandinista government. Still, many of the Nicaraguan capitalists who stayed in the country were hostile to the government, even if not involved in the armed resistance, and worked to undermine it.

The Sandinistas now ran the country’s government, managed national finances and controlled much of the economy. Suddenly, the men who had lived such dangerous and precarious lives in the mountains had salaries, automobiles and homes. Somozas’ fleet of Mercedes-Benz autos passed into the hand of FSLN comandantes. The FSLN took over the mansions of the bourgeoisie and used them for offices and in many cases for residences for the leaders. Even if most at first lived modestly, the slender edge of the wedge of privilege began to separate the leadership from the regular party members.

The Sandinistas developed plans for the management of the economy, but the execution of the plans proved difficult for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the country was poor and suffering from Somoza’s destructive bombing of the cities. Somoza and other wealthy people had carried their money off to Miami or to other Central American or Caribbean countries. The comandantes, each ensconced in his own ministry, worked to strengthen their respective positions within the state, some developing mega-projects that absorbed tremendous resources without necessarily producing many benefits. The capitalists who remained in Nicaragua often resisted the government’s proposals, sabotaging national plans, while the mass of the population raised its own demands for economic improvements, demands that the FSLN administration could not meet.

The FSLN organized and controlled a range of mass organizations in Nicaraguan society to provide the party with a social base of power and to resist the capitalist class and the conservative parties. After more than forty years of dictatorship, the Nicaraguans were anxious to organize themselves and use their collective power to right the wrongs that they had endured.

The farmers wanted land while the working class wanted higher wages, but these groups would find it hard to fulfill their desires. The Sandinistas, who believed in state ownership of the farmland and collectivized agriculture, declined to give farmers titles to their land, and many became disgruntled, some joining the armed opposition.

Workers wanted higher wages, but the Sandinista government, which controlled the largest labor unions, worked to restrain workers’ wages in what the Sandinistas saw as the interests of the whole society. Especially after the U.S. backed Contra War began the Sandinistas cracked down on the independent labor unions. When independent left-wing unions or right-wing unions struck, the government crushed their strikes.

The Contra War

Republican Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 on a campaign platform that included support for “the efforts of the Nicaraguan people to establish a free and independent government.” The meaning of this phrase was clear: he would work to overthrow the Sandinistas. In January of 1981, Reagan, operating through the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, successfully pressured the more moderate Nicaraguan opposition to unite with the more right-wing elements including the former National Guard officers. By March 1982 the Contra War began with the bombing of bridges in northern Nicaragua.

The CIA helped the new Contra movement, armed by the United States, to establish a headquarters in Honduras from which it launched sorties, principally attacks on civilian Sandinista institutions such as schools, health clinics, and agricultural cooperatives, killing many. The U.S. would spend hundreds of millions of dollars in support of the Contras in an attempt to bring down the Sandinista government by force. The CIA’s support for the Contras was supplemented by an economic embargo that strangled the economy and brought tremendous hardship to the Nicaraguan people.

The Sandinistas, however, also made mistakes that deepened what became not simply a foreign military intervention on the side of the old regime, but a genuine civil war with working people fighting and dying on both sides. Many small farmers, disappointed in not receiving title to their land, went off in significant numbers to join the Contras.

The Sandinistas’ dealings with the indigenous Miskito peoples on the Caribbean coast, at first insensitive and then aggressive—aggravated by CIA and U.S. State Department intervention—led some of the Miskitos to join the Contras as well. Finally, fighting not only the old National Guard but also Nicaraguan peasants and indigenous people, and with its back to the wall, the Sandinista government instituted military conscription, a tremendously unpopular policy that led many young Nicaraguans to dodge the draft by fleeing to Contra held territory.

Because Reagan’s principal charge against the Sandinistas and a point of leverage with other governments was the fact that the FSLN had never been elected to power, it was decided to hold national elections to a genuine legislature and to a new set of offices that included a president. Daniel Ortega was the FSLN presidential candidate running against Arturo Cruz, one of Los Doce, who had gone into the legal opposition. Though secretly subsidized by the CIA, the U.S. government came to the conclusion that Cruz could not win and pressured him to withdraw at the last minute, making Ortega’s election with 67 percent of the vote appear to be illegitimate because there was no opposition candidate.

The FSLN government, now based on a national election, and still controlling the country’s mass organizations, was more powerful than ever, though it was a government that less resembled Communist Cuba and more and more resembled Mexico.

By the mid-1980s, under pressure from the Central American solidarity movement, which had a great deal of support from U.S. churches, the United States Congress was beginning to turn against the war. The Boland Amendment to the 1985 budget cut off funding to the war. But Ronald Reagan, not to be stopped, arranged for the secret and illegal sale of weapons to Iran via Israel, the proceeds of the sale to be used to continue to support the Contras. The story of the unlawful Iran-Contra deal came to light in 1986, further discrediting the Reagan administration and leading to the end of U.S. support for the Contras, while at about the same time the Soviet Union began to phase out support to the Sandinistas.

The U.S.-backed Contra War had a devastating impact on Nicaragua, making it virtually impossible for the Sandinistas to pursue their ambitious program of economic and social reforms. In fact, by the mid-1980s the Sandinistas had been forced by the war and embargo to impose neoliberal policies, reducing taxes on businesses and cutting the budget for social programs.

The U.S. intervention in Nicaragua—taking place at the same time as civil wars in both El Salvador and Guatemala, where the U.S. backed right-wing governments against left-wing guerrilla movements—represented a threat to the entire region. Faced with that reality, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias courageously, in defiance of Reagan, called for peace negotiations between the Sandinistas and the Contras, and finally in March of 1988 the war ended.

The war’s impact had been devastating: 30,865 Nicaraguans had been killed, 30,000 or more wounded and maimed; the war had cost of $1.9 billion, while the embargo represented another $1 billion loss. The Nicaraguan government sued the United States for damages at the World Court, which ordered the U.S. to pay Nicaragua $17 billion in war reparations. The U.S. government refused, still intent on destroying the Nicaraguan economy and driving the Sandinistas from power.

From Revolution to Reaction

A year after the war ended, preparations began for the 1990 presidential and legislative elections. Daniel Ortega put himself forward as the FSLN candidate, campaigning in his military uniform as a leader of the revolution and of the war against the Contras. The FSLN, which had still never held a convention, was transformed from a military-political organization into an electoral party aimed at getting out the vote.

Opposing Ortega and the FSLN was “The National Union of Opposition” (UNO), an unwieldy coalition of all the opposition parties, from the Conservatives on the right to the Communists on the left. Encouraged by the CIA, UNO chose as its president Violeta Chamorro, widow of the famous Conservative leader and opposition journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorroa, widely believed to have been assassinated by Somoza shortly before the Revolution.

Violeta Chamorro had revolutionary credentials herself since she had been a member of the Junta, though now she presented herself as a housewife, mother and grandmother who would reunite the nation in peace. The CIA and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy largely funded her campaign, while the U.S. Republican and Democratic Party, principally the latter, provided political consultants. U.S. President George H.W. Bush also did everything he could to help her, frequently posing with in her in photos.

Ortega and the FSLN were convinced they would win the election, but to the Nicaraguan people, a vote for the revolutionary Ortega appeared to be a vote for war and the draft, while a vote for Chamorro seemed to be a vote for peace and a return to civilian life. Exhausted by a decade of revolution and war, not surprisingly, the country chose the latter. Some 86 percent of the population voted and to the shock of the Sandinistas, Chamorro garnered 55 percent of the vote, while Ortega received 41 percent. Her coalition won 51 seats in the legislature, while the Sandinistas won 39 out of a total of 93.

Immediately upon her election Chamorro’s UNO coalition split into two parts: a right-wing led by her vice-president Vigil Godoy that wanted to return to the glory days of the Somoza era, and the moderate wing led by her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo, who simply wished to establish a modern capitalist state that could create the conditions for the making of profit and the accumulation of capital. With their electoral coalition collapsing, Chamorro and Lacayo realized that they could only govern with the cooperation of the FSLN.

The FSLN, after all, held not only the largest disciplined block of votes in the National Assembly, but also commanded all of the mass organizations, most importantly the labor unions, which could paralyze Chamorro’s government. And, most significant of all, Humberto Ortega, brother of Daniel Ortega, headed the Sandinista Army.

Lacayo and the Ortega brothers met and negotiated a transition pact that demobilized the Contras, 1) reduced the size of the Sandinista Army and made it a politically neutral, professional organization; 2) respected titles of land distributed to the people; and 3) promised no reprisals against public employees. At the same time, a secret deal was made. Antonio Lacayo, Daniel Ortega, and his brother Humberto Ortega became—in the words of former Sandinista leader Moïses Hassan—the “triumvirs,” the real rulers of Nicaragua during the Chamorro administration.

The three men agreed that they would marginalize “the radicals” in both of their parties, the Somoza element in UNO and the radical, militant leftists in the FSLN, in order to create a center bloc that had a majority in the National Assembly. This was the Popular Front the Sandinistas had rejected twenty years before, but now with a vengeance. This was a kind of government of national unity formed by right and left. Ortega and the FSLN, intent on keeping as much political power as possible, declined to go into opposition and fight the right-wing government, but rather took responsibility for the government and its policies.

The policies would be neoliberal. Nicaragua in 1990 owed $4 billion to the Soviet Union and about $7 billion to western nations. Working together, the triumvirs would make arrangements with the International Monetary Fund to deal with its debt, accepting a program of structural adjustments in exchange for approval for new loans. The banks and industries that had been nationalized by the Sandinistas would be privatized; property that had been expropriated from Nicaraguans who had gone abroad would be returned to them.

Life for the working class deteriorated at once. Soldiers were demobilized; public employees were laid off, and unemployment mounted. When public employees struck, they were granted big wage gains, but inflation then wiped out those increases almost immediately. Free trade zones were reestablished, maquiladoras opened up, with a special tax regime to attract foreign investment, while maquiladora workers were discouraged from organizing unions or striking. Health care and some other social programs survived, if on reduced budgets, but the standard of living of working people declined drastically.

In the last days before Chamorro took office, the FSLN government had passed a series of laws transferring nationalized lands, public buildings, and homes from the government to top Sandinista leaders. The ostensible justification for those laws was that the FSLN would protect social property from being seized by a right, and to a large extent that was what happened. But it was also the case that Sandinista leaders took advantage of the laws to acquire homes and other real estate and to enrich themselves. The laws were often referred to as the piñata, after the papier maché figures that children, breaking the effigy open and spilling the candy inside, then scramble to gather up and put in their pockets. Many Nicaraguans now viewed the Sandinistas as greedy.

During the changeover from the Ortega to the Chamorro government, FSLN leaders also took over various programs and resources that they had managed, transforming them into non-governmental organizations. The new NGOs, some supported by funds from foreign governments, provided the Sandinistas with jobs, titles, incomes, cars and new careers. The wedge of privilege began to drive more deeply into Nicaraguan society and the divide between the FSLN leaders and the members grew.

Faced with entirely new circumstances and demands for a voice from the party’s rank-and-file, in 1991, the FSLN held its first ever convention attended by 581 delegates, the majority of them democratically elected. While some delegates criticized the FSLN’s lack of democracy, and while the convention divided into two factions, there was no strong alternative leadership. Daniel Ortega managed to put himself at the center of the party and to hold on to power.

With the Soviet Union having collapsed, and Cuba economically desperate, the convention voted to affiliate with the Socialist International, the historic organization of social democracy led by the European socialist parties. This development resembled the Eurocommunist movement of the 1970s and 1980s when the formerly Stalinist Communist parties of Western Europe began to transform themselves into social democratic parties. At about the same time, the social democratic parties in government managed capitalism by adopting neoliberal policies.

While the 1991 convention represented the FSLN’s first experience with democracy in almost thirty years, it focused principally on questions of internal party questions and dealt with none of the actual political issues facing the party. The Sandinista members did not seriously discuss and debate the FSLN-UNO coalition, or the secret role of the Ortegas in cahoots with Lacayo (the triumvirs), or the fact that their party was jointly responsible for the government’s neoliberal policies.

So despite the apparently democratic convention, the former comandantes of the National Directorate continued to control the party in a top-down fashion, in the way they had learned from the Communist PSN and the Cuban Communists decades before. Daniel Ortega was not solely responsible for the FSLN’s rightward movement; he had the support of the National Directorate, of many historic FSLN leaders, and the tacit support of the party’s rank-and-file. The argument was that at the end of Chamorro’s term, the FSLN would be elected to office again and return to the struggle for socialism. Trained in the Soviet and Cuban top-down organizational tradition, the ranks by and large followed their leaders loyally, though there were some important exceptions.

During the years of the Chamorro administration, the difference that had surfaced at the 1991 convention would lead to a split at the top of the party. Novelist Sergio Ramírez, comandante Dora María Téllez, FSLN Barricada editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal wrote a document, “Return to the Majorities” calling upon the FSLN to make a full transition to a European-style social democratic party. Daniel Ortega, Tomás Borge and other members of the Sandinista National Directorate wrote a rival document, misleading titled “The Democratic Left,” though in fact they defended their historic Soviet- and Cuban-inspired politics. The political divisions in the party were widening.

In a struggle shortly afterwards over amendments to the Nicaraguan constitution, Ramírez led virtually the entire FSLN parliamentary delegation into opposition to Daniel Ortega. Thirty FSLN delegates left and created a new party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), though the intellectuals and politicians of the MRS proved no match for the Sandinista organization and were later badly beatenin their bids for reelection to the National Assembly.

Still, for the first time ever, Nicaragua had in the 1994-1997 period a democratic legislature, though the politics were a combination of conservative economic measures and democratic reforms. At the same time, in Nicaraguan society new independent NGOs and social movements appear, most importantly a dynamic new feminist movement and some activist environmental organizations. The economic situation also improved somewhat at the end of the Chamorro years, though about 75 percent of the population remained poor.

The Somocistas Returns to Power

Violeta Chamorro and Antonio Lacayo—working with Ortega and the FSLN—had aligned Nicaragua with the “Washington Consensus”; that is, with the neoliberal policies of the era, but they had not been arch-reactionaries, nor were they fundamentally corrupt. Worse was yet to come.

From 1997 to 2007 Nicaragua would be led by two presidents, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños, who came out of the Somoza political milieu and who would combine profoundly right-wing politics with widespread corruption. But like Chamorro, in order to run the country, they too found that they had either to enter into partnership with Ortega and the Sandinistas or face political paralysis. The Sandinistas were not the principal instigators of the conservatism and corruption that flourished in those years, but they shared political power with the culprits.

Arnoldo Aleman, known as El Gordo, the Fat Man, had lived briefly exile in Miami but then returned to Nicaragua to become leader of the somocista Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). During Chamorro’s presidency he won election to the Managua city council, which then chose him to be mayor. Alemán encouraged public works like street paving, traffic circles, and fountains, and he promoted the development of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and shopping malls, all very popular with the public. Alemán had the Sandinistas’ revolutionary murals painted over and put up billboards proclaiming, “The Mayor gets things done.” People mostly seemed to agree.

Backed by wealthy Nicaraguans at home and by those still living abroad, Alemán created the Liberal Alliance coalition and built a grassroots organization like the Sandinistas. Unlike the historic Liberal party, which was anti-clerical, Aléman talked religion and won the backing of Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the spiritual leader of the rightwing, who gave a sermon referring to Ortega as a snake. Running on the slogan “War against unemployment and poverty,” Alemán traveled around the country distributing t-shirts and caps bearing his name. An attempt on Alemán’s life, presumed by the public to have been carried out by the Sandinistas, won him the sympathy of some voters.

Daniel Ortega was challenged for the FSLN’s party nomination by comandante Vilma Nuñez, one of the few women comandantes and a leader of the democratic dissidents still within the party. Ortega easily defeated her democratic and feminist challenge, becoming the party’s nominee for the third time.

For this campaign he transformed himself completely, dressing in civilian clothes, appearing as a respectable family man with his wife Rosario Murillo and their children. He talked about the United States as Nicaragua’s “great neighbor,” not its implacable enemy. Ortega advocated a politics of “Neither extreme right nor extreme left” and called for a “United Front.” While accepting neoliberal economic realities, Ortega continued to advocate social programs for working people and the poor. Nevertheless, Alemán won by a landslide, defeating Ortega 51 percent to 38 percent while his Liberal party took 42 of the 93 seats in the National Assembly.

Alemán’s political practice in power was simple: use the public treasury to enrich himself and his Liberal Alliance allies, understanding that every government contract for infrastructure or services provided opportunities for graft. Everything, even a disaster, was an opportunity for larceny. Hurricane Mitch of 1998 led to massive destruction in Nicaragua and then to considerable economic aid from Europe and the United States, which created even more opportunities for embezzlement. When Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín discovered and revealed many of Alemán’s swindles, the president had him jailed, leading to protest demonstrations. The corruption scandal raised the possibility of prison for Alemán

By 1999, Aléman was in serious trouble—but so was Daniel Ortega. Ortega’s step-daughter Zoilamérica Nervaez, 30-year old FSLN member and sociologist, filed detailed charges her step-father, first in a Nicaraguan court and then in the Inter-American Court, accusing Ortega of having sexually molested her since she was 11 years old. Both Alemán and Ortega feared being hauled into court, tried, and possibly convicted and imprisoned, almost surely putting an end to their political careers.

Their common fear of prosecution led them to forge the Pact of 1999. The FSLN and PLC leaders agreed to revise the Constitution and the Electoral Law, and to carve up the government so as to equally distribute positions in the Supreme Court, the Electoral Council, the Controller, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Superintendent of Banks to both parties.

Key to the deal was that Aléman like Ortega would, without an election, become a member of the National Assembly, so that both men would enjoy legislative immunity and could not be brought into court. The number of votes needed to overturn legislative immunity was increased to make it virtually impossible. Thus Ortega and the FSLN now not only participated in a bourgeois political system, but in the most undemocratic and corrupt version of such parliamentary politics.

His reputation destroyed by the revelations of his administration’s corruption, Aléman had no chance as an incumbent candidate, and so he chose as his party’s standard bearer for the 2002 election his vice-president Enrique Bolaños Geyer whom Alemán thought he could control. Bolaños was a cotton farmer, director of the High Council of Private Enterprise, and a member of the somocista PLC. He would prove, however, to be more independent that Alemán expected.

Humberto Ortega suggested that Daniel Ortega sit out the 2002 election so that he would appear to be more democratic, but the ever-ambitious Daniel went ahead with his fourth national presidential campaign, once again in civilian clothes, with his wife beside him, now talking social democracy and religion. Despite Ortega’s new spiritual conversion, Bolaños won by 56 to 43 percent. While Bolaños became the president, Aléman and Ortega together controlled the National Assembly.

Bolaños quickly went to war with Aléman. His Attorney General indicted Alemán for embezzling $96.7 million and using his government credit card to pay for $1.8 million in personal bills: jewels, carpets, hotels in Bali, Paris nightclubs. Aléman responded by revealing that while serving as his vice-president, Bolaños had received from the National Democratic Front—that is, from the Contras—some $7,000 per month in salary and $40,100 per month in expenses, that is $564,000 a year, ostensibly to train election watchers.

Bolaños, unfazed by those revelations, had Aléman arrested, tried, and convicted of corruption, embezzlement, and money laundering. Alemán should have spent years in prison, but, ostensibly because he was ill, the court—controlled by Ortega—allowed him to serve his sentence at first at home and later anywhere in the country he liked. At the same time Ortega and Aléman renewed their pact in 2004, making it virtually impossible for Bolaños, who had no party and little parliamentary support, to govern.

While the government was paralyzed by the feud between Bolaños and Aléman, the Nicaraguan capitalist class continued the process of reconstituting itself that had begun under Chamorro. Large banks—Grupo Proamérica, Bancentro (Lafise); Grupo BAC, Grupo Pellas, and Grupo Uno, which were owned by the McGregor, Montealegre, Pellas and other extremely rich families—dominated Nicaraguan finances. And large landlords grew wealthy in agriculture. Foreign buyers and domestic investors in the maquiladoras prospered. Most Nicaraguans, however, lived in poverty as small farmers, agricultural day laborers, industrial workers or maquiladora laborers. Poverty and hunger remained widespread.

Throughout the period from 1990 to 2006, the Sandinistas entered into political pacts first with Chamorro and then with Aléman—utterly undemocratic political arrangements, corrupt and conservative. Still Ortega and the FSLN continued to use a Marxist-Leninist (that is, Stalinist) discourse within the party while in society they adopted a populist language, promising to improve the lives of the people. On the international stage, Ortega attended conferences and meetings with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, thus identifying himself and the FSLN with the far left of the Latin American pink tide.

“Left” politics of the Soviet-Cuban variety, once sincerely held but now opportunistically deployed, served as a political cover for Ortega and the FSLN, and as an illusory motivation for longtime Sandinista militants. “Marxist-Leninist” politics were not irrelevant, but were absolutely essential to Ortega’s project, a project for which he was not solely responsible, but to which much of the historic leadership of the party and many militants contributed.

The 2006 Election—Ortega to Power

In 2004 Ortega called a quite irregular meeting of FSLN leaders and militants at which he announced that he would be the FSLN candidate. Victor Tinoco, a longtime Sandinista leader and former FSLN Minister of Foreign Affairs, who later joined the MRS, wrote in the Jesuit magazine Envío:

Nearly two years before the 2006 elections, in a final anti-democratic spasm, Daniel Ortega announced the suspension of the FSLN’s primary elections and [declared] that he would be the sole candidate. He made this announcement in Matagalpa, with the “support” and “approval” of some 400 previously selected people, 95% of whom are party or municipal workers, and all of whom have salaries of $2,000-$3,000 a month and are not going to dare to dissent and risk their personal economic prospects. In this way, Daniel Ortega and 400 others decided that the other 600,000 Sandinistas do not have the right to an opinion or to elect their chosen candidate.[4]

The Movement for Sandinista Renovation (MRS) and the Christian Alternative put forward as their candidate the former FSLN leader Henry Lewites. Lewites, who was quite popular and whose campaign began very well, died of a heart attack in July 2006. His running mate Carlos Mejía Godoy, the enormously popular singer, carried on, but the campaign had lost its momentum and fizzled out.

Split by the Bolaños-Aléman feud, there were two rival Liberal Party candidates. Eduardo Montealegre, a former banker who had held cabinet positions in both the Aléman and Bolaños governments, organized the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (later the Independent Liberal Party). George W. Bush did everything possible to support Montealegre, sending several national Republican figures, such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Otto Reich, both of whom had organized U.S. support for the Contras, to assist him, as well as providing millions of dollars for his campaign. Aléman’s wing of the Liberal Party put forward José Rizo, lawyer, businessman, and politician, but one with fewer resources. Alemán’s backing of Rizo’s candidacy served the interests of his partner Ortega.

Ortega’s campaign in 2006 was more conservative and more religious than any he had run so far. All was sweetness and light. For the 2006 campaign, the Sandinistas got rid of their revolutionary red and black flags and replaced them with pink and turquoise regalia and bunting. The campaign theme song was a Spanish language version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, married for more than twenty years, had a Catholic wedding performed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Ortega made a public “confession” to Obando for the Sandinistas’ sins during the Revolution, and in return Obando gave Catholics permission to vote for Ortega.

As Wikileaks has revealed, U.S. Ambassador Paul A. Trivelli informed Secretary of State Condolezza Rice that rumor had it that Ortega had blackmailed Obando with the threat that he would reveal that the Cardinal had had children with his secretary. One of those children was Roberto Rivas, who could also be blackmailed; he would become the future head of the Supreme Electoral Council. To make good on his side of the bargain with Obando, Ortega led the FSLN representatives in a 52-0 vote to make all abortions illegal, without previous exceptions for rape, malformation of the fetus, or risk to the life or health of the mother.

With the Church behind him, Ortega also wanted to reassure the domestic and international capitalist class that the Sandinista government was no threat. So Ortega chose as his running mate Jaime Morales Carazo, banker and former Contra, a choice that nauseated many Sandinistas. He met with foreign investors, assuring them that their investments in Nicaragua would be safe, saying, “Confiscations are not even being considered.” Ortega did not reject the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but rather called for its renegotiation. Yet, by the same token, Ortega had no problem in May of 2006 attending the Third Alba Summit in Havana, joining Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and newly elected Evo Morales.

When the votes were counted, Ortega had received 38 percent—just enough to be elected without a second ballot—Montealegre, 28 percent, and Jose Rizo, 7 percent, while MRS candidate Edmundo Jarquín won just 6 percent. Finally, after three unsuccessful presidential campaigns, Ortega had won the presidency, returning to the office he first occupied in 1984. Then, he had been a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary who admired Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Communist camp. Now he was…well, what was he now?

Ortega began his presidency by announcing that he would share power equally with his wife Rosario Murillo, saying that people want 50 percent women in the government, so he was giving her half of the presidency. He and Rosario chose a cabinet made up of a congeries of veteran Sandinistas, businessmen, one self-described anarchist, and a New Age reflexologist (whose patients were Daniel and Rosario), as well as several not-very-political professionals. While there were several women, none were feminists in this government that had defined itself as anti-abortion. Ortega and Murillo appointed Cardinal Obando y Bravo to head up the Commission of Verification, Peace, Reconciliation and Justice. Obando also became Ortega’s personal spiritual advisor,

Early in his presidency, Ortega traveled to Venezuela to meet with Chávez and returned to tell a May Day workers meeting that Venezuelan oil money being delivered through the Latin American Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) would soon lift Nicaragua out of poverty. Over the next five years Chávez sent Ortega over $2.2 billion in loans and oil credits. These funds went to Albanisa, a private company, and from there principally to poverty programs aimed at providing housing, ending hunger, assisting farmers, and providing scholarships to low-income students.

Daniel Ortega, unsupervised by either the FSLN or the Nicaraguan government, personally controlled these Venezuelan funds—as much as $200 million per month—which he could use at his discretion: to suborn legislators, to buy the support of NGOs, or to win over church officials. Most famously he gave public employees a $30 per month bonus “a gift of thanks from comandante Ortega.”

At the same time, Ortega worked with the IMF and the World Bank to have some of the country’s more than $1 billion in debts to them cancelled in return for adopting neoliberal structural reforms. With the United States, Ortega arranged a Millennium Challenge Account $175 million to combat poverty in certain regions. Ortega also cooperated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that provided equipment to the Nicaraguan police. While he railed against U.S. imperialism, year after year he accepted anywhere between $25 and $50 million dollars from the American government.

Ortega and Murillo worked to rebuild and reorganize the FSLN. After all, Nicaragua was an altogether different country than it had been when the revolution took place. The population had doubled from 2.4 to more than 5 million inhabitants. Those born the year of “The Triumph” of 1979 were now 25 years old and had had no experience of the revolutionary struggle whatsoever and had grown up under the right-wing Chamorro, Aléman, and Bolaños governments.

Once a party of Marxist-Leninist cadres, the FSLN had become an electoral party that handed out membership cards to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had only the vaguest idea of what party membership meant. Yet the party was still led by a handful of Sandinista leaders, the Ortega brothers, Bayardo Arce, and a few others who had been trained in Soviet and Cuban political theory and organizational methods. Now that training and their experience was used to maintain political power in a liberal capitalist state that implemented austerity policies accompanied by social welfare programs.

Rosario Murillo undertook to replace the largely defunct Sandinista Defense Committees (CSSs) with the new Citizens Power Councils (CPCs), claiming to have organized thousands of them with nearly one million members. The CPCs became vehicle to channel aid, scholarships, and, wrote Envío, “other vote-buying goodies.”

At the same time Murillo was largely responsible for creating a cult of personality around Daniel Ortega, giant portraits of whom were erected in Managua. Ortega and Murillo, firmly allied with the Catholic Church, led the FSLN in defining itself in the public mind as an anti-feminist organization. Murillo spoke and wrote pamphlets in which she labeled women who worked for abortion rights as upper-class agents of imperialism.

The FSLN faced challenges—from the independent feminist movement that fought for abortion rights; occasionally from workers’ strikes, such as those of the truck, bus, and taxi drivers strikes of 2008; and from the political opposition left, right, and center which demanded genuine democratic elections. But none of these movements had the leadership, social weight, or strategy to challenge the FSLN successfully.

A Second Consecutive Term…and a Third

Ortega, having finally returned to the presidency after more than twenty years, was not about to give it up. The problem was that the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibited anyone from holding the presidency for a consecutive term or for more than two terms, doubly disqualifying Ortega from running for office. Unable to pass a constitutional change through the legislature, in 2009 Ortega reorganized the Supreme Court and had it overturn the constitutional language, making him eligible to run. As the 2012 election approached Ortega also began to buy up TV and radio stations, the country’s principal source of news and information, installing his children as the managers.

The Liberals, divided amongst themselves and unable to agree on a candidate, found themselves faced with a fait accompli when Fabio Gadea Mantillo threw his hat in the ring. He was an unlikely candidate. A 79-year old pioneer in radio broadcasting and a famous and beloved radio storyteller who held extremely reactionary views on both economic and social issues, Gadea succeeded in winning the Liberal nomination.

Gadea, backed by Montealegre’s wing of the Liberal Party, held rallies of tens of thousands and appeared to have a real chance of winning the election. In the end, however, Ortega was proclaimed the winner with 62 percent of the vote, while Gadea received 31 percent and Arnold Aléman, the other Liberal candidate got 6 percent. European observers suggested that the victory could be attributed to Roberto Rivas, head of the Supreme Electoral Council, who had overseen an utterly fraudulent election.

Contemporary Capitalist Nicaragua

Under Ortega, Nicaragua has become a typical capitalist country with an authoritarian populist political regime. The Nicaraguan government works to promote foreign and domestic investment and to insure that it is profitable. Daniel Ortega, for example, has formed a political and economic alliance with Carlos Pellas, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Nicaragua typically receives nearly $1 billion in foreign direct investment each year in a variety of sectors such as mining, communications, and maquiladoras, the investment coming mainly from countries like Venezuela, Panama, the United States, Spain, and Mexico.

The Nicaraguan capitalist class, some of which had stayed in the country during the revolution and some of which had gone into exile in Miami, other Central American nations, or the Caribbean, returned wealthier and better-connected internationally than ever before. Some of the Sandinistas who enriched themselves with the piñata became very junior partners in the capitalist world, though most remained socially unacceptable there.

Today about a dozen families who run the nation’s largest banks and control its most import industries today control Nicaragua’s economy. Each of the dozen wealthiest families controls financial institutions or companies with earnings of about $1 billion. In addition, according to banker and scholar Francisco J. Mayorga, the country has another 1,500 families in the millionaire range, and beyond them a stunted middle class of small merchants and professionals who are not very well-off. Teachers, for example, earn about $200 per month.

Most Nicaraguans remain farmers or factory workers who earn low wages, and many of them live in poverty. Among those low-wage workers are thousands in the multi-billion dollar maquiladora sector that produces for companies such as the Gap, Levi’s Target, Walmart and JC Penny. Unions have complained that they have difficulty organizing, negotiating contracts, and face unfair treatment. Unable to find decent work and wages in Nicaragua, about one million workers migrate to work abroad in Central America or the United States, and many stay there. Such is Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.


The argument has been made in several recent articles that criticism of the Nicaraguan government is either a product of imperialism or benefits imperialism. These assertions are belied by the fact that the many of the most incisive critiques of the FSLN and the Nicaraguan government have been made over the years by former comandantes who argue that the FSLN had become authoritarian and abandoned the struggle for socialism. (Their words can be found in many issues of the Jesuit Envío magazine published from 1981 to today as well as in a number of Sandinista memoirs.)

Others are willing to criticize Daniel Ortega and the FSLN of today for betraying the Nicaraguan Revolution, but they deny that the left has any responsibility for what happened. In fact, at the root of the degeneration of Ortega and the leadership of the FSLN were the Stalinist politics in which they had been trained by the Communist PSN in the 1950s as well as the Cuban version of Communism that they later adopted. While they rejected the Soviet Union’s Popular Front politics based on building a reformist electoral party and trade unions, they never questioned the nature of the Soviet Union or the Communist Party model of organization.

The force of U.S. imperialism was enormous throughout the original Sandinista period. The U.S.-backed Contra War and the embargo, followed by the U.S. support for rightwing candidates, had a tremendous negative impact on the Nicaraguan Revolution. U.S. imperialism was the principal external force working to drive Nicaragua to the right. Still, the Sandinistas themselves must also take responsibility for the political choices the made within those highly unfavorable circumstances. Their Soviet-Cuban politics meant that democracy had no central role in the Sandinstas’ conception of socialism. The idea that the working class and the farmers should have a voice and vote in deciding their own fate was simply beyond the ken of the Sandinistas.

Ortega and the FSLN comandantes believed that they were the leaders of the vanguard of the working class and that they knew what was best for the working people of Nicaragua. At the beginning, they sincerely believed that they would create an egalitarian society, uplifting the workers and farmers, but they never believed that those workers and farmers should actually control the party, the government, the society, or their workplaces. While Ortega and the FSLN leadership gradually gave up on their condescending version of the socialist ideal and became simply ordinary politicians in a capitalist state and society they continued to see themselves as the nation’s necessary leaders.

Today in Nicaragua there still exist intellectuals who speak out and criticize the government from the left. And feminists continue to organize against domestic abuse and for abortion rights. Workers organize and fight for a living wage. And farmers and environmentalists march together to oppose Ortega’s transoceanic canal project. Perhaps these movements can coalesce one day into a new political movement for a democratic socialism to be constructed from below by the Nicaraguan people themselves.

*Dan La Botz is the author of What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis, now available in the Haymarket paperback. He is also an editor of New Politics: A Journal of Socialist Thought.


[1] Envío Team, “No Bridge Over These Troubled Waters,” No. 429, July 2016.

[2] Chuck Kaufman, “Political Turmoil on the Right Gives a Pretext for the US to Question Upcoming Election” Nicanotes, Alliance for Global Justice, email, August 3,


[3] UN World Food Programme, Republic of Nicaragua, at: https://www.wfp.org/countries/nicaragua

[4] Victor Tinoco, Nicaragua: “This Crisis Began in the FSLN, With an Unethical Pact,” Envío, July 2005.

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.

Pakistan: Revival of the left-Rashed Rahman  

Posted by admin On March - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on Pakistan: Revival of the left-Rashed Rahman  


Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Rashed Rahman blog  — The task of reviving the Left to once again become an effective player in the polity has been exercising minds in the surviving Left parties and groups for long but the achievement of this goal has proved difficult. It is therefore heartening to note the follow-up of the meeting of 10 Left parties and groups in Lahore on December 29, 2017 by the formation of a 17-parties/groups’ platform dubbed Lahore Left Front (LLF).

Even a cursory perusal of the minimum programmatic pronouncements of these two meetings plus the composition of these brotherly platforms will be enough to prove that the LLF is inspired at least partially by the December 2017 moot.

That 10-parties/groups platform agreed on what it considered the main or crucial tasks before it. These included the recovery of missing persons and their being charged through due process if there is any evidence of wrongdoing against them; deportation to their countries of origin of illegal immigrants; halting forced conversions and marriages of minority girls (particularly Hindu); regulation of the sugar mafia; restoration of tenancy rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s protected forest lands; withdrawal of unjust and false criminal cases against the Hashtnagar and Okara Military Farms’ peasants, and the restoration of banned students unions.

The 10-party/groups’ meeting characterised the current narrative dominating politics of corruption as the main if not only problem afflicting society as a phenomenon integral to the bourgeois (capitalist) system, the only solution/alternative to which is provided by socialism. The meeting also dilated on the persistence of feudalism and the need for land reforms.

The participants vowed to wage a concerted struggle against fundamentalism, extremism, intolerance and fanaticism. In their struggle against feudalism they committed themselves to support the workers, farmers and tenants; work for the supremacy of parliament over the national security state; establish Pakistan as a multi-cultural country where every nationality would have full control over its resources; struggle for gender equality, the separation of the state and religion and the creation of a socialist economy in which there would be no class distinction in education and opportunity; implementation of the constitutional guarantees of shelter, employment, education, healthcare, and adherence to a non-aligned foreign policy while promoting friendly relations with all Pakistan’s neighbours on the principle of non-interference.

The follow-up meeting of 17 parties/groups in Lahore on March 24, 2018 adopted a declaration focusing on four main issues to be tackled by the newly formed LLF: fight the growing tide of fundamentalism and terrorism; help develop class-based organisations of the working class; preserve democratic norms, and tackle the missing persons conundrum.

While the 10-parties/groups session on December 29, 2017 set up an eight-member committee to take the process of a dialogue and coming together of the Left forward, the LLF has set up a 17-member organising committee to implement its programme. These two streams, national and local, will hopefully merge as the process plays itself out.

The LLF has kept its doors open to non-Left forces desirous of being part of the endeavour to counter religious radicalism. It also critiqued the current dominant national narrative about corruption as certainly an issue but which fails to challenge the existing system based on exploitation, inequality and injustice.

While the undeniable dearth in numbers on the Left means it has its work cut out for it, the apathy of the intelligentsia, including the progressive intelligentsia, underlines the deep psychological effects of the collapse of the Pakistani Left around 1980-81 and the decade later collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Since the latter event and the consequent end of the Cold War, the world (and in its wake Pakistan) has changed almost beyond recognition. In this brave new world of the internalisation of the inevitability of unfettered capitalism and so-called liberal (bourgeois) democracy, the Left worldwide struggles to re-establish a coherent and credible narrative based on a penetrating in depth analysis and critique of the workings of the system, how this has changed in the last three decades, and what are the effects on state and society of these developments.

In the case of Pakistan, such a narrative cannot escape our early or recent history, which by now has mired us in international isolation (read ‘conflict’ with the west), at odds with all our neighbours, and internally veering towards a new form of fascism allegedly backed by the ubiquitous establishment and representing a new chapter in the control and manipulation of the polity.

Perhaps the only reason (explicitly stated or implicitly internalised) for the Left to support the struggle for a genuine (bourgeois) democracy over the last 70 years, a struggle still in progress, is because they believed this provided the space for articulation of and struggle for their aims and objectives, central amongst them, and to which all other issues were linked but subordinate, being the establishment of a socialist state.

How far in practice that hope has transpired is there for students of our history to peruse.

Currently, such is the crisis of state and society and the consequent insecurity of the establishment despite no serious challenge to its hegemony that it now seeks (and to a considerable extent has silenced) the smothering through all possible means of the voices of dissent and criticism, whether in the mainstream or social media or in society at large.

The hoped for ‘advantage’ therefore of democratic liberties, including freedom of expression, remains an elusive will o’ the wisp. That merely serves to underline the formidable challenges for the Left, ranging from evolving and being allowed to disseminate its message/narrative to confronting the risks to life and limb emanating from such activism. And of course this does not even compare to the greater risks to safety that is the inevitable outcome of practical organisation and struggle of the masses.

Is history on the side of socialism in the 21st century, as its advocates still are convinced of, or is the dream of a just world passé, as capitalist and pre-capitalist advocates would have us believe? Only time will tell, but it would not be out of place to insert a word of caution about premature triumphalism regarding capitalism’s ‘victory’ and the lack of any alternative. History has a habit of surprising us when least expected.

New front to ‘stem the tide of fundamentalism’

By Amjad Mahmood

March 25, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Dawn — Who could have thought that a social media group formed to better organise the recent Faiz Amn Mela would lead to efforts for uniting the Left-leaning groups, at least in the Punjab capital. But, the unexpected happened as the groups, trade unions and individuals part of the festival organising committee decided to further their joint struggle in the wake of fears of rising religious fundamentalism.

In the first phase, it was decided to keep the attempt confined to Lahore as, what Lahore Left Front (LLF) convener Farooq Tariq put it, a pilot exercise and expanding it to other areas in the later stages.

Mr Tariq says the rising religious fundamentalism, particularly the Islamabad sit-in staged by Khadim Rizvi-led fanatics and their apparent success in getting amended certain laws led the Left groups and liberals to think about working jointly before the fanatics sweep away all that has been gained through secular politics.

The LLF, he says, will organise joint activities on four main themes: to fight against growing tide of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, to help develop class-based organisations of working class in their struggle for a dignified life, to preserve democratic norms, and to campaign for the recovery of missing persons and for rule of law.

A meeting chaired by Mr Tariq the other day was attended by representatives of the Awami Workers Party, the Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party, the Brabri Party, the Pakistan Trade Unions Defence Campaign, the Communist Party Pakistan, the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab, the Pakistan Kisan Rabita Committee, the Revolutionary Students Front, the Progressive Students Collective, the Peoples Solidarity Forum, the Feminist Collective, the Punjab Union of Journalists, the Railway Mehnat Kash Union and the Progressive Labour Federation.

A 17-member organising committee of the Front was also formed. It included Imtiazul Haque, Irfan Ahmad, Ghulam Mujtaba, Dr Ammar Ali Jan, Dr Sara Suhail, Abdul Ghafoor, Prof Asim Shujai, Haider Butt, Mohiba Ahmad, Sadeeq Baig, Iqbal Haider Butt, Khalid Bhatti, Rashid Rahman, Advocate Ilyas Khan, Mian Mohammed Ashraf and Awais Qarni.

Unlike in the past, says Mr Tariq, those though not believing in the Marxist ideology have also become a part of the endeavour to counter religious radicalism.

Taimur Rahman of the Mazdoor Kisan Party says it’s continuation of the federal level efforts for unity. “In fact, we’re to go down to town level cooperation, where actual activities take place, as a result of the national unification. However, formation of the platform in each town may be different.”

He denies the attempt has anything to do with the revival of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA).

Prof Dr Rashid Ahmad says the need for Left narrative is increasing with the passage of time though class-based politics is on the decline in India and Pakistan.

“Only the Left ideology offers solutions to the contradictions we’re facing at international, national and provincial levels. Its narrative and analysis is relevant for most of problems facing the country though believers of this ideology are so far failing to effectively communicate the message to the masses.”Mr Rahman denies that the Left failed to effectively communicate with the masses and argues that all the three major winners of the 1970 elections – the Awami League, the PPP and the NAP – were proponents of socialism.

17 like-minded parties form Lahore Left Front

March 23, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from The News — Seventeen like-minded parties have formed Lahore Left Front (LLF) with the objective of reviving the left wing politics in the country and to encounter religious fanaticism prevailing in the country.

LLF will run the campaign on four major issues facing the country. Struggle for economic parity will be the main focus. Under the banner of LLF, democratic values will be protected. Religious fanaticism will be encountered. It will struggle for secular and socialist Pakistan. Additionally, equal rights for women, children will be promoted in the country.

More people and organisations will be included in the front; it was decided in a meeting Thursday at Progressive Labour Federation’s office in Garhi Shahu. The parties including Awami Workers Party, Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party, Brabri Party Pakistan, Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign, Communist Party, People’s Solidarity Forum, Anjuman-e-Mujareen Punjab, Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, Progressive Students Collective, Revolutionary Students Front, Anjuman-e-Taraqi Pasand Musanfeen, Punjab Union of Journalists, Railway Mehnatkash Union and Progressive Labour Federation attended the meeting. Seventeen members organisational committee was made.

Imtiazul Haq, Comrade Irfran, Taimur Rehman, Ghulam Mujtaba, Shazia Khan, Ilyas Khan, Mian Muhammad Ashraf, Ammar Ali Jan, Sara Sohail, Asim Shuajee, Haidar Butt, etc were made the members of the committee while Farooq Tariq was made convener of LLF. Its first meeting will be held on April 2.

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.

The Destruction of History-RÓBERT NÁRAI

Posted by admin On March - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on The Destruction of History-RÓBERT NÁRAI


György Lukács and Árpád Szakasits, a former Hungarian president, at the Central House of the People’s Army on June 27, 1956. Samai Antónia / hirado.hu

Hungary’s right-wing government is attempting to destroy the Georg Lukács’s archive — and his legacy.
e sun had just set one Friday evening when the phone rang. Miklós Mesterházi of the Lukács Archívum in Budapest learned that the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) would be confiscating the entire collection of manuscripts and correspondence held at the premises.

The following Monday morning, MTA employees arrived and began examining the collection. They checked the inventory and prepared to relocate the material to the Department of Manuscripts & Rare Books in the MTA’s Library and Information Centre.

According to the MTA, their decision is based on the spirit of “academic integrity” —relocating the manuscripts would allow them to digitize the collection, thus allowing more scholars to access the material.

But we should situate the MTA’s decision within Hungary’s historical and political conjuncture.

Since the transition from state socialism to bourgeois democracy in 1989, the MTA has steadily shed staff, making research and editing projects almost impossible. Housing Lukács’s oeuvre — much of it unpublished and yet to be studied — in such a facility serves neither “academic integrity” nor the interests of “research.” Instead, it will negate them.

Moreover, an authoritarian regime now controls Hungary, and it wants to rewrite the nation’s past. The Orbán regime has worked to rehabilitate Hungary’s nationalist and fascist traditions. It has torn down statues honoring those who fought the Horthy military dictatorship and the Arrow Cross regime, replacing them with monuments that glorify antisemites and Nazi collaborators.

The ruling party Fidesz scapegoats immigrants, Roma, Muslims, Jews, Communists, socialists, liberals, and anyone it deems “alien.” It has taken control of numerous state institutions, and threatened to liquidate numerous civil society institutions, including the Central European University.

In this climate of paranoia and fear, the MTA does not want to appear to support a “communist,” so under the cloak of rationalization and efficiency, they are working to dismantle the archives.
What We’ll Lose

The Lukács Archívum is a unique research facility.

Visitors pass through the very rooms Lukács lived and worked in from 1945 until his death in 1971. The apartment — which ironically overlooks Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge) on the banks of the Danube — holds not only his manuscripts but his entire library, complete with his annotations. The scholars who have worked at the facility throughout the years have collected more or less everything ever published on the great Marxist theorist.

But the archive will lose its most valuable asset when the MTA removes the manuscripts. One example offers us a glimpse of their value.

One of Lukács’s most significant theoretical accomplishments was his theorization of the social impacts of commodity production. Under this system, finished products are isolated from the workers who create them. Labor under capitalism is degrading and monotonous; it turns workers into machines. The entire process is designed to maximize profit, transforming the qualitative dimension of human experience — labor — into a quantitative measure of time. “Here,” Lukács wrote in History and Class Consciousness, “the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle fed into an alien system.”

Despite being a product of human labor, commodity production only expresses itself in inhuman social mechanisms — money, markets, capital, and wages. These take on lives of their own, appearing as natural, hostile, and law-abiding systems that no one can comprehend, let alone control.

Once it becomes universal, this logic subordinates all spheres of human existence to its mathematical rationality. An abstract, formal code designed to process thousands of cases governs a legal system charged with making life-and-death decisions. Politics, separated from everyday life, begins to appear unalterable. Giant chasms divide these worlds, and each sphere of existence seems independent from the other.

Lukács would later repudiate these positions under pressure from the Comintern — first, with Zinoviev at the helm, then later under Stalin. His radical views did not fit with the Thermidorian reaction taking place inside the both the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement.

To date, his clearest attempt to justify himself appears in the 1967 introduction to History and Class Consciousness. There, Lukács argues that he failed to distinguish between objectification (labor) and alienation (a mystified form of that labor).

When I visited, however, Mari Székely, the last remaining employee, informed me of a series of unpublished manuscripts from 1933, written during the early years of Lukács’s Moscow period. In one of these texts, Lukács begins to reassess some of his earlier claims in light of his encounter with Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The publication of this essay in a forthcoming collection — along with other previously untranslated material from 1924–33 — will clarify and deepen the terms of this debate, shedding further light on Lukács’s theoretical shift and uneasy reconciliation with Stalinism.

This discovery represents just one untraveled path in a vast labyrinth that has yet to be fully explored.
Saving the Present

Preserving the archives is not simply about the past. It also concerns our present, and the possibilities that lie within it.

The Archívum regularly hosts meetings and events, where researchers from Hungary and all over the world come together to discuss the critical potential of Lukács’s ideas, many of which remain unpublished, neglected, and misunderstood.

For example, one prevalent misunderstanding has been the place of resistance within Lukács’s account of the commodity form. The dominant logic of capitalism is quantitative, but quality — in the sense of human value — can never be completely banished. Whereas the capitalist experiences the drive to maximize profit as something purely quantitative, workers experience it as something qualitative: an assault on their individuality and humanity. This attack on their quality of life provides the basis for resistance.

The guise of rationalization and efficiency, under which the MTA is confiscating Lukács’s manuscripts, expresses the capitalist’s quantitative logic; the Left’s critical rejection of this move, in the name of human values, expresses the logic of resistance.

It is in this spirit that a petition protesting the MTA’s decision — with over 1,500 signatories, including Agnes Heller, Nancy Fraser, and Fredric Jameson, to name but a few — was delivered to academy on January 25. A similar petition is currently circulating on change.org.

Maintaining the theoretical universe that these archives contain — to paraphrase Lukács in The Theory of the Novel — will help guide us through times of darkness and reveal the stars that rule us.
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.

Lenin for today-Reviewed by Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On March - 28 - 2018 Comments Off on Lenin for today-Reviewed by Paul Le Blanc


Lenin for Today
By John Molyneux
Bookmarks, 2017
289 pages
£12.99; $44.01
The first chapter of John Molyneux’s newest book, Lenin for Today, is one of the best discussions one can find of the relevance of Lenin. It is also the best part of the book. Far from being an organic whole, Lenin for Today offers seven distinct essays, each of which can more or less stand alone. Some offer analysis and explication of Lenin’s own ideas and perspectives, with indications of their continuing relevance. Others – increasingly as the book goes along – present discussions of current issues and recent events from the standpoint of the author and his organization (the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and its sister organization of the same name in Ireland, where he currently resides.)

In addition to the first chapter, Molyneux offers a second chapter focusing on Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, a third chapter focusing on The State and Revolution, a fourth chapter discussing the necessity of the party, a fifth chapter entitled “Lenin and the fight against oppression” (beyond simply the class struggle between workers and capitalists), a sixth chapter arguing that Leninism does not lead to Stalinism, and a summing-up chapter entitled “Leninism today.”

Lenin’s relevance
The brief introduction to Lenin for Today has what strikes me as the quite reasonable title: “We need a revolution.” And Molyneux makes the case quite succinctly and persuasively. This leads quite naturally into the opening chapter. He begins with this three-sentence assertion:

Lenin is relevant in the 21st century because the Russian Revolution is relevant. The Russian Revolution is relevant because the revolution of the 21st century will be a workers’ revolution and the Russian Revolution was a workers’ revolution. These are big claims that require justification. (p.28)

He goes on to make the case beautifully. “The working class here signifies that class of people who live exclusively or almost exclusively by the sale of their labor power,” he tells us. “It includes, therefore, both blue collar and white collar workers, teachers and nurses as well as factory workers and fire fighters, administrative staff along with office cleaners, shop workers and bus drivers.” Socialism, meaning rule by the people over the economy, must mean rule by such people as these, who make up the great majority (70 percent or more) of those living in the advanced capitalist countries, and more than 50 percent of the global labor force, with the numbers and percentages continuing to grow year after year.

This dynamically growing and diversifying social entity has more and more been encompassing humanity’s majority since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels urged “workers of all countries unite” almost two centuries back. “If we take seriously the necessity of global revolution, and the crisis facing humanity compels us to take it seriously,” writes Molyneux, “then we have to talk about a social force that can defeat the immense economic and political power of global capital,” and he concludes: “There is only one force remotely capable of doing this: the 1.5 billion-strong international working class . . .” (28).

Molyneux goes on to observe: “What distinguishes the Russian Revolution of 1917 from all other successful revolutions . . . and numerous failed attempts at revolution . . . is that in it and through it the working class actually came to power in society, at least for a few years” (33). He then proceeds to summarize what a substantial number of serious eyewitnesses and later social historians have conclusively demonstrated – that a “swift and dramatic radicalization of the Russian working class along with the soldiers and sailors [themselves made up of peasants and workers in uniform] is the main feature of the spring, summer and autumn of 1917 and the driving force of the Revolution” (37). He quotes Julius Martov, Lenin’s Menshevik adversary in the Russian workers’ movement, that with October 1917 “what we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat – almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising” (44).

As indicated in Martov’s comment, Lenin was a key element in the making of the working-class revolution. How did Lenin do this? Molyneux goes on to present and demolish what he terms “the Machiavellian interpretation” – advanced by innumerable mainstream academics and the mass media – that “Lenin’s relationship to the mass of working people was elitist and manipulative,” and that “he was, more or less from the outset, a would-be dictator” (44). Combing through Lenin’s actual writings over the decades, probing the psychological improbability of someone motivated by power-lust becoming part of a persecuted movement struggling on behalf of the oppressed against existing power structures (as opposed to worming his way into such existing power structures), and making reference to serious scholarship (such as that of Lars Lih) on Lenin and other Russian Marxists, he concludes that “of all the socialist writers in Russia at the time, Lenin was the most consistently enthusiastic and optimistic about the potential politicization of the working class” (53) and that his orientation – organizationally, strategically and in regard to the society he was fighting for – was permeated by a deeply democratic ethos.

Scholars who insist on “the Machiavellian interpretation” of Lenin without confronting the kind of argument that Molyneux develops here are not being serious. And activists who refuse to come to grips with the challenge that he is posing are selling themselves short.

Interpretive differences
Yet scholars and activists who are in basic agreement on so much (as is the case with Molyneux and myself) should not avoid taking issue with each other when there are actual differences. Only through such confrontations can political clarity and collective understanding advance. In this spirit, several interpretive differences (some quibbles, some more than that) can be offered here.

One quibble is related to the fact that Molyneux’s sustained examination of only certain Lenin texts – What Is To Be Done; Imperialism; State and Revolution – results in less attention being given to other essential texts: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back; Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution; Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, etc. If this volume is to remain a manageable size, perhaps this choice is inevitable – though one wonders if engaging with more of what Lenin has to say might have forced somewhat different and more nuanced interpretations.

Another quibble involves a tendency, hardly unique to Molyneux, in highlighting Lenin while filtering out some of the other voices and currents of thought that helped form the context in which Lenin evolved. There is, in much writing, insufficient comprehension of Bolshevism as a complex and democratic collectivity, which contributed, enhanced and sometimes corrected what Lenin himself was inclined to think and say. Here too, of course, the need to avoid an overly complex and cumbersome volume – and the validity of focusing on the contributions of a single theorist and activist such as Lenin – justifies the pathway that Molyneux has followed.

Overall, the author has done a good job in presenting complex material in a clear and yet also critical-minded manner. At the same time, one can differ with some of the details – in some cases questioning the manner in which he defends Lenin, and in others questioning the manner in which he criticizes him.

There is a factual slip as Molyneux presents what has been a standard interpretation of the Bolshevik/Menshevik split within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) of 1903: “At issue was a difference about the definition of membership of the party – Lenin and the Bolsheviks were for a ‘hard’ border based on participation in a party organization; Martov and the Mensheviks was a ‘softer’ looser definition – and a dispute about the composition of the editorial board …” (163). In fact, Lenin lost the vote on “hard” definition of party membership at this party congress, and far from wanting to split, was willing to accept that defeat, assuming that he could win this fight a later day. In addition, within a few years the Mensheviks themselves adopted this very same “hard” definition. The initial split, which astonished Lenin and many others, was actually over the absolute refusal by those who then became Mensheviks to accept a democratic decision to reduce the editorial board of Iskra from six to three (which was seen as an insult to the respected old veterans being removed, Pavel Axelrod and Vera Zasulich).

What soon emerged as a far more decisive issue separating Bolsheviks from Mensheviks, a year after the 1903 split, involved divergent conceptions of the necessary alliances and strategic orientation for carrying out the democratic revolution that would overthrow Russia’s Tsarist autocracy. Since this was to be a “bourgeois-democratic revolution” leading to the thoroughgoing development of a capitalist economy that would be the eventual basis for socialism, the Mensheviks believed in the need for a worker-capitalist alliance, with the socialist workers’ movement making necessary compromises to ensure the possibility of such an alliance. Rejecting such class-collaboration, Lenin’s Bolsheviks called for a militant worker-peasant alliance to lead the democratic revolution, with no compromises to pro-capitalist liberals. This more militant approach was in harmony with the outlook of some socialists who had disagreed with Lenin on the initial organizational split (Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and – despite Molyneux’s simplistic reference to “the reformist nature of Kautskyism” on page 164 – the pre-1914 Karl Kautsky).

The question of Kautsky’s revolutionary Marxism up to 1910 or 1914, and of his influence on Lenin’s thinking, has been contested by some scholars, but in my view has been argued well and persuasively by Lih, for whose outstanding study Lenin Rediscovered Molyneux himself expresses considerable respect. A younger scholar, Eric Blanc, has also been doing path-breaking work on the early Russian working class movement – especially in the so-called “borderlands” of the Russian empire. (See Eric Blanc, “Anti-imperial Marxism: borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation,” International Socialist Review #100, Spring 2016, 111-40.) The work of Blanc and others stands as a thoughtful challenge to the position of Lenin and others (including those who became prominent Mensheviks) in the early RSDLP. As a run-up to his critique of “identity politics,” Molyneux praises Lenin’s insistence in What Is To Be Done and elsewhere that the Jewish Labor Bund should not be allowed a separate existence – as he puts it, “there should be a single united organization, not separate organizations for women or Jews (or Blacks etc.)” (199). But Blanc’s research as to the logic, the actual politics, and the contributions of the Bund (and other separately organized oppressed nationalities in the Russian empire) will need to taken into account, and wrestled with, before Molyneux’s stark assertions can be accepted without question.

From a different angle – one that advances a critique of aspects of Lenin’s thinking – Molyneux challenges the conception of an “aristocracy of labor” (a privileged working-class layer) being “bribed” into settling for a limited reformism through the super-profits that capitalists make through the lucrative economic expansion of imperialism. Molyneux quite correctly emphasizes that it is not the most oppressed, downtrodden, impoverished layers of the population that are most radical or revolutionary or class conscious. In fact, crushing oppression can often make it difficult for the victims to think clearly about their objective situation as opposed to simply, almost blindly in some cases, trying to survive. As Molyneux emphasizes, “in the Russian Revolution itself and in the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1919-1920 and on many other occasions, it was precisely the better paid skilled workers, such as engineers and metal workers (in the Putilov works, in the Fiat factories in Turin and in the Clyde shipyards) who were the most advanced and most militant, not only in terms of economic struggle but also in political consciousness” (86). A problem with this is that Lenin himself was quite aware of the point that Molyneux uses to “refute” him.

There is no doubt that some of the profits gained – for example – through US imperialism in the early twentieth century facilitated a tendency to buy-off a privileged layer of skilled workers who embraced Samuel Gompers’ ideology of “pure and simple trade unionism” in the American Federation of Labor. Gompers’ soul-mate (despite a mildly socialist gloss) Karl Legien, heading the massive General German Trade Union Federation, represented a similar layer of imperialist-inclined working-class reformists. There were other examples in Lenin’s time as well as before and after. But Lenin hardly believed in the notion too often attributed to him, that the better-off workers inevitably sell out to imperialism and only the poorest of the poor can be trusted to be truly revolutionary. Instead, he insisted that the better-off workers can and should become an essential part of the revolutionary vanguard – provided that the revolutionary workers’ party does its job in advancing class consciousness (as opposed to deferring to economistic reformism) among its ranks. In short, a valid point is overstated in a manner that obscures Lenin’s actual position.

A different overstatement involves Molyneux’s assertion that Lenin was “keen that socialist propaganda should not give offense to people’s religious feelings” (195). Although Lenin opposed all religious persecution, as Molyneux shows, and although he wanted to work with workers, peasants and others who held religious views, asserting that religious people should be able to join the revolutionary party, he also argued for an approach by such a party that would certainly have given offense to some people’s religious feelings. A Marxist party, Lenin insisted, must work to spread the understanding, flowing from science and the Enlightenment, that religious views are superstitions drugging the minds of those who hold them, and that Marxist education is necessary to facilitate the outright rejection of religion, which he believed would die out naturally with the triumph of socialism and science after the revolution. Whether Molyneux’s impulse or Lenin’s makes more sense is a matter that can be debated by socialists of today and tomorrow.

There is one more issue – and this one quite important – that should be raised here. Molyneux does, on the whole, an admirable job of confronting the question of why the working-class power established in 1917 lasted only “a few years” and in fact soon gave way to one of the worst dictatorships in human history – the murderous bureaucratic authoritarianism associated with one of Lenin’s comrades, Joseph Stalin. Stalin always insisted on a unity of his perspectives and those of Lenin’s, and Cold War anti-Communists were happy to agree. In the chapter “Does Leninism lead to Stalinism?” Molyneux marshals a considerable amount of historical material and lucid analysis to explain what happened and why and how. In doing this, he makes the case that what Stalin represented from the mid-1920s up to his death in 1953 was increasingly and profoundly in contradiction to all that Lenin had stood for and struggled to accomplish.

Yet in analyzing why and how Stalinism triumphed over the 1917 revolution, his emphasis very definitely is on objective factors: the impacts of World War I and the civil war, the relentless assaults of imperialist powers and domestic counter-revolutionaries, the economic blockade, the backwardness of Tsarist Russia, the isolation of the revolution in a hostile capitalist world as the expected spread of socialist revolution failed to triumph.

But did Lenin and his comrades do absolutely nothing that also contributed to the tragic outcome? Molyneux seems willing to consider that Lenin and his comrades made mistakes in the post-1917 period, but he also seems inclined to veer away from considering to what extent such mistakes may have contributed to the rise of Stalinism. He asserts that “what really matters is not forming an exact estimation of the degree of the responsibility of Lenin and the Bolsheviks for later Stalinism,” but instead building a Leninist revolutionary party that will “succeed in leading a successful revolution” (245, emphasis added).

Yet the odd fixation on exactitude hardly justifies skittishness among those of us who agree that a contemporary equivalent of Bolshevism is needed to advance the socialist cause. We can afford to look critically at our revolutionary predecessors. Learning from possible mistakes is no less important than learning from what was done right. This is something with which, I imagine, Molyneux would not disagree when all is said and done.

Debating the present, creating the future
More than issues of historical fact and interpretation, there are more current political differences worth raising. This should be comprehended within the context of considerable political and theoretical kinship. For example, Molyneux offers a beautifully articulated critical analysis of how capitalism (political liberals to the contrary notwithstanding) systemically and necessarily makes an utter sham of genuine democracy. And as already noted, his arguments for the necessity of revolution and a revolutionary party are of high quality.

The question of questions is how such a revolutionary party is to be brought into existence. Molyneux suggests the answer when he writes, “in order to be able to grow into a truly mass party in such [a revolutionary] situation, the revolutionary organization needs already, at the onset of the revolution, to have reached a certain critical mass; it needs to appear to the masses as a potentially credible force and it has to have a voice in the national political debate” (254, emphasis added). This suggests the revolutionary party already exists in embryo, its nucleus being a specific revolutionary organization which has a politically correct program and leadership around which a critical mass – and ultimately a majority of the working class – gathered around it.

In the specific context of 1920 – one year after the founding of the Communist International, with a European working class that had more than three decades’ experience through mass socialist-oriented labor parties, reform struggles, and trade unions – this approach made obvious sense. But our context is different – our working class is a quite different one from that of Lenin’s time, as is its experience and consciousness. To forget this is to risk an outcome against which Lenin himself warned in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, when “attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning.” A revolutionary party, he insisted, can be “created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience,” guided by theory which “assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.”

In our own specific context, so different from the one that Lenin was writing about, this warning and advice must be even more deeply taken to heart and applied. To assume or pretend otherwise can lead to disastrous mistakes that will set back the creation of a genuinely revolutionary party. Certainly in such countries as Britain and the United States, no single organization is the nucleus of the future party – reality is presently too much in flux and contradictory for that.

Other theoretical rigidities crop up. For example, Molyneux intones against “the banners of separatism …, identity politics of one kind or another and, more recently, of privilege theory and intersectionality” (191). This disdainful and simplistic amalgam can get in the way of understanding and fruitfully engaging with the radicalizing consciousness of various oppressed sectors of the working class majority. Some activists are currently most conscious and engaged around non-class aspects of their specific oppression (having to do with race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).

Molyneux himself acknowledges (citing Lenin’s call for revolutionaries to be “tribunes of the people” opposing all forms of oppression) that there is an elemental validity in each and every struggle against oppression of any element in the human identity. As Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James emphasized, sometimes it is necessary for an oppressed group (such as African Americans) to organize separately in order to wage their struggle for liberation. And as theorists of “intersectionality” have insightfully demonstrated, to perceive the interconnections of racial, gender and other forms of oppression with each other, and particularly with class oppression, can contribute profoundly to a revolutionary understanding of one’s own life and of the need to struggle for socialist liberation.

Nor is the consciousness of today’s working class sufficiently developed, nor are the experiences of our class sufficiently evolved, for some of Molyneux’s other strictures to be on target. His clarion-call against “an alliance between reformists and revolutionaries” (181) seems to assume a different reality than the one in which we live. Actually, it may be precisely through alliances of theoretically/politically diverse forces, in actual struggles, that many reformists-of-the-moment as well as would-be revolutionaries (of various currently-existing organizations) will be enabled to develop the genuinely revolutionary consciousness that Molyneux is projecting in his stern warning.

In fairness, it must be acknowledged that Molyneux pushes against dogmatic and sectarian inclinations. This comes through in advice that he generously offers to US socialists near the end of his book – a suggestion that the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative (both of which he sees as “serious Leninist groups”) find a way to merge with the newly expanded mass membership of the Democratic Socialists of America “to launch a credible national alternative to the Democrats” (259, 283 n458). Readers with experience either in or with these specific organizations will need to consider the extent to which such advice is practical or problematical.

Nonetheless, the growth of each of the groups Molyneux mentions reflects a developing socialist consciousness in the United States. Such a radicalization process is proceeding, with distinctive variations, in other countries as well. In this context, efforts to consider the relevance of “Lenin for today” may contribute to fruitful discussions and debates among activists. To the extent that this brings greater clarity, activists can more effectively challenge the oppressions and destructiveness of global capitalism, in the quest for a future of the free and the equal.

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.

Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionary party revisited-Eric Blanc

Posted by admin On March - 14 - 2018 Comments Off on Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionary party revisited-Eric Blanc


March 10, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist essays and commentary  — This article re-examines Rosa Luxemburg’s approach to the party question by analysing the overlooked experience of her political intervention and organisation in Poland. In particular, I challenge the myth that Rosa Luxemburg advocated a ‘party of the whole class’, ‘spontaneism’ or consistent party democracy. The perspectives and practices of her party – the  Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) – demonstrate that there were no steady strategic differences between Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin on the role of a revolutionary party. In practice, the most consequential divergence between their parties was that the Bolsheviks, unlike the SDKPiL, became more effective in mass workers’ struggles during and following the 1905 revolution.
The party and spontaneity
One of the most important political strengths of Luxemburg and her party was undoubtedly their emphasis on working-class action. It was largely due to the SDKPiL’s tireless agitation among working people that it gained a popular base during 1905–6. Moreover, Luxemburg’s famous 1906 pamphlet on the mass strike posed a clear alternative to European Social Democracy’s prevailing prioritisation of organisation and education over action. Arguing that the 1905 revolution pointed the way forward for the workers’ movement across Europe and the world, Luxemburg articulated three inter-related theses:

The working-class majority would storm the political arena before being fully organised and educated by the Social Democracy (i.e., ‘spontaneously’).
Most workers would come to revolutionary conclusions not through party publications or speeches, but through their experience in these tumultuous political upheavals.
Thus the main way for Marxist parties to effectively fight for workers’ power was to promote mass actions and – in the process of the struggle itself – to give them leadership and organisation.
Countless authors have problematically counterposed this strategy to the purported elitism of Lenin and his top-down vanguard party. Bruno Naarden thus argues that Luxemburg advocated a ‘theory of spontaneity’, whose ‘hallmark’ was a ‘glorification of the spontaneity of the masses’. This stance, the author claims, ‘proved how far removed she was’ from the Bolsheviks and how ‘her viewpoint was approaching that of anarchists and syndicalists’.[1]

This false dichotomy has been challenged by various academics and activists, who note Lenin’s shared enthusiasm for ‘spontaneous’ mass action and Luxemburg’s conviction that a revolutionary Marxist party was an indispensable vehicle to lead the insurgent masses to conquer power.[2] Indeed, the mass-action orientation implemented by the Bolsheviks in 1917 basically stood in continuity with the perspectives articulated by Luxemburg in 1906.

Party building in Tsarist Russia
Yet even authors who note Lenin and Luxemburg’s similarities generally maintain that before 1917 there were fundamental differences in their conception of the nature and role of the revolutionary party. Unlike Lenin, according to this analysis, Luxemburg remained wedded to the Second International’s view that the party should embrace the whole class (not just its vanguard) and that revolutionaries should not organise separately from reformist socialists. According to Chris Harman’s influential account, Luxemburg advocated a ‘party of the whole class’ model: ‘All the tendencies within the class had to be represented within it. Any split within it was to be conceived of as a split within the class. Centralisation, although recognised as necessary, was feared as a centralisation over and against the spontaneous activity of the class.’[3] In contrast with Lenin and his independent Bolshevik party, it is argued, Luxemburg refused to organisationally break from the reformists, hoping in vain that the impending revolutionary upsurge would overcome opportunism in the party and its leadership.[4]

While it is justified to criticise Luxemburg (and other SPD radicals) for failing to organise the SPD’s left wing as a distinct current before 1914, it does not follow that this error reflected a strategic divergence with Lenin on party-building. The basic flaw in such an interpretation is that it cannot account for the ‘Leninist’ nature of Luxemburg’s organisation in Poland. Indeed, the SDKPiL shared all of the attributes that are generally said to be the distinct features of Bolshevism: organisational separateness from reformists, political cohesiveness, and/or tight centralisation.

The fact that both Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s parties in Tsarist Russia looked very different from the German SPD was not caused by a break with ‘orthodox’ Marxism. Nobody in Tsarist Russia called for a ‘party of a new type’, for the simple reason that Social-Democratic ‘orthodoxy’ already proclaimed that the party should organise the most advanced layers of the class on the basis of a Marxist programme.[5] German Social Democracy’s descent into reformism was largely due to the emergence of a strata of conservative party functionaries during the SPD’s first decades of peaceful development. It is important to keep this insight in mind, as the party’s reformism is not infrequently blamed on Kautsky’s theories. Yet most SPD leaders, far from being followers of Kautsky, were bureaucratic ‘practicals’ uninterested in socialist theory.[6] To see what a party led by ‘orthodox’ Social Democrats looked like in practice, one must examine the Tsarist empire, not Germany.

The obvious differences between socialist parties in Tsarist Russia and their counterparts across Europe were basically the result of the context of Russian absolutism.[7] Marxists agreed that conditions under Tsarism precluded any attempt to adopt the organisational structure – or the particular political focus – of the German SPD. And at no point in the prewar years did either Lenin or Luxemburg argue that their form of party organisation in the Tsarist empire should be replicated by revolutionaries in Germany or the rest of Europe.

Moreover, the absence of political freedom facilitated a completely different relationship of forces between reformists and revolutionaries inside the Russian empire’s socialist movement. In Russia, the existence of a feudal-absolutist state and the absence of political freedom mitigated against the growth of strong reformist tendencies or the emergence of bureaucratised labour apparatuses. As such, the challenging question – posed in Germany and across Western Europe – of how a revolutionary Marxist minority could effectively overcome the bureaucratised leadership of a mass socialist party was simply not posed under Tsarism. Of course, even within Luxemburg and Lenin’s shared ‘orthodox’ framework, all sorts of concrete differences over how best to politically proceed in the specific conditions of Tsarist Russia were inevitable. But examining the theory and practice of Luxemburg’s party in Poland demonstrates that her well-known debates with Lenin did not reflect any consistent divergences.
On the basis of her influential 1904 polemic against Lenin, Luxemburg is frequently upheld as a consistent promoter of party democracy against the supposedly ‘authoritarian’ Bolsheviks. Yet, in practice, the SDKPiL was certainly one of the least-democratic socialist parties in the whole Tsarist empire. Nettl notes that Luxemburg’s ‘own attitudes in the Polish party hardly bore out such demands for more “democracy”; instead of controlling local organizations, she simply ignored them altogether. Leo Jogiches, on the other hand, later tried to institute a system of control as tight as Lenin’s, even if he did not choose to expound a philosophy of centralization.’[8]

Particularly after 1905, repeated internal SDKPiL oppositions arose to challenge the party’s political line and internal functioning, only to be slandered, isolated, and/or expelled through organisational manoeuvres by the leadership. One particularly egregious method used by Luxemburg and her leadership was their repeated public disclosure of the real names of factional opponents who operated under pseudonyms, opening them up to state repression.[9] ‘The systematic recourse to defamation and intrigues had become a method to maintain power inside the SDKPiL’, notes Swiss historian Jean-François Fayet.[10]
The mass upsurge and relatively more free conditions opened by the 1905 revolution led most socialist parties in the Tsarist empire – including the Bolsheviks – to take significant steps towards internal democracy.[11] But the SDKPiL moved in the exact opposite direction. In 1906, the party rejected all motions by rank-and-file leaders to make concessions to democratic functioning, and instead deepened its centralising tendencies by adopting a new party structure that granted unprecedented powers to its five-man émigré leadership.[12] The SDKPiL was run in an increasingly dictatorial manner by Leo Jogiches and Feliks Dzierżyński – a dynamic that would have been unfeasible without Luxemburg’s consistent backing and ideological support.[13]

And while one can certainly find passages in Luxemburg’s German writings that downplay the distinction between the party and the class, or that argue against organisational splits from reformists, such ambiguities were not reflected in SDKPiL practice, nor were they the norm in her Polish writings. Consider, for example, Luxemburg’s justification for SDKPiL intransigence towards its main political rival, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS):

The fact is that the existence of a strictly class proletarian party – that bases its principles on a theoretical understanding of its activities, that knows no compromise on tactics, that is inflexible in the application and defence of the whole of its views, that is inaccessible to any half-bred and half-hearted shades of socialism – has an effect and impact far beyond its own organisation. It constantly weighs on the other factions and shades of socialism, and on the whole workers’ movement. How many charges were thrown against the ‘intransigent’ Guesde-ists in France for their decades-long rejection of unification with all other socialist groups! History proved them right – it was shown that the strength of a socialist party consists not in superficially cobbling together a plethora of members, nor in opulent cashboxes or an abundance of rubbish party leaflets, but rather in the stability and clarity of its views, in the concordance and spiritual unity of its ranks, in the concurrence between its words and deeds.[14]

So while Luxemburg advocated the organisational unity of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, she at the same time rejected any organisational merger between the SDKPiL and the PPS-Left (the name taken by the PPS after it expelled its nationalist-separatist minority in 1906), despite the fact that the PPS-Left was consistently to the left of the Mensheviks. In fact, while Luxemburg’s party maintained a separate organisational structure for the whole pre-1917 period, the Bolsheviks were much less consistent. It was the Mensheviks, not the Bolsheviks, who had initiated the RSDRP split in 1903 by refusing to abide by the majority decisions of the Second Congress. In 1906 the two currents reunited. Even after the Bolsheviks began to de facto split away in 1912, they sought to include whole wings of Mensheviks inside their RSDRP, including even for a time those such as Giorgi Plekhanov who were openly committed to a strategic alliance between workers and the liberal bourgeoisie.

Assessing which political differences were permissible, and which tendencies could effectively co-exist, inside a Marxist party or fraction was a challenging question that no a priori formula could provide the concrete answers to. These complexities all too often get forgotten today, leading to an over-simplified understanding of the development of Bolshevism.

While many authors have claimed that the defining element of Bolshevik success in 1917 was its ‘Leninist’ organisational structure, the failure of Luxemburg’s party to lead the 1918–19 Polish revolution to victory would seem to demonstrate that the existence of a separate party of revolutionary Marxists was an insufficient condition for a working-class conquest of power. Luxemburg’s party lacked neither a separate structure, nor a homogenous commitment to revolutionary Marxism – but it proved unable to play a mass-leadership role analogous to the Bolsheviks, despite the favourable conditions for socialist revolution in postwar Poland.

Monopolism and the United Front
If the main political liability of the SDKPiL after 1914 was its continued opposition to Polish independence, in the preceding years its major strategic weakness was a general opposition to united-front mass organisations and united fronts in action with the PPS. Luxemburg and the SDKPiL sought to implement the model of ‘orthodox’ German Marxists, according to which working-class unity must be achieved directly through the party. In this conception, there should only be one workers’ party, to which all mass workers’ organisations (unions, etc.) should be politically and organisationally tied.

This orientation – which I will call ‘monopolism’ – was perhaps plausible in Germany, but it was problematic in places like Poland and central Russia where multiple relatively small socialist organisations existed. Here the dynamics of mass struggle necessitated unity in action between different political tendencies and required the formation of non-party mass organisations (factory committees, unions, workers’ councils) to coordinate actions and organise the wide strata of workers who did not belong to any parties.

In short, there was a major tension between Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ and the main forms of workers’ organisation that spread across the Tsarist empire during and following the 1905 revolution. ‘Monopolism’ was also initially strong among the Bolsheviks, resulting in their infamous calls for the 1905 St Petersburg soviet to follow the RSDRP’s leadership and adopt its programme. But they eventually proved able during late 1905, and particularly afterwards, to flexibly adjust their practices to the actual dynamics of mass struggle. Though the term ‘united front’ was not coined until after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks and many other Marxists had been practising this method for well over a decade.[15]

The contrast with Luxemburg’s party is striking. Poland, like the rest of the empire, witnessed a spontaneous push for unity by the insurgent working class in 1905. In addition to the formation of ad-hoc united committees in innumerable workplaces, Poland’s four socialist parties (the SDKPiL, PPS, Bund, and PPS-Proletariat) often began to jointly coordinate strikes, demonstrations and self-defence on a city-wide level. Yet time and time again the top SDKPiL leadership intervened to put an end to these united fronts, declaring that programmatic differences precluded coordination with the PPS.[16] To cite one of many examples: after the SDKPiL in Łódź reached an agreement in late 1905 to jointly organise an anti-government strike with the PPS (as it did not have the force to organise this on its own), the top party leadership intervened to annul the agreement, eventually leading top Łódź SDKPiL cadre to resign in protest at what they called the ‘bureaucratisation’ of their party.[17]

It would be hard to exaggerate just how damaging this lack of unity in action proved to be for the Polish revolution. Warsaw SDKPiL head Stanisław Gutt wrote in 1905 that ‘if the proletariat today falls in battle, moving in separate groups rather than as a compact batch, we will be to blame and we will in the future have to answer seriously to history.’[18]

On 27 December 1905, as the empire was engulfed in general strikes and insurrections, the PPS-Proletariat issued a call for Poland to follow the lead of central Russia by establishing workers’ councils (soviets), arguing that this was the only feasible way to successfully overcome the ‘tremendous damage’ done by the prevailing disunity in the Polish workers’ movement:

On the banners of all socialist parties is inscribed the slogan: ‘Proletarians of all countries unite!’ However, it is easy to write this slogan – but to achieve it is harder. … In [Tsarist] Poland there are as many as four different socialist organisations, and each cry: ‘Follow us, for only we can lead you to the Kingdom of Heaven’… [But] there is only one way to defeat the government: it is our solidarity and unity in action. … [To achieve this unity requires] a Council of Workers’ Deputies, which will include representatives from all factories, plants, and professions, and the representatives of all the socialist parties.’[19]

But this proposal – presaging Trotsky’s analysis of soviets as ‘the highest form of the united front’ – was denounced by the SDKPiL.[20] It issued a leaflet declaring that the call for councils in Poland ‘could only create confusion in the revolutionary ranks and harm the workers’ cause’. The purpose of the soviet in central Russia, the leaflet claimed, was not ‘to unite workers of different parties’, but rather to ‘link up the social-democratic party to the unconscious, dark, inert mass’. Councils could not ‘remedy the evil’ of the division of the Polish workers’ movement, because the proletariat ‘must have one programme and one class party’ and because ‘without a programme it is impossible to struggle against the Tsarist government or struggle against the capitalists’. Therefore, unity and victory could be achieved through explaining to the workers that only the SDKPiL represented their ‘real demands and interests’.[21]

The contradiction between ‘monopolism’ and the dynamics of mass struggle was no less evident in regard to labour unions. Poland witnessed an explosive growth of unions in 1905 and 1906 – over 20% of Polish workers became unionised in these years, by far the highest percentage in the whole empire. While the PPS promoted non-party unions open to all workers irrespective of their party affiliation, the SDKPiL instead organised their own separate social-democratic trade unions that were instructed not to cooperate with the other unions. These ‘party unions’ were organisationally tied to the SDKPiL, recognised its political leadership, and gave ten per cent of member-dues to the party. The results were predictably damaging, not only for the unity of the workers’ movement, but also for the influence of the SDKPiL, as their unions consistently represented far fewer workers than the non-partisan unions promoted by the PPS and later the PPS-Left.[22]

Rosa Luxemburg’s participation in Polish socialism was deeply contradictory and, in the end, tragic. Without her tremendous revolutionary prestige and political strengths it is unlikely that the sectarian SDKPiL could have ever played such an influential part in Polish and European history. The tragedy of Luxemburg and her Polish party was that their commitment to proletarian emancipation was undercut by sectarian and doctrinaire tendencies that contributed to the defeat of Poland’s workers’ revolutions in 1905 and 1918–19.[23] A serious balance-sheet of Luxemburg’s legacy cannot focus solely on her positive impact in Germany and beyond – it must also acknowledge her particularly problematic role in Poland.

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Castle, Rory 2012, ‘“You Alone Will Make Our Family’s Name Famous”: Rosa Luxemburg, Her Family and the Origins of Her Polish-Jewish Identity’, Praktyka Teoretyczna, 6: 93–125.

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[1] Naarden 1992, p. 144. Jack Conrad likewise writes that Luxemburg ‘adhered to a theory of spontaneity .… Because she tended to downplay organisation and over-emphasise spontaneity, Luxemburg was reluctant to establish a serious, disciplined, leftwing faction in the SDP before 1914. Unlike Lenin and the Bolsheviks, of course.’ (Conrad 2006, p. 22.)

[2] See, for instance, Harman 1968–9, p. 26.

[3] Harman 1968–9, p. 30.

[4] This case is made in Gluckstein 2014 and Rose 2015.

[5] Lih 2006.

[6] Kautsky thus argued in 1909 that the German party and union leaders ‘have been so absorbed by the administrative needs of the huge apparatus that they have lost every broad view, every interest for anything outside the affairs of their own offices’ (cited in Day and Gaido (eds.) 2009, p. 52).

[7] The one exception proves the rule: In Finland, the only region of the Tsarist empire with wide political freedom and a legalised socialist party, the Finnish Social-Democratic Party, shared the same organisational form and legalistic-parliamentary orientation as the German SPD.

[8] Nettl 1966, p. 288.

[9] For instance, this method was used against Kelles-Krauz in 1904 (Snyder 1997, pp. 184–5) and against Radek in 1912 (Nettl 1966, pp. 586–7).

[10] Fayet 2004, p. 113.

[11] Similarly, the Bolsheviks moved away from their earlier stress on tight party centralisation – from at least 1905 until the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik current’s organisational practices were significantly looser than the strict centralisation envisioned by Iskra during 1900–3.

[12] Blobaum 1984, pp. 34–5.

[13] Fayet 2004, Blobaum 1984, and Nettl 1966, passim.

[14] Luxemburg 1908a, p. 62.

[15] Consider, for example, Trotsky’s analysis of the Bolsheviks’ united-front tactics during 1917 (Trotsky 1932, pp. 76–83).

[16] Żarnowska 1965, pp. 162, 198, 243, 324.

[17] Michta 1987, pp. 142–3.

[18] Cited in Sobczak (ed.) 1988, p. 64.

[19] Odezwa Komitet Centralny Pol. Par. Soc. ‘Proletaryat’, Warszawa, 27 Grudnia 1905 r. (Dokumenty życia społecznego, Biblioteka Narodowa).

[20] ‘Just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power.’ (Trotsky 1932, p. 91.)

[21] Odezwa Komitet Warszawski Socjaldemokracji Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy, Warszawa, 12 Lutego 1906 (Dokumenty życia społecznego, Biblioteka Narodowa). Contrary to this leaflet’s assertion, the soviets in St Petersburg and beyond did unite different socialist parties (the various wings of the RSDRP, the Socialist Revolutionaries, non-Russian Marxists, etc.). After the 1917 revolution, both Luxemburg and the SDKPiL came out in support of workers’ councils, but it was not until 1922–3 that the Polish Communist party adopted the theory and practice of the workers’ united front.

[22] Kochański and Orzechowski 1964.

[23] The 1918-19 revolution in Poland will be discussed in the final instalment of this series.
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The Tragic Fate of Workers’ Russia-Thomas Harrison

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(    Jessica Smith, Woman in the Soviet Union (Vanguard Press,1928). Quoted in W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1921 (Da Capo Press, 1999), p. 340.

2.    Many historians have claimed that the Bolsheviks regarded the policies of War Communism as intrinsically progressive, even as a “leap into socialism.” On the contrary, these measures were considered justifiable only as a temporary, emergency response to the conditions of Civil War and economic collapse.

3.    Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (Verso, 2003), p. 477.

4.    There were, nevertheless, many instances of extreme brutality in Cheka prisons, and the organization, like any police force, attracted a fair number of thugs and sadists. But these practices were often criticized in Bolshevik newspapers and were opposed by the Party’s leaders. The trouble was, the Cheka grew so large and amassed so much power that it was difficult – though, arguably, not impossible — to monitor and control.

5.    Quoted in Arno Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terrorism in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, 2002), P. 254.

6.    Quoted in David Mandel, “The Russian Revolution, Ninety Years On,” Canadian Dimension, October 10, 2007.

7.    The initial success of the Red Army in Poland provoked a sharp debate among the Bolsheviks. Lenin was persuaded that Polish workers would welcome the Red Army and that the appearance of Soviet troops on the Polish-German border would inspire the German working class, which had just crushed a rightwing coup d’etat, the Kapp Putsch, with a massive general strike, to carry out a full-scale revolution. Trotsky argued that, on the contrary, a Soviet invasion would inflame Polish nationalism and that socialism could not be brought “on the point of a bayonet.” The debate was resolved when Polish forces eventually routed the Red Army and forced the Soviet Russia to sue for peace.

8.    Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution, 1917-1923 (Bookmarks, 1990), p. 193.

9.    Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3 (W.W. Norton, 1985), pp. 135-136.

10. In fact, the NEP was essentially the same as the Bolsheviks’ economic program in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, the transitional program they planned to implement while awaiting revolutions in Central Europe. War Communism can thus be seen as a temporary and unanticipated interruption to these plans.

11. It was customary for Russian revolutionaries to adopt new names, both to shield their identities for underground work and to symbolize a break from their pasts. Thus Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; he took the name “Lenin” from the Lena River in Siberia, where he was first exiled as a political prisoner. Trotsky’s original name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein; he named himself  “Trotsky” after a guard in the jail in which he was first imprisoned.

Georgians were disproportionately numerous among Russian Social Democrats, particularly the Mensheviks (Chkheidze and Tseretelli).

12. It was at this point that Russian predominance in the Comintern began to turn into Russian control. Once Stalin was in power, the Comintern ceased to be an instrument for promoting workers’ revolutions from below and instead functioned as a cynically-manipulated instrument of Soviet – that is, Stalinist – foreign policy.

13. Neither the Fourteen nor Trotsky, however, advocated legalizing opposition parties. It was only in the 1930s, while reflecting in exile on the degeneration of the Revolution, that Trotsky returned to an understanding of the necessity of a multi-party soviet system.

14. For the next 11 years, Trotsky and his family were forced to move from country to country – first Turkey, then France, then Norway. Few governments were willing to allow a notorious revolutionary to live on their soil, and those that granted him a visa soon cancelled it and expelled him under pressure from Stalin. In exile, Trotsky tried to gather supporters and wrote steadily, producing a stream of books and articles on history and world affairs, but mostly critical analyses of Stalin and the fate of the Soviet system. Wherever he went he was hounded by agents of Stalin’s secret police, who operated undercover throughout the world. On Stalin’s orders, they harassed and murdered his supporters and members of his family. Trotsky’s older son, left behind in the Soviet Union, was executed during the Great Purges. His younger son was killed in Paris, and his daughter was driven to suicide in Berlin.

Finally, in 1937 the government of Mexico offered Trotsky asylum. But there, in 1940, he was murdered by an agent of Stalin as he sat at his writing desk.

15. This new Stalinist social system will be the subject of a forthcoming third article.

16. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor, 1961), p. 79. Despite her criticism, Luxemburg was an ardent champion of the Bolshevik Revolution.)

The Tragic Fate of Workers’ Russia
by Thomas Harrison

Summer 2017 Vol:XVI-3 Whole #: 63
[This is the second of three articles commemorating the Russian Revolution of 1917 and analyzing its fate under Stalin. The first part, “Glorious Harbinger of a New Society: the Bolshevik Revolution,” was published in the previous issue of New Politics, number 62, winter 2017. The text below is slightly expanded from what appeared in the print issue.]

Soon after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918, the Soviet republic was under siege. Various anti-Bolshevik forces, some supported by the Allies or the Central Powers, were gathering. If these forces succeeded in reversing the October Revolution, what would be the result?

A terrifying glimpse of what a counterrevolution would mean was provided by events in nearby Finland. In January 1918 Finnish socialists, inspired by the Bolsheviks, took power, unleashing a fierce backlash by the Finnish bourgeoisie, supported by German troops. Heavily armed counterrevolutionary White Guards recaptured Helsinki, street by street; workers’ wives and children were forced to walk in front of them as human shields. After other unimaginable cruelties, the socialists were crushed, and at a fearful cost: 20-30,000 workers were massacred or died of starvation and disease in concentration camps. This and subsequent events made it quickly apparent that counterrevolution would mean not a restoration of the pre-October status quo, but a monstrous bloodbath.

Soviet Russia: The Early Years

In his pamphlet, State and Revolution, written in 1917 before the October Revolution, Lenin had called for a radically democratic system, under which Russia would be ruled directly by the workers and peasants through their councils — the soviets — with free elections and several competing political parties. And for about six months after the Bolsheviks came to power on November 7, the Soviet state functioned more or less as Lenin had envisioned. The Council of People’s Commissars, elected by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, governed; its members included Left SRs as well as Bolsheviks. The Right SRs had withdrawn from the Soviets, but the Mensheviks had returned; they and smaller parties, such as the anarchists, operated freely within the Soviets as outspoken opponents of Bolshevik policies. The Bolsheviks’ coalition partners, the Left SRs, often disagreed with Lenin and Trotsky, and the Bolshevik – now Communist – Party itself was frequently divided over issues such as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the Communist Party and in the Soviets, differences were decided by democratic votes.

Every party, and every faction within a party, had its own newspaper. Socialists had always regarded “freedom of the press” under capitalism as a sham: even if everyone had the theoretical right to publish a newspaper, the cost of production and printing meant that mass-produced and widely distributed papers were all owned by the rich. The Bolsheviks tried to make press freedom a reality. All printing presses and paper supplies were nationalized; the government then distributed them free to political parties in proportion to the size of their vote and to any group with at least 10,000 members.

Personal freedom was also greatly expanded. In December 1917 the Soviet government repealed all laws against homosexuality. As one Bolshevik commented, the new policy established “the absolute non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon – concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality – Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In religious matters, a strict separation of church and state was instituted. This was directed particularly against the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been the state religion under the Tsars. The government seized all the Church’s property, which was vast. All remaining restrictions on non-Orthodox religions were abolished. Special protection was given to Jews: anti-Semitic writings were made illegal, and people convicted of fomenting pogroms were severely punished. The teaching of religious doctrine in schools was banned. The Bolsheviks regarded all religions as superstitious and conservative ideologies, so, while citizens were free to practice any faith, the government opposed religion in its propaganda and educational policy, although this was not made a priority.

Major steps were taken to achieve equality for women. Among the Bolshevik leaders, Alexandra Kollontai, commissar of public welfare, was the most prominent advocate for women’s rights. Kollontai argued that a workers’ state must liberate women from enslavement to continuous childbearing and to the drudgery of endless cooking, cleaning and childcare. She predicted that freeing women from these burdens would give rise to a “new woman” – tough, independent, as free as a man to lead an active life outside the home, to experience love outside of marriage, and to pursue her talents through work. At Kollontai’s urging, communal restaurants and laundries were set up and childcare facilities created for working women. In addition, all laws against abortion were repealed, and contraception was made available to all. Women who did the same jobs as men had to be paid the same wages.

Women could divorce their husbands by simply notifying the authorities, and men could do the same. A parent’s – meaning in most cases a man’s – responsibility for children born out of wedlock was the same as that required for children of a marriage. In fact, the very status of illegitimacy was abolished. Blood, not marriage, became the basis for assigning parental responsibility for maintenance, education, and supervision of children. And this responsibility was not affected by divorce.

Another important reform that especially benefited women was mass education. Illiteracy was widespread in Russia, but almost universal among peasant women. According to one observer, the typical peasant woman “dragged through life, working as hard as men in the fields, having and losing her babies [in some rural areas infant mortality was as high as 70 percent], cooking and carrying water, washing the clothes in the river, making the fires, spinning and weaving through the winter months, milking the cows, and for all this getting nothing but abuse and beatings from her husband.”1 If women were ever to be treated as anything more than beasts of burden, they had to learn to read and write.

The literacy campaign was led by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar of enlightenment, whose staff was mostly women, including Nadezhda Krupskaya and Natalia Sedova, the partners, respectively, of Lenin and Trotsky. Thousands and thousands of dedicated teachers fanned out through the length and breadth of Soviet Russia, working to stamp out illiteracy. Even in the Red Army, soldiers took literacy classes during lulls in the fighting. The results were dramatic: within two years, 60 percent of the population could read and write, at least at a rudimentary level.

Apart from literacy, however, the government’s efforts to liberate women were limited by a desperate lack of resources. So, for example, some of the childcare centers sought by Kollontai were set up, but they were bleak institutions full of malnourished children cared for by half-starved attendants. Communal restaurants serving watery cabbage soup were not appealing alternatives to a working woman’s kitchen, where she might at least be able, occasionally, to cook an egg or a piece of bacon obtained on the black market. One consequence of poverty that was especially degrading to women was prostitution. Women who worked in factories, for example, earned so little that they frequently took money for sex. Widespread prostitution, moreover, led to an epidemic of venereal disease. The only solution was to raise women’s standard of living, but under the circumstances, this was impossible.

“War Communism”

The bitter reality was that the Russian economy had almost ceased to function. By 1921, the country’s total production was one-third of what it had been before the World War. In retaliation for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Allies had imposed a blockade on Soviet Russia in 1918.  Until it was lifted two years later, no food, medicine, or anything else, even mail, could enter the country. For nearly three years, wheat, coal and iron from Ukraine were cut off, first because of German occupation and then because most of the province was controlled by White armies. With no fuel, the bitter winter of 1919 was a nightmare: people froze to death on the streetcars, in hospitals, in their homes. Supplies of oil and cotton from other parts of the former Russian Empire were also severed by the Civil War (see below). Russia’s cities were depopulated as workers left to scavenge for food in the countryside. The working class was reduced in size by half.  Workers who remained in the factories that still functioned frequently fainted from hunger at their machines; many survived only by stealing what they produced and bartering it for food.

Because the factories were producing so few goods, there was nothing for peasants to buy in exchange for their crops. Consequently, they hoarded their surplus grain, hoping for better times to come. But this meant starvation for the cities. To prevent complete disaster the Soviet government initiated a policy of requisitioning grain. Armed battalions were sent out to the countryside, and peasants were compelled to surrender all they produced in excess of what was needed for their families’ survival. Naturally, this policy was bitterly resented by the peasants.

As far as industry was concerned, the Bolsheviks had originally planned only a very gradual taking over of the economy while awaiting revolution in Germany. After the October Revolution, factories were left under private ownership. But workers immediately began taking matters into their own hands, seizing control of factories and driving out the bosses – just as the peasants had earlier seized the land. As a result, the Soviet government began nationalizing industries. The stock market was shut down, and banks and stores were also taken over by the state. Housing was nationalized too. In the cities and towns, economic life was now largely controlled by the government. These policies, together with grain requisitioning, were essentially an emergency response to food shortages, low productivity and industrial chaos. In 1921, when the Party ended requisitioning and suspended nationalizations, Lenin referred to them after the fact as “War Communism,” a term that has been used by historians ever since. Despite the fact that it was Lenin himself who coined the term, however, it was something of a misnomer; in the minds of most Bolshevik leaders, hyper-centralization, authoritarianism, and the coercion of workers and peasants had nothing to do with communism.2

The Civil War

By the time the October Revolution took place, there were few Russians who were willing to fight for the Provisional Government. The old ruling classes – the generals, businessmen, landowners, etc. — were thoroughly demoralized. Many went into exile, and the ones who remained in Russia had no idea what to do. General Alexei Kaledin, one of the first to organize a White Army, said, right before he committed suicide early in 1918: “Our situation is hopeless.  The population not only does not support us – it is definitely hostile. We have no strength, and resistance is useless.”3 But support soon came from abroad. After the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Allies sent troops, military advisers, guns and ammunition to the Whites; by supporting the counterrevolution, they hoped to bring Russia back into the War.

Now the Whites began to revive, but essentially as mercenary forces financed by the imperialist powers. The United States funneled millions of dollars to Cossack warlords and then to the White generals in the belief that Russia would only return to the Eastern Front under a military dictatorship; there was no pretense to “restoring democracy.” Without the support of the United States and other imperialists, the Whites would likely have collapsed in less than a year, thus obviating the necessity for the harsh, repressive policies of War Communism and perhaps short-circuiting the authoritarian degeneration of the Bolshevik regime, at least for a time – time that might have a made a critical difference in the prospects for international revolution.

The first serious blow came to the Soviets in June 1919. The Czech Legion consisted of 30,000 prisoners-of-war, who had been captured earlier from the Austro-Hungarian army and organized by the Provisional Government to fight for Czech independence on the side of the Allies. Under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks had agreed to expel them from Russia.  As they were being taken east, the Czechs mutinied and took over the Trans-Siberian Railway, thus severing a vital line of communication. The Legion then proceeded to occupy vast areas of the country, overthrowing local soviets wherever they went. The Russian Civil War had begun.

The Czechs joined forces with Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who, with the support of Japanese and U.S. troops, seized control of Siberia and proclaimed himself “Supreme Ruler of Russia.”  Kolchak’s army sped westward toward Moscow, where the Bolsheviks had transferred the Soviet capital. From southern Russia a second White army, under the command of General Anton Denikin and backed by French and British forces, headed north toward Moscow as well.  And in Estonia General Nikolai Yudenich, also with British support, was getting ready to march on Petrograd. With three White armies advancing toward the Russian heartland from the east, south and west, Bolshevik control was soon reduced to a mere 25 percent of the country.

As commissar of war, Trotsky had to build up a Red Army almost from scratch. There were a few thousand Red Guards, but these were primarily factory workers with only the most elementary military training. At first Trotsky appealed to the Soviets and the Bolshevik Party for volunteers; thousands answered his call, and they became the dedicated core of the Red Army. Then peasants were drafted; they were much less reliable and committed than working-class soldiers, and desertions were a constant problem. Since military expertise was desperately needed, and there was no time to create a big enough corps of trained Bolshevik officers, Trotsky used large numbers of officers from the Tsarist army; eventually 30,000 of them served in the Red Army. There were surprisingly few cases of treason, largely because every commanding officer was assigned a Bolshevik commissar, who kept him under surveillance and had to approve his every order. In addition to the commissars, all Party members were expected to educate and inspire their fellow soldiers – to explain the aims of the war and set an example of courage under fire.

Like any large army under combat conditions, the Red Army was a strictly hierarchical command organization. At the same time, unlike capitalist armies, discipline was extraordinarily lenient. Relatively few deserters were executed; most were simply fined or assigned to work in rear units. Intense efforts were made to educate soldiers, with literacy classes and even libraries and reading rooms. The goal was to prepare soldiers to participate in the institutions of the workers state once peace was restored – not to create professional soldiers.

In July 1918 Kolchak’s forces approached the town of Ekaterinburg, where the former Tsar and his family were being held prisoner. Plans had been made to eventually stage a public trial of Nicholas II, similar to the trials of Charles I by the British Parliament and Louis XVI by the French Convention. But now the Bolsheviks feared the imperial family might be rescued by the Whites and used to strengthen the counterrevolution, which had so far lacked a unifying leader.  For this reason, the local Bolsheviks made a hasty decision to execute the whole family. Early in the morning of July 17, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children were taken down to the basement of the house in which they were being held, and shot.

By August, Kolchak had reached the city of Kazan, 400 miles from Moscow. In the city of Samara, in central Russia, Victor Chernov, leader of the Right Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), and some other members of the former Constituent Assembly had established an anti-Soviet government, hoping for Kolchak’s protection. But Kolchak rudely crushed this would-be government and executed some of its leaders. Neither he nor any of the other White generals were interested in replacing Soviet rule with a parliamentary democracy. Instead they planned either to restore the Tsarist autocracy or become dictators themselves.

At Svyazhk, across the river from Kazan, the Red Army seethed with panic and confusion.  If it failed to stop Kolchak here, the road would be open to Moscow and, probably, the end of the Soviet state. In the nick of time, Trotsky arrived on a special train and rallied the dispirited soldiers. One of the Red Army’s strengths was that it fought for ideals. A gifted speaker and writer, Trotsky knew how to inspire soldiers and urge them on to greater risks and sacrifices.  His train was equipped with a printing press for producing pamphlets and reprinting his speeches, which were then distributed en masse. Trotsky also proved to be a brilliant military strategist, a remarkable accomplishment for an intellectual with no military experience.

Kolchak was defeated at Svyazhk and turned back, but this was only the beginning. For the next two years and more, the Reds fought the Whites. The Russian Civil War was extremely cruel; terrible atrocities were committed by both sides. Back in December 1917, the Bolsheviks had created a special police force to deal with those who supported the Whites – the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Fight Counterrevolution and Sabotage, known by its acronym as the Cheka. The Cheka had the power to arrest suspected counterrevolutionaries and imprison or execute them without trial. When the Civil War broke out, it launched the Red Terror, a policy of mass arrests and executions designed to intimidate – to “terrorize” – the counterrevolution and break its will to fight. This was seen by the Bolsheviks as an emergency measure, necessitated by the Whites’ own ferocity and the need to win the Civil War at any cost. One official of this new political police himself declared that the Cheka “has no place in our constitutional system. The time of civil war, the time of extraordinary conditions of existence of Soviet power, will pass, and the Cheka will become superfluous.” Nonetheless, by the time the Civil War ended, an estimated 50,000 people had been executed by the Cheka. About 25,000 prisoners were held in concentration camps — though these were not Nazi-style death camps, and half the prisoners were released when the war was over.

The White Terror was more disorganized than the Red Terror, but it was far more brutal and cost far more lives. The Cheka was not supposed to use torture on prisoners,4 and Red Army soldiers who were caught looting or raping women were shot; these practices, on the other hand, were typical of the White armies. General Lavr Kornilov, who led the first White army before he was killed in combat, once declared that Russia must be saved from the Bolsheviks “even if we have to set fire to half of it and shed the blood of three-fourths of all the Russians.”5 In Siberia, Kolchak’s troops hanged men and women from miles of telegraph poles and machine-gunned them by the hundreds in boxcars and open fields. Denikin’s army had occupied Ukraine when German troops were withdrawn after the armistice; there his men launched a pogrom against the Jewish population that far exceeded those of Tsarist times. Vowing death to “Jew-Communists,” the Whites massacred 150,000 Jews.  Whole communities of Jews fled to the Red Army for protection. As fervent Russian nationalists, the White generals also dealt harshly with the other non-Russian nationalities that inhabited the territories they occupied – Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians and others. Had the Whites won the Civil War, it is fair to say that Russia would have seen something very like fascism.

During 1919 Trotsky’s Red Army managed to defeat the Whites on all fronts. Kolchak’s troops were overcome and pushed back into Siberia; Kolchak himself was finally captured and shot. Denikin was driven out of Ukraine. And in the fall, Yudenich came close to capturing Petrograd before he too was defeated. The Whites’ principal weakness was that they lacked significant popular support. Urban workers were generally pro-Bolshevik. Peasants, the most numerous class, had little love for the Bolsheviks, especially after the forced requisitioning of grain got underway, but they regarded the Whites as an even greater evil. Wherever the White armies went, they were followed by the remnants of the old regime, and above all by the landowners. Peasants understood clearly that victory for the Whites would mean the restoration of the landlords’ estates and the loss of all the land they had just won.

Still, if the Whites had acted simultaneously, under unified command, and if they had received stronger support from foreign governments, they might have won. Instead, the three main White armies attacked separately, at different times, and they were led by men who were bitter rivals. On the other hand, the Reds, even though they had virtually no army when the Civil War began, possessed the advantages of centralized leadership.

The imperialist powers, as we have seen, gave crucial assistance to the Whites, but mostly in the form of money and munitions, not vast numbers of troops. This was mainly because of a great upsurge of sympathy and support for the Revolution among Western workers. In France, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, dockworkers refused to load ships with weapons and supplies destined for the Whites. Western statesmen quickly realized that a large-scale intervention was too dangerous. Troops were unreliable and might mutiny. When Winston Churchill demanded that more British soldiers be sent to Russia, Prime Minister David Lloyd George replied, “If Great Britain undertakes military action against the Bolsheviks, Great Britain herself will become Bolshevik and we will have soviets in London.”6 In retrospect this seems wildly alarmist, but it reflects the fears of contemporary European elites. The British Labour Party finally succeeded in ending their country’s intervention, and in January1920 the blockade was lifted.

The year 1920 saw the last gasp of the counterrevolution in Russia. In March Polish troops invaded Ukraine from the west, but they were driven back by the Red Army almost to the outskirts of Warsaw.7 In the fall, Baron Peter Wrangel landed on the Black Sea coast, accompanied by French troops, and pushed into Ukraine from the south. The French soldiers mutinied, however, and Wrangel was quickly defeated by the Reds, thus ending the last significant military threat from the Whites.

One consequence of the Civil War was the re-incorporation into Russia of several border regions. When the Bolsheviks took power they declared the right of all non-Russian nationalities to separate if they wished and establish independent states. Poland, Finland and the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – did so successfully. Ukraine also declared its independence, as did the peoples inhabiting the Caucasus Mountain region in the south – Georgians, Azeris and Armenians. But during the Civil War, Ukraine and the Caucasus became bases for the White armies, and in the course of the war they were reconquered. In 1922 Russia was renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and several areas in Central Asia became, supposedly, autonomous republics within the larger Soviet federation, but they were not in fact self-governing.

A One-Party State

Another casualty of the Civil War was workers’ democracy. Soon after taking power, the Bolsheviks suppressed all the other political parties. But, as historian E.H. Carr observed, “If it was true that the Bolshevik regime was not prepared after the first few months to tolerate an organized opposition, it was equally true that no opposition was prepared to remain within legal limits.”8

After walking out of the Congress of Soviets in November 1917, the Mensheviks and Right SRs joined forces with the Cadets and industrialists to form a counterrevolutionary committee, which called on the troops to overthrow the Soviet government; not one regiment responded. They then fomented a mutiny of the “junkers” – officer cadets – in alliance with monarchists, while simultaneously supporting Kaledin, who was marching on Petrograd.

Because the Cadets and the Right SRs supported the Counterrevolution, either through their newspapers and other writings, or by active participation on the side of the Whites, they were banned as political parties, their leaders were arrested, and by the summer of 1918, all their newspapers had been suppressed.

Many of the Mensheviks joined the Bolshevik Party, others retreated into silence or left the country, but some remained in opposition and a few joined the Right SRs in advocating the forcible overthrow of the Bolshevik regime. As a result, the Menshevik Party, too, was eventually outlawed. Many of the Left SRs also drifted into the Bolshevik ranks, but others became more and more hostile to Bolshevik policies. As members of the Council of People’s Commissars, the Left SR leaders had vehemently opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and they objected strongly to the forcible requisitioning of peasants’ grain.

Finally, at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets in July 1918, the Left SRs broke their coalition with the Bolsheviks. Amid the splendor of the Bolshoi Theater, a dramatic confrontation took place between Lenin and Maria Spiridonova, the Left SRs’ chief spokesperson. Spiridonova was, like Alexandra Kollontai, a revolutionary of noble birth. A terrorist since the age of 20, she had suffered many years of imprisonment and brutal beatings under the Tsar. Now, she denounced the Bolsheviks for betraying the peasantry.  Lenin replied that the government had no choice but to seize the peasants’ grain; to do otherwise would mean starvation for the cities. On the final day of the Congress, Spiridonova strode into the theater dressed in black, with a red carnation pinned to her breast; raising a pistol above her head, she shouted “long live the revolt!”

The Left SRs tried to seize power in Moscow. In addition, they carried out terrorist attacks on the Bolsheviks. Several Bolshevik leaders were assassinated, and Lenin was shot in the chest by a young woman, Fanya Kaplan; he recovered. The revolt was suppressed, and the Left SRs were outlawed as well. Now the Bolsheviks – the Russian Communist Party — were the only legal party in Soviet Russia.

The Bolsheviks themselves were transformed by the Civil War. A great many Party members served in the Red Army. They were usually in the forefront of the fighting, urging on the others, trying to inspire by their example. But as a result, casualties were particularly high among the Communists, and many of the dead had been the most experienced and dedicated members of the Party. Thus the Party was depleted of some of its most idealistic elements, and these were replaced by new, inexperienced members, many of whom were more interested in a job than in socialist principles.

But even among veteran Bolsheviks, the hardship and cruelty of the Civil War had a coarsening, even a brutalizing, effect. The Red Army, like any army, was not run in a democratic fashion.  Officers gave orders, and expected them to be obeyed without question — when the enemy is bearing down, there is no time for discussions and votes. But after two or three years of this experience, Communists got used to military ways, became accustomed to commanding instead of persuading – a habit that was hard to break after the war was over.

The Communist Party itself became more authoritarian. Prior to the Civil War, it was a fairly free-wheeling organization, within which there were often strong differences of opinion and fierce debates. Party members never felt afraid to challenge the leaders if they disagreed with them, and the leaders often disagreed among themselves. When the Party was divided over an issue – say, whether to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or even whether to take power in November 1917 — organized factions formed around each of the different positions and tried to get the support of a majority of the members. But the need to hold a disintegrating country together during the Civil War convinced most Communists that it was more important to present a united front to those outside the Party and not to be seen as divided and indecisive, which might encourage the counterrevolutionaries.

Debates within the Party continued, but they tended to take place among the leaders; the membership became more passive.  Contributing to this passivity was the increasing centralization of the Party. The Bolshevik Party had always been led by a Central Committee, elected by the delegates to the yearly Party congresses, who were in turn elected by the Party members in their local branches, which were called cells. In 1919 a new, smaller body was created – the Political Bureau, or “Politburo.” The Central Committee, which had dozens of members, met only once every two months, but the Politburo, consisting of only five to seven men, met every week; here was where the important decisions were made.

Once the Politburo made a decision, members were expected to carry it out in a disciplined way, much as soldiers have to carry out orders. Since Communist Party members held leading positions in factories, banks, universities, the army and navy, these institutions all came under the Party’s control. Most Party members were no longer factory workers, as was true prior to the Revolution; most were now officials, bureaucrats, bosses of the new Soviet state. Officially, the Russian government was still in the hands of the elected Soviets; but since the Communists had become the only legal party, political decisions were made by the Party’s leaders, and then rubber-stamped by the Soviet “government.” The Soviets met less and less frequently. The Communist Party had become a tightly-organized control network.

Meanwhile, the economy was going from bad to worse. The Civil War had wreaked complete havoc.  Terrible famines broke out in several parts of the country, followed by epidemics of typhus and other deadly diseases. An estimated seven million people died of starvation and disease during the Civil War. Requisitioning drove down grain production; peasants cultivated only enough land to feed their families, refusing to produce any surplus that might be seized. In the cities, the working class was decimated.

War Communism imposed sacrifices on everyone, including Communists.  In Moscow’s Kremlin, a fortress in the center of the city that now housed the Soviet government, Lenin, Trotsky (when he was not at the front) and the other leaders slept on folding cots in their offices and ate bad food in the cafeteria.  A stern equality prevailed.  But Marxists had always assumed that socialism would be built in a highly developed economy capable of producing an abundance of goods. Inequality would be abolished by bringing up the standard of living for everyone. War Communism, instead, was based on a disastrously scarce supply of goods; inequality was abolished, but by reducing everyone to roughly the same low standard of living. Now all were poor.

This dismal state of affairs could be remedied only by revolution in the West, the Bolsheviks believed. But the success of socialist revolution in Germany and other countries depended in turn on the ability of the Bolsheviks to hold onto power in Russia. If the counterrevolution triumphed here, all would be lost, they thought. So the banning of parties, the suppression of freedom of the press, the death penalty, the use of a secret police, all were seen as necessary, if temporary, expedients, means of clinging to power while awaiting revolution in Europe. The trouble was, the Bolsheviks could not cling to power without some popular support, and this was fast eroding.  The most acute danger came from the peasantry. Once the Whites had been defeated and the Civil War was over, the peasants were no longer in danger of losing their land. Now they saw no reason to tolerate grain requisitioning, and many saw no reason to tolerate the Bolsheviks at all.

In 1920 peasant uprisings began to break out. There were strikes in factories, where harsh wartime conditions had imposed regimentation and strict discipline on the workers. Then in March 1921 sailors at the Kronstadt naval base, on an island that guarded the approach to Petrograd, revolted, demanding the legalization of other political parties and free elections to the Soviets. Among the rebellious sailors were men who had been ardent Bolsheviks back in 1917, but now, influenced by the anger that was spreading through the peasant villages from which they came, they turned against the Bolsheviks. After negotiations failed, the government believed it had no choice but to crush the revolt by force. To do nothing would mean losing most of the Soviet navy, allowing the revolt to spread, and opening the door to the return of the Whites. To give in to the sailor’s demands would mean the end of Bolshevik rule – they would probably lose the elections because of the immense peasant vote – and this too would render Russia helpless against a bloody restoration of the old order in some form.

The Kronstadt revolt prompted the Bolsheviks to take two drastic measures. Until the Party could win back the support of the peasants and workers, Lenin believed that it must stay united.  So, to prevent any splits in the Party’s ranks, organized factions were banned. Vigorous discussion did not disappear from the Party, and members with different opinions continued to argue for them in the Party’s publications. Lenin considered the ban to be temporary, and he hoped it could be lifted in a short time. But in fact the ban on factions was never lifted, and during the next half-decade it played a crucial role in strengthening the forces of authoritarianism within the Party.

The second measure was an attempt to repair the government’s relations with the peasants.  In 1921 the grain requisitions were ended. Peasants were now encouraged to grow as much surplus grain as they could, and they were permitted to sell their surpluses on the open markets.  This was the New Economic Policy (NEP), which will be discussed in more detail below.

The Prospect of International Revolution

Before and during the Civil War, the Bolsheviks saw many signs of an approaching worldwide revolution. Indeed, leaders of the capitalist countries saw the same signs and were deeply troubled.  In 1919 Lloyd George wrote:

“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions.  The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population, from one end of Europe to the other. In some countries, like Germany and Russia, the unrest takes the form of open rebellion, in others, like France, Great Britain and Italy, it takes the shape of strikes and of general disinclination to settle down to work, symptoms which are just as much concerned with the desire for political and social change as with wage demands.”9

In 1919, revolution was in the air, and not only in Europe. China’s cities were shaken by violent demonstrations against imperialism. In India, a campaign of mass civil disobedience led by Mohandas Gandhi, brought the country to the very brink of revolution. Even in the United States – which had the most conservative labor movement of any industrialized country, and with a working class bitterly divided by racial and ethnic hatreds – thousands of steelworkers fought pitched battles with police and national guard troops, and the entire city of Seattle was paralyzed by a general strike.

By 1919, conditions in Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire had become especially unstable, so it was there, in Central Europe, that the Bolsheviks believed the workers would follow their example and seize power. Afterward, revolution could be expected to spread to France, Italy, Britain – eventually, perhaps, even to the United States.

In November 1918, the German monarchy was overthrown and power was in the hands of workers,’ sailors’ and soldiers’ councils. But the counterrevolutionary leadership of the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, having seen what happened in Russia the year before (forewarned is forearmed), were determined to prevent the November Revolution from becoming radicalized and following Russia’s pattern. They did this by allying with the Army and provoking a premature insurrection in January 1919 – the so-called Spartakus Uprising – which enabled them to decapitate the infant German Communist Party; its leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered.

This defeat was a serious setback for the Bolsheviks, but only a temporary one, they hoped.  They were convinced, reasonably enough, that Central Europe was in the midst of a revolutionary situation. The old ruling groups – the capitalists, landowners, generals, etc. — were weak and unpopular. The masses were in a combative mood. The only thing lacking was a trained revolutionary party capable of leading the workers. But how were revolutionary parties to be created? In 1917 the Bolsheviks had already had the benefit of 14 years of experience as an independent revolutionary organization. Elsewhere in Europe, by contrast, some revolutionary socialists had only just formed Communist parties, which were generally small and amateurish, while others were still members of the established socialist parties and had no organization of their own. The need for effective Communist parties was urgent. If they did not emerge in time, the workers would lose hope, the revolutionary moment would pass, and the old rulers, with the help of the rightwing social democrats, would regain their self-confidence and recapture their power – as had already begun to happen in Germany. And then Soviet Russia would be truly isolated, thrown back on it own resources – who could tell for how long?

The Communist International

On March 2, 1919, a group of revolutionary socialists from several European countries gathered in Moscow to form a new International. To distinguish it from the Socialist, or “Second” International (The First dated back to Marx and Engels’ day in the mid-19th century), it was called the Communist, or Third, International – Comintern for short. The group was small – only 19 delegates had managed to get through the blockade; together with the Russian representatives, the meeting was attended by a grand total of 35. But it set up an executive committee and published a manifesto, written by Trotsky. The Comintern Manifesto was a call to workers and peasants throughout the world to revolt against capitalism and colonialism. It repudiated the reformism of the established socialist parties and declared that workers’ councils – soviets – should be set up everywhere as the basis for revolution.

In July 1920, the second congress of the Communist International was held. This time, 200 delegates attended, representing organizations in 40 countries. The Bolsheviks drew up 21 Conditions for membership. All parties wishing to join the Comintern had to make serious preparations for revolution. All had to declare their total opposition to colonialism and to support freedom for the colonial subjects of their own countries. The Comintern was organized in a highly centralized fashion. Once the congress of the International, which was to meet every year in Moscow, made a decision, all member parties were expected to pursue essentially the same policies. The Russians, as the leaders of the only successful socialist revolution so far, naturally predominated, and Grigori Zinoviev was elected president of the Comintern. But delegates from other countries also had a say, and there were intense debates over strategy.

By 1921, however, the first wave of revolutionary ferment had receded in Europe. The Bolsheviks now had to find a way to maintain control of Russia until the next wave – which they expected soon. The October Revolution was still a beacon of hope to millions of European workers, but at home the Bolsheviks had lost much of the popularity they achieved in 1917, particularly among Russia’s peasants. Lenin knew full well that without the peasants’ support or, at least, toleration, his government could not last more than a few more years. So he proposed the New Economic Policy. The Bolsheviks’ ultimate goal remained the same: the overthrow of capitalism in at least one major capitalist country – most likely Germany — as the basis for creating a socialist society in Russia.  But in the meantime, there would have to be a temporary compromise with capitalism.10

The NEP Period: 1921-1928

The first thing the NEP did was to abolish grain requisitioning and institute an agricultural tax in its place. Now, instead of turning over all their surplus to the state, peasants only had to surrender a fixed percentage of it. This was called a tax “in kind,” but in 1923 it was transformed into a tax in money. Since peasants could now keep most of their surplus, they had an incentive to increase the size of that surplus. This was especially true because the NEP also permitted free trade in agricultural produce. Peasants could bring their surplus grain – or cabbages, beets, apples, chickens, pigs, what have you – to markets and charge whatever price buyers were willing to pay. Soon a class of merchants emerged that bought up the peasants’ goods and re-sold them in the towns and cities. These middlemen were called  “Nepmen.” They were essentially capitalists, and many began to accumulate small fortunes from the new opportunities provided by the NEP. Among the peasants, the kulaks – the better-off peasants who owned more land and possessed horses for plowing and other livestock – were able to take greater advantage of the NEP than other peasants. Eventually the kulaks were permitted to rent state-owned land and to hire farm workers. In agriculture the new policy brought immediate results: farm production began to increase and within a few years had recovered from the effects of the World War and the Civil War.

The NEP also allowed a limited amount of private ownership in retail trade and manufacturing. Here too enterprising Nepmen went into business, establishing stores and small factories – workshops, really, since the NEP only permitted privately-owned plants with 20 or fewer employees. The government was careful to retain control of what were called the “commanding heights” of the economy – banking, transportation (railways and shipping), foreign trade, mining, oil production and large-scale industry (iron and steel, machinery, vehicles, textiles, etc.). All the big factories and major businesses that had been nationalized in 1918 remained state property.

The NEP now meant that Russia had a mixed economy – part capitalist and part socialist, though the socialist sector was clearly dominant. On the other hand, could even the state-owned part of the economy be called “socialist” in reality? Marxists, and especially the Bolsheviks, had always defined a socialist economy as one that is controlled democratically by the working class itself. But in a one-party state, could democracy be said to exist?  Lenin quite frankly admitted that it could not.  He said that the Bolshevik regime was a workers’ state only in an extremely “deformed” way: the only thing that made it “socialist” was that it was led by a Party – the Communists – that had socialist intentions. These intentions could be fulfilled only when help arrived from successful revolutions in the West.

Meanwhile, the Bolshevik dictatorship was somewhat liberalized under the NEP. With the end of the Civil War, there was no more need for the Red Terror. Non-Communists were allowed to speak and write with considerable freedom – although they were still not permitted to form political parties. The death penalty had been abolished even before the Civil War was over. The Cheka, with its power to arrest and execute suspects without trial, had been seen as a temporary necessity, in order to combat the counterrevolution.  In 1922 it was abolished and replaced by a new political police force called the State Political Directorate Administration – to be known by its Russian initials, GPU.  Later, under Stalin, the GPU became a lawless instrument of mass terror, but under the NEP it had to turn over the people it arrested for counterrevolutionary activity to the regular courts. The vast majority of those held in prisons and labor camps were common criminals, not political prisoners.

Also under the NEP there was a flourishing of the arts, especially modern art. Artists involved in more traditional forms – opera and ballet, representational painting – tended to be hostile to the Revolution, and many of them went into exile. But many younger artists – for example painters of non-representational, or “abstract,” pictures and architects who wanted to design modern, light-filled housing for the masses – rallied to the Bolsheviks, and were in turn supported by government funds. Film was an especially important medium, and Soviet film-makers of the 1920s – Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and others – had an enormous influence on the development of cinema throughout the world.

Problems of the NEP

The NEP proved to be highly unstable, and it soon ran into problems. By 1923 agriculture was doing so well that there was actually a glut of farm produce on the market, which brought down agricultural prices. At the same time, however, industry was recovering much more slowly than agriculture. This meant that manufactured goods – especially consumer goods such as clothing, furniture, soap, tools and cooking utensils – were still scarce and their prices high.  Consequently, peasants could buy less and less with the money they were making from their crops and livestock; there were too few consumer goods, and they were too expensive. Peasants began to grumble; what was the point of growing more if there was so little to buy with the profits?

Industry lagged behind because there were so few resources for investment. In the “socialist” sector of the economy there was no overall coordination, no planning.  State-owned industries competed with each other, and they had to finance themselves. That is, each factory had to make a profit or else it went out of business. Since factory managers were desperate to make as much profit as possible, so as to have funds for investment and to keep from going under, they charged high prices for their products and paid low wages to their workers. And since many industries could not compete, they had to lay off their workers or shut down altogether, so there was high unemployment.

The problem of investment was especially acute in heavy industry – metals, machinery, vehicles, mining. Light industry – consumer goods like clothing and furniture – grew slowly, but heavy industry hardly grew at all and was producing far less than before the War. Textile factories needed machinery, however; as mechanical spinners and looms broke down, they had to be replaced. Where were the new machines to come from? What about the steel and rubber to make the machines? And how could even light industry expand without a corresponding growth in the heavy industries that produced the fuel to power the machines – coal and oil?

The Struggle to Succeed Lenin

In May 1922 Lenin suffered a serious stroke. He recovered, but in December he had a second stroke which left him partially paralyzed. Lenin could no longer write — he now had to dictate all his articles – or speak in public, and he stopped attending meetings of the Politburo. Within the Politburo there had always been friction between the “Old Bolsheviks” – individuals who had worked with Lenin since before the 1905 Revolution – and Trotsky, who had not joined the Bolshevik Party until 1917 but had nevertheless played a role second only to Lenin’s ever since. Now that Lenin’s health was jeopardized, the leading Old Bolsheviks – Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin – formed a secret faction calling itself the “Troika,” a Russian word for a sled pulled by three horses. The aim of the Troika was to isolate Trotsky and prevent him from succeeding Lenin as the Party leader.

Trotsky’s most implacable enemy was Stalin. A good part of the latter’s hatred was based on envy. Trotsky was a supremely gifted writer, a passionate and spellbinding orator and a profound Marxist thinker. Stalin was utterly pedestrian and uncouth. His writings were dull and leaden, his personality coarse and abrasive. He had no talent for public speaking and in fact rarely appeared in public. He was incapable of producing an original idea. He was secretive to the point of paranoia. But Stalin did not lack talent.  He was an extremely skillful organizer – patient, meticulous and hard working – and it was this that enabled him to rise in the Party’s ranks.

Like many of Russia’s revolutionaries, Stalin was not ethnically Russian. He was born Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili in the Georgian town of Gori, the son of a poor shoemaker. Young Iosif’s mother wanted him to be a priest in the Georgian Orthodox Church, but he was expelled from the seminary and became a professional revolutionary. Joining the Bolshevik Party, he changed his name to Stalin, meaning “man of steel.”11 Stalin played a very minor role in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but after the Bolsheviks took power he was entrusted with the day-to-day administration of the Party.

In 1922 Stalin was given the post of General Secretary. The Russian Communist Party had, by this point, become a vast and complex organization that, as we have seen, essentially ran the Soviet government. The Party Secretariat, of which Stalin was now the head, consisted of thousands of full-time officials who prepared meetings, collected information, transmitted decisions and kept files on all Party members. As General Secretary, Stalin had the authority to appoint, promote and fire all of them. Because he worked behind the scenes, few ordinary Russians had any inkling of how much power the General Secretary possessed, and most did not even know his name.

Meanwhile, in 1923 Trotsky, who was not yet aware of the conspiracy against him, became an outspoken critic of the NEP and the growing authoritarianism of the Party and the Soviet state. He stressed four points: (1) a plan was needed to speed up the pace of industrialization, (2) workers’ democracy should be revived, (3) the growth of bureaucracy must be reversed, and (4) a greater effort must be made to spread the revolution internationally. Every one of these points was a challenge to the Troika, and especially to the Party bureaucracy headed by Stalin.

Trotsky warned that the shortage of manufactured goods was embittering the peasants and turning them against the Soviet state. The kulaks and the Nepmen were getting richer and more powerful, and they might soon constitute a counterrevolutionary force. More and cheaper goods must be produced as soon as possible. Industry must become more productive, but for that the workers themselves needed to be drawn into factory management. This proposal directly threatened the bureaucracy – the factory managers and Party officials who preferred to manage the economy in a totally authoritarian, top-down manner, with no participation by ordinary workers. Trotsky called on the state to encourage workers to criticize the way things were done and to offer new ideas. With input from the workers, a rational plan could be put together.

Trotsky deplored the bureaucratic condition of the Communist Party, most of whose members had been reduced to a mass of passive, silent hand-raisers. In theory the Party was supposed to be controlled by its members, and Party officials were supposed to be elected. In reality, elections were a farce — officials were, in effect, appointed by the Party secretaries. At Party meetings, the members were given the names of candidates selected beforehand by the secretaries, one for every position, and then they were asked, “who is against?” Most members were afraid to oppose the secretaries’ choice, especially since it might mean losing their jobs.  Trotsky wanted to see real elections, with debates and competing candidates.

Trotsky angrily denounced the bureaucracy’s mismanagement of the Communist International. It was imperative for the Comintern to help prepare revolutions in the West – in principle, all the Bolsheviks still agreed on this point. But Zinoviev, as president of the Comintern, was more concerned to make sure foreign Communist parties were controlled by leaders who were loyal to him, even if they were incompetent. In fact, Trotsky believed that the bureaucracy in Russia was losing interest in the risky business of promoting revolutions elsewhere, even if it still paid lip service to the idea. A successful revolution in Germany, say, would establish a much more democratic socialist state than Russia’s had become, and this might threaten the bureaucracy’s dominance.12

Lenin too had become alarmed by the growing power of the bureaucracy in general and Stalin in particular. He and Trotsky made an agreement to work together on this issue. In December 1922 and January 1923, after his second stroke, Lenin dictated a series of suggestions to the Party – his Testament.  He made several proposals for combating bureaucracy and explicitly called for the removal of Stalin.  The Troika, however, refused to allow Lenin’s Testament to be published, so the public was unaware of its existence. Feeling isolated within the Politburo, Trotsky counted on Lenin’s recovery before making a public challenge to this suppression. But in March Lenin had a third stroke that left him almost totally incapacitated.  Trotsky now stood alone against the four other members of the Politburo: Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin – the Troika – and Nikolai Bukharin, a strong supporter of the NEP and another enemy of Trotsky.

The Left Opposition

Despite the jealousy and hostility of the Troika, Trotsky had many supporters outside the Politburo among idealistic younger Party members and among the older generation of Bolshevik leaders, who were as appalled as he was by the degeneration of Soviet Russia. In October 1923, 46 well-known Old Bolsheviks signed a letter addressed to the Politburo declaring their agreement with Trotsky. The Platform of the Forty-Six, as it became known, denounced the stifling of internal democracy within the Communist Party; it demanded a plan for rapid industrialization and the lifting of the ban on organized Party factions.13 There was now an informal grouping of critics under Trotsky’s leadership that called itself the Left Opposition. It included prominent Bolsheviks such as Karl Radek, a leader of the Comintern, Christian Rakovsky, a Soviet diplomat, Ivan Smirnov, a hero of the Civil War, and the economist Yuri Pyatakov.

When vigorous discussion of the Opposition’s proposals began to break out among Party members, Trotsky’s enemies launched a powerful counter-attack. The Troika controlled the press, so for every article by an Oppositionist there were ten or more by Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin and their supporters. Trotsky was attacked as a latecomer to Bolshevism, a former semi-Menshevik who had always been against Lenin; the Troika, on the other hand, posed as Lenin’s true heirs. The program of the Left Opposition was dismissed as reckless and impractical. Its leaders were accused of trying to destroy the unity of the Party by their insistence on permitting factions. The Opposition’s criticisms of the NEP were branded as “anti-peasant.”  Stalin, who by now controlled an extensive network of Party secretaries, factory mangers and other bureaucrats, expertly choreographed Party meetings so that the Opposition was always outnumbered.

During these debates, as luck would have it, Trotsky himself was unable to participate because he too was felled by serious illness. On a duck-hunting expedition in a marshy area near Moscow, he caught malaria. To recuperate, he was sent to the warmer climate of the Black Sea coast, far from Moscow. Then, on Jan. 21, 1924, Lenin suffered a fourth stroke and died. The Troika organized an elaborate funeral ceremony. As a member of the Politburo, Trotsky should have been a prominent participant, but Stalin sent him a telegram saying that the funeral would take place too soon for him to return to Moscow by train. In fact, the telegram was a lie. The ceremony was to occur a day later than Stalin claimed, but the Troika considered it important to exclude Trotsky so that they could present themselves to the public as Lenin’s only successors.

Spectators were amazed when Trotsky did not appear among Lenin’s pallbearers; it seemed to confirm the Troika’s claim that he was not a real Leninist. The funeral ceremony was the first step in the creation of a Lenin cult. A massive mausoleum was built in Red Square, next to the Kremlin. In it, Lenin’s embalmed body was put on display under glass. Every day, for years afterwards, long lines of Soviet citizens filed past, like pious Christians viewing the body of a saint. Lenin’s brain was sent to a special clinic for analysis and preservation. All his writings and speeches were collected and treated henceforth as sacred writ. The city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. All this would have horrified Lenin himself, who was an extremely modest, almost self-effacing man. His widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya objected strenuously, but her complaints were disregarded. Stalin, whose foul-mouthed rudeness to Krupkskaya had provoked Lenin to cut off all personal relations with him some months before his death, is rumored to have threatened her: “If you don’t shut up, we’ll find somebody else to be Lenin’s widow.”

Immediately after Lenin’s death, the Troika admitted 240,000 new members – the so-called Lenin Levy — to the Russian Communist Party, doubling the Party’s membership. For the most part, these new recruits were young, inexperienced and ambitious; admission to the Party was a ticket to a successful career, and they could be relied on to support the bureaucracy. Sure enough, within a few weeks, the Party voted officially to condemn the Left Opposition.

The Troika Breaks Up

Despite this setback, the Left Opposition did not disband, although it was clearer every day that it was swimming against the stream. Within the Party its isolation grew. Outside the Party, among ordinary workers and other citizens, there was a certain amount of sympathy for the Opposition and Trotsky was still widely admired, but most people were too intimidated by the bureaucracy and the GPU – which the Troika controlled – and too exhausted by years of turmoil and hardship. To publicly support the Opposition took courage, and by 1924 courage in Russia was a scarce commodity.

Meanwhile, the Left Opposition continued to warn that the NEP might lead to the complete restoration of capitalism unless Russia embarked on a program of rapid industrialization. But the problem was, without aid from the West, how was the Soviet state going to obtain the capital and machinery needed to invest in industry? Evgeny Preobrazhensky, an economist who belonged to the Opposition, argued that the resources for industrialization had to come from agriculture. He called for increasing taxes on the peasantry, especially the kulaks, and channeling this money into a government fund for industrial investment. At the same time, agricultural productivity would have to be significantly increased. Most of Russia’s peasants farmed small plots of land with primitive tools; they were extremely inefficient. If landholdings could be consolidated into larger units, equipped with modern tools and fertilizers, and if peasants could be induced to work cooperatively instead of competing with each other, Russia’s farmlands could be made to yield far more produce. A larger agricultural surplus, especially grain, could be exported. With the foreign currency Russia would earn, it could purchase machinery and technological know-how from the West and use these to promote industrialization at home.

This was the idea of “collectivizing” agriculture as a way of bringing industrial-style efficiency to farming. Instead of millions of separate, minuscule peasant plots, Russia would have a far smaller number of large, government-owned farms on which the peasants would work as employees, like workers in a factory. Moreover, since far fewer peasants would be needed, many of them could move to the cities and swell the ranks of the urban working class, which would contribute further to industrialization. But Preobrazhensky was against using force to bring this about. Peasants would never give up their customary way of life unless they could actually see that life on a collective farm was better. So Preobrazhensky proposed setting up model collective farms in the countryside. As peasants were shown the advantages of using modern farm machinery rather than horse-plows and scythes, as they saw the benefits of living in new houses with electricity rather than their dilapidated hovels, they would voluntarily join the new collective farms.

Nevertheless, this program was seen by the Left Opposition as no more than a temporary solution to the problems of the NEP. Even by collectivizing agriculture and speeding up the pace of industrialization, Russia could not achieve socialism. For that, help from workers’ governments in the West was still needed. Spreading the revolution remained, for Preobrazhensky and the other members of the Opposition, a question of life or death.

All the members of the Troika, as well as their myriad supporters in the bureaucracy, joined in ridiculing Preobrazhensky’s analysis. The NEP, while not without problems, was still working well on the whole, they insisted; as long as the Soviet state controlled the “commanding heights” of the economy, and as long as the Communist Party held a monopoly of political power, there was no reason to fear that the kulaks and Nepmen might get the upper hand. As for the Left Opposition’s schemes for rapid industrialization, they branded these as totally unrealistic.

Nikolai Bukharin went even further. He regarded the NEP not as a necessary evil, an unavoidable compromise with capitalism, but as a positive good. Bukharin openly encouraged the kulaks to enrich themselves, believing that if they did so the peasantry as a whole would prosper. The result would be greater and greater demand among the peasants for the goods produced by state-owned industries. The “socialist” sector of the economy would grow, even if very slowly; Russia, he said, would achieve socialism “at a snail’s pace” – even without aid from socialist revolutions in the West. The program of the Left Opposition, Bukharin said, was a direct threat to the peasantry that would insure they would turn against the Soviet state.  Bukharin and his supporters – who included Alexei Rykov, the prime minister of the Soviet Union, and Mikhail Tomsky, the head of the trade unions — were known as the Right, though they were not in opposition to the Troika (the “Center”) and were in fact in league with them in their efforts to get rid of Trotsky.

In December 1924 Stalin published an article that seemed to agree with Bukharin. In it he put forward the theory of “socialism in one country.” Attacking the idea that full-scale socialism could not be achieved in a backward country like Russia, Stalin insisted that Soviet Russia could build socialism without help from the outside. To many older Bolsheviks, this was heresy, since Stalin appeared to be abandoning world revolution. But to much of the younger generation of Party officials, to the bureaucracy, “socialism in one country” made sense. It appealed to their nationalism and pride in Soviet achievements.

It was all too much for Zinoviev and Kamenev, however. Alarmed by Stalin’s repudiation of internationalism and acceptance of Bukharin’s pro-kulak position, they broke off their alliance with him. Zinoviev and Kamenev now began to sound like Trotsky: they criticized the NEP, warned that the kulaks and Nepmen were getting too powerful, denounced the growth of bureaucracy, and demanded a revival of workers’ democracy. They admitted that Trotsky had been right all along. In Politburo meetings, they even revealed some of the plots against Trotsky in which they had been involved since 1923. In April 1926 Zinoviev and Kamenev, along with Krupskaya, joined forces with the Left Opposition to form the United Opposition.

Crushing the Opposition

The United Opposition looked impressive at first glance, including as it did so many prominent Bolsheviks. But by 1926 Stalin and his supporters in the bureaucracy were much stronger than in 1923. The leaders of the Opposition soon learned how weak and isolated their position had become. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev could not get their articles published in the Party’s newspapers. The Opposition drew up a program, but it was banned; when Oppositionists tried to print it on secret duplicating machines, the GPU found the machines and smashed them, confiscated copies, and arrested all those involved. When Opposition leaders tried to speak at Party meetings, they were booed and interrupted constantly. In July 1926 Zinoviev and Kamenev were removed from the Politburo (Trotsky had been ousted seven months earlier).

Nov. 7, 1927, marked the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Massive parades were scheduled for Moscow, Leningrad and other cities. The Opposition planned to participate, but also to appeal peacefully to the marchers with signs and slogans; Stalin made sure they would be silenced, however. Police and Party activists broke up the Opposition’s demonstrations, tore down their signs and beat them up. In Moscow, when Trotsky tried to give a speech to the crowd from an open car, Stalin’s thugs smashed the car’s windshield and fired gunshots; one of them shouted: “Down with Trotsky, the Jew, the traitor!” Fearfully, the parading workers filed past and did nothing.

A few days later, the Opposition was expelled from the Party, charged with trying to start an “insurrection.” Zinoviev and Kamenev panicked: they had always been Bolsheviks and could not imagine life outside the Party. Besides, they reasoned, the time would come when the Party’s cowed membership would revive and turn against Stalin, and they needed to be on hand when that moment arrived. So they “capitulated” – repudiated their oppositional views as “anti-Leninist,” proclaimed the correctness of Stalin and Bukharin’s policies, and begged to be readmitted. Under these humiliating conditions, the two were allowed back into the Party.  Thousands of other members of the Opposition did the same. Others – Radek, Rakovsky, Pyatakov, most of the leaders of the original Left Opposition – refused and were deported to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Within a few years, however, they too capitulated. Only a small core stood firm.

Trotsky would not give in. In January 1928 he was sentenced to exile at Alma-Ata, a town in Soviet Central Asia, near the Chinese border. Trotsky declined to go voluntarily: in an act of symbolic civil disobedience, he forced the GPU to literally carry him out of his Moscow apartment and put him on a train. A year later he and Natalia Sedova were deported from the Soviet Union.14

Towards the Second Russian Revolution

Almost immediately after the expulsion of the Opposition, the Soviet Union faced a serious crisis. In January 1928 peasants throughout the country went on a “grain strike” – refusing to sell grain to the government unless they were paid much higher prices. The government’s grain supplies were low, and Russia’s cities were now faced with a real threat of starvation.

The Right, led by Bukharin, favored giving in to the peasants’ demands by raising grain prices. Stalin at first didn’t know what to do, then dramatically turned against his former allies on the Right, calling for decisive measures against the peasants. Armed detachments were sent out to force the peasants to surrender their grain. But Stalin wanted to go further than that.  He now began to take up some of the Opposition’s economic program. He demanded increasing the pace of industrialization, a gradual collectivization of agriculture and an overall plan for the economy.  After several months of tussling with the Right, Stalin emerged triumphant. Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov were driven from power, and, ultimately, forced to capitulate just as most of the Opposition had done. Stalin was now completely in control.

By the end of 1929, it was clear that Stalin intended something quite different from the Opposition’s economic program. To collectivize agriculture, he initiated a full-scale violent assault on the entire peasantry. Simultaneously, he launched a Five-Year Plan for industrialization at breakneck speed that devastated workers’ living standards and imposed on them the most draconian working conditions. Terrorized by a brutal system of prisons, secret police and forced-labor camps, the Soviet masses were transformed into something like state serfs. Finally, to sever the last remaining tie to the workers state, even in its degenerated form and even if by this point it was a symbolic tie, almost every living representative of the October Revolution was killed or disappeared into the Gulag. A new society, neither socialist nor capitalist, was born, a society dominated by a new ruling elite of party officials, factory officials and other bureaucrats, who were in turn dominated by an all-powerful, semi-deified dictator, a mass murderer with few equals in history: Stalin himself.15


Just as Lenin and Trotsky feared, the result of Soviet Russia’s isolation was counterrevolution. What they had not foreseen was that this counterrevolution would come not from foreign imperialism or from the domestic forces of capitalist restoration, but from within the Party itself. And they could not have known that many of their own policies would pave the way for the horrors of Stalinism, a system that became the deadly enemy of everything they had fought for in 1917. Since then, however, socialists have no excuse for ignoring or belittling the dangers of a one party state, a state based on coercion rather than democratic consent, simply because it is anti-capitalist or even calls itself socialist.

We still need to ask, however: what could the Bolsheviks, lacking foreknowledge of the nightmare that was Stalinism, have done differently? In terms of specific policies, this is a question that is extremely difficult to answer. Should they have refrained from suppressing the Kronstadt rebellion, or even acceded to the sailors’ demands, for example? To do so would, in all likelihood, have led within a very short time to the Bolsheviks’ loss of power. One-party rule is deplorable in principle, but a strong case can be made, in my opinion, that under the conditions of Civil War, economic chaos and ruin, and a mostly hostile peasantry that was fundamentally anti-socialist and moreover incapable as a class of itself governing Russia, the Bolshevik Party was the only one that possessed the experience, discipline, tactical flexibility, and foresight to prevent a bloody, fascist-style counterrevolution. It was a unique, tested crucible of socialist consciousness, even as that consciousness became distorted and attenuated by the experience of authoritarian rule. Moreover, Russia’s fate was far from the only thing at stake. Through at least the first six years after 1917, while European revolutions remained objective possibilities, the Bolsheviks had to hold on, the Comintern had to exist. I think it is not too much to say that the fate of humanity hung in the balance. Counterfactuals are obviously problematic, but had revolution succeeded in Germany, for example, there is a good chance that the world would have been spared the horrors of Stalinism, the Gulag, Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust – indeed, we might be living in a socialist world today.

Even if this premise is accepted, however, and even if one agrees that most of the Bolsheviks’ policies were the result of harsh necessity, it is true, as Rosa Luxemburg warned, that the “danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forces upon them by these fatal circumstances.”16 In part, the Bolsheviks did succumb to this danger, for example when Trotsky and Lenin took the position that one-party rule was not just a temporary necessity, but the only way a workers’ state can function. Although Trotsky’s life was cut short, he did live long enough, unlike Lenin, to repudiate this idea, fortunately.

It does seem clear that most of the Old Bolsheviks, the leaders of 1917, did not consider the harsh, undemocratic policies of War Communism – again, except for the idea of a one-party state – to be part of a transitional form of socialism; or if they were tempted to think so under the extreme tensions of the Civil War, they came to their senses afterwards. The basic question remains: were they right to try to hold onto power while awaiting – and, of course, promoting – international revolution? I think the answer is yes, mainly because, except for renegades such as Stalin, the Bolsheviks’ ultimate goal – socialism as a system of equality and mass participatory democracy based on the soviets – did not change fundamentally.

Category: Socialism – Culture & History –    Location: Russia/USSR   Whole Number: 63

Romanticizing the Bolsheviks

July 28, 2017 – 8:11pm — Bennett Muraskin (not verified) The Bolsheviks lost popular support and refused to give up power. In my view, the dictatorial die was cast quite early—when in Jan. 1918, the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Its own dictatorial tendencies drove other socialist parties into opposition. In that sense it can be said that the Bolsheviks had a role in provoking the Civil War. If democracy remained a principle for the Bolsheviks, it would have been restored after the Civil War and with the inaugeration of the NEP. But it was never even debated. Instead they banned factions within the party, solidfying the party dictatorship. Assuming the soviets continued to function, the Soviet Union would still have not been a democracy. Non-Bolshevik parties were banned. Millions of people had no right to vote or hold office due to their “bourgeois” origins and there was no direct election of leaders. Real power would have remained with the party leadership–enforced by the secret police. The Bolsheviks openly expressed their contempt for the concepts of civil liberties and fundamental human rights. Many decent people were forced into exile if they were not locked up first. All this before Stalin. Even if the Bolsheviks were well-intentioned, the ends did not justify the
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Herman Axelbank, Max Eastman, and the Documentary “Tsar to Lenin”-Dan La Botz

Posted by admin On November - 12 - 2017 Comments Off on Herman Axelbank, Max Eastman, and the Documentary “Tsar to Lenin”-Dan La Botz


The Russian Revolution, the only—if only briefly—successful workers’ revolution took place in the era of photography and film, consequently thousands of hours of film footage from the revolutionary period existed. In the late 1920s, as the revolution’s red star was fading, a Russian-born man decided to collect as much as possible of the existing film—some of it shot by individuals, some by governments, some by new agencies, some by who-knows-who. Eventually, over 50 years this man collected some 271 motion picture film reels. He was a fanatic. Glad he was.

Herman Axelbank, who had been born in 1900 in Nowo Konstantinow, Ukraine (at the time part of the Russian empire) later moved to the Bronx in New York City. In 1920 he began collecting film footage of the Russian Revolution; gradually this became his personal calling, his obsession. Eventually he compiled and edited the film into a roughly chronological account. Then in 1928 he contacted the writer Max Eastman to ask his help in producing an actual film. Eastman described his first impression of Axelbank:

In the late autumn of 1928, a young man named Herman Axelbank came to see me—a persuasive young man. He was broad and short, hairy enough so that his chin was always blue, and his skull, which he kept close-cropped, was so shaped as to give him—but for his eyes—a rather formidable appearance. His eyes were deep blue and warm, and could be very convincing of his nobility of spirit. And he had in his possession a thing of great value to mankind: a collection of all the important films, or most of them, that had been taken of momentous events and personalities in the Russian revolution. He had come down from the Bronx merely to ask me whether I thought a consecutive narrative could be made of them, but before we parted he had offered to give me complete editorial control, and split the profits fifty-fifty, if I could convert hem into a “visible history” of the revolution.[1]

Eastman agreed to take on the job.

Axelbank had come to the right man. Max Eastman had been a socialist virtually all of his adult life, editor of The Masses and later of The Liberator. It was Eastman who raised the money to send John Reed to Russia where Reed wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, first published serially in Eastman’s magazine. In 1922 Eastman went to Russia to see the revolution for himself, spending a year and nine months there. In 1928 a Russian Communist named Eleazar Solnetsev passed on to Eastman a bundle of political papers written by Leon Trotsky, leader of the opposition to Joseph Stalin in Russia. At about the same time, Eastman was contacted by James Cannon, a longtime Communist who has just become a supporter Trotsky and his opposition group in Russia. Eastman edited the papers Solnetsev had given him into a book eventually titled The Real Situation in Russia by Leon Trotsky and gave the proceeds to Cannon’s Trotskyist organization, though Eastman himself never joined the group.[2] At about the same time that Eastman agreed to undertake the editing of Axelbank’s film, he was also working on the translation of Trotsky’s monumental three-volume History of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps no man in America knew more or had thought more deeply about the Russian Revolution. A Trotskyist, Eastman was not uncritical of Trotsky; a supporter of the Russian Revolution, he was willing to discuss its failings and the disastrous turn it appeared to be taking.

Eastman threw himself into the film project. He traveled to Paris to get film from Pathé and Gaumont, and while there he got Alexander Kerensky, whose government Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky had overthrown, to give him permission to use photos of Kerensky made by the surrealist photographer Man Ray. In Berlin Eastman got photos of the Tsar, swimming naked (Russian men then didn’t wear bathing suits) and of the Russian royal family, his wife the Tsarina and his son the Tsarevitch feeding his pony. He had trouble finding film of Stalin, who was not prominent before or even during the Revolution, but eventually found one short piece of Stalin shifting his weight back and forth from foot to foot. Eastman finished “Tsar to Lenin” in January of 1931. Charlie Chaplin, the star of Modern Times, took a look at it; he thought it was good.

Post-production work with Axelbank proved to be difficult. He was understandably extremely possessive of the film that he had birthed and which Eastman had midwifed. Axelbank kept it in a vault, in strongboxes to which only he had a key; he made access difficult by mysteriously disappearing for long periods of time. Axelbank felt persecuted and misused and his cranky behavior destroyed relations with potential financial backers and promoters. Axelbank proved to be not only difficult but also litigious. Eastman found himself embroiled in a series of court cases over the finished film, which ended up in the possession of court-appointed receivers. The receivers leased the movie to the Lenauer Film Company in 1936, but the printed capitions still had to be replaced by a vocal narrative before it was finally ready. The film was finally released in theaters on March 6, 1937, first playing in the Filmarte Theater on West Fifty-eighth street in New York City.

The New York newspaper reviewers praised the film and the public flocked to the theater to see it. By then, however, Stalin had come to power in Russia, took over the Communist International, and determined the policy of the Communist Parties worldwide. Stalin wanted no mention of his adversary Trotsky, who he had exiled, whom he was hunting–killing family, friends, and comrades–and whose assassination he would arrange a few years later. The Communist Party in the United States, consequently, called for a boycott “Tsar to Russia” and the Soviet Union’s film industry made clear to film distributors and theaters in America that if they showed Axelbank’s and Eastman’s film they would never receive any Soviet films ever, this at a time when the films of the Russian Sergei Eisenstein were tremendously popular among the avant garde. So “Tsar to Lenin,” blacklisted by the Stalinists, never had a run in American theaters, though Axelbank put out another version that reached a small audience. Eastman placed a copy of his film in the Library of Congress where it was preserved, but languished.[3] A few years later, Eastman, deeply disappointed by the Russian Revolution, gave up his leftist politics and became an editor of the conservative Readers Digest, a disappointing and profoundly sad end to a brilliant literary and political career. For decades those interested in viewing “Tsar to Lenin” had to satisfied with a much cut version made available through the Library of Congress and the film in its entirely was not made available to the public generally until released by the Socialist Equality Party, a small Trotskyist group, in 2012.

“Tsar to Lenin” is now available on YouTube and well worth watching though it deals only with the revolution in the most narrow sense of the word, that is the upheaval that brought the soviets (workers, peasants, and soldiers councils) to power under the leadership of the Bolsheviks and the bloody civil war that followed. We have no great film of the Russian social revolution, the functioning of the soviets, the workers seizing of the factories, the peasant land seizures, no film of the struggle between democracy from below and what eventually became bureaucratic rule from above–though we have right-wing films of the rise of Stalin. Tremendous film archives exist in Russia and some are available online, though whether or not they contain the filming of everyday working class life and workers’ struggles to preserve and exert their power as the Communist bureaucracy and the state together hardened into a new ruling class and a new state is doubtful. We can only hope that some other fanatic like Axelbank has preserved such film somewhere and somehow, and that some new Eastman (would that be China Miéville, author of October?) would come along to write the narrative.

[1] Max Eastman, Love and Revolution: My Journey through an Epoch (New York: Random House, 1964), Chapter 77, “My Career in the Movies,” p. 57.

[2] Eastman, Love and Revolution, Chapter 75, “A Taste of Rehabilitation,” pp. 510-16.

[3] Eastman, Love and Revolution, Chapter 89, “A Triumph and a Defeat,” pp. 615-17.


Category: War and peace- Socialism – Left Politics –    Location: Russia/USSR

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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